ICONOGRAPHY (Part 1): Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life; featuring Chronicles of Narnia, Far Side of the Moon, Jarhead, and more
For thoughtful dissent, against mindless consensus
For Mary, Tracey, and the two Catherines,
before and now, and for all who belong to them
The intellectual’s responsibility is the making of his own mind, I have often thought; and all other duties—to write, to teach, to protest—are self-chosen. Does it matter if people choose to see a film that treats an historical subject and betrays its most important facts, or see a film romance false to every intelligent definition of love; or read a book that panders to a desire for sexual arousal rather than a more multilayered text on a significant subject; or that political contradictions and also hopes are ignored? Maybe; or, maybe not. Yet, I find myself thinking often about the line from the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, “I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” How does one who is interested in abstract thought and aesthetic considerations and political philosophy respond to the sense that one’s concerns are neglected, or slandered, by others; and that something precious might be lost—and lost for people yet unborn? What are the images that distract one’s fellows? Who are their icons? What would one put in their place? Cave drawings, children’s sketches, paintings, photographs, sculptures, rumors, words, reputations, impressions, all count as forms of image; and an icon is an image invested with meaning, an image so important as to seem sacred; and below, almost from A to Z, is my current (Fall/Winter 2005) study of icons, an iconography, which includes films such as Aeon Flux, Boesman and Lena, Cape of Good Hope, Chronicles of Narnia, Cold Fever, The Dying Gaul, The Far Side of the Moon, The Fast Runner, Harry Potter, The Ice Harvest, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Libertine, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Prime, Rent, 66 Seasons, Syriana, and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, figures such as Josephine Baker, Roland Barthes, David Bowie, Common, Angela Davis, Percival Everett, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jordan, Sidney Poitier, Caetano Veloso, and Wittgenstein, and ideas that became public policy, such as the Great Society and the New Deal.
Aeon Flux is about a freedom fighter in a world of clones. Apparently there was widespread disease on earth and a scientist created a vaccine that saved lives but rendered people sterile—so he cloned them to reproduce the human race while he searched for a cure for sterility. What remains of humanity lives in a walled city of order and surveillance, but there are symptoms of disorder—dreams with unknown origins suggesting other lives and people suddenly disappearing. Aeon is assigned to murder the city’s leader, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas), the scientist who has cloned himself for generations, and she gets close to shooting him when he wistfully calls her Catherine, she senses something familiar about him, and she does not shoot. Aeon is briefly jailed, finds him again—they make love—and as everyone is under surveillance, his daillance with her is known and renders him a government traitor. There’s a palace coup, involving his brother (Jonny Lee Miller), who likes his own immortality and does not want a cure for the common sterility, and Aeon and Trevor are on the run. There’s not much here that is genuinely thrilling but the film looks very good and there are some nice details. Marbles that can be dropped along a path then gathered by sound are turned into a bomb. Grass with the sharpness of razor blades detour trespassers. A woman with two sets of hands, one pair where her feet would ordinarily be, is a formidable ally and enemy. But there is something lacking in spirit, and dispiriting, about the film—and that surprised me, as I read an interview with Sophie Okonedo who said she enjoyed making the film, so I thought it would be fun to watch. Okonedo plays a comrade of Aeon, who is played by Charlize Theron. Frances McDormand is a red-haired commander queen of the rebels: she gives her messages almost telepathically—people swallow or touch little balls and are taken—intellectually, spiritually—to a kind of white temple, where they communicate. Interesting looking stuff, and the cast is not bad, but there’s no great sense of purpose, drive, or excitement. (The production designer was Andrew McAlpine, the cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, and the director Karyn Kusama.) It might have helped if the story could have been made allegorical, symbolic. I recall telling someone, possibly clumsily, cruelly, that I thought most people are redundant; and now, just as clumsily and cruelly, or merely very clearly, I find myself thinking it’s true—and that it’s a sad thing to give up on human originality or its possibility. Despite its design, this film is not original, and its subject, human cloning, which has been in the news in the last several years—and which I imagine will take place, legally or illegally, in years to come—is an important one.
Edith Wharton, like other great nineteenth-century writers, wrote about individuals in a way that illuminated a whole society: the values that trapped her characters were conservative and formidable, though physical force was not used as a threat. Individuals shared the values that destroyed them. In her novel, strong>The Age of Innocence, which Martin Scorsese made into a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder in 1993, a man sacrifices a new, genuine, and scandalous love for an older, expected and respected one. Michelle Pfeiffer is interesting as her beauty is infused with distance, sensuality, and insecurity, and in the film she has entered into a bad European marriage, and upon her return to America she’s taken aback by how contained everyone’s emotions are—and she asks a question about that in a way that is both funny and wrenching. Is crying no longer allowed? I was surprised when I heard a couple of acquaintances say they expected more passion from the film—meaning sex—when I had thought the film full of passion, full of so much emotion and thought that at times it seemed Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer, as the unacceptable couple, could hardly breathe not to mention move.
Angels and Insects, a film based on a novel by A.S. Byatt (originally called Morpho Eugenia), with a screenplay by Philip Haas and Belinda Haas, directed by Philip Haas, is about a dark-haired scientist, William Adamson (actor Mark Rylance), who marries into a wealthy English family, the Alabasters (his wife is played by blonde Patsy Kensit), and, though he seems not to have as much love for his wife as he imagined he would—he seems to have more in common with a family acquaintance, Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas), who understands his study of nature and insects and engages him in conversation—he finds himself the father of many little blonde children. Doug Henshall plays the equally blond brother of the scientist’s wife, a man who pesters the female household help for sex; and the brother is a man whose arrogance, lust, and hatred are rooted in the questionable assurance of his class, and selfishness. The women in the film, particularly Patsy Kensit as the wife, wear some of the most beautiful and strangest costumes I’ve seen in a film. Angels and Insects, released in 1995, is about family and society, about science and sex, about romantic love and genuine companionship; and the story of the film, which I have merely suggested, contains a genuine shock when male prerogative shows itself large and unsheathed in this film.
“What would Chaplin’s films be without the figure of Charlie, or The Blue Angel without Marlene Dietrich, or The Champ without Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper? In the German and French versions of Anna Christie, three of the leading parts were played by other actors and even the director was changed, yet the film remained more or less what it was in the original. But had Greta Garbo been replaced, it would have been a totally different film. In this case therefore, we have indirect experimental proof that the leading actress was the main author of the film,” wrote Rudolf Arnheim in “Who is the Author of A Film” (1934), Film Essays and Criticism (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997; 68). Arnheim, Berlin-born in 1904, has had an extraordinary life: he was one of the early film critics, and has published a number of important books, including Radio published in 1936 and Art and Visual Perception published in 1954, and later Film as Art, The Genesis of a Painting, Toward a Psychology of Art, Visual Thinking, Entropy and Art, The Dynamics of Architectural Form, and then Parables of Sun Light: Observations on Psychology, the Arts, and the Rest published in 1989. What has most impressed me was his fight against film censorship in Germany and his critical comments about Hitler, comments made when it was a brave and important matter.
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 1993) might not be a bad place to start in the consideration of religion. A better read might be Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian (Routledge, 2004), in which the philosopher discusses the possibility of the existence of a divinity, including divinity as the cause of the world, a first cause that is rejected (if everything has a cause, a god has one too; however, the world itself seems as good a cause for man as any other). Russell notes that whereas human law is prescriptive, natural law is descriptive, requiring no legislator; and the argument of intelligent design makes little sense when one acknowledges the imperfection of the world and the inevitability of the death of mankind and the planet itself. Right and wrong are either independent absolutes, or subject to a god, and if subject to a god that god cannot be good but has a varied or amoral nature; and the lack of justice in the world refutes the belief in a just god. Russell concludes that people believe in a god as that is what they were taught. The atheist affirms the rigors of logic and the facts of science and accepts the finality of death; and says No to authority, divinity, magic, and the consolations and delusions of religion.
“The auteur theory, in emphasizing the director who takes over someone else’s script, has little to say about a director like myself, who writes, directs, and produces his own,” remarked Billy Wilder (1976), quoted in the Anatomy of Film (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005; 239).
I recall seeing a photograph of Josephine Baker in a newsmagazine from the 1970s, and enjoyed Diana Ross’s impersonation of her in the late 1970s television special “An Evening with Diana Ross.” I read a little about Josephine Baker over the years, even heard a little of her music; and in the 1990s, I saw Princess Tam-Tam on television, and found it very intriguing; and later David Kenny’s WBAI radio music program presented a lot of her music in one evening—and I found what I heard excellent, really beautiful. Josephine Baker (1906-1975), was born in St. Louis, Missouri, began work young and also married young, the first of several marriages, she toured doing comedy in the Unites States in 1919, and appeared in Shuffle Along, but her break came in Paris when she appeared, wearing nothing but a skirt and doing a savage dance, in La Revue Negre. Immensely popular, she appeared at the Follies-Bergere starring in La Folie du Jour. She made films: Siren of the Tropics, and Zou-Zou, and Princess Tam-Tam. Siren of the Tropics (1927), directed by Henri Etievant and Mario Nalpas, is a silent film about a young woman in the Antilles who meets and falls in love with a young Frenchman sent there on assignment; and she follows him to Paris, where she becomes a music hall performer and dances the Charleston (I haven’t seen the film so do not know from whom, in the film, she learns the dance). Zou-Zou (1934), directed by Marc Allegret, was about a singer who goes onstage when a star defects and herself becomes a star. Princess Tam-Tam (1935), directed by Edmond Greville, is about a shepherdess discovered in Tunisia by an aristocratic novelist and brought back to Paris, and presented as an Indian princess, and she is celebrated, but at an important event, when she hears the rhythm of the drums she begins a wild dance, revealing her true self. I recall watching it and thinking that many of its themes—such as the relation of city to country or civilization to nature, and the appeal of women (the known woman versus the unknown woman)—were the kinds of themes we were still very much dealing with in film and life. I thought the film exciting. When asked about Baker’s relation to Paris, Ean Wood, who wrote The Josephine Baker Story (Sanctuary, 2000), told online magazine Jerry Jazz Musician (March 2001), “She fell in love with the freedom she found there as a black woman. But she was also a massive success as a performer. Her near-nude erotic pas-de-deux (“Danse Sauvage”) that she performed in Caroline Dudley’s show—as well as her uninhibited Charleston—made her the talk of the town. She was invited to all the best parties, and found herself suddenly a celebrity among celebrities. Artists like Picasso painted her. Nobility socialized with her. Couturiers designed chic gowns for her. And she was now being seen as beautiful as well as amusing. She was having the time of her life. It’s no surprise she fell in love with the place.” Despite her success abroad, Baker was not well-received when she visited the United States in the mid-1930s. She returned to France, and participated in the Resistance against the Nazis, smuggling messages on her sheet music; and received honors for that. She adopted a “rainbow tribe” of children, an embodiment of her own view of the world, but one that also put her children on display. Baker, who had appeared on the podium at the end of the great march on Washington in 1963, performed a decade later at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and was, finally, warmly welcomed as a performer who had become an international icon. Josephine Baker embodied many things: beauty, black possibility, glamour, sex, travel, courage, generosity, and pride. She died in 1975 of a cerebral hemorrhage, a few days after a celebrated performance in Paris. Her funeral was well-attended, and she was given military honors in France, and she is buried in Monaco.
“Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is a song I first heard Roberta Flack do (First Take, 1969); and others have sung it—Rod McKuen, Shirley Bassey, Rickie Lee Jones, and Kurt Elling. Written by Thomas J. Wolf Jr. (music) and Frances Landesman (lyrics), it is poetic, possibly even self-consciously poetic enough to render its seriousness mute: and yet the image it offers is classic, of sensitive, lost young men, possibly lost because of their sensitivity: “All the sad young men, drifting through the town, drinking up the night, trying not to drown.” Towns and cities offer possibilities—aesthetic, emotional, sexual, social, professional—that can be overwhelming: attractive, and more difficult to fulfill than they at first seem. “All the sad young men, choking on their worth, trying to be brave, running from the truth. Autumn turns the leaves to gold. Slowly dies the heart. Sad young men are growing old, that’s the cruelest part.”
I was surprised to learn that the Sorbonne-educated Roland Barthes (1915-1980) had a rather impoverished childhood, though he grew up in a place in which he could see the bourgeois comforts of others. And I was surprised to learn that he had bouts of tuberculosis. Although vastly intelligent, his work has an elegance and lightness that could lead anyone to assume he had known no significant suffering, but then he was also a man who had said—mystifyingly, honestly—that writing could tell the truth about language but not about what is real. I remember seeing a bunch of Garbo films years ago with a woman I lived with—Camille, Anna Karenina, Queen Christina, Mata Hari, among them—and reading Barthes on Garbo: no one else had captured her so complexly, so well. Barthes said in his Mythologies that Garbo belonged to cinema when the face inspired ecstasy, and that Garbo’s face expressed a Platonic idea of humanity, embodying its own perfection, an intellectual beauty. Roland Barthes’s book Criticism and Truth is stimulating reading for a critic, but A Lover’s Discourse seduces: it describes—and dissects—romantic codes somehow without denouncing them; and it’s a beautiful book. I once told a male friend that I was reading it and thought of him, and he misunderstood me: he thought that I was thinking of him as a beloved (or desired) object, when I was thinking of him as the lover (the one who loves), as the type about whom this kind of book is about, as I did not think of myself as romantic—did not think that I had ever been in love: I thought that the language of love expressed not love but language. (It’s hard to communicate with people who know nothing about the philosophy of interpretation.)
Mikhail Baryshnikov’s performance in White Nights, the 1985 film in which he starred opposite Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini had pleased me, though I wasn’t as pleased by magazines that paired Baryyshnikov with Rossellini in their pages, as the couple in the film was made up of Rossellini and Hines. The film is about a Russian dancer who defected to the United States and unexpectedly finds himself back in Russia, where he meets a black American dancer who himself had defected to Russia: each had been attracted by what he’d heard about the other’s country. In film and in life, Baryshnikov seemed both fun-loving and intense, someone who belonged to a classical dance tradition, as a former member of the Kirov Ballet in Russia, and yet was open to popular culture. Baryshnikov became a member of the American Ballet Theatre in 1974, appeared in the film The Turning Point in 1977, joined the New York City Ballet (Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins) in 1978, and would appear in the films Dancers, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, and Company Business. Mikhail Baryshnikov was a co-founder, with Mark Morris, of the White Oak Dance Project, a modern dance company. Most recently he announced the establishment of an arts center in Manhattan that would include dance, film, theater, and other creative disciplines: a center that would exemplify and facilitate the creative possibilities of Manhattan.
I am not a connoisseur of classical music, but I have liked Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Janacek, and Schoenberg, and there are certain singers I do listen to. I cannot remember the extent of my familiarity with Kathleen Battle, a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, before she was dismissed from the Metropolitan Opera for her behavior (“unprofessional actions,” according to Met administrator Joseph Volpe), but I do recall a Vanity Fair article about Battle that discussed her behavior—such as coming late to rehearsal, removing the costumes of another performer from her sight—and possible motivation—insecurity? or egotism? (it is fascinating that someone’s motivations can be thought so divergent by speculators: how little we know of others)—and Kathleen Battle immediately had my sympathy, and I purchased some of her recordings. Battle is known for performing not only opera, but also Baroque and sacred music, jazz, spirituals, and work especially composed for her. I have Baroque Duet (with Wynton Marsalis), So Many Stars, Honey and Rue, and Spirituals in Concert. Did I, an atheist, have the 1991 Spirituals in Concert duet album featuring Battle and Jessye Norman before the controversy, after seeing them, as I did, on television together? I do not remember—I do know that Battle took up space in my mind after the controversy: I thought about the fragility of artists, the willful dynamism required of stage performers, and the complexities of being black when I thought of her. On the duet album with Norman, they sing the spiritual “Scandalize My Name”…
I winced when I read an interview with actor Wesley Snipes in which he disparaged his own looks, as Snipes—whose work I found fascinating in Mo’ Better Blues, New Jack City, One Night Stand, and the Blade vampire series—was someone I thought of as an attractive man. Male beauty is as various as female beauty, though that’s not always acknowledged, especially regarding men of color. A new book of photographs, More Body, More Soul: Beautiful Black Men, edited by Duane Thomas and published (November 2005) by Universe, has arrived and features Lenny Kravitz on the cover and Eric Benet, Terrence Howard, Will Smith, Karl Malone, Wynton Marsalis, Usher, Gary Dourdan, Don Cheadle, Kanye West, Mekhi Phifer, Vin Diesel, Lebron James, Allen Iverson and more, photographed by well-known photographers, with some of the captions celebrating the men given by equally celebrated women. The comments by women seem intended to invoke a heterosexual appreciation for what might otherwise be taken as sublimely homoerotic—all these photographs of men one after the other, one next to the other. (The book works as a refutation of the presentation of black men as merely aesthetic objects and sexual tools in the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I recall that when poet Essex Hemphill criticized Mapplethorpe’s use of black men, writer Edmund White ignobly questioned his right to do so.) The More Body, More Soul men, most of them accomplished in their fields, are obviously not only one type with only one function; and they appear in suits, and casual but stylish wear, gym clothes, bathing suits, and nude, looking sexual, confrontational, sad, humorous, untrusting, intimate, and professional: a broad field of handsome humanity.
I first read John Berger about twenty-five years ago. His About Looking (Pantheon, 1980)—along with books by James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Joan Didion, Foucault, Freud, R.D. Laing, Nietzsche, Adrienne Rich, and others—was one of my defining texts. Berger looked hard at both art and social phenomena and saw histories of impulse, necessity, and relationships behind the images he viewed. He understood that certain kinds of content made particular forms necessary or useless: and that some artists consciously and instinctively know that and choose to allow the expression of their content to shape the form of their work.
The sexual urge may be natural but sexuality is not: sexuality is as much a construction as a house, and is infused with the received associations, habits, permissions, and taboos without which it would have no structure. The bisexual person, like the person who is biracial or bilingual, frustrates simple categories and expectations: this is a figure who has access to more than one experience, to more than one culture, something that subverts the idea that selves are simple and that experiences and cultures must be in conflict—and that conflict is a state of nature. Famous bisexuals include Socrates, Alexander the Great, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Verlaine, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Thomas Mann, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Leonard Bernstein, Tom Robinson, and Meshell Ndegeochello. There are two genders and at least three sexual possibilities. A History of Bisexuality by Steven Angelides (University of Chicago Press, 2001), and Current Research on Bisexuality, edited by Ronald C. Fox (Harrington Park Press, 2004), along with Marjorie Garber’s astute, comprehensive, and entertaining Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995) are terrific resources for people who prefer facts to gossip or suspicion. Heterosexuality and homosexuality might be seen as idealizations of desire or considered rigid forms of sexual immaturity: consequently, bisexual persons are slandered so that they might not be used as a standard by which to judge those who insist on easy identifications and conflict. To be bisexual is not only to embody the possibility of liberated desire but also the possibility of unlimited love. It is to make one’s response to the world very personal—full of imagination, sympathy, sensuality.
About the film Boesman and Lena, starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, for the November 2000 Spirituality and Health, wrote in an online review (that seems to have been amended slightly upon the May 2001 release of the digital video disc): “Athol Fugard’s play, which was presented on Broadway in 1970 starring James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, has been made into a rigorous film adapted and directed by John Berry. It ambitiously delves into heady matters such as freedom and truth while also probing the loneliness, loss, and bigotry of two down-and-out Africans living under apartheid in South Africa.” I had seen the film during its brief run in Manhattan—if I recall, it was shown at Lincoln Plaza, near Lincoln Center. The film opened in early November 2000 and was shown at only about eight theaters nationally, and closed December 21, 2000; and was reported to have made less than fifty thousand dollars; and was released on digital video discs in May 2001. I told a friend that it was a film that more people should see, though I knew that a film about homeless South Africans did not sound like a delightful time. A. O. Scott reviewed the film (New York Times, September 23, 2000) during its appearance at the New York Film Festival, and said that the director John Berry “a survivor of the Hollywood blacklist who died just as work on the film was being completed, uses the natural luminescence of his stars to emphasize just how cruel the couple’s fate has been and also to bring a measure of cinematic life to Mr. Fugard’s somewhat wordy allegorical play.” (Did I see this English-language film, financed in France and distributed by Kino in New York, at the festival at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall? I don’t think so.) I did not find Boesman and Lena too wordy, or distractingly allegorical—but then I expect intelligence and meaning, and even imagination, in conversation and in art. I thought Boesman and Lena was a film for which Angela Bassett should have received the highest commendations; and I admired Danny Glover’s performance. “Together, they set off sparks. Both belong to that rare breed of actor, the kind possessing an intellectual ferocity to match the physical one,” David Ng wrote, when reviewing the film in connection with the film festival, for the online Images film journal. Angela Bassett has been acclaimed a great actress; and she has appeared in Passion Fish, Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Strange Days, Waiting to Exhale, Contact, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Score, Sunshine State, and Mr. 3000—and while I admire and like her performances in several of these films, especially in Malcolm X, What’s Love, and Strange Days—I do not think Angela Bassett has been better than she is in Boesman and Lena. It’s a crying shame that more people haven’t seen the film. Some of the reviews were dismissive, making the film sound like work to watch: I thought the film full of fact, feeling, and understanding: and consequently rewarding. The matter raises many questions—among them, if a black actress’s best work can occur only when exploring black experience, and, if black experience is so distinct, and sometimes so painful, that when presented in art it doesn’t attract an audience, how can one know or measure that actress’s artistry? As the Brussats note, the film follows the bulldozing of the ramshackle home of Boesman (Glover) and Lena (Bassett), and their homeless trek, during which we see some of their memories—not all of which are bitter (they made a real home early in their time together, despite the viciousness of the imposed poverty of apartheid), but as time has gone on Boesman has become abusive and Lena seems disturbed. Lena may say that Boesman’s heart has dried up, but her attempts to keep her own heart alive seems to have kept her open to pain—and her openness and her pain seem to be what Boesman strikes out against. The Brussats say, “Boesman and Lena plumbs the anger, regret, low self-esteem, and self-destructiveness that often accompany poverty and homelessness. This story, although set in South Africa, could be told of millions of other couples all over the world.” How can we know that if we refuse to see?
I tend to think of David Bowie as a kind of ideal—smart, creative, elegant, popular. Bowie has appeared in the films The Man Who Fell to Earth, Just a Gigolo, The Hunger, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, Labyrinth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Linguini Incident, Basquiat, and Mr. Rice’s Secret. It has been reported that he might appear as Serbian-American inventor and poet Nikola Tesla in a film by Christopher Nolan. And of course he has made some great music. David Bowie seems a master of creative self-renewal. Whether he draws inspiration from established or new artists or his own past work, from painting or theater or books, he seems to grasp idea and mystery—stimulus for mind and spirit. Bowie’s albums include Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Pin Ups, Young Americans, Heroes, Low, Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Hours, Reality. Bowie’s The Singles 1969-1993 (Rykodisc, 1993) demonstrates his thematic and musical range: the technological advance and loneliness evident in “Space Oddity,” the mercurial nature—nearly the fictive aspects—of life and history, leading to a kind of philosophical montage of possibilities in “Life on Mars?” and the sexual openness, jealousy and temptation suggested by “John, I’m Only Dancing,” and the dark dreaminess of “Sorrow,” one of the simplest and most effective of Bowie’s songs. Bowie imagined the burlesque of gender and the social consternation it produces in “Rebel Rebel” before these perceptions became common. His “Young Americans,” “Fame,” and “Golden Years” were a trio of popular songs that sounded not at all alike. “Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” he asked in “Sound and Vision.” There’s a cuteness in “Under Pressure” that little of his work or that of the band Queen had before they worked together. “Let’s Dance” is one of the most restrained invitations imaginable, yet it has a deep, cold seduction, drawing one into the serious moonlight. It reminds me that someone I knew, an Asian man with a wife, told me he found Bowie’s voice very sexual. I always liked “China Girl” for Bowie’s tone—somehow light but with an almost sinister insinuation (he sounds analytical and possessed). My favorite of his albums are Heroes, Low, Black Tie White Noise, and Outside.
Writer, composer, and expatriate Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is a model of a man who pursued an individual life: Bowles was born in Jamaica, Queens, and died in Tangier; and the life he led in between is nearly a myth. He went to Europe first in 1929, though he would return to work in New York, including composing music for Orson Welles theater projects, and would marry Jane Auer in 1938 (while devoted to each other, they both were reported to have same-sex lovers). Bowles wrote music for more than thirty shows, and also did music criticism for The New York Herald Tribune. He went to Morocco in 1947, and began working on his novel, The Sheltering Sky, which was filmed and released by Bertolucci in 1990. Bowles’ published letters are great—caring, intelligent, stimulating. Through the years Bowles knew and sometimes worked with many people considered interesting to know: Aaron Copland, Gertrude Stein, Claude McKay, Auden, William Burroughs, some of which is noted in his biography Without Stopping, but until today most of his renown is a result of his distinctive short stories, which are often the calmest delineations of extreme, sometimes perverse, psychic states occurring on intriguing but indifferent landscapes (I seem to recall one story about a father seduced by his son).
Listening to saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s album, Duets (1993), with bassist Mario Pavone, on the label Music & Arts, it’s gratifying how much the music actually does sound like a conversation, with one speaker telling a long oddly exhilarating story to someone who listens and makes somber comments. Without words or the human voice, the breath that enters a saxophone, or the fingers on the strings of a bass, must be deft enough to produce a tone, a pace, and an intensity that compel listening, inspire thought, and bring forth feeling. That returns music to a very individual, very private realm. I haven’t listened to jazz in the last several years as much as I used to, as I have been impatient to hear direct and explicit thoughts, though there’s an expansive feel to jazz that I miss: and Anthony Braxton, devoted to music, mathematics, and chess, is a legendary and legendarily complex figure, and he has been the subject of various critical studies, including Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton by Graham Lock (Da Capo, 1988) and The Music of Anthony Braxton by Mike Heffley (Greenwood Publishing, 1996). Ronald Radano in New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton’s Cultural Critique (University of Chicago, 1993) discusses Braxton’s embrace of European modernist and African-American music traditions, specifying “a series of oppositional modalities: composition vs. improvisation, control vs. freedom, order vs. indeterminacy, lyricism vs. abstraction, tonality vs. atonality, jazz vs. concert music, black vs. white” to be found in Braxton’s music (188). However, listening to Braxton’s early Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark, 1991; originally released in 1968, Braxton’s first record) sounds like hearing a family argument, hysterical, with deceptive lulls of understanding and agreement. The liner notes quote Braxton as saying the time of the individual is gone—which now seems one of those bizarre things an artist says when he’s trying to grow beyond his previous limitations, as no one is more individual than Braxton.
Don Byron: “It’s just that the clarinet takes you to a different type of work than people are accustomed to seeing black musicians play. Okay, you want to play classical music, you can do that on the clarinet. You want to play Indian music authentically, you can do that on the clarinet. You want to play all kinds of Eastern European, not just the Jewish stuff, but Macedonian, Romanian, Bulgarian, all those things are part of the legacy of the clarinet. Clarinet is a very international instrument and people just don’t expect me to do it. If anybody else does it, ‘Oh, he’s just doin’ that.’ But people don’t expect me to do it. And that’s their thing. It’s not my thing” (Interview with Byron in “Visionaries and Eclectics,” Growing Up with Jazz, by W. Royal Stokes, Oxford, 2005; 135). Don Byron’s discography includes Tuskegee Experiments, Don Byron plays the Music of Mickey Katz, Music for Six Musicians, Bug Music, A Fine Line, and Ivey-Divey. I first heard Bryon’s Tuskegee Experiments and liked it—it opens the ears, opens the mind—but I liked his Mickey Katz album more as it was more melodious. Byron’s explorations make him always interesting to listen to.
A canon can be described as a code of laws, a calendar of saints, or a list of essential works. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written a book, Essential Canon (Johns Hopkins, 2004), in which he lists hundreds of domestic and international films he considers important. Harold Bloom has produced The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (Harcourt, 1994), which of course has ancient and international roots. A canon offers reference to what we value of the past, but also offers an indication of our values now. The usual literary titles that come up when folk discuss a canon include Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the works of Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Henry James, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov’s Lolita, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A film canon of 1980 might have included works by directors such as Antonioni, Bergman, Bertolucci, Godard, Kurosawa, Pasolini, Rohmer, Truffaut, and Welles, but now it would be likely to include Robert Altman, Claire Denis, Hsiao-hsien Hou, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Ming-liang Tsai, and Agnes Varda. Must the new replace the old, or can they both exist, for artists and audiences? The African-American painter Kerry James Marshall said, in a February 1998 interview, “I think as artists in the late 20th century, we inherit or are the beneficiaries of all of the stylistic and conceptual developments that artists from previous generations have handed down to us. And it’s not that we necessarily have to react against it all the time, but I think we simply incorporate it and then find ways to synthesize all of those things into something that none of the artists who preceded us had access to or had an opportunity to achieve. If I look back at da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, you know, Raphael, Delacroix, all of those people. If I look back at those artists’ work, none of them had access to the kinds of formal developments that came with people like Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and De Kooning and Rothko. They didn’t have access to that. So there was a way in which they didn’t have the ingredients to put things together in ways that artists who are operating in this historical moment can. So I’m not reacting against tradition—I’m simply trying to find a way to extend the dialogue and make paintings that appear to be fresh in some way” (Callaloo, Vol. 21 No. 1; 263-272). That seems like a useful approach for the early twenty-first century and ever onward.
South Africa has not been much on my cultural radar recently. Except for hearing that Diana Ross had been a performer with Christina Aguilera, Deborah Cox, and Westlife in a November 2005 benefit concert in South Africa for two charities, Unite Against Hunger and The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, I have heard little about the country. The film strong>Cape of Good Hope, set in South Africa, seems designed to appeal to a broad South African audience—and features a white South African, Kate (Debbie Brown), who runs Good Hope, an animal rescue center, and the Indian woman who works for her, Sharifa (Quanita Adams), and a Congolese immigrant who helps with the dogs, Jean Claude (Eriq Ebouaney), and the little black African boy, Thabo (Kamo Masilo), whom the proprietor runs into and gives a part-time job to, an opportunity that leads to the boy introducing the Congolese man to his mother, Lindiwe (Nthati Moshesh). The film offers a view of the new South Africa, a view that may be appealing to an international audience, and the spirit of the film is open and pleasant, and the film recognizes the difficulties in people’s lives while suggesting the value of compassion, common sense, hard work, sacrifice, and study. Cape of Good Hope bears some resemblance to sentimental Hollywood comedies—it is a film during which one can take deep breaths, as there’s a sense of an unfolding human story that will not betray one’s hopes—but I haven’t seen many Hollywood comedies in which, as in this film, a woman guiltlessly has an affair with a married man; or in which a much-married aging mother with a lover younger than her daughter, a mother with a good relationship to her daughter, tells her daughter that the many marriages that her daughter disapproves of have given that daughter her trust fund and then calls her daughter a little ungrateful bitch; and in which a white employer lusts after and tries to rape his African cook and housekeeper and railroads her into jail on a false charge that she burglarized his house—with the legacy of racism, sexual exploitation, and poverty observable. They’re just not turning out a lot of those kinds of romantic comedies in Hollywood—and this is a film in which people’s ordinary lives are complicated: the Indian woman coworker, Sharifa, feels great stress as she and her husband Habib (David Issacs) try to conceive a child; and the animal rescue center owner, Kate, is letting her affair with a married man blind her to the fact that the local vet, Dr. Morne (actor Morne Visser, who seems like a cross between Russell Crowe and John C. Reilly), is interested in her. Kate (Debbie Brown) is alienated from her father, who left her mother when Kate was six, as she assumed her father was the betraying parent; and that, one assumes, has affected her relation to men. The vet who likes her is getting over his wife’s death. The drama in Cape of Good Hope, for the most part, only raises the temperature—the conflict and tension—slightly and that is quite enough. There are enough story-lines for several films, and that makes the film a lot like life. The Congolese immigrant Jean Claude is a trained astronomer, and was a professor in his own country, and he is doing menial labor for the animal rescue center Good Hope, while volunteering during weekends at a planetarium; and he is also applying to emigrate to the West. The boy Thabo—likable, and smart to the point of being cunning—holds his own in every scene he’s in (a good actor already, what a better actor Kamo Masilo might become with training and support); and his eyes contain adventure and an understanding beyond his years. His mother Lindiwe studies hard but is forced too often to sacrifice her education for her job (she’s reprimanded by a black woman professor). Lindiwe’s mother, Lillian Dube as Mama Daraza, wants her to marry the local preacher; and the mother is brutal in her attempts to get her daughter to marry for financial security (who would expect to find Jane Austen themes in Africa?). The scenes in which Lindiwe (Nthati Moshesh) and Jean Claude (Eriq Ebouaney) get to know each other have a lot of silence in them but they’re not empty—they’re full of attraction and hope; and when he finally proposes to her, offering nothing but his good character and intentions and willingness to give up his immediate plans to emigrate, it is entirely moving (I cried). The ending of Cape of Good Hope is precipitated by Lindiwe’s male employer’s uncompleted sexual assault and baseless charges, which come to involve everyone; and while that may make the denouement too tidy, it has a symbolic completeness. This is an easily enjoyable film that does not disrespect the viewer’s intelligence. The level of the acting is generally good—and I had never seen Debbie Brown before, but she quickly became an intimate acquaintance. The locations in the film are all perfect—all look authentic, from the shanty towns to the wealthy estates to the animal shelter to the fish and chips place where Dr. Morne takes Kate for a late night meal. Cape of Good Hope was directed by Mark Bamford, who was born in Kentucky, reared in New York, and has been living in South Africa for a few years.
The celibate refuses sex; and amuses, bores, disgusts, mystifies, shocks, outrages. The celibate rejects not only an act or experience, but a metaphor—a whole symbology of human existence as revolving around communion and climax. The celibate believes life has something, or many things, to offer other than fucking. The Society for Human Sexuality (Sexuality.org) has noted several reasons for celibacy: chastity before marriage; spiritual profession; response to molestation; low sex drive; sexual fasting to make sex more intense and special; and feminist rejection; and has named several well-known celibates: Isaac Newton, Cliff Richard, Stevie Smith, Nikola Tesla, and Simone Weil.
How do we know we have learned something? We change.
One random thought: I have looked forward to the death of a White Witch, but the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, a film directed by Andrew Adamson, based on C. S. Lewis’s novel, was not what I had in mind. Another random thought: The technical resources of film are now greater than that of almost any art that has existed, and that means that even films we consider deficient often have something to recommend them—basic professionalism, if nothing else. One more random thought: People have spoken about the casting couch that some actresses have tripped over, but has anyone tracked the careers of casting directors consistently faced with the delectation of child actors? Are there some who have ended their days in jail for pedophilia? I found myself thinking these random thoughts during the first third of Chronicle of Narnia, a family film about magic and war, betrayal and redemption. It is actually a story one can imagine a parent telling a child, but there is not enough intellectual depth or genuine spiritual substance in the story: after four children of varying ages have been sent by their mother to live with a rich acquaintance in the country, rather than have them chance the war-time bombing of London, the kids amuse themselves by playing hide-and-seek and the youngest child, a girl, enters a wardrobe and finds the entrance to a magical world, Narnia, where she meets a faun (Mr. Tumnus, played by James McAvoy), who tells her about the one-hundred year winter instituted by the icy authority of Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Eventually all four children enter Narnia and become involved with a battle against the White Witch, who takes one of them prisoner, the headstrong, sometimes untrustworthy Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the youngest of two brothers. Valiant and chaste Peter, the oldest child and brother (William Moseley), and the next oldest, the changeling Susan (Anna Popplewell), in between being a girl and a young woman, and the youngest child of all, the sweet and smart Lucy (Georgie Henley), seek the help of the heroic lion Aslan (Liam Neeson) to retrieve their brother Edmund. Chronicles of Narnia is full of talking animals and frightening beasts. Its pacing and its mood are like that of a lullaby, which is not entirely a good thing, though I prefer that to an artificially restless style. The film looks sumptuous, but not overwhelmingly so. Chronicles of Narnia began to work for me when the children meet helpful, funny beavers (Ray Winstone, Dawn French) who feed and counsel them. The three children are soon on the run from the White Witch and her wolves as they try to reach Aslan, the lion, for help. Aslan also expects their help, as there had been prophesy that two human males and two human females would help overthrow the reign of the witch. The children go into training in the lion’s camp, and Aslan’s troops rescue Edmund, and Aslan is called to make a sacrifice. By the time of rolling of the closing credits, I had found the production likable, though it left me with unanswered questions—such as, don’t the children, who seem inclined to stay in Narnia, miss their parents?
Clifford’s Blues (1999), the novel by John A. Williams from Coffee House Press, about a black male jazz musician who is in Germany during Hitler’s reign and who, after his affair with a German man is discovered, is sent to a concentration camp, to Dachau, where he becomes the sexual pet of an officer who had been someone he avoided when he was free. The novel, which covers years, is full of the horror of the world war and the rapacious murder of people considered decadent or inferior or socially rebellious—gays, Jews, communists; and the novel lives on more than one level—and has scenes of high and low comedy as well as political drama and existential tragedy. While I admire John A. Williams’ other books—particularly his novels Sissie and Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light and his work of fact, The King God Didn’t Save, which was about Martin Luther King Jr.—I think his novel about a serious writer, !Click Song, and Clifford’s Blues are probably his best. Clifford’s Blues seems his most outrageous, his most unpredictable novel; and yet, for all its transgressions, it is a book with a moral center. Clifford Pepperidge performs in a jazz band for German officers and their wives and lovers who like the music, and he becomes a cook and houseman not only for the German officer who desires him but for the ignorant farm girl who becomes that officer’s wife and Clifford’s sometime lover. Sexual indulgence, liquor and drunkenness, fear, malice, black marketeering, stealing the gold out of the teeth of dead people and more are found here. I’m not sure that James Baldwin, who wrote works exploring issues of being and community, and race and sexuality, ever created a work as rich. James Baldwin chronicled folk beliefs (Go Tell It On the Mountain) and was a literary modernist exploring consciousness (Another Country), a sex radical (Giovanni’s Room), a social prophet (The Fire Next Time), a memoirist of bohemian youth (Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone), and a reconciler of painful differences (Just Above My Head), but he may have been too self-conscious—too much the public intellectual—to produce anything so free. Baldwin, whose prominence meant he was subject to the disapproval of men who preferred their rhetoric simple and hostile (Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver), and who envied his fame (Ishmael Reed), has also been criticized more recently by people who would have preferred him to be sexually crude—such as novelist Edmund White; and while White gave Baldwin’s Just Above My Head a good review while Baldwin was alive, now that Baldwin is dead, White says disparaging things about Baldwin’s work—which is in accord with White’s sister saying that White “charms everyone he’s with but then he turns around and talks about you behind your back” (according to Original Youth: The Real Story of Edmund White’s Boyhood by White’s nephew Keith Fleming, quoted in the January 22, 2005 Guardian, a British paper). About Giovanni’s Room Edmund White was quoted in the January 22, 2005 Guardian as saying, “I mean, Giovanni’s Room is a very beautiful book, but in terms of gay politics, if you care about that, it’s not a very evolved book, because the idea behind it is, the only desirable men are straight men. And if they ever submit to your blandishments they’re worthless, because they’re now gay. It’s that self-hating attitude of the 1950s, which I knew when I was a boy.” Giovanni Room’s does not reject homosexuality but the rather a practice of sexuality that does not respect individuality or dignity or personal passion. Also, the fact is that in Giovanni’s Room David, in rejecting the genuine love of Giovanni, has done something that damns him in his own eyes, a moral judgment beyond Edmund White’s perception. Edmund White is, of course, a fool’s fool; and he thinks that the preening and promiscuity that Baldwin rejected in Giovanni’s Room is to be affirmed: White was quoted by The Guardian as having said, “I do believe sex is worth dying for”; and White’s own works are reputed to cater to a provincial cult. (If one were to write honestly about homosexual life in the western world today, one would have to talk not only about increased social acceptance, public representation, and the push for marriage rights: one would have to talk as well about the ongoing practices of unsafe sex in a time of disease, crystal meth and other addictions, xenophobia, and big-cock and best-ass contests held in gay bars, things the New York gay press has reported on.) The matter of self-hatred is also one that must be examined: the men in Giovanni’s Room who hate themselves are the gay bar habituates who cannot resist promiscuity and find it impossible to establish long-lasting relationships: it is not Baldwin’s novel that lacks evolution but the white gay men he depicts in Paris bars. Baldwin, who respected himself enough to situate his own sensibility as the central consciousness in all his work, and who wrote on behalf of the American civil rights movement benefiting blacks, and who went to England to publish a work, Giovanni’s Room, that his American publisher refused to publish and told him would ruin his career because of its frank description of love and sex between men cannot be said to be self-hating in any terms understood by sane men. Baldwin, like Gore Vidal, assumed that bisexuality and homosexuality were facts that were part of a larger world; and depicted them as such: and that is what John A. Williams also assumes in Clifford’s Blues—Williams presents various transgressions without ever forgetting what the applicable moral, personal, and social standards of his characters are, and those standards are named without preaching: his main character Clifford Pepperidge thinks after a bout of sex with two wives of German officers that it “was like all of us shuffling toward the end of the world, and since we were on our way, nothing mattered” (Clifford’s Blues, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 1999; 118). What many minorities want, and what white gay men seem to expect (possibly as part of their white male privileges), is acceptance without standards, without ever being subject to criticism, but that is the exact opposite of the way genuine artists and intellectuals respond—with their mission to tell the truth, to establish values, to discuss what is useful.
Cold Fever is a film about a Japanese man who travels to Iceland to perform funeral rites for his parents who died in a river accident there seven years before; and it is a very strange film—and more than fifteen years after I had begun seeing foreign films, and independent and quirky Hollywood films, it confirmed for me the absolute wonder of cinema. It renewed my vision; and confirmed a high standard. The films of Bertolucci, Bergman, Bresson, Malle, Von Trotta, Welles, and others had not been inoculation against liking Richard Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling or the acting of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder in Dracula, but Cold Fever made such pleasures less desired, less likely. Directed by Fridrik Fridriksson, Cold Fever features Masatoshi Nagase as Hirata, the young Japanese man, and Seijun Suzuki as his grandfather, who encourages him to make the trip, and also presents American actors Lili Taylor and Fisher Sevens as tourists, among local Icelandic actors. “The volcanic Icelandic landscape with its plumes of steam jetting up through ice-crusted crags has the hallucinatory beauty of a science-fiction wonderland,” wrote Stephen Holden in his April 5, 1996 New York Times review, in which he described the film as having a “steady allegorical resonance,” with a “humor so disarming that it lends an alluring sweetness to a film that is essentially a meditation on the nature of death.”
I recall that in the mid-1980s there were a lot of people writing poems about musicians John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis in a writing workshop I attended, House of Poets, in Harlem, with a group of writers young and old, male and female. John Coltrane (1926-1967), especially, was a kind of secular saint; although in light of Coltrane’s spiritual concerns, including a concern for a closer relationship with divinity, the word secular may be inappropriate. Many consider his greatest work to be A Love Supreme; and Coltrane has been inspiring other musicians and writers for decades. A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 and released by Impulse the next year, features Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. The music album does sound like prayer and praise, and it’s hard not to be impressed by Coltrane’s confidence and sincerity, and his being unafraid of sounding (and looking) like a serious man. Those were the days—or rather, that was the man. “Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts/ fears and emotions—time—all related/ all made from one…all made in one./ Blessed be His name,” are lines from Coltrane’s poem “A Love Supreme.” One can accept an idea of a god as the symbol of the connection between all of life’s energies, and all human spirits, though it is a symbol Coltrane, like many, grants authority and personality. “No road is an easy one, but they all/ go back to God.”
Lonnie Rashid Lynn, the hip-hop artist better known as Common, formerly Common Sense, has a discography that includes Can I Borrow a Dollar?, Resurrection, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, Like Water for Chocolate, Electric Circus, and Be. People who do not know who Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Canada Lee, or Paul Robeson are, know what Common looks like, as he has been presented in a wide range of magazines and newspapers, dressed in sweaters, ties, hats, and jeans, mixing the casual and the formal. People, especially the young, who may not have read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, or Toni Morrison, people who have not seen the choreography of Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, or Bill T. Jones, people who wouldn’t recognize the art of Henry Tanner or Beauford Delaney if it was twelve inches in front of their eyes, people who have not heard the voices of Leontyne Price, Denyce Graves, Shirley Verrett, or Jessye Norman, know what Common sounds like. That is the triumph of rap, and the hip-hop culture it is part of, in our time; and the thugs who have harassed African-American communities for decades find celebration in the work of many rappers, but not all—and Common seems to be trying to grow into something new, not confined to the music, breakdancing, graffiti, record-scratching disc jockeys, rhyming masters of ceremonies, and producers usually affiliated with hip-hop, as evidenced by Electric Circus (2002), which was controversial—and for which Common was saluted by established critics but subjected to harsh evaluations and rumor by men on the street, for its references to elements outside of hip-hop. (Even Common’s wardrobe received comment.) Mark Anthony Neale in an online January 10, 2003 PopMatters column wrote, “Electric Circus is part of a conscious attempt by Common and his fellow travelers, like The Roots and Talib Kweli, to wrest control of the artistic vanguard within hip-hop. While Talib’s Quality and The Roots’ Phrenology break new ground for both acts, Electric Circus is clearly the most adventurous of the trio of releases.” Neale commends Common for his move away from sexism and homophobia, and admires Common’s collaborations on the recording with Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Matt Cibula, writing in Ink Blot magazine available online, wrote that Electric Circus “makes no concessions to anyone. This album is drenched in musical color that has nothing to do with any fashion or fad: several songs eschew hip-hop altogether,” and he approvingly commented on the fusions of soul, rock, and harmonic pop musics. The beginnings of a rap tradition that is comprehensive—embodying all we are, know, and want—as well as innovative may exist in the work of Common, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Dead Prez, Digital Underground, Disposable Heroes, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, LL Cool J, MCLyte, Me Phi Me, Mos Def, Nelly, Paris, Queen Latifah, the Roots, and Sister Souljah, but it is not yet the developed or dominate one. (Are artists in hip-hop allowed to age and continue their creativity with a significant public?) I liked Common’s album Electric Circus when I heard it, but the standards of creativity and knowledge are so low in hip-hop that I wonder if there would have been as much note taken of the recording if it had been done by a rhythm and blues or rock musician.
I always think of Sam Cooke as a suave figure of pleasure, but he had a sound that was both mellow and melancholy, something I’m reminded of when listening to his Portrait of A Legend 1951-1964 (Abkco, 2003) and Night Beat (Abkco, 1995; originally released in 1963 by Tracey Ltd.). Portrait of A Legend collects songs such as “You Send Me,” “Only Sixteen,” “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” “Cupid,” “(What A) Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The devotion and thrill of gratified infatuation, in which love creates serenity and security rather than anxiety or frantic intensity, is the subject of “You Send Me,” and disappointment in young love, ending in sad regret and understanding is the subject of “Only Sixteen.” Cooke’s songs—whether an affirmation of dance, a wistful call for help, a humble declaration of love, a recognition of prison as a fact, an expression of sexual assurance—were a young man’s testament and they often carried a young man’s tenderness. Cooke’s phrasing bears traces of the sung spiritual, but his is obviously not a voice that could ever be anonymous, buried within a tradition. Peter Guralnick suggests in Dream Boogie (Little, Brown, 2005) Sam Cooke’s native gifts and his dedicated effort to develop his craft and appeal, as well as the sometimes unhappy private life that accompanied his work. That Cooke wrote many of the songs he sang is not only admirable: it is the fulfillment of the individuality one hears in his voice: an imaginative and empathic sensibility with a masculine strength and a sweet softness that is almost feminine. Cooke sings as part of the Night Beat collection songs by men such as Charles Brown and Willie Dixon and songs like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” as well as his own “Mean Old World,” in which he says it’s a mean old world without someone to love, and “You Gotta Move,” in which he demands respect in love. Cooke had a singular range and moved acrossed it cooly, without excessive emphasis, without strain. Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (originally released on vinyl in 1985, and re-released by RCA on compact disc, 2005), recorded in a Miami club, captures the singer on the cusp of a new era, allowing feeling and raw sound to reign over the beauty of form. Cooke, inspired by men such as Louis Armstrong and Charles Brown, inspired artists like Aretha Franklin and Smoky Robinson and the Supremes did a tribute album to Cooke. Sam Cooke was a marvel.
I read Angela Davis’s biography years ago, when I was in high school; and later I read some of her work on women and music and still later I read some of her commentary on prisons. In her biography, first published in 1974 by Random House and republished by International Publishers in 1988, she mentions how she and her sister would speak French and pretend to be from Martinique in a shoe store in Birmingham, Alabama, and how they were subsequently treated well by whites who thought them foreigners but who would have treated them harshly if they had been thought American (local blacks). She described reading The Communist Manifesto and its hitting her like a lightning bolt: she recognized the capitalist system that encouraged social division while it reaped profits. She described her study of literature at the Sorbonne and her political travails. I recall that when she was on the run from the law, after she befriended prisoner George Jackson who was found with a gun it was claimed she had given him (he was killed in what was described as an escape attempt), there were people who kept signs in their windows letting Davis know she could find refuge with them, before she was acquitted in court. It has been reported that her protest against the 1995 all-male march on Washington (the million man march) may have damaged her reputation in the African-American community (what’s the value of an intellectual who simply affirms what a community already thinks; and whose view is not taken as a challenge by a community to grow?); and that she is no longer a member of a communist political party and that she has publicly declared herself a lesbian. She continues to teach at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man (1995), starring Johnny Depp, re-imagines the American western film. Its silvery black-and-white look is the first thing one notices and likes. In the film, Depp is moving to a new place for a job—that is not only a practical matter, it also means that he’s a seeker: and the whole film, what he finds, is then a fulfillment of a journey, vision, a revelation. It is a spiritual and a political film. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote a book about the film, said, “I would define the political and ideological singularity of Dead Man in two ways: that it is the first Western made by a white film-maker that assumes as well as addresses Native American spectators, and that it offers one of the ugliest portrayals of white American capitalism to be found in American movies” (Dead Man, British Film Institute, 2000; 18). Depp stumbles into other people’s beds and in front of their guns—and he kills a man who shot a woman in jealousy when Depp is found in her bedroom, the son of a powerful man who sends trackers after Depp. One of the men involved is one of my favorite villains, Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen)—he raped, killed, and ate his parents. Depp as William Blake is befriended by a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who mocks but protects him and allows him a dignified death.
The star of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Belle De Jour, The Last Metro, The Hunger, Indochine, My Favorite Season, Thieves, Place Vendome, Time Regained, Dancer in the Dark, and 8 Women, Catherine Deneuve may be the only woman worthy of comparison to Garbo. Deneuve’s beauty—whether perceived as girlish, chilly, sensual, or mature—and her subtle, suggestive technique have enriched the film lives of generations.
Sometimes life is just an embarassing mess. I can think of times I crossed the street rather than try to explain to an old acquaintance just how messy things had become. In Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, life is as chaotic as it could be—it is a story about New York and summer heat and desperation and crime and love: a man (Al Pacino as Sonny) robs a bank to pay for the sex-change operation of his lover (Chris Sarandon as Leon), a bad idea, and nothing goes as the robber planned. Al Pacino could not be more dramatic, but this is honest drama—before he gave in to technique and caricature.
It was seeing Placido Domingo in Stiffelio, an opera about a Protestant minister and his wife, on PBS in the 1990s, before I gave up watching television in the mid-90s, that convinced me not only of this singer’s talent, but of his character: he suggested a strength and integrity that are difficult, probably impossible, to fake. Seeing Domingo made me want to see many operas, a still ungratified wish. “Opera is total spectacle, and perhaps for that very reason it is off limits: to go to the opera is a complicated enterprise, you have to reserve seats well in advance, the tickets are expensive, and so you feel you must stay until the end of the performance. I would like to see opera as free and as popular as a movie theater or a wrestling arena…” said Roland Barthes (“The Phantom of the Opera,” The Grain of the Voice, Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus, 1985;186).
William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963), was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and died in Accra, Ghana. DuBois, humbling and inspiring, is considered by many the principal African-American intellectual. He wrote for the New York Globe at fifteen, attended Fisk, taught summer school, then attended Harvard and studied philosophy and history and received his master’s degree in 1891. He spent two years studying at the University of Berlin. His Harvard doctoral thesis The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America is still considered a definitive work. DuBois conducted a research project for the University of Pennsylvania, research that led to his book The Philadelphia Negro. He taught at Atlanta University for more than a decade, and entered a disagreement with Booker Washington over the interpretation and direction of Negro life (Washington did not believe in higher education or full political participation for blacks; DuBois did). DuBois offered a respectful but incisive critique of Washington, as well as a celebration of black striving in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, before helping to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—and DuBois edited the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, though he would become increasingly disenchanted with the organization. “How does it feel to be a problem?” is the question that DuBois and other Negroes were asked, and it is the question with which DuBois begins The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays that reads like a single, complex and digressive thought, answering the question and going beyond it. “Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness,” he wrote (6). However, he felt that progress depended on exceptional men: “Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, a surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground” (96). DuBois wrote about barbarity and hope, suffering and practical work, all with a lucid, serene eloquence, an eloquence that was matched with how he lived his life, with wisdom and grace. DuBois was also impressed by the ideals of the 1917 Russian revolution, and visited Russia in 1927. DuBois would publish Black Reconstruction, Dusk of Dawn, and The World and Africa; and he was very interested and involved in the hope for revolution in Africa.
What happened to Faye Dunaway? She was once one of the pillars of the film community, and now, though active, her presence has grown small. Bette Davis, the unforgettable star of All About Eve, Dark Victory, Jezebel, and many other films, used to say that the public was inclined to—wanted to—identify performers with the parts they played. Certain actors, women especially, embody the power and weakness that is the truth about many of us. However, the desire to see star and part as inseparable seems to have worked against Dunaway. Those who care often point to Dunaway’s portrayal of an unhinged Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest as the part that derailed Dunaway’s career. (Mommie Dearest was probably unfair to both Dunaway and Crawford.) However, that film simply may have cemented a growing perception: Dunaway, among her panoply of characters, has played several women of insatiable hunger and indestructible ambition. (She was unafraid of being threatening; and once having seen certain things in someone’s face it is hard to forget them.) Faye Dunaway was in Hurry Sundown, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Chinatown, and Network before Mommie Dearest; and after Mommie Dearest she was in a large number of theatrical and television productions but few of them equal to her early work—with the possible exceptions being Barfly, Arizona Dream, Don Juan DeMarco, Albino Alligator, The Yards, and The Rules of Attraction.
The Dying Gaul is a film directed by Craig Lucas, based on his own play, and in it a white gay male writer is paid a million dollars for a script about a love affair between two men, in which one of the lovers dies of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS); and as part of his payment, it’s understood that he will change the story from focusing on two men to being about a man and a woman. He’s induced to betray his play and the real life love on which it’s based by a producer who is bisexual and married to a former screenwriter. It’s interesting that in the published play, the producer’s wife knows that her husband is bisexual and has affairs with men, so he is not sexually immoral, but in the film she’s surprised by his affair with the writer (that sophisticated aspect of the play is dumped for cinematic and social cliché). In the film, the bisexual is aesthetically amoral, professionally dishonest, and sexually predatory; and the woman is deceptively kind and emotionally manipulative (she takes on the persona of the writer’s dead lover on the internet when she engages the writer in a chat room) and she is finally cruel; and the white gay man, though not forced to do anything he doesn’t want to do (he chooses to sell his script; to have an affair with a married man, the producer; and to engage in a strange internet dialog with someone claiming to be his dead lover), he’s presented as a victim; and the life of the bisexual man is destroyed and the woman is killed, leaving the white gay male writer alive with a million dollars to spend. Peter Sarsgaard as the writer, Campbell Scott as the producer, and Patricia Clarkson as the wife give performances that are etched with believable emotion—whether concern, desire, grief, or anger; and the people in the film seem civilized in manner—articulate, intelligent, informed by culture, while acting in duplicitous ways; and this is a uniquely vicious film—indicating a dishonest, immature, malicious, and narcissistic sensibility.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) is the paradigmatic African-American composer; and he wrote ballads and dance songs and film scores and orchestral pieces and some of his work was inspired by eastern music. He wrote music charts often inspired by the musical personalities of his musicians, and he allowed for improvisation. Clarinetist Don Byron has said that “the early Ellington stuff, that’s my favorite period of Ellington, always will be. It’s the most interesting period. It’s just completely explosive, and he’s inventing what he’s doing from tune to tune, sometimes based on some girl’s shakin’ her ass or whatever. Whyever he wrote the piece, these pieces are completely revolutionary and often quite different from each other. Even some of the harmonic moves he makes, there’s no precedent for a lot of them” (“Visionaries and Eclectics,” Growing Up with Jazz, by W. Royal Stokes, Oxford, 2005; 139). I have heard some early Ellington music—it was marketed as jungle music, and while it did have heat and speed (and I won’t say it was music anyone could have made, as Ellington was the one to make it), it did not have the wholeness I feel or hear in his later music. I also have reservations about the preference for the early stages of a man’s or a culture’s history—the inclination to see those early stages as more innocent or authentic: even a master develops. Edward Kennedy Ellington, known to all as Duke Ellington, was born in 1899 Washington, District of Columbia, to a wonderfully bourgeois family; and Ellington attended Armstrong Manual Training School for art study, while also listening to ragtime musicians—and he was tutored by the musicians Harvey Brooks, Oliver Perry, and Louis Brown. Ellington formed a music group in 1917, and soon he bought his own home, and was booking elegant shows for his group in Washington and Virginia, before moving to New York in 1923, and there performed on radio to his increased popularity, leading to his recording and publishing contracts and international tours and legendary collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Ellington’s work has depth, mastery, and range.
Invisible Man, the novel, and the two essay collections, Shadow and Act, and Going to the Territory, three books, were of a quality to give Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) a great, and deserved, reputation as a writer while he lived. Invisible Man is a picaresque novel, with political and spiritual dimensions, featuring a well-intentioned young man whose inadequate grasp of real motives and consequences leads to his own exploitation and his nearly endless frustration. (There are so many characters in the book that I, like many other students, failed a two-part essay exam in college when I did not recognize an important character’s name.) Subsequent titles, Flying Home and Other Stories, and the novel Juneteenth, gratified the admirers who always wanted more from Ellison. The book Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius by Lawrence Jackson situates his work in his life….
Percival Everett is a writer, and his oeuvre includes Suder, Cutting Lisa, Zulus, God’s Country, Big Picture, Watershed, Frenzy, Glyph, Erasure, American Desert, and Wounded; and I think he’s a greatly inventive—and simply great—writer. Sometimes the simple facts in a biographical narrative may go further in establishing the legend of an artist than his actual work, especially if those facts confirm generally held beliefs. If a writer’s life and work do not conform, his significance may be harder to read—and that may be the case of Percival Everett, a genius. Everett tells stories with unusual imagination and wit and excellent language craft, but he lives on a farm with horses and teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and he, an African-American, is as familiar with literary theory and experimental writing as he is with horse feed: and he fits no received stereotype. To put it too simply: Cutting Lisa is about a doctor-father who realizes his son’s wife is carrying another man’s child, which provokes the doctor to do the unthinkable. Everett captures the son’s good nature and the father’s evolving understanding of how his son has been deceived and the resulting, if understandable, horror: the father wants to protect his son’s innocence; and we can see—as Baldwin, and Morrison used to say—the kind of compromised morality that results from that. God’s Country, a comic western, is about a little-good white farmer whose close acquaintances become a black man and a girl disguised as a boy. Watershed involves a black hydrologist, Native Americans, and land disputes, and it is a personal narrative, a murder mystery, and a political drama. Frenzy is about possession by the god Dionysos and presented compelling articulations of consciousness and feeling. Percival Everett is not inclined to repeat himself.
The Far Side of the Moon, a film by the Canadian director Robert Lepage, was apparently made in 2003 but only opened in New York in December 2005. Manohla Dargis in The New York Times (December 2, 2005) called the work an “alternately rewarding and frustrating drama” about modern alienation, whereas The Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Rechtshaffen (November 5, 2004) had described it previously after a festival screening as “a wondrously inventive and often quite amusing story.” The moving picture, reportedly shot on high-definition digital video, is about two brothers in Quebec: one, Andre, a successful weatherman, a liar, gay, with a lover, and the other, Philippe, an original but eccentric graduate student who works as a phone salesman, honest, heterosexual, and lonely, though he’s had at least one girlfriend and until recently was taking care of his mother, now deceased. Lepage plays both; and as the scientist son, the caregiver, he has a physical quality—soft face, thick body—that seems both body-negligent straight boy and mother-involved son. The weatherman son seems slimmer, more professional. The brothers do talk but they’re not close. The scenes we see of the remembered mother show her as something of an archetype—feminine, nurturing, self-conscious. The film has several themes—obviously family (sibling contentions, mother-love, and grief), but also space exploration, and what leads to imaginative leaps: narcissism, competition, imitation. Philippe is central, and we see him through the window of a laundromat washing machine, which suddenly becomes the window on a ship out in space, and we are told about the Russian and American quests to be the first to put a man in space, and then to put a man on the moon. The film moves between flashbacks and contemporary forward narrative (and I suspect it’s easy to mistake its chronology without notes, which I did not take). We see a childhood scene of Andre as a younger brother during his older brother Phillippe’s absence—Andre puts on Philippe’s music headphones, lights up a marijuana cigarette, spreads out and kisses a girlie magazine layout. Philippe walks up a snowy plane, and looks down into a valley and sees moon-walking astronauts. He returns home, taller than the family’s apartment building. He finds his little brother asleep in his room, and carries him out and into another room and dumps him into a washing machine, as if to cleanse him of experience or personality. Philippe has trouble at work, when he is caught using the phone for personal rather than business reasons—and when he leaves work early one day we see the name of director Robert Lepage on the staff list. (Lepage, a director of traditional and experimental stage and concert works, whose previous films include The Confessional and The Polygraph, lost his own mother to kidney failure in 1999, inspiring this film.) Philippe gets the opportunity to visit Russia for a conference, and he asks Andre to take care of their mother’s goldfish, which Philippe calls the last living thing she had. Philippe learns shortly before his trip that his mother’s death was probably suicide, that after an illness that involved amputations, she did not want to live. He is so distracted by this that in Russia he does not adjust his watch, and he misses the conference. He does have a conversation with one of the organizers, who tells him that he disagrees with Philippe’s thesis about the importance of narcissism—instead, the organizer thinks that space travel facilitates the possibility of self-awareness and communication. Meanwhile, due to a power outage, Philippe’s apartment is cold and the mother’s goldfish has frozen. Andre is inclined to lie about it, but after his lover criticizes that strategy, Andre tells Philippe the truth, and they agree to have dinner, at Andre’s expense, upon Philippe’s return. Philippe in the airport, waiting for the plane home, begins to break free of the pull of gravity and float in the air.
The Fast Runner is a film of family and clan, love and competition, myth and survival; and it makes cold nature seem a treacherous but lovely world. Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner (2001), directed by Zacharias Kunuk, is based on a tribal tale. The film was released in American theaters in early summer 2002. Frederic Brussat, writing alone for Spirituality and Health, began his comment on the film with, “The word myth derives from the Greek mythos which means ‘to murmur with closed lips, to mutter, to moan.’ The Inuit of Canada have a salutary tradition of oral storytelling that stretches back thousands of years. The people who first muttered these tales were nomadic hunter-gatherers trying to feed their families on the Arctic tundra, the top of the world. They found in these sagas intimations of their yearnings. They learned the dangers of breaking taboos and yielding to those passions, especially if it threatened the solidarity of the group.” He went on to call the film a masterpiece that speaks to our primal emotions, and noted that it gives “an engaging overview of Inuit culture and lifestyle in the old days with its portrait of hunting practices, food distribution, animal pelt clothing, oil lamps, water preservation, dog teams, sunglasses, and much more.” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Hunter wrote that, “Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and his brother Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk) are both the hope of the small Inuit tribe they belong to and marked for tragedy because of a shaman’s evildoing years earlier. While the film leisurely revels in the characters’ lifestyle—from dog sledding to building igloos—the story hinges on the love of Atanarjuat for Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) and how this causes jealous Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), her betrothed, to seek vengeance.” In his June 7, 2002 review, Hunter concluded that, “The acting, costumes, music, cinematography and sound are all astounding given the production’s austere locales.”
Images, through light exposure, are created on an emulsion-coated film negative, and that until now has been one of the necessities for creating films. There are people—technicians, and even critics—who are experts about such details and who are given to discussing the movement of the camera from one face to another in conversation (shot/reverse shot), images combined by theme or mood (montage), unbroken takes, experimental treatment of celluloid to produce unusual effects, and quotations of angles in past films, as well as subversive subtext, but when most people think about film, what they want to know is, who is in it and what is it about, how did it look, and was it any good?
Finland, long a flat low land of forests and farms, much of it between Sweden and Russia, was once a province of Sweden, then of Russia, and it became independent in 1917, and has since become a modern country thought by many to be the best place to live on earth—in terms of its economy and environment. Norway and Sweden have also been rated best, regarding factors such as literacy, research access, and gender and sexual rights, and all-around human development. Such facts are clarifying if one lives in America, the land of self-congratulations.
Hearing Aretha Franklin sing at Rosa Park’s funeral in a radio broadcast reminded me of Franklin’s ability to personify love, respect, sadness, wisdom, and faith. At her best, Aretha Franklin’s voice is formidable (combining the strengths of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Mahalia Jackson), her song selection thoughtful and varied, and her performances satisfying the requirements of art, truth, and imagination. I heard music producer Arif Mardin in an interview recently talk about the inventive musical ideas she brought to her work, noting the dreamy beginning and piano intro to “Daydreaming” and that song’s Stravinsky-like time signatures for the chorus. I have no objection to Aretha Franklin, a singer, songwriter, and pianist, being described as a genius; however, I have thought that in the last fifteen years or so the power of her early reputation has allowed and encouraged people to forgive and forget the low points of some of her recent performances—the gravelly, whispery, even ruinous voice, the technical embellishments and emotional exaggerations of her interpretations, that seem willful pandering to her audiences expectations of drama. Aretha Franklin is one of those people who seems to embody cultural heritage and social temperament—like Jesse Jackson, Amiri Baraka, and Spike Lee—and if prevailing standards for excellence aren’t met, that’s okay, as she represents more than individual being: she represents the soul of a people. If her singing speaks for truth but is falsely accomplished; if Jesse Jackson, despite consistently naming issues of critical importance, doesn’t actually produce solutions to African-American problems that effect change in black lives in forty years of leadership; if Amiri Baraka, after early work of the greatest promise, confuses hate with passion and bad grammar and vulgarity with linguistic innovation; if Spike Lee’s film technique is florid but crude and he offers political posturing rather than political insight, though he’s had every opportunity to learn better, well, none of that is as bad as if one of them had articulated a genuine idea supported by evidence and logic that went against community prejudices. What if the soul of a people is fat with old pride and new self-indulgences? Applaud. Loudly enough that you cannot hear yourself think. I suppose that most achieved meaning cannot be permanent, interpretation and value being subject to time, knowledge, and use; and that makes a work’s ability to speak to more than one generation a precious fact, and a man or woman’s being a hero in an age other than his or her own nearly awesome. Most of us cannot embody meaning—our lives and our motives are too contradictory, even incoherent, our potential unfulfilled. For most of the work represented by Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man, Spirit in the Dark, Young Gifted and Black, Amazing Grace, Let Me In Your Life, Almighty Fire, Love All the Hurt Away, and Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, Aretha Franklin is a great artist.
Black Literature and Literary Theory, an anthology, and the literary studies Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the Racial Self and The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism were my introduction to Henry Louis Gates Jr., someone who interested me for his historical, intertextual, and theoretical consideration of African-American literature. As time did what time does (stand still, while we move?), Gates had been or became involved with many works, some of them extraordinary markers of history and culture—slave narratives, essays, reference works, interviews, travelogues, and more. Gates helped to produce the long-dreamed of Africana: The Encyclopedia (Perseus Books, 1999) and also the Oxford Companion to African American Literature (Oxford, 1997).
In a speech that he gave in Michigan in 1964, Lyndon Johnson, took the opportunity to talk about the possibility of the United States evolving into a great society, and the speech has since been referred to as his Great Society speech. He said, “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.” I imagine these words were especially welcome during the movement for civil rights and the cultural revolution that was taking place in America, when people, especially the young, were asking questions about how American values were actually practiced. Johnson said, “The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” It is strange today to read a speech that actually has something to do with one’s own beliefs and hopes and frustrations, a mark of how far contemporary leadership has moved from long-held ideals: “It is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today,” said Johnson. Lyndon Johnson also said, “The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.” If someone said that today, he might be accused of treason, or of being some kind of radical ideologist, but that is what free thought sounds like—critical, far-seeing, hopeful; and that is what the president of the Unites States seemed to want for all: “Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal.” What did Lyndon Johnson plan to do? “We are going to assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of White House conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. And from these meetings and from this inspiration and from these studies we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society.” Do we have a great society? What did Johnson actually accomplish? Johnson increased federal funding to primary and secondary schools, created more youth employment programs, and expanded unemployment benefits and the food stamp program; and created health insurance for the elderly, Medicare; and eliminated literacy tests for voting as part of a Voting Rights Act. He also created federal departments focused on housing and urban development, and transportation. But the war in Vietnam undermined his mission.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell, follows last year’s intense and dreamy Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), directed by Alfonso Cuaron, about the escape of prisoner Sirius Black, who was believed to be involved in the murder of Harry’s parents and after Harry. Ghostly soul-stealing Dementors are used for school security in Prisoner of Azkaban. Are beings whose appointed mission is good also dangerous, and is it possible that a condemned man can intend good? Gestures and acts and what they mean, and the past and whether or not atonement or justice is possible, are all part of the texture of the film. Betrayal among intimates is a theme. Prisoner of Azkaban is like an intelligent nightmare, and it is easy to feel for the endangered and gifted young characters, Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), the first film in the series, is about the death of Harry’s parents, killed by Voldemort, and Harry’s neglectful upbringing by an aunt and uncle who disapproved of his parents use of magic and never told Harry about this inheritance, though he learns of his own gifts when he receives a letter to attend a school for wizards, where he becomes friends with Ron and Hermione. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) is about trouble at school, Hogwarts, and the threat it poses to certain students, including Harry’s friend Hermione. Harry finds the diary of Tom Riddle, a former student who will grow up to be Voldemort. (Chris Columbus directed the first two Potter films.) It is a very engaging film series, one I had not expected to like. Magic is a secret wish of many of us, and the series gives us that—along with all kinds of conflicts and complexities with some genuine relationship to life. The books by J.K Rowling the films are based on continue to be a popular phenomenon (the film scripts have been by Steven Kloves). The new film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is very much an installment of the series—it offers less background information than the other films, but like them it’s most appealing aspects are the relationships among Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson). Friends since early childhood and now adolescents, the friendship between Harry and Ron experiences the stress of competition and unshared secrets, and Ron and Hermione cause each other pain because their friendship confuses and masks their growing romantic affection for each other. In Goblet of Fire, a prophetic and threatening dream about the return of Voldemort to Harry’s life and a dangerous sports event involving several schools drive the narrative. The film, like others in the series, is full of wondrous imagery; and if anything Hogwarts seems more impressive—more spacious and strange—than ever before. There are opportunities for Harry to choose between individual success and fellowship and he, though tempted otherwise, chooses fellowship. There is an unexpected death, and Voldemort comes to power—Ralph Fiennes plays him, and dressed in flowing black robes, Voldemort has nothing childlike about him, nothing joyful, and his intent is to dominate and destroy (he represents the worst kind of maturity: he’s a death force).
Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington as the boxer Rubin Hurricane Carter, and directed by Norman Jewison, may include the most forceful and most truthful performance Washington has ever given. (Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, John Hannah, Debbi Morgan, and David Paymer also star.) Hurricane Carter was known as a strong man with a political conscience, something that no doubt riled various observers who prefer black men either docile or invisible, if that’s not redundant. Convicted with an alleged accomplice of several restaurant murders, despite not fitting the description of an assailant, Hurricane Carter was sentenced to life in prison (actually sentenced to three lifetimes in prison). Bob Dylan and others tried to draw attention to his case, but it was not until a black boy (played by Vicellous R. Shannon) in Canada reads Carter’s book on his life and his case, and gets his Canadian friends to become involved in Hurricane Carter’s case, that Carter is freed. (Maybe some Canadians are as nice as their reputations suggest—at one point in the film, the black boy talks about how much they like being out in nature. It is a moment of humor in the film, arising out of perceived cultural difference; it is also an opportunity of unexplored arrangements: the Canadians lived in a commune, about which there has been offscreen talk of unusual sexual relationships; and later Hurricane Carter married one of the Canadians and lived in the commune.) The film may present an idealized picture of Carter—who, reportedly, had police encounters before the murders for which he was convicted—but it allows Washington to be noble, persecuted, and to suggest experiences with great existential and political meaning.
On Thanksgiving night 2005, after thinking about the mistreatment of native Americans and accepting an acquaintance’s invitation to share a roast and stuffing dinner, I wanted to see a film with recognizable American values, and I saw The Ice Harvest. It’s a funny film about stealing from the mob, untrustworthy friends, dysfunctional family, and a little murder and mayhem. The IceHarvest, directed by Harold Ramis, has a chilly look of cool steel gray, dangerous night, and white snow and ice. It has intelligent dialog by Richard Russo and Robert Benton and a low-key jaded humor, as it presents a lawyer, a porn distributor, and strip club manager and their machinations. John Cusack, as the lawyer, has rapport with both Billy Bob Thornton as the porn guy, and Connie Nielsen as the strip club manager.
Images of Blacks: Billy Dee Williams, who starred with Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany, and also appeared in the theatrical and television films The Last Angry Man, Brian’s Song, Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings, Scott Joplin, The Empire Strikes Back, Batman, The Jacksons: An American Dream, The Visit, and Undercover Brother, was interviewed by Michael St. John of Canyon News, a California community newspaper serving Bel Air, Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills, Laurel Canyon, and nearby towns, for an article posted online November 6, 2005. About his work with Ross, Williams said, “We were concerned about creating characters with dignity, ones that universally would be understood and connect with all people.” What does he look for in a script? “When I read a script, I look for dimension, character levels, a complete human being that the average ticket buyer might have some sensitivity towards. Whether the character is bad or good, I’d like the audience to feel something positive for him or her,…” Williams lamented the imagery of blacks currently available on television and in film: “I’m outraged with some of the sitcom shows that depict black men as total fools and stupid talking characters; they are usually connected or married to just as stupid, circus type black women with the cartoon type attitude that has always been characterized in books, plays and in the general creative media. Without a doubt, we have allowed, because of our lack of options as actors, to be pushed in the back of the bus again. Worse yet, black people, because of their need or hunger to be represented, sit back and generally accept these shows as genuine entertainment. The young people have no idea what they are resetting in place and it saddens me.” Williams also said, “Some of the worst writing is being bought up by many production companies. Scripts written by blacks who can only associate with street life and the lowest element of the black community at large. The characters are gangster-types, ignorant and stupid, the type of people you would do anything to keep from your neighborhoods. Watching something like this, why in hell would you want to live next door to this kind of influence? It’s threatening to the best of us, no matter what color, but this kind of film or television show seems to easily be produced. This is seriously disturbing!”
Henry James, as thinker and writer, created an art that he could not be sure anyone else wanted—its characters, themes, situations, moral questions, and subtle but powerful reverberations were what he required…
Jarhead, a film based on the war memoir of Anthony Swofford and directed by Sam Mendes, is a portrait of self-annihilating, soldier-constructing marine training, and it details the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The war—undertaken after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait and refused to leave (Kuwait had oil fields valuable to many)—lasted only about four days, but more than twenty-five thousand Iraqis were killed in that time. If it wasn’t the execution of a scorched earth policy, it seems to have been a scorched people policy. The film contains little politics—in terms of ideology, debate, motivation, or effects; and is mostly concerned with the specifics of a brief war-time experience. One observes how marines are forced to respect the bluntest authority and also how they are rid of their fear of being shot (they crawl on the ground below barbed wire while live rounds are aimed in the space above that wire and their heads). The men spend down time mocking each other, watching war films, speculating about what their wives and girlfriends back home are doing, and also masturbating. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, Peter Sarsgaard is his friend, Chris Cooper a wildly enthusiastic commanding officer, Jamie Foxx is a staff sergeant, and Dennis Haysbert another officer. Gyllenhaal is seen reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger—which makes one wonder, If he’s smart enough to have good taste in literature, why did he go into the armed forces? At one point, Swofford says he was dumb enough to sign a military contract and at another he says he got lost on his way to college. Of course, if intelligence were all, more than a few of us would be doing something else with our time. Swofford and his comrades are frustrated as they do not get to use their shooting skills during the war, as more is quickly accomplished by air bombing. Gyllenhaal is fine in the part, and has several expressive scenes—when Swofford masochistically wants to watch another soldier’s wife’s adultery tape to have a sense of what betrayal feels like; when he’s insanely angry with a comrade who was supposed to take his watch, but whose cooking started a fire and caused Swofford trouble; and when Swofford sees the burnt remains of a convoy of fleeing Iraqis, and later when he stops a soldier from abusing an Iraqi corpse. Sarsgaard’s performance seemed uneven to me: he was sometimes an ordinary masculine male, sometimes a leader, sometimes a misfit, sometimes a sensitive mess. I was taken aback when Sarsgaard’s battle-ready recruit takes a phone out of Haysbert’s hand: it seemed disrespect of authority and the denial of the black man’s presence (and I found it hard to imagine the same thing would have been done if a white officer had been involved: every once in a while something like this occurs in a film—when the authority of a black male is entirely undermined). Before this, Haysbert has compelling moments as an officer—punishing Swofford for dereliction of guard duty, then insisting on using the outhouse before Swofford tends it (it’s Haysbert’s manner that’s compelling, striding forth as if he owns the land and the men on it). I wouldn’t say that Jamie Foxx is bad in Jarhead, nor that he was bad in Stealth: only that these characters do not allow him the careful performance he gave in the biographical film Ray; and in Jarhead he’s a dedicated military man—committed, forceful, and loud, but decent. Jarhead, which has a documentary style with the narrative continuity of a short story, delivers what feels like a complete experience.
“I rode a bus, a train and sometimes/ strolling for miles to a movie show/ singing a song, “Shoobedoo” while birds and rich folks flew right on by,” sang the Milwaukee-born Al Jarreau, in the title song of the album We Got By, a recording with themes of survival, pleasure, love, trouble, and mythology. Jarreau, the son of a vicar, first sang in a church choir, an upbringing that may account partly for his perceptible sensitivity, and Jarreau is a vocal inventor—he improvises sounds that suggest emotion and thought and create a unique atmosphere—and his albums are some of the most expansively human, gorgeously sung, produced in the last forty years: his 1970s recordings We Got By and Glow are masterpieces, as far as I’m concerned, and his discography includes Look to the Rainbow, All Fly Home, This Time, L is for Lover, Heaven and Earth, and Tenderness, a live recording that brings together his various musical directions, and the recent Accentuate the Positive, on which he sings “The Nearness of You,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and “My Foolish Heart.” On We Got By, Jarreau performs, “Susan’s Song” about the fear of love, the existence of lasting pain, and the possibility of tenderness between two people; he sings, “I been blind a long time.” In “You Don’t See Me” he sings about frustrated ambition, social isolation, the comfort of drugs, the trajectory of crime and violence—it is a song about a neglected person whose gifts are wasted, and who becomes society’s trouble: “You don’t see me…I’m in your mirror.” In Glow, along with songs by Leon Russell, Elton John, James Taylor, Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone), and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jarreau sings several songs he wrote: “Have You Seen the Child,” “Milwaukee,” and “Glow,” with passion, and his songs—about faith, family, and community—themselves nearly have the power of rituals that invoke and fulfill.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a rather predictable man, moving from office to office: he was Virginia governor, then ambassador to France, then national secretary of state, then vice-president to president John Adams, and finally was himself president of the United States in 1801 until 1809. Jefferson was played by Nick Nolte in James Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris (1995), and a too-guileless Thandie Newton played Sally Hemings, the slave girl Jefferson was involved with. Jefferson’s commitment to education and fine principles, his pragmatic political projects, and his contradictory relationship to blacks are a lasting and flawed legacy.
Bill T. Jones has achieved through talent and self-assertion as well as social philosophy a presence in American culture that is unusual for a dancer: one thinks not only of his moves, but of his ideas. Jones met and fell in love with his partner Arnie Zane in college, at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and with Zane formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Zane died in 1988. Jones kept the company going, and has also been involved in collaborations with Alvin Ailey ‘s company, and Lyon Opera Ballet and Berlin Opera Ballet as well as with artists such as Toni Morrison and Max Roach. Bill T. Jones has tried for a personal performance style that did not overtly owe Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and other dance masters; and he has worked with people of different body types and dance techniques, seeing his work as visual art and entertainment. Jones has addressed such issues as illness and death, and thinks art can stimulate social change.
One of June Jordan’s poetry collections has a title—Things I Do In the Dark—that I never ceased to find provocative: the things done in the dark might be secrets, might offer danger or pleasure: one might rest in the dark or see films or make love or think quietly or plot revolution. Jordan, a poet and essayist, a teacher and an activist, wrote celebrations and elegies and protestations. My favorite of her poems is probably the timeless “On A New Year’s Eve,” which she begins with “Infinity doesn’t interest me,” and goes on to celebrate the fragile, valuable disappearing things—children’s pleasure, a sunrise, adulation, the movements of animals—and state that “the temporary is the sacred” and the intimacy between two people is what concerns her, what lives in her life and memories, as “all things are dear/ that disappear” (Things That I Do…, Random House, 1997; 73-76). A collected edition has been published of June Jordan’s work, called Directed by Desire (Copper Canyon Press, 2005), following Jordan’s death from cancer in 2002: she lives on in her work. I wish that she continued to live on the earth—and that Saul Bellow, Ray Charles, Shirley Chisholm, Shirley Horne, Ismail Merchant, Richard Pryor, Nina Simone, Luther Vandross, and August Wilson were still with us—all things are dear that disappear.
I am, of course, not an admirer of Michael Jordan, as I’m not a regular follower of basketball or any sport, though I learned rather late an obvious fact—some of the male camaraderie I wanted was more easily found in sports than among the literary. Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls, and was the leading scorer in the National Basketball Association. Driven from Within (Atria, 2005), a book about and partly by Michael Jordan, is basically a marketing book: it talks about Jordan’s life and career—his disciplined family upbringing, the competitive drive to excel, the challenging and supportive sports coaching he received, and his endorsement deals with companies such as Nike and Coke, emanating from and ending in what he refers to as the development of Brand Jordan: it’s mostly about how he has successfully marketed himself, advertising for advertising. The book, edited by Mark Vancil, with apparent contributions from VSA, a design agency, uses quality paper, different type faces, color pictures, and reproductions of various illustrations—drawings, logos, magazine covers, and fold-out photo spreads, to impress. It seems, like Jordan, the product not merely of monumental effort but possibly of monstrous effort: gargantuan ambition, boundless self-affirmation, extraordinary energy, and social power. (Fascinating how work we do not sympathize with seems suspect.) “Whatever I was going to do, I wanted to do it my way. I just wanted the freedom to express myself. It wasn’t about trying to be different for the sake of being different. I just wanted to follow what I felt,” says Jordan (96). These are admirable words and if they were said by someone I respected in a field of interest, they would have greater resonance in me. Jordan mentions being asked to film a commercial in which a marketing team wanted him to wear a hood and look thuggish and he decided to wear what he’d walked in with: clothes that exuded a manly elegance. However, I cannot forget the little I knew about Jordan before seeing this book: refusing to endorse Harvey Gantt, a democrat, against Jesse Helms, the notorious republican, Jordan said, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” and when asked about Nike sweatshops, in which, reportedly, some women were paid less than two dollars a day, Jordan refused to intervene. When I was a boy one of my teachers had wall illustrations with descriptions of people like mathematician and scientist Benjamin Banneker, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, United Nations mediator and Nobel recipient Ralph Bunche, scientist George Washington Carver, and minister and activist Martin Luther King Jr., important people, and while we children liked singers and sportsmen we didn’t confuse most of them with important people. With the greater emphasis on spectacle—and spectatorship—in American life, entertainers have become much more important. I know that Michael Jordan means a lot to many people, though he means nothing to me.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film written and directed by Shane Black, and said to be based in part on Brett Halliday’s novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them, is a detective mystery and a black comedy, featuring Robert Downey Jr. as a petty thief who, in escaping from the police, stumbles into an audition and tries out for a part as a detective in a film, and is taken to California for further consideration. He meets a detective, a gay man, bluntly honest and professional, played by Val Kilmer, who is asked to give him pointers on how detectives work. As various mysteries and murders are introduced, and cases unfold, the line between truth and fiction is explored in this entertaining film. Downey meets a young woman he knew as a girl, who has a sad story about her father’s abuse of her younger sister. There’s a scene in which, to avoid detection of their nearness to a dead body, Downey and Kilmer kiss, a calculated distraction, and one that would have been provocative if presented in a film even ten years ago. Both men are entering middle age, and they do not project the same fresh sensuality they did in their youth: part of what is exciting and shocking about the sexuality of young people is their frisky animal quality, another is their innocence; and neither man, both with lines on their still handsome faces, has that kind of energy.
The Libertine, written by Stephen Jeffreys and directed by Laurence Dunmore, was a disappointment to me—and that is to say that it did not fulfill the vague hopes I had for it (regarding beauty, intensity, and transgression). I found myself thinking, This is a minor work—but that is a strange thing to think, unless there is something about the work that challenges what one considers major concerns. The film, which looks like old paintings, is about a decadent writer, the seventeenth-century earl of Rochester, poet John Wilmot, played by Johnny Depp. While many of the men in the film wear makeup and wigs, Wilmot does not wear makeup and his own hair hangs long. He does not wear makeup that is until his syphillis has infested his face and the makeup only partly—and hideously—disguises the fact of disease. Depp’s performance, for me, was a little too comic, a little too flippant. I found other actors in the film more remarkable; and that was a surprise. Depp could have given us more sensual hunger—more need for contact, stimulation. Rosamund Pike plays his neglected and loving wife, Elizabeth; and the scenes featuring her had a quality of nobility, passion, and thought that raised my sense of the poet’s circumstances and possibilities. Pike gives us a woman seduced by her husband’s love letters, and bewildered and hurt by his in-person disregard. She holds out to him love and a sense of decency that he does not attempt to live up to. He acknowledges his self-division, his being more entertained by his own mind than the company of others and his betrayal of his better instincts. He is, as the dialog sugggests, a fascinating character, but while Pike gives us an interesting woman—despite her devotion being a cliché of romanticism—Depp does not truly give us an interesting man. How could such a man inspire this woman’s loyalty? Rosamund Pike was in Pride and Prejudice, as were Tom Hollander, Kelly Reilly, and Rupert Friend: and in Pride and Prejudice, Rosamund Pike was a humble, loving woman, and here, while loving, she declares herself a force, and Hollander, a pandering and pompous parson in Pride is here a confident, proud, sometimes jabbing writer and friend of Wilmot; Reilly, an arrogant, disapproving woman in Pride is here an actress-whore who surprises herself and us with her care for Wilmot, and Rupert Friend, a compelling opportunist in Pride is here a young, fatally brash friend to Wilmot. Friend’s Billy Downs first spoke to Wilmot after Wilmot came to the aid of a thief—Billy realizes that Wilmot’s intercession puts Wilmot at risk, a risk Wilmot acknowledges and accepts. In a brief scene, when Friend is applying stage makeup to Depp and they touch each other, there’s a suggestion of erotic complicity, but the film does not develop that. It’s possible a scene or several scenes of homoeroticism were edited, as rumors of man-love came with the first announcement of the film’s production. Perhaps sex between men was one transgression too many, even for this film, which might be seen as the anti-??Pride and Prejudice??, a repudiation of the idea that personal desires can be reconciled with the dictates of society and nation. Nonetheless, when Depp’s Wilmot and Rupert Friend’s Billy Downs are finally seen after an absence—after Wilmot has fled the king’s anger—they are in a tavern with Wilmot leaning heavily against Downs. Rupert Friend is an able member of the cast, but as he is new to film, it’s odd to see Friend given a death scene so soon (he handles it mostly well)—and Friend, along with other cast members, was nominated (Friend for best newcomer)—as the newspaper ads trumpet—for an British independent film award. Samantha Morton plays an actress-whore Wilmot falls for (neither he, nor we, know why), and to whom Wilmot gives acting lessons; and at first Morton’s own performance was undistinguished but it grew in form and feeling. John Malkovich plays the king, Charles II; and he too conveys the potential of John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester: Charles says that he loves him and that Wilmot could be his Shakespeare and his persuasive public voice in the parliament, but Wilmot satirizes the king in pornographic verse and theater—and the king condemns him: to simply be himself, without recognition or encouragement from the king. As Wilmot’s disease worsens and he looks horrifying, Depp’s performance has a simplicity and vile toughness that come close to making up for his earlier lightness: it is also the character’s punishment for his life, for the risks he took.
Alain Locke’s works—whether the anthology The New Negro, or his anthology of journalism, The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture, edited by Jeffrey C. Steward (Garland, 1983), or his philosophy—The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, edited by Leonard Harris (Temple University Press, 1989)—are inspirations.
Will Jennifer Lopez be allowed to embody more than personal ambition and personal trouble in films, and more than ethnic ambition and ethnic trouble? Will she be placed in stories in which her personality, priorities, and purpose are allowed to affect strangers, the world at large? She has, in addition to producing music recordings and becoming involved in various business ventures, appeared in the films My Family, Selena, Out of Sight, The Cell, The Wedding Planner, Angel Eyes, Maid in Manhattan, Gigli, Jersey Girl, Shall We Dance, Monster-in-Law, and An Unfinished Life. As with Oscar de la Hoya, Beyonce, and Tiger Woods, Jennifer Lopez’s career carries not only her own hopes, or that of a people, but it often seems a sign of the health of American culture: if she can be loved and respected, maybe we are who and what we have claimed to be all these years.
Yo-Yo Ma is beautiful, as is his music, and both the man and the music have a deepened sense of purpose, and that makes him one of the more rewarding musicians to contemplate. His discography of more than fifty albums includes Bach: Unaccompanied Cello Suites, Brahms: Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Appalachia Waltz, Japanese Melodies, Made in America: Bernstein, Gershwin, Ives, Kirchner, and Piazzolla: Soul of the Tango, Silk Road Journeys, The Essential Yo-Yo Ma, and Hush with Bobby McFerrin. I still recall that in Yo-Yo Ma’s appearance on morning television with McFerrin (Spontaneous Inventions, Medicine Music, Bang Zoom), these two married men with children held hands at one point and the reporter ignored the gesture, not knowing what to make of it: and I thought their comfort level with their affection and respect for each other terrific. Recently, Yo-Yo Ma has been exploring with other artists the Silk Road heritage—the cultures that arose or intermingled as a result of travels along the ancient trade routes connecting China and Europe, and even Iran (Persia), collectively known as the Silk Road. Born in Paris to Chinese parents, this is part of his personal heritage but Yo-Yo Ma realizes that it is also part of ours: “the internet of antiquity” he called the Silk Road in BBC Music Magazine (November 2005). Yo-Yo Ma was a prodigy, making his Carnegie Hall debut at nine, and he, in middle age, remains in perspective ever open, ever youthful.
Nelson Mandela is one of the rare persons who do not have to sing his own praises, who does not have to remind the world about his significance. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for his activities against apartheid—officially charged with unlawfully leaving the country (to attend a Pan-African conference in Ethiopia) and with incitement to strike—and he was in custody from November 1962, for a five-year sentence that became, after a subsequent conviction for a charge of sabotage, a life sentence, but he was freed, with the help of an international movement against apartheid, in February 1990. Mandela became the first elected president of the free South Africa in May 1994. Nelson Mandela embodies commitment, courage, integrity, the very best of humanity. He was a man of whom much had been expected; and he fulfilled those expectations: he had been born at Qunu, near Umtata, in the Transkei in 1918, and after his father’s death he became the chief’s ward and was groomed for office, but he wanted to become a lawyer. Mandela studied at the University College of Fort Hare; and he joined the African National Congress in 1942, and with people such as Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu he was a youth section leader advocating national self-determination, emphasizing culture and education and land redistribution and trade union rights. They believed in nonviolent activism. Mandela had a law practice with Oliver Tambo that served poor blacks. The African National Congress (ANC) became a prohibited group in 1960; and Mandela began to conduct most of his activities in secrecy, sometimes in disguise. After realizing that no matter how peaceful their activities, they would be met with violence—it had happened again and again—ANC members took up armed struggle. Not long after Mandela was arrested and imprisoned, but he always refused enticements to recant for his release—and people around the world argued and marched for his release, especially during the 1980s. He was released in 1990, then he suspended the armed struggle. Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and was elected in 1994 as the South African president, which he remained until his retirement from public life in 1999.
Thurgood Marshall, worked as a lawyer on behalf of civil rights, and won more cases before the Supreme Court than any other American; and he became a Supreme Court justice in 1967. Marshall, who was born in 1908 and died in 1993, attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and the law school at Howard University in Washington, both Negro schools. Marshall spoke about the distinguished lecturers received by Howard when he was a student: Harvard Law school dean Roscoe Pound, Negro lawyer and United States assistant attorney general Bill Lewis, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Garfield Hayes, and Clarence Darrow, among them. Marshall had been refused admission to the University of Maryland law school because of his skin color, and the first major case he won was suing that university to allow the attendance of an African-American, Donald Gaines Murray. Marshall became chief counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and his cases fought negative discrimination in education, housing, and voting, and included the Brown vs. Board of Education case. He was appointed by John Kennedy to the second circuit’s U.S. Court of Appeals, where he wrote more than one-hundred and fifty decisions, with no major decision being overturned by the Supreme Court. Lyndon Johnson appointed Marshall U.S. Solicitor General in 1965 and a Supreme Court judge (formal title: associate justice) in 1967. Thurgood Marshall is for many of us an untarnished legend; and it was a surprise to me when I read a commentary about Marshall by an admirer, writer Juan Williams, “The Many Masks of Thurgood Marshall,” published in the January 31, 1993 Washington Post, in which Juan Williams discussed attempts to withhold from Marshall what he had earned and also to undermine Marshall’s reputation: attorney general Robert Kennedy had been wary of making Marshall an Appeals Court judge, preferring to give him a district court job; Marshall’s confirmation for the Appeals Court position lasted nearly a year, during which his credentials and knowledge of the law were thoroughly questioned; and after his Supreme Court appointment, it was suggested he was not as intellectual or detail-oriented as he might have been; a Carter administration person actually asked Marshall to step down so Carter could appoint someone to the Court; and a book by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, The Brethren, described Marshall as too dependent on his law clerks. Juan Williams wrote about the styles Marshall used to protect himself from various slights that seemed rooted in lack of belief in black competence and intellectual range—by being cantankerous or joking—but that “Unmasked, Marshall was a man who wanted to be appreciated and respected as a hardworking, thoughtful advocate who stood up for individual rights before the American bar. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he was.” In the year 1998, Williams published the hardcover book Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary with Crown, and the paperback was done in year 2000 by Three Rivers Press. It’s been said that Clarence Thomas replaced Marshall on the Supreme Court, but it’s not possible that anyone could.
I sometimes think that Woody Allen’s films might benefit from reviews by architects, interior designers, etiquette counselors and psychoanalysts: his sensibility has become so refined, so special, that it is hard to imagine that many ordinary viewers will have the patience to see that accessible thought and feeling remain at the core of his work, that real questions and dilemmas about relationships, morality, and fundamental human purpose are asked and answered by his films. In strong>Match Point, set in the United Kingdom, Woody Allen has created a film that I imagine would interest, if not satisfy, Henry James and James’ admirer Patricia Highsmith: the film is about a talented, somewhat well-known but struggling young man who becomes involved with a rich London family and through them meets his future English wife and also a young American woman he becomes erotically infatuated with, with the quest for place and pleasure confounding morality, and leading to fatal considerations. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the sun-kissed but sensitive Chris Wilton, a tennis player who becomes a coach at a private club, where he meets Matthew Goode’s Tom Hewett, who introduces Chris to Tom’s sister, loving and understanding Chloe Hewett, played by Emily Mortimer. Scarlett Johansson plays the recklessly sensual Nola Rice, who is Tom’s fiancée. Chris marries Chloe and has an affair with Nola. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson are almost ridiculously good-looking: a fire-alarm probably should sound when they look at each other—they are dangerous together, and the film might have been called An American Tragedy in London, or What Nola Knew and What Chris Did About It. The film begins with a tennis ball going back and forth over a net, and commentary about luck—but it is also about character-driven fate; and yet there were times when I had no idea what would happen next, a rare occurrence in a contemporary film.
The body’s experience of the world, and the relation between perception and thought, are given recognition in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), and that gives him a special value for people interested in philosophy and in the world, and possibly for people interested in film, which inevitably depends on experience, observation, and thought…
Money is the blood of social life, the currency on which all else flows. Decades ago, Pauline Kael described the effects of money on film production; and more recently Susan Sontag did the same when she wrote about the industrial production of film and the diminishment of knowledgeable love of cinema. I was shaken when I read a September 2005 Variety magazine table listing the small amounts of money that the better films—independent, foreign, and just basically intelligent films—had made in the preceding year. Not long after that, there were several articles about the industry’s disappointment regarding year 2005’s cumulative box office take. I continue to think, as Kael and Sontag did, that the effects of money, in the forms of film cost and desired and actual profit, are important and should be discussed, as the kinds of films that get made, distributed, discussed, and seen are a principal consequence. The promise of a popular art is that it can make reference to and sense out of our lives, that it can show us possibilities we have not imagined or yet embraced: and it is our varying needs and wants that can test, affirm, and expand an art form. When the range of a popular art narrows, it becomes more difficult for radical experiments in that art to take place and be accepted.