6/24/22

Dear Committee Members an Arch Book

 

DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS (2014)

By Julie Schumacher

Doubleday, 182 pages.

★★★★★

 

 

 

Who’s been keeping this amazing book from me? Dear Committee Members is the funniest book I’ve read on academe since Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Julie Schumacher, a professor of Creative Fiction and English at the University of Minnesota, won the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor and I can’t imagine the vote was close.

 

Schumacher’s novel–more of a novella– is everything one could want in a parody of the professoriate: literate, arch, and oozing vengeance, though you don’t need to have any university experience to love this book. Her alter ego, Professor Jayson “Jay” Fitger of fictional Payne University, says exactly what he thinks. His weapon of choice is the LOR (letter of recommendation) and he’s obviously written way too many.

 

Fitger is a divorced, aging horndog whose infidelities with grad students and colleagues are the reason he’s single. His ex-wife Janet, now in charge of law school admissions, only submits to have lunch with him twice a year– on the date of their wedding and the anniversary of their divorce. Jay is vain and uses his erudition and enormous vocabulary to club perceived inferiors into submission Neanderthal-style. Payne’s English department is so dysfunctional that everyone in it–except for its invisible adjuncts–despise each other with such fervor that Ted, a member of the sociology department, is appointed to chair it. Ted is so anxious to exit that viper pit that he suggests Jay should chair, but Fitger knows he’s burned more bridges than there are rivers to cross.

 

Jay’s office is in a building undergoing an expensive, messy overhaul, but for the economics department, which sees no need to have any humanities. Fitger loathes econ with poison pen, that implement appropriate for someone who refuses to fill out online forms. Only the English department’s IT assistant, Duffy Napp, comes in for more scorn and you can imagine what Fitger does with a name like that! He’s over the moon when Napp applies for another job and happily writes a LOR. Ahh, but there’s the rub. Here’s an excerpt:

 

Colleagues have warned me that the departure of ... our only remaining tech help employee, will leave us in darkness. I am ready. I have girded my loins and dispatched a secular prayer in the hope that ... a former mason or carpenter or salesman – someone over the age of 25 – is it this very moment being retrained in the subtle art of the computer and will ... refrain from sending text messages or videos of costumed dogs.... I can almost imagine it: a person who would speak in full sentences – perhaps a person raised by a Hutterite grandparent on a working farm. As for Mr. Napp: you are welcome to him.

 

Dear Committee Members is structured as a series of LORs, memos, and communiques. Fitger uses them to amuse himself and discharge frustration. He writes one LOR after another, each stuffed with asides, innuendo, oversharing, and acidic commentary. He’s the sort who is likely to detour into an admission that Janet might have a point that one of his novels is a soft porn version of their former sex life. Just what every undergrad applying for a scholarship or seeking a job reference needs, right? He’s weird even when trying to make the case for one of his grad student fiction writers, though it’s usually at expense of another student whose writing Fitger finds preposterous and begging for lampoon.

 

If the book sounds mean-spirited and nasty, rest assured it’s not. Dear Committee Members is like a speech you compose in your head to suggest your boss commit a biologically impossible act. Of course, you never actually say those things, but Fitger does! As we read–more like rip through–one LOR after another, you’ll find yourself splitting a gut in laughter. Who wouldn’t like to tell that person you barely know and begs you for a LOR that insofar as you know, their major accomplishment is that they don’t slobber in public? This novel will make you guffaw with such gusto that you’ll double over when trying to read it aloud to another.

 

The Napp LOR isn’t even come close to being the funniest in the book; I quoted it because I’m one of many who find IT people infuriating. Dear Committee Members is so quirky and offbeat that it could have been subtitled Id Unchained. But I suspect all of us have a bit of Jay Fitger lurking within.   

 

Rob Weir

 

PS: If you’re one of my former students, rest assured I never wrote a LOR like the ones in this book.

6/23/22

The USA: Hurtling Toward Dissolution



 

Do you think the street upheavals of the 1960s were bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet. It is patently obvious that the fractures within the United States are far deeper than red states versus blues states on Election Night. You can wave flags and chant “USA! USA!” at international sporting events all you want, but that will not change the reality that Americans simply don’t like each other very much.

 

I’m one of them. Even though National Hockey League team rosters are filled with Canadians, Czechs, Finns, Latvians, Russians, and Swedes, I want Colorado to wipe out Florida in the Stanley Cup because ... screw Florida. I don’t watch football because ... screw that redneck sport. I want Scotland to seize Trump’s golf course by eminent domain and would love to see Black athletes refuse to play in Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and other such sanctimonious but morally bankrupt states.

 

There simply is no such place as the “United” States. We have a rogue party (Republicans), an inept one (Democrats), and nine justices whose institution needs to be renamed the Extreme Court. The right to choose is gone. Ditto the right of states to demand that industries must clean up their environmental messes. Businesses and forked-tongued ministers have more rights than women. The wall between religion and state has crumbled and demagogic lunatics sandbagged the war against Covid. Just today the Extreme Court took away the right of New York State to regulate who can carry firearms in public. Got that? In the wake of obscene murders of school children, police shootings of unarmed citizens, a massacre in Buffalo, and racists gunning down immigrants and people of color, the Extreme Court made it easier for angry white dudes to carry guns.

 

What’s it going to be, America, reason or fire? If you think stalking Justice Kavanaugh was a one-off, you’re wrong. So far violence has mostly been the domain of the right, but this will not last. You can only push people so far before they say, “Screw prayers, Teddy bears, and liberals with petitions; I’m out for revenge.” Courtesy of the Extreme Court they can arm themselves with assault rifles and enough ammo to invade Arkansas. It’s just a matter of time until a Catholic church is torched, an Extreme Court justice is assassinated, or a certain ex-president whose hatred and greed are larger than his penis is gunned down.

 

I don’t advocate that. I’m a Quaker who has never touched a firearm and never will. I don’t think violence solves a bloody thing, but tell that to those being trampled down by rich overlords and plutocrats. As a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning poet once wrote, “You don’t need to a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Prep yourself for movements to break up the nation, some of which will be political and many of which will be violent. Get ready for Chicago 1968: The Sequel.

 

I’m a senior citizen now, so the dissolution of America may not happen in my lifetime, but the process is inexorably underway. We’re already an afterthought everywhere in Europe except NATO and even it loathes taking marching orders from Washington. It speaks volumes that Trumpinistas have more credibility in Beijing, Moscow, and Riyadh than in Berlin, Copenhagen, Ottawa, Paris, Tokyo, or the entire continent of Africa.

 

As America disintegrates, the question becomes whether it will happen by mutual agreement or bloodshed. Is there anything that can save us? I see one possible way out. It’s time to hoist the right on its own petard and embrace, of all things, states’ rights. The USA needs to adopt a Canadian-style confederation model and give states the right to “opt out” of laws deemed contrary to its values. This has happened for the political right; now it’s time for the left to seize upon the same tactic.

 

There is precedent. When the Supreme Court told President Andrew Jackson that Indian removal was unlawful, he ignored it and told the court it could not enforce its own ruling. Massachusetts should follow suit and tell the Extreme Court that reproductive rights will stand in the Commonwealth. New York State should do the same with the gun laws the Extreme Court struck down earlier today. New England would be free to ignore the Interstate Commerce Act and refuse all goods coming from polluting states. Before you assert that no one would care, understand that California, Oregon, and Washington would stand with us. Texas brags it could go its own way, but I can tell you that if California ever chose that route and withheld its federal taxes, the American house of sand would collapse. Add Illinois, New York, and a few others to that list and it’s game, set, match.

 

The sooner we stop pretending we are “united,” the sooner civility will resume. Opt-out practices can save enough of the USA to allow for cooperation on federal taxes, defense (not offense!) spending, trade agreements, and postal services. That is, by the way, about all that affected the average American citizen before the Civil War. The Bill of Rights now lies in tatters and, as I see it, the only way it can be preserved is to allow it thrive in enclaves that care about it. Your choice: opt out or hunker down.

 

 

6/22/22

Rita Hayworth Sizzles in Gilda

 

GILDA (1946)

Directed by Charles Vidor

Columbia Pictures, 110 minutes, Not Rated

★★★★★

 


 

 

Gilda is an American classic and a film in which the costume designer (Jean Louis) upstaged the director. You’ll see it billed as film noir, romance, drama, and feminist. A lot of movie mutts don’t work, but Gilda does.

 

Gilda was released seven months after atomic bombs were dropped upon Japan. The public needed a more positive bombshell and it got Rita Hayworth. Gilda brings to mind a grittier version of Casablanca (1942), with the illicit gambling operations of Buenos Aires substituting for the look-the-other-way attitudes of Morocco. Both cities were also destinations for Nazis and ex-Nazis pretending they were never Nazis.

 

A different sort of rogue opens the movie. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is an American drifter trying his luck at craps, though luck is subjective when you’re shooting with loaded dice. Johnny’s good at hiding how he cheats but not at disguising the appearance of chicanery. Had a well-dressed gentleman not appeared before Johnny was robbed and stabbed, his Argentinian sojourn would have been a short one. Not that he learns his lesson. In better clothing he tries to grift a well-appointed (though illegal) casino and its owner knows exactly how he’s cheating.

 

That owner is the very man who saved Johnny’s hide, Balin Mundson (George Macready). Instead of having Johnny thrashed, Balin hires him to spot other con artists. Before you can say “no more bets,” Johnny is Balin’s righthand man and has settled into an agreeable lifestyle–good pay, a bit of thuggery, fine clothes, smooth booze….

 

But Johnny is glum when Balin returns from a trip with a wife he acquired after a whirlwind romance: Gilda (Hayworth). She’s a knockout, but Johnny takes an instant dislike to her and the feeling is mutual. That’s because the two have sparred before and parted with acrimony as passionate as their fling had once been. Gilda’s not above blackmailing Johnny to do her biding in exchange for not spilling the beans on their shared past.

 

Johnny squirms when Balin assigns him the task of catering to Gilda’s wishes when he’s busy or out of town. She’s not the sort who wants to visit the zoo. Gilda steps out with every eligible man in Buenos Aires and a few ineligible ones. Johnny cleans up her messes and keeps them away from Balin’s ears. Johnny really hates her. Yeah, right; like anyone could who sees her wearing the most famous strapless gown in Hollywood history and slinking her way across the room cooing “Put the Blame on Mame.” (Well, Anita Lewis actually did the singing, but never mind!) You know it’s just a matter of time until she and Johnny are skipping the light fandango together.

 

What’s up with Balin? Who is he and who was he? The dramatic portion of the film hinges on things such as a plane crash, a safe, German thugs, a plane crash, a wisecracking rest room attendant known as Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), a detective named Obregon (Joseph Calleia), and tungsten. (Yes, I said tungsten.)

 

Objectively, critics of the day who complained that the film’s “happy” ending cheapened it had a point. There are other holes as well. Balin’s fate makes sense, but those of Gilda and Johnny are akin to Johnny’s dice, not on the level of objective logic. Nor does the romance and forgiveness wash given that it’s set up by sadistic entrapment and psychological torture. There’s also the matter that the Hollywood moral code of the day was such that what you see cannot be what you really get.

 

Given the setup and strictures, Gilda could have been a well-dressed mess, but the Ford-Hayworth-Macready triangle sizzles with such heat that plot and logic holes only appear after we’ve gorged ourselves on intrigue, Geray’s delicious comic relief, and Rita Hayworth. It may not be PC to say it, but Hayworth was one sexy lady, a Marilyn Monroe with brains. When she’s on the screen, it’s impossible to avert the eyes. Kudos to Glenn Ford for making us believe anyone could ever despise her.

 

Blame the Zeitgeist for the parts that don’t gel. Gilda came out in that seam in which World War II’s reckoning was in progress and the Cold War had not yet dawned. Neither had third-wave feminism, I hasten to add, so is it okay to mention that Rita Hayworth was ravishing?

 

Rob Weir

6/19/22

Juneteenth Reality and Myth

 

 The first known Juneteenth happened in 1866!

 

Today is Juneteenth, a long overdue holiday. Anyone who disagrees with celebrating the end of slavery simply needs to crawl under a rock and die. The enslaved were not “servants” as Texas officials would have it. Slavery was a barbaric institution that subjected millions to miseries that made mockery of the Christian faith* enslavers professed to uphold.

 

There is, though, a lot of misunderstanding about Juneteenth. Here are two cases:

 

1. Juneteenth commemorates when Lincoln freed the slaves.

 

Nope! Two popular misconceptions swirl around President Lincoln. The first is that he freed slaves with the September 22, 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. The kicker is its qualifier:

 

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...”

 

Lincoln transformed the conflict from a war to preserve the Union to one that also promised freedom to the enslaved but only in areas still “in rebellion.” It did not include four Union states–Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri–that maintained slavery throughout the Civil War (1861-65). Lincoln’s main objective was to dissuade Britain from supporting the Confederacy and thus freed thousands, not millions. (How do you enforce emancipation in areas “under rebellion?”) In theory, had the Confederacy surrendered on December 31, 1863, no more slaves would have gained freedom.

 

Nor does Juneteenth celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment, which legally ended slavery on December 6, 1865. Lincoln ramrodded it through Congress by getting the House of Representatives to pass it before new members were seated, or it wouldn’t have passed. (The Senate accepted it in April 1865, just one week before Lincoln was assassinated.)

 

Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, was when General Gordon Granger told the enslaved of Texas they were free. That wasn’t technically true. Under the Constitution, ¾ of the states must accept an amendment before it is ratified. That was nearly six months away.

 

 2. The enslaved freed themselves.

 

This is a fashionable belief, but it obscures. It’s an important factor but not the only one. To be certain, Black abolitionists–many of them, not just the handful whose names get into history books–convinced numerous Whites to oppose slavery. Frederick Douglass famously persuaded Lincoln to repudiate his racism and support abolition. Likewise, many of the enslaved ran way or took up arms against their masters.

 

Those who fled slavery’s yoke before the Civil War were unspeakably brave. Estimates hold that about 100,000 made their way to (relatively) safe havens such as Canada, Ohio, and the Northeast. Yet, nearly four million people were held in bondage in 1861. Southern breeding programs were more than capable of replacing runaways. Consider that after 1808 it was illegal to import slaves from abroad. Some were smuggled in but by the time the war began, nearly all enslaved were African-Americans, not Africans. Most were descended from the  388,000 pre-1808 arrivals. 


Let's be careful not to fall prey to reductionist thinking. Christopher Simon Bonner, for instance, credits the hundreds of thousands enslaved folks who made their way to Union lines during the Civil War (1861-65). True, but it presupposes there were Union lines to which they could flee. Slavery would not have ended in 1865 without the war. 

 

Slavery’s demise involved multiple factors, including:

 

·       Quakers who first took up abolitionism and inspired others to do so.

·       Northern legislatures that systematically abolished slavery. In 1820, 11 of the nation’s 23 states had done so; by 1860, 19 of 34.

·       A failure of national politicians to resolve the slavery question led to compromises that hardened pro- and anti-slavery activists.

·       So too did Southern overreaction to Northern abolitionism. (FYI/Ten of the first 15 presidents held slaves and just two opposed the practice.)

·       President Andrew Jackson’s gag rule sought to ban discussion of slavery but increased focus upon it.

·       Southern demands for expansionism that would have increased slavery’s reach gave rise to anti-slavery political parties and factions.

·       Religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) cast slavery as a sin.

·       The passage of the very unpopular Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 accelerated Black and White  resistance in the North. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852; John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry occurred in 1859.)

·       Lincoln proved willing to continue the war despite opposition to making emancipation a major objective. Black troops fought to defend freedom's cause.


 Let us celebrate Juneteenth and take stock of White privilege, but do so without misremembering or romanticizing the ugly past. Sadly, postwar Reconstruction did not successfully protect Black freedom. That is a tragedy whose resolution would warrant another holiday. 

 

Rob Weir

 

* Muslims also engaged in selling of African slaves.

6/13/22

Bel Canto: The Movie

 

BEL CANTO (2018)

Directed by Paul Weitz

Screen Media Films, 102 minutes, Unrated (some violence, adult situations)

★★★

 


 

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A Japanese businessman, a translator, a priest, and an opera singer walk into a mansion....

 

Bel Canto is based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel. If you didn’t know a movie had been made of it, join the throng. At a crucial moment, opera megastar Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore) is commanded to sing from a balcony ringed by gunmen. She is told that no one will shoot her and quips, “Are you sure? Not everyone loves opera.”

 

That was apparently the case of audiences, such as they were. Bel Canto netted just $350k in ticket sales and scored just 5.4/10 on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s probably the best film that could have been made from Patchett’s rich book, but Roxane’s question is pertinent. Moore’s vocals were voiced by Renée Fleming, opera’s reigning queen soprano, but it wasn’t enough to lift the movie to jeweled levels. I’m not an opera fan either, but Patchett’s novel made me care. The movie scores more for its drama and romance than the music.

 

Patchett’s fictional tale is loosely based on a 1996 hostage standoff in Lima, Peru, in which Túpac Amaru rebels took over the Japanese embassy for 126 days. In the film, it’s a mere month, the South American nation is unnamed, and various details are changed. One of the film’s weaknesses, though, is that we have very little sense of how much time has passed. That’s curious as it could/should have been easily resolved in the editing process.

 

The hostage-takers are not doctrine-spouting Maoists. They speak of workers and comrades, but many of them admire high culture and are either literate or wish to be. They are also young, ideologically vague, and surprisingly gentle for gun-toting sloganeers. They break into the vice president’s mansion with the intention of kidnapping the nation’s president (a knockoff of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori). He, however, is a no-show because he stayed home to watch his favorite television program–he’s not an opera fan either–rather than rub elbows with Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe). His functionaries have already done salted a trade deal by securing Coss to sing for Hoskawa’s birthday. There’s not much left for the frustrated revolutionaries to do except release the sick, children, and all the women except Coss, their most prominent bargaining chip.  

 

There are other key individuals inside, including multilingual translator Gen (Ryo Kase), a French ambassador (Christopher Lambert), and a Russian trader (Olek Krupa). The rebels are led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta), who presides over a band of cherubs in fatigues. Among them Carmen, an illiterate Mayan lass who wants to learn to read, speak, and write Spanish and English. The hostage negotiator is Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch), a hardened Swiss Red Cross inermediary.

 

What unfolds is a series of improbable romances, begrudging mutual respect, and we’re-all-in-this-together bonding over water, food, music, chess, soccer, opera, and shared humanity. Ultimately Bel Canto raises questions of whose violence is more justifiable (if any at all). Both flag-waving patriots and ideologues might find the script unpalatable, but Bel Canto delivers us somewhere near the dictum attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

 

The acting in Bel Canto is decent, even when the script logic falters. Watanabe stands out as an honorable man who has too long buried that aspect of himself. Kase also delivers in that we never quite know his true motives, and it’s hard not to love Coroy, an innocent mite swallowed by forces much bigger than she. That’s also true of most of the revolutionaries, a warning of how glib it can be to apply cavalierly the label "terrorist." Koch is also superb as a fearless and intense negotiator who has seen too much to expect happy endings. Moore lip synchs well, though she sometimes forgets she’s supposed to be a diva and adopts mannerism more in keeping with a movie starlet.

 

Should you give Bel Canto a chance? Yes, but with reduced expectations. The film needed to be longer to allow for more exposition. Watch it, but if you’ve not already done so, read Patchett’s novel. It will show you what was left out and will make you wonder why someone hasn’t previously told you to read it. Someone just has.

 

Rob Weir

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Features Brilliant Acting

 

 

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020)

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Netflix, 94 minutes, R (language, sexual situations)

★★★★

 


 

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom* began life as a 1982 play from August Wilson, so it’s only fair that the slightly altered movie version was directed by Tony Award-winning George C. Wolfe. If you’re looking for something that is perhaps unfair, Chadwick Boseman lost out on a Best Acting Oscar for his last film. (For the record, I too would have voted for Anthony Hopkins’ astonishing turn in The Father.)

 

Filmed plays generally don’t impress Academy Award voters. Ma Rainey’s got five nominations but did not carry off any of the major awards. Ironically it won for costume design and makeup/hairstyling, the most “cinematic” elements in what is essentially a filmed stage performance. It does, however, escape the claustrophobic feel many plays succumb to on the screen. That’s because Wolfe zoomed the cameras in tight to capture the intense expressiveness of the actors in ways that could have easily been lost live for those sitting in the cheap(er) seats.

 

The tale–most of which is fictionalized–takes place on a single day in Chicago: July 2, 1927. Rainey (Viola Davis) was at the height of her powers as the “Mother of the Blues.” This gave her more leverage than most Black women had (though nothing like we see in the film). Rainey is presented as a Black prima donna who could toy with White men. She shows up for a recording session at the Paramount on her time, not the scheduled one, and when her White manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) meekly tries to nudge her along, she tells him how things will go down. And lord help studio head Johnny Coyne (Mel Sturdyvant) when he pushes hard; Ma pushes harder. You name the shot and Ma takes it, be it sending out for Coca-Colas she gluttonously chugs, dictating arrangements, or commanding that the spoken intro to a song be delivered by her stuttering nephew no matter how many takes are necessary.

 

Still, Ma knows there are limits, something older bandmates Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Dawg (Michael Potts) also understand. Chicago wasn’t the Deep South, but it was just eight years removed from one of the 20th century’s worst race riots. Danger comes via the two whelps in the ensemble, the fetching Dussie Mae and the high-strung Levee Green (Boseman). Dussie, a character based loosely on Bessie Smith, is sexually alluring and seeks to parlay that into advancing herself, be it through some lesbian-charged flirtations with Ma or playing hard-but-not-too-hard-to-get with Levee.

 

Levee is the script’s most volatile character. He knows about white violence but his ego constantly trips his common sense. He pays no heed to warnings that Whites only kowtow when money is on the line. Levee thinks he doesn’t need the band or Ma. After all, Coyne has “promised” him Ma will do one of his arrangements and will probably buy several of his compositions. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Both Davis and Boseman are wonderful in the film. Davis is nearly unrecognizable as Ma, whom she presents as obese and sweaty with bad makeup and teeth. Yet she’s so in charge behind a mic that you’d never know that Maxayn Lewis actually did the vocals. And when her Ma is angry, the glare alone could melt the paint from the walls.

 

Boseman’s performance reminds us of what was lost when cancer took him at age 43. We see early on that’s he’s so hotwired he will self-combust, yet the conflagration is even more infernal than imagined. (That is, unless one has seen other August Wilson plays.) Boseman also walked a sags-in-the-middle tightrope between a talented musician and a naif street punk. In neither role does he see there is no net underfoot.

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a powerful viewing experience. Remember that most of the story is invented, as are all of the characters except Rainey and aforementioned Bessie Smith(ish) stand-in. You can learn more about the real Ma Rainey on Wikipedia than you can from the film. Wolfe and producer Denzel Washington aimed at neither a biopic nor historical dramatization. Instead, the goal is to explore Black characters along the margins of a three-ringed Venn diagram where talent, moxie, and race overlap. The survivors know when to step away from the edges and retreat to safety; the victims do not. Even Rainey erred; she failed to recognize that her popularity would wane after 1927.

 

Rob Weir

 

The black bottom was an exuberant Jazz Age dance. I don’t know if Wilson intended a double entendre.   

6/10/22

Aue Another Superb New Zealand Novel

 

AUÉ (2022)

By Becky Manawatu

Scribe Publications, 363 pages.

★★★★

 


 

 

In the Māori language aué is an exclamation of surprise, alarm, or distress. Its multiple meanings depend upon the context in which it’s used, a bit like “holy crap or OMG!” in English.

 

In New Zealand, Becky Manawatu’s new novel, aué connotes distress most of the time, but also astonishment. Her novel will certainly draw comparisons to the late Keri Hulme’s masterpiece the bone people. Like it, Aué involves Māori living on the social edges. It probes three generation’s worth of damage wrought by marginalization, alcohol, drugs, gangs, and violence.

 

At its heart are two parentless brothers, the older Taukiri (“Tauk”) and young Arama (“Ari”). Tauk is sick of his life and about to take off for parts unknown to forge a new path. Before he goes, he places Ari with his aunt Kat and uncle Stuart in a small farming village near Auckland. He promises Ari he will return, though he has no idea how or when. He packs his clothes and guitar into his vehicle and straps his surfboard on the roof, the latter of which he plans to hock or sell if he needs money. Ari is crushed.

 

Kat is the sister of Tauk and Ari’s mother Jade, who disappeared shortly after her husband Toko was murdered. Theirs was a love story that parallels a Māori romance. Toko rescued her from a cycle of violence. Her best friend Savannah was murdered by Hash and Jade was then raped and claimed as the “girlfriend” of Hash’s gang mate Coon. Toko once tried to help Coon, but that was a mistake. To further complicate matters, Jade’s farther Hénare (“Head”) was also murdered and his wife Felicity also fled.

 

Kat is kind to Ari, but Stuart is a sadistic monster. One of Ari’s few comforts is his neighbor Tom, whose wife left him many years before and has long held a flame for Kat and contempt for Stuart’s treatment of her. Tom also has a daughter, Beth, who becomes Ari’s best friend. Beth and Ari construct an us-against-the-world fantasy world that’s often fashioned from Hollywood movies. Beth tries to bolster the fearful Ari’s confidence by calling him “Django,” derived from their inappropriate and clandestine viewing of the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. Nice try on Beth’s part, but Ari is no Django; he’s so sensitive that every hurt, physical or psychological, commands application of multiple plasters (Band-Aids as we call them in North America).

 

You might infer that a lot of anguish, trauma, and violence will go down before things get better. Aué often reads like a fictionalized version of the hidden injuries of social class and poverty. Some reviewers have aptly noted parallels to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. Manawatu paints several portraits of how hard it is for those living on the social margins to do the right thing when faced with externals that undermine good intentions. If you’ve ever wondered where the lines between victimization and heroism lie, Manawatu will further blur those boundaries, though she also clarifies them in several remarkable encounters of the unforeseen kind.

 

For Pakéha (white) readers, Aué can be a tough read at times. Manawatu uses Māori names and phrases and expects you to uncover their meanings. (There is an index of sorts.) Hope occurs in trickles and seeps, not torrents. The painful aspects make it an honest novel, even when you’re tempted to do as Ari, cover yourself in plasters, and cry out “aué!”  

 

I found it admirable that Manawatu did not make undue efforts to make the Māori world more accessible for white readers.  As in the United States, there is in New Zealand an increasing trend toward people of color expressing themselves in their own terms rather than catering to prevailing expectations. If this limits potential audiences, shame lands on those afraid to go outside of their comfort zones.

 

A more productive way to think of all this is that aué can only be expressed positively when those benefitting from marginalization pull The Other from the fringes to the center. Gangs, violence, and social damage generally occur in absence and want, not presence and plentitude.

 

Rob Weir  

 

PS: The correct spelling of aué should have a straight line across the e, not an accent mark. I simply couldn’t find a keyboard function that allowed me to do that.

 

6/8/22

The Sanatorium: Cheap Thrills

 

THE SANATORIUM (2021)

By Sarah Pearse

Penguin Group, 416 pages.

★★★

 


 

 

Elin Warner is on a ski holiday to Switzerland. In recent memory, her eight-year-old son Sam died in an accident and her mother of cancer. Elin dares hope a trip with her partner Will, whom she fears is losing patience with her, will quell her grief. It seldom works that way, in life or in fiction.

 

Sarah Pearse takes us to creepy places in her debut novel The Sanatorium. Locals still mention the sanatorium, though the grand building that once cared for people with mental disorders has been done over as Le Sommet Hotel, a minimalist glass and steel luxury facility set high in the Alps. Will, an architect, loves it; Elin finds it soulless. Nevertheless, she puts on her game face in the hope of fixing herself and repairing a deeply broken relationship with her brother Isaac, a longtime screw-up, who is there with his fiancé Laure.

 

Hopes of restful readjustment vanish with the discovery of the body of architect Daniel Lemaitre, who designed the hotel makeover. Daniel has long been missing, but his associates believed that he decided to leave the fast track and live in obscurity. Nope! When other people, including Laure, begin to vanish, things get hairy. Le Sommet developer Lucas Caron and his sister Cecile, the hotel’s general manager, try to calm guests, but they rub people the wrong way. After all, it’s hard to put a positive spin on disappearances. Anyone with a modicum of sense jumps on the bus to the valley below, despite the fact that it’s a scary ride down switchback turns in a snowstorm. Before everyone can vacate, though, a blizzard and avalanche close the road, stranding eight guests and 37 staff members.

 

The Sanatorium is a nerve-racking thriller in which things go bump in the snow. There’s nothing like terrified people with no place to go for revelations to ooze out, be it accidentally, strategically, or directly. Some will involve the old sanatorium, others are about loved ones, and still others concern grudges old and recent. Because it will be days before Swiss officials can mount the summit, Elin is authorized to launch a careful investigation and keep them apprised of developments. Just two small problems, Elin is an emotional basket case and she has neglected to tell local law enforcement that she’s an on-leave cop about to lose her job.

 

Can things get any worse? A rising body count and more disappearances accomplish that. Elin came close to being dispatched by a gas-mask wearing sadist and it’s hard to feel comfortable when it’s clear a serial killer is at work. That sicko has a gruesome modus operandi; victims surface with three fingers missing and wearing bracelets bearing non-sequential five-digit numbers. If you’re prone to nightmares, you might not wish to read this during daylight hours. What do we have here, Freddy Krueger with a mask?

 

Pearse sustains tension throughout because she populates her novel with liars. If no one is trustworthy, the usual process of winnowing red herrings and identifying legitimate suspects short-circuits. In a book in which anyone could be guilty, you must wend your way to the end where revelations come Agatha Christie-like. You might, however, feel cheated. Clues and circumstances stack to the point of overabundance, which leaves us with revealed connections that strain probability.

 

Ultimately Pearse is better at creating a nouveau Gothic mood than in penning a convincing murder mystery. It was a good idea to dispense with an omniscient investigator–they too stretch credulity–but Pearse solves one problem by creating another. We know that Elin is damaged, but not even an a messed up ex-cop would commit as many procedural errors as she. It’s one thing to invoke a Pandora’s box scenario, but it seldom works multiple times with the same person lifting the lid. Pearse paints herself into a metaphorical corner and drifts to conclusions that are more deus ex machina than logical. Plus, she over-explains; not every character or detail requires a lurid backstory.

 

This is a wildly popular novel, but I have mixed feelings about it. On many levels it’s clumsy and unbelievable. Yet it’s hard to dismiss that it’s also filled with nail-biting thrills. Many of them are undeniably cheap thrills, but evidence suggests we can be bought.

 

Rob Weir

6/6/22

See How Peggy Guggenheim Invented Herself

 PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT (2015)

Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland

Submarine Deluxe, 95 minutes, Not-rated.

★★★★

 


 

 Tourists flock to Venice and crowd St. Mark’s Square. The cognoscenti have the wisdom to cross the Grand Canal and set their sights on a low-slung palazzo that fronts the water: the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation. It is a magical place to visit.

 

Very few people have seen Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a documentary that debuted at the Tribeca Festival in 2015. Luckily, it’s now readily available in DVD and online. Its subject, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), is an endlessly fascinating character and “character” is the right word if applied in stubborn but persistent terms. She was the niece of the filthy rich Solomon Guggenheim whose name is on a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed art museum in New York City. Peggy, though, looked to Europe and presciently began collecting modern art before it was fashionable to do so and before prices skyrocketed. 

 


 

Her second husband was surrealist painter Max Ernst, whom she divorced in 1946, and she refused to be tied down thereafter. Celibate she wasn’t; she lived a life as promiscuous as an alley cat, having slept with over 1,000 men by her reckoning. As you’ve already surmised, she had some money but little intention of being a conventional rich girl. How many of those do you know who befriended anarchist Emma Goldman? Or had the moxie to adorn the front of her palazzo with an erect naked horseman? One of her few nods to propriety is that the rider’s penis unscrewed so as not to offend visiting clerics. (If you’re wondering–and you know you are–it’s now welded in place as it was so often stolen!) 

 


 

 Peggy sponsored, supported, slept with, and purchased art from a veritable who’s who of the modern art scene, from Brâncusi to Tanguy via Calder, Dali, Kandinsky, Picasso, and scores of others. She moved to Venice in 1949, after closing money-losing galleries in Paris, St. Tropez, and London. Some of her art was displayed at the Venice Biennale in 1946, but most of it ended up in the palazzo into which she moved three years later. She was indeed an art addict, one who obsessively purchased works and chose to live in what was essentially an art gallery that happened to have some furniture. The palazzo was, in essence, the backdrop for the various parties, soirées, and salon evenings that defined her life in Italy.

 

Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary spotlights Guggenheim’s life, loves, and collection. In part, it finishes one begun by Maya Deren and Marcel Duchamp in 1943. That’s actually the boldest thing about the film, much of which relies upon talking heads and art experts that tell us what is before our eyes: Guggenheim was an original, as was the stunning art she collected. I will add parenthetically that I was not an enthusiastic fan of modern art until the first time I set foot in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Maybe it was because being in Venice enhanced the experience, but I think it was because seeing it as I imagined Guggenheim displayed it made it more approachable than what it would have looked like in the more serious context of, well, New York’s Solomon Guggenheim Museum.

 

I recommend this documentary for its subject and the art, not the filmmaking. I guess in a way it’s appropriate that Vreeland didn’t try to dazzle viewers. When you have a subject this good, it’s generally a wise course to stay out the way. After all, what would it take to upstage Peggy Guggenheim?

 

Was Peggy a bohemian, a rich girl who played one, or a first-class crank? Draw your own conclusion but the smart money’s on “yes.” And if you’re ever in Venice, be sure to take a vaporetto across the Grand Canal to see what Peggy bought and wrought. 

 

Rob Weir

        

 

 

6/3/22

A Taste of Honey an Important Film

 

A TASTE OF HONEY (1961)

Directed by Tony Richardson

British Lion Film, 100 minutes, Not-rated. (Black & white)

★★★★★

 


 

 

If all A Taste of Honey conjures is a pop song by The Beatles or a cheesier Herb Albert cover in 1965, you’re missing a lot. For the record, the song’s original release was by Billy Dee Williams in 1961. It refers to the sweetness of a first kiss that lovers carry away when parted.

 

The film that bears that name is a British classic worthy of such an appellation. It’s in black and white and trust me; you wouldn’t want it to be any other way once you cast your eyes on Walter Lassally’s gritty cinematography. Set in the Salford section of Manchester shortly after World War II, we enter an impoverished environment where life unfolds so close to the margin that is but a small step up from living in a landfill. At the movie’s center is Jo (Rita Tushingham), a surly 17-year-old who lives in challenging circumstances with her narcissistic man-hungry mother Helen (Dora Bryan). Mum’s drill is to shift from one hovel to the next and sneak away when the landlord demands back rent. Jo wants out and who can blame her? Especially when the floozy Helen acquires a new boyfriend, Peter (Robert Stephens), who makes no bones about wanting rid of Jo after a strained trip to Blackpool.

 

Jo leaves school, takes a job selling shoes, and rents a backstairs walk-up near the docks that looks like a cross between a small warehouse and a chicken coop. Both furnishings and utilities redefine the term sparse, but it’s Jo’s to refurbish. The neighborhood is the sort in which begrimed children play with flotsam that washes up in the canal, pieces of wood, and debris from closed factories whilst singing “The Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alley Oh.” Believe it or not, that’s relevant.

 

Jo fancies herself independent, but she’s more street urchin than adult. The aforementioned song links to her first lover, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), a Black ship’s cook on an ocean-going vessel. He is kind and helps Jo, but is bound for the sea and they part with few future expectations. In addition to the taste of a honied kiss and  unbeknownst to Jimmy, he also leaves a bun in the oven. Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) also comes into Jo’s life. If you wonder if this film could get any bolder for 1961, the answer is yes; Geoff is so obviously gay that there’s no closet in which to retreat. Against what one would expect, though, Geoff moves in with Jo–certainly not as a lover, but as someone who will take care of her. He’s even willing to consider a lavender marriage.

 

British cinema has the term “kitchen-sink realism” for films such as this. Mike Leigh is probably the director today who comes closest to what Tony Richardson did seven decades earlier. There is no attempt to varnish truth to invite imagining all obstacles will be surmounted, nor can we assume they won’t be. This is cinema with the guts to trust audiences to enter the frame and reach their own conclusions. Characters do not magically transform. When Helen reemerges to attend to her pregnant daughter, she remains as self-centered as she always was and Jo retains a limited capacity to take a stand on what she wants. Put another way, “The Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alley Oh” is a children’s song, but the boat’s not necessarily on a happy course.

 

A Taste of Honey might seem like a bitter draft but despite its age, it’s an amazing film dealing with issues years in advance of Western society. Richardson painted with shades and shadows as dark as any film noir, though this is not one–more like a dramatized documentary of how people with limited life chances cope within constrained social environs. Oddly, it’s not depressing overall because it’s about survivors. Tushingham and Ingham both won acting awards at Cannes for this film and well-deserved they were. And what a treat to see a film that doesn’t spoon-feed viewers.

 

As I have said before, a great film takes us places we can’t go on our own. The look of A Taste of Honey and the acting styles therein are quite different from those of today, but this is truly an important document that any serious film fan should view.

 

Rob Weir

6/1/22

Kiss Me Deadly a Culturally Important Mess!

 

KISS ME DEADLY (1955)

Directed by Robert Aldrich

United Artists, 106 minutes, Not-rated.

★★ ½

 


 

 Kiss Me Deadly is almost impossible to rate. I arrived at 2 ½ via some convoluted math: 1 for movie-making, 2 as a story, and 4 for cultural significance (Divide 7 by 3 and you get 2 ½ .)

 

As filmmaking, this Robert Aldrich turkey sinks to the level of Ed Wood camp such as Plan 9 from Outer Space and shares some of its pseudo-science proclivities. Thinking of Kiss Me Deadly as camp will actually increase your enjoyment of it.

 

Aldrich had an interesting idea that oozed of personal vendetta. He was a leftist who expected to be targeted in the post-World War II Red Scare. It never happened, probably because he was such a small fish that potential inquisitors wouldn’t have acquired political or cultural capital by netting him. Aldrich hated crime writer Mickey Spillane, the creator of hard-broiled private investigator Mike Hammer. In Aldrich’s mind, Spillane was a fascist, an overdrawn assessment though not by much. (Spillane admired Ayn Rand–enough said.) 

 

In Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is transformed into a sleaze-bag divorce investigator who gets results by prostituting his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper). She seduces ‘em and Hammer blackmails ‘em. Hammer is so crude, amoral, and sadistic that cops like the LAPD’s Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) despise him and probably wouldn’t bother to fish his corpse out of the Pacific Ocean were he to meet a suspicious end. As the story begins, Hammer nearly hits a barefooted hitchhiker, Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) when she flags down his racing sportscar. She tells him that she was placed in an insane asylum to keep her quiet, but to “remember me” if her pursuers murder her. That is exactly what happens and Hammer is also captured, drugged, and placed in his sports car with Christina, which is pushed off a cliff and explodes in a ball of fire.

 

We don’t know how he survives; it’s one of many can’t-be-bothered-to-stitch-it plot holes. Hammer launches an investigation–when he’s not having sex with Velda–that leaves more crumbs to follow than Hansel and Gretel. He visits a hood named Carl Evello (Paul Stewart), though this scene seems merely an excuse for his moll Friday (Marion Carr) to throw herself at Hammer like a hamster in heat. He also visits and harbors Christina’s roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers) because, of course, the hoods staking out his apartment would never think to look for her there! Hammer gets personal when a Greek friend, Nick (Nick Dennis) is murdered an excuse to be more violent and more stupid.

 

The movie’s mystery will hinge on a pair of oxfords, a key, an assumed identity, poetry, and (metaphorically) opening Pandora’s box. To call A. I. Bezzerides’ script a mess is an insult to sloppiness. You’ve probably never heard of Meeker, Carr, or Rogers, nor should you. Though he did some 1950s TV, Meeker is a stiff masquerading as an actor and both Carr and Rogers had short careers. Cooper was terrific as Velda, though all of the women in the film are slutty and displayed in lurid poses. Don’t get me started on ethnic stereotypes.

 

 The question arises as to why Kiss Me Deadly is part of the Criterion Collection of films considered as important. It helps if your film is rejected by the Catholic League of Decency. (Nothing attracts attention like censorship!) It might have faded away had the CLD left well enough alone, but French intellectuals associated with the journal Cahiers du cinema, including director Claude Chabrol, championed the film once they saw it.

 

Why? This gets us to cultural significance. Kiss Me Deadly could be billed as Mike Hammer-meets Red Scare-meets fears of nuclear holocaust. The world’s first hydrogen bomb–700 times more powerful than the atomics dropped on Japan in 1945–was tested in 1952, less than two years before Aldrich began Kiss Me Deadly. The H-bomb provided the capacity to destroy all life on Earth. Fear was part of the rationale behind the Red Scare and numerous sci-fi novels and Hollywood films featuring aliens, monsters, mutants, or nuclear destruction. In other words, Aldrich’s turkey attained flight via a Zeitgeist updraft. This makes Kiss Me Deadly so bad it’s good. It did give Cloris Leachman her first break, so there’s that. Besides, it’s a guilty pleasure to watch Aldrich reduce Mike Hammer to a grotesque idiot.

 

Rob Weir