Eight Days a Week a Ron Howard Masterpiece

Directed by Ron Howard
Abramorama/Hulu (97minutes—127* mins. with concert footage; Not Rated)

Think you know everything about The Beatles? Even if you actually do, see Ron Howard's stunning documentary spotlighting the band's touring years from 1962 to 1966. This film deserves to be ranked among the greatest music documentaries of all time, and it might be the best film Ron Howard has yet made.

Howard has made some decent films, but he can be like Ken Burns when he's more gee whiz than that's how it is. Not this time. The documentary's unstated theme is an affirmation of William Wadsworth Longfellow's dictum, "whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." Few filmmakers have before captured mass hysteria as well as Howard. His is a veritable Day of the Locust populated by swooning teens, paparazzi, clueless adults, and calculating music industry titans. It comes to us on–breathe slowly, graying friends–the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' last official concert.

Howard mines a familiar tale, but as the Brits say, it's what he's done with it. Howard assumes his audience will know a lot about the band's rise from the slums of Liverpool to Berlin to the top of the pop charts. For that reason, he chooses to mess with chronology. The film actually opens in 1963, and then flashes back or springs forward depending upon the threads he wishes to tease out. In this Howard accomplishes a delicate balancing act–he imposes structure on chaos. Once we get the idea that The Beatles were as much an out-of-control phenomenon as a highly polished musical act, Howard lulls us back to a more conventional narrative. There are, though, a few surprising insights, beginning with the fact that our four Liverpudlians were very ambitious–none more so than John Lennon. A few others emerge. Ringo Starr is sometimes maligned, but all three of his mates viewed him as the reason the band gelled. Perhaps the biggest revelation is that, without ever making an overt comment, Howard lays to rest the hoary myth that some sort of rift between Paul and John did in The Beatles. For three magic years (1962-65) the band could do no wrong: albums and hit singles flowed like wine, concert crowds swelled, and the money poured in. It's imprecise to say that hubris took over, given how successful and beloved The Beatles became, but the hidden costs of fame certainly exacted a toll. We watch four very close friends go from carefree to world-weary before our eyes. Or should I say their eyes? Their fresh faces, Edwardian sheen, and sparkling gazes gave way to worried brows, grungy appearances, and eye bags. Forget all those Yoko Ono the Destroyer stories; The Beatles unleashed a pop culture tidal wave that had to crest and crash.

George Harrison was the first to burn out, stating in 1965 that touring simply wasn't any fun any more. There is a marked contrast between the first Ed Sullivan Show appearance in February of 1964 and the 1965 Shea Stadium concert (which youthful Whoppi Goldberg attended). At Shea, the boys are like deer in the headlights. Ringo relates that they had no monitors and that the crowd was screaming so loudly that they couldn't hear each other and Starr kept the beat by watching the movements of John's rear end. No one else heard very well either. Shea was the first stadium rock concert and amps and mics were simply pumped into the stadium PA system! The sound editing for this film is terrific, however–you'll hear concert footage in your theater seat far better than anyone in the day could. But the overall craziness of the touring years was such that you wonder why The Beatles went on the road for as long as they did. Short answer: By 1965 they were no longer just as band; The Beatles were a commodity with as many shares in the hands of others as their own. And then they stopped. Aside from the famed 1969 appearance on Apple Corps' rooftop, The Beatles appeared only in studios–where they made some of the finest music Western society has ever produced.

Any movie that tells a story we already know and keeps us enthralled is a great film. If Paul Crowder doesn't win an Oscar for editing, the Academy should be collectively arrested for theft. He and Howard deftly patch archival footage, stills, interviews, and subtle animation in stunning ways. Watch carefully for moving smoke in several stills, and pay very close attention when the cacophonous opening of "A Day in the Life" starts, as it's the build up to a truly inspired piece of editing. 

This film will make Baby Boomers feel young again and might make Millennials suspect they missed something really special. They did! Pay no attention to snobby revisionists who whine that The Beatles didn't matter or that they were overrated. Howard's film drives home the depth of their mastery and impact. It also provides amazing insights into pop culture, who controls it, and what happens when nobody does. Oh yeah—think about the movie/song title after you see the film. Just make sure you do.  

Rob Weir

* The documentary is 97 minutes, but watch the credits. When I do an interview, I seldom get more complex than asking, "Is it okay if I tape this?" Count how many people were needed to do Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr interviews that are just talking heads, and ponder whether stars control their own destinies. After the credits roll, watch the 30-minute edited version of the 1965 Shea Stadium concert.   


Benjamin Harrison vs. Rutherford B. Hayes: Pairing Presidents XV

Benjamin Harrison versus Rutherford B. Hayes:
Pairing Presidents XV

Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68) is credited with quipping, “There’s less to him than meets the eye.” That witticism is tailor-made for Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81), two terrible presidents.

Full disclosure: I am a long time member of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), headquartered at the Rutherford B. Hayes Center in Ohio. But no conflict of interest—Hayes gets no love from me!

How they are similar:

Both talked a better game on matters of race than they played. Both were Republicans, but neither did Abe Lincoln proud. Hayes came to the White House after the crooked election of 1876. There is no way to parse this: Hayes’s operatives flat-out stole twenty electoral votes (FL, SC, LA) even though his Democratic opponent Samuel J. Tilden easily won the popular vote.  The election was so crooked it made the 2000 Bush-Gore nightmare look like a model of democracy. Bribe money flowed through Congress like the fetid waters of a backed-up toilet. The only mediating factor was that Democrats also tried to buy the election; they just weren’t as good at it. Still, Hayes went to bed on election night thinking he had lost and recorded in his diary that he didn’t mind losing, though he felt badly for the “poor colored citizens” who would suffer under a Democratic presidency.

Hayes’s remorse didn’t last long. Once the fix was in, he signed off on the Compromise of 1877 in which Democrats agreed to allow Hayes to occupy the White House if Hayes removed all federal troops from the former Confederacy. This marked the official end of Reconstruction and the final triumph of Jim Crow segregation and second-class citizenship for African Americans. Hayes is the president who abandoned federal commitment to racial justice, the prevailing practice for the next 75years. Hayes wasn’t very good re: Native Americans either. Numerous tribes were dispossessed and forced onto reservations. Most infamously, Hayes authorized pursuit of the Nez Perce tribe led by Chief Joseph as he sought to remove his people to Canada. Their flight was stopped just short of safety, and Joseph’s surrender speech now stands as a metaphor for the tragedy that befell most Great Plains tribes. There are only two bright spots in Hayes’s racial record. He did veto the Chinese Exclusion Act when it came across his desk in 1879. Alas, his veto simply encouraged anti-Chinese hysteria, including attacks on Asians, and Congress passed it anew in 1882, after Hayes was out of office. His most outstanding achievement was the appointment of John Marshall Harlan to the SCOTUS; in 1896, Justice Harlan was the only court member to vote against the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision on segregation. 


The majority decision was written by Justice Henry Billings Brown, who was appointed by Harrison, and that tells you all you need to know about the depth of his commitment to civil rights. Harrison always claimed to be in favor of improving life for African Americans and even gave oral support to what would have been a 19th century version of the Voting Rights Act and another advancing black education. Both bills would have required a much stronger president than Harrison to get them out of Congress. You can imagine the fate of his proposed Constitutional amendment that would have overturned the SCOTUS 1883 decision that declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Harrison didn’t even bother when it came to Indian policy. The Ghost dances and the massacre of Wounded Knee occurred on his watch. He also tried to annex Hawaii, but it was left undone when he left office in 1893, and Grover Cleveland quashed the effort. (William McKinley revived it.) 

Both men were pro-business and anti-labor. Hayes rightly earned the ire of wage earners. He was (probably) the first president to use the U.S. military to crush a labor strike, which he did during the nationwide Great Railroad Strike of 1877. There was very little violence until Hayes kowtowed to railroad robber barons and sent troops against workers. His craven act led to the deaths of more than a hundred workers. Enraged workers retaliated with acts of sabotage that led to the loss of untold millions of dollars. Worse, Hayes set the precedent that the federal government was no longer an impartial party in capital/labor disputes. Organized capital came to demand that action be taken to smash strikes. This made U.S. labor history the bloodiest of any Western industrial democracy.

Harrison was nearly as bad. The 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act was passed to curtail business monopolies; the Harrison administration seldom found business interests to be illegal restraints of trade, but it did apply tortured logic to crack down on labor unions. This established a precedent not fully overturned until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. It also undid many of the workplace and ballot box gains made during the 1885-86 Great Upheaval. The Knights of Labor, the nation's largest labor federation, was reduced to near impotency courtesy of Harrison. Several very bad strikes nonetheless took place, including the 1890 New York Central strike and the 1892 Homestead Steel strike.

Neither president was much kinder to farmers. Hayes's decision to crush the 1877 railroad strike left intact the very industrial juggernaut that most repressed farmers. Moreover, his veto of the Bland-Allison Act kept the U.S. firmly on the gold standard instead of adopting bimetallism, which would have made it much easier for farmers to pay off their debts. Ironically, the bill would have also softened many of the monetary problems that plagued Harrison and Cleveland and contributed to the Panic of 1893. His signature on the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was too little, too late and hastened the onset of depression.

Harrison's high import taxes (McKinley Tariff) hurt export-minded farmers. He also did very little to combat a ban on U.S. pork (shades of a contemporary problem!), which was (falsely) thought to be unsafe. The allegation of the time–largely correct–was that GOP Congressmen personally benefitted from Harrison's pro-business/high tariff policies, and the House of Representatives– dubbed the Billion Dollar Congress–reverted to Democratic control in 1890. Harrison's presidency was the final straw that led to the formation of a national People's Party ("Populists") in 1892, one far more sympathetic to laborers and farmers.

Both men struggled with foreign policy, especially in Latin America. Hayes invoked the Monroe Doctrine to discourage French canal plans in Panama  (then part of Venezuela). He also authorized U. S. troops to enter Mexico in pursuit of bandito border raiders. On a positive note, he marshaled a diplomatic settlement of a war between Paraguay and Argentina.

Harrison nearly went to war with Chile when simmering disputes led to the deaths of two U.S. sailors of shore leave. His administration also endured tense relations with Canada over fishing rights off the coast of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and with Germany over Samoa. He also struggled (and often failed) to develop reciprocity treaties with European powers to counter the effects of his high tariffs.

How they were different:

Although both claimed to be in favor of civil service reform, Hayes tried to do more about it. He battled a GOP patronage faction (Stalwarts) led by Roscoe Conkling, who usually got the better of Hayes, but Hayes did succeed in removing several notorious grafters. Ironically, one was Chester Arthur, who later enacted important reforms. Hayes also fired Postmaster-General Thomas J. Brady, though he was exonerated of corruption charges. Harrison cooperated with the spoils system, though this led the Billion Dollar Congress to lose power, ushered in gridlock, and ended what little effectiveness Harrison had. Nor did it escape notice that the six new states admitted under Harrison (ND, SD, MN, ID, WY, WA) benefitted the GOP and provided patronage opportunities.

Harrison was more environmentally conscious and his longest lasting achievement was the Land Revision Act of 1891, which allowed the federal government to add abandoned lands to the public domain.

Harrison gave the pensions to disabled vets that Cleveland had been loath to grant.

Hayes is a minor folk hero among term limit advocates for keeping his pre-election promise that he would not run for a second term. 

Do you care that Harrison's was the first presidential voice ever recorded (wax cylinder)? Didn't think so.


Oddly, Hayes is currently ranked slightly higher (#25) than Harrison (#29). Sorry, SHGAPE folks, but Hayes is among our absolute worst presidents. One need look no further than the impact of ending Reconstruction and his assault on working people to see his as a presidency with long-term negative effects. In my mind, presidents whose actions have negative repercussions deserve to be ranked lower than those who are merely inept. Dump Hayes to the lower tier.

Harrison might have been better if he had more spine than a Teddy bear fashioned from Jell-O, but he didn't. Tallulah Bankhead's words resonate when I think of either man.

Rob Weir


Nate Currin, Wylder, Rebecca Loebe, The Bourgeois, Elephant Stone, and (especially) Jameson Elder

Rock On

Remember when rock was rock, country was country, and pop was a separate genre? Then things got complicated. One of the things Nashville got right was deciding that hat acts needed great bands behind them. There were always a few around–like the Charlie Daniels Band—but the rise of Garth Brooks in the 1980s spawned the "New Country" phenomenon that obliterated the line between rock and country. Then along came "indie" and "alternative," which mean–well, who the hell knows what they mean? Here are several new releases. Click on the links and let's start the discussion.

If "New Country" was intended to mean going back and forth between acoustic ballads and hard-driving electric, Nate Currin is it poster boy. He hails from Georgia, but spends a lot of time on the road. Literally–he lives in an RV and admits he's a wandering spirit. The Madman and the Poet is his latest (3rd) album and it's true to its title in that it's–to borrow from Alice Hoffman–a marriage of opposites, a yin and yang. When I first heard "Another Love Song," I thought I was listening to Jim Morrison resurrected as Southern fried rocker. Take a listen–the dark themes and the vocal mannerisms are highly suggestive of Morrison. But Currin delights in moving between tortured and sweet and plugged in and acoustic. Other high-energy rockers include "City of Angels" and "Midnight Train," the latter with crunchy guitar and a swamp blues licks. On "Sinner or Saint"–those opposites again–he opens slow and pensive, contrasts to his ringing slightly buzzed out guitar. The instrumentation gets harder as the song builds, percussion and organ emerge, and Currin's voice goes from gritty to guttural. Think you've got him pegged? Nope. The rest of the album is much softer—even cherry at times. "Ballad of a Horse Thief" is a countrified acoustic that you think will be a classic revenge song—What is a man, if not his word and his regret?—but cross punches at the end. The title track is filled with allusions to its contradictory themes, but Currin's more troubadour than pain dispenser. "Let Grace Fall Down on Me" is nearly a supplication, and he rounds off with "We All Need to Love Sometimes," a musing on what he's done and hasn't done and who he'd like to do and not do those things with: I want to see the world/one place at a time/With an old-fashioned girl/bring her home and make her mine. Light and dark–can we understand one without the other?

The D.C.-based ensemble Wylder calls itself an "indie" band, though some reviewers have stuck a "chamber folk" label on them. Whatever you call this young quintet, they are dynamic and intriguing. Rain and Laura is like being drenched in sound. "Sunstroke" has an updated but retro jangly feel that's like Del Shannon meets The Hollies on the way to a pop concert. "Living Room" opens with a neat mandolin run from Sam Rodgers, but its bluegrass vibe shifts to a pop/folk groove reminiscent of England's Jez Lowe. It's a neat contrast to the bass-defined "Strange Weather," which is deftly textured by the fiddle of Lavar Edmonds (who wields a cello on other tracks). Lead vocalist Will McCarry is outstanding; his voice is smooth, expressive, and attention grabbing. I guess indie and chamber folk will suffice, as the closest alternative analogy I can come up with is Death Cab for Cutie.

Rebecca Loebe also wears the indie label, though she's also carried the "Americana" handle that one generally associates with music in the country/folk/pop vein. That works for the Virginia-born/Texas-based Loebe. Hers is a husky voice with whispery undertones. Ms. Loebe does a few unusual things on her latest recording, Vittles and Valentines, some of it evocations of pop-rock's back catalog. She does a very cool slowed-down cover of "Southern Man," a bass and voice rendition that gives the old Neil Young chestnut a new kind of poignancy. There's also one called "Forever Young Forever" that pays sly homage to Dylan without ever mentioning his name or referencing his tune. That's not my imagination—she covers Bob's song later on the record. How does it stack up vis-à-vis the original? Well…. she has more range, that's for sure, though Dylan devotees might find Loebe's version too refined. My take is that I like Loebe's voice better in the lower tones than her girly higher ones. I especially liked "Meridian" because of its control and irony—it's a song about having a lover she doesn't love and a lover who doesn't love her! Lots of things to like on this one, but is it rock, which is what the indie label usually conjures? Does it matter?  

Where has heavy metal gone? It lives on in the Oklahoma-based trio The Bourgeois, though they label themselves "alternative," as ambiguous a label as ever devised. Designer Genes reminded me of early Black Sabbath. The titletrack is typical of the overall content: loud power chords, staccato like bass, and indistinct screaming vocals. It's okay you can't make out many of the lyrics because The Bourgeois is about the energy and drive, not the poetry. They seldom get much more melodic than "We Are What We Pretend to Be," and even then it's just a short guitar riff and back to the cacophony. This is a good-of-kind album—a comment not intended as damning with faint praise so much as a signal that the aforementioned song is truth in advertising. It's your call whether that's a good thing or an unintended affirmation of another track: "Be Careful with That Sound, It's an Antique."

Montreal's Elephant Stone is fronted by Rishi Dhir and calls itself an "indie" band. Ship of Fools shows it's an eclectic outfit that tosses in elements of hard rock, echoes of 1960s psychedelia, and passages from Indian classical music (Dhir's sitar departures and percussionist Miles Dupire-Gagnon's tabla beats). Mostly, though, it struck me as a smoother version of The Bourgeois' thick mixes with decidedly hard edges. Dhir is a much better vocalist, though, and Elephant Stone appreciate that a song like "Manipulator" has more impact with memorable hooks and brighter riffs. A few of guitarist Jean-Gabriel Lambert's lines bordered surf guitar. Likewise, the bass foundation of "Where I'm Going" is heavy, but has a more danceable groove evocative of 1980s New Wave. "Andromeda" has the feel of The Beatles travel to outer space and the melody of "The Devil's Shelter" is fashioned from short electronic pulses. In other words, the repertoire is more diverse and, to my ears, more successful.

I'm always impressed by strong melodies and fine writing. What label do we want to slap on Jameson Elder? Listen to his Prodigals and Thieves and get back to me. He might be a rocker who detours into introspective folk, or a country guy who mixes electric and acoustic depending upon which boots he pulls on in a given day. Or–my vote–he's what he claims: a musician incredibly influenced by Tom Petty. Here's a handle that definitely fits—fine songwriter. "NotReady" rocks out in ways that good songs do–it builds until you can't get it out of your head through tempo changes, sharp hooks, and energy to burn. Want a nice turn of phrase for a song about a guy who has been kicked down: I get so lost in conversation/Without speaking any words at all. Yeah—been there. As good as it is, it's rivaled by "Your Time is Coming," which opens with crashing chords tamed when his voice comes punching through the noise. The song has the anthem feel of something Springsteen would write. Then he slows the pace with "Any Other Way" about another guy down on his luck, but living without regret. Another great line: The devil on my left he always listens/The angel on my right can't find the words. Elder likes to switch moods and modes. There's a brief evocation of "Imagine" in the opening piano riff of "If I Die Tonight" and the song is deeply personal; "Fine Wine" is full of yearning for the song's namesake–a love that's the "kind you taste just once in your life." But in keeping with the album's themes of getting lost and finding your way back, "Sinking Like a Stone" takes us to depths: Could have done better/Could have done worse/Should have done nothing at all. The last third of this eleven-track release is much quieter and more acoustic than the rest, though his "Leave the Light On" is the sort of soft rock composition that James Taylor favors.  This is easily my top release of this bunch and one of my favorites on 2016.

Rob Weir


Grover Cleveland vs. Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland versus Grover Cleveland:
Pairing Presidents XIV

For me, Grover Cleveland presents a greatest presidential comparison challenge. His two terms in office most parallel the one term of Benjamin Harrison, but not precisely and Harrison's very tenure creates a conundrum. Seventeen of our forty-four presidents have been reelected and a handful was never elected at all because they took over for a deceased chief executive. Just one, Grover Cleveland, was in, out, and in. Cleveland served at POTUS from 1885 to 1889, lost the 1888 election to Harrison, then won back the White House and served from 1893 to 1897. This hiatus leads me to compare Grover I to Grover II.

The big lesson in Cleveland's two terms is that he embodies the fact that Democrats and Republicans were in the thralls of reinvention and that Cleveland was the transitional figure. He was a Democrat, but not the sort a modern Democrat would recognize and not the sort that would cause total alarm among 19th century Republicans. The label often applied to Cleveland was Bourbon Democrat, the term a bit of wordplay referencing both the drink and the royalty line overthrown by the French Revolution. It alluded to an archaic aristocratic and conservative bearing. (Bourbon was not yet a drink of the masses!) Like Republicans, Cleveland was pro-business, though he had an incomplete grasp of the emerging dominance of industrial capitalism. He also shared both the GOP aversion to messing with the monetary system and its increasing de-emphasis on civil rights. He departed with them on the spoils system, tariffs, and imperialism.

Grover I: 1885-89

Cleveland thought the spoils system smelled and supported ongoing reforms of the civil service. He created the Interstate Commerce Commission and staffed it with professionals, though the ICC would not have real power until the Progressive Era. He did all he could to pare the size of government and reduce spending.

His parsimony led to two controversial decisions. Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have given pensions to Civil War vets. He was skeptical that vets deserved any sort of pension for doing their civic duty, though he was willing to compromise over disabled veterans. This is a way in which the 19th century (and into the post-World War II period) was very different than our own: there was very little sentimentality about vets and they were not seen as voting bloc that had to be appeased.

His other controversial veto was the Texas Seed bill, which would have given government bailouts to farmers hard hit by drought. Cleveland was more prone to laissez-faire notions that government should play a minimal role in economic matters. That view extended to monetary policy. The Democrats would, after Cleveland, embrace the soft money position of the free silver movement, but Cleveland embraced the gold standard. This put him at odds with farm state Democrats, especially in the South, but his views reflected the fact that he was the first Democrat of any sort to occupy the White House since James Buchanan (1857-61) and the first Northerner since Martin Van Buren (1837-41). Cleveland—a former Buffalo mayor and governor of New York–anticipated the more urban perspective of future Democrats.

Cleveland mirrored the nation's weakening interest ­in civil rights. With the notable exception of native Hawaiians, Cleveland was very bad on racial justice issues. He simply didn't care all that much about African Americans, he extended the Chinese Exclusion Act after saying he found it regrettable, and took a paternalist view of Native Americans, whom he regarded a veritable children in need to government supervision.

Cleveland disagreed with Republicans over the tariff, The GOP wanted higher tariffs to protect American industry, whereas Cleveland was an early proponent of free trade. Tariffs were lowered during both his administrations.

Unlike Republicans, the Democrat Cleveland was anti-imperialist. He tended toward isolationism, but he also saw imperialism as a betrayal of American idealism.

Grover II: 1893-97

A lot can happen if you take four years off, which Cleveland found out after the Harrison interregnum. Historians debate the causes of the Panic of 1893 and assign a lot of the blame to Harrison's inability to make firm decisions about the economy (or anything else) but Cleveland's own hard money policies are at least partly to blame. In essence, the decision to avoid bimetallism led to a gold shortage that weakened the economy. Cleveland spent nearly all of his second term struggling to deal with a depression that lingered into early 1897 and is regarded as either the second or third worst in the nation's history.

Cleveland lowered the tariff that Harrison had raised and financed it by placing a tax on incomes over $4,000 (today's equivalent of over $100,000). Neither had much impact  on the depression. Worse, the depression tipped Cleveland's hand that he was unsympathetic to labor unions or social movements. Both Coxey's Army and the Pullman strike occurred during the second Cleveland administration and the use of strike injunctions and the imprisonment of Eugene Debs betrayed Cleveland's bias toward the well heeled.

Although Cleveland invoked the Monroe Doctrine to warn Britain to cease its interference in a border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana (today's Guyana), he largely stood his anti-imperialist ground. Many scholars argue–and I concur–that his finest moment was his staunch support of Queen Liliuokalani and his refusal to annex Hawaii. He remains a folk hero among some native Hawaiians.

Mainly, though, bitter relations with Congress and the worsening depression marked Cleveland's second whirl in the White House.  

Historical Folklore Trivia:

Grover Cleveland is, indirectly, the source of a famed American legend. Although many Americans think the Baby Ruth candy bar is named for baseball's Babe Ruth, the Curtiss Candy Company (now part of Nestle) claims the sugary bar was named in honor of Cleveland's daughter. That could be the folktale behind the folktale. Cleveland entered the White House as a bachelor, but married Frances Folsom in 1886. She was his junior by twenty-seven years, but the couple eventually produced five children, the first of which was Ruth (in 1891). Nice, but the Baby Ruth debuted in 1921, the year after baseball's Ruth smashed the single season homerun record. Some think that Curtiss used Cleveland's daughter as a dodge to avoid paying "The Babe" name use royalties. She, after all, died of diphtheria in 1907 and her father died the following year.    Ruth, though, was one of the most popular names for newborn girls from the 1890s on.


Transitional figures such as Cleveland are hard to judge; by their nature they are neither fish nor fowl. The latest rankings have Cleveland at #18, which seems too high given his mixed record. But then again, transitional figures seldom inspire passionate debate one way or another. When was the last time you heard anyone argue over Grover Cleveland? I'd argue, though, that mid to low twenties is more warranted.


The Revenant Overlong and Overrated

Directed by Alejandro Iñarritu
20th Century Fox, 156 minutes, R (Graphic violence to humans and animals, brief dorsal nudity)
* *

I didn’t see this film in the cinema for a variety of reasons, foremost the fact that I am not a Leonardo DiCaprio fan. I had also heard it was a confusing film and that it was entirely unclear whether DiCaprio’s character (Hugh Glass) was the revenant (ghost) of the title. I respectfully disagree with the last statement—I found it a pretty straightforward revenge film in which Glass’s memories are the only ghosts worth considering. Which brings me to my point: there’s not much in this film that’s worth considering. If you need more proof of how trite the Oscars are, DiCaprio was voted Best Actor and Iñarritu Best Director. Neither deserved a nomination, let alone the hardware. The real star of the film is the stunning landscape, with the cinematography Oscar the only one earned. This makes The Revenant a beautiful-looking slice of mediocrity, but little more

The Revenant could have been a lot of things: man versus nature, a study of frontier rawness, a probing of the destructiveness of greed, an exploration of geopolitical tension in the early 19th century, or musing over the question of who was more barbaric—Native Americans labeled as “savage,” or their white labelers. The Revenant does a drive-by on all of these, but it’s at heart a generic revenge film Scotch-taped to Jeremiah Johnson and Lawrence of Arabia. It is based on the real-life account of Hugh Glass (“loosely,” I would imagine), a frontiersman with reason to brood—soldiers ravaged and burned the Pawnee village where he lived with his wife (Grace Dove in a cameo) and son. His wife was shot down like a dog and his son, Hawk, badly scarred by fire.

Move the clock forward to the year 1823, a confusing time in U.S. history. The Louisiana Purchase was completed 20 years earlier, but the borders between U.S. territory and British Canada in the future Dakotas and Montana—where this film purports to take place—are unknown and of little concern. French voyageurs and American traders are rivals in the fur trade and make (and break) alliances with Natives in attempts to gain the upper pelt—except for the Arikara tribe, who is at war with everyone. Glass (DiCaprio) is acting as guide and tracker for an American group headed by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) that is surprised by Arikara raiders who kill the 75% of the party that didn’t manage to escape by boat. Glass knows, however, that the survivors are on borrowed time on the Missouri River and must—over the howling protests of dissidents led by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy–leave the river and make their way toward Fort Kiowa on foot to escape with their scalps attached.

As Glass leads the disputatious gang, disaster occurs when he is so badly mauled by a Grizzly bear that he is presumed a goner. Out of respect, though, Captain Henry asks for three volunteers to stay with him until he dies to give him a Christian burial. Naturally Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) opts to stay with his father. So too does young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, who wants the extra pay promised for the task. Glass, however, takes too long to “die,” so Fitzgerald decides to speed the process—only to kill Hawk who tries to intervene while Bridger is out of sight. Fitzgerald drags Hawk's body from plain view and bullies Bridger into abandoning both men.

You pretty much know what will happen next, though you probably don’t expect to watch Glass endlessly grunting whilst pulling himself across the landscape covered in a bear skin. (Gee—I didn’t get the human-into-animal transference, Mr. Iñarritu. Can you make a more obvious man-in-the-state-of-nature metaphor, please?) These scenes are so interminably long that, to alter an old Hollywood joke, they make Lawrence of Arabia seem like an epic. Much more affecting scenes occur when Glass makes contact with a Pawnee man (Arthur Redcloud) who helps him. Later Glass saves an Arikara woman from voyageur ravagers and learns of the fate of his Indian savior. But all of this is prelude to the avenging Glass’s arrival at Fort Kiowa and his show down with Fitzgerald.

The landscape is stunning—though most of it was shot in the Canadian Rockies, not the Dakotas or Montana. It’s not enough to compensate for a film that that glosses all that is has potential depth and doesn’t need to be 2 ½ hours long in service of one man's  singular pursuit of another. Glass’s physical trials along the way are so harrowing that it’s hard to imagine any human could actually survive them. Perhaps we are to infer a magical realism quality to them, or that a dying Glass merely dreamt them—but no, we are aware that the historical Glass survived. In the end, the only revenant I encountered was the specter of the lost slumber in whose arms I should have been reposing rather than wasting my evening on this overstuffed, overrated Jeremiah Johnson outtake. 

Rob Weir

PS: Although the film claims to have used only robotic animals and special effects, these are very realistic. Those sensitive to animal (or human) violence should avoid this film.