Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kenneth Bowser's PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE is a fascinating time capsule

For some of us who came of age in the 1960s, PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE, the new documentary by Kenneth Bowser may prove to be quite the little time trip back into what we imagine to have been our "heyday." They're all here: the folk singers (Dylan, Baez, Peter Yarrow and, of course, Mr. Ochs) and their songs, the protests, the hippies, drugs and alcohol aplenty, along with that sense of purpose -- loosely imagined as it might have been -- that appeared to bring us all together. Yet what emerges from the film more strongly than anything else (for this viewer, at least) is the sense of history as something that repeats and repeats and repeats. All of which makes this movie, as immensely enjoyable as it is on one level, depressing as hell on another. Given the state of the USA today.

Mr. Bowser, shown at right (the photo credit's at bottom) has done a bang-up job of telling Ochs' story -- and a good one (if a sad one) it is. We get his youthful enthusiasm and talent, along with hints of what is to come; some interesting critique of performers and their songs (Dylan's were accessible, Ochs' direct but more difficult); and some family history (Phil's dad had what seems like undiagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome after his experiences during WWII). We hear some of the witty numbers Ochs was so good at (Love Me, I'm a Liberal, in which he gives liberal Democrats "what for"), as well as some of his more rousing songs (I Ain't Marchin' Anymore, Draft Dodger Rag, and The War Is Over).

For me, Ochs most memorable song has always been The Pleasures of the Harbor (from the album of the same name). Not a protest number, it is instead simply gorgeous and moving in its sad beauty -- and different from anything the musician had done before or did after. The album flopped, though it had its staunch defenders at the time. At this point Ochs' decline, already in motion, speeded up.

The musician was manic-depressive, as we learn from his brother, and also somewhat paranoid. Fueled by too much alcohol, these handicaps finally burst their too-lightweight bonds. As we see event after event pass before us all over again -- the 1968 Democratic Convention at which Chicago police attacked peaceful demonstrators, helping to lose the that year's election to Richard Nixon; the rise of the Weathermen, together with the bombings and the despair; Kent State; and finally the fall of Allende in Chile, for which Ochs and others clearly blamed the US/CIA connection -- it becomes clear that outside events, coupled to the musician's inner demons, joined forces to sink the man. (The movie seems particularly smart about the unusual combination in Ochs' character that made him both a patriot and a protester.)

We're treated to a final concert at which both Ochs and Dylan (who, though initially close, soon became rivals and enemies) join up to sing and play (not very well, from the sound of it) at a final (for Ochs) sold-out concert. This strange, sometimes funny but more often sad and depressing, trip down memory lane is one I would not have missed. Reliving those times is salutary, and Bowser and his crew have put together an exemplary documentary about a man who deserves remembrance from his contemporaries and knowledge of from the younger set. For far too many of the latter, the idea of "protest" (except maybe at mom and dad for curtailing the credit card) has yet to enter their vocabulary or their life.

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, from First Run Features, opens today, January 5, in New York City at the IFC Center, and will play in seven other US cities (and one Canadian) in the months to come. You can check playdates here, with cities and theaters listed.

All photos are from the film itself, except for that of Mr Bowser, which 

4 comments:

Kerthialfad said...

I just saw the Phil Ochs movie by Kenneth Bowser, and loved it. I have always been a great Ochs fan, and the movie filled in a lot of the details of his life of which I was unfamiliar.

However, the film present few details about his death, which causes me to ask the question - was homicide ever considered?
Did he leave a suicide note? Were there any witnesses? (There were witnesses at Tim Buckley's death). He had already escaped a death attempt - coincidentally by strangulation. Was a thorough investigation conducted? Did he have any enemies? (Nixon, the CIA, the FBI). Being paranoid and manic-depressive does not necessarily mean you will die by suicide. I would like to discuss such ideas as these.
cheers,

James van Maanen, said...

Well, Kerthialfad, I don't how to address your comment, except to say that, no, I have not heard anyone else bring up the possibility of murder. But of course, it could be. Though I would imagine police investigations at the time would have ruled this out. And Ochs' relatives were pretty fine with the suicide verdict -- which was not unexpected (from what we see in the film, neither the suicide itself, nor the verdict). But if anyone out there wants to comment on this, be my guest. As they say, being paranoid does not necessarily mean that people aren't out to get you.

Anonymous said...

His death by hanging was his successful suicide. He had tried several times before in various ways including trying to hang himself from the bannister in his old duplex on Prince st. This is from several reliable sources I interviewed for the film.
Ken Bowser

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Ken. Seems to me your film made this pretty clear, but I guess there is always room for a little doubt. In any case, I really appreciate your taking the time to respond.