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Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism

Thoughts on: Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism 

It is easily imagined of Jean Genet that he is one those artists who so adore reality that they are obsessed with the ever-present possibility that it too will betray them.

Sitting through the too long evening of “The Blacks” or wending a careful and respect­ful way through the printed texts of “Deathwatch” or “The Maids,” we are overwhelmed by our sense of his distrust of us; his refusal to honor our longings for communion. Presently we understand that he does not seem to believe that is what we do long for and so, now and again, he drops even the remnants of his regard, and flails at us. He encloses the reckless and undefined dozen or so jokes; dismisses what he may consider to be the boundaries of even his own mind. He becomes the threatening soldier who may or may not put bullets in the gun, such being the depth of his contempt for the enemy. Of course, when whimsy does allow him to load and fire, we are shattered.

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Proper Meter 

Norman Mailer’s discussion of “The Blacks” (Voice, May 11, May 18) was, therefore, in proper meter. Between the play and Mai­ler’s discernible reaction to it, a duet was indeed sung. The rise and fall of his coherence and incoherence alike strikes a stunning and, I think, significant kinship with the French writer. This is especially so in his lusty acceptance of the romantic racism which need­ed evocation to allow for the conceptualization of “The Blacks” in the first place.

For, at this moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, certain of the best of men have sent up a lament which is much concerned with the disorders of a civilization which they do not really believe in their hearts are to be set aright by in­vocation of either fresh “frontiers” or antique “grandeur.” Sensing the source of the disorders to be deeper than any of that, they have will­fully turned to the traditional route of history’s more serious nay-sayers. They have elected the spirit and fraternity of what the balance of society is always pleased to hope are “the damned”: pros­titutes, pimps, thieves, and general down-and-outers of whatever persuasion. They are certain, as their antecedents in all ages have been, that if the self-appointed “top” of society is as utterly rotten as it is, then the better side of madness must be the company and deistic celebration of “the bottom.” As far as they are concerned, history has merely inadvertently provided them with a massive set of fra­ternals in “the Blacks.”

Among the Negro artists and in­tellectuals whom I know it is a melancholy point of reference. Our life-eating sense of fatigue began with, of course, the appearance of Mailer’s “The White Negro” a few years ago, and has been fitfully nourished by those echoes of dif­fering aspects of its theme in the “little magazines,” The Village Voice, living rooms and coffee houses: “The Negro is hell-bent for suburbia and the loss of his soul, dear God, dear God!” Nelson Algren agrees in print with Jonas Mekas that “A Raisin in the Sun” is, of all things, a play about “in­surance money” and/or “real estate.” (This particular absurdity, it is true, is rendered a little less frightening only by the knowledge that there are people who sincerely believe that “Othello” is a play about a handkerchief.)

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Romantic Shadows

But to discuss this paternalism at all, one must underscore the innocence from which certain attitudes invariably spring. We have been locked away from one another and, sadly, it is not really curious that we seem to throw such strange and romantic shadows upon the windows. How else might Algren, believing, apparently, that materially deprived Negroes are, somehow, the only “true Negroes,” equate the desire to escape the grim horrors of the ghetto with the fancied longing of a people to cease being “themselves” and “get to the psychoanalysts as fast as white folks do”? And, for his part, Mailer pens a theatrical com­mentary which, in some passages, is primed with an ingenuous acceptance of the racial mystique.

After he had written what was cogent about “The Blacks”: “… the truest and most ex­plosive play that anyone has yet written at all about the turn of the tide and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart … ” and after he was done with gratuitous suppositions concerning the sexuality of the actors, Mailer indulged him­self mainly as a leading captain of the new paternalism, hardly pausing even to draw for us some of the richer implications of his own assessment of the Genet work.

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About Themselves

For “The Blacks” is, as Mailer partially observed, more than any­thing else a conversation between white men about themselves. This seemed to me the final trick, not upon reality which tends to hold its own, but upon illusion. For it is only an illusion that Genet has written anything else. He is a man and can only begin where any of us can: within our own subjectivity. As an entity, he must fancy “Les Negres” only as he thinks they should be along about now in the history of the world: if they have been treated thus and so forth, then this is the way they should behave and feel. He has rendered an equation and calculat­ed, one must say reasonably, for a sum. The result is an abstraction possessed of great flashes of power and all the inventive poetry of what is certainly an exquisite theatrical mind. But it is an abstraction which tends to remind one, through the absence of humanness, style or no style, that men have always found a dimension of nobility in their grandest guilts (have we not all seen the face of Eichmann in the dock?). Moreover, it seemed to me that we were spared the ultimate anguish of man’s oppression of man be­cause the abstraction is utilized to affirm, indeed entrench, the quite different nature of pain, lust, cruelty, ambition in “The Blacks.” The dramatist does not impress upon us that it is the sameness of kind which oppressor’s most des­pise in the oppressed; that they do not lynch or castrate dogs or apes as a way of life because they do not find their own images in those creatures. It is the reflection of oneself that most enrages when we are engaged in our crimes against a fellow human creature. In “The Blacks” the oppressed remain unique; it is, interestingly, their shadows that have been abstracted into “the style.” In it, the blacks remain the exotic “The Blacks.”

This may be because they are seen, still, by their creator as entirely relative to the fact of the presence of The Whites in the world. It does not occur to the European or the white American, as yet, that they might exist in any other context. The characters in the play dream not only of their revenge but of “turning Beauty black” because even the most pro­found of white men find it incomprehensible that a black man may behold the moon and stars without agonies of concern for how those images may have seem­ed to — The Whites. The play most certainly has validity in its purgation of the whites (in the audience) but what I found to be its spectacular quality of detachment for the blacks (in the audience) must surely be a limitation which derives from the fact that, for all of its sophistication, it is itself an expression of some of the more quaint notions of white men.

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Their Anticipations

It does not invalidate what we take to be Genet’s intentions because the whole play is, again, about the anticipations of white men; by the end of it we sense that they shall be disappointed if the blacks really do give more at­tention to building steel mills and hydroelectric plants throughout Africa than to slitting a few hundred thousand criminal throats.

With regard to Mailer and the new paternalism, it will be said, and swiftly, that Negroes cannot be satisfied; that, in this instance, the Negro intellectual is himself so “hung-up” that he does not understand at what Mailer is getting; that he has transcended what we still suppose to be the mark-off points of an old discussion and has found some more profound level where the white intellectual assumes all of that to be old hat and has moved on to where we can all really talk as the most in­side of insiders, which is to say, as some obscure undefined universal outsider who may be known as “the hipster.”

It has had a numbing effect, the creation of “the hip” into an ex­panded formalized idea. Negroes seem to have met it mainly with a crowning silence because who knew where to begin in the face of such monumental and crass assump­tions? A number of years had to dissolve before Jimmie Baldwin would remark in print, ever so gently: “… matters were not helped at all by the fact that Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” (April Esquire: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”)

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Naturally, whether or not some Negro jazz musicians think Norman Mailer or any other individual is or is not “hip” would be one of the great unimportant questions of our time — except for Mailer. He did not call his essay “The Hipster” or “The Outsider” or “We Who Might Swing” or any of that; he called it: “The White Negro.” He manufactured an absurdity and locked himself in it. He fabricated his own mythology concerning cer­tain “universals” about 20 million “outsiders” and rejoiced because his philosophy fitted his premise. He is like Seymour Krim in that respect in symbolizing all who fashion their particular fantasies and take the A Train to Harlem to find them and meet some frac­tion of one per cent of 700,000 people who bulge the community and go back downtown and write essays not on the prostitutes they met but on — “Harlem.” It is beginning to seem an inexhaustible tradition. What is a little new is the scope of the new arrogance. The new paternalists really think, it seems, that their utterances of the oldest racial cliches are, somehow, a demonstration of their liberation from the hanky-panky of liberalism and God knows what else. Consequently, from the depths of his particular seven-league assumptions, Mailer blithely writes: “They cannot know because they have not seen themselves from the outside (as we have seen them) that there is genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land on earth … ”

The most that can be said for romance as desperate as that is to repeat that the shadows on the window are erotic. How can the man who wrote it know that Negroes are, by and large, not in any wise sufficiently improv­erished of spirit to need or want that? How can Mailer or Genet or Algren really be expected to know, really know, that the commonplace reverse assumptions among Ne­groes about everybody else (“The Others”) are just as touching, in­nocent, and vicious? I know very few Negroes who are not firmly convinced that “the roots of life” are in Puerto Ricans, Italians, and everyone else of “Latin tempera­ment.” “Honey, those people really know how to live —” it runs. Sey­mour Krim does not know that when he left the most lowly of the bar-flies of Harlem, they re-engag­ed in chit-chat concerning the most traditional of very exotic notions of the Jewish people which are as grim and unworthy of them as they are any place else in America. Must we celebrate this madness in any direction? Is it not “known” among Negroes that white people, as an entity, are “dirty” (especially white women who never seem to do their own cleaning); inherently cruel (the cold fierce roots of Europe: who else would put all those people into ovens scientifically?); “smart” (“you really have to hand it to the m.f.’s”) and the rest of it? And never having been exposed to the glorious fury of a Moldavian peasant dance or the tonal magnificence of some mighty Russian folk song — we also “know,” like Mailer, that we “sing and dance better than white people.” Similarly do we “know” that we are “lazier” and “more humane.” Etc.

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Dies Hard

Moreover there is reason to now suppose that we (Negro writers) may have carried the skin-lightener hair-straightener references too far for a climate where context is not yet digested. Pride of race is not alien to Negroes. The Lord only knows that what must be half our institutions seem to function on the basis of nothing else! It may indeed be a long time after integration that it disappears out of the Ameri­can black man’s consciousness. Black racialism in the United States may ultimately show itself to be more tenacious than even its mighty opposite. Nationalism dies hard, as is witnessed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade down our streets each spring.

Of course oppression makes people better than their oppressors, but that is not a condition sealed in the loins by genetic mysteries. The new paternalists have mistaken that oppression for the Negro. They are as certain as Genet that the source of the wily speech is tied to color; that the brooding hatred which intelligent whites are apparently able to see is, somehow, wedded to the blackness.

No wonder the single-mindedness of the middle-class Negro’s search for comfort offends: it is an ugly fall from “naturalness.” Don’t any of these people know that working­-class social rules are not less in volume than those of more monied classes? There are just as many things which are forbidden — they are just different. A man who be­lieves in the taboos of his order is not freer than another man who believes in his at a different level of society. In society we, all of us, merely flee from rigor to rigor.

That is why, blues or no blues, life roots or no life roots, Negroes of all classes have made it clear that they want the hell out of the ghetto just as fast as the ascenden­cy of Africa, the courts, insurance money, job-upgrading, the threat of “our image overseas,” or any­thing else can thrust them. Worse, they have a distinct tendency to be astonished and/or furious that everyone doesn’t know it. Misery may be theatrical to the onlooker but it hurts him who is miserable. That is what the blues are about.

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Prison of the Premise

Out of his distaste for the middle-class Negro, Mailer is led to assume, for some reason or another, that the actors in “The Blacks” who seem to him to act with inhibition and self-conscious­ness must be middle-class Negroes. Well, knowing most of them to be part-time hack-drivers, janitors, chorus girls, domestics, it is im­possible to know what prompts the assumption other than the prison of the premise again. For my part, I am twice confused, because I genuinely thought the acting, al­most without exception, brilliant. Especially Messrs. Browne and Jones.

It points up the incredible eager­ness for the new villain: The true middle-class Negro simply amuses the life out of everyone because he stands on line at the opera; be­cause of his attaché case; because he is as passionately opinionated on West Germany as Congo; he amuses because he plays tennis; because his fatuousness has the audacity to sound as deep-seated as the chap he is talking to. Above all he amuses and outrages because he now persists in home-hunting with the wife in his foreign car in Scarsdale, searching for his little niche in the Great Sterility. And he certainly offends if, of an evening, he expresses boredom of the eternal race question and/or disapproval of the fact that Lorraine Hansberry goes around in dirty sneakers.

Well, there is certainly nothing fresh in the spectacle of white people insisting on telling all sorts of colored peoples how they should behave to satisfy them. It is, to say the least, the most characteristic aspect of the nation’s foreign policy.

Out of the perversion of what they think they understand about The Rise of the Negro Middle Class, the very same paternalists who will study every nuance of Genet or Antonioni have no time for the nuances of the homely, working-class “Raisin.” They pre­ferred a display of public dishon­esty or stupidity by refusing to see that it was, more than anything else, a long and, perhaps, laborious assault on money values. One speaks of dishonesty because, in a subsequent discussion with the Mekas entourage, it turned out that what they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end: “He should have played the game,” his co-reviewer, Miss Juillard, told me, “that would have been the swing­ing thing to do.”

I plead guilty to the four corners of my aspirations for the human race.

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Less Sophisticated

As a matter of fact, contrary to the original thoughts of this discussion, it is better to dismiss Mekas almost entirely. To think of it is to be reminded, with pain, that his particular variety of paternalism is of the older and less sophisticated type which simply turns motion-picture criticism over to a mysteriously qualified 19-year-old Negro girl because, presumably, that is what is done when it comes to those “colored movies” anyway. This is the young woman who also explained to me that she thought the movie told Negroes that they should want to “be white” because of all those passages wherein the college-daughter persisted in her preoccupation with things African. Intellectuality, it was explained, is “white.” (To such jibberish nothing can be added. A dedicated Voice reader like myself can only hope that the paper will institute a motion-picture-criticism column of some stature.)

Finally, isn’t it a little late in this particular century for Mailer’s remark that “a bad Negro actor” reminds him of nothing quite so much as “a bad white actor”? There is something insane about that sentence unless one truly be­lieves that there is, within the nature of being a Negro, some qualifying property which modifies all other adjectives in a sentence. Or that there should be. He re­iterated, the following week, that this problem is, however, relieved when the actors, sure enough, dance and sing or are otherwise active as entertainers, which re­mains, in his considered judgment, the true forte, as we were saying, of “The Blacks.”

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LOOKING BACK over the thoughts penned here, I am disappointed and saddened. The patches of anger and frequent flippancies do not, some­how, thrust my deepest and most sincere hopes through the window; crash the lock which gives birth to such misunderstanding in the first place. These gentle if impassioned artists whom I have mainly sailed into are not the “enemies” of Negroes. We all know that; that accounts for the afore-mentioned melancholy which colors all effort to try and really “talk to one another.” Heaven only knows that men fixed in a posture of consum­ing outrage because of the spec­tacle of this world have been, as I said at the beginning “the best of men” in all ages. Genet, Mailer, and Algren are right to be in contempt of the ghastly hypocrisy of their cultures; artists who are not are, indeed, lesser artists and lesser men. In any other context these three would deserve mainly saluta­tion.

It is on this account that the tender evaluation of those jazz musicians of Mailer is genuinely touching. It is my own, even though I have never met him. One hopes only that, recognizing his public turbulence as merely an echo of all thoughtful people these days, he will not let those forces with which he battles force him into such a rage that he cannot loom larger than their expectations and definitions of him. One powerfully hopes that.

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Above All

And, that above all else, he will not allow his apprehension of this world make him flail so; let him grow contemptuous, like Genet, of that which is his only hope for tel­ling blows: his words. Not let flee discipline of thought; not let cadence itself become a shadow of his former powers. No, it is not the death of arrogance which is wished for Mailer; I do not know what humility has accomplished in the history of man, when all is said and done. The wish is only that the arrogance become not shapeless; that it does not lose confi­dence in those of us who await the words which carry it with such hunger and need, on this barren landscape, knowing all the while the source and its truly monumental possibilities.

Norman, write not of the great­ness of our peoples, yours and mine, in the past tense because: “Vail kumen vet noch undzer oysge benkte sho!” — and “My Lord, what a mornin’!

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Scene

An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones

The Press of Freedom: An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones
March 4, 1965

Four men — each a well-known practitioner of one of the arts — appeared on a recent Monday night in the small basement room of the Village Vanguard to address an overflowing crowd on the grandly entitled subject “Art vs. Politics.” The men were Larry Rivers, painter; Archie Shepp, musician; Jonas Mekas, film-maker; LeRoi Jones, play­wright. The audience was predominantly — predictably — white, liberal, middle-class. They had come to be entertained and instructed. They stayed to be­come serious or delighted. They left in a roar of confused frus­tration, feeling as though they had, with unexpected stunning, been dealt a kick in the stomach and a few swift blows to the side of the head. For LeRoi Jones and Archie Shepp, whose evening it was, had told them repeatedly, “Die baby. The only thing you can do for me is die.”

It is almost impossible for me to train total recall on a con­versation which developed with the bewildering speed of a bar­room brawl. But here’s the gist of it:

Larry Rivers led off, reading from a prepared statement. Speaking of the artist’s relation to his audience, Mr. Rivers traced that changing phenomenon through Courbet, the Im­pressionists, the Futurists, the Surrealists, coming at last to the present time, in which, he concluded, the artist is his own audience; this not merely in the sense that a painter works for himself, but in the broader sense that in our time the art­ist’s greatest urge is to emphasize the similarity between his own fundamental desires and those of every other member of society. He put it something like this: I want to eat good, fuck good, work good … just like everybody else.

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Uneasy Stir

Archie Shepp, the next speaker, gaped for a moment at Ri­vers, seemed a bit nonplussed, muttered something about “Art, art. What the hell is all this talk about art?” and, with a shrug of the shoulders, launched into a comparatively mild ram­ble about a book he’d been reading the other night which described the first passage of slaves to this continent, a passage in which two-thirds of those slaves had died in the hold — and if this (Shepp’s) life and work didn’t represent an attempt to pay the homage of eternal remembrance to those two-thirds, well then … He ended by looking out at the au­dience and telling them that while he didn’t particularly want to put them down for the ofays they obviously were, still they couldn’t hope to understand what he was talking about.

Rivers’ head went back; the audience stirred uneasily (what was this? they were here as partisans — was this how you talked to partisans?); LeRoi Jones laughed softly and said “Take it easy, Archie. We’ve got all evening.” (The man is a veritable prophet.)

Mekas then struggled through a vague and rather incoherent speech (unfortunately because I suspect his point was, ultimately, the most worldly of them all) about how the experiences of wartime Europe had led him finally to understand that man’s only valuable occupation was his struggle to fashion for himself a more beautiful soul.

Theatre of Victims

Then Jones took the stand. He read a piece entitled “The Re­volutionary Theatre” (a piece, he informed the audience, which had been commissioned by the New York Times and then re­fused). In language of  poetic and highly imaginative insistence Jones claimed that it was the business of the theatre to reflect life … to stir up such hatred and such feeling that when the curtain comes down the theatre seats are soaked in the blood of split heads (needless to point out whose blood and whose split heads). This, he maintained, is a theatre of victims; by Western standards (sneer) perhaps a theatre of heroes … but victims all the same. He went on to quote the famous Oxford professor Wittgenstein as having said: “Ethics is aesthetics” and to point out that the white world has never understood or accepted this pro­position, intimating that the new Negro artist does understand it and will make damn sure that the whites do before they die.

In the long give-and-take (to be generous about it) that then ensued among the panelists, the dominance beat was one of unflagging insult from Shepp and Jones to the audience, the city, the country, the world — that is, to that section of it which was white, pure white. Nor did the other (white) panelists get off the hook. Mekas, who had been describing an interview between himself and Jack Smith and Mike Wallace, was suddenly asked by Jones: “Tell me, of you can, what is the difference be­tween Jack Smith and Mike Wallace.” To which Mekas had enough humorous composure to reply: “Mike Wallace would never be interviewed by Jack Smith.”

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The Different

But it was Larry Rivers who bore the brunt of the assault:

Shepp would turn to Rivers every now and then and say: “Man, you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.” And then: “They hire YOU at the Five Spot; they don’t hire me; that’s the whole difference, right there.” And then: “How do you feel about that? I know how I feel. How do you feel? What would you lay your ass on the line for? Nothing! That’s what. Or you? (To the audience, now.) You wouldn’t lay your asses on the line for shit!”

Jones told Rivers he was the exponent par excellence of the middle-class white world: “You aspire to the society of those faggoty uptown art dealers. You paint for them … ”

A round of protesting noises now went up from the audience. “What are you talking about?” cried a woman.

Shepp spoke with elaborate disdain or open anger of the pain with which he lived every day of his Negro life. Finally, in an eloquent outburst, he spoke of James Chaney, the young Negro who was murdered last summer In Mississippi:

“They beat him until unrecognizable. Unrecognizable! They only KILLED Schwerner and Goodman, but they beat Chaney to a pulp. They beat the humanity out of that boy. And in that act, in that heinous crime, in that unspeakable crime they accepted Schwerner  and Goodman and refused me. Even in death they are embraced and I am refused. Even in death America accepts its own. You” — he swung on the audience —  “you accept your own —and refuse me. And in that fact lies my pain.”

A boy in the audience, agitated now beyond endurance, jumped up and screamed, “Oh shit!”

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‘World ot Pain’ 

Shepp turned a glance of loathing on the boy. “Oh man,” he sighed,  “sit down. Just sit down. You hear that?” he ask­ed the audience, ”you hear that? Between me and that ‘Oh shit’ is a world of pain.”

“Oh shit, baby,” the boy screamed again. “I’ve been up tight for a year because of you!”

“Man,” said Shepp, “I don’t want to hear your life story. Will you listen to that? We’re getting a confession here.”

Then LeRoi Jones made a re­mark of stunning contempt. “His life story?” he sneered. “Why, you can turn on the TV set and get it any day of the week on ‘The Guiding Light.’ ”

From that instant it was cry­stal clear that the night be­longed to Jones — and had from the very beginning. (One had the feeling that Shepp had been tak­ing cues all along.) His anta­gonists multiplied by the min­ute … and, with incredible ease, he swung like a beam of light from one to another; his retorts came with deadly speed and precision; it was no sweat for him, no sweat at all, because it was abundantly clear that there were no separate faces in that audience for him. (For when it suits his purpose, Jones produces in his mind a vision of the “homogeneous American soul,” a soul whose only relevance consists in the fact that it dwells in a white skin.) The distinctions of age, sex, background, occupation were as though they never existed. Jones was talking to The Man and only The Man.

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What to Do

A small, round, bespectacled man, shaken with emotion, rose: “As a Jew and as a white man, I hear you.” (“Could you pos­sibly hear me in any other way?” interjected Jones.) “You say we are all guilty. What do you want us to do? What on earth do you want us to do?”

“Do, man? Do? There’s noth­ing you can do!” The malicious pleasure in his voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.

A woman with a contorted face and an eerie fluff of sil­ver-blonde hair shrieked: “What about Schwerner and Goodman? Don’t you care about them?”

“Absolutely not,” rapped out Jones. “Those boys were just artifacts, artifacts, man. They weren’t real. If they want to assuage their leaking consci­ences that’s their business. I won’t mourn them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

A civil rights worker, his eyes popping behind his glasses, yelled: “These are not the facts! Maybe we are guilty be­cause we’re white. But God­dammit, we’re not all equally guilty. Some are more guilty than others.”

“Sort of like being ‘almost pregnant,’ Isn’t it?” laughed Jones.

A Women Strike for Peace type lady called out: “This af­ternoon 400 people marched on the U.N. to protest the bomb­ing in Vietnam. There wasn’t one Negro among them.”

“Why didn’t you send buses down to the garment district to collect some Negroes if you wanted to be all nice and representative? I mean, man, man, when were you marching? At three in the afternoon?” An answer for all eventualities.

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Clowns and Gorillas

A roar of anger began to fill the place; out of it Jones was suddenly saying: “You’ve all elected a Texas cracker to represent you, all of you!”

A sandy-haired man dressed in denims jumped to his feet. “Now that got to me,” he said in a soft Southern voice. He be­gan a rambling retort on the variety of pains to be suffered in this world, blurting out: “Man, I’ve paid my dues. And you know it, LeRoi.”

No-mercy Jones, a little tired now: “So you’ve been in jail and you write your confessions for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“I don’t write for the Satur­day Evening Post!” the blue-­jeaned man cried. “Just ’cause they buy it, don’t mean I write for ’em. I write for people … ” (Thus is passion seduced by farce.)

Casting a cold eye on the increasingly infuriated audience, Shepp said (straight into the mike): “Look at them. The clowns who come to throw peanuts at the gorillas. Only in this case it’s gorillas throwing peanuts at humans.”

Well, why go on with this? By now the direction of all this was obvious. By the end of the evening the audience was reduced to a screaming plead­ing, degraded, bewildered mob: Jones goal from the very beginning, of course.

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LeROI JONES LOOKS into my ofay face with cold steady eyes and in a soft, seductively rea­sonable voice accuses me:

  • You can never — but NEVER — understand the nature of my pain. To wake up in my skin, fall asleep in my skin, and live all the hours in between in my skin — this you can never know. There is nothing on earth you will ever experience that will give you the remotest clue to my life …
  • All whites are equally guilty — ALL — of the unforgivable crime of attempting to destroy my humanity.
  • The world under white au­thority has become a disgust­ing place: weak, shallow, cow­ardly. When we Negroes are in command things will be differ­ent. Your sins, your failings, your mistakes will be unknown among us; we will prove to be a better people.

As to the veracity of the first accusation: who is there to say him nay? Certainly not I. His pain, he claims, is relevant, and mine is not. I believe him. I believe every word of it. His ex­perience will remain forever foreign to me. This too I believe. Every now and then one looks into a man’s face or overhears an exchange or reads a page of print or sees a photograph and for one hideous instant there is revelation: blind, wordless, over­whelming. You stumble in your tracks, you have difficulty breathing, there is a terrible pressure in your head. That is the most, I think, that we who pass for white can ever know. That is the closest I can get to realizing the words of a young Negro woman I once knew — the intelligent, restrained, pro­foundly bourgeois daughter of a Harlem doctor — when she said, in an unbearable moment: “There are mornings when I get up and walk out in the street wishing I had a rifle with which to mow down every white face I see.”

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Lines Broken

As to the second accusation: where does one begin — in the name of reason and justice — to unravel the half-truths and the painful falsehoods? Now­here. Here the lines of communication are entirely broken down. Thus every white works now (in or out of the civil rights movement) on the side of the Negro does so in the knowledge that he is committing an act of conscience, an act which is essentially lonely and which to a large extent is unwelcome, unrewarded, unremarked. And rightfully so. The Negroes who tell us: “You’re doing this for yourself, baby, not for me,” are right. Or at least they should be. So now, in America, white men of conscience find themselves in the same ironic position that the Russian Jews who fought in that remote Revolution found themselves in. Anyone with half a brain could see that in anti-Semitic Russia, comes the revolution, the first ones to be purged as counter-revolutionaries would be the Bolshevik Jews … and sure enough. But what choice did those Jews have? By the same token, many white men know now that when the barricades are thrown up in the streets of this country, they will have no choice as to the side they find themselves on, even though comes the revolution, they too will probably be in the first purge.

In Jones’s eye there is blood and in his system a raging bile. The burning sword at his side (or is it the hatchet inside his breast pocket to which he continually and ominously alludes?) is his blanket indictment of white America. For him now there is only passion … which is not always the same as truth. His effectiveness as a revolutionary lies in the emotional power with which he seeks to wrest his humanity from his oppressors by in turn denying them — every last one of them — their humanity. From this wretched vantage point in these bloody terms, I supposed we ARE all guilty. Who is there to give the final judgement?

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Naive Belief

It is to the third accusation that I most strenuously address myself — this utterly wrong-headed insistence that when the Negro’s turn comes to rule, he will do things differently. Under his authority the precious fluid of the human spirit contained in a chalice broken in white hands will be scooped up and treasured as the white world never knew how to treasure it. In the lifetime of Negro authority a particular level of spiritual decrepitude, moral rot, and demeaning weakness will vanish. The human race will develop a lovelier form, occupy a handsomer skin. The Negro will, once and for all, show the white world how a man can and ought to live.

This entire speculation turns on the incredibly naive belief that suffering has ennobled the Negro, that his pain will continue to exert an influence over him even long after it has passed from his life.

What rubbish! The sad, sad point about suffering is that there is no point at all. The lesson to be learned is that there is no lesson. It is simply a fact of life which has no after-life. While it endures it is the entire universe. On the very instant that pain ceases, the process of forgetfulness already begins. (And this is an element of white experience that no Negro can comprehend for the simple reason that while a man is suffering, he is unable to en­vision a time when it will have no meaning for him.) The scars begin to fade, the memories be­gin to dull, the relaxed hand can hardly remember the shape of the clenched fist. If there is any single great lesson to be learned from the 20th century it is this lonely and barbarous fact (witness “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), which is at once the salvation and the irony  of our lives. If we retained the memory sharp and clear of every  wound ever inflicted on us, we surely could not survive; and the fact that we do not remember our wounds makes or our lives a primitive and unexalted thing. For all men in all conditions at all times this has been true. It is therefore hardly likely that it will be less true for the Amer­ican Negro. When it’s all over but the shouting, the American Negro will lose along with his soul-destroying fury the memory of that fury; his spirit, in time (in a generation, in two generations,) will become as flimsy and as shapeless and  as impoverished as the spirit of that decadent white bourgeoisie he now so comfortably despises.

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‘Starting Point’

Poverty of the spirit has nothing whatever to do with the life of a race. It has to do with the seduc­tion of men’s souls at the hands of that prosperity. For men do not thrive on the good life; they are, rather, atrophied by it. Thus very few men are in possession of the middle-class life; mainly they are possessed by it. And for the most part there is no escaping it. For the point is not so much that the nation has aspired to the middle-class life, but rather that, in the absence of certain specific tensions, it has acquired it. Without war, without depression, without foreign troops in occupation, without social oppres­sion, without combat with the elements … what is one left with? One is left with what nine­-tenths of the world spends its life fighting for: freedom from want, the so-called starting point of life. But freedom from want is not enough. Not enough? It doesn’t even come anywhere near the mark. The demons are still with us, in fact they loom larger than ever, and oddly enough, they even get harder and harder to identify. Thus freedom has become a desperate affair. Freedom from what? Toward what? FOR what? Very few men have the talent or the imagina­tion to know what to do with themselves once they have achieved the good life. They never did have it — in no class and during no age. In some remote and distant time (say, 50 years ago?) there did exist a belief in a unifying structure of principle, a perception of contin­uity, a conviction that he lived at the center of his universe, which allowed a man to live out his life relatively unshaken in his faith in the validity of the pursuit of life. In our time those principles have been shattered, and we have been left with nothing — nothing but the rotten hoax of he good life and the contemplation of futility. And so in the Land of Peace where the Meaningless is King, there exists an insatiable hunger, an unfillable emptiness, a numbing aimlessness — in response to which we open more supermarkets and more psychoanalysts’ offices. In a frenzy we seek the orgy of accumulation: the accumulation of more goods, more personal loyal­ties, more uncommitted opinions. The result, of course, intolerable isolation, so that instead of being the master of his split-level dovecot, a man finds himself wandering about its rooms as though under house arrest. And still he will not open his doors to strangers …

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There is no one in this country who understands the meaning of this condition better than the American ex-radical. What des­troyed him was his insight into the paltriness of the political vision, that long look down the road to Utopia which told him suddenly that the enemy was inside us, not outside us. The passion of the American radical was certainly as whole-souled (and as naive) as that of the Negro revolutionist, and the loss of that passion drove half of them into existentialism and made of the other half gibbering idiots, men terrified of the void, who — in the most literal sense of that word — copped out after 1938 by simply refusing to take further note of the world’s changing knowledge.

It is one of the bitterest ironies of our life that the tension that keeps men alive in their nerve­-endings and equipped with a sense of urgency is the tension of deprivation. And deprivation is what — with an imperative need  — we work to rid ourselves of. Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer have both written with understanding about the first half of this proposition. It is on the second half that they screwed up. To romanticize oppression in order to stimulate waning passions is a disgusting perversion, and the yearnings of these two finely confused men for the Ne­gro’s life-sense (knowing it is based on his unspeakable condition) are on a parallel with the Japanese tale of the businessman who encouraged an affair between his wife and a young doctor and then spied on them while they were making love in order to awaken his own failing sex­uality. It was with obvious truth and in perfect justice that James Baldwin declared that should Kerouac or Mailer get up on the stage of the Apollo Theatre and recite one of  their white Negro hymns, they would be stoned to death. If there is justification on any level for the Negro’s contempt for the white liberal, it is certainly on this one. Norman Mailer sitting in his Columbia Heights mansion, drawing thousands in royalties, complaining of his lost appetites … Christ!

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Rewards and Payments 

The point is that this is what we are stuck with. The rewards and the exacted payments of Western culture are the accumu­lation of goods and the existen­tialist’s sense of loss. “Western culture!” LeRoi Jones sneered the other night. But it’s ridiculous. After all, who the hell does the man think he is? He’s not a Chinese communist or an African soldier or a Hindu religious. He is a Western man, and the shape of his anguish and of his longings has been determined by Western culture. When he says he wants his, what he means is that he wants his share of this life — and no other. And he will reap the rewards and the losses of this life just as every other American has. For Negroes are, indeed, men like all other men, which means that for the most part they are weak and greedy and anxious, of limited imagination and hopeless mediocre ambition. While suffering depresses their spirits and causes rage to flare up in them, it is true that their sensibilities are dipped in fire. But when that suffering ceases (and as sure as the sky is blue and the grass is green, it will cease), the fire will die down, the holocaust will pass, its former existence will be marked only by ashes which eventually will be kicked into oblivion … and Negroes will live exactly — but exactly — the same lives as every other American now lives.

In answer to all of which LeRoi Jones will beyond a doubt reply: “Yeah, baby. But I want my chance. My time is coming, and I want my chance. You dig?”

I dig. And he will get his chance. He’ll get more than that, he’ll get everything he is now straining for. And then he will live, to his everlasting sorrow, to look up one day, aged 75, at his grown grandchildren, leading utterly ordinary lives — absorbed in taking Johnnie to the dentist and not opening the door at night to strangers and telling a psychoanalyst once a week, “Doctor, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. No matter what I do I have this strange feeling of emptiness … ” — and, remembering these draining days, he will say (as OUR revolutionary grandfathers have said to US): “Is this all? Is this what it was all about?” And his grandchildren will answer, with affection and mild irritation, “Oh, for good­ness sake, Grandpa! This is 2005, not 1965. All that stuff is over and done with!”

Like the man said: “That’s the way it is, man. That’s the way it really is.”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Movie Journal: Robert Downey Sr. Talks ‘Putney Swope’

In the November 21, 1968, issue of the Voice, readers of Howard Smith’s Scenes column received a sneak preview of a new film being shot around town:

MOST PEOPLE would think that the advertising agency scene is a bizarre enough theme by itself, but imagine merging it with black power and coming up with Truth and Soul, Inc. Bob Downey (right), self-styled “Prince” and midwife of low budget films with a sardonic slant (Chafed ElbowsNo More Excuses) does just that in his plunge into the big time by directing Putney Swope. It stars Arnold Johnson (left), a few strands from Hair, and a script that might give Madison Avenue the bends. The $200,000 movie which should be finished in a few weeks has been shooting in such esoteric locales as Greenwich, Connecticut, Manhattan office buildings, and the Great Jones Street Alley.

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Eight months later, readers with a good memory might have been intrigued by an ad in the July 10, 1969, Voice:

In that same issue, Robert Downey, Sr. himself sat down with Jonas Mekas, the Voice’s expert on (and maker of) underground cinema. During the interview, Mekas muses that perhaps Downey is getting too big time — too “uptown” — to fit comfortably with the low-budget provocations that were usually reviewed in the Movie Journal section of the paper.

And indeed, as a not-quite-full-page ad in the next week’s issue attests, Putney Swope was a hit with many critics writing in the straight press. Downey’s distributors however, perhaps sensing the crossover appeal that the film had with both up- and downtown audiences, included a hardcore pan amid the raves:

“0 ★ (No stars.) Putney Swope is vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I’ve ever seen. This one is retch-ed. If intelligent people must see it, take along your retch bags.” —Wanda Hale, Daily News

Mekas and the other critics were definitely onto something: Putney Swope has inspired a number of major filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch and Paul Thomas Anderson, who, in homage to Downey’s film, included a character named Buck Swope (played by Don Cheadle) in Boogie Nights. —The Voice Archives

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Movie Journal
July 10, 1969

Putney Swope, Bob Downey’s new film (he made Chafed Elbows), is opening this Thursday at Cinema II. I am quite certain that it’s the funniest, the most absurd, and probably the most intelligent film you’ll see in town this week and next week and the week after that. Since it deals with a subject I know nothing about — it’s all about Madison Avenue, how a bunch of blacks take over an advertising agency, and what happens to them — I had this rambling talk with Robert Downey. Marshall Lewis, who is doing publicity on the film, occasionally joined in.

Jonas: I see Putney Swope as a collage film, a collage of absurdities, of ideas, situations, insights, documentary reconstructions, ironies, parodies, etc. None of your films are really character or plot films. But then, even Sturges comedies are collages. Not that your film is exactly a comedy. I think it’s also a document. My main problem with it is that I do not know the advertising world and I am not even interested in it. Probably, half of the film escaped me totally.

Marshall Lewis: It’s curious that you are bringing up the collage thing. Because I find the idea rather exciting. Because it’s frenetic, as the advertising world itself.

Jonas: The only thing is that to present the madness, one has to be very organized… Anyway, it’s possible that you chose the most difficult form of comedy, as far as the viewer goes. The viewer in Putney Swope is not given any guidance. The scenes of corruption and scenes of innocence are mixed together. Sane and insane are mixed together. The subject, in a sense, is not transcended but only presented, and presented probably well. People who are interested in advertising will have a field day with this film.

Marshall: That is, all of Madison Avenue.

Jonas: And also many other avenues. Everybody advertises, everybody sells.

Downey: It’s symbolic of everything. Not only advertising.

Marshall: It’s about people doing things they don’t like doing.

Jonas: In Swope, I had a feeling that people were doing things and they liked doing them. Only that they were doing stupid things. The people were stupid, and their business silly, stupid, and corrupt.

Marshall: The only thing is that they do not enjoy doing it.

Jonas: I didn’t see any clues to that. I do not see any clues to that in New York in general. The way people are acting I get the impression everybody likes what they are doing, no matter how stupid or corrupt their business is. The only clue is that you see no passion in what they are doing. That’s why your film is so documentary. The way I see the film, Swope wants to run the advertising agency, and he believes in it, and he runs it to the best of his abilities. Same with all the other silly characters, black and white. They do everything to the best of their abilities.

Downey: But they end saying, fuck it, let’s split the money and go.

Jonas: Yes, but they say it not because of their principle but because, through their stupidity, they mismanage their business. They would like to succeed, but they don’t know how to run it. Maybe they are not corrupt enough yet. Anyway, this is an occupation, a profession I know nothing about.

Downey: But there are millions of these people. If they don’t work in advertising, they use it. I worked in it, for two years. I am trying to cleanse myself in this film by showing everything that I saw while working in advertising. I could’t believe, for instance, that a black man was getting less money than me for doing the same thing I was doing. That’s another reason for why I brought the black people into the movie.

Jonas: My problem is this. I even attacked the Living Theatre, for harping and harping on how black and corrupt everything is. It’s about time that we go one step further, and… We all know how corrupt the system is. These are very obvious that both whites and blacks can misuse and mistreat people…

Marshall: You know it, but how many people really do?

Jonas: What I’d like to know is why Don Rugoff really likes the film. I’d like to interview him and find out his reasons. Maybe he thinks the film is good propaganda for Madison Avenue.

Downey: He thinks I am crazy. He actually thinks I am insane. Really.

Marshall: But he distributed good films, like The Cool WorldNobody Waved GoodbyeSoft SkinNothing But a Man

Downey: The things we did, the stuff Taylor Mead, I did, or what your brother did in Hallelujah the Hills, this is starting to seep into what they call, uptown, “people who go to movies,” and it took 10 years.

Jonas: The Wild Bunch, by Peckinpah, could be made by you, Peckinpah, could be made by you, or by Taylor Mead, by Warhol — it’s camp… It’s still great, I think, that today you can take a film like Swope to Cinema II — a film without a plot, a film that isn’t exactly what they call a Hollywood movie. It’s not even exactly a comedy.

Downey: It’s a sad film. It’s a tragedy. It’s a documentary absurdity.

Jonas: I think Swope is a film which would look better the second time. It’s not a one-viewing film.

Downey: I see that Jonas doesn’t dig the film. You don’t have to write about it if you don’t like it. I know Jonas if he doesn’t like something he doesn’t write about it.

Jonas: It’s true. But it’s also true that I do not dislike Swope. The only thing is that I do not know the world it deals with, it doesn’t interest me. So I am sort of interested. The film is educational to me, like a documentary. A case study. When I am not familiar with the subject of the film I am very critical of my own dislikes.

Downey: I think its the best film I ever made. It’s my most personal movie. But the truth is also that I want to go to something else. It’s my best film because I learned more from this film than any other.

Jonas: It’s certainly the most ambitious of your films. And the deepest, content-wise.

Downey: I really do not see why you interview me. Maybe I should interview you as the film-maker of Swope.

Jonas: Okay. Ask me questions.

Downey: Do you think that anything is funny in your film, Putney Swope?

Jonas: Hmm… Hmm… The author has very little perspective to his own work. It’s very difficult to judge for me what’s really funny in Swope. It’s a serious film for me.

Downey: What do you mean by “serious”?

Jonas: What I mean is this… I wonder if for Chaplin, or Keaton, or any great comedian… if any of their own gags, situations looked really funny to them… For an artist, who is creating it, it’s a very serious business to make a comedy. That’s what I mean, when I say that Swope is a serious film for me.

Downey: You are probably right… How do you feel about a film opening in a uptown theatre, Upper East Side? How does that affect you?

Jonas: When you do something into what you believe you want more people to see it, be it for fun, for politics, or for beauty. Swope is not exactly a home movie. It’s a movie for the people.

Downey: Do you care about what other people say about your film?

Jonas: Praises are sweet… But you see, immediately, after you’ve just completed a film, you are sort of numb to both, to praises and criticism. It’s neither hot nor cold. You are still surrounded by the atmosphere of your own film, and you are the best judge of it, so it doesn’t matter what people or papers say. It matters more to the distributor and the exhibitor.

Downey: Why did you call the film Putney Swope?

Jonas: Could be any other name. No great reason… Okay, why did you call it Putney Swope‘?

Downey: I don’t know…

Jonas: How much did the film cost?

Downey: Over $200,000. There are over 200 actors in it.

Jonas: Rugoff is the distributor. Who was the producer?

Downey: A guy named Duboff. He put up the money. I had nothing to do with raising money. Nobody else would do it.

Jonas: Where did you get the black actors?

Downey: We put an ad in ­Showbusiness, and the first 100 who came we cast.

Jonas: How long did it take to shoot?

Downey: Two months. But we were rushed. We had to shoot nights in agencies… So you don’t like the film? You think it has no feeling…

Jonas: No… But I think it lacks substance. Or clarity. But then, the whole advertising feeling has no substance. And then, please do not take my quibbles out of proper perspective. When I compare your film with, say, The Wild Bunch, I have to admit that I like your film better. So you see, my quibbles are on a different level… Have you seen any films recently you liked?

Downey: I like Hopper’s Easy Rider. Also, Titicut Follies. Swope could be called Madison Avenue Follies. Have you seen any you liked?

Jonas: I liked 2001.

Downey: You never wrote about it.

Jonas: I do not write about films which everybody writes about even when I like them. You see, the commercial film has 999 papers, and 999 film columnists, and the underground has only me, or me and a half… I even had doubt if I should write about your film — you’ll get enough space uptown. Or I hope so. Have you had any Hollywood offers?

Downey: They keep coming. I have turned down a lot of films for a lot of money for the last two months. Because I want to write my own scripts. And they want me to film novels. One day a guy offered me $75,000 just for directing, to make a movie. I never had 75 cents… you know. So I say, “but this book is a piece of shit.” And he says: “I know. But when do you want to start?” I would never make those kind of movies. I am not there. I am in the middle. I’ll be always in the middle, between underground and Hollywood. Although you never support this kind of cinema…

Jonas: It’s not true. You see, if I write only about the underground film, it does not mean that I dislike all other cinema. I consider that I have limited amount of energy. Plus, no other paper would write about the underground, not until very recently. As for the “middle” cinema, there is all the uptown “intellectual,” “liberal” crowd. So it’s not a question of my likes or dislikes but the question of “strategy of energy.” It’s all calculated… I am concerned only with the most neglected area: the personal, mostly non-narrative film. Bringing Andrew Sarris into The Voice was part of calculated strategy, to free myself for the avant garde.

Downey: I noticed that Andrew’s columns became shorter after he got married.

Jonas: That’s why mine will become longer… I ain’t a fool, I am not going to get married… Where was I? Yes. There are so many films which are not even mentioned anywhere. So why should I waste my small column on commercial film? Very often I get reproaches from the commercial film-makers, often good friends of mine: “Why didn’t you review my film? You don’t like it or something?” But I consider my Voice space too valuable. I am guilty even about this space that I am giving to you.

Downey: That’s why you don’t write about Andy’s film anymore?

Jonas: That’s correct. He doesn’t need me any longer. I have to control myself, not to write.

Downey: So why do you write about my film?

Jonas: From solidarity, I guess. Memory of the old days. When you were in the underground, when you were showing your films at the Charles theatre, at the Open House. In memory of good old days…

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Jonas Mekas: Crack the Establishment!

Some people tell us: stay away from the Establishment; the Establishment will swallow you; you’ll become the new Establishment.

But I reason this way: There is a great beauty in Brakhage, in Warhol, in Ginsberg, in Robert Kelly, in Peter Orlovsky, in Marie Menken, in La Monte Young. If one truly cared for man, one would truly wish and work toward bringing everybody in touch with the beauty of these artists and their work. Not to make everybody alike: but to make everybody beautiful, to do away with some of the vulgarity and boredom of the Establishment. You can’t be in the same room with the sounds and images and words of these artists and remain as you were before, the same, obstinate and cramped.

That’s why I am for planting La Monte Young and Brakhage and Robert Kelly in the very middle of the Establishment.

Two months ago I met Allen Ginsberg in the street. “I am going to Harvard” he said. “There is only one thing to know,” I said: “You are going to the Establishment.” “I will give them something to think about,” said Allen.

Never the Same

So Allen Ginsberg went to Harvard and sat there, naked, with Peter Orlovsky, also naked, and talked with the students and the Establishment, and the Establishment started to crack, and Harvard will never be the same.

I am for the Establishment of man’s spirit: man’s spirit is always in avant garde. That’s the true meaning of avant garde.

Do we want our movies to be screened everywhere? Yes, yes, yes! We want our little movies to be screened everywhere — in Radio City, on 42nd Street, and in private homes, in Pittsburgh, and in the Bronx, and in the court rooms, right under the sign where it says IN GOD WE TRUST; 8mm movies, 16mm movies, CinemaScope movies, and 3-D MOVIES, Ken Jacobs movies, Andy Warhol movies, Linda Talbot’s movies, Naomi Levine movies, Kuchar movies. We’ll surround the earth with film flowers — that’s what our movies will do. Marie Menken movies, Kenneth Anger movies, Robert Breer movies: they will melt your hearts. You won’t be critics any more, you won’t be judges of morals and behavior: you’ll be watchers and lovers. That’s what we want. We are working toward the Establishment of love and this flickering beauty that is the screen. No, we are not angry at Shana Alexander and Life magazine: we can see through their games and their dreams. We want to surround the Shana Alexanders with more and more of our little movies and our big movies until their minds will crack up (in a very beautiful way) and they won’t bother about the censors and the protection of morals, and they will stand there, all naked, on the Time-Life Building sowing flower petals into Sixth Avenue, with their boobs in the wind.

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Jonas Mekas vs. the Beatles

In the September 10, 1964, issue of the Village Voice, Jonas Mekas looked in vain for a touch of madness in a new movie staring the Fab Four:

“A Hard Day’s Night” took our movie reviewers by surprise. Reviewers liked it. The Beatle fans liked it. Crowther liked it. Sarris said it shook his film aesthetics. The movie will make millions. The Beatles sing sweetly. They behave like nuts. There is something beat about the Beatles.

The movie is beautifully photographed. It uses “underground” cinema techniques, it swings. It’s not locked to one spot, it moves freely.

But neither good acting nor good photography can make a good movie. There must be an artist behind it. There must be a madness of a different kind. Two or three inspired shots remain two or three inspired shots. There is no movie. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a sufficiently well-made melodrama about the Beatles.

The Maysles brothers made a film about the Beatles. You have to see the Maysles film to realize what really good photography is, or what cinema is, or what really the Beatles are.…

Only one who is completely ignorant of the work of the “new American cinema” film-makers during the past three years can call “A Hard Day’s Night,” even jokingly, the “Citizen Kane” of the hand-held cinema (Sarris did it).

But why should I argue about it. There are so many people who like “A Hard Day’s Night” for so many different reasons. I have said often enough that art is not the only thing in life.

But I haven’t said strongly enough, and I may as well say it right now, that art exists. Aesthetic experience exists. “A Hard Day’s Night” has nothing to do with it. At best, it is fun. But “fun” is not an aesthetic experience: fun remains on the surface. I have nothing against the surface. But it belongs where it is and shouldn’t be taken for anything else.

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When Jonas Mekas Went to Jail

In the March 12, 1964, edition of the Village Voice, contributor Stephanie Gervis Harrington reported that Jonas Mekas demanded to be arrested. The cops obliged.

The New American Cinema has run afoul of the old American determination to keep our culture clean. The first casualties were Village Voice film critic and new wave movie-maker Jonas Mekas and three associates, who spent a night in jail last week on a charge of showing an obscene film. The film, “Flaming Creatures,” made by Jack Smith, is one of the better-known productions of America’s new film avant garde.

“Flaming Creatures” was described by Leslie Trumbull of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which distributes it, as a “fantastic lampoon of commercialized sex and sexual mores.” Accepted as an entry in the recent festival of experimental films at Knokke Le-Zoute, Belgium, but banned from public showing by the Belgian Ministry of Justice, “Flaming Creatures” was given a special “film maudit” (or “damned film”) award by the festival’s selection jury.…

And according to Dr. Joseph Kaster, an instructor in myth and ritual, Greek mythology, Egyptology, and witchcraft, magic, and sorcery at the New School for Social Research, “Flaming Creatures” is an “excellent” film. Dr. Kaster told The Voice that he found the film “full of symbolic motifs” and would like to show it to his myth and ritual class. There is nudity in it, he noted, but “it is there for a point, not for its own sake.” The film, he said, is “not in the lease objectionable.”

The District Attorney’s office, however, did not see it that way. Without making themselves known, plainclothesmen watched “Flaming Creatures” when it opened last Monday night at the Bowery Theatre, 4 St. Mark’s Place. Presumably they did find the film objectionable — or those parts of it that included shots of male sex organs and female breasts — because the next night the film and four of those involved in its showing were seized by the police. Mekas, a founder and guiding light of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, was not at the theatre at the time, but when he was notified of what was happening, he rushed down and demanded that he be arrested too. The police obliged.…

They were arraigned shortly before noon the following day on a charge of showing an “indecent, lewd, and obscene” film and released without bail on the recognizance of their lawyer. Trial was set for March 16. In the meantime, the regular Tuesday and Wednesday night showings of New American Cinema films at the New Bowery are continuing. And last Saturday Mekas ran continuous half-hour showings of the Jean Genet film “Un Chant d’Amour,” a homosexual love story set in a prison, at the Writers’ Stage Theatre, 83 East 4th Street. The police did not interrupt the showing, although Mekas reports that they were in view outside the theatre.

In that same issue, Mekas foreshadows his fate in his regular column:

“Hollywood has created an image in the minds of the people that cinema is only entertainment and business. What we are saying is that cinema is also art. And the meanings and values of art are not decided in courts or prisons.”

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Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Jonas Mekas and Saint Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe, the Saint of Nevada Desert. When everything has been said about “THE MISFITS,” how bad the film is and all that, she still remains there, a new screen character, MM, the saint. And she haunts you, you’ll not forget her.

It is MM that is the film. A woman that has known love, has known life, has known men, has been betrayed by all three, but has retained her dream of man, and love, and life.

She meets these tough men, Gable, Clift, Wallach, in her search for love and life; and she finds love everywhere, and she cries for everyone, when everybody is so tough, when toughness is everything. It’s MM that is the only beautiful thing in the whole ugly desert, in the whole world, in this whole dump of toughness, atom bomb, death.

Everybody has given up their dreams, all the tough men of the world have become cynics, except MM. And she fights for her dream, for the beautiful, innocent, and free. It is she who fights for love in the world, when the men fight only wars and act tough. Men gave up the world. It is MM that tells the truth in this movie, who accuses, judges, reveals. And it is MM who runs into the middle of the desert and in her helplessness shouts: “You are all dead, you are all dead!” — in the most powerful image of the film — and one doesn’t know if she is saying those words to Gable and Wallach or to the whole loveless world.

Is MM playing herself or creating a part? Did Miller and Huston create a character or simply recreate MM? Maybe she is even talking her own thoughts, her own life? Doesn’t matter much. There is such a truth in her little details, in her reactions to cruelty, to false manliness, nature, life, death — everything — that is overpowering, that makes her one of the most tragic and contemporary characters of modern cinema, and another contribution to The Woman as a Modern Hero in Search of Love (see “Another Sky,” “The Lovers,” “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” “The Savage Eye,” etc., etc.).

It’s strange how cinema, bit by bit, can piece together a character. Cinema is not only beautiful compositions or well-knit stories; cinema is not only visual patterns or play of light. Cinema also creates human characters.

We are always looking for “art,” or for good stories, drama, ideas, content in movies — as we are accustomed to in books. Why don’t we forget literature, and drama, and Aristotle! Let’s watch the face of man on the screen, the face of MM, as it changes, reacts. No drama, no ideas, but a human face in all its nakedness — something that no other art can do. Let’s watch this face, its movements, its shades; it is this face, the face of MM that is the content and story and idea of the film, that is the whole world, in fact — if you know what I mean.

Categories
AD CANDY ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES show-old-images Uncategorized

Andy Land 8: Ads For — and Attacks On — the Avant Garde

It’s 1964 in downtown New York — do you know where your demimonde is?

As it turns out, some of its denizens were in jail.

In the March 19, 1964, issue of the Village Voice, Jonas Mekas, the paper’s resident explicator of the underground scene (and a filmmaker in his own right), delivered a first-person account of his “Kafkaesque journey into the womb of the Tombs.” Mekas was yelled at, stripped naked, and kicked for the crime of screening Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, which a companion article on the same page described as “a homosexual love story.” The second article added that the film had been shown in the first place to “raise money for a defense fund for Mekas and three associates arrested two weeks earlier for showing the Jack Smith film ‘Flaming Creatures’ at the New Bowery Theatre.”

The mid-Sixties were perilous times for those pushing the boundaries of what was then socially acceptable. As Mekas wrote in his own account, “One of the detectives who arrested me told me, at the theatre, that he did not know why they were taking me to the station: I should be shot right there in front of the screen.” (We’ll just note here that Mekas is still going strong, at age 95.)

Just a few weeks later, an ad in the April 9, 1964, issue of the paper offers a plaintive declaration: “You have noticed that our butterfuly [sic] has disappeared from The Village Voice. One after another, the independent and avant-garde film showcases have been closed, either by the District Attorney, the Police, the State Division of Motion Pictures, or the Department of Licenses.”

The illustration in the ad looks to have been doodled by Andy Warhol, similar in line and design to a sheet of butterfly drawings he did in 1955, titled Happy Butterfly Day. The pop artist’s film Newsreel was one of the movies that had been seized, along with Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (as well as rushes from Smith’s work in progress Normal Love) and Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour. The ad for the “Film-Makers’ Cooperative Anti-Censorship Fund” argues that an “important shift in the ways of life, in moral attitudes, is about to take place in America. Really, the shift has been going on for some time: what’s lacking is the official stamp. That’s what this is all about. The clash between a going-away generation and a coming generation. Much of what the Old Generation calls immoral and obscene; much of what it calls non- or anti-art — to us is Beauty, because it is part of our life.”

In that same April 9, 1964, issue, the paper reported on the arrest of comedian Lenny Bruce, for giving an “indecent performance” at the Cafe Au GoGo. (A grand jury had listened to tapes of two Bruce shows at the venue and found “sufficient evidence” to charge Bruce and the club’s manager.) The article notes that an “Emergency Committee Against Harassment of Lenny Bruce” had been formed and had sent a petition to Mayor Robert F. Wagner charging that “‘obscenity’ has become a cudgel against free speech and only encourages intimidation of performers and their public.” (Bruce’s travails have been fictionalized in the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

In an accompanying Voice article, Bruce displays surprising equanimity by blaming his arrest on the “mores or the times,” adding, “I’m either behind or ahead of the times.” Reporter Stephanie Gervis Harrington follows Bruce around the city: “Later, in his room at one of the Village’s less elegant hotels, where there is no carpeting, just blankets and miscellaneous junk on the floor, Bruce kind of nervously jumps around, occasionally flopping down on the messed-up bed with a law book, all his attention focused on working out the legal strategy to get him out from under the latest charge against him. His steadily mounting experience in cases like this has made him somewhat of a specialist on the subject.” At one point Bruce offers backhanded compassion for the cops who keep running him in: “They die for less than $400 a month. And they’re ashamed of being cops. It’s a shitty gig.” Then Bruce puts his finger on the main problem the authorities have with his act: “The key word is ‘prurient.’ Don’t get people horny.”

While this culture war was raging, Warhol was toiling away in his studio on what would ultimately become one of his most popular series: the “Flowers” paintings and prints. A tiny ad for his solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery on the Upper East Side joined many other announcements on the Galleries page of the November 19, 1964, issue. Over the previous two years, Warhol had created large paintings of car crashes, suicides, and tragic film stars, and the curator Henry Geldzahler claims to have told the artist, early in 1964, “Andy, maybe it’s enough death now.” But the flower images, with their coarse black photo screens over broad swathes of magenta, yellow, orange, and other brash colors, had their own dark undercurrents. In September 1964, supporters of President Lyndon Johnson had implied — by way of a television ad featuring a little girl picking flowers as an atom bomb explodes — that the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, couldn’t be trusted with America’s nuclear arsenal. Warhol, as usual, was coy when a reporter asked him about his flowery imagery: “I was going to make the show all Goldwater if he won, because then everything would go, art would go.”

In a December 3, 1964, review of the flower exhibition, Voice art critic David Bourdon first discusses the 1962 science-fiction film The Creation of the Humanoids, which features a post-apocalypse society of humans and “clickers,” a species of humanoid robots. Bourdon writes, “The denouement comes when the heroine and the hero (a militant anti-humanoid who goes around throwing bombs at uppity ‘clickers’) discover themselves to be machines. This is the happy ending of what Andy Warhol calls the best movie he has ever seen.” Bourdon further speculates that behind Warhol’s genial facade “there is a lot of cybernetic circuitry.” Pursuing this notion, the Voice critic hits on something very important about the appeal of Warhol’s mechanically derived imagery: “The literalness with which Warhol renders his second-hand images actually lands him on the far side of realism, in a region where visual fact turns into phantasmagoria that becomes all the more hallucinatory because it is without a shred of fantasy.”

As the Sixties gathered more countercultural steam, the actions and reactions continued. In the December 31, 1964, issue, a five-column-wide ad proclaims, “Just back from four months in Africa: Malcolm X speaks on ‘1965: Prospects for Freedom.’”

Malcolm X had earlier broken with the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. Now running his own mosque, Malcolm remained a fiery speaker. The speech referred to in the ad posits that “no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom,” and was being given under the auspices of the Militant Labor Forum.

On the same page, a short notice informs Voice readers where they can send letters to Julian Beck and Judith Malina, founders of the downtown Living Theatre, who were briefly imprisoned for contempt of court because they wore theatrical getups during tax evasion hearings.

Although the cops were once filmed breaking up a jam session by the Velvet Underground — the house band at Warhol’s Silver Factory (so named because much of it was wallpapered with shiny tinfoil) — Warhol apparently avoided any time in the slammer for his various transgressions. In the March 18, 1965, Voice we get an ad for his “six hour epic SLEEP,” being screened at the City Hall Cinema.

By 1966, Warhol was branching out into live extravaganzas, and there is some evidence that his wide-ranging creative forays were leading to cash-flow problems. The February 10, 1966, edition of the Voice features a Bulletin Board notice that reads, in the bumpy syntax of ad copy dictated over the telephone, “I’ll endorse with my name any of the following: clothing AC-DC, cigarettes small, tapes, sound equipment, ROCK N’ ROLL RECORDS, anything, film, and film equipment, Food, Helium, Whips. MONEY!! love and kisses ANDY WARHOL, EL 5-9941.”

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History shrouds what endeavors might have arisen from his Bulletin Board pitch, though later Warhol would go on to produce the Velvets’ first album, famously putting nothing save the image of a banana and his own oversize signature on the cover. In later decades he would go on to endorse numerous products, including Vidal Sassoon shampoos, Pioneer stereo components, and Sony video tapes.

The same February 10, 1966, issue that featured the Bulletin Board plea also includes a small ad for Andy Warhol Up-Tight Presents, which promises a bevy of demimonde acts, including the Velvet Underground and the “whip dancing and leather” stylings of Mary Piffath and Gerard Malanga. Interestingly, the then-sixtysomething surrealist master Salvador Dali still rated all-caps treatment from the downtown scenesters. Perhaps the Spanish painter’s own legendary bids at self-promotion — such as his underwater burlesque show at the 1939 World’s Fair— resonated with the fame-obsessed Warhol.

A little more than a month later, the Up-Tight shows had a fresh come-on and a new name:

COME BLOW YOUR MIND
the silver dream factory presents the first
ERUPTING PLASTIC INEVITABLE

 The Velvet Underground, along with chanteuse Nico, had become the bold-faced attraction.

Like biblical patriarchs, Up-Tight begat Erupting, which begat, a few weeks later, a name familiar to fans of both of pop art and timeless rock ’n’ roll: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Warhol’s eruptions and explosions were held at 23 St. Marks Place, in the Polski Dom Narodny, or Polish National Home, a social hall for weddings and other gatherings. For the same issue of the paper where “erupting” morphed into “exploding,” Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah headed to the Dom, as the venue was known, to capture the various happenings (both onstage and in the hallways).

That same weekend, McDarrah captured Warhol in front of his cow-wallpaper array, which, along with floating mylar “silver clouds,” were part of that year’s exhibition at the Castelli gallery.

Later in 1966, the little butterfly fluttering atop the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque ad announced:

The world premiere of 8 hours of the new epic film by
Andy Warhol
“The Chelsea Girls”

Warhol’s split-screen, color and black-and-white exploration of characters in various rooms of that bohemian beehive, the Chelsea Hotel, must have been scoring at the box office, because five months later it was still playing in town. One critic who was blurbed in the ad proclaimed the film a “Tour de force of technical and sexual ingenuity,” while another deemed it “one of the most powerful, outrageous, relevant and noticeable movies anyone anywhere has made!”

Warhol himself told The New York Times, referring to the film’s split-screen design, “If you get bored with one, you can look at the other.” He also implied that he had shot way too much footage, so he’d cut the running time in half by splitting the movie in two. Even still, Chelsea Girls clocks in at roughly three and a half hours.

Below the ad for Chelsea Girls, a two-week-long happening titled “Caterpillar Changes” was announced, offering musical performances, film screenings, and other events to support, we think, “N.Y.’s United AcidHeadSpeed Relief Fun Ball & Glitter Parade.” Along with the Velvets, the proceedings promised “THE DENTAL DESTRUCTION OF THE CHAIRS a MASS MENTAL CONCENTRATION AGAINST FURNITURE BY MOVIES MOVIE MOVIES SLIDES & LOOPS & BURNING PROJECTORS” among other enticements.

We don’t know the name of the graphic designer who riffed on Warhol’s original butterfly doodle, below, but he or she certainly got into the speed-drenched spirit of the time.

A couple of years later, after Warhol had survived the trauma of being shot by a deranged hanger-on in June 1968, the ads for his films take on a more mainstream edge. Perhaps that was because he had become less involved in the films, turning more and more of the work over to Factory colleague Paul Morrissey, who once quipped, “Andy an auteur? You must be joking. Andy’s idea of making a movie is going to the premiere.”

By December 1968, Warhol was again branching out, this time with a book titled, a: A Novel, which consists of transcripts of 24 hours’ worth of conversations Warhol recorded with one of his “superstars,” Ondine (real name, Robert Olivo), who was famous for being a rapid-fire raconteur. Different typists were used to transcribe the various tapes, one of them Moe Tucker, the Velvet’s drummer, who refused to include the swear words heard on the tape. In another instance, the mother of a high school girl who was hired to do some of the transcribing threw the tape out in disgust. The final “novel” includes typos, conflicting abbreviations, and other idiosyncrasies of the individual typists. Warhol wasn’t particularly worried about the format, observing, “Doing something the wrong way always opens doors.”

What more can you say.

 

Categories
THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

John Wilcock, 1927–2018

By the time he was sixteen, John Wilcock was already working as a reporter on his hometown paper in Sheffield, England. (He dropped out of school to take the job.) As related in the lively biographical comic  John Wilcock: New York Years, 1954–1971, he soon found his way to Canada. In the comic, Wilcock states, “But 1950’s England and Canada felt stuffy and stagnant. And still relatively young and not wanting to waste my life, I soon took the plunge to the U.S.A., specifically New York.”

Such quotes match the life that followed. Wilcock shortly acquired a cheap ($46 a month) Greenwich Village apartment and spent his evenings drinking beer and chasing skirts. Bored by the local paper, The Villager, which consisted of “mostly bridge club party reports” and “an insipid column, ostensibly written by the editor’s CAT, named ‘Scoopy Mews.’ CAN YOU IMAGINE?,” Wilcock put up a notice in the Sheridan Square Bookshop seeking partners to start a more inspired publication. He shortly met up with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, and they batted the idea around for a number of months while Wilcock worked freelance writing jobs. Eventually he, Fancher, Wolf, and novelist Norman Mailer joined together to publish the first issue of the Village Voice, in October 1955. On early mastheads, Wilcock is listed sometimes as “News Editor,” other times as  “Associate Editor.” He was also a regular columnist with a dream beat: basically anything he wanted to write about as the nascent counterculture was bubbling up in downtown New York. Wilcock wrote about other writers, actors, artists, computer-dating pioneers — he riffed on whatever struck his fancy: “How about somebody advertising a few things for The Man Who Doesn’t Have Everything?”

But Wilcock seemed to be forever restless, and complained in print that he was not “regularly employed.” So in the December 5, 1956, issue, we get not only one of his typically free-ranging columns but also a genuinely bizarre full-page ad featuring the headline “Editor-writer Available.” Wilcock notes that, for a substantial workload of both writing and editing, he was making $25 a week at the Voice. As ever at the paper, wages were an issue. Beyond the printed references, statistics, and sample lead paragraphs, readers were also treated to a photo of Wilcock standing atop the Washington Square arch. The man always aimed high, literally and metaphorically.

Six months later it was announced in the Voice that Wilcock had “joined the staff of the New York Times’ Sunday edition in an editorial capacity.” It was also noted that the energetic reporter “will continue to write his regular page-two feature, ‘The Village Square,’ for which he has a wide following among Voice readers.”

Curiously, around this time Wilcock would use an image of himself with his back to the audience. Was he being arrogant? Melancholy? Perhaps he was contemplating what it would mean to actually leave the Voice one day. (The pose might remind Philip Guston fans of the painter’s portrait of his friend the composer Morton Feldman, after the two had had a serious falling out. The threads of those days are deeply entwined: Ads for Guston exhibitions at the Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street can be found in these same early editions of the Voice.)

And since Wilcock remained with the paper as the counterculture began heating up, he got to take part in what became a venerable Voice tradition: contributors bashing one another in print.

In the July 11, 1963, edition, Wilcock reports from Paris, writing a scathing review of the artist Allan Kaprow’s performance at a press conference: “The sheer monotony of it all eventually proved too much for me. If performers must feel obliged to make explanatory statements about their work — in advance — are we to conclude that art is unable to speak for itself?” (Kaprow was known for his seminal 1958 essay, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” which, among other concepts, discussed Pollock’s dance around the canvas as he flung paint upon it and envisioned performance, events, and physical activities that would replace objets d’art.) Wilcock goes on: “Kaprow, a pioneer of Happenings, forecast his own absorption into the System two years ago when he wrote in Art News: ‘…Some of us will probably become famous. It will be an ironic fame fashioned largely by those who have never seen our work. The attention and pressure of such a position will probably destroy the majority of us as it has nearly all the others…’ ”

A few weeks later Jonas Mekas, one of the Voice’s film critics and explicator of underground movies to the masses (or at least to however many of them were reading the paper), took issue with Wilcock’s put-down of Kaprow, noting that his fellow Voice author must have written his critique under trying circumstances, “Because, as I was told by someone who was present at the events Wilcock described, his Voice report sounded like the job of a ‘stupid, conceited jerk.’ ”

Not unpredictably, Wilcock responded tout de suite —or what passed for swiftly in that age of slow-traveling periodicals and international mail routes — from Tokyo. His “Dear Sir” letter to the Voice editors appeared in the September 5, 1963, issue:

As far as we can ascertain, that was the end of that particular feud. But in the future we will surface more Voice features from this singular founder of the paper, a writer and editor who not only had a hand in the creation of the godfather of the alternative press but also helped launch the Underground Press Syndicate, which was a loose consortium of alternative papers; the East Village Other; and, along with Andy Warhol, Interview magazine.

Wilcock was sui generis, a character in the best sense of the word. He was driven to be what he lived. The week after Wilcock’s letter appeared excoriating Mekas, the film critic happened to quote the underground filmmaker Jack Smith in his column: “Movies aren’t just something like I came to; they are my life. After [making the underground classic] ‘Flaming Creatures’ I realized that that wasn’t something I had photographed: everything really happened. It really happened. I — that those were things I wanted to happen in my life and it wasn’t something that we did, we really lived through it; you know what I mean?” There is no doubt Wilcock knew what Smith meant. Smith had to make films; Wilcock had to invent a new kind of newspaper, and he and his partners gave us a new way of looking at the world.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“I Had Nowhere to Go” Strands Viewers in the Dark With Jonas Mekas

Why was I Had Nowhere to Go (2016) made? Jonas Mekas, the 95-year-old icon of American avant-garde cinema, has made many movies — a few of them masterpieces — about his own life. He has published poems, film criticism, and diaries. Douglas Gordon’s atmospheric sound-art adaptation adds little to what we know of Mekas, who has shared portions of his life with the public for six decades.

Based on Mekas’s diaries published in 1991 (Spector Books published a new edition last year) under the same name, Nowhere to Go surveys 1944 to 1954. The film’s subtitle is A Portrait of a Displaced Person, but it’s more of a mosaic, one that evokes the color of memories long past. Moreover, the film has some merit as a kind of documentation, for on the soundtrack, Mekas reads passages from his diary, his voice soft, lilting, accented. The entries cover his leaving his small Lithuanian village, his capture and placement first in a Nazi labor camp in Elmshorn, Germany, and then in displaced persons camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel/Mattenberg, and finally his move to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Nowhere to Go is nonlinear; without clear organizing logic, the film alternates between his time in the camps and his early experiences in New York. As the film progresses, the stories Mekas tells blend together. A few dramatic or comic ones fully resonate: the Nazi who stomped on the first photo Mekas took; the trunks full of books Mekas brought to the displaced persons camp; the fuck-you’s that Mekas describes striking, as his co-workers uttered them, a kind of musical note.

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Save for a few shots of Mekas, primates, potatoes and beets, and bare feet walking in the snow, Nowhere to Go is virtually imageless. By forcing the viewer to stare at a black screen (which transitions to first red, then white, and finally blue at select moments), Gordon draws attention to sound: the grain of Mekas’s voice; the notes from a violin and accordion; the ambient city noise of engines, sirens, and faint honking; typewriters typing and machine guns unloading a stream of bullets. Gordon creates immersive soundscapes that rely on the viewer’s imagination to associate the content of Mekas’s words with a time, place, and feeling: walking on Broadway in the 1950s or hearing bombs exploding near the Elmshorn camp.

Although it reveals little new about Mekas, Nowhere to Go is a characteristic Gordon work. The Glasgow, Scotland–born, Berlin-based, Turner Prize–winning artist is preoccupied with culture, cultural icons, and memory, all of which shape two of his most famous works: 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which slows down the Hitchcock film so that it lasts a day; and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), in which Gordon employed seventeen cameras to capture the soccer player during a match from what seemed like every possible angle.

Mekas, who has built his career on recording his memories, seems like the ideal subject for Gordon. It’s just that Nowhere to Go is unilluminating; it doesn’t have the theoretical puckishness of 24 Hour Psycho or Zidane. I Had Nowhere to Go might prove more effective as an installation piece, where people can drift in and out at intervals, but as a 100-minute film, it’s just tedious.

I Had Nowhere to Go
Directed by Douglas Gordon
Opens May 11, Anthology Archives

 

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