Apeirogon a Powerful (but flawed) Book

Apeirogon (2020)
By Colum McCann
HarperCollins, 480 pages.

A few weeks ago, I posted a review of American Dirt that opened with the observation that if you think you can imagine what it’s like to be a Mexican refugee trying to make it into the United States, you probably can’t. Let me draw from the same well in this review of Apeirogon: If you think you’re sure of where you stand on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you’re probably short-sighted.

I admit that I had no idea of what an apeirogon was before I read this book. It is a polygon, but hold onto your brain. It’s a two-dimensional figure “with a countably infinite number of sides.” That’s pretty abstract, but the basic idea is that no matter how many sides you see or draw, more are possible. This is Irish writer Colum McCann’s working assumption for his new “novel.” I put novel in quotes, because Apeirogon could just as easily be called a literary biography or lightly fictionalized history.

At its center are two flesh-and-blood individuals: Rami Elhanan, a 7th generation Israeli Jew, and Bassam Aramin, a native-born Palestinian. They are spearheads of Combatants for Peace, a real organization, and have become such good friends that they address each other as “brother.” Each must deal with the murder of a daughter. Rami’s 13-year-old Smadar perished in downtown Jerusalem when three suicide bombers detonated explosive vests; Bassam lost 10-year-old Abir to a rubber bullet fired by a young Israeli soldier.

McCann gives us looks at both the present and the circuitous route that led them to advocate for a peace currently scorned by a majority of their countrymen. Rami served in the military, fought in Israel’s wars, and has a father in law who was a “hero of Israel” turned peace activist. Bassam was one of the young men who used slingshots to fire stones at Israelis. At the age of 17, he tried to blow up jeeps with what turned out to be ineffective grenades and spent 7 years in prison for terrorism. This raises a potent question: How does one embrace another whose “side” caused your daughter’s death? This takes us back to the heart of the apeirogon metaphor. Why would you presume there are only two sides?

One of McCann’s major points is that both Israel and Palestine are damaged by war and occupation, which renders pointless attempts to measure relative damage. Apeirogon is often a book of parallel unsettling experiences. What does it feel like to leave the home of your best friend or a meeting of Combatants for Peace in neutral monastery and then ride your motorcycle across Palestine at night to your home in Israel? How does a Palestinian keep his cool as he sits at an Israeli checkpoint and knows, that on a good day, he’ll only be detained for a few hours?

Rami, Bassam, and their families are remarkable. Imagine an Israeli who thinks that both the occupation of Palestine and the building of West Bank settlements are illegal. Now conjure a Palestinian who goes to England and Ireland to pursue peace studies and makes the Holocaust the center of his studies. McCann explains these contradictions and coping mechanisms as, “Peace without reconciliation. To forgive but not excuse. To colonize the mind.” What drives both men and their Combatants for Peace allies is the deep belief that the status quo is an unacceptable dead end. Or, as they configure the hatred, “It’s not over until we talk.”

For a book whose title suggests an infinite number of sides, McCann dares suggest there really are but two: eternal war or peace. In this sense, the infinite number of sides references the myriad ways in which the status quo is defended and the indeterminate ways in which both sides of the conflict are damaged by it. This point is crucial. It is easy to take sides. If you are pro-Palestine, you can justify atrocities associated with the Intifada as legitimate actions of the oppressed against a repressive state; if you are pro-Israel, you argue that actions require reaction. Palestinians are terrorists whose provocations must be countered with force. Either view leaves two innocent girls dead.

Apeirogon is a powerful book, though not always a great one. McCann employs several devices; some work, some do not. The book is 480 pages long, but it could have been half as long and equally effective. There is repetition, which could be seen as reinforcement or (my view) simply redundant. McCann is a gifted writer, but I don’t think he trusts his audience to connect the dots. The danger is that the book’s length might discourage readers who most need to adjust their views.

McCann also intersperses sections on birds with the biographical narratives. We grasp early one that birds neither know about nor respect borders. They are “free” in ways that Israelis and Palestinians are not. Got that. Check. The rest of the ornithological detail is superfluous.

Still another device–perhaps inspired by the Qu’ran–is writing short bursts of text that are numbered sequentially. McCann doesn’t follow this (if I might) religiously, but he does reverse course at some point and begin to count down instead of up. It’s not clear why, which makes said exercise appear mechanistic.

Finally, I wonder if McCann grew too enamored with the very idea of the apeirogon. How may “sides” do we need to grasp the notion that they are infinite in number? I began to feel the way I fell about calculating increasing numbers of decimal points when squaring pi. Enough already!

I have read that neither Rami nor Bassam have yet managed to finish the book. Each has praised it, but have found it too “painful” to continue to the end. And isn’t pain the point? After all, “It isn’t over until we talk.”

Rob Weir


Three Classic Movies about Greed

 There are those who treat the COVID virus as a threat and counsel caution to reduce its deadly toll, and those motivated by self-interest that see it an annoyance and would use our lives as chips to wager as they spin the Profits Wheel. That’s my hook for taking a look at three movies in which protagonists seek sudden riches. All three are considered classics.

The Gold Rush (1925)
Directed, written, produced, and starring Charlie Chaplin
United Artists, 95 (or 72) minutes, Unrated

Many have trudged into foreboding places in search of gold. In most cases, those who went to mine the miners—hoteliers, furnishing agents, con artists, gamblers—are the ones who made the money. The Gold Rush, a silent film classic considered one of Charlie Chaplin’s best, took its cues from Canada’s Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99), with a few nods to the infamous Donner Party incident (1846-47) in which snowbound settlers headed for California resorted to eating leather and each other.

Chaplin, one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, plays things for laughs, not history lessons. We open to a scene lifted from Eric Hegg’s famed photos of lines of prospectors making or failing to make their way through the Chilkoot Pass. Then we cut to Chaplin as the Lone Prospector improbably dressed in his threadbare Little Tramp costume.  He negotiates numerous hazards but is starving, freezing, and lost in a raging blizzard.

The Lone Prospector happens upon the cabin of notorious outlaw Black Larsen (Tom Murray). They are soon joined by Big Jim McKay (Mark Swain), who has found gold. Larsen’s attempt to evict both men fails, but they are out of food and Larsen draws the short straw and must go out to find some. The plot is thin, but involves a double cross, near-starvation, and stumbling into a town—likely modeled after Dawson City, Yukon—where Chaplin falls for a dance hall girl named Georgia (Georgia Hale) who, at first, uses the bedraggled and poverty-stricken Lone Prospector as amusement.  Big Jim’s reappearance changes the Lone Prospector’s fortunes (literally!). Toward the end of the film, Chaplin is on a boat with his new business partner and spies Georgia before she sees him. He changes back into his rags to see if she really cares. Happy ending.

The Gold Rush is listed as # 58 on the American Film Institute’s list of Greatest American Films. There are several heralded sequences, including Chaplin’s gourmet preparation of his right shoe, Larsen’s starved hallucination that Chaplin is a giant chicken, and a cabin about to be blown over a cliff. Pathos, revelation, and romance are staples of most Chaplin films. If you want to get technical about things, Georgia and her comely friends probably would have been prostitutes in the actual Klondike Gold Rush, but why go there? If you’ve never seen a silent film, this is a good place to start. The original 1925 film was 95 minutes long. It was re-released in 1942 and trimmed to 72 minutes. Not much was lost in the shorter version.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Brothers, 101 minutes, Unrated

Let’s move up to # 31 on AFI’s top 100 list. The Maltese Falcon has it all: Bogart as tough-guy P.I. Sam Spade, John Huston as director, a script adapted from Dashiell Hammett, a legend, and a beautiful woman (Mary Astor) who has a secret.

In the 16th century, the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order, sent a statue of a jewel-encrusted golden falcon on its way to the King of Spain. Pirates boarded the ship, carried off the falcon, and it was lost to history. In Hammett’s story, several international treasure hunters are following leads that the falcon, now covered in lacquer and painted black, has resurfaced. Spade knows nothing about this when a woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Astor) hires him to find her sister, who has taken up with a reprobate. Spade isn’t convinced by her story, so he dispatches his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to tail Wonderly. Archer is murdered that very night.

Thus begins a tale of ruthless intrigue whose plot thickens from the moment that Ruth “comes clean” and admits her name is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The Maltese Falcon shines because Bogart was born to play a hardboiled character like Spade, because Astor is letter-prefect in her allure and treachery, and because the film is chockfull with other rogues, including Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), who wouldn’t mind sending Spade to the cooler; obsequious and androgynous fortune-seeker Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); and “The Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), who has chased the Maltese falcon across the globe and will use any method—cajolery, blackmail, bargaining, murder—to lay hands on it. Greenstreet almost steals the movie from Bogie.

The film is a classic for many reasons, including its poignant ending. Or should I say endings plural? Many consider Dashiell Hammett the dean of detective novels. There are reasons aplenty for that as well. No cinema education is complete without at least one Maltese Falcon viewing.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Brothers, 126 minutes, Unrated.

Although The Treasure of the Sierra Madre doesn’t enjoy the same fame as The Maltese Falcon, it’s just as good. It won six Oscars—three for John Huston and one for his father Walter—and is also on AFI’s top 100 movies list. This time we get a sort of late Western. The year is (ironically) 1925, and two unemployed drifters, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are footloose in Tampico, Mexico, bumming for meal money. Instead, they are offered jobs as “roughnecks” to build oil rigs for a contracting agent. But the lure of gold and a windfall for gear sends them into the hills to sluice for gold. They do well, thanks to Howard (Walter Huston), an old man who knows the ropes.

There are no secrets in the hills and they are soon joined by a fourth, Cody (Bruce Bennett), and the mountains are crawling with banditos and Federales. What begins as a partnership of three degenerates into four-way suspicion in which the only person on the level is the one no one trusts. Bogart didn’t win a Best Acting Oscar, but perhaps he should have. His is a chilling portrait of a man so poisoned by golden dreams that we watch him degenerate into a toothy simian-like beast.

One of the film’s morals is quit while you’re ahead. You never know when Gold Hat (Antonia Bedoya) and his banditos will come calling, nor do you know how others define “treasure.” Treasure of the Sierra Madre hurtles to a conclusion that is several parts tragedy and one big dollop of comedic hubris. To my mind, its final scene is an incredibly poignant moment that forces us to consider what matters and what doesn’t.

Rob Weir


American Dirt Will Shatter You

American Dirt (2020)
By Jeanine Cummins
Flatiron Books, 400 pages

You think you can imagine what it’s like to live in a place where drug cartels dominate. You probably can’t. Perhaps you’ve read about a single parent who risks life and limb to get a child to safety and think that you’d do that too. You have no idea what that entails. Maybe you believe that illegal immigrants should be the responsibility of the nations from which they flee. You are clueless.

American Dirt is a shattering novel that will open your eyes and break your heart. It opens in Acapulco, where Lydia Quixano is enjoying a backyard quinceañera party for her niece Yénifer. She and her 8-year-old son Luca have just gone inside when they hears menacing voices and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire. She grabs Luca and they silently cower behind a shower wall while one of the gunmen urinates in a toilet several feet away. Only when all noise ends does she dare venture out, though she knows what she will find. Sixteen family members lie in puddles of blood, including her mother and her husband. Lydia knows this was a ritual slaughter by Los Jardineros (The Gardeners) occasioned by an exposé written by her husband/ reporter Sebastién detailing how the cartel took over the entire state of Guerrero. She knows also that she and Luca must flee immediately, though there is no guaranteed sanctuary in all of Mexico.This begins a 2,540-mile flight to el norte.

Call it the new Grapes of Wrath, complete with a few interstitial chapters that give us needed background. We learn that Lydia knows who ordered the hit: cartel head Javier Crespo Fuentes, who was her friend before he was her pursuer. Lydia owns a bookstore in Acapulco where a well-dressed older man dropped in to buy and discuss books. He seemed a lonely intellectual who cared only for his daughter at college. Javier even shared his poetry with Lydia before she learned he was La Lechuza, “The Owl,” who runs Los Jardineros­. (His nickname comes from his heavy black-framed glasses, a detail several nitpicking readers missed.)

This would be the time to say that only desperate people climb aboard moving freight trains or leap from overpasses onto the tops of them. Hitching a ride on La Bestia (The Beast) is just one of many ways one can die on the way to el norte. You can also be killed by cartel spies whose reach extends to the U.S. border, or be turned in to the police or the military by nervous citizens, which amounts to the same thing as scores of them are cartel moles. Fellow travelers can be equally dangerous. Lydia is warned that everyone will be robbed or extorted at least once and that she can expect to be raped. Plus, she needs food, water, and appropriate clothing for herself and her son. Luca is a precocious geography whiz, but he’s still an 8-year-old.

Cummins leavens despair with snapshots of those whose humanity is greater than fear for their own safety: helpful villagers who assist emigres, nurses and doctors, immigrant rights activists, and nuns, priests, and missionaries. And some travelers are kind. Lydia’s journey is long, but she and Luca meet two teenage Guatemalan girls who have traveled even further. Survive the trip to the border with Nogales, Arizona, and you can peer through a fence at America, but you can’t cross without documentation. You need to find a coyote to smuggle you across in places where you have the best chance of avoiding INS officials and MAGA vigilantes on a mission to make sure Mexicans don’t sneak in. Getting to the relative safety of a Tucson-bound van involves several days of hiking though the desert and avoiding all the things that can kill you there, including dehydration, rattlesnakes, flash floods, injuries, and cold nighttime temperatures. Keep up, or be left behind. A dozen will venture forth, but not all will make it.  

Some books are page-turners whose pleasures you wish to unveil. Proceed with caution with American Dirt. It is unrelenting in forcing you into the decision-making shoes of everyone in the book. At times it feels like the lifeboat moral dilemma in which hard decisions must be made as to who lives and who dies. What is the titular American “dirt?” Is it the literal soil? Partly, but a better question is, “Who is American dirt?” A good follow-up is, “Who decides the worth of any individual?”

Perhaps you’ve heard the novel is controversial. Some have accused Cummins of writing in brown face because apparently someone with an Irish-sounding surname can’t write about Latinos. Although Cummins has a Puerto Rican grandmother, she has been charged with both cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Still others have dismissed the book as trivial just because it was one of Oprah Winfrey’s book club selections. All of this is utter nonsense. First of all, a fiction writer is free to draw upon any materials she wishes; second, it is political correctness run amok to insist that no outsider can possibly understand the plight of others. It’s called empathy; look it up. I don’t give a damn if Cummins got a few things wrong. American Dirt is a powerful book that’s aimed at your soul, not your inner documentarian.

Rob Weir       


Melisande: May 2020 Artist of the Month

électrotrad Les Myriades
Borealis Records

Quebec was once dubbed La Belle Province. I reckon that’s for its geographical splendor but if, like me, you find yourself swept up in the raucous joy of Quebeçois music, you have experienced a different kind of beauty. It’s the sort that cracks the bones of the human experience to extract the sweetness from its marrow. Quebeçois music is seldom quiet or constrained; it compels you to move to keep time with clogging feet.

Even the greatest traditional music needs a little jolt now and then to prevent it from becoming stale. The band Mélisande derives its name from lead singer, Mélisande de Grosbois-Garand, but her name translates as honey bee and denotes strength. She and her husband Alexandre (flute, programming), plus band mates Gabriel Ethier (programming), David Boulanger (fiddle, banjo, vocals), and Félix-Antoine Beaudoin (drums) put a muscular electric sting into old songs. In doing so, take traditional music into the 21st century, partly by removing some of its patriarchal elements, but mostly by tossing it into a blender with whatever suits them at the time: heavy bass, electronic looping, break dancing, glam rock voguing, rave-like energy…. Plus, Boulanger’s feet are always in motion and Quebeçois fiddling has so many Scottish and Irish echoes that French-Canadian music is often viewed as Celtic. Mélisande call their approach électrotrad, and it’s an apt handle.

The band’s latest record, Les Myriades is both plugged in and electrifying. “Demain je m’en vas” (“Tomorrow I’m Leaving”) would certainly be at home in a club with soap suds pouring from the balcony and dancers swaying to programmed pulses and beats. They get funky with “Ti-Pétard Allard,” and they use echo effects to update “Le cou de ma bouteille” (“The Neck of My Bottle”) a call-and-response song that has musical segues highly reminiscent of the Scottish band Capercaillie. (Mélisande de Grosbois-Garand often reminds me of Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson in her vocal inflections.)

I loved every track from Les Myriades, but several really grabbed me. One was “Tapetipetep,” which is just fun: drums, feet, jaw harp, wild fiddling, energized programing, and lyrics that would be tongue-twisting in any language. The robotic opening of “Trois beaux canards” (“Three Lovely Ducks”) soaks of the most-performed songs in all of Quebeçois music in electronica that breathes new life into it. They do the same with another old canard (if you will), “Amusons-nous jeunesse.” It’s perfect for a club treatment, as it’s a call to have fun when you’re young because the bloom of youth will not last forever. My youthful ship has sailed, but I like it when artists find new ways to present songs I first heard decades ago.  

As of this writing, it’s hard to find videos for all of the material on Les Myriades, so I have attached the promo, which has snippets of how Mélisande rolls. Also,here’s a small bonus because who can resist a song titled “Le vin est bon?”And here they are rocking Australia.

If you want to see what I mean about the Capercaillie comparison, sample this. (It might be a tad unfair on my part. Capercaillie are Scottish superstars who have been at it for far longer. One of my favorite bands ever!)

Rob Weir


Road Trips to Avoid

A few days ago, I commented on a few Internet sites that declared a bunch of famed tourist sites not worth the bother. I agreed with a few, but not others. Here is my list of overrated places for future travel.

The Tidal Bore in Moncton, New Brunswick is aptly named. All of the Bay of Fundy is overrated. Its massive tide shifts don’t come in or go out in massive sheets of water. Like all tides, the highs and lows are 12 or so hours apart. Moncton takes the trophy for dullness. You stand in a pavilion rain or shine and watch a tidal river slowly turn itself into either a stream or a mudflat. It’s like filling a bathtub with an eye dropper. Plus, New Brunswick is easily Canada’s most boring province.

Verona, Italy is a handsome town if you like architecture, but don’t be suckered into going to see Juliet’s balcony. It’s just a second story stone porch jutting out from a once-grand home. NOTHING happened there. Romeo and Juliet was a play, folks; Shakespeare made it up and set it in Verona. Although the Capulets (Cappelleti actually) and the Montagues were once two powerful families, there is no evidence that Romeo and Juliet were more than figments of the Bard’s imagination.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is among my favorite films, which is why I found myself in Lyme Regis (West Dorset, England) to see where much of the film was made. Dorset is wonderful, but Lyme Regis is the among the most oxy of all oxymorons: an English beach town. The pier (aka/The Cobb) where so many moody film shots were filmed is just a hunk of concrete poking into the ocean for a hundred yards or so. The surrounding coast somehow became a World Heritage area. It’s on the English Channel. No one in their right mind associates anything on the English Channel with going to the beach.

So many people told me that going to Epcot Center was “just like” being in Venice, Paris, Morocco, etc. that I went there. How many ways can I say, “No, it is not?” Epcot is a shopping mall with a faux world’s fair vibe. It also tries to represent the future—and has exhibits from past world’s fairs. Note the the word “past.” It is the future that never was, and recent upgrades are the future that never will be. Epcot costs a whopping $125 to enter. Like all of Orlando, the smartest option is to stay away.

In 1917, the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to three shepherd girls in Fatima, Portugal, and delivered a series of prophecies. It has since become a major pilgrimage site for Catholics. Or maybe I should have said “tourist trap.” Fatima holds the distinction of being the only town in all or Portugal I absolutely hated. Think of the tackiest tourist shop you’ve ever entered. Add plaster statuary and the entire commercial center of Fatima is like that. Mix with churches and cathedrals that cater to the faithful cafeteria-style. Fatima should have a sign that says, “Abandon hope, all ye who get fleeced here.”

Once upon a time Harvard Square and environs were filled with unique shops, bookstores, art cinemas, funky cafes, and ethnic restaurants and food stores. That was then; this is now. Nearly everything that was special has been replaced by chain stores, fast food, and the kind of student hangouts you’d find in any university town. Visit the Harvard museums and then hop on the Red Line to flee Generica.

If there is a more boring city in the USA than Atlanta, please tell me so I can avoid it. The Sweet Auburn section where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised is the sole reason to do more than change planes in Atlanta. Even Sweet Auburn is a place where white Atlanta suburbanites can pretend they care about civil rights while quietly segregating the rest of the city. One of the city’s top tourist attractions is Coca-Cola World, which ought to tell you all you need to know. 

Effigy Mounds National Park near the town of Harpers Ferry, Iowa is a nice place to stroll and gaze upon the broad Mississippi River, but you won’t learn much about the Native Americans who built the mounds some 5,000 years ago. There are about 200 mounds here, some with figures carved into the knolls. Alas, mound remains are little more than green bumps on the landscape and you’d have to be an eagle to see the figures. 

On a tour I got trapped for several days in the Malaga region of Spain’s Costa del Sol. It is a charmless area whose beaches are not particularly clean. I don’t understand why people fly across the Atlantic to have a beach experience they could have anywhere else that has salt water. Apparently others agree, as there are lots of bankrupt condo projects all along the Costa del Sol.

Speaking of interchangeable experiences, many visitors to Scotland head to St. Andrews in the mistaken impression they can play golf in its alleged birthplace. Unless you have a lot of money and reserve a tee time years in advance, you can’t. So you’ll spend your time trying to find something interesting to do. It’s a university town and you can probably wile away a few hours, but catch the next bus to Edinburgh as soon as possible.   

It’s picturesque, but the Washington Monument is really just a giant marble middle finger thrust into the District of Columbia sky. I’ve been to its 555-foot summit several times. The view is okay, but if lines are long—and they usually are--there are much better ways to spend your time in the Capitol City.

Tijuana, Mexico has a reputation for being unsafe. It’s no worse than a lot of American cities and is pretty safe unless you venture off looking for trouble. Really, though, there’s little reason to go there. There are bars where you can observe brainless Americans downing Jell-O shots and slugs of tequila, and places where you can put on a sombrero and pay to have your picture taken with a burro. Aside from some colorful buildings, Tijuana is a city of tacky tourist crap and scads of pharmacies where you can buy cheap medications. Each has a young woman (girl?) in a white lab coat, so you know she’s qualified, yeah? Need I say that you should be leery of the quality of their wares, even if you can buy 10 Viagra pills for $7?

I usually think that most crowded places are thronged for a reason. I might make an exception for Versailles. Louis XIV was a flamboyant king, but unless you like baroque—and I mean really like baroque­—you can give Versailles a miss. I hate the gilded angels, garish wall hangings, coffered ceilings, and decorated everything that characterize the baroque style. It is terribly mobbed, so even if you do like this stuff, you’ll be ushered through pretty fast and in many places you can’t take photos.  

Oakley, KN
Lots of people dream of driving across the United States. The problem is that most routes, especially I-70 or Route 66, take you through places like Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and northern Texas, where even the tumbleweed wants to be somewhere else. I-70 is one of those roads with signs that tell you it’s just 150 miles to the world’s largest prairie dog and by the time you arrive at a crumbling concrete rodent you’re so bored you think it’s kind of cool. Route 66 at least has some historical cachet, though its allure has faded like the TV series that made it famous. Mostly it’s either dull, empty, strip-mall congested, or slow—especially slow. My best advice is to fly over the middle of the country.

Rob Weir


Art Smarts for May 2020

 {Click on images for larger size}
There are days in which I think that art, music, literature, theatre, and film are the only human endeavors that offer hope. Most museums are closed right now, but several recent shows offer things to consider, and the Internet allows us to experience part of what made them special.

Barley Hendricks
Even if you didn’t make it to the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) to see Black Refractions, you can explore the Studio Museum of Harlem (SMH), the lending institution for the SCMA show. The SMH isn’t a large museum. It was only founded in 1968, and it contains just 2,500 objects. To put that in perspective, the SCMA holds more than 10 times as much. But sometimes it’s not big you are, it’s the size of your vision that’s important.

In the early 20th century, Harlem was the single most vibrant cultural oasis in the nation. Brush up on the phenomenon called the Harlem Renaissance if you don’t know what I mean. Alas, the Great Depression, World War II hit, Harlem declined, and postwar racism made black culture an afterthought. The SMH came along at a time in which the civil rights movement rekindled a sense of Black Pride. Fifty years after the SMH opened its doors, we can appreciate the prescient vision of its founders.
Kehinde Wiley
Isaac Julien. Yes this is a sculpture!
Elizabeth Catlett
The SMH spotlights artistic mastery in media ranging from painting and sculpture to fabric arts and video production. All of its holdings come from artists associated with the black diaspora. So, no Van Gogh, but Jacob Lawrence; no Rembrandt, but portraits from Kehinde Wiley. No Judy Chicago, but quilts from Faith Ringgold; no Rodin, but Isaac Julien’s hyper-realistic forms; no Mary Cassatt sentimentality, but the sensuality of Elizabeth Catlett’s mother and child. 

Faith Ringgold
 When we refract art through a black lens, one of the most poignant lessons is that racism impoverishes both victims and their oppressors, the latter of whom deny themselves access to remarkably creative individuals. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois published Souls of Black Folk. His book mattered because of his powerful insistence that people of color had souls at a time in which many whites denied it. Black art matters. It is incontrovertible proof that DuBois was right.

Last summer I visited the Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and saw a show devoted to Warner Brothers cartoons.  This winter I went to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA to see The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons. It wasn’t as extensive or polished as the Eastman House exhibit, but it too reminds us that cartoons are more than just kid stuff.

In an age before CAD, cartoons were the equivalent of Claymation in that even the smallest movement took a lot of work. It entailed drawing numerous cels that overlapped to make drawn figures “move” when the film stock flickered through the projector at 24 frames a second. Some of that was a clever trick. Watch some vintage cartoons and you might notice the art behind the illusion. Often, part of a figure is static; if the cels are done well, your eye follows the movement and you “see” only the movement, not the parts that don’t move. Snobs may turn up their noses, but the magic that went into Warner Brothers cartoons is indeed art.

Warner Brothers ‘toons were not just children’s fare in other ways. Cartoon crews trusted that kids were smart enough to know that dropping an anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s head, handing Elmer Fudd a bomb, or flattening Sylvester the Cat with a steam roller was make-believe. Maybe we have done children an injustice by getting rid of imaginative cartoons that engage the imagination, when we should have worried about the realism of America’s Funniest Home Videos where real danger is hidden behind a laugh track.

Warner Brothers didn’t infantilize. It dared show Bugs Bunny singing opera, made puns worthy of Groucho Marx, and did animated send-ups of contemporary and historical figures. When you didn’t “get” the joke, you learned to ask and the discovery process began. There were also sexual innuendos in the old cartoons. All of the adult stuff meant that many grown-ups were also tuned in and laughing. They decided which things to explain or not.

There’s a reason why Warner Brothers studio personnel are so highly regarded. If you can’t appreciate the artistry, come up with an idea for a 22-minute cartoon. Write a story, draw all the characters, and direct them. Add a soundtrack. You have one week, then you must start anew. Rinse and repeat for 33 years. You can cheat and use your computer.

You can’t go see The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons right now, but you can see some original drawings and cels on Pinterest sites. Better yet, go to YouTube and watch available Warner Brothers ‘toons. If you grew up in the age of saccharine cartoons or none at all, you might find Bugs Bunny to be (if I might) a hare-raising experience!

Wilson Bigaud
Are you up for an art challenge? Ever notice how often food is depicted in art? Yeah, me neither until I saw Embodied Taste at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. It’s billed as “a conversation on food, culture, art, and power,” which is a bit grandiose unless you were enrolled in the classes that supported those concepts. The basic idea, though, is to look at how social issues are embedded in depictions of food in art.

Marion Post Wolcott

 Who plants food? Who harvests it? Who prepares it? How is it distributed it and how is it parceled out? In a very basic sense, these are questions of who works and who eats. The Mead Show used graphics, photos, paintings, and objects to provoke thought. Of course, unless things change dramatically between now and July 26 when the show comes down, only those of us who have already seen it will be able to do so.

So, let me suggest a little treasure hunt in the spirit of the exhibit. Google some images from your favorite artists and look for those that have food in them. Don’t flip through them; pause and muse upon the images. What back stories relating to food, labor, consumption, and social class are inferred? In other words, does your favorite artist have hidden agendas?

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Let me show you what I mean though one of the offerings in the Mead Show: Frans Snyder’s 1640 painting Larder with a Servant. We see a table that’s almost literally a groaning board. A larder usually means a place to store food, but that’s not the case here. There is an obscene amount of food present: fowls, a stag, a boar, crustaceans, fruits…. If you’re wondering why there’s a dead peacock prominently displayed, peacock tongue was a delicacy, but only among the upper crust. Imagine how many birds had to be slain to sate the appetites of well-heeled guests. This painting comes from Belgium’s golden age of the 16th and 17th centuries, when money flowed into Antwerp banks, wine poured into Flemish ports, and merchants thrived in an unbalanced system that engorged their purses, but not those of workers who produced export goods or unloaded booty coming into the country.

Back to the table. For the most part you are looking at perishable goods. It is reasonable to infer that the servant girl’s role is to help ready a feast for a rich family and well-to-do guests. Her dress suggests she is a maid, not kitchen staff. She will probably take this food from the table to the kitchen and clean the room once the table is bare. Perhaps she’ll help serve it, a role in which she is expected to be efficient and anonymous. It’s unlikely she will taste more than the leavings of the feast. Depending upon her master, she might have to share even that with the hungry dog in the foreground.

Not all food in art is this politically charged. Some of it is a painted version of the cellphone “food porn” that we gleefully post on social media sites. Scores of other lessons emerge, so give it a whirl. Investigate the artist, the time period, and the place depicted. I’d love it if you shared what you find.

Rob Weir     



Wild Nights with Emily a Disservice to LGBTQ Rights

Wild Nights with Emily (2018; DVD 2020)
Directed by Madeline Olnek
Greenwood Entertainment, 84 minutes, PG-13 (implied sexuality)
½ star

I will not mince words. Wild Nights with Emily is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that it’s boring, though it is, or idiotic (ditto), it trivializes what might be an overlooked aspect of poet Emily Dickinson’s life. Scholars discovered altered letters that contradict the traditional view that Dickinson was a sociophobic recluse who died unloved. Actually, she may have had a deep love: Susan Gilbert, later the wife of Dickinson’s brother Austin. Evidence remains open to interpretation, but it’s probable that Emily Dickinson was a lesbian. She might also have had a brief affair with Kate Scott Turner.

Alas, director Madeline Olnek was unsuccessful in bringing to the screen this important revelation about Dickinson. We do hear Dickinson’s voice in letters and poems clearly aimed at her dear “Sue,” but any sort of nuance escapes Ms. Olnek. I suppose that is to expected from a director who gave us such deathless classics as Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seek Same. (Yes, that’s a real movie title.)

In the film, Susan Gilbert (Sasha Forova/Susan Ziegler) marries Austin Dickinson (Kevin Seal) in part so she could be near Emily (Dana Melanie/Molly Shannon). Austin did his expected duty of producing a few family heirs, then leaves Susan to her devices and immersed himself in an affair with (the married) Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), who became the editor of Dickinson’s poems after her death. Sue, in turn, beds Emily and helps her try to get her poems published. Todd never actually met Dickinson, but scholars suspect that it was she who altered some of Dickinson’s original words to make them more acceptable for mass market consumption and, not coincidentally advance her own reputation as a Dickinson expert.

You will notice that I have made qualified remarks about Emily, Sue, and Mabel. Olnek takes an Emily/Sue erotic relationship as a given. I have no issue with that; film directors often take liberties with biographical details. I do, however, take umbrage with Olnek’s attempt to make, in her words, a “dramatic comedy” that mixes humor and seriousness in seemingly random ways. The problem is simple: Wild Nights with Emily is neither funny nor convincing when it seeks to be informative. We see Sue and Emily steal a kiss in an upstairs bedroom, then grope each other, and tumble behind a bed like two teenagers in the backseat of a Fiat. Which was this, I wonder, the serious or the humorous part? I’d say the latter, but the comedy is so broad that it would take a TV laugh track to queue viewers.

Shannon portrays adult Emily as a cenerous worricrow. It’s as if she’s has stolen Rachel Dratch’s character of Debbie Downer, dressed her in crinoline, and given her a girlfriend. Ziegler is better as Susan Gilbert Dickinson, but she too falls prey to an insipid script that has her dispatching her children ‘round the clock to deliver mash notes to Emily. The only redeeming quality is that both Shannon and Ziegler are way better than Melanie and Frolova, who are so wooden as young Emily and Susan that one could get splinters from watching them. It might be not their fault; Olnek is fishing for laughs in scenes such as their rehearsal for a Shakespeare play, but comes away with an empty creel.

Empty pretty much describes most of the film. The scene involving a doddering Judge Lords mangling the title and details of Wuthering Heights is pretty funny, but I wish Austin’s wig had flown off–as it seemed on the verge of doing in numerous segments–as that would have been much funnier than flat insider jokes about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Lyman, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The real crunch comes in the last quarter of the film, when Olnek abruptly changes tone. Most successful dramatic comedies mix those elements throughout, but Olnek gives us two separate films that do not mesh. That is, after painting with (allegedly comic) broad strokes, she shifts to a didactic look at Dickinson’s altered letters and poems. She somehow got permission to film the actual documents and I can only conclude that no one from the Emily Dickinson House laid eyes on either Olnek’s theatre production that preceded the film or her screenplay.

Wild Nights with Emily is simply a bad movie. Though it’s a mere 84 minutes, it feels as long as Lawrence of Arabia. Even worse, it doesn’t even work as camp. If this one is on your Netflix queue, delete it.

Rob Weir