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From the Archives: The Godmother of Punk On Life and Loss.

Singer and poet Patti Smith. Her seventh album, "Peace and Noise" (Arista), was recently released, and she plans a tour toward the end of this year. Her first four albums, recorded in the 1970s, established Smith as the "Godmother" of punk. Her previous release, Gone Again," came out in the summer of 1996, marking her return to recording after an eight year absence. Smith says unlike her punk days, her current performances have attracted a wide range of listeners, from truck drivers to Deadheads to suburbanites. (REBROADCAST FROM 6/24/96)

33:23

Other segments from the episode on October 3, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 3, 1997: Interview with Patti Smith; Interview with Lenny Kaye; Review of the film "The Peacemaker."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 06, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 100301NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Patti Smith
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Patti Smith has a new album called "Peace and Noise." On this archive edition of our show, we're featuring interviews with Smith and her long-time guitarist Lenny Kaye.

Patti Smith is an icon in the rock world. The New York Times called her the "Godmother of punk." In the '70s, she created a hybrid of poetry and rock, and developed a high-energy performance style that was sometimes aggressive, sometimes ecstatic. In 1980, she left the music scene to raise a family with her husband, the musician Fred Smith.

With the exception of an album they collaborated on in 1988, she kept out of the public eye until last year, when her CD "Gone Again" was released. Many of the songs on Gone Again were about loss. A couple of years before the CD was released, her husband died of heart failure. Her brother died of a stroke shortly after. Her long-time friend, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, died in 1989 of AIDS.

Before we hear the interview I recorded with Patti Smith last year, let's hear a track from her new CD. This is "1959," which she co-wrote with her bass player Tony Shanahan (ph).

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, PATTI SMITH, MUSICIAN, PERFORMING "1959" FROM CD "PEACE AND NOISE")

PATTY SMITH, MUSICIAN SINGING: Listen to my story
Got two tales to tell
One of falling glory
One of vanity

The world's roof was raging
But we were looking fine
'Cause we built that thing
And it grew wings
In 1959

Wisdom was a teapot
Falling from above
Desolation angels
Served it up with love

Igniting light
Baby for my flight
And moved my bold design
(unintelligible)
And it grew wings
In 1959

GROSS: When I spoke with Patti Smith last year, I asked her about the Christian imagery she uses in many of her lyrics.

PATTI SMITH, MUSICIAN: If one went through all of my albums, every single one of them, including the first, is littered with Christian imagery I think. I've -- It's because I've been reading the Bible since I was a child and always found it inspiring, not only spiritually, but poetically. And I have the tendency to do that. I think there is hardly -- I don't -- I can't think of any piece of work I've done that doesn't have some at least abstract allusion to the scriptures.

GROSS: Now I know when you were young, you were a Jehovah's Witness for several years. Was that the religion of your parents or something that you joined independently?

SMITH: It's my mother's religion. My -- I was a Jehovah Witness until I was about 12, and in those days Jehovah Witnesses were stricter about one's pursuits outside of being a Witness. And, I decided I wanted to be an artist. I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my father and saw art in person, and immediately wanted to become a painter.

And it -- some of my desires sort of collided with their teachings, so I made the choice. I left the Witnesses to become an artist. I think they're a much more benevolent and more understanding group right now. But at that time, they -- I didn't get any sympathy or encouragement for that kind of way of life. So I -- my drive to be an artist was extremely strong as a 12- or 13-year-old. And...

GROSS: Now, did you try other organized religions? Or was that the end of organized religion for you for some time?

SMITH: No, I looked in -- I thought of -- for a while, I wanted to be Jewish, but I think that was my Anne Frank period.

LAUGHTER

Because I -- I didn't realize that you just can't be -- you know, you don't turn Jewish. I -- well, I had great sympathy. I mean, when I grew up, you know, in the late '50s and early '60s, there is, you know, of course a lot of information came out about the Holocaust, and there were trials and things. And I felt devastated about that as a young girl, and I got very interested in the Jewish faith.

But I never really -- I think once I left my first organized religion, I found as I checked each one out, that really wasn't for me. Because I really don't like the idea of exclusion. You know, I think all people, you know, return to God or whatever God is or the energy of God, and I think all manners to get to him, whether it's, you know, through Islam or whether one's a Buddhist or a Christian or a Catholic or -- I think they're all beautiful, you know, really.

GROSS: What's the nature of your faith now? Are you in an organized religion?

SMITH: Oh, no. No, not at all. I just -- I say my prayers and continue my studies, but I basically -- for me, I don't really prescribe or need a religion. I -- what's important to me is my communication with what I perceive to be God.

GROSS: Now, what a lot of people might find confusing or paradoxical is on the one hand this kind of spiritual inclination you've had since childhood and never stopped having. And at the same time, your art is the kind of art a lot of people would describe as blasphemous.

SMITH: Well, I think blasphemy is just a form of exploring. You know, it's just a, you know, youthful exuberant manner of exploring the whole -- the whole concept. I think -- I've often found the people that are the most blasphemous are often the -- wind up to be the truest believers, because they've taken the time actually to question, pull things apart, be angry, and then either submit or, you know, find certain answers.

People -- a lot of people misconstrued, for instance, the statement "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."

GROSS: Right.

SMITH: People constantly came up to me and said: "you're an atheist. You don't believe in Jesus." And I said: "obviously, I believe in him. I've stated -- you know, I've made a statement, you know, which, you know, I'm saying that, you know, the concept of Jesus, I believe in."

I just wanted the freedom -- I wanted to be free of him. I was 20 years old when I wrote that. And I -- it was sort of my youthful manifesto. In other words, I didn't want to -- I guess I didn't want to be good, you know, and I didn't want to -- but I didn't want Him to have to worry about me or I didn't want Him taking responsibility for my wrongdoings or my youthful explorations. I wanted to be free.

So, it's really a statement about freedom.

GROSS: That line comes up in a couple of places. It opens up your recording of "Gloria."

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it's also in a poem that you wrote in the early '70s called "Oath."

SMITH: Yeah, well that's where it came from.

GROSS: Yeah.

SMITH: I wrote it, like, in 1970 and used it...

GROSS: In Gloria.

SMITH: ... and really I -- it just evolved that way. A lot of the work on "Horses" was not pre-conceived. It's just I started out as a performing poet, and when Lenny and Richard Soul (ph) were working with me, a lot of the poetry began to evolve and merge with music.

And so, a lot of Horses has to do with the chemistry between Lenny, Richard and I, and how they helped me further evolve my poetry.

GROSS: And when you were young, did you feel set apart from other kids your age?

SMITH: Definitely. Definitely.

GROSS: By what?

SMITH: Everything. Well, I was just -- physically I was kind of, well, I felt sort of like an ugly duckling. I was sort of like skinny and clumsy and not very athletic. I had a lot of guts, though, and I was a fast runner. But I -- I was sick a lot and I had scarlet fever and measles and mumps and chicken -- I was always had something. And a little frail.

But I also was the oldest of three children, so I had a lot of responsibility. I don't know. I just generally felt estranged, but not only estranged from the other kids. I felt estranged from the planet, and truthfully, I spent most of my childhood believing that I was adopted by my parents, and I was actually an alien.

GROSS: Like from another planet?

SMITH: Yeah. I know it sounds -- but I perceived an alien -- I used to have this idea that I was sort of like part of -- like this alien race that were part Venus and part American Indian. Now this -- this sounds...

LAUGHTER

... kind of funny now, but I was very serious about it as a child.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: I had a whole cosmology and a whole universe formed around these thoughts. But I definitely didn't feel at home on the planet. I felt much more at home when I'd read books about the Aztecs or about -- or if I'd read stories about aliens on other planets or -- I just -- I didn't really feel like I belonged.

GROSS: Now, I know your parents didn't have a lot of money, but if you were, say, middle class or like upper middle class...

SMITH: Lower middle class.

GROSS: Right. If you were like upper middle class, you probably would have been sent to a psychiatrist for help.

SMITH: Well, not by my parents. I don't think so. No, I wasn't a child in pain or anything. I was actually proud of my secret -- of my secret...

GROSS: Heritage.

SMITH: ... heritage. No, it wasn't like that. I wasn't a disturbed child.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: I was actually had a happy childhood. I loved my brother and sister. We were inseparable. They thought the world of me and you know, in fact I found something my brother wrote, after he passed away, about our childhood, and he talks about how I was like King Arthur and they were the knights in my court. And I mean, they always believed in me and I invented endless games and stories and plays for us to be involved in.

And my parents were -- my mother was -- they were both hardworking, but my mother was always loving and creative and -- she just had a lot of magic. I mean, if we -- my dad was on strike and we had no food or very little food, you know, she'd like make us like Wonder bread with butter and sugar, and she'd like tell a story and this would become a great delicacy.

We'd pretend we were all hiding out, you know, like hiding out from like the Nazis or something, and we hadn't eaten in three days and this was our food and we were -- it was like -- it was so wonderful.

She made everything into a game, and I had a great, I mean those private thoughts I had were a part of my creative energy or the complexity of my mind. But I wasn't a disturbed child. I was just a little off-beat, I guess.

GROSS: Patti Smith is my guest. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Patti Smith has a new CD. Let's get back to our 1996 interview with her.

Now you wrote for several years before actually performing in a rock and roll kind of setting and performing with music. When you started putting the two together, did you have any idea that you could sing? Had you used your voice that way before?

SMITH: No, not really. I mean, I used to day-dream when I was a kid about being an opera singer. And I loved Maria Callas. And my mother's a really nice singer and she, you know, had sort of like a '30s-style jazz voice. She -- and my father had a nice voice. But, I never thought about singing. I think I sang in the school choir something, but I didn't really excel or have any real gift.

But what I did have, I think, always was -- I've always for some reasons been comfortable talking in front of people or performing in front of people, and I guess I got a lot of guts, but I never really had that great a voice. I think it's basically guts.

GROSS: Well speaking of guts, when you first started reading, you've said that you -- you were reading, you know, early on -- often in bars that weren't places that you were likely to hear a poet.

SMITH: No, they weren't.

GROSS: What kind of places did you read in before you started on your music?

SMITH: Wherever I could -- you know, I wasn't really accepted in the poet clique. I didn't have a lot of respect for poets, and I thought most of the poets, you know, and, you know, and the more academic way of breaking into the poetry circle wasn't interesting to me. I didn't really relate to them and I thought most of the poetry readings I went to were boring and it just wasn't my scene.

So I started pursuing different venues to perform my poetry. And I just read anywhere that anybody would take me -- usually for free, just to get the experience, or for $5 or $10. And sometimes I'd be the opening act's opening act.

LAUGHTER

And so I'd play, like, in a bar that had like a little rock band and some little blues band, and I'd go on before the blues band. And you know, nobody was interested in what I had to say. You know, they weren't interested in hearing poetry or, you know, they wanted to hear music and they were half drunk or whatever.

But I just -- I figured if I had -- they told me I had 15 minutes or 20 minutes on that little stage, that was my stage and I was going to fight for it. So I usually spent -- if I had 20 minutes, 14 minutes arguing that I had the right to be there...

GROSS: Arguing with the audience?

SMITH: Yeah, and then finishing with "Piss Factory," and which usually I did such a strong reading of it that it would take them off guard and they'd kind of like it. And then I was gone, but...

GROSS: But was the arguing with them like?

SMITH: Like sparring. You know, like, I can't -- you know, like "get a job," "go in the kitchen where you belong," and you know, I'd -- I always -- I was really good at sparring. I really loved Johnny Carson and I really studied his whole monologue thing, and the way Johnny Carson would go back and forth with the audience. And that was actually more in my mind of what I wanted to do -- sort of be like Johnny Carson.

GROSS: Let me play the first track of your first LP, and this is Gloria. What made you decide to rework this song?

SMITH: Well, truthfully it was -- in the beginning, it was just Lenny and I, and then we brought in a piano player who was Richard Soul. He was quite young, quite gifted. He was actually a classical piano player. But he had a great sense of rhythm. So it was just the three of us -- a guitar, piano, and I.

And we did very simple songs because the configuration was so simple. And we just chose songs that were basically three chords so I could improvise over them, 'cause I didn't want to just, like, do songs. You know, I...

GROSS: Right.

SMITH: ... didn't want to do like lame approximations of songs. So what I -- what we did is...

GROSS: Patti Smith covers the hits.

SMITH: ... we did -- we did what we called "field work," you know, so we'd pick the songs that had basically three chords that I could like -- and just sort of use them as a spring board. I didn't really have any interest in covering Gloria, but it had three chords and I liked the rhythm and we just sort of used it for our own design -- the same as "Land of a Thousand Dances." Land of a Thousand Dances became really like a battleground for all kinds of adolescent excursions.

So that's why we picked songs like that. I remember I had to write -- I wrote the ad copy for our first album, and the ad copy I wrote for Horses was: "Three chords merged with the power of the word."

GROSS: That's great. Yeah.

SMITH: That was our philosophy.

GROSS: I was wondering who wrote that because I thought that was good.

SMITH: Yeah, it was me. Wrote my own ad. I don't do it anymore, but I used to write my own ads.

GROSS: Did you feel no one else would know what the right to say?

SMITH: Right. Yeah, I didn't trust anybody.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, this is Gloria from Patti Smith's first LP Horses.

And I should say the LPs on Arista are all getting reissued.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "GLORIA")

SMITH SINGING: People say beware
But I don't care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me

How's the world gonna run?
You know I look so proud
I'm gonna miss you (unintelligible)
Where anything's allowed

And I'll got this here party
And I'll just get bored
And did I look out the window
See a sweet young thing
Dropping on the top of me
And leaning on the poppy weed
And whoa, she looked so good
Oh, she looked so fine

Then I got this crazy feeling
And then I'm gonna ah, ah
Make her mine
Oooo-ahhh, put my
Step on her
Here she comes
Walking down the street
Here she comes
Coming through my door
Here she comes
Roaming up my stair
Here she comes
Wasn't you the whore
(unintelligible) says
Oh, she looked so good
Oh, she looked so fine
Then I got this crazy feeling
And then I'm going to ah ah
Make her mine
Then I

GROSS: What was it like for you to create yourself on stage? To find out who you were on stage?

SMITH: Well, I never really felt like I created myself, 'cause I'm the kind of performer that, you know, I roll out of bed, whatever I put on, you know, I roam the streets for a few hours; it's time for the job, and I go to the job. I don't like do any special type of thing, you know. I might meditate with my band for a few minutes before we go on, but my -- my task as a performer, I -- was the opposite.

I always have worked to strip away the idea of a stage persona.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: You know, I mean, what happens when I'm on stage is a lot of the different things within me, of course because it's such a high intensity situation, are somewhat magnified. You know, so if one has some rage within them, that rage is magnified, but it's the same as if one has benevolence or silliness. You know, so like a night -- one of our concerts, from the very beginning in '74 'til even now is just, you know, an evening of, you know, myself and the people.

GROSS: We'll get back to our 1996 interview with Patti Smith in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with Patti Smith. She has a new CD called Peace and Noise. Our interview was recorded last year.

When you looked at other people in rock, men and women, was there anybody who you particularly felt a kinship to in terms of what they were like on stage and the kind of energy they gave off?

SMITH: Well when I was younger, I mean, in the -- I never thought that I'd ever be involved in -- be a performer in the arena of rock and roll. I mean, I was raised -- you know, when I was raised, you know, the -- when you saw females in the music business, they were all either like a lot of square white girls, you know, who were good singers and stuff, but like Lesley Gore or Sandra Dee and people like that.

Or, you saw really great singers like Darlene Love and people like that, but they were singers. And performance-wise, somebody like Tina Turner, but I couldn't possibly compare myself to someone of her magnitude. I pretty much just like -- you know, I looked at rock performers really as a masculine, you know, I was raised that, you know, all the great rock performers were guys, you know, from -- I mean I loved, you know, Jimi Hendrix and I liked the Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan and people like that. I mean, even somebody like Elvis Presley. I mean, I just like a committed performer.

GROSS: So did you feel like you were drawing on a masculine part of your own energy?

SMITH: Well, I didn't think about it, but I can say that all my -- most of my influences were male, except for ones that are kind of obscure -- somebody like Lotte Lenya was a big influence on me.

GROSS: She was a big influence on you? That's interesting. She was married to Kurt Weil for many years -- a singer born in Germany who specialized in singing Kurt Weil's music and was an extraordinary singer, although...

SMITH: Well, she was a really great performer, too, if you see her in like "Pirate Jenny" (ph), you know, on "Threepenny Opera" or something. She was very inspiring because she was very -- you know, she didn't have the greatest voice. She was more a personality voice, like Bob Dylan.

GROSS: Exactly right. But she understood the meaning of a song so well.

SMITH: Certainly, just like Bob Dylan.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

SMITH: So I was influenced by her, and I'd listen to a lot of Edith Piaf, and you know, like June Christie (ph) or...

GROSS: Now June Christie's a cool singer, so unlike you. You're hot.

SMITH: But I like -- I -- that's the kind of singer -- you know, I always -- I always think -- I always thought when I grew up I'd sort of sing like that, but it hasn't happened yet.

GROSS: Like June Christie?

SMITH: Yeah, I always like -- well, like June Christie or you know singers like that -- I always liked Chris Connor (ph). I love her.

GROSS: Yeah.

SMITH: She's like my favorite.

GROSS: Now, I'm really still trying to imagine you singing, say, June Christie and Chris Connor kinds of songs. You know, a kind of cool jazz type of feel. It seems...

SMITH: Well, I do around the house. Yeah.

GROSS: Really? What kind of songs do you like to sing around the house?

SMITH: Oh, I like "Slow Boat To China."

GROSS: Oh, I love that song.

LAUGHTER

SMITH: Well, I was -- my -- you know, my mother listened to all that...

GROSS: It's a great Frank Lesher (ph) song.

SMITH: My father -- yeah, my dad used to listen to Duke Ellington and he'd listen to Stan Kenton. And I've always -- I've always loved jazz, you know, and so I saw that progression, you know, and my dad sort of stopped at early Miles Davis. But then I kept moving through Coltrain and Albert Eiler (ph) and things like that, but ...

GROSS: OK, feel free to say "no" to this, but would you feel like singing a verse of Slow Boat to China?

SMITH Oh, jeez. I don't know. My voice is gonna -- let me see:

I'm gonna get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone

Something like that.

GROSS: Oh, thank you.

LAUGHTER

SMITH: How embarrassing. Now I'm embarrassed, but you know...

GROSS: Oh, no. It's wonderful.

SMITH: ... I sort of sound like my mother.

GROSS: You know what I'd like to ask you about. In 1977, you fell off the stage in Tampa and broke -- fractured a couple of vertebrae in your neck, and were out of commission for about a year. I always wondered if that was embarrassing to you to fall off the stage.

SMITH: No, not really. I mean, it was -- not really because it was -- it was a product of I thought -- I've talked about this a lot with Lenny. It was really a product of high commitment and -- from the part of our band, and sort of -- and a lack of support from the band that I was opening.

We were opening up Bob Seger, and they didn't give us much light or much space on the stage, and it was a fairly high stage. And when I asked for a little help, you know, a little more light or a little more, you know, room -- not for any egotistical reason, but because I was frightened of the stage, I was ignored.

So I really look at that accident as a product of, you know, their lack of community and really the fact that, you know, if I would have like just stood there, you know, I tried to just stand there and perform, you know, and not move too much.

GROSS: Not your style.

SMITH: Because I really couldn't see the edge of the stage and we had so little room...

GROSS: Right.

SMITH: ... and -- but we had a lot of people, for some reason, even though we were opening, we had a really very verbal following there, and our people were so exciting. It was partially the people's fault.

They were, you know, just so full of energy and we were doing "Ain't It Strange" which is one -- which was one of our most physical songs, that you know, I pretty much -- I think I tripped over my monitor or my monitor was on the lip of the stage and I went over.

GROSS: What went through your mind as you started to go over?

SMITH: I just tried to relax, you know. I just thought, well, this is bad, but just -- I just tried to submit to the situation and I thought if I submitted, I -- it wouldn't -- I wouldn't get hurt as much. But it was pretty rough for a while. You know, people said all kinds of things. They said I was totally stoned and fell off the stage and all these things are, you know, a total lie.

It had nothing to do with that. If I was in any special state, it was more of this, you know, we would really drive ourselves to some kind of fever pitch or spiritual state in that particular song, and as a band, we were in the top of our form.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're a different person on stage than you were 20 years ago?

SMITH: Well, if I don't feel like a different person after 20 years, I mean, that would be a sad state of things. I mean, hopefully I've evolved as a human being and I have, you know, hopefully new things to offer and a range of experience to offer. But there are still certain aspects within myself that I had when I was eight and I still have them.

You know, I mean we -- we do evolve as human beings, but we also have within us all those different stages that brought us to where we are. So when I'm on stage, you know, you have someone who's like, you know, 50 years old, but also sometimes has the energy of a 22-year-old and sometimes has this -- you know, the -- the rebellion of a 14-year-old. So I got it all, I suppose.

GROSS: Patti Smith, recorded last year. She has a new CD called Peace and Noise.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Patti Smith
High: Singer and poet Patti Smith. Her seventh album, "Peace and Noise," was recently released, and she plans a tour toward the end of this year. Her first four albums, recorded in the 1970s, established Smith as the "Godmother" of punk. Her previous release, Gone Again," came out in the summer of 1996, marking her return to recording after an eight year absence. Smith says unlike her punk days, her current performances have attracted a wide range of listeners, from truck drivers to Deadheads to suburbanites.
Spec: Music Industry; Patti Smith
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Patti Smith
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 03, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 100301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Peacemaker
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The number one film at the box office this week is "The Peacemaker," starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. It's the first film from Dreamworks SKG, the new studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen.

Our film critic John Powers reviews The Peacemaker and the studio that spawned it.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: I can't honestly say I'm surprised that The Peacemaker is the number one movie in America. After all, for the last few months, we've been bombarded by the movie's ads, by fawning profiles of its stars Nicole Kidman and George Clooney, and by countless articles heralding the arrival of Dreamworks SKG.

Given all this hype, the movie itself is almost an after-thought. By now, you surely know The Peacemaker's story. A crooked Russian general steals a bunch of nuclear weapons, setting off an atomic blast in the process. The American response is officially headed by Kidman's character, an expert in nuclear terrorism. But it's actually spearheaded by Clooney's sassy lieutenant colonel, who's sort of a yankee James Bond.

Kidman and Clooney trot all over Europe in an attempt to keep the bombs from the hands of the master terrorist -- a disheartened Bosnian intellectual who wants to exact revenge on the West. One of those cultivated European killers so beloved by Hollywood, he explains his motives on a tape.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THE PEACEMAKER")

ACTOR: I'm a Serb. I'm a Croat. I'm a Muslim. You will look at what I have done and say, of course, why not -- they are all animals. They have slaughtered each other for centuries. But the truth is, I'm not a monster. I'm a human man. I'm just like you, whether you like it or not.

POWERS: Umberto Eco once wrote a witty essay about "Casablanca" called "The Cliches Are Having A Ball." Well, the cliches are yawning their heads off in The Peacemaker. The movie's so stuffed with generic action scenes -- Clooney and Kidman running away from explosions; Clooney and Kidman defusing a bomb as the clock ticks -- that you keep forgetting which movie you're watching. "Mission Impossible?" "Air Force One?"

And when it's not hackneyed, it's worse. I can't be the only one who finds it repugnant that the suffering of the former Yugoslavia is being used as a mindless hook for a thriller.

Although it's been much-noted that this picture was directed by a woman, ER veteran Mimi Leder (ph), her presence here shows only that women can also make action movies with all the soul and personality of a cuisinart.

Normally, I wouldn't waste your time with a movie like this one, but The Peacemaker is the calling card for Dreamworks SKG, and what I find depressing is not that its first release is lousy -- after all, it's easy to make a bad film -- but the way this film is lousy. It has no ambition; no moral intelligence; not a flicker of originality. There's no "dream work" in it.

The last attempt to start a new studio was Francis Coppola's Zoetrope, which was bursting with '60s romanticism about the movies. It was explicitly devoted to producing the kinds of work that the existing studios wouldn't. And though it failed, it stayed true to its dream of creating a studio run by and for artists. It stood for a whole vision of the movies.

And what does Dreamworks stand for? To judge from The Peacemaker, not a lot. Looking at its slate of upcoming films, I see nothing that couldn't just as easily come from Warner Brothers or Paramount. There's Spielberg's "Amistad" (ph) which aims to do for slavery what "Schindler's List" did for the Holocaust; there's "Mouse Hunt," a live-action cartoon starring Nathan Lane; and there are several animated features just like the ones made at Disney.

The Peacemaker begins with the Dreamworks logo -- a young boy sitting on a crescent moon and holding a fishing rod whose line dangles into the water below. It's an image that calls up nice Spielbergian feelings -- youth, innocence, the search for inspiration. Then the movie begins, and the first scene ever to follow this sugary logo ends with, you guessed it, a murder -- only the first of many murders to occur in this picture.

I guess that little boy on the moon is fishing for money, just like everyone else.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: John Powers reviews "The Peacemaker," the new action film starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.
Spec: Movie Industry; The Peacemaker
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Peacemaker
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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