Tag Archives: documentary film

Run to See “I Am Not Your Negro”

When Raoul Peck‘s new film I Am Not Your Negro began, hardly a minute or two into it, I thought, Everyone in America must see this film, it must be shown in schools, it must be required viewing. I still think so, but as the film progressed I began to doubt if the film could reach racists of all stripes–those who would admit to being racists and those who don’t–who must be reached or we hope can be reached if the country is to move forward in the direction of justice. This doubt is not because the film isn’t good, rather it is because it is so good: it is formally complex and in that way rhetorically complex as well, although the line through is direct and radiantly clear, and it is an open question whether the kind of cinematic complexity of non-linear montage praised by Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard,and others for their ability to break into blind acceptance of political norms can function when popular news culture is so degraded.

I Am Not Your Negro is not a conventional documentary film by any means. It is a film essay using the words of James Baldwin to reflect upon the historical Civil Rights movement and the continued status of blacks in America, in which past (historical news footage and film clips taken from the history of popular culture since the beginning of recorded cinema) and present (violent and disturbing news coverage from Ferguson as well as lyrical footage of New York City and other landscapes from Baldwin’s narrative) fluidly intermingle. The narrative–established around an unfinished work in which Baldwin hoped to address the history of the Civil Rights movement, and more deeply the basis of our country in racism, through the lives and the deaths of three men, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., all major figures in the Civil Rights movement, all assassinated, all personal friends of James Baldwin–moves with a kind of forward motion, but the complexity of the montage creates a equally complex mirror for the citizen who must understand how she is implicated.

This little moment of doubt does not diminish my belief that this is a film that must be seen by everyone, powerful and beautiful. It is a treasure trove of  important historical footage: a TV talk show hosted by Kenneth B. Clark, with Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Baldwin himself, where Malcom X attacked King as an Uncle Tom; Baldwin speaking to a West Indian Group in London in 1969; the famed debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”, Baldwin’s notable appearance on The Dick Cavett Show; a TV morning news talk show on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963, including, in addition to James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston (yes!), and Joseph Mankiewicz–among other things we get a glimpse at how much serious discourse on important issues took place on network television in the 60s.


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At the center of the film is Baldwin himself, speaking. He is an intensely compelling figure, as eloquent at Shakespeare and as riveting a performer as the greatest actors in the history of film and theater, in what he says but also in how his intonations, the expressions of his face, his slight elegant body carry and amplify the power of his words. Each word rings like the bell of a Medieval Cathedral, crystal clear,  eloquent, passionate,  dismissive, razor-sharp, with a powerful use of a unique intonation and pauses that are living demonstrations of a brain sorting through complex and emotionally charged thought to find the most eloquent formulation possible, all from one of the most remarkable looking of men, a vivid expressive face, a slight small gay male body.

The script for the film is exclusively Baldwin’s own writing, taken from many sources, listed in the final credits for the film. I would love to have the script with all the sources clearly indicated. [I have not yet had a chance to see this book but it sounds like it is what I am wishing for.] This would be a uniquely useful teaching tool, to be able to show the movie and have an accompanying textbook of the script, annotated with historical context for each writing, with a timeline placing his literary and political writing into a historical timeline, something that the film does impressionistically and synecdotally, through an inspired usage of very diverse film clips.

Thinking of all the different clips and photos, it occurs to me that it may be important to say this film is the anti-Ken Burns: no offense to Burns’ signature style, but this blows through pan and scan. You never feel comforted by the formulaic.

The narration of Baldwin’s text is by Samuel L. Jackson. Since I have long been familiar with Baldwin’s own voice and intonations, it was at first a bit trying to hear his words read in a precise yet somewhat uniformly mournful tone by Jackson, a voice which pales in comparison to Baldwin’s powerful use of cadence and his entire physical affect, but the words are so true to our current situation that the narration is more powerful than the reader.

The film has so much to teach about race relations in the United States not just historically but today. In recent months some have been surprised to find that there are so many organized groups of Neo-Nazis all around the country, so it is revelatory, again, to see pictures of young white men in the South openly carrying swastikas in the 1950s and 60s. The film brings terrifying recent footage of militarized police presences together with the police violence of the 1950s and ’60s–the police weren’t as padded and militarized in their dress and equipment as now but they were just as violent–and the film also reminds us of just how violent a decade the 1960s was. This reminder is complex and troubling: on the one hand we survived that time period and during it, as a result of struggle and strategy, there was some distinct movement towards voting rights and opportunity, though at the time Baldwin, like Malcom X, warned against believing any of that was anything more than window dressing, that any of it truly addressed the underlying foundation of the country in racism, slavery, and oppression. Nevertheless, as someone who came of age in terms of political awareness during the ’60s and ’70s, there was still a governmental structure that eventually, under great pressure, grudgingly, responded. But then the doubt comes, which is affecting us all: is there anything left today in the halls of government and private power of that even grudging decency and respect for constitutional rights.

Looking at the archival footage of civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, including the actions of the children of Birmingham in 1963, you get a strong sense of the strength that comes from knowing who you are and what you are fighting for, and from carefully considered and organized education and training of all participants no matter their age, lifted by song and inspired by eloquent political and religious speech, including that of Baldwin himself, song and speech which resonate to this day.

I literally ran in the street to make the 4PM showing at the Film society of Lincoln Center yesterday. I advise you to run too. Everyone must see this film.

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Fail-Safes

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Shortly before the first Presidential Debate September 26th, one of my students told me that he felt that the American system of government was sturdy enough to withstand the depredations of a Trump presidency, not that he was for such an event but in response to my fear of a fascist take over of the government. I thought about some of the times in recent history when in the face of attacks on some of the basic principles of our Constitution, the “system worked.” Watergate is frequently mentioned as an instance when “the system worked,” when some members of the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of government and some of the press were able to stand up to Richard Nixon’s abuses of power. Thinking back on those historical instances, I wondered whether the same mechanisms would prevail now, and that led me to thinking about a few movies that are part of the filter through which I see our current political crisis. The movies I have chosen were mostly made in the period between 1964 and 1976, and are historically bracketed by the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Watergate affair of 1972-1974. At the beginning of the cycle, the President of the United States is portrayed as a hero, the final film of the cycle (Network, 1976, see below) is post national and post governmental, and the nuclear bomb has receded from view as a fear, replaced by the madness of corporate greed.

At the center of my student’s faith in the American system of government is its tripartite system of balanced powers, where governmental power is divided between the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislative. In a sense this is a system with a fail-safe mechanism built in to prevent the kind of monarchical tyranny the American Revolution emerged from.

The failure of such a fail-safe system is the theme of the 1964 movie Fail Safe in which a group of Strategic Air Command planes carrying a nuclear response payload cannot be persuaded to turn back in time to stop an unintended, mistakenly triggered, first strike on Moscow. The basic premise is not unlike that of Dr. Strangelove, released the same year, except that in Fail Safe it is played for realism rather than satire. As the planes head for their target, the fate of the world rests on a Solomonic choice of public and personal sacrifice made by the President of the United States. Fail Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, with an outstanding supporting cast of mostly New York theater- and early television drama-based actors, has a taught, spare editing style possibly based on the the style of 1950s live television drama. The film begins on a fascinatingly Bunuelesque note and the use of a beautiful 1950s style typeface for titles indicating location and time suggest a TV newscast or documentary of the period while stylistically pointing us forward towards the use of text titles in the films of Jean-Luc Godard. (just a cautionary note that the version available on YouTube has been sped up so that the actors sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks in order to get around copyright laws so I hope there is another way of watching it!).

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Though it was released earlier than Fail Safe, Stanley Kramer‘s 1959 film On the Beach could function as a sequel to Fail Safe in terms of the plot, that is in terms of what happens after nuclear catastrophe, as a wave of air-born lethal radiation makes it way to the last outpost of living civilization, a film produced in a time of perhaps greater anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war–the Cuban Missile Crisis was defused through the basic reasonableness and cool of the two world leaders involved and some of their advisors and marked the beginnings of a slow detente with Russia (one which apparently has now eroded back into a war which most of us were too busy to notice or take seriously until this election cycle revealed it). In both these films the fail safe is human decency and the ability of some human beings to think in terms of a greater good and yet in both Fail Safe and On the Beach the very existence of nuclear weapons insures eventual catastrophe whether by will or by technological or human error.

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Another fail-safe mechanism built into the American system of government rests in the tradition of a military that at least in principle and according to the Constitution is apolitical. The possibility that such a policy–written into Article II of the Constitution which states that the commander in chief is the President, a civilian–might fail is the subject of the excellent political thriller Seven Days in May, from 1964, directed by John Frankenheimer. Seven Days in May details the discovery of a secret plot led by a treasonous general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played by Burt Lancaster, to stage a coup d’état from the far right and overthrow the President of the United States who has recently signed a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The story is set in 1974, ten years in the future from the release of the movie, thus it is a kind of of science fiction thriller although it feels very much as a 60s movie in other ways, including being a black and white film and because the crisp pacing of the plot premise, day by day, hour by hour, has a technocratic aspect that seems very much of its time, and, again, emerges from the live television tradition of New York-based 1950s drama. It is notable again because of an outstanding ensemble cast where the leading characters are all movie stars, both present and legendary, including Douglas and Lancaster as well as Frederic March and Ava Gardner, in a late career role which plays on the vulnerability of her ageing beauty (no plastic surgery). The differing acting styles of these major figures within a tight and dramatic script is very interesting to watch.

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The film is based on a book written in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently President Kennedy read the book and thought it presented a credible scenario, he wanted the film made according to Kennedy advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger. Lancaster’s character was partially based on General Walker who was forced to resign after the Cuban Missile Crisis –the recent history of McCarthyism in the United States is also part of the story. In the parlance of that anticommunist era, the President is considered a “weak sister,” a communist sympathizer or appeaser.

In the film there are three Fail Safe mechanisms in play: first the military code with regards to political activity–this is represented by the Navy office played by Kirk Douglas, who uncovers the plot to take over media communications and overthrow the President when he is mistakenly allowed to overhear a reference to a military plan or group with the acronym of  ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol). Never having heard of this group and finding no records for it, he overcomes his loyalty to the military and to the superior officers he serves, alerts the President, and ultimately confronts the General, his former mentor. Loyalty is a theme of the film: to whom are you loyal? to your country? to your friends? to the Constitution? to the code of military conduct? to your Commander in Chief? Douglas’ character is torn between loyalty and military hierarchy and greater loyalty to the President and the Constitution, even though he personally doesn’t approve of the President’s policies. A key scene between Douglas and Lancaster involves a discussion of who is the Judas but it is clear that Douglas’ character adheres to constitutional divisions of power.

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The military’s relation to politics has played a part in the campaign for the presidency in 2016: since no officer currently serving is allowed to express a political view except as a personal choice, the war of surrogacy has been waged by battalions of retired four star generals and admirals who have declared their support for one candidate or the other. At one point in the campaign, Trump said he would fire all the generals whose views he doesn’t agree with although the legality of such an action is questionable. Some former commanders have protested Trump’s statements in favor of torture and of killing families of suspected terrorists, because these would contravene the Geneva convention and the military code of conduct. Therefore it is very likely that the military could find itself, in a Trump administration, in the position of having to refuse to follow orders or even in the position of deposing the government in order to save the world from, say, nuclear warfare, as in Fail Safe. Who would prevail in today’s military? And would such officers as would find the orders illegal be likely to engage in the ultimate illegal act of taking over the government? I am not aware of any such major plot in American history: if any military coups were ever considered, they were prevented. So the Fail Safe of the military has not been publicly tested.

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The second, related, element at play in Seven Days in May is human decency as it is expressed in a politics of peacemaking: this is the role of the President who is willing to lose everything in order to take a principled position for peace, one where he has not resorted to common blackmail even though that is a path offered to him, and it is also the role of his personal friends, long time political loyalists that he knows he can rely on implicitly and who risk their life for him.

The third element is chance, including a crucial letter found at the very last minute at the site of a plane crash, which plays a major role in the resolution of the crisis. This is the centuries old plot device of the Deus ex machina, when mortals fail and there is no other alternative but an intervention of the Gods, if you want to avoid a tragic ending. Unfortunately the device of Deus ex machina, the God figure literally being lowered to the stage from the upper regions of the proscenium theater just in the nick of time to resolve the unresolveable dramas of mortal human beings is not a Fail Safe device that is operative in real life. And one can hope for human decency, but it may not in the short term prevent catastrophe.

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The phrase “the system worked” entered into public discourse most notably to refer to the resolution of the Watergate scandal. Among the elements of the system that “worked” were the refusal of some high placed government officials who resigned rather than follow Presidential orders against their own conscience and sense of proper government–these included Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus who refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, on the night of October 20, 1973, in what came to be called the “Saturday Night Massacre.”  In 1974 during the House Impeachment hearings, some Republican Congressmen did vote for impeachment. The refusal to this date on the part of the entire Republican leadership in Congress to withdraw their support for Donald Trump in the face of now countless attacks on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution makes it doubtful that such principled bipartisan behavior could occur in our era. The history of the Republican Party’s move to the far right is too long to go into in this post.

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During Watergate, the press was one of the major systemic forces that “worked.”  Thus Alan Pakula‘s 1976 film ” All the President’s Men the dramatization of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of their investigative reporting of the break-in at the Watergate, is another movie that is required viewing while considering whether the system would work in a potential Trump presidency, that is whether the establishment press still can function as a Fail Safe to tyranny. Even though we know what happened in the story, the atmosphere of the film is one of tremendous suspense and tension, with the particular power of 1970s film noir. The movie in fact is referred to as part of Pakula’s “paranoia trio,” including also Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974).

The press is represented through several stock characters of movies about media–comedies such as Front Page and His Girl Friday as well as more serious newspaper stories such as Call Northside 777)—the gritty beat reporter, the gruff no-nonsense editor, the unflappably competent and cautious assistant editors, the courageous newspaper owner–except in the case of All the President’s Men, these were real people–publisher Katharine Graham, executive editor Ben Bradlee, junior beat reporters Woodward and Bernstein–who each played their appointed role in the drama so that investigative reporting, Freedom of the Press, and political justice prevailed. In fact at all times in American history yellow journalism has thrived along with valiant socially conscious journalism. But the current media atmosphere is exponentially more complex, virulent, profit oriented–well, you know, we all know. And in the time of Wikileaks, what Woodward and Bernstein did may seem primitive though one can see the same kind of shoe leather beat journalism in the recent work of  Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald and the Washington Post’s David Fahrenhold among others have done in researching Trump’s finances and ties to Russia over months of investigative research. Nevertheless during the campaign of 2016 even generally respected news organizations have alternated between this kind of responsible reporting and cowardice.

Meanwhile Trump has made it clear from the start that he would try to destroy a free press. Actions including having reporters thrown out of press conferences, barring news organizations from his rallies, encouraging violence against reporters at this rallies, insulting female reporters, threatening to sue newspapers, are listed in a statement released October 13, 2016 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, declaring that “a Donald Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom.” As an example of what might be, last week the press covering a Trump rally had to be escorted by armed guard to their cars and buses. One has to worry about whether the press of record, the press with an established ethos of investigative journalism, would be able to financially survive a Trump Presidency. So the fail safe of a free press under a Trump administration is uncertain.

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When such threats are made, one always has to worry about self-censorship. In his 2005 film Goodnight, and Good Luck, George Clooney, speaking as CBS News hero Edward R. Murrow, says during a staff meeting of his CBS News show See it Now, as they consider whether to go after Senator Joe McCarthy“the terror is right here in this room.” Goodnight, and Good Luck is another useful film to view in relation to trust in a free press or media as a Fail Safe. Murrow did play a role in at last dismantling McCarthyism, through his See it Now broadcasts of 1954, and the courageous editorial statements on that program, but from a corporate media point of view this was also one step towards a more profit-oriented news organization as Murrow was gradually marginalized within the network after his heroic moment. Murrow had earned the respect of the American people through his courageous broadcasts from London during the blitz, and he set a standard for reporting that was carried on by a younger generation, now mostly deceased. Only Dan Rather survives of the generations of reporters even remotely connected to “Murrow’s Boys” and, remarkably, at age 85, he has been publishing strongly worded condemnations of Trump on a Facebook page. Murrow’s original March 9, 1954 broadcast can be viewed here, and his comments after McCarthy responded can be viewed here. If you watch Murrow’s initial broadcast taking on Senator McCarthy, which I recommend doing, you will ask yourself whether the contemporary media would be capable to be able to deliver such a report with such seriousness and with such moral authority though a few television reporters are rising the occasion. Significantly, in terms of the historic nature of this election with one candidate being the first woman to be nominated by a major party to run for the position of President of the United States, many of these are women, including Katy Tur, who is the long suffering, often under attack, indefatigable reporter assigned by NBC News to cover the Trump Campaign.

Please note that there is a direct line between the McCarthy era, as seen both in the archival footage and the recent movie, and Donald Trump since McCarthy’s despicable aide, Roy Cohn, was an important mentor to Trump early in his career.

Clooney’s deliberate use of black and white film in order to give authenticity and recognizability to the historical recreation connects him to such notable documentaries as Emile de Antonio’s 1964 documentary film Point of Order, about the Army-McCarthy hearings. It is also an homage to the generation of producer, directors, and writers that made the films I have already mentioned: Sidney Lumet, Alan Pakula, Stanley Kramer, John Frankenheimer, who all belonged to a generation with its roots in the Great Depression-whether their families were personally affected by it or not they were raised within an atmosphere of left-leaning social consciousness and activism which permeated their work. These were men who had a politics, a political world view of sympathy for the working man and suspicion of political authority and abuse. Somehow they had managed to avoid the worst effects of the blacklist on the late 40s and early 50s in order to produce these works. Many had worked in theater and in early television live drama, whose style and editorial pacing permeated their films, including the cast of theater actors they relied on as a kind of repertory company floating between them, many from the Actor’s Studio, and in several important cases the use of black and white not just for economic purposes but for its political and historical qualities at a time when color was readily available.

A final, more chilling and more contemporary film also made from this political generation is Network, from 1976,written by Paddy Chayevsky, another member of this theatrical and cinematic generation, and directed by, again, Sidney Lumet, which examines the lengths to which the ratings-obsessed value system of contemporary broadcasting will go to protect and advance corporate interests. The script is ready for our current media atmosphere: Lumet and Chayevsky would not be surprised that a TV Reality show star is running for President as scripted by a “reality”show driven by ratings more than political belief. Network forms an incredibly smart bridge between what Guy Debord described in Society of the Spectacle and the media environment of our time, most powerfully in a monologue delivered by the media corporation CEO to the deluded insane news anchor Howard Beale. The second part of his remarks are particularly notable.

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The power of the media to create a popular, populist star and then reveal the cynical indecency of a media star is the subject A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan–a man who reputation was and still is marred by his having named names to the McCarthy panel. The film questions the role in our political system of the newest most powerful type of media at that time, television.

Marcia Jeffries, a young woman reporter working for a local radio station in the South, looks for local color in a county jail in Arkansas, where she spots the raw talent of Larry Rhodes, a guy sleeping off a drunk. He has charm, a downhome sort of wisdom, he can sing and play the guitar, and he is young and ruggedly attractive. It may come as some surprise that this role is played by Andy Griffith, but seeing the movie will make you think very differently of him as an actor. His characterization has an overripe brutality which may seem over the top but given the ongoing spectacle of Trump, maybe not. And it works in the film.

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Jeffries manages his career as he rises to television stardom as “Lonesome Rhodes,” a catchy nickname she has given to him. His persona trades in what at first seems like genuine authenticity. He sings while making folsky asides which endear him to the radio then the television audience. Gradually his success goes to his head, he believes his image. He gets involved in politics, at first as as a media advisor to a Senator with aspirations to higher office. His behavior is increasingly thuggish and cruel. Eventually the woman who has created him now sees that she must destroy him, for the public good. Her decency is wrenched from her sexual enthrallment to him–the film is as explicit about that as could be portrayed in American film at that time, with Patricia Neal at her most beautiful and as always with her sexual nature vividly evident, as in some of her other notable film portrayals, including her roles in The Fountainhead and Hud. She could do more with her eyes, her body, and that black slip than anyone. She pulls the plug on him on by turning on his mike when he thinks he’s off the air so that his audience finally hears the contempt he has for them, hears him as he really is, the “monster” that she herself had created by lifting him out of the crowd.

I have thought about this movie often in the past few months: it seemed as if Trump was revealing how awful he was for everyone to see and to hear every day so that there could be no possibility of such a revelation, what else was there to reveal: thus the movie’s faith in people’s ability to be shocked seemed quaint. Then Access Hollywood‘s “grab them by the pussy” live mike video and audio turned the tables and seems to have worked almost as well as the live mike in A Face in the Crowd in turning at least some percent of the population against Trump.

One can only hope that the final scene in the movie is also predictive. I strongly recommend the film so I don’t want to spoil it except to say that the end involves a lonely has-been television personality howling from the penthouse terrace of a luxury apartment building in midtown Manhattan.

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So far nothing that has been revealed about Donald Trump, from his sexually predatory behavior to his ignorance about policy including his casual interest in the use of nuclear weapons have had a definitive effect on his candidacy. Revelations in the press have had a limited impact: as of today polls show him still as having 43% of the popular vote. The press was slow to act and Congressional leaders from his own party have not shown the political courage to stop supporting him.

As for Deus ex Machina, the gods sometime wait quite a long time before intervening to save humanity: this is the case in an early episode of the original Star Trek series, The Squire of Gothos, where the Enterprise and its crew are hijacked and kidnapped by a being, humanoid in appearance but not registering as a living being on the crew’s tricorder devices. He lives alone in some splendor and seems to get his power from a full length mirror he never strays far from, the classic narcissist that all have diagnosed Trump as being. He toys with the crew, impedes their escape, and eventually threatens their life. At the last minute, two “energy beings” appear (disembodied voices represented by light) and apologize for the behavior of their “child.”

So far, Fred and Mary Trump have not appeared to discipline their child and stop him from endangering the Republic, which they were apparently unable to do in his youth, sending him to military school when all else failed.

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These are just a few of the films that have occurred to me when thinking of the fail-safe mechanisms built into American government and other major institutions that in the past may have averted political catastrophe. If my readers can think of other films with this focus, please email me about them and I may collect them into a second blog post. I am writing this before the third debate. Who knows what new abomination may befall us next during this campaign?

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Hey Jill Soloway who you going to get to play me on your Womanhouse series?

It took a while for the full implications of a small item I read in Robin Pogrebin’s “Inside Art” column in the Times earlier this month to sink in, “Judy Chicago Does TV.”  The first sentence–“An artist isn’t typically rediscovered at 77”–fit into a category of historicization of women artists that I have commented on frequently, as recently as in a blog post here a few days ago. The article continued, “But that seems to be what’s happening to Judy Chicago of “The Dinner Party” fame, who is now going to be represented by Salon 94.” That Judy Chicago, whose work “The Dinner Party” occupies the most square footage of museum real estate devoted to a woman artist that I know of, at least in the United States, and who has been in the public eye and in feminist history for nearly 50 years, is one of these older women artists who are being “rediscovered” struck me as odd, but, OK, I had noticed recently that she has been showing in Europe, and so perhaps “rediscovery” translates here to that fact that a certain layer of the European art marketeriat is paying attention to her for perhaps the first time.

However the core of my dismay centered on the next paragraph, “Jill Soloway, creator of the acclaimed television series “Transparent,” is also making an Amazon series based on Womanhouse, the 1972 feminist art space that Ms. Chicago organized with Miriam Schapiro.”

Some younger women artists I know posted this news on Facebook saying how “AMAZING” it is. I appreciate their enthusiasm for this signal artwork of early seventies American feminist art, for Jill Soloway as someone focusing on pressing gender and trans issues in her popular series Transparent, and in general for anything feminist to get attention in popular culture.

But, I beg to differ: I was a participant of the project Womanhouse and I find the prospect of a dramatization of it something between violation and farce.

This blog post is to try to examine my own reaction and, though I speak for myself, I write with knowledge of the reaction of a number of the other women who worked on Womanhouse, some of whom I quote below, which boils down to WTF.

First the inference of the article is that Judy Chicago is the principal advisor of this project, and therefore that it is her version of Womanhouse and her views and memories of the other participants that will dominate the narrative. That is disturbing. Why? There is no question that Chicago was the co-director with Miriam Schapiro of the CalArts Feminist Art Program and Womanhouse from 1971-1972. Chicago had created/taught/directed the first Feminist Art Program the year before at Fresno State. I highly recommend the section of Gail Levin’s biography Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist that covers that year of Chicago’s most radical pedagogical experiment, it is inspiring and provocative, and having worked with her and Schapiro in the CalArts program I can vouch for the fact that although our program was pretty radical, the Fresno program was ten times more so. Thus the importance of that Judy Chicago is absolutely paramount. Nevertheless, the idea for Womanhouse came from art historian Paula Harper, and was driven as much by Miriam Schapiro’s ideas, goals, dreams, aesthetic views, and ability to proselitize and fundraise for the project as by Judy’s vision for it. Also, and of course paramount to my own sense of violation, Womanhouse was a collaborative project with 20 young women students from the Program and three or four other unaffiliated women artists from the LA community working on installations, paintings, and performances, emerging from consciousness raising sessions and discussions. In a short, difficult, and intense period of time everyone involved worked to bring the project Womanhouse to fruition for public viewing in the month of February 1972.

The students who participated in the CalArts Feminist Art Program and Womanhouse included some of the women who had worked with Chicago in Fresno, the rest were women who had self-selected to join the CalArts FAP in the fall of 1971. This was a major decision for a number of reasons. First, the program was exclusionary–only women students. The program was given a very large shared studio space with a locked door–that women held significant real estate within the school was so important institutionally. The fact that the program was exclusionary meant that one’s fellow students were only women, which not all young women would find attractive socially. It also at first meant that one was somewhat cut off from the rest of the student body and faculty. Second, it was a major decision because it was not just a class, it was a program, an experimental educational program within an experimental art school, so it represented a major commitment of time, energy, political identification, and personal allegiance as well as a challenge to established views far greater than any of the other ways of challenging art that were operative at the school at that time. Being in the program was a radical statement, it was a public declaration of identification with a political movement, Women’s Liberation or feminism, which at that particular moment was gaining importance across the country but which still was an identification with social risk.

Thus the women who chose to be in the program were unusual, every one of us, even the ones who were shy and quiet  or the ones barely sane enough to function. And we were doing all this while mostly very young. Who were we, why had we chosen to do this, how did we handle the pressure?  Which ones of us went on to lives in the arts? And which ones contributed further to writing the history of Womanhouse? Does Jill Soloway know anything about this? I am told that she does a lot of research for her projects but not one of the original participants or, in the case of Schapiro, the executor of her estate, has been consulted or indeed heard a word about this project until the notice in the Times. And if Judy Chicago is her only source she won’t learn much of who we were and are and what we know,  because Chicago of course was understandably focused on herself and her own significant struggles in the situation. One of the Womanhouse participants’ said that she thought they would only need two actresses, “Judy and ‘the girl’,” another’s fantasy is that in the series “Judy is a character and everyone else is portrayed out of focus.”

On Chicago’s website, her bio page does not mention either the CalArts Feminist Art Program or Womanhouse and her gallery of images tucks pictures of her much referenced and reproduced piece at Womanhouse, “Menstruation Bathroom,” into the bottom page section “Installations and Performances,” so it takes some work to find it. Further, since that time, Judy Chicago has not been an active participant in the many challenging directions that feminist art and theory has taken in the following decades: in fact she–her ideas and her work–was a major subject of, even a cause of, but not an active agent in the very divisive battles over essentialism that dominated feminist art discourse in the 1980s and more subtly ever since.

The little squib in the Times was vague about whether this Womanhouse based series is already in production or just in development. But, again, not a single woman associated with Womanhouse–and, with the exception of Schapiro, all of us are living–has been approached for our recollections and views and our engagements with that shared history or, for that matter, for what we might feel about this dramatization, how each one of us might balance pride in our participation in an important historical work with a sense of possessiveness or privacy about our experiences of it.

Second, it is very common in such dramatizations of real events and docudramas about famous people to focus on only a few characters that represent specific people. Thus, for example, if this Womanhouse series is an actual dramatization of the actual project Womanhouse, Soloway couldn’t get away with creating a composite character to stand in for Miriam Schapiro because she is a well documented historical figure, although some people in the know feel that Judy has done her best to erase Schapiro from the history. The struggles between the two women were visible at the time including in video documentation of the time. But it is their collaboration that creates that particular event in history. However, once past Mimi, it is likely that many of the rest of us would be lumped into generic composite characters. You know, the kind who hang around the great artist’s studio wearing period appropriate clothing and have one line, like “Pablo, that’s really a masterpiece.” In Gail Levin’s biography of Chicago, I believe I am referred to as “a strange girl from New York.”

Well, as it happens, I don’t see myself as a composite character: for example although probably I fit the bill more than I would like, I don’t think I’m the generic Jewish girl from New York. Since I hope Jill Soloway will see this text eventually, I’d just like to say that I happen to think that I’m a pretty unique and complex figure. Also, of the students who was in the CalArts Feminist Art Program and who worked on Womanhouse, I’m one of the ones who has become, with Faith Wilding, a historian of that time period. But the point is that each one of us was a specific and unique person–our choosing to be in the Feminist Art Program alone being evidence enough of that. That was one of the most important gifts of being part of that program and project, getting to know a number of exceptional and unique people with very different backgrounds from my own, but each with a perhaps atypical relation to her own history for having chosen to participate in a revolutionary program. If one is able to see Lynne Littman‘s 1972 KCET document  Womanhouse is Not a Home in particular as well as the better known and distributed film by Johanna Demetrakas, Womanhouse, you get to hear many of the young student participants speak about their intentions and desires for their installations but not every woman is interviewed and anyway even that doesn’t give you the full information about each person’s background and what drew them to the FAP. Looking back I’m not sure any of us knew all about why each of us had joined up for though we learned a lot about each other since close friendships were formed and self-revelation in consciousness raising sessions was encouraged in the search for feminist subject matter; nevertheless there were also centrifugal forces that spun us apart, in the tumult of a small group and of a revolutionary moment.

That this was a revolutionary project and moment is embodied in the reaction of yet another of the Womanhouse participants: “it makes me think about how there is nothing that cannot be capitalized, commodified, and HBO-ized.”

Third, most people who find that something they lived through is the subject of a dramatization must feel quite bemused or perturbed by the strangeness of that experience, and by the knowledge that not even  the greatest director can possibly recreate the truth of a particular moment in time. If, as a viewer, you yourself have not actually lived through the moment, you can enjoy it no matter how removed from historical veracity. Who hasn’t watched all kinds of preposterous actors play the Kennedys? Maybe even Jackie Kennedy secretly watched some of them. If you know anything about the time period of a dramatization of a historical moment, there is a sort of kick of watching both the characterizations and reconstructions as well as catching the inaccuracies, the compressions of narratives, and, yes the composite characters: Ed Harris’ Pollock, Selma Hayek’s Frida, and Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt are very creditable examples of the genre, but there are always those moments that seem inauthentic, if you know anything about the subject, especially if the character is a composite type and not the depiction of a real person, however reductive and distorted.

Fourth, so really, if it turns out that I will be or have already been written in as myself, the character Mira Schor, age 21, who can play me? I realize that I am not much up on young women actresses at this point. Over twenty years ago I had a pretty good idea: in an envelope (currently lost) that I painted, in which I cast myself and the artists associated with a gallery I was represented by, I cast Judy Davis as myself, not that I look like Judy Davis but her characterization of George Sand in James Lapine’s 1991 film Impromptu (pure fiction at least if you look at the photograph of tubercular Frederick Chopin and compare to gorgeous young Hugh Grant, or photographs of plump plain swarthy middle-aged George Sand and compare her to slim Waspy Judy Davis but it was the Bette Davis impulse in Davis’s characterization that I responded to, the drive of intelligence and independence I associated myself with). But now, I can’t imagine. I sat with a young friend who ran through current actresses including everyone from the stars of Broad City to Emma Stone and, her first choice to play me, Kristen Stewart! Frankly I don’t see any of it. The best I can do is think of my admiration for some of the great comedians of our time–Tina Fey, Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal, Jessica Williams. Yeah, make a composite of them, and I’ll accept that person + a little Semitic New York strangeness. This will have practically nothing to do with me, but at least I will enjoy the character.

Fifth, and most important, probably I am misunderstanding the whole thing: most likely this is a series that will be based on Womanhouse, allowing for total fiction based on whatever research Soloway does and thereby handily preventing law suits. So perhaps some Semitic-looking actress portraying a scowling Jewish girl from New York or a sexy smart ass Jewish girl from New York or whatever works best for the ensemble of the plot line may float through. Perhaps imagination can create a character more cinematically interesting than my own complex self. And a Miriam Schapiro-like oppositional figure to the transformational radical pedagogue Judy Chicago-based heroine may perhaps be inserted to provide some necessary conflict. I can’t help thinking of all the survivor series, the “reality” shows that identify likeable and villainous characters for the gullible audience and that are so carefully edited and scripted to highlight the most conflict in order to maintain ratings.

The young women artists whose enthusiasm for feminism, which is so welcome, makes them look forward to this series as “AMAZING” will accept this fictionalization as reality because what other options would they have.

And why not applaud the whole thing because so few artworks by women artists are the subject of a television series or film? And, further, as an artist, I should trust in Soloway’s artistic vision and her narrative skill in re-imagining a very significant moment in the history of feminism and the American Women’s Liberation Movement–though, heads up, it really wasn’t much like that “Wimmin’s” festival in Transparent‘s Series 2 episode “Idlewild” although perhaps from the outside we were indeed just the younger versions of the women sitting around the campfire critiquing patriarchy. The casting and acting in Transparent are exemplary so why doubt that she would do a more than creditable job in representing Womanhouse?

Certainly I should recall, as a cautionary note to self, my understanding, shared by many others, that Miriam Schapiro’s desire for control of the narrative when working with potential biographers and documentarians (followed, sadly, by her later struggles with dementia) cost her in terms of historicization–for instance, Schapiro does not appear in Demetrakas’ film Womanhouse–allowing Chicago the historical field and the ground to be the one to influence this planned series on Womanhouse.

And it’s always important to remember the rule so succinctly articulated by John Ford at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a reporter is given the choice between revealing the truth of an important part of the history of the West or sticking with the story as long told, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” However, in that film, the whole story is a flashback, so we, the audience, know the legendary outcome before we learn the truth, and there is a kind of logic to the story, each of the two main protagonists “who shot Liberty Valance” is in a way a hero, so then a related ending occurs to me, of another Ford movie about the West, his 1948 Fort Apache: here the audience has experienced the story of the massacre caused by an arrogant and racist commanding officer diegetically–read Custer’s Last Stand seen from the critical point of view of US soldiers more experienced with and more respectful of their Native American enemy–so when at the end a reporter refers to the martinet as a hero, as depicted in a totally inaccurate famous painting of the event as reimagined by the winning side of history, the hero dutifully but ironically chooses not to correct the “legend,” but the unfairness is stinging.

But you never know, perhaps I will in the end find myself grinning at the contact glow of secondary fame of being in any way associated with a television series by an Emmy Award winning producer-director. Maybe the dramatization will eventually replace my own fading memories of what actually happened and what it was actually like and what I thought of it at the time. And given the simulacral aspects of contemporary life, where entertainment trumps all, that aphasic self will be a totally representative, contemporary, composite character.

***

 

I originally had planned to put a bibliography and filmography on Womanhouse here at the end of this text, but why be a goody goody? Thus I have not included any such references or pictures despite being sorely tempted to do so, except for a picture of the original catalogue.

The+original+catalog+cover+designed+by+Sheila+DeBretville+for+'Womanhouse'+(1972)

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Eva Hesse documentary

The art documentary obligatory scene of museum or gallery viewers milling around a show of works by the subject of the documentary is one of the most boring tropes of the genre. People holding their coats while looking at art are just not that interesting as film subjects. The Eva Hesse documentary that is finally being screened in New York and around the world is so good that when those scenes come, towards the end of the film, you are glad and moved to see old friends (the art works) and in one case you feel triumphant, as the work returns to the city where she was born and from which her family had to flee for their lives.

The genre of documentary film about artists has acquired a number of tropes or requisite scenes: the studio visit if the artist is living or was filmed previously, the archival pictures, the talking heads, the letters and diaries read out loud, and those scenes of viewers milling around the museum retrospective. Emile de Antonio’s 1973 Painters Painting both consolidated, established, and transgressed the rules and in the past twenty years series such as PBS’s American Masters and, in general, the Ken Burns effect have increasingly homogenized the genre, creating dominant stylistic guidelines for how such films should be if they want to be funded and distributed: it is a circulatory aesthetic system that is efficient and informative but also most likely quite constricting to the creators. Despite these strictures and against difficult financial odds to which documentary filmmakers are particularly prey, important documentaries are made and this year it has been a particular privilege to have been able to see a number of fascinating and moving films about artists who I greatly admire including Beth B.‘s Call Her Applebroog about her mother Ida Applebroog and Kristi Zea’s Everybody knows…Elizabeth Murray. Eva Hesse is an excellent new documentary that adds to this important filmography.

Director Marcie Begleiter–Academy Award please–has created a deeply moving film. Given our familiarity with the forms of this type of film it is interesting to think about how she accomplishes her task. Often documentary music choice is unfortunate, but here it is the music of the time. The director avoids the temptation of using new animation tricks and established commercial formats and video style to get the contemporary viewer’s attention but rather sticks to a graphic style that feels more period specific. The story is particularly and tragically compelling. The passage of time may have served to distill the information. And the script is largely the words of Eva Hesse herself, an exceptionally articulate, intelligent, and present woman.

Begleiter did everything right to bring us into Eva Hesse’s head and her studio, bringing along also the feeling of the times she lived in, New York in the sixties, both the uptown glitz of pop art and the experimentation of downtown, including my old neighborhood on Canal Street, which I realized I moved to only 8 years after she died, same stores I remember, same lost New York.

At the viewing yesterday, as soon as the film began the need to concentrate on every image and word was so intense that I nearly knocked the giant bag of popcorn out of the hands of the two women next to me because their crunching seemed audible across the tiny theater. I would say that you could have heard a pin drop for most of the movie people were so intent on every word and image, except for the sniffling and eye dabbing with Kleenex that started midway through. What Eva Hesse accomplished in a decade of art making is astounding, humbling, inspiring–if one can find within oneself an ounce of the talent, inventiveness, courage, and energy she had.

The movie is playing in New York at the Village East Cinema starting today and the website below indicates screenings around the world, all short, it’s like sightings of a rare bird, so run to see it! It should run and run and be required viewing for all art students, particularly those who have lost interest or faith in drawing and making things with their hands.

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