Watch Kedi for the Holidays



KEDI (2017
Directed by Ceyda Torun
Oscilloscope Laboratories, 79 minutes, Not-Rated (a saint couldn’t object)
In Turkish with subtitles (but very little dialogue)

If you’re in need of a smile and some metaphorical warm fuzzies, the Turkish documentary Kedi will make you purr. The very title sounds like “kitty,” and that’s what this documentary is about. Its subject is street cats in Istanbul, but fear not: these are not pussies in peril. Kedi casts its spotlight on the unique love affair between Turks and its assorted toms and tabbies. It’s also a small slice of anthropology in that it highlights several significant differences in how Turks and Westerners relate to cats.

Those departures begin with how cats are raised. Like so many things in the West, a cat is a possession—at best a pampered houseguest; at worst a disposable commodity to be given away or sent to the pound if it doesn’t “work out” or no longer fits our lifestyle. Residents in Istanbul don’t possess cats; they are possessed by them. Cats are community responsibilities, even when the beastie in question chooses to reside in a particular place. A neighborhood cat is literally so. Fishmongers just scratch their heads when a marauding moggy pilfers a sardine or two from their stalls. More likely still, the vendors preemptively toss a few into their path.

This highlights another difference: Turks celebrate the cat’s intrinsic wildness, not its domestication. Mousers generally roam free in Istanbul, regardless of whether or not they tend to bed down at a particular domicile. In the film, numerous people wax eloquent about the essential nature of cats and their abiding respect for those traits. They see the world, with all its perils and curiosities as a cat’s to endure and explore.  

One aspect of this might trouble Westerners: Turks seldom spay or neuter their furry friends. Because cats are intact and free to roam, Istanbul has a lot of them—as in a whole kit and kaboodle. Quite a few are feral or semi-feral, but even the more settled females are likely to drop their litters just about anywhere. If anything happens to the mother, only luck can help the kittens. Fortunately, because Turks so revere cats, there are lots of people who make it their job—for reasons ranging from altruism to self-therapy—to feed street cats and rescue abandoned kittens. In Istanbul, numerous individuals roam the neighborhoods with plastic bags filled with kibble and chicken bits to feed hungry felines.

This is an utterly charming film. To be honest, it’s at best a two-trick Felix. Its overall theme is that Turks like cats. Want a subtheme? Okay, Turks really like cats.  They like them so much that they worry that Istanbul’s rapid modernization and proliferation of high rises encroach upon the city’s street cat culture.

Kedi sends simple messages and does it well. Sure, it’s basically an extended Internet cat video, but Kedi is a happy way to pass 79 minutes. You can curl up on a cold winter’s night—perhaps with persnickety puss on your lap—and goofily grin as you watch cantankerous critters prowl, meow, submit to petting, and—as is their way—scowl and bugger off. As your cat sighs in disgust and jumps from your reach, you can ponder the cat’s most brilliant magic trick: giving us so little and commanding so much in return.

Rob Weir


McDormand Dazzles in Powerful Three Billboards over Ebbing

Directed by Martin McDonagh
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 115 minutes, R (very rough language)

I suggest over-sized posters of Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for every studio in Hollywood. Emblazon them with the tag line: "This is what a real actress looks like." Place the posters in prominent locations where fast-talking pitchmen trying to convince producers to green-light a piece of fluff starring the airhead of the moment must gaze upon McDormand's scowling, haggard countenance. If this doesn't make them go away, cue any scene from the film in which McDormand calls out phonies.

Frances McDormand is so astonishing in Three Billboards that the Oscars should be abolished if she doesn't win her second Best Actress award in March. Three Billboards is billed as a black comedy. Do not believe it. As Mildred Hayes, McDormand delivers amusing lines, but the humor is of the acerbic, sardonic variety. Mildred is a world weary, angry, and on a mission whose message appears against a blood red background plastered to three billboards:




Let's be plainspoken. No film about rape should ever, ever be tagged with the word "comedy." McDormand makes sure that you know this is a film about tragedy—in this case, the murder of her teenage daughter Angela, whose charred body revealed just enough evidence that coitus occurred as her life ebbed.

It's been seven months and, in Mildred's mind, the murder investigation hasn't been taken seriously in the good old boys' hangout that passes for Ebbing's police department. In fact, several of Ebbing's not-so-finest are known more for their harassment of local African Americans than for their homicide-detection skills. This is especially the case for dumb-as-a-rock mama's boy Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). If you've grown up in a small town, you know the type: a stick-a-badge-on-a fool-and-create-a-monster braggart who uses heavyweight physicality to command the respect that his lightweight intellect can't. The rest of the force is content to roll their eyes, cover for Jason, and try to keep a low profile. Sound like fodder for comedy, even a dark one?

The exception to all this is the man called out on the billboards, Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Moral ambiguity abounds in this film. Willoughby is one of the few people in the town who likes the salty Mildred, a single hell-raising mother whose remaining child, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), rockets between deep embarrassment over his mother's antics, his personal trauma over his sister's death, and his love/resentment of his sixty-something father (John Hawkes), who left Mildred to take up with a 19-year-old girlfriend. He also physically abused Mildred, whose response to this and her daughter's death is to develop an exterior so crusty you couldn't break through it with a backhoe. Her tongue-lashing of a local priest is hysterical, but in a "call bullshit" fashion. Welcome to the club, Father; Mildred doesn't ration expletives for anyone in Ebbing. She's damaged, poor, angry, and guilt-ridden. But is she too pissed off for her own good?

Willoughby is a case in point. He cares, but he has a deep burden of his own. Should one single out such a man just because he's in charge? Does this shake the tree, or foster so much local resentment that Mildred, not Angela, becomes the issue? Anger unleashed is hard to contain and perhaps Mildred—minus his racism—is more like Dixon than she knows. And let's not forget that our setting is a small town in which gossip, reputation, and strong opinions hold sway. 

Three Billboards is a cut above simplistic good-versus-bad films. Its purported Missouri setting commands pause in a post-Ferguson, post-Michael Brown age (though much if it was actually filmed in Asheville, North Carolina). Some have protested that punches were pulled in the film's depictions of race, though I'm inclined to give credit to director/writer Martin McDonagh for making it a subtext in the first place. There are situations in the film that, on the surface, could be viewed as comedic, including Mildred's salty putdowns and an encounter between her and James, a local dwarf (Peter Dinklage), but the humor label misses bigger points about the possible bonding of marginalized people. My sole complaint about the film is that redemption comes a bit too suddenly for several characters.

Whatever flaws lie in the script are covered by stellar performances. As noted, McDormand delivers an amazing performance that should cheer older actresses everywhere. (She is 60. Need I remind you of how few roles are written for women of her age?)

If we've not done so already, it's time to forget that Harrelson ever appeared in Cheers. He is a very good actor who long ago left Woody Boyd at the bar. In Three Billboards he delivers a compelling performance as a man with so much on his mind that it can only resolve in a single tragic way—and it's probably not how you expect. It's very hard to depict an ill-educated oaf, and Sam Rockwell is superb as Dixon. As for minor roles, Hollywood often skimps on these, but that's not the case for Hedges, Dinklage, and Hawkes.  Abbie Cornish has a small part as Willoughby's wife, but she does much with what she's given. Caleb Landry Jones also does a nice job as Red Welby, the head of a seedy advertising agency. He is quite convincing as a local who knows that not everyone in a position of authority deserves deference.  Give a shout out also to Sandy Martin, as Dixon's bigoted mother who doles out both genuine and controlling love in equal measure.

Black comedy? I don't think so. Drama isn't always about histrionics and big speeches. Sometimes drama is about pain masquerading as snark, marginalization disguised as backlash, and guilt posing as defiance. Three Billboards depicts such tragedies and one could do far worse than proclaim it the best film of 2017. One could debate this, but wrap that Oscar for Frances McDormand, a real actress in the age of fluff.

Rob Weir


McCracken's Older Novel Relives a Faded Era

By Elizabeth McCracken
Dial Press, 320 pages

Why review such an older novel? First of all, Elizabeth McCracken is a very fine writer (Giant, Thunderstruck). But the main reason is that there's been a small burst of new enthusiasm for books about vaudeville lately and that's the subject of McCracken's work. Like other works, both fictional and historical—The Little Shadow, The Tumbling TurnerSisters, The Comedians, Four of the Three Musketeers, The Queen of Vaudeville, various Sophie Tucker biographies—McCracken takes us inside an increasingly forgotten era, a time in which entertainment was less airbrushed than it is today. Vaudeville was a place where dreams came true or died hard and it staged performances ranging from stupendous to stupid. Variety exhibitions such as TV's Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71) were the last remnants of an entertainment form that dominated from the 1880s through the 1920s and immersed live audiences large and small in everything from song and dance to plate twirling, slapstick, and the sort of things you'd expect at a carnival sideshow. 

McCracken's novel tells of the long partnership between the pencil thin Mike (Moses) Sharp and hefty Rocky Carter that began when Rocky dumped his longtime straight man and saw something in the novice Sharp, a Jewish lad from Iowa who hit the boards to pursue his fantasy, exorcise a beloved sister's ghost, and avoid taking over his father's menswear business. McCracken begins her tale at a time in which vaudeville is already threatened by a new diversion, motion pictures, and it takes us through the decades as the duo transitions to movies, does some television, and ultimately joins the ranks of the famous long ago. McCracken clearly modeled their comedy act on Laurel and Hardy, but with the body types reversed: skinny Mike is the commonsense, constantly flummoxed "Professor" and rotund Rocky goes for the laughs. In many ways it's an unorthodox love affair between the two—not physical love, but the sort of deep connections whose severance comes fraught with deep pain and touches of tragedy and cruelty.

It's about more than that but the Mike/Rocky relationship is the start and end points of ancillary story arcs. Mose/Mike grew up with six sisters, but it was Hattie, two years older than he, who forced the issue by insisting they'd be an act when they grew up. She died young, but another reason Mike left Iowa was to escape from a household filled with sisters who annoyed him in one way or another. He can't understand why Rocky pushes him to reconnect with his family or wishes to ingratiate himself into it—especially when both of them were young, virile, and good with the ladies. One of the book's touching explorations is how their respective stage masks ultimately match their public personae—with Mike ultimately yearning for stability and convention and Rocky stuck as a lifelong mammothrept who can only flirt with the things Mike lived/lives.
McCracken reveals details about vaudeville—the title references the peripatetic lives of stage performers—but because she's such a wonderful writer the biggest reveals are about life when the lights dims. Themes include straight men* and comics in the bigger world, stability versus chaos, and Iowa commonsense versus the lure of excitement.  It's an older book, to be sure, and not one of McCracken's master works, but a fine winter's read.

Rob Weir   

* For younger readers, the term "straight man" has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It was/is a common comedy duo strategy in which a level-headed actor (straight man) is paired with one prone to recklessly getting both into funny but perilous situations from which they must extricate themselves.  Or, alternatively, the sensible straight man  stands in comic contrast to the jokester/buffoon. 


Kate MacLeod: December 2017 Album of the Month


Deep in the Sound of Terra
Courier Music 007

Would you believe me if I told you that the best Celtic music album of the year was made by a  woman who hails from Washington, DC and now lives in Utah? You should. Kate MacLeod's Deep in the Soul of Terra was inspired by her reflections on the natural splendors of the West and her artist-in-residence stint with the Entrada Institute, an environmental and heritage center that celebrates the topography and human geography of the Colorado Plateau. But fear not; this is not a cup of herbal tea with a wide-eyed New Age devotee, rather a serious reflection on nature and the music it inspires.

 MacLeod kicksoff with "Blue Sky Prelude," a piece that immerses listeners rather than hooking them with clever licks. It has grandeur and atmospherics galore, but of the kind that evoke adjectives such as dreamy, museful, and mystical. Like everything on the record, it takes it time so that we are saturated and sink into the arrangement. Take a listen* to "The Land Before Man" set; it will be one of the best eight minutes of your life. You might catch a Western vibe from Skip Gorman's backing mandolin and James Scott's evocative guitar, but the overall effect I akin to one of Alasdair Fraser's more introspective works. "Assonet Bay" is another in that vein, especially in the purity of MacLeod's fiddle notes. Still another wondrous piece is the "Sand in the Breeze" set, which opens with a semi-classical feel before settling into a quiet, calm place and cutting to a fast take out. If you want to appreciate how good MacLeod is, consider that Kevin Burke is on this track—as second fiddle. MacLeod also strikes a formal pose on "Ice on Lake Mohonk," which brings to mind a courtly dance, and which finishes with "The Mohonk Jig." Don't think raucous pub; if ever the descriptor 'stately' applies to a jig, it's here.

This album is as brilliant as it is thoughtful. "The Oregon Trail" has a lonesome opening that cuts to a casual long trail saunter; you slow things down when you are small and the land is vast. You might expect some lickety split string action on a tune titled "The Train Across the Great Salt Lake," but this one leaves the depot slowly, gathers pace gently—listen for the train effects added by the band Otter Creek—and then settles into a comfortable groove. It ends by gliding into the station, not roaring to a stop. On the album's final track we are treated to MacLeod's vocal on the delicate and instantly likable "Let the Dove Come In." If you like Celtic music salted with hints of classical, bluegrass, and old-time music, you're going to love this one.

Rob Weir  

*This house concert recording is  a stripped down version of the album recording.


Art Road Trip : Shelburne Museum in the Off-Season


SWEET TOOTH: THE ART OF DESSERT (through February 18, 2018)
HOOKED ON PATTY YODER (through January 21, 2018)
Shelburne Museum
Shelburne, Vermont

Summer places in the offseason generally exude one of two vibes: forlorn or tranquil. Luckily Vermont's Shelburne Museum falls into the second category, once you get used to the fact that most of the buildings are closed and you're sharing a big area with tens instead of hundreds. From May 1-October 31 the museum is the domain of families, school groups, and bused-in tourists; after that, the energy level plummets and mellowness prevails. Even the docents sense it; they grow gregarious and are as curious about you as you are of what's on offer.

Prior to the 2013 opening of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education (PCAE) dreams of spring was the only thing on offer. Now the Shelburne Museum uses it to showcase small exhibits and cherry-picked permanent collection items year round. Just four other buildings are open, but first a look at two wonderful exhibits that you're not likely to see anywhere else.

Sweet Tooth: The Art of Dessert is the perfect holiday exhibit. T'is the season to pig out, so we might as well redeem ourselves and think about calories as art. Sweet Tooth works because of its puckish humor and conscious lack of seriousness. It's also true to the spirit of Andy Warhol, who understood that pop culture had an aesthetic, so why not an oversized crumbled piece of metal painted as a Zagnut Bar? Try to pass by Margaret Morrison's sumptuous canvas titled Chocolates without drooling. How about designer shoes fashioned from cake batter, or Wendy James' call-it-like-it-is assemblage Empty Calories? But Chris Campbell steals the show with his short perspective-defying videos. My favorites were of a medical emergency in a field of Twinkies, a man being rescued from having fallen through the surface of a crème brulee, a dare devil motorcyclist launching skyward from a wedge of cake, and a hysterical scene of a snow blower plowing through a donut forest and spitting powdered sugar into the air. Great stuff that's guaranteed to put a smile on your face. 

I might have suggested therapy had you told me beforehand that an exhibit on hooked rugs would be one of my favorite art shows of the year. I absolutely adored Hooked on Patty Yoder. Yoder (1943-2005) loved sheep and she honored them in the very wool she sheared from them on her Tinmouth, Vermont farm. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Yoder's Alphabet of Sheep, 26 themed rugs, each with an alphabet embedded somewhere in the design. Some are in plain view, others are so cleverly disguised that finding them is an adult version of Where's Waldo? Everyone gets into the act, including the docents; apparently no one has yet located the namesake letter in H is for Hannah & Sarah, A Civil Union, Yoder's rug in honor of Vermont's legalization of same-sex partnerships in 2000. You can't stop looking for the letters and because you look long and hard you doubly appreciate the intricacy and skill of Yoder's designs. I suspect you'll also walk away having confirmed that the line between fine and folk art is little more than 
snobbish convention.

It was certainly not a view shared by Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), the wealthy heiress whose collections of both folk and fine art led her to found the Shelburne Museum in 1947. The Webb Gallery and the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building are now both open in the offseason. In the first you can see everything from luminist paintings to oils of country life, but its star attraction is Andrew Wyeth's ambiguous and unsettling Soaring. Do the vultures circle coincidentally, or does decay reside in the farmhouse below? On a cheerier note, I thought I had gone through a wormhole connecting Vermont to Northampton, MA when I saw a painting from Ashfield artist Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1850-1923), whose work is featured at Smith College, and several from Charles Burleigh, Jr. (1848-82) whose work is currently featured at Historic Northampton. If you need more high-falootin' stuff, it's always a joy to stroll through the Webb Memorial Building and marvel over priceless French Impressionist masterpieces, but the building, which recreates rooms from the Webbs' New York City apartment, also tells another story—the trappings of great wealth abound but it also feels like a place in which actual people lived rather than a—wordplay intended—museum.

In that spirit, the newest building to be winterized is the Dorset House, which is devoted to bird decoys. I've never hunted nor cared much about decoys, but I was pleasantly surprised to the degree that the collection has been reorganized and rationalized in ways akin to the weathervanes and trade signs in the Stagecoach Inn (next up on the winterization list, but currently seasonal). In other words, the decoys are now presented as folk art, not just fowl hunting aids.

And folk art is what the Shelburne Museum is really all about. Though you'd have to go back after May 1 to see it, everything else in view is devoted to folk art. But I can't recommend highly enough getting there to see the exhibits currently at the PCAE. Savor the desserts and find the missing H. Take in the Wyeth, admire the Impressionists, and finish off with some decoys, a stroll around the Round Barn, and a visit to the gift shop. The pace is relaxed and it will cost you less than half of what you'll shell out when you return after May 1.

Rob Weir   


World Music: Asaran Earth Trio, Akshara Ensemble, Tribalistas, Safron Ensemble and More


Global Music Gems and Rocks

Looking for something unique for the holidays? Put down those generic CDs from interchangeable one-name pop tarts and give the gift of world music. I've included a few projects that didn't connect with me but might fit your tastes.

The promo for the Asaran Earth Trio jokes that "a Brazilian, a Croatian, and a Hungarian walked into a bar…." That bar is in New York City, where the three have made their mark in various jazz ensembles. I can't imagine that anything they do in those groups parallels the beauty of their collaborative project Why Should Your Heart Not Dance? Sometimes modern recording is too damn slick for its own good. Not here. These three women—Anne Boccato (Brazil), Astrid Kuljanic (Croatia), and Artemisz Polonya (Hungary)—use only hand drums and claps to color their voices and they often don't bother; a cappella singing shines on its own with three gem-like voices such as these. Asaran spotlights global traditions, songs, and styles. "Foreign Lander" is a plaintive song that was once part of Jean Ritchie's repertoire, but is rendered by the trio in ways suggestive of The Wailin' Jennys. Eclecticism is the order of the day. "Viva o Jackson" is creative noodling with jazz scat and complex inter- and cross-weaving backing vocals. A cover of the standard "Bye Bye Blackbird" is also scat-enhanced." The jazz wrappers contrast with a song such as "Patacoada," which comes off as a Brazilian nonsense boasting song crossed with a yogic chant. In others shift, there are the  joyous village feel of the Italian folk song "L'Amante Confessore," and the darker more soulful Hungarian offering "Szeki Lassu." It's hard, though, to imagine anything more stunning than "Kis Kece Lányom," which is actually a Hungarian children's song but here sounds like a madrigal round in a Gothic cathedral. This amazing recording epitomizes the idiom, "You could have knocked me over with a feather." ★★★★★

Akshara Music Ensemble features Carnatic and Hindustani music as filtered through Western and classical traditions. Carnactic music is common to Southern India and is usually sung or played in singsong instrumental patterns, which is what Akshara mainly does. As in much Indian music, their pieces develop in movements; there are just five tracks on In Time, but the recording is over 46 minutes long. This East-meets-West musical feast brilliantly realized was composed by Bala Shandan, who is also one of two percussionists. "Mind theGap" has a bang-the-can sound, even though the percussion is traditional. Like others on the album, Jay Gandhi's Bansuri (flute) gives the piece air through which instruments such as hammered dulcimer, violins, cello, and tabla float. "Mohana Blues" is actually more pastoral than bluesy and has segments that evoke the calmness of Japanese music; that is, if Japanese music also featured kecak chants. (Think the Balinese monkey chant sequences in films such as Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi.) There is so much that impresses on this release: the chase-its-own tail outro to "Opus in 5," the build and drama of "Shadjam," the bell-like tones matched by growling cello in "Urban Kriti…." It is a rare blend of ancient and fresh." ★★★★

If you think the term supergroup is an American thing, think again. Tribalistas brings together three Brazilian artists whose names are as familiar there as Elvis in Memphis. Singer/composer Arnaldo Antunes made his mark in movies, punk, and rock (Titans); singer/percussion wizard Carlinhos Brown in various Afro-Carib styles; and many consider Marisa Monte to be the second greatest popular music singer in Brazilian history. Their album Tribalistas (1) is a genre-confounding collaboration that's somewhere between rock, pop, folk, and jazz. The synergy is obvious, as is their veteran professionalism. Watch the clip of "Diaspora" and you'll see Antunes literally orchestrate the piece, but listen to what happens on its own, including a very cool tempo shift and Brown's subtle keening. If "Fora da Memoria" recalls something Sergio Mendes might have done, it's because  Brown was once part of his band. "Trabalivre" is energetic and edgy, with small, gritty pushes at the ends of stanzas nudging the music to another level. In "Um só" the three sing with and against each other and connect everything with catchy melodic hooks. Learn why these superb artists have enough Latin Grammys, MTV awards, and other hardware to open an Aubuchon. ★★★★

I have no idea what to make of Noaccordion, the brainchild of Oakland-based Onah Indigo. Let me quote her album PR : "Balancing trap's gritty edge with serene vocals and dubbed-out accordion licks, Gurukula ripples with energy, yet radiates calm, as the sounds of bhajans and songs in Kannada entwine with an atmosphere of unfolded paradise, with its organic beat." Huh? Trap is a hip-hop style that evolved in the South, bhajan is a South Indian religious song, and Kannada is a language/ethnic group. That said, pieces such as "Goalie" and "Oonana" are essentially a series of beats, unusual electronic sounds, and submerged echoing vocals. "Response" is rare in that we hear a discernible South Indian melody. Listen; maybe you'll what I'm missing. Is this hypnotic or performance art quirkiness? I lean toward the latter.

Onah Indigo attempts what the Saffron Ensemble accomplishes. Their album Will You also seeks universal connections through unique channels: a coming together of American, Canadian, Indian, and Persian musicians whose compositions incorporate the poetry of Rumi, a 13th century Iranian poet, as filtered through Indian grooves, Western jazz, and a saxophonist (Tim Ries) who has toured with The Rolling Stones. If, on your screen, this looks to be convoluted, listen and you'll find coherence. I was hooked from the first notes of "Sweet Caroline" (not the Neil Diamond hit). Kevin Hays' delicate piano notes set the mood for trance instrumentation that dance to Dibyarka Chattersee's tabla beats. Pieces such as "If I Can't" and "Quiet Turbulence" evoke the ambience of 1950s beatnik clubs in which poetry was read atop quiet background music, but if you're tempted to dismiss non-English spoken word as dull, listen to passion in Katayoun Goudarzi's voice. It is as if she accesses the unifying stillness that counters the cacophony of human differences. If that doesn't impress you, listen when she sings. Her tones are ornamented and mellifluous. Listen to how she comes in later to build s "A Thread." The mix of sitar (Shujaat Hasain Khan), piano, tabla, flute, sax, and vocals thrum to global vibes, even on "Void" in which the silences are as important as the sounds. ★★★★★  

Astrid Kuljanic (of the Asaran Earth Trio) has her own band, the Transatlantic Exploration Company. It's much more of a soft jazz ensemble, one in which she's backed mostly by accordion and bass. Sample the moody café style version of the Croatian traditional "Oj vi Mlade,"the faintly Latin twist she puts on the Dizzie Gillespie standard "Night in Tunisia," the free form "Portrait," and the sultry, sparse "Wild in the Night" from the Ensemble's album Riva. This album isn't really my cup of tea, but it might be yours. ★★ ½


Woman in Cabin 10 a Shipwreck


By Ruth Ware
Scout/Simon & Shuster, 352 pages

Wouldn't it make a fascinating mystery to have a female central character that thinks she has witnessed a horrible crime, but no one believes her because she's a psychologically damaged alcoholic? Oh wait; Paula Hawkins already wrote A Girl on the Train. How about a journey in which a murder occurs and one of the passengers must be responsible? You know—like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express? Because it's the 21st century, how about a modern twist with the Internet being unavailable, like Ruth Ware's In a Dark Dark Wood? To say that Ms. Ware has cribbed the work of others (including her own) doesn't begin to get it. Nor does the term "sophomore slump." Ware's The Girl in Cabin 10 is about as close to intellectual plagiarism as one can get without being visited by a shadow of process-servers.

I adored In a Dark Dark Wood, Ware's debut novel. So did tens of thousands of others, and this might be the problem. The Woman in Cabin 10 has all of the distressing earmarks of a book written and published too quickly in an attempt to strike while the iron is hot. (For heaven's sake, the book was optioned for a movie before it got released in paperback.) Make no mistake, though, this book is a metaphorical cut-and-paste job, not homage to Hawkins or Christie. Does it matter if we replace the train with a cruise ship? First-class rail carriages with luxury liner suites? A PTSD-inducing failed marriage with a PTSD-inducing home invasion? About the only differences are that Ware replaced Hawkins' sympathetic lead with a thoroughly unlikable one, and there is no one aboard her Scandinavia-bound ocean liner with an ounce of the charm of Hercule Poirot.

Her protagonist is Laura "Lo' Blacklock, a lower-down-the-totem-pole writer for Velocity, a travel magazine for haute bourgeois toffs. She's already an anti-depressant popping anxiety-ridden mess who can't commit to her boyfriend before her sleep is interrupted by a burglar, who accidentally bops her on the noggin when she surprises him. This occurs on the eve of a press junket sail on The Aurora, a designer mini-liner of just ten cabins catering to the ultra-rich. She's not about to give up an assignment that she hopes will help her scale the totem pole, so she boards the ship against the advice of those closest to her. Her Christie-like cast is a boatload of insufferables: egoistical journalists, obsequious staff, her long ago (and unreliable) ex-boyfriend, a disbelieving security chief, and The Aurora's owner, Richard Bullmer—think an even more upscale version of Richard Branson—and his terminally ill wife. Lo starts getting sloshed, along with the other pampered journalists, and is three sheets to the wind before the cruise is even underway. She's queasy and uneasy but carries on. While dressing for dinner she discovers she forgot her mascara, so she pounds on the door of Cabin 10 and borrows a tube from a woman in a Pink Floyd t-shirt.

The novel's central mystery unfolds when Lo is catching needed late-night air on her suite's verandah when she is sure she hears a small scream and a splash from Cabin 10's adjoining deck. She's also certain she saw a smear of blood on the glass divider between the two outdoor verandahs. Lo dutifully reports this. Problem: Cabin 10 is allegedly empty due to a last-minute cancellation. Nor is there anyone missing, evidence that the cabin has been occupied, or any trace of blood. You can probably take it from there. 

It's bad enough that The Woman in Cabin 10 is (at best) a pale version of similar tales. A potboiler arc that consists of Lego-like snap-in plot devices, a whiny protagonist, a supporting cast you'd happily push overboard, histrionics, and shaky details compound the lack of originality. One wonders how any of the characters remain standing given the amount of alcohol they consume and let's just say that the mystery's final resolution rests upon some exceedingly convenient occurrences and discoveries. One might even say that the 'reveal' is obvious in a follow-the-sobriety kind of way. Alfred Hitchcock famously observed that most mysteries rest upon improbable details. The secret, of course, is to trick the audience into not seeing them. That simply does not happen in this book.

The Woman in Cabin 10 has sold well, but that does not make it an admirable work. Ware would not be the first writer pushed into a premature sequel, but one certainly hopes she rights this book's listing ship before her next novel. The fact that Cabin 10's conclusion is followed by a 'bonus' chapter from her third book doesn't inspire confidence. At some point Ms. Ware will need to decide if she wishes to be a respected 'serious' crime writer or just another hack in the pack. May her better angels triumph.

Rob Weir


Jane Stuns Visually, but Not Equal to the Hype


JANE    (2017)
Directed by Brett Morgen
National Geographic Partners, 89 minutes, PG (Possible disturbing images)

Flamboyant rebels make interesting movie subjects. But what about those whose rebellion is determined and quiet? Jane Goodall (b.1934) revolutionized the field of primatology, but until relatively recently she seldom tooted her own horn. In such a story, a documentary filmmaker’s job is to build a dramatic structure for maximum impact. On this level, Director Brett Morgen is only partly successful. Jane is a decent film, but the East African landscape is more eye-popping than what we learn about Ms. Goodall.

Goodall’s story begins in 1957, when she was working as a secretary for a true rebel: anthropologist Louis S. B. Leakey (1903-72).  Leakey didn’t care all that much about what others thought of him and when you advance evolutionary science as much as he, you don’t have to. Leakey had already proven that many (if not all) human ancestors came from Africa, and was looking for someone to study great apes in hope of extrapolating from simian behavior how hominid ancestors might have lived. He tapped Goodall because she had no specialized training and wouldn’t be vested in bending observations toward any existing theories of primate behavior. Not that there were that many; prior to Goodall’s findings, chimpanzees were viewed mostly as circus animals. In 1957, only someone with the audacity of Leakey could have made it possible for a single, untrained, young female to immerse herself in the Gombe Stream Park, a Tanzanian rainforest. 

At first, she spent most of her days dodging poisonous snakes and swatting vicious insects until at long last she found a chimp colony. Her initial findings didn’t amount to much, but Leakey sent her off to train with primatologists he trusted while he shook the money tree for funding. In 1960, Goodall rocked the scientific world with her discovery that chimps made tools and that they had distinct personalities. This gave Leakey the clout to do something done only seven times before: he pushed Goodall into a Ph.D. program at Cambridge University when she was without the benefit of  a bachelor’s degree. Even then, National Geographic and other institutions balked at sending a single woman back into the field. The compromise was that she had to accept into her camp a male professional nature photographer: Hugh Van Lawick (1937-2002). Much of Jane is built around 100 hours of Van Lawick’s misplaced, unviewed film footage. It has been restored to levels beyond could have been viewed in 1964.

Van Lawick and Goodall made a good work team. Their films documented such hitherto unknown practices such as the polyandrous mating behavior of females in estrus, clan-like social structures, and the shocking levels of violence of which chimps are capable. Tool making, discrete personalities, social hierarchy, and warfare… So much for the idea that humans are unique in those regards.

In Jane, Goodall is also under observation. In his best sequences of added material, Morgen shows collages of sexist newspaper, magazine, and TV features that called more attention to Goodall’s blond hair, fresh face, and shapely legs* than to her research. Van Lawick, a Dutch baron, also fell for Goodall’s comely features; the couple  married in 1964. Three years later, their son “Grub” (Hugo Eric Louis Van Lawick) was born. Alas, Goodall and Van Lawick were less successful as lovers. He grew bored playing second fiddle, accepted a photography assignment in the Serengeti, and asked Jane to move there with him. She chose career over marriage and the couple amicably divorced in 1974.   

Given that Jane is based mostly on Van Lawick’s recovered footage, it’s logical that most of Goodall’s post-1974 activities—such as the creation of the Jane Goodall Institute, her remarriage to Tanzanian parliamentarian and national parks director Dereck Byrceson, her myriad awards, and ongoing work in Gombe—appear mostly as coda. Logical, perhaps, but it’s problematic when chimpanzees end up with more personality that our main subject. When asked how she put up with the sexism in the early days, Goodall’s responded that since her childhood, “I wanted to go to Africa and live among wild animals.” Morgen should not have left such a banality stand unchallenged. The overall portrait of Goodall is that she is more British stiff upper lip than a rebel in the field. Yet it’s well known that she had her feminist consciousness raised. Tepid filmmaking blunts the drama and instead, Morgen tries to amp up with a Philip Glass soundtrack. Glass is occasionally brilliant, but this score is cloying and annoying.

Should you see Jane? There are some amazing things in the film that weren’t necessarily intended as major focal points. Read between the lines and you can appreciate how little we knew before Goodall. When asked how she could get up close to animals “that could rip your face off,” Goodall smiled and replied, “Yes, but one didn’t know that at the time.” She learned fast. Scenes of chimp warfare are terrifying, as were their attacks on Goodall’s compound. Parents will blanch at scenes of Grub inside his wire mesh playroom; male chimps sometimes kill and eat infant chimps and their evolutionary cousins. Shots from the Serengeti are awe-inspiring in ways that made me think of it as the (Non-) Peaceable Kingdom. Morgen also does a good job of showing flaws in some of Goodall’s research methods. Setting up feeding stations made chimps easier to study, but also partially domesticated them. By her own admission, she was also guilty of sentimentalizing; Goodall not only touched her subjects, she gave them names such Goliath, David Greybeard, Frodo, Flint, Fifi, Flo…. One might even reach for the barf bucket when hearing Goodall tell of learning how to mother her own son by observing Flo.

I left the theater with my lifelong admiration of Goodall intact, but my views might be conditioned more by  years of following her career than learning about it from the film. Insofar as discoveries go, I have long admired Van Lawick’s photos, but previously knew little about him. Still, the film is named Jane, not Hugo or Flo. Mainly I admired the visuals. (Warning: There are extreme close-ups of snakes, insects, and chimp faces, so if any of these make you queasy keep a hand ready to shield your eyes.) I guess I can’t fault the film for making more about sexism; after all, Goodall was in the field before The Feminine Mystique made its way into the mainstream. I did notice, though, the large number of females now working at Goodall’s old camp. Isn’t that worthy of comment? Odd as it might seem, I’d recommend you first read Goodall’s Wikipedia page if you decide to see Jane. Goodall is a very important person. That should be shouted out; in the film it’s often but a whisper. But maybe the film makes a contribution by reminding us that rebels come in many forms, even those who simply do rather than make a fuss about it.

Rob Weir

* A confession: I learned about Goodall as a grade school student. (My aunt started buying National Geographic for me when I was eight and I still get it). I too was smitten with Goodall’s lovely legs and my child self thought her the most exotic woman I had ever seen. I get a pass on the latter; that was objectively true for where I was raised!        


See Honore Sharrer's Work Before It Closes

 A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer
Smith Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through January 7

1938 self-portrait patterned on Han Memling's 'Portrait of a Man with a pink Carnation'

 If you're anywhere near Northampton between now and January 7, be sure to pop into the Smith College Museum of Art to see a show devoted to Honoré Sharrer (1920-2009). She's one of the lesser-known surrealists for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, but she's worth getting to know. In fact, one of the great joys of college art museums is that they often introduce us to artists whose works fly under the radar screen of major repositories.

Sharrer wasn't always out of the public eye. She was hailed as a rising young talent back in the 1940s, took part in an important exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, was declared Mademoiselle's artist of the year in 1949, had a solo show in 1951, and was a media sensation. Yet she would not get another solo exhibition until 1969, and there have been just three since then: 1987, 2007, and now. If you're thinking that gender played a role in her marginalization, you're partially right, but two other factors loom larger.

Resurrection of the Waitress

The first is that she was generally tagged as either an expressionist or a surrealist and neither of those labels fits comfortably. Some critics today call her work magical realism and though that handle has problems as well, it's closer to the mark. Surrealism is a definitional moving target, but it's hard to place Sharrer's work amidst company such as Dali, Magritte, Picasso, Tanguy, or Maher. Once you know that she was inspired by mythology, art history, nursery rhymes, and popular culture, there's nothing particularly enigmatic about her symbols or intentions. If there are other artists to whom she most compares, it's probably Paul Cadmus, or maybe Frida Kahlo in her non-figurative guise. (Kahlo was also sometimes called a surrealist and it wasn't accurate for her either.) One of Sharrer's more intriguing canvasses is titled Resurrection of the Waitress and it has odd elements such as pulled back hair, an eggbeater, a razor blade, and a bare-breasted airborne woman. But when you learn that she's telling the story of a drowning victim by riffing off a 15th century Bosch painting (Ascent of the Blessed), Sharrer's canvas is simply offbeat, not mysterious. She also liked to twist old myths, with Leda a particular favorite and usually displayed with pudenda exposed. (In Greek myth, Zeus disguised himself as a swan to ravage the beautiful moral Leda, whom he turned into a swan. One of their children was Helen of Troy.) All of this is to say that Sharrer's work was quirky and cheeky, but the viewer's effect isn't akin to standing in front of a Dali and pondering what any of what you see might mean!

Politics was what made Sharrer "dangerous." Like many modernist painters she honed her teeth on representational art—even when it held symbolic meanings. In that phase, Sharrer was an overt leftist who reveled in 1930s rebels. She showed her sympathy for laborers in works such as Workers and Paintings (1943) and Tribute to the American Working People (1951). The first dignifies ordinary folks by posing them amidst art masterpieces; the second is patterned on a 15the century altar piece by Hugo van der Goes. Sharrer lived in Amherst in the late 1940s; her second husband was Amherst history professor Perez Zagorin (1920-2009), an intellectual communist who was blacklisted in 1953. By extension, so was Sharrer. The couple fled to Montreal, where they lived until 1965. Sharrer's Reception (1958) is a subtle commentary on her exile years, as the high sheen guests include such famed anticommunist crusaders as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Cardinal Francis Spellman. 

The Reception

Oddly, it might be another thing that eclipsed Sharrer's star, as it's a fairly static picture—except for the appearance of birds throughout the canvas. These are usually said to be a comment on the obliviousness of the guests, though I suspect Sharrer was coding messages about the culture of innuendo, whispers, and spying. Still, this picture came at a time in which modernism and abstraction were all the rage and it didn't fit those fashions. It certainly didn't help her case that she also rendered a series of drawing that satirized art critics, patrons, and trend-setters. 

In commenting on his wife's work, Zagorin noted it had a "slant view." That's maybe the best way to describe it. We see a naked, orange-hatted St. Jerome sharing space with menacing Japanese figures, a butcher standing amidst porcine carnage and a famed Greek statue, a commentary on modesty patterned after The Trojan Archer, a putdown of the horsey set with a backward riding Godiva, an odd ballet, and a hysterical "ordinary" outing whose elements include a small car, a flamingo, a nude woman, and Pan peeling an apple. Slant views indeed. Sharrer's career revived somewhat when society loosened in the late 1960s, but she never regained her earlier spotlight. By her death in 2009 she was little known outside of the art world's inner circle. The best category for Sharrer is perhaps art's most populous: those that obtain posthumous appreciation.

Rob Weir


Lady Bird a Standard Coming of Age Movie


LADY BIRD  (2017)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
A24, 94 minutes, R (language, sexuality)

Groucho Marx once quipped, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." He wasn't speaking of his adolescent years, but he could have been. Do you know a teenager who hasn't gone through an identity crisis? If you want to make a Sturm und Drang film, focusing on teens is the easiest way to do so. Saying something new is much harder. This is the challenge facing novice director Greta Gerwig in Lady Bird. Not surprisingly, she delivers a mixed result.   

Gerwig opens with an epigram from Joan Didion: "Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento." It's an amusing line, though it doesn't quite hide the fact that Lady Bird is a standard coming-of-age film. You know the type—the classic Freudian moment in adolescents' lives in which they must symbolically slay the dominant parent to become truly independent. Gerwig's twist is that it's mom, not dad, who must fall. This makes Gerwig's film more than a genre knock-off but just a tick above the norm, not a quantum leap.

The film is set just after 9/11. Right away we have a missed opportunity. The film centers on the turmoil and disconnectedness of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who adopts the affected handle "Lady Bird" as an act of minor rebellion. Why the film is set in 2002-03 is a mystery, given that Gerwig never makes logical parallels between Lady Bird's personal upheaval and that of the nation itself. New York appears in the film, but as the destination to which Lady Bird wishes to escape, not as any deeper analogy. Indeed, it's tempting to subtitle the movie Stifled in Sacramento. Lady Bird is the poster child for decent but disaffected teens. Her hair is streaked with red highlights and she wears on her sleeve her boredom with school, Catholicism, convention, and Sacramento. She's curious about sex and mildly intrigued by the drama club, but mostly she feels hemmed in—especially by her domineering mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Add social class to the list of things that flatten Lady Bird's affect. The McPhersons are lower middle class and even that status is insecure, as father Larry (Tracy Letts) has been laid off and Marion must work double shifts at the hospital to keep food on the table for a household that also includes an adopted Latino son, Miguel (Jordan Rodriques) and his live-in girlfriend. It's the sort of home in which Lady Bird's wardrobe comes from thrift stores and is reworked by mom. Lady Bird can't help but fantasize about upper middle class homes or compare her friendship with the chubby math whiz Julie (Beanie Feldstein) with the cooler haute bourgeoisie social groups. This too causes grief. What does she want to be, a rebel or a Boho? The only constant is that she wants to be somewhere else, as her overstretched mother is hypercritical of everything Lady Bird says, does, or wants.
The film is at its weakest when Gerwig paints by the numbers. If you know the coming-of-age genre, you know what will ensue: inappropriate boyfriends and peers, self-discovery in acting, good cop/bad cop parenting, embarrassing situations, escape, revelation, dawning maturity, and call it a wrap. There's nothing new here, and the film would be a total wash were it not for extremely fine acting. At 23, this is probably Ronan's swan song for a role in which she plays 17 going on 18. That said, Ronan is everything we hoped she would be when she surfaced as a nine-year-old child actress. She strikes all the right notes as a confused young person who is smugly self-aware one moment and a clueless the next. Watch her as she rockets between tough as nails and vulnerable, or self-absorbed and wounded. Above all, Ronan inhabits her roles in ways that make us see the character, not her playing a character. The much under-rated Laurie Metcalf is also superb as a mother who loves her daughter deeply but can't get out of the way of her own snark. Deep inside she knows she's not doing her best for her daughter, but she literally lacks the energy to change. Nor can she afford to lower her guard. Letts is also very good as a depressed but super-mensch dad.  

It's too early to evaluate Gretta Gerwig's competence as a director. For her first film, she chose an unchallenging genre and didn't challenge herself within it. Inexperience leaks through several seams. In addition to the dropped 9/11 possibilities, she doesn't give us nearly enough clues about secondary characters, including those within the McPherson household who presumably contribute to Lady Bird's discontent. In fact, most of the incidental characters are more generalized types than distinct personalities. To date, Gerwig's most distinguishing directorial trait is that she has an eye for choosing talented leads.

On balance, Lady Bird is a decent, diverting film but not a memorable one. At its best it induces flashbacks to times most of us would never wish to relive. If it makes us a bit more tolerant of those stuck in the middle of the muddle, that's a service of sorts. The next time you encounter an annoying pack of teens, remember Groucho's words, smile, and mentally wish them godspeed for delivery from the club.

Rob Weir