Elvis As Metaphor

I saw a show the other night called Independent Lens|PBS  The King. PBS is our local public TV channel. (It can also be steamed). Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes the King’s 1963 Rolls-Royce on a road trip across America.The show is presumably about Elvis–the so called King of rock and roll, however it tackles a much larger and current viewpoint(s) on the American Dream vs. American Reality as it cleverly uses the rise an fall of Elvis as a metaphor:

A cross-country road trip in Elvis’ Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce, The King is far more than a musical biopic; it’s a penetrating portrait of America at a critical time in the nation’s history and an unflinching investigation into the state of the American dream. The film traces Elvis’ rise and fall from the Deep South to New York, Las Vegas, and countless points between. Alongside this, the film examines America in parallel, from her auspicious founding to her own struggles with excess power up to the acute challenges of today.

I am not a great fan of Elvis Presley per se, however I do admire his early breakthrough work and artistry. What really woke and startled me was/is the selling of the American Dream through Hollywood as the reality for one and all.

“So I think that the American Dream was always someone’s fantasy, and someone else’s drunken nightmare.”

Anthony Bourdain understood this. His final episodes on Parts Unknown–Manhattan’s Lower East Side and The Bronx also focus on this dream vs. fantasy experience mainly through the eyes and lives of groundbreaking creative artists. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s left little room for identifying with any other reality than the big American Dream, “Work hard–get ahead,” which was viable for a large swath of working middle America at the time, and a cruel joke for the under privileged. Sadly, civil rights abuses, The Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam war were merely background “noise” unless you were living/experiencing it.

This is a difficult post to write, because I’m not sure I’m getting my thoughts and feelings across accurately. The astounding takeaway here (for me) is how willingly we buy into illusion, dream or political belief compelling us in one direction without our ever being aware of or contemplating the alternative as in “Dream vs. drunken nightmare” until it smacks us in the face. And smack us in the face it does in today’s highly charged and chaotic climate with competing biases/beliefs–red vs blue state, conservative vs progressive, Trump vs anti-Trump and violent vs cooperative.

Watch the show’s clips from the media/press coverage on Elvis’ induction and turn in the Army vs. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the Viet Nam war. What a stark contrast of media slant or white vs. black political reporting, and thus the whitewashing of history. Muhammad Ali stood up for his beliefs, was exiled from boxing (every bit his identity/art as music was to Elvis), and thus he paid a high price for walking the walk or following his convictions, while Elvis went along for the politically correct ride and lost as well, only his loss was much more personal and damaging in the end–addiction. Today Ali is a hero or at least deemed courageous and empowering while Elvis is still musically entertaining–his is a cautionary tale. Elvis sold out- for money and fame–Ali did not.

And the question surfaces–did Elvis appropriate black musicians’ music/style etc. or did he blend multiple genres and grit into rock and roll? Some wonderful give and takes on this. I believe that the jury is still out here, but did he owe it to his black musical forebears to speak out and jump into civil rights protests? The bigger question in my mind is–what should we expect from entertainers? Is it imperative that they become political proponents/take sides or stick to entertaining? I believe it has to do with artists vs. entertainers. Artists  and artistry has always been and will always be beacons for belief systems or a moral compass. Entertainers do not have to take up the mantle of politics. It gets confusing on art vs. diversion just as there are no cut and dry answers on artistic appropriation.

I highly recommend this show and the series for an independent and insightful look at American history at a critical historical time in the U.S.A juxtaposed to current events and culture. As Elvis’ 1963 Rolls-Royce cruises along, it also breaks down, has to be towed, picks up a hitch-hiker and other colorful characters, musicians and fans jump in and out for a ride. Our Canadian neighbors get to chime in as well. Quite entertaining and artistic at the same time..

A Jolly Holiday–Not

Yesterday, on day one 2019, I took a leap of faith and went to see the movie, Mary Poppins Returns. The leap for me is that in the not-too-distant past, the bright flashing lights on screen and sporadic loud bursts of noise due to the showing of multiple movie previews, have triggered migraines. This time I came prepared with eye shades for 30 minutes of coming attractions and it worked–no headache. It was the first movie, in a theatre, that I have been to in ten years because of the migraines. Thus it was a  “new year event” and trial for me. The movie was playing in a very comfortably posh yet cold and charmless uptown theatre. Posh in the sense that the seats were puffy leather recliners with enough space between them to accommodate serious snoring without disturbing the person next to you or a great lateral position for watching a meteor shower. Cold in the sense of “artless.”

The real headache or heartache in this instance is my disappointment in the movie. Somehow I missed this review that appeared in the New York Times:

“Bathed in nostalgia, “Mary Poppins Returns” is being framed as a homage, and there’s clearly some love here. Mostly, it is a modest update, one that has brushed off the story, making it louder, harsher, more aggressively smiley… no, what’s odd here is how closely the new movie follows the original’s arc without ever capturing its bliss or tapping into its touching delicacy of feeling… (or) the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — who have done memorable work elsewhere — are the gravest disappointment.”

A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and of course “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” — these are songs that get in your head, body, memory, and there’s nothing here with comparable melodic or lyrical staying power.” 

I could not say it better or express my totally unexpected disappointment any stronger. I was eleven years old in 1964 when the original Mary Poppins appeared on the large screen with her umbrella and carpet bag filled with magical and musical possibilities. However, my parents and all other adults were equally as charmed and buoyed by the story and songs at the time, That is why I (maybe too nostalgically) had such high hopes going into this theatre–that despite my social security-collecting age–I could  still trip along the cobble-stoned streets with all the delight of an ageless child. Indeed, I was hoping for a couple of hours of magic to start off the new year. The closest I came to it was when I hit the seat’s recline button by mistake and thought the movement was part of the story magic. (Yes, I can be easily swept away under the right illusions).

It was not my original intention to write a bad review, however I feel sad that the new movie is so heavy on proselytizing and light on sweetness. Speaking of light–the day was very bright and Spring-like. I also had my own dance with tripping lights (please read the previous post) that turn themselves on and off at whim in my house, but that for another post.

In all fairness, the acting was fine if a bit heavy at times, and Dick Van Dyke’s tap- dancing on a desk at age 90-something was special. Meryl Streep played her character with a heavy-hand, however Angela Lansbury showed up at the end with the right touch of British charm.

Re-makes or sequels can be creative and work to enhance the original yet stay true to their own vision. Just not here.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious–the Super Bowl of haiku syllable counting

Before I Leave This World

I was thinking about the terrible scare recently in Hawaii when an alert was sent in error about a missile threat. Of course there was widespread panic for close to forty minutes. I wondered “how would I react?” Playing out an imaginary scenario is totally different from reacting to a real one, however it does help to look at the situation while in a cool frame of mind. A nuclear threat is as real today as it was in the early sixties during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the East coast was in a direct line for a hit. I remember lining up in our grammar school hallway, away from windows, with our arms crossed over our heads. Ever the realist even at that time, I figured that we were doomed, so what’s the point of false hope and false safety? The only way to survive is to hide/take cover in a real bomb shelter. Ever the realist to this day—that is not a choice or an option for me.

So what would I do?

My first thought is that I would make myself a bourbon sour or smoke a joint (if I had one), turn on some great blues music, hug the dog and head outside. I would want to face the sky. I have a wooden seat swing that overlooks my garden, and the thought of rocking slowly with a light buzz gives me great comfort. I would probably converse out loud with the trees and cosmos. Some words would be of gratitude and some would be profane. I do believe that I would surrender to the inevitable, and hope that I would be in the direct line of fire instead of a survivor. This in turn brings to mind and closer to home/heart —the very real horror and tragedy of Hiroshima. Somehow life went on, albeit forever changed.

The honest truth is that I cannot know in reality what I would truly do, however after all of this, when I slowly rock in my chair swing, I will do it with a grateful rhythm.

The following haiku of mine were written in 2011 about Hiroshima:

heat from the bomb
the charred near the water
left black and bleeding


a baby trying
to nurse her dead mother’s breast
questions of why


the bomb
a moral threshold


always changing
blue and white


and today’s haiku:

grateful or profane a blue sky

© ag ~ 2018


The Newark Riots ~ 50 Years Later

This week marks the 50th anniversary of a very sad time – the Newark riots. I remember them well. There was a curfew, and when I looked out our apartment window – National Guardsmen rode by in a jeep with rifles leaning against their chests. I was nowhere near the terror-stricken interior but inhaled the tension. This was my home city, and I was 14 years old. I wrote these tanka poems in hindsight and they were published by Modern English Tanka Press in 2009, 40 years after the fact. Newark still suffers:
forty years
after the riots
three students slain
“no apparent cause”
again, this blistering heat
born to love
born to hunt
we do what we do…
all the songs all the poems
nothing changes this
coming in on
a soft summer breeze
tickling my necking
and dropping down low —
this sadness for what
warm nights
I undress by an open
window   wondering
what is freely given
               freely taken
© Andrea Grillo