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Kevin Young Has Had Just About Enough of This Bullshit

You’ve heard it all, or some version of it, before. In the year Donald Trump was elected president, fewer than a quarter of Republicans believed the fact of human-driven climate change, while a majority still believed the disproven racist lie that the first president of color was an illegitimate foreigner.

And yet the sheer breadth of these false beliefs — so widespread that you cannot accurately call them “unbelievable” — suggests a phenomenon not solely attributable to stupidity or partisanship. Too mainstream to be conspiracy theory, climate denial and birtherism are just the latest Americana fictions — deeply ingrained untruths people have been conditioned to believe.

Late last year Kevin Young — director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and, since November, poetry editor of The New Yorker — released a book that used the current “post-truth” era as its peg. In Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Young tries to make sense of how tall tales like birtherism take hold, breaking down the many stories that confirm chicanery — as harmless as the cheeky street vendor who gouges the price of his umbrellas when it rains or as dangerous as the politician who promises the restoration of white power will lead to prosperity — is an inherent strand of the American DNA. Rather than neatly depicting the masses as hoodwinked victims, Bunk delineates how popular prejudice and stale conventional wisdoms often readily welcome the skills of those standing by to offer simpler explanations and pills that are easier to swallow. By asking, in each case, which cultural assumption led us to be fooled, Young diligently traces the bullshit back to its more sinister, societal implications.

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When I spoke with New Yorker editor David Remnick, he called Bunk a “godsend” for these times and Kevin Young the ideal heir to the weekly’s poetry editorship. From the moment they met at an intimate dinner party hosted by Elizabeth Alexander, Remnick “was completely captivated by him. He was extremely funny, beyond intelligent, and his taste: all over the map” — in the good way.

Remnick was already familiar with Young’s poetry at the time; his poems have been published in The New Yorker since 1999. But over the course of their dinner conversation, Remnick said, “I came to realize that he was also an anthologist.” It was ultimately the varied literary palate he found in Young’s nonfiction work that led him to pick the 47-year-old for the plum assignment, which Remnick carefully describes as “a lot to balance. It’s a kind of complicated aesthetic — a political, literary, and editorial job.”

But as Young prepares for the imminent release of his dozenth poetry collection, Brown, he continues full-time directorial duties in Harlem at the Schomburg Center. And in addition to editing, he hosts the poetry podcast at The New Yorker with a Fresh Air-like ease. On all accounts, the balancing act seems well under control.

You can learn an awful lot about a man’s worldview from the kinetic qualities of his handshake. So, when Young greets me — in a nondescript conference room adjacent to the New York Public Library’s sprawling Beaux-Arts main building on 42nd Street — his formal, academic clasp-into-folksy, Midwestern double-shake-into-smooth-dap suggests that the author, poet, and professor is an embodiment of a new intelligentsia: born of the hip-hop generation, seemingly unconcerned with the guardrails of genre and convention, and as likely to debate Andre 3000’s discography as the works of Sartre.

It was this wide relatability that made Young a popular presence on campus at Emory University, where he was a tenured professor and curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. And while Young’s poems are profound without killing the fun — and therefore the power — of poetry, his nonfiction cultural criticism maintains this sensibility: deeply layered without being inscrutable. Harper’s Magazine has called Young “a relaxed lyricist, precise without being precious.” A critic at The Paris Review dubbed him “a pure essayist in the vein of Emerson and Montaigne.”

A bookish only child, Young moved six times before he was ten as his parents pursued their careers before eventually settling in Topeka, Kansas. His father worked as an ophthalmologist; his mother is an accomplished chemist who also earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Young’s parents were each the first in their respective families from rural Louisiana to attend college.

In the late Eighties, Kevin also attended Harvard, where he joined the storied Dark Room Collective, a reading series hosted by up-and-coming writers of color in a den-turned-salon at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge. Young graduated in 1992 and left for a coveted creative writing fellowship at Stanford, but as he wrote in his nonfiction collection, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, “Once you’re in, you’re in forever.” Young’s participation in the Dark Room would be the first stop on a trajectory laden with prestigious honors and positions at the nexus of the academic and literary world. (A Guggenheim Fellowship and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are among the latest bestowments.)

In an old Twitter bio, Young described himself as a “lover of things thought lost,” which, he says, has “a lot to do with my grandparents in Louisiana and the way they saved everything. Black folks in the segregated South are the inventors of sustainable living — making a way out of no way, and nothing gets thrown away.” More literally, though, Young says the bio was a reference to a devotion to “black writing that’s lost or thought lost and to rediscovering writers or promoting writers who are underappreciated.”

“When I sit down to write,” he says, “I think I’m always trying to recover some aspect of something that we might forget, but is really there.” The Schomburg Center, which Young has helmed since August 2016, is itself named after an oft-forgotten, but important black figure: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican immigrant who, upon migrating to Harlem, helped pioneer African-American history as an institutionalized topic of scholarship. The New York Public Library bought his collection in 1926, and the Schomburg’s founding mission — to serve as an archive repository of the diaspora in all its forms — is still at full tilt. Young, who lives in Central Harlem, continues the legacy, preserving the documents of relative unknowns as well as “knowns” who didn’t quite make it into the mainstream canon: Bayard Rustin, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Gwendolyn Bennett, and countless others. (The center’s fellowships grant intimate access to archives in order to expand scholarship on these subjects.)

The Schomburg gig is perfect for Kevin Young’s skill set. Because, if there’s one thing you learn after listening to him for a while, it’s that Young is a really good rememberer — of culture, literature, and changing political attitudes. Something Bunk, which was years in the making, puts on brilliant display.

Bunk
P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb, 1860.

When we think of P.T. Barnum in 2018, most picture the charismatic entertainer embodied by Hugh Jackman in last year’s The Greatest ShowmanWe tend to forget that he got his big start, like our current president, promoting racial hoaxes at his raucous shows. It’s okay if we don’t remember, or never had a clue, because Kevin Young has remembered for us, put it in context, and connected the dots to the present. This is the rhythm of Bunk: deep researching to pull, sometimes obscure, seemingly disconnected anecdotes from the corners of history (both recent and centuries-old), then employing a dose of poetic eloquence to rejigger their relevance in the reader’s mind.

And while scholastically dense, the read feels like a fair bargain, as you, like me, get the dish on things we wouldn’t otherwise know, even if we were better read or a little more cultured. Remnick, a pretty learned fellow by most accounts, admitted: “I didn’t know nine-tenths of these stories.” Still, those unfamiliar with our past are also at risk of becoming sapped from finding out just how much of so much is deeply riddled with at least partially racist roots, from the obscure to the everyday: the movies, the circus, the church, pornography, Emerson, rock ’n’ roll. Is nothing sacred?

“You have to kind of step back and say, what are these things in our culture really about, and ask: How do they tell us something about ourselves even though they’re fake?” Young says. “In fact, especially because they’re fake! That tells us a lot about what we ‘wanted’ to believe.”

Bunk navigates a buffet of subjects — supposed “lost” tribes, fake doctors who performed actual surgeries, and PR for napalm — but much like The Color of Law, We Were Eight Years in Power, and other Woke Blockbusters of 2017, a key motif is breaking it to America that Trumpism’s underpinning sentiments are neither new nor an aberration.

“It’s letting us off the hook to think this is only a recent thing,” Young asserts. Trump was still merely White House Correspondents’ Dinner comedy fodder in the book’s early stages six years ago. But for Young, the now-president has brought a unique form of hoaxing to the forefront, which was too explicit to include alongside all the other nouns in Bunk’s subtitle: bullshit. He writes:

It isn’t that the contemporary hoax provides “a different kind of truth,” but that it offers far less. A whole lie would almost be welcome, but [these] hoaxes won’t extend us the courtesy of respecting the truth enough to betray it. Instead we have become surrounded by the halfway, mealymouthed, politicking habit of bullshit.

Trump, then, is much more a bullshitter than an outright hoaxer or humbugger. “For me,” Young explains, “a hoax is something intended or even unintentionally made to deceive. It isn’t simply a lie because even when it’s sustained, it’s often quite incomplete in its attempt.” A good example? Race, he offers. An abstract construction with dangerous, if not complete, real world consequences: minstrel shows, eugenics, anti-Semitism, Nazism, films like The Birth of A Nation, terms like “miscegenation,” and segregated water fountains are all in conversation with each other — all riffing off the same hoax of Aryanism and white supremacy. “Humbug,” on the other hand, Young reports, “is sort of a nineteenth-century term [that] falls somewhere between a prank and a hoax.”

In Bunk, Young has a well-founded fascination for this more playful shade of untruth and sees the showman P.T. Barnum as its self-serving forefather. The circus he founded, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth, shut down for good in May 2017, but Barnum’s legacy resurfaced with The Greatest Showman which, very loosely, traces the vertiginous story of Barnum’s American Museum: a slap-happy mix of a zoo, wax museum, and theater, with freak shows as the main attraction. Despite mixed reviews, the film performed well at the box office, and earned Hugh Jackman a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Barnum.

Bunk
Barnum’s American Museum, 1869

The plot’s rising action, which mainly focuses on Barnum battling the classism of other, more refined white men, conveniently ignores his less flattering — and, frankly, more fascinating — ethical shortcomings. That Barnum’s first break as a showman came when he made use of a loophole in the antebellum North to rent — yes, rent — an elderly black woman to pose as George Washington’s 160-something-year-old maid. That this was one of several blockbuster acts employed by Barnum that preyed on the racially imbued myths which plagued that century.

In the movie’s fantasy past, Barnum’s American Museum is premised on convenient, if transactional, partnerships. The gazing at bearded ladies, fake mermaids, little people, and other so-called freaks is recast, with the help of a dance number, as “dreaming with your eyes wide open.”

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” a patrician newspaper critic asks Jackman’s Barnum. “Do these smiles seem fake?” he retorts. “Hyperbole isn’t the worst crime. Men suffer more from imagining too little rather than too much.”

It’s a sentiment with which the real-life Barnum would have agreed, and in Bunk, Young makes the case that humbugging, while insidiously connected to harmful hoaxes, hasn’t been all bad. Its rise throughout the nineteenth century, Young tells us, fostered a wider recognition of contradiction and an exploration of the tension between faith and fact. The shift to this new cultural default extended from the common man to Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), to Mark Twain’s characters.

In 1865, the year Barnum was first elected to the Connecticut state legislature, he released his book Humbugs of the World: An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages. Barnum billed it as a noble exposé of his own industry: “If we could have a full exposure of ‘the tricks of trade’ of all sorts … religious, political, financial, scientific, quackish, and so forth,” he writes in its prologue, “we might perhaps look for a somewhat wiser generation to follow us.”

Reality TV, with its requirement that we be in on the joke, is a clear descendant of the humbug era. “What if … you could have it all?” the opening sequence of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice beseeched us. Nobody seemed to fully appreciate, or care, that the man behind “You’re fired!” was an overextended real estate hawker with a bankrupt casino business. Then again, Barnum’s financial woes didn’t stop people from watching his shows.

Bunk
P.T. Barnum as a “Hum-Bug”

It’s unlikely that President Trump was inspired by Barnum’s The Art of Money-Getting (1880) when he published The Art of the Deal in 1987. Still, as Bunk demonstrates, the similarities are striking: the tabloid fodder bankruptcies, the scorn they received from blueblood types, their eventual entry into politics. Young simultaneously complicates this connection, however, by pointedly noting that Trump, unlike Barnum, seems to lack a magician’s code to never give away the secrets of the trick. Despite his many sins, Barnum was driven in part by a clear, if unethical rubric — like a riddling troll under the bridge. President Trump is just a troll.

With humbug, “you know you’re getting a show, but you’re trying to ascertain what is real and what is not,” Young tells me, alluding to the Trump-Barnum comparison. “That’s part of the pleasure of humbug that’s a little bit different than just straight-up BS. I think bullshit is the kind of extreme version where it’s not even trying to fool you, it doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.”

During the 2016 campaign, a syndicated newspaper story called Trump, a carnival barker without the integrity,” a reference to Barack Obama’s remarks in 2011, regarding birtherism, that “we’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” Somewhere along the road, Trump sensed how vulnerable the body politic was to the bullshit artist’s codeless form of deceit. (If science and basic statistics are up for debate, then why not all journalism inconvenient to you?) Young writes in Bunk:

Trump signals a far more troubling mindset in which the truth isn’t so much absent or contested as it doesn’t matter … What Trump really heralds is a time when there are no more experts. … The best way to commit a hoax now is to claim you’ve spotted one. 

“One of the big problems I talk about,” Young says, “is this need to say there’s two sides to every story. Everything from vaccines to global warming is just kind of reported as this set of opinions, as opposed to things that you can verify. At the same time, I’m well aware that many of the malfeasances that have been discovered are because of journalists.”

“You look at the history of journalism and it’s not until late in our history that even a few newspapers were committed to a high degree of professionalism,” David Remnick told me, encouraging a fully contextualized view. “This is a new thing! I mean, the greatest prize in journalism is named after one of the developers of yellow journalism — Pulitzer.”

Bunk
American circus owner P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum, distinguishing his love for humbug from what he saw as more dour forms of fibbing, eagerly cited a cynical diplomat who was quoted as saying, “Language was given to us to conceal our thoughts.” The long lineage of lies that Young catalogs — all the way up to Rachel Dolezal, neoconservative lies about Iraq, and Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama — sets the stage for his closing argument: that we’ve now become enmired in an Age of Euphemism. An era spurred in large part by a refusal to say what’s what, caused by playing along with, or granting plausible deniability to, people who don’t want to accept the ugliness — or flat-out falsity — of their opinions.

The evidence is so overwhelming in its ubiquity it can, ironically, be hard to see: heritage, not treason; bad apples, not corrupt policing; cultural anxiety, not racism; collateral damage, not civilians murdered; super PACS, not oligarchs; disrespecting the flag, helping job creators, America first. Read Bunk, or the news, and take your pick.

“I was trying to find a language that described that,” Young explains.“The Age of Euphemism was one of the ways I was able to name it, because I definitely think there’s a real impulse to not say what we mean. Once you step back, it’s a real short, scary step to ‘Nothing means anything.’”

Young particularly frets over the internet’s role in the mess. Its ever-warping ability to — with or without Russian interference — make “untruths spread faster and faster at the click of a mouse, spawning whole faux movements” as the nation becomes ever more siloed: geographically, ideologically, algorithmically. “The scary idea is that a lot of it’s disinformation, purposefully faked, coordinated; and what does that say about us? Or those who collude with that hoax?”

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In Barnum’s day, if a powerful politico had defended his wife-beating colleague, an attorney general had called law enforcement an “Anglo-American tradition,” and a Senate had passed a bill full of outrageously obvious loopholes for themselves, then there may have been no controversy at all. Now, in Young’s Age of Euphemism, it seems that, when armed with enough privilege, the bullshit will do: something to satiate a press corps eager to quote both sides until, hopefully, the scandal subsides or is subsumed by another scandal and an exhausted, overwhelmed public shrugs, or forgets.

“What was strange for me is I was finishing the book as the election was happening, and many of the things that happened, or have happened since I finished the book I — kind of almost predict?” Young said, clearly grappling with how to publicly react when one’s dystopian hypothesis is vindicated in real time. But if the two choices for people on the right side of history in a wrong world have are to laugh or to cry, then count Kevin Young in the former camp.

“I hope [Bunk] helps us be a bit more skeptical but not cynical,” he said. I wondered how in an age of takes — both good and bad, but almost always hot — Young could stay so cool, after spending years unpacking infuriatingly widespread deceptions, often about his own heritage.

“I think that some of it is my temperament, but a lot of it is really trying to be fair when I could,” he explains. “To say, ‘Well, here are some of the things that this hoaxer did that were interesting or different.’ And sometimes I am just furious about them … but I had to sort of step back and not just simply mock them nor simply make them villains, because I also wanted to understand why we fell for this stuff. We all are invested in it.”

The contrast between the cultural world that produces Young’s forward-thinking, cosmopolitan life and the sphere that engenders the nasty id-driven nationalism that despises people like him — a liberal black intellectual married to a white woman also of the media elite — is, not by happenstance, pretty representative of that sickness.

“I don’t see that disappearing because we haven’t fixed that problem,” Young told me with a sad smirk. “I was really struck by this on the day that people were marching on Charlottesville, when I was with my son watching a basketball game on the courts here in New York and it’s like: do I tell him? How do I tell my soon-to-be eleven-year-old son that there’s still Nazis? That should be a question we ask that everyone asks, not just black fathers of black sons or black parents — everyone should be asking, ‘Why are having to explain this?’ And you know the fact that that somehow can become partisan is really …” He trailed off. “That’s the scary part.”

It’s a dilemma that clearly inspired one of the more heartbreaking pieces in Young’s newest poetry collection: “A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville, Virginia.”

“One of the things at risk is not just our notion of what’s true, but what’s possible,” Young worries. “We sometimes start to lose this sense of the breadth of the imagination, which I think is such a useful tool. And the hoax is the least imaginative, partially ’cause it often uses stereotypes or kind of corny divisions to make its case. It’s shorthand to actual experience, which is much more complicated, rich, fruitful.”

Bunk dedicates an entire section to the finding that the most successful forgeries — in art, literature, or news — are typically those authenticated by arbiters people trust. It opens with a question presented by Orson Welles in his final film as director, 1973’s F for Fake: “As long as there are fakers, there have to be experts. But if there were no experts, would there be any fakers?”

Amid the screechy ambiguity of 2018, the answer seems resounding: yes.

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Janelle Monáe Is Coming for the Throne

Spring is a season of blooming flowers and new beginnings. Or, if you’re Janelle Monáe, spring can be a time to don Georgia O’Keeffe–esque vagina flower pants. In the video for her newest single, “Pynk,” Monáe hops around in these pants — the head of her rumored girlfriend Tessa Thompson poking through the layers of pink, labial fabric — and sings, “Pink like the tongue that goes down…maybe/Pink like the paradise found.”

The single, released on April 10, is a barely tongue in…um…cheek ode to the female body and female sensuality. All four of the songs (“I Like That,” “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane”) released so far from Monáe’s upcoming album, Dirty Computer, which drops April 27, are undeniably, hip-gyratingly sexy. But they also demonstrate that Monáe has significantly evolved as an artist since her 2013 album, Electric Lady. Monáe, in an album full of musical references, is staking a claim to the pop throne with her idols by her side.

The four new singles show more maturity than her 2015 release “Yoga,” which was sexy, fun even, but wasn’t layered — it had the same swagger as the new songs, but none of the depth. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist — but I feel it even greater now,” Monáe recently told the New York Times.

Monáe’s earlier work discussed sexuality but didn’t explore it. The songs were eye-winking, surface-level pop hits. On Dirty Computer, Monáe treats sexuality with the nuance it deserves, which situates her work alongside other seminal sexual pop artists such as Prince, Madonna, even Beyoncé.

For example, the most prominent sound on “Make Me Feel,” released in February, is the tongue click, a playful, sexual, silly sound — the sonic equivalent of a wink. But for Monáe it is so clearly more than that.

That tongue click connects her to Miriam Makeba, who recorded the traditional South African wedding song “Qongqothwane,” whose title translated to English means “knock-knock beetle” and refers to a dark beetle making a clicking sound by slamming its belly against the ground. Westerners refer to the song as the “clicking song” as a result of the clicking in the lyrics and in the background.

Clicks are not sounds that have been adopted into the English language, but rather, these sounds have originated, been kept alive, and are used today in African language and in African-inspired diasporic art. A click is certainly not a sound found in the white pop that has dominated the Top 40 in the 2010s. 

In addition to its historical importance, the clicking tongue sound is undeniably seductive.

For example, the sound popped up in Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album B side “Blow,” a song clearly about cunniligus. In the song, Beyoncé sings: “I’m-a lean back/Don’t worry it’s nothing major/Make sure you clean that/It’s the only way to get the/[click] Flavor.” There’s very little subtlety in incorporating a sound that can only be made with the tongue in a song so explicitly about oral sex. It’s sexy.

Monáe seems to reference that same idea in “Make Me Feel.” She uses the tongue click directly after lines like “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you” and “Should know by the way I use my compression.” That’s anything but subtle.

Monáe’s four recent singles are stacked with references, too. The bassline on “Make Me Feel” aligns closely to the bassline on Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines.” “Pynk” recalls the funkiness of the Go-Go’s. “I Like That” is an R&B anthem with elements of Nina Simone and Tammi Terrell. All share the spirit of Prince’s warbling synthesizers and production.

“Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds,” Monáe told Annie Mac of BBC’s Radio 1. Prince’s DJ Lenka Paris noted in a now-deleted Facebook post that Prince provided the bouncy synth line that traces through the clicking in the background of “Make Me Feel.” The obvious love story, and the use of magenta and deep blue light (coined “bisexual lighting”) in the video of that song aligns with Prince and the Revolution’s 1986 single “Kiss.”

No sound on “Make Me Feel” appears accidental. A great musician pays tribute to their heroes by showing admiration in a song. Any creator aims to reach a level of maturation where they can integrate all of their inspirations into one harmonious concept, where one sound doesn’t dominate the other. Monáe has done it. “Make Me Feel” is its own song, with its own catchy hook that has its own fun. Even if you miss one of the dozen or so historical references in the song, “Make Me Feel” is a certified banger nonetheless.

Each of the four new singles has an element that unites it with “Make Me Feel.” “Pynk” has the same background bubbly synth line. “Django Jane” has the same swagger. “I Like That” is just as buoyant, with a Prince-inspired rap squeezed in. These songs of self-empowerment and self-confidence are perhaps an indication that Monáe is about to truly, fully come into her own.

On “I Like That,” she compares herself to “the random minor note you hear in major songs.” But in 2018, America might finally be primed for Monáe’s queer, well-deserved major breakthrough into mainstream pop.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

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At the Asia Society, Samita Sinha Sings the Body Electric

A large limestone head of the Buddha, from eighth-century Thailand, presides at the entrance to the third-floor galleries of the Asia Society, its impassive countenance in keeping with the calm, studious mood that usually inhabits this institution on the Upper East Side.

But these days, something messy, unruly, even transgressive, has been taking place in a gallery space just a few yards away, within the Buddha’s peripheral vision. Here, inside a white-cube room that is essentially functioning as a black-box theater, the musician and performer Samita Sinha is channeling the contradictions of the South Asian psyche around gender and sexuality, in a series of intimate shows that burst with feral energy.

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The performances, which continue through this weekend, smolder — and that’s not entirely metaphorical. The show is titled This ember state, and a large pile of coal is the main item on set. A pivotal moment in Sinha’s performance occurs as she sinks herself into the coal, evoking a pyre, and specifically the myth of Sati, the goddess who self-immolated in sacrifice after her father insulted her husband, Lord Shiva.

What unfolds is at first tentative, then wrenching, then works itself out toward a serenity that feels provisional, complicated. There is some blunt nudity, as well as passages in which Sinha’s voice has a kind of primal — or is it transcendent? — anguish that feel even more naked. With spare mise en scène by Dean Moss and sound design by Cenk Ergün, the performance enfolds the audience — twenty-five people at most, on benches along the gallery walls, in subtly thickening layers of implication and intimacy.

“I couldn’t shy away from the reality of that place,” says Sinha. She means the sexual source that animates Indian culture with its dual tendencies to enshrine and abase women, and the competing repressive violence and generative possibility that ensue. She means, as well, the corresponding part of her body. Her project, the program notes, “deconstructs Indian classical music through the pussy … to re-imagine female spirit and flesh.”

“So much of my work comes from that place in the body — and in the mind, in the psyche, in culture,” Sinha says. “The physical, fleshy reality is where the charges are. The archetypes need to open from that place, literally, in order to make space. It’s what I teach in embodied vocal work: Nothing will happen without that root.”

A lifelong New Yorker — raised on Long Island, and based in Queens — Sinha has migrated her practice over the past decade and a half from the canon and discipline of Hindustani (North Indian) classical music to experimental terrain, making her as much a performance artist as she is a vocalist and composer.

The transition began around 2005, when she took part in a multimedia song-cycle project with an operatic feel by the late poet Sekou Sundiata, the 51st (dream) state. In 2012 she collaborated on a musical version of playwright Fiona Templeton’s The Medead, at Roulette; earlier this year she acted in Moss’s Petra, at Performance Space New York, the new incarnation of P.S. 122. Sinha also fronts an avant-rock band, Tongues in Trees.

But she has carried along her Indian vocal technique, and not just as a virtuoso instrument. Indian classical music has deep roots in courts and even deeper in temples; it is built, ultimately, out of the same elements as yogic practice. This is even more true of vocal performance. The Sanskrit syllables that Sinha intones early add “on”?  in This ember state, and the breath work that follows, circle the void where body and sound originate.

“The tools for deconstruction are in the training,” Sinha says. “You have to sit with a phrase, isolate it, listen as closely as you can, then bring it back into the whole. The idea of taking it apart to re-create something — whether it be a body, an experience with other humans, a whole piece or form — is all right there.”

Sinha developed her Hindustani vocal technique in the traditional way, spending extended time in India in close proximity to her teachers, including singers Alka Deo Marulkar and Shubhangi Sakhalkar. She grew proficient in the repertory of ragas, but sought a different approach. “Classical music has a refinement and stillness,” she says. “It doesn’t encourage physicality. The orientation — and beautifully so — is on listening. In an inverted way, that does teach a profound embodiment, if you let that awareness in. But it’s not discussed.”

The clues, Sinha found, were in the culture — often at the margins. “I started to understand that there are musical traditions in South Asia that are quite radical and embodied,” she says. She cites Baul folk music from rural Bengal, and qawwali, the devotional, quasi-ecstatic Sufi singing. “Baul music uses the yogic understanding of the body, this vertical radiating entity. In qawwali, when you see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you can see how the sound moves through him like a volcano.”

In her own work, despite its sexual anchoring, Sinha says she is not claiming a knowledge that only women can accede. “We work with the instruments we have, I guess. There’s something about the necessity of creating a language through the body that doesn’t feel to me exclusively female at all.”

 

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Still, This ember state, which the Asia Society commissioned to launch a new experimental series in contemporary art and performance, arrives in a moment when the politics of gender and sexuality are highly charged. This is true in India, where sexual violence and the rise of a militant Hindu chauvinism are weaving together in troubling ways, and in the United States, where the #MeToo unpacking has unfolded against the background of vulgar Trumpian misogyny.

Sinha’s performance proposes an interior resolution, a kind of turning inside out, but she also invokes the Sati archetype fully aware of this external context.

“Part of my practice is to be alive to the sensations evoked inside of me, for example, when reading the news, and being very present with that,” Sinha says. “With what I can make with that thing, how that sensation can be turned. The myth is a point of departure to think about these ideas in a pretty wild way.”

This ember state
Asia Society 
725 Park Avenue
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Through April 22

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

Categories
Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Scotland’s Young Fathers Come Out Fighting

It’s hours before another sold-out show on their European tour and the guys in the Scottish indie-rap trio Young Fathers are calling on a shitty Skype connection from Paris. The lighting at the venue, the Badaboum, is musty, and the group seems tired (and not particularly excited to be talking to a journalist) after a month of promoting its new album, Cocoa Sugar: Half of Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi’s face is cut off by the screen, Kayus Bankole has his head in the palm of his hands for half of our chat, and Graham “G” Hastings is looking around everywhere but at the camera. When asked how the live shows are going, Graham in particular sounds weary but, still, philosophically resolute. “Some places are so reserved they just stand and watch, sometimes people are just high as fuck, so they don’t move — you want it to be like Soul Train, with everybody dancing and ignoring the band, but it never is,” says Graham of what he wishes the live show would be like for his music, which, with its dark, dramatic passion, doesn’t exactly evoke a joyful dance line. “Before, you’d have to fight to get people involved. Now we don’t have to fight, but I still like thinking that way. Now it’s a fight to make sure they come back the next time. It’s not as abrasive a thing, but it’s still a fight.”

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“A fight” is a good way to understand how this group views its mission (and live shows, which have a sweaty fury), even after two mixtapes, three albums, and enough recognition to sell out shows. They are a self-described working-class band from Edinburgh, and that means that there is always — always — work to be done. On Cocoa Sugar, their third album, Young Fathers have taken their sound to its poppiest place, with well-spun, Baptist church choir hooks that loop in your brain even when you turn the album off. That catchiness is intentional: They might have won the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize in 2014 — beating indie darling FKA Twigs — but critical success and award money isn’t enough to pay the bills.

“This isn’t a lifestyle choice. If we’re not making money then we have to go get jobs. We can’t just do this because we like music,” says Graham. “We’re punching a clock. Even if it’s a weird clock, we’re still punching it.” And yet, the easy, crowd-pleasing Migos they are not, either: Cocoa Sugar is still characteristically knotty, with the trio interlacing rapping and singing over homemade beats à la 1970s New York experimental duo Suicide (whose synth lines are referenced throughout), creating hip-hop as reflected through a convex mirror. “We’re not trying to put people in a trance,” he says. “We just do what feels good.”

All thirty years old now, the three members of Young Fathers came together at around fourteen years old as regulars at a local hip-hop night at an Edinburgh club. “It was a room with a white sweaty wall and it was just all out,” Graham says. This was the Y2K era, and the DJs often incorporated dancehall and r&b into the mix, a novel approach in Scotland. In 2018, rap is regarded as pop music all over the world, but it wasn’t ten or fifteen years ago. “It was our first introduction to everything. When you went to school, rap wasn’t what kids listened to — it was underground,” Graham says. By chance, right before the three of them started hanging, Graham had been making simple beats. “A friend from school gave me software, and I saw that it was so easy — there’s the drum, there’s the bass. Then we just started making songs together in my bedroom,” he says. They recorded their first work, a little love song called “Tell My Why,” on a karaoke machine, and though that song never saw the light of the day (“No way! We were fourteen-year-old boys trying to write songs,” says Kayus), they formally started the band in 2008, and started performing at clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, eventually releasing well-received mixtapes in 2011 and 2013 and, finally, a pair of albums in 2014 and 2015.

Alloysious Massaquoi, Graham “G” Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers perform at The Roundhouse on March 21, 2018 in London, England.

It must feel good, then, to confound expectations at every turn. Their roots are as a rap group, sure, but across Cocoa Sugar they sound — sometimes alternatively and sometimes all at once — like punks, avant-garde experimentalists, and seductive r&b crooners. Though the album is remarkably consistent in its scrappy, seductive tone and tempo, the process of creation for the band is loose, all the better to let each member be as weird as he wants to be. To record Cocoa Sugar, they built, for the first time, a professional studio in Edinburgh, but managed to keep it purposefully amateur. “We don’t like nice studios!” says Kayus. They are secretive about the equipment they use, but Graham says it’s pretty basic and, most important, accessible at all times. There isn’t one member who serves as the producer — they all just create sounds and see where the music takes them. “All of our equipment is turned on all the time so anyone can hit anything — it’s completely open for people to do whatever, rather than it being a complicated setting where you need to plug something in. If you want to make a noise, it’s there,” says Graham. “We’re self-contained. Sometimes when you work with engineers, by the time they’ve set up the microphone, the moment is gone.”

Cocoa Sugar swirls around questions of religion and race and masculinity and identity (Ally is originally from Liberia, while Kayus was born to Nigerian parents in Scotland) and class, but never really reveals what it’s trying to say about any of them, giving the band a feeling of intriguing intangibility. “People are like, ‘We don’t understand it.’ It’s just like, ‘Fucking hell, man. What can you do?’ This is not us trying to be anything — it’s just who we are,” Graham says. “Maybe it’s because we’re from this cold northern part of Europe where no one does anything like this. Maybe the three of us will be the only ones who can understand it.” There is something naturally sphinx-like about a band with soulful Marvin Gaye vocals coming from the stark and classic Edinburgh, but they also seem to cultivate and encourage a certain kind of unknowability. I ask them what they mean by a particular line — “Don’t you turn my brown eyes blue,” on “Turn” — and they prefer to leave the interpretation general. “It could be about race, it could be about individuality — it’s about embracing who you are. And being adamant that it’s OK to be who you are,” says Ally. “We’re leaving a lot of question marks for self-discovery in the future,” says Kayus.

When asked to describe Edinburgh, an unlikely home for some of the most cutting-edge hip-hop around, Graham at first sees it as something of a foil for artistic souls like Young Fathers. “ ‘Gray’ is probably the best word to describe it. It’s not really a music city, it’s not really a cultural city. It’s dead, in a way, so when you express yourself, it’s not taken well. When I was young, [creativity] was a reason to get beat up,” he says. “The typical kind of working-class ethos is always trying to toughen yourself up, so you couldn’t really express yourself. When we started in music, it opened up a whole world.” Raised without a silver spoon, they each have a heightened need to be not just creative, but successfully creative, a pressure that the prestige of winning the Mercury Prize helped alleviate — a bit. “See! We were right, the whole time!” says Graham. “For your parents, you can say, ‘I’m not just fucking about. This is a thing now.’ Coming from Edinburgh, you leave school, you get a trade, and then you work for the rest of your life. When you can prove that you are a working musician, then it’s an extra bonus to tell your parents.”

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What Cocoa Sugar has most of all is intensity, which, after forty minutes on a shaky Skype call with the sharp and decisive band, feels logically like the only kind of music it could ever make. Take the track “Wow”: They screech the words “Ego/Ego/Giving me what/Giving me what I need over a manically pitch-shifting beat that sounds like it’s driving itself right off a cliff. You hear both freedom and strain at once in their voices — they’re liberated, they seem to be saying, but in these exhausted voices it can not be overlooked that this is hard-fought liberation, that it was never (and never will be) easy. Working-class lads from Edinburgh with nothing but everything to prove. “That gray [Edinburgh] attitude, it’s still with you. It’s ingrained. You battle against it probably for the rest of your life,” Graham says, in the shadow of a touring schedule that will find him and his bandmates fighting their fight at least through June. “But it makes it all that much more special when you do battle it.”

At 8pm on May 5, Young Fathers play Elsewhere – Zone One at 599 Johnson Ave. in Brooklyn

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

Categories
Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Lady Bird: Isabella Rossellini Is Living Her Best Life

The first thing that registers when Isabella Rossellini comes within arm’s reach is that the 65-year-old beauty of international renown does not bleach her teeth. They are white, sure, but naturally so, free of glare, and the fine lines on her face come alive when she smiles. Her face is luminous and bare — that, or she’s nailed the “no-makeup” look — and she is dressed comfortably in a collared black-and-white tunic over dark flowy pants punctuated with a pair of canary-yellow, soft leather shoes. She is exchanging farewells with her model son, Roberto, who stands more than a head taller than his mother. He is holding his newly rescued pup of a few days, and they speak in Italian as he parts.

Rossellini had returned to the city from her Long Island farm for a speaking engagement with the evolutionary biologist Dr. Menno Schilthuizen at the New York Public Library the night before. There it was revealed that a species of beetle — ptomaphaginus isabellarossellini  had been named after the actress, for what Dr. Schilthuizen called “very interesting genitalia.” Fans of Rossellini’s series of comical shorts about sex in the animal kingdom, Green Porno, which debuted in 2008 on the Sundance Channel and now lives on YouTube, may have seen her turn as a duck getting it on and boasting of her “vaginal complexity.” In an email, Dr. Schilthuizen noted that the ptomaphaginus isabellarossellini showed “signs of a sexual evolutionary ‘arms race’ between male and female genitalia,” which reminded him of her duck sketch, thus inspiring the name.

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini and Menno Schilthuizen in conversation at the New York Public Library

“I read his book Nature’s Nether Regions, and there was this convergence of interest and humor,” recalls Rossellini, who is pursuing her master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College. “I wrote him saying, ‘We are soulmates — we have to work together.’ So yesterday’s talk was the first opportunity.” Having an insect named in her honor delighted and amused the model-actress-filmmaker, who earlier this month released her own book of illustrations and observations on animal behavior, My Chickens and I, which chronicles life on the farm, from their arrival as chicks — some of them endangered heritage breeds — until they reach adulthood by laying their first egg a few months later.

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Those in Rossellini’s orbit are unlikely to be surprised by her professional foray into animal behavior. As a young girl, she says she “dreamt to make films about animals, but didn’t know how to get there,” an ambition she’s fulfilled with Green Porno. For this maybe not-so-surprising second act, Rossellini credits her life in the country. After raising her children in New York City — while pursuing a career as the face of Lancôme and starring in cult films such as Blue Velvet and Big Night — she moved her primary residence out to her farm in Brookhaven on the south shore of Long Island.

“I don’t think I would have studied if I were in the city, because there are so many temptations that I think I would have been distracted,” she says, sounding not unlike a homework-wracked undergrad. “You know, the first time there was a difficult chapter, somebody would call and say, ‘Do you want to come see the premiere and Kate Winslet is giving the lecture.’ What am I doing with this, we should go see Kate Winslet! So living in the country allowed me to study, and then to write. And I liked that part, but I didn’t expect this love for animals would translate into another career for me.”

In May, Rossellini will be bringing her one-woman show about recent discoveries in animal behavior and evolution, Link Link Circus, to the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Hudson Yards, following its debut earlier this month at the Teatre Akadèmia in Barcelona. She performs alongside her newest dog and traveling companion, Darcy, in a humorous monologue about the animal kingdom. “My dream would be to just write and maybe direct a show, but not schlep around to 52 cities and in a theater too. It’s fun, but it’s also very difficult and your life comes to a halt, oh my God,” she says, her voice dropping and rising as if to characterize the exhaustion. “That would maybe be the next thing, involving another actress to take on the responsibility, or it’s all animation, where I don’t have to schlep the world.”

“We’re a very celebrity-driven society, but that has also helped my producing,” she adds. “I don’t know that I would find the funds if I’m not me.”

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini and her chickens, on the farm in Brookhaven

These days, Rossellini is happy to be enjoying time at her farm with her first grandchild, Ronin, the newborn son of her model–food writer daughter, Elettra Wiedemann, who lives in Fort Greene. “She didn’t think she’d like the country, and now that she came, she understands. She likes the city, but I think just walking with the baby and a stroller and two dogs, the garbage and picking up the shit — very hard for mothers!” she laughs. “She said, ‘Oh, maybe I should stay,’ and I said, ‘No, you can’t stay. I mean, I love for you to stay, but you have to work.’ We’re not rich enough that she can just not work. I said, ‘You can do it for a year, but then you have to go back to work.’ ”

The daughter of cinema royalty, Rossellini witnessed firsthand the work ethic of her own parents, the Academy Award–winning actress Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) and the Italian neorealist auteur Roberto Rossellini. With her siblings, including her fraternal twin Ingrid, now a university professor of literature, Rossellini grew up a global nomad residing primarily between Rome and Paris, a lifestyle driven by her parents’ successful careers. “I see them as artists that worked very hard at their art, whether it was my mama portraying different personalities of women, almost like a psychiatrist, who tries to find all the clockwork that makes a person tick,” says the actress, who also speaks French and Italian, and endearingly jumbles American clichés on occasion. “And my father saw in film a new way of communicating that could transcend reading. He was born in 1906, really the beginning of film, which was like the Internet today. All of a sudden you can see something that looks similar, it’s two-dimensional, but very similar to reality. He always felt a moral imperative to film, and told the story — especially of people who were unheard, about the civilians during the war and how much they suffered — because they couldn’t write the book. My parents were curious and engaged about life, and they very much liked what they did. Their job was important to them, it wasn’t just to make money.”

It’s an approach Rossellini has applied to her own career. “I do things because they’re interesting to me. If you say, I want to do something, but it has to be appreciated, it has to be successful, I have to make money, then you feel like a failure,” she says. “I didn’t know that I was going to start working again. For forty years, you say, ‘Oh, modeling is not lasting, it’s lasting 25 years.’ But I always thought it was going to end, I wasn’t going to get another job. Same thing when you are acting.”

“Acting isn’t going to last,” she says, leaning back into her seat. “You think it’s going to last, but soon they’re not going to call you. By the time I hit sixty, I thought, well, for sure now I’m not going to work.”

By 2016, Rossellini had taken early retirement from the Screen Actors Guild, and long since closed the door on modeling when Lancôme came knocking again, 23 years after they released her from her contract, which at the time had made her the highest-paid model in the world. “I was let go because I was 42 and told that ‘women dreamed to be young,’ ” she says of her original fourteen-year run with the French beauty giant. “I worked so well with Lancôme, we were so successful, and then there was that moment where it was so sad. I didn’t think it was time, but it was the way it was. I did try to fight it, because the marketing research said that women were very positive that I was there, but my executive at the time said to me, ‘The advertisement talks about the dream, it doesn’t talk about the reality.’ Lancôme got to be blamed, but a lot of other companies stopped working with me. A lot of magazines, and eventually it happened with acting. It was part of our culture.”

But, Rossellini notes, the culture is changing, with women in the beauty industry taking charge. “So much of my role at the beginning was to be beautiful and shut up. I wasn’t giving interviews, journalists talked to the director of the brand. As women journalists started to come in, they became curious, ‘We want to hear about the model, what she has to say. Do you use it? Do you like it? Do you get it for free?’ They wanted to know these things. And Lancôme decided I could become the spokesperson because there was pressure that came from the women journalists to talk to models. I was a very good spokesperson — you have to be clear, you have to be honest, you also have to be positive.” She pauses, and then adds, “I think what hurt me the most at the time when I left was that I knew so much about the company. I felt that I had so much knowledge, and they weren’t capitalizing on it, that I could give so much.”

Fast forward to 2015, when a woman, Françoise Lehmann, took control of the company and got in touch with Rossellini. “I was so taken aback because a lifetime went by. It wasn’t like three years, you know? So I said, ‘Let’s have lunch.’ I was a little bit afraid that they might see photos and say, ‘Oh, she looks like a very beautiful old lady.’ Because I haven’t done anything, I just look my age. So I thought, sometimes better to see me in person,” she announces, laughing. “In case there was a fantasy about what I look like, you know?”

Rossellini arrived first to their meeting, and as she waited, a motorcyclist roared up, parked, and removed her helmet. “It was delightful to see a woman, and this Brigitte Bardot hair came down, blonde, and I thought, whoa, is this the new executive?” she recalls. Her first run with the company was dominated by male executives, and she found the change refreshing. There was an honesty, a directness, and I felt very comfortable as a woman with her. I thought that she wanted to really make a point, a difference, and she said something very beautiful, that was very inspiring to me. She said, ‘Lancôme is 85 years old, and as a company, throughout the century where women achieved the most emancipation in society than [any] other century, we were there to serve her with cosmetics, the toys that women enjoy. And forty [of those years] were with you — with the company or outside of the company — and you have to be back.’ And when Françoise said that, I felt so acknowledged. Not about my beauty, but for my knowledge. And that’s when I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be with you.’ Because I want to work for Lancôme, of course, but also now led by a woman, there’s a sensitivity that is different. It is beautiful.”

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini and Menno Schilthuizen at the New York Public Library

For the foreseeable future, Rossellini is content to stay local at the farm, where she also keeps goats and six beehives along with a vegetable garden maintained by a team that sells the harvest at the local farmers’ market. The actress’s recent Hulu series Shut Eye, in which she had a two-season arc as the matriarch of a crime dynasty, wasn’t renewed and she admits to feeling some relief at the timing. “I have expectations that always seem to come short: finish my degree, work on the book, work on the theater, take care of my grandchild, run the farm, and then at the end of the day, there are so many pieces,” she says. “Because I think I try to do too much, I always felt this anxiety that I haven’t done everything good enough.”

Life on the farm also keeps her in close proximity to her two adult children, their partners, and her newest “accomplice,” her grandson, Ronin. When asked if meeting Ronin was anything like meeting Roberto, who is adopted, a beatific smile spreads across her face. “I think it’s different. There is something very romantic about adoption, and in a way, it was exactly how I imagined when I was a little girl, because I thought they came with a stork — someone delivered the baby,” she says. “So I received a phone call, and they said, ‘The baby is born’ — Roberto’s birth mother had the wisdom to place the baby in adoption before she had the baby — I remember that phone call, I felt like I was a little girl. For years, I couldn’t see the beginning of Dumbo, where the stork delivers babies to the zoo. I didn’t know Dumbo would move me. I couldn’t watch it, because I would burst into tears because it reminded me exactly of Roberto’s birth, you know? It was as romantic as that.”

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On the one hand, Rossellini’s life is as charmed and glamorous as can be imagined. On the other, she’s faced her own adversity — she was raped as a teenager, which she mentions in her 1997 memoir — and seems to have developed a knack for propelling herself forward, no matter the situation. When discussing the physical trauma of scoliosis as a thirteen-year-old, which involved being placed in a body cast for more than a year, she remains pragmatic and says, “What I learned was very simple. It’s better to be healthy than sick. Physical pain detracts from a lot of things. It’s difficult to study, or read a book, anything. Even if they take you to a Pixar movie, if you’re in pain, you will not laugh. I sometimes just feel that when the hardship is gone, I feel a relief,” she says. “That’s what I learned. But I know that Americans, they want people to be enlightened. Everyone in America wants to be a guru, I feel, or expect people to be guru-like. ‘What is your redeeming, happy ending.’ If something bad happens,  there must be a lesson that makes it better.” She finds this American quality, the pursuit of a happy ending, to be absent in Europe.

But she’s also an admitted optimist. “I’m a little bit bored by somebody who says, ‘It’s so hard, it’s so uninteresting, I’m so bored, I wish I was twenty.’ I lose interest, so I try not to see that many people who are like that,” she admits. Rossellini’s distaste for negativity is palpable, as when we discuss the brave new world of social media, she admits to telling her children at one point, “My God, it’s so horrible, it cannot last!” She now has an Instagram account, and takes issue with Facebook and Twitter for having verified accounts under her name, which she says are not her own. “I feel like my grandmother!” she says, with a laugh. “But I think it’s here to stay, because everybody seems to be loving it. I can’t master it, and I think I never will, because I wasn’t born with it. So I will always be catching up, you know. As I said, I hate people that complain, and now you’re trying to make me complain!” Rossellini gives another quick laugh and shakes her head.

Isabella Rossellini

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

Categories
Best of Spring BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Leslie Jamison’s Road to “Recovering”

At the end of another marathon night of drinking in the fall of 2009, Leslie Jamison holed herself up in her office, clutching a red Solo Cup full of roughly eight shots of bourbon. When her boyfriend Dave entered the room — they lived together in that second-story apartment in Iowa City — she hastily hid the cup behind the futon. But then something shifted. Jamison pulled the cup back out, putting the evidence on full display.

After coming clean with Dave, Jamison began her first formal attempt at sobriety, in which she began attending AA meetings. “It was like taking an insurance policy against the version of myself…who would miss the drinking so much she’d say: I want to try again,” she writes in her new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.

Later, during a relapse, she repeated this scene — this time, hiding away with the whole bottle of bourbon.

“There was not one single ‘bottom,’ ” Jamison tells me. “Those nights…drinking by myself, feeling shame…those were bottoms. It was more the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Jamison, 34, grew up in the Pacific Palisades, one of Los Angeles’s wealthiest zip codes. Her father, Dean Jamison, is an economist who works on global development. Her mother, Joanne Leslie, is a nutritionist and former public health professor. And her aunt, author and psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, is known as an authority on mood disorders. Jamison followed in these academic footprints, attending Harvard for her undergraduate degree, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her MFA straight after that, and then on to her Ph.D. at Yale, where she wrote a dissertation on sobriety and creativity that comprises a large chunk of The Recovering. Now an assistant professor of nonfiction at Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program, Jamison lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with her novelist husband, Charles Bock, her nine-year-old stepdaughter, Lily, and her baby, Ione Bird, who was born in February.

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Jamison’s privileged path — both a product of her background and her intellect and drive — is difficult to ignore, and can be hard not to envy. Jamison acknowledges privilege lightly. She plays up the days spent rising at dawn for her shift at a bakery in Iowa, and downplays her romantic journeys to places like the Ligurian coast of Italy, where, she writes, she frittered away her fellowship checks drinking wine from pitchers. Professionally, Jamison has never been too far below high-functioning, high accomplishment. At 26, she published her first novel, The Gin Closet (2010), a story about the relationships between two generations of women, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Jamison had written the book in the years leading up to her Iowa City awakening, still deep in addiction. “I was taking certain things that were happening inside of me and following them to these more extreme spaces,” Jamison told the Daily Iowan. “It was both an act of self-expression and an act of imagination into otherness.”

The Recovering has been one of the most anticipated books of the year, and one that has received extensive media attention. Jamison’s long list of accomplishments has earned her a bit of a reputation as a “golden child” — a reputation that often plays into the coverage of the book: retroactive schadenfreude mixed with disappointment that Jamison’s proverbial “bottom” wasn’t sufficiently low.

For fun, I asked Jamison how she would defend The Recovering to a skeptic. “It’s a book you think you’ve read before, or a book you think you’ll be bored by,” she says. “But it’s neither.”

She’s right. The Recovering is not simply Jamison’s personal story; it is interwoven with mini-profiles of literary heavyweights like Charles Jackson, Raymond Carver, and John Berryman, whose lives and creative work reflected struggles with addiction, as well as the stories of a series of ordinary addicts, including some of her fellow AA members. It’s full of insights and exposes vulnerability; it’s hefty and meticulously researched — in other words, not your standard addiction memoir.

The Recovering is driven by yearning, which Jamison tells me “is our most important narrative engine.” Yearning — for passion, for acceptance, for creativity — is the seed that blooms into a reckoning with desires that drinking appeared to fulfill, and the raw feelings she grappled with when she quit drinking.

Yearning for control is another underpinning of Jamison’s addiction. “I was always obsessed with not seeming out of control,” she tells me. “So much of the time I was drunk, I was trying to act less drunk. Especially after I’d declared myself as an alcoholic, gotten sober, and then decided to start drinking again. I was wanting so badly for it to not look dysfunctional.” At a party she threw in Iowa, she had to “lock myself in our bedroom and slap myself — hard, across the cheek — to get myself undrunk again,” she writes. “It didn’t work.” During her relapse, Jamison writes, “I spent long chunks of time in my hot apartment trying to tell myself I had the drinking figured out.”

“A lot of my drinking practice was around disguise,” Jamison continues. And, in fact, many of the book’s most affecting moments present the small lies she tells during her everyday quest to hide her drinking — like buying a case of wine and telling the liquor store clerk it was for a dinner party she was throwing, or brushing her teeth so hard her gums bled to hide the smell of the gin she’d drink between the end of her shift at the bakery and when Dave would arrive home to their apartment. On her way to pick Dave up from the airport, she made a stop at the dump to discard her empty bottles. For the most part, Jamison was successful in hiding her drinking. Her friend Rachel Fagnant-Fassler told a Vulture reporter that “with Leslie, it didn’t look like dysfunction.” As Jamison describes it to me, “There was drinking before the social occasion and after the social occasion, so the drinking that was happening was a normal amount of drinking embedded in an abnormal amount of drinking.”

Jamison describes alcohol and men as filling a similar void — she yearns for love. She got together with Dave, a graduate student, after beginning her doctoral program at Yale, and moved to Iowa with him (five years after her own program ended) in 2009. Their relationship, a central focus of the book, was “corroded by my drinking,” she shares with me. “It was a necessary illustration of what the drinking’s price had been.”

Jamison began to write The Recovering in 2010, after she’d finally quit drinking, and as the product of a sober mind, it could be seen as a prime example of the clearheaded creativity Jamison seeks. It could also be viewed as a way of coming clean. The immediacy of drinking that Jamison’s words evoke comes from diaries she kept while drinking and from everyday material such as her Gmail archives. She describes a Thanksgiving evening, for instance, when she almost drank a whole bottle of wine before noon, although she told her host she’d just had one glass. Some of her most vivid descriptions come from the difficult period of her life after her initial entry into AA in the winter of 2009–10. This could be because it was freshest in her mind at the time of writing, Jamison tells me. She writes of her complicated feelings during this first stage of recovery, when she was plagued by dreams of relapsing. “Sobriety had disappointed me in almost every way I could imagine,” she writes. She was still struggling in her relationship with Dave, her writing (although reading this work, partly composed during this period, I question how much her writing was “lifeless and effortful”), and in having the energy to socialize.

“I was writing about that raw-nerved feeling of early sobriety partially as a way to keep myself from going crazy,” she confides. While the writing may have been, at first, a way to cope with sobriety, the material ended up landing her a book deal for The Recovering — initially titled Archive Lush — four years later, in 2014.

It’s also impossible not to wonder whether the book itself serves a function in her recovery — or, at least her perception of her own role as a writer after drinking has been removed from the equation. Chapter VI, “Surrender,” is Step 2 of the 12-step program — the entire book, it could be argued, serves the mandate for the taking of inventory that Step 10 requires. “The book is my attempt to write a story about getting well, the struggle back into stability, that is as compelling as the story of dysfunction,” she says. She achieves her goal — some of the richest parts of her story are, in fact, the mental games she plays with herself before and after relapsing, trying to convince herself that she has gotten the problem under control.

Jamison observes that some writers “seemed to be understanding their sober writing in terms of a kind of asceticism or deprivation.” For instance, in The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson’s gritty, realistic novel about alcoholism that he wrote after seven years of sobriety, “the idea was for the story to be plain and simple,” Jamison says. (Jackson subsequently relapsed and committed suicide in 1968.) In contrast, David Foster Wallace was “the opposite of the minimalist” — and, therefore, a source of inspiration. “I very much responded to [Wallace’s] idea of sober writing as expansion,” she tells me. “I wanted my book to lean into the possibilities of sobriety-inspired writing, plentitude and fullness, in terms of my own evolution as a writer.”

Sobriety, Jamison says, has given her a new lens through which to appreciate the stories of others. “I really do experience a link between my life in recovery and my relationship to reportage,” she asserts. “The sense of awe at other people’s stories — that there’s so much there — was really cultivated in meetings. Hearing people talk about their lives with a certain intensity. Holding eye contact. That built up muscles that were of use to me as a reporter.”

Jamison admits that the structure — shifting from her personal narrative to the stories of others — risked “alienating a reader by getting them invested in your story and then slowly leaving your own story behind.” In fact, the book’s structure is both an important achievement — what makes it unique and ambitious — and its Achilles’ heel. I found myself eager to turn the pages of Jamison’s own narrative, then becoming frustrated when the multitude of new stories interrupted that trajectory.

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Regardless, Jamison has earned a high status in literary circles. The Recovering, her third, is the first half of a two-book deal, reportedly worth seven figures. Jamison’s next book, which was recently submitted, is a collection “linking ideas like haunting and obsession,” she says. It is concerned with “how we are constituted by things we can’t ever fully have,” and explores how things like memories play into our desires. And in an interview for Electric Literature, Jamison shared that she’s “secretly working on another novel.”

But success, she acknowledges, can be a mixed blessing for writers. At times it “propels you into, or deepens, some sense of self-obsession or self-focus, where you become obsessed with securing more success, shoring it up, stabilizing it,” she says. “The success becomes the thing that makes you feel whole, makes you feel comfortable in your own skin.”

Jamison met her husband, Bock, after she’d been sober for three and a half years. “This relationship feels very defined by sobriety,” she says. “The kind of self that sobriety made possible for me has been really important in this relationship.” When her editor suggested including this relationship in the book, Jamison felt that “there’s such an entanglement in the book between relationships and use” in the book already, and “it felt important not to end the story with a marriage plot–style resolution.”

In The Recovering, Jamison writes that she used to wonder whether she could find “anything that will feel as good as drinking.” I ask her how she feels now, nearly eight years into her recovery.

“Nothing feels good in exactly the same way as drinking felt good,” Jamison admits. “You fantasize about, ‘What would a glass of wine be like?’ or ‘What would a martini be like?’ ” Yet drinking doesn’t occupy nearly as much space in Jamison’s mind, partly by virtue of “leaning into, or living, a life that’s not about that anymore.” In large part, this is due to the around-the-clock nature of caring for a newborn.

When she does crave alcohol — a feeling she tells me “never stops” — the clichés of recovery culture often serve an important purpose. In particular, the phrase “playing the tape all the way through” helps her remember what would happen if she started drinking again. “It doesn’t mean I’ll end up vomiting into my hair…more that I’d want it again the next night,” she says. “And the next night. And I’d start wishing my daughter would fucking go to sleep at 6 so I could have it the next night.”

Still, Jamison experiences moments of pure pleasure in sobriety. She recalls turning 30 and skinny-dipping with one of her best friends. “I felt this sense of total connection to her, total connection to my own body in that moment,” she says.

“A sense of being awake and aware.”

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Do We Need Another Miles Davis Box Set?

Miles Davis’s autobiography, published two years before his death in 1991, was many things: uncomfortably honest, acerbic, profane, and, yes, funny. For example, in reference to his “second great quintet” from the 1960s, Davis wrote: “I made six studio dates with this group in four years.… And there were some live recordings that I guess Columbia will release when they think they can make the most money — probably after I’m dead.”

He was right, of course. In 2011, Columbia Legacy inaugurated Miles Davis: The Bootleg Series with Live in Europe 1967, a three-CD, one-DVD set of unreleased concerts by that very quintet consisting of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Two years later, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2, arrived with more concert dates, this time featuring the mythic “lost quintet,” made up of Shorter, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Holland, a group that never recorded a studio album together. The following year, we got Miles at the Fillmore — Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, a 1970 recording from the famed East Village hall. In 2015 came a twenty-year survey titled Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, also from the 1960s, arrived in 2016, the year Don Cheadle’s biopic Miles Ahead hit the screen.

That gets us to Miles Davis & John Coltrane — The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6, which was released on March 23. The Miles Davis vault has proven, yet again, to be the gift that keeps on giving. You can almost hear Miles rasping, “I told you mothafuckers.”

But do we need another box set? And do these collections take attention away from other working musicians? (This is probably a topic for another column, but the short answer is: yes.)

Just when you think it’s another money grab — as Miles implied might happen — you actually find something revelatory in each release. “Miles just keeps growing and growing,” the drummer Jack DeJohnette told writer Josef Woodard, who used the quote in the liner notes to volume two.

Like its predecessors, volume six is pristinely packaged and produced by Steve Berkowitz, Richard Seidel, and Michael Cuscuna, a self-professed “vault rat” who is actually a high-integrity preservationist and historian who also runs the invaluable reissue label Mosaic. Mark Wilder mixed and mastered the set. As with other volumes, Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, wrote the notes. Davis’s children, Erin and Cheryl, and his nephew Vincent Wilburn Jr.  (a drummer in some of Davis’s Eighties bands) are executive producers.

Jazz musician Miles Davis on a JATP concert (Jazz at the Philharmonic). 1960.

The new volume — also available digitally and on vinyl — is a four-CD set of five concerts that were part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic European Tour, which was organized by Norman Granz in the spring of 1960 and also included Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz. It was the last time Coltrane and Miles performed live together before the tenor saxophone star left to start his own quartet. On the tour, Coltrane and Davis play alongside Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums — the same group, sans Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, who recorded Kind of Blue the previous year.

A drawback is that the set contains no new work. Previous volumes included never-before released material. Two of them even came with DVDs of live shows. The last one, Freedom Jazz Dance, had unreleased studio takes and banter among bandmates, mainly from the Miles Smiles recording session in 1966.

True to the “bootleg” theme, volume six contains work that was poorly produced and has awful cover art, but that has been more or less available either on vinyl or CD for many years. For instance, the April 8, 1960, Zurich concert from this tour — not included in this set — was put out in 2012 by a label called In Crowd Records. The cover had a photo of a blurry New York building in the snow. (Snow being synonymous with Switzerland, apparently.) Many fans already have some of these records, despite how badly they look and sound. As recently as 2014, the U.K. label Acrobat released eight concerts from the tour.

Even something that looks like a new find on The Final Tour — a rare six-minute interview with John Coltrane on Swedish radio — has been available on vinyl since 1985 from the Swedish label Dragon. Recently, the much longer, and more revealing, hour-long 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky became available from the Pacifica Radio Archives.

Of course, the 1960 performances — two from a March 21 Paris appearance, two from Stockholm the following night, and one from Copenhagen on March 24 — are phenomenal. (And it’s only fair that the Davis and Coltrane estates get to reclaim them from some of those other dodgy outlets.)

At first, Coltrane — who released his own landmark album, Giant Steps, earlier in the year — didn’t want to go on the tour. But Davis persuaded him.

Maybe he didn’t really want to be there, or maybe, as he told the Swedish interviewer, “I’m trying so many things at one time. I haven’t sorted them out.” But his solos, bashful and achingly beautiful at the beginning with lush half-notes, become excessively verbose with an onslaught of sixteenth notes and then turn obstreperous, with the cries and honks that would anticipate his work to come.

Some in the Parisian crowd didn’t appreciate his approach and whistled — the European equivalent of booing — several times, most notably on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” This may have been less about Coltrane and more about the French, who can be an ornery bunch. The Scandinavian audiences instead applauded politely, even during one of Coltrane’s typically digressive solos on “So What” in Stockholm (on disc four in the set).

The rhythm section does not merely act like the other three players on the court with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. They cook, just as a trio — with Davis and ’Trane stepping back — for about four minutes during the version of “So What” on the opening disc from Paris. Their performance alone would’ve been worth the price of admission. Kelly had an elegant touch that Davis loved from his pianists, Cobb kept an irrepressible groove, and Chambers was piquant and articulate, whether playing pizzicato or arco, which he does often throughout the set — and he’s even more spirited on the set from the next night in Stockholm.

It’s interesting to wonder where the Bootleg Series might venture next. In 1996, Columbia — with whom Miles had a thirty-year relationship, from 1955 to ’85, which didn’t end entirely amicably — issued a collection of his exceptional work with his close collaborator and friend Gil Evans, which included plenty of alternate takes. This came a year after the release of the massive Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 set.

What else is left? Two possible periods to dig through are just before his self-imposed exile in 1975 and post-comeback in 1981. Critics and fans split their opinions about these periods. Some didn’t consider it jazz, or worse, saw it as the work of a sellout, which is ridiculous. I love both of those chapters in his career, especially the former, when Miles, who dabbled with the organ then, used a troupe of talented if not conventional post-bop musicians like Pete Cosey, James Mtume, Sonny Fortune, Michael Henderson, Dave Liebman, and Azar Lawrence. The 1975 concerts from Osaka, Japan — Agharta and Pangaea — are mesmerizing; and there were other recorded sessions from that era that could provide bootleg material, regardless of whether a nugget from Avery Fisher Hall already appears on volume four. The terrific drummer Al Foster played in those pre-’75 groups and was the only one to return after the comeback, along with now-legendary guitarist John Scofield, electric bassist Marcus Miller (the nephew of Wynton Kelly), and the late tenorman Bob Berg. There could, and perhaps should, be some gold there, too.

Whatever it is, whenever it is, I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

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Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

How Albert Hammond Jr. Became Someone Else and Found Himself

During his twenty years on the music scene, Albert Hammond Jr. has been known by a number of identities: as the son of celebrated songwriter Albert Hammond; as the shaggy-haired, tight-trousered guitarist from the Strokes; and as the solo singer-songwriter-performer “Albert Hammond Jr.” But he craved being something different. “It always seemed really interesting to be someone else,” he says.

At the age of 38, the constantly touring musician found himself slowing down. Not literally: When he isn’t making music, Hammond is often on his motorcycle, speeding through the Catskill Mountains or heading down to ride at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. But these days, the onetime icon of downtown New York hedonism lives upstate with his wife, Justyna, fifteen minutes from the site of the original Woodstock Festival. And musically, he’s found himself on the path to self-discovery. “I think being a ‘junior’ and then being in a band,” he says, then pauses — “there’s a lot of baggage that comes with all those things.” 

On March 28, as Hammond took the stage of the New York warehouse venue Brooklyn Steel, it was apparent that he had shed that baggage. Fresh off the release of his critically acclaimed fourth solo album, Francis Trouble, Hammond took the stage a natural-born rock star, shedding his golden bomber jacket to reveal a T.Rex T-shirt, and filling the night with Angus Young-style jumps and nonstop dancing. By the end of the nineteen-song set, it was clear how meaningful the performance had been for him, with Hammond telling the crowd, “I’d like to never leave a stage like this.” Truthfully, it took him a long time to get there.

ALBERT_HAMMOND_JR.
ALBERT_HAMMOND_JR.

In the years following the success of the Strokes’ debut album, Is This It, in 2001, Hammond pursued rock ’n’ roll excess with a vengeance, developing addictions to cocaine, ketamine, and heroin along the way. At the same time, the guitarist somehow managed to release a string of solo albums that mostly just made fans long for more proper Strokes albums. It wasn’t until he found sobriety in his thirties that he began to rediscover himself, both as an artist and as a man, and what he learned made for a hell of an origin story. In 1979, Hammond’s mother had suffered a miscarriage while carrying him and his brother. That much he knew: Where Elvis had his phantom twin, Jesse, Albert had Francis. Then, two years ago while talking to his aunt, Hammond learned an additional detail: that one part of his brother, a fingernail, had survived childbirth. It was this discovery that made him consider the connection of two bodies in the womb, and the energy that might have passed between them. After hearing this story, Hammond realized his music was subconsciously taking on a new sound; it was as if Francis had been speaking through him.

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“I started with demos, and in the process of doing it all, I learned about the collision I had with my twin,” he says. “I’d already been working on the idea of an alter ego, so it just all started to make sense.” For Hammond, it felt like he’d found the missing piece of a puzzle, and in doing so, he found a new identity. “It gave an arc to my career, really. I had to kill myself off to start anew.” Now, with Francis Trouble, Hammond has been reborn as his own rock star alter ego, albeit one that’s more Ziggy Stardust than Chris Gaines. “It was a way to take the baggage of my name off the record,” he says. The name “Francis Trouble” pays homage to his brother, and the character embodies Hammond’s newfound sound. “I was always thinking of names for myself, and I’ve always wanted an escape,” he says. “When I thought of the name ‘Francis’ — I’ve always liked it — it just became part of the alter ego.” 

Thankfully for fans, Hammond’s music seems to have been energized by his personal rebirth. “Muted Beatings,” the album’s lead single, has the anxious, nervous energy of the Stroke’s best work. “It’s about how you don’t need to have the shit beaten out of you by fists,” he says, explaining the track. “How, actually, silence can be even worse.” Elsewhere on the album, he finds himself in more uplifting territory; despite the ghost of his brother haunting the proceedings, Francis Trouble is more focused on life than death. Hammond details trust and romance on “Far Away Truths” (“Don’t tell me that I’ve seen enough/’Cause if I saw nothing why would I look twice”), and pays “a triumphant homage,” he says, to the limitless promise of one’s teenage self on “Set to Attack.” 

Given where Hammond found himself a decade ago, it’s amazing he was able to get his career back on track at all. According to the guitarist, as he slipped further into drug-fueled oblivion in the wake of the Strokes’ success, he may have inadvertently “killed” the other bandmates’ dreams. As readers of Lizzy Goodman’s indie rock oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom, learned, during the recording of the band’s 2006 album, First Impressions of Earth, Hammond began to notice things had stopped being “fun”: Friends, girlfriends, strangers would all start coming in, being like, ‘You should be a bigger band,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, we should be a bigger band…,’ ” he told Goodman. “For as strong as we were and as close as we were, we weren’t close or strong enough to fight that.” It wasn’t until 2010, when Hammond began his recovery, that his priorities shifted, with music returning to the center of his world.

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While his early solo career was perhaps seen as a distraction from the Strokes, Francis Trouble has ensured that Hammond’s talent can stand on its own. “On this one I finally got to make the record I wanted to make,” he says. Francis Trouble is a fresh start for Hammond — he considers it his “Volume I,” and he’s contemplating a Volume II.

“I won’t know what that is until the end of this cycle, because it starts to grow in you as you take it on the road,” he explains. For now, he’s looking forward to getting lost as someone else for a while. “I get to travel in Francis’s shoes for a bit.” 

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

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Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

The Exceptionally Varied Gems of This Year’s Tribeca Film Festival

For nearly as long as it’s been around, the conventional wisdom concerning the Tribeca Film Festival — which kicks off Wednesday night and runs through April 29 — has been some variation on a lack of identity. The New York Film Festival, later in the year, is the venerable platform for established masters and fall prestige pictures; New Directors/New Films, barely over when Tribeca begins, is the place to catch the next rising star. But Tribeca, we’re told, is the work in progress, where they’re still throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

Over the past few years, however, a shift has occurred. Tribeca’s documentary slate has become reliably and inarguably excellent — perhaps the best annual program of new nonfiction filmmaking on this coast. (Doc alums include Taxi to the Dark Side, Jesus Camp, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) The “Viewpoints” section continues to spotlight fresh voices and untold stories. (Recent selections there include City of Ghosts, My Friend Dahmer, and The Wolfpack.) And thanks to the splashy reception of features like Always Shine, Blame, and The Boy Downstairs, Tribeca has proved itself to be among the friendliest festivals to female filmmakers — 46 percent of this year’s features are directed by women.

The programmers still have their blinds spots. The pop-culture documentaries that fill key slots seem to have been chosen less for quality than for how well they’ll pair with big post-movie concert events. Moreover, when you come across a narrative title that you’ve never heard of, with a bunch of famous actors in the cast — well, there’s probably a reason. That said, there is, as ever, plenty to seek out at this year’s fest. Here are a few selections worth your time, presented in alphabetical order. For information on screening schedules, click on the titles below. —Jason Bailey

Blowin’ Up

“It’s called blowin’ up when you leave a pimp,” explains former sex worker Kandie, and it’s easier said than done: “You can’t just walk away. There is no walking away.” This insightful and informative documentary from director Stephanie Wang-Breal intertwines two strands: women like Kandie, telling their simple yet devastating stories, intercut with fly-on-the-wall footage of the human trafficking intervention court in Queens, where sex workers are brought — not to be charged and sentenced, but to receive help and forgiveness. Wang-Breal exhibits a Wiseman-esque institutional curiosity, fascinated by the process of this court and the people who spend their days there. She’s also interested in the exploitation of these young women (all of them Asian American or African American) and in the question of why police so often opt for quick arrests of workers, rather than an actual investigation of their exploiters. The characters are riveting and the photography is casually stylish, but the real highlight is the urgency of the work Wang-Breal captures. —J.B.

Charm City

Between Theo Anthony’s Rat Film (2016) and Marilyn Ness’s Charm City, Baltimore has emerged as a fertile subject for documentarians. Although conventional (talking-head interviews and contextual title cards pepper the film), Ness’s latest effectively charts the impact of violence on poor black neighborhoods within the city over the course of three years, from early 2015 to late 2017. A few principle players anchor the doc: city councilman Brandon Scott; Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton, a local leader and founder of a community center, seen conducting impromptu curbside meetings; and Alex Long, a youth coordinator and a kind of apprentice to Mr. C, who’s helping to keep his street free of gangs and drug dealers. It all adds up to an even-handed issue film featuring those who are working to change the face of one of the U.S.’s most violent cities. —Tanner Tafelski

Diane

Following a handful of documentaries on cinema (A Letter to Elia, Hitchcock/Truffaut), Kent Jones — a critic and the current director for the New York Film Festival — has now made his first narrative feature. Aside from a few flat moments of tepid acting (namely, from Jake Lacy), Diane is a strong work and one of the peaks of this year’s Tribeca slate. Diane (Mary Kay Place), the heroine, is under immense pressure. She tries to care for her resistant, erratic, drug-addicted son (Lacy). When not tending to him, she visits her dying cousin in the hospital. Diane is a haunting film about impending mortality. Its rigorous control is exemplified by its polished dialogue; the warm, earthy hues of western Massachusetts, captured by DP Wyatt Garfield; and the gentle, rhythmic editing, punctuated with lyrical shots of cars (taken from the perspective of the windshield) driving along curvaceous roads. —T.T.

Duck Butter

Alia Shawkat (who co-wrote) co-stars in this shambling — in the best way — story of two girls who meet at a club, have great sex, and hit upon the notion of just spending the next 24 hours together, indulging in hourly intercourse while speeding right past the getting-to-know-you stages of the relationship. In the words of Sergio (Laia Costa), new paramour to Shawkat’s Naima: “We can fucking skip time!” The genius of co-writer/director Miguel Arteta’s latest is its recognition of the way the singular intensity of the flush of first love (and lust) might make this sound like a good idea, and how such idealization might ultimately prove regrettable. In scope, it’s a modest movie (and purposefully so), but the relationships and impulses it portrays are anything but minor. —J.B.

Kent Jones’s “Diane,” starring Mary Kay Place, confronts mortality with rigorous control.

The Feeling of Being Watched

Director/journalist Assia Boundaoui turns exhaustive research into an art form in her scintillating doc. She and her relatives, as well as other members of a tight-knit Muslim-American neighborhood in suburban Illinois, are frequently menaced by the FBI — with impromptu house visits and mysterious parked cars on their block. Fed up, she takes on the agency directly, digging up heavily redacted files — spanning more than two decades — that gradually reveal the FBI’s attempt to uncover terrorist activity within local Muslim-led charity organizations. (Though this probe proved unsuccessful, several of Boundaoui’s relatives were compelled to plead guilty to white-collar crimes and serve jail time; many continue to be harassed despite being cleared.) Boundaoui’s exposé of her own near-Sisyphean quest for justice is a searing snapshot of an ongoing battle with seemingly no end in sight. —Sam Weisberg

General Magic

One of the whispered-about legends of Silicon Valley, General Magic was an early-Nineties spinoff of Apple tasked with developing what was, essentially, the technology (as well as the aesthetics and the ethos) of the smartphone. General Magic captures the company’s hype-filled rise and very quick fall — the latter a matter of timing, as the concept was introduced when the supporting technology and customer interest simply weren’t there yet. Directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude stylishly combine previously unseen documentary footage from the company’s idealistic early days with archival clips and interviews both old and new. It’s all informative, but the biggest kick is giggling at the key players’ startlingly accurate predictions of the kind of world we’re now living in. —J.B.

Jellyfish

Her name is Liv Hill, and, holy shit, you’ll want to remember it. She’s in every single scene of James Gardner’s wrenching British drama, carrying this entire tricky movie on her shoulders, and she never falters. It’s a land mine of a role: a fifteen-year-old girl who, over the course of its ninety-odd minutes, is pushed past her considerably high breaking point. She’s failing in school, has a terrible part-time gig that she supplements with dispiriting tasks (e.g. back-alley hand jobs), and is taking care of what are essentially three children: her sister, her brother, and her mother, who is perpetually “not feeling well.” It sounds like pretty miserable viewing, and it’s often tough to watch. But Hill is a surefire dynamo, wresting control of the screen; her work is fierce, bitter, funny, and heartbreaking. —J.B. 

Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s absorbing debut is laced with urgent dread, experienced by characters you care deeply about. Tessa Thompson and Lily James both give breathtaking performances as two estranged, troubled sisters — one of them adopted — who, following their mother’s death, tangle with foreclosing bankers, relentless parole officers, unkind healthcare professionals, and vicious drug dealers. Ollie (Thompson) desperately reenters the Oxycontin peddling trade, a week shy of completing her parole, to help save her mother’s house and pay for an abortion for Deb (James). DaCosta proves a wizard of suspense, particularly in a sequence where Ollie breaks into a towed-away RV to steal back drugs and cash. And the crisp dialogue between these vulnerable but shrewd sisters consistently simmers with equal parts resentment and love. —S.W.

Mary Shelley

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s origin story of the Frankenstein author is a good twenty minutes too long and spends far too much of its third act verbalizing its themes. Those complaints aside, this is a welcome showcase for the considerable talents of Elle Fanning, who deftly shades the trials and tribulations of the young writer and her complicated relationship with Percy Shelley (played by Douglas Booth as a good-time guy who is not to be trusted). Fanning and Booth’s chemistry is blindingly intense, and Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley is delicately eccentric as Mary’s half sister. Through it all, Al-Mansour sharply captures this makeshift family’s wild swings from revelry to desperation to inspiration. —J.B.

Netizens

Cynthia Lowen, who produced the disturbing 2011 doc Bully, scores another infuriating triumph with her directorial debut, Netizens, which follows three victims of online sexual harassment and defamation. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger who critiqued depraved depictions of female characters in video games, still gets bombarded with rape and death threats from armies of self-righteous male gamers. Carrie Goldberg, now a formidable internet-privacy and anti-revenge porn attorney, was herself stalked for months by a vengeful ex-lover. And Tina Reine struggles to find legitimate employment due to an ex’s discriminatory online screed, which, she discovers, is protected by First Amendment laws. Some scenes are almost too wrenching to bear, particularly when the women read aloud various violent texts and tweets from their tormentors. But all three are as optimistic and humorous as they are erudite; the movie ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note. —S.W.

Nico, 1988

It seems awfully ironic that an artist as canonically underground as Nico should receive so conventional a treatment in a biopic. But as traditional narratives about creators go, this one is not half bad. Shot in full frame and lightly incorporating archival footage, Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 follows the afflicted singer (played by Trine Dyrholm, who doesn’t quite look like the waifish Nico but definitely approximates her husky voice) during the last two years of her life. That was well after her integral role in the Velvet Underground, and after her decade-long relationship with Philippe Garrel. Nicchiarelli captures Nico, initially still hooked on heroin, touring Europe with a ragtag band (she gives one electrifying performance in Communist Czechoslovakia) and tending to her troubled, suicidal child, Ari (the son of Alain Delon, who, to this day, denies paternity). Adding to the singer’s mythology and allure, the film portrays Nico sticking to her melancholic music even while the rest of the world seems to have turned away. —T.T.

No Greater Law

At long last, here is a documentary about religious fanatics that, while certainly critical, doesn’t treat any of its subjects with a trace of condescension. Tom Dumican’s No Greater Law registers like a riff on Inherit the Wind; this time, it’s religious doctrine versus life-or-death health risks, rather than mere scientific theory. In a small Idaho town, a prominent Followers of Christ pastor and his congregation are unwaveringly anti-medicine, relying on ointment healing for their fatally sick children, whose maladies could easily be cured. Detractors of the faith and a determined sheriff take the matter to the state senate but find that the majority of local politicos are in favor of vast protections for the Followers, even going so far as to exempt their dead from autopsies. The film is a must-see for anyone concerned with First Amendment and child-abuse laws; it’s also the most thoroughly engrossing doc of its kind since Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Brother’s Keeper. —S.W.

Lily James (left) and Tessa Thompson are breathlessly convincing as sisters pushed to a breaking point in “Little Woods.”

Roll Red Roll

The chilling audio that opens this gripping documentary captures a cacophony of thin, giggling voices: “What did they do to that girl?” “She is so raped right now.” “This is the funniest thing ever.” That “funniest thing” was the 2012 rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, an act perpetrated and observed by several members of the town’s beloved high school football team. The story of athlete entitlement (enabled and facilitated by coaches, school administrators, and “fans”) is as old as time; what was new in the Steubenville case was the social media element, in which tweets and pictures laid intentions bare and served as documentation (along with sickening text messages and cellphone photos) of the crime. The only real strike against this well-constructed, compelling picture is that it could stand to be longer; director Nancy Schwartzman occasionally sacrifices depth for brevity, only scratching the surface of small-town sports culture and groupthink. But there’s much to chew on, particularly the tough observations that accompany long-overdue shifts in cultural attitudes, best exemplified by the craggy Steubenville antique dealer who explains: “I’m not condoning it, I’m just saying things have changed a lot in forty years.” Exactly. —J.B.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda 

Member of pioneering electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra, composer of film scores (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Gohatto) and sixteen solo albums, cancer survivor, and prominent environmental activist: Ryuichi Sakamoto contains multitudes. Although director Stephen Nomura Schible touches lightly upon these facets of Sakamoto’s life, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is mainly a portrait of an artist at work on his latest (and perhaps greatest) album, 2017’s async. And yet, by showing the different sides of Sakamoto, Schible enables the viewer to see how they influence this personal album. Schible frequently captures the articulate Sakamoto explaining his artistic and philosophical principles while also using an assortment of instruments (cymbals, pianos) and found objects (rain-pelted windows, jars, and buckets) scattered around his neatly cluttered Manhattan apartment for potential sounds on the record. —T.T.

The Seagull

Annette Bening has played so many high-intensity mothers by now, you’d think she’d have exhausted her resources. But she’s a firecracker in Michael Mayer’s spirited adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, as the aging, boastful actress Irina. At the opening night of her aspiring playwright son Konstantin’s portentous show, she snorts and jeers, and later calls him a “nonentity.” Prone to moping spells, Konstantin has inherited all of his mother’s solipsism but none of her brio, and his leading lady and love interest Nina (Saoirse Ronan) is fast losing interest. Irina has her vulnerable side, too; like everyone else here, she pines for the unavailable. Mayer doesn’t turn anyone into a pitiable sort, and he’s tuned into the absurd futility as well as the pain of unrequited love. Elisabeth Moss stands out as a sardonic, black cloak–clad spinster, and the gifted Ronan plays the decidedly untalented Nina with astonishing conviction. —S.W.

The Serengeti Rules

A school of bass fish are removed from an Oklahoma stream and, a week later, armies of minnows — normally devoured by the bass — have taken over the pond. In Mukkaw Bay, Washington, the starfish are separated from the mussels, who then overtake the tide pool. Is this an example of harmless prey finally reigning over the predators — a triumphant mutiny in a staunch and unfair food chain? Hardly. As Nicolas Brown’s exhilarating doc The Serengeti Rules proves, predators like starfish and bass are essential for the survival of ecosystems; when lesser animals prevail, overpopulation can kill plant life and, in turn, whole species. The movie tracks the globe-trotting, eye-opening journeys of five scientists profiled in Sean B. Carroll’s book of the same name. The photography is startling and gorgeous, and even the toughest naysayers will be hard-pressed not to admit that certain animals are essential for the protection of forests, oceans, and even endangered species. —S.W.

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie

It would be easy to imagine (and, frankly, to make) a didactic anti-Barbie documentary, so entwined is the fifty-year-old-plus fashion doll in our ongoing conversations about gender roles, body image, and white supremacy. And director Andrea Nevins wants to have those conversations, but she doesn’t want to stop there. She runs through Tiny Shoulders’ history of the doll with an astute understanding of how its swings in popularity have reflected the moods of American culture. Running parallel to this look-back lesson is a survey of the development, production, and rollout of “Project Dawn” — a risky initiative to redesign the notoriously unrealistic Barbie body. It’s a tricky balance that Nevins handles ingeniously, focusing on the women who now run the company and their conscious efforts to change the brand and its perception. The result is a thoughtful, nuanced portrait of (for better or worse) an American icon. —J.B.

United Skates

Directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown helm this affectionate tribute to roller-rink culture and, more specifically, the African-American skate community, which gathers on “adult nights” (coded language, we’re told, for “black night”) that prove to be raucous celebrations of skating, dancing, and style. But this is a culture that’s disappearing, with skating rinks closing across the country, thanks to declining interest and increasing land values. So the mostly joyful picture is permeated by a sense of decline — that it’s documenting a phenomenon that may not be with us much longer. As such, it’s full of fascinating stories and inside-baseball jargon (“slippery wheels,” “JB style,” throws, snapping, slow-walking), all of which is wittily assembled to capture the movement and athleticism on the floor. Charming, informative, and a little heartbreaking. —J.B.

We the Animals

This adaptation of Justin Torres’s novel about the troubles of a Puerto Rican family in upstate New York is energized by a raucous, youthful vigor right from the jump. Director Jeremiah Zagar supplements the tale’s keenly observed around-the-house storytelling with tiny, vivid moments: the sound of parents fighting on the other side of a door; the sight of children bouncing off the walls when left to their own devices; the way things just happen to you when you’re a kid, because your parents haven’t invited you into the discussion. It’s an expressionistic film, but one in which that approach makes narrative sense — this is, after all, a story told from the perspective of a youngest child who often has to piece things together on his own. Zagar has a gift for capturing a character’s essence in an image or two, via simple compositions occasionally augmented by spellbinding snatches of animation. And he imbues the entire enterprise with a fascinating feeling of maybe-memory. It’s either set in the past, or in a place where time stopped, and both approaches play. —J.B.

Woman Walks Ahead

Director Susanna White tells the true story of the late-nineteenth-century portrait artist Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who travels from New York to Dakota to paint Lakota chief Sitting Bull and winds up in the middle of the treaty dispute that would ultimately take the tribe’s land, and most of their lives. Steven Knight’s script veers dangerously close to white-savior territory, but the complexity of the native characters is commendable, and the performances are first-rate. Chastain is spirited (if outfitted with a peculiar accent), Sam Rockwell makes an outstanding grizzled cowboy, and Michael Greyeyes honors both the humanity and the iconic status of Sitting Bull. His Big Speech is definitely a Big Speech, but it’s delivered so well that the predictability is forgivable. Same goes for the film surrounding it. —J.B.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES

Thomas Cole’s Majestic Wildernesses and Dark Satanic Mills

Thomas Cole, like us, lived in interesting times. Born in 1801, he grew up in an England disrupted by the industrial revolution and unsettled by the fervid passions of romanticism, where the poet and painter William Blake wrote of a “green and pleasant land” being overrun by “dark satanic mills.” Art historian Tim Barringer sums up this period in the catalogue accompanying the Met’s wide-ranging exhibition “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings”: “Mechanization, offering profit for investors and entrepreneurs, often caused entire occupational groups, such as the skilled handloom weavers of Bolton [Cole’s hometown], to be cast from relative prosperity into poverty,” a situation that led to riots, arson, and attacks on mills that were “weaving by steam.” Like Blake, many displaced workers viewed the flames tinting the night skies as precursors to God’s vengeance on corrupt church leaders and rapacious capitalists, strains of apocalyptic thought that would drive England’s romantic movement as well as Cole’s life’s work.

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When Cole was in his early teens he found work carving designs into woodblocks for fabric patterns, another job that would soon disappear, as England’s international textile industry — fueled in part with cotton grown by slaves in the young United States of America — continued to shift from handwrought craft to mechanized drudgery. In 1818, Cole’s father, a serial failure in business, moved the family from England to America, where Thomas was apprenticed to an engraver in Philadelphia. The family then moved to Ohio, where Cole, bored with his father’s wallpaper business, studied with an itinerant portrait painter and taught himself from a British painting manual and by drawing from plaster casts. The Met’s exhibition includes some of his early nature studies, such as an 1823 ink drawing of a gnarled tree.

In 1825, Cole traveled to New York City, which was then becoming an important hub of international trading and had a thriving market in both European and domestic art prints. A specialty of the nineteenth-century art world was spectacularly painted, room-size panoramas, a genre described by its inventor as “an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round.” This concept would have a profound influence on Cole.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps” (first exhibited in 1812)

Early success with landscapes painted in the Catskills — which, in the mid 1820s, was still a rough-and-tumble region rife with wildlife — made Cole a founding member of the National Academy of Design, in 1826, but it was in 1829, when he returned to England to study, that his artistic path began to solidify. In London the ambitious young artist was dazzled by the visceral brushwork and narrative drama of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s 1812 Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, in which tiny figures make their way under clawing gray clouds. The sun, glaring like the eye of a leviathan, has been painted as thickly and emphatically as an egg yolk. Born in 1775, Turner had grown well past any academic restraints. But Cole aspired to be a gentleman, and was taken aback by his elder’s demeanor, later writing in his sketchbook: “I had expected to see an older looking man with a countenance pale with thought, but I was entirely mistaken. He has a common form and common countenance, and there is nothing in his appearance or conversation indicative of genius. He looks like a seafaring man, a mate of a coasting vessel, and his manners were in accordance with his appearance.… I can scarcely reconcile my mind to the idea that he painted those grand pictures. The exterior so belies its inhabitant the soul.”

John Constable, “Rainstorm over the Sea” (ca. 1824–28)

Both Turner and another towering figure of British landscape painting, John Constable, displayed a bodily engagement with their materials, through thick vortexes and gossamer slashes of paint. Cole would eventually subjugate this to clarity and refinement in his own work. Compare in the exhibition Constable’s small 1825 oil sketch Study of a Cloudy Sky to Cole’s similarly sized Stormy Landscape (1832). Through darting washes and bright squiggles, Cole conveys the glistening luminescence of capricious weather, but Constable does him one better in capturing nature’s elemental forces with brushstrokes that thrust with the power of a boxer’s uppercut. Included in the show are canvases by other English romantics, who depicted apocalyptic deluges and divine destruction, scenes that reinforced Cole’s own view, imparted during his childhood, that the Garden of Eden was always under siege from man’s greed.

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From London, Cole embarked on a grand tour of Europe. In Italy he studied centuries of masterpieces and painted deep-perspective vistas of tumbledown Roman aqueducts crowned with weeds, as well as other tableaux of civilization gone to seed. He returned to America in 1832, and two years later took the oath of American citizenship on the same day various factions battled with knives and clubs and destroyed ballot boxes during New York City’s first mayoral election. It was an ugly time in Cole’s new country, which was led by the wealthy, slave-holding, pro-states’-rights populist Andrew Jackson. Cole wrote of his new president, “It appears to me that the moral principle of the nation is much lower than formerly.… It is with sorrow that I anticipated the downfall of pure Republican government — its destruction will be a death blow to Freedom — for if the Free government of the U[nited] states cannot exist a century where shall we turn? The hope of the wise and the good will have perished and scenes of tyranny and wrong, blood and oppression such as have been acted since the world was created — will be again performed as long as man lasts.”

Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire” (1835–36)

It was in this mood that Cole turned his analytical eye toward broad sweeps of history. In the passionately ambitious series The Course of Empire (1834–36), five large canvases enclose the viewer in a half-round of intensely colored, obsessively detailed, sumptuously imagined events. The first, The Savage State, features a bowman and other figures in poses from classical European antiquity, surrounded by a majestic landscape dotted with teepees and canoes. By the time Cole was working on this canvas, however, the Native American population of the Eastern U.S. had already been decimated, and still more were being resettled west of the Mississippi River as a result of President Jackson’s signing of the Indian Removal Act — brutal legislation that led to death by disease, starvation, and exposure of thousands of human beings along the Trail of Tears.

Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)

Cole continued his more idyllic vision with a scene of Arcadian splendor that leads to the centerpiece, The Consummation of Empire, in which grandiose architecture and affluent crowds now cover the epic wilderness found in the first two paintings. Sunlight cascades over opulent drapery and classical columns, yet Cole provides us a glimpse of troubles ahead by illustrating that all this pageantry is in honor of a conquering hero returning with the spoils of subjugated lands. This representation of aggressive war can be read as the artist’s warning that America’s young democracy must avoid the rot inherent to royalty and warlords, and he drives this point home with the final paintings in the series, Destruction and Desolation. In Destruction we see buildings aflame and bridges collapsing under the weight of citizens fleeing rampaging warriors. Cole’s richly detailed naturalism — whether the milling crowds in Consummation or herons nesting amid the ruins of Desolation — pulls viewers in to discover the multiple layers of his narrative, the crucial concept being that man’s loftiest achievements are but an eye blink in the course of nature’s patient, inexorable dominion. Cole brings us full circle — the natural landmark of a craggy promontory in the first painting also dominates the background of the last, but instead of the lush, untamed vegetation foregrounded in The Savage State, we get weeds jutting through tumbledown walls and vines climbing columns that no longer support roofs. As Ozymandias, King of Kings, laments in Shelley’s verse:

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

Frederic Edwin Church, “Above the Clouds at Sunrise” (1849)

In later works, Cole focused on the scenery of upstate New York: hunters laden with fresh game returning to waiting wives lofting waving babies, picnickers gathering flowers near meandering rivers that reflect lush foliage and regal mountains. This is the pastoral America Cole wished to preserve from the wanton greed of the Jacksonian era — he had witnessed what environmental degradation and class warfare wrought in the country of his birth. And while Cole’s paintings could not stave off the deflowering of America’s virgin wilderness, he did inspire a generation of artists to capture the beauty of the Hudson River valley and beyond. One of Cole’s students, Frederic Edwin Church, managed to marry Cole’s exacting observation with a measure of the sublime abandon found in the work of Turner and Constable. Church reveled in nature’s most garish moments, and shortly after Cole died, in 1848, the student honored his teacher with a painting featuring one of Cole’s favorite vantage points on a Catskill mountaintop. It is early morning, and the rising sun is burning through clouds so pink they might be on the verge of ignition. A solitary bird stands in for Cole’s journey to the heavens.

‘Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings’
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
212-535-7710
metmuseum.org
Through May 13