The Forgotten Folk: B-Sides from The Harry Smith Folk Anthology

The Carter Family (left to right) Maybelle, Sara, and A.P.

By Tom Roznowski

For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Down by a western water tank
One cold December day
–  Dick Justice,   The Harry Smith B-Sides (Track 1, Disc 1)

And now it lies broken. Probably for the length of our lifetimes. The deep divisions in America around race and class, which were always rooted in wealth, have stunned us all into collective dysfunction. The depth of our divisions were clearly exposed in a yea or nay national referendum. The result of that democratic exercise illuminated this estrangement for all to see. As for the business of resolving policy issues or choosing a future direction, the outcome of this once-in-a-generation election decided nothing.

Backward glances are not natural to Americans. If we have never quite measured up as a forward-thinking people, we can at least be considered a forward-looking people. Each of the major migrations in our nation-building: across the Atlantic to North America, westward into the frontier, or more recently from farm to city, required a personal resolve to never glance back at the consequences of your actions, or stop and consider how they might be slowly gaining on you.

One manifestation of this resolve has been the exploitation and subsequent abandonment of large portions of lands and people, stretching from sea to shining sea. You don’t have to look far for evidence of the damage done anywhere east of the Mississippi: the vacant small towns, the impoverished mountain communities, the tired aging cities. No question that daily life was hard for many even when these areas were thriving. In fact, as we can see now, that’s exactly what allowed them to thrive in the first place.

The Harry Smith B-Sides, recently released as a handsome boxed set by Disc-To-Digital, provides listeners a director’s cut of an already legendary work. These are the companion tunes for the A sides from original 78 r.p.m. releases that appeared on The Anthology of American Folk Music curated by Harry Smith. That initial collection, released by Folkways Records in 1952, featured 84 performances of American roots music, the majority recorded in just three years, from 1927 through 1929. The selections are divided into three categories: Ballads (the English folk tradition of storytelling through song), Social Music (played and sung where people gathered: primarily church and dances) and finally, Songs (covering the waterfront with meditations on birds, prison time, rough neighborhoods, and fishing).

As distinctive as the sources and subjects of these performances are, there is a cohesion that binds each of these collections together as a concept. This is astounding, especially given the social, racial, and class divisions that coursed through America at the time. A period photograph of African-American and Cherokee musicians Andrew and Jim Baxter (Georgia Stomp b/w 40 Drops) reveals perhaps more than was intended. The two men are seated outdo15ors posing with their instruments. They are apparently the invited entertainment for the day. Behind them, at a remove of perhaps 10 yards, a group of fashionably dressed white women stand behind a long table. Welcome to Gordon County, Georgia in the 1920s.   

Of course, being uniquely American, the original Anthology American of Folk Music was a serendipitous combination of creativity, evolving technology, and market forces. In the mid to late 1920s, the process used to capture live music took a huge leap with the introduction of electronic recording, vastly improving the fidelity of performances. Voices and instruments no longer had to shout to be heard. Almost overnight, Enrico Caruso became Bing Crosby.

These advances moved in lockstep with a growing consumer market eager for portable, re-playable versions of folk songs by rural artists; performances that a couple decades earlier could have been absorbed only in the moment. What Gutenberg’s press did for story, the 78 rpm record did for roots music. Yet another step away from the imme15diate and the individual, anticipating that a broad acceptance would surely follow.

Harry Smith was not a musician, but he listened like one. He was a genuine eccentric born of eccentrics. His mother claimed to be the vanished daughter of Czar Nicholas, Anastasia. His father had once been a cowboy. Every bit as essential as his fascination with American folk music was young Harry’s penchant for collecting. Whatever he earned at various odd jobs was largely spent acquiring ephemera: catalogues, paper airplanes, painted Easter eggs. Around 1940, Harry Smith began to accumulate commercially released folk recordings created during this rich three-year period of the late 1920s. Conveniently, Harry’s curiosity and energy coincided with yet another enormous shift in recording technology that had occurred during the late 1940s: the emergence of LPs (Long Players) spinning at 33 1/3 rpm and the conversion of two song, A and B side releases from 78 to 45 rpm., which facilitated the growing popularity of jukeboxes.

In the 1920s, the B-sides were often where the racy, and racist, songs were consigned.

In response to this market shift and eager to create warehouse space for new releases, major record labels began off-loading their remaining stock of 78s to local retailers for pennies on the dollar. Much of that stock had been sitting undisturbed during the Depression and World War II. With few notable exceptions, the musicians who had performed on these recordings had either moved on with their lives or simply died.

The initiative to release The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 was guided by Moe Asch of Folkways Records. The new LP format had made it marketable. Harry Smith’s vast collection provided the content. The resulting wave of inspiration arising from the public’s exposure to the songs and styles of these lost artists is evident in the original music created during the folk, blues, and rock boom of the 1950s and 60’s. “One singer playing an instrument and telling a story” pretty much sums up the majority of cuts on the original anthology. Earthy vocal styles. Driving rhythms. All of a sudden, it was daylight again.

But in that generation between the last recordings featured on the original Anthology and a young Bob Dylan playing at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, the world had become a different place. The books included with each Harry Smith collection show us just how different. Consider the names of the artists, or the titles of the songs: Columbus Fruge, Uncle Bunt Stephens, The Williamson Brothers and Curry, or “I Heard The Voice Of A Pork Chop,” “The Royal Telephone,” “My Mamma Was A Sailor.” Clearly not from around here, at least these days.

This is what, in the first anthology’s introduction, Greil Marcus refers to as “the old, weird America.” But actually, that’s only because we collectively closed our ears, turned our backs, and walked away. Even in 1952, these recordings must have sounded raw and primitive by comparison. The emergence of multi-tracking in the mid-1960s made these initial performances seem even more remote. A little math to consider: The distance between the releases of The Anthology of American Folk Music and The Harry Smith B-Sides is 68 years. Reverse that amount of time back from the original release and you are midway between the patent for Thomas Edison’s phonograph and the formation of his company to market recorded wax cylinders.

The sudden availability of The Harry Smith B-Sides, much like the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945, basically takes a hard right turn off of our accepted reality. It’s not that these added performances are inferior or secondary by appearing on the flip side. Rather, they enhance and broaden our understanding of these rare artists, the music they played, and significantly, the America that surrounded them.

In the late 1920s, the B-sides were often where the racy, and racist, selections were consigned. A small note included in this set of 4 CDs states that three songs which matched contributions on the original Anthology are not included here because of racist lyrics. One of the artists, Uncle Dave Macon, had either a natural affinity or a supreme indifference to racial epithets. Another one of his recordings included a slur right in the title. A popular Grand Ole Opry performer, Macon still stands enshrined in the Country Music Hall Of Fame today.

There are other names in these collections that might be familiar to folk, country and blues fans today: The Carter Family, Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, but the vast majority of performers here would only be fleetingly captured in their brief recording sessions before being cast back into the river of time to sink or swim. These include voices that belie age and broader influences. Richard “Rabbit” Brown sounds like no one has since, though you’d imagine many a soul with a guitar on their knee might have thought it was a style one could learn through imitation. Dock Boggs was only 29 when these initial recordings were made, sounding twice that old because of all that he had seen, heard, and swigged. As one listens here, there is a creeping realization that as technology continues to guide us away from the sensory and what’s become lost in the process is something personal, immediate, and genuine.

The opportunity for individuals who had only played locally for town folk, family and friends to record in a professional studio must have involved a leap of its own. Imagine a visit to New York City or Chicago for someone raised without electricity. Consider too the fragile trappings of fame that might suddenly surround them: a printed poster for their performances, a professional photograph posing with their instrument, then this brittle black disc with their name and song neatly printed on a light blue label. All this when there might have been two phonographs within five miles of home.

This thrilling feeling, this startling moment in time, was all gathered in two and a half minutes of recorded music. On the second disc included on The Harry Smith B-Sides, The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers encourage you have to a little talk with Jesus. Heart and soul while making every small stop in between. Then, there’s the foot-stomping careening fiddle tune “Old Red” by Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers. Country music is often described as three chords and the truth. “Old Red” is two chords touching eternity.

The question one is left with after a visit to the days before tube microphones, multi-track overdubs, and isolation booths is not how much better the finished recording might have been than a live rendition but exactly the opposite. Listening to the sheer raw force of these sessions, one aches for the lost experience that must have preceded them. Maybe a random Sunday in a tiny church with Blind Willie Johnson testifying. Or maybe searching Appalachia with a name and destination in mind: Back roads traveled, directions asked, until you hear the banjo and fiddle a little further up the hill, just before your scent reaches the dogs.

All this time and distance allows for the fact that the lyrics here are frequently offered a strange patois or shouted, garbled, and growled in a way that defies understanding. As Om Kalthoum or the Rolling Stones have proven, this alone does not preclude a listener’s transcendence.

Technology continues to guide us away from the sensory.

What’s become lost in the process is something

personal, immediate, and genuine.

Can this collection of 165 songs spread out over two releases nearly 70 years apart be considered essential listening for someone who loves the American music genres of country, rock, and blues? Is reading the Bible cover-to-cover a given for a devout Christian? Or visiting the Pyramids for someone who loves travel? It’s out there. You decide.

Perhaps it’s enough for now to simply extend thanks to the folks at Disc-To-Digital for the enormous effort and collaboration necessary to present these artifacts for your consideration. One thinks about the thousands of early films shot on silver nitrate stock, the vast majority lost to the ravages of time, fire, and indifference. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, originally shot in 1928, was thought lost forever until a complete copy was discovered over 60 years later in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital. Often, the margins of extinction are just that slim. But still the search continues.

This is 20th century archeology, which in the case of The B-Sides involved using model airplane glue to restore the only surviving recordings. This collection may provide entertainment but beyond that, it may provide some cause for hope. Can something so fragile from so long ago survive the rough transition to our current reality? It is a question that involves remembering and mending as part of the answer. Acknowledging that it’s been badly broken. Needing it to somehow be made whole again.   

[editor’s note: Tom Roznowski has spent most of his creative life singing, writing, and exploring in his particular locality, the hills of Southern Indiana. Currently, Tom is the host of Porchlight, airing on WFIU Saturday evenings at 6PM]

This Week’s Ryder Films: Dec 9

We’ve just added two films to our movie calendar: FREE TIME and DAMNATION. You can read about these as well as the other films playing in our virtual cinema, right here ….

FREE TIME

You can watch Free Time right here, right now
Free Time, the latest film by one of our greatest documentarians, Manny Kirchheimer. A New York Film Festival selection, Free Time presents meticulously restored and poetically assembled 16mm black-and-white footage shot in New York between 1958 and 1960, set to the stirring music of Ravel, Bach, Eisler, and Count Basie. Manny Kirchheimer is one of the great masters of the American city symphony, as is clear from films like Stations of the Elevated (1981) and Dream of a City. In his latest work, the 88-year-old Kirchheimer has meticulously restored and constructed 16mm black-and-white footage that he and Walter Hess shot in New York between 1958 and 1960. This lustrous evocation of a different rhythm of life captures the in-between moments—kids playing stickball, window washers, folks reading newspapers on their stoops—and the architectural beauty of urban spaces. The breathtaking footage was shot in several distinct New York neighborhoods, including Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, and Hell’s Kitchen, and features impressionistic stops throughout the city, making time for an auto junkyard in Inwood, a cemetery in Queens, and the elegant buildings of the financial district. An indispensable New York filmmaker, a noticer and listener without peer.— A.O. Scott, The New York Times A jazzy montage of exquisitely lensed Manhattan street scenes — musical passages from the likes of Bach and Basie share a soundtrack with select cues. In FREE TIME, you don’t hear noise, you hear notes.— Eric Hynes, Film Comment

WHERE CAN I PURCHASE A TICKET AND HOW MUCH ARE THEY?


DAMNATION

You can watch Damnation right here, right now

A loner tries to win back his estranged lover, a lounge singer in a bar named Titanik, in Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s otherworldly film noir. Some of you may have seen Tarr’s classic, 7-hour film Sátántangó when it was screened at the IU Cinema in 2019. Relax, Damnation is a mere 1 hour, 56 minutes. Shot in 1988 in atmospheric black-and-white, Damnation has recently been in released in the States in a new 4K restoration by the Hungarian National Film Institute

Made in 1988 but virtually unknown in the United States, Damnation is the movie with which the great Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr fully became “Bela Tarr.” Aside from a mayfly run some 30 years ago at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan, the movie has been all but invisible. The movie is a brilliant calling card. Its melancholy, hurdy-gurdy score, exaggerated sound design, ritual ensemble dances, inexorable camera moves suggest a dry run for Tarr’s 1994 masterpiece, the immersive, 7-hour “Satantango” — at less than one-third the length. – J. Hoberman, The New York Times


ZAPPA

“We were loud. We were coarse. We were strange. And if anyone in the audience ever gave us any trouble, we told them to fuck off.” There has yet to be a film about the life and times of the brilliant and genuinely maverick musician Frank Zappa. The music he composed and performed with his band, The Mothers of Invention — a mash-up of doo-wop, jazz, classical, and atonal kazoo kookiness by way of dada — was, by his own cheery admission, “designed to annoy people.” Filmmaker Alex Winter has crafted Zappa from over a thousand hours of mostly unseen material from Zappa’s personal vault. Zappa is an expansive and intimate portrait of an extraordinary artist who was also fully engaged with the turbulent politics of his day. (USA; 129 min)

You can watch Zappa right here, right now

CRITIC’S PICK! “Zappa” foregrounds the laudable and often astonishing aspects of the man’s work and personality. A self-taught musician with a near-maniacal work ethic, over the years he came to regard his efforts in rock ’n’ roll as a day gig, necessary to support his more ambitious composing efforts. – The New York Times

“Zappa” gives its subject his well earned due within the rock firmament. But even more valuable, Winter gives Zappa pride of place among the most important composers of the 20th century, sharing some extraordinary performances of his little-known classical work. – The Washington Post


COLLECTIVE

You can watch Collective right here, right now

Journalism’s role at exposing corruption has rarely been as dramatically portrayed as in Collective, in which filmmaker Alexander Nanau follows an unfolding investigation in real time. Romania’s Gazeta Sporturilor newspaper isn’t internationally known, but its reporters are as dogged as any Pulitzer winner. One revelation leads to another as they uncover a vast health-care fraud that enriched moguls and politicians, and caused the deaths of innocent citizens.

The story starts in 2015 with a fire at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv. The tragedy killed 27 people on site and injured over 100 more. Romania’s Health Minister promised the burn victims would get the highest-quality treatment, but, in subsequent months, dozens more perished. What was going wrong inside the hospitals? Gazeta Sporturilor‘s investigative team, led by Catalin Tolontan, digs into this with old-fashioned gusto, conducting stakeouts, analyzing data, and working sources like the whistle-blowing Dr. Camelia Roiu. Their revelations shake Romania all the way to the upper echelons of business and government. One target of investigation winds up dead. Was it suicide or murder? (Romania/Luxembourg; subtitled; 109 min)

ONE OF THE GREATEST MOVIES ABOUT JOURNALISM and the Dark Forces in Confronts…Alexander Nanau’s bracing, relentless documentary plays like a gripping real-time thriller, merging the reportorial intensity of Spotlight with the paranoid uncertainty of The Manchurian Candidate. When Nanau screened Collective to rave reviews at the Venice, Toronto and Sundance festivals, he had no idea that his exposé would prove to be all-too predictive of a world not prepared to cope with a rampaging virus pandemic.  – Indiewire

CRITIC’S PICK! Whatever questions you have are eclipsed by the bombshells that keep exploding. Collective sketches out an honest, affecting, somewhat old-fashioned utopian example of what it takes to make the world better, or at least a little less awful. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice. But as “Collective” lays out with anguished detail and a profound, moving sense of decency, it takes stubborn, angry people — journalists, politicians, artists, activists — to hammer at that arc until it starts bending, maybe, in the right direction. – The New York Times


FRANCISCA

You can watch Francisca right here, right now

A rising young novelist falls in love with the daughter of an English army officer. Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira made this amazing film in 1981, at the age of 72; as powerful as it is stark, it suggests a blending of the modernist, minimalist techniques of Jean-Marie Straub with the elusive spiritual subject matter of Max Ophuls. With its elaborate title cards, its abundance of shots in which the action is oriented directly toward the camera, its evocative interiors, and its show-stopping gala set-pieces, Francisca is an exacting, sumptuous and utterly inimitable cinematic experience, and one of Oliveira’s crowning achievements. (Portugal / subtitled / 166 min)

Francisca premiered in 1981 as an official selection in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. The new 4K digital restoration by the Cinemateca Portuguesa premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019.

co-feature: If you are a fan of movies about aspiring writers, you might also want to watch Martin Eden

A masterpiece of modern cinema!  A story of great subtlety, density, and emotional impact. – Dave Kehr, When Movies Mattered


CITIZENS OF THE WORLD

You can watch Citizens of the World right here, right now

It is never too late to change your life. Three Italians in their seventies, all single and looking for a change, decide to leave their beloved Rome and settle abroad. But where? A rash decision?–perhaps. The Professor, retired after teaching Latin his whole life, is getting bored. Giorgetto, one of the last true Romans, struggles to make ends meet every month. Attilio, an antiques dealer, wants to experience once again the sense of adventure he had while traveling as a hippie-youth. Things will change for our three musketeers, but not quite as expected. Writer/director Gianni de Gregorio has been called “the Italian Larry David.” He also co-stars as “the Professor.”   90 min  / Italy / subtitled / 2020

co-features: if you like pasta and Italian-language films, then you might want to check out Martin Eden, The Mouth of the Wolf and Sicilia, all playing this week in our virtual theater


MARTIN EDEN

You can watch Martin Eden right here, right now

Based on the 1909 autobiographical novel by Jack London, young Martin Eden is a charming, impoverished, self-taught sailor who dreams of becoming a writer. If he becomes a success, he believes, he might win the affections of a young, wealthy university student. Starring Luca Marinelli. Directed by Pietro Marcello. (2020 / Italy / subtitled / 129 min)

Martin Eden might be the BEST FILM OF THE YEAR! The film is a masterpiece, so you should see it any way you can. But it’s also nice to know that even by viewing it at home you can help out a struggling, indispensable [theater].” – Vulture

CRITIC’S PICK! An INGENIOUS adaptation of the Jack London novel. The true miracle of this film is how Marcello translates London’s lush, character-revealing prose into pure cinema.The entirety of the 20th century — its promises, illusions and traumas — sweeps through the AUDACIOUS and THRILLING Martin Eden. – The New York Times

One of the most thrilling aspects of the novel is how well it dramatizes Martin’s intellectual hunger, as he becomes a voracious reader and, in time, a writer. It’s not easy for a movie to depict the acquisition of knowledge, but this one comes as close as any I’ve seen. Sometimes Martin Eden evokes Italian neorealism, and sometimes it has the mad stylistic energy of the French New Wave. There’s no denying that THIS GORGEOUS AND PASSIONATE FILM IS SIMPLY ONE OF A KIND. – NPR

Co-feature: THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF  Pietro Marcello’s debut film won major prizes at the Berlin and Turin film festivals. The Mouth of the Wolf interweaves two love stories: the 20-year romance between a Sicilian tough guy and a transsexual former junkie whom he met in prison, and a poetic reverie of the Italian port town of Genoa, depicted in all its mysterious, fading glory. Commissioned by the Fondazione San Marcellino, a Jesuit order dedicated to helping society’s poor and marginalized, the film masterfully combines documentary with fiction and melancholy home movies from the past century with poetic images, sounds, and music of the waterfront today.


BUNGALOW

You can watch Bungalow right here, right now

A major work of the celebrated Berlin School, the debut of Ulrich Köhler is a mesmerizing portrait of a young German soldier named Paul who goes AWOL and returns to his childhood home in the countryside. Over a few summer days, Paul evades the responsibilities of everyday life and falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend, disrupting the lives of everyone in his circle. With Köhler’s penchant for deadpan humor and subtle performances, Bungalow becomes a quiet mockery of militarism, familial estrangement, and youthful ennui. New 4K Restoration.

Critic’s Pick! Köhler’s first film, newly available in the U.S., is a secretive and beautifully observant study of teenage disaffection. The New York Times


ALONE

You can watch Alone right here, right now

A cat-and-mouse thriller, adapted from a 2011 Swedish film and reset in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Alone follows Jessica, recently widowed, who is kidnapped and held captive in a remote cabin. She escapes but is lost in the heart of the untamed wilderness, with only her wits to rely on for survival. Meanwhile, her mysterious captor closes in.  Directed by John Hyams (98 min)

John Hyams directed last year’s fabulously zippy zombie series, “Black Summer.” Alone unfolds with elegant simplicity and single-minded momentum. -The New York Times


12 HOUR SHIFT

You can watch 12 Hour Shift right here, right now

12 Hour Shift is a heist-gone-wrong film set during one strange night in an Arkansas hospital. Nurse Mandy is desperate to make it through her all-night shift without incident. This is particularly hard to do when you’re involved in a black market organ-trading scheme. When her hapless but dangerous cousin Regina misplaces a kidney, Mandy and Regina frantically try to secure a replacement organ by any means necessary. Talk about bedside manner! 12 Hour Shift is an edgy, madcap odyssey directed by Brea Grant. This is actress Grant’s first film as writer-director, and she elicits wonderful performances from her largely female ensemble cast. 87 min


SICILIA

You can watch Sicilia right here, right now

Film has never seen a collaboration like that between Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, a fiercely intellectual husband-wife duo whose decades-spanning oeuvre aimed to spark a revolution among the masses. It contains adaptations of Kafka and Brecht, homages to D.W. Griffith, Renoir, and Bresson, and treatises on political matters both current and eternal.

One of Straub-Huillet’s most engaging and accessible works, Sicilia! is the story of a man who returns to a village in Sicily after 15 years to visit his mother. Adapted from Elio Vittorini’s novel “Conversations in Sicily,” the film is so exquisitely rendered that herring roasting on a hearth or a meal of bread, wine and winter melon, can take on the humble aura of a Caravaggio painting. The actors, all nonprofessionals, declaim their extended discussions with grand, high-relief diction, and the film’s starkly exquisite black-and-white images set the dialogue as if to visual music. (66 minutes)

“One of their great later works.” – The Village Voice

“Straub-Huillet’s aesthetic abounds in anomalies. One finds comfort, albeit austere, in encountering patented elements of the filmmakers’ approach in Sicilia!” – James Quandt, Artforum


WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES

You can watch We Are Little Zombies right here, right now

One sunny day, four young strangers meet by chance at a crematorium. They have all recently lost their parents, but none of them can shed a tear. They are like zombies, devoid of all emotion. Alone in the world at 13 years of age with no future, no dreams, and no way to move forward, our protagonists dress themselves in scraps from a garbage dump, track down musical instruments, and decide to form a kick-ass band. They call themselves LITTLE ZOMBIES. This is a story about their quest to retrieve their ability to feel.

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa, We Are Little Zombies bursts with hyper pop style and unbridled imagination. Mixing inspiration from film, television, music, and, most importantly, video games, Nagahisa dazzles with a myriad of cinematic tricks, and he pushes his script in zany directions while never losing sight of its sympathetic exploration of grief and loss. (Japan / subtitles / 120 min)

CRITIC’S PICK! Wry humor, absurd dialogue and unflagging energy propel this dazzling, manic debut from Makoto Nagahisa…. he throws an entire box of tricks at the screen. Splitting it in two, fading to black and white, writing over it, and dunking an entire scene into a fishbowl, he fashions a fantasia of pranks so unexpected and colors so intense (the splendid cinematography is by Hiroaki Takeda), they could make you hallucinate. – The New York Times

WHERE CAN I PURCHASE A TICKET AND HOW MUCH ARE THEY?

Do you have a comment or a suggestion for a film? Maybe you’d like to write something for our magazine. Send an email to editor@theryder.com. We can be talked into almost anything.

December issue of The Ryder

The new issue of The Ryder, funded in part by a Recover Forward grant from the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association, is on the virtual newsstands! Here’s your personal copy, and here’s some of what’s inside….

Passages Craig Brenner’s new album reflects a difficult time in his life. By Mike Leonard

Arts Alliance Artists shouldn’t have to sneak in through the back door. A look at the first ten years of the Arts Alliance of Greater Bloomington. By Rachael Himsel

The B-Sides A new collection of classic American folk songs asks us to consider if something fragile from long-ago can survive in our current age. By Tom Roznowski

Pedaling Peace and Global Activism Inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dnyan Yewatkar has embarked on a global tour he calls Pedaling for Peace. He’s traveled 30,000 miles through 23 countries, and lived through close calls with a hungry tiger and a hungry drug cartel gang. By Mason Cassady

Queen’s Gambit Chess is not just a game but a discipline and the high-wire world of professional chess has never been portrayed with more care and respect. Who says “Girls can’t play chess”?. By Stephen Volan

Searching for Vito Scotti Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Columbo – it’s a never-ending list. You might not recognize his name but if you watched TV in the 60s and 70s you’ve seen Vito Scotti, character actor extraordinaire. And we haven’t even mentioned his work in feature films – including  indelible performances opposite Brando in The Godfather and the Monkees in Head. By John Bob Slone

Flip through the magazine. If you stumble upon a story that you like, or if you just want to support local, independent journalism, please consider making a donation.

This week’s Ryder Films: 11/27

We are continuing to screen brand new award-winning, international and independent American films during the pandemic. Here’s a round-up of this week’s Ryder films …

ZAPPA

“We were loud. We were coarse. We were strange. And if anyone in the audience ever gave us any trouble, we told them to fuck off.” There has yet to be a film about the life and times of the brilliant and genuinely maverick musician Frank Zappa. The music he composed and performed with his band, The Mothers of Invention — a mash-up of doo-wop, jazz, classical, and atonal kazoo kookiness by way of dada — was, by his own cheery admission, “designed to annoy people.” Filmmaker Alex Winter has crafted Zappa from over a thousand hours of mostly unseen material from Zappa’s personal vault. Zappa is an expansive and intimate portrait of an extraordinary artist who was also fully engaged with the turbulent politics of his day. (USA; 129 min)

You can watch Zappa right here, right now

CRITIC’S PICK! “Zappa” foregrounds the laudable and often astonishing aspects of the man’s work and personality. A self-taught musician with a near-maniacal work ethic, over the years he came to regard his efforts in rock ’n’ roll as a day gig, necessary to support his more ambitious composing efforts. – The New York Times

“Zappa” gives its subject his well earned due within the rock firmament. But even more valuable, Winter gives Zappa pride of place among the most important composers of the 20th century, sharing some extraordinary performances of his little-known classical work. – The Washington Post

We are continuing to screen first-run, award-winning, international and independent American films during the pandemic. Here’s what’s playing this week in our virtual theater.

COLLECTIVE

You can watch Collective right here, right now

Journalism’s role at exposing corruption has rarely been as dramatically portrayed as in Collective, in which filmmaker Alexander Nanau follows an unfolding investigation in real time. Romania’s Gazeta Sporturilor newspaper isn’t internationally known, but its reporters are as dogged as any Pulitzer winner. One revelation leads to another as they uncover a vast health-care fraud that enriched moguls and politicians, and caused the deaths of innocent citizens.

The story starts in 2015 with a fire at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv. The tragedy killed 27 people on site and injured over 100 more. Romania’s Health Minister promised the burn victims would get the highest-quality treatment, but, in subsequent months, dozens more perished. What was going wrong inside the hospitals? Gazeta Sporturilor‘s investigative team, led by Catalin Tolontan, digs into this with old-fashioned gusto, conducting stakeouts, analyzing data, and working sources like the whistle-blowing Dr. Camelia Roiu. Their revelations shake Romania all the way to the upper echelons of business and government. One target of investigation winds up dead. Was it suicide or murder? (Romania/Luxembourg; subtitled; 109 min)

ONE OF THE GREATEST MOVIES ABOUT JOURNALISM and the Dark Forces in Confronts…Alexander Nanau’s bracing, relentless documentary plays like a gripping real-time thriller, merging the reportorial intensity of Spotlight with the paranoid uncertainty of The Manchurian Candidate. When Nanau screened Collective to rave reviews at the Venice, Toronto and Sundance festivals, he had no idea that his exposé would prove to be all-too predictive of a world not prepared to cope with a rampaging virus pandemic.  – Indiewire

CRITIC’S PICK! Whatever questions you have are eclipsed by the bombshells that keep exploding. Collective sketches out an honest, affecting, somewhat old-fashioned utopian example of what it takes to make the world better, or at least a little less awful. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice. But as “Collective” lays out with anguished detail and a profound, moving sense of decency, it takes stubborn, angry people — journalists, politicians, artists, activists — to hammer at that arc until it starts bending, maybe, in the right direction. – The New York Times

WHERE CAN I PURCHASE A TICKET AND HOW MUCH ARE THEY?


FRANCISCA

You can watch Francisca right here, right now

A rising young novelist falls in love with the daughter of an English army officer. Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira made this amazing film in 1981, at the age of 72; as powerful as it is stark, it suggests a blending of the modernist, minimalist techniques of Jean-Marie Straub with the elusive spiritual subject matter of Max Ophuls. With its elaborate title cards, its abundance of shots in which the action is oriented directly toward the camera, its evocative interiors, and its show-stopping gala set-pieces, Francisca is an exacting, sumptuous and utterly inimitable cinematic experience, and one of Oliveira’s crowning achievements. (Portugal / subtitled / 166 min)

Francisca premiered in 1981 as an official selection in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. The new 4K digital restoration by the Cinemateca Portuguesa premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019.

co-feature: If you are a fan of movies about aspiring writers, you might also want to watch Martin Eden


https://youtube.com/watch?v=ZiMFO_N9xK4%3Ffeature%3Doembed

A masterpiece of modern cinema!  A story of great subtlety, density, and emotional impact. – Dave Kehr, When Movies Mattered


CITIZENS OF THE WORLD

You can watch Citizens of the World right here, right now

It is never too late to change your life. Three Italians in their seventies, all single and looking for a change, decide to leave their beloved Rome and settle abroad. But where? A rash decision?–perhaps. The Professor, retired after teaching Latin his whole life, is getting bored. Giorgetto, one of the last true Romans, struggles to make ends meet every month. Attilio, an antiques dealer, wants to experience once again the sense of adventure he had while traveling as a hippie-youth. Things will change for our three musketeers, but not quite as expected. Writer/director Gianni de Gregorio has been called “the Italian Larry David.” He also co-stars as “the Professor.”   90 min  / Italy / subtitled / 2020 https://www.youtube.com/embed/rGMk2UQ434k?feature=oembed

co-features: if you like pasta and Italian-language films, then you might want to check out Martin Eden, The Mouth of the Wolf and Sicilia, all playing this week in our virtual theater


MARTIN EDEN

You can watch Martin Eden right here, right now

Based on the 1909 autobiographical novel by Jack London, young Martin Eden is a charming, impoverished, self-taught sailor who dreams of becoming a writer. If he becomes a success, he believes, he might win the affections of a young, wealthy university student. Starring Luca Marinelli. Directed by Pietro Marcello. (2020 / Italy / subtitled / 129 min)

Martin Eden might be the BEST FILM OF THE YEAR! The film is a masterpiece, so you should see it any way you can. But it’s also nice to know that even by viewing it at home you can help out a struggling, indispensable [theater].” – Vulture

CRITIC’S PICK! An INGENIOUS adaptation of the Jack London novel. The true miracle of this film is how Marcello translates London’s lush, character-revealing prose into pure cinema.The entirety of the 20th century — its promises, illusions and traumas — sweeps through the AUDACIOUS and THRILLING Martin Eden. – The New York Times

One of the most thrilling aspects of the novel is how well it dramatizes Martin’s intellectual hunger, as he becomes a voracious reader and, in time, a writer. It’s not easy for a movie to depict the acquisition of knowledge, but this one comes as close as any I’ve seen. Sometimes Martin Eden evokes Italian neorealism, and sometimes it has the mad stylistic energy of the French New Wave. There’s no denying that THIS GORGEOUS AND PASSIONATE FILM IS SIMPLY ONE OF A KIND. – NPR https://www.youtube.com/embed/66f3BFtAmZA?feature=oembed

Co-feature: THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF  Pietro Marcello’s debut film won major prizes at the Berlin and Turin film festivals. The Mouth of the Wolf interweaves two love stories: the 20-year romance between a Sicilian tough guy and a transsexual former junkie whom he met in prison, and a poetic reverie of the Italian port town of Genoa, depicted in all its mysterious, fading glory. Commissioned by the Fondazione San Marcellino, a Jesuit order dedicated to helping society’s poor and marginalized, the film masterfully combines documentary with fiction and melancholy home movies from the past century with poetic images, sounds, and music of the waterfront today.


BUNGALOW

You can watch Bungalow right here, right now

A major work of the celebrated Berlin School, the debut of Ulrich Köhler is a mesmerizing portrait of a young German soldier named Paul who goes AWOL and returns to his childhood home in the countryside. Over a few summer days, Paul evades the responsibilities of everyday life and falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend, disrupting the lives of everyone in his circle. With Köhler’s penchant for deadpan humor and subtle performances, Bungalow becomes a quiet mockery of militarism, familial estrangement, and youthful ennui. New 4K Restoration.

Critic’s Pick! Köhler’s first film, newly available in the U.S., is a secretive and beautifully observant study of teenage disaffection. The New York Times https://www.youtube.com/embed/gFxtiU-R9vE?feature=oembed


ALONE

You can watch Alone right here, right now

A cat-and-mouse thriller, adapted from a 2011 Swedish film and reset in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Alone follows Jessica, recently widowed, who is kidnapped and held captive in a remote cabin. She escapes but is lost in the heart of the untamed wilderness, with only her wits to rely on for survival. Meanwhile, her mysterious captor closes in.  Directed by John Hyams (98 min)

John Hyams directed last year’s fabulously zippy zombie series, “Black Summer.” Alone unfolds with elegant simplicity and single-minded momentum. -The New York Times


12 HOUR SHIFT

You can watch 12 Hour Shift right here, right now

12 Hour Shift is a heist-gone-wrong film set during one strange night in an Arkansas hospital. Nurse Mandy is desperate to make it through her all-night shift without incident. This is particularly hard to do when you’re involved in a black market organ-trading scheme. When her hapless but dangerous cousin Regina misplaces a kidney, Mandy and Regina frantically try to secure a replacement organ by any means necessary. Talk about bedside manner! 12 Hour Shift is an edgy, madcap odyssey directed by Brea Grant. This is actress Grant’s first film as writer-director, and she elicits wonderful performances from her largely female ensemble cast. 87 min


SICILIA

You can watch Sicilia right here, right now

Film has never seen a collaboration like that between Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, a fiercely intellectual husband-wife duo whose decades-spanning oeuvre aimed to spark a revolution among the masses. It contains adaptations of Kafka and Brecht, homages to D.W. Griffith, Renoir, and Bresson, and treatises on political matters both current and eternal.

One of Straub-Huillet’s most engaging and accessible works, Sicilia! is the story of a man who returns to a village in Sicily after 15 years to visit his mother. Adapted from Elio Vittorini’s novel “Conversations in Sicily,” the film is so exquisitely rendered that herring roasting on a hearth or a meal of bread, wine and winter melon, can take on the humble aura of a Caravaggio painting. The actors, all nonprofessionals, declaim their extended discussions with grand, high-relief diction, and the film’s starkly exquisite black-and-white images set the dialogue as if to visual music. (66 minutes)

“One of their great later works.” – The Village Voice

“Straub-Huillet’s aesthetic abounds in anomalies. One finds comfort, albeit austere, in encountering patented elements of the filmmakers’ approach in Sicilia!” – James Quandt, Artforum


WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES

You can watch We Are Little Zombies right here, right now

One sunny day, four young strangers meet by chance at a crematorium. They have all recently lost their parents, but none of them can shed a tear. They are like zombies, devoid of all emotion. Alone in the world at 13 years of age with no future, no dreams, and no way to move forward, our protagonists dress themselves in scraps from a garbage dump, track down musical instruments, and decide to form a kick-ass band. They call themselves LITTLE ZOMBIES. This is a story about their quest to retrieve their ability to feel.

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa, We Are Little Zombies bursts with hyper pop style and unbridled imagination. Mixing inspiration from film, television, music, and, most importantly, video games, Nagahisa dazzles with a myriad of cinematic tricks, and he pushes his script in zany directions while never losing sight of its sympathetic exploration of grief and loss. (Japan / subtitles / 120 min)

CRITIC’S PICK! Wry humor, absurd dialogue and unflagging energy propel this dazzling, manic debut from Makoto Nagahisa…. he throws an entire box of tricks at the screen. Splitting it in two, fading to black and white, writing over it, and dunking an entire scene into a fishbowl, he fashions a fantasia of pranks so unexpected and colors so intense (the splendid cinematography is by Hiroaki Takeda), they could make you hallucinate. – The New York Times https://www.youtube.com/embed/O_-9wNeRLSs?feature=oembed

WHERE CAN I PURCHASE A TICKET AND HOW MUCH ARE THEY?

Do you have a comment or a suggestion for a film? Maybe you’d like to write something for our magazine. Send an email to editor@theryder.com. We can be talked into almost anything.

THIS WEEK’S ryder filmS

We are continuing to screen first-run, award-winning, international and independent American films during the pandemic. Here’s what’s playing this week in our virtual theater.

COLLECTIVE

You can watch Collective right here, right now

Journalism’s role at exposing corruption has rarely been as dramatically portrayed as in Collective, in which filmmaker Alexander Nanau follows an unfolding investigation in real time. Romania’s Gazeta Sporturilor newspaper isn’t internationally known, but its reporters are as dogged as any Pulitzer winner. One revelation leads to another as they uncover a vast health-care fraud that enriched moguls and politicians, and caused the deaths of innocent citizens.

The story starts in 2015 with a fire at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv. The tragedy killed 27 people on site and injured over 100 more. Romania’s Health Minister promised the burn victims would get the highest-quality treatment, but, in subsequent months, dozens more perished. What was going wrong inside the hospitals? Gazeta Sporturilor‘s investigative team, led by Catalin Tolontan, digs into this with old-fashioned gusto, conducting stakeouts, analyzing data, and working sources like the whistle-blowing Dr. Camelia Roiu. Their revelations shake Romania all the way to the upper echelons of business and government. One target of investigation winds up dead. Was it suicide or murder? (Romania/Luxembourg; subtitled; 109 min)

ONE OF THE GREATEST MOVIES ABOUT JOURNALISM and the Dark Forces in Confronts…Alexander Nanau’s bracing, relentless documentary plays like a gripping real-time thriller, merging the reportorial intensity of Spotlight with the paranoid uncertainty of The Manchurian Candidate. When Nanau screened Collective to rave reviews at the Venice, Toronto and Sundance festivals, he had no idea that his exposé would prove to be all-too predictive of a world not prepared to cope with a rampaging virus pandemic.  – Indiewire

CRITIC’S PICK! Whatever questions you have are eclipsed by the bombshells that keep exploding. Collective sketches out an honest, affecting, somewhat old-fashioned utopian example of what it takes to make the world better, or at least a little less awful. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice. But as “Collective” lays out with anguished detail and a profound, moving sense of decency, it takes stubborn, angry people — journalists, politicians, artists, activists — to hammer at that arc until it starts bending, maybe, in the right direction. – The New York Times

WHERE CAN I PURCHASE A TICKET AND HOW MUCH ARE THEY?


FRANCISCA

You can watch Francisca right here, right now

A rising young novelist falls in love with the daughter of an English army officer. Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira made this amazing film in 1981, at the age of 72; as powerful as it is stark, it suggests a blending of the modernist, minimalist techniques of Jean-Marie Straub with the elusive spiritual subject matter of Max Ophuls. With its elaborate title cards, its abundance of shots in which the action is oriented directly toward the camera, its evocative interiors, and its show-stopping gala set-pieces, Francisca is an exacting, sumptuous and utterly inimitable cinematic experience, and one of Oliveira’s crowning achievements. (Portugal / subtitled / 166 min)

Francisca premiered in 1981 as an official selection in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. The new 4K digital restoration by the Cinemateca Portuguesa premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019.

co-feature: If you are a fan of movies about aspiring writers, you might also want to watch Martin Eden


A masterpiece of modern cinema!  A story of great subtlety, density, and emotional impact. – Dave Kehr, When Movies Mattered


CITIZENS OF THE WORLD

You can watch Citizens of the World right here, right now

It is never too late to change your life. Three Italians in their seventies, all single and looking for a change, decide to leave their beloved Rome and settle abroad. But where? A rash decision?–perhaps. The Professor, retired after teaching Latin his whole life, is getting bored. Giorgetto, one of the last true Romans, struggles to make ends meet every month. Attilio, an antiques dealer, wants to experience once again the sense of adventure he had while traveling as a hippie-youth. Things will change for our three musketeers, but not quite as expected. Writer/director Gianni de Gregorio has been called “the Italian Larry David.” He also co-stars as “the Professor.”   90 min  / Italy / subtitled / 2020

co-features: if you like pasta and Italian-language films, then you might want to check out Martin Eden, The Mouth of the Wolf and Sicilia, all playing this week in our virtual theater


MARTIN EDEN

You can watch Martin Eden right here, right now

Based on the 1909 autobiographical novel by Jack London, young Martin Eden is a charming, impoverished, self-taught sailor who dreams of becoming a writer. If he becomes a success, he believes, he might win the affections of a young, wealthy university student. Starring Luca Marinelli. Directed by Pietro Marcello. (2020 / Italy / subtitled / 129 min)

Martin Eden might be the BEST FILM OF THE YEAR! The film is a masterpiece, so you should see it any way you can. But it’s also nice to know that even by viewing it at home you can help out a struggling, indispensable [theater].” – Vulture

CRITIC’S PICK! An INGENIOUS adaptation of the Jack London novel. The true miracle of this film is how Marcello translates London’s lush, character-revealing prose into pure cinema.The entirety of the 20th century — its promises, illusions and traumas — sweeps through the AUDACIOUS and THRILLING Martin Eden. – The New York Times

One of the most thrilling aspects of the novel is how well it dramatizes Martin’s intellectual hunger, as he becomes a voracious reader and, in time, a writer. It’s not easy for a movie to depict the acquisition of knowledge, but this one comes as close as any I’ve seen. Sometimes Martin Eden evokes Italian neorealism, and sometimes it has the mad stylistic energy of the French New Wave. There’s no denying that THIS GORGEOUS AND PASSIONATE FILM IS SIMPLY ONE OF A KIND. – NPR

Co-feature: THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF  Pietro Marcello’s debut film won major prizes at the Berlin and Turin film festivals. The Mouth of the Wolf interweaves two love stories: the 20-year romance between a Sicilian tough guy and a transsexual former junkie whom he met in prison, and a poetic reverie of the Italian port town of Genoa, depicted in all its mysterious, fading glory. Commissioned by the Fondazione San Marcellino, a Jesuit order dedicated to helping society’s poor and marginalized, the film masterfully combines documentary with fiction and melancholy home movies from the past century with poetic images, sounds, and music of the waterfront today.


BUNGALOW

You can watch Bungalow right here, right now

A major work of the celebrated Berlin School, the debut of Ulrich Köhler is a mesmerizing portrait of a young German soldier named Paul who goes AWOL and returns to his childhood home in the countryside. Over a few summer days, Paul evades the responsibilities of everyday life and falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend, disrupting the lives of everyone in his circle. With Köhler’s penchant for deadpan humor and subtle performances, Bungalow becomes a quiet mockery of militarism, familial estrangement, and youthful ennui. New 4K Restoration.

Critic’s Pick! Köhler’s first film, newly available in the U.S., is a secretive and beautifully observant study of teenage disaffection. The New York Times


ALONE

You can watch Alone right here, right now

A cat-and-mouse thriller, adapted from a 2011 Swedish film and reset in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Alone follows Jessica, recently widowed, who is kidnapped and held captive in a remote cabin. She escapes but is lost in the heart of the untamed wilderness, with only her wits to rely on for survival. Meanwhile, her mysterious captor closes in.  Directed by John Hyams (98 min)

John Hyams directed last year’s fabulously zippy zombie series, “Black Summer.” Alone unfolds with elegant simplicity and single-minded momentum. -The New York Times


12 HOUR SHIFT

You can watch 12 Hour Shift right here, right now

12 Hour Shift is a heist-gone-wrong film set during one strange night in an Arkansas hospital. Nurse Mandy is desperate to make it through her all-night shift without incident. This is particularly hard to do when you’re involved in a black market organ-trading scheme. When her hapless but dangerous cousin Regina misplaces a kidney, Mandy and Regina frantically try to secure a replacement organ by any means necessary. Talk about bedside manner! 12 Hour Shift is an edgy, madcap odyssey directed by Brea Grant. This is actress Grant’s first film as writer-director, and she elicits wonderful performances from her largely female ensemble cast. 87 min


SICILIA

You can watch Sicilia right here, right now

Film has never seen a collaboration like that between Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, a fiercely intellectual husband-wife duo whose decades-spanning oeuvre aimed to spark a revolution among the masses. It contains adaptations of Kafka and Brecht, homages to D.W. Griffith, Renoir, and Bresson, and treatises on political matters both current and eternal.

One of Straub-Huillet’s most engaging and accessible works, Sicilia! is the story of a man who returns to a village in Sicily after 15 years to visit his mother. Adapted from Elio Vittorini’s novel “Conversations in Sicily,” the film is so exquisitely rendered that herring roasting on a hearth or a meal of bread, wine and winter melon, can take on the humble aura of a Caravaggio painting. The actors, all nonprofessionals, declaim their extended discussions with grand, high-relief diction, and the film’s starkly exquisite black-and-white images set the dialogue as if to visual music. (66 minutes)

“One of their great later works.” – The Village Voice

“Straub-Huillet’s aesthetic abounds in anomalies. One finds comfort, albeit austere, in encountering patented elements of the filmmakers’ approach in Sicilia!” – James Quandt, Artforum


WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES

You can watch We Are Little Zombies right here, right now

One sunny day, four young strangers meet by chance at a crematorium. They have all recently lost their parents, but none of them can shed a tear. They are like zombies, devoid of all emotion. Alone in the world at 13 years of age with no future, no dreams, and no way to move forward, our protagonists dress themselves in scraps from a garbage dump, track down musical instruments, and decide to form a kick-ass band. They call themselves LITTLE ZOMBIES. This is a story about their quest to retrieve their ability to feel.

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa, We Are Little Zombies bursts with hyper pop style and unbridled imagination. Mixing inspiration from film, television, music, and, most importantly, video games, Nagahisa dazzles with a myriad of cinematic tricks, and he pushes his script in zany directions while never losing sight of its sympathetic exploration of grief and loss. (Japan / subtitles / 120 min)

CRITIC’S PICK! Wry humor, absurd dialogue and unflagging energy propel this dazzling, manic debut from Makoto Nagahisa…. he throws an entire box of tricks at the screen. Splitting it in two, fading to black and white, writing over it, and dunking an entire scene into a fishbowl, he fashions a fantasia of pranks so unexpected and colors so intense (the splendid cinematography is by Hiroaki Takeda), they could make you hallucinate. – The New York Times

WHERE CAN I PURCHASE A TICKET AND HOW MUCH ARE THEY?

Do you have a comment or a suggestion for a film? Maybe you’d like to write something for our magazine. Send an email to editor@theryder.com. We can be talked into almost anything.



Culture and the pandemic

A Letter to Brazil

By Darlene J. Sadlier

[editor’s note: Darlene J. Sadlier, a professor emerita at Indiana University, writes about  literature, arts and culture of the Portuguese-speaking world. Her 2016 book, The Portuguese Diaspora: Seven Centuries of Literature and the Arts, explores literary and artistic works resulting from population travel and displacement during and after the Portuguese empire.  Her most recent book is The Lilly Library A to Z: Intriguing Objects in a World-Class Collection.

As global pandemic and political divisions and economic hardships surge today, culture seems ironically to be flourishing under technologies like streaming and Zoom, but also struggling, like a boxer forced up against the ropes. I am thinking of especially vulnerable entities like museums, archives and theaters, whose survival depends upon public access and support. In troubled times like these, their future is decidedly more precarious. In many places, this culture might be regarded as unimportant or even troublesome, and either ignored or dispensed with like an unnecessary luxury. In my own country, the United States, necessary lockdowns for public health reasons have taken a major toil on cultural institutions. While our public schools are timidly reopening, most often remotely, cultural projects and institutions without federal or state support are trying to survive a pandemic that has already extinguished numerous small and large businesses across the nation. Without a national plan for addressing the virus here, museums, art galleries, archives, theaters, and other cultural entities are in peril because their existence in the midst of a raging pandemic depends on the protocols of keeping safe, which includes social distancing, which may or may not be tenable.

***

In the novella A hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star), written over 40 years ago and later adapted to the screen, Brazilian Clarice Lispector describes her protagonist Macabéa’s desire for knowledge when she listens to bits of information on Rádio Relógio. One of the words she hears is “culture,” which she asks her boyfriend Olímpico to explain. In his invariably insecure and irritated way, he gruffly replies, “culture is culture!”. 

Macabéa does not know it, but of course she already has culture, as we all do, in the broad social and anthropological sense. What she is curious about, however, is perhaps more like the learned culture of arts, sciences and letters—what Matthew Arnold described in the 19th century as “the best that is thought and said.” That sort of culture belongs to a humanist tradition about which Macabéa, as an impoverished northeastern migrant recently arrived in Rio de Janeiro, has no knowledge and no access. We can debate the sorts of things it ought to contain, but its value should be self-evident, and it should never be the property of a single social class. It should also be protected from the totalitarianism and populist ideology that has always threatened it and that threatens it today in many countries.

Four years after the publication of A hora da estrela, the British academic Raymond Williams wrote a seminal volume titled Culture, which addresses the complexities and the future of the word Macabéa seeks to understand. Williams was writing about the emerging discipline called cultural studies, or the study of cultural production in its artistic, socio-political, and economic contexts. He acknowledges that collaborative, interdisciplinary investigation of culture would likely encounter difficulties and resistances along the way from established cultural traditions or political forces, as indeed it did.

Unless a nation’s government deems culture and education as unnecessary for its citizens, which is not yet the case currently in the U.S., perhaps one possible solution lies in what Williams described as a more socially-engaged cultural effort firmly anchored in a broader, collaborative context. We are already seeing some evidence of the greater engagement between institutions that formerly used the Internet to publicize exhibits and performances and have embraced new technologies to open their doors virtually and potentially to larger audiences. However, as any theatergoer knows, what remains absent is the sense of community or attachment that cultural spaces as well as schools and universities provide. 

Culture should never be the property of a single social class. It should be protected from the totalitarianism and populist ideology that has always threatened it. 

A recent New York Times article described an innovative collaboration between arts and technology that enabled a New York City museum to physically open to the public. The museum purchased a new social distancing hardware called EGOpro Tags that buzz whenever a visitor gets too close to another person in the room. The museum also limits the number of people visiting at any one time and requires pre-entry temperature checks. Visits are limited to a maximum ninety minutes. This may not rival the enjoyment of pre-pandemic visits, where people cluster and roam freely, but it is a way to keep the institution and its art alive and accessible in person without placing individuals at risk. The virus, social unrest and political dissent in our streets have also become powerful catalysts for new forms of cultural expression. Ironically, the kinds of difficulties and resistances we are experiencing here and globally are driving new ways of thinking about and producing culture and surely will remain with us into the future.

As I sit in Bloomington, I keep my many friends in Brazil and elsewhere close through Internet exchanges about what is happening. Culture is not just institutions but also the substance of our lives — whether we realize it or not. While I am prevented from traveling to do research at places like the Cinemateca in São Paulo, which is vital to my profession (and now has been closed down by the Bolsonaro government, without regard for its staff, who have gone unpaid for months, or for the safekeeping of the film collections), I have enrolled in an online seminar called Na Real _Virtual, with classes involving film showings, critical readings and live interviews with twelve documentary filmmakers. Contained physically by the virus and restrictions that now separate our two countries, I travel virtually to Brazil and with over 150 classmates participate in the production and transmission of artistic culture. Our seminar has become a microcosm of a world that seems almost to have ceased to exist. Like Macabéa, we seek knowledge and eagerly write our chat questions to film directors in the hopes that, among the many that are sent, ours will be answered. Technical difficulties sometimes block transmissions, but culture continues to circulate. We are caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment and while we are isolated at home, we nevertheless see one another’s names and sometimes faces flash on the screen. Our questions go out to the group at large; often, as we begin the sessions, chat greetings to all appear on the screen, as if we were meeting one another not online but on a busy street somewhere or even (heavens!) in a crowded indoor space. 

My writer-friends often say that despite the horrors of the pandemic, the isolation has made them even more productive. At the same time, bookstores that sell their and other works are collapsing in domino fashion, plagued not only by the virus but online titans like Amazon and heavy real estate prices. And while there is a modicum of solace in Internet book acquisitions, the loss of the physical entity, the knowledge it holds and imparts as well as the sense of community, cannot be equated to online perusals and purchases. In the U.S., bookstores had been closing at a rapid rate long before the pandemic arrived on our doorstep. New York City is a prime example of this. But there are moments when technology can stop the bleeding. In Bloomington we have a used bookstore called Caveat Emptor that has been in business for decades. When the owners announced they were going out of business after weeks under lockdown, the community rallied to its defense. Small and larger donations were sent to try to keep the business afloat. On the Internet, a donation site was created by the owners which offered a care package of books to be delivered to those who donated. My donation resulted in the delivery of eight books to my front door by a man with a mask riding a bicycle. On the site, I marked the categories of modern literature and mysteries/thrillers and received volumes by authors such as Anthony Trollope, John Galsworthy, L.R. Wright, and May Sarton. The bookstore was flooded with donations by a community that values books as well as the physical space we associate with the joy of browsing and finding new and known authors and books. However, there is a caveat; until the pandemic is controlled, keeping businesses afloat, such as bookstores and theaters (including our city’s beloved The Ryder Film Series and its free magazine), requires more than a one-time donation. 

Despite the current hardships created by a tenacious disease and social repression, and possibly because of them, the production of culture continues. I suspect the future of culture everywhere will be forever changed by the pandemic, which has made us more conscious of our need to reach out, connect and collaborate and, most importantly, never to be daunted by any attempt to keep us from the knowledge and personal growth that is not a luxury but a human right and necessity.  

The Italian Larry David; The Lotus Lantern and Luminaria Project

It is never too late to change your life. Citizens of the World, three Italians in their seventies, all single and looking for a change, decide to leave their beloved Rome and settle abroad. But where? A rash decision? – perhaps.
The Professor, retired after teaching Latin his whole life, is getting bored. Giorgetto, one of the last true Romans, struggles to make ends meet every month. Attilio, an antiques dealer, wants to experience once again the sense of adventure he had while traveling as a hippie-youth. Things will change for our three musketeers, but not quite as expected. Writer/director Gianni de Gregorio has been called “the Italian Larry David.” He also co-stars as “the Professor.”   90 min  / Italy / subtitled / 2020 Citizens of the World is one of four first-run Italian films playing this week in The Ryder’s virtual cinema, along with Martin Eden, The Mouth of the Wolf and Sicilia, all playing this week in our virtual theater.

image.png

If you have not seen it yet, here’s a link to the current issue of The Ryder magazine.

The Lotus Lantern and Luminaria Project

The Lotus Lantern and Luminaria Project is an initiative to bring the glow of lanterns to our Bloomington community, as the days shorten and the nights get longer. To celebrate lantern traditions from around the world, Lotus is working with a few lantern artists to create templates for building lanterns that can be used decoratively in homes and businesses, or on walks, to light the way.

The project is designed to be welcoming and inclusive by focusing on lantern customs that represent several different world traditions. Lotus will supply the materials and will hold workshops, to enable both live, physically-distanced participation and participation via online instruction. Sign up on Eventbrite for our workshops.

Every celebration needs its songs to go with it. Lotus will be posting the music and lyrics for a couple of lantern songs, by mid-November, ideally with a live rendition as well. Singing during the lantern walk will be done with masks on, as required for safety. We hope to have a couple of different groups involved in learning these.

On December 4, Lotus will host the inaugural Lotus Lantern Walk. People who have built a lantern will be invited on a walk that begins at the Lotus Firebay, where they can pick up a free LED tea light candle. From the Lotus Firebay, we’ll head to the B-line, and continues to either the Showers Plaza or the Monroe County Courthouse (exact path TBD).

LIVE Author Talk with Rob Harrell
Join Morgenstern Books for another live author talk this Friday @ 5PM with cartoonist and graphic novelist, Rob Harrell. His most recent graphic novel Wink is hilarious, heart-wrenching story about surviving middle school with an unthinkable diagnosis, while embracing life’s weirdness. It’s based on Rob Harrell’s real life experience and is packed with comic panels and spot art. Rob Harrell also created and drew the internationally syndicated comic strip Big Top, Life of Zarf, as well as the acclaimed graphic novel Monster on the Hill. He also writes and draws the long-running daily comic strip Adam@HomeLearn more: Facebook event

The Covered Bridges of Parke County

Cycling in the Hoosier Heartland

By Mason Cassady

Sometimes I wonder, what does it mean to be a Hoosier?

Perhaps a futile question to ask as there is certainly more than one answer. Hoosier-ness could be found in a variety of things: Teeth-deep in the flavors of sweet corn off the cob on a summer night. Skippin’ rocks with a pal at your favorite local swimmin’ hole. It could be experienced in the hot mess of the Indy 500, chock-full of Budweiser and fried food. Maybe it’s seen in red barns on a backroad in autumn. Or it could be found in a forest hike searching for morels or chanterelles. Maybe it exists in the fruit of pawpaw and persimmon trees.

One avenue down Hoosier lane is Parke County, Indiana, the uncontested Covered Bridge Capital of the World, where a whopping 31 covered bridges stand today (Putnam County with nine is the second highest in the state). With such a large number of historic bridges in Parke County, it only makes sense to hold a Covered Bridge Festival every year. As leaf-peeping season takes off in October, visitors from around the world flock to Parke County. To my surprise, organizers say that the festival attracts up to 2 million annual visitors. As with much else in the year of COVID-19, the festival (which would have been the 64th) has been cancelled. That said, the bridges are still open to those who would like to make their own trip.

In my quest to uncover more qualities, character, and sentiments of being a Hoosier, I drove northwest from Bloomington with my bicycle in tow to tour this little corner of Indiana. Along the way, I visited restaurants and bars, talked with locals, camped at parks and perused antique shops in hopes of finding more answers to a uniquely Indiana question: What in the heck does it mean to be a Hoosier?

Night 1: Route Planning in Rockville

I arrived at Rockville, the recommended starting point for visitors. The county seat, Rockville is smack-dab in the heart of Parke county. The population is roughly 3,000 people and the layout includes an attractive town square, a picture-worthy limestone courthouse, a handful of eateries, antique shops and the historic Ritz Theatre. Rockville is home to the Old Jail Inn, where guests can Spend The Night Behind Bars. Nine cells have been turned into guest rooms named after fabled criminals such as Jesse James. Below the cells is the Drunk Tank Winery, where guests can do as the title says in their pseudo night in jail.

First on my to-do list was to pick up a color-coded map at the Rockville Visitor Center. Some route planning for my bicycle bridge odyssey was in order, so I went to the Thirty-Six Saloon, a local biker bar for grub and while I looked at the map. I sat in the Hog Pitsection, an offshoot of the main restaurant. Nascar memorabilia, taxidermy and neon signs lined the walls. I asked the bartender what he likes, and he said “I’m all about that Biker-Babe burger, which is topped with brisket, pepper jack, fried onion straws, fried pickles, all smothered in BBQ sauce…” I replied, “you had me at Biker-Babe, I’ll take that and a Budweiser.” I was tempted to order an appetizer called Hog Turds but I don’t think I would have lived to tell this story. As I devoured the burger, the luscious lyrics of Cardi B in the song WAP poured out through the speakers while a boozed-up biker chick danced her boots off in the middle of the bar. I reveled in the moment as I thought to myself, if I could choose to be anywhere in the world right now, it is right here. As I finished my WAB (wet ass burger), I found home for the night at a campsite within the Rockville Lake Park, a 400-acre facility just a couple miles from the town square.

Day 1

My Routes: sections of Blue, Yellow and Brown

Distance Covered: 50 miles

Bridges Visited: Narrows, Cox Ford, Wilkins Mill, Jackson, West Union, Melcher (6)

Other Highlights: Turkey Run State Park, Sugar Creek, Turkey Run Gas & Grill, and Bar Cooler Pub & Grill

Soon after I woke up from camping, I needed fuel for the road ahead. Coffee and donuts were the first obvious choice so I ventured down to Wheelhouse Donuts right away. I follow a basic American donut shop principle: never order just one and so I went glaze, Maple Nut, and the Cereal Special (Vanilla cake donut, strawberry icing, fruity pebbles). One hot cup of creamy coffee to wash it down and I was off like Dorthy in the Wizard of Oz, singing and pedaling to discover the bridges of Parke County. Most visitors of the Covered Bridge Festival travel by car, some by motorcycle and few go by bicycle. I am one of those few.

My first day consisted of exploring bridges north of Rockville and so I cycled on the Blue Route on Marshall Road. As I biked along country roads, between fields of corn and soy, it gave an image of scenes from Bloomington’s cult classic film Breaking Away. As a cyclist in a car-centric country, I felt a bit like Dave Stohler, the main character who is obsessed with Italy and at odds with his traditional father. In this situation, I as the young bicycle rider and Parke County as the traditional, conservative, “my way or the highway” father figure. (Makes sense?)

Within an hour, I found myself at the first covered bridge on my route: Narrows Bridge. This bridge stands above Sugar Creek on the eastern edge of Turkey Run State Park. Built in 1882, it is considered by many the most scenic of them all. I walked about the bridge and peered out through windows with a nice view of sugar creek. Families in kayaks and canoes floated down the river one by one, giving me another activity found in the Hoosier way.

Westward ho, I biked alongside Turkey Run State Park on IN-47. This is a beautiful stretch of road where the initial signs of autumn ignited leaves on throughout forest foliage and gave way to yellows, oranges and reds. As if covered bridges weren’t enough to bring you to Parke County, the addition of fall colors at festival time round out the experience. Can I get an amen? Or, actually, I’ll just take a Pumpkin Spice Latte from my neighborhood Starbucks.

Not far away, I reached two more bridges, Cox Ford and Wilkins Mill. I gave a quick glance at the two bridges and creeks below. Interesting as they were, I gave more time for a favorite Hoosier pastime: searching for pawpaws. Colloquially known as the Indiana Banana, are unique in that they are the only member of their plant family growing outside of the tropics. Out of luck on the fruit hunt, I pedaled forth into a sunny Hoosier day.

As I approached the small town of Sylvania, I took a left to go south where the Yellow and Blue routes join. A couple miles down the road and I was at Jackson Bridge, the longest single span covered bridge in Indiana. This bridge is painted white while many bridges are painted red. If that doesn’t knock your socks off, I don’t know what will. From there, I continued cycling and found myself at the West Union bridge, which is the longest two span covered bridge in Parke County at 315 feet.

Around lunchtime, I neared the town of Montezuma which is named after the last Aztec emperor of Mexico. I was in need of food and drink so a quick look at the map, and I found a place called Bar Cooler Pub & Grill, just across the Wabash river in Vermillion County. As I swung the doors open, it was as if time reversed with my steps into the tavern. Four older men playing billiards looked at me with a “who’s this guy” facial expression as I found a seat at the end of the bar. Dark and reeking of tobacco smoke, the barkeep said, “Whatcha havin’?” I looked up and down the fridge and replied “Give me a Miller High Life.” I began to look the menu over while a middle-aged man seated next to me gave a rundown of the menu items. Head-to-toe in a Trump hat, camo shirt and jeans, the guy was very friendly which caused a slight short circuit in my brain due to the arrogant and gut-wrenching behavior of the guy on his hat.

Among catfish and other things, I chose a classic Hoosier sandwich: the pork tenderloin. And in typical Hoosier fashion, the pork was about as round as a volleyball with a bun the fraction of the size. As I inhaled the sandwich, the man and his friends told me about the Newport Hillclimb, another popular festival in the region. From my understanding, the event consists of classic cars racing up a hill. My bar mate bought me another Miller High Life, and I teetered back to my bicycle to ride 10-some miles back to Rockport.

Along the way, I came across Melcher bridge on Strawberry road with three other names: Klondyke, Marion and Leatherwood.

READ MORE

Belarus or Bust

One Hundred Forty-Three Down, Fifty to Go

By John Linnemeier 

The world is a book and those who don’t travel read only one page. 

–St. Augustine 

A person’s lifespan is long. But it’s not endless.  The earth is immense. But it’s not infinite.  If you start early enough and make it your goal to see all 193 countries, it’s doable.  At 75, I’m unlikely to make it, but there’s a small band of travelers who are attempting to see them all, and they’re a darned interesting bunch.  All have incredible stories to tell, and all have been places you haven’t. You’re more likely to run into them in Djibouti or Somaliland than Paris or Mumbai.   

Belarus is a tiny, off-the-beaten-track, landlocked country of 9.5 million, bordered by Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. It probably isn’t on most people’s bucket list, though perhaps it should be.  I chose to visit, for three reasons:

  1. I’d never been there 

(B) Demonstrations aimed at toppling Alexander Lukashenko, the man who’s been called Europe’s last dictator, were ongoing, so I might see a historical moment. 

(C) Due to the pandemic, it was one of only 20 countries Americans could visit. 

Researching a trip is just another aspect of travel that I’ve learned to savor.  While attempting to better understand the country I was about to visit, I discovered a marvelous book, Voices from Chernobyl, by Belarus’s Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich.  The twenty stories narrated in the survivors’ own words gave me valuable insights into Belarusians’ character and their willingness to sacrifice and accept hardship. 

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor is located in Ukraine, but since Belarus is downwind, it received the brunt? of the deadly radioactive damage.  Even today a third of the land in Belarus has high levels of radioactivity.  There’s a joke here that after Chernobyl you can eat anything you want,  – but you have to bury your own shit in lead.  

I’d read that for $650 I could take a tour of the affected area, but weighing the pros and cons, I decided against it. Belarus is quite affordable, and there are far more pleasant ways to stretch a dollar in Minsk.

For under $100 I booked myself into the best hotel in the capital, a gorgeous ten story fin de siècle confection, that like most of Minsk was completely rebuilt after having been blown to smithereens during the ”Great Patriotic War.”  After several long arduous flights –including an overnight stop in Istanbul in the world’s largest terminal– I arrived at the pocket-sized Minsk airport, where I was shocked to find virtually everyone… maskless!  It may come as a shock to many people, but since Covid-19 began, Belarus has never shut down a single school or business, and no one has ever been required to wear a protective mask, though a few choose to. 

Their Covid-19 deaths per million are roughly one seventh ours.  Make of it what you will.

A gentleman in a Mercedes, who spoke not a word of English, picked me up at the airport and drove me through fertile gently rolling farmland into the heart of the spotlessly clean capital city of Minsk.  Every night the streets are washed down by large noisy trucks, and during the day uniformed babushkas bustle about in an attempt to sweep up non-existent trash.  

In Belarus it’s easy to break out of the tourist bubble since tourists hardly exist.  For my first three days at the Europa Hotel I actually thought I was the only guest. That’s not to say that Belarus is cut off from the world.  Many people speak English.  You can watch CNN, RT, Nickelodeon or the BBC any time of the day or night, and internet speed is super-fast.  There’s even a booming IT sector.  The hugely successful massively multiplayer online game, “World of Tanks,” was created at a nearby technical park by a Belarusian company named Wargaming.  All support for it is done locally. President Lukashenko once appeared to gloat when a multi-million-dollar hack was discovered to have originated in Belarus and he said, “Of course we abhor such activity, but one can’t help but be impressed that our people are capable of such things.”  

I developed a real fondness for this miniscule country and its noble citizenry.

Belarusians know far more about us than we know about them.  I could have watched demonstrators stream below my balcony while listening to Westerners comment on politicians and reporters ejected from the country and demonstrators arrested by the police… all from the comfort of my luxurious hotel room… I detected no censorship. 

Curiosity about the demonstrations aimed at unseating Lukashenko hadn’t been the main reason I’d chosen to visit this small nation bereft of snowcapped mountains, ancient ruins, tropical reefs, or ferocious wild animals–the kinds of things that ordinarily draw visitors to a place–but since I was here, why not check it out?  

Despite my deteriorating physical condition, I was looking for trouble, and not having much luck finding it.  For the first several days all seemed to be peaceful and quiet, though to compensate, the food was scrumptious and the women were smoking hot.  What I hadn’t yet realized was that demonstrations in Belarus are a Sunday activity.  Walking around town on a Saturday I thought I’d survey how many people were wearing masks.  By my count out of 193, only 3 were wearing one, and that included a schoolyard full of kids. 

By Sunday morning, crowds were beginning to form, and I could hear supportive horns honking, so I decided to hit the streets.  The concerned young woman at the desk advised me to stay clear of riot police, and I assured her I would.  First though, I wanted to dive into a hearty Belarusian breakfast of eggs, cabbage, bacon and pickles, washed down with a strong cup of coffee, served up by a typically gorgeous young waitress.  

Fortified, I was prepared to face the challenge of the new day. 

The demonstrators were a joyful bunch.  There was a sea of colorful red and white flags that have come to symbolize the rebellion, with several signs lauding a local grandmother who’d achieved celebrity through a picture of her tussling with several oversized riot police.  A couple of people were dressed as dinosaurs, meant to mock the man many Belarussians see as a relic from another era. 

From my limited point of view, he didn’t appear to be one of those dictators who requires all businesses to display his photo, nor are there statues of him on every corner, striking heroic poses.  I’ve seen worse.  Working in Iran during the reign of the Shah before the revolution, I observed what had seemed to be universal adoration turn to disgust and hatred for the same man when he looked like he was on the way out.  It made me more cautious in judging how much weight to give to the support people claim to have for any strongman in a dictatorship.  There’s a calculation that goes on in most people’s heads… you don’t want to be on the losing side. 

As I walked along with the happy throng, I was approached several times and politely asked where I was from and what I was doing here.  When I told them people I was American, they were both amazed and delighted.  They all thanked me profusely for taking an interest in their struggle.  When I pressed them to explain their objectives I never heard anything other than a desire to be rid of an odious dictator.  They never spoke of joining the EU or NATO, nor did I detect any pro or anti-Russian sentiment. Surprising to me, I didn’t see any support for Sviatlana Heorhiyeuna Tsikhanouskaya (maybe they couldn’t fit it all on a protest poster,) the runner up to Lukashenko in the most recent election. What I did hear over and over again was that they saw themselves as a unique people, with their own language, history (way too convoluted to explore here!), customs and heroes.  They wanted to go their own way… independent and free from alliances with any particular camp and their over-arching agendas.  

I told them I agreed with them totally but feared that the great powers would attempt to co-opt their revolution.

As I marched along, I noticed something peculiar.  Along the main drag was a small coffee shop with customers lined up out the door and around the block.  Curious, I peeled off from the river of demonstrators and made inquiries with the apparently caffeine-starved line-standers (none of whom, incidentally, were observing social distancing).  They informed me that the café doors had been smashed-in by the cops, and everyone wanted to make sure that the owner wouldn’t suffer any financial loss.  

I was beginning to develop a real fondness for this miniscule country and its noble citizenry.

I witnessed one shocking event. As I was walking along with the ebullient but peaceful crowd, I heard a tremendous commotion and everyone began running away fearfully.  In no more than fifteen seconds several heavy-duty trucks erected a substantial twenty-foot barrier that totally blocked off an intersection…an amazing display, and very intimidating.  Safely back in my hotel room I turned on BBC to discover that a dozen demonstrators had been seized by police and some dissident had been detained at the Lithuanian border.  It didn’t appear to me that Lukashenko was about to fall any time soon, though circumstances change and I could easily be wrong. 

By Monday the city was calm again, so on my last full day, I visited the massive WW2 (referred to in Belarus, as in Russia, as the “Great Patriotic War”) Museum.  It’s impossible to overemphasize the effect that great cataclysm had on this land and its people.  They paid far more than their share of the butcher’s bill.  During the Second World War the US suffered four hundred thousand casualties, while twenty-six million Soviets, who included Belarussians at the time, died during the same conflict.  In other words, for every American causality, sixty-five Soviets died.  Patriotism runs deep in this part of the world. 

I noticed an imposing war monument in front of the museum where a press conference was being held.  Some VIP was speaking to half a dozen TV cameras.  Curious, I sidled up to the crowd and asked what was going on.  An attractive middle-aged woman who spoke excellent English informed me that the VIP was the Russian ambassador to Belarus who was speaking on the anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad.  I assume the underlying motivation for the speech was to emphasize the historic bond between these two countries that would be a shame to compromise regardless of whatever happened as a result of the current unrest.   

I guess I looked like I might be a threat to the Russian Federation since two burly goons, obviously packing heat, peeled off from the ambassador’s entourage and began aggressively snapping away at me with their cameras.  At my age I felt flattered to be deemed a threat to anything. And with that, my journey was complete: Not only had I finally found trouble, but I was the trouble. Nostrovia, goons!

[editor’s note: John Linnemeier’s book, How an Average Man Lived an Adventurous Life, is a must read for average people everywhere. Even for those of you who are slightly above average. In 2016, John ran for Mayor of Bloomington.] 

A Fable of Capitalism in a New West:

 Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow

By Tom Prasch

[editor’s note: The IU Cinema hosted Kelly Reichardt in 2016.   Her new film, First Cow, is streaming on Netflix.]

As King-Lu, the well-traveled Chinese immigrant (he tells tales of London and Egypt and Canton), leads Cookie, the chef who saved him from pursuing Russians (“I might have killed one of their friends,” King-Lu ambiguously confessed earlier), back to his cabin a mile distant from the territorial fort that marks the early creep of civilization into Oregon territory, to share a bottle (but Cookie will end up staying, a partner and ally at the margins), stopping now and then along the way to pluck squished squirrels from his primitive traps (rocks balanced over twigs, waiting to crash down on whatever passes), he waxes philosophical, as he tends to do: “I see something in this land I haven’t seen before. Pretty much everything has been touched by man. But this is still new. More nameless things around here than you can shake an eel at.” Cookie doesn’t quite see things that way: “Doesn’t seem new to me. Seems old.” “Well, everything’s old,” King-Lu concedes, “if you look at it that way.”

But King-Lu is not about to let that interfere with his vision: “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but we got here early this time. Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms.” Dreams of beating history, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt argues in First Cow, are what Western settlement is made of. And such dreams, she notes as well, albeit wryly, with a comic sensibility, with deep empathy for her downtrodden pair of wannabe heroes, are doomed to be dashed.

We know that from the film’s outset, from its present-set first scene, when, in the barren mudflats alongside a river, a nameless woman and her dog—the dog really gets, to be fair, most of the credit—unearths a pair of skeletons, side by side, less buried than just covered over by time’s mud. As soon as the bones are uncovered, the movie shifts us back nearly two centuries, when the site was far more lush, and when hapless Cookie, a hole in one of his shoes (that bare toe the first we see of him), hunts for mushrooms. He is the cook bound to an expedition of ill-tempered beaver trappers (“soft gold,” they call those pelts) a few days out from Fort Tillikum, and however talented he may be at finding fungi, he’s not particularly good at his broader job, as one of the disgruntled trappers reminds him: “It’s the Cookie’s job to improvise. This is a land of abundance … and you are charged with finding our vittles until we reach Fort Tillikum.” There was a “digger squirrel,” Cookie says, but he got away; when we watch Cookie net-fishing at a river full of leaping salmon, we can sort of see how that might have happened. And that night, as the trappers snore in their sleep, Cookie is out foraging for something more when he meets King-Lu, hides him from those Russians and his trapper companions, and creates the bond that will be renewed when they re-encounter each other in the fort’s tavern. 

History isn’t here yet. It’s coming.

“I didn’t know there was Chinese in these parts,” Cookie observes when he first meets King-Lu. “Everyone is here,” he responds. “We all want that soft gold.” And indeed, as we see when Cookie’s party arrives at the fort, everyone is indeed there. The trappers. Chinook Indians, wearing the woven cedar-bark capes and hats that serve so well as raingear in the wet climes; it’s so useful an item of apparel, some of the white settlers adopt it as well. English authorities coming from Canada administer the fort; one of the men at the bar mockingly says, “The Chief Factor wants milk in his tea, like a proper English gentleman,” which gets a round of laughter all around. But the RWP flag over the fort, and the denomination of the local scrip that gets gambled at the tavern (“One Pound Sterling” offered by the “Royal Western Pacific Trading Company”) suggest the British stakes are high. But Americans like Cookie (who learned his baking skills when apprentice in Boston) and his trapper crew seem increasingly dominant. At least one black man, his presence unexplained but unquestioned. King-Lu hails from northern China, coming via Canton. There are those Russians as well. 

The key for Reichardt, as for all this assorted crew: this is not Oregon yet. It could be anything. All that nameless stuff King-Lu “can’t shake an eel at” (who shakes eels, anyway?) will come to be named, but at this point it could still be anything. And anybody’s.

This is the stuff that King-Lu’s ever-changing dreams are made of: linking this unsettled place into worldwide networks of trade. “Furs are fine,” he tells Cookie, “but there’s a precious oil in the beaver, too. That’s worth something in China…. If a man could take a batch of that precious beaver oil on a ship to Canton, he could make his fortune.” “What I’d really like is a farm,” he tells Cookie a bit later. “The world wants filberts. Or walnuts. Or almonds.” Cookie has a more consistent dream: “I’d like to run a hotel someday…. Or a bakery.” King-Lu is willing to sign on to that dream, too. But for all of it, there is a problem: “It’s the getting started that’s the puzzle. No way for a poor man to start. You need capital,” King-Lu explains. “Leverage,” Cookie echoes. “Or a crime,” King-Lu foretellingly adds.

The spare story that First Cow tells amounts to a fable of capitalism, complete with downbeat moral, linked to the titular beast, the first cow brought to the territory (we, along with a half-dozen silent Chinook, watched it arrive, brought by poled raft across the river), and to what can be done with its milk. Cookie tells King-Lu one day: “Saw the cow today. It wasn’t far from Chief Factor’s house…. I’d like some of that milk.” “I’m not a milk drinker,” King-Lu responds, “It doesn’t agree with me. “I wouldn’t drink it,” Cookie insists, “I’d use it. For cookies, or scones. Nothing better’n buttermilk biscuits. I’m tired of this flour-and-water bread.” With the milk they filch that night (Cookie chats with the cow as he milks her), Cookie cooks up his first batch of “oily cakes,” and the ever-enterprising King-Lu wonders, “How much do you think someone would pay for a biscuit like that?” So, with their next night’s filching, they head up to the fort to sell their goods (“Secret Chinese ingredient,” King-Lu insists to mislead inquiries), and they sell like…

Well, you know what they sell like. (If you can’t guess, see pretty much any review of the film.) But that creates a problem: the product is so popular, they need to make more. To make more, they need to steal more. “Another cup is another dozen cakes. That’s another 60 silver pieces at least,” always-bigger-dreaming King-Lu tells Cookie, the last night they go a-thieving from the cow. Meanwhile, the Chief Factor already laments how unproductive his cow has become; barely enough cream for him to serve tea to visitors. The gambit will only last, King-Lu recognizes: “There’ll get tired of it, and there will be more milk cows here soon.” Or they will get caught. But meanwhile, “We got a window here, Cookie,” and the two need to make the best of their moment.

It’s a spare sort of fable, barely enough plot to fill a film, but it’s not really story Reichardt is interested in anyway. Two other interests center her focus. First, she is fascinated with the material culture of early settlement, and she lingers with an anthropologist’s delight over those cedar capes and the trappers’ fringed leathers, over the stone tools used to split open nuts, the mix of scrip and beads and sometimes cut-apart coins that constitute currency, the ceramic cups whisky gets served in at the bar, the range of foraged foods Cookie can come up with, the assorted goods hawked outside the fort’s wooden palisade (oysters and clams and tobacco chews and the new, or at least less used, boots on which Cookie spends his first coins). Second, she focuses on the friendship that develops between Cookie and King-Lu, spawned by accident but developed over common interest and congenial camaraderie. That theme of friendship Reichardt signals in an epigraph borrowed from William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” But that’s a deeply ambiguous epigram, if you think about it; a nest and a web are not exactly the same thing, and which friendship might be is an open question. Blake’s proverbs—from his Marriage of Heaven and Hell—are, indeed, all about paradox and ambiguity, so we should expect nothing less here.

Meanwhile, the fable is spun out, and you can guess where all of it leads. You don’t, in fact, need to guess, because the film’s first scene gave that away (although it’s one of Reichardt’s true feats that we have almost forgotten the fact by the time we get there). As King-Lu lies down beside Cookie on the bank, Cookie tells one last, deeply appropriate joke: “What do a baker and a beggar have in common? They both need [knead] bread.” We are brought back to King-Lu’s observation about what all their dreams need, and lack, for fulfillment.

For, finally: if territorial Oregon is open possibilities, unnamed things, a realm of anything, the direction of the film, like that of Oregon’s historical future, constitutes the closing off of options, a set of exclusions and narrowings and shuttings-down. It is a winnowing as well, the trimming of that abundance into something less. Captain Rudy, Chief Factor’s house guest, already sees it, noting of the trappers: “they’re tapping out the whole country. There won’t be any pelts much longer.” The Chief Factor may think “The beaver here are endless,” but we know he’s wrong. The Russians already report the vanishing of the elk. The salmon-thick stream will soon be tapped. That is the history King-Lu sees approaching. It will no longer possibly be Russian or Canadian territory; it will no longer be possessed by its Chinook first inhabitants. It will no longer be the place of King-Lu’s, or even Cookie’s, dreams. But such sweet dreams those nevertheless are.

1 2 3 4 25