Friday, March 13, 2009

F-ck the Past / History Lesson

The shuffling house-shoes kill me… Language may not be work-safe.

       “… ‘F’ the past. Let’s deal in now.” That comment was left on my blog this week for a post that’s well over a year old. The person who left it was annoyed with this post, in which I compared the careers and performing styles of the old guard – Piaf, Garland, Holiday – to the reigning (and in one case, fast-falling) pop divas/icons – Beyonce, Madonna, Janet. Actually, there is some validity to the sentiment. Too many of us – whether it’s in realms of politics or culture, or just the personal relationships in our lives – get stuck in the past, mired in shit that thwarts forward motion. Narrowing the focus, too many folks who do what I do for a living can get snagged in the whine of “the old days were better / this new shit sucks,” without fully acknowledging what is new and innovative and just good. (Yep, I can admit my guilt there as well.) But given how ahistorical and scarily amnesiac so many Americans are, the reflex to say “fuck history,” is often less about justified exasperation than it is toddler-like narcissism, the belief that the world didn’t exist until you opened your eyes and ears. Saying “fuck history,” especially in conversations about art and culture is like the body saying, “fuck a heart,” “fuck the blood coursing through my veins,” or perhaps more precisely for these particular conversations, “motherfuck a spine, son.”
      That point was especially and ironically driven home for me this week as two documentary films I reviewed just opened. Both have as their subject matter Negroes and their art, though both (as Negro art does) spiral out into the universal, barreling over lines of race, class, national borders, etc.

Here is the first review, from the Village Voice:

      Co-directors Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob open their exquisite documentary Carmen & Geoffrey with a black-and-white clip of a 1950s dance performance by their title subjects, Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder. The husband-and-wife duo, roughly in their mid-twenties at the time, are gorgeous. Ridiculously sexy. While the tall, muscular Holder plays the smitten prey, de Lavallade is a smoldering vixen, cigarette holder between her lips and liquid motion in her hips. Holding her upper body almost still, she does a lower-body swivel and slow slide downward that is one of the sexiest things ever caught on film. And that's before the opening credits even roll.
      Holder is best known to mainstream audiences for his long-running 7-Up commercials and for his role as Nelson, the risqué ad man in 1992’s Boomerang, both of which prominently feature his trademark deep laugh. His wife—artistic partner and muse, de Lavallade—is deservedly revered in the world of dance but is nowhere near as widely known as her talent and accomplishments merit. Atkinson and Doob's film is a multilayered corrective. It aims to retrieve Holder, a true renaissance artist, from the amusing but one-note public character into which his larger-than-life persona has been whittled, and to shine a light on de Lavallade's own dazzling career. It does all that time and again, while making the very strong argument that pop culture as we know it would be markedly poorer had these two not broken the many grounds they did. (Their friends and professional collaborators include folks like Alvin Ailey, Josephine Baker, Truman Capote, and Duke Ellington.) But what really propels the film is the love story between its subjects. Cynics and romance pessimists beware: These are fairy-tale tropes played out in real-life dimensions.
      While Atkinson and Doob are nothing more than straightforward, point-and-shoot craftsmen in their filming of de Lavallade, Holder, and talking heads—including the couple's son, Judith Jamison, and New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning—the film (sometimes pointedly, but often in just a few spoken lines or seemingly offhand observations) captures a range of complex histories and dynamics: the still-potent sibling rivalry that courses through the love between Holder and his older brother, who wrote the templates for Holder's own creative expression; de Lavallade's laughing remark that girls from “nice families” (which hers was) didn't go into the entertainment profession; the rage that cracks Holder's otherwise serene and jovial demeanor when he speaks of the colonialist school system in which he learned as a boy in his home of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Those moments are interspersed with rare performance footage from film, theater, and TV that will make you drool not only for the images but for the seemingly endless depth and breadth of the couple's talent. Carmen & Geoffrey is an unabashed love letter to its subject. It fawns and gushes. But it also makes a convincing case for its own adoration—it's hard to not get caught up in the swoon.

Click here for a clip of the young Carmen dancing with her great friend and collaborator, Alvin Ailey.

Here is the second review, from the LA Weekly:

      Ava Duvernay’s documentary This Is the Life is so immediately and fully engrossing that it meets its ambitious goals for the viewer — to illuminate a brief, paradoxically undervalued but globally influential L.A.-based music scene while broadening the accepted parameters of hip-hop — and without feeling lectured to. It’s rare that being schooled so deeply is so pleasurable. The Good Life hip-hop scene started in the early ’90s in South-Central L.A.’s Good Life health-food store, run by neighborhood stalwart Bea Hall and her son. The duo wanted to create a venue for local (soon citywide) youth to express their musical creativity in a safe, positive atmosphere. Their most famous rule: No profanity allowed. Soon, a movement was afoot that spawned hip-hop iconoclasts like Pigeon John, Abstract Rude, Medusa, Volume 10 and the venerated Freestyle Fellowship, all making some of the most artful, experimental rap music ever. Duvernay’s film also persuasively argues that mainstream artists such as Ice Cube lifted more than a little from the ground being broken. This Is the Life vaults into the upper echelons of must-see hip-hop documentaries: It’s smart, informative, and hugely important historically, filled with rare performance footage that still crackles. The underground-icon talking heads (shot in their homes, against freeway backdrops) wax poetic, philosophical and enthusiastic. “Something like that couldn’t happen in any other city, in any other part of the world, at any other time,” says Cut Chemist. “It was perfect.”

Back to Blood Beats blog commentary:

      It’s very sad to me that each film is only getting a limited theatrical run, and that those runs are pegged (even if somewhat fittingly) to New York in the case of Carmen & Geoffrey, and LA in the case of This is the Life. (Note: While I strongly recommend that you see Life on the big-screen, with an audience, if possible – it’s playing at the Downtown Independent – it’s also already on DVD. Don’t be an asshole and download it for free. Support indie filmmaking, indie artists and truly indie culture. Buy it.) These two films are very important cultural artifacts precisely because they don’t say, “fuck the past.” They rectify the detrimental short memory and indifference we have to that which has gone before. If Duvernay hadn’t picked up her camera to tell the tale of the Good Life hip-hop scene, it’d be easy for a lot of folks to forget or never know that LA rap (specifically) and West Coast rap (in general) were and are a much more dynamic and influential item than mainstream official history would let on. The film goes a long way toward expanding the notions and realities of hip-hop, of contemporary urban blackness, and the racial dynamics (check the cross-colors representation in the film) and gender equity in the culture.

      Carmen & Geoffrey was very moving to me because while it is a deserved and long overdue celebration/simple acknowledgment of two massive talents and their parts in kicking down doors and re-shaping American pop culture (fuck the past, right?), it ultimately proves to be a much larger life lesson from the elders. The film powerfully illustrates how its two subjects made and make everyday life be their ultimate work(s) of art. The keen consciousness with which they shape their lives, interact with each other and the world; the ways they don’t compartmentalize their creativity as a separate component from their day-to-day existence, instead utilizing it in everything from creating new work to nurturing friendships to sustaining their decades-long romance. The last is what is most impressive. It’s like something out of a novel, the kind of relationship that is rooted in genuine friendship and mutual admiration, a connection of spirit. It’s a relationship model that sets the bar high but by its very existence lets you know it ain’t impossible to achieve.

Youtube Clips of the Week:

The clip above may not be work safe… from the name of the dancer (Mr. Hit Dat Ho) to the frequency with which the word “nigga” is dropped. But you can watch it on mute. I love it because the past few weeks have seen a lot of folks across the ‘net (including yours truly) become introduced to the Texas dance “the stanky leg.” My Negro hetero brethren have cried foul, bemoaning the fallen and degraded state of the Black male as young hetero males swivel hips, shake ass and loosen backsides. The clip below is included mainly for the fuzzy slippers worn by ol’ boy on the far right, and for the dancing little boy who keeps dipping into shadow, looking like a demonic cartoon.

Women do it too:

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1 comment:

copper gypsy said...

thank you for always setting it right and saying it even better. we have such a rich culture and the present is only possible because it pulled from the cream of the crop. and we paid for that crop by the way, blood, blood and more blood. so there is no fuck the past, we should only be i blessing it! thank you E.!