New biographies of rocker Janis Joplin and filmmaker Fran‡ois Truffaut 

Lives of Our Times

Ah, the '60s. Halcyon days of aging boomers. But was it a time of peace and love or just a fashion statement? As an aging boomer myself, I can't help feeling that the "real" Woodstock — as opposed to the commercially driven retreads — was like a giant fraternity party instead of some cosmic gathering of the tribes.

Strange to think that pop music could transform anything except turn an upright middle-class kid into a raging Dionysiac — at least for a soggy weekend. Then everyone had to go back to college and, well, grow up as our elders said to mostly deaf ears. Can't trust anyone over 30, you know.

It's become a cliché, albeit a sad one, to say that Janis Joplin was a casualty of those '60s. Now pop music seems dominated by divas instead of white gals trying to be down-and-out blues singers. It's possible that the advent of performers such as Madonna and Mariah Carey represent the decline of pop music instead of its maturity. It's a different scene.

"Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin," by Alice Echols (Holt, $26) is as much a chronicle of the excesses of the '60s as a biography of a pop star. Maybe one could call it a cautionary tale. The hippie ethos of peace and love is transformed all too swiftly into sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Social idealism collides with hedonistic excess. As the unofficial queen of rock music of her era, Joplin succumbed to the darker side of that decade when boomers were young and hopeful. Unlike many of her blues role models, she died of a drug overdose well before the age of 30.

In a recent interview, the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said of Fran‡ois Truffaut that he was a better critic than movie director. He further stated that his former friend and colleague on the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema was from a poor family and thus became preoccupied with what we would call getting ahead. Since Godard was raised in a privileged home, he wasn't as attached to the bourgeois acquisition of wealth or the quest for personal success that one usually associates with Americans.

The rift between these two mercurial artists seemed to occur sometime after the May 1968 student riot in Paris. Ever the iconoclast, Godard turned to a polemical cinema that espoused left-wing ideology while Truffaut started to make well-crafted films about the complexity of human relationships.

"Truffaut" by Antoine de Baeque and Serge Toubiana (Knopf, $30) is a well-written biography and study of one of the masters of postwar cinema. Cinephiles might already know about the emotionally deprived atmosphere of his childhood, the truancy of his youth and the escape into the dream world of movies and books that seemed to characterize this gifted filmmaker. The accounts of Truffaut's troubled early life as an unwanted child might be a case where some of the biographical details of an artist's life may illuminate his work.

In a final riposte, Godard stated that Truffaut only expressed himself in his first film "The 400 Blows," his semi-autobiographical masterpiece that dealt with what we might now call a dysfunctional family. His later films, Godard believed, were only stories in the well-made manner of Hollywood which Truffaut had inveighed against in French movies when he was a young critic.

But to me Truffaut's best movies reflect a person who was humanistic in the deepest sense, perhaps because of his own life experiences which are well-illuminated in this biography.

Heads-Up: Richmonder Charles D. Curley Jr. has done us all — but especially historians and the children and grandchildren of veterans — a favor. Starting to write a memoir for his grandchildren, he expanded his project to a book, "How A Ninety-Day Wonder Survived the War." This book is not and does not even pretend to be literary or even a history of World War II. Instead, it is a highly personal account of his experience as he was drafted, sent to officer-training school then sent as a platoon leader to Normandy and through France. It is valuable for anyone interested in the actual experience of the war and should be a great addition to libraries, especially school and college libraries.


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