Monthly archives of “August 2013

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Detroit City Is the Place to Be, Mark Binelli (2012) & Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (2012)

I’m a proud Michigander but I come from the west side of the state and the far east has always been something of a gleaming mystery to me. I knew the auto industry had built Detroit and that when it collapsed Detroit collapsed, and I knew about the white flight to the suburbs, Devil’s Night, the 1984 Tigers, Philip Levine’s poems . . .  Well really I didn’t know much; I knew about as much as a kid from Poughkeepsie knows about Bed-Stuy. But still, Detroit is bound up with Michigan (in a much more meaningful sense than New York City is with New York State), and Michigan’s my home, so I’ve always felt some affinity; I just haven’t known what with exactly. Recently, Detroit’s come to my attention in a lot of ways both direct and indirect, though, and I feel like I’m moving (sliding?) toward some more tactile understanding of the place. I’ve had the chance to visit for the first time in years; I’ve been reading more and more about the place in the news in the wake of its recent spectacular fiscal meltdowns; I’ve had frequent occasion, in my beloved New Orleans, to draw analogies to Detroit (ruin/beauty, opportunity/inertia, etc.); and my reading of visual art periodicals has featured lively debates about the ethics of “ruin porn“–an issue that I also think about a lot in New Orleans.

I remain, of course, totally ignorant about Detroit, though I think I do understand that the smarty-pants interloper (usually white) who comes along to explain the place to its supposedly benighted (usually black) inhabitants is one of the most reviled members of the local fauna, so I’m smart enough at least to profess my ignorance! There’s a great scene in Detropia where a couple of white hipster European 20-somethings come into a coffee shop clearly so pleased with themselves for coming to Detroit instead of the more predictable destinations like New York or San Francisco, like so pleased with themselves that they seem to be looking around waiting for someone to congratulate them on how cool they are, and the African-American barista just looks at them like . . . I don’t even know how to describe that look.

Detropia and Binelli’s book are nice companions. The movie, like Ewing and Grady’s excellent Jesus Camp, has no voice-over narration telling you what to think or feel about what you’re seeing; it just follows some people around as they go about their business in Detroit and reflect aloud on how it was, how it is, and how it could be. Binelli’s book, on the contrary, is super chatty. Binelli grew up both in and around the city of Detroit. (Those are important prepositions. If someone tells you he grew up “in” Detroit, and he is white, try this: Say, “Wait, in Detroit? Or around Detroit?” He will almost certainly blush a little and confess to an address well beyond the city limits.) After living elsewhere for a long time, he returned and lived smack downtown for some years as a reporter, during which time he wrote this book. The writing is smart and funny, a little shaggy in spots but all in all a really nice blend of solid reportage and color commentary. I won’t go into detail about the contents; suffice to say that if you’ve got more than a passing interest in the city’s current situation, this is a lively and useful overview. I’m still a dumb farm kid after reading it, but a little less dumb.

P. S. I’m also going to mention here while I’m at it a project by Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart called Can’t Forget the Motor City, in which Widdis took b/w photos of Detroit landscapes and Blanquart color portraits of Detroit residents. The idea was to show the life in the place rather than the decay and I think the results are terrific. That image up there is one of Blanquart’s.

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Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki (2011)

Le HavreBeautiful to look at and sweetly sad in that echt-French way which probably has almost nothing to do with contemporary France and may well drive French people crazy. There are references to al-Qaeda and the very real refugee encampments along the French coast, so you think it’s contemporary, but everything else from the clothes to the cars to the attitudes seems to be set in maybe 1963. Anyway, it’s charming and efficient and it posits that people are basically generous and good, go see it and enjoy your holiday from reality.

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William Eggleston in the Real World, Michael Almereyda (2005)

It’s dangerous to learn too much about the weird puny humans behind the artworks you love. Bill’s a little lovable in this, but he’s also petulant, selfish, drunk, and stupid.

I was interested in his process, though, which seems to involve taking a billion pictures and then guessing which of them are wheat and which are chaff. I say “guessing” advisedly; the resistance to valuing wheat over chaff is exactly at the heart of Eggleston’s achievement in much the same way it’s at the heart of John Ashbery’s. I’ll also go so far as to say that just as you can’t write a contemporary American poem without invoking Ashbery’s presence or absence as you do so, you can’t take a contemporary American photograph without similarly admitting or excluding Eggleston.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the recent lawsuits involving Eggleston’s estate making additional prints of images that were supposed to be limited editions. These cases seemed to me delicious and hilarious in their irony. Eggleston is all about surfeit.

Finally it was interesting to realize, watching this, that though the South remains in many ways foreign and mysterious to me despite my dozen-odd years here, there are some character traits, attitudes, social strategies, and modes of dissimulation I have come to recognize as characteristic of a certain set of the populace here. Men both dreamy and mean, lost and ambitious, needy and oblivious, mournful and contented. And the inscrutable women who mix their drinks and then pretend to scold them for being drunk.

Anyways. It made me a sad in the best ways.

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Netherland, Joseph O’Neill (2008)

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Is this what it’s come to? You have no idea how to understand your historical circumstances, and have been well and thoroughly convinced that any attempt to do so is doomed, yet here you are in history, and by god there must be new novels admitting that fact, so this seems like the only one available for you to write: A clueless rich guy, a sort of ahistorical zombie, wanders New York and London in a daze, making feeble attempts at synthetic thinking and failing. His only pleasure is the game of cricket, because it has rules, rules which everyone, even brown people, abide by. I think this is a book very much of its moment and that’s a way of saying how tired it made me. Its gestures are so small and timid, yet somehow excessively proud of themselves too (in a way that reminds me, incidentally, of a certain low-lying country’s national mien). The guy spends one night out drinking with some guys from Trinidad and we’re supposed to believe we’re now post-post-colonialism? I get it, I get it, but it seems puny and pale to me. Is bemusement really the only possible response to incomprehension? I don’t think Zadie Smith was much overjoyed by the book, either, but her comments are I think extremely insightful as always. I will say that O’Neill writes great sentences with great fluidity, sometimes so much so that they rise (or sink) to the level of calling attention to themselves as objects.

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Orange is the New Black, Jenji Kohan (2013-)

feelcopI enjoyed Jenji Kohan’s Weeds, but I always felt kind of uneasy about it at the same time. It was set up as a standard fish-out-of-water comedy — suburban soccer mom enters the world of illegal drug trafficking — and it was funny in many predictable ways, as we watched Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) widen her wide eyes in recognition at each stage of her education as she gradually mastered her new milieu. Our pleasure came from watching her first learn the ropes and then learn to pull the strings, but there was always a sense of tension too, because whenever it seemed like Nancy had figured it all out, she’d stumble into some unforeseen dark corner of the trade and find herself confused and panicked.

My uneasiness came from the fact that those dark corners got darker and darker. It was one thing to watch Nancy to blunder and stammer through her first attempts to buy wholesale dope from a seasoned dealer. When, at some point, I found we’d got into the territory of rape, murder, and human trafficking, I felt disoriented — was I still supposed to be laughing?

Kohan’s new project Orange is the New Black, starring Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, gives me similar fantods. Once again we have a nice white lady from money enter a demimonde where the kinds of savvy she possesses (how to start an artisanal soap company) are useless, and the kinds she needs (how to deal with an aggressive suitor or angry rival in the communal shower) seem unattainable. And also again, there’s a — for me — discomfiting confusion over the genre mindset I’m supposed to be in. When the inmates are arguing over who’s going to get to play the good parts in the Christmas pageant and who’s going to have to play the cattle in the manger scene, I feel safely in Barney Miller sitcom country. But when a fellow inmate orchestrates Piper’s being remanded to the solitary confinement unit, I’m not amused. Abuse of punitive solitary confinement is a horrific and persistent issue in the American penal system, and I don’t like seeing it represented in a comical context. The scenes of Piper in the security housing unit aren’t themselves comic, but the overall context of the show is. The effect of having documentary/dramatic type passages mixed in with clearly contrived/comic passages is that the comedy seems bizarre and the drama seems undermined.

The series’ sexual and racial politics are also difficult to manage. There’s a sweet feel-good love story between a couple vulnerable and nice kids, one of whom happens to be a white male corrections officer and the other of whom is a female Hispanic inmate. We seem to be asked to see this as a light and frothy and charming star-crossed lovers story, but when things get problematic in the relationship, the series seems to also require us to take our Foucault down from the shelf and start thinking about power. Again, I’m not sure what’s funny. It doesn’t seem funny.

OK, enough, I think I’ve made my basic point. Were I to go on, I would talk about how the show consistently portrays whiteness as a norm. White characters get to be complex in this show; characters of color are almost completely reduced to stereotypes. But OK, enough. Oh, we should also talk about how Lesbians are represented. And we should also talk about how thrilled the series is to show us naked female bodies—constantly, and almost from almost the first frame!—and why that might be. But right, enough.