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.

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?

movie: Montage of Heck

Montage of Heck is the recently released documentary about Kurt Cobain’s life, and we got to see it in the theatre during Pickford’s Doctober. In a word, it was an unsurprisingly depressing, but compelling glimpse into an interior life that I did not know a whole lot about. It was well put together and enjoyable (in a depressing way) to watch. It was also fairly interpretive, on which more in a minute.

montage of heckAs a piece of art in its own right, I found this to be a fine film. I like the collage effect, of old home videos, recent video (of interviews with Kurt’s parents, Courtney Love, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, among others), concert footage, stills and animations from Kurt’s journals and sketchbooks, and animations of Kurt’s life. It was dynamic and expressive, like him. I learned a lot about him (I like Nirvana but am no super-fan, and no expert on his life), like that all-too-familiar combination of genius creativity, hyperactivity, and disturbance. I didn’t know about his stomach problems or the ex-girlfriend Tracy. It’s an enthralling story, and this movie made it immediate, and moving.

On the other hand, I am troubled by my lack of understanding of how real any of this is. I said earlier that the film is quite interpretive. The soundtrack includes synthesized and orchestral renditions of Nirvana songs: what would Kurt think about that? And the animations of his journals and sketches assume chronology and intention; who knows for sure? Contemporary footage of Kurt’s father and step-mother leaves the former looking nearly catatonic; I can’t believe there isn’t an editorial angle on that. Kurt’s daughter Frances is a co-executive producer. She’s family; she has as much business here as anyone. But she never knew him, as she was not yet two when he died. Even with the best of intentions, who knows how much she got right? Not to assume she had total control over the content…

Any time an artist dies, their work will be interpreted and presented to the public by someone else. And all artists die, although not all so young as Kurt Cobain. This is not a new concern. But this film did more interpretive work than it necessarily needed to do, and that just got me a little curious, and a little anxious. I like knowing where the line is drawn, and here I don’t know. If I knew more about his life beforehand I’d be better equipped to make judgments, but of course that would come with preconceptions and bias, too. And then there’s this guy who says it’s all a load of sh*t, and who do we believe?

As Husband pointed out, the footage of Kurt and Courtney in their apartment with baby Frances was hard to watch. Some of their home life goofing off was sweet, in a messy way – it really looked like they had fun together – but once there was a baby around it got more straightforwardly disturbing. What did we expect, though?

While I’m exploring expectations: the movie does not deal with his suicide at all, other than stating it in plain white text on a black screen. I’m sure some of us came for the sensationalism of learning more about his death, and those folks will be disappointed. But I can’t argue with the dignity – or maybe just the shying away from pain – involved in turning away. At what point should we expect his family or anyone who loved him to turn his death into movie theatre entertainment? What do we want, crime scene photos of splattered brain matter? I’m okay with this treatment.

This was a pretty great movie, unto itself. But it left me with more questions than answers, and feeling a little unsettled about the idea of Truth. Maybe that’s not the point. Beware Montage of Heck as an authoritative source on the life of Kurt Cobain; but for visual imagery and a moving experience, please enjoy.

Rating: a conflicted 7 unwashed locks.

guest review: movie: Run Free, from Pops

Pops has been to see the documentary film Run Free, which handles the subject matter of Born to Run which he’s earlier reviewed for us. His review is below.

In follow-up to the Micah True, Caballo Blanco story introduced in McDougall’s book, I saw the just-released doc film by Seattle director Sterling Noren: Run Free. Noren began working on the general idea of a film after a chance meeting with True in Mexico in 2009. After Born to Run was published, True heard Hollywood was planning a film so he requested that Noren help tell the “real story” with his own film.

Noren’s film is wonderful; his work benefits from True’s cooperation and many interviews with central characters including McDougall, runner Scott Jurek and Luis Escobar, who also contributes great still photos taken over the years. It features the beautiful & magical Copper Canyon in Mexico, the special native towns there and of course the Tarahumara themselves – and True’s special relationship with the place & its people.

Filming includes the 2012 version of Caballo Blanco’s Copper Canyon ultra race; and then Noren’s crew was on hand for the immediate aftermath when True goes missing in the Gila Wilderness (as I related in my earlier book review.) McDougall’s fun & mythical tale as told in the book becomes starkly real in the film – both in the simplicity of Tarahumara subsistence culture, and the sad poetry of True’s final, fatal run.

The film’s narrative effectively invites us into the eccentric world of its main character & the close network of ultra runners, which makes their role in the wilderness search & subsequent memorial events all the more poignant. It’s a powerful story for those who can connect, from a number of perspectives. For this runner, four decades in, it was that and more.

Thanks, Pops. I’m glad – but not surprised – that you found it so powerful.

movie: Capote

I was so pleased when Husband expressed an interest in watching Capote with me the other night. It’s rare that we agree so easily! And I have some Capote readings coming up – The Early Stories of Truman Capote for a Shelf Awareness review, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a beer-drinking book club; and I do like a little immersion when I get to know a writer. I recall being deeply impressed by In Cold Blood, but I hardly remember Other Voices, Other Rooms at all, so there’s that.

capoteCapote‘s storyline is concerned with the writing of In Cold Blood, with no examination of Capote outside that timeline. Opportunities are missed there, of course, as the man had a fascinating life in general; but as a fan of In Cold Blood I can’t complain. Any work of art, literature, or film has to choose its scope. In this case we are glad to get to meet Nelle Harper Lee (played by Catherine Keener), as she assisted Capote with his research in Kansas: I read somewhere recently that she was an ideal helper there as her soft, Southern femaleness alarmed the Kansans a little less than Capote’s flamboyant New Yorkness (of Southern roots, yes, but still). The late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Capote and does as outstanding a job as I had heard (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor, among others).

The Clutter family has just been killed in rural Kansas. Capote reads about it in the New York Times, and immediately feels that this is a story he needs to write; he takes a train down to Kansas from New York with Nelle, his childhood friend. In their distinct styles – Capote pushier, Nelle more quietly sympathetic – they interview the locals and get the feel for things. Then two suspects are arrested, Dick Hickox and Perry Smith. When Capote first lays eyes on Perry, he changes his plans from an article to a full-length book. “There’s just something about him, he’s so lonely” (I paraphrase wildly). The film emphasizes the connection between Capote and Smith, which reads here, on screen, as somewhere between a strong psychological bond and infatuation. Husband struggled with Capote’s character as he transitions from apparently having a crush on Perry, and getting him a new lawyer to help him out in an appeal (and, as he later acknowledges, help himself out in terms of having a book to research)… to exploiting Perry for his story and being sorry that the man won’t die quickly enough. This makes Capote a less sympathetic character: absolutely true. But is it an accurate depiction of the man? I think quite possibly yes, so don’t hold it against the filmmakers. Finding the protagonist likable is not, I think, a requisite for art.

I was particularly intrigued by and suspicious of the implication that the epigraph for Capote’s final, unfinished work Answered Prayers was a comment on his experience with Perry Smith and In Cold Blood. It was a convenient epilogue to this film, certainly, but I think it’s a bit complex an idea to just throw out with the finishing credits. I’d enjoy exploring Capote’s life and work with this idea in mind, though. Whatever else you might say about him, I think we have to agree that he’s an intriguing guy. My favorite biographical subjects are always those that raise complicated reactions in us, and Capote fits that bill.

Capote is an arty, well-produced and interesting film that mostly follows the true and also interesting story of Truman Capote and In Cold Blood. Hoffman’s acting is very fine: his expression of Capote’s voice, mannerisms and prima donna behaviors are often a little grating but I think that was true of the original, and he does a good job with the character switching Capote used for different scenarios. I enjoyed Capote and Capote both very much.

Rating: 7 cigarettes.

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