Sunday, August 28, 2016

Welcome to WUSA

WUSA, the 1970 film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, presciently predicts the rise of right-wing radio and the hatred it engenders.  Newman called it "the most significant film I've ever made and the best." And it's got a pot plot.

Newman plays the amoral drunk Reinhardt, a failed musician who calls himself a "communicator": a radio DJ. Arriving in New Orleans, he seeks to collect a debt from a swindling preacher (Laurence Harvey), who tips him off to a gig at the right-wing radio station WUSA. "We have a point of view here at WUSA," Reinhardt is told when he goes for the job.

Woodward plays a hooker whose Houston pimp has scarred her as "independent-minded," so she can't find work. "People don't usually buy you anything to eat," she notices (kind of like Anita O'Day did). "They'll just buy you enough whiskey to slosh around for hours."

She and Reinhardt set up housekeeping in an apartment house shared with Rainey, a welfare worker who challenges Reinhardt's principles (or lack of them), and a group of hippie, pot-smoking musicians. One of them is played by Leigh French (pictured), who did the "Share a Little Tea with Goldie" bit on the Smothers Brothers. "How come you work for those degenerate creeps?" she asks Reinhardt.

Radio WUSA, owned by millionaire Matthew Bingamon, is touting "The New Patriotism" which is "a bit more extreme than the old patriotism." "I'm for everybody doing his own thing," says Reinhardt, who espouses whatever beliefs are expedient. "You're listening to the big clean American sound of WUSA, the sound of a decent generation," he announces.

"When people hear the news treated right they respond to it, like music," says Bingamon. "These people are hurting and they don't really know why they're hurting. We've got to tell them....we try to keep them thinking with us." He doesn't really mind if the WUSA Loyalty rally he's planning (for Faith, Flag and Family) turns violent.

But the hippies have given up and gone decadent. "Human life is a gift," argues Rainey. "The muck of the earth was raised up to consciousness. Blood was made warm." A hippie replies: "We know that. Warm blood, and gifts and human-ness. We all had that trip man, none of us could swing with it."

The film ends when the rally turns to pandemonium, after which Geraldine is set up for a petty pot bust and makes a terrible choice upon hearing about the 15-year jail sentence she faces.

Maybe now that marijuana is being decriminalized we can start swinging with human-ness again.

WUSA is based on the novel Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone, who also wrote Dog Soldiers (Who Stopped the Rain), about a Vietnam vet who gets conned into smuggling heroin. Dog Soldiers also "deals with the fall of the counterculture in America, the rise of mass cynicism and the end of the optimism of the 1960s." (Wikipedia).

Stone appears in the 1993 documentary Drug Taking and the Arts (aka The Art of Tripping) that also features Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, Carolyn Cassidy, Laura Huxley, Anna Kavan, Cocteau's biographer Margaret Crosland, neuropharmacologist Annette Dolphin, Professors Ann Charters and Virginia Berridge, philosopher Avital Ronell, and author June Rose, plus actors playing de Quincey, Baudelaire, Gautier, de Nerval, Poe, and Anais Nin (who has the best description of all).

According to a 1994 biography of Stone by Robert Solotaroff, while "a Manhattan beatnik" working as a copy boy/substitute journalist at the Daily News in the late 1950s, Stone once "watched and reported on the wrestling matches in Madison Square Garden shortly after he had taken peyote."

Later, while on a Wallace Stegner writing scholarship at Stanford, Stone lived in the Bohemian Perry Lane section of town and hung out with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and "all those crazies" of the counterculture.  "When I went to California it was like everything turned Technicolor," he wrote. "Sometimes I feel like I went to a party one day in 1963 and the party spilled out and rolled down the street until it covered the whole country and changed the world."

Abandoned at birth by his father, Stone spent time in a convent school when his schizophrenic mother couldn't care for him. "To his experiments with LSD he has attributed both his renunciation of conventional realism—a rejection that arguably turned his first novel into a much richer, more various work—and the return of the religious concerns he thought he had permanently put behind him when he was 17." Stone told Steve Chappele that,

What I witnessed or thought I witnessed in my stoned state was an enormously powerful, resolving presence within which all phenomenology was contained. It wasn't a God that said you're good and you're bad. It wasn't a God that said you're going to heaven and you're going to hell. It was more Tibetan, more an Indian conception of God than God was a moral arbitrator. But there was a suggestion that everything was all right. In spite of all the horrors, way down deep, everything was all right. 

In  Hall of Mirrors, Reinhardt's "primary preparation" for his role as Master of Ceremonies at the loyalty rally is "to get high on marijuana with his three beatnik neighbors and to call negative attention to himself by arriving with them an hour late." Both Reinhardt and Geraldine smoke pot in the book (but not in the movie). Newman had to climb a ladder to smoke pot in the 2005 HBO miniseries Empire Falls. Woodward never toked on film, as far as I know. But what's Paul doing in this picture?

Stanton Peele muses about all this. 

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