Reviews

Dinosaurs on the Ark? Why Not? 'The Revisionaries' Makes the Textbook Debates Fascinating

The "power" here has to do with Texas' influence on textbook selections around the nation: it has to do with numbers, as textbook publishers endeavor to serve (profit from) those schools ordering the most books.


The Revisionaries

Director: Scott Thurman
Cast: Don McLeroy, Ron Wetherington, Kathy Miller, Cynthia Dunbar, Stephanie Klenzendorf
Rated: NR
Studio: Kino Lorber Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-10-05 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

Editor's note: The Revisionaries opens on 26 October at New York's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, as well as theaters in Austin and Los Angeles.

"Open a little wider. Hey Michael, you ever thought much about evolution, the idea that we all share a common ancestry with that tree out front?" A dentist as well as a pastor, Don McLeroy has his hands inside a patient's mouth as he poses this question, then answers it for himself. "I think it's quite a big claim that people make, you know. I'm a skeptic myself. There's no way."

As earnest as McLeroy may be, this early scene in The Revisionaries is unnerving in any number of ways, not least being the camera's hovering close to McLeroy looming over his patient and anticipated convert. As Scott Thurman began filming, McLeroy was still a member of the Texas State Board of Education, and rather infamous as such. The film shows him in various positions of daunting power, insisting that humans walked the earth with dinosaurs (and that a "plenty big" ark made room for two of every creature, including Brontosauri) and, when asked by a TV interviewer whether he once said that the extent of his power on the School Board "boggles [his] mind," he says yes, but "Sometimes I wish I didn’t say that."

And still, the boggling goes on. The film charts the inspiration SBOE Chairman McLeroy provides for other board members, like Cynthia Dunbar (who served from 2007-2011), as they insist that science classes in Texas teach intelligent design, given that evolution is just a "theory." The "power" here has to do with Texas' influence on textbook selections around the nation: it has to do with numbers, as textbook publishers endeavor to serve (profit from) those schools ordering the most books. Well aware of this power, the Texas School Board creationists in the 1980s made a case for teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution: this language is challenged in 2008, and The Revisionaries follows the battle between McLeroy's Republicans and a set of opponents, including Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education and Steve Schafersman, of Texas Citizens for Science.

The SBOE hearings make for remarkable tension here. When SBOE member Ken Mercer contends that Scott, for instance, is opening the door for the teaching of "evolutionary fraud," she agrees that such history is useful to teach, just "like you can teach examples of political chicanery." The camera cuts from Mercer's face to Scott's and back again, while you can hear other hearing participants and audience members chuckle and gasp.

While the arguments become tense and frankly, preposterous (Stephen Colbert offers a brief introduction in a bit from The Colbert Report, indicating both their significance and peculiarity), the film also suggests what’s at stake in this seemingly arcane debate, that is, young students. The creationists are clear enough about how they see the classroom as a means to shape future generations' thinking (and religiosity and righteousness). The film offers as well elementary school science teacher Stephanie Klenzendorf, who appears in her classroom early on: enthusiastic, warm, the sort of teacher you'd love to have, she engages her students in a discussion. When one resists the very word "evolution," setting it in stark opposition to the Bible, she suggests another way to think about it: "Evolution doesn’t mean you can't have religion," she says. In an interview that follows, she explains, "The bottom line is students need to know the science of evolution and they need to be able to ask questions."

This idea, that asking questions is good, sounds like McLeroy's own stated position in his dentist's office, that he's "a skeptic." But The Revisionaries indicates otherwise, that reading the Bible literally shuts down the possibility for questions. The documentary provide interviews with several individuals, and each takes the opportunity to support his or her position; some also argue against the opposition. Ron Wetherington, Physical Anthropologist & Director of Graduate Studies at Southern Methodist University, calls the creationists "masters of deceit," in that they manipulate language, claiming they're making a case for "freedom" rather than constraint. His opponents, of course, charge the "scientists" with trying to limit their freedom.

These oppositions are embodied most emphatically in Wetherington and McLeroy, who meet to debate on a radio show and then again in Wetherington's home (where they perform as adeptly for the camera s they do for their listeners at the radio station). They're cordial with one another. "Science is great," says McLeroy, "But it doesn’t deserve to be placed on the plateau it's placed on." Wetherington comes back, "The purpose of an education is to arm students with the ability to make informed judgment." McLeroy believes he's informed. Wetherington notes "the power of words and words take on new meanings," when they're used to obscure ideology and shut down questioning. "I love your home," McLeroy says as they agree to disagree -- forever. "Thanks for inviting me in here."

It's these exchanges, in the hearing room and classrooms, on television and in homes, that are most perplexing and also most heartening here. Talking is a start, and it's more than what you might see in current mass-mediated presidential campaigning. Actually listening is a next step.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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