Poetic Space Marker

Looking realistically at my schedule the next several days, I just don’t see the possibility of any new entries in my Nina Simone series. So in the meantime I thought I’d post a poem that was written by poet Nikki Giovanni for the awkwardly titled but otherwise excellent compilation album Nina Simone Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom of Spirit.

FOR NINA
[Forever Young, Gifted, and Black]

by Nikki Giovanni

Howl, Baby
Pull the moon
Down and squeeze
’til there’s no
More pain

Tomorrow is coming

Take them to church
on Friday nights…
make them hear the
words and bow down

Make them beg for forgiveness

Tell the truth, my good sister
Don’t stop just because it hurts
Tell the truth and
let the cooling waters
Let the tears
Fall Down
Let us cleanse our evil souls
With the West Wind

Call the out, Girl
Tell them they have to sing with you
Have to sing with Lorraine
Have to sing with Langston
Have to sing for Schwerner,
Chaney and Goodman

Sure the feds will try to trap you
Sure the feds will run you out
of the country
Yes J. Edgar Hoover will
ruin your career
With the same lies he told on King

But you weren’t singing
You weren’t playing
You weren’t giving a damn
For the grammarphones
They offered

You were singing
For a higher power
To a higher power
Needing a higher power
To sing you home

You are forever Young
Gifted and Black
You are forever righteous
You are forever Nina

Howl, Baby
Call down the sun
To scorch the lies
Call down the stars
to write the truth
Call down Call down Call down
And we will worship
At the altar

Until next week…

“just in time. you found me, just in time…”

Day Two in a Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist


Tribute to Nina Simone by Sam Nhlengethwa

Launching into day two of this little series , I figure a little personal history would be appropriate before I proceed. This time last summer Fader Magazine did a tribute issue to Nina (more on that to come), and in the letters section it printed an invitation for readers to submit letters as to what Nina’s music means to them. I ended up writing something for a writing group I briefly participated in, though it was far too late to submit for a chance to win the iPod and stack of CDs. But I’m glad I kept it, as I knew it would come in handy someday:

untitled
by Jesse Ataide

I was at a point where I was ready to fall in love. I had been in London for just several weeks—one of the countless American study abroad students wandering around Britain’s capital city, savoring and soaking up all the details and nuances of an unfamiliar world that I was temporarily going to be able to call my home.

As I wandered through endless racks of CDs at the Kensington Library, I kept scraping my brain for the name of an artist that I’d always meant to check out—somebody whose creative vision was to me unknown, new. Suddenly, as I walked by the library’s jazz section, I remembered an obituary written by Norah Jones I had read in some now-forgotten magazine a year before. I left the library that day with the three disc compilation “The Nina Simone Story.”

Soon, Nina’s music established itself as the soundtrack of my new life. Now, several years later, several notes into “My Baby Just Cares for Me” or “Love Me and Leave Me” and I’m reliving that trek I made countless times between my dorm and a local internet café; all it takes is those first few pounding chords of “Ain’t Got No; I Got Life” and images of the Underground flood my mind.

It’s a coincidence worthy only of a bad novel or sappy movie that just a week or two after selecting Nina as the spokesperson of my study abroad experience I found myself huddled in the tiny basement theatre of the Haymarket Odeon watching Richard Linklater’s European fantasy “Before Sunset;” what a shock it was that none other than Nina’s voice was ringing in my ears as the most sublime film experience I ever had faded to a blank black screen.

After playing it endlessly on my iPod, and seeing Before Sunset twice more in the subsequent weeks, “Just in Time” became my love song for London. It’s more than merely a song now—it’s a memento, a memory of a time when I first fell in love with a film, a city…and a songstress.

And that about sums it up—my early attachment to Nina was formed through the marvelous coincidence of almost simultaneously discovering what would become my favorite musician and my favorite film, and doing it during my time studying abroad, which ending up being one of the pivotal experiences of my life (I delved more into this whole situation herehere).

Life has a funny way of working sometimes.

Presenting Ms. Nina Simone

A Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist

As the result of two rare imported CDs my best friend gave me for my birthday, I have been plunged once again into the dizzying, wondrous, sometimes intimidating, always exhilarating musical universe that is known as Nina Simone. Despite being my self-proclaimed favorite musical artist for a number of years now, Nina is not a musician I find myself playing and returning to often—her music is often too much of an emotional experience to indulge in lightly or constantly—but on the other hand, it also seems that on a fairly regular basis she pulls me back to her again like a magnet, a musical eclipse dictating everything that I listen to for a fairly extended period of time.

And one of those times is right now, and I feel moved to write something as a tribute to this artist that is capable through a few impromptu notes on a piano an improvised phrasing of a line leave me in a state of awe. But as I began to ponder how I wanted to approach this celebratory entry, it became broader and more elaborate, until I now find myself inspired to attempt a personal first: a series spanning several days.

The question then is how to kick off such a thing, and ultimately I’ve decided to let the lady speak for herself (because god knows she doesn’t need anybody to do the talking). Compliments of the limitless treasure trove offhandedly known as YouTube, I first present a clip of Nina performing at the 1969 Harlem Festival in Central Park (find a nice write-up of the event here). Whether meeting Nina for the first time or already a fan as doggedly devoted as I am, this to me is the perfect encapsulation of Nina both as a person and as a supreme musical artist. Please take a look:

The song she’s performing, “Ain’t Got No; I Got Life,” a fusion of two songs from the musical “Hair,” happens to also be my personal favorite of the hundreds of songs Nina sang and performed over her decades-long career. But what knocks me out about this clip is that it manages to be at once a political proclamation (the string of white police officers surrounding the black audience doesn’t let us forget the place, time and historical context) but just judging from the way Nina sits there at the piano, it’s also undeniably a very pointed personal statement as well. She’s certainly tipping her head her hat to the Civil Rights Movement that was swirling around her and every other person in that audience and the African American community as a whole in the late 1960’s, but she’s also resolutely doing it on her own terms. If the song has been interpreted as referring to slavery and black oppression, the lyrics (a celebration of self-empowerment) can also be taken as Nina implying something along the lines of “fuck you” to her audience—or at least the audience members not willing to be led into the musical territory she has staked out for herself. And that, I think, is what I love most about Nina Simone. I can sit there and say “Nina, what the hell?” but I always know she’s going to do exactly what she wants, regardless of my reaction, or if I’m willing to to follow.

The thing is, I almost always do.

My World (Last Week)

So for a while I’ve wanted to start posting what I’m watching, reading, listening to and experiencing a la Matthew Clayfield, because even if I’d love to expand on most (all?) of these things, I’ve learned that that’s just not a reality, particular at this time.  If anything, I figure mentioning it at least might spark some interest, and ever-conscious of such things, it makes a nice record for myself.  To kick things, off I figure I’ll include the last week or two.  

Watching, Films
 
The Hoax (2006) (Theater)
Muriel, le temps d’un retour (1963) (DVD)
The Namesake (2006) (Theater)
Super 8-1/2 (1993) (Duped DVD)

Watching, Theater

Verdi’s Il Travatore – San Diego Opera
 Berg’s Wozzeck – San Diego Opera
 
Reading

On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Drain by Edward Said
On Photography by Susan Sontag
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The White Album by Joan Didion
Emma by Jane Austen 

Listening

Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black
The Marriage of Figaro performed by the London Symphony

 Experiencing

Annie Liebovitz: A Photographer’s Life (1990 – 2005) exhibit – San Diego Museum of Art

looking back to look ahead…

This year I approach that annual ritual of the previous year recap with particular trepidation—not only do I lack the time but also any inclination to follow up last year‘s extended top ten countdown.  No, for some reason lists and involved write-ups seem particularly distasteful as I approach my take on the state of cinema in 2006, even though from the very start I thought it was a particularly strong one (in fact, one of the very first ones I saw, back in March, was never toppled from its position as my favorite film of the year).  So instead I present a quick look at highlights of my 2006 movie watching experience.

As the nation and world in general finds itself increasingly splintered, from two minority groups—the black and gay communities respectively—emerged two films that made a very blatant attempt to cross over dividing lines and find some underlying points of basic human connection.  In Dave Chappelle’s Block Party the attempt was made through the communal experience of concert-going and the universalizing quality of music in general; more controversially, in Shortbus sex (and unconventional sexual expression at that) was the vehicle of choice for discovering and celebrating human connectivity.  Even if both films ultimately got tripped up by their own good intentions, the mere attempt proved to be exhilarating, giddy, unexpectedly poignant, and finally, deeply uplifting.

“A Time for Love,” the lovely first third of Hou Hsio-Hsein’s unfortunately uneven Three Times, was a look at the first love and oncoming maturity filtered through the hazy patina of melancholy nostalgia; Linda Linda Linda is a talented young director’s unexpectedly insightful ruminations on the bittersweet experience of having to grow up and move on, whether one wants to or not (and it matters not to me that it got a mention on last year’s list).

But perhaps more effective at examining adolesence was two films that kept all the drama and emotional turbulence of the young adult experience but stripped them from their typical trappings entirely, opting to place them instead within highly-artificial narrative constructs.  In Brick the fusing of the typical teen films and film noir conventions at first seemed little more than a clever narrative ploy, but it quickly becomes obvious how the loneliness, frustration, and social instability of adolescence eerily mirror the world of back-alley detectives and manipulative femme-fatales; less-well received but just as effective was the misunderstood Marie Antoinette, its almost lurid ornateness nailing the the self-consciousness and self-infatuation of the teenage mind.

The most moving instance of cinema bleeding into “real life” came as I awkardly tried to comfort my boyfriend as he sobbed well until well after the house lights came on after a screening of The Fountain; both it and Le temps qui reste (Time to Leave) offered up very moving articulations of having come to grips with death, the indescribable pain of absence and loss and perhaps most importantly, the ability to find some sense of peace beyond it.

There were more than a handful of notable performances to be savored in 2006 (though I’m not of the opinion Helen Mirren’s Oscar-approved turn as Queen Elizabeth is one of them), but as time passes it becomes increasingly clear to me what the best acting job of the year really was: Ted Haggard’s now infamous appearance in the documentary Jesus Camp.  Raving against sexual sin, homosexuality and whipping his large, fawning congregation into a general frenzy, this…act (which blurs indecipherably the line separating performance and non-performance) inspired revulsion on my part until just several weeks he was revealed to be—surprise, surprise!—a practicing homosexual. The irony is so delicious simply because the “true story” proved to be so utterly pathetic.

But returning to the realm of traditional performances, the most memorable were also among the most unexpected: in Casino Royale Daniel Craig managed to seamlessly recontextualize and broaden one of his intense, inward-obsessed indie performances into the role of James Bond, one of the most recognized and extroverted cinematic characters of all time; in the otherwise forgettable Black Dahlia, Mia Kirshner managed to infuse a rather beside-the-point character with such a wild-eyed ferocity that her brief moments on screen have stuck with me long after memories of many other impressive performances have faded.

My apologies to Friends with Money, which I loathed while watching, but with the passing of months has taken on a nuance and poignancy in my mind that I admit now I initially failed to give it credit for.

And in a category all its own is L’Intrus which leaves me feeling utterly bewildered and generally inarticulate. Watching this film, it feels like Claire Denis has ushered us into another, unexplored playing field of cinema altogether. Where are we going next?

The films I haven’t seen that I feel had the biggest chance of making this list: The Science of Sleep, The History Boys, Duck Season, Half Nelson, Changing Times and Gabrielle. I look forward to catching up with them in the future.

(And because I know I’ll be asked, here it is, with links to my extended thoughts:

01) Brick (Johnson)
02) Linda Linda Linda (Yamashita)
03) Casino Royale (2006) (Campbell)
04) Dave Chapelle’s Block Party (Gondry)
05) Marie Antionette (Coppola)
06) Shortbus (Mitchell)
07) The Fountain (Aronofsky)
08) “A Time for Love” from Three Times (Hou)
09) Le temps qui reste (Time to Leave) (Ozon)
10) Volver (Almodóvar)

And somewhere away and beyond: L’Intrus (Denis) )

expression

Thumbing through a copy of URB magazine, a quote by Charlotte Gainsbourg caught my attention, as it’s an incredibly articulate expression of something in myself I’ve known for a long time:

“What I notice is that I have no imagination. For the piano I can’t improvise, and for acting I need a director and text. I have no ability to create from my own imagination, so all I do is follow other people’s ideas.”

And the thing is, I’m finally beginning to be okay with that.

“well, he’s exciting, but not quite normal.”

Reviews of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place always seem to focus on the film’s shrewd depiction of the implosion of Bogart screen persona—indeed, the witty, sophisticated man that etched the characters of Rick Blaine, Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade into our cinematic memories can still be recognized, but Dix Steele certainly serves as the ugly flipside of that great mythological presence. With so many elements to focus on—the crackling sexual chemistry between Bogart and Gloria Grahame, the shrewd Hollywood skewering, the endlessly clever dialogue, I found what kept me riveted this time around was Ray’s direction, and how the occasional subversive flourish with the camera keeps the audience in a stage of constant instability, if not actual psychological apprehension. A few screen captures to demonstrate my favorite examples of this:

Mildred Atkinson, whose dead body is the starting point for most of the film’s action, can safely be called a throwaway character. A hatcheck girl taken home by Steele because she’s read the bestselling novel he’s been asked to adapt for the screen and is more than eager to share the plotpoints with him, her enthusiasm quickly becomes obnoxious, a feeling Steele obviously shares.

She launches into the intricacies of the novel’s trashy plot as if she was reciting a great Shakespearean monologue:

And then something happens:

Suddenly, we take on Dix’s perspective of Mildred, and her wide, almost wild eyes firmly meet our own. With the (slight) change in blocking, the fourth wall is unexpectedly ripped down, forcing ourselves into a position of complete identification with the character of Dix. Furthermore, Mildred has no intention of backing down, but whips herself up into a frenzy, creeping closer and closer to Dix, the camera, and to us:

The closer she gets, the more revulsion she inspires: I remember muttering “ugh, just get her away!” And that’s the point, of course—we have been manipulated into feeling the exact same thing Dix feels. It’s not that Mildred is a bad person—if the sequence had been shot in a more conventional manner (sorry, I don’t know any cinematic jargon to be more specific) Mildred’s carrying-on would have been tiresome but essentially innocuous. But by having her stare directly into the camera there’s a sense of increasing claustrophobia and even entrapment, and suddenly, in a sick way, a violent reaction (or at least a lashing out) doesn’t seem completely out of the question.

Interestingly, this performance by Martha Stewart brought to mind one of the performance I most admired in a 2006 film: Mia Kirshner’s turn as the title character in Brian de Palma’s otherwise forgettable The Black Dahlia. Kirshner’s character is portrayed in a more sympathetic manner, but the wide-eyed combination of enthusiasm and desperation in the two performances are nearly identical—and give the same feeling of queasiness, vague dread and repulsed fascination.

Interesting, interesting.

Another example is a the subversion of a sequence that is almost a cliché in filmmaking, particularly in studio-era star vehicles.

First, the shimmery closeup of the luscious leading lady:

Which leads to a kiss complete with a swooning crescendo compliments of the score:

But Ray throws things off with a brief glimpse from a different angle, which completely changes the tone of this romantic moment:

Considering the direction the film takes it’s a rather heavy-handed bit of foreshadowing, but it still serves as an example of how throughout In a Lonely Place Ray doesn’t just seem intent on shattering the Bogart myth, but forcing the audience into a point of identifying with that breakdown. Tom Huddleston accurately labels In a Lonely Place an “insular world,” but not only does Ray’s direction draw the viewer into a seedy back-alley Hollywood location, but also into that literal lonely place that Dix Steele finds himself helplessly suspended.