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Good Cop, Bad Cop

I never pass up a chance to reproduce Anselmo Ballester’s magnificent Italian poster for Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat,” and the film’s appearance as an excellent new Blu-ray from our friends at Twilight Time seems as fine as excuse as they come. It’s a limited edition (3,000 copies) available only over the net, so if you have any afection at all for this film, I wouldn’t hesitate — at $29.95, it’s a (big) steal.

I’ve reformulated my thoughts about it for this week’s New York Times column, accompanied at no extra charge by a quick look at Phil Karlson’s thematically similar but politically displaced “Walking Tall” of 1973. Paramount has licensed the title to Shout! Factory, which has packaged the film with its two sequels (Earl Bellamy’s 1975 “Walking Tall Part II” and Jack Starrett’s 1977 “Final Chapter: Walking Tall”) in a nice set, available in both standard def and Blu-ray editions.

94 comments to Good Cop, Bad Cop

  • Dave, I watched Risi’s “Il Sorpasso” last night and pretty much adored it. Any other Risis you’d recommend off the top of your head?


  • “But even in his righteous anger, Bannion remains a curiously cold, withdrawn figure. His most audacious act is to rough up the middle-aged widow of the cop who killed himself, whom he believes to be on Lagana’s payroll — hardly a Wagnerian moment. For that, Lang needs a true Valkyrie, and he finds one in the undulating figure of Debby March (Gloria Grahame), the spurned mistress of Lagana’s chief enforcer, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Herself the victim of one of the most shocking acts of off-screen violence in film history — Vince hurls a pot of boiling coffee in her face — it’s Debbie who answers transgression with transgression, and precipitates the climactic Götterdämmerung.”
    – Dave Kehr.

    Great piece again from Dave Kehr. I’d only like to ask, if Bannion is hardened and cynical throughout The Big Heat? And does he only use the women in the story to get her revenge?

    The last time I saw Lang’s film was in summer 2010 at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland. Mr. Bernard Eisenschitz gave his Master Class on the film. He concentrated on the revenge aspect and Bannion’s coldness. Eisenschitz thought that Bannion used the women in the film quite coldly to take his revenge on the criminals who killed his wife.

    I saw a different Bannion, who is helped out of his deep freeze by the women who want to help him and put the matters right. Slowly, we can see how Bannion’s hard features soften as he looks upon these courageous women.

    Eisenschitz claims that Bannion uses the crippled, cane carrying Mrs. Parker (Edith Evanson) to his own ends without caring about what kind of a danger he puts her into. But actually, when Mrs. Parker identifies Gordon the gangster for Bannion by going to knock on his door, isn’t Bannion close nearby with his gun (that he had bought with his own money!), prepared to protect the old lady if anything happens? After the identification, Bannion rushes in and defeats the villain quite easily.

    When Bannion first meets Mrs. Parker, he has been very shaken by his wife’s murder and is full of hate for the criminals. But when he has the conversation with Mrs. Parker by the chain-link fence at the latter’s working place, isn’t there a warm glow growing on his features? He understands that Mrs. Parker truly wants to help him. Bannion sees that there is still some goodness and sense of justice in the world. That this offer of help comes from an old, herself a helpless person with a bad leg, makes it all the more touching – for us and for Bannion, as we can see from the look in his eyes.

    The same happens, in my mind, with Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). According to Eisenschitz, Bannion uses Debby by leaving her with a gun (meant for protection) – which she then takes and goes to kill bad cop Duncan’s widow. I’d thought that Debby gets the idea by herself – in trying to protect Bannion from committing a murder, because she is already in love with him. As she says to Bannion, he would not be different from the murderers, if he shot them. So Debby decides to act on his behalf.

    It’s hard for me to think that Bannion simply uses these two women to get his revenge. Why would he hate women, when her own wife has just suffered in the hands of unfeeling, murderous men? Bannion goes out of his way to protect both ladies, Mrs. Parker – by hiding nearby in the hotel corridor with his gun – and Debby – by getting a room near hers to be able to protect her. We have seen before in the film, that Bannion is not capable of killing, so why would he do it deliberately even by proxy?

    Of course, there is a connection with the helping women in the picture. Both are crippled in different ways, Mrs. Parker with her leg, and Debby with her burned face. Both these stricken women represent hope in The Big Heat. In the end, when Debby is shot, Bannion offers the same kind of warm look in her direction that he gave earlier to Mrs. Parker through the chain-link fence. Mr. Eisenschitz has found that there are many scenes in this film that parallel to some other scenes. The links in the characters of Parker and Debby and the equal admiration Bannion holds for both seems to fit this pattern.

    Maybe I should see the film again. Do you think I’m fooling myself? Did I miss something?

  • David Cohen

    About THE PHENIX CITY STORY, it fascinates me that the hero of that story about injustice and intimidation went on, in real life, to become the governor of Alabama who allowed the Freedom Riders of 1961 to be terrorized in his state.

  • D. K. Holm

    One could write an essay if not a book about coffee in movies. The lethal pot here; coffee as metaphor in Rio Grande and so on forever. Probably someone already has.

  • D.K. Holm: I have seen an Italian coffee-table book on that very subject! Published by one of the coffee companies.

  • Steve Abernathy

    Thanks for the notice. Now all I need is “Fury” on Blu-ray.

  • Jonah

    I expect Aki Kaurismaki is the subject of an entire chapter in that book.

  • There is the coffee that stands in for an existential void in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle.

  • Peter Henne

    Looping back to the RED RIVER discussion, doesn’t Matt make an appeal to Dunson’s men to take his side, saying “Then we’ll all have a cup of coffee”?

  • Barry Putterman

    Hannu, I think that we need to see Bannion’s coldness in relative rather than absolute terms. In answer to your first question; no, he is not hardened and cynical throughout. His basic nature and relationship to his wife (eating off each other’s plates, etc.) is carefully established before the explosion so that we can better see how he is evolving afterwards. And it is more unsettling to see that evolution knowing that his basic nature remains underneath it.

    The characters he encounters also sense that basic nature. I don’t think that Debby Marsh would have been attracted to The Man With No Name. But I think that you paint a more noble picture of her than what we actually see on the screen. She joins forces with Bannion as much to seek her own revenge as she does to aid his cause. And had she not been so dedicated to achieving her own revenge, she might have survived the climax.

    But the payoff comes when, after that climax, we see that Bannion is going to return to his original self. As he goes through his reverie regarding his wife, he seems all but oblivious to the fact that Debby Marsh is expiring. He may not be a complete monster, but ultimately it was all about him and nobody else.

    So, the bleakness is more oblique in THE BIG HEAT than in RANCHO NOTORIOUS where the similar situation ends with the realization that Vern Haskell has traveled too far into vengeance valley and will never return. But you pays your money and you takes your choice.

    I might add that if you really want to see this basic setup with coldness on the half shell, you should check out a Paul Wendkos film called THE CASE AGAINST BROOKLYN. It very consciously plays around with all of the elements of THE BIG HEAT and ends on a devestating note without any of the central characters dying. I believe that it is available in Sony’s burn on disc series. Although you may have to search throuh several haystacks to find it.

    But on the truly primal issue of coffee, I must say that the most astonishing sequence I’ve seen recently was in a Columbia Boris Karloff movie called THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES (Nick Grinde). Here, that noted scientific genius Roger Pryor is trying to revive a patient he has keep in frozen suspended animation for six months in front of a tense operating theater crowd of hushed colleagues. Finally, after a series of delicate medical maneuvers, Pryor barks to the nurse for the hot coffee. She goes to the coffee pot on the hot plate, gets a funnel attached to a tube, brings it to Pryor who pours the coffee into the tube, down the patient’s throat, and she regains consciousness. Java jive at its very best!

  • The Italian book may have been published by Lavazza, and I use to examine it when I visit the best coffee shop of Finland, Kaffecentralen. They sell Italian coffee machines, but so far they have refused to sell the book to me. The glossy images on the big pages are largely of café scenes in Italian movies dolce vita style. Coffee is essential in the history of the cinema, and Italian espresso is the best choice for a drink before a movie. Some favourite movies with coffee or cafés besides THE BIG HEAT: THE IMMIGRANT, THE MERRY WIDOW (the Lubitsch version), THE WILD ONE, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER, TWIN PEAKS, PULP FICTION, HEAT, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL. Any number of impressive café scenes in Italian, French, and American movies. In Finnish cinema coffee is ubiquitous.

  • Oliver_C

    “Do you really think the neurological effects of coffee are similar to that of cocaine?”
    — from The Last Days of Disco

  • jbryant

    My favorite coffee-related movie moment is in HORSEFEATHERS, when a panhandler approaches Harpo and says, “Hey, buddy, could you help me out? I’d like to get a cup of coffee.” Whereupon Harpo reaches in his pocket and produces…a steaming cup of hot coffee, complete with saucer.

  • Alex

    “If you can’t sleep, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”
    —Preston Sturges (“Christmas in July,” 1940)

  • “His basic nature and relationship to his wife… ” – Barry Putterman

    Thank you, Barry, for your thoughtful answer to my pondering. I’ll have to see THE BIG HEAT again and have a closer look on dvd (it was the first dvd of Lang’s work published in Finland and with Finnish text, now, thankfully, there are some more around), to see all the details.

    Bannion returning to his original self… Yes, quite right. He returns back to his job in the force reinvigorated, I think because these women have had their influence on him: he got back his belief in justice and in the possibility of love, exactly the two things he lost when his wife got killed.

    “And had she not been so dedicated to achieving her own revenge, she might have survived the climax.” Yes, it is a complex portrait and all the richer for it.

    I love Rancho Notorious, also. And thank for the tip on THE CASE AGAINST BROOKLYN, sounds interesting!

    And on the subject of coffee: how about Buster Keaton’s amazing trick with the coffee tray in COLLEGE? (Although, unfortunately, some things in the performance are not politically correct.)

  • Alex

    “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

    -Alfréd Rényi (Bruce Schechter, My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdős, 1998)

  • Alex

    “On 7-8 October 1791, about two months before his death, Mozart wrote to his wife: ‘Right after you left I played two games of billiards with Herr Mozart (who wrote the opera for Schikaneder’s theater); then I sold my nag for 14 ducats; then I had Joseph summon Primus and bring me black coffee, with which I smoked a wonderful pipe of tobacco; then I orchestrated almost all of Stadler’s rondo.’”

    -John Rice, “Music in the Age of Coffee” (2007, Eighteenth-Century Music)

  • David Cohen

    My guess is if someone ever wrote a book on coffee in movies, you could get a heckuva foreword out of Quentin Tarantino. (Given the number of coffee scenes in his movies, his tirade in PULP FICTION about buying the expensive coffee struck me as perhaps autobiographical.)

  • Alex

    There’s been rich stream of historical writing on coffee, society and culture for nearly two decades, e.g., on coffee and the enlightenment (“Before the Dutch introduction of Java, the elites of Wurope awoke to a flaggen of two of beer and were asleep by eleven; after it they awoke to coffee and worked all day.”)

    Something on “coffee and film”might make a contribution to “the literature.”

    Ditto, perhaps, for tea.

  • Michael K.

    I just love that Dave K. seems to find a way to work Fritz Lang into his column at least 3-4 times a year.
    I’m not complaining. With every year I feel that Lang’s films become richer, more relevant and modern and worthy of even more detailed examination and celebration.

  • Hannu,

    This is terrific commentary. It is a well researched rejoinder to the growing Conventional Wisdom that the hero of THE BIG HEAT is an exploiter of women.

    From my web-article on Fritz Lang:

    “A key piece of dialogue has Katie Bannion insisting that Dan Bannion stand up to the corruption in the town. Dan wholeheartedly agrees. Neither talks about the huge price that Katie Bannion will soon pay for this resistance. It is not clear how deeply either understands the danger involved. Still, the decision for Dan to stand up to the mob is a joint decision on the couple’s part, arrived at through a democratic marriage. Other dialogue throughout the movie depicts the two as sharing everything. Dan’s final speech to Debby talks about how fiercely Katie would call him to task if he did not live up to her expectations of his behavior. All of this suggests that the couple usually made decisions together.

    Other “honest” couples in the film behave similarly. When Lt. Wilks finally stands up to the mob, it follows an off-screen discussion with his wife, where the two discuss the issue. The decision for Katie’s sister and her husband to guard the little girl from the mob clearly has the informed consent of both. The two follow 1950’s gender roles in this situation – the sister takes care of the kid, while the husband and his male friends stand armed guard – but both clearly understand and consent to the guarding.

    Even the dead cop at the beginning first shared his corruption with his wife, then reformed under the influence of his girlfriend, as dialogue near the end of the movie makes clear.

    These examples make clear that Dan Bannion is not a person with sole responsibility for the events of the film. Other people are sharing it. He has plenty of responsibility, and four people wind up dead after his crusade. Still, interpretations of The Big Heat that suggest he is solely responsible are not supported by the film.

  • THE WYOMING STORY (1961) is a 47-minute episode of THE RIFLEMAN, directed by Joseph H. Lewis in fine style. It tries to include film noir images and plot in a Western. It has several elements that recall THE BIG HEAT.
    The mob boss’ bodyguard George in THE BIG HEAT is played by Chris Alcaide, who shows up on THE RIFLEMAN as a frequent guest villain. He’s the villain’s Number 2 again in THE WYOMING STORY.
    Coffee is everywhere in Joseph H. Lewis. It’s in at least 14 of his features and 35 of his TV episodes.

    Favorite coffee dance: “Coffee Time” in YOLANDA AND THE THIEF (Minnelli).

  • Griff

    Hannu, thank you for your thoughtful and very insightful comments.

  • “Dale cafe, mucho cafe.” General Quiepo de Llano’s orders for the execution of Federico Garcia Lorca. Bad cop indeed.

  • Hannu, Dave Bannion does at first seem to have returned to his old, family-man self at the end of the film, but then Lang slyly throws in a line that both undercuts his commitment to fair and just police work and underlines his selfish use and abandonment of Debbie: as he heads out the door on his way to a new case, he orders an aide to “keep the coffee warm”!

  • I agree with Dave Kehr’s statement that the unnamed town in THE BIG HEAT is “Everycity”.

    William P. McGivern added a preface to his original novel THE BIG HEAT (1952-1953) years later. He reveals that events in the unnamed city in the book, were inspired by a real life police corruption case in Philadelphia in the late 1940’s.

    The film of THE BIG HEAT is fairly faithful to McGivern’s novel.

    The novel was originally serialized in the magazine THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. Reading fiction in the POST was virtually a religion for middle class Americans of the era. One suspects that the reason a film adaptation of THE BIG HEAT was green-lit by the suits, is that the story appeared in the POST, and was thus perfect mass media fare.

  • Inspired by this chain I visited Kaffecentralen today and while enjoying a cup of their “damn good coffee” examined their coffee table book, too. Called CAFFÈ & STARS (in Italian and English, Damiani, 2005) it is based on the huge Vincenzo Mollica Reporters Associati photographic archive with previously unpublished images from the 1940s till the 1970s, with Federico Fellini, Anita Ekberg, Vittorio De Sica, Sophia Loren, Joe DiMaggio, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Yvonne Sanson, Amedeo Nazzari, etc. enjoying coffee at Via Veneto and on sets representing Italian kitchens. Nothing but “damn good photographs” from a golden age in Italian cinema. The book seems to be available at Amazon, and the coffee company behind the enterprise is La Marcozzo.

    Simone Starace: thank you for the link to the further beautiful posters by Anselmo Ballester!

  • Barry Putterman

    In a nostalgic mood, I recall that WALKING TALL was something of a phenomenon back in 1973. In those days before uniform, nationwide releases, the film had come and gone in Baltimore (and most of the rest of the “unsophisticated” areas of the U.S.) without causing much of a ripple. Then, all of a sudden, there was a Kael length rave (in every sense of the word) review of the film by Jon Landau in “Rolling Stone.” He delineated the color coding, he creamed about the phallic images, he treated the film like it was both art and a rockin’ good time.

    All of a sudden, the movie was back. It had a TV ad campaign showing people standing up and appluding in movie theaters to show what an exceptionally moving and populist experience the film was. Everybody was talking about it and it was now a “hit’ with a capital “It.”

    Moving forward, there was a bit of a critical turning attention away from the major studios and a search through the bushes of shoestring exploitation distributors to find folks like Mark L. Lester and his TRUCK STOP WOMEN. Indeed, a bit of a cleavage seemed to develop between devotion to the “new” Hollywood of Scorsese-Altman-Coppola or to the low budget genre movies reflective of the 50s.

    Not that any of this did Phil Karlson much good. He made FRAMED, which quickly came and went in 1975, and then disappeared. But you could look back on that moment as the beginning of the end of that 70s generation, and the beginning of the beginning of what is now represented by Quentin Tarantino.

  • Thanks for recommending the link to the Ballester site, Simone. It’s operated by his grandson, who is a professor of mathematics in Rome. I had the pleasure of meeting him some years ago, and he has a vast archive of original sketches and paintings by his grandfather.

    On the subject of Italian film posters, allow me to recommend my own tome on the subject, fittingly entitled Italian Film Posters. You may recognize the cover image.

  • Thank you very much, Mike, Griff, Dave and again Barry, for your kind words and remarks answering my thoughts on Bannion and THE BIG HEAT. You’re interest made my day!

    It’s nice not to be entering in a “big, heated” argument about this, when we perhaps can all agree at least that the possibilities a film offers with its inner, even contradicting, tensions to approach it from different angles make the end result the richer. And perhaps there is no end to interpretations.

    This thread seems to be pulling everything towards the coffee theme, so Dave’s comment on the scorching joke at the end of the film is very appropriate concerning this discussion also: “…then Lang slyly throws in a line…”

    Lang doesn’t seem to be able not to be cynical – or is it worldly wise? – and cast his doubts about Bannion’s good intentions. It is a sour note on a happy ending, a stinging joke, but a joke never the less. I would think, however, that in this instance having it both ways – respecting those intentions AND entertaining some doubts about the future for the city and Bannion’s possibilities – is not a “cop” out. Nobody’s perfect, not even Bannion even after all he’s gone through.

    When offering my opinion about Bannion’s, to my mind, basic good nature, I was of course not in any way dismissing Mr. Eisenschitz’s findings (or Dave’s!) and his thorough work on this and other Lang films, most of which is I do not know (I do own a dvd copy of MOONFLEET – one of my absolute Lang favorites, also – with Eisenschitz’s commentary.)

    Of course after his lecture in Sodankylä I ran after him into the street – his Master Class of THE BIG HEAT was so long and specific, that there wasn’t any time for discussion and questions after because another festival film was starting – and I tried to express my point of view and asked if he could comment. He listened politely, but understandably did not budge an inch from his earlier views. We parted ways amicably in the beautiful summer evening and I treasure his autograph, which he signed on my copy of the festival program (he was too modest to write it on the cover of the book – which I suggested – and wrote his name on an inner page).

    Thanks again to Dave for his continuing efforts in keeping this blog so entertaining and such a riveting read. It is certainly the best I’ve found and I follow it religiously. Even if I seldom have anything to add in such a knowledgeable and awe-inspiring company!

  • Barry Putterman

    Hannu, you are, of course, entirely welcome again. But I can’t help thinking that we would be much better off if there was a little less awe and a whole lot more additions from you and so many others who have contributed to making the blog what it is.

    I would only add that another Lang film which you may want to look at as a comparison piece in relation to the Bannion/Debby situation in THE BIG HEAT would be MAN HUNT. Sometimes the context you choose to interpret a particular film is influenced by how often and in what ways similar situations pop up in the director’s other films.

  • Tony Williams

    Hannu, Two anti-Bannion readings occur in the following sources: “Creativity and Evaluation” by Robin Wood in FILM NOIR READER 2 and Colin McArthur’s BFI monograph on the film.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Jon Landau is to some the evil genius behind the rise and repute of Bruce Springsteen:

    A pullquote from this article (“Jon Landau’s middle-class fantasy of white, working-class authenticity”) is relevant to Landau’s praise for WALKING TALL, that was, as noted by Barry, behind its successful remarketing as a faux-populist hit.

    Of course I wouldn’t argue that Phil Karlson was cynical; he always seemed to me as invested in his blue collar revenge stories as Sam Fuller in his own Americana.

    Jon Landau is now the producer of TITANIC 3D.

  • David Cohen

    That Springsteen article strikes me as terribly wrong-headed on many levels. But then this is probably not the place for that particular discussion.

    Karlson died in 1985. When he did, was WALKING TALL the headline story for his obit? If so, that would be unfortunate given how much good work he did in the 1950s.

  • Gregg Rickman

    David, I myself am neutral on Springsteen, an artist who has always left me quite indifferent (which Stephen Metcalf, author
    of the piece I referenced, says is impossible). I won’t be laying a Kubrick-style critique on him, as I don’t know his work well enough to critique it, save for the endlessly replayed and inescapable “high watermark for Springsteen commercially… ‘Born in the
    USA'” which as Metcalf says “somehow caught both the feelings of social dislocation and the euphoric jingoism of the Reagan era.” To me the tune sums up the phony patriotism of A.D. 1984, is as much a part of American culture of the time as GHOSTBUSTERS and TOP GUN, and critiquing it is an act like Robin Wood’s critique of “Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan.” While I know Springsteen has attempted to summon the ghost of Tom Joad (for all I know successfully) there’s gotta be something, you know, objectively ineffective about a social critic idolized by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

    My memory of WALKING TALL is that it is very much of a piece with THE PHENIX CITY STORY — a reality-based story built around a real life character who perhaps doesn’t bear too close an examination (as David pointed out about PHENIX CITY’s future Governor Jim Patterson).

    Kudos to Hannu and Mike Grost for their contrarian readings of THE BIG HEAT. But with Lang, Karlson or Bruce Springsteen, we probably shouldn’t guess how “sincere” an artist is. We can’t really know. Their effects on us, how we feel in our guts, is often dismissed as subjective but if you think about it comprises more objective criticism than what we can infer about the artist’s attitudes.

  • Steve Elworth

    They are actually two different Jon Landaus. One was born in 1960 and the son of Edie and Ely Landau and is the producer of James Cameron films. the older one born in 1947 is the former music and film critic that we have been discussing and has been Bruce Springsteen’s producer manger since the middle 70s. Do not confuse because that will cause chaos.

  • Griff

    Gregg: While the Jon Landau now associated with Bruce Springsteen was indeed the author of the Rolling Stone review of WALKING TALL, he is definitely not the same Jon Landau who produces films with James Cameron.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Steve and Griff, thanks for the correction! Can’t have too many Jon Landaus running around. There’s chaos enough as it is.

    I blame the coffee.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I would imagine that Metcalf’s assertion that it is impossible to be neutral about Springsteen is grounded in the assumption that you care about rock and roll in the first place.

    I also have only a casual familiarity with Springsteen’s work But I don’t see why he should be saddled with the baggage of who his fans happen to be. I don’t imagine that Springsteen is an admirer of Chris Chrstie, but isn’t Christie entitled to his own contrarian views as well?

    However, I do also think that there is something unsettling about an artist who is allegedly trying to channel the spirit of Tom Joad to be known affectionately by his followers as “The Boss.”

  • Alex

    For the advance of civilization, sure, coffee.
    But for movies, cigarette smoking!

    For mise-en-scène, that final long scene in John Cassavetes’ FACES in which smoking fill Richard Forst’s house with more smoke than Ridley Scott ever blew onto a set for moody ambience.

    For psychological revelation, that scene in Jean Renoir’s LES BAS-FOND in which Jouvet’s aristocrat, having lost everything, comes away from the gaming tables and can’t light his cigarette.

    For sublimation, that scene in NOW, VOYAGER in which Paul Henreid’s irretrievably married lights a cigarette for beloved Bette Davis shortly before she says “Don’t ask for the moon, we have the stars….

  • Barry: I love Lang almost as much as I love Jacques Tourneur, every time I find one of their films on the dvd market, I try to add it to my collection and cut on the bread and butter! Interesting comparison, the Bennett character was supposed to be a prostitute before the censors decided otherwise. Here’s my thoughts on MAN HUNT It’s in Finnish, of course~(;^)~ so I suppose I won’t get so much flack…

  • Matthew Fisher

    Gregg, find the lyrics to “Born in the USA” (from Springsteen’s official site, maybe), pull up the song on Youtube, then read along as you listen. I can’t guess your reaction, but I’d be surprised if you still felt it “sums up the phony patriotism of A.D. 1984…” The refrain’s apparent content (as well as context, provided by the crucial-but-often-ignored verses) was commonly misconstrued to mean the precise opposite of what was intended. Reagan’s (or rather his handler’s) attempt at appropriating the song’s (and Springsteen’s) popularity by mentioning it during a late 1984 campaign stop was, shall we say, ironic. “All I can see is the flags,” indeed. Myself, I think it’s THE great political song of the Reagan years. For what it’s worth, its tenor is very much of a piece with the rest of the album for which it’s entitled.

    And since this is a film site: have a look (if you can find it) at the song’s less-than-jingoistic music video directed by John Sayles.

  • Alex

    Born in the USA is social criticism and irony from the start of its first verse(“Born down in a dead man’s town
    The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
    You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much” ) through the end of its last
    (I’m ten years burning down the road
    Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”) to it final chorus (“I’m a long gone daddy in the U.S.A.
    Born in the U.S.A.
    Born in the U.S.A.
    Born in the U.S.A.
    I’m a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.”)
    This is not Reaganesque at all, though it might have picked up some “Reagan Democrat” type fans form their unwitting responses to the “Born in the U.S.A.,” weary though it is.

    Who knows what Chris Christie likes or dislikes in rock ‘n roll; but it’s a good bet that any public impression that Chris Christie idolized Bruce Spingsteen is largely the consequence of Christie pandering to those Springsteenian potential “Reagan Democrats” –and perhaps hoping to mute Springsteen’s not inconsiderable Middle Atlantic political influence.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry and Alex make the valid point that it’s unfair to blame an artist for his fans, but that’s not what I wrote; I wrote “there’s gotta be something, you know, objectively ineffective about a social critic idolized by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.” Alex thinks Christie was faking it for political points, but from what I’ve read he’s quite the devotee. It says here he’s “attended more than 100 Springsteen shows” and has a signed Fender guitar from the Boss hanging on his office wall. This is all in the context of a report that he was caught napping – or according to him having a “spiritual” moment – at a Springsteen concert last month. ( Funny stuff!

    Given that Mussolini liked Laurel & Hardy I give Springsteen a pass, of course, for his fans. Matthew’s perfectly valid defense of the evident intention behind the “USA” lyrics runs however into the reality of its reception; as he puts it himself “The refrain’s apparent content (as well as context, provided by the crucial-but-often-ignored verses) was commonly misconstrued….” “Crucial-but-often-ignored” and “commonly misconstrued” political art is ineffective political art.

    Matthew also, very astutely, references the longstanding controversy over the meaning of FORT APACHE (“all you can see is the flags”). Does “Born in the USA” achieve the level of ideological complexity of FORT APACHE? Can intelligent people have completely different opinions as to the meaning of the work, as in the case of the Ford film? Or is it a case of the artist evidently intending one meaning, but because of another aspect of the work (its catchy refrain, perhaps) another meaning becomes the dominant one?

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I would say that if intelligent people can’t have completely different opinions about the meaning of any work, then we are all wasting a hell of a lot of time posting on this blog. Beyond that, the artist does his work and presents it, and that ends his responsibility. It isn’t up to him to inform us of its intended meaning. He doesn’t even have to be aware of its intended meaning. How we individually and collectively choose to interpret the meaning of the work is up to us.

  • Peter Henne

    Gregg, Your wry posts are leaving me in stitches, but I stop short at lumping “crucial-but-often-ignored” into the failure pile. That sounds like thrusting populism into a paradigm, which would ignore the cunning success of numerous avant-gardes. The stand-by idea is that they’re ignored because they’re unconsummable on a mass scale. Nevertheless, even without becoming widely embraced, the avant-gardes have a way of framing debates and directions. I wonder how many people listen to “Le Sacre du Printemps” out of love instead of the dutiful display of curiosity, or obliging highbrow culture by tolerating a snippet of raucousness in Disney, yet Stravinsky changed the shape and widened the emotional expression for music.

  • Barry Lenner

    “The Big Heat” is being screened at MoMA next month for
    3 days at 1:30 each day. It’s part of curator Charles
    Silver’s auteur series. Check the MoMA calendar for the
    exact dates.

  • Alex

    (1)”it’s unfair to blame an artist for his fans,”

    (2) “there’s gotta be something, you know, objectively ineffective about a social critic idolized by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.”


    But “1” does blame Springsteen for at least one fan, or at least denigrates his social criticism on the basis of him having that fan.

    Re “2” it’s just as likely that there might be something ALL TOO “objectively ineffective about a social critic idolized by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.”

    Also, I by no means said or implied that “Christie was faking it for political points.” I implied that it’s a good bet that the tastes a politician nudges out into the public are ones he views as politically advantageous. Can you actually think otherwise?

    In any case, Christie has good taste Re rock ‘n roll.

  • Alex

    That is, “there might be something ALL TOO ‘objectively effective” about a social critic idolized by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.”