Saturday, 21 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Unexpected Journeys

On Fridays, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“I Am Not Your Negro” (Raoul Peck, 2016)

Available on DVD.

When James Baldwin died, at the age of sixty-three, from stomach cancer, he left unfinished a manuscript of the memoir Remember This House, detailing his personal interactions with the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. (Baldwin had also written a treatment of Malcolm X’s life for a screenplay, which he eventually adapted into his book One Day, When I Was Lost; this is what Spike Lee ended up developing into the script for his bio-pic Malcolm X, released five years after Baldwin’s death.) The Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has now made a documentary to present his view of the story of black people in America, revealing that it’s the core of his idea of the story of America itself, and his text is derived entirely from the writings of Baldwin, with a particular focus on Remember This House and the three slain leaders.

Baldwin is a prominent fixture in the long and illustrious history of American literature, and especially noteworthy as a powerful practitioner of that strong American form, the philosophical-political essay, that developed from the republican revolution in the days of empire and colonies, the abolitionist movement leading up to the American Civil War, and through the various liberalising struggles of the twentieth century. It is now most potently remembered as a part of the civil rights struggle, where the great spiritual epiphanies were imparted in American political movements, and the anti-sectarian moralism and spiritualist aestheticism of Baldwin is closely related to the ecclesiastically awesome deliveries of King on the steps of national monuments. In fact, Baldwin himself spoke with the fervour of a preacher, a sight we’re treated to in the archival footage that Peck includes in I Am Not Your Negro, such as clips from Baldwin’s interview on The Dick Cavett Show, and his debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., at the Oxford Union. These are interspersed throughout the documentary, together with photographs and other footage of episodes in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, as well as contemporary material of the protest activities carried out by Black Lives Matter.

Harold Bloom, the notable literary critic (whom I consider something of a mentor), aptly described Baldwin’s fierce personal involvement in his writings’ subjects as that of someone who necessarily has to speak not simply for a black minority in America, but of someone having to speak for an aesthetic minority within a homosexual minority within a black minority, and, ultimately, for the inward minority of one: himself. But the Haitian director Peck, who seems inclined to always take larger group views of matters, places him in the film as a spokesperson and outraged prophet for the black population as a whole, ranting — with however divine an inspiration — as the prophet Amos did in Jerusalem, against social and political wrongdoing on a massive scale, rather than as the inward prophet Jeremiah (another insightful parallel from Professor Bloom).

None of this is to cast a negative light on Peck’s film, which I found excellent, and recommend to every reader of this blog, as detached as you may think yourself from American politics. We can dismiss the nonsense of Dagmawi Woubshet’s review of the film in The Atlantic, which complains that Peck omitted any meaningful view of Baldwin’s homosexuality. Baldwin didn’t need to talk about his homosexuality — and moviegoers don’t need to be shown Baldwin talking about his homosexuality — to know that he was homosexual; nor to know that it was an inextricable part of his life, art, and politics; nor for him to live truthfully and engagingly in all the tensions it certainly brought upon him. And nothing about it is denied or suppressed here, even if, as Woubshet points out, the only direct mention of it in text is a quote from a sneering FBI file; that reflects poorly on the FBI (and on J. Edgar Hoover, whose bulbous and reputedly homosexual figure is shown briefly in conjunction with the quote from the file), not on Peck or Peck’s resonant work. In any case, no more blunt a view of any particular sexual orientation would help Peck to tell his story — which he likes to focus on the struggle between classes, as he divulged in an interview with — or Baldwin’s story of America. A singular persona of Baldwin’s comes through in both his writing and his speeches, which depends not on his racial and sexual identity alone (thought it certainly does depend on and reflect both of these), but on the vast and complex identity which he both constructed and took upon himself as if from above, in which he embodied the immense burdens for his nation of a distinctive aesthetic and moral voice.

As the arts writer Kwanele Sosibo pointed out in his review of the film for the Mail & Guardian, it isn’t centred on Baldwin or his work, but on the story he told of America, of which the through line is his stories of the slain civil rights leaders. Peck draws the issues Baldwin brought up fifty years forward, to the unredressed killings of black citizens by police in Missouri, New York, and elsewhere, in this very decade. He places Baldwin’s texts in direct juxtaposition with photographs and footage of precisely those horrors and the responses to them, overtly linking Black Lives Matter to the civil rights struggle. The primary function of a prophet is not to predict the future, but to speak from divine inspiration; Peck shows Baldwin achieving both. The fire in Baldwin’s speeches blows across the decades, ignites the new movements of resistance, and is stoked so that Baldwin’s vision of American recompense resounds in viewers’ heads, without being brought up once in the film: “the fire next time.”

Peck served as the minister of culture in the Haitian government for a time in the 1990s, resigning in protest of the presidencies of Jean Bertrand Aristide and René Préval. I don’t know his exact political positions and affiliations, though there may be an insight in the fact that he has made two different films about Patrice Lumumba and one about Karl Marx, but has so far done no work on anything to do with Ayn Rand or Ronald Reagan. He hired Samuel L. Jackson, a notable ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, to narrate his documentary, and the blend of Jackson’s voice with Baldwin’s texts is a peculiar surprise; he’s far more subdued and constant in tone than the writer, almost plaintive and resigned, which may well resemble Baldwin’s personal state when he sat down to write Remember This House; there is a particular heartbreak in seeing the striking images of Evers, King, and Malcolm X up on the screen, and being reminded by Baldwin, who was older than all three, that none of them reached the age of forty.

The specific demises of Evers (white supremacist destruction), Lorraine Hansberry (pancreatic cancer), Malcolm X (political and religious factional conflict), and King (racist rage) are never mentioned or shown, though they’re all widely known matters of public record; Peck gives the sense of a uniformly brutal and deadly fate for black resistance leaders, and an enemy that need not be named because it is so well known, in fact, so ubiquitous. He often explicitly chooses to keep the focus social and political, as in the scene after King’s murder, when he plays the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which acquired political significance after King requested it be played at what was to be his last meeting, rather than the far more deeply personal lamentation “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” that Nina Simone famously played only hours after it was written, in direct response to the assassination. Or as in Peck’s use of the much-used quote of Baldwin:

“I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.”

Peck uses this as a political address, without referring to Baldwin’s erudite and mercurial Biblical allusions (in this case, to Psalm 137, in which the descendants of the captors who required a song are eventually destroyed); though Peck evokes something ineluctably memorable of the prophetic furies of Baldwin.

A noteworthy addition to the story by Peck is to bring up the subject of American cinema, in both Baldwin’s life and the story he tells of America. At one point, we see Marlon Brando and Joseph Mankiewicz sitting side by side, a veritable moment of elation for this particular movie blogger. Baldwin wrote remarkably on the cinema, and he adds a moral authority to the aesthetic appreciation of it. Tymon Smith, who reviewed the documentary for The Times, says that these references by Peck “[provide] a strong case for [Baldwin’s] argument that racial ideas are a means of ‘othering,’ reinforced through cultural representation.” But I feel it’s a deeper matter to Baldwin, an earnest artist himself, than of that simple sociology — Peck’s continual references to American cinema, particularly that of classic Hollywood, underscores America’s continual failures of consciousness by bringing up its artistic representations, its very reflections and refractions of that consciousness. Baldwin writes poignantly of the immense symbolic significance of physical action in classic Hollywood films, and the conspicuous absence of a specific action between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, that displays a keenly insightful view of the particular abstractions and artistic and moral possibilities of the cinema. Could Peck believe that the slow reform of movies today (Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay both have major Hollywood studio productions being released next year, each with mostly black lead casts) may broaden the awareness and appreciation of people of colour in America through its images, and is a sign of an evolving practical truth, conscience, and consciousness for America?

“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

When I advised readers to see the 1922 German expressionist work Nosferatu, I wrote that F.W. Murnau was a supremely inventive director who was able to bring about great truth and wonder through the artifices of his silent cinema. I wrote that on the basis of the two Murna films I had seen (the other was Tartuffe), and now, having seen his first Hollywood film, Sunrise, quite simply one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, I can do little but reinforce my description of him as a “genius creator”.

Sunrise was released in 1927, right on the threshold between silent and talking cinema. Much can be read on how having to record synchronised talking tracks restrained filmmakers in their use of the camera; Murnau bypassed this problem by not recording anything on set, but by synchronising a soundtrack to the film that was added after filming ended, just as filmmakers record sound effects and musical scores and synchronise them to their edited images today. The results (also much written about), such as the wailing French horn that represents a bereft husband crying out, are transfixingly imaginative and uncannily moving. The silent filming also allowed Murnau to perform exuberantly elaborate manoeuvres with his camera, and the array of images throughout the film display not only the wonders of an imagination apt for visual expression but a marvel even of technical and nuanced sophistication, such as I may not have expected from a film made ninety years ago. Tracking shots, camera pans, and striking setups of angle, distance, and lighting on the subjects are magnificently executed not only to impart ideas and emotions, but to surpass them.

Murnau had a gargantuan set constructed for the city featured in his film (the city is unnamed, as are all the characters, and Murnau’s speculations are consequently nothing other than universal), and let his camera rove all about it to reveal the wildness and wonders of the world he had created. Unlike the sense of the set I wrote about in Batman Returns, the feeling here is the opposite of claustrophobic, because even his studio sets and his filming of them give the sense of there being more beyond the frame, and more inside it than is immediately visible. The circular pan of the wife (Janet Gaynor, in the first Oscar-winning performance) in the rowboat near the beginning evokes the wideness, brightness, and terror of the world as if she really were seeing it all for the last time. And the summit of lyricism in the streetcar sequence, for which Murnau had a mile-long track built — well, there is probably absolutely nothing I could say about it that hasn’t been rhapsodised over by many better writers before now.

The dynamism of Murnau’s moving camera brings to mind a certain distinction, and a hallmark of the possibilities of the cinema. Contrast it with a dialectical editing schema, as that of (so I read — I’ve never seen any of his films) Sergei Eisenstein, who was innovating in movies at the same time as Murnau. Contrast these with the static frame of Charlie Chaplin, who kept the camera in one spot, put himself squarely in front of it, and did all the moving with his own body. None of these is inherently better or more cinematic than the others; both Murnau (with Nosferatu and Tartuffe, but most of all with Sunrise) and Chaplin (whose A King in New York is also one of the pinnacles of my viewing experience, but in an entirely different way) create whole worlds with their art, and both, in their own ways, blew open the form for all those that followed.

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