By Kathy Harr
Camus said, "Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever the difficulties the enterprise may present, I would like never to be unfaithful either to one or the other."
That describes the folksinger-songwriter Phil Ochs as seen in Kenneth Bowser's new documentary, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune. Bowser, who is married to actress Amy Irving and has also made a films about Saturday Night Live, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, is probably best known for making the film based on Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
There But for Fortune, which is slowly releasing nationally, including San Francisco's Balboa Theater this weekend, was called a “a complex portrait of an ultimately unknowable man,” by Peter Rainer. And “at once an unsentimental portrait of the ambitious singer who thought himself bound for glory, and an affecting elegy for a time when song was a form of revolution,” wrote Lisa Schwarzbaum. Bowser was kind enough to chat with me about art and truth, yesterday's failures and today's wars, and what was left on the cutting-room floor.
I want to thank you for making this film, and tell you that for me as a fan, Phil Ochs's voiceovers and the way that you used his voiceovers to tell his own story was the big icing on the cake for me.
But I wanted to start by asking you: why Phil Ochs?
Kenneth Bowser: Because I was a crazed fan. I had all of his albums - except for the last one, I didn't have Greatest Hits when I was young - and saw him perform, and I met him once, and I felt from the time after his death that it would make a great film. I thought that his life, and his art, reflected the times more perfectly than any other artist I knew of. So, I approached the Ochs family almost 20 years ago. I liked them, they liked me, they agreed that my take on the material was, in their view, correct. But I couldn't get the film off the ground at that time. Basically, I couldn't interest anyone in making a film about a dead folk singer. Really, that's how they responded. “Why do you want to make a film about a dead folk singer that most of us haven't heard of?”
So it took a long time till I was in a position, career-wise and financially, to start shooting the film. And then about seven years ago I started shooting interviews on my own dime, collecting everyone I could, collecting footage with the help of Phil's brother Michael Ochs. He had a lot of footage, and Meegan, Phil's daughter, had footage, and I had researchers going out to find it.
At the time I just knew it was a great story, I didn't know that Phil's music would wind up being as eerily prescient as it is.
You said that the Ochs family liked your take on the film. Michael Ochs was one of the producers. Did you find any attempts to influence your work?
None. He was in Los Angeles and I was in New York, and from day one it was always “if you will allow me to make this film, you will have to let me make the film. You can't have cut, you can't have any of that.” They were on board with that pretty much from the beginning. I think that reflected Phil's view and so Meegan and Michael took that view: if you were to trust somebody with the material you had to let them tell the truth, wherever that truth led you.
I've read about plans to make fictionalized accounts and plans to make documentaries--I know Sean Penn is in your film and he was one of the people that wanted to do that.
He's been trying to make a film for years.
Do you know what's happened with any of those projects?
Well, Sean's position was that he could play Phil until he was about 35, on a good day. He's long since past that. I think it's a combination that they never got a script that would work for them and the difficulties of mounting a film about a particular period of time on such a large scale. Again, I think that Sean had the same reactions I did, “Why would you want to make a film about a dead folk singer?”
I was also wondering about your title, "There But for Fortune." It is one of Phil's better-known songs, and also the title of one of the biographies. But why did you choose it for the film?
Because I think it reflects what happened to Phil, Phil's sense of irony, Phil's sense of fate. It was a better metaphor than I could come up with. We must have run through 50 titles and kept coming back to this because my initial take that I sold to the family - which on one level never changed - was that the story is much bigger than just Phil. That's what made it interesting: Phil's life and the times seemed to be so intertwined. Someone said to me at a screening recently that he was the Zelig on the 1950s, and I think there's some truth to that. He was all over the place, not only nationally but internationally, and there but for fortune go you or I.
It was interesting that Phil Ochs' had a role as an organizer of the 1968 Democratic national convention protests. He was sometimes characterized as Yippie, which he wasn't really…
He was cofounder!
Right, but he also had that debate with Jerry Rubin. I wasn't as aware of his role in the War is Over demonstrations and how much of an activist Phil really was. The benefit concerts that he produced, the protests that he produced, coming across that stuff in the film was enlightening because I always felt like there must be more to that story.
Yeah, the one time I met him - I saw him perform many times - but the one time I met him he showed up for what must have been 70 students to raise money for the migrant grape growers here in California. He showed up in New Haven, and I think he probably spent more getting back and forth from California than he made at the benefit.
He organized rallies from the get-go. I have to say that was part of the folk movement. If you wanted to put on a concert, if you wanted 20 people to show up…it was always a pass the hat, print pamphlets, put up your own fliers thing. He grew up in a musical world that encouraged that. The progression, as he became a known artist, was to use the power he had as a known artist to push his political causes, things that he believed in. So from very early on that was part of his life, and to the very end. The one time he pulled it together toward the end of his life was for two political benefits. Phil was almost out of his mind that last period of time, yet when it came to organizing a benefit, Phil could somehow pull it together.
I was curious about what was left on the cutting room floor? For example, and maybe this didn't fit with the narrative, but Phil Ochs' relationship with Arthur Gorson, who is in the film as “friend” and not as former manager. I was surprised that you hadn't touched on the fact that they had formed their own company, Barricade Music, to develop other artists, to produce concerts, to produce records. That sort of D.I.Y. thing, coming from the folk movement, was still kind of unusual in that time, '64 or '65.
I'll give you two answers. One is a straightforward answer to your question. One of the artists that Arthur Gorson wanted to sign was Joni Mitchell. He just thought she was great. But Phil says “I don't know,” and it was basically, Gorson was spending too much time with Joni Mitchell and not enough time with Phil, who, like a lot of artists, wanted to be paid attention to.
The other aspect is that I could honestly make at least two other complete feature-length films out of the material of Phil's life. It was so rich, it was so complex. We kind of focused on the issue of fame and pursuing it. The contradictions of his love for John Wayne and the military versus his position as the pre-eminent protest singer of the Left. What's that line from Walt Whitman on contradictions? [“Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”] Phil was definitely that. I think I skimmed across the surface of Arthur Gorson and Barricade Music because you could do a whole thing on that, and why it was formed, and how it came out of the relationship between Phil and manager Albert Grossman. There's a whole back-story there!
Being from a punk background I really liked his D.I.Y. approach, and you had done that other movie about how '70s directors changed the paradigm, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
I also wanted to ask you, in general, about the themes of the movie. You chose that quote from Kennedy at the beginning of the movie, and it seems like that sets up a theme that I get from your film: that truth and reality are difficult to face. I read a New York Times review of your movie - I don't know if you read your reviews - saying Phil Ochs “never understood that there was a limited audience.” And Judy Henske, in your movie, is saying the same thing: it feels the music is hard for people, it's not warm - “too involved for the common man” is actually what she said. But it seems like there was a decision that Phil Ochs made to pursue the truth over popularity.
An editor of mine found that speech of John Kennedy's, that the myth is more dangerous than a lie. Phil embraced the myth of the lone hero who is going to save the country. He grew up in movie theaters as a child with [his brother] Michael. It was a very dysfunctional family. So they wound up spending a lot of time parked in movie theaters watching triple bills. Phil loved the movies, loved Wayne and Ford and Gary Cooper and all that stuff, James Dean. He kind of embraced an idea of an American hero who could conquer the forces of injustice.
That's a very dangerous myth to engage with because it's false. Kennedy understood that, at least intellectually, those myths are false. The opposite of that would be Billy Bragg who endlessly puts one foot in front of the other, and does what he believes is right, and fights for causes that he believes in, but never thinks that he is going to change the course of the river. He understands that he's just a pebble in it and he has to do the right thing.
Phil hoped to change the river, so you have a career, the first half of which is biographical of the culture. He is endlessly and specifically talking about the issues of the day. Torn from the headlines. He is literally taking stories about submarines or an incident in the labor movement and writing a song about it. So the first half of the career is very biographical. By 1967 and '68, he is becoming exhausted. And, if you will, his love affair with America is becoming exhausted, and finally breaking his heart. What he watched happen in Chicago is the end of a long road of assassinations and disappointments one after another of candidates and friends and people. And then the unraveling of the movement, and the success of Nixon, just broke his heart.
His only answer to that was to leave the country. He went on tour to South America and Africa, and one of the places he went was Chile, where he became friends with Victor Jara. Jara was the Bob Dylan of Chile, enormously successful - actually more the Bing Crosby of Chile. As if Bing Crosby did political material. Jara had a television show, he was enormous. And Allende had been elected president of Chile, as a socialist government, and a few months after Phil left Allende was overthrown, Pinochet has him murdered, and Victor Jara, the artist folksinger of Chile, is brutally murdered in a stadium with other people. It was just one thing after another, Phil couldn't get out from under what was happening. As someone very smart says in the film, Phil had a big enough ego to take it all personally.
So, what was left on the cutting room floor? So many things. So many stories. So many contradictions. Some of which I'll put on the DVD this summer. At least another hour of footage of Phil performing and longer pieces of various people who were there.
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