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Tuesday, Jan 12, 2010
The author takes a critical look, at what is arguably one of the best, and quirky films of the last decade.

For years, the writer/artist/filmmaker, Miranda July has been creating work that has challenged audiences to think beyond the conventional norms of expression. Both sweeping and observational, her work often tends to highlight the fragile relationship between human pain and pleasure, with a particular emphasis on how the minutia of everyday life can help foster an understanding of collective experience.


In particular here, I am eager to discuss how July’s feature length film debut, the oddly beguiling, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), is able to utilize a series of narrative and aesthetic devices, to subvert traditional capitalist, and patriarchal ideologies. The first of these devices of which I will discuss, relates to the female protagonist, Christine, and her whimsical approach to life.


Take for instance her first rendezvous with the object of her desire, Richard (a troubled shoe salesman). After they meet in a department store, Christine starts following Richard as he walks to his car. During this time, she asks him to imagine that the road before them is an emblem of their life together. As they continue along this street, they begin to envision their future together—they share unadorned hopes, dreams and desires. Throughout this, the pair’s conversation takes on a surreal emotional language that is incredibly childlike. Such is the case that at times; it feels like one is watching two idealistic children sharing an intimate moment. This innocent and unbridled approach to romance in the narrative defies the usual dating tropes – suggesting that patriarchy can exist without the rational expectations that contemporary logisticians are so keen to maintain.


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Sunday, Jan 3, 2010

Talk about tough! Even if this wasn’t a full time job, taking up as much of one’s life as any career plus concept of entertainment could, trying to pick out ten titles from an equal number of years is almost impossible. It’s not like television, which tends to keep its beloved entities on the air long enough to make a memorable impact. It’s also not like music, which can play in the background of one’s life sometimes decades after release. No, movies demand attention. They require patience and perspective. They are the most unique of artforms because they come at you complete. You can love a particular band or album even with one or two clunkers among the set list. No TV show is ever going to be 100% funny/dramatic/thrilling/thought-provoking all the time.


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Sunday, Nov 29, 2009
No, gays won’t have to march- there are plenty more ways for heroes to come out to battle. What if lynching had gone viral? Remember that Dr. King had no iPhone, hence the distance between Montgomery and Atlanta was enormous, but dwarfed by now the Internet (not to mention I-85).

Wait: A gay hero? They are going to unmask the ‘blacky,’ and solve the murder. But will all turn out dandy?


Pow! Boom! Crash! Crunch! No punches, just blows. This was 1961, and this scene at least was the birth of the gay hero. We see the people mourning over their losses, and folks belittling on others’ debts- this is a real feel good flic with all the highs and lows of any melodrama. Instead of a red suit with emblems and tights, this hero wears his dignity and refusal to be silenced by shame.


1961’s film Victim is a classic. It’s not slapstick comedy, nor a thriller. But the one liners are often thrilling slaps in the face:


“But Mr. Farr’s married, sir.”
“Those are famous last words,” sir shoots back.


“Insincere bastard,” says the fag hag hanging off the bar, perched on her regular stool.
Well, what else can I be,” replies the barman, presaging something about the characters of his well-wishing.


“Nature played me a dirty trick. I’m gonna see I can get a few years peace and quiet in return,” said another sinner.


The main character coming out to his wife was one of the most powerful scenes. She drags him out of the closet- not to throw him away, but only to help him realize that he has actually known and expressed love in their relationship. She insists on her love for him, but as importantly asks him to be true to himself; her ego is small and her compassion grand. She offers him the opportunity to acknowledge his love for ‘that boy’ for perhaps the first time in his life. She accuses guilt of displacing her in his heart, not the ‘way’ he was, an interesting distinction on all the preaching against the Down Low (it’s society that breeds guilt, silly).


A Human Stain, A Gay Hero and Modern Martyrs


Race still marks difference in our society with minorities often burdened with the task of unraveling race, let alone racism, and whites often unable to perceive the hegemony. The post-Civil Rights strategy of Obama portends to ignore ‘race’ altogether, promising that the best of us arrives from taking care of all of us.


People wonder why there is no Malcolm X, nor Martin Luther King to galvanize queer people. But, unlike 1961 London, or pre-2003 USA, or pre-2009 India, the modern gay movement won’t be fought on the marching ground, and we won’t have martyrs like Harvey Milk serve as our only impetus for change. Each and everyone of us has the power to assert agency in our daily lives. The Internet has exponentially, for example, increased the means by which radical, anti-white-washing, anti-polarizing voices can spread across the universe. Stains of inequality which sat and shroomed in pockets in the old world, such as Apartheid in South Africa or Jim and Jane Crow in the American South, can no longer persist in the modern world. Might this be the fate of caste in India?


How might have the Suweto uprising changed had there been mobile phone cameras and MMS texting, let alone E-mail, blogging, and posting videos to YouTube?!? Where one radical picture of Hector Pieterson- a slain Black school boy- galvanized resistance against Aparthied, and evidently sparked an entire revolution, the visualization of the beating of Black Los Angeles motorist Rodney King brought home the normative way in which ‘race’ materializes in law-enforcement. Thanks to just mobile phones, let alone other technologies, witnesses can testify around the world to micro and macro atrocities that others never wanted to believe existed. Now consider the viral video of fights, including in schools (search YouTube for “school fight” and do not be shocked that most results are not dramatizations, are almost always ‘boys’, and often before a cheering crowd.


Then consider Derrion Alberts, a Chicago youth who was beaten to death near his school on the way home. Those street fights are a real and present danger, a known but ignored reality of modern urban decay. The video not only brought some of the gang members to the clutches of justice, but also provided an anchor for other mute witnesses and community members to take a stand: The viral nature of the video clip, and its circulation in the media encouraged folks to name the accused, in a neighborhood where gang violence silences many through retaliation. A concerned citizen specifically took the video in response to lack of action taken against the regular street violence in front of his sister’s high school, and still he remains hidden for fear of his safety and allows the medium of video to represent his presence; that videographer witnesses, and agrees to testify. “Damn” and “Oh my God, get closer” a young sister says off screen during the video of Derrion’s last minute. Damn” someone says after Derrion’s death, “dey still down ‘er goin’ at it.”


Also, think about regimes which silence an entire people. Think about the police crack down in Guinea, the citizen reporting from Iran, or the role Internet video in modern terrorism. Video in the hands of the people can assert the kind of agency that topples dictatorships and oppressive ideologies like never before. Moreover, that kind of footage is almost tangible. It’s more real than The Blair Witch Project, and more personable than the reality TV show Big Brother - even with the run-of-the-mill racists rows with Shilpa Shetty and greasy Jermaine Jackson’s coaching that Indian princess). We face our violence and are forced to acknowledge that violence is deeply ingrained in our society and interwoven into who we are- what it means to be a man, for example. 


Boys must learn not to hit girls, and men are shamed for hitting women. But I know many a bitch that will beat a nigga down (like Precious’ mama); but those are the ‘quality’ chicks the commercial rappers cheer about (“beat dat bitch witta bat”). Nonetheless, we approve men committing violence against men, and even encourage it as a part of being a man. Boys are especially given toy weapons from miniature tanks and battle-ready starships, to guns and swords for potty training! We are a beat down nation! Americans really, really get high on violence. After comedian Bernie Mac: We hate like a mutha fucka! And we Americans love us some mutha fuckin’ violence!


Mobile phone clips are just one technology revolutionizing how we act out. Societies’ recent past often show that once we actually ‘see’ our violence, we are transformed. Somehow time and distance can only be traversed through the person-to-person reportage, not just reporting, but witnessing and then testifying. Former slave Harriet Ann Jacobs’ (b.1813, slave; d.1897, free) Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl is said to be the definitive book that introduced northerners to the lived reality of slavery allowing may to ‘see’ their complicacy through their tacit support of the Fugitive Slave Law. First published in 1861, Jacobs’ personal portrait of slavery sparked change. Hector Pieterson’s had the same ramifications in Apartheid South Africa, for there are many reports from (white) Afrikaners who claim to not have been aware of the extent of the oppression in which they were silently participating and, crucially, therefore approving.


Rev Dr. Martin Luther King had to go from place to place and show his face for people to understand the weight of Jim and Jane Crow, while the 1955 photo of Emmet Till’s open casket exposed many complacent Americans to the violence of racism- 14-year old Till’s head bashed in by sick white racists, all in a damn day’s work in that place and time. We all saw the ominous picture of the fencing where Mathew Shepard’s mutilated body was left to perish, and we promise to ourselves that this just should not happen. Yet, frankly our inactivity, and then mobilization around slight, localized causes like Prop 8 and military conscription demonstrates that we are still waiting on another Milk.


No, gays won’t have to march- there are plenty more ways for heroes to come out to battle. What if lynching had gone viral? Remember that Dr. King had no iPhone, hence the distance between Montgomery and Atlanta was enormous, but dwarfed by now the Internet (not to mention I-85). Just consider the hate crimes and non-violence protest organized around Jena Louisiana. No, Beyoncé, you cannot do for me what Martin did for the people! Ran by the men but the women kept the tempo No, B. you’re no shero like Fannie Lou Hamer, and certainly not Mahalia Jackson. The people are asking for a bit more substance, building on the impact of these images of real people- unarticulated through market forces- can create change; the mobile clip might supersede these modern divas.


Remember, the iconic image of Hector Pieterson!?! Still, we’re unfortunately still into martyrs. It took images like HU’s own Skip Gates’ arrest to give credence to the sitting president to address the violence of how race mediates how we interact on every level from the boys and gals in blue and the average citizen, to even civil public discourse. At least Big B did what he could do and fashioned a “teachable moment,” the sort that viral media gone rancid cannot. Too many folks eat images like a hit-and-run (or fire-and-forget), and we feel as satisfied as filling up with soda- what we in Kentucky call pop. It’s just empty calories. We feel temporarily full, high even from the fantastic sugar, sodium, caffeine combo; but soon enough we just piss that crap out and hunger for more. That’s how we do pop (culture). Luckily, our local convenient stores and school vending machine are always on point, offering a cooled supply of junk.


Might we ever see images of genuine, soulful luster and grandeur- happiness articulated through something other than material bliss, and come out the better? Might we ever lust for pop images that give us soul to satiate us with pleasures beyond hype and bling, and without the typical modern cynicism? The cynicism derides and berates anything critical, which leaves us to only feed off the pain, the sheer martyrdom of others. We get high off of a good beat down, and become excitable around shows of guns, tits and ass. No one really dare stand out, lest the sound-bite, viral media take a chunk out of their lives and call them a Smooth Criminal (Damn right, I said that sh*t! I could teach you, but I’(d) havta charge).


Might this technology continually produce videos like the brutal death of Derrion Alberts and galvanize Americans to transform ourselves into a non-violent society, which was King’s true dream, to recall the mantle upon which the Nobel Peace Prize stands! King sparked a social revolution, and the Nobel Prize apparently hastened, galvanized broader dialogue in support of his efforts. “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.” says King, opening his acceptance speech in Oslo in December of 1964. The Nobel Peace prize was awarded, and King accepted the Prize on behalf of a movement, which likens it more to a grant, a note of support. Notably, the Prize apparently focused King’s efforts on ending the violence of poverty and the violence of war. Peace is the real upgrade. At issue here is what sparks change, for change is inevitable.


Victim, with it’s extraordinarily woven narratives and almost melodramatic dialogues that liken the film to more of a stage production than a moving picture flic gives the film a quality of liveliness. Shot in Black and White, the close-ups and sustained dialogues really focuses our attention on experiencing the emotions involved- we are after all talking about a non-violent crime so the action is in the anxiety. At one point we even have an extreme close-up shot of one main victim panting, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes, having lost his freedom for the crime of homosexuality, ashamed, considering his next move. This finesse makes the experiences of the narrative as personable as Black Box Theater.


The finish of Victim shows that always cowards sell each other out and end up selling themselves out by not standing up for anything. They act out of fear, something that it seems far more easy to do today sitting behind a laptop or a flat screen, virtually experiencing the world. When communication is mediated by this technology, we are embolden to take a stance- to basically stand at one pole or the other- shades of gray are less hued now than in this pre-Technicolor film. The trouble is, for those who experience most of the world virtually, they’ve really nothing of substance to say, and are robbed of opportunities to develop skills for dynamic dialogue- not just posting something on a site, never knowing if it actually gets read. But, then there are those whose circumstances demand change. Some of us even tend to speak out more through these technological mediums, but only enough to leave a vile response or tacky, ill-worded reply to an article.


That sort of virtual existence we’re approaching is the theme of plenty of contemporary Sci-Fi flics from the 1999/2003’s Matrix Trilogy to 2009’s Surrogates, or for example, 1998’s Pleasantville. One can even see this polarized virtual reality in 1975’s The Stepford Wives  or its 2004 remake starring Ms. Nicole Kidman. Like the Stepford husbands living in a virtual reality, modern folk can also have an easier reality with which to contemplate. Yet, rest assured that these blokes and their modern net-freak flock are the true casualties of modernization. Few of these folks actually find the courage to stand up in their daily lives as does the main protagonist of the ironically named film Victim. A punctuating message of Victim seems to be that despite the cynicism, which was well dramatized in this film by the behavior of the flock, there are still those who refuse to cow down. Like the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope few seem to consciously ‘get’ these dramatic twist.


Yet, that’s just the twist: There’s as thin a line between love and hate, as between courage and fear, dignity and humiliation- a line that the main characters of Rope failed to identify, but one that Victim’s ultimate hero has. Failing to locate that line could cost you your life. And perceiving that line takes a bit more than a sound-bite can handle. Yet, that’s what makes Victim also an action movie, where one outstanding citizen dares to go against the tide within the confounds of daily life. The action: daring to speak ‘out’. The heroine: Daring to stand by. Both are examples of everyday courage.


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Thursday, Nov 19, 2009

See A Patch of Blue (1965), staring Sidney Poitier who by that time was already a seasoned actor. Recall that Poitier only two years earlier, he was the first Black actor to win an academy award for his role in (white) Lilies in the Field, where he played a Magic Negro for sure. One interesting sub plot in that film, which seems to underscore it’s play on race, Poitier is the only ‘American’ in the film, save for the stingy white man. It’s one of those message films. Got the message?


Yet, we gotta love A Patch of Blue. Poitier plays another Magic Negro who appears from out of nowhere just when the white protagonist is in distress (see the first five minutes of Imitation of Life, or just watch The Pelican Brief or The Legend of Baggar Vance to see more Magic Negroes). Of course, the blind girl drops her precious beads, and he’s more than willing to help her. This is where the trouble starts: the two ‘inadvertently’ touch, and this is a prelude to the ‘dangerous’ intimacy they will share. Then outs her: In the plot of the film, the magic Negro character that Poitier portrays is the first to actually acknowledge her blindness, and to not do so in the negative way in which we are introduced to her, through her angry folks at home.


We watch as the two outsiders briefly lament about how differently they see the world around them, including flashbacks of the girl describing what might have been her last vision. She describes her disfigurement as if becoming a nigger. Of course, they play around the race line, and show that she can ‘see’ difference, yet race is invisible to her despite how tall or short they are and how differently they talk. Race, this scene seems to say, is so simple that even a blind person doesn’t trip over it the way able-bodied people do.


Next the negro performs this stock character’s most distinctive magic feat: In true Magic Negro style, Poitier turns moral leader and in the process of just a short, casual conversation, he is the first person to ever reveal to the white outcaste that she’s not nearly as ugly and incapable as the world seems to tell her. He plants the seed of pride. Magic Negros are chock full of pride.


The Magic Negro character, which later morphed into the black-best-friend, is beyond reproach, totally unlike any and all ‘other’ negroes, and especially mulattos. And, equally true to form, he won’t challenge the natural, if not unjust, order of things; his raison d’être is to demonstrate that magical negro moral fortitude, despite the negro’s ‘natural’ disadvantages. In these films’ the negro’s subordinate status is portrayed as natural because racism is usually never challenged, and the white-best-friend is always color blind in stark contrast to the uncool whites. This common fantasy helps distance reality from reason by showing that social inequality is not really all that bad because negroes apparently come out unscathed; magic Negroes have none of the rage more commonly associated with mainstream stereotypes of blacks. Moreover, the characters are always dedicated, happy even, to teaching the benevolent white characters on how we persevere.


There are few clearer examples of this fantasy than the Magic Negro in the Green Mile. Despite having the power to heal and even give life, the Magic Negro accepts his death penalty and in a coup of plots, the big, black, Magic Negro absolves his white-best-friends- the benevolent prison guards, distinct from the bumbling racist sissy they demonized and threw out just to make sure we knew which whites were good.


Like I have pointed out in an earlier critique of the Green Mile, consider the closing scenes of Imitation of Life, where the white-best-friend learns after years of service that her Magic Negro maid/nanny/best-friend has a life outside her whitopian, suburban home, and has maintained ties to other Black people for years. At the maid’s funeral, we see her tragic mulatto daughter vowing never to deny her mother again, as Mahalia draws out a moving hymn in the background. The scene actually shows how the Magic Negro character got over- how she persevered. One wonders where was the Magic Negro’s soul in the Green Mile, for in spite of his circumstances relative to the white-best-friend who is shown to almost succumb to all that pressure, the Magic Negro always chooses life. Watch to see if 1965’s A Patch of Blue deviates from this formula.


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Wednesday, Jun 10, 2009
In a true Holly wood ending, Shug’s story would have ended when she burst into the church to face her father -- her community, kids, kin and parish. “Reverend Lee, do it to me,” she would have said in the typical Hollywood version, if not for the strong narrative of Alice Walker’s story. And we know what “it” means. “Do it,” is the most middle-school euphemism for f*cking.

The Thanksgiving scene in the movie version of The Color Purple was a fake out, like Luther Vandross’s false ending on A House is Not a Home. The music slows to a whimper, and Luther chants ever so softly. Then, he brings it on home.


Ella Fitzgerald does the same thing on How High the Moon. In 1966’s The Stockholm Concert with Duke Ellington, Ella performs some of her grittiest skats.


“I guess I better quit while I’m ahead,” Ella lightly croons after what sounds like improv- a dynamic jam session between a stage chock full of greats. Then, the beat drops to a snare and Ella digs in with a real nasty groove.


While the drum drones, Ella is growling and trilling, riffing and ranting like a trombone, two trumpets and a sax together. One can almost imagine her shoulders squeezing and releasing like a tense metronome as the snare races. It’s funkier than the Miles Davis Quintet, and Ella even does a great Miles!


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