Molly Ivins Raises Hell

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (2019)
Directed by Januce Engel
Magnolia Pictures, 93 minutes, Not-rated (some coarse language)

Lordy, how we could use Molly Ivins right now. If you’ve ever read or heard her, you know what I mean. If you’ve not, by all means check out Raise Hell. Alas, Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007, when she was just 62. One of the many talking heads in this documentary is Rachel Maddow, who acknowledges Ivins as an inspiration. Maddow has Ivins’ sharp political instincts, but if she ever unleashed Ivins-like one-liners on MSNBC, she’d be out on her ear.

Molly Ivins was big in all ways a person can be big. She was 6’ tall but seemed even larger, as she was husky as well. She wore a size-12 shoe, had flaming red hair, a big heart, and an even bigger laugh. She graduated from Smith, where she didn’t–by her own admission–fit in. That didn’t bother her; as she often quipped, she never fit in anywhere. That was close to being true. She had a tyrannical alcoholic father with whom she battled, and she locked horns with editors of publications such as the Minneapolis Tribune, the New York Times, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegraph. As a syndicated columnist, some of her op-ed pieces failed to run because they were deemed too controversial. This was especially so when she told Americans that they were falling prey to fear and foolishness in the wake of 9/11. The public eventually caught up with Ivins, but it a lot longer.

I was lucky enough to meet Ivins in 1993 when she came back to Smith to give a talk. At the time, I had a very large class at Smith of about 125 students to whom I assigned Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? Ivins was surprised by the number of students asking her to inscribe their book and roared out, “Who’s the summabitch responsible for all these books?” When I admitted that I was that “summabitch,” she laughed and said, “God bless your pointed heart,” and gave me a huge bear hug. All 5’5” of me disappeared! There’s a hysterical photo of the two of us somewhere in the Smith archives, one whose scale is roughly that of Gandalf towering over Bilbo Baggins.

The answer to whether or not Molly Ivins could “say that” is yes. As she put it in an early clip in the film, “I’m a Texan. I drink. I cuss. I drive a pickup truck. I fuck. I’m a liberal. Get over it.” She had an odd relationship with George W. Bush, whom she called “Shrub.” She mercilessly lampooned him, yet the two liked each other. (When she learned he was studying Spanish she quipped, “Oh good; he’ll be bi-ignorant.”) In another candid moment she said Bush was “shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture… religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo.” But no one ever suffered deeper cuts from her rapier wit than Texas lawmakers: “As they say around the Texas Legislature, if you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

Ivins never apologized for being liberal. She had the moxie to say that in journalism, “there is no such thing as objectivity…. So my solution has been to let my readers know where I stand. They can take that with a grain of salt or a pound of salt, depending upon their preference.”

Behind the humor lay the soul of a political warrior. Ivins had no patience with bullies, liars, or hucksters. She held special ire for powerful people who took advantage of the poor. Back in the 1980s she warned about how the powerful used fear of immigrants to divert attention from their own misdeeds. In one of her more trenchant observations Ivins spoke of how words like “socialist” and “communist” were mere diversions. In her mind, the political spectrum in the United States was “top to bottom, not left to right.”

Director Janice Engel admires Ivins, but she doesn’t sugarcoat her. She tells of Ivins’ gawky childhood, of her domineering father, of Molly’s contrarian orneriness, and her struggles with alcoholism. She also takes us through her ultimately unsuccessful battle against breast cancer. Among Ivins’ most poignant pearls was when she told women not to send her get-well cards; instead she advised, “Go. Get. The. Damn. Mammogram. Done.”  

Lots of people appear on screen to speak of Ivins, including Anne Lamott, Dan Rather, Jim Hightower, Paul Krugman, Victor Navaski, Molly’s sister Sara, and the late Ann Richards, who was Molly’s friend long before she was governor of Texas. The view they give us of Ivins can best be summed by the phrase, “It’s complicated.” Engel deserves credit for shying away from hagiography. She also deserves our gratitude for hiring a musical team that cobbled together a rich soundtrack that draws upon Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, honky-tonk, jazz, and period music rather than the bland and neutral score that we encounter in far too many documentaries.

Objectively speaking, my four-star rating may be a tad too high. In places the tone is flatter than it should be, and overall the documentary lacks the zing of the 2011 play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” which relies far more on her sparkling words. (Kathleen Turner once played Ivins in Ret Hot Patriot.) But I shall pull a page from Ivins, admit my subjectivity, and give the film four stars. After all, Ivins once said, “There’s nothing you can do about being born liberal–fish gotta swim and hearts gotta bleed.”

Rob Weir


Art in the Orchard 2019

Art in the Orchard 2019
Various Artists
Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road, Easthampton, MA
Through November 24, 2019.

Farmers do what they can to stay in business these days. Some open breweries or wineries, some draw visitors to elaborate cornstalk mazes, and others venture into niche markets such as alpaca wool, lavender products, or farm stay tourism. Park Hill Orchard has one of the better angles; each fall it holds a juried competition for sculptors and environmental artists who wish to display their talents en plein air.

Not everything appeals to all and a few selections might seem puzzling, but it has become a rite of autumn to check it. It’s hard to beat the site: a vast swath of fruit trees, pumpkin patches, and greenspace in the shadow of Mt. Tom. One of the permanent installations, in fact, is a giant frame where one can compose Mt. Tom in the distance, gather friends against a fiery fall backdrop, or (if you must) take a selfie. Kids will enjoy chasing the free-range chickens and their own ability to roam off-leash, as it were. But let’s talk about the art.

Enjoying art is often a subjective experience that has little to do with what “experts” or critics think of it. I’m in the second category, which means you might not agree with my assessment that this year’s displays are not up the standards of previous years. But with 30 new installations there is bound to be something for all tastes. 

My own art doesn’t extend beyond my shutterbug prowess, but I will say that a few of the pieces left me perplexed and/or underwhelmed. “Field of Hearts,” for example, is a series of lollipop-like valentines covered in mosaic. They are cheerful, but do they tell us anything a parade of Mylar couldn’t? “D’Arbus the Radiolarian” baffles me. I got it that Mark Fenwick named after Diane Arbus, but his “dawn animal” (radiolarian) based on microscopic mineral skeletons is disconnected from the famed photographer and his explanation for the assemblage is idiosyncratic to a fault. Plus, the thing reminded me of vintage pineapple advertising cartoons. In all honesty, I found it creepy. Pamela Matsuda-Dunn covered boulders with glass beads and called it “Abundance.” It looks exactly like boulders covered with glass beads!

But, like I said, who can explain why one thing attracts and others do not? I am a huge fan of Michael Tiller’s wood and metal sculptures. To the band that has graced the field in previous years, Tillyer has added “Maureen,” who appropriately holds an apple in her outstretched hand.

I was also drawn to metalworks this year. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Denny’s “Junkyard Dogs.” It’s meta in that the pooches are fashioned from castoff junk. Chris Woodman’s “Chronos” is an airplane weathervane whose propeller is actually a rotating clock face. If you’re rusty on your Greek mythology, Chronos/Cronos is the pre-Olympian Titan who was the god of time (hence chronology). Staying with the ebb and flow of things, Ted Hinman’s “Tree of Life” harkens to Biblical traditions, but both this work and Woodman’s also evoke the climate change crisis and beg consideration over whether the end of the history is upon us.

Hinman also asks us to think of how elephants depend upon tree bark and high-hanging fruit during the dry season. Elephants are an endangered species. Last year, a wonderful twisted branch and steel elephant appeared in the orchard. This year, Lindsey Molyneux graces that one with “The Elephant’s Child.” It is both charming and poignant. 

As for traditional sculptures, I was moved by Valerie Gilman’s bronze “Persephone’s Dream: A Prayer for Peace.” Persephone takes us back to Greek mythology; she’s both the queen of the underworld and the goddess of spring. Gilman uses her as a plea “to listen deeply to the complex and paradoxical truths of our lives and our culture.” In a similar philosophical fashion, Tim De Christopher’s limestone “Bird Bird” is a fragile creature who represents “the primal nature of man, the beast, brute force and the more gentle nature of the human soul.” I can get behind both of these sentiments.

If you visit, don’t forget to buy some fruit!

Artist: R. Weir!

Rob Weir  



Karen Russell's Orange World is So-So

Orange World and Other Stories (2019)
By Karen Russell
Alfred A. Knopf, 271 pages
★★ ½  

Karen Russell’s creepy collection of short stories comes to us in time for Halloween. Or maybe not. I loved her 2011 novel Swamplandia, but I’m stuck in neutral on Orange World.

In the Depression era yarn “The Prospectors,” two spirited young women take the wrong chairlift to the mountaintop in search of a party at a posh lounge. Instead they find themselves among a group of male workers who are dead, but aren’t aware of it. Can the two escape before they too are trapped in limbo?

For those who think the 2007 movie Lars and the Real Girl wasn’t icky enough, Russell offers “Bog Girl: A Romance.” Its main character is a not-so-good-around-women young man who unearths a peatbog corpse and treats her as his girlfriend. His family and community enable him. Call it a macabre coming of age tale.

“The Tornado Auction” asks us to imagine that big storms can be purchased at auction and reared as one might a stallion. When does one set it run? And what if the owner is a person who no longer cares about his fate or that of others?

“Black Corfu” takes us to the namesake Greek isle as Venetian rule was challenged by the Turks. It’s not for certain when our action takes place–probably the 16th century–but this story centers on a dark-skinned man who dreamed of being a surgeon. Instead, his skin color confines him to the strange practice of posthumous surgery in which the hamstrings of the deceased are severed to prevent them from becoming vampires. He is highly skilled, but his world crumbles when rumors circulate that he botched an operation and one of the dead is loose on Corfu.

“The Gondoliers” is set in a near-future post-flood Florida wherein vast parts of it are underwater. Three sisters dwell in the polluted and flooded canal region known as New Florida. They eke out a living as gondoliers who use singing as echolocation to prevent underwater obstacles. The youngest, Blister, picks up a passenger with the strange request to be taken to Bahia Rosa, the failed seawall and levy system that swamped the region. Blister learns he wishes to go there to die. Should she refuse or take the money and run?

The title tale is about a woman who has miscarried before and worries that the child she is carrying will meet the same fate. She cuts a deal with a demon; in exchange for her baby’s health, she will breastfeed the hairy clawed imp nightly. How can she stop what she’s started?

Each of these is a perfectly fine story that one could freight with deeper significance if so desired. Are those in a rut functionally dead? Who can define love? Is “Black Corfu” a meditation on race, or “The Gondoliers” on climate change? The title story, of course, is one of many about the foolishness of making deals with powers of darkness. Most of Russell’s stories link to classifications in Stith Thompson’s famed index of universal tales. (If you’re keeping score, go to M211 of the Folk-Motif Index to find more information about why it’s not a good idea to bargain with the Devil.) 

If I had to pick an adjective to describe Orange World it would be “competent.” If that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, you’re right. Although there is a repellent quality to the set ups, the tales tend to be more strange than hair-raising. The good news is that it’s a breezy read, but mine is not among the starstruck voices who find this a work of genius. It’s more than meh, but considerably less than wow.

Rob Weir