4/21/17

Terence Davis' Human Emily Dickinson

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A QUIET PASSION
Directed by Terence DAVIES
MUSIC BOX FILMS, 126 MINUTES, PG-13
★★★★

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set. —Emily Dickinson


If, like me, you live anywhere near Amherst, Massachusetts, you're likely to have one of two very strong opinions about native daughter Emily Dickinson—you either worship the grass upon which she trod, or you're sick of hearing her very name. I am a card-carrying member of the second camp. I feel about Dickinson much as I feel about characters from the Brontes and Jane Austen—enough with the tormented passivity and internalized repression. Director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon have not only made me reconsider Ms. Dickinson, they've sent me scurrying back to her poems.

The rejoinder to my impatience with Dickinson is, of course, that women of her era (1830-1886) had few options. Davies subtlety shows us the stultifying effects of being female in the 19th century. His is a very European film in style, filled with pan shots and moments in which silence speaks louder than dialogue. Though it might be hard for those weaned on action films to watch, there are several scenes of domestic non-bliss in which the camera slowly surveys a silent room in which men are contentedly reading and women look at if they might devolve into boredom-induced madness or melt into the patterned wallpaper upon which the lens lingers. Indeed, it's hard not to think of Charlotte Perkins-Gilman in moments such as these. Where are the cultural cracks through which non-conformists can escape? That's exactly the slant Davies employs in his look at Emily Dickinson—one whose interstices, jumps, and cuts are filled with snippets of her verse.

We see Emily as a rebel from the start—a woman fiercely guarding her own soul and willing to stand up to the indomitable Mary Lyons to do so—perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson only lasted ten months at Mt Holyoke Female Seminary. Davies doesn't give us an eternally gloomy Dickinson. Young Emily (Emma Bell) is light, clever, carefree, and saucy enough to bait her pious, drear Aunt Elizabeth. This carries over as she enters maturity. If you only know Cynthia Nixon from Sex in the City, be prepared to be astonished; it would not surprise me if hers supplants Julie Harris' as the definitive portrayal of Dickinson. Nixon gives us a Dickinson who takes joy in other insouciant women, especially her sunny sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), her good-hearted sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), and the tart-tongued Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), the principal of a local school for girls. Bailey is a special delight. In the film, she drops witticisms, snide comments, and wicked remarks like a female Oscar Wilde. In fact, Dickinson's mid-life inner circle of female friends stands in contrast to the Stygian outlook of elders such as her sad-sack mother (Joanna Bacon) and of men drowning in their own impossible standards of honor and piety: her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), a procession of stodgy ministers, and her father Edward—expertly played by Keith Carradine, who finds it hard always to play the stern paterfamilias and breaks expectations when least expected.

This is far more than Life with the Dickinsons. There is plenty of heavy stuff: Emily's obsession with mortality and immortality, her desire for artistic acceptance, and her fury over being better known for her gardening skills than for her verse, a frustration she uses to batter editor Samuel Bowles (Trevor Cooper). And, of course, there is Dickinson's storied descent into isolation, misanthropy, and despair. What precipitated this? Well… that's the stuff of scores of dissertations and no one knows for certain.

Dickinson scholars, I'm sure, will bemoan liberties in the film. such as the conjecture that she was in love with a married minister, or a scene in which she is the interruptus to her brother's coitus with Mabel Loomis Todd. Austin indeed had an affair with Todd, but Emily never met the woman who later edited her poems. Non-Dickinson junkies might be baffled at moments in which Davies telescopes time in ways that require some pre-knowledge. It's certainly ambitious to tackle so much biography in one film and, perhaps, inevitable that gaps will emerge. I can forgive these, as Davies hands us a human Emily Dickinson whose sadness and resignation are balanced by flights into humor, hope, and independence. Are these readings too feminist? Too modern? Again, who knows? I want Davies' take to be true, and it's to his credit that he moved a Dickinson Abstainer such as I. There's a closing morphing sequence in which the (to-date) only authenticated picture of Emily Dickinson slowly becomes the image of Cynthia Nixon. And so I shall henceforth think of her.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The exteriors of this movie were filmed in Amherst; the interiors on a set in Belgium modeled on the Dickinson homestead.

4/19/17

WOW is a WOW! Exhibit

WOW: World of Wearable Art
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through June 11, 2017

Some art exhibits welcome analysis and critique; the rare few beggar description and are best experienced through images. Such an exhibit is the World of Wearable Art at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum.

The skinny for those who've never heard of WOW: It began in the New Zealand South Island town of Nelson in 1987. Appropriately, its founder, Suzie Moncrieff, is a sculptor, not a fashion designer. Her idea was to combine design with the then emerging concept of performance art. To that end, she invited professional and amateur designers, artists and fabricators, and individuals working in various media to submit their wildest, most inventive designs for a show. The only rule was that whatever they created, it had to be wearable. That definition did not include the word "pragmatic;" in fact, the more whimsical and outlandish, the better. WOW, if anything, challenges, even lampoons, ideas of designer fashion.

  WOW was an idea whose time had comes. It is now in its 30th year, awards over
$165,000 (New Zealand) per year, and culminates in a sound, light, and art performance that's like Cirque du Soleil on steroids. It's also an international competition these days, but it's still by no means the domain of professionals—wood and fabric artists submit entries, but so too do taxidermists, metallurgists, and people who are simply clever at fashioning something from everything from plastic stay ties to re-purposed suitcases. The Peabody Essex Museum exhibit has 32 pieces, a stripped down show, but still one that's like falling down an LSD-induced rabbit hole. But enough words. Here are some visual examples of the magic awaiting a viewer. 

Lobster dress with working tail
Detail of claw


Plastic and ties

This is color printer sheets transferred onto sheet metal

Plastic & ceramic

Inspired by tattoo art


Inspired by reptiles shedding skin
Wooden dress

Lady Gaga? Cinna from The Hunger Games?

Felt but designed so that...

... the punchouts create the fasteners!
Commentary on British obsession with equestrianism

New Zealander commentary on American car love

Just wow!

Cat Woman goes op-art?
Woman warrior. Samoan if memory serves

Uniform made of old suitcases

Bra fashioned from hedgehogs


Iguana bra




4/17/17

Witchfinder's Sister a Harrowing Read

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The Witchfinder’s Sister. By Beth Underdown. Ballantine Books, 2017, 336 pages.
★★★★

Americans reflexively think of Salem whenever witch trials are conjured. We forget that the Puritans that conducted Salem's horrors were Englishmen, just as we forget that (by some estimates) 50,000 Europeans were executed for witchcraft from 1500 to 1800, 80% of them women.  A half century before Salem (1692), witchcraft hysteria swept East Anglia, particularly Essex, Wessex, and Suffolk.

The most notorious of England’s witchfinders were John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins, both of whom figure prominently in Beth Underdown’s gripping debut. Bear in mind that this is a historical novel. Very little is known of the historical Matthew Hopkins (?1620-47), other than the fact his father was a clergyman, and that Matthew moved to Manningtree, Essex sometime around 1640. From there he launched a two-year reign of terror in 1644-46 that saw more 300 individuals arrested, around a hundred of whom were executed. We don’t know if he had a sister, let alone one named Alice, Underdown’s protagonist and narrator. Moreover, Hopkins probably died of TB, not the more satisfying ending Underdown provides. So bear in mind as you read that the story is “true” in its essence, but not in its particulars.

They are mighty fine particulars, though. Underdown gives us a portrait of how hysteria begins small—whispers, gossip, grudges, innuendo­—and gathers steam when embraced by bullies, demagogues, and fanatics. She imagines Hopkins as more complex than a monster, a true believer who justified doing unspeakable things as advancing God's work. Alice and her associates represent the voices of reason. And never shall the twain meet, especially in a climate rent asunder by the English Civil War. Alice also represents a protest against misogyny, but that too was a cry in the 17th century social wilderness. Thus the catastrophe that unfolded. Underdown uses her invented characters to personalize the tragedy and give us entrée into specifics. Her description of a "swimming," a watery test for malevolence, is particularly vivid and makes us shudder. Ditto her depictions of witch "detection" tactics such as sleep deprivation, walking, watching, and examining for imps.

Most of all, though, the clash between Matthew and Alice over the unfolding events gives us both a micro and macrocosm perspective on the witchcraft trials. It is easy to forget that both accusers and victims were also ordinary people who prepared meals, emptied chamber pots, tended their gardens, mourned lost loved ones, courted, and conducted business. Underdown does a nice job of capturing the rhythms of everyday life without getting bogged down in minutiae that would detract from the central plot. She's also good with suspense. We, the readers, can see Alice's options melt and the walls begin to close in around her. It is to Underwood's credit that we feel like screaming out for Alice to run and keep turning the pages to see if she does.

To be objective, this book also bears some of the weaknesses of a debut novel. Several of the characters are drawn a bit too broadly; others (too) conveniently appear and disappear. Stylistically, I wish Underwood and her editors would learn when to use "her" and when to use "she." You can decide for yourself if she went over the top with her ending. I understand the allure of delicious irony, but sometimes it's better to leave things understated. You will also have to decide whether our narrator, Alice, is credible for the time period, or if she is a 21st century feminist in 17th century drag. For the record, I think Underwood wanted to have her both ways, hence I was willing to suspend disbelief in passages I found ahistorical.

The Witchfinder's Sister is a chilling tale that most readers will rip through. We should remember, though, that Matthew Hopkins was a real person and that his The Discovery of Witches was widely consulted as a go-to guide for more than a century. Salem loomed in the future, but European witch trials continued into the 19th century. England had a case of witch swimming as late as 1863, even though it repealed its witchcraft laws 127 years earlier. Underwood's novel ultimately made me think upon how easily hysteria forms and how hard it is to vanquish. Maybe the 17th century lurks closer than we might imagine.

Rob Weir

4/14/17

Wilderness of Ruin: A Boston Serial Killer

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The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer. By Roseanne Montillo. New York: William Morrow, 2015.
★★ ½ 

This review originally posted on the Website of the Northeast Popular Culture Association.

Gilded Age Boston and Chicago shared a lot in common. Both had World's Fairs: Boston in 1883, and Chicago ten years later. Each suffered devastating fires, with Chicago being nearly destroyed in 1871, and Boston losing most of its commercial district in 1872. Both also had notorious serial killers, with Boston holding the dubious distinction of producing Jesse Pomeroy, the first juvenile serial killer to be sentenced to hang. Pomeroy's story is the subject of Roseanne Montillo's sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating The Wilderness of Ruin.

Montillo, who teaches literature at Emerson College, has an eye for a good saga, and that of Jesse Pomeroy (1859-1932) certainly qualifies. Jesse's is a biography that would challenge the fictive powers of an imaginative crime writer. He was born into an economically marginal working-class family in Charlestown, a seedy neighborhood best known for its grimy waterfront. A childhood illness damaged Jesse's right cornea and left him with a distinctive cloudy eye. He was taller than peers and, from an early age, demonstrated disturbing characteristics: social isolation, fascination with his father's butcher knives, a love of violent dime novels, and acts of animal cruelty. His waterfront jaunts yielded the revelation that twelve-year-old Jesse was responsible for a serious of brutal attacks on boys as young as four. His first victim was stripped naked, tied, hoisted ahigh, and whipped; subsequent victims were cut, stabbed, pricked with pins, and brutalized­–often in their genitals. Because there were no known deaths, Jesse was sent to a reformatory where he was supposed to remain until his 18th birthday.

Pomeroy was out in 14 months, paroled to his mother’s care in South Boston, where the family had moved to escape ostracism. Jesse was released in February of 1874, and in March, nine-year-old Katie Curran went missing. In April, the body of four-year-old Horace Millen was discovered, and Curran’s body shortly thereafter–each mutilated in ways suggestive of Pomeroy's earlier spree. Pomeroy was convicted of first-degree murder in December, and was sentenced to hang. Governor Gaston's refusal to sign execution orders led to a year and half of legal wrangling before Jesse’s sentence was commuted to life in solitary confinement. Three months before he turned seventeen, Pomeroy was transferred from Suffolk County Jail to the state prison in Charlestown, where he spent the next forty years in a ten-by-ten-by-eight cell. During that time, he made a dozen serious escape efforts, exhausted the prison library, learned numerous languages, wrote a self-serving autobiography, and badgered a dozen governors with pardon requests. In 1917, he was allowed to intermingle with the general prison population, but showed no interest in doing so. Much to his chagrin, he was sent to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1932, and died there in 1934. Only two murders were directly tied to Pomeroy, though rumors–sometimes from Jesse and sometimes denied by him–suggest he was responsible for as many as nine.

This is dramatic stuff that Montillo wisely opts to tell in a novelistic voice. This makes swaths of the book highly readable. Her instincts are sharpest when she connects Pomeroy to his broader social milieu, as Erik Larson did in his masterful The Devil in the White City (2003), the tale of mass murderer Dr. Henry Holmes (Herman Mudgett). Larson placed Holmes within a grand narrative stretching from Chicago's 1871 fire through the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Montillo uses Boston’s 1872 fire as a partial explanation of how Pomeroy’s first spree took so long to solve, and she is in good form when describing the tawdry waterfronts and grimy neighborhoods of Jesse’s youth. Especially crisp is her account of Jesse taking his first and only automobile ride in 1932; she puts herself inside his eyes to “see” how Boston had changed during his 58 years of confinement.

Alas, she dowses her literary fires when she tries to connect Pomeroy to Boston glitterati such as Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She wants us to view Jesse’s monomania as analogous to Ahab’s and launches into discursive and unconvincing analyses of Moby Dick. She also delves deeply into Holmes’ biography, though he was peripheral to Pomeroy’s case. There are also detours into Camus, Dickens, Irving, Poe, and others attracted to the dark side of the psyche. By the time I finished, I was reminded of times in which I was dazzled by the sight of a restaurant meal, only to taste it and conclude that the chef spoiled the dish by adding too many ingredients.

I wanted The Wilderness of Ruins to be a Boston version of The Devil in the White City; instead, it is more about Montillo than her subject. Note the subtitle. The “madness” part is mostly perfunctory unresolved psychological speculation; the “fire” offers little insight into a lad whose spree began a year earlier; the “hunt” was brief; and Pomeroy isn’t “America’s youngest serial killer,” only the Bay State’s. Too many ingredients! My advice is to borrow juicy material for your lectures, but only if it makes them more savory. 


Rob Weir





4/12/17

Folk Offerings for April

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April Folk Roundup

I get asked from time to time, "Where has folk music gone?" Answer: It hasn't gone anywhere. There are plenty of folks taking up folk music these days, though in today's mashable culture their take on "folk" tends to collapse genres.


Colin Hay is still recalled by many as the front man and primary songwriter of the Aussie rock band Men at Work. That's weird as Fierce Mercy (Compass Records) is his 13th solo release. Like several other pop/rock stars—Natalie Merchant comes to mind–Hay amped down when he stopped living on the pop charts. Fierce Mercy is 13 tracks of hummable songs in the seams where folk, rock, country, and retro pop meet. Toss in some lifted riffs, Hay's distinct voice, and a collection that's heavy on love songs, and you have a very likable release. The album opens with a killer pop song, "Come Tumblin' Down," an homage to things past (wishing wells, railroads, Ferris wheels, dreams). It's the kind of song that latches onto your brain and sinks in its hooks. There are several such catchy songs, another being "I'm Outside In," which has the brightness of an old Hollies release. Hay doesn't confine himself to pop these days. Songs such as "Secret Love" have country grit, "I'm Walking Here" is soulful commentary on the Trayvon Martin shooting, "Blue Bay Moon" has a Jimmy Buffett vibe, and much of the melody from "The Last to Know" flat out lifts the tune from The Eagles "Best of My Love." Or shall I say re-purposes it? If you like folk that's more quiet, try "Frozen Field of Snow," or the poignant "Two Friends" and "She Was the Love of Mine," which are about loss–two comrades in the first and his mother in the latter. One of my favorites was "Hundred Million Reasons," whose poetry is a bit forced. But Hay does as a good singer should do and breathes emotion into lines such as these: When the sun comes up over Paris/It's like any other day/Except that you're in Paris/What more need I say? Indeed, the depths of love transcend poetry and a skilled singer makes us feel as well as hear. Hay fits the bill. Sample all of these tracks at: http://www.colinhay.com/news/http://www.colinhay.com/news/
★★★★

The Western Den makes you feel cleansed just from hearing them. Their latest EP is titled All the Birds and it will make your soul glide. The Western Den is a Boston-based ensemble that embraces the term alt.folk. That one normally raises my hackles, but it's apt for a trio (Deni Hlavinka, Chris West, Alec Alabado) and a passel of friends whose music is dreamy and contemplative, but is more Nick Drake than New Age. It is, in turn, as gentle as the spring rain-like piano notes we hear in "Tumbling Down," yet as soaring in its build up as an avian flock taking flight. The EP's unstated themes are the constancy of love and moving forward despite obstacles. The title "Carter Hall" is suggestive of an old ballad, but it's actually about putting down roots as relationships grow and change. Ms. Hlavinka's gorgeous voice is one of the many things that will tear out your heart, as will West's dulcet tones, their delicate harmonies, the big-production choral swells, and sentiment such as: Been a while now, we're still in our house/Filling the void, and hoping our fates align from the aforementioned "Tumbling Down." Props for knowing you need to work on things and that as much as we'd like to freeze moments in time–a feeling expressed in "Stay the Sun"–that's not how it works. Also check out their retelling of the Biblical story of "Eden"–a smart look at the contrasting temptations in Paradise: Oh this kingdom is not for the dwellers/There's no vacancy for the other side of me.
★★★★

It's usually not a good thing to describe music as somnambulant, but in the case of Galapaghost (Casey Chandler) it fits. Chandler's music often feels like being inside a dream. I Never Arrived (Lovely Lady) is deliciously ambiguous and vulnerable in the sense that Chandler's not afraid to say he doesn't have things figured out–perfect themes for his semi-dreamlike musical wrappers. "Science of Love" opens with sounds that evoke the music of the planets, but his chemistry is more earthly: Suppose I lie and say I love you/Suppose you do the same/Is it better not to know/Or is it better to be alone? Drifting, ethereal tones also show up in the title track with guitar and piano producing a tune that's somewhere between folk, café music, and experimental music. "Secrets Our Body Keeps" establishes a repetitive groove that induces a soft trance. Chandler's voice is smooth and comforting, which adds to the ambience. This is especially the case in which it blends with a "female" voice on selections such as "Mazes in the Sky," "Somewhere," and "Salt Lake City," the last of these has little to do with Utah; it's the place where two lovers confront their differences with an eye toward resolving them or parting. This is typical of Chandler's candor. This shows up again in two songs–"Bloom" and "Mister Mediocrity"­–in which he confesses worries over whether his art is good enough. Yes. It is! About that "female" voice–it's Chandler, who also plays nearly all of the instruments as well.
★★★★

The New York-based ChameLeon is a five-piece ensemble built around vocalist/keyboardist Chloe Lowry and vocalist/acoustic guitarist Andrew Ross–she with a whispery pretty voice and he with smooth tones that contain hints of rasp. A percussionist, bass player, and lead guitarist join them, and all five come from a rock background. Their EP White Movement One lies in that uncertain border between folk-rock and ambient rock. It's heavy on sonics, which sometimes drown the vocals. At their best, ChameLeon surrounds us with sound. I liked the jangly effects in the first part of "White Flag" and wish it had continued in that mode. To me, though, the project feels overproduced. My favorite track was "Fade." Sample this band on NoiseTrade and see what you think.
★★

 

4/11/17

MLB East: Red Sox Should Rule

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MLB 2017: The East



American League:

If the Red Sox don't win the AL East, Manager John Farrell will be looking for work. Price starts the season on the DL, but even without him they have two Cy Young winners, Porcello and Sale, plus Wright as a # 4. Not bad. The lineup looks solid top to bottom: Pedroia, Betts, Ramirez, Bogaerts, Benitendi…. The only things that can derail the Sox would be self-destruction or massive injuries.  Red Flag: There's not much left in the farm system, which makes the shallowness of the roster suspect.

The Blue Jays are a serious challenge only if you think Happ will win 20 games again. I don't. Stroman, Estrada, Sanchez, and Liriano make up a deep staff, but they look like five # 3s to me. Morales won't make up for the loss of Encarnacion and the Jays had better hope that Tulowitzki, Bautista, and Donaldson had off years in 2016. I suspect, though, the first two are on the decline. The rest of the lineup is meh! material until they prove otherwise.

The Orioles have guys approaching free agency and need to win now, but I don't see how that's possible with a staff with stiffs like Miley and Jimenez. Gausman needs to figure out life in the Bigs and Tilman and Bundy need to be better than okay. Machado is a stud who will soon be in greener pastures, Trumbo will add power to a lineup that includes Chris Davis, though I'm not impressed by his poor OBP or the fact that a guy who hit 38 homers only drove in 84 runs. Jones and Hardy are professionals, but losing Wieters will hurt.

The Yankees? Who knows? Second is possible, but last is more likely. Much has been made of the youth movement—Sanchez, Bird, Judge— but weak pitching is more likely to bring them down. It's not a good thing when 38-year-old Sabathia and his rebuilt knee is your # 2, that you're depending upon a big year from the enigmatic Pineda, and you're not sure who comes after them. The Yankees will score runs, but they'll also give up a lot. Their bullpen, though, is probably the best in MLB.

Same old, same old re: the Rays: young pitchers with promise and a lineup that, other than Longoria and Miller, couldn't hit Trump's ego. Think I'm kidding? No one on the team hit higher than .273 last year and his (Longoria) average was only one of two above .250. The starting catcher hit .186 in 2016. Archer, in my view, is overrated, but the staff is very good. Can they spin shutouts every time out? Of course not. 

National League East:

The Mets have the best top to bottom staff in baseball, even if Harvey can't make it back from injury. Syndergaard and deGrom sound like a Dutch law firm, but they're excellent. The Mets have the same problem as the Rays: not enough bats. They will go as far as Granderson and Cespedes take them and neither is someone you'd want to have in the same foxhole. Walker is solid, though, and Bruce has good power numbers, but I don't see enough bats here.

The Nationals are the main competition to the Mets, which is a good thing for Mets fans as no team chronically underachieves as badly as the Nats. Scherzer is the Real Deal, but would anybody bet the farm on Strasburg staying off the DL? Roark had a great 2016. Can he repeat? Gio Gonzalez and Ross need to pitch better, and Harper, Zimmerman, and Werth need to hit like 2015, not last year's doldrums. Murphy will hit and Wieters will help. I like the underrated Rendon, but there is no closer and this team's chemistry stinks.

The Marlins could contend—if they could pitch. That doesn't look likely after the tragic death of Jose Fernandez. Who's the ace? Volquez? Straily? Doubtful. Great lineup, though: Gordon, Prado, Yelich, Stanton, Ozuna…. But there still aren't any arms and the Fish have the worst minor league system in baseball.

The Braves are showcasing a new stadium and have added a few new/old parts to appear more respectable. Freeman is the Big Bopper and Kemp had a very good 2016. Are they, Markakis, Garcia, and Phillips enough? They'll need to score some runs as the pitching spotlights underachieving Teheran and when-will-they-finally-be-too-old Dickey and Colon.

The Phillies continue their rebuild. They will expect more from prized prospect Galvis and are excited by third base prospect Franco. It's simply impossible to know how a lineup whose veteran presence is Howie Kendrick will respond. They picked up Buchholz from Boston, a head case capable of winning to spite the Red Sox or of just collecting a paycheck. Helickson and Eickhoff will win more if they get run support. The rest? I'll just say that the current bottom of the staff might spend as much time in Allentown as in the City of Brotherly Love.

Predictions:

            AL East: Red Sox, Orioles, Jays, Rays, Yankees

            NL East: Mets, Marlins, Nationals, Phillies, Braves (you can flip the last two)

4/10/17

New Book on Marx Brothers Highlights Pre-Movie Years


FOUR OF THE THREE MUSKETEERS (2016)
Robert S. Bader
Northeastern University Press, 544 pages
★★★ ½ 

This review originally posted on the Northeast Popular Culture Association Website. 

I am a Marxist—a devotee of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. I’ve seen all the films numerous times, read every book I can get my hands on, seek out new documentaries, and scour DVDs and YouTube for lost clips. But until Robert Bader’s new book, my Marxist education was weak concerning their vaudeville days—those years before durable recording devices or movie cameras were there to capture moments in time for posterity. Bader—who also writes and produces for Warner Brothers—has unveiled a work that is meticulously researched and encyclopedic in scope.

It’s not news to scholars that many Marx memoirs­—Groucho and Me, Harpo Speaks, Growing Up with Chico, etc.—are filled with inaccuracies dutifully repeated by biographers and passed off as truth. Lots of these tales were embellishments and some were outright fabrications, but Bader forces us to consider that many resulted from the memory lapses anyone might have who led such vagabond lives as the children of Minnie Schoenberg Marx. She was the ultimate obsessed stage mother—determined that her children would make it in show business like her brother Al, part of famed comedy duo Gallagher and Shean. When Julius (Groucho) showed talent for singing, she pushed him onto the stage—his brothers to follow. Today, most people think of the Marx Brothers as film stars. From 1929 through 1949, the Marxes made 14 feature films and only Charlie Chaplin rivaled their comic fame. Overlooked in the big screen glamour is what it took to become stars. From 1905 on, the brothers toiled in vaudeville in a dizzying array of ensembles and acts—mostly musical variety sketches; their comedy evolved organically. Because the conniving Minnie angered vaudeville’s biggest booker, B. K. Keith, the Marxes were shut out of a lot of Eastern theaters and Minnie moved her family to Chicago so she could develop hinterland bookings. For her sons, it meant a whirlwind existence of three-a-day performances, split bookings, and if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Nacogdoches travel. Their grueling schedules were such that troupe members—often including Minnie–came and went quickly. Sometimes key members quit in the morning and instant replacements were readied for the afternoon curtain. It’s no wonder that the only reliable names the lads retained were those of the chorines they bedded, though that was quite a few!

Bader has sifted through playbills, newspaper advertisements, reviews, and archives to the degree that he knows the Marx Brothers performance schedule better than they ever did, and he corrects details in the extensive Marxian literature trove. Along the way he reveals little known tidbits, one of which might startle: Leonard’s (Chico) legendary gambling addiction was real, but the bonafide bad boy of the family was Herbert (Zeppo!), a street punk who was lucky to make it to adulthood. He also gives accurate particulars of events such as Groucho’s first use of a greasepaint moustache, how Arthur became Harpo, how the Marxes stumbled into comedy, and how many of Groucho’s patented “ad-libs” were not. 

That last point is critical. If the Marxes look natural on the screen, it’s because they spent time on the road perfecting small bits, such as the pilfered silverware falling from Harpo’s baggy clothing gag. The Marxes were workhorses until they finally had a Broadway hit with “I’ll Say She Is” in 1924, but they never really left the circuit; both The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were stage hits before they were films. Movies sounded the death knell for vaudeville in the early 1930s and closed a lot of “legitimate” theaters as well, but the Marxes continued to travel to test sketches and songs before they made they shot their films (and sometimes during). They continued touring into the early 1940s, by which time they were rich and tired enough to stop. In a palpable way, though, the vitality of the movie Marxes ended with their tours. Does anyone think that a Night in Casablanca (1946) is one of their great films, or that Love Happy (1949) has much to offer other than an early Marilyn Monroe performance?

We are indebted to Bader for his exhaustive research. My only nitpick is that Four of the Three Musketeers is also exhausting in places. Bader has compiled a vast array of material, but his insistence on presenting it all makes sections of the book read like a chronicle. You will savor this detail if, like me, you are a Marx Brothers fanatic, but many of his revelatory corrections will be lost on those unaware of the errors in the first place. Marxist comrades might disagree, but I think that shorter, snappier synopsis with expanded explanatory footnotes would have fit the bill better. Still, Bader’s book is indispensible for any Mark Brothers research project.

Rob Weir   

4/7/17

Video Treasure: The Man Who Knew Infinity

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THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2015)
Directed by Matthew Brown
Warner Brothers, 108 minutes, PG-13 (racism themes)
★★★★

I’m one of the most right-brained people on the planet, so I surprised myself by viewing two films about math in the same week: Hidden Figures and The Man Who Knew Infinity. How to say this? The first is more important sociologically, but the second is a better film, although not many people saw it when it was in theaters.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a biopic about Srinivasa Ramanunjan (1887-1920), whose brief, brilliant career inclines one to believe that sometimes nature is way more important than nurture. He grew up in Madras, India; was modestly educated; dutifully submitted to an arranged marriage to a ten-year-old girl in 1909; and toiled in low-level accounting posts before attracting minor attention at home. Hardly the sort one would consider Cambridge material at a time in which the British raj was intact and most Brits considered Indians racially inferior “wogs.” But Ramanujan had an inexplicable gift for computation and he filled notebooks like da Vinci on amphetamine. His work was so  advanced that many thought him a charlatan, but Trinity College Fellow G. H. Hardy was intrigued enough to test that theory.

The Man Who Knew Infinity concentrates on the professional relationship between the intuitive and sensitive Ramanujan (Dev Patel) and his hard taskmaster mentor Hardy (Jeremy Irons). To call the two opposites hardly does the description justice; Hardy was such a cold fish that he had colleagues, but no lovers, no passion other than work and cricket, and even his few “friends” such as John Enensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) had to resilient to insult or be able to parry like Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam). Cambridge was Hardy’s element and Ramanujan’s isolation ward.  Call it a relationship between fire and ice….   

The film follows Ramanujan’s need to prove himself during his time at Cambridge (1914-19), both metaphorically and literally. Like Hidden Figures, it’s also about overt and covert racism. There were few dark faces at Trinity College and fewer still white ones willing to believe that an Indian could possess superior intellect. Racial slurs were the order of the day and even the mildest of questions could be construed as insolence. Nor did it occur to the bright white minds of Cambridge that a Hindu man might not eat meat or find chapel edifying—or that perhaps he might miss his wife or his native land. Ramanujan’s problem with Hardy was that he intuited answers but seldom process. He was a “pure” mathematician in the strictest sense—one who saw his equations as gifts from his god, believed them to be true, and saw no need to question them, even when they were demonstrably wrong. In Hardy’s West, though, a math equation without corresponding proofs gains labels such as conjecture, speculation, and unsound reasoning. So can fire and ice learn to make water? Can one man become more earthly and the other more sensitive? Can either convince others to drink? Brown is unsparing in plumbing the depths of British xenophobia and how it intensified once the Great War (World War I) erupted. A world in which logic is kicked in face by the boots of unreason ought to strike you as chillingly familiar.

Ramanujan was a brilliant star that burned out too soon, which makes The Man Who Knew Infinity equal parts inspirational, triumphant, and tragic. Brown’s ability to let us see the last of these is one of the things that makes this a better film than Hidden Figures. Excellent performances from Patel, Irons, Jones, and Northam move the narrative crisply and make it compelling for right-brained people like me. Ramanujan’s work was pathbreaking in fields such as partitions, number sequences, the properties of fractions, and a whole host of other things I can’t pretend to understand. In all, he produced more than 3,900 equations and results—almost all of them correct. Ramanujan possessed true genius, though it remains mysterious as to how it was acquired. But here’s a result to consider: this is a really good film. As proof, I offer myself—as unlikely candidate to get excited about a math film as you can possibly imagine. Give this one a try; I think you’ll find a winning equation.

Rob Weir      
  

4/6/17

MLB Central: Are the Indians Poised for Big Things?

MLB 2017 Central Time:

The Tribe is my pick for the World Series


American League:

You gotta love Terry Francona and the Indians. They almost won it all last year with 60% of its starting pitchers on the DL. Look out this year, if Bauer, Carrasco, Kluber, McAllister, Tomlin, and Salazar are healthy. Andrew Miller may be the best relief pitcher in baseball and Allen isn't far behind. Plus, the Tribe gets Brantley back to supplement a solid parade of hitters, including Kipnis, Lindor, Chisenhall, Santana, and Naquin. Add free agent Encarnacion and the Indians are loaded top to bottom. My pick for the World Series.

The Royals are enigmatic. They could challenge the Indians, or they could tank—neither would surprise me. Duffy, Hammel, Karns, and Kennedy can't compete with a healthy Cleveland staff, but they're solid. They will need more out of their # 5 (Vargas? Wood? Young?). They also need Moustakas, Cain, Gordon, and Hosmer to hit like they did in 2015, not last year. Soler was a good pickup but he's hurt. I'm not sold on Moss, a low OBP guy, but Orlando looks like he's almost ready.

The Tigers are starting to look toothless. Yes, Miggy Cabrera and both J.D. and Victor Martinez can still rake, but Iglesias has fallen so low he's on the trade block, Kinsler might be on the decline, Avila is no longer a starter, and any team that starts Justin Upton is playing roulette. Two relative unknowns will join him in the outfield (Jones and Mahtook). Detroit will also need Verlander to be an ace again, Sanchez to recover his mojo, Zimmerman prove he can pitch in the AL, and pray Fulmer doesn't have a sophomore slump. Is Greene an MLB pitcher or an AAA guy?

The White Sox were the AL equivalent of the Padres in that they thought they were buying a Rolls Royce in the 2015-16 offseason and ended up with a Yugo. They wisely blew it up and how they do this year isn't really the point—the ChiSox are looking a few years down the road. For now they still have Quintana as their ace and Robertson in the pen, though I doubt either will be there by the trade deadline. The rest of the staff will probably be guys you either don't know well (Covey, Ynoa, Gonzalez) or wish you didn't (Shields, Holland, Rodon). Three guys are legitimate hitters (Abreu, Frazier, Melky Cabrera) and the rest are hope-they-develop types.
 
The 2016 Twins were everything that can go wrong with a youth movement. They have to be better this year, right? Only if Hughes, Gibson and Santiago pitch better. Count me among those who don't think Ervin Santana will ever be a reliable MLB pitcher. The hitters? There's a declining Mauer, the budding star Dozier, and a bunch of former high-profile prospects trying to shed the "bust" label (Buxton, Sano, Escobar, Sand, Castro). If these guys don't gel this year, it might be time to back up the van.


National League:

The Cubs won it all it 2017 and now wear the unfamiliar hat as the oddsmaker' choice to repeat. That's a pretty tall order. Winning the Central will be tough enough. Their pitching features Jake Arieta, but then it's guys who could go either way: Lackey, Lester, Anderson…. Will Hendricks win 16 games again? The lineup is formidable: Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Russell, Zobrist, Schwarber…. Look for either Szczur or Almora to relegate Heyward to the bench.

The Pirates could challenge if the pitching holds. Cole is the real deal, despite a down year in 2016. Red flags: Nova is Mystery Man and young guns Kuhl and Glasnow are unproven. The Bucs feature a potent lineup: Cervelli, Freese, Mercer, Marte, McCutchen, Polanco…. If the Cubs slump or are slow out the gate, Pittsburgh is capable of stealing the division. Their farm system is loaded.

The Cardinals suffered injuries and a down year in 2016, but no one should take them lightly. Lynn, Wacha, Leake, Carlos Martinez, and the back-from-the-dead-again Adam Wainwright make up a potentially dynamite staff. They will need Carpenter, Wong, Adams, and Peralta to step it up. Outfield production is questionable, unless Fowler is the stud they think he is and Grichuk hits for a higher average. Piscotty looks to be a keeper, though.

The Reds will hit— Votto, Duvall, Cozart, Peraza‑ but not consistently enough. Billy Hamilton might be the fastest man in baseball, but an OPS of .664 cancels his speed. The pitching? On paper it looks dreadful. Of the returnees, only Finnegan won as many as 10 games last year and he lost 11. Feldman becomes the ace without having yet thrown an inning for the Reds and that's not a good thing. Unless the young guys are better than projected and mature fast, the Reds are in for a long year.

The Brewers are a near carbon copy of the Reds. They feature some good hitters— Braun, Villar, Thames— and lots of guys who won't make anyone forget Robin Yount. Maybe new pickup Travis Shaw will help. Garza needs to get off the DL and pitch better, Zach Davies needs to repeat his 2016 stats, and Peralta needs to reverse his, or the Brew Crew will rival the Reds for batting practice pitching. But they have greater potential and Milwaukee has a strong minor league system that could help.


Predictions:

            AL Central: Indians, Royals, Tigers, Twins, White Sox (you can flip the last three any old way)

            NL Central: Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds           

4/5/17

The Sellout is Powerful, Poignant, and Wickedly Amusing

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THE SELLOUT
Paul Beatty
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 288 pages.
★★★★★

African-American writer Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was controversial in Britain as the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. That news didn't yield a yawn in the United States, where most wouldn’t know the Man Booker from Booker T. and the MGs. But its content makes it a hot potato. Beatty’s novel is deliciously wicked and ambiguous. Is it satire, or a rant? Does it praise black culture, or lampoon it? It is musing upon black power, or surrender to emasculation? Only two things are clear: Beatty thinks discussion of a post-racial society is risible bullshit, and if you’re a person who can’t read, say, or stomach the word “nigger,” you shouldn’t go within a country mile of this novel.

Beatty's style is summed by his main character's personal motto: "Cognito, ergo Boogieum–I think, therefore I jam.” Beatty excels at jams, gibes, and riffs. He's also a published poet, and the first third of this book is essentially a prolonged attitude-heavy, profanity-laced, chip-on-the-shoulder prose rap about the state of Black America. It is incisive, barbed, distressingly real, yet funny. Beatty also takes aim at the ways in which black humor is homogenized (by black and white scholars alike). He's from the school that doesn’t shy from snaps, vulgarity, and verbal jousting. Take, for example, his rant on how he's tired of seeing black characters being described by hues such as "honey-colored," "chocolate," or "mocha:" "How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren't there any yogurt-colored, eggshell tone, string cheese-canned, low-fat milk white protagonists in these racist no-third-act-having books?" Or this one on how "hard" it is to talk about race: "…I actually think the country does a decent job of addressing race, and when folks say, "Why can't we talk about race more reasonably?" what they really mean is, "Why can't you niggers be reasonable? … And by race we mean niggers, because no one … seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, or America's newest race, the Celebrity."

The novel is also about the anonymity of black men in white America, a point he makes by veiling the narrator’s very name. His surname might be “Me,” though his on-again/off-again bus driver girlfriend calls him “Bonbon.” His Los Angeles–"the city that's always passed out on the couch"–looks nothing like La La Land, he’s nobody’s idea of a kid from the ‘hood, nor does the ‘hood' resemble expectations. Bonbon was raised by a single father who was brilliant, yet crazy as a March hare—a social scientist at a local community college whose son was his favorite lab rat for lessons on racism and self-reliance. Call it childhood in an absurdist African- American Skinner box. Among his father’s other projects: he's a co-founder of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals—a combination black Chautauqua, social center, and liar’s bench—the community “Nigger Whisperer” who calms agitated locals in potentially violent confrontations, and a farmer. Did I say farmer? Yes. The local neighborhood is a section of Los Angeles called “Dickens,” one of the novel’s numerous literary wordplays. Dickens was designed as an agricultural enclave, thus he and Bonbon also keep livestock, tend fruit orchards, and line their urban fields with manure. (Dickens is imagined, but farming actually does take place in parts of Compton.) Bonbon’s father also made sure his son was well-educated, well-spoken, and neatly attired, which meant spending a lot of time in white society. As Bonbon caustically remarks, “I was the diversity” seen in dozens of brochures. Within the 'hood, this also makes him the "sellout."  

Bonbon’s life takes a dramatic turn when his father is gunned down by the LAPD and local developers unincorporate Dickens in hopes of gentrifying it. The latter plan distresses Hominy Jenkins, who hitherto enjoyed the attention of (often white) visitors seeking him as the “Last Little Rascal.”* Hominy had so internalized his subordination that Dickens' disappearance renders him a non-entity. He's so down that he asks Bonbon to enslave and whip him and begins calling him “Massa.” Bonbon, in turn, decides to reestablish Dickens by putting up signs, painting lines in the road, and declaring Dickens a re-segregated all-black community.

What ensues is a reverse-race riff on amendments thirteen through fifteen. Needless to say, Massa and Hominy throw numerous constituencies into an uproar. Is theirs the ultimate self-loathing, or perverse brilliance? Don’t look to Beatty to resolve that question. His alter ego character remarks that his father taught him that black people don’t think alike but, in fact, they do: every black person thinks he or she is superior to every other black person! Beatty uses the character of Foy Cheshire as his foil. You name the conceit or scam, and Cheshire has it. Among his schemes is the rewriting of classic novels from a black POV—usually the originals with a few words strategically changed—and he wants “his” novels in the school curriculum. Foy Cheshire: black nationalist, or Jim Dandy minstrel huckster? And what do we make of the very master/slave relationship between Bonbon and Hominy? The implication, I think, is that being white requires domination of at least one black person.

Yep–a controversial book. It’s also brilliant: a joy to read, laugh-out-loud funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking. It’s what you’d get if you mashed James Baldwin with Chris Rock. Is it racist for a white guy to laugh at any of this? I’m guessing that Paul Beatty’s answer would be, “Who’s to say?” Just don’t tell him that race no longer matters.

Rob Weir       

* The "Little Rascals" is the name of the pack of poor street kids from the Hal Roach comedy shorts Our Gang, which played in theaters between 1922 and 1944, and was syndicated for television during the 1950s and early 1960s. It was the first to show white and black kids as peers on a semi-equal basis, though it also traded in cringe-worthy stereotypes. There was never a black character named "Hominy," but there was "Buckwheat" and "Farina." The other two black characters were named "Sunshine Sammy" and "Stymie."