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by Eleanore Catolico

23 Nov 2009

A man’s life lived out of a suitcase, Woody Guthrie’s My Dusty Road, inaugurates the new Woody Guthrie Legacy Series on Rounder Records. This four-CD boxed set is literally packaged in a suitcase and vital remnants of Guthrie’s vagabond life: unpublished photos, lyric sheets, a business card, a post card to his wife and a booking card from the 1940s. These are also the cleanest recordings of Guthrie’s work yet to date. His unrivaled folk, full of emotional nuance impresses you upon first listen to My Dusty Road and these songs timelessly revel in the wayward traveler’s experience of America. No wonder Guthrie was Bob Dylan’s signature musical influence. This collection is for those who love Bob Dylan and want to trace the origins of his genius to Guthrie’s masterly crafted and treasured music, as well as anyone interested in American roots music and popular song.

by Eleanore Catolico

23 Nov 2009

When you still have people fingering the chords to “Stairway to Heaven” at your local guitar shop or while playing (insert either Rock Band or Guitar Hero), that’s how you know the meaning of transcendence. Enter Led Zeppelin. Now, rare and never before released photos of the band from their early years as the New Yardbirds to their last performance in London 2007 have been compiled in Led Zeppelin: Good Times, Bad Times. With a foreword by Anthony DeCurtis, Led Zeppelin: Good Times, Bad Times provides a photographic history of the band as ultimate decadent figures of ‘70s culture. Die hard fans and newbies to Led Zeppelin would appreciate this visual lesson in rock and roll glory.

by Valerie C. Gilbert

21 Nov 2009

When it comes to Hollywood and representation of African-American women, I propose that the present decade might be viewed as beginning with Monster’s Ball (2001) and ending with Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire (2009). The two films have much in common.  First, there is Lee Daniels, the producer who, for years, fought tirelessly to bring Monster’s Ball to the screen. Daniels is director of Precious.  Then there is Lionsgate, theatrical distributor for both films in the U.S.

But Monster’s Ball and Precious have more in common than just Daniels and Lionsgate.  Significantly, both films feature poor, black women at the center of a tale that employs “deviant” black sexuality as a theme.  Monster’s Ball, of course, gave us Halle Berry as the hypersexual Leticia Musgrove, a working class widow who seduces a white racist prison guard. Precious gives us an overweight teenager, Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), and her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique).  Mary and her husband have been molesting Precious since infancy.  As the film’s title indicates, Precious is based on Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push.

In the film, the depiction of Precious’ molestation by her father is sufficiently graphic, though fleeting, and the abuser remains anonymous. Onscreen we never actually see the father’s entire face, and offscreen there is no mention of him in the credits. Perhaps, in not identifying the man, filmmakers were trying to avoid the kind of attention that The Color Purple (1985) received for its portrayal of black men. The casting of a man, Lenny Kravitz, as the delivery room nurse who cares for Precious after she gives birth—and who in the novel is gendered as a woman—should further serve to allay any potential criticism regarding black men.

Black women, however, do not fare as well. Though only hinted at in the film, Mary’s sexual abuse of Precious is quite vivid in the book.  Nonetheless, Mary does spend a considerable amount of time onscreen terrorizing Precious with relentless beatings and verbal attacks.  Mary clearly wears the face of evil in this film.

Another factor that ties Monster’s Ball and Precious together is critical acclaim. Halle Berry made history when she became the first African-American woman to win the Leading Actress Oscar for Monster’s BallPrecious is the only film ever to receive the Audience awards at both Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival.  Last year, when Slumdog Millionaire—another film about impoverished non-white people—won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, it went on to win a slew of Oscars, including “Best Motion Picture of the Year.”

Audiences, that is to say, predominantly white audiences, love this film. With a cast that includes Mo’Nique, Kravitz, Mariah Carey, and Sherri Shepherd, and executive producers, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey on board to sing the film’s praises, black audiences are going to love Precious, too.

Bolstering the film’s chances as a serious Oscar contender are credible dramatic performances by the film’s cast.  Though the nomination process has not officially begun, in public appearances, Sidibe has already been asked how she would respond to winning the Academy Award.

Technical elements are commendable, as well. A drab mise-en-scene and actors deprived of hairdos and makeup imbue the film with a sense of realism. Combined with its voice-over narration, at times, Precious feels like a documentary. At other times, clever fantasy sequences that break away from the realism have more of a slick Hollywood feel. For both Precious and the audience, these fantasies provide much needed escape from the hell that is Precious’ life.  More importantly, perhaps, these fantasies allow audiences to derive pleasure from seeing Precious as a glamorous model or an attractive singer in the choir, as someone other than who she really is.

For the screen, Precious has been transformed from an excessively harsh, highly sexualized young woman who is difficult to care about—at least in the beginning—into a rather innocent and likable character that audiences can root for right away.

The screenplay also modifies Push’s crude delivery. With illiterate prose, Sapphire tried to update Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to 1980s Harlem. Though it never happens in the film, in the book, Precious actually reads The Color Purple.  In an Associated Press interview, Winfrey, who played Sofia in the movie The Color Purple says that, “Precious feels like a Celie who lives in Harlem”. Though there are similarities, Push is no Color Purple. Its vernacular lacks the lyricism and poetry of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and produces a style that is more gimmick than genius.

What Push does attempt to do—unlike the Precious screenplay, which panders to a “mainstream” audience—is to position Precious as a political subject. In the novel, for example, Precious often paraphrases Louis Farakhan. In the film, Precious never mentions the Nation of Islam leader. Push also implies that there is a connection between America’s history of white supremacy and the pathological blackness that oppresses Precious.  The film, on the other hand, divorces Precious and Mary from any history, recent or past, that might have contributed to the abominable social circumstances in which they find themselves.

In much the same way, in Monster’s Ball, and against all evidence to the contrary—a Southern setting, an execution (“lynching”) of a black man, a family of racist white men, and a sexually aggressive black woman—many audiences and critics refused to see Leticia as an historical subject.  The dominant reading of the film is not that it reinscribes racial ideology and long-held beliefs about black women’s sexuality.  But rather, the preferred interpretation is that interracial “love” can transcend generations of racism.

That Precious has survived, and has the will to move forward is certainly a testament to the human spirit. Not only has she been physically, psychologically, and sexually abused by both parents; she is overweight, semi-illiterate, and she’s on welfare. She also has two babies by her father, one with Down’s syndrome. To top it off, Precious is HIV positive.

In naming the film’s website address, “we are all precious”, marketing executives tell us that Precious can stand in for anyone who has ever had a problem and not given up. In this “post-racial” era, a character like Precious need not represent just the poor, the downtrodden, or the historically oppressed black woman. And since we are all precious, there is no need to question why, in one of the richest nations on earth, any child would have to grow up this way.

Despite how high the odds are stacked against Claireece Precious Jones, the message of Precious, we are instructed, is one of inspiration and hope.  The only hope I am left with is that the Academy, which rarely honors African Americans, won’t offer yet another award to a film or individual actors at the expense of sanctioning racial ideology about black women.

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2009

There is nothing worse than child abuse of any kind - physical, psychological, sexual. It’s a demonstration of power perverted, of adults taking advantage of impressionable and vulnerable minors in the cruelest, most shocking way conceivable. For a long time, it was a hidden shame, the subject of hush-hush whispers across suburban fences and the occasional sensationalized nightly news broadcast. But sometime around the mid ‘80s, the cause of exploited children everywhere gained a massive international profile. Today, we’ve gone to the opposite extremes, making the protection of kids our main social priority. No longer is the subject pushed back into the shadows of family scandal. Instead, it’s offered up as a kind of callous cautionary tale, a reason for mothers and fathers to stay ever vigilant - both of their own actions, and the unforgiveable acts of others.

So where does this leave a movie like Precious (actually entitled Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire)? Within its undeniably powerful narrative and bravura performances is something so dark, so literally unwatchable at times that the level of pain which our overweight teenage heroine endures seems worse than inhuman. It’s beyond Herculean and almost otherworldly in its terrifying truth. But this raises another, almost unthinkable issue. Why? Indeed, why does an audience have to sit through what ends up being nearly two hours of emotional and physiological torture for a final pronouncement that seems to do little except confirm the hopelessness of the situation? While amazing acting and concise direction can carry us past such problems, the overwhelming bleakness of being dragged through this character’s unfathomable torment leaves you feeling stained…and unsatisfied.

by Tyler Gould

20 Nov 2009

Savath y Savalas
The Predicate (Dub Version)
(Stones Throw)
Releasing: January [CD] Now [digital]

The Predicate (Dub Version) is a Guillermo Scott Herren (Prefuse 73) remix of his group’s La Llama, and if you find “Pavo Real Plucked” to your liking, you can pick up the digital pre-release over at Stones Throw.

SONG LIST
01 Adeu Salutation
02 Abri.l Closed
03 Pavo Real Plucked
04 Pajaros En Cadaques Shot
05 The Predicate and the Library
06 Me Voy and Resolved
07 La Loba Collection
08 There Is No Love in Your Heart
09 Me Voy Alone
10 Lamento Pobre Y Salida

Savath y Savalas
Pavo Real Plucked [MP3]
     

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