Author Archives: michaelgloversmith

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor.

The Best of 2020: Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

This is the first in a series of year-end posts about some favorite works of art that I first encountered in 2020. It will be followed by pieces on my favorite books and films.

Bar stools at the legendary Captain Tony’s Saloon in Key West, Florida

2020 has sucked for all sorts of reasons. Observing strict COVID-19/social distancing guidelines means that I’ve spent less time with family and friends than ever before; what I assumed would be my busiest and most productive year as an artist has ended up being the exact opposite; and, as an adjunct college professor, I’ve had to re-learn my trade from the ground up as I’ve transitioned into teaching classes online exclusively. In order to maintain perspective, I’ve had to remind myself that I’ve been a lot luckier than some other folks I know: Unlike friends and colleagues who have been laid off, I’ve at least been able to work from home and continue earning a steady paycheck. Being at home more often also means that I’ve spent more time consuming art — mainly, literature, music and movies — than I have in a single calendar year in decades, maybe ever. The work of art that I’ve turned to for comfort more than any other during this tumultuous time has been “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the penultimate track from Bob Dylan’s terrific Rough and Rowdy Ways album, which was released in June. I’ve listened to this song literally hundreds of times already, often on headphones while walking around the north side of Chicago wearing a quarantine mask, and it’s never failed to be a transporting and cathartic experience.

I think it’s productive to regard “Key West” as Dylan’s own version of “Over the Rainbow,” a song originally written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for The Wizard of Oz and sung by Judy Garland’s Dorothy in response to her Auntie Em’s advice to find a place where there isn’t any trouble. Dylan, who described “Over the Rainbow” as “cosmic” in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume 1, makes an explicit nod to The Wizard of Oz in “Key West” when he sings, “I’ve never lived in the land of Oz / Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause.” Beginning with a disturbing description of hearing the assassination of William McKinley on a pirate radio station, Dylan’s song specifically details the act of traveling to Key West, a destination the narrator posits as a mythical place free of trouble, a “paradise divine” that appears “on the horizon line.” The subject of the song is the thin line between life and death, and Dylan uses Key West, a place where he apparently spent a considerable amount of time decades ago, as a metaphor for some kind of peaceful afterlife. The lyrics and Dylan’s phrasing are perfect: There are literally dozens of magical vocal moments scattered across the song’s nine-and-a-half minutes (e.g., “…if you got something to confess,” “Bougainvillea blooming,” “…gold fringes on her wedding dress,” etc.). But what truly elevates the track to heaven’s door, to that rarefied sphere of Dylan’s greatest achievements, is the genius accordion playing of Donnie Herron, the multi-instrumentalist and stealth MVP of Dylan’s live band for the past 15 years. Herron’s accordion here becomes the aural personification of a gentle Florida breeze, warmly embodying the “healing virtues of the wind” that Dylan so memorably sings about.

“Key West” also has meaningful and substantial connections to “Murder Most Foul,” the already-notorious, 17-minute epic about American popular culture in the wake of JFK’s assassination that follows it on the album. In addition to being concerned with the murders of Presidents and the act of listening to the radio, both songs also share similar lyrics: The phrases “down in the boondocks” and “going down slow” in “Key West,” for example, cleverly become literal song titles that are quoted in “Murder Most Foul.” Conversely, some of the lines in “Murder Most Foul” (e.g., “the man who fell down dead like a rootless tree”) appear to have been composed in pointed contrast to certain lines in “Key West” (e.g., “I’ve got both my feet planted square on the ground”). But the most important connection between the songs comes in the “Key West” lyric “I heard your last request,” which seems to refer to the final, self-reflexive line of “Murder Most Foul” (after a litany of other requests: “Play ‘Murder Most Foul'”). It is as if the narrators of the songs are in dialogue with each other — the narrator of “Key West” hearing and fulfilling the dying wish of the narrator of “Murder Most Foul” (who may be JFK himself) — thus creating an eternal two-song circle within an album full of other such circles (add the Julius Caesar-themed “Crossing the Rubicon” to these two, for instance, and you have a trilogy dealing with political assassination). Making these kinds of connections has always been part of the fun of listening to Bob Dylan, of course, but the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways offer an exceptionally intricate, Joycean web in which listeners can get lost if they so choose. And I emphatically choose to do so. Such is life, such is happiness.

For those who don’t already own Rough and Rowdy Ways (and, if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?), you can listen to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” on YouTube here:

You can read more of my thoughts on Rough and Rowdy Ways here. My buddy (and Flickering Empire co-author) Adam Selzer expounds on the connections between “Key West” and “Over the Rainbow” at length here.

For the record, my top five favorite albums of the year are:

5. Emma Swift – Blonde on the Tracks
4. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
3. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
1. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Hell’s Highway* (Brown) – B+
2. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte* (Aldrich) – B
3. Junior Bonner* (Peckinpah) – A-
4. Collective* (Nanau) – B+
5. The Eiger Sanction* (Eastwood) – B
6. Nightmare Alley* (Goulding) – B+
7. House of Hummingbird (Kim) – A-
8. Dick Johnson is Dead* (Johnson) – A-
9. So I Married an Ax Murderer* (Schlamme) – D
10. The Assistant* (Green) – B-

* First-time watch

Interview with TIME’s Fox and Rob Rich

I reviewed TIME, one of the best and most important films of the year, and interviewed director Garrett Bradley for Cine-file Chicago in early October. I also spoke to the film’s subjects, married social activists Fox and Rob Rich, via Zoom and I’m posting that interview below as an exclusive on this blog. TIME is available to stream via Amazon Prime.

MGS: TIME is so moving because of you two. You seem so genuine in front of the camera and that’s a quality I only associate with the best documentaries. What was it like working with Garrett Bradley? How did she establish your trust so that you knew she’d tell your story responsibly?

FR: I think it’s kind of like in the film THE MATRIX when Neo goes to see the oracle and she says, “Being ‘the one’ is kind of like being in love. You know, nobody tells you you’re in love. You just know it.” When we met Garrett, we just knew we were in love with her and the work that she was trying to do as a young artist in telling our story, and the story which is the story of 2.3 million Americans. So I think, for us, we were just so delighted by the fact that there was someone interested in sharing our story. That, in itself, was momentous to me when I first encountered Garrett.

MGS: Was that true for you as well, Rob? I imagine you didn’t meet her until later on in the process.

RR: I did, in fact, meet Garrett much later on in the project from when she and Fox had initially met. But just listening to Fox carry on about her over the telephone, I felt like I knew her for quite some time. So when we did in fact get the opportunity to meet one another face to face, it turned out to be everything — that and more — that Fox had been expressing to me up to that point as far as how amazing Garrett is.

MGS: The scene in the backseat of the car at the end is extraordinarily intimate. Did you have reservations about that being in the film or did you just trust Garrett at that point to do her job?

FR: At that point it wasn’t about the film, Mike. It was about the fact that I hadn’t touched my husband in 21 years and four days — legally! And so, with that being said, it didn’t…

RR: (Laughing) Who cares who’s watching?

FR: (Laughing) If Jesus was there, he would have said, “Bless you, my child.” And we were just hopeful that, since we were so vulnerable to share ourselves in such a transparent manner, others who viewed it would receive it as such, and receive our token of love. You know, people sit through watching our 21-year-journey of struggle and pain condensed into an hour — so that last 10 minutes, when the victory comes, we feel like they are as deserving to be a part of that as we were for having endured all that we went through from the onset. You know, love makes the world go round, and so we just hoped that people would receive that as not a sex scene but a reflection of love. In this heartless, cold world that we are in right now, I just hope that we can see more images of human beings creating love.

MGS: Something I’ve heard a lot this year is that there are two justice systems in America: One for white people and one for everyone else. If people want to protest this disparity, what sort of activism can they do and how would you recommend they get involved?

FR: I think I’ve got two points while Rob is pondering his: One is we lead an organization in New Orleans. It’s a new model that came out about 10 years ago in Silicon Valley and the model is called Participatory Defense Movement. It teaches justice-involved families how to advocate legal awareness as the best form of defense. It teaches them what they need to know, how they can fight and how they can best deal with their situations. So we have had our hub here for a year but there are 35 hubs across the country right now empowering citizens with the tools that they need ’cause nobody’s going to fight for us, Mike, like we’re going to fight for ourselves. So that is one thing I would suggest for those that are looking to get involved with their own matters can do. And for someone who is not necessarily justice-involved, I would suggest to them your D.A.’s race is the first position of power. There are so many decisions that are made; they have the ultimate authority at the onset of charges, what will be brought, how much time they’re going to ask for, all of the mitigating circumstances they are presented with. And in a place like the city of New Orleans that we work out of, our current District Attorney accepted 98% of all cases that came before his court. That’s astronomical! And then, of that, you talk about the numbers are astronomical for him multi-billing people — meaning that if you have three felony convictions, I can enhance your charge. If you have three shopliftings, you may have been looking at five years for the third time but because of these enhanced charges, I can now give you 40 years. I can give you life when I multi-bill you for a theft charge. And he chose to use that practice 2000 times more than every other District Attorney in the state of Louisiana. So when you talk about being able to move the needle and create change, your District Attorney’s office is one of the first spaces where we can make that happen because they decide who’s going to get the charge and who’s not going to get the charge.

MGS: So do the research and vote appropriately?

FR: Yes.

RR: Speaking of research, Fox and I were laughing one day when the latest wave of the Black Lives Matter movement took off. Fox was like, “Dang, there sure are a lot of white people out there protesting.” If you look at the statistics, police are shooting white people up a lot too. As a matter of fact, their numbers are higher than ours. They should be in the street protesting, right? When you talk about the fact that there are these two systems that exist, the truth of the matter is there’s a system for poor people and there’s a system for people who are affluent. I could lead you back to all those poor white guys I was doing time with — same system biting me in the ass was biting them in the ass as well. So, to a young person, as in the many young people who come into our hub that are interested in doing the work that we’re doing, one of the things that we try to always encourage is to make sure that they go and look at the facts. Do your research. Do your background studies. Don’t just go out there based on what is happening in the news because the news is built around sensationalism. It’s far more sensational to talk about a white cop shooting a black guy than it is to talk about a white cop shooting a white guy or a black guy shooting a black guy. So, with those things, that you’re not led out into the street in some emotional frenzy, we’re hopeful that people are able to draw from the facts and then find the best spot for your work, find where your passions are best served.

FR: I love this guy. Does it show?

MGS: Yes, it does! I loved seeing all the videos that you shot, Fox, when Rob first went away. How many of those did you make and, Rob, have you watched them all yet?

RR: Countless hours. I think the last time we spoke with Garrett she said there’s well over a hundred hours worth of that footage. And, surprisingly enough, neither Fox nor myself nor our family has ever had an opportunity to view any of that footage. The closest we’ve gotten to it is actually watching the movie TIME. So to witness it first in that setting was nothing less than amazing and incredible. And hats off, shouts out to Garrett for being able to put it together in the way that she made it happen. So truly blessed and thankful for having viewed it in such a fashion.

FR: We look forward to being able to sit down as a family and go back through the archive footage ourselves. Because, to be honest with you, like the piece in front of the church? Until I saw the movie, I forgot I had ever filmed that. Some of the things I vividly remembered. But other things that were more painful, like that confession in church, you know that was…you know the black church? (Laughs) That was…whew! I had to dig deep to put myself on the throne of accountability! So we look forward to doing that. It was just a blessing that over the years I kept collecting tapes because we were so busy trying to survive, so busy trying to fight for our lives and be reunited that having the pleasure of sitting down and being able to reminisce…not only did I not have the time, I didn’t have the camcorder that I had filmed on anymore! I was meant to see it in this moment, Mike.

MGS: Thank you so much for talking to me. You guys are an inspiration and best of luck to you going forward.

FR: Thanks so much.

RR: Thanks for having us.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

  1. Nightfall (Tourneur) – A
  2. Pride and Prejudice* (Wright) – C
  3. Hyenas* (Mambety) – A
  4. Saint Frances (Thompson) – B+
  5. Cutter’s Way* (Passer) – A-
  6. Chilly Scenes of Winter* (Silver) – A-
  7. Girlfriends* (Weill) – A+
  8. Francisca* (De Oliveira) – A
  9. The Exorcist II: The Heretic* (Boorman) – C-
  10. The Haunting (Wise) – B+

* First-time watch

Frederick Wiseman’s CITY HALL

At a time when a lot of Americans have lost faith in national politics, Frederick Wiseman’s epic CITY HALL arrives right on time to perform the crucial 2020 task of restoring viewers’ faith in local politics. Shot in the pre-COVID era of 2018 and 2019, Wiseman’s film follows the daily goings-on at Boston’s City Hall – from city council meetings and town halls to a same-sex wedding, a Chinese New Year celebration and many speeches given by Mayor Marty Walsh, a down-to-earth guy who receives an unusual amount of screen time and emerges as the unlikely “star” of the movie. The last time that could be said about an individual in a Wiseman film was in 2013’s AT BERKELEY, which, at the expense of spending more time with teachers and students, almost perversely focused on UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, an unlikable bureaucrat (long since fired) with a creepy grin permanently pasted onto his face; the result was one of the director’s worst films. CITY HALL is far more successful in large part because Walsh is a much more interesting and sympathetic character. Wiseman shows him in a variety of different contexts (addressing a veterans’ group, speaking to a nurses’ union, celebrating the Red Sox’s World Series victory outside of Fenway Park, etc.). It’s remarkable how much one ends up learning about Walsh as a person through these scenes – from his Irish heritage to his struggles with alcoholism – and his compassionate nature ends up setting the tone for Wiseman’s entire documentary. Walsh seems to genuinely care about Boston’s residents and his role as their civil servant and it’s difficult to see the movie and not conclude that Beantown is a “city that works.” Of course, Wiseman, known for his even-handedness, also doesn’t shy away from being critical of Boston either – a late scene depicting a town hall devoted to entrepreneurs who want to open cannabis dispensaries allows the residents of a low-income neighborhood to address racial and economic inequalities at length. From the standpoint of cinematography and editing, CITY HALL also emerges as one of Wiseman’s most dynamic works: The film features a kind of symphonic structure in which lengthy meeting scenes are punctuated by elegant montages of static shots of Boston at large. This structure conveys the idea that Boston’s City Hall is a place where laws are made and that the surrounding environs are the human spaces in which these laws are enacted. It also discreetly “chapterizes” the movie, making its four-and-a-half hour run time ideal to watch in multiple installments.  

CITY HALL opens for a virtual run at the Gene Siskel Film Center Friday, November 6. Pre-sale tickets are available on the Siskel’s website.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Starship Troopers (Verhoeven) – A-
2. Psycho II (Franklin) – B-
3. Night of the Demon (Tourneur) – A+
4. Night of the Demon (Tourneur) – A+
5. City Hall* (Wiseman) – A-
6. They Live (Carpenter) – B
7. The Fog (Carpenter) – A-
8. Witchfinder General (Reeves) – A
9. Ham on Rye (Taormina, USA) – B+
10. Martin Eden+ (Marcello, Italy) – B

* First-time watch

Ty Taormina’s HAM ON RYE

Reviewed for Cinefile Chicago. Opens for a virtual run at Facets Multimedia today.

Tyler Taormina’s HAM ON RYE (US)

Available to rent through Facets Cinémathèque here

HAM ON RYE, a suburban coming-of-age comedy-drama with a large ensemble cast, boldly stands out from the crowded landscape of recent American indies for its genuine narrative weirdness and singular aesthetic ambition. What seemingly begins as an end-of-high-school nostalgia trip, in the vein of AMERICAN GRAFFITI and DAZED IN CONFUSED, soon gives way to something far darker and more subversive: The movie’s first half features deft cross-cutting between short, clever scenes in which dozens of teenage characters are getting dressed and prepping for a big, prom-like event, an annual rite-of-passage where kids in late adolescence are expected to congregate at a popular local delicatessen in the unnamed town where the film is set, and ultimately pair off into couples for a celebratory dance. But, as in the early work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, HAM ON RYE proves to be something of a narrative shapeshifter—the warmth and humor of the early daylight scenes are soon displaced by a second half imbued with a potent, Hopper-esque sense of nocturnal melancholy. Most of the characters from the first half disappear at the dusky half-way mark—some quite literally into thin air—only to be replaced by a new cast of more disaffected-seeming young adults. One character, Haley (Haley Bodell), who pointedly flees from the deli before the dance begins, bridges the film’s two halves but it is unclear how much time elapses in between; the second half could either be taking place the same night as the first half or a couple of years later, an ambiguity that lends the movie much of its haunting and dreamlike power. What does it all mean? I think that Taormina, a first-time feature filmmaker but hardcore cinephile who is also a talented musician, intends for the narrative to function as a kind of complex metaphor for the notion of “growing up” in general and, more specifically, the way some people leave their hometowns in an attempt to fulfill ambitious destinies while others choose to sadly remain behind. But see it and decide for yourself: independent American cinema of this uncommonly poetic caliber deserves to be seen and discussed far and wide. (2019, 85 min) [Michael Glover Smith]

Tsai Ming-liang’s DAYS and Hong Sang-soo’s THE WOMAN WHO RAN

I have two capsule reviews at Cinefile Chicago this week. I’m posting both reviews below. Enjoy!

Tsai Ming-liang’s DAYS (Taiwan)
Available for rent through October 25 here*
DAYS, Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang’s latest ode to urban loneliness, begins with a middle-aged man, Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), simply sitting in a room and staring out the window on a rainy afternoon. Tsai’s patient camera eye observes the man’s expressionless face for a full five minutes before cutting. It’s an astonishing scene in which nothing seems to happen while also suggesting, on an interior level, that perhaps a lot is happening, thus setting the tone for the two hour audio-visual experience that follows. As viewers, we are invited to not only observe Kang as the shot’s subject but also allow our eyes to wander around the beautifully composed frame, noticing the details of what is reflected in the window out of which Kang stares (since the shot is framed from outside) as well as listen to the sound of the gently falling rain. From there, an almost entirely wordless narrative proceeds, in fits and starts, as the daily life of this man, who is suffering from and being treated for an unspecified illness, is juxtaposed with that of a younger man, a Laotian immigrant masseur named Non (Anong Houngheuangsya). Eventually, the lives of both protagonists come together in an erotic hotel-room encounter before breaking apart again, presumably for good. The way these two minimalist character arcs briefly intersect reveals a surprisingly elegant and classical structure lurking beneath the movie’s avant-garde surface and also serves to function as a potent metaphor for nothing less than life itself: We may be born alone and we may die alone but, if we’re lucky, we can make meaningful connections with other people along the way. DAYS is a formally extreme film, even for Tsai, and probably not the best place to start for those unfamiliar with the director’s previous work. But I emerged from it feeling as refreshed and energized as I would if I had visited a spa. (2020, 127 min) [Michael Glover Smith]

Only available in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.

Hong Sang-soo’s THE WOMAN WHO RAN (South Korea)
Available for rent through October 25
The films of prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo have become steadily more oriented around their female protagonists since he began working with Kim Min-hee in 2015’s RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN. This mighty director/actress combo has reached a kind of apotheosis in their seventh and latest collaboration, THE WOMAN WHO RAN, a charming dramedy about three days in the life of a woman, Gam-hee (Kim), who spends time apart from her spouse for the first time after five years of marriage. When her husband goes on a trip, Gam-hee uses the occasion to visit three of her female friends—one of whom is single, one of whom is married, and one of whom is recently divorced—and Hong subtly implies that Gam-hee’s extended dialogue with each causes her to take stock of her own marriage and life. Gam-hee also comes into contact with three annoying men—a nosy neighbor, a stalker, and a mansplainer—while visiting each friend, situations that allow Hong to create clever internal rhymes across his triptych narrative structure. Hong’s inimitable cinematographical style has long favored long takes punctuated by sudden zooms and pans, but rarely have the devices felt as purposeful as they do here. Notice how his camera zooms, with the precision of a microscope, into a close-up of a woman’s face immediately after she issues an apology to Gam-hee during the film’s final act, and how the tears in this woman’s eyes would not have been visible without the zoom. This is masterful stuff. (2020, 77 min) [Michael Glover Smith]

Only available in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.

Steve James’ CITY SO REAL

In the future, when I come across someone who has never been to Chicago but wants to know what my hometown is like, I will tell them to watch Steve James’ CITY SO REAL. Produced by Kartemquin Films (HOOP DREAMS) and soon-to-be-aired on the National Geographic Channel, this brilliant five-part miniseries looks at Chicago in its full complexity — as a major metropolis that serves as a global tourist destination but also as a down-to-earth Midwestern “city of neighborhoods.” Most of the reviews of the series I’ve come across so far have focused on its depiction of the Windy City’s crazy mayoral race of 2019 — when an unprecedented 14 candidates vied for the spot after Rahm Emanuel, tainted by his role in the cover-up of the Laquan McDonald shooting, wisely decided not to run for re-election. To be sure, James’ access to behind-the-scenes machinations of local electoral politics offers some juicy moments (in one amusing scene, then-candidate Lori Lightfoot refers to those caught up in the Ed Burke extortion scandal as “dumb fucks”); but I think it’s truer to say that James uses the mayoral race as a narrative hook that allows him to draw viewers in while also allowing him to do something much more expansive, which is to paint an epic, impressionistic portrait of Chicago at a moment of societal tumult (complete with a digression on Bears fandom, cameos by Chance the Rapper and Kanye West and a song by the great Staples Singers on the soundtrack). A particularly nice touch: Every scene begins by including a graphic of the city showing where the scene takes place and identifying the neighborhood by name.

CITY SO REAL’s complex and provocative fifth episode, an epilogue that flashes forward to a year after Lightfoot’s election, when her “honeymoon phase” has long ended and the city is both ravaged by COVID and rocked by protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, caused me to rethink the first four parts entirely. It is here where James’ and David Simpson’s masterful montage editing, while never being overtly showy or kinetic, becomes worthy of comparison to Eisenstein in its dialectical approach. In addition to showing copious footage of the protests from a wide variety of sources, James gives equal screen time to both Lightfoot’s defense of her aggressive handling of the protests and the criticism of eloquent activists like Miracle Boyd (a teenager whose teeth were knocked out by a cop for merely wielding a cell-phone camera in public). More subtly, James offers a pointed critique of Chicago as a city still largely segregated along racial lines by juxtaposing scenes in both white and black barbershops. My personal favorite moment involves Tim Tuten, owner of the legendary Hideout music venue, trashing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF as a supposedly “modern classic” in a direct-to-camera address after John Hughes’ movie is programmed at a drive-in theater at the controversial Lincoln Yards development site (where Tuten imagines a grown-up Bueller is now ready to move in). This angry and hilarious scene is my favorite work of film criticism in all of 2020. But James also rightly ends the series on a moment of poignancy and hope — by just hanging out in a residential south-side backyard with a pair of young girls who represent the city’s unwritten future, and a beautiful gospel song.

CITY SO REAL can be screened virtually via the Chicago International Film Festival. The National Geographic Channel will broadcast the television premiere on Thursday, October 29.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Beau Travail (Denis) - A+
2. The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale) - A
3. Halloween (Carpenter) - A
4. The Crazies* (Romero) - B
5. Antiviral* (B. Cronenberg) - B-
6. A Place in the Sun* (Stevens) - A-
7. Theater of Blood* (Hickox) - B+
8. The Projectionist (Ferrara) - B+
9. The Woman Who Ran* (Hong) - A
10. City So Real* (James) - A

* First-time watch

%d bloggers like this: