I Was Born a Blonde Redhead on April 11, 2018

An unpopular opinion: Blonde Redhead live-scoring a presentation of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… was magnificent. I say this as a cinephile and Ozu fan (can the two be separated?) who generally dislikes the poor etiquette and behavior of audiences attending such shows more for the music, who generally finds the music unhelpful, distracting, unimaginative and/or overly repetitive. Moreover, a broken ankle and crutches forced me away from the near-front-and-center seats I prefer and into the worst possible vantage point for both witnessing this behavior and listening to this music.

At the extreme rear of the ground floor along the aisle – the place for ADA-designated seats – the screen naturally shares far more of one’s visual field with fellow patrons. Therefore, any time someone arrives late, gets up out of his or her seat to leave the theatre, or subsequently returns, the eye is instinctively arrested by the movement and loses focus on the film. Because this is deemed a sort of concert, presumably, people take much more license with breaking off their own visual engagement with the show, and in a house at capacity this means someone is almost always coming or going – horror and fury to a concentrated filmgoer. I quickly learned my lesson at the Alamo Drafthouse never to sit toward the back of the house – they make a big deal about the distraction of using one’s phone, but watching servers move up and down the aisles is a thousand times more irritating (a superfluous complaint now, when there are more ethical reasons for avoiding the place) – but even without food-and-drink service here the disrespect for the art of cinema was still more appalling. Of course sitting close to the doors meant also that their incessantly swinging open contaminated the ideal darkness of cinema viewing with constant peripheral spills of light.

Likewise the performance of the music – mostly broken up into discrete song forms, much if not most of it from the band’s recorded repertoire – gave many in the crowd the extremely misguided notion that it would be appropriate to clap any time a song ended or substantially changed. Not only did this interfere with hearing the music and sensing it develop in more subtle ways – all the more from the far end of the theatre – it inserted bursts of applause into scenes and moments of quiet emotion, even considerable pain, for the characters. The band may have caught onto this problem later on – sustaining notes beyond and between single pieces to eliminate the space for this reaction – but it was too little too late, for the audience had already gotten used to it within the film’s first few minutes.

As for many others in attendance, evidently, those first minutes were a struggle. Well before projection began the band had set up their Aughts-era polished soundwall rails for a train that traveled independently of what would eventually appear onscreen. Nothing about their playing changed in the slightest when images began to arrive overhead, and for quite some time no member of the group could be seen to even look up to watch what they were accompanying. This created a persistent sense that the film was more an arbitrary live show backdrop that might equally well have been music-video montage or mp3-player visualizations rather than the main event. As far as selling seats goes, this is unfortunately the state of cinema appreciation – as with 2016’s comparable event with Jerome Hiler and Will Oldham, most people (these are typically younger crowds) are probably paying to see the popular recording artist, not movies they’ve never heard of.

Those few there who happened to be familiar with silent movie screenings and Ozu would have noticed immediately the vast gulf between the timbre and pulse and tenor and image-interactivity of this music and both the vast majority of live scores and the preferences of Ozu himself, demonstrable from his sound films. Ozu’s use of score is gentle, ornamental, anodyne, often bordering on muzak, but it always seems to fit ideally with the earnestness and warmth of his approach – although, importantly, it will likely take a younger modern viewer some time to adjust to his style in sonic, visual and experiential terms. His terms have basically been obliterated from the predominant cinematic vocabulary – and maybe have never really been permitted there at all – but after a while a mature viewer comes to greatly appreciate their uniqueness. Most live accompaniment of his or any silent films plays up particular visible emotions, punctuates or underlines dramatic (and comedic) actions, and frequently adopts the musical language of the setting and era depicted, keeping up a fluid movement that carries the viewer from one scene to the next without drawing much attention to itself.

In neither of these respects did Blonde Redhead satisfy expectations, and thus widespread disappointment should have been predictable. Enthusiasts for the silent era got a fuzzy rock show, devotees of Ozu got a glossily uptempo dance-pop soundtrack, and fans of the band got forced to sit through a boring ancient foreign movie in black and white with the musicians out of the spotlight and playing old or unfamiliar material. Even as an admirer of all of the ingredients myself – at different points Misery is a Butterfly and 23 were very important albums for me, and the band dipped into each one for songs at least once – for at least a couple of reels I had to sit with the uncomfortable dissonance of this jarring sensory combination, and disappointed expectations for something I hadn’t properly envisioned in any detail beforehand – besides all the aforementioned complaints about the audience.

Several minutes in, however, I was won over. I realized that I actually liked the music minding its own business, and contributing a sharp (if itself smoothly textured) contrast to image and expectation. Most of the more intellectual filmmakers working during the advent of the sound – Soviets like Eisenstein, but experimenters worldwide as well – were not excited so much by the Bazinian “myth of total cinema” (that would now allow the documentation of sound that belonged to a reality only visual previously) but by the exact opposite capacity: the counterpointing of sight and hearing for strangely and powerfully fruitful juxtapositions. Eisenstein’s (and Grigori Aleksandrov’s) early short Romance sentimentale is an incredibly inventive example of how the coupling of what is seen with what could not possibly be heard (unmatched with the visuals, and the recording manipulated to unique effect besides) produces a riveting and shocking combination far greater than the sum of its parts.

Two days earlier in the same venue I had the opposite thought while watching a larger orchestra accompany a selection of films from the Oddball archives. I liked most of the films, in particular the ones I’d never before, and at the same time liked the performers, dynamic and fun and interacting well with each other and keeping up a great groove with unusual instrumentation and vocals – yet the adding of the two together came to less than the sum of the parts. Mathematically this is nonsensical, but the proper analogy here is chemistry, a term bandied about often in the arts without much detail on the nuances of particular reactions, whereby one substance added to another may be wholly or partially consumed, with perhaps unbonded material left over to the side, rather than creating always some larger substance that is pure “lossless” alloy. For this performance I could enjoy each element separately on its own terms, but too often the music seemed to mimic what actually would have existed on the soundtrack had the film been shown as intended (Dream of the Wild Horses, for example) or play up the wackiness of films that better realize this quality (and other, more tender or amusing qualities) when presented unadorned. What remained was pleasant enough, but no transcendental union.

Whereas, in the jarring forge of observational family/social drama and introspective melancholy grooves, something new and bizarre and edifyingly subsumptive was achieved. One could begin with time to attach the particular emotionality of the music – a sort of throbbing fugue of reflective alienation – to the different yet ultimately sympathetic feelings of the characters. The rhythm and texture of the audio did not work to bolster that of the images but rather manipulate the viewer’s own into a certain state of alternative receptivity, dredging up personal memories and sensory reservoirs in a thicker dialogue with Ozu’s film than is common for such accompaniment. By playing to their own strengths and predilections instead of attempting standard practice the band actually created a radically novel way to engage the spectator.

No creator has final say on how a creation should be received, if for no other reason than the fact that distribution outnumbers those who make something by those who can interpret it. Ozu’s scoring tendencies accentuate the normative, comforting effects of his stories – we all struggle to make it through work and relationships, but these are mercurial trifles, cohesion and ultimate peace will prevail – but anyone who has chanced upon a newspaper since the time of this film’s release in 1932 (even as soon afterward as, say, 1942) has noticed that Japanese and world society is hardly so pleasing and secure. Thus there is obviously something in the director’s work that he himself appears not to be accounting for, not only circumstances and realities but emotions and ironies, which are just as present in his and the film’s unconscious to a savvy or simply “future” viewer even if he cannot express them. Imagine how censors/distributors of the age would feel if he decided instead to emphasize sadness and the untrammelled social stratification and separation (probably contributing to bellicose fascism) that the finale here rather conveniently overcomes, and picture Ozu’s wallet and capacity to continue work in his field.

This experience could not have been enjoyed without the readiness to play with one’s sensory inputs and preconceptions – look at the band’s very name. The slowness of the opening scene contradicted the quickness of the playing tempo, but this could after all be a twist, a modulated form of perception of the same events that saw them as part of a continuum across time, rather than a defect. Indeed an astute viewer and seasoned Ozu attendee may soon have picked up on the much greater use of dolly shots in this work than in most of the rest of the director’s oeuvre – smooth and often rapid drifts with the boys along their dirt road to school, seamlessly intercut glides through classrooms and offices (in anticipation of Ermanno Olmi’s also brilliant Il posto) – with the help of the band’s scoring proclivities, aesthetically apposite in their own smoothly flowing rhythmic movements across cuts and scenes. Frontwoman Kazu Makino’s mostly unintelligible yet plaintive keening might, rather than talking over and against what the characters are saying onscreen, work in its cries as a dramatic choral undercurrent for their interactions and experiences, many consonantly tinged with pain, tenderness, confusion, frustration, even violence.

As if to comment directly on the artificiality of Ozu’s happy ending, the band very pointedly refused to offer positive release in their music, instead retaining the melancholy mood that aptly moans instead of smiles at the image of rich kids playing happily with poor, poor parents exalted above rich, all kids satisfied with their own, presumably forever after. This is a new and darker way to watch Ozu, but it works for anyone who secretly cannot believe in his storytelling constraints and/or wishfulness, however much one might enjoy them “straight.” This should be an opportunity to recognize the superior openness of silent film to alternative readings – nothing about the film as finished product has changed, yet everything about it has because of a distinctive choice in scoring. No movie-palace owner in the 1930s would have preferred a musical tone for an outwardly optimistic family movie that audiences might have found sad or upsetting and ironic – even if studios left the performance of accompaniment unprescribed – but for this special performance in a modern context with a one-time crowd guaranteed in advance it became uniquely possible.

The group after all was not blind to the developments and pivots in the movie, in any case; gradually one noticed songs would peak or conclude at significant moments and conflicts or important scene changes. Fights between the boys, the intervention(s) of the father, the humiliation of him during the home-movie screening at the boss’ house, the boys’ decision to eat the rice balls, and many other decisive shifts in the story were all enhanced by the band’s choices of mood and transition, established plainly with care, not the indifference that their playing format seemed to suggest. The constancy of their groove created the appearance that the film had no importance simply because most accompanists feel the need to hew so closely – often cloyingly – to the image, whereas this level of separation generated a fresh polyrhythmic quality between the film and the music, itself a frictive electricity that powered a distinct experience in welcome ways at opportune moments.

Of course I have to allow for the possibility that the same reasons mentioned above which I might have had to dislike the evening dialectically (die-a-leg-tically?) made it especially better for me than most others in attendance. Forced immobility and pain when used to strenuous physical activity, and the feeling that I was the only one in my immediate vicinity interested at all in the screen, led to a reemergent deep sense of self-pity and despair, dark but warm and bittersweet emotions that meshed with the tone of the music and much of the malaise in the picture. The strongest and most gratifying tears I ever cried poured out several few years prior during a screening of Chaplin’s The Kid when I was in a similar state following an awful, hopeless union negotiation at my then-workplace; acute suffering makes a viewer much more sensitive, maybe too much so, as if everything were a reflection or extension of the downcast self alone. But I was not thinking about my foot at all, even if it was on my mind – I was thinking about how brilliantly observed and honest Ozu’s characters and situations were, and how unjust or misunderstanding their treatment of each other was. Blonde Redhead got it too.

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Republic (380? BC, Plato)

Everyone who knows Plato knows of Republic and knows of the allegory of the cave, I imagine, or at least my popular-informed conception of Republic considered the cave to be its central point or climax. As reading through the previous dialogues has already shown me, though, I knew nothing of Plato, and likewise here the cave takes up a couple of pages of only one of ten parts of Republic and is only a minor example among a multitude in the work that showcase the brilliance of his thought – or at least the fecundity of thinking it fosters in the reader. As Socrates and company hash out the utopia – all “merely” to prove the value of being just rather than unjust, even when the latter seems to result in so much reward for its perpetrators – they seem to traverse nearly every topic in social philosophy, from censorship to feminism to euthanasia to child-rearing and eugenics. One figures later philosophers like Nietzsche or a few postmodern mavericks would be unlocking bold new vistas and possibilities, but almost all of it seems prefigured or accounted for by Plato. (The same with cinema: those old, black-and-white movies are the dodderingly senile retirees to modern hyperkinetic spectaculars, except for the fact that many of these latter are blatantly derivative and restrict themselves from territory the former were much bolder and more insightful in exploring, and the latter have in fact often been preempted by the advances of the past.)

While propositions like shared wives and children and guardians forbidden from owning property still feel extremely radical – and totally sensible – probably the most apparently reactionary is the injunction to censor the education of the young, as well as popular art. The argument is very familiar – the young and the brave need good role models – but with Plato’s reasoning the idea almost feels attractive rather than ridiculous, which it does in the mouths of so many political/cultural ideologues. What’s interesting again is that Christian-style monotheism appears here as a necessary device – Voltaire’s quote “If God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him” leaps to mind – to manipulate the masses into emulating impossible idealizations, only perhaps permitting a select few to see the less pleasant truths when initiated into certain mysteries, on the belief that seeing capriciousness and flaws and duplicity in gods and heroes will weaken the constitutions of the very people to be tasked with the city/state’s maintenance and defense. This is true, naturally – but then Plato also acknowledges that states currently are manned by people totally deficient in heroic qualities, whom he identifies as such in order to argue against their behavior for something more enlightened. In other words the gloss of perfection should not extend to people by “virtue” of their position or power, for these do not signify virtue at all but often in fact the exact opposite.

Much of Republic requires an understanding of contingency and hypotheticals this way in order not to draw the wrong conclusions. In a more realized state, it would probably be true that romantic poets and illusionists of many sorts (like the vulgar imitative) would distract an upright citizen from a noble purpose – but what Socrates leaves unsaid is the immense value of these arts in sustaining citizens in the midst of states that are illusions themselves. When he describes the recurring cycle of political change in the later books – the basis of which rests on a recondite mathematical explanation of an imperfection in the human lifespan which creates imbalance – it is very clear that the democracy phase is that of Plato’s Athens, let alone the current-day democracy of the United States. In a system as flawed in crucial ways as this – where people are “free” to do as they please regardless of its wisdom or justice – the role of art is less clear, since after all reflections of heroism may be difficult to find in public life, and one must note on this score that Socrates himself cites epic poets and tragedians for positive examples in this and several other dialogues, and more often than he talks about real living contemporaries. His apparent derision towards artists – he makes a point of saying his favorite element of this dream society is its severe restrictions on poets – really seems to serve as a warning against the fetishization of art, which can distract the bedazzled from pursuing the perfection and excellence only dimly evoked by even the greatest illusionists. (Consider “the golden age of television” and the surfeit of artworks of all sorts we enjoy today, even as we set records for mass shootings and black poverty rates.) Presumably, too, visionaries like Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso or William Blake and John Keats represent painting and poetry as well beyond the mere duplication of reality, as having the capability to generate new and heightened reality through individually filtered expression that hearkens more to the divine than to the factual. Its purpose is not to mimic a functional craftsman, but to reinfuse objects with a reverent subjectivity.

The motivation for this whole project, besides, was not some committee for city planning, but rather a necessary means to illustrate principles of justice, so it may not even be pragmatic advocacy that concerns Socrates and Plato at all. (Its failure, as mentioned before, is deemed a mathematical inevitability.) One of Plato’s eccentricities as a logician is frequent recourse to fables or parables to emphasize his points in place of empirical data, where the usual question-and-answer is apparently inadequate to his purposes, and the dream of the Republic is a much-extended version of the same thing in this sense – instead of appealing to visions of the afterlife, as he does in a previous dialogue addressing the same issue of justice, he appeals to visions of utopia to show how perfectly ordered and superior is the state that exalts and administers and exemplifies justice, which just coincidentally (albeit convincingly) puts philosophers in charge for a change.

One of the most crucial points in holding the society together is a shared vision for its participants – as many have done later (and perhaps earlier) Plato likens the populace of a Republic to a human body as a whole, which attends to all of its components equitably and suffers if any particular part endures injury. One gets close to tears to read this suggestion 2400 years later with its plain empathy which is still so needed yet so hard to find. Even with those against whom the people of the Republic may combat, they are “all Hellenes,” and therefore no enemy should be slaughtered, pillaged, razed, ruined or humiliated. Given the greater international interconnectedness of today – creation myths no longer much claim Greeks were special, unique products of God – it would be basic to update the idea so that no fellow man would be treated thus, as well as the notion of the body wherein one person in one nation is responsible for the necessities of life for many in many other nations. The justice applied within the Republic because it is the optimal way to nourish a flourishing society – which, if Adam Smith is to be trusted, is also the best way to run an economy – must then be applied to all of those with whom that Republic interacts; perhaps then endless territorial and resource warfare and even the dangerous charade of “unlimited acquisition of wealth” will not be the requirements that Socrates’ party must assume.

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Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928, D. H. Lawrence)

At times it seems like reading and writing a novel like this which exalts the immediate bodily and sensory experience of life over the insular and intellectualized is committing a great hypocrisy. The hands that cradle the spine and turn the pages for the isolated reader might at that moment instead be sliding slowly down the spine and stroking tactile the living-text-ile flesh of one’s own lover, a reading and writing (as the book itself suggests) far more visceral and intimate than talk and prose. Even less should one read Plato at the same time, whom the book roundly and repeatedly criticizes for emphasizing mind over matter.

Yet sustaining this interactive antagonism within the brain-and-body’s bedchambers after all fosters a similar ideosexual dynamic to the vigorous physical relationship between the lovers of the story, who must overcome mutual feelings of opposition and incompatibility whose heat and frustration only indicate the power of the inexorable reaction that produces their all-consuming love. A perfectly ordered and socially sensible affinity of action and thought is the prized but hollow possession of Lord Chatterley, who has plenty of hidden but glaring contradictions of his own and lacks altogether passionate affection for his wife, whereas working through strong conflicts and overcoming their friction with sedulous effort both refreshes the spirit and leads to little-explored or even uncharted territories of thinking and being. One must embrace, and take it upon oneself to resolve, the contradiction. (Plato himself argues against the written word in his writing.)

This is most difficult to accomplish in reading the explicit sexual passages – the difficulty is not in the explicitness of “forbidden” topics that give the book its renown and infamy, which is relatively tame by modern standards, but in the explicitness of Lawrence’s idealization of them. The former explicitness is what gets the book banned, but the latter is actually more troublesome, as it approaches the absurdity of the roughly contemporaneous sexual passages in the writings of Ayn Rand, in which every pleasure is explained away as a philosophical act of submission to power and the processes of domination with theoretical language that vaporizes its subject. Precisely in those moments of supreme transcendence or sublimation of the word that sex creates with tactile immediacy, Rand and Lawrence use the reverse process to give the experience more “meaning” via explanations of psychology and worldview. In this Lawrence is by far the more self-contradictory, since his explanations are exactly that sexual love is the apex itself, a way above the gruesome and fearsome industrialization of life and the landscape, whereas Rand takes the opposite view, that sex is basically an extension of man’s industrial conquest of other people and the natural world as a whole.

Yet for all of this sometime textual clunkiness, Lawrence does succeed greatly at ennobling what is so often cheapened through excess or indifference and scorned as trivial and distracting. He may jab at Plato here and there for emphasizing mental pursuits over ephemeral physical pleasures, but he himself takes care that sexual intimacy be not praised carte blanche: its purest embodiment requires a committed mental engagement that like Platonic thought dissociates from the ephemeral concerns of monetary wealth or popular esteem. His two lovers are isolated from the masses for this very reason, both finding in books and knowledge a preferable course to business or literary fripperies or idle gossip – the difference is that Lawrence proposes the possibility of intensely consummating between two living bodies an affinity of wisdom developed in their souls alone. In this sense he may be responding to Socrates’ challenge in Book X of Republic, showing that the poetical and romantical sensibility has a vital place if born out of deep spiritual compatibility. If, as the gamekeeper Mellors points out, the problem is not between the lovers themselves but with the world outside, the violent turbulence of their passion simply stems from the corruption of the society around them – which is why these “disruptive” feelings retain such an appeal for readers. Presumably in a utopia as enlightened as the ideal Republic, this strong love would flourish in its enhanced environment, and glorify that society rather than perturb its order.

Apart from, but not really apart from all of these concepts and perspectives, the book engages and possesses. Characters are all richly and roundly drawn in a great variety of personalities – none of which wholly heroic or villainous, all complicated – revealed through natural conversations (one-on-one and in groups), physical (certainly including sexual) behavior, detailed histories and even physique and physiognomy. Descriptive repetition of features in landscape and of (sometimes stridently or harpingly so) lengthy criticisms of people and the world (cultural and aesthetic) they’ve created for themselves ultimately only faintly hamper vivid observations of a natural wilderness of flowers and animals (including some plainly metaphorical caged ducks) and a rustic cabin that are Constance’s regular refuge and the deeply felt interactions and experiences she has that bring and resuscitate her there. Lawrence’s perspective even today, let alone among his 1920s contemporaries, refreshes a reader accustomed to the stilted, analytical, passionless and unfeeling, here attaining to the physical through the textual more effectively than the ordinary physical routines of everyday existence. He draws the reader in only to encourage that reader to push back out, to get back in more contact with life and the world.

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Manchild in the Promised Land (1965, Claude Brown)

I haven’t read very much black literature or drug-culture literature or ghetto-life literature but I’ve never read anything that delves as deeply and as unpretentiously into such topics as this book, whose title and author I’d never heard of before seeing it on a shelf last year. Spare language lays bare a psychology usually obscured or merely evoked by more “literary” devices or flowery diction or exploitationally extreme plots of various fiction authors. What outwardly may seem to be the largest flaws in the book  – a conversational tone that retains phrases like, “Yeah man, but…” in its dialogue and lends an indefiniteness to the perspectives of its narrator; a meandering structure that hops from one memory or observation of interest to another across space and time and tends to feel inconclusive and even “shaggy-dog” on occasion; a lack of context or comparison with African-Americans as a whole (including those outside of Harlem or the one town in the South where Brown stays with his grandparents) or Americans as a whole that would detail and clarify his situation with statistics or sociological studies – are to the contrary its greatest strengths. It’s not somehow charming for its naïveté, but rather registers as sophisticated enough to understand that the best way to reach the kind of people found in this book is to speak in their language, as one of them still instead of elevated in some way by reform or later self-discovery.

The book jacket may talk about Brown’s becoming a law student – obviously an impressive achievement for someone raised in a ghetto, which lends him an authority to the reader he might otherwise not have had – but Brown the author does not, nor does he fill the text with the examples of inspirational industriousness that would occupy any movie made on the subject in the last thirty years. He describes his life more as a series of accidents, a string of happenstance and luck that sees him survive a gunshot wound, get sick from “horse” (heroin) instead of high his first time, have competent and caring authority figures who take an interest in him, get exposed and turned on to jazz music – all of these rare occurrences in his world, and each of which appearing crucial to his survival and success. In an interesting corroboration of Anthony Burgess’ often criticized and expurgated final chapter of A Clockwork Orange, it is the boredom of Claude the young hoodlum that delivers him from a life of crime rather than disciplinary correction – since this latter for him only further inscribes his previous position to a greater extent, and there even more than outside he feels he can rule the roost. Since he comes to feel sick of the game, though, he can move on to other interests like the piano and night school.

Maybe most heroic yet lifelike is his awareness and resistance of bullshit – or, more euphemistically, explanatory shortcuts for his and Harlem’s struggles – which makes his rare appreciation of positive mentors the more valuable and meaningful, and enhances the story of his own success. At the same time he’s too humane to be condescending – not ultimately, anyway – toward those who do take refuge with the Baptists, the Coptics, the Black Muslims, dope addiction or a life of crime. He never disowns or dissociates entirely from friends and family members who take such refuges, though this might be the easier course, which helps him keep a sense of what’s happening and changing on the street and demonstrates the community bond among Harlemites he argues for. He proves his singularity by moving out to Greenwich Village on his own in his teens, but proves his character more somehow by returning to Harlem within a relatively short time and staying close to his old crowd. With the notable exception of one longtime friend who once left Claude for dead but was quickly forgiven (since Claude probably would have done the same thing, he recognizes) and goes on to become a successful prizefighter, Brown seems to be the only one who keeps his head above a sort of turgid swamp of dead-end life choices and insular ideologies, all of which he appreciates even if he can’t participate.

The language at times is politically incorrect – Brown doesn’t distance himself from using words like “bitch” and “faggot” – but this actually emphasizes how correct the worldview is, because rather than simply policing oneself on acceptable terms one really has to mature past the received meanings and stereotypes associated with (but not confined to) these terms. Just as he grows out of crime, slowly developing an incipient wisdom about life that recognizes his course’s futility, he grows out of juvenile conceptions of other people, retaining the old language as a counterpoint in the same way he and others still use the word “nigger” in a sense vastly different from the pejorative. The language feels fresh and unique – “gray” for white people, a progression of terms for heroin, etc. – and Brown often stops to analyze or explain it, like the importance of the word “shit” for drugs and the closeness in spirit elicited by using “baby” between even straight men. Yet the vivid color of the words never covers the universal feeling of Brown’s specific tragedies and successes; the straightforward narration of a doomed romance with a Jewish girl and the fear for a brother fallen off the wagon and disappeared and a newfound dedication to practicing piano register as the events in any (wo)man’s life, perhaps exaggerated by contrast with one’s own immediate experiences but always approachable and graspable.

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Kerouac and Wacky Cares

So soon after plumbing through the first volume of Marx’s Capital it’s hard not to take a sort of economic-historical analysis to everything else I think about, even the joyfully sensuous meanderings of young men who (like Kerouac) have no time for Western rational philosophies when there’s Buddhist simplicity and visceral experience to fill their days and hearts. The Dharma Bums – started months earlier and put on hold as I focused on Capital – was the first book I returned to after finishing Marx’s tome, and undeniable levity and enchantment overtook me where just before I had been taking in (or, better, acknowledging, opening up to) considerable heaviness and tension. Kerouac’s characters’ earnestness and palpable excitement, even where mercurial and ephemeral, irresistibly inspirits and encourages any reader prone to restlessness and unease, something arguably universal to all readers by definition of the act.

There’s something bittersweet about it, too, though, something to which I don’t think I was as attuned those years back when I read The Subterraneans, just after moving to San Francisco, where that novel and parts of Dharma Bums take place. It’s not just the characters’ (Japhy Ryder and Ray Smith) occasional mood swings in Dharma – a regular fixture of the psychological playground of introspectors and mind-prospectors, together with the obsession slides, the monkey-on-the-back bars and the dwindling-hourglass sandbox – that elicit an aesthetic melancholia, there’s something a little more extra-textual now in time and history to accentuate it.

Arguably trivial on the surface but nevertheless important below, the culture has digested and processed its components to the extent that three films portraying or adapting (which is also usually portraying) Jack Kerouac have received nationwide distribution within the last year of beginning this post and moreover and more chillingly that the advertisements likely preceding these and any number of recent films in theaters now trade almost exclusively in his imagery and idealism. Young, healthy, exuberant and (tastefully) scruffy men and (stylishly) unkempt women meditating or practicing yoga, soaking up the great outdoors, and throwing anarchic but artistic parties are now used to sell everything from high-end clothing and accessories to tourist vacations and sporty foreign automobiles. This isn’t to say that commercial enticement automatically leaches the objects or activities it glamorizes of their cultural or spiritual value –  sex is still a magical thing no matter how many goods it sells – but to recognize the diminishing power of their resistance to a diseased world. Reading Kerouac fills one with a passionate romanticism now recognized as co-opted and standardized, suspiciously compatible with a new world still under the sway of mass culture’s cyclopean Eye.

Reading of the eventual fate of Kerouac, and having a number of encounters with unstable homeless men touting him, I can see some sad conclusions to what seemed to have been an ecstatic way of life that serve to puncture the balloon of vicariousness that the book inflates. The feeling of mental liberation from the constraints of society is more complex than it appears at first, for that society is unforgiving toward its transgressors, and even indifferent, despite everything they have to offer it. Hiking trips among friends, poetry readings and parties – still apparently subcultural in the context of the book – seem like nothing to the larger society that is likewise basically ignored by the main characters, but these are the things that color people’s lives, and by extension the places and cultures in which they live. San Francisco now trades on the Beat history these men fought for without the help of grants or social approval, meanwhile pricing out the very people who could continue to keep its cultural status alive into the future.

Even within the text itself, the image does not quite match the reality – or rather the freedom isn’t totally free – which its author clearly recognizes. Just as Ray’s brief but important stay at his family home on the East Coast suddenly introduces the privilege undergirding his picaresque life as a spirited transient, so too do so many of the author’s admirers retain a certain security in the world that contradicts the sense of making it on one’s own – whereas those who may have known nothing but struggle since childhood might ridicule the evangelism for life without stability, for a voluntary renunciation of convenience and comfort. Since the characters never interact with or even really think about these latter sorts of people, they lack the inclusivity that would really disseminate their insights to the greater world – it’s a bit of a boys’ club, and almost literally, in that women only seem to appear in the book in minor sexual roles.

But these are retrospectively intellectualized criticisms that do not detract from what is mostly an immediate, emotionally stirring read. The alternative picture of life shown here is after all a call to seize one’s time, to career (as down a mountainside, jubilantly) instead of lock oneself into one that steadily lifts one over the side of a cliff. To acknowledge the fleeting interests and follow them as they lead; to be loose with possessions and property (one may not have a choice); to be open and creative with friends and strangers, in words and in actions; to allow oneself to experience the pleasure and the pain and the continuum between the two, whether quotidian or outlandish.


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Pablo Marìn, August 11, 2014

After a few hours of bombarding myself in the big city with big-screen big-finance digital entertainments – a surprisingly, and even somewhat embarrassingly, for how I thought I self-identified aesthetically, tolerable experience – I shot myself between the termini of the Transbay Tube and emerged into crepuscular West Oakland for some films of entirely opposite qualities. They were to be literal films – bucking the Orwellian trend by which modern “film” is on hard drive instead – on the small screen of the intimate Black Hole Cinematheque, with no wealthy executive producers to distribute them across the country and obviate a tip can for their creator, who had to distribute them here with his own body.

Upon finishing a chapter out of a comma-spliced long-sentence-styled novel in dusky De Fremery Park along Adeline Street, in which an epidemic of contagious white-light blindness takes over a metropolis, I continued up to 24th Street and took the last couple blocks to the east to reach the secret space in which these screenings are held. It should be noted – not to scorn or denigrate in any way, only to be honest to and documentary of what all who attend are aware of, which is actually to highlight a valuable strangeness and uniqueness – that while this is West Oakland, where most people on the street are black, the Black Hole Cinematheque usually draws a mostly white crowd of outsiders, albeit one somewhat given to wearing black or otherwise dark clothes and one, skin aside, attuned to a like-minded laid-back yet visible inhabitation of the space they occupy, unlike passed-through downtowns and shut-in suburbs, that flavors the surrounding air like incense.

For this reason I was surprised to see a group of seven or eight locals convened in several chairs around a table just outside the Cinematheque’s side-door entrance when I arrived, talking together and hanging out. Perhaps this had become the wrong place, perhaps Black Hole had moved somewhere else without my knowledge – sometimes the blog is late to update about its screenings, so I would not have been too surprised to learn the screening had been relocated sometime in the last few days. I rode around the block, waiting to see if others would arrive, stopping and meditating on a scene I’d never seen before, a group of seven or eight stray cats (one black at the center, the rest calico in a semicircle around it) standing like still, silent sentinels over a small fenced-off graffiti-concrete (rhyme it with “musique concrète”) warehouse lot, gazing right at the outsider with steady eyes.

On my second orbit I went for the entrance and recognized the co-owner and curator behind the black iron mesh of the locked door. I was still in the right place. He allowed me in, apologizing for having forgotten the time – as usual, I was early – and then introduced me to Pablo, a slender and well-dressed (“well,” not expensively or trendily, no one here was like that) man with shadowlike facial hair and glasses, not much (if any) older than myself but with the bearing of someone with much more self-assurance and connectivity with the world, which is something bound to be projected upon an artist an attendee has come to see but which was probably true in this case for almost the same reason.

I did not know what to say to Pablo. I do not know what to say in general, a kind of congenital birth defect (or affect, to be a little less pejorative) perhaps, ergo cinephilia perhaps, and instead I occupy myself with things, like in this case the new and first-ever Black Hole poster, a calendar of upcoming 8:30pm screenings over the next few Tuesdays, feeling tense and thinking as I looked that this was rude and unsustainable for the live being sharing the room. I didn’t know him or his work, and didn’t want to make any of the usual comments on weather or location, yet there had to be some way into connecting. I knew Pablo had had another screening two days ago, which I hadn’t been able to see, so after several high-pressured silent seconds I asked him how it went. After a little confusion as to which screening I meant – it turned out, I was to find out only later, upon which I felt considerable remorse, having seen other of his recent work, the host himself had shown some films to full crowds the night before – things opened up and the tension eased.

Pablo’s show had gone well, and like this one had also consisted of Super 8 films. Visiting from Argentina, he was traveling and presenting his films along the coast, most recently in the Pacific Northwest; after this he would go to Los Angeles, then home again. He was staying, he said, in a bomb shelter underneath Artists’ Television Access on Valencia in the city while he was here. No, he did not really tour much, though occasionally he would present works at festivals, like in Toronto and Chicago.

After another lull he looked up from his phone and told me that Robin Williams had just died, had committed suicide. Even though I studied Spanish all through high school and can still speak it fairly well, and even though one of the first things I learned was that the “b” sound was identical to the “v” sound, I heard only “Rowan Williams,” and consequently cannot have reacted or expressed much, even after Pablo, perceiving this, explained, “the actor.” I had never heard of Rowan Williams – though there is an interesting and still-living bishop of note by that name – and assumed he was some luminary in the avant-garde film world whom I should have known about and that I would only shame myself by admitting ignorance. In this way I responded to news of a great man’s suicide as I would for any other stranger, which (unwittingly) perhaps was more respectful for all concerned. Life goes on or it doesn’t, what makes any one of us so special to Death, Nature, or Time…

Eventually more people began to arrive, and Pablo left with a man I recognized as head of the SF Cinematheque to get a larger reel onto which to respool the projected film, if I heard right. I took a seat within my usual radius, a folding chair three rows back and just right of center, continuing to read as seats filled around me. Few people seemed much older than thirty, as usual, mostly collected in small groups of two or three and talking quietly amongst themselves. At Black Hole lighting is low, and space is sparse, and the curator usually has a kind of calm droning music playing softly in the background. It feels right for its place and purpose, a small safe refuge for people looking for new visions without the cultural trappings of that which dominates the world around them.

Close to 9pm, the screening was set to begin – everything and everyone needed was on hand, the electronics that would play the soundtrack for the second film were at the ready. The curator introduced Pablo Marìn, who gave his own brief and humble introduction to his work: there are two films, “one of them is maybe too short, the other one is maybe too long.” He would be back later to answer questions.

The first film really was “maybe too short,” but felt right as too short. It exceeds my present technical knowledge (and my memory, and my blind-chicken-scratch notes) to accurately describe what we were seeing  – “35mm film frames cut in half by a 16mm film projector,” per Black Hole’s website – which looked like they were “stuck,” rippling with old static and multiplied into groups of four that filled and juddered across the screen. The images are strange, color-decayed, cheesy, maybe taken from seventies exploitation action films – people with guns, things which couldn’t be easily identified – while the soundtrack pops and rumbles in some unknown but frenzied language of unearthly suggestion. The overall effect is something like an independent mutation of consciousness in the abandoned archives of a television station, as if a tape demon had suddenly reared its head (or opened its sphincter) and emitted a short burst of what it was feeding on. All of this is bookended by the titles “Tuyo” and “Mío” (from which the film takes its title, “TM”), which bolster the preceding interpretation by taking what “your” human mess has given to posterity and digesting it into “my” chaotic message from the tape demon. It is all the more haunting and strange for being so short and intractable.

The second film, Word War Disney Wolves (A-Z), really was “maybe too long,” but also felt right as too long. Because of its design, it achieved that rare and most mystical cinema-state, which is a suspension of external time, a sense that one could have been watching for minutes or for several hours, and that one may have only a few minutes or several hours more to go, and that none of that matters at all. Time drives less, as the compulsive propeller or impatient tow-line under whose guises it often appears, and stops and unfolds as an open plain instead, upon which one can go in one direction or another, run or walk, sit or lie down, have a picnic, look at the clouds.

Like other films with a similar effect (Céline and Julie Go Boating, while very different in content and structure, comes to mind), this state is achieved by means of a game played with the audience, but an unannounced game, a game that is only picked up on and locked into after some deliberation and discovery. The first scene, after a shaky still of a black letter “A” over an empty white backdrop, is black-and-white war footage, likely from World War II, with men in military helmets at sea in transport ships, a zeppelin in the air, artillery firing from the ground, smoke aloft and chaos afoot, within individual shots and in the disjointed editing. “B,” as before, precedes a similar scene (as mentioned before, taking notes in darkness and interpreting these and faded memories weeks later is likely to be inaccurate, so reader beware) which abruptly cuts to a color zoom-out panning (or one, then the other) shot of an urban skyline, probably either Chicago or New York, no people in sight, all apparently calm.

Immediately one has to account for the transition, and form a mental association that replicates the filmic one. This is a process not far removed, it seems, from the ordinary “rationalization” we talk about with some justified disdain or suspicion: we have an impulse, an instinctive reaction, a sudden response, we take a certain action without thinking, then afterward we generate a logical rubric to explain ourselves, a series of intelligent statements that sound reasonable and impressive enough to not make us look like atavistic (even animalistic) fools. This writing itself, like perhaps any writing, is an example of sorts: it’s not enough just to take in a good feeling and say “I like it,” one has to or one wants to distinguish it from other likes and good feelings and uses the vocabulary on hand to attempt to approximate what and how it is, uniquely and lucidly, even if that lucidity comes at some expense of reality.

So even though it’s very early on the film to start ascribing great intelligence to its construction, the intellect and sensibility brought in from the other side already goes to work at a kind of reverse engineering. When I – and probably most of similar social consciousness – see large-scale combat followed rapidly by still, large-scale architecture, I read in a kind of ironic juxtaposition but also grim causality. (Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, seen under a week later at the Pacific Film Archive, demonstrates that editing even within a single narrative can be used to that exact effect.) It is an important but infrequently remarked-upon (or consciously held, or resisted) fact that the skyscrapers and the cities of which so many of us are so proud come partly at the expense of these execrable acts of destruction; they house war profiteers, they are built and serviced by soldiers as forgotten and eaten up as those lost in distant lands fighting for questionable causes at best. At another spiritual level, the sensory difference between the two locations highlights the diversity of disparate states of existence, even of states of mind.

This is all only a few seconds into the film. A soft, droning score underlies it all, continuous and even (if sometimes peculiar or unsettling in timbre and tone) across all cuts and sequence changes, a sound that keys in the audience to a certain ethereal undercurrent to the whole – not something purely serene and pleasant, as might be used for a New Age meditation session, something a little more eerie and Eno-ambient. Pablo would explain afterward that much of it was NASA recordings of other planets, and that he viewed the mixture of found footage as a kind of “Earthly anthology” sent off into the void of space like the Voyager Golden Records.

With the addition of seemingly unrelated found sequences like scenes from Mary Poppins and a 1960s TV episode of Beetle Bailey, pornographic threesomes and twosomes, river rafting, the rural home of an Argentinian family, fluctuating washes of color, barely perceptible candles pinpricking blackness and more, along with footage indiscernibly taken by Pablo himself – a rock band rehearsal, tracking shots along power lines and the grassy area they stand in, and panoramic still frames of another urban landscape – the film does feel like an eclectic assortment of human esoterica that could well function as the scuzzy, unsung counterpart to the best-of spacetime-capsule that Carl Sagan’s committee strove for with compilation discs.

Something greater seems to be at work here, though, that lingers well after the association of the first two sequences and speaks to an intentional intelligence. The footage is not just linked together at random; every instance of a change feels like a strange progression and a commentary, both from one sequence to the next and as a whole. Mary Poppins follows closely upon the distant view of the daytime skyline by encouraging the children she is supervising to enjoy their duties with a rosy joy that looks both sincere and saccharine and probably exists almost nowhere. This too appears to proceed rationally and wryly from warfare and the city, evoking the hated but necessary chores behind every admirable cleanliness and the invisible immigrant workforce that largely does it all in reality. While to “read” the film as simply as the text being written here reduces the richness of the audiovisual film experience – one must stress its openness, its mysteriousness above any particular interpretation – the point is only to emphasize the acuity of an editing that enables these and other ideas.

When a money shot is followed immediately by a white water rafting group point-of-view shot, there’s an obvious but profound link forged between outdoor adventuring on a familiar human scale and the seminal adventuring of riverine deluges of spermatozoa on a much smaller one that yet must contain many of those same elements. When an earlier pornographic clip (à trois) in the cycle is followed immediately by a singer in the earlier part of last century almost motionlessly belting his heart out in black and white on a television-show balcony set, a link is forged between viscerally direct sexual ecstasies and the abstracted joys of whatever unheard paean to love is emerging from the nattily-dressed vocalist’s throat. (Or might sex, after all, be abstracted from music? When one considers the present state of media saturation, wherein children are apt to grow up drenched in torrents of music long before pubescence, this may begin to feel more like the reality to most people.)

Whatever ideas and feelings present themselves, whether sheer confusion or epiphany, one knows due to the cyclical form that there will be another chance to reconsider, to elaborate, to clarify, and to develop with the inevitable new clip. If some insight has already been attuned to, the impending repetition of stimulus acts like the catchy chorus of a song from which the listener has already been conditioned to anticipate pleasure – only without the overbearing rigidity of an earworm, since the recognition is less engineered than personally improvised. This is perhaps one of the edges film currently has over music to me, the possibility that one’s reactions can be derived more subjectively – the things that any two viewers, even the most seasoned, respond to most strongly seem likely to be more specific, apparently arbitrary and diverse due to their mysterious interior invocations.

This does have arguable drawbacks in the sense that it’s far more difficult to communicate these swirls of ineffable emotions and understandings to other people – and can create a feeling of invasion, if one’s own interpretation is drowned out by the interpretations of others in the audience that run audibly and visibly contrary. In this screening, for instance, some in the audience, in a cluster toward the front, probably friends, would laugh effusively at a recurring point in the cycle, usually during the Beetle Bailey clip, in which one character is substantially altered by certain pills he has taken. In the space I occupied, increasingly meditative as the film progressed, this eventually came to (almost literally) strike me as like gabbling in the midst of a cathedral service. Yet had I been attending with them, I might just as easily have found myself in the giddier collective space they had generated.

Even if one has some excited ideas, and knows there are other cinephiles and filmmakers in the room, one almost instinctively shies away from any kind of communication afterwards, sensing that this might after all be an intrusion upon whatever fragilely coruscating aura of consciousness has been electrically induced by the experience. There’s something romantically tragic about it sometimes, that one can be bursting with a swell of feeling but unable to really express it – unless, that is, proper time and assiduous effort can be taken and made (presuming some free energy can be spared that has not been drawn into an abysmal singularity of work and decompression eddied together) to lay down something of what took place and what took hold.

Some of these ideas can seem trivial – less ideas, maybe, than another part of a game. Again, looking to comprehend and organize the various recurrences and the structure in this film, one might take to speculating on the significance of the alphabet that is being recited in between each cycle. At first it just seems to demarcate the iterations, and to help the viewer forget about time by latching onto an awaited sequence instead of a known temporal duration. But then one starts to search for why the letters come when they do, and one links “A” to “Army” and “C” to “Cleaning” or “Children” and “W” to “White water” since these are the new clips eventually heralded by their respective letters. In isolation this sounds inconsequential, perhaps, but taken at the same time as the other interpretations and moods being convoked, it splashes even more stimulating color onto a broad canvas. Either from intent of meaning or ingenuity of design, Pablo’s abstract methods make for eclectic engagements of mental functions and interests usually left at odds or out of sync, a welcome alternative to the regularly exhorted notion of “turning off” the brain in order to be able to enjoy the latest action movie.

After the film ended, Pablo had a brief discussion with the audience about his techniques and observations. He saw the work as “a cold… distant film” and “difficult to engage” – or at least made concessions to those judgments, since I had felt deeply with it and doubted that he had constructed it without feeling. He pointed out the contrast between the circular flow of the droning sound and the sharp cutting-up of the visuals, the former giving a foundational, emotional support to the latter’s disjointed explorations and in so doing helping to make them feel less disjointed at all, as noted above. I considered commenting on the unity and clarity of the whole as I perceived it, which seemed to pass unmentioned in the discussion, but kept the thoughts to myself.

People filed out as I went into the back room to retrieve my bicycle. As I tarried near to the collection canister, I considered again sharing my ideas on the films with Pablo, who stood near to the lord of the screening space. Instead I settled on extending a hand and a smile and a semantically bland but tonally emphatic “Thanks – that was really great.” He thanked me for coming, and I rode off into the night, thinking as I zoned into the street-and-flashing-bike-lit Adeline darkness that it might be a nice idea to write about it and then try to share it with some people instead of absorbing it totally into the usual silent individual self.

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Poseur Exposure

16 Nov 2013: The Marx-Engels Reader (“Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, and Others,” 1879, Marx)

It’s rare to see something nowadays that so forcefully denounces compromise, gradualism and political correctness from a radical thinker when present-day figures like Noam Chomsky and most left-leaning mass-audience artists and intellectuals regularly endorse Democratic candidates for president and all refuse to even consider tactical violence or unpleasantness. Marx 130 years ago ferrets out those who claim to lead or represent a vanguard workers’ party of the left but advocate for the domination and spokesmanship of that party by refined and well-mannered bourgeois figures, as people who essentially castrate and bring down the movement into nothingness, dragging out immediate desires unto eternity and converting all energetic actions of resistance into polite appeasement of the proper authorities. He also convincingly rejects the idea of forgiving those people who should be fought against based on their position as “children of their age” – this is the same man who in Capital considers the individual capitalist as only a representative of his broader economic environs – by stating the obvious, that all men are such children of the times, but that they yet can make choices and should stand accountable, and that real rebels should be “repaying their kicks with interest.” The most noteworthy thought this letter evokes seems to be the realization that there is no such thing as a workers’ party in the United States, which is probably essentially true in most industrialized countries in the modern world, even though of course lower-class workers on a global scale at least far outnumber middle and upper classes. Most political outreach is done among the wealthy or self-selectingly politically engaged, as opposed to moving among the hardest-strapped working people on the lower levels of society, and even “radical” thinkers and publications clearly address themselves to well-educated, “intellectual” audiences rather than to the working people they use in their arguments. Marx recognizes that the workers themselves are the force for revolution, that is insultingly condescending to pretend that those more intelligent must figure it out for them, and it would do well for much of modern discursive energy to bear this in mind.

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