Film

The Reconstruction of Asa Carter

The film smartly blurs the boundaries between what's real and what's not, what's past and what's present, what's Ace Carter and what's Forrest Carter.


The Reconstruction of Asa Carter

Director: Marco Ricci
Cast: Howell Raines, Frederick Burger, Dan T. Carter, Jeff Roche
Rated: NR
Studio: G.T.T. Gone To Texas LLC, ITVS
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-11-01 (Stranger Than Fiction)
Website
Trailer

Asa Carter made himself up. At least that's what people around him think. Or, again, it's what people tell the makers of The Reconstruction of Asa Carter. He led a series of public lives, under several names. And as interviewees here try to piece together the puzzle that was Asa Carter, they run up against a dilemma again and again: he was a consummate self-performer.

Asa Carter's very elusiveness makes him either a perverse or ideal subject for documentary. To its credit, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter -- which screens 1 November at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with director Marco Ricci, producer Douglas Newman, and executive producer Laura Browder -- presents him as perversely ideal. That is, his very elusiveness is the focus of the film's investigation. It doesn't pretend to sort out or come to conclusions about his deceptions and manipulations, or to privilege one interviewee's assessment over another. Even as they're presented as people who "knew" him -- as "Asa's friend," or his literary agent -- few of them offer definitive versions of Carter. Instead, even as they describe what they "know," the film counters with other descriptions. These take multiple forms, sometimes in reenactments, sometimes in sensational newspaper headlines, sometimes in archival TV news footage or radio interviews with Carter, and none of them lets you believe that you "know" Asa Carter.

Among the sticking points in Asa Earl Carter's story are his seemingly abjectly opposed performances as a diehard segregationist who wrote speeches for Alabama Governor George Wallace (Carter is infamously responsible for the "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever" pronouncement) and as the author of the faux memoir, The Education of Little Tree, which he wrote under the name Forrest Carter, a self-declared Native American Cherokee. He also wrote (and was well paid for) The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, basis of the Clint Eastwood movie. As different as these public performances appear to be, they also all speak to some similar themes and, perhaps, desires.

The film lets interview subjects make their own guesses as to such desires -- whether he craved celebrity or political power. While narrator Guy Clark suggests that Carter's initial "journey from the hardscrabble hills of Alabama to the top of the American publishing industry is American to the core," his detours along this journey are "American" in a less mythic way. These seem plainly to be about money.

Those who knew him as a " professional white supremacist," as Howell Raines puts it, speak as the film shows images of Carter --then called Ace -- looking stereotypical, a familiar angry white man of the South, circa 1950s and '60s: white shirt, fist in the air, angry and sweaty face. He appears in on TV interview in s magazine shop, Ebony magazines on the shelf behind him as he tells a reporter, "Our immediate concern is the protection of our wives or daughters and mothers."

"In the South, we have 98% Anglo Saxon race," he asserts during an especially vividly delivered speech, "We stood up and told the nigra, you must operate, you must conduct yourself from a separate state." The rhetoric is alarming, rousing, and, according to Raines, calculated. "To Ace Carter and some others at the time," he explains, "racism was s product, what automobiles were to car dealers." Racism stoked the fears of white Southerners ready to resist the integration of schools (ordered by the Supreme Court, then the enemy) and so helped politicians win elections. As he writes for Wallace, te film uses a reenactment, Carter pounding away at a typewriter in a motel room, chain-smoking and drinking whiskey, as DIane McWhorter guesses what he might have been doing: "He would be just kind of red and kind of work himself up into this almost physiological frenzy." Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't.

Other stories include his work as a Klan organizer, though he learned soon enough that this was a liability, and so abandoned this part of his past. All these bits of his past begin to bother Wallace, who adapts to his political landscape: Tom Turnipseed, once on Wallace's staff, says that for some time after the (success of the) "segregation forever" speech, Carter would call the next Wallace campaign with "suggestions." But, "I finally didn’t take his calls anymore, because I was told not to by Governor Wallace and his assistants we needed to keep him at arm's length." The product had become less marketable and Wallace was moving on.

Carter did as well, giving up the racist extremist performance, and finding others that are even more lucrative, including "author." He sells Josey Wales to Eastwood and, according to historian Jeff Roche, undergoes a "physical transformation": he starts wearing cowboy kind of clothes," including jeans, a hat with a feather, and, says another observer, "a vest jacket kind of thing." Under the pieces of description, different speakers' phrases together creating a single image, the film shows a sketch that includes each piece, changed in the end into a photo of Carter as cowboy.

Carter's literary agent, Rhoda Weyr, assesses that Carter was "very, very smart," to write Little Tree when he did, at a time "when Indians were very hot in America: forgive me for saying that, but it’s the only way I can describe the atmosphere in the '70s." The film cuts to a well known and predictable demonstration of same, a TV news report on Apache Indian Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1972 Academy Awards, and another on the siege at Wounded Knee. Weyr says of Carter, "He knew what he was doing every single minute. He was handling me, he was handling the publishing world, he was handling Clint Eastwood, he was handling our LA office. We weren't handling him."

This handling is effective for acquaintance Chuck Weeth, who expresses surprise when he sees footage of the racist Ace Carter. He says of Forrest Carter, "He was trying to raise the American Indian image to its highest ideal. And I think that’s what made The Education of Little Tree so touching and so warm." Historian Dan T. Carter suggests, "He uses Native Americans as a kind of stand-in for white Americans," and so he is still telling the same story. Like white Southerners then or maybe Tea Partiers now, "Native Americans have been victimized by the federal government their culture." It's a narrative that works in multiple contexts, whether dressed up in segregationist anxiety or complaints against the federal government in the name of Native Americans.

To illustrate how the performances echo, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter uses a striking image, a TV set with Carter as and in footage, while re-enactors appear in the background, in a barbershop, in a family living room. The framing smartly blurs the boundaries between what's real and what's not, what's past and what's present, what's Ace Carter and what's Forrest Carter. Though he rejected the word "reconstructed," creating characters who were decidedly "unreconstructed," he repeatedly reconstructed himself.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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