4/24/20

Sorry We Missed You a Reminder of Class Bias


 
Sorry We Missed You (2019)
Directed by Ken Loach
Entertainment One, 100 minutes, Not rated (language)
★★★★

What does it mean to be an undereducated worker in a society with weak labor unions? Can you trust CEOs, line mangers, and investors to look out for your interests? How come Whole Foods employees called a strike? Why has Amazon replaced Walmart as the symbol of a heartless clutchfist corporation? Why is the working class so angry? Watch Sorry We Missed You and you’ll have your answer. Then be thankful we still have 83-year-old Ken Loach to remind us what fools we are to entrust our well-being to unbridled capitalism.

Perhaps you think being your own boss solves capital/labor conflict. That’s what Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) thought. He and his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) were thrown into debt when the 2008 housing market crash stole their dreams. They went from homeowners to down-market renters swimming in an ocean of debt, but they are trying to do their best for their kids, Sebastian (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) through the hard work politicians tout as salvation. (They also claim to care about people like the Turners, but that’s a campaign gambit. Secretly they loathe pumping the flesh with the working class.) The Turners are spinning their wheels. Abbie is a home healthcare worker who gets paid by the job, not by the hour; Ricky works with his hands.

Who could blame Ricky for wanting to vault off the treadmill? Especially when a delivery firm promises he can be an independent driver who calls his own shots. He likes what he hears from distribution center head Maloney (Ross Brewster): “You don’t work for us, you with us. You’re master of your own destiny…. Like everything around here, it’s your choice.” If anyone ever says those words to you, walk out the door. Do not look back. This is forked-tongue bizspeak that sidesteps attached strings like needing to sell the family car for a down payment on a van, 14-hour days, taking responsibility for finding a replacement driver if you can’t do your runs, or having to juggle within-the-hour deliveries that would strain a track star. Nor is there mention that the warehouse supervisor can impose £100 fines, dun you £1000 if your scanner is lost or damaged, and tell you that you can’t use your van on off hours because it has the company logo on it. Plus there’s your £400 monthly payment for said van. Want time off to pick up your son from the police station because he was nicked for shoplifting? Split child care with your exhausted wife? Need time to heal because you’ve been mugged by hoodlums who smashed your scanner and left you bandaged and bloodied? It will cost you. Need to work fewer hours because you family is falling apart? In Maloney’s words, “That’s not my fucking worry, mate.” 

Loach’s film is set in Newcastle, England, but lest you think none of this happens in the United States, let me remind you of those Whole Foods and Amazon workers. Or the 1997 UPS strike. This is not just a movie; let the credits roll and you’ll see that Loach based the film on interviews conducted with actual delivery van drivers–most of whom withheld their names for fear of reprisal. Sorry We Missed You is Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times on wheels. In each case, workers are replaceable cogs in machines fueled by greed, not need. It makes us uncomfortable to consider it, but contract and gig workers are akin to immigrant labor; they do the jobs no one else wants.

The Turner family is emblematic of families across the globe blown to bits trying to practice the hard work ethos preached by monied interests from the comfort of their McMansions on the hill. The only break Loach gives viewers is that he subtitles the film for those unaccustomed to Newcastle accents. On the other hand, he does not romanticize the Turners; they are victims, not heroes. The easy out would be to blame them for their own bad choices. Yeah, and were this a criminal case, they’d get off for entrapment. The term “wage slave” has fallen from fashion in our (overly) PC times. Some assert that the word slavery is reserved for race-based chattel bondage. I respectfully disagree; families like the Turners are bound by economic shackles that make them the de facto property of their debt holders.

Perhaps this review doesn’t make you want to see Sorry I Missed You. Don’t turn away. Ken Loach dares remind us that social class is still a thing. You need to understand this, or don’t be surprised if the losers in the class war don’t give a damn about someone else’s oppression or turn to demagogues who at least agree that they’ve been tossed to the bottom of the social heap.

Take you medicine and watch this film. It’s gritty, sad, raw, and real. Like all Ken Loach films, it bleeds. And if you whine the next time a package is late, shame on you.

Rob Weir

Note: This film is still in theaters, which are closed because of the COVID-19 virus. Google to see who one in your area is offering it on pay-for-view. Amherst Cinema is one and you need not be a member to watch it.

4/22/20

Nels Andrews Artist of the Month April 2020



Sometimes I wonder if there is any subtlety left in the world. I’ve read a few reviews of Pigeon and the Crow, the fourth recording from Nels Andrews, that bemoan its minimalist approach. One even complained that it is a “dirge.” My response to that is that if you don’t like or understand folk music, you should be honest enough to admit it.

Pigeon and the Crow is indeed quiet and moody–you know, unlike all those other chirpy upbeat folk songs. Both of them. Folk songs are mostly about stories and melodies, not clich├ęs or dance-your-ass-off rhythms. So, let’s start off with the title track. It is Andrews’ reimagining of a true story, that of Gabi Mann, a young girl from Seattle who began to feed her backyard crows when she was four. In turn, the crows left her presents. Before long, Gabi had quite a collection of things the crows left her–everything from shiny stones to rusty screws. You don’t need to tell her that corvids are intelligent. Andrews’ take is wrapped in a gorgeous melody that sounds vaguely Celtic. He’s actually American-bred and now lives in Santa Cruz, but he’s traveled a lot and has admirers in the UK. The Celtic flavor of this track has much to do with the fact that the album was produced by Ireland’s Nuala Kennedy and that’s her flute you hear wafting through the mix. Andrews’s lyrics and enigmatic and mysterious, an appropriate touch for human/wildlife encounters in which much is communicated but much more remains cloaked. Pete Harvey’s cello burnishes the deeper mysteries.

“Memory Compass” also has a Celtic flair to it. It’s doleful and introspective–my memory compass is always headed south/Bay leaf and cinnamon in the back of my mouth–and evocative of the kind of songs Richard Shindell writes. “Table in the Kitchen” has more drive to it, but is also self-reflective. It’s about looking inside while looking at others in a restaurant: Watching the people watching each other/Thinking I want what he has got. “Welterweight” is a live track that shows you don’t need much if you have a soothing voice, a lovely tune, and something to say. In this case Andrews muses on fading lives within a scrambled counting song: It’s ten, eight, nine/You should have seen me in prime…. “Embassy to the Airport” is also live and sends off some of the same vibes, while “Scrimshaw” explores how to stay constant in a long-term relationship. That’s Anais Mitchell singing with him.

One of the many things I admire about this recording is that it’s a mix of sparse and textured songs. You will fiddle, electric guitar, squeeze boxes, mandolin, steel drums, and more in the instrumental mix. Supporting vocalists include not just Mitchell and Kennedy, but also A. J. Roach and Anthony Da Costa. Fiona Apple is a Nels Andrews fan and has sung on other albums. I’ve heard rumors that she’s on this one as well, though she’s not listed in the credits.

Ignore the cynics; Nels Andrews fits snugly amongst the finest in the folk tradition.

Rob Weir

4/20/20

Small Towns: Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario






Is it too much to assume that by summer we can travel again? Maybe it’s not a good year to hop on a plane, but if you’re up for a drive, why not head for Niagara Falls? Much like the Grand Canyon, there’s not much one can say about the falls except, “awesome!”



Far too many people, though, make the mistake of staying within sight when they visit Niagara Falls. There’s no nice way of saying this, so I’ll let it rip: Niagara Falls, New York is the pits–a mini Detroit with a water feature. It used to be that all one needed to upgrade a trip to the Niagara Gorge was cross the Rainbow Bridge into Canada and stay there. It’s still nicer than the U.S. side, but Niagara Falls, Ontario, has also grown tacky and crowded. Your best bet is to keep driving for 25 minutes and stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a tidy town of 17,500 that’s such a delight that it’s far more than a place to sleep. 

 



As its name suggests, it’s on the mouth of the Niagara River, where it empties into Lake Ontario. On clear days you can peer across the lake and see Toronto in the distance. It’s just 27 kilometers as the crow flies, but it takes a few hours to drive there because one must drive around a lake that’s not called one of the Great Lakes for nothing. You might, however, find enough to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake that you won’t be tempted to go big.



The first striking thing about the town is that it’s just not necessary for people to live like pigs. It is sparkling clean, has lots of gardens and parks, ree-lined streets, and attractive Victorian era homes, inns, and shops. Sure, money helps, but even modest homes are well-maintained. The town’s most active area is along Queen Street, but if you want a break from tourists and shopping, all you have to do is stroll a block or two in any direction and you’ll have plenty of solitude. But before you duck out, be sure to sample British pastries downtown that you won’t find in the States, like Eccles cakes and Lamingtons. Also stop at the Niagara Apothecary for a sometimes-disconcerting look at how folks treated ailments in the days before drugs were tested and regulated. (I can only imagine what would have been done to coronavirus sufferers.)




As for things to do besides shop, in the summer Niagara is home to the George Bernard Shaw Festival which, as of this writing, is still slated to happen. There are several other playhouses that have changing productions, prompting some to compare its theater offerings to those of the Berkshires (which probably won’t happen this year). There are also historic homes and churches throughout the town. For many runaway slaves, Niagara was the first taste of freedom on the Underground Railroad; as a British colony, Canada officially abolished slavery in 1834, 31 years before the United States. Ontario, then called Upper Canada, informally abolished slavery decades earlier still. You will find markers and other reminders in Niagara.


Niagara was a strategic place during the War of 1812, hence another local tourist spot is Fort George on the very spot where the river dumps into the lake. It’s a classic earthen redoubt that added stone works as it grew. This doesn’t make U.S. history textbooks very often, but Americans captured Fort George during the War of 1812 and when they were ousted, they burned great sections of the town before leaving. This occurred in 1813, before British troops returned the favor and burned Washington, DC. If you want to brush up on the War of 1812, on your way to the falls you can visit the homestead of Laura Secord, who is a Paul Revere type in Canada who warned that the Yanks were coming! There is also the farming town of Queenston nearby, where there are monuments to Canadian heroes and martyrs during the War of 1812. Don’t be surprised if locals joke that the War of 1812 is “the only war Canada ever won.”



Aside from going to the falls, you can enjoy lots of scenic splendor in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake. The drive along the Niagara River is amazing and the town is in the very heart of a booming wine industry. Niagara wines used to be swill, but they have had a decided upgrade. Even Wayne Gretzky has a vineyard there and it has several areas related to his hockey memorabilia. Our favorite, though, was Stratus–not the cheapest you can drink, but maybe the best. The vineyard certainly does things right; the operation is practically a showcase in green viticulture.



If there’s anything better than the wine, it’s Niagara cherries and peaches. Stop at Greaves downtown and buy some cherry preserves; they are my favorite ever. The reason the region is so (ahem!) fruitful is because it is on Lake Ontario, not Lake Erie like Buffalo, your likely border crossing. Lake Ontario has quite different weather systems. You could even visit in the winter, as the yearly snow total is roughly what Buffalo gets in one bad storm. Check it out Niagara-on-the-Lake whenever you go to Niagara Falls. Did I mention that the falls are awesome?   



Rob Weir