Tears For Lombardy

I found myself awake late one night, reading a feature about the epicenter of Italian Coronavirus deaths, around Bergamo, and I was drawn back to The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (L’Albero Degli Zoccoli) the 1978 film by Ermanno Olmi. Three hours long, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs mixes period drama with documentary recreation of late 19th Century country life.

The first time I saw it, at a college film society in the ’90s, I left the theater a little shaken by the graphic butchering of animals (There are just two, in the first hour, but it spares no detail.) and feeling emptied out with sadness for the peasant family at the heart of it.

I found a clip without subtitles. What language would you think this is, if you didn’t know what country it were from?

 

Finnish? It’s too Romance-sounding. Romanian? Some regional version of French?

It was lost on me, until I was told about it years later, that the spoken language in the film is not Italian, but the Bergamo dialect. This “dialect” is apparently more of a distinct language than a version of Italian – a fact my Italian friends can verify: They say they sometimes can’t understand what people in Bergamo and elsewhere in Lombardy are saying.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 1.50.45 PM

Olmi wrote it, directed it, shot it, and edited it – an amazing feat, especially considering the gorgeous mists and elements all over the photography. To think that he was doing that and directing an amateur cast, and he got these compositions and these performances!

The story starts with a crystal clear dramatic problem. A priest tells a family that their son Minek, who is around 8, is gifted and should be in school, no matter what it takes. The boy’s father Batisti objects that Minek is going to have to walk for miles every day, when he could be at home helping with the chores, since they’re barely getting by and have a baby on the way. The priest lays down the law: They have to do this. Everything that happens to this family after this acquiescence is colored by your own bittersweet understanding that Batisti didn’t want the kid to go to school in the first place.

Mike Leigh, not surprisingly, is a big fan of this film, and contributes a short interview you can watch on the Criterion Channel. Among other insights, he is struck by the fact that it’s both very Catholic and very Left Wing.

Unknown

Olmi’s love for his culture is obvious and unconditional. The people his great-grandparents’ age of his home region have superstition flowing through their daily thoughts and experience, so if you love these people, you love Mary too, it’s a package deal. The men may enjoy telling gruesome ghost stories at night, but eventually they’ll give the floor to the women leading the rosary. Mendicant beggars drop in unannounced, and the local priest has a habit of insinuating himself into family problems, often as a de facto social worker.

In one sequence a woman uses holy water and a prayer to cure a cow of an illness. You never for a moment think Olmi the 20th Century materialist believes in the miracle in quite the way the woman does, but his sympathy for her makes clear that if she understands it as a miracle, then that’s good enough for Olmi too.

If Batisti’s problem from the beginning is dramatically cut and dried, it’s also politically ambiguous. Is the priest enslaving Batisti by making his burden a little harder with no clear pay-off, or is he applying a little tough love when it’s needed? Is he actually subverting the local patriarchy by putting a limit on a peasant father’s ability to claim all his child’s labor as soon as he starts producing any?

You don’t know. You just accept the guideposts for what they are, and develop favorite characters among the four or so families sharing an open courtyard farmhouse. To watch The Tree of the Wooden Clogs is immersive, a fact reinforced by how seldom Batisti or any of the main characters manage to smile. It’s three solid hours of the peasantry dealing with the seasons, the elements, the livestock, the jobs, the pregnancies, the untreated illnesses, the mud, and the polenta – lots of polenta.

You learn on Day One of Marxism 101 that the feudal economy had lasted for centuries, till eventually it gave its surplus labor to the wage-earning workforce of capitalism, which grew so large it overwhelmed feudalism. On Day Two you start arguing, with your teacher or yourself, about where the hell this capitalism thing is going, with such urgency you never dwell much on feudalism and its workforce.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 5.40.14 PM.png

The Tree of the Wooden Clogs corrects that. These are families literally split between the two economies, peasant life, in which you keep a little and hand the landlord the majority of what you produce, and wage labor. To us, even us supposed sympathizers, the peasantry was a miasma of suffering from which the world as we know it was conjured by some self-interested capitalists – or call them “innovators” if you prefer – but The Tree of the Wooden Clogs gives peasant life a texture and a palette of feelings.

The only comparable film I can think of is Andrei Rublev, but Tarkovsky carries a lot more thematic weight, about the nature of creativity and faith. By keeping the problems simple (which is not the same as simple to solve) Olmi gives you the time and space to breathe with these characters.

On “weighing day,” when the peasants bring their corn harvests to be weighed, the padrone is inside his manor house fussing over his new purchase, a Victrola with a giant orchid of a speaker. The first record he plays is an aria, and the peasants outside all stop in their tracks. It’s a beautiful moment, kind of the opposite of Fitzcarraldo blasting Wagner in the Amazon: In Olmi’s Lombardy you see the natives for a good hour, then see their faces the moment they hear recorded music for the first time.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 1.47.25 PM

Likewise you see the peasants’ and wage workers’ first encounter with a socialist, in the form of what looks like a classic petit bourgeois-turned-revolutionary attempting a rousing speech at the tail end of the annual carnival. It’s an affectionate look at a people that’s genuinely exploited, and duly confused.

The one subplot that offers some ray of sunlight is the young woman who works at the mill receiving the attention of a very patient suitor. Dating in Lombardy in 1900 apparently consisted of sitting quietly for an hour every evening with the extended family of the woman who interests you, until they’re satisfied that you’ve displayed enough commitment and humility.

And when they finally get married, they take a trip for their wedding night, a riverboat excursion to visit her aunt in Milan, a nun in fact, and they spend their wedding night in the improvised guest room of a convent. And odd piece of visual poetry, their funereal black against the nuns’ whites, it makes lust seem chaste, and once again makes the church the intermediary between the old world and the new.

One way Olmi creates an even tempo is by not showing the actual milestones in his people’s lives. You don’t see a birth, you see a girl interrupting her father’s farmwork to announce that birth. You don’t see the suitor ask for permission to marry, you hear it referred to. Nor do you see the decisive action in the wooden clogs plot:

You are almost halfway through the film when some attention gets paid to the clogs on Minek’s feet, the ones he uses to walk miles to school every day. Every step of the way the individual scene you’re witnessing is connected to an element of nature or a challenge of farm life handled with resignation, and it’s up to you the viewer to note how the constellation of characters in the wider stories has moved, incrementally.

There are plenty of peasant work songs, duly recorded as an ethnographer would, but the soundtrack, interestingly, is mostly Bach organ pieces. Sacred music, for people who believe in the sacred, and also the only high art music familiar to church-going poor people of 1900. It has the effect of sanctifying the story without condescending to it. The air in the pipes of the organ feels completely at home in this world. Never for a minute do you lose the feeling of the texture of peasant life, or the granularity of time itself.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 5.42.56 PM

The Winter of Max von Sydow Being Quiet

I was already thinking about Max von Sydow quite a bit when news came out that he’d passed away this month. He was a dream subject for an obituary writer: an artist with a long, full life rooted deep in the Nordic past (His father was an ethnologist.), uncompromising as a young artist, and promiscuous, you might say, for Hollywood paychecks as a character actor later on life.

He also happened to be at the center of a body of work that feels very relevant during this extended winter of the Coronavirus: the ten or so films of Ingmar Bergman’s “great period” from the late ’50s through the late ’60s.

images-1.jpeg

Playing chess against Death.

I first encountered these films years ago while living in Minneapolis. There was a dank video store with a backed-up septic system and shelves of VHS, and one winter I got in the habit of checking out a different classic film every night. I was a “transplant” in Minnesota, and that meant trying to make sense of what I was doing there at all, so it’s no surprise, given the Minnesotan-Scandinavian connection and the long shadow of winter, that by February I settled on the Swedish shelf.

Serious cinema was an ascetic discipline, or so I thought, so I stuck my nose deep  into these films, some of which in fact looked like illuminated manuscripts: The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Persona, Wild Strawberries, and the great “trilogy” of Winter Light, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly.

“Trilogy,” incidentally, warrants quotes because by the following year I’d read Bergman on Bergman, in which he admits that these three films are considered a trilogy because of a schnapsidee (an idea that sounds brilliant while drunk) he had while drinking with a Bavarian film critic; they aren’t really a trilogy. “Great period” gets quotes because, even though these are his most Bergmanesque years, when he became a darling of international critics, the films that are aging best are his earlier ones, such as Summer With Monika, Sawdust and Tinsel, and the one I watch at least once a year, Smiles of a Summer Night – but I save that for another time.

Von Sydow was always present for the “great period,” often far beyond the number of words he actually uttered on screen. He was the fulcrum on which these (sometimes pretentious) masterpieces balanced.

Unknown.jpeg

Von Sydow and Lindblom, with Ingrid Thulin in background.

In Winter Light, he plays Jonas, a depressed young father who goes to the wrong pastor for advice. Von Sydow being quiet is as expressive as Brando being loud. Jonas hardly talks, but squirms and looks away evasively, as his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindbolm) explains to Pastor Thomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) that they came to mass that morning because Jonas is suicidal. “It started when he read an article about the Chinese,” she says, describing a sensationalized Cold War account of the ascendant, nuclear-armed China.

Later, when Pastor Thomas questions Jonas one-to-one about why he’s depressed, he denies having money or marriage problems, elusive as ever. “So, it really is the Chinese?” Thomas says archly, and Jonas exhales the faintest guffaw. It’s so very Scandinavian, the kind of scene a Nordiphile laughs at (inside, of course), but that we can forgive most cinema fans for not caring about.

It also struck me, watching it last month for the fifth or sixth time, how contemporary the emotional terrain is. Many of my American peers were already walking around with either undiagnosed political anxiety or its opposite: Projecting onto world events their own internal gear-grinding. Friendships were being frayed by the Democratic primary elections. And this was before Coronavirus.

Although the viral hit (I can’t help it.) this month has been Contagion, The Seventh Seal was my obvious go-to, a more folkloric look at a contagious disease. That’s the first time Bergman and Von Sydow made a film together, in ’57. Von Sydow plays a knight, Antonious Block, returning to Sweden from The Crusades, during a bubonic plague outbreak.

The memorable scenes from it, the ones that make a 20-something trying desperately to fully comprehend it, are of deeply felt Christian angst or existential yearning – and if  they’re a little too earnest for some critics, I had no patience for the impatient back in my VHS days.

Watching The Seventh Seal last century, it felt like a handful of scenes full of dialogue about faith and existence, with a barebones and unfocused plot around it to give the dialogue some semblance of dramatic stakes. Watching it last week, it was more a series of visual tableaux – Antonius playing chess with Death, Christian believers flagellating themselves, Death leading his recent kills over the horizon – with comedy, lots of comedy, in between, and Antonius trying, not very successfully, to carry on an existential conversation.

G75pGREhFIqyc5YATpOggiWO6pbERh_original

When Death knocks, you answer.

I never knew, till I saw it with a hundred or so people in a theater, how funny The Seventh Seal is! Gunnar Bjornstrand may be a cloudy day of a protagonist in Winter Light (’63) and many other films, but back in ’57 as the vassal to Antonius he seemed relieved to have so few shades of darkness to get across, and to revel in being a wiseass and leave the heavy lifting to Von Sydow. His casual asides drew loud laughter both times I saw it on the big screen.

The most crafted scene in The Seventh Seal is when Antonius happens on a church; he knows he’s going to die soon, and when he sees a hooded figure inside the confessional he jumps at the chance. He confesses his inability to believe in God, and adds that he started playing chess with Death that morning. Only after he reveals his strategy does the confessor turn around: He’s not a priest, he is Death, and Antonius just threw the chess game.

It’s so momentous, in my memory, this scene happened around minute 60 out of a 90 minute film. (One good thing about the Svensk Filmindustri catalog is they are on point about keeping films short, with crisp three acts coming right on time.) That’s how I remembered it because that’s where I would have put it, but in fact it comes around minute 30, barely into Act Two.

Unknown-1

The Magician

The storyteller has already played his best card, and Antonius is already tricked. What narrative forward motion you get in the rest of the film comes from his chance meeting with the traveling minstrel troupe, and his impulsive offer to escort them through a dangerous forest.

In The Magician (’58), Von Sydow plays a traveling doctor named Vogler, a cult-like charlatan who rarely speaks, but whose gravity at the center of the traveling troupe is a persuasive element in their scam. (This always struck me as an expression of Bergman’s artistic self-doubts.)

In The Virgin Spring (’60), Von Sydow plays Töre, a medieval father who doesn’t say much either, and who is called upon to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. This one holds up even better than the others. A study in narrative preparation, I could watch Töre prepare his ritual bath again and again. Ang Lee says that “Life changed” after he watched The Virgin Spring at age 18. “I’d never seen anything so quiet, so serene, and yet so violent.”

In Hour of the Wolf (’68), Von Sydow plays Johan, an artist isolated on an island with his wife Alma (Liv Ullman). Generally a man of few words, Johan descends from his usual orneriness to insanity, as narrated by Alma. I’m writing this post over a few consecutive nights’ hours of the wolf (the hour before dawn), and I think a lot of us can relate to that couple, maybe even to both partners in it, while we’re cooped up waiting for Coronavirus to pass.

I saw Von Sydow in person one time, appearing to promote a comedy he was in, that seemed like a labor of love or maybe a personal favor. At a Q & A afterward, a few members of the public were eager to hear more about The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was 30 or so years old at the time, in which he played Jesus. You could tell by how delicately he answered the questions that he was used to it. He also gracefully accepted a ribbing from the moderator about his role in Strange Brew.

Ironically, the minstrels in The Seventh Seal think they’re doomed when they get separated from Antonius and his escort due to a rainstorm, but that’s what saves them. Antonius brings the rest of the party “safely” to his house, where his wife starts making everyone breakfast. Then the door knocks. Spoiler alert: It’s Death, and there are no more reprieves.

Unknown-2

The Death of Napoleon.

Death, as I’ve seen it, is not the dramatic event idealized in pre-Civil War times, a fitting final chapter to a meaningful life. It’s the thief who comes while you’re making other plans. And who cheats at chess besides. In these past few weeks the Coronavirus situation has come over us the same way, as we incrementally bust through our own concentric rings of denial. One day you’re saying, “I wonder if Corona is affecting business.” The next day you conclude that it must be. The next day you’re locking the doors, and you haven’t even said good-bye.

Give Bergman and the Swedish film industry credit for leaving us this legacy of sometimes entertaining movies that unabashedly aim high. Taken as a whole, Bergman used Bjornstrand, Von Sydow, or sometimes Ullman to show us how he, the privileged son of a rather severe minister, was slowly adjusting to 20th Century reality. He was warm-hearted enough to acknowledge, again and again, that the extra stuff in life, the plot fillers, the small mercies we give to strangers, the favors we do out of personal devotion rather than divine duty, aren’t beside the point of our existential journey. They are the point. And the jugglers and clowns are possessed of a wisdom beyond us.

 

In Defense of The Irishman

Before we’re finished talking about the films of 2019, I have to weigh in on The Irishman.  If you read its reviews you’d think it was very well-received, but I’ve heard so many friends casually write it off as a sad rehash of films Martin Scorsese made thirty years ago, I feel like I must speak up.

I saw it more than twice, and I loved it because it is so sad – and I confess that I could have done without the framing device of Frank Sheeran’s nursing home memories. I often feel these devices are superfluous, but in this case the story itself is cutting back and forth from the 1950s, when the eponymous Irishman rises through the mafia, to the 1970s when he carries out his biggest hit. So to show him remembering remembering is just too much, and yet…

At its heart, The Irishman is a simple story. Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran) accepts an assignment from his mentor, mafia boss Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), to become the right hand man of labor leader Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa). On a road trip with Pesci in all his 1970s Italian-American glory, he gets his orders: he’s going to have to kill Pacino. So simple, and so sad, since he’s naturally developed some feelings for Pacino in all the years they shared hotel rooms and time with each other’s families.

I was an enthusiastic fan of Scorsese’s take on superhero movies published this year. It’s ironic that the movie he was releasing while he published it was one of his least cinematic. Slow and talky, and at times underwhelming in its creation of period atmosphere, it didn’t bother me at all that it lacked spectacle, and felt more like a TV series. I particularly liked hearing Pacino as Hoffa doing a superb Midwestern accent.

It also comes up with an ingenious way of putting a female character at the heart of a mafia story. While I’m sympathetic to the post-#metoo constant questioning of the onanistic male-centeredness of movie plots that get wide circulation, holding Scorsese to that standard is a little like holding Titus Andronicus to it. If your heart doesn’t melt watching Pesci break the news to De Niro that he’s going to have to kill his friend, over breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s, no less – of course they’re the first ones awake, and that breakfast table is a space no woman would ever be seated at  – then your political agenda has gotten in the way of your capacity to feel.

01-al-pacino-ice-cream-the-irishman

Daughter of a Hitman: Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

In The Irishman, it’s Pacino who’s accessible to women, in particular to De Niro’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina when she’s young and Anna Paquin as an adult. It provides the major emotional arc of the movie. While the gangster Pesci’s ham-handed attempts to win his friend’s daughter’s affection go nowhere – in fact, terrify the girl – Pacino the family man makes it look easy.

So when De Niro finally gets the assignment to kill Pacino, it’s not just a crooked union boss he’s killing, it’s the guy his own daughter worships. Who made her a true believer in the labor movement. And who danced with her at family weddings without being gross about it. At the breakfast table at the Howard Johnson’s, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, but in the wider world we have some standards to uphold, some lines never to cross, and it’s a woman who delivers that message.

Beatrice Loayza  writes in The Guardian: “Within these boundaries, Peggy is disconcertingly diminished: Paquin speaks six words in a movie that clocks in at three-and-a-half hours. There may be a potency to such intentional restraint within the film’s elegiac trappings, yet circumscribing Peggy as Frank’s moral conscience remains doggedly frustrating. Is she more of a symbol than an actual person?”

It’s a fair question! The Irishman was written by Steven Zaillian based on a book by Charles Brandt, and I suppose Zaillian could have written a larger plot about the family into that three-plus hours, and it would have been even better. (Like I say, I could have done without the nursing home entirely; without it, it’s essentially a procedural with flashbacks, both of them damn good.)

As it is, The Irishman is a return to one of Scorses’s favorite themes, about the dead end of masculinity. Like Raging Bull, he creates men who are effective in the wider world, which makes them too brutal for their own homes. Scorsese, at age 77, portrays Sheeran as a sad old man, literally sitting with the choices he made. He may have touched more of us a generation behind him if instead he’d fleshed out the ways Sheeran became repulsive to his family. I suppose we’ll appreciate this film more in 20 to 40 years.

2019: Screenwriting for the Ages

Pleased as I was to see Parasite win so many big ones at the Academy Awards this year, I would have been just as happy, or maybe more so, if either Noah Baumbach or Rian Johnson had won the Best Original Screenplay award.

Thinking about them – and I’ve been thinking about all three a lot lately – you could feel like we’re in a great period for feature film screenwriting.

Unknown

Knives Out. A detail that passes for comedy may come back in a very big way.

Three totally different genres, and all three with a very human feel for detail. Parasite, written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, has that super-satisfying walk through the looking glass around its midpoint, when the former housekeeper returns with shocking news.

Also, a few times in Parasite, a little extra attention gets paid to one detail about the rich family’s perception of the poor family it’s suddenly gotten intimate with: they don’t smell good, these unwashed people from the ghetto. It’s played for dark laughs, and in a typical drama, this might lead to a detail that makes the denouement a bit richer, but this is no ordinary drama. It leads to the decisive move in the final act: the father taking the insult to heart, shall we say.

Knives Out, written by Johnson, is a very self-conscious comedy, rich with winks at the audience. A detective story, the cross-cutting between time and scenes in the initial round of interrogations provides characterization about the major players at a breakneck speed. You never doubt for a moment that you’re in good hands with this story-teller.

_DSC4795.arw

Marriage Story. Lulled into a sense that you can see where the story is going,.

Like Parasite, it has turns that upset your understanding of the whole story – again and again. And it also has lots of consequential details hidden as comedy that turn out to be plenty consequential.

I couldn’t get into Brick, Johnson’s breakthrough back in 2006, but have to concede that his dedication to this genre of detective fiction-obsessed detective stories has really paid off. It’s as funny as A Band Apart and as timely as The Third Man probably felt, and it gets all the playfulness of Wes Anderson across without his twee excesses.

Baumbach just keeps getting better too. Friends complained that Marriage Story lacked plot or was too depressing, but I found it very satisfying. I laughed a lot and couldn’t sleep afterward.

It too has a successfully-executed momentous turn in the plot – when it’s clear that the “nice guy” lawyer played by Alan Alda isn’t up to his opponent. (I love that Laura Dern is winning awards for her role, but what a part Baumbach wrote for her.) That Charlie (Adam Driver) is such an underhandedly distant kind of dad throughout the film, then for his attempt to prove his own playful side to go so disastrously at the end, ranks this writing with the best of Woody Allen at the height of his powers from Manhattan to Hannah and Her Sisters.

If I have one complaint about Marriage Story, it’s the score. I know Randy Newman is a songwriter’s songwriter, and, like Tom Waits, it’s heretical to say anything negative about him, but I found his score treacly. So much so, I wondered at times if it were being played for irony, giving a Douglas Sirk kind of middlebrow tone to a film about the clash between the New York theater world and the L.A. TV world. I honestly don’t get it.

Last year was the first time in about thirty years that I lived outside of a metropolitan area that has lots of cinemas, and it’s sinking in how important the Oscar nominations are to so many people, how they determine what you can actually see on a big screen. Sure, I’d have seen more of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees if I were still in the city, but up here the other people who care about cinema are much more likely to have seen the same 10 or so films you did in the past six months, and the awards and awards speculation go a long way toward defining that list, for better or worse.

In any case, a lot of great writing is still happening.

Fishers Don’t Fish

For the first time in decades I spent last night in a university lecture hall, listening to a riveting talk about fishers, a North American member of the weasel family known for their ability to hunt, by Scott LaPoint, a researcher at Black Rock Forest in the Hudson valley.

5b74d207829f3.image

The weasel family or mustelidae includes badgers, ferrets, minks, ermines or stoats, sables, wolverines, tayras, and otters. The fisher’s closest relative is the much smaller pine marten. European settlers confused it with the fitch (taxonomy does wonders for your Scrabble game) or European polecat, and that’s where the name fisher comes from.

Fishers don’t fish, though one local stood up during the lively Q&A to say she has seen one raiding her friend’s koi pond.

Fishers are known to hunt animals their own size, hence the first thing most of us learn about them is to watch your outdoor cats and small dogs in rural places where they’ve been seen. They climb trees and are one of the few animals that knows how to hunt porcupine – and this ability to control porcupine populations is a reason they’re often re-introduced.

We hear, but are yet to see, coyotes outside my house, and see a fox every once in a while. A fox runs like a dog, but fishers leap keeping their pairs of legs, front and back, together, like squirrels or rabbits. There is gruesome video on Youtube of a fisher killing a fox that I wish I’d never found.

I was shocked to see how many animals known for their fur still get trapped every year, consistently about 500 bobcats every year in New York state alone – and over 1,000 fishers, though that number swings up and down.

Fishers are thriving in the Northeast woods, but efforts to re-introduce them in northern California are struggling, possibly because California has large cats that hunt them, but largely, it is believed, because illegal pot farmers apparently use lots of rodenticide – a horrible way to die for the rodents and the bigger carnivores that hunt them.

Music To Impeach the President By

I like to picture Woodward and Bernstein in the fall of ’73, having a beer to celebrate another hard-fought article, the juke box blaring “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I also like picturing Katharine Graham in a floral moo moo, mixing a martini to the rhythm of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”

I love picturing custodians at the U.S. Capitol finally getting to mop the floor of a hearing room one evening, one sneaking a transistor radio in to keep the crew working at a clip, “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)” echoing off the marble. I even like picturing Pat Nixon snapping her fingers to “Sweet Gypsy Rose.”

Unknown

Todd Rundgren.

I can practically hear Peter Rodino of the House Judiciary Committee, re-reading testimony in his suburban New Jersey home, hollering at his teenagers, “Turn that crap down!” in reference to “Smoke On the Water.”

One thing is crystal clear – as clear as Russell Thompkins Junior’s falsetto. The Top 40 music of the Watergate Era was better than it is now. Hands down. You could even say it was the best era of pop music ever.

I know I’m not the only person who credits the music of his childhood with a certain magic. There will never be a moment like walking barefoot through a patch of clover while Denny Laine’s delicious guitar starts the epic “Band On the Run” on WFIL of Philly for the first of several times on any given day in the summer of ’74.

I heard it all anew during last month’s impeachment debate. I couldn’t bear the cross-examinations, so I started listening to Spotify while reading live-streams. Naturally I wondered if the Watergate hearings could possibly have been this dumb (They weren’t.), but I wasn’t about to follow two impeachments at once, so I conjured the Top 40 playlists of ’72-’74.

All of the above-mentioned were Top 40 Hits between the break-in in June of ’72 and the resignation in August of ’74, with lots of AM and FM radio play. Stevie Wonder, War, Barry White, Elton John and Paul Simon were the Ariana Grandes and Taylor Swifts of those years.

It’s easy to be a connoisseur with the benefit of hindsight, to look back at a period 10 or 20 (or, oh God, almost 50) years later and cherry-pick the best music. For every record that Nick Drake or Television or Gil-Scott Heron sold, Tony Orlando and Dawn sold many times more. For every time I play The Tumbleweed Connection for friends until they admit that they feel the genius of Elton John, I have to change the station in the car because, well, “Crocodile Rock.”

And yet, the hits of this period were better than any other period. Taken at face value, the pop music of the early 70s was astonishingly diverse in its genres, including lots of tributes to past decades. It’s like the generation raised on the post-war love of everything new, new, new had suddenly had enough.

Folk, jazz, and blues, sure, but also ragtime and country swing were all vehicles for hit songs. “Do the Locomotion” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” both made weird comebacks. Record-buying teenagers and the radio-listening public, which was just about everyone, were apparently pretty damn open-minded.

The_Stylistics_on_Soul_Train_1974

The Stylistics on Soul Train, 1974.

Inter-racial love, often tragic, was a common theme to write songs about. For a time of political upheaval, the music was surprisingly sincere and innocent, and unabashedly loopy.

The music biz, like all other media, was primitive in its ability to cater to subcultures. Radio was starting to re-segregate the races, but at least it hadn’t settled into its 80s slump of heavy-handed record companies over-producing lots of stuff that all sounded like the same few genres – and a phony iteration of them at that.

In the 70s a bunch of potheads with handlebar mustaches had a shot at a distribution deal if their songs were quality. The public, which is fickle, got behind some novelty tunes such as “The Streak,” but also rewarded lots of top shelf artists for their adventurousness, and made their music timeless.

We who were kids in the 70s, came of age in the 80s, and got deep into the subcultures of the 90s took it as an article of faith that the monolithic nature of media was the enemy of free thought. We believed that a Kurt Cobain or a David Foster Wallace should have to answer for any commercial success they might enjoy, since commerce was corrupt, and already – more insidiously still – starting to figure out how to package “alternative” aesthetics.

It was around this time that Tarantino showed up with his soundtracks full of early 70s pop and soul – these curiosities from our childhoods that somehow sounded so good. (It’s funny now to think that Reservoir Dogs, which used “Stuck in the Middle With You” so memorably, is now older by far than Steelers Wheel was in 1992, when the film came out.)

shopping

Stealer’s Wheel.

Which brings me back to Watergate. We grew up believing that the monolithic “media” was the great nemesis. We cheered when the Internet came along and hastened the fracturing of all the media markets. You could listen to better music any time you wanted. Have access to better TV any time. And you didn’t have to listen to David Brinkley anymore. It felt amazing. We ended up with a landscape where people had far greater choice over what media they tune into, but we never fully thought through the downside of so many people getting their news from political operatives who would make E. Howard Hunt blush.

Recently I watched The Seventies episode about Watergate. (It gets the dirty job done in less than an hour – I recommend it.) It’s painful to remember that that series first aired on CNN in 2015, and one of my few critiques of that series is its over-reliance on newscasters. It seems at times like a sad homage to the era when newspeople commanded some respect. Where objective truth mattered at least a little. And this was before You Know Who.

D.T. is about as serious a president as Shirley MacLaine would be if everyone on the Left got behind her and then refused to admit that we’d made a mistake, and Walter Cronkite would have called bullshit on us. Lest we forget, one of the biggest first strikes against the media as we knew it growing up was the Fox Network in the 90s. The same company that brought us The Simpsons and In Living Color went on to align itself with the radical wing of the Republican Party. Fox’s enduring ability to cast itself as the anti-establishment truth-tellers decades after it’s already become the establishment is the number one story in American media of the past generation. And here we are.

So, you could argue that there’s a meaningful correlation between the quality of Top 40 music and the ability of a credible press to do its job and call out corruption. If there’s just one media mountain, and we all more or less agree on what the standard is for climbing it, then the good stuff – the good reporting, the reasoned columnists, the best song-writing, and best guitar players – will find a place on it.

But that’s overthinking it. Just listen. You can find the playlist I made just for impeachment on Spotify: Songs of the Watergate Years.

So get mad. Get even. Get funky. But don’t lose your sense of humor, and don’t stop believing in Higher Ground. We are better than all this, and our music can and should be this good all the time:

 

2020

“My optimistic nature is conspiring with my impatience with mean-spirited people, assisted by my oldest vice, laziness, to make me a political hermit at the exact time when the people and country I love need me to be engaged…”

IMG_9094

…or so goes the chastisement I give myself every day.

I know I’m not the only person who’s feeling this, and I admit that at times it’s overwhelming: It leads to both political inaction and the inability to focus on anything else. But where exactly do you begin, except by refusing to tune in? What can you  say that’s constructive when so much untruth is is in the air?

For most of 2017, ’18, and ’19 I let it go, but the arrival of 2020 feels like something’s gotta give, not in the nation, in my personal abstention.

It has been obvious for some time that the guy who finished second in 2016 has a nose for when to say something outrageous to change the conversation whenever it’s not going his way. Assassinating Suleimani the week his own impeachment was getting real was something we could have predicted, based on past behavior. And then to publish this for his 70 million Twitter followers:

Screen Shot 2020-01-14 at 9.33.23 AM.png

10 months before the election. What will 10 days before bring us?

 

Where do you begin? Two minutes after he announced he was a candidate for president in 2015, he accused Mexico of sending “rapists” to the United States, and today the national conversation hasn’t gotten past the question, “Is he racist?”

And the Left seems consumed by bogus questions like “Is Bernie Sanders sexist?” or “Is Elizabeth Warren an elitist?” I emphasize seems because all is obviously not what it seems in public anymore, and the conversation has been kept alive all this time by those among us who, let’s just say, seem to relish the fight.

As I noted above, I am optimistic by nature. I think there are millions of us who haven’t been engaged so far – except for Election Day, 2018, and that was a good day for us. As the days get longer, we’ll be coming down from the hills.

I predict that 2020, among other milestones, will be an explosive year for art, poetry, film, and music.

Then, as the days get shorter, we’ll be engaged. There will be a whole lot of disinformation, frayed feelings, and strange bedfellows. More action, and less and less of the pale cast of thought.

My First Haka

I was ignorant till last week of the haka, the Maori dance. Often known as a war dance since its popularization by New Zealand rugby team, it apparently has lots of other ceremonial uses as well.

Here are two elite schools in New Zealand bringing their best haka to their annual match. Remarkable to see the student bodies themselves doing it, mixed with the beanie cap aesthetics of the English public school system. Weirder than a Philippine prison yard doing the “Thriller” dance.

I can imagine it having its desired effect, especially if a team sprung it on you without warning. I did a search of it to see how controversial it is in the whole authenticity-versus-appropriation discussion, and its Maori critics seem focussed on the specific circumstances when they feel it’s inappropriate; over all it’s rather widely adapted as a New Zealander thing. Becoming the leader of a prominent haka seems to be a coveted position – an honor almost always reserved for a young man of Maori descent.

Tokenism? I have nothing to say on the matter, living in a place where most of the indigenous people are long dead, their closest descendants far away.

One of the scariest parts of it is the hyper-precise timing, something militaries around the world do to intimidate. If they’re capable of this type of precision and coordination, what else could they do to us?

Compare it to this wedding haka at what looks like a mixed wedding. Rhythmic and full of that part of feeling that’s bordering on mania: too much juice; bat shit crazy.

Knowing nothing about it, it sure seems like it’s not just to scare people, but to use the occasion of a life milestone to open up the hood of the car of “civilization” and its institutions – school, adulthood, marriage, the family, the nation, the passage of time itself – to look at the motor, and show off what’s inside: raw emotion and the threat of violence, but also loyalty. (Pardon the automotive analogy. I am still really just a guy from New Jersey.)

And about that Philippine prison…there was a time when it wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t get to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas on TV. Now it just ain’t Halloween without the scariest, most  beautiful “Thriller” video:

 

 

Raking Leaves

“Who do you think you are? Andy Goldsworthy?” isn’t something you hear every day. So when my neighbor asked me that last fall,  I took it as a compliment.

If you told me just two years ago that the most rewarding part of my day, and my creative life, would soon be raking leaves, I would have wondered if I was on my way to drug addiction or maybe a head injury. But here I am most mornings, cerebrum intact, stone cold sober as a matter of fact, tweaking the piles of leaves in my back yard, nudging them into semi-concentric waves.

You have to do something with these leaves, and it seems like a lost opportunity to blow them into a pile in the woods once a week. And once you start – once you stop once or twice to appreciate it as a vision, it’s harder to stop than to keep at it.

IMG_8726

My first intersecting line, with wind blowing toward the lower left.

You can create a soft line at the edge of a leaf-covered patch of grass by raking away from it – and a harder one at the edge of a pile by raking toward it, especially when the leaves are damp.

It was the 2017 documentary about Goldsworthy called Leaning Into the Wind that made me take leaves seriously as an artistic medium.  That film gives one a pleasantly weird feeling, partly because Goldsworthy himself is such a slow-talking hobbit of a man, and partly because it forces you to keep revisiting a question: “Is he dressing the set for a deceptively elaborate photo, or is this photo or video I’m looking at the documentation of an artistic practice itself?”

In my case it’s all about the practice. At least in October. It’s a little like cutting hair that grows back again overnight – and like the feeling you get when you leave a barber and tussle your own hair so it’s imperfect just the way you like it. It’s also about looking at the lines as if they’re in motion and imagining where they’re going – and then rake them there. In that way, it’s more like animation.

 

Is it art? Sure. Can you go public with it, give people the chance to appreciate it on a bigger scale? I suppose you’d have to find a bigger venue than my yard, and more people and more rakes.

One day the Fedex guy drove up and caught me in the act. “I can’t remember the last time I saw one of those,” he said, meaning a rake. A little overstating it, in my opinion: They weren’t steel sheep shears, after all; you can still buy a rake at the hardware store.

IMG_8741

With lines from morning shadows.

Not a comment at all about the geometry in the deciduous piles around me, but I’m still good for a minute-long chat with anyone, and he kept talking, chipper as ever while dealing with a giant box of cat food that blocked his vision. Seeing a man struggle with a box with the word “Chewy” printed across it looked to me like an artistic expression.

So far, I figured, I’ve gotten few to tune in. But once you start, everything starts looking like art.

 

 

How Did I Get Here?

I’ve missed your birthdays, your anniversaries, and a few funerals. I chose to leave town and you’re excused if you never want to see me again. I moved from New York City to the Central Hudson Valley at the end of last summer. Since then, I’ve often asked myself, “How did I get here?” occasionally peppered with “Am I right? Am I wrong?”

Only once or twice did I say to myself, “My God, what have I done!”

Minnewaska

Minnewaska Sate Park, with the Catskills in the distance. The English tried renaming them the “Blue Mountains,” but the Dutch name meaning “Cat River Mountains” stuck.

Mostly I feel like life started over last fall, and there was nothing before it, when I moved to a hamlet in Ulster County. It’s near Stone Ridge, which is near Kingston. When friends visit I take them to High Falls or Rosendale and limit my history lesson to the ten minutes it takes to get there, but I insist that they hear it, because you can’t get your head around the place without it:

You have to remember, I tell them, that well into the 1800s cities weren’t industrial, the country was. Most of the forests got leveled for farms and dairies, yes, but also for fuel for tanneries and ironworks. My area, the Roundout Valley, had its first boom in the 1830s after the Delaware and Hudson Canal came through.

So to ship coal from the Poconos to New York City you put it on a barge that crossed the Delaware on a viaduct and descended through the Western Catskills till it joined the Rondout Creek and followed alongside it for its last 25 miles before it reached the Hudson.

That’s going about 80 miles out of your way just to work with gravity. Railroads made this obsolete by the 1850s, and the area had its first bust. Then came the cement boom after the Civil War. Towns like Rosendale discovered that certain layers of their dolostone were perfect for making cement. Much of the cement that made New York City and monuments around the East Coast came from these canal towns. You can still see the kilns where they baked dolostone to prepare it for pulverizing at random places on walks in the woods.

Then that went bust when synthetic cements became more cost-effective, and finally the small-production dairy business, which was always up and down, went bust for good a generation ago.

chute

The ruins of a cement mining operation, now flooded. Rosendale, NY.

At this point I try making eye contact, and my friends are either hooked, or we change topics to cooking and Netflix.

If there’s a pall of sadness around the Hudson Valley, even on a beautiful day, it’s because it’s been post-industrial longer than it was ever industrial. It’s the original depressed place, where artists have been going to get away from ambition for generations now.

In all the years I was a visitor here, I often got lost. As someone with a good sense of north, south etc., I can drive without a map in many places, but here I was easily disoriented. I realized one winter night while reading a history of the Ice Age (as one does up here), that we can thank the last major glacier 13,000 years ago for the geological oddities in these towns.

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 12.37.56 PM

Near the point of the lowest arrow the glacier breeched the western wall, creating odd southwest- to-northeast-flowing riverbeds.

The rivers run northeast! It defies the senses of most people who grew up anywhere else on the East Coast. The ice that was carving the Hudson Valley got too high for a time and broke through the western wall of rock in a southwestern direction, and now water flows out in the opposite direction…

..and that’s why gravity-based transport of the 1830s came this way; and why I get a text every time someone comes to visit for the first time saying they got lost.

We imagine that back in Brooklyn we’re remembered with tomb-like, pitiable epithet, “moved upstate.” Meaning we retreated. Couldn’t take it. Gave up. Nobody likes a quitter! And that’s all half-true.

Up here neighbors say, “This is not upstate,” meaning we haven’t reached the boonies yet. I have thousands of peers around me who work on the Web and now want to live a few hours from the city but no more, so that they can go in for a meeting or a day or so of work or play.

I still get in to the city once every 6 to 8 weeks, it seems, but more often when I get a free day I want to go further: further north, higher in the mountains, deeper into the boonies. To some perch where I’m more likely to get the feeling it’s just me and this big, living mountain range.

If you sit on my front porch and look in one direction, it’s the flat Roundout Valley. Look in the other, and it’s uphill. The foothills, where the Catskills begin. A good place to sit and think.