500 Words or Less: Four At A Time

Beautiful Creatures is a beautiful-looking movie that’s surprising in its goofy charm. Adapting a YA romance between a young witch and her human beau, the story is sold by the leads’ rich chemistry. The whole thing feels sweaty and over-the-top, with a sweeping, swampy score. There’s also some stuff involving plantation life and a character (Viola Davis) practicing voodoo. Davis sells it, so it only becomes questionable in retrospect. Less questionable is Jeremy Irons’ choice to dress like a Southern Robert Evans and Emma Thompson’s full-throated embrace of lines like “I made you brownies…from scratch!” If Pat Conroy and Flannery O’Connor had a teenage daughter, it might be this weird, dopey movie.

Fellow YA adaptation Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remains charming, but even a decade where blockbusters got longer, the extreme runtime is punishing. Chris Columbus adapts his Goonies style of “all yelling, all the time” when it comes to directing the child actors and is workmanlike everywhere else. This time around, Alan Rickman evoked The Paper Chase in his delivery and the effects hold up better than expected — one giant troll aside, of course. The movie’s chief triumph remains its casting. It’s dead-on for the adult roles, but no one knew what Radcliffe, Watson, Grint, and Neville Longbottom were going to be asked to do seven films later. Whoever cast them all those years ago is a minor genius.

A movie that doesn’t feel like it’s as long as it is the stunning Zero Dark Thirty. It’s brilliant in its portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which combines a no-nonsense, journalistic script with striking visuals — lead Jessica Chastain emerging from a dark hallway, a tracking shot following phone lines and internet cables overlaid — that linger long after the film concludes. It’s troubling in that it doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of America after September 11th. The first hour of the film focuses on extracting information through torture. The last thirty minutes are dedicated to the raid itself — one that seems to compromise of shooting mostly unarmed men. In between, however, we see the real triumph — it wasn’t torture that eventually found bin Laden, it was persistence and ingenuity, two all-American values if there ever were such things. Chastain provides a compelling anchor for a revolving door of “that guys” like Coach Taylor, Stannis Baratheon, and Bert Macklin, FBI, who all make characters out of sketches. Like Zodiac, the picture is a masterpiece of true-crime filmmaking that solidifies Kathryn Bigelow as one of the greats.

The Descendants remains George Clooney’s finest work to date, introduces Shailene Woodley to those who don’t watch ABC Family in a sit-up-and-take note performance, reminds audiences that Matthew Lillard is a classically trained actor, and features a totally boss soundtrack. Like Clooney’s Out of Sight, this is bound to be a perennial cable favorite.

Beautiful Creatures. Dir./Wr. Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel of the same name by Kamie Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Perf. Alden Ehenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson. 124 minutes. Warner Bros., 2013

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Wr. Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J.K. Rowling. Perf. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Alan Rickman. 152 minutes. Warner Bros., 2001.

Zero Dark Thirty. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Wr. Mark Boal. Perf. Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler. 157 minutes. Columbia Pictures, 2012.

The Descendants. Dir. Alexander Payne. Wr. Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Perf. George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster. Fox Searchlight, 2011.

500 Words or Less: GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)

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In the opening scenes of Gangster Squad, before one of the many sadistic executions that litter the film in the name of “good fun,” a character describes Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) as ‘rotten.’ It’s a rare moment of self-awareness for the picture, because this is a rotten movie. It is diseased inside and out, and its disease’s chief symptom is ugliness.

This is an ugly, ugly movie. Ugly in its tone, hovering somewhere between an Asylum take on James Ellroy and a Sweded version of The Untouchables. Ugly in its look, alternating digital night photography that doesn’t match with a teal and orange gradient with an Instagram sepia tone over the daytime scenes. Ugly in its depiction of women, which are either items to be fought over (as in the case of Emma Stone’s ‘tomato’) or dolls for glossy exploitation a la Criminal Minds. This is the type of film that offers an extended sequence involving the abduction and near gang-rape of an innocent, just-off-the-bus woman in order to justify the violent actions of its protagonist (Josh Brolin). The treatment of women here feels like writer Will Beall read how they were portrayed in books by writers like Ellroy and Megan Abbott, then copied the events without understanding the context. Ugly in its violence, which is bloody and brutal, yet with no meaning behind it. Ugly in its vigilante story and defense of guerilla warfare, which could be read as a defense of everything from the War on Terror to the employment of Blackwater. Ugly in the way it wastes a talented cast, many of whom deserve better pictures (Anthony Mackie) and many of whom are really trying to do something with the material (Josh Brolin and the rare bright spot that is Robert Patrick).

The film is ostensibly about a battle for the soul of Los Angeles, but cop and criminal, cast and crew choose to subject the audience to two hours of psychic violence. The film was famously shelved and reshot in the wake of the Aurora shooting. It should have stayed there, instead of one of those pictures film historians will look back on in fifty years as an unfortunate relic of a brutal time in the 21st century.

Gangster Squad. Dir. Ruben Fleisher. Wr. Will Beal. Perf. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick. 113 minutes. Warner Bros., 2013.

500 Words Or Less: JACK REACHER (2012) and THE LAST STAND (2013)

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There’s a quote by David Foster Wallace where he theorizes that, in an age of irony and cynicism are the sword and shield of ‘rebellion,’ perhaps true rebellion comes from earnestness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, and grace. While neither one is a masterpiece, Jack Reacher and The Last Stand remain entertaining on those merits alone. Or perhaps it’s because you can watch the fight sequences and understand what’s going on.

Reacher and Last Stand’s similarities go beyond those virtues. Both feature eighties icons who are now reaching middle age. In fact, were it not for things like cell phones and GPS playing a large role, these films could have been unearthed by some nostalgic start-up and released on DVD with a reunion in the special features. Both are contemporary updates of Western tropes — Reacher telling the tale of a man (Tom Cruise) who rides into town, restores order, and then rides out again, Last Stand focuses on a town and its sheriff (Arnold Schwartzenegger) under siege from outsiders. Both know how to employ humor and both get assists from capable supporting casts. And both suffer from the same flaws — each is about ten minutes two long, and littered with excessive violence.

Jack Reacher, despite its PG-13 rating, feels like the more violent of the two. Based on one of the many novels by Lee Child, the film focuses on Reacher’s hunt for a sniper in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to see why the film was delayed in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. There’s one flashback to the murders in particular that’s quite unsettling when viewed through this lens. However, Cruise’s Reacher prefers to solve his problems with his hands — and while he’s not the hulking brute from the books, the intelligence and swiftness of the character are given capable menace by the actor. As a character, Reacher falls somewhere between the movie star roles of The Firm and Top Gun and the weird menace of Magnolia and Rock of Ages.  Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie makes effective use of Pittsburgh as a location, and for a writer known for his verbal brilliance, the film’s best sequences are wordless. Except when Werner Herzog appears to give audiences his take on The Greek from The Wire.

The Last Stand also knows how to quickly establish its location and simple plot: a fugitive is racing towards the border in a very fast car, and only the sleepy town of Sommerton Junction and its sheriff stand in its way. That sheriff has a name, but to audiences, it’s just Arnie, back on the screen after years in political life. The actor surprises in his nearly full-throated embrace of his age while occasionally reminding viewers that he can act when he wants to. Loud, fast-paced, and funnier than expected with a wonderful score, the film features several thrilling action sequences — a chase through a cornfield stands out — that make it preferable to Jack Reacher.

But Blood and Bone beats them both.

Jack Reacher. Dir./Wr. Christopher McQuarrie, based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child. Perf. Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall, Jai Courtney, David Oyelowo. 130 minutes. Paramount, 2012.

The Last Stand. Dir. Kim Ji-woon. Wr. Andrew Knauer. Perf. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Forrest Whitaker, Jamie Alexander, Luis Guzman, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford. 107 minutes. Lionsgate, 2013.

500 Words or Less: HITCHCOCK (2012)

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In one of the many fantasy sequences that populate Hitchcock (2012), the director (Anthony Hopkins) imagines himself on a psychiatrist’s couch. The psychatrist is Ed Gein, inspiration for Psycho, and in the course of their session, Hitchcock confesses he’s been having thoughts. “Dark thoughts,” he says.

It’s a chilling delivery by the former Dr. Lecter and a reminder that, even after years of paycheck roles and under makeup that never fully gels here, Hopkins remains a stunning actor. This scene, however, encapsulates the flaws and pleasures of Hitchcock, a biopic in the Capote mold where one period in a subject’s life is meant to represent the whole of their career. Director Sasha Gervasi and writer John L. McLaughlin, working from the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, spend much of the film’s running time portraying the production of Psycho in relatively straightforward fashion. The dynamic between Hitchcock and Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, who also gets many lovely moments throughout) is the focus during the production, emphasizing the tension between the famous director and his less-known wife. It captures the relationship two creative people in love so often have, from the fights to the creative disagreements, from the discussions over the material to the private knowledge that, in the end, there’s only one person whose opinion you trust. This relationship is surrounded by a bevy of character actors in supporting roles. Scarlett Johansson is warm and gentle as Janet Leigh, and Toni Collette disappears into her role as Hitchcock’s secretary. Michael Stuhlbarg continues his hot streak of being one of the best parts of any movie he’s in as future Universal studio head and agent Lew Wasserman.

Yet these sections are interspersed with the aforementioned fantasy sequences and in-jokes, often surrounding Hitchcock’s conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) or inserting Hitch into key moments from Gein’s life. And of course time must be given to the director’s voyeuristic impulses and sexual manipulation of his leading ladies. These oft-amusing shadings remain the least effective parts of Hitchock, but they suggest a much weirder, sinister movie had more time been devoted to them. As such, they leave one wishing for more behind-the-scenes material — like the relationship between ‘Hitchcock blondes’ Leigh and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

Hitchcock can’t fully commit to either take on the Psycho myth, and the film suffers for it before recovering in the final act, centering around the promotion and premiere of Psycho. Here, in a sequence involving Hitchcock watching the people watching the shower sequence, both tracks come together with Hopkins’ wordless acting that makes you wish for a better movie yet leaves you happy with the one you get.

Recommended: Yes.

Hitchcock. Dir. Sasha Gervasi. Wr. John L. McLaughlin, based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. Perf. Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston. 98 minutes. Fox Searchlight, 2012.

Last Dance with Stacee Jaxx: Tom Cruise, Rock of Ages, and the Death of American Excess

The Horatio Alger, up-by-your-bootstraps, orphan to millionaire myth arose in American culture around the same time capitalism and industrialization did. With ingenuity, solid work ethic, and perhaps a little bit of ruthlessness, the story goes, you can work your way to the head of the line. Along with this concept of success arose the notion of conspicuous consumption. It wasn’t enough to become rich, argued the Gilded Age theory. You had to show off how rich you were. You had to be seen spending your millions, often in the most lavish way possible. If business success wasn’t right for you, though, there was always Hollywood, and later, rock and roll and computers.  And so, names like Carnegie and Wayne, Presley and Jobs became folk heroes. Stories swirled around them, spurred on by images of lavish parties at estates the size of small villages, fleets of cars, and collections of art. Rumors replaced reality. Legend was printed as fact. 

These trends arose in the Gilded Age and in the early 20th century before falling out of fashion. They were once again in vogue in the 1980s, when greed was good, Donald Trump was a role model and television was dedicated to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The soundtrack to the era was on one hand confectionary pop like Whitney Houston and Debbie Gibson and arena rock on the other. Arena rock, with its distant cousin hair metal, was excess in sonic form. Big and loud, prone to guitar solos, with single-entendre lyrics and often featuring a symphony orchestra or two, arena rock blew up the Horatio Alger myth beyond caricature. Artists like Journey, Boston, Kansas, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Poison, Ratt, Night Ranger and Vixen celebrated this new version of the Alger myth. Here, the bootstrap became a guitar strap, and the legend of the rock band on the road searching for that one hit night after night, show after show, joined the pinstriped yuppie as one of the defining cultural figures of the age. 

Along with the dominant force of the “rock god,” one of the most iconic faces of the 80s was film maverick Tom Cruise. Starting with 1983’s Risky Business and 1986’s Top Gun, Cruise became one of the biggest box office stars in history. He was himself an “up from nothing” success story, achieving global fame with sheer force of will and attacking each new role with a determined intensity. It is this same determined intensity that made him a cultural punch line just as swiftly, beginning with 2005’s summer horribilis where he jumped right from Oprah’s couch to fated marriage and children with the actress Katie Holmes. Seven years later, his marriage on the rocks and his career unsteady, Cruise would star as rock god Stacee Jaxx in an adaptation of the 2009 jukebox musical Rock of Ages. It was an unconventional move to be sure, but here, Cruise used his force of will and personal knowledge of international fame and worship to create an avatar of those years between Top Gun and Oprah’s couch, offering just not an eulogy for his career thus far, but for the particular kind of 80s excess celebrated in Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages, whose director, Adam Shankman, previously adapted the musical Hairspray for film, begins with women chanting “Stacee! Stacee! Stacee!” These high-pitched, wanton chants indicate that Jaxx is a figure of desire, and their chants lead into Cruise’s slurred voice, introducing the first song of the film, “Paradise City” (originally by Guns ‘n’ Roses). Yet rather than cutting immediately to a scene of Jaxx and his band Arsenal on stage, the sound becomes tinny, distant, and heard through headphones. It’s revealed that the song is a recording, listened to on a Walkman by one of the film’s two leads, Sherrie, as she rides the bus to Los Angeles, chasing her dream. The audience’s first experience with Stacee Jaxx is therefore through other’s perceptions of him. Stacee is literally a voice without a face, allowing the characters to project onto him their desires and needs — much the way audiences do with their movie stars.

The song is further revealed to be a track on a live Arsenal album, Fallout, and Arsenal/Stacee Jaxx iconography is a recurring visual motif in Rock of Ages.  Before the audience even sees Stacee Jaxx, and after as well, the viewer is treated to a near-constant barrage of Stacee Jaxx urban legends. Stories like these follow around any famous person; characters describe Jaxx as being everything from “the man who blew off the Super Bowl to attend a Satanic ritual” to a man who’s music made a mother’s son eat “the head off my neighbor’s horse.” This latter accusation comes as a group of concerned parents worship/criticize a poster of Jaxx resting on an altar. The poster is centered in the frame, and as the women criticize him, the camera cuts to close-ups of the poster, emphasizing Jaxx’s physical features — his hair, his tongue, his crotch. Jaxx is blamed for spreading one thing, and one thing only: sex, sex, and more sex. Yet these pictures and these legends remain largely ethereal, rumored about and writ large a la the stories that have followed Mick Jagger, Donald Trump, and Cruise himself throughout their careers. As if to  — like everything in Rock of Ages — oversell this point, Shankman includes a scene where Jaxx’s unscrupulous manager Paul Gill pretends to be speaking to Jaxx, when he is in fact speaking to empty air.

  Shankman pays more attention to the physical memorabilia surrounding Jaxx’s music career. The record Fallout is almost always shot in close-up, emphasizing its tactile nature. In a scene set at a Tower Records, Sherri and Drew, her love interest, bond over the record as it fills the frame. Sherri calls it her “favorite record ever,” and Drew tells her about missing an Arsenal concert in his hometown. The record, like Jaxx himself, has taken on totemic, fetishistic qualities, but the myth of the rock god persists. “If I couldn’t see Stacee Jaxx,” Drew tells Sherri, “I wanted to be Stacee Jaxx.” 

But what does it mean to be Stacee Jaxx? The first time viewers see Jaxx in the flesh, he is nothing but flesh, captured in a blurred, over the shoulder shot. The scene takes place in Jaxx’s dressing room, revealed in a slow tracking shot that captures snakes and gunshots alike. The room is lit low, with drums alternating alongside guitar wails on the soundtrack, emphasizing Jaxx’s decadence — a decadence that calls to mind the garish mansions of Robin Leach, and a decadence only emphasized by the first part of Stacee Jaxx viewers see clearly. It is his crotch, centered in the frame, and covered only by a pewter devil codpiece. The naked girls surrounding Jaxx crawl away, and Jaxx slowly rises, shirtless, pantless, as if everything hurts, as if he feels the weight of the world and people’s expectations with every step. Shankman chooses to keep Jaxx in the center of the frame, slowly pulling back as he stands, looking out at the world through squinted eyes. His bed is lit in reds, symbolizing that Jaxx, despite his wealth and fame, is in hell. The blue of a hot tub water’s plays across his face. Jaxx opens his arms, spreading them, crucified for our expectations of him. It is the rock god as literal Christ figure…and then Jaxx falls, face-first, into the water, less a baptism than a humiliation. Here is what excess brings, the scene says. Excess and decadence are their own hell. Here is what it is like to be Stacee Jaxx. Here is what it is like to be Tom Cruise. Here is fame.

The consequences of Jaxx’s oversized fame are further emphasized in one of the musical numbers where Cruise is the lead performer. One, a version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” is both preluded and provoked by Jaxx’s interview with a Rolling Stone reporter. Jaxx drops boilerplate interview catchphrases at first, eventually dropping off into non-sequitors. Cruise as Jaxx then sums up Jaxx and himself when he says, half in jest, half serious, “I know better than anyone [what it’s like to be me] because I live in here.” Jaxx stands to leave, but the reporter, dressed in white, challenges him. “What happens,” she asks, “when you realize you can’t get rid of Stacee Jaxx?” Her selection of words highlights the fact that celebrity is about persona: ‘Stacee Jaxx,’ like ‘Tom Cruise,’ is a role to play, a character. In this shot, the reporter is dressed in white, standing in the background, while Jaxx is in the foreground, dressed in black. Jaxx is spiritually dead. The angel is beckoning to heaven, begging him to confront what he has become — what he has lost. 

During the following “Wanted Dead or Alive” number, Jaxx is almost constantly centered in the frame, constantly in motion. Shankman follows him with a reverse tracking shot, backing away as Jaxx moves ever forward towards the viewer. After striking another Jesus pose, Jaxx takes an empty stage — and suddenly, the viewer is inside Jaxx’s head, witnessing how Jaxx perceives the act of being a rock god to be hellish. The audience is lit in blue as he sings, the stage lit in red, flames and fire surrounding him. Near the end of this number, during the “imagination sequence,” Jaxx throws his hand out, reaching out towards the edge of frame. The camera focuses on his sweaty, physical frame, but it is hard not to be drawn to the look in his eyes. It is crazed, desperate. It is the look of a drowning man. During this sequence, several times, Jaxx/Cruise merge as Cruise breaks the fourth wall to look directly at the audience. We are complicit in this, he says. We have put him in this hell. Then, again, he falls flat off the stage, alone in an empty bar. Hellish projection and lonely reality have collided once more.

As Rock of Ages lumbers along, we learn that these projections of what other people want Jaxx to be (as he puts it, “ssssssssseex”) have crippled Jaxx from producing great music and left him the shell that walks around carrying a monkey named Hey Man. Jaxx admits that perhaps the only thing that can save him is “the perfect song, the perfect sound that will make you want to live forever.” And what is the pursuit of wealth, fame, fortune, legend, but the pursuit of immortality? Yet opulent mansions and towers made of gold and stock portfolios are ultimately meaningless, as are the physical elements of Jaxx’s life. What matters is the work — the music, or in this case, the performance. Shankman illustrates this in a musical number where Jaxx is shot in blue and the audience in red, reversing the hellish symbolism of earlier appearances. Jaxx remains at a distance, without close-ups blurry, illustrating that the act of performance and of singing is most important. Here, too, Jaxx points at the viewer, as if to emphasize the importance of artistic creation — that is the way to escape hell. 

Finally, when Jaxx discovers that perfect song — Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” here credited as Drew’s creation — he is born anew. For the first time in the film, the camera slows down to follow him, gently pushing in as he falls back into the arms of his newfound love, the same Rolling Stone reporter who previously challenged him. As those familiar notes of what was once lambasted as corporate rock but has now become an American anthem of endurance play, the scene cuts to an arena. Jaxx is performing this “perfect song” with Arsenal. He’s taking up just enough space in the frame, not too far away, not too close, as in the two previous numbers, and he’s bathed in beautiful blue-white light. Jaxx has been re-baptized in the altar of rock and roll through the act of creating something — a point Shankman sells even further by cutting to a shot of the reporter, now pregnant with Jaxx’s child — that will last beyond him. And as he creates both song and child, Jaxx — Cruise — smiles for the first time. The rumors about Scientology and homosexuality, the mansions on the California coast and in the Hamptons, the Donald Trumps and the Mitt Romneys no longer matter now. What matters is the act of creation, the performance, the joy of acting for acting’s sake. What matters is the music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll, and may Tom Cruise play roles as weird as this for years to come.

Another National Anthem: Walt Whitman and the Journey of American Optimism

 Watching them, one almost wishes the moment would never end. And over all this, Dorothy’s small, brave voice fills the darkened theater. She is saying something about home. She is saying something everyone knows.

–Joe Hill, “20th Century Ghost”

 

The New World is one of ghosts and gods, of secularism and sacred texts. These texts — from the Declaration of Independence to Huckleberry Finn, John Winthrop’s “A City on A Hill” to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington, The Book of Mormon to Dianetics, and from Porgy and Bess to The (other) Book of Mormon  — are vivisected and dissected. Historians and Presidents, culture critics and the common man draw from them, often to nefarious ends, but rarely with nefarious intent. For to seek to understand these texts is to seek communion with their authors, these men and women who, for an enduring moment, discovered what it means to live in the New World — what it means to be an American. But in these authors, encased in their tombs of marble, remain silent. They have no new words to offer us, and so we must rely on imagination.

Let us imagine, then, one of the most famous of these American gods, Walt Whitman. Let us picture his ghost walking through America near the end of the first decade of the 21st century. A New Yorker and traveler both, imagine his journey begins at the construction site for the new World Trade Center. He rides south on the Amtrak, pausing in Washington, D.C. to visit the Lincoln Memorial, and then, the living memorial to Lincoln inside the Oval Office. (Whitman’s Ghost doesn’t speak to the already-embattled President; he is smart enough to know that President Obama has better things to do, and besides, it was Bill Clinton who was the real fan of his work.) Other cities dot his journey — Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia — before moving west, through the Rust Belt, through the steel towns of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, through woods and suburbs destroyed first by foreclosure, and then by crystal meth. 

In time, Whitman comes to the city that has come to symbolize all of America’s current troubles, a city once known as the beating heart of America’s industrial might, whose products crossed the globe and praised by poets in song. A city now burned down and hollowed out, whose last remaining manufacturers — the men who made those products — are close to becoming ghosts like Whitman. One is set to file for bankruptcy the following Monday, another is already in Chapter 11 (Klein). The streets are silent. Everyone is at the game.

It is a game Whitman knows, though he prefers baseball, and although that sport is in season this June of 2009, everyone in Detroit is at the Joe Louis Arena, watching the Detroit Red Wings play in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. And so Whitman goes to “the Joe,” arriving just in time to hear a familiar piano melody begin, over and over, echoing out of the arena’s PA system. The fans begin to sing:

Just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world — 

 They sing a song of defiance, expressing a love for “who they are and where they came from,” shouting into an uncertain future together, as one (Klein). The announcer playing this song, which has gone from a symbol of overblown rock pomposity (that guitar solo!) to symbol of resilience and moving forward, a collective nation on a midnight train going anywhere (that guitar solo), drops down the volume on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Detroit howls once more.

Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit.

Through his tears, Walt Whitman realizes that South Detroit is actually Canada. 

It might seem a little silly, the idea of Walt Whitman’s Ghost moved to tears by an endearingly pompous rock anthem from an endearingly pompous arena rock band from 1981. However, one need only look at the list of body parts which end Whitman’s own “I Sing The Body Electric” to realize that Whitman was no stranger to the endearingly pompous. (Seriously. Take a look at that list sometime. It’s like the never-ending piano melody of early modern poetry.) Time and time again, Whitman returns to the same ideas that Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain, and Neal Schon would later use when writing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” In section 48 of “Song of Myself,” he writes “And you or pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth…/And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero/And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe” (Myself, Whitman). This idea — that the United States is one of boundless optimism, where anyone can make a success of themselves — sounds much like these lines from “Don’t Stop Believin’:” “Some may win/Some may lose/And some were born to sing to the blues/But the movie never ends, it just goes on and on and on and on” (Journey). 

Whitman, too, is a master of the swift character sketch — in “I Sing The Body Electric,” consider “the swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine…” or “the group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner kettles, and their wives waiting” (Electric, Whitman). Whitman uses these sketches to describe America, describe life in the New World, in all its shades, from the slave to the laborer, from the New Yorker to the New Orleanian. Today, one can read Leaves of Grass and see the faces of those people — people you may know, or people who only exist in some mythical idea of America — just as vividly as one pictures “a singer in a smoky room/a smell of wine and cheap perfume/for a smile they can share the night” (Journey). 

Near the end of his life, having grown in esteem after the Civil War, Whitman wrote a “Postscript” to his literary career for Lippincot’s Magazine. “The living face and voice and emotional pulse only at last hold humanity together…” he wrote. “One of my dearest objects in my poetic expression has been to combine these Forty-Four United States into One Identity, fused, equal, and independent. My attempt has been mainly of suggestion, atmosphere, reminder, the native and common spirit of all, and perennial heroism” (Postscript, Whitman 1344).

It is these attempts of suggestion, atmosphere, and perennial heroism that echo in Walt Whitman’s ears alongside Steve Perry’s voice as he leaves the Joe Louis Arena and take flight. He soars over the Great Lakes and the Sun Belt, over the Rockies and the shores of San Diego. He flies, and as he flies, he hears a nation singing that song. It is covered by acapella groups and bluegrass ones, by hair metalers and indie rock girls. It is sung by drunken lawyers in kareoke bars and teenagers at high school dances, by sports teams and glee clubs of every stripe and every varying level of talent. It is a song that has defied the learn’d astronomers of rock criticism, existing in a perfect silence among the best of popular song.

 It is a song of optimism in the face of calamity — a song of the New World, a song that speaks to the best of Walt Whitman, and the best of all Americans. Some may win. Some may lose. And yes, some are born to sing the blues. But whether you’re a small town girl or a city boy, we are all — as Americans — blessed with a common spirit of perennial heroism, and the songs, the poems, that celebrate us celebrate our unfailing ability to roll the dice just one more time, and to never stop believin’ in not just ourselves, but each other. The idea of Walt Whitman crying at “Don’t Stop Believin’” is perhaps a silly one — but not only would he have cried at that moment in July 2009, he would have sung along.

 

Cited Works

Hill, Joe. “20th Century Ghost.” 20th Century Ghosts. New York: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.

Journey. “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Escape. Columbia, 1981. MP3.

Klein, Jeff Z. “At The Joe, Detroiters Sing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.” New York Times: Slap Shot. New York Times, 1 June 2009. Web. 7 June 2009. 

Whitman, Walt. “I Sing The Body Electric.”

Whitman, Walt. “The Old Man Himself: A Postscript.” Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.”