Monday, April 2, 2012

Rebel Who Lost His Cause

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.

There are many times when a documentary film says more than the director intended. Consciously they may be following a certain line of exploration, but in the process they dig up more than they counted on. In this biographical movie about the late folk singer Phil Ochs, Kevin Courrier discovered a portrait beneath the portrait that the director tried to put on the screen.    

Mirror Man - Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Kenneth Bowser's compelling documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, examines the life and tragic death of a political troubadour whose music perfectly mirrored the rise and fall of the sixties counter-culture. He does so by suggesting that Ochs, whose songs included "I Ain't Marching Anymore," "Draft Dodger Rag," "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and "There But For Fortune," helped define the protest song movement. But the movie also shows how Ochs was undone by his affliction of manic depression that only escalated with the collapse of the left-wing idealism of the sixties. Bowser's view isn't wrong, exactly, but there's an even larger theme that lies unexplored (even though it's touched on) throughout the movie. In telling the story of a mirror man, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune also suggests that, by being a mirror who reflects, Phil Ochs was more a reflection of his times rather than a man who could help define and shape them. When those times were over, the personality - and the man - disappeared.

Phil Ochs
The topical song culture of the sixties, in which Ochs became an integral part, grew out of the Civil Rights and anti-war movement. The music of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and Odetta was literally ripped from the headlines of the daily news. Their songs, which spoke of injustice, racism and inequality, also carried the hope of building a new nation, one they felt lived up to the democratic principles that laid within the country's founding documents. Building on the spirit of Kennedy's New Frontier in 1960, the folk music movement, that percolated in the bohemian enclave of New York's Greenwich Village, dedicated itself to the idea that songs could actually change society. By drawing on the socialist realist legacy of the old left that included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, they believed that the songs themselves took prominence not the singers. To this community of activists, the performer was merely an instrument who brought forth both change and political awareness through their music. In true socialist realist fashion, the artist was defined more by the composition rather than the other way around. While some folk artists, like Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk, had strong enough personalities to prevent themselves from disappearing into their topical music (and Dylan simply cut himself loose from the ideological strait-jacket of the movement by embracing the Golden Calf of pop music where his individuality could thrive), Phil Ochs found himself a world - and a cause - that gave him a personality (and a purpose) that he might otherwise have lacked. As the movie finally reveals, too, his devotion to the cause obviously hid his personal problems. And when the movement died, so did Phil Ochs.

Watching some of the remarkable footage of Ochs that Bowser collects, which traces Ochs' sojourn to the Village in 1962 after becoming both politically and musically conscious during his time at Ohio State University, there's already an unsettling blankness in the face of this young buoyant idealist. Ochs appears lit up more by the environment than one who himself brightens it. While I've loved much of his music over the years; the deeply poignant "Crucifixion," his elegy for the assassinated John Kennedy; the reflective "Changes"; his cleverly funny "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," which addressed social indifference; and "Pleasures of the Harbour," which was inspired by John Ford's stirring The Long Voyage Home (1940), there was an opaqueness already present in that lilting voice. While Ochs had, in his early days, a boyish handsomeness suggestive of one of his heroes James Dean (for whom he wrote "Jim Dean of Indiana"), and a disarming self-deprecating smile, he still seemed at a distance, almost unknowable. Despite his strong activism, where he fiercely dedicated himself against his country's foreign and domestic policies, there was a growing sense (long before his disillusionment after the 1968 riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention) of a man consumed by the social and political history he was involved in. The era was filling a hole in his consciousness rather than illuminating a spirit.

Even his early idolization of Dylan, whom he castigated for abandoning the protest scene, feels more like envy than disappointment. (It lends credence to the view I've always held, too, that Dylan wrote his scathing "Positively 4th Street" for Ochs - especially with lines like "You gotta lot of nerve to say you've got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on the side that's winning.") Since Dylan's songs, even his protest music, was always filled with the distinct presence of the singer who is performing them, Ochs always had to fall back on the electric current of the movement's determined belief to change the world to inspire himself.

John Wayne in The Long Voyage Home
Kenneth Bowser also raises the perceptive notion that Ochs's personality conflict reflected his split between two views of his country. On the one hand, Ochs was shaped by the rugged individualism of John Wayne (who starred inThe Long Voyage Home), the strong frontier settler who could single-handedly save the nation, as well as being inspired by the collective power of topical music and left-wing activism. In Bowser's view, supported by interviews with Ochs' brother Michael, folk singer Judy Henske, and Ochs' wife, Alice, Phil Ochs reconciled those differences by playing the part of the American hero where the Vietnam war could be, what Michael Ochs calls, "the last dragon to be slain." With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, the horrible violence of Chicago, and the advent of Richard Nixon, though, the sense of saving the nation seemed painfully lost. Instead of slaying the dragon, it was Ochs who was left defeated. (In his first album after the Chicago riots,Rehearsals for Retirement, he even features a tombstone on the cover for both Ochs and his country.)

During those desolate years, Bowser shows how Ochs took refuge in the other heroes of his youth like Elvis Presley, even donning the King's gold lame suit for a concert at Carnegie Hall which caused a minor riot from fans crying, "Bring back Phil Ochs." What Ochs was attempting to do, according to the film, was to wed the populism of Elvis, who had integrated black and white culture in his songs, to the political meaning of his pop ascension. In Ochs' view, which wasn't inaccurate, the left had abandoned the working class in America by embracing the freak culture of the Yippies of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Richard Nixon therefore galvanized that abandoned and terrified class into his Silent Majority which would win the country back from the freaks. "We need to turn Elvis Presley into Che Guevara," Ochs yells at the protesting audience. But, of course, Ochs seems painfully unaware that a rigid ideologue like Che Guevara would have no doubt imprisoned the King of rock & roll for not being a fine example of the New Socialist Man.

Victor Jara
Although Phil Ochs tried to later find purpose in the doomed socialist experiment of Salvador Allende's Chile, and inspiration from poet & singer Victor Jara (Chile's own Phil Ochs), Allende would be overthrown in the violent military coup in 1973 led by Augusto Pinochet and supported by the CIA. (Jara would also be brutally murdered by Pinochet's army.) The crushing weight of this defeat and the capitulation of that country's spirit was experienced by Ochs as personal body blows (which would even take a literal form when Ochs was mugged and brutally beaten while visiting Africa).

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is ultimately unnerving because so much of the haunted defeats of the sixties radical culture seem to be tattooed on Ochs' face, which loses its hopeful spark and eerily turns as sagging as Richard Nixon's visage. Bowser's film though is also too caught up in the romantic ardor of the time. As absorbing and intelligent as the picture is, the documentary doesn't probe deep enough. For instance, I'm not sure if Bowser truly sees that Phil Ochs was in actuality a likable and talented cipher, an artist who created himself in the image of a movement and the events of its era.Which is why, even though he acknowledges Ochs' mental illness which led to his eventual suicide at his sister's house in 1976, Bowser also sees Ochs' death as symbolic of the death of the sixties. While Bowser's view may bring comfort to those who weep at the mere mention of Berkeley (the same way, as critic Pauline Kael once remarked, a past generation of radicals once wept at the mention of Spain), that perspective unfortunately turns Ochs into a martyr of failed idealism rather than a tragic case of a troubled, talented rebel who lost his cause.

- originally published on February 20, 2011 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

1 comment:

  1. "Bowser also sees Ochs' death as symbolic of the death of the sixties. While Bowser's view may bring comfort to those who weep at the mere mention of Berkeley (the same way, as critic Pauline Kael once remarked, a past generation of radicals once wept at the mention of Spain), that perspective unfortunately turns Ochs into a martyr of failed idealism rather than a tragic case of a troubled, talented rebel who lost his cause."
    While I mostly agree with your assessment, I would argue that the movie does both.
    The editor