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.
I haven’t paid attention to football since 1986 when the Bears won the Super Bowl. Best team, best Super Bowl ever! I like basketball, baseball and sometimes hockey, but football is a snore. But I do watch the Super Bowl or at least part of it. I might tune in to watch the commercial breaks but my favorite part is halftime.
Because the Super Bowl halftime show is all that counts. It’s amazing how much can be packed into 12 minutes of prime time. Most musicians play a set of their greatest hits (yes, you, Mr Springsteen, in 2009). The Stones in 2006 were memorable and so were the Who in 2010. The Black-Eyed Peas and Usher in 2011 put on a visually stunning show. But the 2016 halftime show was 12 minutes of satisfying drama. Chris Martin started with the 2008 Coldplay hit, “Viva La Vida,” and then segued into “Paradise” and “Adventure of a Lifetime.” The visual effects and background performers were colorful and hundreds of fans in black were packed into the sections around the stage as if they were in the pit at a rock concert. Bruno Mars did a snappy version of “Uptown Funk,” choreographed with his slick and fancy footwork.
And then Beyoncé arrived to steal the show. In black leather, surrounded by her troupe of beautiful African-American dancers. They put on a superb and powerful performance, dressed in black leather shorts and jackets. boots and black berets, paying homage to the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers, to Black Lives Matter and to black womanhood. Their dance routine at one point formed an X in honor of Malcolm X. It was a highly charged political and sexual performance of Beyoncé’s new song, “Formation.” And it’s probably a good thing that most of the audience couldn’t understand all the lyrics.
The music video of the song was released Saturday and adds even more political context with images of the Katrina flood that drowned New Orleans, Mardi Gras scenes and celebrations of hot sauce, entrepreneurship (“I just might be a Bill Gates in the making”), black beauty and black womanhood.
I’m not going to pretend that I can appreciate all the lyrics and messages because I’m a white female, privileged at that. But I cheer for Beyoncé’s action in putting her fame, power, wealth and glamour behind these messages. She could just sit back and increase her wealth with music and concert revenue, but she puts her image and reputation on the line.
Her video of “Formation” comes in two versions: “Dirty” and “Clean.” I’ll leave you with the best one.
The finale of the HBO crime drama, True Detective, ran Sunday night and I’ve watched it twice so far. I’ve been thinking about TD, its writer/producer and his literary influences–as well as his possible literary compatriots. Here’s what I’m thinking.
Sunday morning, I tweeted this out:
Nancy Bishop @nsbishop
The long, slow tracking minutes of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart wending their separate ways through the utter spooky weirdness of Carcosa*, with its skulls, bodies and overgrown foliage, were breathtaking. They sought and found the monster who committed the murders and, for a while, it appeared all three were dead. Marty had a hammer plowed into his right lung and Rust had a long knife jabbed into his midsection and still had enough strength to shoot the top of the killer’s head off. But in the epilogue, we learned that the two detectives survived. Another miracle of TV medicine. Since season 2 will feature a different plot and different characters, they could have been left to die. But instead we were treated to a final scene of the two outside the hospital looking up at the stars, with Rust telling how he felt when he almost died. Here’s a link to his final speech.
* What is Carcosa? The unearthly setting for this segment was an old brick military fortress, Fort Macomb, built in 1822 and decommissioned in 1871. You can see some photos of it here. More about Carcosa below.
I thought Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech was gag-making, by the way. I prefer this clever video recap that shows Rustin Cohle eviscerating McConaughey’s thanks-to-god speech. “And it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates,” he said. Really? Scientific? Personally, I’d rather have a beer with Cohle than McConaughey.
* * *
We really are in an amazing era of quality television, as New York Times media columnist (and one of my favorite journalists) David Carr wrote this week, in his article titled “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” He said, “The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. And I’m not alone.”
Television recently has blessed us with several astonishingly good series, starting with my favorite, The Sopranos. I still mourn its disappearance (but I loved the ending…. Tony looking up from his French fries as the diner door opens, and then fade to black.). Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were also captivating series.
This year’s True Detective has been called one of the best TV series ever by a number of critics. It’s almost a genre in itself. It’s brilliantly written and manages to create two contentious detective partners. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), on the surface a good old Louisiana boy with many personal complications. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a loner detective from Texas with a dark and troubled past and a propensity for opaquely gloomy comments. I quoted these when I wrote about TD in January.
“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”
“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”
“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.”
The eight-part series covered the detectives’ efforts to solve a bizarrely ritualistic murder; clues indicated that it was committed by a serial killer or a weird cult emerging in the swampy Santeria and voodoo culture of bayou Louisiana. The cinematography of the swampland setting was so visually powerful that it became a character in itself.
The show was written and produced by an English teacher turned scriptwriter named Nic Pizzolatto. Future TD seasons apparently will follow a similar eight-part anthology format with one story arc and different sets of characters in each. So we have seen the last of Marty and Rust. I have mixed feelings about that. The combination of story line, writing quality and characters took hold of me with a weirdly obsessive attachment.
One attribute of Pizzolatto’s writing that made it intriguing is his use of symbolism and stories from unrelated fields. Of course, True Detective draws on pulp detective fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, the Yellow King and Carcosa and the iconic figures made of sticks and straw are references not only to Louisiana bayou culture but also to the weird supernatural horror writings of Robert W Chambers, Ambrose Bierce and H P Lovecraft, among others. (So deep is my obsession that I’ve downloaded The King in Yellow Omnibus: Tales of the Carcosa Mythos to my e-reader. Believe me, reading horror stories or most any kind of genre fiction is not my taste. I lean toward literary fiction or nonfiction.)
Drawing connections among manifold fields of science, politics and the arts is a characteristic of two of my favorite writers: Playwright Tom Stoppard and novelist Richard Powers. Stoppard, for instance, combines obscure mathematics, English gardens and emotion vs reason in Arcadia; he creates a Zurich confluence of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara (a founder of Dadaism) in Travesties. Powers combines DNA discovery, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold Bug in his amazing and complex novel, The Gold Bug Variations; and literature, learning and neural networks in his 1996 novel Galatea 2.2. (I wrote about Powers in my review of the Spike Jonze film, Her—comparing Jonze’s concept with Powers’ Galatea 2.2.)
Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times interviewed Richard Powers a few years ago and asked him what work he wished he had written.
Powers answered, “Tom Stoppard’s [play] Arcadia. I’d trade my soul for it.”
To me, this kind of literature crossed with science, technology and other arts is often more compelling than fiction that is purely plot- and character-driven—just as Stoppard’s plays give you something to chew on later, not just to laugh at in the moment.
I’m not saying that Pizzolatto deserves to be categorized with Stoppard and Powers yet. His resume is still short, but I think he may be heading in that direction.
Now I can go back to watching season 2 of House of Cards, which is a terrific show but I will not obsess over it.
A little of this. A little of that. It’s January. It’s cold and snowy. Have fun while you’re hibernating but don’t stay inside and mope.
True Detective on HBO
This new HBO series has a dark, ominous atmosphere, clued by the opening theme music and visuals. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are detectives with the state CID in rural Louisiana near the town of Erath. Harrelson plays Martin Hart, the senior guy, and McConaughey plays his partner Rustin Cohle, a moody, sometimes poetic detective. (This is another step in the McConaissance, as Tribune writer Christopher Borrelli termed it. McConaughey, who spent years playing in romantic comedies, has now turned into a serious actor. I personally think the change started with his 2011 performance in Killer Joe, the Tracy Letts script that started as a stage play.)
True Detective (in the Sunday night quality TV ghetto) starts out in 1995 like a police procedural when they find the first evidence of a serial killer who performs ritual murders. It’s also a character study of the two detectives, who are seen in 2012, testifying in separate internal investigations about the case.
The show is intense and the plot will keep your attention. But the best thing about the program is the writing. I’ve watched the first three shows and each time I hear several lines I want to write down, usually spoken by McConaughey’s character, who has been through a failed marriage and lost a child in an accident. He’s cynical, brooding and critical of religion. He often offends his partner, who represents the traditional small-town milieu in which they operate.
“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”
“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”
“I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We’ve become too self-aware.”
The screenwriter is Nic Pizzolatto, a former lit and writing teacher at the UofC and DePauw University in Indiana. He left teaching for Hollywood and worked on the AMC show, The Killing, before this. The Tribune article I noted above is a good overview and interview with Pizzolatto. (Registration required to access article.)
The Grammys have become more of a variety show than an awards program since most awards are presented off-camera. But the musical performances are often absorbing collaborations between performers you would not often see together on a stage. The most publicized teamups this year were Daft Punk with Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder and the super-hot opener by Beyonce and Jay Z. But my favorite was the classical pianist Lang Lang with Metallica. They performed the Metallica song “One,” which was inspired by the Dalton Trumbo book and film, Johnny Got His Gun, a horrifying war story. Footage from the 1971 film formed the backdrop for the Grammys performance. It was a song you had to pay attention to.
Pete Seeger, “a heart of gold and a spine of steel”
You have to love a radical folk singer who never gives up his activist ideas and activities into his 90s. Pete Seeger was a national treasure and role model and leaves us with so many memories. Like his performance with Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 inaugural concert. (The description of Seeger above is from Springsteen’s New York Times comments on January 29.) And his performances of children’s programs on educational TV when he was banned from the commercial networks. After Pete’s death on Tuesday, a testament to his grittiness surfaced: the transcript of his testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955. He never took the Fifth Amendment; he persisted in saying the committee had no right to ask him questions about what he belonged to or for whom he played and so he wasn’t answering. He would talk about his songs and that was it. Great reading.
Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread
I’ve had Rosanne Cash’s album The List on my iPod for a long time—and full confession: I bought it because she does a duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Sea of Heartbreak.” It’s a fine album and now I have her newest as well. It’s The River and the Thread, an excellent album of original songs by Cash and a few collaborators including her producer husband John Leventhal. The thread follows the towns along highway 61, the main highway from Memphis to New Orleans, also famous as a musical route because of the many songs written about it, including Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” Most of the songs have road references and a strong sense of place. So far, my favorites are “Modern Blue” and “World of Strange Design.” There are many layers of culture and memory in these songs, plus the sound and the beat are more vibrant than her previous work. Rosanne Cash is worth a listen.
ON STAGE: The Golden Dragon by Sideshow Theatre
This is a short, fast-moving, sometimes puzzling play that I called a dark fairy tale. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:
“The Golden Dragon by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig is a fanciful story presented by Sideshow Theatre Company. It’s a sort of dark fairy tale about the workers, residents and guests at a Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese fast food restaurant in a warehouse building in a certain global city. We are not sure where, but it doesn’t matter. The play is made up of the intertwined stories of 15 or 20 characters, played by five actors who quickly move from role to role without regard to gender, nationality or costume.“
I puzzled over it before writing my review, but it is really a fun and adventurous outing by Sideshow and displays the versatile acting chops of the five performers. The Golden Dragon runs until February 23 at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater.
The Little Prince by Lookingglass Theatre
The Little Prince is adapted from the beloved story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Lookingglass gives the wonderful story its due with a terrific production. I’ve loved this story forever and enjoyed reading it with my children as well as reading it in Spanish and French when I was studying those languages.
The play is produced by Lookingglass with the Actors Gymnasium, so there is plenty of flying, zooming and energetic action on the deceptively simple set. The play is poetic, visually beautiful and emotionally satisfying. It’s extended until March 16 at Lookingglass’ Old Water Tower space.
Tennessee Williams Project by The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites is doing a trilogy of mostly unproduced Tennessee Williams plays at their space in the Chopin Theatre. The first—Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens—is set in the rather baroque lobby area in the downstairs space. For the second—The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde—the audience moves into a creepy London boarding house set—and finally to a St. Louis hospital ward for The Big Game.
Director Matt Hawkins takes the same cast thru each transformation. The first play is the longest and the most successful. Patrick Gannon plays a wealthy transvestite who brings home a sailor, played by Joseph Wiens. The drinking, seduction and interaction is quite intense and well performed by the two actors. The second play seemed most unlike any Tennessee Williams play I have ever seen and had a strong Brechtian flavor—and for a moment, took a Sweeney Todd turn. It was, I can only say, odd. The third play is about a young man with congenital heart disease and his two roommates, one a football player on his way to the titular game, the other with a severe brain disease. The play is fraught with disease and death, as are many of Williams’ plays.
The trilogy is an interesting, if uneven, evening of theater. The Tennessee Williams Project runs until March 2.
And et cetera….
I’ve seen a bunch of movies lately too, but I wrote about Movies, Movies, Movies last week, so I’ll save these for my next film fix: The Wolf of Wall Street, Princess Mononoke, Captain Phillips and Like Father, Like Son. And probably more.
Yes, there were some horrible things about 2013, mostly political, Congressional, in fact. But there were some great things about the year. Here’s are some of the things I want to remember about the last 12 months.
I’ve written about most of these things here, but I decided not to provide links because then the whole post would be links. If you want to follow up on a topic, check the Categories selections on the right. (Image courtesy PSD Graphics.)
- Retirement means I’m finally able to be a writer. Writing about the things I love. I was a business writer for 35 years, but it was never this much fun.
- Being “hired” to write for Gapers Block has been terrific. Thank you, Andrew and LaShawn. In just seven months, I’ve posted 71 articles, mostly theater and art reviews. All Gapers Block writers work as volunteers, but I do get free theater tickets and personal previews of art exhibits.
- Nancy Bishop’s Journal has been in business for 18 months and this year I wrote 65 new posts, as my WordPress Annual Report announced yesterday.
- An Iliad at Court Theatre was absolutely the best play of my year.
- The Seafarer at Seanachai Theatre, performed at The Den Theatre, was a close second. It’s been extended, so you can still see it until February 1.
- Homeland 1972 at Chicago Dramatists. How could I not love a play based on a Bruce Springsteen song? (“Highway Patrolman” from the 1982 album Nebraska.)
- Terminus performed by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum.
- The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn by Strange Tree Theatre at Signal Ensemble Theatre. The time machine was worth the ticket price but the whole show was smart and funny.
- Remy Bumppo seems to do no wrong, at least this year. Both Northanger Abbey and An Inspector Calls were outstanding productions.
- Hypocrites is another company that does great work. Their production of the Chicago story titled Ivywild was wondrous.
- Trap Door Theatre’s production of The Balcony was outstanding, and so is most of this group’s work.
- There were many more excellent shows, many that I reviewed for Gapers Block. But I’ll stop at nine.
- Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre. Leonard was his usual charming, sprightly self and left me cheering for a performer who knows how to present a great show. Both Leonard and I are approaching the age at which we might be called “super-agers” and I look forward to seeing how both of us do in our 80s.
- The farewell to Lou Reed, who died in October at 71, was a musical tribute played outside in a grove of trees near Lincoln Center. Watch this video to see friends and fans rocking out to his “Walk on the Wild Side.”
- The soundtrack from the film Inside Llewyn Davis, taking us back 50 years to relive the ‘60s in Greenwich Village, in the pre-Dylan era. The songs are all new arrangements of traditional folk songs, except for “Please Mr. Kennedy,” done in a hilarious performance by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (providing the bass notes).
- “Dream Baby Dream,” the Springsteen song I couldn’t stop listening to
- Anticipation: A new Springsteen record, High Hopes, will be released January 14. We’re hoping that Bruce will finally come home to tour but so far the 2014 dates are only in South Africa and Australia.
Films (a few of my favorites, in random order)
- Inside Llewyn Davis, which I’ve seen twice and reviewed here last week.
- Russian Ark, a 2002 film by Aleksandr Sokurov, a technological and artistic masterpiece, despite being plotless. It’s a tour thru the Hermitage with a cast of thousands.
- Sound City, a documentary made by Dave Grohl about one of the last analog music production studios in Los Angeles.
- Anna Karenina, a gorgeous film innovatively staged—literally on a theater stage—with beautiful costumes, settings, cinematography and acting.
- Holy Motors, a bizarre masterwork directed by Leos Carax, starring Denis Lavant.
- Springsteen and I, in which his fans talk about how they came to be Springsteen fans and what his music means to them.
- 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about the background singers, mostly black and female, who make rock sound like the music we love.
- I didn’t see Spike Jonze’s Her until January 3, but it’s one of the top films of 2013. My review is coming up.
- The Story of Film: An Odyssey, written and produced by Mark Cousins, an Irish film critic. The fascinating 15-part series starts with the first barely moving pictures in the 19th century and ends with today’s filmmakers. TCM ran it on 15 consecutive Monday nights this fall and Netflix is streaming it.
- As always, a bow to the Gene Siskel Film Center and its dedication to excellent, rarely seen films
- House of Cards, the Netflix political drama available for binge-watching
- Treme, a somewhat flawed HBO series, centered on the eponymous New Orleans neighborhood, with great music; it ended this week after four seasons.
- Breaking Bad on AMC; it’s all over for Walter White. Looking forward to the final season of Mad Men, also to be shown in two parts. Will Don Draper finally become Dick Whitman?
- Stand Up for Heroes, the annual benefit concert for wounded warriors, on which Mr. Springsteen did a 20-minute set and told bad jokes.
- Palladia, the 24/7 rock music channel. What would I do without it?
Art and art venues
- The Art of Fashion X 3. The most underrated of the three exhibits–Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair—is at the Chicago History Museum until May 11. It’s a fabulous show; don’t miss it. The other two were Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibit.
- Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin. This exhibit of the Chicago rock and roll photographer’s work for magazines, album covers and posters is excellent. It’s at the Chicago Cultural Center thru January 4, so you still have a minute to see it.
- Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy, a superb exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art on West Grand Avenue. I wrote a feature about this excellent small museum for Gapers Block.
- The Work at Play exhibit of graphic design at the Chicago Design Museum in the Block 37 building, part of the Pop-Up Art Loop project. The exhibit honored the work of John Massey, a famous Chicago designer, and other important graphic designers
Books and book events
- I’ve written about short stories, my book group, ebooks on the CTA, and musical author book events: Richard Hell at the BookCellar and Peter Hook at the MCA
- Emile Zola, whose novels I binged on this year. Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, The Joy of Life and Germinal are just the beginning.
- The 50th anniversary of the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Miscellaneous but important
- The death of Roger Ebert left a huge gap in film criticism and the movie biz.
- Edward Snowden and the NSA. Snowden’s release of NSA files, whether legal or not, made us aware of how much the government is invading our privacy. My view is that Snowden is a patriot and should be given amnesty so he can come home. He should not be imprisoned and tortured as Bradley/Chelsea Manning was for similar acts. Today the New York Times published a powerful editorial agreeing with me.
- Oscar Libre. After 32 years, it’s time to release Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican independence activist. I wrote about him a few weeks ago.
- And now, it’s time for ….
PBS’ current “Masterpiece Classic” series is set a century ago in London but has a strong Chicago connection. “Mr. Selfridge” is an eight-part series about the founder and founding of Selfridge & Co. in London. The program can be seen at 8pm Sundays on Channel 11, Chicago. PBS streams the series too, so you can catch up with most of the past episodes.
Harry Gordon Selfridge, played by Chicago actor Jeremy Piven, was born and raised in Wisconsin. He came to Chicago in 1879 and worked for Field, Leiter & Co., became a director of Marshall Field and later manager of the State Street store. He sold his interest in Field’s in early 1904, bought the firm Schlesinger & Mayer (including the famous store building at State and Madison designed by Louis Sullivan) and renamed it H.G. Selfridge & Co. Selfridge sold that business to Carson, Pirie, Scott by the end of that year.
Selfridge’s wife, Rose Buckingham, was part of a wealthy Chicago family. Her cousin, Kate Buckingham, funded the Buckingham Fountain on Chicago’s lakefront as a memorial to her brother Clarence.
Selfridge apparently had the wanderlust because he looked toward London as a place to establish what he envisioned as a new kind of department store. He moved his family to London and opened Selfridge’s in 1909. He brought fashionable selling ideas from the US to what he considered a dreary London retail environment. Selfridge’s was a large and beautiful store where women were encouraged to shop for pleasure, not just necessity. They could view and even touch the merchandise, and lunch in elegant restaurants at modest prices. Selfridge also incorporated celebrities of the day, such as suffragettes, ballerinas and aviators, as part of exhibits and events in the store. These themes about Selfridge’s retail vision are historically accurate, as are the portrayals of some of the characters. Chicago and Marshall Field’s are mentioned occasionally in the programs.
There’s another Chicago connection to this retail story. Selfridge chose legendary Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham to design his new London store. Burnham’s firm had also designed the original part of Marshall Field’s State Street store (the section at Wabash and Washington), now Macy’s, as well as Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and Filene’s in Boston. Burnham was the impresario of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and an urban planner and builder who won commissions and built important buildings all over the country.
Chicago played an important role in merchandising history; its central location as a railroad hub was a key factor. The two major catalog companies — Montgomery Ward & Co. (my alma mater) and Sears Roebuck and Company — were both formed here. Montgomery Ward was founded in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward, who had the idea for a mail order business after his years as a traveling salesman. His travel in rural areas convinced him that rural residents wanted to buy goods but had no access to stores. Sears was founded as a mail order company in 1893 by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck. Both later expanded to become chains of brick-and-mortar retail stores but Sears was more aggressive in its retail expansion and by the mid-20th century was much larger than Montgomery Ward.
In the early 1980s, I worked in the public relations department at Montgomery Ward headquarters on Chicago Avenue near the river. The 26-story building completed in 1972 was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who designed the World Trade Center in New York. The Montgomery Ward complex at Chicago Avenue and the river also includes the original two-million-square-foot catalog house (1908) and a high-rise merchandise building. All three buildings are now repurposed as condominiums, restaurants and offices.
Because of the long history of the company and its Chicago Avenue location, we were very conscious of the company’s place in Chicago history. The PR department storage closet was filled with old papers, publications, photographs and other memorabilia, in addition to the even larger trove in the corporate library. One day a colleague and I were looking for something from the past and found a large, unsealed envelope on a shelf. We opened it and found a copy of a 1944 letter from President Franklin Roosevelt to chairman Sewell Avery, ordering him to allow union representation for employees and ensure the delivery of essential goods. Avery refused to sign the contract and two National Guard men removed him from his office, as shown in this famous AP photo of the time.
Note: A shorter version of this article appeared on gapersblock.com.
My comments on an intriguing TV series (only on Netflix), a famous painting and some Chicago news.
House of Cards Redux
My favorite winter screen find is this delightfully seamy, steamy political machination series, a Netflix original series. It stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a South Carolina Congressman and the House Whip. (The Whip is the 3rd most powerful majority party position in the US House of Representatives. See, you can learn something reading this blog.) All 13 episodes are available now for streaming and they are juicy.
Even better, however, is to also watch episodes of the original BBC series with the same title, also streaming on Netflix. The BBC version was first shown in 1990 and is set just after the Margaret Thatcher era. The neat thing is that the US version is patterned after the original. Ian Richardson plays Francis Urquhart, the Chief Whip in Parliament and an equally devious character.
Both series feature a powerful wife and a young female journalist who is lacking a few scruples. Many of the characters track throughout and the plots track for the first couple of episodes. Now that I’ve seen four or five of each, the plots diverge somewhat. And both allow the leading character to break the “fourth wall” occasionally and speak directly to the audience. With a bit of snark and sarcasm.
I’ve been alternating US with UK episodes and it’s fun to watch them that way. I don’t know why I didn’t watch the UK version before; it’s been in my Netflix queue for months. It’s very well done. If you’re a political junkie like me, you will want to devour them all at once. But just as I don’t let myself eat a whole pint of salted caramel butter pecan ice cream at one time, I’m spreading out the pleasure of watching House of Cards and House of Cards Redux.
Streaming all episodes at once is Netflix’s attempt to feed the TV bingeing trend, made possible by DVD versions of whole seasons of popular series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos.
Binge or one at a time, both of these shows are compelling television.
Ever since I saw Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” in a baroque art class, I have loved it – for political as well as aesthetic reasons. BBC News reported last week that the painting was vandalized with graffiti while it was on display at a new branch of the Louvre Museum in Lens in northern France. Museum officials said that it appeared that the painting could be “easily cleaned” – it was and went back on display the next day. Delacroix painted Liberty in 1830 to commemorate that year’s July Revolution.
Chicago from the Michigan Avenue bridge
Rick Kogan, a veteran Chicago journalist, is host of The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio). He recently talked about his favorite place in Chicago, which is also one of mine. I paraphrase Rick’s comments.
My favorite place in Chicago is the middle of the Michigan Avenue bridge. You can stand here and see buildings representing Chicago’s past and present; the river flows under you in reverse; you see the spot where the first home in Chicago stood, built by a black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, and where Ft. Dearborn stood. (The river in reverse refers to the fact that in 1889, the city reversed the course of the river to flow away from the lake to protect the city water supply from water-borne diseases. And send them downstate instead. Read about it here http://www2.apwa.net/about/awards/toptencentury/chica.htm
Kogan, whose father was Herman Kogan, a famous Chicago journalist, also mentioned his uncle Bernard. I had wondered what had happened to Bernard Kogan since I took my first Shakespeare course from him one summer at UIC on Navy Pier. I remember him as an inspiring professor who really made me appreciate the bard’s characters and language. I took this class during a summer term and we sometimes sat outside on the grass. Yes, there used to be grassy areas at the west end of Navy Pier, where it’s now all concrete.
Bernard Kogan was also known for his writings on Darwin and on the Haymarket Riot. I also learned from Rick that his uncle earned the nickname Babe for his softball batting skills, playing in Humboldt Park.
Bouncing all over the place this week on musical topics. Quick Cuts #2 to follow on stage, screen and Chicago.
The Grammys and MusiCares
Bruce Springsteen was named MusiCares 2013 Person of the Year for his humanitarian activities. The MusiCares event took place two days before the Grammys. Many famous musicians were to perform Springsteen songs, and at first the news was released that the concert would be broadcast. And then that information was corrected. But we obsessives were hoping for at least online streaming. (I can stream anything from my laptop to my HD TV set, so I figured I was set.)
That evening, I tuned in for the excruciatingly boring, fashion- and celebrity-obsessed red carpet coverage. Gag me, please. Optimistically, I hoped I would get to see some of the music. But it was not to be. So I will have to wait for a sure-to-be-released DVD version. (There is a very nice six-minute video tribute to Bruce as MusiCares Person of the Year here – the video is edited by the talented Thom Zimny.
The Grammys is a crazy attempt by the Recording Industry of America to shoehorn a zillion performances, tributes and award presentations into 3.5 hours. Madness. There were many interesting performances – some of them straight up like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers of their own songs. And odd combinations like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine with Alicia Keys. That inspired David Carr of the New York Times to tweet: “Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys go together like the whipped lard and sponge cake in a Twinkie.”
And there were tributes to performers who died last year. A tribute to Dave Brubeck by three famous musicians lasted all of 30 seconds. But at least the tribute to Levon Helm, the multitalented musician singer-songwriter, was a full rendition of “The Weight,” made famous by The Band. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes showed her powerful singing chops and quite kept up with Mavis Staples. Fabulous number.
I thought there was to be a tribute to the late Glenn Gould, the brilliant and eccentric Canadian pianist. Did I blink and miss it?
It wasn’t all a fabulous show but it was fun to watch. Social media activity was high. The Grammys claim there were 18.7 million social media comments. Twitter was on fire.
The Eric Clapton survival story
I just finished Clapton, Eric Clapton’s autobiography (Broadway Books, 2007). I love reading biographies and autobiographies. This is a fascinating story and well written – and no one tried to launder the Brit-isms out of it for the US market. I strongly recommend it to music fans.
But it is a heartbreakingly sad story. How did the man survive to be the revered guitar genius he is today? He went from being a guitar beginner, playing small gigs, to touring with the Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith. Throughout those years and later, he was first of all on various kinds of dope, then became a full-blown heroin addict, went thru rehab to break the addiction, only to become a roaring alcoholic who apparently was rarely sober.
Throughout these addictions, he played all over the world and usually (although not always) played brilliantly. If I didn’t know the story would end well, I would have stopped reading because it is an incredibly sad book. Clapton makes no effort to sugarcoat his past. And the part about losing his young son Conor is wrenching.
Also there was an unbelievable string of women, girlfriends, lovers, wives, etc. I lost track of the number of wives. But in 2002, he married and apparently has stayed married. He and his wife have three children.
As he says in the epilogue, when he wrote the book in 2007, he was 62 and 20 years sober and “the last ten years have been the best of my life.” He puts his highest priority (even before his family) as “staying sober and helping others to achieve sobriety.”
The best part of the book is Clapton writing about how he came to love the blues and his love for listening to, writing and playing the music – and how he loved the American blues musicians who brought the music to England. Shockingly, it took musicians like the Rolling Stones and Clapton to bring the blues to the US, where musicians here finally came to appreciate it. To this day, it’s recognized for its huge influence on rock and roll.
Greg Mitchell mixes music with politics
You may never have heard of him but Mitchell is well known in music and in news publishing. Early in his career, he wrote for Crawdaddy, the influential pioneer rock magazine. (I wrote about Crawdaddy in September in my post on the Glory Days Symposium; it has been resurrected as Paste Magazine.) Later, Mitchell was editor of Editor & Publisher, the trade magazine for the newspaper industry.
Today, he writes for The Nation and has written a number of books on history and politics. His latest post is written in sympathy for Marco Rubio’s apparent thirst during Tuesday’s Republican response to the State of the Union address. Mitchell, always the music lover, posts videos for five classic songs offering Rubio more water – songs from Otis Redding, Van Morrison, the Beach Boys, Leadbelly and Hank Williams Sr. It’s a great little setlist. Catch them here. http://www.thenation.com/blog/172862/marco-rubio-5-classic-songs-offering-him-more-water
Mitchell’s latest book is Journeys With Beethoven, coauthored with Kerry Candaele (Sinclair Books, 2012). The book is described as an “exploration of Beethoven’s musical, cultural and political influence today.” It’s available in print and as a $4 e-book from the usual sources. Check it out on his blog; link below.
His blog Roll Over Beethoven explores a wide range of Beethovenovia to support the book http://journeyswithbeethoven.blogspot.com. Mitchell posts fascinating items and videos about all aspects of Beethoven, as performed by classical, rock and pop performers, writing and film aspects of Beethoven, and even news of a year-long Beethoven-on-Hudson Festival in Nyack NY, which will include “dozens of concerts, film showings, a Marathon at the Mall, and (we hope) a massive choral sing-out in the park, a rocking Beethoven-palooza, dance, a theater piece, and events for and recitals by young folks.”
One question: Is a Beethoven-Palooza something like a Stooge-a-Palooza? (Hint: It used to run on WCIU Chicago.)
We love making lists. This is a restrained list of my favorite things about 2012, not necessarily the bests in any category. Politics, music, movies, theater, TV, books. Wanna argue? Write a comment here.
- Constant political coverage, which annoyed everyone but political junkies like me
- The reelection of President Obama
- Bruce Springsteen campaigning for the President and riding on Air Force One.
- Crowning of Nate Silver as King of Stats (others who did much the same, like Sam Wang of Princeton, unfortunately were not recognized)
Music – the Bruce Springsteen factor
- Release of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album (yes, I still buy them). Excellent, substantive story songs even though the music is better played live
- The Wrecking Ball tour and the six fabulous concerts I attended in Greensboro, New York (first time at the Garden!), Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago (yay, Wrigley Field)
- Taking my grandson James to his first Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field (see my September post)
- Taking a road trip to Detroit with my nephew Brad and friend Craig to see Bruce at the Palace in Auburn Hills, with several dynamite food stops
- Bruce’s keynote speech at South by Southwest. Regretted not going to Austin but I watched him streaming live. He gave us a history of rock and roll through his own career in music Read the rest of this entry »
Palladia, you made my day, vastly improved my week, and cemented your position as the greatest TV network ever tonight. You are showing — back to back — Hard Rock Calling 2012 and that fabulous concert film by The Band, The Last Waltz.
Hard Rock is a 2.5-hour version of the music festival in Hyde Park, London, last June. The performances are not shown in setlist order but edited to one or two songs per band in rotation. Several songs of Bruce Springsteen were shown at various points and the film ended with Paul McCartney joining Bruce and the E Street Band for “I Saw Her Standing There” and a rousing version of “Twist and Shout,” which ended the festival. And took place just before Live Nation (not the London police) famously shut down the concert because it was past curfew.
The Last Waltz was the final performance of The Band at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in November 1976, directed by Martin Scorsese. For me, the highlight of this film is always seeing the late Levon Helm in his prime, singing and drumming. His voice was powerful and betrayed a bit of his Southern background. (Helm continued performing — and drumming — until his death last April.) The other band members, by the way — Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson — were all Canadians.
Not only is The Band in fine form, but they are joined throughout the concert by various special guests — Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dr John, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and the Staples Singers, among others.
Hearing The Band and Levon perform “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” tonight really was soul-satisfying.
Palladia, by the way, is an HD network owned by MTV. Look for it on your cable system. If you love rock and roll like I do, it will make you very happy.