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. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jane Addams and the Dreams of De Quincey

I found in another wonderful book, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins, the news that reformer and Nobel peace prize winner Jane Addams "was daring enough to try opium in an attempt to better understand the fevered writing of the addict Thomas de Qunicey, but Victorian enough to take only an ineffectual dose.”

In 1889, Addams founded Hull House, a community center to help immigrants in particular that included a day nursery and a center for continuing education for adults. Addams and colleagues worked on issues like garbage cleanup, sewer installation, street lighting, clean drinking water, child labor laws, food inspections, fighting epidemic disease and many other urban environmental issues. By 1920 there were nearly 500 such "settlement houses" in the US.

According to Jane Addams And the Dream of American Democracy, by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Addams entered Rockford Female Seminary in June 1877, when she was not yet 17 years old. In her book Twenty Years at Hull House, Addams calls her schoolmates a “group of ardent girls, who discussed everything under the sun with unabated interest.” She wrote:

Addams as a schoolgirl
At one time five of us tried to understand De Quincey's marvelous "Dreams" more sympathetically, by drugging ourselves with opium. We solemnly consumed small white powders at intervals during an entire long holiday, but no mental reorientation took place, and the suspense and excitement did not even permit us to grow sleepy. About four o'clock on the weird afternoon, the young teacher whom we had been obliged to take into our confidence, grew alarmed over the whole performance, took away our De Quincey and all the remaining powders, administrated an emetic to each of the five aspirants for sympathetic understanding of all human experience, and sent us to our separate rooms with a stern command to appear at family worship after supper "whether we were able to or not." 

De Quincey was “one of a large company of nineteenth-century English essayists to whom Addams was devoted,” writes Elshtain. His Confessions of an Opium Eater, first published in 1821, promised opium was no less than "the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for many ages."

Elshtain notices a similarity between the description of the incident and that of young Will Ladislaw, a character in Middlemarch by George Eliot, in whose works Addams had a “deep immersion.” Ladislaw, Eliot wrote, “made himself ill with doses of opium. Nothing greatly original had resulted from these half-measures and the effect of the opium convinced him that there was an entire dissimilarity between his constitution and De Quincey’s.”

Perhaps both Eliot and Addams were "too Victorian” to try large enough doses of opium, despite their curiosity. Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) wrote in her 1859 novella The Lifted Veil, "A half-repressed word, a moment's unexpected silence, even an easy fit of petulance on our account, will serve us as hashish for a long while."  

Addams founded the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919 and during World War I, she chaired a women's conference for peace held at the Hague in the Netherlands. When the US entered the war, Addams was stamped a dangerous radical and a danger to US security, but was later honored by the American government for her efforts for peace. In 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to be so honored.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Anne Waldman and Weed

According to the wonderful book Sisters of the Extreme, “One of the most electrifying poetry events of the seventies was Anne Waldman’s stage readings of her poem, ‘Fast Speaking Woman,’ a free adaptation of the Mazatec shaman Marian Sabina’s sacred mushroom chant.”
 
I’m the mushroom woman
I’m the phantom woman 
I’m the moaning woman 
I’m the river woman 
I’m the singing river woman 
I’m the clear-water woman 
I’m the cleansing woman….

 Waldman wrote 13 Tankas In Praise of Smoking Dope in 1969:

Even a priceless jewel 
How can it excel 
A toke of good grass? 

Even jewels that flash at night 
Are they like the breath of grass 
Freeing the mind? 

Of the ways to play 
In this world of ours 
The one that cheers the heart 
Is laughing dope tears 

This week to celebrate the Goddess Magu’s Harvest Festival, I took an hour off and stopped at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, opening Waldman's collection Kill or Cure to my New Favorite Poem, Pulse:

She swallowed the drug with her whole heart. 
She wanted to go that far, as far as she could stretch. 
In her head she could be joined again in the imagination 
of the demons who turned to archangels. She saw them 
as flowers. She saw them as pliant dancing pulses 
of energy, as light. She wanted to see the whole 
scene again as it fractured in increments of life 
and light, as it danced. It was a great dance. 
She wanted to get on top of the hill where she could 
look back at the town, where she could look toward 
the sky. The sky was a screen for her mind to play 
upon. She wanted to melt with the trees, with the 
rocks, with the flesh of all the nameable world. 
She loved words. She would name the world now. 
She would name it again. Again. Name it words again. 
She would embrace that hill and everything upon it…. 

Waldman traveled with VIP Bob Dylan and wrote about it, correctly identifying him as a shaman. She also co-founded, with Allen Ginsberg and Diane DiPrima, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is a Distinguished Professor of Poetics at Naropa and continues to work to preserve the school’s substantial literary/oral archive.

Writer Maria Garcia Teutsch asked Waldman about the role of the artist in the 21st century. She replied, “I believe it is to help wake the world up to itself. To point out the beauties, the possibilities, the extraordinary power of empathy and love, in art and in life, as well as the horrors of our greed and ignorance, our inhumanity and cruelty, and unspeakable injustices in a world that should know better from the harrowing legacy of slavery and war and climate degradation.”

Hear a 2009 interview with Waldman.