Isle of Dogs is Typical Wes Anderson Fare

Isle of Dogs (2018)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight, 99 minutes, PG-13.

I have a love/meh relationship with Wes Anderson. Most of his work reminds me of a brilliant slacker student, the kind who should be getting straight A’s but is content to do just enough to get a B or B- and go home. There is always something about an Anderson film that dazzles me, but also things that make me roll my eyes.

Isle of Dogs marks Anderson’s return to animation, turf he first explored in his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is, in my estimation, a stronger film—perhaps because the Roald Dahl story upon which it's based has built-in edginess that Anderson couldn’t turn into detached irony. Anderson co wrote the script for Isle of Dogs and has claimed Kurosawa as an inspiration, though the visual style owes more to Japanese anime and the doll-like cartooning in films such as Despicable Me.

The story is fairly straightforward. A future virus has infected Japan’s dog population with bad cases of the sniffles, mange, and other symptoms that Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi claims will touch off an influenza pandemic among humans. To head it—or maybe he’s just a mean guy—the mayor decrees that his city will rid itself of all dogs, both feral and domestic. All are rounded up and shipped via automated cable dumpsters across the water to Trash Island. Various packs form, each fending for themselves. The conditions, however, are filthy and the dogs must forage amidst the daily trash deliveries to survive. Mayor Kobayashi is so masterful at propaganda that his actions are interpreted as having saved the city’s human population. Will no one remember his or her canine companion?

The mayor’s orphaned nephew and ward Atari will. He commandeers a plane and crash-lands on the island. He is determined to find his Bluetooth-enabled helper dog Spots and expose his uncle’s perfidy. This touches off a search for Atari, an attempt to hide successful eradication of the dog flu, and a race against the clock to ensure the mayor’s reelection so he can enact his plan to exterminate all dogs. Enter also an American exchange student, Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig), who marshals a team of hackers and young people to expose the mayor’s corruption, remind everyone how much they used to love dogs, and prevent the holocaust of howlers.

Along the way we are taken inside anthropomorphic dog packs, especially one headed by Chief (Bryan Cranston sounding like George Clooney), a particularly scraggly mutt, a biter, and a former stray. He and his pack mates will be Atari’s guide across Trash Island and his intermediaries in encounters with other dog populations. Each dog pretty much takes on the personality of those who voice said pooch, a cast that includes F. Murray Abraham, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Angelica Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Liev Schreiber, and Tilda Swinton. Stil other celebrities lend their voices to humanized cartoon characters, including Frances McDormand, Courtney Vance, and Yoko Ono.

It’s all very cute and the dialogue is frequently witty, spirited, and snapped from the snarky end of the dog biscuit. There are also clever throwaway details. Check out the garbage contents; notice that there is usually a cat prominent when nastiness is afoot. You might also see similarities between some of Mayor Kobayashi’s rallies and scenes from Citizen Kane. There are winks and nods to 1950s Japanese sci-fi sprinkled throughout.  

The border between homage and appropriation is often a thin one, however. It’s hard not to observe that Trash Island looks a lot like the garbage-filled Earth from Pixar’s WALL-E, and some of the machines and other mechanical paraphernalia look familiar as well. It’s also pretty obvious that the story of kids, tweens, and teens saving the day is straight out of ‘toons such as Daria, Dexter, and Scooby-Doo. The animation style of Tracy Walker and others—barrel bodies with impossibly thin legs—is pretty much what we’ve seen in Despicable Me. Tracy is hard for me to take on several levels. First, her round face, freckles, oddly shaped torso, and red Afro strikes me as grotesque. Mostly, though, I wondered why we needed an American girl to do what a Japanese character could have done. Is this just conservative filmmaking—something plugged in to make sure Americans won't view it as a “foreign” film—or backdoor Great White Hope paternalism?

Perhaps you think I nitpick. I actually liked the film; I just didn't love it. I thought it half clever, but as always, Wes Anderson did just enough to collect his B. The last time he actually got an A was 1998, when he made Rushmore. It was offbeat, original, and lovable. Isle of Dogs is a bit like Chief; it wags its tail but the bite does not match the bark.

Rob Weir



BlacKkKlansman a Spike Lee Masterpiece

Directed by Spike Lee
Focus Pictures, 135 minutes, R (language)

Spike Lee has made a lot of good movies, but I was starting to wonder if he’d ever again make a great one akin to Do the Right Thing (1989). BlacKkKlansman is such a film. Ironically, its narrative structure, style, and feel make it the most conventional film Lee has ever made. A second irony lies with the fact that it is, in many ways, both a prequel and a sequel to Do the Right Thing.

Lee tells the improbable but true story of Ron Stallworth, who in the early 1970s became the first African-American officer on the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD).  Early on, Ron (John David Washington) suffers all the expected indignities of a pioneer. Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) tells Ron that he’s the Jackie Robinson of the CSPD, a role that entails being alone, putting in time in the mind-numbing records office, and turning away from the racist guff of Patrolman Landers. He also carries the Robinsonesque burden of representing all African Americans and proving that they belong at the table. Ron is up for the job in many ways, not the least of which is that, though he sports a sizable Afro and looks the part of a countercultural rebel, he’s actually a military brat, has always wanted to be a cop, and is about as straight an arrow as you’ll find in the quiver. Before long, Ron makes detective.

A newspaper recruiting ad for the local Ku Klux Klan prompts Ron to make an impulse call for information—the vague goal being to investigate its activities. The call goes well; as Ron reminds Bridges, he’s fluent “in both white and jive.” Meeting recruiters face-to-face, of course, is another matter. Thus begins a scheme so crazy we’d not believe it had it not actually happened. Ron does all of the phone calling and behind the scenes work, but his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) masquerades as Ron on the ground. It’s a very dangerous game. Ron wears a wire—that the KKK didn’t do a body pat down is incredulous—and Flip is a Jew who must master the Klan’s full hate speech repertoire, including its anti-Semitic rants.

But wait, the story gets more remarkable. Ron’s own consciousness is shaken, if not stirred, by a Kwame Ture speech he’s casing undercover, and that’s also exactly where he’d like to be with a Colorado College student he meets. She’s no easy conquest, though. Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) is an Angela Davis-like firebrand who is president of the Black Student Union and conversant in Black nationalist theory.

Talk about your balancing acts! Ron is simultaneously scripting Zimmerman, courting a Black nationalist while posing as a construction worker, and ingratiating himself (in absentia, of course) into the top ranks of the Klan, including buttering up Grand Imperial Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Before the narrative part of the film concludes, Lee also treats us to dangers galore, plots thwarted ad launched, heart-stopping action, and Ron’s one-day assignment as Duke’s bodyguard.

John David Washington is quite good as Stallworth. He strikes a nice balance between determination, playfulness, and vulnerability. Ms. Harrier is even better as Patrice. She brings to the screen something that’s been lacking in too many past Spike Lee films: a strong, independent Black female in control of things other than her sexuality. It may sound odd to say this in a film focusing on Black characters, but Adam Driver’s performance is the best of all. He portrays a secular Jew for whom all manner of truths begin to dawn, including the connectedness of all oppressions. Yet he also has a commonsense center and makes no bones about not wishing to be a martyr to anyone’s cause. It would be a travesty were Driver not a Best Supporting Actor nominee.

The same goes for Spike Lee for Best Director honors. Lee has learned that sometimes less is more. I couldn’t help but think of how BlacKkKlansman reminded me of a take-up-the-cause John Sayles film. Lee does something, though, that often stumps Sayles: he makes his villains complex rather than cardboard cutouts. No simplistic “deplorables” here; Lee shows the Klan as venomous and incendiary, but he subtly gives us varied reasons for individual hatreds: economic marginalization, alcoholism, feelings of powerlessness, fear of cultural change, the lure of tribalism, low IQ, sociopathic tendencies, and even just a desire to be “helpful.” Lee doesn’t ask us to like Klansmen or feel sympathy toward them, but he does suggest you need to know your enemies to counter them.

Letting us down easy isn’t a Spike Lee trait. If you’ve seen Do the Right Thing you’ll certainly remember its powerful post-riot postscript: a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. repudiating violence, and Malcolm X’s famed “by any means necessary” warning. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee reprises such sentiments, but in images rather than words. Watch what he does with a freeze frame zoom shot when Ron and Patrice answer a late-night knock at the door. Watch again what happens to images of the American flag as the credits roll.

I called this a prequel because it’s set in the 1970s and Do the Right Thing in the 1980s. It is also a documentary-style sequel. Lee released the film into theaters on August 10, the one-year anniversary of Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent. The heinous David Duke was the keynote speaker. Lee appends footage of the rally—still more deftness from Lee. It is first a reminder that the same hatreds that led Ron Stallworth to take on the Klan and Lee to make Do the Right Thing remain. There’s also footage of Donald Trump making vomit-inducing claims that there were “bad” people on both sides of the Charlottesville tragedy. Lest anyone accuse Lee of being a hater as well, there is a dedication to Heather Heyer, the white woman mowed down by a white supremacist.

This film has already won the Grand Prix at Cannes. I can’t imagine you’ll see a better American film this year. You certainly won’t see a more important one. Expect BlacKkKlansman to win multiple Academy Awards early next year.

Rob Weir


Lean on Pete an Overlooked Treasure

Lean on Pete (2018)
Directed by Andrew Haigh
A24, 121 minutes, R (solely for language and a ridiculous rating)

The perfect antidote for a summer’s worth of mindless rubbish is to watch films that got drowned out by the Hollywood hype and money machine. Such a film is Lean on Me Pete, which was made for $8 million—chump change in movie production terms—but only earned a quarter of that at the box office. That’s not because it’s not a good film; it’s because it got relegated to festivals and art houses. And, of yeah, it was made by a British director who isn't afraid to poke holes in the myth of the Golden West.

Lean on Me Pete is a coming of age film, but not one cut from the private school/sunny beaches/rich parents/fireworks in the sky romance sense. Our protagonist is 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and the unfolding drama is viewed mostly from his perspective. He grows up mobile and semi-feral, courtesy of his widower father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), who loves his son but is no one’s idea of a role model. Ray has recently uprooted Charley again, this time from a small rural town in Oregon to the seedy outskirts of Portland. Charley consoles himself in running, Ray in being unemployed, boozing, and womanizing. Theirs is the sort of home in which canned soup and cereal pass for meals, and the cereal is kept in the fridge to keep the roaches out of it.

Most 15-year-olds long for freedom; Charley just wants a normal life, though he’s not even remotely sure what that is. Charley has a good heart, but he’s woefully undereducated, has the table manners of a goat, and the naivety to believe his father can take care of him. He does, however, find that his new home is near a run-down horse track. There he meets Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), an owner and trainer, though his stable is of the sort that races at carnivals, country fairs, and tracks the likes of which Justify never saw and never will. Charley isn’t afraid of hard work and soon parlays $10 for shoveling horseshit into an apprenticeship with Del that will take Charlie to some of the aforementioned tracks.

Del turns Charley into a groomer and stable boy through classic on-the-job training. Del’s not exactly guardian-of-the-year material either, but he does teach Charley to eat properly and gives him semi-regular work, which is better than Ray can manage. Charley is hungry in every way a person can be famished: literally, emotionally, and psychically. He is outwardly stoic, but that’s such a thin mask that everyone sees through it. Del’s best life advice comes when Charlie begins to exercise the titular Lean on Pete: “Never let go of the rope,” a metaphor I invite you to stretch.

Lean on Pete becomes Charley’s de facto confidant, the silent partner in whom he confides his inner thoughts. In like fashion, Charley saddles up to Del’s jockey friend Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), as if she were a surrogate older sister. Problems abound: a horse is a horse, of course, of course—something Bonnie and Del repeatedly tell Charley. Lean on Pete is “just a horse,” says Bonnie, and he’s a  quarter horse at that, a short-race sprinter. Once Pete loses his speed—artificially enhanced when Del can get away with it—he’s off to a Mexican dog food factory.

Among the many virtues of Lean on Pete is that it’s never quite what you think it will be. Circumstances will send Charley and Pete on a long journey toward Wyoming, where Charley hopes to find his aunt. At this juncture you might be tempted to think of John Steinbeck’s epic Travels with Charley, with a nag pinch- hitting for a tail-wagger. Nope. This one is not a simplistic boy-and-his-steed tale. Nor is it an elegiac stroll across Big Sky country; it’s more sage brush and forays onto Skid Row, the latter filled with the desperate, not desperados. Charley’s coming of age saga is about survival, not identity formation, and that means it’s sometimes a harrowing story about a minor in peril.

Cowboy hats off to Andrew Haigh for resisting cheap sentimentality at pretty much every juncture where a less confident director would have tossed us nostrums and a goes-down-easy resolution. If you saw All the Money in the World, perhaps you already suspected that Charley Plummer has promise; watch him in Lean on Pete and all idle doubts vanish in the arid flatlands of central Oregon. Plummer presents as determined-but-uncertain, lanky, scuffed, and a bit gawky—a lost boy not yet adapted to an adult body.

This film is a real treasure and it’s a damned shame that it has been overlooked. See it and pass the word. It won’t win any Academy Awards come next February, but I can assure that it’s better than half of the films that will.

Rob Weir


Sounds for Late Summer 2018

St. Pete Holland, Seven Deadly Hymns

I love the title of the new release from Nashville-based St. Pete Holland. Normally I'd be dismissive of the alt-folk label that's been slapped onto his music, but it actually fits for a change. Holland's voice is reminiscent of the late Bill Morrissey in that it's a tuneful growl, but his repertoire certainly takes more chances, and his lyrics are more observational and less interior. "Lullaby" uses a lovely folk/bluegrass melded tune that counters his sharper vocal inflections, and the song is a new twist on the old tale of selling one's soul to the Devil for Dorian Gray youthfulness: My love won't grow old. He whistles the intro and bridge for "Capulets," which is retelling of Romeo and Juliet that's more sympathetic to he former and suggests Juliet might be a seductress. He takes down New York shallowness in "Small Talk" in a song that's simple yet has a collaborative effect with its backing harmonies and hand clap-like percussiveness. On "Yours and Mine," a post-breakup song, Holland blurs folk and rock boundaries. Some may find his voice an acquired taste, but Holland is a clever songwriter and intriguing arranger.   ★★★★   

Forrest Fire Gospel Choir, Forest Fire Gospel Choir

If you're yearning for some Southern rock by way of Tennessee, Texas, California, Colorado, and New York, check out the Nashville-based quintet Forest Fire Gospel Choir (FFGC). Imagine a blend of The Band and Leon Russell, with a dash of the two-guitar plus keyboards energy of The Allman Brothers. FFGC isn't quite in that august company, but their five-track NoiseTrade EP invites such comparisons. FFGC is anchored by bass player/lead vocalist Will McGee, who definitely has an arena-rock voice. Nick Fields and Sam Hunt bring the noise with their dueling guitars, Will Lynde tickles the piano and organ keys, and drummer Daniel Closser brings it home. McGee borrows Robby Robertson's vocal styling on "Strange Air," but mostly FFGC goes its own way. "Go Getter" is Southern rock with a skiffle-meets-gospel mash. My favorite track is "Daddio," with its start-stop cadences that dissolve into a straight-on wall of sound. This one feels fresh, despite the 50s-like lyrics. I mean, who actually says "daddio" anymore? ★★★

Jim Lauderdale, A History

Can we say that a guy who has won a Grammy, an Americana Music Association Award, and has recorded 27 albums is overlooked? Jim Lauderdale has long been a songwriter's songwriter, which is why you find his name on hits from everyone from the Dixie Chicks, Patti Loveless, and Blake Shelton to Rodney Crowell and Elvis Costello. He has also co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Lauderdale, now 61, was originally inspired by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a seminal group whose place in music history is similarly underappreciated—perhaps because they too collapsed labels at a time in which the music industry was overly focused on them. Lauderdale is about to release a new album, Time Flies, and has released the title track and several others as singles to build some buzz.  He's also released some back catalog material packaged as A History, which highlights a level of versatility that to this day invites a vague "Americana" label. On songs such as "Sweet Time," Lauderdale honks and tonks with the twangiest of country singers, but he's a wailing folk-meets-acoustic blues on "Way Out is Fine." But then, there's "When They Turn Around," which is filled with Dirt Band Appalachian bluegrass energy, "Forgive and Forget," which could have come from John Prine's repertoire, and the shimmery early 60s pop vibe of "Borrow Some Summertime." Jim Lauderdale offers something for everyone to like, which makes him fun for listeners and perplexing for the industry. Maybe Time Flies will help him do something he's only ever done four other times: make the Top 100 charts. Either way, he's an artist you should check out. ★★★ ½   

Ike Reilly, Crooked Love

Crooked Love is a good title for Ike Reilly's latest release; he has a bent way of looking at a lot of things. This gritty release matches Reilly's voice: edgy with a growl. It's indie rock from a guy who has seen things. "Livin' In the Wrong Time"is a great bit of combo work anchored by Peter Cimbalo's ominous bass; "To Die in Her Arms" is boogie-woogie with just the right touch of noir. Reilly gets us inside the heads of people who don't build dream lives: a husband seeking escape in his garage in "She Haunts My Hideouts," and that guy is tame compared to some of the drinking and hard living that appears elsewhere. "Missile Site" has a rockabilly opening, but evolves into something bluesier and retro. As for any rockets, this one is more about the sparks that go off during a tryst. "Clean Blood Blues" sounds like where rockabilly meets bump-and-grind. The album's sit-up-and-take-notice track is "Boltcutter Again," a timely and vigorous junkyard rock/punk that takes on the travel ban through the experience of a detained woman. This one has other surprises you can discover for yourselves. ★★★★

Tow'rs, Grey Fidelity

I listened to this a lot when I was down with back trouble; it was a balm for the ears and soul. This Flagstaff, Arizona band is generally a quartet fronted by the husband/wife team of Kyle and Gretta Miller, but it's also an expandable lineup that draws in friends. What to call the music is a harder task. The indie rock label often gets used, but one of the sites in which the band shows up is called SleepMusic. In this case, that's a good thing; Tow'rs features meditative melodies and ambient vibes. "Girl in Calico" is aurally what a warm bath is physically. The song establishes a hypnotic space and punches small holes in it via bright electric guitar notes. "Consolations" uses cello, keys, bass, and guitar to build a moody frame and gives the beat a gentle nudge. In fact, gentle is the word I'd use to most of the songs. If you, as did I, need to carve out a place to recoup, you will find this just the ticket. If you're looking for something loud and abrasive, turn elsewhere. Objectively speaking, the album could use more variety. It's so calm that the lyrics retreat into the mix. That's fine for much of the material, but material like "When I'm Silent" could use more oomph, given that it's about those who challenge silence in the face of injustice. For me, "Revelator Man" has the catchiest hooks, but even it is more rose than hammer. That's the sort of band Tow'rs is and sometimes, that's what I want and need. ★★★★ 

Short Takes:

Labels are useful, but not when they're outdated. repeat repeat has been called a "bicoastal beach pop band," but their Bloom and Doom is more like a cross between The Bangles and a tamed version of Bad Religion. Yes, there's some surf guitar, but the heavy bass, 140 bpm percussion, power chords, and soaked-in-a-loud-mix vocals evoke punk and metal.  If this intrigues, try "Mostly" and the aptly named "Speaker Destroyer."

Lined out a capella singing dates to the 17th century, making it older than America itself. 76-year-old Frank Newsome was born in rural Kentucky, one of 20 children. Like most folks in his neck of the backwoods, he headed for the coal pits at an early age and had black lung disease by the time he 20. These days he's an Old Regular Baptist minister and an NEA Heritage Fellow, the type folklorists call a "source singer," meaning they tap into traditions that predate the recording industry. Think Ralph Stanley, with whom Newsome was a close friend. Newsome's comes from the soul and the hills—deep, resonant, spare and powerful—even though he needs medication (and sometimes a ventilator) to breathe. Try the title track from Gone Away with a Friend and "Long Black Train."

Robbie Fulks is a musician of many moods, but he goes country/rockabilly retro on Wild! Wild! Wild!, his collaboration with Linda Gail Lewis, little sister of rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. "I Just Lived a Country Song" is class honky-tonk in feel, though the lyrics reference more recent history. The title track with its thwacky bass, slap-slap percussion, and twangy vocals certainly turns back the clock. "Memphis Never Falls from Style" could have been plucked from an old John Hartford album. It's no exaggeration to say that not too many folks make albums like this any more.

Stephen Winston has his own retro thing going on Grayling. Bossa nova influences are all over "Falling Apart." The bright cascades of notes, controlled drumming, and sunny feel of "Roman Road" conjure the type of light pop associated with California "easy listening" music. I like Winston's smooth high tenor, but a song such as "Trains in Utah" feels like it could use more emotion. Winston invokes comparisons to 70s/80s' icons such as Harry Chapin, Phil Collins, and John Denver. Whether or not that's a good thing totally depends on your capacity for evocative nostalgia.

Mostly, older material gets updated these days, which is what Madrid-based flamenco artist Elena Andujar has done on Flamenco in Time, her collaboration with club producer Matt Warren. This is a mix and remix album that seeks to bring flamenco into the age of electronic with lots of reverb, echo, and looping. How do you feel about a house version of the 1960s' flamenco standard "El Despertador?" Or a song like "Es Asi" given a brassy, thumping funk workout? I admit that I'm torn but then again, my clubbing days are decades behind me. Check out these tracks and see what you think.


Serena Versus Carlos: Rush to Judgment Does Not Serve Well

We live in touchy times. Memes, instant judgment, misinformation, and demagogues dominate the public realm. The net result is that far too often, opinions become “reality.” Why bother to do research, when one can jump on a bandwagon of like-minded folks? 

Alas, liberals are sometimes as fact-challenged and ideologically driven as red-meat Trump supporters. Witness the rush to support Serena Williams in her dispute with umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S. Open tennis tournament.  Serena ticks all the P.C. boxes: African American, female, recent mom, champion, success story….  None of these, however, make Ms. Williams the aggrieved party in her dispute with Ramos. Nor do they make her a victim of sexism and double standards. Were it not for the fact that Ramos is Latino and Williams’ opponent Haitian-Japanese, one wonders if the race card would have been played as well.

I admire Serena Williams tremendously. In my view, in the history of women’s tennis, only Martina Navratilova surpasses Serena. Williams is a role model for strong, independent women and is rightly hailed as such. Nor would I deny the social ubiquity of sexism or racism. I’ll also concede that mistakes, umpire pique, and preferential treatment occur in sporting events.

None of these apply to what happened to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. If I might use a colloquialism, what actually occurred is that Serena lost her shit.  Let’s start with this: 37-year-old Ms. Williams was not going to win the match against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. Osaka trounced Serena in the first set and was in control of the second. If you want to speculate, perhaps Serena’s frustration was that of many great champions: she stared across the net at herself at Ms. Osaka’s age. Remember how young Serena outran and overpowered her opponents? She’s actually a better and smarter player now, but it happens to us all; at some point you can’t outrun or outslug those in their physical bloom, nor can you summon the energy to cover your mistakes. Vets like Serena learn to conserve energy and use canny experience to outfox those who are stronger and faster. Not this time.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter. Among the memes floating around is a montage of male rage on tennis courts. The irony is that they are shown getting away with swears and maniacal destructions of equipment. Not so. Abuse of equipment is an automatic loss of a point. Worse still, the John McEnroe meltdown used in Internet memes to “prove” double standards is from the 1990 Australian Open. Truth: McEnroe was up two sets to one against an obscure opponent. Upon his third serious code violation, however, McEnroe was disqualified from the match and was done for the tournament.

McEnroe was one of the bad boys of tennis, a hold-your-nose class that included Dennis Ralston, Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and Andre Agassi. Of them, McEnroe was probably the only one who sometimes played better angry. All of the careers mentioned were marred by penalties and suspensions; several involved serious struggles with alcoholism and depression. All were successful in their craft, but how many more matches would they have won had they been in better control of themselves? This is blatantly the case of Nastase—are you paying attention Nick Krygios?—who had talent to burn, but often squandered it at key moments when he turned boor and buffoon. And not even McEnroe or Connors won respect comparable to cucumber cool figures such as Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Pete Sampras, or Roger Federer.

Anyone who has ever picked up a racquet—including yours truly—knows that when you lose your shit, you usually lose the points that follow until you regain your composure. Serena wasn’t able to do that; at pivotal moments where she needed to be her best for even a prayer of forcing a third set, she invested her mental concentration in berating Ramos. At that juncture, Serena defeated herself.

Serena is a warrior on the court, but passion and anger differ. Let’s wipe out another few myths. First, Ramos is known as one of the strictest umpires in tennis—something a vet such as Ms. Williams certainly knows. It’s simply untrue that Ramos wouldn’t penalize men—ask Murray, Djokovic, and Krygios. He’s a stickler for the rules, which is why he was the first to officiate all four Grand Slam events. Second, this isn’t the first time Williams has gone supernova on the court, and she’s not been selective in venting her ire; until the Open her three worst abuses had been hurled at female umps. Third, her own coach admitted he was sending signals to Ms. Williams. Perhaps she never saw them, but it’s still against the rules. Maybe her coach deserves a lambasting, but not Ramos. Add it up—an automatic violation for racquet abuse, unauthorized coaching, and insulting the umpire. 1 + 1 + 1= 3, which is an automatic loss of a game.

Sure, we want to see the players, not the officials, but all sports have rules to dampen rogue behavior and kill-the-ump mentalities. In soccer, after two yellow caution cards, the next infraction yields a red card and you’re done for the match. In hockey, arguing with an official is a two-minute penalty that an official can double if the player doesn’t back off. In both sports, an official can (and often does) bypass all of this and directly assess a game misconduct penalty. Baseball goes a step further; a player that argues balls and strikes is automatically tossed from the game. Basketball coaches are assessed technical fouls if they cross the sidelines to protest a call. Two technicals and you’re gone. Ask yourself, what you would have done were you Carlos Ramos? How much crap would you have taken?

I agree with Serena Williams that apologies are in order: one from her to Ramos for losing her temper, and another to Naomi Osaka for stealing her thunder. This was her moment to shine and Williams hijacked the story. I don’t think Williams intended to do that; she just lost it. Sexism is real, but not in every case in which a man and a woman argue. Moreover, if we wish to live in a world in which facts matter, we should make sure we are not contributing to “fake news.” 

Rob Weir


Sally Mann: A Retropsective Exhibit

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
Through September 23, 2018

Clicking on images opens a bigger file

Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful Sally Mann retrospective that’s already cycled through several museums. I caught the show at the Peabody Essex Museum, where (alas!) it will only be on display for a few more weeks. But because it is a retrospective, pieces of this exhibit are likely to find their way closer to you and, indeed, Ms. Mann (born 1951) has been so prolific that any institution with a reputable photography collection will surely have some of her work.

Mann, a native Virginian who still spends much of her time there, always dazzles the eye. She also occasionally ruffles feathers. This is especially the case of images from her collection Immediate Family (1990) that is as advertised: gazes into the lives, faces, and bodies of husband Bruce, son Emmett, and daughters Jessica and Virginia. Some are metaphors—such as a rather obvious evocation of birth—that would be banal, were it not so striking. Some critics have panned such tableaux-like poses as artifice over art, but that’s small potatoes compared to the moralist outcry against unclothed images. Pat Robertson leveled child pornography accusations against Mann. I suppose one could raise consent issues, given that Mann’s children were minors, though her rejoinder has always been that casual nudity was a way of life on their backcountry homestead. You can make up your own mind, but to me there’s a prelapsarian innocence to these images. In fact, I admire the agency she gives to kids. Some exhibit gauzy dream-like qualities; others are like a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. One image invokes what the hidden child in Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother might have looked like. And whom among us would not like to recapture the swagger and confidence of youth etched upon the face of Emmett Mann and his friend? 

Speaking of Emmett, they say that no one critiques the South like her own sons and daughters. Mann’s Deep South (1999) and other such projects aren’t preachy, but they often resonate with underlying tension. The diffused light of a grove of trees draped with Spanish moss is otherworldly in an attract-repeal fashion. If you detect a ghostly presence of shots of the Tallahatchie River, it’s deliberate. They depict the exact spot where Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955. (And, yes, Till is Mann’s son’s namesake.)  

Images of Civil War battlefields also haunt us. Mann uses large-format cameras, but skews perspectives and overlays the foreground with collodion washes on glass plate negatives that are eerie and messy, as if she is peering through the fog of the past to render sanguinary spills in monochrome. One shot of Antietam—shot from the upward-looking perspective of a trench in which hundreds died—invoked a line from a Neil Young song of a young man's moment of death: “Then I saw black/And my face splashed in the sky.”

The sense of loss and impermanence also mark Mann's 2003 collection What Remains, though to my eye her images of decaying churches are only poignant if you know the back stories, in which case you probably don’t need the image. I found this the weakest part of the show as Mann took too few measures to explain why the images mattered, and most of the decay images lacked intrinsic interest.

The saddest images come from Proud Flesh (2009), which documents her husband’s demise from Muscular Dystrophy. Is anything more horrifying than the journey from robust virility to bone sack death? I took no pictures of these. If any of Sally Mann’s photographs are too personal and too obscene, surely it is these. I wondered how she managed to focus the lens and snap the shutter. I suppose that she managed because genius dwells outside of the human heart.

Rob Weir   


Julian Barnes' Latest: Brilliantly Written--and Derivative

The Only Story: A Novel (2018)
By Julian Barnes
Alfred Knopf, 254 pages.

Have you ever seen The Graduate (1967)? Imagine what would have happened if the protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), had stayed with bored, boozy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) instead of taking up with her daughter Elaine. Now make Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson British and toss in another daughter for good measure. How would that turn out? 

This is pretty much the story arc of Julian Barnes' latest novel. His Benjamin is Paul Roberts, a 19-year-old about to head off to university, though with little enthusiasm beyond escaping The Village, a Greater London version of soulless suburbia populated by interchangeable bourgeois "Hugos" and "Carolines." At the local tennis club Paul is paired with 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, who is decidedly not a Caroline, though she's just as weary of her social script as Mrs. Robinson. Paul will go off to university, but he and Susan will also become lovers—and I'm not talking about just a summer fling.

Do you see my dilemma in evaluating this book? No matter what other trappings Barnes adds, his tale is essentially The Graduate. Paul is every bit as passive as Benjamin, and Gordon MacLeod is as bombastic and as prone to violent outburst as Mr. Robinson. The Only Story even begins at roughly the same time period.

Let me add a dimension. I admired the fact that Barnes antiseptically dissects the next several decades of the Paul/Susan affair and does so without casting moral judgment. Barnes writes, "… [E]veryone has their love story. Even if it was a fiasco, even if it fizzled out, never got going, had been in the mind to begin with: that didn't make it any less real. And it was the only story."  Therein lies Barnes' thesis. Maybe love doesn't make the world go 'round, but it defines the human experience and is indeed, Banes opines, the only story. He sets us up in the book's opening query: "Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less?" If you think the answer (or the question) is obvious, or that we can say from the outset that Paul and Susan's relationship is repugnant, Barnes counters: "In love, everything is both true and false; it's the one subject on which it's impossible to say anything absurd." You can't "capture love in a definition;" only "in a story."

Well damn! That's great writing. It's succinct, provocative, and burns with the sort of incendiary heat that only a master wordsmith can stoke. What's a critic to do, admire the prose, or slam the book's lack of originality? It seems to me one is honor bound to do both. Is it clever or derivative to write a thinly veiled sequel to The Graduate? More the latter, I think. Especially given that the only new character of note is Susan's lifelong friend Joan, who is also occasionally plays the role of Paul's superego. Joan is, however, just about the only character beyond Paul and Susan with dimensionality. A measure of this is that Paul's putative pal, Eric, has only incidental presence and no last name. Nor do most other male characters in the book other than Susan's husband, and a fleeting reference to Paul's own surname.

This, of course, is deliberate. Love is, after all, the only story.  Or so Barnes avers.  It often seems as if Barnes' intent in this novel was to construct a skeletal narrative frame upon which he could hang his observations about life, suffering, games playing, ageing, and the unreflective passivity of English males. Paul makes a number of choices that are at best cheaply rationalized, but are better characterized as amoral. If all of this sounds rather familiar, it's because Paul is too much like Tony, the protagonist of Barnes' celebrated The Sense of an Ending.

Ahhh, but the prose…. It all comes back to that. If a glorious singer warbles random names from the London telephone directory, does that in any way diminish the quality of the voice? Barnes is simply too good to toss aside lightly. In the end, all we can do is bask in the heat of his sentences—even when they take us places we've already been.

Rob Weir   


Africa through Picasso's Eyes in Montreal

From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-Face Picasso Past and Present
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Montreal, Quebec through September 16, 2018.

Picasso was fascinated with non-Western art, especially that from Sub-Saharan Africa. We have known this for many decades. It’s rather obvious if you have even passing familiarity with Picasso's work. Yet somehow, a current exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts manages to astonish. How often have you heard that a picture is worth a thousand words? Think it’s just a cliché? The Montreal show does a simple thing and let’s its visual power strike you with the power of a lightening strike on the adjacent bench you just vacated. It juxtaposes, side-by-side, Picasso paintings and comparable works of African or other non-Western art.

Do you like irony? Consider that the most-famous modern artist who ever lived spent a considerable amount of time pondering much older things. Consider also that the future was anchored to the past, and that which was heralded as new was often an impressionistic sequel to what had already been. He, like Matisse, Vlamanick, and several others before him, first encountered non-Western art at the Musée d’Ethnographie Trocadéro in Paris. None of this diminishes the originality of Picasso or the depth of his vision. After all, it takes creativity and foresight to look beneath the surface of a tribal mask and imagine cubism, or to see connections to Greek myths and post-Freudian psyches within a sub-Saharan object.

Mostly, the Montreal exhibit confirms the spiritual and psychological depth of non-Western art, the richness of the many cultures from which it draws, and the power inherent in basic shapes. Picasso [1881-1973] wasn’t afraid to deconstruct those shapes, reassemble them in fragmented and non-sequential ways, and let their very unsettledness convey meanings deeper than waking reality could hope to suggest. So too do masks, head dresses, prints, statues, fetish objects, and other such like invite us to engage our imagination in ways that the prosaic and pragmatic cannot. 

As noted above, Henri Matisse [1869-1954] and others beat Picasso to the punch in merging African art, Western appropriation, and surreal suggestiveness. This is also pretty well known in the art world, yet Matisse gets little more than a minor nod in this exhibit. The youthful Picasso, who admired Matisse and went to Paris in part to meet him, knew better. Once young Pablo became Picasso, ego and myth making took over, but it would have been nice had the curators given more due to Picasso's creditors.

What follows speaks for itself and needs no further comment from me. Enjoy the images as the exhibit closes next week. Muse upon them, as you can do in miniature what was done on a larger scale in Montreal. All you need to do is enter a well-appointed museum, find a few Picassos, snap a few shots with your cellphone, and meander into the African and Micronesian galleries and play the comparison game. 


On Display Now at Williams College Museum of Art

Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob's Pillow, 1906-1940
            (though November 11, 2018)
RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary (though October 31, 2018)
Williams College Museum of Art
Williamstown, MA
Free admission

Click on any image for larger size.

Most visitors to the Williamstown area head for the Clark Institute of Art, Mass MoCA, or one of the area's numerous summer stock theaters. All are worthy, but one of the region's underappreciated gems is the Williamstown College Museum of Art (WCMA). The WCMA launches shows that bigger museums would ignore, and the level of curation is consistently top shelf quality. Here are two shows that are well worth seeing.

If you are a fan of modern dance, you probably already know of Jacob's Pillow, located near the town of Becket, approximately 35 miles southeast of Williamstown. It is, simply, one of the most important venues associated with modern dance in the country. Jacob's Pillow opened its doors in 1933, just three years after founder Ted Shawn (1891-1972) split with his wife, Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968). The two were a modern dance power couple upon their marriage in 1914, a union that wasn't destined to last given that Shawn was, in fact, a closeted gay man. That wasn't known for some time, though it wouldn't have been hard to surmise given that Shawn's original company at the Pillow was titled "Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers," and he often presented himself in a stereotypically fey fashion. Many also knew that he and Burton Mumaw (1912-2001) were longtime lovers.

The WCMA show doesn't say much about this, which is a sad omission in my view, though it is to their credit that it does give Ms. Denis equal billing in its display of costumes and photographs that span the years 1906 to 1940. The costumes dazzle in several ways.

First, when seen close up, one appreciates the illusion of the stage. What sparkles like magic just three rows back is revealed for what it is: the magic of seamstresses working with cut-rate fabrics and jazzing them with paste jewels and gild.  My wife's (late) grandmother once served as wardrobe mistress at Jacob's Pillow. One of her biggest jobs was stitching splits and installing costume patches—often in wings during a performance. Her greatest talent was that the audience seldom noticed! Seen off the stage, we can appreciate that the stage ware is imaginative, enchanting, and cheap. It served its purpose well. Modern dance dispensed with the conventions of traditional ballet in service of movement that favored free movement, artistic expression, and emotion rather than rigid form. In essence, the costumes accentuated bodies and dramatized movement. One was meant to watch the character/dancer contained by the clothes, not stare at the wrappers.

The second thing you will notice is the sensuality of modern dance. Call it another nail in the coffin of Victorianism. During the early years of the 20th century, the amount of skin on display on the dance stage scandalized older Americans. That was partly the point. Dance was one of the things that were new about the artistic movement now labeled modernism. Think of scanty dancewear and revealing movie clothing as akin to the way flappers sought to unbind the body.

Kudos to the WCMA for owning up to another aspect of modern dance: it was not at all politically correct. Today we'd use terms such as cultural appropriation or Orientalism to describe how non-Western expressions and clothing were stereotyped. Many early 20th century artists felt they were paying homage; in our day, we recognize that exoticizing another person's culture is problematic—even if intended to be benign. A classic example of this can be seen in Shawn's "Indian" costumes. Not only are they more homoerotic than authentic, in some cases—such as clothing designed to look like kachinas, dancers actually violated religious beliefs.

Modernism was a revolutionary. When barriers crumble, older norms of propriety collapse for good or ill. Dance fans and social critics alike can enjoy Dance We Must. Call is equal parts fascinating and shocking. 

Pieter Hugo, man with hyena, Nigeria
Also provocative is a show that draws upon the museum's collection of prints, paintings, drawings, and photographs that depict animals. RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary calls into question whether humans are special, or merely an animal that exerts hegemony over various others. It examines the relationship between humans and subordinate creatures in all the ways we relate to animals: as pets, companions, food, prey, enemies, entertainment, or objects of worship.

Robert Doisneau

Most of the images speak for themselves. This exhibit will make you laugh, upset you, and even horrify you. In each case, it will make you ponder the realms we (perhaps too glibly) label "human" and "animal."  

Robert and Joseph Cornell, Two Mouse Musicians
Marc Chagall

Rube Goldberg plan for improved smorgasbord

Rob Weir