Sloan Wainwright--Best in Family!

New Bedford Summer Fest
July 2-4, 2010

It’s a great mystery to us why New Bedford Summer Fest continues to be unknown to most people more than an hour from Boston—it might well be the very best music festival in all of New England, and just $15 per day gives you access to a lot of the same people you’d spend well over a hundred bucks to see at Newport. It’s better run than Falcon Ridge, more creative than Old Songs, more diverse than Champlain, and easier to get to than the Boston Folk Festival. What is it? New Bedford?

If you’ve never been to New Bedford, give it a try. Think Gloucester without Moonies or Yuppies. It’s an old whaling town and is gritty in places, but the downtown, where Sumer fest is held, has been redone with cobblestone streets, small museums, galleries, and cafes. The town’s jewel is the Whaling Museum operated by the National Park Service—with more than you ever wanted to know about the leviathan hunt days of yore.

As for Summer Fest, it’s seven stages dispersed among vendor-lined streets. The July 4 weekend was clear, bright, and low humidity, the latter a rarity this summer. Lots of festivals have multiple stages but obvious choices as to who needs to be seen at what time. That’s not the case at Summer Fest; the lineup is so impressive that you have to make hard choices. Here are our highlights, though we didn’t even get to see some old favorites such as Susan Werner, Vance Gilbert, Little Johnny England, or The Kennedys.

Jack Amerding is a name to know, a talented guy who’s like a younger version of John McCutheon. Amerding dazzles on fiddles, frets, and vocals with a repertoire that runs the gamut from bluegrass to Celtic.

We had not heard Caroline Aiken very much before and man does she sizzle! She reminds us a bit of Bonnie Raitt in her blues personae, Janis Joplin when she airs it out, and of a white griot when she tells tales of her Southern girlhood

We laughingly call Benoit Bourque “the happiest man in folk music.” Check out his clogging, his perpetual smile, and his good-time Quebecois repertoire.

John Gorka was once the goofy rising star—now he’s the consummate pro. His rich baritone voice, smart songs, and trenchant observations make him a must-see no matter who else is on the bill.

Anne Hills was on hand to remind us of folk music’s link with social change, the joys of group singing, and the pure magic that comes from one guitar and one clear-as-a-bell voice.

Had it with stupid people and dumb songs? Check out old friend James Keelaghan, a poetic voice from Canada who writes some of the smartest lyrics around. Very few people can put tale to song like James.

We've only been mildly moved by the recordings of Peter Mulvey, but he sure does put on a heck of a show, one that traipses through Tin Pan Alley, dresses up in some blues, and waltzes around the Americana stage.

One of the promising new lineups coming out of Scotland is The Paul McKenna Band. McKenna’s tenor voice has unique light qualities and he and his band studied with Brian McNeill at the Royal Scottish Academy, so you’ll hear echoes of early Battlefield Band.

Po’Girl is a real mash-up—four members and a stage full of instruments that run from the expected (acoustic guitars, dobro, piano) to the say-what? (clarinet, glockenspiel, gutbucket bass, bicycle bell). Think folk with a gospel feel, some blues, and bohemian sensibilities.

The brightest star in the constellation? That would be Sloan Wainwright, who delivered killer sets everywhere she appeared and with everything she sang. If you’re going to cover Marvin Gaye, you’d better have chops. She has ‘em, alright. Talk about your family trees! She’s the sister of Loudon Wainwright III, the sister-on-law of Kate McGarrigle, her nephew is Rufus Wainwright, and her nieces are Martha and Lucy Wainwright. Believe us when we say that Sloan is more talented than any of them! She does it all—soul, pop, acoustic folk, jazz, rock…. and boy does she get into it. If you don’t know her you might be tempted to say that she’s stagey, but it’s genuine—the woman simply loves to sing. And so would you if you had a contralto voice like hers. Imagine what Celine Dion would be if she know how to sing. She still wouldn’t be as good as Sloan Wainwright.


The Secret in their Eyes Decent but Not Great

The Secret in their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella

Argentina (2009); In Spanish with subtitles.
127 mins. Rated R (nudity, rape, violence, language)
* * *

When the Oscars came around last spring we had seen almost every nominee except the foreign language entries. As it turns out, this was the most controversial category. Odds makers had The White Ribbon (Germany) as the prohibitive favorite with The Prophet (France) as the dark horse. The winner, Argentina’s The Secret in their Eyes was a shocker. Those who would dismiss the Oscars as irrelevant should consider--The White Ribbon, which is a masterpiece was only in theaters long enough to down a box of Raisinets before heading to DVD, while Secret, a middling film, is still selling tickets. It’s been at our local cinema for six weeks, which is where we finally saw it.

Many critics liked the film, including Roger Ebert, but quite a few hated it. Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe averred that it “has the high, slightly nauseating stink of perfume on garbage.” Great line! But inaccurate. So too is Ebert’s praise. The Secret in their Eyes is something in between a classic and a dog—call it a stylishly done run-of-the-mill thriller. It attempts to graft a film-detective formula—a decades-old unresolved mystery—to a cliché posing as wisdom: that the eyes cannot conceal or lie.

The film also breaks out the shopworn tool of a man late in life feeling the need to exorcise old demons by writing a book about them. In this case we meet retired judge Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Dario) in 1999, who is haunted by the 1974 murder that he solved when he was still a court investigator. It involved the brutal rape and murder of a pretty school teacher and the eventual conviction of a creep she knew from her youth. Already we’re on clichéd ground and director Campanella adds a few more: Pablo, Benjamin’s drunken-but-loyal sidekick (Guillermo Francella); Ricardo, the widower husband determined to solve the murder on his own (Pablo Rago); Irene (Soledad Villami), the new judicial officer for whom Benjamin yearns; and a jumbo-sized popcorn bucket full of corrupt politicians. The latter describes most of Argentina’s ruling elite during the 1970s, but this is no Missing (1982) and Campanella is no Costa Gavras. (Okay, so Missing was set in Chile, but Argentina’s Peronistas were no better. Campanella’s passing reference to the Perons is ham handed.)

The eyes are the key. Benjamin is determined to break the case when he sees the pain in Ricardo’s face. Irene reads guilt in the killer’s eyes and sees Benjamin’s yearning for her in his. Benjamin reads Pablo’s besotted intelligence beneath his Beatle-cut brow, and--for reasons never quite explained--reads Irene’s longing for him but averts his eyes. Etcetera…. Twenty-five years later there are still some secrets that need to be cleared up. Can Benjamin still reach a person’s soul through their gaze? For the record, I believe that the eyes can tell tales—I can often identify an intelligent student by an ineffable spark I see in the iris—but there’s a reason why we have expressions such as “poker face.” Campanella would have use believe that the eyes are better than sodium pentothal and that it’s never too late to start all over. The degree to which you believe these things will pretty much shape to degree which you find his film compelling versus contrived.

The film has a classy look to it—almost as if it’s a 40s film noir shot in color. The acting is also very good, especially Dario as Benjamin exuding approach-but-don’t-touch buttoned-up reserve. Villami is also superb as a nobody’s fool woman who’s equal parts competent, desirable, and cool as ice. The film also has a creepy resolution that invites contemplation of the word “justice.” In all, it’s a film that’s worth watching, but for heavens sake, don’t buy into its hype.
Postscript: We finally saw Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. We wholeheartedly concur with Lloyd Sellus’ review on this site. Put this one on your Netflix queue immediately. What if the testimony of the children in the Salem witch trials had never been repudiated? Put those kids in a repressed Protestant German village in 1914, the kind where everyday brutality passes as improving character. Talk about the “secret” in the eyes! You can almost see swastikas shooting out like time-delayed bombs in the pupils of the village offspring. This isn’t a good film—it’s a contender for best of the century. Too bad Hollywood was dazzled by Campanella’s bling and was blinded to Haneke’s steely glare.


Ruth Reichl Book Lightweight

Ruth Reichl
For You Mom, Finally

Penguin Books
* *

In the academy where I work, scholars still worry about genres and outdated ideas like the literary cannon. That’s really quite quaint when you think about it, as our students live in a world of mash-ups, category-crossing, and genre-smashing. And lord knows they don’t read very much. I’ve long been an advocate of replacing all literary genres with just two: good books and bad books, a “good” book being that students will read, and a “bad” one that which you can’t bribe, cajole, or force them to read. If that makes Kurt Vonnegut a more important writer than Jane Austen, so be it. (Confession: I think Vonnegut is way better than Austen!)

This brings me to Ruth Rechl’s memoir For You Mom, Finally. Bad book! One reviewer hailed it as a “feminist manifesto.” Good grief! If this is all that feminism has to show in the 47 years since The Feminine Mystique, it’s time to reexamine its assumptions. My reading of this breezy 120-page over-simplification of women’s lives suggests that it’s less a feminist tract than a work aimed at the pseudo-genre of “chick lit.” Given how I feel about scholarly categories, you can imagine what I think of pseudo genres.

Reich is a food critic and TV celebrity, not a literary powerhouse. She has a good story to tell, but she filters it through the nostrums, glib asides, and easy-to-digest analyses suitable for TV rather than asking the harder questions historians would ask. It’s a shame because her story could be compelling. Reichl muses on the meaning of her mother Miriam’s life¬—that of a woman who wanted to become a doctor but yielded every step of the way to the bourgeois gender expectations of the twentieth-century. She studied music, though she was not good at it; took low-level clerical jobs that bored her; and ultimately became a homemaker, though she had no aptitude whatsoever for it. Miriam (“Mim”) never stopped dreaming of being a doctor and moved through life with a spacey detachment from reality that led from one domestic train wreck to the next—think the character of Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s superb Housekeeping. Along the way Mim gets lots of bad advice and loads of pharmaceuticals.

The arc of Mim’s tragedy is familiar to those who’ve studied women’s history; in fact, it’s quite similar in many ways to what drove Betty Friedan into the arms of feminism. But those who want to give similar heft to Reichl’s volume are seeing things that aren’t there. Reichl claims to have assembled part of the tale from a cache of her mother’s letters, but there’s no way of telling whether these are actual documents, or a literary device. If they are actually letters, they need to be put into the hands of a critical-eyed scholar. And when a book opens with the admission that “my mother was a great example of everything I didn’t want to be” (7) we must wonder at key moments whether the motives being described are those of Mim, or those imposed by Ruth. Moreover, Ruth admits that her mother’s frustrated ambitions justify her own workaholic lifestyle. When asked why she labors so hard she replies, “Because I can.” (10) But she has no answer for the woman she met at a book signing (117) who asked her why anyone would want to toil as hard as she. (I wonder what Reichl would make of the old Industrial Workers of the World campaign for the “right to be lazy?”)

Herein lies the tale not told. My reading of feminism is that it’s about choices in the plural, not a simplistic either/or selection. Reichl had an opportunity to tell a complex tale of the forces shaping women’s lives; instead she wrote a justification for her own life choices. It is a story filled with enough—as she calls them—“Mim Tales”--to tantalize and suggest, but at every step of the way she opts for cheap emotionality instead of depth. There are several moving passages, but her Kleenex-box approach to writing is classic chick lit to be consumed in a setting no more thought-provoking than the beach.