Tuesday, December 7, 2010
When Mary Schmich swoons over something, you know there's got to be something fishy about it.
Schmich is one of the few remaining columnists at the ever-contracting Chicago Tribune --as predictably banal as she is predictably liberal.
Last Sunday she phoned in a cutesy column listing her favorite things, among them -- the lights at Lincoln Park, an obscure Russian organic tea and the new PBS documentary about John Lennon's New York days: Lennonyc.
Being in the middle of re-reading Albert Goldman's definitive 878 page biography of Lennon The Lives of John Lennon-- the product of 6 years of exhaustive research, I felt impelled to check out the PBS offering, Schmich's endorsement, nonwithstanding.
The film can be seen on-line here.
And sure enough, the documentary emits the olifactory sensations of a Norwejian herring factory.
Lennonyc is arguably the greatest whitewash of Lennon's life since Hunter Davies' The Beatles came off the presses in 1968. That officially authorized tome was censored in advance by everyone from Lennon's Aunt Mimi to Brian Epstein and offers little of reality. Lennon called the book, "bullshit," just as I suspect he might this documentary.
Yoko Ono's dissembling fingerprints are all over this film.
Make no mistake about it, Yoko is and always has been as PR concious and censorious as Joseph Goebbels. She has spent the past 30 years studiously concocting and maintaining the "Ballad of John and Yoko," a fairy tale picture of her as the loving supportive spouse tragically thrust into the role of grieving widow.
Ono's newly engaged press agent in 1978, Charles Cohen, said that he was immediately impressed by Yoko's keen grasp of the machinery of self-promotion. "She knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it." She kept voluminous files containing every notice and clipping that she had received since 1961.
Fred Seaman, who served as Lennon's valet and gopher during the New York Years, expressed shock and amazement at the eccentricity of the Lennon household and "the total disparity between the Lennons' real life and the image that they presented to the world."
The film was written and directed by native Chicagoan, Michael Epstein. He assures us on the PBS website that while Yoko Ono contributed private footage of their personal lives, she had no control over the film. She was not the witch who broke up the Beatles. She was not a controlling influence in John's life, he assures us.
For starters, Ono repeatedly appeared on camera for this film. Prima facie, that is evidence of her controlling influence. She does not cooperate with media entities she does not control. In the mid-80s she incurred the wrath of a Washington Post reporter for holding a news conference at which she refused to take any questions from the members of the media.
She vetoed the casting of an actor for an early 80s made-for-TV movie about Lennon, simply because his last name was Chapman, same as his assassin.
Practically speaking, the movie is at variance with the untidy, violent and hypocritical reality of John Lennon's life in many, many ways.
Here are but a few:
The role of May Pang. May Pang was a Lennon household retainer who Yoko Ono actively told to sexually accomodate John during his "Lost Weekend," foray into California. They conducted an affair that lasted well after his return to New York. According to Goldman, Ono viewed it as finding a controllable geisha mistress for her man -- one much like that enjoyed by her Japanese banker father, during her childhood in Japan.
May is interviewed in Lennonyc, but we are kept in the dark about the true nature of her relationship with John.
Lennon's support for political violence.The PBS film tries to portray Lennon as the subject of evil persecution by the FBI, the INS, Nixon and Republicans, due to his heartfelt desire for peace in Vietnam.
The political commentary is offered by left-wing activists of the era: Jon Weiner, Tom Hayden and Dick Cavett. Their mischaracterization of Lennon's violent sympathies is punctuated by shots of Vietnam body bags and grotesque footage of Vietnamese civilian casualties.
In this vein, Yoko Ono assures us that "John did not want to do it like Abby (Hoffman) and Jerry (Rubin,)" who overtly advocated violence in the streets.
Yet according to radical activist, A.J. Webberman in Goldman, Lennon had provided funds to Hoffman and Rubin to transport two busloads of Yippies down to Miami to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention as they had the Democrats' conclave in Chicago in 1968. John Lennon was abetting precisely the same act for which Rubin and Hoffman had been indicted.
Little wonder that the feds wanted John and Yoko out of the country.
Lennon's Lost Weekend. John was totally out of control during his 6 month "lost weekend," exile to California, yet the film, while admitting some improprieties, wildly understates the reality. No where do we even hear the word, "heroin" although it was a daily feature of Lennon's (and Ono's) lives.
We do not hear that Lennon was forcibly thrown out onto the street outside the Troubador Lounge after he was loudly and drunkenly disrupting the Smothers Brothers television comeback show. We do not hear about the event where Lennon drunkenly waded into a mob of fans and began shouting obscenities and throwing punches and from which he had to be extricated by his friends before the fans beat him to within an inch of his life.
Instead the PBS film apprises us that Lennon was "a little over the top at times," that he "said things he shouldn't have," and that he was "in never-never land-- I think you know what I mean."
Lennon as doting father.The PBS film degenerates to the level of a Hallmark greeting card near its end, when it shows us footage (no doubt supplied by and orchestrated by Ono) of Lennon as loving father and househusband, lavishing affection on his son and baking bread.
According to a neighbor of the Lennon's, Marnie Hair, whose children played with Sean Lennon, John couldn't stand having his son around for more than an hour or so. On one occasion, days before he died, Lennon flew into a rage and physically threw his son across the room. "He couldn't stand the kids for more than an hour. That's about all he could take. He just broke out into a rage. Yoko was down in the studio. She didn't want any part of this stuff. Sean was crying and screaming and cowering. He had to be taken out of the city to get away from all this," Hair said.
John Lennon was a genius in the sense that Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin were geniuses. Yet he was often an extremely unpleasant, cruel and overtly violent man. He was also haunted by more demons than most of us will ever conjure up.
There's nothing wrong in appreciating Lennon's vibrance and the wonder of his music. But that's all PBS seems to want to do in this wildly unrealistic film portrayal.
Funny, when PBS airs a documentary on United States Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson (a genuine genius) all we seem to hear about is his slave ownership and his tawdry affair with Sally Hemmings. When PBS deals with Kit Carson, he is portrayed as a bloodthirsty Indian killer. When PBS deals with Senator Joe McCarthy, he is shown as a mean and hopeless drunk.
Yet with a left-wing icon like Lennon, all is sweetness and light.
And that is unrealistic. And that is bad art.