A bumper crop of erudition for your ears this week.
The Memory Palace :: Hercules
With Washington’s Birthday coming up, a reminder that our first President held people in bondage because he enjoyed what their labor provided without having to pay for them. The story of Hercules, a talented chef, who successfully escaped slavery.
Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Killer Viruses and One Man’s Mission to Stop Them
The story of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and the efforts of Dr. Maurice Hilleman to create vaccines to prevent later outbreaks.
The Nation Start Making Sense :: Elizabeth Warren on Monopoly Power
Elizabeth Warren wants to make fighting monopolies part of the Democrats agenda again. Also, the truth behind Warren Buffett, and white working class Trump voter.
The Truth :: Nuclear Winter
A spooky story set in an outdated nuclear missile silo. Don’t worry, it’s fictional!
Afropop Worldwide :: Africa and the Blues
A fascinating look into musicologist Gerhard Kubik’s research into the traits of blues music that connect with the music of different regions of Africa. Read more here: http://afropop.org/articles/africa-and-the-blues-an-interview-with-gerhard-kubik
StoryCorps :: In the Neighborhood
The story of the multi-talented François Clemmons, most famous for playing Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, his friendship with Fred Rogers, and their quietly bold statement for civil rights and equality.
I haven’t posted any Songs of the Week this year, and I’ve decided to retire SOTW and instead make a monthly post of new songs I like. Hence the term “Monthly Mixtape.”
The title song off of Courtney Marie Andrews upcoming album is “May Your Kindness Remain”
The James Hunter Six provides Daptone soul in “I Got Eyes”
Australian electronica artists Jono Ma and Dreems collaborate on “Can’t Stop my Dreaming (Of You)”
Parliament returns with their first track in decades “I’m Gon Make U Sick O’Me (feat. Scarface)” and it’s funky in a 21st century way.
As always, let me know what you like, what you don’t like, and what other songs I should be listening to.
Album: Little Dark Age
Release Date: 2018 February 9
- Little Dark Age
- Me and Michael
- One Thing Left to Try
Little Dark Age sounds like it was recorded in 1985 and has been sitting in a vault all these years to finally be released. You could find it on the shelf somewhere between Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and the Pet Shop Boys, and even the lyrics of songs like “She Works Out Too Much” sound like commentary on the 80s aerobic craze. The songs on this album are hit or miss, and it’s never going to live up to Oracular Spectacular, but it’s a fun pop confection.
Title: The African Queen
Release Date: 1951 December 23
Director: John Huston
Production Company: United Artists
Happy Valentines Day! Rewatching this movie made me realize it’s the ultimate Rom-Com in which woman decides that their first date should be to cruise down some rapids and torpedo a boat. Wackiness ensues! Seriously though, The African Queen was always a favorite when I was young but it’s been decades since I’ve watched it. The movie loses points for the casually colonialist/racist opening scenes. But once you have Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart alone on a boat, it’s a treasure. These two actors seem to so effortlessly become the characters they’re playing. And the cinematography is spectacular, especially for a color movie filmed on location in 1950. A deserved classic.
Album: Marble Skies
Artist: Django Django
Release Date: 26 January 2018
- Marble Skies
- Tic Tac Toe
- Beam Me Up
- In Your Beat
England’s Django Django is reminiscent of late 60s pop and 80s New Wave synthpop and sometimes both at the same time. No matter what particular influence they’re working on they do a solid job interpreting it. The enjoyable eclecticism makes it sound like a career-spanning compilation album, but remains surprisingly coherent musical journey.
Album: The Thread That Keeps Us
Release Date: 2018 January 26
Favorite Tracks: “Under the Wheels,” “Flores Y Tamales,” “Eyes Wide Awake,” and “Shortboard”
Calexico is a band that’s been active for more than two decades, although I was not familiar with their work until I heard “Under the Wheels” and decided to check out the rest of the album. As the name implies, this Arizona-based indie rock band takes inspiration from the borderlands between Mexico and the southwestern United States. Those aren’t their only influences though, as listening to this album I heard music similar to John Lennon’s solo work, the 1980s oeuvre of bands like U2 and Midnight Oil, and even surf rock. The feel of the music is cinematic, painting pictures of the desert landscape and the people who inhabit. Lyrically, the songs are topically relevant – perhaps gaining significance from our national political disorder – as border politics and wildfires color the stories of everyday people.
Title: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Release Date: 2017 June 2
Director: David Soren
Production Company: Dreamworks Animation
The extremely silly and slyly satirical Captain Underpants books are brought to the big screen in the epononymously-declared first of what will be many movies. I’ve enjoyed the books as much as someone who was already an adult when they were first published, but I find the adaptation questionable. Mostly, for a movie with a theme of the importance of laughter, the laughs are few and far between (albeit there are some undeniably hilarious moments). The sense of superhero satire is lost in the final act when it is subsumed to the type of big action adventure climax they’re supposed to making fun of. I give it a “nice try” but know that from the source material there is a better movie to be made.
Title: Cool Runnings
Release Date: 1993 October 1
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
This comedy is loosely based on the Jamaican bobsled team’s unlikely performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics. It is disappointing that with a true life story worthy of movie, that all the characters and most of the details depicted are entirely fictional. That being said, the fictional story has a good cast of archetypal characters: Derice (Leon Robinson) – the talented sprinter with Olympic dreams and endless optimism, his friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug) – the laid back champion push cart racers, Junior (Rawle D. Lewis) – the wealthy kid who is frightened to challenge his father’s plans for his future, and Yul (Malik Yoba) – the tough guy with the heart of gold. Add to this John Candy as a successful American bobsledder who surrendered his medals after a cheating scandal in 1972 and is living in Jamaica working as bookie until Derice recruits him to be their coach. This was the last movie released before Candy’s death and it’s interesting that he’s mostly the straight man and that his performance adds some gravitas to the movie.
Most of the humor comes from the mix of this group of characters working together, with the rest of course coming from the unlikelihood of people from a tropical nation attempting to compete in a winter sport that they’ve never done before. Nothing can top the dialogue when they step outside for the first time in the subzero temperatures of Calgary:
Derice Bannock: Sanka mon, whatcha smoking?
Sanka Coffie: I’m not smoking, I’m breathing!
It is a bummer that in the effort to add more conflict to the already fictionalized story, the Jamaican bobsledders are treated with derision by the other athletes and have to jump through hoops to qualify due to Candy’s character’s history of cheating. Not only is this contrary to real life when other athletes were supportive of the Jamaican team, but it’s also just unnecessary to the narrative. Still it’s a funny, inspirational movie and for an 80s kid very nostalgic – from the bold color patterns on the winter clothing to the inevitable slow clap at the climax of the movie.
AirSpace Podcast :: The Right Stuff Right Now
Only one podcast this week, but a good one from the National Air and Space Museum on what it takes to become an astronaut today. If you’re of an advancing age like me and still hold out hope that NASA might have a job for you, take a listen.
Release Date: 2009 February 6
Director: Henry Selick
Production Company: Laika
Coraline has been on my “too-watch” list for some time, so it was good to finally take in this visually stunning stop-motion animated fantasy based on a story by Neil Gaiman. Coraline is a preteen girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning, with the expressions and mannerisms perfectly matching the voice) moved into a strange old apartment building with eccentric neighbors by her inattentive parents. She discovers a small door with a passage to a mirror universe of the apartments where her Other Mother and Other Father live and spoil Coraline with her favorite things, and the sad neighbors are actually spectacular circus performers. It seems a wonderful place even if everyone creepily has buttons for eyes. All is not as good as it seems and Coraline will have to team up with a black cat (my favorite character) and neighbor Wybie, she uses her wits to avoid being trapped in the alternate universe.
I think Coraline is spectacular visually and great at creating mood and atmosphere. The story feels a bit thin and Coraline’s game against Other Mother is rushed compared with the rest of the movie and the resolution feels too easy. That being said Coraline is a remarkable piece of art.
Author: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
Title: When They Call You a Terrorist
Narrator: Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2018
This memoir depicts Patrisse Khan-Cullors life growing up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, where her family and community were under constant surveillance and harassment from the police. Her father was in and out of prison and her mentally ill brother was also imprisoned and tortured by the police. As Cullors grows older she also deals with her disillusionment with her mother’s church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and grows to understand her queer identity. She became an artist and an activist in her teenage years, advocating for reform and abolition of prisons. In 2013, responding to her friend Alicia Garza’s post about Treyvon Martin, she created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and has been active in shepherding the movement. This memoir is both harrowing and hopeful in depicting the lives of people of color and LBGT people in America that is under assault, but also the positive gains that come when people stand up for their rights, equality, and dignity. This is definitely required reading for all Americans in 2018.
“I cannot help think that the drug war, the war on gangs, has really been no more than a forced migration project. From my neighborhood in LA to the Back Bay to Brooklyn, Black and Brown people have been moved out as young white people build exciting new lives standing on the bones of ours. The drug war as ethnic cleansing.”
Recommended books: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Title: Secrets of Underground London
Release Date: 21 May 2014
Director: Vicky Matthews and Gareth Sacala
Not secrets of the London Underground (although there are some) but of 2000+ years of history hidden beneath the surface of England’s capital. There’s a lot of nifty bits of subterranean trivia in this admittedly corny and sensationalist documentary, including:
- ruins of the Roman amphitheater
- Black Death plague pits
- the labyrinthine Chislehurst Caves where miners extracted chalk for rebuilding London after the Great Fire
- the innovative Victorian-era engineering of the Thames Tunnel
- London Underground stations used both as air raid stations and to hide treasures from the British Museum during World War II
- Churchill’s War Cabinet rooms
- the lost Fleet River
- the construction of an expansion of the British Museum into a new space four stories undergroun
Title: NOVA: Iceman Reborn
Release Date: 17 February 2016
Director: Bonnie Brennan
Production Company: A NOVA Production by Bsquared Media for WGBH Boston in association with ARTE France
Ötzi, the 5000 year old mummy found frozen in ice in the mountains along the border of Italy and Austria, is a source of continual fascination. I was lucky enough to visit his resting place at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology during my honeymoon in 2005. This documentary focuses primarily on artist Gary Staab getting unprecedented access to the mummy and using 3D printing to create a sculpted duplicate of Ötzi for researchers and students to learn from. In-between scenes of the sculpture’s creation, scientists offer insights into Ötzi’s last meal, his role in society, his many tattoos (possibly related to a prehistoric healing method), and a genetic analysis that shows him most closely related to Sardinians. There’s even evidence that he suffered from Lyme disease. There’s a lot to learn from Ötzi and it appears that he will continue to offer insights into the human past.
Artist: First Aid Kit
Release Date: 19 January 2018
Thoughts: Ruins is the latest release from the Swedish folk rock duo of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg. I’m inextricably drawn to close, female harmonies and lush instrumentation in all cases, and this is no exception. All the same, I think that First Aid Kit can create music with more bite, and there’s something missing here. Thus it’s good album, worth a listen, but not as great as it could be.
Release Date: 14 July 2015
Director: Callie T. Wiser
Production Company: A Five O’Clock Films Production for American Experience.
This documentary tells the story of the night New York City hit rock bottom, July 13, 1977, when the power went out and the city’s poorest neighborhoods erupted in looting and arson. There’s a lot of great archival footage in this movie, much of it filmed by flashlight and candle lending an eerie sense of a city crowded with people operating in the darkness. The filmmakers eschew experts and show interviews with people who experienced that night – a firefighter, a police officer, shop owners, a man who witnessed looting and arson as a child, and an employee at Windows on the World who witnessed the city lights blink out, and then see the high-class clientele remove their coats and ties and enjoy the free champagne.
The Window on the World stories offer a perspective into the often-forgotten reality that in many parts of New York, the blackout was a convivial occasion and most New Yorkers were unaware of violence occurring in other parts of the city. All the same, this documentary doesn’t do a good job of explaining that looting and arson were heavily localized to particular areas.
On the other hand, the lesson that many took from the blackout back in 1977 – that New York was a dangerous place full of bad people – receives a more nuanced take in the documentary. They do a good job of detailing the effects of white flight, the financial crisis, and the austerity programs forced on the city by the Ford administration had created a sense of abandonment and desperation among the poorest people of the city. Many of the people arrested that night had no criminal record, they just wanted some diapers for their babies. There’s also a curious decision by the NYPD to have off-duty officers report to the precinct closest to where they live, and since police officers didn’t live in the poorest neighborhoods, those areas were left with practically no police protection.
I feel that 53 minutes is not enough time to tell this story. A longer documentary would’ve allowed for more interviews offering more perspectives, more details on how Con Ed caused and recovered from the blackout, and more on the long term outcomes of the blackout (such as the emergence of hip hop). Still it’s an illuminating depiction of New York’s darkest night.
Title: Into the Amazon
Release Date: 9 January 2018
Director: John Maggio
Production Company: An ARK media and John Maggio Productions film for American Experience.
The American Experience documentary tells the story of the 1913-14 expedition to explore Brazil’s remote River of Doubt accompanied by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit Roosevelt. I’m familiar with the story from reading Candace Millard’s River of Doubt, so I was eager to see the documentary;s approach to the history.
It’s a well-produced but unimaginative take on the history documentary format with talking heads, archival photos shown with the “Ken Burns effect” (and curiously also making the figures in the photos appear 3-D against the background), and film of actors recreating the expedition in the Amazon. Another curious decision is to have the recreations in black & white, matching them with the archival footage, but denying the audience a glimpse of the vibrant colors of the rainforest that the men on the this journey would’ve seen.
I was slightly disappointed, but I expect if you were completely unfamiliar with this historical event that this documentary would be a good introduction.
Author: John C. Whitehead
Title: A Life in Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero
Publication Info: Basic Books (2005)
I read this book for research at work. Whitehead tells his life story which involves commanding landing vehicles on D-Day, rising to Co-Chair of Goldman Sachs, serving as Deputy Secretary of State to George Shultz, leading numerous nonprofit organizations, and guiding the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan after the September 11th attacks. His style of writing has a bit of a humblebrag to it, but I suppose he’s earned it he spins the yarns of the many significant historical events and trends of the 20th and 21st century he was directly involved in.
BackStory :: The Forgotten Flu
A deadly killer caused the deaths of half a million Americans – more than any single war – but is forgotten to history. The stories of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.
Planet Money :: The Shortest Super Bowl
A story about the Super Bowl ticket-selling markets that operate very much like financial markets, and how that market collapsed in 2015.
Song Exploder :: Bleachers “I Miss Those Days”
I liked hearing the creation story of this song that reminds of how I sometimes feel nostalgic for the times in my life when I was horribly depressed.
99% Invisible :: Managed Retreat
Saving the Cape Hatteras lighthouse from the forces of erosion.
Release Date:December 15, 1995
Director: Joe Johnston
Production Company: Interscope Communications
I watched this for the first time with my son although the story felt very familiar due to cultural osmosis. The basic plot begins in 1969 when a boy named Alan discovers the board game and begins playing with his friend Sarah, ending up sucked into the jungle within the game. 26 years later, the siblings Judy and Peter (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) discover the game in Alan’s former house and begin playing, releasing Alan from the jungle. Alan (Robin Williams) is an adult now with experience in jungle survival but still emotionally a child.
Together they find Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) to finish the game and reverse the damaging effects, releasing on each roll of the dice wild animals, choking vines, an a sadistic Edwardian hunter, Van Pelt (perhaps the most draw-dropping moment of satire is how easily he acquires a semi-automatic weapon at a New Hampshire gun store). A subplot of the film focuses on the police officer Carl (David Alan Grier) who attempts to reign in the chaos engulfing the town while his new police cruiser is gradually demolished by the fauna and flora unleashed by the game.
I feel like the filmmakers could’ve have gone for an enjoyable, over-the-top spectacle, or they could’ve used the game to delve into deeper issues and development of the characters. What they made instead is an uncomfortable hybrid that feels very episodic. They do focus on Alan’s struggles to connect with his father and Judy and Peter grieving their parents’ death, but those scenes don’t integrate well with the more madcap Jumanji adventure scenes. I think it’s those problems that have made the movie merely memorable instead of the classic it could’ve been.
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Finland
Author: Arto Paasilinna
Title: Year of the Hare
Narrator: Simon Vance
Translator: Herbert Lomas
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010), originally published in 1975, translated to English in 1995
This delightful novel tells the story of Kaarlo Vatanen, a journalist from Helsinki traveling in the northern countryside of Finlan, whose car hits and injures a young hare. Vatanen finds the hare, nurses it back to health, and adopts it. This prompts him to leave his job, his wife, and sell his boat to fund his life as he and the hare travel farther north in the Finnish wilderness where they have various madcap adventures. It’s clear that it’s full of satire of Finnish people and culture albeit I don’t know enough about Finland to get the references. More broadly it has the very 1970s themes of self-discovery, counterculture vs. the emerging globalization of business, and the absurdities of the Cold War. There is another story from the 1970s, possibly a British one, that this reminds me of but I can’t recall what it is.