2018 Best and Worst in the Arts

2018 Best and Worst of the Arts

Time for the end of the year reckoning of things I loved and didn't. I admit that lists of this sort are often subjective, but here goes. A reminder: I'm not impressed by things that were first released only in New York and/or LA, so a few of these books, films, and recordings, are technically 2017 releases. We should honor things in the calendar year in which most Americans have access to them.

Anything underlined links to longer reviews. The lists below are in preferential order. 


The Best:

1. Michael Ondaatje, Warlight:  Wars don't end when the fighting stops.
2. Richard Powers, The Overstory: Yes, it's about trees and you should care.
3. Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: You'll laugh; you'll cringe.
4. Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone: Alaska. Mother Nature doesn't care.
5. Walter Mosley, John Woman: Reinvention, of a sort.
6. Stephen Markley, Ohio: Blue-collar grit, hopes, and despair in the Heartlands.
7.  Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing: Memory, history, and slavery's legacy.
8. Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach: Girl power, redemption, and danger.
9. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo: Spoon River and its ghosts updated.
10. Tim DeRoche, The Ballad of Huck and Miguel: Huck Finn in the 21st century.

Books that Wasted Trees:

1. Billy Coffey, Steal Away Home: Preaching posing as a baseball novel.
2. Lauren Groff, Florida: Snakes, gators, losers, and who cares?
3. Anna Quindlen, Alternate Side: Well-written book but unworthy characters.


Best on Screen:

1. Leave No Trace: Debra Granik scores again with her tale of damaged people who just want to be left alone.
2. BlacKkKlansman: Spike Lee's improbable but true tale of a black KKK member.
3. A Fantastic Woman: My vote for the best film about a transgendered person.
4. The Insult: Palestinians and Christians failing to exorcise the past.
5. On Chesil Beach: Overlooked gem of young love derailed.
6. Love, Gilda: Documentary that does justice to Radner's genius.
7. RBG: Call this documentary the making of a Supreme Court justice.
8. Roma: Beautifully filmed, though flawed remembrance of a family maid. Best             cinematography of the year.
9. Eighth Grade:  So well done you'll relive the pain!
10. Won't You Be My Neighbor? Great year for documentaries. Good time to remember Mr. Rogers.

Please Turn on the Lights!

1. Three Identical Strangers: If a scandal isn't a scandal, why film it?
2. Victoria and Abdul: Enough with the warm fuzzy Queen Victoria genre already.
3. I Tonya: Billed as a comedy about Tonya Harding. I didn't laugh.
4. Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman: Does it take talent to make a boring  film about fascinating subjects? Not really.
5. Planetarium: What I just said above, with séances.
6. The Circle: This Google-not-Google movie is an episodic mess.
7. The Death of Stalin: Comedy as broad as Siberia left me chilled and surly.
8. From the Land of the Moon: Marion Cotillard imagines things, such as that there might be a point to this movie.
9. Nuts:  What I said in 4 and 5 above, but with goat glands.


This is always the hardest category for me to judge. So much good music. So many talented folks–young and old.

New Releases:

1. Moira Smiley, Unzip the Horizon: Innovative, inventive, bold & miles from her Solas days.
2. Thea Gilmore, Run: A veteran British chanteuse with a powerful voice.
3. Eleanor Dubinsky, Soft Spot of My Heart: Multilingual cross-genre music that's just flat-out gorgeous.
4. Kittel and Company, Whorls; Jeremy Kittel takes bluegrass fiddle deep into jazz  terrain and paints contemplative moods.
5. Gretchen Peters, Sad Songs Make Me Happy: Hear the woman whose pen launched dozens of country hits.
6. Eliza Gilkyson, Secularia: Can an anti-religion album be spiritual? Yep.
7. Vivian Leva, Time is Everything: Spare and pure mountain music vocals.
8. Mink's Miracle Medicine, House of Candles: The miracle is Melissa Wright! Country and folk without gimmicks.
9. Greg Hawks, i think it's time: Time for country-influenced artists to address issues from the left side of the political spectrum.
10. Too many good people to leave off the list, so a collective shout out to Anita Aysola, Big Little Lion, Don Gallardo, Guy Menilow Ensemble, John Gorka,  Newpoli,  and Graham Stone.

Change the Earbuds:

1. Catherine Bent, Ideal: Not! Cello meandering to nowhere.
2. Elena Andukar, Flamenco in Time: Maybe hip flamenco isn't really a thing.
3. UNIFONY, Unifony: Three Euro jazz giants make a dull record.
4. Katie Herzig, Moment of Bliss: Pop grooves that failed to induce bliss.

Best Live Shows of 2018:

1. Richard Shindell: He was 100% on at the Parlor Room with new and old material and an alphabetical set list!
2. Cowboy Junkies: After 6 weeks on my back, the Junkies at the Academy of Music helped me heal.
3. James Keelaghan: James never gives a bad concert and pulled out the stops all weekend at the New Bedford Folk Festival.
4. Musique à Boucher: The surprise hit at New Bedford. A Capella mouth music of the most spirited kind. Surprising as their CDs are restrained.
5. Eliza Gilkyson: An intimate evening at the Parlor Room with a Texas treasure.
6. Jim Henry: Our own Western Mass hero. His Parlor room show was a love fest.
7. Richard Thompson: His electric show at the Academy needed a better mix, but he  rocked the joint.
8. Rory Block and Cindy Cashdollar: The warm-up act trumped the headliners.
9. The Weepies: Amazing harmonies and a refreshing December show with no holiday music!
10. The Kittel Trio: Not your mother's bluegrass at the West Whatley Chapel.

Not Feeling It:

St Paul and the Broken Bones opened well at the Academy of Music, but then everything sounded exactly the same. Better shtick than repertoire.

I simply don't get the hype surrounding Lake Street Dive. I love vocalist Rachel Price, when she sings in a register quieter than Celine Dion at an airport. Lots of glitz and light show bling that makes them more of an experience than a musical act. Boring. I wish Rory Block and Cindy Cashdollar had headlined.  


The Overstory is Brilliant and Unsettling

The Overstory (2018)
By Richard Powers
W. W. Norton and Company, 502 pages.

Pete Seeger used to muse, "The human race, if it survives...." Richard Powers' magisterial and National Book Award-winning The Overstory, might lead you to conclude that the best hope for the planet would be humankind's demise.

Powers dons the mantle of a literary sociologist/biologist with a deep streak of sympathy for eco anarchists. His is a hard novel to explain, but it is both an important book and—despite its bleak assessment of our species—a joy to read. Stick with me; it's more about trees than humans. Powers draws inspiration from Peter Wohlleben 's 2015 bestseller The Hidden Lives of Trees. Powers sees trees as social, migratory, emphatic, and communicative. They sing, warn each other of dangers, feel pain, remember, and forecast the future. If that sounds too crunchy for you, consider that there are trees—increasingly fewer—that have lived since Jesus was on earth. Powers writes, "… [T]he word tree and the word truth come from the same root." The Overstory opens with a two-page meditation that closes with this line: "The pine she leans against says: Listen. There is something you need to hear."

The Overstory is an ambitious novel with nine major characters; ten if we consider Powers as an interlocutor. It has two major themes that are philosophical questions of the highest order. The first is: Who owns the earth? The second comes from the character Doug Pavlichek, a former Vietnam War pilot who plants saplings to placate an eco consciousness that awoke when he was shot down and his parachute came down in a banyan tree. His question is coarse, but on target: "What the fuck went wrong with mankind?"

Nature and plants define all of the characters in the book. Nick Hoel, a fifth generation Iowan, is the last heir to a tree many thought extinct, the American chestnut. We meet him as he's trying to give away his art and about to lose the farm. Only one person bothers to exit the highway to explore his free art offer, Olivia Vandergriff, a lass whose life took a new turn after she electrocuted herself while stoned, but was revived. Patricia Westerford—clearly patterned after Wohlleben—also took new turns. As a graduate student, her theories of tree intelligence met with such ridicule she was dubbed "Plant Patty" and driven from academia. She retreated to Oregon, became a park ranger, and is 'discovered' in her old age. Needless to say, she is deeply conflicted about all of this. 

We also find Mt. Holyoke grad Mimi Ma, who is shocked when the mini park outside her office is taken down; and Adam Appich, a psychologist studying activist mindsets who becomes a covert convert. Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly were college sweethearts and actors who planted a tree on each anniversary, until ennui turned the flame to a smolder. And then there is the intriguing Neelay Mehta, a precocious computer geek who "skitters through the schoolyard like a traitor to childhood." His life changes when he is paralyzed from a fall from an oak tree. From his wheelchair, he designs elaborate games and complex alternative universes that make those of Second Life and Sim City look as simple as checkers.

All nine will, in various ways, be drawn into the battle for the planet, several of them gravitating to a radical activist group modeled on Earth First. Such struggles take place against long odds. Powers is no Pollyanna when it comes to tree huggers and radicals. At times you will find yourself wondering whether you are reading about the only sane people left on the planet, or a band of dreamers who make Summer of Love hippies seem like pragmatists. Powers pits them against an industry that is the wood-based equivalent of oil and coal barons intent upon extracting resources until the last penny is earned from them. As in most such confrontations, the ones accused of being "violent" are not the ones who light the first fuse.

Powers' sympathy is with the trees, but his skepticism parallels that of Doug Pavlichek: "The greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth." (You can almost hear Al Gore shouting "Amen!" from the wings.) There are magic words we use: jobs, housing, renewable resources, reforestation…. Yet, as Westerford contemplates the question of how to best help the world she realizes, "The problem begins with the word world. It means two opposite things. The real one we cannot see. The invented one we cannot escape." Wisdom lies in what is hidden: "The beech told the farmer where to plow. Limestone underneath covered in the best, darkest loam a field could want." Powers vividly describes the worlds that dependent upon trees. As he puts it, "People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures–bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful–call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing."

This is such a beautifully written book that you can unearth Websites devoted to quotes from it. Ultimately, though, Powers' message is, "Be still and feel." Then act and hope that it's not already too late to reverse what went wrong with mankind.

Rob Weir


Hark is a Misfire Remake of Being There

Hark (2019)*
By Sam Lipsyte
Simon & Schuster, 304 pages

There is a thin line between that which is snarky and hip, and prose that loses its impact. Sam Lipsyte's Hark weaves across both sides of that border on a regular basis.

The first chapter, which serves as something of a prologue, is so chaotic that I almost bailed on the novel before I even got started. I received an uncorrected advance copy, so perhaps editors have rescued the book's gateway, but the rest of what I read is a mix of sharp satire and sociology masquerading as fiction. Maybe Hark rushes to a brilliant conclusion, but I can't comment upon this. Hark is a work that I kept pushing aside in annoyance and picking up again in the hope that I was missing something. There will be no spoilers in this review; I gave up for good two-thirds of the way in.

Lipsyte's intent is to skewer celebrity culture, as well as Americans' rush to jog down a dollar-strewn path to bliss. His antihero is Hark Morner, who just wants everyone to "focus" and pay attention. His is essentially a Ram Dass Be Here Now point of view that replaces Dass' idea of building mental mandalas with "mental archery." What is mental archery, you ask? It's pretty much as it sounds. There are 52 exercises in which one strikes various archers' poses. There is no quiver or arrow; the act of moving and visualizing allegedly helps one "focus." This is an intriguing backdoor critique of the American Rut, one marked by rushing from one mindless task to another, and the anesthetizing effects of helter-skelter surfing in a plugged in and screen bound world.

Hark's only message is that we need to "focus," but American society isn't big on simple messages unless they can be monetized. Hark is a blissful naïf, but his devotees are neither. Lipsyte populates Hark's world with those who think mental archery is a marketable concept, though they've clearly failed to achieve the focused state Hark advocates. Or, more accurately, they are focused on quite different goals. Hark wants to give mental archery to the world as a gift; his devotees want to promote him as a pay-to-see guru.

Hark is thus shoved into a world of hucksterism and hype that he neither desires nor understand. Imagine a motivational speaker who only tells people to focus. No one would pony up to hear that, right? Wrong! The best parts of Lipsyte's novel probe how easy it is to get people to buy bromides and placebos, no matter how improbable or trite. Hark doesn't even tell his massed audiences what we should focus upon. He is akin to a benign and clueless Wizard of Oz, but there is no Toto to pull back the curtain.   The problem, though, is that because we already know this, we plow through Hark hoping to find interesting character backstories. Alas, mainly we find a cast that's either amoral, dull, or both. What is left is a lampoon for the yoga-and-sprouts crowd that they probably won't get.

I leave open the possibility that others will find this book funnier than I. There is, however, no getting around the fact that we are riding the one-trick pony that is the runt litter of a mighty stallion: Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1970). Hark Morner is an updated Chance Gardner, the shut-in innocent groundskeeper set adrift, and whose knowledge base consists of advertising hooks he overheard on television. Chance is similarly embraced and promoted by those seeking easy answers. Toss in the focus angle from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-sided (2009), her searing critique of the positive thinking movement, and you've got Hark.

There is, of course, room for revisiting old ideas; with the exception of Ehrenreich, we are talking about decades-old works. Alas, Hark is not that book. Lipsyte's pursuit of a hipster vibe that is just out of his reach is made manifest in a lack of thoughtful or likable characters. This distances the reader from both the humor and the author's chosen tone. Regarding the latter, there is a sense that maybe Lipsyte really wanted to remake the values-challenged world of Bonfire of the Vanities.

Once again, I cannot comment upon how Lipsyte resolved (or failed to resolve) all of this. I guess I lost my focus.

Rob Weir

* This book is scheduled for release in 2019, but it's already widely available.    


In Any Language, the Kindergarten Teacher is Creepy

The Kindergarten Teacher  (2015)
Directed by Nadar Lapid
Kino Lorber Films, 119 minutes, In Hebrew and English
Not-rated (full frontal nudity, disturbing themes)

Boston Globe film director Ty Burr recently wrote of films that were, in his estimation, unjustly overlooked. My viewing of the Israeli film The Kindergarten Teacher makes Mr. Burr 0-1. Although the film features a stunning performance from the actress Sarit Larry, The Kindergarten Teacher needs to go back to nursery school.

The film centers on Nira (Ms. Larry), who is a beloved and creative kindergarten teacher. At 40-something she’s also suffering from a midlife crisis. Her kids are grown, her husband (Lior Raz) has morphed into a doughy slob, and she seeks to rekindle her passions in a poetry class, but her verse is as limp as the rest of her life. In essence, Nira is on autopilot. She is jarred to attention when she notices that one of her pupils, 5-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), has a strange tic. Yoav suddenly becomes vacant-eyed, prances back and forth rapidly, and recites original poetry. He doesn’t even know some of the words in his poems and can’t explain how they come to him or what they mean. Neither Nira nor Yoav’s nanny Miri (Ester Rada) know what to think, but each appropriates his words—Nira for her poetry class and Miri as a backdrop for acting auditions.

Is Yoav the poetry parallel to Mozart, a child prodigy whose creative gifts unwrap before his mind is fully developed? Is it some sort of brain disorder such as Tourette syndrome or glossolalia? When Nita’s poetry teacher (Gilles Ben-David) begins to praise Nira’s pilfered poems, she develops an obsession with Yoav that borders on unrequited psychosexual pedophilia. She finagles Miri’s dismissal to eliminate her access to Yoav’s genius, and seeks to convince his father Amnon that Yoav’s gift needs to be nurtured. Amnon, though, is an arrogant and despotic upscale restaurateur who tells Nira that he will do nothing to promote such a frivolous pursuit and envisions a far more practical course for his son. He even forbids Nira from encouraging Yoav, and pulls him out of her school when he learns she has disobeyed that order. This leads Nira to a desperate act.

This story is overlaid with Israeli racial tension. There has long been a split within Israel between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, the former whose ties go back to Northern and Western Europe and the latter to the Iberian Peninsula, Anatolia, and North Africa. It manifests itself physically in that Ashkenazi Jews tend to lighter-skinned and Sephardim are darker hued. In The Kindergarten Teacher, Sephardim such as Nira and Miri are cast as more vulnerable to the opinions and power of Ashkenazi such Nira's poetry teacher or Amnon. This racial theme is juxtaposed with that of the poet as a misunderstood outsider easily crushed by indifference, commerce, and tyrants.

The good things in this film can be summed in a single name: Sarit Larry. Hers is an astonishing physical presence. She isn’t exactly beautiful—adjectives such as handsome or striking work better—yet it is hard not to look at her when she’s on the screen. Her every move is a combination of grace and deliberation. Even her resignation and ennui are elegant. The bad is pretty much everything else: a moth-eaten script, unexplained motives, and creepy situations that take us the very edge of the unforgiveable before backing off ever so slightly. It’s ultimately hard to determine whether one should be saddened or outraged. While I am often a fan of cinematic ambiguity, this film drifts too close to darker human impulses for my comfort level.

All of this begs the question of why there was a U.S. remake of this film. American film companies often do near shot-by-shot remakes of foreign films in the belief that American moviegoers won’t watch subtitles. Such films are almost always flops, in part because there are cultural differences that simply don’t translate well stripped of their context. To pick just one example, Israeli kindergarten teachers have levels of physical contact between teachers and students that would be prosecuted in America.  In 2018, Netflix released an English-language version of The Kindergarten Teacher directed by Sara Colangelo and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli. I guess Nira was too Jewish for Netflix, but no matter; it’s the same film shortened by 29 minutes. I’ve not seen it and have no plans to do so. Colangelo won a director’s award at Sundance, but the Netflix film hasn’t played much outside of film festivals. From where I sit, that’s not a tragedy. Call me squeamish, but The Kindergarten Teacher in any language is an inappropriate lesson plan.

Rob Weir


Gregory Alan Isakov: Catch a Rising Star

Gregory Alan Isakov
Nine Songs

I first heard Gregory Alan Isakov's music in a Starbucks and that alone tells you that he's an artist who has attracted industry attention. The 39-year-old South African-born, Philadelphia-raised Isakov now resides in Boulder, and he has cranked out seven albums since 2003. You'll hear some high production values in Isakov's sampling of past offerings on his NoiseTrade offering in the form of added strings, guitar, and studio musicianship. Although I personally find that orchestral strings and folk/Americana music can stray upon affected and sugary ground, Isakov is good enough to rise above the processing.

If you don't know, Isakov's big breaks came from commercials. His 2009 song "Big Black Car" was used in a MacDonald's commercial, just as "Time Will Tell" showed up in a Subaru ad. Some of his songs have also been background music in TV shows and films. Don't be put off by any of this. "Big Black car" is a helluva song. It's the ultimate not-made-for-each-other tale: Well you were a dancer, I was a rag/The song in my head, well, was all that I had/Hope was a letter I never could send/Love was a country we couldn't defend. For the most part the song is just Isakov's consolatory voice and just the right amount of acoustic guitar and banjo. "Time Will Tell" is on the opposite end of the hope scale; its themes are endurance, perseverance, and long-term commitment. Again, its back porch banjo-led simplicity is a great virtue. (I'm pretty sure there's a touch of musical saw in the recorded version.) I'm also very enamored of the tender and nostalgic "The Stable Song." It also features some fine lyrics that fit as snug as a winter blanket, including this gem: Now I've been crazy, couldn't you tell/Threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell.

I'm not sure Isakov needed all the extras in "Dark, Dark, Dark." In a similar manner, the echo chamber effects, creates a melancholy mood in "Liars," but for me the big symphonic build produces more distancing than connectivity.  I found myself thinking that the intimacy of a live performance would be dramatic rather than melodramatic. I'll take a small song like "Master and Hound" any day. Ditto a heartfelt composition such as "Amsterdam," which captures a moment I'm sure most of us have experienced, that of being on an overlong journey that loses it wonder and makes you think of home. If you already know Isakov, this NoiseTrade collection is something of a "greatest hits" collection you'll yearn to have. If you're a newbie, enjoy your introduction to an artist who deserves the attention that has come his way. Let's just hope Isakov keeps thing simple.

Rob Weir



Sully: Video Review

Sully (2016)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Brothers, 96 minutes, PG-13

My aversion to malls is well documented, which means I often see mall films on DVD long after they've departed the cinemas. And, yes, I usually watch DVDs rather than downloads because my house is surrounded by signal-sucking trees. Consider this a video review.

Unless you live under a rock, you are aware of the basics of this story. On January 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport and climbed to 2,800 feet before slamming into a flock of geese that took out its engines. Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger made a successful emergency landing in the icy Hudson River. Miraculously, all 155 people on board were rescued.

Sounds like great stuff for a feature film, doesn't it? Not really. Hollywood films trade in drama and melodrama. There is no drama in Sully because we already know the outcome. Director Clint Eastwood tries to whip up a bit of drama by emphasizing mobility challenged passengers, by showing us Sully (Tom Hanks) walking down the watery aisle of his plane as co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) urges him to abandon the plane lest the plane sink with Sully on it, and by focusing on first responders. Well, we also know the plane didn't sink. We also know that the captain being the last person to abandon ship is a standard movie trope. In other words, because there is no drama, melodrama must suffice. This is especially the case when Eastwood portrays first responders as if the downed Airbus was 9/11-Upon-Hudson.

You will notice that the film is just 96 minutes long. That's really as much as Eastwood could stretch the material, and even then we flash back to Sully's boyhood before Eastwood fixates on the part of the historical record that is less known. Although the public immediately hailed Sully as a hero, the National Transportation Board was uncertain he deserved that status. They ran several computer scenarios that showed Sully had time to land to land at either of two nearby airports. Were that true, Sully would have been guilty of recklessly endangering the passengers and crew. If you followed the story, you know what happened with that; if you've not, I won't spoil your only unknown.

The drama might have been helped had Hanks been half as animated as Eckhart. Hanks portrays Sully as clinically analytical, phlegmatic, and stoic. Sully might indeed be a hero, but Hanks' emotional impact is akin to that of Mr. Spock. (The real Sully seems much warmer than Hanks plays him.) Eckhart out does Hanks and whips up the annoyed anger one might expect from a person immediately dragged before an inquiry board after coming within a whisper of losing his life and that of 154 others.

Eastwood deserves credit for putting us in the pilot's chair for those "What would I have done?" moments. Likewise, the sets and cinematography add loud notes of verisimilitude. The film was nominated for a slew of awards and won a few, but none of the acclaim was really merited; quite a lot came from committees seeking to honor Captain Sullenberger, not this movie. What we really have is a movie that could have been a made-for-TV special. Sully isn't a bad film by any means; it's mostly a bit of vicarious escapism. If you've not already seen it, there are worse ways to wile away a dark winter's night. Just don't watch it if you plan to fly anywhere in the near future!

Rob Weir 


Abel Raises Cain: Today's Type of News Yesterday

Abel Raises Cain  (2005)
Directed by Jenny Abel
Crashcourse Documentaries, 82 minutes, Not-rated (but totally PG-13)
★★ ½

When Alan Abel died on September 14, 2018, the New York Times obituary was headed: "Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinaire, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94." The Times was alluding to an embarrassing moment from its past. In 1980, Abel fed the paper a fake obituary, complete with the hysterical tidbit that he had died while filming a vampire film titled Who Will Bite Your Neck, Dear, When All My Teeth are Gone? To its credit, the Times did use a fact-checker, who was hoodwinked by the actors Abel hired to portray everyone from the undertaker to his grieving widow.

When Abel passed for real, some newspapers credited him with having invented "fake news." That's not true, and it's also self-serving. Abel was a hoaxster, but a good-natured one whose aim was, in his words, to give the public "a kick in the intellect." Jenny Abel documented her father's eccentricities more than a decade ago. As she makes clear, her childhood was filled with hilarity, but not a lot of money; her dad refused to cash in on his elaborate pranks and her mother, Jeanne, was his number one enabler. And what wonderful bamboozles they were.

In 1959, for example, he formed the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), and launched crude staged protests with signs depicting cows in muumuus and dogs wearing shorts. He kept SINA going for more than a decade. In 1963, self-proclaimed supporters even picketed the White House. Those supporters were apparently grammatically challenged, as the conjunction "for" and the preposition "to" are jokes within a joke that suggested that SINA was in favor of indecency! As SINA attracted media attention, Abel called upon a friend to help him script the organization's material: a then unknown Buck Henry using the pseudonym G. Clifford Prout.

A sampling of other Abel hoaxes included a fake celebrity lottery winner, the Topless String Quintet, the International Sex Bowl, and the write-in presidential campaigns of Yetta Bronstein in 1964 and 1968. In taped interviews Yetta—Jeanne in an outrageous Yiddish grandmother guise—proclaimed: "Vote for Yetta and things will get betta." Aside from SINA, Abel's most flamboyant pranks were Omar's School for Beggars, a training course for panhandlers, and the Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra, which briefly tricked David Duke into accepting an offer to guest conduct! During the Watergate hearings, Abel struck again and posed as a Beltway insider who claimed to possess the missing 18 ½ minutes of tape that would incriminate President Nixon.

Sound outrageous and unbelievable? Maybe not these days. If there is any solace, it wasn't any better back then. The media ate it up. Abel appeared on shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Phil Donohue, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, and Morton Downey, Jr. Even news anchors such as Tom Snyder and Walter Cronkite fell prey. Some were infuriated when they discovered they'd been had. Isn't it often the case that people get angry with others when their own laziness is to blame? Abel was often filmed wearing cheesy and obvious disguises. Worse still, he was on air dozens of times without disguise and under his own name, though he had written several books about his practical jokes and was known to the media. He got away with it because journalists often failed to do their homework. Scholars have written about Watergate's deleterious effects on news-gathering. Abel was indeed a kick in the intellect but, alas, the joke was on him; sensationalism triumphed.

You will have noticed I've said little about the documentary. You can and should watch it on Vimeo to appreciate how Abel was the P. T. Barnum of the television age. It is, though, a rather crude effort—as family documentaries often are. It is the only film Jenny Abel ever directed, and she is among a long line of directors who stumbled because she couldn't get sufficient distance from her subject. There is a lot of repetition and her film frequently fragments both chronology and the narrative, and I don't mean in any arty or hipster fashion. It often feels like the work of a film school novice. What is good about it, though, is that Jenny Abel had access to rich archival material and her father's own notes, videotapes, and presence.

Abel Raises Cain is ultimately about an eccentric jokester. It is both funny and a sobering prelude to the age of Trump. If it disturbs you, don't blame Alan Abel. It's our own damn fault for not paying closer attention.

Rob Weir


Matt Litzinger: Gentle Music for the Season

Matt Litzinger, All These Years; Sampler

This is the time of the year for things sweet and gentle, and New Hampshire's Matt Litzinger is just the guy to deliver. He even has a deal for you: download his new EP All These Years and you can also get a free sampler.

Litzinger fits snugly in the singer songwriter folk tradition. He's not going to dazzle you with all manner of studio bling. Check out "Time Turner" from the sampler. He recorded it live because it conveys the personal and warm immediacy of his lyrics and performance style. Many of his songs are unabashedly wholesome. "Chelue," for instance, is told from the POV of his grandfather and the life he built. It is a three-generation tale of a boy and a girl (Chelue) who fell in love early, married, and watched their kids and grandkids grow. Litzinger sings this one with a bit of a rasp reminiscent of how John Prine might attack such material. He celebrates the same kind of devotion in "Piper's Song," which is dedicated to his daughter. This little piano/guitar based melody with its theme of a sunbeam bringing light into an often dark world could come off as mawkish, were it not for the fragile sincerity which Litzinger conveys his feelings.

If ambiguity is your taste, try "Airport Song." It's about a man driving his love to the airport and neither of them has anything to say. This part of the song is melancholy and slower than when he tells us he's counting the days until "she'll be back in my arms." There's just enough doubt in all of this for us to imagine a happy ending, or to think that the song is about a flame that has died out and the reunion is just wishful thinking. Another in the vein of how do you want to spin it is "City Folks." It tells of a person who rides commuter rail to work and dreams of being able to fit seamlessly into city life, though he doesn't. It's mostly a grass-is-greener tale, but it could also be read as a paean to country living.

However you want to think of these songs, you'll find Litzinger's pacing unhurried, his songs calming, his approach unpretentious, and his melodies the type that stick in your head. This is curl up-to-cocoa folk music that lifts the spirit.

Rob Weir  


Glastonbury Fayre an Early Nic Roeg Film/Time Warp

Glastonbury Fayre  (1972/Re-released)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
MVDvisual, 87 minutes, Not-rated (extensive nudity)

Film director Nicholas Roeg died on November 23. In addition to work in television and cinematography, Roeg directed such classics as the chilling Don't Look Now (1973); The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), a David Bowie sci-fi tale; the controversial Bad Timing (1980), which was originally rated X; and The Witches (1990), which helped send Anjelica Huston's career into overdrive.

Back in 1971, though, Nic Roeg was the young whelp whose second film, Walkabout, gained a lot of what we'd today call buzz. It is a tale of two young white children cast adrift in the Australian Outback, where they meet an Aboriginal boy and (sort of ) entrust their survival to him. The point of all this is that Roeg was not yet a household name when he directed Glastonbury Fayre, if indeed "directed" is the right word. Glastonbury Fayre is a cinéma vérité documentary, meaning that Roeg played the role of a dispassionate observer. His point of view is visually direct, but images are presented without commentary or any identifiable judgment or assessment. Much like rockumentaries such as The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense, Roeg simply pointed the camera and allowed the images to speak for themselves.

The 1971 Glastonbury Fayre was the first in a series of rock festivals that continue to take place in Glastonbury, England. (They are the remnants of classical and avant-garde music festivals that began in 1914.) Fairport Convention helped organize the 1971 event and several others in their post-Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson guise. Glastonbury was chosen because of its proximity to Glastonbury Tor, a hill that some regard as one of the eight most powerful energy vortices on the planet. The initial feel of Roeg's film is that it is what the documentary Woodstock would have been like if Michael Wadleigh had been forced to work on a shoestring budget. In fact, some critics have dubbed it "Woodstock Lite." The vortex makes it more than that.

The (non) structure of Glastonbury Fayre has the same feel as the filler material between concert performances in Wadleigh's film. That is, we watch the stage—a giant makeshift pyramid in this case—being built, and then we witness various people from all walks of life drifting into the site. There is no external commentary other than the snippets of conversation and background noises incidentally captured by the film crew. There is, however, a considerable amount of full frontal nudity on display from a cast of characters whose lack of inhibition makes Woodstock seem like a nunnery. As in the case of the latter, though, quite a few are eccentric, mystical, weird, or a combination of all three. Roeg's film also invokes another Sixties' phenomenon, the happening. Much of Roeg's non-direction is in the improvisational spirit of spontaneous happenings.

 Performers such as Terry Reid, Linda Lewis, and Arthur Brown will be less familiar to North American viewers. Brown—nicknamed The God of Hellfire—was a particularly flamboyant and odd performer. He is seen on the film in a demonic guise and with a band that presaged prog rock, Alice Cooper, KISS, and heavy metal. (Brown did have a brief hit on the North American charts with the song "Fire.") If you followed folk rock, you will recognize Fairport's Dave Swarbrick, whose fiddling raised the bar for future string players. Unlike Woodstock, though, none of the filmed performances last very long. Blink and you'll miss young Steve Winwood in Traffic, or David Bowie. It may sound blasphemous to assert, but the film's best musical performance comes from Melanie, who was a major star in the 1970s (and still performs). I'd have to check, but I believe she's the only performer to play at both Woodstock and Glastonbury.

The film shuffles on and about the time one begins to buy into the whole Woodstock Lite crticism, it dawns on the viewer that Glastonbury isn't Woodstock. It's actually the progenitor of Burning Man. And so it was for 15 years before anyone thought of Burning Man. And so it remains, with music plus Burning Man's embrace of all forms of artistic expression, but without its unstated (and near cult-like) adherence to specific spiritual paths.

Glastonbury Fayre won't stun you the way future Roeg films did. You may, in fact, find it rather crudely made. View it instead through the eyes of a time-traveling anthropologist. Leave your hang-ups on the shelf, as those who attended the 1971 Fayre literally let it all hang out.

Rob Weir


Turn Off the Cafe Wi-fi

Hipsters and Sponges Ruining a Cafe

Northampton, Massachusetts is one of New England's great coffee towns. Within the three-square-block section of the downtown there are at least 28 places to sit down or carry away a really good cup of Joe. Four miles away, the center of Florence has just a handful of stores, but coffee is on offer at 9 of them.

I'm fortunate that Northampton has a café culture, as there are several places I choose not to sip. I won't name them, but one is in the middle of Main Street and the other is on Pleasant Street. Their brews are terrific, but their business plans irk me. They offer free Wi-Fi.

Yeah, I know. We live in a connected world. Me too.  I have no gripe about that. I do, however, have issues with turning cafés into repositories for the tragically hip and the cheap-as-hell crowd. The dominant décor of the two places I avoid is one table, one laptop, one screen-stupefied typist, one cup of coffee last lifted to lips an hour ago, and a muffin that a sparrow could decimate more rapidly. Add a dash of incivility and it's-all-about-me narcissism, and you've got the picture.

Café laptops have replaced bowling alone as a symbol of our atomized society. A good café is the modern agora—a public meeting place where friends and strangers interact. See the same strangers enough times, conversation happens, and strangers become new friends. My favorite café, Woodstar, is precisely such a place. It's a mini Grand Central of people filing in and out. Those who score a table are seldom alone for long and, if you think the yakers are clogging the capitalist machine, check out how often the baristas are re-firing the brewing urns and count the food platters coming out from the back.

This, of course, is how a café must run in order to survive. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $11 an hour, but that's low for Northampton. Translation: Coffee places survive on volume. Why is Woodstar so busy? Because it has no Wi-Fi. You'll spot laptops here and there from those who can pick up a hotspot, but they tend not to linger. Woodstar hums with the energy and low murmur of dozens of people interacting with each other, not the listerized quiet of private surfers.

I've no idea how the two places I avoid stay in business, especially the one of Pleasant Street where even the big tables are dominated by a single laptopper guarding turf by splaying papers hither and yon. Every time I see this phenomenon I want to recruit a posse of former café owners and throttle the fool. This person is a self-interested sponge who threatens the survival of local business.

Perhaps you might think my reaction extreme. If so, try this experiment. Sit down near to a solitary laptopper and begin to converse with a friend. First the person will look up. Then comes a glare and a sigh. Headphones will be pulled from the pack and clamped over the ears. The moment an empty table opens, the power cord will be yanked from the wall, the laptop will loudly snap shut, and its owner will clomp off in a huff.

If ever the phrase "get a room" is apt, it's for those who think a beverage entitles them to a cone of silence and a place to be alone. There are such places; "coworking" space is all the rage these days. This will, of course, cost more than the five bucks for a coffee and a muffin. And that, really, is the point. A café isn't an office, nor is it a place to publicly exude attitude. Heaven forbid that our cafés become nothing more than places to preen and work. (Not that they could afford to be such a thing!)  

We all must work, of course, and I'm one who occasionally needs a change of scenery to regain my creative mojo. I've even been known to plug in at a non-busy café. But the moment business picks up I pack up and leave because I want that café to be there the next time I crave a well-made cuppa. If I need quiet, I go to the ultimate shhhh kind of place: the library. Those one-table one-laptop coffee houses of the living dead should turn off the Wi-fi—for their own good, and in the name of community.   

Rob Weir