Book Review: Revolution Song by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Revolution Song
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Recorded Books: 2017
Summary/Review:

This history of the American Revolution is in fact the parallel biographies of six individuals whose lives came in contact with the war and the underlying ideologies of American independence.  I really like this approach to writing history because while it is unwieldy to attempt a comprehensive history of the American Revolution, by focusing on six individuals you get a better sense of how the war affected different kinds of people.  And as Short tells their entire life stories we get a lot of detail beyond just the 8 years of the war of their lives before and after the conflict.  Finally, we also get to see how these six historical figures dealt with the ideals and challenges of freedom.  I should add, and Shorto makes this explicitly clear, that these six individuals are not representatives of greater populations but simply their own American Revolution stories.

The six subjects of Revolution Song are:

  • George Washington – The most obvious figure of the story of the American Revolution, and yet Shorto is able to get beneath the “great general and first President” story to get an understanding of a many struggling to find his place in society and the opportunities that military leadership bring.
  • Venture Smith – Born in modern-day Ghana as Broteer Furro, Venture Smith was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, eventually living in servitude in Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut.  Venture purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children and became a successful farmer in Connecticut. One of his son’s would serve in Washington’s army during the war. His A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America was one of the first published slave narratives.
  • George Germain – The only figure in the book who never set foot in the Americas is George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.  Having been court martialed during the Seven Years War, he was disgraced in aristocratic circles.  Nevertheless he was a favorite of King George III and was able to claw his way into politics and get appointed Secretary of State for the American Department. His aggressive approach to attempting to suppress the rebellion and lack of familiarity of the reality of the situation in the colonies is blamed for the British failure in the war.
  • Cornplanter – The chief warrior for the Seneca people who fought in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution allied with the British forces. He and his people suffered greatly when General Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to carry out a scorched earth campaign destroying Iroquois Six Nation villages throughout New York. After the war, Cornplanter protested against the Treaty of Paris ceding Iroquois land to the United States that had never been under control of Britain, and met with President Washington in person in 1790.
  • Abraham Yates – A revolutionary lawyer and politician from Albany, Yates took a more radical position on individual liberty and mistrust of government.  He became a rival to Alexander Hamilton and a staunch opponent of Federalism and the Constitution.
  • Margaret Moncrieffe – The only woman in this book, Margaret Moncrieffe was a child when the Revolution started living in New York as the daughter of a British officer.  Her father arranged her marriage to the cruel British Lieutenant John Coghlan although she was in love with Aaron Burr. After moving to Britain, she separated from her husband and found a measure of independence as the mistress of several prominent men in Britain and Europe.

I think the stories of Venture Smith, Cornplanter, and Margaret Moncrieff are the most interesting since they are the type of people that don’t appear in histories that focus on military and political leaders.  Nevertheless, the whole book reads very well and is an interesting addition to Revolutionary War historical studies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)


Title: Fruitvale Station
Release Date: July 12, 2013
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Significant Productions
Summary/Review:

We “Say Their Names” but sometimes that’s all we know about Black people killed by police and vigilantes.  Ryan Coogler’s debut film as director and writer tells the story of the man behind one of those names, Oscar Grant III, who was shot by police in a Oakland metro station just after ringing in the New Year in 2009, and died later that morning.  Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant as someone dealing with the complex mess of everyday life in the 24 hours leading to his shooting.  Melonie Diaz  portrays his girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer adds a lot of emotional heft as his mother Wanda.  Ariana Neal steals scenes as Oscar and Sophina’s 4-year-old daughter Tatiana. This movie feels very real to me.  While it’s not filmed in a vérité or neo-realist style, I don’t feel like I’m watching Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer as actors playing people, but real people.  This movie was released before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began but it captures the meaning of the phrase in its depiction of one precious, human life of a Black man that was taken away.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan (2020)


Title: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
Release Date: December 4, 2020
Director: Julien Temple
Production Company: Infinitum Nihil | Nitrate Film | Wild Atlantic Pictures | BBC Music | Warner Music | Screen Ireland
Summary/Review:

“People were always calling me a poet, but it’s very annoying to be called a poet when you’re a musician, because it means you’ve wasted your time writing the music.” – Shane MacGowan

This documentary is a straight-forward biography of singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, most famous for his work with the Celtic punk band The Pogues, in that it covers his life from birth to the present.  Straight-forward except that delightfully-weird animation that is used to recreate key moments of MacGowan’s life as well as what seems to be found footage to complement archival footage of MacGowan, his family, and The Pogues.  MacGowan credits his childhood years on the family farm in Tipperary, Ireland with moulding is life.  He started to drink at the age of 6, but also learned traditional music and lived on a land that still bore the scars of the Great Hunger and the Irish War of Independence.

The movie features original interviews with MacGowan and archival footage where he talks (mumbles, really) about his life and inspirations. There are also scenes of him in conversation with his friends actor Johnny Depp and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.  Interviews with Macgowan’s parents, his sister Siobhan, and wife Victoria Mary Clarke fill out the story.  I would argue the main flaws of this film is that it is overly long and repetitive.  If there’s one thing anyone knows about Shane MacGowan is that he drinks a lot, so that point didn’t need to be beaten to death at the expense of, say, learning more about his songwriting process.  Still, this is an insightful film about a complex and talented man.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Mank (2020)


TitleMank
Release Date:November 13, 2020
Director: David Fincher
Production Company:
Netflix International Pictures | Flying Studio | Panic Pictures | Blue Light
Summary/Review:

This biographical drama tells the story of Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a talented screenwriter hired to write the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles sets up Mank in a remote desert rental house so he can write the screenplay while recovering from injuries from a car crash, with the ulterior motive of keeping the alcoholic Mank away from the drink. Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) serves as Mank’s secretary and confidante while John Houseman (Sam Troughton) checks in and frets over Mank’s progress.

The main story alternates with flashbacks to Mank’s memories from the previous decade.  In one storyline he befriends the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and is drawn in the world of her powerful partner William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).  Another plot focuses on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign in which Hearst and the Hollywood moguls create propaganda films to smear the social democrat candidate Upton Sinclair.  Mank’s sympathies toward Sinclair puts him at odds with his wealth friends and his Hollywood bosses.

Since Citizen Kane is a satirical attack on Hearst, the conflict in this film is whether Mank should use his personal relationship to inform his writing of the screenplay.  Davies, as portrayed by Seyfried, is sweet, down to earth, and genuinely a friend to Mank, so his work could be seen as a betrayal.  But Mank also has good reasons to continue with the screenplay that will become his best work.

I don’t know how much of this film is “true to life,” although I expect that much of it is embellished. As much as I enjoyed the 62-year-old Oldman’s performance, I think it should be noted that Mank was in his 30s & early 40s when this film take place and actually a year younger than Davies.  I think those casting decisions in historical dramas can really affect our understanding of real life people.  Ultimately the historical accuracy takes a backseat to a personal story of Hollywood politics and one’s willingness to sacrifice personal beliefs.  It’s full of lots of Easter eggs if you know anything about Hollywood history, and is filmed in a style that is a homage to Citizen Kane.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter X

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

As is my practice in the A to Z Challenge, I interpret “X” algebraically, and use it to represent a number.  In this case it is the number “12” from a Best Picture award winning historical drama that is not on these classic movie lists, but probably will be in the future.

Title: 12 Years A Slave 
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Production Company: Regency Enterprises | River Road Entertainment | Plan B Entertainment | New Regency Productions | Film4 Productions
Summary/Review:

This film is an historical drama based on the real life experiences of Solomon Northrup who wrote a memoir of his life as an enslaved person that was published in 1853.  Northrup’s narrative and the film capture an aspect of slavery not often discussed in popular history. While most people know that Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Americas to be enslaved and that their descendants were born into slavery, they are less likely to know that free Black people in the United States like Northrup were kidnapped into slavery as well.

In the film we meet Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a freeborn Black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children who is a talented performer on the fiddle.  Two con men lure him to Washington on the promise of a job performing music for a circus, but instead they drug him and deliver him to a slave trader. He is then transferred to Louisiana and sold to a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is depicted as an enslaver who attempts to be kind but is too weak to do anything that would upend the system.

Later, Northrup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and abusive man.  On Epps plantation, Northrup befriends Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an young enslaved women who Epps praises for picking the largest amount of cotton. Epps routinely rapes Patsey while his equally disturbed wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) abuses and humiliates her. Nyong’o deservedly won an Best Actress award for this role, but I nonetheless can’t imagine how harrowing it was for her to play this part.

The film dodges some conventions of historical drama by dropping the audience right in the narrative with no narration or titles introducing the situation. The film also makes effective use of flashbacks to Northrup’s  life in New York and earlier days in slavery as he remembers them.  It is also an oddly beautiful film as if to contrast the grim violence of slavery against the natural beauty of a Louisiana plantation.  One scene that is seared in my mind shows Northrup hanging from a noose, just barely able to get his toews on the ground, while in the background other enslaved people go about their work and children play.

The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of violence against Northrup and the other enslaved people depicted in the film.  I’m of two minds on this.  On one hand, no film can even approach the horrors of slavery, and as brutal as this film is, it is only a small approximation of reality.  On the other hand, is there not already enough historical depictions of the torture, rape, and murder of Black people that we don’t need to add to them in 21st Century?  Ultimately, I believe this is a necessary film, but I can understand if some people would not want to view it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Van Gogh (1991) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter V

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Van Gogh
Release Date: 30 October 1991
Director: Maurice Pialat
Production Company: Erato Films | Le Studio Canal+ | Les Films du Livradois | Films A2
Summary/Review:

I admire the artwork of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh.  I’ve been to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and seen his art at other museums, watched the film Loving Vincent animated in the style of his art, and “Vincent and the Doctor” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who.  Despite all that, I am only familiar with the basics of Van Gogh’s biography, so I was looking forward to this film.

Jacques Dutronc portrays Van Gogh in the final two months of his life in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris.  It’s largely a straightforward biopic, and Pialat’s approach eschews sentimentality and sensationalism.  For example, the story takes place after Van Gogh mutilated his ear but Dutronc’s ears appear in perfect condition.  The movie focuses less on Van Gogh as an artist and more on his interpersonal relationships.  This means a lot of people being goofy about trying to find something to talk about with an artist and Van Gogh being incredibly grumpy about it.

Key relationships include Dr Paul Gachet (Gérard Séty) the physician and amateur artists who Van Gogh consults who is ultimately helpless in dealing with Van Gogh’s mental illness.  Vincent also has several conflicts with his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), the art dealer who supports his career.  Theo’s wife Jo (Corinne Bourdon) is sympathetic to Vincent and advocates for him.  Van Gogh also forms a romantic and sexual relationship with Dr. Gachet’s daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London) while continuing an existing sexual relationship with Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein), a prostitute from Paris.

The movie is basically a sequence of Van Gogh having arguments and sex and there being very little emotion involved in either.  I know it’s probably more my fault than the film’s but I had a lot of trouble watching this movie. I ended up watching it over the period of four days because it just couldn’t hold me attention.  If the purpose of Van Gogh is to recreate the feeling of  emptiness the leads a talented artist to chose suicide, it does its job.  But ultimately I can’t say that is what I want from a film.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Andrei Rublev (1966) #AtoZChallenge


#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter A

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Andrei Rublev
Release Date: December 16, 1966
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review: This epic film is based on the life of Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a monk in Russia in the early 1400s who gained renown for painting icons and other religious art. The film is split into eight parts depicting incidents from different periods of Rublev’s life (as well as a few other incidents that occur during his lifetime). The film is set against the background in-fighting among Russian princes and raids by Tatars. Thus the film depicts the horrors of war, cruelty, and barbarity contrasted with Rublev’s faith and the beauty of art.

The episodes depict Rublev’s transitions from youthful idealism to disillusionment with humanity to ultimately maturing to realize that his art can make a positive contribution to the world. In addition to Rublev’s story, the prologue and final chapter depict two other artistic spirits, a balloon pilot and a bellmaker, each of whom put their lives on the line in faith of their art. I found the movie well-made and well-acted but thought it was far too long and plodding.
Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)


Title: Bonnie and Clyde
Release Date: August 13, 1967
Director: Arthur Penn
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

I watched Bonnie and Clyde in my younger days, probably around 30+ years ago, and HATED it.  It seemed to me to just be glorified violence and gore.  Add to the fact that over the years Faye Dunaway has become one of my least favorite actors, and you can understand that I had little desire to revisit this movie.  Well, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed Bonnie and Clyde much more on this viewing.

I think the main thing I took away from this movie is that it is not a history lesson but a depiction of American myth.  The over-the-top nature of the film actually accents the mythological aspect of the movie where the real story of Bonnie & Clyde is shadowed by newspaper reports of their fictional exploits.  Dunaway’s Texas accent sounds as fake as her blonde wig, but she does bring a lot of nuance to her performance of Bonnie Parker who is perpetually yearning for more. For all the scandal this movie caused for being open about sexuality it seems like a good joke that Warren Beaty’s Clyde Barrow is essentially impotent.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the film debut of Gene Wilder as a young man briefly abducted by the Barrow Gang.  Wilder shows a wide-eyed excitement in the experience and adds some levity to the film that deliberately shifts it’s tonality.  It’s easy to see how this movie was in many ways a movie more about 1960s counterculture than it was about 1930s bank robbers.  It also shows a lot of influence of French New Wave films, and François Truffaut was even involved early in production.

I still see Bonnie and Clyde as an incredibly gory film, especially for its time, but I no longer see it as glamorizing violence, but as a commentary on glamorizing violence.  It’s a subtle thing but it makes a difference.  Anyhow, I still don’t think of Bonnie and Clyde as one of the greatest films of all time but I have greater respect for what the film was trying to do and the influence it had on Hollywood cinema.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)


Title: The Passion of Joan of Arc
Release Date: April 21, 1928
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company:  Société Générale des Films
Summary/Review:

This is a movie about faces. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, in her only film role, stars as the French heroine of the Hundred Years War who thinks she’s 19.  This is a silent film, for her eyes express her fear, wonder, and faith. Meanwhile, her judges’ faces are often shot from below, appearing grotesque, deceitful, and cruel.

The movie begins in an archives showing the actual trial records of Joan of Arc that the movie is based upon.  Joan is interrogated, tortured, deceived, and ultimately put to death by an ecclesiastical court of French clergy loyal to the English invaders.  Joan of Arc is notably burned at the stake, and that is shockingly depicted on film, but outside that gratuitous detail this is a personal, intimate depiction of the great woman’s final hours.

By the way, I only just learned a fascinating historical tidbit: Joan of Arc was only canonized as a saint in 1920, just a few years before this movie was made.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge


Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 
Summary/Review:

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****