4/19/19

Currently On View at Mt Holyoke: Not Enough Info



Like/Life: Photography by Martine Gutierrez
Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas
Afterlives of Objects/Conflict and Commemoration
Mount Holyoke Afire
Mount Holyoke Museum of Art
Through June 2019

Readers of this blog know that I often prefer smaller, more intimate exhibitions to brain-numbing blockbusters. Is there such a thing as too small? Yes. Several shows at Mount Holyoke College (MHC) cross that line.

Let's start with what Mount Holyoke does right. MHC has always prided itself on being a teaching museum that uses its collection to supplement what takes place in the classroom. An exhibit titled Afterlives of Objects uses the permanent collection as "biographies;" that is, it discusses the object, its origins, and how it ended up in a college art museum. Good idea. The most powerful statements concern adaptive reuse of materials, such as what appears from a distance to be an African-style mask, but which is actually an assemblage of shoes. The overall theme, though, is an important one in an age where hard questions are asked about the appropriateness of collection methods. Does a Mende dance mask teach us about traditional cultures in modern Sierra Leone, or does it exoticize in patronizing ways?

This struck me as a much more profound strain of inquiry than another teaching exhibit Conflict & Commemoration. I breezed through this one because it seemed so obvious. It purports to look at loss and the aftereffects of war. The paintings and objects chosen tell us little that we don't know. The message is that war is a bad thing that kills, destroys, and has lasting impact. Duh! Other than neo-fascists and Nietzsche junkies, who would argue otherwise? The exhibit mostly sidesteps the question of whether conflict is necessary in the first place.

The museum's current featured exhibits underwhelm. Eighty-two-year-old visual artist Joan Jonas, a Mount Holyoke alum, is considered by many to be the "Mother of all Performance Artists." Perhaps she is, but this form of art runs into meta problems when it's on display in a museum. Put simply, once stripped of its very nature–performance–the artistry is easily lost. How interesting is grainy footage of naked people standing in a row while other semi-naked people don mirrored assemblages that refract the view of the lineup? Not very.

The featured MHC show at present is Life/Look, a collection of photographs by Martine Gutierrez (b. 1989), a transgendered Latinx. Hers is a thought-provoking display, but it's also a classic one-trick pony. Gutierrez wishes us to analyze our own gaze, as well as explore gender roles and boundaries. To that end, she poses flesh-and-blood women–often dressed in retro style–in a variety of poses: languid, sensual, whimsical, vaguely erotic, ironic…. She juxtaposes her living subjects with life-life mannequins that call attention to the Life/Look title of the show.

I liked Gutierrez's work, but the show is too small and is tucked away in vest-pocket-sized gallery. The images are strong but once you "get" it, there's not much more to whet the appetite. Her past work provokes thoughts on race, fashion, disembodiment, and fluid sexuality. She infers these themes in Life/Look as well, but the show's small size reduces Gutierrez's politics to the realm of novelty. In a word, what we need is: more.

I also couldn't escape the fact that the most extensive feature show is "Mount Holyoke Afire," which shows the aftermath of three disastrous campus fires. The one in 1896 destroyed the college's original seminary building. Those in 1912 and 1922 also wiped out some of the college's past. It is a nicely done exhibit that looks at those who battled the blazes as well as campus remembrances of the fires. Would that several of the other shows been equally well curated.

Rob Weir


-->

4/17/19

Frida Kahlo and Graciela Itrubide at MFA


Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular (through June 16)
Graciela Iturbide's Mexico  (through May 12)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

{Apologies for the orange tint on some photos. Someone forgot to reset the white balance on the camera!}
 
Did you ever go to a museum psyched to see a particular exhibit only to be blown away by another that you hadn't given a second thought? This was my experience at a recent trip to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). There's nothing at all wrong with the MFA's Frida Kahlo blockbuster, but photographer Graciela Iturbide steals the show.

Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular is the MFA's entrée into "Fridamania," a term coined in the late 1970s to describe the robust interest in (and soaring prices of) Kahlo's art and unorthodox life. Perhaps some of you have seen Julie Taymor's film Frida (2003) that cast the glorious Salma Hayek in the title role. Kahlo (1907-54) was born in Mexico to a German father and a mestiza (European/Indian mix) mother. She was an artistic wonder and a committed communist by the time she met and married Diego Rivera in 1928. The two had a tempestuous on/off relationship marked by sexual libertinism (bisexuality on Kahlo's part), political involvement, professional jealousy, mutual independence, and alcohol-fueled arguments, but they were also drawn to each other like moths to a flame. Kahlo's life was cut short by the ravages of polio and a degenerative spine condition that led to amputation of part of her right leg. She was in such pain that many consider her death to have been a suicide.

No fairy tale ending for Frida Kahlo, but few would doubt her artistic genius. The MFA considered it a coup when it was able to purchase her Dos Mujeres (Two Women), and its current show is an attempt to build off that acquisition. The problem, of course, is what to say about Kahlo that hasn't already been revealed during the various waves of Fridamania. The MFA opted to explore the influence of Mexican popular culture–arte popular–on her work. They present her as someone akin to Georgia O'Keeffe, whose time in Taos, New Mexico was marked by immersion into indigenous cultures. Kahlo was also of a middle-class background, but she presented herself as the embodiment of Mexican folk culture. Her very clothing was a canvas upon which she called attention to Mexican folkways, hues, and designs. If one wished to be uncharitable, one could say hers was fashionista peasantry, though my take is that was bohemian to the core.
 
The MFA spotlights Kahlo's inspirations: toys, icons, art, effigies, and retablos (religious art).  Kahlo was fascinated by Day of the Dead pageantry and it shows up in her art. The surrealist movement, especially the works of André Breton, also entranced her. The MFA was able to borrow several Kahlo paintings to supplement its exhibit. I really enjoyed it, but I wouldn't call it revelatory. Mostly it's a testament to Kahlo's influences and a reminder–if anyone needs one–of her talent. I suppose one might also say it's also a case study of how art imitates life.




Graciela Itrubide was a revelation. I had previously seen a famed shot of a woman wearing iguanas
in her hair, but had no idea it was taken by Itrubide (b. 1922). After seeing more than 125 of Itrubide's black and white photos, I felt embarrassed that her name previously rang no bells. She covered some of the same terrain as Frida Kahlo–she even took shots inside Kahlo's bathroom that spotlighted her physical struggles–but Iturbide sees herself as a realist who shoots what she sees without composing her subjects. Her take on life is unvarnished, but she see also captures the magic and beauty of the plebian.

This Iturbide show features some of her work with indigenous peoples in areas such as Seri women from Sonora and those from Juchitán (Oaxaca). Her Mujer Ángel is a stunner. A ghostly veiled figure has her back to us, her skirts billowing in the wind. She appears to be staring across the barren landscape in front of her. But if she's an apparition, she's traveling with her favorite tunes. Note the boom box in her right hand! 



Itrubide delights in everyday unintended irony, a bicycle tricked out as a bull, birds circling a crossed-shaped telephone pole as if heralding the apocalypse, a man resting in front of a mural of the Bride of Death. Like Frida Kahlo, Itrubide knows that death is woven into the fabric of everyday life–she lost a six-year-old daughter–and presents Day of the Dead costumed figures, but she also films literal death. Itrubide always asks for permission to film and two of her more distressing subjects are of the sacrificial slaughter of lambs and of a funeral procession of a family burying a small child. Along the route lay an anonymous dead man–murdered. As she explains in a superb video, when she's away from the camera she weeps, but when looking through the lens she detaches and shoots what she sees. If such subjects are too hard for you, rest assured that Itrubide also shoots gardens, birds, and other such subjects. As noted, this is a large retrospective. 




Now that I know about Graciela Itrubide, I can't stop searching for more images. Hers is truly astonishing work. Get yourself to the MFA before this show closes on May 12. 





Rob Weir

4/15/19

Puzzle: Missing Pieces = Mediocre Film


Puzzle (2018)
Directed by Marc Turtletaub
Sony Picture Classics, 103 minutes, R (language)
★★

In the age of blow-‘em-up/shoot-‘em-up movies, I wanted to be charmed by a low-key tale of a suburban housewife who finds her Mojo through putting together crossword puzzles. Alas, Puzzle is all heart, but no body. Watching it is, if I may, about as interesting as watching someone assemble a jigsaw.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a good smalltown Catholic girl who has always done what she’s supposed to do, which is to attend church and take care of her home, her husband Louie (David Denman), and her two nearly grown sons: Gabe and Ziggy. Her life is one filled with such predictability that when the morning alarm goes off she knows exactly what each household member will say and how her day will unfold.

Agnes gets a small jolt on her birthday when she receives a cake she baked herself, an iPhone, and a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s the last that alters her, not the food or the (unwanted) phone. Agnes zips through the puzzle and is so hooked that she takes the train into New York City to buy more. There she sees a flyer from a person seeking a partner for an upcoming puzzle competition. Who knew there was such a thing as competitive puzzling, let alone a doubles category? Agnes is shy to the point of being socially inept, but she screws up her courage and meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a rich, recently divorced inventor who lives in a fabulous New York City townhouse. The two connect on several levels.

Agnes lies to Louie so she can commute two days a week into New York instead of having dinner on the table when he comes home from working in his debt-saddled garage. Working-class dynamics are the best thing about Puzzled. Louie’s not a bad egg, just a boring one. He and his family live within commuter rail distance of Manhattan, but they are a million miles away culturally, socially, and economically. None has been to college and it doesn't look like there will be enough money for Gabe to attend—not that he cares all that much. Ziggy works with his dad in the garage and hates it; he thinks he’d rather be a chef. None of this makes sense to Louie, whose ambitions stop at paying bills and getting some down time to go fishing. He certainly doesn’t understand why Agnes is so obsessed with puzzles, so Agnes tells him she is taking care of an aunt when she’s actually seeing Robert for puzzles and more.

Right away we have a problem. Puzzle isn’t a thousand-piece drama; more like just four. Will Agnes and Robert win the competition? Will Gabe stop being a slacker? Can Ziggy escape the garage and follow his bliss? Most of all, now that Agnes has tasted forbidden fruit, can her marriage survive? It would take powerful performances to transform such thin material. Alas, this is not in the offing.

Kelly Macdonald simply isn’t dynamic enough to carry the picture. She is called upon to be naïve, dutiful, and dull. If anything, she is too good at those tasks. Her affect is so colorless and flat that there’s nothing about her that would attract a guy like Robert. Nor is there much there to suggest that any sort of change is possible. We see small amounts of pique here and there, but Macdonald's overall performance seems more suitable for a film about accountancy. Khan isn’t much more interesting in a role that calls upon him to be, at turns, exotic, mysterious, mentoring, and (mildly) libidinous. He seems much better at moping, actually. The less said about Martin Abrams (Gabe) and Bubba Weiler (Ziggy), the better. Each is little more than (ahem!) a cutout whose back-stories feel like script padding.

Denman is the strongest actor in the cast. He does a deft job portraying Louie, a blue-collar worker who strips life to its basics. Louie is the kind of individual I knew well when growing up. He works hard and tries to do the right thing, but he understands duty and routine far better than desire or nuance. Denman does this so well, that we both like him and want to slap him to make him to wake up.

There is nothing remarkable about the cinematography or direction, so this affords a perfect opportunity to vent about a few other things. First, this film is rated R for language. Isn’t it time for the MPAA to join the 21st century? Partial nudity can still obtain a PG-13 rating but, though the word “fuck” is ubiquitous these days, a single F-bomb can bring an R rating. It’s as if it’s okay for bare breasts or a naked behind to suggest sex, but heaven forbid anyone use a word that connotes it.

Rant number two is that Puzzle is actually an English-language remake of the 2010 Argentinean film Rompecabezas. It’s not exactly a shot-by-shot remake, but it’s worth asking why the American film industry wastes so much time and money badly remaking foreign films instead of coming up with some interesting new ideas. Puzzle is indeed puzzling, but not in a good way. Like its poster, there's a piece–or two or three–missing.

Rob Weir
-->

4/12/19

Jared and the Mill, Blue Dahlia, They Might Be Giants, Sean McConnell, Frances Cone, Johno




Jared and the Mill, This Story is No Longer Available

Jared Kolesar has a sweet tenor voice that might first put you in mind of someone like Josh Ritter. Don't be fooled; Kolesar and his band delight in opening soft and then jarring you to attention by catapulting themselves onto the loud side of the sound spectrum. Take a song like "Feels Like." Its quiet acoustic-driven opening sounds like maybe Kolesar is about to unwrap a folk ballad. At the end of every few bars, though, there's a bit of a sneer and brief swelling of the instrumentation. That's your cue for what's about to happen. Soon, the percussion and bass will boom, the electric guitars will wail, and the room will start jumping. About the time you think the piece is ending, there's a swirl and we are taken to new places. Or maybe it's old ones. When this five-piece rock band from Phoenix starts to crank, it can feel like 1968. You will hear this soft-to-hard technique throughout the album. Sample "Break in the Ether" for another example, or "Soul in Mind." The latter is a terrific song that opens with such seeming vulnerability that it's a small shock when Jared sings, "I don't give a fuck/If you don't think I'm good enough." Then once again, it's bring on the noise. No need for Kolesar to worry. Jared and the Mill are plenty good enough. ★★★★

The Blue Dahlia, Le Tradition Américaine

What a fun album! The Blue Dahlia is a Brooklyn-based "project" by Dahlia Dumont and seven or eight friends. Dumont is a first-generation American and the title track honors immigrants through the eyes of a small girl who seldom sees her father because he is working hard to support his family. It's a testament to what it really means to come to America. The songs on this album are in English and French, but this multicultural/multiethnic band draws upon everything from French chanson to reggae, ska, jazz, folk, klezmer, and Big Band stylings. How about, for starters, both an old-time/bluegrass version of "I See Things Differently" and the same song with a reggae backbeat? Dumont has a strong voice to go with her scrappy approach to singing. She airs out her chops on the soulful, torchy "Reasonable," but goes full bore French café singer on "Canal Saint Martin." "Le Reve II" is a joyous number that could be at home at a community dance somewhere in Mexico, or maybe the southern Pyrenees. Dumont propels herself into the heart attack-paced "Blah, Blah, Blah," a giddy number of trying to make big decisions when there's just too much in her mind. On "Plantation," she goes calypso. This is a kitchen sink kind of album in all the best ways. You can do a lot when two saxophonists, a trombonist, a trumpeter, a cellist, several accordionists and percussionists, bass, guitar, violin, and ukulele are laying down the grooves. ★★★★

They Might Be Giants, My Murdered Remains

It's no scoop to declare that They Might Be Giants (TMG) is the heir apparent to bands like The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. In turn, TMG gave birth to other tongue-in-cheek groups such as Flight of the Conchords and Lemon Demon. There are no surprises on My Murdered Remains, the 21st album released by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, which is to say you'll either like their shtick or you won't. As always, offbeat observations are on full display. My favorite track is "The Communists Have the Music," a riotous take on being apolitically political in which TMG explains: I got handed an Ayn Rand sandwich/Straight from the can, it tasted so bland/I asked a lass to pass me a glass/ Of Engels' Conditions of the Working Class/ Right away they dragged me to the committee/To explain my un-American activity/They're gonna see they made a mistake/If they'd only let me play my mixtape. Musically "The Neck Rolls Aren't Working" feels like a mash of early 60s rock and an overwrought cinematic score, and the song is either a series of non-sequiturs and open to interpretation. The album's least ambiguous song is "Best Regrets," which is about a busted relationship–sort of. In this case there's a touch of acid rock. But if it's too tame for you, try "Selectionist," which what you'd get if robots went to the disco. The new album is TMG's latest in the Dial-a-Song network of free music. Flansburgh and Linnell always make me smile, but in my reviewer role I'd have to say My Murdered Remains is similar to other TMG albums. But these guys have been cranking it out since 1982, so whadda I know? ★★★

Sean McConnell, Here We Go

He has a Celtic surname, but don't expect any diddly diddly music from Sean McConnell. He's from Massachusetts, but again you might not know it, which is to say he's more Nashville than Newtownabbey or Newburyport. "Here We Go" is a well-crafted song with a pop-influenced folk rock vibe and hooky repeating lines. McConnell has a warm inviting voice with a touch of nasality. Check out his tender duet with Lori McKenna on "Nothing On You." (Ten thousand angels can't keep from coming back home.) Or "Shotgun" with Audra Mae, a sweet acoustic country love song. McConnell busts out a band and choir (The McCrary Sisters) for the gospel-tinged "Shaky Bridges." McConnell has been around since 2000, so he's not exactly a newbie. He is, however, an artist to catch if you get the chance. ★★★ ½

Frances Cone, Late Riser

Frances Cone is another Nashville (via Brooklyn) artist who has started to attract attention. That's understandable as Christina Cone and Andrew Doherty are not cookie cutter artists churned out by a Tennessee factory. (The group name is in honor of Cone's musician father and grandfather, each born on September 11.) "Wide Awake" opens to electronic looping and gadgetry from Doherty, but cuts to Cone's piano and bird-like vocals. More synth and effects make up the bridge and then Cone lets it rip. "Arizona" is similarly wrapped. Although Cone's vocals might put you in mind of Robyn on this one, the latter never put this much atmosphere in a song. She picks up an electric guitar on "Failure," a song that might put you in mind of something from Nanci Griffith's back pages, though Griffith seldom climbed the scales like Cone does on this one. My only critique of this talented duo is that Ms. Cone is often more impressive than clear, hence it's often hard to know what she's singing. With her voice and presence, you might not care. ★★★ ½  

Johno, The Road Not Taken

Did you ever sketch a plan that was way better on paper than in reality? Such a project is Johno's The Road Not Taken. Johno (John Keating) is a trained jazz musician who plays several instruments and is best known as a composer, arranger, and instrumentalist. The concept of this album is a good one: take poems and soliloquies from Blake, Byron, Frost, Shakespeare, and others and set them to music. Toss in some pop/jazz/world music remakes of hits such as "CountryRoads,"  "HomewardBound," and "The Long and Winding Road." Mix with musicians (and influences) from the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, and Turkey and mess with time signatures. The flaw in the ointment is that Johno is simply not a very good vocalist. Johno tries whispery tones, growls, and techniques that blur the line between singing and spoken word, but there's simply no hiding the fact that he's an uninteresting vocalist. He should have taken the more traveled road and handed the mic to a skilled vocalist.   
-->

4/10/19

Entangled in Plastic at SCMA


Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials
Smith College Museum of Art
Through July 28, 2019

In the 1967 blockbuster The Graduate–certainly among the great classic films– Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) spends his pre-college summer days alienated and adrift. At a tortuous party putatively in Ben's honor, Mr. Maguire a family friend, corners him to impart surefire advice for success: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word. … Plastics." 

That line often throws viewers under the age of 60. Plastics are ubiquitous–so much so that when we imagine a world without them it's a good thing. Plastic is so slow to decompose that it clutters our landfills and fouls the seas and waterways. It is pretty much a death sentence for birds and marine life that consume it, and its very manufacture depends upon toxic chemicals and non-renewable petroleum. In 1967, though, it wasn't nuts to link plastics to the future. Rudimentary forms of the stuff have been around for a long time, but plastics as a commercial product such as you know it is largely a byproduct of World War II. This made mass production plastic less than 20 years old when Ben was given the word. 


We know better now, right? Nope! We are drowning in the stuff and the United States is the world's largest producer of plastic. What do we do with it once we're done with it? One response is to use it to make art. A new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) focuses on plastic as a "material." That alone wouldn't be such a big deal; wearable art shows make liberal use of plastic panels, fasteners, shredded strips, and molded shapes. In that sense, Dianna Cohen's "postconsumer mandala," a brightly colored bag, might at first seem little more than an eye-catching version of the ordinary–until you read the wall panel. The curators of the SCMA show are aware that aesthetics and materials also link to ecology. Cohen's bag also makes a statement about "the worship of profit, power, and the accumulation of things." Its undulating shape is a plastic version of El Anatsui's metallic bottle cap curtains. In each case, we marvel over the artistic vision (and labor) but wonder about the state of civilization in which there is such a proliferation of cast-off material–or garbage, if you prefer.  





Pamela Longobardi wordlessly makes this point. Her 20-foot-long "Economies of Scale" is a small-to-big metaphorical timeline that takes us from a nurdle (plastic pellet) to a large fishing buoy fashioned from plastic. Talk about data visualization! It made me return home to notice how plastic is everywhere in my life, including the keyboard keys upon which I typed these words. The question, as always, is what happens when we're "done" with the plastic. We know that much of it will be landfilled and leach chemicals into the soil and water table, but amnesia is psychologically easier to digest. 

Mark Dion tries to help us remember. He grew up beachcombing along the New Bedford shoreline. There are several of his "cabinets of curiosity" at the SCMA show, His "specimen" jars are filled with plastic objects, some of which look like human organs. Others (pictured) are children's (and sex) toys that make up his "Institute for Inveterate Marine Biology."



Sure, we can make weird art out of the garbage, as Aurora Robeson has done with her "Ona," though you might also want to muse upon the fact that it also means "only child." Indeed, though "Ecosystem of Excess" from Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas isn't as instantly powerful as some of the other pieces, it's wallop comes from forcing us to consider how a world in which the oceans contain more plastics than plankton might alter evolution of marine life. Will the future be one in which organics and plastics meld? That's probably not what Mr. Maguire envisioned.




Rob Weir

4/8/19

You Know What You Could Be: A Scottish Take on the 1960s


You Know What You Could Be: Tuning into the 1960s (2017 UK)
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig
Riverrun Books, 370 pages.
★★★

There are tons of musical biographies in which the artists in question find some way of asserting that they changed musical history. Most of that is rubbish, just ex post facto attempts to obscure the fact that they got lucky and managed to get noticed in a crowded field of contenders. An exception to this was Scotland’s Incredible String Band (ISB).

Who, you say? Exactly! One of the things about the 1960s is that, despite the recording industry, scads of record shops, hip radio stations, and the British Invasion, there were scores of artists who were famous on one side of the Big Pond but not on opposing shores. ISB was one such band, though it did tour North America a few times and played at Woodstock (in an unfavorable slot sandwiched between two hard rock bands). Their records were available in the U.S. but they didn’t chart well. In part this was because they were a bit ahead of the curve; the ISB are considered pioneers of acid folk rock and progressive folk, two labels that didn’t even exist in their day (1966-74). The trio–plus sidemen/women du jour– consisted of Clive Palmer, Robin Williamson, and co-author of our book in question, Mike Heron. Between them they played everything from guitar and fiddle to harp, sitar, banjo, flute, keys, and more. The heart was Robin Williamson, whose innovative playing and songwriting influenced scores of musicians, including Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Do you know ISB singles such as “The Hedgehog Song,” “Everything’s Fine Now,” “The Song Has No Ending,” and “October Song?” Probably not, but if you asked someone who came of age in Britain during the 1960s, you’d get a different response. Many consider “October Song” a path breaking composition.

Distance, luck, and Elektra Records’ lackluster marketing strategy help explain why ISB was known mainly to Yanks like me who bought obscure records on a whim to see what was out there, my lame attempt at obtaining “coolness.” Objectively, Williamson’s voice was the biggest obstacle. How to say it? It was weird! Think as singular and octave-straining as that of Steve Winwood, but more so. I confess that at the time, I didn’t like it and offloaded my ISB album. Wish I had it back. It was only later that I learned to appreciate what Williamson was on about. (I’ll dismiss the lackluster 1999-2006 reunion tour and Williamson's immersion into Scientology.) ISB’s music was dreamy, drifty, and often quite long, the last another reason they didn’t chart well in the USA. Some of it, though, has the vibe of improv explorations of jam bands.

This background is necessary to review You Know What You Could Be. In Britain, reviewers raved over the book’s first 104 pages, which were written by Heron. That’s fanboy stuff, as Heron is no prose stylist. His is more of a series of disconnected riffs and select memories that appeal to ISB junkies. If you’re not, you will probably skim Heron’s pages. Because he assumes everyone knows all about the band, he mainly offers random tidbits about love affairs, Williamson’s genius, the songs Heron wrote, and usual tales of bad boy star misbehavior.  

By contrast, Andrew Greig is a real writer whose poetry, non-fiction works, and novels have won praise and awards. (He’s also my favorite living Scottish author.)  He’s a writer because he failed at his first love: music. Like every Boomer I know who played an instrument, Greig was in a band. Unlike most, though, that group, Fate & ferret [sic], was at least good enough to attract the notice of Elektra’s Joe Boyd, who produced ISB. Greig grew up in a small Fifeshire town and was headed for a conventional career. Then, as they say, the 60s “happened.” Greig’s path took him instead to poetry, Edinburgh, and music. He and his best mate were–you guessed it–obsessed with the String Band. As Greig admits, F & f too closely mimicked their heroes.

In his 263 pages Greig also muses over the ISB and how the band’s music impacted his youth, but it’s really about how the 1960s transformed Scotland and youngsters such as himself. The handprint of dour Presbyterianism remained smudged across the Scottish landscape until the '60s wiped it away. Greig makes us feel the excitement of coming of age at a time in which music, sex, and dreams were first openly discussed, if not necessarily condoned. His description of trying to smuggle a few young women back into their dorm in Glen Coe is hilarious, and we can almost see the stardust in his eyes when he recalls artists with whom he encountered, including Williamson. Mainly, though, his tale is one of a young Scot growing up and, in the process, coming to grips with both his personal and national identity. He does not apologize for his youthful idealism or the indiscretions that went with it, a refreshing honesty that takes the steam out of self-proclaimed moralists who think everyone alive in the '60s should repent. It’s hackneyed to say that Grieg writes like an angel, so let’s skip that and take our collective cap off to the way in which his poetic eye gazes upon the sublime and the mundane and finds grace, beauty, humor, and poignancy in each.

Who says dreams can’t come true? Over the years Greig and Heron have become friends. Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Grieg joined Heron on stage to dust off some ballads, folk chesnuts, and ISB songs?

Rob Weir






4/5/19

Blindspotting: A Thought-Provoking Overlooked Film

Blindspotting (2018)
Directed by Carlos Lopéz Estrada
Lionsgate, 95 minutes, R (language, violence, sexual situations)
★★★★

Blindspotting is a contemporary riff on Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing. Take Lee’s character Mookie, make him a parolee, tamp down the wisecracks, and you’ve got Collin (Daveed Diggs); transform John Turturro’s dumb-as-a-brick Pino into the short-fused black wannabe Miles (Rafael Casal), and you’re on the right track. There’s not a thing wrong with any of this; Lee’s heralded film–though it still dazzles–is in need of an update. Blindspotting would certainly rank high upon my list of should-be-seen overlooked films of 2018.

Director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s film shifts from Harlem to Oakland, the city of which Diggs–who made a splash in the play Hamilton–is a native. Diggs and Casal wrote the screenplay with the goal of correcting stereotypes of the Bay Area. We detect many of the same elements of Lee’s Harlem, especially views of neighborhoods in transition. Oakland was a Black Panther epicenter during the 1960s and, like Harlem, endured a reputation for being dangerous–read white people don’t want to go there–long after the Panthers faded. These days, you need to have inherited property or be wealthy to live in places such as San Francisco, Berkeley, Cupertino, or Palo Alto, which means that Oakland is becoming gentrified by whites of more modest means. Racism, though, remains the constant.

Blindspotting unfolds over the 72 hours before Collin can walk away from his halfway house curfew as a free man. We learn in flashback sequences that his conviction for a brutal beating of a white hipster outside the bar in which he was a bouncer was only partly as it played out in court, but being black in Oakland around white cops has–shall we say– disadvantages. Collin is truly trying to change his life, which isn’t easy around his best friend Miles (Casal). Unlike Pino in Do the Right Thing, Miles has the capacity to be both dumb and dangerous. He adopts black lingo, carries himself with a rapper’s swagger, and has a bad habit of brandishing a gun, the latter a no-no for Collin as it could send him back to prison. Miles isn’t black, but he presents as such; he even has a black girlfriend with whom he has a mixed race son, but he’s definitely a guy Collin should lose. Still, how do you give the bum’s rush to a guy who has been your best friend since childhood and with whom you work everyday? (Collin and Miles work for the same moving company.) And how do you convince your ex-girlfriend, Valerie, that you’re not a thug when you keep such company?

This lead us to the film’s central theme. “Blindspotting” is the mnemonic device that Valerie (Janina Gavankar)–who is studying psychology–uses to remember Rubin’s vase. What do we perceive when we see the image, a lamp base or two opposing faces? Indeed, how do we form our perceptions, and can we trust them? When Collin is rushing to make curfew and observes a running black man gunned down by a white cop, what has he seen? What was the cop’s perception? It is a chilling moment and Estrada uses it to heighten the sense of fear felt by young black men as they navigate their way through what most white folks would call “normal” life. It is also a Rubin’s vase test on how we the viewers see race.

Like Do the Right Thing, the film builds to a flashpoint that tests all the ways of seeing that you might imagine. Thirty years on, Estrada’s budget was just 1/6 of what Lee had available to him. This means Blindspotting sometimes has a handmade look, but in this case the wallet in no way limits the film’s wallop. It is billed as comedy drama, and that may be one of the film’s limitations. There are some funny scenes, mainly vignettes related to Miles’ huckster abilities. Some critics have said that these and Collin’s walking dream sequences blunted the film’s emotional power. I urge you, though, to see this film and to think hard upon the question of what and how we see. In essence, we all have “blind” spots. What is yours?

Rob Weir

-->