Archive | Article RSS feed for this section

An Interview with Kelly Reichardt

14 Mar

Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’: Birthed of collaboration found on trail from Miami (with stops at Brattle)

 

“First Cow” is Kelly Reichardt’s seventh film, and second “anti-western” made in collaboration with the author Jonathan Raymond. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Kelly Reichardt’s latest, “First Cow,” an Oregon frontier saga about two outsiders trying to get ahead, marks her fifth collaboration with writer Jonathan Raymond and her seventh film overall. The film (screenplay by Raymond and Reichardt) is vastly different from Raymond’s novel “The Half-Life,” which, as Reichardt points out, “spanned four decades and two continents and didn’t have a cow in it. John invented the cow for the movie.” A fairly drastic realignment from any point of view, though the director is quick to add that the story still focuses on the bond between Cookie (John Magaro), an introverted cook, and King Lu (Orion Lee) an enterprising Chinese expat – though King Lu is a composite of two characters in the novel. The entrepreneurial endeavor the pair undertake in the book is exporting beaver oil to china; in the film, with the creation of a lone cow at a trading outpost, there’s milk and thus batter to make “oily cakes” (scones), a super hot item in a land where there is only mutton and slop.

Reichardt’s journey to the directorial chair is long and intriguing, with a crucial stop at The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. “I grew up in a cultural void as far as art goes, and in a family of cops,” Reichardt said. (The void was Miami.) Her mother was in drug enforcement and her father was a crime scene investigator, though they also opened her eyes to the arts. “My father listened to jazz and gave me a Pentax camera.” Reichardt got into photography, using expired rolls of film her father got her from the crime lab and taking lessons at a studio run by a notorious pornographer. Then the artist Christo came in 1983 to wrap his “Surrounded Islands” in Biscayne Bay. Reichardt, inspired by the grand installation, knew she’d have to go elsewhere to expand her cultural palette and find her calling. She landed with friends in Boston, where she studied art and film at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and School of the Museum of Fine Arts. “But,” she added, “my real film education came at the Brattle Theatre, which played a different repertory pairing each night.”

tmp-cow

Reichardt met Raymond early in her career, becoming fast “pals” after being introduced by filmmaker Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Velvet Goldmine” and most recently, “Dark Waters”). Both had collaborated with Haynes (“I was the one flicking the spit in “Poison,” Reichardt says of Haynes’ controversial, career-launching film) and he’s been an executive producer on most of Reichardt’s projects. After 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” about my ancestor leading a posse across the Oregon desert, “First Cow” is the second anti-western by Reichardt and Raymond. “Westerns have alway been about a white man on a horse with all the power. This is about two outsiders finding a safe place with each other. They’re mindful and thoughtful, not physical,” Reichardt said.

Still, to prepare for the film, Magaro (who has a Bob Dylan-esque presence in the film) and Lee had to go through a survivalist boot camp to learn their characters’ skills, including lighting fires without matches and catching fish without hooks. “It wasn’t much fun,” Reichardt says, “because it rained most of the time.” To cast the two “mindful dreamers,” Reichardt interviewed and interacted with each actor via Skype, never meeting either in person until they were pretty much on set. Given the current state of things with the coronavirus spread, that virtual casting call feels eerily prescient: At the time of my interview, Reichardt had just been told her publicity tour for the film was being canceled, and the Harvard Film Archive was limiting the audience for Reichardt’s “in person” screenings on Monday and Tuesday to a max of 99 people. Then it suspended its spring schedule.

“First Cow” opens locally this Friday.

Corona and Film

14 Mar

Harvard Film Archive is closing through April; moviegoers start strategizing for safer seating

tmp-HFAThe Harvard Film Archive will be closed and empty through April, curators said Tuesday. 

With Gov. Charlie Baker declaring a state of emergency after reported Covid-19 infection cases hit 92 on Tuesday, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology going online-only after their spring breaks and people encouraged to shelter in place as much as possible, what happens to our public cultural staples – sports, the arts and entertainment? The latest Film Ahead column of special events and local arthouse and repertory programs got halved as the Harvard Film Archive announced its screen would go dark after the Tuesday screening of “Wendy and Lucy” with director Kelly Reichardt in attendance.

The Archive will be closed through April. Films and programs will be rescheduled after a reopening in May. The closing – and suggestion of sports events being played in empty arenas – only triggers questions about other theaters’ response. Kendall Square and Somerville theaters wouldn’t comment; at The Brattle Theatre, the Archive’s neighbor in Harvard Square, executive director Ivy Moylan said it’s business as usual.

For now.

“We are taking it one day at a time. We have instructed our staff on increased cleaning and are staying up to date with city, state and [federal health] instructions,” Moylan said. “We are keeping an eye on things as they change.”

On social media, friends said that they’d be bringing Clorox wipes to the theater or, in theaters with assigned seating, pay the extra dollars for “firewall” seats that add distance from other patrons.

One thing about film: It has always been a great way to quiet the mind in trying times. It may be streaming services from Netflix, Amazon and the Criterion Channel that will more relaxing for some in the coming days. Nothing beats a trip to the theater, but the world cannot live without cinema.

Black History Month – Cambridge Notables

26 Feb

Black Bookmark Project highlights pioneers less known, but all worth taking a page from

An opportunity to remember William Henry Lewis, ‘great man’ of firsts

 

tmp-BHM1Joyce London Alexander, in an image from the Cambridge Black Trailblazers website.

This Black History Month sees the launch of the Cambridge Black Bookmark Project, giving young readers free bookmarks – photos on the front, biographies on the back – introducing more people to a generation of black trailblazers not yet given physical markers around the city.

The Cambridge Black Trailblazers project adds to and updates work begun by the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance, which installed 20 markers citywide honoring the achievements of black leaders from the 1840s to World War II, said project coordinator James Spencer, representing a committee of another half-dozen people. The group printed 7,000 bookmarks, of which about 4,000 have been given to the school district. Others have gone to the City Council to hand out and to the families of the people being celebrated; a donation of up to 2,000 of the bookmarks to city libraries awaits permission, he said.

“This has been a labor of love … But this is just the beginning. In order to continue, the project will need additional resources,” said Spencer, a retired civil rights and diversity officer, describing plans for at least 20 bookmarks led by an initial seven.

Movers and shakers

The first batch includes Joyce London Alexander, who went from first black president of the CRLS student council to first black chief magistrate in the United States; Charles Leroy Gittens, the first black Secret Service agent and protector of U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gerald Ford before taking charge of all agency field offices; Elizabeth Rawlins, an educator who became a longtime dean at Simmons College; Leon West, who became famous as a chef in New Orleans; Roy Allen, a television producers and director who became the first black member of the Directors Guild of America; Henry Owens, the entrepreneur behind Green Moving; and civil rights activist Gertrude Wright Morgan, who recently got a street named after her in Canbridge Crossing – after work began on the trailblazers project.

“It is critically important that young people, as well as the larger Cambridge community, recognize the selfless and courageous contributions of these individuals in a generational period of painful discrimination,” Spencer said.

“This initial phase of the project was developed, researched, financed and launched by a committee of dedicated volunteers, with support from the Cambridge Historical Commission,” he said, calling sponsors – individual, corporate and philanthropic – vital to move the project forward from this hopeful start. Continue reading

“Cats” Keeps on Purring

5 Feb

The many lives and allure of big-screen ‘Cats,’ the hairball Hollywood coughed up into a cult

 

tmp-cats som
Usher Cat and Popcorn Tickets – staffers at the Somerville Theatre – run the weekend “audience participation” screenings of the film “Cats.” (Photo: Tom Meek)

A few weeks back I wrote about the second life (of nine?) for the failed film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical “Cats” taking form at the Somerville Theatre. Turns out the film’s reincarnation as an “audience participation” cult – come in costume, drink alcoholic beverages and shout at the screen – has more claws than the studio’s initial Christmas release: Despite its Oscar ambitions, critics tanked it, and hardly anyone filled the theater. (Opening opposite a hotly anticipated “The Rise of Skywalker” probably wasn’t the wisest choice.) To date the film has made barely more than half its nearly $100 million budget and, because of massive digitalization gaffes, had to be reedited and rereleased by Universal two weeks in. As a regular seven-days-a-week run became just slots on the weekend, though, it’s those late-night Friday and Saturday showings that have sold out. To check out just the freaky furball fun and gauge the cinematic awfulness of the talent-laden miscue (it does have Oscar winners galore), I swung by the Somerville Theatre on Friday.

It was a robust (two-thirds full) and raucous crew (mostly millennials with a boomer here and there), but I was slightly disappointed no audience members were in costume – just the feline-fashioned hosts, Usher Cat and Popcorn Tickets (theater staffers, adding a twist to the phenom) who had a few rules for the audience to follow. “Rule No. 1,” growled Usher Cat, “Don’t be a jerk or a dog.” Another stipulation asked audience members to “take the kitty litter home and not throw any projectiles at the screen,” and lastly, “Cheer for milk!” (when you see it). There were a few rounds of trivia, including the naming of cats in the films “Alien” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Usher Cat made an oblique reference to “catnip edibles” (part of the conjecture for the the rise of “Cats,” theater manager Ian Judge surmised, is the recent legalization of recreational cannabis). Then it was showtime. Continue reading

Let the Furballs Fly

21 Jan

Better than ‘Cats’: Seeing oddly terrible film when ‘audience participation’ is encouraged

tmp-cats

I’ve yet to see the cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” Based on reactions from that first trailer and onward, I’ve been avoiding it. But now I might go check out the feline fetish flick that made Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr write, “I’d pay to unsee it.” 

The reason? The critical and box office bomb has become something of an immersive joke, akin to Paul Verhoeven’s pole-dance disaster, “Showgirls” from back in 1995, which audiences came to adore as a garish train wreck.

Riding that wave, the Somerville Theatre has begun audience participation screenings (officially, the late-night Friday and Saturday shows, according to Facebook) with hooting and jeering not only okay, but encouraged.

“It started from the first few screenings,” theater manager Ian Judge said. “Once the word got out that something was horrendously wrong with the movie in terms of it just being so bad, so odd, so unsettling in its half-assed effects, so jumbled in plot and such a bizarre mix of stars and talents, people came in large numbers out of a curiosity.”

Raucous audience reactions didn’t sit well with everyone. “We had to issue free passes to a couple of patrons,” Judge said – leading to the more formal embrace of its lameness.

To get an idea of how bad “Cats” is, it’s a $95 million film that made only $6.6 million in its opening weekend, something a limited, arthouse release would be excited about but a death knell for a big-budget production. By comparison, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” made $177 million in its first days of wide release. On IMDB, “Cats” has a filmgoer rating of 2.8, which is lower than most films made by Steve Bannon (which I had the pleasure to research for the recent run of “American Dharma”). “Showgirls” has an IMDB rating of 4.8.

The film is directed by Tom Hooper, who has such Academy-recognized films in his pocket as “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “The Danish Girl” (2015), and it stars Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson and Rebel Wilson. But it came under scrutiny as soon as its trailer release, with the poor quality and weirdness of its special effects going tsunami viral. An animated or live-action capture film from Pixar or James Cameron takes about four-plus years of visual rendering; the makers of “Cats” did theirs in seven months. The result was so shoddy and uneven that people began hunting immediately for weird and inconsistent fur patterns, bizarre genitalia and butt sculpting, not to mention creepy, monkey-like prehensile tails and scenes in which dame Dench’s human hand, replete with wedding band, showed up. (The studio has reedited and rereleased the film.)

As with classic midnight film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” people come to “Cats” dressed up – in cat ears and more. Judge suspects the legalization of recreational marijuana may be aiding in audience appreciation. And did I mention that the Somerville Theatre sells beer and wine? Belly up to the bar and get your best caterwaul on.

The “Cats” screenings with audience participation take place at 9:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square. General admission is $11.

Agassiz, what’s in a Name

21 Jan

Support builds for a ‘Baldwin neighborhood,’ removing racist association of Agassiz name

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter, right, leads a discussion Tuesday about changing the name of the Agassiz neighborhood. With her is Ann Charlotte Hogstadius, her mother. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A name change for the Agassiz neighborhood won unanimous approval this week at a community meeting, with the caveat by several voters that more conversation is needed.

The proposal to change the name to the “Baldwin neighborhood” comes from Maya Counter, a resident of the neighborhood and co-president of the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. But it’s not new – Counter, a senior, came upon the idea her sophomore year while researching a history class project and learning of the “flawed science and racist beliefs” of namesake Louis Agassiz.

It’s also not an idea new to the neighborhood. In 2002, a School Committee vote renamed the Agassiz School on Oxford Street to address the same discomfort; addressing the neighborhood name might have followed, according to people active in neighborhood politics at the time, had not many of the students and parents who pushed for the change felt burned out by the effort.

The neighborhood’s Maria L. Baldwin School was known as the Agassiz School until 2002. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was little disagreement Tuesday about Agassiz and the context of his legacy. The Swiss-born scientist who lived from 1807 to 1873 was famous for founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, but controversial for pushing racially divisive theories as science. He believed in polygenism, the idea that human races are of different origins, and that whites were intellectually superior to other races. He has been discredited for his racism, and his belief in creationism lost out to the evolutionary theories of contemporary Charles Darwin.

His name was taken off the local elementary school in honor of Maria Baldwin, who in 1899 became the first black female school principal in the Northeast – “the most distinguished position achieved by a person of negro descent in the teaching world of America,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1917.

It was at the school that the Agassiz Neighborhood Council met Tuesday to give Counter the “constructive conversation” she requested, and a positive reaction by the approximately 30 neighborhood residents and staff in attendance.

Maria Baldwin, circa 1885. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Wider involvement sought

But there were concerns about process after Counter announced she had reached out to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and planned to present to the City Council at month’s end.

Many at the ANC meeting expressed a strong desire to be involved in the process and felt that one meeting in a neighborhood of approximately 6,000 residents – with only two dozen in attendance – was not enough. (To prepare for the meeting, Counter posted about the idea on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor. As at the meeting, there was strong support for a name change, though also some challenges that “you can’t erase the past.”) Some people at the meeting were concerned that Counter was rushing to get the change done before graduation.

Some also floated the notion that perhaps the neighborhood was named after Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth Cabot, a naturalist and the founder of Radcliffe College, and therefore the name might still be applicable. But correspondence from Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, stated, “The Agassiz neighborhood was named after the Agassiz School, which is now the Baldwin School.”

No clear-cut process

Renaming a neighborhood lacks a clear-cut process, despite the recent change of Area IV to “The Port.” There too, race played a role, as residents believed the term “Area IV” was a police designation (it was created by the city facilitate analysis of the then upcoming 1940 U.S. Census). The change was made official by a City Council vote in 2015 after several rounds of community solicitation. In that situation too, not everyone felt the process had been inclusive enough, said Lee Farris, a resident of The Port who is active in civic affairs.

The Agassiz change may be simpler. A policy order by city councillor E. Denise Simmons approved unanimously in April asks the city to review the names of streets, schools and public buildings “that may be named in honor of those who have ties to the American slave trade” and work on renaming them “as soon as possible.” Agassiz, while not a slave owner and on record as an abolitionist, could be linked to slavery for espousing the beliefs that enabled it.

“Why keep it?”

There is already some eagerness for a name change among the hosts of the Tuesday meeting.

In 2007 the nonprofit that provides after-school services, runs the Maud Morgan Arts Center, hosts the Agassiz Neighborhood Council meetings and provides other community services, was rebranded the Agassiz Baldwin Community – a half-measure that doesn’t sit well with Counter. “Why keep it?” she said in an interview before the meeting, referring to the “Agassiz” part of the name. “He thought she was biologically inferior. It’s disrespectful to her.”

At the meeting, the nonprofit’s executive director, Maria La Page, agreed that having the name “Agassiz” upfront was a burden for an organization that holds inclusion at its core.

The Agassiz neighborhood is between Harvard and Porter squares and touches on Somerville, defined by Massachusetts Avenue to the west and Kirkland Street to the south.

Murder Still a Mystery, One Year Later

3 Jan

 

District Attorney Marian Ryan steps aside at a Thursday press conference in Woburn so Elizabeth Dobbins can speak on the one-year anniversary of the death of her brother, Paul Wilson. (Photo: Tom Meek)

On the one-year anniversary of the killing of Paul Wilson, 60, in Danehy Park, law enforcement officials gathered at the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office in Woburn on Thursday to assure the public they continue to investigate – and to ask again for the public’s help in finding the killer.

Joining them was Wilson’s sister, Elizabeth Dobbins, who reflected on Wilson as big man with a big heart, and a man who valued family and friends. “He could connect with anyone and everyone,” she said, calling his death “incomprehensible and senseless.”

While there was little new to be revealed by District Attorney Marian Ryan and Cambridge police Deputy Superintendent Leonard DiPietro, it was made clear that a bat found at the scene of the crime was not used to kill Wilson.

“There is nothing that connects this item with the crime,” officials said. “A search of the park following the attack resulted in the collection of several samples of biological matter. Forensic testing has been conducted indicating that some of the blood found at the scene was animal blood; testing on further biological evidence remains ongoing.”

An image of Paul Wilson released Thursday by law enforcement officials.

Videos given to police by people in the area have not provided any answers, and Ryan said hundreds of park neighbors and visitors have been interviewed. “By revisiting this anniversary today, we are reminding the community of this crime and reinforcing the need for cooperation and information from the general public,” DiPietro added.

It was also noted that since the attack on Wilson, “investigators have also been made aware of some similar incidents that have occurred in Cambridge and other communities” but are not connected to his death, they said. “He was also found with his belongings on him, including an Apple Watch – suggesting robbery was not the motive.”

On Jan. 2, 2019, Wilson returned from work at IBM to the Porter Square T station and rode a Blue Bike home, parking it by his house on Sherman Street before walking through the park,  investigators said. Wilson was found by a passer-by shortly before 6:48 p.m. on an asphalt path near the Danehy Park parking lot and dumpsters, near New Street. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and pronounced dead from blunt force trauma at around 10:18 p.m. 

“There’s no reason to believe the crime didn’t take place where the body was found [and] there’s more reason to believe it did,” Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said at a public meeting a year ago. “Mr. Wilson was found right under working lights in a well-lit area. That wasn’t the problem.”

The discussion of motive was similar to what was discussed a year ago.  Wilson was “brutally murdered,” Bard said, and Ryan said at the time that there was no reason to believe the intention of the attack, in which “most of the blows were to the top of the head,” was a robbery. 

The death continues to be investigated by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, state police assigned there and by Cambridge police. “We have made some progress but have not ye identified a suspect,” Ryan said Thursday, renewing a call for anyone with information about the incident to call (781) 897-6600.

People with information are also invited to call Cambridge Police at (617) 349-3300. Anonymous reports can be left at (617) 349-3359; sent by text message to 847411 (begin your text with TIP650, then type your message); or by email by visiting CambridgePolice.org/Tips.