Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Trip to the Mountains

Our little combo played Friday night and Saturday morning up in Big Stone Gap, VA, at the Home Crafts Festival, which has been going on at Mountain Empire Community College for several decades now. We used to play a lot up in this general area, what should be called the State of Appalachia if the people who wanted all the abundant resources the area contained didn't make sure that a unified democratic voice emanating from the region was smothered by the amalgam of actual states which each contain bits and pieces of Appalachia and control their bits from fairly afar. On the way to Big Stone Gap you pass through some of the most romantic scenery in the world, and if you look close (not a good idea if you're driving, because there's a sharp curve with a 10 degree grade coming up p.d.q.) you'll glimpse some mountains with "removed" tops, and now and then drive under a tipple hauling off the scenery for Mr. Peabody's next coal train, the 3:19. The L&N, however, don't stop here anymores.

The crafts part of the craft festival is what these things have become these days. There are sprinkles of true Appalachian home crafts. I saw some really nice hand-made brooms, for example. There are plenty of booths featuring geegaws from other lands as well, and there was a sample Ram truck from this year's crop to admire if you've got the money for a machine that will like all such wear seriously out in some number of years, money that used to buy a good-sized house. But on the other hand, we've all gotta have wheels or resort to walking. Merle can wish all he wants about a Ford and a Chevy, but like I sang on Saturday morning, the money keeps getting smaller and the rent keeps going up. This is a way of keeping the real timbers in view in the land of the curio shoppe.

The music was great. Dale Jett and his band was there. Dale is carrying on the real Carter Family sound, because he is a real Carter, son of A.P.'s daughter Janette. Tom T. Hall has even made a film about Dale, called the Dale Jett Story. Check it out. The amazing Ed Snodderly was also there. His songs are really wonderful. I got to listen to him from the audience, as it was some time before I had to go back stage and get myself in mind to play. He sang a song which referenced Charles Bukowski, which is as cool a thing as my bandmate Mike Craver's mention of Wittgenstein in a song he wrote some years back. I cornered Ed about the Bukowski thing after his set, partly just to see if I had heard right. Then we agreed that Post Office is a hell of a novel, and that it's kinda unfortunate that the documentary film about Bukowski features him kicking his girlfriend of the moment, as that kinda takes the edge of the romance that comes out of his work. It is important to note, at this point, that Robert Frost has his bunions as well.

Doug Dorshug was there doing the sound, and a great job it was. I had breakfast with him at the motel on Saturday morning, and we discussed the long-running memoir his old bandmate with the Highwoods, Walk Koken, was embarked on at the Old Time Herald. "I hope he doesn't get too deep in the details," Doug said. I mentioned the Bukowski documentary as an example of the problem. Maybe it's just part of the territory though. Philip Roth says that if you're going to write you can't expect to stay friends with your family. This most recent chapter of the memoir included the explanation for how Highwoods ended up at the Smithsonian Festival in 1973, which I was also at, playing my last gig with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, then riding off in Watson's red VW for the Red Clay Ramblers' first road trip. Ain't life strange. Here we were, 41 years later, sitting in a motel in Southwest Virginia, shooting the breeze about the good old days.

When I got home I ran into this essay about the rotten, pestilent heart of American conservatism. It should be required reading amongst the young, though there's so much to understand between the lines that it's possible that a lot more pre-requsite reading is actually demanded before true understanding can be achieved. They'd best get it soon. These wolves have been gnawing at the foundations for a damn long time, and if you aren't shocked by mountaintop removal, what does it take? Here's the link:

A couple of quotes:

In short, Frum actually thinks that conservatism means forcing the poor and middle-class to sacrifice government programs whose existence is, or may be, in their economic interest. And why? Near as I can figure, for the sake of making over the poor and middle-class into more agreeable objects of aesthetic contemplation for (wealthy) conservatives, whose tastes run to: Donner party-like look-alike doughty leatherstocking hard-bitten frontier-type workers (respectful hats in hand.) And the word for this aesthetic transformation is: making people free. And somehow the economy is going to be OK.

Another, actually the author quoting Orwell:

“So long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap … Deliberately to revert to primitive methods, to use archaic tools, to put silly difficulties in your own way, would be a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness. It would be like solemnly sitting down to eat your dinner with stone implements. Revert to handwork in a machine age, and you are back in Ye Old Tea Shoppe or the Tudor villa with the sham beams tacked to the wall.”

Personally, I have no problem with plugging in the fiddle. I agree with Orwell that whatever music you're making ought to be realistic. The best music I listened to driving up the crooked road to Big Stone was James McMurtry's live CD from "Aught Three," and in particular "Lights of Cheyenne." That's one killer song. That he uses something of the same melody as "Goodbye Old Paint" is but a feature of its perfection. "Choctaw Bingo" is flashier (and great). "Lights" is deeper. But in the context of the Holbo piece, the Orwell quote refers to the whole "safety net" system which we have devised since Roosevelt's day to mitigate the realities of life, health, and aging, not to mention such man-made blights as outsourcing, the apparent pride of the entire political elite in 2014.

We're in the midst of a counter-revolution these days. Even the usually optimistic Digby's Hullabaloo has become worried about the states-rights trend, the obviously exploitation by the monied "class" of what has always been a deep political fault in the American set-up: states' rights. Numerous states have changed the way we vote, analysing the way we've voted for a few decades and noticing that if you whittle away the groups who vote Democratic by whatever means, you'll end up electing more conservatives. Same system works, apparently, for even constitutionally protected rights such as a woman's right to govern her own body.

Conservatives can wax eloquent about the aesthetic of the can-do spirit in the make-believe history of America they believe in, whilst slaves in fact do all the real work. I bought a spiffy new shirt to wear on stage Friday night that was made in Bangladesh. It was in the western style, with "pearl" snaps for buttons, and a silver thread sewn into the weave. It cost me $15.95 at Walmart, and fortunately nobody gunned me down while I was shopping.

Old time music is in a way a handicraft practiced in the machine age, and even more so when city boys like me take it up. But I'm not selling my artistic choices as righteous politics. We'd better figure out, pretty damn soon, how to get out of this squirrel cage we're running in. Three wars in the Middle East, and counting. The most powerful security state America has ever contained, and counting. The Supreme Court is marching smartly in the wrong direction. Money is now free speech. Kinda gives a leg up to them what can buy all the ink on the planet, don't it.

Let's let James McMurtry take us out today with his version of Goodbye Old Paint:

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days

I had the chance to visit Romania back in '77, as part of a tour the original Red Clay Ramblers were on. It was just after there'd been a major earthquake, and our concerts, state sponsored, were in part a benefit. Bucarest was lovely, grimy, broken by the quake, paranoid. We were only there for about 72 hours. When we landed every local on the plane filled their pockets with shot bottles of whiskey from the plane's attendants. The airport featured anti-aircraft batteries and lounging soldiers in combat gear, with bandoliers of large caliber bullets crossing their chests and sub-machine guns on their shoulders. You better believe we did not get out of line. But as guests of the state we were actually treated very well, and as I recall we did a good show in a big hall that was well attended.

As a result of my brief but memorable encounter with Romania, I like to watch Romanian movies. A year or so back I saw Police, Adjective. I highly recommend it. Last week I watched Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, a film directed by Cristian Mungiu, which was released back in '08. I couldn't recommend it more. Although many reviews suggest that the film is "about" that dark old, vanished time when a despot ruled Romania, it is in fact about the essential facts which being a woman, anywhere, anytime, entail. I harbor the faint flickering hope, like a candle in a mine where the oxygen is diminishing, that if people could only watch a movie like this they would come to a better understanding of what real life is about, which would mean an end to the inexorable drive to make abortion once again illegal, thus converting pregnancy into a cruel and life-threatening punishment upon women who find themselves trapped by their condition.

Four Months is brilliantly filmed, acted, and directed. It doesn't preach, it just shows. The main character is not the pregnant girl, an accomplished liar and denialist who is supposed to be going to college and is expecting a visit from her doting father on the very day the illegal abortion takes place. The hero is her roommate, who has no stake in any of it but her deep friendship for and to her friend. Aiming to simply aid in helping her room mate find the abortionist, she is soon entangled in a series of terrible events driven by the illegality of the procedure, as well as her own commitments to a nice upstanding boy friend whose mother happens to be having a birthday that day. Before the movie is well started, the hero is browbeaten into having sex with the abortionist as partial payment for the procedure. Her pregnant friend waits demurely in the adjoining bathroom. By the end of the day she finds herself in the dark streets searching for a place to dispose of the abortion remains. It's a scene as harrowing as something out of a war movie. When she returns from this gawdawful "mission" she finds her ditzy roommate having a late dinner at the hotel where the abortion was accomplished, relaxing with a glass of wine.

I won't "tell" any more of the film. It struck me as utterly true. It is how it is, in the real world, with real people. As the director says in a good interview about making the film which was included on the DVD, he likes to go back and think about the dark days of the dictatorship. But this world is the world our Republicans are aiming to create, in toto, state by state, right here. It's the world we used to live in, until Roe V Wade realized that women are equally citizens with men.

Seems like here in the US we aren't making movies like this much any more, or if we are, they are certainly not being made by the people who have access to the big money and the big stars. That's probably just as well in some ways, but it does lead to some strange comparisons. I watched Counselor this week too. It's Ridley Scott's latest, and slam packed with stars, men and women who have so much filmic charisma that you can't take your eyes off them even in a bad movie. I started watching Counselor once, via Netflix, and turned it off. Its cynicism is so complete and so deep that I decided I really didn't want to sink my mind into it. I sent the disc back the next day, but then it appeared on one of our dish channels this week, so I did end up watching at least most of it. I do realize that there are drug cartels, and people who kill other people without compunction. Just the other week here in our little town where nothing happens, a guy was shot 14 times late one night in the trailer he rented and allegedly used for drug transactions. I drive past that trailer every time I go to town to get the mail.

Counselor amps all this grimy reality up to 14, or maybe 14000. The murderers and the murdered are movie stars--Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz. Their characters relish the actual "art" of murder, waxing eloquent about a nifty new device that will actually garrotte a person automatically once it is dropped onto a neck and activated. At the end of the story we watch it happen to Brad Pitt. Cameron Diaz, who turns out to be the arch villain and femme fatale of the story, has the implement invoked on Mr. Pitt. She then muses nostalgically about her true joy--watching her pet cheetahs catch flushed jack rabbits in the desert outside of Juarez. Sadly, she's now on the run, with only a bag of diamonds to aid in her survival. (Quell fromage, as my friend Patric from Nantes used to say.) We've seen her enjoying this hunt earlier, with Bardem, sitting like white hunters under a tarp, sipping martinis, watching the action with binoculars.

I did find a review of Counselor which made the point that Scott directed this movie whilst in the grip of grief over the sad death of his director brother, Tony. Grief, the review argued, was the true subject of the picture. The central character is the Counselor, played by Michael Fassbender. I thought the reviewer had a kind of point. But in Counselor, the only real actors are the powerful, the murderers. There is no mercy and no compassion, and no empathy either. The Counselor's grief is just another jackrabbit's ultimate fate, savoured by the unseen eyes of an ice queen who views it all from a far distance, with binoculars.

This is typical American big-time film-making these days. I'd imagine Ridley Scott has wryly joked that of all things, just as his movie was getting some momentum up, damn if these monsters now running loose in the Levant aren't beheading people all over the place. His best bit of social commentary might be the fact that the macguffin of the whole story, cocaine, is being smuggled around the place in septic tank emptying trucks. There's a nice scene when the stuff arrives at its hijack location and the literal shit is hosed off the sealed barrels.

Counselor is entertainment, just like Ultimate Fights, the heart of Fox Sports. We are not to think about those jack rabbits. Four Months is a much more difficult movie. It's a story about jack rabbits trying to survive. It's a story about real people. It's a story about us. We ought to care about real people, because that is who we are. Too much of our current world works tirelessly to convince us that we are not real people at all, but wealthy beautiful observers, sipping martinis while we enjoy the endless spectacle.

Last night we watched the Charlotte NASCAR race. Richard Petty made several appearances during the commercial moments which probably took up twice as much time as the actual racing going on. He smiled his big smile and said in his friendly North Carolina twang to vote for Tom Tillis "and bring your neighbors," because Tom Tillis was a winner. That was the whole pitch. Tillis is, among other things, wanting to make abortion illegal. He's also worked to keep black folks, students, and older people away from our polls on voting day. He's real strong for fracking too. He's running in NC against Senator Kay Hagan.

Why the hell would anyone vote to be a jack rabbit running for its life from a cheetah?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What They Do When They Write

The Lena Dunham/Kevin Williamson "controversy" actually reveals what the right wing "press" is mostly about. Here's a very nice Fresh Air interview with Ms Dunham:

(click down to the Dunham interview; I could listen with no buffering, oh fraptious joy!).

Now you may or may not appreciate Ms Dunham's work, but there's no debate that she's a serious, thinking, creative writer and actor. This is why her show, Girls, is into it's fourth season on a network you have to pay to watch. Ms Dunham has no particularly ulterior motive in this interview. She's just talking to Terry Gross, who is asking interesting questions. Ms Dunham has observed life, and remains engaged. She is interested in showing us what being young and female in at least one particular strata of our contemporary culture is like, for particular people. She brings to my mind many of the films of Fassbinder, who was interested in the implications of being a woman (and a girl), who wanted to hold up different examples of what a woman's choices were, in a perspective where certain details, including details of power, were more obvious than in the "normal" every day world we're all living in and through. If you want an interesting comparison, watch a few episodes of Girls and then watch "Pioneers of Ingolstadt."

So, now consider the utterly obnoxious column produced by one Kevin Williamson, concerning Ms Dunham's small exhortation to women to vote. Here's a column by the Rude Pundit on Williamson's piece:

You want to see the absolute merging of fascism with the act of writing, here 'tis. Williamson is, in the writing, generating an act of fascism as perfectly realized as Mussolini's, oft quoted herein because it strikes me as so profound. A journalist asks Il Duce what he will do if he is elected. Mussolini replies, "why, kill you."

This is exactly what Williamson is doing, but you must look carefully to see the action, because it's subtle. On the surface, Williamson is just being shocking, taking an extreme tack to make his right-wing point. "Women who have abortions should be hung." Gasp! Most of the internet conversation has of course been about Williamson's article, and about what an ass he is. But no one (that I've run into) has noticed that Williamson is doing more than just writing. In the realm of politics--action--Williamson is threatening. He is working to utterly diminish Ms Dunham's efficacy in the world. Indeed, he is even working to diminish our accepted concept that, well at least we can vote in an election, we can make that little difference. Voting, he says, is the shallowest of political acts. (Or as George Bush put it, don't worry about Iraq, just keep shopping.)

In other words, Williamson is strking his small blow in the on-going Republican effort to suppress the vote this fall, and in subsequent elections going forward. He is doing this by telling people who might think to vote on the women's side of the political choices now confronting us all that their small effort--voting--is so pitiful as to be embarrassing. They might as well stay home and leave the process to the men. And of course this particularly applies to Ms Dunham, who Williamson asserts is only achieving any success due to the general debasement of our current culture. This is what he writes:

Our national commitment to permanent, asinine, incontinent juvenility, which results in, among other things, a million or so abortions a year, is not entirely unrelated to the cultural debasement that is the only possible explanation for the career of Lena Dunham.

Thus spake Zeus. About Mr. Williamson himself, we know nothing at all, aside from the fact that he is willing to write for the famously racist and sexist National Review, a publication founded by this rich, fascist asshole some 50 some years back.

It's all of a piece. The Republicans want to supress the vote because they know full well that they are likely to lose an election based on positions and ideas. War on women, what war on women? If you're listening to Lena Dunham, it's a mark of shame, i.e., you're part of the "general debasement."

Go back and listen to Ms Dunham's remarks on pornography, and on her own experiences of sex, and on the cultural issue of youthful sex. Republicans, from Romney to Brownback to Williamson, are all about supression. That's what they do. That is their agenda, and they aim to achieve it by any means necessary. Ms Dunham is a threat to the GOP because she doesn't suppress anything much.