Roma a Not-Quite Masterpiece

Roma  (2018)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Netflix, 135 minutes, R (absurd rating for full frontal male nudity)
In Spanish, Mixtec, English with subtitles

I know several friends who grew up with household servants. They insist that they considered those individuals to be “members of the family.” It’s a nice sentiment and they no doubt mean it, but it’s also the ultimate bourgeois conceit. The “help” almost always have families of their own, plus they cannot be family members for the same reason that a president cannot really have “consensual” sex with an aide; the power differential creates a gulf between superior and subordinate.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s new film is what reviewer Owen Gleiberman sagely calls a “meditation” on his boyhood. The title refers to the middle-class section of Mexico City where Cuarón lived as a child, though you could be forgiven if your immediate thought was of Fellini. Roma is gloriously filmed in black and white and its episodic structure is evocative of earlier auteurs such as Fellini or Bergman.

Roma centers on an haute bourgeois family in the early 1970s. This was a chaotic moment in Mexican history in which a series of American-backed authoritarian presidents were in power that didn't hesitate to unleash the Mexican army to put down student protests. If you recall or have read about Kent and Jackson State, you know how the combined six deaths threw American society into paroxysms of anger and remorse. That was peanuts compared to Mexico, where the army killed hundreds in 1968, and another 120 during the Corpus Christi demonstration of 1971. The latter is touched upon in Roma and “touched upon” is the right description. We see it from the POV of our middle-class family as they watch from the window of a furniture store to which they’ve thoughtlessly traveled because their pregnant maid needed a crib.

The latter act is one of the ways in which those with money spin the “member of the family” tale. Roma focuses closely on Cleodegaria Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two live-in maids caring for a middle-class family with four minor children. “Cleo” (named for an Agnes Varda film!) is from an impoverished Mesoamerican Indian family. She and coworker Adela dearly love the children, hence materfamilias Sofia (Marina de Tavira) doles out small kindnesses and considers herself their benefactor. That is, until she barks orders at them to clean up the shit in the narrow patio/garage where they keep their dog penned all day, or when she nudges them to drop everything and run an errand. Much of Cuarón’s film is silent; he needs no words to convey how hard Cleo and Adela work while Sofia and the children obliviously move through their routines as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have others pick up after them or indulge their spontaneous whims.  

The class dynamic is all the more absurd given that this bourgeois family is dysfunctional to the point of impending dissolution. The father is an egotistical doctor who is as tyrannical as the country’s leaders. Although the kids initially think he’s on his way to a conference in Quebec, he’s actually leaving them for his mistress. To add to the already lopsided gender dynamics of the 1970s, it was very hard to force men to support the children they abandoned–a dynamic that plays out several ways in the film. Sofia seeks to maintain a veneer of materialism and stability, but we suspect the handwriting is in the wall.

Roma is also a film about race. If anything, Mexican society is more racially stratified than that of the United States. Some have called it a caste society, as Mexico parses race in more than the black/white paradigm that prevails in the United States. There is, however, no doubt that Spanish-speakers of Iberian origin view themselves as superior to indigenous peoples such as Cleo and Adela. The scene of Cleo visiting her village displays poverty and deprivation that evoke South African townships under apartheid.

Class, gender, and race…. These certainly give Roma contemporary relevance, even if the setting is in the 1970s. There are other reasons to watch this film. First among them is the astounding cinematography. From the opening shots of water rushing across tiles and swirling into a drain onward, Cuarón’s assemblages of images gives credence to my long-held assertion that black and white is frequently a more creative medium than color. If you're skeptical of that remark, watch carefully the wordless sequence of five people in a car returning from a beach holiday and get back to me. Cuarón uses light and contrast in ways that rival the impact of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

Several critics have hailed Roma as the best film of 2018, and it has already won several awards. I understand the hoopla, but I must stop short of declaring it a masterpiece. The film’s problems occur when Cuarón has to do more than just point the camera. His is not really a conventional narrative but still, there are so many telegraphed scenes in this film as to suggest Chekov’s gun was loaded with a full clip. At every juncture the story could have veered, Cuarón aimed straight toward where you would anticipate. Why such a conservative script for such innovative filmmaking? This is a semi-autobiographical film and Cuarón is still in touch with the woman upon whom Cleo is based. One wonders if there is also a way in which Cuarón still doesn’t quite get the racial dynamics of his own film. By this I mean there is a way in which this film could easily be read as a depiction of the Noble Savage, an inference that seems especially palpable in the film’s closing sequence.

Cuarón is the director who also gave us Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien, one of the Harry Potter films, and Children of Men. The last of these remains his masterpiece, though Roma is a superior work of craft. It is an almost-masterpiece, but Cuarón didn’t get enough distance from his past to see the full extent of his childhood false assumptions.  Rob Weir


No Man's Land at Smith: Reasons to Remember WWI

No Man’s Land: Prints from the Front Lines of WWI
Smith College Museum of Art
Through February 17, 2019

By the time you read this, a lot of hoopla about the end of World War I will be over. That’s because we love anniversaries that end in a five or a zero, but we don’t get overly excited by, say, the 101st year since a historical event occurred. World War I famously ended on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. .

2019 will bring its own anniversaries to the fore, but we should not forget World War I. More than any other event, it shaped the subsequent structure of the 20th century, which–all things considered–was not one of humanity’s finest historical periods. There were many problems before World War I guns began firing, but consider how different the world was before and after. Old aristocracies were swept away, but many of the new civil governments were corrupt, weak, bankrupt, or all three; perfect conditions for the rise of fascism. The Russian czar gave way to a Bolshevik Revolution that ultimately devolved into a Stalinist nightmare and led to a Cold War long before anyone thought of using that term. The WW I armistice wasn’t even signed before a flu pandemic broke out that killed more than the war. A global economic depression loomed on the horizon, as did another world war, a declared Cold War, an arms race, weapons of mass annihilation, and untold numbers of small conflicts that threatened to bring on World War III.

William Strang "The Convalescent"
Conservatives are fond of using World War II as an example of why pacifism doesn’t work. They ought to pay more attention to the lesson of World War I: that wars generally don’t resolve much and quite often leave behind worse problems than those addressed by conflict. Gaze upon the prints, postcards, scrapbooks, photos, and paraphernalia displayed at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), and you’ll get a glimpse of war’s ugliness, futility, and horror. No Man’s Land will never show up in military recruiting ads. There was very little logic to World War I and there surely wasn’t much glory either.

Artists whose names you probably don’t know died in the war. You don’t know of Franz Marc, for instance, because his bud was plucked before it could flower. Those who survived were deeply impacted by what they saw. It is no accident that cubism reached its highest expression after the war. If the work of someone such as Georges Braque confuses you, ask why you would expect those who witnessed the Great War to see the world in anything other than abstract and fragmented forms. 

Kerr Eby

Otto Dix
There aren’t many American artists represented in the SCMA exhibit and that is as it should be. Kerr Eby is a noted exception. It was, after all, Europe that bore the brunt of trench warfare, gas attacks, and senseless charges across barbed wire terrain on their way to senseless death. When Otto Dix sketched the conflict, he didn’t see grand military pageantry, he saw grotesque waste such as he conveyed in “Wounded Soldier, Autumn 1916.”  In fact, whenever on-the-scene artists presented soldiers marching or riding off to war, it was more akin to shades entering a void. Much was viewed as humanity’s undoing. Consider, for instance, that a grand Gothic cathedral such as that in Rheims, France, took centuries to complete. Then look at Raoul Varin’s depiction of how all was undone in 1917.   
Varin, "Rheims"

McBey, "The Torpedoed Essex"
Quite a few images come from Scottish artists, especially James McBey, David Muirhead Bone, and William Strang. If these names aren’t familiar to you, it’s because their work discomforts and depresses. That might have something to do with the fact that English commanders often deployed Scots, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders for suicidal forays. How to display the nightmare? Boston Globe critic Mark Feeney observed that new styles such as cubism and futurism were trotted out but, “Most of all, it was an Expressionist war.” For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s something of Impressionism’s opposite. Impressionists sought to convey new ways of showing what they saw; expressionists showed us how art could convey feelings and emotions. Max Beckmann is perhaps the most famous of the artists on the wall, but his "The Large Operation" isn't an impression; it's a lamentation. 
Beckmann, "The Large Operation"

Grosz, "The Hero"
There are military medals on view at the SCMA, but they feel both inappropriate and ironic. This is a powerful exhibit and you should take time to linger over what might first seem rough sketches or quick sketches. You won’t find much that bespeaks military heroism. World War I was a lethal freak show. We should ponder that and look away from modern military recruiting ads with their emphasis on testosterone-fueled images of manhood and faux promises of glory. Above all, we should rage against the lie of antiseptic warfare. When the guns fire, people die. As the George Grosz sketch "The Hero" reminds us, war isn’t pretty.

Rob Weir


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.