Best in Show (2000)

[This review was first published at the original Looking Closer website in 2001.]

Sometimes humans are more beastly than their pets.

Christopher Guest's new "mockumentary" about dog shows, Best in Show, revels in that fact. The nine human beings that converge on Philadelphia for the Mayflower dog competition seem themselves to represent a wide variety of breeds, grooming styles, and gaits, regardless of the quality of their dog. They all want to be validated by the success of their particular pooch. And the pressure has them all on the edge of cracking.

Guest is drawn to this sort of context. In This is Spinal Tap, which he co-wrote with Rob Reiner, he spoofed heavy-metal showbiz, turning the volume up to 11 on the pomposity, lunacy, and theatrical bombast of arena rock. In one of the 90s most underappreciated comedies, Waiting for Guffman, he painted an affectionate portrayal of a small town drama group dizzy with Broadway ambition while they prepare a musical. In both films, most of the humor came from a wide array of characters who are blind to their own eccentricities. But Guest was able to treat them warm-heartedly, so audiences could enjoy their company and see themselves mirrored in these exaggerations, like looking into a warped mirror at an amusement park.

Best in Show continues the tradition. In the company of spoiled dogs, these characters reveal their own pride, their own aspirations, and their own alarming breaking points. The movie might as well have been about a fashion show for children, a sports car exhibit, or an art show. The owners are the real subject here. Their treatment of each other, their bark, their bite, and, of course, their mating habits... we learn more than we might care to from behind-the-scenes bickering and boasting.

Guest has an affection for human oddities. He isn't afraid to tell us the embarrassing and alarming truths about his subjects, but, as Steve Martin does with characters in his own films, he finds room to forgive and even admire them. They're too crazy to be real, and yet I'll bet we all know people who behave like these folks. And if we're honest, we'll admit that we sometimes can be so petty ad so proud.

The film focuses most on Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a middle-class, rural couple whose unlikely marriage is peppered with uncomfortable mysteries. Levy has a strange disorder of the feet. O'Hara's has a list of ex-boyfriends a mile long, and it's a small world; much to Gerry's chagrin, these exes seem to be waiting behind every tree. Their journey to the dog show becomes something of a marriage encounter, and we wonder if the trials of their journey will break them apart or bring them together.While almost all of their scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, they do become endearing personalities; we care about what happens to them in the end.

Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) and the flamboyant Scott Dolan (John Michael Higgins) are a gay couple who spend more time grooming themselves than their criminally-cute canine. Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest himself) southern-drawls about his bloodhound's telepathic powers, his own strategies in fishing, and a budding interest in ventriloquism. Kennel owner Jane Lynch (Christy Cummings) brags about the champion poodle owned by the grossly-glamorous Jennifer Coolidge (Sheri Ann Ward Cabot). And Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock are the far edge of frightening, their marriage based on name-brand fashion wear preferences and varities of Starbucks coffee.

The most outrageous personality of all waits until the final chapter of the film to appear. Fred Willard plays Buck Laughlin, the show's television broadcast announcer, and he brings down the house with his dimwitted commentary, self-absorbtion, and unintentionally revealing one-liners. Willard became one of my favorite comic actors in Roxanne, when he played the small town's mayor and declared, "I would rather be with the people of this town than with the finest people in the world!" Here, he's funnier than he's ever been, as Laughlin relentlessly delivers inappropriate banter. (''It's terrible to think that in some countries, these dogs are eaten!'')

Best in Show stretches out its scenes to allow for more improvisational genius, more unlikely moments of manic hysteria, more subtle observations about its characters. Frankly, I think the movie could have used another twenty minutes. Not more laughs, necessarily. But 90 minutes doesn't give us much time to think about what Guest might be suggesting about human nature. Perhaps he just wants to have fun, but I sense a striving for something more. I suspect he wants to show us something about the nobility of simple accomplishments. There is a celebration of simple folk, of teamwork, of small victories. And, as in Guffman, there's an appreciation for the spectacle of those events... dog shows, community theater, or whatever...that bring people together and challenge their creativity. If Guest wants to do this, I think he might dig a little deeper.

But that's a minor gripe. In a year when comedies are rushing to new lows in crass humor and mean-spiritedness, Best in Show is an excellent example of how funny a movie can be merely by observing human nature honestly, at its brilliant best and miserable worst. It's only 90 minutes long, but I'll bet it's the best hour of laughs you'll find at the movies all year, and probably one you'll want to revisit again and again.


Sam Phillips - A Boot and a Shoe

When no one’s listening I have so much to say...

That’s a line from “How to Quit,” the first song on Sam Phillips’ A Boot and a Shoe. It’s a loaded line. She’s been a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter since her debut The Indescribable Wow in 1988. Her work has been consistently produced by the best in the business—T-Bone Burnett—every step of the way. If the torch of the Beatles’ sound, style and songwriting prowess has been carried by anyone, it’s been Sam, who sometimes seems to be singing the catalogs that great band would have produced had they stayed together, alive, and relevant. You’d be hard pressed to think of a vocalist so interested in sonic invention and re-invention. Her songs have been the soundtracks for films, her catchy pop hooks have been the barbs of commercials, and her smooth harmonies have supplied the interludes for a popular television series. And yet today, she remains “undiscovered.”

All the better for the fortunate few who have faithfully followed her all these years. It means we stand a chance of getting into the intimate concerts Phillips is performing at a few select venues around the country. Her tours are rare and wonderful events. And this time Phillips is sharing with audiences the confessions, pain, poetry, and revelations of a pivotal time in her life.

I was broken when you got me
With holes that would let the light through.

As she so often does, Phillips is again focusing on a state of brokenness and the way that having our hearts split open by betrayal, anger, loss, and change can open us to the influence of divine grace. When Phillips sings about loss, the songs just ache with personal confession and raw need. It’s a theme that goes all the way back to her 1986 album The Turning.

You probably know the story. (If so, skip to the next paragraph.) In 1986, Phillips was recording under the name Leslie Phillips, and was a celebrated Contemporary Christian music pop star. That kind of singing made fans of safe, preachy, positive Christian music uncomfortable. When she unveiled songs about disillusionment, unanswered prayers, and a restless need to break away from the expectations of her judgmental peers, it quickly became clear that such honesty did not belong in the Christian music industry. The Turning proved indeed to be a turning point. She changed her name to Sam, her childhood nickname. And she married T-Bone Burnett. Thus was born one of the most interesting marriages in rock history.

Sam’s music has always been about two kinds of relationships, the flawed, needy, desire-driven human loves, and the transcendent, mysterious, elusive romance with a benevolent God who never lets her rest. God is a mystery lover, a relentless pursuer, who constantly whispers that we should look past the visible world to invisible realms of truth and mystery. His love does not follow the straight lines of logic or reason, but asks us to step into the darkness of faith. On her last album Fan Dance, she sang, “I’ve tried, I can’t find refuge in the angle. I walk the mystery of the curve.” That courtship continues here….

All night, all night,
I’ve been looking for you all night…

No straight lines when love unwinds out in the night where you took the light
You’re all around but I haven’t found you
You’re coming in, right through my skin,
Oh comrade, what do you need?

While the listener cannot escape the sense of God’s nearness to the singer, A Boot and a Shoe is primarily about the collapse of a human relationship. We are given hints of this mismatched couple’s story. While the singer was drawn to the magnetism of someone who met her needs, she has found herself unable to keep them from being torn apart by human desire. Whatever the details of their marriage, it’s clear that Phillips is again at a turning point. She sings about wanting more, wanting to maintain the relationship, but realizing that it is too late and there is nothing she can do.

Thus, this record reveals a significantly changed artist, one who is letting go, humbled, softened and bruised. She has lost that cocky edge, that searing sarcasm, that voice of authority.

In “Love Changes Everything” she sings about being glad for the experience, even if she must also humbly admit that things have become broken beyond repair.

Love changes everything
I’m not sorry we loved,
But I hope I didn’t keep you too long

And yet she bravely vows to continue in relationship for the good that can come of it. In a way, she’s affirming the good work they do together, even when intimacy fails.

We’re not experts
We are believers, ministers of silence
Let no man pull us under doubt
I’ll always open my hands to you
I’ll be right behind you

In “If I Could Write”, things become even more explicit, as she talks about this significant other who tends to draw “girls looking for themselves in [his] eyes.” Was she once one of those women, impressionable and vulnerable? The reference to his ring, which he no longer wears, is as blunt as any line on the album:

I took your ring that never comes off and put it on
Sorry to lose you, sorry to keep you after you were gone
Nothing is small, nothing is unexpected
I want more
When I go this time I don’t think I’m coming back.
Desire’s the element I can’t fight,

Dream is the arm of God.

The album is not all so confessional and sad. There’s an infectious sense of playfulness. Where Fan Dance was an album heavy with acoustic guitar, this album is her most percussive endeavor. The drums are quirky, unpredictable, and dominant. In the groovy shuffle “Draw Man,” both Carla Azar and Jim Keltner provide percussion while the Section Quartet carve out a rough-edged string solo. This fantastic ensemble returns her to one of her favorite subjects… digging deeper, excavation, exploration. And yet she’s still exploring—in fact celebrating—her relationship with her creative partner:

Dig baby you’re a draw man
A pipe man, a furnace, a filler
Let’s make time escape
Let’s excavate the surface…

Her refusal to resort to self-pity and despair gives the album room to develop a pervading sense of hope. It’s a feeble but unfailing belief that in the brokenness there is opportunity. In what may be the most beautiful song of her career, “Reflecting Light,” she sings,

Now that I’ve worn out, I’ve worn out the world
I’m on my knees in fascination
Looking through the night
And the moon’s never seen me before
But I’m reflecting light…

It’s that sense of wholeness in brokenness, of being a channel for grace, of suffering being the conduit for a testimony of unconditional, everlasting, sublime love that continually elevates Sam’s music. And what sets apart this collection is the way she draws back from that hard-edged, stern, assured voice and sings more softly, more cautiously, as if to herself in the darkness where she, having lost it all, she is experiencing a fullness beyond herself, reflecting light from a truer source than herself. Help is coming on God’s time, not ours.

So we conclude with an affirmation that God’s love is the kind that waits until the thing is dead and buried, and that’s when new life comes. As Bono sings, “Midnight is where the day begins…”

Help is coming, help is coming
One day late

After you’ve given up and all is gone
Help is coming one day late

You try to understand, you try to fix your broken hands
But remember
That there always has been good like stars
You don’t see in the day sky
Wait till night

We may not understand, and my tentative speculative endeavors to understand these lyrics may be spectacularly misguided. But the lyrics are so beautiful, spacious, and sung with such sadness and need that they lead me to the place again to which The Turning led me in 1986... to a remembrance of my vulnerability and total dependence upon the mystery of Christ, my rock and my redeemer, when all else is shifting sand ... even those contracts I tend to assume are most binding.

When no one's listening, she does indeed have so much to say... for those with ears to hear.

Sam Phillips will be playing at the Century Ballroom in Seattle on June 5th, 2004.


Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

2015 Note: This review was originally published at a church website called Green Lake Reflections in 1999, and was quoted in the very first installment of Christianity Today's Film Forum, which was hosted at that time by Steve Lansingh.

It sounded promising. The greatest American director working in his favorite neighborhood again, with one of the greatest American film actors. When you hear Martin Scorcese, Nicolas Cage, and a story about the underbelly of New York, you automatically anticipate raves on all critical fronts. And Bringing Out the Dead delivers a lot of what Scorcese fans expect. But not enough of it.

Great acting. Great cinematography. And Scorcese himself in his best role so far... the voice on the radio that calls ambulance drivers out on their cases! But is it a great story?

Perhaps Scorcese was drawn to the idea of working at night, in a modern context, revisiting the tension and the menace of New York streets as seen from behind the wheel, applying his newer filmmaking tricks to a story that echoes his early classics (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver). Unfortunately, while he still films these streets with an intimate understanding and photographic finesse, the script doesn't really work. Instead of watching a character disintegrate or rise from the ashes, this movie's hero has already fallen too far, and we just watch him being miserable.

Bringing Out the Dead is like a sad, pale echo of Dante's Inferno. Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is an ambulance driver named Frank Pierce, the son of a nurse and a bus driver. So he's a little of both. That's one of his jokes, one of the bits of humor he clings to so desperately in order to maintain some semblance of sanity. Frank is in trouble. He's slowly burning out after countless nights of visiting crime scenes and attempting to rescue the lives of New York's self-destructive night life. Most of the cases he responds to are merely the "regulars", people prone to hurting themselves in desperate bids for attention and love. One is called Mr. O, and it's not hard to see why; when they visit him he can only communicate with long moans. "Ohhhh... ohhhhh."

Frank's various ambulance partners are either weaker, stronger, or weirder versions of himself, who either try and encourage him to stay strong or else speed him on his way to becoming a casualty himself. I half expected one of his half-crazy cohorts to suggest they go to Brad Pitt's Fight Club and let out their anxieties in a fistfight. Haunted by the ghost of Rose, a homeless woman who died during his CPR efforts, Frank drinks, smokes, and depends on adrenalin to keep himself moving, fearful of the thoughts the catch up to him when he stands still. Just as many of the wounded are too tired to go on living, Frank is so tired of his job he is begging to be fired.

Frank explains the toil of his job as a failed lifesaver to the audience in a steady, sleepy narration. After meditating on the fleeting joys of saving a life, he observes, "Taking credit when things go right doesn't work the other way around." When a patient dies, as is usually the case, and the families and friends at the deathbed grieve, all Frank can muster is a feeble "I'm sorry." And then come the voices. Victims reappear, blaming him, crying out, dragging him down.

It's only when one of his colleagues plunges headlong into madness that Frank himself receives a shock to his system and tries to wrench himself free of despair and rid himself of Rose's relentless ghost. I kept waiting for Scorcese to give us room to consider questions of faith or an opportunity for love, to contemplate where a soul might find solace in this context. But he seems too preoccupied with the violence and the bizarre predicaments that Frank discovers along the way. This frustrated me and made me wonder why he would want to pound on the audience this way.

But there is much to admire about the film. As Frank, Nicolas Cage is excellent, a believably desperate soul. Since his jarring, incredible performance in Birdy, Cage has been the best actor around for playing haunted, desperate men, whether it's comically (Raising Arizona), commercially (Face Off), or melodramatically (Leaving Las Vegas). As this desperate soul at the wheel, he's mesmerizing. And his supporting cast is just as strong: Ving Rhames, Jon Goodman, and Tom Sizemore are his partners, and Patricia Arquette (Cage's wife) is the lost and lonely soul with whom he discovers a tenuous friendship.

But even as the cast were entertaining and appropriately bedraggled, I found myself anticipating a compelling plot to rise up amidst these details. Perhaps I had the wrong expectations, but even if this film is intended as a mere character sketch, its a tedious sketch that wears out its welcome long before we see Frank Pierce come to any kind of epiphany. Bringing Out the Dead employs a lot of talent in yet another aimless, dark and violent story. The last thing the cinema needs is more blood, violence, and despair. Films like Three Kings show us that violence can be effective, even essential, to storytelling. This film does not. And I don't recommend it, unless you care to see the best Nicolas Cage performance in several years, or some more of Scorcese's brilliant camera work.


Swimming Pool (2003)

This post includes two reviews here: My own and a guest review by Michael Leary.

The supremely talented French actress Charlotte Rampling and director François Ozon clearly enjoy working together. Rampling relishes psychologically complex roles. Ozon respects his leading ladies enough to give them challenges.

In Ozon’s Under the Sand (2001), Rampling played a French woman who chose to live in denial of a tragedy — namely, that the sea had swallowed her husband. She developed a fantasy life that their marital bliss continued, even as her friends began to see cracks in her sanity. But instead of regarding her as a psychopath, we were drawn into sympathy for her. After all, she seemed happy so long as her imagination kept true love alive.

Now, Swimming Pool turns things around. A different sort of loss, a different sort of fiction, a different body of water.

Rampling plays Sarah Morton, a British mystery writer, who learns that there is no better cure for writer’s bock than a good hard rejection. When her handsome publisher (Charles Dance) offers her a retreat a la Enchanted April at his idyllic Italian getaway house, she accepts. But when she flirtatiously suggests that he join her there, he either ignores the hint or misses it entirely. Sarah departs with wounded pride.

Despite the idyllic conditions of her vacation, Sarah’s humiliation sours into ugly resentment. Like any good writer, she gets right down to work, exploiting her experience for literary inspiration.

But things go from bad to worse when the publisher’s obnoxious daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) appears out-of-the-blue. Like salt in an open wound, the girl manifests all of the seductive raw materials that were lost to Sarah years ago. At first the reluctant housemates hiss and spit like angry cats. But when Sarah glimpses psychological bruises beneath Julie’s seeming perfection, she lunges for them, determined to transform what she learns into a writer’s vengeance.

Julie struts through most of the film half-naked, lounging nude by the spectacularly blue pool and baiting men from the nearby town into one-night stands. While the character is certainly an exhibitionist, Ozon’s intentions with Sagnier are not pornographic. Instead, he creates a visual point/counterpoint: Sarah’s souring physique and Julie’s statuesque shapeliness, Sarah’s mature British formality and Julie’s adolescent French libertinism. Who seems more monstrous in the end, the shallow temptress or the sophisticate who, while smiling, is a villain? It is no wonder that Sarah cannot tolerate the decorative cross on the wall of her room. She has little regard for her own conscience, which becomes very clear when a dead body shows up in the backyard shed.

Swimming Pool ends up not so much a mystery as a revenge story. But this time, Sarah’s wounds have not won our sympathy. This begs the question: Is Ozon suggesting that the artist at work is engaged in empty self-gratification?

Unfortunately, the film’s dissatisfying surprise-ending spoils intriguing questions and possibilities with a predictable contrivance. Despite Rampling’s compelling performance, we emerge from Swimming Pool feeling cheated. What began as a high dive becomes an abrupt landing in the shallow end.

A Second Opinion - by Michael Leary

There are a few things thing that make Swimming Pool a predictable film, and there are a few things that don’t. It really is classic, predictable Ozon. Take for example his lecherous Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000), a film that plays with itself like an obscene Rohmer script in three acts. Its form is timeless and classic, but somehow Ozon manages to turn the convention on its head through the storyline. Much in the same way, Swimming Pool is a classic mystery thriller, but one that manipulates itself to a rather unconventional level of mystery and leaves us with a wry unexpected twist that alters our perception of the entire film. Where the film gets highly unpredictable is that Swimming Pool’s twist turns out to be uncharted waters, even for someone like Ozon.

As is customary for Ozon, the camerawork in Swimming Pool is alluring, almost sensual. Similar to his other 2000 film, Under the Sand, his shots more frame states of mind than they frame characters. He places people in scenes by means of composition as Hitchcock often did, but with a certain continental flare. We move from texture to texture and focus to focus under the influence of some cinematic rhythm. Guided by this visual precision, Ozon takes us from a listless and despondent London to a charming villa in Southern France. The first quarter of the film is dominated by these silent sequences in which we simply watch Rampling explore this gentle shift in her environment. It may be these subtle psychological passages that Ozon has a gift for catching on film.

The script itself is by Ozon. It's Claire's Knee meets Vertigo or something of that nature. The story unfolds at a clever pace and even though at times it unravels by the numbers, we don't mind because Rampling pulls it off with a frightening ease. Rampling plays Sarah Morton, the writer of a famous churlish detective series. Coming to grips with the fact that she is a potential has-been, she visits the office of her beguiling agent, a man transparently interested in Sarah as a cash-cow. So he advises her to take some time off at his French villa, and perhaps write a new book while she is there.

After a few days, to her unveiled dismay, her agent's teenage daughter pops in for a holiday as well. Equal parts, shameless lust, sordid charm, evenly tanned skin, and je ne sais quois, Julie’s reckless abandon is a startling dialectic to Sarah’s British rigor. Everything from Julie’s dirty relationships with older men from surrounding towns to the foods she fills up the fridge with stand in contradistinction to Sarah’s emotional repression and ascetic diet. The delicate friendship they eventually forge occurs through conversations about Julie’s distant mother, and the hesitant rifling of Julie’s private journal rekindles Sarah’s literary genius. She begins to write a book, no doubt starring Julie and the clues that comprise the mystery of who she is. And as she writes, the narrative takes a few strange steps into the other side of the looking glass. On this side of the story we find that Sarah and Julie may not be all that different after all, and the cool blue water of the swimming pool becomes the backdrop for the stuff only the best dime store crime novels are made of.

All of these brilliantly crafted relationships unravel in the last frame of the film, closing on Rampling’s intriguing smile. The book she brings back from her vacation is like nothing she has ever published, not your average pulp “whodunit.” And as it turns out, neither is Swimming Pool. What seemed to be straightforward storytelling is revealed as an intimate character study. What seemed to be mysterious really just turns out to be intentionally vague. Some may leave the film underwhelmed; feeling tricked into a conclusion that raises more questions than the film has the ability to answer. But taken as a brilliant psychological adventure Swimming Pool has the fortunate position of being able to spurn such analysis, and the turn toward the inexplicable at the end of the film only serves to add more depth to a character that it seemed Rampling had taken as far as she could go.


Gangs of New York: a Looking Closer Film Forum

This edition of Film Forum was originally published at Christianity Today on December 19, 2002.

Gangs of New York is director Martin Scorsese's much-anticipated film about an uprising of Irish immigrants against a gang called "Nativists" who seek to drive them out of Civil-War-era New York City.

Leonardo Dicaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, a tough young Irishman who returns to a poor New York neighborhood called The Five Points in order to avenge the death of his father (played in the prologue by Liam Neeson.) Vallon's father died a principled Irishman defending the rights of Irish immigrants to live in peace on American soil. His murderer was William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), also known as "Bill the Butcher," the leader of an immigrant-hating gang. Vallon's revenge quest gets complicated when he finds himself adopted as the Butcher's apprentice in all things devious and violent. The stakes are raised higher when he falls in love with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and con woman who is dangerously close to the Butcher's cold cruel heart.

This story would seem predictable. But when the inevitable confrontation finally arrives, Scorsese pulls the rug out from under us. We realize the film is not about something as frivolous as a blood rivalry between two men. It is about the consequences that occur when the rich turn a blind eye to the poor.

The violent clashes that bloody these filthy streets are symptoms of poverty in the big city. In the 1860s, immigrant men were drafted into Civil War duty as soon as they stepped off the boats, even if they were not supporters of Lincoln. Meanwhile, rich men could buy their way out of the draft for about $300. Seeds were planted for distrust of the government, and prejudices that deepened during that time continue today. This deep civil unrest sparked a fire that became the Draft Riots, an outburst of rage and violence that threw New York City into a Civil War of its own, the bloodiest riots in American history. Scorsese concludes his film with a suggestion that the oppression of the poor by the wealthy continues today.

Dicaprio makes Vallon a charismatic savior, rallying the Irish to his cause; but alas, he is only a savior by violence, far too willing to compromise his innocence in order to achieve his goals. Thus, the price of vengeance grows costly indeed.

Dicaprio's solid work pales in comparison with the spectacular return of Daniel Day-Lewis. His sneering, roaring, monstrous performance as the Butcher will remind you of Robert DeNiro in his prime.

The supporting cast is effective as well, featuring strong turns from John C. Reilly (Magnolia), Henry Thomas (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), and Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart.) Cameron Diaz holds her own in the midst of such formidable talent.

The script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan shows a close study of the dialects, accents, and prejudices of the day. The cast sinks their teeth into the script with the same enthusiasm they would give to Shakespeare. In fact, the film resembles the sort of bloodstained epic Shakespeare would have written had he been a student of American history.

Gangs is a complicated film, both great and deeply flawed, that plays like a dirge for the poor who still suffer from the neglect of the rich and powerful. Regardless of the creative liberties taken by Scorsese in telling his tale, it's the most shocking and troubling film about American history I've ever seen. (My review is at Looking Closer.)

Other religious media critics have yet to offer reviews, but mainstream critics are already debating the pros and cons of this long-awaited production. Rumors of trouble between the director and the studio have led to debate about the difference between this version and an earlier, much longer version of the film. Columnist Dave Poland mourns the absence of Scorsese's original vision from this abbreviated edition.

Richard Schickel (TIME) is quite impressed: "Today when audiences go into the past, they want fantasy. They're not looking to pay for history lessons. Thus Gangs may be the epic's last gasp. If so, it is a gasp that sings, howls, like a grand tenor at an Irish wake." Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), who offers an interview with Scorsese, claims, "No movie has ever depicted American poverty and squalor in this way."

David Denby (New Yorker) is not satisfied. "What's on the screen [is] grisly and heavy-spirited. Somewhere along the way, Scorsese's conception turned vague and then got pickled in excessive production values." But he praises Day-Lewis's acting as an event in itself. "[The Butcher is] a consciously theatrical monster, and Day-Lewis — an actor playing an actor — returns to performing with a glee that he's never shown before."

from Film Forum, 01/02/03

Gangs of New York, which Film Forum covered in detail two weeks ago, continues to irritate and infuriate religious press critics with its graphic violence. Further, some were not pleased to see American history portrayed with such rough edges.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is one of the few praising its achievement: "While DiCaprio does a fine job playing the conflicted Amsterdam, this film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis who presents one of the most complex and richly shaded villains in recent memory. [The filmmakers'] vision of what Manhattan might have looked like over 150 years ago is magnificently realized."

Simon Remark (Hollywood Jesus) also raves: "No other filmmaker has looked at the human condition and the inner struggle between flesh and spirit quite like Martin Scorsese. … Scorsese again looks at the human condition and the strongest of human emotions: love and hate. Scorsese again proves to be one of the most significant, profound filmmakers of our time."

Others are too battered by the film's violent subject matter. Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) "With all the characters so vicious, the story has little emotional resonance. Despite the film's belabored ultra-realism, it fails to be dramatically stirring. Instead of a story about the immigrant experience in 19th-century New York, it seems more about butchery for its own sake and the love of slaughter." Movieguide's critic says the film is "a bloody, dark, depressing, hopeless depiction of 'eye-for-an-eye' violence, torture, and cruelty, plus graphic sexual immorality and nudity. It is not an American History film, but a revisionist political treatment that attacks faith, God, and America. This movie reaches new lows in bloodletting." Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) "Scorsese somewhat informs us, but then he beats the crud out of us." Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says simply, "If you don't want to see a bloody, violent movie, then don't go see Gangs."

Will Johnson (Relevant) says, "Beautifully shot, wonderfully orchestrated, and skillfully pieced together, Gangs … is an awe-inspiring film. However, before the three hours pass, you can't help but feel betrayed and cheapened." He calls it "gratuitous, lengthy and unbelievable. To say that this movie's conclusion was one of the most disappointing endings of all time is an understatement. I was angry and sad simultaneously." Steven J. Greydanus (Decent Films) also calls it "perhaps the most impressive and ambitious disappointment in this year of ambitious cinematic disappointments. Shakespearean in aspiration, operatic in scope, spectacularly mounted, Gangs … is a remarkable cinematic effort. If only it were about something."

But Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "I walked away more grateful than ever for my cushy 21st century life. Today we thrive in a society governed by law and order to be envied by all other countries, and this movie makes one immensely grateful for that."

Isaac's sentiments seem to contradict the film's conclusion, which suggests that the rich in America continue to thrive even as they continue to ignore the needs of the poor, both here and abroad. Thus we are forced to consider that the violent struggle between the rich and the poor is not over, and has in fact expanded, causing those beyond U.S. borders to rise up against the wealthy and powerful of this nation.


Coming Home to Ohio: Linford Detweiler on OTR's double album

[This interview was originally published July 30, 2003, at the original Looking Closer website.]
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On August 19th, 2003, Over the Rhine will celebrate the release of their tenth album by making it a double.

Ohio boasts two full-length discs of new material. And that most astonishing thing is that, after they have played for ten years to stellar reviews, chances are 9 out of 10 that you’re reading this and saying to yourself “Who are Over the Rhine?”

Somehow those who discover the band always come to the same conclusion: “These guys are going to be big.” But they have not yet become “big” in the sense of Rolling Stone covers or MTV or Super Bowl halftime shows.

The fans, when they stop and think about it, are probably grateful. There is something intimate and immediate about the band’s live shows that would be difficult to duplicate in a large arena. But they show no signs of slowing down, and that breakout may yet happen, especially with the catchy new single “Show Me” reaching the radio and euphoric numbers like “B.P.D.", “Changes Come”, "Long Lost Brother", and "Bothered" burning at the four ends of that new double-album.

Perhaps the poetic, discomfortingly honest nature of their lyrics have set them apart as a bit too literary for the fast-food consuming crowd that browses the aisles of Tower Records looking for music instead of listening for it.

But those who care about art, beauty, subtlety in musicianship, the history of American music, and good writing tend to find their way eventually to this band from Cincinnati.

'Over the Rhine' has been the moniker over several combinations of performers, but two names have stayed the same—Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. They're two unique singer/songwriters born in the Ohio Valley that first had a love for music, then found a love of collaboration, and eventually fell into the kind of love about which most great songs have been written. Currently gearing up for a major tour, Detweiler and Bergquist are joined by bassist Rick Plant, who recently toured with Buddy Miller; drummer Will Sayles; and multi-instrumentalist Paul Moak for what promises to be one of the most thrilling live shows ever to take place under the banner Over the Rhine.

I caught up with Linford a couple of weeks after witnessing their tour kickoff concert at the Cornerstone festival in Illinois. We chatted a bit about the festival and its remarkable history, and then got down to business discussing the new project.

A Double-Album?!

Overstreet:

You've certainly been busy writing songs! What did this double-album idea come from?

Detweiler:

I think as far as the turning point, we had been thinking in the studio about which ten or twelve songs are we going to pick to embody this experience of recording and everything that was happening around us, and which ten songs were we going to save for a year and a half later. And that’s what was killing us. I didn’t feel like we could pull 10 songs out.

So I sat down and talked with the band and it just popped into my head—double album. I said it to Karin and Paul. Of course immediately it had the sense of a joke, but a few minutes later we said “Wait a minute!” It just made a weird sort of sense. I called two journalists that I trust just to see how it hit them, one in England and another one here in the States. Both of them were very skeptical at the outset. I mean, “double album”, it just sounds self-indulgent and silly. Both of them had the same reaction that we had. About five minutes later they were too curious to dismiss the idea outright.

We were only really willing to do it if our label would agree to sell it for the price of a single CD. The compromise was that they needed to tack on an extra buck to cover the packaging. Everybody came on board.

It’s our 10th project. It just felt like it might be fun to do something a little different. We’re going to do a special edition on vinyl, in a gate-fold jacket. We’re really excited because we’ve never done a release on vinyl before.

We started thinking about it and thought, well, we can’t really imagine the history of rock and roll without The White Album … London Calling … Exile on Main Street … Songs in the Key of Life. Believe me, there aren’t very many good ones. It’s funny, people are very passionate about double albums. Everyone has a few that they can’t imagine their record collection existing without.

I’m curious to know if we made a big mistake.

Overstreet:

We have both albums on all the time! But I do think the listener might need to take a deep breath between the two parts…

Detweiler:

And I love that you can do that! It’s two fairly digestible records. You can listen to one and then put it away and take a break. I like that more than trying to put fourteen songs onto one cd and having a really long record. It made sense.

For a double album to work, there has to be a lot of variety. There has to be something in each song that is quintessential to the band. It could be just one line in the lyrics. That’s what we went for. It was an intuitive process.

Overstreet:

For the record, Disc One is my personal favorite.

Detweiler:

[laughs] I’ll be very interested in the responses of people who have followed the band’s music regarding which disc they like better. We’ve had a strong number of raised hands in our circle of friends where people seem to love Disc Two. Something started to happen on that CD.

As far as the sequence of what went on the first and what went on the second—I didn’t really think about it that much. We had just finished mixing and I went back to the hotel room and I had to come up with a sequence so the label could hear the record, and that was my first attempt… and we just went with it.

On Disc One, I was thinking of Side A and Side B, like turning the record over after “Ohio”. It felt to me like Disc One is the essence of what we did, and Disc Two is more like… “All this stuff happened too.” But there were too many songs we couldn’t do without.

Overstreet:

You carried a lot with you into this period of songwriting. It’s been a heavy couple of years for you and Karin, with all the unexpected events that took place with Karin’s mother.

Detweiler:

It was a tragic thing that happened out of the blue. Karin’s mother [Barbara] is 69 and she suddenly suffered a devastating stroke that left her in a wheelchair only partially able to communicate. Karin has had to go through this whole grieving process for the loss of a parent. And she lost her father unexpectedly back in ‘94. Of the people in our circle of friends, Karin is the first to have to deal with a lot of these issues. Most of us have not had to navigate that terrain yet.

The good news is that Barbara is well cared-for. She does have some ability to communicate. She is comfortable and is trying to make the best of it.

Karin has weathered it well, all in all. We’re going to break up the tour so she’s not away for more than three weeks at a time. We’ll go home and check in and make sure everything’s okay. She visits her mom a couple of times a week. It used to be several times a year, so that’s good in one way; it’s too bad it has to be in a nursing home. But yeah, she’s doing all right. Thank you for asking.

Karin has really enjoyed getting to know the workers and the residents where her mom lives. Someone described the place as a head-on collision between comedy and tragedy. It’s been heartbreaking and hilarious, inspiring and sobering, you know? It runs the whole gamut in there.

Overstreet:

You frequently mention the value of eavesdropping to a writer. There must be a lot of inspiration in experiences you have there, interacting with the residents.

Detweiler:

When you’re just sort of getting your feet wet there, yeah, there’s a lot to take in. Karin’s been in there more than I have.

One of my first memorable experiences there: a lady wheeled herself up to me and said, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you. I don’t mean to be a burden. I was wondering if you could help me. We gotta get outta here!” [laughs]

With Alzheimer’s patients there’s just this sense of being lost and wanting to find your way back home. One would say, “How do we get back to shore?” Karin has talked about going up to this woman named Geneva [who responded to her by exclaiming “Only God can save us now!”]

It goes back to that metaphor of having ‘ears to hear and eyes to see’… there are these little clues, these little snippets of the eternal that are constantly coming into focus for a few moments and then disappearing. I often wonder how much we miss.

Just from a writing standpoint, there are little bits of interesting language constantly coming at us and we want to take some time to snag things.

Yesterday I was filling up the car with gas, and I saw something on the pump, a little notice that said: The gasoline island is under constant surveillance.

The gasoline island! It was so great.

There are so many cultural and societal movements that would gladly turn us into passive bystanders. I think part of the artist’s calling is to try to rip that veil open and help people keep their eyes open.

OHIO … and the Guy who Kept Showing Up

Overstreet:

Well, the theme of Being Lost and Trying to Find Our Way Home is clearly winding through the lyrics of the new album!

Detweiler:

Good!

Overstreet:

The album is such a journey… like a tour of Dante’s Inferno, with stories about mourning, loss, marriages in trouble, the bruises of abuse. And yet there is so much beauty throughout the album.

I’m curious. You mentioned a couple of other titles that were in the running—Only God Can Save Us Now and then Elvis is King and Jesus is Lord. But you settled on Ohio. Do you feel these songs are all connected in some way to the Midwestern experience?

Detweiler:

We had a number of working titles. We went with Ohio because, over the course of recording this series of songs—I guess a lot of people take a long time to get to this place I’m about to describe—we realized that this music is what we do. And it’s probably not going to go away any time soon. As far as writing and recording songs… I’m guessing we’re going to be doing that for the next twenty years. It felt like we were coming home to that place… that music has a lot to do with why we are here.

We’re finally allowed to just own that without being edgy about it, without being haunted by this feeling that any day now we’re going to move on and get on with our “real lives”, or something more important, or any number of those fears and doubts that sometimes provide a backdrop for the artist. It just felt like coming home.

The very first song we recorded for the collection was Karin’s song "Ohio." She plays more piano on this record. It seemed to be a central song to the project.

In the last couple of years we’ve thought a lot about moving away, and realized that in some strange way this is home and probably always will be. We’ve got great friends here and… I don’t know. It was a simple title and it seemed to feel right.

Overstreet:

And yet, there is this sense of transition throughout the record, a sense of loss and painful change in the world beyond the borders of Ohio. You mentioned that the day you wrote “Changes Come” was the day you turned on the news and saw tanks rolling through Baghdad and Bethlehem.

Detweiler:

Karin wrote the music for that song, and she wrote the chorus hook—“Changes come, turn my world around.” We sat down together and wrote those verses pretty quickly. And then we recorded it in one take: She played guitar and sang and I played piano, and then I went back and recorded the Hammond organ and she started developing the little ‘Karin choir’ in the background.

It was a really cathartic moment for us. There’s this sense of sadness and disappointment that pervaded the recording sessions. On the one hand it was a really joyful time for us, but watching what went down in Iraq and what was going on in the Middle East we had this overwhelming feeling like ‘We’ve got to be further along by now!” There was sort of this sense of helplessness and yet we wanted to stay focused on our work, which was in some ways the most redemptive response we had to what was going on. It gave substance to our beliefs that we live in a world where ideas are more powerful than ‘smart bombs.’

We’ve been thinking a lot about children and, like every prospective parent, the world we’re bringing a child into. Sometimes the only sane response is “Thy Kingdom come”, whatever that means in terms of what we can get our hands on, whatever we can do to push the world in a direction where something like Christ’s Kingdom makes sense.

Jesus kept turning up on this record. That can be a little bit problematic when you’re trying to do your work. We were recording songs, making a double album, and Jesus kept turning up. But we were up for it.

I guess our prayer would be that if we are haunted by Christ, which of course we are, that it is the Christ that declared obsolete forever the “kill or be killed” approach to resolving differences, the Christ who turned over the tables of those who were trying to make a buck off of salvation. The Christ that turned water into exceptionally noteworthy wine. That’s the Christ that I want to be haunted by, that I would welcome… I would welcome that Christ’s influence on any song.

That’s a kingdom that I still deeply believe in, in terms of where I am with Christianity, in terms of growing up in the Church. In some ways it’s hard for me to get really interested in this idea of getting right with God so we can be whisked away to heaven, and experience eternal bliss. But when I start thinking in terms of there being a kingdom that could come to earth to resolve all of this madness, that’s what I start getting excited about, that’s what I start remembering. I start remembering that, yeah, people could die for this. There is something potentially revolutionary going on that can heal deep-seated violence and roots of bitterness that seem to poison our best efforts.

Overstreet:

It did startle me ... how openly you addressed faith throughout the album. I was chewing on that as I listened, trying to figure out why it came across so differently than it does on so much of what is called ‘Christian music’. I think it is because you grounded it so much in personal poetry and in place.

Grounding the lyrics so much in a specific place, in the heart of our country, with these specific stories... it seems so much more honest, so much like a part of something larger, instead of sounding like you have an agenda. People won’t feel like they’re being shouted at. It will give them more of that feeling that maybe they are eavesdropping… on someone’s private thoughts.

Detweiler:

You are totally onto something. The fact of the matter is that America’s music has something to do with gospel music and blues and jazz and rock and roll. Part of the process of coming home for me is a continuing sense of where I come from and who I am. More and more I find myself willing to be open about that.

You can’t divorce what I do musically from the music that I grew up with… the hymns that I grew up with… some of the gospel music my dad discovered. He loved playing Mahalia Jackson—don’t ask me how or why he found her records, but he did and he loved it. It was part of the musical fabric of my childhood. On the one hand all of these hymns are seeping into it constantly, and yet I’m in the back of a Buick wildcat convertible with my brothers and friends as a 7-year-old listening to Credence Clearwater Revival. Trying to get these worlds to co-exist as a child is quite an adventure.

Anyway, I know at times we went far out of our way to downplay our deep deep roots in this place called Ohio. But I was born here and Karin and I were both raised here. A lot of our formative years were spent in Ohio. Karin was born in California but moved to Ohio when she was about 7 and grew up in Ohio. We met at a small college in Ohio. There’s a liberal arts and literary thing in Ohio that is part of the mix—like Oberlin and Kenyon. I think the Kenyon Review was the first literary magazine to publish Flannery O’Connor. So there’s a strange mix of the church, the Midwest, literature… To me it feels like this music is connected pretty deeply to where I come from and the ground we’ve covered.

“Making the Record We Wanted to Make”

Overstreet:

This is your second album for Virgin/Backporch… third if you count the re-release of Good Dog Bad Dog. After the dismantling of the I.R.S. label where you were previously, how is this going?

Detweiler:

They didn’t hear a note of any song or any demo [for Ohio.] They didn’t come by the studio when we were recording. We had complete carte blanche as far as making the record we wanted to make. They get big big points for that… lots of extra credit. They worked very hard on Films for Radio, and have typically done right by us. I don’t have any complaints about the label. I feel like they’re doing a good job. And today they start advertising the first single—“Show Me.”

Overstreet:

On the subject of specific songs: What does the title of the first song—“B.P.D.”—stand for?

Detweiler:

It stands for Borderline Personality Disorder.

That song is sort of a mental note that Karin wrote, but really it’s a note for both of us. We have a habit of trying to rescue people in ways that are probably counterproductive. It’s been a process of learning that not everybody who cries “Save me!” is interested in changing their life in any significant way. We’ve had to learn that through a couple of difficult experiences, but good and necessary experiences.

Our songs are in some ways moving away from the confessional thing and into more of a narrative approach. Music for us involved a lot of internal work on our records. Now some of that work is done and we’re looking around and coming to grips with the fact that all is not right with the world and we need to engage.

Overstreet:

What prompted the re-recording of “Bothered” [which was previously on the album Eve.]

Detweiler:

The drummer gets the credit for that. We’d never recorded a band version of the song. We played it last December, and Will came up with that groove, and he really wanted to record it. So we just kinda did on a whim, thinking we would use it for a b-side or something. When the whole double-album thing became possibility, we decided to include it. People respond to that song and still want to hear it live. It's like it still has work to do.

Overstreet:

Have you been listening to anything lately that’s really captured you?

Detweiler:

We really enjoyed that Daniel Lanois record [Shine]. We had to promise ourselves we wouldn’t buy records while we were in the studio, so as soon as we were finished we ran out and bought the new Daniel Lanois and the new Lucinda Williams. We’re going to go see David Gray and a new band called Turin Brakes. Karin really likes Turin Brakes. They're a British duo. Their first record kinda snuck up on her, and she’s a big fan now.

We like that new Radiohead record [Hail to the Thief], but I’m really hungry for them to write the great songs that I know they can write. I know they’ve been really self-conscious about not trying to make another OK Computer. But unfortunately they let the cat outta the bag—we know they can write those amazing five minute worlds and they’ve been running from song structure ever since.

Overstreet:

You’re still experimenting with different styles too. This also feels like the most country-flavored project you’ve produced.

Detweiler:

Which, again, is part of owning up to our roots. There was this radio show, Jamboree U.S.A., which was the oldest radio show playing in the U.S., and all of these people would come through every Saturday night.—Johnny Cash, Willie, Emmylou. My parents would flick that on in the background sometimes.

A Calling to Write Songs

Overstreet:

Growing up in the church, around artists, you hear the word “calling” a lot. So many singer/songwriters will refer to their art as their “calling.” But when I look at the Scriptures, it seems that a calling was something that people ran away from, terrified by it. It was a discomforting thing.

Some use the term in a way that seems to mean merely a desire to play for God or paint for God. But when that happens, the term can also be used as an excuse for what is sometimes really lousy art. We hear people denying constructive criticism because “God called me to write this” or “How can you question what I’m doing? It’s my calling.”

Do you make a distinction between a calling and merely a desire to use what God has given you? And would you say you have felt a distinct calling?

Detweiler:

One of Kathleen Norris’s books—Amazing Grace—has a chapter called “Chosen.” [He happens to have the book with him, and thumbs quickly through it.] On page 139 in Amazing Grace she addresses that whole concept of responding with ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ and the fact that a calling is a dangerous thing. I think what she has to say about it is pretty powerful.

Mike Roe of the 77s and Lost Dogs talks about a time when the clouds parted and he encountered God calling him to go into ministry, and he ran the other way for a long time.

I am close to being able to say that songwriting is my calling. I may not use those words, but I think I secretly do believe that at this point. It’s been a long 20-year journey for me to start getting to a place where I can be comfortable saying that. I think I probably have tried to run the other way a few times. Believe it or not, I was very open to doing something that was less crazy than trying to make a living as a songwriter and all of the traveling involved in something like that. But… “Just when I thought I was out they keep pulling me back in!” … to quote The Godfather via The Sopranos.

I often wonder how much of what I do has to do with my own desire. I think there might have been an important saying in the Gospel of Thomas that got lost along the way… that said something to the effect of “Don’t do something that you hate and never tell a lie.” I think there are a lot of people who, in the name of something-or-other, have chosen a life that they don’t really enjoy. I’m not saying it’s going to be bliss all the time to pursue your calling. It’ll be a heartbreaking journey to pursue your heart’s desires.

There’s a school of thought that I grew up with that said, ‘If you enjoy music then that’s probably something that you need to give up.’ That approach to life is certainly a sad one.

Overstreet:

I asked a fellow Over the Rhine fan recently what she’d like to ask the band. She came up with a question that I and many others involved in the arts struggle with—people who try to devote themselves fully to their own artistic ambitions while also trying to make ends meet. So she burst out with the question, “How did they pay the bills all those years while working on their records and touring?”

Detweiler:

[laughing] For being a bunch of losers we’ve really been blessed!

Seriously, we’ve sometimes struggled with what Julie Miller describes as times when you’re “between money.” All in all it’s been rather miraculous that we’ve been able to do this. I feel a strange combination of having been blessed beyond my expectations while simultaneously being ignored [laughs again].

But I feel like things are often the way they’re supposed to be. We’ve seen in other people who have reached different forms of success that there is overwhelming damage control that needs to be called in. Our journey has been the right one for us and we have been watched over.

Overstreet:

When I first interviewed you in 2000, you were thinking seriously about writing your memoirs and putting them all down in a book. And then you eventually published a sort of prologue and made it available online. How is that project going? We enjoyed the piece you published.

Detweiler:

That was a sort of introduction to this memoir that I keep scratching away at.

But I turned a corner when we were making this record, and that is that I’m a songwriter at the end of the day. Yeah, I still want to bang together a memoir when the time is right. But being a songwriter is going to keep me busy … I’ve had to make peace with that. I do a fair bit of additional writing for my own sanity, to figure stuff out. But… I’m a songwriter.


Radio (2003)

An earlier version of this review was originally published in a Film Forum column at Christianity Today.

Radio is another sport-oriented true-life drama from writer Mike Rich, who wrote The Rookie. Like that film, which was one of 2002's most rewarding and surprising releases, Radio focuses on the way a community comes together to lift up one individual and help him surmount difficult obstacles.

In Radio, the spotlight falls on a South Carolina high school football coach named Harold Jones (Ed Harris). Jones's wife, his daughter, his team, and a whole community (minus one wicked banker) assist him in his efforts to help a lonely, misunderstood, mentally disabled person — James Robert "Radio" Kennedy (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) — find friendship and purpose.

The film is significant in that it breaks Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s streak of lamentably bad roles and forgettable performances. Since he won his Oscar for Jerry Maguire, Gooding has signed up for a bunch of awful lowbrow comedies (Rat Race, Snow Dogs, Boat Trip.) Here, however, in a role that could easily have been overplayed, the actor shows remarkable restraint, and makes us care about a young man who needs love. What is more, he becomes an example of unconditional love by the way he responds without selfishness or grudge to those around him who have in the past mistreated him.

But the most striking thing about Radio, at least for this reviewer, is its unconventionally intense concentration on one neighborhood's charitable endeavors. Most sports movies culminate with "the big game" and a cliffhanger tie-breaker. Here, although there is a montage about the local team's wins and losses that is framed in the same way as the one in The Rookie, there is very little emphasis on competition. Sports are merely a backdrop, not the main event. Director Michael Tollin — whose last film was Summer Catch with Freddie Prinze Jr. — has his priorities are in the right place as he makes the human drama the center of our attention.

In fact, the lack of any suspense becomes a problem for the movie. Radio oversimplifies its central dilemma — and its characters — so much that there is nothing much to consider or concern ourselves with. We sit secure in the obvious rights and wrongs of the situation, cheer for the nice guys and boo the cookie cutter villain who is uncomfortable with Radio's acceptance. (Why he is bothered by Radio is not much explored.) And if any uncertainty arises regarding where a scene is going, the music declares for us what our emotional response should be. Despite the fine efforts of Harris and Gooding, Jr., Radio nearly drowns in James Horner's overbearingly sentimental music.

The Rookie had complex, realistic, believable characters. Radio may be based on a true story, but the supporting players that populate this film seem flat and one-dimensional. Despite its honorable intentions, it practically pounds us on the head with simple moral lessons, and there is an unfortunate lack of things to think about afterward. We've had our most basic convictions affirmed, our emotions have been pushed around, and we walk away knowing very little about Radio, his condition, his background, his way of thinking, and the ethical questions regarding how to care for someone like him.

 


Making Songs Out of Stories: Over the Rhine's Linford Detweiler on 10 Years of Songwriting

[This interview was originally published at the website for a non-profit arts organization called Promontory Artists Association in February 2000.]

Linford Detweiler has learned to take it easy.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Seattle, unusually sunny for late February, and he joins my wife Anne and me for coffee and cranberry juice at the University Plaza Hotel, his home for the weekend, far from his Cincinnati headquarters. Linford, his wife singer/songwriter Karin Bergquist, and their band––Over the Rhine––are in town for two special shows, a momentary tangent from their larger purpose…touring with the Cowboy Junkies.

This tour has brought new opportunity and energy to Over the Rhine, not to mention exposure to a larger audience. Appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Sessions at West 54th have placed them on well-watched platforms. This publicity is an unexpected highlight after a period in which their previous record label, I.R.S., folded, and their future seemed uncertain. It's been a decade-long rollercoaster ride from varying levels of obscurity to varying levels of fame.

Now, a new record contract with Virgin/Backporch may be the greatest opportunity they’ve yet had. While Over the Rhine have never been in the Top 40 or on the cover of Rolling Stone, word-of-mouth is having a cumulative effect. Current celebrities Sixpence None the Richer even thank Linford and Karin for their influence. The new deal has brought most of their recordings back into print; their latest independent work, the critically acclaimed Good Dog Bad Dog, is available in a new package with the addition of a new song.

An adventure like this might make some performers a bit shaken, anxious, exhilarated. But Linford seems content to take it in stride. Our conversation does not dwell on their imminent celebrity status, politics, other musicians, or scandals, but rather on books, songwriting, and the personal experiences that enrich his writing.

What are you reading these days?

A book that I just started is called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I kept hearing her name, and my sister Grace lent me a few excerpts from it last time I was up visiting her. And Karin picked up a copy of Traveling Mercies. So Lamott is the current writer in our lives. We’re going to be performing at the writer’s conference at Calvin College. It’s a pretty amazing little gathering up there. Anne Lamott’s one of the main speakers, and Maya Angelou, one Karin’s favorites is speaking as well. And Chaim Potok.

I tend to come across a writer and try to read a good handful of what they wrote before I move on. My sister Grace and I both quit reading when we got to high school. We both went to boarding school in Western Canada, and we'd been avid readers. I didn’t start reading again until I was a junior in college. In school, we read what was assigned to us; we didn’t read for pleasure. The author that got me reading again was C.S. Lewis. Then I went through a big Dylan Thomas phase. I read a lot of what he wrote. Then I discovered Southern American writers like Flannery O’Connor and read everything she wrote, and then Annie Dillard. I’ve been reading a lot of Frederick Buechner’s stuff.

How did you get started writing songs and starting a band?

I wish I could say that my starting a band was shrouded in mystery, that it was some sort of profound artistic part of the project. But I was just naïve. I loved music. We said to ourselves, let’s start a band, get our songs on the radio, make a lot of money, live in England, buy a farm…. And while we didn’t achieve a level of success that we’d hoped for right away, we have in one sense or another accomplished most of these things. Just not all at once. It’s been life changing in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I learned fairly early that being famous was not what I really cared about. What I do love and care about is the words.

What do you find is the best kind of support and encouragement you receive from your friends and your fellow songwriters?

Michael Wilson has been a great inspiration. He was the first real "artist" that showed me what art could be about. He has this ability to pick out the unremarkable details of our lives and hand them back in a way that makes us see them for the first time. He’s shown me how we can learn to keep our eyes open to what’s behind the fabric of the ordinary. His work has been hugely influential. He’s also a very deep listener. He introduced me to a lot of good things. For example, he was the first person to play Tom Waits for me. Now that’s a perspective-altering experience!

And there’s another individual… I suppose technically he’s my pastor…. Dave Nixon. He’s a gifted writer, he has his doctorate in classical languages. He married Karin and I. He’s in the process of working through reinventing what church might look like.

It’s an extra challenge to work together with Karin as a creative couple, isn’t it? How do you two manage to work together as a team? Do you do most of your work together, or separately?

Karin and I… we’re together probably more than any other couple I’ve ever met. We do try to give each other some degree of solitude, to give each other that gift of time. We’ll work separately and then bring our work and sit down together. She’ll play me a song, and often I’ll say, "Don’t change a thing." Other times, she will have worked out the melody and I’ll supply the words. Often I’ll have a whole song worked out ahead of time. I see my job as being to write songs that allow her voice to bloom.

Many of our readers tell me about struggling with their work, about lack of success, doubts about their calling to be an artist. A lot of your work seems to deal with periods of doubt, struggle, darkness, even depression. Tell me about how you’ve dealt with the hard times as an artist, how you’ve worked through them.

There have definitely been difficult times. At the beginning sometimes things wouldn’t go the way we wanted them to, and I’d think "I’m not cut out to do this." Some of the most difficult relationships of my life so far have occurred with somebody that I was working with in the band. And that has been an exhilarating and sometimes devastating exercise in being a human being.

I go to this Trappist monastery called Gethsemane in Kentucky, just two hours from Cincinnati where I live. They have about a thousand-acres there where I can walk and think. I found out about it reading Thomas Merton. It’s a chance to be quiet. When I’m there I realize that the world really is a noisy place.

I went down to the monastery in 1995 and said "I think I’m going to let it go" and I made peace with that. Because of these stories we grow up with in the church, I had the image of Abraham’s son on the altar. And I basically said, "That’s it. I put it down. I’m free. I’m still young, and I’m going to go rethink my life." But when I got home, the first message on my machine said, "Hey, Linford… every spring Miles Copeland has this retreat with writers at his castle in Southern France and we’d like you to come over and hang out with songwriters and be a part of this. We’ll pay your way. All you have to do is show up." And then the next message was something else. Everywhere I turned it was clear, "Don’t quit music. You’ve started a story that’s not yet completed." So I ended up staying in it. And I feel really excited about that part of it now.

The mystery at the heart of so many creative people is that we’re trying to make sense of the story that we’ve been handed and the story that we’re helping to write with our lives. We write to try to figure out what we believe is true, and to try to make sense of what’s happened. On the one hand we bemoan difficult childhoods… or whatever it is…but on the other hand those difficult things make us who we are. It wasn’t Karin’s first choice for her dad to leave and never come back when she was three years old, for her to be the odd girl growing up in a small town in Ohio, the only one without a father…. Whatever pain was part of Karin’s journey has made Karin who she is. And she wouldn’t sing what she does if she had no abandonment. You listen to a song like "Poughkeepsie", and you know she’s definitely wrestled with depression at times.

You’re reminding me of watching Roberto Begnini win his Oscar in 1998. He ran to the microphone and thanked his parents for the greatest gift they could ever have given him… poverty.

Yes! Karin taped that, and we re-played that so often. I think that’s why I desire to write more and more. To try to make sense of the story of my past. And what went down in my family…oh, if you only knew. There’s a lot there, and I feel like I’m ready to start opening it up and looking at it. I think that’s where it starts. It starts with what we experience, and if it ends up being a fictitious character or a memoir or whatever, it doesn’t really matter.

So I go up Poughkeepsie,
look out o'er the Hudson
and I cast my worries to the sky.
Now I still know sorrow,
but I can fly like the sparrow
'cause I ride on the backs of the angels tonight.

-from "Poughkeepsie"

Do you write for an audience or for yourself? You make it sound like songwriting is a very personal private thing you do for yourself.

What goes along with writing for yourself is accepting the fact that your audience may be non-existent. It’s not really fair to write to please yourself and then bemoan the fact that you’re not hugely popular.

I’ve learned this from other artists that I respect. If you can’t say to others "To hell with what you think" to some degree, you’ll second guess yourself, and you’ll never create anything. A fair amount of what I do, I do based on a set of instincts that I’ve developed, by paying attention to what I love or what moves me, and hanging around with people that inspire me. I’ve never done anything that I really care about while trying to second-guess what somebody’s going to like. The healthy position for me is what I called in a song 'healthy apathy'.

I’m not really big on seeing a newspaper clipping and thinking, "Oh, I’ve got to write a song about that." I’m not one of those writers like Bruce Cockburn who tries to get a point across; it’s more of an intuitive thing. I’m trying to tell something that feels taut from beginning to end. I learn about what I’ve written along with everybody else.

C.S Lewis talked about wanting to "delight" and "instruct" in his writing. Sometimes the wanting-to-instruct was a bit too much for me. But he certainly did delight as well.

You certainly don't preach at us, like the Christian music you hear on religious radio. But the language of faith is woven throughout your work. It seems that right now there are lot of artists blurring the lines between other genres and Christian music, revealing more of what is possible for a musician of faith.

What has been your relationship and experience with the church and church communities in view of your music?

I’ve made it a point not to engage with the reactionaries. I try not to go into a place where the people expect us to be something that we’re not. When we started Over the Rhine part of my naïve self, having grown up in the church, hoped that Over the Rhine would be somehow a damaging blow to "Christian Music" in that it would be something that would blur the lines and draw people away from that mentality. And to some extent I think we’ve succeeded in shaking that up a bit.

I can remember people looking at us eight or nine years ago and thinking we were something alien in that we would play 150 club shows a year and then play the Cornerstone and Greenbelt festivals. People that were exposed to us at Cornerstone thought that we were a little bit odd. But now it’s a "no-brainer" for some band that came out of somebody’s youth group to go play in a club. Everybody does it now.

We did stop once at the Creation festival, right before we signed with I.R.S. Records. We were out on tour, we were going to play Cornerstone the next week. We thought "Why don’t we just stop by and put our records out." We could set up a little booth and find a few allies. And we were almost run out of there! It was one of those classic things where mothers gather together to protect their children from all of this "New Age" imagery. Karin and I were hanging out there biding our time and people would approach us in groups, a spokesperson with other people looking over their shoulder. We tried to engage them. One of the directors of the festival stopped by because well-meaning sixteen year-olds were coming back with their youth pastors’ arms on their shoulders saying, "I want to give this tape back. You never mentioned Jesus anywhere." Whatever. It was a bad experiment. Since then, we’ve been really good about realizing that certain people have an agenda for what they want to do, and if we don’t fit in, we’re not going to force it.

There has been definite progress. Sixpence None the Richer have started in a much different place. Theirs has been much more a youth-group audience. And now, with their self-titled album, it’s great to see them setting an example that you can move on to more ambitious songwriting, like yours, without sacrificing faith, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

(laughing) If that’s what they’re going to do, then they’ve got their work cut out for them. That was a very special record.

Do you envy the sudden phenomenal success Sixpence have experienced, or do you say to yourself, "There but for the grace of God go I?"

I was basically tickled pink for them. That’s everybody’s dream, especially at their age, to get that kind of attention placed on a song. It opens a door to a whole new level of a career. I don’t particularly envy them the process it took for them to get there…it was grueling. And I don’t envy them the fact that in a lot of ways their life now is not their own, and every nuance of their career will be scrutinized now. I can look back at certain points of my career and if that would have happened then, I would have taken the money and skipped town or self-destructed in various ways. I wouldn’t have had the resources to handle that.

If you could go back and talk to your younger self, back in 1989, and give yourself any messages or any warnings about the road that lay ahead of you, what would you say to yourself? And would your younger self go on ahead anyway?

I don’t think that I could do it again, but I would certainly encourage myself to do it again.

If you really want to do it, you embrace the chaos and don’t look back. When we first started to get [Over the Rhine] off the ground, to the point where we could actually make a living doing it, I said, "Every resource that I can possibly muster, every ounce of personal energy, I want to put in this. If we fail, I want to be destitute, and out on the street with nothing. I don’t want to have a little nest egg set aside that is my safety net for not making it." It’s been a labor of love, and we’ve never really cashed in, but we’ve had some nice surprises along the way. The madness of four people in a car traveling across the country staying in one hotel room is something I don’t think I could psyche myself up to going back to.

You've been touring and singing with the Cowboy Junkies. Has that affected the direction of Over the Rhine's music?

The Junkies get a lot of flak because they do this dreamy, "torchy", smoky music. Some people think it’s boring and sleepy, and to others its phenomenally unique and amazing. I see them constantly trying to rock their own boat, trying different things. Some things we're recording with them for their new record is in almost a Radiohead vein. I want Over the Rhine to do what we do best. Reckless curiosity is important, but it’s more important at the beginning of a journey, and then you want to rein it in and focus it.

Tell me about some of the more recent songs. There's a lot of sadness in these songs, as you said earlier, and the first song, "Latter Days," is a heartbreaker.

There is a me you would not recognize, dear
Call it the shadow of myself
And if the music starts before I get there
Dance without me
You dance so gracefully
I really think I'll be okay...

- excerpt from "Latter Days"

Where did this song come from?

It’s become an important song for me. It was written in my bedroom, I was just scratching some things down. When it's happening, you never know at the time that something is going to be that essential to your work. It’s just very informal. And that’s just one of the purest things I’ve ever written.

I was questioning another one of those periods where I felt like I was done with music, that I didn’t have what it took. So the whole bit about "dancing without me" is to other musicians… "You go on ahead and do it. I’ll get there eventually and I’ll be okay." The lines about, "I just don’t have much left to say"… that's very literal. "I’m supposed to be writing these songs, but I’ve been dashed on the rocks and I’ve got nothing left."

It wasn’t too long after Karin’s dad died that I wrote the song. He was really quite known for being a good dancer… he was a Presence. Those two images planted the seeds.

To me, there’s something about that sadness that is ultimately joyful. Some people wouldn’t see it that way. In one of the new songs that I want to record, the first line is "The saddest lines are the happiest, the hardest truths are the easiest." Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission has this sweet sadness that she carries. Other people have remarked on it. She carried this intense sadness that was so beautiful, and yet when she expresses that and you hear it coming out, it causes me so much joy even though it’s so sad. I guess that mystery, that sweet sadness, is something that fires my imagination.

You try to tell a story on a record. "Latter Days" is the first song on "Good Dog Bad Dog", but by the second song ["All I Need is Everything"] this person is already starting to realize that this place of brokenness is one of immense strength and renewal. Now that I realize that I’m completely shattered, I’m at a place where good things can happen.

Tell me about the new song "Moth", from "Amateur Shortwave Radio".

There's no savior hanging on this cross
It isn't suffering we fear but loss
When there's no one else around to blame
You're a burning moth without a flame
If you were to take my place tonight
See yourself in a different light
If you were to take my face tonight
Wouldn't Jesus be surprised?

- excerpt from "Moth"

Karin wrote the chorus and I wrote the lyric. She came up with "There’s no savior hanging on this cross, it isn’t suffering we fear but loss."

It really could be a song about an abusive relationship. People are willing to suffer for years in a situation that they know is ultimately destructive because the greater fear is losing it, making a fresh break. But you come to a place where the only redemptive option is to walk away. There’s no savior that can bail you out at this point. "When there’s no one else around to blame…"

In a sense it was a song about the original lineup of the band. We took it as far as we knew how, and in order for any good to come out of the future we need to move on to another situation.

"Faithfully Dangerous" is another intriguing lyric.

Your paint dries, the canvas smiles,
with two eyes you lift yourself up.
Stroke your skin, there are teeth marks to be sure.
Maybe we're best close to the ground.
Maybe angels drag us down.
I wonder which part of this will leave the scar.

- excerpt from "Faithfully Dangerous"

I must have written "Faithfully Dangerous" while I was reading The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. She talks about leaving "toothmarks" in manuscripts, and that’s a song to me that’s about creativity. If you do something creative, it’s going to be a wild ride, but make your peace with it. You’ll probably get dragged through the dirt, but maybe that’s good for you.

For me to talk about specific songs is fairly rare. I usually can’t do that too much. Putting the website together [www.overtherhine.com], looking back at our story, at where we’ve come from and where we want to go, I can see where songs fit into the story, but at the time it’s very intuitive.

What do you do to recharge, or when you can’t write?

Reading, maybe just doing nothing for a while. I’ve learned to make peace with that. It’s probably just exhaustion… (laughs) or lack of talent. The ground is just lying fallow.

Your bulletins to fans and the liner notes in your albums demonstrate a love of writing and of poetry. Sometimes I wonder if we’re going to see a book of poetry or memoirs with your name on it.

I've been thinking about it, actually. Perhaps when we get to a place where I have some time to focus on something like that...I would very much like to try.


Monster's Ball (2001)

[This review was first published on the original Looking Closer website on May 12, 2002.]

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In Monster’s Ball, Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a corrections officer carrying intense racial prejudice in one hand and a sidearm in the other. Hank’s aging father Buck (Peter Doyle) constantly reinforces the family’s race-hate, calling Sonny, Hank’s son, "weak" because he befriends their black neighbors.

Halle Berry plays Leticia, the wife of a convicted killer, a mother trying to raise her son right and survive as a black single mother in the middle of the South’s racial tensions. After the criminal is executed, Hank’s dispute with his son (Heath Ledger) intensifies. But as he watches Leticia grieve while she works at his favorite late-night diner, he comes to care for her, and love begins breaking apart his prejudice.

Make no mistake: This is a story about people who are severely damaged and lost, behaving in reckless, dangerous ways as they nurse their particular needs for love, understanding, and intimacy. People are killed. Men lash out in racist hate. Father and sons call on and use prostitutes to find fleeting satisfaction. A mother beats her son. Lovers fall into hasty sex while under the influence of alcohol. It is not a pretty picture, and definitely not a film for younger viewers, or for the squeamish.

But the central theme of the story is this — hate, even hardened racism, can be overcome by love and compassion. Hank and Leticia are moving towards a mature relationship the way toddlers learn to walk — they’re making every variety of mistake, fumbling their way towards the basic lessons of love, gaining wisdom inch by inch. Their missteps are clearly portrayed as missteps. (Hank’s interaction with a prostitute is not glamorized, but shown as the joyless, empty, and contemptible exchange that it is. Thus, when he finds true love, the revelation is all the more meaningful.) Each mistake Hank makes teaches him something.

The performances of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are excellent. Billy Bob Thornton again shows he can make a bad script seem good. Halle Berry pours herself, heart and soul, into the character, making this her most impressive performance yet.

But director Marc Forster makes us too intimate with these characters. When two of them get drunk after a devastating day, they tumble into sad and desperate sex that is so explicit it will destroy viewers' suspension of disbelief and set them to thinking about the actors themselves. Sex scenes may have been necessary to illustrate the incremental, intimate relationship that develops, but the way Forster has filmed them makes them disruptive. It’s a primary rule of art, Mr. Director — less is more.

I also think Forster portrays Southern prejudice a bit too intensely. Sure, prejudice is still easy to find in certain areas of the U.S., but the movie doesn't explore the issue very thoughtfully. It's just loud, offensive, and in-your-face — a bunch of brutal clichés played for shock value, to make contemporary audiences gasp and end up hating the bad guys. If I lived in the South, I’d find the relentlessness of these portrayals to exhibit a prejudice of their own.

The films seem more evident upon reflection, after its powerfully meditative mood music and leisurely camerawork are finished. Forster is a little to excited about his film’s symbolism, and he uses it heavy-handedly. During one scene we see jarringly incongruous pictures of someone trying to free a bird from a cage. Yeah yeah, we get the point: Leticia’s caged heart is being set free. Not only is that a cliché, but there is no bird or birdcage in the story, unless I missed something;  thus the audience is left trying to figure out "Whose bird is that?" If Leticia had kept a bird, that would have been just enough of suggested metaphor. As it is, it is nothing but a metaphor... clumsily cut and pasted into the film.

The movie’s leisurely pace gave me room to remember where I’d seen this story before. Monster’s Ball is The Crying Game, re-set in the American South, where bad men are prejudiced against blacks instead of homosexuals. The hero begins the movie participating in the execution of a man whose wife he will, racked with guilt, decide to befriend and support. As in The Crying Game, these two very different people will fall in love, and of course, the hero’s connection to the execution will remain secret until the end.

But we also have As Good as it Gets here, as Hank and Leticia get to know each other through quick, tense, prejudice-laced exchanges in a diner, while she pours his "black" coffee and serves his "chocolate" ice cream. Perhaps the unflatteringly graphic electric-chair scenes will give the film the added importance that worked for Dead Man Walking.

This is a movie hard-wired for critical acclaim, so loaded with issues that it may have backfired among Oscar voters. While it won Roger Ebert’s "movie of the year" mention, it hasn’t become an "event" film for any reason other than Berry’s occasional state of undress.

But far be it from me to say the film is empty. Heavy-handed and derivative as it is, thanks to its two central performers, it strikes some resonant chords about forgiveness, compassion, and doing the right thing.


The Dish (2000)

 

[This review was first published at the original Looking Closer website in 2002.]

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The Dish is one of those rare movies that does not aspire to be anything but short, sweet, and good for the heart. Thus, it doesn't arrive like an "event," and it leaves not with the hoopla of a blockbuster but with the whisper of a rumor. Those who plan their moviegoing by the Box Office Top Ten, or by what gets advertised on television, will miss it. Those who are paying attention and catch it will tell their friends about it like it's a valuable secret.
It's not going to win any awards — it’s biggest recognizable name is Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), in a restrained and understated performance.

It’s biggest special effect is a satellite dish that… well… it sits there, and occasionally swivels gracefully.Read more