Film

CinemaDope: The Singing Journalist

Phil Ochs remembered

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Friday, March 18, 2011
First Run Features Photo
Phil Ochs in Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

It was Phil Ochs' great fortune and misfortune alike that he was a man of his era. Only half a year older than Bob Dylan, Ochs has been largely overshadowed by Mr. Zimmerman's deservedly long shadow and even longer discography. A gifted musician from a young age—as a teenager, he was a clarinetist with an Ohio orchestra—Ochs, like so many of his generation, was drawn out of the conservatory by the immediacy of folk music. The chance to write songs about a world that was changing around him as he watched was intoxicating to Ochs, and it was a calling he took seriously. While other guitar pickers might call themselves folk musicians or songwriters, Ochs wasn't having it: he was a "singing journalist."

Like any good journalist, Ochs strived to be non-partisan. While anyone who wrote protest songs during those tumultuous years (or as Ochs preferred, "topical songs") likely leaned toward the liberal side, Ochs, more than most, kept a cool eye on both sides of the fence—even getting himself ejected from Dylan's limo after criticizing the star. And like any good folk singer, he had a wicked dark side: the cover art for Rehearsals For Retirement, the album Ochs recorded after experiencing the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, featured the singer's tombstone, etched with a picture of him armed with a rifle and standing in front of an American flag. The date of death is listed as "Chicago, Illinois 1968."

That darkness would catch up to him, when he tried to stave off the continuing decline of an American dream (MLK and RFK shot dead, deepening involvement in Vietnam, the Chicago riots) with a self-prescribed cocktail of booze and pills. Apparently heartbroken and hopeless, Ochs died at 35.

His story is told in Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, opening this week at Amherst Cinema. With a portrait stitched together from photos, film clips, and interviews with those whom Ochs touched—Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Sean Penn among them—director Kenneth Bowser's film serves as a correction to the 400-page FBI dossier that suggested that Ochs might be a traitor to his country. It also serves as a welcome reminder of a songwriter who deserves his own place in the spotlight.

Also at Amherst this week is an interesting production of Frankenstein, being beamed in live from London's National Theatre. As directed by Danny Boyle—best known for film work like 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire—this fresh take on Mary Shelley's creation, adapted by Nick Dear, draws inspiration from another classic monster tale: Jekyll and Hyde. That's because the two lead actors—Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller—will be alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature.

Not just a casting gimmick (though it certainly hasn't hurt sales), the duality and dark-mirror idea of transformation is at the very heart of the production. This first broadcast—Thursday, March 17 at 7 p.m.—features Cumberbatch as the Creature, but when the actors switch roles, the play itself becomes something new: while the script remains the same, the staging and interpretation is altered with each casting change. Both versions will be filmed March 17, with this first version screening through mid-April. (It also screens at Shelburne Falls' Memorial Hall on March 17 for more northerly readers.) The Miller-as-Creature version will follow with broadcasts in Amherst during late April and early May.

Finally this week, the sixth annual Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival gets underway. Running under a "Caring Across Borders" theme, this year's films—screening all over the Valley during the next two weeks—focus on the idea of cross-cultural connection. Kicking things off is A Film Unfinished (March 23 at multiple locations—for the full schedule, visit pvjff.org). Director Yael Hersonski will be present to present the documentary, an exploration of an infamous Nazi propaganda film made to hide the truth of life in the Warsaw ghetto.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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