Monday, January 31, 2011

Banksyrupt

by Drew Martin


I had at English professor in college, for a post-WWI American literature course, who told us (1,000 students in an auditorium) that whenever he read a book, he started with the final chapter and then flipped back to the beginning so that he could understand how the novel was constructed. Perhaps this is unthinkable to people who take spoiler alerts seriously. Personally, the ending of a movie is always the most disappointing part because I have no capacity for fictional/edited suspense.

Several people recently told me I "had to watch" Banksy's film, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). Every one of them said I would love it and all of them said they were not going to tell me the ending. That alone, made me not want to see it.

I watched the movie this past weekend on Hulu. Having now viewed it and recalling how these acquaintances spoke about it, I don't think any of them got the real joke.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a mockumentary, not as obvious as Borat (2006) and This is Spinal Tap (1984), more like Mail Order Wife (2003). It is a collaboration between Banksy and Shepard Fairey, telling a story of street art through an eccentric character, a bumbling and hapless filmmaker - turned art superstar Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash (MBW). Guetta is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, wrapped up into the body of Panza.

In the spirit of Duchamp, who could turn a urinal upside down and display it in a show as "fountain", the ménage à trois, Banksy-Fairey-MBW try to deepen the game of modern art.

I find the What is art? and What is reality? themes in art and film not very interesting; asking the wrong questions. They are hackneyed gimmicks that function something like graffiti; superficial distractions. Apparently, the public and media gobbled this film up when it was released. Instead of getting into the silly ping-pong match of whether or not the movie is a prank, the media should have played along with it and made up interviews with Banksy, but unlike the artist, they try to follow some guidelines.

I am glad I saw this film because it helped me make sense of two other nonsensical films I tried not to watch in the past week, Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page, and (much, much worse) Knight and Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Both fall into the What is reality? category. Inception is about extracting information from people in their dream worlds, with the ultimate goal of the much harder task of planting an idea (inception) that will subconsciously be carried out in the real world. The challenging aspect of either circumstance is navigating different levels; dreams within dreams. One of its flaws is that it is so close to The Matrix (1999) that it was painful to watch. Knight and Day is a rogue agent film (because the good guys are actually bad guys, etc.) and is simply a waste of time.

While I found Inception predictable and oversaturated with effects and stunts, I like how it unintentionally serves as a model for how an audience needs to be baited, little by little, into the murky depths of farce. This is done by creating a trail of morsels, which lead into more and more unbelievable situations.

Of course, the first level for any kind of cinematic deception happens when the audience sits down in front of a screen. From that point on, all reality is lost.

It is not hard for me to draw a comparison between Cruise and Banksy in that their careers are based on maintaining a continual deception. They both need a fantastic role to define themselves. Everyone ventures into gray areas now and again, but the healthy person will retreat to his or her "back to the basics" self. It takes a peculiar individual to live a life behind a character, and is not someone we should probably pay too much attention to.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Poet Laureate of Deep Ecology

by Drew Martin

There were two school assignments that stand out in my mind. One was a 40 page research paper I was required to write (on prosthetics) in the 8th grade and the other, for my 12th grade English class, was to interpret a Greek play in anyway we felt would honor the subject. I made a theatre mask out of clay and used it for a discussion with my fellow students. That was an interesting class. The teacher had Ph.D. (not common at his level: his dissertation was on E. E. Cummings), he wore jeans (which no other male teacher did at the time) and he set up a curriculum to be less about high school and more about college. Additionally, he took a little liberty with his room, with a couch, a record player and a few other man-cave elements. For another project, we were asked to select and analyze a poem, I felt free enough to choose Gary Snyder's Hiking in the Totsugawa Gorge.

The title has more words than the actual work. The entire poem is:

pissing
watching
a waterfall

I brought attention to the cascading structure of the poem and how the reader assumes the writer is actually looking at a waterfall but that he himself is also creating his own little waterfall.

At 17, I was amused and overconfident, thinking I was writing A+ work; I got a B+. For 24 years I had not given Snyder much thought, so yesterday I looked up his work online.

Here is one poem I came across, not much longer, with a flipped look:

How Poetry Comes to Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

This next poem, written in 1958, reminds me of the moment Alexander Calder noted as the starting point for his life's work; sculpture that sought balance. He observed (from the deck of a ship he was working on) the sun on the eastern horizon and the moon, exactly opposite, on the western horizon.


Snyder, born in 1930, is often associated with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance. In addition to being a poet, he was also an essayist, lecturer, and environmental activist (the "poet laureate of Deep Ecology").

Friday, January 28, 2011

Common Symptoms of Contaminated Power

by Drew Martin

I have always liked the peripheral, tangential and unintended joys of things. When I was a kid, I loved sitting on top of our old bench-like wooden cabinet record player (with it silent) and looking out our big picture window (just above it), especially to watch cars trying to make it up the steep hill, diagonally situated in front of our house, in snowy-icy weather. I like the swishing of washing machines, the hissing of steam radiators, the warmth of bedside reading lamps, the beautiful red glow of electric heating coils. Just as the staff of the New York Times do not go to work every day to make a product to protect floors and carpets from puppy pee and poop, the side affects/effects and alternative lives of things are typically unintended.

One of my favorite objects to look at in my house is a Panamax M5100-PM. It was purchased three years ago with an oversized flatscreen television in order to "eliminate common symptoms of contaminated power (including loss of detail, pops, hisses, hums and visual noise)."

I had always assumed electricity was smooth and constant (a steady 110 volts in the US), except for occasional surges, like some warranted electric wrath of Zeus throwing lightning bolts our way, but it is actually quite unpredictable and jerky. Electricity coming into one's house fluctuates...in my case it's between 118 - 125 volts. The Panamax is an inconspicuous black box (but kind of cool looking) that has a digital volt meter display (pictured here) with three, soothing, glowing bluish-white Arabic numbers. You plug the box into the wall, and various electronics into it. I have no idea if it actually protects against surges and other such disturbances but even if I did not have valuable electronics hooked up to it, I would still keep it plugged in because I find it very meditative to watch the numbers bump up and down with a mind of their own. I like to think about what the wavering electricity might sound like...perhaps a kid's kazoo or a trans-galactic theremin.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Invisible Man: To See or Not to See

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive postings: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

My post (two days ago) about media references in Invisible Man nods to The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells from 1897 and mentions the shared theme of alienation.

Ellison's reinterpretation of "invisible" gives the word its own kind of transparency through displacement from its original, concrete meaning. Not only is the definition harder to pin down but Ellison energizes its fluctuating state with multiple declarations by his narrator throughout the novel that he is and is not invisible. His invisibility is not a property of the object but a diminished capacity for seeing by the viewer. Ellison's invisibility is directly related to another's "blindness," which is another word he veers from its original meaning. Physical blindness is simply a metaphor for the mental blindness that makes him invisible.

This is most clearly demonstrated with the removal of the glass eye of the oppositional Brother Jack. What is interesting in this action is that the narrator was unaware of/blind to the fact that someone so close to him was actually blind in one eye. It is a reciprocated blindness...and the narrator fails to take the high road by quipping to one-eye Jack:

...maybe you'll recommend me to your oculist...then I may not-see myself as others see-me-not.

It is quite a bolder, more cynical character, than who is addressed by a veteran at the Golden Day at the beginning of the book:

...for God's sake, learn to look beneath the surface...Come out of the fog, young man.

My favorite concept of invisibility from this novel is itself invisible. It is so entirely invisible, that it seems to have evaded readers for more than half a century. It is the inherent invisibility of an author both in the seclusion of how he or she writes but also in the lack of identity. Unlike actors and dancers, the author is faceless and bodiless. We cannot know the gender, race, age or fitness unless its is offered to us by something beyond the text. Consider how this is handled in the title and contents of John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (1961).

Additionally, there is an absence of visual cues we might get from another profession: the photographer's camera, the painter's splat jeans, or the musician's cello (in case) being wheeled down the street. This is partly by design. The inherent invisibility of an author seems necessary to the profession and craft: to secretly observe without any obvious recording device and then to recall the invisible ideas suspended in one's imagination. This is a great advantage to an observer whose subject would certainly act differently in front of a still or movie camera. Subjects of such devices project ideas of themselves back through the lens.

There is also another fascinating affect. While the paperback or Kindle have a physical presence, their words are quickly converted into invisible memories of what was read and can be unwound by thinking about and discussing them.

Ellison's invisibility is indeed complex. In the prologue her offers:

That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.

The complexity is especially of note in such a comment:

Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility...

and...

Discipline is sacrifice. Yes, and blindness.

Invisible Man
is too easy reduced to/defined as the story of a black man in white America. The narrator is just as invisible and alienated from other African-Americans as he is from the Anglo-Americans. His state is a blurred one, bouncing between the extremes. Dr. Bledsoe, who is a "white is right" black man, and Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer, who is the closer to home, foreign-born African, are his two greatest enemies. Both of these men want to bury him alive. In fact, he wants to be invisible to both of them. In one of the most interesting and comical parts, the narrator buys a pair of sunglasses and then a hat to avoid being noticed by Ras and his followers. The minor disguise apparently makes several people believe he is someone else, Rinehart, a multi-faceted mystery man, who is defined as:

...Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend?

Ellison starts the novel from a future time in the story and states he is an invisible man but this identity is not immediately assumed. It's developed throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, in the racist brawl organized at a local hotel for the town's "big shots," the narrator comments:

Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man.

The idea of invisibility is introduced by one of the crazy war veterans (speaking about our narrator) at the Golden Day:

"You see," he said turning to Mr. Norton, "he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. Understand. Understand? It's worse than that. He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn't digest it. Already he is - well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humaity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!"

I love how the theme evolves; over 500 pages into the novel the narrator remarks:

They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their own voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves and I'd help them. I laughed. Here I had thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men...

I don't want to take anything away from the book's moved readers or its influence on the Civil Rights Movement but Ellison's work reaches beyond this period and cast of characters.

When he writes in the Epilogue, "I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility," I consider his confession through the narrator that he is a "sensitive" person. To be sensitive to certain issues is to also be slightly removed from them and to acknowledge their actual qualities. While the narrator is alienated by the Anglo-Americans he also shares very intimate moments with them, whether its casually pressing up against their bodies on a crowded subway or being eagerly pulled into bed by a woman who fancies him.

Ellison can be very direct, black and white:

Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness?

Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray.

There is one reference to food that I found quite interesting. I do not know if was an unconscious wording or if bread and jam are code for Anglo-Americans and African-Americans:

good white bread...with wild blackberry jam from home.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Invisible Man: Like a Museum

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive postings: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

It is always important to read a book, view a painting or listen to music with an understanding of its historical context. Invisible Man is inseparable from the Civil Rights Movement.

John F. Callahan comments in the Introduction:

Segregation was the law of the land and Jim Crow customs still prevailed in the South....The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision mandating integration in public schools was two years away...seamstress Rosa Parks [had not yet] refused to give up her seat...Martin Luther King, Jr. was a first-year divinity student...

Considering how progressive Ellison was as a writer, it is surprising to note that Pablo Picasso had painted Demoiselles d’Avignon almost half a century earlier, in 1907, which, like other cubist paintings, referenced the abstraction found in African art.

Ellison's narrator is often wide-eyed, somewhat naïve (though he does recognize a Renoir) and at times critical of African objects. While visiting a wealthy New York businessman, Mr. Emerson, in search of employment, he takes in his office:

Beyond the door it was like a museum. I had entered a large reception room decorated with cool tropical colors...I looked around the room, amazed. There were paintings, bronzes, tapestries, all beautifully arranged...I looked across to a lighted case of Chinese design which held delicate-looking statues of horses and birds, small vases and bowls, each set upon a carved wooden base...The room was quiet as a tomb...These folks are the Kings of the Earth!...There was nothing like this at the college museum - or anywhere else that I had ever been. I recalled only a few cracked relics from slavery times: an iron pot, an ancient bell, a set of ankle-irons and links of chain, a primitive loom, a spinning wheel, a gourd for drinking, an ugly ebony African god that seemed to sneer (presented to the school by some traveling millionaire), a leather whip with copper brads, a branding iron with the double letter MM...

The narrator is continually impressed and seems to respect the finer things of the upper class. An admirer of his speeches brings him back to her apartment "in one of the better sections of the city" where he is seduced prior to her indifferent husband's arrival in the early morning:

"What a beautiful room you have here," I said, looking across the rich cherry glow of furniture to see a life-sized painting of a nude, a pink Renoir. Other canvases were hung here and there, and the spacious walls seemed to flash alive with warm, pure color. What does one say to all this? I thought, looking at an abstract fish of polished brass mounted on a piece of ebony.

The pink, nude Renoir anticipates the "small, delicately plump" woman's advances, which he is hesitant to submit to but not something he denies himself:

And the was something about her voice and smile that gave me a sense of both comfort and excitement. It was not merely the background of wealth and gracious living, to which I was alien, but simply the being there with her and the sensed possibility of a heightened communication; as though the discordantly invisible and the conspicuously enigmatic were reaching a delicately balanced harmony. She's rich but human.

The harmony is quickly disrupted when she talks about his primitive nature when he gives his speeches:

"...you have tom-toms beating in your voice."

To which he responds:

"My God," I laughed, "I thought that was the beat of profound ideas."

She corrects herself:

"I don't mean really primitive. I suppose I mean forceful, powerful."

It is an exchange that makes me question my previous mention of Picasso, because what we often embrace as an advancement in art was really a cultural slight: embracing "the primitive" which feeds into the art world all the way up to Jean-Michel Basquiat and beyond.

It is an issue Ellison exposes in this passage:

These fellows whose bodies seemed - what had one of my teachers said of me? - "You're like one of those African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design." Well, what design and whose?

My favorite art references are less direct and are formed by Ellison - the writer, but not for the benefit of a character observing art:

...men and horses of flesh imitating men and horses of stone.

And I love this image created by a man carting piles of blueprints through New York City:

"I got damn near enough (blueprints) to build me a house if I could live in a paper house like they do in Japan."

I would even go so far as to reinterpret this next sentence, simply a convalescent/medical analogy, to that of the creation of a statue coming to life, perhaps even the formation of Adam, himself. There is something of George Segal's sculptures in it:

My entire body started to itch, as though I had just been removed from a plaster cast and was unused to the new freedom of movement.

I love Ellison's scope of observation of the day-to-day:

I looked into the design of their faces...

and...

Now, moving through the crowds along 125th Street, I was painfully aware of other men dressed like the boys, and of girls in dark exotic-colored stockings, their costumes surreal variations of downtown styles.

Speaking of 'surreal variations,' Ellison is brilliant with this animism of an object and words that almost emit sounds themselves:

...a bullet struck an auto tire, the released air shrieking like a huge animal in agony.

Finally, a line I will contemplate for the rest of my life:

There was no time for memory, for all its images were of times past.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Invisible Man: Invisible Media

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive postings: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

Invisible Man is a book about humanity and the struggles of achieving and maintaining a certain level of respect, dignity and value as a human...and yet, I have been discussing very superficial elements such as flags and mirrors; and I want to continue to discuss them. The reason for this is because I will leave the deeper discussions for the true scholars of this text.

Another reason is that I hope my perspective reveals a side of Ellison that is often lost to the conversation about the more obvious theme of being 'black' in America. I gasp when I read back-handed compliments such as "the best novel by an African American..." Ellison was a great universal writer and I believe my approach supports this with such specific examples.

I have already written about flags as a motif and mirrors as a literary device. I want to discuss here media references, both outside and inside the book. The most obvious one is the title. H.G. Wells published The Invisible Man in 1897. Ellison's Invisible Man expands the meaning of invisible, the same way the term color blind grew to have social implications. The reference to the Wells' invisible character is that of alienation.

In the introduction of Ellison's novel, John F. Callahan, addresses some interesting media points:

Invisible Man makes a powerful appeal for our participation. Though his medium is now the written word, his language has the offhand, offbeat, vernacular quality of speech which, together his story, has kept generations of readers having their say, talking back to him and to Ellison about 'the principle' and about 'the beautiful absurdity of American identity', which press on in ways 'just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now [we] better understand [our] relation to it and it to [us]'.

And I like Callahan's temporal compliment:

As a writer, he was blessed with an elastic sense of time.

The genius of which is expressed in the following passage:

I moved with the crowd, the sweat pouring off me, listening to the grinding roar of traffic, the growing sound of a record shop loudspeaker blaring a languid blues. I stopped. Was this all that would be recorded? Was this the only true history of the times, a mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid inadequate words? My mind flowed. It was as though in this short block I was forced to walk past everyone I'd ever known and no one would smile or call my name. No one fixed me in his eyes. I walked in feverish isolation.

In the closing of the epilogue, Ellison probes:

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I've learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled "file and forget," and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy. My complacency.

(...perhaps, being a talker, I've used too many words). But I've failed. The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness.

My first note of a media reference came a quarter of the way into the book. Dr. Bledsoe addresses the narrator:

"These white folk have newspapers, magazines, radios, spokesmen to get their ideas across. If they want to tell the world a lie, they can tell it so well that it becomes the truth; and if I tell them that you're lying, they'll tell the world even if you prove you're telling the truth. Because it's the kind of lie they want to hear..."

One passage might as well have come out of Stanley Kubrick's notes on how to shoot A Clockwork Orange scene. It is of our narrator, coming to in the factory hospital:

They were holding me firm and it was fiery and above it all I kept hearing the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth...

There are also many references to language, such as:

For the boys speak a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour, think transitional thoughts, though perhaps they dream the same old ancient dreams.

and...

I saw no limits...Even if it meant climbing a mountain of words. For now I had begun to believe, despite all the talk of science around me, that there was a magic in spoken words.

But I especially loved those that were more poetic:

...their heavy heel plates clicking remote, cryptic messages in the brief silence of the train's stop.

And finally, a prescient nod to Twitter:

I hurried, the sound drawing closer, myriad-voiced, humming, enfolding me, numbing the air, as I started beneath the ramp. It came, a twitter, a coo, a subdued roar that seemed trying to tell me something, give me some message.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Invisible Man: Mirror, Mirror...

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive postings: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

Invisible Man is littered with references to vision but I found a few passages specific to the mirror/reflection, which serves as an interesting device, especially because the first instance of it seemed so cinematic, like a scene from a Hitchcock film:

...I followed the white line of the highway...In the mirror I could see Mr. Norton staring out vacantly upon the empty field...

Ellison's mirrors and reflections are always reality checks. In the excerpt above, our narrator is not in a position to speak candidly with Norton so his rear view mirror, meant to help him drive the automobile, becomes something with which he navigates himself into the world of white, privileged men.

The oddest mention of the mirror is as our narrator and Dr. Bledsoe, who eventually expels the narrator, visit Norton after his dizzying encounter with the incestuous sharecropper, Trueblood, and the crazy drunk veterans at the Golden Day:

Just inside the building I got another shock. As we approached a mirror Dr. Bledsoe stopped and composed his angry face like a sculptor, making it a bland mask, leaving only the sparkle of his eyes to betray the emotion that I had seen only a moment before. He looked steadily at himself for a moment; then we moved quietly down the silent hall and up the stairs.

When our narrator makes it to Harlem and is full of enthusiasm for what he believes to be letters of recommendation from school, he consults the looking glass:

Finally, I went to the mirror and gave myself an admiring smile as I spread the letters upon the dresser like a hand of high trump cards.

I was not very diligent with taking notes of all the appearances of mirrors in Invisible Man but there was one reference to young Harlem hipsters and their reflections, which I liked:

I
looked at the boys. They sat as formally as they walked. From time to time one of them would look at his reflection in the window and give his hat brim a snap, the others watching him silently, communicating ironically with their eyes, then looking straight ahead.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Invisible Man: Oh, Say Can You See?

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive posts: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

My Penguin Classic edition of Invisible Man has a silver strip (across the bottom of the front cover) with the Penguin logo, a white knockout of the author's name and the title in thin, black letters. Above this is a lot of white space with a small, tattered, black and white US flag in the lower right corner, which is flapping in such a way that it is shown "backwards".

The use of the flag on this cover, prompted me to keep an eye on flag references throughout the 581 pages of my book. When I started, I was not sure if there was a specific passage that spoke to this weathered flag, which there isn't, or if it was simply a publisher's nod to the content and an art department/designer's interpretation of Ellison's comments on America. Having just finished it, I think it is a bit misleading and spoils the evolution of Ellison's motif.

Invisible Man is a finely crafted novel and Ellison's use of the flag image is quite remarkably placed and developed. His first instance of it is in the opening pages as a tattoo above the pubic region of a "magnificent blonde-stark naked" who is present to get the juices flowing before a youthful and racist brawl organized at a local hotel for the entertainment of the town's "big shots":

I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear...Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked...I wanted at one and the same to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V.

Ellison does not mention the flag for another sixty pages. The narrator (at first, a student at a southern college for African Americans) chauffeurs a wealthy white founder, Mr. Norton, who is visiting the campus. Norton expresses interest in getting a close-up look at a former slave cabin, far off-campus, where he engages in a conversation with a poor, black sharecropper, Trueblood, who retells a sad and horrifying story of how he accidentally committed incest and impregnated his own daughter. It puts the fair Norton into a state of shock and he instructs our narrator to get him a hard drink to restore his senses. This leads the characters to a loose pub/brothel, the Golden Day, which is being visited by insane, black WWII veterans. A fainted Norton is brought into the establishment where he regains consciousness:

He looked slowly around him, up to the balcony, with its scrolled and carved wood. A large flag hung lank above the floor. He frowned.

If Ellison's flags are America, here it is disrespected amongst crazy drunks and perhaps it is reflective of how these veterans are treated. Ellison references the US flag nine more times. Arriving in Harlem and crossing paths with Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer, who becomes his nemesis:

Before me a gathering of people were almost blocking the walk, while above them a short squat man shouted angrily from a ladder to which were attached a collection of small American flags.

This is an interesting passage because the little flags support the "violent" Ras, who criticizes the government, which surprises the narrator because there are police standing by but are ignoring the man.

After the narrator's supposed prospects for work betray him, he goes to a factory where he is told he can find employment:

Ahead of me a huge electric sign announced its message through the drifting strands of fog:

KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS

Flags were fluttering in the breeze from each of a maze of buildings below the sign, and for a moment it was like watching some vast patriotic ceremony from a distance. But no shots were fired and no bugles sounded. I hurried ahead with the others through the fog.

This is where Ellison really plays on the metaphor of whiteness: the factory makes white paint for government.

The narrator fails in his positions and ends up, after a accident, in the factory hospital. After he is released, he comments:

It was day's end now and on top of every building the flags were fluttering and diving down, collapsing. And I felt that I would fall, had fallen, moved now as against a current sweeping swiftly against me.

The narrator has a change of fate after speaking up at a Harlem eviction, which turns into a public outcry/protest. He is recruited by the multi-racial "Brotherhood" as an orator and the flag becomes empowering in references over the next 130 pages:

We marched towards a flag-draped platform set near the front of the arena...

Then came the flags and banners and the cards bearing slogans; and the squad of drum majorettes, the best-looking girls we could find, who pranced and twirled and just plain girled in the enthusiastic interest of Brotherhood. We pulled fifteen thousand Harlemites into the street behind our slogans and marched down Broadway to City Hall. Indeed, we were the talk of town.

First, if you remember, when you watch our people when there's a parade or a funeral, or a dance or anything like that, they always have some kind of flags and banners even if they don't mean anything. It kind of makes the occasion seem more important like. It makes people stop, look and listen. 'What's coming off here? But you know and I know that they ain't none of 'em got no true flag-except maybe Ras the Exhorter, and he claims he's Ethiopian or Africa. But none of us got no true flag 'cause the flag don't really belong to us. They want a true flag, one that's as much theirs as anybody else's. "Yes, I think I do," I said remembering that there was always that sense in me of being apart when the flag went by. It had been a reminder, until I'd found the Brotherhood, that 'my' star was not yet there..."Sure, you know," brother Wrestrum said. "Everybody wants a flag. We need a flag that stands for Brotherhood, and we need a sign we can wear."

From this point, until the end, Ellison literally takes the wind out of the US flag, lowering it half-mast, in three more references, which either mark death or anticipate the violence of Ras, who eventually tries to kill the narrator during a confrontation in a Harlem race riot:

There were half-draped flags and black banners.

...Ras the Exhorter-the last man in the world I wanted to see. And I had just turned back when I saw him lean down between his flags, shouting,...

And now we were passing the hero's tomb and I recalled a visit there. You went up the steps and inside and you looked far below to find him, at rest, draped flags...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ever Green

by Drew Martin

Trees are multi-media wonders. They sense the seasons and thereby cause reactions in humans who look to them for signs of life and death in their colors, flowers, fruits and leaves. The rings of a cut stump work as a concentric calendar and are displayed in museums to mark history and have been used in numerous productions such as Roots and The End of August at the the Hotel Ozone to visualize the passage of time. Trees also tell us a lot about our environment and can be analyzed for levels of radiation and substances they have absorbed. In a much more practical and direct tie to media, 90% of paper pulp comes from trees: trees are media.

Trees are loaded with connotations that send us around the world. In my mind, palm trees place me in California or Florida; just as baobab trees send me to Africa. I used to like walking through the groves of eucalyptus trees in Santa Barbara, which were imported from Australia to replace the indigenous oaks that the whalers cut down to boil whale fat and heat the blobs of oil found on the beaches there, to tar their ships. So while eucalyptus trees remind me of California, they also create a sense for me of what part of Australia must look and smell like, since I have never been there.

Likewise, the bamboo plant transports me far away. It conjures images of happy pandas munching away in China. I was born during the Vietnam War so bamboo also brings to mind the war itself because of photographs I grew up with as well as all the movies staged in groves.

While looking for pictures of "war time" bamboo, I found the two images below...one taken during the war and one referencing the dense vegetation, from a blog devoted to restaging the day-to-day activities/missions of 20th Century wars using G.I. Joe dolls.

Most people would not associate suburban New Jersey with bamboo but the plant thrives there and many other parts of America, and is quite common despite its foreign and exotic association.

I have not researched how bamboo made its way to America but I assume it was simply imported for landscaping purposes or as a curiosity. Despite its unnatural start, it's here to stay and is part of my own life/daily routine. Every morning I run to one of several groves in my and neighboring towns. I break off a small cluster of branches and bring it home for my kid's guinea pigs, who are delighted to chew on the fresh leaves.

Typically, I take my clippings from the sagging perimeter of a grove but in some of the spots I have to walk into the grove, which is other-worldy because of the green lighting, breezy rustle of the leaves, dull-clanking of the stalks and the huge bamboo spiders that suspend themselves at face-height during the warmer months.

Pictured left, is a bunch I got on a recent run. I photographed it in the snow.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fire and Ice

by Drew Martin

My 12 year old daughter asked me last week if I would rather die by burning or freezing. I gave it a lot of thought, as if I needed to actually choose. Eventually, I offered that perhaps I would rather freeze because I heard that some people, when facing an extremely cold death, are actually overcome with a sensation of warmth and end up running around naked in their final moments with a festive mood of a spring awakening.

A day or two after my conclusion, I came down with the flu. Usually I am sick for a day and then fully recover but this has been a long and debilitating illness. I've lost weight and the recent 15 °F (-9 °C) mornings leave me uncontrollably shaking. I hate the cold. I am too skinny and it goes straight to my bones. The worst part of being sick in cold weather (for me) is walking home from the train station at night. On a steamy summer evening, it's a short, pleasant stroll but late a night with a winter chill, you feel like Ernest Shackleton crossing Elephant Island.

The other night, in my shivering misery, I noticed a young neighbor also getting home late. She had spent at least a year in blistering Dubai and her long-distance boyfriend is from sunny Zanzibar. We started talking on the final home stretch, which made me feel warmer. "Why did you come back?" I demanded. "It's so cold here." Then, a local barber, who lives across the street, pulled up to his parking spot as we passed. "And what is he doing here? He's from Iraq!" I exclaimed. It wasn't a discriminating comment at all...I was simply pondering how people from warm climates tolerate such cold.

Death by fire is pretty final. Matter is converted into energy. It's true of our mediated extensions: books are burned into oblivion, like sentenced witches; and, chemically precarious films ignite...in a kind of self-immolation. That being said, fire is protest. Vietnam's Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam, on June 11, 1963. He never moved a muscle, never cried out. He was bringing attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime.

In 1968, Ryszard Siwiec, a Polish accountant and teacher, set himself on fire and staggered around a stadium with 100,000 spectators in Warsaw, in protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, an act that was followed by self-immolation of the Czechs Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc and Evžen Plocek.

There is little protest in freezing. I am not aware of anyone who has frozen himself to death in protest. In fact, the act of freezing has been a last resort to self-preservation with the potential of cryonics.


Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


Robert Frost

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Book By Its Cover

by Drew Martin

Several years ago my mother gave me The Winter Zoo, by John Beckman. She had considered giving me Prague by Arthur Phillips but, despite the title, it is actually set in Budapest and although I had lived in Prague a couple years, I had also spent a lot of time in Krakow, where Beckman set his story. The clincher for her was that despite the popularity of Phillips' novel, The Winter Zoo got better reviews.

To my amazement, not only could I relate to The Winter Zoo, but it was too familiar. After completing it, I noticed it was dedicated to (and therefore loosely based on) a dear friend Beckman and I both lost. I later found that that he even started working on it in the very room I used to stay in when I visited Krakow. I did not know Beckman, so I reached out to him and he came up from Annapolis to visit me for an evening in NJ: there was a lot to talk about.

One of the more pedestrian things we discussed was the cover of his book. I was interested in the choice of the image: it did not really relate to the book and it did not remind me of Krakow at all. He explained that it was a bit beyond his control. The publisher originally chose a picture, as he described, of a man ripping open his own head, which was certainly not fitting, so this cover image was replaced with the photograph of a freckled, naked young woman lying on a slab of marble.

I have always wondered, but never investigated, how an image is typically chosen for a cover. In today's market, this is left to the brainstorming and creative juices of the art departments at big publishers.

This past summer, a friend who is a professor of political theory and who I have assisted creatively before, asked me to come up with an image for a festschrift he was editing in honor of a colleague. He described the contents and suggested using an abstract expressionist painting. It was an intriguing request, which I wanted to do to help him out but also to see what this journey was like.

The image we agreed upon was Cy Twombly's Ferragosto V. I thought it was going to be a trial to go through the proper channels to get rights to use the image but it was too easy. Within a matter of minutes I located the gallery in Switzerland that owned the painting. I emailed the gallery explaining the reason why we thought Ferragosto V would be perfect for the collection of essays. In a few days I got a positive response, a high resolution scan and a transparency was on its way in the mail.

At that point, I was no longer involved in the project. Personally, I wish I could have had some design input because the image would have worked nicely as a full wrap. None-the-less, it found its way to the cover of a book I am eager to read.

A note on Rational Radicalism and Political Theory: Essays in Honor of Stephen Eric Bronner on the publisher's website:

Paying tribute to one of the more original theorist of the late 20th and early 21st century, Rational Radicalism and Political Theory probes the thought of Stephen Eric Bronner. This collection of essays encompasses themes such as the Enlightenment's radical legacy, the impulse of cosmopolitanism, the rejuvenation of socialist theory and politics, and advances in Critical Theory. These essays make new contributions to many areas of left political theory, while at the same time reflecting on the ways Stephen Bronner's ideas serve to generate a new kind of critical political theory. Blending political and intellectual history, normative and moral argumentation, and forays into the nature of politics itself, this book brings together new voices in political theory to assess Bronner's contributions and pave new paths for the future of political theory.

"This magnificent collection of essays in honor of Stephen Bronner is powerful and propitious. Bronner is one of the last grand figures in the rich tradition of Critical Theory. And in this time of the declining American Empire and contracting transatlantic capitalist vitality, we need this tradition and Bronner more than ever!"
Cornel West, Princeton University

I had a serendipitous moment trying to find an image of The Winter Zoo: I happened upon a brilliant blog maintained by a writer/editor/designer from Australia. He's been prolifically posting since the summer of 2007 about book design. The cover of The Winter Zoo is compared to another book, which uses the same Ben Stockley photograph, at the Caustic Cover Critic: One Man's Endless Ranting About Book Design.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Here Be Dogs

by Drew Martin

When I arrived in Prague in the winter of 1992, it became immediately obvious that Czechs love music: they bathed in it. On my first night in Prague, a friend took me around to a handful of clubs, all blaring rock music, which included a lot of American grunge. What surprised me the most was that when some of the partying Czechs got tired, they just fell asleep right there in the club, on the floor, behind the stage speakers or at a pub table. I was impressed.

One reason for this was that they were simply resting until the normal public transportation kicked in at 5 a.m. when the metro and day-schedule trams came alive. But I also witnessed this at a big music festival in Moravia. I went to the main square early one morning, where the bands had played the night before, and found about a hundred Czechs and Slovaks sleeping on the pavement without any kind of bedding, using the curbs as headrests. It looked as if a bomb had gone off leaving these youthful casualties littered about. It was a carefree, fantastic summer and the fans did not want to miss a minute of it.

At this time there was a healthy domestic music scene as well as a great interest in foreign bands. The smaller groups from the UK and other parts of Europe were enthusiastic about touring Czechoslovakia and playing for an audience that seemed insatiable. I did not follow the music scene too closely but on subsequent visits (after I returned to the States in 1997) I sensed that the local bands were fading out as the world opened up and more and more to the Bohemians. Instead of meeting up with friends to see the Czechs perform, I was being invited to amateur reggae and Latin music shows. Not that I would dismiss these kinds of music but I just don't want to see second-rate versions of them farther from their source.

So when I was asked at the end of this past summer to help out with a music book project, covering Czech bands and the image each embodies (including the presentation of their performances, merchandizing, packaging, marketing, fashion and the reflection of all this by the fans themselves), I was pleased to find that the Czech scene is alive and well, anchored with a few old timers, such at The Plastic People of the Universe, and refreshed with many newer bands, such as Kill the Dandies!.

The fashion interest of the project was no surprise to me because every time I visited Czech it became harder and harder to tell the Czechs apart from the expats and tourists. In the early 1990s, tight black jeans, a keffiyeh around the neck and a pair of ankle-high suede shoes with gummy soles would comprise a cool Czech look. Many of the young men grew their hair long and the young female club-kids wore thigh-high black stockings with mini skirts. In the summer, both the men and women wore short-shorts and thin leather sandals or simple, old-school sneakers. Another staple accessory for the men, was a black or dark-brown leather pouch worn on the hip, which contained their wallets and identification.

Now, the young Czechs would fit in with any international hipster crowd. Each time I go to Prague, I swear its my last time, but something always pulls me back. I think it is really exciting to see how Czechs changed in two decades. Hardly anyone spoke English when I first arrived and now everyone speaks well. The younger artists and musicians are more worldly, less cynical and fun to be around.

The book I have mentioned, which captures the current Czech music scene with all of its visual aspects, is Zde Jsou Psi (translated to the slangy, Here Be Dogs). Its format is over 9x12 inches (23 x 31 x 3 cm). With 262 thick pages, it is loaded with photos, drawings, graphics and articles about 32 Czech bands.

Zde Jsou Psi is the result of dozens of contributors, from writers to photographers. Michal Nanoru edited the project from New York, where he is currently living, while Martina Overstreet produced it in Prague. The bands were selected by Nanoru, Overstreet and Marie Hladíková. I am credited as one of three anglické korektury ("English correctors" a.k.a English proof readers). I merely cleaned up several of the articles, which required some re-translating and invention. I have not actually looked at my efforts in the book for fear of seeing a mistake but while thumbing through it again I saw an opening quote for the band 1a2v1 that made me laugh because of the back-and-forth I had with Nanoru and the English translator, Irena Tománková:

"Do you wear long-hair plush? Better drink some Slurpee slush!"

I am not even going to attempt to explain this here; you'll have to get the book >>>

The bands covered include:
Marius konvoj, Like She, Schwarzprior, 1a2v1, Midi Lidi, Kazety, Mateřídouška, Čokovoko, The Models, Poxxoxo, Indie Twins, Tvyks, Table, Eost, Prince of Tennis, Sporto, Magnetik, Dné, Fiordmoss, Dva, Please the Trees, Kill the Dandies!, Priessnitz, Scissorhands, Sunshine, Night, Root, Master’s Hammer, 518, Smack, WWW, Plastic People of the Universe.

Shown here, respectively, are photos of Eost, Fiordmoss and Mateřídouška, from top to bottom (all shot by Adam Holý).