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Peter Davis’s Definitive Vietnam Doc Hearts and Minds Restored

Like a golem summoned out of a thousand Swift Boat accusations and our latest quagmire overseas, Peter Davis’s landmark 1974 documentary rises again from the miasma of moral and national confusion that is the Vietnam War’s legacy-“We weren’t on the wrong side,” a stricken Daniel Ellsberg confides, “we were the wrong side”-and Davis’s inquest into the conflict, its causes, and its aftermath still stings because his indictment casts such a wide net.

Using an editing strategy partly derived from Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig and long since refined to sharpened shtick by Michael Moore and Comedy Central, Davis counterpoints appalling footage of napalmed children, manhandled villagers, Zippo-lit hooches, and indiscriminate bombing with culled evidence of bellicose cultural blood poisoning. Here, a POW speaking to schoolchildren about the war parrots a high school football coach’s indoctrinary spiel; the John Birch Society supplies public schools with Red-baiting lesson plans; and Karen Morley in The Face of Fu Manchu (“You yellow beast!”) anticipates General William Westmoreland’s sage assessment of the enemy (“The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner”).

But there’s no on-screen grandstander to mediate the movie’s cold fury, no Colbert to arch an eyebrow at its juxtapositions of talking-head travesty and real-life tragedy. Now returning to theaters, Hearts and Minds stands as the ugly historical record reflected in Watchmen’s funhouse mirror.

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Airplane! Director David Zucker Talks About the Left and His New Movie An American Carol

As part of the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker filmmaking team in the ’80s, David Zucker pioneered the non sequitur spoof-comedy genre with Airplane! and The Naked Gun. ZAZ split up in the ’90s, but Zucker has kept his hand in the comedy game with the last two Scary Movie installments. His latest, An American Carol, is something else altogether: a gag-filled satiric attack on the American left. Unleashing a rapid-fire series of jokey bits around the usual Fox News talking points—liberals are inherently unpatriotic, the universities are run by post-’68 radicals, etc.—the cast of all-star conservatives (Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, Dennis Hopper) centers on Kevin Farley as Michael Malone, a Michael Moore doppelgänger who wants to ban the Fourth of July. (Fat jokes galore.)

An American Carol is set to open on over 2,000 screens on Friday (though it’s not being screened ahead for critics to review), and Zucker is already getting the hero treatment from conservative bloggers and magazines. In a glowing Weekly Standard profile, Zucker compares Obama to “a really clever virus who adapts” and who once “associated with all of those crazies—terrorists, preachers of hate.” Referring to the left, he also claims we’re living in a “new McCarthy era.”

The Voice spoke to Zucker—who says An American Carol isn’t political—about his (non)agenda.  

After 9/11, you had a conversion of sorts to the Republican Party.  

I’m not sure I’d call it a “conversion.” I just realized that the views I’d always held had been more taken over by the Republicans than the Democrats, without surrendering my environmentalist beliefs. It was like Reagan used to say—he didn’t leave the Democrats; they left him. I saw the reactions to the terrorist attacks, and think I saw that the Democrats were saying how we are to blame for this, and the Republicans were saying we have to build up the military and defend ourselves, because there are people who are trying to kill us. But I’m not at all about politics.  

  

A lot of Michael Moore’s image is built upon populism. Your movie suggests the opposite: Michael Malone hates country music and NASCAR and looks down on people who aren’t on the East Coast.  

I mean, he’s gone and said that Americans are the dumbest people on the planet. We’re pretty much taking these people at their word. I don’t know Michael Moore. The thing about the country music, for example, is from a real quote.  

  

In his book Downsize This!, he encourages people to listen to country music as the voice of America . . .  

Well, there must be different quotes.  

  

Do you actually believe Moore or liberals in general would try to ban July 4th?  

Absolutely not. I’m sure never in his wildest dreams would Michael Moore try to ban July 4th. Having him do that is an obvious exaggeration, a way of moving the film through three acts. It’s just Screenwriting 101.  

  

The movie’s coming out roughly a month before the election and two weeks before Oliver Stone’s W. Is it an attempt at intervention? 

That’s a little bit too optimistic—but it’s no accident that it’s being released before a major presidential election. I think you can only make a movie like this once every four years and have people interested.  

  

Malone goes through his own conversion in the movie. Do you think liberal audiences could go through the same thing after watching it?  

A lot of my liberal friends have seen the movie—I mean, they’re all liberals out here—and they enjoyed it, but . . . yeah, I don’t think that’s likely.  

  

Some of the movie’s champions, especially on conservative blogs, say that this is a test case for openly conservative satire.  

James Woods makes a joke in the movie where he says: “You know, Michael, people who like your movies don’t actually go to movies.” I don’t know if this will actually get a conservative audience to come out. I do think that it’s the most radical movie of this kind that’s been made—left or right. I don’t think even JFK was as politicized as this.

[But] I wasn’t trying to press the point without being entertaining; I was very conscious of that. I was just looking for a new subject for a joke, something other than scary movies or detective movies or airplane-disaster movies. That’s the challenge of doing humor, trying to find new targets. What I’m doing is kind of like a survey course of liberal politics, to point out what I think are its excesses. All of my humor is just exaggeration of reality. Hopefully that leads to laughs, and it’s certainly outrageous enough to be discussed.

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Ben Stein, Propagandist, in Expelled

Ben Stein became a minor cultural icon with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, almost making people forget that, from his early days as a Nixon speechwriter on, he’s been a rigid cultural conservative. Stein capitalizes on that good will with Expelled, a propaganda “documentary” he co-wrote and hosts. His thesis: Teaching Darwinian evolution but ignoring intelligent design in America’s public schools and universities is the biggest threat to American freedom today—bigger, presumably, than Al Qaeda, Iraq, and the recession combined. A series of interviews with ID true believers has him playing Michael Moore–dumb—no hard questions for the folks at the Discovery Center, whose infamous leaked 1993 “wedge memo” stated as one of its primary goals the propagation of the idea “that nature and human beings are created by God.” ID’ers protest that they’re simply interested in secular alternatives to Darwinian evolution; their scientific opponents, meanwhile, are potential Communists and Nazis. Bizarre and hysterical.

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Planet B-Boy Obsesses Over Mad Skillz

True story: In fourth grade, a nun gave me and a friend detention for breakdancing, squashing whatever dreams two guilt-stricken Catholic-school twerps may have had of becoming future b-boys. Maybe it was for the best, given how notoriety and financial reward are hard to come by in the world of b-boying, a reality illuminated by Benson Lee’s documentary, which weaves the stories of numerous crews from 18 nations vying in the Battle of the Year championship in Braunschweig, Germany. Lee pays little attention to the roots of breakdancing or how it helped to spread hip-hop worldwide, choosing instead to obsess over the mad skillz of his international subjects. The b-boys’ whirling legs and arms sustain one’s interest, but only Teams Korea and France get ample face time, the former for incorporating its country’s divisive politics into the choreography, and the latter for having a lily-white shortie in its ragtag crew. The flashes of human interest are welcome, but what most sticks is Planet B-Boy‘s aesthetic, which feels jocked from the school of Michael Moore and runs counter to one b-boy’s gripe about breakdancing being co-opted by mainstream America back in the day.

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From Talking Heads to Dancing Bear

In a Saigon meeting room, equal parts bordello foyer and job-placement service, a balding 38-year-old Singaporean takes his pick of potential brides: Vietnamese belles du jour selected by a matchmaker who specializes in fixing up foreign men. Whenever new girls walk in—chosen for age, beauty, virginity, Zodiac compatibility, and especially limited options—the matchmaker’s assistant snaps photos of any likely candidate. “Wouldn’t you be wasting a lot of film?” asks the girls’ handler. “No,” replies the assistant, like a true 21st-century documentarian, “this is digital.”

In an indirect way, this small exchange from Mirabelle Ang’s sneakily devastating Match Made (February 16)one of 32 films and videos screening at MOMA’s eighth annual Documentary Fortnight— touches on issues confronting nonfiction film in the age of Motorola moviemaking and the post–Michael Moore marketplace. As docs yet again weigh aesthetics against the urgency to record and report, the MOMA series reverberates with the impact of cheap new media, the alarm-doc uprising, and the current vogue for nonfiction narratives.

Cell phones are evidently the new
camcorder, as evinced in the “CELLuloid” program (February 20), which gathers films as diverse as I’m Not There cinematographer Edward Lachman’s kaleidoscopic shaggy-dog goof Bear and Darrin Martin’s blip-a-second truth-in-advertising collage Every (Text, Image, Sound, Movie) from my cell phone. From these two, anyway, it’s impossible to tell whether cell-phone imagery has any evocative power beyond memo-to-self recording or trippy blow-up distortion effects.

But that’s what cellu-Luddites initially said about video, and the only snap in
Manfred Kirchheimer’s disappointingly tame SprayMasters (February 13)—a four-talking-head history of NYC graffiti art—comes from the way digital makes Day-Glo color go boom in his subjects’ block-rockin’ murals. Even that is trumped, though, by Kirchheimer’s sweet emulsion of tagged 1970s subways. But for visual beauty, nothing in the series may top Mong-Hong Chung’s Doctor (February 16), which
uses starkly gorgeous black-and-white celluloid to chart a haunted Taiwanese-American physician’s treatment of a young cancer patient.

Even within the series’ nominal focus on the environment—normally an occasion to air out the charts and Power Point slides a la An Inconvenient Truth (February 28)—the multiple approaches veer from traditional to unconventional, from agitated to contemplative. With its damning onslaught of stats and grim eyewitness testimony, Catherine Pancake’s Black Diamonds (February 14 and March 1) lays out a blistering if homely brief against coal mining by mountain-top removal. By comparison, The Unforeseen (February 16), directed by Laura Dunn at the urging of executive producer Terrence Malick, turns a disastrous development scheme near Austin’s beloved Barton Springs into a billowing, imagistic meditation on hubris and folly.

The renewable resource that these and other Doc Fortnight films share is the past: a rich vein that yields ghostly archival photos, bygone footage of aged participants, and cultures and ways of life getting shunted onto oblivion’s off-ramp, from Bulgarian dancing bears (Albi Biblom’s Mechkar, February 21) to Viennese corner shops (Harald Friedl’s Aus der Zeit, February 17). But it’s the cinematic language of docs that sometimes seems antiquated:
the slow zooms toward a face, the creaky pans and scans across sepia photos. Paradoxically, the most form-breaking film of the series may prove to be Peter Watkins’s 1971 fake-umentary Punishment Park (February 23). Shot by festival guest of honor Joan Churchill, this imagined account of a Vietnam dissenter’s doomsday seems dated in its rhetoric but entirely of the moment in its outrage and threat—and its challenge that a fictional construct can find real truth has rarely been taken up. Perhaps at Documentary Fortnight 2008, the truthiness shall set you free.

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Oscar to Sicko: The Moore The Merrier

Michael Moore’s Sicko has been nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar—no booing this time—so Harvey Weinstein threw a gala lunch at the Four Seasons, where he and the filmmaker fell over each other with so much mutual mwah-ing they might need more health insurance. But Moore admitted they hit a tiny road bump when he wanted the film to include the fact that “Hillary was the number one recipient of the health care money.” “I tried to cut it out,” Weinstein the diplomat called out from his table. “He made his case,” said Moore, who totally won. Still, the freedom fighter graciously conceded that Hill’s basically a nice lady, remembering, “I wrote a chapter in my first book called ‘My Forbidden Love for Hillary’.” When the crowd went giggly over that, Moore looked puzzled and said, “Why does that keep getting laughs? I’m being sincere.” Yeah, but not enough to endorse the broad–or anyone else; I’ll have more in the column.

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Ass-Baring Parties Conquer Nightlife!

With gay nightlife in a transitional phase (i.e., it sucks), one grovels around looking for any small pleasures—you know, ennobling things like a lineup of bare asses to gawk at in a desperate dive between midnight and the Celebrity Rehab rerun. You happen to get that very taste of crass at two, count ’em two, weekly events these days: XES’s Ass Circus Thursdays, where a young lady recently snuck in, bared her breasts, and startlingly came in second (the drunken audience probably thought they were butt cheeks), and Ass Wednesdays at Urge, with drag MC Rajene leading the parade of guys dropping trou for cash prizes, with no love jugs for miles. Two weeks ago, a guy there begged me to cheer for his boyfriend’s fleshy goods as the beau bravely took the stage. But his heinie turned out to look like a Yahoo map of Sherwood Forest! “It’s so hairy!” declared my new friend in horror. “Wait, you’ve never seen it before?” I wondered, confused. “Not in the light!” he moaned, looking for a vomit bag.

Once calm—and clean-shaven—one visits Splash’s Disco Tea on Sunday for a refreshingly non–David Barton crowd dancing to ’70s stuff they actually remember from when it came out, with only an occasional hairy navel on display when the lights flash. Downstairs, there’s an even more comforting game of bingo going on, and last week there was the extra attraction of the winner ballsily trying to sell his prize—a $40 bar tab—to various inebriated patrons. I was stunned that (a) he obviously didn’t want to return to Splash to use it himself and (b) he didn’t realize I get comps!

But your biggest Sunday bar tab will be rung up at Hiro Ballroom’s Cuckoo Club, where the gays get their only taste of fish by being packed into the place like sardines. Looking over the sea of males pushing and shoving under a twinkly galaxy of glitter balls and writhing go-go boys’ balls is amazing, but it would be more so if they weren’t all 32-year-olds from the boroughs who work in retail. As midnight brought in Martin Luther King Day, DJ Honey Dijon nimbly mixed in the “I have a dream” speech, and you haven’t seen so many puzzled queens since the Village People went new wave. These guys probably wouldn’t even get “I had a dream” from Gypsy, but I will gladly educate them, one at a time.

The next night, my dream came true at Max Scott‘s Woof! Mondays at View Bar, where there’s $2 pool and free chicken wings, and all for only five bucks’ admission. Seeing as the door sign specifies “three bucks if you’re hairy,” I wouldn’t be surprised to see the butt boy from Urge walking in there pretty soon—backwards and single.

For the Hair crowd, Scott Nevins‘s Musical Mondays back at Splash have a culty mass of Kool-Aid drinkers staring religiously at the large video screens showing classic Broadway production numbers, poignantly gesturing along with muted Fosse hands. At the peak moment, a large, brassy cabaret chanteuse generally barrels out some obscure Sondheim—it ain’t over till she sings—and then everyone couples off to go home and perform duets from Mame. Bingo!

One ends the week—and in fact, your entire life—at the Townhouse, the gentleman’s bar with tasteful couches and lovely floral arrangements, much like your favorite funeral home. This used to be a meeting place for the wrinkle crowd and entrepreneurial young men, but now that those kids have gone online, it seems strictly for the oldies, the kind who take their shoes off and nod off—though one of them was quite alive, screeching at me that the pianist was a sub and had never heard of Eartha Kitt! But presumably, he knows the “I have a dream” speech.

Maybe I should talk about women for a change, just to build a little character. At the UCB Theatre, Jen and Angie was a lesbian crowd-pleaser—a 30-minute extended sketch in which, having crashed on an island, the ravenous Jolie zooms in on the needy Aniston and decides she wants to create Jengelina. Brad was played by a dummy in a blond wig and never spoke because, as a hyper-confident Angelina explained, “He’s under my spell!”

A lesbian figures in the movie Caramel, which is a sort of Lebanese Steel Magnolias—a beauty-salon saga complete with waxing, plucking, and wisdoms like “Life is a melon. You must cut it to see if it’s any good.” (That’s way more eloquent than “Life is cocaine . . . “) Salma Hayek look-alike Nadine Labaki wrote, directed, and stars as a non-virgin marrying a Muslim, telling me at a promo dinner: “It was No. 1 at the box office in Lebanon. It beat Hollywood blockbusters. It beat everything!” “So you’re pretty much the queen of Lebanon?” I wondered while looking for a piece of caramel. “Yes, I’m the queen!” she agreed, laughing. “I’m the diva!”
The movie, queenie added, is an escape from reality, “even though it’s real. I wanted to make a film that shows a different face of Lebanon, with very colorful, warm-hearted people with a strong will to live.” But that lesbian plotline! Did they plotz? “It was very well received,” she swore. “It’s not shocking or provoking. Everything is said in silence, in a soft way.” Hmm, I bet they’d love Jodie Foster in Lebanon. She’d be their new queen! (Maybe they’d even like Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell; to dredge up an old shtick of theirs, they’re Lebanese and lesbian-ese.)

Caramel was submitted for an Oscar nomination but didn’t get it—the bastards—but Michael Moore‘s Sicko nabbed one in the documentary category, and I’d shell over a $15 co-pay to see him win. At a Four Seasons lunch for the honor, I asked Moore how he feels about being nominated against three Iraq films—
basically his spiritual children. “The irony for me,” he said, “is that I was booed off the stage, and now they nominate you for
it!” Yeah, but he was not only nominated for it—he won! “Yeah,” he said, “but as Steve Martin later remarked, Teamsters were loading me into the back of a car!” Now that he’s crawled out, what’s Moore’s take on the Dem candidates? “I am unimpressed by all of them,” Moore told me, blithely. “None of them seems to have the courage to say what needs to be said. Edwards is the closest, certainly on health care and the corporate stuff.” But it doesn’t matter if any of them are any good, he added, because “the American voters are gonna stagger in and vote ‘D’ on the ballot. The only variable is if Bloomberg runs. He’ll be more liberal than any of the three Democrats!”

At this point, writer Erica Jong congratulated Moore, saying she’d watched Sicko on pay-per-view in her hotel room. “How was it?” Moore said, grinning. “Did you keep switching between the movie and porno?” “No, I don’t watch porno!” said Jong. Still, what could be kinkier than watching someone being denied a kidney?

Let me keep the body parts coming by telling you that at The 24-Hour Musicals at Joe’s Pub, a mini-documentary showed the frantic creative process that had resulted in the evening’s entertainment. (“What rhymes with vagina?” a panicky lyricist was seen asking, as the clock ticked. I don’t know—orange?) The idea was to serve four little tuners created and rehearsed in a 24-hour period, all to benefit the Exchange and the Orchard Project. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but unfortunately, Rome isn’t four short musicals! The tossed-together quickies were endearing, bittersweet, erratic, and shockingly good, mostly about the need for partnership in the face of fear and disability. The vagina line never surfaced, but I would have written: “She had a big vagina/But don’t you dare judge Ina/Claire.” (Ina Claire was a 1920s stage diva who may or may not have had a big one; poetic license is called for when one has to create art so quickly. But one thing I do know: She never flashed her butt crack in public.)

musto@villagevoice.com

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Movies To Go

Sundance signals, for better or worse, the state of American independent filmmaking. Cannes keeps faith, for those who still believe, with the cinema d’auteur. And Toronto? The largest and most important film festival in North America seems to do nearly as many things as there are movies to see—349 in this year’s edition, which runs from September 6 through 15. Having studied the line-up and plotted an impossible schedule of must-see movies, I’ve come to the conclusion that in 2007, the Toronto International Film Festival can only be described as: holy shit! Apichatpong, Argento, Breillat, Chabrol, the Coens, Cronenberg, De Palma, Haynes, Herzog, Hou, Jacobs, Jia, Kitano, Lumet, Maddin, Miike, Moore, Oliveira, Reygadas, Rivette, Rohmer, Romero, Schrader, Sokurov, Straub, Tarr, Van Sant: A short list of filmmakers with new works at Toronto—yes, shortlist. The only reason Antonioni and Bergman aren’t on hand is because they’re dead. Oops, nevermind: There is a Bergman film (The Virgin Spring from 1960, but still).

Toronto is about money as well as mise-en-scene. Hollywood increasingly uses the event to launch their fall prestige pictures—even their Oscar campaigns. Universal aims to enthrone Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, though it’s their “indie” division Focus Features that has the most riding on festival buzz with four high-profile pictures. Ang Lee triumphed here with Brokeback Mountain, and will try to stroke up heat for his latest, the Shanghai period romance Lust, Caution. Joe Wright reunites with his Pride & Prejudice star Keira Knightley for his adaptation of novelist Ian McEwan’s Atonement, while Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo head up the revenge drama Reservation Road from director Terry George. Focus fingers will be crossed for Eastern Promises, the arresting new thriller from Toronto native and world-class genius David Cronenberg.

Elsewhere in the genius department a trio from Cannes cross the Atlantic for their North American debuts. Todd Haynes deconstructs Dylan in his hugely anticipated (and by all accounts brilliant) I’m Not There. Hou Hsiao-hsien contemplates Paris (and Juliette Binoche) in his surpassingly tender Flight of the Red Balloon. And Harmony Korine details the friendship between two celebrity impersonators (Diego Luna as Michael Jackson and Samantha Morton as Marilyn Monroe) in Mister Lonely, co-staring Werner Herzog as a film director who parachutes nuns over Central America. OK, so maybe genius is a bit of stretch there, but I’m as curious about the reject from the class of Cannes ’07 as I am for such honor role students as No Country For Old Men, the Coen brother’s acclaimed Cormac McCarthy adaptation, Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Gus Vant Sant’s Paranoid Park.

Personal agenda wrestles with professional obligation for the festival reporter, so while I should make a point to see Nothing is Private, the latest from the overrated Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under), I won’t go out of my way if it interferes with Before I Forget, the latest from the underrated actor-director Jacques Nolot. Kick back for the same old, same old with a new Woody Allen flick (Cassandra’s Dream) or brace for Takashi Miike’s possibly excellent, potentially intolerable Sukiyaki Western Django? Michael Moore has a new documentary about the 2004 election (Captain Mike Across America), but Arthur Dong’s look at Chinese experience in Hollywood sounds more compelling.

This much is settled: I’ll be lining up with the rest—and everyone will be in line—to catch Warner Brothers’ troubled production The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an epic western starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck that’s either a poetic masterpiece or complete mess depending who you ask. Toronto may have a reputation as a friendly, easy-going event, but anyone standing between me and George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead can expect to have their face bit off.

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Melody Lingers On

Before the two styles of music went their separate ways, what kept evergreen melodies common currency in jazz was the faith that their chord changes could be recalibrated down to the smallest micro-interval. Though rock is usually blamed for driving the wedge (along with Broadway and Hollywood’s failure to go on providing worthy material), jazz hubris figures into it, too—everyone fancies himself or herself a composer now, an inevitable consequence of the long- standing folly that jazz improvisers, by virtue of their supposedly greater harmonic sophistication, routinely invent melodies superior to the ones they take as their starting point. (Good luck “improving” Gershwin.) Reviewing the Art Ensemble of Chicago years ago, Stanley Crouch thought he detected joyous relief in the audience whenever the bass and drums lapsed into straight time. Nowadays, I notice a similar response— in others and in my own heart—whenever a band so much as alludes to a recognizable melody.

By which I mean anything that fits the criteria of a melody, not necessarily a song you’ve heard before. This could be one of the reasons we’ve recently been hearing so many covers drawn from music in which melody hasn’t been as subordinated as it’s been in jazz, including classic rock. Why it’s taken so long for jazz musicians to get around to Bob Dylan has to do with Dylan. Though he mentions jamming with Cecil Taylor in Chronicles, swing has never been Dylan’s calling card—if that was all you desired from ’60s troubadours, Donovan was your man. But an even greater obstacle to reinterpreting Dylan up to, say, Blonde on Blonde or John Wesley Harding
(if I’m being honest about it, the only Dylan that matters for me, allowing an exception for Blood on the Tracks) is that so much depended on his bardic lyrics and hip sneer. And on everything subsequent, including those last three albums greeted with hallelujahs by my pop colleagues, his sometimes gorgeous melodies have been shrouded in mannerism and mystique, fogged in behind that decidedly unmelodious Gabby Hayes croak.

It took Ships with Tattooed Sails—the third album of Dylan covers by Jewels and Binoculars, a leaderless collective featuring bassist Lindsey Horner with Dutch-based American expatriates Michael Vatcher (drums) and Michael Moore (alto saxophone and clarinets)—to persuade me just how gorgeous a driven, plangent, homespun ballad like “I Believe in You” (from 1979’s despised, Jew-for-Jesus Slow Train Coming) can be. Paradox acknowledged, Tattooed Sails is an example of song-based free improvisation. In saving Dylan’s melodies from Dylan, it might seem to belong in the same rotation with Bryan Ferry’s recent Dylanesque. But in light of J&B’s streamlined treatment of “Spirit on the Water” (four and a half minutes to Dylan’s almost-eight, though no less haunting or honky-tonking), with Moore going at a slower tempo than bass and drums until he overtakes them just in time for what sounds like an off-the-wall quote from “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” the natural segue that suggests itself is from Dylan’s Modern Times to Tattooed Sails to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar. Thematic improvisation here gives the players somewhere else to go once the melody has been fully honored, an option not open to Ferry or Dylan himself.

Even with added starter Bill Frisell’s guitar howling like the ghost of electricity and crying like a fire in the sun on “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” J&B’s approach hardly does justice to ’60s Dylan. But Frisell is in his natural element on “Blind Willie McTell,” Vatcher everywhere demonstrates the advantages of pulse over meter, Horner moves with grace and authority on arrangements that seem crafted from the bassline up, and Moore displays such wide range that several times (most notably on “One More Cup of Coffee”), I thought he was dropping into the clarinet’s chalemeau register, only to realize he was going falsetto on bass clarinet. To play outside the chords you must be honest: The members of Jewels and Binoculars never cheat by superimposing jazz changes and syncopations on tunes that don’t start off with any. They just make inspired use of what’s there—still as surefire a formula for good jazz as it was for Armstrong and Parker, even if the tunes have become ones they wouldn’t recognize.

The brainchild of annotator Colin E. Negrych, the Waverly Seven’s two-CD Yo! Bobby, with arrangements mostly by pianist Manuel Valera, prompts the question: Does it take a shout-out to Bobby Darin to coax young modernists to play songs like “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” these days? Darin is worthy of instrumental tribute: Armstrong and Sonny Rollins turned “Mack the Knife” into jazz, but Darin turned it into Basie, swinging harder than the rhythm section here. And the song selection on Bobby is screwy. “All the Way” and “I Wanna Be Around,” associated with Sinatra and Tony Bennett, respectively, were Darin covers to start with. Why a spoof on “Splish Splash,” which was a spoof anyway? Why no “Beyond the Sea,” given that it already enjoys jazz pedigree via Django Reinhardt and remains the song most identified with Darin today, aside from “Mack”?

The good stuff includes rousing, semi-Dixieland jams on “Mack” and “Some of These Days.” Trumpeter Avishai Cohen is in good form throughout (especially glancing off Scott Robinson’s rugged baritone on a Mulligan-and-Chet-Baker-like “The More I See You”), and so are his sister Anat and her fellow saxophonist Joel Frahm. But where’s Bobby? Were it not for the title, you might guess this to be a latter-day swing session on Arbors Jazz.

Speaking of which, the Harry Allen–Joe Cohn Quartet’s Music from “Guys and Dolls” is the jewel of that label’s catalog. “Fugue for Tinhorns” permits the tenorist and guitarist to exercise their flair for improvised counterpoint (their quartet’s trademark), but the real stars are the singers. Eddie Erickson’s suave “Adelaide” is a match for Sinatra’s or composer Frank Loesser’s, and the infallible Rebecca Kilgore assists in swinging the dickens out of “Marry the Man Today” (still a march, but phrasing it behind the beat makes all the difference). Like many on Arbors’ roster, Allen is one younger musician with a genuine feel for bygone songs and styles, and on “I’ll Know,” when he underscores the vulnerability of Loesser’s melody by letting us hear the air shivering from his mouthpiece (the way Stan Getz used to do), it’s enough to make you wonder if the old songs aren’t still best after all.

“I wanted to concentrate on performance again before the sticks got too heavy for me to lift,” Max Roach told me in 1987, explaining why he’d taken a leave of absence from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to go on the road with his Double Quartet. The notion seemed absurd: Roach was in his early sixties then, but he still sounded and looked indestructible.

But the physical signs of aging began setting in just a few years later. When Roach died August 16, following a long stretch in a nursing home, he was our last remaining link to Minton’s and the Royal Roost. Hearing him chase Charlie Parker through their 1945 recording of “Koko” should be all the evidence anyone needs that bop’s main thrust was rhythmic as well as harmonic. Nurturing both Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, his bands of the 1950s were central to the development of hard bop, an offshoot that proposed even greater equality for rhythm sections. He was the first name musician to lay everything on the line in support of civil rights and black power: We Insist (1960) was the period’s most forthright jazz polemic. In 1973, when he started bringing tuned percussion together with skins, membranes, and metals of indeterminate pitch in the percussion ensemble M’Boom, the result sounded like a logical outgrowth of his own drum solos, which had always been orchestral in shading and design.

Never content to trade on his laurels as a bebop elder statesman, Roach also collaborated with playwright Sam Shepard, with rappers and breakdancers, and with such avant-garde untouchables as Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. Interviewing drummers, I used to buddy up by asking them what made them and their brethren such good bandleaders. None ever demurred. If I recall, Roach said something about their being de facto conductors. But given all he’d accomplished and everything he stood for, the question hardly needed asking in his case.

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Dr. Feelgood

“We’re Americans. We go into other countries when we need to. It’s tricky, but it works.” So declares Michael Moore in the midst of his new documentary, Sicko. Moore may be riffing on the war in Iraq, to name only our most recent intervention, but he’s actually referring to U.S. citizens crossing the border into Canada for cheap meds and free health care.

There hasn’t been a comparable joker in the left-wing deck since Abbie Hoffman went underground. But while Hoffman played the media, Moore uses it to play fast and loose. Still, Sicko, which had its world premiere last month at Cannes (where mainstream Moore is romanticized as the subversive maker of celluloid samizdats), shows America’s preeminent cinemuckraker in a seriously polemical mode. The Weinstein Brothers, who produced and are co-distributing Sicko, might have ripped off the title of one of their greatest hits and called it Scary Movie.

Sicko’s opening gross-out features a guy suturing his own wound—but, as Moore points out, this movie isn’t about him or the 50 million other Americans without health insurance. It’s about the 250 million Americans who do have coverage—like the 79-year-old guy working in a supermarket to maintain his prescription-drug benefits. The movie’s first half-hour is a virtual sideshow: Step right up and see the medically bankrupt couple forced to live in their daughter’s basement trophy room, the woman whose insurance carrier told her that she failed to get an emergency ambulance “pre-approved,” the employee who lost her benefits because she didn’t report an ancient yeast infection as a preexisting condition.

Annotating these and other, more ghastly human-interest stories, Moore—who for much of Sicko is narrator rather than participant—adopts a tone dripping with treacle and sarcasm. He’s the P.T. Barnum of human misery who, going back to Roger & Me, has never been one to let details interfere with a good story. And yet, as Moore builds his case that health insurance in America is essentially a profit-making enterprise based on bilking the afflicted, the cumulative effect of this material is devastating.

Expert witnesses are called. Dr. Linda Peeno tearfully testifies that in fulfilling her mandate as an HMO medical director, she’s withheld services that have cost lives. Politicians are produced—not just Bush, always available for some idiotic comment, but even Hillary Clinton, whom Moore dresses down with the fury of a jilted lover, pointing out that, after the debacle of her 1994 bid for universal health coverage, she is now the No. 2 recipient of HMO donations.

After demonstrating the state of health care in America, Moore visits those industrial societies that enjoy universal coverage—Canada, Great Britain (where even an American nincompoop who threw out his back trying to cross Abbey Road on his hands gets free hospitalization), and, above all, France. This love letter—fawning enough to add the suffix “phant” to the movie’s title—inspired a smattering of embarrassed applause at Cannes. But really, it should embarrass us. When Moore jokes that the wonders of the French health-care system were “enough to make me put away my Freedom Fries,” he’s obviously thinking about the health of the body politic rather than his own.

As filmmaking, Sicko sometimes resembles an infomercial for Ozark real estate and elsewhere demonstrates a Kenneth Anger-like flare for vertical montage—as when Moore mischievously uses a jolly harvest hymn from the Stalinist musical Cossacks of the Kuban to sovietize our own marching firemen, heroic teachers, and indomitable mail carriers. In any case, it’s as a rhetorician that Moore is most original and effectively demagogic. (In his most shameless stunt, the filmmaker “anonymously” bails out an anti-Moore website, paying the proprietor’s medical bills.)
Are Bush and Giuliani the only ones allowed to dial 9/11? Cleverer than either, Moore plays that card himself. In an already notorious PR provocation, he rounds up a crew of volunteer emergency workers with untreated respiratory problems and, in answer to some C-SPAN bragging about the excellent health care available to Gitmo prisoners, organizes a flotilla to the one place on “American soil” with free universal health care. The expedition never gets closer than the edge of the base, but they do get to experience the wonders of Cuban medicine—$120 inhalers for five cents, free dental implants, a people’s hospital of cathedral-like splendor—complete with fraternal lecture from Che Guevara’s daughter.

Sicko has the clearest agenda of any Moore film, albeit one that dares not speak its name. Is there a more vivid image of human garbage than the spectacle of a Los Angeles hospital dumping indigent patients on skid row? What manner of system is this? If the American health-insurance industry is Moore’s unspoken metaphor for Capital (feeding vampire-like on human labor), Cuba is his unconvincing socialist paradise. Dr. Moore reveals all manner of symptoms—but is it impossible for him to diagnose the disaster we live without offering another sort of drug?