'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Film Notes: Payday 

Rip Torn may well be one of the most underutilized actors of the last 40 years. His eerie evocation of the banality of the evil through his performance as Richard Nixon in the 1978 TV miniseries, Blind Ambition, has been forgotten, superseded by Anthony Hopkins' subsequent characterization of him for Oliver Stone. Torn searched for the demons within, and often found them, which was not the way to attain stardom.

In Payday, Torn gave a career defining performance as an on the make country music singer, Maury Dann. Dann travels all around the country, performing in front of audiences in small to medium size cities, collecting a share of the gate and record sales. In the pre-MTV, pre-Clear Channel age, performers like Dann could make a good living for themselves and their band members in this way as they assiduously courted local DJs for promotion.

As someone who spent a fair amount of time in the Deep South that forms the backdrop for Dann's ambition to make it to Nashville, so that he can break through to the big time, I can confidently say that the period detail of the movie, filmed on location, is extraordinary. Set in the early 1970s, Dann is performing shows in southern and central Alabama as he heads north towards Tennessee, and the opportunity for national exposure that his manager has worked hard to cultivate. I visited my divorced father around this same time in nearby Macon, Georgia, and I recall a world very similar to the rural motels, restaurants, bars and four lane highways through which Dann explosively circulates. The backup band's use of an International Harvester Travelall to transport themselves and their equipment is a particularly delightful touch.

But Payday is much more than an especially vivid memorialization of time and place within the context of a specific subculture. Nor is it merely a star vehicle for an actor, Torn, who failed to become a star despite his mesmerizing performance. Payday is too merciless in its exposure of the misogyny of male celebrity and the subsequent abuses of the liberatory impulses of the 1960s within the Deep South to work as either nostalgia or hero worship. If anything, it is analoguous to the lack of sentimentality and detached anthropological perspective associated with the 1960s Japanese films of Oshima and Imamura. One can easily imagine Imamura making Payday if he had been hired by a Hollywood studio as Antonioni was for Zabriskie Point.

For Payday has two enduring central themes, the pernicious consequences of the sexual revolution and liberalized drug use within a culture in which patriarchy, and the violence associated with it, are deeply ingrained. In this, it can be truly be said to be a quintessential American film. One gets an immediate sense of this in the film's first scene, where Dann and his band are performing one of his signature songs, Country Girl, at a club. During the performance of the song, the audience consumes alcohol freely and there is an unmistakeable current of eroticism amongst the audience as well as between the audience and the band. The lyrics of the song itself, about a young woman who rejects the city for the country because of her down home values, provides a contrapuntal commentary.

Prior to leaving the parking lot after the show, Dann talks to Sandy, a young groupie, and persuades her to come into his car, where he proceeds to screw her in the backseat. There is really no other way to say it without suggesting some tenderness or affection that is totally absent. Back at the hotel, we are introduced to Dann's apparent girlfriend, Mayleen Travis, a woman with whom he shares a voracious sexual appetite in a relationship that is otherwise calculated and contentious. In the YouTube clip at the top of this post, Dann throws her out of his Cadillac while traveling to his next gig after she has complained one too many times. He replaces her with a ingenue, Rosamond McClintock. She see him as the way out of her small Alabama town.

In Payday, the sexual revolution has come to the Deep South with a vengence. The rapidly spreading libertinism of popular culture, as expressed in Payday through country music, destroys the ability of communities to enforce conservative social mores. Dann and his band strike sparks wherever they go. He summarizes his philosophy as If you can't smoke it, drink it, spend it or love it . . . . forget it, and his material conception of personal satisfaction proves irresistible. Women in the rural South find themselves liberated to be sexually consumed by men like Dann. The prospect of an erotic relationship in which both partners seek to transcend bourgeois constraints and commerce, as in loulou, is beyond the imaginings of anyone in Payday. Sandy, Mayleen and Rosamond may enjoy their sexual encounters with Dann, but Dann dictates the terms of them.

Drug use, so conspicuously a part of the rock scene, is also a major feature of the country music one in Payday. Dann and his band members smoke cigarettes and marijuana joints, drink alcohol and gobble up a frightening amount of prescription drugs, probably methamphetamines, but such consumption primarily serve the purpose of enabling them to travel long distances and perform with as little rest as possible while surviving the tedium of life on the road. There is a duality to Dann's materialism. One the one hand, sex, drugs and money are enjoyable in a transitory way, but they also enable him and his band to participate in a seemingly unending process of cultural production, a process, need it be said, that is invariably controlled by males.

Unfortunately, they, especially the drugs, render Dann emotionally unstable and prone to violent tempermental outbursts, again, as shown in the YouTube clip, while lifting him, and everyone in his orbit, away from the bonds of community and familial support that might otherwise contain them. It is this dialectic between the productive utility of sex, drugs and money and the combustible consequences of their use that constitutes the centerpiece of the film. Dann is, in effect, attempting to bust through social and class boundaries by reducing himself into a pure instrument of production and consumption. As you might expect, he fails much in the same manner of Icarus flying too close to the sun.

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