11/15/19

French Exit is Nasty Fun


French Exit: A Novel (2018)
By Patrick de Witt
Ecco, 244 pages.
★★★★

It’s not easy to write a book with no likable characters, yet Patrick de Witt has managed to do so. French Exit is a black comedy that is nasty, satisfying, and funny.

Upper East Side widow Frances Prince is at the center of French Exit. She once turned heads, but is now a fading socialite whose deceased litigator husband would have made Roy Cohn seem warm and fuzzy. But at least Franklin Price made a lot of money. We’re talking a lot of money Frances was more than his match; her vanity ran deeper than his. She returned home one day and found Franklin had died. Damned if that was going to ruin her plans for a weekend ski trip. She went and reported his death when she got home! The tabloids trashed her and some of the upper crust ostracized her, but she simply didn’t care. She’s just sentimental enough to have an aged cat named Small Frank whom she insists is her late husband reincarnated. Don’t presume she treats him well.

Frances and her no-account so Malcolm live the life of the 1%: luxurious hotels, scattered secondary properties, lunches that cost a small fortune, fine furnishings, and enough expensive personal items to outfit a small museum. They are the sort who tell others–waiters, salespeople, hotel staff, lawyers–what to do in the belief that doing their bidding is what the little people were placed on earth to do. The only things Frances and Malcolm don’t have is an ounce of commonsense or an inkling of how to manage their resources.

The glam wagon’s wheels fall off when the family lawyer tells Frances that she has run out of money and, no, he can’t magically conjure any more. In fact, Frances needs to sell her assets just to survive. You would think this would be devastating news, but Frances isn’t one to let reality get in her way. She commissions a shady man named Ralph Rudy to sell everything and plots her next move.

Malcolm is less than useless in all of this, as he is a clueless man-child. He reminded me of Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, even though Malcolm is neither as crude nor as sloppy as Ignatius. Both, though, are mama’s boys, neither has any discernible life skills, and each is essentially unemployable. Frances treats Malcolm as she would a servant and he scarcely notices. Even his long-term girlfriend Susan has grown tired of his perpetual boyhood, but his too is lost on Malcolm; he has an uncanny ability–inherited from his mother–simply to ignore things he does not wish to hear. I don’t wish to reveal too much, so I will only say that Frances’ ‘solution’ to her dilemma is unique, involves traveling to Paris, and has nothing to do with things one would usually associate with the City of Lights.  

As earlier noted, there aren’t any characters in this book with whom you’d ever wish to meet. Frances is cruel, imperious, and implacable; Malcolm is an upper-class twit; Rudy is a sleazebag; and the entire Manhattan social circle that gads about Frances is insufferable. De Witt’s metaphorical sleight of hand trick is to immerse readers so deeply into the muck of Frances’ world that we keep turning the pages. To paraphrase an old adage, if you’re going to be outrageous, go whole hog. Frances is as exasperating as any human being can possibly be, but because she has no shame or filters and no one knows what she’ll do next, she’s also funny–in a dark way. Everyone else in her orbit is essentially along for the ride, including we readers. Before you know it, we start to care about Frances, even though you know that she wouldn’t give a damn whether anyone did or did not.

French Exit is odd to the very end. I would caution you to turn off your own discernment filters. There’s really no need to like anyone in the book, nor do you have to imagine how to bring them to their just desserts. They are perfectly capable of screwing up without your help.

Rob Weir  


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11/13/19

What if Martin Scorsese is Right?


Surely a work of art

“But is it art?” If you were making a list of history’s most overused questions, this one would be near the top. Nonetheless, there’s a reason why we ask it. Humans have RAM memory, but deep learning is linked to pattern recognition. Once we have patterns, we tend to assign labels to those patterns and the next thing you know, we develop genres and argue over whether Genre A is superior to Genre B.

Those influenced by postmodernism often tell us that judgments are subjective and that all genres are artificial constructs. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they do swim against the tide of pattern recognition. If someone tells me I should check out a particular YouTube musical video, the first thing I ask is, “What kind of music is it?” And don’t you do the same? And somewhere along the line, don’t you also make subjective judgments that elevate your favorite genres over those you don’t like?

Film director Martin Scorsese–who gave us films such as “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), and “Goodfellas” (1990)–recently raised ire when he declared that superhero movies, even when “well made,” were “not cinema.” They are, in his estimation,” “basically theme parks” and cannot be taken seriously as art. Those who love and make such films trashed Scorsese with such vitriol that another famed auteur, Francis Ford Coppola–known for films such as “Patton” and “The Godfather” trilogy–rushed to defend his colleague. In his mind, one simply cannot compare “X-Men” or “Spider-Man” to Scorsese’s oeuvre–and by extension, his own. He went so far as to call Marvel films and their ilk “despicable.”

Ouch! Both should have known better. When it comes to evaluating such things, the rule that generally prevails is: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like.” Most of us are fine with that until someone–a Scorsese or a Coppola–tries to tell us that what we like is not art. But what if Scorsese is right?

For years I have held to a distinction that has been around since Hollywood came into its own. That is, I divide theater offerings into the categories of “movies” and “cinema.” The first seeks to entertain us, the second to provoke or enlighten us. In other words, “cinema” is art and movies are not. Have you seen “Taxi Driver?” How about Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), which I would rate as the greatest American film ever made. (And, of course the second statement provokes an argument!) I thought “The Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” were wonderful movies, but I don’t think they are in the same category as the aforementioned.

Hollywood has been of little help in the discernment game. If you don’t already know, the Academy Awards celebrate the industry, not the product you see on the screen. For every certified masterpiece it honors as Best Picture–such as “Gone with the Wind” (1940), “Casablanca” (1943), “A Man For All Seasons” (1967), “The Deer Hunter” (1979), or “Schindler’s List” (1994)–it has doled out hardware to pap such as “Rocky” (1977), “Terms of Endearment” (1984), “Forrest Gump” (1995), and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2009). I actually liked most of those of these, but they are movies, not cinema. In this century, I could make a case that of its Oscar winners only “Moonlight” (2017) is a great film–and this from a guy who ranks “Lord of the Rings” as among his favorite books and movies ever.

Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr recently came up with a third way of looking at things. Instead of movies versus cinema, Burr suggests that we put the flicks “into one of three baskets: Art, Craft, and Product.” Burr acknowledges that there is overlap, but he sees Art as “less interested in the comfort of the viewer than the truth of the experience,” whereas Craft is “more interested in the aesthetic and organic pleasure of the ride.” He cites “Chinatown” (1974) as an example of an art film and “Alien” (1979) as great craft. I’d add that 21st century films such “The Artist” (2012) and “Lord of the Rings” are wonderful works of craft. But what of superhero films? Burr argues that “Product” has a “market imperative to fill and doesn’t care how it gets there.” Another way of saying that is that they are designed to make money–like “La La Land” (2016) for instance. In my view, Venn diagram overlap happens with products/craft such as “Birdman” (2015) and “The Shape of Water” (2018), which were both well-done and box office boffo. (I loved both of them.)

Art
I like Burr’s formulation as it basically says that we should judge movies/films according to what they set out to be. But let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking the debate ends here. In any given year the very best films are often neither American-made nor smash hits. I could write volumes about films most Americans don’t see because they are subtitled, but let’s stay in the English-speaking world. Consider that the following did not win Best Picture Oscars: “Citizen Kane” (1941), “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Usual Suspects” (1995), or “American Beauty” (1999). To this I’d add that a Martin Scorsese film has never won and that is a travesty.

Let me end on another note of controversy. “Star Wars” isn’t art, but “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) surely is. Watch the first “Star Wars” and then view Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” If you can’t see the difference, stick with Product. 


Not art


Rob Weir

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11/11/19

The Chessman Completes Peter May's Lewis Trilogy

The Chessmen  (2013)
By Peter May
Quercus, 306 pages.
★★★★


The Chessmen completes Peter May’s Isle of Lewis trilogy and it does so with panache. It opens with an epigraph from Omar Khayyam:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays;
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This is both an overview of the book’s central mystery and wordplay that evokes Lewis’s most-famed export. The Lewis chessmen are 78 game pieces carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century, a time in which Lewis and surrounding islands were controlled by Norwegians–Vikings, if you will. They were unearthed in Lewis in 1831, but none actually reside there anymore; the bulk are in the British Museum in London and 11 others are on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. They are so expertly crafted that a recently discovered piece sold for nearly a million dollars.

Lewis may not have any of its namesake chessmen, but reproductions abound there and one of this novel’s characters, John Angus “Whistler” Mackaskill is busily carving giant replicas for an on-beach match for an upcoming island gala. Whistler also happens to be one of Fin Macleod’s oldest friends–one who has saved his life twice. The book opens with Fin and Whistler camping out. They awake to a shock. The entire loch (pronounced ‘lock’) near where they pitched tent is gone! How does an entire loch disappear? It’s called a bog burst, a subterranean geological phenomenon in which a fissure opens and either sends a lake’s contents underground or rushing to a lower body of water. That’s freaky enough, but not nearly as much as looking across the drained bed and seeing an intact private plane resting in the mud. Fin wishes to investigate, but Whistler knows immediately what it is. His nickname comes from having played penny whistle and flute in Amran, an up-and-coming band–think a Scots version of Steeleye Span. Mackaskill recognizes that the plane is that of the band’s lead guitarist/songwriter, Roddy Mackenzie, who has been missing for 17 years. Whistler quit the band before it became famous, but he has little stomach for gazing upon his old friend’s skeletal remains.

What happened to Roddy is just one of several threads in a novel with as many moves and countermoves as a chess match. There is the fact that Fin has just taken a new job: security chief for the Red River Estate, a fish and game preserve for rich toffs. Protecting the domain of the upper crust isn’t exactly Fin’s métier, but he needs the work and he has respect for Sir John Wooldrige, the owner of the estate. Sir John has always had the wisdom to look the other way when locals poach fish and stags. Alas, Sir John is in failing health and his snooty-nosed son, Jamie, is now in charge and orders that Fin to put a stop to local custom. That’s more than a challenge, as the worst offender on all of Lewis is his old buddy Whistler, who knows the terrain better than any ten men combined and is rather pissed at Fin for taking the job in the first place. Whistler’s view of things in best summarized by a rhetorical question raised by Scots poet Norman MacCaig: “Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?”

Toss in Whistler’s busted marriage, his dead ex-wife Seonage, a resentful punked-out daughter Anna, the ex-communication trial of the Rev. Donald Murray, more on Fin and Marsaili, a missing fanciful chess piece (the “Beserker’), and several shocking murders and one has all the earmarks of a page-turner. We again have flashbacks to Fin’s youth–especially the days when he was a young blade on the make and served as an Amran roadie with “Strings,” “Skins,” “Rambo,” Roddy, and the beautiful Mairead with whom everyone was in love/lust. Some of the sections on music put me in mind of Andrew Greig’s The Electric Brae, though they are less poetic.

The Chessmen also takes us back the Fin’s boyhood–when he was tight with Donald and other lads who liked to hang out and smoke by the water until they were admonished by an old man who told them the story of the Iolaire, a World War One vessel that wrecked offshore and sent more than 200 returning Lewis vets to a watery grave. It is small details such as these that breathe as much life into May’s novels as his central mysteries.  I am sad that the trilogy has ended, though I gather May has a new novel set in Harris and Lewis. I shall be checking on that one soon–as well as May’s Enzo Files series.

Rob Weir

11/8/19

Free Solo a Manipulative Thrill


Free Solo (2018)
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
National Geographic Movies, 100 minutes, PG-13
★★★

Free Solo tells the tale of how Alex Honnold scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan freestyle. That means he had no ropes, no harness, and no safety net of any sort. For those keeping score, El Capitain rises slightly more than 3,000 feet from the Yosemite Valley floor–most of it vertical. There was zero margin for error; any misstep, stumble, or missed finger grip would have been fatal. The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the most recent Academy Awards. I beg to differ.

As I wrote in a different context last year, though Honnold’s achievement was remarkable, it seemed reckless to give a lot of publicity to such a dangerous and foolhardy pursuit in an age in which even a movie such as Dumb and Dumber invites copycat behavior. For that reason alone, I ducked Free Solo when it was in theatrical release. Now that I’ve seen it, though, I have different reasons for questioning the wisdom of handing it an Oscar.

First, though, here are some good things about it. The film crew consisted of experienced mountain climbers such as Tommy Caldwell, Mikey Schaefer, Peter Croft, and co-director Jimmy Chin. They were anchored, but because they know the climber’s craft, they were able to provide angles, vertigo-inducing shots, and perspectives that no super long lens could duplicate. Their task was nothing less than getting close enough to give us a bird’s eye view, yet remain far enough away to avoid distracting Honnold during his 4-hour Spiderman scale of El Capitan’s sheer face. This and Bob Eisenhardt’s judicious film editing create the illusion of a dance between life and death.

Yet it is an illusion. We know from the onset that Honnold made it. It was in all the papers. And did you really think National Geographic was going to slap its name on a mall film in which the hero is shown plunging to his death and lying bloody and broken on the canyon rocks? This means that Free Solo has to build faux drama and this is where things get dicey. First, Honnold is a rather weird guy. He dropped out of college and lived in his van for several years as a semi-vagabond with a teenaged boy’s hygiene and habits. Second, he is so introverted that one wonders how he ever won the affection of his pretty, perky girlfriend Sanni McCandless. The two barely speak, but McCandless comes across as amazingly nonchalant that the mountain might tear her main squeeze apart life and limb. If these and the furrowed brows of Alex’s friends seem contrived, perhaps they are. If you watch carefully, some of the scenes seem more ‘rehearsed’ than genuine.

Or maybe it only seems that way because the soundtrack is both bland and manipulative. Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts are listed as responsible for the film’s music, though I am unsure how much they scored versus how many canned sounds they simply imported. As I have written before, documentaries often feature ‘neutral’ backing music that is seldom interesting in its own right but contains tonal shifts to signify anxiety, fear, inspiration, or relief. If you wonder why, it’s because when an audience already knows the outcome, it must be tricked into suspending belief. We must believe—even for an instant—that Honnold might actually fall. That’s also why we see footage of Honnold falling from the face when he is harnessed. We are supposed to think, “How can he climb El Capitan without a rope when he can’t do it with one?”

I get it that people do all manner of things for an adrenaline rush: roller coasters, bungie jumping, racing cars, parachuting, surfing…. Alex Honnold is certainly a fit young man who pulled off a remarkable feat. He’s also 34-years-old now and continues to free climb. As the film documents, that’s generally not an occupation that takes one to old age. There are certainly plenty of thrilling shots in Free Solo that give the more cautious of us a look at something we’d see no other way. Were it me, though, I’d pay a whole lot more attention to Sanni and admire El Capitan from its base.

I enjoyed Free Solo for its gorgeous photography. But Best Documentary? Nope.

Rob Weir

11/6/19

Woodstock, Vermont and Quechee: Small Towns



Middle Covered Bridge
Some small towns are off the radar screen and surprise you; some have oversized reputations and underwhelm. Put Woodstock, Vermont into that second category. It was once voted the prettiest small town in America, but that was obviously before the 2007-09 recession. Downtown Woodstock has its upscale artisan galleries, but it also has some boarded-up properties and some decidedly down-market offerings. Mostly it feels like what you’d expect from a town with a declining population. Although Woodstock is the seat of government for Windsor County, its permanent population is now just 2,980.

Woodstock’s reputation rests on its proximity to the Suicide Six and Killington ski resorts and its historical connection to Laurance and Mary Rockefeller. Woodstock is just 50 miles from the New York State border and we saw more New York cars on downtown streets than Vermonters–not that I can complain having driven there bearing Massachusetts plates.

What one can complain about, though, is New York prices for things not worthy of them. We had heard great things about the Mountain Creamery and decided to give it a try for breakfast. It has my vote for the most overrated joint in which I’ve eaten all year. It’s a diner folks, one that looks as if it last redecorated in the late 1950s. But it surely has updated what it charges. This is the land of the $15 breakfast entrée and you won’t get anything you can’t find for half the price elsewhere. I was a bit PO’d to sit in a cracked vinyl booth and be handed a tab for $40 for two. Avoid!

Woodstock Inn
Town library
When people use “pretty” and Woodstock in the same sentence, they are usually talking about The Green, an elegant few blocks of Federalist, Georgian, and Greek Revival homes hard by the Woodstock Inn.  Rooms there start at about $250 per night. We were daytrippers, but I will say that the place has charm. Another building that dazzled was the Norman Williams Library, a handsome Richardsonian Romanesque with pretty cool woodwork throughout. We opted out of going to the Billings Farm Museum, which we had visited many years ago. Mostly we stayed away this time because we live in farming territory and, if like me, your grandparents were farmers, you sort of know about old-time agriculture.

Taftsville bridge
Of more scenic interest are three covered bridges either in or near downtown Woodstock. The Ottauquechee River runs through the town and a relatively new but authentic-looking Middle Covered Bridge is an easy stroll from The Green. More impressive is the Taftsville Covered Bridge just east of the downtown. Woodstock is actually made up of three entities: the town and the villages of Taftsville and South Woodstock. If you’re looking for quaint, the last two better fit the bill.

Gallery window
We spent some time poking in a few galleries in Woodstock. We saw a lot of high- quality crafts that also carried big price tags. This is a fun activity if you treat it as the equivalent of visiting a museum. An easier-on-the-wallet thing to do is visit F. H. Gillingham and Sons, which has been around since 1886. It’s a cross between an authentic throwback meets the ersatz Vermont Country Store. Luckily, it’s more the first than the second. What’s your pleasure? Candy? Overalls? Hardware? Cheese? Socks? You get the picture. While you’re at it, check out the old photos and antique displays throughout the store.
Inside Gillingham & Son

The coolest thing in the area isn’t in Woodstock; it’s in Quechee (population 656) and I’m not talking about the Quechee Gorge. We’ve been to the gorge numerous times and, though it bills itself Vermont’s Little Grand Canyon, that’s the very definition of hyperbole. The gorge is, as it implies, a narrow slot canyon carved by the Ottauquechee River. Unless you’re up for a hike, you park your car by the bridge on Route 4 and walk to its middle and look down 165 feet. In the spring there’s whitewater; by this time of the year it’s mostly a shallow, rocky, thin stream. It’s pleasant, but Grand Canyon? Ummmm… no. You’re over and done in ten minutes.

No, my friends, the coolest thing in the area lies in the rather non-descript Quechee Gorge Village shopping mall: the Vermont Toy Museum. For just $4 you can roam amidst a collector’s obsession that was picked up by others. In all there are more than 100,000 toys, games, and layouts that survey childhood diversions from 1900 on. It’s not as slick as the Strong Museum in Rochester, but it’s more manageable. Like the strip mall in which it sits (and occupies much of the second floor), parts of the collection are vintage in more ways than one. None of the train displays were working, for instance. Still, it doesn’t matter what era you were a kid, you’ll find reminders of your past in nearly every one of its cramped corridors. We loved it. Maybe it had something to do with being underwhelmed by Woodstock, but we like to think it’s because its unpretentious charm struck a chord.


 




Rob Weir
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11/4/19

The Lewis Man a Decent Sequel (despite flaws)


The Lewis Man (2014)
By Peter May
Quercus Books, 2012, 320 pages.
★★★ ½

This sequel to The Blackhouse finds Fin Macleod living on Lewis–sans his wife and his job with the police force. Call it Fin’s midlife crisis. But at least he’s back in a place where he feels comfortable, which he never experienced while living in Edinburgh.

Fin, though, is just not the sort of man who is ever entirely at peace. Nor is he the greatest planner in the world. He’s been living in a tent and puttering around trying to repair his late aunt’s croft house; if you asked him if he and his old girlfriend Marsaili were an item, he really couldn’t tell you for certain. He has certainly bonded with her son Fionnlaigh (Fee-on’-lak), who could use some adult male advice, as he has impregnated his girlfriend Donna. She happens to be the daughter of Fin’s old mate Donald Murray, but the two of them are not exactly on good terms as Donald has gone from former hellraiser to an intolerant hell-fire-and-brimstone minister. If you’ve read the first book, you know that Fin and religion are not bedfellows. Fin sees Donald as a sanctimonious hypocrite, and Donald views Fin as an unrepentant sinner.

Little do Donald and Fin realize that a Lewis mystery is about to pull everyone into closer orbit. DS George Gunn is called when peat bank diggers unearth a mummified male body. This isn’t unheard of in Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps some of you have been to Dublin and have seen the leathery but well-reserved head and torso of Old Croghan Man in the National Museum, a find over 2,000 years old. Peat is an excellent preservative; the acids in peat are similar to vinegar and essentially “pickle” bodies. DS Gunn’s first thought is to call in the archaeologists. That plan is waylaid when the autopsy reveals a sinister detail: the body has an Elvis tattoo and he was murdered.

Fin wheedles his way into the case in an unofficial capacity when DNA  looks as if the body has some connection to Tormod Macdonald, Marsaili’s father. Alas, Tormod is of no help as he is suffering from advanced dementia. One of the book’s central themes is that of what children actually know of their parents’ youth. Marsaili, for instance, knew little of her father’s boyhood, or that he–a Protestant–spent in a Catholic orphanage. Fin tries to piece together Tormod’s past, a journey that will send him island-hopping and eventually back to Edinburgh’s Dean Village, a now-bucolic 19th century mill village within the city that hugs the Water of Leith (a small river), where Tormod’s orphanage once stood.

May tells interweaving tales that touch upon schoolboys, a dare, and a tragedy. It will also lead him into contact with the Kellys, an infamous Edinburgh organized crime family. As he freelances his way through a 50-year-old murder mystery, he inadvertently places Tormod, Fionnlaigh, Marsaili, an actress, and himself in danger. I rather doubt that you will see the resolution coming.

Once again May paints evocative pictures of Scotland’s past and its wild places. Lewis and Harris are part of an island archipelago that includes Uist and Eriskay, both of which factor into the novel. The Outer Hebrides (Hebb’-ri-dees)–as they are collectively known–feature isolated beaches, windswept hills, exposed bedrock, treeless moors, peat banks, low-lying machair (pasture and farm land), marsh, lochs, and abundant bird life. What it lacks is people–it’s 50 islands of which just 15 are inhabited and contain just 26,000 individuals. May’s Lewis is a place in which humans struggle against nature. Many fishermen, for instance, cannot swim—there’s no point as the water is too frigid to survive for long. It’s also one in which social change comes inexorably, but slowly. For every person who wishes to march into the future, there is one (or more) who’d rather flip the calendar backward.

May is at his best when he shows these tensions and places individuals within them. I enjoyed Lewis Man, though it lacks the convincing drama of The Blackhouse. Objectively speaking, one could fault May for building his dénouement around too many potboiler contrivances. Still, the man sure can turn beautiful phrases and he has populated his Lewis trilogy with memorable characters whom we come to know and care about.

Rob Weir

11/1/19

Molly Ivins Raises Hell


Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (2019)
Directed by Januce Engel
Magnolia Pictures, 93 minutes, Not-rated (some coarse language)
★★★★

Lordy, how we could use Molly Ivins right now. If you’ve ever read or heard her, you know what I mean. If you’ve not, by all means check out Raise Hell. Alas, Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007, when she was just 62. One of the many talking heads in this documentary is Rachel Maddow, who acknowledges Ivins as an inspiration. Maddow has Ivins’ sharp political instincts, but if she ever unleashed Ivins-like one-liners on MSNBC, she’d be out on her ear.

Molly Ivins was big in all ways a person can be big. She was 6’ tall but seemed even larger, as she was husky as well. She wore a size-12 shoe, had flaming red hair, a big heart, and an even bigger laugh. She graduated from Smith, where she didn’t–by her own admission–fit in. That didn’t bother her; as she often quipped, she never fit in anywhere. That was close to being true. She had a tyrannical alcoholic father with whom she battled, and she locked horns with editors of publications such as the Minneapolis Tribune, the New York Times, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegraph. As a syndicated columnist, some of her op-ed pieces failed to run because they were deemed too controversial. This was especially so when she told Americans that they were falling prey to fear and foolishness in the wake of 9/11. The public eventually caught up with Ivins, but it a lot longer.

I was lucky enough to meet Ivins in 1993 when she came back to Smith to give a talk. At the time, I had a very large class at Smith of about 125 students to whom I assigned Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? Ivins was surprised by the number of students asking her to inscribe their book and roared out, “Who’s the summabitch responsible for all these books?” When I admitted that I was that “summabitch,” she laughed and said, “God bless your pointed heart,” and gave me a huge bear hug. All 5’5” of me disappeared! There’s a hysterical photo of the two of us somewhere in the Smith archives, one whose scale is roughly that of Gandalf towering over Bilbo Baggins.

The answer to whether or not Molly Ivins could “say that” is yes. As she put it in an early clip in the film, “I’m a Texan. I drink. I cuss. I drive a pickup truck. I fuck. I’m a liberal. Get over it.” She had an odd relationship with George W. Bush, whom she called “Shrub.” She mercilessly lampooned him, yet the two liked each other. (When she learned he was studying Spanish she quipped, “Oh good; he’ll be bi-ignorant.”) In another candid moment she said Bush was “shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture… religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo.” But no one ever suffered deeper cuts from her rapier wit than Texas lawmakers: “As they say around the Texas Legislature, if you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

Ivins never apologized for being liberal. She had the moxie to say that in journalism, “there is no such thing as objectivity…. So my solution has been to let my readers know where I stand. They can take that with a grain of salt or a pound of salt, depending upon their preference.”

Behind the humor lay the soul of a political warrior. Ivins had no patience with bullies, liars, or hucksters. She held special ire for powerful people who took advantage of the poor. Back in the 1980s she warned about how the powerful used fear of immigrants to divert attention from their own misdeeds. In one of her more trenchant observations Ivins spoke of how words like “socialist” and “communist” were mere diversions. In her mind, the political spectrum in the United States was “top to bottom, not left to right.”

Director Janice Engel admires Ivins, but she doesn’t sugarcoat her. She tells of Ivins’ gawky childhood, of her domineering father, of Molly’s contrarian orneriness, and her struggles with alcoholism. She also takes us through her ultimately unsuccessful battle against breast cancer. Among Ivins’ most poignant pearls was when she told women not to send her get-well cards; instead she advised, “Go. Get. The. Damn. Mammogram. Done.”  

Lots of people appear on screen to speak of Ivins, including Anne Lamott, Dan Rather, Jim Hightower, Paul Krugman, Victor Navaski, Molly’s sister Sara, and the late Ann Richards, who was Molly’s friend long before she was governor of Texas. The view they give us of Ivins can best be summed by the phrase, “It’s complicated.” Engel deserves credit for shying away from hagiography. She also deserves our gratitude for hiring a musical team that cobbled together a rich soundtrack that draws upon Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, honky-tonk, jazz, and period music rather than the bland and neutral score that we encounter in far too many documentaries.

Objectively speaking, my four-star rating may be a tad too high. In places the tone is flatter than it should be, and overall the documentary lacks the zing of the 2011 play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” which relies far more on her sparkling words. (Kathleen Turner once played Ivins in Ret Hot Patriot.) But I shall pull a page from Ivins, admit my subjectivity, and give the film four stars. After all, Ivins once said, “There’s nothing you can do about being born liberal–fish gotta swim and hearts gotta bleed.”

Rob Weir
    
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10/30/19

Art in the Orchard 2019


Art in the Orchard 2019
Various Artists
Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road, Easthampton, MA
Through November 24, 2019.

Farmers do what they can to stay in business these days. Some open breweries or wineries, some draw visitors to elaborate cornstalk mazes, and others venture into niche markets such as alpaca wool, lavender products, or farm stay tourism. Park Hill Orchard has one of the better angles; each fall it holds a juried competition for sculptors and environmental artists who wish to display their talents en plein air.

Not everything appeals to all and a few selections might seem puzzling, but it has become a rite of autumn to check it. It’s hard to beat the site: a vast swath of fruit trees, pumpkin patches, and greenspace in the shadow of Mt. Tom. One of the permanent installations, in fact, is a giant frame where one can compose Mt. Tom in the distance, gather friends against a fiery fall backdrop, or (if you must) take a selfie. Kids will enjoy chasing the free-range chickens and their own ability to roam off-leash, as it were. But let’s talk about the art.

Enjoying art is often a subjective experience that has little to do with what “experts” or critics think of it. I’m in the second category, which means you might not agree with my assessment that this year’s displays are not up the standards of previous years. But with 30 new installations there is bound to be something for all tastes. 

 
My own art doesn’t extend beyond my shutterbug prowess, but I will say that a few of the pieces left me perplexed and/or underwhelmed. “Field of Hearts,” for example, is a series of lollipop-like valentines covered in mosaic. They are cheerful, but do they tell us anything a parade of Mylar couldn’t? “D’Arbus the Radiolarian” baffles me. I got it that Mark Fenwick named after Diane Arbus, but his “dawn animal” (radiolarian) based on microscopic mineral skeletons is disconnected from the famed photographer and his explanation for the assemblage is idiosyncratic to a fault. Plus, the thing reminded me of vintage pineapple advertising cartoons. In all honesty, I found it creepy. Pamela Matsuda-Dunn covered boulders with glass beads and called it “Abundance.” It looks exactly like boulders covered with glass beads!

But, like I said, who can explain why one thing attracts and others do not? I am a huge fan of Michael Tiller’s wood and metal sculptures. To the band that has graced the field in previous years, Tillyer has added “Maureen,” who appropriately holds an apple in her outstretched hand.

I was also drawn to metalworks this year. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Denny’s “Junkyard Dogs.” It’s meta in that the pooches are fashioned from castoff junk. Chris Woodman’s “Chronos” is an airplane weathervane whose propeller is actually a rotating clock face. If you’re rusty on your Greek mythology, Chronos/Cronos is the pre-Olympian Titan who was the god of time (hence chronology). Staying with the ebb and flow of things, Ted Hinman’s “Tree of Life” harkens to Biblical traditions, but both this work and Woodman’s also evoke the climate change crisis and beg consideration over whether the end of the history is upon us.

 
Hinman also asks us to think of how elephants depend upon tree bark and high-hanging fruit during the dry season. Elephants are an endangered species. Last year, a wonderful twisted branch and steel elephant appeared in the orchard. This year, Lindsey Molyneux graces that one with “The Elephant’s Child.” It is both charming and poignant. 


As for traditional sculptures, I was moved by Valerie Gilman’s bronze “Persephone’s Dream: A Prayer for Peace.” Persephone takes us back to Greek mythology; she’s both the queen of the underworld and the goddess of spring. Gilman uses her as a plea “to listen deeply to the complex and paradoxical truths of our lives and our culture.” In a similar philosophical fashion, Tim De Christopher’s limestone “Bird Bird” is a fragile creature who represents “the primal nature of man, the beast, brute force and the more gentle nature of the human soul.” I can get behind both of these sentiments.

If you visit, don’t forget to buy some fruit!

Artist: R. Weir!


Rob Weir  

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10/28/19

Karen Russell's Orange World is So-So

Orange World and Other Stories (2019)
By Karen Russell
Alfred A. Knopf, 271 pages
★★ ½  

Karen Russell’s creepy collection of short stories comes to us in time for Halloween. Or maybe not. I loved her 2011 novel Swamplandia, but I’m stuck in neutral on Orange World.

In the Depression era yarn “The Prospectors,” two spirited young women take the wrong chairlift to the mountaintop in search of a party at a posh lounge. Instead they find themselves among a group of male workers who are dead, but aren’t aware of it. Can the two escape before they too are trapped in limbo?

For those who think the 2007 movie Lars and the Real Girl wasn’t icky enough, Russell offers “Bog Girl: A Romance.” Its main character is a not-so-good-around-women young man who unearths a peatbog corpse and treats her as his girlfriend. His family and community enable him. Call it a macabre coming of age tale.

“The Tornado Auction” asks us to imagine that big storms can be purchased at auction and reared as one might a stallion. When does one set it run? And what if the owner is a person who no longer cares about his fate or that of others?

“Black Corfu” takes us to the namesake Greek isle as Venetian rule was challenged by the Turks. It’s not for certain when our action takes place–probably the 16th century–but this story centers on a dark-skinned man who dreamed of being a surgeon. Instead, his skin color confines him to the strange practice of posthumous surgery in which the hamstrings of the deceased are severed to prevent them from becoming vampires. He is highly skilled, but his world crumbles when rumors circulate that he botched an operation and one of the dead is loose on Corfu.

“The Gondoliers” is set in a near-future post-flood Florida wherein vast parts of it are underwater. Three sisters dwell in the polluted and flooded canal region known as New Florida. They eke out a living as gondoliers who use singing as echolocation to prevent underwater obstacles. The youngest, Blister, picks up a passenger with the strange request to be taken to Bahia Rosa, the failed seawall and levy system that swamped the region. Blister learns he wishes to go there to die. Should she refuse or take the money and run?

The title tale is about a woman who has miscarried before and worries that the child she is carrying will meet the same fate. She cuts a deal with a demon; in exchange for her baby’s health, she will breastfeed the hairy clawed imp nightly. How can she stop what she’s started?

Each of these is a perfectly fine story that one could freight with deeper significance if so desired. Are those in a rut functionally dead? Who can define love? Is “Black Corfu” a meditation on race, or “The Gondoliers” on climate change? The title story, of course, is one of many about the foolishness of making deals with powers of darkness. Most of Russell’s stories link to classifications in Stith Thompson’s famed index of universal tales. (If you’re keeping score, go to M211 of the Folk-Motif Index to find more information about why it’s not a good idea to bargain with the Devil.) 

If I had to pick an adjective to describe Orange World it would be “competent.” If that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, you’re right. Although there is a repellent quality to the set ups, the tales tend to be more strange than hair-raising. The good news is that it’s a breezy read, but mine is not among the starstruck voices who find this a work of genius. It’s more than meh, but considerably less than wow.

Rob Weir

10/25/19

Rachid Taha: October 2019 Artist of the Month (Posthumously)


Rachid Taha
Je Suis Africain
Believe Records

Trust me. The stripe is bluer on the CD!
Je Suis Africain is the 11th album by Franco-Algerian musician Rachid Taha. It completes his oeuvre; Taha passed away on September 11, 2018–just days before his 60th birthday. Taha, who had long suffered from a brain/balance disorder called Arnold Chairi Disease, labored hard with Balkan punk artist Toma Feterman to complete a record that released posthumously.

The cover of Taha’s CD is a full-face portrait swathed in dark orange with a grey-blue stripe crossing his eyes and the bridge of his nose as if he were a tussled haired Lone Ranger. It’s an apt way of looking at Taha’s life and musical career. He was born in Oran, Algeria, the birthplace of raï music, a form of folk music favored by the poor–especially those we might dub Muslim modernizers–that often addressed social justice issues. His family moved to France when Taha was ten, and it was from Lyons and Paris that his musical career was launched. He had a day job when he was in his teens, but his nighttime DJ gigs was of far greater interest. He later ran a nightclub that featured Arabic remakes and reinterpretations of rock classics. Soon, he too was caught up in making music. Eclectic is almost too tame to describe his interests. Taha was the ultimate mashup musician, one who dabbled in rock, R & B, punk, raï, country, Sufi music, and chaabi, the last of these traditional Northern Africa music once associated with hash bars that mutated into popular-for-all-occasions songs. His exuberance (and maybe a demo tape) were said to be the inspiration for “Rock the Casbah,” a hit for The Clash.

You’ll hear bits and pieces of Taha’s multiple influences on Je Suis Africain. Its very title is cheeky. Taha spent 50 of his 60 years outside of Algeria, but France’s complicated (and often tragic) colonial relations in Africa has long relegated Algerians to a perpetual outsider status–much as Latinos are often viewed in the United States. He sings the title track in French, but it doesn’t exactly wave Le Tricolore. “I am African,” he proclaims. “God has the same skin.” In this song (and several others) he drops names of those he admires: Malcom X, Mandela, Angela Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Jacques Derrida…. Strong beats frame vocals, casbah-like strings, and desert blues guitar. “Andy Waloo” is another name dropper. The title invokes Andy Warhol, which is repeated as a chant, but everyone from Picasso and Gibran to Johnny Cash and Patti Smith gets a mention. Taha mostly sang in Arabic and French, with the occasional foray into Spanish, but this album features “Like a Dervish,” his only song in English. You can hear hip hop and rave influences in this one, as well as chaabi as it might have been redone for a wedding party. “Minouche” is another identity song; in it Taha sings of his love for a black woman in a tune that approximates a North African take on a French torch song.  

Songs such as “Ansit” and “Aïta” are rock/chaabi blends, the first sporting more growl in Taha’s voice, the second with more bite in the bass and a faster pace. “Wahdi,” borrows Gnawa rhythms–Sufi trance music–for Taha’s duet with Swiss-Algerian singer Flèche Love. Her naturally beautiful and octave-spanning voice serves as contrast to Taha’s earthier approach. Taha gets swampy on “Striptease.” Listen for some unusual violin in this one, as well as in “Insomnia.” Both will, if I might, rock the casbah. The Grim Reaper took Rachid Taha too soon, but Je Suis Africain is a pretty good way to exit.

Rob Weir  


10/23/19

Lisa Bell, 3 Pairs of Boots, and More: Sounds Like Who?



Sometimes the music business reminds me of trying to find a teaching job in the humanities. Even if you’ve already done noteworthy things, how does one attract attention in a crowded field? In music, one way is to invite comparisons to someone who has already made it. Joy Williams and Brandi Carlile are common comparisons.  

Carlile is hot right now, so let’s kick off with notes from a paste project of hers. NoiseTrade/Paste Magazine has released four tracks from an August 30, 2012 performance. It’s the voice and energy that dazzle more than instrumental trickery. Listen to “100” and you’ll hear Carlile’s poppy sense of phrasing. “Hard Way Home” uses plinky keys to set the table for a mix of pop, sass, and cowgirl. She’s more introspective in thinking about work and the PR machine on “That Wasn’t Me.” Even 7 years ago it wasn’t hard to tell that Carlile was special.

Lisa Bell gets the Carlile treatment, as well as mentions of Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones. Huh? How’s that work? Better than you might think. It helps that Bell is no kid; she’s a Boulder, Colorado mom whose brood has grown and flown the coop. Like Lori McKenna, she brings maturity and real-life experience to bear on her new release Back Seat. In the title song Bell directly addresses her life’s new direction: I’m not willing to take a back seat/While my dreams pass me by. Bell sings with burnished maturity while a rolling organ and electric piano play in the background. And, yes, it’s the sort of jazz/pop amalgam that Norah Jones might do. You’ll hear loads of diverse instrumentation on this record–everything from keys and guitars to ukes and saxophone. “Meet Me in the Space in Between” is cool jazz, the kind of song one might expect from a performer who has covered the old chestnut “Skylark.” “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is another from the same mold, though as a featured single from the LP it’s catchier than “Space in Between.” There’s a nice soulful hop to the way she scans the lines: But I can’t stand the rain/Clouding my vision/It takes it all away/Can’t make a decision. There’s also a dramatic electric guitar bridge. “Get in the Flow” has more of a folk vibe; “India” is ambient; and “Always Chasing Darkness” has a memorable repeating refrain that pops out of the moody wrapper of the rest of the song. “The Road is Always Longer” has blues rock colorings that makes me see the Bonnie Raitt evocations, but damned if I hear any Brandi Carlile. Lisa Bell doesn’t need to be compared to anyone. Call her a better-late-than-never revelation in her own right. ★★★★★

The band name 3 Pairs of Boots intrigues in that it’s actually a country duo, so one wonders where the third pair of boots factors in. Laura Arias and Andrew Stern are based in the Bay Area, but their hearts are more Austin than Oakland. They cite The Byrds, The Smiths, Buffalo Springfield, and Tom Petty among their influences, but because Arias handles lead vocals there are inevitable evocations of The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams. Ignore them if you run across them. 3 Pairs of Boots is definitely more country. “Hey I’m On My Way” is a honky-tonk styled road trip across Route 66 and is populated with hard drinkers, fighters, “star-crossed lovers,” and a (partly apocryphal) explanation of how Tucumcari, New Mexico got its name. “It Ain’tEasy”jordan whitmore has a moral; in this case, that one should always do the right thing, not the easy one. “He Lost My Number” feels like country folk grafted to an early 60s pop song and a Laurel Canyon-style chorus. Remember Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game?” Give it some twang and “Slipping Away” evokes its child moving through life sentiment. And it doesn’t get more country than songs like “Always Loved Cowboys,” the can’t-catch-a-break “Gone South,” or the girl who loves a poor boy “Dollar Store.” And, no, I don’t hear any Joy Williams in Arias’s voice. This band is exactly as it bills itself: country music crooned by Arias and solid guitar work from Stern. ★★★

Jordan Whitmore draws Carlile and Williams analogies. Also Sheryl Crow and Shawn Colvin. Strange given that Good Things is her 5th record. I can only think that’s because her repertoire is hard to describe. “Something Different” is a country/rock blend that puts her desire for change upfront. I really like the slight catch in her voice on this one. “All My Might” is a spacey love song and there’s hint of Hawaiian guitar in “Changing Your Mind.” “Good Things” invokes a spare blues rock feel. Similarly, both “What If” and “I Wish You Would” feel like power ballads that stop short of crossing the line. Frankly, I don’t hear much of Crow, Williams, Colvin, or Carlile on Good Things. Whitmore has a nice voice, but it sometimes lacks clarity. Her songwriting, though sincere, veers too close to pop phrasing to stand out. It might be time to consider a shift in direction. ★★ ½

Short Cuts:

Joseph is a three-sisters band­–Allison, Meegan, and Natalie Closner (Schepman)–from Oregon. Their handle is that of the town in which they grew up. Good Luck Kid is their second full-length album–they also have an EP­–and it’s decidedly in the pop vein. The Closners attracted quite bit of buzz with their previous release and are actively promoting their new single “Fighter.” The title track is a bit grittier, but most of the tracks I sampled follow the same basic formula: basic electric guitar with lots of reverb and perhaps some percussion backing, but the songs are rooted in three-part harmonies. I liked their energy but their vocals are too chipmunk-like for my taste. ★★

Aviva Chernik sings songs from the Sephardic tradition and once fronted the band Jaffa. La Serena is her first post-Jaffa solo project, though Chernik is hardly alone on her debut. Justin Gray adds splashes of jazz and Indian music, and world music artists Maryem and Ernie Tollar also appear. The album also pays homage to 92-year-old Balkan Ladino artist Flory Jagoda. Chernik is like the album’s namesake siren, except she leads us to good places. Check out the meditative grooves of the title track; you will hear the jazz influences in that one. “Adon Olam” is a poem set to a Yemeni melody that starts slowly, begins to sway, and then settles into a liturgical space. “Kol Dodi” takes its lyrics from the Bible’s Song of Songs, which celebrates carnality. And, of course, there are songs from Ms. Jagoda. ★★★★    

Rob Weir