1/20/20

The Nickel Boys is Quietly Chilling


The Nickel Boys (2019)
By Colson Whitehead
Random House, 210 pages.
★★★★★

It’s orphan week on Off-center Views. Let’s start with what might be the best novel of 2019: The Nickel Boys, the latest work from Colson Whitehead whose previous novel, The Underground Railroad, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

We come in upon Elwood Curtis, an African-American child with big dreams. His parents are gone and he’s in the care of his grandmother who lives in Frenchtown, a segregated enclave in Tallahassee, Florida. That might depress some youngsters, but Elwood is a topnotch student who chases away the blues by listening to his lone phonograph record: speeches from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He studies and works hard and harbors plans to enter a black college when he graduates. Plans go awry when he hitches a ride from a black man driving a big car. A black man in a flash car is enough to arouse suspicion among redneck cops in the early 1960s South. Never mind that Elwood had no idea the driver had stolen the vehicle; Elwood is convicted of car theft and is sent to a juvenile facility called Nickel Academy.

At first Elwood thinks it might not be too bad. Nickel Academy has a segregated facilities and Elwood notices that the white campus appears more posh, but the black campus looks pretty good to a kid from Frenchtown. There are no walls or fences, the dorms are clean, the food isn’t (too) bad, the staff is outwardly friendly, and there are incentives for early release. Elwood’s plan is to keep his head down, stay out of trouble, and finish his high school education. The first lesson he learns, though, is that the whites that run the place have a very different idea of what kind of “education” black boys need. His books are castoff elementary school readers and when Elwood politely asks his teacher for more challenging works, it’s the sort of thing that gets a black kid pegged as uppity.

A fellow student, Jack Turner, tries to tell Elwood that he is naïve. There are tales of the “White House,” where hidings and solitary confinement take place, and mysterious sets of restraints hanging on trees, but Elwood stays the course–until he can’t. As Elwood’s friendship with Turner deepens, the realization dawns that the very structure of Nickel Academy is designed to break independent-minded souls such as his and there’s not much Rev. King’s words can do to change that. Unfairness, sadism, beatings, and other horrors lurk beneath the academy’s surface–including mysterious disappearances of students.

The looming question is whether a soul as sensitive as Elwood’s can survive long enough to “max out” and win automatic release at age 18. This sets the stage for an elaborate plan cooked up by Turner to save his friend. What comes next will shock and surprise you. Whitehead isn’t one for easy resolution or platitudes. We jump ahead to the post-Nickel years and learn the fates of some of the boys sent there. In many ways, The Nickel Boys is a subtle look at the bifurcated ideals of black America. Does one listen to the words of Dr. King on forbearance as penned in a Montgomery jail cell, or to the defiant messages of fiery activists? As Turner put it, “They [whites] treat us like subhumans in our country. Always have. Maybe always will.”

The Nickel Boys will also resonate with those familiar with nightmarish reform schools in Ireland, as well as those who have followed the Catholic Church’s clerical abuse scandals. It also put me in mind of so-called “Indian” schools in the United States and similar institutions in Australia for Aborigines. As one who once worked in juvenile probation, I can also attest that juvenile detention facilities in general are dire.

In Whitehead’s case, though, his Nickel Academy is based on a real place: Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. It (mis) educated and (mis) treated youths for 111 years before closing in 2011. More than 500 former students claim to have been beaten, tormented, or sexually abused, and archaeological excavations of Dozier’s marked and unmarked cemeteries suggest that horrific things happened there. Whitehead’s initial inspiration for his novel came from the investigative reports of Tampa Times reporter Ben Montgomery.

This is not to say that Whitehead is merely fictionalizing the past. He is a gifted storyteller who humanizes tragedy and does so in just over 200 well-crafted pages. I would go so far as to say that few novelists say as much as Whitehead in so few pages. He offers a partial answer to poet Langton Hughes’ question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Maybe sometimes it does “dry up like a raisin in the sun.” Perhaps that is the ultimate American tragedy.

Rob Weir

1/17/20

Hardy, Napier, and Russell Revist World War I in (Bittersweet) Song



War and Peace
Bella Hardy, Findlay Napier, Greg Russell
Doncaster 1914-18/Doncaster Council

2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Whenever centenaries arise, the artistic world responds. Perhaps some of you have seen the Sam Mendes-directed film 1917 or have read about the monumental Peter Jackson documentary project “They Shall Not Grow Old,” in which photographs and filmstock were painstakingly restored, authentically colorized, and shown atop voice-acted survivor interviews. The anniversary is one thing, but if you’ve ever been to Europe you know that there’s scarcely a town or village that lacks a monument to the “Great War.” World War II led to greater loss of life, but World War I left deeper psychological scars. It hastened the demise of the aristocracy, magnified class inequality, ushered in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, and shook faith in humankind.

Three enormously talented British musicians offer one of the more interesting new takes on the Great War. Bella Hardy is a former BBC2 Folk Singer of the Year (2014) who hails from Derbyshire. She’s also a talented fiddler. Findlay Napier grew up in the Speyside region of Scotland and holds a degree from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Celtic music fans recognize him as the lead singer for the now-defunct band Back of the Moon. He now lives in Glasgow, where he is in great demand as a guitarist, musical collaborator, and producer. Greg Russell hails from near Sheffield, England, and was a 2013 winner of the Young Folk Award. Instead of calling attention to themselves, the trio mined the Doncaster (Yorkshire) archives and produced a commission piece of ten songs (and a film) based on the World War I stories they found there. Don’t expect banners and glory; the archives tell of futility, waste, and searing questions directed at those who led soldiers into senseless battle.

Napier offers “Thou Shalt Not Kill” with its simple-but-poignant query. What mandate, it asks, allows for the 5th Commandment to be set aside when all others are supposed to be followed: I wouldn’t lie, I wouldn’t steal/ Nor take my best friend’s girl/Now they say it’s fine for me/To ignore “Thou shalt not kill…” Napier’s take on the war is positively withering. He also offers the music hall style” It’s Made a Different Man of Me,” a letter home from a soldier who naively (sarcastically?) promises his wife that as soon as he’s discharged, he’ll put the war aside and give it no thought. He rounds off the album with “Little Tommy Atkins” and there is no question that he intends this story from long ago as a warning to future boys who think war is child’s play.

Bella Hardy gives a woman’s perspective. It’s an article of faith among North American feminists that the postwar treatment of World War II Rosie the Riveters was patriarchy and sexism at their ugliest. Check out Hardy’s “Belles of Brickfield” and you’ll know that North Americans were 30 years late in boarding the bandwagon. She also offers object lessons of war. Most wars begin with aforementioned banners and dreams of glory, but they seldom end that way. Don’t be deceived by the light waltz “Miss Freda Hooper;” Hardy has a different take on those who dance “the ghosts” away.

The content and gorgeous melody of Russell’s “God or Union” embodies the word “bittersweet.” Russell is a very powerful singer, as you will hear also on “Egbert.” That one is filled with the stirring muscularity of training camp promises, as well as a few hints of what hasn’t been mentioned. Hardy’s fiddle adds to a melody that’s where the martial spirit and dysphoria collide. If you want to know what war weariness sounds like, listen to Russell sing “20 Minutes.” Russell also gives us one of the war’s more touching stories. “Vic the Dog” is based upon the story of Albert Drury, who was saved from a fatal bullet by his cigarette tin. Vic is the name of an actual pooch, one he brought back to England from the trenches of France.

War and Peace is part of a larger project that recounts the sights and experiences of Doncaster war survivors. There is honor in it, even if it’s not defined the way politicians and generals tell of it. Though I’m not sure if Hardy, Napier, or Russell would agree, for me it’s a powerful reminder of the insanity of war. And more’s the pity that a hundred years later the same old promises–lies in disguise–continue to lead young people down the path of danger, horror, and loss.

Rob Weir







1/15/20

The Grest Depression in 50 Images at Smith College

  




Dust Bowl of Dog Soup: Picturing the Great Depression
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through May 24, 2020

I’m sure you remember this century’s recession (2008-10). Some places have yet to recover. Perhaps some of you are old enough to recall that the one during the 1970s (1973-1981) was much worse. Nothing in your memory can compare to the Great Depression (1929-41), the greatest economic disaster in American history. Nearly one in three workers was unemployed and if we toss in those forced into casual labor, those on strike, the underemployed, and those who became hoboes, by 1932 about 50% of all American families suffered some form of economic dislocation. If you can imagine it, conditions were even worse in the countryside. A severe drought rocked every state in the Union except Vermont and Maine. In many places, high winds blew away the topsoil down to the bedrock, a cataclysm known as the Dust Bowl.

A show at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) features 50 remarkable images that document hard times during the 1930s. “Documents” is the correct word; despite the tragedy in front of the lenses and sketch pads, the 1930s was a golden age for documentarians. Courtesy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the government actually hired unemployed artists and writers to make sure future generations would understand the human cost of the economic crisis. The only other silver lining in all of this is that women made their mark in ways they might not have otherwise. Dorothea Lange took what is arguably the most famous photograph in American history: “Migrant Mother,” an image reproduced so often there is no need to describe it. Is it even possible to discuss the Depression without seeing it? The SCMA has a print, but it’s not the center of Dust Bowl of Dog Soup.
The bulk of the photos at the SCMA are from Arthur Rothstein (1915-85). He was/is highly regarded, but generally takes a backseat to more famous colleagues such as Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Russell Lee. There is no point to comparisons, but few photojournalists were as active as Rothstein. Nor did many surpass his sensitivity to his subjects.

Rothstein was an unlikely recorder of rural woes. Who could have imagined that the son of Jewish immigrants who grew up and lived in New York City would be comfortable tramping through the American backwaters? Or that one who had never turned a spade of dirt would relate to farmers and migrants, or feel their despair over silted over fields, toiling in mines, and being forced onto the road in jalopies held together with bailing wire?

By featuring Rothstein photos from its collections, the SCMA show encourages us to look deeply into his images. In a way, Depression Era photo shows are often akin to the permanent collections at big museums. By this I mean that visitors tend to give short shrift to artists with big talent but little fame. Can you name another work at the Louvre that’s in the same room as the Mona Lisa? Rothstein was a great photographer and seeing his work out of the shadow of his more celebrated peers drives this home. Check out his images from Gee’s Bend, that African-American enclave of Alabama that would later win renown for its quilters.

Rothstein isn’t the only artist in the show, nor is photography the only medium presented. Henry Sternberg gives us a slice of urban life in his 1930 etching “Subway Car.” Peggy Bacon used pastels in “Hectic Life” to capture the pulse of the street, and Riva Helfond used lithography in her “Custom Made” to depict a seamstress toiling at home. You can be assured it was for a pittance. Irwin Hoffman turned to etching for strong images of work in “The Stoker” (1935) and of those relying on charity in “Soup Kitchen” (1934).  

 
The SCMA exhibition also shows another side of the Depression. With just a few carefully curated examples from magazines and popular publications, we see that not even indescribable poverty slowed the pace of commercial advertising. Think it’s difficult to flog soap, lurid fiction, or over-the-counter remedies during the Depression? Think again.

Hats off to the SCMA for a small show that screams social significance in ways that splashy blockbusters seldom do. Hie thee hence to this thoughtful exhibit.

Rob Weir

1/13/20

Some Like It Hot and Annie Hall: Not Weathering Well

Some Like It Hot (1959)
Directed by Billy Wilder
United Artists, 121 minutes, Not Rated (mild sexual references)

Annie Hall (1977)
Directed by Woody Allen
United Artists, 93 minutes, PG* (sexual references and situations)
            * PG-13 ratings did not exist in 1977


Film history exists independently from social history. Some films that strike modern viewers as trite or problematic were beheld quite differently in their own time period. Witness two films, Some Like It Hot and Annie Hall. Today, neither goes down easily or weathers well. The American Film Institute reworked its 100 Greatest Films list in 2007–long before MeToo#–hence Some Like It Hot currently checks in as #22 and Annie Hall as #35. The only way to make sense of this is to view each as an artifact rather than a manifesto. Still, one wonders if either film will survive the AFI’s next update.



Billy Wilder, a Hollywood legend, directed Some Like It Hot. As was still the case of numerous films in 1959, it is in black and white (though badly colorized versions exist). It’s set in 1929, the year of the Stock Market Crash, and follows two musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis), a saxophone player, and Jerry (Jack Lemon), who wields a double bass. Jobs are drying up and they’re reduced to performing in a dodgy Chicago speakeasy. They barely manage to join the corpses when they accidentally wander in on a gangland slaying–patterned after the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. (Mobsters don’t like witnesses.) Joe and Jerry need to blow town tout de suite and they need jobs and disguises.

Thus begins a comic caper in which the two dress in drag, board a train for Miami and–as Josephine and Daphne–join Sweet Sue and the Society Syncopators [sic], an all-female band. All manner of silly and awkward situations ensue, including Joe-as-Josephine crammed into a sleeping birth for a giggly “girls” drinking session with Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s lead singer who fears she’ll be kicked out of the band because she likes to take a toot. (Booze is off-limits during Prohibition.) Of course, Joe is attracted to Sugar, but he can’t blow his cover as the Mob is searching for him. For his part, Jerry-as-Daphne must fend off the roaming hands of a leering rich man, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). As you might imagine, Miami isn’t exactly the best place to hide from organized crime figures! (You can spot both George Raft and Edward G. Robinson among the sanguinary tough guys.)

Some Like It Hot is basically a romp with high heels, girdles, flapper garb, and machine guns. Modern viewers need to remember that the film’s innuendos and sexist jokes were considered hilarious in 1959; patriarchy was a barely contested given. Actually, the film’s historical take on the battle of the sexes is its primary virtue. The comedy is of the broad in a mile-wide-inch-deep variety. Curtis and Lemon chew the scenes with appropriate histrionics, and the dough-faced Joe E. Brown is a riot. Brown is forgotten figure, but he was one of the great hangdog comics of his era. But let’s be frank: Marilyn Monroe had but two outstanding features, neither of which was her acting or vocal prowess. (She whisper/warbles four songs and no one will ever call her take on “I Wanna Be Loved By You” as definitive.) Watching Some Like It Hot now is akin to re-reading a novel you loved years ago. You discover a few sublime moments, but mostly you wonder why you once loved it.

Keaton yes; Allen no
Annie Hall is even more difficult to swallow. The only way you can watch it is to put aside what you think of Woody Allen, its director and star. In 1977, Allen was considered an auteur and Annie Hall was hailed as a masterpiece. Unlike Some Like It Hot, which won only a design Oscar, Annie Hall carried off statues for Best Picture, Best Director (Allen), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), and Best Original Screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman). These days, Annie Hall is a glimpse into the social and economic wreckage of the late 1970s.

Like many Allen films, it’s a confessional. It opens with Alvy Singer (Allen) recounting his breakup with Annie (Keaton) a year earlier. It involves numerous flashback sequences, perhaps the finest of which are Alvy’s memories of growing up in a dysfunctional Brooklyn Jewish family that lived beneath a Coney Island rollercoaster. We also flash back to Alvy’s two failed marriages, but much of the film is shtick in which Allen/Alvy riffs on his neuroses, his intolerance of intellectual phonies, his preferences for decaying New York over sunny California, and his own sexual virulence. If the last of these makes you cringe, it’s supposed to, the “joke” being that the nebbish Alvy can’t be a sex machine. Alvy refuses to follow his best (and perhaps only) friend Rob (Tony Roberts), a producer, to Los Angeles. After all, he’s the kind of guy whose idea of a first date movie is The Sorrow and the Pity, a 4 ½  hour documentary about the Nazi occupation of France and the roundup of Jews.

Call the film “When Alvy Met Annie.” Their relationship is recapped episodically because we already know it’s over. Annie is a cabaret singer and a ditzy klutz who also has neuroses to spare. Unlike Alvy, Annie grows, including a move to LA, where Tony Lacey (singer Paul Simon) promises to help her musical career. (Alvy, true to form, thinks Lacey is a phony and flies to LA to try to convince Annie to come back to New York.) Most of the scenes in which Alvy and Annie actually interact–as opposed to material from Allen’s standup act–fall into the category of being edgy cute. There’s a classic sequence involving lobsters.

Keaton is a bubbly delight as Annie. Back in 1977, she actually touched off a fashion craze with her quirky Boho duds, and she absolutely made trendy the phrase la di da. Unlike Monroe, Keaton is a competent (though not outstanding) vocalist who imbued “Seems Like Old Times” and “It Had to Be You” with the proper amount of atmosphere demanded by the script. There are also small roles and cameos for Truman Capote, Beverly D’Angelo, Colleen Dewhurst, Shelly Duval, Jeff Goldblum, Carol Kane, Janet Margolin, Christopher Walken, and Sigourney Weaver–most of whom were little known at the time. As for Allen, his material simply doesn’t seem very funny anymore.

Ironically, what resonates most for the present are Allen’s rants about anti-Semitism. Despite what you might hear on college campuses, the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2018 alone is triple the total number of anti-Muslim incidents for the entire period between 2012-18. Allen folded anti-Semitism into Alvy’s anxieties, but that’s not funny anymore either. I won’t ride the anti-Allen tidal wave–I happen to find Mia Farrow as untruthful as Allen and even crazier–but I will say that several Allen films are far superior to Annie Hall. It seems as out of place today as a double-knit leisure suit.

Rob Weir

1/10/20

Parasite a Wonderful Film (Mildly Over Hyped)


Parasite (2019)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Neon Pictures, 132 minutes, R (violence, sexual situations)
In Korean with English subtitles
★★★★

Parasite is an international hit. It not only won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize given at the Cannes Film Festival, it was also the first to win it unanimously since 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color. There is scarcely a list of top 2019 films on which Parasite does not appear, and several critics have proclaimed it the first masterpiece of the 21st century.

Whoa! Can we slow down here? It’s a very fine movie that throws more curves than the legendary Sandy Koufax, but it has its flaws. First, though, imagine a film with the dark humor of the Coen Brothers blended with Quentin Tarantino’s propensity for propulsive violence, and you’re in the metaphorical ballpark. But to really get there, you need to add some sharp social class analysis.

The film pivots around the Kims, a down-on-their-luck family of four. They are thoroughly modern in their addictions to smart phones and cable TV–when they can steal access from their upstairs neighbors–but to call their home a hovel diminishes that word. Among its many quirks are a raised platform where the toilet sits and a subterranean view of the squalid alley outside that’s a drunkard’s preferred urination spot. The Kims have skills, though mostly they take their lead from patriarch Kim Ki-taek, who is amusing but indolent.

The film’s tag line is “make yourself at home,” and it’s also the Eureka! moment that sets the table for this comedy/thriller. Ki-woo’s friend is off to study abroad and suggests that he take over his English tutoring gig with Park Da-hye, the pouty high school daughter of a rich family, a process that involves faking college credentials and reinventing himself as “Kevin.” He enters a world he can scarcely imagine. The Park family live in a house designed by a famous architect that’s a South Korean blend of Le Corbusier, Olmstead, and a gated community. Welcome to the realm of new money. The Parks are a young family headed by a workaholic high tech CEO whose beautiful-but-neurotic wife stays at home to manage her daughter, 9-year-old son, and a staff that involves a full-time housekeeper and a chauffeur. The grift is on! All that’s necessary is for Kevin to reinvent his sister as “Lilly,” an art therapist who can foster the “talent” of the Park’s 9-year-old son and help him deal with past trauma. The next step is to get the chauffeur and housekeeper dismissed, so dad and mom can assume new identities. Viola! The Kims are experiencing the luxuries of the pampered Yuppie rich.

Too simple, right? Of course. This is the part of the film that plays for laughs, but there are secrets that literally lurk beneath the surface. Call these the parts of the film that will make you gasp. Toss in some snobbery, impulsive behavior, and an apocalyptic rainstorm that magnifies class differences, and all we’re so deep into Les Miserables territory that a party and an outbreak of sunshine won’t save us.

Bong Joon-ho is best known in North America for directing the sci-fi action film Snowpiercer (2013). If you know that film and the surreal fog in which it’s bathed, you will catch a similar vibe in Parasite. What Bong doesn’t always do is connect loose threads. There are at least three big ones in Parasite and it’s up to you whether you think they matter, but from my POV a master auteur takes care of such things. Give Bong credit, though; one of the hardest things to do is make a film that is both funny and chilling.

The cast is so strong that the film has won prizes for ensemble acting. You probably won’t know the cast other than Cho Yeo-jeong, who plays Mrs. Park and has been in films such as The Servant and The Concubine. If Mr. Kim (Sang Kang-to) looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he was in Snowpiercer. Take my word for it; the entire cast is superb. Think also of how we have two families of four and each is, in its own way, a collection of phonies.

Parasite is a wonderful film that you should see, even if you believe you dislike subtitled films. I would, though, recommend that you dismiss all talk of Parasite being the best film of the millennium as words over a glass of plum wine.

Rob Weir

A Joan Crawford Film That's Pure Camp!


The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
Directed by Clarence Brown
MGM, 103 minutes, Not-rated
★★

For professional historians, finding factual errors in a Hollywood history film is as easy as locating Chinese-made goods in a Walmart. You won’t need a history degree to suspect that things are amiss in The Glorious Hussy. Joan Crawford stars as Margaret “Peggy” O’Neal (1799-1879), a fascinating woman whose life has parallels to the salaciousness of the film’s title. Alas, most of that story remained eluded scriptwriter Stephen Avery.

In the movie, O’Neal is the vivacious daughter of a Washington, D.C. innkeeper and a political junkie who can hold her own in debates over federal versus local sovereignty with senators such as Daniel Webster (MA) and John Randolph (VA). Secretly, she has loved the older Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) since girlhood, even though she’s an ardent Unionist and he a states’ rights advocate. When he rebuffs her, she elopes with a handsome sailor, 39-year-old “Beau” Timberlake (Robert Taylor), who is twice her age. Upon his death, she marries Senator John Eaton (Franchot Tone) just months after Timberlake is dispatched to Davy Jones’ locker. Rumors fly.

Further complications arise when her “Uncle Andy” Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) wins the presidency after a brutish campaign that besmirches his wife Rachel (Beulah Bondi). She is crestfallen and dies before Jackson takes the White House*.  When he does, the heartbroken Jackson asks Peggy to act as his White House hostess. This outrages DC socialites such as Vice President John C. Calhoun’s wife, Floride, who organizes other political wives to snub Mrs. Eaton. They regard her as an adulteress and–they whisper–perhaps a murderess. An outraged Jackson, who blamed malicious ridicule for Rachel’s death, defends Peggy’s honor to the degree that he eventually fires his entire Cabinet except for Eaton, his Secretary of War. Tongues continue to wag, however, and Peggy eventually convinces Jackson to apoint John ambassador to Spain so they can escape the DC snake pit.  

There are enough evidential holes for several stagecoaches to pass through, but had director Clarence Brown left matters there, we’d have a workable rough draft of the improbable-but-true Petticoat Affair (1829-1831). The social backstabbing over Peggy was so intense and constant that President Jackson had trouble getting any work done. Instead of plumbing the depths of this, The Gorgeous Hussy piles on contrivances until history gives way to farce. There is, for instance, the invented character of “Rowdy” Dow, a goofy mooncalf, Peggy’s friend and defender. The role is so ambiguous that Jimmy Stewart seems to improvise from one scene to the next. We witness Randolph as a pivotal figure in the Nullification Crisis** of 1832, though Calhoun was the lynchpin and Randolph opposed his stance. Instead, Brown devises an absurd scene in which a secessionist “anarchist” (really?) assassinates Randolph and leaves Peggy bereft. (In life, Randolph died of pneumonia and there is no evidence that he and Peggy were smitten with each other. He was 26 years older than she.)

Let’s set a few more things straight. The Glorious Hussy was made just two years after the Hays Code stablished strict moral guidelines that movies had to adhere to acquire certification, without which they could not be distributed. The real Peggy O’Neill was outspoken, flirtatious, and quite possibly a for-real “hussy,” an outmoded and politically incorrect term that means brazen and/or sexually promiscuous. She married Timberlake in 1816 and bore two children–a third died at birth–but it’s up for grabs if they all sired by Eaton, a drunkard and gambler. We know for certain that she met Eaton in 1818, and that the two were seen in each other’s company long before Timberlake died in 1828. Because Peggy was already viewed as Eaton’s lover, unsubstantiated rumors held that Timberlake committed suicide. Perhaps the moralists had grounds to suspect her. For what it’s worth, Peggy was neither Jackson’s niece nor his White House hostess; that job fell to Jackson’s actual niece, Emily Donelson, who was among those snubbing the Eatons.

The Cabinet firing was real. It was engineered by his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, who “resigned” so that Jackson could dismiss the rest of his advisors. When the dust settled, only Eaton remained and Van Buren became Jackson’s confidant. When Vice President Calhoun took up the nullification cause, Jackson dumped him in time for his 1832 reelection; Van Buren became the new VP and four years later, the 8th president of the United States. (Legend holds that Jackson threatened to hang Calhoun!) As for Peggy, the best that can be said of her is that she was an unconventional woman in an age in which that was not a sanctioned option for most women. She and John did go to Spain, though John was first appointed governor of Florida Territory. John died in 1856; 10 years later, 59-year-old Peggy married an Italian dance instructor who was in his mid-20s. (It did not end well. They divorced in 1869, but he bilked her and Peggy died in poverty in 1879.)

Good stuff. Too bad it’s not in the movie. Barrymore and Bondi play the Jacksons as if they just wandered off the set of a Ma and Pa Kettle episode. Incredibly, Bondi gained Best Supporting Actress nomination. More surprising still, cinematographer George Folsey was also nominated, even though his sets were cheesier than all of Wisconsin. Neither won; Hollywood has some standards! Joan Crawford was also miscast. She was a superb actress, but not a head-turning beauty. The Gorgeous Hussy is a rare case in which the lead actress was less attractive than the woman she portrayed.

Okay, it’s a 1936 movie, but it’s still a cream pie in history’s face. So why bother? First, The Gorgeous Hussy is so bad that it’s good camp. Second, turkeys often inspire us to investigate more deeply. Third, it’s a textbook case of how wrong Hollywood can get things. Watch it, and from that day forth you will don a skeptic’s hat whenever you see the fatal words, “story inspired by….”

Rob Weir

* Before the 20th Amendment (1933) new presidents took office in March, not January. Rachel Jackson died on December 22, 1828, but her husband grieved for her for the rest of his life.

** The Nullification Crisis was an argument over tariffs that also centered on whether a state could void a federal act. It later became a favored cause of pro-slavery apologists hiding behind a “states’ right” cloak.

1/8/20

Worcester Photo Revolution Show a Disappointment



Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman
Worcester Art Museum
Through February 16, 2020
[Clicking an image increases its size]

Not what the mods had in  mind!

The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in central Massachusetts is known for launching creative photography exhibits. Alas, Photo Revolution is not among them. Although there is certainly no rule that commands that an exhibit with the word “photo” in it must consist entirely of still images snapped by a shutterbug, a contrived air looms over WAM’s latest show.

Contrivance happens early and often in Photo Revolution. To be sure, the exhibit’s underlying construct is sound in ways that Susan Sontag informed us in her path-breaking On Photography in 1977; that is, mechanically produced and reproduced images have become such a part of our cultural vernacular that they have broken free from the camera. Think of how many photos you know that have appeared on t-shirts, coffee mugs, scarves, and dorm-room posters, billboards. Often, you’ve seen the image repurposed before you ever behold an archival print of the original. The putative purpose of Photo Revolution is to show how photographs influenced pop and contemporary art from the 1960s onward. Too often it feels as if the opposite point is being made.

It is certainly true that photography is no longer bound by the limits of documentary style–though that’s been the case long before the 1960s. The first thing we see as we enter the gallery is a high contrast photo of two mod girls in black and white geometric miniskirts. If you don’t know, the mod movement developed in Britain during the early 60s.  It was a harbinger of a larger youth subculture that rocked the foundations of mainstream society and challenged everything from musical preferences to fashion taste. The image we see, however, is from Life Magazine and it’s decidedly lacking in the rebellious values that gave rise to the mods. This tells us that even the commercial world realized that the times they were a changing. That’s not news either and it’s not unique to photography. For example, in the early 20th century, many of painter Maxfield Parrish’s oils began life as ads for Edison Mazda light bulbs. Indeed, an enduring (though not endearing) condition of advanced capitalist economies is that they appropriate challenges to the status quo, tame them, and sell them back to the masses.

The next thing we see is a row of paper dresses from Andy Warhol. These stretch the concept of photo inspiration to a ripping point. One dress is adorned with Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup cans; another with a close up of an eye that is from the 1929 Luis Buñuel film An Andalusian Dog. Hmmm…. Where is the photo revolution in these? Is it merely that Warhol took a polaroid of cans, painted them larger, and then screened them onto other materials? Can we say that a photo was the inspiration if the image came from celluloid? Or do we say that Warhol’s use of these images is a thrice-removed reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction? Similarly, the WAM exhibit advertises itself with another Warhol image–that of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong (then spelled Mao Tse-tung). At one point, someone took a photo of Mao, but the image most Westerners knew was a poster similar to the one that hangs in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Warhol merely copied that image, altered the colors, and scribbled on it. I doubt Warhol would have cared had that image been a watercolor rather than a photo.

The best way to enjoy this exhibit is to forget that the word “photo” has anything to do with it. This is a good strategy because there really aren’t many actual photographs, though the ones that do appear end up being more political and meaningful than the sculptures, collages, prints, and paintings that allegedly drew from the photographic tradition. There are several notable exceptions to my previous remark. Rosalyn Drexler’s collage titled The Defenders seems more relevant now than it did in 1963, when she assembled it. We see suited men with pistols and machine gun and a corpse. FBI versus crime figures? Does it matter in today’s era of rogue lawmen? Another winner is The ‘Nam, a Marvel Comics cover that does a reversal of the famed Eddie Adams photo of a South Vietnamese official summarily executing a Viet Cong suspect. Is turnabout fair play?

In the end, though, the actual photographs are generally of more interest. There is, for instance, an antiqued Cindy Sherman photo of Lucille Ball that grabs the eye, as does William Eggleston’s lonely photo of a rural field fronted by a Wonderbread ad pocked with gunshot holes. An advertising shot that unintentionally caused some ex post facto merriment is one for Gallo salami. Forget the meat, can you say cheese(y)? I also got a chuckle from a set of “baseball” cards that are actually famed photographers in baseball gear. Ansel Adams as a catcher? Another intriguing image is one of a young California family that looks as if it could have been the cover of a Richard Brautigan novel. 



In my view, though, the curators erred conceptually. Great photos are great photos and there is no need to artificially elevate their impact by linking them to the so-called fine arts side of creativity. In a nutshell, what the WAM needs is less Andy Warhol and more Cindy Sherman.



Rob Weir

1/6/20

Normal People is Extraordinary


Normal People: A Novel (2019)
By Sally Rooney
Hogarth, 268 pages.
★★★★

An old adage holds that you can’t judge a book by its cover but if there’s anything that’s a near certainty, it’s that the characters in a book titled Normal People aren’t. This small gem from Irish novelist Sally Rooney centers on two misfits: Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron. It opens in January 2011 as the two are in the homestretch of high school, and it takes us though to February 2015, when they are finishing university. I mention the dates, as Rooney structures her book episodically and each new chapter is headed with titles such as “Three Weeks Later,” “Two Days Later,” “Four Months Later,” etc.

Marianne and Connell are as outwardly different as chalk and cheese, as they say in Ireland and the UK. Though they both live in the small town of Carricklea in County Sligo, Marianne comes from an haute bourgeoisie family whereas Connell is decidedly of working-class stock. In fact, his mother, Lorraine, does housekeeping for Marianne’s mother, Denise. What they share in common is that is intellectually gifted, psychologically fragile, and socially gauche. To their classmates, each is “weird,” though Connell has friends and Marianne has none. Who, after all, could get past her frostiness, her tart tongue, or her utter refusal to conform to anything that resembles the norms of her peers?

Lest you think this a teen version of When Harry Met Sally or some sort of typical boy-meets-girl coming of age tale, let me assure you it’s not that simple. First, the two are rivals for top academic honors at their school. Marianne is in the race because she’s so smart she can excel by coasting and because for her it’s basically a big middle finger to those who taunt her. Connell works hard because top honors is the only way he could ever hope to go to university–though he thinks maybe he should skip it and get a job to help his mum. Although shares Marianne’s low self-esteem, he’s nonetheless a mensch–a gentleman who is attentive to women and believes in the equality of the sexes. This also makes him an oddball. Although Connell occasionally tries to fit in with his mates, he’s lousy at it, and is more comfortable around Marianne. Of her Rooney writes, “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it. …She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person.”

She is wrong about that. Connell befriends her, but furtively to spare both of them embarrassment. It begins with two outcasts sharing their frustration and evolves into what each believe to be casual sex. Marianne is baffled that Connell finds her attractive, yet their friendship goes into deep freeze when Connell doesn’t ask her to go to Debs (a prom analog) with him. By the time both are at Trinity, an even more unorthodox relationship emerges and their (relative) popularity polls reverse. Connell becomes acutely aware of being a blue-collar bloke who can see through bourgeois BS. In one class–he’s a lit major–he describes a pretentious assigned essay as, “culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”

The heart of the novel, though, is encapsulated in the title. Rooney writes, “Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so he could copy from example.” The same could be said of Marianne. Both yearn to be “normal,” though they’ve no clue what that might mean. It is at the very core of why, even when the two are barely speaking to each other, they are walking quantum entanglements. What does all of this portend for their futures with or without each other? Read and find out.

Sally Rooney is just 27–not much older than her characters–yet she is able to detach and analyze in ways that writers twice her age are often unable to do. She has been hailed by The New Yorker as the “first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” I’m not keen on any of the “generations” labels, hence that tag line strikes me as if it’s one of Connell’s call-bullshit critiques. I do, however, give Rooney great credit for mapping some of the minefields through which younger folks must tread these days. Rooney is an unabashed lefty, but Normal People isn’t a political novel. It’s more individual and profound than that. It’s about trying to figure out identity, values, and commitment when someone like Rooney isn’t there to provide safe passage through the aforementioned minefields.

Rob Weir

1/3/20

Ivan's Childhood: A Russian Classic


Ivan’s Childhood  (1962)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Criterion Collection, 97 minutes, Black and White, in Russian with subtitles
★★★★★

Many of the greatest classic films were made thousands of miles from Hollywood, and their auteur creators never set foot in California. Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) made nearly all of his films in the Soviet Union (except for a film completed in Sweden and another begun in Italy). His heroes were European directors such as Antonioni, Bergman, Chaplin, Dreyer, Buñel, and Kurosawa. That’s a pretty heady bunch.

Tarkovsky films seldom go down easy. They are often philosophical musings and some viewers find them painfully slow. To give but one example, the sci-fi movie Solaris (1972) is probably his most acclaimed work, though most English-speakers know the story from Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake. Same story, but Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a whopping 166 minutes in length and Soderbergh’s a mere 98.

All of this is in service of suggesting that you might wish to ease yourself into Tarkovsky’s oeuvre by starting with his first film, Ivan’s Childhood. It’s probably his most accessible film and the closest he got to conventional filmmaking. It’s my favorite; not because it’s “easy,” but because it is his most humane offering. It takes place during World War II, as seen through the eyes of Ivan Bondarev (Korlya Burlyaev), a 12-year-old boy, and Lt. Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov), one of his military contacts.

When Ivan’s Childhood was released in 1962, World War II was just 17 years in the past. That conflict often gets called “the good war” in the United States and the decade or so that followed was dubbed “victory culture” by historian Tom Engelhardt. Not so in the Soviet Union. Of the roughly 75 million war dead, more than a quarter of them were Russian–far more than the dead of fascist aggressor states of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. As we learned after the fall of the USSR, its economy never really recovered from the war’s devastation.

Tarkovsky gives us several dream sequences that help us understand young Ivan. Idyllic romps through the countryside abruptly end as Ivan awakes for a swim across a river in war-ravaged Mother Russia to make his way to the Russian frontline. He is sullen, angry, arrogant, and tells Lt. Galtsev that he will speak only to Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) or Lt. Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko). In due time we find out that Ivan’s family was murdered by Nazi invaders and that he has sworn revenge upon the fascists. He has essentially been a free agent spook since soldiers slew his family and he managed to get away. Ivan also escaped the military school in which Kholin and others acting as his guardian placed him, as he wants to return to spying on the Germans. Ivan might be 12 years old, but it’s an “old” 12 and the only thing childish about him are the temper tantrums he takes when he is told war is no place for a child.

There is a subplot involving the rivalry between Kholin and Galtsev for the affections of a comely nurse, Masha (Valentina Malyavina), who looks like no more than a teen herself. Presumably Tarkovsky wanted audiences to contemplate how war accelerates “growing up,” as it were. I shall say no more except that not much that happens is as surfaces suggest.

Yes, the film is subtitled and yes, it’s in black and white. It’s also utterly brilliant–one of the better uses of flashback structure you will see. (That technique bordered on being considered uniquely innovative at the time.) Cinematographer Vadim Yusov paints the screen as if grainy old photographs have sprung to life. His shots of Ivan being ferried across the river and set loose in a swamp have an Edward Gorey-like creepy quality that would not work in color. Besides, another point of the film is that war’s devastation drains everything: normality, childhood, emotions, even color.

How good is this film? How many movies can you name that won praise from Ingmar Bergman and was reviewed by Jeal-Paul Sartre? If you don’t think you are an “art” cinema kind of person, try Ivan’s Childhood. It will leave you shattered.

Rob Weir
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1/1/20

Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes Scorches Meddlesome Parents


Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes (February 2020)
By Kathleen West
Berkley/Penguin/Random House, 384 pages.
★★★★

This novel is so timely that it should be rushed to market. Kathleen West is high school teacher, and who better to weigh in on helicopter parents, tiger moms, the dangers of unregulated social media, truthiness, and–by extension–the college recruiting scandals?

Allow me to lead with the last of these. Many folks–me among them–have assumed that the offspring of elites were complicit in the schemes cooked up by their parents to secure admission to a good college. How could they not know about faked sports poses and padded personal profiles? Kathleen West made me rethink this.

Privilege doesn’t start when a kid is ready for college. It’s there early on and it takes a strong, perhaps precocious kid to question it. Unless some levelheaded adult–a teacher for instance–plants a challenge, a kid’s reality is assumed to be the ‘norm.’ And if one’s parents are really off the rail, teens often find it easier to pick their battles and go along with things their parents think are important.

Minor Dramas is set in a high-achievers high school near Minneapolis. Parents definitely rule the roost at Liston Heights High School. Principal Wayne Wallace spends much of his day appeasing the various parental groups that set both the curricular and extracurricular agendas. It speaks volumes about the medium family income to say that participation in drama is among the most prestigious things a kid at Liston High can do. Julia Abbott has been pressuring her 17-year-old son Andrew to secure a juicy role in the upcoming play to beef up his student profile. Andrew knows his talents are modest, but what he doesn’t know is that mom and dad gave the school money for its costume shop and have reminded both Wallace and the drama coach of that. Julia is a classic helicopter parent to Andrew and his 14-year-old sister Tracy. She basically traded her dreams of becoming a journalist to become a suburbanite busybody whose current obsession is trying to secure an advance cast list to see how Andrew fared. She texts Andrew incessantly until she can’t stand it anymore and sneaks into the school in time to see the list be posted. When Andrew is given a good role, she does an NFL-style victory dance and elbows Melissa Young in the stomach. Big problem in the age of social media! Julia’s antics were captured on a cellphone and soon the video has gone viral, threatens her husband’s development deal, and some want Julia to face assault charges. In the back swing of an elbow, Julia goes from queen bee to media hooligan and Liston outcast.

As it turns out, Julia and a few other parents have also spearheaded a campaign against Isobel Johnson, an innovative and idealistic English teacher from a working class background. Isobel wants to save the world and makes it her mission to make Liston kids aware of their privilege. She’s also Tracy Abbott’s favorite teacher, but not all Liston parents approve of interjecting identity politics into the curriculum–some because they don’t think it will help their kids do well on college entrance exams, and others because they think her views are Marxist. In other words, Liston is a place where one gets along by watching one’s back. Isobel isn’t cut out to do that, but students love her and she has been a great colleague–especially to first-year teacher Jamie Preston, a former graduate of Liston.      

It all adds up to a school caught up in overlapping brouhahas–much of its own making and the rest fanned by social media. Facebook doesn’t come off very well in the novel, but bourgeois meddling comes off even worse. West structures her novel in such a way as to make Liston’s dual dilemmas collide and entangle. Minor Dramas is also a veiled novel within a novel. Isobel attracts the wrong kind of attention for some of the ways she teaches The Great Gatsby. West has the wisdom not to make her book any sort of gloss of Fitzgerald, but it did not escape my notice that many of the worst traits of Fitzgerald’s upwardly mobile West Egg bear similarities to those found in West’s Liston Heights. This is especially true in the self-centeredness of those with privilege and in decision-making patterns that disregard the impact on families lower down the social class ladder.  

Minor Dramas and Other Consequences is a fine read, though I did find its denouement contrived and too neat. If you wonder, though, if all this stuff could possibly happen, let this former high school teacher assure you that it can. School culture and lack of support rank high among the reasons teachers quit. That data, by the way, comes from Minnesota!

Rob Weir