Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Time is an Affliction: Excerpts from The Weight (1999)

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Not all worthy projects find a home since we fail more often than we succeed. Some personal failure can be attributed to trying to make something work that simply won't, while other failure can be due to circumstances beyond our control. The piece below is likely more the latter than the former. A good idea for a book (especially these days) doesn't guarantee an interested publisher even if you've already written a number of award-winning books. So Kevin Courrier took the few notes and sections he wrote for a proposed work about Martin Scorsese's landmark concert film The Last Waltz and turned it into a post for Critics at Large.

Unfinished Notes From an Abandoned Book: The Weight (1999)

A couple of years ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book called The Weight. It was about Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978), his concert documentary about The Band's farewell Thanksgiving concert on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco. My thought was to send a proposal and a sample chapter to the British Film Institute for their annual chapbook publications on key films. Having just done a CBC Radio documentary on The Band's debut album,Music From Big Pink (1968), I was primed to delve into the air of melancholy that lay beneath the spirit of celebration that Scorsese caught while shooting that extraordinary concert. But I was experiencing some melancholy of my own due to the critical and commercial failure of my then-recent book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (2009) and decided to abandon the project. However, I came across some notes I'd written in preparation for The Weight which, upon re-reading them, looked apt for a posting.

The Band
"...[T]ime is an affliction. I heard it once in a song. Since we use time to measure our life experience, its worth or its waste, it afflicts us in a variety of ways. As young men and women, we use time to look ahead and see possibility before us; from an older perspective, we look back on a life lived happily, or worse, of lost possibility. Time is an affliction because it always reminds us of how we measure our successes and failures. But maybe its worse when we get older. There is more time behind us than ahead of us..."

Rick Danko
"In 2008, while re-watching Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary on The Band's farewell concert on American Thanksgiving in 1976, there's a certain sadness in the picture that wasn't apparent in the theatre upon its premiere. At that time, hailed as the greatest rock documentary of all-time, the spirit the film raised was celebratory. Band co-founder Robbie Robertson even called it 'a celebration.' Martin Scorsese, who was agonizing over the production of his musical New York, New York, described the opportunity to make this movie as a 'once in a lifetime' chance. But all involved knew they were engaged in something also described as 'the end of an era.' But that isn't what invokes the sadness, not now when watching the movie. Talking about the end of an era sounds too pat, an obvious cliché, as if reaching for a sound bite to sum everything up, put everything in its place, to give it caché. The sadness doesn't come from the number of deaths to follow the concert, either; people who, as Greil Marcus describes in the DVD commentary, 'didn't get out of this world alive.' (Yet the list is pretty substantial: from The Band, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko are now gone, others include Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield.) You can feel wistful watching the younger, spry and lanky bassist Rick Danko bopping up and down (as a friend once told me) like Robert de Niro's out-of-control Johnny Boy in Scorsese's Mean Streets (1974). Seeing his happy abandon, even when singing a tale of fear like 'Stage Fright,' has a way of reminding you of what he would become in later years: bloated by abuse and neglect and ending in heart failure. He'd come to look like a genial version of the defeated Jake LaMotta in Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980)."

Richard Manuel
"Richard Manuel, with his shy devil's grin behind the piano, tells us in 'The Shape I'm In' that 'out of nine lives, I've spent seven.' He looks like he was already working on the ninth. All of those moments in The Last Waltz can create an ache as simultaneously as they deliver pleasure. The deeper melancholy in this picture isn't found in the ways you're moved, it's in what you can't truly anticipate. For instance, in 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' – the song Robbie Robertson wrote about the defeated South after the American Civil War and sung by the group's sole Southerner, drummer Levon Helm – there was a long history with this tune of moving people to tears. Even those who shared no true sympathy with the Confederacy could not resist the equally true emotional weight of the tale of Virgil Cane, a man who looks at the land he inhabits and sees the failure he's left to inherit. Joan Baez once attempted to erase that power by changing the lyrics to suit her more leftist Northern sensibility, but the song was too strong. It escaped her anyway.

To a degree, until The Last Waltz, the song had escaped its singer as well. The
Levon Helm
pain in 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' was too close a fit for Levon, and he had always sung it with a pathos that was obvious, with its sentiment all too clear, like hearing Paul Robeson sing 'No More Auction Block.' But, on this evening, Levon doesn't just convey the pain, but also the anger that goes with it. The defeated South wasn't a land of sadness, there was a rage, too, a rage that one could hear later in the Civil Rights battles that ultimately desegregated the South. Sometimes you heard it in the country blues that would ultimately find a home in the urban enclaves of Chicago, where Muddy Waters would proclaim (as he does in The Last Waltz) in "Mannish Boy" that 'I'm a man-child.' But Levon's rage at the loss of identity, the giving in to a larger identity of what America was about to become after the Civil War, had finally uncorked the power and true compassion that this song always contained.

All of these moments, and there are many more, have a way of deepening with time, where the affliction of time grows with a bolder hindsight. But the deeper melancholy, for me, comes with a performance of 'The Weight,' the parable that bonded people to The Band back in 1968. The song is about a search for community, a quest for comfort, a place to find comradeship and to set down roots, to lessen the burden of what the singer is carrying. Yet the key to this song is that there are many singers present in the performance – not just one – just as there are a cast of characters in 'The Weight' who deepen the riddle. The burden of the story it tells is carried by many and refused by all.

In The Last Waltz, we don't see The Band performing the track onstage in front of an audience, but rather, on a sound stage contrived to give the performance a special imaginary setting. And performing with The Band is The Staple Singers, a black gospel group, a family headed by Pop Staples and his daughters, who had been a huge influence on the call-and-response style The Band used in 'The Weight' (as well as on Big Pink's 'We Can Talk'). For the first time, 'The Weight' acts out a dream of an integrated country. Yet there's nothing pious in this performance, but rather a true consideration of America in a manner that was once set forth in its very founding documents. Within this stirring rendition is also a deeper sadness of a dream that was not sustained, or maybe even fully created. The Band, mostly made up of Canadians, is looking into the American spirit with a desire to bond with its aspirations, but they also know they are outsiders to its legacies of slavery and brutality. They are dreaming of a country that is too often crippled by the guilt of its own citizens. In this version of 'The Weight,' The Band and The Staple Singers dream its possibilities and ideals, but without that guilt. The Band also bonds with The Staples while knowing that, even as a rock and roll group, they will soon be breaking up, unable to sustain their own bonds of friendship, bonds that once tied them together..."
"....[T]he problems Martin Scorsese was experiencing on his period-musical New York, New York (1977) were obvious. He was depicting an era – the post-war period – of his parents and he reflected that time in the deliberate style of Vincente Minnelli, even casting his daughter, Liza, in it. But Scorsese got caught up in his fetish for old movies. His real heart was in the be-bop nervousness of De Niro's sax playing Jimmy Doyle, the guy looking ahead, looking past the Big Bands into something new, exciting and experimental. The two parts of the movie never do mesh. De Niro keeps hitting his head against the wall of Hollywood classicism in the same way he would later literally bang his head against a wall in Raging Bull. But Scorsese's classicism finds a truer home in The Last Waltz where he decorates a dilapidated rock palace in the style of another Italian director, Luciano Visconti. In a sense, the tone of The Band's final concert, their final show with this line-up of musicians, would recall Burt Lancaster's Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Visconti's The Leopard (1963). Visconti's tragic, yet loving view of the changing of the guard concludes at a wedding where the Prince faces his own mortality while watching the new order being established in his expedient nephew's wedding. Critic Roger Ebert described the wedding ball aptly as 'a last glorious celebration of the dying age; Visconti cast members of noble old Sicilian families as the guests, and in their faces, we see a history that cannot be acted, only embodied. The orchestra plays Verdi. The young people dance on and on, and the older people watch carefully and gauge the futures market in romances and liaisons.' The future of the rock world, the world The Band departed from in 1976, would also turn their idea of community into a good place to hide.

It's that fear of impending retreat that inhabits The Last Waltz, whose opening credits feature a young couple performing a waltz, their wedding ritual, while the crowd (after a five hour concert) refuses to let The Band go home. 'You're still here?' Robbie Robertson asks the audience at the end of the concert (but near the beginning of the movie), surprised to find anybody out there after the group had spent every ounce of all they had to give. It was simple. The audience just couldn't let go of what they already saw starting to pass. So the group gave them Marvin Gaye's 'Don't Do It,' a plea as hard and as soulful as John Lennon delivered in 'Don't Let Me Down,' just when The Beatles were about to pass into history. 'Don'tcha break my heart,' Levon cries out before the group answers, with a collective smile, 'My biggest mistake was lovin' you too much.' Then, with a wave, they were gone."

- originally published on August 28, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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