5/12/23

Kitty Macfarlane: May 2023 Artist of the Month


 

Kitty Macfarlane

Namer of Clouds (2019)

Navigator Records

 


 

I follow Karine Polwart , one of my favorite folk/traditional artists of all time. When Polwart recommends someone, I take notice. My artist/album of the month is a bit unusual in that the featured recording came out in 2019. I had not heard of Kitty Macfarlane until I sampled her on Polwart’s Website, but I’m sure glad I did.

 

Macfarlane hails from Somerset in England and is both a lovely singer and a smart, thoughtful person. Let’s start with the title track of Namer of Clouds. It’s an offbeat title, but it befits the song. Ever wonder where we get categories such as nimbus, cumulous, stratus, and so on? Give credit to Luke Howard who thought of them back in 1802. The song imagines him as a small boy doing what kids do, gazing into the sky with amazement at the shifting shapes of clouds. Howard took it to the next level: The changing shapes, the chaos and calm/The shadows cast as winds collide/Tries to explain with words not written/Put name to face, the need to define.

 

You’ll get all of that, though the first things that will strike you is Macfarlane’s own sense of calm and a voice whose purity invites comparisons to a young Joni Mitchell. Mitchell, ironically, released a 1969 album titled Clouds that included the song “Both Sides Now” with its quotable line: I really don’t know clouds at all. Macfarlane does.

 

Macfarlane has keen environmentalist instincts. “Wrecking Days” catalogues the damage done by the things we cast into the sea and reappear on the strandline (the highwater mark on a beach); “Man, Friendship” simultaneously muses upon climate change and hope, which is quite a trick. “Seventeen” parallels coming of age with the observation that nature cycles–the growth of trees, the growth of lichen, the migration of birds, tides, and so on–are both humbling and bewildering to the young. Some of the songs actually incorporate natural sounds. You’ll hear a rushing waterfall on “Morgan’s Pantry.” In this case, sea morgans are legends, not people. This is Macfarlane’s take on a traditional song about rather nasty sea creatures that lure sailors to waterfall portals to another world. “Glass Eel” ponders both continental drift and the miraculous 4,000-mile annual migration of small transparent eels. (Puffins find them delicious!)

 

Macfarlane dazzles us with voice and wonderment, not flashy instrumentation or dramatic arrangements. Her lyrics employ an economy of words that invites us to intersect our narratives with hers. “Starling Song,” for example, is just twelve lines long, but there’s much room to draft stories in lines such as Like the rush in a sea shell or a hum in the maize/Or the mutter of pages turned in haste. “Frozen Charlotte” is the wordiest song on the album, but they come from poet Seba Smith that recount a decidedly weird 1839 event in which a vain young woman was so determined to attend a dance despite the frigid winter weather that she arrived frozen to death. (Some versions say she was found in her bath.) In a level of the macabre only Victorians could conjure, alabaster white frozen Charlotte dolls enjoyed a 70-year run of popularity.

 

Macfarlane draws inspiration from all manner of things large and profound. Among the latter is “Sea Silk,” and you’ll hear background clicking. It’s the sound of needles from a woman she met off the coast of Sardinia spinning delicate silk strands that appear brown inside but glow gold in the sunlight. By now you won’t be surprised when I say that Macfarlane spins some gold of her own: I’ll spin saltwater into sun/Until the time I am undone. How good is Macfarlane? Even Iggy Pop, the Grandfather of Punk, is a fan.  

 

Rob Weir

 

5/10/23

Nightmare Alley: Icarus Retold

 

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

Directed by Edmund Goulding

20th Century Fox, 111 minutes, Not rated.

★★★

 

 


 

When it comes to lessons for the human condition, the ancient Greeks had the bases covered. Do you recall the myth of Icarus, who made wings of wax but flew too close to the sun and tumbled into the sea and drowned? It has long been a lesson in hubris, a warning that those who arrogantly climb too high often meet a bitter end. Nightmare Alley takes that tale and sets it in a traveling carnival.

 

The setting is the Great Depression. Young Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is looking for a break and thinks that the “carny” he has just be his ticket. He enlists as a roustabout but has a decided sense of superiority. Before going any further, you need to know that the term “geek” used to be a very derogatory term. It too came from Greek and loosely translates as “fool,” but it’s worse than that. In carny terms, the geek was a broken-down performer who has lost his wits–nearly all were male–whether through drink, drugs, or mental collapse. Most carnival geeks were so unbalanced that they became sideshow freaks the likes of which bit the heads off chickens and snakes.

 

In Stan’s mind, though some of his carnival colleagues were nice enough, most were just a step or two above the resident geek who sometimes needed to be locked up for his and the public’s protection. Stan does, however, like Pete (Ian Keith) and Zeena (Joan Blondell) Krumbein, Pete because he’s harmless and Zeena because she’s so sexy that her flirtations have driven Pete to the bottle. Stan wouldn’t mind a piece of her action, but she rebuffs him. Instead, he turns his attention to the far-too-young Molly (Coleen Gray) and apprentices himself to Zeena. The latter holds the “code,” the bag of tricks and signals that allow “mind readers” to astonish audiences. Before long, Stan is a star clairvoyant and augur.

 

Stan oversteps in his conquest of the innocent Molly and by an accident involving Pete. The carny hands force him to marry the girl he has ruined. (Back in those days if you tried on the goods, you bought the outfit.) There is no arguing with an angry crew backed by strongman Bruno (a perfect role for Mike Mazurka). Poor Molly tries hard, but she’s too na├»ve to realize she’s just a fling and a useful flunky in Stan’s act. It’s just a matter of time before Stan decides that dumping the carny–not completely an act of volition–is his ticket to even greater stardom.

 

As a solo act, “The Great Stanton” soars and is the toast of big theaters in Chicago. He remains troubled about Pete though, and seeks psychological counselling. As such narratives tend to spin out, guilt and ambition begin to get the better of him. He flies too high for Molly’s comfort when he tries to grift Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), plus highfliers are seldom as smart as they think they are. Enter his femme fatale, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who knows a phony when she sees one. Soon the Great Stanton is getting mighty close to the sun. It’s just a matter of time until his wings melt, and Nightmare Alley wends its way to a dark ending.

 

This film grew on me ex post facto. Tyrone Power is very good as an oily jerk, but he’s not enough to rescue the film from overdosing on histrionics and predictability. The movie was based upon a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Who, you might ask. Exactly. He didn’t get much help from the treatment given by Jules Furthman. He was a talented screenwriter, but he stumbled in this film by failing to differentiate between foreshadowing and bloody obvious! Nightmare Alley has entertaining moments, but don’t expect to be astonished.

 

Let me end with a few more Icarus analogies. Tragically, Gresham never came close to duplicating the success of his Nightmare Alley novel. His life was chaotic–a bout of TB, a venture into Dianetics, alcoholism, marital woes–and he committed suicide in 1962. That was tragic, but it was a geek-level descent into foolishness to do a remake of Nightmare Alley in 2021. Despite a big cast filled with famous names, the only thing its carny geek decapitated was the corpse of a turkey.

 

Rob Weir  

5/8/23

We Are the Light Doesn't Ignite

WE ARE THE LIGHT (2022)

By Matthew Quick

Avid reader Press, 246 pages.

 


 

 

Sometimes minimalism is efficient and appropriate. Sometimes it’s just minimal. We Are the Light falls into the second category. Perhaps I should have known better. Matthew Quick also wrote Silver Lining Playbook, which was made into a movie that I found schmaltzy. Like it, Lucas Goodgame, the central character of We Are the Light, is a damaged man.

 

Goodgame is part of a survivors’ group from a mass shooting at the Majestic Theater in Somewhere or Other, Pennsylvania, that left his wife Darcy and 16 others dead. Lucas isn’t too sad, though, because he believes that Darcy is an angel who visits him regularly. He even collects feathers that he says are from her wings and claims to have seen the souls of all the dead rise.

 

But when he writes to Karl, his Jungian therapist, and asks to see him to talk about all of this, Karl ghosts him. He writes letter after letter–often dropping them off at his door–until a restraining order makes him stop. Is Lucas so delusional that he has scared off his therapist? Lucas also angers Sandra Coyle from the group when he rebuffs her effort to enlist him in a gun control movement because he says he needs to focus on his grief before getting involved in politics.

 

The entire story is told through letters to Karl, which are loaded with Lucas’ take on Jungian theory in which he tries to apprise him of how he’s trying to heal himself. He tells of how his African-American friends Isiah and Bess are praying for him, of how Jill from the Cup of Spoons Diner has been cooking for him, and  how he has allowed young Eli Hansen to camp out in his backyard. That’s surprising because Eli has become the town pariah as it was his older brother Jacob who was responsible for the mass murder.

 

An old adage holds that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing and this holds true for Lucas’ various “insights” into Jungian psychology. Even if you have only passing familiarity with such concepts, you can tell that Lucas understands some of its form, but not much about its function.

 

The plot takes other odd twists. Jill, who was Darcy’s best friend, seems to have moved in with Lucas almost immediately after Jacob shot up the town. Is she a grief maven or a grifter? That’s not nearly as weird as a subplot involving a way to help Eli to graduate from high school via a credited post-drop out project. The grand idea is to make a monster movie starring Eli and other locals that will debut at (gulp!) the Majestic Theater. This, somehow, is supposed to help the community heal. This really angers Sandra, who is convinced that Eli is as psychotic as his sanguinary brother. Lucas tells of his battles with Sandra, how the movie is proceeding, and his sadness that Eli has grown closer to two others and has moved out. All of this is detailed in, yep, letters to Karl–17 in all, one for each victim. Karl remains silent.

 

The last part of the book takes place nearly four years later and updates us on Lucas, his new Jungian therapist, his relationship with Jill, how Eli has fared, and Karl’s fate. If you sense you’ve been setup for a cheap plot ploy, who am I to dissuade you? You might like the resolution and manipulative sentimentality better than I did, but everything is pretty much what I expected from a novel that’s a classic one-trick pony.

 

About the best I can say for We Are the Light is that it didn’t turn into an evangelical Christian novel filled with miracles. Still, if this book is optioned, you’d do well to read reviews from respected film critics before viewing it. By all means avoid  trade magazine hacks and anyone who calls it “timely” because of it deals with the national plague of mass shootings. Let me be clear; those people insult Aurora, Buffalo, El Paso, Nashville, Sandy Hook, Uvalde, Virginia Beach, and all the other places where real people suffering from real anguish continue to grieve.

 

Rob Weir