Tuesday, January 28, 2014


     When I heard that Pete Seeger had passed at age 94, I realized I’d seen him perform live more than I had any other musician. It’s not because I always raced out to get tickets for his shows.  It’s because for decades, if there was a demonstration or a benefit concert for a good cause Pete lent his services.  Enthusiastically. 

     Whether the event was to protest the Vietnam War, an infringement of civil rights or the Kissinger-engineered coup in Chile -- whether it was organized to demand cleanup of the Hudson River, to end nuclear proliferation or to protect the disenfranchised from the privileged in any way -- I knew I was going to hear Pete Seeger, and be happily singing along with him.  If I was close enough to the stage, I could read the inscription on his banjo: “This machine kills Fascists.”  That always tickled me as much as the sound effects we all made with our mouths when Pete had us do our parts on “Coming ‘round the Mountain.”

     Indeed, Pete Seeger inspired everyone in my generation who ever wanted to do some good while working in the entertainment industry. Sure, many of us, long ago, read Jean-Paul Sartre on the subject of artistic “engagement.” Most of us are familiar with the Zen idea of “right livelihood.”  And we all admire the writers, poets, musicians and actors who generously donate time, energy and money to promote good causes. But for Pete, the good of the planet and the death of Fascism were fulltime occupations; he was the one to emulate.

     He weathered the McCarthy era blacklist (refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955) and CBS censorship (when they cut his Vietnam War protest song “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” from a 1967 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour).  His refusal to compromise was downright heroic. 

     Both his personal stands and his music roused people to action.  And many of his songs -- including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Bring ‘em Home” and “We Shall Overcome” -- became so anthemic people forgot he wrote them.  

     In addition to entertaining with his great original tunes, Pete Seeger taught his listeners the basic twentieth century folk canon.  Most of us who know Woody Guthrie’s songs (from “Union Maid” to “This Land is Your Land”), Leadbelly’s (from “Goodnight, Irene” to “Blue Tail Fly”) and those of rebellious slaves and labor organizers, heard them first when Pete sang them.

      So, too with what is now called “world music.”  In 1950, his adaption of the Hebrew folk song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” became a Number 2 hit for his quartet, The Weavers.  A year later, the group had another top seller with Pete’s adaptation of the South African chant, “Wimoweh,” which I first heard morphed into The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  In 1966, his adaptation of the iconic Cuban ditty “Guantanamera” became a hit for a band called The Sandpipers. 

     Of the above, I’m fondest of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” In the extremely assimilationist Jewish household of my childhood, it was the only Hebrew-language record.  So I not only learned folk music and world music from a political hero, he taught me a little Hebrew as well.

     Many young film buffs, I’m sure, think they don’t know Pete Seeger’s music. But they probably do without knowing it. The banjo, whistling and yodeling theme played throughout RAISING ARIZONA is Carter Burwell’s arrangement of Pete’s “Goofing Off Suite.”  Joel and Ethan Coen grew up listening to the record and knew, even in pre-production, it would be a perfect underscore for their yarn about the ne’er-do-well H.I. McDunnough.

     Pete had other connections to cinema, too, and I found them all exciting.  He played himself, at Woody Guthrie’s bedside, in Arthur Penn’s ALICE’S RESTAURANT, and he lent the scene warmth and authenticity… his warmth and authenticity.  In Murray Lerner’s 1967 documentary, FESTIVAL, later excerpted in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan doc NO DIRECTION HOME, Pete looks on, beaming like a proud father, as Bob Dylan leads a songwriting workshop.

     He was the subject of the 2007 film, PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG, and he graced the screen in Lewis Lapham’s THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS.  He was featured in LOMAX THE SONGHUNTER, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE: THE STORY OF POPULAR MUSIC, THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOT and LET FREEDOM RING: HOW MUSIC INSPIRED THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.  Whenever he appeared on screen he was more than just an avuncular presence; he seemed to personify an essential goodness, a true and profound heroism.

     So… another great hero, made from a mold that was broken long ago, is gone.  He will be missed.  His many achievements, including a radical cleanup of the Hudson River, will be remembered and rightly lauded.  And, thank goodness, he’ll be discovered and rediscovered because his work has been preserved in recorded music and movies.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014


     A few months before the second annual Sundance Film Festival -- held in January 1985 -- Joel and Ethan Coen, chain-smoking Camel lights in the tiny editing room I shared with sound designer Skip Lievsay, said in a very offhand manner, “Redford has this festival in Utah where you ski all day and watch movies all night.”  They mentioned it because BLOOD SIMPLE had been accepted to compete at this very odd venue. Lifelong schussmeisters from Minnesota, the Coens seemed more excited about the days than the nights.  For Skip and me, their announcement simply meant we had to be ready to mix the film’s sound in time for festival presentation.

     We were.  The boys skied, BLOOD SIMPLE won the Jury Prize… good times! Exciting times! Independent cinema was an embryo.

     Now, for better or worse, it’s a grownup. The festival has become a sales venue – a place where agents sell independently financed films to studios, large and small. There’s a Fred Segal franchise at the foot of Park City’s chairlift.  In a town where drinking was illegal, after-screening parties are now sponsored by booze manufacturers.  A tiny room in a tiny cabin, miles from Park City, can be more expensive than a suite in a trendy New York hotel.

     What hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that it’s incredibly exciting to have a film in competition at the festival.  So I’m very excited, again this year, indeed.

     INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, written and directed by Maya Forbes, which I edited, has its worldwide premiere on January 18th, during opening weekend of the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival.  It was delightful working with Maya on the film.

     I met her about a year ago – a few months before the start of principal photography – after reading and falling in love with her screenplay and “mission statement.”  The script tells the tale of a manic-depressive father who, in the early 1980’s, becomes the primary caretaker of his two young daughters.  He must rise to the daunting task of raising the girls regardless of his mental illness.

     What I loved about the mission statement was Maya’s clear intention to make comedy an essential part of the film’s overall tone.  It would be too easy and probably too dark, she said, to focus on how bleak the narrative of a mentally ill father could be.

     While cutting the film, I was reminded of an interview with cinematographer Gordon Willis that appeared in Premiere Magazine many years ago. Gordon, with whom I was privileged to work on MANHATTAN and STARDUST MEMORIES, said that an essential part of his job was reminding the director of her/his original goals.  A given location might make it impossible to shoot what had been planned, for instance, but Gordon had to find alternatives that were in sync with the director’s vision.

    And so, in the POLAR BEAR cutting room, as we shaped scenes in which authentic and beautiful performances by Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana captured the seriousness of the father’s situation, I found myself -- along with Maya – mining material to enhance the lighter tone originally intended.

     I think we pulled it off.  At least well enough to be one of the 16 films selected, from more than 12,000 submissions, to compete for the jury prize at the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival.

     Sundance is my favorite of all the galas, because it’s still, basically, a Mecca for motion picture lovers.  Over the years – having edited seven “official Sundance selections” -- I’ve met film fanatics from all over the world who trek to frigid Park City just to see what’s fresh and new and non-formulaic in contemporary American cinema. The marketplace notwithstanding, most people attend Sundance just to enjoy themselves at the movies.  It reminds me of what rock musicians love about playing far-flung venues:  audiences don’t come, as they might in Los Angeles or New York, to “be impressed.” They come to have a great time. I know that this year, once again, they will.