Willie Nelson – Both Sides Now

Both Sides Now

Willie NelsonBoth Sides Now RCA Victor LSP-4292 (1970)


Willie ups the folk-rock influence on this one.  There are a few very decent performances here, like “Crazy Arms” and “Pins and Needles (In My Heart).”  Although many of Willie’s early recordings that looked toward pop/rock music fizzled, the “folk” aspect of this means that there are no cheesy backing strings or horns, and very minimal backing vocals (on “Pins and Needles” the backing vocals recall certain Johnny Cash recordings).  “Everybody’s Talkin'” is a big swing a miss though.  Nothing here is especially memorable, but, overall, this is slightly better than Willie’s next couple RCA albums, which doesn’t exactly say a whole lot.  As another reviewer astutely put it, “All in all, Both Sides Now is a lackluster effort that does hint at his future direction, though it does so rather obliquely.”

Ernesto “Che” Guevara – The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries

Ernesto “Che” GuevaraThe Motorcycle Diaries (Verso 1995)


The Motorcycle Diaries is a book based on a diary that Ernesto “Che” Guevara kept while on a lengthy journey through South American in 1951 and 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado.  Guevara was 23 when he began the more than six-month trip, and was still in medical school (in his native Argentina) at the time.  These aren’t raw diary entries, but are eloquently re-written vignettes based on the diary notes.  The prose is excellent, poetic even.  Guevara comes across as a more compelling version of beat writer Jack Kerouac, with more of a sense of purpose and minus the narcissism of Kerouac.  There are a few comments here and there about politics and political economy, but for the most part this is just an engaging coming-of-age travelogue about two bohemian vagabonds getting to know a wider world and its people.  Tennessee Williams‘ character Blanche duBois has the famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  That more or less perfectly describes Guevara and Granado’s approach to their expedition, as they lacked sufficient funds and provisions and therefore begged, connived, and (sometimes) worked for food, shelter, rides, and other provisions much of the time.  Guevara has a keen eye for character and motivations as he describes the people he encounters.  He also acknowledges the undercurrent of decadence in the trip.  Some editions of the book reprint part of a 1960 speech Guevara gave that nicely adds context to how the expedition shaped his own character, and also contextualizing how such experiences are the sort of thing that are socially necessary in shedding goals that involve striving for individual recognition in favor of advancing common dignity.  After his assassination, Jean-Paul Sartre would famously describe Guevara as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.”  And as Thomas Sankara said about Che in a speech October 8, 1987 commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Che’s assassination, a week before Sankara too was assassinated, that Che “turned his back on the easy road in order, on the contrary, to assert himself as a man of the people, a man who makes common cause with the people, a man who makes common cause with the suffering of others.”  He added, “Finally, let us remember Che simply as an embodiment of eternal romanticism, of fresh and invigorating youth, and at the same time of the clear-sightedness, wisdom, and devotion that only profound men, men with heart, can possess.”  One can get a glimpse of why Sartre and Sankara, and so many others, said these things by starting with The Motorcycle Diaries, which sounds out a portrait of an imperfect human being trying to be better.

To the Wonder

To the Wonder

To the Wonder (2012)

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Terrence Malick

Main Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem


In a way, this film is perhaps the most abstract possible art house take on a typical daytime soap opera, and also the most beautifully photographed.  Terrence Malick continues to structure his films through the fragmented flashback approach of The Tree of Life.  Though here he takes up the challenge of applying his penchant for beautiful images to a setting of dingy exurban American neighborhoods, with their imposing power line towers, rivers contaminated with toxic waste, and nearby landfills.  But To the Wonder is as much pastiche and tribute as anything.  There are the metonymns of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially in the American exurban southern plains settings with their bleak declining economic prospects — some of these bits of the plot resemble the contemporaneous The Promised Land — which parallel the relationship of the protagonists.  There is also ample reference to late-period Godard — the long shots of sunsets and water, a bit like Helas pour moi, the “mature” and “boring” relationship focus of Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Goodbye to Language (which actually came out later), or even his 1971 TV commercial for aftershave.  Following Robert Bresson, the performers in the film are more like “models” than “actors”.  Neil (Affleck) barely says a word the entire film, which is fine.  In fact, aside from disembodied voice-overs (mostly in French), there is almost no dialog between on-screen characters at all.

This film, if nothing else, is about emotion and desire.  The characters struggle to control and take responsibility for their own desires.  What do they want their lives to mean?  While it is tempting to look at Marina’s (Kurylenko’s) catholic faith as an affirmation of accepting religion to guide her, Malick does problematize her religious faith somewhat.  Her prior marriage is held against her by the church.  She perhaps wants the church to guarantee meaning in her life.  She seems to give up that futile hope somewhere along the way.  The Father Quintana (Bardem) character, though pasted onto the main story a bit, is key.  The presentation is indelicate, with its parade of downtrodden figures presented near the conclusion of the film, but when Quintana goes around to help the poor and marginalized, he simply does it without any recognition or even any sorrow.  And this character (who perhaps speaks as much or more than any other in the film, aside from the voice-overs) always helps others and asks them to persevere in working with each other.  He often does these things to a congregation of just a few people, the pews mostly empty.  One of his parishioners tells him she prays for him to have joy, because he seems to have none.  But his perspective, a rather unfashionable one, seems to connect with the two main characters by the end of the film.  They at least pause to reconsider their visions of romantic relationships, and commit to work at them.

The perspective Malick seems to put forward might be explained with reference to G.K. Chesterton‘s “Introduction to the Book of Job,” about the old testament biblical character of Job.

“God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made. This we may call the third point. Job puts forward a note of interrogation; God answers with a note of exclamation. Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, He insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.  ***  Here in this Book the question is really asked whether God invariably punishes vice with terrestrial punishment and rewards virtue with terrestrial prosperity. If the Jews had answered that question wrongly they might have lost all their after influence in human history. They might have sunk even down to the level of modern well educated society. For when once people have begun to believe that prosperity is the reward of virtue their next calamity is obvious. If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. Men will leave off the heavy task of making good men successful. They will adopt the easier task of making out successful men good.  *** The Book of Job is chiefly remarkable . . . for the fact that it does not end in a way that is conventionally satisfactory. Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins or a part of any plan for his improvement.”

The way Chesterton interprets to story of Job is to say that when Job demands an explanation from god about why he suffered so, god responds with a “that’s such a ‘first world’ problem” sort of answer!  It isn’t that god operates on a level beyond human understanding, which is the more conventional interpretation of the story.  Job’s suffering and misfortune is insignificant in a universe full of such things.  And so it is with Neil and Marina.  Yes their relationship is fraught, but of what importance is their failure to hold together a stupid, happy nuclear family in the face of a universe of (much greater) suffering?

This point is underscored, in a different way, in a scene in which Marina’s friend walks through a neighborhood with her, and suggests she make a calculated bid for her own happiness, just the way Chesterton suggests that god’s explanation of the creation of the universe is blasphemous, a kind of calculated wager in which god performs all sorts of selfish acts in preparation for his own battle of armageddon without much concern for the suffering inflicted along the way.  Marina ultimately doesn’t accept that sort of narcissism, though she toys with it briefly.

There is an amazing unfinished novella by Andrey Platonov titled Happy Moscow, in which a parachutist — a glamorous occupation in its 1920s Soviet Union setting — named Moscow Chestnova goes to work building a subway and is maimed, then goes to live with a derelict and helps him get on with his bleak life.  The story is so compelling because of its arc away from personal achievement and recognition.  Chestnova accepts the lowest possible social position and helps others as a kind of gray duty.  She finds nothing unhappy in a landscape usually considered dystopian.  This is what “happy” Moscow looks like!  The tenor of Platonov’s  story recalls a little bit the Lao Tzu saying that a good person is like water, always going to the lowest places where no one wishes to be, benefiting everyone and harming no one, without striving.  This humble, unglamorous sense of duty is lurking behind many of the scenes in the film.

The melodramatic story of To the Wonder repeats age-old wisdom, suggesting that ascending steps “to the wonder” and the rush of “new romantic love” need to give way to hard work at relationships, and on one’s own desires and subjective reactions to objective circumstance.  But the film addresses all this on the level of emotion and feeling.  It might be fair to call it “trite”, but only when looking at the premise from a cerebral and intellectual position, which is what this film challenges the viewer to reject.  I think this is most true of the semi-urban modern landscapes.  Can the viewer choose to find the beauty in those images and be awed by that beauty?  Can the viewer find a sense of wonder and awe in “trite”, common human situations?

At a deeper level, the film suggests that the main couple’s original desire was built around just the simple pleasures of their tryst and its playful, romantic games so characteristic of “new love”, and any long-term relationship was really perceived as some bonus or unexpected surplus, a kind of insatiable gap of unconscious social expectations never satisfied or bridged by the simple pleasures.  Even the couple’s other affairs that happen later suggest a conscious pursuit of simple sensual pleasures and no more, yet a fundamental void remained unfulfilled by those pleasures because they hadn’t grasped that they were bound to further social expectations.  This is what the film questions.  By the end, the main characters have started to probe and understand their desires, and they decide for themselves to build relationships (though it is ambiguous if that means staying together, or seeking other partners, given the film’s non-linear chronology), accepting simple pleasures along the way for what they are.  The broken flashback approach strengthens this conclusion, by suggesting the memories of simple pleasures remain, re-contextualized in the face of new desires that really go beyond what they were originally.  So, the ultimate choice is one different from imposed social expectations, to instead fashion lives/relationships on the couple’s own terms, but making that choice consciously and without the traumatic, insatiable emptiness of having to constantly convince themselves that they want to accede to social pressures to have a “stable nuclear family” required making the “wrong” choice first.  Like Moscow Chestnova in Happy Moscow, they ultimately opt for a kind of dingy view of relationships, stripped of the glamour of some idealized and unobtainable social conception of the perfect marriage, but with a sense of mutual duty and recognition of what are not fundamental needs, and no demand for martyr status or vindication for past suffering.  (For what it’s worth, episodes in season three of the cartoon TV show Rick and Morty dealing with the character Beth focus on similar issues).  Maybe the ambiguity of the film’s ending suggests that the main characters see relationships as only fleeting, grasped when they can be and relinquished when the cannot hold.  Thankfully, there is no didactic characterization in the film.

Unlike Malick’s early films, which tended to take aim at shibboleths of modern society in ways that had parallels in the counter-culture and high art, To the Wonder is rather more daring in its use of “lowbrow” melodrama, juxtaposed against high-concept cinematography of the type that appeals primarily to viewers who normally look down upon melodrama.  This may be one of Malick’s least regarded late-period films.  But it has things to offer, even if, no, it isn’t up to his first three features — though few films are.  Most detractors seem to focus on the characters being thin, undeveloped or uncompelling, or something like that, but those criticisms seem to miss the point in that they are meant to be shells without their own positive desires, which they try (and at least initially fail) to construct.

Mikal Cronin – MCII

MCII

Mikal CroninMCII Merge MRG475 (2013)


Take doo-wop and orchestrally inflected glam rock of the early 1970s (Wizzard, T. Rex et al.), combine with lyrical sensibilities resembling the mellower power pop of Alex Chilton and Big Star, and add just a hint of The Beach Boys influence, and you’ll have something very much like Mikal Cronin’s MCII.  It’s an album that welcomes the kind of grand, up-beat yet hesitant melodicism that permeated the aforementioned groups in the early 1970s.  Yet it updates things with an affinity for noisier guitar, which clearly places this after the punk explosion.  In all, its a wonderfully heady brew of positive thinking and soul searching.  (And there is none of that annoyingly common whiny, “twee” singing to be found here either!).

Herbie Hencock – Sextant

Sextant

Herbie HencockSextant Columbia KC 32212 (1973)


To my mind, this is Hancock’s finest long player.  It’s the last album from his Mwandishi Sextet.  Most impressive was that this was the first for his new major-label contract on Columbia.  Different times…  Like the last two sextet albums, this is less concerned with melody and conventional song structure, but now things are getting funkier.  Influences from what Miles Davis was up to around this time are pronounced.  This is up there with the very best that the fusion era had to offer.

FAIR or Not?

Michael Corcoran of the organization FAIR recently wrote an essay about media bias in health care policy reporting, entitled, “Media ‘Extremes’ on Healthcare: Universal Coverage or Taking Healthcare From Millions.”   What is curious about the essay is its underlying hypocrisy.  For the most part, the essay follows the original formulation of Chomsky and Herman‘s “Propaganda Model” of mass media analysis.  But the article also focuses primarily on Senator Bernie Sanders’ “medicare for all” or “single payer” plan.  It is perfectly legitimate to discuss that proposal, and to pick apart and analyze criticisms of it.  But is it appropriate for an organization named “Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting” to make snide comments about reporting that certain people “would have you believe is the ideological equivalent of the Socialist Worker” or characterizing “national healthcare as some kind of Bolshevik conspiracy”?  In other words, while it is absolutely accurate to state that the self-described “socialist” Sanders’ single-payer system is manifestly not about nationalized/socialized healthcare, the unanswered question is why it is important that it isn’t? Why not advocate a “Bolshevik healthcare” system?  As the journalist John Pilger has noted, “Sanders is a cold-warrior and ‘anti-communist’ obsessive[.]”  Corcoran more or less join the conservatives he criticizes in engaging in the “anti-communism” bias spelled out in the “Propaganda Model,” and furthered by the likes of Sanders.  If “Bolshevik healthcare” means something like contemporary Cuban healthcare, Americans would be lucky to have it.  Corcoran needs a dose of his own “fairness and accuracy” debunking — he is merely advocating for a social democratic position while trying to depoliticize it under the guise of a “scientific” media analysis that has a major self-serving blind spot.  Put another way, Corcoran is just promoting ideology masquerading as a critique of ideology.

Bob Dylan – Triplicate

Triplicate

Bob DylanTriplicate Columbia 88985 41349 2 (2017)


How did you feel about Christmas in the Heart?  If you loved it, then you are in luck!  Here is a triple album of secular songs using a similar approach.  If you hated it, well, sorry, but here is a triple album in a similar style.  Although nominally a “triple” album, the content could have fit very comfortably on two discs.  Anyway, this is just as self-indulgent as Patti Smith‘s Twelve and Dylan’s pal Johnny Cash‘s The Gospel Road.  But I like to image that Dylan commissioned an academic study to determine what music best suits his ravages rasp of a voice these days.  He then read the graph upside down and went with the music least suited to his present vocal abilities.  Seriously, there are like good singers who have recorded this kind of music before, and those recordings are still available.  This music would have been better as instrumentals, frankly.

Bob Dylan – Christmas in the Heart

Christmas in the Heart

Bob DylanChristmas in the Heart Columbia 88697 57323 2 (2009)


This is some kind of sick joke, right?  Bob Dylan does ALL of the popular christmas song canon.  Well, to his credit, he puts together some good arrangements, and what was probably a near limitless production budget helps.  Yet hearing the man croak his way through this stuff is easily imagined like watching Dylan participate in a reality TV show (oh what awkward and pointless task will he have to complete next?).  But this just proves a corollary to the law of large numbers:  anyone on a major label for more than ten years (of a christian persuasion) will make a holiday recording.  No, this would actually be perhaps enjoyable if a decent singer was in place instead of Dylan, perhaps a competent female pop star, possibly PJ Harvey or even somebody from the country-pop realm (provided she could pull off vocals with a jazzy twist).  No, instead of that we get this spectacle.

Joseph Ramsey – Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?

Link to an article by Joseph Ramsey:

“Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?”

I find it much harder to look past the problems with Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, but Ramsey offers some extremely interesting observations that don’t really depend on even seeing the film.

Bonus link: “When Liberals Go Wrong”

Cultural Detritus, Reviews, and Commentary