Virtual Film Screenings

We mentioned earlier this week that we have been talking to film distributors about creative ways to bring films to Bloomington in this time of social distancing. We’re happy to report that we have rescheduled three films that were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.   We will be hosting virtual screenings of Once Were Brothers, The Whistlers and Corpus Christi. You can see Once Were Brothers and The Whistlers right now; Corpus Christi will open next weekend. You can scroll down to read more about each film.

Here’s a heads up: these films are priced at $12. At first look, this might seem more expensive than a typical Ryder movie. That said, some of you – perhaps most of you – will be watching the film with one other person. Actually, that $12 ticket price would cover as many people as you can fit on your couch. In any event, ticket pricing is determined by the distributor.  And consequently Ryder semester passes will not work. We will offer pro-rated refunds or credit toward another semester pass as soon as we begin screening films in person again.  

We are not suggesting that virtual screenings can ever replace the communal experience of watching a film in a theater. But there are certain advantages. Chances are there is plenty of free parking in your driveway. You can take your shoes off. Hey, you can take all of your clothes off. And there’s no gum on the seats! At least we hope not.

Stay safe. Be smart. Chins up.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band Anyone who was a fan of The Band or has an interest in Americana will want to see Once Were Brothers. The story of Bob Dylan’s one time legendary backup band is a colorful, cautionary tale. Simply called The Band, they would become one of the most influential ensembles in music history. Robbie Robertson serves as tour guide. Interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Martin Scorsese, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and George Harrison are combined with a terrific storytelling arc, a treasure trove of archival footage and, naturally, those iconic songs.

The Whistlers In a delightful twist, acclaimed Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose inventive comedies such as Police, Adjective and The Treasure have brought deadpan charm and political perceptiveness to his country’s cinematic renaissance, has made his first all-out genre film—a clever, swift, and elegant neo-noir with a wonderfully off-kilter central conceit.

Bucharest police detective Cristi is equally at home on both sides of the law. He is simultaneously investigating, and involved in, an ingenious criminal scheme involving a stash of Euros hidden in a mattress and a sultry femme fatale named, of course, Gilda. His investigation takes him to one of the Canary Islands, where he learns a clandestine, tribal language, comprised entirely out of whistling. This secret method of communication will keep his superiors off his trail.  The eternally stoic Vlad Ivanov stars in Corneliu Porumboiu’s take on the crime drama furthers his explorations of the intricacies and limitations of language, but is also his most playful, even exuberant, film.

If the Coen Brothers were Romanian, they might have made The Whistlers. –A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) After spending years in a Warsaw juvenile prison, 20-year-old Daniel is released and sent to a remote village to work in a sawmill. But Daniel has a higher calling. Over the course of his incarceration he has found Christ, and aspires to join the clergy – but his criminal record means no seminary will accept him. When Daniel arrives in town, one quick lie allows him to be mistaken for the town’s new priest, and he sets about leading his newfound flock. Though he has no training, his passion and charisma inspire the community. At the same time, his unconventional sermons and unpriestly behavior raise suspicions among some of the townsfolk – even more so as he edges towards a dark secret that the community hasn’t revealed in the confessional booth. Academy Award Nominee: Best International Feature Film

why the ryder needs your support

Our business plan for the past 40 years has been pretty simple: the magazine would always be free and supported by paid advertising. That formula is no longer possible. We have suspended publication of our print edition during the pandemic. We will continue to publish electronically – but without paid advertising. The display ads that you will see when you flip through the current issue of the magazine are published at no cost to the advertiser. And while it is true that by publishing electronically we are avoiding a printing bill, we do have other monthly expenses.

The Ryder Film Series, which in the past has supported the magazine during lean times (the 2008 recession comes to mind), has financial challenges of its own. (Watching films in our virtual theater is a nice alternative while we shelter-in-place, but it will never replace the experience of watching a film in a theater with friends and neighbors; virtual ticket sales reflect the difference.)

And so if you read an article that you like or just want to support locally produced, independent journalism, please consider making a donation. With your donation to The Ryder, you can designate a community organization of your choice and we can reciprocate, in a small way, by offering them complimentary space in the magazine to promote their own project or fundraiser. No amount is too small. A donation of any amount is greatly appreciated.

Ryder: January/February 2020

Our critics look back at the past year and the best in music, film, books and television and David Brent Johnson writes about the Replacements.

If we’re all ultimately alone, some of us feel a little less alone when we listen to the Replacements.   We are them for a while, and they are us—just for the duration of a pop song, but that’s a three-minute lifetime, dammit.  Our little internal dramas, our inchoate home movies of the soul, gain a soundtrack that makes it all cohere into meaningful feeling. Matches struck in the darkness, cigarettes shared in the existential alley. 

Here’s a link to the issue

Bob Zaltsberg: the Ryder interview

Look Who’s Talking:


After 33 years, Bob Zaltsberg retired as editor of the Herald-Times. Former city councilman Tim Mayer sat down and talked with Bob about his teenage years in a small Indiana town, his time at the H-T, and the future of journalism

Photo by Jeremy Hogan

The old saying “we went to different high schools together” best describes my relationship with Bob Zaltsberg. Bob recently retired after 33 years as editor of the Herald-Times. I had retired from Bloomington’s City Council in 2017 after serving many years.

Before the internet, our friendship was limited to telephone or office visits about H-T stories and editorials. Our conversations shifted to email with the advent of electronic communication. My friend always listened to my concerns and compliments with great respect and understanding. I learned a lot from him.

When I was approached to do this interview, I welcomed the opportunity. We met, one Thursday afternoon, at the Uptown Cafe for coffee and conversation. I learned a great deal more about Bob and hope you will too.

Tim Mayer: Why don’t you tell us a little about how you got from Winchester, Indiana to Bloomington?

Bob Zaltsberg: I went from Winchester to Oxford, Ohio. I was an English major and I thought I wanted to get into radio. I always liked the whole current events thing. I did some dabbling in radio classes. I had an emphasis in journalism so I did some journalism classes. For a variety of reasons the newspaper thing seemed like a better fit for me. I wasn’t really that good at, or thrilled with, the radio stuff.

So I got a degree in English but my emphasis was on media; I wanted to get a newspaper job. My first job was a twice-weekly paper in Plainfield, Indiana. I had a friend on the staff here in Bloomington named Phil Coffin, who still is a copy editor with the New York Times. Phil and I were former roommates at Miami and he called me one night and said, “a job has opened down here in Bloomington–you might want to apply for it.”  I applied for it and so here I am. This was shortly after Watergate.

The next logical step from here was always Louisville; the Courier Journal and the Louisville Times were great papers. Phil, had moved on to Louisville. So I thought maybe I’ll do that. But before I got the opportunity, the managers here in Bloomington said “we’ve got our eye on you to be editor of the paper in the next 3-5 years.”

It actually was about 2 years later. Bill Schrader was my mentor and a great news man. I learned a whole lot from him, he was a nice guy. There were people in Bloomington, because he was a conservative, that probably didn’t have a lot of great things to say about the job he did but I think the people who were in government and in the business community probably did really appreciate the work he did. I didn’t realize how good he was until I’d been in the job for a few years.

TM: I’ve heard you talk about your parent’s department store in Winchester, Indiana. How you started working there as a teen and how the advent of a shopping mall at the edge of town forced the closing of your parent’s store. I wondered how you thought about Bloomington’s growth and development downtown and on both the East and West sides of our community. And, the impact it has had on Bloomington overall.

BZ: I think that Bloomington was in the same situation in a lot of ways that a lot of downtowns were in the 1970s. A lot of the retailers were starting to go elsewhere, College Mall, Kmart on the west side. At that point the group and the City under [then Mayor] Tomi [Allison] and the County Government, they all really got together and created this synergy downtown. As the small town kid who grew up in a department store on a downtown Indiana square, I was all for it. I think local business and a thriving downtown are just absolutely crucial to a place where I would want to be. I think that’s true for many other people.

The obvious follow-up is what about now? I still think it’s a fabulous downtown even though it’s had some growing pains. All the people that have moved in, the university, high-end apartments and all that, all the growing pains. But oh my goodness, the energy in downtown Bloomington, compared to a lot of cities, it’s just fantastic. My brother was in town from Orlando the other day and he was really taken just by what downtown looks like and how much activity there is.

TM: We took a trip up to Lake Michigan, sometime in the summer. We get up around Michigan City. There’s a city that did it wrong from the beginning. They built a consumer mall on the edge of town, and they certainly turned their main drag into a pedestrian road and just killed it.

BZ: I don’t know what Burlington, Vermont is like today, but they’ve made a lot of their downtown into a pedestrian mall. They relocated their big box stores to the outskirts of town, way out. I haven’t been there in years, but the one time I did visit I really appreciated how they had planned: “we’re not going to say no to these big box stores, we’re gonna put them in a place where they don’t really affect downtown Burlington.”

TM: When Sue and I moved to Bloomington we had a five month old son, it was in January 1968, and at that time State Road 37 was a two lane highway, both north and south out of Bloomington. A trip to Indianapolis was dangerous. I almost ran over a concrete block in the middle a lane one time. Over time SR 37 was divided and made limited access. In the 80s, the discussion to build Interstate 69 began in earnest and the lines were drawn between those for and those against. The H-T was on the side of “build the highway.”  It was a difficult decision for you to find yourself in, and now that it’s here and what are your feelings and what do you see for Bloomington’s future and our special relationship to Indianapolis and are we becoming a community to Indy?

BZ: I personally was never too concerned about whether the highway was or wasn’t built. I thought Bloomington would thrive and survive whether there was I-69 or not. Our newspaper’s editorial position was always in favor of I-69–a lot of decisions are made by our editorial board, The ownership–Scott Schurz and the Schurz family–they were strongly in favor of the highway. I was personally ambivalent about it, but I didn’t see the significant harm some people thought it might be. I did agree with the values that might come with it. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the cost-benefit analysis and all that. I’ll leave that to people like Andy [Ruff]. I admired the people that fought against it but as a newspaper and looking out for our editorial board position we thought it was the best thing that could happen for Bloomington.

We won’t know, until twenty to thirty years from now. But people fought I-37, the 4 lane, when it was going to be built. People fought Lake Monroe when it was going to be built. And those things all turned out to be the right decision. As part of the editorial board at the time, I was confident that if the decision was made it wouldn’t be the wrong decision. I was just, as I said, kind of ambivalent. I thought Bloomington was going to be a great place to live and be no matter what. I love to be able to get on the highway on the outside of town and get to Martinsville in just 15 minutes. I love to be able to get to Evansville, personally, in two hours. And I see the great benefit of being able to get to the Indianapolis Airport and Indianapolis in a shorter amount of time.

As far as whether we’re becoming a bedroom community of Indianapolis; I don’t think so. I think we’re always going to be apart from Indianapolis and every other city in the state of Indiana. There are a lot of people that drive to Indianapolis and it will make it easier. But it will make also make it easier for people that live in Indy that want to drive over here. Not a very deep answer, might be controversial to some. I didn’t have to lose my house or my farm because of it either. I took a broader view, I did my job and we evaluated it as a newspaper and as an editorial board. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the greater community. I think it’s a good thing.

TM: For a number of years you were the moderator for the Ivy Tech O’Bannon Institute’s “Conversations” event. You had an opportunity to meet and interview some really interesting people. George McGovern in 2007, Paul Begala in 2008, Eugene Robinson in 2009, Arianna Huffington in 2010, Richard Dreyfuss in 2011, Cokie Roberts in 2012, Judy O’Bannon in 2013, John R. Whikehart in 2014, and Shiza Shahid in 2015. I must admit that the Richard Dreyfuss interview stands out to me. But I don’t want to step on your story. Can you share some of your impressions from those interviews?

BZ: Absolutely! The Richard Dreyfuss interview was the worst interview I’ve ever done because all I got to do was ask one question and basically RIchard just took over and did a soliloquy on the stage. It was great from a standpoint of just sitting back and watching; it made the job really easy. But, Richard was just an unusual character. It was enjoyable though.

With the rest of those interviews I got more comfortable, you know with repetition you get more comfortable. I’m sure the interviews I did with people like Cokie Roberts, she was great. She was so much fun to talk to, and I was able to meet her where she was, she’s a journalist and I’m a journalist. While she’s a world famous journalist, I felt like I could handle myself and talk to her about it. So it was really fun for me to get to talk to her.

George McGovern was one of my all-time heroes. I did a column a few years ago. I called the county clerk’s office in Randolph County, Winchester to find out how many Democrats voted for McGovern in 1972. Because I was one of them, but I wondered how many other people voted for him. And I was kind of surprised to find out it was something like 2700 or 1700 or something. So it was certainly in the thousands, but he still lost by like 65% to 35% in Randolph County, which is a very Republican county.

Arianna Huffington was a hoot to talk to because she was interesting and she was so cutting edge with the Huffington Post. Judy O’Bannon is such a gracious lady. John Whikehart is such a funny guy. Those interviews were a lot of fun. As I said, as time went on I got better at them. I just figured, it’s me and this other person and we’re going to have a conversation. They have much more stuff to say than I do, I just need to draw them out.

TM: When I moved to Bloomington in 1968, Westinghouse, RCA, Otis Elevator and GE were going gangbusters. Over time, one-by-one, they shuttered their plants and moved on, GE being the last to go. A great loss for our community with many lives being disrupted. As best we could, the community stepped up to help with the transition for those affected by the closings. We’ve transitioned from assembly line fabrication (elevators, television sets, electric transformers, and side-by-side refrigerators) to medical assembly, automotive part manufacturing, pharmaceutical development and packaging, as well as technology driven ideas and products. Bloomington has many innovative people looking for the next big breakthrough. How do you view the transition from where we were in the 70’s to today and beyond? Are we doing enough to give everyone the basic skills to earn a well-rounded living?

BZ: That’s a great question; you went through the history and it’s pretty staggering when you think about it. The first color TV rolled off the assembly line down there and there were 8,000 people working at that plant. That’s stunning to think about, when GE was in its heyday and we thought GE was a huge employer there were 3,500 or 3,200. So 8,000 people working at RCA, 3,200 working at GE. Probably close to 1,000 people worked at Otis. Westinghouse, of course they were contaminating the community, but several hundred people were working there–if not a thousand.  

Thank goodness Bill Cook and Gayle Cook decided to make medical devices in their back room at Art Villa. It’s such a great historical point for Bloomington. But even besides manufacturing it’s helped to create this innovation community. We can’t separate Bloomington and IU. I think a lot of the reason Bill Cook was attracted here was because the university was here. I don’t think Bill Cook would have just gone to any community. He could have gone to a lot of different places but he came here. A lot of companies come to Bloomington because we’ve got a university and we’ve got all this intellectual capital.

Now, we’re entering this new phase of startups and innovation I can’t pretend to be an expert in. But, I’ve thought enough about it to know you just got to have smart people, you’ve got to have a good quality of life, you’ve got to have a place where people want to be.

For part two of your question; there are a lot of people that need to be trained to be able to take these jobs in the future. Are we doing enough to train them? I think Bloomington and MC will always rise to it. I mean again, go back to Cook. He sees the need for more educated workers so he just creates his own educational program to try and make sure they have their people trained up and that other people can learn from them. The argument about good jobs and good jobs for everybody in Bloomington is gonna be a constant. Not everybody is going to be suited for the creative and innovative jobs. I don’t have the answer for how we’re gonna train people for every job that’s going to come here, but I think Bloomington’s up for the challenge. We’ll find some innovative ways forward.

TM: We could talk a little bit more about what Cook is doing and things like Ivy Tech and what the Chamber of Commerce is doing, they’re all components.

BZ: Tim, you’re absolutely right. I’m glad you’re here to ask these questions because they prompt a lot of thoughts. IU of course is the big dog, it’s got its shadow over everything. But, Ivy Tech is a huge part of our community now and they are very nimble with being able to come up with programs that fit workers who industries. You know like French Lick, they needed a bunch of hospitality workers down there and Ivy Tech was able to create a program to train them. Same thing with the MPRI, the Proton Radiotherapy Institute, when they needed workers for proton therapy jobs, Ivy Tech was able to train people for those jobs. But then you mentioned the foundation, stuff that the community foundation and United Way. School corporations are doing things with early childhood education. They understand that you got to get people early. Young people from 3-5 years old are gonna benefit from these programs for the rest of life. Those groups — I can’t say enough about them.

TM: That shows that the community does understand what the problems and the issues are and they’re willing to take a shot at it. So far we’ve been talking about our shared experiences and observations about Bloomington and the impacts of time and change. Your recent retirement as editor from the Herald-Times at a crucial time in the news industry gives me an opportunity to explore your views on the coming changes. I’d like to get a little closer to your line of work and hear your thinking on how the changes in the news industry will impact how we receive our daily news.

BZ: There’s been a transitional time in the past 20 years. I was the editor for 33 years, probably the first 10 years or so was a period of growth. We built our circulation up to a high of close to 32,000, mostly the print copy, and then starting to dabble with the Internet and digital. But then, digital just became the thing that overcame everything else. Circulation has dropped by more than half since then. But the readership of the H-T is still probably about the same or up because of all the online readers. And I know we could all talk about the H-T being a paid subscription based behind a paywall but all the photos are free, all the ads are free, all the videos are free, all the headlines are free. So more people are still going and seeing and reading the H-T everyday than there were at the peak of it. But they’re not spending as much time with it and they’re not paying as much for it, if they’re even paying at all. How are you going to pay for news? That’s the big issue. The H-T is one of thousands of news organization that’s trying to figure it out. Both in print and commercial television they’re trying to figure it out. And commercial television isn’t so much who’s going to pay for news but who’s going to pay for content and how people want their content delivered. The newspaper business itself still has a strong place. It still has a strong audience, but that audience is getting older all the time. My last few years there we were trying to figure out how to engage people better, how are we going to provide more value in print? And those are questions that the next generation of H-T leaders are going to have to deal with.

BZ: Do you want to talk a little bit about how the H-T was recently sold to Gatehouse Media? What can we anticipate going forward?

TM: I retired on Jan 31, it’d been about a year in the making So I wasn’t pushed out by Gatehouse or anything else. But I did learn about 2 weeks before that the company was going to be sold to Gatehouse Media. And the rest of the staff only learned about 5 days before. So I retired the day Gatehouse Media took over from the Schurz family.

It was a sad day for me, I sat in my office on that last day with Scott Schurz and Scott and I reminisced. The day that he walked out, when he left Schurz Communications, he didn’t leave the company but he left the publicity side the same day I did. It’s sad; family owned media companies valued their employees and their communities and wanted to provide value and wanted to take part in the community life. I say that as a positive sentence, that’s what family owned media wanted to do.

How are you going to pay for news? That’s the big issue. The H-T is one of thousands of news organization that’s trying to figure it out.

I don’t know about Gatehouse, I can’t say they don’t want to do those things. But I can say they do have stockholders that require a certain amount of return in their investment. It’s different than a family owned paper. Every three months there’s a stockholder report, and every three months there’s somebody somewhere making decisions about which of the Gatehouse Media operations are making enough money and which ones aren’t. That’s bound to affect some of the properties–whether it’s Bloomington, Bedford, Mooresville, Martinsville or somewhere in Illinois or Texas. I don’t know, but it’s going to affect some of them. We didn’t have those pressures with Schurz

TM: What do you think are the best trends in journalism today? The worst?

BZ: The best trends are trying to speak in various languages. That is: good investigative work in print that can also transform to digital in either audio or video. I think podcasts have been great. Podcasts are a really nice trend where people can tell a longer story in a serial form. What we always tried to do at the H-T in the last five years were watchdog reporting, that is trying to dig deeper on stories, and digital engagement. In the media those are two things that you have to have.

Bad trends are the idea that anybody thinks they can be a journalist whether they have any training or not. They’re willing to put out stories that aren’t vetted or are basically just their point of view. They haven’t checked the facts and they don’t really care to check them. Anybody can be a publisher now just by creating a website. In a way it’s really egalitarian in that you don’t need money now to buy a printing press you just can publish online. There are some very good online operations that have grown off of this — but there are an equal number, or many more, where people can just package up something as news and it’s just propaganda. It’s not well sourced; it’s inaccurate; it unfair. They don’t try to subscribe to any journalistic principles. I know people don’t like the media that much today but I think when you get down to a local level or any professional media level, people have principles they follow. They want to be right, they want to be truthful, they want to get all sides of the story. A lot of the people that try to be journalists today don’t even care about that.

TM: Someone once described the New York Times as a symphony and the Washington Post as jazz combo — what kind of musical group is the H-T?

BZ: Great question! I would say the H-T is more like a marching band. We’re gonna play a lot of popular songs and we’re gonna keep a beat going all the time. You got to just keep marching, keep going forward.

TM: The Jefferson Street Band

BZ: I love those guys! We’re probably not as cool as they are, we dress a lot more conservatively than they do. I love that question. You know, a marching band, it’s a lot of different people, you have different sections like we have a lot of different beats covering different things. We have different departments that have to do different things, there are a lot of different parts of a marching band like there are a lot of different parts of a newsroom. You’re always trying to push it and move forward with some sort of a rhythm. Whether it’s daily or hourly online, you gotta have a certain kind of rhythm to what you’re doing.

TM: A lot of change has happened since you retired from the H-T. I understand that you have accepted a position at IU Bloomington with WFIU. Can you give us some insight on the changes at the H-T and tell me about your new position at IU?

BZ: We’re talking today two days after my successor J.J. Perry announced he was going to leave the paper after less than three months. At the end of three months he’s gonna leave. Really sorry about J.J. He’s a great guy, a great journalist. But for some reason his time in Bloomington just didn’t fit what he wanted to do. He wasn’t pushed out, it wasn’t anybody’s decision other than J.J.’s. I’m sorry that it turned out that way.

I don’t know who the next leader of the H-T will be, and I don’t know what it’s like working under Gatehouse Media. I’m hopeful, I’m a big supporter of the Herald-Times. I love the staff they’ve got down there, the newsroom staff are people that I worked with and they’re almost all people that I hired. They’re wonderful people and they work really hard and they care about the community. I feel very strongly that people should support the H-T because having a local newspaper is a really important thing.

As for myself, I teach at IU. I’m going to continue to teach one course a semester at the media school. I just took a very part time job, very part time — I have to stress that — at WFIU working with Sara Wittmeyer and the staff there on a project called city limits. It’s basically stories about Bloomington that people will email or call in. The leadership at WFIU thought that I was in a unique position to be able to contribute to that. I think that after my years at the paper, I can’t disagree with them. I did Noon Edition as a volunteer for 20 years. So I worked for them for 20 years without being paid a thing. Now I’d get an hourly rate, well it’s more of a contract. But I’m not doing it to get rich, I’m not doing it for the money, I’m not doing it for the glory, I’m doing it so young journalists can continue to tell good stories about Bloomington.

TM: As one who’s recently retired myself, I applaud your decision to keep going because if you don’t you’re in trouble. The other thing is that I’m sad to see JJ go but I really admire him for making this decision — if you’re not happy doing what you are doing its time to get out.

BZ: I think so, and I can speak from experience, that when it was time for me to get out I still liked my job. I didn’t like it as much as I used to and I didn’t like it every day. I felt like I had already turned 65 years old, I could see myself continuing to work for a while but I don’t know what else I could do. I didn’t want to get to the point where I don’t like working and I don’t like my job. As I said, my retirement was in the works for about a year. I was quite happy to retire when I did. When I found out about the sale I thought somebody else is going to have to lead this transition because I don’t know that I have the energy or the interest.

TM: You retired under the Schurz’s family ownership.

BZ: They were a great family to work for and Scott still has a home in Bloomington and they’re a good Hoosier family. They still have a very strong company — it’s just not a newspaper company.

TM: I’d like to thank you for sitting and talking, and thanks for all your time at the H-T. You really did make a difference in Bloomington. I’m sure people have told you that.

BZ: I’ve heard it more since I retired than I did when I was working [laughs]. Did I tell you how great you were as a city council member? 

TM: [more laughter]

Brexit, the War, and the War of Words

Real history is much more complex than the nostalgic myths presented in Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour

By Tom Prasch

Mr. Dawson, the civilian captain of the Moonstone, a small fishing boat, is preparing to weigh anchor. The Moonstone is part of a flotilla of small ships coming to the rescue of the sailors stranded on the beach in Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk. Dawson explains: “They’ve asked for the Moonstone and they’ll have her. And her captain.” His young son chimes in: “And his son.”        

George, a boy helping them prepare to embark, hops on at the last minute as well. “What’re you doing?” asks the captain’s son. “You know where you’re going?” “France,” young George declares. “Into war,” Mr. Dawson warns. “I’ll be useful, sir,” the boy insists. So they carry on. Multiply that by hundreds, that’s the British spirit. 

Winston Churchill, in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, after struggling through most of the movie to cope with the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk–as well as with the backstabbing, appeasement-inclined political opponents within his own cabinet, Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, mostly–on a lark leaps from his chauffeured car and plunges into the Underground to complete his journey to Westminster. At the same time, his war cabinet, in his absence (and in intercut scenes), reads out their approved terms for a negotiated peace: “If Signor Mussolini will cooperate with us in securing a settlement of all European questions which safeguard the independence and security of the allies, and could be the basis for a just a durable peace, we will undertake at once to discuss, with the desire to find solutions, the matters in which Signor Mussolini is principally interested. We understand that he desires the solution of certain Mediterranean questions, and if he shall state in secrecy what these are, France and Great Britain will do their best to meet his wishes.” Goodness, hadn’t Chamberlain learned anything from his Munich debacle?

Meanwhile, Churchill sorts out the Tube–a girl at the map explains he’s one stop from Westminster, he just needs to take the District Line east– and an agape subway car full of ordinary citizens suddenly find themselves sharing a ride with their Prime Minister. All of them are white save one: Marcus Peters, a black man, presumably West Indian; why he would be  going west on the District Line rather than east (toward the capital’s political center, but away from most of the work) is less than clear, but then why the bricklayer would be on the tube in the middle of the workday is also unclear. And surely even in 1940 one heart-of-London stop on the tube would go faster than this scene, but never mind all that.

After introductions all around and a bit of cheery banter (“Madam, all babies look like me”; “Oh, a Jerome. My mother was a Jerome. I expect we are closely related”), Churchill gets to the point: “Let me ask you something that’s been weighing on my mind. Perhaps you might provide me with an answer. You, the British people, what is your mood. Is it confident?” They all murmur assent. “How confident?” “Very,” one declares. “Some say it’s a lost cause,” one dissenter notes. Churchill counters: “Oh, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” “Too true,” one woman chimes in. And then, to the real point: “Now, let me ask you this, if the worst came to pass, and the enemy were to appear on these streets above, what would you do?” The answers are unequivocal (even the “lost cause” guy chiming in): “Fight.” “Fight the Fascists.” “Fight them with anything we can lay our hands on.” “Broom handles if we must.” “Street by street.” “They will never take Piccadilly.” Churchill pushes further: “They will never take Piccadilly indeed. And what if I put it to you all, that we might, if we ask nicely, get very favorable terms from Herr Hitler, if we enter into a peace declaration right now. What would you say to that?” And they answer, uniformly: Never, never, no never.

The moment leads Churchill to wax poetic, reciting from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome: “Then out spake brave Horatius/ Captain of the Gate/ To every man upon the earth/ Death cometh soon or late/ And how can man die better/ Then facing fearful odds.” It is Marcus Peters—perhaps asserting his Britishness—who finishes the verse for him: “For the ashes of his father/ And the temples of his gods.”

Thus inspired, Churchill heads to meet his Outer Cabinet—notably bypassing the War Cabinet —where, naming his subway common-man consultants (he’s jotted their names down on a scrap of paper)—he lays out the case for continued war. By the end of it, the Outer Cabinet is echoing the “No, never” of the subway citizens, which sets up the climax, Churchill’s famous “Darkest Hour” speech before the House (here misdated; the movie tells us it’s 28 May, but the actual speech was given on 18 June, inconveniently a couple weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation was completed).

You know the speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets … we shall never surrender,” and all that.  If you had forgotten, both films remind us in their final acts: Churchill’s speech the finale of Darkest Hour, and read from a newspaper by one of the rescued sailors in Dunkirk.

Note, then, that both films limn a predictably nostalgic heroic picture of Dunkirk, transforming what was at best less of a disaster than it might have been into a moment of British triumph. Beyond such rose-glassed nostalgia, both films also make that moment an essentially populist one, in both cases through distortions of the historical record: in Dunkirk, through the exaggerated invocation of the civilians bringing boats to the rescue (more on that in a moment); in Darkest Hour, with the utterly invented subway scene.

And not just populist, but narrowly so, a thoroughly British self-celebration, conceptualized (with one single exception—Marcus Peters on the tube) as utterly white, and pointedly celebrating the insular. What’s that Churchill line? “Defend our Island home … if necessary, alone.” “Splendid isolation,” Max Hastings calls it in the New York Review of Books, recalling the late Victorian phrase. This is Britain away from, and mostly against, the Continent.

Ian Jack, writing in The Guardian, usefully warns against the sort of reading I am developing here, noting that, while both films were playing in 2017, in the wake of the Brexit vote, they had been some time in the making. Both scripts were finished in 2015, and Nolan has claimed his as a long-time obsession, going back over a decade more. But even Jack wonders: “Was there something in the air?” And we can add: Brexit cannot be reduced to a single moment, that voting day in June 2016. It was, after all, a campaign before it was a vote, and that campaign in turn played on long-term insecurities and restiveness that have always cut across party lines about the place of Britain within-but-still-outside the European Union (they kept their pounds, recall). In the making of Brexit, longer-term processes—Zadie Smith, in “Fences: A Brexit Diary” (New York Review of Books) notes the role of working-class discontent in response to both austerity and growing income disparities, issues nearly a decade in the making (going back to the market crash of 2008), plus white working-class anxieties over the entrenchment of multiculturalism, possibly going back even further—combined with shorter-term events, most notably connected to the migrant wave that hit as Arab Spring got wintery in 2013-14, with the Syrian civil war and the breakdown of the Libyan state. The promoters of the referendum, Smith also notes, used Brexit to promote agendas with far deeper roots (Michael Gove’s sovereignty issue, Nigel Farage’s array of rightist causes from anti-climate change and opposition to freedom of movement to gun control and xenophobic fears about immigration).
And, certainly, the uses of the films in the wake of Brexit suggests more than mere handy coincidence. Andy Stowe notes, in Green Left Weekly: “Nigel Farage tweeted ‘I urge every youngster to go out and watch #Dunkirk.’” Stowe concludes: “It is not possible to watch Dunkirk except through the prism of Brexit and the orgy of British chauvinism that made it possible.” Jack points to “headlines in the pro-Brexit press such as ‘For Brexit to work we need the Dunkirk spirit’ and ‘We will channel Churchill.”  Something, indeed, seems to have been in the air. But where do these films—and in particular the version of history proffered in these films—fit into all this?

The whitening of history reinforces the xenophobic tropes in contemporary Brexit debates.

To begin with Dunkirk, let me offer my modest dissent from the dominant red-carpets-for-the-masterpiece take on Nolan’s film.  Dunkirk does some things phenomenally well: it masterfully uses the machinery of cinema to give us an immersive experience of war; it balances its varied dimensions (the ground war, the air war, and the story of those boats) with precision, epic scale matched with individual tale, three distinct timelines kept in motion; Hans Zimmer’s timepiece-anchored score masterfully controls tension and release, even if Nolan leans on it over-heavily at times (and even if multiplexes played it WAY TOO LOUD); the key actors hold their own despite a nearly wordless screenplay; Nolan even makes some strikingly interesting choices of focus, like picking two shirkers as a central focus. But still….

But still the mythic whale that is Dunkirk, the great strategic retreat that anchored Britain’s wartime self-image, its spirit of hunkered-down carry-on survival mode, is utterly unchanged and unchallenged here. The story arcs–overall and individual–are utterly predictable (who doesn’t know, when the amount of fuel in the plane is first mentioned, where that story line goes?). They all lead inexorably to the heart-tug patriotic we’re-all-in-together moment when the small ships arrive. The moment works, hearts tugged sure enough, but it simultaneously annoys. Just this again? And then closing with that rescued sailor reciting Churchill, that famous speech, was for me the final nail. So obvious, so predictable, so simply sappy. But that is the film as film. How about its history?

As Joseph Coohill (so rightly aka’d Professor Buzzkill in his online columns) has noted, citing an array of recent scholarship: “The problem with what’s come down through the decades as the story of the Little Ships is that a lot of it isn’t true, most of it is greatly exaggerated, and that exaggeration (and the imagery of ‘average’ people providing the key to the Dunkirk miracle) covers up the stories of most of the true civilian heroes of the Dunkirk evacuation.” In fact, the salvation of the British forces was mostly in the hands of the Germans, who halted their advance, and who in any case were more focused on the French troops; two-thirds of those evacuated came via the large destroyers, not the little ships at all; most of those little ships were piloted by Royal Navy and Coast Guard personnel; and only about 10% of the rescued troops came on ships that fit the Dunkirk model. Less populist a tale than the myth has made it.

Perhaps more importantly, the true story is less white as well. Yasmin Khan and Sunny Singh have both underlined the erasure of non-white troops from the story. Khan, writing in the New York Times, emphasizes the absence of Indian soldiers (mostly Muslim, from territories that would later become Pakistan), and notes as well the contributions of Caribbean and West African colonials. Singh, in The Guardian, points to the presence of colonial forces in both British and French armies (the French drawing on colonies in North and West Africa).

Darkest Hour (save in that subway scene) shifts the terrain from the on-the-ground perspective of those actually involved in the evacuation to the official rooms where policies were shaped, and tells the somewhat more complicated double story of Churchill’s struggle against the appeasers within his own party while confronting the crisis on the beaches of Dunkirk as France collapsed before the German blitzkrieg.  Appropriately, then, it is a movie with a starkly split personality.

The cue is in the music. Listen for those swelling chords, when the score goes all stirring and the volume rises with it, and you’ll know what you’re in for: another bit of powerhouse oratory or some dramatic set piece calling us to battle against the forces of darkness, all nostalgic-for-imperial-greatness hope-and-glory simplistic and unexamined patriotic claptrap, if very elegantly done as such claptrap goes. But then things get quieter and the movie’s Jekyll comes forth, in a sometimes brilliant, quite witty, charming up-close-and-personal humanization of Churchill, a study of the private man behind those public pronouncements. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the personal portrait, and then, when the music swelled again, found myself wishing for something, a touch of Graham Greene perhaps–some darkness, some ambiguity, something not so utterly kneejerk–to make it all less treacly.

Gary Oldman is indeed brilliant as Churchill; less regularly mentioned are the excellent supporting roles played by two women, Kristin Scott Thomas as his long-suffering wife, Lily James as his suffering-not-quite-as-long secretary. Director Joe Wright, as in Atonement (2007), showcases an exciting visual style. His sky-to-ground (or vice versa) tracking shots get used a bit too often but are stunning nonetheless; the way he visually isolates Churchill (in elevators, for instance) is also quite nice. But how about the history here?

The focus on Dunkirk oddly erases the lead up to that moment, and in particular the decidedly disastrous decisions (based on misplaced confidence in France’s fighting plan) that left all those troops on the beach in the first place. The film’s portraits of Churchill’s appeasing opponents are, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft notes in the New York Review of Books, “coarse caricatures, outrageous in the case of Halifax, who was the least enthusiastic of the appeasers.” The whole sequence from adventures Underground through the rousing of the Outer Cabinet were pure fabrication; as Ian Jack writes: “No, he did none of these things. The scene was absurd.”

And Churchill’s climactic speech Wright frames again in terms of Englishness. “What just happened?” an MP wonders amid the unanimous cheers and tossed papers that greet the address, and Halifax responds: “He mobilized the English language and set it out to battle,” an ironic concession from the man who, earlier in the film had dismissed Churchill’s assertion that the Channel was “our moat, our battlement” with the declaration: “What is to stop Herr Hitler, then? Words, words, words, words alone.” The actual response was hardly unalloyed endorsement. As Wheatcroft notes: “the Tory benches were sullenly subdued through his first famous speeches in May and June.” But sullenness hardly fits the fusion of great-man and populist rallying of the (insular, white) nation that Wright’s film shapes.  

The whitening of history reinforces the xenophobic tropes in contemporary Brexit debates.  Zadie Smith, in her brilliant essay “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” writes: “The painful truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted.” Yet the problem Brexit presents is that it displaces and projects those divisions, turning those internal divides into an us-versus-them opposition between Britain and the world, and erecting a new fence as a response. Films such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, by entrenching populist, whitewashed, simplified, and insular myths for the complexities of real history, evade the necessary confrontation.   

Meeting Patti at the Poplars

A Memoir as Historical Fiction

by John Bob Slone

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

By  Yaël Ksander


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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











Stories of Monroe

Slave hunting requires whiskey….A new play looks at racism in the IU community in the middle of the 20th century

by Bill Breeden



I am honored to play small parts in Stories of Monroe, a play by Gladys DeVane in collaboration with Danielle Bruce and Elizabeth Mitchell. As a sixty-nine year old theater rookie, it’s nice to work with some very talented actors, in a play with a message critical to our present morass of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism. A people who cannot face who they’ve been cannot know who they are, and cannot become who they need to be. This is our history, local, with recognizable names. It is painful, yet redemptive to visit.

During the first read-through, I found myself struggling to control my emotions as I listened to the stories of Joel and Tony, two runaway slaves who passed through Bloomington in the early 19th century, travelling the Underground Railroad that carried runaways to Canada. It is a story of villains and victims as well as heroes and healers of the national disease that infects our nation on both sides of the Mason/Dixon line. The play doesn’t remain in the distant past but follows the ravages of that racist malady and the struggle for justice in Bloomington and specifically in the IU community through the middle of the 20th century. The echoes of runaway slaves resound in the stories of George Taliaferro, Denver Smith, and the many unnamed African Americans who suffered from, and struggled against, systemic institutional racism.

Perhaps that first read-through weighed heavy on me because I was reminded that I am a son-of-a-sundown town. When I grew up, no person of color could be found after dark in Odon, Indiana, for fear of loss of life or limb. I know racism, because I was a racist, reared in racist culture. That is not to say that my family, my church community, and my hometown folks were bad people. They were wonderful people who loved their children, and believed in the American Dream because they had never been forced to live the American nightmare.

As I read through this script, I was reminded of the first African Americans I ever knew personally. My coming to know them was an accident of history, religion, and location, location, location.

My family lived five miles east of Odon. It so happened in the mid-sixties that a minister was sent to serve a church in our very conservative town. His bishop either didn’t like him, or just had a hankering to see what would happen. The minister was a holiness minister, but a social liberal. He supported civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War. The congregation loved his preaching but disliked his politics.

The minister had the right to call whomever he pleased to aid in the fall and spring revivals. He called “Walking” Bill and Blanche Smith. He was called Walking Bill cause he couldn’t sing without walking, and Blanche played honky-tonk gospel piano so hot it pealed the paint off the walls. A few weeks before the revival meeting, the minister and my Pappy were fishing together, and he turned to Pappy and said,

“I got a favor to ask of you.”

“What’s that?”

“This evangelistic team’s coming for the fall revival and I need a place for them to stay.”

“Our evangelists usually stay with our preacher in the parsonage.”

“Well, they can’t stay in the parsonage, or in the hotel either.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re black.”

“They’re holiness evangelists?”

“Uh huh.”

“They sound like white people to me, they can stay at our house.”

And so it was that Walking Bill and Blanche became honorary “white folks” to my family. (“Black” wasn’t’ good enough.) Ironically, the local church fell in love with them and called them back for three years running. They stayed at our small farm in the country. They were Uncle Bill and Aunt Blanche to me.

Perhaps the pain I felt in the reading of Stories of Monroe is related to the pain I saw in Walking Bill’s eyes one night at the holiness camp meeting when truckloads of locals drove by hollering, “Get them niggers out of town! We got laws around here!”

Let us look at our past, that we may determine our future. I hope you see the play.







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