"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Monday, May 30, 2011

For Memorial Day: two ballads of Joe Hill

(Update: I've posted a link to this in honor of Labor Day, as promised.)

On Memorial Day, I'm thinking of Joe Hill (1879-1915), great American: Swedish immigrant, labor organizer, song writer, martyr. "And just about the time that Joe died, lynching was just being born."

This is for my Grandfather Norval, Norwegian immigrant and Seattle labor organizer, my father Selden, author of The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio (1936), and the legions of uncounted, unknown, everyday heroes of democracy, especially those persecuted by the government for being "too liberal" -- then, now, and future. So to today's text... the story:

Above, the Phil Ochs ballad performed by Billy Bragg. There are many versions of this, but I particularly like the visuals in this video. There's also a video of a different version, Phil Ochs performing his ballad in Sweden, which you might be able to find on YouTube.

Joe Hill's Last and Final Will, written in jail the night before his execution by a corrupt state:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don't need to fuss and moan,
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."

My body? Oh, if I could choose

I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow,
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then

Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you,
Joe Hill

Joe asked his friends to move his body over the state line because he didn't want to be caught dead in Utah. His ashes were sent to every other state for scattering by Wobblies (international workers union). 

Here's another great American, Paul Robeson, who was also persecuted by the government for being too liberal, singing the traditional Ballad of Joe Hill,

and here's Joan Baez singing the same song.

Finally, "Says Joe, but I ain't dead": a NYC demonstration in the 1990's to reclaim the streets.

(Post to be recycled on Labor Day)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

AIFF 2011 Day 3: These Amazing Shadows, Hood to Coast, Morgan Spurlock, POM Wonderful Presents, and How to Die in Oregon

The memory fades somewhat, but these great videos and photo collections from YouTube are running on a local channel; I just stumbled upon them, and they brought it all back. They really show what it feels like to have been here this year. Plans are already laid in chez Planetbound for AIFF 2012.

So here are some more fantastic films to watch out for, if you haven't seen them yet:

These Amazing Shadows  9:30 AM at the Armory - and an excited crowd of film lovers were ready to get started. This is an absolute must-see for anyone who loves movies, and let's face it, no matter how seriously we might take Film, we're all movie buffs at heart. It's about the Library of Congress program to select and preserve 25 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" films each year for listing in the National Film Registry. How are the films chosen? What are they? What are the challenges? The surprising discoveries? What do films tell us about ourselves? 

The films chosen each year range from Hollywood blockbusters to home movies and it's absolutely fascinating to see how the selection process works. But more than that, this is a joyful celebration of everything we love about film and movies. As AIFF says, this is our national family album. And to share the experience of this wonderful movie with a huge crowd of true-blue film aficionados at the AIFF - it just can't get better than this. What a high! 

The sound track has just been released, and I hope the movie gets wide distribution in theaters. It is one of the most entertaining films I've ever seen, and the equal in quality, innovation, and entertainment value of any piece of filmmaking in the National Film Registry it celebrates.

POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Jeanie and I didn't get tickets to this before they sold out, but Peggy (who was online buying tickets at the same time) did manage to snag one. Jeanie and I  retired to the hotel while Peggy got to see it, and everyone who did get in raved for the rest of the festival about how hilarious it was. However, I caught up with it last week at the Varsity Theatre and agree with Peggy - it's a great one! It must have been super fun to see it with the AIFF audience; but even in a quieter crowd, Cindy and I were chuckling, laughing, and pointing at cool things on the screen nonstop. 

It's a documentary about product placement that is financed entirely through product placement.  Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, as he often does, makes the story arc about his own learning curve, so we really get to see how it all works from day one to the final credits (stick around to read them!). Filled with self-referential humor, sight gags, satire, solid information about the law and science of advertising--including a scary revelation about just how we are brainwashed as a matter of course nowadays by "advertising" that uses neurological science-- it's nonstop good humor and real enlightenment. I've heard several people say something to the effect that "I'll never see a movie in the same way again." In fact the film raises questions going way beyond just movies, since advertising is everywhere in our lives now. Highly recommended. In fact, it's not just a pomegranate juice - it's 

Then we all went back to the Armory to see Hood to Coast and I can't say enough good things about this one too! The big crowd included many first-time AIFF goers, who were there because they had run in the Hood to Coast race the movie is about. In fact Jeanie's daughter had experienced it as a turning point in her own life, which gave us a special interest in it too. The runners expressed strong approval! 

But even if you're not a runner (I'm not), you have to love this one about the epic team relay race from Mt. Hood to the ocean. Hearing the director speak a bit about it ahead of time, in the Filmmaker TalkBack the day before, gave me a special interest in it and appreciation for some of the behind the scenes details such as the sheer logistics of following several teams, and filming at night in remote locations -- yet the final result has a wonderfully natural flow and a sense of authenticity that draws you in and holds you spellbound. I felt as if I'd actually experienced the race myself in some way. And it was fabulous.

Visual beauty, human interest, humor, terrific story -- and if you wonder what the unique culture of the US Pacific Northwest is like, this will tell you how we are when we're at our best. When our independent country of Cascadia is established, this could be our national movie.

Morgan Spurlock interviewed by Shawn Levy. Photo by Lee Greene

The Greatest Movie Conversation Ever: with Morgan Spurlock Again, entertainment heaven for the documentary fan -- Shawn Levy did a marvelous job interviewing Spurlock, with plenty of clips from his many projects. It was a fine introduction, for me, to this filmmaker; I confess I hadn't seen most of his earlier work. Looking for a photo on Google Images, I came across an album by Lee Greene on AIFF 2011. From that album (with thanks to the photographer), here's part of the audience at some point - you can see we were having fun.

How to Die in Oregon: Juried best feature length documentary
Jeanie and Peggy retired to the hotel for the night after the Morgan Spurlock conversation, but I stuck it out for a late screening of this one in the Varsity 1, because I have had a longstanding interest in death with dignity, am a member of Compassion and Choices, and the fact that this is a state enlightened enough to have such a law is one of the reasons I live here. This film was one of the hot tickets at the festival. 

Think a movie on this subject will be depressing or scary? This is exactly why you should see it - it's not, it's wonderful. Thanks to the "stars" whose stories the film documents, there is even much humor and charm. It's not so much about the details of the law, but about the people who fight for it and might choose to use it. Not to be missed! At our screening, several people were there for Q&A - even family members. That's how committed people are to this law. It was as moving a filmgoing experience as I've ever had. Here's a brief interview with the filmmaker that repeats some of what he told us, about how he made the movie and what it's about. It premiered recently on HBO and I hope it will be more widely available soon. 


All that, and two more days of the festival to go!

Friday, May 27, 2011

OSF 2011: a great Caesar

[Note: When I saw this production a second time I liked it even better; see that post here]
Saw this one recently. I had some reservations about some aspects of the production, but overall it caught and held my interest and left me with a lot to think about...

Starting with the most obvious departure from "tradition", and the first thing everyone remarks on, Vilma Silva plays Caesar. The casting of a woman in the role worked to focus my mind on issues of leadership and the theater of politics, rather than (as this play  has always struck me, before) on patriarchy as such. True, it's still about despotism, war, power politics -- but these days, when the ruling class grooms and uses high-profile women so skillfully in masking, and carrying out, their agendas (think Condoleeza Rice, Sarah Palin, and their ilk) it seems right that the play is no longer just about a bunch of men maneuvering in a male preserve of political power. In this female Caesar, a woman is at the top of the heap (and believably so, as played by Silva)--and other women are cast, as well, in some of the usually male roles among the conspirators. That feels right, too; so when Caesar is assassinated, it isn't about males ganging up on a woman, because women are distributed throughout the adversarial groups.

This slant on gender works as well on another level, in the treatment of the traditionally female roles (the wives of Caesar and Brutus):  Calpurnia is eliminated, and her lines conflated with those of Mark Anthony, as Caesar's closest ally, and the chemistry works beautifully well to sharpen the focus on the nexus of personal and political. After this, Calpurnia will probably feel like one character too many, when I see the play again in the future. As for Portia, her big speech to hubby Brutus about being only-a-woman, but surely one worthy of inclusion in his larger world on account of her hereditary alliance with power (and, as her speech demonstrates, her evident personal talent for it), works to underscore the effect of the other women participating more actively in the conspiracy. Very interesting!

In short the gender-reallocating aspects of the production served to bring something new and very meaningful to me to a play I thought I already knew rather well. But more important, this production finds no heroes and takes no sides. Caesar, like so many successful politicians, is a sort of blank screen reflecting all the things her supporters and detractors claim her to be. The text is steeped in irony, and this production plays that as the strongest theme. With no Caesar, Brutus, or Mark Anthony chosen by a director to admire, it is clearly a tragedy of wrong turnings in all the characters, from beginning to end. As it should be: what is admirable in war, civil strife, betrayal, assassination? Shakespeare clearly doesn't find it. Or at least, it seems more clear to to me than ever, after seeing this production.

Another thing that distinguishes this production is that it seeks, and largely succeeds, to include the audience in the story; this is appropriate, of course, given the text's emphasis on theatricality (Pompey's theatre; orations to the citizens; etc, throughout--one thinks of Fox News)--and in a modern, self-referential way, the theatrical setting of the play-about-the theater of politics.

In fact the audience is drawn into the spirit of the thing even before entering the theatre: the courtyard and lobbies are jam-packed with banners observing various acts of political assassination. They look like the crudest sort of graffiti and have no consistency, in that some highlight the reasons given for the murders while others highlight the accomplishments of the murdered; it's all mixed up. Which is also brought out in the play--that all these political motives of conspirators, and beliefs about the character of the politicians, are questionable and perhaps even impossible to fully nail down.

Outside the New Theatre. Thanks to fellow blogger
reviewer for this photo:

And then, before the play begins, the actors warm up the audience with a round of cheers for Caesar, casting us as Plebians in the drama. The staging, in the round, involves the audience as witnesses to (and sometimes participants in) the great events as they unfold. (A good idea, that last, but it fell a little flat for me after the initial wild cheering of Caesar, because we weren't nearly as into playing the fickle mob of the funeral oration scene.) The round stage enables the cast to mingle with the audience; they sit sometimes in the front row, and occasionally call for responses. The round staging is also effective in placing some of the action off-stage, as actors move around the back behind the bleachers, talking all the while, and then back onto the stage at another point. 

But I had a little trouble keeping all the minor characters sorted out, and this made things murky for me in places. On the small stage there was a great deal of running about, and because most actors played several parts, it did get confusing for me even though I knew the play (more on this later). The costumes didn't do much to sort things out for me, either. Caesar, of course, stood out, in white robes (the closest thing to a "toga" and the better to show blood), and Brutus was nice in a kind of post-apocalyptic kilt-with-leggings affair. The Soothsayer was unmistakeable in what looked like a shower curtain. Cassius was conspicuous in the last scenes, in a battle vest that resembled a suicide bomber's (a nice touch, considering his end). But most of the actors were wearing such a ragtag assortment of bits and pieces--strangely cut hemlines and big, dirty canvas cloaks and all manner of weird oddments, all in the same somber colors-- that they tended to blend together into a kind of overcooked bean stew, in my eyes.
[Update: when I saw the play again, I liked the costumes very much. Maybe because I was sitting closer and could see the details better.]

I'm sure there was a point being made here that, like the crude graffiti banners, signalled something like... what... disintegration of society; mob rule; near-future Mad Max minus the leather and metal? Urban streetwise edginess? And that is what the play is about, I know. So, the visual style is a conceit that makes sense but it worked against the words, for me. Ultimately my chief impression about the staging was one of frenetic action, with a large cast milling about on a small stage, in the round, most of them looking pretty much the same amid the visual murk of the monochromatic design. Maybe it was brilliant; who am I to say; but somehow the structure of the play was lost, for me, in the confusion. I wonder how it seemed to someone not already familiar with the play.
[Update: when I saw the play a second time, the movement made sense to me and worked dramatically. Maybe because of where I was sitting?]

The round staging did make for some great battle scenes, though. They were nicely choreographed, and appropriately disturbing (loud striking staves and metal music) in a way that crystallized the whole spirit of the play. On the other hand, I do wish OSF would reconsider its habit of shining spotlights into my eyes. I've been to several plays where that happened at some point, and it always jerks me right out of the play. 

Anthony Heald
One actor who really shone in the multiple-small-character department was, not surprisingly, Anthony Heald. It was fun to see him create entirely distinct characters with just a few lines. There was no confusion there. It was a particularly nice touch that he was cast both as Cicero and as Cinna, two intellectuals--one a patrician orator, the other an unworldly poet-- innocent of the conspiracy but both victims of  the resulting fray (one killed by Senators, the other by Plebeians). 

Danforth Comins
Jonathan Haugen
And certain other performers and moments stood out wonderfully too, and stick in my memory. The big speeches of Brutus and Antonius were brilliantly performed and seemed freshly minted. Danforth Comins is fabulously ambiguous as Mark Anthony. Brutus is richly rendered by Jonathan HaugenVilma Silva is very fine as the powerful but enigmatic Caesar. And as I said, Anthony Heald shines in his bouquet of cameos.

All in all... well worth seeing. Now that I think of it - I'd like to see it again.  I liked it, and I'll probably like it even better next time.

I do have to add one thing here. Not sure where this fits in with this review, but in this production one speech just knocked me out:
....How many ages hence 
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
In the play, in its scene's context, the lines were as ironic as the triumphant shouts of liberty! and freedom!, yet still -- how visionary. I can't help feeling Shakespeare knew what he was doing, embedding that nugget for future generations to marvel over. He was a time-traveler.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shady ladies, free women, and bandit queens (book reviews)

Here are some great collections of true stories about women who threw off their fetters and lived in unconventional ways. These reviews are all pretty much as published in SLJ (School Library Journal--in the column highlighting books published for the mainstream market, but which could also be enjoyed by older teens reading at that level). Well, the first three were published; I don't think they took the last one - maybe it pushed the envelope a little too far...

Usually, I like to take advantage of the blogging format to expand my short SLJ reviews, but in this case I'll leave them more or less as they were, showing their appeal to teens as well as to their aunties. And another one that belongs here is Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World (2001) by Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen.  I reviewed that earlier, here. The other books in that post also include many interesting women's stories. 

Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Seas (2001) by Sara Lorimer (author) and Susan Synarski (illustrator)

Here are brief but colorful accounts of 12 women who terrorized sailors in waters throughout the world, from the ninth century to the 1930s. Subjects range from Alfhild, a Viking who roamed the Baltic and North Seas, to Lai Choi San of Macao, who was probably the original "Dragon Lady." Americans include perennial favorites Mary Read and Anne Bonny. 

Through these fascinating misfits, readers get a close-up view of many cultures and times, and each life is made vivid and memorable. Synarski's bold, quirky, color illustrations and a variety of eye-catching typefaces create the amusing impression of a demented picture book. One chapter includes a glossary and explains pirate arcana, which is highly interesting; but for students, the sketchy bibliography doesn't offer much practical guidance: many of the books listed would not be easily found, and some of these tales are more folklore than history in any case.

Pirates are not usually considered to be positive role models, and Lorimer's matey gusto and humorous slant might raise hackles in some quarters; but while her enthusiasm for her subject is contagious, the author does not gloss over the cruelties inflicted, and hardships endured, by these women. Booty offers some fresh perspectives on the past, and it should attract graphic-novel fans as well as the most reluctant of readers.


They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways, and Renegades (2002) by Barbara Holland

Deriving its title from the old rhyme,

   A whistling woman and a crowing hen
   Both will come to no good end 

this snappy book proves that whatever their ends, adventures of women who whistle in the face of convention can make for very entertaining reading. 

These true stories of some of history's "willful wildlings" include both the famous (Cleopatra) and the lesser-known (the religious pilgrim Alexandra David-Neel, who walked in disguise to Tibet) in a wide range of endeavors, from piracy to social reform. With the pace of a music video, the style of a gossip column, and the wit of a Molly Ivens, these stories should prove irresistible even to teens with short attention spans and a reluctance to read history. 

The breezy "Acknowledgments" page perhaps describes Holland's attitude best: "The author is greatly indebted to all those genuine biographers whose patient work she has shamelessly plundered." But though the style is sometimes irreverent, the content is well researched and the author's positions--particularly concerning the unreliability of historians throughout the ages--are solid and defensible. Holland owes much to feminist scholars, particularly in the chapter "Menswear," an excellent introduction to the political and cultural meanings of gender-defined clothing, and in her insightful comments on the malleability of history. 

Finally, Holland raises interesting questions about what would constitute "whistling" nowadays. It is doubtful that any teen who reads this book would again make the mistake of assuming history to be dull-or to think it is written in stone.


Shady Ladies: Nineteen Surprising and Rebellious American Women (2006) by Suzann Ledbetter

This romp through 19th-century American history touches upon the colorful lives and careers of women who are largely unfamiliar now. Most, however, were widely celebrated in their time, if not downright infamous. 

An artistically talented and sometimes delusional eccentric, wealthy Elizabeth Ney built her Xanadu in the wilds of Texas. Adah Isaacs Menken ("The Menken"), a gifted actress, cut a dash through the society of artists and poets while scandalizing and entertaining the public. Some of the women wrested a remarkable life from poverty, like the legendary dance-hall denizen known as "Silver Heels" and the famously voluptuous Sarah Bowman, who rose from camp follower to proprietor of a "full service hotel" for soldiers during the war with Mexico. 

As for better-remembered names, such as Ann Rutledge (Abraham Lincoln's mysterious lost love) and Margaret "Molly" Brown (of Leadville and Titanic fame), the author corrects misconceptions and provides details that make the women spring into focus for today's readers, while Lydia Pinkham, entrepreneur, and Fanny Fern, writer, are shown to be surprisingly modern figures. Filling out the collection, and adding welcome spice to history, are yet more gritty pioneers of medicine, photography, law, finance, and other fields and walks of life. 


Laws of the Bandit Queens: Words to Live by from 35 of Today's Most Revolutionary Women (2002) by Ali Smith

The author, a musician and photographer, takes as her inspiration Phoolan Devi, the low-caste Indian woman who survived extreme abuse in her youth to become an outlaw leader, folk hero, and after serving a term in prison, a member of Parliament (she was assassinated in 2001). Smith appreciates this bandit queen's "determined unwillingness to accept the oppression fostered by the norms of society," and presents here an amazingly diverse group of 35 women whom she also admires for their success in creating lives beyond the limits of convention.

Through arresting photographs, which catch her subjects in the moment and on the run, Smith takes the reader on a mad dash through a world of athletes, writers, musicians, activists, and other interesting achievers. She briefly introduces each, and asks for her best advice on how to live and succeed as a human being. The "laws" the women come up with range from Publisher Jane Pratt's focused "Another woman's success is a success for us all" to Musician Exene Cervvenka's anarchic "If I ever did manage to find a law to live by, I would break it." 

Women like Alice Walker, Freeda George Foreman, Sandra Bernhart, Geraldine Ferraro, Amy Sedaris, Waris Diri, and even a Guerilla Girl, come from many walks of life and share a similar diversity of perspective, and Smith splashes their vibrant and highly individual personalities all over these pages. But thanks to the unobtrusive flow of her presentation, the effect is not cacophony but a joyful chord.

Though some might feel uncomfortable with this unusual book's intensity, it should appeal strongly to many young readers, especially whose who are rich in talent and eager to get on with life. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate (book review)

I was reminded of this book by some recent discussions about life in Ashland, Oregon, where I live. It's often conspicuously a place of high culture and global consciousness that values and practices all varieties of diversity, yet remains overwhelmingly European-American in ethnic distribution. What's going on here? It's not really a mystery; I'll get to that later, in another post I'm drafting, but first, here's a remarkable book that looks at another small town (in this case, a private school) as it takes on a similar self-examination. (I see there are more Southgate novels to catch up on, and that I wasn't alone in appreciating this one; and there's a new one promised for 2011).  

hardcover edition
The Fall of Rome: A Novel  (2002) by Martha Southgate

Jerome Washington teaches Latin at the Chelsea School, an elite Eastern boarding school for boys. He describes himself as "the only Negro on the faculty," and his love for classical civilization isolates him, as it seems out of step with the times. But Jerome has found his strength in rising above, or distancing himself from, a difficult starting point in life: immersing himself in classical studies has taught him the discipline to wrest from the world, against all odds, this way of life that suits him so well. He is deeply committed to the institution's "values of order, decorum, rectitude," and disdainful of what he sees as the self-defeating attitude of many young blacks. 

Enter Rashid Bryson, a troubled young African-American city boy strongly motivated to make something of his life. Seeing a Chelsea School brochure promising to "change the future" his imagination is captured -- but when he arrives there, the school's overwhelmingly WASP culture, and Jerome's hostility toward him, keep him seriously off-balance. 

Jana Hansen, a new teacher, is the third color Southgate highlights in her cultural prism: before coming to the Chelsea School, she had worked for many years in Cleveland's inner-city schools, where she was always the only white woman. This life has given her another point of entry into the realm of race relations that is, for most of the others there, an insignificant part of the life of Chelsea School.

paperback edition
Jerome and Rashid are at odds because of several kinds of difference -- psychological, generational, intellectual. Jana wants to help Rashid, of course, as (despite their obvious generational, sexual, and racial differences) she can largely sympathize with where he's coming from, and respects his qualities of character. Meanwhile, Jana and Jerome are attracted to each other (here, Southgate excels in subtle evocation of psychological complexity) and they have a problematic sexual liaison. 

It is a triangle made up of many places of entry into the complicated but interlocking puzzle that we experience as racism and diversity in America today. While from an outsider's view these three characters are united in their African American interests, they are strongly divided in the most intimate ways that define them as individuals. By the time the headmaster asks them all to work together to recruit more "diverse" students for the school, their lives are woven together in a complicated dynamic that reveals each character's deepest strengths and flaws.

This moving story is told from their three perspectives in a simple, elegant, and graceful style. The book is easy to read, yet resonates richly with many insights and issues that most readers should readily recognize and relate to.

(adapted from my SLJ review recommending the book to adults and older high school students)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Three by Tony Hillerman (book reviews)

I've enjoyed every one of Tony Hillerman's mysteries set in Navajo country, but here are three I happened to review, for SLJ (column recommending selected adult books to older teens). These are a random assortment - just ones I was lucky enough to review at the time they came out. They're the kind of books it's nice to revisit after a few years.

The First Eagle (1998)
Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is investigating the murder of a fellow officer--apparently committed by a young Hopi poaching eagles for ceremonial purposes. Chee's former mentor, Joe Leaphorn, is now retired and on his first case as a private detective, looking for a missing biologist who has been studying the spread of infectious diseases on the reservation. The men's destinies intersect once more in this case in which clues, like eagles, can only be found and understood by those who belong to the world of the reservation. 

Hillerman communicates a sense of the great space, beauty, and physical hardship of the desert landscape, and of the character of the people who live there. The mystery is set against a cultural backdrop of conflicts between Navajo and Hopi, Tribal and FBI law enforcement, sheep camp and city Navajo, and government and academic scientists studying disease outbreaks. The solution to the murder mystery comes stunningly into focus once the clues are all present and understood--but sadly (and true to life), the larger question of justice on the reservation, like the fate of the first eagle, is left unresolved. A disturbing but fascinating story.

The Wailing Wind (2002)
Young Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Navajo Tribal Police is pursuing routine duties when the dispatcher asks her to check out an abandoned truck in an arroyo. Bernie is no longer "the greenest rookie," but when she finds a murder victim she is inexperienced enough to make a big mistake. Still, her interest in botany leads her to collect some plant specimens at the crime scene, and they prove to be important clues. 

FBI agents soon take over the investigation; they are oblivious to any nuance of place or culture that could lead them to a solution. Sergeant Jim Chee, Bernie's supervisor, characteristically goes his own way. Meanwhile, Wiley Denton, a rich eccentric, has asked retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn to find his missing wife. The investigators set out in different directions, and the distances between them seem as vast and lonely as the New Mexico landscape. 

Having the advantage of following all three main characters, readers soon know where they are headed; the interest and suspense lie in seeing how these quirky and likable people occasionally glance off one another and exchange crucial information. Finally, Chee, Manuelito, and Leaphorn converge to see the whole picture. Hillerman's fans will enjoy revisiting these characters and their world, but newcomers will miss a lot, and would be better advised to read the earlier stories first.

The Sinister Pig (2003)
Here, Hillerman masterfully juggles the pieces of a political puzzle involving billions of dollars in missing oil royalties owed to Native Americans; the drug war; and a badly fragmented bureaucracy. 

When a stranger is found murdered on Navajo land, Sergeant Jim Chee of the Tribal Police steps in, but before long the investigation is joined (and muddied) by a plethora of government agencies including the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Bureau of Land Management-- and by Navajo, Hopi, and Apache tribal viewpoints. Help comes from two old friends, the retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and the former Navajo tribal policewoman Bernadette Manuelito (featured in The Wailing Wind), who had escaped a stalled relationship with Chee to join the U.S. Border Patrol.

The victim had been looking into possible fraud using old oil pipelines (the "sinister pig" of the title is a piece of switching equipment used in the industry). Meanwhile, another kind of sinister pig, the blue-blooded Rawley Winsor, appears at a private ranch in the area, and through this character's deep involvement in drug trafficking, Hillerman presents a trenchant perspective on the drug war. Winsor's mistress and his driver, two more colorful characters, add an interesting subplot, as do the prickly Bernie and the bashful Chee, when their attraction is reawakened.

The story might sound complicated, but the author breezes through, making it look easy. This outing ventures beyond the Navajo landscape that Hillerman's fans expect, but they-and general readers-should enjoy the broader geographical and social canvas just as well, in this tale of ordinary people unraveling knots of fraud and skulduggery.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

AIFF 2011 Day 2: Letters from the Big Man; The Big Uneasy; "New Directions" panel

The festival ended more than a month ago but it still comes up in conversation around here and I'm still determined to document some of it before I forget too much! We're eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see again (and share) many of these films as they come out in DVD or reappear at the Varsity for regular runs. AIFF broke records again in attendance and number of filmmaker present for panels and Q&As. It was a great year. Here's a list of the awards. 

On Friday morning of the festival (April 8), we started with a Filmmaker Talkback (these are free panel discussions held in the Ashland Springs Hotel, just up the street from the Varsity Theatre). It was titled "New Directions" and included Christoph Baaden (Hood to Coast), Philip G. Fores (Almost Kings), Robert James (Library of Dust), Adam Reid (Hello Lonesome), and Susan Saladoff (Hot Coffee). Great fun to get this background on the details of how the films got made - especially since I expected to see most of them, and all were of interest in one way or another. All very different; all amazing stories--both the films, and how they were made. I couldn't get a ticket to Hot Coffee, but Peggy saw it and maybe she'll comment on it here (hint, hint, Peggy); the filmmaker is an Ashland attorney and I do hope to see the movie soon. I heard it was very good. Almost Kings was also a local story:  the son of a friend-of-a-friend is an Ashland High School graduate who wrote the story the movie is based upon; he produced a trailer and entered it into a Netflix contest, which it won (no doubt because of my vote). We were hoping it would be filmed here, but that didn't prove feasible. I didn't get to see Library of Dust either, but I had seen a news story on it a while back and it made quite an impression on me at the time. Hello Lonesome went on to win the Audience Award, Dramatic Feature, and I'm sorry I missed seeing it. We saw Hood to Coast on Saturday, and it was fabulous.

Next, while Peggy went off to see a screening of Connected (I'd seen that the night before), Jeanie and I went to Letters from the Big Man. In unhurried fashion, it tells a spare story of a woods-savvy young scientist and her budding relationship with a mysterious Sasquatch entity. It takes a rather metaphysical approach to the legendary creature (with a bit of evil-government-plot thrown in, and a misfired romance; these plot elements barely seem to figure, though). It's very atmospheric with gorgeous cinematography of the Southern Oregon mountains, coast, and dark forests. I was happy to hear it had received this year's AIFF Gerald Hirschfeld, ASC Cinematography award -- well deserved. (The assistant cameraman was at the Q&A of the screening I saw, and he said they'd had to walk the equipment in to some remote locations.) 

This is a quirky, one of a kind film that confounds any expectation of pop culture that the mention of  Big Foot might raise. Instead, it brought to mind Kim Stanley Robinson's classy, respectful treatment of a Himalayan "big man" element in the novel Escape from Kathmandu, A sense is conveyed of a wider and deeper mythology (hints are tossed off for the viewer to catch or not, including a reference to the white buffalo in American Indian spirituality, and the interdimensionality that figures in much New Age and new science; in fact, I heard that at a different screening, the Q&A featured an expert in matters Big Foot). 

I suspect that a lot of male type people in the under-60 age bracket will be "bored" by this, as it's not the least bit frenetic or loud or sensationalist. It's one of those films you have to just sit back and take on its own terms. Also, the lead character/heroine (Lily Rabe) is no slasher victim, but a competent, outdoorsy, ungirlish young woman who is one of the few who are not spooked by Big Foot. Either Rabe is very fit and physical in real life, or she did a fantastic job of preparing for the part. Anyway, I liked the film a lot. Here's a link to the trailer. 

Next, Peggy went to see Kinyarwanda (maybe she'll guest-review that here, hint, hint, Peggy--it won a Special Jury Mention for Narrative Feature) while Jeanie and I had fabulous soup at Larks and saw some Ashland spots including the charming Ashland Art Works. Then we all went on to The Big Uneasy, the documentary by Harry Shearer, in the Armory. Even though it had a lot of Talking Heads, they were interesting ones and the chief "heroes" came across as human beings of integrity, struggling at personal and professional cost to find and tell the truth about how the New Orleans disaster really came about - not because of a super storm (Katrina was a Category 3 - big, but not THAT big) but because of sheer human stupidity and greed and incompetence -- in the hope of preventing more of the same. I'm not an engineer myself, but I was certainly aware of the danger New Orleans was in, years before Katrina, because I'd read an article about it (in some magazine like Smithsonian). In fact failure and flooding had been widely predicted for years, yet nobody in a position to do something to correct the problem (from bad levees to loss of wetlands) ever did anything, apparently. Of course, political corruption in Louisiana played a big part in the disaster and the aftermath; but Shearer chose to leave that story to someone else, and  concentrate on the engineering aspects of the situation. In doing so he highlights a big, and neglected, part of the story.

Shearer is a noted humorist, of course; there are a few satirical spots inserted in this film, but they weren't really necessary; the story behind the story is the real interest here. As humans tip the balance of nature through grandiose engineering projects, and through expansion of human habitats into ecologically vulnerable areas, "natural" disasters will only have worse and worse effects if the Army Corps of Engineers (and the corrupt political process underpinning the Corps) continues to destroy nature's own control mechanisms, and to fail to invent better ones. As happened in New Orleans, and might happen in Sacramento, next. 

We are offered a glimmer of hope that the US might start taking advice from Dutch experts who actually understand these things, but it's a thin hope, given a traditional US culture that resists learning anything from beyond its own borders.  As I write this, the Mississippi is flooding again.