Smile Trek

He traveled across Southeast Asia, on footFrom The Diary of Winston Fiore

Bloomington-native Winston Fiore recently completed a 5,000-mile trek across Southeast Asia. After graduating from Bloomington North High School, Winston joined AmeriCorps, America’s voluntary national service program. In 2007, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and spent three weeks training in Senegal. As a middle-class American, his eyes were opened by the sight of children scavenging through garbage and women carrying water on their heads for great distances. Amid the poverty and cultural differences that surrounded his experience there, Fiore found himself inspired to make global changes — in his own way. After returning from duty in Afghanistan last year, Winston decided to form his own charity project and then embarked on his 5,000-mile walk, which he calls Smile Trek, in an effort to raise funds and awareness for facial-reconstructive surgeries in the developing world.

Winston Fiore

 

Winston’s parents own Bloomington’s legendary Le Petit Café where Winston will be hosting a benefit dinner on Thursday, March 7; all proceeds will be donated to the International Children’s Surgical Foundation. ICSF’s founder and principle surgeon, Dr. Geoff Williams, will speak. For more information about the benefit or to make a reservation contact Winston at (812) 272.2686 or at winstonfiore@gmail.com

What follow are excerpts from Winston’s blog describing some of his experiences along the road.

Locals often ask me what I’m up to. Apparently a westerner walking up to a roadside eatery donned in a bulky load-bearing vest in middle-of-nowhere rural Malaysia is not a common scene. So I tell them I’m walking across Southeast Asia. Without fail, they reply, “walking?!”, with emphasis on the second syllable, as if their incredulousness doesn’t kick in until half way through the word. “Yes, walking.”

Refined sugar fuels the Malaysian. It is a force of habit, a bien-entendu, a fact of life. Malaysians go so far as to add simple syrup to their coconut water, and their tea makes Sunny Delight taste like distilled water. “Milk” refers to a pallid, condensed corn syrup that is added to tea/coffee to make it even sweeter. I learned long ago to simply preface every beverage order with, “No sugar please,” no matter how ridiculous such a request may seem. I once came across real cow’s milk – a rare find – at an eatery and ordered a glass. “Surely,” I naively thought, “I don’t need to specify that I don’t want sweetener added to a glass of milk.” The glass arrived with a halfinch mound of sugar grains caked to the bottom. Sometimes, beverages arrive with added sugar even after my precautionary request. Most likely, this is due to force of habit, but I like to picture the shopkeep in the back, wittingly adding sugar by the spoonful, shaking his head as he chuckles to himself, “Silly American, asking for no sugar in his coffee. He has obviously lost his way, but I will show him the light.”

The rainy season has finally arrived, and with it, Murphy’s Law. Thick black clouds may billow across every square inch of sky, but taking preemptive cover only postpones the downpour. Water doesn’t fall until the instant I decide to begin walking again. A particularly memorable instance occurred a couple weeks ago. The sky betokened a thunderstorm, as usual, and a long bridge lay ahead of me. I decided to press on, fingers crossed that I’d come across shelter on the other side in case of rain. Naturally, the sky fell the minute I reached the top, and the landscape before me was roofless as far as the eye could see. I walked for miles, sandwiched between never-ending oil palm plantations. It was approaching nightfall, I was drenched, and any promise of dinner seemed long gone. As I began accepting the fact that I’d be camping on yet another plantation, which I hate doing because they are teeming with mosquitos, a nondescript road-sign appeared out of nowhere. On it were the words “Teluk Intan Golf & Country Club” with an arrow pointing down an intersecting backroad. Through some twisted sense of humor, the gods, having just made my last two hours a living misery, were now dangling a carrot. With nothing to lose, I took the hint.

A secret garden unfolded before me: mowed grass, manmade lakes, a swimming pool, sports cars. I entered the massive building that stood at the head of the country club. Not only was the house restaurant open for business, but the owner bought me dinner, let me use the showers, and allowed me to set up camp in the lobby! I took advantage of the powerful ceiling fans, and my boots, socks, and clothes were bone dry by the time I hit the road the following morning. It’s a funny thing when such poor fortune is so quickly reversed by good luck.

I spent one night in a Muslim graveyard. I hadn’t intended to, but every once in a while, you get caught in an urban area when the sun goes down. In towns, where prospective campsites are few and far between, cemeteries are a godsend. They’re quiet (dead quiet), secluded, dimly lit, and generally unpopular at night. Plus, what better way to fall asleep than to be surrounded by people who have been sleeping for a very long time? I was out of there by sunrise.

Entering Laos from northern Thailand was quite the snafu. I navigate with Google walking directions, which had been reliable to a T up to that point. How Google went from infallible accuracy to epic failure in one fell swoop is beyond me, but that’s exactly what happened. Somehow Google Maps displayed, not one, but five imaginary bridges linking Vientiane to Thailand! One of these was incorporated in their walking directions from Bangkok to Laos’s capital, so when I got to the river dividing the two countries and could not find the bridge that was supposed to lead me across, I went through all five stages of grief before finally hitchhiking to the nearest real bridge (20 miles in the opposite direction)

It’s funny because a half-hour before this discovery, two women in a pickup truck pulled over to ask me where I was headed. “Laos!” I exclaimed. “You’re going the wrong way,” they insisted. “No,” I assured them, “there’s a bridge right up ahead.” After some time trying to convince me of the opposite, they finally drove off in disbelief. “Wow,” I thought to myself in amazement, “it’s incredible that natives of this very area aren’t even aware of the transnational bridges in their own backyard!”

I stepped on a snake in northern Thailand. I was walking at night and noticed what I thought was a bamboo stalk on the road shoulder (this is quite common). The object was similar in width, straight in structure, and completely motionless. I ended up stepping on it, and it quickly sprung out from under me. It was the most terrifying part of the trek so far. What made it terrifying wasn’t the fact that I stepped on a snake, but the fact that I stepped on a snake that I thought was a stalk of bamboo. Having one’s perceived reality so abruptly betrayed by one’s physical reality is absolutely petrifying. Can you imagine sitting on a fur couch that ends up being a live grizzly? Or stepping out onto a field of grass that is actually a pond covered in duckweed? This experience instilled in me a deep respect for Jumanji players.

I saw a Buddhist monk smoking a cigarette the other day, which was odd because I don’t usually think of Buddhist monks as smokers. If I were a tobacco lobbyist, I would exploit this image for all its worth. I thought of other monks out there who don’t cross my mind. Are there Buddhist monks in prison? If so, what do these incarcerated monks look like? Hulking muscles and Nirvana tattoos clad in an orange toga and flip-flops would seem contradictory, but who knows…

I’m beginning to scare the children. Around the time school lets out, it’s not uncommon for me to share the roadside with clusters of kids headed back home after class. Over the course of a half hour, the mass of schoolchildren will diffuse and I will end up gaining on a small group of three or four kids, one of which will turn around and notice me in the distance. Curiosity ensues, and everyone in the ensemble will begin turning around sporadically to behold their new pursuer. Once I get into the 30-yard range, they begin running away from me, stopping once they feel like I’m far enough behind them, and resuming once I approach again. This pattern usually continues until they turn off the main road to where their homes presumably are. But on one occasion, a group of kids stopped walking entirely and waited anxiously on the side of the road for me to pass them. I could detect the air of panic that had overtaken their conversation, “Look he’s obviously not going to stop following us, and every time we run away he just keeps catching up, so let’s just park ourselves right here and stare him down as he walks by.” I haven’t had children run away from me since that day my mom packed squid as my school lunch.

The Chinese know how to build cities. This was my first observation after a month in Vietnam, where the infrastructure was… dated, to put it charitably. The amount of construction happening in China right now is unreal; the country is one big public works project. Not only that, but the Chinese appear to be future-proofing their cities, building enormous avenues that, while underutilized today, will undoubtedly fill up as cars continue to become more affordable to China’s growing middle class. Many of these gargantuan avenues are built on the outskirts of large cities in anticipation of the development to follow. It is comical to be trekking down a deserted Champs Elysees biding its time until Paris is built.

Just as in previous countries I had walked through, the nicer restaurants in China boasted food photography in their menus. Because I don’t read Chinese, I would depend on these photos to know what I was ordering, which was problematic because 90% of the time, the dishes that were brought to me looked nothing like the photo. The most extreme case was a time I ordered a banana split at a UBC Coffee, a prevalent restaurant chain throughout China. The picture was magical: a festive bowl bursting at the seams from the generous vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry scoops that filled it, drowned in rich chocolate sauce and buried under a heap of whipped cream, pierced with chocolate-filled wafer sticks and flanked by two hearty banana halves. My mouth watered as I waited with impatience for this bowl of sin to appear before me. The waiter returned promptly, tray in hand, but what he produced was of a more modest nature: three quarter-inch, perpendicularly sliced, morsels of banana topping two barren scoops of freezer-burned vanilla ice cream. Nothing more. I pointed out the disparity between the photograph and this naked dessert to my server, who spoke passable English. “It require some… imagination,” he told me!

An insightful window into Chinese culture was opened at another UCB Coffee in Fuzhou. This was my final destination in China, so I was well versed in menus’ unrealistic food portraits by this point. But my low expectations didn’t make me crave ice cream any less, and I found myself in a conundrum. One dessert option boasted whipped cream, but the ice cream flavors did not tempt me. Another option had the scoops I desired but whipped cream was not in its description. Luckily, my server was majoring in English at a local university, so communicating my request that whipped cream be added to the latter option went smoothly. “I’ll pay extra,” I assured him, to which he replied that he would need to consult his manager. When he returned a few minutes later, the twinkle in his eye had evaporated, “Sir, I’m sorry; we don’t have that computer button in our system.” I stared at him blankly and listened for the hum of a cooling fan from within his chest cavity. I inspected his waiter uniform for any protruding hydraulic wires. He seemed human enough. “Well, this is going to sound crazy, but I’m willing to bet that if you walk through those kitchen doors and talk to the cooks in person, they’ll be able to throw some whipped cream on there.” His countenance showed little promise when he returned from the kitchen moments later, “Sir, I’m afraid the kitchen manager is gone for the day, but even if he were here, he would have to call the owner of this branch for approval.” Everything I knew about the world crumbled. The decision to add whipped cream to a dessert would have to go through the restaurant owner because they didn’t have a button in the computer. My server was very nice, and very eager to converse with a native English-speaker, so he proceeded to explain how this highly centralized approach to decision-making was quite common in China. Those with power flaunt it and feel the need to remind subordinates of their status on a regular basis. Even the trivial decision to add whipped cream, if made by a waiter or cook autonomously, could cause an insecure boss to feel threatened. “Here, someone could get fired over this, maybe just to make an example of them,” my waiter explained. I nursed my Tsing Tsao, grateful to be from a land where initiative was generally rewarded with a promotion.

I don’t generally sightsee on days I walk, as making use of my day to cover ground is a priority, but a massive Buddhist temple snuck up on me one afternoon a few weeks into crossing China. Its size alone sparked my curiosity, and the serenity it exuded made it too intriguing to resist. An imposing staircase linked the temple’s distant threshold to the ground before me, and as I ascended the deserted steps, I felt like Bruce Wayne in the opening scene of Batman Begins, in which he pilgrimages to a remote ninja temple in the mountains to seek training. What this movie scene doesn’t reveal, however, are the brand new SUVs parked at the entrance, the free buffet, and sneaker-clad monks texting on their mobile phones, all of which awaited me at the summit. Any hopes I had of being greeted with an anachronistic martial arts montage after the climb were nipped in the bud. The temple was gorgeous, though, and the buffet’s spread was handsome. After leaving a donation, I made my way back down the stairs to resume trekking. When I later told my father the bit about the monks texting on their phones, he bellowed, “They’re texting Buddha!”

Hong Kong was a breath of fresh air: uncensored internet, chocolate, coffee, clean streets, bars that knew how to prepare cocktails, people who spoke English. Still, I couldn’t see myself living there. I’m a pedestrian at heart, and Hong Kong is the least pedestrian-friendly city I’ve ever stepped foot in. It’s like walking through an M.C. Escher painting. Sidewalks outright end. This is not an exaggeration. Literally, you’ll be walking along a sidewalk, and it will end without warning. You’ll see where you want to go from where you’re standing, but you’ll have no idea how to go about getting there, like Jennifer Connelly’s character in Labyrinth, who can clearly see the Goblin King’s castle in the beginning but has to navigate a maze to reach it. Your only hope is to retrace your steps in search of some tunnel or underpass or overpass or talking door knockers that might get you one step closer to your destination. Even in those rare instances when you can discern a path to your endpoint, there will be obstacles. You’ll have to hurdle sidewalk rails, benches, and landscaping, all while keeping a watchful eye for police officers all-too-eager to ticket jaywalkers.

I’ve never met a breed of city dwellers as obedient to pedestrian protocol as Hong Kongers. Masses of cutthroat businessmen, veteran financiers, movers and shakers, kings of the hill, merciless men who clawed their way to the top, tooth and nail, and who answer to no one, men with booming voices who slap backs, who eat market share for breakfast and close mergers on their lunch breaks, who don’t get pushed around by anyone and who don’t take “no” for an answer; these men, when confronted by the little red man in the pedestrian traffic light, become sheep. The fact that there isn’t an automobile in sight matters not; they kneel before this little red man and adhere to his every command. For 70 seconds, their undivided attention, their world, their lives, are his.

I had my share of preconceived notions before coming to ‘Nam, mostly derived from war movies: conical hats, rice paddies, and hot humid weather. It is true that the stereotypical hats are worn by most in the countryside, and that the countryside is composed almost entirely of rice paddies, but what the war movies don’t tell you is that it gets cold in Vietnam! I actually had to spring for a fleece, and even with a fleece and my warm-weather sleeping bag, it was too cold to camp. Luckily, guesthouses, or “Nha Nghi”, averaged no more than $10/night.

Pale lager is the only kind of beer I enjoy, and in Vietnam, I discovered the best pale lager I have ever encountered anywhere in the world in my entire life: Bia Hoi, or “fresh beer.” Sold on street corners across the country, this stuff is distributed to vendors daily and directly from the brewery. It is hands-down the freshest beer I have ever tasted, and the price is almost negligible. Vendors purchase 5-gallon kegs for the equivalent of $7! In NYC, it’s not uncommon for a pint to cost $7…

I am not a fan of Vietnamese coffee. A dysfunctional marriage between a failed French press and a broken coffee seep, the brewing contraption is a terrific flop in human ingenuity. A nine-year-old chimpanzee with a learning disability could not invent a less efficient apparatus. Grounds are placed inside a metal filter that is affixed atop each individual cup, an ounce or so of hot water is poured in, and the brewed coffee drips into the cup… one… drop… at… a… time. Not only does it take twenty minutes to brew an ounce of coffee, but the beverage is stone cold by the time it has seeped through the filter.

To make matters worse, coffee is not generally offered in eateries and food is not generally offered at cafes. So instead of being able to allow the coffee to brew at the table while I ate breakfast, I would have to eat breakfast at one place and relocate to a cafe afterwards only to stare for twenty minutes at my cup as the coffee brewed one… drop… at… a… time…

The Ryder, February 2013

Marketing the MAC

A Young Arts Marketers’ Journey ◆ By Brooke Feldman

This past summer, I had just started my first real-life job working as a marketing assistant for the IU Jacobs School of Music. As the youngest in the family, this moment was my right of passage from student to professional. My previous experience with marketing was as a media relation’s specialist for a student-run production company in college. When my current position opened, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about marketing the arts, and to help come up with innovative ways to attract audience members of all ages. When I started this job, I knew I wanted to work in the arts and market them to the public but I was naïve in thinking that everyone thought like I did.

I had been an intern with the IU Opera & Ballet Theater, developing its Twitter account and introducing the department to hashtags of the operas as well as ways to engage an audience through interactive videos. I even dressed up in a tutu promoting The Sleeping Beauty, hoping some audience member would hold their laughter and talk to me during an intermission. The Facebook accounts were popular, but Twitter was providing snapshots of people’s lives and a more personal way to network with people about music just like a conversation through text messages. Introducing Twitter as another marketing platform for the Jacobs School of Music provided a plethora of ideas to connect with a digital audience.

Brooke Feldman

Now, as a somewhat seasoned marketer, I have to open up my mind to not just digital marketing, but all kinds of marketing from face to face interaction, to distribution of promotional material. I became aware of the balancing act one faces as a marketer to please long-time patrons, while still connecting with students on campus who have never set foot inside the Musical Arts Center.

Baby Boomers and the Millenials retrieve information about cultural events differently. Baby Boomers, who make up a majority of our loyal patrons, rely on print advertisements, or physical promotional material. We offer a free monthly event newsletter, Prelude, to households in Bloomington and surrounding cities. Anyone can subscribe; there is also the option to just look on our online calendar. I receive a lot of phone calls from subscribers who do not look at our online calendar asking if I can verify information on the Preludes. I also listen to their suggestions on patron relations or stories about their past experiences with Jacobs, and I do it all with a smile. These supporters have shown me the importance of the long-term relationships I can create for Jacobs by doing a little bit more than what my job description might say on paper.

Then there are the Millenials, inhabiting Bloomington for only a brief window of time. Most Millenials do not read a newspaper. Millenials look for events online through organization websites or Twitter feeds. They might be the toughest group to reach.

Do you remember sitting in the back row of a classroom, waving your hand furiously, hoping the teacher picks on you to answer the question? Marketing to non-opera goers is like that. It also sometimes feels like a big convincing game. That time you found the best band in the world, and had to have your friends listen to them, but they will not? Yeah, that’s how I sometimes feel. I try my best to explain the bursts of emotions that comes over me when sit in an opera house, but there are no words to describe the feeling.

I have been in strategy sessions and learned some clever marketing techniques. For example, to promote the opening of The Merry Widow, we created a campaign for a date night special, in which patrons can buy 2 tickets for just $20. We also created an IU Opera Club for Kids, where parents and their children can experience opera and ballet together, and receive a backstage tour. Both of these initiatives had one goal in mind: invite a round of non-goers that will hopefully become frequent audience members.

Other arts organizations are faced with the similar marketing challenges. Take the Metropolitan Opera House. In December I took a trip back home to New York City, and made plans with two friends (an opera singer and a novice opera goer) to attend a production of The Barber of Seville. To my surprise, the production was shortened and sung in English rather than Italian. I read in the program that this was a special holiday presentation for audiences of all ages. As a fan of the piece, it was a bit hard to sit through, but the Metropolitan Opera created a new way to engage new opera goers.

I work with my co-workers to help figure out new ways to entice someone to step into the MAC. Our efforts are always hit or miss; we might be able to spark a little opera and ballet light in someone who sees an advertisement, reads a review, or walks past the MAC, and we could also be perceived as just another performing arts center in Bloomington. We just hope you give the arts a chance.

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“Doing a little bit more than what my job description might say on paper….”

The Ryder, February 2013

OPERA: Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten”

A Modern American Opera With An Ancient, Exotic Feel ◆ by Kristen Strandberg

Philip Glass’s music often conveys a sense of mesmerizing calmness, yet can just as easily–and sometimes simultaneously–provoke a sense of unease. Such is the case with his 1984 opera, Akhnaten, which the IU Opera Theater will perform on February 22 and 23, and March 1 and 2.  While the IU Opera often performs one or two contemporary works each season, this marks their first performance of a Glass opera.  Akhnaten may be slightly more challenging for listeners than this season’s Mozart or Verdi operas, yet Glass’s music is still accessible and somewhat familiar.  Much of the opera’s music contains the unmistakable sounds of Glass’s minimalist style, in which short musical fragments are repeated over long periods of time with slow-changing harmonies.  Yet, Akhnaten’s dissonant sounds set it apart from Glass’s well-known piano music and earlier opera Einstein on the Beach, giving it a foreign, ancient feel.

“Anhkaten” At The IU MAC

The mesmerizing and reflective quality of Glass’s music has a powerful effect when paired with visual images or a narrative.  He has written music for several films, such as Candyman (1992), The Truman Show (1998), and The Hours (2002), which received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Original Score.  In film, the synergy between Glass’s score and the on-screen images offers depth and insight into the narrative: during Virginia Wolf’s suicide scene in The Hours, the mesmerizing calmness of Glass’s score offers psychological insight into the character, giving the viewer a sense of peace and finality in spite of the urgency and distress of the visual images.  The 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi offers a similar alliance between image and Glass’s music.  The film consists entirely of landscapes and city scenes without dialogue or narrative, and while the landscape scenes are often beautiful, Glass’s repetitive minimalist music can be deeply unsettling, giving the viewer the sense that something is very wrong; later scenes showing the effects of pollution confirm this sense.

Glass’s operatic music similarly complements images on stage.  Written in 1984, Akhnaten is Glass’s third opera, telling the story of an ancient Egyptian king who is overthrown after his attempts to impose religious reform on his kingdom. The music complements the ancient Egyptian setting, altering our sense of time and place because of its unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling nature.

Throughout the opera, the instruments and voices create layers of sounds; the strings, brass, percussion, and voices each repeat their own musical ideas without interacting with each other, producing a sense of organized chaos.  The Act 1 love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti demonstrates this effect while also speaking to Akhnaten’s desire to abolish polygamy in his kingdom. The duet features Glass’s signature repetition in the orchestra, while the two voices interject in their own style, perhaps symbolizing the characters’ unity in conflict with the desires of the polygamous kingdom.  Other elements, such as dissonance and a lack of sustained notes and vocal beauty, remind the listener that this is not a nineteenth-century operatic love story, but a much more distant, unfamiliar one.

Akhnaten is performed by twelve solo voices, a chorus, and a narrator, with a mixture of sung and spoken text.  Glass and his collaborators drew upon various sources for the text, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bible, and several letters and poems.  Each segment is performed in the source’s original language- English, Hebrew, or Egyptian.

The IU Opera Theater will perform Akhnaten at 8 pm on February 22 and 23, and March 1 and 2 at the Musical Arts Center.  Additionally, they will join the Indianapolis opera for two performances on March 8 and 9 at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.

The Ryder, February 2013

FILM: And The Winners Could Be…

Oscar Predictions From Somebody Who Has No Business Making Them ■ by Craig J. Clark

There’s a very good reason why I’m not in the Oscar prognostication business. In my Top Ten Films of 2012 article I singled out two performances which I believed merited some measure of recognition from the Academy and, true to form, when the nominations were announced last month, Denis Lavant failed to score one for his sterling work in Holy Motors and Rachel Weisz’s revelatory turn in The Deep Blue Sea was similarly passed over. I also find it hard to fathom that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master didn’t get nominated for Best Picture, Best Director or Best Original Screenplay, but at least at least it can crow about its three acting nods. Whether any of them will translate to actual wins is anyone’s guess. And when you get right down to it, guesswork is all it really is.

Ever since the nominations were announced, a lot of ink (both digital and actual) has been spilled by people in the industry and those standing outside it, all sharing their thoughts about who was snubbed and who’s likely to go home empty-handed come February 24. Some of these people may have even seen all or most of the films that are nominated, but in the field of entertainment journalism that’s hardly a prerequisite. With that in mind, here is my idiosyncratic take on who’s likely to win in the major categories, and who actually should win.

◗ Best Picture
It’s a nine-horse race this year, and at present I only really have five horses in it: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, and Silver Linings Playbook. Of the four that remain, I strongly suspect I will have seen Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty by the time this issue goes to press, which just leaves Argo (which I had ample opportunities to see when it was released last fall) and Les Misérables (which holds no interest for me whatsoever). And since the Academy declined to nominate Ben Affleck or Tom Hooper for Best Director (or Quentin Tarantino or Kathryn Bigelow, for that matter), their films don’t have much of a chance of taking the top award anyway. In many ways, Best Picture appears to be Lincoln‘s to lose, but if by some miracle that comes to pass, I’d like to see it be lost to Amour just because. Even sight unseen (since it won’t be coming to the IU Cinema until the week after the Oscars are given out), Amour is my pick.

◗ Best Director
And Michael Haneke is my pick for Best Director, even though chances are great that the Academy will give it to Steven Spielberg, whose last nomination was for Munich. Of the other nominees, Life of Pi is well-regarded enough that Ang Lee could be a spoiler (especially considering his last time up to bat was with Brokeback Mountain), and David O. Russell is something of a wild card thanks to the heat behind Silver Linings Playbook‘s clean sweep of the acting categories (the first time that’s happened since Reds pulled off the same feat 32 years ago). As for Benh Zeitlin, since he’s in such august company with his first feature, he should consider that it’s an honor just to be nominated and leave his acceptance speech at home.

◗ Best Actor
Of the five nominees, I’ve only seen two of their performances, but that hardly matters since everybody and their brother knows Daniel Day-Lewis has a lock on this. That’s really too bad for Bradley Cooper, who proved he was more than just a pretty face with Silver Linings Playbook (no matter how problematic its depiction of mental illness may be), Hugh Jackman (who used his natural singing ability to his advantage in Les Misérables), and Denzel Washington (who, like Day-Lewis, already has two Oscars in his trophy case). If it were up to me, though, the little gold statuette would go to Joaquin Phoenix for his incredibly brave performance as a troubled World War II veteran searching for a purpose in The Master.

Best Actress
This is one of the more difficult categories to handicap since its nominees are all over the map in terms of age and experience. At 9 years old, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest performer ever to be nominated for Best Actress, and at 85, Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva is the oldest. And the only other nominee I’ve seen is Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, which seems like a real long shot to me. I expect this is the one category where the Academy and I will align, though, with the award going to Riva for what I can only presume is a harrowing — and touching — performance.

◗ Best Supporting Actor
It’s been noted that all of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor this year have already won an Oscar, so there’s no chance of the Academy going, “Hey, we kind of owe Alan Arkin, don’t we? Let’s go ahead and give it to him.” For my money, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the heavyweight in this category since his part in The Master is really a leading role, but I believe the Academy will give it to Robert De Niro in recognition of the fact that his performance in Silver Linings Playbook represents one of the increasingly rare occasions where he actually appears to give a crap instead of just appearing in it. (Can you believe the last time he was nominated was for Cape Fear? Talk about a dry spell.)

◗ Best Supporting Actress
This one’s always a toss-up. As much as I enjoyed Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook, I don’t see her swaying the voters, and I predict that Amy Adams will wind up being the third nominee from The Master to go home empty-handed. That leaves the three performances I haven’t seen, so I’m going with my gut and saying Sally Field will take home her third Oscar (giving her a perfect record) for playing Mary Todd Lincoln.

◗ Best Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay
The screenplay awards tend to be where the Academy makes up for some oversight in the bigger categories. (Think Pulp Fiction netting Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay when many thought it should have bested Forrest Gump in the Best Picture race.) Accordingly, I fully expect screenwriter Mark Boal to spin Best Original Screenplay gold out of Zero Dark Thirty‘s failure to take home the top prize. If I had my druthers, though, I would much rather see it go to Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola for their sweetly perceptive coming-of-age tale Moonrise Kingdom (which received no other nominations). And while Tony Kushner is a sure bet to win Best Adapted Screenplay for Lincoln, I believe Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar’s beguiling script for Beasts of the Southern Wild is the one more worthy of recognition.

◗ Best Animated Feature
Since I haven’t seen any of the nominees for Best Documentary or Best Foreign Film (which is far from unusual considering the limited distribution those receive), the final category I’ll be weighing in on is Best Animated Feature, which I feel uniquely qualified for since I managed to see four of the five nominees. (I chalk this up to the fact that the Academy didn’t go for anything off the beaten path, like last year’s Chico & Rita or A Cat in Paris, or 2011’s surprise nomination for The Secret of Kells.) With ParaNorman being the odd one out for me, that leaves Pixar’s Brave, Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Disney’s Frankenweenie and Wreck-It Ralph. All solid films (although some are solid-er than others), but my pick for the best of the lot is the endlessly inventive (and lovingly nostalgic) Wreck-It Ralph. I’m pretty sure there are few gamers in the Academy, though, so they’ll probably give it to Brave instead, and I won’t kick up a fuss if they do. After all, I’m used to being wrong about these things.

The Ryder, February 2013

TV: Tilting At Windmills

Aaron Sorkin Speaks Truth To Stupid ■ by Ben Atkinson

There are plenty of news shows out there and even plenty of entertainment shows that cover news. The Newsroom is a drama about journalists reporting news, but the novelty is that it uses actual news stories from the recent past. The show, which first aired summer of 2012, begins its own timeline in April of 2010.

The Newsroom might just as well be the lovechild of Sorkin’s earlier shows The West Wing and Sports Night. The characters are inspiring but imperfect, with a constant battle between their demons and better angels, with the latter prevailing.

Writer and creator Aaron Sorkin believes there are viewers who are disappointed with the current state of journalism and with news shows geared more towards entertaining than informing. The Newroom revolves around the battle between the journalists and ratings-obsessed network executives. Sorkin fans will find the struggle of creative professionals to excel under management constraints familiar (see Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). His own struggles with ABC over the use of laugh tracks and live studio audiences may have influenced his writing. The Newsroom seems to have found a more willing party with HBO which has renewed the show for a second season set to air in June.

The Newsroom

Jeff Daniels brilliantly portrays lead anchor Will McAvoy. Daniels comes a long way from his famous role in Dumb and Dumber, and is more than convincing as one of those hyper-intelligent Sorkin characters who always has the appropriate facts, statistics, and trivia on hand for any situation. McAvoy is another in Sorkin’s line of great men who shape history. Of course he’s a man; while the women on the show wear powerful shoes and are far from the kitchen, their primary role is to inspire and prop up their male counterparts.

Despite the indignant speeches that inspire the left and infuriate the right (hardly rarities in a Sorkin script), McAvoy is a conservative, in the classical sense of the word. Registered Democrats and West Wing fans shouldn’t find this too off-putting, as it rarely explicitly surfaces. McAvoy’s acknowledged quixotic vision of himself as a knight defending truth, justice, and the American way while on a mission to civilize the savages rings rather false to a Leftist view of history. His constant forays against the Tea Party are less an attack on conservative philosophy than an attempt to rescue his party from its fringe elements, something Indiana Republicans might cherish after last year’s Senate race.

Emily Mortimer’s Mackenzie McHale is the show’s heart. Her passion drives everyone and her pure commitment to her profession counters the cynicism that threatens to conquer her colleagues. She is the better angel sitting on the proverbial shoulder.

Together their mission statement is “speak truth to stupid.” Journalism is idealized as a quest for truth, not as a “balance” with equal coverage between two ideological camps. McAvoy isn’t afraid to pursue a line of questioning beyond the prepared talking points and won’t let his interview subjects evade the issues with non-answers and deflections.

Yes, it is easier to look back on a two-year old story with hindsight and imagine how one would like it to have been reported. Sorkin isn’t bashing journalists, but is extolling what they could be as he reminds viewers of the importance of the Fourth Estate.

Reliving actual events makes watching The Newsroom a unique experience. Remembering where one was and how one viewed the events as they happened has a certain element of nostalgia. Many stories are not so pleasant, especially those all too similar to recent events. The first episode deals with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and brings to mind the recent grounding of the Shell drill barge off Alaska. The episode chronicling the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords can’t help but recall recent images from Sandy Hook. Nevertheless, the show manages to maintain an optimistic tone. Rather than compromise journalistic integrity and make deals with the devils, the journalists in The Newsroom rise to the challenge. Season 1 opens with allusions to Man of La Mancha, and it isn’t clear if we are witnessing a fool tilting at windmills or a brave knight stepping forth to do battle with giants. It ends, however referencing a different musical and the enduring embers of hope that can be seen even in the ashes of defeat. Camelot may have been but “for one brief shining moment,” but that doesn’t make a fool of King Arthur. Not everything about The Newsroom is perfect, but it does remind us that when we look over the “great blue motion of the sunlit sea,” some of the drops sparkle.

The Ryder, February 2013

The Subversive Cinema Of Crispin Glover

Look Who’s Talking ■ by Peter LoPilato

Crispin Glover is well known as an off-kilter character actor; who can forget the dippy dad, George McFly, in Back to the Future?

Glover is also a filmmaker, author and performance artist. And he’ll be combining all three when he arrives to the IU Cinema with his interactive, book tour/road show. The performances on February 15 and 16 are co-sponsored by The Ryder and will include screenings of Glover’s independently produced and self-distributed films (a different film each night) along with a slide show comprised of images from his extensively illustrated books — Glover’s books are visual works as much as they are texts. His dramatic narration will accompany the slide show. An audience Q&A and a let’s-get-acquainted book signing follow.

Glover’s films are provocative. In fact, that is an understatement and he believes that they are best experienced when he is present — screenings, consequently, are rare. It is Fine! Everything Is Fine will be screened on February 15. Produced and funded by Glover from a screenplay by the film’s star, Steven C. Stewart, It is Fine! dramatizes the psycho-sexual fantasies of a man with severe cerebral palsy. Combining elements of horror and  exploitation, this fantastical and often humorous tale is told completely from Stewart’s point of view – that of a man who has lived for years watching people do things he will never be able to do.

Glover will present What Is It? on February 16. Described as “the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe,” the film’s ensemble cast includes porn stars and actors with Down Syndrome. In addition to writing and directing What Is It? Glover also appears in the film as an actor in the role of a “dueling Demi-God Auteur and the young man’s inner psyche.” Actress Fairuza Balk voices one of the snails.
It is safe to say that even adventurous filmgoers will be venturing into unchartered cinematic territory when Crispin Glover comes to town. Glover discussed his films, books and his on-again-off-again relationship with Hollywood in an interview, conducted by email, with The Ryder.

Ryder Your films bring imagery to screen that audiences are not often (if ever) exposed to.  Many of these images are considered taboo, at least in mainstream media.  How are you trying to affect your audiences with these images?

Crispin Glover I am very careful to make it quite clear that What is it? is not a film about Down Syndrome but my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking. Specifically anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. This is damaging to the culture because it is the very moment when an audience member sits back in their chair looks up at the screen and thinks “Is this right, what I am watching? Is this wrong, what I am watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have made this? What is it?” -and that is the title of the film.

What is it that is taboo in the culture? What does it mean that taboo has been ubiquitously excised in this culture’s media? What does it mean to the culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media? So What is it? Is a direct reaction to the contents this culture’s media. I would like people to think for themselves.

Ryder You’ve been quoted as saying, “I admire films and desire to make films that go beyond the realm of that which is considered good and evil.”  How would you define “good” and “evil” in filmmaking?

Crispin Glover Films that are currently financed and distributed by the film corporations and distribution corporations must sit within the boundary of that which is considered good and evil. What this means is if there is a so called “bad thing/evil thing” that sits within a corporately financed and distributed film it must necessarily be pointed at by the filmmaker; the audience is dictated to think about that so called “evil thing” in that one way. Any other way of thinking about that so called “evil thing” would be considered wrong and the film must be made in such a way that the audience understands that the filmmakers feel that this “evil thing” is only that and no other way of thinking about that “evil thing” could or should be possible. A film that goes beyond the realm of good and evil may have this same so-called “evil thing” but the filmmaker may not necessarily point at that so-called “evil thing.” The audience can think for itself as to what this so called “evil thing” really is to them. I would say that description applies to both What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.

Ryder You’ve worked within and outside of the Hollywood studio system. I would assume that both have advantages and disadvantages. Can you talk a bit about those?

Crispin Glover I see myself as someone who has been raised with the understanding of how corporately funded and distributed film business works. I have had a certain amount of acceptance within that business.

While I am grateful to that system to have made a living in it for about 35 years I have also had questions about how to make the corporately funded and distributed film business more truly educational. Within the corporately funded and distributed film world I see myself as an actor for hire and am grateful to that system to have made a living in it.

In the year 2000 this was around the same time that the first Charlie’s Angels film was coming to me. I realized that the money I made from that film could be put straight into What is it? after Charlie’s Angels came out it did very well financially and was good for my acting career. I started getting better roles that also paid better and I could continue using that money to finance my films that I am so passionate about. I have been able to divorce myself from the content of the films that I act in and look at acting as a craft. Usually filmmakers have hired me because there is something they have felt would be interesting to accomplish with me in their film. If for some reason the director is not truly interested in doing something that I personally find interesting with the character then I can console myself that with the money I am making to be in their production I can help to fund my own films. Usually though I feel as though I am able to get something across as an actor that I feel good about. It has worked out well.

Ryder The very personal, self-distribution of your films is admirable, and pays tribute to early film exhibition, when live performance and music were very much part of the program. Was this the inspiration for you, or are you recalling something different?

Crispin Glover Thank you! The live aspects of the shows are not to be underestimated.

When I first started publishing the books in 1988 people said I should have book readings. But the books are so heavily illustrated and the way the illustrations are used within the books they help to tell the story so the only way for the books to make sense was to have visually representations of the images. This is why I knew a slide show was necessary. It took a while but in 1992 I started performing what I now call Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Side Show Part 1. I perform a one hour dramatic narration of eight different books I have made over the years. The illustrations from the books are projected behind me as I perform the show. The content of that show has not changed since I first started performing it. But the performance of the show has become more dramatic as opposed to more of a reading. The books do not change but the performance of the show of course varies slightly from show to show based the audience’s energy and my energy.

People sometimes get confused as to what Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show is, so now I always let it be known that it is a one hour dramatic narration of eight different profusely illustrated books that I have made over the years. The fact that I tour with the film helps the distribution element. I consider what I am doing to be following in the steps of vaudeville performers. Vaudeville was the main form of entertainment for most of the history of the US. It has only relatively recently stopped being the main source of entertainment, but that does not mean this live element mixed with other media is no longer viable.

Volcanic Eruptions was a business I started in Los Angeles in 1988 as Crispin Hellion Glover doing business as Volcanic Eruptions. It was a name to use for my book publishing company.  About a year later I had a record/CD come out with a corporation called Restless Records. When I had sold the same amount of books as CD/records, it became clear to me that, because I had published my own books, I had a far greater profit margin. It made me very suspicious of working with corporations as a business model.

It is enjoyable to travel and visit places, meet people, perform the shows and have interaction with audiences and discussions about the films afterwards. The forum after the show is also not to be under-estimated as a very important part of the show for the audience. This also makes me much more personally grateful to the individuals who come to my shows as there is no corporate intermediary. The drawbacks are that a significant amount of time and energy to promote and travel and perform the shows. The number of people seeing the films is much smaller than if I were to distribute the films in a more traditional sense.

The way I distribute my films is certainly not traditional in the contemporary sense of film distribution but perhaps is very traditional when looking further back at vaudeville era film distribution. If there are any filmmakers that are able to utilize aspects of what I am doing then that is good. It has taken many years to organically develop what I am doing now as far as my distribution goes.

Ryder Your books Rat Catching and Oak-Mot are altered versions of works that were in the public domain – could a similar approach work in filmmaking?

Crispin Glover I started making my books in 1983 for my own enjoyment without the concept of publishing them. I had always written and drawn and the books came as an accidental outgrowth of that. I was in an acting class in 1982 and down the block was an art gallery that had a book store upstairs. In the book store there was a book for sale that was an old binding taken from the 1800’s and someone had put their art work inside the binding. I thought this was a good idea and set out to do the same thing. Sometimes I would find images that I was inspired to create stories for or sometimes it was the binding or sometimes it was portions of the texts that were interesting. Altogether, I made about twenty of them.

When I was editing my first feature film What is it? There was a reminiscent quality to the way I worked with the books because as I was expanding the film in to a feature from what was originally going to be a short, I was taking film material that I had shot for a different purpose originally and re-purposed it for a different idea and I was writing and shooting and ultimately editing at the same time. Somehow I was comfortable with this because of similar experiences with making my books.

There are definitely filmmakers that have taken existing film works and reworked them for a different interpretation of the original footage. Sometimes it is very effective. I saw the 1936 film Rose Hobart by the American Artist Joseph Cornel projected at UCLA in the 1980’s. He had taken portions of a film titled East of Borneo and edited it with footage from at least one other film. I quite liked that film when I saw it. I am sure there are a lot of other good examples of this being done.

Ryder Many of your works, film and print, independent and commercial, focus on what some would consider “uncouth” objects, i.e. snails (What is It?), worms (Oak-Mot), rats (Rat Catching and Willard), cockroaches (Wild at Heart). Similarly, many of the women in What is It? are shown wearing various animal masks (monkeys, elephants, etc.). What do you find attractive or interesting about insects and animals generally? What do you think these things can tell your audience about themselves, if anything?

Crispin Glover I am careful not to publicly over-analyze the imagery in my own films. Wild at Heart is of course a David Lynch film. The nature of What is it? lets people’s thoughts come in to play. If I let people know what my thoughts are on the imagery in the film it can make people feel they are wrong in interpreting it differently. It is important for people to interpret the imagery in the way that make sense to them. I will say that I knew the macro shots of the snails in What is it? would help to personalize them in a way that would not happen if shot with a non-macro lens.

Ryder You recorded the pop classic These Boots Art Made for Walkin’ and put your own personal stamp on it. Is there a classic Hollywood film that you would like to do the same with?

Crispin Glover It was produced on the record The Big Problem ≠ The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be by Barnes and Barnes. They had asked me to record a top-40 song. I was a bit reluctant to do this, but ended up choosing that song.  I don’t have any film in my mind that would necessarily be good to remake, but I would never say never.

Ryder Who are a few of your favorite filmmakers? Is there anyone you would especially like to work with if you were given the opportunity?

Crispin Glover Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Buñuel, Stanley Kubrick, Todd Browning, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa, Milos Foreman, Roman Polanski, David Lynch, John Waters, Russ Meyer, Karel Zeman, Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, Ken Russell, Gaspar Noe, Orson Wells, John Cassavetes, Dennis Hopper….

There are many more. My favorite film lists go into the hundreds and there are a lot of my very favorite films that are just one-offs where the director only made one film. Many of the above directors have made multiple films that I admire.

The Ryder, February 2013

FILM: Bringing Middle Earth Back To Life—Again

Peter Jackson brings The Hobbit to a theater near you ■ by Rick Nagy

Like many other fans of JRR Tolkien, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that Jackson had taken the helm of The Hobbit from Guillermo Del Toro. Don’t get me wrong – I like Del Toro’s Movies, but it was evident he just didn’t get the world of Tolkien. I feel confident that when I walk into the theater at midnight on December 14th to see An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of The Hobbit, Jackson’s long-awaited “prequel” to Lord of the Rings, it will have been worth the wait.


Bilbo Baggins Hosts An Unexpected Party In “The Hobbit”

It wasn’t just that Del Toro wanted to inject a post-modern artiness into the project; he simply didn’t understand what lay at the heart of Tolkien’s world: language.

In an interview with The New Yorker last year, Del Toro showed off some of the movie’s production drawings. What really caught my attention was his description of Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf chieftain whom hobbit Bilbo Baggins follows in the essential quest at the heart of The Hobbit. Apparently, Thorin’s helmet should be shaped like a crown of thorns, because, “after all,” according to Del Toro, “his name is Thorin.”

This, of course, elicited from me a loud “NO, NO, NO” in my best Simpsons “comic book guy” voice. Never mind the hackneyed, unnecessary Jesus reference (There’s nothing particularly Christ-like about Thorin Oakenshield), but the name Thorin is not related to the English word for Thorn. Let me nerd-out a little here: Thorin comes from the Norse, and means “bold.” But more than that, the name is related to his lineage in Middle Earth, and shows the relation to his forbears Thror and Thrain.  This is evident to even casual readers of The Hobbit. Names carry a lot of weight in Middle Earth, and nobody possessed of more than a passing familiarity with Tolkien would have made such a fundamental mistake. Del Toro had shown he was not worthy of the undertaking.

And while it’s true I still have a problem with Peter Jackson’s Thorin Oakenshield, it is a much less serious, and primarily aesthetic, problem: Jackson doesn’t casually brush aside Tolkien’s understanding of how language works. Jackson’s Thorin is a young, handsome swashbuckler – entirely different than the grey-bearded ancient of Tolkien’s book. I have, however, decided to withhold judgment because I trust Jackson’s understanding of Tolkien’s world.
Professor Tolkien was very particular about the language in his books. He was a professional philologist, an Oxford Don, a professor of Anglo Saxon, and one of the editors of The Oxford English Dictionary. Here we have a man who cost his publishers a considerable amount of money because his plural word “dwarves” was reproduced as “dwarfs” in one of the first editions of The Hobbit, and this would just not do.

Tolkien thought his works unfilmable, and many of his fans speculate that he would have been livid about all the changes Peter Jackson made to the story in his epic adaptation of “Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien’s most famous book, and one of the most widely read of the twentieth century. But I think Peter Jackson’s adaptation is one of the great films, and a fitting tribute to Tolkien. (I consider Jackson’s “trilogy”one long film in three installments, just as the three parts of LOTR really constitute one novel. For those LOTR fans with the stamina, Showplace West in Bloomington will host a one-day marathon on December 8th.) And while I have some misgivings about The Hobbit, which I’ll discuss below, my hopes are still high that Jackson has produced another masterpiece.
I like to imagine the young JRR Tolkien, standing on a battlefield in WWI, surveying the smoke, the trenches, the death. While doing so, he creates another world, based on his own, but imagined in a far distant, different past – a world called Middle Earth.

Gandalf, In “The Hobbit”

Those initial stories he created as a young man would not be published until after his death; his son Christopher would complete what the professor considered the great work of his life: “The Silmarillion,” the mythology of Middle Earth. “The Silmarillion” is one of the world’s great mythologies, complete with its own creation and hero stories that rival the Greek myths. It is mostly concerned with The Eldar, or as we would say, Elves. Tolkien the philologist had invented two languages, and needed to create the world in which these languages would be spoken, a world where those who spoke those languages would dwell. “The Silmarillion” is the bible of that world.

This love and deep knowledge of language is what sets Tolkien and his world apart from every other fantasy writer. Every word, every phrase, every bit of verse, is only the entrance to a new rabbit hole which leads to Middle Earth, and that makes it an utterly convincing alternate world. The farther down that linguistic rabbit-hole one goes, the more meaning Tolkien’s works have. Tolkien did not simply make up words that have a foreign, mythical sound about them (very noticeable in most fantasy works); his languages are steeped in our own history, and draw upon several sources for their depth and their beauty.

Professor Tolkien’s world, his Middle Earth, is so detail-laden, so exacting in its geography, geology, flora and fauna, that nothing seems false. He gave his whole life to creating this world, and as many have observed, his works sometimes read like history rather than fiction. Middle Earth may be based on our own world, or specifically Great Britain, but is different enough to transport readers out of our own. And it all started with language.

One of the languages so beloved by Tolkien was Welsh, and local author Mark T. Hooker’s collection of essays, Tolkien and Welsh, is a fine explication of just how Tolkien drew upon that language to help create such a convincing world. Again, it wasn’t enough to just make up words and names – those words and names had to have history.

I hope he’ll pardon my description of his life’s work, but his bibliography bears me out: Hooker is a Tolkienologist. Hooker shows how Tolkien uses linguistic devices like mutation, and picks out specific examples from throughout Tolkien’s books to describe this process.

Okay. Despite the blurb on the back cover that Hooker “writes primarily for the lay person,” meaning people who are not professional linguists, presumably, you still have to be pretty far down that Tolkien rabbit hole to appreciate the book. My point is, again, that understanding how Tolkien used language to create Middle Earth is important in understanding his works as more than just great stories. You simply don’t go around saying, “Well, ‘Thorin’ sounds like ‘thorn,’ so well give him a helmet that looks like thorns.”

It’s a long-standing dictum about many adapted films that “the book is better,” a sentiment I’ve never entirely understood. Certainly, there have been terrible movies adapted from books, but they are terrible not because of the changes necessary in filmic storytelling, but because they are just bad movies.

But think of all the great movies that tell an essentially different story than the book on which they are based. L.A. Confidential comes to mind. There was no way to include all the labyrinthine details from James Ellroy’s novel, but director Curtis Hanson kept the feel of the book’s intrigue and dark underbelly by telling a story that works on film.

Peter Jackson certainly has his detractors – “word-for-word” types who wouldn’t be happy with films that  don’t show every detail from the book. But that was never an option. Not only would the films be commercial disasters – a real consideration given the budget – but frankly, boring. Film adaptation is an art unto itself; for anybody who thinks Jackson missed the mark, I highly recommend watching the “Appendices” sections of the LOTR extended-edition DVDs, especially as they pertain to why Jackson and his fellow screenwriters made the changes they did to the story.

Phillipa Boyens, the primary screenwriter of Jackson’s LOTR, and a very obvious Tolkien geek, is quite clear in the “appendices” about why certain additions, deletions and changes were made, meeting the criticisms of the “word-for-word” advocates head on. Her explanation of the changes in Faramir from book to film, one of the many sticking points to Tolkien purists, is particularly convincing. More than anything, the appendices to the DVDs show just how much Jackson understands Tolkien, and called the right shots to make what may be the most involved film project in history.

One minor change that makes me so confident in Jackson as an interpreter of Tolkien takes place in the “Council of Elrond” scene in Fellowship of the Rings. In the movie, when Boromir asks what “a ranger of the north” would know of (the matters discussed at the council), Legolas tells him the ranger is, in fact, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. With only that much information, the Boromir of the film knows that Aragorn is Isildur’s heir. I would argue that this shows Jackson’s understanding of the importance of names and language in Tolkien, and so, stands in stark contrast to Del Toro’s ignorance.

My initial concerns about The Hobbit have nothing to do with language, but with more technical aspects, particularly Jackson’s decision to film at 48 frames per second and in 3D. Jackson may very well be right when he says that 48 fps will be the future standard (it has been 24 fps for most of film history), but I disagree that adopting the technology first will “future proof” The Hobbit. Early test audiences said the film had a cold sterile look, and the first trailers I saw seemed to bear that impression out. The first adoptions of any new technology inevitably become dated and quaint, especially in comparison to later uses of the same technology. And, since most theaters won’t be showing the film in the 48 fps format, it seems like a waste of the technology.

As far as 3D: I don’t want to sound like one of those people who thought air travel was a fad, but….

A director has to make choices for 3D that he otherwise might not have made. Given the scope of the project, I trust to hope that Jackson will not fill The Hobbit with objects flying at the audience, but will create a world that audience feels a part of, creating depth, not simply surprise.

But I have to say, the most recent trailer for the film is amazing. While the images are certainly crisp, like Blu-ray, there is a warmth and a light very similar to LOTR. Jackson’s Weta Digital is the most advanced special effects house in the world, and he has pulled out all the stops. Advances in CG animation technology have improved exponentially since the already impressive Return of the King was released in 2004; the Gollum in the trailer, for example, is lifelike in ways the LOTR Gollum, which at the time seemed impossibly real, was not.

Jackson recently announced that, like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit will have three installments. Given that The Hobbit as a novel is one third the length of LOTR, perhaps Jackson has decided to make a very close adaptation of the book. The trailers suggest scenes which are either not in the book, or to which the book only alludes. Either way, the same legion of fans that made LOTR a blockbuster  will no doubt return, even if they return with doubts. For my part, Peter Jackson is exactly the right person to bring Tolkien’s first book to life on film, and on December fourteenth at midnight, I’ll know for sure.

The Ryder, December 2012

MUSIC: The Year In Music, 2012

Our Town’s Top Music Mavens Take On The Year In Sounds

■ Jim Manion‘s Best Albums of the Year     

As Music Director of WFHB, I listen to music pretty much all day, every day. My favorites of 2012 had to be records I listened to many times over by choice and will continue to listen to for the rest of my years.

◗ KID KOALA “12 BIT BLUES”

New music created with roots music samples can be brilliant, or it can be stinky cheese. Kid Koala scores brilliance with this electronic tribute to the blues. The Kid’s secret: hitting the dusty blues samples in real-time (on a vintage E-mu sampler) to capture that elusive blues feel. After my first listen (in a rental car), I listened another five times in a row.

◗ NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSEPSYCHEDELIC PILL”

Uncle Neil got mixed reviews for this epic, sprawling journey into the Crazy Horse zone. To my ears, this is as fresh as 1970’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere but ten times as exploratory in the sonic realm. Neil and The Horse are definitely driftin’ back and waving their freak flag. In the process they create spaces of aural imagination that are truly psychedelic.

Psychedelic Pill

◗ GALACTIC “CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS”

Mardi Gras Indians + Stanton Moore + edgy funk electronics + New Orleans music samples = one wildass Mardi Gras album for the ages. My neighbors will hear this a lot again in January and February. Hey Na Na!

◗ SHANNON HAYDEN “SOLID STATE CELLO”

Still in her early 20s, this classical cello/guitar virtuoso composes and performs a visionary fusion of classical and electronic that is stunning and mind-expanding. Shannon records off-the-grid with wind and solar power at her family’s organic farm in central Illinois. If you get a chance to see her live, go!

◗ LERA LYNN “HAVE YOU MET LERA LYNN?”

Southern belle Lera Lynn sings with a big, clear, timeless voice that evokes shivers when it rings. Her lyrics are full of spooky Southern Goth, while her song forms open up to release the tense but resigned anxiety those lines create. A modern day Bobbie (Ode to Billy Joe) Gentry, Lera’s music is heavy-duty whether she plays solo or with her scorching electric band.

R&B Mojo and Rasp-Rap Rushes ■ Jason Fickel‘s Best Albums of the Year     

◗ FIONA APPLE “THE IDLER WHEEL…”

Raw, dark songs with some R&B mojo. Catchy, but it shouldn’t be.

◗ RAY ANDERSON POCKET BRASS BAND “SWEET CHICAGO SUITE”

A blast of horn and percussion exuberance with pieces that begin vaguely familiar, but end up someplace you never expect.

◗ GOTYE “SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW”

This monster truck of Aussie pop instantly invited covers and parodies (is there a difference?); there was no way to separate it from the year 2012.

◗ DRAKE “TAKE CARE”

When Bobby “Blue” Bland’s words come out of Rihanna’s mouth and Gil-Scott Heron’s rasp-rap rushes out of pop radio all in one jam, you know something has happened.

BOB DYLAN “TEMPEST”

Another awesome collection that yet again brings it all back home and then hurls it right back out.  The title cut is a 13-plus minute titanic ballad, because, really, why not?

■ Abe Morris‘s Best Albums of the Year

◗ MADONNA & BLUNDERBUSS “MDNA”

Madge has been much maligned in the press this year, still this is my pop record of the year. Madonna seethes in post-divorce purgatory, but she ain’t sittin’ still. Girl can still get her groove on putting together her best record this millennium by far.

◗ BEAR IN HEAVEN “I LOVE YOU, IT’S COOL”

I actually heard this for the first time last year while I was in New York, so I bring a bias of this album being my soundtrack for that trip. But 13 months later, I don’t think there’s any album I’ve listened to more. The acid-trip version of Pretty Woman featured in the video for “Sinful Nature” is an added bonus.

◗ MATTHEW DEAR “BEAMS”

Matthew Dear sounds like he records himself singing backwards and then grabs the final audio track by playing back the record at half speed. This voice set a top an utterly lush and gorgeous bed of beats makes for an album that keeps pulling your ear back into the mix.

◗ FRANK OCEAN “CHANNEL ORANGE”

Toeing the line between rap and R&B, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is the most complete record of the year. Often times hip hop albums tend to load the back end with lots of filler, but not this one. The surprising observational and confessional tones of this record make it a stand out in a hip hop world often over-saturated with braggadocio.

◗ JACK WHITE “BLUNDERBUSS”

The mad music wizard from Nashville is probably the best in the biz at finding new and inventive ways of delivering music and keeping fans on their toes. And it goes without saying that Mr. White and his perennially be-suited entourage is one of the most stylish men in America. But on Blunderbuss, Jack White shows us just how cool he is, bringing 13 songs relatively simple in form, and slathering them in layers of swagger. No other person on the planet can make these songs shine like Jack does.

Honorable Mentions:

◗ Tindersticks “The Something Rain”

Grizzly Bear “Shields”

Here We Go Magic “A Different Ship”

Tame Impala “Lonerism”

Die Antwoord “Ten$ion”

Chris Swanson‘s Best Albums of the Year

◗ Father John Misty “Fear Fun”

Finally a new chapter in the great American bathrobed SoCal beautiful loser songbook, and it’s a great one.

◗ Grimes “Vision”

Along with Frank Ocean, Claire Boucher’s Grimes is one of 2012’s great emergent musical personas. A truly gifted songwriter/producer/performer.

◗ Killer MikeR.A.P. Music”

The best hip hop record of 2012. It is wizened (but not jaded) and has the most politically urgent song of the year in “Reagan”.

◗ Merchandise “Children of Desire”

This is what happens when three hard core kids from Tampa let their guard down and let their Anglophilia take hold.

◗ Tomas Barfod “Salton Sea”

The debut solo album by this Danish producer mixes vocal-driven hook-heavy pop songs with gorgeous Kraut-inspired instrumentals.

Best in Blues by Cathi Norton

◗ PHANTOM BLUES BAND “INSIDE OUT”

Taj Mahal’s road band, heavy-weight musicians bristling with chops. This CD features horn backup, lots of keyboard/organ, soulful vocals and urban blues/rock—loaded with style and maturity.

◗ MANNISH BOYS “DOUBLE DYNAMIT”

Fourteen great players from Delta Groove stable of musicians with a double disk release of blues that is solidly based on the roots of the masters while building new branches on that tree. GREAT players like Jimi Bott, Frank Goldwasser and Kirk Fletcher, along with fine vocalists like Sugar Ray Rayford and Finis Tasby.

◗ NATHAN JAMES & THE RHYTHM SCRATCHERS “WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT”

Authentic blues dawg, James built a guitar in high school, played on the road as a one-man band in the blues for 15 years and here puts together a trio to round out his rollin’ blues—live in one take. Solid playing, original attack.  Smokin’.

◗ SMOKIN’ JOE KUBEK & BNOIS KING “UNPLUGGED—CLOSE TO THE BONE”

Ex-Freddie King guitarist Joe Kubek  and Louisiana guitarist Bnois King have had a hard-rockin’ blues career for 20 years. Here they take a wicked left turn and put out an acoustic disc, featuring fine, fine blues players from the West Coast. Great players, and without the loudness as distraction, it’s clear these are fine blues artists.

◗ EDDIE TAYLOR JR. “SO CALLED FRIEND”

Son of famed guitarist Eddie Taylor, Sr., Junior has picked up his traditional blues guitar style and unlike Eddie senior, sings most tunes. His guitar work (like Eddie Sr.’s) features a beautiful old traditional blues attack. Saweeeet guitar work.

Best in Electronic ■ by Markus Lowe

◗ BASSNECTAR “VAVA VOOM”

Electronic pioneer of self-described “bass music” culture returns with more brilliant bass anthems sure to keep your head rumbling and your body moving.

◗ HOT CHIP “IN OUR HEADS”

Indie-dance favorites dive deep into love, taking the quirky, idiosyncratic experimentations of their early career and distilling it into groovy, heartfelt dance songs.

◗ KID KOALA “12 BIT BLUES”

After 3 days with an E-mu SP-1200 sampler, Koala takes the blues on a journey back to hiphop’s electronic sampling roots to produce a really raw, immediate and strangely beautiful album.

◗ SHAWN LEE “SYNTHESIZERS IN SPACE”

The one-man music machine slings psyched funk-soul from the far side of the moon; 1970 has arrived at 2001.

◗ BOYS NOIZE “OUT OF THE BLACK”

Berlin-based Alex Ridha delivers his requisite style of in-your-face electro-bang with choice elements of early influences of old school house tracks, B-Boy cuts, and acid records.

Best in World Music ■ by Michael McDowell

◗ VARIOUS ARTISTS “THE COLOMBIAN MELTING POT: DIABLOS DEL RITMO 1960-1985”

This two-disc compilation is the result of a five-years hunt in Barranquilla, a sprawling city in the middle of the Colombian Caribbean Coast, one of the planet’s musical hotspots. It’s irresistible, incredible, and immoral, even, to have music this good.

◗ JIMMY CLIFF “REBIRTH”

He’s still got it! Cliff is the rare talent whose voice ages beautiful. This one goes back to his roots a la The Harder They Come, but exudes the fresh energy of real rejuvenation and rebirth.

◗ VARIOUS ARTISTS “FUTURE SOUNDS OF BUENOS AIRES”

Traditional Andean cumbia and folklorico roots + electronic soundscapes and street beats = cumbia digital. The best of the best from the contemporary dance scene in Buenos Aires, perfect for the next time you turn your residence into a nightclub.

◗ NIYAZ “SUMUD”

Seamless fusion of ancient Persian poetry, traditional folk from Iran, and sumptuous electronic grooves; Niyaz delivers thick music.

◗ SIERRA LEONE’S REFUGEE ALL STARS “RADIO SALONE”

Remember Lotus Festival 2010? Lanky and magnificent West African roots reggae as per usual, here the All Stars take on Congolese soukous as well, and there is no doubt they are some of the best afropop players on the planet.


Best in metal ■ by David J. Smith

◗ DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT “WIDOWMAKER”

Reverb-drenched guitars, violins, and disturbing spoken-word samples lead the listener on a beautiful, exhilarating journey into darkness.

◗ GAZA “NO ABSOLUTES IN HUMAN SUFFERING”

Controversial political and religious views aside, Gaza plays a brutal, supremely creative, and thoroughly enjoyable brand of blackened crust.

◗ EAGLE TWIN “THE FEATHER TIPPED THE SERPENT’S SCALE”

This Utah band’s perfectly-produced sophomore release is a ferocious, complex, and sublime amalgam of doom and drone.

◗ DEATHSPELL OMEGA “DROUGHT”

Another avant-garde black metal masterpiece of meticulous chaos.

◗ KRALLICE “YEARS PAST MATTER”

Harsh, dense, and precise melodic black metal mark this band’s finest release.

Best Traditional Roots, Bluegrass & Celtic ■ by Jamie Gans

◗ TIM O’BRIEN & DARRELL SCOTT “LIVE”

Originally recorded live in 2005 and 2006 at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC but only now released in 2012, multi-instrumentalist and singer, Tim O’Brien with singer-songwriter, Darrell Scott harmonize in power and passion a full palette of inspired songs.

◗ THE KATHY KALLICK BAND “TIME”

Kathy is in great company blending heartfelt vocals and dazzling musicianship with her band mates as she treats us to one of the sweetest albums in her 40 year musical career.

◗ THE OUTSIDE TRACK “FLASH COMPANY”

From Ireland, Scotland, the US, and Canada The Outside Track provides traditional lush vocals and driving Celtic tunes with rich complex arrangements on fiddle, harp, accordion, flute, and guitar.

◗ THE HILLBENDERS “CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

They are part of a new generation in a stylistic break from the traditional and commercial bluegrass world along with groups like The Infamous Stringdusters and Town Mountain.  The Hillbenders have their own stamp of originality and instrumental virtuosity. Great pickers, great singers performing all their own material.

◗ BREABACH “BANN”

Bann simply means band in Scots Gaelic. Breabach hails from the Highlands and they weave together an amazing tweed of pipe tunes, fiddle tunes and Gaelic songs with youthful finesse and fury that is finer than the best of an aged single malt.

The Ryder, January 2013

MEDIA: The Year In Television, 2012

■ by Dan Melnick

2012 was a year of antiheroes and villains; single mothers and scientists.  While there is no shortage of dark, morally ambiguous worlds to choose from, there are also the twinkling lights of literal fairy tales and family-friendly shenanigans to save viewers from an otherwise ominous netherworld. If anything, 2012 has provided a wide spectrum to choose from. Perhaps the trend then, is in its diversity. Cable television has never been better. Many shows now offer film-like quality with the longevity and luxury to delve deeper into their characters than any movie ever could, to create a truly immersive experience for the viewer.

If nothing else, the following list below is a perfect example of this. Each show is unique in its own right and there’s no emergent pattern to find, except darn good programming.

◗ ONCE UPON A TIME (ABC)

Taking a page out of Lost’s playbook, OUAT pairs flashback stories with a current one, but unlike Lost, these fairy tale flashbacks actually advance a plot, and a plot that makes sense at that.

◗ SOUTH PARK (CC)

It’s easy to dismiss the show as silly, but 16 seasons later and delving into topics from recurrent Apple “User Agreements” to the train wreck that is Honey Boo Boo, South Park’s social commentary is just as poignant as ever.

◗ THE BIG BANG THEORY (CBS)

Its one of the most watched shows on television, so can millions of viewers be wrong? Discussions of astrophysics may fly over most of our heads, but heart of the show is simple enough that anyone can understand.

◗ ARCHER (FX)

This show doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It’s not only a cartoon, but it’s a cartoon with lousy animation. Sound like anything else you know? But the humor is sharp, the comebacks are witty, and the dialogue is impeccable.

◗ BEN AND KATE (FOX)

Dakota Johnson is perfectly cast as Kate, a believable, quirky single mom who’s the grounding rod for the lightning storm of side characters around her. Johnson’s sense of realism makes everything else funnier.

◗ BREAKING BAD (AMC)

For most shows a season is essentially meaningless, just a bunch of episodes, but BB grows. Each season is another perfectly crafted arc, continuing the story of a conflicted chemistry teacher and transforming him into a ruthless villain.

◗ MODERN FAMILY (ABC)

Like a house of cards, Modern Family stands on the shoulders of the entire cast. It wouldn’t be the comic powerhouse that it is without the delicate interplay between each of their unique voices and styles. Put them all in a white room with nothing to do and even that would be entertaining.

◗ SONS OF ANARCHY (FX)

The Sopranos on motorcycles. Each episode is shocking, the characters are engaging, and underneath it all, there’s still a moral code keeping it all together. Everyone’s favorite bad boys have never been better.

Sons Of Anarchy

◗ THE WALKING DEAD (AMC)

Zombies and an apocalyptic Earth are just the backdrop to tell true tales of humanity at its best and at its worse. Now that they’ve left Hershel’s farm, each episode gets better and better as the actual zombies for which the show is named, become the least of their problems.

◗ GAME OF THRONES (HBO)

Proof that strong characters are the most important aspect of a show. At a glance, it may appear to be a show about swords and sorcery, but that idea couldn’t be further from the truth. GoT is rife with intrigue, turmoil, courage, and fear delivered by an amazing cast and can hold an audience’s attention like nothing else on television.

The Ryder, January 2013

FILM: Lincoln’s Moment

Leading by Example: Lincoln’s Rhetorical Strategies ■ by Tom Prasch

After recounting of an ominous dream to his wife in Steven Spielberg’s magisterial unbiopic Lincoln, the President reaches for a handy quotation: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” His wife Mary, while complaining “I’m your soothsayer, that’s all I am anymore,” nevertheless dutifully tries to interpret the dream’s portent: perhaps the campaign against Wilmington, or no, it’s the struggle for the amendment.  But her interpretive work would have been speedier had she heeded the quotation. The lines Lincoln quotes are from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a conversation between the Danish prince and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the theme is ambition. As Guildenstern notes in the lines that immediately follow, “dreams indeed are ambition,” and at this point in the film’s condensed chronology Lincoln’s own ambition is being made abundantly clear: to secure the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

But beyond the explication of the dreamwork, the quotation also highlights Lincoln’s central, time-honored rhetorical strategy, which becomes a centerpiece of Tony Kushner’s screenplay for Lincoln: when commenting or seeking to sway, Lincoln’s constant recourse is to exempla, stories or quotations that illustrate his point. He opens with a joke (even if his dark-edged humor sometimes falls flat, like the apocalyptic pigeon tale he tells to a couple of clearly baffled constituents). He offers up stories about past heroes, like the jocular tale he tells of revolutionary-era hero Ethan Allen, with its crude punchline: “nothing’ll make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington.” He shares a personal anecdote, tending to favor humorous tales from his law career, but recalling his own epiphany on slavery to convince one wavering congressman. He reaches for an analogy, as when he draws on Euclid’s First Theorem (using an older translation, he calls it a “common notion”) to convince a telegraph operator about the principles of equality, or when he compares his cabinet to whalers with their “harpoon in the monster’s back.” (Senator Wade complains after Lincoln’s exit: “The man’s never been near a whale ship in his life!”)

Lincoln

And he quotes (or nearly quotes) from sages past. When Lincoln intones, as the naval bombardment of Wilmington commences, “Old Neptune, shake thy hoary locks,” it recalls the deluge scene in Ovid’s Metamorphosis (in Dryden’s translation); in the same scene, his “Thunder forth, God of War” echoes Milton, unless it’s Horace; shadows of the Bible, in the poetry of the King James version, are everywhere, most directly in the Second Inaugural Address that closes the film. And then there’s Shakespeare: Hamlet for that dream scene; Macbeth as he argues with Seward about the timing of the push for the amendment (Banquo’s address to the witches: “If you can look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me”); and when he meets with Bilbo and his crew late at night, he quotes from Falstaff (“We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Swallow”), appropriately enough for that boozy crew.

Lincoln never footnotes his references; the quotations presume a common (now largely lost) cultural legacy, and a common strategy of lessons through exempla. He is not, after all, the only one given to quotation in the film. The soldiers he encounters in the film’s second scene conclude their exchange with him by reciting his own Gettysburg Address (and it is indicative that the uppity black in the scene—the same one who complains that black troops do not get equal pay and cannot attain officer’s stripes—knows it all the way to the “of the people, by the people” closing). Senator Sumner drags out a fragment of Washington Allston’s period poem “On the State of an Angel” (1842) when he praises Mary Lincoln’s “celestial face.” But in Lincoln’s case, the constant recourse to quotation and example illuminate both his own tactics and those of the filmmakers.

Constructing History

Lincoln is not, despite its title, a biopic. The stories Lincoln tells may illuminate his past (we can tell he was a lawyer; he confesses his self-education and its gaps when talking Euclid; the tale about his epiphany on slavery also notes his difficult relations with his father), but that’s not the point here. This is Lincoln without logsplitting (even if, when the fire gets low, he puts a fresh log on himself), Lincoln without log-cabin backstory, Lincoln without that “Honest Abe” epithet mentioned even once.  Brief scenes do convey the personal beneath the political—Lincoln’s struggles with his moody wife, his own grief over their dead son—but they constitute mere asides. Daniel Day Lewis wonderfully conveys the burdened character of the President (Grant notes at the surrender: “By outward appearance, you’re ten years older than you were a year ago”), but the burdens, like the rest of the backstory, are incidental to the business at hand.

Other figures are even less fully filled in; we never even hear the stirring story that gives Thaddeus Stevens his limp and his cane. Nor is this a broad portrait of America in the last year of the Civil War. A bloody opening scene captures the dire, personal dynamics of hand-to-hand combat, and a visit to a military hospital (with a trench filled with amputated body parts), a brief view of the bombardment of Wilmington, and a post-battle landscape of the dead near the film’s end re-anchors the “war is hell” point, but battles occur mostly offstage here. Only the magic-lantern slides young Tad Lincoln obsesses over (drawn from Alexander Gardner’s portfolio) suggest the actual horrors of slavery in the United States. But these allusions to the wider picture all figure as mere asides.  Rather, Lincoln focuses in on a single year—and really a single month—of a politician’s life, and it centrally depicts the complex struggle to pass that amendment.

In this sense, the only odd thing about the range of Shakespearean quotes is the relative absence here: except for jolly Falstaff, no echoes of the history plays through which Shakespeare constructed an argument about ideal kingship (as well as largely less than ideal kings). In those plays (and perhaps especially in the Second Tetralogy that takes us from Richard II’s failures to Henry V’s triumphs), Shakespeare excerpted and twisted his history to meet his ends, compressing chronologies, dropping out inconvenient facts, reworking historical events and figures in the interest of an argument. Nothing in Tony Kushner’s screenplay comes close to Shakespeare’s willingness to bend historical fact; indeed, the film showcases a care with its construction of a historical past unusual for Hollywood, and, aside from quibbles (how many stars are there on that flag?), historians critical of the film have complained less about distortions of record than about less focused and more debatable issues of interpretation (how important was this amendment?).

But still: Kushner’s tactics are strikingly Shakespearean in at least one respect: in the use of careful selection to construct from the material of history a clear argument. Taking from Lincoln’s career the single year (his last, the war’s last), just as Shakespeare ignored a couple decades of Richard II’s rule to focus on his deposition, and further detailing a day-by-day account of the few weeks between his second inauguration and the passage of the amendment, allows Kushner to make an argument about the mechanics of power brought to serve a greater end.

That end is the abolition of slavery. And no, the Emancipation Proclamation did not finish that work. Kushner’s Lincoln carefully lays out the issue in a meeting with his cabinet; it’s a long speech, but one worth lingering over, for the care with which the key issues are elucidated. After a story, of course, Lincoln plunges in: “I decided that the Constitution gives me war power, but no one knows just exactly what those powers are…. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution, which I decided meant that I could take the rebels’ slaves from ‘em as property confiscated in war. That might recommend to suspicion that I agree with the rebs that their slaves are property in the first place. Of course I don’t … [but] if calling a man property, or war contraband, does the trick, why I caught at the opportunity. Now here’s where it gets truly slippery. I use the law allowing for the seizure of property in a war knowing it applies only to the property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations. But the South ain’t a nation, that’s why I can’t negotiate with ‘em. … And slipperier still: I maintain it ain’t our actual Southern states in rebellion, but only the rebels in those states, the laws of which states remain in force. The laws of which states remain in force. That means, that since it’s states’ laws that determine whether Negroes can be sold as slaves, as property—the Federal government doesn’t have a say in that, least not yet…. I felt the war demanded it; my oath demanded it; I felt right with myself; and I hoped it was legal to do it, I’m hoping still. Two years ago I proclaimed these people emancipated—then, thenceforward and forever free.” But let’s say the courts decide I had no authority to do it. They might well do it. Say there’s no amendment abolishing slavery. Say it’s after the war, and I can no longer use my war powers to just ignore the courts’ decisions, like I sometimes felt I had to do. Might those people I freed be ordered back into slavery? That’s why I’d like to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House.”  In other words, the executive power seized in wartime to proclaim emancipation could not be sustained when the war (as it soon would) ended. Thus the push for passage.

And two other notes, implicit in Lincoln’s argument, should be clear as well. Abolishing slavery through constitutional amendment would place abolition above judicial review; it could not be overturned, Marbury v. Madison style. And passing the amendment by the mandated two-thirds vote could only be accomplished if the war was ongoing: if the House held no Southerners.

Making Sausage: The Political Process

If you want to enjoy your sausage, the old saying goes, don’t look too carefully at how it got made.  Politics, when it comes right down to it, looks a lot like sausage-making. As Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln’s reluctant ally, puts it, after the amendment abolishing slavery has finally passed: “The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Complicated stuff .

Lincoln’s instructions to his cabinet make the political problem clear. He needs two thirds of the House to approve his amendment, which requires keeping all his own party in line (both the conservative and radical wings of the Republicans, each with their own rather different agendas) and pulling in a handful (or, well, a few handfuls) of additional Democratic votes (looking especially to those Democrats who, in the congressional lame-duck session, had already lost re-election votes).  To appease the conservative wing of his own party, he has to seem to be making efforts to end the war, but he also has to ensure that those efforts do not bear fruit too soon. He has to have the support of the radical wing, but he simultaneously has to depend on them to “temper,” as he puts it to Stevens, their own message. The centerpiece of that project is Stevens’s floor-debate insistence that the amendment is only about “equality before the law,” not equality of condition (that is, not racial equality). Meanwhile, through a combination of patronage quasi-bribery (with recourse to the skulky Bilbo to do the convincing) and personal appeals (lots more stories told), he has to bring around (or to abstention) enough Democrats to secure the needed numbers. And he has to keep the peace delegation at bay in the meantime, and almost (but not quite) lie about doing that, to keep the timetable.

The great body of the film—broadly everything between the two opening scenes of battle and interaction with soldiers on the one hand and the quickly limned post-vote surrender, assassination, and Inaugural Address gracenote—center on the struggle to get the votes. Against the major task at hand, everything else is mere aside. And the film’s climax comes with the vote, not with Appotomax or Ford’s Theatre after that. This is a film, less about Lincoln, than about Lincoln’s crowning political achievement, and the complex coordination of multiple strategies it took to accomplish that.

Lincoln’s Moment

Spielberg, it has been reported, deliberately held back the release of Lincoln until after the election because he did not want the film to become “political fodder” during the campaigning season. Was it concern over all that talk about enfranchising blacks, or perhaps worry over what people might make of the very different Democrats (and even more different Republicans) of the 1860s? Spielberg didn’t say. The film was released, instead, in the election’s immediate wake: as petitions urging secession circulated, and as the fiscal cliff loomed.

For this moment, the film constitutes a different sort of political fodder. It offers up a closely conceived argument over the combination of strategies—from the compromising to the coercive—that the mechanics of capitol politics sometimes require to accomplish change. The question it leaves us with is whether we have a Lincoln, or even a Thaddeus Stevens, with us today.

The Ryder, January 2013

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