movie: The Winding Stream

The Winding Stream is a documentary about the contributions of the Carter Family (plus Johnny Cash) to music as we know it. I was deeply impressed, and learned a lot, and was reminded here and there of another excellent music-history documentary, Muscle Shoals.


source (click to enlarge)

The Carter Family began with the trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle (also a Carter by marriage to A.P.’s brother), who began playing music together in the 1920’s. The scope of the story is astounding, how many of these Carters there were and are, how many songs they recorded – the original trio left 260 recordings behind as their legacy, if I remember correctly. A.P. was an early music ethnologist, who traveled throughout his region – the Appalachian mountains of Virginia – seeking out old songs, “mountain music” as they called it (there was no “country music” yet). He noted the lyrics and the tunes and took them home, where he and Sara and Maybelle arranged them, rebuilding them somewhat, and then recorded them for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Today it occurs to us to wonder about the ethical implications of all these songs ending up being Carter songs; but as the movie points out, back then there was no concept of music being “owned” by anyone in particular. And but for A.P.’s avid, even obsessed calling to save this old music (even at the cost of his family life), many of those songs would have been lost to history in the Appalachian hills.

The trio eventually became part of a radio empire in Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas: “border radio” sprang up to avoid U.S. regulations, and used a high-powered frequency to send their programs across the States. (Stranger than fiction: the founder of the Del Rio border radio station was a doctor famous for his goat gland transplant procedure that supposedly boosted men’s sexual function and who promoted female circumcision [to make women less frigid, he claimed].) This is how a young boy named Johnny Cash first heard the Carter Family singing their old-timey songs. The group by this time involved some of the next generation, including Maybelle’s three daughters who would eventually be the Carter Sisters; one of them was little June. As Johnny Cash grew in stature, he kept Mama Maybelle close: in footage from his late life, he calls her the biggest star he ever knew.

The story goes on from there. You’ve heard of Johnny’s daughter (June’s daughter-in-law), Roseanne Cash. Their only child together, John Carter Cash, appears in the movie with his wife, an avid student of the Carter Family history who inspired him to learn more about his own legacy. These contemporary Carters still play the old music. In fact, one of the impressive details is in how many Carters there have been, and how they all seem to have had that music running in their veins: it was just a part of their lives, it appears, and they all could play. For example, Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara’s daughter, appears throughout the documentary, recalling her parents and their career. Only late in the movie do we learn that A.P. asked her on his deathbed to continue the legacy – and so she opened a dance hall and picked up her guitar and played. All of these characters – so many Carters – are rich, colorful figures in a compelling history.

As with Muscle Shoals, this film inspired a purchase: we went out immediately and bought an album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops after discovering them onscreen. One of the points made throughout is that the Carters have influenced all the music we know today. Like the (better-known) Beatles, everything that came after had a note of Carter Family in it.

Not only an extraordinary story, The Winding Stream is a well-produced and visually pleasing documentary, rich with family, detail, and emotion. I will say that in the animation of old black-and-white photographs of the original trio performing their music, the moving, blinking eyes were entirely creepy. But this was a rare treat of a movie. I learned a lot, and the music was outstanding.

Rating: 9 songs saved from extinction by A.P. Carter.

movie: Rear Window (1954)

Happily, after some disappointment with The Birds the other night, I moved directly into another Hitchcock film that pleased me far more. I found Rear Window entertaining, clever, funny, and visually pleasing. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly don’t hurt, of course. But fundamentally, I think murder-mystery ages better than horror, and that is what Rear Window is: not horror, but a noir murder mystery, which is one of my favorite things.

rear windowJames Stewart is L.B. Jefferies (“Jeff”), successful photographer of the adventurous sort, known for action shots, combat and the like. He is laid up with a broken leg, in a wheelchair, in his apartment, which suits him poorly, of course. Also irksome is his girlfriend and would-be fiancé, the lovely Lisa (Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite he feels can’t possibly accept his life on the edge. Bored and bothered, he takes to spying on his neighbors out the window. The entire movie takes place from this perspective: we only ever see the inside of Jeff’s apartment, and the view he sees out its window, into a courtyard and the windows that also look upon it. There’s a middle-aged couple with a little dog; a female sculptor; a young ballerina who entertains many men; a slightly older, lonely woman; a composer struggling with his latest work; and a salesman who appears to be entirely tired of caring for his invalid wife. Jeff is visited by Lisa as well as a nurse, and a police detective friend he calls on for help when he thinks he’s witnessed a murder.

I loved the visuals: both James Stewart and Grace Kelly (particularly in tandem), and the vignette-style views of courtyard and other apartments, almost a shadowbox effect. I loved the survey of lives and loves provided by Jeff’s perspective. The lives he peeks into represent a range of experiences of life, different levels of contentment. I thought the suspense was well-done in a classic, thunder-and-lightning, guns-and-beautiful-ladies style. Even the puzzle itself – the whodunit – was engaging, if imperfect. The business with the flashbulbs struck me as quite ridiculous, but I laughed good-naturedly, because the overall effect of the story, the sets and the cast was so enjoyable. My fourth Hitchcock film is definitely my favorite. Fans of Agatha Christie will be pleased.

Rating: 9 little red pills.

art museums: Intersections, The Infinity Machine, and the Surrealists

I made my first trip to Europe with my then-boyfriend, who had an art degree. We went to Brussels and therefore to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. We spent 8 or 9 hours there, and I have felt an aversion to art museums ever since. (I will say that the Mauritshuis in den Haag is a nice, small art museum filled with classics, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is easy to get through fairly quickly and is worth the time.) Despite this aversion, on a recent visit back to Houston, I went with my mother and my “other parents” (old family friends) to a few art museums on a Friday afternoon.

We started with Intersections, by Anila Quayyum Agha, at the Rice University Art Gallery. The piece is a six-and-a-half-foot cube of laser-cut wooden cube, suspended, with a bright bulb inside, so that the pattern cut out of the cube is projected onto ceiling, floor and walls. That pattern is a complex tessellating geometric design, and a short and very worthwhile video explains that Anila Quayyum Agha was inspired by the Alhambra. As a Muslim woman in Pakistan, she was not allowed into mosques (men only) and had few experiences with their interiors, but was struck by the extraordinary beauty and creative power in the Alhambra (which she was permitted to enter as a tourist.) She also spoke of the construction of this beauty by Muslims, Christians and Jews working together, and called it a “gem” of both artistry and unity between peoples. This was the inspiration for Intersections, whose tessellations echo the tile designs at the Alhambra.

Intersections, Anila Quayyum Agha (with Karen, Susan and Bob)

Intersections, by Anila Quayyum Agha. (With Karen, Susan and Bob). Click to enlarge.

It is a work of light and shadow, geometry and projection. The images on the ceiling and floor (closer to the cube) are crisper than those on the walls (which are further away), so the effect is variable. The cube itself is a work of art (although watch out for that ~600-watt bulb within), and the shadow/light-show another layer of it. People entering the room participate, because the shadows are cast on them (us) too. It was striking and meditative, and free at the University. Good stuff.

Next, after lunch, we went to the Menil campus, and walked first over to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel to see The Infinity Machine, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. This was an excellent counterpoint to Intersections: another room-sized installation playing with light and, in this case, reflection. Many mirrors are suspended on wires and rotate – around as one large constellation, and also in some cases individually. The room is very dark; a docent escorted us in with a flashlight to seat us on a bench until our eyes adjusted. A few lights lit the solar system of mirrors, and we suspect those lights dimmed and brightened or shut off completely or changed colors. It is hard to say, because the effect is disorienting. I had the odd feeling that different mirrors were present upon each rotation: clearly this is not the case, but the view was ever-changing and, I felt, never repeating. It was kind of intense. A soundtrack played, of NASA recordings of solar wind. Perhaps because we had just lunched at the Hobbit Cafe (always a treat), I said it sounded like the Eye of Sauron. I also thought of calling it “dark noise”: like white noise, but darker, spooky. At one point I thought Sauron was coming to get us on a train, with that characteristic clack-clack and growing whoosh. Where Intersections was light, crisp, patterned, and explicitly called for unity, The Infinity Machine was a little foreboding, even threatening – although I was very happy to experience it, and don’t mean that as a criticism. It was fascinating.

We finished with the Menil Collection building, about which I was most ambivalent, but there was a Dalí exhibit! I was enchanted by some of the artifacts in the Arctic Art collection, including a tiny statue of a bust (of a man?) with toddler on its shoulders; it was less than the height of one of my (cut-short) fingernails, and a fraction the width. I quickly browsed the “frottages and rubbings” exhibit. And then surrealism: lots of Victor Brauner and Max Ernest, several Joseph Cornell boxes (an exhibit of whose work first took me to the Menil, in high school), a few Picassos, and oh, Rene Magritte. I love him – although I didn’t feel he fit perfectly in this collection. His images are so crisp and hyper-real, even if they do float in the wrong places. Dalí’s Eggs on a Plate Without the Plate centered this exhibit, which was entitled “The Secret of the Hanging Egg.” But my favorite piece was The Hunted Sky by Yves Tanguy, which transfixed me. I wish I had a full-size print of that in my home to continue to consider, because I feel like I need more time. (You can look it up online but those images do no justice.)

Still, overall and by comparison, I moved through the Menil Collection quickly; I think the room-sized installations are more generally my speed than rooms filled with paintings. But this was a remarkable experience all around. I normally make it into an art museum every year or so, or less often, and generally at my mother’s side (I try to be good-natured about it, she doesn’t drag me). Today’s visit was at least as rewarding as any I can recall. If you find yourself in the neighborhood of either of these big installations, definitely check them out. Everything we saw was free, too (great job, Houston!), so take advantage!

Rating: 9 reflected or projected tones of light.

movie: The Birds (1963)

I am continuing my studies of Hitchcock with The Birds, after reading the short story just the other day. As I anticipated, it changed a great deal in adapting for the screen: in fact, only the concept of the birds attacking carried over; none of the characters or the setting were the same. (It was still set on a shore, but in California, not England.)

the birdsAnd I must admit, this was a sillier movie than Psycho. For one thing, The Birds necessitated special effects, and 1963 special effects do not play well in 2015. The attacking birds were a low point in the action, for their unrealism. (I suspect the sound effects of rioting birds were provided by screeching cats.) For that matter, the threat the birds posed read well on the page, but did not ring true onscreen: much flailing, of people and of birds, but not much evidence of real danger. As in Psycho, drivers persisted in getting into their cars via the passenger door. Also, they walk into one another’s homes – even strangers’ homes – right through the (unlocked) front door, sometimes without knocking. This I find most strange (and it happened in Psycho, too). Was this a 1960’s reality??

The early storyline begins in the bird shop and involves two people engaged in a bit of a feud; this quickly and strangely progresses into gift-giving and making out, which progression was not entirely transparent to me. I was interested in the friendship developing between Melanie and Annie, though. More so than in Psycho, I found a few of these characters to be fairly interesting people, and I liked that most of the key characters were women, Mitch being defined by relationships with mother, sister, ex-girlfriend and new girlfriend. But then our female lead, who had been a fairly strong woman, became a big heap of limp weakness, which was thoroughly disappointing. (Although perhaps unsurprising, considering 1963.) There was one visual, of a moonlit car on beach with birds, that I found striking. Other than that, this one gets a general ‘meh,’ and does not satisfy in the way that Psycho did. I’m happy to believe it did better than this in its own time, but it translates poorly to the modern one.

For me, not Hitchcock’s best.

Rating: 5 crows.

movie: Psycho (1960)

How about a horror movie for Friday the 13th, hmmmm?

I enjoyed this Hitchcock classic. I don’t care what Husband says.

He says he can’t believe people were frightened by this. But I think that 1960 was a different time. Susanne Antonetta writes in Body Toxic, “Nobody was supposed to talk about Psycho. My parents came home unable to sleep.” I can believe that this movie was scarier then; I thought it was scary now, although I certainly noted the ways in which it’s dated: slower paced, longer pauses, far less graphic (on which more in a moment). The psychological question is every bit as chilling as ever. The bones of this movie are still scary; the production is of another era, is all.

Some of the elements for which Hitchcock is known – creative camera angles (downright innovative at the time), stark, simple shots and sets, psychological drama, and in this case, low budget black-and-white – were plainly evident. For that matter, it was graphically violent for its time, I’m told. (We noted that there was strangely little blood in that one scene, but maybe it was a lot by comparison.) It’s a little hard to see these things in context, as I was neither alive nor a movie-goer in 1960 when this film was released. But even from the vantage point of 2015 – when new releases are frantically fast-paced and horror movies flow with blood – I can see the artistry here. It’s a different viewing experience now than it would have been then. Now, it looks vintage, dated, but still charming, and still chilling. Janet Leigh’s pin-up-style beauty is classic; all those shots of her dramatic mascara in black-and-white are arty in a way you don’t really see any more. The one really famous scene was striking, again, whatever Husband may think. I also noted the MacGuffin (a term I learned just the other day while looking up Hitchcock). Actually, the item that bothered me was not a shortage of frightfulness, but a hole in logic: it didn’t make sense to me that Lila and Sam would be so confident in the existence of Mother when they have just talked to two people who saw her buried. (Spoiler in white text – highlight or select to view.)

If you notice I’m being cagey about the plot, it’s because I hold out hope that there may still be someone out there like me, who has never seen this movie and really doesn’t know much going in; and for that person, should I reach her or him, I am avoiding all plot description. Go see it blind, Hypothetical Reader.

I’m on board for the classic thriller/suspense/horror genre, and I like a good psychological twist. More Hitchcock to come.

Rating: 7 sandwiches.

Final note: Husband was deeply frustrated by the consistent habit of drivers, traveling alone, to get in and out of their cars via the passenger-side door, sliding across the bench seat. I have offered that the hoods on these old cars are so long that maybe this really does provide a short cut?

iDiOM Theatre presents Clown Bar

I had a romping and hilarious good time seeing the iDiOM Theatre’s production of Clown Bar with my Husband and parents. This was my first time at the iDiOM Theatre, a tiny, intimate place with just three rows of seats in my section, which allows or necessitates that the players use the audience as part of their stage: awesome.

photo from the Herald

photo from the Herald: click to enlarge

Clown Bar is a work of clown noir, in which a man named Happy – who retired from the funny business to go straight and become a cop – is forced to go back down into the seedy clown underworld to search for his brother’s killer. The play takes place in Clown Bar, a business run by the sinister BoBo. Other literally colorful characters include Petunia (who sidelines as a sex worker), Shotgun (whose name references two meanings of the word), helpful Twinkles, straight-faced Giggles, the terrifying Popo, and of course the unforgettable Blinky Fatale. Also the unfortunately unfunny character Timmy (actually very funny as played), the murdered brother, who we meet in flashback scenes. This is not a play for the whole family: drugs, violence, sexual content including a thoroughly effective burlesque scene (wow!) make for adult entertainment, thank you very much.

I thought this was wonderful stuff. The story is engaging, and I love how it was played: the characters mostly face the audience, making eye contact and interacting with us in lively fashion even as they address one another. They really used the intimate setting. The clown frame was explored not just in fun costumes – although absolutely those – but with mannerisms and theme music. (The music was central, and because this is a small town, we recognized our electrician’s assistant playing the bass.) I jumped off my seat a few times in alarm during this dark and murderous show; but more often I laughed out loud at the antics. Husband and I discussed our favorite characters: I listed pretty much all of them, though, so that is unhelpful.

I commented to Grammy just the other week, when we saw In Your Arms in San Diego, that living in a smaller town means seeing events that are often less polished, less professional Broadway-level work than you see in Houston (or San Diego). And I confess that it was impressive to see In Your Arms, one of those top-level professionally produced plays. But the fact is I really enjoy community-level theatre a great deal, too. Even without the tiny theatre that lets you actually touch the actors, it feels more intimate to see your talented neighbors engaged in a passion that is so entertaining to watch. And I want to be clear: this was not messy amateur work; this was absolutely talented acting, in every role in this play. The fact that it was born closer to home just made it all the more enjoyable to me.

iDiOM Theatre has got the goods. I’ll be back. And Clown Bar is worth the time if you can track it down.

Rating: 8 mixed drinks.

musings on “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean, from Tassava

In reading and rereading some pieces by and about Maclean recently, I was struck by the certainty that my buddy Tassava would love him. He told me he’d read none, so I set out to remedy that. Unsurprisingly, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories was a big hit.

Rivers Run through It

At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.

He follows with some photos that reflect his personal connection to Maclean’s writing.

Henry's Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014), photo by Tassava

Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014), photo by Tassava

Read the rest here.

Thanks, Tassava. I hope you love Young Men and Fire as much as I did, too!


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