Which way to the secret hipster street in the sky?

The shops at Mill No. 5 at closing time. (Photos by author unless indicated otherwise)

by Rick Ouellette

Jack Kerouac is fixed in the public imagination, or at least in what remains of it, with the broad vistas of cross-the-country America and of a declarative personal freedom. But the Beat icon, who was born and raised in the Massachusetts mill town of Lowell, often chafed against that image, preferring to think of himself as a “Catholic mystic” instead. He set six of his novels in his hometown, creating a microcosmic society that in its exacting detail felt as universal as James Joyce’s Dublin and, for me at least, is more impressive than the hedonistic “road books.”

Of course, Jack’s Lowell has changed pretty significantly since the era he was writing about, namely his childhood and adolescence in the Twenties and Thirties. His family was part and parcel of a large French-Canadian migration of mill workers from Quebec to New England, of which Lowell once had a large concentration. Traces of this remain today: the Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union even has a new building and how could I not mention the Ouelette Bridge? But old cities like this are known for their successive waves of immigrants and in recent decades this has meant that Cambodian-Americans have replaced the old “Canucks.” It has also been the scene of a couple of other modern trends: college expansionism (the ever-growing UMass Lowell) and the influx of hipsters and artists from bigger and more expensive cities. For this latter group, the town—bisected by the Merrimac River rapids which powered the mills where so many toiled—is now for many a destination instead of a place to escape.

The Moody Street Bridge may not be called that anymore–the road is now called University Avenue—but the old name fit so much better. It took on such a mysterious aura in Kerouac’s Lowell books that it may as well have spanned the River Styx instead of the Merrimac. In the right background is another oft-mentioned location: the yellow-brick Textile Institute trade college which has been subsumed by the local UMass campus.

Kerouac’s Lowell was an acutely-recalled place of murky canals, forbidding factories, lunch wagons, pool halls and late-night taxi stands. After a grueling day working the roaring textile machinery, men in fedora hats might stop for “another cup of coffee and another piece of pie” in the face of their Depression-era blues.(“The tenemental cold north night of desolation,” as J.K. once put it). While the mills may now be typically converted to condos with an art gallery on the first floor, and the textiles replaced by tech and those tiny diners superseded by health-food cafes, a question remains: where does one go to find that solace that Kerouac always seemed to be grasping at, but was too often just out of reach?

For Jack, it could take temporary form as a meditation in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest or, more prosaically, that self-described moment where he has one arm around a girl and the other raising a tall glass of beer while listening to a transcendent saxophone solo. Nowadays we refer to an important “third place,” neither home nor work, which can be a refuge from both, with all their related concerns and burdens. I recently stumbled upon a very noveau version of this on the 4th floor of 250 Jackson Street, one of those converted red brick mill buildings which are numerous in Lowell. I was looking for a used record store and found not only that but a whole tucked-away hipster shopping arcade in the sky. The way in was curious: into a musty archway then an outdoor wait for a single extremely slow elevator. There seems to be nothing on the 2nd or 3rd floor or at least nobody has pressed those buttons in any of my subsequent visits (there are apartments in a different part of this typically vast mill complex but that place has its own lift). This unpromising approach is in direct opposition to the trendy and popular gathering place called Mill No. 5, an elevated oasis pitched above the streets of a downtown that often seems as rough-hewn as it must have been in Kerouac’s day.

One of the more impressive aspects of Mill No. 5 is the adaptive re-use style of the developer who used salvaged building materials to make a crazy-quilt indoor street where one place may be a Tudor half-timber and the next may be Victorian parlor or a retro movie palace.

There’s a coffee shop, an eccentric bookstore the size of a walk-in closet, a photography studio with old-timey cameras on display, a vintage clothing shop, a farm-to-table café and various artsy boutiques. Best of all is the comfy Luna Theater with its eclectic movie programming and occasional live events. They have a free movie night called Weirdo Wednesdays; the catch is you don’t know what the feature presentation is going to be. So of course I took the bait. I have sworn off hardcore horror in recent years (too many nightmares in the real world and all that) so I kind of braced myself a bit when the opening credits revealed “The Brood,” David Cronenberg’s 1979 envelope-pushing cult horror classic.

“You think RICK is scared? How do you figure I’m feeling right about now!!!”(Still from “The Brood”)

Funny, I had never seen it but made a mental note recently that I should check it out someday, but probably wouldn’t have if the issue wasn’t forced on me. Naturally, I loved it. Even if I got too scared I could have retreated to the upper lobby, where there is a clutch of vintage video arcade games set to free play. Have I finally found my Happy Place? Admittedly, this neighborhood refugee is a bit more low-key than the type of comparable place that Kerouac wrote about. (“The Pawtucketville Social Club, an organization intended to be some kind of meeting place for speeches about Franco-American matters, was just a huge roaring saloon and bowling alley and pool table with a meeting room always locked”).

My first time at the Coffee and Cotton café, I settled into a quiet corner with a cup of single-sourced java and opened my book of E.M. Forster short stories, keeping one observant eye on my surroundings. Predictably, most of the young patrons (average age about 25 tops) were gazing into smart phones and laptops, even in company. These young ‘uns are well-traveled in the four corners of the cyber-universe. As I picked the bookmark out of my Forster volume, I convinced myself that “They may have the youth, but I have the wisdom.” I was pushing 60 and will have succeeded in pushing it over the line by the time this is posted. Lately I feel like I’m doing more “reeling” than “rocking” but then consider that I’ve already lived 13 more years than poor Jack (1922-1969).

The Lady of Lourdes Grotto, behind the old Franco-American School in Lowell, figured prominently in the novel “Dr. Sax.” It was here that the nefarious title character stalked Jack’s boyhood self and his mother, lurking behind the praying stations near the elevated Northern Canal.

I was reading Forster’s amazingly predictive 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” where the world’s population lives underground, each one in an individual chamber, where an all-encompassing technological entity provides each (isolated) individual with all material needs a source for instant “communication.” In an American age where the socio-political discourse is so frightening and vicious that it makes “The Brood” look like a Halloween prank, it’s understandable to want to sail away forever on the wings of our unlimited access and convenience. But when “the machine stops,” as it does in the story… well, you can guess the rest. As for me, well I may pause long enough for another cup of fair-trade coffee and another piece of vegan pie, but then I am walking away, intent to never stop investigating the solid realm of what makes it our world in the first place, in all its empirical pain and pleasure. As Kerouac might say: “Step softly, ghost.”

Find out more at millno5.com
Recommended Lowell novels by Jack Kerouac: Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy.

Make Mine a Double #2: Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade” (1984)

Husker Du (left to right: Bob Mould, Grant Hart, Greg Norton) at the Zen Arcade album cover shoot. Photo by Mark Peterson.

by Rick Ouellette

Of all the bands associated with the American hardcore wave of the late Seventies and early Eighties, few if any progressed further past its original stylistic margins than Husker Du. The trio of Bob Mould, Greg Norton and the late Grant Hart hailed from Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, far from hardcore hotspots like Los Angeles and Boston. While this wintry outpost would soon become the breeding ground of groups like the Replacements and Soul Asylum, this initial separation from the bicoastal centers of hip likely helped Husker Du forge its unique persona. They were informed by past rock history (cribbed from an old board game, their moniker in Swedish or Danish meant “do you remember?”) and upset with the diminished aspirations of Reagan-era Middle America. Depending less on the free-floating anger and standard-issue rebellion of their fast-and-furious compatriots, the Huskers’ had an earnest streak clearly discernible amid the unrelenting instrumental attack. Their initial recordings (made for the independent L.A. label SST) mirrored the early orthodox hardcore sound but both Mould and Hart quickly developed into talented and bountiful songwriters and in the summer of 1984 they unleashed this remarkable double album on the unsuspecting indie world.

What’s notable about the release of Zen Arcade was not just that it was a twin LP (unheard of in the land of one-minute songs) but in a sense it was Husker Du’s first proper studio album. Their debut, the aptly named Land Speed Record, was recorded live while the equally mosh-happy follow-up, Everything Falls Apart, lasted only nineteen minutes despite accommodating twelve songs. That in turn was succeeded by the EP Metal Circus and by the time that hit whatever record stores would have it in October of ’83, the guys were already headed for a Redondo Beach studio to record again with SST house producer Spot. During the summer the group had hashed together a couple of dozen songs while rehearsing in an abandoned church in St. Paul and their collective creative wave was cresting. Adding a variety of musical approaches to the blistering aesthetic they had already mastered, Husker Du came away with a groundbreaking 23-song collection that was hailed as a sort of punk Quadrophenia and paved the way for the imperishable phenomenon now known under the umbrella term “alternative rock”.

This musical branching out, a feature of so many double albums through the years, would not mean a retreat from the central hardcore theme of disaffected youth. On the album’s front cover, below the title with its contrasting hints of enlightenment and distraction, is a picture of the silhouetted band wandering among stacks of crushed cars in a hand-colored junkyard. This symbol of disposable American culture is reflected in the Zen Arcade’s ostensible storyline of a troubled young man who, alienated from his parents and hometown connections, heads off to make his way in an indifferent world. The inspiration may have primarily rose from Mould’s formative experience in an unhappy home while coming to terms with his sexuality (both he and Grant Hart are gay). “Something I Learned Today” opens the record with unmistakable urgency as Hart’s hard-charging drums are quickly coupled to Greg Norton’s matching bass line while Bob Mould’s signature sheets of distorted guitar chords gets layered on top. Mould jumps into the first verse already in high dudgeon, railing in the first-person voice of a kid who’s decided early on to distrust a society that asks him to “yield to the right of way” for rule makers who never make themselves known. Two songs later, in Hart’s acoustic guitar-led “Never Talking to You Again,” the nameless narrator is bidding a rueful goodbye to a family he never properly connected with. A sense of aimless searching follows (in “Chartered Trips” a stint in the army is implied) and true to the band’s past, most of the songs in the album’s first half unfold in a maelstrom of raging vocals and harsh power trio attacks.

All this may prove a bit rough on the ears for those newbies intrigued by an LP that even on its initial release was praised by influential publications like the New Musical Express and the Village Voice, and considered for a place on the mantle adjacent to Exile on Main St. and London Calling. Two-minute blasts with titles like “Indecision Time,” “Broken Home, Broken Heart” and “The Biggest Lie” are fair indicators of Zen Arcade’s occluded psychological landscape and are not universally accessible. A couple of Grant Hart compositions near the end of the old side two, both intense internal dialogues, do point to the band’s growth process and preview the greater heights to follow on the second disc. “What’s Going On,” taken at a vigorous but manageable pace, is the kind of alt-rock easily loved by both suburban skate punks and arty college students, especially with Mould’s torrid lead guitar coda. The more reflective “Standing by the Sea” is anchored by Norton’s urgent, pulsating bass figure, a good example of his often-overlooked contribution to the group’s sound.

Side three kicks off with a six-minute triptych that distilled the qualities of the new Husker Du to its finest essence, a pair of astute two and a half minute rockers separated by a contemplative piano interlude. From Mould’s fuzzy, staccato opening riff to Hart’s last shouted refrain, “Somewhere” perfectly encapsulates, both musically and lyrically, the formless but oddly existential despair of the Gen X diaspora. “Looking down on everything it seems a total bore/Missing all the people that I’ve never met before/Trying to find an unknown something I consider best/I don’t know if I’ll find it, but until then I’ll be depressed”. The echoey abeyance of “One Step at a Time” follows but is quickly overtaken by the ominous chord progression of “Pink Turns to Blue,” a poignant tale of an overdosed young woman that may be the best dead-girlfriend song since “Paint it Black,” if that exists as a category. The pro-forma rage of early hardcore is swept aside with articulate imagery (“Angels pacing, gently placing roses ‘round her head”), a splintering multi-tracked guitar solo and a ghostly chorus sung in near falsetto. The group’s progression into masterful purveyors of noise pop carried forward from here.

Such changes would invariably alienate the band from some in their original constituency, but all but the most obtuse hardcore loyalists were soon converted. The band plows ahead with “Newest Industry,” lashing out at Cold War mentalities in their darkest days (“A world where science went too far, there’s no way to survive/Why can’t we get this thing straightened out, I want to stay alive”) but finding room for post-apocalyptic gallows humor as well (“Now we live in caves and huts and we don’t have pay TV”). Continuing a quartet of Mould compositions that close out side three, the focus quickly turns inward with another lovely piano interlude (“Mondays Will Never be the Same”), a regretful cry in the wilderness directed back at the parents left behind on side one (“Whatever”) and “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess,” the best of the album’s occasional side trips into punkish psychedelia, a tape-manipulated dreamscape of chanting self-encouragement.

The studio FX crop up again at the start of side four (radio static and interrupted talk-show voices, the electronic clutter of a cross-wired world) before Mould’s monstrous power chord and the advancing column of a rhythm section announce “Turn on the News.” This Grant Hart-penned cri de Coeur is Zen Arcade’s last track with vocals and probably its most acclaimed song. If a rock opera it be, then our troubled young narrator has returned from the doldrums to sing his big number from a balcony. “If there’s a thing that I can’t explain/Is why the world has to have so much pain,” he begins, then delivers a compact catalogue of earthly ills, concluding—simply and profoundly—“all this uptight pushing and shoving/keeps us away from who we should be loving.” It’s so sonically powerful that even the incongruous elements, the handclaps and the Skynrd-like guitar climax, add to its mighty impact.

But just after being encouraged to wake up and stake a place against all the odds, the listener is hurled into the sturm and drang of “Reoccurring Dreams,” the 14-minute instrumental conclusion. This towering (if unnerving) piece, done like most of the other tracks in a single take, runs through several cycles of emotional peak and valley, as if through life itself. The frenzied eight-note motif builds and yields to suspended episodes of Mould’s needling guitar and Norton’s percolating bass, before Hart’s lightning drum fills takes it up again until the end game, with a piercing, extended single note that Hart likened to a flatlining EKG machine.

A powerful and poignant clip of Grant Hart performing a solo “I’m Never Talking to You Again” just four months before his death in September of 2017.

At the time of Zen Arcade’s release, Husker Du had been struggling to make a name for themselves by working a sort of punk version of the old chitlin’ circuit. This generally involved driving a semi-reliable van between gigs at slapdash venues, working with small-time promoters, using photocopied handbills for advertising and relying on fanzines for publicity in a pre-Internet age. To go from that to having your latest record considered alongside the likes of Highway 61 Revisited (as writer Mikal Gilmore did) was an early inkling that the band was outgrowing the quirks and limited resources of a homegrown label. Firstly, the album’s release was held up so that SST could put it out alongside the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, the double album that was directly inspired by their labelmate’s opus. Moreover, SST only did an initial print run of a few thousand copies for Zen Arcade, stunting its momentum to the point that Rolling Stones’ glowing review of ZA didn’t appear until February of ’85, a month after the release of the Huskers’ excellent follow-up, New Day Rising.

Hung up in a no-man’s land between the underground and mainstream success, Husker Du’s real undoing would result from personal acrimony and substance abuse issues. From January ’85 to January ’87, they released four exemplary LPs (the last two for Warner Bros.), and their swan song (Warehouse: Songs and Stories) was also a double album. Prolific as they were, Grant Hart and Bob Mould became warring factions unto themselves, leaving poor Greg Norton caught in the middle. After all the battles over who would have how many songs per album, and the recriminations over creative differences and drug habits, Husker Du would stand tall as indie heroes in retrospect. This is especially true after alternative rock and grunge took flight in the Nineties while Hart soldiered on with Nova Mob and Mould with Sugar and as a solo artist. Zen Arcade rightfully took its place as a landmark album and, in an age of global political retrenchment, income inequality and the disconnected “connectedness” of a frazzled digital dictate, its rage against the dying of the light of youthful promise seems more pertinent and powerful than ever.

This Zen Arcade piano interlude will help clear the aural palette.

In this new series, I’ll take a in-depth look at a classic (or not so classic) double album every 10-14 days.
Next up: Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, their half-live/half-studio opus from 1969.

“Rock Docs” Holiday Sale!

Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey

Over the last half century, music documentaries have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline from 1964-2014 through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. My book reviews over 150 films, starting with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and coming full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda”, where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time. For book excerpts, check my “Rock Docs book sampler” category. For a limited time, I am offering “Rock Docs” for only $12 per copy (w/ free shipping within the US) when ordered directly through me. Please order soon if you would like to receive in time for the holidays! Thanks, Rick Ouellette


In a Dream of Strange Cities, Part One: Farewell, “Jean” Moreau

Text by Rick Ouellette, photos are archival except where indicated

When the iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau died last month, I’m sure most obituaries ignored her work in the 1955 film M’sieur la Caille, while lauding her performances in such classics as Jules and Jim and Diary of a Chambermaid. Known in the States (if it was known at all) as No Morals, it seems from the trailer to be at least a half-serious film about the shadowy world of prostitutes and gangsters. It’s even called an “art film” by the YouTuber who posted the trailer. But listen to the titillating, oversold narration that goes with the American sneak preview and you quickly realize this is just the sort of movie that could be peddled across the Atlantic as a sex film in the days before the large-scale production of straight pornography.

When No Morals landed in Boston, a few years before I was born twenty miles away, it was at the since-demolished State Theatre at a prime downtown location at the corner of Washington and Boylston Streets. The top photo is one of a series of images I gleaned from Google that taken together suggest the continual architectural and social transfiguration of an urban center over a century and a half. Going back that far, we find the original venue on that spot was Beethoven Hall. I love that name but by scanning that ads they ran (several are up on Wiki Commons) the programming had little to do with Ludwig Van and a lot to do with late 19th century diversions. There were comic operas, freak shows, minstrel singers and even Greco-Roman wrestling. If there were such a thing as a time-travel bucket list, I would pencil in “The Great English Mesmerist” Annie de Montford and her “amusing entertainments of psychology.”

Even better would be a time-lapse view of the historical transformation of just that one site. The first change came in 1879 when Henry E. Abbey, owner of the Park Theatre in New York, comprehensively re-built Beethoven Hall and named it the same as his Gotham property. The elegant interior space continued for years with the parade of comedies and singing shows under a number of different proprietors, one of whom was none other than Lotta Crabtree. Once dubbed “The Nation’s Darling”, Lotta started in showbiz as a girl in California Gold Rush country after being recognized by Lola Montes for her singing and dancing skills and comedic personality. By the time she migrated to Boston and took over the Park, she was one of America’s wealthiest and most popular performers. So popular in fact, that she felt the need to construct a private tunnel that went from the theater’s basement to the nearby hotel where she lived. Crabtree was also a philanthropist and some of her Boston charities still operate today, 93 years after her death.

I like Lotta a lotta: Ms. Crabtree in the 1870s.

What is less charitable is the fate of the Park Theatre in the years afterward. The playhouse gradually got into the burlesque business (the only local establishment to ever host a Gypsy Rose Lee striptease), then found use as a B-movie cinema as the once-impressive horseshoe shaped interior likely faded and it became The State. The racy fare showing here in a mixed urban tableau pre-dates (but not by much) the city-sanctioned red light district commonly known as the Combat Zone. By the time those lines of demarcation were drawn up, the State Theatre fit snugly up in the Zone’s northwest corner and was showing X-rated features one after another daily.

A forensic study of the top photo displays a transitory peek into an age that was already vestigial by the time I moved to Boston no more than two decades later. The 600 block of Washington Street is a vibrant jumble of visual cues: a second-floor bowling and billiards joint; a pizza joint with a delightfully off-kilter sign, two Civil Defense fallout shelter markers and, to the left of the theater, the Crabtree office building (the name is probably not a co-incidence) featuring the Progressive Clothing shop, where some nice suits can be seen hanging on a rack in the window.

That makes sense because the people on the sidewalk are so nicely dressed in the “Mad Men” style of the day. Even the guy in the outside ticket booth has a suit and tie. Under the boldly projecting marquee, anyone could have a nice look-see at the poster for The Shocking Set (where “men were playthings”!!) or the one for “No Morals” where Jean (sic) Moreau, although she’s probably just looking for love in all the wrong places, is claimed to have “many men on the string.” This double billing seems to suggest some early strain of erotic feminism. It’s a notion may have caught the attention of the shifty-eyed lady in the white coat who is suspiciously close to the ticket booth—if so, that would explain her assumed husband’s sheepish grin. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!

Photo by author

By the time this era (and area) was replaced by the more openly raunchy Combat Zone, the marquee didn’t even bother with titles, never mind enticing phrases, it usually said something like “Continuous Adult Films XXX Shown Daily.” In 1990, the State Theatre was razed in the process of yet another (and current) transformation, brought on by civic improvement (though home video and the Internet had a lot to do with moving the sex industry off the street grid), university expansions and Ayn Randian real estate power grabs. In the photo above, taken on an early Sunday morning in 2016, the State Theatre would have been between the Cathay Bank and the CVS store on the right, part of the blank back wall of a Ritz Carlton complex. At this same spot fifty years ago, you would have been looking out onto maybe twenty theater marquees, and not just the naughty stuff. As lower Washington St. was one edge of Chinatown there wer kung-fu flicks and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey played at a now-defunct movie palace where now is the barren frontage of the building on the left. If I live long enough, even this view will become a complete stranger to me.

With No Morals sadly unavailable, my Jeanne Moreau tribute viewing was 1957’s Elevator to the Gallows, the taut film-noir that was Louis Malle’s first major work and a sort of springboard for the actresses’ later exaltation. Moreau is uncommonly beautiful and tersely soulful as the wife of an industrialist who conspires with her lover, one of her husband’s top men, to murder him. The scheme gets foiled when, unbeknownst to her, lover boy gets trapped in a lift. Confused and upset but still imperious, Moreau’s character—her world suddenly upended—famously wanders thru a shifting Parisian streetscape to the Miles Davis’ haunting score, in a fruitless search, lost as if moving thru a dream of a place she thought you once knew. How I relate.

Tu Dors Nicole: Wide Awake in the Lost Summer of the Soul

Tu Dors Nicole
Directed and written by Stephane Lafleur—2014—93 minutes

When it comes to summer movies nowadays, thoughts quickly turn to the long parade of loud and hyperactive superhero movies or maybe the unforgiving clatter of the latest Michael Bay-directed cinematic miscarriage (I bet the sixth installment of the Transforrners series will arrive right on schedule in July 2019). In today’s movie-going world of attention-deficit editing and heavy metal decibel levels, endured from a reclining seat at your local multiplex, it seems more gratifying than ever that anyone would make a film like the minimalist, achingly felt and lovingly rendered Tu Dors Nicole (“Nicole, You’re Sleeping”). This is a summer movie in the sense that the season itself seems to be a main character. This quiet Quebec indie moves slowly to the rhythms and rituals of the dog days. But against the humid backdrop of mini-golf, bike rides, soft serve ice cream and swimming pools, there plays out a piquant drama of an insomniac young woman trying to shift her life out of the neutral gear that people often find themselves in between late adolescence and full adulthood.

Nicole (Julianne Cote) is a serious, freckle-faced woman in her early twenties, living at home and working in a large thrift store in an unnamed provincial town. As high summer approaches, and with her parents gone on an extended vacation, she leafs through the mail in the shade of the backyard. While a harp is gently plucked on the soundtrack, her face lights up as she opens an envelope containing her very first credit card. Her friend Veronique (a soft-featured blonde played by Catherine St-Laurent) jokingly asks if she should now call her bestie “Madam.” But it’s quickly apparent that Nicole, still not grown all the way up, is destined to dream-walk straight on through August—except for the fact that she can’t seem to get to sleep.

The duo of Catherine St-Laurent (left as Veronique) and Julianne Cote (as Nicole) is not dissimilar to the pairing of Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch in the Terry Zwigoff film “Ghost World.”

In the film’s opening scene, a restless Nicole rises from the bed of her one-night stand to take her leave at dawn. When the guy informs her “You’re hard to follow” after she politely declines his offer for more “fun” (“We already had fun”) it feels instinctively that both are right. Maybe she just needs some time to think her way forward but that becomes a lot more difficult when she discovers her 30-ish brother Remi (Marc-Andre Grondin) has moved back in with his indie-rock trio in tow. Setting up in the parents’ bourgeois living room, they seemed determined to spend the summer in unproductive rehearsals and obsessive sound-level adjustments. In the outdoors, the girls go through the motions of what used to be the carefree, lazy days of school vacation. After tallying up the score following a round of putt-putt, Veronique allows that “This used to be more fun.” Martin, a neighborhood boy of about twelve with a prematurely deep voice, provides some comic relief but also represents the film’s emotional center, with his strangely mature but nonetheless charming crush on Nicole. “The heart has no age,” he confidently tells her, adding; “You can’t deny love forever.” These words will linger even when Nicole and Veronique hastily plan a getaway trip to Iceland on the credit card.

Nicole and her young suitor Martin having a heart-to-heart at the ice cream stand.

Despite its minimalist methodology, many veteran watchers of indie films should find it quite easy to fall under this work’s unassuming spell. The talented cast is spot-on and Lafleur’s assured direction is complemented by the radiant Zone System cinematography and imaginative, almost Lynchian sound design. “Tu Dors Nicole” is a feast for the senses (esp. in the Blu-ray version that I watched) and you can almost feel the summer heat shimmering off the screen. And although it’s more of a snack when it comes to the emotional content, the film ends up being quite affecting in its own muted way. Inevitably, the girls’ friendship is put to the test (“We’re like an old couple,” Nicole tells her brother’s drummer, with whom she shares a fleeting mutual attraction) and at the end of it all comes the expected nudge off the stasis point. After blowing off steam like the Icelandic geysers she’s intended on visiting, it’s time for Nicole step off that spot and into the adulthood where most of life’s real adventures will take place.

“Abandoned America” In Extremis: A Place Where More Than the Buildings Have Been Vacated

Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences
Photos and Test by Matthew Christopher, Foreword by James Howard Kunstler
(Jon Glez Publishing)

All photographs in this post are copyright to Matthew Christopher

Regular visitors to this site will know something of my fascination with lost or abandoned places, the main side topic here when I’m not traversing the highways and byways of rock music history and documentary film. The public’s interest level with such deserted locations has grown to the point where the phrase “ruin porn” is now a thing. Photographer Matthew Christopher, in the introduction of this remarkable and sobering book, says he is well aware that his work may be seen as a modern version of the old Picturesque school of aesthetics. But the book’s subtitle lets on right from the cover that there is a lot more afoot here.


Page after page feature the devastated remains, in beautifully rendered hi-def photos, of buildings magnificent in scope and/or noble of purpose. These eye-popping images of derelict power plants, factories, trade schools, churches, fraternal lodges and communal vacation resorts speak powerfully of a severely shredded social and economic fabric. (Most of these locations are in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states). Some may react with an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new shrug but these ruins nevertheless say a lot of what we don’t want to hear.

Back from the late 19th century through to the Second World War era, when most of these places were constructed, there were political and social differences aplenty, often profoundly so. But there was also was a common-denominator civic pride as a baseline, not to mention a colossal industrial sector that not long ago was the envy of the world. This formed the basis for the eventual building up of a solid American middle-class and a wavering but respectable network of aid and comfort for those in legitimate need.


Speaking of that America in his foreword, writer and social critic James Howard Kunstler (author of “The Geography of Nowhere”) says “we have come to regard its institutions as permanent achievements.” Reflecting on Christopher’s pictures of a shuttered 1927 movie palace, Kunstler observes that it “presents a display of middle-class opulence that is nearly unimaginable now. Reflect on what that suggests about the psychology of yesterday’s working people: they believed that they deserved to have beauty in their lives, and the builders agreed to furnish it.” Nowadays, not so much.

After Kunstler’s incisive foreword, Christopher in his introduction speaks of the theoretical connection between these defunct places and human mortality. In fact, he does so for several paragraphs, perhaps as a bit of a defensive counterpoint to the fetishization of this subject matter in some quarters. (In fact, he has given several of these locations assumed names to discourage both scrappers and weekend urban explorers). By the end, though, he is squarely on topic: mourning our “shared heritage,” he sees these buildings, both mighty and graceful, as a reflection of a national character that has been diminished. In its stead, Christopher sees the endless repetition of strip malls and big-box stores with their cheap imported goods proffered to people who are often in reduced circumstances, holding down meager service-sector jobs themselves.


The Northeast Manual Training School, with its distinctive castle design, was built in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century as an innovative publicly-funded free school in an area with a burgeoning industrial sector. It later went through various name changes (ending up as the Thomas A. Edison High School) and declined along with the industry and the neighborhood. By the time “Abandoned America” was published it had been unceremoniously demolished and replaced with a discount chain store.

This is not mere nostalgia for a robust heavy-industry economy never to return, it’s more for the loss of the wherewithal to even try and have a constructive dialogue about how to adapt to a changing global economy. It’s there in every achingly vivid photograph of a silenced turbine hall, molding lobby in a working-class resort or half-demolished church. An ideal has been abandoned along with the edifice: this is “a book of heartbreaks” as one person put it in “Abandoned America’s” Amazon comments section.

Not only do those “permanent achievements” look a lot less invariable by the day, the political dialogue (such as it is) about what to do has become the worst sort of zero-sum game. The idea that the two sides of the aisle would have a clash of ideas and each would come away with some of what they wanted is almost laughably quaint now. Now, with Republicans having spent decades literally demonizing Democratic leaders while coastal liberals (many feeling safe with their high-tech jobs) speak glibly of “fly-over states,” we’ve come to a pretty pass indeed.


Some may think of James Howard Kunstler as a gloom-and-doomer when he talks of America as a once-advanced civilization facing a lasting turnaround “toward a loss of complexity, a reduction in the scale of activity, a loss of artistry, and probably the end of many comforts.” It’s that wish for a return to that greatness, without facing up to any of the complexities needed to get there, that looks like an unsolvable problem in this age of anti-intellectualism and safe spaces. After an election season filled with a succession of soul-crushing inanities, the U.S. elected in Donald Trump the exactly wrong person needed, even if his famous slogan played to those sentiments. Spurred on by a frustration with political gridlock and, let’s face it, conservative media outlets that only know how to act on its most pernicious impulses, struggling Middle America elected someone whose one and only skill is exploiting their prejudices and frustrations—-in fact, a man whose narcissism and unpredictability borders on outright insanity. After not hearing a single utterance of true empathy from Trump, even directed at his own voters, it’s safe to say that not only does he not care about any true “social compact”, but he probably has never given it a single thought in his entire perversion of a life. Man, oh fucking man, have we lost our way in the wilderness of of our own self-regard, leaving us with a national psyche as rusted and hollowed out as the places pictured in Matthew Christopher’s elegiac testament.

The Return of the Boston Rock Opera: The Moon is Back in the 7th House


Dormant for over ten years after a great run in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Boston Rock Opera company is back in a big way. In August they returned from a long hiatus with a three-part David Bowie tribute show at the ONCE ballroom in Somervile, Mass. and this weekend they are back at the same venue with a full theatrical production. Arriving in the middle of the excruciating endurance contest that is this year’s American presidential election season, the BRO’s upcoming rendition of the evergreen hippie musical “Hair” couldn’t have come at a better time. Even if the play’s zealous love-bead idealism is a little dated at this point (it was first produced almost 50 years ago) the book’s more particular message—a righteous plea for understanding, non-violence and harmony free of racial or gender bias—is more relevant than ever.

Right from the opening song, with its dreamy astrological pronouncement of a coming utopian age, “Hair” was a whole new ball of wax when it graduated from its off-Broadway beginnings to the Great White Way in 1968. In practical terms, it’s pretty clear that we haven’t reached the “Age of Aquarius.” It doesn’t look like “Peace will guide the planets” anytime soon and that instead of “No more falsehoods and derisions” there are many people more ready to dish them out than ever before. Boston Rock Opera founder (and “Hair” director) Eleanor Ramsay says the musical “Mirrors many of the same racial and social issues that dominate our discourse today.” All the more reason to bask in the exuberance and irreverence of a work that speaks to our better angels in an age when others try to cynically exploit our fears and prejudices.

The cast of BRO’s production of “Hair.” Photo by Joshua Pickering

The Boston Rock Opera story began in the early Nineties, after an ad hoc performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Easter weekend at the Middle East nightclub in Cambridge grew into something more. For the next decade, the group amassed a pretty impressive list of conceptual rock productions. There were encore performances of “Superstar” that got ever more professional, culminating in a version that had Gary Cherone, vocalist of Extreme, in the lead role. They also did a full staging of the Pretty Things’ “SF Sorrow,” arguably the very first rock opera, as well as Harry Nilsson’s “The Point” and the Small Faces’ “Happiness Stan.” There were original productions such as Tim Robert’s “Crackpot Notion” and album tribute nights: a particular favorite of mine was “Aqualung vs. Billion Dollar Babies.”

Most impressively for me were BRO’s productions of the Kinks’ sprawling political parable “Preservation.” This Ray Davies creation, unfolding over three discs on two different albums (1973-74), tells the cautionary tale of a gangster-like real estate developer who gains power and lays waste to a once-peaceful land. I know, right? Under the guidance of Eleanor Ramsay and local rocker Mick Maldonado, also starring as the devilish Mr. Flash, “Preservation” grew from a free-wheeling club show at the Middle East to the theater at the Massachusetts College of Art. This fully-realized incarnation, which co-starred Letter to Cleo’s Kay Hanley as Flash’s top “floozy,” got the official stamp of approval from Ray Davies himself when the Kinks leader stopped by a rehearsal and offered some feedback.

Works like “Preservation” were rapturously received by the local music community, so it was naturally disappointing when the Boston Rock Opera went quiet soon after a Tenth Anniversary show in 2003. An outsider can only guess at the difficulties of keeping afloat a rock-theater collective in this age of tightened resources and shiny digital distractions. That’s why it has been such a welcome surprise that this valuable local music resource is back with us. Let the sunshine back in.

More info at http://www.rockopera.com

I am everyday “People on Sunday”: Berlin 1929 and the Dawn of the Youth Film

POS poster

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)
Directed by Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer/Screenplay by Billy Wilder–1930–74 minutes

The leisurely and lovely “People on Sunday” is considered an early classic of German cinema by many film scholars, critics and lay viewers lucky enough to have come across it. However, this 1930 work (“a film without actors” we are told off the top) has never gained the wider cache of other inter-war films from that country, like “Metropolis” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It’s not for a lack of pedigree. It was scripted by a 23 year-old Billy Wilder with help from Curt Siodmak and directed by Robert Siodmak, brothers who would also move to America and produce a number of notable thriller and sci-fi movies. The same distinction also holds true for its Austrian-born producer Edgar G. Ulmer, who would go on to make “The Black Cat” and “The Man from Planet X.” The cinematographer was Fred Zinneman, who one day would direct such Hollywood classics like “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity” and “A Man for All Seasons.” This quintet, all in their early to mid-20s, were joined by five equally young non-professionals to act as versions of themselves and shot “People on Sunday” pretty much DIY style over the course of several weekends in Berlin over the summer of 1929. Together, they perhaps unwittingly conjured up the first indie-style “youth” movie, a languid ode to those threshold years where childhood is still close in the rearview mirror but adulthood has not yet been beset by burdening responsibilities (an angle further emphasized by the viewer’s retrospective knowledge of what will happen in Germany in a few years). But all that fades as soon as one is drawn into the film’s gentle orbit. It’s no wonder that an online trailer for the Criterion DVD, where they always give “3 Reasons” as to why you see this release, lists “The timelessness of twenty-somethings” as the first.

“People on Sunday” was not the first time that feature films had centered on the colorful vicissitudes of young adulthood. Silent comedy greats Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton had both recently starred in campus comedies (“The Freshman” and “College,” respectively) but their setting was just a different playing field for the usual hilarious antics and aspirational storylines. The novice filmmakers in the cultural hothouse that was Weimar-era Berlin were coming at things from quite a different angle: they were influenced by both the avant-garde “city symphony” movement of the Twenties as well as the emphasis on naturalism popular then among many artistic types in the capital. Central Berlin, as well as its outlying districts, plays almost as big a role as the people cited in the film’s title, a lovingly and luminously photographed bustling world city of four million souls of which five are singled out. In the opening moments, the film’s nominal lead character (Christl, identified as a real-life film extra) waits somewhat anxiously outside the giant Banhof Zoo Station, perhaps expecting someone who may not show. She is circled by a confident-seeming young man in breeches named Wolfgang, a wine trader by trade. Wolf, as he will fittingly become known, eventually draws her away with an offer to buy her an ice cream. The cute but moody brunette doesn’t take kindly to Wolf’s initial line of questioning (“Nobody stands me up!” Christl declares, wanting to believe it) but soon the two are planning a different rendezvous: a double date of sorts with the two pairs of friends to meet at a recreational area in Berlin’s lake district the next day: Sunday, of course. Christl and Wolfgang part ways with a charming series of awkward handshakes.

We quickly meet the other players in sharp establishing vignettes. Christl’s friend Brigitte is a soulful-looking blonde (a bit of a ringer for “Lost in Translation”-era Scarlet Johansson) who is introduced to us outside her place of work, the Electrola record and music store. She is directing the finishing touches on a window display and is said to have recently sold 150 copies of a 1929 jam called “In a Small Pastry Shop.” Wolf’s pal Erwin is a husky taxi driver who is the only one of the four who is attached: he shares a small apartment with his girlfriend Annie. As opposed to the more lively Erwin, fashion model Annie is a persistent recliner who seemingly only stands to go from the divan to the bed. This is a stalemated couple—-Annie is keen to see the latest Greta Garbo film but is reminded it’s playing until Tuesday—and when she can’t shake her self awake the next morning he takes up Wolf’s offer of a day out.

POS trio

Sunday arrives on the wings of an extended montage that owes much to Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 classic “Berlin: Symphony of a City.” The well-dressed day trippers are out in force as pedestrians and transport riders, their comings and goings a whirlwind of trains, cars, omnibuses, grand avenues and signs or advertising hoardings in handsome old-timey fonts. The two pairs meet at Nikolassee station (the girls a bit bashful, the guys pseudo-cocky), a gateway to the lakeside recreation area in Berlin’s expansive semi-rural outskirts. Once they make their way down to the water, and find a place to demurely change into their bathing suits in the tall beach grass, the rest of “People on Sunday” unfolds like a lost dream of summer. The frolicking, the flirting, the lolling about, the music (Brigitte has brought along her portable phonograph), the petty cruelties quickly forgotten—-it’s all here and lovingly rendered by the budding talents behind the camera. During the splashing around, Wolf (unsurprisingly) gets a little forward with Christl, who quickly shows she’s pretty handy with a slap upside the head. Soon after, he turns his attention to Brigitte and the new couple shares a dalliance (and maybe more) in a near-by woodlot while the camera does an artful 360-degree pan of the treetops above them.

POS trio2

But even this reversal of fortune doesn’t weigh down the overall sunny vibe and almost as much time is spent in a semi-documentary snapshot-in-time of pleasure-seeking folks with whom the quartet circulate. It’s fascinating and awful to consider that in five years Hitler would have full dictatorial powers. Who among the many faces we see at the Nikolassee would want that? The film is not clairvoyant—-in fact, “POS” has a pretty sparse screenplay from Billy Wilder (with few dialogue title cards) especially coming from a guy who would go on to direct and co-write such fully-scripted gems like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like it Hot.” But it does have acute observational instincts and it’s hard to discern here how the economic insecurities and shame of defeat in World War I, so exploited by the future Fuhrer, are bothering these people on that Sunday. The only hint may be a cryptic sequence where a solitary man sits and pensively stares at a war memorial.

POS guy

A better guess might be that the vast majority of people (on Sunday or otherwise) would prefer to go about their business and otherwise be left the hell alone. (At the end of the film, the principals claim nothing more than an anticipating look forward to the next weekend). That autocratic sociopaths and manipulative power structures that spend so much energy exploiting citizens’ fears, self-doubts and prejudices instead of appealing to their better natures is a universal historical problem and not within the scope of this film’s intentions. But it’s a problem that reaches into even the most supposedly secure democracies, as we see today in the country where the producers of “People of Sunday” emigrated to to help build the world’s most iconic movie industry. The youth culture that would take hold about ten years after WW2 can be seen in embryonic form here. And while “POS” may not be a direct predecessor to all that came later (whether it be “Beach Blanket Bongo” or “Dazed and Confused” or “Reality Bites” or whatever) it certainly was among the first to tap into the spirit of those romanticized and restless years, and did so in such enduring style that you could easily expect to meet these people on the streets of Berlin today.

Reel and Rock at 100–Best of and Beyond

After three years and two months, I’ve reached my 100th post–a hundred fun-filled articles on music, film, pop culture and an occasional eerie side trip to the mysterious world of closed asylums and their multi-layered histories (a new postscript on that subject is at the bottom). To some bloggers, 100 postings in 38 months may not seem like a lot–it amounts to about 2.6 per month. But looking back at my directory while choosing ten a milestone samplings, I am amazed that I ever found the time and energy to write even half of these magazine-style pieces. Not an easy task, as my fellow bloggers would attest to. The frequency of postings has decreased as I get closer to finishing my second self-published book (“Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinematic Journey”) and once that’s out the excerpting of it will give me a much needed breather. In the meantime, a little laurel-resting:


Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead. My first-ever post, in early March of 2013, was simply finding a home for a piece that I originally tried to sell to Relix magazine. “The Strange, Forgotten History of the Medicine Ball Caravan” is still by far my most viewed piece, maybe having something to do with being an obscure subject I have somewhat to myself and well as for its tangential link to the ever-popular Grateful Dead. Read it here



A lot of my blogging ideas fell neatly into a three-part format, sometimes inspired by things I had collected over the years, building a series from three of the many Top 30 surveys I had kept from a local AM station that played a key role in the development of my musical sensibilities. See Part One of Transistor Heaven here:



A recent year-end survey type post, with an obvious tie to the subject of my forthcoming book: Rock Doc Round-Up for 2015 can be seen here:


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Although most of my film reviews here tend to be of non-fiction films, I also do occasionally feature-film articles, esp. if it’s a long-time favorite director of mine, as with Stanley Kubrick. “Barry Lyndon” at 40: The Scourge of the 1%, Then & Now, my 40-year anniversary look back at his 18th-century epic (with its echoes of today’s economic insecurities) is here:



The last part of my masthead description for this site describes “related adventures on pop culture’s time-and-place continuum.” Writing about music from an angle which closely ties in personal experiences and localities connected with the song’s initial release is a favorite theme, most pronounced in my paean to a certain formative year in Between Patchouli and Punk: In Praise of 1973. Hop in the Way-Back Machine here.


bey concert

Although I’m a tireless advocate of documentary filmmaking, I’m no pushover either. Here I wax unenthusiastic (if not downright indignant) over “Beyoncé: Life is But a Dream”, an entry from my Dubious Documentaries series. The haters can hate by clicking here


books rock 1

The middle entry of my Books That Rock trilogy is my favorite, but if you love music books as much as I do, scan thru them all and you might find one you haven’t considered before. Click thusly



The Documentary Spotlight category is unsurprisingly my most populated one with 28 posts. I like to pick titles that relate to certain timely societal trends if I can. That was certainly the case with “Best of Enemies,” last year’s vivid look back at the heated exchanges by commentators Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that was part of the TV coverage of the 1968 conventions, an early indicator of today’s hothouse political dialogues in a more “advanced” technological age. Seen here.



Science fiction films are another side interest of mine that occasionally inspires a post, like when I did a 50th anniversary look back at Jean-Luc Goddard’s futuristic gumshoe adventure in Age Against the Machine: “Alphaville” at 50. It’s back-to-the-future time here.


Fernald Pan2

A viewing of the urban-legend boogeyman documentary “Cropsey” (also in the Documentary Spotlight category) led to my 3-part series The Pale Beyond about the long, complicated—and often scandalous—history of large state-run asylums, most of them now closed. It’s a subject that holds a certain fascination in the public imagination and these abandoned fortress-like institutions are primary destinations for the urban explorer subculture.

The first installment can be seen here. Part 2 focused in part on the very first of these institutions, the Fernald Center (founded in 1848 as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded). I lived in Waltham, Mass. across the road from Fernald in its last years (it officially closed in 2014) and the photos above and below I took recently as twenty of the non-historical buildings on its sprawling campus face demolition. (The state sold back the land to the city of Waltham at a deep discount). Here’s a clip of a TV interview with Boston-area filmmaker W.C. Rogers (aka Bill Rogers) about his 2007 PBS doc “Front Wards, back Wards” with excerpts shown. Rogers’ companion piece to this, “My Uncle Joe” is available in full on You Tube.

Fernald 1

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Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” at 40: The Scourge of the 1%, Then & Now

barry lyndon poster

Forty years ago this month, when your now world-weary blogger was but a whipper-snapper of a high school senior, I arrived early one day into my two-day-a-week journalism class and told the teacher how much I had enjoyed seeing Barry Lyndon, which had recently opened at the local multiplex. “Oh, I saw it, too—it was boring.” The she added, “You’re just saying that because it’s Stanley Kubrick.” I came up with a less-than-sparkling comeback about how she must have missed Kubrick’s cutting critique of 18th-century class structures but she was having none of it. Instead, she compared the film, about an Irish bounder who rises to the top of Georgian high society before his inevitable downfall, to a special issue of National Geographic, featuring photos of European estates that are brought (slightly) to life.

barry-lyndon 7

Maybe I had tipped my hand a couple of months earlier by enthusing about 2001 (within earshot) to a friend in the same class. At any rate, what I had meant to say to her was: “You should have been smart enough to realize that Kubrick is using a 1700s template to warn us a time quickly approaching when all good people of the land will be threatened by a new oligarchy. This will be a ruthless pack of clever little rich bastards who will try to trick us into thinking that we could all be just like them while shredding the social safety net and squashing the once robust middle class that previously served as a buffer against those very same people who want to hold all the money and power.” OK, that’s my 2015 self thinking that, with video “highlights” of the latest Republican debate still festering in my brain.

How White My Shirts Can Be

Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick’s 180-minute, slow-lane cinematic spectacular premiered in December of 1975 and I have re-visited the film many times since, most recently in glorious Blu-ray. It didn’t long for me to find updated symbolism—–well, it did take a while because it really hit home in the movie’s second act, especially in the last of its many dueling scenes. Halfway through film the former Irish villager Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) had reached, in the narrator’s words, the “pitch of prosperity” by marrying the beautiful young widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) or, more accurately, her vast fortune. This doesn’t sit well with her young son, the moody sperm-lottery winner Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), setting off a vicious rivalry that many years later culminates in a pistol duel. Bullingdon wins a coin toss and gets to first shot, but his gun misfires. Told he must hold his ground before receiving a new pistol, Barry fires into the ground (a practice called “deloping” in the arcane world of dueling) and the seconds hopefully ask Bullingdon if he has received “satisfaction.” (This is kind of a hoot, since Vitali bears a strong resemblance to a young Mick Jagger). But of course he hasn’t and with the next shot he essentially blows his stepfather’s leg off—while also symbolically maiming the 99% (thought I to myself). I mean, really?? Shooting your opponent after a deloping was seen as especially vicious back then, even for Bullingdon’s class of people. For fuck’s sake, all he had to say was, “How much is it going to cost me to make this problem—you, namely—go away?” Which is exactly what happens anyway, but only after making his rival a cripple.

Stanley Kubrick in windbreaker, on location in Ireland.

More on that later, but first a little backstory. This whole confrontation originated from the day when Bullingdon interrupted a music recital with Lady Lyndon at the harpsichord to ripely insult both the commoner Redmond Barry and his mother for taking “this upstart Irishman into your bed.” Well, I could think of at least a few snappy comebacks that would have put Lord Sourpuss back in his place but that just wasn’t done and the vaporous Lady Lyndon (after all, a consenting adult free to marry who she wishes) stays silent while Barry responds with a vicious punch to the small of the back and, in the handheld-camera donnybrook that follows, closes the door on ever getting in with the upper crust, a distinct long shot to begin with. The game is rigged, of course, but Barry had a pretty good run.

barry lyndon cartoon
Mad magazine’s take on the recital room brawl and Ryan O’Neal’s unrelenting good looks.

It doesn’t take long for Kubrick to get the machinery of fate kicking into gear. In the opening scene there’s a rainy-day card game with his fetching cousin Nora. While the Chieftains’ exquisite “Woman of Ireland” plays on the soundtrack, the lad is obliged to retrieve a ribbon from the depths of her downy décolletage. His ensuing crush becomes most inconvenient when Nora is subsequently courted by a priggish English army captain who could bring 1500 a year into the struggling family. In several scenes played out in lush scenery beneath the Wicklow Mountains, the still-guileless Redmond (the first phase of Ryan O’Neal’s finely nuanced performance) makes it clear that it’s either him or the flustering blowhard Quinn for Nora’s hand (Quinn is deliciously played by Leonard Rossiter, who also had a brief role in 2001 as the Russian scientist who grills Heywood Floyd).

But money always gets the last word and after his family rigs the inevitable duel Redmond is set up with twenty guineas and a horse (the cost of doing business when we’re talking 1500 a year) and told to go to Dublin “’til matters blow over.” But after an encounter with a captain of a different stripe—-the noted highwayman Capt. Feeney—-he is divested of that sum and is soon enlisted in the army and shipped off to the Seven Year’s War, an aristocratic conflict ever in need of cannon fodder drawn from the lower classes. Against a series of eye-wateringly beautiful backdrops, Redmond Barry’s life plays out in a strangely pre-destined sort of way, an object lesson of being impoverished by a disillusioned and disaffected effort to survive and prosper. The aggressively picturesque estates, country lanes and battlefields dovetailed nicely with my own developing aesthetic preferences, especially as they mirrored certain progressive rock reference points (did you catch my “All Good People” reference from earlier?).

Break the Etiquette

In not-so-quick succession, Redmond ingratiates himself while a soldier in both the British and Prussian armies, lands a job as a spy with the Berlin police, and while at the job goes turncoat, joining up with a fellow Irishman he is supposed to be investigating for cheating at cards with Prussian royalty. After sneaking across the border, the two of them continue card-sharking noblemen in neighboring countries. In these hellish-red gambling rooms (lit only by candlelight for authenticity and filmed with specially-manufactured Carl Zeiss lens), populated with grotesqueries in powdered wigs and beauty spots, there’s no sense of “sticking it to The Man” or anything else subversive, it’s just what they do to get along. When our boy Redmond Barry gets tired of that he makes the key mistake of setting his sights on the lovely cipher who is Lady Lyndon and entering into a world full of people corrupt to the core and uncaring (or even unaware) of the world outside their opulent but suffocating rooms. This inert, closed-shop of privilege is studiously re-created by Kubrick almost to a fault: its deadening disconnect is so realistic that the emptiness is seen to be in the technique and not in the theme.

In this fun, fan-made trailer, Barry is recast as a 18th Century bad-ass taking on the aristocracy single-handed.

Barry Lyndon opened in December of 1975 to the usual mixed critical cacophony that greeted any new film by the maximalist Bronx-born director, who had long since moved to England. “A three-hour slide show for art history majors,” sniffed inveterate Kubrick-hater Pauline Kael, who wasn’t the only one to complain about the film’s languid pace. There were also many writers who admired it and the film’s original trailer protested this praise a bit heavily, knowing that it would be a hard sell for those more used to the glad-handing nature of more conventional Hollywood fare.

What everyone did agree on was the movie’s gorgeous visuals. Barry Lyndon may remain the most formally beautiful film ever, and in early 1976 it won Oscars for cinematography (John Alcott) as well as for Art Direction, Costume Design and Musical Score, while being nominated for Best Picture and Director “Kubrick’s message is that is that people are disgusting, but things are lovely,” Kael continued, the sort of quippy reductionism that seemed to earn her a lot of followers at the time. It should have been at least somewhat obvious that it was the class system that was disgusting and was (or so it seemed) about to be relegated to the dustbin of history by a revealing detail in the film’s drawn-out final scene.

barry-lyndon 4
There are unconfirmed reports that while filming this scene, Stanley Kubrick called out, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of Pauline Kael’s eyes.”

You Say You Want a Revolution

It’s been many years since the spendthrift Barry Lyndon has been out of the family’s life. The terms: an annuity of 500 guineas a year and the understanding that he never return to England. At a desk in the middle of an impossibly large hall that passes for a room, Lady Lyndon sits at a desk with her checkbook out, with Bullingdon and two retainers at her side. Reprised on the soundtrack is the award-winning adaptation of Schubert’s Piano Trio, the stately metronomic keyboard theme counterpointed by the violin which seeks to pull at any heartstrings available. When it comes time to sign her name to the check written out to her banished husband, there is a pause in the music as well as in Lady Lyndon. She stares out in the space as if to wonder what might have been, while Bullingdon looks on cautiously. But it’s only a false alarm and the march-of-time piano starts up again and the stultifying rhythms of aristocratic life continue—at least for the moment: the date on the check is December 1789 and the French Revolution is in full swing just across the English Channel.

Yes, it is a subtle touch by Kubrick and one maybe he thought to enhance with the closing intertitle which notes that the persons you have watched all lived two hundred years ago and that “They are all equal now.” Some commentators thought this was a bit simplistic (Death as the great leveler) or worse that Stanley doesn’t think there is any distinction between his characters. But four months after the newly-empowered French National Assembly passed both the “Decrees Abolishing the Feudal System” and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” maybe there was a different idea behind it: that there was a new equality that would provide for a world where one could make a comfortable life without paying manorial obligations (it is fitting that location where the climatic duel was filmed had been a tithe barn) and that people like Redmond Barry could use their skill sets more productively rather than worming their way into an all-powerful an unaccountable upper upper class that would just as soon have your leg off.

Barry and his mother (Marie Kean) in a scene filmed at Stourhead estate. In my re-boot, they hatch a plan to feed all the hungry children in England by making off with Lady Lyndon’s petty cash box.

Although things got better with the subsequent development of Western democracies, it seems like history has spent the last quarter of a millennium trying to tack back the other way. When the people on the Forbes 400 list have combined wealth exceeding that of the bottom 60% of American households, and when a handful of individuals can, post-Citizens United, openly seek to control the political process, one wonders if the pendulum hasn’t swung back almost all the way back to the days of flintlocks and twenty paces. Oh sure, there’s no formal feudal system preventing clever folks from gaining their fortune and any citizen over 35 can run for president. But at the top it looks a lot like the old government for the aristocracy by the aristocracy. Even Barry Lyndon as the re-imagined pistol-packing, sword-flashing, back-punching, countess-seducing superhero could hardly hope to defeat it. But even with the odds, the historical record of the 1% shows that to end up on the side of the angels, it’s better to fight them than to join them. Kubrick’s deterministic epic may not exactly raise that banner itself, but it will remain one of filmdom’s most exceptional illustrations at just how ugly it can get at the top—-despite all the surface beauty.