Buried – The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche is a documentary film from 2021 that tells the story of a massive avalanche. You can now watch this movie on various streaming services including Netflix.
Throughout history the mountains have had various meanings. In the Middle Ages, mountains were thought to be places where evil lurked and venturing into the mountains was a deal with the devil. Mountains were dark, mysterous places where ungodly people hid out. Since the sixteenth century, mountains have taken on a more sacred place in the Western imagination. By the nineteenth century, mountains were seen as a place to regain health and vigor. Fresh air. Clean water. A place to get away from the foul industrial urban centers. Even the tragic story of the Donner Party in 1847, a few miles from Alpine Meadows, did not slow this new sense of the healthful sacredness of the mountains. In many ways, this notion of the mountains being healthy and even sacred lives on today. To this end, there are hundreds of ski resorts high in the mountains of the American West, one of which is Alpine Meadows (now Palisades). Life is short. Drop a few thousand dollars for a weekend. Regain your health and even get a bit closer to God.
The people who live up in ski resorts are a fun-loving bunch. Few who live in the mountains are there for the money. Some enjoy the solitude and quiet. Some the never ending thrills of deep power snow. Some live for the scenic beauty. Other are there to escape something and get a new start. Some are there to endlessly party. Whatever the case, it a place where people’s main motivation is to live in the moment.
Buried – The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche tells that story of people living in the moment. It is a remarkable movie as the filmmakers somehow gathered one by one all the major people that were part of this event and had them candidly talk about the winter of 1982. The combination of these interviews, along with footage from the time, including local news reports tells the story in a very even, engaging way. You even get to watch San Francisco’s Channel 2 reporters, Dennis Richmond and Elaine Corral report on the tragic event – a time when the 6 o’clock news was the news.
This view into a time before the personal computer, cellphones and the internet is part of what makes the movie so intriguing. The ski patrol had only walkie-talkies and snowmobiles. Weather reports came over the weather radio. The young avalanche forecaster Jim Plehn used a system of large paper charts to map the snow densities and where they had used explosives or side-cut skiing to create avalanches. To this day, it is an inexact science that in the end requires more than paper, computer models and theories, but all your senses, experience and instinct.
As the film unfolds, the movie does an excellent job of telling the story of the avalanche and then for the rest of the movie the digging out of bodies and the hope for any survivors. Volunteers with shovels. A few specially trained avalanche dogs. All the while it is continuing to snow and the people in charge have no way of knowing if there will be another massive slide. The majority of the people dealing with this tragic event, the ski patrol were all people in their late twenties. Making critical life and death decisions at a very young age. Even in the hedonistic mountains, people grew up pretty fast back then.
Buried – The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche is an important film telling an important story that is critical part of the history of the American West. Watch it with a bowl of fresh popcorn and a cool beverage of your choice.
Blindness (Portuguese: Ensaio sobre a cegueira, meaning Essay on Blindness) is a 1995 novel by the Portuguese author José Saramago. It is one of Saramago’s most famous novels, along with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Baltasar and Blimunda. In 1998, Saramago received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Blindness was one of his works noted by the committee when announcing the award. Wikipedia
A few weeks ago I was in Mexico City when I had run out of reading material. When in a country where English is not the first language, it is often very difficult to find books in English. We went to a bookstore and though the possibilities were a bit limiting, I picked up Blindness by José Saramago. It sucked me in and I finished the novel by the time we left Mexico.
But I almost put the book down after the first few chapters. The English translation was so horrible I wondered if I could make it through. When I figured out that the translator had died midway through the work I realized that what I was reading was not really a finished piece but a draft. The translator was Giovanni Pontiero who passed away. Margaret Jill Costa finished the work. I soon realized that they had seemingly worked backwards and as the novel progressed, the writing got better. The story is so good and captivating, the writing can lean on the narrative.
You can read about the plot in Wikipedia so I will not rehash the story. There are so many angles from which to interpreting and understand this novel and that is what makes it so intriguing – the symbolism of blindness, the fragility of society, the psychology of power, the psychology of interpersonal relationships, violence, the act of forgiveness, the power and responsibilities of those that can see, vengeance. All of these themes and others are somewhere inside this captivating novel.
Of course where you read a book like this you cannot help but imagine it as a movie. After finishing Blindness, I discovered and watched the movie. I had reservations about how would you even make a movie from the novel but was surprised at how good the movie is. It brings together all the important themes and in many ways does not stray too far from the novel. Of course, the movie did not do well at the box office as dystopian nightmares are not what people desire in the theaters these days.
I am not usually one for books that are thrillers and on the macabre side, but Blindness is highly recommended reading. Probably best to start with the book.
The One and Only Dick Gregory (2021) is available on many streaming services and I highly recommend this movie – 5 Stars
Dick Gregory is one of the many brilliant people from the 20th century who are often overlooked. If you were White, growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the name Dick Gregory came into the spotlight rarely, perhaps a few times on the six o’clock news. He was, along with Gloria Steinem on the FBI list of people to try to minimize as they were “dangerous.” I remember Dick Gregory only as the guy going on juice fasts and advocating for better nutrition. To my nine year old self, he seemed honest and had commonsensical ideas but was a bit of an eccentric. I had never seen him do standup so I probably did not realize he was a comic as well. In this era of having everything on demand, it is easy to forget that the era of broadcast television made it so you could only see things once. Once it was broadcast at 6 pm and the show ended, it was over. Gone into that dream-like world. Even though he made it to the Tonight Show with Jack Parr a few times, to many, Dick Gregory simply disappeared and fell off the radar.
After watching the movie I would ask random friends and acquaintances if they had ever heard of Dick Gregory. The two Black people I spoke with had stories to tell, one about how his mother would play Dick Gregory records, the other about his nutritional supplements. I would usually get a blank stare from White folk. “Dick Gregory? Never heard of him.”
The One and Only Dick Gregory is a two hour retrospective on Dick Gregory’s entire life. It is fairly balanced between each decade. I appreciated the fact that it took this approach as people are often much more complex than just the high points. It would be perhaps more entertaining to have most of the movie about his years as a standup comic and then his association and friendship with Martin Luther King, but that would make it so you did not see the incredible arch of Dick Gregory’s life.
I particularly enjoyed Dick Gregory’s obsession with running. During the segment on the nineteen-seventies, you see the same low-res home movie of Gregory running by the side of the road. One just has to wonder if the fictional character Forrest Gump’s running faze was inspired in some part by Dick Gregory.
In 1976, to combat world hunger, Dick Gregory ran from Los Angeles, CA to New York City. The run was known as the Dick Gregory Food Run. Signature shirts were worn and passed out along the way. 71 days, 50 miles per day for a total of 2,782 miles. Dick Gregory ate no solid food during this run. He solely consumed water and his 4x formula.
I will not spoil any more of the movie. The One and Only Dick Gregory is an excellent way to get to learn about this remarkable man. It places equal weight to all time periods of his life. This is a man who in his twenties smoked four packs of cigarettes’ a day, was good friends and opened up for Martin Luther King at civil rights rallies and later ran from LA to New York to bring attention to world hunger. Just a few of the many incredible moments in a remarkable life. The guy was a mensch.
Before the internet, there were armies of salesman that would go door-to-door selling encyclopedias. It was thought that without the latest Encyclopedia Britannica it would be impossible for your kids to write their history papers. Today, Wikipedia has assumed the role of the encyclopedia but in the realm of video, it is the documentaries of Ken Burns . Home-bound due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to bite the bullet and buy the nine-episode Country Music | A Film by Ken Burns documentary on Amazon. Under $50 it comes out to about five bucks an episode. Country Music | A Film by Ken Burns is a fun romp through the twentieth century and a great way to discover new artists and bands, but in the end it was not so much about the music but a postcard parade of the people and musicians.
Ken Burns approaches his documentaries as though he is writing an encyclopedia; he always goes wide but rarely very deep. This gives the viewer the impression that what they are seeing is the unvarnished truth. Every documentary is stylistically exactly the same in his pedantic, dry, documentary style. If you watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Jazz or Baseball they are all identical and Country Music maintains this consistency. The serious voice of Peter Coyote narrates though out and the titling and production are all the same. It is the Ken Burns encyclopedia and while it is great to get an overview of these subjects, the more you know about the subjects, the more disturbing and slightly irritating it becomes. Things are left out. Stereotypes are reinforced. A strange middle ground seems to always be the goal. If a topic seems a bit risky, the next scene brings it back to something more conventional. Controversy is avoided. For instance, even though you can count notable black country musicians on one hand, nevertheless there is Wynton Marsalis as usual adding comments and insights from the wings.
“I was talking with a friend of mine about this the other day; that country life, as I knew it might really be a thing of the past and when music people today, performers and fans alike, talk about being “country,” they don’t mean they know or even care about the land and the life it sustains and regulates. They’re talking more about choices – a way to look, a group to belong to, a kind of music to call their own.” Johnny Cash – The Autobiography of Johnny Cash
What really is “Country” music?
The notion of the genre of country music and what artists are “country,” like the word “jazz,” is forever perplexing and something more to do with the business of selling the music than the actual music.
“Three Chords and the Truth” – coined by Harlan Howard in the 1950s which he used to describe Country music
What really is “country” music? From a musical standpoint, “Three Chords and the Truth” does seem to get at a good definition but some of the best country songs use secondary dominant chords extensively (e.g., Salty Dog) and the dominant II chord is usually the climax of the song . But do forgive me. I am writing about the music, not the people. I sort of like Cash’s geographical take on country – it ain’t “city.” Ironically, the history of bluegrass was actually aided by country folk moving to the city and longing for simpler times in the country.
One of the most redeeming qualities of country music are the lyrics. What ties all country musicians together is the singer/songwriter, cowboy or as it is often called troubadour. This may be true, but what I find in many of the successful country musicians is a rebellious streak. They seem, from a sociological standpoint, more like punk-rockers than anything else. Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and even Hank Williams were pushing the boundaries and going against the norms. In the film, it seemed a bit odd, but confirms my take, is that Marty Stewart named Woody Guthrie as being “about as country as it gets.” Which begs the question, then why did not Pete Seeger get even mentioned in the documentary? He was as country as Woody Guthrie and sparked the revival of the banjo with his banjo method book. Surely many country banjo players used his book to learn the instrument. Where folk ends and country begins, blues music ends and country begins, are all blurred lines. Who Ken Burns allows into the country club surely has something to do more with politics than the actual music. Perhaps to be country, is to have played at the Grand Old Opry or recorded in Nashville.
One thing that Burns avoids is how most of the country musicians tended to be far more politically progressive than their reactionary, predominantly conservative, Republican audiences. This is particularly true starting in the late 1960’s after the South went Republican. One of those important factors not really delved very deeply on, perhaps to avoid controversy and not alienate the core country audience, who would prefer to see the rebellious nature as a sort of cowboy libertarian streak, and be done with it. That the documentary ends in 1996 is surely convenient as it makes it possible to avoid bands like the Dixie Chicks that called George Bush out on his criminal and ill-conceived Iraq war.
Race and the almost Mythical Older Black Musician
One of the reoccurring themes in the movie is race, which is dealt with in an often incomplete fashion. From the documentary we learn that many of the early country stars at one point in their youth had a profound experience with an older black musician. Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country, learned how to play from an older black musician down by the railroad tracks. There were two other big musicians that come to mind but who’s names I forget that had similar experiences with older black musical mentors.
Country music is a predominantly white people’s music with a few invited guests – Charlie Pride, DeFord Bailey as noted examples. Perhaps the most amazing country album is Ray Charles’ country album that is pure countrypolitan and a smash hit. But issues like how the heck did Charlie Pride play in the segregated Jim Crow South are never brought up. Why, unlike in jazz, there are hardly any mixed-race bands? And, why, in every episode,as interludes, there are black and white photos of rural impoverished African-American families, gathered outside their shack of a house, with no explanation of why this photo is chosen?
Feminism and the Taboo Word
The the 1960’s. Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emily Lou Harris, Patsy Cline and others became huge country music stars. It is truly phenomenal how many powerhouse women came on the scene. Interestingly, Burns never uses the term “feminism” and instead describes this as – “at the time they called this woman’s liberation or women’s lib.” He goes on to described the woman as “feisty” or “strong-willed.” Just an observation of how language can influence perception and define history. In the late 1960’s there was a massive feminist movement culminating in the E.R.A. that never passed. One wonders if Burn’s never using the word “feminism” was intentional.
Country Music | A Film by Ken Burns. Well worth the price of admission, and a great way to get a broad-brush view of the topic of country music but a film that makes you question everything.
INTERESTING ALBUMS OF NOTE FOR PEOPLE WHO NEVER HAVE OWNED A COUNTY ALBUM IN THEIR LIVES AND DO NOT LIKE COUNTRY
I did not grow up with country music. Folk music, pop, rock and roll, jazz, classical. Not country. My parents were from the north and primarily urban, well-read and educated. Below are albums for people who do not like country music.
Jimmie Rodgers with Louis Armstrong
It is a true fact, not out of some E.L Doctorow novel, that the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers cut a record with Louis Armstrong. This is simply as strange as realizing that Aretha Franklin’s funkiest rhythm section was all white boys. Blue Yodel 9 is evidently a country song. This was before the music industry was putting labels on absolutely everything.
Johnny Cash many years later got together with Louis Armstrong and played Blue Yodel 9.
One the the best-selling country albums of all times is Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music . Ray Charles would probably sound great reading the phone book, but here you have some heavy New York and L.A. style production and Ray, growing up country, just sings these country songs like he is in the shower.
Read Willie Nelson’s autobiography Its a Long Story. I once heard that Willie always wanted to make a bebop album, so Stardust is as close as he got. His early love for Bob Wills and country swing opened him up to all kinds of music and he sings these mostly jazz standards with great phrasing, relaxation and outstanding pitch. Some of the standards sound a bit like music I would hear in a bowling alley in some sleepy Midwest town, but if they call this country, I’ll take it.
An amazing character, Willie is featured a lot in Country Music | A Film by Ken Burns. To get the full story of what happened when Willie’s house outside of Nashville burned to the ground, you have to read Its a Long Story. Willie is sitting in a bar in Nashville and a friend rushes in to inform him his house is burning down. Willie races off in his pickup and when he gets to the house the fire trucks are already there and the whole place is surrounded by yellow “do not cross” tape. At that point, Willie asks if anyone is inside. When he learns that everyone is safe, he makes a dash inside the house. He returns safe with just two things. His trusty, beat up guitar and a guitar case full of marijuana. That is a true story ready for the movies that does not even need a screen writer.
An epic career and a unique person and musician. He did a bunch of albums on the themes of Native Americans which would be interesting to check out. Growing up in federally subsidized housing and picking cotton from a young age, Johnny Cash to me is really a punk-rock, soul artist who happens to be white.
I have watched this documentary two times it was so good. The great trumpet player Lee Morgan lived a life of many ups and downs. When he was just eighteen, Dizzy Gillespie hired him and Morgan became a featured soloist in Dizzy’s big band. Before the movie I only knew Lee Morgan from reading album covers and the Blue Note sessions, in particular John Coltrane’s Blue Train. I had heard of a rumor that Morgan was shot in a bar at a young age by his wife. You hear a story like that and your imagination just runs wild with scenarios – all fictitious.
I Called Him Morgan is inspired by a cassette tape interview of Helen Morgan, Lee Morgan’s wife. Besides the amazing trumpet playing and prolific music-making, what is refreshing about this documentary is that all the people interviewed are black; there are none of the usual erudite white jazz critics. Just about every person that was on the bandstand the night Morgan died is in the movie and is interviewed. Billy Harper’s and Wayne Shorter’s insights and emotions are particularly illuminating. The photos of the Blue Note sessions are incredible. In the end it is inspiring to see these incredible musicians all seemingly healthy and vibrant in their seventies and eighties.
Even if you do not like Tony Bennett, this documentary about the making of one of Tony Bennett’s duet albums is beautiful. The film features Bennett’s recording sessions with Andrea Bocelli, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, and others. It is very informative for anyone who wants to live a long life, what are the qualities of the “good life.”
Jaco is a 2014 American documentary that depicts the life and death of jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. The film was directed by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak and produced by Robert Trujillo of Metallica and John Battsek of Passion Pictures. The film features interviews with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Sting, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Jerry Jemmott, Jonas Hellborg, Bootsy Collins, and Flea. (from Wikipedia)
If you are a bass player and do not know who Jaco Pastorius is, you are not a bass player. Jaco redefined the bass. The movie Jaco gives a deeper insight into Jacos’s life, his family life, great footage of concerts and interviews and his tragic struggles with mental illness. We all miss this guy.
Two other great Documentaries NOT on Netflix
The reason you are reading this post is that you have a Netflix streaming account and are looking for movie suggestions, it is raining or snowing outside, and you just cannot get it up to go to church or the corner bar. Suffice it to say that the greatest music documentary of all time is not a music documentary but a boxing documentary called When We Were Kings about the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship match in 1974 in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. What happens in the course of that event and the musicians involved is phenomenal.
And then there is the movie Muscle Shoals about an Alabama city that holds a prominent place in music history and the funky rhythm section that finally gets some recognition. But you are limited. You have Netflix streaming.
Looking for a movie on Netflix Streaming? It seems that documentaries are the largest category in Netflix. Below are four movies that I highly recommend.
The Legend of Eddie Aikau http://www.netflix.com/title/70273674
If you do not know who Eddie Aikau was, you will by the end of the movie. A remarkable person, amazing athelete and incredible life. Indeed, “Eddie would go.”
Little White Lie http://www.netflix.com/watch/80020254
This documentary is remarkable, not only for the story but also the fact that the filmmaker is so young and yet makes a film that is so mature.
The Zen of Bennet http://www.netflix.com/watch/70236498
I have no idea why this movie has only three stars in places. Even if you do not like the music and singing of Tony Bennet, the movie is a great view into a man, way up there in years, who still has it all together. Features many pop artists including Amy Winehouse.
Muscle Shoals http://www.netflix.com/watch/70267584
There is no reason why this is at the bottom of the four. I am assuming that you have already seen this movie. This is the sort of history that always seems to get torn out of history books. You may be Caucasian but that does not mean you cannot be funky.
Auggie Wren: You will never get it if you don’t slow down my friend. Paul Benjamin: What do you mean? Auggie Wren: You are going so fast you are hardly looking at the pictures. Paul Benjamin: They are all the same. Auggie Wren: They’re all the same, but each one is different than every other one. You got your bright mornings, your dark mornings. You got your summer light, your autumn light. You got your weekdays, your weekends. You got your people in overcoats and goulashes and you got your people in t-shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people. Sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same. The same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun and everyday the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle. Paul Benjamin: Slow down, huh? Auggie Wren: That’s what I recommend. You know how it is. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Time creeps in its petty pace.
I was flying back from Mexico and the plane was delayed a few hours. By the time I landed in San Francisco I had finished the entire book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer. This “coming of age” book traces the journeys of Chris McCandless and others including the author. They are all gripping tales and the book is extremely well written. Of course the main story is about Chris McCandless and his American odyssey, hitchin, hopping trains and floating around the west that he undertook after graduating from college. Every so often a character like McCandless comes along, influences people in very positive ways, travels far and wide and then dies tragically. At this point they enter the public conscience and become a sort of symbol for approaches to life, spiritual values, materialism and the meaning of existence. Of course, how this enters into the public dialog is often just as much about the art that then is created around the person.
Jon Krakuer’s book “Into the Wild” captures the spirit of the topic extremely well. It is seemingly well researched and the inclusion of chapters about various other young explorers and free thinkers, including Karkuer, make it even more profound. One sees the yearning of McCandlesss as not a freak sort of occurrence but as something that is universal and timeless. People have often left civilization behind, with a head full of ideals to live an acetic life enjoying only the simple pleasures. It has an appeal to most everyone on some level. Krakauer intersperses quotes of various transcendental writers, Thoreau, Stegner, Muir, Tolstoy among others that McCandless was reading that influenced his thinking during the trip. These quotes begin the chapters and give the book a sort of depth and gravity.
On the other hand, the movie “Into the Wild” directed by Sean Penn is but an admirable attempt to take on the subject. The casting is brilliant; the cinematography is spot on, the dialog adequate. Where it falters is that it tries to be too much like the book. For example, quotes of the same transcendental writers flash across the screen but this never has the effect as it does in print. Irritatingly, some of the quotes do not even credit sources. Furthermore, the sound track is a scrapbook with bits from a Canadian film score guitarist, pedestrian tunes from Pearl Jam and generally a lot of music that does not add to the film. The American West is about open spaces and great silence. The movie could have used this sparseness. Instead, it feels a bit like we are on a high school field trip bus and it is noisy and rushed. To be fair, the one piece I liked was some transition music by Kiki King. Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie immensely, it is just that taken as a whole the book, as often is the case, is better.
So if you have already seen the movie, try to forget what you saw and read the book. If you have read the book, read it again. By the end you may want to figure out where your old backpack is in the dusty basement.