Searching for Sugar Man a Gem (I Hope!)

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Sony Picture Classics, 86 minutes, PG-13
* * * * *

This documentary may be the best film of 2012, even though it may also be a bit of a put-on. At the very least, it’s one of the better films dealing with social class in recent memory.

The film opens in South Africa, where white Afrikaners that opposed the oppressive white-led regime speak of the various things that gave them courage in the bleak days before apartheid withered away in 1994. Young people were especially inspired by two albums that made their way from the United States: Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). Both were on the blacklist, yet everyone knew the records. They were so influential that white South Africans assumed that the man who wrote and performed the songs, Sixto Rodriguez, was a superstar in America. Except, he wasn’t. In fact, the very record that went gold in South Africa when they were reissued in 1991 sold in the tens in the United States and Rodriguez was so obscure that he dropped from sight. In South Africa, though, various legends sprouted. Nearly all ended in Rodriguez’s death—either in prison where he was sent for murdering his wife; or from suicide on stage (either by shooting himself or by setting himself afire.) Musicians idolized Rodriguez, fans spread fanciful stories, and producers nicknamed themselves “Sugar Man,” the title of a favored track about drug dealers on the mean streets of America. After apartheid collapsed, Rodriguez’s albums were officially released in South Africa, his fame was rekindled, and everyone knew about him. Except, they didn’t! No one knew anything about the man at all–just the songs. He was an album photo–a man who appeared to be Latino, though he wrote and sang like Bob Dylan. The mystique about Rodriguez led devotees to take up the task of telling the “true” story of their hero. But they faced a huge problem: nobody seemed to know anything about him after 1971.  It was as if the man disappeared from the planet. Put simply, the legends were thicker than Rodriguez’s known biography.

So what does any music fanatic do in such a situation? He combs lyrics for clues and begins to follow the melodic crumbs. The first surprise was that the Mexican-American Rodriguez didn’t hail from the Southwest or California; he was from Detroit. The second revelation was even bigger–he wasn’t/isn’t dead. One of Rodriguez’s daughters spied a website created in South Africa and, in 1998, Rodriguez learned of his acclaim (and robust sales) in South Africa. Where had he been? In Detroit, appropriately enough, as that’s where a lot of American dreams go to die. He was an everyday blue-collar working stiff who did demolition work, lived/lives in a squalid inner-city house, and made do with the hand life dealt–not so romantic, but oh-so-real. Maybe!

Director Malik Bendjelloul can’t quite bring himself to abandon the legend. He shows us Rodriguez’s triumphant tours of South Africa and intersperses the film’s second half with interviews with the man, coworkers, and his daughters, but aspects of Rodriguez and his life remain mysterious. There is, for instance, no mention of a mother to his children. (Rumors hold that he has been married twice.) Equally enigmatic is what happened to all the royalty money earned in South Africa that was dutifully sent to his long-defunct record company. And perhaps most puzzling of all is Rodriguez’s calm acceptance of everything that happened. In fact, the man who penned songs loaded with symbolism vacillates between nonchalance and inarticulation on camera. He is either one of the world’s great Stoics, or he’s in cahoots with Bendjelloul to keep alive the Rodriguez legend.  Still another possibility–he is as he appears to be: a guy who had a brief shot at fame, moved on when it didn’t work out, and became another unknown victim of the hidden injuries of class.  In the end, the film’s disturbing images of Detroit squalor leaves more impact than his songs. (They are quite good, but they were also overproduced in the way that ruined a lot of records released in the early 70s--maudlin strings, contrived drama, studio whistles and bells….) Detroit is Michael Moore’s Flint writ larger and stripped of humor and hope.

I can’t tell you how much of this documentary is real–other than Detroit is every bit as awful as it’s made out to be–but whether the Rodriguez back-story as told here is completely true, half true, or inventive, it’s a helluva tale. In fact, it’s such a good yarn that I want it to be true. America is long overdue for a genuine working-class hero. --Rob Weir


Maryanne O'Hara's Cascade a Lively (though flawed) Novel

CASCADE (2012)
Maryanne O’Hara
Viking/Penguin, ISBN 978-0670026029
* * *

An early 20th century song posed the question, “How ya’ gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen gay Paree?” And how can you keep them there if the farm might be doomed to lie 150 feet under water? These questions are at the center of Maryanne O’Hara’s debut novel Cascade.

Enfield, MA--the novel's inspiration--before it was flooded.
Cascade, Massachusetts is modeled loosely on Enfield, the largest of five towns and villages dismantled and plowed under in 1937 to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water for Boston, sixty-five miles distant. (The other four are Dana, Greenwich, Prescott, and Millington, and the stream called “Cascade” is actually the Swift River.) These hamlets were dots on the map that collectively held around 3,000 people–inconsequential places to thirsty Bostonians, but home to generations of rural Bay Staters and the final resting place for 7,500 expired residents. O’Hara opens her book in 1935, when it was fait accompli that some part of the region would be flooded, but it was an open question as to which towns would disappear.

O’Hara’s fictional Cascade is the largest town on the river and one with an unusual history. The protagonist of the tale is Desdemona Hart, whose unusual first name evokes Shakespeare’s “Othello.” “Dez,” as he is called locally, is the surviving offspring of a colorful father, a well-known Shakespearean actor who built and operates an ornate summer playhouse that has for decades brought major talent and minor renown to Enfield. But, remember, it’s 1935–the depth of the Depression. Hart has done everything he can to keep the place running, including selling treasured memorabilia, and rare manuscripts. Even before he dies and leaves Dez buried under debt, the only way end can be met is for her to marry the family’s benefactor, local pharmacist Asa Spaulding. Her father mysteriously willed the playhouse to Asa. He does, however, leave Dez a small casket, a key, and instructions not to open the box until the playhouse reopens.

Enfield Town Hall--perhaps a model for the playhouse.

It’s a toss up which is more imperiled, the playhouse or Dez’s marriage. She is a serious painter who has studied in Paris, worked in Boston, and dreams of living in New York, and Asa can think of nothing more grand than living out his days in Enfield. Asa desires children right away; Dez is pretty sure she never wants them. He is conventional and she has her father’s bohemian heart. Try as she will, Dez sees Asa as a decent man, but as boring as drying paint. It doesn’t help matters when a former art school friend visits Cascade and pronounces it awful, even though she is a struggling New York City artist who hopes to secure a meal ticket with the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. Nor does it help when Dez meets the only other person who shares her aesthetics–a traveling Jewish salesman named Jacob Solomon. In rural Massachusetts during the 1930s, Jews were no more popular than in Germany as the fascists rose to power. There’s also a mysterious death of a water board official that threatens to implicate Dez and Jacob. Scandal, innuendo, accusations, and longing lurk around Dez, even as she launches a postcard and journalism enterprise that finds a New York publisher and brings national attention to Cascade’s peril. 

The novel proceeds to play out these threads. It raises issues of gender expectations in the 1930s, forbidden relationships, and the pull between desire and duty. Will Dez settle down, or take the next train to New York? Is she sincere about trying to save Cascade, or is she deftly undermining it? Is it even okay for a woman to be unconventional? Who can be trusted? What will happen to the playhouse, and what’s in the locked box?

This is one of those books that one reads quickly, even though it’s not fine literature. O’Hara often sacrifices believability in favor of lucky coincidences, and the tone–particularly passages of intimacy–is evocative of that of pulp romances. Some of the characters exude a plucky independent streak that seems more 21st century than 1935. O’Hara doesn’t have a great ear for dialogue, nor is she a great stylist. What she does do with great aplomb is develop vivid background and set up thorny conundrums, so lets give O’Hara credit for storyboarding a very lively tale.

In case you’re wondering, Enfield was never an arts Mecca; O’Hara imagined that. But, as the Bard observed, all’s well that ends well. --Rob Weir


Time for an MYOB Amendment to US Constitution

Ask pundits what’s newsworthy and you'll get drivel like the Fiscal Cliff, Egypt, and Eric Cantor’s missing IQ. Ask Congress what America needs and its well-heeled minions will say reduced taxes for billionaires, school prayer, unfettered access to assault rifles and thermonuclear devices, and laws ensuring that no adult woman is ever again able to determine her own reproductive fate. Talk to real people and they might voice pie-in-the-desires for things such as better schools, roads with potholes smaller than Rhode Island, Social Security when they retire, modest gun control, and laws that won’t allow corporate fat cats to move their jobs to Banglawagecut. They’ll also tell you they want Congress to stop meddling in other people’s business.

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the 113th Congress to improve schools, save Social Security, take down the NRA, or rebuild American infrastructure, and I know it’s not going to force robber barons to create jobs for Americans. So how about throwing “The People” a bone and enacting a new Constitutional amendment? We haven’t had one since 1992, and it —forbidding Congress to raise its pay when not in session—was a real yawner.  There’s been no thrilling attempt to change the Constitution since the Equal Rights Amendment was trashed in 1983.

Well … any white Republican male can tell you it would have been a fricking disaster to treat women as full adults. Still, given the fact that roughly 11 women voted GOP in the 2012 election, even the GOP might be ready to help women a little bit. How about a privacy amendment? Such an amendment would cross political barriers in unprecedented ways. Liberal lifestyles would get a boost and the self-proclaimed moralists holding the House of Representatives hostage might see it as a “mind your own mistress” bill. Libertarians would jump all over it, as would the Wired Generation.

I propose the following text for the 28th Amendment, which is loosely modeled on the 15th Amendment, which affirmed the voting rights of African-American males:

Section 1: The right of all citizens of the United States to be left alone shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, creed, gender, national origin, or brazenness of act or opinion.

Section 2: Congress shall guarantee equal opportunity for all citizens to be left alone and shall have the power to enforce this article.

I fact, it’s a lot like the 15th Amendment in that it would be a recognition on the part of Congress that the only way to deal with emotional issues is to legislate them out of existence–just like Congressional forbearers decided during Reconstruction.
The 28th Amendment would give every American the right to do what advice columnists have been telling us to do for decades: tell busybodies to MYOB.  (Mind Your Own Business). Deep down, wouldn't you like to tell Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann, John Cornyn, John Thune, the I.R.S., and every telemarketer who ever called you at dinner time to MYOB? When members of the Bible Thumper Church of the Bloodstained Redeemer ring your doorbell, wouldn't you love to order them off your property with constitutional authority? 

A properly applied 28th Amendment could eviscerate conflict over Internet porn, abortion rights, gay marriage, and dirty art. The bill implies a total separation of public and private realms and gives citizens complete free will in the latter sphere. If Lady Gaga wants to touch herself suggestively with a chainsaw, or have sex with a herd of elk while spewing obscenities, that's her business.  And if we want to log on to watch, that’s ours. We can be—as 2 Live Crew once put—as nasty as we want to be. As for smut in public arenas, no problem. The public/private split would allow promoters to hire a hall and convert it to a private facility for the duration of the contract, much like some towns rent school auditoriums and stadiums for religious revivals, or close town halls for weddings, DAR fundraisers, and Elks functions not involving Lady Gaga. You could do whatever you want at local clubs and owners would be free from prosecution so long as they don't kidnap teens from the street and force them to dance to filthy rap music at gunpoint.            

Can you imagine? We could even heal America’s divisive abortion debate. It would upset those members of the GOP that want to insert probes into women’s uteruses, but they’d just have to get used to  that and any other objectionable” acts women might perform. But first a little PR campaign to get everyone on board. Recruit Monica Lewinsky to go on the lecture circuit and tout the fact that Section 1 of the 28th Amendment guarantees every American’s right to perform oral sex on any public official of his or her choosing. That would have saved Larry Craig’s career, possibly enough to garner the support of Republican “moderates” (unicorns, griffins, and other mythical creatures). Of course, the tradeoff is that the same wording also protects the right of women to have abortions, as long as they don’t take place in public. By the way, Section 1 would also protect Barack Obama’s right to be publicly black–another thing conservatives will just have to suck up.

The sticking point is what to do with violators. There are some people–like much of the Tea Party–who simply can't mind their own business. We must enforce MYOB rights, as Section 2 stipulates, but it seems cruel to fine or imprison those with obvious psychological maladies. Creative alternative sentencing could come to the rescue. Busybodies convicted of violating the 28th Amendment can be ordered to take in film crews from 60 Minutes, a special prosecutor, and People Magazine subscribers. They would live in the homes of transgressors, scrutinize their past, and reveal embarrassing details on The Jerry Springer Show until an expert panel of bloggers, Internet chat-room ranters, and supermarket tabloid readers deems the violators too boring for further comment.

As time goes on, other incendiary issues can be doused by the 28th Amendment.  Given freedom to do, view, and consume what they wish in private, Congress and pundits might actually address the problems ordinary citizens think are important. But little can happen until we learn to respect one another's right to be left alone. Some readers might wonder about me. Am I a left-wing crazy? A bat-shit libertarian loco?  A mush-headed New Age flake?  A pot-crazed lunatic?  MYOB!