Sunday, September 9, 2018

"BlacKkKlansman"

“BlacKkKlansman” couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency gave many Americans a smug satisfaction in their country’s racial enlightenment, a feeling that we had overcome, that the hopes and dreams of the ’60s civil rights movement had finally been realized. Donald Trump’s election paved the way for Spike Lee’s newest release by showing just how misplaced this sense of national pride was; it’s hard to imagine this movie having the same degree of resonance if Hillary Clinton had won.

Based on a true story, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the African-American man who integrated the Colorado Springs police department in the early ’70s. After toiling away in the records department for a spell, Stallworth is elevated to the rank of detective. He meets love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier), the head of the local black student union, on his first assignment, going undercover at a speech by black power activist Kwame Ture



Ture is targeted because Stallworth’s chief feels he is a potential security threat, but he is in and out of Colorado Springs in short order. A permanent presence, one with real potential for violence, is the local Ku Klux Klan. With some persistence, Stallworth convinces his boss to greenlight an investigation of the local Klan chapter.

In a series of darkly funny scenes, Stallworth dials up Klan members, including future Trump supporter David Duke, the Klan’s national director, and impersonates a racist white man who is eager to join the organization. Since Stallworth can’t attend the meetings without being discovered, white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) infiltrates the Klan in person. Like Stallworth, Zimmerman has to fake loyalty to an ideology he despises and swallow his pride as the Klansmen he associates with routinely spit out anti-Semitic vitriol.

While Zimmerman investigates the Klan, suspense builds over whether or not he will be found out and on a personal level, Zimmerman faces tension between his professional role and his private self. Prodded by Patrice (no fan of law enforcement), Stallworth deals with a similar internal struggle.

The connections between Colorado Springs in the ’70s and Trump’s America are many. The image of Richard Nixon, the first modern president to exploit white majority racism, appears throughout the movie on campaign posters and signs. Discussing David Duke, one Klansmen tells another that by acting civil and wearing a three-piece suit, Duke is mainstreaming the white power movement, to which the other says, “hopefully one day we get someone in the White House who embodies it.” In case anyone doesn’t get the message, the phrases “America first” and “make America great again” are randomly shouted out in a crowded hall where Duke is speaking.

Everything leads up to a bravura segment that flips back and forth between a joyous Klan initiation emceed by David Duke and a somber set where activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte tells a group of young black political activists the gruesome story of Jesse Washington, a black man who was brutally tortured and murdered in Waco, TX in 1916. The scene shows not only how out of touch the white people at the Klan event are about race but how vastly the perspectives of the two groups of people differ. As Belafonte points out, racist whites aren’t the whole problem; referencing Washington’s murder, he says, “A lot of good white folks stood there like it was a 4th of July parade,” clearly implicating the millions of otherwise decent Americans who normalize or ignore Trump’s bigotry.

“BlacKkKlansman” shifts directions and moods multiple times in the last five-ten minutes, to great effect. There is a feel-good scene in the police office that would be the ending in 99% of Hollywood movies, but Spike Lee refuses to follow formula storyboards. Just as the audience begins to feel safe, a mysterious knock comes at Stallworth’s door in the middle of the night. The startling finale is a necessary shock to the system, a reflection of the primal forces Trump has unleashed and a sad reminder that 150 years after its end, the Civil War continues to rage in the dark hearts of all too many red state Americans.



More civil rights writing by Dan Benbow:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop (about the speech King gave on the last night of his life)

A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

Honest Abe Makes Sausage (a review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln")

    Brown v. Board and Three Dog Night's "Black and White"
                           
                         Actions, Not Words (a life review of Ollie Matson, an Olympic medal 
                         winner, NFL Hall-of-Famer, civil rights trailblazer, and good citizen)

                                                                  Colin Kaepernick is right

"Truth and Beauty" film reviews:





     
"Battle of the Sexes"

                                                                        "American Hustle"


                                                                               "Trumbo"                                               

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Angelic voices, #4: Aretha Franklin performs before Barack Obama and Carole King

Aretha Franklin had a voice and a career without parallel among soul vocalists. 

Like many other black singers, Franklin learned her craft in a place of worship, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father was the pastor. By the age of 14, she already had the It Factor, as heard in this gospel recording from 1956. 

When Franklin was 21, her first major-label album, "Laughing on the Outside," was released by Columbia Records. Opinions vary on her Columbia catalog, which leaned on pop and jazz arrangements. What's undeniable is that she found her stride, commercially and artistically, after leaving Columbia and signing with Atlantic Records in the mid-'60s. As detailed in the wonderful documentary "Muscle Shoals," Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler brought Franklin together with the Swampers, a crack team of Southern R & B studio musicians. The results were a string of timeless hits:  "Chain of Fools," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "Respect," and the crown jewel, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," below.


        
This period would serve as a trampoline for a magnificent career that would include 112 singles in the Billboard top 200, 75 million records sold, and Franklin becoming the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Unlike many entertainers who play it safe to line their pockets, Franklin made her humanistic values clear, singing at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral, Jimmy Carter's inaugural, both of Bill Clinton's inaugurals, and Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Among Franklin's most dramatic public performances was her rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" in 2015 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Carole King, among others, was receiving a lifetime achievement award. King's delight at this startling tribute is moving, as is the presence of our elegant first lady and president, whose preternatural cool melts at the beauty of it all. This moment combined some of the best elements of America, from the the marriage of Brill Building songwriting and gospel to the fruits of the civil rights movement to the unification of a large crowd of people from very diverse backgrounds that only music can provide. Aretha was, quite simply, the most transcendent singer this country has produced. 


  
                                           Other "Truth and Beauty" vocalist profiles: 

                        There must be something in the water:  the magic of "Muscle Shoals" 

             A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth



Angelic voices, #3:  Janis Joplin sings "Cry Baby"  


Saturday, July 21, 2018

Fifteen Minutes in San Francisco

A few years back I had one of many eye-opening experiences on San Francisco's public transportation routes. 

Rather than convey the story through dry, grammatically-correct prose, I chose a freewrite voice better suited to the lively, elastic vibe of those fifteen minutes. Here it is.  

When I reached the bus stop Saturday night a young Spandex-clad woman rambled full tilt into her phone and a really good listener's ear

A bus rolled up I went to the middle of the last row where I could see everything

The guy in front of me to the left played rap music through his phone for all to hear

The guy in front of me to the right bopped his head along just barely to the beat and

Directly in front of Head Bopper was Full Tilt, still yammering away about a friend whose parents were pushing her through school but she wasn't studying enough because she didn't really want to be in school and

A stop, a cat got on, sat next to Rap Boy, fist-bumped him

Stop after that a middle-aged woman got on with a bunch of bags but

She rode just a few blocks and at one stop as the driver was about to close the back door and move along she suddenly yelled, "Wait! I have lots of stuff to carry. Wait!" And so

The driver waited she got off Head Bopper grinned at the drama, started bobbing his head again to the music

Bus pulled up to Van Ness and Market the guy directly in front of me fist-bumped Rap Boy got up to leave and loudly sucked mucus up into his throat without breaking stride and

Did it one more time as he waited for the green light above the back door to come on

Head Bopper grinned again (the shit you see...)

I got off at the next stop, said to Head Bopper, "Endless entertainment on MUNI"

He smiled broadly, said yes

I came down into the long Civic Center BART tunnel two brothers were playing smooth jazz

keyboards and sax over a drum track

I gave 'em a dollar the saxman said thank you I said, "No. Thank y
ou" and

When I looked ahead I saw a homeless man near the add fare machines dancing in a winding drunk belly dancer style to the jazzmen

He saw me see him as I passed and smiled big and full of teeth except the one in the front which was missing

I smiled back and gave him a thumb's up

Through the turnstile,

Downstairs on the subway platform I ran into a soft-spoken bearded dude from my old meet-up group who wrote verse in a little black leatherbound book, if memory serves,

I said hey, don't I know you?

He said
yes

Are you still going to the group?

And so on...

I broke away when the train came

The doors closed behind,

Sealing me in. 



                                                     San Francisco on Truth and Beauty:

eye-catching architecture, and miscellaneous city scenes 
in a stroll from the Mission to South of Market to downtown

"Crystal Blue Persuasion" is a walking photo tour of San Francisco from the Bay to the Ocean (and a golden sunset) on a pristine sunny day just before Xmas

 "On a clear day you can see forever" explores Noe Valley, Ashbury Heights, 
the Inner Sunset district, microclimates, and street art on a pristine September day 

"A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco" is a day tour of the city, 
from Mission Street to the Pacific Ocean

"Random San Francisco" has 46 photos which range from 
ornate architecture to vistas to murals to sidewalk messaging

"Waiting for the Sun" is an essay about riding the bus in San Francisco

"San Francisco sunset, 12/23/14"

"A noirish door mural in the Mission District"

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Without a Net: Henry Miller in His Own Words

“There was something heroic about it and he could have driven us stark mad, Ravel, if he
had wanted to. But that’s not Ravel. Suddenly it all died down. It was as if he remembered,
in the midst of his antics, that he had on a cutaway suit. He arrested himself. A great mistake, in my opinion. Art consists in going the full length. If you start with the drums you have to end with dynamite, or TNT. Ravel sacrificed something for form, for a vegetable that people must digest before going to bed.”

-Henry Miller






Norman Mailer called Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer “one of the ten or twenty great novels of our [20th] century.” George Orwell hailed Cancer as “a remarkable book” with “a feeling for character and a mastery of technique that are unapproached in any at all recent novel.” Novelist Lawrence Durrell said, “For me Tropic of Cancer stands beside Moby Dick…American literature today begins and ends with the meaning of what Miller has done.” Also to pile on the plaudits were powerhouse writers Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos.

And yet, today, Miller’s groundbreaking autobiographical novels receive scant attention in America's literary media organs. Essays on Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and other long-deceased 20th Century American novelists continue to circulate through the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker, but Henry Miller is conspicuously absent.

Have the mannerly beasts of convention that Miller gleefully used for buckshot banished him forever, or will there be revivals, a reward for keeping it real? 

Would he turn in his grave at this very discussion?

---

Henry Miller was born to German immigrants in Manhattan in 1891 and shortly thereafter moved to Brooklyn.  Of this time and place, Miller wrote in Black Spring, “Where others remember of their youth a beautiful garden, a fond mother, a sojourn at the seashore, I remember, with a vividness as if it were etched in acid, the grim soot-covered walls and chimneys of the tin factory opposite us and the bright, circular pieces of tin that were strewn in the street.”

Early on it was apparent that Miller was gifted, and endlessly curious, but he was not much interested in formal education or a career track, other than having a vague idea that he wanted to be a writer. In 1909 he left City College of New York in his first semester and proceeded to drift until 1917, when he married Beatrice Wickens.  In 1919, Miller’s daughter Barbara was born, and in 1920, to support his family, he became an employment manager for Western Union.

Miller’s experience at Western Union (fictively referred to as "the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company") forms the backbone of Tropic of Capricorn, which was published abroad in 1939.  Stripping the gloss off of the U.S. economic "miracle" of the Roaring Twenties, Miller described the grim corporate practice of employee recycling that continues to this day:

What was needed was a mechanic, but according to the logic of the higher-ups there was nothing wrong with the mechanism, everything was fine and dandy except that things were temporarily out of order. And things being temporarily out of order brought on epilepsy, theft, vandalism…sometimes strikes and lockouts. Whereupon, according to this logic, you took a big broom and you swept the stable clean, or you took clubs and guns and you beat sense into the poor idiots who were suffering from the illusion that things were fundamentally wrong. It was good now and then to talk of God, or to have a little community sing – maybe even a bonus was justifiable now and then, that is when things were getting too terribly bad for words. But on the whole, the important thing was to keep hiring and firing; as long as there were men and ammunition we were to advance, to keep mopping up the trenches.

The time at Western Union soured Miller on the work world, and America itself, specifically the American notion that human progress was inextricably bound to a culture of industry:

I think of all the streets in America combined as forming a huge cesspool, a cesspool of the spirit in which everything is sucked down and drained away to everlasting shit. Over this cesspool the spirit of work weaves a magic wand; palaces and factories spring up side by side, and munition plants and chemical works and steel mills and sanatoriums and prisons and insane asylums. The whole continent is a nightmare producing the greatest misery of the greatest number. I was one, a single entity in the midst of the greatest jamboree of wealth and happiness (statistical wealth, statistical happiness) but I never met a man who was truly wealthy or truly happy.


---

In 1924, Miller divorced his first wife and married June Mansfield, a dancer with bohemian leanings who was to become his muse for many years. Not long after they tied the knot she
June
convinced Miller to leave his job and devote himself to writing as she hustled money from male admirers. 
 

For the next several years, Miller lived on a shoe-string budget subsidized by June, worked occasional odd jobs, and wrote and submitted for little money and zero acclaim.  One editor was kind enough to tell the aspiring author, “It is quite obvious that writing is not your forte.”

All along he had ridden the tide, let the course of events be determined from without, but now Miller found a focus:

I want to go contrary to the normal line of development, pass into a superinfantile realm of being which will be absolutely crazy and chaotic but not crazy and chaotic as the world about me. I have been an adult and a father and a responsible member of society. I have earned my daily bread. I have adapted myself to a world that was never mine. I want to break through this enlarged world and stand again on the frontier of an unknown world which will throw this pale, unilateral world into shadows.

Miller's wish came true when he moved to Paris in 1930 (June stayed behind in New York).  Being alone and in a foreign environment in the early years of the Great Depression was fraught with homelessness, loneliness, and hunger, but the fresh wash of new people, places, and experiences put Miller in a creative fervor that birthed his opus, Tropic of Cancer, released abroad in September, 1934.

From the opening pages of Cancer, the reader is confronted with a bold first-person voice showing no concern for literary niceties:

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.

This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty…

Where many novelists sit at their desk and pull material from the safe haven between their ears, Miller believed in the value of direct experience and spun his narratives the way he lived them, bouncing around from one incident to the next, with deft splotches of local color:

A weird sort of contentment in those days. No appointments, no invitations for dinner, no program, no dough…Dashing here and there like a bedbug, gathering butts now and then, sometimes furtively, sometimes brazenly; sitting down on a bench and squeezing my guts to stop the gnawing, or walking through the Jardin des Tuileries and getting an erection looking at the dumb statues. Or wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it…the trees leaning to, the broken images in the water, the rush of the current under the bloody lights of the bridges, the women sleeping in doorways, sleeping in newspapers, sleeping in the rain; everywhere the musty porches of the cathedrals and beggars and lice and old hags full of St. Vitus’ dance; pushcarts stacked up like wine barrels in the side streets, the smell of berries in the market place and the old church surrounded with vegetables and blue arc lights, the gutters slippery with garbage and women in satin pumps staggering through the filth and vermin at the end of an all-night souse.

Other than a brief stint as a proofreader, and some time teaching English, Miller had little employment after he arrived in Paris.  On the fringes but ever-adaptive, he created
Anais Nin
a loose network of friends by idling around cafes and deploying his listening skills and gift of gab.  Among his new friends was Anais Nin, a writer of erotica who became a lover and benefactor. Nin was just one of many helping hands; to remove the need to punch a clock for sustenance, Miller parlayed his affability into a rotating schedule of meal invitations which broadened his group of associates and provided a well of stories and personalities to channel into his writing. 

Miller’s wife June visited Paris, but, sadly, went back to New York:

The last glimpse I had of her was in the window waving goodbye to me…Mona at the window waving good-bye. White heavy face, hair streaming wild. And now it is a heavy bedroom, breathing regularly through the gills, sap still oozing from between her legs, a warm feline odor and her hair in my mouth. My eyes are closed. We breathe warmly into each other’s mouth. Close together, America three thousand miles away. I never want to see it again. To have her here in bed with me, breathing on me, her hair in my mouth - I count that something of a miracle. Nothing can happen now till morning…

In the winter of 1934, Miller divorced June, not least because he had no desire to return to the United States.  He rejected America’s economic regimen, the tacky consumer culture that drove it, and the toll it had taken on spirituality, creativity, and human interplay.  The soul-sucking eventuated by industrialization had robbed man of his true nature:

All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico. The same story everywhere. If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward! Time presses. The embryo is pushing through the neck of the womb, and there’s not even a gob of spit to ease the passage.

Miller rejected automatism and reveled in the senses, filling his pages with a ripe smorgasbord of tastes, smells, sights and sounds, and the liberal use of naughty words in graphic sex scenes that snuffed the guilt out of sin.  Tropic of Cancer – and future Miller releases – were banned in the United States, but the response in France (where the book was first published) and among many readers of note generated enough sales to keep a roof over Miller’s head and helped fuel the enthusiasm that produced his next two novels, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn.     

Miller probably would have been content to stay in Paris, but World War II intervened.  He  came back to New York for a time, eventually to settle in Big Sur, California, where he got back to the land, married, fathered two more children, got divorced and re-married, hosted writers, artists and sundry admirers, and continued to write.

In 1958, the prestigious American Institute of Arts and Letters made Miller a member due to a “boldness of approach and intense curiosity concerning man and nature…unequalled in the prose literature of our time.”  Ironically, his major works were still banned in America at the time, but a quantum leap in free expression was right around the corner.  In 1961, at the age of 70, Miller received his biggest paycheck ever when Grove Press handed over a $50,000 advance for three novels with every intent of banking on Miller's underexposed ouvre.  Three years later, in June of 1964, Tropic of Cancer finally beat the censors in the Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein U.S. Supreme Court ruling, thirty years after the book's initial release in France. 

Miller spent his remaining years in Pacific Palisades, California, where he continued to read and write, paint and show his watercolors, ride his bike, and entertain guests until the ripe age of 88. 

---

What about posterity?  Will Henry Miller last?    

Though he joked of writing for posterity, and graciously kept nearly everything he ever produced for future scholars, biographies and articles about Henry Miller have been rare.  His red-blooded, pre-p.c. sensibility hasn't endeared him to most feminists and elements of the academic left, and he’s too frequently pigeonholed as a writer of dirty books, a la Charles Bukowski, because detractors seek a neat categorical slot in which to stuff his work.  As of 2007, when this article was originally published, even Miller's library in Big Sur refused to look back; verbiage on its website said, “It is not a library where you can borrow books, it is not a memorial with dusty relics, it is not a fully stocked bookstore, it is not a trinket store where you’ll find a large selection of glossy photographs of the coast, t-shirts, mugs and baseball caps. It is not Henry Miller’s old home (that was four miles down the road on Partington Ridge), it is not originally built to be a public place.”    

Miller's ego might be bruised by his modern day lack of recognition, but he probably wouldn’t lose sleep over it, for art, like life, was about the moment.  Behind the scathing rants was a childlike joy at drinking, eating, talking, laughing, and screwing, especially, and a belief in the transformative power of art, and above all, the performance:

I remember an anonymous performer on the Keith Circuit who was probably the craziest man in America, and perhaps he got fifty dollars a week for it. Three times a day, every day in the week, he came out and held the audience spellbound. He didn’t have an act – he just improvised. He never repeated his jokes or his stunts. He gave of himself prodigally, and I don’t think he was a hop fiend either. He was one of those guys who are born in the corn crakes and the energy and the joy in him was so fierce that nothing could contain it. He could play any instrument and dance and step and he could invent a story on the spot and string it out till the bell rang…it was a show that contained more therapy than the whole arsenal of modern science. They ought to have paid a man like this the wages the President of the United States receives. They ought to sack the President of the United States and the whole Supreme Court and set up a man like this as ruler. This man could cure any disease on the calendar. He was the kind of guy, moreover, as would do it for nothing, if you asked him to. This is the type of man who empties insane asylums. He doesn’t propose a cure – he makes everybody crazy.

***

More pieces about writing on Truth and Beauty: 

             "Magic A is Magic A" and other elements in the Periodic Table of Storytelling
                                        
                                  Charles Bukowski: So You Want to Be a Writer?

                                                First and Last Sentences

                                                The Emotion Thesaurus

                                                          Freewrites 
                                             
                                   

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The historic Paramount Theatre meets mid-afternoon sun

In the early-to-mid aughts I saw a lot of stand-up comedy at the Punchline, a club in downtown San Francisco. At one show, comedian Michael Meehan made a crack about a small town on the other side of the bay. The joke bombed. In response to the audience's silence, Meehan grinned and said, "C'mon folks, you have to get outside the 415 [San Francisco's] area code sometimes."

That got a laugh because it was true. In the 17 years I lived in San Francisco, I explored every neighborhood of the city but barely ever made it across the bay to Oakland, a cultural Mecca in its own right, other than to attend concerts or art exhibits. 

The vast majority of my exposure to Oakland came in the last three months I lived in the Bay Area, just before I was priced out. From January to April of 2016, I walked from a subway station in downtown Oakland to an internship at an inner-city day treatment program. Along the way, I took in a new visual landscape that included the bad (fences, security systems, snarling dogs) and the beautiful (murals aplenty). 

A stone's throw from the street-level opening of the subway station is the Paramount Theatre, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Built in 1931, this art deco structure has a visual splendor—both internally and externally—missing in modern movie theatres. 


Each weekday afternoon after I finished case notes I headed back downtown. The Paramount was the last taste of Oakland I had before I disappeared down into the subway. The February afternoon pictured above, like most, was sunny and mild; I flipped on my sunglasses as I turned from an alleyway onto Broadway Street, approaching the theatre. This view of the sun-kissed Paramount mosaic was captured from the median. As snow falls outside my window in flyover land, this is one of the many images that reminds me of the mystical urban beauty of the Bay Area.

                                                        Truth and Beauty photo essays:

eye-catching architecture, and miscellaneous city scenes 
in a stroll from the Mission to South of Market to downtown

"Crystal Blue Persuasion" is a walking photo tour of San Francisco from the Bay to the Ocean (and a golden sunset) on a pristine sunny day just before Xmas

"Gone but not Forgotten" is a tribute to a friend who left this world all too soon 

"A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco" is a day tour of the city, 
from Mission Street to the Pacific Ocean

"Random San Francisco" has 46 photos which range from 
ornate architecture to vistas to murals to sidewalk messaging

"California in November" captures deep fall natural splendor