Excerpted brainstorms from Podcast Episode Two:
Midnight meditations on flickers, Paul Robeson, the morality of performing in front of a camera, and the embryo of a wobbly cinema
Episode Two – Excerpts, Notes & Brainstorms from November 19, 2021 12:48AM
…I light the candle – and like a film reel running through a projector in the head – I stare at the subtle dips and dives of shadows it tosses – I lay on the floor and I stare up at the ceiling and watch the flickers above the candle dance above the photo of Robeson and Eisenstein…(You wonder what John Berger might have made of it)
The shadows remind me not of the perfunctory Plato’s allegory of the cave – cause in Kangalee’s Cave we’re prisoners of truth, reality is never far from us; if anything we crave fantasy!
But the flickers remind me of the feeling I had as a young artist, the excitement I felt thinking about the plays I’d done…and the films I hoped to one day see.
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman beautifully conceded that if theater was his wife, film was his mistress. In some way I could relate – but for me and in my formative conception of Visual Liberation — it was if art was my wife and activism was my mistress. But one day I realized: it is quite possible to have all your desires in ONE BOOK.
(Speaking of books: read John Tytell’s “Art Exile and Outrage.” About Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s performance group, The Living Theater and the extraordinary combination of Brecht and Artaud in American political Theater. )
Last month I mentioned 3 films – all quite different and none prescriptions of or my conception of a revolutionary film – but each in its own way certainly radical – and therefore an example of Visual Liberation — Chameleon St, Shadows and Dog Day Afternoon.
I realized later why I mentioned these films: the black consciousness and majestic anarchism of Harris’ masterpiece coincided with my own aesthetic connection to Cassavetes’ jazz-inspired slice of life method-acting jam on identity, race, art, and friendship. All these themes and ideas seemed to coalesce for me in a passionate way simply by witnessing Al Pacino’s diatribes against the system in Dog Day Afternoon. I also mentioned Tytell’s book because Malina plays Pacino’s mother in the film…and was a real-life mentor of sorts. Her presence in Dog Day Afternoon underscores its revolutionary fervor, there’s an almost organized Artaudian mood – an impulse to literally riot – within the frames of that one movie by that Hollywood radical himself, Sidney Lumet…
Let’s get back to candles:
These midnight gesticulations on the wall made me think of my trip to Moscow in 1992.I don’t know why maybe it’s because that’s where I first smoked a cigarette and discovered when the glimmer of a candle had burned out: that Pushkin was a black man (the statue of him in Moscow is a site to see)…and that Jean Genet was a prophet of sorts, I had witnessed Roman Victuc’s production of the Maids and instantly realized what an Artaudian experience could be in the theater. 1992: Bush SR was still president. I was 16 – and it was The year I discovered Paul Robeson, Eisenstein and made sense of my visit to the Moscow art theater.
American Protest music and American Protest film – Political Filmmaking in a Left-Wing sense; a Wobbly Cinema if you will —
Dylan, Cash, Seeger, Havens, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bessie Smith…Billie Holiday.
When I mention these American artists what do you think of?
Now, let’s think about this in terms of a specific form of American movies.
Aesthetic and Ideological Foundation: Micheaux, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Clarke, Menelik Shabbaz, Fronza Woods, Julie Dash, Michael Roemer, MVP, Pasolini, Kramer, Cassavetes, Ivan Dixon, etc. Within this…underlying all of this is Paul Robeson.
The spirit of Robeson, who insisted you have to be on one side of oppression or the other. And the artist to him was a moralist who had to fight against abuse, poverty, genocide, and rape.
Recently Rosalie Gancie, artist and publisher in MD, had shared a lovely facsmile of a program circa, 1954-1955 of an announcement declaring a Calypso band at a gathering in support of Paul Robeson who had lost his passport; and the supporting fundraiser – happily endorsed by Charlie Chaplin –she shared the event materials on social media and it was so interesting to see it…and it immediately made me embarrassed at how the Left have shrunk artistically and culturally in POP and in the underground, or the fringes.
One of the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century and one of the towering figures of the left as well as one its worst ambassador’s, ironically, for cinema.
Tragically Robeson was one of The White Man’s Movie Industry’s grossest unintentional accomplices for the of stereotypes and derogatory projections of black actors in film. He was a prisoner of the white gaze, while knowing full well – in the end, that his revolutionary desires in cinema had been highjacked and betrayed by his trust and belief that most of the white people he worked with in film would enable what he wanted to do for the common man, the working man…and especially the person of African descent. He never came off the way he wanted to in a movie…
The exceptions are few, but most notably Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (one of the only movies I can watch him in)
( I highly suggest you read Susan Robeson’s book about her grandfather’s struggle for more detailed information about this. One of the several heartbreaking ingredients of his life…)
Because there is very little freewheeling revolutionary spirit and dignity in many of the motion pictures he acted in, it’s hard to watch him at all, frankly, on screen — I think it was Ruby Dee who lamented that she could never watch a movie he was in…and part of this reason is because it is a political and moral choice and vulnerability to perform in front of a camera and/or allow another human being to “capture” a part of you through a lens. Think about it: it’s a take.
“Let’s do a take.”
“Can’t take your photo?”
Or “Let’s take your photo.” As if I have it already and will transfer it someplace else?
“We’re gonna do another take. This time when you look at her, try not to blink.”
The Actor has to now open himself up to…what?
Nothing perhaps. Maybe that’s better. A take. Hmm.
As in…”take my soul,” but leave my body in tact? What is taken? Is the Western conception of film ultimately about the taking and capturing? Is it essentially about taming the subject into a ‘frame’ and recording death of the spirit; extinguishing the passion that cannot be contained?
In photography, they even say “Can I shoot you?”
(A riff on Taking, Capturing, & Shooting A Creature, Idea or Feeling With a Camera: The Western conception of film is about more than dominance, it is about conquest and colonizing a subject, a person, an event, a place and sticking a flag into its gut, while declaring the gardeners through to give up their seeds for the camera! From Herzog to Coppola, the film director is the last talisman of the White Romantic Colonizer who sets out to dictate to others what he cannot create in his own home!
When the bourgeoisie locked up and burned down the Shaman’s vision quest – that ran the gamut of every emotion – it scared the French, embarrassed the English, and made the German, Spanish, and Italians suspicious. To the former, language and behavior was about moving up and through a society; to the latin languages and the more insistent Caucasian tribes — it was about using language as both a strong greeting and even stronger goodbye; getting you into the boat and getting you out. Everything in between was tea. Only a Brit with a dumb camera around his neck ominously like a gun with a silencer could ask an Indigenous or African chief he’d just pounded into a deck of boat after having raped his sister (out of sight, of course) – “Would you mind if I shot you?” )
But for a moment consider what Paul Robeson was up against.
Here was this brilliant man, tall, stately, athletic with an incredible voice who was a wonderful stage actor and an even better singer and orator.
(And a remarkable writer, by the way.)
He was light years ahead of himself – and his vision was greater than anyone around him could probably conceive; his wife certainly was a loving accomplice…and he was quite admired by Sergei Eisenstein, whom Robeson in turn, had respect for. You wonder “Why didn’t they work together?”
Well, you can certainly bet the USA would never have allowed THAT to happen. And yes, it was that bad and YES they do have that power (namely cause we give it to them)
The forces that be will always make sure that highly talented, gifted or brilliant people (in any capacity) NEVER work together, collaborate or commune. They will always try to separate them.
And now I leave you with this:
“On The Willful Ignorance of Andrei Tarkovsky:”
Mikhail Romm (1901-1971) was a Soviet Film Director and Teacher. His film
“Dream” (1941) – about spiritual crisis and poverty – was supposedly deemed by FDR as being one the greatest films ever made. In 1956, his student Andrei Tarkovsky made his first film, “The Killers.” It was a student thesis movie. Based on a Hemingway short story, Romm admonished Tarkovsky for having the lack of imagination and sensitivity for shamefully employing an actor in black-face in the movie! Romm told Tarkovsky – who had previously been studying Arabic! – that he had learned nothing about humanity and that he had no imagination. He decried that the young man had defiled the memory of the greatest Russian Poet, Alexander Pushkin – who was black! (Indeed, the film is disappointing in that it reveals the casual racism of the White world at that time via the young and ignorant Tarkovsky. But it’s very telling and revealing that such an “innocently racist” young man would become a deeply compassionate and humane filmmaker a few years later.) In any event, Romm would have none of it, he chided Tarkovsky for being influenced by Fascism and American racism and deemed him counter-revolutionary. In the next 2 years, the young Tarkovsky did a lot of soul searching. Legend also has it that Paul Robeson visited Romm after one of his 1959 concerts at Lenin Stadium (Khabarovsk) when the USA’s ban on his passport had been lifted. Romm refused to introduce the young Tarkovsky for fear of Robeson wanting to see the lad’s first film. I assume somewhere in all this…The great Tarkovsky had learned a valuable lesson and came to understand in the words of King: that there is nothing “more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
We need to return to the embryo of THE NEED FOR A RADICAL CINEMA.
If you are making a film — Have something more to say than ACTION!