SKIPPY DIES (2010)
By Paul Murray
Faber and Faber, ISBN 978-0-86547-943-2, 661 pp.
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Paul Murray’s sophomore novel opens with a shock: fourteen-year-old Daniel “Skippy” Juster has just died on the floor of a down-market Dublin doughnut shop, the name of his girlfriend upon his lips. Why did Skippy die? Was if for love? Was it the pills he and his friends indiscriminately pop? Was if from a ruptured heart triggered by his recent swim meet? Or is something more sinister to blame?
Murray’s sprawling novel is, at turns, sad, provocative, chilling, and screamingly funny. It is set at Seabrook College, a once-tony-grown-shabby Irish Catholic prep school. It’s a place that’s been cruising on its reputation for decades, the kind of place where “tradition” is constantly invoked in the hope that no one will notice that “venerable” has been steamrollered by “sclerotic.” The priests who nominally run the place are old and tired, as is much of the lay faculty. In fact, the entire staff knows the place is a joke except for “the Automator,” oily Acting Principal Greg Costigan, who is determined to modernize Seabrook and aggrandize himself in the process. The students are certainly aware that Seabrook is just a place where their well-heeled parents stuck them to get them out of sight and out of mind, a reality Murray reveals in several tortured phone calls between Skippy and his clueless father.
Skippy Dies isn’t really about why Daniel Juster died; it’s really about how institutions, families, and individuals fall apart in ways analogous to the famed frog-in-the-pot scenario in which the frog isn’t aware he’s being slowly boiled to death. In many ways, it’s also a metaphor for Ireland. (Remember how the Celtic Tiger turned out to be declawed stray cat?) The kids are especially sharply drawn. Murray assembles a memorable cast. Skippy’s family life is so screwed up that he finds temporary solace in Lori, a little flirt who’s taking him for a twisted ride. His roommate is Ruprecht Van Doren, an obese, doughnut-inhaling nerd who is either a future genius or a young Frankenstein, who is busy building a machine constructed of copious amounts of tinfoil, which he hopes will allow him to access the eleventh dimension! Others in his circle include Mario, who carries his “lucky” condom, which has never been out of its wrapper in the three years he’s possessed it; the über-cynic Dennis; and Titch, a vacuous preppy predestined to follow his old man into the gray-flannel realm of banking and mergers. Murray absolutely nails teenaged angst. He paints a world of boys obsessed by sex and thoughtless in their personal interactions, though vaguely aware of being adrift. Skippy’s group lives in mortal fear of thuggish upper classmen, especially a clique led by Carl, a neo-fascist drug pusher who does his best to hide the demons that would reveal him to be frightened, damaged, and insecure.
Where are the adults to help the kids navigate these shoals? Clueless would be too charitable an adjective. History teacher Howard Fallon is a milquetoast dubbed “Howard the Coward” by students and peers alike, and not without reason. Costigan is what Carl will look like in ten years and Miss McIntyre the amoral temptress Lori will become. The rest are assorted cynics and fools, except for the priests, who are something altogether darker. The adults don’t hear each other, let alone the kids; in fact, they are often revealed responding to imagined conversations, not what was actually said.
Murray uses humor, surrealism, absurdism, and splashes of magical realism throughout. These add needed balance to the pathos and tragedy of a story that’s less coming-of-age than end-of-an-age. At 661 pages the novel sprawls, sometimes effectively, but often not. At 400 taut pages Skippy Dies would have been a small masterpiece; as is, it sometimes stumbles over its myriad style and mood shifts, and the hit-us-over-the-head metaphors. (The theme of futility is, for instance, hammered and anviled home by Howard’s obsession with World War I.) Overall, though, it’s a worthwhile read. I’ll give you a hint: Skippy didn’t choke on doughnuts.
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Directed by Simon Curtis
BBC Films, 99 mins. R (language, brief dorsal nudity)
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My Week with Marilyn is one of those “small” films in which not a lot happens-–the sort that would be overlooked were it not so well acted. Lucky for us the cast is superb.
The film’s narrative is sparse and revolves around Marilyn Monroe’s 1957 visit to England, where she made an inconsequential film, The Prince and the Showgirl that starred and was directed by Sir Laurence Olivier. Ms. Monroe was 31 and at the height of her sex kitten fame. So much so, that she was already coming apart at the seams. Her marriage to Arthur Miller was just three weeks old but crumbling, and Marilyn was wracked with insecurities that she addressed through temper tantrums, anxiety attacks, pills, affairs, and the vain hope that she could become a serious actress. Toss into the maelstrom her constant companion, Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, who was equal parts method acting guru and Svengali-like mesmerist, and the set of The Prince and the Showgirl was not a pleasant place to be. Monroe often late or absent from the set, and incompetent when she was there. In one delicious line from My Week with Marilyn, Olivier-–played with world-weary aplomb by Kenneth Branagh–remarked that trying to teach Monroe how to act was “like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.” So how did the film ever get made? If we are to believe the memoir of Colin Clark who served as Olivier’s third assistant director–a glorified gofer–it’s because Ms. Monroe found solace in his friendship and in their brief fling. (For the record, Clark was 24 at the time, and not everyone believes his story of having had an affair with Monroe.)
The movie was adapted from Clark’s short play and it only works as a film because the actors make us believe a dodgy story line and a threadbare plot. Eddie Redmayne is well cast as Clark and plays him with the besotted puppy dog loyalty as one might expect from a young lad asked to be a companion to the world’s most glamorous woman. Branagh incisively dissects the 50-year-old Olivier as a man forced to realize that his womanizing charms are a decade out of date and he’s not going to stave off Father Time, seduce Monroe, or become a Hollywood idol. Zoë Wanamaker is even better as Strasberg, whom she turns into a cross between Machiavelli and the Wicked Witch of the West. One glare from Wanamaker is more effective than a ten-minute rant from a lesser actor. Like most British films, even the minor parts are crisply performed by topnotch actors; look for twinkling cameo star turns from Derek Jacobi as Sir Owen Morshead, Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Dominic Cooper as photographer Milton Greene, and Emma Stone as Lucy, the would-be girlfriend that Clark tosses aside for Monroe.
But this film belongs to Michelle Williams who is, simply, the best interpreter of Marilyn Monroe I can recall seeing. Williams doesn’t actually look like Monroe, even with flaming red lipstick, a wig, and a paint-on mole; Williams is more slender, less full-figured, and fresher of face. But you won’t need to check your credibility at the box office; Williams will make you believe she is Marilyn. Most actresses fail as Monroe because they try to channel the public image rather than the inner person. This means they become a photocopy of a photocopy. Williams gets the fact that Marilyn Monroe was a paste-on persona in the same way that Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain or Julius Marx was Groucho. Williams plays to the tension between the coquettish mask and the troubled inner self. We see her wishing, nay aching, to be allowed to be normal, but failing to find any comforting hiding places not illuminated by Marilyn’s glow. She goes from giddy joy to a deer in the headlights when quietly walking a London street only to be mobbed by admirers. In another luminous moment she’s in a schoolyard when the same thing happens. At first she’s frightened, then she turns to Clark and asks, “Shall I be her?” In a flash she turns on the Marilyn act, and the audience laps it up like a cat in front of a saucer of cream. Williams delivers an astonishing performance that should win awards–if enough people actually see the film.
Therein lies a tale. My Week with Marilyn is a bit like the film-within-the-film, The Prince and the Showgirl. The latter got a few good notices and some pans, but was mostly ignored. Monroe next made Some Like it Hot, generally regarded as her most memorable role. In it she gave up the pretense of being a stage actress and played to Monroe stereotypes. In like fashion, Olivier gave up silver screen dreams and returned to the boards for The Entertainer, wherein he made stage history. Will the small My Week with Marilyn win the awards it deserves? Probably not, but somewhere in the future lies an Oscar engraved with the name Michelle Williams.
Until I read a recent issue of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, I had never heard of SPUG: the Society for Prevention of Useless Giving. I was so amazed that I double-checked to make sure SPUG was legit and not some sort of seasonal prank. After all, academics have been known to pull fast ones in the service of protesting the arcane nature of modern research. Sure enough, SPUG was the real deal.
SPUG formed in 1911 and lasted into the 1940s, though along the way it had a name change to the more positive-sounding Society for Useful Giving. Philanthropic upper-class Society women formed SPUG. Their original inspiration was the disgust they felt toward merchants and advertisers that lured factory workers and working-class women into squandering money on needless things during the Christmas season. Weddings were a close second. SPUG launched an educational and propaganda campaign aimed at convincing those with scant resources not to waste their wages. Were SPUG advocates forerunners of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch? Nope. They had no objection to giving per se–they simply wanted to stop the practice of spending money on novelties, junk, and baubles and shift it to useful things. They reasoned that if one is going to shell out for a gift, it ought to be something the recipient can actually use or appreciate.
So why am I telling you about SPUG? Because it’s the day after Christmas, known in British Commonwealth nations as Boxing Day. It’s akin to Black Friday in the States, a day of retail gluttony featuring markdowns, extended retail hours, and various advertising come-ons. There is, however, a small twist–it’s also the day in which people begin to return unwanted presents opened the day before. We Yanks do this too, but we ought to do so with the zeal of Europeans. As SPUG evolved, it paid attention to recipients as well as givers. A gift, they reasoned, should not be a life sentence; in fact, every individual should purge one’s self of unneeded and unwanted things. As SPUG advocates expressed it, one should never keep anything that isn’t either useful or beautiful. They hoped to move Americans beyond the sentimentality that makes a person keep an ugly lamp in the closet just because Aunt Mary gave it to you. SPUG’s simple advice: Get rid of it!
Those of you reading this blog on Boxing Day can probably conjure an item or two from yesterday that doesn’t enhance your life in any measurable way. So get them out of your house. Return them to the store, re-gift them, donate them to charity or, if necessary, throw them away. We now live in a society in which materialism is more than crass; it’s expensive. In 1984 Americans stuffed items into 289 million square feet of storage bins; by 2007 it had grown to over 2.2 billion square feet. Each year about $20 billion is spent just to squirrel away goods, and some Americans spend more to store their stuff than it would cost to buy the items new. Compulsive hoarding is now recognized as a bona fide psychological ailment. Would it surprise you to learn that, in most cases, the cost of treatment for hoarding disorder exceeds the value of the items hoarded?
SPUG isn’t around anymore, but maybe it’s time to revive it. One of its major virtues was that it asked people to operate within their own value systems, not transform themselves into aesthetes, monks, or Spartans. Remember, the standard was to keep only what is useful or beautiful. Each of those standards involves a qualitative judgment. I don’t find a painting of Elvis on velvet to be beautiful but if you do, by all means hang it above the sofa. On the other hand, if a friend gave it to you as a joke, have a laugh, burn it, and send the ashes to Graceland. Whatever you do, don’t store it.
I claim no greater virtue on this issue. Like many Americans, I own more than I use, have boxes I’ve not opened in years, and possess things that I once thought were beautiful but don’t anymore. I doubt I can go cold turkey and just starting chucking everything. (Phoenix could!) But my New Year’s resolution is to turn back the hands of time and become a member of SPUG. I pledge that I will begin to wean myself of useless and non-beautiful things and work hard to resist adding to the household stash. The goal is to be lighter a year from today. Anybody else in on this? I’m thinking a SPUG support group.
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Everything on Gaby Moreno’s new release (her second) sounds old. Moreno is a bilingual artist who was raised in Guatemala. As a performer she’s a retro dynamo. Several of her Spanish songs draw on bossa nova beats and ranchero-style singing, but most sound like Latin-laced versions of the kind of small combo songs found on the soundtracks of Depression Era movies. That is, except for “Ave que Emigra,” her semi-autobiographical song about leaving Guatemala for New York; she makes no bones about the fact that Do Diddley was her influence on that one. I’d also hazard a guess that some Johnny Cash snuck in subconsciously. When Moreno switches to English, her whole demeanor changes. She’s still retro, but it’s a Motown well from which she draws. The slightly coquettish tones of her Spanish songs give way to lusty, big-voiced numbers. Check out “Mess a Good Thing” and you might think she morphed into Aretha Franklin! (Though she again throws us for a loop with the odd little song, “Mean Old Circus,” which evokes an 1890s musical hall.)
Whether all of this showcases her versatility or leaves her foundering for a clear musical identity is up for debate, but I found her an intriguing talent and admired her willingness to take chances. She’s an unsigned artist at present, but I doubt that will last long. Check out her Webpage; there are some samples there.
Life Itself: A Memoir. By Roger Ebert. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011.
Who, in the past twenty-five years, has done more to change the way we think of movies than Roger Ebert? More serious than the freakish Gene Shalit, less pretentious than Rex Reed, and more approachable than Pauline Kael, Ebert–and the late Gene Siskel–evolved a form of film criticism that might be labeled upper middlebrow: a way of accepting all screen images on their own merits. For Ebert, the question has never been whether a summer blockbuster or a kung-fu movie was the equal of Fellini or Bergman, but whether a movie is a good one within its genre. Two small measures of Ebert’s impact: On the weighty end of the scale, he was the first film reviewer to win a Pulitzer Prize. As for his impact on popular culture, who does not know the shorthand thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessment of a film? (Be careful if you use it; it’s copyrighted!) More recently, Ebert has become a hero for cancer survivors and the disabled; complications from a 2006 surgery for thyroid cancer cost him most of his jawbone and left him unable to speak or take nourishment through his mouth.
In Life Itself, Ebert leaves pity to others; he considers himself a man blessed by a good family, good education, serendipitous vocational fortune, rich professional relationships, dear friends, the blessings of late-in-life love, and the ongoing ability to view, muse upon, and write about movies. Ebert takes us from his Urbana, Illinois childhood and a University of Illinois education to his time in Europe, his luck in securing a job with the Chicago Sun-Times, his TV success with At the Movies, his marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith, and back to Urbana, where he runs an annual film fest. His descriptions of his early days with the Sun-Times are like outtakes of the 1931 film The Front Page, complete with crusty editors, frenetic newsroom energy, and wide open horizons for those energetic and talented enough to seize them. Ebert was a product of those freewheeling days; he freely admits that he knew almost nothing about cinema when he was assigned the Sun-Times’ film critic’s job in 1967. Equally compelling are his recollections of the gritty side of Chicago, its dive bars (including the Billy Goat, parodied by John Belushi) and the city’s colorful cast of characters, including John McHugh, Mike Royoko, and Studs Terkel.
Movie fans will find numerous delightful anecdotes. Ebert speaks glowingly of those who touched him personally, and what an eclectic mix it is: Pauline Kael, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Martin Scorcese, Werner Herzog…. If there is any doubt about Ebert’s catholic tastes, consider that he thinks that both Ingmar Bergman and soft-porn king Russ Meyer were geniuses! And, of course, there is plenty about Gene Siskel (1946-1999), his TV sidekick, the urbane counterpoint to his own frumpy demeanor, and a man who was, variously, his mentor, cherished friend, and nemesis—often within a span of days.
Ebert’s willingness to admit to a love-hate relationship with Siskel is emblematic of the warts-and-all approach to his memoir. He is equally candid about past struggles with alcoholism, his sexual adventures and misadventures, his fascination with African-American women, his agnosticism, his grueling surgeries, and his own mortality. The major downside to the book is structural, not unfiltered candor. Neither chronological nor thematic, it’s a randomly distributed mélange of views and memories, many of which first appeared on the popular blog he began when he lost his physical voice. One wishes his editor had arranged the chapters in something approaching a logical sequence, as the book’s scattershot presentation often makes for disjointed reading. In some cases, full understanding of the chapter requires some knowledge of events and people that have not yet been introduced.
That said, though, it would be a big mistake to dismiss this book as one merely about its author. There are deeply moving selections about dealing with illness, of mentally conjuring the taste of foods never again to be savored, of what it meant to grow up in a unit that exuded for-real family values, what it feels like to be transported by a movie, and what it means to contemplate death. Ebert has long educated us on the glories of film; in late life he’s now helping us see our inner selves with greater clarity.
BATTLEFIELD BAND; ALAN REID
Temple Records 2104; 2103
The cover of the new Battlefield CD pictures the band posing in front a height chart, as if they were crime suspects. It’s a fun idea as we know this “line-up,” or do we? We see Sean O’Donnell (guitar/vocals), Alasdair White (fiddle/fretted instruments), and Mike Katz (bagpipes/whistles/guitar/cittern), but who is the tall man holding another set of pipes? That would be Ewen Henderson, who also plays the fiddle, whistles, and piano. He tips us off that we’ve seen the passing of an era; in 2010, Battlefield cofounder Alan Reid retired from Battlefield after 41 years. Battlefield can now throw two pipe kits or two fiddles at a time at us. The opening set, “Raigmore,” is a very cool one--edgy, loud, and ever-so-slightly dark and frenetic, with fiddles popping in an out like a man with a secret. It’s suggestive of future directions Battlefield might
take. Two others are “The Herring,” a bouncy cittern and fiddle-driven piece, and “The Pits,” a big-reel set that airs out the pipes. Two of the album’s songs are in Gaelic, a language in which Henderson is fluent. So is Battlefield alive and well? I think so. The new album also features a lot of quiet material, with many of them evoking the Boys of the Lough more than Battlefield’s backlist. The concluding “Me n’vin Bêlek, na Manac’h” stands as the bookend opposite of “Raigmore.” Solo fiddle sets the mood for a pastoral, wistful tune in which even the pipes are feathery and light, though they move the piece onto a more joyous plane. Good stuff, though also a hint of hesitancy. Label it new steps, but not yet full stride.
Not ready to go cold turkey on Alan Reid? No need; Recollection is an eighteen-track compendium of Reid originals, covers, and classics culled from the Battlefield backlist, plus a 1981 duo project with Brian McNeill. Can any of us hear songs such as “The Green Plaid,” “I am the Common Man,” or “The Gallant Grahams” and not hear Reid’s voice in our heads? And then there are songs he penned such as “The Dear Green Place,” “
Jock the Can,” and “The Arran Convict” that have become so well known that many people assume they are traditional songs. Savor this collection, but don’t file it under “nostalgia;” at age 61, Reid has left Battlefield but has no plans to hang up his pen or vocal cords. Recollection is just out there to tide us over until new projects appear.
Minnesota Lumberjack Songs
Two Tap Records 014
Brian Miller dons the cap of singing folklorist on Minnesota Lumberjack Songs. He saws into several old songbooks and into the repertoires of source singers to give a fine cross-section of the Irish and Scottish songs that made their way to the north woods. Of special interest are shanties, the term referencing logging cabins, not the high seas, though sea song fans will recognize that ditties such as “Save Your Money When You’re Young” have saltwater variants. Ditto parallels to mining songs. There are numerous “come-all-ye” ballads reminiscent of miner songs, and “The Mines of Cariboo” makes a direct connection in spinning the tale of a lad who drifted between 19th-century gold camps and left behind songs that migrated to Minnesota. Miller is a strong singer and a masterful instrumentalist (bouzouki, guitar, flute, harmonium). He enlists fine backing musicians and harmony singers on the album, but accordions, fiddles, and whistles stay in the background, as they should for ballads and narrative songs. Miller sings boldly and clearly, never losing sight of the fact that the tales are on display, not virtuosity. My personal favorite on this thoughtful collection is “The Shanty-Boy’s Alphabet,” a whimsical walk through a worker’s worldview one letter at a time. But, really, each song is a gem. And I can’t help dreaming of a lumberjack double bill with Miller representing Minnesota and Lissa Schneckenburger doing the honors for the Northeast US and Canada.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Fox-Searchlight, PG-13, 139 mins.
Let me begin with an admission: I’ve never liked Terrence Malick films. If The New World (2005) had been made thirty years earlier, it would have dissuaded me from majoring in history. The Tree of Life is analogous to the film that brought Malick to public attention, Days of Heaven (1978): gorgeous to view, but in the service of very little. The thinness of the script for Days of Heaven was forgivable because the story being told was small. Not so in The Tree of Life, where Malick wants us to ponder the origins of the universe and the nature of humanity. He’s trying to make an earthbound 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he ends up with something that’s revelatory in the way that an introductory philosophy class is enlightening to a college kid who has never before pondered anything bigger than himself.
To the degree that there is a story arc, the action is set in a post-World War II Waco, Texas suburb in which Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons are not living the American Dream. Pitt spouts the official line about opportunity, but he’s a failed inventor stuck in a factory job. He simultaneously covets wealth, but is deeply resentful of how obtaining it is linked to privilege. Chastain reveals the film’s thesis in a voice-over: there are two paths in life, the way of nature and the way of grace. Pitt is nature, an emotionally buttoned-down and frustrated loser in the struggle for existence who wishes to be tender but becomes a militaristic tyrant when he’s angry. Chastain is the way of grace–nurturing, kind and free-spirited, but also a passive bird easily knocked out of the air by her husband’s volcanic outbursts and the slings and arrows of life’s misfortunes.
Or maybe I should say that she’s a small dinosaur furtively grazing in primal fern forests, ever mindful of predators. I say this because Malick tries to make the O’Brien’s struggle analogous to the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on earth. Along the banks of the same river that runs near the O’Brien’s home we are transported millions of years back in time and see a small dinosaur soothing a wound. As the injured reptile lies in the shallow water it’s pined in place by a larger carnivore that ultimately releases it. (Gaffe alert: Shouldn’t that river have changed a bit more over several million years?)
Oh, I get it! The wounded dino is Mrs. O’Brien and her husband is the predator. Duh! If you find that contrived–and you should–consider also that the children see their parents as animus (the male Hero archetype) and anima (a Virgin Mary joy and goodness archetype). Each must choose his own path. You can forget the youngest child–who is there mainly because 50s’ families were supposed to have three kids–as the real drama is between the middle son who is like his mother, and the eldest, Jack, who is filled with self loathing because he’s a chip off the paternal block. Malick isn’t content merely to take us to the dawn of time, we must also go forward in our cinematic time machine, where we encounter Jack (Sean Penn) as a highly regarded architect whose personal life is in shambles. One must infer all of this, as Penn doesn’t say much; his is mostly a cameo role in which he walks about canyons of steel and glass looking morose. He’s allegedly musing upon the meaning of life because he’s gotten word that his middle brother, whom he abused as a child as surely as his father abused his mother, has died.
Sound pretentious? Wait; there’s more. Not content to offer primers on Social Darwinism and Jungian psychology, Malick gives us an ending that’s Hinduism for Beginners. Jack takes an elevator to the bottom floor (death?), exists into a rocky landscape, walks through a wooden door arch in the middle of nowhere, and encounters his birth family wading in shallow waters. Everyone is happy.
That is, everyone except those who sat through 139 minutes of such utter nonsense! Sorry if I gave away the ending, but it’s for your own good. Now you won’t be tempted to waste an entire evening. Why two stars? Score one for Chastain, who is transcendent in her underwritten role. A begrudging second for the painterly visuals.
The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, despite the fact that half the audience booed it. Why did it win? Maybe it even seemed “deep” to the shallow glitterati that turn up at places such as Cannes. I’ll be charitable and say that the film’s surfaces make one appreciate Malick as a visual artist. Too bad he doesn’t hire scriptwriters. A film about the origin of life shouldn’t feel as if you just watched it in real time.
Shadow and Light
John Doyle tours with Liz Carroll and in lineups such as Solas and the Karan Casey Band. But don’t you dare slap the label “side man” on him. After hearing Shadow and Light, you’ll be checking listings to see when Doyle’s headlining at a venue near you. Doyle is part of the muscular jazz-meets-skiffle-meets-trad guitar continuum pioneered by (the late) Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Like them, he makes really hard things sound smooth and easy. There is, for instance, the sweet “Little Sparrow,” which he penned for his daughter. At first it sounds like a simple little tune the likes of which might come from a backwoods picker. Then it hits you that it’s not a bird that’s flying up and down the strings. And if you really want to feel the heat, listen to his sizzling fingering on “The Curraghman.” Just as impressive are Doyle’s vocals and his composition skills. His tenor voice is at once comforting and expressive--perfect for musical storytelling. Among the tales is “The Arabic,” a song about his grandfather’s harrowing emigration from Ireland to America. Both guitar and voice roll and pitch like the doomed ship that deposited some passengers in a watery grave. It’s so vivid that you can close your eyes and see pictures in your head. What’s your pleasure? A transportation song? “Bound for Botany Bay” will answer. A warning about the evils of drink? Check out the Appalachian-flavored “Bitter Brew.” A little history? How about “Farewell to All That,” a musing on Robert Graves’ (tragic) memories of World War One? Throw in support from Compass vets such as Alison Brown, Stuart Duncan, and Todd Phillips and you’ve got one of the year’s finest records. In fact, it's probably my favorite album of 2011.
Go to John's Website to hear samples.
Once a band is declared buzz-worthy we’re supposed to love it, right? kindlewood has generated a lot of buzz, perhaps because their lead vocalist, Kelci Smith, is the sister of Joshua Tillman, the drummer for the even hotter Fleet Foxes. Well, count me among those who simply don’t “get” what this band intends. They package themselves as “alternative folk,” a term that means …? To my ears kindlewood is the acoustic analog of 60s and 70s art rock bands that generated attention by being so oblique and enigmatic that hipsters fearfully embraced them lest they expend all their cultural capital by admitting they hadn’t the foggiest idea about the band’s message.
There are some lovely parts to Desiderium but the album has so little shape or structure that each individual part is like a single drop of paint on a very large canvas–as if we were listening to the start of a Jackson Pollock painting. The songs are New Age in sentiment, the music is trippy but meandering, and Smith’s lead vocals are annoyingly nasal. The promo material evokes Simon & Garfunkel and Jeff Buckley, but kindlewood lack Paul Simon’s poetic and melodic gifts, Art Garfunkel’s harmonic magic, or Jeff Buckley’s range or dark edges. Aside from the unusual decision to incorporate a glockenspiel into the arrangements, kindlewood struck me as being a project in search of a concept.
Don’t take my word for it, listen to “This House.”
Directed by Lars von Trier
Zentropa Entertainments, 136 mins. R (nudity)
Let me be clear about this film – I have no idea what van Trier is trying to say. However, he says a great deal and lays on the mystery so thick it’s hard to breathe. Everything that happens is so unreal that it could be metaphor, heavy symbolism, both, neither, or something clear only to von Trier. The deal is this: Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet named Melancholia may or may not be on a collision course with Earth. The film opens with a spoiler – it’s the end of the film we appear to be watching, though the actual end of it is somewhat different. So we are actually beyond the end at the very beginning? Confused? I suspect you will be.
The two sisters are Justine–Kirsten Dunst in a typical von Trier role of damaged woman–and Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a more levelheaded character. The film’s first section is titled “Justine” and recounts her disastrous wedding day. She and her doting husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arrive late for her wedding dinner at a huge country house and grounds, where the entire film is set. (Film buffs will be amused at the Last Days in Marienbad reference in the house’s ground.) The party is fraught with discomfort, hilarity, unease and bewilderment featuring excellent cameos from Charlotte Rampling as Gaby, Justine’s angst-ridden, cynical mother, and John Hurt as Dexter, her fun-loving and slightly daft father. Against a backdrop of embarrassing speeches, the amoral designs of Justine’s advertising-industry boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), the first observations of Melancholia, Justine’s battles with personal demons, and the gathering impatience of brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) who is paying a king’s ransom for the reception, we witness Justine’s marriage dissolving before it’s even consummated (or at least consummated with Michael).
Part two, “Claire,” seems to probe her character in opposition to Justine’s. Claire is decent, nurturing, and levelheaded, though she too becomes more disturbed as Melancholia approaches. I confess that at this point I was struggling to piece together disparate scenes to form coherence. However, the cinematography was stunning and as a possible companion piece to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, to which there are filmic similarities, it left a sense of wonder over non-earthy things. But nothing was really taking shape except the fear of the travelling planet and I considered that maybe that was all there was to it!
But I’ll take some guesses here: that Melancholia is a metaphor for the inevitability of bad times? No, too glib. A portent of disasters to come? Way too simple. That the two sisters’ apparent behaviors are symptomatic of all over-emotional beings? That’ll never stick. So I confess I am puzzled. However, the film resonates with some visual mystery, and the performances are brilliant (especially Gainsbourg, though Dunst won a Best Actress award at Cannes). I guess it’s too much to expect von Trier to communicate in a direct fashion. Oddly threaded though the oblique screenplay is some very dark humor, but is that enough? In the London cinema where I saw Melancholia, there were seven others watching. In the adjoining cinema, Drive was sold out. Violence packs ‘em in.
Melancholia: A Response
* * * *
I agree with Lloyd that Melancholia was a mess in places, but for me it was a sublime mess. We’ve seen end-of-the-world films before, but never has it been filmed as beautifully as the opening five minutes of this film. It is, simply, an elegiac, poetic, and transformative piece of filmmaking. It’s so riveting, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine what Director Lars von Trier could have done to follow it.
Lloyd had trouble with the second part of the film; for me, von Trier stumbled in the first half. The wedding sequence simply takes too long to establish a single idea: that Justine embodies melancholia long before she’s heard of the eponymous Doomsday planet. Moreover, disastrous weddings are so clichéd that to establish Justine’s character through such a device seems especially hackneyed when juxtaposed to the bold opening.
I also agree with Lloyd that the film is, at best, enigmatic. I suspect von Trier wanted it to be that way. After all, if we really were facing the end of all time, how would we react? By leaving threads dangle, as it were, von Trier leaves us to ponder such things. It may not be as satisfying as the resolve-all-issues fare we’re force-fed at sticky-floored malls near you, but isn’t it a hell of a lot more honest?
Here’s my take on the film, though I freely confess that it’s speculative. I see Justine as Fate; she’s the Greek moira in one body. Have we ever considered what the Fates thought as they spun, measured, and cut the destinies of all others and finally got to the task of their own demise? And would not knowing it induce depression interspersed with despondency; that is, melancholia? Justine first realizes that she is the walking dead when her beloved horse refuses to cross a bridge; in folklore, ghosts cannot cross water.
I see Claire as the Spirit of Life, clinging desperately to hope, nurturing her son, and both literally and figuratively tending her garden to the bitter end. Surrounding Justine and Claire are cameos that represent the Seven Deadly Sins: the upper-class twits stuffing their faces as gluttony; Gaby is wrath pronouncing doom to any hint of happiness; her devil-take-care ex-husband Dexter is sloth, content to have fleshy women at his side as he overdoes already shopworn jokes; Michael is envy, desirous of Justine’s beauty and wealth, but too laconic to battle for her affections; the rapacious Jack is greed; Jack’s bootlick assistant Tim is lust, one so stupid that he confuses a depressed woman’s one-off with him as having had “good sex;” and the cocksure John is pride trying to will Melancholia out of harm’s way and whose courage falters in the wake of classic hubris.
Melancholia becomes, then, a clash between competing belief systems: ancient Greek, Medieval Latin Catholicism, modern-day cynicism, and humanitarianism. Lars von Trier also makes brilliant use of a Richard Wagner’ opera throughout (from Tristan und Isolde), music that is simultaneously dramatic and terrifying, yet dignified in a funereal fashion-–appropriate ambiguous music for a puzzling film. But von Trier does seem to be telling us one thing very clearly: when the end comes, no belief system will save us. The demise will be sudden, inevitable, and perhaps even beautiful.
Last week Thug-for-Life Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down in Yemen. It came at a time in which Egypt erupted again–this time with protesters pouring into the street to demand that the military hand over power to a civilian government. Meanwhile, in Syria, government troops fire on protesters. U.S. President Barack Obama went on the air to reiterate that his government was “behind the people” in Yemen, Egypt, and Syria. To which I retort, “Rookie!”
It’s weird being older than the president of the United States; sometimes I feel like I ought to take the prez into my office and for one of the firm-but-challenging discussions I’ve had with grad student with interesting ideas but little evidence to back them. Take a close look at the street celebration from Sana, Yemen’s capital, that greeted Saleh’s announcement. See anything missing? Now Google images of Cairo protests and tell me what’s not there. Do you see a single female face in the crowd? (How about burning Israeli and U.S. flags?)
Earlier this year I warned people not to get excited about Arab spring. Americans are told that Arab nations are on the road to redemption because they’ve held elections. What utter nonsense! At the risk of offending every liberal and most of the conservatives in North America, allow me to suggest that women in Egypt were better off under Hosni Mubarak, those in Yemen and Syria under Saleh and Assad respectively, and Iraqi females under Saddam Hussein. Only in Afghanistan have women done better since a change of government. Egypt is rocketing toward rule by the Muslim Brotherhood; its equivalent will take over in Yemen, and Iraq will devolve into further anarchy. None of this portends well for women. To put a point on it, power by the masses in the Muslim world means male tyranny–call it mislamgyny. (misogyny + Islam)
Idealism is to be commended, but it’s poor foreign policy unless it’s backed by something more substantial than nostrums. Jimmy Carter’s linkage of aid to human rights in Latin America is a rare example of morality-based policy that actually worked, but don’t look for a similar policy in the Middle East. The U.S. took the high moral ground in Latin America because loss of trade was offset by goodwill, but its Middle Eastern policy is single-minded and non-lofty: keep the oil flowing.
Spare all the piety about overthrowing dictators; the U.S. is happy to deal with thugs, as long as they’re our thugs. When Jeanne Kirkpatrick was Ronald Reagan’s advisor, she divided the strong-armed world into “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” nations in a lame attempt to parse the morality of dealing with monsters. In her twisted logic, it was fine to deal with “authoritarian” leaders because their tyranny was a “temporary” measure aimed at “stabilizing” their nations, as opposed to the permanency of “totalitarian” governments. It was bollocks, of course, but it did have the dubious virtue of putting national self-interest upfront. (Under Reagan, by the way, the U.S. did business with cuddly types such as Marcos in the Philippines and Pinochet in Chile, as well as–ahem–Saddam in Iraq and Osama bin-Laden in Afghanistan.) That damn fool George W. Bush managed to ruin even the self-interest policy in his needless and geopolitically stupid invasion of Iraq. (Good idea, Georgie boy, take down the only regional power that countered Iran.)
This brings me back to the current mess in the Middle East, where President Obama’s policy is crafted around neither self-interest nor morality. How blind must one be to overlook the reality that Middle Easterners seeking to overthrow their governments hate the United States? And how can anyone be so naïve as to think that an election means that the masses are right? Democracy often yields tyranny, not freedom. (Left to its own devices, the U.S. electorate would ban gay marriage, abolish affirmative action, sanction school prayer, expand the death penalty, dismantle income taxes, and overturn a host of environmental laws. It’s not clear it would approve the Bill of Rights if it could vote on it!) Get ready for the Muslim Brotherhood and groups even further to the right when elections are held in the Middle East. These governments will be anti-Semitic, anti-American, and deeply misogynist. I never thought I’d find myself rooting for Assad or the Egyptian military, but given a choice between secularism and mislamgyny, I know where my loyalties lie.
J. EDGAR (2011)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Brothers, 137 mins. Rated R (language, violence)
J. Edgar has been getting rave reviews from critics. Don’t fall for it; this film is flatter than a Herman Cain tax proposal. It is indifferently acted, weakly scripted, and unimaginatively directed. The film checks in at 137 minutes, but it feels much longer.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), whose rise to fame and infamy this film purports to trace. Director Clint Eastwood does this through a very tired filmic device-–flashbacks interspersed with the late-in-life writing of a memoir. DiCaprio is in every scene–as the ambitious and oily young Hoover, as the amoral and outdated older man, and as the omniscient voiceover for all of the linking passages. Phoenix thought he was convincing as Hoover–though she agrees the movie was dull–but I’m just not a DiCaprio fan. For me, he never quite manages to be anyone other than Leo and I no more bought him as Hoover than as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). I admit, though, he looked the part. I’d have no quarrels with this film winning makeup and costume Oscars, but if it wins much of anything else, it may be time to write Hollywood’s epitaph.
One of the film’s subthemes is the relationship between Hoover and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film takes as a given that which remains speculative among Hoover biographers: that Hoover and Tolson were lovers. And that’s about all it does. Their love is (or isn’t) consummated off-screen, as is virtually every other bit of action that might give us insight into Hoover’s character. I suppose we’re supposed to conclude that Hoover became a Machiavellian monster because he tried to sublimate and hide his homosexuality and that he felt compelled to win the love of his unapproving and domineering mother (Judi Dench as Anna Marie Hoover), but there is not enough depth to writer Dustin Lance Black’s script to convince us of this. Eastwood’s clunky direction doesn’t help; he truncates potentially revelatory dialogue in favor of moving us back into the compilation of Hoover’s memoir. (I can think of few less interesting ways of making a film than watching someone dictate thoughts to a typist.) What could have been a semi-interesting history lesson get lost as well; Eastwood deforms dramatic events from the past into little more than potted plants lurking in the background. To pick just one example, the film begins with Hoover’s obsession with stymieing a 1919 Bolshevik plot to bring down the government. We see a few bombs go off, including one that almost killed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. But the only “villain” we see exposed comes during a brief segment of Emma Goldman refusing to answer questions at her deportation trial. We certainly do not learn that most of the offices the Justice Department raided belonged to innocent members of the Industrial Workers of the World, immigrant social clubs, and anti-communist socialists.
A history lesson is merely among the things this film could have been but isn’t. It’s also not a convincing portrait of a tortured soul, not a searing exposé of the rise of a demagogue, not a revelation of gay life in the stay-in-the-closet years, not a blow-the-lid off divulgation of justice miscarried in high places, and not a penetrating look at a relic out of step with the times. To my eyes, it was just Leo trying to appear weighty (both figuratively and literally).
My vote for the best acting in the film goes to Naomi Watts for her role as personal secretary Helen Gandy. She takes very thin material–Black’s underwritten script–and emerges as an enigmatic character. If Tolver is the right hand, she’s the left. Watts plays her sparse role with icy efficiency, leaving us to wonder if she’s loyal to Hoover because she shares his paranoiac values, or whether she’s simply savvy enough to calculate that the antidote to powerlessness in a pre-feminist world is to be the puppet mistress.
Here’s the ultimate measure of this film’s lameness; I did not walk out hating Hoover. I should have; he was a despicable man who undermined American democracy in the guise of saving it. I hated the real SOB when he was alive, but I simply couldn’t care less about the cartoon cutout I saw on the screen. Label this one a bore and a snore.