Wednesday 29 July 2020

New Writing Elsewhere: June and July

First, an obituary for the late Jacques Coursil for Artforum (thanks to Ciarán Finlayson and Chloe Wyma). I missed the chance to see him speak at a Glissant-related conference in the UK last year, and am rueing this all the more so now. Having spent the past few weeks exploring his work, from the early albums like Black Suite to the later works such as Clameurs and Trails of Tears, it's clear that he was a phenomenal musician, and a fascinating figure: a true internationalist, a deep thinker, someone whose oeuvre demands close attention. There's so much to unpack, from decolonisation to serialism, the phenomenon of the Catholic jazz mass to the work of Saussure, Fanon and Édouard Glissant, the relation of improvisation and language to the relation of music and the history of racial capitalism. Sadly, though there's coverage in the French language press (and a wonderfully suggestive short essay by Glissant, published in the liner notes to Trails of Tears), there's been little written in English. (Pierre Crépon's excellent piece for The Wire was the first, recently joined by an obituary by Kevin Le Gendre at Jazzwise and a more detailed essay by Cam Scott at Music and Literature). I'm hoping to write something longer in the future, evaluating his legacy and dealing with at least some of the aspects mentioned above...

'Horses and History'--essay up at Social Text on the Chicago cowboy, the horses of the Lewisham police department, Hegel, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and others. Thanks to Marie Buck.

Long essay on Alan Shorter in Point of Departure--this came out back at the start of June, and had its genesis in something briefer I wrote on this blog. Thanks to Bill Shoemaker (and to Pierre Crépon for his archival help).

Review of Bob Kaufman's Collected Poems at Music and Literature. Thanks to Taylor Davis Van-Atta. Everyone should try to get their hands on the great Billy Woodberry's Kaufman film, And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead--it was streaming for free at the Criterion Channel a month or so ago, a stream that's now ended, I think; but it should still be available behind the paywall.

Review of Arcana, the Stephen Jonas Reader published, as was the Kaufman, by City Lights last year (the review was written around a year ago, so much having changed in the meantime). It appears in the mega new (16th!) issue of Tripwire, edited from California as ever by David Buuck, and featuring a tribute to the late Kevin Killian focusing in particular on Kevin's work with Poets Theatre. (There's a brief discussion of the performance of Kevin's Box of Rain in the UK in which I was lucky to be involved.)

Review of Steve Abbott's Beautiful Aliens at Chicago Review. Thanks to Geronimo Sarmiento Cruz and the team at CR.

And finally, a poem called 'Slightly Broken', written in November, from Ian Heames' and Antonia Stringer's Earthbound Press, who have been printing one pamphlet from a different poet each week since January, and will be for the rest of year.

Friday 10 July 2020

Urban Guerrilla Planning in the United States: As Above, So Below (1973)

Larry Clark's second feature, Passing Through, is one of the most acclaimed of the films to emerge from the 'LA Rebellion' moment connected to the UCLA Film Programme in the 1970s, though, like many of these films, it's still extremely hard to track down. Currently available on YouTube, however, is his first film, As Above, So Below. Produced by pioneering arts administrator Vantile Whitfield's Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PASLA), an organisation founded in 1964 to help train inner city-youth in the arts, the film is a product of local organisations, interdisciplinary in their reach and collaborative in their ethos. Jazz will be utterly central to Passing Through, and in some ways, the forms of improvised cooperation within the sphere of improvisational music serve as one model here, and the film is saturated with the often improvised music of Horace Tapscott's group (recall, after all, that Larry Clark was nephew of jazz pianist Sonny Clark, and that, the previous year, he'd served as Director of Photographer on Mel Stewart's outstanding Wattstax). Around an hour in length, the film's credit sequences depicts a lone gunman on what look like military manouevres in a snow-covered forest. The film goes on to depict the recruitment of this gunman, Jita-Hadi (Nathaniel Taylor, who also stars in Passing Through) an ex-Marine, who's participated in US imperial meddling in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, by an urban guerrilla group: a network of militants who operate in small groups yet who now constitute a linked, nationwide uprising. It's never quite clear in what precisely their activities consist: the activities of the militants are rendered as a series of training exercises rather than in detail (an encounter with murderous armed police at the end of the film might be read as its 'climax', though the film's narrative logic refuses anything like a three-act structure). But detailed plot isn't the point--it's the idea of armed resistance, and the dedication, quiet determination and efficiency necessary to accompany this that are at stake. The depiction of militancy echoes Ivan Dixon/Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat By The Door, which had been quietly buried by its Hollywood distributors earlier that decade (the two films were screened together at UCLA), and Jules Dassin's Uptight, but the film is, in general, looser, rougher and less linear in its texture, as befits Clark's role in the LA Rebellion and the influence of Third Cinema. While most of the film depicts recognisable locations and interactions in a broadly realist fashion, surrealism is a factor, as in the sudden appearance of Jazz Age dancers outside a contemporary cafe in an incongruous fantasy sequence that insistently reminds us of its nature as mediated fantasy, or a lengthy shot, early in the film, of a blank grey sky accompanied by the sounds of machine gun fire and police sirens.

Sound is also key: much of the film is set to the ubiquitous sounds of the Horace Tapscott group, driving scenes with rhythmic propulsion or offsetting them with bursts of free improvisation (with the great Arthur Blythe's alto very much in the mix). And much of the information, texture and atmosphere of the film comes from the equally ubiquitous radio transmissions that play as both diegetic and non-diegetic texture. The soundtrack is not as wildly multi-layered as fellow LA Rebellion director Haile Gerima's soundtrack to Bush Mama (Gerima appears in a cameo here), in whose opening sequences a barrage of sound, from jazz to the sounds of police helicopters to non-synchronous conversation to an audio collage of the questions of invasive welfare office workers, is poised between the psychological and the 'realist', suggesting a traumatic breakdown between inner and outer that aims at sensory overload, not to overwhelm through spectacle, but as a dialectical quality of form that encourages active spectatorship and aids thought. Clark's use of radios in As Above instead imparts a kind of documentary quality, an argument or thesis absorbed as part of the sonic texture of everyday life--in itself a political argument about the respective stakes of mass media and revolutionary counter-transmissions, perhaps inspired by radio in Vietnam (Radio Hanoi and 'Hanoi Hannah') or Cuba (where the exiled militant Robert F. Williams broadcast Radio Free Dixie). Sound makes historical connections without having to put clunky speeches in the mouths of characters: thus, out first glimpse of the film's hero is as a young boy in 1945, as the radio announces the release of Japanese Americans from detention camps, a still too little-known aspect of US history and one that's echoed later in the film as the radio announces similar measures for African Americans, along with curfews and psychiatric torture/'therapy', reminiscent of the racialised brutality of the mental health apparatus made infamous by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). (The radio reports draw on HUAC reports on Black militancy from the late 1960s--ironically enough, Clark recalls that one of his professors at UCLA wanted to report him to HUAC on the basis of this film, never mind that HUAC had by then disbanded.)

Mid-way through the film, dialogue and narrative scenes are intercut with a lengthy sequence in a church prayer meeting; reminiscent of a similar sermon that occurs at the end of Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess and of the more dream-like church sequence intercut in Gerima's Bush Mama. Most obviously, the sequence reinforces the film's critique of the Black Church as mental opioid: one of the most eager participants is Kim (Gail Peters), the owner of the cafe whose endorsements of her Saviour, combined with the rambling secular odes of the customer who praises 'the white man', form a chorus of reaction, seen as two sides of the same coin; and there's a satirical dig as a church elder asks for donations, from one to one hundred dollars--no entry to the church without a wallet. At the same time, the visceral power of the sequence and its non-alignment with the main narrative renders it with a 'documentary' energy that leaps beyond the bounds of plot. In that sense, one might be reminded of Glauber Rocha's first feature, Barravento, in which the depiction of cadomble practices, religious ritual and social rituals of song and dance achieves an audiovisual immediacy existing in unresolvable tension with the didactic, anti-mystical speeches that condemn such practices as tools of backwardness and fatalism. (See Robert Stam's nuanced reading of Rocha's film here.) The placement of these sequences in Clark's film is somewhere between didactic formal argument and an aesthetic quality that doesn't so much contradict the film's unflinching advocacy of militancy as place them in dialectical tension. Here, as throughout, the film crackles with a desire to expose, highlight and further social contradiction as part of a process of revolutionary change.

And this dialectical quality is present, too, in the apparently incongruous occultist/Hermetic reference in the film's title (later appropriated for a truly diabolical horror film set in the Paris catacombs). This is a film of doubles--many of the characters we initially encounter turn out to be secret members of the armed cell, an Ellisonian disguise by which a perpetually-coughing junkie is actually a militant leader, something that reads as actuality in the film's plot, but that the film also suggests is a potentiality outside the film's universe. This is most apparent as a key scene replays in a kind of coda after--but really serving as--the 'completion' of the film's principal narrative strand. Early in the film, Jita-Hadi enters the cafe where he will meet Bee (Lyvonne Walder) who, unbeknownst to him, is one of the leaders of the guerrilla cell: their subsequent intimate encounter is one of the final stages, or tests, in his recruitment into the group. When they meet, she describes their encounter in terms of deja-vu, the uncanny feeling that what's happening in the moment is the replaying of a previous encounter. At the time, it's just a chat-up line, complete with talk about dreams coming true (or, in terms that sound closer to psychoanalysis, travelling to the farthest recesses of one's dreams). But sure enough, Jita-Hadi's entry into the cafe is repeated at the end of the film. At the film's climax, the customer in the cafe earlier seen praising 'the white man' seeks to inform on the armed cell, for which he's shot by cops, who in turn are shot by Kim (Gail Peters), the proselytising Christian owner of the cafe who turns out to be another  of the militants. As we cut from Tapscott's eerie inside-piano work to the entry of the full band in affirmative unison melody, the film cuts back to an earlier shot of Jit-Hadi driving a car and to his entry into the cafe. Passing the resurrected neighbour on his way in, over the soundtrack, we hear Bee's words of the initial encounter replayed over the soundtrack: "Hey brother, do you believe in foreknowledge? You know, deja-vu--it's like a birth to a new life, and you go on and on to other, still higher planes of life..." Thence the film cuts to the scene with which it began, the lone militant on manouevres in a snow-covered forest; except this time, we see him joined in conversation with a comrade, before the fade to black. What initially were a set of social encounters characterised by alienation or isolation--the lone militant, the reactionary conversations in the cafe, the wary glances of strangers--are now revealed to be potential nodes of solidarity. There are a number of ways we can red this: the revolutionary potentiality by which dreams coming true--travelling the furthest recesses of the dream--does not mean the dreams of the Church service, of the attainment of luxury goods, of the goodness of the 'white man', or what Henry Threadgill sardonically calls 'refined poverty', but the dream of a transformed society. The film does not, then, reveal a mystical secret, though there may be parallels between the underground guerrilla cell and the mystical or religious cult, a revealed knowledge into which one must be initiated for purposes of evading religious authority or state power, but the possibility of self-emancipation by any means necessary.