Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Nina Diaries

('Seems I've Never Tired Lovin' You,' a 2003 video diary about Nina Simone)

From the script: I've been playing 'Pirate Jenny' lately. It's so frightening. It's about a woman who works as a maid, but dreams of the day her black ship will come sailing in and she will be on top again, killing everyone who had stood in her way. At the close of the song, nina half whispers half screams the warning, "That'll learn ya!" I sit in my room, with my record player. I just bought a CD transfer of 3 of Nina's European political albums. She talks between the tracks, and I can't help but feeling like she's right here. I should be embarrassed at the way I carry on, singing at the top of my lungs, "To Be Young Gifted and Black." A little white guy belting out the National Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Even Nina said "This is not a song for white people, though it does not put you down in any way, it just simply ignores you." Mmm... but it doesn't.

Over the holidays, I received the 3-cd boxset, "To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story" from D's parents, a very sweet gift. I was most keen on this collection for its DVD compendium. There are few film documents of Nina at her peak which (depending on who you ask) was roughly 70-75. Thing's were sloping away from the Jazz or standard interpretations and shifting to a kind of wild politicality. Things were messy, but in a really good way. I watched the doc contained in the set on Christmas day in that afternoon fireside lull. It was made for television in 1972 (though I can't really imagine it on any kind of middle American set at the time) and, as Nina tends to, it inspired me with a kind of rapt fervor. Possessed me. I tapped out these words in a 5-minute surge:

What I didn't understand about Simone (or maybe I understood it, but I didn't know how to think it) her great accomplishment was this feeling, this quelling emotion that even she knew she was at a loss for words to describe. She paints a crystal clear picture of a kind of ecstatic... not interconnectivity, perhaps, but a kind of surging passion, a lost-in-the-throesness that her music inspires in listeners. She talks it too in interviews, but she doesn't know how to talk about it, because you can't. She just sobs, throws her hand non her head and balks as interviewers use words like free. Have you ever read her memoirs? They're kind of painful. she doesn't really do her music any justice, but it's amazing because it's a document of this thing that's just burning in her and all she's trying to do is either get it out or share it. She accounts on her writing of Mississippi Goddamn that she found herself filled with an instant rage, a drive that drove her into the garage, working until she'd assembled a zip gun. She wanted to kill people. Either she decided or her now-opportunistic ex-husband, Andy Stroud, told her to not kill people, rather put that energy into song and that's what she always did. In this teevee documentary from the 60s, she says she has known freedom a few times on stage and you buy it. She has that way, she just skirts the ineffable through combining religious fervor with a kind of selfishness - a kind of self assurance, like, the issue isn't Christ but if you imagine another passion insane immense enough to infect, spread. Like someone with a really good laugh but for longer and they generate something more profound in you, some kind of out, some kind of alternative option, a sturm and drang. That's her politics. She was shocked when all the black panthers had her records, and naturally - as someone with records to sell - she really thought long and hard about that group of people. Passionate people. In the sixties (and early seventies) you had politics, but really, politics isn't the realm of passion any longer, its the sad sick realm of (alleged) reason. There's no reason in Nina and it's better for it. It's burning ire, it's live wire. It's angry but not whiny. Sometimes she can't even speak onstage. that's the kind of shit it is. and that she was and that was her contribution. you can rope it onto a number of formless sensations, but still, she's the patti smith before Patti, she doesn't even need the poetry. She's wearing High Priestess headdresses and it's not for spirituality's sake, it's for power influence ire/ She was the original or not the original but she flowed through in a way that few manage.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Unusual Xmas treats...

10. While She Was Out. I found this movie while I was in the thick of my Master's dissertation. Kim Basinger's turn in a low budget neo-noir Christmas ethno-slasher did a lot to relieve some of my building academic tensions. The abused Della runs out of wrapping paper on Christmas eve and runs headfirst into a circle of goons at the mall. They haunt her into a mid-construction housing development and Della snaps, deploying her toolkit to kill all of the baddies. While not Christmas throughout, you do receive a stirring rendition of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" from a suitably shaken Basinger by film's end.

9. Remember The Night.

Not an entirely light-spirited movie, Ms. Stanwyck is arrested just before Christmas only to meet Fred McMurray, whose untarnished reputation as a prosecutor brings him to the stand for some final justice before the Christmas break. The trial is postponed and Babs has nowhere to go, so of course she follows him to Ohio for his family Christmas. This was the first pairing of McMurray and Stanwyck who would go onto co-star in Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow and, of course, Double Indemnity. It's a rather sober film, with an ending as untidy as they come...

8. Holiday Affair. TCM is apparently the only one able to offer this charmer which stars Robert Mitchum, who turns the attractive widow, Janet Leigh, into the cops for comparison shopping(?). Well, she gets him fired, but, nevertheless, seasonal warmth spreads and there's some really great footage shot in the Central Park zoo. If memory serves me well it all ends in the courtroom again, for some reason. What was it with the forties?

7. Imitation of Life / All That Heaven Allows.

Why on earth would Douglas Sirk leave something glittering and formal as Christmas alone form his signature critical lens - especially when aiming to dismantle celebrity and high society? Well, Christmas isn't really at the forefront of Imitation of Life, there's only the scene early in the film in which a cold-hearted Lana Turner turns away John Gavin (the gall!) and leaves his seasons wishes to the warm ear of Miss Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), her "maid." Icicles for on everything Lana touches (scroll to minute 8, here). Christmas is much more malignant in All That Heaven Allows, since it spells desolation for Carrie, the widow who leaves her younger lover (Rock Hudson) because of her kids' selfish want for the appropriate image of status. So they buy her a television to keep her company, and there she sits, framed in the black hole of culture, with only a Christmas tree to keep her company.

6. Christmas In Connecticut.

A total charmer with Stanwyck as a phony Connecticut housewife/columnist. She's all Martha Stewart, but in truth she can't cook rice and lives in a small New York City walk up. Trouble ensues when he boss wants her to cook him Christmas dinner... in her Connecticut abode! There's baby swapping and carriage stealing in this wonderful screwball comedy.

5. Female Trouble.

4. Meet Me In St. Louis.

3. Night of the Hunter.

Nothing says Christmas like Lillian Gish with a gun. Robert Mitchum, again, but slightly less fuzzy as he was in Holiday Affair. This is actually one of the best movies, ever, in my opinion. And the Christmas is one of the most Manichean that you'll find. True melodrama

2. Fireworks.

What? There's a Christmas tree in it!

1. Grace Jones on Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thek Butt

Head over to Butt to read my mixed review of the Whitney Museum of Art's handle on the wonderous Paul Thek. A whole review without a mention of Death of A Hippie, Mike Kelley or Chris Kraus! But don't worry, I threw in some Jack Smith for good measure...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


smitten since the thing streamed on their website back in spring...

And, also, I'm sorry, but doesn't this look like the best use of the newfangled 3D technology so far? V Excited

Monday, December 13, 2010

She's lost control... again...

The arty world is abuzz over the new offing by culty director Darren Aronofsky. "It's amazing!" "It's great!" Critics throw their hands up. I went. I saw. But after settling in to her feathered embrace, Black Swan left me filled with little but ruffled plumage.

The critical majority suggests that Black Swan is the feminine heir to The Wrestler. Where that film used Mickey Rourke's beautiful, abused face and a catheter to signal the crippling ideals of American masculinity, Miss Portman's demented perfectionist narcissism is supposed to do the same here for... what? certainly not American femininity. Wasp culture? Gender is the issue here, and, sadly, we still cannot claim that all men are created equal. While Rourke flooded all the pathos in the world into that beleaguered face, his "Randy" maintained the dignity required of tragedy. See, in tragedy, the fate of the primary figure is sealed from the start. It is, therefore, not ultimately on account of the hero's actions that the fatal flaw is set into motion, but a kind of predetermination that was carried out, without hope for reversal. Think Oedipus.

Now, Miss Portman, dear Miss Portman. Actually, Aronofsky has the angel of casting on his side. No one else could have played the mechanical Nina Sayers with such perfection. Portman is a body actress and can only be depended on for the most plasticine forms of emoting. Her Nina is trapped in a wholly different web, that of her staid eroticism, her inability to let her hair down. Surrounding her are sexy beasts: Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. But she's trapped in the age old lady space: the land of the pathetic. Pathetic as in pathos. There's no depth of tragic feeling for Portman's character, as I found reflected in the vaguely apathetic response of the viewers with whom I attended the screening, because, unlike Rourke's Randy, Nina seems a victim of her own determination, rather than someone locked on a fatal track. No, set up here is a simple Manichean struggle. I mean, for god's sake, the literal struggle is between the black and white swans. As Linda Williams writes on the pathetic form, "unlike tragedy, melodrama does not reconcile its audience to an inevitable suffering. Rather than raging against a fate that the audience has learned to accept, the female hero often accepts a fate that the audience at least partially questions." It is in attempting to adopt the dark side to which all other figures of Black Swan belong, that the too-pure Nina loses her grasp on reality, ultimately bringing about her eventual (*SPOILER*) swan song.

As a lover of melodrama, I'm always shocked when I find myself irate at the use of melodramatic screen action. But the provokers of my cinematic contempt are almost always the Oscar-grade liberal movies that would purport to not tug at your heart strings, the movies that feign a sense of realism. Which is not Black Swan by a long shot. The film's (not quite) saving grace is its woozy topple into discordant (low) genre forms. Gleefully, the film stumbles from Pi to Argento's Opera and back again without missing a beat. In these moments, the film has time to breathe, is aired out and feels comfortable, likeable, even. But just as quickly, a return to gendered norms renders this high-minded art film a nugget of flaccid storybook formula. Despite (or perhaps, precisely because of the contrast provided by) the high-brow grainy hand-held shots that swoop in, dip, and dive with our diva, there's the same old story with its conservative values, casting damsels as innocent darlings and (French) wolves as their corruptors. The Wrestler, too, was an age-old story, a formulaic western that set that formula to critical work on the wrestling industry and the kind of hyperbolic virility that it engenders. Set in the upper tiers of society, the allegorical potential of Black Swan, feels as constricted as Miss Portman's pornographically hampered feet.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Celebratory Sounds Abound

It's hard to believe, but Being Boring has been live for 5 years today. I started this page straight out of undergrad, as a vehicle to promote regular writing, to keep a log of my regular viewing and thoughts. Funny things happen when you keep a space as long as this. You get older, better (one hopes), while people continue to comment on older posts, deriding you for your pugnaciousness, youth, bad taste. They hurl insults at you in comments that sound aggressive and mean-spirited, but, with time as a poignant buffer, you can do nothing but completely agree with them! I love pouring over old criticisms. About a year ago, I changed the format of Being Boring so it is more of the moment, rather than the original, encyclopedic review format. So, on this fifth birthday, I wanted to share the best thing that has come out of Being Boring.

For this week, I will be offering my 2008 book, Fever Pitch as a free e-book download since it was born out of various immediate, Being Boring posts that seemed worthy of expansion. As one does, I've kind of grown against the book; I'll only stand by the first half of the essays included. But, like this blog, I'm proud that Fever Pitch captures a moment. A personal moment, of my progress as a writer and thinker. This book was published before moving to London and continuing my studies. But, I like to think that Fever Pitch also captures a cultural moment. Thanks for reading and don't stop. There's already lots in development for 2011!

[Click the cover to download Fever Pitch]