July Short Fuses – Materia Critica

Each month, our arts critics — music, book, theater, dance, television, film, and visual arts — fire off a few brief reviews.

Casey Thomas Brown and Poorna Jagannathan in a scene from I’ll Show You Mine.


Overheard from a festival-goer on the way out, apropos the cast of two: “Wow. That was so much better than My Dinner with André!

I’ll Show You Mine, featured recently at the Provincetown Film Festival, is a tour-de-force that doesn’t try to break your arm, but never lets go either. The creators, including writers Elizabeth Searle, Tiffany Louquet, and David Shields, and director Megan Griffiths, took on a daunting challenge — a full-length “two-hander” — and succeeded brilliantly. You can’t look away, and no one in the audience did, as the leads flirt and feint, drink and toke, battle to hide their own wellsprings of shame while strip-mining for the other’s most desperate secrets. “Strip” is the operative word here. Nick (The Kominsky Method’s Casey Thomas Brown), is an aged-out male model, a self-described pansexual, who once made his mark by baring it all; Priya (The Night Of’s Poorna Jagannathan) is the hot older in-law interviewing him for a book meant to resurrect her cred as an academy-flavored authority on sex. Both the casting and acting are seamless. The camera close-ups skillfully interrogate the interrogator, whose face is mesmerizing and mercurial in the way of Tilda Swinton’s.

In the course of their power struggle (who owns Nick’s story? who can seduce whom? what is “sex” anyway?) reversals and revelations stoke the age-old suspense of Will They or Won’t They, until they and we realize that something much greater is at stake. Take the title literally. There are no boundaries here, but plenty of insight and humor that is sly, not brittle. Extra credit for the original music and sprinkling of X-rated animated sketching. Overheard from a festival-goer on the way out, apropos the cast of two: “Wow. That was so much better than My Dinner with André! Catch it when you can and decide.

— Kai Maristed

There’s not much excitement to be found amid all the talk in Big Wave Guardians, except for those who revel in the name-dropping of big-name watermen and athletes.

When the job is surveying the surrealistically blue waves of Hawaii’s coast, lifeguarding looks a lot different from what most of us picture: whistle-blowing poolside sitters who remind six-year-olds not to run. Big Wave Guardians looks at the trails and tribulations of the lifeguards on Hawaii’s beaches, people sworn to protect the glory-seeking surfers and watermen from surfing’s dangers, particularly the potential of being swept out to sea. (The film is a valentine to the beach; even the background music sounds as if it were coming from a conch shell pressed next to your ear!).

This community of ocean lovers has become a kind of family. They all live in close vicinity and share a bond, “not of blood, but of water,” claims the well known Hawaiian surfer, lifeguard, and waterman Brian Keaulana. His praise is continually sung throughout the documentary. Hey, he played himself in TV’s Baywatch.

The continual references to Keaulana soon become repetitive and they are symptomatic of the film’s lack of drama. There’s not much excitement to be found amid all the talk, except for those who revel in the name-dropping of big-name watermen and athletes. There is a big shock reserved for the end, but it doesn’t make up for all the gabbing in which surfers recall the injuries they sustained taking on high, wild, and unpredictable waves. There is also too much uncritical palaver about the closeness of the community in which the wave guardians dwell, surf, and work.

There’s plenty of confusing information about the history of lifeguarding, initiated by Duke Kahanamoku, who participated  in rescue missions on jet skis some decades back. And there’s lot of speculation about competitions, namely the Eddie Aikau Invitational, which dominates the conversation at the end of the film. Big Wave Guardians does serve an admirable cause — a heightened awareness of water safety. But that helpful message, beset by the documentary’s yakky disorganization, is washed overboard.

— Sasha Ray

Old is not only satisfyingly frightening, but captures something of the current zeitgeist brought on by the pandemic.

A scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s Old.

The films of M. Night Shyamalan are nothing if not quite disturbing. Like many critics I find his work to be somewhat hit or miss, with strong concepts that sometimes fall apart. My favorite film of his, The Village (2004), is, in my opinion, beautiful and brilliant and showcases an amazing cast. Shyamalan has once again assembled an impressive cast for his latest film, Old (now streaming on Hulu and HBO Max), including Rufus Sewell, Vicky Krieps, Gael Garcia Bernal, Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen (Babyteeth), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), and The Neon Demon’s Abbey Lee.

The ensemble cast members play a pack of vacationers who have come to a fancy tropical resort. They embark one day on a picnic at a nearby island cove. The resort staff who bring them there also deliver huge amounts of food in stacked up coolers and boxes. The guests wonder why on earth they need that much food for one day. The strange conceit of the story (based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy) unfolds almost immediately. The resort guests begin to experience strange physical phenomena. They are being made to age unnaturally quickly; in fact, unbelievably rapidly. Normally mundane ailments and rites of passage such as injuries, loss of vision, puberty, pregnancy, and dementia become the stuff of horror in fast forward. The cause of the time warp does not remain a mystery for long and we learn what is propelling this strangeness. But not before many of the characters suffer irrevocable losses. There’s an unshakeable feeling of implausibility, but the complex story line delivers an oddly satisfying experience of predictability: we can see what’s coming next and look on hopelessly, much as the characters themselves do. Old is not only satisfyingly frightening, but also captures something of the current zeitgeist brought on by the pandemic. For many, long periods of isolation have invited meditations on our own mortality.

— Peg Aloi

First-time director Sophia Silver plumbed her childhood to write a marvelously forthright film about two young girls navigating early adolescence.

A scene from Sophia Silver’s Over/Under.

Occasionally at a film festival, away from the sure bets and soon-to-be-released films, one discovers a gem that has yet to receive distribution. Over/Under (at the Provincetown Film Festival) is the passion project of actress and first-time director Sophia Silver, who plumbed her childhood to write a forthright film about two young girls navigating early adolescence. After less than satisfying experiences as an actor, having to deal with the usual bout of rejections, Silver decided to write something for herself. As a young girl, she had spent her summers on Martha’s Vineyard, and, though the location is unnamed, the film has a Vineyard vibe. She knew from the start that the dreamy time of adolescence could be the subject and that she would have to write and direct. For a year over Zoom she developed the script with her best friend, Sianni Rosenstock. They revisited their memories of what it was like between the ages of nine and 13. The remembrance of things past was enlightening and cathartic.

Emajean Bullock and Anastasia Veronica Lee play Stella and Violet, best friends during their awkward tweens having to grapple with social pressures from bullying to body image as well as dealing with new experiences from first periods to make-out sessions. I met Emajean and her parents by chance at the festival. They shared insights about a creative process that shaped two stunning and bold performances. During the pandemic, the actresses were coached for months through improvisations and discussions about their roles. Some of these improvisations made it into Over/Under. By the time of the shooting, the two young performers were best friends, which pays off in their convincing and easy presence on screen.

After personally watching over 1000 audition tapes for each role, Silver had a visceral reaction to Emajean and Anastasia. Her instincts paid off. The two were able to navigate — sometimes in  the course of a single day, the difference between being nine or 13. Emajean’s mother was on the set every day of shooting: Silver was sensitive to the fact that incidents on screen might duplicate or even precipitate real life emotional situations. There are moments of bullying by the cool girls, the straightening of unacceptably wild hair, and worry about the appearance of breast buds. The girls start the summer season hidden in the dunes, giggling in disgust as they describe to one another the bevy of penises on the nude beach. They discuss how to insert a tampon and how many seconds a girl should use her tongue during a first kiss. And for that first kiss, the camera politely turns away so we only see fingers counting off those seconds.

Like the morning moths that Stella and Violet catch in a jar to turn into wishes, Silver has caught something special in a bottle.

— Tim Jackson


Meet Me by the Fountain, An Inside History of the Mall weighs the pros and cons of the temples of cutthroat commerce that gutted Main Street.

They have been accused of killing the traditional downtowns and condemned as visual defacers of the American landscape, but suburban enclosed shopping malls were ubiquitous from the ’70s through the ’90s. These concrete Brutalist islands — surrounded by seas of parking lots — nurtured acres of retail stores with their inhospitable fast-food banquet halls/food courts. At their height, there were thousands of them. But their generic nature inspired virtually no architectural coffee table books or much serious social-economic academic research. Their economic downdraft — devastating to small town America’s traditional (and sometimes shopworn) retail stores and mom and pop shops — was all we needed to know. Malls were soulless substitutes for local commerce, bland, even disorienting, replacements for the fabled personality of Small Town USA.

The pendulum has swung for a number of reasons, from overbuilding and the flowering of big box stores to the dominance of Amazon and online purchasing. Toss in Covid and the last decade or so has seen the eradication of enclosed shopping malls. At this point, there is talk of their impending demise. Increasingly, malls are being closed, repurposed, demolished, even abandoned.

Enclosed malls were marriages of real estate development and retail — two often tainted areas known for fostering shady business practices. In order to cut down on competition, shopping mall developers in New England bought percentages of all the other nearby developers’ properties. This may be legal (somehow) but it is not ethical. Across the country there were regular reports of public and private kickbacks, bribes, and shakedowns. More than a few of the perpetrators ended up with steep fines and short prison terms.

Alexandra Lange, an architecture and design critic, has written a well-researched history of the rise, fall, and unclear future of shopping malls. Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall (Bloomsbury, 315 pp) weighs the pros and cons of the temples of cutthroat commerce that gutted Main Street. She points out some of their better qualities, such as public/private spaces, a controlled atmosphere that never changed during harsh winter and hot summer, and even access ease for the disabled.

Lange touches on the social merits of mall culture. Teens could exert their fledgling stabs at independence; seniors found a place to walk and find companionship. For people of all ages malls were comforting environments where they could escape, shop, and nosh. At times the book becomes tangled up in too much weedy detail — an editing problem. Overall, though, this is an insightful look at the rise and fall (at least for now) of the mall. At the end, Lange wonders if malls might be able to reverse their decline by serving a civic function. And live in peaceful coexistence with online shopping? Not a chance!

— Mark Favermann

Yuvi Zalkow’s novel I Only Cry with Emoticons is a defense of the personal encounter.

As technology has become more advanced, we have become increasingly reliant on communicating via screens. Emojis have replaced words and “likes” substitute for phone calls. While some aspects of electronic modernity are helpful (such as forestalling global collapse during the height of the pandemic), there is still much to be said for good old face-to-face communication.

Yuvi Zalkow’s novel I Only Cry with Emoticons (Red Hen Press, 232 pp.) is a defense of the personal encounter. Its plea for our need for human interaction is served up via a satirical look at the mind-bending powers of massive tech conglomerates. Funny, albeit sad at times, the story is a satisfying slow burn. Will its protagonist Saul, who lives in Portland, Oregon, finally get his life together?

Saul is a 40-something divorcee working as a programmer at a tech company that promises to connect people through “communicative software.” Despite being an efficient programmer, Saul has little interest in his job. Instead, he often runs off to the restroom where he spends most of his time writing a novel about his grandfather. His ex-wife divorced him because he was emotionally distant, and he struggles to bond with his son, who for most of the novel he refers to as “his boy” (aka Auggie). Saul’s friend Anne sets him up on a blind date with her friend Kitty, and she turns his and Auggie’s lives upside down.

I Only Cry with Emoticons is not a structured drama but a series of glimpses into Saul’s everyday life as he tries to navigate parenting, dating, and writing. Refreshingly, the guy isn’t all that likable a character, but his vulnerability and brutal honesty make him a sympathetic figure. Auggie is not your standard precocious kid; he likes drawing, octopi, and his favorite show, “The Octonauts,” and he isn’t afraid to take down a bully when he needs to. Kitty is far more than a love interest; she has her own demons she’s battling.

I Only Cry with Emoticons generates humor with its zany pop culture references and its sardonic critique of our over-reliance on technology, but the center of the novel is Saul’s humanization. Balancing that struggle and satire is not easy, and Zalkow doesn’t quite pull it off. Still, its contra-technology message is valuable: time for us to ditch the emoticons for real tears.

— Sarah Osman

Given accelerating levels of misery around the globe, we may be running out of time in what Rosa Luxemburg characterized as the race between socialism and barbarism.

Rosa Luxemburg (1891-1919) is rediscovered every couple of decades as the dissident’s dissident, hailed as the brilliant Marxist thinker who — from the get-go — critiqued the authoritarian leanings of Lenin and Trotsky. Lately, her “radical” ideas have been taken up by generations (X, Y, and Z) that don’t see socialism as a nightmarish alternative to neoliberalism. There is her belief in a “cooperative economy” that would serve the needs of communities rather than a privileged few. Also of enduring interest: Luxemburg’s call for the creation of democratically elected workers councils, tasked with distributing resources for the betterment of all. Her 1918 polemic The Socialization of Society zeros in on the rapacity of unrestrained capitalist competition: an equitable economy should “have the aim of securing for everyone a dignified life, plentiful food, and providing other cultural means of existence.” The systematic changes necessary to make these requirements a reality remain, just over a hundred years on, a herculean challenge. Given accelerating levels of misery everywhere, we may be running out of time in what Luxemburg characterized as the race between socialism and barbarism.

What makes the latest resurrection of Luxemburg different is that in 2011 there appeared a comprehensive collection of her letters, many of which were written in prison, where she was serving a sentence for opposing Germany’s entry into World War I. The sensibility in these writings is invigoratingly romantic — humane, lyrical, dismissive of despair and cynicism. Even in captivity, Luxemburg wrote with vibrancy about her love of life, poetry, nature, and possibility, confident that significant reforms would arrive even as totalitarian forces in Germany and Russia exerted their death grip. Luxemburg was murdered, at the age of 47, by a precursor of Hitler’s Brown Shirts.

Reading Luxemburg’s letters today, along with her political writings, I couldn’t help but think of Greta Thunberg. These are women whose preternatural gifts for political leadership — idealistic, inspiring, prescient, and unyielding — were evident in adolescence. Both were also fearlessly combative speakers. “The most revolutionary act is and forever remains to say loudly what is,” proclaimed Luxemburg. Thunberg would no doubt agree.

The subtitle of Joke J. Hermsen’s A Good Dignified Life: The Political Advice of Hannah Arendt & Rosa Luxemburg is what drew me to this short but moving book (Yale University Press, 143 pp.). There are bits and pieces of introductory material here, but this isn’t meant to be a truncated biography or political study. Rather, it is a stirring essay on what Luxemburg and philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) have to say that would be of use to us now, in these dark times. Hermsen calls them “modern Antigones, defending the right to resist when legislation or political governance couldn’t be reconciled with conscience — that is, the ability to to distinguish between good and evil.” Of course these Jewish Antigones do not always agree with each other, though Arendt was an admirer of “Red Rosa.” Hermsen is smart to set up an intractable conflict between them — they do not give the same counsel.

Hermsen is particularly interested in exploring what the pair’s perspectives would have been on the recent waves of mass protests among the poor and disenfranchised, focusing on 2018’s “Yellow Vest” actions in France, which involved over 136,000 people. “Red Rosa” would no doubt have supported these efforts of the underclass to assert their voices, though Arendt is used as a dramatic foil against Marxist solutions: there is a short excerpt of a play Hermsen wrote in which she pits the two women against each other in a debate staged in the afterlife. (I would love to read the entire text in English.) The two enthusiastically agree that self-rule via popular workers’ councils is highly desirable, but differ on the issue of economic redistribution, perhaps because of Arendt’s experience of the Cold War. At one point, the philosopher insists that “a process of expropriation can’t be organized peacefully, and you’re riding on a tiger’s back: you can no longer get off — the process becomes unstoppable. We learned as much from the Soviet Union. Marxist expropriation and capitalist overexploitation are the same to me in this sense — they destroy the political domain and deprive people of their freedom.” Luxemburg’s comeback: “The problem is that your way of thinking is incapable of thwarting the destruction wreaked by hypercapitalism.” For Arendt, the political order needs to be completely renovated before all else; for Luxemburg, that cannot happen unless the powerless are given the means to assert themselves.

A Good & Dignified Life is lucidly translated from the Dutch by Brendan Monaghan, and the book will serve an admirable purpose if it helps readers cultivate their own inner Antigones. (And if it sends them to the texts of Luxemburg and Arendt.) Even better, the volume’s advice is not only pragmatically political —  necessary during a time of threats to democracy and mounting failures to deal with the climate crisis — but modestly uplifting. No matter how terribly she was treated, “Red Rosa” refused to lapse into depression, exhaustion, or defeatism. “Being a human being is the main thing, above all else,” Luxemburg wrote to a friend from prison. “And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful, in spite of everything and anything.” With apologies to Oscar Wilde, who extolled his own brand of socialism, remaking the world for Luxemburg was about the importance of remaining cheerful.

— Bill Marx

Classical Music

The new CD gives nonstop pleasure and fascination, making William Grant Still’s spirited and exquisitely worked pieces available to be heard and enjoyed as never before.

In honor of Black Music Appreciation Month (which has been celebrated every year in June since first announced by President Jimmy Carter in 1979), Naxos released a spiffy recording of world-premiere performances of 13 pieces for orchestra, some with violin solo, by William Grant Still (1895-1978). Long known as “the Dean of Afro-American Composers,” Still was active in many arenas. He wrote symphonies and chamber music but also served as orchestrator and arranger for prominent jazz bands, such as that of Artie Shaw, and for major Hollywood films, such as Pennies from Heaven (1936) starring Bing Crosby.

Still was remarkably proficient as a composer, thanks in part to the training he received at the eminent conservatory of Oberlin College (an institution that welcomed Black students when many others still did not). A number of his works were performed and broadcast nationwide under Howard Hanson, director of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.

Still’s Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American” (1931), is said to have been, for some years, the most widely performed symphony by any American composer. It fell from favor in the ’50s but can now be heard in several fine recordings, including one by the Detroit Symphony under Neëme Järvi on YouTube (with Still’s score shown page by page).

The new Naxos release alternates works for orchestra with ones featuring the violin. (Some of the latter are orchestrated or adapted here, very effectively, by the noted New York State composer Dana Paul Perna.)

As so often with Still’s music, each movement has a well-defined character and much melodic appeal. The best-known piece here is “Summerland,” the second of Three Visions (1936), originally written for solo piano. Zina Schiff, who studied privately with Jascha Heifetz for many years, plays it with elegance and controlled passion, qualities that mark all her performances on this album. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is under the alert control of Avlana Eisenberg, best known in the New England area as music director of the Boston Chamber Symphony. Eisenberg is also Schiff’s daughter, and the two have concertized together in recent years.

The music here captures many different moods. The peacefulness of “Summerland” contrasts strikingly with the playfulness of Quit Dat Fool’nish, a short piece about “Still’s mischievous dog Shep.” (Still originally composed this piece for piano solo and later arranged it for saxophone and orchestra; Perna here adapted the latter version for violin.)

I was particularly taken by a three-movement American Suite for orchestra, written around 1918, when Still was around 23 and a student at Wilberforce University, a historically Black institution. The first movement is labeled “Indian Love Song.” Though the other two have plainer labels — “Danse” and “Lament” — the pounding rhythms and pentatonic melodies of the “Danse” point to a desire to characterize Native American traditions, in the manner of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. (Why Still used the French spelling of “Danse” is anybody’s guess.) In that case, the sense of woe in the “Lament” finale may be interpreted as suggesting the sadness often associated, a century ago, with the “vanishing” of America’s Indian tribes. (Further on this whole trope, see Michael Pisani’s astute Yale University Press book Imagining Natured America in Music.)

The new CD gives nonstop pleasure and fascination, making Still’s spirited and exquisitely worked pieces available to be heard and enjoyed as never before.

Still’s “Can’t You Line ‘Em” is also available on YouTube via a video created during the first months of the pandemic by the Boston Chamber Symphony under this same imaginative and enterprising conductor, Avlana Eisenberg.

— Ralph P. Locke


  1. Eric Smith on July 5, 2022 at 12:56 pm

    Good Review and Interesting Book, Mark.

    I’ve been watching the Netflix Stranger Things series with my daughter. It is supposed to take place in the ’80s and in season 3, which we were just watching last night a new Mall opened that killed the life out of the small town’s Downtown (a fictional town in Indiana). There’s a scene where residents are protesting their loss of Downtown businesses and my kid was asking me what the Town could do about it. I said that in the next 20-30 years, Downtowns will be making a comeback. They might be forming a Committee to spearhead revitalization and look for niche market opportunities like the Town of Athol is now doing.

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