Fiction: To Build A Playset

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Christopher David

“Her brain’s swollen. They doubt she’ll fully recover.”

“Her parents are insane.  How do you let a seventeen year old girl go out, all alone, to California?  Even if it is with a Christian biking group, I mean, who knows what kind of sick people are just out there, you know, waiting….”

Your left hand tightens on a spaghetti-smeared plate, your right a fresh new sponge.  The other parents talk at your kitchen table.  You frown at your wife.  She doesn’t notice.

“Her parents should have seen it coming,” Ashley continues, “High school senior or not, you can’t just let a teenager do whatever they want!”

In your backyard, the girls sprint across your well-manicured lawn.  Your daughter Danielle chases after Kayla and Josie, who run hand in hand, crying out shrilly, evading Danielle’s grasp.  It’s dusk. You’ll give them fifteen more minutes.

At the table, some sit still, others nod or shake their heads. All are silent, lost in the horrible thought of one of their own careening down fifty feet of seaside cliffs.  Ashley’s grin of faux solemnity can’t hide what she, what you, what everyone must feel. It happened to someone else.

Jim speaks up. “I don’t know, Ash. How could anyone have seen this coming? They’re good people. Good Christian people. Valerie was Kayla’s Sunday school teacher.  I mean, I see what you’re saying, but….”

You try to catch Jim’s eye, offer him your silent approval, but he doesn’t see.  He is silent now, playing it out, watching Kayla instead of Valerie slip over the edge, watching her fall, her bruised and pulped body, strapped to a stretcher, and him, forced to sit through a plane trip to California that lasts forever, rushing into the hospital room to find her covered in bandages, comatose, wondering if she will ever wake, if she will ever speak again.

The girls swing on the eight-years and up playset you bought in April.  Josie plays boss, pushing Kayla and Danielle.

You still worry there might be some flaw, some defect in the contraption. You didn’t assemble it. You wanted to. But the store sent a young Arab man to do the work.  He was nice. All smiles. You knew you ought to be building your daughter’s playset, and said as much.  He nodded and smiled. When you asked him his name he was silent for a moment, wrenching the monkey bars, and then he said, “Mohammed.”

“Ah, that’s easy to remember. Like the boxer?”

“Yessir,” he said, tightening the crossbeams onto the longer, hollow beam. “Just like the boxer.”

“I’ve heard that’s a pretty popular name over there.”

Mohammed wiped his sweaty hands on his coveralls. His eyes search the piles of steel poles, nuts and bolts. “Wouldn’t know myself. I haven’t been to Algeria since I was about four years old.  I don’t remember much.P

“Ah, yeah I guess that’d make it difficult.” You watched him work, felt stupid. “Sorry about assuming, you know. I thought because of your accent and all. I’m sorry.”

“No worries, sir.  I take my accent from my parents, uncles, and close friends.  We’re very close.”

“Well that’s good.” You smiled and nodded. “As I understand it, you all have been getting the short end of the stick, what with the discrimination and all. Pretty unfair, if you ask me.”

His low smile told you that he’d heard this plenty of times from white people. But it was still a smile, and he nodded. Jittering your empty hands at your side, you went inside and grabbed two cold ones. A gesture of solidarity, or kindness, or maybe just a beer.

Mohammed was absorbed in his work when you returned. He didn’t notice you. For a moment you stood above him, staring down on the balding whorl at the crown of his head. “Here you go,” you said. He turned quickly and you held out the cold can of beer. “How can I help?”

He didn’t take the beer.  He looked at it, then at you, and then looked away, still smiling. “Sorry sir, we’re not supposed to let our clients help with the construction.  It goes against some insurance policy or something.  Same goes for the beer.  I’d lose my job.”

“Well, I won’t tell anyone,” you said, your arm still outstretched.

“It’s also against my religion. To drink alcohol.”

You stood there, still holding the beer out to him, as clarity came. You nodded, but much too fast. “Right. Of course, yeah. Well, can I get you anything else?”

The table kicks and chuckles. You’ve missed a joke.  Your wife catches your confused glare. “Jim was just telling us about Mrs. Donavon’s hysterics down at Sir Tans-A-Lot.  You know, they just added that indoor suntan tan.”

You nod, lower lip protruding.

“I don’t know,” Ashley says. “Seems pretty ridiculous we let our government tax us so much.  I mean, aren’t heavy taxes the reason we left Britain in the first place!”

The others roll their eyes or lower their heads.  It’s bait, too plain and easy.  No one bites.

“I’m serious!  I was talking to Josh about it just the other night. We were thinking of going out to one of those Tea-party rallies.  The property tax here is thievery!”

Ashley’s words wriggle like a malnourished worm. The gleam of the hook shines.  You fantasize chucking a coffee mug at the back of her head.  As you walk across the kitchen, kettle of lukewarm tea in hand, your eyes catch the girls outside, no longer on the swings. They are standing together now, in a line, all facing the same direction, staring into the darkness of the woods beyond the yard.

A form comes out of the shadows, takes a step and then another. A dog, you think, stepping toward your daughter. “Dani,” you say, though she can’t hear you. You set the kettle in the water, slowly, too slowly, still thinking through what you’re seeing and what it means.

“Miranda,” you say slowly, and then, rushing, “Miranda! Whose dog is that?”

The parents rise and look outside.  Swift steps bring Jim’s hand to the sliding door’s handle.  The glass doors part and you step through first.  It’s about the size of a collie, but its fur is brown-grey, matted and greasy.  As the others back away, Danielle steps closer, holding out her hand.

“Dani, no!” You yell.  The creature and the girl both look at you.

You rush forward as the animal quickly sinks back into the dark woods, and you take your crying daughter in your arms. The parents, your friends, flood behind in a swirling flurry, trailing the chill of AC.

“That was a coyote!” you shout.

“It was?”

“Did you not see the teeth on that thing?”

“Must be separated from its pack.”

“Holy shit, we have coyotes in the suburbs?”

“How do you know it was a coyote?”

“Oh my God, we are so lucky.”

“Did anyone else get a good look?”

“Can you imagine if he hadn’t…?”

“Jesus.”

“Keith, how do you know?”

The question silences all but the muffled sobbing of the girls.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t,” you reply. You don’t.

Christopher David was born in Bloomington, left months after, and returned the summer he turned ten years old.  After graduating from Bloomington High School North, he stuck around to double major in French and English at Indiana University. Christopher currently lives in France teaching English at l’Université de Strasbourg.

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: The Watchmaker

Illustration/Ali Maidi

by Sara E. Leslie

A dozen watches ticked, some within a hairlength of one another, but all together, somehow, as if in the same key. The watchmaker’s steps moved measuredly toward the front desk, where an open watch lay carefully positioned from the night before. His mind was already elsewhere as his hands took the watch up and fingered it, gently, with the inborn skill of two generations of repairing watches. The quiet ticking of the watches on the shelves no longer startled him. In fact, he could almost no longer hear them.

He stopped, suddenly thirsty, his hands still involuntarily moving, hovering over the watch’s open back, twisting and gliding in the rivulets of intricate muscle memory. There was a ham sandwich and a drink waiting on him in the back. He carefully laid the watch down on the glass counter, rose, and headed for the back room, giving one final glance at the watch’s positioning before the sudden, loud sound of the bell at the door.

He saw the shape of a woman and immediately turned on his heel and strode back over to the counter, pushing the watch he had been working on neatly behind the cash register. “Good morning,” he called out.

Halfway across the room, the woman was already fumbling with her purse. She pulled out something, and the watchmaker saw the glint of slightly dulled silver. “Here,” she said almost inaudibly. She raised her head and began to approach the desk, holding out the watch for him to examine. “It’s a bit battered,” she said by way of apology. “It’s…it’s come by a lot over the years.”

The watchmaker did not need to look twice at the watch to see that it was cheap, a mere bauble, but probably easily fixable. The glass wasn’t even scratched. The hands had stopped, but that was the case with almost every watch brought in to the shop. In fact, this one didn’t even look that “battered,” save a little rusting and dulling of the silver band and end piece. He held it by both ends of the band and placed it carefully on the counter.

“Do not worry, Madam. I will have the problem fixed in no time, whatever ails it.” He smiled, a courteous, easy smile, his eyes already flicking to the other side of the room where other, more important matters awaited him. She was still standing there, still looking at him. She did not seem satisfied. He grunted, cleared his throat, and then picked up the watch again to briefly examine it in the shaft of sunlight coming in through the door. “It looks like it will need some minor repairs, perhaps a little oiling to get it back to its original shine. I can have it ready for you first thing Friday morning, yes?” He smiled again, at the watch this time, placed it ever so lovingly back on the counter, and looked up at his customer. Her eyes were still on him.

“I can tell it’s got a few things wrong with it,” she ventured. “I think, in fact, that it’s been stopped for quite a while now. It’s just that I only took it out recently, which is when I noticed it had stopped.” She looked away, and the watchmaker was surprised to see a look of something close to shame flit across her face.

He had seen many women walk into his store over the years, kerchiefed and housedressed, ogling watches for their husbands. He was dismissively polite to those women, but for the most part let them wander about, alone or in groups. They never ended up buying anything. And then there were some who would bustle in, all brisk and domestic-like, and hand him the broken or stopped watch just as if they were handing in a dress to be laundered or an order for a cut of meat for dinner. “I’ll have it ready for you by Friday,” he’d say, without looking up, and these kerchiefed women, already thinking of the night’s dinner, would nod, turn swiftly on their heels, and leave without another word.

This one, however, was leaning over the counter, scarcely two feet away, staring at him openly. “Well, I might as well tell you,” she said after a pause, “I haven’t looked at that watch for thirty-eight years. For thirty-eight years it’s been lying in my bureau drawer, under a few old things of my mother’s. Only yesterday did I bring it out to examine it, and saw that it had stopped.”

The watchmaker’s eyes moved expertly over the open watch, flitting in and out of its contours. He had to pause and blink a few times as he adjusted his vision to the smallness of each piece. Most of his customers were men, so he was used to fixing men’s watches. This one, though, was clearly a woman’s watch—every piece so delicately crafted as to almost be invisible. A cup of warm soapy water and bottle of clear acetone lay at the ready next to his cup of coffee. He sighed, settling down in his chair. It was an old watch, as she had said, but an easy fix, and he had until Friday.

This was the sort of rhythm he liked—complete silence, save the universal hum of ticking in the next room, steaming hot coffee to warm his body and clear his head, and the neat parts of a coil watch spread out before him. He had seen his last customer of the day an hour ago, and now he could concentrate solely on the perfect geometry of the tiny designs before him.

He held the coils up to the size chart, spread out like snakes against the flat wall. They were the right size, and he put them aside. Next, the connecting pieces, which were perfectly linear. The gear box opened like a mouth, the gears comfortably side by side, gently touching like a full set of teeth. He readjusted his position in the chair, but upon further thought, got up and stretched.

Now came the calming part: soaking everything in a miniature hot soap-and-acetone bath, which warmed the tips of his fingers until they tingled. This took a full hour, and three more cups of coffee. Next, a slick, shiny oil bath. He oiled each piece so gently he may as well not have been touching them. At nine o’clock, he put everything back in, and then wound the watch. The tiny animal, cold and glistening-bright, like a made-up corpse newly laid in a casket, smiled silently up at him and did not utter a sound.

He grunted and turned the watch over. A whole evening’s work had yet to reveal anything wrong. Well, old watches were seldom easy to diagnose or fix, but they were still a loveable challenge. The day’s project fit neatly in his desk drawer, cushioned in a velvet cloth. The darkness of the shop finally matched the darkness outside as a flurry of gentle clock-voices bid him goodnight.

She was at the shop the next morning, at 8:33 according to the clocks on the wall. He stood in the back corner winding his favorite clock of the moment, an early 19th century French Empire mantel clock he fondly called “Napoleon Bonaparte”. He tried to mask his surprise at seeing someone in the shop so early, and walked over, his silk trousers rustling ever-so-slightly. He smoothed his hand over his impeccably-combed hair.

“How is the watch coming?” she asked as she approached the counter.  As if she hadn’t just left it with him the day before. Did she expect him to have finished? Perhaps she was confused as to when she was supposed to come back for it.

“Madam,” he said, “I assure you I am doing the best that I can. The watch still needs a few more repairs—”

“The watch was given to me when I was seventeen,” she said. “By a boy named Tico Miranda. I was seventeen, he was nineteen. Tico found the watch at a shop somewhere, thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He said he knew I was meant to have it. Whenever he stroked my arm he would always stop and stare at the watch, unfasten it from my wrist and hold it up to the moonlight. Sometimes he’d playfully put it on his own large wrist. ‘How did someone ever make something so small, so feminine?’ he’d ask the sky. Then he’d take the watch off and kiss the glass, kiss the frame, run those kisses down my arm to my hand. The watch’s face, the glass would reflect the glint of the moonlight. It glinted in his glasses too.”

He had never had so many words directed to him by a customer. The women that came in usually gossiped amongst themselves, and with him they were all business. He was a watchmaker, after all, not a hairdresser. He was at a loss for what to say, so he stared fixedly at the counter, feeling her breath on his sleeve. Then she spoke again, more softly this time.

“Tico left me for another girl he had met on a trip to Amsterdam, where he was going off to study that same year. I was seventeen. I had a lot of growing left to do. I took the watch off, put in a drawer under some of my mother’s old shirts, determined not to look at it or think of him. My arm felt bare and fresh for a while. The skin there felt cool and strange. I was determined not to think of Tico. But then, a year in, he came back.”

She paused: for effect or because she was out of breath? The watchmaker realized that he had been staring at a vague point below her left earlobe, and it was now making his eyes hurt. He cleared his throat.

“Ah, I see.” What did he see? Well, never mind. He couldn’t look her in the face. He should never look directly at his woman customers. It might give them the wrong impression. She seemed, though, not to care whether he looked or not. She continued talking, rapidly, almost leaning in to grab his arm as she did so.

“Tico came back, and this time he wanted more. He wanted me again, but it was different. The girl had broken his heart, and so he came back looking for me. He called the house many, many times. But I wasn’t home. Ever. He finally stopped calling. But, you know, I was sort of hoping he would never stop.”

Out of the corner of his eye he could see her hand, thick, work-worn fingers outstretched, very near to his sleeve where he was gripping the counter. He felt himself stiffen.  “Madam, I understand this watch is very important to you. It’s currently in the back room, and I’m working on it, but like I said, it won’t be ready till Friday morning.”

Her face betrayed a look of clear-cut disappointment, although he did not know what he had done wrong. “I understand.” She turned away. “Thank you again.”

Nighttime. The clock voices in the shop chimed eleven before he registered it, the sound pulling him out of the watch’s body and back into his shop. His stomach rumbled. He had rechecked the coils, checked under the glass for any small bits of dirt that might be obstructing the hands.  Checked again for rust. There was some still lingering on the bolt. He soaked the bolt in acetone again and replaced it.

As usual, he began to review memories in his mind. He had, as he long ago discovered, an exceptional memory. He could look at a picture one day and think, “Ten years later I’m going to be able to see this very picture again.” And then, thirty-seven years later, he could still remember that very moment, the square white farmhouse in the picture, the cheap gold-colored frame. Over the years he had stored up dozens of these mental pictures, and he took pride in the organization and efficiency of his brain.

Reviewing these memories one by one as he fixed his watches comforted him. Just as each little cog fit into place, so the cogs in his mind fit together, pulling out pictures from the compartments of his memory to review, over and over and over. Over and over anD….

Suddenly, his body jerked upward and his feet, already knowing what they were doing before he did, went over to the file cabinet where he kept the receipts from his estimate charges. He pulled hers out and glanced it over. Her name did not ring any bells, but it was a nice name, aforeign-sounding name. He smiled and whispered it aloud to the dozen or so clocks that listened steadfastly from the next room. Then he crept back to the watch on the desk like a guilty man.

When Sylvie Schollstein walked into the watch shop the following morning at nine o’clock, the watchmaker was ready. He was ready with an explanation of everything he had done up to this point, a detailed account of the watchmaking process, anything that would distract her from the fact that the job was not yet complete. He had arrived a half an hour early that morning, in such a hurry to get to the shop that he had forgotten to comb his hair or pack a ham sandwich. He stood at the counter because it was the only place he could think of to stand, winding and unwinding a watch coil because it was the only thing he could think of doing with his hands. At 8:34 he began to feel panic rising within him, so he went back and made himself a cup of coffee and, setting it on the desk, accidentally walked back into the front of the shop with a bottle of acetone. He remembered the clocks, and began to wind Napoleon Bonaparte.

The bells jangled as she came in. He did not turn around.

“I’m fifty-five years old,” she said. “Fifty-five! Think of it. I was married once, to a hideous man, a German immigrant. I have a son named Raúl. He’s a doctor now. That’s the family practice. He lives in Spain now, in Barcelona.”

Her heavy frame couldn’t have been more solid, more imposing, distorted slightly behind the glass counter. He was surprised she hadn’t bypassed the counter and just walked right up to him, deftly swiped the clock from his hands, and demanded ownership of the whole place.

“Back again?” He wanted to keep his tone light and airy, but it seemed like all the air had been sucked out of it, along with the air in the room. “Is there something else I can do for you, while you’re here?”

“Yes,” she said. “Make me seventeen again.”

“I… I beg your pardon?”

“When I wear that watch again, I’ll have come full circle. Fifty-five to seventeen, all in a night. Just ready for something to happen.”

He opened his mouth, ready to ask a question, if needed, although he didn’t have one in mind. He realized Napoleon Bonaparte was still lying inert in his hands and set the clock back on its shelf. Without something to hold, he realized his palms were sweating.

“I’m all alone now. No husband, thank God.” She put a hand to her forehead. “My son is all grown, and Spain’s so far away… he’s engaged, did you know? She’s from a good family, Catalan, I think, but he’s never even given me the chance to meet her. They’ll probably get married in Spain, not here… I’m alone, sir, just like when I was young, for the first time in thirty-eight years. Maybe this is the right time. To find him, I mean. Or else….”

Her voice drifted off, but she resumed quickly, looking him straight in the eye.

“Maybe it’s just as well to continue living with ghosts. His, I mean. I’m not who I was at seventeen, that’s very clear. I’ve been through a lot. But…if…were to see him again, God knows where he is…” She reached out a finger and lightly touched his arm. “Is it… like trying for something impossible?”

Her touch was warmer than he expected, and he realized that he had been wondering what it would feel like.  A faint but recognizable pulsing began at the spot she had touched, and spread lower until it had buried itself like a fleck of sand deep in a tiny crevice. He watched her finger as it dropped to the top of the glass counter and traced what appeared to be a watch outline on the surface. She sighed and turned, not waiting for a response. “This means so much to me,” she said as she left.

The watchmaker finally raised his eyes at the door clanging closed, the bell jangling wildly. His breath returned, loud, discordant. “This means so much to me,” he repeated aloud, embarrassed at the croak in his voice. “This means so much to me. This means so much to me. This means—”

“Shut up,” Napoleon Bonaparte ticked crossly.

Four-forty in the afternoon. He stood up. “Damnit!” The anger in his voice surprised him. He sat down again, sipped his now-cold coffee, took out a new set of coils and laid them all out before him. She wanted to do the impossible… and yet he found it impossible even to fix her watch. The tiny thing seemed to have taken on the hue of Sylvie Schollstein’s deep grey eyes. They were there, the more he looked. And when he tried to conjure up mental images, to distract himself, all he saw were her bare hands, work-worn, her surprisingly thin wrists. Thin and soft, vulnerable, where the flesh met the hand.

He straightened himself, rubbed his eyes, massaged his temples. After thirty years in the watch business, and his father before him, he was finally losing it. He sighed, looked for the acetone, and began to disassemble everything again.

At ten-thirty that night, he finally discovered what was wrong with the watch. One of the gears had a tiny chip on the end of one of its teeth, nearly invisible. It was a usual occurrence, but as he replaced the gear he wondered why it had taken him so long to find it. He reassembled Sylvie’s watch, gave it a once-over, and carefully wound it. The graceful, almost inaudible ticking struck up as if it had never stopped, as if it were talking to him, carrying on a one-sided conversation of its own.

The watchmaker thought about people who talked out of habit. People who talked out of nervousness, to fill the silence, to reassure themselves with their own voice. These were lonely people who paraded under a mask of confidence, who just needed, above all, to be listened to. Who said too much to avoid having to think about what they said.

And here he was, sitting in his chair, unable to get a word out to anyone.

He thought of Sylvie coming in tomorrow, overjoyed at finally getting her watch back. “This is it. I’m off to find Tico,” she’d say, or something to that effect. She’d snap the watch on her wrist and prance out like a seventeen-year old girl, her eyes shining, ready to find her long-lost love. He would watch her through the glass in the door as she turned the corner.

He would fix Sylvie Schollstein’s watch. He would give her a wonderful gift, and she would leave happily, not thinking twice about the watchmaker whom she had spilled her life story to. He was just doing her a service, after all.

After all? Panic suddenly rooted him to his chair. Tomorrow she was coming, coming to open her wallet and pay him what she owed for a service well-rendered.

“I am more,” he said aloud, “than a service well-rendered.” He clutched the watch to his chest. “I am more,” he murmured, “than just a pair of hands that fixes watches.”

He held Sylvie’s watch gently up to his ear and closed his eyes.

At 8:30 on Friday morning, when Sylvie Schollstein walked in the door of the shop, the watchmaker was waiting for her, his hair combed back and his shirt neatly tucked into his dress pants. He smiled at her from behind the counter, where he had set out her newly working, polished watch on top of a red velvet cloth.

His heart was pounding, but he felt strangely elated. Throughout the store, the clocks were ticking in perfect unison. Napoleon Bonaparte, over in the corner, was sounding especially triumphant. As Sylvie approached the counter, the watchmaker held up her watch for her to see.

“It’s as good as new,” he said. “All it needed in the end was a change of one of the gears.”

Sylvie opened her hand; let him drop the watch into it. “Oh, it looks beautiful,” she murmured. She carefully fastened it on her wrist, as he had anticipated, and the watchmaker felt his breath quicken. “I’d be happy,” he said calmly, “to charge you a bit less than we had discussed, for such a small service.”

“Oh, that’s perfectly all right,” she said. “I’d much rather pay what I feel I owe you. After all, I did come in here and bother you every morning for three days straight.” A soft, nervous sound issued from her lips, and he realized it was the first time he had heard her laugh.

“Oh, no, you didn’t bother me,” he said. “Not at all. I assure you, it really wasn’t a bother.”

She looked up at him, suddenly wistful, and he would have seen it had he dared to take his eyes off her wrist. “I’d really like to thank you, sir,” she said, “thank you for… for being… well….” He saw her wrist tremble slightly, and felt she must have been blushing above it. “I… how much do I owe you?” she asked, taking her hand off the counter and reaching in her purse for her pocketbook.

He told her, and she paid. Afterwards she stood there, wavering, her eyes suddenly too bright, her hands suddenly too eager to fidget with the buttons on her dress. Looking for all the world, suddenly, like a seventeen-year-old girl, confused and stirred and open. “Sir—” she began, then stopped. “Sir, I….”

He watched her reflection in the glass countertop.  He watched her look at him, read the unmistakable expression in her face. That was all he needed to know. He felt his fingers relax. The perfect, geometrical ticking of the clocks echoed distantly in his ear. He finally, slowly, raised his eyes and looked her full in the face.

“Thank you, Madam,” he said. “I hope you have a nice day. Goodbye.”

Sara E. Leslie is a first-year graduate student at Indiana University, studying French Linguistics. She grew up in Miami, Florida, and finds the existence of all four seasons somewhat miraculous.

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Big Talk: Charlotte Zietlow

Charlotte

The Grande Dame of Monroe County Politics Talks about JFK, Czechoslovakia, Frank McCloskey, PCBs, role models, and chicken soup ◆ by Michael G. Glab

She helped change the political landscape in Bloomington in the election of 1971. First as a City Council member, then as a County Commissioner, Charlotte Zietlow put the people before the bosses. Now, she’s the go-to woman for blue ribbon commissions set up to study modern day problems in our little corner of the world. Every Bloomington-area Democratic woman candidate of the past four decades owes her a debt of gratitude. And Charlotte herself wonders how she’ll feel when the first woman takes the oath of office of President of the United States.

Young newlyweds Charlotte and Paul Zietlow were no different than many other academic couples at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1960. He was working on his master’s degree in creative writing and she wondered if she was cut out for the life of a housewife. She already had accomplished plenty on her own: she’d earned her own master’s degrees in German and French literature. Later, she’d earn a doctorate in Linguistics. She had her own opinions, too, and she wasn’t afraid to share them. That fall, she’d spout off any chance she got on the presidential race. A friend, perhaps weary of her harangues, threw down the gauntlet.

“Why don’t you do something about it?” the friend said.

“What can I do?” Charlotte asked.

“You can knock on doors and talk to people.”

“No,” Charlotte said, “I can’t do that. I’m too shy.”

“If you’re going to talk all the time, do something about it,” the friend said. “Otherwise shut up.”

Charlotte Zietlow wasn’t about to be shut up.

Charlotte Zietlow: I felt pretty strongly about Kennedy and also about Nixon. So I got a list of people to go and talk to. I knocked on doors and I talked to mostly seniors because they would be home. I would talk to them about Kennedy and they would say, ‘Oh, I really like that man.’ They were so scared that they would get sick and they wouldn’t know how to pay for any of that. One person after another. And he was talking about doing something about that; he was talking about Medicare. And then they went on to say, ‘But we can’t vote for him because he’s Catholic.’

I would say, ‘My father was a Lutheran minister and I went to parochial school and I’m going to vote for him. If I can do that, you can do that.’ I changed votes. I changed about 40 votes. Kennedy won the state by about 3000 votes, less than a vote per precinct. Without a hundred people like me, he might have lost and the world would have been different. I’ve never stopped working in a campaign since. At that time, when you looked at the poverty rates, the poorest people were the seniors. Now that’s not true. The percentage of impoverished senior citizens is way down and it’s because of Medicare.

Michael G. Glab: If I were to say to you, I’m running for president and I am going to urge the Congress to pass universal, single-payer health care….

CZ: [interrupts] I would give you my fortune.

MG: Can you name me off the top of your head three good things that you’ve done as an officeholder?

CZ: I was first elected to City Council in 1971 and I was part of a group of people — it was a motley crew of novices who took over the government with no experience in governing.

MG: This is the Frank McCloskey gang? [McCloskey had been elected the first Democratic mayor of Bloomington in decades. Zietlow and eight other progressives also swept into the City Council.]

CZ: Yeah. We were a council of activists. The thing that was most important to me was to make sure people got heard. I lived in Czechoslovakia in the previous year, where people were not heard, could not speak. I came out of the ‘60s with all the turmoil, of all the things that were going on, and it seemed to me the important thing was people wanted a voice in their government. So suddenly I was with this motley crew of people and a common factor that united us was our desire to have the people speak.

I became the president of the council for the first two years, which meant I ran the council meetings. I had no experience of running meetings of any sort so I probably was not very tidy in the early days. But people got to talk. They were welcomed and they were listened to and we wrote down, the minutes will show, what they were concerned about. That was a huge change; it was a 180 degree shift. That can be proven; you just go read the minutes books. So, just carrying through on that and establishing the right of people to participate in the meetings as well as in the government. We opened up government. We started creating boards and commissions in every direction and people went, ‘Oh my God, what are they doing?’

And then, not going to our best friends and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this position for you.’ We said, ‘You all come, and if you’re interested submit your resume and you’ll be chosen on the basis of whether or not you’ll contribute the most.’ That happened and I oversaw that. I was only one of nine but I was the chair.

MG: Prior to the election, were all nine of you allies?

CZ: Not all nine of us because we elected one Republican. But he turned out to be the maverick Republican that the other Republicans had kind of cast out. A very interesting guy, Jack Morrison. He was half Indian [Sioux] and he was not up to the social requirements of his fellow Republicans and so he was not included in their social activities. But we included him! The second thing we did was we named Jack Morrison number one on the council, from the 1st District. We wanted him to feel that we understood he was important.

MG: Did he appreciate it?

CZ: Yeah. And I think the other thing he appreciated was when his wife got sick I took her chicken soup.

We really wanted to govern better. We really wanted the city to be a different place, which it is. It’s really the Bloomington it is because of that election.

MG: And you and Frank McCloskey were close?

CZ: Of course. Actually, we kind of pulled him along until, I think, his friends and advisors said, ‘That council’s kind of far out there. Don’t you want to be a little more conservative?’

Some tension arose. We had disagreements, there’s no doubt about it.  After years and years and we had some really big fights, I ran against him in a primary [for mayor]. It wasn’t personal; there were issues. But by the end of his life, my son worked for him as a staff person in Congress. We were like family.

Another of the things I’m proud of, obviously, is the Courthouse. After two and a half years of taking one alley and then another and then another, eventually arriving at our goal of restoring the courthouse and ultimately building the justice building and jail because it had to be part of the deal. That was a very hard job which required an enormous amount of kicking and shoving and stroking and smiling and groveling. We got that done at budget and in a reasonable amount of time.

MG: Why was the Courthouse worth saving?

CZ: Because it’s a nice building. And it’s the center of town. And it creates a sense of community. The whole idea of community for me is one of the strongest motivations for doing things.

[During the struggle to renovate the Courthouse, many men of power in Bloomington would tell Charlotte she was naive, that she didn’t understand how politics and businesses worked, that she’d never even had to meet a payroll in her life.]

CZ: In 1973 my friend Marilyn Schultz and I decided over lunch one day that we were really tired of being told that we couldn’t understand budgets because we were just mere women and hadn’t met a payroll. The men on the Council hadn’t either but, forget that. So we decided to meet a payroll and we decided to create a store that would purvey cooking goods because we were both really good cooks and this city needed a store like that. It would be the kind of store that would revive and maintain the downtown. Home-owned, small, high-end boutiques would be the salvation of downtown.

We walked around the square three times and then saw people moving out of one of these stores and said, ‘We’ll take that one.’ That was in May and we opened in November. And it really was something that helped save the downtown. And all of a sudden all those guys said, ‘Oh my God, they’re so smart! See what they learned because they’re in business!’ Yeah, right.

Zietlow & Schultz

Marilyn Schultz (l) & Charlotte Zietlow In Their Store, Goods For Cooks

[The two friends’ business would be called Goods for Cooks. The store is still open on the west side of the Square, under new ownership.]

[In 1984, the Westinghouse company, several local governments, the State of Indiana, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced they’d signed a consent decree to erect just outside Bloomington a garbage-and sewage-fueled incinerator to dispose of hundreds of thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated soil. Residents feared this would release poisonous dioxins into the air. Charlotte, a County Commissioner at the time, opposed the plan. It was finally killed in 1995.]

CZ: Another major thing that I’m proud of is that we do not have a garbage eating, dioxin-spewing incinerator to the south of Bloomington.

My County Commissioner days are probably the most demanding of anything I’ve done. The first four years I was there, Vi Simpson and I and to some extent Warren Henegar and to a great extent Phil Rogers, who was a Republican, and Norm Anderson, and some of the other Republicans, Carl Harrington and Morris Binkley — we were able to bring the county into the 20th Century. Not the 21st, but 20th. That was hard work.

The PCBs, the Courthouse and all that construction stuff, reorganizing the airport, creating a veterans service office — I’m really proud of that. My predecessor on the Commission, the one I defeated, didn’t think we needed it but the veterans did. We listened to them and we figured out how to fund it. It was really necessary. It turned out to be one of the best things we did.

It was great hard work to persuade the men that I wasn’t crazy and that I did care and that I knew how to add and subtract.

MG: If you come to me and I think you’re crazy, how are you going to change my mind?

CZ: I’m going to talk to you and tell you what I think and what we need and why we need it and if you don’t agree, that’s okay, but I’m willing to listen. I’m not going to say I’m absolutely right. But I will not come to you and tell you something unless I’ve thought it through and done some homework.

MG: Do you have hope for the future?

CZ: Yes.

MG: Why?

CZ: Because I don’t want to think of not having hope.

MG: I’m going to go out on a limb and say our next president will be a woman.

CZ: I think that’s probably true.

MG: Will that be a great feeling for you?

CZ: Probably. [Pauses.] You’re bringing tears to my eyes. When they named the Justice Building after me, Mark Stoops called and said, ‘Charlotte, we’d like to name the Justice Building after you, would that be okay?’ I said, ‘I suppose I should say no’ — you know, in all humility — ‘but I’m not going to.’ I got off the phone and I told Paul they’re going to name it the Zietlow Building and he said, ‘It should be the Charlotte Zietlow Building!’

I said, ‘I’m not going to tell them that.’

So, the day they unveiled it, it was the Charlotte T. Zietlow Building. The number of responses I got, especially from older women, was pretty overwhelming. It meant so much to them to have a woman’s name on a building. If you think about it, there are very few buildings in this country that have women’s names on them. Very few. Not because it was me but the symbolism of having a woman appreciated meant a lot to a lot of women. I think that’s the way we’ll all feel if we have a woman president, you know, the 52 percent of us.

MG: What else happened between your days ringing doorbells for JFK and your first election eleven years later?

CZ: We moved to Czechoslovakia in October of 1969. [Paul had been offered a job teaching at Komensky University in Bratislava.That was after the Warsaw Pact had invaded the country. The axe was beginning to fall by the time we got there. We lived in Bratislava, which is the capital of Slovakia, on the Danube. We were the only Americans in that city. We were guests of the Ministry of Education. We were extremely well-treated, like royalty. We had everything that we could possible want that they could give us. And it was the hardest year.

We had children in school: a five- and a seven-year-old. We saw what it was like to live in a country which was totalitarian, where decisions were arbitrary, where there was no room for discourse or discord. We listened to the Voice of America on a short-wave radio that we were not supposed to have. We heard people denouncing the actions of Nixon, the arguments about why it was wrong to bomb Cambodia, for example. We heard all that dissent on this government-funded radio station and there we were in a country where it was illegal — treasonous! — to say anything negative about the government in groups of two or more. Our Czech friends would say, ‘We want to touch you because you breathe a different air.’

MG: I imagine if you live in a totalitarian society you have to shut a part of yourself off, pretend it doesn’t exist.

CZ: Yes. So what they did is they went and tended their gardens and they drank a lot. People would come over to our house — it was a government apartment, it had to have been bugged — and they’d start berating the government and we’d [begins waving her hands in front of her face to indicate they should shut up]. We didn’t want to get people in trouble. We were immune but nobody else was. We tried never to say negative things in front of the children so they wouldn’t repeat them.

MG: Did you have any political mentors or idols?

CZ: I come from a generation where women didn’t do much. I came of age before the women’s movement. I was born in ’34. There weren’t a lot of women role models out there. I have enormous respect for Eleanor Roosevelt but I didn’t know much about her. I have a picture this big in my dining room. And I just read the biography of Frances Perkins who, if I’d known about her….

MG: She was the first female cabinet secretary [Franklin Roosevelt named her Secretary of Labor in 1933.]

CZ: She basically pushed Social Security through. She drummed it through. The New Deal was, in many ways, the result of her pushing and shoving Roosevelt.

The reality is I came from a Lutheran background. Women still in the Lutheran church don’t have a vote. My mother and all my relatives were ministers’ daughters. I was told to behave myself, don’t make noise. My mother told me later, ‘You were always so independent.’ This was not a good thing.

You know, I have a feisty edge. I get my back up. I’ve run into a lot of brick walls in my life.

I wanted to be in the Foreign Service when I graduated from college. I had good language skills and was really interested in political science and government. And I’m not stupid. I took the tests for Foreign Service, for the NSA, and for the CIA. I got high marks on all of those. I got an interview with the Foreign Service in Chicago. A bunch of white men from the East interviewed me. We spoke German and we spoke French. At the end they said, ‘Your record’s really good and your tests scores are outstanding. We can see you’ve got a touch. You would make an ambassador a wonderful wife.’

So, then I got an interview with the CIA. Some guy was going to meet me in Lambert Field in St. Louis. I would know him because he would be wearing a red rose. At the end he said, ‘Really good, fantastic, wonderful interview. And you’d make a spy a wonderful wife.’ That was the end of that. That’s why I went to graduate school.

MG: How did you feel when you heard those words?

CZ: I didn’t expect it. I couldn’t believe it. I got angrier and angrier as I walked down the hall. But there wasn’t much to be done, not at that time. There was no recourse. Anyway it was infuriating.

MG: One regret.

CZ: I try not to regret. [Long pause.] I guess I regret not having had a mentor. That I had to find my own way. That meant some blind alleys. There really wasn’t anybody who guided me.

MG: Have you ever been bored?

CZ: In high school my fear in life would to be bored.

MG: So, have you ever been bored?

CZ: Not really. I find something interesting to take up the time. I’m a great tourist because I like everything. Everything’s interesting: the streets and the windows and the supermarkets and the people.

[Big Talk is a joint venture of The Ryder, WFHB, and The Electron Pencil. Listen to Charlotee Zietlow spoeak with Michael G. Glab on WFHB’s Daily Local News here.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Coming of Age with the Zero Boys

Zero Boys

◆ by John P. Strohm

[Editor’s note: In May, 32 years after their debut LP, Indianapolis’ Zero Boys went on tour and released a new album, Monkey, which we will review in an upcoming issue. In 2009, their debut 1982 full length album Vicious Circle, as well as the legendary lost second album, History Of, were reissued by Secretly Canadian. We thought this would be a good time to reprint John P. Strohm’s appreciation of  the Zero Boys, originally published in 2009.]

The Zero Boys changed my life. My discovery of the 1980s Indianapolis punk band as a teenager helped set the course for my adult life. More importantly, however, the Zero Boys kicked major ass.

I first saw the band in the summer of 1981 at a free outdoor show in Bloomington. I was a lonely, long-haired 14-year-old totally obsessed with rock  n’ roll. I played the drums and I dreamed of being in a band. On summer afternoons and early evenings I would follow the thump thump of distant music to live concerts by local hands. Bands seemed to play all the time in those days—on the rickety stage outside the student union, at fraternity ice cream socials, even at random front yard parties. I saw mellow, bearded students playing Eagles covers, freaky “new wave” bands with wraparound shades and bright-colored jumpsuits, and meandering post-hippie jazz-rock weirdos. I didn’t discriminate. I loved it all.

The Zero Boys show was a street dance, sponsored by a local cable-only freak radio station. The term “street dance” must have been a holdover from a bygone era, because nobody ever seemed to actually dance. Nevertheless, I never missed a street dance if I could help it, because the bills were strange and unpredictable. All the local freaks came out. That evening I’d already witnessed an arty band of mopey chain-smokers dressed in all black, and a band of high-schoolers, friends of my older brother, playing punk covers. I left happy at that point, but I wasn’t about to miss the band I’d really come to see. Someone told me the headliner was a “real” punk band from Indianapolis.

[Image at the top of this post: the Zero Boys today, (l to r) Paul Mahern, Dave Lawson, Scott Kellogg, and Mark Cutsinger.]

I knew a little bit about punk rock. I read Creem magazine religiously, which extensively covered the London and New York punk scenes. My best friend Harry had spent the prior year in England, and he brought back a bunch of punk and ska records that we devoured. Despite my growing interest in punk, however, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the arena concerts to check out the big rock acts. I saw ELO, Van Halen, Styx, Cheap Trick, The Police, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, and many others. I’d beg my parents to take me to see anything that came through nearby Indianapolis that wasn’t completely wussy, and then I’d proudly wear my concert T-shirt to school the next day. As far as I knew, the Police were a punk band, as were the B-52s and Talking Heads.  I had a sense that the culture was in transition, but all I really cared about was whether or not the music rocked.

Although I didn’t discriminate among the bands I saw at free shows, I drew a clear distinction between local music and the bands that toured and played at arenas. That’s why street dances were free while concerts cost ten bucks, right? The arena bands just played better music. If the local bands were that good, they’d be playing arenas. I clung to this attitude as I watched these four lanky guys from Indianapolis in sleeveless T-shirts and canvas sneakers set up their gear. I hoped they’d play some good rock n’ roll, even some Ramones covers. I hoped to be entertained, but I didn’t expect all that much. My parents regarded Indianapolis as a cultural backwater; the popular bands from there that I heard on Indianapolis radio seemed to be run-of-the-mill, blue collar bands in the mode of REO Speedwagon, or Bob Seger. As I’d learned from Creem, real punk rock came from faraway, exotic places.

Zero Boys launched into their set with awesome precision and ferocity,  leaving me dazed and disoriented. I’d never heard a band play songs at such fast tempos, or with so much energy. I had no context for the music; it wasn’t heavy metal, and it didn’t sound like the punk records I’d heard. I guessed it was something new. The singer, a scrappy kid who appeared to be only a few years older than me, commanded the makeshift stage as he launched into one melodic song after another. I couldn’t even process what I was hearing but in that moment I abandoned all of my notions about rock music.  I was seeing the future — a future I wanted desperately to be a part of.

The next couple of years, inspired by that fateful summer I diligently filled in my knowledge gaps regarding punk music. I read every fanzine I could find. I snapped up everything I could get my hands on: The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Fear, X,  The Misfits, Bad Brains, The Germs. I loved it all, but nothing really compared to my memory of the Zero Boys show. I met other punk kids. I adopted the style of the day of cropped hair, a leather jacket, and army boots, plus buttons and stickers and advertising my favorite bands. I finally started my own band. I told everyone who would listen about the Zero Boys, but few had heard of them and nobody had seen them play.

In the fall of 1982 a few copies of  a lurid, bright yellow album depicting grotesque drawing of a severed head arrived at local stores: Zero Boys’ Vicious Circle LP. More than a year had passed since I’d seen the Zero Boys, so my memory was dim. I now realize that the show I saw in ’81 occurred around the time they recorded the album. By that time, a couple years into their existence, they’d gelled  into a fierce unit. Vicious Circle is practically unique among hardcore punk albums  since it was professionally recorded and performed by seasoned rock n’ roll musicians. The material is as strong as any album of its time with accessible, sing-along choruses;  the execution is far  more assured and realized than many of the hardcore standard bearers. I literally wore out my copy. I learned every word, beat, lick and nuance of the album. To me, at the time, it was perfect.

Vicious Circle lineup consisted of three seasoned instrumentalists in  their twenties (ancient by hardcore stands): Terry “Hollywood” Howe (guitar), David “Tufty” Clough (bass), and Mark Cutsinger (drums). Each had played in pre-punk bands, playing glam, hard rock, even funk. Teenage singer Paul “Z” Mahern completed the lineup. Howe and Cutsinger had scouted Mahern after hearing his high school band play at party. A short-lived original lineup, consisting of Howe, Cutsinger, Mahern and bassist John Mitchell, started out playing covers, eventually composing a set of original material heavily influenced by first-generation punk acts such as The Ramones and the The Sex Pistols.

So how did the Zero Boys evolve from a transparently derivative reasonably competent local punk act into the incredible band that recorded Vicious Circle in the course of year? It’s apparent that the addition of Tufty Clough helped. As represented on Vicious Circle, the Aero Boys’ rhythm section actually swings, which is rare if not unique in early hardcore. Cutsinger demonstrates a subtle touch on the drums, often adding intricate accents on the cymbals to embellish his thundering back-beat. Clough played the bass with his fingers rather than the typical punk pick style, adding dazzling speed runs and arpeggios to the simple bass lines. The ultra-tight, rather clean rhythm section provides a strong foundation for the dirtier guitar and vocal. Howe plays actual solos — anathema to hardcore — and they work. His signature pick drags and controlled feedback bursts color the spare the spare tracks. Mahern’s assured voice serves the songs perfectly; it’s at once melodic and abrasive, snotty and sincere. Every piece fits together, every sound is essential.

The Zero Boys were my true entrée into the punk scene, and I didn’t look back. I saw them perform several times, and each set proved better than the last. My friends and I listened to and discussed Vicious Circle constantly. We talked about the lyrics, some of which were brilliant while others seemed downright goofy. But it all sounded cool, so we gave it the benefit of the doubt. We drove to Indianapolis regularly from the winter of 1983 through late 1984 to see them perform with numerous lesser acts, both local and national. I lived for the adrenaline rush of sweat, crashing bodies, clenched teeth, screaming the lyrics at the top of my voice with a cluster of kids as Paul held the mic to crowd. Once I returned home from a show at 3:00 am with a slam dancing injury: a gash on my chin that required a late night emergency room visit and seven stitches. I lied to my mother and told her I’d hurt myself skateboarding. I didn’t mind being forbidden to skateboard, but I wasn’t about to give up going to Zero Boys shows.

Rumors circulated about a Zero Boys album, but eventually the band just stopped playing altogether. Tufty left to join the more established Toxic Reasons, a popular, workmanlike band from Ohio. I’m sure it was the sensible thing to do at the time.  Paul formed a psychedelic band called the Dandelion Abortion and started playing more frequently. My interest in hardcore gradually waned; I started playing guitar, writing songs. After high school, I packed my crate of LPs including Vicious Circle and moved to Boston for college. I didn’t listen to Vicious Circle much; I didn’t really have to. I’d memorized every second of the record; it had become part of my musical vocabulary. Despite my own love for Vicious Circle, it didn’t really occur to me that the Zero Boys were anything but a local band. Then one day a year or so after I’d moved to Boston I was listening to college radio.

I’d started my first real band at that point, and things were coming together very slowly. Every Sunday evening, both for entertainment and for research, I listened to a show on the Emerson College station that featured a live set by a local underground band.
On the Sunday in question, the show featured a new band called the Lemonheads, a trio of local recent high school graduates. I liked their sound, which was sort of a scrappy pop/punk stew with short, melodic songs. The two singers switched between guitar and drums on every other song. Suddenly they launched into a familiar riff, a distorted two-chord boogie. Then the singer came in: “I have no heeeeroes, I’m just havin’ a gooooood tiiiiiimmee.” My heart lept in my chest; it was the Zero Boys’ Livin’ in the 80s.

Eventually I met the Lemonheads; later I joined the band. The first time I spoke with them, we discussed the Zero Boys. They’d learned about the band from the Harvard College radio station WHRB. Vicious Circle was considered by aesthetes and record collectors to be a classic in the genre. The album had, apparently, found its way into the right hands and the right ears. The music prevailed.

Once my own career as a musician hit its stride, I sought out Paul Mahern. After the Zero Boys split, he had become a skilled and sought-after audio engineer. He fronted an excellent psychedelic rock band called the Datura Seeds. I found him to be approachable and gracious; he even tolerated my constant raving about the Zero Boys. Paul and I became good friends, and we made several albums together. We even shared a house for a year or so in Bloomington. But I never stopped being slightly in awe of him. In fact, I’m still slightly in awe of him.

The Zero boys eventually re-formed. A young, talented local devotee named Vess Ruhtenberg stepped in on guitar. The re-formed band made a couple of albums in the early 90s, which were released overseas. Various indie labels re-issued Vicious Circle, as interest in the album continued to grow. The most recent re-issue of the album on Secretly Canadian Records, along with the re-issue of the odds and ends compilation History of the Zero Boys (featuring an early EP along with tracks recorded for the shelved second album), represents a high-water mark, over 25 years after its initial release.

Album Cover

The Zero Boys’ 2014 Release, Monkey

After listening to Vicious Circle for the first time in at least a decade, I completely understand why I connected so strongly with the album as a teenager. The songs and performances have aged well; despite some dated lyrics, they sound as fresh and relevant as ever. One can’t help wonder how things would have been different if the album had been released at a different moment. They could have — should have — been superstars. But it doesn’t really matter now, because they inspired me and others like me at the time, and they will likely inspire future generations of disenfranchised kids as well. Rock n’ roll this great transcends time and context.

[John P. Strohm is a native of Bloomington and currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama. John performed and composed music professionally in bands including the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads and Antenna. He has released three solo albums: California, Vestavia and Everyday Life.  John is now an entertainment attorney, an adjunct law professor and the father of three children. He still writes, plays and records music when time permits.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

After All These Years: Gaga for the Gizmos

Gizmos D&R

Bloomington’s legendary proto-punk band will perform live for the first time in 38 years ◆ by John Barge

Not everybody makes a gold record, but the Gizmos did. Oh sure, it took them more than 30 years to get their 500,000 sales but that makes it even cooler. How punk rock is that?

Now maybe you’ve heard of the Gizmos, maybe you haven’t. But here’s what you need to know: They were over the top, they rocked it out, and they were the first punk rock band to put out a record in Indiana.

It’s been almost four decades since they left their mark — or at least a stain — on the musical world but on Thursday, June 12th, at the Bishop the original Gizmos will reunite. Or perhaps more accurately, a reasonable facsimile will assemble — after all, the Gizmos made their first record with an eight person line up and naturally not everyone can make it.

But the mainstays of the group will be there, starting with the duo front men of Ken Highland and Ted Niemac, and the spiritual mentor Eddie Flowers, along with whiz-kid guitarist Ken Coffee, all four playing together for the first time since their infamous recording session way back in May, 1976. As for the elusive, reclusive others lurking in the background, who knows? But a Bloomington All Star music crew has been recruited for the rhythm section, consisting of local legends Ian Brewer and the Mad Monk known as JT, along with newbie Max Demata (more on him later).

The nitty gritty details are all in their CD liner notes about how a motley crew of fanzine writers (kids, it was kind of like writing a blog but using Xerox machines; ask your grandparents) converged on Bloomington in the mid-seventies, united in their love of rock’n’roll. This would be Ken and future Gulcher label owner Bob Richert, with occasional visits by Eddie Flowers.

After a few songs were written by aspiring rockers Ken and Eddie, Rich Coffee’s band Cerberus provided the bulk of the instrumentalists, but there was one more piece of the puzzle left to be added. Let Ken Highland fill us in: “Bob Richert worked at WIUS where he had met Ted Niemac, and they had free tickets to the Tubes. After the concert they came over to the apartment and we jammed to Kiss songs. But when Ted opened his mouth and sang, he sounded just like Lou Reed, only singing Deuce! Bob said, “I think you guys just formed a band. Let’s call it the Gizmos!”

A single ten hour recording session was hastily put together at Rich Fish’s aptly named Homegrown Studios, with a smattering of chaotic rehearsals happening beforehand. Guitars were plugged straight into the board instead of miking amps, and a direct live stereo mix was created for the master tapes, mostly because nobody in the band had any studio experience or knew any alternatives.

Kirk Ross (now with the Carolina Mercury Dispatch) was the engineer for that session. “It was a very strange session. We were all packed into a back bedroom of a duplex on Smith Road. I had to sit on the floor to engineer. The session started slowly. I remember John Mellencamp — he was Johnny Cougar then — coming by and showing them a song. The session built as it went on and had some pretty good energy by the end. They got quite goofy at times, mostly sugar highs. I was a pretty wild kid then, but they were a whole different level of wild. They made me feel normal.”

Putting out a fanzine was one thing, but putting out a record in 1976 was another, and it took a determined mind to make it happen. Bob Richert had that mind, starting Gulcher Records for the express purpose of pressing, releasing, and promoting the Gizmos’ recordings. After a lengthy break, it’s going strong today and while it’s a stretch to say it was the start of the DIY punk movement, it was the first example of the DIY punk movement, at least in Indiana, and thus an idea ahead of its time.

Gulcher Flyer

A Long, Long Time Ago….

Recordings are great, but of course it’s the music and the songs that matter, and here the Gizmos had an awful lot of inspiration going for them. The first extended player (or EP — it was the size of a 45 single but with four songs) featured a sensational, smutty pop punk classic Muff Diving (In The Wilkie South), that lyrically was not only entertaining, but educational too, with a whale of a guitar riff to propel it into the stratosphere.

That’s Cool (I Respect You More) has many tough-but-tender fans as well. “I was a pen pal with a girl in Jersey,” Ken explains “and she invited me down for a visit. I’m sixteen, you know how it is. We were listening to Grand Funk Railroad and making out, when I asked if she wanted to go all the way. She said no, and my mom always told me, “Ken, you must respect the ladies,” so I said, “That’s cool, I respect you more,” because I did. Later I wrote the song when I was working at my high school as a janitor. Like Kurt Cobain did.”

Rounding out the vinyl was a nifty tribute to Dick Clark and American Bandstand delivered in Mean Screen delivered by the irrespirable Eddie Flowers. The fourth song, Chicken Queen, is really beyond description. That’s on you to listen to. God help you.

So they pressed a thousand copies of the first “modern,” post-Stooges, Indiana punk rock record, and sent them out, and guess what — it was a hit. An underground sensation, as it were. It got rave reviews, hit #8 on the UK Alternative Chart, the cards and letters poured in, and the original pressing sold out. Another thousand were pressed (only 498,000 to go). “We felt that our music was entertaining and necessary. However we didn’t know that anybody else was ready for it and were a little surprised to see how enthusiastically it was received,” remembers Ted.

There was a clamor to see this strange and naughty group of guys, who actually had never played a live show, and they obliged, doing a set at the Monroe County Municipal Library in 1977 that was many years later released on the Gulcher label. Ken Highland had to endure the nascent punk rock explosion while wearing a US Marine uniform (“A big mistake,” is how he calls his enlistment today), but made it back to Bloomington for the show and a quick return to the recording studio for the second EP.

A young Johnny Cougar Mellencamp introduced them that night, and in a slightly bizarre turn of events, had even written a song for them called Boring Part 1. The Gizmos recorded it, with the Coug sitting in on guitar and singing background vocals, but they didn’t release it until many, many moons later. Ted says, “The track would’ve come out better, if we had spent more time going through it before the record button was pressed.”

Two more records were pressed, but sales didn’t match the first one, although there was strong material in those grooves. By 1978 the band would start to morph into the uber-talented Dale Lawrence era, which highlighted a more efficient and less chaotic approach to making this punk rock thing happen.

Gulcher Records expanded as well, releasing a chockful of records and samplers by local bands. But by 1982 it was all over. The Gizmos left for New York and changed their name. Gulcher Records moved on as well.

But they cast a long shadow that has allowed much marvelous original, hardcore, and experimental music to flourish right here in our hometown. This writer first saw them in that evolutionary year of 1978, which provided quite the adrenaline rush, and started my own band within the year. I quickly bought, or at least obtained, copies of all four eps and enthusiastically studied their self-referential lyrical style (Ballad of the Gizmos) and their muscular guitar riffing, and even dug their tongue-in-cheek advertising.

Their initiative in writing, recording and releasing their own material set a powerful example that many followed throughout the eighties and today’s local music scene owes much, both directly and indirectly, to those eight musical nabobs and the record label that grew in their wake.

And so the Gizmo’s legacy never really died. The interest continued through the years, and the first Gizmos EP remained a strong collector’s item. And lo and behold the internet mushroom clouded into existence. Collector interest surged, eBay sales were impressive, phone calls and emails were made, and in 2000 Gulcher Records revived, debuting with (what else?) a Gizmos compilation, 1976/1977: The Studio Recordings, which featured the first three EPs, unreleased tracks, and alternate takes. This is the material that the group will play at the Bishop.

Album Cover

Several Gulcher releases were licensed to an obscure Italian punk rock label that had a name that rhymed — Vulture Records. And an Italian luminary named Max Demata, who is good friends with the owner of Vulture Records, ended up at IU in Bloomington this year. It is through his efforts, his coercion, and his bass playing, that the Gizmos have been cajoled into doing the Bishop gig, which you can rest assured will be an out and out blast and, to quote the godfather of punk rock, Iggy Pop, a real cool time.

And 38 years later, when all the vinyl, discs and downloads are counted, the first Gizmos release is an official gold record and recognition for their music is due. “It fills a unique spot. Maybe a G-spot. That’s G for Gizmo!” is how Ted sums it up. “It’s the first time I’ve gone on tour!” adds Ken. So congratulations are in order. And I know just the time and place to give them.

[Longtime Bloomington resident John Barge is a musician with the Panics and Walking Ruins. He proudly wears his original “Gizmos Need Publicity” T shirt.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

The Sound Opinions of Jim Jarmusch

Only Lovers Left Alive

Photos – use only one featuring Tom Waits (probably the Coffee and Cigarettes but its your call)

◆ by Craig J. Clark

A needle is dropped onto a 45. As Wanda Jackson’s recording of Funnel of Love plays, we cut back and forth between spinning overhead views of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as two vampires half a world away from each other. Hiddleston, a former classical music composer living off the grid in a blighted Detroit neighborhood, is surrounded by his vintage musical instruments and analog recording equipment. Meanwhile, Swinton lies amongst her vast collection of books in her apartment in Tangier. Even if they’re not in direct contact, this sequence — which opens Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive — links them together and, along with their shared affinity for classic Motown and Stax records, connects them to many of Jarmusch’s other music-loving protagonists.

[Image at the top of this post from Only Lovers Left Alive.]

That trend dates back to his 1980 debut, Permanent Vacation, in which the main character is a drifter played by Chris Parker who’s driven by his fixation on his namesake, jazz man Charlie Parker, and little else. The proverbial stranger in a strange land, Parker spends much of the film walking through neighborhoods that look bombed-out, as many areas of New York City did at the time. (Jarmusch felt compelled to invent a war with the Chinese to explain the destruction.) The moment that stands out, though, comes early on when Parker puts on a record (of Up There in Orbit by Earl Bostic) and enthusiastically dances to it in a single, unbroken take. Sure, civilization may be on the brink of breaking down, but one must still take time out for music appreciation.

When Jarmusch came to make his follow-up, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, he not only gave the lead role to saxophonist John Lurie (who had briefly appeared as a street musician in Permanent Vacation), but also allowed him to compose the spare score. In fact, if one could only use a single adjective to describe Stranger Than Paradise, “spare” would be a good choice. The film’s minimal plot is set in motion when Lurie’s Hungarian cousin, Eszter Balint, who is fixated on the song I Put a Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, arrives in New York and has to stay with him for ten days before moving on to Cleveland to live with their elderly aunt. When the ten days are up Balint leaves, but not before she makes an impression on Lurie’s best friend, Richard Edson (and on Lurie himself). One year later the two of them spontaneously decide to drive to Cleveland to check up on her and, flush with money, the trio makes for the warmer climes of Florida, but thanks to the black-and-white photography it looks just as bleak as anywhere else they’ve been.

Stranger Than Paradise

Scene From Stranger Than Paradise

Jarmusch went way out of his comfort zone to make his third feature, 1986’s Down by Law. Sure, he may have sent a few of his characters to Cleveland and Florida in Stranger Than Paradise, but New York City was still their home base. Down by Law, on the other hand, was shot entirely on location in Louisiana, even venturing out into the swamps, which is about as far away from city streets as you can get. It was also his first time working with director of photography Robby Müller, who would go on to shoot three more features for Jarmusch, plus one of his Coffee and Cigarettes shorts, so it’s a fair bet they got on well together. That’s not always a given, but filmmaking is hard enough as it is without throwing your lot in with people you don’t get along with.

That applies to the film as well since Down by Law is a stark, funny portrait of three men thrown together by pure chance who have to band together to overcome the lousy hand life has dealt them. Singer Tom Waits stars as a radio DJ whose girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) tearfully throws him — and most of his possessions — out after he loses yet another gig. John Lurie (who also scored the film) returns from Stranger Than Paradise as a pimp who gets dressed down by one of his girls and falls for a set-up that lands him in jail. The same thing happens to Waits and they wind up sharing a cell in Orleans Parish Prison, where they’re joined by outgoing Italian tourist Roberto Benigni. At first Benigni’s little more than an irritant to Waits and Lurie, who spend most of their time together being openly hostile to each other, but then he figures out how they can escape, which raises his stock with them significantly.

Down By Law

Tom Waits (r) In Down By Law

John Lurie doesn’t appear onscreen in Jarmusch’s next film, 1989’s Mystery Train, but he did compose its score (his last for Jarmusch to date). The same goes for Tom Waits, who is the voice of a late-night DJ whose between-record patter is heard by all three sets of protagonists in the three-part omnibus film set in Memphis, Tennessee. Each story winds up at the same moderately seedy hotel, the Arcade, which is staffed by sharp-dressed desk clerk Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and bellboy Cinqué Lee. The first, “Far from Yokohama,” is about a young Japanese couple (Masatoshi Nagase and Yûki Kudô) on a rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage — she’s an Elvis girl, he’s into Carl Perkins — who couldn’t be more of a study in contrasts if they tried. In addition to their differing musical tastes — he wants Sun Studios to be their first priority, she’s intent on seeing Graceland — she’s outwardly thrilled by everything, while he’s much more blasé. He also takes pictures of their hotel room (which comes complete with a framed picture of Elvis) since it’s precisely the sort of thing he’ll forget about their trip.

Elvis also factors into the Mystery Train‘s other two stories. In “A Ghost,” Nicoletta Braschi plays an Italian widow traveling to Rome with her husband’s body who has an unplanned stopover in Memphis. She winds up sharing her room at the Arcade with motormouthed Jersey girl Elizabeth Bracco, who has just broken up with her man, but that’s not the reason why she doesn’t get much sleep. Rather, it’s because Elvis’s ghost appears to her, which would go down as the strangest occurrence of the night if not for the events of “Lost in Space,” in which we meet Bracco’s ex, a British expatriate played by rocker Joe Strummer, who’s weary of the nickname his black co-workers have given him (“Elvis,” naturally) and is drowning his sorrows in cheap bourbon. That would be all well and good, but when he starts waving a loaded gun around, his friend (Rick Aviles) and brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi) are summoned to retrieve him, leading to a long night for all of them. Since the previous segments both ended with the characters hearing a gunshot (“Was that a gun?” Kudô asks. “Probably. This is America,” Nagase laconically replies), we know it’s only a matter of time before Strummer shoots off something other than his mouth, and after he wings a liquor store clerk the three of them spend half the night driving around before holing up at the Arcade, where the mystery of the gunshot is solved. Suffice it to say, by the time they’re ready to check out, everybody is more than happy to be on their way.

Music and musicians aren’t as integral to Jarmusch’s next feature, 1991’s Night on Earth (there’s no scene in it like the one in Mystery Train where the Japanese tourists plays Rock Paper Scissors to determine who gets to pick the next tape to put in their Walkman), but Tom Waits did provide its soundtrack. He also acted in Jarmusch’s third Coffee and Cigarettes short in 1995 alongside Iggy Pop, with both of them as themselves having an awkward first encounter. Pop also appeared in a supporting role (as a cross-dressing frontier “wife”) in the same year’s Dead Man, which for our purposes is most notable for being scored by Neil Young. (Jarmusch even slips in a contemporary musical reference by naming one of the characters Benmont Tench after the keyboard player for Tom Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers.) That led to Jarmusch making the 1997 Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour film Year of the Horse, which to date is his only completed documentary (his untitled Stooges doc is currently in post-production).

For 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch entrusted the music to Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who also gets a cameo as a samurai in camouflage. This paved the way for RZA to act alongside his cousin (and fellow Wu-Tanger) The GZA in the feature version of Coffee and Cigarettes, which was released in 2003 and augmented the first three standalone shorts (which were made over a ten-year period) with eight more. In “Delirium,” the segment featuring RZA and The GZA, the two of them can’t believe their eyes when they find Bill Murray working in a greasy spoon. And in “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” Jack White shows his partner in The White Stripes, Meg White, his Tesla coil. (I guess that one’s pretty self-explanatory, actually.) In addition to bringing more musicians into the acting fold, Coffee and Cigarettes found Jim Jarmusch incorporating classic rock and roll sides into the soundtrack once again, with two versions of Louie Louie (one by composer Richard Berry and his group The Pharoahs, the other by Iggy Pop) and Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and Shondells.

Active music listening returns to the fore in Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, in which a reclusive bachelor played by Bill Murray is compelled to visit his old flames when he received an anonymous letter telling him he has fathered a child by one of them. This involves hitting the road with an itinerary planned out by his helpful next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright), who also gives him a mix tape to listen to that is heavy on the works of Ethiopian composer/performer Mulatu Astatke. Murray’s character may resist it at first, but the more he listens to it, the more he wants to listen to it.

Four years after Broken Flowers, Jarmusch came out with 2009’s The Limits of Control, in which a laconic man with no name (Isaach De Bankolé, who has been a mainstay of his films since Night on Earth) is sent to Spain to complete a mysterious mission. He meets his contacts in various cafés where they exchange matchboxes — his contain instructions for where he should go next – and have mostly one-sided conversations. (De Bankolé isn’t much for small talk — or talk of any size, really.) One of them is with a curious character played by John Hurt (previously seen in 1995’s Dead Man) who delivers a guitar to him and bends his ear about bohemians. As it turns out, this prefigures an early scene in Only Lovers Left Alive where Tom Hiddleston receives delivery of a number of guitars from dealer Anton Yelchin, who would be his Renfield if only he knew his rock-star client was a vampire.

Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch

In addition to listening to his well-curated vinyl collection, Hiddleston has taken up recording brooding instrumental rock and has even started releasing it. When he grows despondent enough about his lot in unlife to order a .38 caliber wooden bullet from Yelchin, though, Swinton books a night flight from Tangier (where she gets to hang out with Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt) to Detroit in the hopes of keeping him from doing anything drastic. The two of them share some pleasant night drives (including a visit to the house where Jack White grew up), but alas, their happy reunion is spoiled when they’re joined by Swinton’s reckless “sister” Mia Wasikowska, who drops in unannounced (save for some portentous dreams) and, as far as Hiddleston is concerned, unwelcome. With Wasikowska stirring the pot, the question isn’t if things are going to go south, but when.

One thing Only Lovers Left Alive does exceedingly well is evoke the creeping boredom that is the bane of undying beings that have an eternity to fill. And since neck-biting is considered passé, something as basic as the acquisition of blood has taken on the air of routine, although Hiddleston does vary his schedule to keep his supplier (a doctor played by Jeffrey Wright) on his toes. Wright, incidentally, is the source of some of the film’s wryer humor, which is most welcome considering how dour Hiddleston can be sometimes. To (mis-)quote the Rolling Stones, what a drag it is not getting old.

[Only Lovers Left Alive will be screening at the IU Cinema as part of its International Arthouse Series,Thursday-Saturday, June 26-28.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Thinking with Kisses: Hannah Arendt

Arendt

◆ by Thomas Prasch

In Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s film about the crisis and controversy provoked by Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker articles in 1961 on the Adolph Eichmann trial, in which Arendt notoriously framed her argument about the “banality of evil,” two framed photographs stand on her desk: one of Martin Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher who mentored her in Germany, and one of Heinrich Blücher, her husband. They stand as the two poles in her engaged involvement with the world, of mind and heart, of Arendt’s passionate commitment to the realm of thought, which Arendt fashions as the central bulwark by which mankind can avoid the grip of totalitarian conditions, and of equally passionate (with lots of hugs and kisses) commitment to social engagement, lovers and friends, on whom Arendt depends to maintain her philosophical work (as when, later in the film, Heinrich tries to leave the house without kissing her goodbye and excuses the action by saying “Never disturb a great philosopher when they’re thinking,” Arendt insists: “But they can’t think without kisses”). Both traits define our humanity, and it is above all else the abandonment of that humanity, Arendt argues in her analysis of Eichmann, that totalitarianism triumphs.

[Image at the top of this post: Hannah Arendt.]

The film’s nearly-opening two scenes (after the brief initial scene in which Eichmann is seized by Israeli forces) reinforce the message of the two framed portraits. In the first, we see Hannah Arendt thinking. It is a striking start to a film above all else for its sheer duration: she paces, smokes a cigarette, lies down on a couch, but above all thinks, silently, no speaking, no voiceover, for a long time, over a minute and a half of screen time, something unimaginable in, say, Hollywood cinema. Immediately following, von Trotta catches a discussion between Arendt and her close friend, novelist Mary McCarthy. The conversation, picked up in medes res, opens with an interesting bit of misdirection: “But Hannah, how can you defend him?” McCarthy is asking, however, not about Eichmann, but about McCarthy’s straying husband, and in the course of a discussion about whether you can trust men, Arendt draws two key conclusions: first, that “I do not throw my friends away so easily” (so the husband’s affair will not lead to a shunning), and second: “Either you are willing to take men as they are or you must live alone.” That lonely alternative to human engagement will become a leitmotif in the film.

The dichotomy is, of course, imperfect; as Arendt’s response to Heinrich suggests, no person can be all thought, or presumably all kisses. In Germany, Heidegger had been Arendt’s lover as well as teacher: the movie, in one of several flashbacks to her student years, imagines the beginning of the affair precisely in the breakdown of the dichotomy, when Hannah, in Heidegger’s office, tells him: “We are so used to thinking of reason and passion as opposites that the idea of passionate thinking, where thinking and being alive are one and the same, is terrifying to me.” And, on the other side, Heinrich is not just a kisser (although an aside by McCarthy during that party scene notes: “They are the happiest married couple in the world”); he is also a passionate participant in the debates among the German expatriate community in New York that explode in Hannah and Heinrich’s living room (and tend, especially for the stray English speakers in the crowd, rather to ruin her parties) immediately after Eichmann’s arrest and removal to Jerusalem. Heinrich ferociously contends, for example, that the arrest and trial have no basis in international law, against those who equally angrily contend that any court would do for such a man. And, of course, the dichotomy is muddled somewhat by Heidegger’s own trajectory: his embrace of the Nazi party as rector of the university in Freiburg. Indeed, Hans Jonas, identified in that early party scene as Arendt’s “oldest friend,” going back to when they were both (Jewish) students of Heidegger, cannot bear to hear the philosopher’s name mentioned (although here, too, the dichotomy also tends to collapse: Heinrich late in the film suggests to Hannah that Hans “hates Heidegger more for stealing your heart than for joining the [Nazi] Party”). In another flashback, the only postwar one, Arendt confronts her old tutor on his abandonment of the principles of independent thought in his adherence to Nazism, to which charge he has in the film, as he had in life, no answer but awkward, evasive silence.

Still, the dichotomy — of hand and heart — is a useful frame for understanding the ways in which von Trotta constructs Arendt’s course through the controversy (a constant alternation, echoing those first scenes, between life of mind and social life). The film’s insistence on Hannah’s need for others as much as her need for thought provides a defense against some of Arendt’s most aggressive contemporary critics (like the New School foe who, in the midst of trying to remove her from the school’s classrooms, harumphs: “That’s Hannah Arendt, all arrogance and no feeling”). The dichotomy will simultaneously provide Arendt herself with an understanding of the operation of totalitarian systems, which begins with the abandonment of thought, which, Arendt asserts, undermines the very humanity of the Nazi—“In refusing to be a person,” by not thinking of his actions, by making himself nothing but a bureaucratic cog, “Eichmann surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think,” which produces the bureaucratic process made manifest in the operation of the Final Solution, which in turn dehumanizes the victims. As she explains to her students, “the camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless,” and where, it follows, there is no humanity, which makes it that much easier to kill). And, finally, the dichotomy will provide the complex dialectic of triumphant and tragic outcomes that define the film’s conclusion. Thus, on the one hand, at the level of thought, the film gives Arendt her intellectual triumph: she gets the last word, in the extended lecture she presents at the New School at the height of the controversy, in which she will take on and effectively demolish the attacks of her fiercest critics. At the same time, the tragic dimension is that her intellectual triumph coincides with her increasing social isolation: Heinrich dies (no cause-effect here, just coincident timing); Hans, that “oldest friend,” abandons her; so does Kurt Blumenfeld, her old Zionist friend in Jerusalem. When they had argued during the Eichmann trial — as, indeed, Arendt used their arguments to begin to flesh out her ideas about the “banality of evil” — Hannah and Kurt reassured his listening daughter: Hannah telling her “But after finishing our bloody duels,” and Kurt finishing her sentence: “We always find a way to make up.” But, on his deathbed, he turns his back on her. Earlier in the film, in one of the flashbacks, a line of Heidegger’s anticipates this tragic dimension: “Thinking is a lonely business.” Arendt’s thinking will make her lonelier.
P
Arendt’s book unleashed a firestorm of criticism. The movie about that firestorm has, in striking ways, reignited it. The new attacks have been remarkable perhaps most of all in the level to which they have misrepresented both Arendt and von Trotta’s film. In The New Republic, Saul Austerlitz denounced the film because it “perpetuates the pernicious myth” of “Arendt as fearless truth-teller” by dismissing her critics as “bullies, shrill ideologues” and ignoring their “valid criticisms” of her “shoddy history,” while proffering much shoddy history himself (that Arendt thought Eichmann was “unaware” of the atrocities, for instance, a claim Arendt never made). Similarly, in the New York Times, Fred Kaplan insisted that newer evidence undermines Arendt’s : “Her ‘banality of evil’ thesis rests on the premise that Eichmann committed his deeds with no awareness of their evil, not even with virulent anti-Semitism,” but this misunderstands Arendt’s premise and misstates the evidence she had at hand. Stanley Kauffman in The New Republic insists: “Today at least we can see that there is small point in separating emotions from facts, as Arendt did,” when in fact she did not such thing.

At this level, the new attacks largely reprise the debates Arendt’s original publication provoked. They have also gone significantly further, however, in terms of mischaracterizations of Arendt, personalized attacks on von Trotta, and false claims about the film. Kauffman, for example, falsely claims that Arendt’s love affair with Heidegger was renewed after the war, “presumably more a matter of Venus than politics,” and that the controversy over her book led to her “discharge from her teaching position.” Wrong on both counts. David Rieff, writing in The Nation, says of the Americans in the film: “those roles as written are a little too close for comfort to seeming like a road show for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic screed, a charge that is both hyperbolically overloaded and absurdly unfitted to the film. Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books, both dismissively derides von Trotta, as someone whose “specialty is didactic feminist buddy movies,” and misrepresents the film. He writes, for example: “In one shot we are watching Eichmannn testify … in the next her husband is patting her behind as they cook dinner.” Although both moments occur in Hannah Arendt, they are separated by over half an hour of screen time. Lilla also insists, of Arendt’s arrival at her conclusions, that “we are left with the impression that she … had a vision,” ignoring the role of thinking, of discussing and debating and writing and revising, that are central to the movie. Lilla needs the visionary angle, however, to stake his own conclusion, that this is “a stilted, and very German, morality play about conformism and independence” which exposes Germans’ “unwillingness … to think for themselves,” a bizarre claim to make about a philosopher committed to the priority of thought and a film that makes thinking so central.

Critics of Arendt’s position, then and now, have focused above all on two points, and have misunderstood Arendt’s position on both. First, they have argued that her case for the “banality of evil” amounts to an excusing of Eichmann for his crimes, as if Arendt was asserting his functional innocence. But Arendt did no such thing. He had no “motive,” his crimes were “without intention,” he “only obeyed orders.” But that does not excuse his actions (it does not even make them less evil, in fact; “banal,” note, but still “evil”); indeed, it makes them worse. By abandoning thought, Eichmann and Nazis like him abandoned their very humanity, and this made them capable of crimes which, Arendt repeatedly insists, could not be imagined in earlier history.

Second, and most controversially, Arendt focused for a dozen pages of her account on the complicity of Jewish leaders in the mechanics of the Holocaust. As she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For her critics this was utter heresy; as one of them puts it here, “You blame the Jewish people for their own destruction.” But this was not Arendt’s point. As she responds to that critic: “I never blamed the Jewish people. Resistance was impossible. But perhaps there is something between resistance and cooperation, and only in that sense do I say that maybe some of the Jewish leaders might have behaved differently.” In this, Arendt drew heavily on the work of Raul Hilfberg, whose then-recent Destruction of the European Jews (1961) fully documented the involvement of Judenrat in the mechanics of the extermination process: in the selection of victims, in the control of information, in the mechanics of ghettoization (bottom line here: Hilfberg’s ample documentation demonstrates that Arendt was right). But beyond that, accusing her of blaming the Jews, as Arendt notes, misses the point. Jewish complicity is for her part of the bigger picture of Nazi totalitarianism’s dehumanization, part of what she calls in the film “the totality of the moral collapse that the Nazis caused.” In no way does she ever suggest, as her critics claimed and claim, that Eichmann could be exonerated and the Jewish leadership held guilty in the process.

In the course of the film, the priority of thought (or its reverse, the abandonment of thought) is a recurrent trope. The thought scene at the outset gets reinforced by a lecture by Heidegger in one of the early flashbacks: “Thinking does not bring knowledge, as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce usable, practical wisdom. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Thinking does not endow us with the power to act. We live because we are alive. And we think because we are thinking beings.”  And Arendt at work — in discussion, while lecturing, while writing—is always Arendt in thought.

And then, her thought focuses on the inverse, the unthinking totalitarian mind. This figures first of all in Eichmann’s own testimony, provided in the film by archival clips of his actual court testimony, where he speaks the bureaucratese that is the enemy of thought: “I received the matter for its continued processing and dealt with it in an intermediate capacity. As I was ordered to do, I had to follow orders…. Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed. In line with administrative procedures.” From that unthinking leadership follows the enforcement of unthought throughout the system, as at the camps (as she explains to her students, recalling her own camp experience in Gurs, where the logic of the system had “nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable … motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings,” who are, recall from Heidegger, thinking beings), or with the Jewish councils, or anywhere else within the system. As she articulates it in her final lecture: “The trouble with a Nazi criminal like Eichmann was that he insisted on renouncing all personal qualities, as if there was nobody left to be punished or forgiven. He protested time and again … that he had done nothing out of his own initiative. That he had no intentions, good or bad. That he had only obeyed orders. This typical Nazi claim makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies, evil committed by men without motive, without convictions… by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the banality of evil.” Depersonalization here coincides with thoughtlessness (although, of course, heartlessness accompanies it as well).

Arendt concludes her final lecture with a reaffirmation of the role of thought as a counterforce to the darkness, in terms that interestingly (and ironically, given his trajectory) echo Heidegger’s: “Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking being engaged in that intent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of … thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in those moments when the chips are down.” Her project — and von Trotta’s affirmation of that project — is less about eliminating the category of evil or exonerating its practitioners, but in demystifying it (“He is not Mephistopheles,” Arendt insists to Kurt), and to accomplish this by subjecting totalitarianism, as the enemy of thought, to the process of thinking.

But that process of thought must be balanced for Arendt in the other passion, the social connection. This is made clear early in the film, when she recalls for Heinrich her experience of and escape from the camp. As camp life continued, as the women in the camp were dragged down by “the waiting,” Arendt recalls, “More and more women let themselves go, stopped combing their hair, stopped washing themselves. Just lay on straw mats.” Arendt herself reached a point where “I suddenly lost my courage. I was so tired, so tired, that I wanted to leave this world that I so loved. And in that instant I saw you in front of me. [I thought about] how you’d look for me and not find me.” And so she persevered. But note: it is love that saves her, not thought. It is in the balance between the two that Arendt, and von Trotta, rest our hopes.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Imprinted Cinema

Sheaffer

IU Grad Student’s Film, Acetate Diary, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival ◆ by Brandon Walsh

Avant-garde cinema is uniquely equipped to engage with unspoken personal realities. Such is the case with Russell Sheaffer’s short experimental film Acetate Diary, an attempt to bridge the gap between individual trauma and a publically displayed medium.

[The image of Sheaffer at the top of this post is a promotional shot from the Tribeca Film Festival.]

The film is an impressionistic scroll of abstract handmade patterns and shapes, indecipherable scrolling text, and broad strokes of color. The film is a visually impulsive exercise, modeling the diary films of Jonas Mekas and Sadie Benning as well as the nonrepresentational films of Stan Brakhage. An abstract expression, it requires the audience to tune their gaze to the film’s own visual logic.

Sheaffer acknowledges that the film is better experienced than discussed with language, which effectively alludes to the thesis of Acetate Diary. He says, “It’s tricky, because you’re articulating something that can’t be articulated.”

Acetate Diary

Selected Frames From Acetate Diary

Sheaffer injured his jaw in a horrific accident involving multiple cars while driving on a San Diego freeway in November of 2012. Though surviving, the accident left him deeply affected. It wasn’t until a year later that he began to emotionally recover. “I just assumed I would get better … trauma happens, and you deal with that for a really long time,” says Sheaffer.

Not long after his recovery, Sheaffer’s world was upended once again. Given a troubling medical diagnosis related to the accident, he reverted to the same state of fear and disembodiment that he experienced following the accident. The night of his diagnosis, he ran into Susanne Schwibs, documentary filmmaker and faculty member of the Communication and Culture department. She says, “When Russell came to me with his idea for a handmade film, I was elated.  It is a time-consuming process and so few people choose that technique.  It is difficult, too, because what you see when you paint is not what you will see and hear when it is projected.” After discussing the leading events, Schwibs gave Sheaffer a spare developed 100-foot roll of 16mm film, which would become Acetate Diary.

While informed by the preceding year, the film itself documents the two week period of its production, manipulated in the analog edit bays in both the Communication and Culture department’s production lab and the lab made in Sheaffer’s basement. Schaeffer treated each day as a chapter in the diary, using different techniques and patterns, though the film was not produced sequentially. One day was devoted to laying his fingerprint on the film, others to sketching phrases and geometric patterns. The optical audio track aside the film was similarly modified. Sheaffer scratched the surface with a pushpin.

Acetate Diary

Still From Acetate Diary

The result is a sculptural representation of cognitive emptying, a personal imprint on a physical medium. Schaeffer cites Orphans Midwest as a spiritual influence, a conference hosted by the IU Cinema consisting of handmade, “orphaned” films, of which he helped curate. Enrolled in Schwibs’ experimental film class, Schaffer was also exposed to the nonrepresentational films of Norman McLaren.

Sheaffer shipped the 16mm print to the FotoKem film lab for 35mm conversion, which screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Jon Vickers, director of the IU Cinema, assisted with the film’s conversion to film, “The long-term plight of digital preservation is still unknown. Russell now has a known, stable archival element that will surely last hundreds of years,” says Vickers. Acetate Diary screened in the festival as part of “Digital Dillema,” a series of 8 short films that explored the both endearing and fleeting qualities of celluloid film. “With so much going to digital, there’s a resurgence of films that are handmade that are one of a kind,” Schwibs says. It was also one of 9 student films shown in the festival.

The story of the film’s making is as equally captivating as the 16mm roll itself, and Schaeffer is aware of how the background will likely inform the experience of viewing the film. In either instance, he feels the message of discomfort comes across. “It should be a threatening encounter. It makes the work alive,” says Schaeffer. In essence, the value taken from Acetate Diary is as much dictated by the viewer’s own projection to the screen as the filmmaker’s.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

BSO Hires New Artistic Director

Bodony

◆ by Will Healey

The Bloomington Symphony Orchestra has hired a new Artistic Director. On July 1st, Adam Bodony will be assuming the position currently held by Nicholas Hersh. Bodony was selected from a group of eight candidates who were invited for an interview and each had an hour-long audition with the orchestra.

Donna Lafferty, executive director of the BSO as well as a trombone player in the orchestra, said Bodony stood out early on. “From the very first, it was evident that he was interested in us,” Lafferty said.  “He asked very intelligent questions about the orchestra.  You could tell that he wasn’t just looking for a job, he was looking for the right job.”

His ease with the orchestra during his audition also set him apart. “His performance was fun, very musical, he wasn’t stern or a taskmaster, he was very collaborative,” Lafferty said.  “I pretty quickly thought, ‘Yes, this is the guy.’”

Bodony, 29, also has superb qualifications. He is currently executive director and artistic director-designate of New World Youth Orchestras, a youth orchestra organization comprised of three different orchestras in Indianapolis where he works with musicians ages 7-18.  He is also the assistant conductor of the Missouri Symphony Orchestra. An accomplished musician to boot, Bodony has a master’s degree in trombone performance from IU’s Jacobs School of Music and he frequently plays trombone with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Bodony was eager to apply for the position with the BSO after fondly recalling an experience he had sitting in with the orchestra during his graduate studies at the Jacobs School.

“It only took one rehearsal for me to realize how special of a group the BSO was,” Bodony said.  The musicians are diverse and have a seemingly insatiable attitude for the highest quality of music making, the board is supportive and motivated, and the community treasures the organization.  Wrap this all up in a 45- year tradition and you have something extremely unique.

Founded in 1969 by conducting graduate student Geoffrey Simon, the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra presently consists of 85 committed musicians who come from all over the state to play for passion instead of payment.  The orchestra plays eight shows per season, and recently reached an agreement with the Buskirk-Chumley Theater to host most of their performances.

As artistic director, Bodony will conduct all of the BSO’s rehearsals and concerts, as well as attend board meetings and play a key role in fundraising for the orchestra. He will also lead the committee on choosing new pieces, and, though next season is already planned, he already has a few pieces in mind.

“Mahler’s 1st Symphony, Dvorak’s 9th, and any work by Beethoven, my absolute favorite composer,” Bodony said.

There will be a ceremonial handing over of the baton from Hersh to Bodony at the BSO’s summer concert in Bryan Park on July 13 at 6:30 pm.  The BSO is hosting a reception on June 14 to formally introduce Bodony to the public and talk about their upcoming season.  The reception will take place at 6:00 pm in the City Hall atrium.

Until then, Bodony says he is eager to begin his new role as the musical leader of the BSO.  “I’m very excited to be working with this orchestra at this particular time in their history,” Bodony said.  “There is so much energy within the organization to make the BSO the very best it can be, artistically, organizationally, educationally.  I just think it’s going to be a lot of fun!”

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

IU’s Summer Festival of the Arts, Running through August

Summer Festival of the Arts

◆ by Will Healey

Summer is here, and so is IU’s Summer Festival of the Arts. Since 2011, the festival has been the university’s way of showcasing all of the music, cinema, theatre, and art happenings on campus over the summer. That’s a good thing according to Brady Miller, Director of Special and Academic Events at IU, because there’s a lot going on.

“It’s often easy to think of a college campus as only being busy nine months out of the year, but that’s really not true,” Miller says. “Community members or visitors can look at the calendar for the festival and realize there is an opportunity to visit campus and experience the arts virtually every day from May through August.”

The festival also serves a greater function than merely consolidating IU’s arts into a convenient calendar. According to Miller, it helps campus arts organizations promote their events, as well as provide an atmosphere of collaboration and cross-promotion between organizations. It also helps visitors to campus plan trips.

“If someone were already planning to come to campus to visit the IU Art Museum, for example, they might decide to also stop and visit the Mathers Museum or the gallery at the Kinsey Institute,” Miller says. “Similarly, if a person had tickets to a theater performance, they may decide to come to campus a bit earlier and see the current exhibit of rare books on display at the nearby Lilly Library.”

The events, too numerous to catalog here, will keep even the most ardent patrons busy. There’s the Indiana Festival Theatre’s production of the Stephen Schwartz classic, Godspell, which sets parables from the Gospel of Matthew to modern music styles like rock & roll, pop, R&B, ragtime and rap. The cast features B.F.A students in the IU Musical Theatre program, and the production runs June 9-29 in the Wells-Metz Theatre.

The IU Cinema will continue to be the place in Bloomington to see quality arthouse films- Jon Favreau’s acclaimed new culinary comedy, Chef, will run June 13-14. Only Lovers Left Alive, the new film from maverick director Jim Jarmusch which tells the centuries-spanning love story of two vampires in Jarmusch’s unique way, runs June 26-28. And Richard Linklater’s coming-of age time capsule film, Boyhood, shot over twelve years with the same cast, will run August 14-16.

There are several art shows running through the summer, too. There’s the Creative Minds exhibition, running through September 12 at the Kinsey Institute, which features work produced by artists whose primary professions are as sex researchers, physicians or scientists. The IU Art Museum is running a special exhibition of Matisse’s Jazz, a collection of twenty color stencil prints and more than thirty other works by the artist, through June 28. And Spiritualists, Sorcerers and Stage Magicians: Magic and the Supernatural at the Lilly Library will offer a glimpse into how views of the occult and the supernatural have endured through the ages (see image at the top of this post). Among the wide array of texts in the exhibition is a correspondence between book collector Montgomery Evans and famed occultist Aleister Crowley.

Music lovers will be satiated by a litany of musical performances both in and out of doors, among them the Jazz in July program at the IU Art Museum, the 30th Anniversary Concert for the IU Summer String Academy, the Summer Philharmonic Performance at the Musical Arts Center on June 28.

There are also specific events geared toward family and children: in late June and early July the Indiana Festival Theatre will perform School House Rock Live!, the classic educational show featuring the classic songs Just a Bill, and Conjunction, Junction. The Mathers Museum of World Cultures is also running a mask-making event on June 9 that should be especially fun for kids.

As you can see, there’s no shortage of quality arts programming in Bloomington this summer. Brady Miller encourages people to attend, and he himself plans on taking in many of the events.

“It seems every time I look at the calendar, I come across something I hadn’t seen before and gets me excited, whether that’s a film at the IU Cinema, a concert with the Jacobs School, or one of the new gallery displays opening this summer,” Miller said. Go to the Summer Arts Festival website for a full calendar of events.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

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