Oplontis: A Visit to Smith Your Only Chance to See It

Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through August 13, 2017

Love it! Buses of New York City art lovers have disembarked in the hinterlands of Northampton, Massachusetts, because that's the only way they'll see the treasures of Oplontis. The Smith College Museum of Art is its only East Coast venue.

If Oplontis doesn't ring any bells, I'm sure that Pompeii will. Who doesn't know something of those fateful days in 79 A.D. in which Mount Vesuvius blew its cone-shaped stack and showed the Roman Empire that Mother Nature was stronger than its legions? Archaeology has been underway in Pompeii since 1599, which gave it a head start in the fame game, but it was not the only Bay of Naples locale to suffer destruction. As anyone who has been to Herculaneum–rediscovered in 1738–can attest, it's not even the most impressive of the region's ruins. The exhibit at Smith has a short computer-animation video that demonstrates the underground vents, lava flows, and ash fallout that affected settlements on both sides of the bay.

Among them was Oplontis, which is unique in that it was less of a town than a resort for the Roman well-sandaled. It would be the equivalent of unearthing Mar-al-Lago under twenty-four-feet of lava–but enough with fantasizing! The exhibit at Smith is a veritable portrait of the Roman 1%, hence the "leisure and luxury" handle of the exhibit's title is accurate. It is a sampling of objects, fragments, and products from what have been dubbed Villa A and Villa B, the parts of Oplontis that have been best excavated and studied thus far. (On-site archaeology continues and only half of Villa A has yet been uncovered.) When I say that it was a place for the wealthy, consider just this fact: 1200 amphorae (large storage jars) have been found–enough for over 40,000 bottles of wine. All of this for villas that were merely occasional seaside resorts. Remarkably, some gold, wood, and silver objects survived the heat and give us other glimpses of the sumptuous lifestyle enjoyed by the Roman patricians.

The greatest value of a smaller exhibit like that of Smith lies less in gawking over glittery baubles than in being able to get close to things you can only view from afar in Pompeii and Herculaneum: polychrome wall paintings, clay oil lamps, marble statuary, a storage chest for valuables, embossed copper, mosaic floors, etc. We also see hints of the plebeian lives that sustained the luxury: fish sauce and olive oil production, plaster production, haymaking, and other such tasks.  Mainly, though, we get a small sense of what it would be like to live in the villas with their brightly painted stucco walls, the reflecting pools, and the physical designs that sought to bring nature into the home centuries before Frank Lloyd Wright began to imagine such things. And, of course, one cannot escape the social class implications–shown nicely is models–between the sprawling patrician spaces versus the small box-like quarters of servants and workmen. The primary emphasis, though, is on the wealthy. If ostentation bothers you, take some solace in the fact that Vesuvius did not discriminate. In one chamber (not on display) the remains of some fifty-four bodies were discovered huddled together, probably awaiting a sea rescue that never came. Insofar as can be determined, this collection of doom was of mixed social classes.

Another video shows us how the eruption killed. Many of us are familiar with photos of bodies encased in ash that captured individuals in the moment of their demise. Remember, though, that the lava is merely what preserved these horrible moments; it was not what killed them. Nearly all who died in 79 AD succumbed to the poisonous fumes, stone, and ash that rained down days before the first lava flows appeared in the streets. Many roofs collapsed from the weight of the ash, possibly trapping victims. Only in bad movies did death come from a rolling lava tidal wave!

This exhibit is superbly curated and it's relatively small. It's not a substitute for actually walking the streets of Pompeii or Herculaneum, but it allows you to take in a lot of information without becoming overwhelmed by scale. And, as noted above, you'll get a much closer look. Check it out. But you'll have to come to Northampton; it won't be showing in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philly, or any other city near you.  Visit aut ignorantia
Rob Weir   


March 2017 Music

Your March musical marching orders contain some things new and some things old.

The New:

Keith Johns gave up a job in a physics lab for the lucrative world of folk music! But that's the point of his album Grateful Fool, which is themed on the idea that oblivion is the ultimate fate of all things, so one should embrace life while you have it. The title track imagines a proud, well-to-do man when he falls from his lofty perch and faces his reckoning. Johns admonishes: Just take enough, more is a crime/Help me give it all up, nothing is mine/I'm a wayward grateful fool, and that's alright. Johns has a high tenor voice with a hint of a draw–he's from Florida. Though he's a folkie at heart, he flirts with an indie rock vibe on "Silver Strings," which is about the nature of things from the perspective of physics and astronomy, but isn't the least bit obtuse. "TheFall" opens with a bluegrass instrumental groove and evolves into a folk rock arrangement suited to a song about how autumn is both a season of endings and one that drops seeds of renewal. Johns is also unusual in that his lyrics are either quite extensive, or very short. Among the latter is "Drops of Water" with its onomatopoetic guitar and sentiments such as these: Ahead, a million threads/And yet a single braid behind/A million distant memories/With no way to rewind. You have to admire a man who can contemplate his own death in one song ("Aubade") and then repeat his grandmother's advice to never spoil a story by peeking at the ending in another ("Isn't It Grand?"). Smart stuff. ★★★★

Hayley Reardon is a name to watch, though I doubt her latest album, Good, will push her over the hump to stardom. She hails from Marblehead, is just 20-years-old, and has been hanging around with Boston music vets like Kevin Barry, Duke Levine, and Loren Entress. So much promise—but not there yet. She has a gorgeous voice that climbs the scales, plumbs a few depths, and has an attractive catch to it. In a nutshell, though, Good is an eleven-track release in which sameness dominates musically and thematically. Entress produced the record and he seems to be aiming at creating Daniel Lanois-like atmosphere. The tracks are drenched in sonics, but not all of them flatter Reardon. Hers are lovely tones, but as yet Reardon's voice lacks clarity and accentuation. This means that whatever poetry is embedded in her lyrics gets washed out in the rinse cycle. You should definitely check her out–she's simply too talented to ignore–but this might be a buy-a-few-tracks kind of release. For my taste, the best songs are those that chuck the formula a bit. "Paper Mache" has a tinge of Motown soul lurking at the edges; the guitar in "When I Get to Tennessee" bites with a bit of swampiness; and "The High Road" is a Western/pop blend with solid hooks throughout.★★

I'm not sure if Tara MacLean belongs in the "new" or the "old" category. Her new Noisetrade sampler is titled Evidence, which is also the name of a hit song she recorded in 1996, and has stuck on other LPs and EPs. Another song for which she is known, "Silence," was also first done in 1996, and a review of her backlist reveals she often records the same songs. Lots of performers do this, and I only mention it because sameness is also my biggest critique of her 8-song Noisetrade project. Like Reardon, MacLean has a lovely voice. I especially like the small husk she adds to her soprano to give it more grit. She also knows that a song should build rather than come at you Celine Dion-full bore style. I wish MacLean would express this with more variety than a straightforward soft-to-loud formula and pop diva-wannabe arrangements. "Evidence" is indeed a good song. A snappy rhythm emerges from a cacophonous opening and then MacLean settles into a moody wrapper. My favorite tracks, though, were the more controlled ones, especially "Scars" and "White Noise." On these we hear a uniqueness for which the flavor-of-the-moment pop world is seldom known. ★★ ½

The Old:

Does it count as old if someone writes songs that sound like they came from an archive? Let's say it does! Dana and Susan Robinson draw just two songs on The Angel's Share from the traditional well ("Five Miles from Town," "Man of Constant Sorrow"), but each track has an old songs groove. Old songs generally references rural songs that have a timeless quality, often those from Appalachia. They differ from bluegrass in that the song gets priority over the instrumentation and the production is less showy. That's the Robinsons to a tee. This is unpretentious music that makes you long to sit by a fire and hum the choruses. Dana Robinson's voice is invitingly warm and both know their way around stringed instruments (acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle). You'll hear waltzes, some country blues, and songs about places and people. You'll even get contemporary ideas that sound ageless, as in Robinson's "RiverFlows On," which muses upon solar energy and living within limits, and "John Muir's Walking Blues," which expands upon environmental themes. New Englanders will enjoy "Loose the Ties," originally written in the Pioneer Valley, but apt for Vermont, where the Robinsons now reside. The title track, by the way, references a term used in distilling in which the vapors are declared "the angel's [sic] share." The Robinsons' version is also a lovely tune for dancing. ★★★★

Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009) made seventeen albums in his brief life–partly because he had prodigious flourishes of insight, and partly because he wasn't entirely discerning about what he recorded. Whatever you think of his music, he was an original. Raised in Zebulon, Georgia, the craggy-voiced Chesnutt was left a semi-paraplegic in a 1983 car crash when he was just 18. He slowly discovered a limited range of motion, could make basic chords, and could pick with two fingers. Chesnutt was mostly a local legend until Michael Stipe encountered his in 1996. The last thirteen years of Chesnutt's life involved NPR and PBS exposure, a documentary film, some movie work, and friendships with folks such as Stipe, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell, and Jonathan Richman. Chesnutt often gets dumped into the folk rock category, but his music is closer to the acoustic outlaw country of Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore–though he wasn't in their league. A new collection titled New West Hotel spotlights a dozen tracks culled from four albums he made on the Texas Hotel Label from 1990 to 1995, and two from the New West label in 2003 and 2005. At his best, Chesnutt sang with the pained honesty of Neil Young. Check out 1990's "Aunt Avis:" Help me mama, for I have grinned. Yet the same debut album, Little, has "Soft Picasso" and it's pretty awful. New West Hotel is that kind of uneven record. "Soggy Tongues" is simple and gorgeous, as is "In My Way, Yes." But some cuts are as rough as sandpaper soaked in coal grit, a category into which "Stupid Preoccupations" and "Sleeping Man" fall. What do you want to do with lyrics such as these from the latter: You are a freak of nature/You are a Siamese/You are in a pickle jar/For all the world to see. Or this from "What Do You Mean?"Like a puppy on a trampoline (4x—followed by an angel/chipmunk mash of backup singers chirping the song title). Toward the end, Chesnutt had lots of help on the stage, which produced the intriguing "Virginia," a lush arrangement with Frisell on guitar, and Van Dyke Parks washing the song with organ wipes. It sounds like a Gothic surf song being played at a dangerous strip club. If you're unfamiliar with him, Vic Chesnutt is worth discovering–but be selective. I don't wish to be uncharitable, but without the tragic back story, his musical legend probably would have remained local. ★★


Genius an Overlooked Study of the Creative Mind: Video Review

GENIUS (2016)
Directed by Michael Grandage
Summit Entertainment, 104 minutes, PG-13

Genius is a very good film almost nobody has seen. It explores the relationship between Thomas Wolfe (1900-38) and Scribner's editor Max Perkins (1884-1947), with an eye toward making us consider which of the two is the titular character

The Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) of this film is not the contemporary writer of the same name, rather the novelist of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. Scribner's published both. (Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again appeared three years after his death and was published by Harper & Row.) The phrase "burst onto the scene" is usually a metaphor, but it comes close to being literal in the case of the mercurial Wolfe. At heart Wolfe was a poet from whom stunning imagery poured forth in torrents. We see Wolfe scribbling lines at pencil-snapping speed and in quantities that filled wooden crates. And what beautiful lines they were–golden words flaring like a Rimbaud illumined by booze, jazz, and adrenaline. Wolfe's problem, though, was that he sought to be a novelist, not a poet. Every publisher in New York declared his first novel unreadable and unpublishable—except Scribner's.

Max Perkins (Colin Frith) saw uniqueness and an authentic voice in the manuscript that became Look Homeward, Angel. He admired every word, but knew it was like a painting of a sumptuous banquet none could consume. He worked with Wolfe to trim 66,000 words from a manuscript that ran 544 pages when it was finished. (What is 60,000 words? Over 260 pages!) If you think that's long, Of Time and the River is nearly 900 pages, and Perkins cut that one even more. The collaboration scenes between the pacific Perkins and the volcanic Wolfe are one of the stronger filmed versions of the clash between pragmatism and inspiration since the Salieri/Mozart showdowns in Amadeus. The film also does a wonderful job of showing how their working relationship evolved into a father/son substitute and the toll it took on their other relationships: Wolfe's with live-in mistress/costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins' with his wife, Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters. 

Genius also displays how the tortured side of that status plays out. Max is so buttoned down that he wears his hat even when working or eating dinner with his family; Tom is driven to write–and to self-absorption, egotism, boorishness, and self-destruction. Law plays him as the sort of person you both love to see arrive–and leave. Of the two performances, Frith's is by far the superior. Did you ever want to be someone you know you can't be? Every now and then? Imagine if you felt that all the time. Frith is a man of discipline and control, but we also see him crawling inside his own skin. Law's performance is manic—a bit like Wolfe was reputed to be–but it also lapses into histrionics. Although they are not central characters, Kidman is icy and tart–she's wounded, but refuses to be a victim. Linney walks the fine line between devotion, frustrated ambition, and quietly exercised power. Guy Pearce and Dominic West appear in strong cameos as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway respectively.

Mainline critics savaged this film, but they fixated on the film's muted tones and the stage-like nature of the scrip, and ignored the subtle probing of the creative process and the myriad folds within the genius mind. Sometimes it amazes me how intellectuals fail to recognize the intellect of others. Thomas Edison once quipped, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." This film shows that and suggests that the entire formula need not reside within one soul.

Of course, critics are also renowned for hating editors, whom they view as bureaucratic ciphers whose job it is to strip all the color and magic from prose. Numerous literary scholars have hurled that charge at Perkins. What arrogance! Did Wolfe make Max Perkins? Hardly. Here's a shortlist of award-winning writers he also edited:  Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Marjorie Rawlings, Alan Paton, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones…. Is it telling that Wolfe didn't have another best-selling novel in his lifetime? That very few have read his original manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel? That he mostly wrote novellas and short stories after breaking with Perkins? Probably.

Give this one a try. It's not a perfect film and perhaps it would work better as a play. But, as readers of Wolfe always said of his work: it is unique.

Rob Weir