norman douglas

12 Years Slave reviewed by Norman Douglas

Run, Piggy, Run! Nigger’s Gonna Gitcha!12 Years A Slave, a film review by Norman Douglas

Directed by................................................. Steve McQueen

Screenplay by............................................ John Ridley

Based on the book Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup


Chiwetel Ejiofor.......................................... Solomon Northup

Adepero Oduye........................................... Eliza

Benedict Cumberbatch............................. Ford

Liza J. Bennett............................................ Mistress Ford

Paul Dano.................................................... Tibeats

J.D. Evermore.............................................. Chapin

Michael Fassbender.................................. Edwin Epps

Sarah Paulson............................................ Mistress Epps

Lupita Nyong'o............................................ Patsey

Scott Michael Jefferson............................. Master Shaw

Alfre Woodard............................................. Mistress Shaw

Garret Dillahunt.......................................... Armsby

In 1968, LSU Press published a historically annotated version of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853) co-edited by Louisiana State University at Alexandria historian Sue Eakin and historian Joseph Logsdon of the University of New Orleans. Sub-titled Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana, this reprint enjoyed popularity among students and civil rights activists alongside other 19th century texts by black writers and activists like Frederick Douglass and James Weldon Johnson. Originally published in 1853, Northup’s tale appeared not long after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and enjoyed a wide readership, especially among abolitionists. Last year, a film directed by Turner award-winning artist Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender and a sweaty- and furrow-browed Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Solomon Northup saw wide release in cinemas, and is currently nominated for several awards by the Academy of film and theater artists in America, having already won best picture from the judges of the British Academy last week.

As in the book that gives the film its story, we follow the tragic events that tear Solomon Northup—born a Free Negro in New York State, where he lives as a carpenter and fiddler with his wife and children—away from freedom to the hell of bondage in the deepest South of Louisiana’s Red River region. The film opens on his first day cutting cane, chronologically—we later learn—near the end of his captivity. That night, he attempts to fashion a pen from a thin stalk, and ink from the blackberries he saves from his meal. The effort proves fruitless (forgive the pun), as do the amorous advances of a Negress next to whom he lies abed. Instead, her efforts spark our hero’s recall of his real love for his wife, at which point the title appears typeset on paper, presumably the title page of the manuscript the story follows.

At this point, we’re treated via flashback to the happy life Northup enjoys in New York: applauded as fiddler at a square dance for well-to-do whites, tucking in his son and daughter, bidding his wife and kids farewell as she goes off to cook for another (presumably white) family, and finally, his introduction as an exceptional player and community member to a couple of circus impresarios who offer him good money to join their Washington DC sojourn. Unhappily, his benefactors get Solomon drunk, and he ends up shackled in a dank cell, an ugly turn of events that this reviewer saw coming, knowing nothing of the story before this screening. Paddled mercilessly to silence his protests that he’s a free man, Solomon peers through the bars of his cell and cries for help as the camera rises up from the prison’s alley to reveal the capital city’s skyline in the distance, the congressional dome under construction.

Transported south by boat, he meets two others he deems of equal mettle: one is swiftly dispatched as he moves to defend a woman, the other suddenly turns “Tom,” rushing to his “Massa” as he bawls in contrition. Sold to the hapless plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a mother separated from her kids—her mulatto daughter judged particularly valuable by a despicable seller of slaves named Freeman, in a brief but unnervingly convincing portrayal by Paul Giamatti—Solomon is renamed Platt. Though Ford is relatively sympathetic, his head carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) butts heads with Solomon. Dano quickly reaffirms his chops as an actor here, singing a capella after ordering the new niggers to clap in accompaniment, “Run nigger run, paddy gonna gitcha / Run nigger run, ya better git away,” the verse continuing as the scene changes to Master Ford delivering a civilizing sermon to his assembled property. Ultimately, the tension between Tibeats and Northup leads to a dust-up, the slave besting the overseer. Enraged, Tibeats nearly lynches Northup, but the head overseer stops him. Even so, he doesn’t cut Solomon down, and we watch for several harrowing minutes—hours in film time—as he stands on tiptoe to avoid hanging himself, while the rest of the slaves go about their business. When Master Ford finally returns, he cuts his prized slave down, but must quickly sell him to the far more ruthless slaver, Master Epps, as a means of protecting him from Tibeats’ certain, fatal vengeance.

Solomon’s situation deteriorates at Epps’ place, with the tension assuming a more carnal air: the Master’s fickle and lascivious attentions to the dark and lovely, pubescent and petite Patsy fuel his wife’s jealous ire—at the same time, one can’t help suspect the Mistress harbors her own lusty longing for Solomon. This steamy brew simmers and boils over often enough to keep viewers on edge for most of the rest of the film, a maddening concupiscence the actors convey with well-oiled aplomb against the steamy visual tableaus McQueen cuts in of the lush landscape. Louisiana’s fertile swamps appear a perfect Eden unduly perverted into a vast and foreboding country in innocent collusion with the dark hearts and minds that dwell there and truck no escape. Once, when Solomon starts to run instead of going to market, he chances on a clearing. There, a handful of white men have two Negroes bound hand and foot. “Where you going, boy?” the ringleader quizzes a startled Solomon. When he answers “To market,” the cracker kicks Solomon in the butt, admonishes him to get there fast and, never missing a beat, the two slaves are strung up.

Eventually, Northup meets a sympathetic white, a Canadian named Bass (Brad Pitt), who gets a letter to Solomon’s white friend and neighbor, Parker. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley create this character for the film from the real life Henry Northup, the owner who freed Solomon’s father and the man who pursued Northup’s release through the courts. Apparently, the filmmakers thought this would be simpler for audiences to digest. Backed by the local sheriff, Parker arrives at Epps’ plantation and removes Solomon post-haste over the angry owner’s threats and protestations. Back home, Solomon meets his grandson, whom his daughter has christened after him, and the film ends with the family engaged in a clumsy-looking group hug.

Twelve Years A Slave somehow comes across as a necessary film, though why it strikes critics as more necessary than Django: Unchained, I’m not sure. When the latter film appeared, there were cries about the frequency of the word “nigger,”a complaint I haven’t noticed about this film, though every character uses it. Transported downriver early in the film, as Solomon and his two high-minded pals plot their resistance, one of them even says, “Three against the whole crew is impossible; the rest of these is niggers, slave-born.” In fact, this remains Solomon’s perspective throughout the film. He speaks to none of his fellow slaves—evidently, they are not his fellows—apart from the two women, Eliza and Patsy. Eliza, he berates to “Shut up” her ceaseless weeping over her lost babies. When she counters by telling him he’s no better than Master’s prized livestock, he speaks of his scars, his will to survive. She goes on weeping, which ultimately leads the Mistress to sell her away: “I can’t abide such depression; it’s not healthy.”

With Patsy, his only conversation arises when she begs him to end her life, her misery. “Why ask for my damnation?” Solomon argues. And although she tells him “God forgives mercy,” he refuses.

A third black woman, Mrs. Shaw, married to a planter, also speaks to Solomon and Patsy about knowing “the predilections and peculiarities” of the Master. But she speaks in an idiom that mocks both master and slave, exuding a command of all their circumstances that astounds Northup and amuses her husband. Other than these few scenes, Northup speaks only to the whites, a faithful representation of the book. It’s this rather telling perspective that makes Twelve Years A Slave far more politically charged than anyone I’ve read since seeing the film seems to have noticed.

Of course, pointing out Northup’s self-consciousness with respect to class would mean broaching a topic Americans refuse to acknowledge “by any means necessary.” All the violence and all the different ways of saying “nigger” are more than enough to validate American consensus that slavery was bad. The film presents this with a raw and harrowing explicitness we’ve come to expect from our rap music and our horror films. Concentrating on the faithfulness of the film’s depictions of this rather standard fare is what gives this film an impact less powerful than that of Django. In Tarantino’s film, the pure fantasy delivered in the story—its comic book arc and resurrected hero—are elemental truths that forced debate and outrage. Django escapes castration, a punishment all of McQueen’s sexual innuendo never hints at. Of course, Northup doesn’t write about castration in his narrative, but more’s the pity. What has America’s Black History been if not a history of castration? And not only the castration of black men, but the fear of castration displayed by white men in their perpetuation of the myth of big black dick. Tarantino went there. McQueen does not. That’s why McQueen’s film—which really tells black folks no more about our history than Tarantino’s (Tarantino simply "Superflied" It)—will win some Oscars. Like many Academy winners, it apologizes to the right people in the right manner, and the class question remains glossed over once again. Where Django was full of types, McQueen is careful to—and adept at—portraying individual personalities. Thus, the history of individual personalities places the history of class struggle behind the curtain with the great Oz, and the history of slavery becomes a story about a bad owner, a mean overseer and a twisted wife versus a good owner, a nice Canadian and a Northern friend who come to the aid of a wronged and worthy fiddler who happens to be Negro. A very well made film, with a very calculated effect, Twelve Years A Slave will eventually get the critical beat-down it deserves—not for its rich, sweeping cinematography, not for its authentic soundtrack of fiddling, field chants, work songs, spirituals, and ambient scoring, not for its believable portrayals of antebellum whites and a proud, free Negro—but its avoidance of class distinctions.

Since I saw Twelve Years A Slave in February, a month begrudgingly or mockingly or derisively or annoyingly known as Black History Month, I could turn to a short essay I’d just posted about Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church. In it, I include the following quote from my primary source about Allen’s dissatisfaction with the class divisions among free blacks in the City of Brotherly Love, about a decade before the events recounted in Twelve Years begin:

The top 5 percent of the free black population was composed of an economic elite. Below them was a middling group of small property owners who practiced trades and ran small shops. At the bottom simmered a much larger group who rented squalid homes in alleys and courtyards and possessed negligible personal property. In stark statistical terms, there were roughly one thousand black worthies and fourteen thousand “poor people” of color in Philadelphia by the time of the first major abolitionist census in the 1830s. A decade before that, some members of the underclass had already begun turning away from Allen’s lectures on moral rectitude, piety, and temperance. [my italics]

— Richard S. Newman, “Revolutionary Black Founders,

Revolutionary Black Communities,”

in Young, Nash, Raphael, editors, p. 315.

Sifting through the comments posted concerning the film to various reviewers on the internet, I noticed that maybe a third of them (according to my purely intuited, non-scientific tally) felt that something was missing from the film, despite its well done, welcome message. I’d wager that this class element is what’s lacking, an aspect Northup’s inability to address other blacks clearly reflects. Writing in the New Yorker, critic David Denby notices this glaring class omission, “But the movie leaves us grieving for the thousands who never knew freedom, who were never able to tell their stories for future generations.” [David Denby, “Fighting to Survive,” New Yorker, 21 Oct 2013.] Still, he doesn’t know what to make of it, doesn’t even articulate what he means, since—like too many Americans—he’s loathe to bring up class at this point. That’s okay; when we do finally get around to seriously talking about class in this country, we can steal the tune sung by Paul Dano’s character, John Tibeats, reworking it so: “Run, piggy, run, niggers gonna gitchu / Run, piggy, run, ya better git away…”

The Great Gatsby reviewed by Norman Douglas

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s now classic novel, The Great Gatsby, has once again been brought to the screen. This time, director Baz Luhrman has given contemporary movie hunks Leonardo diCaprio and Tobey Maguire the opportunity to give life to Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age tragedy. The story is simple enough. Yale graduate Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) gives up his dream of becoming a writer to join the frenzied bond business thriving on Wall Street during the Roaring Twenties. Maintaining a low profile at the firm of one Walter Chase, Nick moves into a modest cottage in the town of West Egg, Long Island, where he can enjoy his off hours without the distractions of the city. Ironically, his humble home sits in the shadow of the “colossal castle” owned by Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire of whom he knows nothing, other than the fact that he hosts impossibly lavish parties each and every weekend of the summer that serves as the story’s timeframe. Across the bay, Nick can see the massive waterfront mansion where his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), live with their toddler daughter—of whom we see nothing until the closing act. From Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a ladies’ tennis pro who keeps Daisy company (which Jordan seems to prefer over the company of men), Nick learns that Gatsby’s bought his property and throws his wild parties with the sole intention of attracting Daisy, whose loving attentions he first sampled five years earlier, before her marriage to Tom. Asked to stage a reunion, Nick complies, and a passionate affair ensues between the long lost lovers. Prior to this introduction, Tom drags Nick along to The Valley of the Ashes, an industrial wasteland between Long Island and the city where Tom woos the wife of his auto mechanic, Wilson. Under the guise of buying Mrs. Myrtle Wilson (Ila Fisher) a puppy, Tom takes her and Nick to a garish, red wallpapered tenement flat. As Nick sits alone in the sitting room, Tom and Myrtle go at it like the beast with two backs. A few other guests arrive, including Myrtle’s sister, Katherine, who immediately cozies up to Nick. Our erudite narrator refuses her affections, a behavior he repeats without comment for the entire film. As the carousing escalates, Tom and Myrtle emerge from their bedroom romp and get wasted to the extent that Myrtle brings up Daisy. His dander instantly raised, Tom orders her not to mention Daisy’s name. When she responds, chanting “Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” Tom clocks Myrtle in the kisser. Apologizing, Tom picks her up and holds her, and the festivities continue full tilt.

The rest of the story is built around the gradual unveiling of the mysterious source of Gatsby’s fortune. Everyone, including Gatsby himself, regales Nick with myths and speculations about the millionaire’s past: at various times, he’s called a thief, an assassin for the Kaiser, a German spy, a murderer, the heir to a vast Midwestern fortune, and even, according to one old guest at one of his parties, a fabrication. In the end, it turns out that he’s profited—along with a Jewish gangster named Meyer Wolfsheim—from the sale of alcohol through drugstores in one of Prohibition’s bizarre loopholes. Tom exposes this fact during the film’s climax, discrediting Gatsby as a common gangster and ruthless bootlegger once finally certain that “Mr. Nobody from nowhere” is making love to Daisy, his wife. Taunted to the breaking point, Gatsby nearly clobbers Tom, but restrains himself. Rattled, Gatsby and Daisy flee the Gotham hotel room wherein this impromptu party has so completely deteriorated, and head for home. On the way, Daisy takes the wheel, only to kill Myrtle in a hit and run incident when the unhappy mechanic’s wife—believing Gatsby’s car is Tom’s, and tries to stop it after a row with her husband over the source of a pearl necklace he could have never paid for. Convinced that Gatsby was driving, and given his name by Tom, who stops at the garage in the aftermath of the tragedy, Wilson later goes to Gatsby’s home and kills him. He then kills himself. The tabloids paint Gatsby as Myrtle’s killer, adding that she was his mistress. A pariah, only Nick attends his funeral, and Daisy and Tom go on a trip to Europe. Incensed that the only truly great man he ever knew has been dragged through the muckraking tabloid headlines in death, rather than shown the reverence and respect Nick believes he merits to the end, Nick sits alone with the coffin in the cleaned out castle.

The film makes Nick the story’s omnipresent narrator, a device that underscores the fact that he’s writing it all down as a curative at the suggestion of his psychiatrist. After all, Nick wants to be a writer and, apparently, losing Gatsby has pushed him to check into a sanitarium. It’s there that the film actually opens, a shot of the nuthouse gates foreshadowing the images to come of Gatsby’s gates, imported from Italy. In a nice use of special effects, the film is bracketed by a shot of the crepuscular blue-tinted island of Manhattan inundated by a blizzard of white typewriter letters. At other times, Nick’s handwriting is projected onto the walls, effectively displaying his passion not only for writing, but for his subject. One can’t help but wonder about Nick’s amity for Gatsby. Little as he knows about the man, he is ever faithful—when Gatsby’s butlers give a thuggish beatdown to one of his party guests, Nick watches, impassive, as the camera moves away from the violence and then moves in on the shutting gates of the estate, which bear the motto “ad finem fidelis,” or faithful to the end. Nick’s rejection of each of the liberated women who move on him suggests feelings for Gatsby not only run deep, but remain buried there. Whenever in the company of Gatsby and Daisy, it’s hard for Nick to keep from looking on: he sits between them at their reunion, then suddenly rushes off. He accompanies Daisy on her trysting liaison’s at Gatsby’s home, occupying himself by peering at them across doorways, over balconies, through windows, etc. Since Daisy’s his cousin, Nick’s sexual interests are certainly unconventional—be they for Daisy or for Jay Gatsby. My money is on the latter.

In this sense, Gatsby is a story of unrequited love all around. Jordan, the tennis champ can’t pursue the married Daisy, but Daisy hardly notices. Apparently bisexual, Jordan’s guarded interest in Nick also reaps no fruits and, in the end, Nick’s flat out dismissal of her sends her off in a tizzy. Myrtle’s affections for Tom are doomed by his patriotic devotion to the institution of marriage. Tom’s frustrated hunt for taboo thrills are abated by his bigoted adherence to the strictures of upper class protocol. Myrtle’s husband, Wilson, is thwarted in his effort to maintain a happy home by her wish to escape into Tom’s comfortable domain. Daisy, shackled by the vows she’s made to Tom and her role as a mother, prevents herself from breaking these chains to be with Tom. And Nick, having cast aside his youthful dream of writing the great American novel, maintains his friendship for Gatsby despite any and all transgressions in order to be close to the object of a closeted love he doesn’t dare admit. This is the tangled web of strife—strife derived from the uncontrollable urges his characters believe is love—F Scott Fitzgerald weaves in Gatsby. Director Baz Luhrman creates a spectacular world of rich colors and quick pacing that he overlaps visually and sonically to create this overriding sense of fragile humans bedazzled by the glitz and promise offered by desire, much to our lament. As much as his sweeping camera movements seem obvious in the party scenes, he continues to keep our gaze twisting and turning during the more intimate scenes, as well. This works to keep our interest, our eyes full of visual candy, and also succeeds at putting us off-guard; the sense of being on edge, on thin ice, or in a cabin with the water three feet high and rising maintains throughout the film. In tandem with Nick’s often erudite voiceover observations and surmises closely intercut with rapid-fire dialogue that abounds with the witty quips and sharp demi-slang that peppered the conversation of Jazz Age socialites, the pacing rarely falters. What seemed a short story stretched to feature length in the Redford-Kinason film has become a nearly faithful interpretation of a period, if not the book itself. In fact, although he’s relied on fewer details from the book, Luhrman’s picture is a much richer depiction. And despite the constant narration by Carraway, he’s carefully drawn his cast into presenting a work of skillfully balanced characterizations that come across as a well-nuanced ensemble effort. On closer inspection, while there are a number of group scenes that each achieve a singular dynamic, this effect is the result of a practiced auteur on top of his game. As much as he’s clearly allowed the actors to bring their craft to bear, Luhrman’s layering of cinematic and storytelling elements and techniques confirm his ultimate control of every last aspect involved in the filmmaking process. The only complaint I have is with the forced blending of hip-hop and rap with jazz melodies. Such musical mixing has been done before by many others, but never to my liking. Perhaps this is a personal bias that others overlooked. That said, much as I hate to admit it, Luhrman’s Gatsby is big budget film at its contemporary best. I won’t be surprised if it grabs a slew of awards, and I’m sure it will find its way into many a filmmaking curriculum to come.

James Turrell Reviewed by Norman Douglas

James Turrell at the Guggenheim June 21–September 25, 2013

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street) New York, NY 10128-0173

212 423 3587

Review by Norman Douglas

All that any critic can do is to articulate the chain of referents that occupy the mind as a result of a particular experience. Some pretend that this is a variation on cause and effect, the object observed being the cause and the critical subject, its effect. Such a position follows a host of assumptions that writers like me no longer subscribe to. While one may behold an object, that object hardly causes one's response to it. What's in the eye of the beholder is the sum of lived experience, a known quantity we call subjectivity. At the same time, the subjectivity of the object equally derives from its conception. Further, its "experience" incorporates the subjectivity of its creator. In this way, subjectivity is shared experience: this text intersects with subjectivities that share this moment, this event. Think of mythic characters, whose personae are wrapped as much in their own experiences as in their forbearers' — Minerva, goddess of wisdom, is born from Jupiter's head, Aphrodite, goddess of beauty is mother of Eros, god of love. Subjectivity is effectively a contemporary way of revisiting the mythic, essential approach of natural philosophers — think Socrates and Bacon, daVinci and Bruno, Galileo — who practiced before the modern Arts and Sciences schism gave us the specialist. This conflux of time and space expresses itself through a symbol set following the hidden laws that pertain to the light shed thereon: informed observation transforms viewer and viewed. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out: "electric light is pure information."

When I first encountered the sky room at PS1 in Queens about twenty years ago, I had no idea who had created this singular piece of art. Hell. I wasn’t really sure that it was an artwork. To my eyes, it resembled a beautiful accident. Incomprehensibly, a room void of the roof that should have completed it — an "empty ceiling" looming overhead — transported me directly into the presence of an intangible entity. Previously the sky existed outside the range of ordinary experience, hovering high above the space of our daily activities, the place wherein we draw each breath, the air between heaven and earth. Now, the same sky reached all the way down to the unseen rooftop and continued straight through it. This opening offered all who entered this "sky room" a fleeting — and entirely robust — taste of the infinite.

Knowing nothing of the person who had pondered and successfully calculated the means of lowering this intractable and nominally inaccessible expanse to a locus so tangible, I — and several of my art-influenced peers — assigned him the same art-pedigree as Gordon Matta-Clark. Both men sectioned architectures in ways that brought to mind Henri Lefebvre's thesis that there are no borders in space. What borders exist are imposed by economics, which perpetuates the lie of scarcity through delimitation, by naming and the assignment of values. By reconfiguring our experience of architecture, removing its limit, infinity now felt as if within one's reach (though, in fact, and of course, it was not)... Imponderable impossibilities became possible without taking any real shape; the very rectangular airway actively defied its quadrilateral. Well, it was hard to know what to think: apparently, a simple hole not only underscored the porous quality of its subjectivity — rendered diffuse — literally shot through the roof.

Predisposed to view the contents of PS1 according to its architectural descriptor (museum), my mind hung fast to the army of superlatives traditionally reserved for the proven ranks of storied painters. In particular, Turner came to mind, unbidden as painter while remembered for his studies in light. For months thereafter — maybe years — I told others about the experience, this strange, quasi-miraculous, occasional installation guaranteed to blow some corner of your mind (induce vertigo, or cause you to reflect on the color of the sky or force you to reassess the infinite or the tangibility of light or the confinement of infinite space)... It took a while to remember the guy's name, the man responsible for an oddity as technically simple as an hour of demolition work that precedes renovation. Only here, the renovation stopped at the demolition, highlighted it, framed it; this renewal added nothing new, instead renewed the available perspective that remained after the physical subtraction of a ubiquitous infrastructure, unveiled the sky as the hyper-connected superstructure that somehow anchors each rooftop to the imponderable regions above. Once out of the city, the sky unites us, the light gives us shape, and the name of James Turrell fit into my selective memory.

Turrell never struck me as an artist. Beyond art and science is the aesthetic realm the Greeks understood as an awakening—not aesthetics as a matter of taste, but as an instant of total consciousness, a moment in which light and being trump time and space to expose the holistic sensation of life itself, an integrated interstice that links all, the way valences exchange across organic chemistry, a doorway through which we apperceive the unspeakable. Having discovered his name, the PS1-moment could be recounted with certain authority. Unwittingly, I fell into the trap I feel most recently laid for me inside the doors of the Guggenheim and its sanctified offering of the natural philosopher’s eerily truncated creation.

The contemporary media is full of Turrell’s story of late. The New York Times magazine endeavored to publish an exhaustive profile of Turrell as artist on the eve of this three-venue, cross-country exhibition ("How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet," by Wyl S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine, June 13, 2013). Nearly ten years ago, a friend and I stopped at Marfa on our own cross-country jaunt, where we inquired about access to the famed Roden Crater (as well as DeMaria's lightning fields), but no invite was extended. Here in NY, I ventured to the Guggenheim to gaze at Turrell's centerpiece. A site-specific intervention that embellishes Frank Lloyd Wright's Rotunda with LED lights. What strikes me is the absence of any sense of chance. The effort seems contrived, a set-up, a well-executed hoax to obfuscate the depth and breadth of what concerns him. It puts me in mind of David Hammons' "Concerto in Black and Blue" at Ace Gallery, when another young aspiring artist wondered if Hammons could "fill the space." With thumb-activated LEDs as the only light source, spectators were free to make of the darkened, cavernous and multi-chambered gallery space and their lights what they would—chance encounters, trysts, misdemeanors all went on in the gallery for the show's run, all enacted by the visitors. "Turrell's the guy who gave me the Prix de Rome," Hammons told me recently (The Prix De Rome for Sculpture, 1991, awarded by the American Academy of Rome). "I was so nervous, I squeezed my hands together under the table so no one could see me shake." He need shake no more.

Infusing his title with the name of Aten, ancient Egyptian representation of the solar deity, Turrell's "Aten Reign" feels like a top-down experience of light that vigorously compels the visitor to assume a submissive position reminiscent of the atmosphere of cathedrals across Western Europe during the height of tourist season. The glut of tourists when I attended—early on a Wednesday—may have had something to do with this, their eagerness to plan the next attraction ever-apparent, even as they furtively or boldly took photos destined for facebook (defying the guards’ imprecations to the contrary). Not that the piece seems more compelling than a slow animation through the half-dozen colors in a prismatic spectrum, each subjected to the Photoshop gradient scale. Not that there is an absence of technical expertise and precision. On the contrary, the work is clearly exacting.

Unfortunately, my visit took place during the week that one of the side exhibits was closed due to technical difficulties. That closure may account for why the line for the other work stretched out into the hall and around the screened-in balcony. Somehow, the few moments I attempted to queue up in the rear filled me with more dread and apprehensiveness than anticipation of the meditation the museum brochures herald with self-laudatory pride. Whoever has an interest in art cannot begrudge the institutional contribution to culture, but the canonization of Turrell was a representation of something far afield from the subjective realm of "Meeting" (the name of the permanent PS1 piece, from 1986). It seems the quiet Quaker has thrown his lot in with the pomp and pageant of exotic and remote imperial culture. A pharaoh and his followers — or even his elite opposition — may comfortably reclaim the spectacular view atop the ziggurat, but the mythopoeia eludes us here, and we experience the line above all. The tourists are put in mind of last night's line for the theater, of beating tonight's line for dinner, trade ill-timed punch lines from old jokes.

Raised in a Quaker milieu, Turrell talks about how his grandmother’s insistence that he close his eyes to witness the light within never made sense to him. Instead, he focused on the light around and between us. One can clearly go on forever about light – both religion and quantum physics maintain that all is but light, remind us that light unifies us from horizon to horizon and beyond, the way stars that may no longer exist shine on us from a distant past. In the end, Turrell’s subject matter – the light – reaches beyond his lifetime and ours, and concerns the immortal stuff that binds us as it promises to set us free. A man like Turrell is not constrained by the success or failure of source material that few bother to investigate. With lost loves and seventy years behind him, this is not the output of an artist, but the province of those once called natural philosophers, “cryptographers studiously deciphering the works of nature... in a post-Newtonian universe.” (From the editor’s “Notes” on “Eureka” by Edgar Allan Poe, collected in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Beaver, editor, Penguin Classics, 1976)

Thanks to Samantha Weiss Media & Public Relations Associate Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

James Turrellis organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Leadership Committee forJames Turrellis gratefully acknowledged for its generous support, including Lisa and Richard Baker, Pace Gallery, Almine Rech Gallery, Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, 425 Park Avenue/Simone and David W. Levinson, and those who wish to remain anonymous.

Additional support is provided by the Affirmation Arts Fund.

Interview of John Farris by Norman Douglas

*John Farris* Interviewed by Norman Douglas, 10 October, 2010

I met John Farris in 1983, not long after moving to the Lower East Side. Tina Carstensen was a budding poet and a teacher at the nursery school on Avenue D, and she introduced at Vazac Bar on the corner of Seventh Street and Avenue B. Also known as Horseshoe because of its U-shaped bar, actors Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone—then with Squat Theater, as well as regulars at 8 BC, the performance space a couple of blocks away—were two of the main bartenders, along with the brothers Hylfeldt of the new wave band, Tav Falcon and Panther Burns. The spot was a regular meeting place for a group of writers who included Emily Carter, Darius James, B. Cold, and others who frequented Rick Van Valkenburg's Neither/Nor. But most of what I think of Farris a writer, teacher—and maybe a little of our friendship—can be read in the transcript of the interview we did in mid-October of last year. Tribes was hosting a group reading of The Ass's Tale by the Unbearables and friends that night. I'm told an old ghost or two dropped by in the early part of the night, but my date and I arrived late so, I can't swear by hearsay. As long as it took me to transcribe this recording, a few more ghosts may be lurking in wait. Take heed...

FARRIS: I started drawing!

DOUGLAS: What made you start drawing?

FARRIS: Those people downstairs, when I saw what they were doing.

DOUGLAS: Oh, you saw all that stuff in the gallery and figured, “Man, who put this nasty shit up?”

FARRIS: Awful! That shit is ugly, man. I said to myself, “Damn, I could do that!”

DOUGLAS: How long have you been doing it?

FARRIS: Oh, about six years.

DOUGLAS: You still have some poems coming out of you. Right?

FARRIS: I had a show already. I sold some of those heads over there. I do these heads, too. But those are perishable because I didn’t go to the art store and get the last tape. I got it from the hardware store, so the humidity made them unravel. But I sold some to collectors. I sold two to David Hammons, and I sold one to Paul--Andrew’s brother [the Castrucci brothers ran A & P, one of the first artist-run galleries in the early Eighties’ East Village]—and a couple more. I sold those for 150 apiece. And I sold a couple of drawings. My show was called “Dear John," like "Dear Theo."

DOUGLAS: Damn! [unintelligible] drawing like [unintelligible].

FARRIS: Oh, you like that? I was ready to throw that away.

DOUGLAS: Are you serious?

FARRIS: Yeah. I'm looking at it, and it's too narrative.


FARRIS: I didn't want that.

DOUGLAS: It's amazing.

FARRIS: Well, there are a bunch of good ones in there. These are all recent. I make somewhere between three and nine drawings a day. So, there's all kinds of things.

DOUGLAS: Is there a difference between drawing and writing in terms of how you feel about expressing yourself?

FARRIS: Well, didn't you hear me say--when you first got here--that I was tired? But I can still do some drawing. When you came in, I was kind of grumpy, because I was so exhausted. But that's the difference. When I'm very tired, I can draw because I don't have to think about it. I may be laying down. I can even get in the bed. If something flashes in my head, I get up and I do it. A lot of them, I sketch from the morning paper.

The process of writing is involved. I have to think. Drawing, I don't have to think. That's it, to make a long story short.

DOUGLAS: So, does it feel more liberating, or is it just a different means of expression.

FARRIS: It's more liberating. In fact, I think that if I had started this when I was younger--I did _try_ to draw when I was a kid--but my brother, who was two years older than me could draw. But he was jealous of me, and he would say, "You know you can't draw!" So, I didn't do it.

DOUGLAS: So, you believed him like a little brother.

FARRIS: Yeah. And I didn't do it. But if I had kept drawing, I never would've... I probably would have written, but my primary thing would be art. That's how I emote towards it.

DOUGLAS: Your mind would have been totally different now.

FARRIS: Yeah. I don't go to museums. I have art books. I don't look at those books. This stuff is in my head. Andrew was just saying that it's amazing how much I've improved. I still love good writing. Not necessarily poetry. I like fiction. I'm talking about literature. Not criticism, history, stuff like that. I like fiction that's satirical.

DOUGLAS: You've always been into satire?

FARRIS: Always

DOUGLAS: How do you think that the pursuit of drawing would have given you a different outlook on life and art?

FARRIS: Well, the satire is probably yet my response to my brother. And then, to people in general. I tend to be satirical about their responses to me. It's funny, because I'm so grumpy, but humor is my bag. But, I'll tell you how I started this [drawing]. They were working on this building. They were in here. In fact I was writing another novel. It's in there [indicates adjoining room]. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't write. I was in here while they were working, renovating my whole place. And I couldn't think. And I started making cartoons. That was the beginning of it. It was a response. Here's a cartoon right here.

DOUGLAS: [reading] What do you mean you've given up Hope? It was only last week you were going to marry her.

FARRIS: It's a light thing.


FARRIS: I did one...

DOUGLAS: So, the punning is still in there.

FARRIS: Yeah. I did one--my ex-wife came over and took it--but this gentleman's standing outside and the sign says Toyota and the guy is talking to the salesman and he says "My wife won't give me a divorce, so I'm thinking of getting her a car." That was when they were having problems with Toyota. Then, there's one over there that has this old guy with an older lady--they're elderly. And he says, "We just got married. We're going to Viagr--I mean, Niagara Falls for our honeymoon." I sold a bunch of them. The cartoons and the heads were the hit of the show.

DOUGLAS: Let's backtrack a bit. Talk about how your relationship with your brother affected you and your life, your art.

FARRIS: We're both bastards. And we're bastards from different fathers. And for some reason, I was never told who my father was. Nor was my brother. For some reason, I never asked. My cousin, Robert, he was like a father, and he related to me like that. He didn't relate to my brother like that. So that created a situation that was contentious.

DOUGLAS: And you still felt that entering into adulthood.

FARRIS: My brother had a problem with heroin. He was a very bright guy. And, you know I went to jail for marijuana. They gave me three years for some marijuana I didn't even have. This guy, Dick Whalen [sp?]...

DOUGLAS: This is about 1950-something?

FARRIS: 1959. I was over in Sheridan Square hanging with Dick Whalen. His father owned shoe stores. We're out there smoking pot. And these two guys come up there where we're hanging out. We're over in the dugout by Bleecker Street. Over there at Bleecker and West Broadway. Now, these guys are at a table, and Dick says to me--I'm sitting between them and Dick, and Dick says, he says, "Pass this to them." So I pass the bag for them. It was a brown paper bag. I guess it was a bag full of pot, but I didn't know. Then he says, "We're going to go to a party tomorrow." So we're going to this party, and we get a cab. We're going by Abingdon Square with these two guys, Dick Whalen and these two guys...

DOUGLAS: And they roll up on you.

FARRIS: Up pop the rollers with the guns to our heads. "You're under arrest." So I say, "You must have made a mistake." You know, I'm all Ivy League. I'm not going to any school, but I was, I had all the attitude. I was smarter than most of them in that, which was why I didn't go around there. I was just like my brother.

DOUGLAS: In terms of...?

FARRIS: You know, authority. I would not accept authority, nor definition from anybody. So anyway, they say, "You're under arrest." And I say, "You must have made a mistake." And they say, "What's your name?" I say, "John Farris." "Oh, no, we didn't make a mistake." Cut to the chase: they gave me three years, and I am seeing the parole board. I'm a good kid, I'm not doing anything, bothering anybody, and I find out that my parole has been turned down. And I'm saying, "Why has my parole been turned down?" They said, "Because your home is not sufficient." So, I say, "What do you mean my home is not sufficient?" They say, "You don't have a home. Your mother died." "When did my mother die?" "July 19th." "July 19th? That's my birthday!"

DOUGLAS: Right...

FARRIS: She died on my birthday. She had an insurance policy, which she put in his name. He was supposed to give out the money. He didn't tell me that she died until he could spend that money.

DOUGLAS: He gave out the money; only he didn't give it to you.

FARRIS: He didn't give it to me.

DOUGLAS: He was already a dope fiend at that point.

FARRIS: Hum hm, he was a dope fiend then, too. So, that was basically my relationship with him from beginning to end.

DOUGLAS: What happened to the other dude? He was a white guy?

FARRIS: Dick Whalen?


FARRIS: Nothing as far as I know. They separated our trials. He had a lawyer. I didn't have a lawyer. You don't have a lawyer, you go to jail. He's selling weed. I smoked a joint.

DOUGLAS: White guy?

FARRIS: Jewish. Dick Woolen, W-o-l-i-n.

DOUGLAS: You know where he is now?

FARRIS: You know, it's amazing. I was on Bleecker Street. It was either last year or the year before last, and I saw him. I couldn't run after him. I called him, "Dick Woolen!" He turned around. I said, "You remember me?" And he looked and he bolted. If I could've run, I would have... they would have put me back in the jail for assault.

DOUGLAS: So, was he all dressed in a suit and everything?

FARRIS: No, you know, casual, upper middle class.

DOUGLAS: So, he copped a plea, blamed it on you, rich Jew, poor black, you took the fall.

FARRIS: Well, they told me it was either 15 years or 3. I said, "I'll take the tree."

DOUGLAS: So you got "conspiracy to distribute marijuana."

FARRIS: Right.

DOUGLAS: That shit is crazy.

FARRIS: Well, I didn't have anything to do with it. You might say I conspired to deliver. But I had no idea. Technically, if I had a lawyer, he would have said, "Hey, my client didn't know what was in that."

DOUGLAS: Were they undercover cops?


DOUGLAS: That's funny that they waited a day.

FARRIS: Raymond and... I'll think of it. One Irish fellow and one Latino. What was Raymond's name? That was the Latino. But, I did some writing there, which was why I was convinced I was a writer. They wouldn't let me take it out for some reason. If it weren't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all. I forget... There was a reason that they told me. Not only did I not have a home to go to, [laughs] they wouldn't let me take that stuff out. And then, guess what? I go out of there. I have three months left on parole... four months on parole. So I come down here, and I knew a fellow over on Avenue A, 20 Avenue A. I was staying with him. And it was authorized for me to stay with him. One day, I'm screwing this lady. The buzzer rings. It's the parole officer, black dude. And he comes in and he sees her in the bed, so he says, "Oh, come downstairs for a minute. I want to talk to you." I go downstairs and he says, "Hold out your hands. Put the handcuffs on me. Took me back to jail." I had to get rid of all my days, because you can't have sex--casual sex--when you're on parole. Now, this woman was a dancer. African dancer. She was dancing with Olatunji. She came to see me every day while I was in there and brought me whatever. When I came out, I felt beholden, and I married her.

DOUGLAS: And then you had your first child.

FARRIS: My oldest daughter. And she had a child, Syphilis Freeman, that's Morgan Freeman's son. He never gave her a nickel and I had to support them for five years.

That experience... that whole prison experience and the

Oh! I was hanging out with the Roomettes. They told me they couldn't hang out with me anymore because there was this big producer guy, and he liked her and he didn't want her to hang out with me. And she was going to marry him and they got married. That's Phil Specter, he's a murderer.

DOUGLAS: It wasn't her? Not this one you were with. He probably just beat her up and then dumped her.

FARRIS: Yeah, he used to beat her up.

DOUGLAS: That whole experience--you've told me about getting busted for pot before--that all comes across in the book really well.

FARRIS: Well, I started smoking pot when I was ten years old. So, I was definitely a pot smoker. No! I wasn't ten, I was twelve.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, that's about when I started smoking weed. We met about 25 years ago, in the early 80s, about 84 or so.

FARRIS: Something like that.

DOUGLAS: At the time that we met, or shortly thereafter, after my initial suspicions of your motivations--the which I cannot really pinpoint what those were, other than that I was, that I've always been resistant to the race pigeonhole, and I was afraid that that would be part of what was going on. You also had a period where you were hanging with the Muslims.

FARRIS: That was a response to that.

DOUGLAS: You encountered them while you were in prison? Or before prison?

FARRIS: No. I sought them out. I sought Malcolm X. I never liked... I suppose I had my religious period when I was a kid. My reasons for joining them were political. That was in the 60s. I went to the Black Arts after I saw him shot, saw how ridiculous that whole thing was.

DOUGLAS: How did you hook up with Malcolm?

FARRIS: I just went down there and said I wanted to join and they said okay.

DOUGLAS: How long did that last?

FARRIS: Oh, that lasted about a year. He would always be on the road somewhere. I never went on the road, but when he was in town, I was part of his phalanx of (quote) bodyguards (end-quote). [chuckling] You see how effective that was.

DOUGLAS: Was that just for public events, or did you breach the inner sanctum?

FARRIS: Public events. And I have been to his house and all that. He was a busy man. And I could have told him, I-- he started that stuff about Elijah Muhammad the week before. And I said, "Uh-oh! He shouldn't be saying that..."

DOUGLAS: So, it was that quick, the response? Nobody was able to even discuss whether or not that was a smart thing to do: the Talking Bad About Elijah

FARRIS: No. Most of the people in there were disaffected. They had had their differences with Elijah Muhammed. But no one said anything.

DOUGLAS: And no one really anticipated such an immediate and complete, total response

FARRIS: No. I was the only one. And my two daughters were up there with my ex-wife. Right on the stage. And that guy, Reuben pulled out that shotgun. No! Wait! However they were: they came up and they shot him. One had a handgun, and the other had a shotgun. And it was just: WHAM! WHAM! And then, Reuben--they started running--Reuben was Chief Bodyguard for Malcolm. He had a handgun. They shot one of them in the leg. It was all very suspicious.

DOUGLAS: What happened to these dudes?

FARRIS: The guys that did that?

DOUGLAS: The shooters.

FARRIS: They just got out of jail.

DOUGLAS: Just recently? Did they talk about it at all since they've been out?

FARRIS: Nope. Nothing.

DOUGLAS: Do you think that there was actual FBI involvement?

FARRIS: Of course. Once you have an organization like that, it couldn't have existed without that kind of situation. I mean, you just said what I said about smoking pot. You know what they were up to, FBI.

And I was just trying to find my way to what you see me doing right now.

DOUGLAS: So was it a sense of futility and shock that caused you to abandon politics? Or was there something else?

FARRIS: Yeah. I went from there to the Black Arts Theater Repertory School and ran into the Paterson brothers. And the Paterson brothers were--I don't know where they got things from--they were part of the coterie up there. Bought that up or rented that brownstone.

DOUGLAS: This is in Newark?

FARRIS: No. That was 132nd Street between Lenox and 7th. He would put on plays, do poetry. That's where I met David Henderson. This book speaks to that. The guy who edited that was at the Black Arts. I was in total awe of them, because they had this kind of militant attitude. I net Harold Cruz there. They were intellectuals I really respected. I respected Harold Cruz a whole lot more than I respected Baraka.

DOUGLAS: Why was that?

FARRIS: Because, as I was starting to say, there was a sort of posture from those guys. But they weren't going to hurt anybody. I was going to hurt somebody. And I didn't know why they would talk like that; and posture like that. In fact, what Steve Cannon was laughing about last night at _you_ guys, was there was a guy named Roland Spellings--he was a poet--I think he's dead now. He used to go around in Muslim clothes, in robes and a turban and all that stuff. And the Hell's Angels had a motorcycle club on Third Street.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, they're still there.

FARRIS: Well, he wanted to go-- Where were we coming from? I ran into him somewhere. And he told me he was scared to walk up the block. I said, "Man, what is wrong with you?" Now these were these guys who were-you know, they had all this posture. Now, I might get my ass whipped, but I'll put it up there to get it whipped.

DOUGLAS: In other words, they're talking all this smack about how they want to get Whitey, but when it came down to it, they wouldn't even talk to them.

FARRIS: I have a poem in there... I met Joe Overstreet there... This is one of the first pieces of art that I saw there... Let me see... Overstreet... in the front there... And I knew Sun Ra. I was coming out of Sun Ra's house and I ran into Roland Smelling. Ra and them lived right across the street. That's how I knew they weren't bothering anybody. So, that was Joe Overstreet's portrait of Sun Ra, a fantastic portrait of Sun Ra which I didn't like... That was another thing I didn't like. So they asked me to contribute something. And I did. Want me to read it?

DOUGLAS: Go 'head...

FARRIS: They took Juan away...

That's really one about that street up there that they named after Pedro Petri rather than Joe Overstreet. And since Joe had contributed some money, David and them... Well this fellow, not David, Ted Wilson, he had elected not to put it in because he didn't want to offend Joe. But, you know me, I told Joe. It wasn't negative. This is titled Duet.

i. acquisition

after being unloaded from the truck, and unpacked the masks were lined up row by row and identified each in its turn, bim bom, dambara, oshunupo inspected carefully for arawa then arranged, like with likes the grapes and if birds allowed pride of place in the lobby due more too the sheer dimensions of its size than to the lifeless snake dangling from its wooden beak with huge wings that cast their shadows over the entire collection.

how proud you were pointing out this mask or that adimbowle, adam, the great bird, the avenging messenger of some god whose name you stumbled over hoof and branch.

a prize collection, you thought, eyeing the rough-hewn wood sniffing it for any evidence of blood like a cork on a bottle of good wine

"that's how you authenticate this stuff," you said, "blood, the stink of blood."

ii. blessing

[unintelligible] makes you crazy, you said, pointing out sister amunata talking to herself in her elaborate headdress her colorful bubal and skirt. i remember she had three teeth, and spat her words out like a machine gun spraying bullets at everyone and at no one in particular inside her borders.

noticing you, she would let loose a barrage of language unrecognizable as anything but her own the few garbled syllables she had at her command repeated after a pause, during which she would glare at you reloading her clip. it was her own cosmos with her own gods.

DOUGLAS: Goddamn! They thought they couldn't understand that.

FARRIS: [indicates drawing] You see David over there?

DOUGLAS: With the horns?

FARRIS: Yeah. He just got a million dollars.

DOUGLAS: For what?

FARRIS: Those flags, for one of those flags. No, what am I saying? Forty million.

DOUGLAS: Forty million?

FARRIS: Yeah, for one of those flags. What's his name?

DOUGLAS: No, four million. I guess he moved out.


DOUGLAS: Man, Rolando?

FARRIS: I'm not talking about Rolando, I'm talking about the guy who makes the flags.

DOUGLAS: Rolando?

FARRIS: No, makes the flags... Jasper Johns!

DOUGLAS: Oh, okay!

FARRIS: I think it was forty million.

DOUGLAS: Oh, okay.

So, you spent some time with the Black Arts people. How long did that period last?

FARRIS: That lasted until the grant ran out.

DOUGLAS: Federal grant? State or corporate?

FARRIS: Federal grant. I wasn't privy to what the conditions were, but they ran out and bought some building and all that. I left my wife about two years after that.

DOUGLAS: So you were together seven years? five years?

FARRIS: Five years. Married. About seven years.

DOUGLAS: So when the Black Arts ran out, that's when Baraka headed off to Jersey?


DOUGLAS: So, what did you find yourself drawn towards then?

FARRIS: I was working. I was still... I didn't... in those yers... I was working for her mother, who had a real estate agency and I would go show places. Then, I cut out, went to Mexico

DOUGLAS: You went down there with Red?

FARRIS: Nick Smith.

DOUGLAS: How long did you all hang out down there?

FARRIS: Three months.

DOUGLAS: Were you writing actively? Or were you not really thinking of yourself as an artist at all? Reading?

FARRIS: I was just reading a lot and taking it in.

DOUGLAS: What kind of things were you reading?

FARRIS: A lot of poetry and a lot of art theory. If all that hadn't happened, before they kidnapped me, I was down there smuggling all the weed I could get my hands on. We were down there in Sinaloa on this turkey farm outside of Culiacan, where they're killing everybody now. What did they call me? They liked me. Smoked up a bunch of weed. Neither one of us spoke Spanish. Nick spoke more than I did. But I can still drag it out of me, make people understand what I want, what I'm saying. But I was the go-between for Nick and them, because they related to me, you know.

DOUGLAS: So when you got back to the States, was it straight to the City?

FARRIS: Then, I got married again. No, I didn't get married, but I went through a bunch of women. One of them was Eloise Lofton, the poet. I was experiencing art. I was like an infant. Like people's children who are artists.

DOUGLAS: Freed of your brother and freed of prison, you were looking for a different path.

FARRIS: I was looking for expression.

DOUGLAS: Do you think you would have defined it that way back then? That you were looking for expression?

FARRIS: No. I was

DOUGLAS: You would have said, "I'm just fighting the fight. Trying to stay alive."

FARRIS: Well, I would have said more than that. Close to what you said. I would have said that I'm trying to find myself. But no one would have accepted that, so I didn't say it.

DOUGLAS: Right. To this day, that remains an inadequate response, true as it may be.

When did you sit down and really start to scribble?

FARRIS: After I left the Black Arts. And that, again, was a response. I didn't like their poetry. It was Ginsberg and Baraka and all of them. And I never really... Like I said more toward introspection, humor, satire, that kind of stuff. And since I'm taking everything so seriously back then, I didn't even like all that. My beginning to write was a response to that. I had to work through that attitude, and I had to find out who was writing that I liked. Of course, I'm pretending. I read everything. I didn't stop reading until very recently, man.

DOUGLAS: So, you basically gave yourself a course in the classics: Rabelais, Shakespeare, everything.

FARRIS: Everything.

DOUGLAS: What contemporary writers did you favor at that time?

FARRIS: I liked a whole lot of them. Mostly the South Americans, the Central Americans. Again, my response to the classical was an examination of its relationship to me, my relationship to it. There again, is the response, my response to that stuff. I'm going to be bad with names when you ask me about contemporary people. I was there, just like you see me with literature now, when I've got to that literature in my hand. I've read it, looked at it, disliked it or liked it. Derek Walcott was a friend of mine. He was all into everything. You know Derek Walcott?

DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah. What was he, a West Indian, uhh...

FARRIS: Trinidad.

DOUGLAS: I must've checked him out in the late seventies, early eighties, just before the time that we met.

FARRIS: I was friends with Leroy Clark, the painter. And he painted a lot like Wilfredo.


FARRIS: Wilfredo Lam.


FARRIS: Cuban. He also was a poet. He was a good poet. I really like his poems. He was angry.

DOUGLAS: Mervyn Taylor. I remember reading him back in the seventies, too, back when I was in college. I had Michael Harper back then. You ever read him?


DOUGLAS: I was never too crazy about his work. Some of the shorter things worked once in a while. But I think he was too busy trying to impress his colleagues up in the ivory tower.

FARRIS: Right. That's all that was. But, I been around. Even when I was a kid. I didn't belong to anything. I was looking in from outside.

DOUGLAS: What I was driving at a while ago was that, when we met I was in a place where I'd read a good amount of the classics, a lot of contemporary work. But because people would continually try to impress upon me that I would be a great leader of my people...

FARRIS: May I interrupt you?

DOUGLAS: Go ahead.

FARRIS: I didn't think you were going to be a great leader of my people. I didn't think you were going to be a great leader of anything. What I thought you were going to be was a bright young black fellow.

DOUGLAS: I'm not saying you, personally. But what I reacted to when I met you was others...

FARRIS: So you fulfilled that in me.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, I projected that upon you.

FARRIS: Projected what?

DOUGLAS: This concept that you were another one of these people who was going to try to make me into this black... What I rejected early on was not the fact of being black...

FARRIS: Well, you remember, I used to laugh at you guys. Right?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. But I was at that point of... I didn't want a black revolution. I didn't trust the idea because I had grown up with the black upper class...

FARRIS: That was your response to me.

DOUGLAS: Right. So, as a radical, I already understood that whatever people were pushing for--black lawyers and doctors, businessmen...

FARRIS: I thought you were a bright guy...

DOUGLAS: I didn't want that to happen because I saw it as not real change in the system. It would change the face of the system, but it still wouldn't change the class relationships that are at the root of everyone's problems.

FARRIS: I thought that you were bright, you were writing. I thought you were a bit arrogant. You see? You forced me into that position. One of a kind. Right there, there you are, all alone, fly in the buttermilk. You had to have some response.

DOUGLAS: But, in general, I was never interested in a black president or any of these things, because I felt that none of it would change what I thought was the real problem, which was class relationships. It would just allow certain people of color to become part of the upper class. But it wouldn't change the fact that the poor of every color would still be the poor. And although the white poor may have a little iota, a bit more privilege than the black poor, the maintenance of the poor and the maintaining of the upper class--even if it was integrated--wouldn't really change what I saw as the problem. That was the class problem. I just saw the racial problem as a tool to maintain the class problem.

FARRIS: You didn't see class as a tool of the ruling classes?

DOUGLAS: Yes, I did. I mean, if you had no black people or no white people--either situation--as long as we maintain the class system, there will still be the problem of poverty and the like.

FARRIS: But you were aware of imperialism.

DOUGLAS: Right. I still see that as the problem. Class is the major battle to be waged.

FARRIS: Well, if you ask me right now if I want to be in Africa, I would say, Hell, no. "I will be right here on Third Street where I am."

DOUGLAS: What I'm driving at by all that explanation of the question is this: did you find yourself in the same position?

FARRIS: You mean, given my situation?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. Once I did overcome that--and it was rather quickly that I realized that you were not trying to impose any nationalist stance upon me—I saw you early on... and I think the fact that ten or fifteen of my peers and I all looked to as our mentor. Some of us were college grads, and I think that without misrepresenting anyone I could definitely say that people like Higginbuckle and Emily Carter and Pamela Dewey and a lot of these kids that were my age, we all saw you as a great writer. You were not in the same place as Amiri Baraka. Baraka, we understood a certain type of greatness, but we were not really identified with the black...

FARRIS: ...Not from that school. You all wrote from a different school.

DOUGLAS: I'm not saying that we saw you as having transcended race. That wasn't the deal. Nobody wanted to transcend or deny race, but at the same time, you represented to us...

FARRIS: I was just beginning to see my way into what I had been looking for.

DOUGLAS: To us, you were emblematic of contemporary literature, what contemporary literature should be. You had this kind of classicism. You had the ability to write in a way that was an acknowledgement of the literary canon at the same time that your work was also infused with contemporary colloquialisms that affirmed your personal heritage. There was no denial of anything, but a perfect blend—in our eyes—of what literature in this time should be. You never rejected the past or said anything like "white writers ain't shit..."

FARRIS: Well, I never said that throughout that whole period.

DOUGLAS: That's what I'm saying. Given that we met at the tail end of the seventies, the early eighties, a lot of people were still very conservative, reeling from the failure in Vietnam, the horrors perpetrated by our government here and abroad...

FARRIS: You found me at a time when I was trying to reconcile.

DOUGLAS: Well, to us, you were the perfect writer. To us, there was no one, other than maybe Borges, who measured up.

FARRIS: Oh, I left something out. Instead of going to school, I joined the army, and I punched out the specialist in charge of my platoon. I got an undesirable discharge. That was in 1957.

DOUGLAS: Okay, so before the whole arrest thing.


DOUGLAS: Having been among the Malcolm X crews and the Black Arts crew, how did you reject that kind of attitude? I'm not saying wholeheartedly, nor as a viable force...

FARRIS: I didn't accept it or reject it. It was just either available to me or not available. And when I say available, I don't only mean materially, I mean emotionally.

DOUGLAS: At that time, wasn't it rare as a black artist...

FARRIS: I've never seen myself as a black.

DOUGLAS: So that was part of you even before you started working in the arts.

FARRIS: Right. Not in a defensive way or with any baggage attached to it. I just rejected that.

DOUGLAS: You came to affirm something else. Literature as literature. That was a brave posture at that time. Don't you think?

FARRIS: I understood it. So, as I understood it, it was my language. It wasn't my cultural experience.

DOUGLAS: Did people come down on you and try to say you should write this or that?

FARRIS: As I began to close in on what I was looking for, the writers that I was interested in were mostly Caribbean. They wrote English, or they wrote Spanish, or they wrote pidgin. Whatever. But they had the same experience I had. They were going through the same thing. People thought I might have been a communist or something. I was never a communist. I was never anything. Just a radical, that's all. But those were the writers that informed me because, having read the classics and experienced that cultural ouevre and having to digest it from outside of it...

I liked African writers, too. Like Leopold Senghor, and...

DOUGLAS: Achebe...

FARRIS: Chinua Achebe! I love Achebe... People like that. I could go into that world without all this kind of conflict. And since I was actually born and bred here, it was easy for me to assimilate that into what I am.

DOUGLAS: So, in the sense that the Caribbeans tend to acknowledge their mixed racial and cultural heritage...

FARRIS: Absolutely.

DOUGLAS: It's not a black and white world, but one of many shades...

FARRIS: Absolutely. That's it.


DOUGLAS: When did you decide to make this neighborhood your headquarters?

FARRIS: I came down here in 1962. I lived with my first wife on this block. Then for a couple of years, I went back up to Harlem, then came back down.

DOUGLAS: With the Black Arts.

FARRIS: I also worked retail in clothing stores. Jerks.

DOUGLAS: When did you start bringing your work out into the public?

FARRIS: That was up in Harlem, hanging out with Leroy Clark and Derek Walcott and those... What was I writing then? Drivel that I couldn't quite call anything. It had no form. I was looking for a voice. A voice that would suit the aesthetic I had formed. That's why I had such a bad reputation. The person you're looking at right now and having this conversation with is not the same person of ten years ago. People thought I was crazy. When I started making these little drawings I was making, I wish that hallelujah. And it wasn't agony as it is now. An agony to pull that stuff out. If it looked like something I liked, I'd go to bed so ecstatic and I couldn't wait to get it up and do it some more. And whatever I had done, I didn't like anymore. People would come by and I'd say look at that, I'm gonna throw it away. They'd say, "No, don't throw it away." And so, there was that. Now that I'm starting to be able to express myself like that, it's kind of a completion. It's transformed me totally. I have more confidence. It's something that I really didn't learn from anybody.

DOUGLAS: What brought you to Life Cafe?

FARRIS: Oh! Breaking up with Sienna's mother. I had no job. I came to where I knew musicians. They were playing music at Life Cafe. And David liked me and he liked whatever drivel I was writing, so he put me in charge of that and I moved in. It was still kind of half home and half cafe. Home in the back. And I got locked down at night. And somehow I got to meet Rick Van Valkenburg who owned Neither/Nor. Miguel Algarin was there, but I didn't know Algarin. He was a star. A junkie star. He had his own situation. But they played music there and I knew all the musicians, so I started doing the poetry there. That's when I met Emily [Carter]. No, maybe I met her at Life Cafe. And I met you.

DOUGLAS: Tina [Carstensen] introduced us.

FARRIS: Yeah, hanging out at Vazac's.

DOUGLAS: So, jumping ahead but still in the past, when you started to put down the ass's tale, had you banged out any earlier novels?

FARRIS: Yeah. I was always writing something. I was always writing narrative. That was some good stuff because that was straight from my eye to the paper. And I can't remember why they wouldn't let me take that stuff outta there. Maybe it was something I said or that they thought I was saying about them. But I was always writing narratives. I think the first story you saw that I really liked was that thing about Raymundo del Mundo. I was beginning to find a voice then. That's another reason I molted, released from the Chrysalis, because of that novel. I have another one there. It's almost finished. What I intended to do was make some money off of that and get this one out. But I got hooked on this drawing. But I like that one, too. And I have new stories that are good. It's not quite a collection, but when I start writing again, I have work to engage me.

DOUGLAS: Do you see the Raymundo series as a contemporary Spoon River Anthology? It's more like linked short stories than a novel or novella.

FARRIS: And so is this one. It's widened, it's broadened... I'll show you something if you move this here. I'll just say this little poem, because it's local:

NuBlu after dark

all the women in brazil dance carolina tells me dancing jiggling her way up and down the bar pneumatic, shaking cocktails in sensitive counterpoint to the rhythm of the bateria a choreography of knees her feet in casual synchopation of the samba where I come from in brazil she tells me shuffling it's no big deal first you dance and then you walk first you dance and then you talk first you dance and then you eat first you dance and then you sleep and what you dream about when you sleep is only dancing it is impossible to do anything in brazil she tells me with dark eye of a conspirator pouring me a drink and sitting without dancing she thinks it is the curse of the palmaristas maybe they

DOUGLAS: One thing that's always impressed us about what you did was write a poem, and then you'd see one of us or we'd be together and you would present it to us. It always seemed that a lot of your work, almost everything you've written since I've known you, has a quality that, consciously or not, and though written on paper, makes these works for the ear; oral works in terms of the way they're presented to the public.

FARRIS: Personal. Personal. Personal. It's my stinginess. I don't really want people to have my work. I want them to accept ME as the author of this. It's not their experience. It's my experience and I'm sharing it with them.


FARRIS: And that's what I want. That was always more important. That's seeking validation.

DOUGLAS: So, it's not as theoretical or technical as a question of the written versus the oral.


DOUGLAS: The oral is just a component of the expression seeking validation.

FARRIS: Right. Uhm, here's a poem. They're all short.

Funeral cortege

I climbed aboard at 125th and rode with them up Seventh Avenue and across the MacCombs Dam Bridge where the Giants would play as he practiced and practiced and practiced through all the scales until he could blur them into a blue canvas first left, and then right, like a slider past Edgecomb where the rabbit lived when in town and the more I get to live with her [unintelligible] to Saint Nicholas the measured cadence of the call, an ululation [unintelligible] his approach by the great John Gilmore on temor as we headed back to the valley hard bopping to Walter Davis slowed to a dirge on piano the mysterious Ronnie Boykins on bass the drumming of the magnificent Clifford Jarvis samba muffled reflecting the great man's heartbeat seven hundred horses under the shining hood of the Jazzmobile we're not idlers we had not fallen he was laid back, stretched out there were no empty boots hanging backwards from an empty saddle if there was a [cason?] it did not contain a cannon it was the great Bud himself.

DOUGLAS: That's a perfect lead in for me to stick my guns about the oral. You just laid out that you are a true acolyte and tyro of the jazz.

FARRIS: Yeah. Mona. That's Johnny Hodges' daughter. She had this [socoochie?] monkey.

DOUGLAS: So the novel, The Ass's Tale—and I've seen it said about other novels, them being jazz novels and what not—The Ass's Tale, to me, in terms of what I've read, and I haven't read everything—it seems like the closest literary manifestation of jazz that I've ever come across in my life. I guess that's why I see it in terms of an oral project. It's so clearly—even reading it silently to myself—but moreso when reading passages aloud—it's so powerfully musical that as I read I can't help almost tapping my feet to the beat. Not constantly, it goes from the beat to the melody and back. Is that a conscious thing or did it just come out that way?

FARRIS: No, that's my bow. I guess that comes from South American writers. You know who really influenced me a lot? What's that guy who wrote Autumn of the Patriarch?

DOUGLAS: Marquez.

FARRIS: Yeah. Marquez. Incredible rhythm. Incredible. I read a lot of writers like that.

DOUGLAS: Is it something you became aware of as you got into the novel, or you started up like that?

FARRIS: No, I started writing in rhythm because those are my instincts.

DOUGLAS: Talk about James Moody.

FARRIS: Moody is a plot device. What he is, is Moody's Mood For Love. And the animal is looking for love. The protagonist is—as I have been—looking for acceptance. And he hears James Moody and Moody's Mood For Love. And he says, "That's a great man." So, he looks for him. And of course, I think the last line is "And I never did find James Moody."

DOUGLAS: Instead, he finds...

FARRIS: He realizes himself. He transforms himself into a human being, but he's still invisible. I don't remember. I haven't opened that thing since I... These people have me reading and hearing it, but it was written—just like everything, I put it down. Just like in there, in that review [indicates magazine containing a review dropped off during interview by Ron Kolm, Unbearables editor]. People want to know what you had to say, but I'm already finished with that. I'm thinking about something else. I'm trying to formulate my next move. I hate to start talking, but the drawing's a metaphor. Even though you can see it's my drawing, they're different styles. That's the way I am.

DOUGLAS: In terms of the final transformation that happens to the ass, is it on a par with what happens to Pinocchio?


DOUGLAS: Is it a device borrowed from Ellison, or a more general idea Ellison borrowed from as well.

FARRIS: It's a general idea. That's a whole tradition.

DOUGLAS: He achieves a kind of humility.

FARRIS: Yeah. I loved Ellison. That definition is entirely cultural. But again, It was more personal. I could be inside of that. I didn't have to be outside in need of a teacher who could explain it to me. What these people in here are just finding out about me is that I don't want them to tell me anything. Somehow these folks think they've invented the world, and that they've invented all the machinery of it, and that they need to tell me what to do. I appreciate the comforts but I'm not the guy you can tell what to do. That's what I said to this woman yesterday. I said, "Wait a minute now," because we had a meeting that was Friday, "who do you think you are? Who died and made you boss?" The protagonist has a profound humility. That's why Moody's Mood For Love is a device. I would love to put that first and foremost.

DOUGLAS: Is it an autobographical...


DOUGLAS: Not even thematically?

FARRIS: I use devices from my own life. But it's not autobiographical. It uses a lot of my autobiography, my experience, but it's fiction. I used to go and steal stuff outta cars. That's where I got that from. There are many many many elements where my autobiography informs the plot, but it's not autobiographical.

DOUGLAS: Given the current craze for the memoir, do you have an affinity for that form... Do you feel like there's a memoir in you that could work?

FARRIS: A memoir would be very easy for me. I probably will because I need to spit some stuff out. There are some human beings on this planet who would scream in protest about having been left out. That's what I'm doing right now. In a way, since I don't really have anything morally to give anybody, to make the world better. I think a memoir would just be an egotistical thing.

DOUGLAS: Do you think it's in any way indicative of the culture that this form is so popular?

FARRIS: Well, everybody's a writer and they don't have anything to say except what happened to them. Yeah, everybody's a writer, everybody's an artist, everybody's part of the leisure class.

DOUGLAS: Navel gazing.

FARRIS: Yeah, navel gazing. I hope I'm doing better than that. What do you think of this fellow Jonathan Ames?

DOUGLAS: Ames? That weird conflict of egotistical Bravado and self-aggrandizement combined with self-deprecating... Personally, I blame Bob Holman for the whole mess.

FARRIS: Well, don't get me talking about Bob Holman because I won't be able to stop.

DOUGLAS: Me neither.

FARRIS: I think he's a bit of a whore.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. Or a pimp. I don't know which one.

FARRIS: [belly laugh] Well, he used to be a pimp, but now he's a whore.

DOUGLAS: I think he did a lot to destroy literature.

FARRIS: He did everything he could to destroy it.

DOUGLAS: The hope that I had for literature in the days when you were doing reading series at Life Cafe, Neither/Nor, Living Theater and so on was totally erased by the poetry slam frenzy. I'll never forget the time that you did the poetry slam and you were obviously the best one up there and you were trounced by these one-legged, black lesbian dwarves who just whined about their little high school hurt. How high school hurt came to replace literature, I'll never know.

FARRIS: Bob came and started pimping Pedro Pietri. They were the Bobsey Twins for a while. That was Bob's entry pass into the underground.

DOUGLAS: Though he made Pietri more of a clown than he made himself.


DOUGLAS: He was careful to do that. Sort of a trained monkey act.

FARRIS: That's what it was, a trained monkey act. I was ragging on Joe Overstreet for being upset about it. I mean, he doesn't really care...


this should go with those other two.


Kenkeleba House abuts Pedro Pietri Way. The Lord of Kenkeleba House sits high in a turret of his castle mixing excrement for color. "A little piss makes a good green," he says. "I only like the good shit. For the blues, I listen to Miles Davis, Shirley Scott, Billy Coggins and [Frink?]. "Looking out that window," he says, pointing to where the sign Pedro Pietri Way is clearly visible, "makes me see red, red and more red. It's too much. I'd put that guy behind the eight ball if I could. But he's dead. My hair is white. Around here," he says, the purple plainly apoplectic, "I'm the institution. Get me? When it comes to whirling squares and [kebonatchee?] I'm Monet. I'm Monet!"

DOUGLAS: So, in the sense of a Spoon River anthology, you have many local characters in your work. Not that I think one needs to know who those people are in order to comprehend what you're saying. For a while, though, I think maybe the late eighties, weren't you consciously engaged in doing a lot of character sketches?

FARRIS: Oh. I refer to my grandmother. The protagonist of that novel refers to a grandmother. This is a real picture of my grandmother.

Alice's Afternoon

Chopping collard greens instead of cotton, Alice stands at the kitchen sink preparing dinner, rinsing the last sand from the leaves throwing them into a pot of water in which she had boiled some hamhocks. She makes spoon bread, adding the white corn meal to a pan of chicken broth and onions, sprinkling in some parched, yellow kernels from a burlap bag tied with string and kept downstairs in the pantry. He hums a high falsetto interrupted by a grunt of satisfaction while tasting the result of her efforts and, catching up her melody, moves heavily through the stations of her ritual, routinely pronouncing what should be done or not, how I could go wrong from making spoon bread where she learned hers the hard way back in Alabama.

DOUGLAS: Is there anything else you want to add at this point? Any advice to poets?

FARRIS: Well, I'm just working. That's all one can do, keep working. Don't stop.

DOUGLAS: I remember a thing I once said to Tracy Morris years ago, and which she actually acknowledged years later, when she was asking Steve Cannon for advice about writing and he gave her some long Steve answer. I said I got some advice for you. It's a four letter word: R-E-A-D. Read.

FARRIS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We have to make the language ours. It's not ours. I mean, we come here and it's already being spoken and it's already being expressed. What we have to do is communicate. So there has to be a commonality of the language. And we still have to find a way to be personal. That's where the work is. One just has to keep working.

DOUGLAS: There's what I call the pie in the sky theory of art where these young artists and writers—since my time, maybe before—they have this idea that... Like, I say to my partner's son, who's sitting around making cartoons, is what you should do is find all the cartoons that you can, check out what other people are doing, and that will help you. And he says, "I don't want to. Why should do that?" But I heard it when I was in art school, I heard it when I was with Vibeke [Jensen] over in Norway doing workshops with kids, they don't want to be influenced by anything. And I try to tell them, "You are being influenced all the time, so you might as well consciously seek out your influences."

FARRIS: It's not our language. We have to make it.

DOUGLAS: You didn't invent the language, you didn't invent art, so you should go and see what's been done. Why reinvent the wheel?

FARRIS: See what's being said, or being expressed. The more information we have, the more stuff changes. But it's still the same. Here's this remarkable machine [indicates the laptop Douglas uses to record the interview] is translating everything we say into that format, and you're not taking shorthand.

DOUGLAS: Nothing new is coming out of it.

FARRIS: No. It's the same language.

DOUGLAS: It's a different form that they think is new content. But the content is...

FARRIS: ...still the same. Where's the chicken?

DOUGLAS: There is no new thing under the sun.

FARRIS: There was this communication in your crowd where everyone had something to read. Everyone was writing. And everyone was eager to read what they were writing. It was our own little workshop. It wasn't that formal. It was just sitting in the bar having a drink and reading our stuff to each other. And I really enjoyed that. I don't want to name any names, but as a group, I don't think you have any parallel.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, I miss those days a lot. It's difficult to find anyone who is on the same level.

FARRIS: That was Punch and Judy, man. Right down to the real nitty gritty. BAM! Over the head! I loved it.

DOUGLAS: Here's one of the first and last poems I've written in a while.

FARRIS: Oh, yeah.

DOUGLAS: Oh, here it is.

I think it's called "dark road," but I'm not sure yet.


Children play outside this broke Down trailer smelling of fecund rot and ruined Years when old men drank and swindled, burning Kerosene, gas, farting, blind mostly in third eyes.

Wild deer graze the graveyard shift Until crepuscule in ditches, by soggy stands of spikenards, At cattails, munching milkweed on meadows bulging green grass, Spread seedheads inside purple feces balls round county lines.

Coyotes howl forlorn Outside your deadbolted doors, yelping Sadness that the emptied moon adores even As it hides anew among the winking harvest stars.

Night cats prowling yellow and white Stripes, hunched on fences, swatting mice, dodging Lights that roar and wheels that soar heavy, unlike The giant owl afloat to a dead branch, skittish prey.

Stealthy gray foxes skipping quick From one side to the other, the white skunk Waddling sudden surprise the dog smells afar, Whining to go out and scout its source.

Insects aim into the electric heat, hundreds Blind to the light webs woven to suck their short Buzz away, fattening spiders lollygag in corners cobbled of dirty dust, paint and yucky rust chips.

Squirrels stutter and start and retreat so swerving Autos spin and smash up. Only rabbits, peeking up, rival Them for mad dashing through dawn's dark roads, across Shifty shadows, like rabid rodents reclassified by men.

A star shooting fast in the corner of my sky, Then a meteor turns green into meteorite, drop this Wish into the treetops’ bunched silhouettes Against the black and blue wrinkling under one eye.


I see whose great gardens grow between the lawns You people mow, repaving roads and driveways. I see something long ago, just up ahead, undead, Alive and kicking in the night, while you encrypt your dreams.

I see the skidmarks on the blacktop, the missing Box, the six-sided stop, the diamond fork, a woman’s Crotch missing her hips (my partner says with her two lips), The yield, the curves, the jittered nerves under my skin.

I see something you can see, a mirror, the floor, windows, walls. I eat and drink and sleep this glass ceiling, falling Hope and longing, swishing, soughing, wishing. Well, I Never had to write a poem, or count, or tome, nor essay,

Because I see all the things we do unthinking steady Life will not be missed by these little gadgets, bony Hatchet jobs, a child whose sobs want someone to play House, some made-up game I cannot name, unspoke of, not forgotten.

FARRIS: I would take the I out. But the last part makes the critique that I gave you very difficult. The first part is very easy since you're dealing with nature and all of that, I would let the narrative be the eye. That way it cleans it up a lot. Because you don't have the dichotomy there. It's easy to do that because you don't need that. Now, what I would do with the last part, when you become personal, make that "ii." And that will take a lot of clutter out.


FARRIS: Then it will work perfectly.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, I could definitely see losing the "I see" part.

FARRIS: You can see that?

DOUGLAS: Well, in the first part, the "I see" is not really significant. It could still achieve that. Thanks. That's what I miss.

FARRIS: Me, too.

Nose Bleed Uptown

Nose Bleed Uptown

by Norman Douglas



East Village USA

New Museum of Contemporary Art

556 West 22nd Street.

Box Office: 212.727.8110


"They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique

And a swinging hot spot.

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got

Till it's gone?"


-- Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi,"

{Ladies of the Canyon}, 1969



I always get a nosebleed above 14th Street, so I am walking down Avenue B past Tompkins Square Park and I spot the graffiti of an inverted martini glass, a cross hatch struck diagonally through the three vertical lines that represent its expelled contents. Beneath the entire image is scrawled a date: 1933. And I know "The Party's Over" and I know Peter Missing was here and I'm dreaming of the Weimar Republic, a golden age I've only lived in print, seen on screen, heard on record.


The year, in fact, is 1984, and I've lived three years in the EVil -- twenty-five under my heels -- having landed there on the heels of Ronald Wilson "666" Reagan's inauguration. Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone are tending bar at Vazac's between regular stints at Squat Theater and Club 8BC. John Farris is hosting readings at Neither/Nor, where Miguel Pinero is mainlining speedballs in the back. Mars Bar has just opened and The Rivington Schoolboys (Gizmo, Tovey, Fa-Q (since before the internet acronym), Cowboy, Freddie the Dreamer, Parker, Ken...) shuttle between there and their scrap metal sculpture yard clubhouse at the corner of Forsyth and Rivington, next to the ancient (circa 1970) Adam Purple's Peace Garden. No Se No is having another show with Rat At Rat R and Sam and who the fuck knows who the fuck else. A junkie searches for a vein on a stoop in broad daylight and says "excuse me" as I pass her by. There are storefronts with dusty rolls of toilet paper and faded boxes of Tide in the windows selling grams of coke for twenty-five bucks from behind plexiglass partitioned counters. Lookouts on the corners holler to the smack dealers standing in front of tenement doorways on every cross street; a barker stands outside hawking the heroin by its tag: "Bullit, Bullit, Bullit! Open and smokin'! Cop and go! Cop and go!" "Spiderman!" "Black Rose!" "Roadrunner! Roadrunner!" Tony sold Roadrunner one stoop down from my basement apartment entry under 20 Clinton. We had a song for him to the tune of the Warner Brothers cartoon theme of the same name: "Roadrunner!/Bajando's after you!/Roadrunner!/If he catches you, you're through!" (Bajando}, Comin' down! was another junk spot lookout's cry, raised whenever the cops approached; not knowing Spanglish at the time, we thought it meant "The Man"  --  a noun, rather than a verb.)


But the EVil in the 80s was populated by more than just future movie stars and future art stars and future rock stars and future poet stars and future OD's. There weren't just fly by night art galleries and real estate speculators. There was an attitude, there was a position, there was a theory, there was a plan. Of course, the beauty of these various aspects of the plan was that they were all loosely based on the unspoken principles of an anarchist tradition resistant to catalogues and codification; an agnostic spiritism that named everyone Creator. And like the gods of any pantheon at the genesis of every new age, we reigned in the moment, out of time, tethered by neither cosmopolis nor ego. We staged a dogged resistance to everything including our own resistance. This ultimately amounted to the manifestation of nihilism's last gasp, and the moment  --  never a movement  --  expired, the allure of its defiant posture paving the way for nothing more hated than the ersatz bohemian theme park that now thrives on the same turf: "a pink hotel, a boutique / And a swinging hot spot" as Joni Mitchell so perceptively lamented at the end of another decade loaded with unrealized promise.


If you had been born in 1959 like me and my peers, then you would be eighteen in 1977. In 1977, the legal drinking age was still eighteen, and Ford  --  according to the Daily News  --  had just told New York City to "Drop Dead." And so, after two decades in some horrid smalltown America graveyard, after watching TV news programs full of the mighty land of whitey getting its ass kicked by Vietnam's black pajama mojo men, by Negroes burning down ghettoes, by women wanting to suffer the same jobs men suffer, by hippies turning on and dropping out, by Iranians snatching embassies, by CIA assassinating Latin American and African and Asian leaders and followers, by all the evils visited on Sodom and Gomorrah and as many new internal hemorrhages besides, on top of and over that, you would have to be an idiot or a flag-waving jingo or a jock not to want to move to New York City, Open City, trash can of the free, dustbin of mystery. And if you had a certain vision, a gut premonition that all these sins of the fathers -- those the native Americans referred to as the Great Fathers in Washington, DC  --  were about to make the whole grand melted pot dissolve into nothingness, that there was No Future, then you moved to the Lower East Side or its neighboring neighborhood, the East Village. You might wander to the queerer parts of the Village itself or the desolate stretch of what was once Hell's Kitchen and would soon become Chelsea; or cross over to Brooklyn's Kent Avenue or Flushing Avenue or the abandoned, still cobbled blocks in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. But that was it. Harlem called insistently, but it was so far uptown and you had to cross the rest of Manhattan to get there. And that's who was in the EVil in the 80s: out-of-towners with no place else they wanted to go and who didn't apologize for moving into roach-ridden flats nobody wanted and walking drug-infested streets that everyone supported. And I mean everyone. My first supervisor at CBS News gave me a blast of coke on my first day of work. He later revealed he wanted to ensure I wasn't a narc. The director of our show called "conference time" in the control room after pre-tapes to let the crew know we were meeting in the scene shop to get blasted on blow and bud before going on air. "Ya gotta be on something if you're gonna be on air," we used to joke. At parties, in bars and clubs and restaurants, no one hit the bathroom alone  --  ever. And the only reason you didn't lay your dope out on the table or the bar was fear of narcs (but even the narcs were getting fucked up, taking your dope was easier than taking you to jail)  --  sharing your last line meant someone would soon step up to repay you. Drugs killed the eighties, much as they fueled the "good times."


Of course, there was an enemy. Ronald Wilson Reagan and Maggie Thatcher make George Bush and Tony Blair look like Hansel and Gretel. If you doubt that everything they did and represented made you as complacent and impotent as you are, then you are even more helpless and clueless than you think. We hated them and we blamed them for everything: from death squads in Central America and the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation to seeing a bad movie or having a lousy day. (Fucking Ronnie, that bastard! My goddamn alarm clock didn't go off and my boss docked my pay and I get home and the heat don't work and I tried to buy some blow but it was beat and I only have five bucks so I either eat or drink but not both. Fucking movie star asshole fascist prick motherfucker better not blow shit up or I'll kill him!) Times were tough, but you had to love and loved to hate it.


The New Museum of Contemporary Art, temporarily housed in the Chelsea Art Museum all the way west on 22nd Street, dares to present this brief and momentous conflux of contrarians to a public no longer composed of workers, a populace of consumers accustomed to the vicarious. It's a dirty job and I'm not so sure somebody had to do it, but Dan Cameron and friends did it and so, there it is. As I slogged my way through the diminutive gallery with a couple of photographer pals  --  one who spent the late eighties and early nineties in the EVil, the other who arrived in '97 (I spent the late eighties and early nineties in Paris with him)  --  I regaled them with tales of the after dark revels I shared with various of the rebels on display.


The most intense moment came when I saw Lung Leg, the gorgeous EVil movie starlet, in the Sonic Youth video made by Richard Kern. I adored Lung in those days, though I doubt she ever knew it. And even though I had a reputation for making time with scores of ofay chicks, whenever I met Lung I would be reduced to the likes of a stuttering grammar school boy with a crush on his homeroom teacher. I'm not sure why she had that effect on me, nor why she was in that video  --  the scenes with her looked like outtakes from another one of Kern's better films  --  but it was a real heartstring tugging moment for me. I was practically in tears.


I know him, he fucked her after me. I know her, my roommate brought her back from an OD. I know him, he robbed my buddy for a bag of smack one night when there was a panic, but when he got paid for a TV script two weeks later, he paid my buddy back. That's the kind of guide I played for my buddies at the New Museum that afternoon. I know nobody cares about sex and drugs now. It hardly makes one a rebel or different these days. In fact, I've started to take the position that it's more rebellious to stay sober. People who get wasted get way too bent out of shape when you refuse. Everybody wants the DD to have "just one beer!" Anyhow, all that exciting stuff goes on night after night while people are striving to make history. It's in all the tell-alls, the sordid and besotted memoirs of beautiful losers and unlucky winners. It always ends in death or regret or reform or revelation. It ended the East Village in high rents and renovation, and it keeps the newcomers paying ten times the value of what things are worth, paying through the nose like suckers at a PT Barnum freak show.


I could list all the names of scribblers and anti-folk singers and filmmakers and drug dealers and actors and dancers and junkies and coke fiends and drunks and killers and whores and hippies and queers and punks and hustlers and jazzbos and hangers-on and bouncers and the like, but it would do them no justice. Everyone I remember should have a biography in print, and a lot of people I forget, as well. The thing that the EVil scene of the 80s had going for it was that it was an Open City, and everyone knew this and everyone said so, using those same two words, and we'd all seen the film at Theater 80 or Thalia or Film Forum. There were magazines and zines and samizdats, there were concerts and parties in the park and in empty lots and empty schools and empty everything all full of life, and sometimes you were the star and sometimes you told the stars to fuck off and sometimes you missed it and sometimes it fell right on top of you.


To be fair, you can read a bunch of the writers' interviews of artists of all media in the catalog. Even then, I can't help wondering why Calvin Reid's art was absent from the walls; why Marguerite van Cook has neither writing nor art anywhere. \footnote{1}


Here's a story that will never be told: A bunch of poets picked me to be the only poet outside CBGB's when the organizers of the Jello Biafra anti-censorship benefit said there was no room for so many poets and when I read my poem, Stefan, leader of the aptly-named punk band False Prophets, jumped on stage and censored me. I know it was not because I single-handedly booed False Prophets offstage the night they opened for Butthole Surfers at the World a year or so earlier (although it struck me as rather canny that Wishnia responded in his mike to my heckling with "Sounds like somebody who went to Brown," the school I attended at the same time as him before leaving for SFAI). The fact that Stefan thought my poem was too sexist (Nigger  --  I mean, black man -- reading about cutting up women? Not in my EVil!) was odd, punk lyrics being full of not-so-innuendo. The audience, comprised primarily of women, rallied to my side. "You're just afraid he's telling the truth about how you think." What a hoot! Where the fuck was Jello when I needed him? There was a reason we hated California.


A real Lower East Side story took place the other night, right here in the Hudson Valley. That morning, I was contemplating this "review," thinking about how to write about how all we all believed we were somebody even when we were nobody. I flashed on the museum security guard who took pictures for twenty years with the camera he always carried, although no one has ever seen a single photo by him. And then I thought about Mark. Mark was a painter whose paintings I never saw and because he was a painter he never had to carry a tool, like the museum guard who at least had the camera. Mark would go to all the openings and talk passionately about how shitty the art was, fulminating about the time he met said artist and how not only the art sucked, but the artist was an asshole, too. I never remembered what Mark did because I never saw him do anything but drink and take dope, hanging around with this big beautiful redhead I thought was German because she never spoke, only to find out she was from California. Mark was one of these square-jawed white guys with square shoulders, tall with long arms and blue eyes and a brown mop of hair and he always had a three-day shadow (a look I've only discovered how to cultivate in the past year; I used to sport the three-week shadow). If you asked Mark where he was coming from, he'd always say he "just left" his studio, and he was always on his "way back" to the studio when you finally persuaded him to extract himself from your presence. I don't know anyone who ever went to his studio, but I preferred scribblers because they usually had some information that fell outside the seventeen blocks and twenty-six years of our lives  --  some fascist writer who tried to take over Japan, say. A few artists knew about art history, but most preferred to remain "pure" and "uninfluenced" by others, a position no self-respecting writer could truck (Burroughs, our hero, quoth "Writing is plagiarism," which, in decrypted writers' argot, spelt: READ). And John Farris would curse you out if you hadn't read what he'd read ("What do you \italic{mean}, you haven't read that, you \italic{ass}hole?"), managing to embarrass  --  and piss off -- a lot of successful writers in his time. Mark was one such purist of art, which must be why he hated everyone in the galleries. I saw my own drawings in galleries before I saw his. In fact, I haven't seen his. Ever.


So, this same night I'm starting this text  --  around Thanksgiving Christmas '04 -- I'm at a restaurant in the valley with the same photographer I saw the EVil show with, and who should stroll up to us at the bar but Mark? I'm like, "Jesus, I haven't thought about you in twenty fucking years and I think about you this morning and your ass shows up!"


He's like, "So, you hear about William B.? He's in jail for murder. It's all circumstantial. Hear about Heidi? She's dead. Heard about Richard? He's on his last legs." All this is in his usual stage whisper as he leans too close to me, interrupting my practiced genteel routine while annoying my friend and hers. He stands back a moment and then leans in for an even louder stage whisper than before. "Man, I went way down on smack after I last saw you. And now I'm clean for three years."


"Really? I thought you were already way down when I split for Paris."


"No," he confides to the bar in that not-so-undertone of his, "I was just a baby then. Not like you." He grins, congratulating himself.


"Well, good for you," I congratulate him, too, always partial to a real, live, happy ending.


"So," he says  --  and I'm waiting for this: "what happened to you? I heard you spun all the way down."


"That's right," I retort in the Imperious Voice, "I died, but I had the good fortune to experience The Resurrection first-hand."


He stands back and nods, grinning, "Yeah," chuckles, "Me, too."


"So," I says, "It's been like twenty years since I seen you. Must be a reason." I expect he'll get the hint, extract himself from my presence, hit the road; but he goes the other way.


"Yeah. I guess we're supposed to meet."


I roll my eyes and give him my number after punching his into my phone. At least, I'll know it's him when he calls. I can always switch the ringer to Silent Mode, let AUDEX take a message. Once again, the universe has conspired to remind me that you can't go back, and why I don't live in the city.


The joy with which New Yorkers complain and delight in the bearing of bad news is mind-boggling. Nothing like seeing someone else go down to get yourself up on your tin pedestal. With all the shops and boutiques and coffee houses and hot new fashions to spruce up your birthday suit, new New Yorkers are still arch at the art of the bitch and moan. In the end, my recollections of the EVil are like staging a car wreck so I can charge rubberneckers admission. You weren't there, I'm not there. The Party's Over. Bigtime.


Up here, in the land of double rainbows, silver-lined clouds, and rain pushing up the daisies, it's a regular hotbed of holistic health and happiness. And if you get lonely for The City, there's always a newcomer with a standard bellyache, a well-reasoned gripe...


Okay. You're right. I'm a fucking nobody. It's a hundred years later and I'm in my rocking chair on my porch in the valley telling all the little kiddies stories of the bad old days and qualifying each one with the moral: "I know you kids won't be crazy like me. Go on, be a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief, a rocket scientist. Shop at Home Depot, buy Wal-Mart. See the endlessly self-renovated Bohemian Theme Park for your consumerized selves. It's safe now."


I could say that Dan Cameron should have hung the New Museum show the way they hung shows at No-Rio -- everybody could have gotten in there. I could have written about Hilton Kramer and the NEA and The Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America. They could have held a marathon reading like they have at St. Mark's Church every new year. No one should be allowed in the bathrooms alone. Anyone with drugs should be required to share. Anyone with money should hand out indefinite loans to people without money while saying something witty or rebellious or insulting. Everyone should be afraid of the war. With the axe about to fall, anything should go anywhere, anytime, and we should all go there together, certain that we are going nowhere with no future fast, and we will all spread our ashes on The Lower East Side like Mikey Pinero and countless others.


Never mind about the government. It's always six o'clock! You got ten bucks?



Okay, I can't help listing. Here goes: me and Kevin Johnson crashed Joe Coleman's geek show at Milky Way with a leaf blower and toilet paper; Joel Rose published Between C & D, a computer printout quarterly in a big baggie (like the drugs C & D, coke and dope  --  or the Avenues C & D, between which Rose lived with Catherine Texier in a squat turned co-op  --  or, again, the Avenues C & D, between which most of the drugs were sold) which included Patrick McGrath, Kathy Acker, Darius James, Emily Carter, John Farris (who hosted these writers and more at Neither/Nor on E. 6th between C&D), and more (not me, I refused to be in it); Kurt Hollander and Arthur Nersesian did The Portable Lower East Side, a small format paperback quarterly full of an even broader spectrum of LES writers. (I last saw Kurt the night he opened a billiard parlor in Mexico City's hipster neighborhood, Hipodromo Condesa, around the corner from Miguel Calderon's gallery, La Panaderia, where I stayed for three months in traction after busting my hip in a car crash on the way to Tepoztlan that same night.) Nersesian wrote The Fuck-Up, a classic tale of EVil slackerdom. Michael Carter, who appeared in both those mags, published Red Tape for seven issues, a zine with no two like formats. La Mama hosted shows featuring Julian Beck, Pina Bausch, some crazy Bhutto guy from Japan, Pooh Kaye, Crystal Field, George Bartenieff, Fred Newman... the list never ends. Rockets Redglare hosted the shows featuring Buscemi and Boone at 8BC and lurked about the LES until his death a couple of years ago, managing to appear in a few Jarmusch films, Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer's Candy Mountain, and once sold me and two buddies a bottle of cherry juice he said was methadone. Matthew Courtney's Sunday night open mikes at ABC No Rio featured not only poets like Sparrow but scores more you'll never hear about who were even better, like John the Communist and Sam and me and there were also plenty of anti-folk singers like Roger Manning and Latch, who started the Anti-Folk Hootenanny at Sidewalk in the 90s. Sidewalk and 7A cafes were \italic{the} in-places to slack. You could get a bottomless pint of iced coffee for a buck, which helped you move your bowels before you met your smack dealer, or wait till the bars were open to ease your hangover, or get a mild wire going until you were ready to do some blow. While you were there, you might land a part in a film by Nick Zedd or Cassandra Stark or R. Kern or Tess Hughes-Freeland or Eliana Troyano. Maybe Missing would invite you to go on a bombing mission with him, or ask you to help him trash the newest naïve venue that had never hosted him before that night. Junior was the Mayor of the park. Rakowitz wandered around with his chicken, zonked on hallucinogens and pot. Gary Indiana mentions the swankier spots like Eileen's Reno Bar, where I bravely sidled up to Burroughs and asked him "What's up?" His reply was a simple, "I'm finished" in the Omni-Imperious Voice. Jesus, how I could go on. The thing is, you don't \italic{hang out} with accomplished losers like this; nobody was trying to break into the indie scene  --  the East Village \italic{was} the scene. The indie market likely grew out of the EVil, but you can't discount the decentralized scene marketed as "grunge" that went on in the rest of the country, way west of the Hudson. (I won't even start on all the freak stars who passed through town on tour to and from the rest of the country to sleep all night in our Soul Kitchen -- a basement flat on Clinton -- despite their label-paid hotel rooms. It's not a badge  --  we don't need no stinking badges  --  it's like an adventure.)


The Colossus of New York: A City In Thirteen Parts

Gotham Tales
review by Norman Douglas

The Colossus of New York: A City In Thirteen Parts
by Colson Whitehead,

published by Doubleday,
A Division of Random House, Inc., 2003, New York. 161 pp.,

"To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom."

— Dedicatory inscription of the Colossus

"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."

— Narrator Mark Hellinger from The Naked City postscript




Thus ended each episode of the ancient ABC-TV series, its "gritty" slice of life tales emulating the location-based 1948 Mark Hellinger production of HUAC-blacklisted film noir auteur Jules Dassin's Hollywood hit of the same name. This resonant tagline became a motto for Eisenhower America's crime docudrama faithful, a genre rife with predictable twists and flimsy subplots that reverberate up to the present day on shows like Law and Order and The Wire.


Since moving to New York City in 1981, I've had a few encounters with the forces of law and order myself. Luckily, none of these run-ins lasted more than twenty-four hours, nor did they approach such media-milled headline fodder as say, the Larry Davis stand-off or the Abner Louima debacle. However, my first-hand experiences with the banality of police bungling revealed for me the quotidian slack displayed by the very men and women whose lack of insight and personal drive (unless we mean driving around and around with a determination not to exit their vehicles before absolutely necessary) in a crisis has become notorious among critics from left, right and center. The boredom of the average beat cop's hurry-up-and-wait work shift, the carcinogenic weight of their insufferably repetitive routine probably differs little from most of our lives (although they probably find themselves in the midst of scores of domestic disputes other than those of their own making). Of course, none of the petty crooks with whom I shared these brief periods of detention -- substance abusers and boosters, as well as a stick-up kid and a Harlem bookmaker who called Howard Beach home -- do not exactly fit the profile of the diabolically misanthropic mastermind (emotional, physical or spiritual) cripple bent on world domination. Mostly, they are kids nabbed out on the corner smoking a blunt, partygoers caught in the act of stocking up on illicit party favors, diehards netted while hanging around for too long at the bash... Everyone of them ends his (men and women are still held separately, despite gains made by women in other realms) story of capture in more or less the same way: "I knew I should've took my butt home," or "I told myself not to go to that spot no more," and the all-too-common denial of a nagging, metaphysical hunch, "I felt like some bad shit was gonna go down all day..." In a vast, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-consuming metropolis like New York City, hindsight is not only clarity, it's everything.


Colson Whitehead's Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts is full of the visionary inconsequence of New York. With his pen focused principally on Manhattan, Whitehead Ð a native born in the city and now a Brooklynite Ð delves into that city-island-within-The-City which, for most people living on Planet Earth, is the only New York that counts. For commuters and tourists, jobbers and visitors, Manhattan is the axis around which the rest of the metropolis revolves; for Manhattanites, the entire world spins around our thirty-five square mile chunk of solid bedrock (as depicted over twenty years ago on a now infamous New Yorker magazine cover). Whitehead's impressions bring this island's atmosphere to life, building upon and taking creative license with an abundant literary convention that harkens all the way back to Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language. (Begun in 1747 and completed in 1755, Johnson's lexicon included over 40,000 definitions, an undertaking that remained without rival until James Murray started to compile the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 Ð that project was finished in 1928, thirteen years after Murray's death.)


In this, Whitehead's third book (after 2001's John Henry Days and 1999's The Intuitionist), the author assembles a baker's dozen of entries reflecting a city that he acknowledges is his own only inasmuch as it belongs to us all. He does this by improvising on a form that has attracted literature's more learned practitioners since the onset of modernism: the lexicon permits the writer an opportunity to not only reorder a theme or subject of interest, it becomes a verbal repository into which one may unleash a portion of the bedeviling glut of information churning unbridled through one's brain. For some writers, that surfeit may be one of facts, for others, it encompasses other literatures; index card after index card of citations fill Roland Barthes' Fragments of A Lover's Discourse, for example. For Whitehead, this verbal overflow is more immediate, becoming palpable not so much because the reader has lived in the city for a quarter of a century Ð nor because he or she may have diligently studied its texts for just as long, or longer. Rather, Whitehead's uncanny, ludic illustrations achieve their startlingly tactile quality because he has followed a simple, yet laudably complete approach. By choosing to listen to the city as it is, as it lives and alters itself around us, the writer has returned us to literature's primal source: "In the beginning was the Word," word as voice, voice as word. There are no footnotes in The Colossus of New York because Whitehead has referenced no texts. For this reason Ð and without compromising the mellifluous lyricism that colors the flow of his poetic prose Ð he maintains a wholly human context from start to finish. His vignettes derive from the same "sourcebook" that The Naked City postscript pretended to draw from, although that text was pure fiction. Where history books and news reports Ð along with far too many purveyors of ostensibly creative fictions Ð scour the darkest aspects of the human drama for adrenaline-charged spectacle, distilling the official record into so many kilos of mass-mediated opiates, it's a rare Ð and courageous Ð storyteller who can reflect upon the reality of our more mundane experiences and infuse them with an honest, kinetic and ever vital perspective. Without adhering to the straightforward approach employed in oral history milestones like the omnibus works of Harry Smith, the Lomax family, Studs Terkel, and others, Whitehead has clearly enjoyed the process of stumbling on citizens who bend his ear, of transforming this aural bounty into an accurate and exhilarating text, a verbal portrait of our unofficial Empire's unofficial capital.


While Whitehead's "project" is pleasantly free of the crime and violence that make our newspapers worth skimming and Fox-TV worth mocking, his is not exactly a rosy rendering of this aging urban colossus. In fact, he opens the first chapter, "City Limits," by reminding us that New York changes and ages in lockstep with each and every personae that lives here. The endless parade of urban renewals, he suggests, may strike us as an uneasy, somewhat disconcerting reminder of our own transitory Ð hence, botched Ð efforts at revitalizing ourselves. "...[B]efore the internet cafŽ plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.


"You start rebuilding your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it... Somewhere in that fantastic, glorious mess was the address on the piece of paper, your first home here. Maybe your parents dragged you here for a vacation when you were a kid and towed you up and down the gigantic avenues to shop for Christmas gifts [this reviewer's own experience]... Freeze it there: that instant is the first brick in your city." [pp. 3-4]


Having determined how one may lay claim to an authentic citizenship in this imperial capital, Whitehead goes on to document the arrival by bus at "Port Authority," where "It may be day or night outside, or sunny or rainy outside, but inside the terminal light is always the same queasy, green rays." We enter this Colossus as equals, waiting "for so long to see the famous skyline but wake at the arrival gate and with a final lurch are delivered into dinginess."


In the next chapter, each "Morning," we do battle with the shabby infrastructure that plagues our Colossus from apartment to sidewalk. Instead of roosters, "hydraulics crow... Emptied trash cans skid to anchor corners. Shopkeepers retract metal grates that repel burglars from merchandise unworthy of theft. All this metal grinding, this is the machine of morning reaching out through cogs and gears to claim and wake us." Punching snooze buttons, dancing through slush and snow, suffering the TV set's morning shows, we find ourselves "Out of coffee. Out of milk. Out of luck. Late again. Call in sick, or don't... The name of his cologne is Hamper, Recommended by Four Out of Five Whiffs." Apart from all the empty greetings, the dog shit under melting snow, there are glimmers of dashed hopes: "Time it right to see your secret crush at the bus stop. Moved away two weeks ago without telling you but keep the fire burning, my faithful." Spring leads us to "Central Park" and the dilemma of where to sit, broken glass, joggers, Popsicles, bird guano... We ride the "Subway" and abide its platform culture, the choice of cars, wading out against the crush of new riders, the elevated, the protracted and unsettling, unscheduled and unexplained stop between stations. We dance through "Rain," losing umbrellas, avoiding the points lest a stranger poke our eyes out, navigating the rivers that spring up at corners, trying to wait it out under shallow doorways, awestruck by the tough guys who strut past as if the sun were shining on them alone. We head down "Broadway," take a trip to the grim, stinking multitude that haunts "Coney Island" and its littered sand. We stroll over our favorite span, "Brooklyn Bridge" with its flaking paint, shrinking before the Manhattan skyline, our spirit still empty and unchanged at the far end. We dive into the dread "Rush Hour," the escape from Midtown. We enjoy the horrorshow of a night "Downtown," happy hour, reaching the wrong address where we've planned a rendezvous, surrounded by hipsters, deafened by stentorian music and loud shirts, menaced by the lunatics out on the full moon, suffering not only through last call but the fight for the cab ride home. Then, after paying a visit to the new and improved "Times Square," it's time to go. "Everything's packed. All the necessary documentation is secure in pockets and pouches. The time passed so quickly." We depart through "JFK," leaving the city behind, maybe to return to a changed metropolis, perhaps to remember it as an affair of youth, or a dream: Looking out the window, "over the gray wing the city explodes into view with all its miles and spires and inscrutable hustle and as you try to comprehend this sight you realize that you were never really there at all."


That I use the first person plural Ð the not-so-royal "we" Ð to sketch the book's trajectory is the effect of Whitehead's deft employ of pronouns throughout. Rarely availing himself of the first person, he applies a constructive balance between the second and third persons Ð "you," "he," "she" Ð so that they underscore the sense of personal anecdote that lures a reader in, that drives one on, imbuing these baroque jibes and narrative inventories with a colloquial tone that fixes the work in the voices of the living, and without resort to the fantasy realm of celebrity and wealth. These New Yorkers are most of us and, if Whitehead sometimes sounds a mite pessimistic or heavy-handed, it's only because these are the bona fide reverberations of real New Yorkers. Our cynicism, our affinity for irony, our blunt opinions and firsthand knowledge of everything that's worth knowing is legendary.


If there is another text that comes close to offering such a complex capital as New York its truth through simplicity, it might be veteran rocker Lou Reed's early 90's anthem, New York. Beyond Ð and including Ð the ironic ire that poisons that disc's every lyric, the musical comparison is key. I first heard Colson Whitehead reading this book's penultimate chapter "Downtown" at a Bowery Ballroom benefit for the literary journals McSweeney's, Open City, and Fence. The freewheeling rhythm of the text Ð delivered at a relentless, near breakneck pace by the author Ð was (for me and for notable New York literary mentor Steve Cannon) the highlight of the night, despite featured acts by rock stars Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and David Byrne. Colossus is finally an engagingly musical text, owing its rhythmic cadence more to the beat of everyday life than to the historically brief lifespan of what passes for "spoken word." Should one pick up Whitehead's book, you would do well to share it aloud with a friend. Its command of the tone used by New Yorkers, its celebration and expansion of the anecdotes we love to hear and repeat among friends and strangers Ð especially those whom the Colossus has yet to welcome Ð is without any real parallel.


Such an endeavor as Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York is bound to suffer from omissions. The agility with which he mirrors New Yorkers' darker humours cuts across dialects, accents, and ethnicities. Science has long established these distinctions to be fictions, and Whitehead effectively uses New Yorkers and New York as proof for our universally shared truths. Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York and its imitator, Luc SantŽ's Low Life, will serve to plumb the well-charted hollows of more common and antagonistic platitudes. Here, Whitehead offers a contemporary account of the Empire City without its Great Men of History, a veritable depiction of the eight million, not exactly anonymous flesh and blood lives that worship the Colossus as imperial portal, everyday entities who Ð like their Creator Ð must remain unnameable, whose inspired grasp of paradox may not make this place Paradise, but whose shared incongruities and ability to turn visionary hindsight into legendary fable ritualistically feed the titanic angel as it nurtures them; entire families of orphans and runaways revising their shelters as they vow to keep the Apple sheltered from its divisive parasites Ð internal and external. Like squirrels spinning the loco-motivated caged-wheels in an engine primed by Our Gang after the Grand Street designs of their Bowery forbears, these beings populate Whitehead's catalog of the eight million all-too-human stories that watch the ever-watchful, Olympus-bound sentinel in its fixed reach for the sun. Like the slogan reminds us on a recently devised poster of Marilyn Monroe created and disseminated by some secret claimants of the collective consciousness working overtime, we will never be rock stars. And yet, as Whitehead reveals with pointed insight and a tangible consistency akin to the hoary dictates of our inner child's innately incantatory call and response mechanism, we inhabit an unlimited free space replete with quiet surprise, not-so-low adventure, rollercoaster romances that follow no scripts and feature no stars, and barely tragic victories after unspectacular defeats. Here, the writer has imagined the private glories of the real, unnumbered souls that keep the mechanized modernity of the metropolis running right on time if just a few minutes behind schedule, whose every immeasurable breath quite clearly keeps the Colossus vigorous, resurrected on its regularly remerging ruins, reincarnated by and for its unmartyred minions, singularly sentient, impossibly and impermissibly, most graciously alive.


Thank you, Colson Whitehead, for this urban book of prayer. You are all, I would imagine we would agree, very welcome.


Norman Douglas
New York, New York, Monday, November 27, 2003


Review of "Chaos"

Not A Whore's Life
review by Norman Douglas

Directed and written by Coline Serreau
(in French, with English subtitles)


Director of photography, Jean-Franois Robin
Edited by Catherine Renault
Music by Ludovic Navarre
Production designer, Michle Abbe
Produced by Alain Sarde
Released by New Yorker Films
Running time: 108 minutes. This film is not rated.

Cast: Catherine Frot (HŽlne), Vincent Lindon (Paul), Rachida Brakni (NoŽmie/Malika), Line Renaud (Mamie), AurŽlien Wiik (Fabrice) and Ivan Franek (Touki).

"It was a dark and stormy night..."



Knowing at least that this film promises to deliver some kind of feministic slant, I spend Friday afternoon and evening trying to get a female to see it with me, but I strike out. The five women I manage to ask have other plans: one needs prior notice, so it's too late to ask her; another has to work in her theater, and will only be through at midnight; a third only wants to get wasted and bother some guy friend of hers; the fourth is sick in bed and has to work early the next morning; the fifth lives in Jersey City and doesn't want to be in the city on Friday night. I phone three others, but two never return my call after I leave a message, while the third has given me her business card with a bogus phone number (a rather elaborate foil for would-be cranks, I might add). Thus, I enter the Angelika round midnight alone, and when I ask the cashier for a press kit, she has to call the manager because she doesn't know what I'm talking about. "What's that?" she asks the other ticket-girl with a look as puzzled as it is annoyed. "I'on'know," comes the sneered reply, cutting her pretty, made-up eyes at me, the next in a long line of way-too-nerdy-assed filmgoers she's learned not to deal with. The manager arrives to tell me they have nothing (a subversive comment?), so I suck down a Chesterfield cigarette on the steps outside, then descend the steps inside - the down escalator's broken - to await the screening. During previews, the light on the projector cuts, so I'm screaming at the empty booth while the other members of the audience try to decide whether or not they should fear my cries of "Give up the light or gimme my money back!" After two entire previews, he responds (I see him through the window), and I sit through six more previews, each one terrifyingly unappealing, all selling the same film with six different titles. At least, that's the way it seems.


Finally, Chaos starts, its opening shot positioned behind the principle actress in a brown evening gown, her alabaster shoulders bare as she looks in the mirror, primping herself. Despite this patently nineteenth century opening, Chaos is shot in France during the year before 9/11, and presumably takes place somewhere during the three to five years before that political milestone. Within thirty seconds, the milky flesh of Helene is draped in a wrap, and her husband, Paul, races to an "important" dinner with Helene in the passenger seat of their de rigeur European compact (at least one can never blame European films for promoting SUV-chic). Through the windshield, we see a desperate young woman wearing the black garb of the night hurtle down the street toward the auto, a trio of enervated riff raff hot on her heels. None too keen on "getting involved," Paul acts decisively. "Lock the doors!" he orders his not so decisive woman. Dithering, she obeys, her eyes racked with guilt and shame, biting her lip. The montage is relentless, abrupt - and will remain so for the rest of the film - cutting to the windshield as stop, the young brown-skinned woman's face slammed into it, thrust down by a snarling, black leather-clad punk's gruesome power, blood spattering like a slice of steaming hot pizza dumped on the linoleum. "Help!" chokes the wretched, scantily clad slut as the pimp yanks her hair and her already mangled snout jerks up, only to be cast down under the horizon of the hood, at which point the other two thugs commence the familiar spasms of the upper body that suggest the act of kicking. The pimp leans at Helene's window as Paul presses the button to raise it, "She's crazy," the procurer grins. He then turns to the unseen woman and cries, "Shut up!" Sirens are heard and Paul screams at his wife, "The police!" and throws his car in gear. He worries about the blood on the windshield and explains in his agitated roar, "We must find a car wash."


Cut to the car wash as the credits roll through the names of the main cast and crew to the director, and then cut to the TGV (the high-speed train) station, as an old woman, Paul's mum, Mamie (pronounced mom-EE), debarks. Now cut to the apartment as Helene and Paul dress for the day. Paul's mum arrives, he hides, Helene lies for him, mum leaves, Paul leaves, mum hides under the stairs and sees him. The next scene repeats this deception, as Helene visits her son, Fabrice, who lives with Florence, his girlfriend. The principal characters introduced, Helene visits the hospital where the whore is comatose in the ICU.


More than a Greek tragedy, Chaos reads like a botched send-up of expressionist drama, which hardly means it owes a great deal to that expressionist tradition. In a sense, its creators have managed to ape the rhythms and style of expressionist narrative, while turning that spirit on its head. In the end, Chaos is not an assault on the absurdity of established order, though it makes this pretense. Veteran film critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times calls Chaos "a gripping, feminist fable with a savage comic edge," which will undoubtedly color other peoples' opinions, but this isn't the kind of feminism I'm schooled in, though I suppose it takes all kinds. I'm not sure which men should feel "momentarily ashamed of their gender," though I'm probably biased, and missed the "film's unrelenting contempt for male ego." Even if those are feminist goals, I believe the film had other, darker motives.


Ultimately, Chaos is a Horatio Alger myth disguised as social satire, but then, that myth is absurd in itself; expressionist plays like Durenmatt's The Visit and von Kleist's Broken Jug - among others - argue that, if only implicitly. A rags to riches thing, a CanalPlus (the French Miramax and cable network) affair, a modern Cinderella story in French - not unlike Leonardo as Romeo - Chaos follows this brutalized woman to recovery, then tops it off with every prostitute's revenge fantasy come true, if prostitution is the oldest profession with every other job modeled after it.


Indeed, Helene is the vehicle for the audience's identification, with her Married with Children menfolk, Paul and Fabrice, bungling their way through domestic "anarchy," the film presumes that a middle class and white perspective is a universal. In one of its many simplistic potshots at contemporary lifestyles, a scene peopled with the "real-life" adolescent mŽnage - Fabrice, Florence, Charlotte - presents TV in the background airing a sitcom with the kids' garish "familiars" in clownish make-up. By contrast, Helene is not the Mrs. Al Bundy of that seminal Fox offering, but rather the slack-jawed, self-effacing cousin of Colista Flockhart's Ally McBeal character, that is, whenever she's not biting her lip. A kind of saint who is through serving the devil's brood, Helene discovers an avenging angel in the battered whore with two names, Noemie, Mikaila. Thoroughly uniting her darkest powers with her creative force, this angel Mikaila is a fighter since youth, rejecting first her commodification as a woman by her father, ultimately surmounting and getting even with all the tormentors of her past, including the recent past: Noemie even manages to get back at Paul and Fabrice for her new pal, Helene, who observes the process with her usual vapid mugging, switching between frowned overbite and slack-mouthed grin, poor thing. What doubtless keeps one watching Chaos is its rapid cutting, its dialogue simple and clean. But these technical feats degenerate into symbols in a fantasy reward-a-thon that movies tend to perpetuate, making Chaos no more than a slick Pretty Woman, which certainly has its boosters.


For my money, an illiterate junkie whore who learns the stock market after a lucky tip from a trick, and fucks a half billion bucks out of a Swiss banker, and arranges for the whole ring of pimps she worked for to get busted - the most evil one shot by cops - and helps out another streetwalker we never meet, and frees her little sister at the last minute from arranged sale into marriage, and takes Helene and Mamie (Paul's mum) and her own little sister to her new beach house, well... That may seem feminist to a guy at the Times who has to watch stupid movies for a living, but to these eyes it looked like a riff on some neoliberal moral tale/revenge thriller, the beating having purified Noemie for her transcendent defiance of the gravity that surrounds prostitution and all the other forms of capitalist, state, and religious terror, i.e. work. Call it patriarchy, if you must, no one can argue against the fact that we can do fine without that. Maybe my inclination to see the film with a woman was well-advised, after all, as I'm clearly missing the "feminist" point. However, that same weekend Penny Arcade hosted A Whore's Life at Tribes, featuring a reading and two original videos. While their tales of survival as addicted street workers covered all the violence Chaos revels in, along with a whole lot of sex the film explicitly avoids, neither of these two women from Vancouver - Leslie Bull and Ariel Lightningchild, a good ten or fifteen years apart - felt compelled to frame their experience in the lotto-driven terms of suddenly merited billions. At the end of the day, stylized conceit condemns this technically-contrived and narrative-thin conventional fable to a mere insult to the intelligence of anyone whose notions of gritty reality are not framed by the sale of soap to clean it up, but rather, by the fingernails we sharpen and cut to dig in beneath appearances and the surface of things.

"Blues City: A Walk In Oakland"

Blues City: A Walk In Oakland
by Ishmael Reed

Crown Journeys Series, Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.,  New York

Review by Norman Douglas


      "Most of us spend our lives viewing our environment through a haze, but if we work hard enough, the haze lifts and the view becomes limitless"

-- from "The Universe," in Blues City: A Walk in Oakland by Ishmael Reed (p. 188)


Ishmael Reed's Blues City: A Walk in Oakland is perhaps best summed up as the author's refutation of the way in which famed scribbler Gertrude Stein once characterized the other city by the San Francisco Bay: "There's no there there." While Reed calls Oakland home, he is a transplant, a native of Buffalo, New York. His first excursion Out West in 1958 ended up a kind of mixed blessing. Reed traveled there with two friends, David and Kirk, one white, the other an indigenous American -- a fact Reed (and David) learned only after they had arrived in San Francisco, where Kirk, who drove, "slammed the brakes in anger" at David's remark, "'Look at those drunken Indians.'" "Kirk said, 'You've been seated next to one all day.'"


Spending a couple of months around North Beach -- already Beatnik Central, USA -- the three travelers, "unable to find jobs, headed back to Buffalo." Thus, Reed's first encounter with the Bay Area not only bore no fruit, it skirted his future home in favor of the more reputable, culturally prominent, poetically renowned City of Seven Hills.


The blessing disguised by the first leg of Reed's trip did not take place in California, but in North Platte, Nebraska, on the way Back East. Stranded after Kirk was arrested for speeding, Reed and David found themselves the recipients of an outpouring of hometown hospitality. Spotted by an American Indian woman and a black man, Reed found himself "a kind of celebrity, accorded the kind of treatment that black American celebrities received in Europe at the time." After enjoyments that included a show put on by "a man claiming to be Buffalo Bill's grandson," Reed and friend were granted an audience with the town's plug hat-wearing judge. He released Kirk from jail on hearing that the trio were students and needed to resume their studies. "After the coldness of San Francisco ... [the three friends] welcomed the warmth of North Platte."


Beginning his career as a writer in Buffalo, Reed headed for New York a few years later. Reed briefly documents his rise, beginning in 1962, through the city's cultural milieu. Without enumerating his string of literary accomplishments -- this is a book about Oakland, after all -- Reed claims that he was "not ready for early literary success. I messed up. Drank too much. Talked too much. Left a trail of hurt feelings. My poetry was quoted in the New York Times. My name was dropped in gossip columns. I wasn't up to the dinners held in my honor at Doubleday's townhouse, the adulation of women, the fame that accompanied being young, gifted, and black in the New York of the 1960s. The jacket of my first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, was put up on the wall at Chumley's months before the book itself had even come out."


He lived with Carla Blank, a dancer/choreographer who became (and remains) his wife. Despite the success that the couple enjoyed (Carla worked on an equal footing with Meredith Monk, Elaine Summers, Sally Gross, and collaborator Suzushi Hanayagi), they both sought "new challenges." Loathe to wear out his welcome, he and Carla headed to Los Angeles in 1967. By September, they had moved to Berkeley -- no less a hotbed of social, cultural, and political activity in those heady times than New York (albeit with less chance of "murder by affection"). The following year, UC Berkeley English professor Thomas Parkinson invited Reed to teach. He never left. But ten years would go by before, in 1979 -- the year I arrived to live in West Oakland and finish my BFA at San Francisco Art Institute -- the Reeds found their home.


In 1979, when I moved to Oakland, the city was a model for black power, partially due to the efforts of the Black Panther party, which had helped transform the city from a feudal backwater run by a few families into a modern city with worldwide recognition. From the seventies through the nineties, there was a black mayor, a black symphony conductor, a black museum head, black members of the black city council and, in Robert Maynard, the only black publisher of a major news daily. Mayor Lionel Wilson ... and other black elected officials openly attributed their electoral success to support from the Black Panther party. The Panthers supported the campaign of our current mayor, Jerry Brown, too, and the scene at his commune after he'd won the mayoral election in 1999 resembled a Black Panther party reunion. But soon the Panthers and many other black supporters broke with Brown ... (pp.19-20)


My own sojourn in the Bay Area, from 1979 to 1982, were the most culturally nationalist years of my life. (Some might disparagingly argue that I should have better written "My Life As An Oreo.") I went around calling myself by the Swahili variant of my given (Scots) name. I avoided my white schoolmates in favor of the black artists (including several dancers) I met at Oakland's Everybody's Arts Center, Laney College and the Dimensions Dance Theater, where I served as technical director {1}. I taught poetry and photography at inner-city schools, at the aforementioned Opera House {2}, and with a program for incarcerated teens in the Haight. Something about the Bay Area -- about California, in general -- has always struck me as racially polarizing, a gut feeling I have never successfully explained to myself. Nor have I been able to shake it. Once I got Back East, the trappings of black nationalist rage I felt and openly expressed while Out West disappeared. I found myself graciously cleansed of the plastic burden of California consciousness -- of Jheri curl grease on the bus windows and seatbacks, of black men with wave hairdos; where being white was the penultimate achievement, while being of color was an obstacle to overcome through all one's waking hours. I also worried that California consciousness was creeping across the country, that it foretold the future of America. Barring the obvious sins of the Reagan era that chased me overseas to Paris in the late Eighties, the years since OJ's low-speed chase seem to have borne out my trepidation. While not prepared to declare myself a cultural nationalist, it is not hard to recognize the racial re-polarizing of the States (which is not to say it was even close to depolarized).


Naturally, Reed's book does not speak to my experience in the Bay Area, nor does it directly address my concerns regarding This Great Nation of ours. He does emphasize the relationship between Oakland's regional history -- its characters and characterizations -- in terms of America's history. He cites numerous texts to establish the connection, such as The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands: "In the aftermath of the Gold Rush, a new American dream was born -- the enduring conviction that sudden wealth was potentially within everyone's grasp." As a resident of Oakland, Reed writes to recreate his own experience there. And he has constructed Blues City following a strategy revealed in the subtitle, A Walk In Oakland. Over the course of a year or so, Reed is accompanied by family, friends, and assorted others who avail themselves of the city's easy layout, strolling through a host of civic and cultural activities and events: the Jack London Waterfront Walk, the black cowboy parade, Kwanzaa, a powwow, the Chinatown festival, a tour of Old Oakland, the City Center tour, the Peralta House, the Preservation Park picnic, the Black Panther picnic, El dia de los muertos (The Day of the Dead), an Oakland Heritage Alliance ceremony honoring the African American Museum and Library, the Black Panther tour led by former party chairman David Hilliard, a Fruitvale district tour, the BBQ, Beer, and Blues Festival, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex Pride Festival, Art and Soul Weekend ...


And what makes each of these events resonate is the fact that Reed makes contact with someone knowledgeable at each. In italicized passages, he revives these voices as they addressed him, capturing their candor as well as their selflessness. He has assembled a chorus of people who are committed to the city they live in. These are people whose work is not just a job, but a means to stave off oblivion. While not all of the people remember the histories and personalities they relate through direct contact, they have assumed the humanity of their social forbears as genuine.


Reed uncovers these qualities because he is the kind of teacher who cannot hide his lust for learning, his consummate skill as a listener. And as a listener, he writes for his subjects as much as for himself: "If I had not written this book, I would not have become acquainted with Oakland's many worlds. Nor would I have met the many volunteers, the true heroes and heroines of the city who strive to keep Oakland alive in the face of fierce and often malevolent forces of development." Deftly delivering these anecdotes and vignettes in subtly varied stylistic shifts, Reed is a proven craftsman whose forty-plus years of promoting American letters comes across in crisp, pointed prose. He conveys ideas as well as images, embellishing his vivid imagery with appropriate ideas. Avoiding clutter, he constructs information-loaded paragraphs that are deceptively brief.


In one exemplary passage, he visits the Chabot Space and Science Center, a facility affiliated with both NASA and the Smithsonian. He writes:


After touring the classrooms and the mock Challenger space station, after crossing a sky bridge to the Dellums building from the Sprees building, Tennessee and I join Sprees in watching a movie in the Tien MegaDome Theater. It shows an exploration of the inner body, and Tennessee finds it hard to take at certain points. After watching the stomach break down foods like some sort of washing machine, I vow to chew my food more carefully. The next morning, while swimming at the YMCA, I see myself as a movie skeleton moving through the waters, an image triggered by having watched moving about in everyday activities the day before. The Chabot Center is a gigantic, transformative teaching tool; when you exit, you're not the same person who entered.


Without the literary pyrotechnics that plague many writers, Reed transforms the reader using straightforward language. He neither talks down to his reader, nor sucks up to the literate acrobats of too many postmodern prose writers. {3}



"The city" as inspiration for literary memoir may be approached from any number of perspectives. The last such book I read was Colson Whitehead's \italic{Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Chapters}. Whitehead writes about a mythic New York; the great city that arouses wonder and hyperbole by the truckload. Whitehead accomplishes this mythologizing by relying on the sense of anonymity the city engenders. Not a beautiful portrait of New York but an ironic one, the writing nonetheless conveys the beauty of New Yorkers' anonymous unity. Whitehead, like Reed, has listened to the city's residents and molded the classical persona of the title through their voices, their plaintive laments, their careful hopes, their controlled despair. His subtitle, A City in Thirteen Chapters, suggests an episodic television broadcast, one starring his Colossus at the center of a sit-com, a sardonic series somewhere between Sex and the City and The Honeymooners (in tone, rather than content), a program of comic paradoxes.


Reed, on the other hand, has written a memoir full of history. He does not pretend that history -- even when nearly forgotten -- does not matter. He sets forth to challenge whatever recent received ideas we now circulate regarding this city; he is not separate from this "we." Further, he does not claim to discover his identity through his narrative. But Reed wants to demystify Oakland; he has long written from the position of a debunker of myths. While the fog of ignorance can be quite familiar, its dispersal is ultimately greater; even -- as cited in this essay's epigram -- "limitless."


While Reed never answers my Californiaphobia, he has painted a tableau that portrays a modern city with historic roots I scarcely saw (or sought). Whitehead's New York is ahistorical; a city that -- maybe through the arrogance of its willful deracination, its secret law of everything at once -- develops and assumes a peculiar character precisely because it is so archetypical.


In the end, neither city can belong to either author. More to the point, no city belongs to any one person. Both writers cannot avoid creating composites; this is how a city reveals itself. The Blues, which Reed invokes throughout his book, and the mythic, which Whitehead evokes through his Colossus, differ in form. But like cities, they represent cultural composites. Made of so many, it is remarkable that anyone would dare to speak for such monstrous hydras as cities present.


To convey as clear a picture as Reed does -- building his image one walk at a time, one encounter after another, each citizen leisurely recalling those before and around him or her -- is a laudable achievement, to say the least. To do so in so few pages (both books come in at under two hundred pages) is what makes Blues City read like poetry. Reed mentions that he reread Homer's Odyssey -- among several other books -- while at work on Blues City. And Blues City, while written as prose, reminds one of the measured style that one hears in narrative verse. Having listened to -- and heard -- Mr. Reed speak and read on numerous occasions over the past twenty-five years, I mentioned to Steve Cannon, his erstwhile partner and colleague, that Reed's voice jumps off the page, comes through the printed text -- its cadence, its rhythm, its intonations and inflections -- as if he was in the room reading aloud. "That's what a writer's supposed to do," remarked Cannon. "Isn't it?" That may be enough, but in Blues City, the writer has accomplished (or has he revealed?) so much more. However true or untrue Gertrude Stein's statement may have been regarding the Oakland of the early twentieth century, there is definitely a lot of "there" in Reed's book. Read it and go there.



That Reed left the Bay Area in the company of the same two guys with whom he arrived, that the high point of that first trip was the time spent in North Platte, suggests the writer's aversion to irresponsible antics. Reed, the first African American writer to inspire my literary ambitions with his second novel, Yellow Back Radio Brokedown (which had me devouring the two other novels he had done --  The Freelance Pallbearers and Mumbo Jumbo -- in quick succession), has long channeled his adventurous side -- the Call of the Wild {4}, if you will -- into his writing. While idiots like myself have shipwrecked any promise we may have hoped for in the pursuit of negligent recklessness, Reed wisely chose the course of an adventurous recluse. Experience takes us along many paths, but a productive and inspirational output like Reed's requires a degree of consistency that escaped countless colleagues and peers of all three generations. The obscurity, the spare and spotty records, the mediocrity of much of the Beat Generation of writers may amuse us, but their works lack the craft that their crafty lives pretended to; their oeuvres are like footnotes to the biographies of their queer, fucked-up lives. In the end, the tight, concise, content-rich texts that Ishmael Reed has consistently completed over the last forty years comes of a dedication to communication, rather than a muddle of self-medicated speculations posing as meditative ruminations.



1 They still called me Oreo at the Bayview Hunters Point Opera House, where I was also tech director. But that's another story.


2 Actually a small facility in a predominantly black district "across the tracks" on the San Francisco side of the bay.


3 Indeed, as a writer, the book has been immensely instructive in terms of its technical feats. Reed's prowess is surprisingly understated, a fact that in no way suggests a lack of force. If anything, the low key "delivery" packs power into phrases that seem as calm as a mountaintop lake, and just as profound.


4 Radical writer Jack London plays a great part in Oakland history and, as such, in Reed's Blues City.


© 2003 Norman Douglas. New York City December 5, 2003


Film Review of Caché

Film Review

by Norman Douglas





Directed by:   Michael Haneke

Screenplay:   Michael Haneke

Cinematography:   Christian Berger





"What people do officially is nothing compared with what they do in secret. People usually associate creativity with works of art, but what are works of art alongside the creative energy displayed by everyone a thousand times a day: seething unsatisfied desires, daydreams in search of a foothold in reality, feelings at once confused and luminously clear, ideas and gestures presaging nameless upheavals."


{-- Raoul Vaneigem, {The Revolution of Everyday Life}, 1967}


The other night, two workers from my local bookstore strong-armed a few of us into watching Mike Mills' adaptation of Walter Kirn's 1999 novel, Thumbsucker. A couple of months ago, I went to see Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers as soon as it opened in Rhinebeck, NY. Around the same time, I bought Gus Van Sant's Last Days on DVD. What do these films -- and a lot of indie films I've seen lately -- have in common with Michael Haneke's direction of Caché, from a script he wrote himself? It seems like there's a bandwagon storming through the souls of filmmakers these days, and the driver of this wagon is busily touting the notion that silence is the new dialogue, in the same way -- as I once heard an artist quip -- that painting is the new drawing. Don't get me wrong: I appreciate a film without cops and sociopaths as much as anybody who tears tickets at places like Film Forum (as I did, back when it was on Watts Street). But I'm not convinced that the absence of words ably reproduces the everyday lives of we who exist outside the constructs of those who would project images ostensibly designed for our reflection. On the other hand, despite what I perceived as unrealistic flaws in a film that tackles the way we define the Real, Caché makes silence its subject, so that even what gets spoken echoes with silence.

Silence seems rare in the lives of my peers, colleagues, and acquaintances. During moments of catharsis and transformation, most of us find ourselves wishing we had either said what was said better than we said it or, had simply kept our mouths shut. The silence in Caché is amplified by the static cinematography. Beginning with a shot of a Parisian town house that lasts for the three or four minutes of a credit sequence unraveled line-by-line, like the screen read-out of a speed typist, Austrian director Haneke relies on cinematograher   Christian Berger to ensure that one never forget that we are engaged in the act of watching. As the credits end and an unseen speaker reveals that she's watching the same image as the audience, we're reminded that listening goes hand in hand with watching. A male voice responds. An "off-screen" voice, out of the frame, hidden, caché. The camera pulls away, enlarging our perspective to reveal that Georges (  Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliet Binoche), husband and wife, have been watching the same static video image of their home as the movie audience. "It goes on for two hours this way," Anne tells Georges, in the filmmaker's wry wink to the audience.

Menaced by a series of camcorder-grade surveillance tapes delivered anonymously to their home, Georges and Anne contact the police, who refuse to act until someone commits an actual crime. Like all good film characters, this official apathy launches Georges into detective mode. Though his command of cinematic device and artifice -- of silence and visual stillness -- impose an atmosphere of suspense on the viewer that some critics compare favorably with Hitchcock, Haneke clearly has no interest in delivering the kind of standard entertainment for which Hitchcock became "notorious." Repeatedly maintaining his duty to protect wife and child, Georges seems more driven by the need to protect himself. As the videotapes show up on their doorstep, accompanied by childlike black and white drawings of caricatures that spout red blood -- red crayon applied so violently to paper that it has the look of a stain such as the Pontius Pilate could not wash out -- these images reel Georges in ever deeper, returning him to his childhood home and its memories, memories that haunt his dreams. Discounting the possibility that their thirteen year old son, Pierrot (  Lester Makedonsky), is playing a nasty prank, Georges privately suspects someone from his past, someone he believes he has forgotten. This someone is Majid (Maurice Bénichou), the son of their Algerian caretakers. Georges' parents tried to adopt Majid when Majid's parents fell victim to the police massacre of Algerian protestors in Paris on October 17, 1961.

Essentially built around the characters' memories of that day, when police, headed by the Vichy collaborator  --  -- , brutally murdered as many as two hundred people, dumping scores of bodies into the River Seine, Haneke sees no reason to revisit the topological scene of the crime. Because French authorities viciously and effectively censored news of the massacre from the press, the public, and the international community, most of France denied the murders ever took place. Even among Algerians (which nation then stood on the verge of winning a particularly bloody war of colonial independence that would end the following March), an accurate account of the dead continues unresolved. What Haneke addresses with Caché has to do with the way that personal memory colors perception -- just as perception shapes memory -- creating an illusion out of the reality known as the present, here and now -- to say nothing of the past.

Real life is terrorized by the sensation of survival that everyday events take on in our collective striving for history; learned needs lurk in the shadows of every choice, squashing the persistent desire for peace and love. Today, despite the empirical fact that we continue to enact history, the vast majority experiences that history while watching it occur, as if history could pass us by; we notice every little thing and, taking note, choose every little effect upon the self. Although great catastrophes and upheavals are beamed almost instantly around the world, the ability to connect and disconnect has more to do with one's willingness to do so than anything else. Like highway rubbernecking, electronic rubbernecking depends on one's inner state of mind, not the degree of mayhem and carnage present in the wreck at which one gawks. Stuck in traffic on the way to work with no more sick days and only AM lite music differs from being stuck in that same traffic in a VW van with a handful of friends making a cross country trip; neither case compares to riding through that gridlock as the parent or child of a person in that same crash. Disaster television, like all TV and, by extension, all of daily life (little of which we can imagine becoming history) only impresses us to the extent that we have prepared ourselves for particular impressions of peculiar events; memory colors perception. Haneke does not critique the media: he investigates our actions and inaction as a whole, using media and media personalities to remind us of the reality behind the curtain, a reality towards which we tend to pay no attention.

Georges, as host of a "public" television show devoted to literature (modeled after the commercially successful, Apostrophe, where I saw Charles Bukowski lionize his host: "You guys are great! I've never been on TV in America! And I love all the wine! And the women!" a memory that colors my perception of the film...), depends financially on this video version of life's events