Tag Archives: American Masters

Fierce Green Fire a valentine to Planet Earth

Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson

Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson cradles a harp seal pup to protect it from Canadian sealers in a shot from “American Masters: A Fierce Green Fire,” airing tonight on many PBS affiliates.

In a powerful scene from A Fierce Green Fire, a powerful Earth Day special from American Masters that is airing tonight on most PBS affiliates, environmental demonstrators march through the streets carrying placards bearing a stark message: “There is no Planet B.”
That neatly sums up the point of view in Mark Kitchell’s critically acclaimed one-hour documentary, which looks back on 50 years of environmental activism on both a grassroots and global scale. If anything, the subject begs for a more expanded treatment, but the film does a splendid job of maintaining its breakneck pace while moving smoothly from one topic to another.
A Fierce Green Fire takes its title from a line in A Sand Country Alamanac, a 1949 documentary from a pioneering ecologist and former forest ranger who writes of finding a wolf he had shot: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”
I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself from that devastating image, but Kitchell’s documentary uses the phrase in a positive context, referring to the vital ecosystems that — at least for now — are struggling to keep Earth healthy and vital. In fact, this special suggests, many people probably got their first reality check in the late 1960s and early ’70s when they began to see photos of a shining blue Earth, wrapped in sweeping clouds, as taken from the surface of the planet’s bleak and arid moon.
A Fierce Green Fire is divided into five “acts,” each with a different narrator. The first, narrated by Robert Redford, focuses on the conservation movement of the 1960s, which saw the Sierra Club and its charismatic executive director, David Brower, waging a strenuous yet ultimately successful attack to halt the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon. The most depressing part of this segment is the reminder that, if you think the deplorable trend of putting non eco-friendly candidates into environmental political posts is a new thing, think again. It’s been that way for years.
The special then moves into the 1970s, as Ashley Judd narrates a look at growing public awareness of pollution. That topic reached a flashpoint in the latter part of the decade with the Love Canal debacle in upstate New York. This segment, which I found the most riveting in the film, throws the spotlight on Lois Gibbs, a mad-as-hell housewife and mother in the community who refused to be blown off by politicians and galvanized her neighbors into taking action against the toxic industrial waste that was causing sickness and skyrocketing birth defects among their families.
Environmental advocate Van Jones narrates act three, which looks at emerging “alternative” ecology groups such as Greenpeace and the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, then Chilean novelist Isabel Allende presents an homage to martyred activist Chico Mendes, who gave his life to protect the Amazon rain forest.
Meryl Streep takes over as narrator for the final act of A Fierce Green Fire, a power punch devoted to climate change. There’s not a lot in this segment that will come as a revelation to most viewers, although it’s depressing to realize yet again how deeply commercial interests are controlling and gutting any attempts at meaningful legislation in Washington, D.C.
As the recently deceased climate scientist Stephen Schneider remarks in an archival interview, it’s “a hell of a way to run a planet.”
As always with PBS programming, check your local listings to confirm air date and time in your area.
Love Canal housewife Lois Gibbs

Lois Gibbs, an infuriated housewife with sick children, is among the formidable activists spotlighted in “A Fierce Green Fire,” airing tonight on PBS

Warts-and-all Salinger opens American Masters season

J.D. Salinger and his sister, Doris, on vacation in Florida.

J.D. Salinger (shown here with his sister, Doris, during a Florida vacation) may have become a writer so he could create a universe peopled with characters who lived up to his prickly expectations.

A new director’s cut of Salinger, Shane Salerno’s critically acclaimed documentary profile of the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, makes its television debut tonight as American Masters launches its 28th season on PBS (check local listings, as always).
Some 15 minutes of new material not seen during the film’s theatrical release only serves to enhance the stature of Salinger, which gives ample weight to J.D. Salinger’s literary art, but also explores some of the darker aspects of the author’s personality.
Salinger was known by many friends and associates to be a gregarious, outgoing personality before Catcher exploded on the scene in 1951. The author had struggled unsuccessfully for years to get his saga of 17-year-old phony-hating Holden Caulfield published. The head of one literary agency turned down the book on the grounds that its protagonist was “clearly insane.” If that was true, then just as clearly the world was filled with lunatics, because Salinger’s novel was greeted with nearly universal acclaim when it finally hit bookstores.
Salinger would soon discover that his success was double-edged, however. Many of the readers for whom the book resonated powerfully began to seek out the author, like a guru on a mountaintop, banging on his front door and hoping that he could reveal the meaning of life to them.
Whatever drove Salinger’s fondness for seclusion, it wasn’t low self-esteem. He said more than once that he was the first American writer of any real consequence since Herman Melville. And, when he chose to, he would mingle happily and freely with local friends and neighbors at fairs near his adopted home in Cornish, N.H. As one commentator drily suggests in the film, Salinger seemed to make public appearances just often enough to remind the public that he was “reclusive.” He gave no interviews. If J.D. Salinger wanted to talk to someone, it would be when, where and with whom he chose.
This compulsion to control was even stronger in his work. Even early in his career, Salinger reportedly went into a deep depression when a magazine editor had the temerity to insert a comma into one of his stories, and he became absolutely apoplectic at the liberties Hollywood took with a short story that was adapted into the 1949 Susan Hayward film My Foolish Heart.
He cut no slack with close friends in this regard, either. Novelist A.E. Hotchner was working as an editor at Cosmopolitan – a literary magazine at the time – when Salinger offered him a story on the firm condition that it be published exactly as he had written it. Hotchner personally walked the story through the editing process to ensure nothing was changed, only to discover to his horror when that issue was printed that the fiction editor at the magazine had changed the TITLE of the piece. Salinger raked his old friend over the coals and never spoke to him again.
In his personal life, Salinger always gravitated to much younger women, presumably because at that point in their lives they were more malleable. Jean Miller, whom Salinger met in Florida when Miller was 14, recalls an airline trip the two took together when she was older. During the flight, Salinger was advised that he was going to miss his connection with the next leg of his trip. Delighted that she was going to have her friend with her a little longer, Miller laughed and saw Salinger’s face darken. Their relationship was over.
Salinger wrote 19-year-old college student Joyce Maynard after she landed a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Salinger was 54, but Maynard moved in with him and the two became lovers – until a Florida vacation when Salinger abruptly and unilaterally decided the relationship was over and pushed Maynard into a cab, stuffing two $50 bills into her hand.
Stories like these would be interesting, not to mention titillating, enough on their own terms, but Salerno’s documentary shines most brightly when it illuminates how these people and events made a direct impact on Salinger’s work. His second wife, the mother of his two children, eventually left him because Salinger more or less abandoned these very real people in his life in favor of spending all his time in a backyard bunker-office, where he obsessively wrote stories about the Glass family, who appeared in multiple Salinger short stories and his best-selling novel Franny and Zooey.
Ultimately, explains estranged daughter Margaret Salinger, her father probably became a writer so he could create his own universe, one peopled with characters who met his lofty expectations. After more than half a century, The Catcher in the Rye continues to speak to readers, but its author, who died in 2010 at age 91, rarely felt truly connected to anyone who existed off the page.
J.D. Salinger at work on 'The Catcher in the Rye' during World War II.

Paul Fitzgerald, who served in J.D. Salinger’s infantry unit, took the only known photograph showing the author at work on ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’

‘American Masters’ salutes guitar icon Jimi Hendrix

The Jimi Hendrix Experience performs at thew 1968 Miami Pop Festival.

Among the previously unseen highlights of Tuesday night’s ‘American Masters’ episode devoted to Jimi Hendrix is performance footage of the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival.

As his 70th birthday year nears its close, iconoclastic ’60s guitarist Jimi Hendrix gets an affectionate two-hour tribute Tuesday night on PBS in American Masters: Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’. The program, which American Masters co-produced with Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings, traces Hendrix’s too-short life and electrifying career from his Seattle childhood through his musical glory days between 1966 and 1970.
Born to a hard-partying mother who only occasionally drifted in and out of his life, Hendrix was raised by his dad, Al, a military veteran who bought his son a heavily used acoustic guitar for $5 when he was a teenager. Seeing how single-mindedly the younger Hendrix applied himself to his practice, Al Hendix subsequently invested in an electric guitar, which would become Jimi’s instrument of choice.
After finishing high school, Jimi joined the Army but saw his service cut short by an injury during a parachute exercise. Determined to establish himself as a musician, he started out with low-paying gigs on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” of predominantly black music clubs, then landed jobs playing back-up for various acts, although most venues wanted their acts to play only covers of established Top 40 radio hits, not original material.
Hendrix got his first big break when a friend introduced him to Chas Chandler, a former bass player for the Animals who was moving into artist management. In a shrewd move, in 1966 Chandler took Hendrix to London, a musical mecca where the young guitarist’s talent almost immediately was spotted and championed by members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In 1967, Hendrix returned to the United States for an electrifying and star-making performance at the Monterey (Calif.) International Pop Festival.
Hendrix never looked back after that, although he was so single-mindedly consumed by his music that, as many friends and colleagues freely admit during this documentary, he relied on others to take care of him in other respects. He was only 27 when he died on Sept. 18, 1970, of what apparently was an accidental overdose of barbiturates at the home of his girlfriend.
Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ incorporates extensive, previously unseen performance footage and home movies taken by Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell, drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, along with a vast archive of photographs, drawings and letters (Hendrix, happily for the producers, apparently was a faithful correspondent with his friends and family).
Some might argue that this two-hour presentation soft-pedals Hendrix’s drug use (Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings are releasing an expanded home video edition of this documentary on Blu-ray and DVD on the same day this American Masters episode airs, but I haven’t seen the former and can’t comment on its content). The portrait of Hendrix that emerges from the PBS presentation is a compelling one, however, emphasizing his intense mistrust of flattery. This was a musician who, very clearly, preferred to let his music speak for itself.
As a run-up to tomorrow’s PBS premiere, Bob Smeaton, director of the documentary, invites Hendrix fans to participate in a 20-minute online-exclusive sneak preview of Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ tonight (Monday, Nov. 4) at 6:30 p.m. ET via this link: https://ovee.itvs.org/screenings/6jxrc .
Jimi Hendrix

Ode to Billie Jean

American Masters waited 27 years to profile a sports figure, but Billie Jean King, an engrossing and often thrilling 90-minute documentary premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates, was well worth the wait.
Scheduled to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s “Battle of the Sexes” match with fading tennis champ Bobby Riggs, the film from writer-director-producer James Erskine covers King’s life and career from her 1943 birth in Long Beach, Calif., through her meteoric rise in the world of women’s tennis in the 1960s and early ‘70s, just as the women’s movement was taking shape around the world, and up to the present day.
As King, who turns 70 this November, remembers it, she fell in love with tennis almost from the moment she started playing at 11 in public parks, but she was troubled to notice that the game seemed to attract elitist, all-white players. She won her first in a record 20 Wimbledon titles in 1961 and started to use her escalating visibility to raise attention to the vast inequity in prize money awarded to women vs. their male counterparts.
In the early ‘70s, King’s global celebrity caught the eye of Riggs, who was hustling to promote himself now that his own tennis career was virtually over at age 55. He challenged King, who was less than half his age, to a match, claiming that despite their age disparity, he would win easily because his gender gave him an automatic advantage. King, no fool, declined, reasoning that if she beat Riggs, she would have beaten a player well past his prime, but if she somehow lost, it might damage the credibility of women’s tennis in general.
Her hand was forced, however, when Margaret Court of Australia, the top-ranked women’s player of the time, accepted Riggs’ challenge and got her clock thoroughly cleaned, underestimating Riggs and letting him psych her out. In the wake of that debacle, King reluctantly agreed to accept the challenge. The winner of the match would collect a $100,000 jackpot, but King obviously realized that the faceoff was, in some respects, a public referendum on whether women truly were the equals of men. What the rest of the world didn’t know was that King was dealing with a different kind of pressure as well: Married to a man since 1965, she now realized she was a lesbian and was struggling to process those feelings.
Nevertheless, she pulled herself together and handily beat Riggs, who had slacked off training since he beat Court so easily.
Not surprisingly, the gripping centerpiece of this documentary is the extensive footage from that match, punctuated by conemporary commentary from King, Chris Evert, Hillary Clinton and many other spectators and participants, including Larry Riggs, son of Bobby, who died in 1995.
After their match ended, Bobby Riggs jumped the net, shook King’s hand and said, “I underestimated you.”
That’s a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, as this fascinating documentary makes abundantly clear.
Billie Jean King today

Philip Roth: Who is that masked man?

During its long run on PBS, American Masters has been the home of engrossing and noteworthy profiles of some of this country’s greatest artists, so when the series schedules a documentary called Philip Roth: Unmasked, anyone who cares about contemporary American literature is bound to feel a tingle.
After all, Roth may insist that he never sets out to deliberately provoke readers and critics, yet he has emerged as one of the most consistently provocative – and reclusive – American novelists of his generation.
Unfortunately, while this 90-minute documentary, which premieres Friday on most PBS affiliates in conjunction with Roth’s recent 80th birthday, is interesting in terms of providing insights into Roth’s prolific output, it falls well short of coaxing the writer into giving up much, if any, personal information.
Given that we’re talking about the author of many startlingly frank novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and the much-later Sabbath’s Theater (1995), wherein sex and the putative appeal of infidelity are recurring themes, it seems disingenuous of the filmmakers to slap a fairly sensational title like this one on a profile that doesn’t even mention Roth’s stormy marriage to actress Claire Bloom, who published a fairly toxic 1996 memoir called Leaving a Doll’s House about their relationship.
The American Masters press materials describe Philip Roth: Unmasked as “the first film biography” of the novelist, but even that is a bit of a stretch, given that the relatively skimpy chronicle of the writer’s personal life is presented almost exclusively through the prism of his writing. It would be far more accurate to describe this film as an appreciation, and if you approach it on those terms, you’ll find ample rewards. In fact, after watching this documentary, I’d be tempted to add Roth to the guest list of that fantasy dinner party we all compile in our heads from time to time. He’s absolutely charming, even while he is firmly deflecting any serious attempt to get a peek at the man behind the mask.
“Shame isn’t for writers,” he says of some of his more controversial work. “You have to be shameless. … I feel plenty of shame in my own life, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as shame-ridden as the next person is. But when I sit down to write, I’m free from shame.” (“And I’m also not about to share with you anything about my personal shame,” you are free to read between the lines).
If the mask slips at all, it’s during the last third of the program, when Roth addresses the stark realities of old age. As actress Mia Farrow, a longtime close friend featured in the film, admits, some of Roth’s recent novels on that theme have been almost terrifyingly bleak, and Roth, who suffers from chronic back pain, admits that now and then he has contemplated suicide. He also ruefully remarks that looking through his personal address book is “like walking through a cemetery.
“Writing turns out to be a dangerous job, when you think of the number of writers who have committed suicide,” he says. “There’s probably something inherently dangerous in the job or something in the temperament of those who choose the job. The list is long, so the question is: Why? What is there that is inherent to the job that leads so many first-class writers to commit suicide? I don’t know. But I don’t want to join the list.”

A bouquet for Rosetta

Her roof-raising gospel vocals made her one of the first recording artists to boost spiritual songs onto the music charts, while her deft guitar work influenced Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley among other giants, but the name of Sister Rosetta Tharpe isn’t widely remembered in the U.S. these days. American Masters makes amends tonight as the Emmy-winning PBS series launches its 27th season with Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, a one-hour documentary from British filmmaker Mick Csaky, whose past films for the series profiled disparate musicians Bob Marley and Placido Domingo.
Born to two impoverished cotton pickers in Cotton Plant, Ark., Tharpe found her life course at age 6, when her mother felt the call to evangelism and joined the stream of poor blacks moving north to Chicago, where the pair joined the Church of God in Christ. Although many today mistakenly think of Tharpe in connection with country music, gospel record producer Anthony Heilbut, who became a friend of Tharpe, points out that the little girl spent her formative years exposed to a more complex and urban kind of religious singing that was a melting pot streaked with blues from the Mississippi delta and jazz from New Orleans.
While Tharpe made a vivid early impression singing in churches, her marriage at 19 to a preacher (arranged by her mother) ended badly, so Tharpe took her mother to New York and launched a brand-new career in venues such as the Cotton Club, becoming a favored colleague of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. A lucrative recording contract with Decca Records quickly followed, but while the decidedly racier songs she released sold phenomenally well, they also shocked her church fans. Eventually returning to her gospel roots, Tharpe brought a newly honed sense of show business to spiritual music that let her straddle both houses of worship and more commercial locales.
Tharpe’s performing style was so infectious and her crossover success so strong that she kept her fans happy even as she participated in such wild publicity stunts as holding her third wedding in Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, which she virtually sold out and later released a companion LP of the event. A series of love affairs with both genders likewise raised some eyebrows.
Airing on connection with Black History Month, this hour is a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in early 20th century American music.