The Rider

The RiderThe movie The Rider isn’t really about rodeo. It’s a character study and an exploration of what it means to lose your dreams, and how to be a man in a culture that glorifies danger. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao may have been born in Beijing, but she has made one of the most authentic films about the West in recent years (trailer) and one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

She’s drawn on the real-life story of a young man’s recovery from a rodeo injury that nearly killed him and probably will if he falls again. Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) had a solid career on the rodeo circuit in front of him. As the film opens, his skull looks like Frankenstein’s monster, a metal plate rides underneath, and he has an occasional immobililty in his right hand—his rope hand. The doctor tells him no more riding, no more rodeo. She might as well tell him not to breathe.

He’s “recuperating,” but determined to get back in the saddle. He lives in a trailer with his father (Tim Jandreau), who puts on a gruff front, and feisty 15-year-old sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has some degree of Asperger’s. The disappointment his fans feel when they find him working at a supermarket is visible to the taciturn Brady and to us.

In his spare time—and this is where the movie comes spectacularly to life—he trains horses. Watching him work with them, you know for sure that he’s no actor. This is his real-life job, and Zhao has captured those delicate moments of growing trust.

Not that interested in rodeo? You don’t see much of it. And most of the rodeo scenes are in the video clips Brady and his best friend Lane watch. Watching them watching is the bittersweet point. Lane was a star bull-rider now unable to walk or speak. The way Brady interacts with him is full of true generosity and mutual affection.

When Brady throws his saddle into the truck to go to another rodeo, in vain his father tells him not to. The father accuses him of never listening to him, and Brady says, “I do listen to you. I’ve always listened to you. It’s you who said, ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man,’” the kinds of messages men give their sons that sometimes boomerang back to break their hearts.

Cinematographer James Joshua Richards’s deft close-in camerawork captures the personalities of the horses, and his wide views put the windswept grasslands of South Dakota’s Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film is shot partly on the Lakota reservation, but not much is made of the cast’s Native American heritage. By grounding the script in Brady’s real-life recovery and by surrounding him with his real-life family and friends, Zhao creates a wholly natural feel for the film, which has been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards.

And what was it like for Brady to work with the filmmaker? “She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world?” he said in a Vanity Fair story by Nicole Sperling. “She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 80%.

Kentucky Travel: “Not Barry Manilow and a Glass of Wine”

Derby HatThe first question everyone asked when they learned we were going to the Kentucky Derby this year was—“Do you have a hat?!” Yes, I did, and here’s the photo to prove it! It was like wearing a dinner plate on the side of my head.

Unlike the unlucky folks who didn’t spring for under-cover seating, we were nice and dry, even though the May 5 race was the wettest Derby on record, by far. Our seats were great—right across from the winner’s circle and in full view of the finish line.

Given the television coverage, which we watch year after year, mint julep in hand, we were prepared for the elegant hats, the snazzy men’s suits, even Johnny Weir. But we were surprised Churchill Downs’s food options aren’t any better than those at our local AAA baseball team. Our Derby package came with a tent buffet (only so-so), and I pitied the patrons who had to depend on the track’s concession stands. Though we’d been warned off the premade mint juleps readily available, the one the bartender in the tent made from scratch was delicious.

The Derby itself—“the most exciting two minutes in sports”—was of course the pinnacle of the Louisville portion of our trip, but we saw lots of other sights in town, notably:

  • 21C Hotel Art

    Art at the 21C Museum Hotel; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

    The Louisville Slugger museum and a tour of the factory, which makes millions of baseball bats every year. Down Louisville’s Main Street are plaques in the sidewalk commemorating key ball players, along with life-sized replicas of the bats they used. And here I thought if you’ve seen one baseball bat, you’ve seen them all.

  • A guided tour of the modern art collection at our downtown hotel, the 21C Museum Hotel (If you’re interested in modern art and don’t know about this small but growing boutique hotel chain, you’re really missing something!).
  • The Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. The 12th president’s tomb was of peculiar interest to me, because recent genealogical research unearthed a photo of the gravestone of my three-greats grandmother, which says she was a descendant of President Taylor. A modicum of digging proved this to be more fake news.
Lexington horse farm

Lexington horse farm; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

  • The nearly 300-acre Cave Hill Cemetery, with its graves of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark, Muhammad Ali, Col. Sanders, Confederate and Union dead, and more than 100,000 other Louisville residents, famous and not-so.
  • A bus tour that took us to Lexington and two horse farms, where we “met” the sire and grandsire of Derby winner “Justified” and saw lots of new foals. Also were briefed on racehorse breeding. “It’s not Barry Manilow and a glass of wine,” our guide said. No indeedy.
  • A pleasant self-guided walking tour of Old Louisville, one of the country’s largest remaining Victorian neighborhoods.

Where we fell short was on the Urban Bourbon Trail. We visited only three of the 40 or so bourbontastic watering holes included in our passport, and even forgot have it stamped in one of them. On a five-day visit, that performance would have to be judged weak.

Reading on the Go

When you travel to Kentucky, here are some books you might take along.

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs’s iconic twin spires; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

“Big Chief Wears a Golden Crown”

Masking IndianThis week Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts hosted a panel discussion with two leaders in the tradition of New Orleans Black Masking Indians. Darryl Montana, great-grandson of one of the tradition’s founders, and Demond Melancon, whom Montana calls the “world’s best beader” described masking’s origins and modern significance.

Masking—familiar to viewers of the television series Treme, (to my regret, only four seasons long!) in which Clarke Peters played Big Chief Albert Lambreaux—is a nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition that has various origin stories. In part it may have begun as resistance to early rules prohibiting negroes from wearing feathers, in part as a shout-out to the Native Americans who helped runaway slaves, and in part as a strong expression of individuality and pride in an era of repression.

The Chiefs of New Orleans’s nearly 40 black masking tribes make one suit a year. Each suit has multiple parts, can weigh up to 150 pounds, and takes about 5000 hours to construct. Because masking is a “competitive sport,” Montana said, the costumes are generally made in secret, their design and significance revealed only when the Indians come out on Carnival Day (Mardi Gras).

In recognition of Melancon’s artistic skills, in 2012, the elders of the Mardi Gras Indian community dubbed him Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters, with his very own tribe in the Lower Ninth Ward. Increasingly, the creation of suits is considered a significant contemporary art form, and its best practitioners keep pushing the envelope of creative possibility. Melancon’s suit on display at the Lewis Center tells the story of an enslaved Ghanian prince brought to New Orleans in the 1830’s. He lost an arm after a dispute with police, and was thereafter called Bras Coupé. Every beaded element of this stunning suit carries symbolic significance.

masking Indian suit

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Montana is the Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters Black Masking Indian Tribe and made the lavish lavender suit pictured. Completion often involves family members and select friends.

Montana explained that he does not want “to take what I learned from the Chief to the grave with me,” and now makes a concerted effort to engage the next generation in the masking tradition. “You have to keep (young people) busy,” he said, and he believes that through the intensity of the suit-making process, the time commitment, and the camaraderie of working on a culturally meaningful project, he’s found a way to do that.

Cocktail Party Conversation Stopper

In case this slipped by you too, the Big Chief mentioned the massive amount of Mardi Gras beads bead-deviling New Orleans’s storm drains. Last fall 93,000 pounds-worth were excavated from merely a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue! Of course, they were wet.

Intrigued? Here’s More + Pictures!

The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald Lewis
Mardi Gras Indians
by Michael Smith
From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians – Joroen Dewulf’s new theory about the origins of the black masking Indian tradition
Treme from David Simon and George Pelecanos for HBO. Watch the beginning for free.