A Man called Ove: Film a Fine Adaptation of Book


A MAN CALLED OVE (2015 in Sweden/2016 in USA)
Directed by Hannes Holm
Music Box Films, PG-13, 116 minutes, Subtitled.

I approached this film with some trepidation, as the Fredrik Backman novel from which A Man Called Ove was adapted is one of my favorite books of the decade. Although the film isn't as good as the book (few are!), I'm happy to report that it's a delight in its own right.            

Director Hannes Holm is so faithful to Backman's story that it's pointless for me to rehash what I said in my book review, so here's the link. The story is essentially that of a misanthrope with a heart. To call it gold would be too much, so let's call it one that's been frozen, but that can be slowly defrosted. Ove is not an easy man to like, but when you discover the myriad reasons for his bitterness, it's amazing that he's only a "difficult" bugger rather than an impossible one. He's stubborn to a fault, and his need for order and habit is high on the OCD scale, but being a standup guy is not just his identity--it's the way he thinks the entire world should work. Ove simply has no time or respect for phonies, officious fools, dishonesty, incompetence, or people who butt their noses into other people's business. Nor does he blithely accept the dozens of small absurdities that govern everyday life; he rants against and questions every one of them. In an odd way, it makes Ove admirable. On some level, we might even be jealous of Ove. He's more courageous than we in that he's willing to choose the path of most resistance rather than surrender to those he sees as "idiots." He's often very funny, but unintentionally so, which makes this film's abundant humor a form of black comedy.

Ove would be content to stay to himself or, better yet, join his beloved wife in the grave. But that wouldn't make much of a book or film, would it? Nor would it help us understand how Ove became such a taciturn cynic. Again taking his lead from Backman, Holm breaks and reassembles Ove's narrative arc to help us see how the child is the father of the man. Although Rolf Lassgård is the lead actor, Holm uses two others–Viktor Baggøe and Filip Berg­–to take us back to the tragedies and triumphs that shaped Ove at age 7 and in his young adulthood. All three actors are terrific, as is Ida Engroll as the departed Sonja. In many ways, hers is the most difficult role. She's essentially a revenant and has to show us how Ove's light brightened and then dimmed, but her role is nearly wordless. When she must, Ms. Engroll communicates enormous amounts of information through gestures so small that it's only later we realize what she's told us.

Wordlessness is not something one would associate with Parvaneh (Bahr Pars), Ove's meddlesome new neighbor who won't take "Go away!" for an answer. It becomes her role—and that of a scruffy cat—to put some cracks in Ove's shellacked exterior, which she does through a combination of charm and countervailing stubborness. It is, however, a testament to both Backman and Holm that Ove cracks but never breaks. A Man called Ove is very sweet in places, but there is no Hallmark Channel magival transformation or mystical conversion experience. Ove remains Ove, even when a lot of his misanthropy gets redirected at those who deserve to be targets.  

The Swedes seem to excel at making slice-of-life small films that are, at once, quirky, darkly funny, and tragic, yet oddly life affirming. Place this one is the same category as films such as My Life as a Dog; Egg! Egg! A Hardboiled Story, Simple Simon, and The Hundred-year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. As for A Man Called Ove, I shall redux my book review defense of cliché: "You'll laugh; you'll cry."

Rob Weir


Clare Dunn, Claire Lynch, Middle Western, Richard Bono

Tunes for November 2016- Part One

An EP from Clare Dunn comes labeled "country," but don't you believe it–Ms. Dunn kicks butt and takes no prisoners on five muscular tracks that owe more to power ballad pop and down-and-dirty rock and roll. Its energy reminded me a bit of Bonnie Raitt on a coffee drip, except Dunn is a better singer. No little girl act here. Dunn's voice is full-throated and her songs kick up dust and danger. The EP opens with "Ferrari," and the namesake car is both literal and homage to life in the fast lane. Her voice is big and so are the arrangements—wailing guitars, booming drums, and steroid bass. When she sings about her taste in men, she has no time for refinement and polish. On "Tuxedo," the strong hands and dirty t-shirt of a workingman turn her on. It's the companion piece to the self-explanatory "Cowboy Side of You." Label this project sexy and strong.

Claire Lynch has been making some noise lately. She's bagged six International Bluegrass Music Association awards and has twice been nominated for a Grammy. Her latest album, North by South, is aptly named for a Kingston, New York lass that now resides in Nashville. It's a bluegrass album in style, but the instrumentation often has a Celtic flair, as befits an album that spotlights Canadian songwriters. It's hard to describe, but Canadian country and bluegrass music sounds different from that south of the border. Maybe the prairies and open vowel speech patterns give the music enough space that even a gritty song like David Francey's "Empty Train" seems to build up steam rather than fireball out of the station. For sure, Canadian music tends to honor folk roots more than studio tricks. Check out the simplicity yet quiet power of Lynch's cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Worth Believin'." Lynch lets us know right away she's going to blur borders. She opens with Ron Sexsmith's "Cold Hearted Wind," which features guest Jerry Douglas on dobro, but then follows with a J.P. Cormier song, "Molly May." Let's just say that in Nashville songs, men grow too old to drive truck or bust broncos; in Nova Scotia, tears flow when a man has to hand over the captaincy of a fishing boat to a young salt. And check out Stuart Duncan's fiddle on this one–complete with those small Scottish ornaments. Sometimes Lynch's voice–a meld of Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris–is too light and fragile for my taste, but when she's at the top of her game, she uses it like an added instrument. On "Milo," for instance, her vocals give a swingy backbeat to Jarrod Walker's mandolin; on the melancholic "Black Flowers" small voice catches enhance the fiddle.

Middle Western is another intriguing bluegrass act, a five-piece string band hailing from Wisconsin. Their new release Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, is a tasty stew of old time, bluegrass, and Western music that feels like The Old Crow Medicine Show, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos joined forces. "Short and Sweet" exemplifies the high-energy spirit of modern New Grass bands, while "For a River" seems to have snaked out from the mountain hollows, and "Prairie Chicken Queen" features Texas-style break out fiddle. The latter tune encapsulates what I liked best about this band: its offbeat sensibilities. "Old Man & Me," for instance, invokes a string band staple, remembrance, but in reverse–a young man imagining his inner old man. "Townes" will delight Townes Van Zandt fans with its tale of a man wiling away his prison sentence through music. Have fun decoding the Van Zandt song clues. There are few quirky little stop-brief pause tunes like "Stuck on Your Mind" that stamp Middle Western as more than the sing-segue-to-instrumental break down pattern of most bluegrass bands. My two favorites were "Ring Out," a railroad-themed tune, but sung with a Southern call-and-response gospel chorus; and "Imperfection," a sweet song that ought to come with a warning for Type-A personalities. It's about a guy who makes mistakes, but gives himself a break. When did you last hear a song imploring, "Let me be imperfection?" Mix it up and keep it real–sounds like a good combo to me.

The new album from Richard Bona, Heritage, is a start on the kind of album I've been waiting to hear: a Caribbean/African collaboration in which the mellowness of the former melds with the meatier hooks of the latter. The Cameroonian-born Bona (who now lives in New York) is comfortable with crossing bridges. In eight albums of his own and a dozen with others, Bona is a mainstay as a jazz bassist, but he's the sort that shares stages with everyone from Branford Marsalis, George Benson, Bobby McFerrin, and Harry Belafonte to world music artists, funk musicians, rock and rollers, and pop stars. The word "smooth" was invented to describe his voice.  I was particularly enamored of some of the album's short a cappella songs such as "Aka Lingala Te" and "Ngui Mekon" in which Bona plays leader of the chorus–the boss in charge of synching gorgeous harmonies. The latter also features handclaps that, frankly, make a nice contrast to the redundant salsa beats of the more Cubanselections. Songs such as "Cubaneando" seem to drift, but ones suchas "Essèwè Ya Monique" jump as us with their call-and-response choruses and chunky bass lines. Other stellar tracks include the sweet "Eva," with its air of mystery, ambient seams, and gorgeous melody; and "Kwa Singa," in which dubs, electronics, and experiments create a genre-less sound. I confess that I tend to get bored by meandering jazz piano and endless salsa and soukous, so I look forward to a return collaboration that pushes the boundaries even further.


Make America Cranky Again!

Is it Really a Free Country?

We need more kooks!
You've heard the old saw, "It's a free country?" Is it? Here's another in the annals of free speech wars. Rhode Islander Alan Sorrentino wrote a letter to the Barrington Times with these remarks: "To all yoga pants wearers. I struggle with my physicality as I age. I don't want to struggle with yours." Funny? Offensive? Does it even matter?

The answer to the third question is: apparently. Local resident Jamie Burke was outraged and interpreted Sorrentino's remarks as sexist and–to use a PC term–sizist. Were they? Burke didn't  investigate, she organized a protest whose content was, in my view, pretty funny: a parade of hundreds of assorted yoga pants wearers marching by Sorrentino's house. That was cool, except the marchers ignored the "Free Speech" sign on his lawn. Had the protestors done their homework, they would have also discovered that Sorrentino is a gay Democrat and Hillary Clinton booster.

Apparently context is out. But here's the deal–even if Sorrentino was a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist, he still has the right to express fashion views. Burke, of course, has the right to counter them. But methinks she doth protest too much. Not that she's wrong about the boorishness of men commenting on women's bodies, but in a state where the highest peak is just 812 feet, she raised a proverbial mountain from a mole hill. Sorrentino didn't gender his remarks and in Western Massachusetts where I reside, they certainly would not apply solely to women. 

I find the whole incident sad–maybe even a prelude to the national divisiveness and anxiety made manifest of Election Day.  Or was it just the touchiness of the white middle class? Hip-hop and skateboarder fashion has been satirical fodder for years. But maybe that's okay because it deals disproportionately with black kids and working-class whites.

Let's talk about fashion. Name a period in American history in which fashion has not come in for ridicule. Snowball throwers once targeted the increasingly tall hats worn by upper-class men, bloomers and shirtwaists were viewed as the demise of Western civilization, and who wears a raccoon coat or flapper dress any more? There were times in which only cowboys and miners wore Levis, men wore a jacket and tie to go to a restaurant, and many college profs lectured in their academic robes. Like many Baby Boomers, I once donned hippie-like garb–a favored outfit consisting of various flapping leather-fringed accoutrements designed to make certain I was never in sharp focus. I wore these things because they made my elders uncomfortable and wouldn't have dreamed of seeking their approval. Heaven forbid! I would have changed immediately. In the 1970s I was suckered into buying a pair of stack-heel shoes–an exercise in futility, given that I'm only 5'5".

That last point raises another. Unless people are constantly unsettled about their appearances, there is no fashion industry.  When I see a picture of myself sporting the "coolest" clothing from the past, my impulse is to burn the photos, not preserve them for posterity! Count on it—whatever "latest" item you wear now will embarrass the hell out of you in just a few years. Skinny jeans are all the rage and come in all sizes, a contradiction in terms if I ever heard one. Wait? Wasn't it just a few years ago we were all supposed to buy "relaxed fit" jeans? Want the latest "hot" item in footwear? Toss those Uggs, because the beautiful people are wearing Bean boots. Great footwear–for wet weather and the woods. I can hear Leon Leonwood Bean guffawing from his Freeport, Maine grave!

Is it sexist to comment on fashion trends? Maybe, but if there's an element of equality, the fashion industry makes everyone look silly. I'm currently amused by male hipsters clad in skin-tight checked trousers with a too-short unmatched sports coat, untucked shirt, and clashing porkpie hat. Unlaced work boots aren't the brightest idea either.

A final point: according to reports, Sorrentino is an inveterate letter writer known for his idiosyncratic humor that many people don't get. (I can relate, bro!) Every town has them–if they still have a local paper. They are often the town "character," the sort you discuss with your friends. ("Did you read Alan's latest screed? Crazy old bugger!") Maybe the nastiness of the Internet has made us forget that most cranks are harmless. I must ask, though, are we really a free country if we make pariahs of our grumps?  


The Black Notebook a Masterful Musing on Memory

Patrick Modiano
Mariner Press, 144 pages. Published in French. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.
* * * *

And yet, it was no dream. Sometimes I catch myself saying those words in the street, as if hearing someone else's voice. A toneless voice. Names come back to me, certain faces, certain details. No one left to talk with about it. One or two witnesses must still be alive. But they've probably forgotten the whole thing. And in the end, I wonder if there really were any witnesses.

Of all human traits, few are as marvelous or as unreliable as memory. To appreciate Patrick Modiano's The Black Notebook try this: find the box where you've squirreled away things you don't have the heart to toss. Find a notebook from a class you only vaguely recall taking and try to reconstruct the content based solely upon the notes you took. Now imagine you've not looked at those notes for fifty years. Do you recognize yourself in those notes, or is it "as if hearing someone else's voice?"

There are many books one reads because they are great stories, even if the prose is so-so; The Black Notebook is the opposite. It deals with the efforts of an aspirant writer straining to gaze at his own past through a gauzy curtain. He recalls his infatuation with–perhaps even love for–an intoxicating woman named "Dannie," if that was even her actual name. All he has to assist him as he sifts through a half-century's worth of memories is the namesake black notebook he kept. It's not a diary–more like a college notebook in which one furiously scribbles detail that might or might not be germane. Who, after all, knows what's important when one is lost in the moment? Our narrator, Jean, finds names and recalls faces–Paul, Aghamouri, Dulwelz, Gerárd–but who were these people, really? What do we know of those with whom we passed the time when we were in our student years? And who was "Georges?" Why can't he remember him at all? Why was the 30-year-old married Aghamouri never seen with his wife, and why was he always hanging out in the Montparnasse (Left Bank) student quarters of Paris?

Let's add another complicating factor: the Algerian crisis. You need know nothing more than this: the deep roots of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris lay in a 1954-62 war in which Algeria threw off French colonial rule, and left behind a large Muslim immigrant population that was neither fully French nor fully Algerian. (And left in Algeria were the pieds-noirs, French Catholics and Sephardic Jews.) Paris was akin to Saigon during the Vietnam War–a den of plotters, recruiters, and propagandists supporting either the insurgents or spying on them. What would a not-yet-twenty Jean understand of such intrigue? Looking back, it's likely that the crowd romantically dubbed the "Unic Hotel gang" might have contained unsavory, even dangerous people but, as Modiano writes, "No one is left to talk about it." Was Dannie among them? Jean's notebooks hint of her dark secret, but what was it? Did she love him, or was Jean just a pawn in a bigger game–a naïve pasty blinded by romance and an inflated sense of his own cleverness?

Modiano is a major writer, the winner of numerous awards including the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for literature. You should not read The Black Notebook for the story, but for its poetic prose and for what it teaches you about memory. It is sometimes called a stream of consciousness novel, but that's not quite right; it's more about how that stream disappears underground and meanders in ways unknown and unknowable. To risk a different analogy, The Black Notebook is a thousand-piece puzzle in which only about a third of the cutouts remain. The tone is dreamy and the action in interior–within Jean's mind. Literary critics label it "metafiction," but I prefer the term "intoxicating."

Rob Weir