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by Chris Barsanti

3 Nov 2007

Having already cut his teeth as an illustrator for the ne-plus-ultra of American nonfiction comics, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Josh Neufeld would already be considered a dead-on solid choice for the right guy to do an epic graphic treatment of Hurricane Katrina. Add to that the fact that not long after the hurricane slammed through the Gulf Coast, Neufeld spent three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi, Mississippi, soaking up stories of the storm and its aftermath (which he blogged and then collected as a self-published book, Katrina Came Calling), and you have what seems to be a perfect match. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is Neufeld’s webcomic, published by one of the more exacting online magazines, SMITH, lives up to its promise by being the exact kind of knowing and humane document the victims of Katrina well deserve—and the rest of us need. Parceled out in a dozen installments a month at a time (it’s now up to Chapter 7, “The Bowl Effect”), A.D. follows five real people, and their assorted relatives and friends, through the buildup to Katrina, and what they went through after.

While the webcomic format is an attractively democratic one, requiring hardly anywhere near the resources that physical printing does, there are some limitations here. SMITH‘s previous comic, the justly acclaimed Will Eisner-nominated war satire Shooting War, benefited from the jaggedly episodic structuring, packed as it was with dramatic close-ups and sharp angles. Neufeld’s more graceful construction may in fact look better on the printed page once some publisher wises up and puts it out there (Shooting War was picked up by Grand Central for publication this month). That being said, Neufeld makes good use of the expanded abilities offered by the web, embedding appropriate links, like to the National Hurricane Center’s archived site for a particular date, and even sticking in MP3s at critical junctures in the story. For all this new media construction, though, Neufeld never lets the format take over from his elegantly elegiac story; all of which is taken, by the way, word-for-word from accounts of the people it depicts. And somehow, even though there’s of course no question about how things will turn out, Neufeld keeps you coming back, month after month, to see not necessarily what happens but who it happens to.

by Bill Gibron

3 Nov 2007

So, apparently, it all comes down to this – fear of not having insurance vs. fear of a massive government bureaucracy guaranteeing your health care coverage. Well being over less legislative interference, the free market up against a nation reeling from the physical/financial/social aftereffects of so many unprotected. It was the firmament that led to the creation of one of America’s largest self-regulating monoliths – and one of 2007’s best films. For most, unfortunately, the Red State reactionary view of a bloated liberal agency metering out our tax dollars like slop at a Depression soup kitchen is more than reason enough to back off. When Michael Moore proposed that the US’s already mangled managed medical conglomerate needed shaking up, he expected attacks. It’s been part and parcel of everything he’s done. But this time, his critics were out for blood.

Whether it was condemning GM for driving jobs out of small towns (Roger and Me), slamming the obsession with guns (Bowling for Columbine) or deconstructing the Bush Administration’s War of Terror (Fahrenheit 9/11), Moore is an agent provocateur disguised as Everyman, a jester as journalist, an advocate with his heart in the right place and his fact checker frequently out to lunch. And yet there is no denying the power in his bully pulpit bravado, his in-your-face confrontations and ‘what, me worry’ political presence. For most, his latest film SiCKO (now out on DVD from Genus Products) didn’t just scream for change – it practically called you a coward for thinking otherwise. But four months, and a carefully orchestrated smear campaign later, the Oscar winning documentarian has once again been reduced to his same old loveable reactionary self, labeled by those who loathe him as making up facts to forward a ridiculously narrow-minded proto-Marxist agenda. Oh yeah, and he’s fat and a liar too.

Except, almost none of that is true. Fault him for failing to provide his audiences with a 150% accurate depiction of the truth (at least in the way you see it), but SiCKO stands as one of the great big picture pronouncements ever forwarded. It’s masterful as well as manipulative, pointed without being passive. It’s easy to undermine Moore’s vision of a US wallowing in self-imposed liability denial. He deals in generalizations and obvious examples, avoiding the nuances frequently utilized to gray up a typically black and white issue. The reality that millions of Americans bankrupt their lives to simply see a doctor or seek treatment for a nagging complaint remains the film’s strongest sentiment. Then, just to make us feel worse, the director travels around the world and points out examples of nations that do a better job of protecting their people than the supposed superpower. No wonder people are pissed.

SiCKO is indeed like having a smart alecky know it all rub your face in an obvious fact and then call in his international friends to Greek Chorus its mockery. After all, when a French citizen scoffs at the concept of paying for care, or when a Brit belly laughs over the notion of needing insurance, who exactly do you think they’re laughing at? Uncle Sam may seem like a stalwart old soul, but Moore manages to find numerous captivating ways to make him feel like an enfeebled coot. The movie’s main masterstroke remains the decision to journey 90 miles south of Miami and let Cuba deal with some sick September 11th workers. It’s not bad enough that we can’t cure - or even cotton – to our unhealthy heroes, but the freedom hating Commies who’d like nothing better than to see capitalism fall are suddenly playing Florence Nightingale.

During the 18th Century when Britain was facing a growing tide against its involvement in the slave trade, members of Parliament argued that eliminating the reliance and use of indentured labor would mean the end of the Empire. Naturally, when the practice was eventually outlawed, England didn’t die. It thrived and remained a massive colonial force. SiCKO suggests something equally radical – the dismantling of a TRILLION dollar a year kingdom where the clientele is exclusive and the eventual customer frequently underserved. And those who use economics as a yoke to maintain the subpar status quo argue that eradicating this corporate cash cow would mean the end of the US. Sadly, said alarmists fail to fathom that the Federal Government already subsidizes nearly 50% of all health care anyway.

And then there’s the big bad ‘B’ word – “bureaucracy”. It’s a tough one to get around. People see the HMO catastrophe (something SiCKO does a devastating job in denouncing) and the current near crisis state, and wonder how an entity that can’t help hurricane victims in a timely manner is going to respond to someone’s reoccurring cancer. Anxiety attacks and blind panic typically occurs. Instead of agreeing with Moore that such a vicious Catch-22 cycle must stop, instead of taking his examples as heartfelt and endemic illustrations of the system’s significant flaws, the critics have labeled his efforts incomplete. Apparently, one needs to find a model that perfectly mirrors every concern that every individual has, and then anticipate ones that may come up in the future before it is considered valid.

Of course, such a scenario is impossible, if not improbable, and leads to one of SiCKO’s biggest lessons – the powerful can prevent any change by simply crapping in the already murky waters. As part of the new DVD version of the film, Moore adds seven brand new featurettes (totaling about 45 minutes in additional running time) that highlight how vicious and vicarious the reactions have been. One concentrates on the attacks by Republicans (and their noxious overuse of the word ‘utopia’), a country even better than France, England, Canada, and Cuba when it comes to health care (it’s Norway) and how community fundraising is used to bolster many an uninsured patient’s bottom line. Of course, the director can’t resist adding more fuel to the already raging inferno. There is a piece on a poor Latino man who died from a lack of insurance, and a brief snippet of a Cuban nun describing how her homeland doesn’t deny the right to religion. Man, Moore just doesn’t learn, does he?

Perhaps the most telling indictment overall of the adversaries depicted in the film and in the DVD extras is the lack of viable counter resolutions. Instead of saying “Moore is mad as a hatter, here is how you save US health care”, they call him a propagandist and a charlatan, any number of grade school level taunts and slanders, and then leave the solvency part of the debate for another day (that will never come, naturally). From the material presented, one gets the distinct impression that it’s easier to demean SiCKO’s message (and messenger) without ever once proposing a possible answer. It’s as if, by magic, the millions of uninsured will wake up one day and find a company that will cover them, the money to make the elephantine payments, and the constitutional wherewithal to avoid getting ill in the future (a business has got to make a profit, right?). Talk about your utopias.

What sells SiCKO, in the end, is its combination of warning and wit. This is a very funny, frequently flabbergasting film. It trains an informative eye on the dirty little secret that lobbyists and professional politicians don’t want you to know and then mocks their mealy mouthed retorts. There is more old boy network fornication going on between the government and the medical industry than either side would be proud of sharing, and when you see just how deep the hooks are in, you can’t help but feel like there’s nothing you can do. Of course, Moore disagrees. His numerous websites are currently set up to use this film as a stepping stone for a much larger, grass roots oriented attack on the individuals who still want the minutia to manage the discussion. What SiCKO aims to provide, beyond the occasional snicker and the wealth of heartbroken tears, is rally consensus around a single fact – the richest nation in the world does one of the worst jobs of making sure all its citizens have access to affordable healthcare. He’s not advocating socialism. He’s not out to see millions unemployed just to make sure little Johnny can get his shots for school.

No, what SiCKO wants is an end to the senseless stranglehold the medical haves constantly use against the uninsured have-nots. Even better, he wants costs put into perspective while keeping quality high. He wants people to take back the power granted to them inherently by the Forefathers and their so-called Constitution, to tell those who make policy that they work for them, not the other way around. If he has to do so in outrageous, atypical terms, so be it. If the worst an opponent can do is say that things aren’t so great in France, that care in Canada is not a day at the Great White North beach, that Americans have it pretty darn good (if and when they can get in to see a doctor) then they are missing the point. There is a bigger issue poised to pull all of us under. SiCKO – the film and the DVD – want to warn us away from confrontation and embrace change before it’s too late. Unfortunately, it may already be. 

by Bill Gibron

2 Nov 2007

For the weekend of 02 November, here are the films in focus:

American Gangster [rating: 8]

American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details.

Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters – at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?  read full review…

Bee Movie [rating: 7]

While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp.

While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed. read full review…

Wristcutters: A Love Story [rating: 7]

Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience.

Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90 minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands. read full review…

Martian Child [rating: 5]

Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics.

Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced – both personal and social – were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges. read full review…

by Jillian Burt

2 Nov 2007

Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama by Maya Lin

Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama by Maya Lin

When I first started hearing reports on the protests by Burmese monks a couple of months ago Wayne Shorter’s musical portrait of the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi came to mind. Not the sparkling stillness of the version on the 1997 album he made with Herbie Hancock but the version recorded live on a concert tour in 2001, released on an album called Footprints - Live. It’s played faster and louder and momentum has gathered around the tune’s strong, clear heart.

Burmanet reports that internet access has been cut off within Burma and a man has been jailed for speaking to the foreign media:

A spokesperson of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy [Aung San Suu Kyi’s party], Nyan Win, who is also a lawyer, said that talking to the media is not illegal in Burma. However, there is also no real rule of law in Burma so people sometimes are sentenced to prison for talking to the media.

“The media gives information to people,” said Nyan Win. “Giving information to media means you are contributing to the good of society. If he was arrested for talking to the media, it is a big mistake.”

However, in Burma there are frequent reports of people arrested and sentenced to prison for giving information to foreign media and even for listening to foreign language news media, such as the BBC, VOA and Radio Free Asia.

Burmanet. Nov 1, 2007

In October, at the beginning of the recent series of protests by Burmese monks, which included marches past the house where Aung San Suu Kyi is being held under arrest, Pankaj Mishra wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian on the moral authority the monks inspire.

Certainly, the Burmese generals know the way the world works. Apparently isolated, they play shrewdly the game of international realpolitik, buying the silence of their two rising and needy neighbours, democratic India as well as authoritarian China, with oil, gas and timber. However, to such a ruthlessly amoral politics, based on purely rational self-interest, the moral and spiritual values of religion can and often do pose a challenge.

No doubt devotees of science and rationality will continue to call for a religion-free politics. But what the Burmese demonstrators prove is that, as Gandhi said, “those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics”.

“I find it impossible to listen to music while writing, but I cannot imagine traveling or indeed almost doing anything else, without it. And nothing matches music’s ability to create specific moods, or briskly evoke places and times remote from me,” Pankaj Mishra said when compiling a playlist for the New York Times Book Review’s blog, Paper Cuts. On his list is music from jazz performers Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. Last week in The New York Times Pankaj Mishra reviewed a book about John Coltrane and the way that the personal hardships and spiritual yearnings that jazz musicians express in their music have become powerful symbols in struggles for freedom around the world. 

In his book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ben Ratliff writes:

His work became unofficially annexed by the civil rights movement: its sound alone has become a metaphor for dignified perseverance. His art, nearly up to the end, was not insular, and kept signifying different things for different people of different cultures and races. His ugliest music (to a certain way of thinking) is widely suspected of possessing beauty beyond the listener’s grasp, and the reverse goes for his prettiest music — that it is more properly understood as an expression of grave seriousness. There is more poetry written about him, I would guess, than about any other jazz musician. And his religious quests through Christianity, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Sufism are now embedded, ex post facto, in his music. In pluralistic America, it has become hard not to hear Coltrane’s modal music — in which an improviser, freed from chordal movement, becomes free to explore — as a metaphor for a personal religious search.

Pankaj Mishra observes that John Coltrane’s later abstract compositions resembled the “scalar complexity of North Indian classical music more than anything in the Western tradition” and reports that Coltrane read widely, “from Aristotle to Krishnamurti, and borrowed from ancient Indian ragas as well as Western atonal music”.

Ratliff is too young to fall for the strident 1960s interpretation that Coltrane’s more maniacal music reflected black rage and frustration. Instead, he suggests, intelligently and persuasively, that Coltrane had, among other attributes, a “mystic’s keen sensitivity for the sublime, which runs like a secret river under American culture.” “Coltrane,” Ratliff writes, “was acutely self-possessed in his identity as an artist, at a time when a lot of celebrated American art had become seen as a kind of sanctuary, an escape from military conspiracies, war and television.”

Certainly Coltrane was serenely indifferent to the easier commercial and political temptations of the 1960s. It was after acquiring a mainstream audience with “My Favorite Things,” a big radio hit in 1961, that he expanded his experiments with modal music, which he then interrupted to record some beautifully melodic ballads. Anyone committed to confronting a white middle-class audience with the musical equivalent of Bobby Seale’s speeches wouldn’t have recorded “Lush Life” with Johnny Hartman or so wonderfully and definitively reconfigured “In a Sentimental Mood” with Duke Ellington.

Yet John Coltrane also reported clearly and unambiguously on that often explosive territory where religion and politics meet. His song,

John ColtraneAlabama, is a tribute to four young girls killed in the bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

In 1963 Martin Luther King decided to launch a non-violent assault on Birmingham, Alabama—the bastion of segregation. Within days 2,500 protesters swamped Birmingham jails. After ten days the authorities caved in. Birmingham was the civil rights movement’s biggest victory. The protests had a massive impact—there were 758 demonstrations against racism and 14,753 arrests in 186 US cities in the ten weeks that followed Birmingham, culminating in the historic march on Washington.

Coltrane never described himself as a political activist—he was a musician first and foremost. He was also a deeply religious person. But it was his deep-seated humanity that drew him towards the civil rights movement. In 1964 Coltrane played eight benefit concerts in support of King. He also recorded a number of tracks inspired by the struggle—‘Reverend King’, ‘Backs against the Wall’ and his album Cosmic Music was dedicated to King. Events in Birmingham would also move him to write ‘Alabama’.

On the Sunday morning of 15 September 1963 a dozen sticks of dynamite were planted by white racists in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10.45am the bomb went off, killing four young black girls aged between 11 and 14.

Coltrane wrote the song ‘Alabama’ in response to the bombing. He patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King’s funeral speech. Midway through the song, mirroring the point where King transforms his mourning into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism, Elvin Jones’s drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage. He wanted this crescendo to signify the rising of the civil rights movement.

Martin Smith. Socialist Review. October, 2003

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 movie

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie

Jazz Demands Action Now

Contemporary jazz musicians Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis wrote and performed music for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s movie about Malcolm X and all three have commented upon and become involved with reporting on the way Hurricane Katrina broke the heart of New Orleans. Spike Lee made the documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”.

An interview with Spike Lee runs on the HBO website.

HBO: What was the thing that devastated you more than anything, about what happened in New Orleans?

Spike Lee: The thing that’s very hard for me, and I think’ll be hard for any filmmaker who has to ask difficult questions, especially when you’re asking people who’ve lost loved ones, is that, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, it was my job, it was my duty to ask some difficult questions that I knew would stir up feelings…that would make people break down. Now, that was not my intention. But we have people talk about how their whole life has been changed.

So it’s very important that the audience, not just here in the United States but all over the world, hear these stories from these individuals, these witnesses, who saw the horror of what happened in New Orleans.

HBO: There were so many stories, and I’m sure even today you still hear stories that you haven’t heard that just horrify you. How did you decide which you were gonna go with?

Spike Lee: Well, when you choose the stories a lot of it depends who’s telling the story and who can convey that story. Everything you shoot cannot make it into the final film. So, myself along with my editor and producing partner Sam Pollock, we thought long and hard about what goes, and what stays.

Branford Marsalis, his father Ellis and brother Wynton are all jazz musicians and the family is from New Orleans. Terence Blanchard is also from New Orleans and he and Wynton Marsalis are featured in “When the Levees Broke”.

Musician Wynton Marsalis considers music to be central to the everyday lives of New Orleaneans, saying, “The reason music came from us is we had a lot of ceremonies that required music. We have produced great musicians in every type of form you can think of - jazz, blues. It’s all a part of people’s everyday lives.”

Fellow New Orleans native and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, a musician and composer on several of Lee’s films, including WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, believes artists will find inspiration from Katrina. “Out of this experience there’s going to come some amazing music, because the musical culture of this city has never been driven by anything other than pure honesty and pure passion,” he notes. “And with the artists that are from this city, there’s going to be some amazing things that’s going to flourish as a result of this.”

HBO synopsis for “When the Levees Broke”.

Within a year Terence Blanchard had released “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” based upon the music that he wrote for Spike Lee’s documentary. And on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Branford Marsalis became the first guest editor of the jazz magazine, Downbeat, and reflected upon how the disaster had affected the musicians of the city. He asked the New Orleans Times Picayune writer Lolis Eric Elie to write about how the architecture of New Orleans has influenced the city’s music, in the way that the houses were built close together in New Orleans, allowing parades led by musicians to gather a big, fast “second line” following a wedding or a funeral.

“The term ‘second line’ is an evolving one. Years ago, brass bands accompained funeral processions in many parts of the country. New Orleans was different, though. After the traditional dirges accompanied the body and its mourners to the graveyard, we processed back to the church social hall with the sound of happy, dancing music. The family and the band, they were the official parts of the procession, the first line if you will. The second line was that group of folks who chose to join the procession as dancers and onlookers. Eventually the term second line was being applied not only to these people but to the dance they did and to the whole parade itself. In other parts of the country the tradition of lively music at funerals died out. Here it evolved and strengthened. These days, most second line parades are organized by social aid and pleasure clubs strictly for fun, not funerals. Still, one of the bumper stickers you see around town reads, “New Orleans: We put the ‘fun’ in funeral”.

Lolis Eric Elie. Downbeat. September, 2006

In May this year NPR reported that many of the marching bands in New Orleans are short on funds. One of the most successful bands to have come from this tradition, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, re-interpreted Marvin Gaye’s essay on the civil rights era, What’s Going On?, song for song, as a response to Hurricane Katrina and to raise money to help their local musical colleagues. 

“It just made sense in light of all that happened with the storm,” says trumpeter Gregory Davis, who with fellow Dirty Dozen co-founders Roger Lewis (baritone and soprano sax), Kevin Harris (tenor sax) and Efrem Towns (trumpet, flugelhorn), make up the group’s core.  “But even beyond that, to ask ‘What’s going on?’ in the world makes sense.  What happened with 9/11, what happened with the tsunami, what happened with the earthquakes over in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s happening with the so-called war.  What’s really going on?”

“It’s a timely question,” adds Harris.  “What the hell is going on?  It’s been freaky out there.  Bad enough when human beings are snapping at each other left and right, but when nature is drowning thousands of people with tsunamis and hurricanes and scourges?  Things are changing, getting strange.”

Dirty Dozen Brass Band website

Joni Mitchell and jazz musician Charles Mingus

Joni Mitchell and jazz musician Charles Mingus

Joni Mitchell. For Free.

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free

Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
Ive got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if youre a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free

Joni Mitchell. “For Free.”

About five years ago Joni Mitchell explosively bowed out of the mainstream recording industry but not music itself, and her new album Shine seems to receive more press for the fact that it’s on the Starbucks recording label (which has had hits with albums by Ray Charles and Paul McCartney) than its content. The critics debate whether a multinational chain of coffee stores is more or less ethically bankrupt than the multinational entertainment conglomerates. Paul Sexton, writing in The Guardian in May wrote that Mitchell’s first venture with Starbucks was selecting some of her favorite jazz standards for a compilation album for them in the late 1990’s. “Her rebirth came about, improbably, when she asked her management if they could arrange for her to compile a CD for Starbucks’ Artist’s Choice series,” he writes. Mitchell ... “listened to everything I ever loved, to see if it held up, and much did. So I put together one that starts with Debussy, then takes a journey up through Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and then Louis Jordan. That joyous music was conceived in such terrible times - and it was such a great relief to the culture at the time. That’s the trouble with now. Now we’ve got a horrible culture, horrible times and horrible music.” Sexton identified the ultimate hopefulness of Shine. “But Mitchell is determined that, concerned though she is about the state of the world, her return to recording does not come across as embittered heckling. It shouldn’t. Pieces such as “Shine” and “If” (inspired by Rudyard Kipling) emanate bruised but unbroken optimism, not to mention an absolute refusal to be musically classifiable: one moment she’s jazz, the next classical, then occasionally pop.”

Australian composer and music writer Andrew Ford, who is a skilled and warm interviewer on The Music Show on ABC Radio National, wrote a review of The Joni Mitchell Companion edited by Stacey Luftig, for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2001. He wrote that the difficulties Joni Mitchell has encountered in being taken seriously for her excursions into jazz may lie with how she was perceived early in her career when young women took her music deeply to heart in the way that they’d also embraced Sylvia Plath’s poetry. The soft and tender musical enthusiasms of these young women wouldn’t have extended to jazz. “But the female artists—Mitchell, Plath, and Elizabeth Smart, the author of Grand Central Station—explored human feelings with searing honesty, exposing their emotional nerve endings in a manner that would first have embarrassed then terrified most men,” Ford wrote. “And who was it that, for the most part went on to become music critics?”

On Court and Spark she recorded “Twisted”, Annie Ross’s famous verbalization of Wardell Grey’s saxophone solo, and she did it as though born to the jazz purple. Now she began to work regularly with jazz musicians such as John Guerin, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Don Alias and the Brecker Brothers. The climax of this period was her collaboration with the dying jazz great Charles Mingus. Taking a handful of Mingus’s instrumental compositions, Mitchell put her own words to them. For the most part, they’re rather wistful numbers (melodically and lyrically), but on “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”, there’s a playfulness in Mitchell’s vocalese that reminds one of “Twisted”.

It was not, perhaps the wisest change of direction ever taken by a pop singer, since it disaffected precisely the two groups of people whose support was needed if the move into jazz were to succeed. On the one hand, and notwithstanding Mingus’s seeming approval of Mitchell, the jazz aficionados sneered, as jazz afficionados will. And of course on the other hand, the college girls were terribly disappointed. They had spent the early 1970’s memorising Joni’s songs, learning to play them on their retuned guitars and growing their hair. For their pains they were now being offered Wayne Shorter’s saxophone solos.

Andrew Ford. Sydney Morning Herald, 2001.

When he released River: The Joni Letters, an album of his interpretations of some Joni Mitchell songs recently Herbie Hancock told the Associated Press: “She has the courage to express what she really feels and believes in,” he said. “She’s not afraid to openly voice her viewpoint on the crises of the era ... and she does it in such a beautiful and imaginative way. ... And so as a humanitarian, Joni Mitchell really reflects her belief in the dignity of human life and its relationship to our environment.” He includes two instrumental pieces that he suggests link Joni Mitchell to jazz: “Solitude” from a Duke Ellington collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus in 1962, and “Nefertiti” which Hancock and Wayne Shorter first played with Miles Davis in the 1960’s. 

In February Joni Mitchell talked to David Yaffe of the New York Times about a ballet based around her songs, called The Fiddle and the Drum, that she was collaborating on with Canadian Jean Grande Maitre of the Alberta Ballet.

She thought about how the Maya calendar ends in 2012, about the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. What, she wondered, what do you write at the end of the world?

“I haven’t written in 10 years, and what’s coming out of me is all sociological and theological complaint,” she said while staring at the lighted end of an American Spirit cigarette. She sees herself as a proud heretic: “At first I thought I was going over new territory, but then I realized that many of the people who went over this territory were killed.”

“The Fiddle and the Drum” features two of her new songs: “If,” based on the Rudyard Kipling poem about war and stoicism (“Just about my favorite poem,” she says), and “If I Had a Heart, I’d Cry,” criticizing what she calls the current “holy war.” The rest of the ballet, named for a 1970 antiwar ballad from her second album, “Clouds,” is dominated by material from her ’80s and ’90s albums, which are more rhythmically charged (and hence better for dance) than her earlier work.

The backdrop is composed of stills from Ms. Mitchell’s mixed-media art exhibition. One night while she was flipping through “The Gold Diggers of 1937,” CNN and the History Channel on her ancient television (she is something of a Luddite and only recently got a decent stereo system), her screen went on the fritz, blurring images and turning everything a radioactive emerald. Faces melted away, and lines of bodies seeped into the frightening indistinctness of nightmare, as though the malfunctioning television were offering a metaphorical political commentary. She could no longer tell soldier from chorus girl, battle casualty from lover, the dancer from the dance.







by Bill Gibron

2 Nov 2007

MARTIAN CHILD (dir. Menno Meyjes)

Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced—both personal and social—were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges.

After the death of his beloved wife, a successful sci-fi author named David finds himself in a major funk. It’s been a couple years, but he remains locked in a spiral of depression that has produced a bad case of writer’s block. Problem is, his pushy agent has promised their publisher a sequel to his recent bestseller. Adding fuel to his ‘feel bad’ fire, a local adoption agency is calling, wondering if he’s still interested in the adoption he had planned with his late partner. After a series of psychological slides, David meets Dennis, an odd little boy who believes he’s from Mars. Hiding in a box to avoid the sun, the child states, matter of factly, that he is on a mission to study humans and must complete it before being called ‘home’. David is initially taken aback. He’s sure he can’t handle such an unusual and needy kid. But as they begin to bond, the scribe realizes that Dennis is the perfect boy for him. He too felt like an outcast when he was young, and while the ersatz ET may be taking it to an extreme, David feels a solid, loving bond. Now he has to show the rest of the world the same.

Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics. It gives John Cusack a role that fits his pleasant if perplexed persona expertly, a supporting cast that sets off his performance well, and an unusual narrative conceit—a kid who thinks he’s an alien—to make its rather obvious points. As a foster child, shuttled from home to home like an easily returnable catalog item, little Dennis has every right to feel displaced and disconnected. But by using such an extreme illustration of this concept, the movie sets itself up to fail. Unless the boy is really from another planet, which itself reeks of narrative desperation, you end up with a clichéd conceit that’s predictable from the moment we see him onscreen. It will require extra smart writing and superbly skilled direction to make this potentially implosive mix work. Sadly, Menno Meyjes and his pair of novice scribes can’t deliver on said challenge.

There are moments when this movie feels like an underage version of Rain Man, Dennis driven in 15 different directions by the made-up mandates in his head. This is especially true of the mandatory custody hearing where, in order to stay with David, our anxious little boy simple regurgitates maxims his wannabe dad delivered several scenes before. We’re supposed to find it clever. In fact, it’s slightly distressing. If Dennis is only capable of communicating via the rote repetition of things he barely understands, what is going to happen if he’s never fully “cured”. Martian Child really never takes a stand on the kid’s obvious psychological issues. It merely treats them as a slightly unsavory eccentricity and leaves it at that. Even worse, David is an enabler of the worst kind, caring more for love substitute than the object of said affection. It’s only when he ‘accidentally’ kisses costar Amanda Peet that we recognize he may actually try to help the boy.

Dennis does remain the film’s main pitfall. Precociousness, by its very nature, is equally ingratiating and aggravating. There’s simply a very fine line between bewitching and beating on the brat, so you have to be careful how you approach said subject. Child actor Bobby Coleman plays his interplanetary prodigy in a lilting, feather light whisper that’s supposed to suggest fragility, but really reads as scarred and scared. With a face full of sunblock and ruby red lips jutting out from behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, he’s a pre-teen Roger Smith impersonator. His highly unusual quirks—taking photos of people, collecting artifacts from their lives (otherwise known as stealing), and fretting to the point of breakdown over idle events—aren’t really endearing. In fact, the way he holds onto them can be downright disturbing. The boy has clearly lost his grip on reality, and yet Martian Child finds this cutesy. If anything, it’s cloying.

Cusack comes across much better, if equally deprived. Substituting grief for homosexuality is a ruse that’s almost unforgiveable. In fact, it removes a crucial theme about tolerance that could have been effectively explored. Since the whole film is really focused on learning to love someone despite their implied social flaws, divesting the story of such subject matter smacks of PC thuggery. Even worse, it excises a mandatory parallel between Dennis and his Dad. Whose separation from the real world is more understandable—a grieving man (two years and counting) or a gay man? One is three hanky manipulation. The other is a Red State rallying cry.  By failing to have the nerve to address Gerrold’s preference, Martian Child makes a calculated artistic decision. It’s possible the filmmakers didn’t want to cloud the connection between parent and child by mucking things up with sexuality. An enlightened viewer can’t help but view the choice in less than noble terms. 

Of course, this isn’t the only problem the production faced. Martian Child is one of those ‘on the shelf’ specials that went through massive reshoots when the ending tested less than positively. Even then, it took almost another year before the movie made it into theaters. Clearly, the focus groups were less than impressed with the results. If you don’t mind your family drama on the decidedly ‘melo’ side, if you couldn’t care less about the real story behind this superbly saccharine schmaltz, if all you require of your entertainment is simply sketched characters, a formulaic set of obstacles, and a good cry at the end, then this film clearly delivers. Those wanting insight into the issues facing adoptive parents, especially when dealing with emotionally damaged juveniles, need to look elsewhere. This isn’t Child of Rage after all—something the movie itself makes us well aware of.

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