1/18/17

Sleeping at Last: Music fto Ease Your Soul and Help Humankind

SLEEPING AT LAST
The Spring
SleepingatLast.com
★★★★★

Forget the five-star rating for a moment. Every now and then something comes along that restores your faith in humankind. This is one of those projects. Before you listen to this music, go to YouTube and spend 20 minutes watching the video that explains what inspired it. Take a box of Kleenex, as you will witness things magical, soul stirring, and heart breaking. The first notes you hear will sound like a gentle rain. They come from "Atlantic," the opening track of The Spring and the track snippets are interspersed throughout. Watch and then read my review.


Feeling better? Sad? Inspired? You'd better be feeling something, friend, or you've lost your humanity. Let's talk about the "band" and then the music from The Spring. First, Sleeping at Last isn't really a band per se. It started as a three-piece post-punk band in Wheaton, Illinois back in 1999, but these days it's the handle for solo projects launched by Ryan O'Neal (no–not the actor). Some of you may have heard their music in the background of episodes of Grey's Anatomy. When the original trio broke up, O'Neal moved more deeply toward a style of music sometimes labeled "emo." That's short for emotional and it is used to describe a very expressive and lush music–"emotional hardcore" according to some definitions. In other words, it's aimed at getting you in touch with your feelings, not your feet. Some would call it "New Age," but even a casual listen to The Spring reveals that Sleeping at Last doesn't quite fit that bill–New Age is often more overtly spiritual, tends to rely more on electronic sounds, is meditative in quality, and is rooted more in jazz; emo is a subgenre of alt.rock, prefers live (not remixed) instrumentation, has stronger melody lines, and is less interested in making you feel relaxed. There's no denying the lullaby-like qualities of Sleeping at Last, but there's also (if I might) an emotionally unsettling quality about many of the tunes.

I adore O'Neal's projects and I'd listen to him play music about cleaning out the fridge, but The Spring ought to be nominated for an Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian prize. He enlisted cellist Sharon Gerber (Celloasis) to add sonorous bottom to his piano, and Ms. Gerber brought along her daughter, Anya, an accomplished violinist who is all of twelve! If you've watched the video, you know that The Spring is part of a campaign to bring clean water to the 666 million global citizens who lack it. You also know about charity:water, the foundation started by former music promoter Scott Harrison, and were probably pretty moved by his biography, until he topped it by telling you about MercyShips, upped the ante by showing you what it means to lack clean water, and knocked you off your pins by telling you about nine-year-old Rachel Beckwith.

Because The Spring is about water, O'Neal's keyboard playing has a liquid quality. They drip on "Atlantic," rush and gush on "Clean Water," and build slowly on the soundtrack–as if they are percolating from deep underground and burst to the surface as Gerber's cello swells and surges. The goal of each track is to be both beautiful and set a mood;  many are short so that we can keep our thoughts focused on the project rather than the musicians. Let's do both!  "Enabling Environment" is just one-minute long. It's bright and upbeat, but it's also loaded with a double meaning: Nature provides, especially when humans assist. There are two tracks that evoke Rachel Beckwith, the 40-second ambient "Rachel," with its angelic vocalizations in the background, and "In Her Honor," which is both emotive and energetic–like a nine-year-old with a big heart. This is simply a gorgeous album from start to finish and it's fine if sometimes you play it just to zone out and maybe even nod off for a few moments. But let's remember that it closes out with "Transformations," which is somber, quiet, and reflective. It is the sound of sadness leavened with hope and melancholy bathed in beauty.

Rob Weir   

1/17/17

Can the Democratic Party Be Saved? Part Two

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Those who blame Democratic woes on external sources–the media, disloyalty, sexism, etc.–need to grasp that since 1989, Democrats have lost 60 House seats, 14 U.S. Senators, 830 state legislative seats, and 10 governorships. One-third of the House Democratic caucus comes from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. Anyone that thinks the party is simply the victim of dirty politics is delusional. Democratic economic and social policies are in disarray. One wonders also about their political strategy.

                         Political Strategy:

This can be summed in a single phrase: fight or fold the damn tents! Republican bombast has already begun: Cooperate with President Trump; give him a chance to lead. The Democratic message should be loud and unambiguous: "Screw you!" Democrats should cooperate with Trump with exactly as much sincerity and fervor as Republicans cooperated with President Obama. The American public voted for gridlock and nastiness, so dish it out for a change instead of being on the receiving end. Do not fall into the "good of the nation" trap or any fantasy about being statesman-like. The GOP declared all-out war on Obama, Clinton, and Carter and all the Democrats got by seizing the moral ground was their butts kicked. Should American politics be about ideas and issues? Of course it should! Should it be rational and moral? Yes again. But it's not--so get over it. Michelle Obama suggested, "When they aim low, we go high." I wish, but she's wrong. Get in the mud, fling, and fight or --as Bob Dylan sang,--you ain't going nowhere.

Economic Policy:

1. Stop talking about the 'middle class' all the time.

It wasn't hard for Donald Trump to win the working class: after Sanders left the race, as no Democrat mentioned for-real wage earners. The constant "middle class workers" drum roll excludes a whopping 58% of all working Americans who work for wages, not salaries. The election of 2016 exposed the fiction of a "middle class" America, as well as  the impoverished thinking of Democrats imagining that the middle class cares about its agenda. Memo: That's only true of an educated elite; most of the white, suburban middle class is Republican, racist, selfish, and averse to taxes. Democrats need to do the following:

·      --Get out of the suburbs and into the urban core and the countryside.
·      --Evolve a message that addresses hourly wage earners that goes beyond raising the minimum wage.
·      --Put forth candidates that come from farm and industrial states, not those dominated by the professional classes. In essence, revive the John Edwards platform.
·      --Talk about the dignity of service industry jobs and stop treating it as if it's unskilled labor.
·      --Put forth a coherent plan for preserving American jobs. Part of this would include penalizing outsourcing and closing loopholes that make it easy for employers to engage in said practice.
·      --Take the lead on easy-sell economic programs such as closing tax loopholes that benefit only rich individuals and large corporations.

2. Get off the free trade horse.

It may not be possible to stem the tide of globalism completely, but Democrats should stop worshiping at the free trade altar. Donald Trump is absolutely right when he says that not all free trade is good. If there is no tangible benefit for American workers, no deal! Cheap imports mean nothing if working people have to max out credit cards to purchase them. Trump has threatened to slap high import tariffs on car manufacturers that move jobs out of the USA and he actually does that--good on him! Run with the idea that a healthy American economy is something beyond making Chinese exporters and Wall Street speculators richer.

3. Go hard at some 'soft' targets.

Pick on easy-to-hate GOP allies like banks, the pharmaceutical industry, and CEOs.  

How about a hard cap on credit card interest? Ten percent would be a start. There aren't many other businesses that make that kind of profit margin. Go after bank interest rates as well. Peg interest rates bank charge to a percentage of what they offer on savings. How about 1:3? If a bank charges 3% on a home mortgage, it ought to pay depositors at least 1% for getting to use their money. End all user fees for routine customer services: using auto tellers, checks, getting money orders….

It's obscene for drug companies to make grotesque profits from human suffering. A hard cap on drug profits is in order. It would reward research and insure fair profit, but under no circumstances should drug or medical costs be subject to the logic of  'what the market will bear.'

Log overdue: a law restricting total CEO compensation. It should be pegged to a formula vis-à-vis the lowest-waged employee. The average package used to be in the 4-5 times range; now it's 373 times. Call this what it is: a practice that breeds arrogance and management completely out of touch with average workers.

4. Go green or go home.

Democrats need a 21st century industrial policy and the "green" sector is the obvious place to go. Promote it and protect it. Sell it hard in postindustrial regions. Ignore backward-looking regions such as Louisiana and West Virginia that insist that more drilling and more mining will solve all woes. They're on the wrong side of history and until they flip the calendar, it's pointless to waste political energy there.

Social Policy:

Kneejerk liberals won't like it, but serious reframing is in order. I can't emphasize this enough: Democrats must stop talking about things that are perceived as "special privileges." I am not suggesting that Democrats abandon the quest for racial justice, LGBTQ rights, or reproductive freedom, but they must repackage them. How about using phrases such as "the right of all Americans?" Make appeals to "fairness" and "privacy," and steer clear of questions of morality. Currently the party is perceived as privileging black, queer, abortion, and interest group rights over all others. It makes it too easy for moralists to position themselves as the guardians of "American values."

Reframing works. For millions of Americans the difference between saying, "I favor abortion rights," and "I don't think the government has a right to tell people what people what they can do with their own bodies," is the difference between rejection and accord. Ditto saying, "It's not fair to discriminate against anyone" versus "Affirmative action programs are necessary to level the playing field."

This rankles the "Stand up for your rights" crowd, but I can attest firsthand the magic of reframing. I worked a Sanders-for-U.S. House campaign in which gay rights was successfully repositioned as a "privacy" issue. Democrats have two choices: they can address the masses, or be viewed as the party of the special classes. Liberals generally hate sanctimonious moralists, so stop behaving like them.


1/16/17

Can the Democratic Party Be Salvaged? Part One


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To answer the rhetorical question above, I doubt it.  A party that loses to complete idiots like George W. Bush and Donald Trump is so seriously out of touch as to suggest that Barack Obama’s election was a recession-induced fluke. I’d like to see a truly progressive alternative rise from Democratic ashes. But let’s assume that resuscitation is possible. How could Democrats respond to their latest thumping? A few ideas:

1.  Send old warhorses to the glue factory.

Some of the people listed below were ones I admired—back when both of us were younger, that adjective being the key word. A new Democratic Party needs to look like tomorrow, not yesterday. Under no circumstances should any of the following play so much as an advisory role in a Demo remake:

Hillary Clinton:  Second-wave feminism in a third-wave world. Her time came and went.

Bill Clinton: It baffles me why anyone admires this sleaze ball Republican in Democratic clothing.

Nancy Pelosi:  Like Hillary minus the pants suit.

Russ Feingold:  Admirable man, but his ship sailed decades ago.

Jerry Brown:   Governor Moonbeam is now Governor Sunset.

Debbie Waserman-Schultz:  Perhaps the person most culpable for Trump’s presidency. You’re fired, Debbie!

John Kerry:   “I used to be a contender! Instead of a hack, which is what I am.”

Anthony Weiner:  Like a sheet whose stain can’t be removed and eventually you just toss it.

Charlie Crist:    Was never really a Democrat, but gets to play one on TV every other election.

Evan Bayh:  How many elections can one man lose, before he sleeps in the sand?

Jim Webb:  Loose cannons should be left to rust.

Assorted Kennedys:  "I knew Jack Kennedy… and you're no Jack Kennedy."

Democratic National Committee:. Like a used Cadillac in a hybrid world. No one is buying.

AFL-CIO:    These moribund bureaucrats are a bigger threat to the future of unions more than an offshore rig-full of corporate raiders.

2.  Admit that conservatives might be right about (some parts of) immigration policy.

Democrats shouldn't surrender to xenophobia, but a blind man can see that current immigration laws are absurd. If you want open borders, make the case, but if the USA is going to have any immigration laws, they need to be rational and enforceable. What might a middle path look like?

            a. Declare a reset date. Trump’s promise to deport all illegals can't be kept.  Hammer out a sensible reset date and offer a path to citizenship for those on the correct side of it. Write off the rest. It's elemental: No one else gets to ignore laws they don't like.

            b. Substantially raise the number for annual legal immigration. Give priority to those from the Western hemisphere. America needs more laborers and, frankly, it’s cruel to cherry pick intellectuals and professionals from developing nations. Many nations have policies that won’t allow the hiring of foreign professionals unless no current national can do the job.

            c. Dramatically expand the number of refugee entries, but….

            d. Implement much better screening of all entering the USA. No one should enter until a thorough background check has been completed: fingerprint and photo database searches, Interpol checks, extensive interviewing, etc.)

            e. Issue unalterable identity cards for all Americans and legal aliens. This would also take the wind from the sails of the voter ID crowd. And, yes, the states have to pay for these and have to make card centers accessible to all.

            f.  Punish employers who hire undocumented workers.
No documentation? The employer is jailed, fined severely, and pays the costs of prosecution and deportation of illegally hired workers.  Let’s see how many undocumented workers are mowing Phoenix golf courses when CEOs are cooling their heels in jail.

3. This will rankle Kumbaya liberals, but admit that conservatives are right: There really is a clash of civilizations.

Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations argues that cultural and religious ideologies have supplanted political views as the chief source of global conflict in the post-Cold War era.  It's a very short walk from Huntington to an Islamophobic revival of the Crusades, but denial of all legitimacy is an equally short stroll to surrendering to Islamofascism/Islamomisogny.

Democrats need a coherent middle path. It would entail a degree of profiling, which could be massaged by enacting extra layers of screening for anyone seeking entry into the U.S. from volatile regions. Still, it's facile to ignore the fact that this falls disproportionately upon Muslims. Democrats are correct that very few of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists, but there is a war against the West.  Attacks on Amsterdam, Brussels, Madrid, Paris, and New York simply cannot be ignored.

Part of the screening process should be cultural. Americans should stop apologizing for secular values, cultural diversity, materialism, support for Israel, and pluralism. The message should be unambiguous: a precondition for coming to the United States is acceptance of these values in word and deed.

4. Abandon the Obama Doctrine for the Carter Doctrine, as tempered by George F. Kennan.

Barack Obama put forth a vision of how the world ought to operate: adversaries speaking to each other in search of common ground. There's no need to close that door, but it's too utopian to be the cornerstone of foreign policy. In practice, the Obama Doctrine gives tyrants, theocrats, and authoritarians too much leeway.

Jimmy Carter had a better idea: peg U.S. foreign aid and trade to human rights. Ronald Reagan gave priority to trade as if human rights didn't matter and was a damned fool for doing so. It's idiotic to send massive aid to wealthy Saudi Arabia, one of the least democratic nations in the world; to the failed state of Pakistan, a major den of terrorism; to the authoritarian monsters of Honduras and Haiti; to Turkey, an oppressor of Kurds and an Islamic state supporter; or to scores of other nations low on the human rights scale. Stop shedding crocodile tears for Palestine (#110 of 167 on that list), and stop blaming Israel (#34) for its woes. Carter's economic hammer was a better idea.

George Kennan advised dividing the globe into nations core and peripheral to American interests. The Obama Doctrine is more moral, but Kennan's is more pragmatic.  Trump may be onto something in his critique of NATO, which consistently asks North Americans to bear the troop and financial burdens that Europeans should assume. Kennan would have said the Iraq War should have never been fought; it's not in U.S. core interests. He'd have said the same of Syria. Various global nightmares break our hearts but, as we've tragically seen in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere, U.S. intervention that goes beyond humanitarian aid causes more problems than it alleviates. Democrats could argue with history on their side that the only justifiable U.S. military intervention since World War Two was toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. That didn't go very well either. It's time to put the kibosh on GOP reversion of the Department of Defense into the Department of War. 

Next up (in order): A Democratic Economic and Social Agenda; a non-Democratic Party progressive platform.


1/13/17

Zero K: Mixed Feelings about a Cold Novel

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ZERO K (2016)
By Don DeLillo
Charles Scribner's Sons, 281 pages
★★★

New York Times critic Joshua Ferris nailed it when he said that we don't read Don DeLillo for "plot, character, setting" or other conventional novelistic devices. His characters face dilemmas, but these are often more zeitgeist-related than personal or moral. Few writers are as skilled at presenting existential angst as DeLillo, but his postmodern sensibilities and sense of emotional detachment often leave readers feeling empty. For me, Zero K fell into that ambiguous category of an impressive novel that I didn't like very much.

It would be bad wordplay to say that Zero K left me cold, as it is a book about coldness. Its title derives from theoretical absolute zero on the Kelvin scale (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature at which atoms would no longer move. It's a clever title for a book about cryogenics. Is cryogenics, like absolute zero, a concept that exists as yet-unrealized theory? Or is cryogenics the ultimate realization of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), a way to play chess against Death and win? What is the mind? What is the body? Is there a soul? One can't even begin to formulate an opinion about cryogenics without first wrestling with such ancient philosophical conundrums. And, if there is an independent mind and soul, where do they go when their hosts are flash frozen?

DeLillo isn't writing science fiction. There is a facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, where (at last count) 144 frosty bodies lie in state–including the head of baseball legend Ted Williams. Tech guru Ray Kurzweil is among those wishing to check in when his hourglass drains its last grain of sand–that is, assuming his technological fix for death is not yet possible. Kurzweil believes that at some point, we will be able to do brain and memory dumps onto computer hard drives. Add new twists to the ancient philosophical queries: Can the mind exist independently from a body? What is the quality of a mind-activated avatar life? All (current) cryogenics rest on the assumption that science is the new god everlasting–stay frozen long enough and science will develop a cure for what killed you.

Zero K centers on the character of Jeff Lockhart, the not-even-close-to-doing-well son of billionaire finance capitalist Ross Lockhart, from whom Jeff has been semi-estranged for many years. He is invited by his father to accompany him and his dying second wife, Artis Martineau, to Convergence, a secret facility somewhere in a remote section of Asia Minor built with Ross' money. There, Artis will undergo assisted suicide and immediate internment in a freezer capsule. Jeff is free to investigate most of the facility and contemplate Artis' last challenge: "Come with us." Ross isn't quite ready, but Jeff returns two years later when Ross goes into the capsule beside Artis. As he awaits his father's procedure, Jeff views montages of the world's horrors on large TV monitors: floods, earthquakes, executions, epidemics, and wars. It's hard for Jeff to watch all of this, given the nature of his own life and a recent end of a weird relationship.

DeLillo didn't invent the concept of Convergence either. In 1987, followers of various beliefs loosely labeled "New Age" awaited the "Harmonic Convergence" when the planets went into their once-every-10,000-years alignment. Synchronous mediation across the globe was supposed to usher in an age of peace, ecological balance, and universal tolerance. (The comic strip Doonesbury parodied the Convergence in a series of strips that recently re-ran.) These days, the concept of Technological Convergence has become fashionable–the now-familiar idea that improvement in one area of technology often leads to advances in other areas. (A Swiss Army knife is one example; your multi-purpose cell phone another.) 

DeLillo's novel is where the two convergences come together in a Kurzweilian way. At its best, Zero K is creepier than a Stephen King horror offering and as surreal as anything Franz Kafka wrote. It is certainly provocative on many levels, including the question of where the lines lie between skepticism, narcissism, religious seeking, life, and death. But then we touch upon other questions: How does one feel about postmodernist prose that is simultaneously elegant and sterile? Is DeLillo's novel ultimately nothing more than a literary strip tease? Or worse, is it just a frozen zombie book? Worse still–are the questions raised in this review more intriguing than the book?

Many critics have placed this on their Best of 2016 list. As for me, I'm a bit like Jeff Lockhart; I can't decide. If this sounds like something you'd like, give it a whirl; if not, walk away. But do not think of it as you would most novels.

Rob Weir

1/11/17

Prodigal Parish a Problematic Catholic Fantasy

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PRODIGAL PARISH (2016)
Leo F. White
Book Baby, 302 pp.
★★

Mine is one of many New England towns in which Roman Catholic churches are closing faster than standup comics with stage fright. It's also among those in which there is a small band of ageing parishioners who refuse to accept that they are too few in number and too shallow in the pocket to maintain their once-grand but now–crumbling church. It has been closed and desanctified, but quixotic lawsuits persist and the occasional guerilla occupation occur. It is its own statement that more Catholics these days fret over parish closings than the church's ongoing sexual abuse cover-ups.

All of this is to say that Leo F. White's murder mystery Prodigal Parish is no Spotlight. It's mostly a Catholic fantasy novel, and a wooden, clichéd, recycled one at that. It is set in Boston, where St. Theresa's–known as the "Poor People's Parish"–sits on Everton Street* uncomfortably near the well-heeled St. Matthew's. The diocese has already decided to close St. Theresa's once its elderly priest, Father Coniglio, dies. Forget the fact that few will trek to St. Matthew's, which is far too rich for the blood of those in a area that has crossed the line from being a down-market working class neighborhood to a social problems repository of drugs, rough bars, motorcycle gangs, and organized crime. In White's book, men more interested in pomp and money than in social uplift run the Boston Diocese. If Father Moore had his way, St. Theresa's would already be on the auction block. Alas, his otherwise hard-shelled superior, Cardinal Burke, has a soft spot for Father Coniglio, a friend from seminary. Instead, Burke and Moore appoint Father Wesley to be Coniglio's associate priest with the charge of being a combination caregiver/spy. (Moore also wants him to run the old barn into the ground.)

Wesley doesn't want the job for the very reasons Moore thinks he's perfect–it's the old 'hood he left in order to cleanse his long list of failures and sins: heartbreak, an alcoholic family, a stalled boxing career, a DUI fatality, prison….  Wesley is both street- and brain-smart; he realizes that Moore views him as the perfect patsy: the unsavory local who will engineer the demise of a beloved parish. Watch two old Bing Crosby films in which he portrays Father Chuck O'Malley–1944's Going My Way and its 1945 sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's. Mash them, take out the comedy, interject a dose of Karl Malden from On the Waterfront, a tiny bit of Father Ralph de Bricassant from The Thorn Birds, mix in some paste-up locals, and you've got Prodigal Parish. As readers easily surmise from chapter three on, Father Wesley has other plans for his return of the prodigal son act: interjecting new life to St. Theresa's and honoring her social mission. Let the cheap hooks rain down from heaven: a big mutt named Shagtyme, a gang leader with a heart of gold, inept hoodlums, wayward girls, parents with turn-of-the-20th-century, values, an aborted abortion, wide-eyed children…. And did you ever notice that young priests are always ex-boxers? There's nary a lacrosse, tennis, or video game player among them. (Of course, in today's world, there aren't many young ones either!)

This is a classic good-versus-evil tale pitting dreamers against schemers. I give White credit for tossing in a few plot turns I didn't see coming, but most of this book is as predictable as post-sunset darkness. To return to my opening comments, it's a Catholic fantasy novel in which it is possible to turn back the clock and reset the ethos that marked the church's prelapsarian glory days. It's easy to imagine White himself as a sit-in parishioner seeking a reset. 

White is better at plot than prose. He repeats words and phrases, skirts histrionic borders, descends into sentimentalism, and oversimplifies conflict resolution. Subplots involving violence and swindle are engaging enough to make Prodigal Parish a non-taxing summer read for Catholic lads and lasses. Alas, I'm not Catholic and I read it in November.

Rob Weir

 * Postscript: There is an Everton Street in the Dorchester section of Boston and both a St. Matthew's (Ashmont/Dorchester) and a St. Theresa-Avila (West Roxbury). They are not close in distance (6.5 miles) and I have no idea whether White used these as models, though sections of Dorchester fit the social profile he assigns for St. Theresa's Parish.  

1/9/17

The Nix: Riding Toward Doom?

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THE NIX (2016)
By Nathan Hill
Knopf, 625 pages.
★★★★

The Nix is an inventive novel,  but first a bit of Norwegian folklore to enhance the background. Christianity supplanted older Norwegian religions in the 11th century but, as in many parts of Europe, it never succeeded in destroying them. Nature spirits, elves, imps, and other such magical beings remained part of the vernacular. How much people believed in them is a matter of debate akin in modern America to that over the efficacy (or not) of luck, superstition, intuition, and prayer. Most scholars argue that common folks throughout history outwardly profess sanctioned religion and privately practice a belief smorgasbord.

In Nathan Hill's novel, two spirits collide: the nisse and the nix. It's up to you to decide whether these are for-real Old World spirits, metaphors, or a bit of both. Nisse are mischievous spirits akin to English brownies–house sprites that reside in the cellar and raise small havoc like moving things and causing chimney back drafts. They're usually benign, but they hate to be dissed or get wet, so be respectful and if you spill water, apologize immediately. The nisse are powerful, short-tempered, hold grudges, and can place a curse on you. You definitely want to avoid the nix–a Germanized version of the Norwegian nøkk–which are malevolent. They appear as beautiful horses, but woe to those who mount one as they rush headlong into the sea and drown their riders.

The Nix revolves around mother and son Faye and Samuel Andresen-Anderson: double Norwegian Americans, if you will, and each other's nix. The story is non-linear; hence we meet Samuel in 2007, when he's 34, still harboring a grudge over the fact that his mother disappeared when he was 11. He's also failing to complete a book, pining over the loss of the love of his life, and holding a monstrous mortgage on a now-worthless apartment, courtesy of the housing market collapse. He teaches literature at a third-rate college in Chicago whose students would rather juggle hamsters than read Hamlet, and a few of them are toxic nasty. To top off the pain, Samuel's publisher for his non-existent book threatens to sue for the return of a long-spent advance. Basically, Samuel's a loser whose sole pleasure has become addiction: he compulsively plays an online fantasy game called Elfscape. (I gather this is based partly on Pure Pwnage, a Canadian mockumentary about an obsessive video gamer. Elfscape's best player calls himself Pwnage.)

We also meet Faye in 2007—aged 61 and the center of a media frenzy when she hurls a handful of gravel that strikes red meat Republican Sheldon Packer, a mash between Paul LePage, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump. Suddenly Faye is the "Packer Attacker" and a manufactured terrorist–courtesy of a Fox News surrogate that propels Packer to the fore of the POTUS wannabe pack. No real info on Faye Andresen-Anderson? No problem–find a few old photos, set loose the shock jocks, and invent a back story. Or better yet, let Samuel off his debt hook if he agrees to an instant biography exposing his mother's unfit parenting, her radical past, and her propensity for violence. Not easy when you've not seen someone since you were 11, but not necessarily a deal-breaker given that such a book has already been mostly ghost written and it's his name that's wanted, not his prose!

If you think I'm giving away too much, you're wrong. This is just the setup to Hill's sprawling novel. The Nix has spawned comparisons to everyone from Charles Dickens and Thomas Pynchon to David Foster Wallace. Those seem a stretch, but let's toss in John Irving for the careful plotting and the shit-just-happens circumstances of the main characters, and perhaps a dollop of E. L. Doctorow for the deft mix of fictional and historical characters. Hill moves us back and forth from Samuel's Iowa boyhood, his intense friendship with rich bad boy Bishop, his obsession with Bishop's sister, and his mother's mysterious disappearance. Hill takes us even deeper into Faye's past: the burdens of being female before and during the 'liberated' 1960s, her fixation on Allen Ginsberg, her escape from Iowa, and a few months of college in Chicago, just in time to be swept up in the drama of the Yippies and the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention. Real-life figures such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Cronkite, and Mayor Daley are woven into the narrative. So too are sadistic cops, hints of the COINTELPRO program, and many other late 60s references.

Many readers will enjoy Hill's take-down of contemporary culture even more than the history lesson. His send-up of the fake news cycle and the tools of modern fascism are, perhaps, too chillingly real to be as amusing as he intended, but he's not letting liberals off the hook either. He has nothing good to say about political correctness, coddling college campus culture, the cult of money, or the shallowness of the pop industry. Hill serves us a roll of Sweet Tarts–candy whose sweetness gives way to sourness. He seems to be saying that if want to know why things are they way they are, it's because we're too distracted to pay attention. Our distraction might well be the American nix.

Rob Weir

1/6/17

La La Land is Fun, but Overrated

LA LA LAND (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Summit Entertainment, 128 minutes, PG-13.
★★★

La La Land has gained loads of praise. Some have hailed it a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals. What this really tells us, though, is that current films are so desultory that anything with a heartbeat gets a rave. Sorry to disappoint. La La Land does indeed have its heart in the right place, but it's a total WTLD film (Wanted to Love. Didn't.)

I won't be a total curmudgeon—many parts of the La La Land are well done and lots of it is fun. Especially crisp is the opening dance sequence, which runs before the credits roll. It's MTV-meets-Glee in its flashy-on-the-border-of-trashy style, but it's also a shit-kicking prelude. There is also a very amazing Butterfly Effect montage toward the end. The choreography is wonderful, the sets are lush, the editing is top drawer, Justin Hurwitz's score is terrific, and the camera work is stellar. As classic song-and-dance films go, however, this one is decidedly second tier because of a weak script and unwise casting.

I mention the opening and closing sequences because they are miles better than the movie's body, which too often sags and drags. La La land is essentially Cinderella reimagined–the story of a cute but struggling actress, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) who works in a big Hollywood studio–as a barista, not on the sets. She's treated like dirt by her supervisor, snooty customers, and distracted casting agents; call them wicked stepsister substitutes. Then she literally slams into a potential Prince Charming, brilliant jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling). Let's toss in a touch of Snow White, as there's a poisoned apple lurking: obsession-level ambition. Mia is at the now-or-never stage of her career and Sebastian is so principled about his music that he's a snob–a "huge pain in the ass," as his jazz buddy Keith (John Legend) puts it. Some might recognize director Damien Chazelle for his work on Whiplash, which was also about passion, ambition, and jazz. Alas, whereas Whiplash was a diamond, La La Land is cubic zirconia. First, we already got the idea from Whiplash that Chazelle is devoted to jazz, and making Sebastian his pigheaded (and lecture-prone) mouthpiece for "real" jazz pushes Chazelle toward Woody Allen-like annoyance levels on the subject. A subtheme of the film–uttered several times–is that "jazz is dying." Yes it is, but I doubt Chazelle's full-court propaganda press will change that. What it means in the movie is that jazz drives the script, not the central Sebastian/Mia relationship. Forget Los Angeles; it takes just a New York minute to realize that Sebastian is, at best, a flawed Prince Charming and it's not just music getting in the way. Much of La La Land has severe tonal problems. It's frothy rom-com musical at one moment, didactic the next, then it brings us down, seeks to perk us up, and brings us back down. Rinse and repeat.

But even had the script been tighter, there's no escaping the fact that La La Land is poorly cast. Stone and Gosling are physically appealing and look like the ideal musical couple but that's where the similarities end. Their dancing is passable–especially when they are thrust into big production numbers–but neither of them can be said to be more than adequate as singers (and in Gosling's case, that's a charitable remark). They're certainly not Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds–the Singin' in the Rain homage notwithstanding. Alas, there is very little chemistry between them at all, which means that scenes aiming to heighten emotional drama flutter rather than soar. Stone is mostly convincing as a vulnerable ingénue, but Gosling is becoming a bore on the screen. Have we seen him do anything other than play a brooding can't-commit ageing Millennial with a four-day stubble? It's not good news when neither of your leads can carry the film and it's worse when they are so wooden together that they suck the magic from the musical. John Legend is the only one who seems comfortable in his skin and that, of course, is because he is a musician.

To be clear, this film isn't a turkey. Fans of musicals will be entertained by nods to old musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singin' in the Rain, and Broadway Melody of 1940. Movie buffs will find winks less obvious than the clips from Rebel without a Cause, and nostalgia nuts will revel over the very look of the film. Maybe the twelve people who think Los Angeles deserves a love letter will convince themselves it's as romantic as Paris. I suspect Oscar will hand out loads of nominations as well. Among the deserving: cinematographer Linus Sandgren, choreographer Mandy Moore, editor Tom Cross, and composer Justin Hurwitz. But if Oscar gets anywhere near Stone, Gosling, or Chazelle, shoot your television!

Go see La La Land for escapist fun, but remember that it's a WTLD movie, not a classic film.

Rob Weir