Made in U.S.A.

Made in U.S.A.

Made in U.S.A. (1966)

Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France (DVD: Criterion Collection)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Main Cast: Anna Karina, László Szabó, Jean-Pierre Léaud


As the 1960s moved onward, Jean-Luc Godard’s early style gave way to something new and different.  Made in U.S.A. epitomizes a transitional phase.  It is one of the most visually stunning of his films.  Yet the plot, so much as there is a plot, evidences mostly a set of reflections on politics, society and, of course, cinema itself.  Outlines of the script were adapted (without authorization) from Donald Westlake’s crime thriller pulp novel The Jugger (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark).  Ostensibly, Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) is a reporter investigation the death of Richard P____ (last name always obscured or not given, but a reference to a communist figure).  She maneuvers through a fictional French public housing project on the outskirts of Paris taking its name from the American East-coast casino town Atlantic City.  Really, much of the content of the film makes allusions to the political scandal involving the French secret service allegedly abducting Moroccan revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barka — a leader in the Third World Movement (for general context, read Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World), an associate of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, and someone compared to Frantz Fanon — and then torturing and murdering him.  Godard drew explicit comparisons to Howard Hawks’ iconic film noir The Big Sleep as an influence on this film.  Though Godard adds a sort of comic book feel, reminiscent ever so slightly of Frank Tashlin, another Godard favorite.

The tone of the film is really its most striking feature.  It never settles into anything comfortable.  The characters drift in a state of confused inquiry.  They look for clues, for answers, but they find nothing concrete.  It is a very Hegelian sort of approach that requires engagement with reality, only to determine “truth”, as it were, in hindsight.  Along the way, just some wonderful set pieces, like the main characters presenting overlapping monologues, Marianne Faithfull singing “As Tears Go By” a cappella in a bar, a tour through a warehouse of Hollywood movie advertising materials, Beethoven blasted out suddenly, a portable tape recorder replaying communist lessons spoken by Godard himself.  And there is color everywhere.  This is a magnificent film for color, commanded as immaculately as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso [The Red Desert].  The only constant is a feeling expressed through a search for closure.  But the search is purposeful.  There are constant reminders of the crassness of Americanized consumerism in France, but before that can be overcome a sort of resolution of the old ways is entertained.  That quality builds a bridge between Godard’s earlier works, with their explicit engagement with commercial Hollywood cinema, and his revolutionary filmmaking of the coming years.  For instance, this effort can be said to come closer to embracing feminist elements than Godard’s early, somewhat more sexist work.

Filmed in parallel with 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle [2 or 3 Things I Know About Her] this is usually forgotten or considered the inferior of the two.  Yet, it may actually be the better of them.  2 or 3 Things is explicit, almost didactic.  To a tiring degree.  Made in U.S.A. is allusory.  It is a Godard fan’s film.

A DVD edition, the first widespread distribution of the film in the United States some four decades after its French release, offers some valuable extras, including a short documentary (On the Cusp) with interviews of two Godard biographers, Richard Brody (Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard) and Colin MacCabe (Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy), who add a wealth of information about the structure, content and context for the film.  The advance theories about how certain plot elements Godard introduced were vaguely autobiographical.  There is also another short documentary (A Made in U.S.A. Concordance) that attempts to catalog many of the the esoteric references to political and social events and persons in the film.  The subtitle translations are described as “new and improved” but they do play somewhat loose with the dialogue, making it a bit more informal and casual than the original French at times.

Jazz Resource Guide

This is your ticket to learning about jazz.  I have collected here resources for people who wish to gain a basic understanding of the “jazz” musical genre as a whole, while avoiding explicit suggestions to particular albums by particular artists or biographic material about particular artists.  There are many resources on the genre available, and my goal here is to provide references to only the most reliable sources, rather than to provide a comprehensive listing.  Where appropriate, I have placed definitive and exceptional resources in bold font.

Introductory Materials

Books:


Concise Guide to Jazz by Mark Gridley
Jazz 101 by John Szwed
The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond by Joachim E. Berendt
Jazz Styles: History and Analysis by Mark Gridley
Understanding Jazz by Leroy Ostransky

Other:

What Is Jazz? by Leonard Bernstein
Was ist Jazz? by Joachim-Ernst Berendt

Note:

The best place to start if you are a novice trying to learn about and understand jazz is probably an introductory book.  These are worth reading even before you start listing to the music.  The reason for this suggestion is that an explanation of some of the broad musical concepts that are common to the genre can help you to listen to jazz music on its own terms, while reducing the chance that predispositions from listening to other musical genres might cloud or inhibit your appreciation of jazz.  The best introductory books present a more or less objective background into general concepts without persuading or coercing readers to like or dislike particular artists, songs, or historical movements.

Introductory Compilation Albums

General:


The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (unparalleled overview of jazz up to the early 1960s)
JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology
Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music (good overview up to ~1960 and kind of erratic after that)
Collection of Modern Jazz
Jazz: The Definitive Performances
The World’s Greatest Jazz Collection
The Ultimate Jazz Archive

Period/Style/Label-Specific:

Les trésors du jazz 1898-1943 (pre-jazz influences and early jazz, dixieland and swing)
History of Jazz: 1917-1939 (early jazz, dixieland and swing)
Kings of Swing (late big band swing era, ~1930s-40s)
Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz (~1950s to mid-1960s mainstream) This set being too long.
Impulse! Records Compilation, Red Hot on Impulse, Impulse Energy Essentials: A Developmental & Historical Introduction to the New Music or The House That Trane Built: The Best of Impulse Records (~1960s and early 1970s mainstream and avant-garde jazz)
Faith & Power: An ESP-Disk Sampler (1960s free jazz)
Jazzactuel: A Collection of Avant Garde / Free Jazz / Psychedelia From the BYG/Actuel Catalogue of 1969-1971
The Saxophone: A Critical Analytic Guide to the Major Trends in the Development of the Contemporary Saxophone Tradition
For Example: Workshop Freie Musik 1969-1978 (European jazz)
Arista-Freedom Sampler
Wildflowers: Loft Jazz New York 1976 (New York City)
Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82
Universal Sounds of America and New Thing! Deep Jazz From the USA
Meltdown: The Birth of Fusion, The Real Birth of Fusion or Classic Jazz: The Seventies (~fusion)
Classic Jazz: The Eighties (mainstream)
Howard Mandel: Future Jazz (~1990s New York City)
The Blue Series Sampler: The Shape of Jazz to Come (~late 1990s to early 2000s)
Assemblage 1998-2008
Pi Recordings 2009 Amazon Sampler (~ late 2000s)

Note:

I would recommend listening to a good, well-rounded jazz compilation even before looking to what might be classified as essential jazz albums.  These collections can complement an introductory book nicely.  There are numerous compilations available that give a representative overview of jazz from its birth through about 1960, but subsequent to that time frame a single representative set does not exist yet (though for a “virtual” compilation of this sort, see Collection of Modern Jazz).  Until such a better compilation is made available, I have made some selections from among compilations limited to particular time periods, genres and records labels, though some are certainly imperfect and may still be hard to find.  Even with these concessions, some time periods, labels and sub-genres are still not well represented on my list due to the lack of suitable albums for me to mention.

Jazz History Books

A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton
The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia
A History of Jazz Music 1900-2000 by Piero Scaruffi
Blues People by LeRoi Jones (a/k/a Amiri Baraka)
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff
Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development by Gunther Schuller
The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 by Gunther Schuller

Free Jazz/Black Power by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli
This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture by Iain Anderson
As Serious As Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond by Valerie Wilmer

Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times by Robin D.G. Kelley
Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century by Nate Chinen

Note:

Some jazz history books can be a chore to read, but not the better ones.  Others can be overly congratulatory or dismissive of certain historical movements or styles, but not the better ones.  Some of these “history” books overlap with my category of introductory books, as well as that for musicology and ethnomusicology.  But I’ve tried to list here the ones with more widespread appeal, and the ones that complement a basic introduction to jazz music for beginners.

Album Guides

The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings by Richard Cook and Brian Morton
Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, Ninth Edition (2008): Core Collection
25 DISCOS DE JAZZ: UNA GUÍA ESENCIAL (+ 40) (or English translation)
The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz by Ben Ratliff
A Suggested Jazz Starter Kit
Jazz Core Collection
What I call an essential Jazz collection
A Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz
Ethan Iverson’s “Jazz: 1973-1990”
Downtown Jazz: New York City 1979-2009
Jazz – RYMers 80s Choices
Jazz – RYMers 90s Choices
Jazz – RYMers 00s Choices
The Rough Guide to Jazz by Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley
All Music Guide Jazz Page
RateYourMusic Jazz Page
Top Rated Jazz Albums on RateYourMusic
The Jazz Discography by Tom Lord

Note:

Album guides can be great resources even if you ignore completely any ratings assigned to particular albums.  The better ones are those that are relatively comprehensive in coverage, have an easy to navigate layout, are revised often and include information about personnel, recording dates and other album-specific factual data.

Jazz Writing and Critical Analysis

Black Music by LeRoi Jones (a/k/a Amiri Baraka)
Jazz Is by Nat Hentoff
The Jazz Life by Nat Hentoff
Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings by Ralph Ellison
All About Jazz
Jazz House
Down Beat Magazine
JazzTimes Magazine
Jazz Improv Magazine
Cadence Magazine
The Wire

Note:

Writings by music critics and the like can be tremendously invigorating and can often cultivate enthusiasm for the jazz genre.  However, I would recommend setting this kind of stuff aside until after you have heard some of the music for yourself.  React to the music on your own.  Then find out how others react to it.

Jazz Musicology, Ethnomusicology and Musical Theory

The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine
Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey

The Anatomy of Jazz by Leroy Ostransky

Note:

Musicology (and/or enthomusicology) and musical theory books can quickly become dense and technical.  In other words, many are not for a beginning listener.  Actually, a lot of highly academic works that might fall into this category (or the jazz history one) are slight and unenlightening even for experts and jazz insiders.  There certainly is no shortage of them.  But in the end, this category of resources is recommended for people with a special interest in more of the technical details associated with the performance of jazz music or intensive academic analysis of the music’s history, and perhaps not so much those with only a general interest in listening to jazz music.

Introductory Films

Unfortunately, I find that many documentary films and TV programs on jazz tend to present rather poor introductions to and overviews of jazz as a whole.  Books, compilation albums, and websites make better starting points.

Live Performance

Get out there to a live jazz performance!  While your ability to do this may depend upon where you live, attending a concert is a great way to learn about jazz even if you have no clue beforehand what you’re getting yourself into.  Don’t shy away.  I’ve often heard people comment that appreciating jazz can be a far simpler task when you have the opportunity to see musicians while they perform, as opposed to just hearing them on a recording.

Peter Van Buren – We Meant Well

We Meant Well

Peter Van BurenWe Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books 2011)


The United States invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003.  Then, “resonstruction” began under the U.S. occupation that followed.  Supposedly.  Peter Van Buren was a long-time U.S. State Department bureaucrat gently coerced into a year-long sting on a State Dept. reconstruction team in 2009-2010.  He wrote this memoir about the experience — doing so, naturally, caused the U.S. government to initiate legal proceedings and various other forms of harassment against him to suppress what he had to say and intimidate others who might also try, but with the intervention of civil rights group that merely his departure from the State Dept. with retirement benefits intact.  That puts him somewhere on the spectrum of contemporary whistleblowers that includes the likes of Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, Jeffrey Scudder, and others (see The United States of Secrets on PBS’s Frontline for an excellent overview of the war on whistleblowers).  But the book is out, and it’s a refreshingly independent-minded view of the war, the reconstruction, and what it meant to be a foreigner on the ground in Iraq in 2009-2010.  Van Buren has taken cues from Vietnam War-era reporter Michael Herr‘s book Dispatches.

Van Buren clearly takes the view that the highest levels of political leaders during the Iraq occupation and reconstruction were at best incompetent fools, and at worst malevolent fiends, mostly interested in fabrication illusions of “great accomplishments” with absolutely no regard for reality or collateral damage.  Just below them, the upper crust of military and State Dept. leadership are portrayed as largely gutless hacks most interested in self-promotion and careerist advancement up the chain of command.  Then there are the lower levels.  The civilian grunt workers are mostly a ragtag batch of borderline con artists and unqualified imbeciles gathered up for the job in a rush who often mean well but in a vacuum of real leadership lack any mechanism to accomplish anything truly “good” for the people of Iraq.  Lower level managers like Van Buren are stuck between appeasing the upper echelons of the government staff (some trying to move up that ladder) and genuinely trying to do good work alongside the grunts (what Van Buren sees himself doing).

Towards the end of the book he sums up the situation — accurately and astutely it would seem.  The government apparatus lumbered onward based on a childish set of metrics built around effort alone (as in “an ‘A’ for effort”), with no regard for objective assessments of results.  Throughout the book, his tone is bitingly sarcastic.  He knows real success from the false projection of it.  He has a talent for analogies.  He explains all the jargon and acronyms.  And he admirably explains all the esoteric cultural norms that are the hidden focus of the book.  The Iraq reconstruction was officially about rebuilding the civilian infrastructure destroyed by the war and giving the country “democracy.”  Without preaching about it, Van Buren chronicles how the reconstruction effort was really about the U.S. government’s attempt to displace corrupt, traditional Iraqi tribalism with corrupt, Western “free-market” tribalism.  Like a covert amateur anthropologist, he describes the many way that the cultures clash.  A recurring theme is to profile the depressingly misguided attempts by the State Dept. to promote “small businesses.”  Perhaps genuinely oblivious to how the Western emphasis on “small businesses” is basically a wedge-issue sort of distraction promoted by politicians and mass media, the State Dept. just kept trying to graft it on to an Iraqi economy that lacked foundational infrastructure (reliable electricity, water and sewage treatment, etc.) that was a prerequisite for a host of things that business (small or otherwise) require.  Those foundational issues were simply too long-term for the State Dept. and military careerists driving the bus on reconstruction, and upper leadership seemed to not really care so long as a supply of other photo ops were available.  Of course, not every project was a bust.  He does explain how a few small-scale projects that worked with rather than against local customs worked out — with no support from State Dept. leadership.

This little memoir may not paint any sort of comprehensive view of the Iraq war or its aftermath, but it does provide a trove of honest descriptions of the daily realities surrounding the United States’ Iraq reconstruction project.  For that, it should prove a valuable resource to everyone except those in power, who will continue to ignore this sort of wisdom and continue to try to suppress it and punish those who speak it.

Having been forced out of the State Dept., Van Buren continues to write (his next book was a novel inspired by John Steinbeck and Occupy Wall Street) and maintains a blog.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album

The Beach Boys' Christmas Album

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys’ Christmas Album Capitol T-2164 (1964)


The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album is short, at less than thirty minutes, but has the classic “Little Saint Nick” and some other good songs (“Merry Christmas, Baby,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are”).  It’s decent for what it is, but it’s nothing essential.  The songs with orchestral backing sound almost like instrumental tracks cut for Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby on which somebody slapped Beach Boys vocals.

Samuel Beckett – Watt

Watt

Samuel BeckettWatt (Olympia Press 1953)


Good Beckett, though I view this as sort of a warm-up for his classics Malloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. I say that because substantively this is a little less dense that those later works, but, in form, this is a breakthrough. All the unmistakable traits of Beckett’s writing are firmly in place here. He writes of the human condition in terms of distance, using declarative sentences repeated through every possible permutation in order to emphasize a total lack of common ground or common assumptions. But then, this is Beckett, so he makes all that seem quite absurd. This book would be horrifying if it wasn’t so damn funny.

Tyler Cowen – The Great Stagnation

The Great Stagnation

Tyler CowenThe Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better (Dutton Adult 2011)


Terrible. That’s about all I can say. Cowen is often described as “apolitical” because he doesn’t explicitly endorses Republican or Democratic policies, but that misses the point entirely. His view — more or less shared by all Republicans and Democrats — is that neoliberal growth-focus is basically “correct” but he breaks bipartisan rank to say that proponents of neoliberalism have made some tactical errors. Anyway, this slim volume is plagued by shoddy research and continual logical flaws. I came to this initially because Cowen discusses patent activity being greatest in the early 20th Century, and I wanted to investigate his research. It would be overly generous to credit Cowen with any “research” in this area, however. He essentially did none. His support was a single (!) article by a person seemingly unfamiliar with patents, who did a cursory electronic search of patent office records that would have taken no more than a few minutes and drew wildly unsupported conclusions (the basic premise of the cited article has been refuted by Robert Post’s “‘Liberalizers’ vs. ‘Scientific Men'” article, among others). And the rest of this book proceeds in a similar fashion. Much like Morris Berman‘s books, he’s clearly backfilling flimsy citations for ideas he’s already formulated and has no intention of rigorously testing — like pawning off the research to an assistant who doesn’t understand the arguments and whose research is correspondingly poor. As to the logical flaws, Cowen’s main thesis seems to be Marx‘s idea that profits tend to decline over time, but Cowen resists that theory…for indiscernible reasons — it isn’t even brought up explicitly. So, we’re back to him being a neoliberal apologist with no interesting arguments whatsoever to counter alternative theories. A great big “pass” on this book.

Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance

Insignificance

Jim O’RourkeInsignificance Drag City dc202cd (2001)


I’m not entirely sure why, but somehow Insignificance seems to be one of the great albums of its age.  As a lyricist O’Rourke may not be Bob Dylan, even if most of the time he’s channeling the same mean spirit that populates “Positively Fourth Street” or Blood on the Tracks.  He’s also probably not anyone’s idea of a charismatic singer.  But pairing the underachieving, utter non-event of the words and vocals with the the nuanced, finely orchestrated — yet still hard driving — instrumentals and arrangements is a masterstroke of genius.  Dylan carried the soul of the Beat generation to someplace new.  O’Rourke carried the angst of alternative and indie rock to its pointedly ironic pinnacle.  This music has an empty sophistication and sense of aimlessness that mark it as something totally representative of its time.  I find the fact that it’s somewhat unnoticed to be all the more a hallmark of the diffuseness of everything it stands for.

Cecil Taylor – The Willisau Concert

The Willisau Concert

Cecil TaylorThe Willisau Concert Intakt Records CD 072 (2002)


Quite possibly the most high-fidelity Cecil Taylor solo piano recording in existence.  It would be hard to find another artist as deserving of such attention to detail.  The performance is quite excellent too.  The speed, percussive force, and density of the music provide an intensity that is very nearly that of Taylor’s monumental 1970s recordings Silent Tongues and Indent, despite his advancing years.  It’s so great to see someone as boldly daring and iconoclastic as Taylor still able to keep making music like this, and for music that has changed so little over the years to still sound so fresh.  It goes to show that with enough conviction the power of statements like this almost never fades.