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The Mule and the Legacy of Clint Eastwood

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Picture source: irishfilmcritic.com

When looking at Wikipedia to research this review, I learned that Clint Eastwood is a big fan of jazz. It was one of those moments where, suddenly, a whole lot of things snapped into place. So much of Eastwood’s filmography, this film in particular, has a breezy, easy, almost lackadaisical quality. And like jazz, it’s best to just sit back and let the rhythm take you where it takes you.

The rhythm, in this case, takes us down the story of Earl Stone, the 90-year-old Korean war veteran turned horticulturist who has been all but rejected by his family. A lifetime of bad decisions and missed anniversaries has piled up, making him a pariah at most get-togethers. His twilight years are given new direction, however, when he stumbles into a new job: drug running. He’s now a “mule”, transporting bags full of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel, all while the DEA (led by Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper, and Michael Peña) close in.

Wouldn’t it be easy to write off Clint Eastwood? Here’s a man coming up fast on his 90s and still directing and starring in movies. Shouldn’t he be content with his two Oscars? But to do so would risk overlooking the legacy of one of cinema’s all time masters, as well as ignoring just how weird most of his career has been. Yes, he’ll most likely always be known first and foremost as The Man With No Name, with Dirty Harry as a close second, but does anyone remember that his first ever directorial feature was the stalker thriller Play Misty For Me? Or that he soon followed that up with the hippie-positive Breezy? Or what about The Bridges of Madison County? Or Changeling? The point I’m trying to make here is that Clint Eastwood’s collection of movies is far more diverse and experimental than most people give him credit for or even realize.

So in a way it makes perfect sense that this be his swan song. Why not? It’s no less weird than the time he planned Gran Torino, the movie about an aging war veteran coming to terms with his bigotry as his final bow. It wasn’t, of course. In the 10 years since Gran Torino, we’ve had a whole slew of films from the movie-making machine that is Eastwood. And honestly, a part of me can’t help but wonder if we’d be at all more charitable towards Eastwood if Gran Torino really were his last picture. It’s easy to forget, but for a while there the man was a God-Mode directing streak of Spielbergian proportions. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, one after the other, all magnificent. In the decade since Gran Torino, while we did get the wonderful Invictus, we also got the “just alright” Sully, the tepidly recurved J. Edgar and Hereafter (though I do quite like that one), and the downright awful Jersey Boys and The 15:17 to Paris. By comparison, it’s hard not to think how the mighty have fallen.

If it sounds like I’m reviewing Clint Eastwood’s entire filmography more than Clint Eastwood’s latest film, it’s probably because I kind of am. But it’s also because at 88 years old this really might be it for him. And this man’s been working since movies were black and white, and he’s still at it, and for that we owe him our due. As far as swan songs go, you could probably do better than The Mule, although it’s by no means bad (and although I’m saying “swan song” here, no one would be less surprised than me if 10 years or so down the line, Eastwood popped back up for a third cinematic farewell). It’s interesting, certainly. I’ll admit to spending more time in the movie thinking about what Eastwood was saying about his enduring legacy than I did getting invested in the character, which probably speaks to some kind of failure in the way the movie’s written, but weirdly it’s not a crippling one. Eastwood is good in the movie, very good in fact. He manages to be funny in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and affecting in ways that are never in-your-face about it. I always like it when he reminds people he’s more than just a scowl and a growl (though he does a lot of both here). For a lot of scenes, his character is downright jovial. The supporting cast is certainly game as well, with Bradley Cooper in particular getting two very good scenes with Eastwood, although I can’t help but notice that the ending hinges on a connection between Eastwood’s character and Cooper’s FBI agent chasing him…a connection the movie doesn’t quite sell.

It’s also very obviously an old man’s movie. One of the running gags is the previous generation and how obsessed they are with their newfangled cellular telephone devices, and wasn’t it so much better when people just lived their lives instead of staring at a screen day in and day out, don’t ya think (although I’d probably be less annoyed, I think, if the dumbass next to me didn’t go out of his way to validate the movie’s point by going on his phone during the movie several times. Screw you, dude). The relaxed pace of the movie certainly benefits someone of Eastwood’s age (and I’ll warn you now, this isn’t a film with a BANG BANG BANG ending), and reminds me once again of Gran Torino, which was actually written by the same guy (Nick Schenk). And it once again has Eastwood playing a prejudiced old man, although like Gran Torino, the movie very explicitly doesn’t condone or agree with his views (this, of course, hasn’t stopped a fair number of online clickbait articles to decry “Eastwood’s racism”; I especially love the articles written by people who get critical plot elements of the movie wrong, indicating that they haven’t even seen it).

This is a movie with immersive scenes, but it’s not a particularly immersive movie, at least not in the way Eastwood’s been previously. But if it’s never quite immersive, at least it’s always enjoyable. It’s jazz: there’s the odd missed note, but mostly it’s just got this wonderful flow that carries you away and leaves you smiling.

Incidentally, it also taught me that horticulturists have their own awards ceremony. There is an awards ceremony for people who work on flowers. Hey, the more you know.

DeltaRune Review

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Emblem for the DeltaRune video game. Picture Source: aminoapps.com

DeltaRune is one of those games that I would recommend even if you aren’t a gamer in any sense of the word. As someone who finds video games to be often more expensive than they are worth and would rather just vicariously live through “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube, I can’t say I would define myself as someone who plays video games. However, Deltarune is different. I will admit I am a bit biased, but first a bit of context is needed.

Deltarune is the spiritual successor to the critically acclaimed indie game Undertale. Undertale is without a doubt my favorite video game, and its “sequel” really is no different. Although technically unfinished, Deltarune is a fantastic play, not just as a game but as an experience. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the game itself and at the request of the developer and creator of the two games, Toby Fox (Aka the Annoying Dog), I don’t want to disclose too many details (spoilers and all that). What I can do, however, is list the reasons why I find this game series so inspiring and captivating to the point that I will probably be annoying my friends about playing it for at least another two months (sorry not sorry guys).

From the very moment you start it’s clear that the graphics compared to the last game have drastically improved. The visual style in the first game, while certainly reminiscent of old-school 70’s and 80’s video games, still felt a bit lack luster at various points due to its very minimalistic nature. In the sequel, everything seems so enhanced. It’s bright and colorful yet still keeping its old-school pixelated style, which I just adore. It’s obvious that Toby Fox really pushed the pixelated visual style of his sprites and characters, this time drawing on what he learned in making his previous game. Another thing that I can’t stress enough about is how amazing both games are at overall story-telling. Toby Fox does a fantastic job of creating loveable characters that you can look back fondly on, almost like old friends. Not to mention fantastic worlds in which you will want to live in forever.

Another important aspect to the game is the play style. I highlight this aspect because unlike most video games the very playstyle itself helps tell the story of the game. Toby Fox has done a fantastic job of intertwining the game into the story and the story into the game. It’s one of the few games I can say I’ve seen a creator use the video game medium as an advantage rather as something to work around when creating it, and even more far and few between have I seen it be so intentionally and effortlessly done as Toby does with his works.

Another thing that I love about the sequel is that it is not a repeat of the same plot by any means. In fact, I would say that if you had no idea it was a sequel to anything, you wouldn’t really know other than a few character interactions later on in the game, which are winks and nods to the first game. Though, it really is worth it to check out the first game, Undertale, before playing the sequel as it will lend you to a lot more context within the universe Toby Fox has created as well as create further depth of characters. Of course, there are multiple endings to the first game which I would recommend looking at just to understand the full context of everything before going into the sequel, but as far as giving anything else away, I don’t think it would be right of me to spoil any more than that. All in all, please check out Undertale and its spiritual successor chapter 1 of DeltaRune if you have time over Thanksgiving break. I don’t think you’ll regret it!

Halloween (1978) vs Halloween (2018)

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Picture Source: www.frightday.com

Horror is a genre full of killers, but the real killer is familiarity. Over the past thirty years, we’ve seen Michael Myers, the terror at the center of the Halloween franchise, unsheathe his knife and kill in ten movies. Ten times he’s come back from the dead, ten times he’s killed the horniest of teenagers, and ten times he’s been defeated in a slightly more extreme way than the last…only to come back and start the cycle all over again.

But this year was different. David Gordon Green, the director of the new version, went on record saying that he was ignoring every Halloween sequel after the first one; essentially, he was making a direct sequel to the movie from thirty years ago, thus unburdening himself from the overly convoluted mythology the franchise had accumulated over the course of ten movies (two of which are technically a reboot). The star of the first one was back, as was the original director to craft a whole new score. The stars were aligned to make something great.

I should probably get into the original. Fifteen years before the film begins proper, we see an eight year old boy pick up a knife and, for no apparent reason, kill his older sister. Cut to the present day, and the boy (Michael Myers, who I should mention shares no apparent relation to the Shrek actor) manages to escape from the mental institution he’s been kept in, seemingly intent on heading back to his hometown to terrorize the residents, including teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. It’s up to Myers’ psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) to stop him before he kills anyone again. Loomis had spent the past fifteen years observing Myers, and has come to the conclusion that Michael Myers is pure evil.

While watching the original again, I found myself agreeing with Loomis. Michael Myers managed to be scary in a way he never really was again, and the comparison I kept coming back to was Jaws; like the shark, Myers is barely in the movie. His first on screen kill after the opening scene isn’t until almost an hour into the movie; before that, he kills a man off-screen to steal his clothes. But he’s always there, even when he isn’t, and this is largely down to the film’s greatest asset: the cinematography. In his review of the movie for The New Yorker, film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The film is largely just a matter of the camera tracking subjectively from the mad killer’s point of view, leading you to expect something awful to happen. But the camera also tracks subjectively when he isn’t around at all; in fact, there’s so much subjective tracking you begin to think everybody in the movie has his own camera.” She obviously meant this as a knock against the movie, but it somehow winds up being what gives the film its awesome power. By never letting up on the slow, creeping build of the camera, director John Carpenter very deliberately gives off the impression that Michael Myers could be anywhere, and strike at anytime, doing wonders for Dr. Loomis’ claim that he is “pure evil”. When he is on screen, he’s usually in the background, slightly out of focus, or in close up, with his head cut off by the frame. We don’t get a good look at him until over an hour into the thing, and by then, it’s far too late for most of our protagonists, most of whom we’ve really come to like by then.

These two things – slow-burn dread and likable characters – were the first to go by the time the sequels rolled around, followed quickly by Michael Myers’ mystique and practicality. In the first one, he stabs and strangles people, and we don’t see all that much blood. In the next several movies, he bashes heads with hammers, electrocutes bodies with Christmas lights, impaled with extreme prejudice, and, in one memorable instance, drowns/burns someone in a hydrotherapy tub. Throughout all of this, he gets killed and resurrected so much, that he essentially becomes immortal, a far cry away from the power the first film was smart enough to only suggest.

So when David Gordon Green said he was going to get back to basics, I was understandably excited. I sat down to watch it, popcorn and soda in hand…

…and thought it was okay.

It’s probably the best of the sequels, honestly. Much as I have a soft spot for Halloween II, it does jettison most of the likable characters, including Jamie Lee Curtis, who spends about 80% of the movie confined to a hospital bed, dreaming in flashbacks. The 2018 Halloween, at least, does right by her, putting her front and center again to great effect. It’s easy to say that Jamie Lee Curtis is the best thing in the movie and leave it at that, but she is really, really good. For whatever problems the movie has otherwise, you feel Laurie Strode’s pain in a way you never did before, not even in II or H20. Laurie centers the movie in her character, and gives it a weight the original didn’t have.

Which is good, because everything around Laurie is a tad lackluster. One of the key elements of the original Halloween was how direct it was, and how well the slow burn was built to a fever pitch. While there are moments of excellent suspense in the movie (I’m thinking especially of the long-take in the middle, that has Michael move from house to house, picking off random people), the overall pacing itself is way too scattershot. Scenes begin and end at the wrong place, often cutting off when things are about to get interesting. And while Laurie and her immediate family are reasonably well-defined, the rest of the characters (or, more accurately, cannon fodder) suffer from only one dimension. And where the original got away with having little brutality, the new is chock full of gore. It has one character better served than in the original, but other than that, it falls short.

BY SAM STASHOWER

A Rocky Horror Picture Show

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Picture Source: CelebMix.com

At least one hundred students were sitting outside of Merrick Lecture Hall Friday night, October 26th. Anticipation went through everyone as they waited for the doors to open, where they would be led into the world of Rocky Horror. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a movie about Brad and Janet, who get stuck with a flat tire outside of transvestite scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s mansion. They are taken for a wild ride in the mansion, where they meet an array of different characters including Rocky, a creation of Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

Goucher College’s rendition of the movie is done as a shadow cast, meaning cast members dress in lingerie and mouth out the words to the movie while the actual movie is projected onto a screen. Goucher has been doing this since the 1980’s, which explains why students get so excited when it gets close to Rocky weekend.

This year’s co-directors were seniors Chris Meyhew and Sophie Mezebish. Mezebish was a part of the cast her sophomore year, and then was assistant director her junior year. When asked why Rocky Horror is performed the way it is with a shadow cast, Mezebish said that because it’s such a cult classic, “people didn’t want to stray too far from the original movie,” hence why it is performed in front of it with actors mouthing words. Mezebish says that the reason why Goucher’s production is so unique is because it is so close to being a theatrical version but is still a shadow cast.

Zoe Gilmore and Jared Sumar played the loving couple Janet and Brad. Gilmore and Sumar are both sophomores, and it was both their first times being a part of the Rocky Horror cast. Gilmore decided to audition because she wanted to “step out of [her] comfort zone” as well as think about the different ways theater presents itself. She was in the theater department in high school but took freshman year of college off so she could scope out the theater scene here at Goucher. The rehearsals, meaning staying up past midnight to perfect scenes, was a great bonding experience for her as well as for the rest of the cast.

Jared Sumar, on the other hand, was not a total fan of the show at first. He decided to audition because his friend Chris said that he had to go because his name was on the audition list. Sumar enjoyed the fact that Meyhew and Mezebish made it a fun environment for the cast. Sumar wants to be involved again but most likely not until his senior year.

One of the most anticipated character reveals was Dr. Frank-N-Furter, played by Moe de la Viez, a senior here at Goucher. After a singing number, the spotlights moved to the top of Merrick, towards the entrance. Ensemble members held a white sheet, and with a sudden drop, De la Viez was revealed.

De la Viez has been a part of Rocky Horror for the past three years. She first watched the shadow cast before even knowing what she was getting herself into. She then portrayed Magenta her sophomore year, Eddie her junior year, and, of course, Frank her senior year. “Ok ya, everyone is going to be half naked” De la Viez said, describing it to be the culture of the show.

Having the show in Merrick lets there be much more audience participation throughout the show. As an audience member, you volunteer yourself to be crawled over, sat on, and even consensually made-out with by ensemble members. This kind of intimacy, however, is a one of a kind experience.

Too many details cannot be given, however, because then the surprise of the show will be ruined for all those who did not get the chance to see it this year. Thank you to this year’s cast for creating such a fun experience for all. If you did not get the chance to see it this year, get to Merrick even earlier next year.

Top Ten Horror Movies

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Image from: https://www.fool.com.au/
  1. Green Room – a punk rock band barricades themselves in a green room after witnessing a crime. A deliberate throwback to older, grungier movies, Green Room manages to rise above being a pure gorefest by virtue of moments filled with frighteningly unpredictable violence. Green Room is one of the finest examples of a non-supernatural horror villain.
  2. The Shining – one of those movies that’s so classic, everyone probably feels like they’ve seen it even if they haven’t. “Here’s Johnny”, “REDRUM”, and “Come play with us, Danny” are moments I’d seen referenced and parodied long before I finally sat down to watch the thing. But even so, this film works beyond its famous moments. There’s a creeping, eerie power to how this film is shot, making The Overlook Hotel with its empty hallways and endless corridors feel alive. The best compliment I can give is that at close to three hours, the movie doesn’t feel long at all.
  3. The Conjuring – a throwback horror film that nonetheless manages to be pretty spooky in its own right, The Conjuring follows a husband and wife paranormal hunting team trying to save a family who moved into the wrong house. Based (very loosely) on the real-life exploits of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, any issues with telling the story of real people with this many liberties is quickly swept away by just how brilliantly spooky the whole film is. Director James Wan manages to make the tired old “haunted house story” feel fresh and new with likable characters, good practical effects (what’s done with a mirror in one scene is nerve-jangling), and some truly inspired cinematography.
  4. The Ring – what I like to call “fun horror”, The Ring isn’t grisly, violent, or uncomfortable; hell, it’s not even really scary until the final twenty or so minutes. In the place of deep, bone-rattling horror is a terrific sense of spooky joy that comes from seeing a capable, smart protagonist put together an intriguing mystery. Naomi Watts plays a journalist looking into the deaths of several teenagers, all of whom have seen a cursed videotape (it’s kind of a period piece). The curse dictates that whoever sees the tape will die in seven days, meaning it’s a race against the clock for Watts to save herself – and her son. While the film probably isn’t as good as the Japanese movie it’s remaking, The Ring nevertheless gets a lot of mileage out of deadly silence and odd imagery.
  5. The Babadook – one of the most popular recent horror films, The Babadook gains an impressive amount of power from its minimalist quality; you rarely see the monster, and a large portion of the action is confined to inside a house. Jennifer Kent makes her feature film directorial debut here, adapting her short film Monster (all ten minutes of which are on YouTube) into a powerful and oddly uplifting look at the power of a single mother in a seemingly unwinnable situation.
  6. The Invitation – a simple but effective premise that leads to simple but effective scares, The Invitation stars a couple going to a dinner party hosted by the man’s ex-wife and her new husband. Things start off weird and get progressively weirder, but the film is commendable in how long it manages to keep up in the air whether or not the main character is really in danger, or if he’s having some kind of stress-induced psychotic break. A slow burn for sure, the film both serves as a completely fair mystery (in that the clues are peppered through early and often) and a unique character study.
  7. Halloween – the one, in many ways, that started it all. Halloween, originally titled The Babysitter Murders, opens with a six-year-old boy murdering his older sister for seemingly no reason. Fifteen years later, he manages to escape incarceration, returning to his old hometown to finish what he started. The first thing to understand about Halloween is that I just made it sound a whole lot more violent than it actually is. You can count the number of murders on one hand (one of whom is off-screened to death), and none of them are particularly overblown or even all that gory. No, what really makes Halloween work, even after so many imitators, is the atmosphere; that oppressive dread that comes with the assurance that The Boogeyman is out there and he’s coming for you.
  8. Alien – the tagline “in space, no one can hear you scream” has become something of a legend itself, in no small part because it perfectly sums up the isolating terror of Alien. Set in the year 2122, a crew lands on a planet in response to a distress call only to find evidence of a much bigger, more advanced ship having been completely wiped out by…something. The best thing going for Alien is the claustrophobia; you really feel like you’re trapped on this tiny vessel hurling through the cold depth of space, being hunted by a parasitic thing you barely understand. The performances are iconic, the scares are unforgettable, and the look of the monster is a sight to behold. Even if science fiction isn’t your thing, it’s worth checking out.
  9. Hereditary – the most recent “scariest movie ever” to come to theaters, Hereditary, more so than any other film on this list, is not for the faint of heart. Describing the plot would do the movie a disservice, so suffice to say that the family dynamics at the center of this movie are twisted enough to not even need the ghosts, demons, and headless old people the film trots out as it goes along. Strictly for those with nerves of steel.
  10. The Gift – diabolically turning our fear of misreading situations against us, Joel Edgerton does triple duty to magnificent effect as director, writer, and actor. A married couple played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall move into a new house, where they run across Bateman’s old friend from school (Edgerton). While Edgerton’s Gordo seems harmless enough, there’s something…off about him. Is he a well-meaning but socially awkward, poorly adjusted guy, or is he something else? And why is Bateman so resistant to seeing him again? The cinematography emphasizes wide, open spaces and backgrounds where people can easily hide, and on more than one occasion, do, turning this movie into something of a demented Where’s Waldo? at times. The script is also brilliant, with constantly shifting character motivations and believable dialogue grounding this story.

BY SAM STASHOWER

Charm City: Documentary Review

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Photo Credit: IMDb.com

The ‘C’ in Charm flickers. The documentary title, Charm City, switches between Charm and Harm City, and then it begins. Scenes of the streets of Baltimore cascade across the screen: men smoking on a front stoop, a young girl peeking out her window, a police cars lights flashing in a dark alley. This is Baltimore.

Baltimore is known, throughout the country, as a crime ridden city. Its streets filled with needles, drugs, and murders.

It’s not until you get to know the city that you realize how much more this city really has to offer. Baltimore is filled with beautiful, old buildings, museums, waterfronts, universities, and much more that I have yet to explore. The rumors, however, do still ring true. Much of the city is still filled with violence, and inequality.

The documentary follows the efforts, of many different Baltimore natives, to lower the crime rate, keep their communities and families safe, and prove to everyone that their city is much more than just a murder rate reaching the top of the charts. The audience gets insight on one community member, and his entourages efforts in their neighborhood. Mr. C runs the Rose Street Community Center. He is the communities guide, wisdom filled master, and man with all the answers. He is respected and has many young men and women that look up to him, and see him as their leader. Through him, and Rose Street, there are several programs being run: a street cleanup crew, conflict mediation crew, and a youth group to keep the children active, and off the streets.

We then follow a police captain and her team, through a normal 12 hour day tolling the city for crime. However, we get a glimpse of the good as well, when we are shown scenes of one officer joining in on a game of cards, or stopping by to listen to a marching band practice. Those were the moments of hope, of true connection the producer gets through to the audience so seamlessly.

The last person showcased, who has made huge efforts to lower the crime rate, is Baltimore’s youngest councilman Brandon Scott. He initiates the discussion of making the city’s efforts interdisciplinary, so that the sole responsibility does not lay on the police forces shoulders, but instead is spread across public safety, and public health and even the school system.

Everyone’s efforts have already made a difference in decreasing the violence rate. The natives were so open, and willing to share the occurrences of their daily lives over a span of three years with the filming crew, and the filming crew so respectful about not intruding or intervening into their daily lives. This documentary will definitely make you want to get out there and make a difference, so, let’s do it!

BY AMELIA MEIER

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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In the fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage, Jojo assists his grandfather to slaughter a goat. It’s Jojo’s thirteenth birthday, and he narrates for the reader: “I want Pop to know I can get bloody.” Yet, when Pop makes a slit through the goat’s stomach, exposing the animal’s innards, Jojo finds he has trouble concentrating. The goat’s meat will contribute to a special meal for Jojo’s birthday. He recognizes the goat’s death—unpleasant as it may be—constitutes an act of nurturance as he follows Pop into the house: “[a] trail of tender organ blood … that signals love” dripping in his grandfather’s wake. Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is full of moments like this one— moments that weave the bitter in with the sweet. On the surface, Ward’s fifth book is about a Southern family’s experiences of coming-of-age, addiction, terminal illness, and incarceration. As the narrative unfolds, Ward reveals Sing, Unburied, Sing to be a series of unflinching character studies, reflecting how the legacy of slavery still haunts Americans to this day.

The bulk of the novel is narrated by Jojo and his mother Leonie, the two taking turns back and forth, chapter by chapter. Leonie is in a tumultuous relationship with the father of her children, Michael, a white man who is serving time in the notorious state penitentiary, Parchman. Leonie works shifts at a local bar and gets high with her friend Misty. When she’s on meth, Leonie believes she can see the phantom of her dead brother. Her brother, Given, was killed years ago. He was shot by a cousin of Michael’s in an act of violence. The sheriff, Michael’s father, claimed it was a hunting accident. Michael’s sentence is almost up, and Leonie, Jojo, his three-year-old sister, Kayla, and Misty—whose boyfriend is also in the prison—take a trip up north to Parchman to bring Michael home. Thus, the central journey of the novel takes shape: a road-trip to Parchman penitentiary.

Leonie’s father, River (or Pop), served time in Parchman in the late 1940s. There is a story River tells Jojo, about a boy named Richie, whom he knew in Parchman, that River can never bring himself to finish. The ghosts of lingering souls find earthly forms in Ward’s novel, and Parchman, too, appears as a kind of specter: a prison with a history of being a labor camp, housing primarily black men through the 20th-century, in which death was often the result of a sentence. River describes for Jojo how the land up north, where Parchman is located, is distinct: “…fields stretching on, the trees too short with not enough leaves, no good shade nowhere, and everything bending low under the weight of that sun: men, women, mules, everything low under God.” On a phone call with Leonie, Michael says of Parchman: “This a place for the dead.” Parchman appears suspended in time, a physical reminder of the legacy of American racial violence— a timeless, open wound.

Over the course of Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward illustrates scenes of healing and sickness in gorgeous prose. Leonie’s mother, Philomène, is sick with cancer. Philomène was a healer in her youth. She tells Leonie that her mother’s midwife taught her all she knows of restorative herbs and plants. On the road, Kayla gets sick in the car, and Leonie searches for tincture ingredients in the woods surrounding a dilapidated gas station. She recalls what Philomène once told her: “…if [you] look carefully enough, [you] can find what [you] need in the world.” Leonie is skeptical: “Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.” Ward writes with compassion about Leonie’s cynicism, her poor parenting choices, and her drug abuse, but never in a way that neglects honesty. The brilliance of Sing, Unburied, Sing is made tangible in the subtle, emotionally driven interactions between family members.

Ward’s latest novel is an ode to the lingering effects of historical trauma. The ghosts of America’s fraught and recent past materialize amidst the characters of the present. Moments of heartbreak occur most vividly in instances when the characters are unable or unwilling to care for one another. It is the absence of physical gestures of love, rather than acts of violence, which render Leonie’s and Michael’s connections to their children so challenging to witness. Yet, just as River cares for Jojo, Jojo cares for Kayla— and his care is ceaselessly tender. Leonie observes of her children: “…they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky. They are each other’s light.”

Sing Unburied Sing is an unconventional road-trip novel, a ghost story, and a stark, lyrical depiction of the rural South. Most memorably, Ward’s novel is a masterfully crafted representation of how America’s past continues to inform the present.

Sing Unburied Sing was the 2017 winner of the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller. Jesmyn Ward is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She teaches English at Tulane University.

An Interview with Katie Calabrese of Little Gunpowder

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Little Gunpowder. Left to right: John Eng-Wong, Katie Calabrese, Sarah Dreyfus. Picture credit: Allie Bowerman.

Little Gunpowder is a band fronted by Katie Calabrese, a senior at Goucher. The indie fuzz rock band — which consists of drummer Kieran Dollemore, bassist Sarah Dreyfus, and guitarist John Eng-Wong — is currently working on an album titled Gasoline Girl, which will be released this winter. We sat down with Calabrese to talk about the new record, her songwriting process, and influences.

My first question is — when did you start writing music and what was your first instrument?

I started writing music probably when I was about 16 or 17 because I was having a really hard time in high school, and I went to a special boarding school for kids that were having trouble in high school. And we didn’t really have music, and there was nothing to do, so everyone learned how to play instruments. And that’s when I started writing music.

I started playing music much younger, though, when I was 6. And I started playing electric bass when I was about 6 years old until when I was about 10 years old.

You told me that you are working on an album right now, so I’m interested in hearing a little bit more about that. I’m wondering if you could describe the sound of your album, and I’m wondering if it’s any different than the sound of your previous projects at all.

I would say that it’s incredibly different than my previous projects because my previous stuff, the stuff I that have on Bandcamp right now, is acoustic, indie, pretty mellow singer-songwriter stuff. But this stuff, I would still consider it indie, but it’s more fuzz and it’s full band and it has more of a punk element to it, I think, than a lot of my other stuff has. And I’m really excited about it because it has this theme of femininity and mental illness and these images of how women or feminized people are demonized, yet also glorified and sexualized around mental illness. So it’s kind of a look at that and a look at the struggle of mental illness. It’s really important to me that there’s a message of hope without being overly optimistic. So there’s this message of “it’s really hard and it might not get better, but that’s okay that it might not.”

That all sounds really interesting; I’m so excited to hear it. What does your songwriting process look like?

My songwriting process, usually, it can start in a couple of ways. Sometimes it will be [that] I’ll sit on a verse or just two lines for a super long time. And then one day I’ll be playing guitar and I’ll come across something that I like and just apply it to that. I usually write songs pretty quickly, like over the course of a few hours or maybe I’ll take a break and come back to it, but usually the total time on songs is probably like 3, 4, 5 hours, so not incredibly long. But usually it will take me a long time to get to a place that I want to write. I don’t write super often, but when I do finally get something that inspires me, it just happens really fast.

What have you been using to record this album, like mics and interfaces and instruments, and things like that?

We’re recording at my drummer’s friend’s house. I don’t know that much about recording, but we’re live recording the drums and the guitar, and then the bass is being recorded at the same time, but it’s being recorded directly into the computer, and then I’m doing voice overdubs with it. It’s in a basement, you know; it’s nothing fancy, but I’m really excited about it because for me, in recording, it’s so much more important that you get the live rawness rather than really clean perfection, studio done.

And I think that’s really important to that fuzz sound that you were talking about.

Yeah, exactly.

What was the most fun song to write, or the song that was the most memorable for you?

We have this really fun song that we do called “Turn Me Off.” I guess I don’t really have a super fun time writing most songs because usually I’m in a mood. But that song was particularly fun because I hadn’t really been writing for full bands previous to now. So all my songs – I felt like I had to write them so that they really, really carried themselves lyrically and that they could be interesting without any accompaniment. But this song is incredibly simple. It’s four power chords, and it is really repetitive. But the thing that was really fun about it is that I was able to write it knowing that my band is really talented and it would be really interesting and crazy. So now it’s one of our favorite songs to play because we have weird breakdowns, we change speed, we start off with only some parts, we have this crazy drum thing going on, we have guitar solos. So I think that’s been really fun for me. Being able to transition from being a singer-songwriter artist to doing more high energy, full band stuff has been really, really fun for songwriting because it’s challenged me to write differently, but also it makes it easier to write because you don’t have to worry about “oh, is this going to hold itself by itself?”

Now, I’m really curious to know a little bit more about what the difference is between writing as a singer-songwriter and doing a solo thing versus writing for a band because it sounds like there’s a huge difference.

Oh, definitely. I feel like for writing for solo, I really liked using a lot of picking stuff. When you’re doing full band, you can make different things [go] on without having to change the actual core center of the music, without having to change the chords, or change the song that much. You can have a different type of drum beat, or you can have a guitar solo, or you could have the bass do something funky. So you have this option to play around inside the original structure of the song, whereas when you’re doing more singer-songwriter stuff, you really just have the guitar, so you have to have more moving pieces within the actual construction of the song itself. So I’ve been having a lot of fun being able to write songs that are more simple on the writing end, but more complicated on the instrumental end, rather than more complicated on the writing end and simpler on the instrumental end.

Who or what are your musical influences or inspirations?

There’s a couple different types of music that I like, but then there’s a couple that I feel like I emulate. So the stuff that I really listen to — I like Anderson .Paak, Gorillaz; those are my two favorites right now. But the people that I feel like I emulate, and also really love listening to [are] Hop Along or Angel Olsen. I really love Courtney Barnett. And I really love Mitski. And I feel like those are artists that I really identify with because I think that they do such a good job of having this intense emotion and power in their songwriting, but still keeping elements of femininity. I feel like it’s this power that doesn’t feel like it has to emulate masculinity, but is its own thing, and I really admire that.

That’s a good segue into my last question . . . what [have you] been listening to lately?

I’ve been definitely listening to Noname’s new album, which is incredible; that’s a no-brainer. I’ve been listening to Mitski’s new album, for sure. I’ve been listening to Pavement a lot recently. And I’ve actually been listening to The Killers a lot; I really love The Killers, and I’ve always really loved The Killers.

Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Picture source: https://www.amazon.com/Exit-West-Novel-Mohsin-Hamid/dp/0735212171

“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” With these words, Mohsin Hamid opens his fourth novel. Exit West is a short, elegant book which proves to be a timely commentary on the nature of migration. The main characters, Nadia and Saeed, must leave their war-torn country. The method with which they choose to proceed is through a magical doorway. Such doorways have emerged all over the globe, opening the floodgates of sovereign nations. Through these thresholds of mystical transference, Hamid emphasizes not the act of travel itself, but rather the complexities and fluidity of what it means to be a foreigner or a native, and in doing so troubles the assumed stability of these categories.

Exit West begins in an unnamed, Middle Eastern country where Saeed and Nadia, students at a local university, meet in a class on corporate identity and product branding. Nadia wears a long, black robe that covers her body like a sheath. However, she steadily informs Saeed that she does not pray. Saeed is taken with Nadia at once, and the two begin to develop a friendship. Nadia later tells Saeed that she wears her conservative garments “so men don’t fuck with me.” Nadia is independent and lives alone, a rare choice for unmarried women in her country. Not long before meeting Saeed, she informed her family that she planned to move out. Her abrupt decision caused the family to sever ties with her. In this way, Nadia’s parents and sister are established as elusive entities. Indeed, as the civil war begins to tear at the seams of her country, neither the reader nor Nadia will have closure as to the fate of her family.

Unlike Nadia, Saeed lives with his parents, as is common for unmarried men in his country. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father continues to be a professor at a nearby university. Saeed’s parents are affectionate and gentle. These qualities are likewise reflected in their son. As the friendship between Nadia and Saeed becomes a courtship, the two confront the rapid decline of their country into a permanent state of warfare. The rebel militias are establishing strongholds in pockets of the city, and the government is finding it increasingly challenging to pacify aggrieved citizens. Gradually, the city becomes a haggard jigsaw puzzle of divided territories.

At first, it is not the centers of such newly established territories that prove dangerous, but rather the checkpoints dividing them. Over time, however, the rebel militants begin to infiltrate the lives of those close to Nadia and Saeed. War is an “intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.” Once, Saeed’s mother thinks she sees a former student of hers firing an automatic rifle from the open bed of a truck. She imagines the man’s shooting stops when he sees her, but she cannot be truly certain it was her student. In another instance, Saeed’s neighbor is targeted for belonging to an ethnic denomination accused of being disloyal to the militants. The neighbor’s throat is cut and blood seeps through the floor above the family’s apartment, a dried, burgundy stain forming on the ceiling. In yet another moment, Saeed brings Nadia supplies for her apartment, apologizing that he could not find flowers. “Do you have a gun?” she responds. Such delicately wrought passages shine a light on the enduring banalities of daily life during wartime.

Eventually, Saeed and Nadia decide they must find a way out of their native country. From the beginning of his book, Hamid has provided glimpses at magical doorways through which thousands of migrants from the Global South are entering wealthy, Western nations: “Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away … a normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.” Nadia and Saeed purchase passage through one of these forbidden escape routes. Traveling through a doorway is described as being born and dying at once. Yet, despite the ambiguity of the doors through which Saeed and Nadia travel—the island of Mykonos they initially land upon, and the uninhabited townhouse they later occupy in London, are unambiguously framed—as both of these locations currently house a plethora of people whose native lands are uninhabitable due to war, or climate, or a combination of the two. Hamid is clear that the reverberations of a global immigrant crisis, sparked in no small part by European and American hegemony, will be felt in the West.

Interspersed throughout Exit West is a series of vignettes that show the reader glimpses of unnamed characters as they interact with those who are flooding, with increasing frequency, into the world’s wealthiest nations. As the story of Nadia and Saeed’s partnership unfolds—a partnership that is born equally of love, obligation, and necessity—the reader is continually reminded of the transformative nature of time in a rapidly globalizing and transitory society. The absurdity of the concept of nativeness is brought forward by Hamid, as he shows how immigrants render countries unhomely and foreign to some of their citizens. Hamid notices how those with “light skin” in America tend to be more outraged by the perceived threat of immigrants, than those who are in actuality native to the land America was established upon. He does this with a thoughtful, extended prose style; often leaving the reader with images invoking a deep, sensory response. Through the utilization of magical realism, Hamid envisions a future that may not be far away.

Hamid’s latest book has been a contender for, and the recipient of, numerous awards. The novel is a favorite of the former president of the United States, Barack Obama. Exit West was named by the New York Times as one of “The 10 Best Books of 2017.”

“Uplifting, and Existing, and Being”: A Look at Sitting Pretty

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LaToya M. Hobbs standing next to “Double Portrait: Marci”. Photo by Skyler Aikerson.

The current exhibit at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery is titled Sitting Pretty and features art by painter, printmaker, and MICA professor LaToya M. Hobbs. The exhibit contains striking woodcut and monotype portraits that, according to Hobbs, aim to “show a more holistic view of what black women are . . . and how we present ourselves.” At Hobbs’ artist reception on September 27, curator Sheena M. Morrison said that these portraits “[convey] a narrative about women inventing their own measures of beauty.”

“Shay IV”. Photo by Skyler Aikerson.

Hobbs captures a beautiful intimacy in the pieces of Sitting Pretty, which is part of a larger collection called Beautiful Uprising. Elements of the personalities of the women in these portraits are shown, such as the playfulness of Crystal (who is featured twice in this exhibit). This is intentional; Hobbs’ subjects are women that she knows personally, which she feels “gives a greater emotional connection through the work.” She also hopes that these varied images show the range of emotions black women experience, as opposed to the strict and stifling view that black women are only ever angry. She stated at her artist reception, “I like to show that we are angry and we get mad . . . but we’re also regal. We’re also sophisticated. We’re also sassy, and that’s fine, and that’s good. We’re the spectrum of all of those things.”

Morrison stated that the inspiration for curating the pieces in this exhibit came after a conversation with Hobbs about her natural hair journey. In Sitting Pretty, Hobbs captures the versatility of black women and their hair beautifully, particularly in both double portraits that are featured in the exhibit. One of these pieces is a double self-portrait, and it displays the complicated relationship many black women have with their hair. This contemplative piece aims to create “an internal and an external dialogue” with the viewer that revolves around preferences and beliefs not only about black women’s hair, but also black women themselves. Hobbs described a comment someone gave on the piece, saying that the woman in the portrait looked angry with the other woman. She said, “I think how you perceive the piece kind of gives some insight into some of your own biases that you may not even know that you have.”

During her artist reception, Hobbs explained the process of making both woodcut and monotype works, which are both printmaking processes. “With the woodcuts,” she says, “I start with a piece of wood as my matrix and carve and then print it. With the monotype . . . you start with a piece of Plexiglas . . . and do your drawing and painting on the Plexiglas, and then you print that.” Hobbs often combines her painting and printmaking processes to create what she calls “hybrid work.” The monotype portrait “Chelsea” is an example of this; Hobbs used collage to create the patterns in the background and for the subject’s clothing and drew and painted parts of this piece. Hobbs also explained that printmaking has its roots in protest. In that sense, this medium complements these portraits well, as they rebel “against standards that [black women are] expected to uphold that we actually can never reach.”

From the mesmerizing “Shay IV” to the otherworldly “Inner Glow,” every piece in Sitting Pretty is beautifully crafted and has a refreshing tenderness inherent to it. Sitting Pretty will be on display in the Rosenberg Gallery through October 25. This exhibit is free and open to the public. More information about Hobbs’ work can be found on her website http://www.latoyamhobbs.com.

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