Monday, September 11, 2006

My Interview With Filmmaker’s Alliance Magazine

In his introduction to Blood Beats: Vol. 1, Ernest Hardy writes:
    People have a way of contouring consciousness along their very specific identity outlines and not pushing much beyond the borders. They might realize – if they do the work, if they truly fight the power and don’t simply relax their gag reflex – that much of what the cultural-corporate-political apparatus propagates about them is untrue. Yet many seem completely at ease accepting the distortions and misrepresentations of (other) others as being absolute truth. We’d like to believe that the cross-pollination of cultures that hip-hop represents and sparks, and that globalization and unbridled capitalism use as their selling points, will forge new mind-sets, new perspectives. But without doing the hard work of pushing past prejudice, of refraining from the battle of my imaginary friend in the sky can kick the ass of your imaginary friend in the sky, of doing more than uncritically embracing fucked-up cultural habits and justifying them as tradition, all the cultural consumption is just this – fleeting fashion, disposable music, fucking across color lines and confusing cum with consciousness…

Late last year, I ran into the soft-spoken and astute critic, Ernest Hardy, who told me that he was finishing up a book, a collection of his essays and reviews. Then a few weeks ago I saw in Ernest’s bio on the Outfest website (he served on the U.S. Dramatic Features Competition jury) that his book, Blood Beats: Vol. 1, had been published. I immediately placed an order on Amazon and then contacted Ernest to inquire about interviewing him in time for our publication deadline. Luckily, he was available to meet with me a few days later at a popular Silverlake Mexican restaurant. What follows are some of the highlights of our conversation. – Diane Gaidry

Ernest: Criticism for me, has always been rooted in a kind of narcissistic impulse, which I didn’t realize until a few years ago. What I mean by that is that it’s really me looking at films and reading books and listening to music and trying to answer questions that I have about myself or about the world, about different people and the way we treat each other and the way we treat ourselves. Those are the questions that interest me at a really personal level.

In my own writing, I really try to have a different center. I don’t write towards whiteness or heterosexuality or a certain education level. I just write. And I try to bring all of my own influences and politics to bear, influences and politics that are really shaped by being engaged, or trying to be engaged, with the real world around me. What’s important to me as a writer and as a member of society at large is that there is a diversity of voices and perspectives brought into the conversation. But that rarely happens in mainstream media, or even so-called alternative media.

It’s an amazingly interesting time that we’re living in and I think that people who write about culture really have the potential to push some dialogue and conversations in a direction that is about substance. But in truth, it’s all about selling. You can’t run anything that might offend an advertiser. You can’t run anything that might offend a reader who might start a boycott. So, we have a lot of hipster or hip-hop or academic posturing and claims to being cutting edge or inclusive or diverse or whatever, but it really all dovetails nicely into the status quo.

Diane: It’s frustrating that authenticity has no value.

Ernest: Right. And I’m not claiming to be this great authentic voice or whatever, though I am trying to scrape away the conditioning in myself that we all receive in this culture toward delusion and illusion.

You know, people who mean well in my life and who I know love me still embrace certain definitions of success and validation that are really at odds with my own terms. I can’t really explain to a lot of people why I’m not trying to write for the New York Times. I’m not even interested in that. And I don’t mind being a margin dweller because I’m so well fed there. Throughout history, it’s been on the fringe that the real shit originates. That’s where the change comes from, even if it’s incredibly diluted by the time it hits the center. There’s at least been some push. So I don’t mind being there. Health insurance would be lovely though.

I’ve never wanted the spotlight. I don’t trust it. I think it melts your brain. This has been an interesting time promoting this book because I don’t want to be on panels or go to conferences or go on television, but we live in a culture where if you do any type of creative work, even if it’s just writing about other people’s creativity – which is all I claim to do at this point – it’s so collapsed into celebrity that people don’t understand that you could exist and want to be creative and not want to be on the cover of a magazine. So few of my friends really understand what agony it is for me to have a microphone shoved in my face. My friend and former editor Manohla Dargis [film critic for the New York Times] is one of the few people that I’ve spoken to about this who really understands where I’m coming from, which is interesting to me because she’s one of the few people in criticism who I think is a real writer. And it makes sense to me that a writer would get what I mean when other folks don’t.

I was on a panel a few weeks ago and afterwards someone came up to me, and they were very complimentary about my writing, and they said “Why aren’t you writing for this publication or that one?” And I said the answer to that question is in my writing. My writing is why I’m not writing at these places that pay very well. The apparatus of those media outlets is set up in such a way that the kind of writing that I do is not supported.

Everyone has this idea of what a successful career should look like. But I’ve written for Rolling Stone. I’ve written for Vibe. I’ve written for the New York Times. And I hated it. I absolutely hated it because you’re fed through this machine so that your voice sounds like everyone else’s. And I just think it’s tragic that that is happening at this time in the world when we so clearly need different perspectives, different voices.

In Volume II of my book, I’m in the process of working on this essay on Lil’ Kim. I think she’s one of the most important figures in hip hop, not because of the music, but because she’s such a damaged woman. Her persona is one of empowerment and economic power based in exploiting of her own sexuality. And that’s such a delusional and dangerous place to work from. And I think she really embodies the ways in which this culture teaches us to perpetuate our own oppression but call it personal victory. And you see, quite literally, in her body, the cost of that. And you see how it’s not true. That’s the kind of thing that I think should be written about in mainstream publications, but it’s not going to be.

A side project that I’ve started working on that’s taking more and more of my energy is this thing called Evil Lucy that I started with a friend of mine. And the goal of it is to be a place where people we know can come and just express themselves. It’s specifically so black writers, artists, whatever, can create without having to worry about making money. It’s not an industry calling card. It’s a means of expression, of doing our part to return some dynamism to Negro representation. We’re just now in the process of building a foundation of who Evil Lucy is and what this collective will look like – what the goals are.

I was always very proud of the fact that as a film critic, I was never a frustrated filmmaker. Because that was never something I wanted to do, to make films. I always wanted to be a writer. But I realized a while ago that I’m probably going to have to have some hand in the making of the movies that I want to see. So I’m not fighting that anymore. But I’m also not interested in trying to jump into the Hollywood system. A lot of critics do try to barter whatever currency they’ve built up into Hollywood contracts and positions and that seems so uninteresting to me. I’m much more interested in connecting with some kid who has a camera and is enthusiastic and just wants to go out and shoot some shit and put it together. So I am, on my down time, working a lot on this side project that I am very enthusiastic about as another outlet for my own expression. We’re building a website. We’re writing short stories that we hope to eventually make into short films. We’re trying to build our body before we go on-line and put this all up.

I think I have learned that the trick in life and in writing is to find ways to recognize the truth in situations without becoming bitter, which I don't think I am, but I am kinda tired. I know that it's time for me to pull back and replenish the well. I need to listen to music just for the joy of it. To read not as part of research, but just for the pleasure of it. I need to watch movies not as a critic, but just to be fed. I'm currently obsessed with the movie, Clean, directed by the great Olivier Assayas and starring Maggie Cheung. It's so well written. Her character is not likable in an easy or conventional sense, but you come to love and respect her because she fucks up and she says and does things that make you cringe, but she's so recognizably human in her struggle. There's one scene where she's with her young son, who she has to build a relationship with, and he's very angry with her about not being there for him. He blames her for his father's death. He's a precocious kid, but precocious in a way that real life kids are, not that Hollywood bullshit. He's smart but not a smart ass. And he says something to her that's really hurtful about being a useless junkie or something. And she says this very simple thing, “Sometimes you're in so much pain that you have to do something to escape it.” And the way she says it is so stark and simple, so powerful, and the little boy gets it. That scene just really moves me. I remember watching it for the first time on DVD and having to pause it. It was like taking in a rich dessert. I had to take a break. I couldn't even let the momentum of the film build because I was just so blown away by this tough but delicate, smart and compassionate portrayal of this woman and her struggles. Watching something like that reminds me why I do what I do. That's the sort of thing that I could just write about and write about. If we're going to try to make movies or do something creative, that kind of human component is what we have to focus on and try to capture and celebrate. It's so magical and so lacking in our art right now.

Diane: It seems to me that in your writing, you have an empathy for the creative process because you’re an artist yourself. And at the same time, you see the potential and hold people to a higher standard.

Ernest: Well, thank you for that. I mean, I don’t know how to respond to that incredibly generous an assessment. (Laughter) I think too often, really simplistic notions of right and wrong are applied and I try to avoid that in my writing as well as in my interactions with people. And I have to admit that I will judge a no-budget indie film differently than I judge a $100 million dollar movie. And I can be hard on indie stuff when it’s clear to me that it’s just a calling card and that there’s no perspective. I don’t mind laying my cards on the table about my biases. Everyone has these biases. I’m just honest about mine. And I’m not interested in being a part of maintaining the status quo.

I’ve always been interested in the outsider perspective. Even as a child, I was drawn to the underdog. I think a lot of that has to do with my mother. My mother died a few years ago but in trying to describe her, this is the story that I tell.
    Her best friend was Ann. They were like sisters. Ann was a high school teacher, and one day we were all in the car driving someplace – my mother and Ann up front, my sister, Ann’s niece and I in the back. This was in Birmingham, Alabama, where I was born and lived until I was 14. And we were driving through this part of town where there was a strip where prostitutes worked. And my mother pointed out the window and said, “Isn’t that Jimmy?” Jimmy was a student of Ann’s and he was working the strip in drag. So they pulled the car over and they motioned him over and Ann asked him, “Why haven’t you been in school? I haven’t seen you for months.” Jimmy said “I was tired of getting beat up and tired of having to fight every day, so I said fuck it, and here I am.” My mother and Ann talked to him for about 20 minutes, encouraging him to take care of himself and to try to go back to school, and they gave him some money. When I think about it now, it’s clear to me that my mother and Ann had talked about Jimmy before and maybe even both talked to him, because my mother was the one who recognized him on the street. And that just made such a huge impression on me, especially being from the south where the bible sort of hangs over everything. There was always that hard moral line and the undesirables were always on the other side of that line. The wrong side. My mother never acknowledged that line. There was no fear, no judgment. There was compassion. That's the way my mother was all the time. I feel that I honor her when I see across that false moral line in my writing, when I extend some compassion to someone who’s stranded on the other side of that line.

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