Nebraska (Film review)

Nebraska (DVD) jpg

I have found one of my new favorite films ín Nebraska. It already ranks up there with films such as Station Agent, Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill and Highway 61 and a few of Jim Jarmusch’s early films (just to name a few) although I have only seen it once so far. The latter being a rather obvious comparison, as Nebraska is, like Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise, shot in b/w, and extremely beautifully at that, but more about that a bit later. Whereas Jarmusch’s films are always on the ‘cool’ side with musicians, DJ’s, hookers, pimps and the like in them, Nebraska is all about everyday people and their stories. It’s also a quiet, slow-paced, humane and has got an almost gentle feel to it in how the people in it are portrayed.

The film begins in Billings, MT (with the first few shots of rail lines and nearly deserted streets in winter that made me realise that I was in for a treat straight away). Old, frail and stubborn alcoholic Woody, played outstandingly well by Bruce Dern, falls for a scam letter, believing he has won a million dollars. He promptly decides to go to Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings and buy, for once in his life, a brand new pickup truck. His son, Dave, and Woody’s slightly vulgar and highly overbearing wife Kate try their best to convince him of the true nature of that letter, to no avail. Dave, also brilliantly played by Will Forte, an actor I previously only knew from a hilarious and memorable guest role in Flight Of The Conchords, reluctantly agrees to drive his dad down to Nebraska to collect Woody’s make-believe winnings. A decision he quickly comes to regret, after Woody drunkenly falls and splits his head open and he has to take him to an ER.

To recuperate, Dave decides to take Woody to his hometown of Hawthorne, NE where most of Woody’s family still lives. Fictional Hawthorne is a rural community on the plains of Nebraska, typically characterised by agriculture and a sedate lifestyle.

The meeting with his extended family (some of them on the graveyard) and former friends, acquaintances and lovers however, doesn’t go as smoothly as Dave would have hoped. The news that Woody struck it rich dos make various family members and one especially persistent former business partner and friend claim a payout for long-forgotten or not-existent in the first place, debts. The large family at the reunion meal is a brilliantly portrayed cast of people, all of them small town, and most of them older folk. Especially curious are Dave’s two never-do-well cousins, first mocking him for taking two days to drive down from Montana, and later going so far as to spring on Woody and Dave coming out of a bar, balaclavas and all – and stealing that famed letter. The rather comic fight between one of the cousins and Dave’s brother, hotshot TV-presenter Ross (played by ‘Better call Saul’, Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk) is hilarious indeed.

After these, for this somber, mostly melancholic film at least, comparatively tumultuous scenes, Dave agrees to finally go down to Lincoln to collect Woody’s imaginary winnings. They eventually make their way back to Montana without the million dollars, but with a new, well, actually 5-year old, but practically as-new Pickup truck which Dave lets Woody drive through his hometown. It’s a touching end to this lovely film, showing something of the fragile bond between a father and son that most probably haven’t been this close for ages.

As I hinted at earlier, this is a friendly, relaxed film in which nothing overly dramatic happens. I for one enjoy films like that a lot, there are enough films about cops, gangsters, pathologists and FBI people out there. This film is flying the flags for real people, trying to make the best of what they got and their all-too real problems. I was very impressed not only with the principal actors in the film, but also with the secondary ones and extras – they all look like genuinely like Midwestern, small-town inhabitants. Very nice.

The aspect I like best about Nebraska however is the photography. Each single scene in the film is perfectly framed and lighted, whether they are beautiful wide-angel landscape shots or small-town scenes quite a few of which are night shots. For somebody like me who loves the much-ridiculed Plains landscapes and the little towns dotted about it, the Nebraska is a feast for the eyes. Coupled with the superb acting, the lovely story and the impeccable directing, this is a film I will be cherishing for a very long time. Director Alexander Payne has of course done a quite similar-themed film before with About Schmidt, so he’s clearly got a lot of affection for his home state (he was born in Omaha). Although I did like that film a lot too, Nebraska in my opinion is the more successfully realised film of the two.

 

 

 

 

Sherman Alexie : Reservation Blues

Sherman Alexie Reservation Blues book cover

Reservation Blues revisits the characters of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, first written about so memorably in the 1993 short story collection The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven (read my review here). In Reservation Blues, long-dead and legendary Blues musician Robert Johnson somehow makes his way onto the Spokane Indian Reservation and quickly disposes his famous guitar into the hands of angry (and mostly drunk) Victor Joseph, who from that moment on, plays a mean guitar.

Together with his best buddy Junior and Thomas, he starts Coyote Springs, a band that after some rocky beginnings manages its way off the reservation (‘’anywhere off the reservation,’ Thomas said ‘ ,is along ways from the reservation’’), first to the Flathead Indian Reservation and later to Seattle, eventually landing in New York City. In between they get helped and/or distracted by a variety of imaginatively conceived characters, such as Flathead sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water and Seattle New Agers Betty and Veronica, who briefly join Coyote Springs only to leave both the band and the reservation because ‘it’s nuts here’. Also always lurking in the shadows are the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota and Big Mom, a mystical figure living high up on Wellpinit Mountain where she is joined by Robert Johnson. Things take a decidedly turn for the worse after the audition in New York City goes less than ideal and the hoped-for path to stardom curtailed. Back on the reservation, Junior takes his own life and the band gets scattered with the wind.

Things of course don’t go by without a myriad of complications and hiccups, such as various little and big tiffs between various members of Coyote Springs, beautiful Checkers Warm Waters falling in love with the reservation priest Father Arnold, and the continuing struggle with money worries.

The writing is once again wonderfully unique and steeped in mystique, such as in the last sentence of the book ‘Checkers and Chess reached out of their windows and held tightly to the manes of those shadow hoses running alongside the blue van’.

I wasn’t that totally captivated by his writing style as when I was reading The Lone Ranger And Tonto… but that might only because the short story collection was the first book I read by Sherman Alexie and his writing style was brand new to me then.

As in that book, the humdrum tragedy of life on an Indian reservation are very much in the focus of the book, as witnessed in conversations such as this one by Father Arnold and Checkers Warm Waters: ‘Does everything have to be about money?’ ‘Of course it does. Only people with enough money ever ask that question anyway’.

Speaking for Sherman Alexie is the fact that none of the often rather serious subject matter is written in an educational or preachy way. On the contrary, he manages to convey the things he wants to say in an often downright hilarious, even wacky way, without sacrificing his messages or diluting the comments and observations of the harsh realities of life on an Indian reservation and the continuing struggle Native American society is experiencing. Which is one of the main reasons endearing his work to me so much. Reservation Blues is an extraordinarily well-conceived story featuring a great cast of memorable characters. All of which are written about with loving attention to detail, culled both from reality and the inventive mind of Sherman Alexie, who as a mixed Spokane/Couer D’Alene is uniquely well-adapted to write about these things. As for my attraction to his writings and all things Native American, that attitude of the ‘white man’ gets addressed numerous times in the book too, such as in the scenes with Betty and Veronica, so that’s given me a chance to reflect on my motivations, which is making his books particularly relevant to myself and a lot of other people reading them.

David Mallett : Second Cup Of Coffee

David Mallett is a singer/songwriter from Maine, active since the 1970’s, although I have only recently heard of him for the first time. His songs have been covered by artists as varied as Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus, and, ahem, The Muppets (Garden Song). He’s recorded some more Country influenced albums in the past, but the songs of his I like most are firmly rooted in Folk-traditions. So, fittingly, the two videos I chose to share on here were recorded in a coffehouse in Massachusetts in 2014.

 

 

 

His website is: http://davidmallett.com/

 

 

Jon Brooks : Mercy

Jon Brooks is a Canadian Singer/Songwriter who I have only recently discovered. Still have to get one of his records, his latest album The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside was released in late 2014, so I’m probably gonna go for that. This song, Mercy is taken from his 2011 album Delicate Cages, is a splendid, quiet acoustic song with intelligent lyrics – so it’s right up my street.

http://www.jonbrooks.ca

Bruce Cockburn : Nothing But A Burning Light

Bruce Cockburn Nothing But A Burning Light album cover When Nothing But A Burning Light was released, way back in 1991, I liked the music I was listening to have a bit more punch and drive, so I didn’t give him and his music the attention it definitely deserves. Having left the ‚Rock’ period more or less behind the past few years, I can see now that he is an amazing guitarist, an extraordinarily gifted songwriter and politically on the ‘right’ side, which for me is the left. He’s long been active and supportive of humanitarian and ecological causes, as well as a supporter of Native American causes (he was, for a time in the 1960’s, a member of Abundance To Revolution with Duke Redbird, whose song Silver River (with Shingoose) can be heard on Native North America Vol. 1 (read my review here). Which neatly brings me to one of the standout tracks of this record, Indian Wars. Fittingly, it’s a somber, sparsely produced song with only him on acoustic guitar/vocals and Jackson Browne on a resonator guitar together with violin/mandolin player extraordinaire Mark O’Connor. The result is a dignified, slow and gorgeous songs with touching, poetic lyrics such as this: ‘treaties get signed and the papers change hands but they might as well draft these agreements on sand’. O’Connor’s contributions can’t be praised enough, on here, as well as on One Of The Best Ones, his graceful violin/mandolin accompaniments are simply wonderful. Also exceedingly excellent is Child of the Wind – a song with  a title like this could be very much kitsch in lesser hands, but on here it’s utterly beautiful (this time with Cockburn on a resonator guitar, having one of those played on a song is always a plus). Speaking of arrangements, the album is produced by probably the best man for this kind of music, T Bone Burnett. Burnett contributed his skills to many of my favorite records such as Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, as well as albums by The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan and Gillian Welch (just to name a few). In the recent past he’s become legendary of course with his musical directions for The Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?’ and Inside Llewyn Davis. On here you hear a sound which is, for that time period, outstandingly good, a bit thinner than nowadays maybe, but there’s mainly acoustic instruments and the sound is both rustic and naturalistic – just as I like it. There’s also two lovely instrumental songs, one, Actions Speak Louder is the theme to a documentary called The Greenpeace Years. The slightly too commercial for my taste Great Big Love most probably was intended as a hit single (the album was released on Columbia Records after all), but for me is the least convincing song on the album. Album opener A Dream Like Mine which sounds similarly catchy (it’s one of the few slightly more uptempo songs) fares much better in comparison. Second track Kit Carson and Mighty Trucks Of Midnight sound exactly like the titles suggest, breathing the spirit of empty North American trails and highways, with the latter touching on problematic issues such as US American companies leaving the country to do their manufacturing down in Mexico. Soul Of A Man, a song by Blind Willie Johnson sounds exactly like you would expect it to (which is a good thing, naturally). Somebody Touched Me in contrast, sounds light and airy with a rather nice organ by Booker T. Jones. I’ve just been rediscovering this CD among my records a few days ago, I didn’t even know anymore I had it. I am very glad I did, it’s an amazing record by an artist at the prime of his career, with a producer on board that knows exactly how to produce this kind of music, a match made in heaven. And, most importantly, a bunch of great songs. Here’s a rather beautiful video/slideshow to ‘ Indian Wars’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t1a5DLmR8U

Native North America Vol. 1 (Review)

Nartive North America Vol. 1 cover jpeg

This is a release both commendable and highly recommended. The 2-CD set gathers material by Native American (most of them Canadian) songwriters and bands hardly known or remembered nowadays, certainly not by me, I hadn’t heard of a single artist on here before. It also was a conscious decision to focus on more little-known artists, so people like Buffy Sainte-Marie are missing.

The most widely known artist probably is Willie Dunn. He seems to have been something of a forerunner for many Native American artists and bands during that period. The background notes in the booklet for him introduces the reader to a highly prolific songwriter, filmmaker, coffee shop owner and painter. His amazing album opener  I Pity The Country was chosen to accompany the video trailer for this release which you can see here. It’s a highly loveable Folk-Rock song with captivating, acute and poetic lyrics and a fabulous melody.

The above mentioned, accompanying excellent 120 page (yes, 120) booklet not only provides extensive background info on each of the 20+ Artists/bands featured, and also shows the original album artworks (incl. the record labels) as well as providing the lyrics to all songs. In case of non-English language songs the original lyrics and their English translations are also included. I for one enjoy browsing through the booklet almost as much as I do listening to both CD’s, the life stories being told of most artists are utterly fascinating.

I assume the fact that a lot of songs on here were recorded on a rather limited budget contributes to many of them being somewhat sparsely arranged and acoustic guitars abound, which is of course absolutely fine by me. The time span these songs were recorded in and the places the artists hail from, also contributes to a large amount of Folk-influences found throughout the 2-CD’s

The simplicity of many of the arrangements suits the nature of this compilation of songs from the far reaches of the Canadian wilderness and places such as The Northwest Territories (Willie Thrasher), Nunavut (Alexis Utatnaq) and Nunavik in Northen Quebec (Sukluk) very well. It’s also worth bearing in mind the function these songs primarily served. None of the artists on here came out of a hip student scene such as the ones found on cities such as New York City or Boston. A lot of the people in these bands went to boarding schools, oftentimes far away from home, which for many of them must have meant a troublesome and difficult experience. If they stayed in or returned to their own communities, they could often be found playing social gatherings – which, considering many of them were deep in the bush or close to the arctic circle, certainly is a far cry from some arty music club.

Said simplicity however isn’t evident all too often when it comes to most songs’ lyrics. Sure, there are fun and rather light-hearted songs on here too, such as Sugluk’s Fall Away and I Didn’t Know or Sikumiut’s Utirumavung and Sikumiut (the latter is especially catchy and cute). The afore mentioned I Pity The Country might be the most eloquently realised indictment of all that’s been wrong when it comes to relationships between Native Americans and non-natives. But a whole lot of other songs on here touch on similar themes which also penetrate deep into the music and mood of the songs. Alexis Utatnaq’s Maqaivvigivalauqtavut and Ernest Monias’ Tormented Soul are prime examples for this. Added are a host of excellent examples of the Native American way of storytelling and crafting dreamlike lyrics. The deep spiritual sensibilities palpable on all three songs by Willie Thrasher, Winds Of Change by Lloyd Cheechoo, Silver River by Shingoose (poetry by Duke Redbird), just to name a few, make for a haunting listening experience. The sound of Neil Young from that time period is also not far away on a number of tracks, such as Silver River and especially the brilliant Dreams Of Ways by Brian Davey.

Other highlights for me are Groupe Folklorique Montagnais’ (incl. Philippe McKenzie whose melancholic and mysterious Mistashipu, sung in his native Innu-aimun language opens CD2 in convincing style) song Tshekuan Mak Tshetutamak, which is an amazing blend of a Folky guitar strum-along and tribal drums. Both of John Angaiak’s songs on here Hey, Hey, Hey, Brother and I Rock You To The Rhythm Of The Ocean are pieces of pure introspective singer-songwriter magic with his melancholic voice making them crawl deep into your heart. Peter Frank’s Little Feather is another especially fine Folk-Country hybrid with a lulling, affecting tune. Excellent stuff.These songs are just some examples of tracks on here I find noteworthy, I could list a whole lot more.

As mentioned at the beginning, I can’t recommend Native North America Vol. 1 highly enough. With 34 tracks it’s cock-full of mostly excellent songs, both varied in style and unified by a strong sense of musical enthusiasm and connection to the land these artists stem from. This altogether makes for a captivating listening experience, conjuring up images (in my mind at least) of stark Northern American landscapes and the people who have been inhabiting them for a long time and the challenges they have been facing for the past 150+ years.