My latest article for Third Coast Review is an essay about racial injustice and our racist history themes appearing in compelling ways in pop culture. I recommend some TV drama series, films and books for your consideration. And I take time to focus on one book—Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. In addition to describing how Baldwin’s writing and political attitudes changed through his experiences in the civil rights and Black Power eras, Glaude defines The Lie that encompasses our racist attitudes. So read on and I hope you’ll find something that sounds intriguing as well as some you’ve already loved or hated.
We’re living in a strange period of horror shows in politics, health and racial injustice. You never know what type of abomination you’ll find when you turn on your phone, computer or tv set or open a newspaper. Another black man killed by white cops? Another protester attacked or a Black Lives Matter protest broken up by white nationalists? Another 1000 souls dead from Covid-19? Another clueless tweet from the White House?
Historians a century from now may decide that this part of the 21st century was a political horror show. So it only makes sense that the real world of racial injustice and our racist history is bleeding over into pop culture. We can now partake of film, video, books and music where these historical themes are blended with horror and heroic stories.
We applaud the attention finally being paid to Black artists and authors, given the decades where their work and talent was ignored. For instance, of the 1,034 films currently in the Criterion Collection, only nine titles are directed by Black filmmakers. A reader who comments on my 3CR essay points out that there are more films in that collection that feature Black writers, performers and themes.
This essay explores works that can educate and entertain us about the Black experience in racist America and how white people can become allies and change agents. Yes, Nikki Haley, we are a racist country.
Have we missed any of your favorites in these genres? Let us know in the comments.
Television and Films
“Lovecraft Country,” TV drama series and book. Currently running on HBO is the 10-part series adapted from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, developed from the book by Misha Green. The story follows Atticus Freeman, a young military veteran, in 1950s Jim Crow America. Atticus, his friend Letitia, and his Uncle George make a road trip to find Atticus’ missing father and track down a family secret. (The trip also enables George to do research for the next issue of his Safe Negro Travel Guide.) The trio encounters racial terrorism in so-called sundown counties as well as monsters lifted from the pages of a Lovecraft story. Much of the series and novel take place in Chicago—no less racist than the northeast or Jim Crow South, but we love seeing films that portray Chicago.
Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey) are terrific as Atticus and Letitia and Michael K. Williams (“The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”) is a pleasant surprise as Atticus’ stubborn dad, Montrose.
There are lots of history, literary and horror references in Lovecraft Country, named for the noted horror fiction author H.P.. Lovecraft (known for his racist and homophobic attitudes as well as the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.) Atticus and George are great readers and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) is an expert on the horror genre. The 1921 Tulsa massacre plays a part in a later chapter of Ruff’s novel, so we assume it will appear in the film series. Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country” runs Sunday, September 6, on HBO and you can find earlier eps on demand.
“Watchmen,” a superhero HBO series that ran in late 2019, is available from some on-demand and streaming services. “Watchmen” was adapted by Damon Lindelof as a sort of sequel to the 1986 Watchmen DC comic book series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (A 2009 film was adapted from the same comic book series.)
The series focuses on contemporary racist violence in Tulsa and the first episode begins with the 1921 massacre of the “Black Wall Street” district on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. In 2016, a white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, wages a violent war against the police and minorities. Because of the murder of 40 police officer in their homes in 2016, the police force now hide their identities, including wearing face coverings or yellow balaclavas.
The cast includes Regina King as a police detective known as Sister Night, Don Johnson as police chief Judd Crawford (a man whose closet hides secrets), plus Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, and Louis Gossett Jr.
There’s also a Watchmen Role-Playing Game.
The Black Lives Matter Collection on Netflix has compiled an array of anti-racist and Black artists and topics. The collection of narrative films, documentaries and TV series includes many important films about Black lives. These are some of my favorites in this category.
I Am Not Your Negro, a stunning work of documentary storytelling by Raoul Peck, based on texts by James Baldwin and documentary footage of his life.
Just Mercy, the biodrama about Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), an idealistic young Harvard Law graduate who goes to Alabama to fight for poor people.
Director Ava DuVernay’s 13th, another powerful documentary, explores the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitude. DuVernay demonstrates how slavery has been continued despite the 13th through lynchings, Jim Crow laws and practices, disenfranchisement, police brutality and mass incarceration.
And Spike Lee’s 2020 film Da 5 Bloods about four aging Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a treasure they buried there. The cast features Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors as his son, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis. As our review says, Marvin Gaye’s music is the primary emotional thread of the film’s soundtrack, primarily songs from his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On.
Books on anti-racism and white privilege have been topping best-seller lists—especially titles that might help white people understand racism and the meaning of white privilege. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist says you either are racist or antiracist and thus trying to dismantle our racist history—there’s nothing in between, he says. His book has been on the New York Times combined print and e-book best-seller list for 15 weeks; it’s currently #5 in non-fiction there and #7 on Amazon.com.
Other books that top those lists are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Number 2 on that NYT list is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste about the social stratification based on inclusion and exclusion in our society. I’m eager to read Caste; Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a masterpiece history of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South’s Jim Crow society to the North, where they found other forms of discrimination.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s 2020 book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, is another important book on racial attitudes. He studies Baldwin’s writings, speeches and interviews from the early part of his career where he was a strong supporter of the 1960s civil rights movement until his attitudes changed. Baldwin was devastated and disillusioned about peaceful protest after the murders of his friends Martin, Medgar and Malcolm (Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X) and the rise of the Black Power movement, which he supported. Baldwin spent much of his writing career living in Paris and Istanbul but apparently felt at home nowhere—certainly not in his native racist United States.
The thread throughout Glaude’s book is The Lie (my caps) on which all of American society is based. The Lie has three parts:
- The debasement of black people: They are characterized as inferior, less human than white people, stereotyped as lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, and always seeking government handouts.
- Lies about American history: America is fundamentally good and innocent. Its bad deeds (slavery, genocide, internment camps, lynching, redlining, etc., etc.) were mistakes and have been corrected. (Add to that list food insecurity and our current “discovery” that Black and brown communities suffer and die more from COVID-19.)
- Changing events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened: America is a divinely sanctioned nation, a beacon of light and moral force in the world. Just one example is “the lost cause” story of the post-Confederacy.
The Lie is the mechanism that allows us to avoid facing the truth about unjust treatment of Black people. Baldwin said it started with the founders refusing to recognize a slave as a man. You can find many examples of The Lie in political speeches and writings today, especially from the right but also from the left.
There are many excellent novels in the enlighten-me-about-Black-life category. We have to include the source book for Lovecraft Country here and one additional novel.
Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy novel told episodically. As you read one exciting chapter after another, you realize that you are reading the raw material of a drama series. Each chapter focuses on one adventure or one character, even though they are intertwined. (There’s the chapter about Letitia’s new house in a neighborhood where she’s not welcome and another chapter where her sister Ruby turns into a woman named Hillary. At the end…but never mind. Read the book yourself.) This is Ruff’s sixth novel. The Readers Guide on Ruff’s website has background on some of the topics addressed in the book and drama series.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a 2016 book about Cora, a slave in Georgia who determines to leave the plantation and travels via the underground railroad (an actual railroad with stations underground) to various states and situations, each one more awful than the last. Her story is central to the book but is embellished by the stories of other slaves and some magical realism. The book won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Amazon Studios is adapting the book into a limited edition series directed by Barry Jenkin
Going Back in History
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, about Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who lives with his family in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s Black Belt. He’s hired to work for a rich white family and accidentally commits a terrible crime. His story is legendary and the book broke through into pop culture as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It was later a film and recently adapted as a brilliantly conceived play by Nambi E. Kelley, which premiered at Court Theatre in 2014.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, is a tragic and poetic book that’s hard to characterize; it’s almost Kafka-like in its opacity. The narrator, never named, moves to Harlem from the South but the story is about Black identity, Black nationalism, Marxism and the racial ideas of Booker T. Washington. Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 2012, Court Theatre also staged its world premiere adaptation by Oren Jacoby and Christopher McElroen.
And finally, listen to “Strange Fruit” (a disturbingly graphic protest song by Abel Meeropol) performed memorably by Nina Simone and in this video, by Billie Holiday.
This is coming to you live from New York, where I’m hanging out for the month of March. I decided I wanted to live like a New Yorker and take in as much arts and culture as I could in a relaxed way. I’m staying in a tiny but comfy apartment in midtown, near the theater district. It’s a neighborhood I know and public transportation is really convenient here. I’ll report on some of my arts adventures rom time to time.
The Shadow of a Gunman at Irish Rep
My first theater review was posted today on Third Coast Review, where I regularly write about theater and art. At Irish Repertory Theatre, a theater company I have admired over the years, I reviewed the first in their O’Casey Cycle, celebrating the work of Sean O’Casey. He was a nationalist and a socialist and an Irish freedom fighter–and one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. My first review is of The Shadow of a Gunman, set in 1920 Dublin, where the war for independence rages outside a tenement building. There’s a bit of comedy throughout, but as the play proceeds, reality sets in. And the opposing forces, the vicious Black and Tans, invade the neighborhood–and then the house. A valise left in the room in act one becomes a Chekhovian gun in act two. The acting and direction are excellent, as is always the case with Irish Rep.
I’ll be seeing the second O’Casey play, the more familiar Juno and the Paycock, next week. Watch for my review.
I have plays scheduled throughout the month but I have plenty of room for other activities. When nothing else demands my attention, I’ll go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which offers a regular schedule of new films, both international and American, retrospectives, filmmaker talks and discussions. There are two FSLC buildings on opposite sides of 65th Street near Columbus Avenue. Their screening model is similar to that of the Gene Siskel Film Center, but on a larger scale.
Cold War, a love story over the decades
The first film I saw at the Film Society was Cold War, which screened recently in Chicago. It’s the latest film from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, whose film Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Cold War is a love story told across two decades in post-WW2 Poland and in several European cities. The film is told mostly from the viewpoint of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an instructor and band leader, whose lover is Zula (Joanna Kulig), an engaging and ambitious singer and performer. (I felt the film overplayed Wiktor’s viewpoint and underplayed Zula’s.) They are both members of a national musical touring company that presents Polish peasant-style works. While the company is in East Berlin for a concert, the two lovers plot to leave for the west. But only Wiktor actually escapes and thus the journey of longing begins. The film is notable for its gorgeous cinematography, shot in high contrast black and white with some glorious imagery, lighting and scenes. The story is elliptical, as Pawlikowski skims over the 20-year period in 88 minutes. Steve Prokopy reviewed Cold War recently.
In an interview screened before the film, Pawlikowski said, “The definition of art is what you leave out.” And he left out a lot, but nothing was missing. The ending is particularly beautiful—finished off with an interlude from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, “Aria.”
The Band’s Visit
I also saw this lovely play with music this week on Broadway. It’s been reviewed everywhere, so I won’t review it here. It’s called a musical but it doesn’t have egregious singing and dancing–that is, the dialogue is spoken, not sung, and dancing is done when it fits the plot. The music is performed by the musicians from the Egyptian band that visits the Israeli village and by a small pit orchestra. The play is directed by David Cromer, a Chicago theater luminary who has been highly successful in New York, both as director and actor. The Band’s Visit goes on tour this year and will be in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace in September. If you’d like to know more about the story, get a DVD of the excellent 2007 Israeli film of the same name.
And more ….
Today I’m seeing the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney (Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again). My next article will cover that comprehensive exhibit. “Mr. Paradox, who never left, is back,” as Holland Cotter said in his New York Times review.
As a followup to my review and comments on Haskell Wexler’s film, Medium Cool, here’s an important short film interview with Wexler, made in about 2014, the year before he died. Wexler talks about the film and his filmmaking. He describes the mood and atmosphere in Chicago at the time, his political attitudes, racism and the antiwar movement, and how Medium Cool came to be. Please enjoy.
Haskell Wexler invented a new hybrid form of filmmaking when he created Medium Cool, released in 1969. I saw the film back then, but was probably unconscious of anything but the story and its background—the antiwar protests and police action around the1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
This is the film’s 50th anniversary and I celebrated by watching the film—three times. Once by itself and twice with the excellent commentary tracks included on the DVD. (You see, Netflix, that’s why some 3 million crazy people still subscribe to your DVD service—because it’s the only way we can view foreign films and classics like this. You have 40 times that in streaming subscribers, so I hope you keep finding us profitable too.)
Wexler layers a fictional story of a loner TV news cameraman, a single mom and her young son over cinema-verité-style documentary footage of news events leading up to the convention (Robert Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, the arrival of the protestors in Chicago, the preparation of troops, police and Illinois National Guard) with the events inside the convention hall (the old International Amphitheatre) and in Lincoln Park, Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue.
Wexler started researching his film at least a year in advance and had tips that there would be a major protest action surrounding the convention. Because of his planning, he was able to have his characters carry out the plot against a backdrop of actual convention footage and street protests. The other innovation is Wexler’s use of quick cuts and sharp transitions. He takes you from A to C without stopping at B to explain, as Roger Ebert says in his 1969 review. That’s a technique we are used to now, but it was probably jarring 50 years ago.
Robert Forster plays John, the cameraman, and Verna Bloom plays Eileen. The most striking sequence is near the end of the film when Eileen is frantically looking for her independent-minded son, Harold (a 13-year-old untrained actor, whose performance is rough, natural and phenomenal). Harold has wandered away from their home in an Uptown slum (a poor white migrant neighborhood at the time) to go down to Grant Park with one of his buddies. Eileen follows him downtown, looking frantically through the crowds and marching along with the protestors on their way to the convention site. She’s in the middle of the actual police attack on the protesters. Wexler very cleverly had Verna wear a bright yellow dress, which meant she was easy to follow in the crowd.
Finally Eileen and John connect and get in his car to continue the search for Harold.
The film ends with a tragic accident, which happens for no reason, as accidents do. (My sister Linda died at the age of 27 in a similar car crash in January 1970, a life ended for no reason. She died at the same age and in the same year as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.)
There are plenty of other dramatic elements to the film. One interesting segment involves a fictional story about a cabdriver who found a package with $10,000 in cash in his taxi and returned it to the owner. John visits his home to interview the driver and meets all his friends. It’s 1968, remember, and the driver’s friends (the whole cast in this sequence is African-American) are artists and activists. They accuse John of being a police spy and the conversation gets racially heated. (Some of the film is scripted and much of it is improvised, including most of this scene.)
In the newsroom, there are discussions of what it means to be a journalist today. And in one scene, John finds out that the TV station has been giving his news footage to the Chicago police. He explodes and eventually loses his job over it. And there’s Harold’s fascination with his pigeons, which he cares for on the roof of the building where they live.
The cameraman and his sidekick, the sound guy, are carrying the bulky equipment of the period. It’s interesting to imagine what Wexler might do today using a smartphone. Excellent films like Tangerine (2015) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012) were shot on smartphones. The Oscar-nominated The Florida Project was shot on 35mm in 2017.
Medium Cool is brilliant because Wexler, the director/cinematographer, starts with an idea and carries it out with style and intensity. Medium Cool is a masterpiece, a landmark film that never got much attention. At the time, it was given an X rating because of some nudity in a delightful bedroom chase scene. Because of DVDs (1995), you can see it today—and I recommend that you do.
You can read Roger Ebert’s 1969 review here. Rather than reviewing the film, he focuses on Wexler’s approach and technique, for reasons he explains.
My list of best films of 2017 would certainly include The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this isn’t my best-of list. This is a film I loved even though it’s imperfect and isn’t on most best-of lists.
California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol (best known for music video and commercial production), is an homage to the old-fashioned typewriter through a series of stories told by writers, musicians and artists who use and love their typewriters. The interviews are woven around the story of a Berkeley typewriter repair shop, the eponymous California Typewriter, and the devoted owner and the genius repair guy who work hard to keep the business, as well as the typewriters, going. It’s inspiring to hear writers like David McCullough and Sam Shepard talk about their typewriters and to hear musician John Mayer talk about why he’d rather write lyrics on his typewriter than on a computer. Tom Hanks shows his collection of 250 typewriters and tells us why he’ll ignore any email thank-you notes.
The five-member Boston Typewriter Orchestra plays concerts. One typewriter has “this machine kills fascists” lettered on its back, an homage to Woody Guthrie. (See a track from one of their concerts below.) They adapt Gil Scott-Heron’s This Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into “This Revolution Will Be Typewritten.” They also play a cover of “Rain and Blood” by Slayer, a bit of literally heavy metal music.
Silvi Alcivar writes poetry for hire. She sits in public places, where people tell her their stories. She turns their stories into poems, which she types on her portable typewriter and presents to her customers. Sort of like the letter-writers who used to sit in public places and write letters for illiterate people. (See the 1998 Brazilian film, Central Station.)
My favorite character, whose life we follow throughout the film, is Jeremy Mayer, an artist who creates sculptures from typewriter parts. Originally from the Minnesota Iron Range, he now lives in Oakland. He and the repair shop owner mosey around street markets and fairs, looking for old typewriters that can be salvaged and sold or that are irreparable and can be deconstructed for parts. Mayer makes abstract and figurative sculptures, using only typewriter parts and bolting them together using the original screws and bolts. No soldering. He talks about the visual influence of Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis.
At first he struggles to sell anything and to make much income from his sales. By the end of the film, he’s installing a major piece in the city apartment of a wealthy tech executive, and his work is being written about in Wired, Gizmodo and tech blogs. By the end of the film, he’s in India working on a huge sculpture to commemorate the closing of the last typewriter factory in Mumbai.
California Typewriter is simply a story of people whose lives are connected by their love for typewriters. John Mayer is inspired to write his lyrics on a typewriter after seeing Bob Dylan typing lyrics in Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker film about Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England.
David McCullough laments the loss of the typewriter’s analog process, which enabled us to see how important documents are created with redrafts, crossouts and handwritten corrections on different versions. That process was preserved as part of history, where a researcher could see the steps in drafting presidential speeches and policies.
We also learn about the history of the typewriter from a collector of antique models. The first working typewriter was developed by Christopher Lathem Sholes in 1869 in Milwaukee. Sholes and Gliddens typewriters, the first commercially successful models, did not work like later models with keys striking a roller, but even the very first one had a QWERTY keyboard, invented by Sholes.
We can equate today’s interest in typewriters to the passion for music on vinyl or the love for vintage cameras, with their darkroom and photo print features. Sometimes it seems as if the digital world gobbles up everything in its path too quickly. (I’m thinking of the worlds of newspapers and books too.)
But the love for the analog meets digital demand at some point, because a business needs it to survive today. By the end of the film, California Typewriter has a new website to promote its repair work and typewriter sales.
I recommend California Typewriter whether or not the manual typewriter was once part of your life. It’s a charming film, a romance with our mechanical past. I did write on typewriters, first manual, then electric, for decades. But when I first began writing executive speeches, with their interminable versions, on a Wang word processor and then on a Macintosh, there was no turning back. I was happy to give up the scissors and tape by which we reconstructed drafts, in favor of producing a clean version on a computer screen. My analog rhapsody crashed and burned when I turned on my first Mac.
A side note on the value of typewriters. Early in the film, we watch an auction house sell Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter—an Olivetti on which he wrote most of his novels—for $254,000.
Paterson, the fine new film by Jim Jarmusch, has finally opened in Chicago. And it’s getting some of the attention it deserves. It’s a beautiful film about nothing much. The life of a bus driver named Paterson, in Paterson, New Jersey, who observes the life around him on his bus and in the city. And he writes poetry in his spare moments. On the bus, while eating his lunch at Paterson’s Great Falls of the Passaic River. His wife, played by a delightful and funny actor named Golshifteh Farahani, stays at home and makes art…and yearns to be a country singer. Oh, and there’s a dog too.
I saw this film last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival and it’s been haunting me ever since. I wrote about it then and also included in my list of A Few Things About 2016 That Didn’t Suck.
Paterson is showing now at Chicago theaters, including Century City Cinema. Here’s the review by Steve Prokopy from Third Coast Review. His comments perfectly encapsulate why this is such a wonderful film.
The poems that Paterson writes in the film are by Ron Padgett, a poet whose work I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve now read a lot of his poems online and just ordered two of his books. Jeffrey Brown interviewed Padgett and filmmaker Jarmusch last night on the PBS Newshour.
w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16
It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.
This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.
But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.
The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.
Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.
Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.
Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”
Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.
My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.
Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.
The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.
So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.
Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.
Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.
Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre
Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago
2666 at Goodman Theatre
The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre
American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions
October is Chicago International Film Festival month with its glorious menu of 140 films from 50 countries, most of which I wanted to see. However, life intrudes and so I measure out my life in coffee spoons, seeing eight or ten or twelve of them.
On top of that, I’m thrilled to see that Jim Jarmusch, one of my favorite film directors, has two new films out now. One of them is Paterson–a beautiful film about a busdriver/poet. That was a special feature of CIFF. In addition, his new music documentary, Gimme Danger, about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, was just released. So first of all, a Jarmusch recap.
I have always loved the cool and quirky plots and characters in Jarmusch films, as in Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train, three of his early films. But some of his recent films–including Paterson–are a little different. Paterson, written and directed by Jarmusch, is set in Paterson, New Jersey, and it’s the name of the leading character, the bus driver/poet, played superbly by Adam Driver. The city of Paterson is also a character; we become acquainted with it as Paterson walks to work and drives his bus route around the old industrial city. And we learn about some of Paterson’s famous local heroes, including the poet William Carlos Williams.
Our Paterson stops for lunch and writes poetry in his notebook at the magnificent Great Falls of the Passaic River. As he writes, we hear him read the lines and see them scrawled on screen in handwriting. The poetry scenes are very moving. His wife, charmingly played by Golshifteh Farahani, is an artist and artisan who turns everything into a black-and-white work of art, from cupcakes for his lunch to shower curtains and garments. Nothing much happens in Paterson. It’s a celebration of the small details of life and work.
This is the first Jarmusch documentary I’ve seen and it’s masterful. We meet Jim Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, as an older, wry, self-reflective guy who meanders fondly through his childhood, growing up in Ann Arbor, and his punk rock past. Between the MC5 and the Stooges, the Detroit area was considered the epicenter of punk rock in the 1970s. The Iggy interviews are the main thread of the film, but it’s laced with elements of the script scrawled on the screen (like Paterson’s poems) plus animated scenes that recreate some of the adventures Iggy describes. (The use of animation is similar to what is done in Two Trains Runnin’, which I’ll describe below.) Great editing and massive amounts of great concert footage where we see Iggy perform, always shirtless and dervishlike. He tells how he invented and perfected the stage dive. Gimme Danger is well done and will be a treat for any ’70s rock and punk rock fans. As we watched the credits roll, my friend and I were in awe of the hundreds of clearances that Jarmusch’s lawyer had to obtain for the intellectual property, people and locations used.
These are the highlights of the other films I saw during CIFF. Watch for them. Most of them will appear in Chicago theaters in the next few months.
This is a Romanian film, directed by Cristii Puiu, and takes place almost entirely in a dark, crowded apartment in Bucharest, where a family celebrates the life of the deceased patriarch. The apartment has many rooms, opening on to a dark, central hall. People go in and out, doors open and close, conversations start and stop, in a realistic way throughout the three-hour film, which feels as if it’s filmed in real time. Various secrets emerge of family members’ pasts and the family tries to deal with the day. The film’s title does not have anything specific to do with the film or with anything in film history.
Two Trains Runnin’
This is a road documentary, directed by Sam Pollard, about two efforts in 1963-64 Mississippi. One is the freedom riders movement and the effort to register voters in Mississippi, which ended in violence and tragedy. The other is the search by two separate teams for a couple of old-time delta blues performers–Son House and Skip James. The film’s structure and storyline are straightforward, but the use of animation to show scenes where footage is not available is a nice touch. The addition of blues renditions by modern artists like Gary Clark Jr. adds a lot to the film, as does the narration by Common. The 82-minute film hasn’t been released yet. Pollard said in the Q&A following the film that he’s looking for a distributor. And yes, Pollard acknowledges that the title is the same as the title of an August Wilson play.
Un + Une
This is a French film, mostly set in India, directed by Claude Lelouch snd starring Jean Dujardin (you’ll remember him from The Artist). He plays a famous film composer who goes to India to score a Bollywood adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Un + Une is a film about relationships broken and made and has a funky spiritual aura. The film is a spin on Lelouch’s 1966 film, Un Homme et Une Femme, also shown at the festival in a restored version. Un + Une is a lovely bit of romantic fluff with an edge of poignancy.
This French film directed by Paul Verhoeven stars the magnificent actor Isabelle Huppert, who often plays women in dicey situations (as in Ma Mere and The Piano Teacher). Her performance here is fine as the highly sexualized business executive, but this was a troubling film with some violent scenes of sexual assault. Not easy to watch at times.
This interesting documentary, directed by Charlie Siskel, is the story of William Powell, the man who wrote and published The Anarchist Cookbook at the age of 19 in 1970. Although Powell says the book is distributed without any effort on his part, it’s still used today by radicals and terrorists because of its detailed instructions on how to make bombs or how to turn a shotgun into a grenade launcher. Siskel interviews Powell, who was 65 at the time of the interviews and died in July just before the film’s release. Powell, rather disingenuously, denies any culpability for how the book has been used, says he doesn’t own a copy and hasn’t read it in years.
My Journey through French Cinema
This is a loving film memoir of director Bernard Tavernier’s career in the French film industry. In a beautifully edited film montage, he recalls the actors and directors he worked with and describes and analyzes their work and his experiences working with them. This three-hour documentary may not have a very wide release, but it’s a must for all lovers of the grand French cinema of the 20th century.
Finally, I have to write about this beautiful Japanese anime film that’s not part of the film festival. It’s set in 19th century Edo, before the city was named Tokyo. It’s an historical film, adapted from a manga series, about the daughter of a famous artist. The plot is kind of episodic and there’s not very much character development, but the film is beautifully drawn and every aspect of it is perfect, including the sound. Spoken in Japanese with subtitles. The film is running this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
I’ve been watching music biopics this week. Three of them. They’re stories of individual musicians and each film is flawed yet satisfying in its depiction of some part of a musician’s life and struggle. The films are recent and all available on DVD—or you may be able to find them on a streaming service.
I Saw the Light (2015, 123 minutes)
This is the weakest of the three films in its portrayal of the life and career of the great Hank Williams, who died at the age of 29 after a short but brilliant career beset by addiction to alcohol and drugs. The film is worth seeing for Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal and performances of Hank Williams’ songs. He seems to become Williams physically and his voice is close to the tone and style of the original. (I listened to some original Hank Williams after watching the film and Hiddleston’s voice is more silky smooth than Williams’ voice.) Even so, Hiddleston never gets beneath the surface of what made Williams tick. And neither does the film.
Elizabeth Olsen plays his first wife Audrey, who had delusions of being a country singer herself despite no talent. Cherry Jones has some great scenes as Hank’s mother, Lillie.
My objection to the approach taken by the director Marc Abraham is that it doesn’t show any of Williams’ early musical inspirations in black gospel music or anything about Rufus Payne, the black street musician who taught him to play the guitar. The play Lost Highway staged by American Blues Theater in 2015 and 2016 did a better job of showing Williams’ life and influences and included Rufus “Tee-tot” Payne as one of the characters important in Williams’ life.
So I’m still waiting for a good film about the great Hank Williams. The Last Ride (2012) directed by Harry Thomason was even less satisfying. Henry Thomas plays the Hank Williams character who hires a local kid to drive his own blue Cadillac to his last gigs in late December 1952. That was indeed the last ride; Williams died in the car on New Year’s Day 1953.
And I don’t even want to watch Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) again. I remember it as dreadful. Directed by Gene Nelson, it features George Hamilton lip-synching (badly) as Williams.
Miles Ahead (2015, 100 minutes)
Another film about a great musician, Miles Ahead also takes a segment of that life. The film portrays trumpeter Miles Davis during the five-year stretch that he took off from playing or composing. Don Cheadle is the best part of this film. He wrote, directed and plays Davis, very believably. Cheadle bears some slight resemblance to Davis (as Hiddleston does to Williams) so that helps. The late 1970s scenes are intercut with earlier scenes when Davis was performing with his band in the top jazz clubs around the world and celebrated as a brilliant performer. His first wife, Frances Taylor, is beautifully played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, a dancer who gives up her career for Davis.
The plot suggests some events that happened or might have happened in Davis’ life and uses the plot device of a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to write a profile of Davis. (Echoes of End of the Tour, about a reporter’s relationship with David Foster Wallace, among other films.) There’s also a storyline about Davis trying to get back the session tapes he believes he owns from his recording company.
Some famous and talented musicians play members of Davis’ band. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark Jr. and Esperanza Spalding add a lot to the musical performance scenes. Cheadle did learn to play the trumpet for the film but the music we hear is usually the trumpet work of contemporary jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold who recorded over Cheadle’s playing. The rest of the trumpet work is that of Miles Davis himself, pulled from old recordings.
Some of the plot devices—like fist fights and a car chase punctuated with shooting—just seem silly and don’t add to the film’s quality.
After I watched Miles Ahead, I got out my Miles CDs and listened to Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, my two personal jazz favorites.
Born to be Blue (2016, 97 minutes)
Another film about a jazz trumpeter—Chet Baker—features a really fine performance by Ethan Hawke as the troubled musician. I think this is the best of the three music films I’m reviewing here.
The story, directed by Robert Budreau, is a “reimagining” of the musician’s life in mid-career. Baker, a white West Coast musician who played the cool West Coast style jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, wanted to play at Birdland in New York and be accepted by the black jazz musicians of the bebop and cool genre. (At one point, Miles Davis tells him “Come back after you’ve done some livin’.”) He does eventually play at Birdland but the story is primarily about his battle with heroin and recovery from a brutal attack (possibly by a drug dealer) that severely cut his lips, knocked out his front teeth and ruined his embouchure. He wasn’t able to play the trumpet comfortably for months.
Like Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, Hawke learned to play the trumpet for his role—so he could look like he knew how to play the trumpet. The music he plays was recorded by another musician—Kevin Turcotte. Baker also often sang in concert and on his albums—in a wispy, reedy soft voice—and Hawke does the vocals himself in a couple of scenes.
Carmen Ejogo is terrific as Jane, sort of an amalgam of the various women in Baker’s live over the years. There’s a real chemistry between them and the interracial relationship works. There’s a film within a film story going on but the main plotline is about Baker’s recovery from the attack, and his efforts to stay off heroin and thus out of jail.
Ultimately (and here’s a spoiler), he decides he loves heroin and the way it allows him to play too much to give it up. At one point, he explains to his manager (Callum Rennie) why. “It gives me confidence,” he explains. “Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note.”
Baker spent most of the last decades of his life in Europe as a musician and heroin addict. He died at 58 in Amsterdam in 1988.
Chicago has two don’t-miss exhibits this summer that are a little off the beaten path and I’m going to share my reviews with you. Actually we have dozens of amazing exhibits of art, architecture, history and science at any given moment. Keeping up with Chicago’s museums could be a full-time occupation. But I don’t want you to miss these.
Aaron Siskind: Abstractions is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago thru August 14. The Art Institute has a large collection of Siskind’s work and this exhibit shows 100 of them, many shot in the 1940s and ’50s.
His work is so painterly that you would think at first glance that they are paintings or prints. Siskind’s practice was to focus in closely on elements of everyday materials such as pavement, broken windows and seaweed, creating abstractions from concrete reality.
My review also describes the conversation about Siskind by three of his former students, which added their personal insights to the exhibit.
With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age at the Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St. This exhibit presents 74 original illustrations from Puck Magazine, the first successful humor magazine, published in the 1870s thru 1918.
Read my detailed review here.
The exhibit is beautifully organized around half a dozen themes about politics, society and human nature. You can see the framed original drawings plus the magazines where they actually were published. There’s also an exhibit describing the early chromolithographic printing process that was used to print color covers and centerspreads in the magazines.
The exhibit gives you the opportunity to also appreciate the Driehaus Museum itself, a magnificent 19th century mansion built for the family of Chicago banker Samuel Nickerson. The exhibit runs until January 2017.
And the bridge, as promised
Last weekend I watched the 2000 film, High Fidelity, again, for the umpteenth time. It’s a great film and I especially love it for two reasons: It’s shot in Chicago and I mean really filmed in Chicago, not pretend-filmed as many TV shows are. (They’ll film a scene under the L tracks and one on the Michigan Avenue bridge and think they’ve captured Chicago.)
Oh, and the other reason I love it is that Bruce Springsteen makes a cameo appearance. The film is about Rob (John Cusack), who owns a vinyl record store in Wicker Park, before it got gentrified. Read my Letterboxd recap.
One of my favorite scenes is Rob, philosophizing about his life and loves, on the Kinzie Street bridge. Here’s a great photo from the website itsfilmedthere.com. They get the photo credit too.