Two recent noteworthy events "in the arts," as they say: the premiere in New York of a new film by Peter Bogdanovich called "Targets" and the release of a new album by Sly and the Family Stone called "Life." Because I'll be able to talk more about "Targets" later when it arrives in Amherst, and because Sly and the Family Stone are pretty close to signing contracts to appear in Amherst for "Williams Weekend," most of this little piece will skip over "Targets" specifically to get a closer look at Sly and the connection between the two.
"Targets" is, as far as I know, the first Hollywood-produced film made under the complete control of a new young film-maker of the "auteur" school, one of the dominant trends in film criticism and theory in Europe and America for the last flew years. The "auteur" doctrine is based on the assumption that the director alone controls every second of a cinematic work, that his is the total viewpoint shaping the film, that his concepts, executions, and visions are what finally come through in the finished product. The film is the director's possession. The writer, the actors, the cameramen, the editor are all merely tools, almost irrelevant in criticizing the movie: they are a frame for the director.
The greatest idols of "auteur" critics are what most film-buffs think of as "Hollywood hacks": Howard Hawks ("Rio Bravo"), Jerry Lewis ("The Nutty Professor"), Samuel Fuller ("Shock Corridor," "Al Capone"), Roger Corman ("The Pit and the Pendulum"), John Ford ("Cheyenne Autumn"). What "auteurs" consider the great films, most people think of as grade-B westerns, adventuress, or gangster trifles. Bogdanovich, for instance, considered the two best films of last year to be "El Dorado" with John Wayne and "The Patsy" with Jerry Lewis. "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate" weren't even considered.
Bogdanovich is unique in that most young film-makers today look with scorn at Hollywood product, and consider underground and independent films to be where it's really at. Bogdanovich, on the other hand, always considered Hollywood the pinnacle of artistic film achievement and is totally scornful of rebellious film movements. There has always been a big "auteur" school of film-makers in Europe, headed by Jean-Luc Godard ("Breathless") but Bogdanovich may be the first in this country to break through.
Form and style over content. Under the "auteur" theory, content (plot, characterization, theme, relevance) mean almost nothing. It is the director's attitude to his material, the nature of his style, his cinematic technique from a purely visual angle that matters. So what if "El Dorado" had story, theme, and characterization worthy of a six year old. The director's hand was evident every minute. In purely filmic terms, the picture's considered a triumph.
Hitchcock on "Psycho": "My main satisfaction in 'Psycho' is that the film had an effect on audiences. I don't care about the subject matter, I don't care about acting, but I do care about the pieces of film and photography and sound track and all the technical ingredients that make the audience respond. In 'Psycho' the audience was not aroused by a theme, a great performance, or a story: they were stirred by pure film." The emergence of "Targets" could mark a new trend in American films.
And that brings us to Sly and the Family Stone who could mark a new era in soul music. The first major "auteur" rock group. Sly is to soul what "The Nutty Professor" is to films. Yeah. Right. Up until Sly, I think soul music was well on its way to becoming pop music's second biggest cliche, only surpassed by psychedelic "freak-crap."
McLuhan would be proud of Sly. His albums, in essence, have no content, at least not in the traditional sense. There is not one memorable song on his new album, "Life." There are almost no lyrics of any especial substance, pungency, substance or inherent worth. In fact, all the songs seem interchangeable: it's all one extended piece, constantly kaleidoscoping, weaving in and weaving out. It's all form and style, and it's all fantastic.
Sly has just about gotten rid of the song-writer: the director, i.e. the arranger, is all. The arrangements are the song, not just a treatment of the song. None of Sly's works have the primitive, simple single tonic texture of most soul music: it's hard to imagine Sly as frat-music for dry-beer humping. Each song contains so many sudden, surprising "flash" changes that the song itself ceases to exist. The arrangement is all: an arrangement not of a unified single piece, but a tapestry of sounds : little phrase bits, melodic snatches, tinges of instrumental solos, twitching guitar outbursts that pass as soon as they arrive, a hint of lyrics all swirling together.
Sly depends much less on song content than any other rock group from the Beatles to Cream to the Doors. The vocals, instrumentals are all tools, with little life of their own. Solos are over before they take shape. Orderly songstory and logic is out. The medium is — well, it works.
In person, Sly and the Family Stone is a toppling, careening three ring circus. His group is one of the top few concert rock acts in the world today. Like a carnival in hysterics, they're all over the stage, grotesquely dancing, twirling, shaking, sweeping from one instrument to another, passing mikes back and forth like scalpers and tearing out the notes. They look like marionettes in heat.
(Just to see Sly's sister makes the whole thing worth it. Like Sly, she's black but with a crown of curly totally zapped blonde hair that looks like Jimi Hendrix's brain after teasing.)
"Life" is like a sprint. And when it's over, you've forgotten where you started from, and you're too dizzy to see where you ended up. But you know you were with them all the way. And that sums up Sly's stuff: You can't get off until you're home.
You get the feeling that Sly and the Family Stone may well be the culmination of something that hasn't even, begun. Now, if Peter Bogdanovich could learn to play organ …
Source: Amherst Student archives (Note: you might notice that the top of the scanned page says the date is the 16th. It's wrong!)