Jazz and Deep Wells

Jazz and Deep Wells

by

Howard Adelman

Today is Black Sunday. I know there is no such thing, but I wanted to convey how I see the day by playing off this past Friday of widespread deep discounts and sales and yesterday’s experience. Today I have not simply a two-for-one offer but a two-for-two-for-two offer. What could be better? On the other hand, what could be worse – not only receiving two long missives on the same day, but the second about two entirely different topics and each topic about two different events. The blog will clarify.

Yesterday morning as I was leaving for Torah study, I saw a peregrine falcon eating its prey on the front lawn. I presume that it was an unwitting squirrel. I had never seen a peregrine let alone one up close. I had read that they had been sighted in Toronto, but it was startling to see such a huge bird in front of me. I thought it was the male that I saw, for the mate which appeared was somewhat smaller. But when I read up on falcons this morning, I learned that it must have been the female for females are significantly larger than their masculine mates.

From the rear – the angle from which I watched it – it seemed to have a huge back of thick blue-grey feathers and a black head. The male – the smaller of the pair – had more distinct white markings on its chest. Did you know that the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, in a dive reaching over 200 mph? Its highest measured speed is 242 mph. But if peregrines now nest in tall buildings in urban areas, its nest must have been blocks away.

I took the sighting of the peregrine to be a sign – a sign of a positive tale on the human propensity to destroy our planet and other species. For the peregrines were once endangered because of the widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT. However, with the banning of DDT, their numbers have rebounded enormously. I also took the sighting in a different sense, for in Torah yesterday morning, before we even started our textual examination, I opened the volume to initially read the tale of Jacob’s ladder that comes immediately before Jacob met Rachel at the well.

Needless to say, I had never read the short account through the eyes of a falcon. If you recall, Jacob was fleeing towards his uncle Laban because he believed Esau was in hot pursuit given that he, Jacob, had deceived Esau out of his father’s blessing to double the act of treachery in the story when he got his brother to give him Esau’s birthright in exchange for a mug of soup. In his dream, (Genesis 28:12-15), Jacob envisioned a ladder or a stairway reaching upwards into the sky. Angels of God were traipsing up and down the stairs – if they were coming from heaven why not down first and then up? God then promised Jacob that his descendants would spread everywhere over the earth, north and west, east and west. God also promised to protect him wherever he went and “bring you back to this land.” Further God said, “I will not leave you until what I have done what I have promised you.” (28:15)

If God had made that promise to falcons, He clearly kept his word. Falcons, once on the verge of extinction, are now everywhere. Further, falcons are like angels rising on the upward drafts of the wind and then diving down for prey. Falcons have superb vision. An excellent capacity for survival has been intertwined with a theme of destruction, preying on other species necessary for survival and repeatedly being faced themselves with species genocide.

The story that was the subject of yesterday’s Torah study was the one that followed, Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. Jacob continued on after his visionary dream. What did he see first. Verse 2 of chapter 29 reads: “There before his eyes was a well in the open.” The vision was not a dream sequence, but a real sighting. It was not of soaring and diving angels, but of a “well in the open,” also translated as in the “field.” Vision is now grounded. It is focused on earthly things, not long-range promises. And the focus is a well.

As Rabbi Splansky pointed out in comparing three “well” stories, the one where Jacob’s father, Isaac, or his emissary, encountered Rebecca, and the one where Moses came to a well were the daughter of Jethro, the Midianite, had been chased away from watering their sheep until Moses’ intervention, in each case a well is a symbol of overcoming scarcity, scarcity of water and scarcity of progeny. For the women are barren, either because they are virgins or because they seemingly cannot bear children. In the case of both Rebecca and Rachel, the continuity of the generations through time, a necessary correlation to spatially spreading over the land, seems at first to be denied them. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are all barren when first encountered. In each case, the opening of the wombs of the women is attributed to God.

Hence, the well Rabbi Splansky introduced to the group as a basis for a dialectic of correspondence yet difference in all three stories. (The tale of the competition between the first-born and a younger brother was not a topic of focus.) Verse 2 in English and Hebrew reads:

And he looked, and behold! a well in the field, and behold! three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because from that well they would water the flocks, and a huge rock was upon the mouth of the well. בוַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹֽבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָֽעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר:

בְאֵ֣ר

Be-ayr or Beer, as in Beersheva, is a well or pit. A well is a source, not simply of physical water, but of God’s word, of His spirit, of His promise. A well is not a natural spring. It is built by humans. It is an artifice of human labour and ingenuity. When Abraham confronted Abimelech after the latter’s servants denied him access to a well Abraham had dug, Abraham insisted on buying it back with money to define in contractural terms what had been promised by God in a covenant. When Moses travelled to Beersheva, he was promised water. “And from there to Beer, which is the well where the Lord said to Moses: “assemble the people that I may give them water.” (Number 21:16) And all of Israel sang a song: “Spring up oh well; sing to it.”

The well and the water in it offer a voice from God. It is not just a wishing well, but a well of promise. In particular, it is a promise of bringing waters to the womb and breaking those waters to deliver progeny. A well is a source of fecundity. It is from the waters of that well that the flock of sheep, that God’s flock of Israelites, though certainly not exclusively, are offered drink. However, in Jacob’s vision of the staircase to heaven, Jacob worried that it portended destruction and death. For he believed Esau was following him, intent on killing him in revenge for what he had stolen. A well is also a pit, that into which Joseph was thrown, that into which we are all tossed when we die. God in that sense is not only the source of life, but the deliverer of death and from death. When a hole lacks water, it is a pit. Which will it be?

In the Gospel according to John in chapter 4, Jesus was travelling north rather than east like Jacob. Outside the town of Sychar, he sat beside Jacob’s well. The story inverts the original. Jesus asked a woman to give him water from the well. She did, but wondered why he would ask a Samaritan girl? Was he proposing? Jesus then offered the Samaritan from whom he asked for a drink “living water.” The suggestion is that the water on offer had been dead, as dead as the water in the Dead Sea. It had become saline. Jesus was offering, not just to Jews, but now to everyone, to all human kind, “fresh water,” sweet rather than bitter water. The point is not to endorse the message of the Christian narrative as recorded by John, but to indicate and understand a well as a symbol.

The well is covered by a large stone. It will be moved by Jacob. It will be moved by Moses. They as founding fathers move the heavy stone that blocks access to the spirit of creativity, the spirit of procreation which itself is a structure constructed by humans. When a well runs dry, we find only dry bones and not the vital source of life. In Genesis, wells with water recur 25 times.

Wells are built by humans. Wells are accessed by human labour. Humans, as in the Moses tale, can also deny access to the well. In the Jacob story, to save the well from evaporation, the shepherds wait until all the flocks arrive and then remove the rock that covered the well. In the Moses story of the well, access was denied the Midianite women. Moses intervened to provide access. In the Jacob story, Jacob acts without the involvement of the other shepherds to move the stone and provide water for Rachel’s flock.

Why did Jacob do that? Why, when he saw Rachel, did he kiss her and break into tears upon meeting a relative he had never seen? Water flowed out from him instead of into him. It was tears of joy, of happiness. The serenity and unexpressed emotion of Abraham was now left behind. The reticence and passivity of Isaac had been left behind. In place we now have an openly emotional, and, as we soon learn, mentally scheming forefather who dramatically pushes the plot forward just as he intervened to move the stone.

Yesterday evening I went to hear jazz at Koerner Hall. The program featured the much younger Alfredo Rodríguez Trio in the first half and, in the second half, the brilliant jazz pianist, Danilo Pérez with Ben Street on bass & Danilo’s sister, Terri Lynne Carrington, on drums. It was a great performance, but it was akin to hearing the story of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven after one had read the story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well as our initiation into one of the greatest love stories in literature.

In the second half, the music of Pérez truly soared up to the heavens and back down to earth, but after hearing the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio, it sounded like dinner music. For the Rodríguez trio was truly brilliant. It took us down into the well of creativity in cyclonic waves of poetic repetition. For Pérez is correct in his comments about jazz. It is global music. It is about freedom. It is about improvisation on repetitive themes.

The most powerful structural element in the biblical text is repetition. But also, the riffs on that repetition. The Torah in the literary world is the foundation of jazz in the world of music and it too plays on sounds, on words, on phrasing and on clauses, and translates the combination into stories. The ingenious variations in each are about identity and difference. The parallelisms challenge us to compare and reflect and to do so at various levels. Both literally and figuratively, Rodríguez took the audience down into the deep well of creativity in one of the greatest jazz performances I have ever heard. Sometimes it was just a fascinating variation on a very familiar tune, and, in the case of the last number the trio played, on a very simple melody from his childhood in Cuba.

I write only about the most haunting number. I believe, if I caught him correctly, it was called Yoruba. His CDs were all sold out when I went to buy one or two, so I had to look it up. I believe it is the one called, “Oye Afra Yoruba-Son,” but I will only know when I hear the song again. The number came from the deepest well of all. I would call it haunting jazz, in-depth ethnic jazz rather than global jazz. Hopefully, in a future blog when I hear the trio again, I myself will write with greater depth.

On a day that started with renewed life diving down to earth and feeding on prey on the ground, I was taken deeper into the ground, into wells of feeling and emotion rarely touched. With Yoruba I went back earlier before my ancestors in the Middle East to the Yoruba in West Africa whose music I happened to hear there. It had the same resonance captured in Rodríguez’ number and offered an older oral history deeper than the written word even if Rodríguez probably got his inspiration from Lucumí/Santeria in Cuba from descendants of African slaves brought to that island. Yoruba culture is based on divination and a search for wells, for the invisible beneath us as well as the invisible above us in the air. It developed as a culture of art and beauty rather than a culture which emphasized ethics and law, but one which both complements and haunts the latter.

In Rodríguez’ interpretation, it does do so by a kind of cyclonic activity that thrusts you down into a powerful inward circulation of notes and phrasing and repetitions that rotate, first downwards and finally upward so that one can once again breath freely. Hearing his music was like being thrust into a low-pressure chamber. He not only moved the stone from the top of the well, but dived down into it. And took the audience with him.

From peregrine falcons to cyclonic trips down wells – what could be better? Especially when you emerge unscathed and still breathing.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Aside – Embodiment

An Aside – Embodiment

 

by

 

Howard Adelman

I will return to the analysis of the frame for the Akedah story. But I must insert a side blog. This need is occasioned by two events. First, my daughter dropped in for an evening this past week on the way back from Israel to Boston. She was returning there to give a paper called “Wings of Desire: Theophany between the Cherubim and Mercy Seat” at the panel on Divine Embodiment at the Society of Bible Literature 2017 Conference. Rachel left me a copy of her paper for me to read.

The second impetus was seeing Samuel Tétreault’s “The 7 Figures” dance/circus troupe from Montreal perform “triptyque” at the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening. As Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage, wrote in his program notes: “When the body becomes the voice, the eyes learn to listen, and the head connects to the heart.” Marie Chouinard’s opening piece featuring an apparently crippled couple dance with twisted “crutches” was the most profound of these fascinating trio of choreographed works. In the second work, Victor Quijada had the whole troupe balancing in different ways on tall rods or canes rather than crutches with tiny platforms as the artists balanced between stillness and movement as they reached for the heavens and risked greater vulnerability. Sometimes they pulled together; at other times, they tore apart.

The most fascinating visually was Marcos Morau’s third piece, by far the longest, in which a hospital bed was the centrepiece, but a hospital bed that ended up floating in the air and then turning sideways to become a climbing wall. However, in this piece, we were gradually removed from the mundane, from the boredom of reality and the daily news about Donald Trump’s latest tripping over himself and his own words, and taken into a space where dream and reality meet, where vision and the ordinary of human life encounter one another. The artists stumble. They recover, whether on unicycles or using aerial straps, in their quest for freedom through escaping reality.

I should not omit the whimsical duo between the first and second performances to give time for a change in sets. Their short performance of Fred Astaire via Charlie Chaplin offered a brilliantly funny sight gag underwritten by a very serious commentary on play versus drudgery. As one of my fellows quoted in yesterday’s Torah study group, if something is done that you enjoy on Shabat, it is not work. But the same action treated as drudgery is halachically forbidden. Mopping a floor can be a delightful and inventive dance or a robotic and distressing exercise in drudgery.

I will return to the dance company. But first my daughter’s paper on the Mishkan as the place where the fascinans, the alluring and appealing aspects of the divine, meet “face-to-face” with the tremendum, the repulsive aspects of God. This is where revelation takes place at the encounter of the human and divine and the clash between the fascinans and the tremendum. It is another lesson in how the voice can be seen, the oral visualized, where danger and desire intertwine as God’s voice emerges from the midst of the fire to establish a divine presence.

God descends within a cloud in a moment of crisis in the tabernacle tale. In Morau’s dance/circus piece, the dancers ascend from a death bed. The cause of death is evidently watching shadows on the cave wall via TV; humans ascend to escape banality. When God descends in the Torah, it is to dwell in a vacuum, an empty space (a tokh), among and framed by the cherubim. That is the Heaven above the vault of the earth from which He speaks to set fire to earthly vanities.

God remains immanent. In Morau’s circus/dance, humans rise transcendent above the stage challenging the pull of gravity. But the latter, like the sacred text, is part of a “locomotor” rather than a “locative” thesis. Stasis does not stand at the centre of the universe. Change does. We are not intended to be couch potatoes sitting on our hospital beds slowly dying, but doers and shakers. Worship is not centred in the sacred temple, but in the arc of the covenant that moves even in the diaspora, with the people. God sits upon the seat of mercy. But it is a place of danger, a place of risk into which no one can go, except in the ancient world the High Priest, and even then, only once a year on Yom Kippur. God sits upon a “couch” of mystery rather than banality.

The dancers/circus performers in the triptych provide a mirror for that sacred space through men and women rising to challenge nature’s gravity. They can do so even if crippled. They may be constrained by bent limbs and twisted appendages, but, despite such constraints, they express the voice of freedom in the movement of their flesh and bones.

Chouinard’s piece takes off where the binding of Isaac ends. One dancer is hung all bound up in mid air. Her partner comes to her rescue and carefully, deliberately, slowly, unbinds her. He came to her on crutches. And she rises like a newborn calf, unsteady on her legs and herself needing the aid of deformed wooden appendages. While the tribe descended from the people of the book obtain their “breakthroughs” via restraint and constraint, in the first dance/circus piece influenced by the Japanese Kinbaku art of bondage, restraint is refined into an aesthetic. That which initially appears ugly and abnormal becomes a thing of beauty.

Are the ropes cut, are the chains which bind us smashed? Or are they carefully and systematically unwound and then transformed into a way of freedom as in the dance performance? Does a woman lay on railway tracks totally tied up waiting to be rescued by the heroic male before the train runs over her as we left the movie theatre as kids waiting a week for the next episode. Or is she rescued, not from the danger of a seaming monster, but from her own constraints and limitations, and then allowed to move and prance, to swing and dance? The rope becomes part of an erotic means of rising from the dead in a dream or oneiric state rather than, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, like the penis in western culture, crashing down in a flabby mess, collapsing, wasted and diminished and no longer with a voice.

This artistic expression becomes much more pronounced in the third choreographed piece by Marcos Morau’s oneiric rope performances when the dancers bind themselves to rise to the heavens. The binding itself is not meant to constrain by ropes ineptly wound around them, but by ropes aesthetically twisted so that the constraints themselves become integral parts of their bodies as they dance in mid-air. The Kazami-Ryu strappado suspension becomes a thing of awe and wonder as we delight in the relaxation rather than tension enabled by the skill of the performers. It is not as if we were watching human artists portrayed as divine or semi-divine beings, as in Superman or Wonder Woman, but rather the emphasis is on the effort to raise and transform the human form into its highest heavenly presence. Thus, though clearly influenced by Japanese art and bodily performance, the choreography remains within the Western aniconic tradition that rejects the portrayal of deities in a bodily form.

But the Western tradition is one preoccupied with sin and failure and the need for atonement. In the choreography we saw last evening, constraints and limits are simply part of the natural world, part of our collective birthright, and we escape from sin, not by browbeating ourselves, not by thumping on our chests in remorse, but by using gravity itself to rise above the world, to become a force of nature oneself. We can stand upside down, balanced on small poles with a relatively miniscule platform. Last evening offered a remarkable demonstration of how natural forces can be balanced and held still, not simply to balance upside down on one’s hands, but to project oneself sideways with only the pole and the tiny platform for support.

In the biblical text, the Israelites are punished for idolatry, for worshiping a calf made of solid gold. One might transform that weighty object into gold leaf in the Mishkan. Last evening, the performers left the inert metal behind and opted for a life in empty space. Yesterday morning, the silver ornaments and velvet cover were removed from the Torah scroll I held to allow and encourage an encounter between the divine and the human through reading of words. In the performance yesterday evening, there is neither a dependence nor an expectation of any divine intercession. It was not about God only helping those who help themselves, but demonstrating how a tribe could help one another and rise into the heavens. In the Hebrew Bible, God descends. Humans only walk and climb to the tops of mountains. But that is where pagan gods lived. The God of the Hebrews did not live in a single space. In the performances last evening, humans could not be confined to our normal spatial range, but could strive and soar as apparently effortless as birds without any divine being hovering above and without any net below to catch them when and if they fall.

On Saturday morning at synagogue I was “chosen” and rewarded with the honour of carrying one of the sacred scrolls. In the evening I was carried away by rising, turning, bending and twisting to try to rise above the pull of mediocrity. It was an evening in which I could listen with my eyes and my head could move closer to the seat of mercy, the heart, vicariously by a very different route. In the morning, God was not present but experienced as an absence. In the evening, God was absent; humans rose to fill the heavenly space.

Will that path through the beauty and magical performance of the body have its own hubris even as it attempts to balance centrifugal and centripetal forces to somewhat overcome the pull of gravity? In that vision, do we pull ourselves upwards by out own bootstraps or our own canes? We are uplifted by beauty instead of raised up by a commitment to the written word, to law and ethics.

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on antisemitism soon enough, but I must take two detours, one into jazz and a second into the theory and practice of sovereignty based on a conference I attended Friday.

I am not a jazz aficionado. I have no record or disc collection. And though I listen to Jazz FM91 on the radio, I would not say I do it regularly. But I do ensure I get my fix by attending the jazz series at Koerner Hall that Mervon Mehta puts together each year.

It was not always like that. I used to teach in the evenings. In the seventies, after my graduate seminar, I would drop into one of the clubs for one set as a way of unwinding before heading home. I was not a fan of rock and missed many famous concerts – such as the one in 1977 before I moved to Israel for a year when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performed and then was busted for heroin possession on an occasion made even more famous because he was consorting with Margaret Trudeau, the mother of our current Prime Minister, who had just split with Justin’s father when the latter was Prime Minister. I missed Richard’s concert at the El Mocambo, even though I often went there when a blues band was playing.

I was not a purist, for I often went to the Horseshoe Tavern on the north side of Queen Street to listen to country, though I stopped when the venue switched to emphasizing punk. I loved listening to the Downchild Blues Band at Grossman’s Tavern in my childhood district on Spadina Avenue between Dundas and College Streets. However, my favourite place was the Chick’N’Deli on Mt. Pleasant just south of Eglington, partly because the scene was so intimate, partly because the venue was en route from Glendon College to my home, but mostly because some of the greatest jazz greats played there.

What takes me down this nostalgic lane was listening last night to one of the most terrific jazz concerts I have ever heard. Jason Moran and The Bandwagon were featured at Koerner Hall last night. The trio, which included Tarus Mateen on the bass guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums, played one tune by Fats Waller, “The Sheik of Araby.” Sometime in the seventies, I had heard Fats Waller play that very tune at the Chick’N’Deli.

However, Jason said that was the tune he was playing. If he had not told me, I would never have known, perhaps the absolute proof that I am not a jazz aficionado. When Fats Waller played at the Chick’N’Deli, it was wild and the place was literally jumping. Jumpin and jivin! But last evening, Jason made the music soar instead. It cascaded up and up. Just when my heartbeat said it could not swirl faster and higher any longer, the music would go up again, faster at even greater heights and with more twists and turns, not once again, not twice again, but four or five times. I thought I would burst.

Jason Mason’s music whooshes and reaches crescendo after crescendo. Evidently, when he was in high school in Texas, he was an avid skateboarder. Jazz music clearly usurped skateboarding because it allowed him to almost escape the pull of gravity and to take us with him. This is not just a metaphor. While Waller would interweave Dixieland and blues, stride and swing, Jason was more of a classical artisan weaver who cut each strip from the trunk of a swamp tree and interwove those strips in new ways by infusing the music with both classical and post-modern atonal elements to create a synchronized whole.

In his porkpie hat and fashionably stubble beard, Jason Mason is a creator not a curator. He gives homage to traditional flare, but with complex rhythms that take you on a roller coaster that is no longer anchored to the ground. Yet he allows you to savour each and every note.

It is hard to choose which was the best number. His piece, Thelonious, that he played last evening was one of Monk’s own compositions. The playing was both a tribute and one personified by Moran. Jason Moran regards Thelonious Monk as the greatest jazz pianist in history. You can listen to a full tribute at http://www.npr.org/event/music/446866440/jason-moran-plays-thelonious-monks-town-hall-concert. By intersecting modernist elements, the composition is refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated in an absolutely new way. It should not be surprising that the first album that Jason released in 2002 was called Modernistic.

Last night, Jason Moran played Body and Soul in a way that took out the conjunction and turned the body into soul. It was like having a religious experience. But his music is also political. He has written compositions to convey the feeling of both slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa and, in the movie, Selma, the struggle against institutionalized discrimination against blacks that continued into the sixties in the United States and has taken new forms since. Moran fuses intellectual analysis with empathetic re-enactment. He will infuse pop genres unfamiliar to me, but also combining African beats and stride. He played a portion of Wind taken from the soundtrack that he wrote for the famous 2016 documentary 13th on race, and incarceration rates in the U.S. injustice system that I have yet to see, but I have read enough about it to know I must watch it. The music he played last night made me move it to top place on my bucket list.

I Ain’t Misbehavin and I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, but when I do, Sweet Honey Bee in the hands of Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits takes me upward into the clouds to suck sweet nectar from extra-terrestrial flowers. At the same time, like Fats Waller’s most famous tune, the music takes me home, takes me on a nostalgic trip when my first brood were just entering their teens, and when I was totally immersed in my teaching and research career. That is more than a metaphor. Moran and his trio opened with a tune called Gangsters or something – I did not catch the title – or perhaps I heard it totally incorrectly because I was thinking about an Australian mobster and drug dealer by the same name as Jason Moran who had become infamous when I was visiting Australia fifteen years ago before I even became a research professor there from 2005-2008. Until I heard that number, it never occurred to me that jazz could really be about murder and mayhem.

Moran is no gangster. Instead of killing, he is truly a genius well deserving of all the awards he has accumulated, including a Genius Award and MacArthur Fellowship (2010). He has had many nominations and several times won as best jazz pianist of the year. For, in addition to his own original works, he allows artists to be born again in a new way for a contemporary audience. He himself is an artist pure and simple, so it is no surprise that he composes works that accompany art installations and creates video artworks collected by MOMA.

 

If he comes your way, do not miss him.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hell of High Water – a movie review

Hell or High Water: a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

There is a very revealing scene in the movie that we saw last evening, Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Jeff Bridges, a crusty retiring Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton, and his partner, the Comanche Texas ranger, Alberto, played with puritanical stoicism by Gil Birmingham, are riding in their police vehicle attempting to track down two men responsible for a series of bank robberies in western Texas. They are stopped on the highway by old-style cowboys herding their cattle across the blacktop in flight from a prairie grass fire. This is the new West – of oil rigs (and wind energy towers, the latter not seen in the movie because the film was shot in New Mexico). The cowboy tells Jeff Bridges that this is a hell of a way to make a living. “It’s the 21st century. No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”

The movie title harks back to a time when the expression was not “in”, “come” or even the more modern, “through” hell or high water, but just hell or high water. It was a period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when ranch hands drove their longhorns to rail heads through the high water of river crossings rather than travel long distances across a parched landscape to find shallows where they could ford the stream with ease. All obstacles, however high, are surmountable. Attacking them head on is a better choice than the hell of taking a circuitous route. This was the ethos of the cowboy. But it is also the grand metaphor of the film. For these Texan white males, there seems to be only two options – they are either struggling to surmount incredible obstacles or they live in a hell of their own and their society’s making.

Texas may still be gun country, but it is no longer cowboy country. Instead of the broad immense rich blue sky of Texas, black clouds from the grass fire blot out much of the sky. The atmosphere is one of gloom, despair and hopelessness. What we are watching is the death of a whole way of life with its deteriorating small towns and crotchety elders. The Texas of the old West is decaying in full view as we watch the strange beauty of this hard-crusted landscape and the human flotsam left over who spend their time shooting at each other in a state where even old men doing banking carry a gun and are ready to use it. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take along Samuel Colt.” (Dust of the Chase)

In another insightful vignette, the two rangers stop to eat at an old-fashioned restaurant called the T-Bone, evidently the only eatery in town. The crotchety old waitress (Margaret Bowman), who has been waiting tables for eons (the actress is 84 years old and deserves an Oscar for her brilliant brief performance), asks the two what they don’t want. The two rangers look first puzzled and then downright totally bewildered. She says that the only thing they serve is T-bone steak. It comes with green beans and a baked potato. Which of the two choices, if any, does each of the rangers want to leave out? As an aside, the old crone tells them that she once had a customer from New York who asked for trout.

I cannot recall her words disparaging the New Yorker, but I immediately thought of how rural America and the rust belt elected Donald Trump and thumbed their noses at the sophisticates of urban America.

Hell or High Water is a study in contemporary rural cultural geography and in character revealed as much through all the silences as the witty dialogue of Taylor Sheridan’s script. There is almost no plot. Of the two brothers who are the bank robbers, Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father with two sons with a sense of his own personal failure. As the movie unfolds, it becomes evident that he is driven by a determination that his own sons will not face the same bleak existence that he and his brother, Tanner, did. The latter (Ben Foster) is an ex-con who served ten years in prison. He “double crossed the State of Texas and they gave (him) a little time.” (Dust of the Chase) He is the wild card of the pair. A sociopath whose only moral compass seems to be loyalty to his younger brother, Tanner is the foil to the deeply pained and suffering persona of Toby, so steeped in guilt and a sense of failing to fulfill his responsibilities. The two rob a series of branches of the West Midland Bank. Two rangers chase them down. The end of Tanner is foreshadowed in the lyrics of Dust of the Chase.

“When the times at hand and I kill a man, I say a little prayer.
I come down from Oklahoma with a pistol in my boot
A pair of dice, a deck of cards and a bible in my suit
How small a part of time we share ’till we hear the sound of wings
I’m lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

That’s it. That is the plot. However, all four characters are united by one theme – they are all lonesome would-be cowboys, except perhaps for the Comanche ranger, who evidently has an extensive and close family off screen, but has to spend his professional life being teased in a politically incorrect manner by Jeff Bridges about his half-breed nature as an Indian and a Mexican. This film pays ironic veneration to stubborn individualism writ large, individualism as atomic as it gets. In the lyrics of From My Cold Dead Hands:

“Do what I wanna do
Say what I wanna say
They wanna take it away
From my cold dead hands
The price of being free
And what it means to me
They wanna take it away.”

It is clear throughout the movie that the ranger, Marcus, really loves his partner, Alberto. That is verified near the end of the movie. But instead of intimacy between the two, there is only mutual razzing and the entertainment of dissing. The two brothers also love one another. In one scene, they even engage in some physical play and shoving. But that is the closest one views any caring between two humans. In another scene, Toby sits in the scrabbly backyard of his ex-wife’s home and talks to his son, from whom he is clearly estranged. Toby asks after his son’s brother (he’s at a friend’s house), but cannot express his deep love for his boys except through his efforts to rob banks to ensure his mother’s ranch, which has oil under its ground, is inherited by the boys, debt free. For it is the bank that is viewed as responsible for his troubles, for its efforts,

“to hold us,
Held by our necks.” (From My Cold Dead Hands)

There is no sense of love between a man and a woman in the whole movie. Near the beginning of the film, the lyrics to Mama’s Love portray the situation of a character who cannot sleep at night when the pain comes out, who has sex only to use a woman. The song begins:

“Something’s got my fear,
And then won’t get through my head,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.
Here I go again,
React without a plan, oh,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.”

And it is conveyed in the lyrics of You Asked Me To.

“Feel simple love is simple true
There’s no end to what I’d do
Just because you asked me.”

No male-female love, of either son to mother or between a man and his “gal.” Just chasing one’s tail and watching and waiting.

In another scene, the rangers view a tele-evangelist in their motel room. Jeff Bridges opines, “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.” In the land of evangelical rural America, there is really no depth of faith, only religion as entertainment. God has become a snake who does not entice men into sex, but bites off a man’s penis.

But there is deep love in the movie, even though it is repressed and deformed. The father, Toby, is devoted to his two boys even though he cannot connect with them. He is attached at the heel to his sociopathic brother. Toby and Tanner clearly love one another and are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. The two rangers, Marcus and Alberto, even though they pretend to have only disdain for one another, also share a deep love as confirmed in the climatic last scene. When Marcus learns the reason for the robberies, in the post-climactic encounter between Marcus and Toby, Marcus seems to have learned to replace his desire for revenge with a respect and even concern for the bank robber who got away. Toby in turn invites Marcus to drop in to his place in town for a drink.

The devil, as in all the old Western movies, is still the bank, in this case, the Midland Western Bank and the four branches the two brothers rob to “earn” enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage and the back taxes owed by their recently deceased mother, the same Midland Western Bank that moved to foreclose on the mother’s ranch after oil was discovered on the property. The film seems both contemporary as well as lifted from the dirty thirties. The instinct for survival is the dominant motive for living, even when Tanner is engaged in futile self-defence. The brothers simply try to retrieve what they feel is owed them from the institutions that seem to have betrayed them so much. The politics of resentment is on full display.

I cannot recall a film where the movie with such sparse (and very witty) dialogue relied so fully on the soundtrack of songs (evidently available in a separate CD), most by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The songs drive home the full meaning of the movie. The titles are an indication:

1. Comancheria (the original film title, the locale in Texas and New Mexico)
2. Dollar Bill Blues (Tones Van Zandt)
3. Mama’s Room (Aaron Bruno, Jamin Wilcox, Drew James Stewart)
4. Dust of the Chase (Billy Jo Shaver and Ray Waylon Hubbard)
5. Texas Midlands
6. Robbery
7. You Ask Me To (Waylon Jennings)
8. Mountain Lion Mean
9. Sleeping on the Blacktop (Colter Wall)
10. From My Cold Dead Hands
11. Lord of the Plains
12. Blood, Sweat and Murder (Scott H. Biram)
13. Casino
14. Comancheria II
15. Outlaw State of Mind
16. Hate Me (Christopher Fronzak, Sean Heenan, Christopher Link, Nader Salameh and Kalen Biehm)
17. Bakerman (John Guldberg, Tim Stahl and Arthur Stander)
18. Playing the Part (Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor)
19. You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ (Billy Jo Shaver)
20. I’m Not Afraid to Die (Gillian Welch)

The twenty titles alone provide the whole plot and the settings for the various scenes. In the song, Commancheria, a simple chord progression with pauses, carries with it a sense of longing and a lost world. As Alberto, the Comanche ranger, tells Marcus, my people once owned all this land. You dispossessed us and now you are being dispossessed by the oil companies and the financiers.

The lyrics of Dollar Bill Blues start with the chorus:
“If I had a dollar bill
Yes, I believe I surely will
Go to town and drink my fill
Early in the morning.”

The song then refers to a darling as a “red-haired thing” who makes my legs sing and a golden girl mother, whose throat he slit. There’s only going down and no saving of one’s soul.

Hell or High Water is a bleak and melancholic western presented with a sense of humour and irony. Released in August, it is now available on Netflix or I-Tube, I cannot recall which. Much better than a tele-evangelist!

Seattle

Seattle, Washington

by

Howard Adelman

We traveled from Victoria via the Victorian Clipper to Seattle on Sunday. Unfortunately, the windows were so salt encrusted that it was hard to discern what we were passing or to see the pod of Orcas that we passed en route – unless you went outside and braced yourself against the cold. I did for a short time, but my timing was not right for, at best, all I saw was the flip of a tail. Nevertheless, the sail was very smooth. There was what was regarded as a spectacular sunset by our fellow passengers, but given our experience with Georgian Bay sunsets, we were not equally overwhelmed.

Monday morning we spent in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market and Nancy resisted buying any more spices. Pike Place Chowder lived up to its famous reputation; the clam chowder we had for lunch was the best I have had ever tasted, including my fondest memories of eating chowder in Halifax. We spent the afternoon in the Seattle aquarium which is superb and should not be missed by any visitor who loves fish, colourful coral or watching otters being fed very expensive shrimp – they eat 25% of their weight. We just love a top notch aquarium, and the Seattle aquarium ranks among the best. We topped the day with a great Italian dinner at the Assaggio right next to the hotel where we were staying. My veal chop was tender and cooked to perfection. The vegetables were steamed just enough to retain their texture and flavour. Though I usually do not like gravy, the mashed potatoes with gravy from the veal were great. I am a confirmed meat and potatoes man.

Tuesday was a day for architecture and artisans. We began with a visit to a glass-blowing gallery. The most fortunate part of the visit is that the beautiful vases, bowls and other glass objects – including many gorgeous Christmas tree decorations that I usually dislike – were all made of glass. That meant that we could not purchase any glass artifacts because we could not take them with us given their fragility and the various changes of venue on our trip. But the visit was terrific and a great start to a day that would end with a visit to the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition.

Our next stop was the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle public reference library that was opened just over ten years ago. From both the outside and the inside, the shell is a futurist placing of geometrical diamond-shaped glass panes in a steel mesh in blocks each at odd angles that makes brutalism suddenly suave. Strength and playfulness are successfully combined. The structure reminded me of how a two-year-old plays with building blocks. The interior is really cool in the modernist sense of the term, but also very functional as you circle the central elevator shaft and watch readers, people working on their computers and even sleepers. Brutalist modern plywood impressed concrete is more or less restricted to the core.

What use is a library in a computer age? This structure shows how modern technology and our age-old reverence for hard copy books can be integrated as well as private study, meeting rooms and an auditorium with an excellent series of talks. The details speak for themselves. On the first floor, I could not figure out how they made the floor of slightly raised wooden letters from a multiplicity of alphabets – I assumed they were carved out of the wood, but, if so, that was very labour intensive. I loved the aluminum walkways, the polished concrete floors and the sense of space viewed from almost any angle. I also appreciated the way sound was kept from boomeranging, from the use of what looked like large silver-coloured puffy cushions on the ceiling to another ceiling with a surface that looked like an array of egg cartons.

We went from the library to the Northwest Woodworker’s Gallery in Belltown in Seattle, an area well on the way to complete gentrification. That was a great visit but I wished we were there with my son Daniel who has such an intimate knowledge of various woods and artisan techniques. The show was called the Box and Vessel s Since the featured artifact was a very playful and complex carving of a fantasy Noah’s ark, I assumed the show would be about carved boxes and ships. But the vessels referred to liquid containers of various sorts. There were very few of the beautifully made pieces that I would not have loved to have in our home.

The most exciting part of the day was the one I least expected. After a lunch at a restaurant, the Tilicum Place Café two blocks from the Space Needle, celebrated for its use of local produce and healthy food, that I had to admit was excellent – the spicy butternut squash soup was as good as Nancy’s – we went to the EMP Museum. This is a Frank Gehry designed structure. The Experience Music Project (EMP) design was evidently inspired by Gehry cutting up a guitar and the various parts influenced the shapes he used in creating the forms and shapes of the museum. I would not have recognized that had I not read the brochure and then saw a sky-view picture of the building revealing what was unmistakably akin to one of those broken guitars that rockers like to smash up in their performances.

Funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a modern cathedral to his personal love of both rock and roll and science fiction movies, the EMP building is clad in coloured sheets of either aluminum or stainless steel. It certainly conveys fluidity, but not the beat of music. And certainly not the fear that is so celebrated in the section of the museum on horror film – concentrating almost exclusively on horror film of the gore variety. The building is a sculptured shell that reminded me, viewing from the ground, of the broken shell of a mollusk rather than of pieces of a broken guitar.

I thought the museum would be a nostalgic visit for Nancy to relive her experience of music as she grew up. However, the experience was surprisingly different. The monumental mountain of guitars as the sculpture at the centre of the building, with the guitars actually programmed to play various types of music – folk, country, bluegrass, blues as well as various varieties of rock – I did not listen to the latter – was really impressive. As it turned out, we did not spend much time in the galleries dedicated to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, but instead explored in detail the gallery on horror films even though the exhbits overwhelmingly featured gore rather than psychological horror film makers. Even if I abhor such films, the history of the genre was interesting to follow, though the rationales the film makers gave for their love for that type of film was superficial and simplistic. But what can you expect from a genre that celebrates superficiality and simplicity in complex masquerades.

The science fiction section was far more into science fantasy films, with the greatest stress on fantasy and virtually none on science. Monsters, aliens, superhuman powers – all came to the fore. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating, informative and well-presented exploration. But the key reward was the section on music videos. I learned so much. I was surprised to find out that music videos went back to the origins of film, even earlier than The Jazz Singer. And some of the music videos we saw blew our minds (using pop cultural lingo). They were fascinating creations. Even though we sidestepped the galleries dedicated to video games, the three hours or so we spent in the museum were terrific, perhaps more so because I had been expecting only to endure the visit.

The Chihuly Garden and Glass building was far more exciting even than our visit to his installation at the King David Citadel and Tower in the Old City of Jerusalem that we saw in 2000. What a show! What a display of artistry using glass, though I must admit that after a few hours when I walked through the garden I had become overloaded and bored by the repetition that, in spite of claims to resemble nature, was different. Nature is never boring. My favourites were not the magnificent chandeliers and the glass forest and gardens, or even the magnificent Persian ceiling, but Macchia Forest and the exquisite bowls. It is so impressive how one artist can have such a profound and widespread effect on one artistic form. I never knew Chihuly came from Washington State.

We never took a ride on the Flash Gordon monorail since the hotel was halfway between the Space Needle and the next station. We also only walked around the Space Needle.

This morning we head further south along the Pacific Coast by car.