Nostalgia Good and Bad: The Revalists and The Bad Things

In 1959, novelist Peter De Vries dashed off a sentence destined for cultural glory: "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be." It's often used as a put-down for all things resurrected, but the phrase also implies that once nostalgia was what it used to be. I mused upon that phrase when two new releases made their way to me, one of which does a fine job of reanimating an old genre and the second of which may have its charms, but they were certainly lost on me.

First the good news: The New Orleans-based band The Revivalists makes no bones about dusting off old styles. Their latest self-titled EP evokes the mid-1960s when bands were grooving in the little seam that connected rhythm and blues to "soul" music. These groups were usually stripped down versions of R & B outfits for the simple reason that it was hard to travel with a big band. Some critics complained that the instrumentation was 'thin.' The Revivalists are a seven-piece lineup–large by today's standards–but they do sound thin if you compare them to ensembles such as those that backed Big Joe Turner. That's not the standard at which the Revivalists aim–try Van Morrison, whose tones lead vocalist David Shaw eerily invokes. This is R&B/soul at its sexy and mellow best–the kind that works up a sweat by degree, not a single burst. Shaw is a revelation–a voice filled with grit, spit, and power. Check out tunes such as "Mary Joanna the Music" and "Soulfight" and you'll definitely hear the Van Morrison influences. You'll also hear another very good thing about this band–keyboardist Michael Girardot, he of both the rolling thunder organ and the cool-to-the-touch piano. Loved this band.

Alas, I have less affection for the Seattle-based The Bad Things (not to be confused with Shaun White's band of that name) whose After the Inferno (Silent City Records) is the sort I might have loved back in 1979 or so, but which now feels like a bird that has flown. Aren't we all a bit tired of hearing about Seattle's grimy side? Especially when the antidote seems to be clash, thrash, and embrace the decadence? The Bad Things are a nostalgia mash up: the DIY ethos of punk at its height, an Irish bar band, and seedy cabaret. I admired the politics and snippets of the writing, but I couldn't get past the fact that lead vocalist Jimmy Berg lights no fires and that the instrumentation is more laconic than iconic. The DIY vibe of punk made sense during the stagflation of the 70s and heartlessness of the Reagan-Thatcher years, but it simply sounds sloppy now. That's among the reasons that punk mutated into grunge–a style that dressed up punk's anger with better sound and musicians. Were I in my 20s and hanging out in a down-market Seattle club, this band's sideshowspectacles might intrigue, but the bird of youth has also flown.   Rob Weir 


The Luminaries: Sprawling, Difficult, but Worth It

By Eleanor Catton
Little Brown, 849 pages, 9781847054323
* * * *

This 2013 Man Booker Prize winner is just now finding its way into deeper circulation in the United States after having been originally released in New Zealand, by a university press no less! It is, depending on your point of view, either the sort of pretentious pap that the Booker Prize committee loves and most people hate, or a brilliantly conceived and complex novel that deserves every accolade it garners. I am (mostly) of the second view, though I think there are excesses that justify criticism.  

North Americans seldom realize that the California and Yukon gold rushes were part of a global search for "the pure," as characters from The Luminaries call gold. This novel takes place in 1866 in the town of Hokitika. I've been there. Today it's a sleepy town of about 3,000 souls on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. There are just a handful of places to stay, though it's one of the nicest places to be in an otherwise gritty region. In 1866, though, it too was rough–a boom-town with twice as many people, dozens of ships in its treacherous harbor, and the jumping off point for the region's short-lived gold rush. Think San Francisco about six months after gold was discovered in the American River.

Back then Hokitika was a town of wheeler-dealers, crooks, cranks, ex-convicts, confidence men, prospectors, prostitutes, dreamers, and fools. There were also "Crown men," upright and uptight Victorians who lacked the common sense to know that their imported English values were as useless as broken shovel in a rough-and-tumble frontier gold rush town. Catton takes us inside that world–into the whore houses, the assayer's office, the Chinese tent cities, the instant cottages found in the bush, the local jail (gaol in Brit speak), the numerous hotels lining Revel Street, the grimy dock, and the various merchant shops and government offices set up to fleece the pure from the pockets of the prospectors. Indeed, Catton's sprawling novel is populated by something akin to a prototypical United Nations: Englishmen and women, indigenous Maori, a Jewish newspaper editor, several Chinese characters, a Frenchman, a Norwegian, an Irish English cleric, a Scottish politician, and several whose origins are questionable. It also features fortunes won and misplaced, con jobs, séances, opium, and maybe even some redemption.

Here's where the pretense comes in. The Luminaries features nineteen important characters. Catton uses the device of the Zodiac and gives twelve of them celestial traits. But because the earth was not in the same relative orbital position in 1866, she uses seven other characters to represent five planets, the sun, and the moon to show how their "pull" caused astrological traits to bleed into one another. If that's way too complex for you, just ignore it. It is, indeed, a novelist's device. Maybe Catton feels very clever about all this, but she's writing for herself (and maybe the Booker Prize committee) when she does it. The rest of us will have enough trouble just keeping the characters straight. (Indeed, you should probably buy the paperback rather than the e-book so you can more easily flip back to refresh your memory.)

The Luminaries, at its best, is Dickensian in its character development and labyrinthine twists. It also features something Dickens never managed or dared–two strong, central female characters that spent some time plying the world's oldest profession. Catton, at age 28, is the youngest ever Booker Prize winner. I loved this novel, but The Goldfinch it's not. The latter is also a sprawling novel but it is written in a more mature and confident style that doesn't confuse hooks with contrivances. The Luminaries doesn't need to have as many characters or expend as many pages as it does. As it is, it will frequently astonish, but it will also frustrate. This is the sort of book that will periodically tempt you to give up. Don't–the rewards are worth it and you'll wish to resolve the fates of the characters that really matter (about half of the nineteen). Stay with it even if you, like I, figure out its central mystery before it's revealed.  I wouldn't have bestowed a Booker on The Luminaries, but it certainly shines the merits of (some) memorable characters, its sense of place, and a pretty good mystery. –Rob Weir

Note: For those unfamiliar with the Maori language (most folks, I reckon), here's a small primer to help you with place names. Maori usually divides syllables every two letters unless vowels are side by side, in which case they are elided. A "wh" is usually an "f." Syllables frequently have the same stress. Hokitika is Hō-ki-ti-ka (or hokey-ticka) The major Maori character is Te Rau Tawhare is (roughly) Tě-Răl-Ta-far-ēē and say it fast.


Boyhood: Good Film with a Dubious Hook

BOYHOOD (2014)
Directed by Richard Linklater
IFC Films, 164 minutes, R (language, drug use, sexual innuendo)
* * *

This could be a parental mantra: "They grow up so fast. I wish I could hold onto their childhood." In Boyhood, Richard Linklater does exactly that. Its central story is that of a boy, Mason, Jr., from the ages of 7 to 18.

By now I'm sure you've heard of its unique hook: Linklater literally allows us to see two kids grow up. Mason, Jr. is Ellar Coltrane and Linklater's daughter, Lorelei, plays his sister. The idea for Boyhood came to Linklater a dozen years ago and he had the foresight to shoot a little bit of his film each year. What we see on screen is the actual physical development of individuals as they progress from childhood into adolescence.

Upon this hook Linklater imposes an external story of a very American phenomenon: broken families. He also filmed his other actors over time, with Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr. and Patricia Arquette as Olivia, the mother. Mason Sr. is impetuous and immature, a blue-collar guy who drifts to Alaska with dreams of being a musician but no plan for making anything happen, whereas Olivia thinks there has to be more to life than a busted down house in small town Texas. They are the classic mad-for-each-other-can't-live-together couple that embodies the old pop song "Jackson" and its line "We got married in a fever/Hotter than a pepper sprout…." Divorce comes when Mason Jr. is just seven and Samantha nine. The film also explores parental journeys and choices, good and bad. As such we also see them "grow up," with Olivia's path to becoming a psychology professor an especially perilous and bittersweet one.

As the title Boyhood suggests, much of the film focuses on Mason. Jr., especially the various ways in which he reconnects and disconnects with his father. We follow Mason, Jr. and his mother from one small town to another, then to Houston, San Marcos, and to his first day at college, with Mason, Sr. making quintessential absentee dad appearances. (Hawke, as usual, is amazing; Arquette, as usual, is not.) Linklater also makes judicial use of period music–including Dylan, Wings, Cat Power, Cold Play, and Arcade Fire–to establish time periods, moods, and shifting tastes. At his best, Linklater simply nails childhood–awkward attempts to bond on a camping trip, a teen girl's embarrassment at being ferried to school by her mother, adolescent angst of trying to figure out one's identity, and a deliciously funny and cringe-worthy scene in which dad tries to explain the birds and the bees to his grossed out offspring.

But we must ask: Does Linklater's hook work?  Is it verisimilitude or a clever con job? The most judicious answer would be to take the middle path. It's cool to see Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Hawke, and Arquette age before our eyes, but the film is not telling an actual story–it's a script, not real life, no matter how 'typical' the themes might be. This means that the central drama is ultimately manipulative. We are encouraged to imagine children in real-time and in real jeopardy, but only the first is true–the kids are alright.

This raises several more questions. If all Linklater wants to do is tell the story of American childhood, why go to all this bother? Why not just use various actors to show kids at different ages and use makeup on Mom and Dad? (We know the magic makeup artists can achieve, plus Coltrane looks so different from his little boy self that I had to be reminded it was the same person.) Does the movie have to be two hours and forty-four minutes long? The story is a powerful one worthy of viewing on its own merits, but do we see anything new? Is the movie as long as it is because we are ultimately viewing pieces of Linklater's obsession, rather than his vision?

I really liked this film, but I think too many reviewers and viewers have focused on the hook instead of the product. It's a good movie, but no masterpiece. And, yes, it's more artifice than art.  Rob Weir