12/7/16

William Merritt Chase at the MFA and Other Exhibits


William Merritt Chase
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Through January 16, 2017

The Young Orphan
William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) is a hard painter to pigeonhole. He's often listed as an American Impressionist, but the painters he most resembles in style (and often, content) are James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. In his protraiture,  Chase unabashedly borrowed poses from Old Masters such as Hals, Velásquez, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Rubens. An exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts displays 80 of Chase's works and when you leave, you've no better idea how to label him than before you entered. Chase frustrates art scholars seeking consistency or a signature style, though his versatility might ultimately be his chief virtue. Or is it his command of color and mood?

Hide and Seek
One can't help but think of Whistler when gazing at The Young Orphan (1884), except Chase poses his languid figure in a blood red chair set against an orange-red wall instead of bathing her in shadows. He saves the dark shadows for works such as Hide and Seek (1888), a work highly reminiscent of Sargent, albeit imbued the sort of innocent sweetness that skirts the boundaries of sentimentality. His portraits make one wonder why he's considered an Impressionist—a work such his portrait of Lydia Field Emmet is more Old Master in style.

Lydia Field Emmet
The Emmet canvas departs from European Impressionists in other ways as well. Unlike them, Chase was never a struggling artist. Like Sargent (1856-1925), he came  from a middle-class background and supped at bourgeois tables. He was famed in his lifetime, sold numerous canvases for handsome prices, and had an equally lucrative teaching career. He was the founder of the Chase—now Parsons–School of for Design. Among his students: Georgia O'Keefe, Edward Hopper, and the aforementioned Ms. Emmet. He did, however, paint en plein air and some of his waterscapes are evocative of Impressionists such as Gustav Loiseau or Alfred Sisley. One of his more outstanding Impressionist ventures, in my view, is "Wash Day," an everyday subject in which Chase captures the chaotic/serene dual nature of the ordinary.


Therein lies a tale; Chase was all over the artistic map. He created in oils, watercolor, and pastels and his subject matter included the haute bourgeoisie and plebeians, formal portraits and casual seascapes, the banal and the enigmatic, landscapes and still life. His tastes were catholic, but he never feared repetition. Of his dabbling in still life, he once joked that he would be remembered as a "painter of fish" for the number of plattered piscatorial delights he depicted. Chase was said to possess a big ego but I enjoyed his flourishes of self-deprecating humor. Unlike many of contemporaries who painted their studios as if they were advertising cards with works in sharp display in the background, Chase puckishly shows his own work as doodles and mess. 


Wash Day

Chase reminds you of a lot of other artists; add Manet and Monet to those already mentioned. I understand the raps against him, but I left the MFA more enamored of him. I can't say I liked everything on the wall, but his eclecticism made it easy to while away an hour and leave the gallery satisfied.

Rob Weir

Other MFA Notes;

"Satisfied" is not an adjective I'd use to describe my experience in the MFA's exhibit "Uh-Oh: Frances Stark 1991-2015." Stark (born 1967) is a contemporary writer/artist whose work left me cold and bored. Maybe it was how the art was displayed—the venerable MFA simply doesn't 'get' contemporary art and I wish it would stop trying–but Stark's work also falls into a category I find dull: compositions that mix shapes, words, and symbols. Much of what was on display was loaded with words that I suppose blur the lines between assemblage and poetry. Sorry, but if I want to read poetry I'm not going to strain my neck to read 10-point type on a museum wall. Other works struck me as seeking provocation as a junior high school boy might do by dropping F-bombs. Stark has been described as the "visual poet laureate of the Internet age." I don't know enough of her work to evaluate that, but the MFA exhibit did not make me wish to linger long enough to form any opinion other than, "I'm done here."

Far more successful is a small photography exhibit featuring Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), with heavy emphasis on her botanical subjects. Cunningham captured in black and white the sort of sensuality that Georgia O'Keefe captured on canvas. There are also several fine portraits, including one of Martha Graham off stage and in street clothing–something one seldom sees. There is also the wickedly funny 1974 shot Imogen and Twinka that was snapped by one of her assistants. Great stuff!   

The MFA's recent Frida Kahlo purchase, Dos Mujeres, has been cleaned and restored and is the centerpiece of a poorly named exhibit titled "Kahlo and Her Circle." The small exhibit is sublime, as is the Kahlo, but it's a bit of museum switch-and-bait as it's the only Kahlo in the gallery and should have more properly been named "Diego Rivera and His Circle," as his is the work most prominently on display. I'd be the first to say that Kahlo deserves more attention and Rivera less, but where is the line between being politically correct and false advertising?

If you've not already, see the small display that pairs Picasso and Jackson Pollock. It's just over a handful of paintings that, in their unique ways, show how Modernism shattered the way we perceive subject, line, color, and texture. And make sure to watch the small video in which side by side films show each creating a work on glass, which we view from the underside. Call it Picasso the effortless genius versus Pollock the cyclonic soul.

12/5/16

Fantastic Beasts a Movie with Little Magic

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)
Directed by David Yates
Warner Brothers, 133 minutes, PG-13 (loud action, violent situations)
* *

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a quasi-prequel to J. K. Rowling's acclaimed Harry Potter series. First, a confession: I am not a devotee of the Potter Universe; in fact, I pretty much gave up after the first book and movie. For me, it was no Lord of the Rings and I tagged it a 'tween fantasy not intended for my eyes or mind. My wife, Emily, on the other hand, was totally hooked. She convinced me to go see Fantastic Beasts, which I found to be much ado about very little. But my critique is more than a Muggle's muddle; neither of us liked the film.

Those who thrilled to every word of Harry Potter will delight in pre-Potter references. The film is set in 1926, but Hogwarts Academy, you will recall, is ancient. Magic wands abound, as does Muggle fear of magicians–so much so, in fact, that the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) maintains a strict code of secrecy between its members and the No-Maj (Muggle) world. The veil is rent by a series of wanton destructive acts in New York City, including the murder of New York Senator Henry Shaw, Jr. MACUSA suspects these acts to have been the work of Gelbert Grindelwald, a name Potterians will recognize as a legendary dark wizard. MACUSA also has its Aurors at work tracking down dark wizards of all sorts. Public displays of magic are pretty much forbidden.

Enter Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a member of the British Ministry of Magic and a magizooligist, who just happens to arrive by steamship to see New York City before proceeding to Arizona to set free a magic beast. He will, of course, be in the middle of the ensuing mayhem. He's also the source of our first glaring logical inconsistency. Newt arrives carrying a well-worn leather case that is stuffed with magical beasties. When a platypus-like gold-hoarding Niffler escapes, his playful thievery is just another crack in the MACUSA cone of silence–and makes Newt a suspect. Why would Newt be carrying his entire menagerie? Insofar as I can determine, this rather curious logic error occurs so Ms. Rowling can give us a visual Bestiary of the Magical World. It is an  encyclopedic display that takes us from Ashwinders to Thunderbird by way of Billywigs, Erumpents, Graphorns, and Murtlaps. The film introduces us to Bowtruckles, stick-like tree guardians that are like Jiminy Cricket without a face. If you're already lost, avoid this movie.

The narrative arc of this film is more like a series of ruined bridges. Subplots–such as the rampage of a randy Erumpent– are often thrown in mostly for comedic wonderment and are often incidental to the story. There are so many similar departures that I can't imagine a child will be able to follow much of the story. Or, maybe there just isn't much of one. As it so happens, a powerful Obscura (Say what?) is loose in the city and Newt will be drawn into the chase, along with a demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a No-Maj cannery worker/baker wannabe Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and Tina's bombshell flirt of a sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who also happens to be a Legilimen, something like an empath, I gather. Now are you lost? If not, there's also the fanatical New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group of No-Maj extremists headed Mary Lou Barebones (Samantha Morton), who is also the proverbial wicked stepmother to three adopted children: Modesty, Chastity, and Credence (Ezra Miller), the latter a sad sack in whom Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) has taken avuncular interest. Now sit back and watch things go awry and blow up. The film is exceedingly loud and the action mirrors the chaos of the script.

It's pretty well acted, though I found Redmayne essentially re-channeling the same awkward shy/fay qualities he exhibited in The Danish Girl, and many of his soft-spoken mumbles were lost on my impaired ears. Waterston and Fogler steal the screen from him, as Sudol would also have done had her part been less fluffy. There are also juicy cameo roles for actors such as Johnny Depp, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, and Jon Voight. In the end, though, this is pretty much a standard action film with magic wands instead of big guns. It's little more than the latest Big Budget Pic in which all of the money was spent on splashy thrill-a-minute f/x and the script reads like an extra credit project from a first-year college writing class. And this isn't just the judgment of a Muggle. Emily's verdict: "There was nothing magical about it."

Rob Weir


12/2/16

Loving: A (too tiny?) Portrait of a Marriage

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LOVING  (2016)
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Focus features, 123 minutes, PG-13
* * *

Loving is a hard movie to review. On one hand, it focuses on the couple at the center of one of the most important legal decisions in American history: the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned anti-miscegenation laws and paved the way for marriage freedom for all, including same-sex unions. On the other hand, the film's protagonists are so ordinary that it's hard to connect them to the legal precedent that bears their name. Director Jeff Nichols has the problem of trying to make an audience care about a couple with all the charisma of the backcountry Virginia dirt from whence they sprang. He doesn't entirely succeed.  

For those unfamiliar with the case, Richard Loving (1933-75) and Mildred Jeter (1939-2008) grew up in hardscrabble Caroline County, Virginia. Although he was white and Mildred was mixed race (Indian, black, white), they came of age in a part of Virginia where poor whites such as the Lovings interacted easily with people of color–a place where a shared rural values and lack of economic opportunity often trumped race. Richard and Mildred were childhood sweethearts even before they journeyed to the District of Columba to marry on June 12, 1958. Mildred was, by then, heavily pregnant with their first child. Had they stayed in Washington, you'd have never heard of them. Instead, they returned to Virginia. In the middle of the night, the police broke into their bedroom and arrested them for violating Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act. When Richard pointed to their framed marriage certificate, he was told, "That's no good here." The Lovings were jailed, pleaded guilty to violating the law, and were banished from the state for 25 years with the understanding they'd be imprisoned if they were caught cohabiting or being together within Virginia's borders. The film follows their exile to Washington, where they had two more children; their attempts to live undetected in Virginia; and the circumstances that ultimately landed their case before the SCOTUS.

The viewer's dilemma is obvious from the start: the Lovings—aside from their racial difference–practically define the term "ordinary." They were rudimentarily educated, soft-spoken, and unremarkable people–he a bricklayer and she a homemaker. Their slice of Virginia was one where folks worked on and raced cars, drank in roadhouse bars, and picked tobacco. Director Nichols captures the vibe of a 1950s world in which few people challenged authority, hence we watch Richard seethe at their arrest, but not question it. Not that doing so was in character; his manner was as slow as that of the countryside. Appreciating this film requires that you surrender to its languid pace. Indeed, one of the more powerful points the film makes is that the Lovings were so unexceptional that one wonders why Virginia would want to bother two such harmless individuals. The pacing, though, is also the film's major problem. Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a man of so few words that the film is nearly silent when he's on camera. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is a step up on the laconic scale, but it's a very small skyward stride. We quickly get the idea that the prosecutors are morally challenged. Folks such as the Lovings can only be viewed as threats when privacy rights take a backseat to artificially constructed (and bigoted) views of purity and propriety. That's an important lesson, but it still leaves us with passive protagonists who come off as victims lacking agency.

I can understand why Nichols wouldn't want to make another courtroom saga, but the focus on the Lovings as a couple lacks the dramatic sparks of said filmed legal battles. Nichols pushes the court case so far into the background that the most compelling part of it is the Lovings' inability to comprehend the legal system. It doesn't help that Nichols reduces the ACLU's role to something more akin to a cartoon than as a champion of civil rights. Left on the table are options that might have been more interesting on the screen. Why, we wonder, was there so little overt racism in Caroline County when other parts of the South are aflame? Is that accurate, or was intolerance there simply a can of worms Nichols didn't wish to open? We don't even know how Richard perceived race. There is a short scene in which he appears to have never given it much thought, but it's hard to imagine that even a man as unreflective as he could reduce race to a simple, "I love my wife" statement. There's also a matter of the biggest liberty taken in the film, the decision to distill the tension to black and white terms. Although biographical details of Mildred remain scant, she emphasized her Rappahannock and Cherokee roots and indentified as Native American, not black. That didn't matter under Virginia law, but tinkering with Mildred's self-identification seems more a nod to contemporary sociology than to historical accuracy–to say nothing of being reductionist and robbing the film of an opportunity to discuss the central fictiveness of race.

In my view, the best way to enjoy this film is to lower your expectations and think of it more as quiet portrait of injustice rather than a drama. Remember that the Lovings were legally married for nearly a decade and still underwent travails. If the film makes you think more deeply about identity, privacy, fairness, and tolerance, it will have been two hours well spent. Just don't expect to lose your socks over visuals or dynamic performances. That's no rap on Edgerton or Negga. Not even actors as fine as they can make a Fiat 500 roar like a Ferrari.

Rob Weir

11/30/16

The Girl on the Train Derails as Movie

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016)
Directed by Tate Taylor
Universal, 112 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, sexual content)
* *

The Girl on the Train is a pedestrian adaptation of a very good book. In fact, were it not for strong performances from the cast, this film would have been an early Thanksgiving turkey.

Paula Hawkins’ novel was a best-seller because of its often deft handling of the mind of an alcoholic and abused woman. It’s hard, though not impossible, to make convincing films about tortured souls. Alas, director Tate Taylor isn’t up to the task. He has taken a book that relied on psychology and turned it into a cheap stalker film. The Girl on the Train centers on Rachel (Emily Blunt), a pathetic divorcee who drowned her inability to conceive and her failing marriage in bottles of cheap gin even before her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) dumped her. She’s a world-class drunk—the sort who experiences blackouts, acute memory loss, and vivid fantasies that she can’t distinguish from reality. Were it not for the kindness of an over-indulgent friend, Cathy (Laura Prepon), she’d probably be homeless as well. Unbeknown to Cathy, Rachel has also been jobless for over a year; she uses her alimony to pay rent and disappears from New York City each morning to commute to “work.” In truth, she just rides a Metro North train and sips gin through a water bottle, her route taking her through Ardsley-on-Hudson where she and Tom used to live, and where his Yuppie lifestyle continues with a new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their newborn daughter, Evie. Rachel spies on them from afar and sometimes from close up; she once showed up at the house and took Evie for an unauthorized walk into the yard. In her drunken stupors, Rachel also repeatedly observes another couple and imagines them as her romantic ideal—until one day she sees the woman we’ll later know as Megan (Haley Bennett) snogging with another man (Edgar Ramirez) instead of her husband, Scott (Luke Evans).

Rachel has become as dependent upon fantasy as on booze and takes the perceived betrayal personally. When Megan’s body is discovered in the woods, Rachel insinuates herself with Scott and interjects herself into the murder investigation—an unwise move as she’s also a prime suspect as a stalker, alcoholic, and liar who pretended to have known Megan. In fact, NYPD Detective Sgt. Riley (Allison Janney) is pretty sure that Rachel is the killer and maybe she is—Rachel’s memory has more holes than a fishnet factory. To comment further would require a spoiler alert, so I’ll just say that the last half of the film involves solving the murder mystery.

There are so many themes that could have been plucked from Hawkins’ novel, including planted memory, abuse syndrome, the alcoholic mind, therapist/client boundaries, and living vicariously. Alas, what this film best demonstrates is that Tate Taylor is an unimaginative and heavy-handed director. He is best known from messing up another wonderful book, The Help, which he bathed in saccharine sweetness that removed all of the bitterness that made the novel poignant. This time he has done the opposite—he gives us paste-up characters that have no personality. They are “types,” not convincing individuals, and about the only thing we can say is that most of them are thoroughly unlikable.

The changes made to Ms. Hawkins’ novel are cosmetic. The book was set in London, not New York, and the decision to Americanize the action makes zero sense. First of all, Blunt is English, Evans is Welsh, Ferguson is a Scot/Swede, and Ramirez is a Venezuelan playing an Arab. I suppose one could make the case that New York is so cosmopolitan that it doesn’t matter, but here’s what does: Taylor is apparently so ignorant of police procedure that he doesn’t know that a detective in New York City wouldn’t be involved in a suburban murder case 28 miles north of the city. (An urban detective works for London because Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction reaches to the ‘burbs, but that’s not the case in the United States.) This is emblematic of the corner-cutting Taylor takes elsewhere. The central actors are very good, but this train derailed before it left Grand Central. 

Rob Weir    


11/28/16

Peia Thunders with Beauty on Album of the Month

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PEIA
Beauty Thunders
Peia Song Music
★★★★★

If you put Enya, Loreena McKennitt, a diva from the Met, birds, and theatrical Japanese folk opera into a blender and set it to “puree,” you might end up with somebody like Peia Luzzi. Think I’m kidding? Check out “Beauty Thunders” and you’ll hear what I mean. It’s one of several of what I call “earth songs” on her album. Before it concludes Peia’s vocal emulates those of recorded fowls and it flits among Shai Siriki’s driving oud notes. The composition is, depending on your point of view, either jaw-dropping amazing or just plain weird. I'm going with the first interpretation, but whichever side you come down on, you’ll be forced to conclude that hers in a truly remarkable voice. Believe it or not, this is just the tip of the musical ice berg. She kicks off the album with “Szerelem,” a traditional Hungarian lament before she becomes a Japanese bird. She follows that flight with a Scots Gaelic song rendered Clannad-like and then segues to the Celtic mysticism of “Dance in a Storm,” an original, but one that sounds like it was plucked from Ms. McKennitt’s repertoire—complete with climb-the-scale crescendos, dreamy ambience, and world music instrumentation featuring Mike Wofchuck’s ban-the-can percussion. In fact, it feels a lot like McKennitt’s “Lady of Chalot” in style and spirit. The next three tracks come from, in order, Peru, the Basques, and Ireland, and the final two tracks are another that feels Japanese and “We Shall Rise Again,” a quiet, prayerful reflection on the earth, people, and renewal.

So who is this Peia Luzzi who squats in the dark shadows of her sepia-drenched CD cover, a pile of stones meditatively stacked on her right and an enigmatic feathered staff planted to her left? A Celtic chanteuse? A European world music devotee probing ancient rituals? A vagabond Druid wannabe? Nope, nope, and nope. She’s a Nutmeger (from Connecticut) and a Berklee School of Music grad, though I’d wager she is indeed interested in mysticism and ritual. But before you toss her into some catchall category like New Age, listen to her voice. It rings clear and strong, and is ornamented with wondrous and beautiful things: small catches, breathtaking elides, and a range as big as the Andes. Even if you find her themes too abstruse for your taste, you are forced to acknowledge that you are in the presence of an enormous talent. In candor, not all of what Peia does works for me, but November’s album of the month is a place where originality, moxie, and beauty found a muse who is herself a force of nature. 

Rob Weir     

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11/25/16

A Progressive’s Guide to Christmas


Thanksgiving Day used to be a holiday, not just another day at the mall. I’ll add that to my list of things for
which I’m not grateful. The holiday season is when one is supposed to feel cheerful, charitable, and optimistic. Bugger that! I’m ready for a mass burning of Obama “Hope” posters and I’m in full Blue State Revenge mode. Progressives need to spend their holiday time and money as if politics matter. Each year I post on ways people can opt out of a crass capitalist Christmas, but this year I want to expand my reach.

Here’s a looming national fact:  Solid blue states are way more prosperous than the scarlet red ones. Let’s keep it that way. Here are some ideas.

Have a Blue (State) Christmas

Stop economically greasing reactionaries. “Buy Local” has become a cliché, but it remains a great idea. Do it. That doesn’t mean shopping at a Walmart near you. Buy fewer things and pay a bit more for them by purchasing them from independent merchants. If you must buy from a big store—or if you’re not lucky enough to live in a place that still has a downtown—buy from a corporation with higher ethical standards. Target makes that list; Walmart doesn’t. Check to see where the corporate headquarters is located for all products under consideration. Dell is cited as an ethical company, but its HQ is in regressive Texas, so let those laptops gather dust on the shelves.

You can Google—an ethical company located in blue California—a list of ethical companies. Levis have fallen off the list, but Oshkosh is on it. So is H & M, toymaker Hasbro, and cosmetics purveyor L’Oreal. That’s a good start. You can buy developing world handicrafts from Ten Thousand Villages. Amazon is not ethical, so buy your stuff directly from the manufacturers if you must shop online. Don’t get lazy and click on Amazon because it’s convenient.

The best way to make sure your money stays blue is to buy from local artists, crafters, musicians, and restaurateurs: original art, unique handmade items, CDs (or vinyl) instead of downloads, and gift coupons.

Music that Matters:

Folks think about music during the holidays, whether it’s to purchase it as a gift, or to enjoy as a pastime. If you’d rather have giant corks surgically implanted in your cochlea than hear a single bar of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Little Town of Bethlehem,” there are alternatives. See if you can locate Nowell Sing We Clear recordings to enjoy old English carols you’ve seldom heard. Maddy Prior has similar projects. There’s a brand new release from the incomparable Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem [sic] titled Wintersong that’s holiday music with an old-timey/bluegrass flair. Generally, albums promoting themselves as midwinter offerings are less generic and offer either self-penned or rarely heard offerings.

As for gift-giving and concert-going, once again check out the politics of the performer and the location of their label. I’m swearing off Nashville and Austin music until Texas and Tennessee join the modern world, though I’ll make exceptions for known progressives like Emmylou, Patty Griffin, Sheryl Crow, and Brandy Clark. A Google search usually unveils a performer’s politics. Alas, you can generally assume any white country male not named Willie, Garth, Steve (Earle), or Tim (McGraw) is a jerk, as are nearly all metal bands.

Travel in Blue Circles:

I have relatives in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and dear friends in Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Sorry, but I will not be coming to visit. I’m not going to spend my cash in your states. I know it’s not your fault, but I’m not going to empurple your red state treasury with my blue dollars.

Progressives have to start thinking like this. Need a warm winter beach? Don’t go to Florida. Either spring for a trip to Hawaii, or jet off to a Caribbean island (preferably not a U.S. possession). If the plane lands in Atlanta for an equipment change, don’t buy anything at the airport as you wait. Does your firm want to send you to a conference in Orlando or Charleston? Beg off. It’s worth having a discussion about whether conference states are consistent with your firm’s ethical standards. Many companies already eschew North Carolina, for instance, because of its discriminatory practices toward transgender people.

Apply the same standards when traveling abroad: yes to Scotland and Ireland, but no to xenophobic England. No to India until it adopts environmental standards higher than those found in a sulfuric acid pit; and no to Muslim nations whose views of women are straight out of the 10th century.

Root for the Home Team (unless it’s staffed with Good Old Boys):

What are the holidays without wall-to-wall sports? A lot of friends tell me that sports and politics can be separated. Bullshit! Tell that to Colin Kaepernick. No, you don’t get a free pass because a horse’s patootie is wearing a blue state jersey. If you root for Tom Brady or turn the other cheek for Curt Schilling, you’re metaphorically sleeping with the enemy. If you are outraged by Kaepernick but sing the praises of Bill Belicheck, your morals are shaky. Ditto if you applaud Harvard’s suspension of its men’s soccer program but think it’s fine that Penn State still has a football program. Another blogger suggested that progressives should be on the safe side and follow hockey because it’s dominated by Canadians and Europeans. Not a bad idea.  

Be a Values Celebrator:

It boils down to what you say versus what you do. Do you care about working people? Don’t shop on Thanksgiving. Are your politics something you treasure, or do you just talk about them? If they matter, celebrate by not cheapening them in the name of expediency.



11/23/16

Melancholy in Words and Images

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Melancholy: noun: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.


Sure—that's the way your online dictionary defines melancholy, but this time of the year most of us know the cause. The shadows deepen, the last gold leaves burnish to brown and tumble, the days shorten, and the air grows cooler. As they say on Game of Thrones, "winter is coming."
I suspect that those of us who live in places where the seasons turn feel the pensive sadness a bit more profoundly than folks where the changes are less dramatic. It is said that there are four seasons north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but it's more like six. Walk through the calendar and January through March are winter, April is the season of unlocking, May and June are spring, July through mid September are summer, then it turns to autumn and runs through most of October. Then there's a weird interval that arrives just before Halloween and lasts until winter returns in December. Someone wiser than I dubbed that 'tweener season "locking" and it's the one that most induces deep thoughts and melancholy. You know what lies on the other side of locking, but you seldom know exactly when the lock will snap shut. Call it melancholy mixed with angst. 

In my view, the melancholic essence of locking occurs in shore towns. It's oddly appropriate that residents of oceanside towns tend to be very creative when decorating for Halloween. All those ghosts and ghouls are emblematic of the haunted ambience of places where boisterous streets become the silence of the sepulcher in the wink of an eye. 


The photos in this article come from Cape May, New Jersey– a lovely place, but a melancholic one by November 1. One goes there in locking season to be pensive, not to party. The old line about rolling up the sidewalks is metaphorically true. Mini-golf courses pack their windmills and concrete dinosaurs in bubble wrap and put them in storage; the few hulking hotels still accepting visitors seem especially cadaverous with their darkened exteriors punctuated by a few dimly illuminated third floor rooms. The occupied rooms appear so separated from other life that one imagines sad loners sitting in front the TV blue light in striped boxers and socks held up by garters. There is nobody on the beach and only the occasional jogger on the Promenade. The sunset is framed by skeletal structures than once held the billowing canvas of cabanas; cotton candy kiosks and pizza ovens are shut away in storage sheds. Mercifully, so too are the karaoke machines. The bars are silent, more trash than cars shuffles down the main drag, and if you can find an open eatery, maybe three tables are occupied and everyone seems to be talking in a whisper.

Locking season at a beach town is one of the few places where daybreak comes with a louder soundtrack than the nighttime. Except the sounds you hear are more locking activities: plywood being nailed to arcade fronts, wood being scrapped for painting, and loose shingles being stripped from roofs. You know it's quiet when your Prius is the nosiest thing on the road. I like it that way, but it's both peaceful and a tad unsettling. A driver can almost welcome the Garden State Parkway. At least it's an affirmation that one hasn't slept through the Apocalypse. 



Yeah—locking season is like that. Time to relax a bit, but also a time to muse and brood before getting down to the serious task of making it through winter. Still, it's a thoughtful sadness, not a soul-crushing depression—the sort that seems to brighten the first time the snowshoes get strapped on, and further lightens when the seed catalogues arrive in the mail. The attached photos are my attempt to capture in images what it feels like when Nature begins to lock down.

Rob Weir