4/20/18

Fugitives, Brooks Dixon, Rusty Young, Iain Matthews, Canty, Strawn


The Fugitives, The Promise of Strangers

I think I've figured out why I like Canadian music so much: the market is smaller and creative folks up that way feel less pressure to play to formulae. Add The Fugitives to your list of performers that are just flat-out amazing. They don't so much transgress the boundaries between folk, rock, bluegrass, and other genres as treat them as non-existent. This creates infectious melodic structures that sound both familiar yet unique. This Vancouver lineup is built around Adrian Glynn, Brendan McLeod, and a bunch of folks who cycle in and out. They are a mostly acoustic lineup, but when they hit on all cylinders their energy is as powerful as any indie rock band.  Glynn has a voice like an angel and I'm talking Art Garfunkel levels of celestial glow. Let's start with "No Words," which was penned the day Leonard Cohen died (11/7/16). I can't imagine a better tribute. It begins Cohen-like spare and builds to a gospel chorus with long pauses into which the air seems filled with the spirit of the departed. Try to stay in control as Glynn's voice cries out I have no words/I think he took 'em all with him/I have no voice/To shout from the ground. Watch the video—recorded in a resonant church—as it's simply more moving than my words can convey. Now watch this band do "Better Than Luck," whose melody is built around a balalaika, and is where breakdown bluegrass meets folk rock. Want a dose of nostalgia? "London in the Sixties" captures that zeitgeist. Need something sentimental? McLeod and Glynn pay tribute to their moms in "My Mother Sang," which tells us, my mother sang/but she could not sing and we know exactly what they mean. Or how about a pretty love song? Try "Northern Lights." There's even "Come Back Down," which they describe as a "tubular bells-gang party," which makes no sense at all until you listen to it. This fabulous record makes me want to shout, "O' Canada!" ★★★★★

Brooks Dixon, White Roses

We need Ancestry.com to do some serious blood work in the ridges and hills of the Carolinas as I pretty sure that James Taylor's ancestors dumped their DNA into local wells. It's stunning how many male singers have that same warm, slightly reedy, lacking-in-vibrato baritone voice. When you hear someone like Brooks Dixon you can't help but think he has to be a close cousin. Like Taylor, his repertoire favors a folk/pop/soft rock blend that's sweet without being cloying. "Aeroplane" sashays down the runway and its pleasures are magnified by winsome fiddle that invites you to traipse across the room. "Roses" has more of a country feel, including just a splash of pedal steel. My favorite new track is "Anymore," which is introduced with a spray of bright electric guitar notes and becomes that rarest of things: a cheerful break-up song. More to the point, it's the giddy moment you realize you've turned the corner and are over the heartaches. The melody will stick in your head (in a good way). White roses symbolize purity and charm. I'm not sure I'd want to saddle anyone with purity, so let's call this one a charming release. ★★★★


Rusty Young, Waitin’ for the Sun

Does the name Rusty Young ring any bells? No—he’s not kith and kin to Neil, though you might wonder when you hear the giddy-up guitar and world-weary voice on “My Friend.” Maybe it will resonate if I tell you that that song references some guests on the album: Timothy Schmidt and Richie Furay. Yep, this the Rusty Young who was a mainstay in the folk-rock band Poco; that’s Young on pedal steel on “Kind Woman,” one of Poco’s many hits. At age 72 and after 28 Poco releases, 24 singles, and 30 compilation albums, Young has released his first solo recording and it’s a treat! The title track has a Beatles-like background swirl. “Heaven Tonight” is also evocative of the Fab Four, “Crazy Love” is a classic country/folk not-over-her ditty, “Honey Bee” has more bounce than sting; and “Gonna Let the Rain” has been aptly labeled rock ‘n soul. Young sounds great, the instrumentals are solid, and the music is nostalgic but never throwback stale.
★★★★

Matthews Southern Comfort, Like a Radio

Everyone knows Joni Mitchell wrote "Woodstock," right? But do you remember that it was Britain's Iain Matthews—he was Ian back then—who took it to the top of the pop charts? From 1969 into the late 1970s, Matthews was a key figure in the folk rock scene and few could rival his vocal combination of gentle but poignant. Matthews even moved to LA for a time, but by the 1980s, his career had cratered. But he never stopped worked and it might surprise to know that he has more than 50 recordings to his credit. In 2000, Matthews relocated to Amsterdam and his band Southern Comfort is Dutch. Like a Radio is a new release and a very good one. At 71, his voice has lost some of the candied tones of his youth, but listen to "Bits and Pieces" and you'll hear instantly that it retains heft and expressiveness. The song, by the way, is a reflection on his rolling stone vagabond ways. The title track has a Byrds-like shimmer as filtered through touches of cool jazz. Among the fifteen tracks are also classics such as "Something In the Way She Moves" and a particularly gentle and lovely revamp of "Darcy Farrow." Don't call this a comeback album, though. Matthews has gotten around, but he never went away. ★★★

Caitlin Canty, Motel Bouquet and Sampler

Caitlin Canty's newest CD has just breached and she released a sampler of back catalogue material along with a preview song from the new record: "Take Me For a Ride." It has a misty, dreamy feel in which vocals meld into a mix dominated by guitar and reverb. It has a nice feel, but Canty has a small voice and it seems like too much production. The Proctor, Vermont-born Canty has lived and recorded in Nashville for the past two years. It's hard to judge based on a single track, but I hope she avoids overly slick production. When I hear older material like "Get Up," you can feel the urgency when she sings: Get up get get up/Before the road pulls you under. Similarly, we are drawn into the tale of "Still Here" in which Canty imagines herself as an older man who never strayed far from home: There are those who go/There are those who stay/You cannot have it both ways. Canty sometimes draws comparisons to Lucinda Williams, but she's not; her voice is much closer in register to someone like Aoife O'Donovan. Nothing wrong with that, but songbirds with fragile, pretty voices run the danger of getting drowned out if too much is happening behind them. I want to reiterate I've heard only one track, but a caution flag is raised when older material shines brighter. ★★★  

Ben Strawn, At Sunset

Ahh, to be young! There is just one way to enjoy this debut EP: take all your cynicism, hang it in the dark recesses of the closet, and walk away. Ben Strawn is a recent college grad, has a lovely wife, and a dulcet voice. Listening to a song such as "How Sweet It Is (To Come Home to You)" is like donning a cozy fleece and sitting down to warm caramel for dinner. There's nothing real complex about songs like "You Don'tMind" with its repeating chorus: I don't deserve your love (3x)/You don't mind. Bit it says all it needs to say and tosses in a wee bit of pedal steel to make it sound a bit more country-like than in "It Don't Rain." He rocks out a little on "Woman with the Wind," but if I wanted to nitpick I'd say Strawn's songs need more variety. I'm content to let these gentle songs wash me down. My only gripe is that I think the LP ought to be called At Sunrise; it's more suitable for a guy with a bright future ahead. ★★★ ½

Rob Weir

4/18/18

Score Shows Us How Movies Sound!

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SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY (2016/17)
Directed by Matt Schrader
Gravitas Ventures, 93 minutes, PG
★ ★

Years ago I got to be one of those names flying by on the fast scroll at the end of a movie: I was a music consultant for a Florentine Films project. My takeaway from that experience is that there sure is a whole lot that goes into a movie soundtrack. When it comes to sound, filmmakers frequently think in terms of seconds not minutes and when it works, it’s magic. Perhaps the best example of this is that quick burst of frantic violin in the shower scene of Psycho. Take away the strings and the horror quotient drops precipitously.

The documentary Score looks at some of those who compose, orchestrate, direct, and mix for the Big Screen—multi-million dollar projects, not the shoestring project in which I was involved. It is, to be sure, a self-serving and self-praising project in which everyone in it declares his or her competitors to be geniuses. Well… yes and no. As one who generally sits in front of the screen, not in the editing room, my standard is that a great score fits one of two standards: either the music integrates so well that you don’t think of it as a soundtrack, or it’s so artfully done that it becomes an earworm long after the film is over. Let’s say, for example, you haven’t seen the original Star Wars in over a decade. If I asked you to storyboard the film, you’d probably falter. But what if I asked you to hum a few bars of John Williams’ theme for the movie? Bet you could do that!

The major virtue of Score is that it shows just how complex it is to merge movie and music harmoniously. Some of the biggest names in the industry pop up: Williams, Danny Elfman, Quincy Jones, Moby, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Rachel Portman, Hans Zimmer …. Altogether, sixty talking heads appear. It’s fascinating to observe the stylistic and work habit differences between composers and orchestrators. Some work meticulously to craft the music slice by slice, others look for an inspirational vibe and the music flows, and still others are akin to a band leader who starts preparations for the spring concert in October. We also observe how those like Williams or Zimmer think in grandiose terms; in essence, they dramatize through sound. Their opposites are the techno-geeks who create layered sounds on their computers, and the junkyard artists who squeeze sounds out of everything imaginable—from rain drums to castoff machine parts.

Two things stood out for me—okay three if we count Hans Zimmer’s outlandish socks—the first being the extraordinary pastiche that makes up the score, both the music that comes at us a few seconds at a time and the big themes and/or songs that play for several minutes. Even more impressive are those who sit at mixing boards and computer screens and manipulate what we hear by nano seconds and experiment with the levels at which we will hear each instrument. You might even gain an understanding about some of the elements that make movies so expensive to make. That includes the duds. Some of the screen faces have scored movies you’ve never heard of or which you hadn’t. 

Again, though, this is an industry kind of film and I surely wouldn’t label all of these folks ‘geniuses.’ In fact, I’d venture to say that a good third of the films I see have dreadful soundtracks. How often have you had your intelligence insulted by music that telegraphs what will happen next? Or reached for a barf bag because the music is sickeningly maudlin and manipulative? Like I said earlier, the key is to harmonize movie and music.

That reservation aside, Score is well worth watching, as are most documentaries that take us inside the making of a film. Watch it and then think of all the other elements: lighting, script, editing for continuity, acting, directing, special effects, cinematography, and so on. Movies have been compared to painting with light, but when I see projects such as Score, I think movies are more like feeding the multitudes by sending them through the chow line of the world’s largest delicatessen.

Rob Weir

4/16/18

Planetarium is Mess, Yet Fascinating

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PLANETARIUM (2017)
Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
Ad Vitam Distribution, 106 minutes, NR. In English and French.
★★

Planetarium is a pre- and post-Holocaust film. Almost no reviewers got that.  But for once it’s not because they’re ethnically insensitive; it’s because the script—written by Director Rebecca Zlotowski and Robin Campillo —is a shambles. The film scored badly among audiences and I’d agree it’s often a head-scratcher. Yet I also recommend you might want to try it, so hear me out.

The disjointed narrative centers on sisters Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate Barlow (Lily-Rose Depp). They are spiritualists on a not-so-successful barnstorming tour of southern France in the late 1930s. It’s a pretty slick act, though, and film director André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) is beguiled by the Barlows—Laura for her mesmerizing perfect-for-the-screen countenance and Kate because she might really be spiritually gifted. Korben soon has both sisters ensconced at his seaside mansion, casts Laura in a movie, and has private (and unknown-to-Laura) séances with Kate to connect him to his deceased wife. I will say only that sometimes those séances are exceedingly pleasurable and other times André feels as if he is being choked to death.

Korben has another agenda: his film empire is hemorrhaging money and he is aware that the French, who invented cinema, have not only surrendered the market to Hollywood, they have also lost their ability to astonish or enlighten. Zlotkowski simply lacks the skill to connect these two threads, so let me flash two keys. The first comes when Laura detects a slight hint of an accent in Korben’s French; the second comes in the observation that ghosts need the living, not vice versa. You can probably connect the dots if I remind you that after Germany conquered France in 1940, it was divided in two: Hitler’s armies occupied the north, and the south—led from the city of Vichy—set up a government that collaborated with the Nazis.

Please forgive the history lesson. It’s necessary because Planetarium doesn’t explain (or anticipate) any of this. If you know what comes next, the camera angles exaggerating physical features, words scrawled on mirrors, and haloed vignettes presage the coming roundup of French Jews. You’ll then realize this isn’t just a run-on-the-mill film about paranormal things that go bump in the night. You might also come to suspect that when it comes to storytelling, neither Zlotkowski nor Campillo know what comes after “Once upon a time….”  

If I also tell you that it will be a while before we should use Lily-Rose Depp’s name in the same sentence as the word "actress" and that the film’s title is only tangentially relevant, you’ll probably wonder what could possibly redeem Planetarium. One thing, surely, is Natalie Portman. Not only is she fully bilingual in her role, she so thoroughly transforms herself into the very essence of a 1930s film star that one reviewer suggested she was born 75 years too soon. She even looks a bit like blend of Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner.  

Let’s stay with how the film looks, because the other true star of the film is cinematographer George Lechaptois. It is truly one of the more fascinating films of recent memory insofar as its moods are delivered visually. It might make little sense, but to my eyes Planetarium was like a mash of Cabaret, A Ghost Story, a gauzy dream, and a live action graphic novel. The character of André Korben is based upon that of real-life director Bernard Nathan, a very controversial figure who was nonetheless an innovator. It is tempting to think that Zlotkowski’s scattershot narrative is a backhand nod at what happened to French film after World War Two: "New Wave" directors emerged who emphasized visual impact over narrative coherence.

Then again, I may be giving far more credit than is due. Even if this was Zlotkowski’s intent, no one will confuse her with Goddard, Resnais, or Varda. Still, there are wonderful possibilities embedded within Planetarium struggling to come out. It dazzles the eyes, Portman is amazing, and—as bad as it was—I mused over it for a long time. As we watched, my wife asked me several times if any of the move made sense. Each time I replied, “I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating.” I admit that’s an odd recommendation. My only defense is that stimulating and profound things sometimes emerge from botched efforts.

Rob Weir    


4/13/18

New Boy a Powerful Adaptation of Othello


NEW BOY (2017)
By Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth Shakespeare, 204 pages
★★★★

It is its own sad commentary that a play written in 1603 is as relevant today as it was in the Elizabethan Age. I refer to Othello, William Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy of race, jealousy, backstabbing, and hatred. Tracy Chevalier is one of our era’s finest writers, but she didn’t need to draw deep from her creative well to imagine the parallels between Shakespeare’s Moorish protagonist and modern day African Americans. She does so, however, with considerable panache.

Although some of my closest friends shake their heads in disbelief when I say it, I often enjoy modern adaptations of Shakespeare more than the Bard himself. My excuse is that I don’t speak Elizabethan and don’t know anyone not swaddled in stage garb that does. I also find it flat out weird that so many “modern” Shakespeare adaptations dress actors in non-Elizabethan clothing that invites us to think outside the 17th century, yet retain old Billy’s original language. I say if you’re going to adapt, go for it. Chevalier does and it works for me.

She transports Othello to a suburban Washington, DC elementary school playground in 1970. She set it then for many reasons, not the least of which, as another bard put it, the times they were a changin’. But think of new worlds being born, not ones fully grown. The civil rights movement caused racism to wobble, but it did not fall. What better place to examine social strain than a playground shot through with bubbling hormones and Lord of the Flies power dynamics? Tween romances emerge and run their course in a single day, pacts are forged and broken during a kickball game, and only foolish teachers imagined themselves in control of the kids or their own moral centers.

Into this world comes the eponymous new boy: sixth grader Osei Kokote, a Ghana-born black child who thinks he knows the drill of being in still another new school. As the son of a top-level diplomat, Osei has lived in many places and is far more intelligent and worldly than his new peers. But he’s also the only black child in the school and his plan to lay low is undermined when fair-skinned Dee offers mentorship, friendship, and girl crush romance. As you no doubt surmised, Osei is Othello and Dee a pre-adolescent Desdemona. Our cast will also sport a Cassio named Caspar, a Bianca (Blanca), a Rodrigo (Rod), an Emilia (Mimi), and a dangerous Iago (Ian). A racist teacher serves as a sort of composite Doge/Brabantio. Chevalier shows her clever hand by literally infantilizing Shakespeare’s tragedy and replacing his props with those of childhood: cafeteria food, jump rope rhymes, pencil boxes….  

Some reviewers have criticized New Boy for what they see an unrealistic precociousness on the part of its eleven- and twelve-year-old cast. I suspect some of them would be shocked if they ever spent playground time with tweens, but never mind. In a more fundamental sense they miss the point. After all, Shakespeare’s characters were equally unrealistic—unless you think 1603 London was overrun with 15th century Moors and Venetians. Othello was a tragedy, but it was also an allegory of power, ambition, covetousness, betrayal, and race.

This brings us full circle. We need not imagine ourselves in the 15th or 17th century; nor does it matter if we recall 1970. New Boy works for the same reason Othello works: the allegories are contemporary sociology. That, folks, is the very essence of what makes Othello/New Boy truly tragic.

Rob Weir

4/11/18

The Children Act: Superb Older Ian McEwan Fiction


THE CHILDREN ACT  (2014)
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 224 pages
★★★★

Although I didn’t like Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, there is no mistaking his talent. He is, after all, an author who has given us such gems as The Comfort of Strangers, Atonement, and the Man Booker-winning Amsterdam. I recently picked up The Children Act, which was published in 2014, and found it an astonishingly great read for a slim volume that can be devoured in just a few sittings. It reveals something rare: an unvarnished look at overlapping dilemmas so soaked in moral ambiguity that any decision one makes is little more than a bet-the-house single roll of the dice.

Our central character, Fiona Maye, is a British High Court Judge specializing in family law. You need nothing more about British jurisprudence except that high court judges are akin to appellate court judges in the United States, but with an added power: their decisions are usually final in the adjudication of thorny cases that rest on conflicting precedent. The book’s title refers to a 1989 Act of Parliament that favors keeping at-risk children with their parents, but empowers agencies to act contrary to parental wishes if a child’s welfare is endangered. McEwan also uses it in a literal sense—as in a “child” taking matters into his or her own hands. I put child in quote marks, because McEwan challenges us to define that term. When does a child become an adult? What is to be done with adults who do childish things?

High Court judges have high status in Britain and big salaries to go with it. Fiona and her husband Jack are both around 60, reside in a sequestered part of London*, and enjoy high-powered professional lives filled with classical music, literature, gourmet dining, and formal parties. They’ve comfortably settled into their childless, privileged, and considerate-but-passionless lives. Fiona is a fine musician herself and, as a judge, has a well-earned reputation for her Solomonic judgments. Of course, judgments are easier to render when they’re not personal. How would you decide if, at 60, your spouse asked for permission to engage in sexual congress with a younger person to replace the sex you’re not having?

Fiona must ponder this simultaneously with a case that Solomon himself might have declined: that of Adam Henry, who has leukemia, is months from turning eighteen, and is a Jehovah’s Witness encouraged by his parents and minister not to accept blood transfusions that would save his life. Under the law, he remains a child, but when Fiona visits him in the hospital, she finds him precociously intelligent, aware that he will probably die without treatment, and at peace with that potential fate. She also finds Adam to be sweet and gifted—a budding poet, a voracious reader, a first-rate scholar, and talented enough to be in the process of teaching himself how to play the violin in the unorthodox setting of what might be his hospice bed. In many ways, Adam is the son she never had. Surely his death would be beyond tragic, yes? This is magnified in song. As she sits with Adam in his room, he plays and she sings “Down by the Salley Gardens,” a William Butler Yeats poem that was set to music in 1909 and has since become a staple of Irish folk song. Key line: She bade me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs/But I was young and foolish, and am now full of tears. How would you rule?

Two choices and each could be seen as Sophie’s Choices; that is, however Fiona decides, it boils down to accepting one bad outcome over another as damage has already been done. This short book is an ice water in the face dose of how life often works. Which overrides, faith or science? Autonomy or a literal reading of the law? Morality or pragmatism? Youth or wisdom? Passion or propriety? And once you have decided, what is the proper amount of follow up, nurturing, and support? What a book! It sheds light on at least one lie so seductive and seductive we choose to believe it: “You can have it all.” If only.

Rob Weir

* In Britain, High Court judges sometimes live in “inns” comparable to how top professors live at Oxford or Cambridge. Their lodgings and law chambers are there, as is a collegiate setting of other top lawyers. One must be a “member” to live or work there.



4/10/18

#MeToo Versus #ButYet





This morning I read that my beloved UMass Amherst approved a policy that forbids consensual faculty/student dating. In theory, I favor the policy; in practice, I'm ambivalent and not the only one. Such a measure failed on three previous occasions and the press release spoke mostly of UMass getting in line with other colleges. There wasn't much righteousness peeking through the seams.

Lest you are tempted to snatch the pitchfork from your garden shed and fire up your torch, let me state categorically that there is no excuse for non-consensual relations.  That's called rape and we rightly impose strict punishments for that heinous crime. I'll go further and grant that it's almost always a terrible idea for someone in a position of authority to have intimate relations with an underling. I'm also on board with policies that ban relations between instructors and current students—the threat to academic integrity is simply too great. And I certainly share the outrage of women who have been treated like sex toys by arrogant and powerful men.

My hang-up is that the response to the current surge of sexual harassment complaints is typical of how poorly Americans address problems. We generalize then we one-size. In a very palpable way we've gone from anything goes to all is forbidden. Such attempts ignore root causes—like the place of women in a society that has never passed an ERA and categorizes women as The Other. Still, one-sizing lacks nuance. As much as I admire the #MeToo Movement, I wish there was a #ButYet counterbalance. Sexual harassment should be like rape; we need clear standards that differentiate between abuse and mutual bad decisions.

Let me get personal. I was a high school teacher, then a professor for 35 years. Did I ever stray with a student? Nope. Did I have opportunity? Yes. Some friends accuse me of being an old moralist with a Puritanical streak. Not so. The Book of Sin is a thick volume from which I've sampled, but not the student/teacher page. Maybe I was lucky to have struggled to find a teaching job. I hit the market during the 1970s recession and ended up working in social work for four years—an experience that left me with a deep (over?) suspicion of human nature that made me cautious as a teacher. If I put aside purity pretenses, I didn't want to jeopardize the very thing I had wanted to do since college: teach. On the cost/benefit scale, brief delights of the flesh were not worth jeopardizing my marriage, career, or reputation.

Here's the #ButYet part of it. Teachers and students at the high school where I taught did have sex—a shocking amount, actually. Today's self-proclaimed moralists would want teacher heads and probably mine for not turning them in. We often view teachers and students as different orders of being yet often, the age difference between them was just shy of that of the average marriage and far short of the average of seven in relationships for those 40 or older. Those high school relationships were morally compromised, but my own dirty (not so) secret is that I'm nearly four years older than Emily, and she was, technically, a minor when we first dated. (Even then she was wiser and more mature!) Although she was never my student, ours shattered conventional relationship standards. My retort is that next month we celebrate 40 years of marriage and my marriage is the single best decision of my life.

Let me toss in another #ButYet. I personally know numerous professors who had mutually agreeable relations with students. Quite a few went on to marry and, by all accounts, have sustained long and loving lives together. So when any movement or moralist tries to impose blanket condemnations for such relationships, my first reaction is a big MYOB.

Monica Lewinski's in the news again, which raises still another #ButYet question. Hold your denunciations of Bonkin' Bill Clinton; I uttered them myself a few decades ago. The man had the morals of a rabbit in breeding season, but Lewinsky was neither a child, nor a victim; she was a foolish young adult. Her affair lasted until she was 24 and Clinton was close to 50. That's a huge age gap, though I know at least three couples with larger ones. Call her experiences sad, sordid, or stupid—but they weren't illegal, and neither were most of the hookups that took place at my high school. Where does personal choice factor into these matters?

For that matter, how do we define adulthood? Not very well, actually. States set the "age of consent" and, until 2001, it was as low as 14 in some places. Now most states set the bar at 16 and a couple as high as 18, but nearly all make "exceptions" for "close in age" relations.  In all other matters, 47 states define an "adult" as a person 18 or older. Legally speaking, college students over that age are adults. Colleges, in fact, make much ado about treating students as independent thinkers, not as "children."

Adulthood comes with the power to make one's own decisions, a right that extends to making bad ones. Lewinski may have a case for employer power abuse, though evidence for that is pretty slim. Her sexual relations with Clinton appear as buyer's regret from the POV of one whose starry-eyed adulation has worn off. Clinton remains an egoistic boorish oaf, but he's probably not a candidate for the Harvey Weinstein Trash Barrel. There are legions of women (and some men) who have had similar distasteful relations like Lewinski's. That's very sad, but you'll notice I used the terms "women" and "men"—those above the age of majority threshold. Is there any point in cataloging the total number of bad decisions the average adult will make in a lifetime?

My hope for everyone is that the good decisions ledger is much longer than the bad decisions list. But to get back to sex, I worry that no-exceptions rules like that of UMass lack room for common sense to prevail when it should. I know too many happy people who would be unemployed outlaws under today's overly draconian rules. Let me say it one more time: There is no excuse for coerced or abusive relationships. Zero. None. Zilch. But we sorely need #But Yet to defend the right of adults to make both stupid and mutually supportive choices. 

4/9/18

The Circle is Broken: Video Review

THE CIRCLE  (2018)
Directed by James Ponsoldt
STX Films, 110 minutes, PG-13 (drugs, mild language, milder sex)
★★

We often plot ideas—political viewpoints, for instance—on linear grids. It’s seldom that simple. Lots of things are more properly visualized as an inwardly bowed horseshoe in which there is a very small gap between the two poles. (If you live under tyranny, does it really matter if your rulers are on the right or on the left?) Utopia and dystopia are twins, one admirable the other monstrous. Each is a collective vision and each wrestles with the same fundamental questions: Whose vision shapes society? What values must members of that society hold? How much room/freedom exists for individuals to deviate from the norm?

The Circle is a film based upon the namesake (and far superior) Dave Eggers novel. It is set in the not-so-distant future when bright minds are at work on plans to unify the world. Sounds good, yes? Ahh, but whose vision of unity? What is demanded of each person? How much autonomy do individuals possess? It’s one of the worst kept secrets of recent years that The Circle is a riff on the global clout of Google (with splashes of Amazon and Apple added for good measure).  It is said we live in the Information Age, but the mantra “knowledge is power” dates to Francis Bacon and the year 1597. Given, though, that we tout more education as the solution to most problems, wouldn't unleashing knowledge harbinger Utopia? The audacity of challenging that assumption is the best part of The Circle. Alas, this Circle is broken by weak acting, shoddy direction, and logic loopholes the size of Googleplex.

I mention Googleplex because Google’s Mountain View, California campus is clearly the model for The Circle grounds. Plus, there’s already a debate over whether it’s the coolest place on earth to work, or a cult run by geeks instead of religious hucksters. The movie zeroes in on Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a twenty-something whose life is a shambles. She works at a soul-sucking call center, drives a rattletrap car, and fends off suitor Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), the kind of guy she’d like to have—as a big brother. To make matters worse, her dad (Bill Paxton) has MS and her mom (Glenne Headley) is better at being an aging hippie than of offering direction for her foundering daughter. *  A big break comes when Mae's friend Annie (Karen Gillan) finagles her an interview at The Circle.

Here is where the big questions emerge. You probably know that when you’re online your every click is (or is potentially) monitored. Let’s take it a step further. What if a global corporation such as Google mined and refined everyone’s data? What if it could convince netizens that this is a good thing? “Secrets are lies,” proclaims Circle front man Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). What if you were convinced that total transparency could eliminate crime, feed the planet, protect the environment, keep you connected to everyone else, and maybe even abolish poverty? What if you worked at a place that was half the proverbial good fight and half theme park? Would you give up your privacy, work ridiculously long hours, immerse yourself into company culture, and grant unfettered access to your personal, financial, and health data?    

Good questions, but things quickly unravel—in the film, that is. It starts with ham-handed direction from Ponsoldt. Look up the tactics of cults in a Sociology 101 textbook and that’s about as deep as Ponsoldt’s analysis gets—another way of saying the film lacks nuance. One risible scene has Mae and Annie walking across the company grounds, when Mae casually asks, “Is that Beck?” That’s the entire set-up for a gratuitous cameo concert clip that has nothing to do with anything else. Poor direction generally begets second-rate performances. With the exception of Hanks, who is very good even when he’s essentially channeling Steve Jobs, most of the actors are so stiff you suspect somebody stuck poles up their butts. This is especially the case with Watson, who at this stage of her career is simply not a very good actress. In Dave Eggers’ novel, Mae is slowly sucked into The Circle vortex; with Watson’s Mae we can’t tell if she slips or connives, but she’s not convincing either way. There are so many logic flaws in the script that we long for someone to tell Ponsoldt that the programming world consists of zeroes and ones. In fact, the entire resolution rests on the unexplained question of how a Circle creator-turned-rogue is allowed to roam HQ untracked.  

Hanks nearly redeems the film, and it’s surely worth discussing the inherent dangers of social media in a world in which it’s increasingly easy to, in Noam Chomsky’s poignant phrase, manufacture consent. We should be vigilant of all tyrants, as it doesn’t matter if Orwell’s Big Brother arises as a political power grabber or as an unscrupulous global multicorp. I’m pretty sure, though, that the Age of Paranoia is not the antidote to the Age of Information unbridled.

Rob Weir  

* Sadly, both Paxton and Headley died in 2017 shortly after this film was completed.

4/6/18

Natural Causes Not Ehrenreich's Best

NATURAL CAUSES: AN EPIDEMIC OF WELLNESS, THE CERTAINTY OF DYING, AND OUR ILLUSION OF CONTROL

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Grand Central Publishers, 257 pages

★★

 

There is a scene in the movie A Ghost Story in which an earnest young man expounds upon human vanity and the meaningless of humanity within the cosmos. Nothing will endure, he notes, not great art, individual achievement, reputation, or the solar system itself. We all die and at some point the sun will flame out, the galaxy will implode, and all trace of our existence will disappear. Around him women attend to babies, food is prepared, beverages are consumed, and life goes on. A few bemusedly nod—not because the messenger is wrong, but because what can anyone do with that information? A cynic might view Barbara Ehrenreich's Natural Causes in the same light. Alas, she invites such a reading.

 

There are few non-fiction writers whom I admire more than Barbara Ehrenreich but I must ask what we are supposed to do with what she tells us in Natural Causes. It's a depressing book, and perhaps also be a dangerous one. Ehrenreich, 76, reflects upon aging and death from the perspective "that I am old enough to die … [and] old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life." Ehrenreich has sworn off such things as annual physicals, pap smears, mammograms, cancer screenings, and bone density tests—most of which, she avers, are irrelevant because they either reveal false readings or irreversible fates. She is exceedingly critical of wellness movements, including the gym culture of which she is a devotee by choice, though she does not believe it will yield a longer or healthier life. If you think she's ruthless on that subject, you're not going to like what she has to say about yoga, running, diet fads, supplements, mindfulness, or mind-body dualism—most of which she sees as utter hokum. Long-time Ehrenreich readers will recognize her takedowns as medicalized versions of her autopsy of positive thinking in Bright-Sided (2009).

 

Her very chapter titles tell you what Ehrenreich thinks of the medical profession and disease-prevention and life-prolonging alternatives: "Rituals of Humiliation," "The Veneer of Science," "Crushing the Body," "The Madness of Mindfulness," "Death in a Social Context." Ehrenreich is in full muckraker dudgeons in these sections and occasionally lapses into ad hominem attacks or slips into anecdotal evidence. She notes, for example, that running guru Jim Fixx died at 52, author John Knowles—who wrote books on living past 80—also perished at 52, that a vegan diet didn't help Steve Jobs, and that women's fitness center mogul Linda Roberts died of lung cancer though she ate healthily and never smoked. By contrast, Jeanne Louise Calmet lived to 122 after having done lots of things contrary to medical advice. Sure, but these are outliers and all of them would have been marvels a hundred years ago when the average age at death was 49.

 

The heart (if I might) of Ehrenreich's book comes when her voice shifts from rant to science. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry and can discourse with great intellectual heft on matters such as stochastic noise, lipids, beta-amyloid plaques, neutrophils, macrophages, and inflammaging. In these sections—the bulk of which occur in chapters titled "Cellular Treason" and "Tiny Minds"—she offers a "dystopian view of the body," and that's putting it mildly. The same immunity mechanisms that help fight disease will, in some circumstances and in general as we age, switch from helpful to harmful. Don't look for balms; Ehrenreich clinically observes, "The survival of an older person is of no evolutionary consequence…. [The] diseases of aging clear the clutter of useless older people." Nor is human free will unique. Ehrenreich walks us through studies that show that atoms and cells demonstrate decision-making properties that coordinate human demise.

 

Only toward the end of her book does Ehrenreich gravitate toward anything remotely cheerful. It's not religion; she sees far more evidence for black holes than for a soul or a deity. Her prescription is to live as joyfully as one can, surrender to the inevitable, and obliterate the self—the last of these her take on the Buddhist concept of ego death. Your life, memory, and works will disappear but the things that made life worthwhile—sunsets and nature, for instance—will continue for a long time. In the final moments, the self can be suppressed through hospice, painkillers, psychedelic drugs, and (in some places) doctor-assisted suicide. 

 

So, again, what do we do with such messages? I haven't the foggiest idea; death, like birth, is a mystery in which we are unwilling participants. I worry, though, that Ehrenreich refracts too much through her own intellect. Most people don't have a Ph.D. in chemistry and cannot make equally informed decisions about their care. Moreover, much of what she condemns suggests that we need better medical care, not less, and greater oversight in determining best practices from ineffective ones. In the same vein, we certainly need stronger regulations to curtail false claims, hucksterism, and the peddling of latter-day snake oil and electric belts. And I really must caution against a cursory reading of this book, lest one conclude there is no need for medical screening. I know women who are alive because of mammograms; Ehrenreich is one of them. In the end, though, there's no getting around the fact that Natural Causes is such a downer that one could come away with the message of: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will die. Unless you're poor—then it's life sucks and then you die, a thesis Ehrenreich advances. Maybe all we can do is go on with the party, come what will.

 

Rob Weir

 


4/4/18

A Fanastic Woman Earned Its Oscar


A FANTASTIC WOMAN  (2017)
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Sony Pictures Classic, 104 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality, language)
In Spanish (some English) with subtitles
★★★★★

It baffles me why anyone cares about how others live—especially when their lives don't connect in any way to those who would judge and condemn. Does it really matter if someone is gay, binary, or gender fluid?

Last month, A Fantastic Woman took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It is an amazing film and deserving of accolades, but it's my fervent hope that in the not-so-distant future it will look like a dinosaur and people will wonder what the fuss was about. If that happens, society will owe a debt of gratitude to Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who also co-wrote the script.

The film centers on Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), whom we first encounter decked in glamour and singing sultry soft jazz to the doe-eyed admiration of her older partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Queue subdued soft lights. Then it's off to dinner, a surprise gift, and back to Oliver's apartment, where they are barely through the door before they are tearing at each other's clothing and making passionate love. Suddenly, though, one of the best nights of Marina's life turns tragic. This, however, is not a classic girl-loses-boy story; Marina is a transgendered woman.

Without revealing much, Marina soon finds herself caught in a cycle of suspicion, bavardage, moral bias, and personal indignities—all before she's allowed to grieve. Compounding this, remember that this takes place in Chile, with its long history of machismo; in the minds of many—including Orlando's ex-wife and her family—a "pervert" like Marina isn't really capable of grief. Now flavor this with a soupcon of magical realism and you have a powerful exploration of identity, but also a seat- squirming look at what makes us fully human: the social scripts we're supposed to follow or a person's essential nature? What unfolds is an age-old clash between human dignity and self-assumed sanctimony.

Daniela Vega portrays both Marina and herself, as she is indeed transgendered. On the screen she dazzles both in performance and her chameleon-like physicality. She plays Marina as one-part hunted animal and one part venting volcano. She knows that even her putative allies have her on informal probation, which means every moment of her life is a negotiation of when to stand her ground and when to turn the other cheek. Not to mention that though she knows that she's a woman, but she hasn't quite figured out what that means. Her angst is written in her body, carriage, and face. At one moment she is beautiful and exotic, but when she pulls her hair back and takes out her fury on a punching bag she presents as mannish in her anger and tearfully boyish when it subsides. Most of the time, she is androgynous—as befits one who lives betwixt and between; that is, between the identity she wishes and the judgments others saddle upon her. Whatever Vega doesn't emote on her own, cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta paints in light. Pay close attention to the uses of color. There is a particularly exquisite scene at a club rave in which Echazarreta bounces color bars across Vega's face as if it were chatoyant war paint.

My first thought was to compare this film to early explorations into sub-rosa gay culture, such as Longtime Companion, but I think that Philadelphia is a better comparison. There's not much similarity between the two storylines, but the latter film was one of the first to mainstream something (AIDS) society wanted either to label the end product of reckless/immoral choices, or ignore altogether. Those who knew better dismissed Philadelphia as trite, but it is often the peculiar blind spot of the cognoscenti to think the masses deliberately wallow in stupidity rather than consider that it might simply take others more time to change their views. When that finally happens, films like Philadelphia indeed seem like relics.

In an ideal world, A Fantastic Woman would not need to be made; in this one, it does. See for its humanity and its raw honesty. Enjoy it because it's masterfully made and gorgeous to gaze upon. Watch it also with the knowledge that Ms. Vega did her own singing; once you hear her there is no doubt as to how she should present herself. Toward the end there is a scene in which Vega observes her own nude body. Pre-op or post-op? This isn't The Crying Game, so no gratuitous revelations. Why? Because it's none of our damn business and it doesn't matter. If you can't share common humanity with Marina/Daniela, shame on you. Daniela Vega is truly a fantastic woman.

Rob Weir

4/3/18

AL East: Big Bats or Big Arms?


American League East 2018:
Sox versus the Socks




The swagger returns to the American League East. Judge and Stanton are the new Mantle and Maris—or at least that’s how most prognosticators see it. I am a Yankees fan, so I want them to be right, but as a baseball realist I always assume great pitching prevails over hitters who can sock the old horsehide from the Bronx to Westchester County. That’s why I see Boston winning the division.

Will Win: Boston Red Sox and not because they added J D Martinez. Sale, Price, Pomeranz, Porcello, and Rodriguez will shut down a lot of lineups, including that of the Yankees. Betts and Benitendi are fine players. It might be put up or ship out time for Bradley and Bogaerts, though. A healthy Pedroia would help, though it’s possible he’ll never again be what he was. They won't need to score a lot of runs.

Wild Card: That’s the route the New York Yankees will have to take. There are simply no holes in the lineup when you consider that Drury, who hit .267 last year, will likely bat ninth. All of the Judge/Stanton hype overlooks the fact that Gary Sánchez is probably a better hitter than either of them. There’s also Gregorius, Gardner, Walker, and Hicks. Here’s where it gets tricky, though. The Yankees couldn’t unload dead wood Ellsbury so they couldn’t sign what they really needed: a topnotch pitcher. Severino might be an ace, but he’s young and also might take a step back. Tanaka and his fragile elbow make him Jeckyl and Hyde, Gray always seems to find a bat at the wrong time, and Sabathia is in the twilight of his career. Don’t be surprised if Montgomery wins more games than any of the aforementioned. It’s also unrealistic to imagine that Judge and Stanton can repeat their otherworldly 2017 performances.  

Dark Horse: The Toronto Blue Jays have a nice pitching staff, but they’ll need either the Yankees or Red Sox to tank to get into the postseason.

Predicted Order of Finish:

1. Boston Red Sox:  They will still lack bat power, but power arms will compensate.
2. New York Yankees: They will hit a ton, but pitching is a question mark.
3. Toronto Blue Jays: They will pitch well, but everything else is a question mark.
4. Baltimore Orioles: They are filled with question marks.
5. Tampa Rays: No question about it, the Rays will stink. It’s possible that between the Rays and the Marlins, Florida teams will lose 200 games.
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4/2/18

The Insult a Brilliant Look at the Stupidity of Ethnic Conflict


THE INSULT (2017)
Directed by Ziad Doueri
Diaphana Films, 112 minutes, R (which is ridiculous!)
In Arabic and French with subtitles
★★★★★

The Insult is a powerful portrait in miniature of the tragedies of tribalism. I’m glad I wasn’t on the Oscar selection committee, as I don’t know how would have voted for Best Foreign Film given a choice between this film and A Fantastic Woman. Seldom have I seen such a cogent exploration of how little it takes to ignite ancient hatred or how those who started the fire can stand idly by even after they regret striking the first match.

The Insult is set in a section of Beirut, Lebanon in which many Palestinians reside. Some come from old families, some are refugees, and some are illegal. Things are looking up; after a long civil war, things are actually being built and rebuilt in Beirut. That’s where we come in. A construction crew headed by Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is rehabbing infrastructure when suddenly he is doused with water running from a makeshift drainpipe on a terrace above him occupied by Tony (Abdel Karam) and his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). A rebuffed offer to repair the illegal pipe touches off a tit-for-tat dispute in which harsh words are uttered. If this sounds like your routine neighborhood squabble, your neck of the woods isn’t a slice of Beirut where Maronite Christians live cheek by jowl with Palestinian Muslims. Nor is it one in which Christians like Tony diet on incendiary broadcasts that make our radio shock jocks seem like Eagle Scouts and nasties like the PLO and Hezbollah stand ready to declare jihad over spilt water. And it’s surely not one where a hotheaded swear can be grounds for a libel suit or a hate crimes countersuit.

The big picture is that Tony and Yasser are caught in a historical maelstrom. Lebanon gained its independence from France in 1945 and once enjoyed a reputation as the playground of the Middle East, its beaches and flourishing network of vices a destination for Euro jetsetters. (Think Cuba before Castro.) It is blessed by beauty and cursed by geography; its next-door neighbors are Israel, Syria, and the Golan Heights. For a while the lid remained on the pot because of an agreement that Christians would control 55% of government offices, including the presidency (a Maronite) and the Deputy Prime Minister (Greek Orthodox). The Prime Minister, though, would be a Shi’te Muslim and his deputy a Sunni. Censuses were avoided like a Biblical/Quranic plague. In 1975, the pot boiled over and scalded Lebanon with a civil war that lasted until 1990, sent a million Lebanese into exodus, and left 120,000 dead. Along the way there were U.S. interventions and withdrawals, an Israeli invasion to punish Hezbollah, and a Syrian occupation that began in 1976 and ended only in 2005. Since then, as a character in The Insult observes, there has been fragile peace, “but no reconciliation.”  

Tony and Yasser are the blue-collar microcosm of Lebanon’s sad history. Tony is an auto mechanic and Yasser a construction worker who is just as devoted to his wife, Manal (Christine Choueiri) as Tony to Shirine, yet neither man can take their wife's advice to settle their dispute. There is far more than pigheaded manhood at stake; each, we discover, were pawns in past massacres and each bears the scars—Tony through his anger and Yasser his smoldering stoicism. There is a poignant moment in which a failed reconciliation ends with Tony driving away, but Yasser sitting in a stalled car. Tony backs up, lifts the hood, and fixes the car; Tony glares without conviction and Yasser nods with a Mona Lisa smile upon his lips. Both men secretly long to end the feud. But is it too late?

Gandhi famously observed that, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” If you think this little more than a naïve aphorism, watch The Insult and reconsider. Both principal actors are superb in this film, but hatred is the unaccredited lead. This film hit me personally. I came of age during the Vietnam War, which appeared utter madness and turned me into the pacifist I remain. In my life, I have seen nothing over which people fight that justifies the horrors that ensue. The Insult drove that home anew. Ultimately, Gandhi is correct. So too was John F. Kennedy, who observed, "Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind." The Insult is about more than a personal conflict elevated to widespread tragedy; it is a weeping planet’s lament.

Rob Weir