Archive for May, 2008

Movie Review: “Young@Heart,” Documentary

Stephen Walker’s look at seven weeks in the lives of the Young@Heart Chorus is truly delightful and sad all in one awe-inspiring packing. I hate to use so many cliches in one sentence about a film, but I can’t really do better than to repeat all the typical movie muck and say, “No, really, I mean it.

This group of 70-90 somethings in Northampton,Massachusetts has been signing together under the direction of Bob Cilman for 25 years. What makes them unique, of course, is that they tend to sing songs that are completely unexpected from their particular age group.

They sing punk, classic rock, and contemporary rock all carefully chosen by Cilman to create some truly new interpretations. “I feel Good” or “Stayin’ Alive” or even the Ramone’s “I wanta be Sedated” become completely different songs under this chorus. When a 92 year old woman or a 80-something man who must wear an oxygen machine sing The Ramone’s lament about emotional pain it takes on a layer that I’m pretty sure the Ramone’s never considered. The song suddenly turns into a lament about the pain and indignities of old age. When the same man sings the first verse of “Stayin’ Alive” and claims “I’m a ladies man,” it takes again another level of humor and personal tenacity. It’s wonderful.

Walker follows the chorus as they prepare for a new set of songs and a new European tour. He focuses on several specific members of the chorus, two of which die before the end of the film. While I realize that’s a bit of a spoiler, I don’t think the knowledge will ruin the film for the average viewer. There is so much joy and so much sadness in a single Young@heart moment in this film, that I think the deaths will jerk tears out of anyone even if a person knew they were coming.

This chorus gets everyone excited, from the view of the audiences in the film. The first concert we see is at the local Northampton jail, just an hour after they’ve heard one of the chorus members has died.  During the concert, the prisoners are so moved by the chorus’s performance that they burst into tears during a song the group sings in tribute to their lost friend. When the concert is over, these rather rough looking dudes break huge grins and genuine gushing enthusiasm. One tattooed young man hugs a gray-headed chorus member and declares, “This is the best performance I’ve seen in my entire life.”

During the last concert in the film, there are ten-year old boys in the front row seriously getting down to just about every song. They look like normal ten-year-olds at a WWF match, all aglow in the coolness that is wafting down from the stage.

I spent the vast majority of the film laughing at the pure honesty of the filmmaker and the chorus’s ability not to take themselves too seriously. One example of this rests in the small “music videos” that break up the general narrative. These brief videos are extremely joyful and you can just see the “giggling” behind the eyes of the chorus. This results in a truly fantastic portrait of life and music that is completely original, just like its subject.


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Shameless Pope County Gossip

I ran up to Pope County this morning to have breakfast with my Mom & pick up a quilt that my Grandmother’s neighbor gifted me. The local paper ran a story about the recent wedding shooting and it appears there’s more to the story than what was first reported. Let’s just say it involves “lewd acts,” a girl fight, pummeling about the head and face, and according to the rumor mill, a camouflage bikini.

Yup, that’s home. I’m glad no one got killed and that no one bothered to sign them up for My Redneck Wedding so the whole thing isn’t on tape somewhere.

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Movie Review: “The Lord God Bird,” Documentary

I remember how energized I felt after the 2005 announcement by Cornell Ornithologists that they’d spotted an Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas.

Like most “outdoor types” in the state, I was excited for several reasons. I was excited about the possibility of conserving more wilderness, I was thrilled that our woods were getting some serious scientific attention. But more than anything, I was excited about the very fact that a lost species had been refound right in the middle of North America.

I have to confess on the outset that I’m a believer. There are, apparently, two minds on the Ivory Bill issue. When we sat down in our seats at the Riverdale 10 Theater on a Sunday morning to watch “The Lord God Bird,” a documentary about the discovery and search for the Ivory Bill at the Little Rock Film Fest recently a gregarious woman sat next to me. She immediately asked, “So, are you two believers?”

I had to confess. “I am!” I said. I pointed at my husband. “He’s not.” The gregarious lady was thrilled. “That’s exactly our situation! I’m a believer and he’s not,” she said pointing at her own husband. Our quarrel, like the scientific debate still raging on the rediscovery of the Ivory Bill, rests on a short, blurry video tape shot by a UALR professor.

In a way, our status as believers in the current evidence is sort of the center of George Butler’s “The Lord God Bird.” It focuses on three intersecting narratives. First, it tells the story of John Dennis, the ornithologist who championed the possibility of Ivory Bill existence for all of his adult life, despite the scorn heaped upon him by the ornithological world. Second, it examines the story of the 2004 sighting that started the search and resulted in that disputed video tape (and its aftermath).

Finally, it examines the place of the Ivory Bill in our collective imagination, first for their mysterious vanishing (one graduate student in the film talks about the bird as a kind of “ghost”), and then as a symbol of the tenacity of nature.

As a believer, I’m happy to say that “The Lord God Bird” definitely angles in favor of the Cornell lab’s interpretation of the evidence. While it does present a differing interpretation of the facts, more time is spent detailing the “believers'” interpretation. The director encourages the audience to see Cornell’s interpretation as the triumph of an underdog by contrasting it with John Dennis’s story.

George Butler’s examination of local attitudes about the discovery was mostly fair. He made the point that I think is a legitimate concern for landowners in the Big Woods area. There’s a scene where Butler follows a trio of duck hunters who stress that they’re thrilled some of the land might be conserved, they just don’t want their own land taken away from them.

That why, the hunters said, that if they found an Ivory Bill on their own land, they wouldn’t tell anyone about it. I thought this said a lot about Arkansas, actually. Arkansas supports conservation insomuch as it supports the right to hunt and use land. It’s support mostly stops when there’s any sort of government mandates involved. It’s exactly what I think most folks around here would do too.

Butler’s examination of the history of the Ivory Bill in the U.S. included some wonderful moments, especially with his interviews with Nancy Tanner, the wife of Ornithologist Jim Tanner, who first refuted John Dennis’s claims to an Ivory Bill sighting in the Big Thicket in Texas during the 1960’s.

I was, I must admit, thrilled to see that Butler included story of how the Arkansas Canoe Club message board launched the whole current Ivory Bill search. A guarded post about the original sighting in 2004 by a ACC regular member Gene Sparling made its way via e-mail and introduction to Cornell, and eventually, to the sightings in Arkansas. I hope this is a sign that environmental groups, scientists, and outdoor sports advocates are starting to learn from one another. It’s definitely true in this case.

“The Lord God Bird,” is worth watching if it comes to a film fest near you. It’s just out of production and made one its earliest screenings of the finished product at the Little Rock Film Fest. Generally Butler does a balanced job of presenting the rediscovery and the current controversy surrounding it. However, if you’re a hard-core skeptic, this one might do more to push your buttons than inform you.

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Shooting sprees, and it’s not even July.

I’ve been trying to carve out time to blog for days now. I’m swamped designing an online course. 

When I finally got a few minutes to write today, I realized I can’t very well post anything and not mention this story about a couple who were shot during their wedding ceremony just north of my hometown of Dover, Arkansas. 

The rumor I heard was that the shooter just got back from Iraq. I don’t know how much of that is true, cause it came directly from that juicy Dover gossip line. This got me thinking about my hometown. It got  me thinking about violence. 

Then I started thinking about violence as a kind of narrative.  How many people think of Gettysburg, for example, and don’t think of the battle there during the Civil War? How many people think of New York and don’t think of 9/11?  I don’t think many people think about Dover, Arkansas except the folks that live there, but if someone from outside were going to create a hypothetical story about the place, what would our most widely told stories say?

If some database searcher in the year 2050 wanted to know about Dover, he or she would most likely end up finding stories related to national news sources.  It seems like the only time I can recall Dover being in the national spotlight, it’s because of some kind of bizarre murder.  

The first time in my memory that Dover was on the national news was after Ronald Gene Simmons killed 16 people, mostly his own family members, in a house north of town in 1987.  I was 14 years old and in the ninth grade.  In 2005, there was the Nona  Dirksmeyer murder, which was on Dateline earlier this month.  

I watched it with my parents in their big house on Linker Mountain, just south of town.  We had some family visiting from out of town because there’d been a funeral that day.  My parents and I watched  the Dateline story with all kinds of insider twittering between us.  We know one-half of the drama personally in various ways. 

Kevin Jones, who was accused and acquitted of killing Dirksmeyer, served me food when I went through the Bayou Bridge Cafe’s drive-through every other day in the summer of 2004. My momma knows his momma from school.  I know one of Kevin’s attorneys on an acquaintance level (he’s my first cousin’s best friend) and a professional level (he did my divorce).  

A small part of my life, including people I know (and  in the case of the lawyer, confessed our dark secrets to), flashed across the national consciousness for an hour.  Watching them all parade across my Dad’s giant flat-screen TV was a strange kind of intersection with cultural discourse that can only happen in a world of 500 channels and the vast Internet. 

Here’s people I grew up with, in this remote backwater of a place, squeezed flat on national television, talking about everything the gossip engine threw out during the few months between Kevin’s arrest and his acquittal.  It sort of felt like a dirty-phobic stranger stumbling across the pile of dirty underwear I hide on the far side of our bed.  

It was the same way when Ronald Gene Simmons went through his horrible spree twenty years ago. Mom and I stayed away from the town square because it was flooded with reporters from all over the world.  A town of roughly 1,000 people doesn’t deal very well with a tsunami of flash bulbs and television cameras.  I remember my grandaddy telling me that the square was packed with cars after they found the bodies on Simmons’s land.  “Not a single empty parking space,” he said. 

When we finally went back to town a week later, there were still a few straggling news vans parked in front of my grandfather’s supermarket in the town square.   When I saw all the stories about the murder via satellite on CNN, I felt the same weird intersection of my life and the larger national chatter. 

The townsfolk mostly behave themselves on TV, though. They waited until Simmons was safely behind bars and the national press onto the next sensational murder before someone sneeked out to the house in the middle of the night and burned it to the ground. There’s nothing left of the place now; it’s gone back to forest.  



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Interview: Writer David Koon

David Koon of the Arkansas Times is also a fantastic fiction writer. He’s a recent winner of Glimmer Train’s Fiction open with his story “Four Sisters” and he’s published work in Crazy Horse and New Stories from the South.He did his undergraduate work at UALR (where I first met him in a Creative Writing workshop), did an MFA at Iowa, and a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Currently, he lives in Little Rock with his wife and son, Sam.

I asked David mostly about his relationship with Arkansas and his fiction writing.

As an Arkansas native, how much does the culture of the place influence your fiction?

Oh God, that’s a tough one. I guess the thing I love about being from Arkansas is that it has — both in terms of terrain and culture — all these different areas: mountains and hillbillies in the northwest; river delta along the Arkansas and White and Ouachita; big city in the middle; piney woods and oilfielders down south; Mississippi River and gone-to-seed plantation culture over in the east. What I’m saying is, I suppose: If you’re a writer from Kentucky, you kind of have to write about mountains and hillfolk. If you’re a Texas writer, you kind of have to write about cowboys and the lonesome prairie (or at least the legacy of that). Here in Arkansas, though — unlike any other state almost — we’ve got a little bit of everything, and each place really does have it’s own culture and food and way of speaking. That leads both to a delicious hodge-podge of people, but it can also lead to these horrendous collisions of culture. That gives a writer a lot to write about.

I find myself often moving back to landscape over and over again in my own writing. There’s something about certain vistas, or views of the world, I guess, that keep me fascinated. Do you have any particular images or subjects in your work that you think are inspired by Arkansas? What about the landscape of Arkansas influences you as a writer?

I hate to compare myself to Faulkner, but I am like him in as much as I find myself writing again and again about the same little piece of dirt — a place that can be contained in maybe a hundred square miles. I can even tell you where it is: An area just southeast of Little Rock, in a rough triangle formed by Redfield, England and Sweet Home. That’s all Arkansas River delta through there, and it’s the place where my father’s people came from before they starved out and had to come to Little Rock during the Great Depression. I’ve known that area solely through my father’s and grandfather’s stories, so in my mind, it’s this place where just about anything can happen. Back during college, I wrote a whole series of stories about an enchanted swamp down there that my grandpa called The WIllie Bell Woods. There really is a Willa Bell Woods down there, but mine was full of ghosts.

I read a quote that I’ll try to repeat here. I never figured out who said it. The quote goes something like “All children born in Arkansas are born with boomerangs on their asses, no matter how far they go away, they always come back.” You “came back” to the state, so to speak, after doing your MFA in Iowa and your PhD in Louisiana. What did you think about the place when you left? What do you think about it now?

You know, though I’ve known a lot of people who couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Arkansas as soon as they could pay for a bus ticket and a duffle bag big enough for their stuff, I missed it every day that I was away. I’m glad I lived elsewhere — I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who are born, raised and die in the same zip code. But when I was gone from here, in the back of my mind there was always this nagging sense that the background noise wasn’t right — that in a crowd, the accents weren’t right somehow. Though I met loads of fine people and made friends I’ll have for the rest of my life, I really couldn’t wait to get back. I hate to sound like a xenophobe or a rube, but I’m only really comfortable here.

You’ve done some great work at the Arkansas Times over the past six years. What have you learned about the state that you didn’t know before you started working in journalism here?

I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned over the past six years is that there are people out there walking around Arkansas right now that are more fascinating, twisted and funny than any fictional character somebody like me could dream up.

Considering your journalism has you working for a “liberal” publication in a state that, until recently, was pretty “red,” what stereotypes have you had reinforced since you came back? What stereotypes have you had destroyed?

You know, I try — and I encourage my creative writing students — not to think in stereotypes, just because they tend to lead a writer to the easiest possible conclusion. For one thing, the stereotype never really fits once you get through the shell every person sort of exudes over time to protect themselves. For another, it’s just plain old lazy thinking — the refuge of those who can’t imagine that a person outside of themselves might have deeper motivations than their class or race or job or political affiliation. However, I can say that as far as assumptions I’ve had destroyed since I became a reporter, the biggest thing is the idea that there’s a rigidly enforced divide between blacks and whites in Little Rock. As a reporter, I’ve found, time and again, people trying to tear down the old walls that have separated us in Little Rock, Arkansas and the south in general. While that doesn’t extend to everything, I’ve seen blacks and whites honestly and humbly reach out to one another often enough over the past six years that I’m sure the idea of a Black Little Rock and a White Little Rock is more politically expedient myth than anything else.

You went from being a writer in academia to a journalist and editor for a weekly newspaper. Do you approach fiction writing differently now that you’re out of the ivory tower, so to speak?

You write what you know, I suppose, so back when I was a student, my writing was — I’m sad to say — a lot more self-centered and self-indulgent (that’s kind of the lot of the student, when you think about it: whether you’re going to school to learn air conditioning repair or quantum mechanics, that0 quest for knowledge is an inherently selfish act. It can lead to a lot of unselfish things, but for the time your in the class room and absorbing, it’s all about you). That has been the experience of many, many writers I’ve talked to. ON the flip side, getting out of college — getting married, and a kid, and a house and a job — makes the circle of your worry broaden, and writers always do better with that dark cloud of pressure hanging over them. Given all that, I think my writing has really matured over the years. I can really feel my characters’ pain when they’re worried about the rent or the car or that child with a 103 fever. You can read that as a student, but you’re never going to be able to fake it until you’ve experienced it.

What is your definition of the word “hillbilly”?

My mother’s people are all from the mountains above Conway, so when I think of the word Hillbilly, I think of them: proud people. full of music and laughter. Beer drinkers, churchgoers, pulp wood cutters. Excellent singers and hunters and cooks. People who can find you a ginseng root or a quinine tree or a fender for a ’52 Dodge. The best joke and story tellers in the world.

Where is your favorite place in Arkansas? What do you like about it?

My favorite place in Arkansas is pretty much anywhere on or along the Arkansas River near Little Rock. I haven’t been on the river in a boat in probably fifteen years, but I love to stand on the bank on summer afternoons and just watch it roll by.

Where is the one place in Arkansas you try to avoid at all costs? What’s so awful about it?

I have to say that I don’t like Pine Bluff much. Though I hear it was once a really beautiful place, it’s a big, sprawled out afterthought of a city these days. My family and I have to drive through there to go visit my wife’s relatives, and it just seems to get seedier and seedier.

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Bullfrog Valley

Bullfrog Valley meanders alongside Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas for about five miles, marking the spot where the river begins its slow descent out of the Ozark hills and into the floodplain of the Arkansas River. The valley begins at Long Pool—a popular take-out and put-in spot for boaters and fishermen.


Long Pool stretches about a quarter mile as it bends to head south. The only obstacle during this long patch of green, calm water is a set of three house-sized boulders set far to the river right just before the river swings around to create one milder Class II rapid. The rapid is a kind of shudder, before the river widens into the lazy Class I section canoeists call the “Long Pool to Twin Bridges” run. Long Pool is one of those places where the topography gives humans a name for itself.


In the Ozarks, as in most places in America, settlers named places after themselves or, as in the case of Bullfrog Valley, after other humans. My maternal grandmother, Mildred Opal Light Waldo, tells a story about Chief Bullfrog, the Cherokee, who lived and died here “back in the old-time days.” She never says what caused Chief Bullfrog’s death, but she makes a point of romanticizing it: he was buried, with honor, under a tree at one end of the valley.


When I asked her which end, she shrugs off the question, because that isn’t the point. The point is that Chief Bullfrog was a legend, and legends exist outside of time and place. No one remembers which end of the valley Bullfrog’s family picked for his grave because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the people liked him enough, or remembered him well enough, to name the valley after him.


Long Pool is different. Maybe no one claimed ownership of the spot, or maybe the convenience of naming the place after its topography was too easy and obvious. Maybe the settlers found no sense in getting creative about it: no need to or manufacture symbolic gestures or create ambience, the way they did with other spots in the area.


Booger Hollow, the east entrance into Bullfrog Valley, is named for the bad luck travelers had there during the American Civil War. The dark overhang of cliffs and trees on either side of the road made it a great hide-out for highwaymen and bandits. It was, at the time, also a major thoroughfare on the road from Harrison near the Missouri border and Russellville on the Arkansas River.


Everyone traveling by wagon had to cross through Booger Hollow on their way in or out of the most remote part of the Ozarks. Cemeteries punctuate the hollow on both ends, which surely gave the place an otherworldly feel. On the southwest end of Bullfrog valley, Silex Mountain (named after an early Anglo settler) marks the valley’s border on the northern bank.


Only Long Pool, and nearby Bald Nob Mountain, are named for their topographical features. Bald Nob has a pun-ish nature about it, though. It’s not as straightforward. It could have just as easily been called “No Tree Nob” or “Rock Nob,” if the intention was to describe the hill’s treeless summit. “Bald” has a decidedly human ring to it. At Long Pool, the river created the name and the locals didn’t see any need to romanticize the selection.


They clearly didn’t see any need to fancy up the river’s name either, other than to differentiate it from Little Piney Creek and from the now-faceless settlement called just “Piney” that sits at the confluence of Big Piney Creek, the Illinois Bayou, and the Arkansas River. Big Piney Creek slowly settles into its slower pace at Bullfrog Valley, flattening the landscape at gradual intervals. The valley completely opens up about a mile south of Long Pool, near the Bates family hog farm, just north of Grimmet Springs. Grimmet Springs, like Bullfrog Valley, is no longer a place exactly. Not in a sense that most Americans understand, anyway.


These days, Grimmet Springs is a burned out shell of an old wood shop building, just steps from a natural spring. This spring gurgles up from porous limestone underneath the forest floor. It sits only a few feet from the highway, hidden in a heavy overgrowth of pines, oaks, and dogwood. The road follows the edge of a hollow, so the landscape sharply rises just beyond the spring. The bottoms of Bullfrog Valley stretch out immediately across the road, beyond a pair of wear-worn farmhouses.


There is no grocery store within twenty miles, unless you count the snacks on hand at Moore Outdoors, a canoe-rental shop at the intersection of Hwy. 164 and Long Pool Road. Cell phones don’t work here. There is only one quasi-public building besides the Moore Outdoors shop: Booger Hollow Recreation Center, an ancient Masonic-esque building, that sits alongside the road as it enters the valley from the east.


There aren’t many people living in Bullfrog Valley, and there never have been. This was always a backwoods place, even in Chief Bullfrog’s days. Chief Bullfrog, as much as we know, was one of the first outsiders to settle here on a semi-permanent basis. Chief Bullfrog would have arrived around 1820, with the first exodus of Cherokee from their ancestral home in the eastern southern states of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.


Before that, the entire area of Johnson, Pope and Newton Counties were only counted as hunting grounds for various Native American groups including the Osage and the Choctaw. A few small bands of various Native American groups lived at least part-time in caves and overhangs in the Ozarks, but there were no large settlements in northern Pope County, Arkansas. A few intrepid French and Spanish explorers and trappers had been through the area before Chief Bullfrog, but none of them settled down for good.


If Chief Bullfrog was a real person, it’s likely he farmed here, as most of the Anglicanised Cherokee did at that time. Farming would have been a relatively new endeavor in this hilly area, which was mostly known for its abundance of game. Arkansas was entirely wilderness then, seen by its white American overseers as far enough away from civilization to send a whole series of Native American tribes into exile there.


The naturalist Thomas Nuttall didn’t make his descent of the Arkansas River until 1819, just a year before a breakaway group of Cherokee took the Americans up on what seemed like a good offer: land in the Arkansas River Valley for their long established farms 2,000 miles away. At least it would get the Americans off their backs, and maybe in the familiar hilly landscape, they could start over.

Life is never that idyllic, of course. The first group of Cherokee that settled here did not get along well with the Osage, and were constantly fending off raids. The major part of the Cherokee settlement in Pope County focused on Piney, at the confluence of the Illinois Bayou and the Arkansas River. For a man trying to recreate a life of farming and occasional hunting, Bullfrog Valley probably looked like an excellent choice.


It was too far away from the main settlement to be of any real consequence to a raiding party. The valley is protected by narrow hollows on two sides. If you are trying to avoid the marauding locals, Bullfrog Valley would have been strategic. The Big Piney was big enough and low enough up to Long Pool that a canoe could easily navigate its way up and down to the main settlement, offering a market for farm goods and easy access to the local society. The bottomland along Big Piney offered up plenty of lumber and fertile soil. Bullfrog Valley would have made a resource-rich, if immensely isolated, farmstead.


Not much has changed, really. This is still the wilderness and farming is still the major occupation for the few full-time residents. Along the road through Booger Hollow sits a neatly fenced and tidy cattle farm, marked by a large sign near a 1960’s ranch-style house that sits on a low rise overlooking bottom land stretching several hundred acres to Big Piney Creek’s bank.


From the road, a traveler can see a mix old wood-frame houses, house trailers, and neat modern houses like the cattle farm, or the Bates Hog Farm property at the northern start of the valley. A visitor would have to be heading toward Long Pool to even encounter the Bates farm: deliberately traveling upward, further into the hills, on a one-way road.


If you stick to the main highway through here, the last sign of civilization in Bullfrog Valley is the well-tended Owens Cemetery, situated across the road from Moore Outdoors.  After that, the valley really does feel like the end of the earth, especially because the one paved road through the area dead-ends at Long Pool. Surrounded by steep mountainsides and accessible only via a steep winding road, it feels literally cut off from the rest of the world.  

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My Little Rock Film Fest Line Up

We are all set. We have our weekend passes, we have our tickets to the gala.  Tonight I just had to sit down and figure out exactly which films we’re going to be able to squeeze into three days.   I’ve narrowed it down to a few, we’ll see how it looks! I fully plan to offer up reviews of the Arkansas-centric films.  Here’s the line up so far:

Thursday May 15:   War Eagle, Arkansas  7:00 at the Riverdale 10

(Hubby & I both too tired to drag ourselves out of the house last night.  We’ll rent it. )

Friday May 16:  The Riddle 6:30 at the Riverdale 10   (Not enough time to do this and get ready for the Gala!).

                         The Gala at the Clinton Presidential Library 9:00

Saturday May 17:  The Ungodly  1:00 Riverdale 10 

                               Left/Right    7:00 Riverdale 10

Sunday May 18:  The Lord God Bird  11:00 a.m. Riverdale 10 

                          Silhouette city 5:00 p.m.  LR Chamber of Commerce

You should fully expect reviews to be posted here when the weekend is over! 

We went to see Judge Reinhold talk before a screen of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” last night. It was actually rather fun.  It turns out that Judge is now a fan of Arkansas and is working on trying to give the film industry better incentives to come here.   

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