The Subversive Cinema Of Crispin Glover

Look Who’s Talking ■ by Peter LoPilato

Crispin Glover is well known as an off-kilter character actor; who can forget the dippy dad, George McFly, in Back to the Future?

Glover is also a filmmaker, author and performance artist. And he’ll be combining all three when he arrives to the IU Cinema with his interactive, book tour/road show. The performances on February 15 and 16 are co-sponsored by The Ryder and will include screenings of Glover’s independently produced and self-distributed films (a different film each night) along with a slide show comprised of images from his extensively illustrated books — Glover’s books are visual works as much as they are texts. His dramatic narration will accompany the slide show. An audience Q&A and a let’s-get-acquainted book signing follow.

Glover’s films are provocative. In fact, that is an understatement and he believes that they are best experienced when he is present — screenings, consequently, are rare. It is Fine! Everything Is Fine will be screened on February 15. Produced and funded by Glover from a screenplay by the film’s star, Steven C. Stewart, It is Fine! dramatizes the psycho-sexual fantasies of a man with severe cerebral palsy. Combining elements of horror and  exploitation, this fantastical and often humorous tale is told completely from Stewart’s point of view – that of a man who has lived for years watching people do things he will never be able to do.

Glover will present What Is It? on February 16. Described as “the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe,” the film’s ensemble cast includes porn stars and actors with Down Syndrome. In addition to writing and directing What Is It? Glover also appears in the film as an actor in the role of a “dueling Demi-God Auteur and the young man’s inner psyche.” Actress Fairuza Balk voices one of the snails.
It is safe to say that even adventurous filmgoers will be venturing into unchartered cinematic territory when Crispin Glover comes to town. Glover discussed his films, books and his on-again-off-again relationship with Hollywood in an interview, conducted by email, with The Ryder.

Ryder Your films bring imagery to screen that audiences are not often (if ever) exposed to.  Many of these images are considered taboo, at least in mainstream media.  How are you trying to affect your audiences with these images?

Crispin Glover I am very careful to make it quite clear that What is it? is not a film about Down Syndrome but my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking. Specifically anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. This is damaging to the culture because it is the very moment when an audience member sits back in their chair looks up at the screen and thinks “Is this right, what I am watching? Is this wrong, what I am watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have made this? What is it?” -and that is the title of the film.

What is it that is taboo in the culture? What does it mean that taboo has been ubiquitously excised in this culture’s media? What does it mean to the culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media? So What is it? Is a direct reaction to the contents this culture’s media. I would like people to think for themselves.

Ryder You’ve been quoted as saying, “I admire films and desire to make films that go beyond the realm of that which is considered good and evil.”  How would you define “good” and “evil” in filmmaking?

Crispin Glover Films that are currently financed and distributed by the film corporations and distribution corporations must sit within the boundary of that which is considered good and evil. What this means is if there is a so called “bad thing/evil thing” that sits within a corporately financed and distributed film it must necessarily be pointed at by the filmmaker; the audience is dictated to think about that so called “evil thing” in that one way. Any other way of thinking about that so called “evil thing” would be considered wrong and the film must be made in such a way that the audience understands that the filmmakers feel that this “evil thing” is only that and no other way of thinking about that “evil thing” could or should be possible. A film that goes beyond the realm of good and evil may have this same so-called “evil thing” but the filmmaker may not necessarily point at that so-called “evil thing.” The audience can think for itself as to what this so called “evil thing” really is to them. I would say that description applies to both What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.

Ryder You’ve worked within and outside of the Hollywood studio system. I would assume that both have advantages and disadvantages. Can you talk a bit about those?

Crispin Glover I see myself as someone who has been raised with the understanding of how corporately funded and distributed film business works. I have had a certain amount of acceptance within that business.

While I am grateful to that system to have made a living in it for about 35 years I have also had questions about how to make the corporately funded and distributed film business more truly educational. Within the corporately funded and distributed film world I see myself as an actor for hire and am grateful to that system to have made a living in it.

In the year 2000 this was around the same time that the first Charlie’s Angels film was coming to me. I realized that the money I made from that film could be put straight into What is it? after Charlie’s Angels came out it did very well financially and was good for my acting career. I started getting better roles that also paid better and I could continue using that money to finance my films that I am so passionate about. I have been able to divorce myself from the content of the films that I act in and look at acting as a craft. Usually filmmakers have hired me because there is something they have felt would be interesting to accomplish with me in their film. If for some reason the director is not truly interested in doing something that I personally find interesting with the character then I can console myself that with the money I am making to be in their production I can help to fund my own films. Usually though I feel as though I am able to get something across as an actor that I feel good about. It has worked out well.

Ryder The very personal, self-distribution of your films is admirable, and pays tribute to early film exhibition, when live performance and music were very much part of the program. Was this the inspiration for you, or are you recalling something different?

Crispin Glover Thank you! The live aspects of the shows are not to be underestimated.

When I first started publishing the books in 1988 people said I should have book readings. But the books are so heavily illustrated and the way the illustrations are used within the books they help to tell the story so the only way for the books to make sense was to have visually representations of the images. This is why I knew a slide show was necessary. It took a while but in 1992 I started performing what I now call Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Side Show Part 1. I perform a one hour dramatic narration of eight different books I have made over the years. The illustrations from the books are projected behind me as I perform the show. The content of that show has not changed since I first started performing it. But the performance of the show has become more dramatic as opposed to more of a reading. The books do not change but the performance of the show of course varies slightly from show to show based the audience’s energy and my energy.

People sometimes get confused as to what Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show is, so now I always let it be known that it is a one hour dramatic narration of eight different profusely illustrated books that I have made over the years. The fact that I tour with the film helps the distribution element. I consider what I am doing to be following in the steps of vaudeville performers. Vaudeville was the main form of entertainment for most of the history of the US. It has only relatively recently stopped being the main source of entertainment, but that does not mean this live element mixed with other media is no longer viable.

Volcanic Eruptions was a business I started in Los Angeles in 1988 as Crispin Hellion Glover doing business as Volcanic Eruptions. It was a name to use for my book publishing company.  About a year later I had a record/CD come out with a corporation called Restless Records. When I had sold the same amount of books as CD/records, it became clear to me that, because I had published my own books, I had a far greater profit margin. It made me very suspicious of working with corporations as a business model.

It is enjoyable to travel and visit places, meet people, perform the shows and have interaction with audiences and discussions about the films afterwards. The forum after the show is also not to be under-estimated as a very important part of the show for the audience. This also makes me much more personally grateful to the individuals who come to my shows as there is no corporate intermediary. The drawbacks are that a significant amount of time and energy to promote and travel and perform the shows. The number of people seeing the films is much smaller than if I were to distribute the films in a more traditional sense.

The way I distribute my films is certainly not traditional in the contemporary sense of film distribution but perhaps is very traditional when looking further back at vaudeville era film distribution. If there are any filmmakers that are able to utilize aspects of what I am doing then that is good. It has taken many years to organically develop what I am doing now as far as my distribution goes.

Ryder Your books Rat Catching and Oak-Mot are altered versions of works that were in the public domain – could a similar approach work in filmmaking?

Crispin Glover I started making my books in 1983 for my own enjoyment without the concept of publishing them. I had always written and drawn and the books came as an accidental outgrowth of that. I was in an acting class in 1982 and down the block was an art gallery that had a book store upstairs. In the book store there was a book for sale that was an old binding taken from the 1800’s and someone had put their art work inside the binding. I thought this was a good idea and set out to do the same thing. Sometimes I would find images that I was inspired to create stories for or sometimes it was the binding or sometimes it was portions of the texts that were interesting. Altogether, I made about twenty of them.

When I was editing my first feature film What is it? There was a reminiscent quality to the way I worked with the books because as I was expanding the film in to a feature from what was originally going to be a short, I was taking film material that I had shot for a different purpose originally and re-purposed it for a different idea and I was writing and shooting and ultimately editing at the same time. Somehow I was comfortable with this because of similar experiences with making my books.

There are definitely filmmakers that have taken existing film works and reworked them for a different interpretation of the original footage. Sometimes it is very effective. I saw the 1936 film Rose Hobart by the American Artist Joseph Cornel projected at UCLA in the 1980’s. He had taken portions of a film titled East of Borneo and edited it with footage from at least one other film. I quite liked that film when I saw it. I am sure there are a lot of other good examples of this being done.

Ryder Many of your works, film and print, independent and commercial, focus on what some would consider “uncouth” objects, i.e. snails (What is It?), worms (Oak-Mot), rats (Rat Catching and Willard), cockroaches (Wild at Heart). Similarly, many of the women in What is It? are shown wearing various animal masks (monkeys, elephants, etc.). What do you find attractive or interesting about insects and animals generally? What do you think these things can tell your audience about themselves, if anything?

Crispin Glover I am careful not to publicly over-analyze the imagery in my own films. Wild at Heart is of course a David Lynch film. The nature of What is it? lets people’s thoughts come in to play. If I let people know what my thoughts are on the imagery in the film it can make people feel they are wrong in interpreting it differently. It is important for people to interpret the imagery in the way that make sense to them. I will say that I knew the macro shots of the snails in What is it? would help to personalize them in a way that would not happen if shot with a non-macro lens.

Ryder You recorded the pop classic These Boots Art Made for Walkin’ and put your own personal stamp on it. Is there a classic Hollywood film that you would like to do the same with?

Crispin Glover It was produced on the record The Big Problem ≠ The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be by Barnes and Barnes. They had asked me to record a top-40 song. I was a bit reluctant to do this, but ended up choosing that song.  I don’t have any film in my mind that would necessarily be good to remake, but I would never say never.

Ryder Who are a few of your favorite filmmakers? Is there anyone you would especially like to work with if you were given the opportunity?

Crispin Glover Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Buñuel, Stanley Kubrick, Todd Browning, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa, Milos Foreman, Roman Polanski, David Lynch, John Waters, Russ Meyer, Karel Zeman, Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, Ken Russell, Gaspar Noe, Orson Wells, John Cassavetes, Dennis Hopper….

There are many more. My favorite film lists go into the hundreds and there are a lot of my very favorite films that are just one-offs where the director only made one film. Many of the above directors have made multiple films that I admire.

The Ryder, February 2013

Vinyl Revival

Record Collectors Preserve The Past ■ by Dan Melnick

They’re leftovers, clutter that needs to be dealt with. Vinyl records sit in the basement on dusty shelves waiting to be unloaded at the next yard sale. It’s been years, in some cases, since they’ve been removed from their sleeves. But for passionate music lovers and collectors, the hisses and pops embedded in the grooves of the vinyl sound better than the polished digital tracks produced today. Many of these collectors amass vast museums of vinyl comprised of thousands of disks. More than a hobby, record collecting is a livelihood that defines who they are.

With purchases these days just an Amazon or eBay click away, one of the vast appeals of record collecting is in the thrill of the hunt. Whether one seeks records, comic books, or even ceramic figurines, half of the fun is in assembling the collection. “I don’t do anything online,” vinyl collector Jonathan Richardson says. “It seems like cheating. It defeats the purpose. Almost 100% of my collection is from me scavenging yard sales and thrift stores. I normally do not pay more than a dollar for a record. I would much rather be digging through dusty bins in an antique mall. That’s the fun part of it, going out and finding these little treasures.” Richardson owns anywhere from 10 to 12 thousand records and his collection is valued at over $100,000. That’s a lot work and a lot of antique malls.

Jonathan Richardson

The hobby of collecting vinyl records has been around since their inception in the fifties, but the concept of assembling a collection, as opposed to simply buying records for their music value, didn’t take off until the mid-eighties and the birth of the CD. That’s when most replaced their collections with the new media form and the easier to store compact disk. But while many embraced the new technology, there were still those who would always be attracted to the vinyl medium. Records weren’t the first way to record music and they certainly aren’t the last, but there’s something about this format that many still find intriguing.

People collect whatever speaks to them, but when it comes to music, vinyl collectors stand out from the crowd. There’s a certain mystique and air of knowledge that surrounds the record collector that’s missing from other musical hobbyists. Collecting 8-track tapes for instance, just doesn’t have the same allure, same inherent coolness, about it that record collecting does. Record collecting has developed into somewhat of a loaded term these days thanks to many music gurus and true hipsters who have inadvertently left their knowledgeable mark on the discipline over the years. Putting together a discerning, comprehensive library is careful and painstaking work. So, what is it about vinyl that continues to attract both listeners and collectors to what would be an otherwise dead medium?

“For me it was always about the music. It’s not about the material that it’s made from,” says Ron Resur, an avid record collector of the past 60 years. Resur has been adding to his collection since records were first invented, taking great pride in discovering rare records. Sometimes, these can be popular albums of famous musicians. Resur’s most prized pieces however are records that most people may have never heard of: the remains of limited print runs and masterpieces of forgotten artists. He spent almost forty years looking for Dino Valenti’s self-titled album, having to settle for a CD until his son presented him with an original vinyl copy as a Christmas present. Finding these “little treasures,” as Richardson describes them, isn’t just about increasing the number of records one owns, it’s about adding another piece to the puzzle in a never ending quest to explore the past. Each record collection is a carefully chosen tapestry of musicians, put together disk by disk. Record collectors aren’t just hobbyists, they’re historians. “I wouldn’t call myself a record collector as much as a music lover,” says Richardson. “I’m really fascinated with recorded music and the amount of cool, interesting stuff that’s out there that hasn’t been heard by the general public.”

Ron Resur

Ron Resur calls this practice “audio archeology.” Over the past 60 years, he’s diligently cataloged his collection of over 800 artists and arranged the records for easy reference complete with music chronology and printed biographies of the artists. “I find it fascinating,” Resur says. “It’s really keeping a record on social mores through the music. What is the attitude of society at the time?” Like any work of art, the recorded music of any time period reflects the social issues and cultural trends relative to that era.

Resur’s point of view is shared by many avid vinyl collectors. Each record they find is an artifact of another age. “I like sincerity,” Resur says. In regard to music, “the rawer it is, the closer it is to the initial expression it is, the better. The purity of the idea coming through in the music is what I look for. I listen to the content more than anything. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be the words. It’s the way the person expresses himself through the instrumentation of the music and through the writing of the music.” He uses Neil Young as an example, explaining that not only is he a great musician, but “he has an intensity and a specific philosophical point of view that I have an affinity with.”

While Bloomington may boast only a half a dozen of serious collectors, each person has his own version of the Holy Grail. Like Richardson says, they’re “music lovers” interested in lost artifacts, not financial gain. Much like Resur’s Dino Valenti quest, these obscure objects of desire  hold a personal connection with the collector; what makes them valuable is the record’s genuine rarity. If you collect long enough, you’re bound to find what you’re looking for. “The record that I have been searching for my whole life is the next one that I have never heard of that I find,” Richardson says.

In terms of vinyl collecting and records in general, it’s impossible not to talk about the actual medium or mechanism by which the music is experienced, the delivery system if you will.

While being a potential thorn in the side of music completionists, the modern delivery format favors individual songs as opposed to entire albums.  Artists still record entire albums of music, but unless you’re a big fan of the artist, most of us only hear a hit single or two. Ten years ago, this single would attract a buyer to a music store and if the person wanted to own the music, he or she would have to purchase the entire CD. But now with mp3 files and iTunes, consumers can cherry pick their favorites for 99 cents. As the music industry evolves, making content more accessible to consumers, the concept of an entire collection of thematically related songs — an album — is losing its relevance.

Albums used to tell a story, either literally like The Who’s Tommy or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or figuratively, marking a specific era of the band’s growth. Take the work of any musician or group who’s been around for a long time and compare something they did 10 years ago to something they released last year. Remember when people used to say, “Man that was a good album?” That doesn’t happen anymore. We download, rip, and burn our music, put it on a mobile device and that’s the end of it. Sure, some may still want to listen to an entire album’s worth of music, but for many, they can’t even name what album the newest hit even came from.

Many music collectors like Richardson, trace the deterioration of album oriented music to the invention of the CD. “I think records have a little more permanent feel to them as opposed to a CD,” Richardson says. “You can burn a CD. But you can’t burn a record. It’s solid. It has a life. CDs and mp3s are disposable to me. They all look the same. You rip it and put it on your iPod and throw it away. It doesn’t matter.”

“I’d rather have an album than a CD,” Resur agrees. “With a CD there’s a thing called compression where it’s been remastered to take off the high end and the low end and you’re not getting the original sound. You’re getting part of it. It might be cleaner, but you’re only getting part of the original intent. And I want to hear what the artist intended, not what some engineer thought sounded better.” This is also an issue with all digital music, not just the CD. Digital media platforms may make music more ubiquitous, but only those recordings that companies have uploaded to their libraries and deem marketable.

These are complaints that most vinyl collectors share about modern music. As lovers of the art form, the more removed they get from the original sound, in this case, by the intervening technologies, the less they like it. It would be like a museum curator cleaning up the colors on a Picasso because he thought the blue wasn’t bright enough. The key distinction here is what Resur refers to as “intent.” Some artists can only record with modern technology. You couldn’t make electronica or dub step music without a computer. Other artists happen to like layered vocals and autotuning. Collectors like Richardson and Resur are fine with all of these methods as long as they meet the artist’s original intent for the music, as long as the recorded product is faithful to the authenticity of the music creative integrity of the artist.

Indiana has a rich musical history. Vinyl collector and music enthusiast Rick Wilkerson runs a website in which he has compiled a massive database of as many Indiana artists and their records that he can find.  We all know that John Mellencamp is a Hoosier. But there are others. Wes Montgomery was born in Indianapolis. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop was a native of Gary.  Axel Rose is from LaFayette. Van Halen’s David Lee Roth and of course, Hoagy Charmichael, are from Bloomington. Their work alone makes quite the record collection.

Wilkerson co-owned the record store Irvington Vintage on Indianapolis’s east side for 15 years and is no stranger to audio archeology. His newest project takes his collection up a notch as he seeks to chronicle Indiana’s vinyl history. Most of his research is secondary as he scours various books and websites confirming the origins of many artists and their music. “If I started this before the internet, this would have been a nightmare,” he says. Wilkerson’s project grew out of his personal record collection and like Richardson and Resur, he feels that there are still lessons to be learned from the past. If anything, his website chronicles a shared history with Hoosiers and other popular artists, bridging the distance between the two. Ultimately, his plan is to write a book. “The website that’s up there now is not even close to approximating what I’ve got,” he says.

Wilkerson will list popular artists and expensive work on his website because they have a connection to the state of Indiana, but he’s much more interested in finding those “little treasures” that others don’t know about, excavating forgotten or unheard of vinyl for others to experience. As many collectors like Richardson and Resur agree, the art and motivation behind an impressive collection is to provide others with a taste of something they may not have heard before. So often, the best records, aren’t always the most popular ones, but the least popular.

With the format and delivery method of music changing numerous times of the years, what is it about LPs and 45s that still has hobbyists coming back for more? Few records are made anymore, and only then largely for novelty’s sake, yet the medium is attractive enough for some to spend thousands of dollars on a rare find. The initial pressing of The Freewheelin’Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground and Nico’s Acetate haves sold for $25,000 to $35,000.

The Quarrymen (John, Paul, and George pre-Ringo) — “That’ll Be the Day”/”In Spite Of All The Danger” (UK 78 RPM, Acetate in plain sleeve, 1958) Note: Only one copy made, owned by Paul McCartney. Value: $200,000

As auditory historians, delving into the past for music unheard of today has tremendous appeal for Resur. We still have record parties,” he says. “Some of the folks here in town, we get together and everybody brings their own stuff. You get so many different points of view and of course you might hear something you hadn’t heard before. I like to play things that the other people in the group maybe haven’t heard because I’m so much older than everybody else.

“I’m 70 years old. I’ve been listening to some of these records for a long time. It’s interesting to me to listen to something today that I originally listened to in 1958. You hear something so many times that it’s ingrained in your memory; you don’t listen to it for a while and when you listen to it again, it sounds totally different. It’s a way of relating to the past and gaining a new perspective because the sound hasn’t changed, I have.”

Resur referred to the records as points of view, but he might as well have used the phrase “social mores.” That’s really the root of it. Each record is a fragment of a lost history. Many of the artists have long-since died, their voices forever recorded in the grooves of spinning vinyl.  What’s left behind is a legacy for future generations. And it is thanks to the efforts of audio archeologists like Richardson, Resur, and Wilkerson, sifting through a hodgepodge of crates and boxes in haphazard flea markets and rummage sales, that their legacy is preserved for future generations.

The Ryder, January 2013

 

 

 


 [P1]The hobby of collecting has been around since the 50s but the concept of collecting took off in the 80s. Since the hobby waw around in the 50s, wasn’t the concept around in the 50s?

 [MD2]You had these two highlighted. I know they’re awkward, but this is a direct quote. Should I edit them down anyway?

 [P3]I’ve added the word recordings. But a larger issue is how does this differ from pre-digital, pre- mp3s? Haven’t music co execs always based their decisions of what to release based on the artist’s marketability?

Peasant Happiness

Celebrating the Cultural Revolution in China ■ by Molly Gleeson

It all started with a phone call.  “Do you want to go to Peasant Happiness with my mother this weekend?” my friend Marsha asked.  I thought perhaps this was the greatest oxymoron I had ever heard.  “What,” I asked, “is Peasant Happiness?”

“It’s a place that celebrates the Cultural Revolution,” she said.

“But Marsha,” I said, “wasn’t the Cultural Revolution a really terrible time for China?”

“Oh, it was really bad for the country, but for individuals it was really quite fun,” Marsha said.

This is the same well-educated, well-traveled woman who said to me when I balked at “registering” at the local police office, “It’s just so if anything happens to you you’ll be treated like a citizen.”  I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to be treated like a citizen.  In any case, I wouldn’t go to Peasant Happiness that weekend, but Marsha had put it in my mind and I was curious.

I convinced my student friends Alice and Ida to join me one spring weekend to visit one of these Peasant Happiness’s, just outside Chongqing.  We took a bus and then motorcycle taxis up a mountain and arrived around 9: 00 p.m.  There are hundreds of these places in China, and dozens of them around Chongqing.  However, only a handful of them have the Cultural Revolution as their theme.  This one was called Longjishuanzhuang or “The Spine of the Dragon Peasant Happiness.”  We met the manager, the indomitable Mrs. Luo.  She told us this that “old intellectuals who worked on farms during the Cultural Revolution” pass through its gate every week.  Indeed, from looking around it seemed that most people there that weekend were between the ages of 50 and 70.  I certainly was the only laowai (foreigner) and Alice and Ida seemed extremely young in this company.  Most people would only stay a night or two, watching a performance about the Cultural Revolution one night and playing mah jong the rest of the time.  Mrs. Luo said these old-timers come here to “remember history and to renew their memory” and although they were “tough times” it makes them “appreciate what they have now,” she said.  Over a meal of preserved duck eggs, sour vegetable and fish soup, egg and tomato soup, fried corn kernels and a local vegetable known as kongxin cai, Ida proclaimed: “I think these people come here because the food is very delicious.”

We got a room to ourselves, and proceeded to play mah jong.  I was getting pretty good at it.  When we got tired of that Alice and Ida borrowed my camera and took endless pictures of themselves while I read Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn.  The next morning my friends got up early to explore the place and then came to wake me up.  It was Friday morning and the place started to fill up.  We took a walk around the grounds – full of fruit trees in bloom and a spectacular view of the Jialing River and the district of Shapingba beyond.  There was a large pagoda with tables for mah jong along this route.  A group of older people were already hard at it.  We were curious about them, and they were a little curious about us.  We weren’t the average visitors to this place.  I asked one of the men, a Mr. Xu, why he was here.  “We’re here to honor our memories,” he said, and added, “We’re here to remember and celebrate our youth.”.  Mr. Xu is 58.  He said he and his friends go to different Peasant Happinesses every month.  He said they were teenagers during the Cultural Revolution, and were sent to work in China’s burgeoning natural gas industry.  Mr. Xu’s education was delayed ten years because of the Cultural Revolution.  However, he considers himself “very patriotic” and is proud of what he and his friends did for China.  Mr. Xu admitted that Mao Zedong made a mistake with the Cultural Revolution, but that he was still a great leader.  He went back to playing mah jong.  So did we.  I won three times in a row.

Later I went for a massage, a service provided on the grounds of this Peasant Happiness.  I attracted quite an audience.  The masseuse assured me that it could help me lose weight.  I thought, well, it sure beats exercise.

That night was the performance.  I counted on my friends to translate for me, but they had a difficult time of it because it was all in Chongqinghua, the local dialect.  The show began with the entire cast, all in Red Guard uniforms, singing popular songs of the time.  The audience was encouraged to join in on “All the Members are the Flowers Facing the Sun” and “A Song for Zhiqing” (“Young Members of the Community”).  The emcee for the evening said that the performance was meant to “remind us of the Cultural Revolution”.  The players chanted that the purpose of the Cultural Revolution was “to fight against the imperialists and to build China like Mao said.”

The performance went through the various stages of the Cultural Revolution.  There was an actor praising Mao but it was difficult for my translators to grasp.  There was a story of a young girl, forced to marry the feudal lord’s son because her father had no money for taxes.  There were scenes of “materialists” being punished.  One poignant scene was a teenage girl having to leave her parents to go work in the countryside.  An audience member walked up on stage and presented the actress with flowers.  Anytime an audience member was moved, they would go up on stage and give flowers to the actors.  Plastic flowers were provided in front of the stage.  I thought if there was one thing many of these audience members could relate to, it would be leaving their parents to be “re-educated” in the countryside.  The performance soon ended, with rousing songs and flags flying.  They marched through the audience.  And then the disco lights came down and there was a “dance party”.  We didn’t stick around for it.  I went back to reading about materialists and imperialists in Phineas Finn.

 ■

Karl Wu, who owns a bar in Shapingba, has gone to many Peasant Happinesses.  He was only a child when the Cultural Revolution happened, but he does remember that his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in the countryside because the situation in Chongqing was precarious.  Wu said he doesn’t agree with the politics of the time, but goes to these places because he wants to re-live his youth.  He said young people today don’t know the history of the Cultural Revolution, and they should.  He said Mao is “like a god in our minds.”  People don’t think of him like that anymore, however, he added.  ”It’s not to say he didn’t make mistakes, I’m not saying that, but he is the most important person in recent Chinese history.”

I contacted Dr. David Arkush, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Iowa.  I asked him if he thought it was weird to “celebrate” the Cultural Revolution in this way.  He said he could understand it because people have a need for nostalgia, and that was certainly what Peasant Happiness was all about.  In spite of the terrible things that went on during that time, he said it was a more innocent time.  There wasn’t the corruption that there is today, he added.  There wasn’t the disillusionment.  He said it was great for young people – they got to travel when no one was traveling.  They got to see some of China and to try new things.

Alice, Ida and I stayed until the next day.  We tried to get lunch, but Mrs. Luo said it was only for the groups that came and we weren’t part of a group.  So we left.  As we were leaving some of the workers there told us that we had been cheated badly – we were charged separately for our room and for meals, when everyone else just paid one fee.  This fee was considerably lower than what we had paid.   Laowai beware.  We took a bus down the mountain and back to our lives.

The Ryder, January 2013

BOOKS: James Joyce’s Day Of The Dead

A Latino Reading of Finnegans Wake ■ by Carlos Bakota

The Irish were the first Mexicans in the United States – at least, that’s what I tell my good friend John, a bartender at the Irish Lion.  Both of our ancestors were thought of as lazy and a threat to the culture and institutions of America.  This summer, after reading Gordon Bowker’s new biography of James Joyce, I revisited the novels and stories of this literary giant. In struggling through Joyce’s work, I was struck by the recurrent themes of colonialism and identity.

Dublin’s Joyce Statue, Known As “The Prick With The Stick” (Photo: David Pace)

But can we talk of Joyce’s dense, often impenetrable body of work—the work of an Irish author—and the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations in the same breath? The Latino celebration of the Day of the Dead is also important in Celtic myth. In fact, the Vatican incorporated All Saints Day from the Celtic traditions. There are indications that the Celts absorbed Egyptian and Phoenician as well as Germanic forms of early cultural practices.  Looked at from Joyce’s historical, transcultural and multicultural perspective, the dead were important to all ancient and modern cultures of the world. To fully understand the significance of both the Irish and Mexican relationship to the dead it is useful to keep in mind, as Joyce reminds us, the long history of our shared humanity.

Joyce’s work stubbornly rejects the 1900’s racist discourse of the occupying British when speaking of the “Irishman.” A line in Finnegans Wake reminded me of the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes, who saw himself caught in a colonialist trap. To paraphrase: the European writer is born as if in the highest floor of the Eiffel tower; the Latin American writer is born as if in the core of the earth. After a colossal effort, he is barely able to peek out of the surface of the ground.

James Joyce in Finnegans Wake similarly wrote: “When the soul of a man is born in this country [Ireland] there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight –those that remain are destined to die or suffer spiritual decomposition.”

I don’t think I could have made my way through Finnegans Wake without first understanding the fairy tale of the Mookse and the Gripes, Joyce’s retelling of the Fox and the Grapes. In Joyce’s version the Mookse represents the British and Roman colonizers while the Gripes represents the Irish.  What is striking to a Latino reader is that the Mookse uses all of the same colonialist stereotypes that the British and Romans used to describe the Gripes, who is portrayed as an essentially one dimensional, lazy, worthless individual.

One possible moral can be found in the fact that neither the Mookse nor the Gripes can sympathize with the point of view of the other. This is the central problem in colonial societies and was the central problem until very recently in our country when Americans of color engaged xenophobic Americans in conversation.  It seems as if our country kept being swept back into the 1850s and the creation of the xenophobic, secretive Know Nothing Party. (When a member of the party was asked about its activities, he would reply, “I know nothing.”)

Most important is the fact that the Gripes refused to let the Mookse define who he was. Today, Latinos are empowering themselves by refusing to allow xenophobic minorities define who they are.

Joyce found that by leaving Ireland and working in exile, he could escape the identity imposed on him by the occupying British. Working within a larger transnational, multicultural, and fluid community freed him from the limiting constructs of both British imperialism and the nationalist Irish revivalist movements.  Those two forces formed the two sides of the binary opposition which disfigured clear representations of the Irish and the British.

In the British magazines at the turn of the century, the Irish were often characterized as Paddy, the brutish uncivilized ape. This racist discourse served to cover and justify the occupation of Ireland by Britain. Sadly, many Irish escaped to the United States only to find that the majority of Americans continued to see them through the old Irish-British dichotomy, lazy brutes, violent drunks, story tellers and jokers versus the industrious, religious (the true Protestant religion), civilize and sober British citizens.

James Joyce reacted unsympathetically to the nationalist revivalist movements in Ireland, viewing their conception of Ireland and Irish nationalism as backwards. Basically Joyce said “I am what I am today.” Today Latino are what they are now. We are a mixed group of nationalities with infinite shades of Latino-ness.  The vast majority are American citizens.  In the late seventies I would have had a difficult time writing that last sentence without some reference to the colonial framework. But today, demographics, social mobility and politics have changed significantly.  There are even plans to build a National Latino Museum in the Smithsonian Mall. Because of such rapid change on the national scale, the question of how to represent the Latino becomes more and more critical. In this context, Joyce’s rejection of a limited view of his own identity constructed by a dominant group becomes of greater relevance to the Latino community, as well as all excluded groups on the planet.

So Joyce, for all his genius, difficulties and his personal ordeals which are rather harshly presented in the recent biography by Gordon Bowker (who spends a lot of time on fornication and flatulence in the personal letters of Joyce) can easily be seen more and more as a political writer of sorts, a voice against racism and colonialism.  This may be a welcome turn away from the efforts to try to explicate his enormous, erudite, and complex works.

Junot Diaz, in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, takes Joyce as a sort of model to free himself from the constraints of the Eurocentric canon. Joyce’s influence on Diaz is obvious even without such aesthetic similarities. Diaz references Joyce in two of his works: once when a character is advised to become the Dominican Joyce, and another when a character enrolls in a university course on Joyce. Moreover, in interviews he has spoken of Joyce as a source of inspiration. The influence is clear. And there are a growing number of writers who, like Diaz, set their works within transnational frameworks, frameworks that shatter the self-inflicted, deprecating Latino stereotype so prevalent in American culture. Joyce’s reluctance to subscribe to the nationalism of turn-of-the-century Irish literary movements was due, in part, to his belief that they would be unable to escape their own romanticizing of a clichéd Irish past, one that no longer existed outside their own writings.

Now that Latinos are roughly a quarter of the US population and a major pillar of the Democratic party, and now that the GOP is slowly weeding out its half-threatening, half-condescending  Latino discourse, some Latinos are rethinking the colonial framework of their history and moving towards a framework  that would appeal to Joyce’s sense of justice: economic democracy.

Francisco Vazquez, a Latino philosopher at Sonoma State College, in the concluding essay of his book, Latino/a Culture, points out: “If America cannot move away from the exclusionary racist discourse of fear and xenophobia, it may signal the death of inclusive participatory democracy not only in our country but throughout the world.”

Joyce stated that his work was his personal attempt to escape the nightmare of history, and now the American people have a chance to escape the nightmare of American racism by finally recognizing the fact that Latinos and other citizens of color are as American as Taco Bell. James Joyce, for all the talk of his contribution to modernism, is still a potent voice against the nightmare of colonialism, racism, and fear.  Like Joyce, Latino writers have opened themselves up to transnational perspectives in which the individual can express who he or she is within a much broader framework than the colonial oppositions of a racist discourse. Latinos have been here for centuries and our realities and political and economic values and culture are made in America.  I am what I am because what I have been; this story of becoming is what Joyce was telling us in his own transcultural, deeply historical, experimental and wonderfully beautiful way.

The Ryder, January 2013

BOOKS: The Year In Books, 2012

The Year of the Velvet Hot Mama, or Darwin’s Reality in the Age of Supernormal Stimuli ■ by R.E. Paris

I thought perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey should be the book topic of the year. Not because of the way it is written, but because any book that can get millions of women to masturbate in waves and no doubt sometimes in time-zone unison, across this mighty, mighty nation, is part of the spirit of a new age.

In response, HarperCollins announced that it is set to republish Nine and a Half Weeks, though the actual release date has not yet been screamed at the top of the publisher’s lungs, nor muttered in guttural tones.

More importantly, the personal as political in 2012 marked a year of velvet revolution. Reality outwitted the spin and masturbatory fantasies, even if it didn’t outsell them. Looking at the year in books, I wondered who was wrong and who was right about the current events and future prospects.  Here are some authors worth reading.

John B. Judis and Ruy Texeira outlined the current world more than a decade ago in The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner, 2002).  Yours truly was talking up that book back then. Judis and Texeira were the Nate Silvers of the long-term.

◗ Silver is the author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (Penguin, 2012). The book is a manifesto for reality-based thinking. Silver correctly predicted the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections with stunning accuracy. Silver has gone on to recommend that conservatives return to their roots and back marijuana legalization.

Nate Silver: A Manifesto For Reality-Based Thinking

◗ Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana (Scribner, 2012), by Martin Lee.  The cannabis re-legalization votes in Washington State and Colorado were historic political events, ceasefires in the war on drugs.  No one expects Indiana to be a leader in this ground shift even though the social conservative demographic has repeatedly been on the wrong side of history since the 1960s.

◗ All In The Family (Hill and Wang, 2012), by Robert Self, discusses the Reagan re-alignment that began in the 1960s as a reaction to race, gender and sexuality politics.  Self walks the reader through the landscape of the American culture wars. That landscape now includes the impact of science denial.

◗ Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers by James Balog with a forward by Terry Tempest Williams (Rizzoli, 2012). Balog’s work has been exhibited in museums and published in National Geographic, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. His work was also featured on the PBS documentary, “Extreme Ice.”

Two hundred color photographs compiled from Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) team chronicle changing glaciers since 2005 in France, Switzerland, Iceland, Greenland, Nepal, Bolivia, Antarctica and the United States.

◗ Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012). by Katherine Boo, is a stunning look at the reality of economic disparity through the lives of more than 300 people.

Katherine Boo’s Stunning Look At Economic Disparity In Mumbai

◗ Memoir of a Debulked Woman, (Norton, 2012) is by Susan Gubar, a feminist scholar from IU. The Madwoman in the Attic, which she co-authored, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her memoir unravels the ribbons of a cancer story to talk about one women’s view of her changing world read through the body.

◗ Real Man Adventures (McSweeney’s, 2012) by T Cooper is a memoir centering on gender and identity by a female-to-male transitioned citizen. Cooper’s exploration of gender and culture is part of a move beyond binary thinking.  The book raises interesting questions about stereotypes, the author’s as well as our own.

T Cooper’s Exploration Of Gender And Culture Moves Beyond Binary Thinking

◗ The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press, 2012). Young formerly taught poetry in the writing program at IU; this is his first book of prose. These essays parse Young’s experience as a person of color within the context of American cultural life through the work of artists in various genres.

◗ Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Delacorte, 2012), edited by Indiana author and Vonnegut friend Dan Wakefield (Going All The Way), is the first collection of Vonnegut letters. The Lilly Library’s holdings were pivotal for this first compilation. Wakefield’s commentary provides background information for the collection.

Michael Martone is the Indiana author who has taken on the mantle, or hair shirt, of the Twain/Vonnegut humorist in postmodern garb. Read his work. He is also one of the editors of the new Indiana University Break Away series of paperback originals.

◗ An American Tune (Indiana University Press, 2012), by Barbara Shoup, is one of the latest titles in the Breakaway Series. The story takes place in Bloomington as a woman confronts her radical past and suddenly complicated present. Shoup is an author of seven novels and is also the Executive Director of the Writers’ Center of Indiana

More 2012 Fiction to read:

◗ Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (Grove Press, 2012) by Sherman Alexie

◗ Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012) by Michael Chabon

◗ The Round House,  (Harper, 2012) by Louise Erdrich

◗ The Real and the Unreal: Selected Stories Volume One: Where on Earth (Small Beer Press, 2012) by Ursula Le Guin

◗ This Is How You Lose Her, (Riverhead, 2012) by Juno Diaz

◗ Building Stories (Pantheon, 2012), by Chris Ware, is a book that is designed to be experienced as a physical object. Ware’s book house shares stories of individuals who are as separated from one another as the physical contexts that hold their stories.

The book is a big box with 14 items, including books, pamphlets, and a comics section. The book-as-object aesthetic is one McSweeney’s has consistently maintained. Ware has worked with McSweeney’s in the past, most notably with the McSweeney’s 13 Comics Issue and the McSweeney’s 33 newspaper facsimile edition.

◗ “Maker culture” in tech and beyond is part of this 2012 revolution, beyond the bindings of books. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (Crown, 2012), by Chris Anderson, will start you on your journey.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story (Liveright, 2012), by Jim Holt, provides a maker underpinning by examinng something and nothing while questioning the assumption that “nothing” is the “default” of existence.

You are here.

The Ryder, January 2013

 


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