Western MA Banish Misfortune's Homegrown Celtic Music

No Strangers Here
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Since time immemorial Celtic music has been learned, honed, and perfected in gatherings known as sessions–informal get-togethers held in kitchens and pubs. The Western Massachusetts sextet Banish Misfortune is such a band. I can recall hearing them in the early days when some of them were learning new instruments and, other than being mostly in the same key, much of what they did was play around each other rather than with each other. To paraphrase an old advertising slogan, baby look at them now. That’s how sessions work—tunes are shared, ideas get discussed, kinks are worked out, and before you know it, synergies emerge. Banish Misfortune now takes its show on the road and you can literally feel the musical pulse getting stronger. Also firmly within the sessions spirit, many of the tunes we here are drawn from a traditional well and are familiar—community-based music is rooted in participation, not showcasing. For instance, the band opens with a familiar Turlough O'Carolan tune "Planxty Fanny Power," a perfect set piece for a coordinated mix of fiddle, flute, whistle, accordion and guitar. The famed blind Irish harper gets covered again later on, though "Máire Dhall" is given a quieter solo flute treatment from T. J. Ezold, before the band joins back in for a spritely take on "Rolling in the Rye Grass." Most of the tunes covered are traditional jigs, reels, and waltzes. Especially strong are the "Pigeon on the Gate" and "Silver Spear" sets, both of which are lively and finish big. The vocals on this CD are likewise plucked from old fields and includes: "Rambling Irishman," "Wild Mountain Thyme," and "Isle of Innisfree." The vocals can charitably be described as more heartfelt and earnest than smooth or polished, but keep in mind that everything on this album comes from people with others lives and are not professional musicians. Even the rougher moments are in keeping with the idea that music not shared is just a monolog. –Rob Weir

Postscript: The band discussed above is from Western Massachusetts. Here is their Facebook page. The name comes from one of the best known of all Irish jigs, hence there are numerous bands bearing the same name in North American, England, and Ireland.Also, for those unfamiliar with the term, "planxty" means a tune written as a tribute to another person.

Disclaimer: I have known guitarist David Meuser for many years. He's a great guy, like everyone in the lineup except for Kira Jewett, who is a great gal!


Overlooked Fims: The Monuments Men

Directed by George Clooney
Columbia Pictures, 118 minutes, PG-13
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Great story in a not-so-great film
I avoided this one when it came out because I heard it wasn't very good. That's true. It's also not terrible—it's a classic Hollywood middle-of-the-road star vehicle. It's riddled with problems, but it's also a good way to pass a few hours on a slow night. (I saw it after a heavy meal on an evening too cool to walk it off!)

The Monuments Men is based (all too) loosely on the eponymous non-fiction book by Robert Edsel, which recounts the fascinating story of Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program formed in the waning days of World War II. As most know, the Nazis looted tens of thousands of works of art from museums and homes in vanquished lands. All were destined for what was supposed to be the crowning jewel of Hitler's Third Reich: a massive Fuhrermuseum in Berlin. By 1944, it was clear that would not happen and rumors circulated of Hitler's "Nero decree" to destroy everything if the Reich fell. The Monuments Men were charged with finding and saving as much as they could. Especially at risk was "degenerate art" created by Jews and those considered to be of low character (like Van Gogh).

There were several dozen Monuments Men, but Clooney's film reduces them to a gang of seven, of whom all are composite figures except for Clooney in the role of Frank Stokes and Jean Dujardin (of "The Artist") in the role of Jean Claude Clermont. The rest of the cast was chosen largely for their star power: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey"), Bob Balaba, and Dimitri Leonidas. Cate Blanchett appears as Claire Simone, an art curator in Occupied France forced to aid the Nazis, though that character is also based loosely on others. What ensues is a combination buddy film and race against time, with pieces of art such as the Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna holding (often heavy-handed) metaphorical significance.

Keep in mind that this film takes more liberties than a drunken sailor. It is decidedly not an accurate historical telling of the MFAA program; for that you need to go to Edsel, where you'll find out, among other things, that a lot of the art was saved by either intrepid locals or by guilt-ridden Nazis who defied orders to destroy it. It is also fair to chide Clooney for shifting the focus from the art to male bonding rituals. One might forgive him for this too, if he hadn't scripted much of those relationships as if they were an extended Hogan's Heroes episode. It was also a mistake to cast so many well-known actors. Put simply, you don't hire Blanchett, Damon, Goodman, et. al. and not give them screen time. The film feels cluttered, despite the fact that the major characters were pared in number. 

All of this is to say that The Monuments Men isn't great filmmaking. It is, however, a terrific story about a little-known subject whose history should be told. Recent acts of art barbarism committed by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS are poignant reminders of the fragility of what gets labeled "civilization." Would that Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq had their own Monuments Men to protect their heritage from modern-day fascists in headscarves.

The Monuments Men is an imperfect telling of a heroic effort. At times Clooney's direction borders on inept and he sure as hell could have used some scholars to prevent him from making freshman mistakes (like color slides in the 1940s). But the next time you admire a Monet, a Van Gogh, a Klimt, a Raphael, or a Rembrandt, think of the MFAA. For all its flaws, The Monuments Men reminds us of what could have been lost forever. Like I said, an imperfect telling, but an important tale.—Rob Weir


Tintseltown: Hollywood's Always Been a Tough Town!

Tintseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. By William J. Mann. New York: Harper, 2014.

Who killed Billy Taylor? Investigators, conspiracy theorists, and scholars have been asking this question since 1922, when William Desmond Taylor, president of the Motion Pictures Directors Association, was discovered in his Los Angeles bungalow with a .38 slug fired from close range lodged in his body. Writer William J. Mann–known for his biographies of Hollywood luminaries such as Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Streisand–is the latest to finger a culprit. Although be builds a meticulous case for his suspect, he probably won't convince those invested in a different suspect. It's of little consequence, as the greater value of Mann's lies in its vivid portrayal of Hollywood in the silent era. 

Celebrity scandals, infidelity, substance abuse, bad behavior, and innuendo are the lifeblood of today's tabloid- and paparazzi-fueled culture, but those who consider Hollywood to be a modern-day Gomorrah will learn from Mann's book that it was always thus. His Hollywood is a literal Tintseltown–shiny and glamorous on the surface, but with a tawdry interior of casual sex, rampant drug use, ruthless ambition, backroom abortions, hard drinking, and poorly kept secrets. The biggest difference between then and now is that there were more powerful Americans disgusted by Hollywood immorality than fascinated by it. The history of the 1920s is often poorly refracted through a Jazz Age lens, a perspective that pays too little attention to surging fundamentalism, Prohibition, social intolerance, and the disproportionate political power held by rural conservatives. In short, powerful groups of religious and political moralists sought to cleanse American society and Hollywood was one of their main targets.

In 1922, the Hollywood film industry was not yet a decade old and movies themselves not much older. As numerous film historians have noted, early films were often more risqué than they would become when movies migrated from down-market working-class neighborhoods and into middle-class theaters. Not coincidentally, the industry consolidated into precisely the vertical monopolies attacked by Progressive Era reformers. By 1922, Adolph Zukor's Paramount Pictures was aptly named, and Zukor was so powerful that friends and foes alike nicknamed him "Creepy." Among Mann's fascinating insights is Zukor's megalomaniacal obsession with rival, Marcus Loew, who was as affable as Zukor was cold.

Zukor 's greatest insight was his realization that changing Hollywood's image was necessary to fend off regulators and moralists. Hollywood had serious PR problems, including starlet Mabel Normand's publicized cocaine addiction, Wallace Reid's dependence on morphine, the poisoning death of Olive Thomas, and the rape/murder accusation against comic actor Fatty Arbuckle, one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Although acquitted, Zukor sacrificed Arbuckle's career to keep moralists at bay. He also engineered the elevation of Will Hays to the post of president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America in charge of censoring movie content–just enough to get regulators off Zukor's back, but not enough to dull salacious consumers. Mann argues that Hays was not the prude of legend. He took his job seriously but, if anything, he was star-struck and prone to follow Zukor's lead.

Director Billy Taylor was a fulcrum around which all that was promising and unseemly about Hollywood revolved. Mabel Normand, the last person known to see Taylor alive, acted in several Taylor films and, depending on whom one asked, was either a dear friend, a former lover, or a murderous revenge-seeker. She certainly kindled the jealousy of Mary Miles Minter, an ingénue in love with and obsessed by Taylor. Minter was also rumored to be a Taylor paramour–troubling, as she would have been just 16 when their alleged affair began. Minter's stage mother, former Broadway actress Charlotte Selby, believed the scuttlebutt and made numerous threats against Taylor. Margaret Gibson also harbored a grudge; she made four films for Taylor under the name of Patricia Palmer, before he dumped her because of a reprobate life that included running con games, consorting with organized crime, prostitution, and drug use. And Taylor had a passel of secrets of his own, including his birth identity and his bisexuality. The latter cast suspicion upon his flamboyantly gay black valet, but Gibson made a deathbed confession to the murder in 1964. Mann isn't buying any of those suspects and identifies a different culprit.

Tintseltown is a real-life Day of the Locust. It's a history book and could be usefully pared back in length, but it is frequently as gripping as a work of fiction. Mann shows that the Hollywood Dream Machine has always been just a fantasy.
Rob Weir