6/24/19

Fashion Nonsense: A Satire

High fashion: 17th century style

A few days ago I saw a woman walking downtown wearing yoga pants and Crocs. That’s not unusual, but it was pretty obvious that this person has never assumed the Lotus position and wasn’t on her way to do some gardening.

There’s often a big gap between “fashion” and what’s merely “fashionable.” I marvel over the basic contradiction in North American society between individualism and the desire to look like everyone else. Do fashion and commonsense even know each other?  

It’s not like this is new. Check out pix of Baroque era men mincing about in powdered wigs, dotting their pancaked faces with fake moles, tottering in their architectural shoes, and wearing garish clothing that made them look like mutant tropical birds. (See above) Watch some old movies where all the men wore hats, ties, and worsted wool suits–even in summer. (Remarkably they never seemed to sweat.)

Full confession: I too have sinned. In the late 1960s I grew my hair long, wore a bandana headband, had several blousy flowered shirts, strings of love beads, and bell-bottoms so wide my legs disappeared. I also had a fringed leather vest and moccasins, but envied my buddy Mike who had an entire fringed ensemble. Whenever Mike moved, he was out of focus.  If he had but carried a long rifle, he could have been Buffalo Bill’s body double. In the ‘70s I briefly had a particularly ugly pair of 3-inch stack-heeled shoes. Hey, when you’re only 5’5” those babies almost made me reach for an oxygen tank. Later on I owned a polyester leisure suit and I’m not proud about that.

Let’s not let our Canadian friends off the hook. In the 1980s I spent time in Montreal, where I observed that all the women were supposed to dress like they just walked off a Paris runway, whilst the men looked as if they just waded out of a Paramus swamp. When I visited last summer, the women still looked overdressed, but the men upgraded to looking like French existentialists too bored to notice their attire.

Cue current wicked dumb fashion:

1. Crocs are today’s jellies.
 
Please leave in garden with the dude below



Remember “jellies,” those molded plastic shoes lots of young women wore until they collectively said, “Damn! These are really uncomfortable, unspeakably dumb-looking, and make my feet smell like I bathed in raw sewage?” Crocs are just like that, only uglier.

2. Ripped jeans and rip-offs.
When I was a kid my mother patched the holes of my ripped jeans. She used old denim if available; if not, any material she had, as if the humiliation of the makeshift patches were intended to warn me not to tear them again. She would have grounded me had I asked to spend $100 on jeans that look as if weasels shredded them. She had a word for such garments: rags.

Ladies: When buying a handbag or a pair of nosebleed heels, never spend a sum that is greater than your college debt.

3. Tattoos

Yeah, I know scarification is an old art form. It used to be, though, that mostly Maori, U.S. Navy veterans, and sideshow freaks had tats. Now scores of people you barely know will brazenly pull up their shirts or push down their trou to display their ink. Ironically, much of it is on parts of their bodies they can’t even see.

4. Boxer shorts underwear.

I guess that’s because you just never know when you’ll be called upon to spar a few rounds.

5. Mullet dresses.

Can we just agree that any and all forms of the mullet are a really bad idea–even for a tooth-challenged hockey player?

6. Shorts that aren’t and other spatial distortions.

Ummm… aren’t long shorts an oxymoron? Is the point of them to make it appear as if your waist is connected directly to your ankles? A female corollary would be Uggs and short skirts. One's hemline should always be longer than the height of the footwear.

7. Twenty going on fifty fashions.

What’s up with gear like nerd glasses, pork pie hats, nouveau poodle skirts, retro mod, the calico renaissance, the return of Butterick patterns, and patterned shirts so ugly a drunken Scotsman wouldn’t wear them? To my young friends in your 20s: You really don’t want to hasten the process of what you’ll look like when you’re 50!

8. Rhinestone cowboys.

If you’ve never ridden the range or been closer to a cow than a milk carton, don’t wear cowboy hats or boots.

9. Geographically inappropriate clothing.

An acrylic sweater in New England is like a bikini in Greenland. If you wear pastels up this way, though, people will want to know why you look a Florida verandah. The flip side is that no one south of the Mason-Dixon needs a pair of Bean boots. Other geographic misfits include white suburbanites dressing like Mexican campesinos, Andean llama herders, or Jamaican Rastafarians. Don’t get me started on cos-play.

10.  Of yoga and sweat pants.

I get it that people are often in a hurry, so I’ll overlook the occasional transgression, but I still say you shouldn’t wear athletic wear unless you actually take yoga classes or work out.

Is this the part where I ask you why you’re considering sartorial advice from a guy who now thinks high fashion is a clean t-shirt?

Rob Weir


6/21/19

June 2019 Artist of the Month: Youssou N'Dour



Youssou N’Dour
History

How important is Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour? So important that he recently served as his nation’s Minister of Tourism. So important that he’s often said to be the finest living African musician and some have proclaimed him the greatest ever. You name a Western artist and that person has either collaborated with N’Dour or dreams of doing so. A small sampling of N’Dour’s cross-cultural projects run the gamut from Peter Gabriel to Lou Reed, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen. He has been so prolific that he’s exhausted musical labels: World Beat, Afro-Pop, Desert Blues, International, Muslim griot….

N’Dour actually sprung from a West African hybrid called mbalax, which freely mixes rock, jazz, and traditional music and sets songs to hand drums. This creates a popular type of club dance music, but also a sound that befits ceremonies from religious rites to birthday celebrations. History is N’Dour’s first recording in four years. Like a bride’s wedding costume, it’s something old, something borrowed, and something new.  If you are a longtime N’Dour fan, you’ll hear vintage songs such as “My Child” and “Takuta” that memorialize Babatunda Olatunji (1921-2003), the Nigerian percussionist with whom N’Dour worked for many years. These songs are seamless blends of pop and jazz served sunny side up. Listen to N’Dour’s charming accented English in the first: Oh my child/Don’t you worry/I be dance for you. Olatunji used pulses, sticks, and blocks to steady the second song, one that also sports alto sax and powerful, yet calm tones. The piece evokes the vibe of soft California-style jazz.

N’Dour’s English has gotten more precise, and he also sings in French and several African languages. History dusts off a few more 1990s hits such as “Salimata” and “Ay Coona La,” but these are where the old and borrowed meet the new. Each has a mellow instrumental wrapper–perfect frames for N’Dour’s muscular voice. Some might also recognize another old hit, “Hello,” but we get a remix on History, this one with a Congolese woman named Mohombi singing the lead and N’Dour breaking through the background with exhorting vocals. About two minutes in N’Dour’s band rocks out with some crashing electric guitar and big swells before settling back into a softer groove. I’m still not sure if I prefer these to the originals, but they are well done.

N’Dour’s versatility is all over this album. There is the soulful and tender “Tell Me,” as well as “Birma,” his love letter to Africa. The latter is a remake that features the Gambian-Swedish chanteuse Seinabo Sey. I could go on, but there really isn’t much I can say except to tell the uninitiated that millions associate Yassou N’Dour’s music with the very pulse of West Africa. He belongs to the world now, so there’s no excuse for not listening.

Rob Weir

6/19/19

Fix the NHL: Go International

Henri Richard prepares to shoot

 
Once upon a time, the National Hockey League was a synonym for "Canadian." Players from the Great North so dominated NHL ranks that it was noteworthy when someone from the U.S. made the roster.

No more. The Stanley Cup-wining St. Louis Blues were an oddball in that of the 34 skaters who laced up for the Blues this year, Canadians outnumbered those from elsewhere by more than 2:1 margin. Their opponents, the Boston Bruins, were more typical; their roster had 16 Americans, 7 Canadians, 7 Swedes, 4 Slovaks, 2 Czechs, and 2 Finns. Overall, Canadians make up just a tick under 50 percent of current NHL players.

Ice hockey has become an international sport. Blame the communists. In 1956, the Soviet Union began dominating the Olympics and International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments, the "world cup" of hockey, winning 10 of the next 12 Olympics. (The two odd d/pucks were the USA in 1960,and1 980, not Canada.) Then two things happened: the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Sweden won gold in 1994. The story is the same for the hockey world cup–Canada and Russia have done well, but so have Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Finland. Even Slovakia hoisted an IIHF crown.

Worsely makes save
I love the NHL, but it's woefully behind the times. Both international hockey tournaments and the Olympics offer a far superior spectator product. It's still the case that you won't find a better assemblage of hockey talent anywhere on the planet than at an NHL rink. It's also true, however, that NHL rink is built as if Henri Richard was about to unload a shot on Gump Worsley. If those names don't rings bells, Henri ("The Pocket Rocket") Richard played in the NHL from 1955-75, and Gump Worsley was a goalie who strapped on the pads from 1952-84. Both are in the Hall of Fame and each was just 5'7" tall. Worsley, by the way, never wore a mask. Therein lies the next chapter of the tale.

Zdeno Chara, the anti-Richard!


Notice the size!
I'm not about to launch into one a boorish rant about how things were better in some hypothetical golden age. Things change. If you've ever seen Zdeno Chara on skates, the dude looks like he should be in the NBA. It's not a trick of the eye; he's 7'2" when he's in his skates. The average goaltender is now 6'3"before putting on skates, helmet, mask, and enough padding to make a medieval knight jealous. A guy who is 5'10" tall is now called a "small" player.

All of this begs the question of why NHL rinks still look like they did in Henri Richard's era. Oh sure, those old buildings are long gone (and not necessarily for the better), but the NHL ice sheet is 85' wide by 200' feet long with 11 feet behind the nets. By contrast, Olympic-sized rinks are 100' wide by 200' with 13' feet behind the nets. The latter reward highly skilled skaters, the likes of whom routinely rush down ice at better than 20 mph. For the fan it means a faster-paced game with more scoring opportunities. There are also fewer penalties taken by goons sniping on forwards, not to mention that fighting is an automatic ejection in every league except the NHL.

The NHL has had trouble getting a major TV contract outside of Canada and that's partly because NHL hockey is often pretty boring. The puck is hard to see, even on today's high-def screens because it spends too much time lost in a scrum of big guys pushing and shoving along the boards. The same heavy traffic occurs in front of the net. How often have you not even seen a goal until the slow motion replay runs? We don't see nearly enough beautiful skating with crisp cross-ice passes that result in pinpoint slap shots. The NHL can try any gimmick it wants–Peter Puck or Laser Puck anyone?–but until it unclogs the ice, TV hockey will remain the small domain of hockey nuts. There just aren't enough of them for the major networks to have the U.S. equivalent of Hockey Night in Canada.

Why not just widen the rinks? Money, m'boys. Adding 7.5' on each side of the rink means reducing capacity by eliminating rows of premium seats. Hockey is way more dependent upon attendance revenue than other major sports. Take baseball for example. Attendance has fallen, yet its total revenue has risen. It's not just bums in the seats that generate cash. The Yankees can pack 47,000 people into their ballpark, but 277,000 watch each game on TV. Can you say advertising revenue? Residuals? Merchandise tie-ins?

The NHL finds itself in a vicious circle of its own making. Owners don't want to reduce rink capacity, so we continue to see games on surfaces built for yesterday's game. Today's players are better, but fewer people outside the rink see them because the game has grown duller. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hasn't done much right since taking the reins in 1993, but were he to mandate bigger ice surfaces, I'd stamp his pass for the Hall of Fame. Hockey is an international sport and it's time the NHL treats it as such.

Rob Weir

6/17/19

Rami Malek Dazzles in So-So Bohemian Rhapsody


Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Directed by Brian Singer
20th Century Fox, 134 minutes, PG-13 (mild language, sexual situations)
★★★

Here’s part three of catching up with Oscar-winning films I didn’t see in the theater. Bohemian Rhapsody won four Academy Awards, including Rami Malek’s Best Oscar statue for his portrayal of rock legend Freddie Mercury.

A disclaimer: I was never a fan of Queen. I knew the basics of Freddie Mercury’s life and it was impossible not to hear Queen’s hit singles; “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” were staples in ballparks and hockey arenas, for example. But I dodged disco and glam rock in the mid-70s and ‘80s, both of which I dislike to this day. In my mind, pop-rock went off the deep end when The Who released Quadrophenia (1973).

This is prelude to admitting that I am unqualified to say how true or not Malek was to the historical Freddie Mercury. I will say, though, that of all the actors nominated for Best Actor, Malek deserved to win the Oscar. (Or at least I think so, as I’m yet to see Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born.) His was a strong portrayal of an Indian-Brit* trying to fit into worlds in which he is by nature an outcast. He was a short man with funny teeth, dark-skinned, a risk-taker in the conservative music industry, and gay. Malek shows us the allure of trying to go mainstream, the frustration of being rebuffed, and the costs associated with defying expectations.

We meet Farrokh Bulsara­–Mercury’s birth name­–in 1970, when he is a Heathrow baggage handler who goes clubbing at night and admires a band called Smile. First anachronism: No club bands had sound this clean in 1970. When Smile’s lead singer abruptly quits, Farrokh belts out a tune in the parking lot and is hired as the new vocalist. Anachronism two: Bands don’t audition singers as they are packing up a van. These are movie fairy tales, but we get the idea that it was a good idea to give the “Paki”** a shot.

As in most rock dramatizations, time is elided and liberties are taken with how the band’s rise unfolded, but in the film “Freddie” pushes the band to think big. He also acquires a girlfriend/fiancĂ©, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), although I gather this didn’t happen the way it’s portrayed either. In the wink of a camera’s eye–though it actually took three years–Smile has been renamed Queen, Farrokh has changed his legal name to Freddie Mercury, Queen has a string of hits, and wings off to North America, where Freddie begins to ponder his sexual preferences as he eyes beefcake at a truckstop. The last of these seems far-fetched, but maybe that’s how it went down.

In 1975, two big events take place. First, Freddie sticks to his guns and insists that “Bohemian Rhapsody” should be released as a single, even though his record label hates the song and claims it’s too long for radio play. Second, Freddie tells Mary he’s bisexual and she (allegedly) tells him he’s actually gay and breaks off their engagement. Director Brian Singer is a controversial figure who is fending off numerous allegations of gay sexual abuse of minors. Such charges are nightmares for gay men seeking mainstream acceptance, and Singer didn’t do them any other favors when he presents Freddie’s immersion into a gay lifestyle as concomitant with things unraveling for Queen.

Again, time elision is the culprit. Queen acquires a new manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, Tom in Downton Abbey), who is a huckster and Freddie’s lover. Prenter is presented as holding a Svengali-like hold over Freddie, who descends into an abyss marked by reckless sex, drugs, non-stop parties, and fights with the band over missed rehearsals and recording sessions. He becomes–and I use the terms advisedly–bitchy and swishy. Singer presents all of this is in quickstep, though what happened after 1975 actually unfolded over 9 years. When Prenter dropped the ball and almost locked Queen out of the 1984 Live-Aid concert, he was fired and went on the talk show circuit to out Mercury publicly. It didn’t matter, as Queen slayed the London Live-Aid audience and Freddie took up with a more stable lover, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). There was an outpouring of grief when Mercury contracted AIDS and died.

Bohemian Rhapsody was not universally loved. I gather that if you are a Queen purist there are significant departures from what actually happened. In my estimation, in its totality this is a so-so film. Band members are too often presented as deer caught in Mercury’s headlights; only rarely do they have agency of their own. This is also a problem with the way Boynton’s part was written. She often appears as a muse, who flits in Tinkerbell style to save Freddie from himself and, like the band, has little personality when not swimming in Mercury (as it were). Another beef: This is still another rock bio whose structure is built along an arc that takes us from one hit to the next. Hollywood wasn’t going to cough up a Best Director Oscar given Singer’s legal woes, but he didn’t deserve one anyhow.

Let’s call Bohemian Rhapsody what it is: a run-of-the mill effort lifted by one great performance. While I’m at it, the movie is like the titular song–longer than it needs to be.

Rob Weir

* Mercury was born on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. His parents were Indian and fled because their Parsi religious beliefs made them targets of both Hindu and Muslim bigots.   

** Paki is short for Pakistan and is a racist term used in the film (and society) by British yahoos. It is a colonial holdover that denigrates those of Southeast Asian descent regardless of actual birthplace or nationality. 

6/14/19

Brattleboro Museum and Art Center Serves Another Winner


Sandy Sokoloff; Amy Bennett; Joseph Diggs; Glasstastic 
Brattleboro Museum and Art Center
Brattleboro, Vermont
[Exhibits Closing June 16]
Click images for larger size viewing.

Alas, by the time most of you read this, these exhibits will have closed. So why review them? The first reason is to give a shout out to the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC), which has a well-deserved reputation for creative curatorship. When you don’t have a permanent collection of beloved masterpieces and are located in a small city, you are forced to think outside the box. Few do this better than the BMAC, which accomplishes that feat by mounting shows from artists that perhaps you don’t know very well, but should.

Any time you find yourself in southern Vermont, you should stop by the BMAC and take a look. The second reason for the review is so you can keep an eye peeled. Most of the BMAC’s featured artists are well regarded in the art world, and once you’re introduced, you'll stumble upon them elsewhere.

Let’s start with Sandy Sokoloff. Maybe that name sounds vaguely familiar. His work wowed gallery goers from the 1970s into the 1990s, before he decided to step out of the limelight. The BMCA show was his first in 30 years and departs from his early work in numerous ways. He no longer works in oil due to an allergy to turpentine, so the canvases in the Emanation show are acrylic. Second, they are large and I mean really large. Foundation and Kindness are each 66” x 96” and Beginning is a whopping 72” x 104.”

Those names are translated from Hebrew. Although Sokoloff labels himself a non-observant Jew, he draws inspiration from the ancient Kabbalah and its esoteric mysteries. This is particularly the case when he contemplates the relationship between the infinite and finite beings such as humans. Sokoloff describes his current works as a cross between Op art and the Big Bang. That’s exactly how I felt viewing his work, even before I read his artist statement. His paintings are immense, bold, and hypnotic. Stare at them long enough and the eye and mind are tricked into thinking they are 3-D. From this point on, whenever someone asks me what the Big Bang was like I will tell that person to look at Sokoloff’s Emanation series.

Curator Mara Williams tracked down Sokoloff in his Grand Isle studio on Lake Champlain. Now that the word is out, I doubt Emanation will remain a secret much longer.

 Sokoloff works big, but Amy Bennett works on a much smaller scale. Her Nuclear Family exhibit is as advertised–sort of. This Beacon, New York painter has exhibited various projects widely. Sokoloff’s work appears three-dimensional, but Bennett actually works from carefully constructed models, which she lights and arranges before painting what she sees on relatively small canvases.

In Nuclear Family Bennett calls attention to the mental “models” we construct around families and some of their built-in contradictions. By painting tidy worlds with such geometrical precision, we subconsciously begin to unpeel myth from reality. She also accomplishes this by displacing our gaze. When she skews angles, it's as if we are aerial spies or peeping toms.

Bennett wordlessly suggests narratives of those we observe, especially when it comes to the roles of women–brides, mothers, domestics–within the family. Yet she also makes those women enigmatic. Bennett’s miniaturized POV keeps us so off-balance that we start to write our own narratives. Is the woman on the floor exhausted, or is she exercising. Does the nursing semi-nude feel trapped, or is she feeling exhilaration? Are the clean, organized displays of material prosperity symbols of comfort and success, or of soulless conformity and sterility? 


Joseph Diggs unhinges us by calling attention to how the world looks through African-American eyes. Diggs works in mixed media for his Proud 2 Be American. It is not
intended to be ironic–he honors his Tuskegee Airman uncle, for example–but it’s hard to be black in America and not comment on racism. Chalk Line Baller, for instance, evokes Negro League baseball, but also memorializes James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged to death behind a truck in 1998. The North Carolina-based Diggs excels is using iconic symbols such as the flag, baseball, music clubs, and military service to make us think about the many layers of experience beneath them. The namesake composition reflects upon pride and race. How does one untangle patriotic service abroad from discrimination at home?


 
The BCMA is noted for displaying the offbeat. If you think art museums are deadly serious places, you’ve not seen one of its fantastic Glasstastic shows. The very idea behind these is inspired. Curator Linda Whelihan and others asked kids from K-6 to imagine creatures, draw them, and write a short story to go with them. Twenty professional glass artists then reviewed the 1,200 submissions and brought some of the creatures to life–as it were–in glass sculptures based on the kids’ drawings. 
 
The works are amazing! They are also whimsical, imaginative, and often laugh-out-loud funny. No artist can possibly top the inspired silliness, innocence, and humor of the kids. Not every submission was sculpted, but the kids’ artwork and tales got a broader treatment. Their stories made me wonder what I did in elementary school as I know I wasn’t this creative: creatures that make us happy by shooting out cup cakes, a smiling tube with superpowers that can be a glue stick if needed, a spaghetti monster more flexible than Mr. Fantastic, a booger-eating critter, and all manner of bug-like, multi-limbed, alien, and monstrous beings. May these kids never lose their love of fantasy. May they forever live in their magical realms.




Rob Weir

Scotty Bowers Reveals Gay Hollywood


Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2018)
Directed by Matt Tynauer
Greenwich Entertainment, 98 minutes, NR (Strong/graphic sexual content)
★★★

It shouldn’t shock anyone to learn that the lives of Hollywood celebrities seldom conform to the images crafted by public relations agents. Still, Scotty Bowers’ revelations make The Day of the Locust seem like a children’s tale.

Bowers, 95, expands upon his 2012 memoir Full Service in a tattletale documentary film about closeted gay and lesbian life from the 1940s into the 1980s. The title of Bowers' memoir references becoming pimp to the stars. It began when Walter Pidgeon first performed oral sex on him at his Wiltshire Avenue gas station in 1946. Bowers goes on to claim that he procured for and/or had sex with a dizzying array of glitterati: George Cukor, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, J. Edgar Hoover, Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, Randolph Scott, Cole Porter, Tyrone Powers—even Bob Hope and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor! He also located female partners for Vivien Leigh and Lauren Bacall, claims to have a three-way with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, and alleges to have supplied Katharine Hepburn with around 150 female partners. In his telling, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’ famed romance was a sham designed to keep her lesbianism and his homosexuality out of the limelight. (Bowers claims to have had sex with Tracy on several occasions.) 

Numerous individuals appear on screen to claim that Bowers was practically a one-man social worker for gays and lesbians. To talking heads such as Stephen Fry and Peter Bart, he was little short of heroic. For his part, Bowers claims never to have made a dime for his services, which is not quite true as several left him money and houses when they died.

Here’s where things get–pardon the wordplay–tricky. Bowers claims to have waited until his principals were dead to write his book and be in the documentary. That’s either noble or a good way of making sure no one would refute what he said. Whatever else Bowers was or wasn’t, it’s impossible not to notice that he is a name-dropper. It often feels as if he’s trying to one-up himself as he catalogues conquests and services rendered. He claims, for example, to have been initiated into gay sex by a priest when he was barely pubescent and that there was “nothing wrong with” what the priest did. Give Bowers credit; he’s unabashed about sex. He goes on, though, to say that in essence, he did all the priests in the parish.

Did this happen? Damned if I know or care. There is, however, a Scotty-as-Zelig pall over this film. It certainly doesn’t help his credibility that Bowers appears a tad unhinged in the film. He is a hoarder whose various homes and garages are falling apart and stuffed to the gills with trash, treasures, and cats. His properties are so much on the filthy side that he feeds the skunks that come to visit in the evening. Somewhere along the line Scotty acquired a wife, Lois, but we learn almost nothing about her or their relationship.

Was all of Hollywood gay? The film’s most convincing parts are those that remind us of how different the times were. It is fairly well established that actresses such as Tallulah Bankhead, Billie Burke, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo either had same-sex flings or were exclusively lesbian. For the next generation, production codes, decency crusaders, and contract morality clauses practically guaranteed that any sort of sexuality, including marital, was veiled in chastity. Bowers also tells of how men coming back from World War II were used to each other’s companionship, some of which expressed itself sexually. Was all of this a perfect libidinal storm?

Maybe. We know from Justin Spring’s superb study Secret Historian that a thriving subterranean gay subculture was there for the taking by those in the know. Spring’s subject, Samuel Steward (1909-93), led a triple life: as Professor Steward, as tattoo artist/pornographer Phil Sparrow, and as gay pulp fiction writer Phil Andros. Steward also claims to have had sex with more men than Wilt Chamberlain had female conquests (allegedly 20,000!). By the way, both Steward and Bowers were major informants for Alfred Kinsey, whom both portray  as one weird dude.

Far be it from me, a straight guy who has only once been to Hollywood, to say what did or didn’t happen there. Hollywood has long been a world of glitz, glamour, kitsch, and baubles. Recent revelations suggest that it’s also filled with predators, plus those who might best be classified as sexually opportunistic. The Secret History of Hollywood often has the feel of tabloid sensationalism the likes of which is often called “dish.” The thing about dish is that it’s hard to resist!

If you pinned me to the wall and forced me to say how much of The Secret History is true, I’d probably waffle and say half of it. But even if Scotty Bowers is the biggest load of crap since Moo Doo, his tale fascinates. I did, however, wish director Matt Tynauer had researched more thoroughly and probed more deeply. It would have, in my estimation, made Bowers more credible and less like a dotty old hoarder telling dirty stories.

Rob Weir
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6/12/19

Green Book Better Than I Expected


Green Book (2018)
Director Peter Farrelly
Universal Pictures, 130 minutes, PG-13 (F-bombs, N-word)
★★★★

Green Book took home 4 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Picture. Was it the best film or 2018? Good heavens no! It wouldn’t have made my top ten. Blackklansman was far superior. But Green Book was far better than I expected.

Green Book is based upon a true story. In 1962 jazz great Don Shirley (1927-2013) embarked upon a tour that took him to the Midwest and into the Deep South. The second part of this was both intentional and problematic. Shirley wanted to visit the South in reaction to an infamous 1956 incident in which crooner Nat King Cole was brutally beaten by white racists in Birmingham, Alabama. 

I will remind younger readers that in 1962, the Civil Rights Act that desegregated all public facilities lay 2 years into the future.The film’s title alludes to a travel guide published for African Americans that listed hotels and eateries that served people of color. (These were decidedly not the posh establishments to which Shirley was accustomed.) For the tour, Shirley hired a white Italian-American driver, Frank “Tony the Lip” Vallelonga (1930-2013), a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. Vallelonga needed the work while the club was being renovated, plus he could provide “muscle” if needed.

Green Book is a classic road film that pairs two opposites. Dr. Shirley* lives above Carnegie Hall, is cultured, multilingual, erudite, a musical genius, sheltered, and stuffy; Tony the Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is barely literate, knows little about the world outside of New York City, smokes like a chimney, eats like a wallowing hog, is street smart, and presents as a low-level wise guy. I often use the phrase, “You can write the rest of the story.” That's certainly true in this case because you’ve seen dozens of tales in which two people who seem to have nothing in common learn from each other, bridge their differences, and become friends. Just fill in a few details here and there: family dynamics, character revelations, ugly incidents, rescues, and (of course) reconciliation.

Need I tell you that there is an entire genre of Hollywood films that couple a black character and a white one? Green Book flirts with cliché in its mix of humorous and poignant cultural disconnections. Director Peter Farrelly plays close to the formula, a strategy that led a few critics to call his film Driving Mr. Daisy (though technically it should have been Mr. Daisy Drives). There is plenty within this movie to ruffle contemporary feathers, including the charge that this is another White Savior feel-good film whose target audience is white liberals.

That is precisely the critique of Shirley’s surviving family members, several of whom dispute the film’s central friendship and claim that Vallelonga was an employee and nothing more. I am tempted to call sour grapes on that one; Vallelonga’s son was one of the scriptwriters and in a position to have observed that friendship firsthand. A more substantive gripe is that Shirley often appears as a chameleon that smiled through discrimination and was largely ignorant of how bad things were in the South. In life, Shirley was quite aware of the civil rights movement and participated in it. He did, after all, choose to go to the South because of what happened to Nat King Cole.

Vallelonga wasn’t entirely as how he appears onscreen either. He was indeed a bouncer in 1962, but he wasn’t an ignorant goomba; he merely played that role. The historical Vallelonga acted in 21 films. Some pretty good ones, in fact: The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, and Donnie Brasco ....

Given that the only two men who knew exactly what happened on that trip are no longer with us, all is open for speculation. To judge the film on its own merits, Ali and Mortensen have real chemistry. So much so, that their screen bond makes the unlikely seem possible. They also cover script holes and directorial missteps. It isn’t until after the credits roll that it occurred to me that a moment of defiance in Birmingham reminded me of Sally Field confronting the bosses in Norma Rae. Or that I had been watching History Lite.

Green Book is no masterpiece, but it’s well worth watching.  Given the tenor of our own times, maybe we need to learn lessons from the Jim Crow era all over again.

Rob Weir

* Shirley was often addressed as “Dr. Shirley” on the basis of several honorary degrees. He obtained a B.A. in music from Catholic University, but had no formal graduate-level training.