Photograph too Languid for its Own Good

Photograph (2019)
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Amazon Studios, 108 minutes, Not-rated
In Hindi and English

Director Ritesh Batra attracted attention for his delightful 2013 film The Lunchbox. It garnered so much renown that he got to direct The Sense of an Ending, a 2017 adaptation of an acclaimed Julian Barnes novel. If, however, you plan to see his new film, Photograph, set your personal shutter to a slow speed.

Our protagonist Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer who poses his subjects in front of Mumbai’s Gates of India, a famous city landmark.* Rafi scrapes by and carries most of his belongings, including a portable printer, in his backpack. He shares a squalid and allegedly haunted hovel with four other men and his only real indulgence is a once-a-month kalfi, a frozen dessert that’s like a cross between ice cream and a popsicle. Indeed, one wonders how he can afford the expensive Nikon that he uses in his work. Poverty is just one of his problems. His dadi (grandmother) is relentlessly pressuring him to marry and settle down. She’s so tenacious that, though she lives in a remote village, she is known to Rafi’s friends and uncle, who also pester him about marriage and making his dadi happy.

Rafi recalls an enigmatic young woman whose picture he took, but who had to dash off before her picture was developed. Imagine his surprise when he finds her image on a poster outside an accounting school as its star student. He learns that her name is Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) and concocts a scheme to pass her off as his girlfriend to get his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) off his back. Perhaps because in her own way Miloni is as morose as Rafi, she agrees. If this is a love story–and that’s up for grabs–it’s certainly an unconventional one. Rafi is dark-skinned, Miloni of fair complexion. He is an impoverished Hindu who is streetwise, and she a sheltered middle-class Muslim whose parents employ a beloved house servant. There is also an age discrepancy.

Let's cut to the chase, which is something Photograph takes its time in doing. The strictures of Indian society are such that all relationships must play out according to social norms. Don’t expect fireworks in relationships or in any other way. In one scene, Rafi and Miloni are in a rundown movie house where a Bollywood film is being shown. Miloni is so distressed that she runs out. Rafi pursues her and the two share their dislike for the Bollywood genre** and the sameness of story arcs. This is reflexive filmmaking from Batra, whose reputation was built upon not making formulaic Bollywood films. This is to be applauded, but Batra goes too far in the other direction. The line between languid and somnambulant is porous and is often transgressed in a film that spotlights two characters defined by their inaction. The only break in the pacing is a scene that makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that a splash of magical realism in a film with two characters trapped within the routinized and quotidian seems misplaced.

There is also the issue that Photograph is not a comedy, a drama, or a recognizable romance. Was this deliberate on Batra’s part? Perhaps, but the film has the feel of painting one’s self into a corner. Apparently distributors were also confused. Photograph gets tagged as a “love letter to Mumbai.” Huh? It is quite a stretch to infer that from what’s on the screen, most of which is literally or figuratively interior. Whatever Photograph might be, though, it’s certainly not a travelogue.

Both Siddiqui and Malhotra are fine actors that wring as much as they can from a thin script that calls each to be passive. If you think the film’s deliberate pacing is a refreshing change from Bollywood and Hollywood histrionics, this film is for you. I liked parts of it, but overall Photograph is underexposed.

Rob Weir

* The Gates of India were built in 1911 to commemorate a royal visit during the days of British colonialism. They are impressive and Indians like to pose before it, an oddity in that the Gates are practically modern in such an ancient land.

** This is an inside joke on Malhotra’s part as she rose to cinematic fame for her dancing in Bollywood films. Bollywood films nearly always feature singing, dancing, and a formulaic chaste romance.


Sleeping at Last, Molly Thomas. Rachael Sage, SUSTO and More

Sleeping at Last, The Spring

New Age music–now generally called ambient music–has taken hits from critics who dismiss it as elevator or fern bar music. Often that's warranted, but when done right there's something about it that reaches deep into one's emotional core. Seeping at Last, the handle of Chicago composer/producer/musician Ryan O'Neal, decidedly does it right. His original composition The Spring evokes adjectives such as contemplative and pretty in some very good ways. This project began as the score for a 2016 film fin support of Charitywater.org. I gave a plug for it when just a few tracks were released, but now that I have all 13 tracks in hand, I want to give it a rave. It is, save one selection, an instrumental album but one that will make you revel in the spring, appreciate the very life force of water, and astonish with its crystalline beauty. Rain-like piano and museful strings (Anya and Sharon Gerber) frame "Atlantic" and then send us metaphorically coursing downstream and into mysterious depths. The cello in "Transformations" is so gorgeous it aches; it's simply a work of rare beauty. If you need to get out of your own head, try "Insteadof Myself" and disappear down a swirling, magical hole. The keys and jumping string bounce with what is at once joyous, yet urgent.  And, yes, the title track captures spring's essence, even though it means water's source, not the season. But you can be forgiven for conflating the two given the composition's opening fragility and the radiant burst into which it evolves. Objectively, the plinky piano keys are overused on the album, but I was so nonetheless deeply moved by it. ★★★★ 

Molly Thomas and the Rare Birds, Honey's Fury

 If you've ever seen Todd Snider's band and were dazzled by his fiddler and backup singer, chances are good it was Molly Thomas. Thomas is also a crackerjack songwriter, acoustic guitarist, and lead vocalist. Her latest project, Honey's Fury, finds her fronting a dynamic quartet that includes one-time Wet Willie lead guitarist Rick Hirsch. Think a country-flavored rock vibe and a voice that's somewhere between Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris and you're in Molly's wheelhouse. As you will hear on "The Boatman," she can sing it soft or bold. On "Calling My Name, " she soars through a big arrangement like a fearless bird, and the surf isn't the only thing thundering on "The Ocean." On the latter she sings, I was born in a little town east of the Biloxi wind and all one can say is that though it may be the case that the ocean is in my veins, the currents have carried her far. There aren't many videos yet available from the new album, but check around and you'll find samples from the rest of the album. I particularly admire Thomas' ability to shift moods, as she does on "Tumbleweed," which truly could be one of Emmylou's songs with its folky ambience that gives Thomas quiet spaces to air her voice. And, man, does she ever air it! She also gets swampy and bluesy on a cover "I Wanna Live," a piece that flashes "Danger!" at every turn. The album title comes from the enigmatic trippiness of "Calling My Name," which would have been at home at the Fillmore West circa 1968. From where I sit, Molly Thomas left it all on the studio floor when she made Honey's Fury.  ★★★★

Rachael Sage, PseudoMyopia

Some singers possess an innate sense of how to construct grab-you-by-the-earbuds songs. Rachel Sage is one of them. She doesn’t have a big voice, but she more than compensates through her command of how to work her way through intriguing mixes. On “Alive,” she lulls us into a middle groove and then punches out the It’s good to be alive refrain with such panache that it snaps us to attention. Some have compared her to Carole King, but I thought of Sarah McClachlan when I heard “Spark.” Listen to how Sage uses the piano cadences to build to the repeating lines that begin Hold me like a candle/Shine me like a knife. The EP’s theme is vision, as in both perspectives and in sight; Sage is legally blind without lenses. Sage is nothing if not adventuresome and quirky. “Olivia” is a strong woman inspired by a Law & Order character. The arrangement of this one is ever-so-slightly off-kilter and is a sound envelop that features everything from bouncing cello to piano cascades and sprays of strings. For my taste, Sage swallows a bit too much air on “Myopia,” but she redeems herself with a redux of her 1998 “Sistersong.” True to form, it’s a wee bit offbeat, opening like the prelude to a jingle and venturing off into accented vocals and dramatic instrumentation that evokes a scene from a musical. ★★★★

SUSTO, Ever Since I Lost My Mind

SUSTO [sic] is a five-piece Charleston, SC-based indie rock band captained by Justin Osborne. It has been around since 2013, but almost broke up when Osborne considered becoming an anthropologist. A study tour to Cuba changed his mind; Osborne hung out with musicians and began to explore new ways of making connections. Susto is, by the way, a Spanish word that's a bit hard to translate exactly. It's a scare or something that appears suddenly and unexpectedly, or–as the band's Website puts it–a kind of "spiritual panic attack." This makes the title of SUSTO's new recording a bit of double wordplay. The band's material is equally elusive to pin down. "Esta Bien" finds them in full Caribbean mode, with Osborne toggling between Spanish and English like a folk crooner, "Homeboy" sports a galloping acoustic intro that delivers us unto a mix of crashing power chords, electric surf guitar, and a splash of psychedelic lead. But what do we do with "If I Was," a bit folk ornamented with crystalline electric lead and bass? Or "Last Century," with its buzzy mix that feels like The Police on 'roids? If you're not perplexed and intrigued yet, try "Weather Balloons," a hopeful little love song that gathers force and repeats its reminder: I'm not dead yet. ★★★★
In Brief:

Whenever I get free EPs of back pages material, it generally means performers are about to drop a new release. Yet insofar as I can tell, this isn't the case of Toad the Wet Sprocket. No matter, their 5-track Something Old Something New is a reminder that they are one of the better jam bands. Check out a few tracks from Constellation (2013), their most recent release. You can hear the title track and "California Wasted." For my money, though, their 1991 song "All I Want" makes me hope the band will indeed release a new record soon. For those that don't know, the unusual band name was lifted from a Monty Python sketch.

I also got a Wilco concert sampler titled 12-12-11 that is four songs from its album The Whole Love (2011): "Born Alone," "I Might," "One Sunday Morning," and "Rising Red Lung." I offer this Noise Trade release for the many of you who are fans. My confession is that Wilco has always underwhelmed me.


Where the Crawdads Sing is Best When It's Wild

Where the Crawdads Sing (2018)
By Delia Owens
G. P. Putnam and Sons, 384 pages.

Where the Crawdads Sing was among the top-selling novels of 2018, helped enormously by an endorsement from actress Reese Witherspoon, who has secured the right to make a film adaptation. You can also find effusive, even worshipful praise from those who post reviews to Amazon and Good Reads. Does it live up to its hype? It depends upon which part of the book one means.

The bulk of the story takes place between 1952-1969. It centers on Katherine “Kya” Clark, whom we first meet at age 6. She lives in the wetlands of coastal North Carolina and hails from what is derisively called poor white trash. When Kya observes her mother walking down the dirt track in her “fake alligator shoes” carrying a case, Kya quickly surmises that she might not be coming back. For the next 4 years she witnesses her older siblings leave home, including Jodie to whom she is closest. Poverty can grind you down, and pa has become an abusive alcoholic who disappears for long stretches until one day he stops coming home at all. From this point on Kya is on her own.

This is the first of several improbable things a reader must accept. Locals whisper about “Marsh Girl,” who occasionally comes to town (the fictional Barkley Cove) to buy supplies, but few ever venture to the ramshackle cabin where she lives. (You’d need a boat or an exceedingly rugged vehicle to get there.) The school truant officer manages to track her down and forces her to attend one day of school, where other pupils make fun of her. This will be her only formal education; Kya is swamp smart and knows how to hide.

How does she survive? That’s where improbable thing number two comes into play. Kya digs mussels and fishes from the small boat her father left, and sells them to “Jumpin’,” a black man who operates a fuel, fish, and bait shop in the bayou. Also, he, his wife Mabel, and a deep-in-the-woods black church supply the charity that white Christians only think about for an hour on Sundays. Plus Kya comes to know the marsh in all its rhythms, mysteries, and abundance.

The only one to breach her watery fortress signals in ways only one versed in nature would know: by leaving rare shells and feathers by an old stump Kya passes on her travels. He is Tate Walker, a boy her own age who loves the marsh almost as much as Kya, and will eventually teach her to read. In one of the book’s least believable passages, Tate will also explain menstruation to Kya, a device we are supposed to believe because Tate harbors dreams of becoming a marine biologist. (Huh?)

Despite credulity issues, these sections of the book are so beautifully evocative that we can conjure mental images of the marsh and metaphorically lick the saltwater from the pages. Owens wrote three non-fiction books on African wildlife before penning Crawdads, her debut novel, and possesses a gift for making us feel both the wonders and terrors of nature. It’s when she takes us beyond childhood that things become problematic. As Kya and Tate get older, Crawdads drifts toward contrivance and the cheap sentimentality of a YA novel. When Tate goes off to college and stops coming around, isn’t he just like the teens on the beach that make fun of her? Or worse, just the latest to abandon her?

By the time she 23, Kya is deep into poetry, but is also a self-trained evolutionary biologist familiar with John Maynard Smith’s “sneaky fuckers” study of how the male of a species often assumes a subordinate role to mate with a female. (It often goes badly. I’d say ask a male praying mantis, except you can’t for various reasons!) Kya is also recognized as a budding ethnologist for her keen observations and beautiful and exacting illustrations of swamp ecology. She has even been out of the marsh to meet with a publisher. Still, she’s at least 50% feral/socially inept, so how does she negotiate the attention shown her by the studly Chase Andrews, a former star high school quarterback who comes from the closest thing Barkley Cove has to a bourgeoisie: one that owns a Western Auto store.

When Chase is found dead at the base of a tower, Kya is charged with his murder, though there are no footprints and she has an airtight alibi. Owens goes full Harper Lee for courtroom scenes that feature a deus ex machina resolution. The central mystery isn’t hard to unravel if you’ve paid attention to the book’s internal themes and the trial serves to make us begin to see the various ways in which the book’s internal logic is 21st century, not that of the 1950s and 1960s. Take the book’s race relations. How likely is it that a black community would reach out to a white girl during the age of Jim Crow? Could Kya become an ethnologist without training or a powerful mentor/sponsor? There is also the matter of a murder investigation that's more CSI than what was done in he 1960s. Nor is it feasible that a district attorney would try a white girl when there was no physical evidence–not even in 1960s North Carolina.

Owens does give us a few twists here and there: revelations about Kya’s family, a nice play on “broken token” legends, and an alter ego reveal. Still, after a while the flashback/flash forward/flash sideways structure wears thin, as do simplistic good/bad characterizations. If the last few post-1969 chapters feel like tack-ons to get us to a resolution, that’s because they are.

The phrase “where the crawdads* sing” references a place where the “critters” (Kya’s phrase) remain in an Edenic wild space. It’s also a metaphor for how I felt about the novel. To invoke an old rock song, Kya was born to be wild. When Owens tames her, even ever so slightly, both Kya and the marsh become more ordinary and the fireflies dim. Read the novel for its elegant prose, but be skeptical of Ms. Witherspoon’s gushing adulation.

Rob Weir

* If you don’t know, a crawdad–also called a crayfish or crawfish–is a crustacean that looks like a shrimp crossed with a miniature lobster. They are quite tasty.