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Cleveland Heights, A City of Culture and Contrasts

Simon Warner

. . . in the midst of difference -- wealth and education here, poverty and despair just over there -- Americans retain an essential respect for the symbols of the city, the physical pillars of the nation.

In July, I spent a few days in the US on business at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and enjoyed getting to know, if all too briefly, an American city I'd never had the chance to visit before. So, excuse me, if this month's ramblings and rumblings have more of a transatlantic twist than their usual Anglo-centric angle.

Perched on the edged of Lake Erie with a population around 350,000, Cleveland has the air of a place on the up, as it gradually recovers from the economic setbacks that scarred the industrial West from the 1970s. The city stretches quite elegantly along a lengthy waterfront, facing north although its neighbour, Canada is too far away to actually glimpse.

Cleveland reminds me, superficially, of the English cities I know most well; the northern population centres like Liverpool and Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. These are cities once built on textiles and steel, shipping and engineering, but they are now developing new profiles as urban centres with tourist appeal. They showcase current economies founded not on manufacture but on the service industries; arts, leisure and entertainment.

Cleveland has these features a plenty: the remarkable "Rock Hall", as locals know it, is a miracle of modernism. It is a towering glass pyramid which houses thousands of rock and pop artefacts; the remarkable new Botanical Gardens; an interactive science museum; two splendid sports stadiums, recently constructed; and an emerging loft culture in its old mills and factories.

Yet this city remains, like its UK counterparts, a place of contrasts. If the glimmer and gleam of new buildings catch the eye, if the snappy, zappy language of the new marketeers projects a vision of an imminent renaissance, then the older certainties about work and security — the crank of the conveyor belt, the production of real goods — have been replaced by more nebulous possibilities.

This was brought home to me as I spent a splendid day in this city. It began while breakfasting at Tommy's, the hip café in Coventry, Cleveland Heights, where the liberal pulse of the city beats in the neighbourhood, blending bohemian chic and middle-class prosperity. I spent the afternoon at the eye-catching Botanical Gardens and the city's Museum of Art.

Other times I did what I always like to do: gain a glimpse of a community via its newspapers and magazines. Cleveland has both a quality daily, The Plain Dealer, and a number of lively and readable weeklies like the Free Times,, Scene and Rolling Out, the latter providing a more quirky take on the city's political and cultural life.

But The Plain Dealer made me realise that provincial American cities, like provincial British ones, have still to find solutions to the problem of the two nations. Sunday's lead story in the newspaper revealed a Cleveland that was still dogged by worrying social indicators. In significant parts of the metropolitan area, poverty and deprivation are constant companions of too many of the city's inhabitants.

Lead poisoning and teen pregnancy, roach infestation and uncertain education prospects, continue to cast their shadow over, broadly, the African-American populace, a population that is still feeling the piercing sting of the long recession that followed the boom of the first three decades after World War II. But I don't want to dwell on these pockets of blight. What I would like to comment on is the contrast between the American and the UK scene under similarly trying conditions.

Model gardens and the art gallery are situated at University Circle, the campus jewel in Cleveland's crown The re-vamped horticultural project is now centered on a magnificent light stone chamber, where two environments, a desert of Madagascar and a Costa Rican rain forest, have been replicated, replete with flora and fauna. A bulbous baobab tree soars into the air; a chameleon lurks in dense greenery; a jungle mist wraps you in a warm, wet cloud; dozens of brilliantly hued butterflies lazily flit across the paths.

If a constructed nature greets you there, the hand-made creations of men and women welcome you at the gallery. Cleveland possesses a marvellous artistic bounty. Picasso and Monet, Warhol and Max Ernst, George Segal and Richard Long reveal the contemporary shoots of a significant collection which stretches through the centuries, from the ancient to the modern, the European to the American and the Oriental.

Yet how, I wondered, could these idyllic scenes of quietly spoken, well-behaved Clevelanders basking in the sun, bathing in this cultural haven, be played out when The Plain Dealer was trailing the ongoing pain in the city's underbelly? Where were the places where sickness and destitution haunted the community? Such places reside "Two or three blocks that way," some locals shared with me.

Only two or three blocks from this wonderful spot? But I saw no graffiti, no littered streets, and no apparent attacks on this quarter of learning. Here, where Ivy League-like columns rub shoulders with a striking building by Frank Gehry — a metal armadillo hunched over glass and brick walls, — an Edenesque peace resides. Just blocks away . . . In England, it would be hard to find such a potent paradox.

One person I spoke to said that in the midst of difference — wealth and education here, poverty and despair just over there — Americans retain an essential respect for the symbols of the city, the physical pillars of the nation. This suggests, perhaps, that the dream of democracy, the notion of common opportunity, survives intact, even when the local headlines indicate that all of us, in the post-industrial landscape of capitalism, still have a long way to go.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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