“The Devil Finds Work”: James Baldwin On Film

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James Baldwin was, no doubt, one of the deepest American thinkers to have ever lived, and, even more importantly, a damn good writer — a skill that, if ever missing, makes all the great thinking in the world quite sterile, and oftentimes irrelevant.

I’ve called Baldwin’s work blackness without bullshit because unlike, say, in the time of empty ‘nationalist’ posturing back then, or of frauds like Cornel West and Al Sharpton today, James Baldwin refused to accept any demands placed upon him by any race or creed, and, therefore, had a longevity that so many others in his niche do not. And I use the word ‘niche’ intentionally, for James Baldwin (like James A. Emanuel) is pigeon-holed as a black writer, first, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yes, he wrote of prototypically black things — gay things, as well, and literary things; European things — but in a way that dissented from the fads, ideologies, and self-limiting perspectives that afflict so many to this day. One only needs to read his reactions to black leaders (such as his brilliant take-down of Elijah Muhammad in Down At The Cross) to realize that he was, and still is, on the margins, neither desired by revolutionary blacks, who preferred polemic, nor liberal whites, who wanted their allies to be a bit more narrow-minded, and therefore more easily squirreled away into some ‘side’.

Among the many books he’d written, I’ve always found one particularly difficult to categorize: in fact, as all great writing should be, when deeper possibilities come open. The book is The Devil Finds Work, a long essay on American film as filtered through a racial lens. No, this is not true film criticism, in the sense that James Baldwin is able to give the reader a blueprint for understand good and bad art qualitatively, but it’s not the wan social analysis that passes for film crit in academic circles, either. So, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book, which — as per the James Baldwin aesthetic — combines some important social insights with flat-out great writing.

On Lawrence Of Arabia (1962):

“For, this overwhelming desert, though it exists geographically, and was actually filmed by an actual camera crew, sent there for that purpose, is put to a use which is as far from reality as are most of the people we encounter in it. The least real of these people is Lawrence himself. This is not O’Toole’s fault: but so grave an adventure can scarcely be ascribed to the vagaries and idealism of a single man. Lawrence’s courage and steadfastness are given as admirable, because hard-won — here, the film, unconsciously, rather patronizes Lawrence; his complexities are barely — or, rather, perhaps, endlessly — hinted at, that is to say never illuminated. His rapport with the Arabs is of great use to the British, whose attitude toward him, otherwise, is at best ambivalent. The film takes the view that he was a valiant, … Continue reading →

Michael Brown & Eric Garner: Stupidity *IS* Criminal Negligence!

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Now that the Grand Jury pose is over — for it was little more than a police procedural, anyway — and returned not 1, but 2 mathematically unheard of judgments back to back, and after all the justifications, the stupidity, the red herrings, it’s time to inject a little sense into what has transpired.

There is, in fact, very little to figure out. There’s remarkably little information to slog through, and even less evidence ‘pro’ and ‘con,’ for most of the evidence is, as it was then, on the side of the dead. I’ve already dealt with Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Staten Island’s Eric Garner at length, so I won’t go into detail, but merely recap and sum up the new developments. Indeed, time is but compression, and so, months after the original incidents, it is now much easier to get to the bottom of things.

So, here are the facts as they’ve come down to…well, to everyone, really:

Michael Brown was stopped by Darren Wilson, with dozens of witnesses claiming an altercation between the two that — according to virtually ALL of these witnesses — does not really support Wilson’s account, with many outright contradicting Wilson’ claim of merely ‘fighting back’ against a far larger aggressor. Dozens of witnesses claim that Brown was pursued, with many insisting that some shots were fired during pursuit: a flat-out criminal act. Many witnesses claim that Brown turned around in reaction to a shooting, consistent with original witness testimony re: ‘appearing’ like he was shot, and, predictably, reacting to this perception.

Now, some claim that Brown ‘staggered’ toward Wilson, due to the shooting. Some said he ‘walked’ prior to acquiring any major wounds. Many said he had his hands up the whole time. Still others were unsure. Yet only a handful, out of dozens, EVER claimed that Michael Brown was charging Wilson, with most of those adding the oft-ignored corollary that the ‘charge’ or aggression occurred AFTER the first bullets were fired.

In other words, self-defense, on Michael Brown’s part — that wonderful phenomenon wherein a man who wants to kill you doesn’t get to, and is kept from engaging in such misconduct in the future, and forever.

And here’s the thing about self-defense that people don’t quite seem to get, even as they’d readily apply it to cops and to white victims. If you are being pursued by a man with a gun who — according to most witnesses — opens fire at you without real provocation, it is well within your right to not only CHARGE the would-be killer, but nip his balls, tweak his nipples, and circumnavigate his eye-balls with a phonograph needle dulled on too many bad Fleetwood Mac songs. This is called basic human etiquette, yet Michael Brown is not exactly given the benefit of such doubt. In fact, it’s quite telling that he needs the benefit of anything, really, when so many eye-witnesses have already said the things that a dead man … Continue reading →

Review Of David Ridgen’s & Nicolas Rossier’s “American Radical,” On Political Critic Norman Finkelstein

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“You don’t know what Norman Finkelstein is. He’s poison. He’s a disgusting  self-hating Jew. He’s something you find under a rock.” – Leon Wieseltier

“It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth. Those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed.” – Raul Hilberg

“You know the famous joke? A journalist goes around and asks a Russian, a Pole, and an Israeli the same question. He first goes to the Russian: ‘Excuse me, what’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Russian says: ‘What’s an opinion?’ The reporter then goes to the Pole: ‘Excuse me, but what do you think of the meat shortage?’ The Pole goes: ‘What’s meat?’ He then goes to the Israeli: ‘Excuse me. What’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Israeli replies: ‘What’s “excuse me”?’” – Norman Finkelstein

This joke introduces American Radical, a documentary by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, and in many ways defines both the film and the man within. It is pitch-black, and one only hears Finkelstein, who eventually fades in, inflecting and de-emphasizing select words, offering the right pauses, then ending it all on a smirk. It is not an arrogant smirk, nor is it a happy one. Rather, it is melancholy. Bitter. For a man whose work –  despite claims – is so rational and un-emotive, this is one of the few places where emotion has an outlet. Bergman once said: “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” By contrast, Finkelstein lives in his work – plodding, mechanic, in the best sense of such words – and bleeds in his life.

Prior to going any further, I must write that I’m slightly acquainted with the subject of this documentary. I’ve met Norman Finkelstein on a few occasions, had an e-mail correspondence, and even spent a few hours at his apartment, having grown up in the same neighborhood (albeit forty years apart). I am both an admirer of his work, as well as intrigued – for better or worse – by the man, himself, as it is his plight, rather than his accomplishments, which might interest future generations when the Israel-Palestine Conflict is merely yet another name, another time, like so many others that have come and go, and will continue to do so for as long as we’re recognizably human.

Finkelstein is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They eventually moved to New York, where Finkelstein was born, and taught him the sense of justice that he credits for his work. First coming to prominence in the early 1980s, Finkelstein exposed the hoax that is Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, a then-popular book which argued Palestinians had little to do with Palestine, but rather had fabricated themselves into its history. This drew the ire and respect of scholars, readers, and wackos of all stripes. Yet it was nothing compared … Continue reading →

Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002) And The Undoing Of A Narrative

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I’m often amazed by how little respect the world shows reality, and, by extension, how little respect the people who inhabit this reality end up getting. This is especially true in how kids, the mentally retarded, transgender folks, minorities, the handicapped, and victims (both real and imagined) are treated in the world’s meta-narrative, which is the sum of every bias, policy, opinion, perception, artwork, and the like, available to us. They are at turns fetishized, sobbed over, exaggerated in importance, distorted, and otherwise demeaned by the very same people who claim to be giving them agency and respect. I mean, who wins, here? And how could “winning,” in such an arena, ever be construed as such, anyway, when the gain is so temporary and small?

Thus, in watching Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 film, Oasis, I was struck by how anti-Hollywood it was — that purveyor of the mess, above — in not only how it treats its subject matter, but also how it chooses to present the two main characters: a woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju), and a mildly retarded sociopath (Jong-du) who develop a relationship pretty much everyone disapproves of. Jong-du is seen doing all sorts of odd things: eating a block of raw tofu, asking school-girls for spare change, wrecking his boss’s motorcycle, leaving his shoes as “insurance” when he cannot pay for food, walking around in the cold with nothing but a t-shirt, climbing a tree to saw it off, and even attempting to rape his future girlfriend. He is not, then, some caricatured “harmless retard,” but a man with motives (limited as they are) and an unsympathetic streak. Gong-ju more or less stutters through the film, plays with light and glass, and, in a number of poetic little scenes, imagines herself as a perfectly normal girl, living the sort of life she sees others live. Given the meta-narrative described, however, one would think the film would take the banal angle, showing us how “deep” and “utterly complex” such people are, when in fact they are shadows of us, and our wants. It doesn’t, for the best art portrays reality as a corrective to such things, despite what may or may not be “wanted.” Nor are their disabilities glossed over, but are front and center for nearly two hours of oddities that must have taken some time to perfect without turning the two into circus freaks, or degenerating them — on the other extreme — into mere victims. One gets the feeling that they will go on, they will live, even if it’s not in the way that we desire or expect. The film, in short, is their turf; or rather, it is their turf as it gets eaten away by the outside’s bias and expectations.

That said, it is difficult to empathize with the characters, at times, a fact that Lee Chang-dong continually ensures. Jong-du is not exactly evil, but amoral. For the most part, the things he does do not truly register in … Continue reading →

Confucius, Lao Tzu, I Ching, Chinese history, & some inklings of the future.

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This is an old (2012) e-mail I sent to the Cosmoetica e-list, after I’d re-read Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucius a few times, and began studying the I Ching– or, ‘divination sans divinity’. My views have not changed much, and there have been few philosophers as underrated as Confucius, mostly because what Western kids know him for (ideas on family, the practicum of government, etc.) occlude not only the truer depth of his thoughts, but also the clarity through which they’ve been communicated. Say what you will of the importance of Aristotle or the allure of Wittgenstein, but Confucius was, in many ways, an artist, first– which makes his ideas even deeper.

I’ve long suspected that the Chinese, as well as some other ‘older philosophers’, had hit upon a special way of viewing the world that simply had no concrete value to the (then) world of bodies– that is, war, hunger, poverty, and other forms of mass delusion. Because, in a sense, that’s what these qualities are: a means of keeping people stuck in the more transient stuff, wherein history is mere event after event, and generations, if you slice a time period just right, look pretty much identical. Such concerns, big as they are, have crowded out potentially more interesting ones, which are only now making a comeback, albeit mired in the form of New Age stupidity. Confucius, Lao Tzu, and others can easily be misappropriated by the faux spiritual (or, hell, even by the ‘truly spiritual’!), but this only means that they haven’t really found their place. I am not yet sure what role these names will play in our future, but they’ll have a part, eventually, more deep than some of the things we presently consider to be ‘important’, stuck, as we still are, in base, physical concerns, and unable to see outside of the limits of these mechanical roles.

So, let us begin:

Two from Lao Tzu:

For those that try to grasp, it’s gone.

People must learn to take death seriously, and stop wasting time in distant lands.



And the rest from Confucius:

Hence the man who keeps rein on himself looks straight into his own heart at the things wherewith there is no trifling; he attends seriously to things unheard.

The master finds the center and does not waver. The mean man runs counter to the circulation about the invariable.

The empire, kingdoms, families can be governed harmoniously; honors and salaries can be refused, you can tread sharp weapons and bright steel underfoot, without being able to stand firm in the unwavering center.

No, people do not use the main open road.

There are few men under heaven who can love and see the defects, or hate and see the excellence of an object.

To see high merit and be unable to raise it to office, to raise it but not to give such promotion precedence, is just destiny.

The man of breed looks at his own status [at himself], seeing it Continue reading →