I’m often thinking about films I want to study, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been on my mind for a long time–the dark painterly aesthetic has been a consistent draw. It’s an aesthetic that I’ve always thought of as “my thing,” but it only works for certain films. I think the appeal comes from an intense degree of creative control over what we reveal and don’t reveal on the screen. In a new addition to the newsletter dubbed “Ponderings,” I pontificate on what darkness means to a Cinematographer–or at least to me. After that, we look at Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, dark cinematography in a Carhart ad, Caravaggio, and a word from the “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis.
Darkness is the Cinematographers canvas. It is not to be confused with thematic darkness unless that theme inspires a beginning, a void, or a nothingness upon which creation is imminent.
When I was learning about lighting and its relationship to cinema, I was constantly drawn to a dark aesthetic. Films I was looking at included The City of Lost Children, Ivan’s Childhood, Touch of Evil, and Blade Runner. But there was a pang of strange guilt associated with this attraction because I equated darkness with sadness, depression, fear, and all those traditional themes. And I had yet to grasp the concept of darkness as a canvas, upon which an artist that uses lighting instruments can express themselves. An expression that can dictate themes in degrees of light, shadow, darkness, and color with limitless potential–exploring every nuance between a black screen and a white screen.
There is also a stimulating parallel with yin and yang–part of the philosophy being that a balance of opposite or contrasting states is necessary for a harmonious experience, happy disposition or productive outcome–childbirth, for example, requires a man and woman. In Cinematography, the closer we get to having a perfect balance of lightness and darkness on the screen, the better, more comfortable, more at ease, or just neutral the audience will feel. And this neutral place is a standard upon which capture and display devices are calibrated for the industry to exist in a harmonious state of capture and display.
This neutral standard feels like a starting point because we–as an audience–don’t think about how the sensor or film is initially blank. And without first having this blankness–or blackness when displayed or printed–no image would ever exist. And without having light to imprint the dark, there would be no image. Thus, to have an image at all–we must have a certain degree of balance between light and dark.
We even have a unit and method of measurement for this balance in the craft of Cinematography–lighting ratios and foot-candles. A lighting ratio represents the degree of contrast between light and dark. And foot-candles measure the intensity of light falling on a subject. Ratios help to establish and maintain a consistent look for a film, monitored by measuring the foot-candle value in light and shadow. The balance of light and shadow can be manipulated to enhance the emotional response to a scene. Some films maintain the same ratio from beginning to end, while others use varying ratios to complement a narrative and character journey. Figuring this out for each film, planning for it, and letting it materialize on set is a big part of a Cinematographer’s job.
The whole visual style was set out before we shot one foot of film. We talked about the contrast between good and evil, light and dark. How we’d really use darkness, how we’d start out with a black sheet of paper and paint in the light.? Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather, cited by The Guardian in “Gordon Willis Obituary”
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery and shot by Bradford Young, won the Cinematography award at Sundance in 2013 for the U.S. Dramatic Category and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. In the same year, it littered top ten lists from critics worldwide–many praising it for its fresh look at the Bonnie and Clyde paradigm.
It gives us a contemporary look at a dark aesthetic–an aesthetic that Bradford Young has built a career on. The photography swims with the narrative in a game of hide, seek and reveal. As insights into the plot and characters are held back by quiet reflection and solitude, the photography is dominated by shadows–made authentic by using location and time of day. Now and then, as the characters hit milestones along their journey, the screen may get a little brighter, but it’s all very subtle because the protagonist has to stay physically hidden to get what he wants. His wife has to hide too, but she has to do it in plain sight. Her cloak is in deception–her surroundings only bright enough to project a facade and dark enough to evoke her secrets. And until she reunites with the protagonist, she is stuck in this duality.
The feel of the movie is intimate and handmade, as if Lowery were renewing, lovingly and poignantly, the landscape’s ruined landmarks and infusing them with his own memories and dreams.-The New Yorker
Downloadable ResourcesFrame Grabs
Credits and Specs
Directed and Written by David Lowery
Produced by Cassian Elwes, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Amy Kaufman, more
Starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster
Music By Daniel Hart
Cinematography by Bradford Young
Edited by Craig McKay, Jane Rizzo
Production Design by Jade Healy
Production Company: Sailor Bear
Release Date: Aug 16, 2013
Running Time: 96min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arricam LT, Cooke S4, Zeiss Master Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision Primo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Platinum, Panavision Primo Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
Printed Film Format: 35 mm (anamorphic), D-Cinema
Cinematographic Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Super 35 (3-perf) (source format)
Caravaggio, (1571-1610) is known for bringing a new level of emotional painting to the arts scene in Italy and his paintings in the Contarelli Chapel made him the most famous painter in Rome. His style of heightened chiaroscuro, detailed realism and dramatic lighting greatly influenced forthcoming Baroque artists such as Rembrandt and Bernini. And he could be the most referenced painter in the Cinematography universe. Vittorio Storaro uses him as a constant source of inspiration–he has written books and given lectures about him. And shot the 2007 film, Caravaggio. Here is a Storaro commentary about the painting, The Calling of St. Matthew, one of the Contarelli Chapel paintings.
This is one of the only paintings that I know that has such a specific delineation between light and darkness, between the divine and the human being. The symbology that was used in The Conformist was light as a consciousness and darkness as the unknown–as unconscious. This was exactly the structure of the character–he had to hide something in himself, in the darkness. And then there was something that he presented to you as a reality which was the conscious side. So this specific relation in painting was for me the same symbology I was trying to portray with lighting. Specifically, not only the character, but the entire principle of The Conformist.
Carhart, directed by Douglas Avery and shot by Max Goldman, is a great example of how a dark aesthetic doesn’t have to invoke dark, depressing themes. Instead, it is used to show how Carhart’s clothing can stand up to the toughest jobs in the toughest conditions. A concept that the brand is certainly proud of and built on.
I am not a great believer that you have to see an actor all the time on the screen. I believe that the scene has to be played properly, but sometimes it’s better not to see what is going on until a given point in the scene. Then you see something. – Gordon Willis, AKA The Prince of Darkness
This month we dive into Native American culture, starting with Dances With Wolves—a longtime favorite I’ve been eager to re-watch for a couple of years—especially after reading The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Then thematically, I’m taken back to a favorite CD of mine from 1995—Between Father Sky and Mother Earth. And finally—curious about the American frontier at the turn of the century—a new discovery: Photographer William Henry Jackson.
Dances with Wolves (1990) led the charge for revitalizing the western genre after it died out in 1980 when bad reviews led to an unprecedented financial disaster for Heaven’s Gate. Cinematographers around the globe eagerly welcomed back the genre—ever nostalgic for the dirt, dust, mud, candles, lamps, campfires, vistas, legends, and every-man heroism that made for a tantalizing big-screen event. For Dean Semler, it wasn’t his first Western, nor was it his last. He had previously shot Young Guns 1/2 and Mad Max 2/3, while post-haste lensing City Slickers (1991), and eventually The Alamo (2004), Appaloosa (2008), and The Ridiculous 6 (2015) while continuing to shoot epics in other genres for industry titans such as John Milius, Randall Wallace, and Mel Gibson. With Wolves, he garnered one of the film’s seven Oscars—out of twelve academy award nominations.
The film was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. It started as a spec script written by Michael Blake in the ’80s. But after shopping it around, he couldn’t sell it. Costner—a friend from Stacy’s Knights (1983)—suggested he write the story as a novel. Blake conceded, however numerous publishers gave it a pass. Finally, in 1988, it got a paperback release, and Costner purchased the rights. However, development woes continued—due to the western genre’s dead flame—as studio after studio passed on the project. Finally, a deal was struck with Orion Pictures after some strategic management with foreign rights, and production started on July 18, 1989.
Indigenous peoples—mostly Sioux—played all the Native American roles in the film, and Indian communities largely embraced it. So much so that Kevin Costner was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. With a twenty-two million dollar budget, it grossed over four hundred million worldwide, and new interest in Native American culture began to manifest abundantly. It wasn’t long before the US National Film Registry selected the film for preservation due to its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
What strikes me most is the film’s authenticity. Costner wanted the film to look like it was a child’s view of the west—fresh, romantic, and painterly. And he thought the way to achieve that was to be as authentic as possible. Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft dedicated himself to extensive research to achieve it. And is forever grateful to Dean Semler, often commenting that “It feels like a painter lit it.”
Semler says the look of the film evolved, “Costner had very specific images in mind, and we built on that.” Costner really enjoyed working with Dean as his first experience collaborating with a DP, and he often talks about how gracious Dean was.
The film’s compositions evoked an undying admiration for the subjects and their place in the world. The camera placement, blocking, and lens selection precisely serve this—often looking at the Indigenous and Costner as heroes of great stature.
The editing served the performances. Neil Travis’s strategy was to let things happen without trying to hurry it along with cuts. But to approach the running time the distributor wanted, Travis admits, “it got to a point when cutting scenes felt like losing an arm or a leg.” Eventually, the distributor loosened its grip, and—upon picture lock—Travis found very little that was wrong with it.
Credits and Specs
Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts, Jim Wilson
Written by Michael Blake
Based on a novel by Michael Blake of the same name
Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Music by John Barry
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter, Neil Travis
Production Design by Jeffrey Beecroft
Production Company: Tig Productions, Majestic Films International, and more
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Running Time: 181min, 236min (extended edition)
Aspect Ratio: 2:39:1
Camera and Lenses: Panavision Panaflex Gold II and Platinum, Primo, C, & E Series Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak EXR 50D 5245, EXR 500T 5296
Printed Film Format: 35mm, 70mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Language: English, Sioux, Pawnee
Reported Budget: 22,000,000
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer aims to challenge Dee Brown’s claim in his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.”
After a brief look at the Indians first exposure to Europeans, through to the Wounded Knee massacre, Treuer picks up the narrative where Brown left off—post-massacre in 1890. He takes us through the dark years following wounded knee—an endless barrage of inhumane practices administered by the US government in an attempt to “re-educate” the entire culture, literally stripping them from their families, languages, traditions, and existence. It’s an overwhelming and unbelievable accounting. But once he gets through it all, he takes us on a journey to the now—introducing us to thriving indigenous entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs, artisans, politicians, activists, businesses, and more—highlighting their resourcefulness and how they’ve carved their own path to reinvention.
The American Indian Dream is as much about looking back and bringing the culture along with it as it is about looking ahead. – Treuer writes.
Treuer grew up as an Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota. When starting college, he set his sights on a Ph.D. in anthropology—specifically studying Native American life—past and present.
From the NY Times to the Andrew Carnegie medal of excellence, his book has garnered consensual praise amongst the Nation’s most prominent literary critics.
Chapter after chapter, it’s like one shattered myth after another. – NPR
An informed, moving, and kaleidoscopic portrait… Treuer’s powerful book suggests the need for soul-searching about the meanings of American history and the stories we tell ourselves about this nation’s past. – New York Times Book Review
William Henry Jackson was a photographer at the turn of the century. He was 47 when the Battle at Wounded Knee happened and lived to be 99 years old—dying in 1942. Like Brassaï and Orson Welles, painting was his first creative passion, and after fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg, he was able to forge a living selling his original works amongst post-civil war society. In 1867 he started a photography business with his brother and started documenting the Indian tribes in Omaha—the Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes, and Omahas. He then started working for the US Geological Survey, going on photography expeditions to Yellowstone River and the Rocky Mountains, making him the first photographer to capture all the landmark scenery in these regions.
The kit he traveled with included three different cameras; an 8×10 inch glass plate camera, an 18×22 inch glass plate camera, and a stereoscope camera. The glass plates had to be coated and developed onsite with exposure times varying from five seconds to twenty minutes, and he usually had five to seven men assisting him. It was a very fragile undertaking—he once lost a month of work because one of his packing mules lost its footing.
Between Father Sky and Mother Earth is a compilation of indigenous music that I’ve enjoyed since the ’90s. My favorite track is the Healing Song—it never fails to help ground me in the present and often invokes a trance-like state. It’s also hard not to sing along and meld with the vibratory rhythms in harmony.
The track is performed by a duo known as Primeaux and Mike in the Native American tradition of healing and peyote songs. Johnny Primeaux comes from a lineage of noted peyote singers. He is known as an Oglala, Yankton/Ponca singer and songwriter. Mike is from Kitsili, Black Mesa, Arizona. His Mother’s clan is Near the Water People, and his Father is from the Salt Clan.
It looks like the tracks may have originated on Primeaux, Mike & Attson, an album of Healing and Peyote songs in the Sioux and Navajo languages. Healing songs are a newer style of a cappella harmonized chanting to facilitate meditation. When I first heard these songs, I lived on a street named Sioux Dr. while knowing very little if anything about the Sioux people.
That Native American cultures are imperiled is important and not just to Indians. It is important to everyone, or should be. When we lose cultures, we lose American plurality–the productive and lovely discomfort that true difference brings.—David Treuer
I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. This month’s web of curiosity spins from a resolute whim to re-watch RKO 281–awakening interests in child prodigies and renaissance men, the influence of theatrical lighting on film, the influence of night photography on film noir, and more.
Film I’m Studying
RKO 281 (1999), directed by Benjamin Ross, is a reflexive cinema gem. The title is derived from the original production number for Citizen Kane. The first half of the film covers the genesis of Citizen Kane, and the second half chronicles a nearly successful campaign to stop the film from being released and to burn all the negatives and prints. Offended and disgraced by the depiction of himself in the film–William Randolph Hearst led the charge. He had the studio executives in his corner–ready to accept bribes–but he was going bankrupt and couldn’t follow through. RKO 281 is based on the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane.
It opens with a beautiful scene that inspires and excites the filmmaker in all of us. A young Orson Welles blows out the candles on his birthday cake,” Orson,” says his mother, “come into the light, never stand in the shadows, you were made for the light. Always remember that.”
And soon enough, we are watching a twenty-five-year-old Welles (Liev Schreiber), wandering around Xanadu in the middle of the night, conceiving the idea for Citizen Kane. “I’ve got it!” He says in voice-over, “I know what we are going to do, imagine a man who shaped his time, a titanic man of limitless ambition, a man with an empire at his feet, controlling the perceptions of everyone beneath him–a modern feudal lord. The great American biography, a journey into the heart of the beast.”
A sequence ensues with a rat a tat tat exchange of inspired and passionate ideas between writer Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Welles. Themes like “Love on your own terms” are pronounced with gusto and glory as we watch the vision for Citizen Kane take shape. Then Mankiewicz reveals that–for many years–he’s been keeping a file on Hearst, and their collaboration begins.
It captures the collaborative spirit with joyful nostalgia, leaving butterflies in the stomach. However, this is only one version of the story. In Frank Brady’s Biography, Citizen Welles, he writes how Welles–at first–was just focused on finding the right character to play. He was looking for a larger than life persona that could highlight his talent and reputation as a theater performer and radio star. Brady then recounts a court testimony by Mankiewicz which suggests he was the one to offer up Hearst as the film’s subject:
In a court proceeding years later, Mankiewicz gave his account of how the idea of the Welles film began, saying that it evolved out of a discussion of technique: a character would be shown in a March of Time sequence, and then the film would tell us about the person. “We were going to do The Life of Dumas,” remembered Mankiewicz,” and then I told him about how I would be interested in doing a picture based on Hearst and Marion Davies. I just kept telling him everything I knew about them. I was interested in them, and I went into all kinds of details. In an odd way it wasn’t really Citizen Kane at all, because we were going to do a great love story, which you remember Citizen Kane didn’t turn out to be.
Welles was under contract to write the screenplay, and the studio wanted it that way for publicity reasons. But Welles wanted Mankiewicz to write it. And Mankiewicz contractually agreed to write it without taking credit.
Serendipitous to my research, David Fincher just released Mank on Netflix this month. It centers around Mankiewicz’s experience writing Citizen Kane while flashing back to his life as a writer and his relationship with Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The film made it clear how critical Mank’s contribution was to Citizen Kane. And while I don’t recollect any reference to who suggested Hearst, it does address the credit in one of the closing scenes starting as follows:
“You’re not going to like this Orson,” says Mank. “I want credit.”
“Come again,” replies Orson.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” clarifies Mank.
It’s unclear how Welles really felt about this. The scene continues with Welles taking offense and throwing a tantrum. But in the subtext, I think his outburst was just a way for him to reconcile with his ego, while deep down, he understood and wanted Mank to get credit. What we know for sure is that Orson excepted Mank’s script–American, at two hundred pages–knowing, as Brady writes:
For many reasons, Welles couldn’t use a great deal of the script of American, errors of continuity, logic, and motivation being the most prominent.
but then adding that:
What is known and agreed upon by all concerned is that Mankiewicz came up with the concept of “rosebud,” the enigmatic word uttered by the dying mogul, the verbal icon around which the film revolves.
Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but it only won for best writing of an original screenplay–both Welles and Mankiewicz received Oscars. Years later, Orson admitted he couldn’t remember all the details of who came up with which idea.
Credits and Specs
Directed by Benjamin Ross
Produced by Su Armstrong, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott
Written by John Logan
Based on the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane
Starring Liev Schreiber, John Malkovich, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith
Music By John Altman
Cinematography by Mike Southon
Edited by Alex Mackie
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Production Company: HBO Pictures, WGBH, Scott Free Productions, and more
Release Date: November 20, 1999
Running Time: 86min
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Reported Budget: 12,000,000
Book I’m Reading
Citizen Welles (1989) by Frank Brady is a detailed biography of Orson Welles. Brady spent a decade researching and writing the book resulting in the first definitive chronicle of Welles’ life, spanning from his birth to his death. Upon its release, the New York Times Book Review stated, “Citizen Welles may well be definitive.”
For me, the book really humanizes Welles, but still in a legendary way. The sticking point thus far is his serendipitous childhood–a time when angels seemed to be dropping out of the sky to nurture his natural talents while he exercised a knack for averting any traditional childhood protocol.
His mother Beatrice was a stalwart of his speech, and by the age of two, he was speaking in syntactically polished sentences. In the same year, he garnered a mentor in Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who was enthralled by Orson’s burgeoning intellect. At four, he avoided Kindergarten by faking an attack of appendicitis. And was then homeschooled by his Mother, while Bernstein–with backstage access–took him to all the new plays. At eight, he wrote a scholarly paper called ‘The Universal History of Drama.’ At nine, his mother died. And at ten, he started smoking cigars while writing a critique on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
He continued to excel beyond his age level in many areas but was unable to add or subtract. When confronted with this weakness, he was known to shrug and say that he would always keep people around to do the math for him. But he did eventually learn.
His father–along with Bernstein’s support–sent him to the Todd School For Boys, where he turned his ambitions toward painting. But, Academically, his performance at the school was so poor, he barely graduated. And by that time, his father succumbed to Alcoholism.
Bernstein took Welles in, and at sixteen, he went to Ireland for a countryside walk-a-bout. He intended on starting a career as a painter but ended up joining the company at the Gate Theater in Dublin–making such a splash that it launched him into a theater career.
After Gate, he spent a summer writing and illustrating a series of Shakespearean prompt books. And when he was eighteen, they were published–to great success–by the world-renowned publisher Harper and Row.
As his theater career continued, he began an adjacent career in radio, starring as an acclaimed regular on the March of Time radio shows. At this point, the Great Depression hit, and the US government started to sponsor theater projects. Welles–now twenty–was hired to run the Negro Theatre Project. And for the first time in American history, white people stood in lines to attend a black production. After 144 performances, Orson moved on to the Federal Theater, where he revived the great dramatic classics–several times a week–to great success. David O. Selznick–from Hollywood–came calling. But Welles wasn’t done with theater, and at twenty-two years old, he founded the Mercury Theater in New York.
Welles learned a lot about lighting during these earlier years in theater, and the technology was advancing quickly. Abe Feder–master lighting technician–was a trusted collaborator:
Abe Feder was a master lighting technician–one of the best in the business–and followed, although not always agreeably, Welle’s dictates of helping to blend together the form and color of the set, the arrangement of the props, and the position and costumes of the actors, through the distribution of the variety of lighting. The slightly smallish stage caused design problems in creating the illusion of distance and perspective, and these, too, could be solved with nuances of lighting.
The light was the thing. As one writer pointed out two weeks after the opening, the effects were cinematic: as an actor moves downstage from under a shaft of light, his apparent size is seen to change most dramatically; in effect, the stage director is able to get more “shots” at distance and in close-up. When a sense of vastness was needed, the stage was more brightly lit; when compactness was necessary, it was dimmed. In all cases, the lighting followed the tempo of the play. To an audience brought up on evenly lighted rooms behind proscenium arches, the result was startling.
We haven’t even gotten to Orson’s famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds or come close to Citizen Kane. And this summary barely even scratches the surface of these earlier years. But the big question in the back of my mind is: Was he a child prodigy by nature or a child prodigy by design? His opportunities and influences seem to be so crucial to his genius; it makes me wonder.
Photographer that inspires me
Brassai– also intended to pursue a career as a painter and was a renaissance man like Welles. His name was actually Gyula Hal–sz, but he wanted to save it for his “serious art” and used the pseudonym Brassa– for his writing, caricatures, and photography. He is best known for his night photography in Paris during the 30’s–published in the book Paris at Night. His dark and evocative imagery influenced photographers and filmmakers worldwide–feeding the aesthetics of an emerging film noir genre. Brassa– couldn’t escape his success as a photographer and made attempts–in his journal–to reconcile with his desire to be a painter:
Even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing.
To monetize his burgeoning reputation, he worked commercially shooting everything from car tires to cigarette lighters–all while enduring an unfulfilled desire to paint.
I want absolutely to return to the plastic arts. This desire becomes more and more a physical necessity. Photography is more of a stimulant. A complete success in photography leaves something in one’s being unsatisfied. It is choice and not expression. Its laws involve limits, even if I know these laws and respect them in all humility. I am not unhappy to be able to maintain my anonymity. After all, photography enabled me to step out of the shadows to show what I see. That’s something. But even so, I must express one day what I am.
TV I’m Watching
The Queens Gambit, now streaming on Netflix, is another story about a child prodigy. This one, however, is fiction. It follows an orphaned Beth Harmon as she falls in line at a draconian orphanage where each child is administered a daily dose of a tranquilizer to keep them calm. As addiction to the drug brews, Beth stumbles upon the building’s custodian while he’s playing himself at chess–sparking Beth’s interest in the game.
The series is based on a novel with the same name written by Walter Tevis. It loosely draws from Tevis’ experience as a class-C chess player–learning to play when he was seven years old.
The show has been received well by both entertainment and chess aficionados. The cinematography and overall design are on par with the best of today’s episodic cinema. “Cinema,” in this case, is used to describe how the use of lighting and other aesthetics profoundly serve and enhance the storytelling. A trend on the rise–for tv–during the last decade or two–in large part superseding the sitcom, reality TV, and soap opera.
Quote I am pondering
To have success in a particular domain incites you and constrains you to exploit that success and to practice professionally as a “specialist.” what you have done with the joy of an amateur. The dilettante’s passion for an art will always be stronger than that of a man who is gifted to practice it, for the dilettantes passion, like a love without hope, always remains unquenched. To protect the amateur’s freshness of vision and combine it each time with the knowledge and the awareness of the professional, that is what I have tried to accomplish all my life, whence my constant infidelities, diverse curiosities, my numerous and parallel occupations– that apparent incoherence was my coherence. -Brassai
Sometimes it’s hard to explain things, and sometimes we lack the words, perspective, or experience to explain something even though we understand it and empathize with it. On this month’s journey into the rabbit hole, I explore racial division through cinema, literature, journalism and photography. And uncover some nuances that have helped further my understanding and improve my communication skills.
Film I’m Studying
I Am Not Your Negro fully realizes its director’s conviction. Raoul Peck set out to bring forward a voice from another era—a voice he felt we now lacked and desperately needed. After working with many writers, he feared the project wasn’t going anywhere. But then he was handed an unfinished manuscript by the James Baldwin Estate. It was the novel Baldwin was working on before dying of cancer in 1987. Its working title was Remember This House, and it contained 30 pages of recollections about his friends—civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Suddenly, Peck’s film was upon him.
Sometimes people say I am an activist, I say no, I am a citizen, I take seriously the rights that I have, I take seriously my responsibility. I would love to be able to make horror movies without having to think, like Scary Movie 1,2,3,4,5, or 6, or Toy Story. But I take responsibility. I know the price we pay. I know the price my ancestors paid. I know the price young men like Medgar Evers, young men like Martin Luther King Jr., young men like Malcolm X, the price they paid, the price their kids paid, their whole family paid. How can we just say… well… we can just be happy and profit from whatever is going on? It’s my responsibility. The right to vote—people died for that. I know the price of my ancestors. – Transcribed from a special features Interview of Raoul Peck
And thus, a symphony ensues. Baldwin with his voice and pen, And Peck orchestrating a tale of yesterday amongst a tale of today.
Archived media from the civil rights era—interviews, stills, tv shows, and movie clips—build up the lion’s share of the movie. But to connect the history with what is happening today, Peck included stills and footage from modern-day protests and tragedies and some reality tv show clips. But it was—in good taste—kept to a minimum, not to distract from the actual history. And in the end, there are some very captivating modern-day video portraits.
Additionally, there isn’t a single contemporary interview in the film—scarce these days when it comes to documentaries. But the film is not without its genre tropes. Sequences with atmospheric b-roll garnish the film—mostly scenery as seen out the windows of a driving car. The footage was edited with an astute poetic sensibility and Samuel L. Jackson’s soft voice narration to invoke a sense of—this is James Baldwin driving around pondering the heavy themes of heartbreak that permeated the souls of blacks and empathizers throughout the era.
What touches me the most is the film’s embodied awareness. An awareness I was first exposed to in my late teens, thanks to some socially responsible friends. But this awareness did not come along with a good set of communication skills. And it was only the beginning of an ongoing journey—digging myself out of a deep cavernous pit flooded with naiveté. As featured in this film from a 1968 excerpt of The Dick Cavett Show, here are some words from James Baldwin that have helped me tweak my communication skills and understanding in regards to race.
I don’t know what white people in this country feel. I can only include what they feel by the state of their institution. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means that I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether Labor Unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know if the real-estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know about the textbooks I have to give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my assistant, my children on some idealism that you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. – James Baldwin
Credits and Specs
Directed by Raoul Peck
Produced by Rémi Grellety, Hébert Peck, Raoul Peck
Written by James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember this house.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr.
Music By Alexei Aigui
Cinematography by Henry Adebonojo, Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
Edited by Alexandra Strauss
Production Company: Velvet Film
Film Festival Release: October 2016
Running Time: 1hr 33min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Printed Film Format: Digital (Digital Cinema Package DCP)
Reported Budget: 1m
Book I’m Reading
Go Tell It On The Mountain–published in 1953—is James Baldwin’s first novel. The Modern Library and Time Magazine both list the book amongst their top 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The book is semi-autobiographical, leaning heavily on Baldwin’s experience with an abusive stepfather—a sensationalist preacher. And ending on a depiction of his own “awakening” at the age of 14 when he became a preacher.
Baldwin scholars suggest that he invented his own way of writing and speaking that stemmed from his years as a child preacher. “He remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow, and the rhetorical flourish.”
When you are born a black man in this country, you need to read Baldwin. Without question, no if or [about it], you need to read [him]. Whatever you do with it later, that is another question. It’s like learning how to read. That’s how essential it is.
For me, that is what he did. He taught me how to read. He taught me how to read my life. He taught me how to construct my life. He taught me how to make decisions about my life. So once you have that kind of powerful thinking, you need to put it in the hand of every single child in this country.
Obviously, I am not black. But, I thought reading Baldwin for myself would help me to garner understanding. And after having an undeniable emotional response to the poeticism in Baldwin’s words as featured in I Am Not Your Negro, I was eager to read them first hand in one of his books. So why not start with his first. Here is an excerpt:
She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, who they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.
Photographer that inspires me
James Karales observed his college roommate sweating over chemical trays in a darkroom and was inspired to change his major to photography. He graduated in 1955. And after spending two years under the tutelage of W. Eugene Smith at the Magnum Photo Agency, he set his sights on the working class in Rendville, Ohio, for his first photo essay. In its earlier years, Rendville was one of the few towns in the US to allow for workplace integration and was a stop on the underground railroad. His essay got noticed, and in 1960, Look Magazine hired him to cover the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. His access to key movement figures like Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in an incredibly intimate body of work, charged—by his compositions and choice moments—with undeniable emotional clarity.
Article I am enjoying
Revisiting an anti-Latino past is an article written by Gustavo Arellano for the Los Angeles Times. It’s an honest reflection of the newspaper’s historical racism and how it has changed. What strikes me the most is how the newspaper is holding itself accountable with acute self-examination and commitment. Here is an excerpt:
The [Latin] elites were seen as cultured but good people whose best days were past. The rest were seen as halfbreeds and shiftless.” The dichotomy was there from the start. An 1883 story about northern Mexico’s “greasers” with the subhead “What They Are and How They Live” strove to distinguish for readers the difference between Mexicans with mixed heritage and those who were supposedly of pure Spanish blood. The latter were described as “bright, active and intelligent.” The Times cemented this myth in historical remembrances, serialized fiction, and news stories about society events where L.A.’s new white ruling class—including the Chandlers—dressed as the dons and señoritas of yore. Meanwhile, the city’s actual Mexican residents were written about largely in crime stories or what Gutierrez called “zoo pieces” — stories about Latinos not as individuals but as members of an ethnic group with little chance of being more than that.
Quote I am pondering
What I am trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible and so dead, no other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife and a house with a white picket fence and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, then to marry and have the Plymouth and house and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy that this is what we mean. – James Baldwin