Let’s travel back to the late ’90s and early ’00s… You’re sitting in class, Lou Bega’s “Mambo #5” or that “Blue da ba dee” song is stuck in your head, the teacher’s droning on about algebra or grammar or something, and all the while your fingers are twiddling away on that new TechDeck you got in your stocking for Christmas.
It’s been a long time since then, and, if you’re anything like me, you’ve let your fingers move on to other things – popping beer tabs, swiping through Tinder, rolling spliffs, ya’ know, adult stuff. But what happened to fingerboarding? Surely it went the way of pogs, or pogos, or dodos and vanished into a comical memory of times past. Wrong. Fingerboarding is alive and well, and some people are taking it more seriously than I could’ve ever imagined.
Meet Martin Ehrenberger, a professional fingerboarder from Germany who has been more or less keeping the scene alive with his company, Black River Ramps. I hit up Martin to ask him about this subculture within a subculture, and to learn about the “core” fingerboard mindset.
Do your fingerboard talents transfer over into the bedroom?
Each finger tip has around 700 sensory receptors and this area has a strong blood circulation. If you have been fingerboarding for years your pointer and middle finger are definitely more sensitive. For example I can feel each detail of a good fingerboard setup like concave, board size, flexibility of trucks etc. In other words if you´re a skilled fingerboarder you´ll be the hero in the bedroom.
I once fingerboarded over my girlfriend’s back as a massage for about 30 minutes. Have you ever tried anything like this? It’s a great way to get knots out of someone’s back.
I’ve never tried it with a fingerboard but I did it with my big cruiser skateboard with soft 78mm wheels and it worked pretty well! She was extremely hyped about my skateboard cruiser back massage skills.
Do you do any kind of finger workouts to bulk up your fingers for better pop like Brandon Biebel?
No, I don´t. I don´t know anyone who does that – for what purpose? Fingerboarding is not about having muscular strength in your fingers. But Biebel is a beast 😉
How did you first get into fingerboarding?
In 1983 – I was 9 years old back then – my grandma bought me an orange plastic skateboard from a department store as an Easter present. Since then I’ve literally been obsessed with skateboarding. 15 years later when the first plastic fingerboards with real skateboard brands emerged on the market, I saw a Black Label elephant fingerboard at a skateshop in Salt Lake City and I just couldn’t resist, I had to get it.
That winter a good skate buddy visited me and brought a lovingly handmade fingerboard miniramp. I’d never seen anything like it and totally freaked out. When I did the first blunt with the fingerboard, I noticed that it actually feels “real.”
It´s kind of like learning to play new chords on the guitar. Doing tricks on a fingerboard means you have to apply the same techniques as on a big board. It´s all in your head, you disappear into a different matrix for a while. I love to shred flow parks and bowls with my big skateboard, but with the fingerboard I love to do technical street tricks. I would never ever do flip tricks onto a handrail on a big board, but with the fingerboard I’ve got hardflip nosegrinds on a rail on lock when I´m warmed up. The rest of the story is history. I’ve been fingerboarding for 17 years now, and I’ve been trying to make a living with it for 16 years.
Is it possible to make a living off of fingerboarding? How do you do it?
I’ve mostly been doing pioneer work for the last 16 years, therefore it hasn’t been easy. I don’t make a living off only being a pro fingerboarder. It´s also the distribution of products and being booked for workshops and demos by bigger companies that really pays the bills. It´s not an easy way, and over the years I’ve seen a lot of fingerboard companies come and go.
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of fingerboarding as you know it?
In 2009 I was on holiday in California and I got the chance to visit Lance Mountain and to interview him about fingerboarding. Lance is kind of the godfather of fingerboarding. There’s that scene from “Future Primitive” where Lance and Hawk imagined their contest runs in a sink. Lance told us that he built and designed a pro model fingerboard for Caballero around 1979, one year before he got one on a skateboard. Lance made the first boards out of cardboard and used erasers and matchbox tires as fingerboard wheels. Those were definitely the first seeds for the future fingerboard scene.
Then, sometime in the late ’90s, Martin Winkler – the Mark Gonzales of fingerboarding – secretly started selling fingerboards and wheels he made at his home at the skateshop he worked at in Munich. That sparked the fingerboard scene in Munich, which is still thriving today. Another milestone in fingerboard history was the development of the first professional 5-ply boards with pop by Timo Lieben, founder of Berlinwood fingerboards.
When I founded Blackriver in 1999, I thought about what you could do to develop a fingerboard scene. I just had to look at skateboarding, and that´s why I started building fingerboard parks. A skatepark builds a scene, this is where people hang out, meet, enjoy their mutual hobby. By 2003 I had spread around 30 fingerboard parks in skateshops, skate halls, and youth centers around Germany. Our local scene started growing and then started spilling over into other countries too. Since then the international scene has been spreading constantly. We organize the annual fingerboard championship, Fast Fingers, and around 1500 fingerboarders from over 20 nations came to our small North-Bavarian town last year.
Have you ever seen anyone focus a fingerboard when they can´t land a trick?
You are always focused on the board when you fingerboard, you control every trick. It is like in skateboarding: you plan a trick mentally and if you know the process of the trick then your legs and feet will execute it intuitively. It’s the same in fingerboarding! If you have a feeling for the board, you plan a trick and then your fingers will perform the motor part. Fingerboarding doesn’t mean to throw a board in the air and hoping that this will be a trick eventually. This is a wrong assumption! As mentioned above, you will develop a feeling for the fingerboard with time in the same way you develop a feeling for the guitar with time.
I think something got lost in translation. In English, to “focus a board” means to break it in half.
Oh. Actually this only happens if you have your fingerboard in your pocket when you slam on a skateboard.
How do you feel about TechDecks? I know they’re made from cheaper materials than what you use. Are TechDecks looked down upon by the serious fingerboarding community?
TechDeck is basically a toy company, they are not part of the fingerboard scene. You can’t compare them to any “real” fingerboard company since the professional equipment is a niche product while their products are for a mass market. Their motivation is profit maximization, they are not interested in the scene at all.
On the other hand, everyone starts with a TechDeck since it´s cheap and good enough for a beginner. They tried to access the scene by copying professional equipment, but failed because it hasn’t been much more than a poorly produced toy copy. They also wanted to cooperate with us, so we told them about our work and strategies, and sure enough they tried to copy all of that from us as well.
Do you warm up or have any routine you do before you get deep into a fingerboard session? Or do you just jump in and bust moves cold turkey?
There is no warm up in fingerboarding. Of course you will have more control after a certain time than when you start shredding. That is like in skateboarding after half an hour on the board everything works out smoother.
What is the worst injury you have sustained from fingerboarding?
A few years ago we were booked by Canon for a trade show and our job was to fingerboard all day long in order to test the new Canon cameras. After three days of fingerboarding for nine hours each day, we’d done every trick possible on a fingerboard! Our arms were stiff and our brains felt like mashed potatoes. This was the worst physical state I’ve ever experienced in fingerboarding. In general there are no fingerboard injuries of course, but does that matter at all?
What are some tips to not look like a poser or a kook when fingerboarding?
I think it´s a widespread problem occurring in all kinds of realms – not being able to behave properly towards others. I can’t really give detailed advice for fingerboarding, because either you want to fingerboard seriously or not. If you are a beginner you’re welcome, but there’s not much space for posing since it’s pretty awkward to stand at a tiny fingerboard park and be a dickhead, you’ll give that up pretty soon.
How do you feel about other types of fingersports like fingerbiking?
I´m a skateboarder and fingerboarder. I don’t judge other people’s interests and hobbies, as long as it makes them happy and they have fun, why not?
A few years ago we were booked for a Sony video clip in England where we met some amazing finger-breakdancers. Their skills were pretty sick and funny. I also recently bought two stand-up paddling boards in order to look for standing waves on a small North Bavarian river so I could start filming a fingersurf video. Fingersurfing is sick shit – I´m totally serious!
What would you say to a skateboarder who thinks that fingerboarding is for nerds or posers?
I would tell him that fingerboarding is for everyone who loves skateboarding. There are as many posers and nerds as in any other activity – not more and not less. I think you shouldn’t narrow your mind and judge others, but rather be open to different ideas and ways of thinking. Skateboarding and fingerboarding belong together – it’s one love!
Translation assistance: Denise Hermann
*This interview was conducted for Jenkem Magazine.
In the backlit screen of my computer, the cropped bust of a man, slightly stubbled, red crewneck collar showing beneath the undone buttons of his dress shirt, hovers above the text “How to Get Big on Youtube – AndrewSchrock.”
Press play and his spiel begins: “What’s up guys,” Andy exclaims (not asks) to the wayward viewer. “I’m here to give you tips on how to grow and get subscribers and views here on Youtube!” His advice in this realm should be respected, for he’s a rare example of someone who has managed to create a sustainable career video blogging. Video blogging about our favorite toy, the skateboard.
Andy Schrock’s YouTube channel has over 500,000 subscribers. That means more than half-a-million people get a notification every time Andy posts a video, something he does daily. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how much he, or any Youtube content creator, is making off of these videos – he was vague when pressed for dollar amounts, and YouTube’s partnership program through which ad revenue is shared between platform and person is notoriously convoluted – but a conservative estimate puts videos with a pre-roll advertisement quoted at making around $2 per every 1000 views.
So take the video “Assembling a New Skateboard – AndySchrock” as an example. As of this writing it has around 100,000 views, meaning that at the $2/1000 view rate Andy would pull in $200. That may not seem like much, but with daily uploads these numbers add up quickly. If Andy’s videos average around 60,000 views and he posts one every day, he’s made $840 that week off YouTube ads alone.
The line between the virtual and the tangible is as thin and porous as a sheet of MOB griptape. That video of Andy setting up a new skateboard also doubles as an extended advertisement for several hard goods companies he owns: ReVive decks, FORCE wheels, and AM Grip (synergy!).
Though Andy informed me through email that he isn’t “rich or anything,” he has managed to carve out a comfortable living (albeit in Cincinnati) for him and his family, an impressive feat for any independent business owner, especially one in today’s turbulent skateboarding economy. (If you’d rather measure “success” in sex instead of dollars then I even heard that his now wife and the mother of his child first approached Andy because she recognized him from YouTube, so his Internet fame’s gotten him laid at least once.)
This sort of conventionally un-cool success through Youtube will naturally infuriate skateboarding’s “core”. A thread on SLAP’s forum titled “Hate on Youtube pros” demonstrates exactly that. In it, one poster rhetorically asks if it’s even possible to be a YouTube skater and not be “a fucking massive kook.” To which he immediately answers, “I think not.” Another commenter comes to a disheartening conclusion: “It’s a crazy world we live in folks,” he writes, “while Alien Workshop closes shop, ReVive skateboards are selling out and running their own warehouse and skatepark.”
A Harvard professor of Business, Clayton Christensen, describes a disruptor as something that “displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.” As new forms of
exploiting sharing skateboarding surface through the Net, traditions are naturally upended. The old must make way for the new.
Beginner skaters have historically been initiated and educated by the generation of skaters that preceded them. These dinosaurs, found lurking at the local skate shop or troweling the neighborhood DIY, are the linkages to old 411VM tapes and half-remembered Big Brother interviews. They give historical context and a communal experience to skateboarding.
It’d be an understatement to say that the Internet’s changed this. These opinionated skate elders remain, but they’ve been overshadowed by our access to the infinite skateboard documentation available on YouTube. It’s easy to get lost in the options if you don’t know where to begin.
It’s as if we’ve been suddenly dropped into the ocean without a rudder, and our compass, now a scrolling sidebar of suggested videos, feels as if it’s magnetized more towards the commercial than the core. Youtube, the great disruptor of our culture, must be analyzed and understood so that we can regain our bearings.
The most obvious effect YouTube has had on this new generation of skaters is an explosion of skill and an expansion of what is now considered possible on a skateboard. Progression is aided in great part through exposure. Unless you’re Rodney Mullen, tricks aren’t so much invented as they are mimicked and improved upon – done faster and higher, flipped into and out of.
In the past, physical locations have generally been the center of such progression — EMB, the World Industries Park, LOVE Park, MACBA – and if you lived far away from these hubs, you had to eagerly await every video drop and magazine delivery. Widespread skate progression could only move as quickly as the postal service.
But now open another window and search “#skateboarding.” Watch the messy live stream of your favorite pro doing NBD’s in his warehouse alongside Joe Schmoe in Texas doing something else you never thought possible alongside #fail videos of kids falling on shrink-wrapped skateboards in Walmart aisles. See skateboarding splayed out spread eagle before you in all its grotesque wonder, its stretch marks fully visible.
For many of us, as skateboarding gets increasingly, unfathomably tech or gnar we retreat towards the more relateable, repeating phrases like “I’d rather watch Gino push than watch this dude do unfathomable flatground flip tricks.” Style over substance is the cliche. But because skateboarding is so much more than the way someone skateboards, style refers not only to the way someone’s back foot scoops a 360 flip on their skateboard, but also to how they exist when they’re off of it. Personality becomes paramount when the level of tricks creates a near-impossible barrier of entry.
It can be rightly argued that personality has always been a major factor in defining the who’s who of the professional ranks. Marketability matters. But what’s changed is the size of the space in which the more niche styles can be appreciated and consumed. Youtube and social media has created a more diverse and fragmented culture which can simultaneously contain both Todd Falcon and Grant Taylor, Andy Schrock and Julien Stranger. Like the universe, the Internet is ever-expanding and vast enough to contain all of skateboarding’s variants within its net.
Andy Schrock and his ilk are, like it or not, the agents of skateboarding’s disruption, using YouTube to find an audience on the outskirts of our community of outcasts. So what are these content creators doing to attract such a following, and who in the fuck is following them anyway?
Andy Schrock’s vlog tip video was uploaded by Josh Katz, another profitable Youtube skater who has over 234,000 subscribers and (probably) a far share of haters. His channel, started when he was only 10 and just learning to push, was one of the earliest “skateboard lifestyle” channels, and is marketed toward a younger audience – there’s no cussing or drinking, and Josh wears a helmet whenever he skates. When I asked Josh what appeal he thought his channel had to his subscribers he showed a level of self-awareness that hints at his professionalism:
“I think people liked watching me progress from video to video. While it’s cool to watch the best of the best skateboarding, the pros can seem inaccessible when you’re starting out. In comparison, I was learning tricks that were within reach for these kids and I was more engaged with all my viewers.”
Josh understands that it’s more important for him to be relatable and accessible than the best kid out. So while we would rather watch the newest Andrew Reynolds part, Josh’s subscribers would rather watch and interact with a skater they could see themselves hanging out with. These nice-guy tactics seem to work for the majority of the YouTube skate community.
BlackNinja, a decidedly edgy Youtube skater from Vegas with nearly 100,000 subscribers, is the third and final skater featured on Josh Katz’s “How to Make It Big” series. He takes Josh’s ideas about establishing a personality a bit further.
To BlackNinja, it’s not enough to just be relatable, it’s also necessary to create a consistent and outlandish character to associate with your channel. He describes the “Black Ninja” character of his channel as a huge exaggeration of himself. “I don’t care for VX footy,” he wrote me, “but Black Ninja HATES it. I’m not a fan of scooter riders hogging the park, but Black Ninja can’t stand them!!! It’s just a way to keep peoples attention and keep them interested.”
Andy Schrock, Josh Katz, Black Ninja, and a growing number of others use their outgoing personalities to make up for their varying skateboarding abilities, and what’s so wrong with that? Sure, these personality types may not appeal to everyone (especially you, oh loyal Jenkem reader), but there are hundreds of thousands of people watching these videos and, more shockingly, buying these products, so their effect on the skateboarding community is significant regardless of your opinion of them.
Most certainly their market is made up of young and naive kids not yet initiated into the “core” of skate culture – their historical awareness extending only as far back as Schrock’s first Day in the Life video – but they’re mostly skateboarders all the same. These are the alienated kids of Middle America, suburban sprawl skaters who find more in common with a kid learning stationary double-flips in his driveway than with Dill strongly slapping himself onto a curb in LA. The thing to remember is that these skaters grossly outnumber the kool kidz of Cali and NYC, and they should be reckoned with for sheer volume alone.
YouTube has proven itself as a disruptor of how we understand skateboarding, and its services are a permanent fixture on the skateboard economy. That leaves the aging skateboard purist with a dilemma: Do we continue to ignore the growing trend of obnoxious YouTube skate channels to focus on the aspects of modern skateboarding that we back (e.g. skater-owned brands with a minimalist aesthetic and skaters whose styles we like), or do we widen our parameters of what we consider “cool” in our culture and constructively engage with the more unpleasant niches popping up around us?
It’s worthwhile to consider that in 2015, the global skateboard community may more closely resemble the kid that subscribes to Andy’s or BlackNinja’s channels than we’d like to admit. The traditional image of a skate rat reared on repeat viewings of early Transworld videos is steadily shrinking. As 50 Cent once said, “hate it or love it, the underdogs on top.” Maybe the skate purist I speak of exists only in nostalgia, and this growing community of social media skaters is now the predominant face of our culture. Or maybe skateboarding is still young and flexible enough to be undefined.
In the better words of Kyle Beachy: “skateboarding, is, if not bigger then at least broader than it has ever been. As the range finder zooms out you yourself start looking a little smaller, there’s more going on, and you watch the footage of this wide-frame shot and spot people wholly unlike yourself who love the thing too, even if they love differently than you do….”
*This article was originally published in Jenkem Magazine.
“Raise your hand if you’re not here.” Thirty-eight passengers keep their hands down and settle into the confetti-printed seats of the Skyliner bus as it lurches through 9am traffic up West 45th Street. They’re a long way from their homes in Utah, North Dakota, and those other square-ish shaped states that make up America’s center; fortunately, they’ve hired a guide.
Facing backwards at the front of the bus, Jim Dykes, president of Rich and Famous Tours, talks non-stop into a barely functioning microphone. “There’s the house where Lady Gaga grew up! Her parents, Cynthia and Joe, still live there today.” As he points out the window a silver wristwatch shows beneath the cuff of his navy blazer that’s missing its bottom button. Inside the inner pocket of that jacket is a neatly clipped article from today’s New York Times about a Columbia history professor he once took a tour guide workshop with in 1995. Jim was the first to sign up. He’d been facing the typical struggles of the aspiring model-slash-actor role for a decade by then, and odd jobs accompanied his minor successes. He paged at Radio City Music Hall while studying at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts, and worked a couple of gigs as a Santa Claus at Macy’s before scoring a speaking role in a national ad for Odor Eaters. The commercial shows a younger Jim taking off his shoe to reveal green fumes emanating from his sock. The camera cuts to a close up of him looking camera left. “But can anything stop it?” he asks the viewer.
The bus hisses to a halt at West 72nd and Central Park West, and Jim leads his charges through Strawberry Fields past the “Imagine” mosaic towards Bow Bridge. His face, still handsome in a perfectly generic way, is more deeply creased than it was in his Odor Eaters days, and his voice, still crystalline, has a sharper edge to it. He seems to have no trouble speaking over the din of the city. The striations across the park’s solid rock hillside, he informs the group, were made thousands of years ago by moving glaciers, and this same sort of stone had to be blasted through to make the subways. Some of it was recycled to form the buildings out across that pond, such as the dual recessed towers of the San Remo condominium, where stars like Glenn Close and Bono own 6,000 square foot apartments costing upwards of $25 million. Two white-haired grandmothers from Salt Lake City, both wearing New Balances, struggle to take a selfie with the towers in frame before ambling back towards the bus. “Can you imagine having all that money!” exclaims one. The other, after a short pause: “Never!”
The bus bounces north towards Harlem. Next stop: Hamilton Grange, home to Alexander Hamilton before his death in 1804. The house, the city’s oldest, was moved in its entirety in 2008 to its current location – a hill from which George Washington supposedly watched the city burn in 1776. Now, as the group stands in front of the white-pillared wood house, yellowing trees and red brick apartments block Washington’s view, but Jim does his best to weave a story that transports the tourists back. This old house on the hill looks remarkably similar to the ones that line Jim’s childhood street in the town of Asheville, Kentucky. He grew up across from actress Ashley Judd’s grandmother, and remembers watching – along with every other kid in the neighborhood – as, after her death, her house was moved to a new plot a few hundred yards away. Jim took note of the portability of foundations, and at ten years old, after visiting his aunt who sang soprano on Broadway, set his sights towards big city living.
As the bus cuts east across Washington Heights, it passes Jim’s pre-war two-bedroom apartment tucked away off 163rd Street. The walls, painted mustard, salmon, and slate, are lined in framed Broadway bills and 19th Century maps; a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs above the living room’s TV. His two cats, Miss Tiger Lilly, and Mr. Mouse (a black Bombay who’s too chubby to jump on the table to eat) curl together on the bed in the spare room. In 1998, a year before Jim moved in, the previous tenant committed suicide there. Jim bought a $3 ghost busting kit from an occult shop in a nearby brownstone that rid him of the spirit, but when he returned to the shop to thank the witch, the store had vanished.
Jim senses ghosts everywhere he looks. Rolling south down 5th Avenue, the bus passes by museums that were once grand houses – donated by billionaire widows to skirt rising property taxes and imminent destruction. The dead linger in the galleries like the cobblestones beneath the asphalt. But for Jim, that eternal progression is part of the city’s charm. A gully of mud and hard rock becomes the sloping forest of Central Park, the city’s oldest house is planted on a new foundation, and a store you visited yesterday can mysteriously vanish by tomorrow. The Skyliner bus pulls onto West 45th Street, stopping to let off the tourists at their hotel. At this same spot thirty-two years ago, a young Jim Dykes protested the inevitable demolition of the historic Bijou Theatre. Today, Jim waves goodbye to his guests as they file into the Marriot Marquis, built upon the grave of that memory.
I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)
By Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, 214 pages, $25
Chuck Klosterman’s latest collection of essays, I Wear the Black Hat, explores the ambiguities of villainy according to the hyper-meta mind of its author. Like many of Klosterman’s previous collections of loosely linked social critiques, I Wear the Black Hat skips across the author’s cultural touchstones to answer some nebulous question – in this case, what make a villain so villainous.
The first chapter of I Wear the Black Hat parallels such disparate characters as Snidely Whiplash (the wax-mustachioed cartoon villain of Rocky and Bullwinkle), Niccolo Machiavelli (the 15th century Italian writer of The Prince), and Joe Paterno (the Penn State football coach notorious for not exposing a colleague who was a pedophilic rapist). These three characters embody Klosterman’s archetypal villain – characters that knowingly act against the greater good. Readers familiar with Klosterman’s style will find no surprises in the author’s ability to weave together the loose strands of mass culture into a cozy blanket of unexpected relations, but the real interest of this book is the author himself.
In the preface, Klosterman recalls a conversation he had with his editor when he pitched the book. The editor asked why he wanted to write about villains, Klosterman knew only that this was the subject he wanted to explore. The editor theorized that Klosterman feared he was a villainous person, and wanted to write this book so that he could discover, for better or worse, the color of his own hat. Perhaps this is true – as writer of the New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column, Klosterman faces his own morality weekly, and one can only imagine that such a well-regarded position would sully one’s self-reflection.
“So this, I suspect, is where we really begin: In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.” If we’re to determine whether or not Klosterman is a villain, we must bisect this statement to see how the author adheres to and/or departs from his own definition.
Chuck Klosterman knows the most. This statement is most certainly evidenced in Klosterman’s breadth of cultural touchstones. From ABBA to Malcolm X, Bill Clinton to Wilt Chamberlain, he references them all with the intimate familiarity of a pop culture savant. Swedish disco bands, cartoon characters, presidents, political theorists, comedians, and sports figures all exist on the same plane of significance. No subject and no medium is off limits. At times, this can make Klosterman seem like a genius of mass culture modernity, an all-knowing source of the inter-connectedness of entertainment and politics, fiction and reality. He seems especially bright in the elaborate hypotheticals he plays out for the reader – at one point he brilliantly outlines how the discovery of an actual costumed superhero would play out across the media in a world without the trope of the costumed avenger.
Klosterman, though, is a superlative dilettante. While his references are wide-ranging, he tends only to be aware of his own experiences with them. He tries to counter this by pushing his own reactions to the reader, frequently using the collective pronouns “we” and “us”, and the absolutes “everyone” and “nobody.” At one point in I Wear the Black Hat, he ironically criticizes sports commentator Howard Cosell’s circular logic, complaining that Cosell believed whatever he said to be truth simply because it was he who had said it.
But Klosterman sees “all of Cosell’s worst qualities in [himself],” which is what separates the author from his more villainous subjects. For all his insularly infallible thinking, Klosterman is too self-aware to be a villain. He acknowledges his critics and defends not only himself but also the whole of modernity when he writes that “modern people have been raised to personalize everything they encounter and absorb, even when it has nothing to do with their own life experience.”
This personalization of experience portends a potential fault in Klosterman’s style. Klosterman is a forty-one-year-old white journalist who grew up in the Midwest, which means his scope of pop culture knowledge may not be so popular with the readership his work tends to attract. What’s pop to Klosterman might be flat to his twenty-year-old readers who only have knowledge of his references in retrospect or through Wikipedia.
So, while he is no genius, it can certainly be said that Klosterman knows the most about Chuck Klosterman. He is his own best expert.
Chuck Klosterman cares the least. That Klosterman chose to write a book exploring his own villainy is evidence enough to refute this point. In the book’s final chapter he directly admits his role within the covers. He states, “Writing about other people is a form of writing about oneself. This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for me. Why pretend?”
Klosterman is no villain to society, but he realizes by the end of the book that he does see a villain when he looks in the mirror. His self-awareness makes him his own worst critic. In the footnote to an album review he posted on Grantland, Klosterman describes his own greatest flaw, though in this case he is ostensibly speaking about a one-woman band called tUnE-yArDs. He writes, “It’s just an impossible problem: We always want to reward art for being innovative, but most artistic innovations are not designed to hold up over time. They exist as temporary reactions to other things happening within the culture. And that means they will seem goofy and dated when the culture changes again.”
Klosterman is closer to tragic hero than villain, though both share the shortcoming of stubbornness. His intimacy with his own intellect and his refusal to move beyond his own experience make his work seem outdated by the day of publication. But, for the here and now, Klosterman is an engaging writer who allows his readers access to his own memories so that they can reflect upon theirs later. At the end of the book, Klosterman frets over his own self-centeredness. “What if there’s just an uninteresting person, thinking about himself because there’s nothing else to think about?” Fortunately for the reader, Klosterman’s thoughts are stimulating enough to keep the reader from facing that same existential question, at least for a little while.
“12 Years a Slave” is a difficult film to write about, just as it’s a difficult film to watch. Its artistically honest portrayal of the horrors of Deep South slavery forces the viewer to confront the gruesome realities of pre-Emancipation America. I mention the film as ‘artistically honest’ not to disparage the film’s legitimacy, only to note the exceptionalism of the story. The film’s depiction of the true-story of Solomon Northrup’s kidnapping and unjust – even by the standards of the time – enslavement are not representative of the common slave’s experience, but it does effectively dramatize the complexities of the forces that played against both slaves and masters, blacks and whites. One particular force that is deeply explored in the film is that of Christianity and its subversion.
First, in order to better understand the power dynamics present in the Deep South, one must understand the “uniquely Western chord of freedom” as presented by Orlando Patterson in his 1991 book Freedom in the Making of the Western World. Patterson describes a triad of freedoms that serve as valuable lenses through which to watch the film: personal, sovereignal, and civic. Personal freedom is the liberty to do what one wishes while not infringing upon another’s freedom. Sovereignal freedom, however, is an ultimate freedom that overrules personal freedom: it is what masters hold over their enslaved. Civic freedom is the ability for one to participate and contribute to a community’s governance. As a free man, Solomon is both personally and civically free; he can sleep safely with his family in their Saratoga home, and purchase goods with money fairly earned with his fiddle. As a slave, Solomon is subject to his master’s power; his personal and civic freedoms are restricted by his master’s soverignal domination. Within his remaining personal freedoms, however, is the power to internalize his desire for freedom and to subvert his oppressor’s tools, including scripture. Of course, the masters also retained the power to rationalize their cruel soverignal freedom, which they did through scripture as well.
While slave masters used Christian scripture to justify slavery to themselves and their slaves, the slaves used the faith to recognize and reinforce their own humanity in spite of their masters’ sermons. Eugene D. Genovese elucidated this idea in his 1976 book Roll, Jordan, Roll. In it, he argues that “slaves appreciated the artificial construction and political purpose of the white man’s words and opposed to them a biblical view of the world, which implied a sense of a higher organic order in the universe and therefore a Truth far above the claims of temporal relations.” This dialectical reading of Christian scripture is voiced many times over in the character dynamics of “12 Years a Slave.”
During Solomon’s shipment to the South just after he has been kidnapped, he hunches in the bowels of the boat with two other black shipmates weighing their limited options. They sit at his shoulders like his conscience. The man on his left advocates a black mutiny; the ship’s black passengers should fight for their earthly freedom. On the right, a slave named Clemons urges quiet docility, strength in the eternal soul. He tells Solomon, “survival is not about certain death, it’s about keeping your head down.” Here, Clemons is assuring Solomon that the soul can still survive slavery, that personal freedom can still exist under sovereign rule. This is a belief that requires a faith beyond earthly humanity.
Once Solomon arrives in New Orleans he and the other black passengers are put to auction. The domesticity of the setting highlights the inhumanity of the scene. As buyers peruse the slave stock, a suited slave plays fiddle to soundtrack the shopping. A woman is sold away from her two children and is carried away screaming by the fiddler who has abandoned his instrument. Earlier in the film, we are shown Solomon’s delight in the applause he receives from a white audience as a freeman. As a slave, though, he is ordered to play the fiddle to drown out the screams of the separated family, which he does with a pained face and frantic tune. Here, the fiddle, an instrument of Solomon’s personal freedom, transforms into a weapon of the white man’s sovereignty. Both white and black, master and slave, use music, like faith, to strengthen their own resolve.
The interplay between music and faith is explicitly presented in the scene that follows. Solomon is introduced to his new masters, and to his new role as slave. A white plantation worker named Tibeats sings to the slaves a repurposed slave song called “Run, Nigger, Run.” As a spiritual, the chorus is encouragement, but subverted through a white voice, it’s a threat. The singing is overlaid with the plantation owner Ford’s sermon to his family and servants. Ford reads from his Bible: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And when the multitude heard this they were astonished at his doctrine.” He professes his power over his subjects with this scripture, and being a somewhat sympathetic slaver, can understand his subjects’ astonishment of his power. But Ford is still a slaver, and despite his sympathies he can only sell Solomon to another slaver when an enraged Tibeats threatens him with death.
Solomon’s next master is the embodiment of white evil. Introduced mid-sermon, Master Epps reads from his Bible: “that servant, which knew of his Lord’s will, prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” He follows this strict scripture with his own sinister interpretation: “That nigger that don’t obey his Lord, that’s his master you see, shall be beaten with many stripes. […] That’s scripture” he ends, holding up the Bible as indefensible truth. He likens himself to the Lord, misreading the text to rationalize his cruelty. He doesn’t realize that the scripture could be interpreted on a more celestial scale, that he may be a servant to his own Christian lord. He has not prepared himself for the many stripes he will receive in the afterlife.
The enslaved, however, took solace in this thought. Genovese would argue that “the slave communities, embedded as they were among numerically preponderant and militarily powerful whites, counseled a strategy of patience, of acceptance of what could not be helped, of a dogged effort to keep the black community alive and healthy – a strategy of survival that […] above all said yes to life in this world.” This sentiment was voiced in Clemons’s argument on the ship, and reinforced by a scene with Patsy, the tortured love-object of Epps, and Mistress Shaw, the favored woman of another slaver. Shaw is willing to sexually sacrifice her body to her master to spare herself the whip, and she encourages Patsy to do the same with the promise of eventual justice. “Take comfort,” she tells her, “the good Lord will manage Epps. In His own time, the good Lord will manage them all. The curse of the Pharaohs is a poor sample of what wait for the plantation class.” And this the same Lord that Epps uses to threaten his slaves. The masters are ignorant of their sermon’s subversion. To Epps, his slaves are a “Godless lot,” and when his crops are blighted with the plague of the cotton-worm, he blames them. “I brought them God’s word,” he says, “and the heathens they are brought me God’s scorn.”
Epps may have brought his slaves the scripture, but the slave’s interpretation of it strengthens their humanity. Solomon’s acceptance of the limitations of his enslavement and embrace of the long promise of salvation is uniquely difficult. Having his natural born freedom stolen from him so late in his life has left him jaded and hopeless. His conversion comes during a chorus singing of the slave spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” during the burial of a slave who had died from exhaustion in Epps’ fields. The slave community unites in song, and Solomon painfully joins them, forgetting his past exceptionalism and becoming one with the oppressed. They sing, “my soul will arise in Heaven, Lord, for the year when Jordan rolls.”
Soon after the funeral, Solomon’s faith is tested when he is forced to whip Patsy for leaving the plantation to get a sliver of soap, a tiny luxury denied to her by Epps’ jealous wife. Solomon stops before Epps desires, and Epps takes the whip and continues to flay Patsy’s bloodied back. Solomon reaffirms his conversion with a breathless threat to Epps. “Somewhere in the halls of eternal justice thou shalt answer for this sin.” The immovable Epps, confident in his own reading of scripture coldly responds, “Sin? There is no sin. A man does how he pleases with his property.”
And so the contradictions continued throughout antebellum America. Masters remained stubborn in their religious justification of slavery, and slaves tried to remain strong in their own religious hope for justice. The eventual regaining of Solomon North’s freedom did little to change the dynamics of racial inequality in the South, and did little to make the slaves’ desire for freedom a universal value. That change could only come from time and great social upheaval. “For a desire to become a value, there must be present the consent of the community,” argues Patterson. The “fusion of slave’s yearning, master’s interest, and community’s consent, […] together, and together only, [transform] desire and idea into enduring social value.”
It will surprise no one to hear that reality TV presents a false reality to the viewer — that the characters are more caricatures than fully realized individuals, the relationships mere tinder for explosive drama. To dismiss the genre as tasteless pablum, however, is to deny what’s happening just below the semi-scripted surface. Reality TV presents the viewer with a more easily digestible world than can possibly exist in modern America, and we, as viewers, eat it up. It’s easy to gorge on reality programs — they’re the sugary sprinkles of cable, colorful and tasteless concealments of subjects too bland to swallow. This recipe is problematic no matter the locale: the reality shows of Beverly Hills reduce the place to a sun-kissed land of silicone, and those of New York City show a cutthroat city of skyscrapers. But as the genre spreads to the Deep South, the unreality of the formula proves unwittingly edifying against the region’s bitter history of racism.
The modern South is too complex for reality programming to rely on its standard broad-brush treatment. Systemic and subtle racism remains, yet the region is also the most diverse and second most integrated in the country. Reality producers elide this paradox by superimposing their simplistic formula — a pastiche of conventional Southern stereotypes perpetuates the idea of the South as an isolated bastion of outmoded values.
There’s a de facto segregation apparent in the current spate of reality TV programs set in the Deep South. “White” shows like A&E’s Duck Dynasty and CMT’s Party Down South, respectively, show white Southerners as God-fearing rednecks or drunken hillbillies. “Black” shows like VH1’s Love & Hip Hop and Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta cast black Southerners as feisty and obnoxiously wealthy entertainers, athletes, or the significant other of someone in one of these two professions. These stereotypes nourish antiquated ideas of the South as a backward place where white people are comical and mostly harmless fools, and black people are rich and successful so long as they remain petty minstrels. Despite their problematic premises (or because of them), these shows are immensely popular and profitable: the bearded businessmen of Duck Dynasty have leveraged their fame to a half-a-billion dollar enterprise, and the women from The Real Housewives of Atlantahave captured the attention of over a million viewers a week for six seasons. Clearly these cable networks have discovered an easy exploit in the perceived otherness of the South, a place the rest of America can look at and snicker. But by marking the South as somewhere separate from greater America, these shows feed the notion that racism is a uniquely Southern affliction, relieving the viewer from confronting the persistent bigotries of the real world.
This spring, Bravo is giving viewers more of the same segregated South with the introduction of Southern Charm, and the second season of Married to Medicine. Both shows seem to flaunt some of the unflattering characteristics of their bizarro brethren: the all-white cast of Southern Charm is rich and attractive in ways the Duck Dynasty cast is wanting, and the now all-black cast of Married to Medicine (the token white character from season one is noticeably absent in season two) is supposed to contain examples of smart and professional women of color who succeed in the competitive field of medicine. But these shows still fail to confront the region’s racial tensions, choosing to portray skewed versions of the same stereotypes that have misrepresented the South for decades. At first, these shows seem like diversionary fodder (they are), but a serious look can reveal them as valuable reflections of American perceptions of race and racism.
Southern Charm follows the lives of six single white Southerners in Charleston, South Carolina as they struggle to define themselves in the conservative and tight-knit society of the plantation-class South. The cast is comprised mainly of Old South aristocrats with family names and fortunes that both burden and bankroll their lives — “Because in Charleston, you’re only as good as your last garden party and one social screw-up can taint generations to come.” Or so says Bravo, which promises a show that reveals “a world of exclusivity, money and scandal that goes back generations.” Maintaining the family reputation is the ultimate priority for these characters, a problem once one remembers the heritage that’s being upheld is sullied by racism. Of course, the show focuses on social faux pas and scandalous affairs instead of the region’s racial tensions; it’s reality TV, after all. But such history is inescapable in a city as steeped in the past as Charleston, and the cameras record the vestiges of slavery in the plantation settings and ingrained family values.
This storied archetype of the Southern aristocrat is made manifest in the character of Thomas Ravenel, a former state treasurer turned buffoonish bachelor trying to rekindle his political career after serving 10 months in prison on cocaine distribution charges. His relatively short prison stay is telling of the generous sentence a strong family name and an expensive lawyer can buy a troubled white man of means. T-Rav, as he affectionately calls himself, is an emblem of white privilege that spans generations, and his father, former state Senator Arthur Ravenel Jr., is mired in racial controversy: he’s been a vocal advocate for the flying of the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina statehouse and notoriously called the NAACP the “National Association for Retarded People.” The producers of Southern Charm even give voice to Arthur Ravenel’s racist ideologies, if only to reinforce America’s favored idea that racism is relegated to the elderly rearguard of the South. Over lunch with his son, Arthur Ravenel giddily lays a five-dollar bill down as a tip, adding that he likes to get rid of that denomination because “they’s ole Lincoln” on them. T-Rav responds with a laugh: “You don’t like Lincoln?” he knowingly asks his father. The former senator flashes a sly, dentured smile to the camera, and his son chuckles at his father’s implied racism. Like T-Rav, the producers of Southern Charm shrug off the bigotry as a quaint relic of the Old South, the province of curmudgeonly white guys nearing senility.
In its premier episode, the series briefly refutes its racial casting when a character of color is tacitly introduced as the friend of Cameran Eubanks, the show’s most relatable and levelheaded cast member (who has been perfecting the role of most-believable-reality-character since appearing on MTV’s The Real World: San Diego a decade ago). Southern Charm’s producers cut to a scene of Eubanks and her friends preparing to attend one of T-Rav’s polo matches, making sure to inform the viewer that the pretty, light-skinned black girl with powdered face, unnaturally pressed hair, and impossibly blue contacts is named (of all things) Ebony. Though her name flashes across the bottom of the screen, she’s given only enough screen time to be a token of color against the whitewashed backdrop of Charleston; she hasn’t appeared on screen again since. Her cameo represents the show’s transparent denial of the South’s racist ideologies. “Look!” the producers call out, “here’s a black person hanging out with white Southerners. Segregation is over!” What Ebony’s appearance reveals, however, is a selective segregation that’s come in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Sure, nearly anyone can be accepted into the upper echelon of Southern society, so long as they mimic the aesthetics and beliefs of the white ruling class.
Southern Charm brims with anachronisms — families focused on ancient ancestors in an insular city built by slaves — but that very trait is the foreign charm of the South. The show reinforces this ideal as innocent entertainment, ignoring the problems festering beneath the gloss.
Whereas the characters of Southern Charm are focused on the conservation of Old South values, the women of Married to Medicine seek to upend them. The show is a particularly interesting case of Southern stereotyping, as its creator and producer, Mariah Huq, is also its central cast member. Huq, the pampered wife of a Bangladeshi surgeon, originally pitched the show as a foil to the pigeonholed black entertainer/athlete mold rife in black reality TV. Centered on the small society of Atlanta’s wealthy black doctor-divas, Married to Medicine purports to show Southern black women as powerful professionals, but it unwittingly exposes the spectrum of racism, from “ghetto” to “bougie,” to which these black Southern women are confined.
The show’s characters are acutely aware of their outsider status, and try and reject it in varying degrees. Dr. Simone Whitmore and Dr. Jacqueline Walters are obsessed with etiquette and professionalism; they are the admirable examples of the show’s alleged purpose, proving that with self-awareness and restraint, even a black Southern girl can become a success in white America. Huq, producer and self-appointed “Queen Bee” of the cast, confronts these refined doctors with her friend, Quad, a Memphis girl unaware of the sterile affectation required of a black Southern woman married to a doctor. Her tempestuousness comes off as uncouth to the doctors and wives of doctors, her temper a signifier of the lower class from which she recently rose. Quad regards these women as pretentious dissemblers vainly reaching for an identity they’ve been barred from since birth. As the first season progresses, it becomes apparent that Quad’s “ghetto” outbursts are inflamed by Huq’s prodding, and the duo quickly become the show’s antagonists. Here, the producer, Mariah, is plainly promoting negative stereotypes both behind the scenes and on the screen. She becomes the embodiment of brash primitivism because she believes that is the stereotype the audience expects of a black Southern woman.
The show devolves into literal hair pulling and slapstick by the fourth episode of its first season, an incident that cast member Whitmore calls “two bitches fighting in ball gowns.” It is no coincidence that Mariah initiates the fight and proceeds to swing the first purse: it makes for great TV, and her lapse into the “ghetto” stereotype is rewarded with the highest viewership of the first season. Ratings demand drama, and Huq’s outburst resonates with the expectant audience. As a producer, she should be proud, but as a woman claiming to redefine black Southern stereotypes, she should be ashamed. Her role in the show is an insidious subversion of the progressive message of Southern black female empowerment, and her prize is a pay raise and a second season.
As the show plays out its current season with an all-black cast, it promises “sass, class, and one of the most explosive — and brutally honest — confrontations yet.” The most honest aspect of the show, however, is its inadvertently apt depiction of the constricting stereotypes within which black Southern women are confined. Married to Medicine exposes viewers to the false idea that black Southern women, despite their social and professional ascendance, can never escape the trappings of “ghetto” behavior.
“How can we move past this?” This question is brought up constantly inMarried to Medicine, but refers to a greater concern of modern America: how can we stomp out the smoldering embers of the South’s racist legacy? The answer isn’t clear, but it certainly starts with recognizing the agents that fan the coals. Southern reality shows — presented in stark stereotypes of black and white — reinforce the illusion of a “post-racial” America divorced from the relics of Southern racism. Producers will continue to mine the South for new angles on the same stereotypes as long as people continue to accept these caricatures as Southern truisms — a mindless acceptance that at once comforts viewers in their imagined superiority over the “backward” South while stoking racially-striated stereotypes that support this false perception. Each new Southern-centric, racially segregated reality show is another superficial concealment of the old wound of slavery and the picked scab of Jim Crow.
*This essay was published on the LA Review of Books.
“When we championed trash culture, we didn’t know it would become the only culture,” says Pauline Kael, as she assesses the landscape of her afterlife. A white haze hangs in the still air; the only architecture in this world is the mountains of film reels, laser discs, VHS tapes, and DVDs stacked like pyramids, their tops disappearing into the fog. She has spent the last twelve years in this place, watching as new mountains of mass culture take shape. She reaches into the nearest of these mountains and picks out a shining disc of the film Mean Streets. In its holographic backside, Kael sees not her own reflection, but the pulsing streets of New York City circa 1972. To her, these artifacts are the mirrors of American culture. She succumbs to nostalgia and can’t help but comment aloud, “Mean Streets never loses touch with the ordinary look of things or with the common experience; rather, it puts us in closer touch with the ordinary, the common, by turning a different light on them.”
“Ha!” a deep scoff bellows from the other side of the pyramid. Kael rolls her eyes deep into the back of her head. She never would have been a film critic if she knew she’d have to spend her eternity with this man, the sort of man who can’t say “It’s a lovely day” without first establishing that it is day, that the term “day” is meaningless without the dialectical concept of “night,” that both these terms have no meaning unless there is a world in which day and night alternate, and so forth. Though they no longer exist in a world with both day and night, Siegfried Kracauer could still manage to spoil Kael’s happiness.
He walks over to her slowly, his lifted brow cutting through the rising blue smoke of his pipe. He continues in a thick German accent: “In the majority of contemporary films, things are pretty unrealistic. They give the blackest settings a pink tinge, and smear reds liberally everywhere.”
Kael cuts her eyes at him, a gesture Kracauer has seen a thousand times since she arrived in this contrapasso hell. “Let me finish, Pauline,” says Kracauer in a tone of tired dismissal. “The films do not therefore cease to reflect society. On the contrary: the more incorrectly they present the surface of things, the more correct they become and the more clearly they mirror the secret mechanism of society. In order to investigate today’s society, one must listen to the confessions of the products of its film industries. They’re all blabbing a rude secret, without really wanting to. In the endless sequence of films, a limited number of typical themes recur again and again; they reveal how society wants to see itself. Your appreciation for Mean Streets is as misguided as Scorsese’s directing. The appeal is in the desire for some sense of kinship to the self-questioning Charlie character. You just want the affirmation that you are a moral person struggling for freedom in an immoral world.”
“You’ve spent so long trapped behind the screen that you can’t even see what it is the movies are trying to show us,” says Kael. “Movies – a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world – fit the way we feel. The world doesn’t work the way the schoolbooks said it did and we are different from what our parents and teachers expected us to be. Movies are our cheap and easy expression, the sullen art of displaced persons. They are a past we share. The truth that is revealed in movies has slipped from the academy and into the streets. And once something is said or done on the screens of the world, once it has entered mass art, it can never again belong to a minority, never again be the private possession of an educated, or ‘knowing,’ group.”
Kracauer contemplated Kael’s response, wondering if she realizes how closely her argument resembles his own. He knew he needed to poke holes in her points though. After all, they have to do something for the rest of eternity, and arguing is innate to the critic’s nature. “So you believe that any schmuck with a camera has the right to make a film? Those who want to change things must be informed about what needs to be changed. If I had it my way, I’d make it illegal for any overly-sensitive philistine to operate a camera,” he jibes.
Kael’s diminutive frame shakes at Kracauer’s idea. “Men have an inalienable right to be untalented,” she responds, “and the law should not discriminate against lousy ‘artists’. You don’t have to be well read in Marx and Freud to make a valuable statement on society. Because of the photographic nature of the medium and the cheap admission prices, movies [take] their impetus not from the desiccated imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip – from what [is] coarse and common. It’s this harsh reality and the resulting visceral reaction that drives the medium.”
“You say that as if the priority on feeling is a positive tool for the oppressed masses,” Kracauer counters. “The reliance on emotion only further distances them from the salvation of Reason, trapping them in their own emotional state. When people lack all else, feeling is everything. It humanizes tragedy without abolishing it and obscures any criticism that might threaten the preservation of outdated contents. This nature is a soft pillow for those who do not want to be awakened. Though, I must agree with you on one point,” says Kracauer, realizing that eternity is a long time to spend with someone who utterly despises him, “no matter how low one gauges the value of the mass ornament, its degree of reality is still higher than that of artistic productions which cultivate outdated noble sentiments in obsolete forms – even if it means nothing more than that.”
“Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider,” quips Kael, a flirtatious fire now in her eyes. “Boobs on the make always try to impress with their high level of seriousness, and you’re spilling out of your grandiose bra with that transparent attempt to meet me in the middle. ”
“The business is called eroticism, and the preoccupation with it is called life,” Kracauer says through a snide smile. “And you, Pauline, still live life to its fullest, even in death. In the dark movie theatres, the poor little shopgirls grope for their date’s hand and think of the coming Sunday. I can offer you my hand, but I know it’s clear to us both that our Sunday will never come on this eternally damned plane.”
A tense silence followed these words, as both critics struggle to accept their shared fate. Kracauer has been relegated to this hazy void since his physical death nearly fifty years ago, and since then he’s done nothing but sift through the massive mountains of mass culture, in constant search for the key to unlocking a timeless truth within the trash entertainment that pollutes both the realm of Earth and his own. Throughout this time only one maxim has held true: never before has a period known so little about itself. If only he had the ability to share his evaluations with the world from which he’s so distanced, maybe then, he feels, could real radical change be possible. However, isolated in this limbo, how can he attack current conditions so as to change them? And even if he could somehow communicate with the living, for a substantive work of art, there is no recipe. Uprightness, the gift of observation, humaneness – such things cannot be taught. Under the weight of his own futility, Kracauer collapses in a heap upon the mountain of entertainment behind him.
“Oh, Siegfried,” Kael says with a sigh. “You said it yourself that ‘many tears are shed which flow only because crying is sometimes easier than contemplation.’ Remember that? We both know that the problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions filled again. It is our duty to loudly shout our criticisms, even if they only echo in this lonely void.” She reaches her hand out to her fallen comrade, whose silent sobs are slowly shifting back to the reserved stoic countenance he’s cultivated through his trying life and afterlife. “Buck up,” continues Kael, “it’s the vicious bastards who get the results. Get up and let’s get back to sorting out this mess.” Kracauer takes her hand and settles back onto his feet.
On cue, a mound of discs erupts from somewhere beneath the white haze, shooting upwards and disappearing into the fog above. Kael walks over and grabs the nearest disc on this newly formed elevation. “Let’s watch this,” she says to Kracauer. “It’s a documentary about the poor state of American public schools. After all the years of stale stupid acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them, I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information…”
Kracauer interrupts her with a contemptuous guffaw. “Documentaries, ha! One might think they would aspire to present the world as it is, but just the opposite is the case. They cut us off from the very life that is our only concern, inundating the audience with such a profusion of irrelevant observations that it becomes indifferent to the important ones.” He lifts his nose high, and Kael laughs. She responds, “That’s the Siegfried I love to hate.”
*Italics indicate direct quote from either Kracauer or Kael.
Gravity undoubtedly is a cinematic achievement. Its hyper-realistic depiction of outer space is a testament to the possibilities of special effects, and its use of 3D is wondrous, turning a gimmick into a necessity in a way James Cameron’s Avatar only hinted towards. Director Alfonso Cuarón employs nearly every sense (does smell travel in space?) to totally immerse the viewer, so much so that plot is of little import in feeling the impact of Gravity.
The story is a classic tale of the wavering will to survive against the domineering forces of nature. It has been done before, and will be done again; it is the inescapable plight of humanity. “Life in space is impossible.” This scientific fact flashes on the blank black screen at the film’s start. Soon, though, a roving camera pans across the distant Earth, focusing on three free-floating astronauts working on a satellite. The viewer sees that despite the earlier proclamation, life does exist in space, and Earth itself – home of all life – is just an object hovering in the infinite expanse of the universe. Gravity’s depiction of the planet reinforces its inherent beauty and violence: clouds swirl in massive plumes, and the land looks scorched and harsh. Earth is not a place for a life of peace and ease. Space, of course, is no safer place for mankind. The opening action shows us that at any moment debris can come hurtling out of the void. Chaos comes quickly, spinning the camera amidst a frightening mess of shuttle fragments and spiraling horizons. Two are left alive after stray fragments of a destroyed satellite rip through their shuttle and cut off communications with Earth, and the remainder of the film is their fight to overcome the impossible.
The two survivors of the opening catastrophe are shallow representatives of two eras of America – the romanticized past and the uncertain future. George Clooney plays Lieutenant Matt Kowalski, a veteran space cowboy on his final mission. He listens to Hank Williams Jr. while on space walks, and he coolly jets around telling anecdotes about classic Corvette’s, drunken Mardi Gras, and the women that left him. He displays inexplicable calmness and is unafraid of sacrifice. His character’s distinct surname puts him in the same family as Brando’s Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire and Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino – anachronistic characters of a bygone macho surety. But, like a carbon copy, Clooney’s Kowalski lacks subtlety and detail, and his self-assured voice is lost in Gravity’s twinkling void.
His foil, emotively played by Sandra Bullock, is Dr. Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut who, after only six brief months of training, was sent from the her hospital lab into space to install something – what exactly is glossed over and ultimately inconsequential (like much of the plot) – into the Hubble satellite. Bullock’s congenial face and palpable vulnerability make her instantly relatable to the viewer; the American everyman with her androgynous name and Midwestern roots. Like most people confused by the times in which they find themselves, Stone is unsure how she’s come to where she is, and unprepared for the forces she encounters when she gets there. The audience learns that Stone is struggling to cope with the loss of her daughter, who died in a freak accident that typifies life’s random cruelty. “You have to learn to let go.” Kowalski tells Stone as unironically as possible while she clings to a dangling rope for dear life. Stone and Kowalski seem to only speak in equivocations – each unnatural line after awkward utterance meant to make the viewer empathize with the characters.
Despite the script’s obvious archetypes and heavy-handed dialogue, the film remains an impressive technical feat. Rarely has cinema been so visceral, and it’s the score and cinematography that manage to conceal the weak script. The score, composed by Steven Price, emphasizes one of the most alien aspects of outer space, absolute silence. Tense scenes are scored to a crescendo of beneath-the-fingernail notes climaxing into devastating and unsettling quiet. And Emmanuel Lubezki’s free-floating cinematography is so significant that Gravity could very nearly be told through a series of scored images sin dialogue. In the opening long take, the roaming camera forces the viewer to feel the stunning impact of the debris as if we were a crewmember; we helplessly watch as Stone disappears into a sparkling black void. We cut to a close up of her panicked face, and the camera zooms in through her visor and rotates around. Now, we’ve gone from observer to subject, from sympathy to empathy, as our own vision becomes foggy from our heavy breath against the glass that protects us. Gravity’s cinematography has the unique ability to immerse us in the character’s struggle while illustrating the ultimate insignificance of it all. In one of many claustrophobic scenes, we watch Stone scream and flail from within the cramped shuttle in which she sits. The next scene is a still shot of the shuttle sliding silently in front of the fiery Earth, Stone’s indignant thrashing a useless gesture seen through a tiny porthole.
Cuarón has certainly crafted an event movie in Gravity. The experience of seeing it on as large a screen as possible is inextricable to the film’s effect. But will a film so reliant on the immersive effects of 3D and surround sound as Gravity, translate to one’s laptop or living room television? I doubt the home viewer will let such a weak script slide if they can’t be swept up by the visuals. Cuarón may have unwittingly created the perfect depiction of space, though: a beautiful thing that’s ultimately empty.
Kanye West doesn’t care about black people. That is, at least, the message he’s sending with his latest provocation—the co-optation of the Confederate flag. Kanye encourages controversy; he’s become equally renowned for his brash critical outbursts as he has for his musical talents—both of which are in abundance. West has won twenty-one Grammy awards and left an indelible impression on hip-hop production and execution—his introductory album The College Dropout (2004) popularized the use of sped-up soul samples in its beats, channeling chipmunk versions of Marvin Gaye in “Spaceship,” and Luther Vandross in “Slow Jamz.” His 2009 release 808s and Heartbreaks opened the generally aggressive genre to lyrics of sensitive introspection sung through the warble of auto-tune, complaining of lost love in “Heartless,” and motherly love in “Coldest Winter.” As a critic, West can claim that he has ruffled the feathers of the last two American presidents, not to mention musicians and fashion designers as well—he overtly accused George W. Bush of not caring about black people after Hurricane Katrina, and was called a “jackass” by Barack Obama for literally stealing the spotlight from country singer Taylor Swift during her 2009 Video Music Awards acceptance speech.
West relishes the platform his celebrity provides for his jabs at political correctness and takes every opportunity to throw a punch, even when he doesn’t know where it will land. His most recent stunt (Kanye would say he “popped a wheelie on the zeitgeist”) is a half-baked expropriation of the Confederate flag to promote his new album Yeezus. He was photographed last November in a green bomber jacket patched with a Confederate flag on the sleeve, and his tour merchandise offers tote bags printed with the rebel banner and t-shirts with the shadowed flag behind a yellowed skull between the obstinate all-caps motto “I AIN’T NEVER COMING DOWN.” As if the imagery wasn’t enough, West’s first single off Yeezus is entitled “New Slaves,” and its lyrics suggest—over a spare arrangement of muted bass, synthy organ, and heavy kick-drum—that the modern iteration of slavery is servitude to luxury brands, removing the idea of race from the power dynamic completely.
In an interview with Los Angeles’s 97.1 radio station, West explains (sort of) his convoluted reasoning for using the flag: “You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery, in a way—that’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now! Now what are you gonna do?”
It would be nice to believe that Kanye West has the power to erase the loaded significance of the Confederate flag—that, by proudly draping the flag around his shoulders, he is able to expunge the violence that’s been perpetrated in its cause. But no one man can have all that power. “Critics make the world visible,” writes the political philosopher Michael Walzer in his 1988 book The Company of Critics, “they do not make it over.” By claiming the Confederate flag as his own and ignoring its history Kanye is unwittingly iterating the significance of the past, a past that is still flapping on flag poles in the Deep South.
Almost nowhere in America is the Confederate symbol’s tension felt greater than in the “Heart of Dixie”—my hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. In the city’s downtown center, two historical markers stand on opposite sides of the street, defining the South’s duality of oppression and activism: one marker signifies the site as the historical location of Montgomery’s slave auctions; the other indicates where Rosa Parks boarded the bus the day she famously refused to give up her seat in 1955. While the flag with which Kanye decorates his merchandise was never flown above plantations or slave auctions of the 19th century—the red rectangle with the white star-studded blue cross was never an official flag of the Confederate States of America, only a battle flag for the Army of Northern Virginia—it was certainly waved against the Civil Rights movement, when, many historians claim, the flag became the racially charged symbol it is today. In 1961, when the Freedom Riders rode into Montgomery after surviving a firebombing in Anniston and an attack in Birmingham, they were mobbed while taking refuge in a church less than two miles away from Rosa Parks’ bus stop. The Alabama National Guard was called to disperse the mob and protect the Riders, which they did by barring the doors of the church and trapping the Riders inside as tear gas poured into the church’s busted windows. The Guardsmen wore jackets with the Dixie flag stitched on the sleeves—fifty-two years before Kanye wore his in a Lamborghini.
The symbols and icons of the Old South still stand strong, regardless of West’s attempted expropriation. On a privately owned patch of land bordering I-65, the interstate that travels from Mobile to Chicago (home to Kanye West), a large Confederate flag flies today, waving above the same stretch of road between Birmingham and Montgomery that the Freedom Riders traversed a few decades ago. In the majority black city of Montgomery, the traditional public high school rivalry is between Robert E. Lee High School (named after the Southern Civil War general), and Jefferson Davis High School (after the Confederacy’s president). Both schools are severely underfunded and fraught with gang violence and racial tension–testaments to the Old South’s oppressive structure. In the early aughts, when Kanye strutted onto the rap scene with his pastel Polo collars popped, schools in Montgomery were forced to ban apparel featuring the Confederate flag after fights broke out due to the symbol’s spike in popularity with young white Southerners. They called it heritage; others called it hate. I wrote off any person who would wear such an obvious symbol of racism, and bounced to the rhythms of The College Dropout blaring in my headphones. Still, the flag is revered by defenders of the Old South and abhorred by those who fought for its demise.
The use of the Southern symbol of oppression on the Yeezus tour merchandise is a naïve attempt to rewrite history, to take the too-recent past and say that it’s no longer relevant. West, an artist whose roots are deep in the culture of hip-hop, somehow forgets—or more likely ignores—that his art’s tradition grew from a remembrance of the past, regardless of its horror. Literary critic and co-founder of n+1 Mark Greif argues in his 2011 essay “Learning to Rap” that “hip- hop has its memory intact. The gat a thug pulls from his waistband reawakens the Civil War and the Gatling gun. The skrilla that Southern rappers accumulate in 2011, cash money, remembers the scrip in which blacks were paid under the sharecropping system.”
The language of hip-hop harks back to the oppressed past from which it sprung, as does its imagery. Many rappers have paralleled the diamond encrusted bling often celebrated in hip-hop rhymes to refashioned slave chains. But these shining symbols signify wealth and success in spite of the confines of the past. Guns and gold turn the victims into victors.
West presumably feels that his co-optation of the Confederate flag is the same as the reappropriation of the word “nigger,” now “nigga.” The common defense of the word’s gratuitous presence in modern hip-hop is that black rappers have defanged the word by making it nearly meaningless in its ubiquity. Greif, however, argues that rappers’ use of the word initially acted as a “fail-safe” to keep white audiences from thoroughly engaging with the songs, and that the rap community felt that “if white America treated them like niggers, making life in the city jobless, service-less, abandoned, and hellish, why shouldn’t they announce it?” Perhaps this is what Kanye means to do with the Confederate flag, to announce to the world that the old idea of race-based slavery is dead, and that the “new slaves” are servants of luxury brands?
If we assume that this is West’s intention, what, then, does that make him—the wearer and seller of luxury brand products bearing the image of oppression? Hip-hop artists have always displayed their success through fashion, from Run DMC’s celebration of shell-toes in “My Adidas” to Jay Z’s song title shout-out to famed fashion designer Tom Ford, and Kanye has been a fashionisto from the start. But his use of the Southern stars and bars cuts deeper than mere fashion statement. By calling the Confederate flag his flag and by using it to sell his product, West aligns himself with the slaver, not the slave. He states just that in the hook on “New Slaves”: “You see there’s leaders and there’s followers, but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” West transposes the power dynamics of slavery into a sexual metaphor, acknowledging and aspiring to the selfish prickishness of those who hold power over others. He sells his Confederate flag-printed t-shirts to his multicultural fan base who become slaves to the Kanye West brand—they’re branded with his symbol, and bob their heads in agreement as Kanye claims divinity in custom-made Maison Martin Margiela masks during the spectacle of his Yeezus shows. I, too, bob my head to Kanye’s music, and often agree with his radical political positions. However, I do so with reservation, as I’m only willing to promote provocations that have purpose. Here though, Kanye seems to be poking without a point.
A certain amount of self-aware irony is inherent in Kanye’s actions, indicating his own complex understanding of his position. In “New Slaves” he explains the logic of racial profiling from the perspective of a retailer: “You see it’s broke nigga racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store.’ And there’s rich nigga racism, that’s that ‘Come here, please buy more. What you want, a Bentley, fur coat, and diamond chain? All you blacks want all the same things.’” Still, West makes a point of wearing his Confederate flag-patched jacket while shopping at Barney’s, the upscale department store that was accused of racial profiling last October. The irony muddies any assured meaning in West’s actions.
Perhaps West is doing the only thing he possibly can to separate himself from the symbol’s difficult historical associations. Others have struggled to define the position of the racially oppressed artist and come to similar conclusions. Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, led a relatively privileged childhood despite being black in early 20th-century America, and consequently chose to align himself with white Modernists like T.S. Eliot as opposed to other black writers. But Irving Howe, a Jewish literary and political critic, stressed to Ellison the significance of the past’s effect on the present. In his 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Howe critiques Ellison’s dissociation from the black struggle and his willful ignorance of the inherent pressures put upon the black artist. “We do not make our circumstances; we can, at best, try to remake them,” he wrote, “and the arena of choice and action always proves to be a little narrower than we had supposed. One generation passes its limitations on to the next, black boys on to native sons.” Kanye claims to be a native son of American oppression—“New Slaves” opens with the acknowledgment that West’s “momma was raised in the era when/ clean water was only served to the fairer skin”—but, like Ellison, he sees his only escape in acting as if he is beyond them. If Ellison felt he could relate more to Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock than to his black contemporaries, then Kanye must feel more kin to fashion designer Alexander Wang than to those too poor to afford such luxury.
Kanye West’s celebrity and fortune puts him in a unique position to criticize the modern American power structure. Maybe he recognizes its rigidity, and instead of trying to topple it from below, chooses to tackle it from within. We know from his song “Spaceship” that he was once the token black employee at The Gap, and from his Yeezus era rants that he’s worked with (and been written off by) major fashion labels in the past. But by adopting the historic symbol of racial oppressors, he himself becomes one. When he sells plain white cotton t-shirts for $120 because they have “KANYE” printed (in white) on the inside collar, West is reaffirming his superior position above those fans that sustain him. In this self-serving success, West ignores the history of the structure he enjoys, just as he ignores the past of the symbol he employs on his Yeezus merchandise. The complexities of such obstinate denial echoes back to Ralph Ellison’s shifting ideas of the role of the black artist. In his 1964 essay “The World and the Jug,” Ellison reassures black readers that their struggles are not in vain and shouldn’t be forgotten. He writes, “Negro American consciousness is not a product…of a will to historical forgetfulness. It is a product of our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting, and by our hopeful suspension of final judgment as to the meaning of our grievances.”
Kanye West should not attempt to rewrite history for his own transcendence; instead, he should attempt to acknowledge it for that of his fans.
As I drive south towards Montgomery and pass through the shadow of the Confederate flag that waves above, I can only laugh at the irony of the Yeezusmerchandise. Because what else is there to do? Kanye West can try to make new meaning out of the bloodied banner, but it won’t wash the stain of racism away. That stain ain’t never coming out.
*This article was published on The Weeklings.
When is a place art? Is it in the designer’s intent, or is it something more natural, more innate, that qualifies it as artistic? Take, for example, something as common to the Southern landscape as a silo. Surely those who constructed this object weren’t worried about aesthetics. The landowners needed somewhere to store their fodder, and the tall, cylindrical metal silo had proven its value on countless other properties in the area. Now, take this silo and allow it to be weathered, bent by the wind and rusted by the rain, forsaken by its owners and given over to the powerful hands of Nature. Robbed of its function, and now completely reliant on form, can this sight now be considered art? Timothy Hursley seems to think so, and he’s taken over a million (yes, a million) photographs to document that sight.
This silo of such intense interest stands near Greensboro, Alabama, in the heart of Hale County, the sprawling workshop of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. The Rural Studio works to create efficient and attractive architecture in the severely underserved Black Belt region of West Alabama, and Timothy Hursley has worked with the Studio as both a commissioned photographer and an independent promoter for over twenty years. Hailing from Detroit, Hursley moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1980 to start his own architectural photography studio. He was instantly drawn to the South’s abundant vernacular architecture, the structures created from local materials for the fundamental needs of the community. As his body of work grew, so did the quality of his résumé. He began being commissioned to photograph buildings by such household names as I.M. Pei and Frank Gehry, the latter of whom would influence his interest in a defunct relic of Alabama’s agricultural past.
One spring day in 2007, while driving from Marion to Greensboro for a Rural Studio shoot, Hursley’s roaming eye glimpsed something strange jutting from the flat, green landscape of the Black Belt’s back roads. He pulled over, asked and received permission from the object’s owner, and began shooting. What he captured was a crimped and twisted steel silo, beaten bent by time but refusing to fall completely. His modern art sensibilities told him the object was undoubtedly sculpture; reminding him of early Gehry architecture in its unnatural curves, and Philip Guston’s late paintings of cigarette butts in its grotesqueness. He would go home and arrange photographs of four different angles of the silo in a tetraptych that spoke to him of the object’s artistic possibilities. It became an almost mythical structure to him, like “something out of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds,” he’s quoted as saying.
Like all legends, the exact details of the silo’s origins are murky. Hursley once heard from an elderly man in a Greensboro hardware store that silos of the sort began popping up in the area in the mid-1950’s; other sources say that a hurricane-spawned twister ripped through the area in the 80’s, forcing the silo to bow the way it does today. During one of his many trips to the silo, a lady living on the property mentioned the silo might be getting scrapped. Hursley wouldn’t allow it. He contacted the property owner, Towana Harris, and purchased the silo from her for $2000. He says that fellow Rural Studio photographer William Christenberry would take old street and traffic signs as souvenirs of his travels through the South. He laughs, claiming he’s doing the same, just on a much larger scale.
In October of 2011, Hursley decided to experiment with observing the silo in its environment by setting up a surveillance camera to photograph the scene every thirty seconds. With the help of the Rural Studio and the Harris family, the team positioned the camera, dug trenches for power lines, placed a system of LED lights to capture the sight by night, and set up a computer in a nearby trailer to download the camera’s continuous stream of images. The resulting photos are hauntingly beautiful. An edit of six months’ of images compressed into a five-minute video posted by the Oxford American demonstrates the product of Hursley’s vision. The Silo Cam, as Hursley calls it, shows the silo as a work of art constantly being shaped by its sculptor, Nature. As an electrical storm illuminates the darkness, the silo flashes like a bowing ghost of a South far-removed from what it is today, but as the downpour turns to drizzle and the blackness turns to the grey of dawn, the silo still stands, defiant to the infinite forces of Nature that push against it, day after day, hour after hour. While Hursley states that his goal is not to capture the fall of the silo, he has noted that its angle has gotten more acute, and that it is, in fact, steadily coming closer to its fall.
So, after nearly two years of documentation, what plans are in store for the silo? Hursley himself isn’t even sure. He calls his work with the object, Project Unfolding, because, like the Nature’s unending work on the structure, it’s a work constantly in progress. The success and positive responses from the art community have pushed Hursley to set up two other surveillance cameras on similar industrial objects. The Silo Cam is currently down due to technical problems with the power lines, but Hursley is interested in changing the angle of the camera to see what effect that would have on the photographs. Ultimately, he would love to see the silo removed from its rural context and placed in a city center, the juxtaposition of a defunct agrarian relic against the steel and glass of the urban landscape forcing the viewer to see it as sculpture, and Hursley is confident people will see it as such. All he needs now is a patron.
*This article was published in MADE Paper, issue 3.
Ever since the Bones Brigade pioneered the skateboard video in the early 80’s, the video part has been the ultimate representation of a skater’s aesthetic. Though its manifestation has transformed from VHS to DVD to YouTube, one thing has stayed the same: the importance of music to the skate video. An East coast legend once said that “music is fifty-percent of the video part”; the other half, I’m guessing, is divided into something like thirty-percent skating and twenty-percent filming/editing. Too often, great skating can be rendered unwatchable by bad music backing (e.g. Flip’s entire Extremely Sorry video). But, in an effort towards optimism, I’d like to focus on those videos that find the perfect symmetry between skating and soundtrack. Video parts where the editing rides the music like the skater rides his skateboard.
Alien Workshop has consistently produced some of skateboarding’s most influential videos. From Memory Screen (1991) to Mind Field (2009), AWS has pushed the boundaries of skating and video editing for over two-decades. Their videos seem to pulse with paranoia–the team’s skaters can be seen as a small tribe of rebels pitted against the concrete world constructed around them. Furthermore, AWS videos feature some of skateboarding’s best conceived soundtracks (a strong working relationship with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. certainly helps). Other sites have already lauded AWS’s new millennium release, Photosynthesis, for its embodiment of late-nineties skateboard culture; however, let’s narrow our critical eye on the video’s excellent soundtrack.
Photosynthesis boasts a diverse soundtrack ranging from the minimalist instrumentation of Philip Glass to the bass heavy chants of Black Rob, but its use of Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ seminal punk track “Search and Destroy” to back the aggressive shredding of Anthony Van Engelen stands as one of the best song-to-skater pairings in skateboard video history.
The song sewed the roots of punk through its vicious guitars and brash lyrics on its 1973 release. VH1 even acknowledged the greatness of the track by ranking it the 49th greatest “hard rock” song ever released (just behind Korn and Kid Rock). Years later, skateboarders adopted “Search and Destroy” instinctively, with the riff “Skate and Destroy” becoming a pillar in skate mentality everywhere. In 2000, Anthony Van Engelen personified this find-it-and-kill-it attitude with his part in Alien Workshop’s Photosynthesis. AVE pounds the pavement with every heavy-footed push, and it seems like a miracle that his trucks don’t snap from the force of every trick he stomps down. Long-time AWS rider and skate-style-savant Jason Dill may describe AVE best when he says, “his whole kit is breaking concrete–it’s getting it done in a violent way. I love when people attack things and I love when people set shit on fire–Anthony does that.”
As the blistering solo of “Search and Destroy” begins to blaze, the video incorporates 8mm footage of a gas-masked gunman, roads domed in fluorescent light, and AVE ollieing over a rail and off the drop it was meant to save people from. As he back 5-0’s a ledge in Venice Beach, he’s a “street walking cheetah,” and with a quick land and pop, he’s nosegrinding “with a heart full of napalm.” He “ain’t got time to make no apologies” because he’s too busy getting gnarly on traditionally technical maneuvers like the lengthy switch front-crook front-shuv at 1:41, or doing what may be the first over-the-top handrail grind at 1:37. His Photosynthesis part embodies the breathless ferocity of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”. In order to decompress the viewer from the onslaught of skateboarding and proto-punk they just saw, AVE’s part closes with a hypnotic guitar sample off Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s album “Roots”, but that pairings good enough for its own post.
I came upon a stream that flows and bends
Below the still blue sky. The leaves that drift
Along the current slide silent and swift
Across the silver surface as if friends.
They travel how the current recommends.
The waste of Fall, abundant leavings sift
Through shallow waters, rapids, rocky rifts.
The countless fallen leaves indeed transcend.
Against the sun, in my reflection cast,
I find myself remembering the past
When I was young and trusting of my dreams.
I thought that I’d forever hang and float
Above descending truths that sail like boats.
Instead the change in season sates the stream.
Above are two images of Chinese art separated by almost thirty-years of history and by their stark differences in purpose and reception. What strikes me as interesting in these two images is not in their differences however, but rather in their thematic similarities. The first image is a poster of Red propaganda circa 1966 that was circulated by the People’s Republic of China to promote the ongoing Cultural Revolution. The characters at the top roughly translate to “destroy the old world, forge the new world”, and the image depicts a Red Guard smashing cultural and historical relics with a sledgehammer. The second image is taken from a 1995 triptych of controversial Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei symbollically dropping a Han Dynasty urn that dates back to the early A.D. years. (For those unfamiliar with Ai Wei Wei, please use your under-appreciated internet freedom to educate yourself on his work and political problems within China).
Both images seem to suggest the same question. Included in the propaganda’s pile of objects-to-be-smashed, among crucifixes and Buddhas, are ancient Chinese texts – a visual mandate to the people to forget their cultural and religious past in order to focus on proletariat progress; Ai Wei Wei is asking the same in dropping a literal relic of Chinese history – it being an urn adds to the idea of history’s fragility. By the destruction of the past, both artists attempt to reconstruct our perception of the future. While the Cultural Revolution intended to forget the constraints of cultural and religious antiquity in order to foster a closer relationship with the rising power of the Communist Party, Ai Wei Wei had to shatter a reminder of history in an attempt to awaken the public to its significance in a quickly modernizing China.
Here, where netizens make up a third of the list of detained dissidents, the dissemination of information has shifted from the hands of higher-ups to the nimble fingers of the public. Ironically, now that the power is moving closer toward the common people, the State must struggle to maintain their position as party of the proletariat.
Sidenote: Being the proud son of a historian, I cannot condone the destruction of any historically significant artifact despite the artistic intent.
Thirty-two hours of flights and airport purgatory later, and I find myself pushed and pushing through the crowd at Shenyang International Airport. I had forgotten my urgency somewhere in the last fifteen time zones, but was forcefully reminded of its infectious existence in the arrivals area of airports. While waiting by the baggage claim, I watched my fellow travelers vie for a position by the circulating belt. The mob was pulsating – every spot opened was instantly taken by another anxious person hoping to be reconnected with their belongings. Having the height advantage, I spotted one of my bags and plucked it from over the heads of those in front of me. Sometime later, after the crowd had diminished to me and those tarrying behind to watch me with curiosity, I realized the bag I had checked in Atlanta wasn’t coming, and I was forced to leave the baggage claim with only a receipt of my loss.
In the lobby, I recognized my name scribbled on a scrap of paper held up by the man that I could only assume to be the driver my school had arranged for me, and him and I retreated into the cold China night toward the car. As I put my bag in the trunk, I noticed the license plate had a few of its identifying characters scratched free of their white paint, leaving only raised outlines of their former selves behind. Other cars in the parking lot were less subtle with their trickery; matte black spray paint was a favorite to conceal the plate from the watchful traffic cameras that had begun appearing over major highways throughout Liaoning. The driver was all smiles as he attempted to engage me in conversation. It had been over a month since I’d tried my Mandarin, but much to his and my surprise I was able to answer his simple questions. His gold-capped teeth glinted in the light of passing cars as he laughed and nodded with my responses. I’d exhausted my abilities and apologetically stated that I was tired, ‘tai lei le’, too tired to continue conversing. We picked up another couple from a nearby hotel, and the four of us rode in sleepy silence through the pocked streets. I rested my heavy head on the icy window and thought about the people I had met in the airports:
There was Les, who I’d met in the check-in line before departing Shenyang for Seoul. We were the only Westerners around, and he unabashedly spoke past the people separating us. We exchanged cards, mine labeled with the misnomer that I answer to. “So Christian, are you a Christian?” he plainly posed, clearly excited by the find. Knowing the type of person that asks such a question so boldly, I sheepishly lied with a hesitant yes, unwilling to damn myself to some theological debate for the next few hours. Over KFC coffee he told me about his evangelism in atheist China. He described to me the feeling of Hell as fleeing forever from a pack of vicious dogs in pitch-black. He told me about the dinners he would have with his Christian and non-Christian students; he used the phrase ‘sick ‘em!’ to describe how the Christian students would try and convert the non-believers by dessert. I wondered if the dogs that chase you through Hell are really just the missionaries you avoided so well in life. We departed and I watched the serpentine streets become the swirling fingerprint of the land, and, as we ascended higher, the tops of the clouds become the snow-covered mountains of Heaven, all illuminated by the fire-white alien orb of the burning up Sun.
Then there was Mary, the Southern belle from Savannah, Georgia who struck up a conversation with me while we waited for our flights in Atlanta. She casually slipped words like ‘yonder’ and ‘high-falutin’ into our short talk, and she questioned my Southern roots when I expressed Democratic sentiments. She told me about her life-changing accident. How she had been hit by a train while walking by some tracks in upstate New York. She hadn’t heard it coming, and the rushing force of it had sucked her in like a turbine and spat her out mangled and broken. She said that the doctors told her she made them believe in God by her recovery. When her plane was boarding she wished me luck and limped toward her gate, rotating her whole body across her right hip like a pivot pushing her towards her destination.
Then there was John, the American I’d overheard talking in the plane to Seoul. His ultimate destination was the Philippines, and he was making the trip with high hopes and an engagement ring tucked away in his pocket. He had never touched his wife-to-be. He had never left America, and she had never left the Philippines. Their only contact was virtual. They had met online four months ago, and Skyped each other for hours each night since their initial pairing. I wondered to myself what they could possibly talk about. I wondered about the nature of love, about culture, and about their connection. 4000 feet above the Earth I went to sleep sandwiched between two strangers.
I woke when our small taxi hit a larger than normal pot-hole in the frozen Anshan road. The steady hiccup of the sputtering engine must have lulled me to sleep. I listened to the sounds of a heated argument about the intended destination of my fellow-passengers. We passed familiar buildings and rubble that took an eerie glow in the night smog and frozen snow from last week’s flurries. I was dropped at the gate of my university and walked the quarter mile through my crystalized breath toward the light of my dorm.
Para dormir (written by Erik Daccach)
El hombre ya no cuenta ovejas
cuenta centavos, cuenta millones, cuenta.
– el tiempo es horo – dicta la sentencia
cuenta segundos, cuenta oras, cuenta.
El hombre ya no puede soñar,
ya no puede dormir, cuenta.
¿Y adonde se han ido las ovejas?
ya no saltan la cerca
ellas también cuentan
sentadas en bancos, empresas y oficinas
ellas también cuentan
suman restan y multiplican
Hombres y ovejas ahora cuentan y suman
suman y restan
pero nunca dividen
ni el hombre ni la oveja dividen
es por esto que el hombre no duerme
y la oveja ya no salta la cerca
For Sleep (translated by CNK)
Man no longer counts sheep.
Counts cents, counts millions,
Counts. Counts. Counts.
Time is gold dust –
the sentencing says
Count seconds, count sands,
Count. Count. Count.
Man can no longer dream,
Can no longer sleep, counts.
And what has happened to the sheep?
No longer do they jump dream’s fence,
They too count –
Sitting in banks,
industries, and offices.
They too count –
Adding remainders and multiplying.
Man and sheep now count and add,
Add and remain,
And add and multiply;
But none divide.
Neither man nor sheep divide.
So man can never sleep
And the sheep stopped jumping the fence.
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release April 2012
Campaigning to the Core of American Culture
With November’s general election quickly approaching, President Barack Obama has been tirelessly juggling the day-to-day challenges of office with the grueling aspects of campaigning. In an effort to reach audiences where they spend most of their time, The President has scheduled a whirlwind of guest appearances on America’s favorite television programs.
The schedule is as follows:
Date: 24 April 2012
Program: Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Role: POTUS (President of the United States)
Talking Points: The President Slow Jams the News, calling for Congress to renew the measures to keep student loan rates from rising.
Date: 14 May 2012
Program: Two and a Half Men
Role: Financial Advisor
Talking Points: The President guest stars as main character Alan Harper’s financial advisor, creating a manageable budget that reduces Alan’s debt, allowing him and his son to be finally able to afford their own housing, bringing the series to a much-awaited end. You’re welcome, America.
Date: 22 May 2012
Program: American Idol
Role: Guest Judge and Performer
Talking Points: On the season finale, the President performs a beautiful rendition of Al Green’s ‘You Ought to Be With Me’, and then announces to the audience that they will now be able to vote for President by texting or tweeting #4mobama on Election Day.
Date: 12 June 2012
Program: Finding Bigfoot
Role: Expert of Restoring Hope to Lost Causes
Talking Points: The President joins the team of Bigfoot hunters to push his agenda on illegal immigration.
Date: 25 August 2012
Program: 16 and Pregnant
Role: Understanding Father
Talking Points: The President’s daughter shows up at the White House alone and pregnant. The President demonstrates his compassion and commitment to his stance on the women’s right to choose. She decides to keep the child and creates an MTV spin-off: ‘The First Daughter’s First Daughter’.
Date: 11 October 2012
Role: Pranking GOP nominee Mitt Romney
Talking Points: The President secretly leaks a fake copy of his foreign birth certificate to Romney’s campaign advisors, causing the Romney camp to publically call for the President’s impeachment. The President shows up at his impeachment trial laughing with Ashton Kutcher and the MTV cameras rolling. Gotcha, Romney!
Date: 1 November 2012
Program: Yo! Gabba Gabba
Role: President of Gabbaland
Talking Points: The President performs on Dancey Dance Time, teaching the viewers to do his dance, the Democrat Dougie, because, hey, it’s never too early to get kids thinking about partisanship.
“Some things aren’t made to go forever,” concedes Matthew Melton, head of Bare Wires, the Oakland garage-rock trio apparently not made to last forever. Though the Bare Wires band dissolved during a dramatic SXSW 2012, their posthumous release, Idle Dreams, serves as the near-perfect bookend to their catalogue, and is a worthy addition to the library of dreamy, angst fueled, and hook-filled garage-rock.
Timeless as Idle Dreams may be, its songs are short and run together like wasted days and blacked-out nights. Only two of the album’s twelve tracks break the three-minute mark: the first, “Impossible Things”, and the last, “School Days”—both album highlights that deserve the extra time. “Impossible Things” opens the album with a quickly pulsing bass, swelling cymbals, and singeing guitar riff that carries Melton’s fuzzy singing. “Caught up in a dream, like a world in a magazine, you’re in another place, the sun is in your face, not to know what it means,” he admits in the opening lines, a cryptic confession suggesting confusion caused by the complexity of modern times. In the album’s final track, “School Days”, Bare Wires has crafted an anthem for anyone who’s “[woken] up late in [their] blue jeans, [trying] to find out what it means”. Over a bouncing bass, the compelling chorus repeats, “school days are over, you’re getting older, just dream your life away, it’s better off that way”. Throughout the album, Melton’s existential frets are mirrored in the music’s distortion, like in “Chasing Dreams”, when a Stooges style solo erupts mid-song, or in “One More Hour of Love”, where handclaps climax into blistering psych-rock. While Idle Dreams may be the last release Bare Wires will give us, let’s be thankful they stuck it out long enough to record this not-to-be-missed, hard-to-forget gem.
The LA quartet Dum Dum Girls’ latest EP, End of Daze, is a hazy meditation of flowery psych-power-pop that blossoms in a breathless eighteen minutes. Recorded shortly after their morbidly infectious LP Only in Dreams, End of Daze showcases the band’s newfound hi-fi gloss—the polish reflecting lead singer Dee Dee’s increasingly sophisticated songwriting.
Lyrically, the five tracks roll out like a personal confession of Dee Dee’s struggle to accept the loss of her mother to cancer, a theme cementing the album’s narrative structure. “Mine Tonight” opens with images of loneliness and self-disgust, the chorus a call for some kind of connection: “Tonight I’ve seen my eulogy, oh won’t you sing it with me”. Then, “I Got Nothing” delves into emotional exhaustion through simplistic rhymes; the lyrics “I’ve got nothing left to say from this day on.” repeating over the pulsing rhythm of snares, bass, and chiming guitar. The third track begins this new day with an atmospheric cover (she has nothing left to say, remember?) of Strawberry Switchblade’s “Trees and Flowers” – a pivotal track conjuring the waking up to an indifferent world after the darkness of depression—the song’s tingling noise fading out like the dying dark at dawn. The album’s closing tracks, “Lord Knows” and “Season in Hell”, show a woman in search of salvation for and from herself. The last song sounds positively upbeat and enlightened, with Dee Dee distancing herself from her past and embracing the new day: “It’s been a season in Hell. Doesn’t dawn look divine?“
Lyrical analysis aside, End of Daze is musical pop-rocks, sugary and addictive.
The French/Italian quintet JC Satàn takes your ears to sonic-war on their third and newest LP, Faraway Land. Under the oxymoronic moniker (Satàn pronounced like ‘baton’, though I’m sure the ironic choice of initials is no accident as is evidenced in their often demonic album art), Arthur Satàn leads the charge into the darkness of mystical musical madness. Their fairy tale’s as follows:
In a basement garage in Bordeaux, five souls sit through the apocalypse surviving on rations of early Jay Reatard and Thee Oh Sees. They craft crude armor from the rusted shards of black metal, and clank out from the blackness of their garage into the blackness of the post-apocalyptic world as the album begins. With the first track, “Legion”, they find the Earth pulsing with reverb and ass-kick-drum as they “use your body as a shield” to battle through the remainder without a moments rest, leaving you bruised and battered for the better by the end. For weapons, JC Satàn wields guitar fuzz and squeals, shrieked vocals through swallowed mics, and a relentless barrage of other noise to survive in Faraway Land’s eleven songs. But their weapons seem sharpest when balanced with the structure and catchy melody of tracks like “Psalm 6,” “New Face,” and “Song,” all climaxing in a crashing crescendo of heavily layered racket. While Faraway Land may not win every battle, it will certainly win the war against stagnant garage-rock due to its sometimes mad, sometimes magical, experimentation.
If the Woods’ name was a descriptor of their sound, the heavily layered instruments on Bend Beyond would be a dense forest in late summer, and singer Jeremy Earl’s floating falsetto would be the call of the coming fall. This juxtaposition of sun-soaked pop under lamenting lyrics is an accessible refinement of the psych-folk sound that Woods have developed over the past seven years and seven albums that compose their catalogue.
Bend Beyond’s title track opens the album with a distant tape loop of trembling noise and a singular acoustic guitar, quickly tripping into a woozy dirge of the heavily enmeshed riffs and solos we’ve come to expect from the band’s consistent output. But the second track, the early release “Cali in a Cup”, swings on a sad harmonica of 60’s nostalgia, and Earl alerting the listener to the coming cold: “as the leaves fall on the snow/ you might be part of it/ let the seasons overflow”. The album continues in this vein, alternating psych-surf tunes of rolling bass– like in the instrumental “Cascade”– with the acoustic folk of tracks like “It Ain’t Easy”. But Bend Beyond still retains enough unresolved noise to keep the listener on edge for the album’s quick 31 minutes. Personal favorite “Size Meets the Sound” knits a tangled weave of what we’ve come to respect from Woods while giving us something to expect from their evolving sound. Woods makes the transition from past to progress seem easy, even as Earl warbles, “it ain’t easy/ looking for different ways to make things stay the same”.
Just before I disappeared, I turned and looked back. The stone Roman columns you still stood still beneath seemed so out of place beneath the steel night sky that curved around us. I’d walked you home. Then, I walked alone in the fuzz of flashing signs and passing cars, retracing our steps back to where we began. My illiteracy in this land of foreign characters had left me lost before, so while we talked I’d taken notes to guide me home. From your apartment gate I took a right, right to the place where you put your hand in mine – fingers feeling fingers feeling fingers – and told me in your fragile English how you’d forgotten how to say how you’d felt that day. ‘Our languages are limited,’ I lamented, and sensed your skin slide against your smooth bone as I squeezed your hand. Then, where the cobbled sidewalk met the street, I took a left, letting my right hand drag limply along the spires of a rusted iron fence. There, I’d seen laughter linger on your lips as I struggled through your speech. The fog was falling in curling wisps of a silver mist. A motorcycle buzzed by, its headlight a stretching slice of gold in the glowing night. I went right where we’d stood at the edge of a crowd who swayed while they watched a group of low-seated men who studied the hands they’d been dealt. All were silent, only the ceaseless sound of breathing, and the slamming down of cards, and the shifting in soft summer shoes. ‘How do you play?’ I whispered to you. You didn’t know, no one had ever told you. The fog had condensed to rain by the time I reached my place.
Under the hazy blanket of the steely sky I pushed headfirst into the whistling wind. 219 Park was unusually empty on this wintry afternoon, and I skateboarded alone beneath the white marble, tilted arc that spans the park’s entrance. The ledges surrounding both ends of the arc are smooth, speckled-red marble, and I worked on grinds at the furthest right rise of the arc (depending on your perspective, you could also call it the furthest right fall). Below me, down a long double-set of dusty stairs, a mother and father watched their young son roller-skate around a raised block of wrought iron soldiers forever tangled in battle. With each of his falls, the mother would run to support, and the father would sternly clap and encourage him to return to his shaky skates.
A short time later, the father had taken the steps and kindly approached me while I rested and watched. “You are very good with that, sir,” he carefully said to me, “but it is very dangerous.” I laughed in agreement, and told him his son hadn’t chosen the safest recreation either. With that said, his son slipped again to his kneepads, the mother rushed to help him to his feet, and the father urged him to keep trying. Even in his native language, I could tell the father spoke decisively, rolling each word around his mouth to see how it feels before releasing it to the wind. He spoke even more thoughtfully in English. During our conversation, I watched him almost imperceptibly practice the pronunciation of difficult words before placing them into his sentences. His English was self-taught, learned within the three years of his post-graduate studies in communications engineering. He predicted that English would be the World’s language within his own lifetime, and was thusly compelled to learn it. His wife was once a classmate of his, though their romance didn’t begin until they became colleagues working for China Unicom, the state-owned telecommunications company that controls the market. As is typical in introductory conversations with local Chinese, salaries were plainly asked and stated. He was surprised to hear my monthly income, expecting it to be much higher. He made a fourth less than my salary, even with his Master’s, bilingualism, and experience. I silently questioned my worth in a country that values foreigners so highly.
We talked of history and culture. He was an avid amateur historian, specializing in the Qing Dynasty that ruled China from the mid-17th century. He favored this period because of his own racial-makeup; unlike 91% of the 1.3 billion Chinese that are categorized as Han, this man was Manchurian, and proud of his heritage. The Qing Dynasty is famous for its Manchurian leadership in a Han-dominated country. During the Qing Dynasty, Manchus and Han Chinese worked together, not always without conflict, imposing their cultures on one another, inexorably changing the country’s identity. Now, Western culture has begun to infiltrate the ancient Chinese culture. The man asked me to look around the park. “Notice the clothing,” he said as I followed the three-stripes of his adidas hat down to his pointed face, “no one wears traditional dress anymore.” I scanned the people at the park. Besides us, there was only a small group of men practicing the whipping top, a 4,000-year-old sport where participants use a long chain and leather whip to spin a large top. In their stuffed and clearly branded nylon coats they’d whirl the whip over their head twice to gain momentum, on the third round they’d crack the whip at the teetering top, causing it to skip and spin smoothly before repeating the technique. Whoosh, whoosh, snap! Whoosh, whoosh, snap! These sounds became the rhythmic metronome to our conversation, punctuating every point. “Maybe, one day when you and I are gone, there will only be one culture in the world,” the man pondered, “a Western one.” I shuddered at the thought. Had the American aversion to cultural acceptance convinced the rest of the World of its own culture’s manifest destiny? And what is American culture if not a confluence of the various cultures that make up America?
I wondered this and worried, but as I watched those men engaged in the whipping top, I realized that the spinning top is emblematic of the continuance of China’s history – steadily spinning for over four-millennia. I responded to the father that though only time will tell, I’m confident that Western values will never overtake Chinese culture, but instead they will absorb into each other, as both have much to learn from one another. He mentioned that China had already begun to distance itself from its past, changing the written language into a simplified version. I asked if the traditional form was no longer taught. He answered that he was teaching his son, because if he didn’t then antiquity would be lost to him. “Time is like a river,” he said, “it only moves in one direction.” I thought that if time is a river that carries culture in its current, then the rivers must be tributaries, flowing into a vast body that is absorbed on distant shores.
The son had tired for the day and was taking his skates off. His father and I shook hands and thanked each other for the conversation. I pushed off with the wind at my back and put my headphones back in as Thom Yorke cried over the pulsating bass of Radiohead’s music:
‘There’s a gap in between,
There’s a gap where we meet,
Where I end and you begin.”
In gingham and tassels and the bright morning sun, I stood around a trio of Anshan locals dressed in denim with cigarettes propped behind their ears. We waited in front of my apartment building, and scanned ahead for the bridal caravan to come around the corner. The arrival was to be our cue to light the firecrackers and fireworks that we hovered around. There was a pair of long roped firecrackers laid in the symbol of a heart, and eight boxes of bundled Roman candles sat closely behind them. I observed my fellow part-time pyrotechnists, family of the bride- Dina- linger anxiously and spark and release and spark again their lighters.
Across the city, the groom -Don- lugged a heavy bag of noodles, matches, leeks, and pork ribs up six flights of steps to the door of the bride’s parents’ apartment. There, he needed to persuasively flatter the family in hopes they’d allow him entrance. ‘My beautiful mother, my clever father,’ Don crooned, ‘please let me in so I can propose to your wonderful daughter’. A translator repeated his request in Anshanese, losing a bit of the dramatic tone and, fortunately for Don, the subtle sarcasm as well. The parents played along, opening the door for their daughter’s suitor and his three best men, all foreigners, one of which was a woman. Then Don, dressed in a black suit and tie, needed to re-propose to Dina, who was dressed in a white, billowing wedding gown. Initially, as is custom, she declined the marriage, stating she could never leave her loving family, but after a persuasive argument by Don, she agreed on the condition that he find her shoes, which had been hidden somewhere within the apartment. Once the patent red leather heels were found, the couple shared a noodle a la Lady and the Tramp, and headed to the groom’s apartment for the bride’s family to inspect the premises.
Back at the university’s apartments for foreign teachers, the sewer lids were covered in red paper to ward of unlucky spirits. In a flash of fire, the lighters flamed, cigarettes burned and fuses flared, as the bridal convoy pulled into the building’s roundabout. Six camouflaged bikers led the procession. They wore thick vests and SWAT team kneepads; some of their bikes had imitation missiles tacked above the rear fender. Following them, twenty rented black Audi A6’s snaked around the entrance, stopping in the haze of the blasted pyrotechnics. The bride and groom walked arm in arm in a colorful snow of confetti as filmers, photographers, and family filed in behind. About forty of Dina’s closest family members lined the hall to Don’s small apartment, each one being formally introduced to their new international family member. Inside the apartment, a child hung a wooden clock on the wall to ensure a happy future for the couple, and everyone was required to eat something to show respect for the couples’ new home. Don, now with a shimmer of sweat on his forehead, watched as Dina’s friends placed ceremonial red blankets on his bed then sprinkled these blankets with peanuts, candies, and coins. Through the doorway, he, with his old friends and new family behind him, watched his bride stand on their bridal bed and make two careful spins before sitting down upon the cloud of her gown. This custom was to ensure her fertility, a moot point since Dina is already pregnant. The couple then shared an apple hung from a red string and dangled between them by a young girl. They were each supposed to take a bite, the person with the biggest bite is said to be the controller of the relationship; Dina’s bite was impressive, Don’s teeth bounced the apple away so that he missed completely. Two portraits hung above the bed watching over the ceremony: a large color print of Don and Dina in a gilded frame, and a small faded, sepia photo of Don’s grandparents.
Since no objections were made to Don’s dwelling, the crowd continued to the bridal lunch. At a two-story building across town, its entrance double rainbowed by two inflatable arches, nearly fifty Audi’s lined the street. Another wedding lunch was being held on the bottom floor, and we watched the young newlyweds strut through their party. Upstairs, the party was partitioned into smaller rooms without doors. I sat around a circular table with nine foreigners from around the world, and we jokingly wondered whether this was the room for Don’s friends or the room for non-Chinese. The newlyweds made their rounds to each room, offering cheers and thanks to the guests. In a particularly interesting custom, Don had to offer a cigarette that Dina would light for each of the adult guests. Having been forewarned, I took the cigarette and puffed enough to get it lit, sitting back and thinking about how this custom could never survive in smoke-scar(r)ed America. Food was shared, beers (room temperature – the norm in China) were swilled, and congratulations were given, as the party continued into the warm summer night.
Mid-term exams were over. The spring rain pattered against the three large windows in the classroom’s right wall. The sunlight shining through the streaming droplets cast serpentine shadows that crawled across the chalkboard and towards the students’ desks. I checked the metronome on my wrist – still thirty minutes left in today’s Oral English class. It was the last thirty minutes I’d spend with these students before the weeklong holiday, ‘International Labor Day’ the Chinese government called it. The syncopated rhythm of the rain was quieting, and drowned out the steady ticking of the clock, lulling my students to dreams of an early vacation. This was not the time to prattle on about proper pronunciation and adjective endings. Instead, I opted to try a new activity with my class. A familiar game to some Americans who’ve spent long nights around a campfire, the activity is such that the participants will create a story, with each individual adding one sentence to the ongoing plot. I divided the class into three groups of nine to ten students, and wrote the opening sentence on the board: Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess and a dragon. After around fifteen minutes of story discussion (much of which was in Chinese, I’ll confess), my groups were ready to share their ideas with the class. The first two groups recited a Disneyesque storyline where the dragon and princess lived happily ever after, but the last group managed to surprise me with a tragic twist in ten sentences. Albeit fraught with minor plot holes and loose ends, I’ve recounted their tale below:
Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess and a dragon. The dragon had lived for forever in the clouds, but had always wanted to be a part of the human world beneath him. He’d fallen in love with the princess while watching her in her castle below. The dragon, sure that the princess would only love him if he were human, found a witch who promised she could turn him into a human for one day. The princess fell in love with the dragon (now a human) at first sight. The princess was unhappily engaged to a prince from a far-off land, so she and the dragon decided to run away together. The dragon, feeling the effects of the spell wearing off, rushed away while the princess was sleeping to find the witch. The witch said she could give the dragon a drink that would turn him into a mortal if he paid her well enough. The dragon paid, drank the drink, and hurried back to his princess. But the drink was a poison, and the dragon died in his sleep lying next to his princess. In the morning, when the princess awoke to discover her lover was a dragon, she cried to him, ‘You didn’t know, but I too, am a dragon’.
And in April, the sweet showers fall to wash away the drought of Winter. The just-forgotten snow has melted, but the blooming cherry blossoms give thanks with their branches; buds of soft white petals serve as the symbolic ascension of Winter’s sterility. Then memory mixes with desire. The flowers, too, forget the snow and blaze to pink and thin-blood red all across the city. The dripping flowers cling to their stems as the breeze bends their branches.
Liaoning’s cherry blossoms have a history rooted in blood soaked soil. The Battle of Mukden, in the chill of 1905’s Winter, laid 160,000 Russian and Japanese soldiers on the frozen earth forever. Less than three tumultuous decades later, northeastern China was again invaded on controversial pretenses by the Japanese government. To strengthen their control over the region, they created the puppet state of Manchukuo, and in this new colony they planted sakura trees (cherry blossoms) to tie their occupation to the natural rhythms of the Earth. For nearly eighty years the cherry blossoms have budded in April here in Anshan, unaware that each Spring their flowers symbolize the lost lives of fallen soldiers. Today, the people that walk beneath them are also unaware of this connection. They have forgotten the cherry blossoms painted on the steel sides of kamikaze fighters’ jets. They’ve forgotten, if only for a moment, the transience of time. But this blissful moment will soon be lost as well. The white-then-red petals will fall to the ground in a few short weeks, leaving turgid green leaves in their place.
These flowers are carried by the warm Westward wind blowing through Anshan. From the tides of the Yellow Sea, this breath of the Earth has ridden the saddle-shaped mountain that gives Anshan its name and winds through the rebuilt streets once destroyed by dropped bombs of World War II. The wind doesn’t stop or change direction for the causes of mankind. The same wind that Allied bombers calculated for in their bombsights now stiffen the red banner of the Chinese Communist Party.
In the park I watch the wind sweep circles of the city’s dust. Above me, a squadron of colored kites flies pointed East, their shadows like dark ghosts of a forgotten war.