Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Homicide: Life on the Street Premiered Nineteen years Ago Today

Nineteen years ago today, Homicide: Life on the Street premiered on NBC after the Superbowl. Executive produced by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, Homicide aired nine episodes that season and another four the following year. Shot in grainy, desaturated footage on hand-held cameras, the NBC drama quietly revolutionized television by offering a more realistic approach to police procedurals. This show wasn’t as concerned about the cases or about showing cops as all-heroic figures chasing after the bad guys, but as prickly, sometimes unlikable human beings who cared as much about their overtime pay as putting down cases. Based on the nonfiction work Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon (who would go on to produce HBO’s The Wire and Treme), Homicide: Life on the Street survived for seven years despite low ratings and little Emmy recognition.

To be honest, I slept on this series during much of its run (though I did catch the last five minutes of that premiere episode). I didn’t get into it until I started catching late-night reruns on Court TV and became a fan. While the quality of the show waxed and waned during the later seasons, mostly due to network executive interference, it continued to be a pretty high mark in broadcast television.

I came up with a list of the ten best episodes from the show, which I will post intermittently over the next few months. These episodes I think are pretty good examples of how Homicide excelled at delivering great drama.

"Three Men & Adena," written by Tom Fontana, Directed by Martin Campbell. Air date: 3/3/93. NBC Home Entertainment. 1993.

The Adena Watson case, the sexual assault and murder of an eleven year old girl, would become the white whale for not only rookie detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), who was the primary on the case, but for the show as well. During its seven seasons, the writers would refer back to this case. Unlike other police procedurals, Adena Watson’s murder was never closed. This was the real genius of Homicide: it realistically addressed the fact that some cases are never solved, that some people really do get away with murder. During the first nine-episode season, the Adena Watson murder often crowded out other, equally compelling cases. It certainly became apparent to the writers that this case, along with the lead actors playing Bayliss and Det. Frank Pembleton (the always impeccable Andre Braugher) could deliver scintillating drama on the screen. Case in point: Three Men & Adena. Airing five weeks into the original run (it’s the sixth episode on the DVD set), Three Men & Adena is as exactly as its title implies: three men Dets. Bayliss and Pembleton and their prime suspect, Risley Tucker aka The Arabber (Moses Gunn’s final performance here, also equally compelling) are holed up in the box (the detectives’ clever name for the interrogation room). That’s it, the entire episode. And yet so much drama and action occurs in this enclosed anteroom. Both Bayliss and Pembleton try to force a confession out of the Arabber. Since they have no other evidence that will hold up in court to charge him with, they have exactly twelve hours to wring one out of him (the Arabber had been interviewed many times before and the law stipulated a limitation to the number of interviews detectives can subject a suspect without charging him with a crime, so both Pembleton and Bayliss were literally on the line with this one). The Arabber however proves to be a formidable opponent and, at one point even turns the tables on both detectives and starts reading their numbers.

The episode is a tour-de-force of television drama. Braugher, Secor, and Gunn are like jazz saxophonists here, playing in perfect harmony and yet capable of delivering great, improvisational solos. But what I love most about this episode is the ebbs and flows to the drama, the way the action and dramatic beats are paced to keep the episode from becoming melodramatic. Each dramatic flourish is carefully calibrated so that by the end of the episode you really feel as if twelve hours have passed and much ground has been covered and yet so very little has changed. Well, that’s not entirely true. While the detectives fail to get the confession they need to close this case, they have been changed by the experience, though not always for the better. The mercurial Pembleton, who never wanted a partner, realizes that for better or worse, Bayliss is his, and despite differences in style, attitude, and outlooks on being murder police, will become his rabbi. Eager and wet-behind-the-ears Bayliss has been wrung through his own crucible, one which will haunt him throughout the course of the series. Bayliss starts off certain that the Arabber did it, but by the end of the episode he is riddled with doubt, not only about The Arabber’s guilt but about his own skills as a detective. Since Bayliss is both the eyes and ears of the audience into this world, his doubts become our own. All the baggage we bring into police procedurals, all the cliches and expectations, are suddenly upended. Was the Arabber guilty? Was he innocent? Homicide never answers these questions. And here the show’s genius reveals itself again: Homicide was never interested in presenting clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong. The world it was creating was much grayer, less certain, but always compelling.

The episode has a lot in common with Twelve Angry Men, which got its start as a network drama in the 1950s before it was produced as a major film starring Henry Fonda. The drama relies on dialogue to move the action forward. And the dialogue here crackles with tension. While the show wasn’t lavished with many Emmy recognitions the way other lesser shows have during this period, it didn’t always go home empty-handed. Producer Tom Fontana, who wrote the episode, was awarded with Best Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Simon and the late David Mills also won an Emmy for writing the second-season episode Bop Gun, which will be reviewed later; and Braugher took home a Best Actor award as well).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Half Of A Yellow Sun - A Review

Yesterday I found out that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's second novel Half Of A Yellow Sun is being adapted into a film. Yesterday it was announced that Thandie Newton has joined the production, which will begin shooting this March. This is all great news because I loved reading Half Of A Yellow Sun and look forward to the film. I wrote a review of the novel several years ago for another site, so I'm bringing it here for the occasion. 

 Not since the Civil War have Americans experienced the gut reality of war in their own backyards. Although the U.S. has engaged in various excursions over the centuries, including at present in Iraq, and many Americans have lost friends and family members to war, most civilians have as much experience with the mundane realities of life during wartime as they have experiencing life on Mars. War has become a foreign concept to many of us, which is a shame because, unfortunately, our literature reflects this lack of experience. While we have had writers such as Ernest Hemingway or Tim O'Brien who have written about their war experiences (WWI and Vietnam respectively) they usually write from the perspective of veterans. It is rare for an American writer to explore what life is like for civilians under the constant threat of death and destruction unless she is writing from an historical perspective.

9/11, of course, could change that. But even the terrorist attacks against the United States doesn't compare to the daily terror citizens face in other countries under the auspices of war. Therefore, writers from other countries who have experienced war have often been left to pick up the slack, exploring the very ways in which violence infiltrates the most intimate and mundane facts of life. One such writer who has taken up this mantle is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her latest novel Half of A Yellow Sun, which depicts the war which ripped her native Nigeria apart during the 1960s. Described as the "21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe" by the Washington Post Book World, Adichie captures the horror, mystery, and insanity of war, while also delving into the more intimate and personal daily struggles of her characters.

Half of A Yellow Sun depicts a Nigeria swept up in the turbulence of the period. Following the end of colonial rule, the country plunges into a war when Biafrans, who are majority Igbo, struggle to establish an independent sovereign nation. With the support of Britain and the United States, northern Nigeria engages in a brutal crackdown on Biafrans. Many Biafrans are slaughtered or are forced to flee from their homes. Adichie describes the horror of these events through the perspectives of three characters–Ugwu, a thirteen year old houseboy for the intellectual professor Odenigbo; Olanna, Odenigbo's lover and later wife; and Richard, the British ex-pat who falls in love with Olanna's twin sister, Kainene. Their personal lives are a backdrop to the epic drama, highlighting themes of reconciliation, independence, and identity.

The personal dramas of her characters involve familial estrangements, affairs, illegitimate children, class and racial differences, and self-hatred. In the hands of a lesser writer, these themes would disintegrate into melodrama, but Adichie applies a quiet and subtle self-assurance to her material that respects and heightens these little dramas under the backdrop of the greater horrors that take place during war. War is treated with an even-handedness that likewise becomes frighteningly mundane. When Olanna, after being caught up in the ethnic cleansing against the Biafrans, travels home by a train crowded with other fleeing refugees, she is haunted by the image of the decapitated head of a woman's child, which the woman keeps in a calabash. Her language is direct, uncompromising, and shocking in its simplicity:

Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl's head with the ashy-gray skin and the braided hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed.

The woman closed the calabash. "Do you know," she said, "it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair."

Even in the face of such evil, the longing for the normal and mundane becomes a life raft for those caught up in the throes of war. When Kainene, against military orders, crosses enemy lines to continue her black market business to provide much needed goods and food to refugees in the camps, her actions are predicated less by the needs of these refugees but her own desire to find a semblance of order in her pre-war life as an independent and enigmatic entrepreneur running the family business. The ways in which war rips apart lives and complicates the often complex web of relationships between her characters are the main themes of Adichie's fine novel. Death is both brutal and arbitrary, as Richard soon discovers when an airport official is slaughtered by Nigerian soldiers after his Igbo origins are discovered. Most Americans might not be able to relate to the fears of being forcefully conscripted into army, which is the issue that commands much of houseboy Ugwu's story after the family flees to a refugee camp, but can certainly relate to his desire for love and his willingness and foolishness to risk danger when he walks a young sweetheart home. This one simple and endearing act sweeps Ugwu into the middle of the events that are ripping the country apart when he is snatched by Biafran soldiers and is forced to fight in the civil war. The sequence when Ugwu is sent to training camp is both heartrending and ironic as it becomes apparent that the Biafran army, lacking weaponry, training, and discipline, is unmatched against the better trained Nigerian forces. Yet Ugwu's need to place the conflicts that are tearing his country and people apart in context, such as his obsession with a paperback copy of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, do not spare him from becoming complicit in the evil and bloodshed he has witnessed thus far. The gang rape of a barmaid during a night of revelry by a group of soldiers whose youth and immaturity are exacerbated by the immorality of war haunts young Ugwu for the remainder of the novel.

While the story of Olanna and Odenigbo's marital discord might seem like an anomaly in the face of the greater horrors taking place, their relationship forms the moral heartbeat of the novel and reveals how even the normal problems of marriage–lack of communication, betrayal, commitment–parallels their compatriots' independent struggles. As Biafra attempts to break away from Nigeria and form a national identity, often in the face of its own political, social, and class differences, Olanna and Odenigbo struggle to keep their marriage together despite Odenigbo's betrayal. The glimmers of hope in their reconciliation during their journey from their home to refugee camps provide the glimmers of hope that Biafra and Nigeria will see through their regional differences and that both war-ravaged nations will find peace.

Adichie's novel, nonetheless, is not a fantasy, nor does it offer simple resolutions. Her characters' growth come from the hard-won realities of life and war. Adichie neither placates the reader nor presents a sanitized portrait of Biafrans–they can be every bit as snobbish, arrogant, enigmatic, confused, and complicated as they are passionate about their country's freedom. Rather, Adichie documents the history of her country and allows the reader to come to her own conclusions.

Half of A Yellow Sun, which represents the flag of the independent Biafra, is a crowning achievement for so young a writer. Adichie documents a moment in African history that is otherwise overlooked, bringing to the intimacies of war a clarity that is rarely experienced on American shores. Haunting and sparse, Half of A Yellow Sun joins a pantheon of great African literature documenting post-colonialism and its haunting and troubling aftermath.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Black Power Mix Tapes 1967-1975: A Review

Between the late 1960s and the 1970s, Black America had undergone huge transformations. This was due largely to the Civil Rights Movement, but the Black Power Movement not only heightened the social and political consciousness of black people in America, but also set trends in the look and attitude of young black people across the country. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), broke ranks with civil rights leader Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in terms of their philosophical attitudes regarding social and political movements, and pursued a more aggressive stance toward black liberation. Coining the phrase, “Black Power,” Carmichael embraced the philosophy of self-defense, inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, which was formed in the mid-60s by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton to resist political and economic oppression. By the late sixties, black folks were chanting “Black Power” and rejecting the non-violence philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement.

The radicalization of Black America has been chronicled in many works, including Henry Hampton’s award-winning documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” But, until recently, very few focused solely on the Black Power Movement. Last year, IFC Entertainment released The Black Power Mix Tapes 1967-1975, a documentary film based on archival footage shot by Swedish journalists. Written and directed by filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson, the film offers a more balanced look at that period in Black American history.

The archival footage that was shot during this period are edited in chronological order in the film and broken down into 9 chapters, beginning with 1967 and ending in 1975. The film not only covers Carmichael’s rejection of Dr. King’s philosophy, but the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam in the mid-1970s. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy in the late 60s, as well as the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which destroyed the Black Panthers and other militant groups and the break down of the black community due to poverty and drugs in the ‘70s act as backdrops against the movement, offering as explanation its militancy and eventual tragedies.

The footage is strong and offers sides of the power players in the movement that weren’t available on American TV. In fact, the film brings up the notion of journalistic propaganda when an editor of TV Guide criticizes the anti-American negativity in much of the reporting in Sweden. While the editor concedes during an interview taken by the Swedish film crew that much of the news coming out of the States is negative, he goes on to state that Americans have a far more complex view of what was happening in the country at the time than the Swedes. This is hardly a winning argument, but it does reveal how propaganda against black radicals was filtered through even fluff publications like TV Guide. The footage the Swedish journalist shot is relevant because, unlike many American journalism, it offers a different, more balanced perspective of black radical politics.

Undercutting the footage are voice interviews of figures as diverse as Angela Davis, commenting much on her own experiences during that time; Harry Belafonte, Questlove of the Roots, singers Erykah Badu and John Forte, poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets and other philosophical and historical luminaries. Their reflections of that period offer a context that bridges the past with the present, drawing connections between the advances of the Black Power Movement and its failures.

While the film is informative and valuable, there are a few drawbacks. As the filmmakers Olssen contends, the Black Power Mix Tapes doesn’t cover everything that happened during that period. Nor should it have to. Yet the latter half of the film falters because of those omissions. During the 1974-1975 chapters, the documentary focuses on Harlem and how the drug war caused a terrible and irrevocable shift in the black community. The West coast, which had gotten some coverage due to the Black Panthers movement, is ignored, which is a shame since so much was happening here in the 1970s, from the rise of the Bloods and the Crips in the Los Angeles region due to the fractionalization of many Black Power groups to the disintegration of the Black Panthers and its leaders, including Huey Newton. Despite that one flaw, the documentary is a powerful chronicle of a movement that is largely warped in the American imagination and offers a primer to those who want to know more about this significant period in political history.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Schooling On MLK and the Civil Rights Movement

Today is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and as we honor this day I thought I’d make up a short list of works, both creative and scholarly, that are about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. One thing is for certain, there are very few people who know about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, outside of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. These works, I think, offer a broader perspective of who Dr. King was and what the civil rights movement actually did to fight for social justice. This is not an extensive list, by no means, but it does offer an entryway into a movement whose effects of social activism still touch us today.

Eyes on The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1964; Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Crossroads 1965-1985

In 1987 and 1990, PBS aired this award-winning 14-hour documentary about the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the Montgomery Bus boycott to the legislative and electoral victories and failures of the 1980s. Produced by Henry Hampton, Eyes on the Prize uses news footage of all the important players and events in the movement from the bus boycott to the election of the first black mayor in Chicago, Harold Washington. Eyes on the Prize offers a more complex view of the Civil Rights movement and its longterm effects in American society.

America in the King Years Trilogy by Taylor Branch

Noted historian, Taylor Branch wrote a trilogy of books exhaustively documenting the Civil Rights movement much in the same way as Eyes on the Prize. Beginning with Parting the Water: America in the King Years 1954-1963, which won the Pulitzer, then leading into Pillar of Fire 1963-1965, and At Canaan’s Edge 1965-1968, the trilogy delves not only into the Civil Rights movement, but documents the Nation of Islam and the rise and assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther movement, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and their reactions to the Civil Rights movement, as well as the various men and woman, including Ella Baker, Montgomery N.A.A.C.P. chapter president E.D. Nixon, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Vernon Dahmer, Fannie Lou Hamer and others, who were as much if not more important figures in the Civil Rights movement as Dr. King.


In 2001, HBO aired this docu-drama about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King and directed by Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T., The Wire), Boycott captures a moment in civil rights history that catapulted Dr. King into national and international prominence. Wonderfully acted and directed, the film brings a modern edge to these historical events and make them more accessible to today’s young audiences.

Dreamer by Charles Johnson

Johnson’s 1999 novel about Dr. King takes a moment in the civil rights leader’s life---when he took his campaign north to Chicago---and extrapolates larger questions about race and inequality. Told from three perspectives---Dr. King, his aide Matthew Bishop, and a King lookalike Chaym Smith---Dreamer has an almost hallucinogenic quality to it as it goes back and forth between all three perspectives. While certainly not a novel for anyone who knows little to nothing about the history, it does offer different and more profound inquiries about both Dr. King and the movement toward social justice in general.

Freedom Riders

Earlier last year, PBS aired another documentary on the Civil Rights movement, this time focusing solely on the Freedom Rides campaign in 1961 to enforce desegregation laws in interstate traveling. The two hour documentary covered the thousands of people who were a part of the Freedom Rides as they boarded Trailways and Greyhound buses and traveled through the south, facing down some of the most virulent hatred and violence the movement faced up to date. The documentary does an excellent job of revealing the bravery of the young men and women who undertook the campaign and how this campaign became a significant turning point in the movement.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Thousand Lives, a new nonfiction account of the Jonestown Massacre by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres. New York: Free Press. 2011

909 people lost their lives in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, the majority of whom were children. Brought to the remote jungle compound in Guyana by Peoples Temple pastor, Rev. Jim Jones, many of the followers were people genuinely committed to building a socialist utopian society. Others were mesmerized by the fiery and charismatic leader himself, believing that Jones was God in the flesh. What they found in Peoples Temple and later in Jonestown was a nightmare that continues to haunt to this day.

Countless works both in print and film have sought to uncover exactly what led to this monstrous tragedy, from Tim Reiterman’s account of the Peoples Temple and his own experience as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in which he witnessed the assault and slaying of members of an American delegation, including the U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, who came to investigate the compound (Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People) to high-profile Jonestown defector Debbie Layton’s memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. Few accounts however attempted to the tell the story from the perspective of the rank-and-file members (in 1995, one of the few survivors of the Jonestown massacre, Hyacinth Thrash, published The Onliest One Alive, Surviving Jonestown, a memoir of her experiences in the religious sect; and Stanley Nelson’s PBS produced documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple likewise examines the history from the perspective of other survivors and defectors). Julia Scheeres’ latest book A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, offers another look at what life was actually like in Jonestown leading up to the massacre.

Scheeres comes to this latest account with some personal background. In her memoir, Jesus Land, she wrote about growing up in a Christian conservative family. Therefore she offers a unique perspective of people who are drawn to evangelical groups. While Scheeres covers a lot of familiar ground, her research looks beyond the stereotypes of brainwashed followers willing to drink the “Kool-Aid,” but of people genuinely committed to creating a more equitable society. The sensitivity she brings to the subject is apparent. As she writes, “You won’t find the word cult in this book, unless I’m directly citing a source that uses the word. My aim here is to help readers understand the reasons that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church...” And indeed you do not come across such reductive reasonings. Scheeres is careful to present her subjects with a sympathetic honesty that attempts to explain why so many people were willing to abandon reason.

I should state that, as with Scheeres, I attempted to write my own fictional account of the people of Jonestown, but realized that this story is too real, too vivid, too large for the imagination to wrap itself around. The voices that ring clearly throughout Scheeres’ work deserve to be heard unabridged. Here, Temple followers such as Thrash and her sister Zipporah, Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, and Jim and Tommy Bogue, provide a more personal look at the lives of the ordinary people whose faith in Jones proved deadly (of the people whom Scheeres covers only Hyacinth Thrash, Stanley Clayton, and Jim and Tommy Bogue survived the massacre). Relying on previously published works as well as recently released FBI documents (along with transcripts of audiotapes and Edith Roller’s journals), she presents a far-reaching and more frightening portrait of life in Jonestown than before presented. Abuse was rampant. Family members were forced to turn on each other for fear of being punished, which included being set upon by other members, as was the case when young Tommy and his friend Brian attempted to escape Jonestown through the surrounding jungle. Recorded on audiotape, Jones and other members berate the two teens and even spat upon and physically assaulted them:

The recording shows Jones’s disturbing ability to switch from a gentle rebuke to an enraged bellow in the space between two words as he whips the crowd into an angry frenzy. A woman shrieked that the boys were “shameful bastards,” and “goddamn white fascist bigots.” More insults followed, and violence was expected, encouraged. “Vile filth,” Jones called them, before spitting several times. Tommy’s mother, Edith, rushed forward to slap her son’s face repeatedly until Jones told her “enough.”

Later, his mother suggested that “she cut the boys’ heads off, then commit suicide...”  Other dissenters were punished by being placed in a box, forced to perform menial duties while chained in irons, humiliated in front of other members (one couple who broke the rules against conjugal relations were forced to have sex in front of the group while an elderly woman was forced to parade naked for another infraction) or outright drugged. Madness reigned in Jonestown and very few people, including those who were not completely caught up in its throes, were able to reason themselves out of the trap they had fallen into.

Reading these accounts, one wonders why so many people tolerated such abuse and didn’t attempt to overthrow Jones. Yet the constant fear Jones installed in the atmosphere made it next to impossible. His drug-induced paranoia created a distrustful and paranoiac environment where everyone, from the U.S. and Guyanese governments, defectors, Concerned Relatives (defectors and families of members who sought to rescue loved ones still trapped in Jonestown) were all enemies ready to attack the Temple and torture children. Jones initiated what he referred to as “white nights,” all-night rallies in which he broke down his followers’ reluctance to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Jones, whose plan to commit mass suicide began long before any members arrived in Jonestown, would often test their loyalties and prepare them for the eventual act by forcing them to drink a supposedly poisoned concoction. The constant abuse and fear, the armed guards, the paranoia, and distrust created a dispiriting and ugly atmosphere in which many were left disoriented, confused, fearful, and demoralized. Isolated from the rest of the world (letters were routinely censored or withheld from members and world news was twisted to reveal a vast conspiracy against Jonestown), many of the victims were forced to rely on Jones’s increasingly twisted vision of the world.

Despite the constant manipulation, Jones’s followers were much more committed to the ideals that the Peoples Temple espoused rather than the ugly reality it became. How each of the followers arrived at the conclusion that Jones was not who he appeared to be is as varied as the individuals themselves. For Hyacinth Thrush, whose faith helped carry her through the ordeal, it was Jones’s blasphemous rejection of the Bible she held dear. For Jim Bogue, it was Jones’s lies, manipulations and interference in his marriage. For Jim’s son, Tommy, it was the constant abuse and punishment he suffered for even the slightest infractions. Likewise for Stanley Clayton, whose own infractions became the source of violent retribution. Edith Roller, who was committed to the progressive ideals which led her to Peoples Temple, was nonetheless disquieted by the contradictions she saw in Jones’s actions. Jones himself emerges not only as a megalomaniac who tortured and exploited the people he claimed to love, but a foulmouthed manipulator who boasted of his sexual prowess during sermons.  

I’ve read countless versions of this story and I am still shocked at the level of abuse people suffered at the hands of Jones and his most loyal followers. Thirty-three years have passed since that terrible event, and still it calls out to the present, a terrible warning of what happens when otherwise good people are manipulated. Above all else, as Scheeres states at the end of the book, these were “noble idealists” who “wanted to create a better, more equitable, society.” A Thousand Lives does a great service in keeping their stories and their memories alive as an object lesson. In a world that has grown increasingly unstable, we would do well to remember the lessons Jonestown teaches.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfiction, etc. by Jonathan Lethem

Since his debut novel As She Climbed Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem has become one of the more noted contemporary writers of the past twenty years, listed alongside such names as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Rick Moody as voices of their generation. In the recently published collection of his nonfiction work over the past ten years, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfiction, etc., Lethem tackles such topics as literature, comic books, cinema, art, music, etc. to expand the notions of what influences him as a writer and all writers of his generation.

Most of the essays included in the collection are culled from previous publications, but a few, like the much discussed essay “My Disappointment Critic/On Bad Faith,” where he goes head-to-head with preeminent critic James Wood, are new. The essays are a strange mix of reviews, introductions to books, interviews, and rambling musings (“The Drew Barrymore Stories” is but one prime example) and the effect often left me from disoriented and mildly amused to intrigued. Lethem is at his most convincing however when he leaves behind his experimental affectations and digs deeply into the heart of pop culture to unearth gems of observation. In "Donald Sutherland’s Buttocks," he writes affectingly about the film Don’t Look Now, starring Sutherland and Julie Christie, and how it’s celebrated and contested love scene still moves him years after his first viewing. He extrapolates even deeper by yearning for a cinema that can address sexuality with an honesty and forthrightness as expressed in that film. “Am I calling for a return to reticence, to mystery? No. I’m calling for what I don’t know to be calling for, I’m calling for surprise, for complicity delivered in an instant, I’m calling for filmic moments that lure and confuse me the way sex can, at its best.”  Having seen Don’t Look Now, I was especially moved by his argument, not only in my response to and observations of this film but of my own work as well. In “Dancing About Architecture or Fifth Beatles,” he takes his memories of learning to dance and goes further to explore pop culture’s egalitarian pretenses both glorious and ridiculous. In “The Ecstasy of Influence,” he argues in favor of pop cultural piracy and how every artist in a way plagiarizes from other sources and influences. As he writes:

If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without the Flintstones---more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths---The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms’ that link Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T.S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.

He ends the essay with a bibliography of sorts of mishmashed ideas or outright lifting of previous sources to make his point. Written in 2007 for Harper’s, it’s an interesting argument, especially in light of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act that has been winding through Congress as of late. Whether such an argument is compelling or not (and I’m not entirely convinced of it myself, though SOPA is an outright vulgarization of the original intent of copyright law), ought to have little bearing. Lethem makes you think and that is at best what a good writer ought to do.

While not all of his essays work, Lethem nonetheless writes compellingly and passionately about his subjects. His love and knowledge of literature is inarguable and his desire to elevate pop culture to the realm of high art, successfully or unsuccessfully, is certainly admirable. The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfiction, etc. could have used some more tight editing (leaving out some of the more nonsensical pieces that interrupted the flow of thought from one essay to the next) and there were a few typographical errors that were unfortunate glitches in otherwise well-written arguments. However the best of his essays far outweigh the weaknesses in the collection and I encourage anyone who is a fan of Lethem’s work or who simply wants to read and think about culture should pick up this collection.