All posts tagged “the South

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Ketchup

Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies. 

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.

 

 

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)

Wow, this is just a beautiful novel. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, but this was a nice moment to find it, when I’ve been doing so much driving around through small towns of the South, thinking about tribes and clans, fear of the outsider and the other, whether there’s any warrant for beauty without blood on it. When young Mick Kelly, McCullers’ avatar, wants to absent herself from the physical and cultural poverty that surrounds her, she retreats to a mental space she calls her “inside room,” where she imagines travel to foreign countries, playing symphonies she’s composed for appreciative audiences. I know that room! I’ve been living half my waking moments in it lately. (My preferred fantasy is making photos of the sea in Rotterdam, but you get the idea.)

Mick’s one of four major characters who orbit the absence at the book’s center, a man named Singer who is deaf and dumb. Singer, like The Brother from Another Planet and Chauncey Gardiner, has an obscure interior; he mainly (though not entirely — McCullers does give him one great obsession) serves as a screen for others to project their desires and fears upon. In addition to Mick, the type of sensitive kid who hides in the moonlit shrubbery to listen to music from a radio playing in a fancy house, there’s Jake Blount, a would-be labor activist who can’t persuade the town’s laborers to get as enraged about their oppression as he is. And Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Diner who creates a safe space for misfits but can’t ever make a human connection with any of them. Most affecting of all is Dr. Copeland, an elderly black doctor with a kid named Karl Marx, who lives a life of uncompromising dignity and service in the tragically mistaken belief that self-respect will lead to respect from others. All four of these idealists are worn down, sometimes slowly and sometimes with sudden violence, by the brute realities of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and cruelty.

McCullers handles her plot, characters, pacing, themes, and all that excellently, but what I really admired here was the book’s openness of attention. Even as she’s running down some pretty programmatic themes — alienation, oppression, etc. — McCullers takes plenty of time, and plenty of pleasure, in describing the smell of the sun on the summer sidewalk, the goodness of delicious food, the feeling of being in an old body, or a young one. There’s a physicality to this world that helps it transcend being merely a brace of socialist parables. Loved it.

 

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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann (2015)

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I’ve been ambivalent about Sally Mann’s work for a long time — to put it kindly — and probably wouldn’t have read this if Wendy hadn’t gotten it for me for Christmas, but I’m really glad she did because I really enjoyed it. This is not to say that I’m any more enthusiastic about the work than I was, though. In fact, I’m probably less interested in the art than I was before, which was not much, but I’m a lot more interested in the artist.

I never had trouble with Mann for the reasons others did; the idea that she’s a child pornographer is ludicrous. I always thought she was more of a class pornographer, race pornographer, and history pornographer. The feral children eating homegrown food from roughhewn bowls and playing in the mud by the river seem to argue for the beauty and purity of an Appalachian noble savage existence, but always reminded me that those must be some pretty rich white kids to be getting their picture took with an 8×10 view camera, and that a lot of Appalachian kids are running around with no clothes not because of their parents’ theories on parenting but because they don’t have any fucking clothes.

Mann marches right into The Help territory in her memoir when it comes to her point of view on her race privilege:

“Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them … Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”

It’s interesting, I think, how her diction gets all gee-whiz vernacular and her syntax turns baroque here; it’s almost like she’s trying to not quite say what she’s saying. Further, almost funny, certainly sad, is Mann’s description of her current project, which consists of hiring black men as models and then taking their pictures. Such a project seems unlikely to cause Mann or anyone else to learn much new about power dynamics between blacks and whites. Now, if she paid black photographers to take her picture, that I might be interested in.

Then there’s history. I’m sorry, I know this is an insane thing to say, but anyone that makes a picture of anything with wet-plate collodion process, especially south of the Mason Dixon line, is playing on the viewer’s deep, semi- or unconscious attraction to nostalgia and historical amnesia. Any contemporary collodion photograph, in addition to whatever else it is saying, also says, “Don’t you long for the old days, when things were simpler and everyone knew their place?” Everything that Eggleston did to prove that the South exists in Kodachrome color, and contains automobiles and swimming pools and freeways, can be undone or at least undermined by a single sepia Mann landscape of a mournful live oak in its misty shrouds of Spanish moss.

So I don’t seem to be such a Mann fan; why did I enjoy the book? I had no idea what a character she is! And it’s a lot of fun finding out. I’m almost sure I’d find her immensely irritating close up — she’s self-absorbed, histrionic, and touchy, the kind of person who would cause you pain and find a way to make it your fault rather than hers — but she’s fascinating to observe from a distance. Smart as hell, full of feeling, with deep gusto for a good story, and such a huge and powerful sense of ambition that I can’t help but feel awed by it. No matter how you feel about the pictures, you’ll find this an irresistibly weird and engaging memoir.

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Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino (2012)

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It’s funny–the memories I have of Inglorious Basterds don’t align much with what it turns out, upon investigation, I wrote about it. My memory of it was that it made a cartoon of Nazism, which discomfited me. I also remember arguing with my friend Harold about that; he enjoyed the catharsis of the comic revenge fantasy, and believed, if I recall correctly, that I was being a sanctimonious spoilsport and prig.

This is basically the same movie as Inglorious Basterds, except this time the comic revenge fantasy is directed at slavery instead of the Final Solution. Again we find Tarantino making extensive reference to B-movie history, ginning up auteur-esque gestures (e.g. a lengthy scene where Django’s mentor explains the difference between playing a character and being a self), completely failing to demonstrate a capacity to edit himself (this thing could have been cut by a third), and running through probably a hundred barrels of stage blood.

I tend when watching violent movies not to really see the blood. I don’t like blood, for one thing, and for another its appearance in a film is usually just a kind of notation, signifying that violence has occurred. Do you notice whether it’s a puddle the size of a pancake or a puddle the size of a manhole? I don’t — who cares? But you can’t miss Tarantino’s blood any more than you could fail to notice the lights on the Sunset Strip. It doesn’t trickle or ooze, it explodes in Hawaiian-Punch-colored geysers. Look on the poster — it’s everywhere!

Despite its striving after effects and affect, and its predictably cartoonish, weirdly pornographic vision of slavery, I enjoyed this. Harold was right; there’s some shameful but deep atavistic pleasure in seeing the hero tortured and knowing the torturer, within the hour, is going to meet an elaborately painful end.

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori (2012)

Some movies you know you’re going to cry through so you have to wait until your housemate’s out of town to watch them. Big Star is for me the saddest and most beautiful band that ever existed. There are many, many bands that I like more than Big Star, that I think are more accomplished than Big Star, that I would much rather listen to than Big Star, but Big Star is the infinitely dense collapsed black giant in my pop firmament. One of its polestars, Alex Chilton, has a big pop hit (“The Letter,” with the Box Tops) as a child and then commences a career that must qualify as the most varied and ambivalent wander in the pop wilderness ever. The other, Chris Bell, our American Nick Drake, desperate and desperately talented, dead at 27. There’s the diffidence of the band, but then there’s also the diffidence of Memphis, a nowhere/everywhere in American life — so full of resonance and so drained of content — that’s become weirdly symbolic for me as my years as a fake or aspirational Southerner tick by. They couldn’t have done it in New York or Los Angeles. They maybe could have done it in Chicago.

And then there’s the music, simultaneously exquisite and disastrous, filled with junk elation and pain so real it bleeds. Absolutely American in its Delta soul, and yet so far beyond any vernacular satisfactions, so utterly louche and nihilistic, that it’s probably, bizarrely, more comparable to Celine than anyone else. Compared to a song like “Kangaroo,” the Doors’ gestures at decadence seem like something out a Family Circus cartoon.

It’s a pretty good movie. Hagiographic, for sure, and sometimes the filmmakers take too much for granted that we already know the basic outlines of the story, but it’s well worth watching and crying over.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (2012)

beastin' on crab - _DSC8525.NEFI was pretty sure I was going to hate this and sure enough I did. It’s a straight-up noble savage number which reassures us that poor southerners are stupid, drunk, stubborn, dirty, fearful of modernity, and anti-social, but also of course magical, poetic, natural, and authentic. The fact that the movie was shot handheld on 16mm is a nice formal corollary to the film’s thematic depravities; just as Zeitlin would have us believe that these utterly inauthentic stereotypes somehow represent something essential and fundamental about the people of southern Louisiana, so too does he hope that his use of antique technology will lend an air of authenticity to the shamelessly shallow and ridiculous characterizations he parades before us. The whole thing pains me all the more because I’ve grown to so love the culture of Louisiana myself over the last ten years, a love made pointed and profound by my constant recognition that I will never fully understand the place. The nerve of this carpetbagger is impressive, I’ll say that much. His film company is named “Court 13,” after an empty squash court at Wesleyan he used as a film set for his undergraduate projects. That’s a true story!

Listen, bell hooks taught me to read at Oberlin College in the spring of 1989 and she can speak to all this far more wisely and deeply than I can, so if you want the straight dope check her out right here.