A Little Chaos is a Big Mess!

Directed by Alan Rickman
BBC Films, 117 minutes, R (Brief nudity, suggestive banter, anachronisms, atrocious dancing)

More than a hundred films have been made on the grounds of Versailles, but you can count on the fingers of a mitten the good ones. There must be something about all that Baroque excess that challenges directors to see if they can trump it. I'd personally rate Sofia Coppolla's Marie Antoinette (2006) as among the worst movies ever made. A Little Chaos is better than that, but that's no endorsement. It was directed and co-written by one of my favorites British actors: Alan Rickman, who also cast himself as the Sun King, King Louis XIV. Here's hoping he goes back to performing scripts instead of writing them or trying to direct.

Rickman puckishly signals from the start that about the only thing that's actually true in his story is that the symmetry of Versailles Palace and gardens is broken by an unorthodox outdoor ballroom whose design departs radically from the rest of the grounds. If only Rickman had the courage to lampoon the foppery of the Sun King's court straight on instead of through nudges and winks, A Little Chaos might at least have camp value. Instead, like Coppolla, he tries to do it through anachronisms. To that end, he imagines that royal gardener André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) has put out the rock garden ballroom to a competitive bid that he reluctantly awards to widowed garden designer/botanist/proto-feminist Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet). This pseudo-feminism is the first of numerous contrivances crow-barred into the script. De Barra never existed: she's a complete fabrication, as is Le Notre's open marriage, his unfaithful wife (Helen McCrory), and his own dalliances. In truth, Le Notre was nearly 70 at the time the ballroom was built, he designed it himself, and his wife was an elderly sack of woe whose three children died in infancy.

Oh wow, man. Where can I score some acid?
Rickman gets the excesses and sycophancy of Versailles correct in spirit, though the externals are laughingly wrong. Historians agree that the reign of King Louis XIV (1638-1715) was the apex of classical France, but that Louis' wars and excessive spending–especially on Versailles–ultimately set the table for the French Revolution. As anyone who has been to Versailles can attest, the place oozes lavishness, exorbitance, and wastefulness. Courtly life upon the grounds was even more over the top. (Part of its purpose was to divert the attention of potentially meddlesome nobles.) In other words, there's a plethora of source material, so it's even more mysterious why Rickman felt the need to break the historical frame in such ludicrous fashion. Winslet is part feminist, part bohemian, and part hippie. There's even a ridiculous scene in which she's seen cavorting in a forest of ribbons, strings, and trippy objets d'art that looks like it might hang in Shakedown Street outside a Grateful Dead concert. Of course, Winslet also has to be a tortured soul–she's haunted by her six-year-old daughter's death in a carriage accident–so she can have the requisite on-the-verge-of-collapse scene and be comforted by Schoenaerts. The less said about her near-drowning experience, the better. Yet it cannot be said that her role is the most embarrassing in the film. That dishonor goes to Stanley Tucci playing the bisexual Duke d' Orleans. His real-life counterpart probably was bisexual, but Tucci in a wig, fussy shoes, silk stockings, and waistcoat looks just about as bad as you can imagine he might. His expression is often one of bemusement, as if he's wondering what the hell he's doing in this train wreck. I asked myself the same question. But wait! It gets worse! If you can sit through the ballroom's inaugural limp-wristed, kerchief-waving dance scene without reaching for an airsickness bag, you're made of sterner stuff than I. 

I could go on, but you get the point–this is simply an awful movie. If movie technology had been available in the 1680s, an airing of this film would have prompted bored Frenchmen to jump from their seats and launch the revolution a hundred years earlier. A Little Chaos is falsely advertised–it's a mess of gargantuan proportions.
Rob Weir      

The Suitcase Junket: Songs from Another Dimension

Make Time
Whistlepig Records
* * *

Every now and then something comes across my desk that defies categorization. Anything label you want to slap on projects by The Suitcase Junket likely only exists in some other dimension. The Suitcase Junket is Matt Lorenz, who also plays with Rusty Belle, a band that stretches a few genres of its own. As The Suitcase Junket, Lorenz is a solo act who is never alone. Did you ever see a one-man-band? Lorenz does that—sort of. He is an odd man, and I mean that with respect and affection. He sports a wax mustache that Salvador Dali would have envied, an untamed head of curly hair, plays a guitar he found in a dumpster, and carries a literal suitcase full of stuff that doubles as makeshift percussion kit once emptied of content that includes a cymbal, a circular saw blade, a cooking pot, bones, and a sort of limberjack fashioned from baby shoes. Most of these are played simultaneously, courtesy of strings, pulleys, and wires attached to various parts of his body.

The music is weird stuff—again meant with affection. On "New Old Friend" he sings falsetto directly into the soundhole of his acoustic guitar; "Twisted Fate" puts one in mind of a Delta ditty—except for the throat singing*. At other moments, Lorenz's singing is more of a wild keening, and most of the rest of the time it's rough and razor-edged in the way that Tom Waits sings, though Lorenz is at the higher range of the scales. One hears elements of folk music, but also blues, rock, and grunge in the instrumentals. He takes full advantage of his distressed guitar, twisting notes on songs such as "Made of Rain" or playing some gritty slide augmented by chunky bass on "Hot Rod God." As the latter title suggests, the songs also list to the offbeat side of things. They make enough sense that they are not entirely surreal, but they are enigmatic enough that you might want to keep that adjective handy. A sample: "If I were to sound like you, whom would I then be/And if you were to sound like me, who would you then be/Oh. Here comes everybody else/If I were to have your mind, would I still be my kind? " I've seen Lorenz perform on several occasions and the crowd reaction is usually the same: either unbridled enthusiasm, or that special kind of head-scratching that comes when someone asks, "What the hell was that?" I like him a lot—in occasional doses. Maybe the album should come with a warning: Not for everyday use. Play only when a weird wind blows. –Rob Weir

* For the uninitiated, throat singing, also called overtone singing, is a way of modulating one's voice to produce one or more tones that resonate simultaneously above the dominant pitch. It is most associated with Mongolia, the Tuvan section of Russia, and Iceland. 


Hohka: Ecclectic Finnish Music

Hohka 002
* * *

The sophomore release from the Finnish quartet Hohka is just eight tracks long, but that’s because of deliberate pacing, not an attempt to shortchange listeners. The English adjectives ‘enigmatic’ and ‘eclectic’ best describe this band. The album title translates Countries/Nowhere to Be Seen and the cover sports a giant longhaired rabbit looming above a miniaturized band member. What do these infer? (I am unaware of Scandinavian legends involving ominous rabbits!) Nor does a Finnish-to-English translator return meaning for five of the track listings, so one is left with impressions for most of the titles. Hohka is Finnish for pumice, that porous remain of a volcanic flow and that’s a good starting point for evaluating this release.

Like many artists who trained at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, Hohka treat musical boundaries as pervious. You will hear original tunes, but ones inspired by a variety of sources: Celtic music, classical, grunge, Finnish tradition, and folk dances. If I infer correctly from what I could translate, Hohka has worked with three dancers and (at least some of) the pieces accompanied their footwork. One could easily imagine the opening track, “October Flowers,” as a set piece for a lively Riverdance-like production. The tune is drenched in Irish and Scottish influences strung together with a jazzy interludes. Dance is most obviously invoked in “Loumalan Joonaksen,” a ¾ polska common in Finland. It is dynamic in construction–one that uses guest percussion to suggest clogging feet. It slows to a kantele (a Finnish zither) bridge from Valtteri Lehto before gathering to a fast pace driven by Meriheini Louto’s nyckelharpa (a keyed fiddle akin to a hurdy-gurdy). Those two instruments are also on display on “Suurin Pudottaja,” which translates “The Biggest Loser,” but evokes images of a steam train gathering speed. Enne Purovaara lays down double time bass, and other instruments punch through a quirky frenetic tune reminiscent of a back catalog offering from the Penguin Café Orchestra. Also on the accelerated side of things is “Kertalaaki,” an industrial strength piece featuring muscular accordion from Veikko Muikko, forays into dissonance, and a wild ending featuring Lehto’s electric guitar. Yet the rest of the album is as subdued as the aforementioned tunes are energetic. “Laavikkovalssi” begins Zen-like and even its anthemic finish evokes mid-winter melancholy. “Le Secret de La Licorne” uses several French horn blasts to signal a hunt, but its contemplative ambience and measured aspect feels more like stalking than hunting–as if the pursuer finds the unicorn’s lair and the “secret” is that it has fled. The album’s final two pieces are a 9:16 composition in several movements that is orchestral and classical in temperament, and a 3:12 kantele solo, of which the last 20 seconds are nearly silent. It is possible (likely?) that I lost some of Hohka’s intent in (non) translation, so let’s just say that this an album that takes its time to get at what the musicians wish to do and that like the giant rabbit on the cover, it’s intriguing to muse over the intent. But there’s one thing over which there is no misunderstanding: the four young musicians in Hohka are thoughtful and skillful.
Rob Weir


McKeon's Gripping Novel about Chernobyl

Darragh McKeon
Harper Perennial, 452 pages, 978-006062246875
* * * *

The title of Darragh McKeon's novel about Chernobyl is lifted from The Communist Manifesto. The complete passage is: "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." Karl Marx certainly did not have a nuclear power plant meltdown in mind when he wrote those words, but they are eerily apt to describe what happened on April 26, 1986 outside of Pripyat, Ukraine. In retrospect, one could date the beginning of the Soviet Union's demise to Chernobyl.

Many of you are probably thinking, "A novel about Chernobyl? Who wants to read anything that depressing?" I won't lie; there are parts of McKeon's book that are horrifying, but it's also a gripping tale of perseverance, courage, and the search for justice and meaning. Some of life's biggest questions are aired: duty versus honor, order versus sanity, and silence versus the risk of speaking out. Above all, it's about how Soviet citizens were forced to (paraphrasing Marx) face the realities of their real conditions—in this case, a failed state held together by paranoia and fear directed by soulless apparatchiks. After Chernobyl, though, what greater fear could the State invoke? What induces more paranoia than a silent killer like radiation? Officially, 31 people died when the power plant core melted; unofficially the ultimate toll will likely be closer to 40,000–once all the radiation-induced thyroid cancers and leukemia reap their final harvest. A few doomsayers say that a half a million people will suffer health problems.

McKeon pulls no punches in describing agonizing final throes of radiation poisoning, first responders vomiting within minutes of arrival, and peasants being left in harm's way because to evacuate them would violate the State's official statement that everything was under control. It wasn't, of course–all that was (seemingly) solid melted both literally figuratively. We see the tragedy up close through the eyes of a peasant lad named Artyom, who knew something was amiss when the sky turned crimson. He and his remaining family flee to Minsk (which should have also been evacuated), and McKeon vividly relates the things terrified families sought to carry with them when finally ordered to leave. What would you take–that which is valuable or that which was enriched by sentimental value? Artyom's father tries to carry off an unhinged door upon which he had recorded his children's growth–a disobedience of orders that leads to his forced conscription with a clean-up crew.

We also meet Grigory, a heroic doctor sent to Chernobyl with nothing more than a single box of iodine pills and his iron resolve to convince a hidebound government safe in Moscow that the situation on the ground was disastrous. For his troubles, he gained KGB attention. The KGB already knew his ex-wife Maria, once a dissident journalist and now a harassed factory worker. Others want Maria to take up her pen again and let the word know of Soviet perfidy, but she's just trying to keep body and soul together so she can help her nephew Yevgeni, a piano prodigy who doesn't even have regular access to an instrument. How best to survive is the dilemma facing each of the four main characters: Artyom in a Felliniesque refugee camp, Grigory in a field hospital with no more personal protection than a paper mask, Maria from prying KGB eyes, and Yevgeni from a social system that already has him pegged as a future factory worker.

  McKeon invoked Marx, but what happened at Chernobyl is also well summed by Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." New York Times critic Anthony Marra called Chernobyl the greatest story of "displacement" since Dunkirk. Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but such is the power of McKeon's novel that it might make you think so. And, if we take displacement to mean something broader than a movement of people, it was mighty enough to fell a Soviet empire built upon air, not solid blocks.

Rob Weir