All posts tagged “white people

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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 Woodmans, C. Scott Willis (2010)

710tNVz1QVL._SL1077_I suppose this might seem quite exciting and exotic if you didn’t go to Sarah Lawrence. If you did, you will likely be reminded, as I was, of everything you loved and hated about dear old Sadie Lou, and beyond that everything you still love and hate about art and artists.

The Woodmans are white and privileged and care passionately, in the Romanticist manner, about making art. They are all of them — father, mother, son, daughter — ambitious, insecure, massively narcissistic, and mildly talented. The daughter, Francesca, the sine qua non of this movie and the family’s small, self-gnawed niche in art history, is not necessarily any more talented than any of the others, but she is, we are led to believe, the most ambitious, the most insecure, the most massively narcissistic, and — the documentary seems to want us to make a causal connection — the most successful.

Though not in her lifetime. The poor young woman killed herself at 22. She was upset a boyfriend, upset her work wasn’t being seen, upset about not getting a grant from the NEA. So she killed herself, at 22, and then became successful.

We’re reminded of Sylvia Plath and think forward to Sarah Kane, but may I say out loud what I hope I’m not the first to think? We’d be reading Plath and watching Kane even if they hadn’t killed themselves. Do we know that about Woodman? If she hadn’t self-mythologized and been effectively marketed by her craven and jealous parents, and had instead lived to a ripe old age making emo self-portraits in beautifully empty studios in Tuscany, would anyone remember these photos except the RISD professors and students who thought she was so cool and intense and enviable at 21?

I’ve seen a lot of contrasty nude self portraits made by incandescent from-money up-all-night white girls with dirt in their hair. The broken furniture casting Caligari shadows under hot lights, the Man Ray motifs, the double exposures symbolizing this, the long-exposure blurs symbolizing that. In college in the 80’s those photos seemed revolutionary and way better than Titian. But then I grew up, and some of those girls did too, and we learned that making art isn’t about passion, and it sure as hell isn’t about whether or not you get an NEA.

I am not blaming or belittling Francesca Woodman. She was a talented and vibrant young woman and her death was a tragedy, and she may have become a good artist had she lived. I am a little bit blaming her parents, who obviously instilled in their daughter early on and in dangerously concentrated form the shibboleths of Romanticism. I am additionally blaming the 20th century for conceiving of the idea that a young woman making nude self-portraits is always to be read as self-empowering and never as self-objectifying. I am mostly blaming Western culture in general. It’s amazing any of us get out of it alive! Oh wait.

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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.