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Posts from the Columns Category

The towering James Baldwin would have turned 94 two days ago, had he not passed away in 1987. It was lovely to see his birthday celebrated in various ways online this week, though perhaps no tribute was quite as moving as the one that came from Barry Jenkins: the Moonlight director marked the occasion with the debut of the first trailer for If Beale Street Could Talk, his upcoming film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel-of-the-same-name.

That we’re all still talking about Baldwin and his work more than thirty years after his death is a real testament to the power and importance of his writing. In addition, his mastery of so many formats — the novel, the essay, the lecture, the media appearance, and so on — continues to be mind-boggling. Moreover, it’s remarkable how his work has enjoyed broad appeal while also speaking so emphatically to people of color and queer people, as well as those on the left, writers, and others.

Baldwin certainly speaks to me as a writer and a person on the left, but also as a member of another community: the fellowship of those who have left the ministry. For a long time, I worked as a chaplain and professor of Buddhist practical theology. A few years ago, though, I came to the conclusion that I needed to leave both the ministry and Buddhism altogether — and it wouldn’t be too much to say that Baldwin’s writing about his own trials and tribulations in the realm of religious life helped me through my decision.

Growing up, Baldwin had been expected to follow in his step-father’s footsteps and become a Pentecostal preacher. For a time he served as a junior minister and was (unsurprisingly) quite good at sermonizing. But he also struggled with doubt. Details of his experience in the church find their way into many of his works, but perhaps the one that provides the clearest picture of this period is The Devil Finds Work (Dial Press, 1976).

Described by critic and curator Ashley Clark as a “brilliant book-length…essay, which blends a candid autobiographical articulation of his cinephilia with a frank critique of the fraught intersection between Hollywood’s industrial practices and its limiting representational approaches,” The Devil Finds Work is probably most remembered for its focus on film. (By way of illustration, much of the material about American cinema in Raoul Peck’s 2016 Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro is drawn from its pages.) For me, though, its autobiographical material had life-altering effects.

I first read The Devil Finds Work in 2014. At the time, I was feeling exhausted, and I couldn’t figure out why. I’d long since vacated an unusually demanding university job, which had seemed like the logical culprit behind my weariness. I had fully transitioned into working independently — writing articles, coediting a book, speaking at events, producing a podcast, getting my foot in the door at other schools — and I was doing it all at a pace that I was more or less able to set for myself. But I felt no less worn-down. I wasn’t overworked and I wasn’t burned out, but I was enervated nonetheless.

The problem was this: I was done with Buddhism (or Buddhism was done with me). What’s more, we’d been done with each other for quite a while. However, there I was, still toiling away at it as if nothing were wrong. But the dissonance had finally become too much, and the seams were now showing.

I had initially come to Buddhism as a scared nineteen-year-old; I needed help addressing fears about impermanence and death, and it offered some much-needed assistance. While Buddhist study and practice did help me get a grip, existentially-speaking, it also stopped being helpful at a certain point.

Nevertheless, I stayed with it, and for silly reasons. One was a sense of loyalty — a servile appreciation for what aid Buddhism had provided. Another was the masochistic belief that if things didn’t seem to be working it was because I just wasn’t practicing hard enough. So I also overcompensated: more retreats, more degrees, more jobs, more everything.

For a long time, though, I couldn’t see any of this. My partner Steph certainly could, but, in her gentle and patient way, she let me work most of it out on my own. Her active listening was vital, though, in terms of allowing me to see what I’d become: in her paraphrasing and questions, she reflected me back to myself with crystal clarity.

It was a rare piece of advice, though, that caused a breakthrough. Recognizing that it might be good for me to unplug from Buddhist/professional activities for at least part of the day, Steph suggested: “Maybe try reading something for pleasure?”

Funnily enough, I had recently come across Noah Berlatsky’s Atlantic piece about The Devil Finds Work. As a sometimes cinéaste, my interest had been piqued by two major declarations made by Berlatsky: that Baldwin was “the greatest film critic ever,” and his book “one of the most powerful examples ever of how writing about art can, itself, be art.” Since it was literally at the top of my reading list, and really the only title that had nothing to do with Buddhism, I decided to start there.

What I didn’t expect in reading The Devil Finds Work was that it would speak so precisely to where I was at that moment: Baldwin ends Part One of the book reflecting on his own break with the church. He paints an affecting portrait of himself as a confused teenager, struggling mightily with how to move forward in his life:

I knew that I could not stay in the pulpit. I could not make my peace with that particular lie — a lie, in any case, for me. I did not want to become Baby-Face Martin — I could see that coming, and, indeed, it demanded no spectacular perception, since I found myself surrounded by what I was certain to become. But neither did I know how to leave — to jump: it could not be explained to my brothers and sisters, or my mother, and my father had begun his descent into the valley (32).

It all culminates with a challenge from his best friend Emile Capouya, who would himself go on to become a writer and publisher of note. Baldwin describes Capouya as “one of the most honest and honorable people I have ever known” (32), and describes his provocation thus:

Even if what I was preaching was gospel, I had no right to preach it if I no longer believed it. To stay in the church merely because I was afraid of leaving it was unutterably far beneath me, and too despicable a cowardice for him to support in any friend of his. Therefore, on the coming Sunday, he would buy two tickets to a Broadway matinee and meet me on the steps of the 42nd Street Library, at two o’clock in the afternoon. He knew that I spent all day Sunday in church — the point, precisely, of the challenge. If I were not on the steps of the library (in the bookshelves of which so much of my trouble had begun!) then he would be ashamed of me and never speak to me again, and I would be ashamed of myself (33).

Happily, the story ends with Baldwin finding the grit to “tip-toe” out of his church and meet Capouya at the 42nd Street Library (34). The rest is literary history.

Reading about this “quite extraordinary confrontation between two adolescents” moved me to tears. I could relate completely to Baldwin: I was lying to myself in much the same way that he had been lying to himself. Indeed, the only things still holding me to Buddhism had nothing to do with Buddhism per se, but rather with my not knowing how to be honest with myself and others. Like Baldwin, I had “lost a lot of respect for myself”: I wasn’t that scared nineteen-year-old anymore, and I needed to come to terms with that (33).

Although I’d been primed by my conversations with Steph, everything became clear as I read those sentences in The Devil Finds Work. And I knew I too had to get off the path I was on, or else I would be ashamed of myself. The rest is personal history.

Mine is an individual experience of Baldwin, to be sure. At the same time, though, it’s probably not totally unique: his singular ability cut through the lies we can and do tell ourselves is no doubt a big part of his continued significance. “You have to have the [guts] to protest the slogan, no matter how noble it may sound,” he told the New York Times in 1979. “It always hides something else; the writer should try to expose what it hides.”

Baldwin’s uncompromising investigations of both himself and the world remain vital inspirations today, and their influence is not likely to wane any time soon. Speaking personally — but also for quite a few others indirectly, I’m sure — I don’t know where I’d be without his work.

Happy Birthday, James. And thank you.

I am an enormous admirer of Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer who is perhaps best known for her novels The God of Small Things (1997) and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017). While both of these books are undeniably masterful, and I love them, it is actually her nonfiction that has impacted me most.

For one thing, her essay writing is every bit as gorgeous as her narrative prose, if not more so. One of her pieces in particular, “Confronting Empire” — which was originally delivered as a speech at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2003, and then published in her book-of-the-same-year War Talk — is quoted from constantly. In fact, you will probably recognize its stirring last lines: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

For another, her nonfiction always reflects the committed engagement of a true activist, and the good, old-fashioned, shoe-leather research of a journalist; she’s the furthest thing in the world from an ivory tower dilettante, writing from on the ground and in meaningful solidarity with those on whose behalf she speaks. By way of an example, when Roy wanted to write about Edward Snowden and his revelations, she got on a plane to Moscow with Daniel Ellsberg and actor John Cusack and went directly to the source. (The resultant book, Things that Can and Cannot Be Said: Essays and Conversations, which she co-authored with Cusack, was published by Haymarket Books in 2016.) To me, she is in a class by herself when it comes to contemporary political essayism.

Enamored as I am with Roy’s work, I read her recent Guardian Q&A with keen interest. To his credit, interviewer Tim Lewis calls attention to a phrase that I confess I hadn’t noticed her use on multiple occasions to talk about her nonfiction: “urgent interventions.” For example, in her 2009 book Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, she explains that “all [of its] essays were written as urgent, public interventions at critical moments in India… Often they were not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses” (pg. 3; emphasis added). Similarly, in an interview with the Irish Times last year, she says: “When I’m writing non-fiction, it’s a weapon, it’s an argument. It has an immediate and urgent purpose. Every essay of mine is an intervention into something…” (emphasis added).

Roy’s description of her essays as “urgent interventions” is not only lovely but spot-on as well: the goal of her nonfiction writing is to interrupt the conventional wisdom that prevents us from attending to critical needs. Her purpose in writing these pieces is to put up The Good Fight, and at those decisive moments when it so crucially needs to be fought.

It’s a testament to both the efficacy and the righteousness of her work that she has found herself in so much hot water over the years: if what she was doing was futile and insignificant, would the powers that really care so much? In 2010, for example, India’s home ministry and the Delhi police attempted to charge her with sedition for giving a speech about violence in Kashmir. Speaking to the Guardian at the time, she explained that this ultimately failed attempt to imprison her came from the government’s “panic about many voices, even in India, being raised against what is happening in Kashmir… Threatening me with legal action is meant to frighten the civil rights groups and young journalists into keeping quiet.” As episodes like this demonstrate, there really is no better phrase to encapsulate Roy’s nonfiction than “urgent interventions.”

Though I very seriously doubt I’ll ever produce even one essay as effective or eloquent as anything by Roy, her type of work is definitely what I aspire towards. I find nonfiction in all of its wonderfully varied forms and manifestations to be important, of course, but her writerly insurgencies are the gold standard as far as I’m concerned.

Obviously, my saying this betrays a certain partiality towards writing. Indeed, of all the different practices and disciplines I’ve undertaken in my life, it is the one that has been with me the longest, and that I really have the strongest affinity towards. Whatever intellectual development I have made definitely started when I began writing — first with letters to the editor of my hometown newspaper, and then for student publications in high school and college — and continues with each and every word I produce. Also, if I’m being honest, the most precious moments in any given week (beyond those spent with my partner Steph, of course) are those when I’m able to steal away to read and/or write in some peace and quiet.

In addition, now that I’ve reached the midpoint of my MFA studies in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, I think I can say with some confidence that I feel best suited to those documentary mediums that are literary in nature (oral history, creative nonfiction, etc.). For better or worse, I prefer the relative solitude and simplicity of writing to something like documentary filmmaking, which is by necessity a “team effort” and not terribly cheap. To write, I need only myself and something to write with — that feels very liberating to idiosyncratic old me.

All of this in mind, I’ve made a decision to recommit myself to writing, personally and professionally. One component of this will be a return to blogging. In the past, I was most productive (and prolific) when I had a blog, and regularly composing posts helped sharpen both my thinking and my writing practice.

This time, though, I’m going to try to be more focused in terms of the content. If there’s a goal post I’ve set for myself, it is most certainly (you guessed it) “urgent interventions” à la Roy. What I intend definitely has antecedents in things like I.F. Stone’s Weekly and TomDispatch as well. Put simply, I would like to use this space to offer analysis and commentary on politics and culture that is both timely and directed in service of needed change. Again, I’m sure this blog will mostly strain after the exemplars I’ve named; at its very best, though, it will do so at a respectable distance from them.

Work like Roy’s seems especially vital now, as so many right-wing and far-right-wing elements occupy positions of power around the world. But we needed more such “urgent interventions” before the dark age we are currently living through. We will need more after it has passed as well. This kind of work (and so many other kinds) needs to be constant and unceasing, so I’m going to roll up my sleeves and contribute what I can.

But is more “opinion content” really what we need right now? And aren’t blogs becoming an anachronism?

To answer the first question, we should probably clarify things a bit. On the one hand, yes, we’re overwhelmed with opinions as it is — look no further than television, social media, podcasts, YouTube, and so on. On the other hand, though, when it comes to professional opinion writing, that’s a different story. As Deron Lee writes for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Papers across the [U.S.] have cut their editorial output and staff, severely compromising their capacity to provide that essential hub of opinion and dialogue.” He continues: “Too often, papers have filled the hole left by departed local opinion writers with ‘guest columns’ by public officials and advocacy groups — leaving their editorial sections nearly devoid of independent local voices.”

In addition, those opinions that do find their way into mainstream publications are usually quite narrow in scope. Those of us firmly left-of-center don’t see our point of view reflected by popular newspaper and magazines all that often, for example. Worse still, as Jon Allsop notes for the Columbia Journalism Review, when op-ed sections do entertain voices from the left, “those pieces are almost always written about those voices, rather than by them” (emphasis added). The recent addition of Michelle Alexander to the New York Times‘s lineup of columnists (which otherwise spans from the liberal center to the far right) is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a very long way to go. To that end, every little bit of radical opining helps — even if it comes from the margins.

As to the second question, blogs may well be an anachronism; broadly speaking, the written word seems to be taking something of a beating these days. The most recent findings of the American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, indicate that “the share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004.” Even more distressing, a Federal District Court judge this week “dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by students at troubled schools in Detroit,” ruling that “access to literacy” is not a constitutional right. So, it’s not exactly a bull market right now in terms of literary projects.

However, to my way of thinking, intentional participation in reading and writing, and working against their eradication, can’t but do some good. Granted, it would be hard to disagree with Chris Hedges, who has observed that “the core values of our open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying.” But if there is any hope to be drawn from Hedges’s analysis, it would seem to be in subverting what he has elsewhere referred to as “the triumph of spectacle,” and bolstering our “literate, print-based culture.” This would be consistent with the view of the mighty Wendell Berry, who wrote decades ago:

We must know a better language. We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature. The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters.

This is not to say that this blog has no interest at all in audiovisual media. While the written word will be afforded a privileged position at this site, I do plan on punctuating regular “columns” with vlogs and audio interviews.

I imagine most of my vlogs will fall into the category of “BookTubing”. For the uninitiated, “BookTube” refers to a corner of the vlogging world that is preoccupied with books. “BookTubers” vlog their reviews, lists, site visits, and so on. Part of being a good writer is being a good reader, and making these kinds of video posts should help keep me honest in that respect.

In addition to the vlog, I will also be sharing audio interviews with others who are working on “urgent interventions” of one sort or another. In both form and content, these posts will pay homage to Studs Terkel‘s and David Barsamian‘s radio shows: sparely produced and unpretentious conversations with everyday and not-so-everyday people. The interviewees will be voices I need to hear for one reason or another, and perhaps you might too. (These posts will be made available in podcast form, and you can subscribe to the feed here.)

As for other housekeeping, I’ll be sharing recommended articles on my Pocket profile, which you can find here. You can also see what book I’m currently reading on my WorldCat profile, which you can find here.

Lastly, I won’t be hosting comments at this site. Why? Because I’m with Jessica Valenti on this: this is the internet — if you’ve got something to say, there’s no shortage of places where you can say it.

So, welcome to this site’s rebirth as a delivery system for “urgent Interventions.” Thanks for reading this lengthy introduction. And here we go…

Growing up as the son of an artist/actress and a theatre professor at a small liberal college, I was blessed with early and unique exposure to the arts. My father’s involvement with the visiting artist series and other programming on his campus was an important factor in this education because it brought many masters and their work to our community in rural Indiana: as a child, I was able to see in-person musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and the Red Clay Ramblers, performance troupes like the Second City and the Flying Karamazov Brothers, and writers like Edward Albee and Elie Wiesel.

Among the events that left the most indelible impressions upon me, though, were the special film presentations that periodically came through the college. In particular, I remember a showing of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute for parents and children; the first of many alternate cuts of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; the restoration of Abel Gance’s silent classic Napoleon; and a pristine reissue of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, marking the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.

There was also a disastrous screening of Indian director Satyajit Ray’s first masterpiece, 1955’s Pather Panchali (in English, Song of the Little Road). When I was quite small, my mother took me to see a battered 16mm print at a lecture hall on campus. “Do you even remember that?” she asked recently. “It was in terrible condition. The film kept breaking, and you couldn’t see the whole image — just a bright part in the center.” Between my age at the time and the especially shoddy picture quality, I didn’t actually remember a lot about child protagonist Apu and his poor Brahmin family in 1920s Bengal. But I did remember that bright part in the center: those lasting feelings of empathy and understanding that can only be generated by a filmmaker in complete command of the craft.

My mother and I are hardly the only ones who have been impacted by the film despite less-than-ideal circumstances. “I was in high school and happened to see Pather Panchali on television. Dubbed in English. With commercials,” Martin Scorsese told the Washington Post during a 2002 retrospective of Ray’s work at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery. “It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.”

In fact, for quite a while, appreciating Pather Panchali and its two sequels, 1956’s Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and 1959’s Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), in spite of inferior presentation has been the rule rather than the exception. Until now.

The Criterion Collection, in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and L’Immagine Ritrovata, has undergone the painstaking process of giving a new 4K digital restoration to the “Apu Trilogy”. (The films’ original negatives were badly damaged in a fire at London’s Henderson Film Laboratories, making a difficult job that much harder.) After a limited theatrical release earlier this year, the restored films were released on DVD and in digital formats this month. In addition, you can watch all three films tonight on Turner Class Movies (TCM), starting at 8 p.m. EST.

Revisiting Pather Panchali this month, on its sixtieth anniversary, felt like something more than a rediscovery. Indeed, to see the restoration is to meet Apu again for the first time.

That said, it’s not as though its classic status has ever been in doubt: Sight & Sound‘s 2015 poll of nearly a thousand “critics, programmers, academics, and distributors” resulted in its ranking as the 42nd greatest film of all time. In addition, the trilogy and its auteur have maintained some seriously impressive cachet in the popular culture. The Beatles’s paradigm-shifting discovery of Ravi Shankar’s music, for example, came through Pather Panchali‘s dazzling score. The creators of The Simpsons also named their Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Hank Azaria) in honor of the trilogy’s titular hero. In addition, one can feel Ray’s influence all over the work of Wes Anderson; the young auteur’s underrated The Darjeeling Limited is even dedicated to him, incorporating soundtrack cuts from across the master’s oeuvre, as well as a portrait of himin one key scene.

Perhaps it’s better to say that the restoration of Pather Panchali underscores the film’s resplendent technical qualities and magnifies the overall accomplishment. For example, the cinematography by Subrata Mitra finally registers in all of its exquisiteness; it is a rapturously beautiful film, with some of the most evocative natural photography ever put to celluloid. In particular, a montage of the wildlife at the pond near Apu’s family’s home comes to life in ways it has not for ages. The scene’s effect owes much to Shankar’s glorious music, which, thanks the remastered audio, now envelopes the viewer in the story even more so than before. It might be the greatest film score ever written.

With almost no blemishes to distract attention, viewers can now focus in much more closely on Ray’s story of India. As Scorsese points out, one of the things that remains so striking about Pather Panchali is its radical and crucial departure from the picture of the subcontinent we are normally shown in the West, “usually through colonialist eyes.” Adapted from the autobiographical novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the film certainly shows us an “India of contradictions” that is not necessarily unfamiliar: the family is Brahmin, the highest caste, and struggles mightily with crushing and lethal poverty nonetheless. But Ray — who was most influenced by Jean Renoir, the Italian neo-realists, and classical Hollywood — also offers an impressionistic portrait of Bengali people that shows us not only something of their individual experiences, but also something about human beings more broadly. The annual Hindu festival of Durga Puja, for example, is depicted through Apu’s eyes without explanation. These glimpses affect and instruct us in their own way, but also reflect universals about community and culture. “There’s a lesson [here] for younger people,” Scorsese says of Pather Panchali. “The more they see other cultures, the more accessible, the more you get to learn about the other cultures, the less you fear them, the less hatred.”

In his review of 1963’s Mahanagar (The Big City), Roger Ebert explains further: “[Ray’s films] are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but [his] characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood. Ray’s people have genuine emotions and ambitions, like the people next door and the people in Peoria and the people in Kansas City. There is not a person reading this review who would not identify immediately and deeply with [these] characters.”

However, in America, so-called “foreign” films can still seem like a lot of work to many audiences — an act of vegetable-eating, done dutifully if at all. But, as Ebert says: “Hollywood films with exploding cigarette lighters and gasping starlets and idiot plots are the real ‘foreign’ films. They have nothing at all in common with us, and Satyajit Ray of India understands us.”

In this regard, the Apu Trilogy returns to us not a moment too soon, as Hollywood’s franchise approach to filmmaking intensifies and further dominates the movie landscape. (Among other things, we are told to expect no less than thirty entries in the “Marvel Universe” over the next five years, and at least one Star Wars film a year for the foreseeable future.) Steven Soderbergh was right to lament in his keynote at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival:

Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint…[and it] is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience. The reasons for this, in my opinion, are more economic than philosophical, but when you add an ample amount of fear and a lack of vision, and a lack of leadership, you’ve got a trajectory that I think is pretty difficult to reverse.

In a recent interview, Spike Lee also reflected on the resistance of many audience members to idiosyncratic storytelling, saying:

They’re just seeing the same movies all the time. Hollywood, there’s less variety of the films that are being made today versus in the past. So they’re seeing the same thing again and again, being spoon-fed the same thing again and again. And more explosions. Louder explosions. More special effects… If you’re eating the same thing every day, and someone places something in front of you that’s not the same diet you’ve been eating, your palate, it’s different.

But some films have that rare ability to break through complacency and even reinvigorate the medium. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Pather Panchali is one of those films. Its restoration is a vital reminder of that power, even after sixty years. To work, it needs only to be seen.

What’s more, the experience of watching it evokes a kind of compassion that is so urgently needed. I can personally attest that these feelings will stay with the viewer long after other aspects of the film are forgotten, and can stoke an abiding interest in the world and the people in it. I’m not the only one who can testify to this effect, either. “My family was a working-class family and were uneducated and there were no books in the house,” says Scorsese. “But I would see certain films and the films would drive me to read these books or learn more about the culture. So when I saw Pather Panchali, it was a really a revelation and that’s why I think cinema’s so important.”

Indeed, Pather Panchali is an important film in the fullest sense of that adjective. And how many films can you really and truly say that about without cheapening the word?

Before the Force awakens, be sure you make some time for Apu and his family. It’s an investment of time that will not only broaden your horizons, but genuinely stir your heart. Throughout his career, Satyajit Ray has shown us, in his gentle way, that eliciting real emotional responses from an audience is not the same as manipulating them: to look at one of his films next to almost anything at the multiplexes right now is to see and appreciate this difference.

When a film is able to generate authentic feelings of connection with our fellow human beings, it is an astonishing feat — the best special effect of all. In the history of cinema, I wonder if there’s ever been a greater reminder of this than Pather Panchali?

Bibliography:

  • “Martin Scorsese Pays Tribute to Satyajit Ray” by Lloyd Grove for the Washington Post(Thursday, February 28th, 2002).