Jesus of Montreal,
The Lady in the Van, and The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time

#194  [archive]

Jesus of Montreal (1989)

In this truly moving motion picture, a parish priest has been staging the same 'stations of the cross' play for 35 years. Attendance is dwindling, though, so the priest hires a local struggling stage actor to re-write, re-cast, and generally liven up the proceedings. Which he sure as heck does. 

Not being a Christian and never a Catholic, I needed Wikipedia to help understand the 'stations of the cross'. The concept is, a buncha devout people walk a path outside, that's laid out with 14 religious knickknacks depicting the last pre-death day of the eternal life of the world's whitest Middle Easterner, Jesus, on his way to being crucified.

The walk and the knickknacks are supposed to make for a deeply religious experience, but the switch here is that each 'station of the cross' has actors reciting lines, instead of knickknacks being knickknacky. The movie's story is about those actors, and the priest.

"There's got to be more to life than just waiting quietly for death."

 I like to imagine I'm immune to Christianity's pull, but I'm not, of course. You grow up wrapped in swaddling myth, you're never fully free of it, and of course, that's why the church wants kids to grow up with the myth.

Jesus of Montreal has the pull of the better parts of Christianity — "be kind," basically — but wisely avoids the savagery and cruelty that surrounds and usually drowns any religion's kindness. So it's set inside a religion, but without demanding, expecting, or even caring whether the audience is religious. That's a nifty trick, really.

This has been a favorite film of mine since it came out, mostly because of its brilliant writing, by Denys Arcand. With six marvelously-drawn intertwined characters, dialogue that seriously says a lot, and with laughs never far away, it's slowly revealed as a very clever allegorical telling of the Christ — comical, serious, profound, and in French. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Lady in the Van (2015)

There are several films about homelessness on my watchlist, which is how this one got there. Homelessness is one of America's hugest and most ignored problems, but this film isn't really about homelessness, at least not in the modern American sense.

Maggie Smith plays the titular lady in a van, and she's apparently the only person living in a van in all of England. Her van still runs, but she parks in the same neighborhood every night, where — get this — the neighbors are generally kind to her.

One neighbor brings her fruit, another lets her use his loo "in emergencies," at the holidays the locals bring her a Christmas present, and they all chat with her now and again. Everyone says she smells, but they don't say it to her face. Nobody calls the cops. She seems to have no worries about money. Her social worker isn't incompetent. So this movie is completely unAmerican.

In addition to Ms Smith, there's a splendid role for her "emergency loo" neighbor, a writer who wishes he was working on a spy novel, but instead finds himself drawn to write about this transient woman who lives on his street.

In a grand twist that really makes the movie, he's portrayed as twins who talk to each other, but they're two halves of the same man and he's actually talking to himself — an idea which could easily have ruined the movie but most assuredly does not.

"I'm a sick woman — possibly dying."

Maggie Smith is always a joy, especially when she's playing cranky, and here she's nothing but. She's terrific, and the "emergency loo" neighbor is terrific, and The Lady in the Van is damned near perfect.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time (1981)
Streaming free
with German subtitles

The Weavers were very popular, very briefly, but their success was cut short by good old-fashioned American hatred and stupidity. Sometimes they sang about civil rights, unions, peace and justice and all that, so they were soon banned at the State Fair, disappeared from television, threatened by vigilantes, and blacklisted by McCarthyism.

Their cover of "Wimoweh / The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was criticized as communism, I guess because the village is quiet and peaceful and we can't have that? Right-wingers today claim Joe Biden is a socialist, so hatred and stupidity remain an American constant.

In the movie, we check in on the Weavers long after they'd disbanded, when Lee Hays, the group's bass singer, invited the other three — Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger — to a picnic on his farm. He also invited a videographer, and to nobody's possible surprise, the old friends broke into song.

The idea had been planted, and it grew into a reunion concert, at New York's Carnegie Hall. And also, into this almost magical documentary.

The film is narrated by Hays, with wisecracks about every ninety seconds, most of them funny. Of the concert he says, "That day was so full of euphoria, that I had to take a laxative." The friends' spirit and camaraderie comes through so dang clearly that even if wasn't already a fan — and I was — Wasn't That a Time would've converted me.

Seeger talks about the commercial and political blacklist of the '50s, and of the movie's time, 1980, reminding us that things have gotten better but a quieter blacklist still remains. Anyone with bright, fresh ideas is still unwelcome on TV, radio, or in the music business. Nobody gets a corporate contract unless they're, well, corporate. 

"The Hammer Song" (If I had a hammer...) was written by Seeger and Hays, and became arguably the anthem of the 1960s, or at least co-anthem with Louise Shropshire's "We Shall Overcome." The Weavers' recording of it, though, got no airplay and sold poorly.

Maybe that was politics, or maybe lousy luck. It was covered, though, by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Peter Paul and Mary to Trini Lopez, and several of those versions are sewn together in an extraordinary montage here.

Toward the end of the film comes the concert itself. We're shown only a fraction of it, but when these four old timers, Hays in a wheelchair and only months from death, belt out "Wimoweh" it's a wet moment in my recliner. 

They know it's their last concert, so when it ends with the band's very first hit, "Good Night Irene," it's a moment.

Is the joy of their reunion perhaps lessened by 40 years' passing, and one-by-one the deaths of each of them, or is it even more remarkable?

Verdict: BIG YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Fog Over Frisco (1934)

God Bless America (2011) 

Hobo (1992)

Invader (1991)

John Wick (2014)

The Last Case of August T Harrison (2015) 

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1941)

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

The Naked City (1948)

The Night Strangler (1973)

Nightmare Alley (1947)

9 to 5 (1980)

Risky Business (1983)

The Rockford Files (debut episode; 1974)

Smothered (2002)

Space Monster Wangmagwi (1967)

Special Bulletin (1983) 

Squirm (1976) 

Stephen Fry in America (2008)

Tank Girl (1995)

Taoism Drunkard (1981) 

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • And then • • •

A Better Tomorrow (1996)

A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990)

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Bat People (1974) 

The Beatles: Get Back (2021) 

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

Brainwaves (1983) 

The Card Counter (2021) 

Cellular (2004)  

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)

Dark Star (1974)

The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009) 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980) 

Downsizing (2017)

Frankenhooker (1990) 

The General (1926) 

Get Shorty (1995)

The Gorilla (1939)

The Green Girl (2014)

Hiroshima (1953)

Hugo (2011) 

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)

Kids in the Hall (debut episode; 1988)  

Kids in the Hall (reunion debut episode; 2022) 

The Killing of America (1981) 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)  

Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)

Love Happy (1950)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Man Who Thought Life (1969)

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

The Manhattan Project (1996) 

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Not Wanted (1949)

Nothing But a Man (1964) 

Phone Booth (2002)

PickAxe (1999)

Poison (1990)

Popeye (1980)

Reflections of Evil (2002)

Revelations (1993)

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Romper Stomper (1992)

Room Service (1938) 

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017) 

Saved! (2004)

Scared to Death (1947) 

Secret Weapons (1985) 

The Shooting (1966)

The Soloist (2009) 

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Taken for a Ride (1996)

The Train (1964)

Truck Turner (1974)

Welcome to New Orleans (2006)

Who Farted? (2019) 

Who's That Girl? (1987) 

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

 Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. The Weavers almost always closed their show with Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene". The audience would almost always stand and sing along with the chorus. Besides making folk music a cool form of musical expression in the western world, the Weavers were substantially responsible for the Folk Music Revival that gave us Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, and so many more wonderful singers who lit up our lives. Thanks, Doug, for reviewing this terrific documentary.


  2. I watched that Weavers movie last night. Lee Hays was a funny guy and it's really a good movie.

    It wasn't Wimoweh that brought the Weavers down, just the ordinary red scare stuff. According to thie article in Rolling Stone. it was a weasely guy named Harvey Matusow.


    But around this time Variety also said, “FIVE MORE H’WOODITES NAMED REDS” and “CHAPLIN BEING INVESTIGATED.” It was January 1952, and America was engaged in a frenzied hunt for Reds under beds. The House Un-American Affairs Committee was probing Hollywood. Red Channels had just published the names of artists with Commie connections. And in Washington, D.C., one Harvey Matusow was talking to federal investigators.

    Matusow was a weaselly little man who had once worked alongside Pete Seeger in Peoples’ Artists, a reddish front that dispatched folk singers to entertain on picket lines and in union halls. Harvey had undergone a change of heart and decided to tell all about his secret life in the Communist underground. On February 6th, 1952, just as “Wimoweh” made its chart debut, he stepped up to a mike before the House Un-American Affairs Committee and told one of the looniest tales of the entire McCarthy era. Evil Reds, he said, were “preying on the sexual weakness of American youth” to lure recruits into their dreaded movement. What’s more, he was willing to name names of Communist Party members, among them three Weavers – including Pete Seeger.

    The yellow press went apeshit. Reporters called the Ohio club where the Weavers were scheduled to play that night, demanding to know why the Yankee Inn was providing succor to the enemy. The show was canned and it was all downhill from there. Radio stations banned their records. TV appearances were canceled. “Wimoweh” plummeted from Number Six into oblivion. Nightclub owners wouldn’t even talk to the Weavers’ agents, and then Decca dropped them too. By the end of the year they’d packed it in, and Pete Seeger was back where he’d started, teaching folk songs to kids for a pittance.

  3. Yup, well-reported. There's a little branch of the tree that takes off from The Weavers' closing song, Goodnight Irene (sometimes rendered as Irene, Goodnight). Turns out there are drug verses about suicide and suicide verses that are most likely about drugs. In perhaps, the original, Mr Ledbetter writes/sings . . .

    I love Irene, God knows I do
    Love her 'til the rivers run dry
    If Irene should ever turn her back on me
    Gonna take morphine and die

    But The Weavers generally sang . . .

    Sometimes I lives in the country
    Sometimes I lives in the town
    Sometimes I gets a great notion
    To jump into the river an' drown

    Frequently rendered as . . .

    Sometimes I stay in the country
    Sometimes I stay in the town
    Sometimes I gets a great notion
    To jump in the river and drown

    This is the verse from which Ken Kesey took the title of his second novel, and the verse that folkies from the 50s will be more familiar with. Druggies from the 40s (a vanishing breed) will be more familiar with the drug verse, although arguably, they're both drug verses. But the Weavers had other problems, and they wanted to steer clear of drugs so they stuck with suicide.

    Thanks to Sam for telling the straight story. Red Channels ruined more careers than Marilyn Monroe.

    When Rod Serling, a terrific screenwriter (see also, Requiem for a Heavyweight) got The Twilight Zone in 1959, he hired a number of unemployed Red Channel-blocked writers to write Twilight Zone episodes using the name of a writer who wasn't blocked. The whole Red Channels fiasco broke down by 1963 or so.

    Mr Serling was a stand-up guy.


    1. This helps explain "Goodnight Irene" to me. I've never much gotten what makes it so beloved, and when I googled the lyrics after watching the Weavers movie it seemed to be about a marriage that lasted less than a week.

      Last Saturday night I got married
      Me and my wife settled down
      Now me and my wife are parted
      Gonna take a little stroll downtown

      Did she jump in a river and drown?

  4. There are no definitive lyrics to Irene Goodnight. It's at least a hundred years old and likely more. Lead Belly sang his version, the Weavers sang theirs, and there are many more -- thus, folk music.


    1. When I was a kid, my grandma had a working crankbox Victrola, so I've heard a 78 of that song many times. Don't remember who sang it, but I grew weary of it and wished Granny had more 78s.

    2. She might well have had the Moon Mullican version.


    3. I tried it, but nope, that's not it.

      All the 78s went to Goodwill when Granny died. I wasn't involved but winced when I heard that. They must've been worth more than Goodwill prices.

    4. Of course it was a longshot, but whenever I get the opportunity to type the name "Moon Mullican" I do it. Mr M was a purveyor of the 30s-40s-50s hillbilly boogie style of piano playing that led to Rockabilly which led to Rock 'n' Roll. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, cited Moon as an important influence.

      Mr M's Wikipedia page quotes the piano player/songwriter as saying, "We gotta play music that'll make them goddamn beer bottles bounce on the table." That's not Garth Brooks a-talkin'.

      Mr Mullican has been cited many times as one of the grandfathers of Rock, but has largely been forgotten by the Rolling Stone generation and whatever generations followed that. He was a sharp dressed man and he played the piano like there was about to be a fire drill. Anyone about whom that can be said should have his picture on every mantel.


    5. Seven Nights to Rock, seven nights to roll. That's rock'n'roll already.

      I like lots but have not had much luck finding a certain style of piano boogie -- rockin' piano, maybe with a band or maybe not, but without a singer. Jerry Lee Lewis with nothing above the neck. What little I have found is mostly so old it's all scratched up, or some modern-day amateur trying to mimic the sound but it always sounds antiseptic.

      Any nudges in that general direction please would be appreciated?

    6. Doug, is this the version you said was all scratched up? I don't hear many scratches. If you mean it's mono rather than stereo, that's true. If you mean that the frequency response range is narrower than Michael Jackson's Thriller, that's true to. It's simply better music than Thriller.


      America's contribution to music peaked just before WWII, just as America's contribution to visual art peaked about the same time.


      The myth of progress is as old as the Greeks -- probably older. Yeah, in 1940 everything in the U.S. was segregated, teachers were mostly underpaid women, religion was almost mandatory, and divorce was a cultural sin, but for several years prior, in the horrible depths of the Great Depression, America produced some of the best art -- visual, musical, literary -- that the world has ever seen.

      As Hunter Thompson said, "It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time--and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."

      And he said this, "Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio."


    7. Nope, scratches was a different topic I maybe should've separated with ♦ ♦ ♦.

      I don't judge "simply better" on music unless one or the other is shit. I'm more likely to listen to more Mullican than more Jackson, but only because Mullican isn't known to be a child molester.

      Ed Hopper, like Norm Rockwell, created art pleasant and popular. I'd be happy to hang either on my wall. They're doubtless overrated, though. Any art so universally praised probably is.

      Man, I do love that Hunter quote. He's overrated too, though.

    8. Pretty sure Hunter Thompson was also accused (who hasn't been? You're nobody if not accused at this point) of child trafficking/molestation - so say the Conspiracy People - which is why he offed himself.

      Something like that.

      Anyway, his Hells Angels book and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are masterpieces.

    9. Hopper might be overrated, Rockwell might be underrated. Both good, from different milieus, of course ("fine" vs "commercial" art.)

      If you wanted to show a visiting alien species (just before they destroy us [rightly so]) what 20th century America was like, you probably couldn't pick two more apt artists. One an example of the vast desolation and isolation of this huge country, the other an idealized image of bounty and community.

      Fuck 'em both! I love 'em both.

    10. I hear people constantly talk about art and artists in their various forms as being overrated or underrated. Who the hell is doing all this rating? I don't get cable TV, so I wouldn't know whether there's some kind of global celebrity panel that holds up numbers 1 through 10 to all cultural aspects of human existence, but such a panel must exist, because if Hopper is overrated he must be rated, and I've entirely missed the rating process.

      If Norman Rockwell depicted an idealized image of bounty and community, and I ain't sayin' he didn't, what the hell is on the cover of the album "The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper"? Rockwell painted a portrait of a junkie and a teetotaler, rockers both, neither one getting his first haircut or a cub scout badge. So who rated the work?

      Hopper painted what he saw, and "Gas" and "Nighthawks" are a couple of tips of the iceberg.

      I don't have either in my workroom where I write this horseshit. My walls contain a huge world map, a black and white photo of Jack and Bobby Kennedy in profile at work in the Oval Office, photos of my Mom and Dad, and a dozen photos of highly rated chess players. Ha! There it is. There is a global rating system for chess players that goes from about 100 to about 2900. Maybe all art has a similar rating system of which I've been blissfully unaware all these 73 years. So if the Beatles have a rating of 2725 and everybody talks about them as if they're 2800s, they're overrated.

      Once again, I missed the damn meeting.


    11. Goddamn Googs won't let me reply where I need to. Hunter Thompson was not accused of child molestation. He was accused of fondling an adult film actress who showed up to test the female sexual excitement feature of his hot tub (and get some free publicity). Unaware as I am of Dr Thompson's rating, I don't know whether his libido was underrated or overrated, but anybody who's surprised that the Good Doctor was accused of fondling doesn't know much about the Good Doctor. I suspect he was innocent in the scheme of things, but I think we all are except Michael Jackson and Donald Trump and much of the House Republican Caucus.


    12. You're nobody if not accused? Well, J'accuse me — I squeezed everything squeezable on 9-year-old girl a few times, with no regrets. I was 8, though. Jackson's kiddie-diddling bothers me more than a random priest's, because I was a fan, and everyone knew something was wrong with that man long before knowing exactly what was wrong with that man.

      Can't go wrong with Fear and Loathing. Hell's Angles don't much interest me, even if written by HST.

      I'm semi-tempted to say something more about Hopper and Rockwell and art, but truly what exactly the fuck do I know about art? Less than nothing, that's what. I only know what I like, same as music and Italian food.

      Underrated, overrated, when an artist is one of the half-dozen everyone' heard of, well, I don't think much of "everyone" or everyone's opinions. Other than "Nighthawks" reminds me of noir movies, and "Gas" reminds me of my family's driving vacations, I have no sense of how to rate the artist or the works, except yeah, I'd hang it on my wall, or no, I wouldn't.

      You keep chess players on your wall, like Alexandra Kosteniuk? I'd castle for her.

    13. I guess I could have been clearer about the photos I keep on my wall. I don't know Alexandra, but the photos on my wall are photos I've taken of American chess players at U.S. Championship Tournaments. Most of them are signed by the player or players, and my wife had them framed. Yasser Seirawan, Boris Gulko, and a few others. The only woman on the wall is Jen Shahade in the process of winning her first US Women's Championship. These photos are over 20 years old, and chess has become a young person's game, so many of these people are retired, although I think they are all alive.


    14. And yes, I'd say if a painting is evocative, it adds to one's enjoyment of the work. I was a kid when I began to enjoy Hopper. I suppose I knew he was somehow famous, but I knew for sure that he reminded me of something I'd seen or some way I'd felt. I found "Gas" before I knew I was supposed to like him. It spoke to me at volume.


    15. I certainly don't know graphic art, but I know a few dozen Hoppers by name and more by sight. On the other hand, I only know a couple dozen movies, so while y'all are talking about obscure films of social commentary of the 50s, I'm re-watching The Big Lebowski. Like "Gas" frozen in time for 85 years, Lebowski returns me to Thursday nights with beer frames and friends and finally finding the groove near the end of the third game. The Coen boys didn't get the combination right every time, but Lebowski is fine cinema in my little book.


    16. Looking around, there's nothing on my walls but a clock, an old and empty movie reel, and cobwebs. I own some art, but haven't yet unpacked it from my 2022 move.

      Chess guys on the wall gotta be better than football players or pop singers.

      If you have few movies in your life, you've picked well. The Big Lebowski is a favorite, though I can't see it any more. I avoid all the movies the wife and I loved and watched repeatedly.

    17. The chess photos really tie the room together.


    18. I miss that movie, and the lady who sat beside me each of the dozens of times we watched it.

  5. Lead Belly was one of the greats, but I think he only gets credit for "Goodnight" because he codified the lyrics. Real folk music and copyright are uncomfortable bedfellows.


    1. And I have problems watching a bowling movie, especially a comedy (as opposed to all the bowling dramas). One of my best friends and a former roommate was the captain of our bowling team and the best bowler. He was a gentleman in all ways and I was proud to be his friend. We traveled some. He died at 25, an accidental suicide. The world would have been a better place had he stuck around.

      So when I watch Lebowski I ping-pong between tears and laughter, but I watch it about once a year because even though it hurts I don't want to forget him. I understand and respect your solution, and, hell, I wasn't married to the guy. Life sometimes sucks but beats the crap out of death.


    2. "An accidental suicide" — even without knowing or asking the specifics, that phrase conveys all anyone needs to know.

      We've all known a few accidental suicides.

      Life sucks and death sucks worse.


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