Friday, December 11, 2009

The Capitol Steps

I caught the Capitol Steps comedy troupe in Scottsdale, AZ, around Thanksgiving. The group was formed by staff members for lawmakers in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. Today there are still members who were former staffers, but the act has become professionalized. See their info at http://www.capsteps.com/ .

The show I saw was 90 solid minutes of parody in songs, many laugh-out-loud funny. Much of the material is sophomoric – weak jokes that you would expect from a college skit. The quality was uneven. Some of it was deliciously wicked however and those are the moments that justify the ticket price ($50).

There were several jokes set to Beatles tunes. A healthcare parody went well with “When I’m 64.” And Paul McCartney’s “Let it Be” is a natural for ribbing erstwhile presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Those phrases were made for each other. The quality of the singing was remarkably good, enjoyable in its own right. The piano accompaniment (actually leadership) was a driving force.

Of course nearly all the jokes were political, which is the whole point of the show, but there were a few fat and diet jokes that didn’t really fit in, and weren’t too funny either, but they probably realized they were playing to an older audience and couldn’t go wrong there.

Most of the material was surprisingly outdated. There was a number on Sarah Palin promoting her new book, and that was about as recent as they got. Otherwise, there were allusions to old news stories and scandals going back a year or two. Perhaps they choose material that is already well established in the public consciousness, otherwise the allusions would not be funny. The main source of their humor is to flatter the audience with allusions that only the moderately well-informed would understand, so they have to be careful to skirt obscurity. But making fun of Kim Jong Il is really old hat. Cartoon characters do that now.

The material goes by so fast and it is all a collection of non-sequiturs anyway, so it is difficult to remember what was presented. There were the obvious and well-worn Joe Biden and Nancy Peolosi jokes, plenty on health care. Very few on Obama, and what they did have was not very funny. Maybe he is still too new to satirize well. There was a rousing parody of the Beach Boys’ tune, “Help Me Rhonda” but the diction was not very good on that one and I wasn’t sure what it was about. It might have been “Help me ‘Bama” but I’m not sure. There was a very nice piece based on Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina (exceptionally well-sung, too), that substituted Appalachia for Argentina and parodied a recent sex scandal involving a senator.

Anyway, I laughed until I had tears in my eyes, so I was satisfied. The material was not that sharp overall, but there were enough zingers to keep it lively.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Last Call Girls

This rousing bluegrass/honky-tonk/country band was playing at the 17th Street Market in Tucson, a mainly Asian grocery market and a very unlikely venue for live music, especially of this type.

Only two of the crew are girls, sisters Lisa (left) and Nancy McCallion. Both are lead singers, while Lisa plays electric bass and Nancy guitar. They are joined by Kevin Schramm (right) on guitar and accordion, Tom Rhodes (left), fiddle and mandolin, and Michael Joyal, drums. These guys must be very gender-secure to bill themselves as members of the Last Call Girls, a delightfully ambiguous name.

The set I caught covered a wide range, from Lisa’s heartfelt rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” to some real foot-stompin’ country rock. Nancy has a higher, more delicate voice and she lets a Celtic influence show through from time to time. For some reason Tom Rhodes was dressed to look like Fidel Castro, but his fiddling was good, mainly in comp mode. I wanted him to break out but he never did.

This is the kind of band that you could enjoy all night at any downtown bar. I picked up their latest CD, “It’s never too late to get lucky.” Sample their music at http://www.thelastcallgirls.com/music.html .

Saturday, June 27, 2009

What is Art?

The Seattle Art Museum has a thought provoking show called Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78, running now through September 7, 2009. There are 70 pieces, mostly painting on canvas but including some videos and uncategorizable pieces, all of which illustrate how a group of artists worldwide rejected the conventional idea of painting, after World War II. Traditionally, from the cave paintings of Lascaux 30,000 years ago, right up until 1945, painting was about representing visual reality. Pictures were supposed to look like the thing depicted. How they managed to do so remains a philosophical mystery to this day, but that was the game. A picture of a horse was expected to look like a horse.

After the upheaval of WWII traditional values were obviously worthless and nothing could be relied on any more. Reacting against traditional dogmas about painting, many artists around the world challenged just about every convention and preconception. Canvases were cut and slashed. Pictures were displayed facing the wall so you could only see the back of the canvas. Painting began to abandon literalism with the impressionists, who only painted their impressions of light and color without trying to render a literal depiction of a scene. Then the expressionists painted what they felt, not necessarily what was there. The action painters like Jackson Pollock spread paint on canvas with great movements, without a thought for making a picture "of" anything. Representation was out. Words and numbers appeared in pictures and instead of pictures. White was painted on white and it was called a picture. Knives and drills were stuck into canvas and it was called a picture. Forget about the canvas. Paint on people. Couldn't that be art? Why not just paint floors and walls? I painted a bookcase last week. Am I an artist? This exhibit clearly demolishes every preconception you might have held about what is a legitimate painting. No reassuring sunsets and kittens are found here.

It is a lot of fun. It challenged even some of my assumptions, and I believed I had thought this problem through already. It made me laugh out loud. It made me shake my head in despair. That’s a good show.

Jasper Johns’ targets found a path between abstract expressionism and traditional representationalism by exploiting symbolism. His numbers paintings did that also. It’s a tweak of the nose to the dogma of expressionism at the time (1950’s). Rauschenberg did the same with his cartoony, manufactured rendition of an expressionist spontaneous gesture. Yoko Ono had a small panel of painted wood mounted on the wall, and a hammer on a string, and a basket of nails, and the viewer was invited to pound a nail into the wall. Is that art? I thought it was stupid, until later, in the next gallery, I could hear the occasional bam, bam, bam of someone pounding, and then I realized what she had done: dissed the whole museum-going experience of reverent silence. Got me! It was a slick piece of meta-art.

Yet at the same time, it is small-minded, very inside-baseball, artists talking to each other about the minutia of ideas. It is like a huge game of one-upmanship or gotcha, rather than a serious exploration into the nature of visual perception and its representation, as so many artists have self-consciously tried to do, from Picasso to Cezanne and many others. And it ignores pioneers and forebears, such as Duchamp, Magritte, Malevich, and others.

Still, all this leads directly to Art Danto’s theory of what art is. In his book, The Madonna of the Future, he defines it as a conversation. I think he is completely correct. Art is a conversation among artists in an established context of artistic production. Yes, I have myself pounded nails into painted wood in my life, but that does not make me an artist, because I did not do it in the right context. My intentionality was not artistic communication. Painting is not what that hangs on museum walls. It is about the ongoing conversation among artists, their critics and viewers, trying to understand the relationship between humanity and the rest of the world. This has been true since the cave paintings at Lascaux. If you thought art was about pretty pictures, you need to see this show.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Titus Kaphar

Titus Kaphar is a young, upcoming artist with works on display at the Seattle Art Museum in an exhibition called “History in the Making.” See http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/exhibit/exhibitDetail.asp?eventID=15647

Kaphar finds European and American portrait paintings from the 1700’s and 1800’s and repaints them, with a twist, to emphasize, especially, slavery and the history of black people in general. For example, he takes the famous picture of George Washington Crossing the Delaware and turns George upside-down, with a new, brown-faced head, so that the composite resembles a giant playing card. The intent is to comment on George Washington’s ambivalence about slavery (he was a slave-owner), as if to say, George, what kind of a game were you playing?

I especially like Kaphar’s technique of cutting out images from his paintings, and either leaving the cutout completely blank, or letting the cut-out canvas image droop to the floor. It is a startling result.

Kaphar is the first recipient of the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, awarded by SAM to nurture black artists showing great early promise. The award is named after Seattle residents and artists Knight and Lawrence.

Kaphar’s work is at the SAM through September 6, 2009.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Seattle Mystery Bookshop

Okay, this doesn’t really count as an arts review, but it counts as a significant “event” whenever I visit the Seattle Mystery Bookshop at First and Cherry. (Slogan: “ for mystery lovers who know what they want and for those who haven't a clue...”)

The shop was founded by Bill Farley in 1990. According to the web site (www.seattlemystery.com), Farley has been reading mysteries since childhood, beginning with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. He was a bookstore owner in Philadelphia, and moved to Seattle to start Seattle Mystery Bookshop. He sold the store in 1999 to employee J. B. Dickey but remained as a part-time staffer, usually working weekends. I caught him there on a Monday afternoon while I was killing some time before the next ferry. He is a bright and witty fellow with a sparkle in his eye. He was keen to point out a framed embalming certificate on the wall, issued to his grandfather in 1903, but, he said, “Since he had the same name as me, I thought it was okay to hang it up here. Anything you need embalmed, bring it in!”

The store is chockablock with all kinds of mysteries and thrillers. As with any self-respecting independent bookstore, there are so many books, there is barely space to turn around. There are separate sections for the various genres, such as, police procedural, noir, thriller, spies, British cozy (Agatha Christie gets her own shelf),

(Your humble blogger perusing the mysteries of life).

and a large section dedicated to Northwest writers and Northwest locales. The store has book signing parties by noted authors just about every weekend.

Perhaps because I am a psychologist, my preference runs to stories that focus on betrayal, revenge, and paranoia. I require that they be well-written, and I always hope for psychological realism and not too many loopholes in the story. I enjoy astute observation and insightful phenomenology. I am a huge fan of Le Carre and I have not yet found his equal.

(Bill Farley and owner J.B. Dickey. Seattlest.com)

I generally do not care for most of the best-selling authors who take up acres of shelf space in most stores, so it is a challenge to find an author I can stick with for a while. At SMB, my strategy is to go to the shelf of titles recommended by staffer Janine Wilson, who suggests some authors I know and seems to share some of my interests (ignoring her vampire streak). That’s one way I find new authors. (You can see synopses of interesting books I have read recently at my web site, https://sites.google.com/site/billadamsphd/. Click on Book Notes).

You can expect to pay top dollar for your books at SMB. No discount prices, although they do sell some used books. This trip I controlled myself and spent only $63 on five new paperbacks. I could have saved $15 buying these books on Amazon or at Barnes and Ignoble, but then I wouldn’t have had a delightful experience and I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Farley. I don’t mind paying a bit of a premium to keep this store, and stores like it, from the jaws of mediocrity.

There’s a good mystery bookshop also in Portland, OR, Murder By the Book, across the Burnside bridge from downtown, in a suburb, but for ambience, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, right in Pioneer Square, deserves to be a local favorite and should be a destination for every visitor to Seattle.



117 Cherry Street
Seattle, WA 98104
(206) 587-5737 or staff@seattlemystery.com
Open Every Day:
Mon - Sat 10-5 and Sun 12-5

Friday, February 20, 2009

PDX Jazz 09

The Portland, Oregon jazz festival (www.pdxjazz.com/home) was Feb. 13-22, but it almost didn’t happen at all. Just a few months ago it was bankrupt due to lack of sponsors. The whole town and jazz fans everywhere were devastated. Then at the eleventh hour, Alaska Airlines came through with a major sponsorship and some others followed. The festival is now officially called the Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air – Portland Jazz Festival. Fly Alaska!

I attended a few events over the long President’s Day weekend, and from what I experienced, the festival was as great as ever, even though crowds were thinner. Most venues looked to be only 2/3 full. The theme this year was a celebration of Blue Note Records’ 70th year of producing jazz music (25 years since its resurrection). All the festival artists were Blue Note performers.

The opening headliner was pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I have appreciated this Havana-born artist since the “The Blessing,” (1991), still one of my favorite albums. His quintet included trumpet, trombone, bass and drums. He teased with the occasional Latin rhythm but mostly stuck to simpler rhythms in favor of complex melody. Instead of a sequence of notes, the melody was comprised of a repeating finger pattern moving around the keyboard. Each gesture was like an individual note in a regular melody. There were few chords. The tunes were mostly minor key, sounding plaintive or angry, but always contained like a pressure cooker within two octaves of middle C. Even a piece that started out light and humorous turned dark and anxious. One wonders what goes on in his head.

Legendary trumpeter Terence Blanchard came on with an orchestra. My first reaction was, “Oh boy, here we go. This never works.” Because despite a composer’s desire for complexity, subtlety and nuance, an orchestra is not a jazz instrument. The sounds blend into the mediocre “orchestra” sound as it tries to express jazz ideas. This kit included a tuba, 3 French horns, 2 trombones, and an enormous bass drum (maybe5 feet tall) in the back row; then a row of 2 flutes and 3 clarinets; then a healthy string section of 6 violins, 4 violas, and 2 cellos. All this was fronted by a piano, bass, sax and drum quartet, plus a conductor for the orchestra, then finally, Blanchard squeezed into a space so tight he could hardly turn around.

But my fears were unfounded and I was happily surprised by what Blanchard did with all this resource. He played from his new album, A Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem for Katrina. He and the orchestra plumbed the depths of emotion surrounding the 2005 tragedy of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Blanchard’s home town. If I understood him correctly, the album is the sound track, or derived from the sound track of Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary. Blanchard has scored numerous Spike Lee films.

The music was soulful, spiritual, expressive, and emotional, but also representational, evoking cries of despair and soulful laments along with the relentless forces of nature and the disorganization of the community. All this had a New Orleans flavor: simple, bluesy, well punctuated, and accessible. And the orchestra, instead of fusing into one voice, played discrete layers of sound and meaning so that although it was not a concerto structure, the exchanges with the jazz quintet were chatty (except for one piece, featuring electric guitar, in which the orchestra devolved into “just an orchestra.”). It was a masterpiece of composition, orchestration, and performance; a highlight of the festival.

By Saturday the “Joe Lovano Festival” had begun. The ubiquitous saxophonist headlined with his group, “Us5” but also walked on to jam with John Scofield’s trio, accompanied singer Judi Silvano, and featured with McCoy Tyner. That’s not a complaint; I love the guy, but he was clearly doing his best to support the festival this year. His own show with “Us5” was introduced by his wife, Judi Silvano, but her gushing, over the top praise for him seemed way off base and was embarrassing. She sang a number or two with him where she was able to match her voice closely to the tone and timbre of the sax, making some interesting effects. Still, I was relieved when she stepped away from the mike. The paradox of Lovano is that his sound is hot but he is cool. The music is complex, evolves very quickly and organically, making it exciting and original, but he doesn’t personally get bent out of shape. He rarely resorts to horse whinnies and squeaky balloons as clich├ęs for “emotion.” He lets the music speak for itself, and it’s very good music, albeit somewhat intellectual.

Jacky Terrasson and his trio opened for Lovano. This talented pianist was a winner of the Thelonious Monk competition and that was evident in his music. I enjoyed his rendition of “Caravan.” You would not think there is anything left to say with that song, but he gave it a makeover. Overall, however, I thought his sound was Jarrettesque and although pleasant, undistinguished.

Jazz singer Diane Reeves appeared with the full Portland Symphony Orchestra, 100 pieces or more. She served up an array of standards and other material, interspersed with reminiscences and humorous anecdotes. Those were more than just filler, for they revealed her personality, which is charming, and added value to her singing. She referred several times to her high school days, and “the girl I used to be,” so one wonders if she is going through a period of self-examination just now. I was impressed by her precise diction, in speaking and singing. For some reason I was put off by her interpretations of songs like Fascinatin’ Rhythm and Lullaby of Birdland. They were reworked to seem “creative” but came across only as manufactured. This was a regularly scheduled performance of the Portland Orchestra that had obviously been grafted to the Jazz Festival for cost-saving synergy, but it didn’t really work. Symphony goers are a different population than jazz lovers. Loud, overweight, middle-aged physicians in dark suits were accompanied by over-perfumed, bejeweled wives. Reeves’ playlist was probably designed for that audience. The orchestra was competent but sounded like an orchestra, nothing more. They did not swing.

Guitarist John Scofield has been in the limelight for a long time and his performance at the festival proved again why that should be so. He has played with Miles Davis, Charles, Mingus, Herbie Hancock, and many others. Joe Lovano was a member of his original quartet in the early ‘90’s. I appreciate Scofield’s diversity of styles from traditional to funk, rock and even a heavy metal sound (“The Low Road” performed with Lovano). After a beautiful, soulful rendition of the Tennessee Waltz, he launched an amazing avant-garde piece involving a full array of special effect floor pedals. He was verbing and looping his own licks right there in real time, essentially doing engineering work as we watched, to produce a completely bizarre output. The group also did a tremendously energetic rendition of “Satisfaction.” It is amazing what can grow out of those first 10 notes of the bass line. And it is worth noting that the bass was well miked so you could actually hear it, something that is surprisingly overlooked in many jazz performances. Drummer Bill Stewart, a legend in his own right, treated us with several spectacular solos.

Singer Judi Silvano, wife of Joe Lovano, is a well-known jazz vocalist and has one Blue Note record to her credit. I think she calls herself a vocalist rather than a singer because she does not actually sing recognizable songs, but produces sequences of vocal effects to scat lyrics. It was hard to follow. There were lots of staccato jumps across octaves, but nothing in familiar tropes. It also seemed repetitive and artificial to me, rather than organic, although that could just be my ignorance of her music. I could not get a grip on what her musical ideas were. It seemed she was most intent on demonstrating her impressive vocal range, and it was a large range, especially for a 58 year old, because she can fluidly slip into a falsetto. But it is not the same kind of a range you heard in young Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, for example. She used her voice as an arbitrary musical instrument rather than as means of personal expressiveness, but then accompanied it with gestures designed to look meaningful, as if to suggest that what she was singing had some human meaning, rather than being contrived. Pseudo-beatific smiling and knowing nods were gratingly inauthentic. She did not move well. Her personal stage presence was thus in conflict with the sound of her performance. I appreciated her skilled vocal control after I closed my eyes. I never thought I would say this, but her presentation of “Love in Outer Space” by Sun Ra was a familiar port in stormy seas. Joe Lovano did what he could to support her.

Lionel Loueke’s Trio was a perfect way to end my jazz weekend. This young guitarist from Benin, in west Africa, is a graduate of Berklee College and the Thelonious Monk Institute. He has played with both Terence Blanchard and John Scofield. The Scofield influence really shows. But Loueke is his own man, much more romantic and self-expressive than Sco. He has a beautiful voice, and sings African songs as he plays, often using the complex click patterns characteristic of African languages such as Xhosa, but using them in a way to create a mini-rhythm section in his voice. On most tunes he sings along with himself even when he is away from the microphone. The guitar is very hot, and he can get an amazing diversity of sound from it. One tune had it sounding very much like a steel drum, and in another, he put a tissue between the frets and the strings to make a sound like a large African hand drum. His drummer, a Hungarian named Frank Nemeth was the most subtle drummer I have ever heard. “Subtle” is not a word you normally associate with drums but this guy excelled in leaving out beats at key moments, not pounding them in. Sometimes in the middle of a fast run the stick would come down but curve away, missing the head, producing a kind of syncopated effect. I could have watched him all night. Bassist Massimo Ducat was also outstanding in his own way. It is a strong trio and they played creatively off each other with good communication. A noticeable characteristic of Loueke’s compositions and the trio’s performance was abrupt changes in tempo. One composition, which Loueke explained had 17 beats to a measure, went far beyond Monk’s wildest dream.

As always, I hated to leave with so much talent yet unsampled. It is a huge festival for being such a small festival. If it returns next year, so will I.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Indian Mini-Film Festival

The Seattle Art Museum put on a two day mini festival of recent films by and about Northwest Native Americans. This was part of an exhibit of arts and culture of the Salish people of Washington State which includes at least 39 recognized tribes.



Fry Bread Babes
Fry Bread Babes was a series of interviews with six Native women about their self image, especially their body concept, today, and as they were growing up. Uniformly, the women said that in their youth they aspired to the mainstream, white ideal presented by mass media, but with age came to various degrees of self-acceptance. It is the same tragedy of female socialization we see in mainstream culture, except there are proportionally more overweight Native women, due to the modern diet and lifestyle. In a way, it might be easier for them to find self-acceptance within the Native culture. This accounts for the title. A fry bread babe, it was explained, is a “round” woman, and I got the sense that it is not entirely pejorative.

Some interesting things: I noticed nearly all the women laughed when they were embarrassed, and it was not the nervous, embarrassed laugh you see in Asia, but a genuine giggle that conveys hilarity, but nevertheless was designed to cover up embarrassment. Then afterward they would say “Excuse me.” I did not know that was a cultural trait.

Another interesting point was that none of the women seemed overly concerned about skin color. It was discussed, but it did not seem a critical issue, as it is among African Americans, for example. Hair quality seemed almost more important to them than skin color. The women were generally not aware of Indian stereotypes until adolescence or later. As with all children, they did not think of themselves as “Indian” until they were identified in school. They were vaguely aware of “Cowboys and Indians” movies and short clips were shown from old movies. But these women did not seem deeply affected by the stereotype, perhaps because Indian women were seldom shown in those movies. They were much more affected by prejudice in school.

This film gave some great insight into Northwest Native culture, from a woman’s point of view, and it is pretty impressive how honest and open the women were, a tribute to the filmmakers’ skills. It would be interesting to do the same project with much younger women and girls.

Directed by Steffany Suttle. color, 30 min. See http://www.aifisf.com/aiff/2008/?fMenu=film&q=&fContent=film&id=124


Princess Angeline
Princess Angeline was the daughter of Chief Seattle. Even after the Chief died, she continued to live downtown, selling clams and baskets on street corners until her death in 1896. It was an ignominious end for a princess of any kind. The early white settlers drove the Duwamish tribe out of their homeland, which included the whole Seattle area. Houses were burned, people were murdered, and the Duwamish river, which enters Puget Sound at the heart of the city, was re-engineered for ships, killing the Salmon runs and destroying tributary rivers. This movie gives an honest historical account of the Duwamish tribe’s ordeal, including the treaty that Chief Seattle signed with the territorial governor that essentially gave the Seattle area to the settlers. It is a fascinating and sorrowful history. Princess Angeline refused to leave town, staying in her wooden shack on the waterfront at the base of Pike street until her death.

The Duwamish tribe has never been recognized by the federal government because they can’t prove that they have been a coherent culture through history. As several professors and lawyers pointed out, that is not surprising, since they were willfully dispersed and destroyed as a people by the early settlers. Today the Duwamish have an association with over 500 surviving members but they are still not officially recognized and have no reservation, rights, or government support. Beside the history lesson then, the film is an advocacy piece for formal recognition of the tribe. They did gain recognition at the end of the Clinton administration, but that was immediately reversed by GW Bush.

I enjoyed the historical photographs, especially the old pictures of Seattle, my home town. Actually, Chief Seattle is buried in Suquamish, a small town next to mine, and my house sits where the Chief himself surely trod at one time. The film made me aware of my historical moment. Had I been born 150 years ago, or 150 years hence, I would have very different attitudes and values about the Duwamish and their plight.

One criticism of the film is that it failed to address the significance of getting government recognition for the Duwamish. The people in the film said it was important for their individual and cultural self-esteem, but that begs the question, why? Nobody doubts that the Duwamish are a people. Why do they specifically need the blessing of the federal government to shore up their self-esteem? I think a partial answer was given in a scene showing a group of descendants of the pioneers, all prominent, well-dressed, rich white people, handing over a check to fund a Duwamish tribal center in Seattle. At the ceremony, a bejeweled and sequined woman said, as sincerely as she could manage, something like “On behalf of the pioneers, we are sorry for what we did.” I think that probably goes a long way in helping self-esteem, and maybe that is all the Duwamish want to hear from the feds. But I don’t think that is the whole story.

It is probably more about land, money, and natural resources. If the Duwamish were federally recognized, would that mean they could exercise land claims to most of the Seattle Area? There surely would be legal and financial consequences of federal recognition, but the film focused only on the need for cultural self-esteem. I thought that was disingenuous. I realize a short documentary must have boundaries, but it was just not believable that the only, or main thing the Duwamish would like from the federal government is an apology. I sensed a hidden agenda and was disappointed it remained hidden.

Directed by Sandra Osawa. color, 42 min. See http://upstreamvideos.com/wp/videos/princess-angeline/

Where I’m From
This was a short piece created by students in a workshop by Longhouse Media, a youth program that supports the expression of Native youth through movie making. If I understood correctly, this group of about 10 teenagers designed and produced this film in five days, which is pretty amazing.

The film was nominally designed to address the question, where is home? The question was addressed mainly in voice-over and printed titles. There wasn’t much coherence to the visuals: a girl doing tai chi or some such, interspersed with shots of seagulls, for example. That juxtaposition itself was actually interesting, and even though it did not seem to mean anything, it hinted at a style of visual nonsequitur that could be something new and interesting in the field of editing. Other pictures were of the Pike Place Market and the district there around First Avenue. I think only two of the students were in front of the camera, the rest behind the scenes.

Sadly, the projectionist was tuned out and did not realize that the aspect ratio was wrong for this showing. What a shame for such a sincere effort to not be seen under ideal conditions. It was a respectable effort and I was pretty impressed by what can be done, with expert guidance, in such a short time. They should have had a second crew film “the making of” and tacked that on the end! See http://www.swinomish.org/departments/native_lens/about_native_lens.html


March Point
This feature-length documentary followed three boys, aged about 15 to 17, from the Swinomish Tribe, which is located on Fidalgo Island, north of Seattle, as they learned how to make a video documentary. They interviewed each other about their difficult past, how they got involved with drugs and drinking, got in trouble with the law, and ended up in rehab. During treatment they found the opportunity to learn how to make videos. They took it up with disinterest at first but then became committed to their work.

Their work was to document the circumstances of the Shell Oil refinery on March Point, a peninsula that according to an 1850 treaty, belongs to the Swinomish. The executive they interviewed at the refinery explained that Shell bought the property in the 1950s from the legal, registered owners. It’s an interesting situation in which the land was stolen, but since the thieves’ society is the one that writes the laws, they had legal ownership and Shell’s purchase of it was therefore perfectly legitimate. So the Swinomish claim to the land, while valid, is hopelessly doomed.

Alongside that theme, the film documents the lifestyle of the Swinomish people, whose reservation is right next to the refinery. They are, and always have been a fishing people. They still live on a diet almost exclusively of seafood, including clams, crabs, salmon, and so on. But the water around their reservation has become so polluted that all the fish are seriously contaminated. Yet as a tribal elder says, we can’t stop eating it. We can’t stop fishing. It has been our way of life for a thousand years.

The boys film all this and I felt that I got a rare glimpse of the inside of everyday tribal life on the reservation. It’s one thing to appreciate the art and culture of Native people through museum exhibits and quite another to understand the everyday life. The view this film gave was not idealized or trying to make any political statement about tribal life. Although a lot of it was heart-rending, it was not intended to be. I think only young people could have made this film Any adults would have been far too self conscious.

The boys mount a fruitless letter writing campaign to the governor, about the status of March Point and they travel to the state capitol to interview her, unsuccessfully. Eventually, they do find an audience with Washington State Senator Patty Murray and their representative in congress. They spend a week or so in D.C. with their camera. On a park bench on the Capitol Mall, they agree that they “didn’t fit in,” mainly because they didn’t have suits like everybody else. Upon returning home, one of the boys comments, “When we got back, everything was the same, but we had changed.”

It’s an interesting, competent and inspirational film that speaks volumes about the quality of the support the project had from the Native Lens organization. Of course the boys believe the project was about March Point, unable to see that the real story is their own socialization into responsible adult life, and their journey from hopeless despair to caring about the future.
Color, 60 min. See http://www.marchpointmovie.com/

None of these movies is easily available. I could not find any of them on IMBD, Netflix or Amazon. If you are interested in documentary films about native issues, your best bet is probably to keep an eye on the American Indian Film Institute, which sponsors an annual film festival. See http://www.aifisf.com/aiff/2008/?fMenu=film&q=&fContent=film&id=124