Wednesday, May 31, 2006

End of Month Film Report: May 2006 Part I

I decided that I would try to keep track of the films I'm watching each month. It's a somewhat electic list, some for research, some for fun, some "I've been meaning to see that," some that are "should watches": the films that should be seen for ones own aptitude, intellectual development, facility for small-talk, etc. But what emerged is my growing penchant for films by directors who create powerful visuals from everyday moments and have an acute sense of the use of sound. Here they are in order of my memory which has no bearing on my enjoyment (or lack thereof):

1. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993), Blanc (1994), Rouge (1994), Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski (pictured left). Kieslowski's mediation on France's national ethos: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Each idea is represented in order by a color from the national flag. The individual installments are astounding in their own right, but for me Trois Couleurs: Bleu is tied with Ratcatcher (#6) as my most riveting viewing for the month. Like Ratcatcher, this film is about loss, grief, and love, but in this case from the point of view of a woman (Juliette Binoche) who has lost her composer husband and only child and attempts to liberate herself from all human attachment. Kieslowski is one of my favorite visual storytellers. An exciting aspect of this DVD series are the film lessons where Kieslowski breaks down the aesthetic reasoning and technological methods of an individual shot. This series also features his early short films including student work from his days at the prestigious Lódz Film School in Poland. I found Kieslowski's portrait profoundly moving. If you want to see my thoughts on this film see my post "For C. and my friend" from May 26th.

2. La Ciénaga/The Swamp (2001), Dir. Lucrecia Martel. I wrote about Martel's latest, La Niña santa/The Holy Girl (2004) in April. Her first film is filled with small details of middle-class family life in Argentina, for Martel a stagnant unattended pool by which everyone lays in the sweltering heat serves as apt metaphor. Here again Martel's use of sound as connective tissue between scenes and to underscore specific narrative elements is key. Change or die, as the saying goes and the people in these two related families seem to be dying in degrees. Martel's screenplay is also notable for the prolific and brutal anti-Indian sentiment voiced by the family who has Indian domestics in their employ. Even in the case of the adolescent daughter who clings to the Indian maid who is near her own age, her affection stems from the deep loneliness she feels within her family not a true embrace of this young woman whose livelihood is tethered to the efficacy of the daughter's care. Amazing performances, but I was relieved leave their quicksand lives at the film's end.
3. Possession (2002), Dir. Neil LaBute. From the Booker Prize winning novel by A.S. Byatt (which I haven't read). I really didn't expect a thoughtful adult consideration of the consequences of consuming passion from the director known for comedies of human cruelity: In the Company of Men (1997) and The Shape of Things (2003). Of course in between he made Nurse Betty (2000), pulling a good performance out of Chris Rock(!) and giving Morgan Freeman the opportunity to play a philosopher with the heart of a romantic who also happens to be a hitman. I'm not a big Gwyneth Paltrow fan except when she's playing British which she does here, in the end it was playwright David Henry Hwang's name among the screenwriters that sucked me in. I was glad for it because when do you get to see a well written and directed film about the complex politics of academia, even if it is couched in romance mystery?
4. Pride and Prejudice (2005), Dir. Joe Wright. Lush and romantic (so is the score), and yet shot in a naturalistic style--the actors looked as though they were actually living their characters' lives as opposed to stepping out of a rarified photo shoot. Wright enjoys his actors, in particular Kiera Knightly, and clearly finds pleasure in telling an intelligent romantic story and taking advantage of some great locations despite weather and lighting vagaries. Emma Thompson helped in places with the dialogue, and it shows. As director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) predicted, Knightly is among the promising new talents, and the camera loves her.

5. Something New (2006), Dir. Sanaa Hamri. Hopefully the beginning of an interesting career for Hamri who shows herself to have a great sense of color and light, and the maturity to just let the camera stay on Sanaa Lathan and trust this gifted and astute actor work her craft from the inside out. Also fine efforts by supporting actors, particularly Alfre Woodard as a propriety-devoted mother, and Wendy Raquel Robinson (pictured below right with Lathan), who is best known as Steve Harvey's romantic foil on his eponymous TV show, getting to stretch her wings as the thoughtful best friend who goes through her own character growth. Plus a great monologue by Earl Billings as the perceptive and big-hearted father (the role plays as a daughter's love-letter to all black fathers). Simon Baker is under-utilized here, but gives a solid performance as the romantic lead. Baker has some compelling skills. An understated actor, he tends to disappear into his characters; he just needs some better ones to evaporate into. Baker had a nuanced performance in the well-written and underappreciated, debut effort by Alan Brown (best know for the innovative queer short O Beautiful), Book of Love (2004). But nevermind the boys (Mike Epps showing his romantic side, Donald Faison, and Blair Underwood as the I.B.M.--Ideal Black Man)--they're part of screenwriter Kriss Turner's fantasy--this is a women's film in the classic sense and Lathan's vehicle in the best sense. A subtle, romantic score by Wendy & Lisa, and points for inclusion and placement of the funk classic "Look What You've Done to Me" by Sheila Skipworth.

6. Ratcatcher (1998), Dir. Lynne Ramsay (pictured left). Tied with #1, Trois Couleurs: Bleu for the films I was most riveted by this month. The story of a boy from a working class Glasgow neighborhood living in an enviroment made toxic by economic limitations and the strife of the ongoing garbage collector strike. Ramsay is a truly gifted visual storyteller, consistently able to draw natural, and brutally honest, portrayals from children and adolescents both actors and non-actors (if you get the Criterion Collection DVD it includes her award-winning short films Gasman and Small Deaths both told from the p.o.v. of working-class Scottish children). There are no wasted words in her dialogue, and her use of sound is evocative and unsettling.
7. Morven Callar (2002), Dir. Lynne Ramsay. Adapted from Alan Warner's novel about a supermarket clerk in Scotland whose writer boyfriend has committed suicide leaving her his unpublished novel which she passes off as her own, taking the sizable payment to live as a raver in Spain. Not as successful as Ratcatcher, but Samantha Morton is a revelation as the title character, and a partially realized Ramsay vision is still quite intriguing to watch. Again, great pairing of sound and image, particularly the use of headphone audio effect in the main character's development.

8. Tom Dowd and the Language of Music (2003), Dir. Mark Moormann. Dowd (pictured left) was a brilliant and sensitive, multi-talented sound engineer (and a former researcher with the Manhattan Project). Working with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Theolonius Monk, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others Dowd contributed his engineering and mixing talents some of the most important music of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He was a fascinating man, research scientist, and inventor with a great ear who was at the cutting edge of analog recording during his time and who embraced digital recording as well. Hearing him speak about his work with artists was enthralling, particularly seeing him walk through the mix of Eric Clapton's "Layla" some thirty years after his original engineering of the tracks.

9. Mar adentro/The Sea Inside (2003), Dir. Alejandro Amenabar. I had been avoiding this, as I wasn't sure if it was actually any good or if it had earned the Foreign Film Oscar because more Academy voters viewed it due to their recognition of lead Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), and director Amenabar (The Others) given their respective successes on US movie screens. Bardem was compelling and nuanced, in matter of fact manner (which is harder than it sounds) playing a paraplegic, Ramón Sampedro, who fought for his right to die legally in post-Franco Spain. Bardem exhibits Sampedro's calm certainty without resorting to the noble victim. Amenabar (pictured right with Bardem) captures wonderful moments from a number of relatively unknown and untested (at least at this level of performance) actors, while finding innovative ways to keep the camera from being static yet still communicating the sense of immobility and dependence that for Sampedro defined his life. Amenabar, who neither reads music nor has any formal training, also composed the film's score (as he has on all his films to date). Clearly atuned to sound, he acheives some powerfully sensual interweaving of waves and breath in the film's sound design.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

National Juried Show, Sun Hong, & Venus 7

This weekend I went to a few art shows at Atlanta's Eyedrum Gallery. One had the
(pictured left, Jeffry Loy's Papula Arboretum)

unfortunately generic moniker of National Juried Exhibition 2006. (Juried/Curated by George Kinghorn of the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art). A funky converted warehouse space where experimental sound art, music, spoken word and various fine art mediums are featured and that's the name they come up with for their annual show? I guess until the annual show gets righteous national props for being a "national juried exhibition" it will suffer under that title. Perhaps they're just slyly cutting to the chase as that wording is often employed as a descriptive for lesser known group exhibits. As a sometime curator I am biased towards a unifying theme, something that gives me a sense of the curator's vision.

There were some pieces that I found compelling, Jim and the EEOC an embroidered piece by Judith Simmons who playful utilizes the typically feminine domestic art to portray egregious male behavior in the typically masculine corporate terrain. Veering sharply from home-spun homilies (e.g. "there's no place like home") into graphic novel terrain, the framed piece offers the receding view of the Jim of the title with stitched narration confirming his being simultaneously comforted and led away by a male security guard as a thought bubble evidences Jim's contemplating the consequences of his act of sexual harrasment: mistaking a woman's breast for an elevator button. Employing such a surreally absurd "hallucination," and having essentially faceless figures is a humorous intervention on the dehumanizing aspects of corporate culture on both men and women.

Then there was a mixed media piece whose title caught me short, J. Geils Band, only because I think no one except New England people would still remember who they were, although their one big hit, "Centerfold," was in serious MTV rotation in the 80s. Prior to that they were a hard-working blues-based all-white Boston bar band. Really tight from playing so many live shows. Nevertheless I could not make the connections Dorothy Love put forth in the piece. What did two hanging sleeveless ceramic dresses, plastic astroturf, a tiny plastic yellow chick, and a mix of blue patterned textile backgrounds have to do with the band? There must be some capricious memories associated with the band.

I turned and there was Jeffrey Loy's botanical spectacle, Papula Arboretum (see image above left). I'd love to know who besides art institutions and really high-level (deep-pocketed) individual collectors actually collects electronic-based installation art? It can be space consuming, expensive (Loy's asking price: $22,500), eat up your electricity bill, plus needing at least occasional if not regular maintenance--and you can't just call in the local electrician (two segments of the piece looked to already be on the fritz). Many installations are worth it if you can afford all that. But lately I've become curious as to what and who, beyond the usual suspects, comprises this specialized market.

Featuring slender elongated leaves of mild and stainless steel, the kinetic sculpture ends in "buds" (the papula of the title) of oscillating and static security monitors. Loy's potential blooms contain images of blinking and gazing eyes directed at varying angles, and the piece artfully incorporates clear-tubing sheathed electronic cables and wiring panels into the plant life. The deflated pose of the leaves begs the question of their fade or impending flourish, but the little Mary Richard's upward bobb at their ends encourages the latter assumption. The inclusion of the COBY® brand in the looped monitor display highlights a less than innocuous notion of electronic papula in the age of Homeland Security: A minute projection on the surface of a stigma, petal, or leaf. (emphasis mine; American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition).

More Noodles in My Soup: Recent work by Sun Hong
Local artist Sun Hong was having her second solo show, at Eyedrum's small gallery (pictured below, Hong at the entrance to her show ) a small exhibit of medium-small pen and ink drawings on large paper. One attendee after playfully arguing with his friend over which one each liked the best, asked Hong about a particularly spare work in which a thin line split into two and then rejoined itself. "Was that a conscious act on your part or did it just happen" Hong laughingly replied, "Everything is conscious." I'm still ruminating over the implications of that declaration (i.e. pairing it with various scenarios, similar to the old joke where you end every sentence with the phrase "in bed"). I liked the work, it did feel conscious, but not belaboredly so and not absent of pointedly venturing into the unknown. I too liked the minimal, open piece, it had an aspect of particular detail along with an embrace of expansive space. Its a conscious juxtaposition I can appreciate.

Venus 7
Although I couldn't stay for the actual show, the soundcheck for Georgia-based Venus 7, fronted by the multi-talented vocalist/instrumentalists Dorothy V Bell and Ingrid Sibley was already heating up the joint with the great vocal arrangments and cross-melodic interplay between the two with great harmonies. Plus these young women can sang, both as little as reeds, but that's all a saxophone needs (ouch, did I say that? Yeah! And it's true!). One has soaring virtuosity, the other made the mic into an afterthought, and they even shared a guitar--proving they know how to work together. That doesn't even speak to the tight backing band, three brothers on drums, bass, and guitar, seriously working the alt-rock-funk groove. I had never heard of them (I truly just came for the visual art), but I was so taken with listening and watching them that by the time I remembered to take out my camera and line up a shot they had just were ending the check and already unplugging.

Fortunately, I spoke to one of their friends who told me about the group's website in progress, in the meantime you'll have to go to Venus 7's page to check out their image and sample some of their music. According to the site they are "pixies wearing hotpants while sprinkling afrolicious dust." Know that while the selections there are really good unless you've got some quality computer speakers, they don't even compare to the soundcheck, much less their live sound. Plus, no disrespect but, sound mixing (engineering) for streaming internet is an art still in its relative infancy. So look for them live. They'll be at Django on June 7th.

Friday, May 26, 2006

For C. and my friend

Over a week ago I found out that a friend's brother, C., had passed away from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident which may have been a hit-and-run. He was actually her brother-in-law, but had been in her life for at least half of it, so he was simply "brother" to her. After leaving Kevin Young's reading I
(Demoiselle Cranes in India, Photo Bryan Bland)

regretted not having gotten a book of his poems for them to read to C. in the hospital. But when I read her email I realized that C. was leaving this plane as I was listening to the last of Young's responses during the Q&A.

I read her email as the credits were rolling for the deeply affecting first installment of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs: Bleu. I was still sitting inside Kieslowski's arresting visual language of the internal movement of loss and grief. Death and life at times seem unknowable even when you're in the midst of the latter, or struggling with the absences wrought by the former. My neighbor who had an exhuberantly celebratory Mother's Day with the return of her son from Iraq, now works with renewed energy and creativity landscaping the family garden. I had seen her smile before his return, but had not seen her actual smile, if you know what I mean--she looks as if she has swallowed a breathtakingly gorgeous sky and it now illuminates her from within. Two women (one of whom, the sweet and singular G., I know) lost a son and another reunited with one that weekend, among many such mothers around the world. The thing about grief and loss is the only way through them is by embracing life, ones own, the uniqueness of the one that has been lost, and the aliveness that keeps breathing and moving around each of us.
(Installation of Thousand Cranes folded by Helen Palmer, British Origami Society)

As I thought about C.'s spirit making a transition, fragments of Nóirín Ní Riain's rendition of "Réidhchnoc Mná Duibhe"/"The Hill of the Black Women" began murmuring inside. The song starts with a liturgical organ passage, a somber motif repeats, almost a dirge, then a penny whistle enters and the organ fades to a quiet contrapuntal melody, grounding the soaring mournful voice of the whistle. A melancholic bird, yet buoyed on the wind, the sense of loss is palpable, but the melody of the whistle is a story of loss, of joy, of possibility, of the profound sensations of life and, to me, ultimately hopeful and grateful for life itself. This is the hope I have for my friend and the family, to journey through to that place of greater peace. You can listen here.

About the images of cranes in this entry: While C. was in the hospital his family began folding a thousand cranes in keeping with the Japanese legend that if you fold a thousand cranes the gods will grant your wish. Since his passing they've continued folding them for his spirit.

If you cannot access that music link you can hear a little of it (track 14) on the album Stór Amhrán/A Wealth of Songs.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

j's theater on Katherine Dunham

The legendary dancer, choreographer, dance troupe founder, dance ethnographer, and philanthropist Katherine Dunham passed away on Sunday at the age of 96. j's theater has a detailed and celebratory obituary which outdoes the New York Times elegant offering, with greater sentiment and historical depth. But all including SWEAT, offer stunning photos of Dunham throughout her life, looking and acting fierce and vibrant well into her 90s. Thank you Miss Dunham.
(Katherine Dunham at a Jacob's Pillow tribute in 2002. Boston Globe Staff Photo/Nancy Palmieri)

Monday, May 22, 2006

I met a neighbor while photographing the sky above his house...

he laughingly called me
"the sky thief"...

I follow birds skimming past my window
too fast for my binary shutter
my fingers steal mere sky
and dial from it
sondheim's inky dark

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dubliners, done; James in progress, Kirn on deck

Dubliners, done
This is just a post for me, because I want to remember how much I loved Dubliners. I want to remember that "A Mother" (so much nuanced layering in the imaging of intergenerational issues of gender, class, and, of course, power--what it's about is and isn't what it's about) and "Eveline" were most resonant for me, most powerful. I was also moved by the many renderings of longing, nostalgia (such powerful ambivalence in its figuring in the cultural/national character), and seemingly thwarted dreams of the petit bourgeoisie and those scratching to survive drawn so memorably in the guise of Joycean portraits of drylongso (in African American southern parlance, "the everyday"). A favorite passage from "A Mother":

"She respected her husband in the same way she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male." [128, First Vintage International Edition]

Bam! That nailed it for me.

I thought I would immediately get back to Walter Kirn's Thumbsucker, which I became curious about after seeing the film adaptation by director/screenwriter Mike Mills (no, not of R.E.M., another Mike Mills). The film has some great performances and, including a standout one by Lou Taylor Pucci as the title character. But I got sidetracked by Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. It's only 85 pages, but moves at a somewhat glacial pace. Nevertheless, the suspense of this ghost story actually has me clenching my jaw, and nothing truly calamitous has even happened yet. It's all the unfolding of the ominous warning signs the main character apprehends in retrospect, but she's not tipping her hand as to what those signs will eventually reveal. I'm glad James decided to relieve some of the tension by letting the reader know from the outset the the fictional author of the tale lived to pen it. I don't think my constitution could take quite that much of a stretch on a metaphorical rack. Well, I was in the mood for a classic psychological thriller, and I am hooked.

Monday, May 15, 2006

P.S. on Young + Bare & Bitter Sleep's Art Blogger meeting

P.S. on Kevin Young
j's theater was kind enough to mention my Kevin Young and Natasha Trethewey post in a recent blog entry. I'm not a poet as j imagined (well at least not at this moment, but my first publication credit was in that medium), but I enjoy hearing and reading those who are. I forgot to mention that Kevin Young, with his many accolades (Jazz Poems anthology pictured, right), is quite approachable and friendly, and has an understatedly playful sense of humor. He even hung out afterwards to sign books when put on the spot--they had set up a table with his various collections and anthologies, but forgotten to ask if he could stay.

Bare & Bitter Sleep (aka Cinqué Hicks) and the ATL art blogger meeting

I'd heard about the art blogger meeting from Cinqué Hicks on the afrofuturistart list, and I was interested in what a community of art bloggers would be. Multi-media visual artist/writer (and self-proclaimed pot-stirrer) Cinqué Hicks supplies a small taste of the gathering on his blog, Bare & Bitter Sleep. Along with introducing us to area arts bloggers, Hicks offered a recipe for invigorating the local art blogging community. Among those present with a

("Joe" Drawing by Cinqué Hicks, Electricity and Me MD, Gallery Lombardi, Austin, TX)

listed site was curator Ingrid LaFleur, the creator of Promiscuous Eye and Amrita Arts, an art advisory firm. LaFleur is also committed to promulgating the cause of art patronage by teaching those who think buying art is for "other people" how to initiate their own collection. She even has a step-by-step guide on her site. LaFleur's blog, Voyeur, has writing on her international art travels as well as a number of audio interviews with emerging and recognized artists such as Torkwase Dyson (full website coming July 2006), Derrick Adams, and poet/writer/artist Marco Villalobos who recently collaborated with photographer Ayanna V. Jackson on the project, African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth (exhibition image, below right).

I'm glad that LaFleur isn't waiting for someone else to create an interview archive of the artists she that loves and interest her, she's just going about creating one and sharing it with the rest of us.

Hicks, who also authors the black arts and techno-culture website Electric Skin (on hiatus until June 2006), writes on the arts on numerous sites throughout the internet including the Philly-based artblog (named one of the top art blogs by Art in America). From what I can tell, he's working to carve a peripatetic online space for African American critical thought on visual art inclusive of writing on art practice outside and within traditional African American idioms and visual practices. This shift is indicative of where we are now: African American art scribes in greater numbers penning outside of the subject-box. For news on the international and U.S. art scenes, particularly the auction market, as well as the local ATL scene, check out arts-advocate-CPA-turned-art collector Erik Schneider's The View from the Edge of the Universe, as well as his ATL-based Context Art Projects which stages events and collaborates "with galleries, artists and institutions to raise awareness of current and developing trends in the visual arts."

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Poet Kevin Young's Q&A and poet Natasha Tretheway's Podcast

This afternoon I heard poet Kevin Young (pictured left) read one poem, "Commencement," in honor of the same. See the MARTA post below for an explanation of my lateness. But I did get to hear him respond to some interesting questions on the writing process during the Q&A. Young is Atticus Haygood Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at the Creative Writing program at Emory University where he is also Curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. He's got a

(Photo: Tod Martens)
seriously impressive publication record having edited three anthologies, with four of his own collections out and two more in progress (see his short bio here). He is probably best known for his blues poetry, Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003), and a collection on artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor (2002). Young answered a question about "writer's block" saying that he prefers not to use that term, and sharing his perspective that those less productive periods are times of germination and information gathering. He commented that when his father died he did have difficulty writing poetry, but he continued writing, "survival writing," to use his words. Then he was writing on another subject, food, and he was able to access what he wanted/needed to say about loss, writing nine poems in one sitting. What I gained from this is that arguably, no writing is wasted. Having a regular discipline, no matter how painful, keeps you in good stead during the less painful times when work may come pouring out. Someone asked how he had achieved his style, and Young made a great point which made the distinction between "style" and "tone". He talked about how many young writers are concerned with "voice" which is another word, in his opinion, for "style". These writers are seeking a voice/style that will get them noticed and published. Young posited that writing styles change over time (witness his own oeuvre to date), what you're really getting at as a writer is "tone". Here he used the analogy of Miles Davis' tone; while Davis changed styles--fusion, hard bop, pop minimalism, (regular) be bop--when you hear his tone you can always recognize it as being Miles Davis. I'm still not sure how one achieves that in writing, but what I took from Young's response was the need not to get trapped in a style, or its success (if you're fortunate enough to get that response), don't be afraid to go where the material takes you. That journey is where tone comes from anyway, which is part of what Daphne Brooks was asserting in her discussion of Jeff Buckley's Grace (see here for my take on that). So even though I missed most of his reading I was happy I went. Plus with all the waiting for transportation I'm almost done with Dubliners!

Poet Natasha Trethewey
I missed the opportunity to hear Gulf Port, Mississippi native Natasha Trethewey read last month. Tretheway is an Associate Professor, also in the Creative Writing program at Emory University, and a Cave Canem alum. She and Young have been up for some of the same awards in their field (both are Guggenheim Fellows) and both have southern roots, with Young being from the neighboring Louisiana. I am most familiar with Trethewey's second collection, the exquisite and mournfully visceral, Bellocq's Ophelia (2002), a series of poems based on photographer E.J. Bellocq's photographs of prostitutes in the legal brothels of New Orleans' Storyville district during the early 1900s. Trethewey's narrative poetry focuses on the interior life of one prostitute, Ophelia, for whom the silent capture on glass negatives is a partial life metaphor. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to hear Trethewey read from her new work, Native Guard, on PBS's The NewsHour Poetry Series as she visited the area for the first time in a year and witnessed the scarred remain of many of the locations referenced in Native Guard's poems. The poems capture the Gulfport, Mississippi of her youth and the lives of the members of the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Union Army regiment from the Civil War who were stationed on Ship Island near Gulfport. It was quite moving to see Trethewey reading her work, in some of these areas (her award-winning first collection, Domestic Work, details her mother's life, the Mississippi of Trethewey's youth, and the poet's own multiracial heritage). She originally imagined these poems as a figurative elegy of her memories, they now they operate literally as such for these places. If you want to hear Trethewey click the blue PBS link above, you'll need RealAudio to access the piece. The NewsHour also offers the series as individual podcasts, or you can subscribe to the entire series.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Bit a this and that

The rape allegations againsts members of the Duke lacrosse team is old news at this point, but Mark Anthony Neal's Duke African American and American Studies blog has a great article from The Independent Weekly, a North Carolina Triangle area paper, dealing with a protest vigil held after the alleged crime was reported. African American Duke students at the protest talked about their experiences at the university and in racially mixed social situations where black women are often treated as receptacles for white male "video ho" desire. Apparently even study dates with previously respected white male classmates have been known to devolve into this dynamic.

A few weeks back Creative Loafing (Atlanta edition) finally did another cover story about MARTA the downtrodden public transportation system in Atlanta, updating their better researched cover story of two years ago. Atlanta, relative to the size of the populace and level of urban development has one of the worst public transportation systems in the country. The city also has a deeply ingrained car culture--people look at you as though you are mentally ill if you chose not to drive. This attitude is not entirely without rationale. The failures of MARTA are magnified by the fact that Atlanta's development sprawl has moved outwards to the suburbs and it is one of the few major city transportation systems that receives no funding from either the city or the state.

(Photo: Michael Wall; ON HOLD: Alexia Howard waits at a MARTA stop in front of her apartment complex in Decatur.)

'What is going on currently with the state and any potential funding of MARTA is rooted in 35 years of racism and classism,' says Terence Courtney, coordinator with Atlanta Jobs with Justice, a group of low-income, elderly and disabled riders who depend on MARTA. 'Those lawmakers did not contribute operation funds from the beginning, which limited MARTA's ability to expand and serve the community.'

It's true that state lawmakers don't give MARTA a dime for fuel, salaries or maintenance of its stations, buses and trains. Nor do they provide money for any of MARTA's day-to-day needs. Unlike lawmakers in every other state with a major transit system, they never have.

MARTA riders' fares only cover about a third of the cost of a ride. The rest of the trip is paid for by federal grants and the 1-cent sales tax levied by Fulton and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta. The tax and the $1.75 fare are the sole sources of operation funds for the transit agency. And those sources do not generate enough revenue to operate and maintain the region's oldest and most heavily used transit system.

Originally the transit system was meant to serve five counties, but the suburbanites in those outlying counties refused a $.01 sales tax increase. According to Robert Bullard, a professor at Clark Atlanta University, whose work focuses on transportation and labor, for a number of the predominantly white residents of those areas the name of the system stands for "Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta," and it's a movement they'd rather curtail. And why not? According to the 2004 story that year the state Department of Transportation allocated $12 million to those suburbs for their own transportation system, for a combined ridership that doesn't equal that of MARTA while supposedly allocating $2 million to MARTA, which seems to never have been distributed to the ailing system. At the same time all the downtown Atlanta gentrification has reduced the amount of affordable housing in the heart of MARTA's service areas. So the "African" element is living closer to the suburbs anyway. Meanwhile the limited budget has resulted in major service cuts over the past two years with some bus lines cutting later evening and weekend service entirely. Sorry if you needed to work that Sunday shift, maybe you can catch a $35 cab ride across town. One would think that all those whites employing African American and Latina/o domestic and garden workers would want them to get to their jobs on time. But it seems the projected fear of what ease of access might lead to has negated that desire: burglary, possible homeownership--which naturally leads to miscegenation--all of which for some are a part of the same property devaluation coin). Back in the 1960s along with multiple county service the designers of MARTA aspired to create a system "on par with transit agencies in the nation's major cities, such as Boston, San Francisco and Seattle." Just to give you sense of how MARTA, which is comprised of rail and bus service, compares to the systems of other cities let's compare it to the rail maps of those other systems:
Atlanta's metro rail system (left, below; c. 2004:470,000 riders/day)

SFBay Area rail system (right, above; c.2004: 306,570 riders/weekday)

Boston's subway & commuter system (left below; c.2005:1.12 million riders/weekday) Washington D.C. metro (right, below; c.2004: 520,000 riders/day)

It just wouldn't have been fair to include the NYC subway system(3.9 million riders/day). But D.C. and Boston are good comparisons, although the greater-Atlanta area may have more in common with Oakland (which serves a smaller population than Atlanta) or Los Angeles in terms of the sprawl and ingrained car culture. In fact it was a recent post by blogger Anovelista that included a reference to public transporation user demographics in Los Angeles reminding me of their similarity. I'm used to systems that are fairly equalizing, where everybody rides the subway, rich, poor, whites, folks of color, old, young, disabled and (temporarily) able-bodied. So the class and race segregation and quality of service on MARTA is quite marked to me. Soon after having to deal with MARTA I took to sarcastically (Ok bitterly) calling it "the New Underground Railroad," and not in a good way: a . It's mainly transportation for the poor, and disabled, and a few commuters. The last primarily live on the suburban North-South line which has the newest cars that don't overwhelm with the odor of years-old mold, and aren't home to baby german roaches (e.g. the dark ones on the right). But in the main MARTA's customers are Blacks (African Americans, Africans, and Afro-Caribbeans), the poor, and disabled, and on certain parts of the system, Mexican and Central American immigrants. The exceptions are the white families riding on droves during major sporting events (those days are obvious), and the broad cross-section of people using MARTA to get to the airport.

It's not unusual for riders to be late because of rail and bus delays or buses, in particular, that don't come at all. Plus the average time between buses, which is the only way to get beyond the limited area covered by the railway, is 30-45 minutes. The further out you need to go the worse the scheduling gets with times up to 50-60 minutes. That's scheduled time, not real-time during a rain storm or rush hour, and with bus drivers who barely get a break to relieve themselves or eat a meal. The lack of support from the city (which under the leadership of African American Mayor Shirley Franklin, whose tenure has had much better moments than this, was going to pony up $92 million--including up to $25 million in unidentified state funds--to "steal" the NASCAR Hall of Fame from Charlotte, North Carolina), and state speaks to the ingrained class structure and racial disparities in the city and state. Hotlanta may qualify as a Chocolate City, but Georgia is a predominantly white state. According to the Creative Loafing article those concerns determine where the money flows, and as a result the labor options for poor and working class African Americans and other marginal populations.

When it comes to spending money on transportation, most lawmakers and state employees heavily favor road construction instead. One possible reason for that can be linked to the influence of pro-road and pro-development groups like Georgians for Better Transportation. GBT President Mike Kenn and his organization enjoy exceptional access to members of the General Assembly, and to transportation planning agencies.

For instance, on Jan. 18, GBT hosted a Travis Tritt concert at the Fox Theatre. It was free for politicians and state employees; everyone else paid $10,000 a table. The concert was held at the same time that GBT lobbied behind-the-scenes to change the state's grading scale that determines which transportation projects get funded. GBT pushed for more consideration -- a jump from 10 percent to 70 percent -- to be given to "congestion mitigation," which most commonly calls for road-building.

Is this the same as the rural versus city conflict that hampers the State Assembly?

One of the biggest obstacles to fixing MARTA, Bullard and other transit advocates say, is the anti-inner-city sentiment saturating the General Assembly. Under the Gold Dome, any rural legislator seen as pro-MARTA historically has been attacked during a campaign as being anti-rural.

'If you're a representative or senator from South Georgia, you get re-elected by going back home and saying, 'Hey, I kicked Atlanta's butt while I was in the Legislature,''Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, told CL last year. 'So we have to find some way to ... bring in the support of people from outside of metro Atlanta.'
Arguably, if there were a tornado at the level of a Katrina and requiring a similar level of evacuation, Atlanta would suffer a similar fate to New Orleans. We'd see major African American, Latina/o, and poor white displacement and only whites and Atlanta-area and suburban middle-class blacks, such as those annually portrayed in Black Enterprise's Best Cities for African Americans cover story and Henry Louis Gate's documentary on the state of blacks in the U.S., making it out and best able to rebuild. MARTA is continuing to have public hearings on the elimination of buslines, with some partial routes being subsummed by others--too bad if it's not the part of the route that takes you to your child's daycare. These forums seem a placating measure on the part of MARTA officials, but members of the black clergy are beginning to see this as a civil rights issue and Atlanta Jobs with Justice has already taken it on as a labor issue:
Bullard believes the path to equality will be led by African-American grassroots groups and churches whose members think of access to transportation as a civil rights issue.

'The state will benefit if there is a healthy public transit service in the region so people can have alternatives and get out of their cars,' Bullard says. 'At some point and time, there needs to be a public uprising to say, 'It's time for this madness to stop.''
I certainly hope that time is soon.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Watch how you step to (the) "Footprints"...

OK, so I'm at Borders yesterday. Yeah, yeah, I didn't buy anything just surveyed the book selections and new music, in particular the latest Cassandra Wilson , Thunderbird, produced by the multi-talented T-Bone Burnett (O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk the Line soundtracks, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Gillian Welch, the BoDeans, among others). I wouldn't have immediately put Burnett and Wilson together in my head, but when I saw the album credit I thought "of course!" As I was listening to what I think is probably a great album, a jazz combo started playing in the bookstore's cafe area. You can't turn up those listening stations and Wilson's jazz-country-blues, plus electronics got drowned out. Next I was checking out magazines including Another Man, a brother publication to hip fashion, art and lit glossy, Another Magazine. The former featured a transcendent glam photo spread of and interview with acting marvel Gael Garcia Bernal (you can see some of the pix here). The next thing I know the combo is launching into Wayne Shorter's "Footsteps" and well, I have new respect for how challenging a piece that is, and the nuances of the bass part even if you just play it straight, or even more minimally as the bass guitar player chose to do in this combo. Then came the atonal horn interpretation followed by unintended feedback, and like I said Shorter's composition ain't no joke...
(Right: Wayne Shorter)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Night of the Jewish Love Gods

I have to admit that I have this guilty pleasure: watching Numb3rs on Friday nights on CBS. Ostensibly, this show is celebrating how we use math in everyday life; CBS even has an associated educational program with teacher's guides accessible on the show's website. But I can't help but call this show what it is, 2.5 generations of Jewish hunkiness broadcast out every Friday night, subtly altering audience perception of masculine icons. Sure these guys are secular Jews, and no one utters word one about religion or culture, but two out of the three main leads, Rob Morrow and Judd Hirsch (as supportive patriarch Alan Eppes) have gotten their biggest recognition playing self-identified Jewish leading characters, and the third has mainly been cast as Jewish-identified supporting characters. Judd Hirsch as the smart, underachieving, left-leaning cabbie Alex Reiger on the long-running sitcom, Taxi and cornering the market on sympathetic therapists with his portrayal of Timothy Hutton's doctor in Ordinary People (1980). Morrow is of course known for playing the displaced New Yorker Dr. Joel Fleischman, on TV's Northern Exposure, providing the audience's entre into the sometimes surreal world of Alaskan natives and long-term transplants. Notably Morrow also played the ethnically marked Dick Goodwin, a Harvard educated attorney whose Jewishness kept being referenced during his work as special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives on the Van Buren scandal as portrayed in the film Quiz Show (1994). David Krumholtz, the youngest of the three, is probably best known for his decidely non-Jewish portrayal of Bernard the Elf in The Santa Clause holiday franchise (Krumholtz doesn't appear in the forthcoming 3rd Clause film). His teenaged face is also familiar as Joel Glicker, Wednesday Addams' crush in Addams Family Values (1994) the shiksa-macking-dyed-blonde-would-be-non-Jew, Yussel, in Barry Levinson's rich family portrait, Liberty Heights (1999). Sci-Fi and Joss Whedon fans may know his adult face as Mr. Universe in Serenity (2005).

Each Numb3rs character plays to something of a type, hopefully this first season is just about establishing each of them and the writers will expand their scope in future seasons. Hirsch is Daddy (Alan) Eppes another left-leaning character who was a peace activist in the 1960s, and is now a widower living with his youngest son Charlie Eppes (Krumholtz) the boyish brainiac math genius professor with security clearance. The older brother, Don Eppes (Morrow) is the Jewish type less seen, but no less real. Think Brendan Fraser's closeted-Jew jock character David Greene in School Ties (1992), but without the overt closeting, or the street-tough self-hating Danny Balint, played by Ryan Gosling in The Believer (2001), without the self-hating. Arguably, Numb3rs is a situation drama response, by intention or not, which investigates the deep-seated insecurities Danny Balint's character (which was based on an actual person) forwards regarding Jewish masculinity. Don Eppes is a G-man, an FBI lead agent. Every episode he directs an accomplished and markedly macho team of agents; even the (straight) female on the team was her resentful father's son substitute. Chasing criminals, his gun drawn, barking commands, Don talks in the clipped sentences we expect from government men, and has the stereotypical problems exhibiting emotions.

You just don't see that many physically imposing Jewish males in the media, even the Beastie Boys' rap cool seems to stem more from a quirky New York ethnic male identity than a particularly physical masculinity. Jeff Goldblum is the exception that proves the rule. His particular offbeat brainy charismatic sensuality was such that he read as "sex on legs" even when he was turning into a big ol' insect (The Fly [1986]), plus was married to 1980s-early 90s WASP-claimed bombshell (and fine actor in her own right) Geena Davis, and he's '6"4. Folks usually forget that Michael Landon and Kirk Douglas are Jewish because the Hollywood studio PR machines downplayed or omitted that fact. Of course there is thickly chisled (Bill) Goldberg, the Oklahoma-born Jewish former pro football player, current pro wrestler, and burgeoning movie actor, but again he's an anomaly. I'm thinking there are some parallels between the feminization of Jewish and Asian American men in U.S. media, along with the WASP (white anglo saxon protestant) fear of both the Jewish and Asian (big) brain power in the sciences, math, and lastly (and yes, probably leastly) music.*

But Numb3rs prominently features nerds of all ethnicities including Peter MacNicol as Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, Charlie's charmingly awkward colleague at the fictional CalSci University, and attractive, well-socialized geek Navi Rawat as Amita Ramajuan, a mathematician getting her second doctorate, and on occasion Charlie's love interest. Not for nothing, each of these Eppes family actors is New York born and bred, and while you can fake it, there's nothing like the original. The Eppes men are written as a California family, yet in true California fashion they all sound like they're from somewhere else, uh, yeah, New York. Younger son Charlie has bought the family house where he lives with his retired father, and elder son Don often comes over for dinner and a little sibling rivalry. Don has recruited his brother to work with him on FBI cases giving them an opportunity to butt heads and compete on each other's terrain, hard evidence versus mathematic formulas, a conflict which also evidences their respective capacities for strength and compassion. Krumholtz is a physical, if not sensual, mathman. He paces, and postures, imagines formulas in 3-D layperson friendly analogies, fingers his (carefully) carelessly tousled head of curls, toys with chalk, and posits formulas with a passion that reminds you the brain is the number one sex organ. Don's willingness to jump into the fray, kick ass and take names, and get into the face of any evil-doing perp or, in the latest episode, a colleague
Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS
putting his brother and father in danger, touches the pleasure button of those who like their heroes in a more expressly "man of action" mode. Hirsch of course is the daddy bear, loving, but also a wise and in some ways no nonsense kind of dad, who values family and wants more than anything else for his two hard-headed sons to get along. Their family dynamic is a romance without the Freudian overlay. It probably helps that there is no mother's attention for the brothers to compete for, allowing the audience, particularly straight or bi females, to unimpeded fantasies about any of the men. I am wondering about the possible gay following, but haven't seen anything about this yet. Neither of the brothers have had a steady love interest, only a number of near successes; in regular guy fashion their passions for their respective work makes meeting and dating women challenging. But it's still only the first season (so Dad's not meeting any possible "mom-replacements" yet either). Nor have any of the Eppes men yet dated a woman who is clearly identified as Jewish, hmm. But that's a whole other issue. Even so, it's kind of subversive, and overdue, to see Jewish men portrayed with some diversity and as unabashedly sexy.

*Just to be clear, I'm not a proponent of the notion that European descendant Jews are not "white." I would agree that there are hierarchies of "white" privilege, and similar to Italians and other immigrants that negotiated (e.g. changing names; assimilating or not) and were begrudgingly admitted to this caste, the relative privilege is differential in relation to other Europeans/European Americans, i.e. all "whiteness" is not constructed equally. But that doesn't negate the existence of whiteness or its privilege.
In another case of a sweet and sexy white male nerd, the husband (British actor Jake Weber, sounding more British expat than Arizona-bred) of Patricia Arquette's eponymous character on the NBC show Medium is a rocket scientist. In a recent episode ("The Darkness is Light Enough"; Season 2, Episode 20; airdate 1 May 2006), a young, duly assimilated Asian American male co-worker in sharply tailored suits and designer glasses is breathing down hubby Joe Dubois' neck in a race to turn in numbers that will determine career advancement. In fear for his career's trajectory Joe is putting in extra long hours trying to keep up with the energetic and ambitious new guy; the family is none too happy. Arquette has a vision wherein the young co-worker is on his sharply pressed pants-knees, hands in supplication, tears streaming, begging for Joe's help. Something similar actually comes to pass, the co-worker gets to stay vertical, but his numbers are gibberish and it's only a matter of time before word spreads. Joe helps him and gets a promotiona advancing him ahead of the youthful second generation immigrant wunderkind. Now, is this a white male fear-based wish fulfillment fantasy, or just a regular subplot about workplace politics?

Some thoughts on homecomings

Yesterday I found out one of my neighbors has a son in the military. He was finally coming home and had left a message for his family that he had made it back to US soil. Her smile was like she'd swallowed a sunrise, she was so grateful and relieved. While she'd never struck me as a particularly stressed person, in our brief exchanges I had noticed a particular high

(Photo: Phil Mosier, The Story; Antavion Stewart wades through a sea of boots representing the number of dead in Iraq at [an Atlanta] Peace Rally)
energy perkiness that now seemed to have mellowed into something lighter, but no less enthused. I really couldn't imagine two years of fearfully waiting, but still going about your business living your life everyday trying not to be paralyzed by nightmare fantasies of the official uniformed knock at the door. But families just do what they have to do, making sure there is a home and family for that child to come back to. War is still unreal to me despite coming from a military family. I'm sure this is because no soldiers in my family ever talked about their time "in country" unless it was their non-war experiences and even that was very brief. I imagine the concise version might have been due to the debriefing process wherein soldiers are informed about what they can and can't talk about about, both the official line from their superiors and the unofficial one from their peers who know from experience what family members and friends can and can't handle hearing. But there surely were also images and feelings the newly returned couldn't imagine describing. Do parents always want to hear about the complicated emotions their son or daughter experienced while killing someone, or numerous someones? More time is spent waiting for something to happen than responding to or intiating attacks, and that tension leaves the body with a particular form of trauma as well. War is an event that keeps claiming us. In families the ripples are potentially felt in subsequent generations. As a society, we have yet to have had the war to end all wars, despite the promise that war can, and will, keep us safe. Blessings and congratualtions to my neighbors and their son, may they live well. May we all achieve a peace that allows us to do the same.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"Asian Dan" Buffy the Vampire Slayer audio commentary

this is an audio post - click to play

Here's the "Asian Dan" audio from the "Wild at Heart" Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 4, Episode 6) commentary by Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, and Seth Green (see the second part of the post below for background).