Archive for June, 2011


The Asiatics and the Occidentals

One of the many great things about film is that, as a collage art, you can make one thing mean another, or drain value from an image or situation that once had great import. I had the pleasure of re-watching Mike Leigh’s 1999 “Topsy Turvy,” again recently, and while I love the film, I especially love the music. Leigh took, as his premise, the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 piece, “The Mikado; or The Town of Titipu.” In that work, the British composers explored their idea of Japan as seen through the eyes of colonialists who rule, but couldn’t be bothered to get on a tall ship. It’s the juxtaposition of the very very English text and music hall sound with cherry blossoms and fans that makes the surreality of the work so enjoyable. But Leigh pushed against those juxtapositions even further by taking, for instance, Yum Yum’s (presumably) comic speech about her beauty out of the operetta proper, thereby creating a monologue about a performer’s self-regard that is shocking and knowing. As spoken by Shirley Henderson, a treasure to keep watching, the willfully silly prose becomes mournful, an ode, thus inspiring me to imagine more juxtapositions: Bjork, for instance, singing “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” in front of a large audience at Coachella, dressed in a kimono. When she was growing up, the Icelandic native was called, because of her dark hair and slanted eyes, “China Girl.”

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Versions of Masculinity

In New Orleans. Clouds like planes of solid atmosphere. The heat that sends you scurrying and then laying flat. An atmosphere of dazed reconciliation. My gay pride was spent here amidst sudden showers, and not knowing the gay scene at all. The feeling of being displaced, uncomfortable, was balanced by the joy of not knowing who one is when one travels. Before I left New York, I stopped in at a party where I was pleased–indeed, honored–to run into the brilliant stage and costume designer Machine Dazzle, whose decor strikes me as the most original I’ve seen in years. Dressed in his customary original manner–his dress looked like the lining one would find in an expensive coffin–Dazzle offset the other versions of maleness that have enriched me over the years, including another reveler whose chest hair was as much of an accessory as his angel wings and the rose tucked behind his ear. In New Orleans, the late Sylvester glowed like an angel as one of his old videos played in a dark, wooden, bar, the rain falling out a sun bright sky, and then there was this young boy today, who was working out in the hotel gym just now, frightened and then not, to look at his evolving gay image in the mirror.




The sound crushes. The beat bounces against your heart, tightening it. Passengers are gathered together in what looks like a technological nightmare–a nuclear power plant, perhaps. The colors in this great hall are phosphorescent and bleak. But this is no power plant; it’s only a discotheque on a luxury liner; the passengers are stamping, dancing, to disco music that sounds like cannon fire, literally surrounded by the lo-fi winds of war. Bump bump bump. The camera jumps, too. It cannot look away from this nightmare of socialization, it can only cut to other moments framed by silence, or self-conscious “real” beauty: Patti Smith presumably on that ship’s deck in a skull cap, strumming her guitar; a woman who looks as if she stepped out of an Ingres; the sound of the sea again, rising and crashing against this ship of fools. These disjointed images amount to one image, or idea: about fracture, about nature seen through technology, and the smear of history and modernism that infects the lens with its own brutalities and realities and untruths. This is the first part of the latest gift from the now eighty year old filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard. The film: “Film Socialisme,” which is as much about the shirt sightedness of language and language turning history to myth as anything else. In Richard Brody’s full and enriching column about the movie, Godard’s biographer writes:

The McGuffin of Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, “Film Socialisme” is the vast store of gold that the Spanish Republicans shipped to the Soviet Union in 1936, ostensibly for safekeeping during the civil war (of course, it never came back), and, in particular, the batch of it that disappeared en route to Odessa. Yet the gold is more than a McGuffin: it’s a frequent subject of discussion, an object that lends the entire film its thematic and symbolic value, and the source of the movie’s elaborate backstory—and it has been on Godard’s mind for almost thirty years. In a 1997 interview with Alain Bergala (the interview that opens the second volume of “Godard par Godard”—“Godard on Godard”—a crucial book which has yet to be translated), Godard said that he heard about it from Jacques Tati “five or six months” before Tati died, in 1982. At that time, Godard wanted to interview him:

I offered to buy him a coffee. He said he could pay for it himself, and he took out a coin. A gold coin from the Bank of Spain. “That’s what’s left of the Spanish treasury that Stalin took,” he told me. It had been given to him by [the movie producer] Louis Dolivet, who was an agent of the Fourth International. I knew him from having approached him: he was my first contact, before [the producer Pierre] Braunberger, at the time of Gray Films [in the mid-fifties]. He produced “Mr. Arkadin” and “Playtime.” There’s even a shot in “Mr. Arkadin” where you see Dolivet. Tati explained the connection between them. He had been an assistant to the famous Willy Mutzenberg [sic], who had seduced the entire French intelligentsia and produced films, launched magazines. He had certainly placed money in Switzerland, which Dolivet inherited after the war. With this money, he produced “Arkadin,” which is a metaphor for the story of Stalin and takes place in Spain. According to Tati’s theory, Stalin had supported the war in Spain in order to get hold of this money. Which is completely plausible, since Stalin was a former bank robber…. That’s a story that I’d really like to have shown [in “Histoire(s) du cinema”]: what is the real relationship between “Mr. Arkadin” and “Playtime”? It’s the gold of the Bank of Spain and of the Spanish Republicans, which Stalin stole. With this money, Dolivet produced two catastrophic flops, but two very beautiful films.

The “search” here of course is not so much for the missing gold–this cinema universe is no El Dorado, or narrative cousin to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”–but the act of looking at cinema and it’s myths, its history, its inherent “socialiasme,” which includes this reality: everyone can make a movie now, or star in one. We no longer read history in books, or listen to it as Godard listened to it in that long ago interview; instead, we watch for it, or are bored by it, as it’s created or falsified through the magic of editing. What can language mean in the face of a young boy’s face–one of the film’s more interesting stars–waiting for an answer to his questions about the historical world and his place in it. He sucks his thumb, and Godard sucks our minds free of linear expectation, narrative pleasure–bourgeois impulses that speak more about our need to control information than our ability to receive and absorb knowledge as it happens. Godard’s mind is too fast for most of us, too drenched in facts and remembrance and in his love of cinema as reportage. What feeds him and makes him more agile makes most of us sleepy and exhausted because we want to wear history–to know it–whereas Godard moves through it; it is part of who he is and who we are, if only we could face it. And because we can’t, the filmmaker barrages us with it, thus creating a beautiful and satisfying cinema of cruelty. Godard shows us bloody Russia, but it is a film–Eistentein’s view of the Steppes. We see Spain, represented by a matador, and the bullring’s blood. These visual metaphors provoke real feelings in us (first about the Spain of Hemingway, then the photographer Robert Capa and his famous image of the fallen Spanish resistance fighter, and so on) especially as Godard italicizes cinema’s falseness through his exploration of color, sound, make believe and, most of all, language. His subtitles don’t “work” (for every long speech we see two or three words), images seep into titles. Language crumbles even before we’ve had a chance to understand it’s intention. We see words, but what of comprehension? For Godard, language has always been visual. But looking at pictures in our contemporary world should involve a level of distrust: there are too many movies. Cinema is as real and as false as history. We are all tourists everywhere, especially in our myth of living in a democratized world, whose anti-historicizing we fill up with the junk of noise, and the myth of togetherness, so that we don’t risk seeing or feeling much of anything at all.



Some Thoughts


The Leaving

How many last days one must live before it’s all over at last? There are so many endings. We “move on,” but the next occasion is ultimately defined by leaving as well. I am leaving: hard words for both the lover and the beloved, who live in different countries to start with and for a moment at least co-exist without passports until the departure gate is in view. No, no. Not another moment waving the white handkerchief as the train pulls out of the station, steam enveloping the sad left behind people. Just now I am the sojourner and the person being left behind. I am leaving a place I have lived in for three years now; I am seeing my old self off at the station. My hands shake. I want to embrace myself, but a clean break is preferable; affection would only prevent my walking out the door. The boxes are almost packed, the liquor and food given away. Looking out at the world instead of in at myself, I turned to John Huston’s shattering 1946 documentary, “Let There Be Light,” about shell-shocked soldiers returning to the US after the trauma of war in Japan, in Germany. I can’t explain why I chose to watch this film; I chalk it up to my shattered concentration–it’s only an hour–and it was something to identify with: I knew something about the brutal spiritual break those men were going through as they tried to recall their whole, previous self. Later, in the next biggest town, the bus station, the quiet streets. A memory: my brother and I living with our aunt in Central Islip, “the country,” streets with trees our Brooklyn selves did not understand: the loneliest streets in the world because they’re motherless. Our mother is ill; we have to stay here with relatives we barely know. Arriving at the storage facility, the unintentionally surly woman who wants to quit early; I’m holding her up. But I’ve come so far, on the bus, can’t she help me. She does. My kindness isn’t helping her; she’s a single mother, her daughter’s day care people are annoyed with her for always being late. My kindness is not what she needs but I say it anyway: I know other single mothers. I’m sorry. “It’s hard,” she says, looking away, blood coloring her neck, and maybe her small hands where she sports on each pinky a fake bejeweled nail–the only festive moment in her love-filled and exhausted life, which includes another shift somewhere else, she says. Not feeling alone in the moment she cashes me out is maybe not what she wants to experience as she tries to get through another day for the love of her daughter, the child she must be hard and capable for out in the world, the child she cannot and will never leave, no matter how difficult the circumstances

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In those days, we had dinner with the salt still on us. At Lundy’s, in Sheepshead Bay. We were the only colored family there. Salty and sleepy and unmindful of our difference in a world defined by Russianness. Outside, we could smell the air; it was thick, and smelled of sea, suntan lotion, and some other indefinable (to my child self) odor from under the boardwalk where older people, teenagers mostly, went. We could still feel the sun in our lungs as we ordered shrimp, and other “delicacies,” our father at the head of the table, in his element in a restaurant that housed our difference. It was the only world he cared to know–a world not like his own. He loved to eat German food in Yorktown, and Chinese food in Chinatown, and at Lundy’s, food from the sea served by Russian waiters whose thick tongue was difficult to understand, and whose skepticism about our curly hair, and brown-red backs (baked by the sun) disappeared once our usually taciturn father, pulled out his emotional Thesarus and found many synonyms for his brand of charm. His hands were large. We could order what we wanted, which our Mother would never allow, but we saw him, at most, twice a week, while she was our everyday love and, as such, intimate and remarkable. For us–my little brother, and myself–our father was cruel and far away in his remarkableness. We found solace in one another, I’m sure, my little brother and I, as we tried not to gag on the too rich food, and the bonhomie our father shared with the wait staff, but denied us, his own flesh and blood. Looking around, I saw another world–of beautiful Russian men who looked like my uncle, somehow, even as my father looked like Trevor Howard. The Russian men eyed us with their suspicious eyes, and turned back to their meal of–was it soup? Red, with a splotch of something white on top? They had big hands, too, and different eyes: round and full of mirth and sadness, all at once. Years passed, and I fell for a number of Russian men, never associating them with food I wanted to eat or, rather, with the faces that helped me get that rich food down until I saw, just this afternoon, the Ukranian-born beauty, Eugene Hutz, in the 2005 film, “Everything is Illuminated.” In that film, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name (directed by Liev Shrieber) Hutz is a Russian-speaking English translator, a guide who sports those elements of black sartorial style he loves and makes his own: a fuzzy kangol, a running suit. With his his gold tooth alternately flashing hope or contempt, or sometimes looking dull as he’s forced to consider another bit of ridiculous Americanism from his charge (played by Elijah Wood), Hutz has a scene where he must explain that his American friend doesn’t eat meat. “Not even a sausage?” Sharing a potato with Wood, Hutz’s mouth stared at my mouth as he munched away, my imagination throwing bits of myself into his mouth as he did so.