Archive for November, 2003

The Salt Roads

Sunday, November 30th, 2003

Nalo Hopkinson‘s new novel, The Salt Roads, is, I think, the best book she has done. Rather than fantastic fiction set in future (Brown Girl in the Ring) or alternative (Midnight Robber) worlds, The Salt Roads is a work of historical fiction, albeit a “magical realist” rather than a naturalistic one. It weaves together the stories of three black women from different places and times, who each has her own inclinations and moods: Mer, a slave on a plantation in 18th century Haiti, who does not live to see liberation; Meritet, slave/prostitute in 4th-century Alexandria, who ends up becoming a kind of saint (claimed by the Christians though not really one of them); and Jeanne Duvall, for many years Charles Baudelaire’s mistress. All three women are inhabited, at one point or another by a spirit, the loa/goddess Ezili (I think – the word “loa” is never actually used in the text), whose free-floating voice and perspective provide a counterpoint to those of the three women. (There are also a few passages written in an omniscient third person).
The Salt Roads is a dense and passionate book, fluctuating between visionary hopes of revolution and a better world, and the grimly pragmatic necessity of negotiating possibilities of resignation at least, and perhaps even flashes of happiness, in oppressive and straightened circumstances. Hopkinson’s work is similar to a number of other recent books by other black women authors (the book jacket blurbs compare her to Toni Morrison and Edwige Danticat); but what’s unique to her is the particular voice that speaks in this book: or perhaps I should say voice(s), because of the way she/it is both one and many; the transversal communication of the three women through Ezili, in a way that doesn’t absorb them into one (they never become aware of one another), but also doesn’t permit them to remain in isolation from one another, is what gives this novel its emotional resonance, as it reminds its readers of what black women have historically had to face (and to a great extent, still do) in a way that is necessarily unfamiliar to white male readers such as myself; but also without giving a simplistic, inspirational message of fortitude and strength in the face of adversity, which is something many white (and a few black as well) readers like to get from black women’s texts.
I’m describing this novel from the outside, I fear, having read it in constant consciousness that it is not addressed to me; but the strength of The Salt Roads, I think, resides precisely in its outsideness, its indirectness, its non-address. This means, among other things, that it cannot be pigeonholed as an exercise in “identity politics” – even as it also (rightly) rejects the way that accusations of “identity politics” are often a cover, and a crass excuse, for ignoring and dismissing the injuries of class, race, and gender altogether.
Nothing’s really resolved in this book, precisely as nothing’s really resolved in the course of history (situations shift, and their problems may be forgotten but are not resolved/redeemed for good). All three women end by finding a sort of happiness, but not one that erases the scars of the past, or changes the conditions that produced all that suffering. What we’re left with, instead, is a series of flashes, or glimpses, of happiness and pain, of beauty and horror, of ecstatic (and not-so-ecstatic) sexuality, and of the small details of everyday life, in 19th century France, 18th century Haiti, 4th century Alexandria and Palestine. This book is a journey, not for the sake of some goal or final resting point, but for the sake of the journey itself.

A Few More Singles

Friday, November 28th, 2003

I’ve been so busy that I haven’t been posting very much. So I thought I could at least mention some music that I’ve been enjoying recently. There are a number of new albums I need to listen to more before I can write about them intelligibly, but there are a few singles that have transported me lately…
-Kelis’ “Milkshake” is, I suppose, another guilty pleasure. Much more mainstream than “I Hate You So Much Right Now” (not to mention stoopid in its double entendres) but the insinuating dirty bass synthesizer hook (balancing the melodic fragment – it’s too minimal to be a full melody) gets to me. Production by The Neptunes, whose stuff I’ve gotten bored with lately, however here they, er, redeem themselves.
-Cee-Lo’s new single, “I’ll Be Around,” on the other hand, is yet another triumphant production by Mr. Timothy Mosley, aka Timbaland. This time with horns bouncing off the minimal off-beat. The lyrics are a bit tiresome (and old) in their bragging about the “dirty South,” but how can I not fall in love with a song that begins with Mr. Closet Freak intoning: “How could I possibly be inconspicuous/ When my flow is fuckin’ ridiculous”?
-I haven’t heard all of David Banner’s Mississippi: The Album, but “Cadillac on 22s” is gorgeously depressive, movingly desperate and passionate (“sometimes I wish I wasn’t born in the first place”), with guitar that really makes the connection from hip hop to down-home country blues; and the screwed and chopped version is also pretty amazing, slowed down, with a few touches of reverb and stuttering repetition, just enough to mess with the beautiful, lyrical flow of the song so that it sounds like things are even more fucked up than the original version suggested, since you no longer have the beauty to redeem the pain.


Thursday, November 20th, 2003

Starfish, by Peter Watts, is a dark and brooding SF novel that takes place mostly in the deep ocean. Human beings are surgically modified so that they can breathe underwater, and survive the immense pressures of the extreme deep. They work and repair the machinery that harvests geothermal energy from volcanic rifts on the ocean floor, to serve the world’s ever-greater energy needs. But it turns out that only people with very particular psychopatholgies, perpetrators and/or victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, are able to stand the claustrophobic, almost lightless deep-sea environment without going crazy. Actually, they don’t just endure it; they love it. Sexual pathology leads to psychobiological metamorphosis, under the influence of an unfamiliar and stressful environment. Add to this telepathic empathy, “smart gels” (computing devices made out of living, functioning human neurons), alternative biologies, (justified) political paranoia, and an apocalyptic vision of the big (Richter 9.5 or so) subduction earthquake that is due to occur one of these days on the Juan de Fuca rift, leading to massive destruction in the Pacific Northwest (where I live). Without ever departing from the (seeming) plausibility of hard SF, Watts delivers a striking vision of a posthuman future – or more precisely of several disconcerting, mutually intersecting posthuman futures at once. Starfish is deeply pessimistic, but also, in a strange way, fiercely affirmative (though the metamorphosed future it affirms is not one that most of us would find sustainable, let alone comfortable).


Tuesday, November 18th, 2003

I watch Teletubbies now and again with Adah (who is now 15 months old), but I have to admit I love it more than she does. I think it’s the most brilliant kids’ TV show that I have ever seen (or at least, that I have ever seen as an adult).
Teletubbies is pure bliss.The show has a formal elegance rare for TV: a minimalism as rigorous as those of early Philip Glass or late Samuel Beckett. The beginning and end of the show are always the same: the baby-sun rising, and then setting, with the Teletubbies saying hello and goodbye respectively. Once the sun has risen, the Teletubbies run away over the hills; and a voice emanating from one of those tubes that rise out of the ground asks: “Where have the Teletubbies gone?” This enigmatic question is never answered: it is always followed by a series of abstract scenes, with multiple Teletubbies against monochromatic backdrops. There are only four Teletubbies, but they can be “everywhere,” thanks to their multiple instantiations in these abstract scenes.
Other elements are repeated from show to show as well, like the mini-films of children around the world, broadcast through one or another of the Teletubbies’ tubbies; and my favorite, the twice-repeated (sometimes more) “Big Hug” that follows the offscreen narrator’s assurance that “Teletubbies love each other very much.”
I also love the puzzling non-narratives that sometimes happen in the latter part of the show: a piece of Tubby Toast is too big for Tinky Winky, Dipsy, or LaaLaa to eat, but Poe (the smallest) manages to eat it just fine. Or, the meadow is mysteriously turned into a big lake, then just as mysteriously back to a meadow again. Or, LaaLaa plays with her (?) ball inside because it has started to rain; but when the rain ends, she goes outside again. Even when these little stories seem like they are going to turn moralistic or didactic, they don’t, but stop short of having a point (I imagine this to be some Western child’s version of a Zen koan, but I don’t really know anything about Zen). Of course, other times there are no such pseudo-narratives at all; the Teletubbies just dance, or march around, or something.
The Teletubbies themselves intrigue me endlessly: it’s so hard to figure out whether their brightly-colored surfaces are skin/fur, or just costumes they are wearing (the seam on their backs suggests it is just a costume, but somehow it makes sense to me that this would be the form of their actual, pre-genital bodies). LaaLaa and Poe seem to be female, because they are smaller and their voices higher; Tinky Winky seems to be male (and gay, as Jerry Falwell claimed); Dipsy remains mysterious to me in this regard. But infantile or pre-genital gender is a strange sort of concept anyway; one thing that is good about the show is that this strangeness is retained intact (instead of being “normalized” by the absurd tyranny of boys-in-blue and girls-in-pink from the moment of birth).
I’m usually not a fan of minimalist art; but here the infantile content perfectly matches the form.

Timbaland and Magoo

Sunday, November 16th, 2003

Though Timbaland is one of the most respected and sucessful hiphop producers working today (the best, I’d argue) the albums he has released under his own name, in collaboration with Magoo, have never sold very well, or been much talked about. Partly because Magoo is poorly regarded as an MC (he’s not great, but in my opinion, he’s at least OK), and partly because – I’m not quite sure, actually. But Timbaland and Magoo’s latest CD, Under Construction Part II, is a superb album, even if nobody buys it. Admittedly it’s not all that interesting vocally and verbally – the lyrics (mostly sex, some drugs, some romantic loss, a reasonable amount of boasting, but very little self-congratulatory thuggery) are nothing we haven’t heard before. But the beats and arrangements are great. The album is fairly relaxed and laid back, but at the same time very sharp and rhythmically active. Timbaland’s arrangements are clean, fairly minimal, and always surprising: the synthesized percussion crackles, and some sort of odd timbre or melodic line is always being dropped just where you don’t expect it. Every song has its own profile and its own surprises. The album works very well as a shifting series of moods, as one or another facet of Timbaland’s expressive artistry comes into focus. (For a very different take on this album, see Sasha Freire-Jones’ comments).


Sunday, November 16th, 2003

Julie Talen’s Pretend, which I saw tonight at the Seattle artspace Consolidated Works, is a powerful and formally innovative no-budget film (actually shot on digital video, not film). Pretend tells an emotionally wrenching story, about a nine-year-old girl who stages the fake kidnapping of her six-year-old sister, as a ploy to prevent their parents from breaking up. Children spend a lot of time playing make-believe, but what happens when their fantasies cross over into actuality? With its unreliable narrator and presentation of multiple possibilities, the film offers no easy answers.
But what really makes Pretend a remarkable film is its use of multiple frames and screens-within-screens. Split screens are used now and again in Hollywood films; Andy Warhol experimented with multiple images projected at once in the 1960s; Mike Figgis’ Timecode divided the screen into four quadrants, projecting the simultaneous output from four synchronized cameras; and Peter Greenaway has done a lot with frames-within-frames. (Talen herself gives a detailed history of the use of multiple frames in an article that appeared last year in Salon).
But no narrative film (and probably no avant-garde film either) has ever done anything on the order of what Talen accomplishes in Pretend. The screen is continually being divided into three, five, nine, twelve, or as many as forty-two frames; sometimes there is a checkerboard pattern, other times the screen is split top and bottom, or left and right; still other times, frames of different sizes appear as boxes floating in front of an image that would otherwise cover the entire screen. Sometimes the various frames show different but simultaneous scenes; sometimes they show the same scene from different angles; sometimes they depict variations, or metaphorically associated scenes, or fantasies that somehow relate to the action in other frames. The movements and arrangements of the multiple frames often seem to be organized according to musical principles; speaking about the film, the director spoke of some of these sequences as “fugues” of images. Other times, the visual arrangement of the frames seems more directly motivated by the narrative.
Of course, none of this could have been done before the arrival of digital video, and programs like Final Cut Pro. In addition, Talen makes much of the visual properties (and limitations) of digital video. Sometimes different frames are given different color balances; sometimes some of the frames are blurry, or shot with a slow shutter speed, or blown up so much that individual pixels appear on the screen.
While the effect is sometimes close to abstract, the film as a whole never loses sight of the narrative in which it is anchored. The result of all this is extraordinary: at times, while I was watching Pretend, I felt that I was perceiving things in an entirely new way, as if the very process of vision had been reinvented. (But it’s important to note that Talen’s radical visuals never interfered with the narrative, but made total sense as a way of conveying it, just as more familiar cinematographic and editing techniques do).
The sort of fragmentation of the visual field that is evident in Pretend is really just a way of moving cinema, that quintessential 20th-century art form, fully into the 21st century. Marshall McLuhan said that technological changes, the invention and dissemination of new media, results in changes in the “ratio of the senses,” mutations in the human sensorium itself. McLuhan , writing in the 1960s,was concerned with the way that television was different from movies. Today, under the impact of computers, and more generally the information and communications revolutions of the last thirty years, our minds have become more accustomed to multi-tasking, and our visual experience has become ever more heterogeneous and fragmented. Think of the multiple windows on our computer screens, or for that matter of the multiple windows, with text ticker at the bottom, of a station like CNN Headline News. Pretend is the first film I have seen that does full justice to these changes in our everyday visual experience; what’s more, it doesn’t just mimic these changes as a formal exercise, but deploys them in a way that is intellectually challenging and emotionally resonant.

The Matrix Revolutions

Friday, November 14th, 2003

I have almost nothing to say about The Matrix Revolutions. Instead of upping the ante on the comic-book metaphysics of the first two films – which is what I had hoped for – the Wachowski Brothers give us basically a straight action film. The attack on Zion by the machines is exciting (for a while) and state-of-the-art, but it can’t compensate for the almost complete absence of the conundrums that fueled the previous installments. It’s almost as if the Matrix itself didn’t exist, so little attention is paid to the virtual-reality theme. And despite (all-too-brief) reappearances by the Merovingian and the Architect, almost nothing of philosophical import is said by anyone. We are left with some treacly utterances by the Oracle (now played rather ineffectually by Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster) about love and belief. (You have to snort in derision regarding the “love” between Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Carrie Anne Moss’ Trinity, who must be the most robotically affectless couple in movie history). What’s more, the climactic fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith seems utterly perfunctory in comparison with their battles in the prior two films; and the overall plot resolution is a complete cop-out. Second parts of trilogies are often problematic and disappointing; but when has the concluding installment of a trilogy ever been so lame a letdown? I still find Nona Gaye sexy, but that is about the only positive thing I can say about this film.


Wednesday, November 12th, 2003

I suppose this counts as a “guilty pleasure,” though I am not usually prone to use that category. I find myself utterly enchanted by FannyPack, and their album So Stylistic. FannyPack is two (white, I think) twenty-something guys, Manhattan producers/hipsters, who write and perform the music, and three teenage girls (well, they range from 15 to 21) from Brooklyn, fashionably interracial (well, one’s white, one’s half-Puerto Rican, half-Thai, and one’s half-black, half-Indian according to band publicity) who rap in New York accents that are welcome to the ears of this exile. I don’t know if the girls write their own lyrics, or if the words are written for them by the two guys.
There’s something disturbingly pedophiliac about how these underage (or barely of age) girls are ultra-sexualized and made out to be innocent at the same time. Everything about the group seems calculated to play to some middle-aged fantasy (“middle-aged” meaning anybody older than the band members) of what urban teen girls are like.
The lyrics are stuff like: “Parties, movies, candy, toys,/ Clothes, shopping, music, boys,/ Flowers, beaches, Mom and Dad,/ These here things make me glad.” Though there’s also the song about the “Cameltoe,” and the one about sneaking into clubs with fake IDs. One song talks about hating school, another about the importance of good grades.
The music is bouncy, perky, and entirely synthetic party music: snaking synthesizer lines above beats borrowed from salsa, disco, Miami 1980s electro, and lite funk.
This music is so ostentatiously lightweight and “fun”, so unorganic, so stylized, so pre-calculated, so phony even (or especially) in the gestures it makes toward high-school-confidential street authenticity, that I can’t help myself: I love it. It’s airily, mindlessly pleasurable and adorable in a way that makes Britney, Christina, and even Beyonce seem utterly strained and clumsy in comparison. Basically, FannyPack is to these other post-teens-singing-for-pre-teens as Mozart is to Mahler, or as the Sex Pistols are to Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
It seems to me that this is what pop music always ought to be like. The weird part of it is, that although FannyPack was certainly being groomed by Tommy Boy Records for superstardom, the CD was apparently a big flop. Almost nobody bought the album. Is there no justice in the world?

San Diego Fire

Monday, November 10th, 2003

San Diego Fire.jpg
I’m in San Diego. Yesterday we went to see the results of the fires of two weeks ago. Amazing to see everything all burnt out, even more amazing to see how close the fire came to homes, gas stations, and chemical plants, and that it was only a 15 minutes’ or so drive from downtown.


Sunday, November 9th, 2003

Richard Calder‘s Frenzetta is a decadent fever dream of a novel. Set in a future where humanity is divided between the “pure” (reactionary straights) and the “perverse” (people who have been genetically re-engineered to include the animalistic in their nature; they include wolfmen, catgirls, insectmen, spiderwomen, among numerous others), the novel traces a delirious course through various scenarios of lust and catastrophe. The narrator, a zombie (seven-feet tall, supernaturally strong, but impotent, returned from the dead and remaining animate through a diet of fresh brains) and his beloved Frenzetta (a sneering 17-year-0ld punkette, half-rat, and fated to die in the throes of orgasm) wander through the continents of a decaying earth (in which former human technologies are gradually forgotten, due to the influence of the perverse, and the pigheadedness of the pure) searching for a deliverance – both sexual and existential – that they are unable to define. The novel’s philosophical reflections on the nature of desire are given with a light touch, never overshadowing the novel’s delirious, overwrought prose. All in all, the novel is sort of pop Bataille, a melancholy underwriting its numerous titillations, with an overwhelming awareness of the fatal clash of sex and death, but also a sense of futility and decay suggesting the unattainability of the ideal, even of self-annihilation.