Friday, August 20, 2010

Crazy Talk Part II: "Be part of a great conversation."

still from the film Idiocracy.
by Steven Boone (click here for Crazy Talk: Part I)

Scene from August Wilson's masterpiece, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom:

TOLEDO: Everybody come from different places in Africa, right? Come from different tribes and things. Soonawhile they began to make one big stew. You had the carrots, the peas, and potatoes and whatnot over here. And over there, you had  the meat, the nuts, the okra, corn... and then you mix it up and let it cook right through to get the flavors flowing together... then you got one thing. You got a stew.

Now you take and eat the stew. You take and make your history with that stew. Alright. Now it's over. Your history's over and you done ate the stew. But you look around and you see some carrots over here, some potatoes over there. You can't eat it all. So what you got? You got some leftovers. That's what it is. You got some leftovers and you can't do nonting with it. You already making you another history... coooking you another meal, and you don't need them leftovers no more. What to do?

See, we's the leftovers. The colored man is the leftovers. Now what's the colored man gonna do with himself? That's what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta know we the leftovers.

Now, who knows that? You find me a nigger that knows that and I'll turn any which-a-way you want me to. I'll bend over for you. You ain't gonna find that. And that's what the problem is. The problem ain't the white man. the white man, know you just a leftover. 'Cause he the one who done the eating and know what he done ate. But we don't now that we been took and made history out of. Done went and filled the white man's belly and now he's full and tired and wants you to get out the way and let him be by himself.

This series is called "Crazy Talk" because it is kinda crazy to suppose that African-Americans, who clearly have enough troubles of their own, should pitch in to help rescue something as trivial as the movies (see part I). As Toledo points out above, we's already done been ate and cast aside. Why fret over the fate of a popular art form that, in its prime, also helped cook, devour and digest us?

Because the movies remain our best hope of reaching those American ideals we often claim but rarely engage in daily life. The movie theater remains a temple, even if it has doubled as a slaughterhouse in its checkered past and is presently little more than a cattle car for blinkered superstore shoppers.

The darkened theater can still be a place where we all shed our petty concerns to share something unshakably true, spiritual, life-affirming. The benefit of restoring and keeping this practice, over time, is a society less obsessed with status, property and petty chauvinism, more mindful and appreciative of its freedoms.

I can't think of another public space that can produce such communion and understanding. Concert halls, arenas and public parks are all far behind the movies in that regard. Not everybody goes to see the Rolling Stones, but eerrrbody saw Titanic.

There is a way to restore the movie theater's status as a place of fellowship-- not in the Christian church sense, where you turn to hug the congregant beside you, but in the nondenominational, interfaith, hands-free sense of feeling the same jolt of spiritual chain lightning come down from the screen that your neighbors in the theater are experiencing. The visual language that used to produce this kind of magic is gone, but we can get it back.

The 1970's, the last decade that American mainstream commercial cinema flourished as an auteur-driven popular art form, was also the age when Black people came to know and celebrate themselves. It didn't matter that the FBI had spent the past two decades subverting virtually every movement dedicated to black progress (while criminalizing and dismantling a whole range of progressive causes); African-Americans were beginning to step out from the shadows and claim a grounded, self-propelled culture. It was a bold, proud time, even for the poorest of us. We finally had a sense of hope and direction that we'd always envied in our immigrant, WASP and Native American neighbors, who could draw from centuries of the kind of cultural continuity we'd been denied since the slave ships.

Fun while it lasted.

By the 1980's, the same era that, in the wake of studio-killing debacles like Heaven's Gate, Ho'wood passed ultimate creative control of movies from filmmakers to corporate executives, the mass of poor, under-educated black people were also feeling a certain rug slip from under them. There was a new drug in town, and, some say, the CIA played a significant role in insuring that it flooded the inner cities as efficiently as KFC franchises.

So, while Ho'wood spent the '80s outlawing art in the name of record box office, record numbers of Negroes fell into drug abuse, disease and incarceration (even as they continued to enjoy their still-novel visibility on the pop culture landscape). The '90s represented a holding pattern, for both Ho'wood and black people. The major studios continued to do steady business centered around tentpole movies; black people continued to languish in the rubble of the Crack Explosion and other disasters.

Here in the future, few are counting on the mass of Leftovers to contribute anything significant to society, but I have an absurd amount of faith in them (us, actually). In Toledo's era, maybe the Leftovers weren't aware of their status, but today I can testify that many of us do see the big picture, in all its frightening dimensions. We know what we're up against. We know, or at least sense, what we've lost.

Just as Robert Moses' single-minded urban planning determined New York City's destiny as a high-speed conveyor belt for tourists and commuters--locals be damned-- so has the movie business shaped a cultural landscape that exalts highly educated, highly specialized urban professionals. These are the folks who keep the machine running, our movies tell us, and we should all try to emulate their ethics and lifestyle-- or else get out of their way. As with Moses the master builder's efforts, the result is a mass of folks crammed together yet too busy working to fulfill their proscribed roles to indulge meaningful communication beyond their demographic profiles. Like an apartment building bordering a noisy expressway, the movies we have breed hostility and claustrophobia.

A popular NY Times commercial asks the viewer to "be part of a great conversation" by subscribing to the paper, but we Leftovers know he doesn't mean us. The higher you go up the social ladder, liberal or conservative, the less interest in cultivating a truly integrated civil society you will find.

As one crazy old man put it:

So, how can the Leftovers, of all people, mobilize against this trend, revive the American Dream (as something more than the longest "long con" in history), save the movies and save the world?

We'll get to that in Part III. It's time for my medication.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Crazy Talk Part I: Malcolm X vs. Cliffs Notes Cinema (or How Black Folks Could Save Movie Culture)

by Steven Boone

My big problem as a film critic has been getting past the fact that in mainstream commercial cinema, the visual language has broken down to the level of advertising. Jonathan Rosenbaum predicted it in 1990, and it has come to pass: classical visual storytelling is dead-- not of natural causes but from asphyxiation in the prime of its life. The big movies--high, low or middlebrow-- all flow in the manner of TV commercials. Individual shots and edits mean very little anymore. Cliffs Notes cinema.

Nobody seems to give a damn. Critics just go on reviewing the new releases as if they weren't hobbled by this insufficient base language-- debating the merits of this or that scenario, performance, production value when the flow of images, the very lifeblood of any movie, has become uniformly, insipidly manic. In a pan of the film Inception, a model of bloodless Cliffs Notes montage, A.O. Scott sez:

"The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears. If Mr. Nolan can’t quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill."

Okay, so Scott mentions Hitchcock, a filmmaker who actually did deploy the medium "with such skill" to get at those allegedly blocked impulses, while suggesting that said medium is insufficient for such aims. Zoinks. Scott acquits cinema with a veiled insult while damning Nolan, an exemplar of the current filing cabinet style of montage, with high praise. This is because, among critics, film editing is the least understood and last considered culprit vis a vis why movies have become so arrhythmic and downright ascetic in effect. And I'm talking about the ones that indulge sex and violence most especially.

It's not about content. It's not about Sophia Loren sashaying down the street in a curve-kissing red dress. It's about the time, space and vantage point the filmmaker allows us to regard Sophia Loren sashaying down the street in a curve-kissing red dress.

Or a family dining with a murderer.

Or a man helping a woman brush the sand off her clothes and skin.

Or two friends visiting a grave when one of them is himself facing death.

Or a sensitive young actor listening to people ridicule him behind his back.

Scott focused on Nolan's lack of imagination, but that deficiency never posed much of problem on his early triumphs, Following and Memento, which were made when the dominant film culture was still in transition from a moviemaking outfit to a sweatshop for feature-length trailers. Go back and watch Memento now. You might be shocked at how much Nolan allows moments to accrue a certain weight and resonance in screen time; how relatively quiet the soundtrack; how close to actual, memorable feeling you get. Memento is a very spare film of nondescript interiors, back alleys, trailer parks, parking structures and storage sheds, but in the way it moves through time and space (with great sensitivity to the subjective experience of one character) it is the most sensual, groovin' flick of Nolan's career.

Sensuality in cinema is a fourth dimension that has little to do with what we actually, concretely see but what we feel in the moment; over time. We get to those feelings by the way a filmmaker moves our eyes around the frame and transitions from the universe of one shot to the universe of the next.

The audience that Cliffs Notes cinema groomed last decade is now too antsy for all that. Memento, released today, would be regarded as slow and too indulgent of character over plot. Yes, Memento. Yes, plot. Like cigarette addicts, Ho'wood's current clientele habitually crave plot delivered at a rapid clip from the lips of characters too busy to let you into their lives-- except where the scenario calls for some sort of emoting. These moments of pantomimed humanity are like the demographic pandering we expect from corporate billboards. Like those junk food or oil companies that  promote good health and clean living, they are a false front.

And just as a mask with no eye holes permits no window to the wearer's soul, these facades deplete the viewer's emotional intelligence, resulting in a more mercenary, bottom-line, smug, frivolous culture. Close ups everywhere, but very few faces.

Which brings me to my crackpot theory, that Black folks might just be the best equipped among us to save the movies, and pop culture at large.

Black folks know all about lost and stolen culture. We know all about living in the shadow of a disappeared history.

It took Malcolm X to awaken us to our own ignorance and unconscious suffering.

Who are you?
You don’t know!
Don’t tell me Negro, that’s nothin.’
What were you before the white man named you a Negro?
And where were you?
And what did you have?
What was yours?
What language did you speak then?
What was your name?

Where did it go?
Where did you lose it?
Who took it? And how did he take it?
What tongue did you speak?
How did the man take your tongue?
Where is your history?
How did the man wipe out your history?

These are the questions to ask filmmakers, critics, cineastes and regular moviegoers of a certain age. What kind of cinema did you have? Where did it go? How did you lose it? Who took it?

And how can you get it back?

[We'll have some answers in Part II.]