Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, June 20, 2005

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

Now I can finally say I’ve seen “The Jazz Singer,” the movie that changed everything. It wasn’t exactly the first talking picture ever made, nor is it exactly a real talking picture. But, it was the film that signified the future in 1927, the one that made sound an integral part of the motion picture experience. So, I’ve always wanted to see it.

It’s not very good, and yet, I’ve been thinking about it for two days. I find it interesting on a lot of levels. Basically, the story is about a generational divide, between the immigrant Jews who held on to their traditions, and the Americanized youth who need to move on, to build a new culture. Al Jolson plays the jazz singer, the youth who turns his back on his parents in order to, well, frankly, rip off African-American culture.

Why is he in black-face when he performs on stage in this movie? His big break comes when he snags a role in a Broadway revue, but for some reason, he corks up his face and puts on a close-fitting, African hair wig. I guess it completes his transformation, his assimilation into a world far removed from his own, while symbolizing that Jews weren’t the lowest of the low in 1927. At any rate, it makes the whole picture more problematic than the flimsy story and uninteresting directing deserves.

Jolson was described by Gilbert Seldes, America’s first popular culture critic, as an unstoppable, larger-than-life force, as essentially the triumph of vulgarity. And, you can definitely see that the guy was a bundle of energy, and capable of “jazzing” up popular ballads of the day. The movie makes a big point of saying he has a “tear” in his voice, the same as his father, the Jewish cantor. I don’t know much about cantors, but I know that the vocal sung by the father (actually portrayed by Warner Oland, who later went on to play Charlie Chan in many movies; I don’t know if that’s really him singing) was profoundly moving, while Jolson’s vocals are at best diverting.

See, I do know about jazz, and I know that Jolson wasn’t doing anything half as interesting as Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith were creating at the time. It’s interesting that the 20s were known as the “Jazz Age,” but that was because white audiences accepted a remarkably watered-down version of what blacks were inventing. I suppose it was progress to try watering the stuff down rather than making it seem ridiculous, as minstrelsy had done for decades before. But, it’s impossible for us now to take Jolson’s vocals seriously, as either emotionally powerful (when he sings the pathetic songs about motherhood) or sexually liberating (as when he bounces around like a meth addict on “Toot Toot Tootsie.”)

On the other hand, I can’t think of too many depictions of actual Jewish experience on the big screen in the years between 1927 and, I don’t know, whenever Woody Allen discovered Ingmar Bergman. So, as a window on a lost world, “The Jazz Singer” holds some moderate levels of interest. The footage of the ghetto’s hustle and bustle was interesting, and the shots of services in the synagogue were fascinating, and beautiful. When Jolson’s parents are concerned he may be taking up with a shiksa, his papa reassures mama that many of the world’s actors are Jewish with stage names made up to cover up their past. That seems like a remarkably honest point to have been made onscreen at a time when changing names seemed like a necessary part of having a career.

So, I’ve seen it, and I can go on. If it’s hard to see exactly why audiences at the time found this superior to the silents of the day, which had reached a remarkable level of artistry throughout the 20s, it’s easy to understand the lure of novelty which caused talkies to so thoroughly take over the market so quickly. For better and for worse, “The Jazz Singer” was the movie that brought us into the modern world, the one where innovation would be seen as more important than invention.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

your poor wife, having to sit through your blowhard lectures.

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