Stranger, in a Strange Land
Eat the Document, an extremely rare public view at the Museum of Television and Radio through November 13, is Bob Dylan's whimsically difficult, hourlong cut (with Howard Alk) of footage shot by Don't Look Back director D.A. Pennebaker during the singer's famously confrontational 1966 tour of Europe. Not only is it the kind of TV they don't make anymore, it's the kind of TV they didn't make ever, except this once - and, at that, ABC, which had commissioned the film for its artsy omnibus ABC Stage 67, declined to air it. (The museum is running the show with period commercials spliced in, for full "as if" effect.) Along with the album that the tour was also slated to produce - just released, 32 years late, as Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (see The Arts, page TK, for more)- it acquired the legendary stature of the unrevealed; widespread bootlegging has not dimmed its mythic aura.
With its jumbled, fragmented, suprasensical arrangement of staged events, stoned improv and concert and other documentary footage, Eat the Document is very much a precursor to Dylan's sprawling, semifictional home movie Renaldo & Clara, made a decade later on the Rolling Thunder tour - though rather more watchable for being a quarter the length, and rather more exciting for catching Dylan in the fullness of his transformation from protest poster boy to cocky mystic pop star. At 25, he was (so much) younger then than Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher, Liz Phair, Thom Yorke, Beck or sonnyboy Jakob are now, and - backed by the Hawks, the band that would, with the return of drummer Levon Helm, become the Band - working with reckless assurance right out on the precipitous edge of history. (TV trivia break: Mickey Jones, who filled in for Helm, went on to a recurring role on Home Improvement.) The same contrariness that inspired Dylan to perform, in the teeth of Vietnam-inspired anti-Yankee sentiment, before a huge American flag is displayed here in a puckish avoidance of documentary watchfulness, narrative flow and self-revelation; but it is nevertheless a fascinating piece, and in its abrupt, sub-Godardian shifts of mood and scene, fairly evocative of the relentless dislocations, chemical agitation and dumb humor of the touring life.
Lots to see here, if fleetingly: the comical viciousness of disgruntled fans; Bob sick in the back of a car with John Lennon; backstage with Johnny Cash singing "I Still Miss Someone" ("That's not how it goes at all," says Johnny, or words to that effect); in a hotel room with Robbie Robertson, singing songs you will have heard nowhere else, in a voice he never used again; and, especially, onstage with the Hawks, playing as if to shout down a hurricane, destroy time, recalibrate the cosmos.
A similar (though friendlier) mad force animates Freak, John Leguizamo's Tony-nominated, autobiographical one-man show, which has become - was always meant to be - the third of his "comedy specials" for HBO. As comedy, this is not so much "stand-up" as it is "run-around," and even though large tracts of the text would serve with minimal tweaking and bleeping for a Tonight Show spot, it is on the whole not so much comedy as it is choreography - the score to an intensely athletic, amazingly graceful, street-balletic, rockem-sockem performance. Consider by contrast Spalding Gray, a founding father of this now-much-attended school of monological memoir: Where Gray's brittle Yankee unburdenings work nearly as well on the page as on the stage, Freak - notwithstanding that the script has been published - has to be actualized, enacted, exploded into space and wrestled to the floor. It needs an audience. It requires a hall.
Creating with his camera a kind of fluid architecture of imagined space, director Spike Lee draws you deep into the story (which follows Leguizamo from conception to self-conception - the beginning of his acting career) while keeping you aware of the confines of the theater, the scuffed reality of the stage; and he subtly underlines shifting points of view in such a way that a large cast of re-created neighbors, "inner-city reject" friends, and bumptiously dysfunctional (though far from unloving) family seem to exist not in succession, but side by side. He allows Leguizamo to dissolve into his narrative without ever losing him from view. There's a lot of sex in it, and not a little violence, but it's ultimately a sweet story, sentimental but not too sappy - there's usually a punch line waiting around to knock any lumps out of your throat - and not unrelated, really, to Bill Cosby's reminiscences of Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold and His Brother Russell, With Whom He Slept. But, finally - as in Eat the Document - it's not the content but the performer that makes Freak worth 90 minutes of your while, the sheer animal excitement of watching an artist at the top of his game, and acing it.
Star power, part three: The quite marvelous Debbie Reynolds (merely a decade Bob Dylan's senior, I note with aged interest) reigns regally and with old-pro aplomb over the somewhat worn precincts of Halloweentown, a pleasant, not-too-spooky juvenile entertainment from the Disney Channel that borrows details, ideas and attitudes from The Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Damn Yankees and Mary Poppins, whose umbrella and magic carpetbag are handed over whole. Though the gears of the main plot - concerning good witch Debbie's attempt to foil, with the aid of her half-mortal grandchildren, a nasty beastie's plot to conquer the world (typical Sunnydale stuff, and all in a day's work for the Power Rangers) - are imperfectly machined and poorly mesh, there is alongside that story (and in Disney tradition) a better one of family reconciliation and self-acceptance. (It's Bewitched, essentially, with Darrin out of the picture, Tabitha hitting puberty, and Endora finally seen to be the sensible one - and about time, too.) The film also brushes against - almost, one would say, without noticing, so lightly are they explored - issues of identity, assimilation and segregation, with single-mother sorceress Judith Hoag passing for straight in the straight world and keeping her kids from their roots, while the vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, ogres, goblins, pumpkinheads, cat people and fish men of Earth have largely decamped to a kind of other-dimensional Liberia, the titular Halloweentown, to live without fear of the mob, the torchlight parade, the wooden stake. The more disturbing implications of this "solution" are, you will not be surprised, glossed over entirely - though you are free, of course, to discuss them with your children, or anyone with nothing better to do than to take this movie more seriously than it takes itself.
The unmetaphorical embodiment of these issues, meanwhile - pardon the glib transition - is the subject of PBS's Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery, which attempts in four 90-minute episodes to recount in meaningful personal detail the changing particulars of human bondage and racial persecution in a nation, you know, conceived in, uh, liberty and dedicated, sort of, to the proposition that all men, some of them, are created equal. It succeeds, certainly, better than the L.A. Unified School District did in my day.
Narrated by Angela Bassett and driven by impassioned scholarly comment and eloquent contemporary testimony (voiced by the likes of Andre Braugher and William Hurt), the series traces the crooked course of America's peculiar institution from its inception in the 17th century to the Emancipation Proclamation more than 200 years later; it is a story not only of facts and figures, places and people - of Olaudah Equiano, Charles Ball, Venture Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, John Brown - but of moral and philosophical expedience and evolution, of spiritual division and decision, of the frightening rapidity with which an economic convenience takes on the color of metaphysical certainty, and of the criminally slow process by which stirring conscience rises against entrenched tradition and a satisfied pocketbook. For African-Americans, of course, the question was always the same, and always simple.
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