Monthly Archives: March 2010

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 3

Over the last couple of posts I’ve elaborated on Roots the book and Roots the miniseries, both worthwhile on their own merits but, let’s face it, each is a real time-suck. So, for our hectic times, I recommend–and offer to you–the 1977 double LP, Alex Haley Tells the Story of His Search for Roots.

During the last few years Haley worked on his book, he supplemented his income with speaking engagements, mostly at colleges, where he did exactly what the LPs title describes: told his story. After the book and miniseries broke big (the miniseries was watched by an estimated 130 million viewers total), Warner Bros. decided to cash in with a recording of one of Haley’s recent engagements at the University of Pennsylvania.

I forget how I heard about this LP. There isn’t a lot of info out there about it, and it’s not on CD. For all intents and purposes, it never existed (when compared to the book’s constant reprinting and the multiple VHS and DVD releases of the miniseries). I found a copy on eBay—sealed!–for only $13, and a friend with a turntable transferred it to CD for me.

And after all the time I’d spent with his story in other mediums, I found this to be the most accessible, entertaining and inspirational.

It’s two hours of Haley telling you his life story. The most logical contemporary equivalent would be a lengthy NPR interview: insightful, intelligent, with humor. The fact that he had probably written the lecture—yet said it so many times—gives his delivery a strange feel, somewhere between a reading and recitation, but I got used to that pretty quickly. The advantage is that is that it’s tight; it’s a dense two hours.

Haley in the Coast Guard

Instead of the fictitious prose of book or the mainstream embellishments in the miniseries, we have Haley literally preserving the oral tradition that is the basis of his book. (Clearly the irony is not lost on him.) Beginning with his childhood in Henning, Tennessee, where he sat on his grandmother’s porch and overheard his elders tell their stories, he tells his own. This includes:

            • his time in the Coast Guard where he learned to write (he would ghostwrite love letters for his shipmates)

            • being Playboy magazine’s first interviewer

            • his experiences co-writing Malcolm X’s autobiography

            • the 12-year-long journey to write Roots

Here are two excerpts. The first describes the difficulties of interviewing Miles Davis. In the second he describes the precise moment he got bit by the genealogy bug. If you like what you hear, you’ll love the LP.


Miles Cooks (1:08)


Discovering Genealogy (9:45)


But wait, there’s more!

The double LP is a classic of its kind: a gatefold cover with an 8-page booklet, full of pictures, deeds, ship manifests, etc. Seeing a photo of the real Chicken George, after all these decades of intimacy with his story, was such a pleasant shock. I’m sure if Roots came out now, there would also be the requisite companion coffee table book, replete with details of Haley’s research. This booklet is a sample of what that could be. (It’s hard to imagine the original book did not include a section for these pictures.)

a sample of the artwork in the LP's booklet


So, between the middle of 1976 and the middle of 1977, Alex Haley’s work covered print, film and audio—hence the title of my posts—only this LP has been out of circulation for over 30 years.

Until today.

If you have any interest in hearing this lost LP, click the link below. I think this recording is too damn compelling to disappear. And, hey, isn’t preserving this stuff what Haley’s point was all about?

Click this link to get the LP. It’ll take you to the Rapidshare site. Click “Free User.” Wait through the countdown and you’ll get a download button. Click that and it will download a 165mb ZIP file. This includes the LP (as mp3s) and the booklet (as a PDF and as individual jpgs). (Be forewarned: I’ve never compiled so many hi-res stills into a single PDF; you’ll have to do a lot of re-sizing to get all the detail, read the captions, etc. Sorry!)


NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.

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Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 2

Chicken George for real (left) and as seen on TV (right)

Yesterday I gave you an earful about Alex Haley’s Roots, published in August, 1976. True, it was an instant bestseller, but that was chump change compared to the mania that happened the next January. When the Roots miniseries aired, it was crazy. It was Kunta this and Kizzy that, and no one could get enough of Chicken George.

In 2004, shortly after reading Haley’s book, I watched all of Roots for the first time since 1977. How has it aged? Well, it’s a TV movie that’s for sure: very overlit; too much headroom in most shots; and too much music. But those are facile issues.

The good news is that what had impact on me as a child still affected me (which I think is no small feat): Kunta Kinte getting whipped; Kizzy being taken from her parents; Chicken George jumping a fence; and a few others. (The slave auction scene is a highlight, and you can see it here.) But most of all, both in 1977 and in 2004, it was the cast that struck me.

Let’s put aside LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen and Leslie Uggams, who collectively carry the whole production. No, I’m talking about the rest of the cast, which seems to be virtually somebody from every TV show ever. 60s and 70s television perennials such as Ed “Lou Grant” Asner, John “Gordy” Amos, Sandy “Glass Eye” Duncan become major players in the drama. For me, it’s incredibly distracting. My attention was interrupted by:

        •Did I just hear John Walton say the N-word?

        •Oh shit! Talk show host Gary Collins just chopped off Kunta Kinte’s foot!

        •Sweet Jesus, look at Mike Brady’s sideburns. Carol’s not going to like those.

Naturally, this cast wouldn’t confuse a contemporary audience, but as far as the middle America of 1977 was concerned, this was a masterstroke. The bottom line is that viewers felt at ease because of these familiar faces. Producer David Wolper has always said the secret of the show was making it as accessible as possible to the viewing public, both black and white.

And that’s the difference between the book and the film: instant accessibility. In lieu of Haley’s sophisticated literary devices (such as the lack of English dialog for a few hundred pages), the miniseries goes to the other extreme: the viewer gets a sense of all sides, all emotions. Humanizing the white characters, beginning nine minutes into the first episode, certainly gives them more of an equal footing and makes the whole narrative more palatable to a large audience.

I said yesterday that in the book when a character leaves the narrative, they’re gone forever, mirroring the African-American experience of frequent and permanent separation from family members. The miniseries doesn’t have as many characters nor does it adhere to Haley’s device. For example, on TV, Kizzy does get closure with her father: later in her life she returns to the plantation; learns how her father died; crosses out the name “Toby” on his tombstone; and etches in “Kunta Kinte” with a rock. The average TV viewer wants—needs—closure, so the TV Kizzy gets it.

(It makes me wonder: what if HBO made Roots today? With their tendency to have smart scripts with sizeable budgets and to use mostly unknown actors, a new visual interpretation of the book might be incredibly powerful—and closer to the source material.)

So, the miniseries is more digestible than the book, and takes only a fraction of the time to watch. But let’s just say that still you don’t have 9-and-a-half hours to spare, especially to re-watch something that has O.J. Simpson running around dressed like this, yet you still want to get a sense of Alex Haley’s opus. Well, tune in tomorrow, and I’ll have an answer to your problems! (Because I’m sure you’re losing sleep over budgeting your Roots time.)

And if anyone has their own memories of watching Roots back in the blizzardy winter of ’77, let us know!



NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.

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Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 1

Last summer I had the good fortune to work on the PBS miniseries Faces of America, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which itself was an offshoot of the very popular African American Lives series. All of these trace the family trees of several celebrities, and working this closely on with genealogy reminded me of my intense Alex Haley jag of the late 90s. Over this and subsequent posts, I’ll fill you in on why I think he is such a noteworthy writer. (Trust me on this one; I’m building up to something pretty cool.)

Ever finish a book and think, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book”? Well, that’s the rush I had the entire time I read Alex Haley’s Roots. Like so many people who lived through the 70s, I’m well aware of the story, the characters and the significance of the book—but exclusively because of the landmark TV miniseries. And even though millions at the time also read the book, I wasn’t one of them. (Hey, gimme a break–I was only 8!)

Then in the late 90s, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), When I finished, my immediate thought was, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book.” My very next thought was, “OK. Time to read Roots.”

Epic in scope and length (the current edition is 900 pages), it’s an awesome read. Haley’s acknowledged it’s primarily a work of fiction, and I’d like to zero in on a few literary aspects that were particularly resonant for me, devices that render it unique from the television experience.

1. When Kunta doesn’t understand, we don’t understand. Like the miniseries, the book begins with Kunta Kinte in Africa, where he is captured and brought to America. This covers the first couple hundred pages of the book, and until Kunta understands English, there is NO English dialog. (In fact, this extends to his inability to understand fellow prisoners on the slave ship who come from different villages, and therefore speak a different language). This may be a literary device, but it’s certainly not a gimmick. It definitely keeps the focus on Kunta Kinte’s experience.

2. When a character leaves the narrative, that’s it. No more. Kaput. This is another of Haley’s frustrating-yet-historically-accurate devices. When you think it through, if Kunta’s daughter Kizzy was separated from her parents and she never saw them again, then none of her descendants would know what became of them either, right? So, when Kizzy is ruthlessly sold from her parents, we never learn what became of Kunta. The author ignores the fact that we’ve spent hundreds of pages with Kunta—his entire life—and ends that character’s storyline in a few paragraphs. Since there was no closure for Kizzy, Haley decides there will be no closure for us. This is a painful recurring incident in the history of African-Americans in this country, and when it happens in Haley’s book, we as readers feel an intense drop of it. (It’s worth noting, too, that when Kizzy is sold off, there’s only a chapter break; there is none of that “End of Part 1: Kunta Kinte/a few white pages/beginning of Part 2: Kizzy” malarkey. It’s so underplayed that it took me a few chapters to realize, “Hey, I’m never gonna know what happened to Kunta…Damn!”)

Alex Haley, 1921

3. He brilliantly shifts from speculative biography to autobiography. Towards the end of the book, Haley himself enters the narrative, and instead of writing about himself in the third person, he switches to the first person…in one sentence. I’ll neither diminish its impact nor spoil anything by including that sentence here, but trust me: if you read 800+ pages in the omniscient voice and the writer painstakingly brings you to a place where he shifts that voice in a single line, it splits your mind wide open. (This is the face I made when I read it.) I’m grateful the book didn’t pander and do something more conventional (i.e. end the third-person narrative and write a first-person epilogue).

So maybe this book’s already on your One-of-These-Days list but finding the time for 900 pages is a tall order in our current media-swamped world. Well, in future posts, I’ll suggest a couple of ways you can absorb Alex Haley’s culture-altering tale in a less time-consuming manor. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’ve read the book, let me know what you thought of it. Honestly, I’ve never had a conversation about that book with someone who’s read it.


NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.

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It’s a Family Thing

Harry Mose at a "mixing board," Brooklyn Children's Museum, Jan, 2009



Today’s post is more of an introduction than an actual post. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but my son, Harry Mose, is picking up some of my habits and fixations (i.e. film, sound FX, putting metal objects to my ears). Here’s some evidence. Yes, the clip is 13 months old, but, hey, my posts can’t all be diatribes against a wing of the entertainment industry.




And just so you don’t think his passion or attention to detail are 100% my doing, I’d like to point out that my wife is pretty intense, too.

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Hyman Roth’s shirt(s)

A significant difference between the two Godfather films is that the first was made on a very low budget, while the second, benefitting from the success of the first, was quite a different story.

On the audio commentary for The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola repeats endlessly about compromised locations, restrictive shooting schedules, and constant corner cutting. On the commentary for The Godfather, Part II, he explains it was just the opposite: he was the goose that laid the golden egg and everything he needed was at his fingertips. That’s what makes this story from that commentary all the more amusing. It’s about one of the scenes in Cuba, with Lee Strasberg, and it’s a nice reminder that Coppola got his start with the barebones-yet-resourceful Roger Corman.

Before & After


Perhaps this is why Coppola decided to have Lee Strasberg topless in the next scene…

Hyman's hair shirt

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Great Annie Hall Gag Dumbed-Down to Near Extinction

Back in 1979, Woody Allen inadvertently helped invent the Home Theatre Experience when he insisted that his film Manhattan be transferred to VHS only in the letterboxed format.



So, instead of this aesthetically compromising pan-and-scan version…





                        …we got this:


And since there were no “rules” in place yet, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis settled on a neutral gray matte for the letterboxing.

________________________________________________________

Ever since then, however, Woody Allen has been less concerned with how his body of work is preserved for the home market, which is sad since that’s where it will be seen most from now on.


The first thing I noticed is that when Manhattan went to DVD in 2000, the gray bars were gone:

This is hardly cause for alarm. Certainly, Woody’s allowed to change his mind, and I know some people thought the gray was a little twee. As for me, I’ve seen Manhattan with the gray bars dozens of times, so it’s disconcerting to see it otherwise. The sad truth is that I don’t think MGM (who released the DVD) asked Woody Allen for his opinion, and I don’t think he cared one way or another.

Still, that’s small potatoes compared to this…

Twenty-five minutes into Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall, his character Alvy Singer and Annie have their first meeting. This extended sequence of memorable lines (“That’s OK. We can walk to the curb from here”) and 70s urban mating ritual culminates with the Balcony Scene, which plays more like a year of therapy than a scene in a comedy. In it, while Alvy and Annie try to impress each other with intellectual observations, we see their insecure thoughts as subtitles. For those who need a refresher, here’s the scene. For the rest, here’s a sample of how it once looked on film, TV and VHS:

And yet, now, when you watch the only version on DVD available in the US, here’s an idea of what you see…

HuhI? Someone at MGM really thinks I need to be told that the words on the screen aren’t the ones coming from Annie and Alvy’s mouths? If they think I’m that dumb, then why not do these subtitles as well…

Or…

Sadly, I can easily imagine a first time viewer of the film (and my generation has to accept the fact that not everybody has seen Annie Hall) being confused by the inclusion of “[thinking]” in the subtitles, assuming that that’s what Woody Allen had intended. (God, what a dreadful thought.)

I can accept and respect the fact that Woody doesn’t do commentaries or ‘making of’ docs (more in a later post on my feelings about that), but I hope he’d at least protect one of his most brilliant and enduring gags. (And I mean that, too; it might not be the funniest joke in Annie Hall, but, my God, does it stick with you.)

________________________________________________________

And just for the Hell of it, what if Woody Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman decided to limit their insights to just Woody’s character (perhaps calling the film Alvy Singer). Then maybe the Balcony Scene would look a little something like this…

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Finally, The T.A.M.I. Show Arrives!

Yesterday Shout! Factory released The T.A.M.I. Show on DVD, and believe me this is a cause for rejoicing. This concert film was shot in October, 1964, when the music industry was at a crossroads of black and white performers, and US and UK bands. And in one film, they all take the stage—James Brown, The Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, Marvin Gaye, and The Rolling Stones, among others—with a shitload of young dancers gyrating in the background, and 3,000 screaming teenagers in front of them.

As exciting as this film is—and it’s also brilliantly staged and shot—it has never been released on VHS or DVD. Over the last 46 years, its lived in only four forms: as legend (I’ve read for decades about James Brown’s feet in this film); as the original 16 mm prints shown at very infrequent screenings; as crummy, nth-generation VHS bootlegs; and in that one damn line in that Police song that confused so many teenagers.

As for me, I saw it in 1993, on 16mm in the worst of all possible places: an acoustically awful classroom at college. However, my buddy Brian and I loved it. The energy, the joy and the raw-yet-naïve sexuality of the performances transcended the less than desirable circumstances.

The Bootleg: Lesley Gore is in here somewhere.

Next, in the late 90s, I broke down and got a bootleg tape. This time, the joy of the film could NOT transcend the limitations of the presentation.

But all of that is irrelevant now. The DVD looks and sounds gorgeous; with great packaging; an essay; an audio commentary by director Steve Binder; and even a trailer with an commentary by director John Landis (I’m not sure why yet, but he’s there nevertheless). And all for only $12 on Amazon (hint, hint).

Here’s a little context, a side-by-side of my VHS bootleg ($25) and what I just got for half the price:

And Shout! Factory’s generously posted clips on YouTube, including a trailer and performances by Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye.

Last night, I watched it in its entirety for the first time in seventeen years, and I can’t believe how my favorite moments from ‘93 still resonate. These include:

Sexy white women dancing behind Chuck Berry, while he sang “Sweet Little Sixteen” (and, undoubtedly, thought about eating his breakfast).1



Lesley Gore hypnotizing me through a Vaseline-soaked lens.




Keith Richards being sillier than I thought possible.



And my favorite: James Brown has an explosive 17-minute set, where he makes it absolutely clear why he was called the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. And at the end, after he’s collapsed, screamed, crooned, danced, cried, died and been re-born (several times), he walks to the end of the stage and takes a seat on a riser:

He cracks a proud smile and looks at his band, his Famous Flames and his orchestra, and he is clearly the master of all he sees. It lasts only a few seconds, but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen JB give himself a breather.

By the way, T.A.M.I. is an acronym for Teenage Awards Music International, and you’ll have to read the DVD’s essay to really understand what the Hell it means.


BACK TO POST 1If you don’t get this reference, I extend my apologies. And if you do get it, well, I extend a different kind of apology.

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