Certain Women: Tough Choices in a Hard Land

Directed, written and edited by Kelly Reichardt
IFC Films, 107 minute, R (brief nudity, language)

If you've seen Brokeback Mountain or Wind River, you might suspect that though the Northern Rockies are a place of majesty and eye-popping beauty, they're mighty hard on human inhabitants. Delve into Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and you'll be certain of it. This film loosely stitches three Maile Meloy short stories. I've not read Ms. Meloy, but what I saw on screen reminded me of Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories transposed Montana.

The critic scores for this film were much higher (as in the 92% favorable category) than those of audiences (65-75%). I see its flaws, but I lean toward the critics on this one.  To appreciate it, you need to have patience. Certain Women is a very quiet film about people who feel small in a landscape that can be oppressively imposing. Distances are measured in hours, not miles; hulking peaks loom ominously before an unbroken chain of empty prairie and barren roads; and taking care is pretty basic: watch out for black ice, stock plenty of food in the freezer, choose a reliable vehicle over one that looks nice, and make sure the livestock has non-frozen water to drink. It's also not a place for loquacious pack humans; out there, a slow nod passes for a sermon. Not surprisingly, it's also a place that can wear you down, though it does so slowly and inexorably.

Certain Women interweaves the quiet dramas and traumas of four women (and several men). The first is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a lawyer well aware that she's in a dead-end practice. She's stuck with creeping cynicism, ennui, and a client named Fuller (Jared Harris) that she can't help even though he was horribly cheated by an employer that ruined his vision and suckered into a lame settlement. Laura is basically running on autopilot—so much so that she is literally pushed into things she's not even sure she wishes to do.

Gina Lewis (Michele Williams) has command, energy, and verve to burn, but her life isn't so hot either. She might be outwardly powerful, but she can't handle silence or indifference. Her ineffectual (and philandering) husband has very little to say, rather like their daughter Guthrie, whose dislike of her mother is palpable. Gina's plan is to get a house built so the family can stop camping, and she has her eye on a pile of primo sandstone piled in the yard of an old man named Albert (René Auberjonois—Star Trek's Odo). Gina's schemes excite her, but no one else. Albert's what everyone really fears: being aged, alone, and sliding into dementia.

The final tale involves another lawyer, novice Beth Travis (Kristin Stewart), who got roped into teaching a night law class in Belfry (population 218) twice a week, thinking it was another town, not one involving a four-hour drive each way from Livingston (a veritable 'city' at 7,200). Beth is so focused on her own misery and fear of failure that she hardly cares that no one in the class actually wants to study law; they just want to ask random questions. All, that is, except for young Jamie (Lila Gladstone), who seeks to befriend Travis. Jamie has a winter job—caring for horses in this remote chunk of Montana—and her attraction to Beth is deliciously ambiguous. Is it that Beth is exotic? That she represents Jamie's frustrated desire to educate herself? Or is she lonely and in love with Beth?

Some have called this a film about strong women, but I think such an assessment confuses hollowed out perseverance with efficacy. It also ignores parallels that portend fate, including the possibility that Beth and Gina are on the path to becoming Laura, or that Fulller and Lila could easily morph into Albert. My take is that Certain Women is an exploration of loneliness, yearning for connection, living with stillness, and wanting to tell the Universe, "I am here." The last of these smacks face-first into an outsized landscape that suggests that Montana doesn't give a damn. The sequences involving Jamie are almost painfully redundant as Reinhardt drives home the fact that a lot of people live according to set routines, not along paths to self-actualization. In a very understated way, Reichardt makes us ponder who is right. What makes us who we are, how we handle triumph, or how we deal with adversity? How do we live—basking in the exceptional, or doing honor to routine? What makes us human, and does it matter?

This film isn't for everyone. There is so little action that at times it's like photographs slowly coming to life. The transitions between character sketches are so ragged that it seems like three distinct short films—until threads tie stories together. Even then, those threads are so slender and mauve colored that the film's overall fabric frays. But the more I thought about this film, the more I liked it. It's a small film and I understand if you conclude it isn't your cup of tea. Whether or not you watch Uncertain Women, though, keep eyes peeled for Lila Gladstone. Hers is a subtle and nuanced performance that tops that of her more famed peers. She rightly won several independent film acting awards for the manner in which she says more in her silences than most can do in a soliloquy.  

Rob Weir


December 2017 Album of the Month: Richard Thompson

 In my feckless youth, I used to go to a lot rock concerts. I'm often asked if there were artists I wished I had seen, but didn't. Well, I never saw The Beatles or the per-geriatric Rolling Stones, but if I had to pick one, it is that I didn't see Richard Thompson in the 1980s when he was in his rock n' roll glory years. I've seen Thompson numerous times in the past quarter decade and he always gives an amazing show, but back in the 1980s he fronted a particularly muscular band that often included several of his old Fairport Convention mates: Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, and Dave Mattacks. Thanks to a new MVD Audio collaboration with the German TV station Rockpalast, I can see what I missed—and now my regret is even deeper.

Richard Thompson Live at the Rockpalast is a three-CD/two-DVD recording of two concerts, one in Hamburg, Germany (1983) in support of Thompson's Hand of Kindness album and another performance at the MIDEM (Marché International de Disque et de l'Edition) festival in Cannes, France. These shows took place at a critical juncture in Thompson's career. As artists often do, Thompson worked out some of his demons on stage. His 1982 Shoot Out the Lights Tour was brilliant musically, but was also known among his closest friends as the "Tour from Hell." His songwriting has always gravitated to the dark side, but the dissolution of his marriage immediately after the birth of his daughter Kamila and the pressures of transcontinental residency in London and Los Angeles put him in an especially sour mood. Thompson's 1983 concert saw him trying to jolly himself along with covers of "Great Balls of Fire," "High School Hop," and a juiced version of the sentimental Irish standard "Danny Boy," but the standout track are the no-one-gets-me "Man in Need." Overall, though, I'm not sad to have missed this show; it has a going-through-the-motions feel.

By contrast, his 1984 MIDEM show was a stunner, this time with Gerry Conway on drums and Rory McFarlane on bass, as Mattacks and Pegg had other commitments. What a show! Thompson was probably still partially in a tunnel of depression, but he was also enjoying himself on the road. The Cannes show saw him bring together various influences on his music: the English music hall, skiffle, standards, and his own acid pen. You want dark? Check out Thompson's eight-minute plus performance of "Night Comes In," or an equally ominous take on "Shoot Out the Lights." Both of these have elements that evoke acid rock, but without the clichés.  Need some more pain? This the time period in which Thompson wrote songs whose titles require no explanation: "The Wrong Heartbeat," "Tear Stained Letter," "Don't Renege on Our Love," "A Poisoned Heart and a Twisted Memory," and "How I Wanted You." Yet the same show features joyous accordion work from Alan Dunn and high-powered saxophone performances from Peter Zorn and Pete Thomas, the latter two of whom cavorted around the stage in post-disco goofiness but laid down some seriously loud, soulful, and robust horns. Other rays of light textured this show: the whimsical "Two Left Feet," an English village dance treatment of "Amarylus," a giddy version of "Wall of Death," even a revival of "Pennsylvania 6-500," a song originally popularized by Glenn Miller.

The entire five-disc collection is available for just $26,a bargain even if the Hamburg show doesn't grab you. A word of caution, though: Remember that this stuff was recorded back in the early 1980s. If you convert the CDs to .MP3 files they will sound thin. The sound quality on the video files is far better. I'm not enough of a techie to tell you why, though I suspect it's somehow easier to enhance video sound files. But you'll want to watch the DVD 1984 concert. It's live, the way a lucky audience experienced it.  Wish I had been there.

Rob Weir

PS: It was hard to find available live performance video clips from these shows, so I have included links that are similar.  The box set quality is many times higher in quality. Audio only files of these concerts are available on YouTube. 

For the record: I think Thompson is even better on acoustic guitar. 


Vermont State of Mind

Experience and utopianism aren't always the best of friends. When asked of my ideal place to live, I often conjure a land that combines the best traits of my current Western Massachusetts home with the humor and resiliency of Scotland, the civic ideals and beauty of New Zealand, the kindness found in Canada, the economics of Scandinavia, and the food and culture of Western Europe. And it would be warmer, but not tropical—maybe San Francisco without the freezing fog and numbing cost of living. Experience, though, tells me there's no such place.

Experience also tells me that the best place I've ever lived is Vermont. It is said that comparisons are odious, but a Thanksgiving sojourn to Burlington has put me in a Vermont state of mind, even though I'm not planning a move. I always feel at home in Vermont, but I was also reminded of its depressing 4 pm November darkness, the bone rattling winds blowing off Lake Champlain, the rural poverty of Franklin County, and the region's overall isolation. Still, there are ways in which Northern Vermont has much to teach Western Massachusetts.

First and foremost is that, reputations for being taciturn notwithstanding, Vermonters are way friendlier than folks in the Pioneer Valley. Vermonters don't take themselves as seriously and that's a good thing. I've threatened a local terrorist act that wouldn't rise to beige on the alert scale; I'd love to string a banner across Main Street Northampton that reads, "C'mon Folks—Lighten Up!" We are a grumpy, angry bunch 'round these parts and I too often get caught up in stuff that brings me down: bad driving, arrogant pedestrianism, cause fanaticism, and—above all—a stunning lack of perspective. In Northern Vermont, snowflakes are real things that fall in mass quantities, not people of privilege sniping at things that don't touch them personally. Honestly, I wonder how some people manage to rise in the morning bearing all their assumed burdens. You can hardly sneeze in Western Massachusetts without being accused of a micro-aggression—a term that makes my working-class soul sneer. I'd love to see how some of our local Snowflakes would deal with the in-your-face-take-that-shit-elsewhere aggression of life outside the Bubble.

Mind, I prefer Bubble values, but we ought to do a much better job of distinguishing the real from the imagined. Sorry, but when I hear folks tell me they've never experienced  [fill in your favorite oppression ending in ism here] like that on their college campuses my first thought is, "You really need to get out more." Vermonters are, on balance, more resilient. Maybe this is what happens when being down-to-earth is literal rather than metaphorical. Vermont winters are not for the faint of heart and Mud Season is no treat either. Though it sounds odd to say it, one of the things I like about Western Massachusetts is its milder climate—as in 6-8 weeks less winter. Remember the 2011 Halloween snowstorm that knocked out power in the Pioneer Valley, or the 1997 April Fools' Day wallop? These are legendary; in Northern Vermont they're filed under, "Not Unusual." 

All of this is to say that everyday concerns are more prosaic because your life really does depend on those details. I still recall the -20 degree (Fahrenheit) day when my antifreeze froze and a roadside lift from a stranger was all that stood between me and serious danger. Vermont town meetings discuss things such as dumping gravel on washed out roads, getting road crews out early, buying snow fences, and rounding up volunteers to help EMTs. Small town politics can be cantankerous—especially school budgets, a shameful problem in the Green Mountain State—but nobody goes home until the agenda is dispatched.  Occasionally locals weigh in on national issues, but mostly they don't waste time debating symbolic things of little significance. Really, most Northeast Kingdom townies know that El Salvadorans are not looking up their way for sanctuary cities.

Yet here's the really crazy thing: Vermont politics are often more pragmatically progressive than those of Western Massachusetts. This is especially true in Burlington, where power isn't a two-way contest between Neanderthal Republicans and Brain-Dead Democrats. Both are to the right of the Progressive Coalition, which doesn't always control city government outright, but you can't rule without them. Springfield and Holyoke pols might want to check out Burlington's Old North End sometime. Social problems remain there, but there's also been a ton of progress, not decades of stasis. And I'll tell you for free that in my lifetime there has been nothing that comes close to being as exciting and transformative as Burlington during the Bernie Sanders years. Save your clichés; that cranky socialist did more concrete things to improve life than a manure spreader full of faux liberals.

Vermonters are fiercely independent—another trait I admire. Politically, it's a state with a socialist U.S. Senator (Sanders) and another who is a for-real liberal Democrat (Pat Leahy), but also elected a Republican governor (Phil Scott) after two lackluster terms from its Democratic placeholder (Peter Shumlin). That same pragmatic streak shows up in other ways. Vermonters have been environmentally conscious since the 1970s, are suspicious of big promises, don't care much for pretense or bling, and the slogan "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, and do without" ought it be stitched into the state flag.  Either that or "No Whining."

Like I said earlier, Vermont isn't utopia. The same arrayed dark forces gather there as well: opioid addiction, a shortage of good jobs, hucksterism, poor folks, unwise development, a declining retail sector…. I sometimes also think Vermonters make do too much and demand too little. But I do admire the realism of the place. Maybe Vermont is closer to utopia because its citizens have their feet on the ground instead of their heads in the clouds. After all, clouds are where snowflakes reside and they see too many of those. Me too.  



Hope Dunbar, Neil Nathan, Molly Madigan , Kris Guren and More

Hope Dunbar is lives in a small town, holds part-time jobs, composes folk/country acoustic music, and can only write when her kids are in school. Sound familiar? You'd be right several times over if Lori McKenna analogies popped into your head. Okay, so McKenna dwells in Massachusetts and her husband is a plumber, whereas Dunbar resides in Nebraska and her spouse is the local minister, but listen to the voice and you'll really get the picture. Dunbar's Three Black Crows is one of my favorite records of the year. If ever the phrase "singing your heart out" applies, it's here. "She Keeps Going" might just rip yours in half: She keeps going/Because she has to/There's no one to take her place…. If there's any justice in this world, Dunbar's "I Write" will be become an anthem for for unsigned artists everywhere: And I write in the morning at the breakfast table in my bathrobe and slippers in the margins of the junkmail/I write in the morning then I sing 'em at the bars where they pay me in beer and put dollars in my tip jar…. And what would you do if you were me/You'd pick up your pen and write your story. Even if you're not a fan of acoustic music, you can't help but admire the unvarnished honesty of this album. The title track has evocations of Appalachian old-time music. Listen for the metaphor—another splash of cold reality. The songs on this record dance on the razor's edge between contentment and chomping at the bit. Dunbar also thinks a lot of the world beyond her town. She wrote "The Shooter" before the mass murder in Texas moments, but it's hard not to shudder when you think of her small town and church involvement. "Revolver," a tale of domestic violence, might be even more chilling. Dunbar has a very pretty voice, but don't be fooled by it—most of the material on Three Black Crows is of the same inky noir as the birds. Call it an album of routines and shattered dreams. Call it a small masterpiece. ★★★★★

Neil Nathan has been around since 2007 and critics have compared him to everyone from Cat Stevens and Jeff Tweedy to Elton John and Josh Ritter. Huh? Yes, he's that kind of versatile. He's also a fan of power pop, gritty Detroit rock, and has performed in an Off-Broadway rock opera. So why not add some new head scratching analogies? Flowers on the Moon is like Graham Nash filtered through the flower child psychedelics of Donovan and a Neil Young quaver. At present, not many videos are available, but you can check out the title track and you'll be excused if it makes you dust off your black light and drop some food coloring onto a glass plate of floating oil. "Gone and Back Again" is also trippy, but in more of a gentle way, while "It Goes On" is somewhere between acid folk and a carnival. "Sugar Man" is another ethereal song, one loaded with befitting dangerous undertones. I also really liked "Me and Jim," a multi-tracked folk in an echo chamber song. I had no liner notes, but I wondered if the character Jim is Morrison given the repeating "No one here gets out alive" lyric. Another available on video is "Don't Forget Me," and if the tune sounds awfully familiar, it's because you've got the oldie "Rhythm of the Falling Rain" residing somewhere in your brain. Nathan really evokes Neil Young on "Burning a Horse," right down to the strained   vocals bordering on falsetto and atmospherics that sound simple but are more layered than you at first imagine. ★★★★

Molly Pinto Madigan is a Cambridge-based singer songwriter with the heart of a poet and a taste for ancient ballads. You know you're in the presence of a wordsmith when words like fain, rockweed, wolfsbane, cockleshells, and redolent appear in the lyrics and make sense. When I listened to Madigan's latest, The Cup Overflows, the descriptor 'courtly love nouveau' popped into my head. It's mostly a record about yearning and longing for lovers present and past. Had I been she, I think I would have made "Wormwood" the title track. It's the plant from which absinthe is distilled and is both intoxicating and (literally) toxic. Madigan sings: O, it's bitter grows the wormwood, gay/And cheerless is the springing thyme/For my own true love came home today/Home to a bed that isn't mine. Don't wait for any fa-la-la chorus to ensue; the song is reeved with pathos. "Here Comes the Night"—not the Van Morrison song—is dark as well: Oh, lover, this longing/It's got me broken, through and through/Streetlamps sighing with moth wings/And I'm here sighing without you. Yep—these are folk songs in the grand tradition of pain and but only occasional gain. In "Seven Tears" hope comes in the pleas of a new suitor offering to take away the hurt left by a false love. On the title track, she lies awake in a moonlight-splashed bed in which she's just made love hoping that her yearning shows. Madigan's voice is sweet and ethereal, though still a tad on the young side, but her pen is mature and her desire palpable.★★★★

Kris Gruen is from New York and his father, Bob, is a photographer famed for his shots of John Lennon. Kris, however, now makes his home in Montpelier, Vermont. All of this makes him an intriguing mix of the urbanity of Paul Simon, the mystic vibe of Nick Drake, and the whiskey growl of the late Bill Morrissey—yet he's not like any of them. His newest CD is titled To Swoon and Beguile, which is his opinion of what music should do. His songs explore wonder, healing, connections, and disconnections. The title "Further Down," for example, sounds like we might be in for a look at bad times, but it's actually about moving forward: It takes no time to begin again/Just stay away from where you've been… "Part of It All" is one of those songs that makes you feel significant and inconsequential at the same time. "Dunroven's Farm" is backcountry sweet, but its inspiration—an old mill in Calais, Vermont—also evokes timelessness. Its musical opposite is the moody "How Long Will I Wait," with its indie pop/rock sheen. Gruen has an intriguing voice that's at turns, smooth, gravely, and near falsetto—the sort that makes you feel and drift rather than hang on to each note. Swoon and beguile indeed.★★★    

This one's tough. The bluegrass quintet Mile Twelve brings together folks who (mostly) met at the Berklee School of Music and they've just released their debut CD Onwards. It is a solid piece of piece of work featuring ten originals and two covers: Geoff Bartley's "Sunny Side of Town" and "Ace of Hearts," popularized by Alan Jackson. The musicianship is solid, the performances tight, the production first-rate and yet, how you will feel about this record depends entirely on whether you are a fan of classic bluegrass or if you prefer the more innovative approach that's en vogue at present. On one hand, I like traditional music but on the other, there are scads of new bluegrass bands and I can't help but wonder if Onwards is strong enough to help Mile Twelve break out of the pack. Frankly, it feels a bit too "safe" to me. It's odd, though, to be critical of something well done, so take a listen and see what you think. Try these: "The Margaret Keene," "Call My Soul," and the breakdown cover of "Ace of Hearts." ★★½ 

Joel Madison Blount has hitherto been playing a lot of rock n' roll, but on Our New Moon he ventures onto Americana/folk turf. The results, alas, are mixed. Blount certainly knows that in folk, the message is central and that you need to wear your thoughts on your sleeve. Aside from "Arms Wide Open," an impending fatherhood song, most of his tales walk a middle path between hope and reality. My favorite track is "Beauty That Remains," which challenges us to take life as it comes and find the glory amidst the disappointments.  The problem is, however, that too much of this album is painted beige. Blount has a fine, powerful voice but he has not mastered the folk idiom. Most of the songs open with sensitive, quiet, clear tones, but slide up to scales and volumes that mesh with more lush instrumentation. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it tends to happen the same place in the same way so often that redundancy sets in. I really liked his voice, but Blount needs more inventive arrangements and evolve more ways to showcase his pipes. ★★