Never quarantine the Past

Two new podcasts – Unspooled and 80s All Over – revisit classic American films

By Brian Stout

Rather than trafficking in nostalgia, these podcasts are taking a fresh look at the AFI Top 100 Films list and 1980s cinema.

Is Citizen Kane still the best movie ever made? The current AFI Top 100 Movies List has it in the top slot. One exciting recent podcast series is taking a critical view of the somewhat sacred ranking, and another is taking a comprehensive look at the 1980s.

On Unspooled, film critic Amy Nicholson and comedian/actor Paul Scheer take on the list one film at a time. The pairing works. Nicholson is a highly respected writer and critic with extensive film history knowledge and a modern approach, which Scheer is a successful comedian/actor and lifelong film fan who has admittedly not seen several films on the list. They provide a potent combination of historical context, production notes, bad reviews, and 21st century insights, culminating in a decision about whether or not the film should remain on the list. The podcast has also spawned a lively Facebook group.

Starting with Citizen Kane and randomly roaming from film to film after that, Nicholson and Scheer have discussed half of the list at this point, and their spirited conversations are available through the usual podcast outlets.

A cursory look at the list reveals a collection of mostly white, mostly male, mostly great films. It’s also very heavy on 1970s films. And white guys fighting The System. And westerns. And yes, that makes sense to a degree. It was a remarkable decade and sheer numbers suggests a male-heavy list. Also, what’s more American than a western?

But where are the women? Where are the directors of color? Horror movies? Science fiction? LGBTQ films? It’s easy to be highly critical of the selections and to point to their lack of diversity, and to say the list is an outcome of a number of factors, and that only adds relevance to the argument for re-evaluation. The list has already been updated once, and the past 30 years in particular have been marked by an increase in the diversity of voices, so it’s ripe for revision again. This century has produced many formidable potential additions, such as There Will Be Blood, Moonlight, Children of Men, Brokeback Mountain, Zero Dark Thirty, and Mad Max Fury Road to name only a few. And I’d still like to see A League of Their Own make the cut. And that there are zero films directed by women and that Spike Lee and M. Night Shyamalan are the only directors of color on the list simply must be addressed.

That’s where Amy and Paul come in.

Here are notes on three of the most intriguing episodes.

Taxi Driver. The pair discuss the film’s similarities to The Searchers and whether or not Travis is a poser. The characters Robert DeNiro and John Wayne play in their respective films are driven to save young girls who may or may not want saving. They also both harbor tenuous feelings about minorities. Scorsese is an avowed fan of John Ford’s classic, so the connection makes sense on the surface. Even more interestingly, though, is the argument about Travis’ background. On the surface, the film suggests that Travis is a veteran whose psychopathy is likely a result of the war. He wears Army gear, but never mentions a specific branch of service. His knowledge of weapons appears to suggest a civilian. He goes for the .44 Magnum, same as Dirty Harry. But his mental illness may be the most important piece to unraveling his motivation. Nicholson has made no bones about her dislike for Scorsese’s work, and she provides some interesting insights and counterpoints on the master filmmaker and one of his most widely heralded films.

A cursory look at the AFI Top 100 list reveals a collection of mostly white, mostly male, mostly great films.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The most intriguing aspect of this film is that both Nicholson’s and Scheer’s sympathies were with Nurse Ratched, who is ranked number five on the AFI Best Villains list. One of the high points of the “fight the system” movies of the 1970s, the film focuses on Jack Nicholson’s character’s efforts to disrupt the treatment within an inpatient mental health facility. A closer look shows Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy’s supposedly heroic efforts to help the other patients undermining some sincere attempts to treat and care for people who need care. The movie goes out of its way to show that fighting the system results in a person being silenced. They decided that the film belongs on the list, but this is a great example of how even great films have problematic elements.

A Clockwork Orange. Stanley Kubrick’s controversial classic launched a spirited debate about how the horrific actions of the lead character are framed in the film and how their portrayal makes the audience complicit and may be a way of Kubrick freeing himself from judgement for making his despicable lead character look cool. One of the most intriguing points that is made is that much of the violence Alex commits is seen at a distance, but the violence inflicted upon him is seen up close and personal, manipulating the audience to feel empathy for a criminal. The first blood drawn in the film is Alex’s. He calls himself the humble narrator throughout, and the voices of the victims are silenced throughout the film. It is an intriguing set of observations on a film that’s held court as an esteemed cult classic for decades. 

The 80s All Over podcast is an even more ambitious undertaking: revisiting all the major releases of the 1980s month by month. As children of the 1980s and noted film writers, Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg bring a combination of personal experience and spirited banter to all of it, covering the hidden gems, the blockbusters, and the schlock and trash that graced the screens throughout the decade. It’s a good idea to listen with a notes app open, regardless of preferences, because no one has seen all of these films except McWeeny and Weinberg, and you’ll wind up with a list of titles to track down, and likely have an itch to revisit some of your own favorites from the era.

The best place to start is the summer of 1984 episodes, where they reminisce about watching The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Sixteen Candles, among others. They dive into their stories of how these movies affected them then and now, and analyze and they’re not afraid to call out some of the gauche characterizations of marginalized groups and the casual attitude about victimization of women in these films that are often remembered as essentially harmless.

Both McWeeny and Weinberg praise The Karate Kid for its ending, in light of how many contemporary films draw out endings and run times. Ghostbusters is canon for virtually every child of the 1980s, and they relay some very interesting details about the movie’s troubled production. They also talk about how Temple of Doom and Gremlins pushed the limits of the PG rating and provided a flashpoint for creating the PG-13 rating.

Sixteen Candles is a classic in many ways, but it also features an appalling characterization of a foreign exchange student and a plot point where the popular, cool crush object provides the geeky boy with keys to a Rolls Royce and his drunk girlfriend. These unsettling elements are at odds with an essentially sweet story about a teenage girl coming of age. 

Lists are easy targets. They rarely satisfy and mostly spark conversations about what’s missing. Rather than just nitpicking choices, Unspooled remains fixed upon evaluating the somewhat sacred AFI Top 100 List, attempting to address the redundancies to make room for more modern choices. 80s All Over is a more personal account, a decade-long slice of two lifetimes of moviegoing. Both offer dynamic, challenging, and entertaining evaluations of American film, which really is best understood through the convergence of personal taste and cinema history.

Meeting Patti at the Poplars

A Memoir as Historical Fiction

by John Bob Slone

I was thinking recently about the time I met punk-rock’s poetic high priestess, Patti Smith. It was 1976; she and her band were touring behind their newly-released Horses album. One of the tour venues was the Poplars Hotel Ballroom in Bloomington. That in itself was newsworthy. The Poplars was owned by Indiana University and, by reputation, represented all that was staid and conservative in the Midwest. The hotel had never before hosted a concert, let alone a band of wild, grungy, high-volume, NYC punk rockers. It was, to put it mildly, a curious juxtaposition. But what was even more curious was this odd match made for a happy marriage.

It was a strange brew, but a delightfully delicious one, a blend so special blend that it etches an extra-deep groove in the record of memory. From such a deep groove, memories are manifest in high-def full color with a quadrophonic soundtrack; the sights, sounds, touches and smells remain forever fresh. In short, they are memories that can be relived. So cue up the swirling harp music and follow me back in time to the day I met Patti at the Poplars.


I’m a 24-year-old freelance journalist, and I’ve been asked to cover the show for Primo Times, a regional alternative weekly tabloid. It’s a peachy assignment. Primo circulates 100,000 copies with editions in Bloomington, Lafayette, Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Printed on thrifty newsprint, the mag is distributed free of charge and is one of the most widely-read publications in Indiana. Every Friday they leave big stacks of their colorful papers around Bloomington. By Saturday, they are gone.

I love working for Primo. Part of that affinity lies in numbers. I like the large numbers of readers, and I like the large numbers on their checks. But numbers aside, what I like best about Primo is their managing editor, Vic Bracht. He lets me write whatever I want and makes sure my stuff is only proofread and never edited–unless for space :(. To me, he is the perfect editor, and he stands barely a notch below Buddha in the echelon of my esteem. It’s a given that Vic steered this much-desired story my way.

Editorially, Primo Times is much more culturally than politically inclined. The philosophy is, since no news is good news, traditional news should be avoided in most cases. That makes this story, Patti Smith coming to Bloomington, a candidate for Primo’s biggest story of the year. Patti is more than just making waves. She is the wave. And now she’s making airwaves with Horses, and I can hardly wait to ride them.

Even before this tour, Patti was long legendary in punk circles. She was a regular at CBGB, New York’s punk Mecca. From there her band, along with Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Sonic Youth and The Ramones, stand the rock world on its ear. Crudely recorded cassettes of these bands reach hip kids’ collections around the country, and a musical explosion is fomenting. And Horses is the match that will light the fuse.

It’s Patti’s first studio album release, and it comes on a silver platter—recorded at Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Lady Studio, produced by John Cale, and released on Clive Davis’ big-clout Arista label. Patti, with her raw, Chelsea-Hotel-stained poetry, her CBGB-honed wild looks and her straight-from-hell punk eloquence, has won the hearts of Andy Warhol and New York City. Now, with Clive’s powerful backing, she is about to win over the rest of America.

Horses is the first punk rock album ever released on a major label. Fittingly, it is a masterpiece. The record makes all kinds of best lists, be it “Best Punk Album,” “Best Debut Album,” or “Most Influential Album.” In 2003 Rolling Stone rated it as the 44th best rock album of all time. It’s also often mentioned for having the best opening line in rock history. Side One/Track one is a Saturn-rocket take-off on Van Morrison’s Gloria that starts softly with a lonely, haunting piano, slowly riffing through Gloria’s chords. Then Patti’s vocal comes in, low in register, rich in tone, dripping with pain: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine…” In mere seconds Patti becomes transcendent, gripping listeners by the lapels and dragging them to new dimensions with whole new worlds of possibilities. I’ve listened to that opening segment dozens of times over the years, and it still takes me to those worlds. Every time.

In 1976, Patti Smith was more than just making waves. She was the wave. And she was coming to Bloomington

Mort Salt is Primo’s music editor, a Midwest-condescending, ex-pat New Yorker. He’s a little older, and considers himself to be a real pro. He’s not at all a fan of my writing style. He complains that it lacks proper content and once derided it as “unprofessional self-indulgence”. Leary of what he perceives to be my propensity for poor preparation, he’s called me daily for the past week to make sure I understood the enormity of this assignment, “not only to this publication but also to the alternative community we serve.”  He insists that I stop by the office to pick up a portfolio of Patti’s news clippings that he’s amassed for my benefit. Having no interest in press clippings, I let my answering machine take his calls and steadfastly refuse to respond. It is my policy to avoid office visits except for the essentials: dropping off articles (usually only slightly past deadline) or picking up checks.

On Saturday morning, the day of the show, I waken to see the answering machine already blinking with two messages. Steeling myself for Mort’s harsh, boxing-announcer voice, which usually hits me like a hard-pitched Brooklyn beanball, I tap the play button. Mort barks: “JB, I can’t believe you still haven’t picked up those fuckin’ clippings. Have you even listened to the album yet? Call me. Now!

I must admit I take some pleasure hearing that trace of panic edging into Mort’s voice. I laugh and say to no one, “Sure thing, numb nuts”. I play the second message. Once again it’s Mort, but this time he comes in with a high, hard one that catches me right on the earflap: “JB, if you haven’t picked up those clippings by noon today, I’m pulling you off this assignment. Vic’s gone for the weekend, so don’t think I can’t do it.” Well, that gets my attention…

…About a half minute after leaving the office, I stuff Mort’s big manila envelope, bulging with Patti lore, into an over-spilling city trash can. Before turning away, I pause to look at the envelope, wedged precariously in the overspill and glaringly visible to prying editorial eyes. Staring at the obscene object, I contemplate my lack of preparation and feel a ball-tingling surge of fear. “Pre-show jitters,” I think. “Good.

Truth is, Mort has it right. I know next to nothing about Patti. My promo copy of Horses remains intact in its shrink wrap. My notebook is devoid of well-engineered questions. Even worse, I’ve never actually attended a punk rock show. Truly, I realize Mort’s worst nightmare. But for this story, that’s the way I want it. I’m no punk rock expert, so my best approach to this story is per my alter ego–a card-carrying, law-breaking, whacked-out, knee-knockin’ Gonzo journalist. As such, all those manila-wrapped clever facts are, at best, boring and, in truth, irrelevant. I grab my notebook and jot down these words: “What is important for me is to physically enter into the story, to live the story–to walk, talk, assault and gestalt the story—by whatever means necessary.”

I contemplate my brave bit of prose. I imagine the balancing scale of justice and place those brave words in the left tray. In the right tray I place a cold, hard fact: If I fail to enter into the story, I’m left with squat. I take my hand off the cold fact and watch the scale dip to the right. More tingling balls. I need fortification, and since I’m giving up booze, I turn to my heroes.  

Gonzo is the doctrine of my hero #1, Hunter S. Thompson. I don’t copy Hunter, but I do emulate him. So far in my budding career, it’s stood me well. I’ve already seen two of my Gonzoid stories go out on the AP wire. That’s pretty much like finding the Holy Grail in my world. AP wire stories are sent by Telex to every major publication in the world–and quite a few minor ones too. Many of these publications ran my pieces, and I got a nice fat check from each one that did so. The memory of those fat checks, reaped at the cost of a few cheap sheets of typing paper, is indeed fortifying—but that isn’t enough today. The tingling abates, but doesn’t cease entirely.

I turn to hero #2, Jack Backer, the faculty adviser for The Indiana Daily Student. IDS isthe Indiana University student newspaper, the venerable great white way of Hoosier journalism where I learned to be a good little journal-bot. Thanks to Jack, I learned all that crap and a whole lot more. Backer is a big fan of Hunter S and his “new journalist” comrades, But Jack doesn’t see much new about it. He once said to me, “Take Ernie Pyle – he was nothing if not a new journalist. He hung his ass out, down and dirty, right on thefrontlines, European and Pacific theaters. Hunkered down in foxholes with the GIs and shared the misery, terror and utter futility of war with all of America. How’s that for some Fear and Loathing?” 

And that’s just it,” I tell myself. “You don’t get the really good stuff without taking chances.”

What? Me tingle? Feeling thus reassured in my insanity, I nevertheless pluck the envelope from its dangling perch and stuff it into my knapsack. My thought bubble says, “Sometimes that stuff comes in handy when you’re writing up your story”

Before closing up the knapsack, I check its contents, the tools of the Gonzo trade: seven ink pens in various degrees of depletion; a battered reporter’s notebook whose outer surfaces are blanketed by a blizzard of scribbled names and telephone numbers, whose swirling, intertwined, poly-chromatic patterns bring to mind Jackson Pollock on crack; my vintage Ray Ban Aviators, snug in their fine leather case; one unopened half pint of Cuervo Gold Tequila for medicinal purposes only; a black faux-leather card case that houses my prized collection of fake press credentials and business cards; two Fender guitar picks (one medium, one thin); three Durex condoms; one Zero candy bar. At the bottom of the pile lies the pièce de résistance, my slender Norcom 550 mini-cassette recorder, secured in its leatherette sleeve that is almost exactly the same size as the Aviators’ case. Assessing the collection, my thought bubble opines, “Weak on recreational drugs, but it will do!” I tuck the recorder into my shirt pocket, close and shoulder the knapsack, and pedal on over to the Poplars.

I am no stranger to the hotel. Vic and I, along with a few other budding Ernie Pyles, started out Primo Times in a print shop that sits directly across Seventh Street from the Poplars’ front doors. It’s a straight shot through the lobby to the back doors and then through the parking garage to the Runcible Spoon, Bloomington’s premiere coffee bistro. Coffee being the life blood of journalism, we traveled that conduit frequently in quest of the Runcible’s glorious, fresh-roasted brew. By the time we put our third issue to bed, I was on a first name basis with Tony, the evening security guard.

The lobby, I recall, has about as much character as a laundromat. The style is more institutional than decorative, which is to say, horrible. I remember occasionally seeing signs for events in the ballroom, and these are inevitably forensic seminars. I came to realize that the Poplars is pretty much cop central for Indiana. With that understanding, the décor began to make sense. Of course! Cops feel right at home in such bleak confines. Put in a donut stand, and they’d call it heaven.

On this Saturday in the summer of 1976, the lobby barely resembles the forensically-friendly place I remember. For the Poplars, it’s Freaky Friday come a day late. A scene is unfolding, one heretofore unknown in provincial Bloomington. Oh, there are still plenty of cops in the lobby. They’re plumply parked, leaning against walls and columns all around the huge room. Frowning. Disdaining. Leaning with hugging arms crossed, firing arms holstered, and both arms ready for action. An army in blue protecting its sacred ground. Against…

…An army in black. Swarming brigades of roadies, techies and merch pushers. A platoon of apparent non-combatants gathered in conversational gaggles to watch the circus unfold. Skeleton-thin people. Clothes shredded with strategically random precision to expose small expanses of snowy flesh and vibrant tattoos. Dynamic vectors of spiked hair, either dyed inky black or sprayed fluorescent purple, red, pink, orange and green. Untanned faces coated heavily in macabre Goth make-up to channel ghoulish, ceremonial masks. Raccoon eyes corralled by fences of heavy black kohl. Piercings everywhere, especially the ears, where scores of implanted metal trinkets serve to bear semblance to miniature ear-shaped tea tables set with silver cutlery. The observers, those not there for heated labor, wear their obligatory black-leather jackets festooned with legions of silver chains, cloth patches and pinback buttons. The backs of the jackets are dark message boards with band names, obscenities and symbols of anarchy hand-painted in angry slashes of white. The ones there to work are stripped down to their well-ventilated, hole-filled t-shirts, most of which are imprinted with pictures of punk bands whose members look just like themselves. Curiously, their heavy black boots bear no small resemblance to the cops’ footwear. Middle ground? Not!

I spot a group of people who, clad in comfortable every-day attire, don’t look like the band people on the t-shirts. They are, of course, a band; MX-80 Sound, the mad-scientist art/noise savants who will share tonight’s bill with Patti. They’re a Bloomington band, and I know them, especially the bassist, Dale Sophiea, who is Primo’s movie editor. I approach them, and soon I’m immersed in an animated discussion re: the merits of Andy Warhol with enigmatic guitar maestro Bruce Anderson. Bruce is a unique man, one who once, to maximize blood flow to his brain, rigged up a special harness so he could hang from the ceiling, upside down, in full lotus posture, and practice guitar.

Though I’ve known Bruce for years, this is the first time we exchange more than a couple words. Talking with this shy, soft-spoken, left-brained genius from Oolitic, Indiana is a rare treat. He prefers to let his guitar do the talking, and unlike his mouth, it talks real, real loud. Bruce is at heart an art-loving nerd, a profoundly cool dude who never spends a second trying to be cool. He’s also one of the best and most innovative guitarists the world has ever known, one who will, possibly, become much more well-known as time passes.

I say possibly because he, at present, has a considerable following. MX-80 relocated to Frisco in 1978 and signed with The Residents’ self-owned label, Ralph Records. That got their music out to the world. They’ve prospered since, especially in Europe. They are world-renowned in their field, and, remarkably, they’re still making records and playing shows.


Perhaps I’ve dawdled too long with Bruce in this story. Or perhaps not. But I definitely dawdled too long with him on this Seditious Saturday. I recall, perhaps too late, that I am due at a presser with Patti in five minutes. I rush, on time, to the conference room where it is to be held, only to find the room empty and unlit. Confused and panicking, I trot back to the lobby, and, luckily, I see Tony, the friendly security man, leaning cross-armed in his favorite spot. Slightly out of breath, I ask Tony if he knows anything about the press conference. He says, “Oh man, she just moved the whole thing up to her penthouse. Room 800. Come on! I’ll take you up there!”

We hurry to the elevator and ride to the eighth floor. Tony keys the lift doors open and leads me down the hall toward Patti’s suite. I’m glad to see that the door is still wide open. As we draw near, Tony stops me with a tap to my shoulder, leans close, and whispers confidentially, “Good luck with that one, man.” I don’t know what the hell he means, so I just say, “Thanks, Tony. You da man.”

I pause in the doorway, realizing that, even though I’m only a couple minutes late, the conference has already begun. I eye the big room. It’s a good fifty feet from where I stand to the balcony’s sliding door. It’s easily thirty feet wide. Midway along the wall Patti sits in a half lotus on the end of a king-sized bed. She’s wearing a vintage black men’s sports coat with narrow lapels over a black-and-white checked vest. The vest is unbuttoned just enough to show she’s wearing a black, see-thru bra beneath. Skin-tight leather pants and bare feet complete the outfit. Beside her on the bed lies a Middle Eastern tabloid with headlines in pretty, looping Arabic. Behind her and leaning against the pillows lies a battered, black Fender Mustang guitar. She sits facing out over a single row of about twenty reporters who sit before her cross-legged on the floor. They are all like me: young, shaggy-haired men with notebooks and mini-recorders. I recognize only a few of them.

The guy seated nearest the door is asking a very long question. Patti angles her long, thin, frowning face toward me and slowly looks me up and down. Interrupting the reporter’s question, she says loudly to me, “Hello, Mister Late. I should fucking kick you the fuck out of here for being late, Mister Late.” Before she can do that, I quickly dive over to seat myself beside the interrupted reporter. My butt barely hits the carpet before she says, “Not there, Mister Late.” I stand, and she points toward the balcony, saying, “All the way to the end, and sit cross-legged, Indian-style, if you please.”

I stand, the subdued chorus of chuckles from the press corps adds to my chagrin. My thought bubble says: “Fuck! This is exactly the start I didn’t need!” I see directly before mea set of French doors opened to a short, cabinet-lined passage that leads to another large room. In there I see luxurious living room furniture and rock stars gathered around a coffee table. They appear to be snorting cocaine. I think for just a second about continuing ahead into the naughty boys room, but think better of it. Not following Ms Smith’s instructions could turn bad. I take the good turn and begin my slightly cautious saunter past her to my designated spot. As I pass before her, she catches my eye. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think that when our eyes meet, I see a little sparkle in hers.

Mister Interrupted By Mister Late resumes his question, and what a question it is. He goes on and on with authority, sometimes glancing down to refer to his notes. By the time he finishes I have more than quadrupled my knowledge of Ms Smith, who, speaking of, just sits staring glumly at the guy for several long seconds.

Finally, in a barely calm voice she says, “You know, really, that’s not even a question. That’s just you showing how incredible you are and how fucking much you know. I’ll tell you one thing you don’t know. You don’t know rock and roll. If you did you wouldn’t be asking fucking show-off questions. You have no business writing about rock and roll, because you are SO-O-O not fucking rock and roll. Get the fuck out of here, please.”

The kid just sits there, not believing his ears. Suddenly, as if touched by a live wire, Patti goes off. She leaps from the bed and stands screaming obscenities at the dude. Mister Interrupted By Mister Late aka Mister Not Fucking Rock ‘n Roll just sits there paralyzed, so she throws herself at him like a Tasmanian devil. But before she can seriously harm her victim, a man shoots out from the hallway and grabs Patti around the waist. He lifts her off the floor, and she, with legs and arms flailing, continues screaming obscenities with a flow to rival the St. Lawrence Seaway. Given this reprieve, Poor Mister Interrupted (etc.) wisely flies out the door.

Improbably, Patti calms down almost instantly and resumes her Indian-style perch on the end of the bed, acting as if nothing absolutely insane has just happened. The guy that saved Mister Interrupted takes up a position near the bed. I, for one, am glad to see that. He is a slightly older dude who has the look of a musician. And well he should. I find out later that he’s Lenny Kaye, formerly of MC5 and currently lead guitarist of the Patti Smith Group. He is definitely fucking rock and roll. Later that day I get a great and hilarious interview with him. But that’s another story.

Patti turns to the next reporter in line and asks for his question. He stands up. She tells him to sit back down. Undeterred, he announces, “I actually have two questions.” Ms Smith replies, “I have one question. How long will it take you to get the fuck out of here?” Remembering Mister Interrupted (etc), he’s out in record time.

A disturbing pattern emerges. Serious young man asks serious, thoughtful question. Serious young man gets told he’s not fucking rock and roll. Serious young man gets sent packing. Next! She mows down half of my colleagues with her Tommy-gun tongue.

I hate it, and I hate her. Sure, these guys aren’t rock and roll. Sure, we’re a bunch of self-absorbed nerds–but so too are a hell of a lot of great rock and rollers. They just plug in amplifiers instead of typewriters. Friggin’ Marilyn Manson, once you get to know him, he’s just a nerd with an electric guitar and a comely make-up artist. These banished kids will go to the show, give it their full attention, and then go home to write a brilliant, inciteful review without even mentioning shrewish Ms Smith’s disgraceful antics.


After she’s dispensed with half of the assemblage, Patti announces that she needs a break and heads off into the adjoining room. “Probably to powder her nose,” I bubble. Several of the remaining victims take advantage of the hiatus and head post-haste out the door and to safety. In the end there are only two of us, rooted to our spots, too intimidated to sensibly move closer to the throne. I seriously contemplate making it a singleton. I have no idea what I will say when she asks for my question. “You think those well-prepared guys’ questions sucked? Get a load of this one, bitch!” I finally decide to stay, thinking, “This so-called press conference is my story. I’ve got to stay and ask my question. Maybe she’ll get past Lenny and punch my lights out. Now that would be a story!”

Patti returns looking slightly more subdued but not a whit less malevolent. Her homely face is as ugly as a witch’s fist. She’s removed the sports coat and unbuttoned the vest completely to reveal a good portion of her breasts, visible through the translucent bra. I try not to look, but they are quite beautiful. She resumes her throne, lights up a fat joint and passes it to Lenny. The fragrant smoke wafts about the room bearing the distinct and heavenly aroma of some really good shit. She turns to us, her final two victims, and, neither inviting us to move closer nor, most uncivilly, offering us a hit off the joint, points a lazy finger toward my companion.

He asks his intricate question, and as he finishes Patti’s head slumps wearily downward. This guy saves a little face by asking, “Not rock and roll? Get the fuck out?” She merely nods without looking up. After he’s gathered his gear and left, Patti, without raising her head, says to me rather gently, “Alright, Mister Late. What’s your fucking question?”

At that point I still have nothing. But I also have nothing to lose. So I say, “May I please have a hit off that joint?”

I watch closely as she slowly raises her head to reveal, to my utter shock, a little Gioconda smile. A transformation occurs before my eyes. Her body language softens to sensuous, and I swear she is glowing, exuding a soft blue light. And her face! My God! She is so beautiful!

She slides off the bed, walks over to me and passes me the joint. As I take my righteous toke, she starts giggling. Then she says to me:

“Now that, was a really good fucking question.”



Like a Rhinestone Cowboy (but still not there yet): A Star is Born Again

A Star is Born samples black, queer, and immigrant experiences like items in a buffet, but it fails to delve deeper. 

By  Yaël Ksander


It’s an old-fashioned story with a lot of familiar elements, but we just can’t seem to get enough of it: rock and roll cowboy meets unconventional beauty from the wrong side of the tracks; amidst pills and booze, there’s wild success and inexorable descent.   A Star Is Born has enjoyed at least four turns on the marquee over the last 80-plus years, but there’s a profound poignancy to its resurrection in 2018, almost two years into Trump’s regime, a year into the #metoo movement, and deep into discussions of toxic masculinity against the backdrop of a generation of underemployed men finding refuge in opioids and isolationist politics.

Played by a more-rugged-than-usual Bradley Cooper, Jackson Main is introduced to us on stage, basking in the glow of a festival crowd that clings to him all the way to the limo.  Fans still stuck to the windows, our hero takes refuge in the back seat with a bottle as the driver maneuvers through the crowd.   When the bottle runs dry, Jackson has his driver pull over when he spots a watering hole.  Recognizing Jackson on his way in, the androgynous and ethnically ambiguous doorman suggests that this might not be the star’s kinda place.  In other words, partner, This Ain’t Marlboro Country.

But Jackson settles in amidst the sequins and ostrich feathers, and this endears him to us.  He’s cool.  (Or maybe just thirsty.)  The drag show will feature a special act this evening, he’s told, and because we’ve rehearsed this story a few times, we know that it’s going to be Lady Gaga, and that he’s going to fall for her.   But if we think about it for a moment, how is she even his type? For someone who codes pretty darned straight male, wherein exactly lies the appeal of this creature, channeling some of the most sexually fluid moments of 20th century culture with her Piaf tune and her Weimar brows?  How, for starters, does our hero, after all those drinks, decipher the elaborate construction of this drag: a woman playing a man playing a woman?

It’s a richness that doesn’t get explored.  And that turns out to be a tragic miscalculation, both for the film, in its quest for greatness and for our hero, in his quest for healing.  To quote its big, powerful hit song, the film gets mired in “the shallow” tropes of the Hollywood rom-com, while grasping for deeper, more complex, and certainly more relevant identities and situations.  The kumbaya of Jackson’s comfort level in the gay bar lures us into thinking that this version of the ASIB franchise has been thoroughly steeped in 21st-century mores and values – until that veneer is ripped off along with Ally’s (Gaga’s) eyebrow back in her dressing room.

It’s not an intentionally violent act; quite the contrary, it’s presented as a step toward intimacy.  “I know my mind is made up,” to use the logic of the great bard Sting, “so put away your make-up.”  No sooner does Jackson inquire whether her brow is real than he asks to remove it.  Ally acquiesces, only to recoil and cover her denuded face with her hand.  The confident performer withdraws into a frightened shadow without her mask; indeed, the first time she emerges completely démaquillée after agreeing to join Jackson for a drink after the show, she waits behind the curtains while he serenades the queens (yet more proof of this cowboy’s cool).  The dramatic irony of our knowledge that she is Lady Gaga, rarely seen sans drag, adds suspense to the anticipation of her presentation to Jackson.  “You look beautiful,” old-fashioned viewers might murmur, “he’s gonna love you.”  Even the more jaundiced among us have been convinced by this seemingly reconstructed good ol’ boy that nakedness equals authenticity, that the essence is revealed once the layers have been removed.

The kumbaya of Bradley Cooper’s comfort level in the gay bar lures us into thinking that this version of the ASIB franchise has been thoroughly steeped in 21st-century mores and values – until that veneer is ripped off along with Lady Gaga’s eyebrow back in her dressing room

A doctrine that privileges the simple over the complex, the direct over the oblique, the homespun over the contrived, this myth of authenticity has had remarkable staying power in the American narrative.  Take popular music, for example.  Think about how those fans called Dylan “Judas” when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival.  There’s just something wholesome about a feller singing a song he wrote, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar and maybe a harmonica.  Although the electric guitar did ultimately gain passage, this symbology of authenticity has held such sway in popular Western music for the last 50+ years we hardly question its authority.  Or the fact that its standard-bearers are white and male, and its origins Anglo-Saxon (with some blues licks copped off the African-American tradition).  Its normalization as the signifier of sincerity drowns out a lot of other music, through the implication that these strains are somehow effete. Which is how we got to that ignominious moment in 1979 when 50,000 guys emerged from their parents’ basements to explode a pile of disco records in the middle of Comiskey Park.  Of the damage incurred by Disco Demolition Night, White Sox pitcher Rich Wortham commented, “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.”

With its synthesized sounds, relentless rhythms, disposable lyrics, and an emphasis on its performers’ glamour, disco posed a distinct alternative to rock-n-roll’s earnest, organic aesthetic in the 1970s.  But historians suggest that the vehemence with which disco was demonized may have had more to do with its demographic origins than its formal qualities.  Taste is never that innocent.  New York’s late 70s nightclub landscape was, from all accounts, nothing if not ecumenical with regard to race and sexual persuasion.  Whitewashed for the mainstream with Saturday Night Fever and the hits in 4/4 that every band from the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead was incentivized to produce, disco was incubated in the black, Latinx, and gay scenes.  A highly mannered aesthetic, disco performance may have relied on conventions, costumes, and masks to convey its meaning as a legacy of those origins, and the code required to operate as a subculture.  To borrow a term from cabaret culture, there is a safety, and a freedom, in wearing a mask:  Maskenfreiheit.

Ally’s own orbit is similarly removed from the bourgeois.  From the club where she works and performs, to her gay BFF and the drag queens she’s got on speed dial, to the working-class home she shares with her (ostensibly) Italian-American father and his band of racially diverse chauffeur buddies, hers seems to be a thoroughly multicultural 21st-century urban experience.  When we get a glimpse into Ally’s bedroom, we notice a framed copy of Carole King’s Tapestry hanging on the wall.  The cover of the album is iconic in its unpretentious realism: the natural woman in her natural milieu.  The multi-platinum record foregrounded King’s voice and her simple accompaniment.

But King’s origins were in the Brill Building, cranking out songs for the Hit Parade.  One of the songs on the album, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” debuted as the first number one hit for an all-black girl group in the U.S., a feat that feels downright conspiratorial in 1960 considering also that it was a song interrogating the gender-based sexual double standard written by a Jewish teenager who’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock.  Another one of King’s originals on Tapestry had first known life as Aretha’s hallmark:  “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”  A Jewish woman who wrote songs for African-Americans that were sold to the masses, King occupied a cultural space where pop music and the more respected singer-songwriter genre were as cozy as she and that cat on the album cover. Maybe Ally too?

And why not?  It’s 2018, and a lot of us, even the rock-n-rollers, have gotten more heterodox in our musical taste.   If we’re, admittedly, a little weary of the guitar hero, Jackson’s own ambivalence about the role convinces us of his sincerity.  “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” he croons to the queens in the club.   The song is reprised two more times over the course of the film.  This is revisionist rock-and-roll, we’re persuaded, so we give him a chance.  His willingness to share his spotlight with Ally as she joins his act further disarms us.  Hey, this guy is a real feminist!  Without a streak of makeup (but tarted up nonetheless in country-western’s own formidable drag) Ally enjoys a picturesque partnership with Jackson until she gets offered a deal of her own.  The would-be manager hooks her by suggesting that she has something unique to share with the world.  Speaking your truth is this flick’s shibboleth. Jack takes Ally’s news begrudgingly.  His jealousy comes as a shock to her, as much as to us.  This sensitive new age guy isn’t as cool as we had hoped.

As Ally’s career as a pop star takes off, Jackson’s own declines (which may have to do with his escalating substance use and tinnitus, sounding an ever-loudening refrain inside his head that, if it were set to words, might just echo the rallying cry sounded last year in Charlottesville: “You will not replace us.”).  The music Ally is making progressively incorporates the artifice of her first performance at the drag club, while in her home life, those origins have been reduced to a small neon sign hanging over a door protesting “La Vie En Rose,” appearances notwithstanding.  Having originally encouraged Ally to perform her own songs, Jackson is not a fan of the music that’s putting her on the charts.   In one scene he drunkenly ridicules her while she bathes. Having originally encouraged her artistic stripping down, when she’s actually naked in the tub he only takes advantage of her vulnerability.  It’s a painful reprise of a previously joyful tub scene, in which Jack lets Ally stroke his lashes with mascara while they soak.  In the end, it turns out to be a temporary makeover.

Jackson’s growing sense of irrelevance manifests itself as desperate, dramatic monologues and gestures that effectively banish the film’s last shreds of believability once and for all (admittedly, this is a Hollywood musical).  Moments before Ally heads out for her first show of the tour, amped after Skyping with her besties from the club and basking in the glory of her stories-high face on a billboard, Jackson delivers a buzz-killing soliloquy about the importance of staying true to oneself.  It’s hard not to imagine Ally’s inner monologue after the addled soothsayer lays his ancient wisdom on her: “Um, okay?  Headed out on my world tour now.  You do you. Next time, how about ‘Break a leg’?”

Another Hail Mary of a scene resorts to the device of a Wise Person of Color (a stock character Spike Lee has anointed the “Magical Negro”).  Having passed out on the side of the road after his gig in Memphis, Jack is discovered by his old friend George (Dave Chappelle), who hauls Jack’s ass back to his home for some straight talk and sobering up.  They go way back, we learn, and we get the sense that George has had his own rough years.  Stable now, with a beautiful wife and a pack of kids, George tells Jack that happiness may simply be a function of flexibility.  Give something new a shot, and let that be your reality, George suggests, like this new gal who seems to be making you happy.  In other words, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”

The magic dust George disperses prompts what could only be described as a fantasy sequence where Ally suddenly shows up, Jack twists up some guitar string and slides it on her finger, and George calls his cousin to open up the church and marry ‘em up.  I’m not sure if the Reverend Al Green played the preacher, or Aretha Franklin led the choir, but they may as well have in the ensuing wedding scene that feels more of a piece with Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again than a sort of biopic that’s trying to make a big point about authenticity.  Needless to say, the foray into the black community of Memphis works like a stint at rehab:  momentarily transformative, but ultimately ephemeral.  As it turns out, having a black friend, and even getting married in a black church, can’t save you any more than having a drink in a gay bar.

So we return to the film’s, and our hero’s, fatal flaw: the premise of multiculturalism as prop to shore up the culturally hegemonic definition of authenticity.  Just like Jack, the film samples black, queer, and immigrant experiences like items in a buffet, but ultimately fails to delve deeper.  And it’s positively agnostic as to the (cisgender) female experience:  besides Ally, and George’s placeholder of a wife, the xx tally stands at a couple of backup dancers and makeup artists.  We’re so far from passing the Bechdel test here it’s not worth discussing.  Jack’s mother died in childbirth and the whereabouts of Ally’s are never addressed.  Mothers are missing and it’s a non-issue? Really?  “Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?” Ally inquires, in the film’s thrilling hit duet.

There may be no better way to express her frustration with Jack’s choice to “keep it so hardcore” – and ours with the film’s unapologetic choice to languish in the shallows of the patriarchy — than the eight wordless bars of the song’s refrain. As Robin Zlotnick suggested in her delicious piece of satire in McSweeney’s — “Appropriate Moments to Respond with Lady Gaga’s Guttural Howl From the Song Shallow” – the wordless wail provides a sorely needed response for any number of situations in which one is confronted with mansplaining and assorted jive from the fellas of today.  It’s a good song, but it is the song’s function within this stubborn mule of a film that should win it the Best Song Oscar.  Long after the film has faded away, we’re going to be needing that primal scream.











Strangers In A Strange Land: The Luminous Guidance of Roman Holiday

By Tom Roznowski

“Life isn’t always what one likes”: a line from Roman Holiday, the 1953 Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Pairing this with another timeless mantra, “Life is brief,” one might feel trapped beneath the weight of despair. We travel this path. We tear up maps. We remain lost until we’re found.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo achieved considerable success during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Increasingly though, his populist and pacifist sentiments drew him into conflict with America’s dominant post-war message: that the material and manufactured would elevate our mortal souls.

The inevitable collision of perspective and policy occurred in 1947 when Dalton Trumbo was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influence in the film industry. Along with Ring Lardner Jr. and Edward Dmytryk, Trumbo became one of the original Hollywood Ten, individuals whose names and talents would be blacklisted by the major studios.

In his appearance before the Committee, Trumbo refused to answer direct questions, remaining steadfast and unapologetic about his contempt for the inquiry. His comment about the sentence that would result in his incarceration for nearly a year at a federal penitentiary in Kentucky: “As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since. That this was a crime or misdemeanor was the complaint, my complaint.”

Upon his release, Trumbo and his family moved to Mexico City. Exile from one’s homeland has informed and enriched the work of writers from Dante to Durrell. Separation from one’s origins will often focus the writer’s gaze upon life’s essentials as deeply-held values become more precious and their expression suddenly more critical.

During his time in Mexico City, Dalton Trumbo would produce perhaps the most resonant single work of his creative life. The screenplay would emerge as a light romantic comedy, oddly enough; carrying with it a far-seeing wisdom that had somehow eluded Trumbo during his years of political activism. It is ironic, yet somehow logical, that due to the on-going blacklist, this signature piece would be presented to the world anonymously. It was not until 2011, thirty-five years after his death, that Dalton Trumbo would finally receive formal writing credit for Roman Holiday.

Money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.

The film opens with a newsreel report about Princess Ann, a young royal-in-waiting in the midst of a whirlwind goodwill tour through post-war Europe. Her stress levels reach a saturation point in Italy, which in 1953 was still bearing the social and economic scars of the previous decade. The country’s rampant post-war inflation, with 10 American dollars being equivalent to over 6,000 Italian lira, serves as a running joke throughout the film.

In a strange way, the modest circumstances of daily life in Rome provide a common ground for the film’s two disparate characters. The Princess, as played by Audrey Hepburn, is privileged and sheltered. Her stress arises from hauling the weight of abundance. Every waking hour is planned in advance by her handlers. She walks through her days in a daze, motivated by other’s expectations.

On the first night of her visit to Rome, the Princess steps out onto the balcony of her embassy, drawn to the laughter and music of an open-air party just outside the gates. She is transported, initially by a desire for meaningful connection and later by a laundry truck as she sets off on her journey of discovery.

Trumbo then introduces us to Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter for the American News Service. Bradley is also eager to escape his daily reality. For him, though, it is the lack of abundance that proves confining. His one-room walk-up flat has no kitchen, no telephone. His life abroad has no traction. He can’t even win at poker when dealing the cards.

The desperate reporter’s discovery of the sleeping princess suddenly offers him the opportunity of a lifetime: a relative fortune of $5,000 U.S. dollars for an exclusive story about his new friend. The fact that the amount translates to over 3,000,000 Italian lira means little to our hero. Joe Bradley wants to abandon his modest situation in Europe and return to America.

The chance meeting of these two characters produces a brief spark that illuminates the space surrounding them. Rome is called the Eternal City for a reason. In fact, at the moment when Princess Ann, still concealing her identity from Bradley, agrees to a day of doing everything she’s always wanted, time actually reverses itself. The clock tower of Trinita dei Monti above the Spanish Steps reads 11:30 AM, a half hour before the chimes that actually begin their day.

Symbolically, this illusion wipes the drab slate of reality clean and propels the fated couple into a mystical adventure: their past, their future, forgotten for just a few stolen hours from one precious day in pursuit of the now.

So just how does one get to the now? In transitioning from a formerly comfortable life to sudden exile, Dalton Trumbo has some thoughts to share. The full embrace of the present is a fundamental goal of the searching soul. The couple’s day together in Rome plays out with a mix of the unanticipated and the intentional, a range of emotions from fear, to reverence, to delight. And as it all unfolds, Dalton Trumbo’s script places his personal values squarely in the couple’s magical experience.

Fundamentally, Trumbo is inviting us to explore and come to know the place where we find ourselves, beginning with the other people who share it. Trumbo considers this in both its global and local implications. Throughout Roman Holiday, the Italian language is neither anglicized nor sub-titled. It remains the visitor and the viewer’s responsibility to understand. The couple deepens their awareness of Rome’s history, its fables, and its legends, all the while reveling in the beauty and pleasure the city affords.

These discoveries are necessary in our lives, Trumbo believes, because we walk this way but once for a relatively short time. Indeed, Princess Ann realizes that she is living out a fairy tale and at midnight she will return to her previous reality – to be a princess once again.

On the other hand, for Joe Bradley, this return to reality proves stark and sacrificial. At journey’s end, he does not collect his prized interview with the wayward princess. He does not collect his $5,000. In fact, he emerges even deeper in debt to his employer and his photographer friend, Irving. Rome, temporarily a fantasy of escape, will become Joe’s everyday reality going forward. America is relegated once again to being his perpetual dream.

With Roman Holiday, Dalton Trumbo urges us to commit to life’s simple pleasures, whether an afternoon glass of champagne or dancing to a live band beneath the stars. An enduring populist truth emerges: that money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.

In 1953, this guide for daily living was still on display throughout Europe as the continent recovered from two devastating wars within a generation. Dalton Trumbo provides us just the briefest glimpse: noon to midnight on an average day in Rome, Italy. In the film’s final scene, Princess Ann continues on her path to a life of structured, subsidized luxury. Joe Bradley heads toward a life of material uncertainty. With their last glance, they both share knowing grins, no sign of despair as they turn away – maybe because from now on each of them truly has no idea what might happen next.


Tom Roznowski is a performer and writer living in Bloomington, Indiana. His new radio series PorchLight with Tom Roznowski airs at Saturdays at 8:00 PM on WFIU-FM







Hal Hartley at the IU Cinema

Hal Hartley has been an unwavering independent filmmaker for thirty years. His films, The Unbelievable Truth, Simple Men, Trust and Amateur were touchstones of the early 90s and his Henry Fool trilogy is a masterwork of contemporary American cinema. Hartley will be at the IU Cinema on April 26th and 27th to talk about the challenges of independent filmmaking and introduce his films.

We recently interviewed Hartley – the full text will be published in our May 7th issue.  Here is an excerpt.

Ryder: How did you get into filmmaking?

Hartley: Almost by accident.  I went to art school–MassArt in Boston–in the late ‘70s.  One of the electives I took that first year was a Super 8 filmmaking class. It was with a guy named Steve Anchor.  He was a solid San Francisco and Boston American avant-garde filmmaker. He was interesting. He turned us on to a lot of things.  You know, visual art filmmaking…. Dan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, Maya Deren. I was very excited, but as it turned out my dad and I ran out of money for me to stay there, so I had to go back to Lindenhurst on Long Island.  And I got a job, figuring out what I was going to do. I had to go to a New York school that would be cheaper. I had really been bitten by the film bug, but I had to spend another year back home working.

I got myself a camera and a projector.  I discovered my library had Super 8 versions of classic films.  It was amazing. No one took these things out. Yeah, it was a lonely but fun little initiation.

So I spent 1979 making 6 or 7 short films and I was sort of writing. And then I decided to apply to a New York state school for film rather than continue with art. There was really no looking back after that.

The Canine Muse

William Wegman and His Weimaraners: collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and the underground.

By James Hook


Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. Celebrated artistic collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and underground modes of filmmaking. What does it look like, however, when the muse in such a relationship happens to be a canine?

Such is the case in the unparalleled partnerships between William Wegman and his Weimaraner pets-turned-stars. A prolific multimedia visual artist and filmmaker who holds an MFA in painting from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, Wegman has shot a virtually uncountable number of film and video works since 1970. Some of these run mere seconds, while others irreverently reimagine such childhood staples as The Hardy Boys or The Twelve Days of Christmas. A selection of these films will screen at the IU Cinema in The World of William Wegman shorts program, part of the Underground Film Series, on Friday, September 8, at 6:30 p.m.

Mostly constant through this work is the presence of one or more canine collaborators. First came Man Ray, star of many Wegman shorts throughout the 70s. Man Ray’s death in 1982 marked the start of a four-year gap before the appearance of a new muse, Fay Ray. Appropriately, Man Ray’s and Fay Ray’s respective namesakes gesture toward the realms of fine art and commercial entertainment, an artificial binary Wegman’s career has never recognized—his work has been welcomed at the Centre Pompidou and on Saturday Night Live. Something of a repertory company of canines materialized following the 1989 birth of Fay’s puppies Battina (Batty), Crooky, and Chundo.

While there have been more Weimaraners since, Fay and her puppies are the dogs most seen by countless Millennials (and their parents) thanks to appearances on that bedrock of children’s television programming, Sesame Street, beginning in 1989. Here the dogs would run into an empty frame and pose together to corporeally create letters and numbers. They also enacted nursery rhymes and performed in sketches designed to highlight neighborhood service workers such as the waiter, the truck driver, and the ophthalmologist—with the aid of full costumes and the uncanny incorporation of human hands.

One downside to the, well, doggedness with which these iconic images have maintained their hold in our collective pop-cultural memory is how another side of Wegman’s artistic sensibility has been overshadowed. His earliest video works, for instance, decidedly do not fit adjacently to a song by Big Bird, but would feel very much at home in a retrospective that also featured the works of, say, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, or Bill Viola.

Many of Wegman’s short films are underscored by an existential absurdity that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett.

Art critic Kim Levin has situated Wegman within what she identifies as an “aesthetic of the amateur.” Indeed, Wegman’s short films can sometimes feel like home movies, but only to a point. Although shot in Wegman’s studio space with simple camera setups and little if any editing, rather than capture the quotidian in any uncomplicated way, the activities in many of these films are underscored by an existential absurdity (or, perhaps, an absurd take on existentialism) that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett. They veer from the borderline grotesque (e.g., Wegman expels milk from his mouth for a cooperative Man Ray to lap up off the floor) to the whimsically meta (e.g., Wegman and the dogs reenact in-studio their 1991 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman).

wegman-FAY RAY 12 DAYS

That vexed label of “postmodernist” has often been applied to Wegman and it is not incorrect. Even his earliest shorts display confidence that his audiences are conversant in the expectations and conventions surrounding specific genres, rules Wegman then revels in exaggerating or breaking. 1978’s Man Ray, Man Ray, for instance, is a dual biography of the canine Man Ray and the famed surrealist photographer who preceded him. Constructed from talking head style interviews, still photographs, and voiceover narration, this “documentary” blurs together biographical details from the lives of both of its subjects and manages to incorporate an intermission and epilogue into its five-minute and twenty-three second running time.

The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold sits somewhere in-between the categorically unmistakable video art and the spiritedly playful Sesame Street segments. Shot on location in Rangeley, Maine using 35mm and premiering at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, the film is a technically accomplished tribute to the pseudonymous Franklin W. Dixon mystery series Wegman read as an adolescent. Herein sisters Batty and Crooky follow in the sleuthing shoes of brothers Frank and Joe; the voiceover narrator (unmistakably Wegman himself) helpfully clarifies, “Hardly boys, they were girls and dogs.” Whitney Museum curator Joan Simon has explained that for Wegman this casting was perfectly logical, as Weimaraners can be understood as “detectives by nature, tracking and sniffing for clues.”

Wegman’s Weimaraner muses are certainly not the first to bridge the categories of canine and star—this honor can be traced at least as far back as Rin Tin Tin in the silent era. Their image has, however, left an indelible aesthetic mark that continues to delight and baffle as it frustrates categories: Is the work fine art or kitsch? Does it appeal to children or adults? Is it best associated with the museum gallery or the television set? Are its characters dog-humans or human-dogs? As (surrealist) Man Ray once declared, “I like contradictions.” So too, I believe, does Wegman.







Cannes: High Hopes & High Heels

● by Filiz Çiçek

The train comes to a halt, the guards anxiously running back and forth. It is 7:30 in the morning. A man has thrown himself in front of the train outside of Marseille. “It is probably Mafia related,” says the man sitting next to me. At noon I ask if I can get off for a few minutes to get a cup of tea. “No Madame,” the guard says sternly. “If you step off of this train, we must stop everything and come searching for you.” I feel as if I am in a James Bond film. Until the Ministre de la Justice arrives to determine the cause of death, the train will not move and no one is allowed to get off. “Maybe it was about unrequited love,” the young woman from Strasbourg says. “After all, this is France.” We arrive in Cannes six hours late. I run straight to the Palais des Festivals to catch the opening press conference of the 65th Cannes Film Festival.

In many ways this year’s films show ordinary people crossing boundaries of good and evil, blurring the lines between black and white, dwelling instead in postmodern tints and shades of grey. Something you don’t see in today’s Hollywood or in American discourse, where everything is distilled in to two binaries — Republican versus Democrat, good versus evil, black versus white, pro-choice versus pro-life and so on.  The American impulse seems to want to simplify life. But life tends to be so much more complicated and that is reflected on the screen at Cannes.

The festival begins amidst criticism. “Don’t allow young women to think that they might one day have the gall to direct films and to go up the steps of the Palais except on the arms of a prince charming,” Fanny Cottençon/Virginie Despentes/Coline Serreau wrote in Le Monde. Several days into the festival, a group of French feminists in beards take to the steps in protest. And it is brought up at the opening press conference: jurist Andrea Arnold of Britain and jury president Nanni Moretti of Italy agree that since they make up half the world’s population, women should have a greater voice. But the general consensus of the jury is that Cannes is committed to quality artwork regardless of sex, gender, race, etc.

But that is the age-old conundrum: who decides what is good and what is quality? Historically, mostly male juries and critics who do not identify with “feminine” topics have been dismissive of women’s work. How genuine is it to say that race is not a factor when it is obvious that the festival tries to give voice to the underrepresented by favoring films from those communities and countries with directors who have been oppressed? If they are socially sensitive to race and ethnicities, then why not gender?

Being tall and beautiful can be painful, as I found out, if one is trying, or encouraged, or downright required to achieve through high heels. The festival is as much about a grand spectacle on high heels, as it about art and money. They seem to be essential components of the Cannes’ glamour. The red carpet is the pulse of the Festival, where glamour, magic and money all march together. Andrea puts it bluntly, “Red carpet is big business.” He is one of my flatmates who teaches at l’Université Paris-Sorbonne. He seems to know everyone at the Palais Des Festivals, and every restaurant in Cannes. He is here to do networking like many others at the Festival who are there to buy and sell films. A producer from New York gives the following three pieces of advice: “Don’t go to the parties you are not invited to. No means no. And wear good shoes, high heels if you are a female. The guards look at your shoes here — no heels, no red carpet.”

I decided to put her advice to the test. I attempt a red carpet premiere with my eco-warrior shoes made of recycled tires and other recycled materials. A female guard in a male tuxedo looks me up and down, stares at my shoes and says, “Very sorry, Madame. No more room.” So when I get an invitation to sit by South Korean director Im Sang-soo during the premiere of his film The Taste of Money, I compromise. I want to wear a Trashion dress to promote sustainable living. So I purchase half size bigger stilettoes that everyone seems to be wearing on the red carpet. Their heels are five inches tall, mine are four inches. Terrified of falling, as one French actress would later, it takes me a few minutes to find my balance. My small toes are already blistered, I take them off as soon as I make it to my seat in the theater. I conclude that it is the sedentary people who come up with such ideas.

The nomads, I think, got this one right. They hardly have any distinction between male and female attire. They have pastures to cross, goats to milk, weather to mind, they don’t have time for hyper-sexualized fashion. What use do they have for stilettoes? After everyone leaves the theater, I find one of the hosts and plead: “Please, Monsieur, don’t make me walk four blocks down through the barricades in these high heels, only to walk back to this same theater, for the next screening. My feet are hurting.”

“I am sorry madame but you must follow the rules.”

When I begin walking barefoot on the red carpet, he quickly finds me a short cut. As I approach the confused guard at the end of the gate, who is staring at my bare feet, I smile: “I want your shoes; let’s exchange.” He lets me pass.

Everything is carefully choreographed, to be consumed properly with precise etiquette, style and certain standard of quality. Fans stand on ladders in a designated area for a better view. Some have come all the way from Italy, Germany and Scandinavia just to glimpse the glamour. The journalists, photographers, the guards, the limousines, and the stars all have their designated sections and assigned roles. If you are a female, you need to be mindful of your smile, your lips and hips and legs and bosom — your body is simultaneously celebrated and commodified. Your role is to project magic and glamour. And to be projected upon, to be an outlet for desire, inspiration and hope.

Marilyn Monroe seems to be everywhere at Cannes. She can be seen from a distance on the side of a six-story building. She is part of the collective French imagination. She is “movie star” personified. I ask Andrea about his take on it. Why Marilyn? Why don’t the French identify with a French actress instead?

“They live on and get old,” he answers. “They don’t die young like she did.”  Nothing like a pretty, dead, young blond woman. In fact there are two female images in public spaces that one frequently encounters: Marilyn Monroe and Mother Mary. I ask a Frenchman at a restaurant about it. “She is so beautiful, a Goddess and died so young, you know.” Such sadness in his voice, it sounds like Marilyn died for Cinema. As if she were a martyr. Ste. Marilyn. She is Cinema herself, at least in Cannes.

Miriam, a French staff person from California at the American Pavilion further explains, “This year in particular the theme is Old Hollywood, because the hostess is Bérénice Bejo, the actress from The Artist.” Indeed Old Hollywood dominates the hallways; there is not a single photo of a European actor or actress to be seen.

Americans also dominate the competition portion of the festival. Wes Anderson and his cast open the festival with Moonrise Kingdom. Followed by John Hillcoat’s Lawless, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Jeff Nichols’ Mud, and Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy. Daniels and his cast yield one of the more interesting and intense press conferences. Asked about possible parallels between Matthew McConaughey’s gay character in the film and his own sexuality, Daniels grows sincere and passionate: “I know every character in this film,” Daniels says. “John Cusack’s character was based on my brother who went to jail. Nicole Kidman is my sister. We all have roles to play; we present to you one persona here at Cannes, and at home we have different ones.”

This sentiment is echoed by Fatih Akin who speaks briefly before his environmental documentary Polluting Paradise: “There are many worlds coming together here today. Each one of us is a different world you know, from different countries. Cannes, too, is a world in itself. We are here to see and hear one another.”

“This is my most personal film yet,” Akin adds. “I know directors say that after each film but this truly is.” He brought his father and the most of the Çamburnu village activists from the Black Sea coast of Turkey with him. In the end, his sentiments come across through the film and audience gives them a standing ovation. Some of the villagers are tearing up.

Akin then hosts the biggest party in Cannes. There are Turks, Kurds and Germans, British, Austrians, Greeks, Indians. Ewan McGregor and Joshua Jackson are joining in. Akin, who selects his soundtracks before writing his scripts, is deejaying. At 3:00 a.m. the French guards are still trying to get party-goers down from the tabletops where they are singing and dancing. Every aspect of the festival is so carefully planned and choreographed by the French that people seem to jump at a chance to chill out, relax and be themselves rather than perform Cannes 24/7.

The Americans play bingo and karaoke, interrupted with occasional film screenings and small parties. Only the Indian pavilion seems to be as joyful and lively. They offer free food, snacks and drinks, PR materials, interview set-ups. At the international village, only the Americans charge to get into their pavilion as well as for food and drinks.  This results is Americans going to the other pavilions, in particular the Turkish pavillion for their baklava and raki.

Turkish Kurds from Germany, some armed with films and some with anti-Turkish government sentiments also occupy the Turkish pavilion. I have long conversations with them about history, life and art. A couple of them suggest that I read certain political books written by political terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on which side you are on. I say that long ago I decided to make art rather than politics.

I have a surprising ally in Rezan Altinbas, a Kurdish director from Turkey. I have always been weary of making art a slave to a social agenda; there is a fine line between art and propaganda. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Douglas Sirk, R.W. Fassbinder and Yilmaz Güney get away with it because they weave their socialism into a film format, not the other way around. Rezan agrees. His film Sessiz-Be Deng/Silent, is based on his childhood recollections of visiting his father in jail. His female character visits her husband in prison in Diyarbakir in 1984, a few years after the military coup d’état. On the back wall it is written: “Speak Turkish. Speak it a lot.” The couple struggles to communicate. They remain in anguish and in silence. As their hands clasp, our hearts clasp with them. Her tear drops down from her face, to his hands, and into our hearts. It is the human heart that is in the forefront, not guns and violence. Or slogans. Whether you are an Aboriginal in Australia, a Native American, an Uyghur in China or a Kurd in Turkey, what better way to say that speaking one’s mother tongue is a birthright?

Rezan goes on the win the Palm d’Or in the short film category. In his acceptance speech Rezan dedicates his award “to all the lonely and beautiful women of my country,” echoing Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s acceptance speech in 2008 when he received the Best Director award for Three Monkeys. Ceylan dedicated his award to his “lonely and beautiful country” which he “loves most passionately.” Most of Turkey interpreted those words as a comment on Orhan Pamuk’s political statement about the 1915 events involving the Ottoman Armenians. Most Turks believe that in 2006 Pamuk betrayed Turkey, his native country, in order to win the Nobel Prize for literature..

Art, party and politics all seem to run very high at the Turkish Pavilion. It is one of the busiest hubs at Cannes next to the Indians, who are trying to make a big impact this year at Cannes with Gangs of Wasseypur. It is a five-hour epic about a family feud in a place “that is not visible on Google maps,” according to its director Anurag Kashyap. “I am confident that my film has broken all cinematic conventions in India,” he tells me on the eve of the screening. “In Cannes I am a little nervous, but we will know soon enough how the world reacts!”

Ceylan may not be popular with Silent’s Kurdish actress from Turkey,but he seems to be the golden child here at Cannes. He won numerous awards over the years at Cannes. Back at the Turkish pavilion there is a party in his honor. As Turks and Kurds sing collectively in celebration, he stands back and looks in, quietly. He seems to be there and not there, like the character in his film Distant.

Ceylan is the subject of the Coen Brothers short film titled World Cinema. When an American cowboy, played by Josh Brolin, goes to a movie theater and sees Ceylan’s Climates on the marquee he asks, “What is that one about?”

“It is about lovers and estrangements and former lovers. Flawed people. Difficulty of love and so forth,” replies the box office attendant.

“People talk back in forth in Turkish?”


“Turkic? But you got them-those words up there to help follow the story along?”

“It is subtitled, yes.”

“Hmm…. Is there any nudity?”


“Is there livestock in any of them?”

“Maybe a rabbit in La Regle Du Jeu…”

The Cowboy ends up liking Climates quite a bit. “There is whole a lot of truth in it in my opinion,” he comments to the attendant; the point being that Americans need more art-house Cinemas and that Ceylan now symbolizes the master director. And he is awarded the Directors’ Choice Award “for excellence, courage and taking artistic risks.”

Emir Kustarica and Elia Suleiman play themselves in 7 Days in Havana. Prior to the film’s screening, Kustarica joins the “people on the left side of the world,” as he puts it, including Benicio Del Toro, Pablo Trapero, Julio Medem, Gasper Noe, Juan Carlos Tabio, Elia Suleiman and Laurent Cantent. Their works speak for them, and they actually speak about their work. Kustarica’s is self-revealing and self-deprecating as he is drunk in Havana where he is to receive an award, constantly arguing on the phone with his wife halfway around the world in Serbia.

Elia Suleiman does not speak; rather, Fidel Castro does most of the talking. At the Yemeni Embassy, Suleiman is told that El Presidente will receive him after his speech. After a few hours of waiting, he decides to go to the zoo. When he returns toward the evening, Castro is still speaking on TV. As the day comes to an end, Castro looks up to the sky and says half jokingly: “There is still some daylight left; let us continue comrades.” Elia Suleiman’s face remains motionless, yet potent. He is Peter Sellers, Charlie Chaplin and Jimmy Stewart combined. He emanates kindness and human warmth. It is official. I am in love with Elia Suleiman!

At a master class the next day we learn how Philip Kaufman, director of The Right Stuff, transitioned from from a math teacher to a filmmaker in France with a hand held camera. His cinematic roots are all too European. A clip from his Unbearable Lightness of Being is presented as one of the most erotic scenes in cinema; Juliet Binoche’s character is forced to take erotic photos of a woman, whom she realizes right then is her husband’s lover. Kaufman responds with an anecdote; “Stanley Kubrick called me about that scene. I was quite excited: maybe he was going to share a great insight with me. Instead he asked where did I get that Pixar camera (Binoche is using in the scene)!”

On my last night at Cannes after the awards ceremony, Arthur, an aspiring film director from Paris, offers me an invitation to a private party where the jury and the winners will be in attendance. By then I am intellectually and artistically over-stimulated and physically exhausted. My head wants to find a pillow. But then again, I might actually see organic exchanges in a more intimate setting for a change, so I say yes to being his date.

Joshua Jackson and jurist Dina Kruger are first to arrive followed by Ewan McGregor. I notice a middle-aged woman staring at me. She looks familiar. As I approach her to say hi, I realize it is my camera that has been the focus of her attention. “No photos please.”

“Ok. No worries.”

She is Leila Hatami, one of the stars of The Separation from Iran who was there to present the Grand Prize. I did not recognize her without her head attire and I gather that she didn’t want me to photograph her without it. The official fashion law of Iran also applies when she is in Cannes.

As the night comes to an end, my heart is dancing with Fatih Akin punked Against the Wall, and my head is falling into a Pillow Book with Ewan McGregor. Time to write my own. I put my camera to rest. Arthur’s voice is following me to the sandy beach; “You are my perfect woman. I want to make life with you!” He’s known me only for one short week. I dip my feet into the Mediterranean, breathe in its midnight air. The End.

The Ryder ● 2012

The Unionization of Bloomingfoods, Part 2

In Order to Form a More Perfect Co-op ● by Robert F. Arnove with Peter LoPilato

[This is the second of two parts. Part 1 was published in our December issue. Interviews for this story were conducted after the Bloomingfoods union was certified and reveal different perspectives. Some see the union as a welcome change, long overdue, and one that will strengthen the Co-op and help it withstand impending threats from Lucky’s Market and Whole Foods, both of which plan to open locations in Bloomington. Nevertheless, although Bloomingfoods employees are by and large pro-union, some expressed only lukewarm support for the Co-op union. They see the organizers as opportunistic, calling for unionization when Bloomingfoods is especially vulnerable. As one long-time member owner put it: “The pay has never been great for a starting employee. But the benefits are reasonable for what might be called a low-skill job. The insurance is really good. I’m pro-union. But some of these kids have never worked before and don’t know what it is to work. They’re complaining about things when, really, they should just be taking care of business.”
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Breaking Boundaries

Burlesque and the The No-Wave, Post No-Wave Career of Beth B. ● by Joan Hawkins

Beth B. comes out of the edgy DIY movement that started in New York in the mid-1970s.  Like a lot of people in her generation she started out in art school, but the art school scene irritated her.  “Art seemed a bit frivolous, an aesthetic indulgence to which I no longer felt connected.  I began to question art as a valid form of expression.  I had a kind of idealism.” She dropped out of art school and at the age of 18, went to Israel to study at the Jerusalem University.  It was 1973 and when the Yom Kippur war broke out she left school altogether.  For 8 months she hitchhiked back and forth in the war zone, “picking up soldiers with their Uzis and tanks, talking to people on both sides.”  Toward the end of the war, her Israeli boyfriend disappeared. Read more

Handel’s Alcina

Handel’s Alcina ● by Chris Lynch

This February, Indiana University Opera will present Handel’s fantasy opera Alcina in a new production designed by Robert Perdziola, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, and conducted by Arthur Fagen. Although the opera was written in 1735, according to Rader-Shieber, “Handel has created characters that still speak to us today; that suffer the same pains, glory in the same loving gestures, and interact with the same bittersweet Read more

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