Monday, September 30, 2019

Cleopatra (Helen Gardner Picture Players, 1912)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 9:45 p.m. Turner Classic Movies ran an intriguing and historically important film that wasn’t very good as a movie but was still well worth watching: Cleopatra, a 1912 production featuring actress Helen Gardner and produced by her own company, Helen Gardner Picture Players. This is apparently the very first film dealing with the legendary Queen of Egypt — there’ve been plenty of others since, notably the now-lost (except for a fragment lasting only a few seconds) 1917 Fox version with Theda Bara, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 production with Claudette Colbert and Henry Wilcoxon (a nice-looking but mediocre actor who himself wondered what qualified him to play Mark Antony; DeMille said, “Because Fredric March is unavailable and all the other actors in Hollywood look like sissies”), and the one everybody knows about even if almost no one has actually seen it, the 1958-1963 20th Century-Fox bomb written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. Given that this was a film being made in 1912 and directed by someone other than D. W. Griffith — Gardner had courageously left one of the Motion Picture Trust companies, Vitagraph, in 1912 after two years making 10-minute shorts because that was all the people running the Trust thought audiences could sit still for, while Griffith was working at another Trust company, Biograph, which was about to fire him precisely over his desire to make longer films — I didn’t expect much from it artistically. But it’s fascinating in that Gardner not only starred in it but produced and formed her own company to distribute it, taking a projector and a print around the country and screening it in live theatres, opera houses and other venues that typically didn’t show films. Gardner was clearly putting her own money and her reputation (and her freedom, given that the broad reach of Thomas Edison’s patents literally made it illegal in 1912 for anyone other than the Trust companies to make films) on the line. Her director was Charles L. Gaskill, who isn’t specifically credited as a writer but almost certainly did the adaptation. The writer who is credited is French playwright Victorien Sardou, who was (in)famous for writing barely coherent melodramas George Bernard Shaw dismissed as “Sardoodledum.”

To the exent that Sardou has a reputation today it’s only because one of his plays, La Tosca — about a convent-raised girl who grows up to be an opera singer, gets caught up in the Napoleonic wars and finally kills herself when her boyfriend is executed — got turned into an opera by Puccini, and while Sardou’s play passed into oblivion with the death of the actress he wrote it for, Sarah Bernhardt, Puccini’s Tosca is a staple of the mainstream operatic repertoire. The 1912 Cleopatra — one of the first feature-length films (TCM’s print is nearly 90 minutes long) ever made in the U.S. (most film histories say the first U.S. feature was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man, made two years later) — is indicative of what elite producers, critics and audiences thought would elevate the film medium above the cheap, hackneyed 10-minute movies being shown at the nickelodeons: a series of dull, ponderous tableaux shot in front of elaborate sets (probably the same ones with which Gardner and her supporting cast had performed Sardou’s play on stage) but with few, if any, changes of camera angle within a sequence and no attempt at creative editing. The acting of Gardner and her cast — for some strange reason the actors’ first names were not listed in the credits and the only ones whose full names we know are Gardner’s, Charles Sindelar (her Mark Antony), Pearl Sindelar (whose exact relationship to Charles is something of a mystery — they look about the same age and ordinarily one would think they were a married couple, but the female Sindelar is identified as “Miss” instead of “Mrs.,” suggesting she was more likely Charles’ sister than his wife — either that or she was billed as “Miss Sindelar” out of courtesy), and Helene Costello, then still a child but ultimately a featured player at Warner Bros. (where in the 1920’s her sister Dolores Costello became a star) as Nicola. The plot starts out with a kinky romantic triangle in which Cleopatra’s lady-in-waiting Iras (Pearl Sindelar) has a crush on Greek fisherman and slave Pharon (Mr. Howard — who at least gets a nicely revealing costume of a tunic and tight little shorts that show off his basket and his ass quite well), but Pharon only has eyes for Cleopatra. Instead of punishing him for his lese-majesté Cleopatra cuts him a deal: she’ll make him her lover for 10 days if he’ll agree to kill himself at the end of that period.

Pharon accepts the deal — much to Iras’s understandable upset — but just as he’s about to leave the gates of Alexandria to go into the desert and go through with his suicide, he runs into the advance guard of Roman co-emperor Mark Antony (Charles Sindelar), who’s there to conquer Egypt and annex it to the burgeoning Roman Empire. Antony enters Alexandria but falls victim to Cleopatra’s charms — which in this version consist mainly of her lying akimbo on her couch until Antony responds by approaching her and giving her a decorous screen (or stage) kiss — and with his wife having died back in Rome Cleopatra sees nothing wrong with marrying him and building her own empire to rival Rome’s. Only Antony is torn between love (or at least sex) and duty, which in this case consists of settling his differences with his co-emperor Octavian (Mr. Paul), ending the Roman civil war and sealing the deal by marrying Octavian’s sister Octavia (Miss Robson). The principals end up at the city of Actium, where Cleopatra sends her fleet to support Antony’s in the big sea battle with Octavian’s forces, only Cleopatra withdraws her fleet out of a jealous hissy-fit and Antony orders his fleet to chase hers, essentially throwing the battle. Antony receives word that Cleopatra is dead and orders the head of his forces to kill him, and when the officer kills himself rather than do in Antony, Antony stabs himself and then receives word that Cleopatra isn’t dead after all. Cleopatra ends up a prisoner of Octavian’s in the elaborate tomb she’d had built for herself — apparently, though Cleopatra was descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals who got Egypt when Alexander split up his empire on his deathbed (making it a bit ironic, come to think of it, that Richard Burton played both Alexander the Great and Mark Antony) — and her other lady-in-waiting, Charmian (Miss Fielding), sneaks her a lethal snake (a “serpent,” it’s called in the intertitle) so she can off herself and join Antony (whose dead body is laying there beside her) in death.

Cleopatra suffers from the horrendously outdated acting style — this is one of those films which is acted the way people who’ve never seen a silent film start-to-finish think they were all acted like, with the actors registering distress and anguish by thrusting their hands above their heads, heaving like they’re experiencing seasickness, and otherwise making preposterous and unreal gestures. (By the end of the silent era actresses like Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo were giving far more restrained and subtle performances, proving that you didn’t need dialogue to perform naturalistically.) Ironically, Gardner and writer-director Gaskill stuck a written prologue on the film that talked a much better movie than the one they actually made: “Certain stage traditions originally founded in ignorance and preserved after they became traditions, have not been considered; the object of the Director has been to insure naturalness in an atmosphere of romance, the object of the Author to intimate the nobilities and grandeur of the woman who was devotedly loved by Julius Caesar[1]. Perfect freedom has been exercised in the adaptation.” Unfortunately, the entire movie remains mired in the “stage traditions” of the time, including not only ridiculously stylized acting but also long scenes taking place on a single set, shot from a single angle, set either indoors or in courtyards and other confined, enclosed exteriors. No action scenes appear in the film — unless you count the preposterous representation of the Battle of Actium, which is shown by depicting Antony and Cleopatra on rocking platforms meant to represent the decks of ships, posed in front of an obviously painted backdrop of sea and sky, with an unseen stagehand occasionally throwing a bucket of water at them to make it look like they’re at sea. There’s even one continuity glitch in which an actor disappears from the screen — obviously they stopped the camera in the middle of a take and when they resumed the actor had left the set.

The 1912 Cleopatra is a film of obvious historical importance, and one distinction is the quite creative use of color tinting throughout most of the scenes (very few silent films were actually shown in black-and-white; obviously most early filmmakers regarded the absence of photographic color as a major handicap of the medium and tried to work around it with elaborate tints and tones; they went out of style in the sound era largely because tinting compromised the fidelity of a sound-on-film soundtrack), but for the most part it’s a ponderous bore. A creative director like Griffith or the young DeMille could have helped a lot — just a year later Griffith would get himself fired from Biograph by sneaking behind his bosses’ backs to film a similar story, Judith of Bethulia (based on the Biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes), in four reels and throwing into it the whole armamentarium of cinematic tricks he had invented or developed (close-ups, changes of camera angle within a scene, cross-cut editing and the like), which would definitely have benefited Helen Gardner’s Cleopatra and made it look more like a movie than a photographed stage play without dialogue. It also didn’t help that the version TCM showing was a restoration they did in 2000 in association with the George Eastman House in which they hired Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida to give the film an absolutely terrible score, full of electronic burbles, insistent percussion, off-screen voices chanting and a couple of bad soft-rock songs sung by a Cyndi Lauper wanna-be which were supposed to represent Cleopatra’s innermost thoughts.

[1] — Who doesn’t appear as a character in this movie, by the way, since the entire story takes place after Caesar’s death.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story (Silver Screen Partners, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched an excellent Lifetime TV-movie called Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story which was the second in their current “Ripped from the Headlines!” series of films based on actual incidents (though they’ve certainly done more than their share of true — or basically true — stories before). It was based on a memoir called Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began, written by the real Alex Cooper with Joanna Brooks, and turned into a movie by screenwriter Michelle Paradise and director Jeffrey G. Hunt. Alex Cooper (Addison Holley) was a 15-year-old high-school sophomore in Victorville, California being raised by a strict Mormon couple (Steve Kumyn and Kate Drummond) — the opening scene of the film shows the three of them at a church service — whose doubts about her sexual orientation suddenly come to the foreground of her consciousness when she sees two blonde women walking and holding each other’s hands. It turns out they’re not Gay — they’re the girlfriends of two jocks and they were just holding hands on their way to greet their boyfriends — but Alex is sufficiently turned on by the mere thought of affectionate contact between girls she suddenly realizes she might be Lesbian herself. 

Her best friend at school introduces her to two women who’ve already more or less come out as Lesbian. One is Colette (Natalie Liconti), a slender young woman with severely cut short hair, but it’s the other one, Frankie (Nicolette Pierce), to whom Alex finds herself attracted. (In real life Alex’s first girlfriend was named Yvette, but it seems writer Paradise — herself a Lesbian who grew up in the Mormon church — liked the irony of her two female lovers both having masculine names.) One reviewer hated this aspect of the film because Frankie is an 18-year-old who has just graduated from the high school Alex was attending — “So, a Lesbian woman sleeps with a minor, as in someone underage, and the underage girl’s parents flip out that their underage daughter is having sex with someone when she is unable to legally consent to it … and they are the bad guys for it?” — but it seems writer Paradise was anticipating that objection when she constructed the seduction scene and made Alex the sexual aggressor. Frankie says, when the two of them are alone (they’ve driven from Victorville to Los Angeles and Alex has told her parents she was studying at the home of a fellow student, whom they called and caught her out in her lie), “We don’t have to do this. We can just hang out.” But Alex insists she does want to do it, and they do, although reflecting the squeamishness that still afflicts basic cable where Gay sex is concerned (though other taboos are coming down — the word “shit” appears at least twice), director Hunt politely averts his cameras before anything physical happens between Our Heroines. (The business of underage Gay men or Lesbians coming on to adult partners is true: over the years I’ve heard enough stories from people who remember their first same-sex experiences in just that way and admit they were the ones who came on to the older partners, not vice versa.) 

When Alex returns home from her hot weekend with Frankie, her parents confront her with all the sensitivity of Soviet KGB agents rousting someone at 3 a.m. to take them to the Gulag. They run through all the gamut of nasties their daughter might be doing — drinking, drugs, boys — and when they see a hickey Frankie left on Alex’s neck they immediately realize she’s had sex but assume it was with a man. “Actually, I think I like girls,” Alex tells her parents — and they respond by immediately disowning her and throwing her out of the house. A few days later — days during which she’s been sleeping on a sympathetic neighbor’s couch — her parents come see her and tell her they’re taking her to see her grandparents in Utah. They’re taking her to Utah, all right, but not to her grandparents: instead they’re taking her to a small-scale “conversion therapy” home run by Johnny and Tiana Simms (Ian Lake and Sarah Booth) that features two other young inmates, Damon and Henry — one of them was a juvenile delinquent who was given a choice of jail or the Simms’ boot camp, while the other (you guessed it) was caught kissing another boy in high school — along with the Simms’ own children. The Simms tell Alex that her stay there can last three months or three years (until she turns 18 and therefore the authority Alex’s parents gave them to keep her there expires) and can be as easy or as hard as she makes it depending on whether she “works the program” and stays “obedient.” 

It’s not clear just how the Simms think they’re going to “cure” Alex of being Lesbian — or, rather, of acting on her attraction to women, since one of the least understood parts of the radical “Christian” Right’s attitude towards Queers is they don’t think we exist as a community. According to the Christian Right, everyone is naturally heterosexual and the only reason people have sex with others of their own gender is they’re psychologically or spiritually “broken” — either that or they’re simply and arbitrarily rebelling against God and his “divine order” for humanity, which is that everyone is supposed to have sex only within a heterosexual marriage and only for purposes of reproduction, not pleasure. (I remember attending a workshop on religion and sexually taught by the late Rev. Houston Burnside of Metropolitan Community Church, and I was especially struck when he told the group, “Your sexuality is a gift from God.” It occurred to me that most Christian churches wouldn’t even tell their straight congregants that their sexuality was a gift from God.) The Mormons add a few wrinkles to the overall anti-sex attitude of most of the Christian church in that they believe that your chances of getting into the “Celestial Kingdom” (their name for heaven) depend not only on avoiding sin yourself but keeping anyone in your family from sinning; at one point, in this film’s most powerful dialogue exchange, Alex’s parents tell her they’re subjecting her to the Simms’ abuse because they don’t want her homosexual activities jeopardizing their chances for salvation — and Alex responds, “You’re so concerned about the next world you don’t care about what’s happening to me in this one.” 

The Simms’ “therapy” practices include literally beating the shit out of Alex whenever she tries either to escape or to let anyone outside know what she’s going through. At one point they force her to wear a backpack full of rocks and spend the entire day standing in front of a wall, facing it and doing exactly nothing from sunup to sundown — and when, on a rare visit from her parents, she shows her mom the permanent bruises this is leaving on her shoulders, her mom tells the Simms Alex tried to rat them out and they respond by having one of the boys put more rocks in her backpack. The Simms also warn her that they know everyone in their community — including the police — so if Alex tries to report them, word will just get back to the Simms and they’ll just up her already fearsome level of punishment and physical abuse. (At the same time Johnny Simms is himself suffering from severe back pain; his wife tried to get him to go to a chiropractor but he said he’d tried that and it was useless. I liked the fact that screenwriter Paradise humanized the character instead of just making him a black-and-white villain — and powerfully and understatedly communicated the irony that the long-term effects of him torturing Alex would be to give her the horrible back pains he’s going through himself.) I remember interviewing Justin Utley, a folksinger who also came out of a Mormon background and had to deal with being Gay, and one of the things he told me was that a Mormon community is like a small town: everyone knows everyone else’s business and feels free to step in when they think someone is breaking the mores of their church and their community. 

The makers of Trapped got the Kafka-esque feeling Gay or would-be Gay Mormons get that they’re constantly being watched and any step they take off the straight (in both senses) and narrow will be immediately reported and punished right, and they also got the extent to which Mormons in position of authority will use their official powers to punish people who don’t follow the rules of the church, especially if the people they’re punishing are Mormons themselves. Eventually Alex realizes that the only way she can get the Simms both physically and psychologically to lift the weights off her back is to go along with the program (such as it is, since the Simms’ “conversion” program seems only to involve coercion and physical torture; other “conversion” or “reparative therapy” programs use elaborate plagiarisms and perversions of either mainstream psychotherapy or 12-step programs to give them at least a thin veneer of “science” to justify them, but not this one), and she does a good enough job of convincing them that they’ve broken her that they relent on the total isolation and allow her to attend high school in Utah instead of insisting on home-schooling her. That proves to be a mistake because, while most of the teachers and administrators at the Utah high school are on board with the church’s anti-Queer agenda, one renegade woman English teacher, though herself Mormon, doesn’t believe the anti-Gay crap and has allowed herself to become the advisor not only of the school’s Environment Club (Alex had been shown leading a recycling drive at her original high school in Victorville before she came out and got sent to the Simms’ mini-gulag) but also of its Gay-Straight Alliance; and the teacher introduces Alex to Jason (Stephen Joffe), a cute, red-headed Gay kid who tells matter-of-factly about the many times he’s been bullied and physically beaten by his classmates. 

At this point it did occur to me that Jason and Alex could have “bearded” each other — posed as boyfriend and girlfriend to get Jason’s bullies and Alex’s adult tormentors off their backs — but instead of going there the filmmakers have Alex get so enthralled by talking to Jason and the teacher who’s their one kindred spirit in the whole school that she misses a bell and shows up late for a math class. The math teacher immediately calls the Simms on her and they respond by pulling all her privileges and announcing that she’s going to have to wear that backpack of rocks and face the wall for the next two years. (At one point the Simms tell her that they’re like Jesus and she’s being tempted by the devil — but any less jaundiced viewer of what’s going on with her would identify her with Jesus and the Simms, her parents and the rest of the Mormon establishment with the people in ancient Palestine who tortured and crucified Him for what He believed.) Fortunately, before this happened the teacher and Jason had contacted a lawyer in Salt Lake City who appears to be both Black and Gay (two things the Mormon church has traditionally hated!), and on the night the Simms issue their ukase that Alex is sentenced to wear the rock-filled backpack she’s able to slip out and escape, and lucky for her she’s found by a Black woman cop who seems to be one of the few people in local law enforcement who aren’t in the Simms’ pocket. Thanks to a secret journal Alex kept while in the Simms’ custody, they’re arrested and their vest-pocket gulag is shut down, and Alex not only gets back her freedom, her parents finally see the light of day and accept her as who she is. 

But, alas, that’s not enough of a happy ending for Michelle Paradise: in a weird cop-out that I didn’t like even before I read an online interview with the real Alex Cooper ( saying it was B.S., Alex’s girlfriend Frankie turns up and they have a joyous reunion. “Unfortunately, unlike in the movie, I didn’t get to be reunited with my girlfriend,” the real Alex Cooper said. “It had been eight months and we went our separate ways, and we haven’t seen each other since just before I went into conversion therapy. But I was able to focus on school, graduated early, and started dating a bishop’s daughter. We were able to get a court order saying that I was legally allowed to do normal teenage things, like date a girl.” And, quite frankly, this is one of those cases where the truth would not only have been more accurate but better drama as well: the ending of Trapped would have been far more poignant if “Frankie” had remained a bittersweet memory on the fringes of Alex’s consciousness that would haunt her all her life even as she ultimately blossomed and eventually did find a working relationship with a woman. (This is also one of my problems with the Harvey Milk biopic Milk: its screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, invented a phony and totally inaccurate scene in which Milk’s former partner Scott Smith approached him the day before he was killed to seek a reconciliation. The real Harvey Milk had completely and definitively rejected monogamy as an expectation for Gay men years before he died, but Black wanted to rewrite him to make him a suitable role model for the same-sex marriage era.) 

Aside from that one fictional lapse at the end, though, Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story is not only a well-above-average Lifetime movie but a case study in how individuals needing love and help can be done in (or almost done in) by authority figures dripping with stuffy self-righteousness — and it’s also an indication of what I still don’t like about religion even though I’m far friendlier to it as an institution than I used to be in my militant-atheist days (the fact that all three of my serious boyfriends have been religious believers — and two of them, including my husband, serious students of the Bible — has helped mellow me): not only do organized religions manipulate people by offering them the carrot-on-the-stick of immortality (“Do what we tell you to do and you’ll have a better life after this one; disobey us and you’ll burn in fire and brimstone for all eternity”) as a way of exerting authoritarian control over them in this one.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Country Music, episode 8: “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’” (Florentine Films, Country Music Film Project, WETA, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Ken Burns’ eight-part documentary Country Music finished with a segment called Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, a line from an old Bill Monroe song covered by Ricky Skaggs at the start of his career whose basic premise is, no matter how high you rise, don’t forget where you came from and stay true to the values you grew up with. If the theme of the immediately previous episode, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” (sung by Waylon Jennings in 1975 in the persona of an aspiring country singer who’s wondering if Hank Williams had to endure the crap he’s going through on his way to the top), was the clash between what the executives at the major Nashville recording companies and publishing firms think is salable and what the artists want to do — often resulting in surprise successes like Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger, which his record label originally didn’t want to release, finally put out thinking it would bomb and teach Willie a lesson, and instead it stayed on the charts for over two years, broke Nelson to a pop audience and made him a superstar — the theme of this episode was the ongoing tension between country music’s basic identity and the desire of country record labels, publishers and the artists themselves for mass success. Oddly, the episode’s title dated the years it covers as 1984 to 1996 — though it really extended to 2003 and the death of Johnny Cash — and it mentions the remarkable twilight comeback of the Man in Black. After Columbia Records dropped him in 1986 Cash got signed by Mercury in one of those contracts in which a label tries to suck the last marrow from the bones of a once-major star’s popularity, and while he made one great song during that affiliation (his record with U2, “The Wanderer”), for the most part it was more attempts to fit Cash into the prevailing commercial mold of the time. Then Cash ended up with Rick Rubin’s American Records label and made six raw, unvarnished albums that included his cover of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt,” which became a surprise hit — so Cash ended his recording career as he had begun it with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, at an independent label working for a visionary producer who let him be himself in all his raw glory.

The episode mentions the rise of country music as a commercial force with the creation of Country Music Television (CMT) and the Nashville Network cable channels in 1986 — which sparked yet another period of ascendancy in the genre’s popularity that, like the one in the late 1970’s, didn’t last. It mentions the deregulation of radio during the Clinton administration and the rise of huge radio chains, which made it harder for new artists to “break” as the decisions about what got played on the air got concentrated into fewer and fewer hands to the point where the way Loretta Lynn broke her first independently produced record — she and her family drove around the country looking for transmitter towers, visited each station and pleaded with the on-duty D.J.’s and program directors to play it — became impossible. The show mentioned the new artists that arose during the time it covered, including Garth Brooks — who became the first country star to stage his concerts like rock shows (he’d grown up listening to — and going to live appearances by — bands like Queen and Kiss, and he got the idea of being flown over the audience on wires from Freddie Mercury) and who would ultimately become the biggest-selling solo recording artist of all time, surpassing Elvis Presley (though if you count all the records he’s been on, both with the Beatles and on his own, Paul McCartney remains the biggest record-seller ever) — as well as Skaggs, George Strait, Reba McIntire, The Judds (whose story — mom working as a nurse in Nashville while promoting her daughter’s career and ultimately becoming a star herself alongside her daughter), Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Vince Gill, who’s promoted extensively.

Gill’s segment includes the story of his memorial song “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which he began when his friend Keith Whitley, whose duets with his wife Lorrie Morgan had evoked comparisons with George Jones and Tammy Wynette, died of alcohol poisoning at 33 in 1989 — though Gill put the song aside and didn’t finish it until his brother died, also way too young, in 1993. The show depicts Gill singing this song with Loveless and Skaggs at a memorial concert for George Jones in 2013 (no one who had followed the story of Jones and Wynette in the 1970’s would have guessed that he’d outlive her by 17 years!) and becoming so literally overcome with emotion he couldn’t finish his own song and Loveless had to cut in and take over the lead from him. The show also discussed another quite moving song — “Where’ve You Been?,” written by songwriters Jon Vezner and Don Henry based on an incident with Vezner’s grandparents; his grandmother had got age-related dementia in her last years and had forgotten most of the people she had ever known, but when her husband walked into her hospital room she recognized him and said, “Where’ve you been?” Vezner played the song with aspiring country singer Kathy Mattea, whom he started dating and later married, and it became a huge hit and so sure-fire a tear-jerker its presentation on last night’s program had me crying. (Incidentally I had heard the song before in a cover by, of all people, 1950’s singer Patti Page on her last studio album, Brand New Tennessee Waltz from 2000 — in which she also covered Tammy Wynette’s “’Til I Get It Right” and I think outsung Wynette on her own song. Beautifully arranged and eloquently phrased, Brand New Tennessee Waltz remains one of the unsung masterpieces of popular music in this century and the summit of Page’s recording career.)

I’m not sure why Ken Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan, chose to cut off the story when they did and didn’t add a ninth episode dealing with more recent artists like the Dixie Chicks (whose blacklisting by country radio after their comments criticizing President George W. Bush in a London concert in 2003 is a fascinating story that deserves to be retold), Miranda Lambert (whose concept album after her breakup with Blake Shelton won the Album of the Year Grammy Award, a rare achievement for a country singer, and was obviously in the great tradition of country singers drawing on their personal lives for material that speaks to all of us), Brandi Carlile, The Band Perry and the awesome Rhiannon Giddens, who’s extensively interviewed but we’re not given any idea who she is. As in pop music generally, over the last two decades the artistic leadership in country music has largely been taken over by women — as more and more male country artists have come out in cowboy hats, sports jackets and ultra-tight blue jeans, singing pretty indistinguishable songs drawing more on the “Southern rock” of the 1970’s than on Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, it’s been the women who’ve pushed the artistic boundaries of the form and created most of what I suspect will be the truly lasting music of our time. Though the final episode of Country Music had a few glitches — including an interminable rant by Ken Burns’ good friend Wynton Marsalis spliced into the middle of the show for no discernible reason other than Burns has to trot out this obnoxious person in every documentary he does about music — for the most part it was a worthy end to the cycle even though I would have liked to see one or two more episodes bringing the story up to date.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Country Music, episode 7: “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” (Florentine Films, Country Music Film Project, WETA, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the penultimate episode of Ken Burns’ fascinating Country Music documentary, called “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”  after a song Waylon Jennings wrote for his 1975 album Dreaming My Dreams that questioned the heavy-duty commercialism of the Nashville scene and the way his previous albums had tried to channel him into the typical Nashville format of the time. Indeed, the main theme of this episode was the constant tug-of-war between Nashville executives and producers — particularly Billy Sherrill, head of country music recording at Columbia and architect of the so-called “countrypolitan” sound, a further development of the string-heavy “Nashville Sound” that had come to dominate country recording in the late 1950’s (though Columbia’s top country artist, Johnny Cash, had been able to escape the big string orchestras and backup choruses of the “Nashville Sound” because his records sold anyway) — and the efforts of artists like Jennings, his friend and fellow Texan Willie Nelson, and producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement (oddly Dayton Duncan’s script for this show does not mention Clement’s past as a producer and assistant to Sam Phillips at the nervy Sun Records label, where he’d produced Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich — ironically Rich was one of the artists Billy Sherrill grabbed hold of, shoved into the “countrypolitan” mold, and had a huge hit with “Behind Closed Doors” that cracked the pop market; Clement had produced Rich as a sort of white Fats Domino while Sherrill made him a crooner) to break the mold and make their music their own way. In 1972 Waylon Jennings fired his manager, hired a new one and renegotiated his RCA Victor contract to win total control over his records —including what songs he recorded and where he recorded them (before that RCA had insisted that all RCA artists had to record in RCA-owned studios; Jennings wanted to make his records in the independent “Hillbilly Central” studio owned by Clement and Hazel Smith, the woman who coined the term “outlaws” for country artists like Jennings and Nelson who broke the Nashville mold and made their own music their own way) — and the result that, freed from the constraints of the Nashville studio system, Jennings’ record sales soared.

So did Willie Nelson’s after he left Nashville altogether for his native state of Texas, settled in Austin, sang on the 1975 premiere of Austin City Limits and became the headline artist at a raunchy, hippie-ish nightclub called Armadillo World Headquarters. The version of Willie Nelson’s career given here is the print-the-legend one which locates his artistic and commercial breakthrough with his 1975 album Red-Headed Stranger, recorded at an independent studio in Austin for merely $4,000 and his first release under his new contract with Columbia. Actually, I’ve long regarded the album Nelson did just before Red-Headed Stranger, Phases and Stages, as Nelson’s masterpiece. Phases and Stages is an audacious concept album about a romantic breakup, told from the woman’s point of view on side one and the man’s point of view on side two, and it was the album he had in current release when he made the first Austin City Limits episode and stunningly performed two of the songs from the “man’s” side, “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way.” Alas, Nelson had made it for Atlantic Records, and just as it was released Atlantic decided to close down their country division and release Nelson from his contract, so one of the monumental masterpieces of country music went almost unheard. Fortunately Nelson had another concept album almost as good in mind for his follow-up — even though when he sent the tape to Columbia’s offices in Nashville Billy Sherrill proclaimed it unreleasable. Eventually Sherrill decided to put it out with the expectation that it would fail and Nelson would then become more tractable and make records according to the standard commercial formulae — only Red-Headed Stranger became an enormous hit, stayed on the country charts for over two years, crossed over into the pop charts, got a rave review from Rolling Stone and turned Willie Nelson from an obscure singer-songwriter into a national institution. Nelson got it again from the “suits” at Columbia when he wanted to record an album of 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s standards — he’d had good response from audiences when he played Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” live and he thought he could sell an entire album of similar songs and title the album Stardust. Columbia didn’t want to release Willie Nelson singing such old-fashioned songs but the album was a hit and rekindled interest in the Great American Songbook among younger record buyers. (When I saw the 1981 documentary on Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, I was particularly struck by a sequence in which Berry, accompanied only by his own guitar, sang the 1931 song “I’m Through with Love” — and I wondered why Berry hadn’t recorded a standards album at a time when his career could have used a major boost. Judging from that performance, a Chuck Berry standards album in 1971 would have been an artistic triumph — and the success of Willie Nelson’s three standards albums indicates a similar record from Berry might have sold well, too.)

Other topics covered in this episode — which at 2 hours and 20 minutes was considerably longer than the previous six, which had kept themselves to two hours — included the emergence of Hank Williams, Jr. and Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne as major artists in their own right. Williams fils got the same treatment from his mother, Audrey, as Ernest Tubb had got from Jimmie Rodgers’ widow almost two decades earlier: she managed his career, billed him as “HANK WILLIAMS Jr., with the “Jr.” in tiny type, and from age eight trotted him out on stage and told him to sing only his daddy’s songs. Though this isn’t mentioned in this film, while Hank Williams, Jr. was still only a teenager he was pressed into service by MGM’s film studio (naturally he released his records through MGM’s recording company, as his dad had) to be the voice double for Your Cheating Heart, a biopic of Hank Williams, Sr. with George Hamilton playing him on screen. Once Hank Williams, Jr. turned 21 and legally became an adult, he fired his mom as his manager and insisted that he was going to be his own man and sing his own songs (though decades later, when he assembled a boxed set of his records, he called it The Bocephus Box after the weird nickname his dad had given him) — and the style he hit on was the so-called “Southern Rock” of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band, which makes Hank Williams, Jr. a country innovator in his own right because these days almost all country records, especially by male artists, sound like Southern rock. (Interestingly, the Burns documentary wraps up the story in 1996 and therefore ignores everything that’s happened in country music in the 23 years since then, which seems strange.) The show also covers the phenomenon of country duets that sold a lot of records during the 1970’s, many of them by artists who had independent reputations as solo acts: Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn (like Jerry Lee Lewis, Twitty had started as a rock act but switched to country during rock’s brief fade in popularity in the early 1960’s before the Beatles came over from Britain, revitalized the rock scene and made it bigger than ever), Bill Anderson and Jan Howard, Kenny Rogers and Dottie West, and the biggest joint act of all, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They got married in 1969 after both having been married twice before, separated in 1973, reconciled but finally divorced in 1975 — but they were both under contract to Columbia (Wynette on the big label and Jones on its Epic subsidiary) and Billy Sherrill, noting that their records together sold much better than each did separately, kept throwing them back together in the studio even after their real-life relationship definitively ended.

The show also profiled another artist who emerged from under the shadow of a male collaborator into a huge solo career: Dolly Parton, who was originally the protégé of old-time singer Porter Wagoner. Though the two weren’t a real-life couple, Wagoner ruled Parton’s career with an iron hand, keeping her under contract to appear on his own TV show (where he introduced her with patronizing lines calling her a “little girl” and other demeaning things) and recording duets with her as well as controlling what she could record as a solo artist (Parton’s first single was the ridiculously titled “Dumb Blonde,” to which Parton replied, “I’m not dumb — and I’m not really blonde, either”). I had been under the impression that Parton’s best-known song (though not in her own recording!), “I Will Always Love You,” had been written years later for the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but according to this show it was written when she was about to leave Wagoner’s suffocating employ and strike out on her own and was a statement of her profoundly mixed feelings about him and the way he’d handled and mentored her career. Parton struck out on her own and her first post-Wagoner hit was “Jolene” — a song which makes an interesting counterpoint with Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man).” Parton’s Jolene is woman enough to take her man, but the song pleads with her not to. Then Parton took off with the series of pop records that definitively broke her out of the country stereotype — “Here You Come Again,” “Heartbreaker” and the title song from the movie Nine to Five (a comic masterpiece which did well the same plot premise the recent film Horrible Bosses did wretchedly), in which she was also one of the three female leads and held her own as an actress with the other two, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Rosanne Cash’s career had some of the same push-pull as Hank Williams, Jr.’s (though since her dad was still alive and she was a different gender she at least escaped being cast as the Johnny Cash lama the way Williams, Jr. had been cast as his dad’s!); she grew up mostly with her mom but got to visit dad on his tours, and on one bus ride with him she stated her intention to become a songwriter. Johnny Cash asked his daughter about a number of classic songs, including “Wreck of the Old 97” (the very first country song to be a hit on records — for Vernon Dalhart in 1924 — though oddly the first episode of Burns’ documentary didn’t mention it!) and “Long Black Veil,” and when she confessed she hadn’t heard any of the songs her dad was mentioning he made her a list of 100 songs she should hear before starting her own career. The show mentioned Rosanne Cash’s collaboration with and marriage to Rodney Crowell — though it did not note that they divorced in 1991 — and her brief move to Europe, where she made her first album in Germany (haven’t heard it? Almost no one else has, either), her signing with Columbia (her daddy’s label) and the explosive success of her second Columbia album, Seven Year Ache.

The overall theme of this episode of Country Music was the explosion in its popularity as, ironically, it started breaking out of its ghetto; the transition of the Grand Ole Opry from its original home at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to a $65 million “Opryland” complex outside the Nashville city limits that included a theme park as well as a new state-of-the-art theatre (and the intriguing opening performance at the new theatre, which began with a film clip of Roy Acuff and his band playing “Wabash Cannonball” in the 1940’s and segued into Acuff and his then-current musicians playing the same song live and not missing a beat in the transition) was reflected in a transition in the music itself as well as the way its performers presented themselves. Just a few years after the Byrds had been booed off the Ryman stage for wearing their hair long, the Opry audience regularly watched guys with long hair who dressed in casual shirts and tight blue jeans instead of the outré suits of the 1950’s and 1960’s — and the music they heard transcended the limits of traditional country into what has come to be called “Americana.” One artist profiled was Emmylou Harris, who had begun as a coffeehouse folk singer until she hooked up with Gram Parsons of the Byrds (during their brief country phase) and the Flying Burrito Brothers, sang backup on his solo albums and underwent what she described as a “conversion” to country music. Among the songs Harris picked up on the country albums she started making in the 1970’s was “Pancho and Lefty,” a story of a Mexican bandido and his white friend who turned him in and felt guilty about it for the rest of his long life, written by an eccentric Texas-born songwriter named Townes Van Zandt. Willie Nelson heard Harris’s version and thought it would be a great title song for the album he and Merle Haggard were recording together — he even woke Haggard up at 4 a.m. and insisted on them recording the song then and there (Haggard thought his vocal was terrible and asked Nelson for permission to redo it while he was fully awake, but Nelson said no) — and the result was yet another one of Willie Nelson’s unlikely 1970’s hits. (One of the great unfulfilled projects of Willie Nelson’s career was a duets album featuring Townes Van Zandt with other singers; working on a medical deadline because Van Zandt was terminally ill, he got all Van Zandt’s parts recorded in time but couldn’t get financial backing to bring in the other voices he wanted to pair with Van Zandt’s.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Country Music, episode 6: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (Florentine Films, Country Music Film Project, WETA, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s episode of the Ken Burns mega-documentary Country Music — which, interestingly, I’ve liked considerably better than his Jazz documentary, probably because though I like a lot of country music it isn’t as important to me as jazz and therefore I’m not as invested in its history — was called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and covered the years 1968 to 1972, the years of Viet Nam, Richard Nixon’s first Presidential term and the political ferment in the country that is still dividing it (Donald Trump’s appeal is largely to people who want to repeal the 1960’s and reverse the sweeping social changes that advanced the rights of people of color, women and Queers). Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan, struck a good balance between depicting how the political ferment of the time affected country music and straightforwardly presenting the music’s history. They began with a performance of Leon Russell, of all people, leading an all-star studio band in a performance of the Carter Family’s song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” that provided their episode title. Much of the episode centered around how country music, I think more than any other pop-music genre, reveres its past — so many of its artists consciously reach back to the forefathers and foremothers, like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, for inspiration — and the show ended with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” as performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for their 1972 three-LP album of that title, for which they recruited country stars of the past like Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter and Earl Scruggs and accompanied them in new versions of their old songs to show that even though they might have come from the long-haired hippie-folk scene, they still revered the country tradition. The main artists profiled included the bluegrass revivalists — Scruggs and Lester Flatt in particular, who had smash hits with the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies and a revival of the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” when it was used as the theme song for the film Bonnie and Clyde before the politics of the 1960’s broke them up as a team. Flatt took his side with the pro-war Right while Scruggs performed at the Viet Nam Moratorium march and rally in Washington, D.C. on October 15, 1969 and formed a new band with his long-haired kids.

The show also did a long segment on George Jones and Tammy Wynette, jointly and severally, praising Jones as a singer with a great sense of phrasing (he’s one more country artist who could take a song full of melodramatic content about lost love and drowning his sorrows in drink, and perform it in such an understated fashion he made it seem real instead of bathetic) and arguing that he inherited his long-time alcoholism from his father, who drank himself into an early grave when Jones was just nine. I’ve just been listening to the CD The Essential Tammy Wynette, and while her most famous song was “Stand by Your Man,” for the most part she recorded songs about families desperately clinging together or going through bitter divorces. The song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” in which she and the husband she’s about to get rid of spell out the traumatic words so their kids won’t realize what’s going on, wasn’t the only one in which Wynette played a woman about to part from her husband and wondering how she could ease the trauma for their children. Both Jones and Wynette had been married twice before when they got together, and there’s a description of an insane scene that itself sounds like the subject of a country song in which Jones and Wynette’s second husband, a songwriter one of whose songs Jones had just recorded, had a drunken confrontation at Wynette’s home one night in which Wynette’s husband accused Jones of being in love with her — and Jones said, “I am.” One woman interviewed on the show noted the irony that Loretta Lynn wrote and recorded songs about confronting cheating spouses and being ready to dump them, but she stood by her man whereas Wynette, whose trademark song (and the title of her autobiography) was “Stand by Your Man,” was married five times. I remember seeing Wynette herself on a talk show years ago when she told a story about one of her futile attempts to stop Jones from drinking: she hid the keys to all their cars so he couldn’t go out to a bar or a store to buy booze. But she forgot that they owned a tractor-style lawn mower — and Jones fired it up and drove it down the streets to get his liquor fix. No one who followed their lives in the tabloids then could have guessed that Jones would survive Wynette by 15 years (she died in 1998 and he in 2013).

The show also continued the story of Johnny Cash, who followed his triumphant comeback with the Live at Folsom Prison album by recording an even bigger album at San Quentin, which generated the biggest hit of his career, “A Boy Named Sue”; his TV series on ABC, in which he defied the network and put on controversial stars like Pete Seeger as well as singing the word “stoned” in his cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in defiance of the network censors. The most powerful clip shown here from the Cash program is his appearance with Louis Armstrong performing Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 9,” reproducing Armstrong’s original playing on Rodgers’ record in 1930 — in 1970, a year before Armstrong’s own death, he was playing superbly and the occasion was clearly emotional for him. It also depicted Cash’s performance at the White House in April 1970, for which Richard Nixon had asked him to play two Right-wing songs, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (which at least is a great song) and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac” (which isn’t), and instead Cash performed “What Is Truth?,” a radical song which took the side of the young anti-war protesters and directly compared Nixon to Pontius Pilate, and which Cash had written intentionally as an “answer record” to “Okie from Muskogee.” In those highly fraught political times this had led we young Leftists to write off Merle Haggard as “their” country singer and embrace Johnny Cash as “our” country singer — which was more than a bit simplistic. In the early 2000’s Haggard would record songs criticizing the war in Iraq and calling for a more aggressive social response to AIDS. In his interview with Stephen Colbert country singer Tim McGraw, promoting the book Songs of America he co-wrote with historian Jon Meacham, would proclaim Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag” as his favorite American political song because it could be read either way — a Right-wing listener could read it as a patriotic anthem while a Left-wing listener could hear in its lyrics a celebration of what the late Michael Harrington, who wrote in his autobiography Fragments of the Century that “if the Left wants to change America because it hates it, the people will reject it and the people will be right,” called “the seed beneath the snow,” the righteous beauty of the ideals on which America was founded even though we’ve all too often fallen far short of them in our actual reality.

The Burns documentary covered country music’s response to Viet Nam largely through songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Dear Uncle Sam,” Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (a plea from a servicemember to his girlfriend back home to remain chaste until he returned) and Jan Howard’s “My Son,” an ode to the oldest of her three sons, who was serving in Viet Nam when she made the record. In one of those macabre twists a fiction writer wouldn’t dare make up, her son heard the record — she sent him a demo while he was “in country” — but didn’t live to see its release because the day after he got the demo, his military vehicle was blown up by a land mine. Later her youngest son, broken up by the death of his oldest brother and anxious about his other brother, who was also serving in Viet Nam, committed suicide. An anti-war organizer made the mistake of coming to Howard’s home and asking her if she’d perform as an anti-war benefit, and as she recalled it in her interview on this show, she politely told him that her son had given his life for the man’s freedom to express himself politically, but she still supported the war and wouldn’t be playing at an anti-war event — and then she got angry and added, “And if anyone from your group ever comes to my home again, I’m going to blow them away with a .357 Magnum.”

Among the other people profiled on this show was Kris Kristofferson — one interviewee actually cited him as the greatest and most poetic lyric writer in the history of American song (which seems a bit much to me) — who came from an unusual background: he was from a military family, went to West Point, actually volunteered for Viet Nam but instead was assigned as an instructor stateside, then suddenly resigned from the military (and was disowned by his family) to pursue a career as a songwriter, got a job as a janitor at Columbia Records’ Nashville studio to earn a living and meet the stars, made the rounds of music publishers and finally got himself a publishing contract as a songwriter. But to his astonishment the publisher made his songwriter’s contract with Kristofferson dependent on Kristofferson also signing with his record company and making an album himself — despite Kristofferson’s protests that he really wasn’t a singer. Interestingly, the first song Kristofferson and his publisher “placed” with another artist wasn’t one of the breakthrough hits everybody remembers (“Sunday Morning Coming Down” with Johnny Cash and “Me and Bobby McGee” with Janis Joplin) but Sammi Smith’s version of “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” The show leaves out some of the more interesting Kristofferson anecdotes, like him renting a helicopter to fly out to Johnny Cash’s home during a party to offer him “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (though it does mention Kristofferson had learned to fly a helicopter in the military) or the legend (which, given what we know about Janis could well be true) that he and Janis Joplin were having a brief affair and she recorded “Me and Bobby McGee” as a favor to her new boyfriend to boost his career (though by the time her record was released Kristofferson’s career was already launched and Janis was dead).

The show closes with a segment on Willie Nelson and his frustration that, despite writing songs that had become hits for others (“Hello, Walls” for Faron Young, “Pretty Paper” for Roy Orbison, and the mega-hit “Crazy” for Patsy Cline), he hadn’t been able to get his own career as an artist going in Nashville, and it claims that at one point he just laid down across one of Nashville’s busiest streets before (a story which will undoubtedly be expanded on in the next episode) moving back to his home state of Texas and making Austin a center of alt-country for artists like himself and Waylon Jennings (who so far has been barely mentioned in this show even though he was discovered by Buddy Holly in 1958 and had a best-selling career as an artist before Nelson did) who didn’t really fit into the Nashville mold.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Country Music, episode 5: “The Sons and Daughters of America” (Florentine Films, Country Music Film Project, WETA, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s episode of the Ken Burns documentary series Country Music had the rather pretentious (even for Ken Burns!) title “The Sons and Daughters of America” and dealt with the years 1964-1968. Of course the years 1964-1968 were also a fraught time for American politics and society — the world of the civil rights movement and its two big legislative successes, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the latter of course since having been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, with the result that white Southern governments are once again massively denying the rights of Black people to vote, only now it’s the Republican instead of the Democratic party that’s the practitioners and beneficiaries of racism), the Viet Nam war, and the women’s liberation movement. The usual assumption of those of us who grew up in the political Left of the late 1960’s was that country music was on the Right side of all these issues — the show cuts off just before Merle Haggard records “Okie from Muskogee,” the Right-wing backlash song par excellence and a good enough song Leftist singer-songwriter Phil Ochs covered it and said that in Haggard the American Right finally had a songwriter as good as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan or anyone on the American Left. The truth as Burns presents it is a lot more complicated than that.

The main artists chronicled in this episode are Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and the first major Black singer to perform country music exclusively, Charley Pride. The segments on Cash deal with his emergence as at least something of a political progressive with the 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian; the back-breaking performance schedule that led him to become addicted to amphetamines; his struggle against that addiction (his fiancée June Carter got all his friends together and staged what would now be called an “intervention”) and his triumphant comeback with the 1968 album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. I’ve long regarded the Folsom Prison album as a masterpiece for the same reasons Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan, do: not only did Cash bring his entire touring troupe (including June Carter and her mom and two sisters — the second generation of the Carter Family — the Statler Brothers, who weren’t named Statler and only two of whom were brothers, and Cash’s former Sun labelmate, rockabilly star Carl Perkins) to the prison, he did not do his regular concert set. Instead, he cherry-picked his repertoire and played only songs dealing with crime and prison, subjects his audience could relate to — and if that weren’t enough, on the initial LP release he wrote his own liner note, a savage and surprisingly radical attack on the whole idea of prison:

Behind the bars, locked out from society, you’re being re-habilitated, corrected, re-briefed, re-educated on life itself, without your having the opportunity of really reliving it. You’re the object of a widely planned program combining isolation, punishment, training, briefing, etc., designed to make you sorry for your mistakes, to re-enlighten you on what you should and shouldn’t do outside, so that when you’re released, if you ever are, you can come out clean, to a world that’s supposed to welcome you and forgive you.

Can it work??? “Hell, no,” you say. How could this torment possibly do anybody any good? … But then, why else are you locked in? You sit on your cold, steel mattressless bunk and watch a cockroach crawl out from under the filthy commode, and you don’t kill it. You envy the roach as you watch it crawl out under the cell doors. …

You’d like to say that you are waiting for something, but nothing ever happens. There is nothing to look forward to. You make friends in the prison. You become one in a “clique,” whose purpose is nothing. Nobody is richer or poorer than the other. The only way wealth is measured is by the amount of tobacco a man has, or “Duffy’s Hay,” as tobacco is called.

All of you have had the same things snuffed out of you. Everything it seems that makes a man a man — women, money, a family, a job, the open road, the city, the country, ambition, power, success, failure — a million things. Outside your cellblock is a wall. Outside that wall is another wall. It’s twenty feet high, and its granite blocks go down another eight feet in the ground. You know you’re here to stay, and for some reason you’d like to stay alive — and not rat.

Indeed, the sequel to the story of Cash’s prison albums — the one from Folsom and the follow-up from San Quentin that generated the biggest hit he ever had, “A Boy Named Sue” — is that the American Left started to think of Cash as “our” country singer (as opposed to Merle Haggard, “their” country singer). He’d already been validated in our eyes by hanging out with Bob Dylan (who duetted with him on the remake of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” on the Nashville Skyline album; Dylan also wrote a song for Cash, “Wanted Man,” that appeared on the San Quentin album), and when “Okie from Muskogee” came out Cash wrote an answer song, “What Is Truth?,” which directly compared Richard Nixon to Pontius Pilate — and which he sang to Nixon’s face at a White House concert at which Nixon had asked him to sing “Okie from Muskogee” and a terrible Right-wing song called “Welfare Cadillac.” There’s also an odd Cash story here I hadn’t heard before: apparently in the mid-1960’s, when he and his then-wife Vivian Liberto (who, as her name suggests, was Italian and therefore relatively dark-skinned and dark-haired) were photographed following one of his busts for pill possession and a racist newsletter reprinted the photo, claimed that Liberto was Black and called for a boycott of Cash’s records because he was a drug addict (true, at least then) and he had a stable of Black mistresses (definitely false). 

The Country Music program also deals with a new style of country — or, rather, a sort of punk-like return to the traditions — that came from Bakersfield, California and started with Buck Owens. Owens came up playing bars in the Central Valley of California that were a lot like the honky-tonks in which Hank Williams had got his start (and had celebrated in song after song!): small spaces crammed full of people who wanted to drink, dance and cut up. To play for those audiences you had to be loud; you had to play with a strong rhythm (which is why the Bakersfield bands included drummers at a time when the Grand Ole Opry still frowned on them — and the drummers played in jazz style, often driving the songs with cymbals rather than actual drums); and you couldn’t engage in any of the pop pretensions of the “Nashville Sound.” The show included a remarkable ad Owens placed in a country-music trade paper pledging that “I will never make a record that is not a country record” — an obvious, if veiled, reference, to the orchestral pop being churned out by the Nashville studios with string sections and backup choruses — and ending, “Country music and country music fans made me what I am today. And I will never forget that.” 

The segment on Merle Haggard, the next great country singer to come from Bakersfield, is especially revealing because it shows that he was one of the most significantly proletarian voices in the genre. Haggard had been in and out of prison in his teens — he worked up from the usual juvenile offenses to more serious crimes like burglary — and because of his long record he got sentenced to San Quentin while only 20. He’d already escaped from various juvenile facilities and plotted an escape from the “Q” as well, only at the last minute the prisoner he planned to escape with, John “Rabbit” Kendrick, told him to stay behind because Haggard had real talent as a musician and he should wait to be released legally and then pursue music as a lawful career. (Kendrick made his escape but shot and killed a police officer and was ultimately returned to prison, and eventually executed.) Haggard was also inspired when Johnny Cash gave a concert at San Quentin in 1959 (so Cash didn’t start doing prison concerts in the late 1960’s as we thought back then!), and when he got out he worked his way up the ladder to a major-label recording contract with Capitol and a series of records that at least vaguely alluded to his past, including the death of his father when Haggard was just 9. Haggard and his people worried about what the revelation that he was an ex-con would do to his career — though when it finally came out it just added to his “outlaw” image and mystique. The show also detailed the unexpected career of Roger Miller, who began as a country fiddle player and bombed out on several labels until he cut what he thought was going to be his last album (for Mercury’s Smash subsidiary), which included a song called “Dang Me.” Then Miller left Nashville for Los Angeles to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian — until, to his utter astonishment, he heard “Dang Me” on the radio and suddenly realized that without knowing it he’d made a hit record. He followed it up with “King of the Road,” which in a way comes off as a surprisingly progressive song about working-class misery (the singer is running a trailer park and is so desperate financially he doesn’t even have the money to smoke), and his records pretty much alternated between romantic ballads like “Little Green Apples” and novelty songs. Miller was one of quite a few country artists at the time whose records had such broad appeal they crossed over to the mainstream pop charts.

Another singer profiled in the program was Loretta Lynn, who was actually mentioned at the end of episode four traveling the country with her husband and their four kids (later there’d be two more) to promote her self-produced record “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” — her answer record to Kitty Wells’ answer record, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” — a scene that will be familiar to anyone who saw the Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, with Sissy Spacek superbly acting and singing Loretta Lynn and Beverly D’Angelo as her mentor, Patsy Cline. The treatment of Lynn here shows little of her relationship with Cline, but it emphasizes that she was the first woman country artist to write her own songs. The conventional wisdom in the business had been that male artists could make careers out of their own songs (as Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash had done) but women couldn’t. Lynn not only defied the conventional wisdom but took such pride in her songwriting she called one of her albums Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em. What’s more, her songs took an assertive, independent attitude towards men and relationships — she wrote “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” when she caught her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, cheating on her; she wrote “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” when he came home one night, drunk as a skunk and smelling like it, and she found him so repulsive she refused to have sex with him; and she wrote “The Pill” as a statement of women’s reproductive choice after she’d seen so many women cranking out babies one after another and sacrificing all their other ambitions to take care of them. “The Pill” was so controversial that Lynn’s label, Decca, held it back from release for two years — and when it finally came out it aroused the “moral” indignation Decca feared, but it also won Lynn a lot of fans outside the country-music community and made her a weird sort of feminist heroine. 

The other story Burns and Dayton told of a singer who broke down country music’s barriers was Charley Pride, the first African-American singer who took up country music as his preferred genre. It helped that he had a warm, rich, romantic baritone voice that anyone who heard it without knowing what he looked like fell in love with. Pride’s managers and his record label, RCA Victor, treaded so gingerly around the issue of Pride’s race that they didn’t send out the customary publicity photographs with the promotional copies of his records, and as a result he built up an audience of people who had no idea he was Black. Pride, who’s still very much alive and was interviewed for this show, recalled being given an informal list of the most racist people in the country-music world, and number one on that list was the established star Faron Young — who’s depicted here singing “Hello, Walls,” a Willie Nelson composition whose success in Young’s recording launched Nelson’s career (and Nelson also recorded it himself as the title track of his first album). Pride decided to beard the lion in his den; he made an appointment to see Faron Young — and Young loved Pride’s voice, didn’t give a damn about his color, and gave his career a major boost. Pride also recalled a concert he gave in Detroit as part of a package show to some of those audiences who’d heard his voice on radio but had no idea he was Black. The announcer introduced him — “Ladies and gentlemen, Charley Pride” — and the audience started applauding. Then the applause died down and was replaced by shocked gasps as they got their first look at him. Then they started clapping again when he began to sing and they apparently decided they still loved his voice even now that they knew it was coming from a Black body. 

Though Pride still had some odd problems — including his record company forbidding him to cover “Green, Green Grass of Home” because the song contains a reference to a woman with blonde hair the singer intends to greet once he gets back to that green, green grass of home (Nat “King” Cole had had to face a similar issue in the 1950’s when he recorded “Lulu’s Back in Town” and got to the line describing all the other women he’s going to forsake now that Lulu’s back in town — he had to change “All my blondes and brunettes” to “All my Harlem coquettes”) — he went on to a monumentally successful career that broke the color line Nashville had put up after the Opry had been forced to fire its pioneering Black harmonica player, DeFord Bailey, in 1941. The message of this episode of Country Music seems to be that country music is considerably more complex politically than the picture we had of it in the late 1960’s (when Richard Nixon’s ad team wrote a country song to promote Nixon’s 1968 Presidential campaign and found it hard to get country singers to perform it because most were backing the racist independent campaign of George Wallace) and wasn’t the Right-wing dead zone we all thought it was after hearing “Okie from Muskogee.”

Hellzapoppin’ (Mayfair Productions, Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles came home early from work last night and we had a late-night supper and watched another movie after the Ken Burns Country Music episode: Hellzapoppin’, a 1941 Universal production starring the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. In 1938 Olsen and Johnson had suddenly become Broadway stars with a zany revue that took their old vaudeville act and built it up into an evening-long performance that mercilessly attacked the audience’s funnybones. The gags in the stage version of Hellzapoppin’ weren’t confined to the stage: in one of the most famous bits a man would walk through the theatre lobby as the audience was waiting for the doors to open carrying a small potted plant and calling, “Mr. Jones? Mr. Jones?” Periodically the same man would walk through the theatre with a plant, again calling, “Mr. Jones?,” and each time the plant would be larger — until at the end of the show, as the audience filed through the lobby to go home, the man would be stuck in the middle of a giant potted tree, still yelling, “Mr. Jones?” The show featured a lot of stuffed birds flying overhead on wires, as well as one of those air blasts they used to have at fun houses in which a woman who was unlucky enough to be standing under it when it went off would have her dress blown over her head. One older woman whom that happened to during the stage run responded by flailing away with her umbrella at everyone in sight — and it got such a big laugh that Olsen and Johnson assigned a cast member to repeat the gag in future performances. Hellzapoppin’ was the prototype of the Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (Dan Rowan admitted as much in an interview; he’d seen the stage version of Hellzapoppin’ as a boy and never forgot it) and a lot of frenzied, frantic sketch comedy since. At one point Olsen and Johnson announced plans to make a movie of it and come as close as they could on film to the craziness of the stage show, but instead of going that route they sold the film rights to Universal — who concocted a weird hybrid of Olsen and Johnson zaniness with a conventional love triangle and the accoutrements of standard movies, while simultaneously making fun of what they were doing to shoehorn Hellzapoppin’ into screen conventions.

The film opens with its best scene, an elaborate production number set in Hell, with stereotypical devils singing a song about the joys of doing bad (though their evil is a predictably sanitized Production Code-safe version of evil) — the funniest part of the number is when they seal live humans into oil drum-sized cans labeled “Canned Guy” and “Canned Gal” — when suddenly a taxi pulls up and out come a whole bunch of live animals followed by Olsen and Johnson. “That’s the first cab driver who’s taken me exactly where I told him to go!” Johnson says. They do a number of other gags — including one in which they resolve a fare dispute with the cab driver (whose meter issues out a receipt similar in length to the ones that come from the CVS chain nowadays) by waving at his cab and thereby causing it to blow up. Then they turn to the camera and ask that the film be rewound. The projectionist is a relative of theirs and is played by Shemp Howard (brother of Moe and Curly of the original Three Stooges and later a Stooge himself), who’s sharing a projection booth with his girlfriend — the same actress who played the formidable café owner in W. C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, made the same year (1941) — and who in one scene traps Olsen and Johnson on opposite sides of the screen since he’s unable to frame the film properly after he and his girlfriend had an argument and ended up throwing spools of film at each other, causing them to unravel. Then we learn that we’re on the lot at Universal Pictures and Olsen and Johnson are having an argument with the director assigned to their film (Richard Lane), who’s called in a writer named Selby (Elisha Cook, Jr. playing one of the ineffectual milquetoasts he got stuck with until his part as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon revitalized his career) to work in a love story and a continuity plot into Hellzapoppin’. The plot Selby comes up with is set at a Long Island estate and involves a rich family, the Rands: father Andrew (Clarence Kolb), mother (Nella Walker) and daughter Kitty (the personable Jane Frazee). Kitty, the ingénue lead, is in love with penniless playwright Jeff Hunter (Robert Paige), who’s hoping to produce a show at the Rands’ estate (they have an outdoor theatre like the one in Gold Diggers of 1935) that will attract the attention of a Broadway producer and enable him to make enough money to marry Kitty without feeling like a gold-digger. The plot is complicated by the fact that the Rands already have a 1-percenter in mind for their daughter to marry, Woody Taylor (Lewis Howard), the usual ineffectual creep, only Woody and Jeff are friends so Jeff doesn’t want to take Kitty away from Woody even though Jeff is the one Kitty wants.

There’s also a much more entertaining subplot involving Chic Johnson’s sister Betty (Martha Raye, who had no trouble fitting into a zany comedy!) who has the hots for Pepi (Mischa Auer), a penniless but authentic mittel-Europan count who’s posing as a fake count because, as he explains, if he were found out to be a real one the novelty would wear off and none of the rich Americans would be amused by him anymore. Pepi chases Betty when he thinks she has money; when he finds out she doesn’t he doesn’t want anything to do with her, only she still chases him and sings him several songs — including one in which Raye phrases surprisingly sensitively and romantically on the verse before coming out on the chorus with all guns blazing at full volume and deliberately off-center pitch. There are some huge production numbers, including Raye singing “Watch the Birdie” (by Don Raye and Gene DePaul, as are all the songs in the film except the oldie “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”) in front of some stylized photography of divers in the Rands’ pool that made me think they were deliberately parodying Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, as well as a water ballet filmed from overhead with the dancers in kaleidoscope formation that had me joking, “Busby Berkeley, call your plagiarism attorney.” There are quite a few shots that break the frame, and some pretty bizarre gags — including an amazing scene in which Olsen, Johnson and Raye have a conversation in front of archery targets totally oblivious to the fact that an undercover detective (Hugh Herbert) hired by Andrew Rand to stake out his party and keep Jeff from getting near his daughter is firing a crossbow at them. This is actually one of Hugh Herbert’s most delightful roles — usually I find him pretty oppressive, but get him out of the ghetto of “comic relief” roles in Dick Powell musicals at Warner Bros. and pair him with genuinely great comedians like Olsen and Johnson or W. C. Fields and he’s a lot funnier. Not only does he wear a series of preposterous disguises throughout the film, in one scene he keeps coming out from behind a tree and has a different disguise on each time. “Don’t ask me how I do it, folks,” he tells us.

Hellzapoppin’ also has an early scene in which, walking through the Universal lot, Olsen and Johnson see several sets — including one in which a sled labeled “Rosebud” is hanging from a wall. Johnson recognizes it and says, “I thought they burned that thing” — making him and Olsen almost certainly the first people to parody Citizen Kane and establishing that Orson Welles’ classic, though a box-office failure, attracted enough attention that a comedy team at Universal could make fun of it and be reasonably assured that their audiences would get the joke. There’s also a scene at the Rands’ party in which the Frankenstein monster — played by stunt double Dale Van Sickel — serves as bouncer and tells someone menaced by an unwanted guest, “May I be of assistance?” (Apparently this was the first time anyone other than Boris Karloff played the Monster on screen — though it’s possible Van Sickel or someone else had doubled for Karloff in his three Frankenstein movies.) I first heard of Hellzapoppin’ from Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams, and he lamented the compromises made to turn it into, if not a normal movie, at least a weird hybrid of normal movie and comedy onslaught — “The opening scene makes fun of Hollywood’s insistence on changing successful stage shows, while the rest of the film proceeds to do exactly that,” he wrote — but Hellzapoppin’ is still a very funny film and well worth watching. The DVD we were watching was a grey-label release — there’s no name or logo of the issuing company — which I stumbled on at the Web site, but the transfer quality was excellent (doing full justice to Woody Bredell’s surprisingly atmospheric cinematography, a far cry from the plain, flatly lit camerawork of Universal’s W. C. Fields and Abbott and Costello vehicles) and this will certainly do until Universal Home Video packages all four of their Olsen and Johnson movies together the way they did with the first four Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies (please?).

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother's Fight to Save Her Daughter (PeaceOut Productions, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 8 p.m. I watched a Lifetime movie that’s the first in a month-long series called “Ripped from the Headlines!” (though they’ve certainly done fact-based films before this, some of them quite good), which got shot under the clunky title The NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Nightmare and was shown under the even clunkier title Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter. The non-fiction book it was based on was simply called Captive — and a simpler title would have worked better for the film — and was written by Catherine Oxenberg. Catherine Oxenberg was apparently the product of a minor noble family in Europe who came to the U.S., pursued a career as an actress and got a small but recurring role on the TV series Dynasty. Oxenberg — who appears as herself in a prologue and epilogue as well as a Behind the Headlines documentary on NXIVM that aired immediately after the movie and gave invaluable background information, and was played by Andrea Roth (who oddly doesn’t look as good as the real one) in the main part of the film — was also a sucker for self-help movements, workshops and whatnot. As the film opens she and her daughter India (Jasper Polish) are living in a large home in Malibu that looks like it was built by someone out of an all-white Lego set, and India’s dad is in the picture but Catherine is in the process of divorcing him and raising India and her two younger sisters Remy (Gabrielle Trudel) and Francesca (Isabelle D. Trudel — well, that’s one way of making your cast members look like sisters: cast real-life sisters!) as a single parent. 

She’s also trying to break out of acting and into writing by selling a screenplay called Royal Exiles, and when a neighbor tells her about a new self-help seminar called ESP — which here stands for “Executive Success Program” — Catherine not only goes herself but takes her daughter. Catherine is put off by the overall air of the event — particularly the veneration with which the people running the seminar speak of the “Vanguard,” their term for the CEO of ESP, and the way the people running it wear different-colored sashes to signify how far up in the program they’ve risen, sort of like the different-colored belts in Japanese martial arts. But India comes out of the program with goop-eyed admiration and within a couple of commercial breaks she’s signed up for the $2,500 advanced training available only at the Albany, New York headquarters of ESP’s parent company, NXIVM. (Neither the dramatized film, the documentary nor the Wikipedia page on NXIVM offer any explanation of what, if anything, the initials in the name stand for, but it is pronounced “Nexium” like the once ubiquitously advertised “purple pill” for acid reflux disorder.) While I was thinking that this was at least $1,000 less than it would have cost either of them to attend Trump University, India gets sucked in farther and farther into what we’re beginning to realize is a particularly nasty cult built around Keith Raniere (Peter Facinelli, who previously played an equally slimy 1-percenter on the TV series Supergirl — though in that show he was an Ayn Randian super-capitalist who thought the world ought to be run for his convenience and here he’s a scam artist and, eventually, a sexual pervert as well). Raniere, we learn later, founded NXIVM in 1998 with Nancy Saltzman, his partner in both business and life, after his previous business, Consumers’ Buyline, was prosecuted by the state of New York as a pyramid scheme. The state won a consent decree by which Raniere paid a $40,000 fine and agreed never to be involved with “promoting, offering or granting participation in a chain distribution scheme” — a prohibition which, needless to say, he ignored. 

As presented in both the dramatization and the documentary, NXIVM wasn’t a “cult” in the sense of offering a religious or quasi-religious belief system, but Raniere seems to have pulled together aspects of a lot of other private mind-control operations. He seems to have borrowed a lot from L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, most notably an emphasis on recruiting rich people and celebrities to his program, both for the money he could get out of them and the public credibility celebrities could give the operation. From Werner Erhard (true name: John Paul Rosenberg) and EST he seems to have borrowed the structure of his initial workshops and his promise that you could achieve all the knowledge you’d need to have a happy, successful life via his “technology” and “training” without having to sign on to a new religion. He got his basic organizing scheme from multi-level marketing: the people in NXIVM were pressured into recruiting their family members, friends and anyone else into the program, and were given a commission on the course fees paid by anyone they signed up. All of this could probably have stayed under the radar of the authorities for years except that, like many a cult leader before him, Raniere started thinking with his dick; whereas L. Ron Hubbard was content simply to build up an elite corps of young, nubile, big-breasted women he called his “Messengers” so he could surround himself with female pulchritude (though one of the “Messengers” became his third and last wife, Mary Sue), Raniere wanted girls he could actually fuck; and, like such other cult-leading horndogs as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh and Warren Jeffs, he indoctrinated his top women staffers to think that servicing him sexually was the highest honor he and his organization could give them. One interesting wrinkle is he also behaved like a classic human trafficker, not only recruiting women for sexual services (and somehow managing to convince each one that he loved her and her alone) but enlisting some of his female followers as his enforcers, essentially his “madams,” to browbeat younger women in his cult into obedience and report them if they stepped out of line. 

Another tactic Raniere borrowed from Hubbard and Scientology was to maintain a staff of private investigators to dig up and leak damaging information on anyone who tried to leave the cult, or any outsiders who posed a threat to it, and to have a lot of lawyers on retainer so he could drive any potential critics out of business by suing them into bankruptcy and oblivion. At least some of the “deep pockets” he had to finance this operation came from sisters Sara and Clare Bronfman (no actress playing Sara is listed on the film’s page but Clare is played by Trina Corkum), daughters of Edgar Bronfman, Jr. and hence heirs to the Seagram’s liquor fortune. The Bronfman sisters were apparently worth billions in their own right and a lot of that money went to Raniere and NXIVM. The basic conflict of the film is between the unscrupulous people who run NXIVM and Catherine Oxenburg’s single-minded determination to get her oldest daughter out of it, including hooking up with cult deprogrammers and Frank Parlato (Sam Rosenthal), a man who worked as an accountant for NXIVM for nine months, became convinced it was a scam, and started a blog exposing it and appealing to people in NXIVM to leave the way he had. Catherine Oxenburg appeals to the FBI — where the African-American agent she speaks to, Lathan (Conrad Coates), at first couldn’t be less interested — and also to the New York Times, which publishes an anti-NXIVM piece based on her information and also that of Sarah Edmondson (not listed on the page even though she’s portrayed in the film), a Canadian actress who was recruited into the cult by Allison Mack (Sara Fletcher), who’d had a recurring role on the TV series Smallville and thus had a “name” credibility in enrolling fellow members of the entertainment industry. 

Edmondson reveals in the article that she was literally branded between her waist and her crotch with the letters “KR” — indicating that she was the sexual property of Keith Raniere — as part of a ritual involving a subgroup of NXIVM called “DOS,” which in this case means “Dominance Over Submission” and involves Allison Mack and a group of other women initiates holding down their latest victim as they sear her skin with a blowtorch to create the brand. The publicity from the New Yor Times story finally propels the FBI into action, and they find incriminating tapes between Raniere and Mack that show them planning the DOS branding “initiation” together and essentially confirm that he appointed her as second-in-command and “master” to the “slave” girls he was exploiting psychologically, physically and sexually. Among the kinkier things Mack did for Raniere — which gets them both arrested for human trafficking and immigration violations — was arrange for two teenage girls from Mexico to be smuggled into the country and locked in a room so Raniere could have sex with either or both of them at any time. Eventually the FBI brings the hammer down on NXIVM and take Raniere,  just about all the women involved in the cult plead guilty and turn on Raniere, Nancy Salzman and Nancy’s daughter Lauren (a significant character in the movie and played by Amy Trefry) after they’re arrested following an ill-advised flight on Raniere’s private plane not to some remote place that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S. but to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where the FBI was able to cut a deal with the Mexican federales to arrest them. 

If there’s a flaw with Escaping the NXIVM Cult it’s that a 90-minute Lifetime time slot (two hours less commercials) simply isn’t enough for this fascinating story. Writer Adam Mazer and director Lisa Robinson (who turns in a magnificent job within the limits of the script she was given — the scene in which India Oxenberg is actually branded is scarier than a lot of the campy blood-fests we get in today’s “horror” films) compress the time frame from seven years to two — in fact, according to the Behind the Headlines documentary, Catherine herself continued to take classes from NXIVM for two years even though she had her doubts about the group and had started to suspect it was a cult — in the movie her exit is precipitated when she finds the wife of a friend of hers literally sleeping on the floor of the group’s compound in Albany, and when she asks why the woman explains that she’s being punished for being disobedient to her husband — while her daughter was involved for seven years, not just two years as shown in the dramatized film. We really don’t get the insight we want into why India Oxenberg fell so hard for NXIVM’s line of B.S. — though the one thing they do for her in the real world is buy her a coffeehouse to run after her previous attempt at a home-based muffin-baking business had gone nowhere — and I also found myself wondering how India’s two younger sisters handled being increasingly neglected by their mom as she conducted her obsessive quest to bring her oldest daughter back from the cult. (It’s probably much the way the non-prodigal brother of the prodigal son felt when the prodigal returned and their dad brought out the fatted calf.) 

Nonetheless, Escaping the NXIVM Cult emerged as strong drama and evidence that cults are functioning now (Ranieri and company weren’t busted until 2017 and the trial is still going on — as of the air date of this film Ranieri has been convicted but is still awaiting sentencing) and they’re getting slicker and subtler, locating in and among suburban neighborhoods and blending in instead of living in clapboard houses in the middle of nowhere and wearing robes — though as I noted above Ranieri’s operation had a lot of similarities with the Church of Scientology, and had he been a bit smarter and less sex-obsessed (interestingly, he’s introduced playing volleyball with some of his male adherents, acting like just one of the guys, but otherwise we don’t see any other male NXIVM members in the dramatis personae and the role of men in the cult is one more issue left tantalizingly unexplained) he probably could have kept the organization going to the end of his life and even beyond, as L. Ron Hubbard and his successor David Miscavige have done with Scientology.