Reality Wins!

I just watched a Fox News report on Reality Winner, and boy are those guys scandalized!

I’ll spare you the link – I’m sure there’s much worse to come for this woman. Agree with her or not, she is courageous and fascinatingly flawed. Kind of naive in her mis-steps, it turns out. There was a shadow on a document indicating a crease on a piece of paper that got scanned. I’d hate to be her ex-best friend who has embarrassing photos of her from a New Years party and keeps seeing the same black SUV outside the house.

Reality Winner

Reality Leigh Winner: What a name!

This is where our side is crossing its fingers that she’ll come off as mature and credible and up to the part, and the other side is hoping she seems privileged and irritating on camera. All I can say is, What a name! Reality Leigh Winner. Reality Winner! Reality Wins!

Sojourner Truth, who chose her name in a religious conversion, had a damn good one. Her name implies that the Truth will come out in force one day, but that for now it is on a Sojourn in her heart. And I’ve always felt like President Lincoln’s first name was almost too accurate to be true: Abraham, the patriarch whom God commanded to kill his own son. But if she ends up on the right side of history (and leakers usually do) then “Reality Winner” ranks right up there.

Why No Man Should Ever Sing “House of the Rising Sun” Again

Music can give you sustenance during spiritually meager times, and this spring I kept going back to Joan Baez’ first album again and again.

Joanbaez

Recorded here in New York City in the summer of 1960, Joan Baez (the album) is a spare production of folk classics. She was only 19, and no one had heard of Dylan and she wasn’t a spokesperson for anything just yet, and the songs are all stories more than statements – and sung by that voice. Lots of them, songs like “East Virginia,” come off as so lively precisely because she’s still such a girl, and the heartache of lost love is palpable in them. “Silver Dagger” is her version of  “Katie Dear,” a ballad of doomed love which, because it’s sung in the first person from the girl’s perspective, is darker and scarier.

These songs also evoke the macabre Appalachian heart of America, our people, and an old soul of a girl who can stare into it without fear, with nothing but clarity.

Last week when the President announced his decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, I naturally started thinking hard about Appalachia and its mythical meaning to us (more on that soon). Coincidentally, it was also the week the art scene in my former hometown of Minneapolis hosted a controversy about racism in art, in Sam Durrant’s Scaffold at the Walker Art Center. A white artist was the wrong artist to tell the story of the mass execution of Dakotas during the great uprising, they said.

I rarely get excited about artists or writers overstepping the bounds of what content they’re allowed to take on. Is this my white male privilege? Maybe, but I’m more inclined to agree with Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine: “The real problem with [Scaffold] is that ALL its supposed content is in the work’s explanatory wall label,” a damning comment about lots of political art, no matter who’s controlling the story.

But even I had just determined, after listening to Baez’ “House of the Rising Sun” dozens of times this year, that no man should ever sing that song again. The Animals’ version, which is part of the classic rock canon you just can’t avoid, is utterly lifeless. “It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy” changes the meaning of the story. Eric Burden wasn’t the first man to sing it – even Dylan had a version of it – but that doesn’t mean we should ever  have to listen to it.

It’s about a girl in a whorehouse, a “ruined” woman, and devastating in a first-person version by an artistic giant like Baez:

Can we at least agree on that? If your telling the story is going to screw it up, leave it alone.

Jonathan Demme

I can’t say much about Jonathan Demme that hasn’t already been said better by A.V. Club, among others, but his vision certainly touched me.

Celebrity deaths come so often these days, it gives me an eerie feeling. Not about death, about the mass production of artistic soulfulness itself. Aside from the outliers like Prince and Michael Jackson, who died way too young, many of the deaths are within the statistical range of when it typically comes. Some combination of the Baby Boom, TV syndication, the explosion of vinyl records in the 1970s, and maybe, actually, a great generation of artists that had its day – and what a time it was – is coming together again at harvest time, and Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Mary Tyler Moore, Don Rickles, Carrie Fisher, and Chuck Berry and the entertainment giants of our childhoods are dying and going to keep dying till there are fewer and fewer of them, and one day we’ll get a Tweet, or however we’re saying “hey check this out” at that time, that says, “Remember Charlie, from ‘Charlie bit my finger‘ in the early days of YouTube? Well, he’s dead too.”**

I’ve never watched Silence of the Lambs! I don’t like sociopath movies, and never have: If thrillers are defined by the kind of evil inside the villain, then the sociopathic killer, to me, is just too plain a copout. Philadelphia seemed a little heavy-handed at the time, but we have to remember what a breakthrough that was, and I’m glad Demme’s getting lots of credit for that.

But I will always love him for Stop Making Sense. As a teenager I saw it at the State Theatre in Ithaca, NY, and joined dozens of Cornell students dancing in the aisles. I didn’t understand it, but the title put me right at ease: don’t try making sense of it! You could tell, however, that something about the period was being defined on that screen

**I feel like I have license to be so callous about death while eulogizing an earnest guy like Demme, because his pal Robyn Hitchcock handles it much more so in Demme’s film Storefront Hitchcock, which I’ve written about in the past.

Rest in Peace. We’re lucky you were so productive while you were alive, and your films are going to be around a long, long time.

Touched by the Devil

The most Python-esque movie on Netflix right now is a documentary about a Dutch painter who’s been dead for 500 years. Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is 90 minutes of great TV. Even if it peters out as a film with a single narrative thrust, who doesn’t want to hear Bosch scholars going off script about what they see in his paintings?

I think of Monty Python first, not just because of Bosch’s obvious influence on Terry Gilliam, but because the comic levity in Touched by the Devil (written and directed by Pieter van Huystee) comes from the straight-laced curators poring over the minutest details of a painter with a head full of superstition and hallucinatory ch-cha-cha, reminiscent of John Cleese playing the prim foil to the surrealism unfolding around him.

Bosch detail one

Like a good adventure film, we meet the A team early on: the conservator, the photographer, the dendrologist, the infra-red specialist, et cetera. With the nerdily handsome Matthijs Ilsink as its leader, the Dutch team visits museums trying to make deals to borrow the major works of Bosch for a commemorative show in his hometown, Den Bosch, for the quincentennial of his death in 2016.

But how do you identify a true Bosch? The team has so much digital technology at its disposal, including infra-red photos that show the drawings underneath the paint – apparently Bosch “took notes” like anyone – that they’re able to speculate on which specific assistant helped draw which composition, and which revisions “the master” himself painted.

While a part of me wants to protest that this kind of history lacks poetic imagination, the defenders of a more intuitive approach to art history in Touched by the Devil are the duo from The Prado, who seem like real jerks. “You either have an eye for it or you don’t,” one says about her eye for identification. It seems like a cover for snobbery, or fear of what we might find out, what assumptions we might have to throw away.

Bosch detail two

You have to admit, though, that the jerks from The Prado raise a fair question: Are we really willing to stop seeing “a Bosch” as the work of a singular mind? Is it a modern prejudice, to believe in “a master” making an artistic (or religious) statement? Can we really know what that person, Bosch – Jheronimus van Aken, El Bosco, Jerry from Bosch – was trying to say? It’s something we who love old art have to think about – or maybe, resign ourselves to giving up on.

The conflict Touched by the Devil prepares you for is whether or not The Prado, which has the most Bosches of any museum, agrees to lend them back to the Dutch for the quincentennial show in his small town museum. Spoiler alert: They co-operated, except for the one piece Ilsink and the Dutch really wanted, Bosch’s most complete masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Like the British Museum refusing to lend the statuary taken from The Parthenon back to Greece for the 2004 Olympics, some masterpieces just look so perfect right where they are, adored by people who can truly appreciate them.

Writer-director van Huystee is of course Dutch, and his sympathies are clear. You get the sense, partly from his interaction with John Hand, the U.S. National Gallery curator who delivers his historically nuanced opinions about Bosch with a Trumanesque twang, that there’s an affinity between Dutch and American people.

It’s a fitting conclusion when Ilsink, who’s spent much of the film busting curators’ bubbles, figures out with scientific certainty that a painting of Saint Jerome in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is actually a true Bosch. The pride with which that curator comes to Den Bosch to present the painting resolves the dramatic problem presented by The Prado.

Rarely do I see a feature documentary and wish it were a TV series, but I’d have watched hours more of this.

Spring Comes To Montauk

The spring equinox is the start of the calendar year in many traditions, and it feels like a new beginning these past few weeks. I was lucky enough to be in Montauk, New York, with my wife when March 21st came. We were almost the first New Yorkers to see the sun rise in the “new year” – almost, that is, except we chose to sleep in a bit longer rather than drive the ten minutes from town to lighthouse, the easternmost point, to really be the first.

We had beers and fish and chips at Shangwong’s, and took long hikes through Camp Hero, and Montauk Point, and around the lighthouse, and just took in the emptiness.

I’ve noticed tourists everywhere have a habit of going to the end of peninsulas, seemingly just for the hell of it. We enjoyed Montauk so much, even in the off season, that I made a short list of things to see when I go back, almost all of which were closed in March: the Lighthouse Museum; the Montauk Indian Museum; a hike by the “Walking Dunes” in Hither Hills; a spa in a salt cave; and the Maritime Museum in nearby Amagansett.

Or maybe next time I’ll go even earlier in the season, when fewer things are open.

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Sunrise in Montauk, March 21, 2017.

Montauk

The beaches on the ocean side

come sloping down from shrubland –

these piles of boulders and dirt

scraped from the Berkshires and pushed

sloppily to sea. It still invites

a sleepy person to sit and face

the south, luxuriating on

an Ice Age glacier that lost its

vitality and shriveled. There’s

nothing to do in Montauk but

watch the sun and moon come and go.

You hear the jingle of keys from

your motel room: your neighbors,

also from the city, people

who have lists of miniature

experiences that must be had,

detailed plans for where to go and

what time to get there and what to bring,

and cherish crossing things off their list,

are up before the light: They’ve heard

the best precise place, the point

to which the sun reveals herself

while wearing her most garish bonnet,

is furthest to the east, beside

the lighthouse, but you’ve succumbed to

the nothingness: You plant your elbows

in the sand outside your door and crane

your neck and watch the shadows

stretch out and breathe in, the way

the continent sees them.

 

Deadpan or Just Dull?

If I had three days to write a story about Paterson, New Jersey, before I saw the film Paterson, I’d have been sure to include the famous waterfall, and definitely something about Paterson poet William Carlos Williams and his easy-to-grasp dictum about poetry: “No ideas but in things.” I’d also make some use of the city’s industrial history and, if  it reasonably fit the story, mentioned Hurricane Carter.

You could say that, since Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson has all these things, I’m something of a screenwriting savant. Or you could say, since I’ve never once set foot in Paterson, his film is about as poetic and authentic as a Wikipedia page. I know I’m supposed to love Jarmusch, the great uncle of independent cinema, but I can’t help feeling like I’m being put on when I watch his films, like their deadpan simplicity and see-through gags are daring me to call “Bullshit!”

Adam Driver

Adam Driver in “Paterson.”

I was so irritated when I left Coffee and Cigarettes in 2004 that I swore I’d never go to a theater to see one of his films again, but the buzz about Paterson lured me back. And it is, after all, about a poet with a day job as a bus driver, whose creative life is not too different from my own.

A Paterson bus driver, named Paterson, goes to work every day and manages to get verses of poems written, sometimes with obvious inspiration, and sometimes just from airy nothing. His girlfriend, more of an unfocused dreamer than he is, both inspires him and provides some counterpoint to his discipline and his measured approach to poetry. His one frivolous habit is taking his dog for a walk every night and tying him outside a bar while he goes inside to drink.

One thing you can say for Paterson the script is that it makes excellent use of the red herring. We’re encouraged to fear that his dog gets stolen, and all along we figure the resolution will have something to do with Paterson yielding to his girlfriend’s insistence that he try to get his poems published. Though the one major setback isn’t completely unexpected, it wasn’t quite what I saw coming either. Although I didn’t like the film much, I concede that the end was sweet. The balloon home to Kansas flies away without him, but he wins because he has a rich creative life, not because his poem gets published.

It’s also one of the few films that shows how difficult writing is, without being tedious, but that’s largely because Ron Padgett’s poems, which Jarmusch used for the script, are so accessible and lovely. One of them, “Love Poem,” Padgett himself reads about nine minutes into this podcast.

“Love Poem” reminds me of something a director I know once said about Joe Swanberg’s films, which landed him his Netflix series Easy: Why does every single character listen to LP’s? You could say that a screenwriter, like a poet, doesn’t just make content out of a world that already exists but creates a world, and if the Swanberg of Drinking Buddies, like the Baumbach and Gerwig of Frances Ha, wants to make a world where everyone’s so cool that vinyl records are the rule and not the exception, then that’s their prerogative.

“Love Poem,” according to Padgett, is a poem he wrote in the 1970s. It begins as an ode to a brand of matchstick, and cleverly turns into a description of his love for his woman. That it still speaks to us via Jarmusch means it’s a quality poem. That Jarmusch has Paterson’s girlfriend gush about the contents of the poem, the shape of the logo on the matchstick box? That could mean we’re witnessing a vision of creativity that’s right at home in a loving relationship, as opposed to the tortured genius who keeps his loved ones out of reach, but it also goes to show the limitations of Jarmusch’s ability to create a world. We’re expected to swallow that two people in 2016 are both taken by an antique-looking matchbook. It’s whimsicality bordering on twee.

It gets worse yet in the bar Paterson takes his dog to every night. Like Jimmy’s Corner on a good night, it’s a white person’s fantasy of a cool black bar: 70s R&B and a 60ish barkeep with a folksy appreciation of local history. Their discussion of who belongs on the “Hall of Fame” wall behind the bar is plain clumsy. That Paterson’s girlfriend wants him to get a cell phone and he refuses, you could see as a reflexive position on the antique world these characters live in, as if Jarmusch knows we’re noticing all the anachronisms and makes Paterson a guy who, like Jarmusch, is consciously holding onto this unique world, but I wasn’t buying it for a second. I wanted more reality, more plot, and higher stakes.

 

 

A Snow Storm of the Mind

I give yesterday’s snow storm in New York City a B-. B for Boring. B for “Best ya got?” B for over-promising and under-delivering by a whole foot.

I would give it a C, but it did have enough bluster to shut the place down, giving most people the day off, and that’s one of a snow storm’s most important jobs. So give it a B, for getting it done but leaving us with the nagging feeling that we probably could have gotten out and done all we were supposed to do yesterday if we had a little pluck, and a Minus for being unpleasantly full of hail charging horizontally.

IMG_2155I love snow days and don’t entirely trust anyone who doesn’t. Time slows down, and lists of things to do get radically re-written on the backs of envelopes, if not completely ignored. I look forward to them like a 9-year-old. The storm that was supposed to come last week, I gave a D. D for disappointing. D for Durham, because that’s what I’m told winter is like in North Carolina, and yesterday’s storm was going to redeem our disappointment.

I know it’s March, and we should take what we can get, but I fear for our local climate, that it’s becoming boringly more mid-Atlantic on account of global warming. (I know, it’s indulgent to talk about this when there are real climate refugees already, but the mind needs to wander.)

We are Yankees, after all, and that’s part of our identity: We endure winters, and a part of that endurance is the suspension of ambition. On snow days inward reflection becomes the norm, and if it’s not making soup or shoveling the path from the door to the street, then whatever you intend to do can probably wait.

It turns out, the National Weather Service had a notion that the snow wouldn’t add up, but kept its prediction of 12 to 20 inches in place, they say, to keep people alert to the dangers of wind and ice, which got pretty serious last night. They didn’t even need that good of a reason, in my book. Snow days are mass mental health days, and we had to have at least one this winter, didn’t we?

Chiron the Conqueror

I wasn’t watching The Oscars during its famous flub last week. I felt it wasn’t my place to cheer for one film over another when I hadn’t paid all of them the respect of actually watching them.

I admit, though, that I was pleased when I heard that Moonlight won Best Picture, and it made all the more sense the next day when I got up and went to a matinée of an old film I’ve loved for twenty years – strangely, a film that was everything Moonlight isn’t.

Moonlight

Moonlight’s screenplay, by director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney based on McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is distinct for all the things it doesn’t tell. It’s a cross-generational father figure-redeeming son drama that, if rounded out more, could have been as epic as Gangs of New York. Instead, they kept it small.

Told in three separate time frames, one when the hero is a boy, and next a teenager, and then an adult, it skips all kind of developments, letting you the viewer do the work of figuring out what must have happened in between. Its biggest payoff, when you first meet the adult Chiron, takes a good minute to sink in: “That’s Chiron? That gangly kid? Oh, so this is the kind of story this is.”

The morning after (the Oscars, I mean), with so much essential viewing to catch up on, I opted instead to see Bille August’s 1987 epic Pelle the Conqueror.

With a restored version back in arthouses for its 30th anniversary, Pelle is in that weird period of its life, not quite a classic and yet a bit outdated. I often think Merchant-Ivory and the other great period piece machines of the 80s and 90s – and especially the foreign-language films of this era – benefited from that unique period of video stores. Time after time of traipsing through the aisles one was reminded, “You haven’t seen Manon of the Spring yet, and everybody raves about it.” It gave films of this period an artificially long shelf life, and hence when the video stores closed we were thoroughly sick of them.

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Pelle the Conqueror has a script (by August, Per Olov Enquist, and Bjarne Reuter, based on Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel) that oddly shares a lot with Moonlight, but in a completely different writing world. Though it’s epic, it’s contained to just about a year in time. It’s a vulnerable coming-of-age story, and one weirdly obsessed with boys with their pants down, but the tragedy at the heart of it is Pelle’s realization that his old father is powerless to stop the injustices facing immigrants like them.

Max von Sydow makes the film, and is still a pleasure to watch, but at two and a half hours Pelle tells so many extra narratives your head spins: The rich boy who knocks up the farm girl, the class conscious peasant who suffers an accident, the balloon-headed bastard who joins the circus – and that’s for starters.

So many ways to tell a story. And so many reasons a quality film in the age of streaming will be technically available in perpetiuity and yet get buried by the overwhelming amount of content. Let’s hope that its Academy Awards save Moonlight from that, and it keeps being essential viewing for years.

 

An Unabridged Hamlet

Seeing Hamlet when you’re pushing 50 is different than when you’re in your 20s or 30s, and not just because the whole damn play is arguably about mortality, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

You can tell that every scene in Nuance Theatre’s unabridged Hamlet, which is up for one more weekend through this Saturday, has been worked on and worked on, and I suppose that’s the point of this production: to cover all the “B” scenes that usually get cut by smaller company productions.

There are solid performances all over the place, though they miss one another at times. Since they bring differing styles they rarely seem like they’re reacting to what happened in the previous scene. Each one is rather a clean slate with a well-executed dramatic moment. Consequently the gears aren’t always engaged. If there’s any flaw in the show overall, it’s in the wider direction. The yarn being spun by the playwright rarely feels suspenseful.

Kudos, nonetheless, to this small company for doing the whole play. Scenes I’d previously found filler or “mere set up,” such as Polonius’ advice to his daughter Ophelia in Act One, felt very real this time. $25 for the whole classic, just a block from Times Square.

hamlet

Young love, deadly as it can be, gets eclipsed by its elders’ problems in Hamlet.

When you’re young you read the Hamlet-Horatio or Hamlet-Ophelia scenes carefully, and regard the scenes between the prince and his elders as just that: reasoned limitations that the powers-that-be are placing on your hero’s freedom. Step-dad saying you can’t go to Lebanon for spring break.

As you age – I could say “mature,” but let’s be real – you start seeing Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his step-dad Claudius, and even clownish old Polonius, as real people with real problems. (Jurgen Jones, who plays Claudius, is a friend of mine; he is at once regal and completely Jurgen.) They are the sun and moon of this show, and arguably of the play itself.

 

 

 

Budweiser’s American Creation Myth

The must-see film this week is the Budweiser commercial from the Superbowl, which was as shrewd and political as it was feel-good and universal. Trumpistas are trying to boycott it, but good luck with that one. That’s like boycotting Christmas cookies because the Pope is soft on Muslims. (It is in fact goofy that Superbowl ads are the arena for our national psyche, but that’s where we are.)

A day and a half after the Superbowl kickoff on Sunday, this ad had almost 27 million views on Youtube, though fifteen or so of them were me.

It starts in a “present” time in the 1800s when two men with German accents, one obviously an experienced capitalist and one a handsome young buck, stand next to one another in a taproom. “You’re not from around here,” the older man observes, and off we go to a thirty-plus second montage that tells his epic journey:

A storm-tossed ship crosses the Atlantic. The young stud is already sketching something obsessive and entrepreneurial.

The ship hits a wave: He hits his head. Gets stitches over his eye. Gets asked (in German) why he is moving to America and answers that he wants to brew beer. The first weird note is that he answers a German question in English, but who cares? It’s as gorgeous as Pelle the Conqueror so far.

Fifteen seconds in, he is told “Welcome to America” by the official stamping his document, immediately followed by a menacing, Know Nothing thug saying, “You’re not wanted here…Go back home.” This is obviously the offending interaction to some, and wow what a bold statement. I like Gaga (more than I like her actual songs), but this is the most political statement of the year. “First kick I took was when I hit the ground,” Springsteen sings in “Born in the USA,” and here it’s “First person who told me to go back home was when I walked off the boat.” Say what you want about the Trumpistas calling for a boycott, but they read this ad correctly. Hold that thought, though.

Fast-forward to a Mississippi riverboat. He’s going upstream with a black companion, still doodling in his sketchbook. Wow! This is where the grad students start rolling out the word “problematic,” but give Anheuser-Busch credit for going deep in the American mind, linking their creation myth to Huckleberry Finn and the mythic fraternity between black and white.

At half-way through the 60-second spot, the riverboat catches fire and he has to jump overboard, and he trudges through tall reeds on a rainy winter day. Talk about reversals! This Budweiser ad is more suspenseful than most independent films.

There’s mud everywhere. “Welcome to Saint Louis, son,” says a perfect stranger, with a picturesque Clydesdale horse in the background.

Back to the present: “Beer for my friend, please,” says the capitalist, and now the narrative slows down. The strapping lad thanks him and shows him what he’s been sketching, and they introduce themselves: “Eberhard Anheuser.” “Adolphus Busch.” End of story/beginning of story. “When nothing stops your dream,” the text reads.

These are men of few words, but when they do speak they’re in a bar buying beers for each other. Though it’s a little odd that Busch was sketching the actual bottle of Bud, label and all, and not an industrial brewing breakthrough – and though I personally would love to taste whatever they were drinking before the inception of Budweiser – by this time you’re more than hooked.

It’s worth noting that of the five interactions young Adolphus Busch has on his journey to America (six if you count the negro he’s obviously cordial with), only one is a nativist. The horse doctor who stitches his eye, the immigration official, and the first person he meets in Saint Louis all welcome him, and the first person he sips a beer with is a fellow immigrant waiting to help him  make his dream come true.

As in most creation myths, this is a guy who answered the call. While associating itself with beards and artisanal entrepreneurs – things the macro-brews have been struggling against – Budweiser is also taking sides against what feels like a temporary flare-up of anti-immigrant feeling. (It certainly feels more temporary than it did on Saturday.) What’s more American than buying a Bud for a fresh-off-the-boat stranger?