Music

Anaïs Mitchell: Young Man in America

Like a Mississippi Mary Poppins, Anaïs Mitchell gets America's wasted youth to tidy their room and sing in harmony.


Anaïs Mitchell

Young Man in America

Label: Thirty Tigers
US Release Date: 2012-02-28
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Anaïs Mitchell's last album Hadestown was a "folk opera" which set Orpheus and Eurydice in "Post-apocalyptic Depression-era America". It drew a guestlist including Bon Iver and Ani Difranco and was rightly lavished with garlands, rosettes and Sheriff badges. A 20-track widescreen wonder worthy of John Ford, it was so epic it had not one but two songs actually called "Epic". One perhaps then approaches its successor with an empty diary, a full fridge and a "Don't Open 'til Christmas" sign on the front door. Yet with its svelte 11 tracks and comparatively slim 45-minute running time, Young Man in America may appear curiously lowkey by comparison. Believe me, it's every bit as panoramic in depiction. It's like The Searchers' Ethan Edwards forever turning his back on that porch with its promise of country comforts and domesticity, back out into the badlands of wild America, where the young man belongs...

Young Man feels initially like you've just stepped onto the set of Deadwood -- beneath a silvery moon, suitcase in hand and a hatful of dreams. "Wilderland" is the sound of howling winds, a swinging noose, rattlin' street lamps, eerie violins, faraway flutes and foreboding tribal drums. "Look upon your children wandrin' in the wilderland", calls out Mitchell in her deceptively angelic tone. It opens the book with a sense of drama, tension, threatening like a gypsy's curse...with added wolves. The next 10 tracks unfold short tales worthy of McCarthy, Faulkner or O'Connor, all told in Mitchell's youthful yet captivating voice and set to some achingly beautiful rustic folk laced with tearful trumpets and serenading strings.

The songs speak of the rise -- but usually fall -- of the American dreamer, seen through the wide eyes of mostly feisty young males. Their tales are timeless and familiar, echoing hungry-heart heroes from On the Waterfront to Days of Heaven to Rumblefish to Into The Wild. Folks looking for salvation, escape from the chains of expectation, their past or even their own shadow. The title track memorably paints one "Ravenous" young man from a broken home whose idyllic mother was a "shelterer" but daddy "did not give a damn". As with all of America's anthems for doomed youth, it's peppered with poignant, pinsharp imagery: "My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog". Its hero swings a defiant fist, proclaiming, "every one will know my name”, but like Tony Montana or Terry Malloy, pride comes before a fall. Through his fading fires stride a New Orleans jazzband marching to another fool's grave fate. "Let me climb back in", pines Mitchell.

Yup, America ain't exactly dressed for no hoedown. The bluegrass blues of "Dyin' Day" recall Springsteen's sombre "Ghost of Tom Joad" with its heavy cross of desperation and inescapable fate. The highway is alive tonight, but every day's "A dyin' day". Elsewhere, the new dawn rising of "Coming Down" glows like a sorrowful sugarspun sister of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down". The pills and the liquor are fading and reality is slowly creeping over the horizon. The sparse piano and calm vocal gently give way to embracing brass. "I never felt so high", sighs its happy sad narrator. Luckily for us listeners, its slow melting ache is as magical as it is melancholy. The darkest moment, though, is "Shepherd". The tune is sweet, the tale not so. About a working farmer whose beloved is heavily laden with child, both devoted to protecting their homestead from the oncoming storm, its tone swiftly turns from "Grim" to "CHRIST, NOOO!" in true Flannery O'Connor style. Let's just say it doesn't end with an enchanting picnic with fancy cakes and lashings of lemonade. Based on one of Anaïs' pa's own stories it shows those Mitchells aren't afraid to tug at your heartstrings as much as yank them out like weeds from your rib cage. It's quietly, bloody terrifying.

But there's more to America than blackclouds, missing handkerchiefs and gravedigging. On the other side of despair is hope, romance and summer's kiss. The upbeat "Venus" kicks with the swing of a Steve Earle salvation song and rolls like a rainbow over a Godless sepia sky. The Disney-fried tale of a young heart struck deep by Cupid's arrow; "She opened her mouth / Birds flew out". It's infectious, uplifting and dashed with Cajun lickin' accordions which all but lift your feet from the ground with their dizzy giddiness. Later, the charming, wistful acoustics of "AnneMarie" finds possibly the same smitten kitten later begging for his boo to forgive him his latest sin. "I'd walk a hundred miles on my knees to see your smile", it prays. It's hard not to picture a roguish Tom Waits, one bended knee soaked in a puddle, flatcap grasped tight to chest and heart unashamedly on sleeve.

Mitchell flips the script a few times though, recasting herself as sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, guardian angel or both. The delicate "He Did" floats like a ghostly troubadour, gently berating one prodigal son for forsaking his inarticulate but lovin' Pa: "Who gave you an empty page to fill?". The clash of expectations and generations. Later the elegant, pin-sharp "Tailor" spins the yarn of a devoted sweetheart who hangs a lil' too tight to every word her beau utters: "When he said he was leaving / I took up the violin". Ultimately she's left unrequited and unfulfilled, a blank canvas ("Who am I? Who am I?"). The parting "Ships" is similarly bittersweet. Lovers entwine at the docks, the boy dreaming of the day his ship comes in, his girl already shipwrecked. The breezy six strings slip beneath a swell of trumpets and violins, simmering the girl's rising contempt. "I'm gonna let my hair down when your ship comes in", she broods defiantly, and the sane world salutes her.

Young Man in America is born from sorrow, suffering, shattered dreams and incendiary youth "waiting on oblivion", yet it's one of the most life-affirming musical journeys you'll have all year. The message is straight, lonesome, sometimes bleak and you may walk away with muddy shoes, but the overall experience is as freshly cathartic and comforting as the first rays of sunshine after a long, bleak winter. It's also painted with such masterful detail and aching, timeless melody it will haunt you long after the last note has played. This may be a portrait of the Young Man in America but it's written by the worldly-wise for those youth burning like Kerouac's desolation angels; mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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