Pleasant Street Theater Closes

Death of a Theater

I needed a little time before writing this and, even now, the sadness lingers. Last weekend I attended the final screening at the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts. Its closing came on the heels of two other shockers, the demise of Pleasant Street Video, and the decision to discontinue nightly movies at the Academy of Music. For the first time in over 100 years, there is no movie house in Northampton.

Intellectually I understand that tastes and technologies change. Spiritually I grasp the reality that life itself is transitory. The Buddhists call it anicca, the notion that nothing is permanent. I tried my damndest to immerse myself in the tributes and memories shared by former owners and patrons of “P Street,” as we locals dub it. Despite my best efforts, the celebration felt more like a wake.

Americans like to take solace in two ideas: that change is desirable, and that we live in a world in which the march of history is a constant uphill trudge from primitive to positive progress. We take solace, but I doubt we really believe either of these things as much as we say we do. I’m no Luddite-–How could a Luddite even write a blog?–but I just don’t see the age of the iPad, video-on-demand, and Netflix as an improvement over places like P Street. Spin it as you wish, but in my mind the closing of the Pleasant Street Theater is nothing less than a tumble down Progress Hill and an impoverishment of art, community, and the spirit.

I concede that P Street had issues–it needs new projectors, it’s not handicapped accessible, and the downstairs space­–optimistically dubbed the Little Theater–had a tiny screen, poor sight lines, and so many uncomfortable seats that a lot of folks preferred their widescreen TVs to sitting down there. I know that it would take more to improve P Street than the cost of knocking it down and starting anew. I also confess to being a romantic who is a bit out of touch with modern preferences. In Generica (my term), most viewers like those standardized mall boxes, not P Street’s funky brick-walled ambience. They like blast-the-eardrums wrap-around sound, not quirky equipment that needs tweaking; they want seats that tilt, not wobble.

For all of that, I still think that film ought to be a public event shared with friends and family and discussed at cafes after the screening, not discrete experiences viewed in private living rooms or soul-sucking malls. Art is, above all, a shared heritage, not an act of solitary cultural masturbation. The death of small theaters correlates with the impoverishment of art. One of the things that Generica does is narrow our scope, options, and vision. P Street’s final film was, appropriately, a screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 masterpiece “The Last Picture Show.” I saw it right after watching Fellini’s “Roma.” I saw the latter on DVD, so I guess that makes me a bit of a hypocrite, but the larger point is that without venues such as Pleasant Street it’s unlikely I would ever heard of either film. Each is everything Generica is not–experimental, offbeat, and provocative. Each elevated art over commercialism. “The Last Picture Show” is even in black and white, for heaven’s sake, and don’t get me started on the ways in which Fellini films would never pass TV muster. (The nudity alone would kibosh them.)

Why should we care? Check out the bland fare offered at your local mall and you have your answer. Is that level of flabbiness and mindlessness all that we want from that once-robust and diverse entity we call American culture? In theory, of course, one can get anything on video, as I did with “Roma.” Ah, but this where theory meets reality. We all know the adage “Out of sight, out of mind.” We repeat it because it’s true. One could request any of a number of films, but how does one learn of their existence? Reviews? How often do you read a review of something not appearing in your area?

Small venues like the Pleasant Street Theater expanded our horizons by exposing us to filmmakers who waded outside of the mainstream. They challenged us, made us think, and opened doors we would have otherwise never approached. They didn’t show “movies;” they showed “films” and, yes Virginia, there is a difference–a world of difference. Here in Northampton, our world just grew smaller and less interesting. --Rob Weir


A Tribe Called Red Raises the Innovation Bar

A Tribe Called Red
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And now for something completely different…. What would you get if you mashed up three Native DJs (NDN, DJ Shub, and the deliciously named Bear Witness), some Native voices, a roomful of electronics, and a postmodernist/post-tribal imagination? It would probably sound a bit like A Tribe Called Red, and I’ll be damned if they’ve invented a label to describe it, though they call it “Pow Wow Step.” It’s heavy on loops, drums, keening, and electronica, but other influences pop in as well; “Shottas,” for example, has clear reggae roots. The label is called Soundcloud, which is apt for the experimental soundscaping done on each of the eleven tracks. “Red Skin Girl,” for instance, has piercing, primal female screams mixed amidst scratches, and electronic bleeps and beeps; “General Generations” loops echoed historical and modern voices and serves them from an electronic soup bowl; and “MoombahWow” is rave-meets-pow wow. Hip-hop, club, and dance beats are in evidence throughout, and form the staple of weekly performances in Ottawa, where the ensemble is based. As innovation, production, and spectacle, this is fascinating stuff. At eleven tracks, though, it may be a bit too much for the ears when taken from its club context. But here’s the best part: You can try it for yourself; the entire album can be downloaded for free at www.electricpowwow.com
Rob Weir


No "United" in the United States

Several years ago I had dinner with Dick Gaughan, a Scottish musician acquaintance. (That’s pronounced Gawwk’n for those of you who are Scots-impaired.) Dick, an old lefty, led off the conversation with the provocative remark, “The United States is breakin’ up, lad.” Not to be outdone by another’s glib remark I retorted, “Really, Dick? I’ve not seen the memo.” Don’t mess with the pros; Gaughan came back with this gem (assume a Scottish accent): “Seriously, man. You’re from Massachusetts and I’m from Scotland, but I’ve just come from Texas and I you and I have way more in common than you have with anyone in Texas!”

Gaughan was right; aside from the occasional system shocker such as 9/11, there is no such place as the United States of America. The USA is a repository of atomized individuals, special interest groups, clashing ideals, and regional variations masquerading as a nation. There is nothing that unites us other than the U.S. dollar–no ideology, no shared values, no mutual concerns, and certainly no common god. On the latter score, I must admit that I don’t give a damn what happens in Bible Belt regions such as South Carolina or South Dakota. In my heart of hearts, I sincerely doubt God would have ‘em if the Rapture they await actually happened!

The only thing wrong with Gaughan’s claim is that it lacked perspective. Our current red state/blue state rhetoric is merely a public acknowledgement of what has long been the case. Back in 1981, the year Reagan assumed the presidency, journalist Joel Garreau published The Nine Nations of North America, a frothy little volume that broke down the continent into regions that shared values and culture. He correctly identified, for instance, that northern Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire were part of greater Quebec, just as much of the Southwest and southern California belonged to “Mexamerica,” and “Dixie” was a nation unto itself. 

Fast forward to 2011, the year writer Colin Woodard published American Nations. Garreau’s study was mostly sociological in nature; Woodard’s contribution is historical. He notes that there really never was a United States. From the outset, settlements in the Chesapeake, Deep South, Appalachia, the New Netherlands, and New England were more different from each other than from their parent nations. The American Revolution served to magnify, not obliterate, those differences, and Manifest Destiny merely added greater diversity. In Woodard’s telling, what we call the United States is an abstraction based on two events of great symbolic (but mythic) importance: the Revolution and the forced repatriation of the Civil War. Moreover, he argues that Garreau was overly charitable; there are eleven distinct regions, not nine. (See above map.) I have quibbles with some of Woodard’s borders–I’d include most of Eastern Canada in an entity I’d dub Greater New England, for instance–but he’s just as right as Gaughan; the United States is an abstraction rooted in myth and sentiment, not reality.

This brings me peace of mind concerning the upcoming presidential election. I think it very likely that Mitt Romney will win–and by a comfortable margin. Such a prospect would have distressed me in the past. Romney is a despicable man; he’s a smug, dishonest, dissembling, rapacious venture capitalist whose values lay on Wall Street and the Cayman Islands, not Main Street or Rhode Island. He will be a Mormon version of George W. Bush who will pack the Supreme Court, gut personal liberties, dismantle Obamacare, line the already gilded pockets of robber barons, and send young folks off to foolhardy wars.

So why am I not worried? Because Romney will do it all of this in the name of a phantom, the United States. I don’t live there; I live in Massachusetts (or “Yankeedom,” if you prefer). We’ll still have gay marriage, free speech, reproductive rights, state healthcare mandates, labor unions, and weekly protests against every damn war Romney concocts. We’ll also be way better educated and have far higher wages than the fools in Greater Appalachia, the pious and pompous in Dixie, or the libertarians in the Far West. That’s because we’re really Canadians at heart, which is what we’d be politically in a world in which logic ruled rather than inertia and myth.

Here’s the memo: The United States doesn’t exist.