Thursday, September 20, 2018

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, by John Edgar Wideman

This riveting book explores the death of Emmett Till (the black teenager murdered in Money, Mississippi in 1955 for purportedly whistling at a white woman) through the execution of his father, Louis Till, by the US Army during World War II.

Following the rapid acquittal of Emmett Till's murderers, international outcry pressured the Mississippi court system to at least pursue the lesser charge of kidnapping against them. The grand jury was poised to do so, when the spectre of Louis Till, Emmett's father, was introduced. While stationed in Italy serving in the Army's Transportation Command, where most black enlistees were posted, he was tried and convicted of raping and murdering a local woman. The damning testimony was given in exchange for clemency by one of his comrades, and Louis and another man were court-martialed then executed by hanging - lynched - in Italy, in July, 1945. The story of Louis Till's court-martial was released to the public (the papers) in October of 1955.

Why then, a decade after his execution? Wideman has no doubt the disclosure was timed to turn public opinion against young Emmett and his mother Mamie by drawing a like-father-like-son parallel between Louis Till, unable to speak in his own defense, and Emmett, likewise silenced. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Wideman obtains a copy of Louis Till's file from the US Archives. Reading about this unrepentant man, the author cannot help seeing his own life: his distant stone-faced father, not unlike "I'll be back when I'm back" Louis Till. Wideman sees that coldness as the armor a black man was/is forced to wear in a society that constantly degrades him, insults him, robs him of manhood, and may very well murder him simply for existing. When he slams the front door in departing his house, whether on the way to his daily job or for a night spent elsewhere, it's never a given that he will return.

During his court-martial, "Till remained adamantly silent... a stubborn silence that must have puzzled and frustrated his army interrogators since all the other accused colored soldiers were busy accusing one another. Breaking his silence once..., Louis Till allegedly said to Rousseau, "There's no use in me telling you one lie and then getting up in court and telling another one," a remark that clearly conveys to me and should have conveyed to Rousseau Till's Igbo sophistication, his resignation, his Old World, ironic sense of humor about truth's status in a universe where all truths are equal until power chooses one truth to serve its needs."

So why is Wideman writing this book "to save a life," as he puts it? "I work for an incarcerated son and brother. They are locked inside me, I am imprisoned with them during every moment that I struggle with the Till file. No choice. Trying to find words to help them. To help myself. Help carry the weight of hard years spent behind bars. If I return to Till's grave, I will confess to him first thing that the Louis Till project is about saving a son and a brother, about saving myself."

This is fine writing, and a different way of considering a single terrible deed: connecting it to a larger world of injustice dissolves some of the immediacy of Emmett Till's murder, but draws back far enough to make that grotesque act a single chip in a mosaic. Narrow your eyes and it comes into focus: a black man in a noose. It's long past time to cut him down, cut it out. Think about it, and read this book.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Three Identical Strangers, a film by Tim Wardle

The documentary Three Identical Strangers chronicles the surprise meeting at age nineteen of identical triplets separated at birth. All were adopted, and none knew they had brothers until their own eyes insisted it was true. They became a sensation in 1980, appearing on talk shows and written about in newspapers - a novelty. And if that’s all you knew about them, you would have a warm feeling that they had found each other, and that their reunion was a psychic homecoming.

But that’s just the opener. Questions are raised: why were none of their parents told that their baby son was a triplet? The adoption agency clearly knew, and kept it secret. And as more secrets unfold, the young men’s story takes on a darker tone. While the film certainly considers the nature vs nurture debate - which wields greater influence over developing children - it also delves into ethical issues far more important.

What follows may be more than you want to know, before you see this movie.

And on a note that reverberates through our modern society, it challenges us to look at what we do to each other in the name of pursuit of knowledge. Whether we’re talking about the Tuskegee study in which poor black convicts were deliberately infected with syphilis then observed (but not treated), or the psychology experiments at Harvard in the 60s in which Ted Kaczynski (later known as the Unabomber) was a subject/victim, surely it’s time to be asking some hard questions about ethics, and whether the harm done to these guinea pigs is mere collateral damage in the discovery of great truths, or if that harm says more about the researchers, and taints their findings with the heartlessness or even sadism of their methods.

I’m inclined to the latter conclusion. The Hippocratic Oath states, “First, do no harm.” Once we lose sight of that, we abandon our humanity. Subatomic physics tells us that we cannot observe even particles without altering their behavior - how much greater the interference then, when those under observation are sentient beings? What did the researchers learn, versus the extent to which their experiment damaged the lives of their subjects? And since the study has never been released, there’s no understanding or discovery to balance against the harm done by isolating babies from their siblings, with whom they shared a womb and a few scant months before being separated.

This film’s not just entertainment - go see it and consider the questions it raises.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

If you hung out in Boulder, Colorado, between 1970 and 1976, you had opportunities to enjoy Magic Music. They played on the CU campus on Friday afternoons, they played around the area, at one point they opened for The Youngbloods, and they were on Cat Stevens' tour for a single performance, when, thrilled by the audience's standing ovation, they played three encores and were promptly fired.

They lived in schoolbuses in Eldorado Canyon a few miles south of Boulder, and later in the nearby mountain town of Allenspark in a rustic art gallery lent them by an acquaintance. They were hippies, and their music showcased acoustic excellence, gentle lyrics, and rhapsodic harmonies. They could have been big, but they never broke through. This movie, made by Lee Aronsohn, a fan from those 70s performances who wondered what ever happened to them, is not just a history and an homage, it is also an act of healing.

During their brushes with potential success, their differing visions created acrimony strong enough to drive them apart for decades. But when Aronsohn, wanting to reunite the band, contacted Chris Daniels, the most successful musician post-Magic Music, he was able to connect with the members one at a time, including their third manager.

The filmmaker's goal is to recreate an iconic photo of the best-known iteration of the group, so he must persist in his efforts to track down not just most, but all of the musicians represented there. And in the course of locating and communicating with them, and putting them in touch with each other, he achieves something remarkable - 40 years on, the negativity of their squabbles shrinks against the memory of the music they made together. As men in their 60s, they realize that life is too short for grudges, and when they take the stage once more, the moment is richer than mere performance.

Even if you weren't around in the 70s and don't care about hippies, you could take instruction from the ways this group of musicians thwarted opportunity, maintaining a level of integrity that turned out to be incompatible with stardom. And it might prompt you to reconnect with those you cut out of your life.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Area X - the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

This trilogy would qualify, I suppose, as Science Fiction, since it features aliens, or as Horror, since some deadly entities are bent on harm. But there's far more to it - this is almost a treatise on the natural world, and how the decay of human habitation opens the way for vegetation and wildlife to reassert themselves in territory formerly their haven.

Book I - Annihilation concerns the Twelfth Expedition into Area X, a place formerly a coastal human community: a lighthouse and a couple of villages. But Something has instigated change - humans are gone, and the rate of decay and fecundity of nature have accelerated.  Previous expeditions have ended badly - the venturers do not return, or die of aggressive cancers soon after emerging, or go insane - in many cases, they kill each other.

A few characters stand out: the Biologist, whose name we do not learn, a tough resourceful woman whose husband accompanied a previous expedition but returned so changed she wants to go, possibly for vengeance, or at least to understand what happened to him; and the Director, billing herself as the Psychologist, who uses hypnosis and drugs to control the rest of the crew - except the Biologist, who has made herself immune.

What they find in their explorations is a teeming beautiful wilderness run rampant, as they come up against the limits of their capabilities.

Book II - Authority brings into focus Southern Reach, headquarters of the organization dedicated to understanding and containing Area X. Here our third main character shows up: Control, son of high-up functionaries at Central (think CIA), recruited by his cutthroat mother in her last push to make a success of him. He's assigned to support the Director, and also to figure out why this group isn't accomplishing its goals. The employees are, variously: mad, prone to peculiar habits, hyper-aggressive, reclusive, obsessed, or in zombie-like states of confused stasis. Even the building has an "off" personality. It should - it stands near the Border, on the other side of which Area X flourishes despite their efforts. In this book we delve further into the Biologist, who having returned in an altered state from the Twelfth Expedition, is imprisoned at Southern Reach while administrators, including Control and the Director/Psychologist, attempt to probe her mind.

But chaos descends: leaks over from Area X. Eventually the organization cannot function. Control and the Biologist flee up the coast.

Book III - Acceptance takes us back into Area X, providing history of the place pre-invasion as well as insight into other, more secret, attempts to contact and direct the alien presence. And we learn more about the forces that continue to transform land, air and water.

These books are evocatively written:
"The wind picked up, and it began to rain. I saw each drop fall as a perfect, faceted liquid diamond, refracting light even in the gloom, and I could smell the sea and picture the roiling waves. The wind was like something alive; it entered every pore of me and it, too, had a smell, carrying with it the earthiness of the marsh reeds." 
"Control  still couldn't tell from his examination of the records... if the iterations of [the actually 38 expeditions numbered up to Eleven] had started out as a clerical error and become codified as process (unlikely) or been initiated as a conscious decision by the director, sneakily enacted... as if always there. A need to somehow act as if they weren't as far along without concrete results or answers. Or the need to describe a story arc for each set of expeditions that didn't give away how futile it was fast becoming." 

In this time of humans trampling the natural world as if intent on destroying what is actually our only home, this horror story/ science fiction/what-have-you gives a voice to Earth, gives it a means to push us back and renew its dominion.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Death of Stalin

Armando Ianucci's new film, The Death of Stalin, is the blackest of black comedies. How else can one treat Stalin's era, and his henchmen? The Central Committee, seen first fawning over their leader's every word and tasteless joke at a compulsory dinner, must be circumspect when it's not clear whether the man will survive his cerebral hemorrhage - every word they utter will be recorded and remembered, and used against them. The team of doctors rounded up to examine him (all the good ones having been shot or sent to Siberia) consult, then make noncommittal assessments of his condition. Beria pulls one aside to ask whether Stalin will live or die. Blanching, the doctor whispers that he will die. But then the Great Man sits up and begins to speak and point, and Beria's threatening gaze falls on the luckless doctor, who falls back on "Sometimes..." Then Stalin does die, and Beria is as happy as a man can be.

The Committee must have a leader, and the Constitution elevates Deputy Secretary General Malenkov, a man whose spine is nowhere to be found. The group muddle their way through their first meeting with forced unanimity, but the cracks are already showing. Khrushchev's ambitions are clear, they all fear Beria - the butcher in charge of the secret police - and the rest of them aren't sure which horse to back. As these powerful men bicker, play practical jokes, and scheme behind each other's backs, the halls of power are laid bare in all their tawdry borrowed splendor. These are small men - by what obsequious machinations are they in charge?

One cannot help drawing a short straight line from Stalin through Beria to their eventual successor, Vladimir Putin. The exercise of power may be more sophisticated now, but for the average Russian the outcome is the same - cooperate or be exiled or executed. Likewise, the revolving doors of men in favor and out, bear a striking resemblance to those at the current White House, where the petty tyranny of whim and short attention span holds sway.

There was nothing funny about the Soviet leaders, as there's nothing amusing about the Kremlin's current occupant, nor his lapdog-in-chief in this country. But satire, the darkest shade of comedy, might be the only way to give them the critique they so deeply deserve: to be laughed at.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Deep South, by Paul Theroux

Renowned travel writer Paul Theroux departed from his usual methods in his Deep South treks: instead of starting in airports and taking single-loop tours via public transportation, he aimed his car south from his Massachusetts home not once but four times, one per season, over the course of a couple of years. He met people who introduced him to others, and many he visited more than once. Instead of a traveler's singular impression, he dug in - the resulting chronicle offers us a granular view of the South.

Without judging the beliefs or inclinations of those he encountered, he immersed himself in what they think, what they want, meanwhile offering an outsider's perspective on grinding poverty, racism, and limits on opportunities that keep Southern society locked into a centuries-old dynamic enforced through banking, property ownership, and the shrunken coffers of governments and NGOs that could change residents' outlook.

Despite Theroux's renown, he was unknown in the South to all but a few - he found one avid reader and the man's writer friend delighted to make his acquaintance (and vice versa), but at the Arkansas Festival of Books, where you might think they'd have heard of him, he was greeted as "Mr. Thorax," his writing unfamiliar. He was simply a Yankee - an outsider - an object initially of suspicion, but when he pressed, a sounding-board for stories.

"I was the bystander or the eavesdropper, recording other people's pain or pleasure... No ordeals, few dramas...I breezed along, and this progress was a way of understanding how lucky I was, because the confinement that Southerners feel, their keen awareness of themselves as stereotypes - provincials and yokels, in literature, in life - is something palpable... No wonder the grotesque preponderance of the gothic and the freaks - the reality was too brutal to state baldly, unbearably so.  Critics and academics extol the South for the abundant wealth of its literature, the region encouraging a storytelling tradition. This praise seemed to me a crock and self-serving [emphasis mine]. The opposite was the case: there was not enough writing, and what existed, with a few exceptions, was insufficient. Missing was a coherent introduction for the outsider to the South that exists, the South that I saw... I say ignore the books and go there. The Deep South today is not in its books, it's in its people."

He found the two biggest drivers of poverty and resistance to change to be region-wide loss of jobs, and pervasive racism. Those he met, black and white, spoke of the furniture and carpet plants that had closed, their industries relocated to Mexico, the catfish farming now outsourced to Vietnam, and how those losses had hollowed out rural communities. The construction of the interstate had stranded towns off the chosen route, condemning them to decay. Theroux reflected on aid the US provides to countries like Zimbabwe, whose rural areas were no worse off than those he visited in South Carolina, Georgia, and the Delta, and wondered why churches dispatched missionaries to promote development in Africa, turning a blind eye to comparable conditions just down the road.

He observed the self-enforced segregation of society - black churches and white ones, black diners and white, black-majority towns and white ones, then met with a group of black farmers in an uphill struggle - despite crop sales, none could obtain a loan (essential for financing the tractors, combines, and other machinery necessary for farming more than a few acres) - no banker or loan officer - all of them white - were willing to believe that a black man could prosper at farming. Crop sales on thousands of acres meant nothing - the bankers had never heard of a successful black farmer, so they wouldn't make a loan to one.

This book was written before the 2016 election cycle, yet it seems attitudes in the South have not changed so much as hardened, as the ugly campaign gave rural whites permission to express their racist views openly. Theroux visited gun shows just after the Sandy Hook shootings, and noted the uptick in sales - fear of possible limitations on gun ownership prompted people to stock up.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Phantom Thread, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson

Reportedly Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film, Phantom Thread gives him ample opportunity to employ his bewitching eyes and occasional day-brightening smile to great effect as 50s English haute-couture designer Reynolds Woodcock. He and his sister Cyril, the marvelously icy, efficient, and ruthless Lesley Manville, run a successful business as dressmakers to aristocracy. Cyril oversees daily operations, leaving Reynolds free to design, to imagine, and to insert a little of himself into each garment.

The film opens with him at the end of an affair - the young woman pleads at breakfast for any acknowledgement, but he will not even glance at her. Cyril disposes of her. He goes to a seaside town for a change of pace, and at a restaurant is served by Alma, Vicky Krieps, a refreshingly vital young woman willing to be with him, but grounded enough in herself not to surrender completely to his tastes and demands. This of course makes her highly desirable - she carries her certainty the way he carries his secrets, and they make an excellent combination.

This film is about secrets. Early on, Reynolds reveals that in the labor of creating his mother’s wedding dress (to her second husband), he hid stitched words in parts of the garment. He continues to do that, in a way that suggests both a claim on the wearer and a blessing on her life. Alma can only match him by having her own secrets, and, satisfyingly, she does. Hers too are about exerting possession.

As their relationship deepens, she joins his corps of dressmakers, primarily as his model - it’s not clear what sewing skills she has in a business where every stitch is placed by hand. Cyril is always there. Alma is given a bedroom next door to Reynolds in the house that’s also their workshop, but that door between rooms is a barrier - Cyril ensures everyone knows their place. She and her brother are partners as deep as any married couple - their creative output depends on the fusion of their personalities in a common enterprise. It’s not a pairing that welcomes intrusion.

And yet, Alma is not content to be the model, the muse. She wants more - she wants a full relationship with Reynolds, including love and respect. Watching her conduct herself with enviable surety, the audience is in her corner - we want her to insinuate herself into that rigid couple, to earn a place in their small closed world. If Cyril is the canvas on which this story is told, and Reynolds the brushes, Alma is the paints, arranged by his hand but displaying colors that are hers alone. It is this balance that makes Anderson’s film brilliant.