5/24/17

Kelley McCrae, Brian Alexander, I am Samson, Amelia Romano, Daniel Dorman

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Goes Down Easy

The term "easy listening" is often slapped onto music so innocuous that it's little more than aural wallpaper. In this column I'd like to be more literal: music that's smooth and easy on the ears.

Kelley McRae is often called an Americana artist—perhaps because her music isn't quite folk and isn't quite country, but is too much of each to get called bluegrass. On her latest, The Wayside, you'll hear echoes of Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, and Lucinda Williams. Many of the songs come from time on the road. McRae is Mississippi born, but lived in Brooklyn for a while, until she and her husband, dobro/guitar artist Matt Castelein, traded their apartment keys for that of a van, their new home for a prolonged stretch. McRae's songs reflect some of the places, emotions, and deep musings that took place along the way. Hers are the small gems that come from fatigue, wonder, and long silences. A personal favorite is "Land of the Noonday Sun" in which she sings, "Time goes by like a dream/No matter how hard you run/Some things are better left unsaid/Some things are better left undone." Similar sentiments emerge in the title track—a road song that hints of being about something deeper: "And when my time comes to say goodbye/When the long day turn to night/I hope I've held close to the love that abides/And left the rest for/For the wayside." The album is filled with little insights such as this, another emerging in "If You Need Me" with its sleepy feel and the line "Anything worth holding onto is worth letting go." There is outstanding dobro, guitar, and harmony work by Castelein throughout, and Jon Andersen contributes tasteful, often understated, pedal steel. All eleven tracks are winners, but others that stayed with me were "Red Dirt Road," which is set in Oklahoma and invokes snippets of Woody Guthrie verse; the return-of-the-prodigal "A Long Time," and "Rare Bird," which seems to be about a person who flew too high when young and is looking toward home to roost.★★★★

 Brian Alexander has a soothing light tenor voice. His EP, Mountain (NoiseTrade), is five songs in the folk and folk rock vein. He grew up in Michigan, and the album's titular peak is a hill outside of his current Nashville home, but you can be excused if you think of him as a Colorado lad, as his songs deal more with the Rockies and points westward. He counts John Denver among his influences and we hear touches of that in his songs. "Telluride," for instance, deals with rogues as well as those who simply love high altitudes, but both are wrapped into a bright song with a refrain that will stay with you. The arrangement is the "western" part of the country formula: some pedal steel, steady percussion, some fiddle, and a cool bass riff. That formula repeats on the title track, with its hopeful message of feeling as strong‑and sometimes as lonely—as a mountain. "Night" is another winner—one that starts as if it will be a fragile acoustic offering, evolves into a bigger production with electric guitar and a hooky melody. Alexander is another promising new talent. Watch for him, but don't confuse him with the pop musician of the same name. ★★★ ½

I am Samson is the brother-sister collaboration between former Seattle (now Washington, DC) residents Josh and Anna Tigges. They call their new project, Humanity in Earth Tones, "songs for beautiful people," by which they mean the late 60s/early 70s version of beautiful—those holding human- and earth-centered values. They note that Samson means "bright sun" in Hebrew and that they are dedicated to "bringing truth and light to the world." It is an album in two parts, the first looking at what it means to be human and the second thinking of the "sounds and symbols" all humans encounter in the world. The album has a wholesome and hopeful vibe and the duo mesh well together. "Sorry Not Sorry" begins with Josh's call and Anna's response, transitions to a duet, and then ups the energy. "Are You Love" spotlights Anna's fragile vocals and emotional piano; "Sunflower" came from a dream of a woman with blooms sprouting from her head. A little New Age-like? Perhaps in sentiment, though the music is more consoling. One downside—though both have pleasant voices, neither has a clear one, so it's often hard to make out lyrics. Maybe a little less atmosphere and more articulation is in order. ★★★

Who can resist a striking woman in a blue dress and a blue concert harp? Amelia Romano takes that blue harp to intriguing places on New Perspectives. We seldom associate the harp with jazz, which is Romano's forte—mostly of the Latin variety, with some gypsy, experimental, and world music influences tossed in. She also likes to bring her personal experiences to the table. "Crazy Day" comes from her time in South Africa, here she lived in both the Townships and in Cape Town—studies in contrast if ever there were any. She uses jangly higher notes to suggest shaky stability and then anchors the piece with sturdy bass notes. The very next piece is about climate change, but is rendered in ways evocative of Tin Pan Alley, with her harp almost piano-like. There are also more conventional pieces—a harp turn on "Besame Mucho," a bolero penned by the late concert pianist/lyricist Consuelo Velázquez; "Baroque Flamenco," which despites its title, is of recent vintage; and a for-real vintage "I'd Rather Go Blind," a song popularized and co-written by Etta James. It's one of five pieces on which Romano also sings. She does a credible job, as long as you push James out of your mind, and she wisely gives it a different feel. Romano, a Bay Area native, enhances Latin tracks with the percussion of John Mellinger and Jackie Rago. On the title cut, though, she veers onto new turf by exploring ways in which the electric harp can move between melody and percussion. That works, as does just about everything else on the album. I will leave it to aficionados to judge whether Romano has a jazz voice, but I give thumbs-up to the harping. ★★★ ½ 

Live from Sean's Room is about as homespun as you can get. This debut EP from Toronto-based Daniel Dorman was done with a single mic, a single track, and a single take. The songs have that slightly hollow feel you get from recording in an actual room rather than a soundproof studio. Dorman plays spirited guitar and has a mid-range tenor voice that's strong and can reach to falsetto. His songs are personal and reflect his undergraduate studies in theology and English. "ABetter Man" is wistful—as it should be for a man regretting his numerous sins. Ironically, "A Sad Song" is brighter in tone, if not theme, and "New Orleans," though in no way Cajun, has jauntier feel. As we hear in "She is Goodness," though, Dorman is a young artist prone to being over earnest. The guitar tempos are quite similar on all five tracks. This is music naked to the bone—raw and spare. ★★ ½      
Keyy

5/22/17

Light Between Oceans Shines but with Subdued Illumination

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS (2016)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Touchstone Pictures, 133 minutes, PG-13 (brief nudity)
★★★

The Light Between Oceans is based on M. L. Stedman’s 2012 debut novel, a much beloved book about a lighthouse keeper at what could be considered the ends of the earth: a vest-pocket outcrop where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. The good news is that the movie is probably as good an adaptation of the novel that could be made. The bad news is that it’s still not a patch on the book.

First, more good news. The acting is superb and the film’s exteriors—shot in New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia—are gorgeous to behold. The script, which is faithful to Steadman’s novel, casts Michael Fassbender as lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne. The year is 1921—just after the World War I armistice and a time in which grisly reminders of the conflict are highly visible: ex-soldiers lacking limbs, those with suppurating wounds, and men hideously deformed from gas attacks. What can’t be seen are those suffering from psychological wounds—the kind we’d today label PTSD but were then simply called “shell shock.” The latter was so poorly understood that when Tom applies for the lighthouse job, both officials and locals from the West Australian port from which he will sail think he’s simply a man of few words. In truth, Tom is a tormented soul who has seen more death than any man should, and is happy to remove himself from society to see if hard work and isolation can heal his soul. Where better to do that than Janus Rock Lighthouse, a place so remote it’s only provisioned every six months.

Tom’s self-imposed exile might have worked were it not for occasional mainland shore leave, where he catches the eye of Isabel Graymark (Alicia Vikander). She shares Tom’s desires to live life on the margins, though in most other ways she is buttoned-up Tom’s opposite: vivacious, impulsive, talkative, and defiant of social conventions. Against his better judgment, Tom marries Isabel and takes her to Janus Rock, which she takes to like a seal in a fish-filled cove. Their idyllic world is marred by just one thing: Isabel’s miscarriages. Tom stoically and lovingly helps Isabel through the one thing that he most wants to avoid-—more death—but Isabel desperately wants a child. Then, one day after Isabel’s most recent miscarriage, a dinghy washes up containing a dead man and a living baby girl.

From here, the story veers from inner struggles to external questions of duty, situational ethics, and how one chooses whose pain matters most. In essence, does Tom report the wreck, per the charge of his commission, or should he and Isabel raise “Lucy” (as they infant is dubbed) as their own?

This film had just moderate box office success, returning $24 million on a $20 million outlay. Again, it’s beautifully filmed and the acting is superb. In addition to strong performances from Fassbender and Vikander, we are also treated to fine turns from Rachel Weisz, Thomas Ungar, and Emily Potts. It was a special treat to see Bryan Brown on the screen once again, an actor most of us haven’t seen since either The Thorn Birds (1983) or Gorillas in the Mist (1988).

As noted, this is probably the best film one could make from Ms. Stedman’s novel. This, however, raises the question of whether there should have been a filmed version in the first place. It’s always a daunting challenge to make movies about quiet characters. Stedman’s novel conveyed what is difficult to show in moving images: thoughts, turmoil, and moral dilemmas that are internalized rather than expressed. Fassbender’s plasticity gets us part of the way, but not even he can bring it all the way home. Director Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) ultimately relies upon cinematic mood-enhancing tricks such as color-soaked sunsets, gray cemeteries, howling winds, light shining across the water, and other such ilk that skirt the border between expressiveness and cliché. He also had to pare a 416-page novel, an act requiring elision. Even then the film clocks in at 2:13 and it seems longer given its need to show Tom as an emotionally closed man wrestling with sorrow and conflicting duties.

The bottom line is that this is a good film, but not a great one. Those who’ve not read the novel have an advantage on those of us who have: they won’t know what they’re missing.

Rob Weir

  

5/19/17

John Fea Asks, Is American Supposed to be a Christian America?

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WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION?  (Revised Edition, 2016)
By John Fea
Westminster John Knox Press, 324 pages
★★★★

This review first posted at: https://nepca.blog/2017/05/05/was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation-book-review/  

For tens of millions of Americans, there’s no need to pose the question raised in the title of John Fea's monograph. Most self-identified evangelicals adamantly insist that it was, and humanists and political progressives vigorously assert that the Founding Fathers intended that a “wall” be erected between church and state. You might expect Fea to side with evangelicals, given that he’s a believer and a professor at a Christian school, Messiah College. He doesn’t. Nor does he cast his lot with those who take the opposing view. As a historian, Fea sees nuances, not nostrums. His is a take that, depending upon the openness of the reader, will be seen as a rare middle view within a polarized nation, or will induce outrage.

He begins this edition—the first appeared in 2011—with a recounting of recent reactions to his work. Predictably, he has been attacked by both born-again believers and committed secularists. Neither is satisfied with his insistence that how one answers the central question depends upon several subordinate questions. These are not political questions, though the debate is often discursively framed that way. For example, during his values-centered 2016 presidential campaign Mike Huckabee insisted that “most” of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were ministers. In truth, just one was a man of the cloth: New Jersey’s John Witherspoon. Fea, however, suggests it really wouldn’t matter if all had been ministers; hard-right conservatives such as Huckabee, Glenn Beck, and David Barton fail to define their terms. Was America founded as a Christian nation? It depends upon what one means by “Christian, “founding,” and “nation.”

In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.

Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.

But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a "wall" between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not the United States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.

Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy.  FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.

Rob Weir


  
   

5/17/17

Musical Potpourri for Spring

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Sometimes it just doesn't make sense to look for common ground in the midst of rich musical turf. Here's a grab bag for various tastes.

The Waifs make you grateful that these days genre lines blur. Ironbark (Compass) is a double CD of 25 delights. This Aussie quintet—anchored by vocals from Josh Cunningham and sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson—is often labeled folk rock, but that doesn't begin to get it.  What's your musical taste? Need a reminder that you shouldn't ignore the beauty all around you? Try "Take it In," in which the lead vocal and gorgeous harmonies bounce off Cunningham's robust acoustic scaffolding. How about something moody? "Higher Ground" would be at home on Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. Get your honky-tonk fix from "Sugar Mama," and indulge in string/swing blues that sounds like they came from the 1940s in "Done and Busted." Want a country weepy? "Grand Plan" will bring you down. Curious about yodeling? "Goodnight Lil' Cowboy" is an outback lullaby that would be home on the American range. "Not the Lonely" updates the retro girl group vibe but keeps the kernel intact. Catchy little melodies get a workout in "Important Things," whose tune and upbeat message are the kind of earworms you want, and "Dirty Little Bird," has passages evocative of Japanese folk songs.  Then there's the dark and political, "Syria" that's as good a song I've heard about this tragedy. Simpson's voice positively oozes the pain. If you're itching for something just plain beautiful, man, do you have choices: the plea for enduring love in "Standing Strong," the close harmonies of "I Won't Go Down" and "The Coast," the praiseful "Amazing Everything," the Appalachian feel of "Something's Coming," and "The Lion and the Gazelle," in which Thorn sounds a bit like Emmylou. What a record! And I haven't even mentioned the poetic lyrics.  ★★★★★

K Phillips' Dirty Wonder (Rock Ridge Music) has everything you want in outlaw country: weeping pedal street, honky-tonk piano, slap-slap drums, twangy vocals, fuzzed out guitar, rolling organ, and grit. Here's a memorable line from the title track: I used to grow a beard to cover up the devil's face/But a wretch is still a wretch in satin or lace. Here's another one from "Coal Burner:" No one looks at the rust and sees the rain/No one blames the tracks, they blame the train. Maybe it's destiny. The K stands for Kris and his DJ mother named him for another West Texan: Kris Kristofferson. Like Kristofferson, Phillips writes about good times and bad, but mostly bad. In "Rom Com" a promising romance falls apart when "he caught the wrong ticket and she took the wrong flight." And there's the delicious line I know for a fact you didn't call to see how I was from "Don't Wish Me Well," the story of a dead relationship yearning to be laid to rest. There's also the humorous but palpably dangerous song about a man on the rebound with his mind on "18 Year Old Girls:" You should not be wearing my shirt/I should not have my mind in the dirt. Hey, did you expect outlaw country to be wholesome? ★★★★

Canadian pop/folk singer and Juno Award winner Ron Sexsmith admits he's a musical sponge. He counts among his inspirations the 1960s British Invasion (Ray Davies in particular) and the broad spectrum of Canadian folk music—from Leonard Cohen to Gordon Lightfoot. He's shared stages with everyone from Arie to R.E.M. and his admirers include Elvis Costello, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and k.d. lang. Dylan has performed a few of his songs. He's often compared to Martin Sexton for his penchant for writing introspective songs and for his ventures into falsetto territory (though Sexsmith's voice is more quavery). You'll hear slices of all this on The Last Rider (Compass). Selections such as "Worried Song" and "Upward Dog" would be at home on a Beatles album, and the latter lifts a snippet of the opening melody line of "Ticket to Ride." Yet "Radio," inspired by childhood remembrances, is more Billy Joel-like, "Only Trouble Is" has a killer hook and a memorable melody line, and "Shoreline" has Caribbean whiffs. "West Gwillimbury" was inspired by a town name in Ontario that Sexsmith saw many times on a tour without actually going through it. Sexsmith used that non-experience as a metaphor for heaven. For uplift, it's hard to be "Dreams are Bigger," with its instant classic line: If your dreams are bigger than your worries/You'll never have to worry about your dreams. Some listeners may find the songwriting stronger than the vocals. I  liked the stripped down offerings better than those layered with studio production, some of which drenched the vocals, and a lot of which seemed similar, but with 15 tracks, there's plenty for every taste.  ★★★ ½

Charlie and the Rays have a new EP Song of Love, which is also the name of the second track, an homage to a child. That's appropriate as the "Charlie" part of the band's name is a tribute to a seven-year-old who used to hang out with them. The Rays are sisters Jordan and Rebecca Stobbe, Gracia Bridges and sidemen Jack Brady and Sam Kastner. Like other Rays' projects, this one centers on lovely three-part harmonies that draw comparisons to a slicked-down version of the Dixie Chicks. Instrumentation is kept understated so it doesn't compete with those voices. Wise. We hear this decision in full glory on a cover of The Beatles' "Dig a Pony," which is paced slower and missing John Lennon's hard edges, but is bolstered by Bridges' prominent bass riff. I like everything about this group and it makes me jealous they used to busk at Seattle's Pike Place. My town has many talented people, but our buskers—not so much! The Rays' folk/R & B mix is easy on the ears and long on talent.
★★★ ½

Guthrie Brown is sometimes compared to Tom Petty, though I find his indie sound more geared toward the 21st century club scene. His EP, Natural, often evokes images of packed bodies waving their arms above the heads in time with the groove. This is especially the case with the title track, with its soulful R & B melody with hints of funk. In like fashion, his "Wild Child" isn't the amped uninhibited electric madness of Hendrix, rather a polished ditty aimed at getting the feet moving. In fact, if the Montana-raised Guthrie had twang in his voice, it's the sort of song that country musicians use as a bright change of pace. The indie part? Guthrie is hard to pigeonhole. "Day to Day" is decidedly folk in temperament, "Lightening" has Paul Simon-like vocal cadences, but "Stay Gold" has a central hook that flirts with discordance and a melody and lyrics suggestive of early rock and roll. Cool stuff.  ★★★ ½

Okay, this gets confusing. There are at least three performers with the name Jess Ray and two of them sing Christian music. The best of them is based in Raleigh, NC and has several albums on her résumé, including Pull the Stars from the Sky, 10 songs whose content is praiseful, not preachy. Ray recorded them in an old mill in a single day with just guitar, mic, and guitar. Ray's voice has sometimes been compared with that of Brandi Carlile, but on the new album it's more like Buffy Ste. Marie with controlled vibrato—not in tone, but in the way Ray uses the reverberant room and spare guitar to create drama with her big voice. Songs like "After," "Water/Wind/Fire," "Set Me Right," and "Come to My Senses" are as spare as can be, but they sound huge. Whatever your personal convictions, you can believe in Jess Ray's talent. ★★★ ½   

Rob Weir



5/15/17

Elle a Misogynist Film

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ELLE (2016)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
SBS Productions, 130 minutes, R (nudity, violence, disturbing scenes)
1/2

Let's get straight to the point: Elle is a violent misogynist film dressed up as a psychological drama. It was the French entry for the Oscars' Best Foreign Picture award and Isabelle Huppert was nominated for Best Actress consideration, but all that shows is how male-dominated the film industry remains. I will grant that Ms. Huppert's performance was riveting and courageous, but I wonder what the hell she was doing in such a film in the first place.

Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a woman haunted by a horror that befell her when she was ten: her wealthy father, seemingly without any reason, went on a mass murder rampage. A journalist snapped a photo of the child Michèle staring blankly into space, her face covered in soot from a backyard burning of papers. Since then, both she and her mother have been objects of hatred by those assuming they too are sociopaths. Unfair? Well… mother Irène is a plastic surgery queen who takes up with younger men á la Zsa Zsa Gabor, a behavior that disgusts Michèle, though one wonders why when she's doing the same thing minus the surgery. She is divorced, estranged from her son, Vincent, flirts with younger work colleagues, and sleeps around like a nymphomaniac. She even has office sex with the paramour of her best friend and business partner. Her justification? "I just wanted to get laid."

Michèle's job also arouses suspicion. She and her friend Anna (Anne Consigny) are the founders and creative heads of a video game company currently at work on a sex-, rape-, violence-, and gore-filled version of Lovecraft's Cthulhu. Ratchet the drama when a masked man in black forces his way into Michèle's apartment in broad daylight, throws her to the floor, bloodies her face, and rapes her. Does she report it? No; in fact, it's days later before she tells her colleagues what happened, an event she casually dismisses as unworthy of pursuing further. Besides, she doesn't trust cops. She doesn't even go to the cops when her company's server is hacked and Cthulhu's female victim—and why is it always a female victim?—has Michèle's face?  

Is the above distressing enough for you? Wait, there's more. SPOILER ALERT:  Michèle seeks to find out the rapist's identity so she can understand his dark motives. When she finds out, does she go to the police? Nope. She has beat-down sex with him a few more times. Guess she just wanted to get laid.

OK—I get the idea that both the attacker and Michèle are damaged goods prone to living on the dark side. I get also that both try move beyond those impulses by wearing disinterested masks. I guess Verhoeven wants to make the point that Michèle's attacker is the logical extension of the fantasies she sells. Or do both she and her rapist suffer from a toxic mix of Piaget-level anxiety, anomie, and existential angst?  Maybe Verhoeven is just a creep? He has, after all, given us peep show dreck such as Diary of a Hooker, Turkish Delight, Katie Tippel, Showgirls and Basic Instinct (Tag Line: You'll believe Sharon Stone has a vagina!)  

I am at a loss to understand why Elle captivated critics. It is, as I said upfront, a misogynistic film—one glommed onto some very silly and unnecessary side stories—Iréne's antics, scenes with Vincent's total Gorgon of a girlfriend, obvious red herrings—to get us to a finale that raises the ghoul bar another notch. Yes, Huppert is excellent. Has she ever been bad? But one wonders why this film needed to be made. Maybe there are self-loathing people like Michèle running around. If you know any, for God's sake make sure they get therapy.

Rob Weir

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5/12/17

Bernie Bashing and More Really Bad Ideas

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The top of my latest really bad ideas roundup goes to Democrats looking for a scapegoat. I've had it with the constant carping that Senator Sanders cost Hillary Clinton the election. The brain-dead Democratic Establishment has managed to brainwash loyalists into treating Sanders like he was a sexist third-party spoiler. What nonsense! He ran against Clinton as a Democrat in the primaries and supported her in the general election.  I wonder why Clintonians think we have primaries in the first place. The nomination wasn't Clinton's by birthright, for heaven's sake. Odd that those Clinton loyalists didn't accuse her of racism for contesting the 2004 primaries won by Barack Obama.

Enough with Democratic alternative facts!  Here are some real ones based on polling data:

·      8% of Democratic voters switched to Trump
·      8% of Republican voters went for Clinton
·      Just 1.1% voted for Jill Stein and the Green Party
·      3.3% voted Libertarian, most of whom were likely disaffected Republicans
·      43% of Democratic voters thought Clinton to be "untrustworthy"
·      35% of registered Democrats stayed home, but so did 32% of those registered with the GOP and 33% of independents
·      Independents now make up 43% of the electorate and vastly outnumber those registered as Democrats (29%) or Republican (26%)
·      Clinton lost the independent vote by a devastating 11%
·      Clinton won the overall women's vote, but 52% of women never attending college went for Trump
·      Clinton won the college-educated vote by 9% but…
·      Just one-third of Americans have a college degree

The data is clear: As Forbes observed, non-voters decided the election. In the critical state of Wisconsin, for example, Trump polled no more votes than Romney four years earlier, but Clinton polled 230,000 fewer votes than Obama. Add to this the fact that Democrats have indeed become a party of elites; they poll very badly with independents, non-professionals, and those with lower educational attainment.

Clinton lost. She was a poor candidate. Turn the page. All the carping, whining, and scapegoating serves only to make Democrats look like the party of acrimony, delusion, atrophy, and the past. Unless that perception changes, Democrats are doomed to be the Federalists of the 21st century—a regional party confined to the Northeast and West Coast. 

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It really irks me when high-tech complicates simple things. The Chinese firm Shoulian Zhineng has taken this to hitherto unknown lows. It seems that some businesses are plagued by restroom-users stealing toilet paper. The solution? Dispensers using facial recognition software. Inconvenience meets creepiness. A machine reads faces and then dispenses a single two-foot-long stream of toilet tissue. Don't even try for more. Not surprisingly, some of these $700 machines have been sabotaged—and rightly so. Yes, you read that right–$700 to prevent people from lifting a 70-cent roll of toilet paper. As bad ideas go, this one stinks to high heaven. If toilet paper theft  has really reached  epidemic proportions in China, isn't the real solution to improve economic conditions so that people don't have to debase themselves this way?

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Flying simply isn't much fun these days. Name a beloved American airline. Yeah—I give up as well. That said, it's a really, really bad idea to fly on either Frontier or Spirit. Normally I don't get excited about Internet customer reviews; they are the forums of either the disgruntled or shills, and a larger sample size is needed for them to be remotely scientific. Still, it's hard to ignore reviews when no one has anything good to say about these two carriers. Each reinterprets the word "discount" as "you don't count." No-frills doesn't even begin to get it. Water will cost you $4 a pop on Frontier, which also offers you a whopping 24 inches of seat space with a 4 inch clearance from the passenger in front of you—assuming that patron doesn't recline. Check a bag and it's more than $60. Want to arrive on time? Hah, hah—that's a good one! A Boston Globe reporter wanted to try Frontier to see if it was as bad as billed. His verdict was that it was worse! Moreover, he "saved" just $60 after paying for several "frills." I recall an old slogan about the Yugo, considered by many to be the worst car ever sold: "If you can only afford a Yugo, you can't afford to drive." You see where I'm going with this?

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Pizza Hut hired an Israeli ad agency and posted its handiwork: an imprisoned Palestinian hunger striker secretly snacking on—you guessed it!—a slice of P-Hut 'za. Wow! That is soooo funny. Are you freaking kidding me? Pizza Hut apologized. Oh swell. That's what idiots do these days when their idiocy goes public. Who thought this was amusing? Fire them. Fire also the head of the ad agency that either green-lighted the ad or was asleep at the wheel. Now let's turn to Pizza Hut. It boggles the mind that anyone associated with the company could have allowed this to go forward—even in an age in which it seems to be okay to insult the weak. Sounds like the Democratic Party isn't the only entity that needs a top-to-bottom makeover. How about a new ad: "Pizza Hut: Awful food for Awful People."

5/10/17

The Sleepwalker a Thrilling Mystery

THE SLEEPWALKER (2017)
Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 284 pages
★★★★

The tenor of Chris Bohjalian’s new novel is established by the Sylvia Plath epigraph that opens the book: “I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me.” It is, exactly as billed, a story in which a major character, Annalee Ahlberg, sleepwalks.

Annalee is in her late forties, but still strikingly beautiful and the mother of two precious daughters: Lianna, a senior at Amherst College; and twelve-year-old Paige, precocious beyond her years. Annalee is an architect and her husband, Warren, a professor at Middlebury College. They live the life of the privileged upper middle class—complete with a sprawling Victorian home in the nearby village of Bartlett—except for two complicating factors: Annalee has had multiple miscarriages and she’s prone to sleepwalking. Hers isn’t the kind in which she cluelessly raids the fridge at 3 am; she roams in ways that put her in danger. Lianna once found her naked on the bridge railing high above the Gale River; one slip and she surely would have died.

Bohjalian is a masterful storyteller who knows how to build suspense. He also does his homework. Annalee is a major character, but in absence. One night, when her husband is at an academic conference, Annalee disappears. What became of her? That’s the heart of this novel and, along the way, you will learn a lot about sleepwalking. Perhaps you find this thin material from which to construct a mystery. I assure you that you’re wrong. What happened to Annalee becomes the consuming passion of Warren, his daughters, and Detective Gavin Rickert, who knows a few things about sleepwalking as he too has been treated for that disorder. Coincidentally, Annalee was in his support group. Or was that merely a coincidence?

Bohjalian probes lots of things, including how sleepwalking is treated and how families deal with unresolved grief. Lianna is the functional adult in the story—the one who deals with the prosaic details over which her flighty father stumbles, provides emotional support for her sister, serves as the mom substitute who takes Paige to swim meets, and is the reliable link between the investigation and the investigators. All anyone has to go on is a small piece of fabric from Annalee’s nightgown discovered near the river. Is Annalee in the river? How does one deal with the uncertainty? As the main adult in the room, Lianna unearths things about her parents that children don’t usually want to know, all of which raise questions. Who are the self-identified close friends Lianna only saw as casual acquaintances? Did her mother have a lover? What does her sleepwalking counselor know about her condition? Why did it reappear after many years? Is the condition heritable?

The Sleepwalker is a taut mystery. Parts of it will creep you out; other sections will make your skin crawl as well—but for reasons that are different from what you first imagined. It’s a credit to Bohjalian that he can make us feel such things and keep us unbalanced and uncertain in the process. To be fair, some may find contrived detail, and I can imagine that some readers will be perturbed by they feel is as an inappropriate relationship. Like all mystery novels, of course, the lead detective spends more time on Annalee’s disappearance than would ever happen in real life.

No matter. This book is the epitome of a page-turner. As an added bonus, Bohjalian frequently sets his novels in recognizable Vermont locations. There is no Bartlett and the actual Gale River is in New Hampshire, but there is a Bartlett Falls on the New Haven River near Bristol, Vermont, which is probably the model for Bohjalian’s village and stream. He uses actual places when scenes shift to Burlington. All of this is to say that The Sleepwalker has an added layer of enjoyment for those who know the Middlebury-Bristol-Burlington area. But you will devour this book even if you’ve never set foot in the Green Mountain State.

Rob Weir

5/8/17

Being Canadian Mockumentary is Cheap but Hysterical

BEING CANADIAN (2016)
Directed by Robert Cohen
Grainey Pictures, 89 minutes, Not rated
★★★ ½

Premise: People in the United States know nothing about Canada. Concept: Make a comic film that riffs off their ignorance and Canadians' confusion over their own identity. Rob Cohen was the right man for the job. If the name doesn't ring immediate bells, check out the writing credits for some of your favorite TV comedies such as The Ben Stiller Show, Big Bang Theory, and The Simpsons. These are just a handful of the shows for which he has contributed his wit.

The humor in Being Canadian is broad and cheap, but it's also wickedly funny. Early in the film actor Russell Peters complains that Canadians are so invisible that Americans are shocked when one of "their" cultural icons identifies as Canuck. Cohen aims his camera at an effusion of Canadian-born celebrities, including: Will Arnett, Dan Aykroyd, The Barenaked Ladies, Michael J. Fox, Eugene Levy, Howie Mandel, Alanis Morrissette, Mike Myers, Catherine O' Hara, Seth Rogen, Rush, Paul Shaffer, William Shatner, and Alex Trebek.

The film opens with an animated quiz designed to prove that outsiders don't know anything about Canada. I actually knew the answer for all of the questions, but I'm hardly typical south of the border stock in this regard. Cohen punctuates the film with interviews with non-Canadians and I sincerely hope the American bubbleheads in the film were plants, or the US of A is in deep polar bear doo-doo. Cohen's thin-as-a-Vegas G-string plot is a road trip from Nova Scotia to British Columbia in nine days, timing his arrival to partake of Canada Day festivities in Vancouver. Along the way he hopes to uncover the Canadian identity. That's actually a joke within a joke given the rivers of ink depleted by Canadian writers on the very subject. Cohen's tone is absurdist and insouciant. For example, his journey across Quebec treads gently on separatist sentiment, but goes long on an unsolved heist of $18 million worth of maple syrup from a provincial warehouse. The entire journey is Michael Moore by way of Saturday Night Live: a series of set-up questions followed by mock interviews, a few serious remarks, some shtick, and Cohen chewing up screen time. Among the questions he poses are explorations of why Canadians are so nice, why they have an inferiority complex, and why their comedians are funnier than those born in the States.

There is great hilarity in explorations of the lameness of Canadian TV, with The Beachcombers serving as corroborating evidence. "It's our Gunsmoke," notes Jason Priestly, in the midst of a parade of commentators expressing incredulity that anything that woeful could have aired for twenty years. I've never seen it, but the clips made Petticoat Junction look like Shakespeare. Cohen also pokes fun at Canadian food, concluding there's no such thing, and marvels that Canada's national sport, curling, is even lamer than The Beachcombers. There's also the delicious insight that "nice" Canadians are obsessed by ice hockey, a sport in which grown men pummel each other. Niceness is again lampooned when Cohen visits a charm specialist and asks her how she'd question a mistaken $300 hotel surcharge for porno movies and booze. Predictably, it begins with, "I'm sorry, but could you please…." In another segment, Howie Mandel goes faux nuclear on toques.

There are numerous cheesy segments, not the least of which is the ongoing gag of Cohen and Dave Foley lying side-by-side in bed—seemingly naked—and musing on all things Canadian. Once was funny, but really…. Of course, Cohen didn't actually make the trip in nine days—unless you believe there was a massive July 1 snowstorm/freeze in Ottawa that roused skaters and skiers from their summer dens. This is, of course, a riff on outsider views that all of Canada is a frozen wasteland. The cartoon apparition of Wayne Gretzky certainly won't make Terry Gilliam quake in competitive fear and the film's "discovery" at the end is saccharine and foreordained. Cohen is almost misty-eyed upon passing through his native Calgary, but he also implies that "passing through" is necessary for an aspirational Canadian. Cohen leaves unexamined the fact that he now lives in LA and that most of the celebs he interviews are longtime friends and fellow exiles. 

But then, again, maybe I'm taking this too seriously. Being Canadian is really a mockumentary posing as a documentary. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Does that fuel the stereotype of self-deprecating Canadians? Perhaps, but I'm happy to have Canada as my neighbor and am puce with envy of the civility and rationality of daily life there. And, yeah, most Canadian comedians are funnier than those in the States. The beer and folk music are better as well.  

Rob Weir

5/5/17

Exhibitions at the Eric Carle Museum and at Mt. Holyoke

Western Mass Art: Catch it Now!

It's Me Eloise: The Voice of Kay Thompson and the Art of Hilary Knight
Eric Carle Museum (Amherst)
Through June 4, 2017

140 Unlimited
Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art (South Hadley)
Through May 28, 2018 (and beyond) 

 

I did not grow up with Eloise, the slightly naughty, slightly precocious, and the exceedingly privileged little girl who lived in the Plaza Hotel with rich parents that mostly fobbed her off on her nanny. I intend no sexism when I say that Eloise books weren't exactly normal fare for little boys back in the days when I was one. All of what I know about the franchise is secondhand via my wife and it was of the variety that nearly made me opt out of a visit to the Eric Carle Museum. I'm glad I didn't.

The current exhibit is a totally charming display of book graphics, story mockups, magazine covers, and spinoffs covering the years 1947 to the present. The first date surprised me, as the first Eloise book didn't appear until 1954. I was unaware that Thompson was already a radio star before she began authoring children's books devoted to her diminutive heroine. Nor did I know that the Eloise books evolved from a radio persona she assumed in 1947. Think something akin to Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann character. The Eric Carle Museum has several headphones stations where we can hear Thompson portraying Eloise on the air, as well as a middle-of-the-room section devoted to Eloise on radio, records, and stage.

The outside walls of the gallery are devoted to photos, text panels, and artwork. We learn first about Thompson, who lived in the Plaza for much of starlet days and had a stubborn streak of her own. I simply had no idea of her days as a singer on Bing Crosby radio shows in the 1930s, or of her Broadway and movie work. We also learn of Hilary Knight to whom I had previously paid so little attention that I failed to note the single L in the first name and assumed to be a woman. But Eloise is the star of the exhibit—in all of her various franchise turns—books, recordings, TV shows, musicals, toys, games, and assorted paraphernalia—that outlived her creators. Yes, she is a snooty little toff, but her spunk and insouciance are enough to melt the class barriers of a Maoist. So too are the hilarious predicaments in which she embroils herself. It's easy to understand her appeal to spirited little girls. Take one with you if you can but if not, go anyhow. All you need is a young attitude; It's Me Eloise is for kids young and old. 





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Addario, Two Burqas
The Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art (MHCMA) recently celebrated its 140th birthday. Years before that event, college curators had the inspired idea to collect 140 new objects to display during the birthday bash. The MHCMA, though not a pauper, lacks the sizable endowments that periodically refresh the galleries of Smith, Yale, Harvard, or Amherst. In practical terms this meant the MHCMA had to collect smart, cultivate donors, and work closely with faculty to discuss topics such as inclusiveness, worthiness, and usefulness of items as future teaching tools. Try doing all of that on a limited budget. The result is quite impressive.

One way to keep costs in line is to buy photographs. I'm not wild about the minor Joel Meyerowitz offerings, but there are stunning shots by others, especially work done by shutterbugs such as Lynsey Addario and Pieter Hugo in Africa, and by Livia Corona in Mexico. Check out the story behind Addario's shot titled "Two Burqas;" it's too good for a spoiler.    

Andy Warhol
The rest of the objects are a delicious Mulligan stew that includes works from Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, a mesmerizing Mannerist painting of Judith and Holofernes by Benton Spurance, and known and lesser-known Old Masters. There also objects ranging from Classical antiquities and African masks to an Asian Buddha and Pueblo ceramics. The overall effect is more like sorting through the backroom of an art auction house than the stiff formalism of a museum.

As an integrated group this exhibit closes in a few short weeks, but the MHCMA now owns these items and many are sure to become longtime favorites.

Rob Weir

Benton Spurance
Chuck Close
Pueblo Ceramic