A Man For All Seasons is a Classic for Many Reasons

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Columbia Pictures, Rated G, 122 minutes, in Technicolor

A Man for All Seasons ruled at the 1966 Oscars. It won in six categories, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. As for the last of these, Paul Scofield’s performance is one of the finest subtle but powerful performances you will ever see on the screen. This film, though 53 years old, remains thought provoking and fresh.

The title is ironic. It references its main character, Sir Thomas More (Scofield), the Lord Chancellor of England during part of King Henry VIII’s reign. More (1478-1535) is a towering intellect, and a man of dignity, duty, and conscience. He is what one would wish a politician to be: witty, scholarly, and incorruptible. (He was a local magistrate before becoming Lord Chancellor and thus charged with administering the king’s court and acting as his main advisor.) Alas, More is caught up in a world in which sycophants and scoundrels give primacy to desire, self-interest, and power.

More is probably best remembered as the author of Utopia and is often credited with inventing that word. Modern readers often fail to grasp that Utopia is a satire, not a political or social blueprint. More fashioned the word from two Greek roots that translate “not a place,” or “nowhere.” In other words, utopia is how the world should be but isn’t. It parallels More’s travails as a politician who ought to be a role model but isn’t.

The film covers the final six years of More’s life (1529-35). Henry VIII assumed the throne in 1509, and wedded Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess who was the widow of Henry’s older brother. Given that Henry’s family, the Tudors, were recent usurpers of the throne, a male heir to secure the Tudor line was of the utmost importance. Catherine endured seven pregnancies, but suffered four miscarriages, and two other children–including the presumptive heir–died in childhood. Only one, Elizabeth,* survived into adulthood.

By the late 1520s, Henry (Robert Shaw) began to look for ways out of his marriage, which wasn’t easy. England was a Catholic nation and both the English clergy and the pope rejected Henry’s specious argument that his marriage should be annulled as he had sinned by marrying his brother’s widow. He also ran afoul of his own Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. We come in on Wolsey as he is under house arrest for treason and tries to convince More that he should look the other way to Henry’s machinations for the good of himself and his family. Orson Welles plays Wolsey as a Machiavellian schemer–which he was–and summons plenty of the misanthropic arrogance for which Wolsey was known. His is a bombastic performance, as is Robert Shaw’s as Henry. Shaw–best known for his role in Jaws–is actually a bit over-the-top. Welles’ screen time drips with acid, and Shaw’s with shouting. In Shaw’s defense, history generally views Henry as prone to alternating bouts of cajolery and browbeating, mannerisms consistent with bipolar disorder. Still, Shaw is a bit much.

While raising the volume gets attention, it is Scofield’s quiet power that grips us. Wolsey died in 1530–just a few months before Henry would have had him executed, but on his deathbed. In the film, a spying Thomas Cromwell** (Leo McKern) overhears More’s remarks that Cromwell was too corrupt to be chancellor. It was More who was destined to wear the chain of office, though it lasted less than three years. Henry had his way, divorced Catherine, married Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave), and abolished Catholic rule in England by declaring the king–not the pope–as the head of a now-Protestant England. At each turn, Henry tried to convince More to give even lukewarm approval.

More was such a serious Catholic that he even forbade his daughter Margaret (a vivacious and spirited Susannah York) to marry free-thinking lawyer William Roper (Corin Redgrave) until he converted to Catholicism. So how does a man of such principle respond to corruption and assaults on his own values? More’s attempt was unique. To those close to him, he gave his best counsel. He tried, for instance, to convince obsequious Richard Rich (John Hurt in first major role) that he should be a teacher to avoid the temptations he knew would overwhelm him. He also confided in close friend Thomas Howard (Nigel Davenport), the Duke of Norfolk, and staged an overheard disagreement with Howard to protect him. Then More chose silence; he never spoke for or against Henry. More kept private counsel though all around–including his confused but imperious wife Alice (Wendy Hiller)­–urged him just to give in. Schofield presents us with a classic moral dilemma: What would you do if a superior orders you to do things that strike at the very core of your deepest beliefs?

Schofield’s performance is astonishing. Seldom has a screen actor stirred such a silent tempest. His Thomas More is a portrait of determination, virtue, and conviction. He doesn’t speak truth to power; he tries to ignore power. In an ideal world More would be a philosopher king; in his own, alas, Henry was king and the baser aspects of humankind circled around his court like buzzards at a fresh kill.

A Man for All Seasons earned its status as a film classic. Ted Moore won one of the film’s Oscars for his cinematography. Like the Technicolor in which this was shot, his frames are vivid, crisp, and like landscape paintings come to life. All of the actors (with the possible exception of Shaw) are fabulous. It’s because A Man for All Seasons was a play before it was a film and each of those chosen for the latter was a veteran of the British stage. Fred Zinnemann won some hardware for his direction, but with a cast like this, it’s hard to go wrong.

Rob Weir

*One of history’s great ironies is that Elizabeth ultimately came to the throne and became one of England’s most powerful monarchs. She also never married, hence the Tudor line died with her.
 ** Thomas Cromwell should not be confused with 17th century English Civil War Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, though they were related. Oliver was the great-grandson of Thomas’s brother Richard.



The Sisters Brothers: A Superb Overlooked Film

The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Annapurna Pictures, 121 minutes, R (language and brief peekaboo nudity)

Once upon a time Westerns were standard fare in American theaters. During their heyday (late 1930s- early1960s) what one saw on the screen was both heroic and symbolic. These films were nearly always freighted with nationalistic assumptions: the triumph of good over evil, the inevitable victory of civilization over savagery, Westward expansion justified, and rugged individualism glorified. Heroes–cowboys, the cavalry, U.S. marshals, religious figures, honest loners–always defeated the “bad guys,” be they Indians, Mexicans, outlaws, card sharks, claim jumpers, or connivers. In 1971, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller changed that. From that point on American Westerns became grittier, graphically sanguineous, and morally ambiguous.

Westerns never really died out, but their popularity waned once the white hats came off and lead characters morphed into amoral (and often slovenly) gunslingers, clever conmen, and hucksters. It also became problematic to treat those with red and brown skins as savages who deserved to be riddled with bullets. Post-McCabe critics often referred to a new genre, the “anti-Western.” The Sisters Brothers decidedly falls into that category. Perhaps that’s why it was seen by so few and recouped a mere third of its modest production costs, though I suspect it had more to do with being a joint French-American project rather than a Hollywood production. It showed in a small number of theaters, then disappeared. That’s too bad, as it’s a very good film.  

It stars John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters and Joaquin Phoenix as younger brother Charlie. Eli isn’t the brightest bulb in the socket, but he has a rudimentary moral center, unlike Charlie who is an angry, violent, suspicious drunkard ready to fight or shoot at the drop of ten-gallon hat. Eli pines for a school teacher who gave him a shawl he sentimentally sniffs and wears around his neck, but neither he nor Charlie have respectable jobs; they are hired guns for a rich man known only as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer).

It’s 1851, just two years into a gold rush that has spread from California to the Oregon Territory (OT), but the Commodore has more nefarious things in mind. He orders Eli and Charlie to go to Jacksonville, OT to rendezvous with another minion, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will have detained a man named Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). They are to obtain from Warm any way necessary–read torture–a formula he has developed, then kill him. Nothing goes according to plan. Morris is outwitted, but he’s the wrong man for the job in the first place, a poetic brooder with little taste for violence. Warm convinces him that he has a plan that will allow both of them to make money and fund a utopian community near Dallas devoted to harmony, internationalism, and communal living. The Sisters Brothers must now track both Morris and Warm. Their journey will take them back across the border into California to Mayfield, a pop-up town like so many during the gold rush except it’s controlled by an imposing matriarch and madam (Rebecca Root) for whom the town is named.

The Sisters brothers are like superheroes gone bad and shootout scenes play out that way. They will eventually discover that Warm has filed a claim in Oregon, and track down their quarry, but circumstances are altered when they learn that his formula causes gold in creek beds to glow. Eli is even willing to listen to Warm’s utopian spiel, though Charlie is having none of it. In movies, gold is Chekov’s gun–a substance that corrupts and destroys. I will say only that nothing goes according to plan for anyone.

If you’re thinking the utopian stuff sounds far-fetched, let me assure you that it was a thing. Director Audiard, who also wrote the screenplay, references La Réunion, a short-lived community begun by Frenchman Victor Prosper Considerant and dedicated to the principles of another countryman, Charles Fourier. There were dozens of Fourierist communities in the antebellum United States that were built upon democratic socialist principles. You will hear film references to a Phalanstère, sometimes called a phalanx, which is essentially a largescale single-building complex in which members lived, worked, and indulged in artistic pursuits.*

O’Reilly is terrific as soft-spoken man who is conflicted by his violet lifestyle, but feels a fraternal need to protect his younger brother and focuses like a laser when the shooting begins. He’s not usually a lead actor, but he outshines his co-star, though Phoenix does a fine job of portraying a soul damaged in childhood who grows into a human volcano that periodically erupts. Gyllenhaal and Ahmed are also superb, the former akin to a philosopher carrying a gun and, like Ahmed, a decent man out of place in a Wild West corrupted by greed and unbridled individualism. Toward the end, you also see Carol Kane in a cameo, an actress I’ve not seen in years.

Audiard’s West is a place where dreams are crushed–no eucatastrophic endings for this film. He won a few awards at film festivals, as did Alexandre Desplat for his musical direction. The Sisters Brothers is a very good film and deserves a wider viewership.

Rob Weir

** La Réunion could have used an infusion of gold. It only lasted about 18 months before bankruptcy and bad weather put an end to an experiment in which French, Swiss, Belgians, and Americans attempted a grand scale communal life experiment.



Knives Out is Neither Dull nor Sharp

Knives Out (2019)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 130 minutes, PG-13.

Da da da dum, dum, dum
Nearly everything about the murder mystery/comedy Knives Out is good. Not much is exceptional. In some ways it’s a perfect end of the year movie. It moves along crisply enough to keep your interest, it won’t tax your brain, and it won’t add stress to your life during the holiday season. In essence, it’s a big ball of tinsel whose sparkle you’ll enjoy, then you’ll toss it away and forget about it.

A good way to think about Knives Out is to imagine a cross between Agatha Christie and The Adams Family. Famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey has just celebrated his 85th birthday, though “endured” is probably a better word, given that the event was attended by his extended family. To call that group toxic scarcely does it justice. There is imperious daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson); widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a sort of lifestyle coach, though she basically sucks up to family members who can’t stand her, and cashes Harlan’s checks to pay the tuition for the elite college her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) attends; youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), who fancies himself a publisher though his father’s books are the only titles in his empire; Walt’s awful family; and oily, amoral grandson Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) whom everyone wishes to strangle. To round out a truly awful brood, Harlan’s ancient mother, Wanetta (K Callan) sits vegetative and mute by a window. The only positive presence in Harlan’s life is his immigrant nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) who is so honest she throws up whenever she even tries to tell a lie.

Hugh is the one most would wish to come into misfortune, but it’s Harlan who is found in a pool of blood the next morning. It looks like a close-the-books suicide but, as in nearly all mysteries, there’s a suspicious private detective who thinks otherwise. In this case, it is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who suspects foul play, though Detective Lt. Eliot (Lakeith Stanfield) is sure he’s wrong. (Isn’t that a dead tip-off in all such films?) Eliot’s bemused sidekicks are content to watch it all play out, and one of them is such a huge fan of Harlan’s mysteries that he sees parallels between the investigation and plots from Thrombey’s books–though he usually draws the wrong conclusions.

What we have is a classic mystery ensemble piece in which a whodunit, dark comedy, and caper collide. Like Hercule Poirot, Blanc’s initial suspect list contains everyone (except Marta). The film is a diverting romp that feeds upon red herrings, is peppered with acidic remarks, and is salted with overly dramatic acting. Everyone gets to chew some scenery and there’s plenty for all diners inside Harlan’s eccentric mansion. Christopher Plummer is always a delight and he in perhaps the most convincing character in the film, though it’s really Daniel Craig’s star turn. Craig is arresting behind his icy blue eyes, though his affected Southern accent comes and goes in authenticity. Ana de Armas is cute and alluring, but I could have done without vomiting as a major character trait. If I had to pick another actor other than Plummer who most stayed in character, it would be Jamie Lee Curtis. She is so tart and fierce that she looks as if she is constantly on the edge of tearing out someone’s liver.

Because this is an actor’s movie, it’s hardly surprising that a whole host of others wanted a piece of it. The cast includes bit parts and cameos from folks such as Edi Patterson, Riki Lindholme, Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, and M. Emmet Walsh. Who can blame them for wanting in? One gets the sense that Director Rian Johnson encouraged his actors to improvise. Why not? I’m sure Rian Johnson, who also wrote the script, knew he wasn’t making Lawrence of Arabia. I give him credit for a diverting film that’s not really meant to become a film studies classic. The moment one begins to dissect this film, the fun goes out of it. Sit back, enjoy, and park your brain in neutral.

Rob Weir

Note: Knives Out was filmed in Massachusetts, especially at Ames Mansion in Easton. There is also an “undisclosed” location that’s in private hands and wishes to avoid publicity. I highly suspect, though, that Ventfort Hall in Lenox is that location.



Amazing Grace Too Timebound to Warrant its Kudos

Amazing Grace (2018/19)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Warner Brothers/Neon Films, 87 minutes, G
★★ ½

The story behind Amazing Grace is better than the film itself. In 1972, at the height of a career that would ultimately yield scores of top-selling singles, multi-platinum albums, and 18 Grammy Awards, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) took a step back to her roots in gospel music. Over the course of three nights in a Los Angeles church, Franklin made Amazing Grace, an album of sacred music that ultimately sold over two million units. At the same time, director Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) filmed more than 20 hours of raw footage that he planned to fashion into a documentary film. There was a problem; Pollack couldn’t get the film to synch with the music and he was so much in demand that he didn’t have the time to work on it. Thus, Pollack’s footage lay in a Warner Brothers vault until 2011, when producer Alan Elliott fixed the technical problems.

Then, as the slogan goes, weird things turned weirder. Franklin sued Elliott for unauthorized use of her likeness. He too put the project aside until after Franklin’s death. Then a new distribution company, Neon, and a group of new producers, including Spike Lee, sent the film to the Doc NYC, where it was well received. In 2019, it went into worldwide release.

Aretha Franklin was, of course, one of the greatest singers in popular music history. Some say she was the greatest–so renowned that she’s in the Rock n’ Roll Halls of Fame in both the United States and Great Britain, as well as the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. I would listen to Franklin sing in a room full of whirring chainsaws and, if you know her music at all, even money is that her voice would drown out the saws. I get it that a lot of people would want to see any film about such a beloved figure. Objectively, though, the most notable thing about this 1972 project is that is so 1972. By that I mean it features bad hair, cheesy costumes, and enough male chauvinism to make you wonder if feminism ever happened.

It was also religious music filmed inside a church and Franklin was a devout Christian, her two divorces, three (of four) out of wedlock children, and sometimes mercurial behavior notwithstanding. This is to say don’t expect to see any of the sort of stage antics you’d normally associate with a Franklin concert. She was there to sing, not talk or put on a stage show. Franklin’s voice is muscular, clear, and awe-inspiring. I thought I was immune to all versions of “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most overdone song this side of Christmas carols, but Franklin slowed it to a snail’s pace so that there was plenty of space for bravado crescendos. Clara Ward (1924-1973) was in the audience and even she was blown away. If you don’t know that name, perhaps only Mahalia Jackson (1911-72) was more famous among female gospel singers. And Ward wasn’t the only one who was impressed. It was etched upon the youthful faces of the Southern California Community Chorus, who backed Franklin and musicians such as Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey who went on to fine careers of their own. Franklin also sang with such glory and power that members of the congregation often jumped from the pews to exalt and bear witness. (Not so Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who sat in the back benches at one of the services.)

For all of that, Franklin often looked the part of a deer in the headlights. That’s partly because the Rev. James Cleveland (1931-91) was the toastmaster of the evenings. Aretha was the Queen of Soul, but the Rev. Cleveland was the King of Gospel and the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was his house. Cleveland exuded his command, sometimes in obsequious ways, but mostly by acting large and in charge. (He was both and, in those days; Franklin was slim by comparison.) Also in the house was the Rev. C. L. Franklin (1915-84), Aretha’s father. He was, to be charitable, a problematic figure. In addition to the four children he fathered with his second wife, he also sired one with a 12-year-old member of his congregation. (In 1979, he was shot during a robbery attempt in 1979 and died after a five-year coma.) He too had a fine voice, but he was very much a male of his generation, meaning that his very pores oozed patriarchy.

As concert films go, Amazing Grace is no The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Part of me wonders if Pollack declined to correct the film’s technical problems because he couldn’t figure out how to make it sizzle on the screen and it wasn’t as interesting as The Electric Horseman, upon which he was also working. If you watch Amazing Grace, do so to hear Aretha’s voice and to acquire an accidental sociology lesson. As filmmaking goes, though, let’s call it one heck of a soundtrack in search of better visuals.

Rob Weir        



Che Apalache, Forest Sun, Blue Water Highway,Bradford Loomis, Eileen Carey, Grace Potter, Vintage Truble

December 2019 Stocking Stuffers

Looking for some last-minute gifts for the holiday season? You can’t go wrong by giving the gift of music. Here are some things to check out.

OMG, I have a new band to add to my favorites list: Che Apalache. The name roughly translates “My Appalachian. In Spanish, che is an interjection and can mean different things but this American/Argentinian band definitely has the Appalachians in mind. It is a Buenos Aires-based string band consisting of Martín Bobrick (mandolin), Pau Barjan (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar), and Joe Troop (fiddle/lead vocals). Troop is a North Carolinian by birth and a guy whose voice immediately puts one in mind of the late Ralph Stanley. Che’s latest album Rearrange My Heart is meant to be taken literally. Troop leads Southern gospel call-and-response/four-part harmony songs that challenge Americans to live up to their ideals. “The Dreamer” tells the tale of Moises, a boy whose mother crossed the border illegally with him and his sisters in tow. He grows up as an “American” kid who loves games, baseball, dogs, church, and waving fields of corn–until the INS takes away his family. When Troop sings, Only when we take a stand/Can we heal our broken nation, all I could say was “Amen, brother.”  “The Wall” is about that wall. It is deeply inspiring and watch the linked video the whole way through to see how it brought down the house at a Colorado bluegrass festival. Che Apalache play some straight up bluegrass and have an affinity for standards, but you also hear them venture into Argentinian music, as on “24 de Marzo,” a mash of a waltz, tango music, and innovative meanderings the likes of which Béla Fleck favors. (It comes as little surprise that Fleck likes this band.) “New Journey” is another inventive piece. It begins as a fast-paced instrumental bluegrass breakdown, wanders into jazz-influenced spaces that spawned the term “newgrass,” and eventually segues into a quiet, simple song that is hopeful, though its subject is coming to the end of one’s days: My spirit soars/Basking in gratitude/Buoyantly floats in the wind. Give Che Apalache a serious listen and when you’re not sashaying about, you too will be shouting “amen.” ★★★★★

Brighter Day is the 11th album from progressive folk/Americana artist Forest Sun. He certainly sports a pretty amazing bio. He lives in San Francisco now, but hails from Glens Falls, New York. As a kid Sun learned to juggle from Wavy Gravy and entertained Rory Block with his 6-year-old songs. Before his mother met his father, she dated a member of the Chambers Brothers. Mom also heard Pete Seeger and Joan Baez sing in an uncle’s living room and made sure her son knew of folk royalty. Cool, but how does Sun sound on his own? Fabulous, which is why he’s opened for everyone from Bonnie Raitt and the Beach Boys to Steve Earle and Keb Mo. In my estimation, others will soon be opening for him. Brighter Day has a passel of relationship songs and is wide ranging in style. I absolutely adored “All This Freedom,” in which he asks what are you going to do with all this freedom. Sun’s strong voice echoes the accents of his guitar and is fleshed out by some slide guitar and backing female voices. The title track looks at matters of the heart from the honest standpoint of trying hard but knowing I can’t always take the high road. “Clarity” feels so familiar that maybe it’s universal: Clarity where have you been/At this late hour you come waltzing in… These three are more folk in nature, but “Hearts Beat and Take a Beating” and “When Will I See You Again” are acoustic country, “Morningbird” is reminiscent of an Appalachian trad with backwoods gospel influences, and “If Our Time is Over” and “Just Someone I Used to Know” owe a debt to blue-eyed soul. I’m also a fan of the little ditty “Little Mountain,” another that feels like a rediscovered traditional. You even get echoes of reggae in “Baby Don’t Worry.” And if you need some uplift, check out “One Candle.★★★★

Blue Water Highway is a working-class band from Texas that’s a mélange of rock, country, and Americana. It’s fronted by Zack Kibodeaux who, along with Greg Essington, and Catherine Clarke crank out some tight three-part harmonies and grooves on guitar, keyboards, bass (Kyle Smith), and percussion (Jared Wilson). Speaking of grooves, one of the songs on Heartbreak City (Stripped) is titled “Groovin,” a pop/rock song featuring hand jive-like percussion, soulful vocals, and Clarke’s texturing organ notes. Other recommended songs include “Best Friend,” the band’s first single; the moody jazz-influenced title track; the catchy hand clap “Believe the Light,” and “Rebel,” which has the feel of Neil Young done up as a soul singer. For me, the keys really add depth to the group. My favorite song is the tender-but-melancholy “North of LA,” a song about the one who got away. Clarke’s piano rains down the pain for Kibodeaux lyrics such as: If you’re ever north of Los Angeles/Tell me if you see her… ★★★★

Bradford Loomis titled his newest release Where the Light Ends an apt title. In quick succession, he lost his job in Seattle during the ’09 recession, then his home, and had to scrape to care for both his father (early onset Alzheimer’s) and his wife’s puzzling ailment (that turned out to be celiac disease). But, as he puts it, “There is such a thing as good grief.” As you can imagine, Loomis has stories to tell.” “Treading Water” is a song he calls “emotive angst” but like much of the album, it’s a come-out-on-the-other-side song with the hopeful line I’m not drowning, my love. Loomis often gets tagged as an Americana rocker, though that’s probably because he has a seriously big voice and now lives in Nashville. His new record falls into the singer/songwriter category as well as it lands anywhere. You’ll hear a pastiche of styles. “Righteous Kind” is a shuffle, “Rambling Man,” a gritty ramble in which he describes himself as “walking in another man’s shoes;” “Take a Swing,” a soulful exploration of the tension and anger that induces fear and paralysis; and “Wayward Son” a drone-like direct take on poverty, and a slanted commentary on how it globalizes: Blessed are the poor in spirit and makers of peace/All the refugees cry, but we’ve turned the other cheek/When the children make war with bitter scorn/For those whom they should seek… Did I mention that Loomis can turn a neat phrase? ★★★★

Because the music industry is saturated with buoyant young things hoping to make it big time, it’s a rare pleasure to encounter a mature woman with a grown-up voice. Eileen Carey once had a single titled “Good Bad Girl” and that’s a good way to describe  the content of a repertoire that’s a mélange of country, pop, and rock. She’s been a mom, has done video work, has crusaded for animal rights, and insists on playing music her way. In other words, she’s been around long enough to write her own script. Two songs from her EP The Lost Tapes tells us more about Carey. “That Town” is backed with grungy guitar, but the song itself has pop rock hooks throughout. Its content is about leaving a town you know you must put in the rearview mirror: That town’s got nothing on me now/If you look both ways I’m not there. Carey is originally from Ohio and now lives in Los Angeles. Contrast the previous song with “Hollywood,” which is bouncy, showy, and upbeat. The first song is suggestive or a middle finger waving bye-bye; the second a love letter filled with homage wordplay. The sheen of that one contrasts with the nasty breakup country pop “Anything That reminds Me of You,” which references tossing out clothing, destroying love letters, sweet valentines you can stick where the sun don’t shine, and a defiant promise to burn your memory out/I’m gonna curse your name all over this town. It is the flip-the-cover alternative to her hopeful “MeetMe Halfway,” which should not be confused with a song by Black-Eyed Peas.” If you don’t know Carey’s music, you should. She also has a new album titled Finally that I’ve not yet dipped into, so more on that one anon. ★★★★

Short Cuts

Grace Potter has come a long way since she was Waitsfield, Vermonter precocious teen with a voice that sounded as if it couldn’t possibly come from someone that young. These days she fronts killer bands and puts on slick shows, but thanks to Paste Studio session she did in September, we can hear some stripped-down material. “EveryHeartbeat” is a good one to hear some of her vocal ornaments, especially those unexpected catches in her throat that add depth and contrast. “Shout It Out”  is country music, but is much smokier and soulful than the usual humdrum. Potter’s acoustic guitar lulls us into a quiet place until she gives it a strong downbeat and airs out her voice on So shout it out/If you know this is the end/I don’t love you/Just ain’t the kind of thing you say under your breath…. If you’d prefer a softer landing, try “Love is Love.”

I’ve saved something really special for last. Vintage Trouble is an aptly named Los Angeles quartet (sometimes quintet) that takes us back to the days when rhythm and blues was raw and raunchy. I’ve seen reviews comparing VT to the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Chuck Berry. Nah! Try Wilson Pickett. Vocalist Ty Taylor is a volcanic force of nature, and electric guitarist Nalle Colt is pretty damn good as well. Listen to Taylor cover “Rocket Man” and you might be tempted to trash your old Elton John albums. Taylor goes softer with a soulful weepie “My Whole World Stopped Without You.” But if you really want to hear (and see) what Taylor can do, watch the official video of “Pelvis Pusher.” Yeah, it’s a bit risqué and sexist but, Taylor is incredible. Check with a cardiologist before seeing these folks live!

Rob Weir


City Lights Not Chaplin's Best

City Lights (1931)
Written, produced, and directed by Charlie Chaplin
United Artists, 87 minutes, Not-rated.
★★ ½

Film buffs fall into two camps when it comes to championing films that directors think are their best work: those who feel the director’s vision should have primacy, and those who think directors need editors and are too close to their work to evaluate it objectively. This is a harder task with Charlie Chaplin, arguably Hollywood’s first superstar. Early on, Chaplin began to write, direct, and finance his own pictures, hence every frame you see is as Chaplin willed to appear. Was he always right? I don’t think so.  

It was his opinion that City Lights was his finest film; it is mine that there are numerous Chaplin films that are better and more important: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) spring to mind. Chaplin may have felt as he did because City Lights took so long to bring to the screen. He started it in 1927, but other films and circumstances occasioned numerous delays and it took four years before it was ready for release. Ah, but a lot can happen in four years, most notably the introduction of “talkies,” sound pictures that relegated silent flicks to the popular culture graveyard. In part because Chaplin originally envisioned City Lights as a pantomime, and in part because he was not yet confident in the new medium, City Lights was released with just a musical track and intertitles. Within four years, all Hollywood films featured at least some synchronized sound.

Chaplin’s love of City Lights can also be explained in that he saw it is a film of great humanity. Watching it today–and anyone serious about film should–begs the question of whether Chaplin confused humanity and sentimentality. Chaplin again donned the Little Tramp costume that is so universally familiar: baggy trousers, bowtie, a shabby and tight fitting vest jacket, bowler hat, greasepaint moustache, and cane. He wanders a nameless city in which he is either anonymous or the butt of pranks delivered even by lowly newsboys. Two subplots interweave, the first being his discovery of a beautiful blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) to whom he is kind, the second his on/off friendship with a quirky millionaire (Henry Myers) whose suicide he prevents. The problem with the second relationship is that the millionaire is a heavy drinker who showers the Tramp with kindness and gifts when drunk but doesn’t recognize him and has him tossed onto the sidewalk when sober. The Tramp parlays his foul-weather friend’s largess into helping the flower seller and her grandmother (Florence Lee), but at great personal peril.

There are several pieces of classic slapstick in City Lights–being nearly impaled by a statue’s sword, falling into a river, a bout with hiccups, and a decidedly unorthodox boxing match–but several gags don’t hold up well and overall there isn’t as much of the superb physicality that we associate with Chaplin. Virtually every sight gag in this film would be surpassed in spades in Modern Times–in my opinion Chaplin’s greatest film. I’d also argue that City Lights’ finest moment isn’t comedic at all; it’s the film’s deliciously ambiguous final scene.

The American Film Institute rates City Lights as # 76 on its list of the 100 greatest films of all time. Was the AFI unduly influenced by Chaplin’s own view of its importance? I don’t know that to be the case, though I’m sure I could come up with enough better movies to push City Lights out of the top 100. City Lights is diverting, sweet, and sentimental, but it is no masterpiece.

Rob Weir



Ancient Nubia Now the Brightest Star in the MFA Sky

Ancient Nubia Now (through January 20, 2020)
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The ancient world poses a challenge for those who naively believe that history is linear and progressive. It’s simply not the case that things progress over time; the globe is replete with cultures whose glory days lay in the misty past, not the tangible present. Today, South Sudan has a distinction that no nation desires; its per capita income of $246/year makes it the world’s poorest country. And even though the Republic of the Sudan to its north has a yearly per capita income nearly 5 times that of the south, it is the 28th poorest nation on earth.

It’s hard to imagine that at one point in history, powerful and wealthy kingdoms flourished in the Sudanese desert. It was the Biblical Kush for you Old Testament readers and was long a rival to Egypt to the north–sometimes as a desired target of annexation and sometimes as Egypt’s sovereign. The Sudan, like Egypt, depends upon the Nile River to bring life to an otherwise parched land. It’s an important waterway, but also one with six cataracts (waterfalls and rapids) that acted as transportation barriers that had to be bypassed by traders and armies.

Perhaps you’ve barely heard of ancient Nubia. If so, Egypt is the reason why. Ancient Egypt has been extensively studied and the great civilizations it spawned so widely admired that almost all of the cultural flowering of northeast Africa is attributed to Egypt and its pharaohs. Whenever we see pictures of pyramids, golden jewelry, ancient deities, mummies, and sarcophagi, we immediately thinks of Egypt. When such things are found elsewhere, they were surely imported from Egypt, yes? Why would we assume this? Who is to say Egypt exported its culture rather than importing or blending it? Could race have anything to do with our misassumptions? Egyptians tended to be olive-skinned, whereas most Sudanese were of Negroid stock.

Of course race has been a factor! The Museum of Fine Art in Boston’s Ancient Nubia Now serves to draw attention back to the splendor that was once Nubia. The show is arranged thematically, but also focuses on the three capitals that corresponded with ancient Nubian historical development: Kerma (2100 BCE-1550 BCE), Napata (750 BCE-337 BCE), and Meroe (333 BCE-364 CE). In brief, the Kerman period was one in which Egypt and Nubia were on parallel path and separated by the first three Nile cataracts. Toward the end of the period, fear of Nubia’s rising might led Old Kingdom Egypt (2700 BCE-2180 BCE) to conquer northern Nubia. Kerma regained control after 2188 BCE, but declined over the next 300 years. Nubia was conquered again during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (1580 BCE-1090 BCE). As you can imagine, quite a bit of syncretism took place during Egyptian control.

Around 750 BCE, though, a reversal took place. Nubians from the new capital of Napata invaded Egypt and controlled it for nearly 400 years. Nubia also mastered Egypt for part of its Meriotic period, which lasted from 333 BCE to 364 of the Current Era (though direct Nubian control was much shorter). Plenty of Nubian art from periods of Egyptian control shows dominance from its northern neighbors, but when Nubia reigned, Egypt’s art became more Nubian–blacker if you will. This is more visibly evident in human figures which had looser poses and faces with Negroid features.

The who is influencing whom question is always a hard one for anthropologists to answer. Does one art form suggest another because that style was forced upon the subjugated, or does it look that way because of choice, homage, and syncretism? Nubian art and society underwent subsequent changes when others came and went: Persians, Romans, ancient Eritreans, Christians, and, after the 14th century, Muslims. Today the land of Kush struggles.

But here’s the secret to enjoying the exhibit: If you wish, you can forget the history lesson and simply revel in the beauty and fine craftsmanship of the various objects on display. The takeaway points are more important, the first being that “Black” Africa was not the proverbial “sticks.” Nubia (and many others elsewhere) gave rise to sophisticated kingdoms and artistic achievements of the first order. Nubian artists represented both themselves and their conquerors. (Tomb findings confirm that many of the fabulous and fanciful finds were fashioned by local hands.) There are also quite a few crossover cultural artifacts. You will see enough gold to make you don sunglasses and virtually everything you encounter will destroy notions of the adjective “primitive.”  

Ancient Nubia, like ancient Egypt, also challenges us to view those worlds through their worldviews, not our own. It helps to think of the pre-17th century CE world as one of kingdoms and empires rather than nation-states. Kingdoms tended to be regional rather than ethnic, and if those kingdoms became empires, ethnicities were blurred further. If your view of ancient Egypt is white, you have been the victim of bad teaching and ahistorical thinking. Ancient Egypt was also black and black Nubia was also white, Get over it.

A final note. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts expecting to be blown away by its exhibit on women artists. It is the case, however, that Ancient Nubia Now is the brightest star in the current MFA sky.

Rob Weir 

Note: Archaeologists use the terms BCE (Before Current Era) and CE the way Westerners use the terms BC and AD. They do so because many of the world’s cultures are not Judeo-Christian and often measure time differently.  


Women Take the Floor at MFA Boston

Women Take the Floor (through May 2, 2021)
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Loren MacIver

Georgia O'Keeffe
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has two blockbuster shows that have attracted great notice, the first of which spotlights women. In the age of #MeToo, female outrage and aroused consciousness is a work in progress insofar as transforming the American political landscape goes. There can be little doubt, though, that women have shaken things culturally. We can see the impact in movies, music, and television. Now it’s time for the art world to take notice.

Women Take the Floor begins with an apology. The MFA offers a full confession for its past sins; just 8 percent of the MFA collection of nearly one half million items were fashioned by the hands of women. It hasn’t been much better in the 21st century; in the past 10 years the MFA has acquired 40,000 new works, but just 10% of the artists were female. On the whole, one could say it’s high time for the MFA to make amends. It tries, but it only partially succeeds.

Doris L. Lewis
Women Take the Floor presents more than 200 works from women arranged in 7 galleries “Women on the Move” presents art and design from the 1920s-30s; “No Man’s Land” takes a look at how women imagined landscape in the 20th century; and “Beyond the Loom” explores fiber sculpture. “Women Depicting Women” is largely self-explanatory, as is “Women Publish Women,” though the medium is printmaking. The two more ambiguous galleries are “Women of Action,” which looks at talented women who labored in the shadow of their more famous male partners; and “Women and Abstraction,” which is devoted to mid-20th century women who eschewed representationalism.

Lalla Essaydi
Here’s the rub: most of the works on display come from the MFA’s own collection. Do you see a problem? The museum admits it hasn’t collected or spotlighted women as it should have in the past 150 years. This means that most of what we see has already been well-viewed or was taken from storage and dusted off for this exhibit.  Georgia O’Keeffe is the single most represented artist on the wall, but she was famous in her own lifetime and since. In essence, we don’t need the MFA to remind us that she knew her way around a paintbrush. Nor do we need another contrivance to show off Frida Kahlo’s Dos Mujeres, which the MFA recently purchased. It is not too hard to see through the guise given that the exhibit is largely devoted to American artists. Kahlo (1907-54) was a Mexican citizen who lived in the United States for just 8 unhappy years. There is a similar problem with Converging Territories #30, a work from Lalla Essaydi; she is a Moroccan who works in the US.

Although MFA curators had to choose works from a constricted number of options, there are many gems on view, and they include the O’Keeffes. In my estimation, the “Women of Action” section was the most intriguing. There has long been speculation that many works attributed to men were done in part or entirely by their wives or partners. At the very least, female artists such as Helen Frankenthaler (Robert Motherwell), Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock), Elaine de Kooning (Willem de Kooning), Grace Hartigan (Harry Jackson), and even O’Keeffe for a time (Alfred Stieglitz), labored in the shadow of powerful men who attracted more notice. 

Lois M. Jones
Also of interest are works from women who, if not exactly unknown, deserve broader attention, such as Alice Neel, Loren MacIver, Löis Mailou Jones, and Doris Lindo Lewis. Speaking entirely for myself, I simply can’t evaluate the fiber arts of individuals such as Lenore Tawney or the performance art of Porsha Olayiwola as I know next to nothing about soft sculpture and most performance art strikes me as more intriguing conceptually than in practice. (I will say that were I choosing a performance artist, someone such as Laurie Anderson is far more accomplished than Ms. Olayiwola.)
Alice Neel

There remain many challenges in the quest for the MFA to give women artists their due. A start might be to celebrate areas where women have been powerful. Photography is glaringly given short shrift in the MFA show. It’s one to include a rising talent such as Essaydi, but let’s not forget that many female shutterbugs paved her way: Bernice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibovitz, Cindy Sherman, Doris Ullman…. One can–as I have–make the case that women photographers have often outshone their male counterparts. That’s why so much of their work hangs on museum walls.

In similar fashion, I’m not sure it serves the cause to exacerbate women’s exclusion at the expense of ignoring those who kicked down the barriers. O’Keeffe is certainly among them, but there are other female American artists who have done so and are mostly ignored in this show, think Louise Bourgeois, Cecilia Breaux, Mary Cassatt, Judy Chicago, Louise Nevelson, Florine Stettheimer, and Kara Walker. I am always a big fan of giving credit to pioneers. After all, a thing must be imagined before it can be pursued.  

A third challenge is recognizing what the MFA isn’t: a repository of contemporary art. Let’s face it; although institutions such as the MFA constantly add to their collections, they mostly do so after a particular artist gains acclaim. Fine arts museums are by nature conservative institutions–no matter how hip individual curators might think themselves to be. Contemporary art isn’t the MFA’s strength. “Women Take the Floor” is weighted more heavily to mid-20th century art because those works were vetted before they were collected. More recent works are something of a gamble, especially when one begins to collect with an eye toward ticking boxes (black, Hispanic, transgender, queer, body image). I wish the MFA would cede contemporary turf to museums that know it better, like the Institute of Contemporary Art and Mass MoCA.  

By all means get yourself to the MFA to see this exhibit. Just don’t buy into the ballyhoo surrounding it. Women Take the Floor is a start, not the definitive word on sexism and museum collecting practices.  

Rob Weir