7/19/24

Hologram for the King Not Destined to be a Classic

 

 


 

 

A Hologram for the King (2016)

Directed by Tom Tykwer

Lionsgate, 97 minutes, R (nudity, language, drug/alcohol use)

 

Sometimes when you’ve never even heard of the movie you’re about to watch, it’s because it’s a sparkling independent film made outside the corporate hype machine. Other times, it’s because the films stinks like a skunk with gas. A Hologram for the King falls into the latter category. It was made on a $35 million budget–chump change these days–and only recouped a third of that. The reason it survives on DVD and Kanopy can be explained in two words: Tom Hanks.

 

The tag line for this one could be: “Community Theater Does Death of a Salesman in the Desert.” Hanks plays Alan Clay, who once worked in sales for Schwinn and oversaw the layoff of most of the workforce when bicycle production was outsourced to China. He’s now shilling (but not selling) holographic teleconferencing networks, a job he got because he once met the nephew to the king of Saudi Arabia. It would be quite coup if Alan could land a lucrative Saudi contract.

 

Clay is, however, a mess. He has undergone an acrimonious and expensive divorce, harbors guilt from what happened at Schwinn, is under pressure to sell or be fired, can’t afford his daughter’s college tuition, and has the self-confidence of your average milquetoast. He only briefly met the powerful Saudi nephew at a large conference, but he’s being sent to Saudi Arabia to pitch his company’s holographic wares. Are you laughing yet at the setup for this comedy/drama/romance?

 

No? I’ll bet you could have written a better script! What’s on the screen is shocking considering it was based on a work by Dave Eggers. Clay gets to Saudi Arabia but misses the shuttle from Jeddah to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET). He has to hire a driver. Yousef (Alexander Black) is a bit wacked, talks a mile a minute, is part of the unsanctioned underground economy, and is in love with the daughter of a rich family that forbids their match. Ha ha. The KMET is an elaborate but barren shell in the desert that might or might not turn into something. Alan’s team is ensconced in a tent that lacks, well, everything: Internet, food, furniture, air conditioning, beds, a local contact…. Alan has encounters with a receptionist in the one building that’s operational. Her job seems to be to keep Alan uninformed.

 

Back at the hotel he can’t even drown his troubles. It’s Saudi Arabia, so no alcohol. He meets Hanne, a horny Danish woman who gives him a bottle of olive oil. Why is she Danish? Because the movie was made by an international consortium. I suppose it could have been worse, as the Cayman Islands also took part in this camel wreck. Can you guess what’s inside the olive oil bottle? Stop it! These jokes are killing me!

 

Each morning Alan oversleeps and needs Yousef to take him the KMET where… nothing happens. He finally circumvents the receptionist, finds his contact working in an unfinished condo complex at the KMET and scores stuff for his team. Now for the really hysterical part; Alan has a gross bump on his spine. I’ll spare those details because it’s a setup for him to meet Dr. Zahra Haken (Sarita Choudhury).  You know what they say, there’s nothing like a potentially cancerous lump to make a Saudi woman fall for you. Except, of course, Choudhury isn’t Saudi; she’s Bengali British, though she’s cute in her chador and quite lovely out of it. If you think that might be a tad culturally insensitive, in one of Yousef’s Driving Mr. Alan episodes he misses an exit and drives a robed Clay through Mecca, a gag roughly as offensive as farting in the Vatican. I assume Mecca is stock footage as the movie was actually filmed in Morocco and Egypt.

 

There is so much more this film could have been about–believable cultural misconnections and a more nuanced look at growing Chinese economic dominance to name two–but instead we get love at a beach house. At every juncture where director Tom Tykwer could have made an intelligent comedy he opted for the obvious no matter whose culture he had to belittle. I could go on, but this has already taken more time than you should devote to watching this film, Rated R for rancid. 

 

Rob Weir

7/17/24

July 2024 Music: Brian Mackey; Fink and Marxer; Melissa Carper; Amy Annelle; Charlie Overbey ; Khoomei Beat; Alba Haro


 


I’ve never met Brian Mackey but there’s something about Good Morning Ireland, the smoothness of his voice, and the sentiments in his lyrics that makes me want to. He’s not from the Auld Sod; he was born in New Jersey, lives in New York, has been kicking around the alt.folk and alt.rock scenes since the early part of the century and has been carrying a heavy load. He recently became a father again, but his son Brian died from a heroin dose–the shadow on the cover. As good songwriters do, he picked up his pen to spill out some of his pain and hope. Good Morning Ireland is an album of healing and people dealing with unresolved issues. “Cold,” for instance, is about a woman he asks, And who made you so cold/And this feelin’ you’re under/Who made you so damn cold…. The pop-influenced “Don’t Be Sad” is an uplifting song suggesting that making connections is the key to betting past disappointments big and small: Regret is a long drive/You don’t wanna take by yourself…. “Dublin Night Bird” which inspired the album title, could have been maudlin. After all, it’s about traveling to Ireland with his son’s ashes to scatter. Mackey uses his light and expressive tenor to sing his sadness, yet find small-but-poignant reasons to hang on. And let’s not forget the healing power of love. There are several such songs on the album, but try “More Than Anyone” with its splashes of bluegrass fiddle and soaring notes that collectively bring a smile. There are sixteen tracks in all and I admired every one of them.

 

 


It’s been a while since last I heard Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer and it was joyful to know they are still making compelling music. Their voices, banjos, guitars, mandolin, and ukulele are joined by the yangqin (Chinese hammer dulcimer) of Chao Tian on From China to Appalachia. The album is exactly as promised, one that demonstrates the affinity and intersection between American and Chinese traditional music. In a baker’s dozen tracks they move back and forth between the two cultures. Chances are good many listeners won’t know Chinese offerings such as “August Flower,” “The White Snake Song,” and “Nan Ni Wan,” though you might know a marching song popularized by Pete Seeger with an improbable title gleaned from Mao Zedong: “The Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention.” You will probably be on more familiar ground with pieces such as Ola Belle Reed’s “High on a Mountain,” “Pig Ankle Rag,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby, AreYou Mad at Your Man.” One listen to to “Glory Meets the Meeting House” will drive home what becomes obvious as you move through this wonderful project: Music crosses borders and ideologies to highlight our shared humanity.

 


 

We recently encountered Melissa Carper as one-third of Wonder Women of Country. Borned in Ya is her new solo LP. She hails from Arkansas but her approach is that of the big mountains and foothills back in the days when “Western” music was separate from “Country.” Western music was heavier on fiddles, swing music, jazz for the masses, and singing cured by campfires and wide open spaces. In other words, more Patsy Montana than Patsy Cline (or today’s airbrushed Nashville icons). The title track is a bit of a tease–a mix of country and evangelical fervor­–though Carper’s commanding voice is on full display. But check out the giddyup of “Lucky Five” supplemented by a band arrangement circa 1940. Or deliberately retro songs like “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” “That’s My Desire,” or “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” That’s because some of the material on the album is retro. “Every Time” was penned by Cole Porter, for instance. “Your Furniture” is another that Carper sings as if it ought to be coming from the speakers of an old Philco radio.  This is a delightful album that’s so outta of the past that it circles back and feels brand new. The album drops on July 19 so look for new videos once it’s on the streets.

 


 

 

Amy Annelle has had a rough stretch of bad health–endometriosis, fibromyalgia, mental health challenges–so it’s understandable she hasn’t had a new record for a while. You could assign a lot of meanings to “Pull Tabs and Broken Glass,” the first track on The Toll. She now lives in Austin, so that song has a real Texas feel, though she prefers to call herself a folk and Americana artist. The catchy “Down and Out in Denver” certainly has more of a folk vibe, the sort that’s upbeat despite themes of mistakes and regret. This is another album that releases in July with only a few advance videos available. Though it’s not on The Toll, “Distance Lullaby,” which she wrote doing Covid lock down, gives you another taste of her music.

 

 


The album In Good Company by Charlie Overbey reminds us again that the barriers between rock and country music have pretty much collapsed. Overbey is the lead vocalist on each track. His is a strong, gravely voice but once you listen you’ll wonder if he’s trying to take us back to the glory days of electric music or is offering a new kind of outlaw boot rock. This much is clear; every track except one has an electric guitarist. None other than Nils Lofgren does the honors on “CChampagne CocaineCadillacs and Cash," a so long to the crazy life and the woman he shared it with. But don’t expect mellow acoustic, even though that’s Overbey’s axe of choice. Duane Betts plugs in for Overbey’s “Life of Rock n Roll.” It too poses as a farewell to rock, but perhaps with tongue in cheek. To return to the song without an electric guitar, that would be “Miss Me” with John Graboff on pedal steel. Not everyone will agree, but for me it was the only track that didn’t sound like everything else.   

 


 

Short Cuts:

 


If you’ve never heard Tuvan throat singing, you must. Tuva is a section of Siberia and Mongolia that was once the domain of nomadic herders who lived in yurts. It still is to some extent though modernity has altered many aspects of life. Khöömei Beat is a quintet of five Tuvan musicians who use overtone vocals to imitate sounds of nature and communicate across vast distances. Changys Baglaash sports a softer drone sound and updated arrangements than traditional Tuvan singing but it’s still unforgettable. Try “My Ancestor’s Khoomei" and listen for the growls and improbable sounds. If you like it, seek more. “Dembildey” is available.

 


 

Alba Haro is from Barcelona where she studied cello and jazz vocals. Next up was Boston’s Berklee School of Music for a master’s in production and performance. The latter informs her EP Triptica. “Amanece” is frenetic free form modern music followed by a poem. “Acoral” features sad strings, periods of relative silence, keys, and Haro’s haunting sometimes keening vocals. This avantgarde project won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was intrigued.

 

 

 

 

7/15/24

James: A Masterpiece of a Masterpiece

 

 

 

James (2024)

By Percival Everett

Doubleday, 320 pages

★★★★★

 

Scads of novelists have given treatments to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the book I’d nominate as the elusive Great American Novel. It’s fair dinkum for anyone to take cues from Twain as Finn itself is a variant of The Odyssey. There’s no need to rehash Twain’s story arc; if you don’t know it, for heaven’s sake read the novel before your citizenship is revoked.

 

Bouquets and kudos to Percival Everett for his masterful James. I'll get to it in a moment but first, for irony lovers, I’ve been rereading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, his tongue in cheek search for the perfect American small town. The week before I got a copy of James I read Bryson’s take on the Mississippi River town Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for Huckleberry Finn. It would be safe to say that Hannibal was not a candidate for the perfect small town. Having been there, I agree. Bryson used terms such as “disappointment,” “awful,”  and “shabby.” He also noted, “Twain got the hell out of both Hannibal and Missouri as soon as he could…. I began to understand why Clemens not just left town but also changed his name.”

 

If it was bad for young Sam Clemens, you can imagine what it was like for enslaved peoples before the Civil War. Huckleberry Finn took that on directly with Huck’s flight down the Mississippi with Jim, a runaway slave. In Everett’s novel, Jim is the namesake James; that, is, a proud man rather than an infantilized slave. You’ll find numerous similarities between Twain’s novel and Everett’s, but the name James is a tip-off. Everett asks us to imagine that the bumbling, unsophisticated, illiterate Jim–called “Nigger Jim”* in unexpurgated versions of Twain–was an act. Everett didn’t need to invent that possibility; historians have long known that this occurred. It even has a term–passive (or submissive) manipulation–that describes methods of getting over on slaveholders by playing to stereotypes. You could, for instance, pretend to be slow and ignorant as a way to stall, work more slowly, or frustrate a master.

 

Everett writes of the moment in which “Jim” decided to become “James,” but he was well on his way long before that. His James is not only literate, but he also furtively reads the for-decoration-only philosophy books on Judge Thatcher’s bookshelf and holds mental debates with Plato, John Stuart Mill, and others. When a book is missing he easily deflects blame by torturing English grammar and asking what possible use he would have for a book. It worked because white people saw what they believed to be true.

 

James is shot full of the humor that made Twain’s novel a classic, but he subverts it in deeply ironic ways. James is raising his enslaved family to be as smart as he. One very funny section (in a stinging fashion) has James teaching his well-spoken children how to alter their speech around white people. He patiently praises them for clear communication but tutors them in how to make it jumbled, ungrammatical, and vague.

 

Of course, what would a new look at Huckleberry Finn be without a float down the mighty Mississippi? James hides his true self from Huck as they encounter everything from wrecked paddle wheelers and floods to rattlesnakes and hucksters. The last of these is Everett’s take on the duke and dauphin who, despite the dangers they pose to our heroes, rivals Twain for comic relief. In their journey, James develops a paternal liking to Huck. Everett largely keeps Huck’s character intact, though he makes him more of a naïve wide-eyed kid than the confident and reflective character of Twain’s novel.

 

In many ways, Everett’s James has aspects of alt.history revenge film characters comparable to Mann in Rosewood (1997) or Django Freeman in Django Unchained (2012). As in those films, conditions and attitudes radicalize James. Where Everett deftly departs is that James shares intelligence and outrage with Mann and Django, but he also miscalculates–sometimes with tragic results­–and is no superhero. He must ultimately come to grips with what kind of person he wishes to be within the society in which he must live.

 

James is a masterpiece based on a masterpiece. As a Twain scholar, I think Sam Clemens would approve 100 percent.

 

Rob Weir 

 

 

* Twain intended the “N-word” to shock. He was an ardent opponent of slavery and wanted readers to consider Jim’s humanity.

7/12/24

A Man and a Woman: Bonafide Classic

 

 


 

A Man and a Woman (1966)

Directed by Claude Lelouch

Les Artistes Associés

102 minutes, Not rated, in French with subtitles

★★★★

 

French actress Anouk Aimée died this past June. If that name eludes you, know that in her prime she was considered one of the most beautiful actresses in the world. (Apparently others thought so too; she married and divorced four times.) Few did melancholia as well as she.

 

Aimée was at the height of her powers when she made A Man and a Woman. Her co-star was another giant of French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant. He would go on to have a longer and more distinguished career, but it was Aimée who grabbed most of the accolades in 1966. She was even nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for A Man and a Woman, which was surprising given that very few non-English speakers were so honored back then. As it was, A Man and a Woman did win some hardware (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Screenplay). In other words, we’re talking about a true classic film.

 

The story is deceptively simple. Anne Gauthier (Aimée) and Jean-Louis Duroc (Trintignant) meet at a boarding school in Deauville in which she has a daughter and he a son. She misses her train back to Paris–Anne has a habit of being late–it’s pouring rain, and the school head mistress (Simone Paris) asks Duroc if he would drive her home as he too lives in Paris. That’s a 200 kilometer drive, so the two have plenty of time to chat but they are guarded because they notice each other’s wedding rings. Duroc does offer to drive her to and from Deauville as they each make weekly visits. They soon learn that each is widowed. That uncomplicates things a bit, but the open question is whether either is over their loss. They talk as their children befriend each other and communicate more on their journeys. The head mistress’ sly smile is an indication that she can sees their mutual attraction before they do.

 

It's not a straight line from attraction to the sack. She’s wary because she fixates on her deceased husband–a stunt man killed on the set–and learns that Duroc is a sports car racer, not the world’s safest profession. (That’s after he makes up an outrageous and funny story about an alternative profession!) Slowly, though, they become comfortable with each other. Things come to a head after Duroc is one of the few drivers who finishes the 24-hour LeMans Endurance race during appalling winter conditions.

 

Ultimately, A Man and a Woman has the story arc of a romantic drama in which the principals keep their distance, move closer, come together, and split. Ahh, but do they reunite? That’s one several mysteries in the film. There is also a lot of driving in bad weather (Biblical rain, ice, snow). How bad is the weather? So bad that music of Francis Lai portends danger.

 

Director Claude Lelouch did most of his own cinematography. The effect of water on the windshield is like a black and white version of Taxi Driver, though Lelouch also liked to mix color and black and white. Lelouch paid homage to the European auteur preference of frenetic pacing for action sequences, but a slower, more casual, often diffident dynamic in filming relationships. Both Aimée and Trintignant were magnificent in wielding blank canvas faces upon which was reflected the current status of their interconnections.

 

A Man and a Woman is indeed a bonafide classic. So why not five stars instead of four? That has to do with being made in 1966. It’s often difficult for modern audiences to (metaphorically) time travel. The world of 1966 was very different from today in critical areas such as gender dynamics. Anne Gauthier is a semi-liberated woman for 1966, but you will definitely detect that Jean-Louis Duroc is aggressive to her passive. In addition, some recent viewers have found the film “slow.” Sorry, but no sympathy from me on that score. I loved the way Lelouch contrasted the speed of the race cars with the attract-repel-attract-repel cycle between Anne and Jean-Louis. Only someone indoctrinated by TV and short reels would expect it to be otherwise! It’s easy to sing the virtues of carpe diem, but getting there is a process not a single leap. A Man and a Woman is available on Kanopy and other streaming services.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

7/10/24

The Calendar Needs a Makeover



 

At the end of June a series of blue skies, tempering breezes, and long evenings made me think, “Why can’t we have more late spring?” Maybe we can! Let’s trash the old grade school mnemonic rhyme: “Thirty days has September, April, June, and November.” I have a better idea.

 

We should admit the calendar is screwed up and fix it. After all, climate change is real and it’s here. I’m probably asking for trouble with my next statement. Here goes: It’s been years since these parts (Western Massachusetts) have seen an old-fashioned New England winter.

 

Here's what used to happen. We got several light snows (2-3 inches) in early November just to toughen us up. By Thanksgiving, when darkness fell around 4:45 pm, bets were off for when the first Big One would hit. We’d start staring at the skies, look for halos around the moon, check in with the guy who plows the driveway, and make sure shovels and boots were at the ready. Roughly three of four Christmases were white, and count on cold and snowy Januarys and Februarys. With luck, a minor thaw around Groundhog Day brought brief respite. But as sure as the uncontrollable urge to read seed catalogs, a Nor’easter or two–known in the local parlance as “getting hammered”–buried anything shorter than the John Hancock building. Spring allegedly arrived in  March, but that was a mere strip tease. Actual spring might or might not begin to appear in early April–usually not. The first clue was a handful of snowdrops and crocuses peeking through an icy crust.

 

That was then. Now we often see no snow until Epiphany and the last several few years we’ve had very little at all. By mid-March most of the maple sap is done flowing and, if you wait until the end of the month, you’ll miss your sugar shack pancake breakfast. By early April, the lowlands are abloom. May and June have been hotter and wetter.

 

The Western world has used the Gregorian calendar since 1582. It was supposed to correct the vicissitudes of the older Julian calendar. Hah! No one counted upon human folly. For the record, lots of cultures don’t use the Gregorian calendar. Not that it matters as long as we agree that it takes 365 ¼ days for Spaceship Earth to circle the sun. There’s nothing magic about how many months we have or how many days are in each one. The sole bit of logic attached to twelve months with inconsistent allocations of days was an attempt to divide the year into roughly equal quarters based upon occurrences of the winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.

 

Big deal. The above logic has to be reversed in the Southern hemisphere, but they aren’t all that practical in the Northern hemisphere either. What do “official” designations matter if you live in Arizona or northern Maine? It’s pretty much the same year ‘round in warm climes, but ask someone in the northlands if cold weather holds off until December 21. On the other hand, the warmest months in New England tend to be July, August, and September, the latter an alleged “autumn” month.

 

You get the picture. So why not lop off a day off January and March and reassign them to the nicer months of April and June? I could be convinced to steal two more, say another from January and one from October to create a September 31 and June 32. Twenty-nine days in January and 28 in February would be plenty of winter! But I’ll be reasonable; it might be too difficult to reassign four days on short notice. But give me April and June 31 now, please.

 

After we adjust the calendar for my comfort we can proceed to tackle another big issue. Enjoying the light of long summer days? Me too. Let’s find the fools who decided to give us an extra hour of darkness beginning 2 am on November 3. Nobody needs more darkness unless they are a bear. I recommend hanging the inventors of Standard Time from a May Pole until they see the light of day.

 

Rob Weir

7/8/24

Robert Parker Part Two: More Summer Reading


 

By the 1980s Robert B. Parker had begun to hit his stride. The books become a bit longer–though they are still quick reads–and the plots more complex. Again though, it is the characters who are the most interesting in Parker novels. In the 1982 novel Valediction Susan Silverman becomes Dr. Silverman, a Ph.D. psychologist, after her graduation from Harvard. It is almost as if Spencer, Susan, and Hawk are one big unconventional family, with Hawk more than willing to act as Susan’s protector. By the 1980s, Spenser is a convert to feminism and neither he nor Susan have a racist bone anywhere in their bodies.

 

 


 

As the 1984 novel A Catskill Eagle shows, there is some trouble in the passionate love affair between Spenser and Susan. This book centers on the filthy rich Costigan family. Susan has left Spenser, is living with Russell Costigan, and has moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. In good liberated fashion, Spenser has given Susan space to make up her own mind whether she’d rather have him or Russell. Spenser is forced to intervene, though, when he gets a letter informing him that Hawk is in a jail in Mill Valley facing a murder charge and that Susan’s relationship with Russell might not be entirely voluntary.

 

You might not buy into the dynamics of the Costigan family, especially Russell’s mama complex–he’s “Rusty” to her–but Spenser must first leave Boston, head to California, and bust Hawk out of jail. Getting him out of the Mill Valley jail involves some cleverness and isn’t all that hard, but being on the lam and staying out of jail is harder. Even that is easier than getting into Jerry Costigan’s house, a veritable fortress. Jerry is Grace’s husband and Russell’s father, though why he stays with the frumpy Grace is a psychological conundrum of its own. He is one of the most respected industrialists in Northern California. Spenser is convinced he's crooked, but Jerry certainly has more allies than he. A Catskill Eagle is a thrill of minute. You can be forgiven if you are a bit suspicious of Spenser’s hair-raising escapes or how the book resolves. The best plan is to let the adrenaline course through you and enjoy the twists and turns. Ya’ think Spenser and Susan will get back together?

 

You will also encounter Rachel Wallace, a friend of Susan and Spenser. You might wish to go back to an older novel called Looking for Susan Wallace (1980) to find out more about her. 

 


 

 

In the 1982 book Ceremony we met prostitute April Kyle and New York City madam Patricia Utley. Both resurface in Taming A Sea-Horse (1986). Utley and Spenser don’t move in the same circles, but she respects the big lug so when April leaves her establishment, she actually hires Spenser to find her. Utley’s running a business, not a mission for wayward hookers, but she suspects that April might not be calling her own shots. She has heard bad stuff is going down and it’s in her best interest to get to the bottom of it. Spenser starts asking questions but when one of his street sources is murdered, the search becomes personal.

 

It’s not hard to find April, who purports to be in love with Robert Rambeaux, a Juilliard student who also happens to be her pimp. You’ve probably know how that “love” story works out, but if you think you know how sleazy the sex trade can be, you’ve no idea. Spenser enters a world in which women are recruited, trained, and traded like postage stamps. Some are even pushed into the trade by abusive parents. This tale takes Spenser to Maine, back to metro Boston, into some less-than-legitimate clubs, and forces him to make sense of a supply chain that would make Walmart jealous. At one point Spenser meets a man who helps move hookers from one place to another. Spenser asks if he collected a finder’s fee for doing so. He casually answers, “Sure. She’s product, man…. You raise cattle, you give the cows away?” Spenser and Hawk visit mob boss Tony Marcus and even he isn’t the apex predator. Plus, there’s the problem of whether April cares that Spenser is looking out for her. This is one of my favorite Spenser novels. Hardboiled fiction has the benefit of not needing to have a moral!

 

Rob Weir

7/5/24

Biden Must Go





 

In the 1930s humorist Will Rogers quipped, “I'm not a member of any political party. I am a Democrat.” That was funny in the age of Franklin Roosevelt and Democratic dominance. These days it's descriptive. Once again the Democratic Party is poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

 

A lot of Democrats seemed shocked to discover that Joe Biden is as mentally sharp as an anvil. This shouldn’t be news. At age 81, Biden is simply not up to the task of another term as President of the United states. As a senior citizen I would be the first to say there's no shame in getting older. Yet I would also admit I am not as alert as I was when I was teaching. I forget things, struggle for words, and tire more easily. Though I’m younger than Biden if you asked me whether I had enough bandwidth to shape foreign and domestic policy, I’d remember the word “No!” in a heartbeat.

 

Biden simply should not have run for reelection. Starry-eyed supporters have tried to make excuses for his pathetic performance against Donald Trump last week. You can massage it, deny it, or deflect it any way you wish but Donald Trump ate Biden’s lunch. Of course, Trump lied; he wouldn't know truth if it bit him in his XXXL keister. Biden defenders trumpet all of the good things Biden did in his first term. They're not wrong, but they are clueless.

 

My wife's grandmother once told of hearing Adlai Stevenson speak in 1952. He was dynamic, a term seldom connected to Mr. Biden, and she and her sister rushed to the stage to congratulate Stevenson. One of them gushed, “That was a wonderful speech. I'm going to vote for you and so will every thinking American.” Stevenson merely shook his head and replied, “Not enough, not enough.” He was trounced in the general election by the genial political neophyte Dwight Eisenhower. General Eisenhower turned out to be a decent president in his two terms in office. That will not be the case if Trump wins.

 

American political life is considerably more impoverished today than in 1952. I'm not sure that any Democratic presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy has understood that. When Republicans accuse Democrats of being elitists, they're not wrong. It's a big reason why Democrats lose elections they should win. Instead of shifting tactics, party bigwigs create excuses. To the present day Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration, but more voters are unaligned than belong to the two parties put together. Democrats certainly fail to note that things such as sound bites, fear, and likability matter more than any issue other than domestic economics.

 

Let us survey lost elections Democrats should have won. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey failed to differentiate his from Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies. Did he not notice that antiwar candidates Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy won 5.2 million votes in primaries he didn’t even enter? Four years later, one-note George McGovern was slaughtered by Richard Nixon, who was already being investigated for malfeasance. 

 

In 1980, Jimmy Carter struggled for traction against the vague Ronald Reagan. Yet voters deemed Reagan more likable partly because Carter allowed party policymakers to shape him into blandness. Carter was the first of non-entities to follow. Michael Dukakis anyone? How about Al Gore or John Kerry? In 1988, 2000, and 2004 Democratic regulars blamed dirty tricks for defeat. Was that the reason, or was it that Dukakis was a boring technocrat, Al Gore could have put caffeinated cheetahs to sleep, and John Kerry played the role of elitist?

 

Bill Clinton had charisma and energy, but also paved the way for Donald Trump by proving that morality and lying didn’t matter. He became a Republican in sheep’s clothing; look at policies Reagan failed to enact and Clinton passed them. Barack Obama stands alone in being a principled and truthful Democrat, though even he admits underestimating Republican perfidy. We all know what happened in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton ran a horrible campaign and lost to the despicable Trump. Once again elitists cried she was treated unfairly and that Trump cheated. (Funny, that’s what he said about 2020.) Have Democrats been asleep since 1960? Politics are dirty! Winning has become impression management, not articulating policy. So-called presidential debates are all about impressions; they are not substantive debates at all!

 


 

 

If Biden remains on the ticket, the best hope is that Trump’s diet and temper induce a heart attack or that he will go to jail. Face it; he'll never see the inside of a jail and I doubt he has a heart. The wise course of action would be to thank Joe Biden for his service and replace him with a  more vigorous and mentally astute individual who can forcefully state Democratic positions on Ukraine, immigration, Israel, the economy, respect for minorities, climate change, and reproductive rights. If the election were held next week, only the last of those would have as much traction as a Smart Car.

 

Rob Weir

7/3/24

The Magic of Motown Lacks Versimilitude

 

The Magic of Motown

Academy of Music 

June 22, 2024  

 


 

Back when we both did freelance work at a local arts paper a friend and I had a friendly debate over how to judge a performance. He was always more charitable, so I accepted his assertion that it wasn't fair to hold novices to the same standards as seasoned pros. In essence, you shouldn't review a community theater production the same way you would a Broadway cast doing the same show. 

 

Back then we had an A/B slant on things, but I wonder if maybe we sliced that too neatly. Is there anything between an amateur and a professional? This thought occurred when I saw a stage show titled The Magic of Motown. It had some wonderful highs but also several lows. 

 

It's a great idea to honor Motown. In 1959 Berry Gordy opened a studio in Detroit soon dubbed Hitsville U.S.A. If you didn't live through the 1960s it's almost impossible to explain how much Motown and rivals like Stax meant to young people. At a tense moment in time, Motown bridged the gap between black and white kids better than any demonstration, manifesto, or politician. Gordy had a genius for spotting and cultivating talent.   

 

At the beginning of the 60s the early promise of rock had stalled. There was always great music to be found in city subcultures, but if the radio was your doorway to the world the airwaves didn't sizzle, they recycled–crooners, teenybopper death ballads, doo wop, over-the-top fading celebrities, and an endless parade of “girl groups.” (That was actually the term!) Were it not for Dylan, The Beatles, and Motown I don't know how we would have made it to acid rock and the Summer of Love. 

 

Motown wasn't good; it was spectacular! Gordy recorded one sensation after another: The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and many others. 

 

As for The Magic of Motown, pros or amateurs? Aye, there's the rub. What is it if a show costs half as much as what you'd pay to see a 1A  act? How do we classify a cast that is somewhere between cosplay and a tribute band? The Magic of Motown show was also running on the cheap. There was supposed to be a six-piece band but, depending on tells it, illness forced it to cancel or there was a dispute in the ranks. There were supposed to be 18 singers, but only half that many were in attendance. Nonetheless, some of the ticket prices hit three figures. 

 

 Most of the performances–despite occasional technical glitches–were fine, but the overall effect was that of a group of impersonators trying to make us think they were channeling the past. That's pretty difficult to do with pictures on the Real Deals projected on a massive screen behind them. I'd listen to any one of the show performers sing, but don't ask me to believe that the beefy woman with bad white eye shadow is comparable to Aretha. (Who could be?) And for heaven's sake don't try to pass off a boa-wearing giggling granddaughter as Diana Ross or ask me to imagine that the same singers were Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green. Ironically, a highlight was when the same granddaughter did a dead-on impersonation of Michael Jackson from his “ABC” days with The Jackson 5. That choreography was crisp and energetic . 

 

As the night wore on, I got the sense that the cast was valiantly donning one costume after another and soldering on, but knew they were treading water. The audience was polite and several were wildly enthusiastic, but the latter fell short of what I'm accustomed to seeing at the venue. I wonder if everyone would have felt better had they paid half as much. I worked the show and paid nothing, but my brightest spot was playing some old Motown at home.

 

If Magic of Motown has a reboot, a good starting point would be to keep the biggest icons on their pedestals. To paraphrase an old Motown hit, there ain't no mountain high enough to inhabit the talents of Diana Ross, Aretha, Smokey Robinson, or The Temptations. We’re talking diva, the Queen of Soul, the premier male group of the era, and a singer whose voice was like being massaged with velvet. It’s fine to call the show an “interpretation,” a “remembrance,” or a “cover,” but don’t try to step into the skins of giants.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

7/1/24

Easy Summer Reads: Robert Parker


 


 

I noticed that most of the books on the summer bestseller list are romances. I didn't take them seriously when Janice Radway told us we should in 1984, and I don't take them seriously now even though they have their own academic journal. Occasionally I read one just to see if they're still mindless pap. They are.

 

Yet, it would be churlish to tell anyone they should read serious literature instead. I'm happy when someone actually reads a book of any sort in the age of Dumbing Down America. Plus, I love mysteries and detective novels that a lot of literary snobs would call pap. They might be right, but I’d much rather read Tana French or Louise Penny than James Joyce or Jane Austen.

 

Plus, it's beach time and who wants to get sand in their first edition of Dickens? Read a romance if that's your thing. If not, perhaps you'd like to try some of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Where to start if you’re a newbie? Parker penned 39 of them before his death in 2010. If you’re not a completist you might be tempted to read whatever comes your way. That's not the best strategy because the characters evolve and you’ll be dazed and confused.

 

It makes more sense to sample Parker by decades to get a handle on things. Confession: I'm not overly fond of his novels from the 1970s. The ‘70s were a tacky decade to live through–doubt knit, wide ties and trousers, bad hair, stack-heeled shoes, gas guzzlers, stagflation, and disco–so why relive it? The best reason is to learn about key players who appear in better novels from the 1980s on.

 

The Spenser novels are like Star Trek: character-driven. Plotting was never Parker’s forte, which is why he could crank ‘em out. Many of the stories are formulaic and involve improbable resolutions, but the fun comes from seeing how the characters grow, laughing at the wisecracks, and marveling over how such a macho guy is remarkably sensitive about race and gender. He’s stuck on himself, as prone to violence as you’d expect an ex-boxer to be, and eats and drinks like a starved hog, but he’s also surprisingly erudite and settles into being a one-woman guy. Once you learn about his inner circle–Susan Silverman, his lover; Hawk, his African American friend who marches to his own drummer; and law enforcement allies Healy, Belson, and Quirk, it scarcely matters if you lose a Parker on the beach; you can just grab 

 another book. 

 


 

For the 1970s, I suggest starting with God Save the Child (1974), the book in which he meets Susan. She’s a high school guidance counselor in this one, though she’ll soon climb up the psychology ladder. She’s also a semi-liberated woman, but that too will change. Hawk is present, though he’s not yet Spenser’s partner in crime. That’s the correct term. As a private investigator Spenser gets results because he bends, breaks, and ignores rules. (Hawk never bothered with them in the first place.)

 


The plot centers on the dysfunctional Bartlett family: Roger, a rough-around-the-edges construction contractor; Margery, a bored housewife who fancies herself a “creative person;” and their identity-confused son Kevin. The latter goes missing and Spenser has to sort through everything from an obnoxious local cop, serving as the insufferable Margery’s bodyguard, being threatened by a body builder, visiting a gay bar, psychobabble, a possible kidnapping, extortion, and a dead lawyer. Read it for background, but for heaven’s sake don’t stop there as far better novels lie ahead. If you want more from the 1970s, Mortal Stakes (1975) is pretty decent and involves the Red Sox.  If you missed, the link will take you to an earlier review




 

Once you’re grounded, jump to Ceremony (1982). By then, Spenser and Susan are joined at the pelvis and Hawk is integral to the series. You’ll meet April Kyle who appears in two future novels. Her father wants Spenser to find her, as he’s furious that she’s working as a prostitute. You will learn that Spenser seldom sees himself as a save-the-world social worker. He will cut deals with organized crime figures as long as they keep their word and reckons it’s nobody’s business if a person’s chosen life offends moralists or busybodies.

 

As it transpires, April might indeed be in jeopardy. Ceremony takes us inside a very seedy world of non-consensual pornography and dangers on the street. It takes place in various Massachusetts locales, Boston’s Combat Zone, Rhode Island, and New York City. In the latter you will meet Patricia Utley, the madam of a high-class stable of prostitutes. She’s another person who reappears later. Ceremony has real grit to it to go with the wisecracks. Plus, who can resist the prescience of having a street pimp who calls himself “Trumps?”

 

Those three will get you started and I’ll post a few more suggestions in future columns.

 

Rob Weir

6/28/24

MAD Magazine at the Rockwell Museum

 

 

 

What Me Worry? The Art and Humor of MAD Magazine

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA

Through October 27, 2024

 

MAD Magazine was an important part of my youth. Editors and cartoonists such as Bill Gaines, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg, Jack Davis,  Mort Drucker, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, and Don Martin were as familiar to me as baseball lineups. Many were Jewish, which is about as much as I knew about Judaism in my Protestant Pennsylvania hometown. You might also note that the names are male, which also meant a lot when it came to my personal battle against mainstream values. A new exhibition, The Art and Humor of MAD Magazine now on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum brought back a lot of those memories. 

 

 

 

MAD was founded by Kurtzman and Gaines in 1952. By today’s standards much of its satire was pretty tame, but it filled a major humor magazine gap after older publications such as Ballyhoo, College Humor, Jester, Judge, and Puck disappeared. By 1952, the humor publication landscape was pretty barren. MAD was generally the publication of choice in the 1950s-60s-early 70s until it was bumped from its perch by the far-edgier National Lampoon. MAD peaked with over 2 million readers/subscribers in 1972. It’s still around–it was bought by Warner 1972–but its circulation has fallen to around 140,000. 

 


 

One could call MAD a needed corrective to 1950s conformity and the Cold War, a bellwether of the 60s counterculture, and by the 1980s, an antique searching for reinvention. The Rockwell exhibit surprised me with more recent MAD material that can be pretty biting once you get past lame filler. But, then again, a lot of it always was pretty lame, which is why vets of the 1960s gravitated to National Lampoon in the first place (before it too grew saccharine and disappeared). 

 


 

 

For all its virtues and shortcomings, there’s little denying the influence of MAD. Perhaps only Mickey Mouse rivals MAD’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman (get it?) in fame for a fictional character. There’s scarcely a comedian or cartoonist that didn’t draw inspiration from MAD: Stephen Colbert, R. J. Crumb, Terry Gilliam, Matt Groening, Art Spiegelman, Jon Stewart…. Not to mention that some very sharp minds wrote for it, including Stan Freberg, Ernie Kovacs, and two of my all-time favorites, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding.

 

A small disappointment: I missed seeing Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” Who can resist snark like: Q: “Are you asleep?” A: “No, I’m dead–leave the flowers and get out!” Like that one? How about: Q to man with a fish is his bucket: “Catch that?” A: “No, I talked him into giving himself up.” Or to a man on a beach: Q: “Been swimming?” A: “No–I just walked over from Europe.”

 

Here is a sampling from the Rockwell show.

 

 


 

 

Mother's Day Cards from Disappointing Children





Satire of Pulp Magazines












Did MAD anticipate quidditch? 





Jaffee meets Rube Goldberg!  






    

Card Playing Dogs Updated! 


Recent work: The Birth of Treason


Rob Weir