Tuesday, November 16, 2010

From November, with Love+

First off, sincere thanks to those who've dropped by here, and a big welcome to those from overseas! It's great to feel like one's words are getting a bit of love. As Jagger once sang, "...your servant am I--and so shall remain..."
So we're off, eh?


This Land is...Whose Land?
Fighting over cultural and language differences that go back many hundreds of years. Squabbles over institutional reforms. Drives for secession and re-alignment. It's just another day in the hotbed of political and social turmoil that is...Belgium.

It appears that the Flemish separatist party NVA is about to sweep past all obstacles, including PM Yves Leterme, to achieve its goal of a separate Flemish state, thus effectively rending the country in two right through its middle. The North can then go about its business as an independent entity with the historically potent name Flanders, while the South carries on. The Flemish keep their Dutch, the Walloons their French, and everyone's happy, with a bilingual Brussels right in the center. This drama will undoubtedly add another wrinkle to the EU, itself already an administrative nightmare.
Speaking of the French language, it's at the heart of Quebec's waxing and waning drive for separatism. Although the Eastern province is majority French in its language and culture, its withdrawal will probably never occur, either as an independent nation or even a fully equal partner to a greater Canada: there is simply too much interdependence between these provinces, and it's not just issues of their economies and legal systems. This hasn't stopped an impulse for autonomy that stretches back to the beginning of the 20th century, however. Further complicating matters are large pockets of French speakers in the other provinces, and even aboriginal inhabitants of the provinces, who've become increasingly active and vocal over time.

With regard to France proper, it's emblematic of the post-colonial world. The country enjoyed cheap labor in the Postwar era, but those laborers (like other laborers in other countries) had children while French birthrates declined. Accordingly, France, faced with not only increasing numbers of migrants but also with other cultural waves such as a fascination with American pop culture, began to panic and so pulled in the reins. Efforts at cultural preservation were upped, signified by the compulsion of prominent media to eliminate creeping linguistic influences and tendencies.
France as colonizer? Then you get Indo-China (reborn, after that last bit of unpleasantness at Dien Bien Phu, as Vietnam)... you get Algeria, you get messy wars. And not to harp on the country, but they've also shown themselves plenty willing to expel problematic ethnic groups. Witness the country's indigenous bands of Roma - recently told to get packing - to Bulgaria, Romania, anywhere else.
Past colonial holdings. Influxes. Migrations. Expulsions. The UK shares these phenomena, as do, as long as we're at it, most of Western (and even Eastern) Europe and the Scandinavian countries. The EU, as it seeks to manage a scene that pulses and fluctuates daily, conducts its affairs in the face of endless dilemmas, in which the Greek meltdown was but a symptom of a larger, inherently unstable political landscape.

Will humankind ever be able to come to grips with its history, with its deeds and misdeeds and colonizations, enslavements, wars and endless national re-drawings?
Perhaps not. A cynic would say probably not.
The Roma now continue to wander, as they always will, unlucky enough to have been born pre-destined for expulsion.
On a large enough scale, expulsion becomes diaspora, a mass movement of a people over time. The Ashkenazi Jews are a good example. Compelled to roam Europe, and later the world, upon the creation of the state of Israel they sent the Palestinians away, and that group has been on the road and living in squalid refugee camps ever since. Continual expansion of Jewish settlements, while appearing to be a workable short-term solution, only erode chances for any two-state solution in the region.

One alternative to expulsion is genocide, as can be attested to by the Tutsis of Rawanda (a group favored during Belgian colonial times for their "lighter-skinned" appearance), the Kurds of Iraq, or those crushed under Ceaucescu.
Africans hauled away to the Americas and the Caribbean are certainly a diaspora, one whose travel goes on as well. Of those transported to America, 6 million migrated northward and westward between WWI and WWII, the largest migration this country has ever seen.

We've not even yet mentioned religion, divider supreme.
Complications arising from this element, which often spills over into other aspects of governance affects not just Belgium or Quebec but also the Basque separatist movement of Spain. The Basques, an ethnic minority and region in Spain with roots in antiquity are an illustration of the modern world's grappling with the issues of a people who still feel the call of older ways.
The partition of India and Pakistan (so that both may hew to their own religion and the culture that - any more - grows up fully around that religion) is now a tale of one common people, split in two and eyeing one another coldly behind walls of nuclear missiles. If that example's too old, Darfur is probably going to split in 2011 into North (Muslim) and South (Christian and animist).

If one were to pick just one patchwork land of separatism, rivalries, animosities and deprivations it'd sure be the former Yugoslavia. That little stretch of land on the Balkan peninsula contained Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrans who were slapped together under the first of several ideological systems in 1918 in the wake of WWI, where the victors employed the folly that they could exuberantly erase, re-draw and cobble together any sort of man-made entity, from Czechoslovakia (created from whole cloth from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to the Palestinian Mandate.
Man-made national entities reached their apotheosis with the creation of the Soviet Union, of course. You can't span eleven time zones without herding together vastly unsuitable bedfellows.

I've only pondered these things to try to think about what's next. We try - or our leaders do - to produce things like NAFTA, the EU (with its dreadfully bad idea, the Euro), the UN, and so forth. We're too big, though. And with each passing second, there are too many of us. If we're lucky, we're born into this circus with a roof over our head and a bowl of carrot soup at night...not treading a gravel road, cowering under a whip or dying in some tyrant ideologue's gulag. So if we never, ever settle as a species, at least some of us can be thankful for those small blessings.

Huey Newton, the People, and a Continuing Climb...
On a sultry August morning in 1989, David Hilliard was awakened by a call from Melvin Newton.
"David, wake up," he began. "Huey's dead."

Huey Newton was indeed dead, shockingly, and not at the hands of police, rivals, detractors or assassins. His killer was a drug dealer. Newton's life, his accomplishments, his example, both his flaws and his ongoing potential, were silenced at gunpoint. He was laid to rest in Oakland, the city of his youth and the place where he'd given the energies of his youth to try - simply and ultimately - to make life just a little better for those in his community.
Hilliard's response was to gather long-neglected notes and begin to write the book that, in 1993, was released as This Side of Glory. He'd been Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party during its late-'60s heyday, and in writing the book he sought to flesh out the story of the Panthers, but also to come to grips with his own demons; the struggle for meaning in an ever more complex America, and the continual siren song of his addiction.

His book joined Newton's own remembrances, published in 1973 as Revolutionary Suicide. Also on this very particular shelf belong Eldridge Cleaver's 1968 collection of essays, Soul on Ice, Stokely Carmichael's 1967 book Black Power, George Jackson's 1970 account Soledad Brother and Amiri Baraka's stunning Blues People (published in 1963, when Baraka was still known as LeRoi Jones).
These men, and many other creative lights like them, had several things in common. Most had been uprooted from a South where Jim Crow still thrived to move "up South" to the bigger cities where their families could find more work. They'd gravitated to petty crime, run afoul of the law for reasons both real and fabricated, and begun to spend significant stretches of their young lives in the system.
They also had intellect in common, and a questing spirit. Whether in gatherings of other young seekers, in community college classes or simply by virtue of their own curiosity, they read the growing body of Black literary giants then available. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were augmented by Kenneth Clark, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes. Exploration of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth led to increasingly more challenging fare: not only earlier Black voices such as W.E.B. DuBois but also everyone from Castro to Ho Chi Minh. These books spoke of not just a struggle, but a universal, systemic struggle, and it galvanized these young seekers.

In reading these young mens' writings some 40-odd years on, one is struck by their intelligence, by their will toward educating themselves, by their own emergent, individual voices.
Newton absorbed everything he could, and sought out Kafka, Camus and Kierkegaard in addition to his regular literary diet. He was most heavily impressed by Malcolm X, however, and that man's life and sacrifice led him beyond a simple daily regimen of reading, study and discussion on the block and in the streets of Oakland. Malcolm X's example, together with the Bay Area's ghettoization and brutality toward its Black residents, spurred him to action. In 1966 he co-formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense with friend Bobby Seale.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published Revolutionary Suicide in 1973, the year before Newton's flight to Cuba. He'd several years before criticized Eldridge Cleaver's departure for Algeria, on the specific grounds that leaving took one out of the struggle - that it was impossible to remain involved and committed while so far away. Because of this criticism, and for a widening gulf in the two's beliefs and philosophy, the Panthers fragmented and threatened to dissolve under the weight of both internal disputes and external expectations and pressures. In so doing they became emblematic of the Black cause in general. As the '70s stretched forward into the frantic, event-crammed 1980s and beyond, the early lights of Black awareness succumbed to paranoia, access to money and easy notoriety, the hollow ring of rhetoric, and the ghosts of long-ago rallies and fervor. They'd outlived their beaten, jailed, murdered young colleagues...but for what?

None of those later developments, no sickness, no debauched, shadowy deeds, no madness, can take away from these written works, however. Their words ring true, and outlive the young hands that wrote them. Newton continually stressed this in his words and writings, that he was but one man, his but one voice - the only thing that mattered was the People, their cause, their desperation for meaning, for life.
In his book, he makes the distinction between "reactionary" suicide and "revolutionary" suicide.
The first, he states, is but the natural reaction to despair, the final act of a broken, beaten life. The second, he holds, is the sublimation of the individual to a greater good, a struggle, a contribution of vital life energy so that even if the individual should perish, his death would prove a catalyst for ongoing work, the righteous fight. It would transform a (probably) violent death into a beautiful symbol of strength and perseverance.

Through a strong family upbringing he learned dignity and self-respect, but there were also the examples of the street, and in particular a brother of his, known as "Sonny Man." Sonny had it made, but as Huey grew and watched, the youngster concluded that his brother had no true freedom. His flashy lifestyle depended on hustling, and that within a system where all involved knew the limits, and the outcome. Another brother, Melvin, ingrained the love of reading in Huey, and changed his course markedly.
In 1966 he drew up the plans for the Panthers, a group that was initially created for one reason - to actively watch the local police, a body that had no problem with keeping the city in line using any measure of force it deemed necessary.
The "10-Point Plan" followed.
It included not just demands for an immediate end to police brutality, but also for more relevant educational offerings, decent housing, employment opportunities, and such niceties as the right to a trial with a jury that actually reflected one's peer group, i.e. one that included Blacks. The 10th Point, however, packed the greatest punch. It demanded a plebiscite (referendum) in which Black America might deliberate its future, including continuation as a part of the United States. If this seemed radical, the text immediately followed this demand with the text of the first half of the Declaration of Independence. Right there, in black and white, was the framers' description of evils, "abuses and usurpations" which demanded - as duty - that men of conscience "throw off such government." Huey's generation couldn't live under lies and oppression any further.

The emergence of the Panthers coincided with Cleaver's rising star, and the increasing visibility of SNCC's Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Far from being unified, these growing factions juggled a fracturing, Vietnam-embattled country, scrutiny by everyone from the media to the glowering eye of J. Edgar Hoover (who declared the Panthers the "greatest threat to internal security" the country faced), and a wildly disparate counterculture, wherein hippies, Yippies and longhairs screamed, sat in and tripped for a bewildering array of causes, many half-baked, reactionary or fraudulent outright.
Huey was shot down in an October, 1967 traffic stop and went on to a show trial where he was accused of shooting and killing one of the arresting officers. After 33 months in prison he emerged to a changing Oakland, and a reunion, some months later, with Bobby Seale. He feared that the community was - after the initial enthusiasm for the Panthers' efforts - somewhat put off by the berets and bandoliers. He opted instead to step up the group's various "survival programs," which included a breakfast program for schoolchildren, sickle cell testing, prison outreach, and other efforts. These programs differed from those proposed by such figures as Cleaver, who seemed to be merely about fiery speeches, forced hands and overturned, routed enemies.

What, then, is Newton's legacy...what did he and his colleagues leave?
They left a release from shame for an entire people, a mass consciousness awakened, and they left an awareness in the entrenched power grid that business-as-usual would no longer be acceptable. The problems faced by Oakland have never totally gone away, nor will those for the rest of a country in which old wounds still linger and in which groups form, splinter, speak, and shout against an endless national wind.

Once in a while, though, we're given a glimpse, however fragile and however temporal, that more is possible.


Harvey Milk's Campaign for Hope
There are famous Lefties out there who, even though they haven't done anything to speak of for a long time, periodically emerge from their mansion to emote about this or that issue. (Sorry Babs, we both know it's the truth). That charge can't be lobbied against Sean Penn, however. He continues to deliver excellent work, and he's in Haiti even as you read this, busting ass to help the truly helpless.

No surprise that he signed on to play Harvey Milk, the country's first openly gay elected official, in the 2008 biopic about the slain leader. The film is excellent, and worthy of the acclaim and awards with which it was lauded, but it took a while to see completion. After Oliver Stone toyed with making the film in 1991, Gus Van Sant was briefly attached before also backing away. In the running to play Milk at this time were Robin Williams, Richard Gere, Daniel Day-Lewis, James Woods and even Al Pacino. Van Sant came back to project in late 2007, and the film began shooting in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood in January 2008. The cast, crew and production team came together for a textbook shoot, and filming wrapped in March.

We're drawn in from the movie's beginning, as Penn's Milk sits at a kitchen table and records his reflections while shots of a frenzied post-murder press conference are intercut with his recollections.
After a brief look at the no-longer youthful Milk as he prepares to leaves New York City for San Francisco in 1970, Van Sant affords us a look - by way of vintage film and still photos - at the birth of the Castro as gay destination. This intro is almost a travelogue for the spot-on recreation of early-'70s San Francisco. It's a vividly drawn world, and Milk and lover Scott Smith (the incredibly versatile James Franco) soon decide to set up a camera shop and fully embrace their new home.

Neighborhood and city problems lead first to Milk's political awareness, then to his becoming politically active. As he takes stock of the changing city with its changing needs, he realizes he's found a purpose for himself, something that seemed to be receding as he entered his forties.
He tells an early potential backer "I'm not a candidate. I'm part of a movement. The movement is the candidate, that's the difference. You don't see the difference. I do." After two unsuccessful bids for city supervisor (in 1973 and 1975) and a shot at state Assemblyman (1976), he finally succeeds with a run for city Board in 1977.
An Anita Bryant-endorsed California Senator, John Briggs, brings the movie's tensions to crisis point with his introduction of Proposition 6, which sought to ban gay teachers from the state's schools. Additionally, Milk and his growing acumen have drawn the ire of Milk's tightly wound colleague, Dan White (Josh Brolin in a brilliant, disturbed delivery). So moves the story until its wrenching conclusion, an ending all the more shattering for its finality.

It's understandable that Van Sant deal with only the last few years of Milk's life: to sketch the first 40 years would mean a much longer, unmanageable feat. Milk's Navy service, his tangential involvement with the Goldwater campaign, his (wary) acquaintance with People's Temple founder Jim Jones, and other aspects of his life, while interesting, would pull away the story from its needed arc. A man named Jim Foster, as it turns out, was active in the Bay Area's gay political scene for ten years at the time of Milk's increasing prominence, and held out resentment for the newcomer.
Van Sant skillfully, even economically, tells the story. As a gay filmmaker who began producing short pieces in his teens, he'd earlier explored human complexities with Mala Noche (1985), Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, and acted as executive producer for Larry Clark's stark, unblinking Kids. Seemingly, for every subsequent triumph such as Goodwill Hunting, there was a misstep, like the painful shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. He packed the insight of his entire career into this film, however, and its eight Oscars and other awards and appearance on dozens of Best-Of lists were the result.

Penn, living fully in the skin of Harvey Milk, rallies his staff as Prop 6 looms with a feverish passion: "If you want real political power," he says, "try telling the truth." As a testament to a man who persevered, even though his personal and political lives were seldom wrapped up into neat packages, Milk is a worthy, masterfully wrought film.


For Posterity - a Beautiful Remembrance
Back in high school I loved music, and was lucky enough to catch the tail end of FM radio's glory years which ended with the noxious ascent of tightly formatted playlists.
I'd periodically hear a moody, beautiful song called "White Bird," which I mistook for a Jefferson Starship tune (it was 1979-80, after all). It sounded for all the world like Gracie's voice, and the fellow accompanying her could've been Marty or Paul...
No, it was a group who'd come out of the Bay Area music explosion of 1965-67 called It's A Beautiful Day. I'd seen the cover of the group's self-titled debut album over the years, on which a young woman in a flowing dress stood on a hilltop under a blue sky filled with clouds that scudded like dreams. On the back of the LP's gatfold jacket hung a gull in midflight, swooping over a misty oceanscape. So where did the band go? Why are they not better known today?

After coalescing in San Francisco the band headed northward to Seattle, where they lived in an old Victorian and very nearly starved while honing their sound. Going nowhere, stuck in a bad management situation, they were contacted by Bill Graham and asked to fill in for a date on Cream's farewell tour. That performance got the word spread, and led to a deal with CBS Redords that resulted in the debut album being released in 1969.
What sort of music did they play, though?

David LaFlamme was a classically trained violinist, and he and wife Linda - who provided piano, keyboards and even harpsichord - joined vocally as the core of the group. Hal Wagenet was guitarist, Pattie Santos contributed additional percussion and vocals, and Mitchell Holman (bass) and Val Fuentes (drums) added rhythm. The result was an extremely strong ensemble sound that layered texture upon deft texture, often with an almost hypnotic effect.
The sound is introduced immediately with the album's first number, which was "White Bird." A lilting rhythmic track is overlaid with a sheen of LaFlamme's strings, which sets up a simple lyrical refrain of a "...white bird - in a golden cage - on a winter's day - in the rain..." Perhaps not surprisingly, the lyrics were born of the group's being sequestered in that chilly Northwest attic while watching the cold rain outside.
A guitar bridge interweaves with LaFlamme's sharp glissando, as the two coax the tune toward a fierce climax before returning to the simple, evocative refrain. It sets the mood perfectly for what the listener knows will be something altogether different.
Indeed, lest you be swayed further by the grainy dreaminess of "Hot Summer Day," Wagenet then charges the air with a torrid squall of guitar that would do Jorma Kaukonen proud. "Wasted Union Blues" sounds not like Jefferson Starship, but greatly like that band's original fiery incarnation. It's an ode to psychic burnout that's nonetheless elegant and driving and a little (wondefully) over-the-top. This time it's a violin/piano pairing that push and pull before abating into a dreamy daze.

Linda introduces "Girl With No Eyes" on a celeste (a keyboard instrument with hammers that strike metal plates to produce a resonant ringing), and her and David's duet create a wistful song that's delicate and powerful in its restraint.
Holman and Fuentes power the insistent groove of "Bombay Calling," which is followed by "Bulgaria," in which a cool, arid opening unfolds into a warm swaying riff that gains intensity as the violins sweeps in and locks into the rhythm. These two pieces lay the groundwork for album closer "Time Is," an urgent gallop where the band allows itself to flex a little musical and vocal muscle. Again, it's a seamless effort that ebbs, flows and crests over an almost ten-minute span.
Ten minutes?
Is this some laborious, prog-rock navel gazing?
No - even though the track makes room for a generous drum solo (!).
The group's playing touches on folk, singer-songwriter, and every stripe of euphoric, vaguely doomed musical foray of its acidic day. But there's too much here to wedge the record into some stale category. It's a (truly) lost gem, a remembrance of a time when young musicians were pushing boundaries and, thank providence, record companies were weighted with enough people who could see that their vision should be preserved.

As an aside, a site called psychedelicsight.com states that the CD currently goes for upwards of $100 on Amazon. This is for a few reasons, including lingering legal nastiness with former manager Matthew Katz (who, the piece further elaborates, also adversely affected the career of Moby Grape). Regardless, I've picked up three copies on vinyl over the years, including a beautifully heavy Dutch pressing (it's called GOODWILL, gang).

All of this aside, give this group a listen if you can. "White Bird" hit #118, while the LP itself managed a respectable #47. Follow-up Marrying Maiden even bested that, to reach #28. After a few more '70s releases, including a recording from Carnegie Hall (and several personnel changes), the band packed it in until a 2003 reunion.

None of which breaks the spell of that initial, glorious LP.


Vanity Fair: 21st Century Fox
It's tough to find a general-interest magazine with a brain these days.
There are a few out there, though, such as Esquire, which combine some good reading with the celeb stuff.
There's a magazine out there that's got an older pedigree than anyone except The Atlantic (which began publication in 1857), and that's Vanity Fair.
It was originally a British magazine, published between 1868-1914. It covered politics, the arts, and culture, and was known for its writing and especially its caricatures of the famous of the day. Lewis Carroll and P.G. Wodehouse were among its contributors, and it covered much ground.

As it was ceasing its run an American named Conde Montrose Nast was in New York, and preparing to take up the magazine's name and spirit. He converted a men's fashion magazine named Dress into Dress and Vanity Fair in 1913, and by 1914 the title was simply Vanity Fair.
The magazine did live up to the spirit of its precursor, and published Huxley, Eliot, Stein, Wolfe, and theatrical critique by Dorothy Parker. In spite of its success it fell victim to the Depression, and was folded into Vogue in 1936.

It was dormant until a March, 1983 re-launch. Again the goal was a quality magazine, and again that standard was met. Christopher Hitchens, Dominick Dunne, Sebastian Junger and Maureen Orth all hang their hats there now, and the results are solid.

So: after a healthy number of pages whereon all manner of David Yurman'd, tiger-cub bustiered,
feral-eyed young models display their wares, it's on to the content. "Fanfair" tops off the reader's tank with current doings in books, movies, music, restaurants and so forth. In "Fairground," the culture gets its pulse taken and settles in for a lengthy exam. In the September issue alone, Hitchens discusses his battle with cancer, James Franco talks about his new role as the young Allen Ginsberg, James Wolcott remembers NYC dive Max's Kansas City and Lisa Birnbach discusses her belated follow-up to The Preppy Handbook.
More awaits in the "Vanities" section. In that same September issue, for example, was a feature piece on Stefani Germanotta (currently treading the boards as Lady Gaga). It was interesting, in that I knew nowt about her before, and now I'm a little more acquainted with her thinking. That's never a bad thing. Of course, the current issue features her new co-star, the occasionally omnipresent Cher. That's okay though. All in the service of knowing what's afoot out there.

All in all, a worthwhile read.


Toni Collette and the Phenomenon of Tara
I sat, bewildered, and wondered what I'd write about re: television.
The answer arrived in the form of a red Netflix envelope. My wife ordered the first season of the Showtime series The United States of Tara. I'd only ever heard the show's name, so I was game. Four episodes in, and I'm hooked.
The show follows a woman who's an interior decorator and housewife, who also happens to have Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her other selves tend to appear in times of stress, and so we meet "T", a wild teen who steals daughter Kate's clothes and comes on to Tara's husband Max, "Alice," a '50s housewife who both charming and no-nonsense, and even "Buck," a male persona who talks of Vietnam and loves to bowl and swill beer.
Writer and columnist Diablo Cody had already written Juno and Jennifer's Body when she was approached with an idea from DreamWorks. Steven Spielberg wanted to develop a story about this particular woman and her family's efforts to carry on with some kind of normality.
The 38 year-old Australian actress Toni Collette was chosen for the role of Tara, and she immediately began to slip into Tara - and her alters, as well. Collette had a long list of films to her credit, including Muriel's Wedding, About a Boy and Little Miss Sunshine, and she is astonishing as Tara. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she pauses, and when her eyes refocus it's as an alter, and her husband, teens, and less-than-supportive sister must react accordingly.

Five seconds into the pilot, Tara sits down in front of a camera and collects herself, knowing she's headed for a change soon. "This is Tara, obviously," she says. Remarking on a job assignment, a ridiculous mural for a pregnant matron, she states "It's what I do...I create opulent environments for women who hemorrhage money." Moments later she's headed uptairs, exchanging exhausted for slinky, and "T" is not far behind. It's clear that something special, somthing high-powered and original and hugely entertaining is afoot.

I've got to get Showtime, I guess. Season Three kicks off this spring...

Very well.

As a final thought, I'd sure like to see an end to the continued exhuming of Natalee Holloway and L'il JonBenet Ramsey (now appearing on a fresh round of tabloid covers). It's not just a zombie cockroach like Nancy Grace propping up the industry for these two poor souls, either - it's the girls' media-drunk parents, and everyone who can't tune in or pick up the Tattler fast enough.
For shame, people.

Now let's have a drink.

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