Sunday, November 29, 2009

Forgotten Giants: Nancy Cunard (1896 - 1965)

Nancy Cunard
* * *

Anaïs Nin saw her printing Spanish Civil War pamphlets, remarked on her cadaverous state—olive green, her large-scale jewelry, her work on behalf of Negro rights.

Nancy traveled across the ocean to Harlem, where she lived. Olive green. An amethyst existence. A cadaverous state. Remarkable. Luxurious. No anthologies. Was it so terrible, or was she really so good? Myra Viveash. Lucy Tantamount. Irene? She shocked the world. Drunk and bull-like she emerged from a cafe with a cigarette inserted in each nostril, pelting dogs with tomatoes. Wasted. Decadent. Publisher (discovered Beckett), editor, journalist, anarchist, activist, befriender of blacks and artists and, they say, a poet. Where is her poetry? Slid into the ocean. In Valle de los Caídos. Frothed over.

Lying on a table, having energy therapy, he was speaking of how as an intellectual, his brain was stronger than his heart. "I use my brain more often than my heart," he said. Then, as Nancy was massaging his chest, he had the sensation an armored vest was being removed.

She was a muse.

* * *

She gave it up. Her home in Réanville. She wanted to own nothing. To be free. To see all the northern continents stretch out before her under winter sunsets. To look into the psychology of Iceland, and plumb the imaginations of strange people in faraway lands. If she were free. But someone, somewhere, was suffering.

The bombed-out of Barcelona. Red Russians raping in the basements of Berlin. The black boys of Scottsboro burned by Bill Callahan. And Nancy Cunard—declared insane. Found on the street, a mere 60 pounds. Destitute. Alone. A Buchenwald corpse. All that remained was a furious sense of indignation.

Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise, Paris. Urn 9016.

* * *

nancy cunard
"It's impossible to discuss the intellectual history of the early 20th century without discussing Nancy Cunard." —Louis Aragon

"One of the major phenomena of history." —William Carlos Williams

"Her body had wasted away in a long battle against injustice in the world. Her reward was a life that had become progressively lonelier, and a god forsaken death." —Pablo Neruda

Saturday, November 21, 2009

EXILED: Best films of the decade

The "best of the decade" lists are starting to arrive, and the ones I've seen so far from mainstream publications all tend to reinforce the idea that not only has everyone heard of the ten best films of the decade, but it's likely that every single one of them played at "a theater near you." This reminder, done intentionally or not, is the lists' main function: to allow the publications who print them to continue to review (and advertise, if there's a difference) all the big tent studio fare throughout the year while ignoring (or at least giving much less publicity to) many of the smaller, more important films. For the average person who keeps relatively up to date with cultural happenings (and takes pride in doing so), the lists will provide them with a nice means for patting themselves on the back. "Yes, you're up on things," the lists tell them, "You're hip." Thus the readership will feel as though the particular publication is doing a great job keeping them informed. Imagine if The New Yorker's David Denby put out a list which contained 4 or 5 films he never reviewed and which the majority of The New Yorker's reader base never even heard of?*

Another function of "best of" lists — probably their only practical function — is to provide new avenues for truly curious and open minded people to explore. But the lists are failing at that too. Some of the them seem to include a token foreign film (or two) that was a smash success (for a foreign film, at least), and therefore, it is assumed, hard to argue with. This pick gives the list an air of sophistication. Or instead (or in conjunction with), some of the websites/publications that consider themselves to be more hip and "with it" than their more mainstream counterparts select a somewhat lesser known, critically acclaimed art-house film to give their name some cachet. To me, this appears to be disingenuous and laughable when the selection appears alongside something like Lord of the Rings, especially when they choose a film that wasn't even made in the correct year! (Paste magazine selected Beau Travail for one of their top ten of the decade. A great choice — except the film was made in 1999.) Of course there are, and will be, exceptions. But not in the mainstream press, a press owned by the same companies that own the studios (or the studios themselves). Or at the very least, they're paid top dollar to promote studio films all year.

lord of the rings
one of the best films of the decade

According to The Times of London, nine of the top ten films of the decade were made by English speaking countries, two won Academy Awards for best picture (No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire), another (Queen) was nominated for Best Picture (and won best actress), another won Best Actor (Last King of Scotland), and another was nominated for a few technical awards (the Bourne films). But of course, this all makes perfect sense. Not selecting titles with these specific accolades would reveal the vacuousness of the institutions that award them and the giant publicity machines behind them (which includes The Times itself). The publications believe in these institutions (or are forced to by their owners), so their choices reflect this belief. Perhaps it is interesting to note that The Times number one selection, Michael Haneke's Caché, was ignored by the Academy and also got limited US theatrical distribution. Is this the listmakers way of thumbing their nose at the system, or is it just their token highly acclaimed foreign film, added for a splash of variety?

cache haneke

There will be many similar Hollywood-centric and Anglocentric lists coming soon in many mainstream publications (this "decade defining" top ten is particularly ridiculous), but fortunately some more interesting and eclectic lists are already starting to emerge on various blogs.

bourne supremacy matt damon
two of the decade's finest: J. Bourne, J. Bond

Because of my annoyance with such lists, but mainly for fun, I've decided to make my own. I don't know when it will be complete... I've never compiled something like this before, and it's going to take me a while to catch up on some of the films I've missed, but I do have a pretty good idea of my top ten already. Hopefully I'll have it done before January.

There will be no Pedro Costa on my list as I have yet to see any of his applicable films and won't be able to in time (Criterion is supposed to be putting out a box set next year), and the same goes for Götz Spielmann's Revanche and Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours (both coming to DVD next year compliments of Criterion). And I don't know if I'll be able to see many (or any) of the highly acclaimed films available on DVD in the UK that still aren't available here in the United States (films like Roy Andersson's You, the Living (2007); Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg (2007); Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008); Bela Tarr's The Man from London (2007); Ulrich Seidl's Import/Export (2007), etc.)

Looking over James Quandt's list of the best films of 2008, I see that many of them still have yet to make their way to DVD: Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso); Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain); Straub-Huillet's Itinéraire de Jean Bricard and Le Genou d'Artémide; United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu). Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman is coming to DVD in December and Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City is coming to DVD January 12th. Other films by major directors yet to show up on DVD include Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest (2007), Hong Sangsoo's Tale of Cinema (2005) and Night and Day (2008), Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (2007), and Albert Serra's Birdsong (2008), to name just a few.

Over at Screenville Harry Tuttle made this post the other day:

Manhola Dargis (NYT, 18 Nov 2009) : "First shown at the Berlin Film Festival four years ago, “The Sun” [Aleksandr Sokurov's Solntse] is finally receiving its welcome American theatrical release, which means that one of the best movies of 2005 is now also one of the best of 2009"

Why does it take almost 5 years (Berlinale 2005 première: 17 Feb 2005) before a major film d'auteur gets distributed on the American market? A film featuring a (glorifying) moment of American history (not the nasty part of WW2), with General MacArthur in a positive, self-aggrandising light... And it opens on a single screen in NYC (Film Forum)?

The New York Times at least acknowledges this gap, but doesn't even bother pondering on the causes of this delay. Is it not worth investigating for the NYT? I understand that a boring foreign art film will never be released worldwide within a week, like your typical Hollywood blockbuster... that's a privilege of the universal mainstream entertainment. But 4 years before someone finds an available slot in the release schedule to show this great film on commercial screens is a lot of time in the film industry cycle. 1 year is a normal waiting period after its festival première. 2 years is already quite long for the major markets. Usually the smaller countries have to wait the longest to get access to films and have to watch them after everyone else. Now, why would America want to be ranked at the bottom of the release list, like if they didn't have the money to buy the rights, or the screens to show it, like it is often the issue in tiny countries? It's as if on the cultural level, the USA is an underdeveloped country, before industrialisation, before globalisation, before the instantness of the internet; while it is supposed to be the frontrunner technologically and culturally wise, a model to look up to, a leading force to show the rest of the world how to grasp the future... How can the leading economical empire on the planet be so backward, a-critical, self-indulgent, isolationistic culturally?

The access to American culture is a long tough road. And Americans are happy the way it is. So it's not going to change anytime soon.

(Ed Howard was quick to point out in the comments section: "Melville's Army of Shadows got a theatrical release in the US just... 37 years later!")

Yesterday I watched Kent MacKenzie's film The Exiles, a film I briefly mentioned last August that was distributed theatrically last summer by Milestone... 47 years after it was made! (It was just released on (region 1) DVD this week.) The film gives an idea of the experiences shared by a group of young American Indians as they make their way from their reservation into Los Angeles (specifically Bunker Hill, written about so beautifully by John Fante, and now covered in sky-scrapers). The film itself is part fiction, part documentary, crafted from interviews MacKenzie gave to a group of Native Americans he befriended, as well as the time he spent hanging out with them. (They all play themselves in the film, and the narration is taken directly from the interviews.) MacKenzie films everyone reenacting various scenes from their daily lives, and he gives an impression of their existence through many great black and white images that are set to the low rumble of cars, bars, aimless conversation and a rock n' roll score.

the exiles mackenziethe exiles mackenziethe exiles
The same year The Exiles was ignored, Hollywood had the presence of mind to nominate Breakfast at Tiffany's for Best Picture, a film in which Mickey Rooney was cast to portray an Asian character.

mickey rooney yellowface
And Best Picture winner that year was West Side Story, with Natalie Wood cast as Maria, a Puerto Rican.

Had The Exiles been distributed, it would have likely been an influential part of the American wave of independent cinema (it was made around the same time as Cassavetes' Shadows). Who knows, MacKenzie might have gone on to become a major director. Instead, it premiered at the Venice film festival to acclaim from many critics, then vanished. (Thom Andersen, with his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, is credited with its rediscovery.)

* * *

"I just want to make a point, maybe it's more idealistic. Ultimately, the more the audience has seen these films, they more they want to see other films like them. And then what happens is the audience changes. Which means that movies that are being made around the world could change, cause there is an audience for special movies, for new movies, for a different way to look at the world." --Martin Scorsese (Chairman of World Cinema Foundation)

*Lists of this sort are often mocked as being elitist or pretentious by people who consider themselves well informed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Songs from another planet: "Abba Zaba" (Captain Beefheart)

In the late 1950s, Don Van Vliet was selling Hoover vacuum cleaners door to door in California. One day, the story goes, he walked up to a house and knocked, and when the the door opened the man who greeted him looked very familiar. Within moments Vliet realized it was Aldous Huxley. Feeling suddenly out of place and embarrassed, Vliet, instead of going into his usual spiel regarding the vacuum cleaner, simply pointed down at the product and said: "Sir, this sucks!" Vliet, later known by the name Captain Beefheart, went on to become one of the greatest and most original musicians of the 20th century.

The song "Abba Zaba" from his debut album Safe as Milk (1967) has a zany, nonsensical, and cartoon quality to it, mixed together with a kind of jungle menace. If a mysterious spaceship were to land on Earth, I imagine Abba Zaba would be the song howling its way out of the vessel when the doors finally open and the alien prince steps out to greet us. His face would be adorned with an ancient mask, reminiscent of something African, and he'd be wearing a top hat and a fake mustache. Bongos would be hanging from his neck.

For people who have listened to Beefheart's more famous album, Trout Mask Replica, and didn't like it, Safe as Milk is a good way to open the door to appreciating some of his more challenging work (as is THIS one hour documentary).

Here is another song from Safe as Milk, followed by pictures I found by searching for images using phrases from the lyrics.

* * *

"You wanna do what? You wanna do what?"

"I told you what, I told you what"

"Go to school, go to school"

"Just cake, just cake"

"Dropout, dropout"

"Can't get a job, can't get a job"

"Don't know what it, don't know what it"

"What it's all about, what it's all about"

"You told her you love her"

"So bring her to mother"

"You love her adapt her, you love her adapt her"

"Adapt her, adapt her"

"Then what about after that? What about after that?"

"Support her, support her"

"You gotta support her"

"Get a job, get a job"

Friday, November 06, 2009

QuoteS V

"Happiness is a hound dog in the sun. We are not here to be happy but to experience great and wonderful things." —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent." —Eleanor Roosevelt

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." —J.K. Galbraith

"Strive not to be a man of success, but a man of value." —Albert Einstein

* * *

"What happens in Western Cinema, they say: "Look at this. You're so stupid you don't know what we're trying to tell you. Let me tell you something." And we say: "Hey, discover this." —Christopher Doyle, cinematographer.

"When I watch French television today, I think I know exactly how the French resistance felt during the German occupation."
—Jean-Luc Godard

"Jeanne Dielman was considered a feminist film, but that was not my goal when I made it. My goal at the time was to show someone who organizes her life so that there is no hole in her time, because when there is a hole, there is also anxiety." —Chantal Akerman

"Courses may be pointless and uninteresting. The data may go through you like mineral oil. But at least it is some kind of challenge. And while you're involved in all this, time is off your hands and rests in theirs--the authorities'. Should you not be attending school, you may feel that you're pissing away time--days and weeks; you may begin to feel very uncomfortable. On your own, you have to face the responsibility for how you spend time. But in school you don't. What they make you do may obviously be a waste but at least the responsibility isn't charged to your account. School in this respect is, once again, like the army or jail. Once you're in, you may have all kinds of problems but freedom isn't one of them.

After you leave school and get a job, you'll find you need the job just as you learned to need school. You'll remain an existential minor who needs trustees to spend his time for him.

The schools we have are a cop-out. Why not face the responsibility for what we do with our time? And if we need structures to inform our time, why not find more congenial, more human ones." —Jerry Farber

"When you go to school, you're doing society a favor. And when you say "no," you withhold much more than your attendance. You deny continuity to the dying society; you put the future on strike." —Jerry Farber

* * *

"There is a real possibility that the primary victim of the ongoing crisis will not be capitalism but the left itself, insofar as its inability to offer a viable global alternative was again made visible to everyone. It was the left that was effectively caught out, as if recent events were staged with a calculated risk in order to demonstrate that, even at a time of shattering crisis, there is no viable alternative to capitalism. Immanuel Kant countered the conservative motto “Don’t think, obey!” not with the injunction “Don’t obey, think!” but rather “Obey, but think!” When we are transfixed by something like the bailout, we should bear in mind that since it is actually a form of blackmail, we must resist the populist temptation to act out our anger and thus wound ourselves. Instead of such impotent acting-out, we should control our fury and transform it into an icy determination to think—to think things through in a really radical way, and to ask what kind of a society renders such blackmail possible." —Žižek, to each according to his greed

"There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing." —La Rochefoucauld

"The last three decades of this century have witnessed the ignition of the most significant internal conflict ever to engage the human species. It is not the struggle between capitalism and communism or between any other set of 'isms'. It is the conflict between those who possess the means and will to exploit the living world to destruction, and those who are banding together in a desperate and last-ditch attempt to prevent the New Juggernaut from trashing our small planet." —Farley Mowat

"If nuclear war breaks out, the average citizen of a Western democracy will be better informed about Brittny Spears than the causes of their death." —Roger Ebert

"Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day." —Emerson

* * *

"The whole world understands that the real question is the following: Why do the politics of the Western powers, of NATO, of Europe and the USA, appear completely unjust to two out of three inhabitants of the planet? Why are five thousand American deaths considered a cause for war, while five hundred thousand dead in Rwanda and a projected ten million dead from AIDS in Africa do not, in our opinion, merit outrage? Why is the bombardment of civilians in the US Evil, while the bombardment of Baghdad or Belgrade today, or that of Hanoi or Panama in the past, is Good? The ethic of Truths that I propose proceeds from concrete situations, rather than from an abstract right, or a spectacular Evil. The whole world understands these situations, and the whole world can act in a disinterested fashion prompted by the injustice of these situations. Evil in politics is easy to see: It's absolute inequality with respect to life, wealth, power. Good is equality. How long can we accept the fact that what is needed for running water, schools, hospitals, and food enough for all humanity is a sum that corresponds to the amount spent by wealthy Western countries on perfume in a year? This is not a question of human rights and morality. It is a question of the fundamental battle for equality of all people, against the law of profit, whether personal or national." —Alain Badiou

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." —Krishnamurti

"Insanity: a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world." —R.D. Laing

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." —Thoreau

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." —Voltaire

* * *

"Democracy is at its best when citizens debate among themselves, working out their differences through a process of reasoned argument and compromise. Democracy, in this sense, requires a mutual respect, across political differences. It requires us to grant, if only for the sake of our shared national life, that those who disagree have spent as much time in reflecting on their positions as we have.

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection. The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important." —Stephen L. Carter, Where's the Bailout for Publishing?

"To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle." —Orwell

* * *

"Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you for it." —George Monbiot [a variation on "If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you. If you make them really think, they’ll hate you." —Don Marquis]

"If you are going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh. Otherwise they'll kill you." —George Bernard Shaw (disputed)

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything." —Nietzsche

* * *

"When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell—you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbase—not to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture." —Derrick Jensen, Beyond Hope

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

from James Joyce to Nora Barnacle

December 8th, 1909. Dublin.

My sweet little whorish Nora I did as you told me, you dirty little girl, and pulled myself off twice when I read your letter. I am delighted to see that you do like being fucked arseways. Yes, now I can remember that night when I fucked you for so long backwards. It was the dirtiest fucking I ever gave you, darling. My prick was stuck in you for hours, fucking in and out under your upturned rump. I felt your fat sweaty buttocks under my belly and saw your flushed face and mad eyes. At every fuck I gave you your shameless tongue came bursting out through your lips and if a gave you a bigger stronger fuck than usual, fat dirty farts came spluttering out of your backside. You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. I think I would know Nora's fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.

You say when I go back you will suck me off and you want me to lick your cunt, you little depraved blackguard. I hope you will surprise me some time when I am asleep dressed, steal over to me with a whore's glow in your slumberous eyes, gently undo button after button in the fly of my trousers and gently take out your lover's fat mickey, lap it up in your moist mouth and suck away at it till it gets fatter and stiffer and comes off in your mouth. Sometimes too I shall surprise you asleep, lift up your skirts and open your drawers gently, then lie down gently by you and begin to lick lazily round your bush. You will begin to stir uneasily then I will lick the lips of my darling's cunt. You will begin to groan and grunt and sigh and fart with lust in your sleep. Then I will lick up faster and faster like a ravenous dog until your cunt is a mass of slime and your body wriggling wildly.

Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty little fuckbird! There is one lovely word, darling, you have underlined to make me pull myself off better. Write me more about that and yourself, sweetly, dirtier, dirtier.