Sunday 20 June 2021

Histoire(s) du Cinéma: Viewing Notes

Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998, eight parts, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

From its start, the series makes audible the sound of technology from various periods: Godard's typewriter, his squeaky marker pen, the sound of the projector; levels mixed too loud, delay on voices, sound effects, snippets of the classical music canon, pop songs, noises. Godard repeats a number of key ideas several times across the opening episodes, sometimes verbatim: like musical themes coming around, sometimes as obvious recapitulations, at others as ghostly half-echoes; visual and aural puns (words split, truncated, divided) emphasizing first one then another part of a combined, often contradictory meaning. Making use of video to conduct an autopsy of cinema, the series develops the notion of cinema as out-of-time, fated, cursed; the forces of the modern are beholden to the nightmare of the past, borrowed costumes of present and past in mutual disguise. The roots of all modern technology were developed in the 19th century; the 20th century merely provided the technical means to execute them (whether these be projection or imperialism). Photography developed as compensation for the freezing and totalisation of all relations under the sign of capital--the technology for colour photography existed, but it was developed in black and white ("the colours of mourning"). Rather than releasing that which photography had frozen, cinema was a melancholy reenactment of that freezing. Cinema came along as a further method of mourning; technicolour ("the colours of funeral wreaths") is not celebration, but denial. Meanwhile, video and television have supplanted cinema's faux-cosmic possibility, boxing it up, condensing it, and have erased cinema's overwhelming time of the sublime, where a Proustian temps retrouvé be enacted beyond the scope of language ("cinema exists for the words caught in the throat"), condensed and controlled through fast-forward, rewind etc (video's revenge on cinema enacted in the very form of this film--see Jihoon Kim's article on Godard and video). So this is a further act of mourning, made on the periphery of the end of the Cold War: a flattening and totalisation. 

1(a) Toutes les Histoire(s) 

All the stories, all the histories, all at once: the episode, and the film as a whole, begins with simultaneity, with too much all once, visually and sonically. The opening minutes feel as if the tracking shot of the traffic jam in Weekend or its corollary, the assembly line in the car factory of British Sounds, had turned into an instant pile-up, every frame superimposed over the next. Nonetheless, a lot of this episode feels like throat-clearing (sometimes literally--a sound effect that will predominate in the much more aged voiceover, Godard wheezing and coughing, of Le Livre D'Image/The Image Book thirty years later). Godard repeats the history/story/stories pun of the title--Godard's story, the story of cinema, of history in general? The viewer spends the opening minutes acclimatising to method; the method is musical, in a sense; themes appearing, developing, crossing over: counterpoint, dissonance; but also the logic of the jump-cut, the tape splice, what musique concrète in music (or hip-hop sampling, plunderphonics, etc) and the Nouvelle Vague's separation of the elements of film-making accomplished in film. A dissection that is also a building up: accretion, bricolage, pile-up. Irving Thallberg as the epitome of invention--200 movies in his head everyday--and of despotic megalomania, cinema as dream factory, as illusion, as schizoid form--Howard Hughes' mania. Images of resistance and suffering--particular that of women--from Soviet and Third Cinema struggle from under the weight of these images, even as their heroisation contains its own problematics. (Godard's vision is here, as, as others have noted, almost exclusively that of a Western cinema, the 'Second Cinema' of Europe and of America with walk-on parts for Glauber Rocha but little else.) The sudden flash of corpses, the grasping of hands at guns or straws. 

1 (b) Une Histoire Seule

Dedicating this episode to John Cassavetes and Glauber Rocha, Godard here seeks to move beyond the Hollywood productions excoriated in the preceding episode, joining these icons of US independent film and of the attempt for a tricontinental Third Cinema (Rocha's debate with Godard, his cameo at the crossroads in Vent de L'Est sampled here). Scepticism about the possibility of cinema as medium was built into it from a start: its pioneers thought that it was a trick form, a parlour game, a fairground show. They were right and not right. The story of cinema alone, a history alone--cinema's connection and disconnection to world history--the role of newsreel. George Stevens filming the European camps in 1945--cinema as record; but is filming alone cinema? Reality and illusion. Cinema's aim to be more real than life. Godard looks up, off screen, at the screen, reads two books at once, at times types out a script we neither hear nor see with the exception of grunted words. 

2(a) Seul le Cinéma 

If the previous episode presented "only" a (hi)story--a single (hi)story, a (hi)story alone--this episode promises to dedicate itself only to cinema, to cinema alone, its uniqueness a particular or privileged access to knowledge as a well as an escape from the reality T.S. Eliot thought "mankind" could not bear much of: not so much head in the sand, but a voyage abroad, the narrative of national founding occurring first through the voyage (Ulysses to Aeneas, Greece to Troy to Rome; burning cities, boats, sacrificial pyres from which new stories flare up). Cinema as the only medium that could express certain relations, conjunctures; that enabled Godard to access history even as it consistently falsified it. Two principal frames for this episode, made nearly a decade after the first two and, though half the length, notably slower in pace. A chain-smoking Serge Daney (brand: Marlboros) interviews a chain-smoking Godard (cigars) about the project, how it sought to place Godard himself in the story of cinema, how one might begin speaking about this particular form and its relation to history. A teenage girl (Julie Delpy) reads from Baudelaire's 'Le Voyage'--Ulysses' voyagers set sail from the homeland, witness catastrophe, lay the grounds for the femme fatale stereotype, escape through intoxication, proto-cinematic dreams. The children from Night of the Hunter escape Robert Mitchum in a boat; cinema is cast adrift in the childlike world of imagination (Laughton's magical nighttime landscape, frogs croaking, eddies in the water, moonlight in the reeds, a whispered lullaby) but the logic of plot, narrative, and society must catch up. Behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of Le Mépris, the crew's dialogue in Italian; Godard giving Fritz Lang a line of Brecht to read; film history on film history. 

2(b) Fatale Beauté 

The second part will continue the female narrator's explorations of beauty, storytelling, dream, escape; this time, though, the focus is Proust, introduced by Godard: Albertine as the icon of lost beauty kept imprisoned: aesthetics and jealousy, the rage of vulnerability, art as fetishisation and reification of its objects. It's not a smell or a sentence or a piece of music that triggers involuntary memory and the re-finding of time--time's retrieval contains its 'trou', its gap or absence, its void, the way that Godard finds the emptiness within a shot that in context is given a panoply of meaning, the gap within a crowded scene, remixes them across time, puts them in dialogue. Godard starts early on that cinema could have been about flowers, babies, and so on, but it became about death. Eros/thanatos merge as icons of Hollywood martyrdom like James Dean brood in frozen still images, and the ever-present images of historical catastrophe--Vietnam, the holocaust, what I think is the First Intifada--allegorise this doubleness of spectatorship--most notably, an image of a little child walking past a field of bodies, apparently unconcerned, into which images of escape and fantasy (a woman clinging to an impossibly high streetlamp) enter, like one image emerging from the burning embers of another (Godard says that cinema comes from burning, a Promethean destructiveness that this repeated trope of emergence--a kind of joke about dissolves, wipes, fades, and the like--frequently enacts), more so in this episode than previously. Godard jokingly references the scopophilic and gendered nature of film viewing, a cap on his head, cigar in his mouth, sitting shirtless at his typewriter, his jaw dropping; images of female bodies and of the motif of hands (hands think, Godard states) grasping, groping, gesticulating: a visual equation between the gestures of power (fascist demagoguery, the salute and the raised arm) and sexual conquest? The episode's concluding section features a relatively fixed camera as an actor reads out statements on art and beauty: given the density of the preceding material, it feels like a moment of utter stillness, the suspended time that cinema always seeks and always rejects. 

3(a) La Monnaie de l'Absolu 

A template for these films: Goya's Saturn eating his children intercuts in stroboscopic fashion (with Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes), as Godard's voiceover is delivered with little more than a whisper, describing atrocities, the hypocrisy of governments not held to human standards, the horrors of war. Again, the relation of cinema to reality and fiction: we exaggerated these atrocities, the child was not tossed from pike to pike but merely bayonetted once, the village was not destroyed in a couple of hours but a couple of days. The complicity of French actors and filmmakers in the occupation; a train ride to Berlin to take part in a film project; the ruins of the war meant that the only national cinema of any value (Godard's axis is, as ever in this series, firmly Euro- and US-centric) was that of Italy--Rome: Open City was not made by those in uniform; a curiously sentimental montage of moments from neo-realism under a crooned Italian song plays things out. These episodes are much slower, more reflective than what's gone before.

3(b) Une Vague Nouvelle 

Almost no footage from actual French New Wave films here; instead, the films that inspired them. Beginning backwards; it ends with Godard's ruminative homage to Jean Langlois, founder of the cinémathèque where the directors of the Nouvelle Vague encountered formative and obscure films; the cinema Godard describes here, he says, is the unknown one, the unseen one, the films only known by legend rather than actually watched; an alternative current (bodies emerging into or falling out of rivers; a recurrent visual rhyme throughout these late episodes). Of course, I knew all these people, he ends--Truffaut, Demy, Duras--as their faces flash past, elements of hero-worshipping or name-dropping, of cinematic nostalgia (Godard himself once more at the centre) overpowered by a sense of mourning something lost. 

4(a) Le Contrôle de l'Univers 

4a) begins with a political / historical meditation--Europe is divided between undeveloped states and states with a revolution which enables them the comfort of waiting without hope for the inevitable misery, the only remaining link. Auteur theory rears its head, as the great directors come up on screen, one by one, having followed on from female writers (Virginia Woolf central among them). The figure of the (male) auteur becomes the ultimate in this 'control of the universe', both a counter-force to and reflection of the mendacious power of state, propaganda, government (the recurrent images of suffering--the camps, the Warsaw ghetto, Joan of Arc in Dreyer's and Rossellini's films). And so to Hitchcock, whose spectral voice floats up--the greatest, Godard says, because he made you remember objects (the wine bottle or the key in Notorious, the bus in North by Northwest), elevated image beyond plot, beyond ideology--he succeeded where even dictators failed, but this was an empty victory, for even if 'billions' do remember the bottle, the key, the bus, what does this do? Cinema, as the title cards flash it up, is cursed, forgotten, unknown ("maudit, oubliée, inconnu"), the words "histoire du cinéma" broken down to "né a toi"--so yet, the viewer, birth, promise, the philosophical dialogue slowly read out which suggests cinema as a kind of lover ("beauté fatale"). In what may be the series' most startling image, Hitchcok's birds fly/explode out of Marilyn Monroe's head, a by now familiar repertoire of clips--The Searchers, James Stewart and Kim Novak in the water in Vertigo--flash past, Godard's voiceover increasingly ruminative, his cigar-chomping presence replaced by the sound of his voice, the series as if winding down, muted and melancholy, the flashed repeated phrases now more on screen than in Godard's voiceover, the projector noise and extraneous noise of the earlier episodes instead replaced by bursts of music as punctuation and hushed voices, visual and verbal noise reduced to a kind of muted flashing, flashes in the fog. 

 4(b) Les Signes parmi nous 

The longest of the 1998 episodes, again as if winding down: once more, the focus on hands, hands reaching out or collapsing, hands that think. 1920s and 1930s vampire movies keep appearing, haunted monsters: Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and in particular, Murnau's Nosferatu. From Rear Window, James Stewart looking through his camera in rear window looks into Hitler, who has morphed out of Charlie Chaplin. This recurs more than once as kind of tic or trope: Stewart peering through his binoculars, stand-in for the spectator, the director--but what he sees is revealed to be images from the camps, or images of a preening uniformed Hitler--framing and peering at atrocity. Cinema here is the fascinated and complicit peering on at horror, powerless to do anything. But that's not all it is. The final episode tries out some other metaphors and parallels--histories of cinema, stories of cinema, alternative pathways taken or not taken. The title cards present an oblique fable about a man who comes to a village, selling stories: they think it's the end of the world but it's the sunrise: the man is cinema. Echoing the unseen film from the Langlois episode (3(b)), here, the conceit of the impossible film, the 'other cinema', that which can't be written, like the invisible matter that scientifically makes up the universe's gravitational forces. The question is when to begin and end a shot. Godard asks, over an image of Maurice Blanchot, if time preserves cinema or cinema preserves time; the episode, and the film as a whole, ends with Godard, via Borges, describing himself as someone who wakes up from a dream of paradise still clutching a paradisal flower. And, for Godard, cinema remains this flower. 

(Notes drafted January 2021)

Two silences

Ο Θίασος (O Thiasos) / The Travelling Players (1974/5, dir. Theo Angelopoulous), De stilte rond Christine M / A Question of Silence (1982, dir. Marleen Gorris)

 Shot in the last years of military dictatorship, Theo Angelopoulous’ The Travelling Playerspresents history as a series of labyrinths, a kind of endless maze with no visible barriers, just open space, as the troupe of actors wander through the snow, through ruined forts, by the endless sea—Thalassa—journeys of departure and return, the narrative framing by which he justified the filming when questioned—members of the troupe play out the Agamemnon myth—seeing mythic structures bespeak political crises, the agonised emergence and suppression of new modes of representation, betrayal and complicity, resistance and torture, all in long shot, at arm’s length, the distance of time disappearing or moving too fast, history experienced by those who walk through its middle, at its edge. The camera pans and it’s 1939, pans again and it’s 1945, and again it’s 1952: the Communists shot in the square; the Communists who return to the square; red flags against the sky; the corner of a courtyard, the edge of a street, the dates bracketing differing forms of dictatorship, its national flags and chants, its bands of fighters for justice and its bands of fighters for the forces of repression. That empty corner remains as space of contemplation, shelter, refuge, and abysall emptiness, the void of defeat, the screams and shots coming from outside the field of vision, sound seeping through. This is a film in which the sound—all diegetic—enacts the field of conflict: monarchists and Communists sing competing songs to the same adapted tune before the monarchists pull out their guns; the head of the troupe who will later betray his colleague to the Fascists sings a Monarchist song to which his colleagues pointedly do not join; the accordion player plays whenever asks, when forced to stage a performance by a group of British troops, at the funeral of a murdered Communist, at the beginning of the never-completed bucolic farce they stage in their travelling show. Silence bespeaks the beginning of another song, another conflict, whether signalling a fresh hell or a fresh hope—a whistled Internationale; the imposition of American popular song by occupying soldiers—interlude, punctuation, space of contemplation, silence and empty space, as the camera pans, silence as holding place of trauma, holding place of possibility, placeholder, holding on. 

In Marleen Gorris’ A Question of Silence (1982), three women—‘ordinary women’, as the court-appointed psychiatrist deems them—murder the proprietor of a clothing boutique with whatever’s to hand—broken coat-hangers, clothes display racks, their hands, their feet, his body mutilated beyond recognition. The psychiatrist (Cox Habbema), a middle-class woman who’s ‘made it’ in a world of supposed gender parity, of liberal policy, where even the Netherlands' prisons appear modestly liveable, tries to frame, to ‘understand’ the ‘ordinary women’s’ refusal to either apologise, justify or divulge the motivations for the act: the single woman who talks too much to fill the silence of sexism, of abandonment, of clinging to a shitty waitressing job because it’s all she can get; the secretary whose ideas are stolen in board meetings, relentlessly talked down to, her mother seeking to marry her off; the housewife in patriarchal containment, surrounded by the voices of children, the demands of a husband, her wishes and desires ignored, having already taken a kind of vow silence, barely speaking, sitting, smoking. When the psychiatrist challenges the male prosecutor who expects her to put in a plea of insanity—these women knew what they were doing and are not insane, she insists—trying to force her to insist that it would make no difference if they were men murdering a female shopkeeper or women murdering a female shopkeeper, the women in the stand burst into uncontainable laughter. In the audience, other women, silent witnesses in the boutique who never came forward, who maintain a conspiracy of silence-as-solidarity, laugh too; the prosecutor joins in: laughter as noise in the face of the discourse and logic of male order, law, psychiatry, rationality, the ‘reasonable’ conformity of gender oppression, silence as a militant silence rather than the oppressed silence it was before. In ‘Human Personality’, Simone Weil talks of the magistrate stammering before the court."Nothing, for example, is more frightful than to see some poor wretch in the police court stammering before a magistrate who keeps up an elegant flow of witticisms." One form of silencing, of broken and foreclosed speech. But silence in the courtroom might also be a mode of resistance. In her essay on Gorris’ film, ‘Silence/Laughter’, Amelia Groom links such silence to an example from history that’s also inscribed into the heart of cinema, via Carl Dreyer’s iconic 1928 (silent) film: at her trial, Joan of Arc, faced by remorseless questioning, said she couldn’t remember, refusing to divulge, refusing to be understood. If Angelopoulous’ silence bespeaks the absence of communal bonds—destroyed by torture, execution, murder, forced confessions, forced compromises for the sake of peace after years of dictatorship, occupation, and civil war, personal and collective loss and defeat, the rest is silence, Gorris’ silence opens up a space—the absence of comprehension of the apparently incomprehensible act that brings these women together in a temporary, shared space they’d otherwise occupy only as separated strangers sounding out both as the horrified realisation of the logical costs of the society that took them there and of another kind of possibility; slaughter, laughter, silence, continuance. 

Wednesday 9 June 2021

Recent Writing (June)

Not posted much on this blog of late, but a fair bit of other writing elsewhere, of which a digest follows...

Over the past month I've been working on a long article on the great organist Larry Young / Khalid Yasin, now up on Point of Departure. The piece covers all the periods of career: early work in the soul jazz idiom from 1960 to around 1964, progressive jazz with the class Unity in 1965, free jazz (or a synthesis of free jazz with elements) from 1966 to around 1969, and then 'fusion' from 1969, first with the Tony Williams Lifetime, then with his own 'Love Cry Want', 'Lawrence of Newark' and 'Fuel' bands. The gist of the piece is that Young provides a lens for all kinds of trends, movements, placements, moving from doo wop to soul jazz to the advanced end of bebop to free playing to fusion of various kinds, along the way reinventing the sound of the Hammond organ. (To hear just how radically he'd transformed what could be done with the instrument, take a listen to this astonishing solo piece). It's often said that Young's training as a pianist is at the root of what was so unusual about his approach--e.g. taking the influence of McCoy Tyner's fourths and Monk's use of space and adjacent, dissonant notes, rather than the Jimmy Smith licks and held-note vocabulary ubiquitous amongst soul jazz Hammond players from the late 50s on. At the same time, of the technical achievements of his playing-are developments from  materiality of the instrument itself, as a kind of proto-synthesizer/big-band-in-minature, and from the vocabulary of soul jazz, even as they explicitly move away from it. So' for example, when he transitions from soul jazz on albums like Unity, Young explicitly moves away from the Jimmy Smith technique of holding a single note over the tune's chord pattern in an ecstatic imitation of tenor 'screamers', blues 'shouters' etc. But in the 1970s, that technique returns, transformed into a series of  sustained drones and 'washes' of sound which create dissonances, clusters, white noise blocks as the harmonic pattern surrounding them departs radically from the soul jazz patterns with which Smith worked. Similarly, the doubled thinking required to play both bassline in the footpedals and comp/solo with hands on the keyboard leads to a dialogic conception that in turn influences his playing within a group--a collective approach that in turns leads naturally to free jazz (Of Love and Peace in 1966) and the groove-based large-group improvisations of Love Cry Want and Lawrence of Newark in 1972 and 1973. And in terms of genre, the roots for the free jazz/ avant-garde playing of c.1966-69 are laid in soul jazz and hard bop of c.1960-62--in itself a kind of 'fusion' of elements of progressive jazz (bebop) with urban pop music (R&B)--which then presage the jazz fusion of c.1969 onwards, as the harmonic ambiguity of free jazz combines with the harmonic simplification of fusion and its focus on rhythm and groove. Which means that this at once a dialectical process--as per the Hegelian sense that hovers over fellow Newarker Amiri Baraka's earlier account of the movement from bebop to cool/hard bop to free in Blues People in 1963--and Baraka's 'changing same' circa 1967--which is and is not dialectical, at least in the same sense. (Clearly more thought needs expanding on this!). Baraka's not invoked arbitrarily here--he provided liner notes for an early Young album and was immersed in/emerged from the same thriving music scene in Newark. Which is the piece's other argument--that Young, along with Alan and Wayne Shorter, Grachan Moncur, Woody Shaw, Tyrone Washington, etc etc--marks a strand of Newark-originating playing in the late 50s/early 60s that often challenges strict divisions between 'mainstream' and 'free' and suggests another stream to the music. So that circa 1967/8--the year, after all, that Baraka writes 'The Changing Same'--there are a number of recordings which suggest a continuum between R&B, free jazz, mainstream hard bop, etc--Young's Contrasts, Washington's Natural Essence, Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music, even (less successfully) Ayler's New Grass--that are a kind of 'fusion' in advance, but alway in terms of Black music, rather than the way that fusion later becomes, too often, a kind of code for white virtuosos coming in and making the money. (As producer David Rubison put it, "Jazz fusion meant white people playing Black music"). All these arguments end up becoming somewhat speculative in part because Young (and Washington, Gale, etc) was never documented as much as he should have been. There's roughly a record per year when he had a contract with Blue Note (1965-1969), but after that--which is precisely when his playing really takes off--the documentation is a lot more sporadic: Lifetime's best work was live, but can only be heard on a few bootlegs; there's only one recording apiece for the Love Cry Want and Lawrence of Newark bands; I'm still wondering if tapes of the trio with Dewey Redman and Rashied Ali at Slugs' Saloon in 1968 exist...(Highly unlikely that are recordings with Frank Wright, Cecil Taylor and Coltrane, all of whom he played with at various points.) For that matter, it's impossible to get hold a copy of his final record, The Magician, a Germany-only release by his much-maligned final fusion band, Fuel. 

So that piece is now out on Point of Departure, along with three other reviews: George (E.) Lewis' Recombinant Trilogy, three works for solo instruments with electronics; The Locals (Pat Thomas et al) Play The Music of Anthony Braxton, which I noted back in Februrary on this blog; and new poetry-and-sound releases on Fonograf Editions from Nathaniel Mackey and the Creaking Breeze Ensemble and Douglas Kearney/Val Jeanty (Kearney's book sho is also out from Wave Books).

(Image of N.H. Pritchard from the East Village Other)

Back in April, I reviewed the reissue of N.H. Pritchard's The Matrix for Artforum: since then, I've been working on a longer piece based on this research as well, encompassing Pritchard's other books, EECCHHOOEESS, which is the first publication from Adam Pendleton's Daba Press, and some uncollected and unpublished work--of which there's a ton out there, including Pritchard's novel Mundus. Watching his appearance as a preacher in Elaine Summers' and Rev. Al Carmines' Another Pilgrim thanks to the digital versatility of the New York Public Library was a highlight of this--a real slice of place and time.

Also Umbra-related: Honoured to have been asked to write on Askia Touré's work for a special issue of Paideuma which republishes his 1972 book Songhai! Researching his poetry and thinking about the role of the African American poetic epic and Islam was fascinating work; it's astonishing that there's so little criticism on it. The piece, 'Songs for the Future', should be out soon.

Also out soon, a final Umbra-related item: from the University of Buffalo, Edric Mesmer's Among the Neighbors is a primarily bibliography-focussed pamphlet series on little magazines associated with the New American Poetry. My contribution to the latest batch offers a chronology and a brief introduction to Umbra, followed by a bibliographic listing of the contents of the five magazines produced between 1963 and 1974. This emerges from a much bigger Umbra bibliography project I began last summer, which aims to track the publishing activity of all the major Umbra poets and other poets associated with Umbra, providing details of major publications, as well as secondary criticism and other relevant material. The draft of that document runs to over a hundred pages, and I'm not sure as to what will be done with it--perhaps part of an online resource at some point. (If you'd like a copy, leave a comment below this post and I can send you the draft.) Many thanks in any case to Edric for his work on the Among the Neighbors pamphlet, which I hope will be a useful resource, given the rarity of the Umbra magazines themselves. (I'm also excited to be working on a two volume Umbra project with Tonya Foster and Jean-Philippe Marcoux, which should be out in the next few years. Watch this space!)

Boston Review are running a piece of mine on Yours Presently, the selected John Wieners letters recently out from University of New Mexico Press. It was edited by Michael Seth Stewart over a period of ten years, and having read the entire, unedited version--Seth's thesis at CUNY--which runs to around 1000 pages, I can attest to Seth's editorial acumen in producing this shorter version, still scrupulously annotated with a wealth of contextual and biographical information. (Let's hope too that Robbie Dewhurst's equally vital work on the biography and the complete poems--the latter provisionally entitled Ungrateful City--might see publishing fruit.) And props to Ammiel Alcalay and CUNY's Lost and Found programme for supporting scholarship like this. Hearing Ammiel, Seth and Eileen Myles talk at the online launch last month, setting this in its context, was a perfect illustration of the spirit in which the enterprise was conducted--Ammiel recalling meeting Wieners at Grolier's bookstore as a thirteen-year old, hanging out and talking, about the government persecution of Billie Holiday, about Wieners as part of the 'outside'--queer activists, anti-war activists, drop outs, and so on--that was much bigger than it is now, as Ammiel put out; Seth reading out a funny and engaging letter in which Wieners puts down Kerouac and Ginsberg and comes out with casually brilliant and moving phrases imbued with the poetry that shot through his life; and Eileen Myles likewise come up with phrases of music and casual poetry--"the basketweave of the soul" a phrase I half remember; all this was a moving affirmation of Wieners' importance. 

The Boston Review review comes out of a bunch of other work on Wieners I've been working on over the past few years--in particular, an essay on Wieners' great book Behind the State Capitol, editing and typography, just out in the Queer Between the Covers collection edited by Leila Kassir and Richard Espley, which emerges from a conference at Senate house Library back in 2018. The whole book can be read here and also includes work on Valerie Taylor's lesbian pulp novels and the government attacks on London queer bookshop Gay's the Word in the 1980s. On the Wieners front, a piece I wrote four years ago on Wieners and Dana (of "God love you Dana my love" fame) for an edited collection on Wieners' work called Utter Vulnerability might hopefully see the light of day in the not too distant future (for now it can be read at; and there will likely be a couple of Wieners chapters in my current book project on queer poetry in Boston and San Francisco, focussing on the lesser-known parts of his career--his early work as editor with Measure magazine and in the context of the Boston 'Occult School', and--supplementing the Queer Between the Covers chapter--further details of his time in the orbit of Fag Rag and Charley Shively. Fag Rag and Gay Community News alumnus--and author of the excellent Culture Clash and Queer History of the United States--Michael Bronski has been super-helpful and generous in discussing this work, along with Seth, Raymond Foye, and all the others contributing to what seems--hopefully--to be a bit of a mini-Wieners revival. Not that he ever went away, but there's so much more to be said and discovered about this work. Michael and I did a long interview about his life in activism, scholarship, publishing, Fag Rag and the rest, back in December and are hoping to publish that at some point.

Over to the world of music--and honoured to have been asked to write the liner notes to the new Anthony Braxton boxset, Quartet (Standards) 2020, selected documentation of the band's European tour last year out from the Tri-Centric Foundation / New Braxton House on June 18th. The group's three-day residency at Cafe Oto--one of the last bits of live music, if not the last bit of live music I saw before the pandemic hit--was extraordinary (my write-up came out in Artforum here), and it was likewise great to grapple with the entirety of the set: 67 tracks in all, of standards familiar and obscure alike, with Alex Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass and Stephen Davis on drums providing far more than merely a 'rhythm section'.

Some recent liner notes also out to a fascinating released by a large-group ensemble led by UK bassist, improviser, composer Dominic Lash, one of the first batch of physical releases from his Spoonhunt label (the bandcamp page also has some excellent digital recordings, including work with Christian Wolff, Nate Wooley, etc). Distinctions is a 40-minute recording for an ensemble called 'Consorts', working in particular with sustained tones and the relation between acoustic and electric sound: seems like it finds intriguing solutions to many of the problems of large ensemble improvisation (though the relation between composition and improvisation, as ever in Lash's work, can't be eaily parsed). The other CDs in the batch are equally worthwhile: the wholly-improvised Discernement offers one of the final recordings from the late John Russell, in a group with Lash, John Butcher and Mark Sanders; and Lash's quartet with Alex Ward (in guitarist guise), Ricardo Tejero and Javier Carmona on limulus showcases some of Lash's distinctive compositions, in and around (but never quite inhabiting) whatever we call 'jazz'. Get them here.

If Braxton's take on standards represents the latest stage in a decades-long engagement with jazz history in theory and practice, a different take on the music's relation to history emerges in a recent volume curated by Sezgin Boynik and Taneli Viitahuhta, out from Rab-Rab Press. Free Jazz Communism collects a number of historical essays, interviews, source texts and polemics, focusing in particular on the performance by the Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet at the 8th World Festival of Youth and Students held in Helsinki in 1962. Though the event's been mentioned in a fair few studies of the music, it's rarely been examined in detail, and is an interesting flashpoint for questions concerning free jazz, Cold War politics, and the like.  Pierre Crépon and I reviewed the book at Critical Studies in Improvisation/Etudes Critiques en Improvisation.

As well as Larry Young, recent listening has involved heavy rotations of Hasaan Ibn Ali's 1965 Atlantic date, long thought lost, which has finally been rediscovered and released as Metaphysics, out on Omnivore Recordings. A quartet set, it was recorded a few months after the 'Legendary Hasaan' trio date with Max Roach, with Hasaan's then-protegee, a young Odean Pope on tenor. Hopefully I'll have more to say on this one elsewhere--suffice to add that the archival buzz is more than justified in this instance.

Finally, a poem from Local Apocalypse (published by Materials in 2020) is up at the 87 press, with thanks to Azad and Kashif:

(Writing not on this blog listed/linked on Linktree and the 'Writing Elsewhere' page on the sidebar.)

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Lord Shango (1975)

Here is the late Milford Graves, very briefly glimpsed as part of the percussion ensemble in the 1975 film Lord Shango. The film stars Marlene Clark of Ganja and Hess fame--here offering some of the best eye-widening expressions in cinema--and was marketed as a horror movie, though it might better be described as a drama with supernatural elements. Written by playwright Paul Carter Harrison--who also scripted Youngbood (1978) and an un-produced biopic of Sam Cooke--and shot in Friendsville, Tennessee, it concerns the clash of Yoruba and Christian religion, centring around the idea of sacrifice, spirit possession, and the relation of the living to the dead. In some senses an allegory for the suppression of a non-Christian past, it opens as a group of Christian congregants violently drown the Yoruba practitioner who tries to interrupt the baptism of his partner, who, along with her mother (Clark) seeks answers within the Yoruba ceremonies in which he participated. Guilt, revenge (of a kind), and the ambiguous presence of the town's resident alcoholic align with possession by the deity Shango, a convoluted marriage plot with vague echoes of the Southern Gothic, and various other plot twists it's sometimes hard to exactly pin down. 

Like Ganja and Hess--on which Harrison explicitly modelled the film--Lord Shango doesn't really fit any of the generic categories placed on Black cinema of the time--horror, Blaxploitation, drama--though it perhaps includes elements of all of these. And while it lacks the sheer surreal, a-narrative strangeness of Ganja--the pacing is more sedate and telegraphed--it's certainly distinctive. As might be expected, the film's character is a response to circumstances, and this perhaps explains its refusal to settle into any one type of film--in some ways both a strength and a weakness. A better sense of this can be gained from Nicholas Foster's interesting article on the film's production history and evasion of categories for Black cinema here. Consciously seeking not to be a Blaxploitation genre piece--"the days of Blaxploitation are over" ran a newspaper report on its production--the film was a coproduction between the Ronald Hobbs Literary Agency, who represented Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and other Black Arts Movement figures, and distribution company Bryanston Pictures who'd also put out Andy Warhol's Dracula, Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and later, Deep Throat (obscenity charges surrounding the latter leading to the company's collapse), with Hobbs apparently inviting the likes of Baraka, Neal and Adrienne Kennedy to evaluate the film at screenings.  

This in part suggests an attempt to break out of the stereotypical generic framings which, by the mid-70s, had constrained not only depictions of Black lives but the choices available to Black filmmakers, looking instead to the world of theatre, where a break with both the form and content of a white-dominated artistic apparatus had been broached. And Baraka's own experiments as a filmmaker--from documentation of political activism in Black Spring to unproduced scripts for an animated Blaxploitation parody called Supercoon and the surreal meditation/polemic The Death of Malcolm X--certainly suggest the possibility of an alternative trajectory. Yet the presence of Bryanston--operating at the intersection between the 'arthouse' underground and exploitation movies per se--might also suggest a kind of construction-by-committee--the film remaining caught in the commercial imperatives it also attempts to escape. (After all, this was a time when a major publishing house thought that a new book by Baraka would tap into the same market as Mario Puzo's The Godfather!)

And ultimately, the potential of Harrison's script often feels hemmed in, rather than opened out, by its filmic treatment. Director Ray Marsh made a few other shlock films with titles like Suburban Commando and Forbidden Love, and is never even mentioned in Harrison's reminiscence at Black Camera. While the auterist model is problematic in itself, we might note here that Gunn's Ganja and Hess is very much an auteur film--written by and co-starring Gunn, with Gunn's distinctive editing, the removal of exposition and backstory for the distinctive dream-like atmosphere, radically transforming the material at hand, as indicated by the batch of deleted scenes viewable here, nearly all of which are conventional exposition scenes that would have vastly clarified much of the film's otherwise obscured plot. Lord Shango is a different story. Gunn's film comes alive (or undead) both in its camerawork and its editing: its zooms and slow-motion pans, accompanied by a non-linear soundtrack in an effect at once delirious and ritualistically slow, as if the camera itself were a dancing, malevolent presence rather than merely an observer or frame. Marsh's camera angles, by contrast, are generally static medium shots, placed in juxtaposition that builds narrative momentum and suspense by numbers. The central Yoruba-Christian conflict is illustrated, not only in the script, but with an obvious and hackneyed cutting between different settings and incidents that ends up killing, rather than creating, any tension. In Gunn, that absence of tension (which is different to dread) is precisely the point: the reinvention of horror not so much as suspense or shock as a kind of endless, feverish, waking dream--the nightmare of history itself. While Harrison's script might also have lent itself to that kind of reinvention, however, Marsh's handling aims to reinforce zones of conflict and contrast rather than to blur them, to go deeper into their inter-animation. The opening scene, in which church-goers either deliberately or accidentally drown a Yoruba devotee who interrupts a Christian Baptism, should be resonant and tense. Instead, it's near-plodding, desperately crying out either for longer, more patient atmosphere-building or some severe editing, even with Graves' insistent percussion on the soundtrack. Sometimes it feels like we're watching the idea for a film rather than the film itself. 

Yet the film's soundtrack--or the idea behind it--is a fascinating attempt to illustrate its central conflicts. Composer Howard A. Roberts--music director for Alvin Ailey and Harry Belafonte among others--scored the film: his choir provide spirituals to illustrate the Christian side, while Graves, who served as African percussion consultant, illustrates the Yoruba side alongside a group of unnamed percussion players. The film as a whole may fail to integrate its sonic experimentation, and its ideas in generally are little more than half-realized. Nonetheless, like the brief footage of Graves at his prime, to the side of his action but still magnetic, the film provides rich ground for speculation: grounds for the alternative history of a mode of Black cinema in America, operating at the tricky nexus between commercial imperative and artistic-political interrogation, that might have been.