Saturday, December 30, 2017

Online Movie-Watching in 2017

Earlier this year, I wrote about signing up for FilmStruck, the online movie site owned by Turner Classic Movies that offers classic and more obscure art house and independent films, including Criterion Collection films, from Hollywood and across the globe. I had meant to keep track of the films I watched, and in the earlier blog post I noted a few, but I figured, as is the case with Netflix, that the site itself kept a running list of all the films I watched. Unfortunately, they do not; or rather, they do retain the films that are not cycled off the site.

So here, mostly based on memory, are 21 of the films that especially stood out for me. I know I am forgetting a few, and I intend to keep a better list of my own this year. Nevertheless, here are my standouts, a number of which were by directors, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Nagisa Oshima, whose films I have almost all seen, whereas others were my first forays into the work of the director, as were the cases with Jacques Demy and Jacques Tati. The list is heavily male (and European); I do hope that FilmStruck will add more films by women, directors from across the globe (especially Latin American and Africa), and more by openly LGBTQ filmmakers.

In keeping with my longstanding aims and because it's the end of the year, I'll aim to be as brief as possible.


1) Luis Buñuel's 1962 film The Exterminating Angel: I'd seen many of his films but not this one. Buñuel handles the scenario, which involves a group of socialites who, for unknown reasons, cannot leave a living room, leading to a breakdown in mores, with utter mastery. The metaphysical horror of their enclosure steadily mounts, functioning as a subtle yet harsh critique of elitism and self-satisfaction.

2) Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1975 Fox and His Friends: Until last year, I had watched nearly every Fassbinder film but not this one, a powerful early post-#Stonewall gay film, with social class at its center. As with so many films on this list, Fassbinder's vision, and in particular, his embedded social critique, would struggle to gain funding or support in today's Hollywood.

3) Djibril Diop Mambéty's 1973 Touki Bouki: A little gem of 1970s West African cinema, Mambéty's Touki Bouki depicts Senegal's post-independence urban-rural divide, through the prism of alienated youth. The protagonists, Mory and Anta, a student, yearn to escape Senegal for Paris, and drive around on a motorcycle devising schemes to flee. The brevity of Mambéty's career feels especially tragic in light of his achievements with this film.

4) Nagisa Oshima's 1969 film Boy: Oshima often depicts some of the darker sides of human existence; in the early 1960s he was showing young miscreants rolling johns for money, and later took up themes such as suicide, bestiality, and sex addiction. Boy tells the story of a family faking car accidents, using their young children, particularly the older son Toshio, all across Japan, until the law catches up with them. One gets the sense that Toshio may not have learned the right lesson as a result.

5) Peter Weir's 1977 feature The Last Wave: I'd always heard this was a great film and it lived up to its advanced billing. The premise is a white lawyer defends an Aboriginal man charged in a mysterious bar crime, as portents visible at first only to the Aborigines loom. The lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, experiences premonitions that become hallucinations, but the film suggests a broader view as well, that a post-colonial, metaphysical confrontation is underway. The enigmatic ending is especially powerful, though I wondered how Aborigines viewed their depictions in the film. 

6) Jacques Demy's 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: So many people have raved about this film over the years so I was glad to finally see it. It is about as sweet as a musical can get, starring a very young Catherine Deneuve, with a lightness that differs from American musicals of the time. The Algerian War hovers inescapably in the background, while class issues and the changing ethos of the era are in its foreground, so it is less cotton candy and more a complex confection that delights even as it enlightens.

7) Jean Cocteau's 1950 Orpheus: I found this queer dream masquerading as a film visually astonishing. To cite one specific moment, Orpheus dons surgical gloves and descends into the underworld, through a mirror, a moment that outstrips many a subsequent CGI attempt to transform reality before our eyes. It is truly lyrical, oneiric cinema.

8) William Klein's 1969 Mr. Freedom: Klein is mostly forgotten today, but he produced a number of distinctive films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. Freedom is a cartoonish, overtly racist, hyper-nationalistic, rightwing white superhero. Put him in a suit, make a real-estate heir and pseudo-titan, and he could easily be the person a minority of voters, 62 million or so, elected in November 2016.

9) François Truffaut's 1968 charmer Stolen Kisses: One of the Antoine Doinel series I'd never seen, Stolen Kisses, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud in his third turn as Doinel, a troubled veteran struggling to fit into society, is delightful in a way that American movies have completely forgotten is possible.

10) Éric Rohmer's 1986 The Green Ray: Yet another strongly heralded film, I was not so sure how it would turn out given its unpromising start. Is it a feminist comedy? Something more serious? Something ominous? Ultimately, Rohmer's confection turned out to be very simple, but also very moving, and ultimately sublime. In any other hands this might have been a throwaway; in Rohmer's and his actors' and crew's, it a model of film art.

11) Basil Dearden's 1951 film Pool of London: One of the first British films to depict an interracial romance, Pool of London also introduced Jamaican-British actor Earl Cameron, who, impressively, is still acting at age 100! The film is not Dearden's best, but its points to his cinematic triumphs to come.

12) Derek Jarman's 1978 reverie Jubilee: Another very poetic and political film, using time travel, Shakespearean characters, and musical performances, Jubilee merges authentic British punk culture & dystopianism as a protest against the monarchy and stagnation in Callaghan-era UK society. As much queered cinema as queer cinema, Jubilee is another film that probably would and could not be made today.

13) Tomas Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 hybrid Memories of Underdevelopment: A landmark Cuban film, which I've seen before several times, the first on PBS back in the 1990s. Among its many questions a chief one is, what place exists for a bourgeois white liberal in a post-bourgeois, multicultural, socially egalitarian, revolutionary society? The apolitical man--or self-assumed one--may really have no place in the post-revolt world. Gutiérrez Alea's collage approach and use documentary also still feel innovative today.

14) Nagisa Oshima's 1960 hybrid Night and Fog in Japan: This strange, powerful political film explores a psychic and political reckoning, several years on, among youthful revolutionaries. It wraps this around what appears to be domestic touchstone, a heterosexual marriage, but it is probably fair to say that taken as a whole, there was little like this film in theaters during its era and nothing like it anywhere today.

15) Susan Seidelman's 1982 feature Smithereens: 3 years before releasing Desperately Seeking Susan Seidelman debuted with this portrait of young, underemployed wannabe punks, embodied in Susan Berman's Wren, one of the most unlikably mesmerizing characters to appear on screen. One hallmark of this film, which appeared during my high school years, is its glimpse of a long-gone NYC.

16) Ousmane Sembène's 1963 Borom Sarret: I had not realized this film is considered to be the first theatrical feature by a sub-Saharan Black African filmmaker, but its significance extends beyond its groundbreaking status. Sembène's very simple but not simplistic masterpiece about a cart driver gave strong clues about the remarkable career to follow.

17) Louis Malle's 1958 crime drama Elevator to the Gallows: This thrilling drama, brought to life by a skillful director, was worth the advance billing.  Jeanne Moreau, as always, burns up the screen.

18) Roger Corman's 1962 The Intruder: Oddly or not so oddly, this portrait of a white supremacist who arrives in a sleepy Southern town to stir up racial resentment against looming desegregation and school integration rarely appears on film. I'd never heard of it. But William Shatner, who plays the agitator, is superb in the role, and it is not a performance you'll forget if you see it.

19) Hollis Frampton's 1970  Zorns Lemma: This is experimental, structural cinema at its purest. 5 minutes of a voice with a black screen, then 45 minutes of 2,700 images flashing by, depicting aspects of a 24-part alphabet, then 10 minutes of a receding snowy image. You can either turn it off or watch it. I did the latter, and was entranced by the film's end.

20) Jacques Tati's 1967 feature Playtime: There are few words strong enough to extol the singular vision Tati expresses in this or any of his later works. Ostensibly another Mr. Hulot vehicle, Tati constructed an entire mini-city for the purposes of this film, and paid a steep financial and creative price. It remains remarkable on every level that he pulled this off.

21) Todd Solondz's 2009 Life During Wartime: The newest film on the list, this also is one of two films by him (Wiener Dog is the other) that I'd missed. Solondz continues to buck the conventional US filmmaking trends, with his acerbic portrayals of suburban life in contemporary America. I thought his 1998 film Happiness, for which Life During Wartime is the sequel, was more disturbing, but this one, which reprises all the characters but with different actors, is not far behind.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Holidays!

all J's Theater
readers and those
who browse here
a very, very, very
Merry Christmas
Soulful Kwanzaa
Happy Hanukkah
Fun Festivus (for the
rest of us!) and best wishes
for the holidays and beyond,
and thank you for dropping
by and checking this site out.
Happiest of Holidays today and always!
Have fun,
be safe
and celebrate!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Postmodern Dystopic: One Year/Year One of the Trump Presidency

President Donald J. Trump & former FBI
Director James Comey, January 22, 2017
(Photo © NBC News)
On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America. His presidency really began, however, on the night of the national election last fall on November 8, 2016, when he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton, by a 77 vote margin in the Electoral College and despite a loss of nearly 2,868,691 popular votes. Or, one might even argue, it began before he was formally elected, while Barack Obama was still the legal president, when Trump's rise signaled a shift, long underway, in our election process and public discourse that his victory only confirmed. In saying this I am not referring to the now steadily amassing body of evidence that suggests that Russia involved itself extensively in the 2016 election, and had numerous ties of various sorts to the Trump campaign. What I am suggesting is that Trump's ascent, from his declaration of his candidacy in the summer of 2015 forward, marked him out as the emblem not only of the contemporary Republican Party, for which he is the standard bearer, but underlined where our politics and society had begun to head during latter years of Bill Clinton's and all of George W. Bush's presidency, and which has found its true tribune in him.

Before I say anything more, let me note that I have found these last 12 months so exasperating, depressing, maddening, and absurd to the point of outright laughter by turns--though I have also been trying to convey in personal conversations that in some ways they still do not approach the insanities of 2001-2008, a period this country has still not recovered from, which in part has made Trump's rise possible--that I have not registered here, as I once might have, every significant outrage committed by this president or his allies and defenders. First, there are too many and they come in such steady and heavy flurries that they would make a snow-cloud jealous. Second, it really would require someone with the patience of Job--or an army of fact-checkers--to keep up with the daily tide of lies, misstatements, half-truths, and misinformation, let alone the innumerable questionable and potentially actionable violations of rules and laws that this administration seems to engage in. We currently have one major political party, the Republicans, who hold all the reins of federal power, utterly in his thrall, and a second, the opposition Democrats, who still have not reckoned with the opponent they face nor with the shifts in the broader social and public discourse that demand that the the Democrats change how they function in order not just to remain a viable party for the future, but a potential backstop against the complete dismantling of our society.

On October 2016, as I watched the election unfold, I wrote a post entitled "Our Postmodern Election(s)." (Jeet Heer later wrote an article in New Republic that expounded on some of these themes while exploring other ones in relation to this president.) It had its limitations, and on the key point of Trump's electability, I was wrong. One of my dear colleagues recently decried the idea that Republicans, let alone this president, have taken up postmodernism and run with it, though I think it is a foregone conclusion that they have, and as I tried to assert in that earlier blogpost, the postmodern condition (and, in many ways, an essentially neoliberal framework) underpins our entire society, including our politics, so it is not merely the GOP that has adopted and warped a postmodern worldview, but, more broadly, it defines this society itself to an estimable degree. I won't restate that post, but I think it's fair to say that "truth" has no fundamental relationship to how Donald Trump operates, unless one takes the Platonic (in the sense of his The Republic) and, perhaps more correctly, Nietzschean views that truth is what the ruler--or Übermensch--or similar corporate entities declare it to be.

In fact, as Trump has made clear for decades and especially over the last few years, especially with his championing of the Birther conspiracy, verifiable factualness, material evidence, reasoned argumentation, and science-based statistics have no bearing whatsoever on what he believes, let alone how he acts and moves through the world. Yet it is not Trump, but large numbers of Americans who reject verifiable facts, appeals to any authority but that of their feelings and those who agree with them, even what we might call objective reality itself. Additionally, both the mainstream media, by manufacturing consent (as Noam Chomsky brilliant argued years ago) and "normalizing" Trump's actions, and numerous parallel organs of reportage and pseudo-reportage, have served to make a muddle, at least for a sizable number of people, of what "truth" might look like. Figures like Steve Bannon and Mike Cernovich are quite aware of the tenets of postmodernism, as the latter pointed out in a New Yorker profile earlier this year, and have made great use of them. This is a feature, not a bug, of how they and the Right have come to operate.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary
Dr. Ben Carson, at his confirmation hearings
(Copyright © NBC News)

In that earlier post, I did not believe that American voters would elect Trump. Or rather, that enough white voters would not be so appalled by his campaign and behavior that they would vote against him. (My predictions about the Senate were closer to how things actually turned out.) As I say above, I was wrong. Despite admitting that he had forcibly kissed women and groped their private parts without their permission, while also pursuing married women "like a bitch," he received 52% of white women's votes. Since taking office, he has lurched from crisis to crisis, now so numerous it's hard to keep track of them. In this regard, he has made Obama's first year, which included addressing inherited national and global financial crises and multiple wars, while also trying to pass a stimulus bill, a comprehensive health insurance bill, and a bill to rein in Wall Street's excesses, look like paint drying. Trump's first year has also transformed the slow-rolling catastrophe of Bush's inaugural year into a series of surprising but nevertheless dull anecdotes, 9/11 notwithstanding. In January I thought about regularly posting on the Trump administrations scandals, which seemed to be accruing as soon as he entered the Oval Office, and then again, after his first 100 days, which seemed to mark yet another low-point in his tenure. But one could pick any point over the last 11 months, or before, to find evidence of the debacle this presidency is turning out to be, and so it might perhaps be best to say that like the classic figure of synecdoche, any point is representative of the whole, and metonymically, the Trump administration is synonymous with corruption, disruption, and a sense of foreboding and rolling disaster.

If, as Aristotle once pointed out in the Nichomachean Ethics that "Man is the rational animal," while also arguing that there also was an irrational component to human existence, Trump has exemplified that this country's most powerful man is the dominating and dominant "emotional animal" whose main goal is to satisfy his own psychological needs and energize those of his core supporters. This would be worrying in any leader, but it should be especially concerning to have such a person at the head of the most powerful government and military on earth. One effect has been to keep not just his government, but the entire national and globe in a state of disquiet, dis-ease, since the demands and effects of his emotional needs and outbursts cannot be contained within the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump campaigned like a right-wing racist nationalist and has seeded his government and presided like an ultraconservative white supremacist authoritarian. He appointments to his Cabinet, save one or two, are to the right of the kinds of people George W. Bush placed in office, and his Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, has positioned himself so far to the right that  Antonin Scalia, the justice he replaced, would be envious. Significantly and in Orwellian fashion, many of the people Trump has placed in positions of power actively and openly seek to undermine or destroy the very organizations they are running, and ensure, as his formally dismissed but still potent advisor Bannon championed, the "deconstruction of the administrative state," or rather, the federal government as we have come to know it.

Several Cabinet departments, among them the most important like State, appear to be in disarray and withering on the vine, at a time when world affairs, made so precarious in part through prior US attempts at creating a "New World Order" and "nation building," are approaching a precipice. To take one example, the chief means by which the United States has kept North Korea's nuclear ambitions and aggression in check has been through diplomacy and partnership with allies and, in some cases, hostile countries that have a vested in interest in containing the North Korean government. Under Trump, however, we keep inching nearer and nearer to outright war with the North Korean government, a turn of events that would most certainly lead to cataclysm, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands, potentially millions, of people in South and North Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and countless other countries if nuclear weapons were involved. Yet Trump at times appears to be undermining his Secretary of State, former oilman Rex Tillerson, who, for his own part, appears to undermining the State Department itself, through a bungled reorganization that has led to numerous empty bureaus and widespread understaffing. One major lever of power the US yields, through its wealth and influence, for good or bad, is soft power via diplomacy, yet even in a crisis zone like Korea, under Trump and Tillerson, we lack an ambassador to South Korea since Trump, in one of may steps against precedent, summarily canned all of Obama's ambassadors shortly after taking office.

Rather than detailing the numerous crises, scandals, failures, and so forth that have occurred under Trump's watch, though a number of sites do have lists, cheat sheets and more notating the Trump administration's mis-actions through this month. It should suffice to note that beyond appointing Gorsuch to the court; striking down many of Obama's executive actions; succeeding in most of his appointments to his administration; and presiding over the growing economy bequeathed by his predecessor, Trump had no major successes in the legislative arena until the recent monstrous tax cutting bill, a massive giveaway to billionaires and corporations, which still requires reconciliation between the House and Senate and could yet end up another of his failures. In his account, by contrast, he has been the most successful president since Abraham Lincoln, though unlike each of the various men to hold the office before him, he is the least popular president at this point in his term, with a majority, upwards of 50% in many polls, disapproving of his governance.

United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley
(Copyright © CBS News)

Among the low lights thus far of Trump's tenure, and this is hardly an exhaustive list, once could mention:

  • his constant attacks, deflections and projections on and mis-representations of the free press, his opponents, his former campaign opponent Hillary Clinton, his predecessor Barack Obama, the US intelligence services (including the CIA and FBI), and even fellow members of his party;
  • the repeatedly attempted Muslim ban (which, after revision, was finally allowed to take effect); 
  • firing the FBI director, James Comey, initially for one set of reasons proposed by his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, only to contradict them on television and later to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador, in the Oval Office (more about this below);
  • his dismissal of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who had warned him about General Flynn;
  • the resignation of his now convicted National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, after 24 days, for allegedly lying to the Vice President about his contacts with Russia (more about this below); 
  • the repeated failure in his attempts to legislatively repeal the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare (though he continues to shred it by other means); 
  • his equivocation on the white supremacist Unite the Right tiki-torchlight march and subsequent murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville;
  • his failed response to Hurricane Maria's battering of Puerto Rico, which remains in dire condition;
  • his flipflops on the DACA policy, leaving countless young undocumented Americans in legal jeopardy, and his rescission of the refugee policies for Haitians and Salvadorans;
  • his illiberal pardoning of Arizona prison chief and avowed racist Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted on a misdemeanor charge for contempt of court, because he was disobeying a judge's order to stop racial profiling.
  • his attacks on Black football players and other athletes protesting state and police violence on and racism against African Americans and other people of color;
  • his establishment of a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, admirably bi-partisan, but headed by a man, Kris Kobach, known for racist views and who has actively worked against expanding democracy and voting rights;
  • abandoning the Paris Climate Accords, leaving the US only one of 2 nations not to sign on;
  • losing two Communications Directors, Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci, within the span of six months, while also forcing out his chief of staff, former RNC head Reince Priebus;
  • his advocacy for the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline (which actually burst not long ago, leaking 210,000 gallons of oil);
  • his appointment of new commissioners who are vowing to repeal net neutrality;
  • his use of a slur against Native Americans during a ceremony to honor Native American military heroes, the famous "Code Talkers," while standing before a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, whose record of extensive anti-indigenous policy and violence is well-documented;
  • his promotion of anti-Muslim videos, including one considered to be fake, posted by a fringe, extremist white nationalist British political group;
  • his constant tweeting, through which he has advanced conspiracy theories, false information, and unilateral policy without alerting his administration (such as banning transgender troops in the military without first discussing this or consulting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff)

To conclude the list, Trump is now campaigning for and recording robocalls for a man, Roy Moore, who has been credibly accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl and assaulting another teenager, was twice removed from the bench, and whose ideas are so far out of any mainstream that he repeatedly lost out in prior attempts at runs for statewide positions in a state dominated by his party. And the above list does not even touch upon the administration's possible violations of the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution; the Hatch Act; the Logan Act; and other ethical or legal landmines. Nor does it include the debacle of the Al Hathla Raid in Yemen, which faces a humanitarian crisis in part because of US-supported actions by the Saudi Arabian military, or the Tongo Tongo ambush, in Niger, which still remains unexplained to the wider public.

Amidst all of this, as a backdrop, Congressional panels in the House and Senate, as well as a Special Counsel, lifelong Republican and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, continue to investigate the Trump administration for obstruction of justice in the firing of James Comey and its ties to Russia before and after the 2016 election. The investigation includes the various revelations in MI5 agent Christopher Steele's "dossier"; alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee's server and the accounts of other DNC and Democratic officials, as well attempts on state and local voting systems; the Trump campaign's ties to various Russian officials, oligarchs, and emissaries, as well as Russian, Russian-allied and foreign banks and institutions; the Trump campaign's links to Wikileaks; other alleged Russian forms of and attempts at meddling in the US election process; and the Trump campaign and administration officials' financial ties to other foreign entities like Turkey, Ukraine, and so on. (And there may be even more that I have not listed under investigation.) The bizarre scene earlier in the year, involving the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister, in which the US press were effectively barred, is just one of many strange moments in this administration's shadowplay with Russian.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary R. Herbert
swears in Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. as U.S. Ambassador
to Russia during an Ambassadorial Swearing-in
Ceremony at the Utah Capitol Saturday, October 7, 2017.
Mary Kaye Huntsman is in the middle.
Among Mueller's actions so far have been to indict former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort and his adjutant Rick Gates on felony charges; to secure a felony guilty plea from former Trump advisor George Papadopoulos; and to gain a felony guilty plea for lying to the FBI from Michael Flynn. Attorney General Sessions, special advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr., and many other Trump campaign and administration officials, including the President himself, may find themselves caught up in the FBI's net as well, as a fundamental line propagated by Trump from the very beginning of his campaign, that he had no ties to Russia, now looks increasingly like a falsehood, and the President's actions since taking office have not advanced the perception that he views Russia as a hostile foreign power, as his predecessors and most of the US's allies, all have.

But--and this is a major point, beside this backdrop, as I have labeled it, Trump's power to disrupt remains. To give but one very contentious example, he could fire Mueller, it seems, creating a constitutional crisis if the GOP were unwilling to stand up to him, and whereas even some very conservative Senators expressed faith in the investigation months ago, they now appear to be wavering. The conservative head of one Congressional committee, California Republican Devin Nunes (temporarily?) recused himself after troubling contacts with the White House. Although several Democrats, led by Congressman Al Green of Texas, have introduced Articles of Impeachment, nothing can happen unless either the Republican majority decides to act upon them, which is not assured even if the Congressional committees and Mueller identify possible material evidence of collusion, coordination, and financial crimes, or the Democrats win an airtight House majority and a significant enough one in the Senate in 2018. The former is not inconceivable; the latter is much more of a stretch.

In our postmodern political and social climate, there is no guarantee that even in the face of proof of obvious crimes the GOP in Congress, let alone Republicans across the US, would sanction impeachment of Trump, nor agree with attempts by Bob Mueller to indict him or his family members, if it came to that. Nor is it a lock that the Congressional Democrats, unlike those of the 1970s or 1980s, would have to have the will and fearlessness to take Trump and his administration on either. Thus far they have done a mostly lackluster job challenging him publicly or creating a compelling counternarrative to energize voters to oust the GOP. For the Republicans' part, they very well might argue, as some seem to be doing and, as one, a "anonymous source linked to the Bush administration" told journalist Ron Suskind in the October 17, 2004 issue of The New York Times Magazine:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

That empire under Bush was a putative failure, but Trump's has quickly taken shape and continues to emerge. Truth may have an implicit "liberal bias," as some wags like to say, but nearly one year of Trump has shown us that the liberal imagination, and liberal, democratic and republican structures remain imperiled when a leader decides, with the support of millions, to create and enact his own reality. At the rate things have occurred this year, we should all, whatever our perspective, be very concerned about what will await us at this point one year from now. 

Emotional Outreach Project: Life As a Work of Art (Karen Cantrell)

This is a cross-posting, with a few revisions, from my other blog, the site for Field Research Study Group A, where I've shared information for the last few years about various versions of the durational Emotional Outreach Project I've engaged in for over a decade now (since 2003).

Please do visit that blog, and feel free to check out this post and this one, both from 2016, if you would like to participate. Also, at the end of this post, please note the correct email address to which you can send your responses if you elect to write one or several.


It has been a while since I last posted here at Field Research Study Group A--over a year!--but I wanted to share a new response from the most recent version of the Emotional Outreach Project.

Below is a reply that Karen Cantrell sent back in May (2017) via the FRSGA Yahoo account, in response to one of the vouchers I passed out earlier this year (I believe.) Based on her reply, I imagine her card's emotional exercise read as follows:

If I may quote her email directly, she writes: "The card with the assignment fell out of my bag, and I took its appearance as a sign. A paragraph, however, is hard. I have summarized my day as a work of art to one sentence and included the paragraphs that describe what I saw."

Here is her full response:

I liked picturing myself as a better person, more attractive, stronger, a person who knows the right thing to do and has the courage to perform accordingly.

I first conjured a series of statues – me doing perfect poses, no wobbles even during chaturanga, not though the full moon increased the gravity. Sculptures of smooth, hard stone, all extra padding shaved away, no greasy fingerprints disturbing the gloss, a yogic serenity smoothing my features. 
Second, an animation to capture the papers and toys and books and used dishes returning like autonomous agents to my mother’s living room, days after I cleared the clutter and wiped the dusty cobwebs from behind framed needlepoints. 
A photo of a lonely dog jumping on the little old ladies who deigned to drink tea on the patio, chewed remnants littering the backyard beyond them. A sentence to describe the Rottweiler my sister-in-law brought into the house, a week before she left, a puppy bigger than the little boy he was supposedly meant for. 
In the screenplay, over a shared taco salad, the red shell split in half, the sour cream pushed to the side, I tell Mom what I’ve learned about my half-brother, his reluctance to take the DNA test, his fear of abandonment, his sadness. Then I segue into the question I scribbled in my journal weeks before, the question that inspired me to give her a book: “Do we have to be freed from a secret to really love and thus to live?” 
As a work of art, I am not the self who waits until she spies The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri on the floorboard of her mother’s car, then assumes a pedantic tone as she steps her mother through the questions like a reluctant undergrad. Still the truth is that Mom liked the book enough to want to pass onto a friend, and the story Mom tells, a time her father took his cane to her mother’s zinnias, is the best she can do. Just as I park the car outside Departures and turn back into a sculpture, smooth and hard, no greasy fingerprints disturbing my glossy serenity as I stride through the airport.

Text written and submitted by Karen Cantrell.

Many thanks to Karen for her collaboration, and I will post most responses as they come in. Any readers of this blog should feel free to respond to the instructions above, and write a response along the lines of Karen's and forward it directly to fieldresearchgroup[AT], or center your QR reader app and utilize the QR code below.

Friday, December 01, 2017

A Few New Interviews

This summer, I had the pleasure of chatting in person with Madison McCartha, who is currently a student in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame. Madison had previously held conversations other writers, including the amazing Douglas Kearney and Rachel Galvin, to discuss topics under the rubric Polyphone: Interviews with Diasporic Poets. We ranged over all manner of things and people, and I really enjoyed meeting Madison and am looking forward to his work as it appears in the world. Recently the journal Full Stop published the interview, which you can find here. Many thanks to Madison for the excellent questions and thoughts, and to Full Stop for running this discussion.

Here's a snippet:

In an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriett Blog, Ken Chen says he always finds himself “met with troubles [as] to how to fit something infinite like death energy of grief or the death energy of Empires within a box that is finite like a book of poems or a book of fiction.” I’m wondering what has been the difficulty for you in translating the sublime trauma of imperialism, as he calls it, and whether that process (of translation) expanded or complicated your thinking about it?

By all means. It’s extremely difficult, and part of the challenge is presenting it in a way that is comprehensible to people today. Because on one level, yes, we can try to imagine what it would be like to be a black soldier in a battle in the US Civil War. On the other hand, I think it’s quite difficult to ever imagine what that experience was like. I mean consider the multiple layers of precarity that that person was embodying, but also, at the same time, their extraordinary bravery: to put oneself in extraordinary danger, not just for one’s own home but so many others. What does that mean? What does such a radical practice of freedom look like? How do we depict it?

There are multiple ways. Creating scenes, and creating characters, to tap into emotions elusive to us and yet that we know intimately: that is a form of translation. That’s something art can actually do, that other forms of writing can’t, or not exactly. Moreover, there is the question of the larger canvas, of colonialism and empire: how does a fiction writer convey these larger systems and structures without didacting, without essentially writing an essay (though there are hybrid fictional-essay forms that would work well)? What does it mean to put pressure on the usual recourse to the individual, when what we need is this larger backdrop, which tends to go missing in so many of our public discussions?

A few years back, perhaps shortly before Counternarratives was published, I met up with writer, scholar and activist Rochelle Spencer to discuss the topics of Afrofuturism and speculative Black writing and poetics, but I'd forgotten about it until she alerted me that our exchange was set to appear in Chicago Literati, and it did this past spring (April). Here's a link to the piece, which Rochelle titled "'Like Currents in a River': A Conversation with Speculative Writer John Keene." Since this discussion occurred before the many since Counternarratives appeared, it was a bit more free-wheeling in many ways. Many thanks to Rochelle (now Dr. Spencer, I believe!) and Chicago Literati for running it.

Here is one Q&A exchange from that conversation that centers on the Black Arts Movement:

RS: You just alluded to the Black Arts Movement. How did the Black Arts Movement influence the Dark Room?

Keene: The DNA of the Black Arts Movement is in every contemporary Black American poet and in Black poets all over the world, whether they acknowledge this influence or not. The ideas of self discovery, black pride, connection, to do something on your own rather than waiting for someone else to do it—those ideas were central to Dark Room Collective writers in their youth, so I feel we wouldn’t have been possible without them, without the crucial well of Black Arts Movement poets. They are invaluable, and they remain invaluable, though people sometimes talk about the Movement as if it failed. I think counter to that: their influence will continue well into the first century and beyond.


Lastly, I don't think I'd mentioned on this blog that, by some strange turn of events, Counternarratives finally received a review, two years after its hardcover debut, and a glorious one at that, in The New York Times Book Review this past September. I extend my profound thanks to writer and critic Julian Lucas, who authored the long and insightful review essay, one of the finest and most in depth the book has received. Titled "Epic Stories That Expand the Universal Family Plot," it situates the collection in relation to the history of fictional family sagas in order to show how it performs, as it were, a kind of queer affiliation and relationality, how it embodies a different understanding of history and kinship, that might offer a way forward for the future. (I have decided not to expend any additional energy trying to figure out why the Times completely ignored the book when it appeared in 2015.)

Here is how Lucas ends his review, a fitting tribute to the book and to many who are tending similar literary and artistic gardens:
Entranced by the ancestor who crossed on the Mayflower, escaped from the plantation or started anew in a hostile foreign city, we too often limit our retrospective gaze to those predecessors who made provisions for a future we recognize in our own present. We deprive ourselves of people whose visions were never realized, who left no obvious legacy. More people have lived on earth than the tendentious nets of genealogy — inevitably tangled in the chronologies of faith, race, nation — can catch, and we are connected to them by threads more subtle, and resonances more profound, than have yet been explored. Imagining those lives, deeply and without the prejudice that they must be prologue to our world, can be both radical and beautiful.