12/13/17

Jane Stuns Visually, but Not Equal to the Hype

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JANE    (2017)
Directed by Brett Morgen
National Geographic Partners, 89 minutes, PG (Possible disturbing images)
★★★

Flamboyant rebels make interesting movie subjects. But what about those whose rebellion is determined and quiet? Jane Goodall (b.1934) revolutionized the field of primatology, but until relatively recently she seldom tooted her own horn. In such a story, a documentary filmmaker’s job is to build a dramatic structure for maximum impact. On this level, Director Brett Morgen is only partly successful. Jane is a decent film, but the East African landscape is more eye-popping than what we learn about Ms. Goodall.

Goodall’s story begins in 1957, when she was working as a secretary for a true rebel: anthropologist Louis S. B. Leakey (1903-72).  Leakey didn’t care all that much about what others thought of him and when you advance evolutionary science as much as he, you don’t have to. Leakey had already proven that many (if not all) human ancestors came from Africa, and was looking for someone to study great apes in hope of extrapolating from simian behavior how hominid ancestors might have lived. He tapped Goodall because she had no specialized training and wouldn’t be vested in bending observations toward any existing theories of primate behavior. Not that there were that many; prior to Goodall’s findings, chimpanzees were viewed mostly as circus animals. In 1957, only someone with the audacity of Leakey could have made it possible for a single, untrained, young female to immerse herself in the Gombe Stream Park, a Tanzanian rainforest. 

At first, she spent most of her days dodging poisonous snakes and swatting vicious insects until at long last she found a chimp colony. Her initial findings didn’t amount to much, but Leakey sent her off to train with primatologists he trusted while he shook the money tree for funding. In 1960, Goodall rocked the scientific world with her discovery that chimps made tools and that they had distinct personalities. This gave Leakey the clout to do something done only seven times before: he pushed Goodall into a Ph.D. program at Cambridge University when she was without the benefit of  a bachelor’s degree. Even then, National Geographic and other institutions balked at sending a single woman back into the field. The compromise was that she had to accept into her camp a male professional nature photographer: Hugh Van Lawick (1937-2002). Much of Jane is built around 100 hours of Van Lawick’s misplaced, unviewed film footage. It has been restored to levels beyond could have been viewed in 1964.

Van Lawick and Goodall made a good work team. Their films documented such hitherto unknown practices such as the polyandrous mating behavior of females in estrus, clan-like social structures, and the shocking levels of violence of which chimps are capable. Tool making, discrete personalities, social hierarchy, and warfare… So much for the idea that humans are unique in those regards.

In Jane, Goodall is also under observation. In his best sequences of added material, Morgen shows collages of sexist newspaper, magazine, and TV features that called more attention to Goodall’s blond hair, fresh face, and shapely legs* than to her research. Van Lawick, a Dutch baron, also fell for Goodall’s comely features; the couple  married in 1964. Three years later, their son “Grub” (Hugo Eric Louis Van Lawick) was born. Alas, Goodall and Van Lawick were less successful as lovers. He grew bored playing second fiddle, accepted a photography assignment in the Serengeti, and asked Jane to move there with him. She chose career over marriage and the couple amicably divorced in 1974.   

Given that Jane is based mostly on Van Lawick’s recovered footage, it’s logical that most of Goodall’s post-1974 activities—such as the creation of the Jane Goodall Institute, her remarriage to Tanzanian parliamentarian and national parks director Dereck Byrceson, her myriad awards, and ongoing work in Gombe—appear mostly as coda. Logical, perhaps, but it’s problematic when chimpanzees end up with more personality that our main subject. When asked how she put up with the sexism in the early days, Goodall’s responded that since her childhood, “I wanted to go to Africa and live among wild animals.” Morgen should not have left such a banality stand unchallenged. The overall portrait of Goodall is that she is more British stiff upper lip than a rebel in the field. Yet it’s well known that she had her feminist consciousness raised. Tepid filmmaking blunts the drama and instead, Morgen tries to amp up with a Philip Glass soundtrack. Glass is occasionally brilliant, but this score is cloying and annoying.

Should you see Jane? There are some amazing things in the film that weren’t necessarily intended as major focal points. Read between the lines and you can appreciate how little we knew before Goodall. When asked how she could get up close to animals “that could rip your face off,” Goodall smiled and replied, “Yes, but one didn’t know that at the time.” She learned fast. Scenes of chimp warfare are terrifying, as were their attacks on Goodall’s compound. Parents will blanch at scenes of Grub inside his wire mesh playroom; male chimps sometimes kill and eat infant chimps and their evolutionary cousins. Shots from the Serengeti are awe-inspiring in ways that made me think of it as the (Non-) Peaceable Kingdom. Morgen also does a good job of showing flaws in some of Goodall’s research methods. Setting up feeding stations made chimps easier to study, but also partially domesticated them. By her own admission, she was also guilty of sentimentalizing; Goodall not only touched her subjects, she gave them names such Goliath, David Greybeard, Frodo, Flint, Fifi, Flo…. One might even reach for the barf bucket when hearing Goodall tell of learning how to mother her own son by observing Flo.

I left the theater with my lifelong admiration of Goodall intact, but my views might be conditioned more by  years of following her career than learning about it from the film. Insofar as discoveries go, I have long admired Van Lawick’s photos, but previously knew little about him. Still, the film is named Jane, not Hugo or Flo. Mainly I admired the visuals. (Warning: There are extreme close-ups of snakes, insects, and chimp faces, so if any of these make you queasy keep a hand ready to shield your eyes.) I guess I can’t fault the film for making more about sexism; after all, Goodall was in the field before The Feminine Mystique made its way into the mainstream. I did notice, though, the large number of females now working at Goodall’s old camp. Isn’t that worthy of comment? Odd as it might seem, I’d recommend you first read Goodall’s Wikipedia page if you decide to see Jane. Goodall is a very important person. That should be shouted out; in the film it’s often but a whisper. But maybe the film makes a contribution by reminding us that rebels come in many forms, even those who simply do rather than make a fuss about it.

Rob Weir

* A confession: I learned about Goodall as a grade school student. (My aunt started buying National Geographic for me when I was eight and I still get it). I too was smitten with Goodall’s lovely legs and my child self thought her the most exotic woman I had ever seen. I get a pass on the latter; that was objectively true for where I was raised!        

12/12/17

See Honore Sharrer's Work Before It Closes



 A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer
Smith Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through January 7

1938 self-portrait patterned on Han Memling's 'Portrait of a Man with a pink Carnation'

 If you're anywhere near Northampton between now and January 7, be sure to pop into the Smith College Museum of Art to see a show devoted to Honoré Sharrer (1920-2009). She's one of the lesser-known surrealists for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, but she's worth getting to know. In fact, one of the great joys of college art museums is that they often introduce us to artists whose works fly under the radar screen of major repositories.

Sharrer wasn't always out of the public eye. She was hailed as a rising young talent back in the 1940s, took part in an important exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, was declared Mademoiselle's artist of the year in 1949, had a solo show in 1951, and was a media sensation. Yet she would not get another solo exhibition until 1969, and there have been just three since then: 1987, 2007, and now. If you're thinking that gender played a role in her marginalization, you're partially right, but two other factors loom larger.

Resurrection of the Waitress

The first is that she was generally tagged as either an expressionist or a surrealist and neither of those labels fits comfortably. Some critics today call her work magical realism and though that handle has problems as well, it's closer to the mark. Surrealism is a definitional moving target, but it's hard to place Sharrer's work amidst company such as Dali, Magritte, Picasso, Tanguy, or Maher. Once you know that she was inspired by mythology, art history, nursery rhymes, and popular culture, there's nothing particularly enigmatic about her symbols or intentions. If there are other artists to whom she most compares, it's probably Paul Cadmus, or maybe Frida Kahlo in her non-figurative guise. (Kahlo was also sometimes called a surrealist and it wasn't accurate for her either.) One of Sharrer's more intriguing canvasses is titled Resurrection of the Waitress and it has odd elements such as pulled back hair, an eggbeater, a razor blade, and a bare-breasted airborne woman. But when you learn that she's telling the story of a drowning victim by riffing off a 15th century Bosch painting (Ascent of the Blessed), Sharrer's canvas is simply offbeat, not mysterious. She also liked to twist old myths, with Leda a particular favorite and usually displayed with pudenda exposed. (In Greek myth, Zeus disguised himself as a swan to ravage the beautiful moral Leda, whom he turned into a swan. One of their children was Helen of Troy.) All of this is to say that Sharrer's work was quirky and cheeky, but the viewer's effect isn't akin to standing in front of a Dali and pondering what any of what you see might mean!



Politics was what made Sharrer "dangerous." Like many modernist painters she honed her teeth on representational art—even when it held symbolic meanings. In that phase, Sharrer was an overt leftist who reveled in 1930s rebels. She showed her sympathy for laborers in works such as Workers and Paintings (1943) and Tribute to the American Working People (1951). The first dignifies ordinary folks by posing them amidst art masterpieces; the second is patterned on a 15the century altar piece by Hugo van der Goes. Sharrer lived in Amherst in the late 1940s; her second husband was Amherst history professor Perez Zagorin (1920-2009), an intellectual communist who was blacklisted in 1953. By extension, so was Sharrer. The couple fled to Montreal, where they lived until 1965. Sharrer's Reception (1958) is a subtle commentary on her exile years, as the high sheen guests include such famed anticommunist crusaders as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Cardinal Francis Spellman. 

The Reception

Oddly, it might be another thing that eclipsed Sharrer's star, as it's a fairly static picture—except for the appearance of birds throughout the canvas. These are usually said to be a comment on the obliviousness of the guests, though I suspect Sharrer was coding messages about the culture of innuendo, whispers, and spying. Still, this picture came at a time in which modernism and abstraction were all the rage and it didn't fit those fashions. It certainly didn't help her case that she also rendered a series of drawing that satirized art critics, patrons, and trend-setters. 



In commenting on his wife's work, Zagorin noted it had a "slant view." That's maybe the best way to describe it. We see a naked, orange-hatted St. Jerome sharing space with menacing Japanese figures, a butcher standing amidst porcine carnage and a famed Greek statue, a commentary on modesty patterned after The Trojan Archer, a putdown of the horsey set with a backward riding Godiva, an odd ballet, and a hysterical "ordinary" outing whose elements include a small car, a flamingo, a nude woman, and Pan peeling an apple. Slant views indeed. Sharrer's career revived somewhat when society loosened in the late 1960s, but she never regained her earlier spotlight. By her death in 2009 she was little known outside of the art world's inner circle. The best category for Sharrer is perhaps art's most populous: those that obtain posthumous appreciation.

Rob Weir




12/11/17

Lady Bird a Standard Coming of Age Movie


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LADY BIRD  (2017)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
A24, 94 minutes, R (language, sexuality)
★★★

Groucho Marx once quipped, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." He wasn't speaking of his adolescent years, but he could have been. Do you know a teenager who hasn't gone through an identity crisis? If you want to make a Sturm und Drang film, focusing on teens is the easiest way to do so. Saying something new is much harder. This is the challenge facing novice director Greta Gerwig in Lady Bird. Not surprisingly, she delivers a mixed result.   

Gerwig opens with an epigram from Joan Didion: "Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento." It's an amusing line, though it doesn't quite hide the fact that Lady Bird is a standard coming-of-age film. You know the type—the classic Freudian moment in adolescents' lives in which they must symbolically slay the dominant parent to become truly independent. Gerwig's twist is that it's mom, not dad, who must fall. This makes Gerwig's film more than a genre knock-off but just a tick above the norm, not a quantum leap.

The film is set just after 9/11. Right away we have a missed opportunity. The film centers on the turmoil and disconnectedness of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who adopts the affected handle "Lady Bird" as an act of minor rebellion. Why the film is set in 2002-03 is a mystery, given that Gerwig never makes logical parallels between Lady Bird's personal upheaval and that of the nation itself. New York appears in the film, but as the destination to which Lady Bird wishes to escape, not as any deeper analogy. Indeed, it's tempting to subtitle the movie Stifled in Sacramento. Lady Bird is the poster child for decent but disaffected teens. Her hair is streaked with red highlights and she wears on her sleeve her boredom with school, Catholicism, convention, and Sacramento. She's curious about sex and mildly intrigued by the drama club, but mostly she feels hemmed in—especially by her domineering mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Add social class to the list of things that flatten Lady Bird's affect. The McPhersons are lower middle class and even that status is insecure, as father Larry (Tracy Letts) has been laid off and Marion must work double shifts at the hospital to keep food on the table for a household that also includes an adopted Latino son, Miguel (Jordan Rodriques) and his live-in girlfriend. It's the sort of home in which Lady Bird's wardrobe comes from thrift stores and is reworked by mom. Lady Bird can't help but fantasize about upper middle class homes or compare her friendship with the chubby math whiz Julie (Beanie Feldstein) with the cooler haute bourgeoisie social groups. This too causes grief. What does she want to be, a rebel or a Boho? The only constant is that she wants to be somewhere else, as her overstretched mother is hypercritical of everything Lady Bird says, does, or wants.
The film is at its weakest when Gerwig paints by the numbers. If you know the coming-of-age genre, you know what will ensue: inappropriate boyfriends and peers, self-discovery in acting, good cop/bad cop parenting, embarrassing situations, escape, revelation, dawning maturity, and call it a wrap. There's nothing new here, and the film would be a total wash were it not for extremely fine acting. At 23, this is probably Ronan's swan song for a role in which she plays 17 going on 18. That said, Ronan is everything we hoped she would be when she surfaced as a nine-year-old child actress. She strikes all the right notes as a confused young person who is smugly self-aware one moment and a clueless the next. Watch her as she rockets between tough as nails and vulnerable, or self-absorbed and wounded. Above all, Ronan inhabits her roles in ways that make us see the character, not her playing a character. The much under-rated Laurie Metcalf is also superb as a mother who loves her daughter deeply but can't get out of the way of her own snark. Deep inside she knows she's not doing her best for her daughter, but she literally lacks the energy to change. Nor can she afford to lower her guard. Letts is also very good as a depressed but super-mensch dad.  

It's too early to evaluate Gretta Gerwig's competence as a director. For her first film, she chose an unchallenging genre and didn't challenge herself within it. Inexperience leaks through several seams. In addition to the dropped 9/11 possibilities, she doesn't give us nearly enough clues about secondary characters, including those within the McPherson household who presumably contribute to Lady Bird's discontent. In fact, most of the incidental characters are more generalized types than distinct personalities. To date, Gerwig's most distinguishing directorial trait is that she has an eye for choosing talented leads.

On balance, Lady Bird is a decent, diverting film but not a memorable one. At its best it induces flashbacks to times most of us would never wish to relive. If it makes us a bit more tolerant of those stuck in the middle of the muddle, that's a service of sorts. The next time you encounter an annoying pack of teens, remember Groucho's words, smile, and mentally wish them godspeed for delivery from the club.

Rob Weir  

12/8/17

The Florida Project Luridly Discolors the American Dream

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017)
Directed by Sean Baker
A24, 115 minutes, R (language, distress)
★★★★★

Few words in the English language vary so much in meaning according to context as "project." We use it to mean displaying an image, making our voice more forceful, or transferring our faults onto another. Change how you say it and it means a task and that one also has shadings, as in chosen hobbies, a work assignment, a personality in need of an upgrade, or an infrastructure undertaking. Of all its meanings, though, the saddest is when we use it as a synonym for ghetto. The last of these is the intended meaning in The Florida Project.

Looking for a feel-good movie. If so, set your GPS a thousand miles in the opposite direction of any place showing The Florida Project. That shouldn't be too hard, as this isn't the sort of film likely to be (ahem!) projected at a mall near you. Malls, after all, are repositories of material desire and The Florida Project is about how hopes die in the very shadow of glitz, fantasy, and conspicuous consumption. It was filmed in Kissimmee, Florida, which you probably recognize as the home of Disney World. Yet The Florida Project dares suggest that the American Dream is bullshit in Technicolor wrapping paper. It is the very essence of a "tough" film, but it's also one of the year's  best. 

Luridly colored hotels sit in plain sight just blocks from the Disney World entrance. To destination-bent motorists these bright purple, Pepto-Bismol pink, peppermint green, and sea-foam green edifices look a bit worn, but cheerful enough; that is, unless one mistakenly enters their parking lots. They are indeed "projects," cheap places where only those with an affinity for bedbugs and flirtations with seediness would ever wish to stay. They are often close to capacity for the simple reason that most units are SROs (single-room occupancies) for the down and out. Think the Midlands council housing featured in English director Mike Leigh's films swaddled in garish stucco.

Director Sean Baker invites us to imagine what it's like to live there, and his eyes into this world are largely those of children. Most of the film is set in complexes known respectively as the Future Land Inn and the Magic Castle Hotel, especially the latter. It's hard to escape the irony of names that echo nearby Disney World, but are eons removed on the socio-economic scale. Here children with little adult supervision live semi-feral existences—running amok through parking lots, abandoned housing tracts, dollar stores, cremee stands, greasy spoons, marshy fields, and tacky tourist shops. As the kids roam amidst the flat Florida landscape and kitschy capitalist trappings, Baker wordlessly drives home the point that a slum is a slum, no matter how bright its faux fronts.

Our main guide through Dante's Inferno is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her personal wolfpack: Dicky (Aiden Malik), Scotty (Christopher Rivera), and eventually her BFF Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Moonee is smart, incorrigible, and self-reliant, the latter two qualities a necessity for a child of a drug dealing, scam running, trick-turning, twenty-four-year-old single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley loves her daughter, but everything about her is a mess—including the scores of ugly tattoos chaotically inscribed upon her skin and a potty mouth that would make a sailor blush. She can't sustain her friendship with Ashley (Mela Murder), she can't stay straight, and she surely hasn't a clue of how to raise a kid; she has even less self-control than her six-year-old, who doesn't have much. We meet Moonee as she and her friends spit from a third-floor railing onto a car owned by Jancey's mother. That's certainly not a conventional path to friendship, but it works in a place where even children hustle by begging the cost of a single ice cream cone licked by all. Other activities include lining up for charity food handouts and breaking into abandoned houses.

Adult role models are scarce at the Magic Castle, a place whose weirdoes and damaged individuals seem like escapees from a Jim Jarmusch film. The closest thing to a functional adult is probably Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who manages the place and (sort of) looks out for the kids, whom he pretends to dislike. He actually has a soft interior—when he can access it. Bobby tries to keep his job by enforcing the rules, but is often too emotionally exhausted to give a damn one way or the other. Like other Magic Castle residents, he turns on a screw-it-all dime from kindness to rage. Consider, though, that Bobby is practically a long-range planner by local standards. Halley's idea of the future is to come up with—by hook or crook—the $35 she needs for her daily rent.  

The Florida Project features dazzling cinematography from Alexis Zabe, who makes ugliness look lush and vibrant. Young Brooklynn [sic] Prince dazzles as Moonee and is certainly a precocious talent to watch.  Vinaite's performance is so strong you'll have to remind yourself that she's not really a lowlife reprobate. Dafoe, however, is so good that it would be criminal were he not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Few do world-weary as well as he, but in this film he slathers his usual snark and sinister demeanor beneath layers of pathos. His is a nuanced and powerful performance.

The children of The Florida Project magnify its essential tragedy. Silver lining? Don't look for one; the film's climax is both chilling and indicting in ways that quietly make it a subversive film. The film will piss you off, but it should also make you fall to your knees in thanks that you had no problem coming up with the price of a theater ticket. It will also make you sad and force you to question star-spangled clichés of America the Bountiful. In this film, American exceptionalism lies ruined in a pit of purple stucco.

 Rob Weir

12/6/17

Dolores Huerta: A True American Heroine


DOLORES (2017)
Directed by Peter Bratt
PBS Distribution, 95 minutes, Not-rated
★★★★


Remember Bill O'Reilly, the sexual predator from Fox? We briefly see his bile-spewing mug in the documentary Dolores, a look at the life and selfless career of Dolores Huerta (b. 1930). O'Reilly was among the smug Fox commentators aroused to righteous fury during a 2010 Arizona debate over adding ethnic studies to the state's school curriculum. One wonders why this is even a question in a state whose population is nearly one-third Hispanic, but Huerta was there to fight for it because she knew that Arizona was controlled by the GOP. When she sought to fire up local activists, she told them, "Look, the Republicans hate Latinos." That drove O'Reilly mad and he took to the Fox News airways: "Who is she? I've never even heard of this woman." Way to display your ignorance Billy. Arizona defeated the ethnic studies proposal and just look at how much Latinos love the GOP now.

My tone is sarcastic, something Huerta almost never is. In one way, though, O'Reilly was correct. If you had to pick the figure from the 20th century with the most awards, humanitarian achievements, and influence that is so little known, Dolores Huerta would be a contender. (For the record, any student who ever took a course from me would have heard her name, even if they can't recall why.) This raises a question. Why do so many recognize bloviators like O'Reilly, but so few know about Dolores Huerta? How about Carlos Santana? Bet you've heard of him. Santana thought it a sin that "Sister Dolores" (his term) is a relative unknown, so he put up some of his own dough to produce Peter Bratt's documentary about a remarkable woman who, at age 87, is still on the frontlines for social justice.

Call Huerta the Latina Mother Jones, except her résumé is even broader. Consider this  abbreviated bullet point summary of Ms. Huerta's accomplishments:

·      Working for social justice since 1955
·      1962: Co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA)
·      1955: Took command of the Delano strike and grape boycott, which
·      1966: Negotiated a settlement with Schenely Wine Company that was the first time an agricultural producer signed a union contract
·      1968: Worked with Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign
·      1970: Negotiate contracts when California growers capitulated to the grape boycott
·      1975: A leader in the campaign that culminated in the California  Agricultural Labor Relations Act*
·      1987: Cited by Ms Magazine as one of its women of the year
·      1980s/90s: Spearheaded campaigns against pesticide poisoning
·      1993: Inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame
·      1997: Cited as one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century
·      1998:  Won the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights
·      2002:  Established Dolores Huerta Foundation to train human rights activists
·      2012: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama
·      2017: Co-chaired the Women's March on Washington to protest inauguration of Donald Trump
·      Huerta coined the rallying cry Sí, su pudre whose English translation is "Yes, we can!" and was used by Barack Obama.

Dolores dares ask us: Why isn't Dolores Huerta a household name? Part of the answer is obvious: she's a brown-skinned Latina in a society dominated by white, male, Anglos. But that's not the whole story. Franklin Roosevelt once implored, "I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made." This takes us back to O'Reilly. Huerta has spent her life speaking truth to power. Let's add some Frederick Douglass to FDR: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Huerta has tackled powers such as racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and economic privilege; that is, elites neither concerned with social or economic justice, nor inclined to shed tears for those living on life's margins. They are, however, inclined to moralizing.

The documentary takes as honest look at Huerta. She is saintly, but unlikely ever to be saint. She has been married and divorced twice, and has born eleven children to three different fathers—the last of whom was Richard Chavez, Cesar Chavez's brother. The documentary is unsparing regarding the cost of her activism. She was born in New Mexico, attended Stockton College, indulged her love of jazz and dance, and was on the path to a middle-class life until she chucked it all in 1955, when she joined the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. Huerta never looked back, though it meant voluntary poverty and absentee motherhood. Her children speak candidly of her absence, their hurt, and (often) their anger; Huerta views this as akin to collateral damage in a time of war. Her personal life, however, made her easy prey for moralists wishing to divert attention from their own activities.

The film is also unsparing in looking at organized labor's internal struggles, union sexism, and the lengths to which organized power would go to try to thwart Huerta and the UFWA. Testimonials appear throughout; among them those of Angela Davis, Hillary Clinton, and Gloria Steinem. Steinem utters the movie's most poignant line when discussing Huerta's work with Bobby Kennedy and his assassination: "I had seen the past die, but never before had I witnessed the death of the future." Yowser! Imagine: If RFK had lived, no Nixon, no Ford, no Carter, and probably no Reagan or Bush. Not coincidentally, Huerta was singled out for an unprovoked near-fatal beating while protesting against G. H. W. Bush in 1988. Imagine also a different post-1993 future. Cesar Chavez got most of the UFWA glory, but Huerta was (at least) his equal. When Chavez died, most farmworkers assumed Huerta would assume the union presidency; it went to a man (and the UFWA has never been the same). For Huerta, it awakened a dormant feminist consciousness and made her revaluate her life. Draw a straight line from 1993 to the Huerta Foundation.   

Another amazing aspect of the film is Huerta's demeanor—measured, calm, and pacific no matter what she faced. Nor does she ever apologize for the path she followed. Dolores Huerta is the very embodiment of a person all in for her causes. Numerous interviewers have played the role of Satan in the Wilderness and have tempted Huerta with questions of what she would do if she were given a large sum of money to spend on herself. The answer is always the same: give it to the cause. Thus the moralists rant and pretend they don't know her, or rail that she's a poor role model who abandoned her children. Problem: Every one of her now-adult children deeply loves and admires Dolores. Most of them now work with her foundation. If you don't know about this remarkable woman, be sure to see this documentary. After all, who wants to be as big an ignoramus as Bill O'Reilly?

Rob Weir

* Contrary to popular belief, many workers were excluded from the 1935 Labor Relations Act and agricultural workers were specifically excluded from it. To date, California remains the only state to extend labor protection to agricultural workers.

12/4/17

Nick Hornby's Funny Girl a Middling Effort

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FUNNY GIRL (2015/UK/USA)
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead, 453 pages
★★ ½

No, this not a spinoff of an old Streisand movie, though it is about a Barbara. Barbara Parker is a beautiful young woman who'd much rather be known for being silly than for being statuesque. The story opens in 1964, when Parker wins the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant and promptly forfeits her crown when she realizes that her duties would keep her in that seaside domain for another year. Hey—if you've ever been to Blackpool, you'd understand! Instead, Parker trudges off to London in the hope of following in the footsteps of her idol: Lucille Ball.

After a series of misadventures, the undereducated, but plucky and blunt Parker lands a role in a TV rom-com titled Wedded Bliss? (The question mark factors into the plot.) Against all odds, it turns into a massive hit. Hornby takes us through the decades to the present when Parker—known by her stage name Sophie Straw—is an aged icon whose co-stars have been largely forgotten.

Parker/Straw is the central character, but the more intriguing duo is the show's writers: Bill Gardiner and Tony Holmes. After World War II they were caught in flagrante delicto in a men's lavatory, but recovered to begin writing frothy TV fare in the late 1950s. Wedded Bliss? transforms them as well, but will success file the barbs from their rapier wit? We watch Bill embrace his sexuality while Tony follows a more conventional bourgeois path. Will this take down their partnership when their hit show declines and ends—as all TV shows inevitably do?

I liked how Hornby presented the early 1960s British entertainment scene, a time in which vaudeville and music halls were not quite dead and BBC TV was stolid, serious, and dull. As the expression goes, then the Sixties happened. Shows like Wedded Bliss?—seen by their detractors as gutter trash and their defenders as groundbreaking—soon seemed like pastoral innocence compared to what loomed on the  horizon. Till Death Do Us Part—whose American copycat was All in the Family—obliterated the decorum bar and writers took full advantage to offer fare such as: The Benny Hill Show, Not Only… But Also, and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Maybe that's my problem with this novel. Barbara/Sophie has her moments and I enjoyed her working-class frankness, but funny she isn't. She's mostly an accidental celebrity and about as interesting as most such figures aren't. Put more directly, she's no Lucille Ball. The book is overlong and the post-mid-60s parts are labored and unconvincing. I found Funny Girl a diversion for the seven-hour flight during which I read it, but it's truly a middling effort from Hornby. It's fine as flight fodder, but if you're on the ground, you should find your way to the library for better Horny offerings such as High Fidelity, About a Boy, or A Long Way Down.  

 Rob Weir

12/1/17

Certain Women: Tough Choices in a Hard Land


CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)
Directed, written and edited by Kelly Reichardt
IFC Films, 107 minute, R (brief nudity, language)
★★★★





If you've seen Brokeback Mountain or Wind River, you might suspect that though the Northern Rockies are a place of majesty and eye-popping beauty, they're mighty hard on human inhabitants. Delve into Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and you'll be certain of it. This film loosely stitches three Maile Meloy short stories. I've not read Ms. Meloy, but what I saw on screen reminded me of Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories transposed Montana.


The critic scores for this film were much higher (as in the 92% favorable category) than those of audiences (65-75%). I see its flaws, but I lean toward the critics on this one.  To appreciate it, you need to have patience. Certain Women is a very quiet film about people who feel small in a landscape that can be oppressively imposing. Distances are measured in hours, not miles; hulking peaks loom ominously before an unbroken chain of empty prairie and barren roads; and taking care is pretty basic: watch out for black ice, stock plenty of food in the freezer, choose a reliable vehicle over one that looks nice, and make sure the livestock has non-frozen water to drink. It's also not a place for loquacious pack humans; out there, a slow nod passes for a sermon. Not surprisingly, it's also a place that can wear you down, though it does so slowly and inexorably.

Certain Women interweaves the quiet dramas and traumas of four women (and several men). The first is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer well aware that she's in a dead-end practice. She's stuck with creeping cynicism, ennui, and a client named Fuller (Jared Harris) that she can't help even though he was horribly cheated by an employer that ruined his vision and suckered into a lame settlement. Laura is basically running on autopilot—so much so that she is literally pushed into things she's not even sure she wishes to do.

Gina Lewis (Michele Williams) has command, energy, and verve to burn, but her life isn't so hot either. She might be outwardly powerful, but she can't handle silence or indifference. Her ineffectual (and philandering) husband has very little to say, rather like their daughter Guthrie, whose dislike of her mother is palpable. Gina's plan is to get a house built so the family can stop camping, and she has her eye on a pile of primo sandstone piled in the yard of an old man named Albert (René Auberjonois—Star Trek's Odo). Gina's schemes excite her, but no one else. Albert's what everyone really fears: being aged, alone, and sliding into dementia.

The final tale involves another lawyer, novice Beth Travis (Kristin Stewart), who got roped into teaching a night law class in Belfry (population 218) twice a week, thinking it was another town, not one involving a four-hour drive each way from Livingston (a veritable 'city' at 7,200). Beth is so focused on her own misery and fear of failure that she hardly cares that no one in the class actually wants to study law; they just want to ask random questions. All, that is, except for young Jamie (Lila Gladstone), who seeks to befriend Travis. Jamie has a winter job—caring for horses in this remote chunk of Montana—and her attraction to Beth is deliciously ambiguous. Is it that Beth is exotic? That she represents Jamie's frustrated desire to educate herself? Or is she lonely and in love with Beth?

Some have called this a film about strong women, but I think such an assessment confuses hollowed out perseverance with efficacy. It also ignores parallels that portend fate, including the possibility that Beth and Gina are on the path to becoming Laura, or that Fulller and Lila could easily morph into Albert. My take is that Certain Women is an exploration of loneliness, yearning for connection, living with stillness, and wanting to tell the Universe, "I am here." The last of these smacks face-first into an outsized landscape that suggests that Montana doesn't give a damn. The sequences involving Jamie are almost painfully redundant as Reinhardt drives home the fact that a lot of people live according to set routines, not along paths to self-actualization. In a very understated way, Reichardt makes us ponder who is right. What makes us who we are, how we handle triumph, or how we deal with adversity? How do we live—basking in the exceptional, or doing honor to routine? What makes us human, and does it matter?

This film isn't for everyone. There is so little action that at times it's like photographs slowly coming to life. The transitions between character sketches are so ragged that it seems like three distinct short films—until threads tie stories together. Even then, those threads are so slender and mauve colored that the film's overall fabric frays. But the more I thought about this film, the more I liked it. It's a small film and I understand if you conclude it isn't your cup of tea. Whether or not you watch Uncertain Women, though, keep eyes peeled for Lila Gladstone. Hers is a subtle and nuanced performance that tops that of her more famed peers. She rightly won several independent film acting awards for the manner in which she says more in her silences than most can do in a soliloquy.  

Rob Weir

11/29/17

December 2017 Album of the Month: Richard Thompson


 In my feckless youth, I used to go to a lot rock concerts. I'm often asked if there were artists I wished I had seen, but didn't. Well, I never saw The Beatles or the per-geriatric Rolling Stones, but if I had to pick one, it is that I didn't see Richard Thompson in the 1980s when he was in his rock n' roll glory years. I've seen Thompson numerous times in the past quarter decade and he always gives an amazing show, but back in the 1980s he fronted a particularly muscular band that often included several of his old Fairport Convention mates: Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, and Dave Mattacks. Thanks to a new MVD Audio collaboration with the German TV station Rockpalast, I can see what I missed—and now my regret is even deeper.

Richard Thompson Live at the Rockpalast is a three-CD/two-DVD recording of two concerts, one in Hamburg, Germany (1983) in support of Thompson's Hand of Kindness album and another performance at the MIDEM (Marché International de Disque et de l'Edition) festival in Cannes, France. These shows took place at a critical juncture in Thompson's career. As artists often do, Thompson worked out some of his demons on stage. His 1982 Shoot Out the Lights Tour was brilliant musically, but was also known among his closest friends as the "Tour from Hell." His songwriting has always gravitated to the dark side, but the dissolution of his marriage immediately after the birth of his daughter Kamila and the pressures of transcontinental residency in London and Los Angeles put him in an especially sour mood. Thompson's 1983 concert saw him trying to jolly himself along with covers of "Great Balls of Fire," "High School Hop," and a juiced version of the sentimental Irish standard "Danny Boy," but the standout track are the no-one-gets-me "Man in Need." Overall, though, I'm not sad to have missed this show; it has a going-through-the-motions feel.

By contrast, his 1984 MIDEM show was a stunner, this time with Gerry Conway on drums and Rory McFarlane on bass, as Mattacks and Pegg had other commitments. What a show! Thompson was probably still partially in a tunnel of depression, but he was also enjoying himself on the road. The Cannes show saw him bring together various influences on his music: the English music hall, skiffle, standards, and his own acid pen. You want dark? Check out Thompson's eight-minute plus performance of "Night Comes In," or an equally ominous take on "Shoot Out the Lights." Both of these have elements that evoke acid rock, but without the clichés.  Need some more pain? This the time period in which Thompson wrote songs whose titles require no explanation: "The Wrong Heartbeat," "Tear Stained Letter," "Don't Renege on Our Love," "A Poisoned Heart and a Twisted Memory," and "How I Wanted You." Yet the same show features joyous accordion work from Alan Dunn and high-powered saxophone performances from Peter Zorn and Pete Thomas, the latter two of whom cavorted around the stage in post-disco goofiness but laid down some seriously loud, soulful, and robust horns. Other rays of light textured this show: the whimsical "Two Left Feet," an English village dance treatment of "Amarylus," a giddy version of "Wall of Death," even a revival of "Pennsylvania 6-500," a song originally popularized by Glenn Miller.

The entire five-disc collection is available for just $26,a bargain even if the Hamburg show doesn't grab you. A word of caution, though: Remember that this stuff was recorded back in the early 1980s. If you convert the CDs to .MP3 files they will sound thin. The sound quality on the video files is far better. I'm not enough of a techie to tell you why, though I suspect it's somehow easier to enhance video sound files. But you'll want to watch the DVD 1984 concert. It's live, the way a lucky audience experienced it.  Wish I had been there.

Rob Weir

PS: It was hard to find available live performance video clips from these shows, so I have included links that are similar.  The box set quality is many times higher in quality. Audio only files of these concerts are available on YouTube. 

For the record: I think Thompson is even better on acoustic guitar. 

11/28/17

Vermont State of Mind



Experience and utopianism aren't always the best of friends. When asked of my ideal place to live, I often conjure a land that combines the best traits of my current Western Massachusetts home with the humor and resiliency of Scotland, the civic ideals and beauty of New Zealand, the kindness found in Canada, the economics of Scandinavia, and the food and culture of Western Europe. And it would be warmer, but not tropical—maybe San Francisco without the freezing fog and numbing cost of living. Experience, though, tells me there's no such place.

Experience also tells me that the best place I've ever lived is Vermont. It is said that comparisons are odious, but a Thanksgiving sojourn to Burlington has put me in a Vermont state of mind, even though I'm not planning a move. I always feel at home in Vermont, but I was also reminded of its depressing 4 pm November darkness, the bone rattling winds blowing off Lake Champlain, the rural poverty of Franklin County, and the region's overall isolation. Still, there are ways in which Northern Vermont has much to teach Western Massachusetts.

First and foremost is that, reputations for being taciturn notwithstanding, Vermonters are way friendlier than folks in the Pioneer Valley. Vermonters don't take themselves as seriously and that's a good thing. I've threatened a local terrorist act that wouldn't rise to beige on the alert scale; I'd love to string a banner across Main Street Northampton that reads, "C'mon Folks—Lighten Up!" We are a grumpy, angry bunch 'round these parts and I too often get caught up in stuff that brings me down: bad driving, arrogant pedestrianism, cause fanaticism, and—above all—a stunning lack of perspective. In Northern Vermont, snowflakes are real things that fall in mass quantities, not people of privilege sniping at things that don't touch them personally. Honestly, I wonder how some people manage to rise in the morning bearing all their assumed burdens. You can hardly sneeze in Western Massachusetts without being accused of a micro-aggression—a term that makes my working-class soul sneer. I'd love to see how some of our local Snowflakes would deal with the in-your-face-take-that-shit-elsewhere aggression of life outside the Bubble.

Mind, I prefer Bubble values, but we ought to do a much better job of distinguishing the real from the imagined. Sorry, but when I hear folks tell me they've never experienced  [fill in your favorite oppression ending in ism here] like that on their college campuses my first thought is, "You really need to get out more." Vermonters are, on balance, more resilient. Maybe this is what happens when being down-to-earth is literal rather than metaphorical. Vermont winters are not for the faint of heart and Mud Season is no treat either. Though it sounds odd to say it, one of the things I like about Western Massachusetts is its milder climate—as in 6-8 weeks less winter. Remember the 2011 Halloween snowstorm that knocked out power in the Pioneer Valley, or the 1997 April Fools' Day wallop? These are legendary; in Northern Vermont they're filed under, "Not Unusual." 

All of this is to say that everyday concerns are more prosaic because your life really does depend on those details. I still recall the -20 degree (Fahrenheit) day when my antifreeze froze and a roadside lift from a stranger was all that stood between me and serious danger. Vermont town meetings discuss things such as dumping gravel on washed out roads, getting road crews out early, buying snow fences, and rounding up volunteers to help EMTs. Small town politics can be cantankerous—especially school budgets, a shameful problem in the Green Mountain State—but nobody goes home until the agenda is dispatched.  Occasionally locals weigh in on national issues, but mostly they don't waste time debating symbolic things of little significance. Really, most Northeast Kingdom townies know that El Salvadorans are not looking up their way for sanctuary cities.

Yet here's the really crazy thing: Vermont politics are often more pragmatically progressive than those of Western Massachusetts. This is especially true in Burlington, where power isn't a two-way contest between Neanderthal Republicans and Brain-Dead Democrats. Both are to the right of the Progressive Coalition, which doesn't always control city government outright, but you can't rule without them. Springfield and Holyoke pols might want to check out Burlington's Old North End sometime. Social problems remain there, but there's also been a ton of progress, not decades of stasis. And I'll tell you for free that in my lifetime there has been nothing that comes close to being as exciting and transformative as Burlington during the Bernie Sanders years. Save your clichés; that cranky socialist did more concrete things to improve life than a manure spreader full of faux liberals.

Vermonters are fiercely independent—another trait I admire. Politically, it's a state with a socialist U.S. Senator (Sanders) and another who is a for-real liberal Democrat (Pat Leahy), but also elected a Republican governor (Phil Scott) after two lackluster terms from its Democratic placeholder (Peter Shumlin). That same pragmatic streak shows up in other ways. Vermonters have been environmentally conscious since the 1970s, are suspicious of big promises, don't care much for pretense or bling, and the slogan "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, and do without" ought it be stitched into the state flag.  Either that or "No Whining."

Like I said earlier, Vermont isn't utopia. The same arrayed dark forces gather there as well: opioid addiction, a shortage of good jobs, hucksterism, poor folks, unwise development, a declining retail sector…. I sometimes also think Vermonters make do too much and demand too little. But I do admire the realism of the place. Maybe Vermont is closer to utopia because its citizens have their feet on the ground instead of their heads in the clouds. After all, clouds are where snowflakes reside and they see too many of those. Me too.  



   

11/27/17

Hope Dunbar, Neil Nathan, Molly Madigan , Kris Guren and More




Hope Dunbar is lives in a small town, holds part-time jobs, composes folk/country acoustic music, and can only write when her kids are in school. Sound familiar? You'd be right several times over if Lori McKenna analogies popped into your head. Okay, so McKenna dwells in Massachusetts and her husband is a plumber, whereas Dunbar resides in Nebraska and her spouse is the local minister, but listen to the voice and you'll really get the picture. Dunbar's Three Black Crows is one of my favorite records of the year. If ever the phrase "singing your heart out" applies, it's here. "She Keeps Going" might just rip yours in half: She keeps going/Because she has to/There's no one to take her place…. If there's any justice in this world, Dunbar's "I Write" will be become an anthem for for unsigned artists everywhere: And I write in the morning at the breakfast table in my bathrobe and slippers in the margins of the junkmail/I write in the morning then I sing 'em at the bars where they pay me in beer and put dollars in my tip jar…. And what would you do if you were me/You'd pick up your pen and write your story. Even if you're not a fan of acoustic music, you can't help but admire the unvarnished honesty of this album. The title track has evocations of Appalachian old-time music. Listen for the metaphor—another splash of cold reality. The songs on this record dance on the razor's edge between contentment and chomping at the bit. Dunbar also thinks a lot of the world beyond her town. She wrote "The Shooter" before the mass murder in Texas moments, but it's hard not to shudder when you think of her small town and church involvement. "Revolver," a tale of domestic violence, might be even more chilling. Dunbar has a very pretty voice, but don't be fooled by it—most of the material on Three Black Crows is of the same inky noir as the birds. Call it an album of routines and shattered dreams. Call it a small masterpiece. ★★★★★


Neil Nathan has been around since 2007 and critics have compared him to everyone from Cat Stevens and Jeff Tweedy to Elton John and Josh Ritter. Huh? Yes, he's that kind of versatile. He's also a fan of power pop, gritty Detroit rock, and has performed in an Off-Broadway rock opera. So why not add some new head scratching analogies? Flowers on the Moon is like Graham Nash filtered through the flower child psychedelics of Donovan and a Neil Young quaver. At present, not many videos are available, but you can check out the title track and you'll be excused if it makes you dust off your black light and drop some food coloring onto a glass plate of floating oil. "Gone and Back Again" is also trippy, but in more of a gentle way, while "It Goes On" is somewhere between acid folk and a carnival. "Sugar Man" is another ethereal song, one loaded with befitting dangerous undertones. I also really liked "Me and Jim," a multi-tracked folk in an echo chamber song. I had no liner notes, but I wondered if the character Jim is Morrison given the repeating "No one here gets out alive" lyric. Another available on video is "Don't Forget Me," and if the tune sounds awfully familiar, it's because you've got the oldie "Rhythm of the Falling Rain" residing somewhere in your brain. Nathan really evokes Neil Young on "Burning a Horse," right down to the strained   vocals bordering on falsetto and atmospherics that sound simple but are more layered than you at first imagine. ★★★★

Molly Pinto Madigan is a Cambridge-based singer songwriter with the heart of a poet and a taste for ancient ballads. You know you're in the presence of a wordsmith when words like fain, rockweed, wolfsbane, cockleshells, and redolent appear in the lyrics and make sense. When I listened to Madigan's latest, The Cup Overflows, the descriptor 'courtly love nouveau' popped into my head. It's mostly a record about yearning and longing for lovers present and past. Had I been she, I think I would have made "Wormwood" the title track. It's the plant from which absinthe is distilled and is both intoxicating and (literally) toxic. Madigan sings: O, it's bitter grows the wormwood, gay/And cheerless is the springing thyme/For my own true love came home today/Home to a bed that isn't mine. Don't wait for any fa-la-la chorus to ensue; the song is reeved with pathos. "Here Comes the Night"—not the Van Morrison song—is dark as well: Oh, lover, this longing/It's got me broken, through and through/Streetlamps sighing with moth wings/And I'm here sighing without you. Yep—these are folk songs in the grand tradition of pain and but only occasional gain. In "Seven Tears" hope comes in the pleas of a new suitor offering to take away the hurt left by a false love. On the title track, she lies awake in a moonlight-splashed bed in which she's just made love hoping that her yearning shows. Madigan's voice is sweet and ethereal, though still a tad on the young side, but her pen is mature and her desire palpable.★★★★

Kris Gruen is from New York and his father, Bob, is a photographer famed for his shots of John Lennon. Kris, however, now makes his home in Montpelier, Vermont. All of this makes him an intriguing mix of the urbanity of Paul Simon, the mystic vibe of Nick Drake, and the whiskey growl of the late Bill Morrissey—yet he's not like any of them. His newest CD is titled To Swoon and Beguile, which is his opinion of what music should do. His songs explore wonder, healing, connections, and disconnections. The title "Further Down," for example, sounds like we might be in for a look at bad times, but it's actually about moving forward: It takes no time to begin again/Just stay away from where you've been… "Part of It All" is one of those songs that makes you feel significant and inconsequential at the same time. "Dunroven's Farm" is backcountry sweet, but its inspiration—an old mill in Calais, Vermont—also evokes timelessness. Its musical opposite is the moody "How Long Will I Wait," with its indie pop/rock sheen. Gruen has an intriguing voice that's at turns, smooth, gravely, and near falsetto—the sort that makes you feel and drift rather than hang on to each note. Swoon and beguile indeed.★★★    

This one's tough. The bluegrass quintet Mile Twelve brings together folks who (mostly) met at the Berklee School of Music and they've just released their debut CD Onwards. It is a solid piece of piece of work featuring ten originals and two covers: Geoff Bartley's "Sunny Side of Town" and "Ace of Hearts," popularized by Alan Jackson. The musicianship is solid, the performances tight, the production first-rate and yet, how you will feel about this record depends entirely on whether you are a fan of classic bluegrass or if you prefer the more innovative approach that's en vogue at present. On one hand, I like traditional music but on the other, there are scads of new bluegrass bands and I can't help but wonder if Onwards is strong enough to help Mile Twelve break out of the pack. Frankly, it feels a bit too "safe" to me. It's odd, though, to be critical of something well done, so take a listen and see what you think. Try these: "The Margaret Keene," "Call My Soul," and the breakdown cover of "Ace of Hearts." ★★½ 

Joel Madison Blount has hitherto been playing a lot of rock n' roll, but on Our New Moon he ventures onto Americana/folk turf. The results, alas, are mixed. Blount certainly knows that in folk, the message is central and that you need to wear your thoughts on your sleeve. Aside from "Arms Wide Open," an impending fatherhood song, most of his tales walk a middle path between hope and reality. My favorite track is "Beauty That Remains," which challenges us to take life as it comes and find the glory amidst the disappointments.  The problem is, however, that too much of this album is painted beige. Blount has a fine, powerful voice but he has not mastered the folk idiom. Most of the songs open with sensitive, quiet, clear tones, but slide up to scales and volumes that mesh with more lush instrumentation. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it tends to happen the same place in the same way so often that redundancy sets in. I really liked his voice, but Blount needs more inventive arrangements and evolve more ways to showcase his pipes. ★★