Sordid extensions of my damned soul . The term malevolent fate casts a world with either no meaning and a fate that results in an empty nihilistic universe.
Down city streets at night looking for love, or something like it. A squalid
chance for momentary bliss. Love or something like it. Under the lurid glow of
neon planets, in a firmament of gasolean fumes and hard luck. The pavement meets
my empty gaze and tiny stars of mica shine in an inverted gray sky. My shoes
shuffle and drag me on to nowhere. This is my universe. All the shadows are
mine. Not strangers nor intimate friends, but sordid extensions of my damned to
hell soul. The soft laughter of a woman somewhere off in another universe a stab
to the heart. Whispers and intimacy I ache for and never have. For others. Not
for me the easy familiarity of a life worth living. Somewhere not alone, not
broken, not sad beyond sadness. My shoes still shuffle dragging me nowhere.
“These city streets are poison. You walk and walk and they take you down. Down and out, a scrap of yesterday’s news swept into and out of the gutter by malevolent fate a dirty wind. You had all the angles tight. All settled. But that suitcase breaks open and those pretty dreams are strewn on the pavement just rags defiled by the grime under your shoes. She said she was with you. When was it? Yesterday or a thousand dead years gone? Stilettos as sharp as a flick-knife and as dangerous. Those eyes were not mysterious only jade cunning. She lied as she connived as she made love. You sap! You bought it and retail! My last cigarette. Inhale the smoke and numb the pain. Prove that you are still breathing. It’s dark and it’s cold, the streets slick with the last shower. Pull down your hat, turn up your coat collar, no-one knows you behind a week’s growth of beard. The concrete is jarring, every sorry bone in your body aches, your stomach growls, and your head spins. I need a shot. Down to my last dollar. The fur in your mouth is choking you. Bad times. Old times. Is it now or yesterday, or is it forever? A dead man walking.”
Electric nightmares in dark empty warehouses. Dank with the ocean’s chill and the blood of vengeance.
The rotting planks of a pier are suddenly shaken by a heavy thud and then by pounding footfalls. A running figure traverses the dull cone of light from a fog lamp affixed high on a post where the deck meets the shoreline.
The bent outline of a fugitive runs along a wharf in the macabre shadow of a looming gray hulk a brooding inert sentinel under an empty sky. A car door slams. The glimmering ebony saloon roars away, tires sliding atop the wet asphalt, and the headlights raucously stabbing the squalid shadows grown onto the mercantile mausoleums that hover at the perimeter.
Too late the sirens’ screeching cacophony cleaves the silence the careening car has left behind. More car doors slam. The harsh fevered intersecting headlights of the squad cars survey the scene revealing nothing.
Empty streets of stolen angst. The silent steel sentinels are specters of a hidden horror. A crippling step at a time. Your breathing is labored and the red flood is existence ebbing away. Stumbling and crashing back to the fountainhead. You knew this is where it started and ends. Alone. A dying creature of the long night of the sleeping city. You desperately try to hold it back but you can’t stem the tide of fate. Falling hard on the wet tar in the sordid yellow light of the streetlight’s waning, your head shatters into a thousand fragments of racing memories. A blissful high showers your prone body, a shimmering bundle of rags. Your mouth fills with sweet black honey, and you finally find a sort of peace, the gutter a soft pillow for staring at the stars. A sheltering sky of black oblivion falls gently towards you.
The midnight special thunders in. The pavement an echoing platform at the end of the line. All the way. No stops. Leaving in one minute. “All aboard”. No-one is left behind. All seats are reserved. Who made that reservation? And when? Was it God in his infinite indifference at year zero? Or was it your mother in boundless love calling you back to the womb as you were leaving it. Do something! Make it real. Make it happen like it never did before. Just once. Too late. One final useless effort to go back, then you give it up. Sirens scream. The wails of the condemned a dark chorus do futile battle with the rumble and hiss of the locomotive as it draws the carriages away in a dirty cloud of steam.
Freedom was fresh and bracing. The sky was blue. Not a cloud. The morning sun had not yet tempered the coolness of the night before. A new horizon.
My reverie was shattered by the sound of a car horn. There she was, the driver, ringlets of gold, and a cigarette held tightly by thin crimson lips. Her hands held the steering wheel and her eyes squinted as she peered at me through the smoke of the cigarette. She wasn’t smiling. Just peering with impatient eyes. They were black – the eyes. Limpid pools of dark angst and abandon. She knew the power of those eyes and held her stare. I dropped my gaze, picked up the almost empty valise – prison issue just like the sack of a suit I had been jumbled with – and shuffled towards the car, a blue Studebaker purring in anticipation of the expert caresses that would guide us out of here.
She leaned across the front seat to open the passenger door revealing two firm breasts held by a bodice of black lace. Her perfume was expensive. “You’re late”, I said. “Had to check the hotel room was ok”, she lied. She always lied. Lies for her were like breathing. The car pulled out onto the road, and was soon gliding at 60 over the blacktop. I looked out the window. New wheat and old houses. The same houses. The more things change the more the stay the same, my father used to say. “You haven’t changed”, I said, leering at her legs. The form of her perfect body was tightly held in a clinging dress which rode down her thighs to reveal more than was seemly. “It’s only been two years.” “Yeah. Two years. Felt more like twenty. And no visits from you, babe.” She shifted her arse in the seat and threw her cigarette out the car window. “I had to lay low. You know how it is.” “Sure”, I said with less than the required conviction, “a two your stretch isn’t much, but only if you’re not taking a rap. Where’s Johnny?” She turned and looked at me warily, “Waiting at the Club”. “Humph.”
We rode the highway in silence now. After two years, nothing more to say. Only the ache that wanted her as badly as ever. She avoided my gaze.
Asleep beside me. Her breathing soft as moonlight. She smelled of almonds.
The celestial camera zoomed out and took in the squalid room. The neon sign outside flickered stripes across our bodies. The smoke from my cigarette coiled upwards and was lost in the gloom of the dark ceiling. She stirred and whimpered words from a lost subterranean nightmare.
I stroked her hair soft and fair. She sighed and opened black wide eyes. She smiled an angel’s smile and took my cigarette. She inhaled deeply and blew the smoke through her exquisite nostrils, licked a flake off her redolent lips, and raising herself onto her elbow, peered at me with a tender fear. Throwing her long hair back, the habitual anger resurfaced. She returned the cigarette and sat up on the side of the bed.
She got up, found her clothes, and started to dress. I feigned the usual indifference and hid my pain. She moved into and out of the light, a specter already gone. Not looking at each other, we each nursed the scars of other celestial nights of empty dreams and furtive longing. Intimate strangers. Seeking refuge in lonely dives. A shot at forgetting and a chance of bliss.
She opened the door, hesitated, almost gave me a glance, shut the door softly a reproach, and was gone.
I walked to the window and watched her walk across the wet road into a death-like fog holding her arms to her body. She didn’t look back.
THE HANGED MEN DANCE On old one-arm, black scaffolding,The hanged men dance;The devil's skinny advocates,Dead soldiers' bones.Beelzebub jerks ropes about the necksOf small black dolls who squirm against the sky;With slaps, with whacks and cuffs and kicksHe makes them dance an antique roundelay!Excited jumping jacks, they join thin arms;Black organ lofts, their fretwork breastsThat once beat fast at beauteous damsels' charmsNow clack together in a perverse embrace.Hurrah the jolly dancers, whose guts are gone!About the narrow planks they jerk and prance!Beelzebub roars the rasping fiddles' song!Hop! They cannot tell the battle from the dance!Hard heels, that never wear out shoes!They've all put off their overcoat of skin;What's left beneath is hardly worth excuse -Their skulls are frail and white beneath the rain.A crow provides a crest for these cracked heads,A strip of flesh shakes on a skinny chin;They swing about in somber skirmishesLike heroes, stiff, their armor growing thin.And the breeze blows for the skeletons' ball!The gibbet groans like an organ of iron;In violet forests the wolves wail;The distant sky flames with hell's own fires!Oh, shake me these dark commanders down!Who slyly rake through broken fingertipsLove's rosary across their pale ribs:This is no monastery, you dead men!And there in the midst of the danse macabreOne wild skeleton leaps in the scarlet clouds,Stung with madness like a rearing horseWith the rope pulled stiff above his head.He tightens bony fingers on his cracking kneesWith squeals that make a mock of dead men's groans,And, like a puppet floating in the breeze,Whirls in the dance to the sound of clacking bones.On old one-arm, black scaffolding,The hanged men dance;The devil's skinny advocates,Dead soldiers' bones.-"The Hanged Men Dance," Arthur Rimbaud, very loosely translated by Paul Schmidt
That's the first time I've used that full title myself, and there's a reason for it. I just don't like that word. Jim Jarmusch famously said, paraphrasing Goebbels (by way of Godard, most likely): "When I hear the word 'independent', I reach for my revolver." I don't have too much of a problem with that word - politically in particular I think it has a strong, potent ring to it. While it's accrued some negative connotations in the film world - smallness, marginalization, unpalatability to wider audiences - it still strikes me as an appropriate term for films made outside the box, whether that box is financial or conceptual. But "indie" is another matter. Its twee, quirky shortening smacks of a marketing moniker, and the very fact that it shrinks the term "independent" only highlights those inherent drawbacks of the term I mentioned above (except perhaps for the unpalatability, as "indie" has proved quite popular in recent years).
Of course there's overlap between the indie music phenomenon and the indie film movement. Not so much at first, as in the 90s "indie movies" connoted dialogue-heavy low-budget features without much of an aesthetic at all. But the turning point probably came with 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums; Wes Anderson's childlike, referential, playful, and precocious style had a monumental influence on rapid growth of the quirky, "indie" aspects of the zeitgeist (particularly title and poster design). I actually think it's an exceptional film, despite its malign influence - it captured an elusive mood and sensibility which had never quite been articulated to this full extent, a fact which explains its persistent impact on pop culture (which is probably only matched in independent movie terms by Tarantino's roughly 10 years earlier). While according to "Indie is Dead?" the term is so indefinable and hard-to-pin-down that it's essentially meaningless, I'd submit that, like pornography, you know it when you see it.
Still, as the article points out, if the term is no longer defined by the very conditions which birthed it (i.e. actual independence from the industry, be it music or film) isn't it time to retire it, or at least radically redefine it? This seems to be what they're after with their title question - has "indie" become so ubiquitous, achieving an erasure of the original need for itself in the process, that it might as well declare "mission accomplished" and "game over"? This isn't what I meant to investigage with my own indie-is-dead article: for one thing, I think there may be the first stirrings of a movement away from the 00s form of "indie"; for another I think the phenomenon which the word applies to is still severely limited, despite its ubiquity. As I said to JAFB beneath a recent post:
I'd welcome a renewed underground but also a fresh cultural approach which neither eschews the mainstream nor cowtows to it, but rather redefines it the way the 60s counterculture did. Marginalization and fragmentation, imposed and self-willed, have lasted too long.And finally...death to the word "indie" itself! I was actually going to write an Examiner piece about this, pending a name change from "Indie Movie Examiner" to "Independent Movie Examiner." The word indie is so self-consciously quirky, twerpy, and wimpy. It reminds me of those aesthetically unappealing, stamp-size ads which used to bug me when I was a kid, eagerly flipping through the pages of the Boston Globe looking at the big posters for Jurassic Park or The Fugitive or (next summer) The Mask. Granted, many of these ads were for movies which actually turned out to be quite good (often better than the big-budget flicks I drooled over) but if my taste has changed, I still wish independent cinema wasn't so acquiescent in its marginalization. Think big, this is cinema! True, the dirt-cheap talkfests of the 90s are over but the overly stylized subculture movies of the 00s still haven't quite broken out of the ghetto.
Ultimately, the notion of independence - from both industrial and cultural norms - will have to transcend its own limitations, cast off the dead weight of the slight, cutesy term "indie", and prove itself not merely a watered-down or even reflexively contrarian "alternative" to the mainstream but a transcendence of it. The 60s counterculture became the dominant culture for a reason (demographics aside) - because it was unapologetic, stronger, more diverse, richer than the increasingly thin gruel of "adult" pop culture. Any similar achievements of the DIY scene and the offbeat ethos will have to achieve the same. With technology increasingly accessible, the kindling is there. The coming decade will see if the true fire of independence begins to blaze in full force, or if we're only able to warm ourselves by the increasingly pathetic flames flaring up here and there.
Just as Howard Zinn, the famed Boston University professor and historian who wrote The People's History of the United States, felt it was impossible to be "neutral" and undesirable to be "objective" about human history, so it's been near-impossible for anyone to be neutral about Zinn himself. The Left adored him; the Right loathed him. The historical community seemed split between those who felt he added a stirring chorus of voices to the historical choir (helping to popularize history amongst a general readership in the process) and those who rankled at his methods and tone, feeling that he was not playing by the proper rules of the game. When Zinn passed away a few weeks ago, of course, the emphasis was on the positive and the same is true of this documentary which was released around 2003, a time when Zinn's call for dissidence seemed more relevant than ever.Much as I enjoy elaborating and extrapolating, sometimes a simple blurb says it best. (Not that I'm going to keep it short myself here; in my defense, neither would Zinn - A People's History runs 682 pages!) In this case the blurb is J. Hoberman's. The Village Voice critic (himself of a definite leftward tilt, though not of the populist variety) wrote of the film, "Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller's fond portrait, less documentary than infomercial, is unrelentingly and in the end self-defeatingly positive -- albeit effective in showcasing Zinn's charismatic personality." That about sums it up - though I'd add that the doc is also hindered by an amateurish and rather ineffective style. Still, it's primary purpose is to provide a snapshot of Zinn's life and personality, and it does achieve this, particulary when it comes to the professor's early and middle years.As a rightward-leaning high school student (partly the contrarian in me, as most of my peers seemed to be liberals, and knee-jerk ones at that) I often found Zinn's work irritating. Contrary to the notion that Zinn's radical re-evaluation of history remains anathema in hidebound American education, A People's History was assigned reading in several of my classes. Open-minded despite my skepticism towards the left, and genuinely curious as to where they were coming from, I would dig into a fresh chapter eager for a bracing subversion of American mythology. But by the end of each I found myself wearied by the monotony of Zinn's focus on exploitation and victimization, the contrary stubbornness of Zinn's refusal to grant quarter to any American leader as anything other than an dictator in disguise, and mostly by the lack of an intellectual tension or complexity in the work, something I relished even then. Though I still appreciate this quality above all others, in history, in art, in just about anything, I'm much more open to Zinn's approach now.Re-reading A People's History in the wake of Zinn's death (I'm about 150 pages in at the moment) I no longer find it wearying but completely absorbing. The focus on the economic imbalance and abuse of those with less power seems more like a provocative and openly admitted bias, one which gives the narrative drive and clarity though it certainly works better in some passages than in others. (The colonial years are convincingly rendered via one long cry of moral outrage, directed at the barbarism of a greedy and ruthless culture whose cruelty was only matched by its hypocritical arrogance. However, when it comes to Revolutionary times, the author has trouble portraying Jefferson as essentially an elitist, one whose intellectual adventurousness and passion for liberty were basically beside the point. Even as Zinn struggles to demystify the words of the Declaration of Independence, the quoted passages remain stirring.)I mention this as a segue back into Zinn's character. Underpinning the seeming one-sidedness of his focus are two qualities which are often missing on the intellectual left: a personal complexity in terms of his relation to the country he's criticizing, and, conversely, a simplicity and moral straightforwardness which is in the best tradition of American radicalism. On the first note, Howard Zinn was an antiwar activist who had fought and killed in war, a fierce critic of air bombardment who had himself been a bombardier in World War II. His positions were not so much contradicted by his history, as necessitated by them; it's quite possible that if he could have re-lived his life he would not have served, but his story is far more compelling in the fashion it occurred: it gives him a moral authority which stems from humility, humanity, and experience. He is not hovering above what he condemns, pointing the finger from a place of purity (like some of the college kids who jeered at soldiers without ever having been in their shoes, either literally or conceptually).Likewise, Zinn was not an academic theorizing about the working classes after receiving a healthy dollop of Marxism, he was a slum kid who worked menial labor for years before attending college on the G.I. Bill (while struggling to support his growing family). Hence his championing of the underdog was not merely a self-loathing nose-thumbing at the bourgeoisie, as it seemed to be with so many sixties intellectuals. This may also explain his much-noted good cheer and patience with opposing views, at least according to those who experienced him as a teacher. His revisionism was bucked up by a history of patriotic service (however much he questioned it later), and - despite his unwavering criticism of those in power - a relative deficiency of personal bitterness (in the sense that Zinn tended to see almost everyone as tangled in the web, even to a certain extent the spinners). This leads to one of the film's most compelling moments (though it bungles the delivery, it can't really taint the fascination of the anecdote). In North Vietnam to receive some POWs whom the Communists have agreed to release, the representatives of the peace movement (including Father Berringer and Tom Hayden) are invited to sing, as is the tradition at Vietnamese gatherings. Zinn stands up and sings "America the Beautiful."
The later years, following Zinn's involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements, are not as compelling when presented in the documentary. Zinn's feud with BU president John Silber is a potential source of drama, but it's defused instantly when, after beginning to develop the conflict, the filmmakers tie the story up quickly with a rather rambling response by Zinn in a lecture hall. In this and a later speech, Zinn dismisses his critics through guilt-by-association (talking about a historian who criticized his work, he haltingly begins to engage the historian's criticism and then falls back on, "He supported Nixon" and the film leaves it at that). This was the favored tactic of Zinn's more right-wing enemies ("he's a Marxist" or "he's a radical leftist" therefore his arguments must be wrong) and it's no more satisfying coming from Zinn than from them. Indeed, as the filmmakers document Zinn's dogged dedication to dissidence, they ironically display the American left's descent into something of an ideological rut.Contrary to the teeming mass of freshly radicalized students we see in newsreel footage from the civil rights and Vietnam era, the crowds at the Iraq rallies and book presentations which close the film give the impression of having made up their mind long ago. Asked what she thought of Zinn's talk, one young woman says she liked it because "it basically confirmed everything I already thought." This is a far cry from Zinn's earlier intention to rattle the public's complacency and turn the way students and historians approached the past - and the present - on its ear. To be fair, Zinn himself did not want to preach to the converted; he's shown at one point inquiring, "Are there lots of people there who haven't made up their minds yet? 'Cause those are the people we need, the ones we want to reach." He's assured this is the case, yet in the crowds we see it looks like the usual suspects, clothed in the garb and speaking the language of the self-enclosed guardians of the flame. The heirs of the New Left are no longer new, and their world has become as sterile and fixed as that their progenitors rebelled against.Anyway, to the end Zinn remains a charismatic presence - and the film, narrated by Matt Damon (who famously name-dropped his Cambridge neighbor in Good Will Hunting), is most successful at giving that presence a channel through which to communicate. Whatever his flaws, the left today could use a healthy dollop of Zinn's good humor, moral clarity, and most importantly and suprisingly, his all-Americanness. Zinn's ideal Left was less one which thrived in a brooding marginalization and alienated sense of "difference" than one which sought to demolish senses of difference, to establish an underlying humanity, and to reclaim the United States for "the people". A mere Marxist catchphrase for many (their particular misanthropy belying their vague anti-elitist rhetoric) the notion of "the people" seemed to have real meaning for Zinn. At his best - which is what I'd like to focus on here, given his recent passing and my renewed appreciation of his work - he can remind even those skeptics among us of radicalism's moral foundations, and constructive potential.
Posted by MovieMan0283 at 10:30 AM 4 comments
Labels: movie review, politics, response