A Documentary on Dior, A Depression Era Small Town Audiobook, and an Album with Just a Hint of Light

Documentary: Dior and I (2014), directed by Frederic Tcheng 

I decided to watch Dior and I because I was sick in bed and thought it would require little brain power. It is indeed easy to watch, but very much surprised me with the emotional punch it packed. It had much more heart than your average fashion documentary (which I often find a bit sterile, though interesting), and beyond being an insightful look into a famous design house with an iconic history, it reminded me that fashion is not at all frivolous but holds the power to inspire, awe, and ultimately to shape culture. The documentary covers the period of time in which the Belguin designer Raf Simmons – who previously designed minimalist clothing for Jil Sander – took over as head designer at Dior in 2012. If you have any interest in fashion, you may remember the fashion show that had each room covered floor to ceiling in walls of fresh flowers. It’s been burned into my memory since I first saw pictures 5 years ago, though I couldn’t remember the clothing that was in the show. Watching them construct those walls in the documentary made me literally cry, it was so beautiful. Even though I wouldn’t call myself obsessed with Dior designs by any means, I consider it a testimony to the quality of the film that I was so wrapped up in the process of designing Raf Simmon’s first show.

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I often feel a bit guilty for the amount of time I spend thinking about or looking at fashion because it seems kind of airy and “not real life”, but Dior and I reminded me that the best sort of fashion is an art form that is very practical and pulls together the threads of history, tradition, craftsmanship, community, innovation, perseverance, and joy. Again, if you are at all interested in fashion, you’ve probably seen how Alassandro Michelle’s recent takeover of Gucci has ignited a new level of excitement about fashion and inspired many other brands (including Dior) to go in a whimsical direction that I find myself preening over as some reflection of at least part of mydior-flower-runwaygeneration. Dior and I got me wondering why I ever gave up on being involved in the fashion industry on some level – it renewed my sense of it being a worthwhile contribution to society. As a side note, if you happened to read Flowers for Mrs. Harris by Paul Gallico that I reviewed in a previous batch, you will find special warmth in putting modern images from this documentary to all the word pictures in that book.

— Karissa Tucker

 

 

Audiobook: The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

I drive a lot for work, so I’ve gotten the opportunity to discover the world of audio books. I’ve only listened to a few, but this was by far my favorite. The story of Macedonia, a small town with non-conspiratorial skeletons in the closet, is one of laughter, tragedy, and the uneventfulness of a small town during the depression. Miss Beck, daughter of a senator, is sent to Macedonia on a works project from the government during the

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depression. Sent against her will to this backcountry community, she falls in love with the inhabitants, who are the real actors in the drama.

The audio book is especially helpful due to all the point of view changes throughout the book. I love the distinct voices of each character, from the plucky Willa, the smooth Felix, and matriarch type Jottie. Their wit, familial feel, and awareness welcome you into Macedonia, as if you were Miss Beck. The scenes of power struggle and people standing up for themselves will have you cheering as you listen (or read) along.

The book does have its downfalls. There’s some pontificating near the end. The writer falls too in love with one of her characters and, as Dorothy Sayers discusses in Mind of the Maker, she tries to save them. The scene feels awkward and trite as she puts words of wisdom in the mouth of a youth resulting in an unnatural epilogue. While the ending was a slight disappointment, the books as a whole is excellent.

— Richie Gowin

 

Album: Crack-Up (2017) by the Fleet Foxes

Listen here or on apple music:

The Fleet Foxes have always been reliable for easy listening, folk rock vibes, and warm feelings. They’ve been my go-to for autumn ambience since I first heard them sing “I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats/ With scarves of red tied ‘round their throats/ To keep their little heads from falling in the snow.”

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“With Scarves of red tied round their throats”

Their music has always evoked a comforting, melancholic, storied world, full of mountains, rivers and wilderness. Ethereal and moody, Robin Pecknold’s voice croons and cradles while meandering folk guitar lines move in the underline. Even as their work matured into Helplessness Blues (2011), [So now I am older than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me] there remains a defiant hopefulness that swells beneath each song and makes me feel warm and happy as a listener.

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In their latest album, the Fleet Foxes take a turn that I’m watching a lot of musicians make this year. In light of a volatile and threatening social, political and global atmosphere artists have churned out some raw, dark, depressing, and soul searching stuff. You can see this in Father John Misty’s bitter but beautiful Pure Comedy (2017) and Kendrick Lamar lays out honest, mature, and cutting tracks on DAMN. The first song of Crack-Up, I am All that I need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar, starts with a somber pace and a deep, low voice: I am all that I need/ And I’ll be till I’m through/ And I’m light on my feet/ Good to be without you. The lines flow beautifully and the dark slow phrases constantly clash with bright upbeat strains. From: And now I see that it’s all corroding/ Soonest seething, soonest folding, straight into: But the night won’t last if you just hold fast/ So calm down.

This album undeniably continues in the beautiful lyricism and harmonies that the Fleet Foxes have always been known for but it feels like it’s gone a step further, higher and deeper into darkness. The music itself feels sometimes frantic, sometimes dissonant and at others like the ocean scape on the cover: framed in clouds and colored in seething greens and dark blues verging on black, white caps crashing on indifferent rocks, the only light up off to one side, but it is, at least, a bright, golden light. The listener feels with equal insistency both “Too long now to the rising” and “Not long now to the rising” throughout the work, but is ultimately left with the last lines of the tile song, Crack-Up: All I see- / dividing tides- / Rising over me–.

— Jessica Webster

 

 

 

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A Show About (but not About) a Lawsuit, A French Film Re: Family, and A Fierce, yet Sincere Novel

TV show: Good Girls Revolt (2015-2016) created by Dana Calvo

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The genius of Good Girls Revolt wasn’t in how it dealt with its central premise and raison d’etre: the suit filed by the female research assistants at News of the Week for the right to be reporters. The genius of the show was how it dealt with everything else. Looking back on lives and times, we tend to lose our sense of perspective. We focus on the singular events, the turning points, the times that changed. We lose sight of the fact that those events, points, and changes were also just a day in the life. Most things that happen are a long time coming, but the coming is hard to recapture after the impact of the arrival.

Good Girls Revolt captured that coming perfectly. The lives of the women, of the reporters, and of the magazine go on mostly as usual while the lawsuit brews in the background. The drama is that of an ordinary newsroom in the 1960s (though the periodization leaves something to be desired; the comment from one of the women that a party was “lit” was among the more jarring of the show’s occasional slips). People fall into and out of love, stories come and go, and the lawsuit is no big deal. Until it is. The press conference and announcement make the suit suddenly real and upend everything in the finale.

That’s what lawsuits are like. Everyone has a life apart from the lawsuit, and they just want to get on with it. But eventually, for one reason or another, they can’t. Then there has to be the conflict. And the conflict is all we remember. That’s why Good Girls Revolt is uniquely excellent: it’s a show about a lawsuit which is not about the lawsuit. Word on the street is that the show has been discontinued after its first season, but that first season is still well worth watching.

– David Shelton

 

 

Film:  It’s Only the End of the World (2016) directed by Xavier Dolan 

 

It feels rare to come upon a book or movie where one empathizes at least in part with every single character, but that’s what I found in It’s Only the End of the World. It’s plotless, just an afternoon where a young man – who says very little the entire movie – travels home to tell his family of his terminal illness. They have not seen him in 12 years, and the entire movie portrays all the family issues that result from how much they adore and admire him, but also resent his absence.

I found it especially poignant as an artist, because I’m frequently embarrassed that people treat me as un-relatable because I may have artistic talent. Where art should bring people together, sometimes it makes people feel an alienating sense of awe instead. The movie is French and won a biggish prize at Cannes last year, so you will feel very cultured if you watch it, and extra points if you use the French title when telling people that you saw it. I should also mention that I saw it on a plane, where everything seems more emotional than normal, so hopefully this movie doesn’t actually suck?!

 

– Karissa Tucker

 

 

Book: Salvage the Bones (2011) by Jesmyn Ward

 

Jesmyn Ward has been on my TBR stack for a while and I’ve only just gotten to her books beginning with this one. I could not put it down (trite but true). The pace is constant while the story swells and ebbs with subtle, localized tensions. 10846336The central character and narrator, Esch, has such a believable voice. As a young girl, whose mother has died, with an alcoholic father, and three brothers, she struggles with the line between childhood and a premature, inescapable maturity. The story hovers on the brink of an impending storm mirrored by the tempestuous though seemingly minor events of the plot.

Skeeter, Esch’s brother and senior by a year, owns and arguably carries a burning obsession for his pit-bull, China. He cares for her like his absent mother may have cared for him, with an outspoken intention of pragmatic purpose but a close kept tender love and pride for the animal. She is a fighting dog but the book starts with her giving birth to a litter of puppies, she is a mother. The thread of motherhood runs thick through the text. The children’s mother who dies before the narrative begins, a dog who has stunted maternal instincts and Esch acting in the role to care for her father and brothers. Ward poses the question of what motherhood means. She explores how this state affects a woman and those she holds an obligation to through birth. A maternal figure bears responsibility to nurture through food and through physical love.

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Pit bull’s smile

Esch, as the narrator, provides a powerful perspective for the reader. While young, her role compels her to cook for the family, watch out for Junior, the youngest, and take on tasks her mother would have done were she still alive (i.e. laundry, searching for chicken ward_jeggs, and caring for her father when he gets sick). Her sexual experience with various boys from her community also flirts with the boundary between young adulthood and greater maturity. Esch has been forced to grow up early in many ways but she still misses her own mother and compares the ideal of motherhood with observations of China and her pups.

The world Esch inhabits has its own set of cultural rules defined by a largely black community. Ward does an excellent job of fleshing out a world where the nuanced behaviors, speech, and lives of her characters feel intimate and grippingly tangible. While reading this book, I felt through Esch curiosity as she explores herself and the world around her. I felt her fears for the future, loneliness in her isolated womanhood surrounded by men, and her courage in bearing up under the mounting pressures forced on her.

– Jessica Webster

Things We Loved in the Year 2016

Book: Flowers for Mrs. Harris by Paul Gallico

It’s been a long time since I felt such pure delight in a book as I did for Paul Gallico’s “Flowers for Mrs. Harris” (published in 1958 and also available under the alternate title “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris”). I snagged it from a thrift store early in the year based on the cover alone. It’s thin, which initially was a draw, but ultimately left me hungry for more. The first thing that struck me about Gallico’s writing was that his observations about human nature and the details of human life felt immediately intimate, yet not cliché. I can’t think of anything I respect more as a writer and a reader.

I’ve since read another of Gallico’s novels (“Scruffy”) which was perhaps “better”, but this one had so many points of personal connection for me that it stands out in my memory. The basic story is of an older working-class woman who falls helplessly in love with the awesomeness of Chanel couture, and becomes determined to own a piece of her own for the sake of pure frivolous adoration. Indulgence without loss of wonder is something I treasure. My one criticism is that Gallico’s work tends to be a bit “precious”, wrapping up in the most perfect of bows at the end of each book. I gravitate toward realism and sadness in media, but I simply cannot begrudge Mrs. Harris a happily-ever-after, especially when I’m invited into that warmth as the reader.

–  Karissa Tucker

Book: The Well at the World’s End
by William Morris

As we sit back and reflect on the year, I can’t help but remember one of the books that took me the longest to read. The Well at the World’s End is a longer novel, but what makes it more difficult is its use of older English. I was first introduced to the work by C. S. Lewis himself, in his essay “On Story”.

The Well at the World’s End”, can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch, fix, and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing those six words?… Morris in The Well at the World’s End came near to success, quite near enough to make the book worth many readings.”

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The story follows a young prince, Ralph, the fourth son of the king of a little land called Upmeads. When he is chosen to stay and rule the kingdom while his brothers earn fame and glory, Ralph runs away on his own journey. Along the way he hears whispers and legends of the well at the world’s end, and through many adventures, determines that he must journey to it if it exists. It’s the story of Ralph’s coming of age as he discovers love, honor, loss, glory, and that people are not always what they seem. The Lady of Abundance, Ursula, Bull shockhead, Richard, the Champions of the Dry Tree, and Gandolf all add richness to the story, showing their own characters’ and surprising the reader. As the pages turn, Ralph grows and matures in front of your eyes. At the end, I was proud of him and hope that when I have a son, he turns out like Ralph.

wweThe Well at the World’s End encourages me to continue to grow and mature. Ralph’s young heart was restless, so he went out and did the things he desired. But at the end, when he has completed those tasks, his desires shift. It’s not that those desires were bad and he needed to grow up, rather they lead him to where he needs to go. As someone who’s likely in the same stage of life as Ralph, I’m inspired to go on adventures and enter worlds beyond my own “Upmeads” with the hope of coming home some-day.

– Richie Gowin

Music: Photographs and Memories by Jim Croce

tumblr_m7lam3qhmx1qgl228o1_400According to its release date this isn’t from 2016, but that’s when I found it. This year the
music I was hearing made me feel a little like Bing Crosby’s character in White Christmas: “everyone’s got an angle.” Artists either focused on a specific subject, or a specific mood, or the intensity of a certain experience. With Jim Croce, there’s no angle. He’s what would once have been called “just folks.” It’s remarkable how comforting that can be.

I know it’s considered a bit on the nose to recommend greatest hits albums, but after listening to Croce’s whole oeuvre, this is the one I returned to consistently. It’s plain and simple about everything: heartbreak (“Operator” and “Lover’s Cross”) the defeat of local bullies (“Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”), a job you don’t want (“Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues”), love and infatuation (“I Have to Say I Love You In A Song” and “Roller Derby Queen”), hating where you live (“New York’s Not My Home”) and just wanting company (“I Got a Name”). In 2016, when I just wanted company, I turned on this album. In 2017, I’ll probably do the same.

Full album on youtube here.

–  David Shelton

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Music: We Got It from Here…Thank you 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest

2016 was an amazing year for music. Hundreds of albums were released and the hip-hop, rap, R&B, soul world boomed. Beyoncé created the stunning visual album Lemonade, her sister Solange released an incredibly thought provoking a timely album entitled A Seat at the Table, Young Thug gave us Jeffery, and Gallant produced a beautiful soul album called Ology. While these are all in my list of favorite albums from this year, the top place has to go to A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) who released We Got it From Here…Thank you 4 Your Service. Following a rough breakup and years without new work this album seemed unlikely to be realized. The group produced 5 studio albums and are known for their forward-thinking innovations and unusual sampling choices. 18 years later they released their sixth and final album We Got it From Here. The process of finishing the album was colored by the death of one of the group’s four members, Phife Dawg, making the release a tribute to him as well.

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While musician’s reunions are often met with excitement by their fans they are also frequently disappointing. These attempts can be forced, rely heavily on nostalgia, and leave listeners thinking “they just ain’t what they used to be” (like the fourth Indiana Jones movie…ugh). This album does none of that. While the style from ATCQ’s early work shines through, the music and lyrics are decidedly fresh and piercingly relevant. Songs like “The Space Program” and “We the People” comment on racial inequality and the contradictory intolerance of America on display in the events of this year. The artists call out injustice in songs like “Killing Season”: “I swear it’s killing season / Cause killin’ is still in season” “Things haven’t really changed/ Or they’re dormant for the moment” and “Movin Backwards”: “Po puts braces on my wrists like he was clapping his hands / How demeaning y’all? Who could be blind to racism?” The music that makes up this album stands as a strong independent work in the world of rap/hip-hop and perfectly polishes ATCQ’s indelible body of work.

The album features guest artists including Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, André 3000, Kanye West, and Busta Rhymes. ATCQ continues their sampling prowess integrating audio from diverse sources including Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Elton John’s Benny and the Jets, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Behind the Wall of Sleep by Black Sabbath.

Read more:

NPR

Pitchfork

–  Jessica Webster