Her latest, First Cow, is set in the muddy woods of 1820s Oregon, where a weary cook working for a whiny band of trappers meets an on-the-lam Chinese man who murdered a Russian after they killed one of his friends.
It’s not the elegant Jane Austen 1820s of England, with lush green lawns and sprawling estates — but the messy, struggling, brawling world of men trying to establish some sort of life in still-new-to-them America. There are native characters and even un-subtitled dialogue in a native tongue. You feel absolutely in the era.
The contrast between most residents’ mud-floored shacks and the beautifully painted house of the area’s wealthiest man are something — he holds a tea party, yammering on about the latest fashions in Paris and London — while everyone else slips and slides in filthy, ragged clothes.
It’s full of quirky and unexpected moments, like when the wealthy man’s wife, in ruffled burgundy silk, speaks in native tongue and admires the ornate wampum necklace of a visiting chief’s wife.
The film centers on the friendship of the two men, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu, who both really need a break. They have no family or education or money but King-Lu, who has already traveled the world, is filled with ambition. So when the area’s first dairy cow arrives, by boat, their scheme is hatched — they’ll milk her at night and hope no one sees them.
Sometimes you’re lucky enough to witness artistic history.
That happened to us last week at Carnegie Hall, in a fully sold-out audience, listening to 71-year-old jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.
That’s 2,804 people of all ages, listening for two-plus hours and three encores in rapt silence, as the show was being recorded, (so, eventually, you can hear it too!)
We were seated up in the nosebleeds, (aka the second-highest balcony); even those tickets were $70 apiece.
If you haven’t heard of him, or his music, you’re in for a treat.
The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history; and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.
I was in college when the Koln Concert came out, and I was introduced to it by a boyfriend. I still have that album and still cherish it.
This week’s entire concert was improvised.
Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don’t know “what he does”, which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could “play from nothing”. In the liner notes of the Bremen Lausanne album Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the ‘Creator’, something his mother had apparently discussed with him.
That was Wednesday night.
I barely had time to process what a magnificent evening it had been when a generous friend offered two free tickets to hear authors Colson Whitehead and George Saunders read and answer audience questions at the 92d Street Y, another Manhattan cultural institution.
Back into the city!
I had never read either of their works, but had read rapturous reviews of their new books — Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad. Each read for 30 minutes and it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, answering audience questions written on note cards, they were funny, insightful and generous.
It is one of the great pleasures of living in and near New York City — a place of stunning living costs — to be able to see and hear artists of this stature.
I’ve been writing for a living since college but this was Writing, fiction of such depth and emotional power it takes your breath away.
In a time of such political instability and anxiety, it was also healing to remember that art and culture connect us to one another and to history.
We escape. We muse. If we’re a fellow creative, we leave refreshed and inspired. We recharge our weary souls.
On Saturday, we went to hear Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian singer. Our suburban New York town has a fantastic music hall, built in 1885, where tickets are affordable and the variety of performances eclectic. Of all the shows we saw, this one was the only disappointment. The rest of the crowd loved it, but not us.
Shot in Montana, every frame looks like a painting, with gray clouds and snowy mountains and open fields.
This new film, starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and lesser-known Amy Gladstone, is slow, sad, powerful.
The director, a woman, Kelly Reichardt — who also wrote the screenplay from stories by Maile Meloy — made another film I enjoyed, Wendy and Lucy, which also starred Michelle Williams, about a young woman alone on the road.
The budget was $2 million, pocket change for any Hollywood blockbuster.
I liked so many things about this film:
— Michelle Williams, a movie star whose presence is always quiet and contemplative
— Amy Gladstone is perfectly cast as a lonely, shy ranch hand
— The Montana landscapes and sense of place and distance made me want to hop a plane there immediately
— This entire film focuses on three women and their complex lives. They’re not skinny/gorgeous/wearing expensive clothing. They’re facing a difficult client (one is a small-town lawyer), a difficult husband, a difficult life, a job that’s not what one had hoped for.
It’s how so many of us feel so often in life, swimming against a ferocious current in the only stream we’ve got.
— The actresses look like real women. Stewart’s hair is a mess, her eyes deeply shadowed with exhaustion. Gladstone’s open, hopeful face signals so much of what we feel when we’re so weary of being alone and can’t bear it any longer and there’s no one to love. Dern looks worn out.
Who among us hasn’t looked or felt like this?
— I love the moment when the rancher slides open the barn door every morning, her routine unvaried, her horses and dog her only companions, ever reliant on her skill and attention. You feel both the security of that routine, and its burden.
— There’s no tidy resolution to each of these women’s lives. We dip into their worlds for a while, live in it with them and feel compassion for their challenges, but we leave them behind again in the knowledge they’ll likely be just as challenged the next day. What a concept: real life!
It easily passes the Bechdel test — i.e. it’s focused on women and their ideas and relationships.