Surviving A Plague

by Brandon Walsh

There’s a moment in How To Survive a Plague, David France’s documentary account of the earliest and darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, when ten thousand men and women march on the nation’s capital, carrying the remains of their loved ones lost to the virus. Officers on horses resisting the crowd, protesters on the frontline form against the White House fence, tossing the ashes forward in unison on the front lawn. A man weeps as he repeats, “I love you Mike.”

Heartbreaking moments such as this appear throughout France’s film, comprised of mostly archival footage, news clips, and home movies. In the decade the documentary chronicles, from 1986 to 1996, the epidemic claimed over 8 million lives worldwide, and yet the film voices a story of profound optimism.

How To Survive a Plague follows the history of the New York-based advocacy group “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power,” more commonly known as Act Up. The organization came into the national spotlight with its inventive and effective media presence, civil disobedience, and its slogan “Silence = Death.”

Realizing that changing culture was not enough to address the lack of government attention towards AIDS funding, Act Up and TAG activists became engaged participants of the FDA’s drug-approval process. As result of this self-education, Act Up’s involvement directly resulted in the emergence of antiretroviral drug treatment, which has saved nearly six million lives since, yet is still unaffordable to many today.


David France

France paces his film quickly, highlighting Act Up’s successes and failures, meanwhile foregrounding the humanity of the passionate men and women who led the movement, who recognized the historic importance of their work as well as the likelihood of their own deaths. The film highlights the effects of the deaths, shaking the internal politics of the organization itself as well as addressing the guilt felt by those who survive today.

In many ways the film acts as a convincing endorsement for grassroots efforts and physical presence as a means of producing immediate social change, specifically relevant upon its release in late 2012, surrounding the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

As the documentary advocates for organized collaborative efforts, it is of little surprise that the film’s credits recognize 30 archival cinematographers by name, several of which noted as deceased. With such in mind the film memorializes the movement as much as it does the bravery of its leaders.

Though France works foremost as a print journalist covering LGBT-related issues, his directorial debut was awarded several accolades, including best documentary at the 2012 Gotham Independent Film Awards and Boston Society of Film Critics, as well as a nomination for best documentary in the 2012 Academy Awards. David France was nominated for a Director’s Guild Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film currently has a 100% fresh rating on the film aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

During one of the film’s protest funerals, Act Up leader Bob Rafsky says to a crowd, “When the living can no longer speak, the dead may speak for them. Mark’s voice is here with us, as is the voice of Perecles, who two millennia ago mourned the Athenian soldiers, who didn’t have to die, and in whose death he was complicit, but who had the nobility to say that their memorial was the whole Earth.” The film is dedicated to David Gould, France’s lover who in 1992 died to AIDS-related pneumonia.

How To Survive a Plague is a story of movement in the face of blockage, optimism in the wake of loss, voiced through the mouthpiece of those who led a social movement that saved millions of lives, but who are not yet finished fighting.

Director David France will be present for Indiana University’s 35mm screening of How To Survive A Plague on Wednesday, November 20 at 7:00pm in the Whittenberger Auditorium located in the Indiana Memorial Union. Following the documentary, Mr. France will discuss the film and accept questions from the audience.

The event is presented as part of the Union Board Film Series, in partnership with Sexploration Week, Indiana University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Alumni Association, and Positive Link (a program of IU Health). The free, non-ticketed event will be open to the public. For more information visit the Union Board website or Union Board Films on Facebook.

[Brandon Walsh is the director of the Union Board Film Series, an undergraduate senior studying in the Communication & Culture and Telecommunications departments.]

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

Culture And The Power Of Words

An Evening with Author Nicole Mones ◆ by Carol Shapiro

Today I heard a radio announcement for story hour at 3:00 at the Mitchell County Library and was immediately transported back to my own childhood. My mother encouraged me to be an avid reader and I experienced many enthralling story hours at our local Carnegie Public Library. I can still hear Virginia Jones’s animated voice as she spun fascinating tales that kept us all listening intently.

That was my introduction to public libraries and since then libraries have been among my favorite haunts, from the library at Washington University where I majored in English literature, to my present connection with Bloomington’s own top-ten library (5th among 329 ratings in its league) where I served as a member of the Friends of the Library Board.  I am now involved in bringing a storyteller to our city—award-winning novelist Nicole Mones, whose fourth novel, drawn from her extensive experiences in China, is forthcoming.  She will give a free public talk at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater on Saturday, November 16, at 7:00 p.m.  Following the lecture will be a ticketed champagne and music reception at the library, which will give readers the opportunity to engage with the author in person.

Book Cover

As its many visitors and long-time residents will agree, the Monroe County Public Library is truly exceptional in its offerings.  In an era in which many libraries have had to cut back or even close, the MCPL continues to grow, receive awards, and stay on the cutting edge of library technology.  By becoming a member of the Friends of the Library I found a way to show my gratitude for all I have received, free of charge, over the years.  Amazingly, this organization is able to contribute close to $100,000 annually to the library budget.  The money, raised through membership dues, book sales, an annual Campaign for Excellence and other activities, is used throughout the library to sponsor and enhance programs, many of which benefit children and teens.  Funds are also used for purchasing patron requests, providing supplies for the VITAL adult literacy program and CATS (Community Access Television Service) and presenting adult programs including movies, professional development for library staff and much more.

Stellar among these programs is the biennial Power of Words (POW). Presented as a gift back to the community POW features a nationally recognized writer whose literary talent and universal themes provide insight into local issues and concerns.  The goals of the program are to provide an opportunity to become involved in a visible community of readers and to experience an author in the context of the many cultural traditions found within Monroe County.

In this age when the local and the global are culturally and economically intertwined, and US-Asian connections are important and intricate, the choice of author was easily made.  As a young liberal arts graduate with an adventurous turn of mind, Nicole Mones transplanted herself to China in the mid-1970s, soon after the end of that country’s Cultural Revolution, to start a textile export business that kept her criss-crossing the Pacific for nearly two decades.  In the course of these travels and business dealings, she became immersed in Chinese art, culture, language and cuisine, the latter to the extent that she became a food writer covering the Chinese restaurant scene for Gourmet magazine and several major American newspapers.  From the riches of these experiences she composed three novels that weave modern western and Chinese aesthetics and values with more traditional perspectives, each focusing on a particular cultural theme while exploring the human side of cross-national connections.

The first of the three books that I read, The Last Chinese Chef, is her most recent and also the only American finalist for the prestigious international Kiriyama Prize in 2008 and a World Gourmand Award winner in the Chinese cookbook category.  It is a novel from which I gleaned a rich knowledge pertaining to traditional Chinese cuisine in spite of the fact that the book has no recipes!  The protagonist, Maggie McEllroy, is given a writing assignment in Beijing that eventually involves sampling and assisting with the preparation of ancient traditional Chinese recipes, described in “The Last Chinese Chef” (a book within a book), which had supposedly been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  I found myself in awe of the reverent, almost spiritual nature of traditional Chinese food preparation.  An example is a seemingly simple dish made of tofu with crab sauce, which involved using thirty crabs and hours of patient tending.

Her second novel, A Cup of Light offers an education in the history and qualities of ancient Chinese porcelain while weaving in themes of romance and intrigue.  It also addresses issues of authenticity and inherent beauty as well as the dilemma of economic values versus the pricelessness of treasures from the past.  This novel has been chosen for discussion by the local Friends of Art book club, as have other of Ms. Mones’s novels by additional book discussion groups.

Mones’s first novel, Lost in Translation, recognized as a New York Times Notable Book, takes us into the world of archaeology.  What begins for translator Alice Mannegan as a trek into the remote deserts of northwest China quickly turns into a journey of the heart.  As the country itself struggles to reconcile its own past and present, Alice must come to terms with the complicated relationships in her own life.  Lost in Translation won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best work of fiction by an American woman as well as the Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association Annual Book Award.

Visit the event website for video discussions of each of the three novels and a link to the author’s own website.  Mones’s novels have been translated into 18 languages and movie rights have been purchased for The Last Chinese Chef.  Her fourth novel will feature a historical setting in the Chinese jazz age.

To obtain either a free general admission pass or purchase a premium ticket to the author event please visit the library website or drop by the Friends of the Library Bookstore. A premium ticket costs $50 and must be purchased in advance.  It includes reserved seating at the author talk; admission to the gala reception; free reserved downtown parking during POW events on November 16; and merchant discounts during November.  Free general admission passes to the author talk also include merchant discounts.  All proceeds will be used to support Mones’s visit and other programs and materials for the library.

IU Lifelong Learning offers a total event package.  “Chinese Culture and the Works of Nicole Mones” will be taught in three evening classes, November 7, 14 and 16.  The cost for the course is $65 which includes the lectures, priority seating for the author’s talk at the Buskirk-Chumley, a ticket to the champagne reception, and parking for both events.  Guest lecturers with be Sue Tuohy from the IU Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Sara Laughlin, director of the Monroe County Public Library. For more information visit the IU Continuing Education website or call (812) 855-9335.

Other related events include a Books Plus discussion on The Last Chinese Chef led by Sarah Bowman at 2:00 p.m. on November 3 at the library.

Continuing partners for the Power of Words event include Indiana University Lifelong Learning, the IU Fall Themester Advisory Committee, local media, book discussion groups, bookstores and other businesses.  Also involved is the staff from the IU International Center and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.  Sponsors for this event include the Friends of The Library, Monroe County Public Library, the City of Bloomington, Ivy Tech Community College, IU Themester 2013, WFIU and WTIU.

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

FILM: September New Releases

◗ Blue Jasmine reviewed by Lucy Morrell

In Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen departs from his usual humor and instead delivers a portrayal of a socialite whose life collapses with the fall of her scheming Wall Street husband (Alec Baldwin). Having exhausted the last of her money, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) arrives with upper-crust sensibilities and a medley of prescription drugs in San Francisco where she must “slum it” with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). The film cuts back and forth between Jasmine’s idealized past and imperfect present, in which both she and Ginger struggle with life and romance.

Cate Blanchett is phenomenal as Jasmine, an atypical Woody Allen protagonist. The comical neuroses that seem to plague most of Allen’s characters are replaced in Jasmine with severe mental illness and denial. Blanchett is convincingly afflicted, her whole being radiating a sense of instability. Blanchett’s performance leaves little room for relief, though, as Jasmine’s perspective becomes an increasingly uncomfortable headspace for the audience to inhabit. Even flashbacks to less psychologically volatile times are painful to watch, with the old, moneyed Jasmine being incapable of interacting with her sister across economic and social barriers.

Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett & Woody Allen On The Set Of “Blue Jasmine”

In the few scenes when the perspective shifts away from Jasmine, the audience sees Ginger with various men, including an ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), a hot-blooded fiancé (Bobby Cannavale), and a dodgy lover (Louis C.K.). None of these men live up to Jasmine’s warped standards of class, leading one to believe that only sleazy men and troubled women populate this film’s world. Few of the characters are likable; even Jasmine—so incredibly portrayed by Blanchett—is at best watchable.

The characters simply cannot grow in this film centered around self-destruction and resignation. Allen seems so set on making the audience realize the cyclic nature of relationships and life choices, that real development is curtailed or pointless. The film lacks humor and hope, but in the end it might be worth watching merely to see characters played by fantastic actors stumbling around and making an absolute muck of their lives.

◗ Riddick reviewed by Lucy Morrell

As the third theatrically released movie in the series, Riddick is by far the least nuanced. It exists only to perpetuate, rather than develop, its title character. The premise even seems like a poor amalgamation of the earlier films, with the monsters from Pitch Black and the bounty hunters from Chronicles of Riddick. Now stranded on a hostile planet, Riddick (Vin Diesel), an escaped convict, triggers an emergency beacon to lure bounty hunters to the surface so that he might steal their spacecraft.

Two groups of bounty hunters respond, and it becomes quite clear in the course of a few minutes of inane dialogue, that none of these characters is going to be compelling or dynamic. Santana (Jordi Molla) an incompetent loudmouth leads one, and Johns (Matt Nable), well-equipped and straitlaced, commands the other. While they are disappointingly unoriginal, the true travesty of character comes with Dahl, played by Katee Sackoff. The only female character in the film, she is reduced to her sexuality in the most stereotypical way possible. She can throw some punches and shoot big guns, so of course Dahl has to be a butch lesbian, who doesn’t sleep with men but rather slaughters them. That doesn’t stop any man, though, including Riddick, from aggressively propositioning her. Riddick through his obvious and superior display of virile ability is able to “turn” her, so that in the final scenes Dahl (backlit like a feminine angel) straddles him and promises to fulfill his masculine desires.

From "Riddick"


The characters, specifically Dahl, and the scenarios within the film seem to exist only to make Riddick into a hyper-masculine ideal. He is well nigh indestructible (e.g. he cauterizes a giant hole in his chest and climbs a rocky cliff) and has a predator intelligence that all of his pursuers lack. He can tame wild beasts, build up immunity to venom, and set his own shattered leg, all of which he can do with no more than a grimace. In previous movies, his abilities were at least tempered with vulnerabilities, like feeling guilt and responsibility for the well-being of another human. In this film, his only connection is to an alien dog.

Riddick is not clever or original even within its own series. It is reduced to the barest of stereotypical frameworks, but at the same time, there is still the occasional thrill that comes with the foreknowledge of destruction at the hands of an indomitable fighter.

American Politics and Blomkamp’s Failed Dystopia: An unfair review of Elysium by Justin Chandler

There’s this point in Elysium, after learning about main character Max DeCosta’s childhood (orphan, raised with Spanish-speaking children, by Spanish-speaking nuns, in a Spanish-speaking community) where adult Max is walking to work in apparently the same neighborhood and you wonder: Why the hell doesn’t this guy speak Spanish? Why not even an accent? He was speaking fluent Spanish like…five minutes ago. What just happened?

From "Elysium"

On Elysium In “Elysium”

If you’re like me, you probably realize the obvious answer: it’s because that’s not Max! That’s Matt Damon, playing the character of Max DeCosta in Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9. Sadly, neither this explanation nor any other you come up with is likely to overcome the disappointment and boredom you’ll feel if, like me, you sit through the whole thing, barely able to keep from wondering whether Grown Ups 2 has shown that car wash scene yet. Regardless of whether you’ve seen it or not, what follows is a brief summary, followed by a far from exhaustive list of all the dumb stuff Elysium does.

Elysium takes its name from a ring-shaped satellite that, in the future, is populated by the super-rich and orbits around a wasteland called “Earth.” The people on Elysium are greedy, mostly white, have awesome tanning-bed machines that heal them, and throw fancy parties. That’s about it. Oh, and they also hate the poor  people from Earth (all minorities) who fly spaceships into the big open area on the side of Elysium that looks either glass encased or like a vacuum deathtrap, but turns out to be an artificial atmosphere.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the poor people get harassed by robots and work various menial jobs for companies owned by people on Elysium. It’s a lot like America, actually, or the way that a myopic and liberal writer might conceive it. Max DeCosta (technically Matt Damon as Max) happens to be one of those workers. He’s a lifelong thief who, after a stint in jail, has given up his life of crime to work a really crappy factory job for no discernible reason.

That is, until Max gets totally screwed over by his boss and gets radiation poisoning. The only hope for Max comes by way of Spider, a sort of thug boss who agrees to help Max get to Elysium and use the healing bed thingy if Max helps Spider catch somebody really rich.

Long story short, Max goes through with it, a bunch of talking and strangely Call of Duty-inspired fight scenes ensue and, at the end, Max realizes that he’s going to die and that his only option is to sacrifice himself so everyone on Earth will be granted citizen status on Elysium.

It’s a really great thing for somebody to do, no doubt. But by the end of the movie, we’re bound to have more questions than answers, the biggest of which is, if it’s as easy as sending a bunch of spaceships down to Earth to help people, why didn’t the rich people do that way sooner?

Of course they couldn’t, because these rich people aren’t people at all. They aren’t even actors playing rich people! They are one thing only: “bad guys.” No one on Elysium shows the slightest hint of concern for the people on Earth, whereas the people on Earth—even thug bosses like Spider—end up turning out to be considerate (albeit sassy) human beings.

This is a problem, mainly because Blomkamp’s goal for Elysium has nothing to do with being conceptually inventive or action-packed. His real goal is to make us think. But it fails, primarily because it adopts the divisionary close-mindedness it intends  to critique. Rather than treating its enemies like valid and identifiably human humans (the way it treats the poor), it treats them like heartless Scrooges. At no point do we wonder what Max’s boss is like, his hopes and dreams, whether he’s ever lost someone he loved. The same goes for megalomaniacal Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Thoughts about who they are as people never cross our mind; they are defined and doomed by their affluence.

So what do we do? If—as Blomkamp recently claimed in an interview—greed is hardwired into our DNA, then what? Blomkamp’s explicit answer is “change the human genome.” Easy enough.

Another answer is that the rich could share the wealth. But in no way is Elysium an appeal to those it demonizes. Who, watching Elysium, is going to say, “Hey, that rich jerkwad reminds me of me!” No one will, not because we aren’t jerkwads now and then, but because the jerkwads in Elysium are nothing but.

You can’t show people (whether they are the rich or Republicans or Hipsters) anything if your starting premise is that they are ignorant, crude caricatures of real humanity. Real dialogue requires dialogue, not demonizing. Blumkamp did it in District 9, when he took a bumbling, self-centered jerkwad and put him through the ringer. By the end of the movie, Wikus is us. We’ve come to identify with him through his torturous ordeal. He’s still the same person, thinking only of himself, but he’s a jerkwad who recognizes it. Wikus’s nearly final statement, as he sacrifices himself not for all of humanity but for an alien father and son, is a sincere recognition of this inner division: “Go now, before I change my mind.” But it is the complexity of Wikus that makes it possible for us to identify and in some ways change with him.

But this isn’t Blomkamp’s plan for Elysium. The answer it offers? Human sacrifice. Matt—er, Max—sacrifices himself for the greater good. But this is equally false, not because heroes don’t exist, but because the situations that we face  are more complex than a movie like Elysium can possibly imagine. Max’s death allows a computer code to be overwritten, allowing all of humanity to be granted citizenship in Elysium. But here, in the real world, there is no computer code that can be overwritten. There is no quick fix. It takes more than one person to save us. The real answer lies in dealing with each other, with our selfishness and selflessness.

So why can’t someone on Elysium feel for someone on Earth? Or vice versa? There is no reason. The paradox of living is that we do so for ourselves and for others, and the beautiful thing about art is that when we are least selfless, it can change us, can make us feel linked with other people. One of the times when this can happen is when our art captures the complexity of the human experience. But Elysium fails to change us, to even make us think, because it embraces a separatist mindset, because it depicts the real battle as one between “us” and “them,” rather than what it actually is: a single body, confused, and fighting itself over what is wrong and how to make it right.

The Ryder ◆ September 2013

MUSIC: Béla Fleck

The 13-time Grammy Award winner is coming to the IU Auditorium ◆ by Hannah Waltz

[Béla Fleck and the IU Jacobs School of Music Orchestra led by Giancarlo Guerrero will perform at the IU Auditorium on October 30.]

This October Bloomington will host one the most accomplished and versatile banjo players of our time, Béla Fleck. Renowned for adapting the banjo to virtually any musical genre, including bluegrass, rock, jazz, world beat, classical, and more, it’s no surprise that Fleck has been awarded fifteen Grammys since 1998. In fact, his thirty Grammy nomination nods in a variety of categories make him the first musician to have been nominated in so many musical categories in Grammy history.

But the gamut of his career extends beyond the Grammys. Fleck has collaborated with a wide range of musicians, often collaborating in bands, as he did with the New Grass Revival and his own band the Fleckstones. Although Fleck has performed alongside headliners like Dave Matthews and Phish, he’s no back up man. In September 2011 The Nashville Symphony Orchestra commissioned Fleck’s first stand-alone banjo concerto The Impostor, ten years after Fleck’s album Perpetual Motion, which he worked on with friend Edgar Meyer, won two Grammys.

Even with these milestones of musical grandeur under his belt, Fleck shows no sign of slowing down his creative momentum and continues to compose and tour today. Ryder asked Fleck a few questions about his life and the banjo the way he sees it.

Ryder What would you say was the most unique musical setting in which you incorporated the banjo? What other instruments were you playing with? What made it so unique?

Béla Fleck It’s hard to say… I guess at one time the Flecktones were the most unique setting, but followed by Perpetual Motion, with classical soloists, and Throw Down Your Heart, with African Musicians, duos with Chick Corea, playing with Indian and Chinese musicians on Tabula Rassa, and now with Symphony orchestra  and String Quartet – I’d say that I love to find unique settings for the banjo, and I don’t intend to stop looking for them!

Ryder You are the epitome of musical genre versatility—do you feel like you’re entering a new world when you cross genres? Or are they all more related in your mind, more so than some might think?

BF Well, I am certainly the limiting factor in each of these settings. They could do much more complex things if I weren’t playing! I can only play what I am capable of today, and keep trying to expand myself by putting myself in situations where I must learn and I must rise to the occasion. I pretty much play the same in every setting – as much like myself as I can figure out how to do. And so that relates the idioms insofar as how they relate to me, I suppose.

Ryder What would be a genre of music that the banjo lends itself to that is perhaps unexpected to untrained ears?

BF It would sound fine in most music. It can be a great rock instrument, really adding to the groove, if it’s the right beat. And in classical music it brings a timbre that no other instrument has. That is why it works so well in the orchestra, which is a group that supplies as many different distinct sounds as possible in one group.

Ryder You have been performing with the Fleckstones for 25+ years. What is it about the group makes it work so well as a unit.

BF Everyone in the Flecktones is an inventor, a leader and a composer. And we all like to confound expectations as to what is expected from our instruments. So we are like minds, and it isn’t easy to find collaborators who think as similarly as we do, especially considering how different our backgrounds are.

Ryder What part has musical collaboration played in your career? Who are your favorite musicians to play with?

BF Collaboration is one of the most exciting things to me in music. And the people that I get to play with are such phenomenons. Chick Corea, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, Marcus Roberts, Chris Thile, Victor Wooten, Howard Levy, Future Man, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Dave Mathews, Brooklyn Rider, Nashville, Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras…Holy Cow, I get to play with the best!

Ryder You’re credited with having changed the sound and performance of the banjo—(if you agree) how would you say that you have done that?

BF I don’t know that that is really true. I have played the banjo in lots of settings though, and been able to get the banjo into the public eye pretty often. I am glad that I get to play music that I am proud of, and that it reaches out to enough people that I get to keep doing it!

The Ryder ◆ September 2013

FILM: Freaky, Funny, Dirty

Nelson Lyon’s The Telephone Book comes to the IU Cinema ◆ by Russell Sheaffer

[The Underground Film Series will screen the 1972 film, The Telephone Book, at the IU Cinema on October 4 at 6:30pm.]

In 1982, John Belushi went on a drug binge that ended in his untimely death; Saturday Night Live writer Nelson Lyon was there and it destroyed his career. Lyon, who wrote for Saturday Night Live between 1981 and 1982, had a sordid relationship with the film industry after Belushi’s death. For most people, the simple connection between Belushi and Lyon made up the extent of their knowledge about the latter, he had trouble finding work, and his filmography remained thin. In fact, Lyon’s only feature-length directorial effort, a sex romp titled The Telephone Book (1972), seemed to be facing a demise similar to his own; it had been forgotten amongst the many other films and filmmakers who made work in the flourishing New York City film scene of the 1960s and 70s. With the recent restoration of The Telephone Book, however, Lyon’s little-known gem has attracted a new-found cult following, giving fans and scholars alike the chance to reevaluate Lyon’s life and work.

From "Telephone Book"

Norman Rose in “The Telephone Book”

In 2012, Nelson Lyon passed away at the age of 73 years old. He’d had a fascinating life, but his filmography was short and his once promising career as a filmmaker had proved less than glorious. Lyon had been living and working in New York City during the flourishing underground film scene of the 1970s, he’d been a part of Andy Warhol’s art studio called The Factory, but his name never found a home amongst the greats. He had a brief moment of critical success with The Telephone Book in the 1970s but, after his stint writing for SNL, he ended up making trailers for other people’s movies and nothing quite compared to his short, albeit disastrous, time in the spotlight.

When it was released in 1972, The Telephone Book screened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles and was deemed a “bleakly brilliant” film for “sophisticated adults” by the Los Angeles Times and “one of the freakiest, funny, dirty movies ever made” by its own promotional posters. Produced by Merv Bloch, the film was paid for with money Bloch had made designing promotional materials for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and, as its advertising suggests, The Telephone Book is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. On a surface level, the film is a wonderfully entertaining adventure that follows a young woman, Alice, as she searches the streets of New York City trying to find “John Smith,” a man that she’s fallen in love with over the telephone. John, her telephone-lover, spends most of his time making obscene telephone calls to housewives, grandmothers, and adolescents all over New York City and he has made quite a name for himself.

On her quest to find “John Smith,” Alice runs into an onslaught of various sex-obsessed characters from a stag filmmaker planning his comeback to a deranged housewife to two regulars of Andy Warhol’s Factory, Ultra Violet and Ondine. This array of porno character types and pop culture icons keeps the film moving along at a ludicrously quick and delightful pace, climaxing with an animated sequence that is nearly impossible to describe. Shot in high contrast black and white, The Telephone Book is in a category all its own, simultaneously a critique, a satire, and a part of the explosion of theatrical pornography that swept the country in the 1970s.

From "The Telephone Book"

Sarah Kennedy In “The Telephone Book”

In 2010, just two years before Nelson Lyon passed away, The Telephone Book was rediscovered and began a revival tour that has taken it around the country, playing to audiences who had never heard of the film, much less Nelson Lyon. In retrospect, the film has been called “a brilliant and lamentably neglected gem of early-’70s underground filmmaking” by Slant Magazine and The Chicago Reader’s Ben Sachs noted that The Telephone Book “conveys a youthful enthusiasm and a curiosity about what can be done with film comedy,” a sentiment that I agree with whole-heartedly. Thanks to the film’s newfound cult status, we’re presented with a promising, young filmmaker whose dreams were crushed too quickly and whose work was pushed aside amidst a series of phenomenally unfortunate circumstances. Retroactively, we are finally able to recognize Nelson Lyon for what he was: a talented, culturally savvy voice that was able to provide biting critique of a system while simultaneously being a part of it.

The Telephone Book is rated X and, as such, IDs will be required and no one under the age of 18 will be admitted. The screening is free, but ticketed. More ticketing information.

Other upcoming programs in the Underground Film Series include a night of shorts titled “Exploding Lineage: Queer of Color Histories in Experimental Media,” co-presented with the Black Film Center/Archive on October 11 at 6:30pm, a family-friendly program of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animated fairy tales on October 19 at 3pm, and a not-to-be-missed program of west coast underground short films from the likes of Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, James Broughton, Barbara Hammer, and James Franco on October 25 at 7pm.

The Ryder ◆ September 2013

FILM: Radiation’s Rising…

“…but one mustn’t grumble too much” – Nuclear apocalypse in Richard Lester’s film, The Bed-Sitting Room ◆ by Tom Prasch

Some readers may find this hard to believe but many years ago, before the zombie apocalypse was all the rage, nuclear apocalypse was quite fashionable.  The nuclear nightmare may have been somewhat less alarming than a world consumed by zombies but nevertheless, at the time, it seemed equally plausible.  Frightening books were published, grim PBS documentaries aired, and of course there were movies, most somber but a few satiric. One of the best of these was Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room.

A man in tattered formal wear—it only looks proper from the chest up—knocks on a door that no longer leads to any house.  He announces “I am the BBC,” and he sticks his head behind an empty television box to read “the last news.” The Central Line tube still works, thanks to a lone man on a bicycle, England’s sole source of power, but when a family that has been riding the circuit for years decides to leave (because the vending machines in the underground have run out of chocolate bars), the still-functioning escalator drops them into piles of ash.  A policeman roams the ruined landscape in a Volkswagen beetle dangling from a hot-air balloon, shouting warnings to the meandering nomads below to “keep moving.” A postman carries a cream pie across the blasted landscape, through ponds of muck, across mountains of ruin; you probably know what will happen when it reaches its destination. Such are the conditions for what’s left of London and Londoners (all twenty of them) in the wake of nuclear apocalypse in Richard Lester’s dark farce.

Bizarre nuclear mutations beset the population: Lord Fortnum fears (quite rightly, it turns out) that he is turning into a bed-sitting room; mother transforms into a chest of drawers (we get a hint of the direction of her change when she can no longer move and, weeping, opens a drawer in her chest to fetch a handkerchief) and father turns into a pigeon (who then commits suicide, providing a dark last meal for the family). Penelope, meanwhile, the daughter of the roving family, is 17 months pregnant and worries about the “monster” in her womb (when she tells her boyfriend, Alan, “I can’t bear to go through with it … having this monster,” he reassures her, sort of: “Well, no one else can have it, can they?”). Meanwhile, raucous instrumental music-hall tunes play constantly in the background, suggesting a sort of deranged Kurt Weill, save when they are replaced now and again by strains of “God save Mrs. Ethel Shroake, of 393A High Street, Leytonstone” (the awkward refiddling of the traditional tune to accommodate the nearest surviving relation to the preapocalyptic queen).

Lester assembled a remarkable cast of comic actors, many with rich experience in theater, music hall, and television comedy (Dudley Moore, Rita Tushingham, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman, Mona Washbourne, and Ralph Richardson, among others). He adapted Milligan’s stage play to the visual conventions of cinema, filming in a range of devastated rubbish-heaped locations. He mixed pun-heavy pratfalling music-hall comedy with the bleakness of Samuel Beckett (or perhaps just amplifying the vaudeville side of Beckett’s Godot). The result is a stark dark farcical vision of post-nuclear apocalyptic Britain. Comic and depressing in equal measure, the film offers a rich opportunity to examine the limits of genre in treatments of the apocalypse. Can sketch comedy make nuclear apocalypse its territory for the length of a feature film? Does the end of civilization as we know it work well as farce?


Rita Tushingham & Richard Lester

The short answer to the question, at the time of the film’s release, was: no. Lester had, in the mid-1960s, established a name for himself with a series of highly popular, inventive film comedies—the two Beatles films, Hard Days Night (1964) and Help! (1965), mod-London-set The Knack (1965), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), all of which seemed to catch something of the mood of the rapidly changing decade. But, later in the 1960s, the hit machine faltered; the two films that immediately preceded Bed Sitting Room, the antiwar comedy How I Won the War (1967) and a swinging-San Francisco-set romantic drama, Petulia (1968), failed to spark at the box office, and The Bed Sitting Room truly bombed.

Typical of the film’s reviews was the thrashing Vincent Canby gave it in the New York Times: “The movies of Richard Lester … seem to get worse in direct relation to the seriousness of their intentions. The Bed Sitting Room is Lester’s most seriously intended film to date…. Apocalyptic or prophetic cinema, whether it is in the form of science fiction or farce, demands more than picturesque sets and costumes and a decent, concerned sensibility.” Other reviewers were similarly unenthused. While making the film, Lester noted for the New York Times: “The fact that they don’t know what a bed-sitting room is in America poses a problem, of course,” but he seemed relatively unconcerned about the point. Perhaps he should have worried more, but the obscure title likely had less to do with the film’s utter failure than the inability of audiences to appreciate Lester’s tone and style. They stayed away in droves.  As Roger Ebert noted in 1976: “It was … a total disaster at the box office. So great was its failure, indeed, that Lester didn’t get another directing assignment until 1974 and The Three Musketeers.” The time was not ripe for apocalyptic farce.

Lester himself seemed to have second thoughts about the work, indeed, even as he filmed it. He explained to Mark Shivas of the New York Times, in an article tellingly titled “Well, the Bomb Is Always Good for a Laugh”: “The film will be much more barren than the play, much sadder and less frenzied. There are moments of people sitting alone in an empty field, hungry and trying to eat grass. It’s sad, and I didn’t feel sad at the play. I hope, though, that it’ll be as funny as the original as well. …I’m not able to tell whether it’s funny, because I feel terribly sorry for these people, cartoons though they may be. They’re cut-outs moving through abstract landscapes.”

Richard Lester


This hardly sounds like advance publicity that will bring audiences into theaters. Lester even shared some concerns about potential box office during filming: “farce seems to me one of the best ways to do this, partly because more people are inclined to see a farce and partly because the result of the bomb can perhaps be more easily suggested by giving surrealist parallels than by showing actual realistic desolation…. Actually, I’d have felt much more confident about this had How I Won the War been seen by a larger number of people.”

Decades later, talking to Steven Soderbergh, comparing his film to Milligan’s source play, Lester noted that the play was “funnier.” Soderbergh asked: “Do you think literalizing stuff hurt it?”, and Lester responded: “The only way we could try to literalize it was to produce excesses like a huge pile of boots and teeth and things like that…. Spike didn’t like the film particularly. He felt it was bleak and that worried him.…. It was a depressing film to work on. It was painful. And that came over.”

The Bed Sitting Room may have simultaneously anachronistic and ahead of its time.  For Lester, anachronism reflected a deliberate choice, as he explained at the time: “I was interested in how the Bomb has become a sort of period piece, how it’s almost ‘that old thing’ we mention rather apologetically after we’ve discussed violence, civil rights and Vietnam…. I thought it would be nice to remind the audience that the B-52s go on flying, and farce seems to me one of the best ways to do this.”   Roger Ebert, writing in 1976, argued that the film was released before its time: “If Monty Python’s Flying Circus had never existed, Richard Lester would still have invented it. In 1970 [sic] he directed The Bed Sitting Room, a film which so uncannily predicts the style and manner of Python that we think for a moment we’re watching television. The movie’s dotty and savage; acerbic and slapstick and quintessentially British.”  It is not clear, however, if this constitutes an endorsement by Ebert.

So what, finally, is this film about? Usually, the answer to such a question could begin with a quick outline of the plot for those who have not seen it or have seen it too long ago. But here, there is no plot to speak of. For the most part, there are disconnected characters or small groups whose courses intersect in arbitrary ways as they meander across the devastated postwar landscape.

We can notice some minor character arcs, perhaps most notably the romance plot between Penelope and Alan, although that is complicated by the fact that she is already pregnant and by her father’s decision to marry her off to Bules Martin for political reason (the father having just been selected to be the new prime minister, on the basis of the length of his inseam). Still, the longest monologue in the film connects to the romance plot, when Penelope talks about the boy then asleep in her lap, although as declaration of love her speech is rather odd: “I will say this for him, I can’t really say anything for him, except he’s like a sheet of white paper. I haven’t seen a sheet of white paper for years I could draw a face on.” And there’s another developing romance as well, between the bed-sitting room and the cabinet of drawers.

Beyond such stray bits, however, the only arc is downward. Through the course of the film, conditions worsen, and near its close, as a radiated fog arrives (made only slightly amusing by gasmasks with funny animal faces on them), as Penelope’s finally-born baby dies, as starvation looms, things look very bleak indeed until the police inspector arrives, dangling on a ladder from his balloon and announces: “I’ve just come from an audience with Mrs. Ethyl Shroake and I’m empowered by her to tell you, that in the future clouds of poisonous nuclear fog will no longer be necessary, mutations will cease any day…. All in all, I think we’re in for a time of peace, prosperity, and stability. The earth will burgeon anew, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the goat give suck to the tiny bee. At times of great national emergency, we often find that a new leader tends to emerge. Here I am, so watch it!” Even the rosy ending is undercut, however, by a final BBC news flash: “I have great news for the country. Britain is a first-class nuclear power once again.” (Never mind that the new status is only earned because one undelivered bomb has been returned to sender by the postman, with fees due; it still suggests something about lessons not learned.)

Over the course of this unstory, three broad targets for Lester’s satire emerge. The first and most obvious though in some ways least important, is the war itself, and specifically the dynamics of a possible nuclear war. The BBC man’s “final news” near the outset makes this clear, as he reports the Prime Minister’s speech: “On this, the third, or is it fourth, anniversary of the nuclear misunderstanding that led to the third world war, here is the last recorded statement of the Prime Minister, as he then was… ‘I feel I am not boastful when I remind you that this war was the very shortest war in living memory: 2 minutes and 28 seconds up to and including the grave process of signing the peace treaty. The great task of burying our forty million dead was also carried out with great expediency and good will.” The nature of this new war is such that no one served, or is sure what happened; as Bules Martin says, when Lord Fortnum tells him he slept through the war and never got to serve: “Neither did I. Mind you, I was standing by, ready to face the enemy, whoever they might be, but I couldn’t find them. Tell me, do you know, who was the enemy?”

But nuclear-war gags can only go so far, and indeed the broader focus of Bed-Sitting Room’s comedy is about two aspects of British society thrown into comic relief by the new conditions of the postapocalypse: deeply rooted institutions, and even more deeply rooted traits of character. Institutions held up for abuse range from formal political ones like the National Health Service to more socially constructed institutions like the class system. That political institutions have now tended to be reduced to a single person—a one-person military that carries out both sides of a conversation just to make up for the fact that there is no one to follow his orders; a single nurse comprising the National Health Service, and one played alarmingly by Marty Feldman; that man on the bike who is the Electrical Board, and who has to keep peddling to keep the juice flowing—makes the institutional comedy a bit easier. That they are still filling out forms (even for a custard pie’s delivery), or that, when only twenty people are alive in Britain, it would be anyone’s concern who among them was closest in line to the throne, seem absurd, but it is the sort of absurdity that makes us question those conventions in our own time as well. Social conventions, most notably the class system, work in a similar way. When everyone is ragged and starving, the logic of titles and privilege seems especially unclear (particularly when how those titles were determined is also fuzzy; Lord Fortnum notes that he “acquired the title from a social person who had fallen on hard times”). But that these aristocrats would seek to maintain their class views and prejudices under the changed circumstances seems more absurd still. Thus, when Lord Fortnum learns in what neighborhood he has made his final transformation he pleads with Bules Martin: “Put a sign in the window. No coloured. No children. And definitely no coloured children.” That such views are still appropriate for someone who is now a bed-sitting room—and, frankly, a rather shabby one at that, much improved when the chest of drawers joins him—makes  such views seem more absurd, but again in a way that opens them to question outside the limited realm of the film’s postapocalyptic timeframe.

Beneath these satiric targets, and informing the structure of them, is the film’s most central target and interest: that stiff-upper-lipped British character. Bules Martin, holding a bottle of milk up to the light and looking somewhat dubiously at the odd color of the stuff, comments to himself: “Radiation’s rising. Still, mustn’t grumble too much.” The theme is picked up by Alan later in the movie, when he tells Penelope, “We’ll just have to keep going.” “What for?,” she wants to know; “Because we’re British,” he tells her. Penelope, in fact, is having none of it: “British, what a lot of use that is. We don’t even know who’s won the war. Run out of food, no medicine, we’re eating our parents. British!” But even her protests serve to accentuate the theme: that it is the peculiar character of the British to soldier through whatever the circumstances, and to pretend as much as possible that there just is nothing wrong.

That Britishness makes these characters endearing, connects us to them in ways that their roles do not quite justify. That Britishness makes this story more tragic, since after all no one is ever convinced by deus ex machina as a way out of hopeless situations (it’s why Aristotle panned Euripides, after all). But that Britishness also makes the film more insular, since audiences outside Britain not only are unlikely to know what a bed-sitting room is but will have dim if any connections to the institutions the film mocks, the comic stylings it borrows from music-hall conventions and Goon Show bits, or the locations it ravages. That Britishness is thus the film’s great virtue and the source of its box-office doom.

Photo caption
Rita Tushingham and director Richard Lester.
Photo caption #2
A policeman roams the ruined landscape in a Volkswagen beetle dangling from a hot-air balloon in The Bed Sitting Room.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

MUSIC: Breaking Beats

Music is more than a hobby for one Bloomington DIY artist ◆ by Amanda Jacobson

Sitting in his second-story room on the north side of Bloomington, music producer Austin White plays back one of his tracks on his Apple laptop – his device of choice for mixing his own music.

The song is off his first album, titled Constellations. It’s a compilation of his earliest original beats created using the computer program FruityLoops, which he downloaded when he was 15 to start his DIY music career.

“Really anyone with a few dollars and the Internet can start making beats,” White says. “Music is so accessible now because of that. It’s not about having a big fancy studio anymore or being rich enough to have your music heard. It really levels the playing field for anyone who wants to be a musician.”


He says the variety of music he listened to when he was a young boy led him to appreciate and respond to music in a way most other kids didn’t. It’s no wonder music production was the career path he ultimately chose.

White grew up in a household filled with varied musical influences. He remembers his mother listening to strictly popular music of the ‘80s by Donna Summer, Anita Baker and Madonna, while his father snuck Tupac Shakur tapes into the car as a musical backdrop to road trips without Mom.

“My mom refused to let me listen to rap music,” he says. “And my dad was a street punk in Chicago. He wasn’t terrible, but he was a guy growing up in inner city Chicago. So I was listening to all this Madonna, Donna Summer and Tears for Fears, all of that. Anything that was on the radio, Mom loved it. And my dad would always listen to Tupac. Not all the time, but enough that he had to sneak it. And he would listen to it on his own and not realize I was in the car just absorbing all of this. I’d be listening to the lyrics and not know what any of it meant, like this one 2Pac song Tradin War Stories, – it was on a cassette. We would drive to Mississippi all the time and my dad has this thing – and I have it too – where if you like a song or artist or album, you listen to it for months. So all the way to Mississippi, a 14-hour drive, I heard the double All Eyez on Me, front side, back side, and over again, and the whole time not really listening to the lyrics. The lyrics were just an extra instrument. I’m like that now. It’s just another sound until I interpret it. I feel like anytime I make something now, I go ‘This is correct,’ or ‘It’s not correct,’ based on the whole database of music that I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Because that’s what your own originality is. It’s just everything that’s ever compiled you, anything you’ve ever seen, tasted … I mean sometimes your tastebuds can come into music somehow. Everything you have is just one big interpretation of everything you’ve ever known.”

White says this musical exposure when he was little led him to curiosity about the rap industry and the instrumental nuances of the mixes on each track. It wasn’t until he was in grade school that White moved to Chicago to live with his grandmother on the south side of the city. White said the outcome of his adult life was almost predicted for him by the societal expectations of that neighborhood, before he could decide his fate for himself.

“I was going to school at a public school in Chicago for a little bit and music is like playing basketball there. It’s not like people grow up to try to play basketball there, it’s like you grow up and either get a job or you play basketball or you rap. It’s seriously that mentality and that is all you know. Ghettos are seriously built to trap you. But I was going to school and we’re sitting at the lunch table and this song Grindin’ came out when I was in the fourth grade and that’s when rap hit my radar.”

At the lunch table, White and his group of friends would play “musician.” White would tap out rhythms and beats on the plastic tabletop while others of his friends sang, added melodies or rapped on top of the claps and drums from his hands. It began as a way to dream in an environment where most kids wanted to get out of the inner city but didn’t have the means to, or didn’t know how.

When he was old enough to enter high school, White started buying his own recording equipment. That was the turning point. It was then White says he became obsessed with the idea of making his own music and one day becoming as famous as Kanye West and other big name artists. He bought an M-Audio keyboard for $200 and a USB microphone and stand for $200 before the age of 19.

Instead of letting his naiveté get the best of him, White got smart. He created a MySpace page dedicated to his creation of original music. He began working on tracks using FruityLoops, and decided to buy his first keyboard with money from (get this info from the interview tapes). From there, he says he still had much to learn in the way of approaching other artists to work with him on songs, but for the most part he found a way to make his work heard, albeit sneakily. He would reinvent his MySpace page, naming it after the artist or song he remixed. When people searched for that particular artist or song, they would come to White’s page instead. Even though it wasn’t initially what they wanted to hear, White says, he knew the visitor at least stayed a while to listen to his version of the song and may have then listened to other songs he produced. The exposure he gained from each of his songs earned his page more and more views, but it always made him work harder, he says.

After he figured out how to market himself and once his music was being heard, he realized he needed to improve even further. He began reaching out to other regional artists that had thousands-or-more song plays, a thing he coveted and desired for his own tracks.

White began networking. He wrote email after email to each of his desired collaborators. His early emails were a little less confident, he says. He would approach other artists as if he felt he wasn’t worthy, but wanted to be. At first, he would hear back with either a rejection or not hear back at all. But he didn’t let it discourage him – it made him work harder. He sent samples of his beats to more and more rappers in the upper Midwest area and beyond, hoping to find someone who would collaborate with him.

Finally, he felt his efforts paid off when a rap artist named The Werd, whose voice is heard on the track Careless from White’s second self-released album The Pink Tamago, collaborated with White.

“At the time I saw this guy’s page and he had a ton of plays and I was like, “How’d you do that? Yes, I will work with you!’ And at the time I didn’t realize that it was just a MySpace play generator that you could just pop all the songs you wanted into, but it fooled me. And on the side of the page it would say ‘Record Label (whatever you decide to put) and ‘Management, This Guy,’ and I’m like ‘Shit, a record label, a manager?’ What I didn’t realize is the record label was his own making, you know. But I was in total infant stage. Anything new that comes up to me, I’m just like, ‘What’s that? I’m interested!’, ‘Manager? I don’t have one of those!’.”

The Werd’s manager was Matt Murdoch. The Werd introduced White to Murdoch as a potential business partner. White was over the moon.

“So I’m like, ‘Why do I need a manager … well I’ll call him anyway’, so I talk to him and he’s like ‘Austin, good to hear from you, I’ve been hearing a lot from you from this guy, you know, The Werd?’ and he’s telling me, ‘so basically I’m looking for artists to produce hot tracks and The Werd sent me some of your stuff and it sounds hot Austin, we’re gonna do things, it’s gonna be awesome and we’ll talk later’ and as I hung up, I’m just cheesing from ear to ear, like ‘I’m gonna be BIG!’”

After his telephone meet-and-greet with Murdoch, White said he kept making beats for The Werd to use as a backdrop for his rap music, but all he kept hearing back from Murdoch was that the artist needed more beats. After a while, the communication on Murdoch’s end stopped. White felt he was being used, and decided to break ties with The Werd and Murdoch.

White says he learned a lot from that experience and grew from it. Rather than collaborating with anyone that was interested, White started researching artists in more depth. He chose to pursue working relationships with musicians who had experience and the credentials to back up their success. He slowly continued reaching out to rap artists, until he ultimately came across the up-and-coming rappers Theo Martins and Mike Posner a few years ago. White and Posner talked on the phone and from those conversations, White ended up headlining at a small venue in Michigan, which he says he wasn’t really prepared for at the time, but the show ended on a high note for him. White says he doesn’t regularly perform in front of crowds–that he’d rather be behind the scenes– but the show was a good way for him to branch out to a new segment of music listeners in Michigan, an area with which he was less than familiar at the time.

Mike Posner later reached stardom with his songs Please Don’t Go and Cooler Than Me, but White still has the artist’s phone number and says they occasionally keep in touch via email.

“With Mike I was going out on a limb. My mindset was ‘hey man, let’s work together.’ But I had to keep up my end of the bargain, too. And when he replied I was just felt like I was one step closer to working with Kanye,” he says, laughing. “Where I am now, I want to do producing and I want to make other people sound pretty. Of course, I want to rap and sing on my own, but I want to do it when I have the time and money to do it the way I want to. With me growing up not knowing anything about rap, now I’m in a position where when I make something, I’m not worried about what it’s going to sound like compared to what’s already out. I just make what I make without even worrying about what’s already out there. Because I feel like you’re not an artist until you stop totally caring about what’s already out there. And I never feel intimidated that I have to do something to gain exposure. I basically do what I do and feel that eventually it will come through.”

Now, at 23, White sees a small amount of royalties from past collaborative work with regional rappers and musicians from the Midwest, including Theo Martins, whose latest album Wonderland features White’s work on the track Killer. Currently, he posts his most recent beats and instrumental pieces to his Soundcloud page. The Soundcloud site is more than just a place to showcase his work; it allows listeners to comment on specific pieces of a song, providing direct feedback to him. The site also allows for a broad network of contacts within the music world, where White can find collaborators and share his talents with a wide variety of audiences. Even though he uses a fairly inexpensive approach to making his music these days, White says he still maintains a full-time day job at Mardon Salon. He ultimately wants to improve upon his past work as much as he can, with the time that he has. And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“It’s more than a hobby,” White says. “I’ll be working on this and trying to place beats forever. As long as I have a job that keeps the electricity going to propel my music, I’m happy.”

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

FILM: Four Summer Movies

Superman, Star Trek, Gatsby, & Other Magic ◆ by Lucy Morrell

● Man of Steel

Man of Steel is the newest reboot of the Superman franchise and it attempts to split from the other cinematic incarnations of the iconic superhero. Directed by Zach Synder (300) and co-scripted by Christopher Nolan (Memento, the Dark Knight Trilogy), Man of Steel begins with the military coup and destruction of the planet Krypton, necessitating the flight of newborn Kal-El to Earth, where adoptive parents raise him as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Flashbacks of childhood experiences punctuate Clark’s adult life, as the film attempts to establish the new Superman as a complex, brooding character, much like the most recent imagining of Batman. In taking this serious approach to Superman’s development, the film weaves between the two sets of parents, each sharing wisdom and advice, and although their speeches never quite turn into morality sermons, they do not lack inspirational fodder.

From "Man of Steel"

“Man Of Steel”

These familial relationships, specifically those with the father figures played by Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, are weighted with questions of life and death, responsibility and acceptance, and lend the film a solemn air. The movie clings to this gravitas, quite understandably, as it tries to give the story its own credence and importance in order to stand apart from the other Superman films. The visuals, too, contribute to the sense of grandeur and seriousness, with beautiful shots of moments on Earth and the well-rendered demise of Krypton. In maintaining the tone, though, the film sacrifices humor and lightheartedness. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and her interactions with Superman provide most of the (sadly few) comedic moments, and the audience seems to laugh as much out of relief as out of genuine humor. There is a desire, conscious or unconscious, for anything to break through the severity of the film.

When General Zod (Michael Shannon), one of sole remaining Kryptonians, comes to Earth looking for him, Clark has to make choices that determine the fate of both humans and Kryptonians, Thus the endless battling of the second half of the film begins. The damage is wrought in incredibly realistic detail, and whole city blocks and skyscrapers collapse into rubble. Yet for all the destruction and fleeing crowds, the fighting seems to have no meaning because it requires no sacrifice and offers no change. Superman and the other Kryptonians are basically indestructible, so their fighting is impersonal, despite occasional verbal bouts, and has little emotional weight. When a weakness does present itself, there is a hasty retreat back to the ships, and the fighting resumes again as though nothing has happened. Only the surroundings are permanently affected. The fighting’s significance, then, lies in what happens to the humans, but they, too, are treated impersonally. They die off in droves, not from the fighting itself, but rather indirectly from the resulting destruction. Superman never even thinks to draw the fighting out of Metropolis. Only when he is finally confronted with the death of a few (the deaths of a thousand unseen not having influenced his actions) does the status quo change.

So even though the film is visually dramatic (with plenty of explosions) and brings up interesting issues related to morality and the determining one’s fate, it is neither light-hearted enough nor clever enough to be truly pleasurable to watch. It is not a fun superhero film like The Avengers, nor is it as darkly intimate as the Dark Knight Trilogy. It seems to operate detached and distant on a scale of its own.

● Star Trek Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams, the mind behind this Star Trek revamp and the soon-to-be director of new Star Wars installments, gives us Star Trek Into Darkness, a film more comfortable than challengingly new. In it Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are ordered into a potential war-zone on a manhunt for a terrorist later discovered to be Khan, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are a few twists, but the whole plot just seems to be an excuse for Captain Kirk and Spock to explore their feelings for one another. Depending on how one measures weepiness, Kirk cries about three times, and Spock about one and a half. But then again, Spock is only half human. Near constant fighting and explosions (which somehow make noise in empty space), however, work to offset any offense of overt sentimentality.

From "Star Trek Into Darkness"

“Star Trek Into Darkness”

The crew is a family now, no longer in the getting-to-know-you phase of the last movie, and with the actors interacting as such, the film comes across as easy and heart felt, if not particularly deep. All of the main characters from the series command the screen for at least a few minutes of dedicated airtime. Scotty complains, McCoy says snarly one-liners (replete with country metaphors), Spock is logical, and Kirk is bullheaded. While Ahura demonstrates her linguistic intelligence, she seems little more than her romantic role with Spock, providing a few heterosexual sparks in a movie filled with male romance.

In one of the few moments of depth, Kirk struggles with an ethical dilemma concerning his orders and their source. Butting against the always rational Spock and even the manipulative terrorist, Kirk has to determine where his loyalty lies and whether or not to compromise his principles for an order. For Kirk, who is always breaking the rules, such a conflict was bound to arise, yet this comes down to conflicting sources of authority. Unfortunately, a twist at the end sharpens rather than blurs the line between right and wrong, putting Kirk and Star Fleet firmly on the right side. What could have been an interesting dilemma, bound forever to a gray area in our minds, is resolved by having a traditional bad guy pop up in the last half hour. In the end, we do not have to fear for Kirk’s conscience, any more than we have to stress about the inevitability of a happy ending.

While the movie may not have made the audience think beyond its two-hour duration, it had a lovely and familiar display of characters that kept me engaged and smiling throughout. If the crew is a family, then it is the sort of family that I wouldn’t mind being a part of.

● The Great Gatsby

The latest re-imaging of The Great Gatsby comes with the typical visual extravagance of Baz Luhrmann. It is a spectacle of bright colors and glitz befitting the casual wealth, sex, and booze of New York City in the roaring twenties. The movie stays true to most of the original novel as Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) relates the tale of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Nick’s married cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The novel itself is a voyeuristic first person narrative, but now in the transition to the screen, in order to justify a single man’s lengthy retelling of past events, the film conjures up a new framing device: an older Nick struggles to write about his experiences from within a sanitarium. His psychiatrist’s file neatly lists his reasons for being there, providing convenient and instant characterization, albeit heavy handed. This framework keeps emerging at every pause in the main storyline with the flashing to a feverish Nick surrounded by pages as he inner voice reads what he’s already written. While the Nick in the book is almost forgettable, a watcher of the protagonist Gatsby rather than the protagonist himself, the movie’s ever-present voice-over and frame device prevent him from ever fading into the background. Toward the end, the voice-over is even further emphasized with the addition of text, which dominates the screen and distracts from the story. Some of the beauty of the language is lost with the accompanying text because there is so much pressure on the words to stand apart from their written context and compete with the moving images. The text seems to exist only to prove the filmmakers capable of quoting from a book.

From "The Great Gatsby"

“The Great Gatsby”

That being said, the acting is well done, even if it takes a moment for the actors to disappear into their roles. DiCaprio is such a recognizable figure and Gatsby such an indeterminate character that at least initially it is hard to separate the two. The emotional intensity is there, but much of the subtlety of the novel is lost in the visuals, or marred by unnecessary flashbacks—flashbacks that revel in the beauty of the shot with little concern for an audience discovering truths on its own. Emerging from troubled clouds and star-studded skies, the flashbacks border on the ridiculous. At one point, Gatsby even marks the passage of his life with a grand gesture only to have a shooting star trace the path of his finger a second later.

Overall, the spectacle, while exciting to watch, seemed almost too obvious for a story about half-truths, rumor, hidden desire, and underlying social problems.

● Now You See Me

From director Louis Leterrier, Now You See Me is a movie about four street magicians gathered together by a mysterious organization to perform illusions, which involve real heists like robbing banks. The story is told mostly from the perspective of FBI agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Dray (Mélanie Laurent) as they search for the truth behind the illusions. The law enforcement officers are, however, sadly formulaic. Rhodes is the experienced cynic, out of his depth and in a state of continual disgruntlement and aggression, while Dray, being a stereotypical rookie and woman, is more in touch with her emotions and talks about having faith. In a few instances, professional magician debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) suggests the possibility of Dray double-crossing Rhodes, but rather than having their whole relationship evolve into a delicate power-play, it ends up turning into blunt confrontation again and again, with the oft-repeated conversation of “How can I trust you?” and “You must! Just have faith!” Rhodes and Dray’s relationship goes nowhere new in these exchanges, and the filmmakers seem to have confused dull antagonism with romantic chemistry, leaving the two to “naturally” pair up like soul mates in the end.

From "Now You See Me"

“Now You See Me”

As for the other characters, the movie relies heavily on letting the established personas of the actors stand in for much of the characters’ development. Jesse Eisenberg plays the same slightly neurotic fast-talker that he always does, and Woody Harrelson hangs out on screen as his typical affable wise-cracker. Within a few minutes of meeting each, we know exactly who they are, and nothing ever challenges our pre-conceived notions of them. Who really suffers from this sort of fallback characterization are the characters of the less-established actors like Dave Franco and Isla Fischer, whose only noticeable traits (at least to the other characters) are her beauty and her weight. The motivation of the four magicians is vague, as we spend almost no time with them, but it seems to be encompassed in the mysterious secret society known only as the Eye, which ostensibly protects magic and goes back to the days of the ancient Egyptians.

Despite all of its problems with characters, though, the film is entertaining and contains many of the staples of a fun summer action flick, namely heists, secret societies, and chase scenes. The magic tricks are actually explained as the film progresses, although it never goes seriously in-depth into their set-up. There is even a twist at the end, which is definitely unexpected, but may or may not be altogether believable. Overall, the film delivers what one might expect from a summer blockbuster: an action-filled plot with big-name actors in unremarkable roles.

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

BOOKS: Exit Roth

Notes on the Occasion of Philip Roth’s Retirement ◆ by Kevin Howley

Last October, a few months shy of his 80th birthday, Philip Roth, America’s most celebrated living novelist, quietly announced his retirement. Roth made the disclosure in an interview with Les Inrockuptibles, a French cultural magazine. Weeks later, Salon confirmed Roth’s retirement with his publicist at Houghton Mifflin and the Paris Review translated Nelly Kaprielian’s complete interview with Roth. Assessing his handiwork – some thirty books over the course of more than half a century – Roth invoked not a man of letters, but a sports legend from his youth: “At the end of his life,” Roth recalled, “the boxer Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.” Roth’s “best” is a poignant, incisive, inventive, raucously humorous, sometimes controversial body of work. Any appreciation of Roth’s legacy, however modest, would do well to take Roth’s own assessment as a starting point. What was it, then, that Roth had to work with?

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, Philip Roth was raised in a working class, secular Jewish household: a milieu Roth plumbed for his antic comedy, most notoriously, Portnoy’s Complaint, as well as his darkest imaginings, The Plot Against America. The Newark of Roth’s youth – a vibrant urban space with decent schools, ethnic neighborhoods, and a bustling downtown figures prominently his work. As does Newark after de-industrialization, white flight, and the racial tensions of the 1960s that decimated a quintessentially American city. Roth’s evocations of Newark are rarely romanticized; instead, Newark serves to ground his characters, and their stories, in a discrete and discernible time and place.


Of his forsaken city, Roth writes in the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral, “It was Newark that was entombed there, a city that was not going to stir again. The pyramids of Newark: as huge and dark and hideously impermeable as a great dynasty’s burial edifice has every historical right to be.” The calamity that befalls Newark provides the backdrop to the familiar catastrophe that wrenches the novel’s protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov, from his “longed for American pastoral … into the indigenous American berserk.” Levov’s harrowing tale, as recounted by Roth’s most enduring character, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, is part of a trilogy that includes I Married a Communist – a period piece set in the McCarthy era – and The Human Stain. Arguably one of Roth’s most vivid, sympathetic, and penetrating portraits, The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman Silk, a respected professor of classics at a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts, and his great undoing on the alter of political correctness at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The gravity of Roth’s work finds its antithesis in the comic absurdity of some of his most memorable and imaginative fiction: The Breast, wherein the protagonist, Professor David Kepesh, another of Roth’s recurring characters, undergoes a Kafkaesque metamorphosis into an enormous mammary gland; Our Gang, an uproariously indignant response to the excesses of the Nixon White House; and, most famously, the aforementioned Portnoy’s Complaint – the book that made Roth rich and reviled. At once a product and send-up of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Portnoy’s Complaint signaled Roth’s arrival as one of America’s preeminent satirists.

Alexander Portnoy’s psychoanalytic confession of sexual defilement and insatiable appetite to the silent therapist, Dr. Spielvogel, is an extended Jewish joke. Of course, not everyone got the joke. Despite its rebellious, ribald, and unprecedented assault on sexual taboos, feminists decried Portnoy’s Complaint, chiefly, but not exclusively, for its caricature of Mary Jane Reed (aka The Monkey). Others lambasted Roth for exploiting, reinforcing, and legitimating stereotypes of Jews and Jewish life. This was not the first, nor would it be the last time, Roth provoked the ire of Jewish readers. His first published short story, “Defender of the Faith,” created an uproar among those who took the tale to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” whose comedy did nothing to dissuade the goyim from their distaste and distrust of the chosen people.

Roth’s work provokes and explores a central question: What does it mean to be a Jew living in postwar America? This thematic concern – some, including Roth in the guise of any number of his protagonists, might call it an obsession – is a particularly rich vein for his fiction. Indeed, Roth’s autobiographical dexterity – as much a reaction to his perceived self-hatred as it is a declaration of his Jewishness – proved an excellent vehicle to interrogate the relationship between fact and fiction, lived experience and imagination, authors and their creations. Most evident in the Zuckerman trilogy – The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson – this theme permeates other work as well. Consider, for example, Operation Shylock, wherein the writer Philip Roth confronts his double, or Roth’s nonfiction, including the deeply moving account of his father’s prolonged illness, Patrimony, and The Facts, Roth’s autobiography, in which Nathan Zuckerman writes an afterword that puts the book’s veracity into question.

And yet to define Roth exclusively or even primarily as a Jewish writer limits our understanding, and appreciation, for his art and craft. One needn’t have grown up a Jew to know the shame and guilt that adolescent boys, fond of whacking off, know all too well. One only needs a prick to register a familiar laugh, as when Alex Portnoy, fearing the worst – that his self-abuse has given him cancer – just can’t leave it alone.  Inevitably, inextricably, Portnoy’s paranoia yields to his desire: “If only I could cut down to one hand-job a day, or hold the line at two, or even three! But with the prospect of oblivion before me, I actually began to set new records for myself. Before meals. After meals. During meals.”

Then there is Roth’s love for that other national pastime: baseball. Consider the audaciously titled The Great American Novel, which tells the story of the ill-fated Port Ruppert Mundys: a team so bad it has no home field. A team so inept that the franchise has been stricken from all of baseball’s recorded history. When the Mundys actually win a game – albeit an exhibition game against the inmates of a local insane asylum – the players recount their exploits with the same gusto and gravitas you are likely to hear when Bloomington’s boys of summer enjoy a bit of tailgating down at Twin Lakes softball field. “‘Yep,’ said Kid Heket, who was still turning the events of the morning over in his head, ‘no doubt about it, them fellers just was not usin’ their heads.’”

Roth’s gift for farce is matched by his single-minded devotion to the novel. From the writerly introspection of his most radical work of fiction, The Counterlife, and his editorial stewardship of the Penguin series, Writers From the Other Europe, to his collection of literary interviews and criticism, Shop Talk, this much is clear: Roth is a writer’s writer. In his exit interview, Roth said, “I’ve given my life to the novel. I’ve studied it, I’ve taught it, I’ve written it, and I’ve read it. To the exclusion of practically everything else. It’s enough! I don’t feel that fanaticism about writing that I felt all my life. The idea of trying to write one more time is impossible to me!”

If Roth, trickster that he is, is to be believed and he really is retired, his final series of short novels, culminating with Nemesis, a study in “the tyranny of contingency,” caps a luminous and prolific literary career.

[Kevin Howley is professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is indebted to Professor Parke Burgess, his undergraduate advisor in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Queens College, for introducing him to the work of Philip Roth.]

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

MUSIC: The Thrill Of Victory

The USA International Harp Competition ◆ by Megan Landfair

This time last summer people around the world were waiting with bated breath for the start of the 2012 London Olympic Games. The excitement of seeing the world’s top athletes strive to perform at their highest level had audiences from all walks of life glued to their TVs and computers for two weeks. This summer, you’ll be happy to know that you can witness the competitive spirit again right in Bloomington! On July 10-20, the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music is hosting the 9th USA International Harp Competition.

Fifty of the best harpists from around the world, ages 16-32, representing twenty countries will travel to Bloomington in hopes of winning the gold medal. One of the first traditions they will take part in is the Opening Ceremony scheduled to take place in Auer Hall on July 10th at 4:00 p.m. Contestants will be greeted by Indiana’s political elite and be assigned their performance order.

Throughout the ten days competitors strive to achieve their peak performance in order to win the coveted $55,000 Lyon & Healy Gold Concert Grand Harp. To win the gold harp, they must pass through four stages in which they will be judged by seven world-renowned musicians. Like many Olympic events, the competition jury members will utilize a point system for each harpist but instead of being judged on their athletic prowess the points are based on musicianship, technique and artistic presentation.

The first stage will last for three intense days, after which the jury will identify only half of the harpists for the next round. From the field of 25 in Stage II, only eight will move on to Stage III.

At this point the harpists will have to show mastery of the instrument by demonstrating their ability to perform both traditional repertoire and a brand new piece, written specifically for the competition by French composer Benjamin Attahir. At the end of Stage III the jury will decide which three harpists continue to the final stage.

Following nine days of intense competition, diverse musical interpretations, and world-class performances, the excitement will culminate at the Musical Arts Center on Saturday July 20 where the finalists each perform with the Indiana University Summer Festival Orchestra. Shortly following their performances, the Closing Ceremony will commence with the presentation of the medals and the gold harp.

So why does the Jacobs School of Music host this prestigious event? The school has the largest harp department in the world. It also has Distinguished Professor of Harp Susann McDonald who founded the competition in 1989. Just like the USA Gymnastics team, the IU harp department has had a long-standing tradition of distinction and excellence. This year six participants from the Jacobs School will represent this country.

2010 Harp Competition Winners

2010 Winners (l-r) Vasilisa Lushchevskaya, Russia; Agnes Clement, France; Rino Kageyama, Japan. Photo: Alain Barker

While it is exciting to watch the competition unfold and see a winner announced, the ultimate goal of the USA International Harp Competition is to foster friendships, bring together musicians from around the world, and introduce the harp repertoire to a broader public. Just as with watching an Olympic sporting event, the recognition of the competitor’s hard work is celebrated throughout the ten days.

This summer, be sure to come out and be part of the excitement. The competition is in your own back yard and all events, including the finals at the MAC, are free and open to the public. For more information a complete schedule of events visit USA International Harp Competition.

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

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