I show documentaries in my classes as often as I assign readings, and I’ve long told my students that they can learn as much from a good documentary as they can from a good book. This year’s GlobeDocs Film Festival, sponsored by the Boston Globe in conjunction with HUBweek, offered abundant evidence of just how educationally rewarding well-crafted documentaries can be. Over the past weekend, I watched seven excellent films, all at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, with topics ranging from the worldwide refugee crisis to restorative justice to male ballet dancers to airboating in the Everglades.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Sunday, August 13, 2017
I remember about twelve years ago having lunch with a former friend and colleague, when Everything but the Girl’s “Oxford Street,” from their 1988 album Idlewild, suddenly came on the restaurant’s sound system. I was so surprised that anybody would even think of playing the song that I perked up and admitted — seemingly outdated ’80s tune though it was — that it had always been one of my favorite songs. My lunch companion replied incredulously, “Really?” and I think he even rolled his eyes at me a bit. To the uninitiated, it’s a song that sounds like a long-lost soft rock ballad that an adult contemporary radio station back then would have played. Not so cool or hip, he thought, despite my insistence that he just wasn’t listening to the song closely enough.
Before I say anything more about the album itself, I want to say something important about taste. The colleague I had lunch with is a former friend in part because I don’t think taste should be informed too much by fear of what others will think about our taste. Actually, I don’t think that sort of taste is really taste at all; rather, it’s fallout from some kind of juvenile peer pressure that creeps into the lives of many people I’ve known over time, and far past their middle school days. Genuine taste is not a form of social currency. It’s sensibility, a map of who we most authentically are as individuals, and that’s something I’ll continue to defend, and probably forfeit more friendships over, until my time here on earth is done.
Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn recorded Idlewild three decades ago now, in the autumn of 1987, about five years into their career as a duo. When the album was released several months later, they were both 25-years-old. The sophisti-pop movement in the United Kingdom was still going strong, and I heard and loved it all from as far away as my childhood hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In a hilarious moment from a 1988 promotional interview, Tracey explained that Idlewild was titled after the original name of New York’s airport (now JFK) and said, “The Americans have this wonderful knack for naming their places with a kind of poetic imagination that seems to reveal itself nowhere else in their entire culture.” That's somewhat harsh, but also largely true.
Nevertheless, the homespun, measured tone of Idlewild, leaning away from jazz and more towards pop, was clearly aiming for an American audience, although Everything but the Girl wouldn’t begin to find an audience in America until their 1990 album The Language of Life. Lyrically, the songs on Idlewild are very much rooted in England, in a way that the Anglophile in me finds irresistible. “Oxford Street” poignantly thinks ahead to London life by reaching back to Tracey’s upbringing in Hatfield and her university years in Hull: “When I was ten I thought my brother was god, / he’d lie in bed and turn out the light with a fishing rod... / Then when I was nineteen, I thought the Humber would be / the gateway from my little world into the real world.” I think it’s the smart balance of lyricism and prosaic poise that makes me love this song so much, along with its vocals delivered through a calm evenness that only Tracey Thorn can pull off in exactly the way she does.
I had never paid much attention to the subject of “These Early Days” until I was listening to the album again tonight to write this review, even if this is an album whose music itself I know totally by heart, having listened to it literally hundreds of times. The song’s written for a child in Tracey’s life, a child who’s only two at the time. Its gentle refrain (“though you may weary of this vale of tears, / these days remember, always remember”) reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem “Spring and Fall” and the child Margaret in that poem (“yet you will weep and know why”), as she ponders the falling leaves and her own mortality.
Another of the album’s four singles, “I Always Was Your Girl,” counterpoints its airy synthesizers and tenor saxophone with some down-to-earth humor, as Tracey sings of a couple who feel ill-at-ease in the world: “You put your friends through hell, / and that’s why we get along so well... / Self-assured and abusing guests, / that’s the way I like you best.” Ben’s wistful lyrics and vocals on “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” extend the album into deeper territory (“if I only do one thing, / I’ll sing songs to my father, / I’ll sing songs to my child; / it’s time to hold your loved ones / while the chains are loosed and the world runs wild”). And on a sunny summer holiday in Italy, “Lonesome for a Place I Know” returns to dim rains of the UK: “The hedgerows and the townhalls... / something pulls, something I can’t define tells me England calls.”
Some of the other songs on Idlewild got considerably more attention, including an ace cover of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” the song that was popularized by Rod Stewart a decade earlier, and “Apron Strings,” which the film director John Hughes selected, in a less subdued version, for the soundtrack of his 1988 movie She’s Having a Baby. The excellent B-sides from the album’s singles, such as “Hang out the Flags,” “Home from Home,” and “Dyed in the Grain,” also saw a second life when Idlewild was re-issued as a deluxe edition (with many home demos and outtakes) by Edsel Records in 2012. These extras are wonderful to have, of course, but so is the original album, which remains in my top five favorite albums of all time.
Monday, June 19, 2017
A frequent refrain at this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival was a reaction to the current political climate. From filmmakers to programmers to award recipients (and sometimes even in the festival films themselves), numerous artists, producers, and collaborators expressed their concerns about what artists and audiences may have to endure over the next few years, as the arts come increasingly under threat by a government administration that’s been defunding arts initiatives and vital forms of support for creative work. Whenever someone voiced their trepidation from the microphone, the sentiment was always that we in the room would have to keep our art forms alive and carry them forward, both as creators and as spectators. One of the most memorable festival documentaries that I’ll be returning to below, Spettacolo, directly addresses this issue through the citizens of an Italian village who’ve kept their annual tradition of shaping and performing their own original, collaborative theatrical production going strong for the past five decades.
One of the narrative features that I’d been most looking forward to seeing, writer/director Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, also ended up being one of my favorite films from this year’s festival. The film follows Frankie, a young working-class guy in Brooklyn who covertly cruises on gay webcam sites online and starts to act on desires that he’s barely begun to articulate to himself. Whenever men online ask him what he likes, he’s unsure how to respond, especially since he’s also pursuing a relationship with a girlfriend whom he meets on a boardwalk under summertime twilight fireworks early in the film.
Frankie’s portrayed by newcomer Harris Dickinson, in a bold, star-making performance that’s multi-layered and undeniably sexy. The rowdy bunch of guys who roam around town alongside him provide colorful company, but Frankie is always the movie’s focus; the camera closely studies him in every scene as the other characters go about their business, a demanding role for any actor to take on. It’s even more demanding in the sense that Frankie is often taciturn and elusive, understandably so given his circumstances. What we learn about him gradually throughout the film is conveyed mostly beneath the surface, through brief glances, quick changes of expression, and tiny looks of exasperation or empathy. I was never bored for a second while watching this actor inhabit the role and found him to be totally transfixing.
As any viewer may predict about a film that features a group of young male upstarts at its center, I wasn’t surprised when the movie swerved into more dangerous territory. I’m sure that some in the audience were also disappointed with the direction in which the film ultimately headed. Although Frankie’s predicament is not approached unsympathetically — he’s trying his best to connect on a deeper level with other men (mostly older guys who won’t know any of his friends) in a social setting that seems to limit his set of options drastically — he also gives in to peer pressure and familial expectations, in an attempt to fit into the masculine constructs that have been presented to him. Even in our post-Brokeback Mountain era, I think this particular narrative is still under-told and underrepresented, both in film and literature. I remember being involved for about a year with a guy who grew up in working-class Boston, and so much of Frankie’s character reminded me precisely of him and how conflicted he felt about being bi, or maybe gay, or maybe straight. Beach Rats deftly demonstrates why our cultural and sexual categories can also become somewhat less reliable in the actual context of individual people’s lives.
Beatriz at Dinner, the latest film directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White, who previously made both Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl together, will surely be seen as a timely response to the current class and race divisions in America. Beatriz (an excellent Salma Hayek) is a holistic healthcare worker at a cancer clinic in California, who winds up as the unanticipated guest at a dinner party held by one of her female massage clients after a massage appointment at the client’s swanky mansion. Beatriz is invited to stay for dinner when her car won’t start in her client’s driveway, and also in part because she became close to her client’s family when their teenage daughter received treatment as a patient at the clinic where Beatriz works.
Another guest at the dinner, Doug Strutt (an outright villain played with relish by John Lithgow), is a glowering and powerful real estate developer whose business tactics are widely known for being mercenary and unethical. He’s clearly an analogue for any number of contemporary political and business figures whose greed remains unchecked and unchallenged due to their wealth and their influential positions. Beatriz, a legal immigrant from Mexico, instantly sees Doug Strutt for exactly what he is, and she also feels certain that she recognizes him, even confusing him for a real estate mogul who built a tourist resort in her Mexican hometown and displaced many longtime residents of the community.
As expected, the dinner dialogue unfolds at a measured pace with steadily escalating tension, as Beatriz and Doug initiate their verbal sparring match and trenchant arguments heat up. Hayek endows Beatriz’s outlook with a moral gravity that drives the story and pulls the other characters forward. On the surface the film feels fully realistic, though I think it’s equally an allegory, a combination that proved perplexing to some audience members. After the screening that I saw, I overheard some viewers saying that they didn’t really get the film’s ending, which operates as a metaphor for what Beatriz is up against and perhaps shows how she feels about the future. The movie’s final images also connect back to its dreamlike opening scene, framing the film within a context that’s rooted in nature, and also making the movie feel as timeless as it is timely. For all of those reasons, I thought that Beatriz at Dinner was smarter than it seemed at first glance.
My favorite documentary from this year’s festival, David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, is a phenomenal follow-up to his 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, which powerfully explored the ACT UP movement during the 1980s AIDS crisis in New York City. His new documentary examines a very different subject that’s just as fascinating: the life and suspicious death of Marsha P. (for “Pay It No Mind”) Johnson, one of the transgender people of color who courageously stood up and fought back against the police that raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in late June of 1969. In the ensuing years, Marsha became one of the key figures in the legend of the Stonewall rebellion. Tragically, she was found drowned in the water of the Hudson River off the Christopher Street piers one morning in July of 1992, and while police dismissively ruled the cause of death as suicide, Marsha’s case was never truly investigated or fully resolved.
The film’s star and tenacious hero is Victoria Cruz, another trans woman of color from the Stonewall era, who was born and raised in a family of eleven children in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Working for the Anti-Violence Project in Manhattan, Victoria re-opens Marsha’s case, which had remained cold for 25 years, in order to dig deeper into its details and determine the true cause of Marsha P. Johnson’s death. When she calls retired police detectives who worked on the case in 1992, she runs into dead ends and refusals to cooperate, but she keeps pushing ahead tirelessly. Upon finally receiving Marsha’s autopsy report, sure enough, “possible homicide” is listed as a potential cause of death. Ominous threats that had been made to Randy Wicker, Marsha’s longtime roommate, also seem to support that possibility.
What makes David France’s film brilliant is its intricate and engrossing storytelling. The movie functions as a true-crime thriller, detective tale, compelling mystery, and history lesson simultaneously, in addition to its activist stance, which offers an important social justice message about the unfair treatment of trans people in our society. Sylvia Rivera, another trans community icon who led the resistance during the Stonewall Riots, becomes an equal focus during the film’s latter half, as the documentary traces her rise from living homeless on the Chelsea Piers to receiving the wider cultural recognition that she deserved from the LGBT community. I was fortunate to have lunch with Victoria Cruz during the press luncheon on Saturday at the festival, and I’m still blown away by her dedication to the cause of justice in the film. Even when the director of the Anti-Violence Project urges her to focus time and energy on the trans people who face discrimination in the present and will continue to encounter violence in the future, Victoria remains devoted to finding some closure to the memory of Marsha P. Johnson, both for the community and for Marsha’s immediate family.
On the themes of community and endurance, I also loved Jeff Malmberg’s and Chris Shellen’s offbeat slice-of-life documentary Spettacolo (meaning a spectacle or play, and pronounced similarly to “spectacular”), which takes place in the remote medieval Tuscan village of Monticchiello, where the town’s residents have collectively written and performed a play as themselves every summer for over fifty years. Some of the original performers still appear in the play today, though as the younger generation moves away to cities and more urbane pursuits, the older residents of Monticchiello wonder how much longer their unique tradition can survive. Those anxieties, coupled with ongoing rumblings from the international news, especially news about the ravages of global capitalism, led the group to select a darker theme during the year that the documentary was being made: the end of the world.
The semi-absurdist theatrical production that’s mounted by the troupe each year harkens back to the style of Italian playwrights like Luigi Pirandello. But regardless of the shape that each play takes, under the guidance of a serious and hilarious director who spends his downtime painting visionary watercolors, the main point is that the community creates it together from the material of their own everyday lives. “Our lives became one long play,” says the director early in the film, and some of the actors also comment memorably on what working together throughout the annual production reveals about their communal bond. “We’re 300 people who love each other,” remarks one actor in vintage footage from about 30 years ago, a stark contrast to the kind of public solitude experienced by many who live in cities today. It’s also a startling contrast to the village’s current population of only 136, as noted at the start of the movie. It made me wonder, when is our way of life not under threat of extinction? Nonetheless, the town’s determination to keep its theatrical tradition alive is inspiring at every moment of the film.
I was moved in a very different way by 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, Hope Litoff’s brave and unsparing meditation on the reasons behind the suicide of her older sister Ruth, who died of an overdose in 2008 at age 42, after a long, heartbreaking history of depression and hospitalizations. A gifted artist and photographer, Ruth left behind an abundance of large-scale photographs of individual flowers and other colorful objects, which saturate the frames of the documentary itself whenever they appear on screen. The images are so vivid and present in those scenes that it’s as if Ruth is speaking directly to us through the photographs, even in her absence.
Hope’s insistent search for meaning in her sister’s struggle takes such an emotional toll on her during the making of the film that she breaks her own sobriety of sixteen years right on camera, in one of the most harrowing moments of confessional cinema that I’ve ever seen. The film is redemptive in the end, too, as Hope mounts “Ruth’s Dream,” an installation of illuminated boxes wrapped in transparencies of Ruth’s photographs on exhibit in the lobby of Bellevue Hospital, a project that Ruth had begun working on herself just prior to her death but was never able to complete. The exhibit and the film are both a testament to the director’s unwavering courage in preserving her sister’s spirit, and I think that the movie will also be a helpful document for those who are navigating grief from the loss of a loved one to suicide.
Finally, I also enjoyed one beautifully made biopic in this year’s festival, Dome Karukosken’s Tom of Finland. I’m sure that this is the only narrative feature film ever to begin and end at Chicago’s popular IML (International Mr. Leather) conference and competition for gay/bi leathermen and the BDSM community. It’s amazing that what occurs between those two bookends in the movie unfolds within the classic period biopic formula. The film follows the rise of famed Finnish visual artist Touko Laaksonen (soulfully portrayed by Pekka Strang), who was later given the pseudonym Tom of Finland by Bob Mizer, the publisher of American beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial. Tom of Finland’s drawings depict hyper-sexualized fantasy versions of various uniformed (and un-uniformed) masculine types, from sailors to policemen to motorcyclists, all so outrageously proportioned and perfect that they burst off the page. While the art itself features less in the film than does Laaksonen’s life, including his 28-year relationship with his boyfriend Nipa (played by Lauri Tilkanen), who died in 1981, the film features several actors in military and prison inquisition scenes who look like they’d fit right in with the kind of figures Tom of Finland drew throughout his storied and liberating artistic career.
I’ll close with one key moment from the conversation with this year’s Excellence in Acting award recipient, Chloë Sevigny, who was interviewed on stage by deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Eugene Hernandez. When he asked Sevigny to name one thing that she loves about acting and one thing that she hates about it, she responded that though she loves getting outside of herself while escaping into a film character, she hates aging as an actress. To help counter the effect that Hollywood can often have on women’s careers, a new record of half the films featured in this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival were directed by women. That’s roughly ten times the percentage of mainstream Hollywood films that are directed by women each year. This crucial kind of social progress reassures me that, despite the challenges faced by filmmakers and creative artists in upcoming years, great cinema will continue to get funded, and lasting art will continue to be made.
Sunday, May 14, 2017
My first and only time ever on a movie set was for the 1988 film Fresh Horses, which starred Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy. Clearly, Fresh Horses was meant to be a kind of not-quite-sequel to 1986’s Pretty in Pink, though it didn’t come anywhere close to matching its predecessor’s success. Fresh Horses was filmed in and around where I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was 14-years-old at the time and had been fairly obsessed with John Hughes’ mid-’80s high school dramatic comedies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. So I was excited when I read an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, our hometown daily newspaper, about how Fresh Horses was being filmed in town.
The only specific filming location that was mentioned in the article, and which sounded like it might be locatable for a 14-year-old kid, was a house on a rolling hillside in Union, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. I’d never been to Union, Kentucky, of course, but I figured that it couldn’t be a very big place. Determined to find that house where they were filming, I convinced a friend who was a couple of years older and who had a car to skip school with me one Friday, so that we could drive down to Kentucky. He was up for that and excited about it, too. This was in the fall of 1987, late October as I recall.
We arrived in Union, Kentucky, by sometime around noon. It was quaint and rural, basically just one long country road through bluegrass hills and fields of horses. Within a few minutes, we spotted the big white house on a hillside, set a little ways off the road. Lighting equipment was set up in metal clusters on the sprawling lawn in front of the house, but there was no activity going on at that point; as the abundance of idle lighting equipment clearly indicated, the day’s filming would commence after sundown. In the meantime, we drove around for a while, had a late lunch at a roadside diner, and returned to the house that evening, once it had gotten dark outside.
Then something happened that would never happen today in 2017. My friend parked his car in the grass alongside the winding gravel driveway that led to the house, he grabbed a big quilted blanket from the trunk of his car, and we sat beneath a huge tree to watch the movie being filmed from a safe distance. I remember seeing one security officer stationed on the property, a little further up the driveway. He took notice of us, but he didn’t say anything to us. Neither did anybody else. Nobody even approached us at all, perhaps thinking that we had some actual reason for being there. We sat there for hours, in fact, from about seven o’clock until sometime well after midnight.
During all of those hours, we saw only two scenes being filmed, both exterior scenes on the front porch of the house, and both with Andrew McCarthy. In one scene, he drove a car up to the house and parked, walked slowly up to the porch, peered inside the front door, then stepped off the side of the porch to walk around the side of the house. In the other scene, a fight broke out just inside of the house, between Andrew McCarthy’s character, named Matt Larkin, and some other random tough guy. Then the brawl tumbled out the front door onto the porch, with poor Andrew McCarthy’s character hitting the ground in front of the porch steps. I vividly remember hearing the punctuated shouts of Patti D’Arbanville’s character, Jean, who owned that big party house on the hill, trying to break up the fight.
Nevertheless, nothing in my experiences as a young filmgoer had prepared me for just how boring and repetitious being on the set of a film would feel. The seeming glamour of Hollywood and the artful deception of edited cinematic narratives had brainwashed me into thinking that film sets themselves would be equally glamorous. The scene of Larkin driving up to the house was filmed at least twenty times, with the movie crew trying to get the right take, and the fight scene on the porch was filmed about thirty times, maybe even more. Andrew McCarthy chain-smoked whenever there was a break between takes. I remember seeing him many years later, portraying Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and catching a glimpse of him chain-smoking yet again, out in the courtyard with the crew members during the intermission.
Perhaps because of the repetition involved in the filming, and the novelty of the whole experience, visiting that film set is indelibly engraved into my memory. I can replay the entire sequence of events in my mind anytime, like a little cinematic loop itself. It was fun, too, seeing how those two scenes had been incorporated into the film when it was released in theaters towards the end of 1988. Larkin’s little jump off the side of the porch to walk around to the side of the house, which ended right there with each take during the filming, is followed in the movie itself by his intense first kiss with Jewel, Molly Ringwald’s character, right up against the outside wall of that house. This was probably my first actual lesson about how storylines in movies aren’t filmed chronologically. I don’t think Molly Ringwald was even on the set of the film that night.
The screenplay for Fresh Horses was adapted from Larry Ketron’s stage play of the same title, and he adapted the screenplay himself. The play starred Suzy Amis as Jewel and Craig Sheffer as Larkin when it premiered in New York in 1986. It’s the story of a well-to-do college student, Larkin, who’s interested in engineering and design (constructing rides like rollercoasters, specifically), and his illicit romantic pursuit of Jewel, a street-smart country girl from across the river, who may or may not even be of age to be dating him. All of that comes out slowly during the course of the film, naturally, and with no little amount of melodramatic tears and formulaic effect. Fresh Horses is not a great movie, nor even a particularly good one. But that’s part of the reason why I wanted to write about it this many years later. How can a movie that’s not particularly good, and more than a little cheesy at times, still feel like it’s kind of good in retrospect because of how it attaches itself to one’s own youthful memories?
Larkin’s sidekick in the film, Tipton, is played by Ben Stiller, who makes a charismatic comedic impression in one of his earliest film roles; he’s cute and expressive and just manic enough. Tipton is meant to be Larkin’s reliable buddy and his social conscience, urging him to be more interested in the attractive college women at a pool party that they attend at a private home, rather than falling for the seductive girl from the wrong side of the tracks that Jewel represents. Larkin is still at that age when his homosocial friendships with other guys carry more weight than his fledgling relationships with women, including the self-righteous rich girl to whom he’s engaged to be married. That’s probably why the film opens with Larkin and Tipton cruising in a speedboat together at nightfall along the banks of the Ohio River, with a widescreen view of the iconic Cincinnati Reds baseball stadium and the Riverfront Coliseum all decked out in lights. Fred Murphy’s cinematography certainly captures Cincinnati’s gorgeous skyline exactly the way I remember it from childhood, as does David Foster’s wistful opening keyboard score, which takes me right back to the late 1980’s like nothing else really could.
Much of the dialogue from Ketron’s original play translates well to the screen, even powerfully so in intermittent flashes, especially during scenes in a run-down, abandoned railroad shack, where Jewel and Larkin work through the mysteries of their attraction to each other and further seal their bond. Jewel’s given a handful of inventive monologues that cut deeper in those scenes. Although she’s the character who never graduated from high school, she’s the covert brain of the film, as well as its fierce heart, facets of the character that Molly Ringwald more than ably conveys. As Jewel’s name suggests, she’s the magnetic force at the center of the story; other characters simply react to her. She maintains the control, even if she’s still too young and naïve to know what do to with it.
Later in the film, there’s also a riveting performance by a young, smoldering Viggo Mortensen, who plays Green, the ne’er-do-well husband whom Jewel manages to keep a secret from Larkin until later in the movie. Mortensen appears almost silently at a truck-stop diner mid-way through the film, and his only real speaking scene is for a few important minutes at the movie’s dramatic climax, when Larkin barges into the ramshackle home where Green lives with Jewel, in order to confront the two of them together. The way that Mortensen embodies Green’s cruel sensuality, and the tantalizingly lazy Southern drawl with which he delivers his hushed dialogue, should have rightly convinced anyone watching the movie back then that he would go on to have a major career as a film actor.
The moment that I remember most often from Fresh Horses is a quiet scene in which Larkin and Jewel walk together beside the tall, criss-crossing wooden beams of a rollercoaster at a closed-down amusement park in winter. The amusement park is called LeSourdsville Lake in Middletown, Ohio, a place that was located not too far from where I grew up in Cincinnati. I always loved amusement parks as a kid, even in the off-season. Recalling the towering structure of the rollercoaster and the image of a tiny couple embracing next to it, in clear contrast to its sheer size and height, I think that the scene works almost as a kind of metaphor for the immensity of time itself, and our own small space at the margins in the scope of it.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Very few records in my CD collection feel like they contain the entire life of the artist. Canadian singer/songwriter and lesbian icon Ferron’s 1994 album Driver is one of those records, and it’s also among the best. I’m surprised when I realize that it came out nearly 23 years ago now. It’s one of just a handful of CDs that I’ve returned to on a frequent basis since its release, and in a way it feels as if it never quite leaves my consciousness. The twelve tracks on Driver, the same number of hours on the clock and months in a year, seem to have been written and recorded to trace the passage of time itself, meaning that they’ve also been ingrained into the passage of time for me since they were first put out into the world.
I vividly remember hearing Ferron perform at a concert in Provincetown about 15 years ago now. The venue was the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, a beautiful old New England church that’s right in the center of town. I was feeling a little bit sleepy that evening, so after the lights went down at the start of the show, I decided to go all the way to the back of the venue and stretch out alone in one of the pews there. I already knew the songs from Driver very well, so whenever she played one of those songs, I allowed myself to semi-doze as my mind floated along on Ferron’s guitar and gently rough-hewn voice (accompanied by the impeccable musicianship of her touring partner, Shelley Jennings), though it felt less like I was dozing and more like I was traveling.
Fittingly, Driver is about the necessary tension between traveling and settling down, between solitude and companionship. Relationships are at the center of the album, including the relationship between the singer and herself, between the singer and her own history. The album’s first track, “Breakpoint,” opens through quietly atmospheric instrumentation and a line that’s both a warning and a seduction: “Let’s turn the outside way down low and play with fire.” No matter how tight the bond is when two people meet and fall in love (“To fall from a plane would make more sense, but who is so logical,” Ferron jokes), every relationship takes place across a kind of fault line, “your storm and my storm dissolving at breakpoint.”
And it’s at the breakpoint between people that Driver really departs on its second track, “Girl on a Road,” long known as Ferron’s most autobiographical song. She ran away from home at fifteen, with only a shopping bag of possessions: “I said goodbye to no one and in that way faced my truth.” In addition to hinting at an early understanding of her gender and sexuality, her truth is mainly an artistic one. “I wanted to turn beautiful and serve Eternity,” she sings, “and never follow money or love with greasy hands, or move the earth and waters just to make it fit my plans.” The song is clearly written not just as a memory, but also as an inspiration for all girls who left home at a young age, something that I’ve always related to as a young gay man who did the same.
I think Ferron’s Driver has appealed to me for so long because it’s equal parts street smarts and deep wisdom. That potent combination is captured perfectly by a clever turn in “Cactus,” my favorite track on the album: “You’re young one day but youth is rude, and while you watch it walks right past. But hey, then you get your chance to think like me.” Driver is filled with such pinpoint lyrical observations, so precise that comparisons to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan don’t really do them justice. “There’s a rhythm to the highway to match the rhythm of your fears.” “There’ll always be gorgeous babes around, it’s the nature of towns at midnight.” “And the coldest bed I’ve found does not hold one but it will hold three.” “Still the odds fall sweet in favor to an open heart.” “An open heart is a moving train.”
Openness to diverse musical styles is abundantly evident on Driver, too. Although most of the songs walk a traditional folk line (including the contemplative “Independence Day” and wistful “A Name for It”), jazzy piano interludes find their way into songs like the sexy, playful “Call Me,” a soaring soprano saxophone solo drifts through the midsection and close of “Borderlines,” and Ferron breaks out into true country hoedown mode on the celebratory “Love Loves Me,” complete with accordion, hooting yelps, and choral clapping. The prologue and epilogue of “Sunshine” and “Sunshine’s Lament” also feature classical viola and piano balladry, in order to convey appropriately the heartbreak of those songs.
Driver’s closing track and final destination, “Maya,” is named after Ferron’s daughter and begins with an indelible image: “Last night I dreamed Joni Mitchell cut her hair and changed her named to Gaia.” The song is about keeping house with a lover and raising a child together, while also growing a symbolic garden. The singer poetically reconsiders what has brought her to this place: “It was always worry dolls and love’s back door and haunted halls to the ocean floor, where I’d lick my wounds behind a rust-warped door and try to prove love couldn’t find me.” “Maya” addresses the significance of the album’s title as well. “It seems like I’ve been driving now for a long, long time,” Ferron sings. Then she whispers, “Oh, the dance of it all,” and a swaying melodica carries the song to its fading end.