My Name is Bulger


Whitey Bulger, tough guy.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Bulger, Michael Dukakis, Mary Bulger, Bill Weld, Jimmy Bulger, Matt Connelly, William Bulger, Dan Bulger, Sarah Bulger Piscatelli, Brian Wallace, Peter Gelzinis, Pat Nee, Jean Bulger, Pastor Robert Gray, Kevin Weeks, Katherine Greig, Jason Bowns, Jenn Bulger Holland, Bob Ward, Shelley Murphy. Directed by Brendan J. Byrne

 

I never had a brother, but I’ve known many. Brothers can be different as night and day. One can turn out to be a civic leader, the other a mob boss, and both from the same household. The old nature versus nurture debate? Well, nature certainly has a lot to do with it.

That dynamic really happened in the Bulger family. A large Irish-American Catholic family in South Boston (or Southie, as natives prefer calling it) the boys William and James grew up in poverty in one of the housing projects. But whereas William, known more colloquially as Bill, grew up to be one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, his brother James, who was better known as Whitey, led the Winter Hill Gang and was known to be one of the ost ruthless criminals of his time.

None of the other Bulgers turned to crime, and there are a lot of Bulgers – Bill and Whitey had seven other siblings and they all had large families as well (Bill himself would raise nine kids). So how does one deal with living a life on the straight and narrow but being known for the one person in the family that didn’t?

Byrne, a documentary filmmaker from Northern Ireland, doesn’t really get into it, but he is granted remarkable access to a family that has been over the years notoriously press-shy. He even managed to get an interview with Catherine Grieg, Whitey’s girlfriend who was with him while he was on the lam for fifteen years.

The Bulger family seems interested in rehabilitating their legacy, and anyone can certainly understand that. There’s no evidence that the younger Bulger knew of his brother’s criminal exploits, nor did he use his office to aid his brother in any way. One of Whitey’s criminal associates, Kevin Weeks, remarks that when the two got together they generally talked about family and mundane things – certainly not about what Whitey was up to. I suppose there was a willful blindness going on – considering the reporting the Boston Globe did on the exploits of Whitey Bulger you’d think that the rest of his family had at least an inkling that he was into something unsavory. But I would guess that nobody wanted to rock the boat, so the subject would be genteelly ignored.

Again, that’s conjecture. aI suspect that the Bulger family would be reluctant to talk about how much they knew of Whitey’s deeds. They seem to be more interested in downplaying his criminal side and pushing the fact that he was a nice guy, generous and loyal to his family. That’s kind of a curious tack to take, but it rings a little false to the casual viewer, and perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended.

But I think it’s also curious that the only aspect of Bill’s legislative career that is discussed with any depth was his opposition to forced bussing in the Seventies, a hot-button issue that turned national attention on South Boston and not in a positive way. To Byrne’s credit, he presents both sides of the issue dispassionately, but it leaves a complicated legacy. But Bill’s support for expanding school nutrition programs and environmental protection, as well as writing legislation modifying the process of reporting child abuse and helping reboot the welfare system so efficiently that it became a model for other states – that’s not mentioned at all. It seems to me that would go a lot further to cementing Bill’s legacy than downplaying the awful things his brother did.

Bill’s in his mid-80s now and retired to Southie. His story is a compelling one and while I do think that it deserves to be told, I’m certain that it could have used a little more positive reinforcement for Bill and less of that for Whitey. The man served his constituency well for three decades, and went on to be president of the University of Massachusetts, only to see that stripped from him when he refused to answer questions about his brother’s whereabouts in front of a Senate hearing. That was the consequences of a moral choice he made, but perhaps his legacy needs to be more about what he accomplished and less what his brother did.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story, a real-life Angels with Dirty Faces.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-centric and a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitey Bulger was murdered within 24 hours of being transferred to Hazelton Prison in West Virginia. His family has requested an investigation into the affair.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Mass
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Werewolves Within

Museum Town


From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky