T C Cannon at Peabody through June 10

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through June 10, 2018

People caught between two cultures often produce fascinating art, especially the type often labeled “outsider art.” We can extol the virtues of hyphenated identity all we wish, but those on both sides of the hyphen often view those who carry bifurcated identities with suspicion. They occupy cultural spaces that practically define the term liminal.

I first saw the paintings of T C Cannon (1946-1978) at the Heard Museum of Art in Phoenix in the 1980s and was instantly drawn to his bold colors, ambiguous facial expressions, and the tensions inherent within a blended body whose Caucasian background (American/French) was valued, but the Indian identity he held most sacred (figuratively and literally) was, at best, exoticized (and often racialized).

In a life cut short by a fatal auto accident in 1978, Cannon explored the borders of several art forms: music, poetry, and painting. Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum has assembled 90 works to shed new light on Cannon’s underappreciated genius. Much of this work is either self-consciously autobiographical or inherited expressions of the collective unconscious as embedded in the Native past. Even the latter was splintered; Cannon’s strongest bloodline was Kiowa, closely followed by Caddo, which isn’t a single tribe or people, rather a confederation of Southeastern groups. And there is also the fact that Cannon came of age during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. An early painting is of Bob Dylan, but it’s an attempt to capture Dylan’s attitude and vibe, not his exact likeness.

Still others are commentary on the irony of Natives such as himself serving in the very military that sent an Indian lad such as he to Vietnam; Cannon was in the 101st Airborne during 1967-68, a stretch that placed him in the middle of the Tet Offensive. One of the most subversive pieces is deceptively crude and simple: a hastily drawn hangman’s noose that’s labeled “Minnesota.” It’s perplexing unless you know that the largest mass execution in American history took place in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862, when 38 Dakota Sioux were hanged. It occurred during the Civil War and the president who refused to pardon them was named Lincoln.

Lots of Cannon paintings convey what W.W.B. DuBois called “twoness,” those “two souls … two warring ideals in one dark body.” Several of Cannon’s most powerful works are at core schizophrenic. One cleaves the body in two—the right hand side an Indian proud in his ceremonial paint and braids; the left half a bearded Anglo soldier. Others feature mash ups of Indian garb and military uniforms. Two other canvases satirize Western art by taking one of art’s favorite subjects, the nude Odalisque figure (most famously rendered by Ingres) and pose Indian subjects in the place of Turkish harem slaves. Layer these with as many shaded meanings as you’d like; Cannon intended them all. 

Cannon mostly painted people ill at ease in their cultural time and spaces. There is a haunted lonely quality to canvases such as His Hair Flows Like a River. He gives himself the same treatment in Self-Portrait in the Studio. What is he in this picture? A hippie? A psychedelic cowboy? A John Travolta extra? Or just a playful guy wearing duds so awful they could have only been made in the 1970s?

The Peabody exhibit also features some of Cannon’s poetry. It might not satisfy formalists, but his lines convey power and pain. Do some searching and you might even run across some of his political folk music. Cannon’s Kiowa name was Pal-doung-a-day, “One Who Stands in the Sun.” His rays continue to shed light on ills not yet reconciled.

Rob Weir



Video Review: Step

STEP  (2017)
Directed by Amanda Liptiz
Fox Searchlight, PG, 83 minutes.

Faithful readers know that a criterion I use to evaluate movies is the degree to which they take us inside worlds we're unlikely to enter ourselves. Step certainly does that for me. It's about an all-female charter school, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). The BLSYM is mostly African American and the film's subject is about a phenomenon about which I had never heard. We drop in on the seniors of BLSYM in 2015, a tough time to be black and in Baltimore, as that's the year Freddie Gray was murdered by city cops.  School principal Cheronne Hall and head of guidance Paula Dofat have a daunting and audacious goal: keep their students focused, graduate every one of them, and attain a 100% college acceptance rate.

For many of these young women, step is a release from inner-city troubles, personal trauma, the classroom grind, and poverty. Where I live, step dancing evokes Riverdance—Irish music, stiff upper bodies, and flying leg kicks. In Baltimore, think something akin to slices of a BeyoncĂ© video, the step being an increment—those individual pieces stitched together into a choreographed set. Step teams compete, confer street cred, and instill a sense of personal achievement.    

Director Amanda Liptiz's documentary highlights two connected struggles, one academic and the other the fate of the BLSYW step team. She goes broad rather than deep, but gives just enough to keep viewers engaged. We witness both battles in vignette, but step is the star. There's a new coach, Gari McIntyre, who hopes to reverse past history—the BLSYM Lethal Ladies team hasn't done well in recent years—and she dares dream she can whip them into shape to get to the championship round in Bowie, Maryland.

Has anyone been to Bowie? It's an okay place, but Paris it isn't, and aspiring to get to Bowie is its own statement of small dreams. Students cycle in and out of the documentary, but mainly Liptiz focuses on three—who metaphorically represent the top, middle, and low end of the student body. Cori Grainger is the outlier at the crest. She's brilliant, studious, and ambitious Her heart is set on being accepted at Johns Hopkins, but she knows she has to dazzle as she's of six kids and needs a full scholarship to go anywhere, let alone Hopkins. Cori certainly assumes her desired role; call hers a nerd chic look. As she puts it, she got to the top, liked the view, and decided to stay there.

Tayla Solomon is akin to the average student at BLSYM. She does fine in school, but she's not Hopkins material. She is, however, kept in line by her no-nonsense single mom, Maisha, a correctional officer unafraid to wield her discipline at home. And then we have Blessin Giraldo, the founder and captain of the Lethal Ladies. She's bright enough, but she also spends more time on her hair and makeup than schoolwork; she's truant a lot, sometimes angry, and carrying a sub 2.0 grade-point average. Vote her the least likely student to get to college.

Much of what we see in this film defies expectations. Most of the families are poor, but they do not live in squalor. In some ways, their invisible poverty is tougher; the girls look good and their homes are tidy, but there's often no food in the fridge. That's actually one of the burdens Blessin carries; she occasionally goes without food so a younger sibling can eat. She says she doesn’t mind, but we know better. If you think making it to Bowie is a modest goal, most students of Tayla's ilk aren't waiting to hear from Smith or the Ivies; they're really hoping they can make it into schools like Alabama A & M, Potomac State, or Allegany—that is, the ones you won't find battling for prestige in the U.S. News and World Reports college rankings. Each student, though, knows that college—any college—offers hope for a better life.

I won't reveal how any of this—college or step competition—plays out. Nor will I tell you that this is the most brilliant film you'll see. Liptiz has made a film that moves briskly, but has lacunae we'd like to see filled. What's the deal, for instance, with Cori's stepfather—  a bearish white guy with a bushy red beard we encounter in seas of black and brown faces? We don’t learn much about the school, either. How are students and faculty chosen? How does it fit within the Baltimore educational system? Mainly we want to know how these young women fare down the road, the true test of whether the heroic efforts of their teachers and step coach were worth the effort.

Step has been called the Hoop Dreams of the hip-hop generation. There are also parallels to Fame. It’s not on par with either film, but it does take us inside a world hitherto veiled. I hope that Liptiz follows the example of Michael Apted (Seven Up) and does a sequel that updates her charges. Or maybe I don’t. It would break my heart if any of these young women fail.

Rob Weir


Norman: Good Overlooked Film

Directed by Joseph Cedar
Sony, 158 minutes, R (language and because those rating it are insane!)

Hollywood dominates the North American movie hype machine, so we hear less about so-called niche markets like Spanish-language films, Bollywood imports, and “hood” movies targeted for black urban markets. There is also a thriving Jewish cinema, which has long wrestled with the question of whether to mainstream or brand its products as identity films. Generally it seeks to do a bit of each and I’ll leave it to others to say how successful (or not) this approach has been. My film judgment tends to rest on the decidedly less weighty criterion of whether or not I like the film. If you share that view, I think you’ll find Norman a film worthy of consideration.

Norman Offenheimer (Richard Gere) is Manhattan “fixer.” He’s the guy who (says he) knows people who know people who can introduce you to people you ought to know. Got that? The Yiddish for such a person is macher and it doesn’t have an easy English translation. Norman’s not exactly a con man and he’s certainly not the “wise guy” trope we find in Italian-American movies. The macher strives to be influential, a hot shot to be sure, but a mover and shaker with a Border collie mentality and a sense of duty to community lurking somewhere. Norman’s problem is that he’s good enough at the racket to be semi-convincing and it would be better for all concerned if he was either really good or really awful. He’s also a bit of a mystery man in that he’s always dapper, but doesn’t seem to be well off, and few know exactly how he supports himself or where he goes when he’s not in public. He also comes off as desperate to be a player—all dressed up with nothing to fix. Lightweight dreamer or heavy-duty huckster? How does one classify a person who is more of a serial exaggerator rather than a liar?

Norman’s big break comes when he tries to use a sullen mid-level Israeli politician, Misha Eshel (Lior Askkenazi), to thread his way between two high-powered Manhattan financiers, Jo Wilf and Arthur Taub. Instead, Norman ends up doing a good deed for a self-doubter who, three years later, is Prime Minister of Israel. All of a sudden Norman is a player. The question for the rest of the film is whether he can do good with his power, or if he’s a walking, talking textbook case of the Peter Principle in way over his head.

Director Joseph Cedar tells Norman’s tale in four acts, but don’t assume that the word “tragic” in the title is what you think. The film is filled with humor and poignancy and Gere is really good as Norman, whom he plays with enough charm to make you care about him, but also with an obsequious whininess that makes him unlikely to be on your cocktail party guest list. There are also nice parts for Steve Buscemi as a scheming rabbi, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a secretive Israeli government official, and a very juicy part for Hank Azarian, who is essentially Norman thirty years earlier. The interplay between Gere and Azarian alone justifies watching the film; they go eyeball to eyeball like a hungry young dog trying to convince a street-wise older cur to drop his bone. As the four-act structure suggests, this ‘movie’ often feels more like a well-done Off-Broadway theater project, my point being that it feels “small” in cinematic terms. Luckily the acting takes us places the camera doesn’t. So too does a script—also from Cedar—that doesn’t invite easy judgments about anyone’s basic character, motives, or deeds. And what makes a better Jewish morality tale than one centered on conflict and guilt?

Rob Weir