Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Monday, September 30, 2013

Good Ol' Freda: Netflix Movie Review

Freda Kelly in the Beatles years

For Beatles fans, the idea that there is a major player in the band’s story we are unfamiliar with seems absurd. Hasn’t every aspect of this saga been done to death? Nonetheless, here she is, in the recent documentary, Good Ol’ Freda: Freda Kelly, secretary and official liaison to the Beatles’ fan club from 1961 to 1972. There she was, almost from the band’s beginning to a bit past the end, and she’s telling her tale at last.
    Part of the charm of this documentary is the way it plays with our sense of scale and perspective. We are present as the world turns its attention toward the Beatles up to 11, but we view the whole thing from the point of view of a naive local teenager.  It’s like getting chambermaid’s view to the royal palace. Those expecting the chambermaid to show off the dirty laundry, however, are in for a let-down. While she hints that there are some secrets she still maintains, the filmmakers, Ryan White and Kathy McCabe, don’t push her much about the private lives of the Beatles. Her own story, that of a more-or-less ordinary person, who happened to find herself near the white hot center of the Sixties, is allowed to suffice. (It’s also, perhaps, true that Freda’s own steely resolve continued to disallow that form of prying. Almost the beginning of her stint with the Beatles, she claims, she was offered bribes from the press in return for confidential Beatles information. She is not about to be tempted now.)
       Freda’s own story carries a strong whiff of the fairy tale about it, specifically, of Cinderella. After having lost her mother as a toddler,  she was living with her loving but rather stern father when the Beatles catapulted into her life.  A working woman at 17, part of a local typing pool, she happened across  the band at the Cavern, which became something of a second home, and the fan scene surrounding them, which formed a kind of family. Hired by Epstein to handle correspondence for the burgeoning band, she was swept into their circle just as they emerged on the international stage. In spite of her direct access to what became the biggest stars in the world, she never lost her sense of kinship with their teenage fan base. She brought a girlish fervor  to her job, frequently staying up until four in the morning to reply to as many letters as possible. Her integrity verged on the fanatical: if Freda sent you a pillowcase she said Ringo had slept on, you could take that to the bank. (She once fired a group of young local assistants whom she caught sending off someone else’s hair instead of Paul’s. The counterfeit hairist still seems uttterly perplexed by the episode  fifty years later. What did she do wrong?) For Freda, it’s clear, maintaining the Beatles fan club was a calling.
   As we experience the growing phenomenon of the Beatles through the eyes of this young Liverpoolian, things become rather Alice in Wonderlandish: everything gets bigger  than she could possibly have imagined. Her first sense of the enormity of what was to come arrives when she unthinkingly gives out her home address as the official location of the Beatles fan club. Her father grows increasingly apoplectic as cart after cart of Beatles notes, presents and requests begin to arrive at his doorstep, burying his own bills and the odd personal letter in their midst.
Her second major shock came several years later,with the official tribute the city of Liverpool paid to the Beatles at the Town Hall.
Looking out from the balcony behind the Beatles and their families, she has an almost psychedelic experience as her gaze telescoped outwards. People, masses of them, expanding further than her eye could take in, well beyond the Liverpool horizon. We get a sense of the sweetness and innocence she had then as she looks back on the episode; their fame didn’t hit her properly until she saw  they had become bigger than all of Liverpool!  
    Liverpool itself looms heavily over the film;  Freda continued on as secretary to the Beatles  from Liverpool, tending her ailing father, even after the Beatles had moved to London. She lives there still, in her own row house. We catch glimpses as she moves about her daily life, shops, drives to work, but the view we get from the Town Hall as she relives this  moment from 1963 is the most sweeping and layered. We see the ornate buildings, the pride of a once wealthy and important port city, but one which today looks empty,  largely abandoned, and grimey around the edges. Besides the sweetness of her own youthful wonder , we also get a sense of the inexorableness of time--of loss, and decay.
    Freda, it’s fair to say, worked the 18-hour-days of a Silicon Valley employee in a promising start-up. And what was Beatlemania, after all,  if not the largest social network the world had ever known,  linking people on various continents through the crude early code of Paul-John-George-Ringo, a system nonetheless capable of generating shifts in consciousness and vast international rumors. “Paul is Dead.” Or is he?
The metaphor takes us only so far--the Apple of Lennon/McCartney was not that of Steve Jobs or even of Gwyneth Paltrow. In other words, Freda had no real stake in the company, nor did her girlish good looks, hard work, or long hours translate, in the end, to much in the way of hard cash.  So what happens to Cinderella after she attends the ball, finds it perfectly delightful, then returns to her somewhat pinched life in the north of England?

    Freda herself expresses no dissatisfaction with this outcome, even as she’s filmed sifting through her few remaining boxes of Beatles memorabilia up in the attic. “I could have been a millionaire,” she muses, if  only she had hoarded the loads of stuff she once had. Instead she distributed it to fans, even as she continued to answer their mail for years, off the clock, a few letters at a time. She philosophizes a bit towards the end about the trajectory of her life.  “People have the wrong idea about fame,” she remarks, then points out that it did not save John and George from their early deaths (She’s too kind to point out fame actually ushered them towards those deaths.). The filmmakers clearly laude her modest, anti-materialist approach to life, and honor her life with their own insistently small-scale documentation.
    Yet a sense of grievance hangs about the film, in the person of her daughter. Interviewed several times on her mother’s couch, she looks like a millennial version of her mother, mod-haircut but also nose-ring.  She is lovely, but faces the camera with a guarded, distrustful expression. This is evidently a young woman with a grudge. She asks questions otherwise  unexpressed in the film:  Why didn’t her mother see any of the wealth she helped to create? Why does she continue to work full-time as a secretary well past retirement age?  She appears suspicious, above all, that once again the big shots have come knocking at her mother’s door, only to depart without sharing the dividends.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Salinger Review by Grace Lovelace (Six Degrees of Salinger)

J.D. Salinger writing Catcher in the Rye.

Shane Salerno’s Salinger arrives with many of the cheesy touches one would expect from a one-time Michael Bay collaborator, but also a feast of new information. Of particular interest are  a host of new images of Salinger himself, as well as interviews with one-time intimates. Following his death, everyone, is seems,  is anxious to spill the beans, to dance a little jig on the grave of Old Grey. This includes, surprisingly enough, fellow patriarchs of American literature such as E.L. Doctorow and Tom Wolfe. While it may cross our minds that these  writers have a strong financial interest in filmic representations of their books, and perhaps in cultivating relationships with producer Harvey Weinstein,  let’s set that aside for the moment. This is no time for our people hunting hat. (But, wait, what is Philip Seymour Hoffman doing here, pontificating on fame and artistic integrity? Is he starring in the upcoming biopic? And David Shields? He wrote the 800-page blockbuster tie-in, of course. Excuse my distractedness, my Holden Caulfield-brand bullshit detector keeps going off.)
There are, however,  some significant payoffs to the Weinsteins throwing their weight around. Here they are, in the order in which they appear:
1) An array of images of Salinger’s life as a soldier, like that above of “Jerry” working on an early version of Catcher in the Rye while on active combat duty. (He carried pages of the manuscript with him to the beaches of Normandy on D Day.)  Salinger, it seems, was part of a very tight-knit counterintelligence ring. They stayed in touch for the rest of their lives; some of them took pictures.
2) Footage of Jean Miller, the basis for the Esmé character  in  For Esmé—with Love & Squalor, Salinger’s breakthrough work for the New Yorker concerning a shell-shocked war veteran.  Fifteen when they met on a Daytona beach in the early fifties, she recounts how he pursued her until, on a weekend trip to Montreal she initiated sexual contact. The next day they were through.
3) A timetable and description of the unpublished Salinger works to be released  by the estate over the course of the next decade.
In terms of actual revelations, that’s pretty much it. For those paying attention, the Salinger fortress was breached years ago, stone by stone,  as memoirs were published  by his daughter and girlfriend. Rather than covering new ground, Salerno borrows liberally from these works, as well as from Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography J. D. Salinger, which established  important connections between Salinger’s fiction and his largely untreated PTSD. Indeed, apart from the photographic scoops, Salerno’s  examination of Salinger’s war years appears pedestrian and without nuance in comparison to Slawenski’s book on the same subject. In particular, the short shrift he gives Salinger’s experience as a Jew who happened to be among first Americans to enter the concentration camps, and who , due to his fluent German, was additionally given the task of debriefing camp personnel, is a particularly grievous gap. Salinger’s subsequent nervous breakdown is covered in the film without the groundwork allowing us to understand why it happened. That’s Hollywood.
Salerno’s documentary has been criticized, most vocally by Maynard herself, for its cursory treatment of Salinger’s  long string of affairs with very young women. Having read Maynard’s memoir, the contrasts between the anger and angst-infused recollections of her book and her  affable persona in the film are striking. To give one example: in the film, she giggles as she remembers how they breakfasted, according to his strict views on health, on barely defrosted peas. Eccentric, yes, but also mildly charming. In the book, however, the story is a little different: She tells how  he was  always very controlling and dictatorial about  exactly what, and how much,  they ate. When one evening they consumed what he deemed too much, he tutored her in the art of self-induced vomiting. Yes, the fifty-three-year-old J.D. Salinger coached a very appearance conscious teen in bulimia! This is  sinister stuff; and, predictably, given the basically respectful tenor of the film,  it does not make Salerno’s cut.
In the end, Shane Salerno and J.D. Salinger make for an exceedingly odd couple. While Salinger, whatever his other faults, always had an exquisite ear, Salerno is fatally tone deaf.  The film has been widely criticized for its “America’s Most Wanted” style reenactment segments, but also, not incidentally, for it’s (mis)use of music. The climactic, ear-splitting Thus Spake Zarathustra-style orchestration  that overlays the exclusive list of books to be published is laughable, and ends up undermining the urgency of anything we learn. Things actually go downhill from there.  In the film’s final sequence, we are informed in breathless text (there’s no other way to describe it), that after years of intermittent filming in Cornish, the filmmakers received a phone call asking them to be at a particular corner at such-a-such a time. Very cloak and dagger. Once again the tabloid headline: “Exclusive: Last Known Footage of J.D. Salinger.” We then see an exceedingly frail J.D. Salinger make his way to a massive SUV. Taking his seat,  he grimaces manically (a smile?) through the window. He is then driven away by an oddly radiant and youthful redhead.Over this sequence plays jubilant music strongly reminiscent of the instrumental section in Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. Salerno’s message is clear: a moment of joyful reconciliation! At last!
To what is Salinger’s supposedly  reconciling himself? Salerno himself and/or the Weinstein Company? The droves of seekers who have showed up at his doorstep over the years? Perhaps something as grand as the culture at large; Salinger certainly suggests as much. E.L. Doctorow posits early on that becoming a recluse was simply a brilliant PR move on Salinger’s part, and various pilgrims tell their stories of how Salinger was not, in reality, all that unapproachable, even striking some as solicitous about their welfare.  
In spite of a certain narrative momentum to this understanding (He liked us! He really liked us!) unfortunately it makes precisely zero sense. Salinger’s decision to withdraw his work from the marketplace, in possession of a large and receptive reading public as well as an accommodating, remunerative publishers, even as he continued to produce novel after novel, remains utterly unprecedented. The SUV scene is simply another perplexing turn in an enormous mystery, the final maneuver of a crafty counterintelligence officer who never called off his war with the world. On the other hand,  it  does seem promising that several of the upcoming  books deal directly  with his war experience. Maybe a 50 year yoga retreat (another work is reputed to be a Vedanta religious manual) will turn out to be just what the doctor ordered. I for one am keeping the faith--a bit longer.
*Addendum: Following the enormously negative reaction to this film's original release, it was re-edited. As a result, the film you see on Netflix or PBS may be slightly different regarding music cues, etc. And it's apparently been given a new title.