Tuesday, March 13, 2007

High Art, Low Art and Critical Thought.

My friend Mat Johnson has really done it this time. By insisting that there is a clear difference between highbrow and lowbrow literature he has stepped on number of corns, mostly the lowbrows who feel they are being stepped on and the highbrows who feel any form of stepping is counter productive. I’ve never been a fan either term anymore than I was of Stephen Koch’s “high,” “middle,” and “low” style even though I understand all three. One could say serious literature vs. casual literature but while that’s closer it’s still a powder keg of a definition guaranteed to start arguments.

For one, who gets to decide what’s highbrow or lowbrow? Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison dismissed Zora Neale Hurston’s writing as deliberately lowbrow but both were wrong. On the other hand, I have just read a book by a black author that begins with a young man trying not to ‘nut’ on himself for the second time before he has sex for the first. It’s too early to say but I’m wagering that until global warming affects the brain, nobody is going to call this book a misjudged masterpiece. But it is hard to draw a line between high and low because too much of the very best writing straddles both. If Sci-fi and Crime are low, where does that put Ursula LeGuin, Phillip K. Dick, Octavia Butler or Walter Moseley and George Pellecanos? If Terry Macmillan is lowbrow where does that leave Mama and Disappearing Acts? If Toni Morrison is highbrow was Tar Baby her slumming phase? What about Iceberg Slim?

But all this defense of so-called lowbrow lit ignores a crucial point. Whether black fiction is classified as high or low there is no question that the standard has fallen. And for that both reader and writer is to be blamed. I remember being told by the owner of a black book store that he was expecting a poor turnout for my reading because his customers don’t read literary fiction. It was only because I was being compared to Toni Morrison why some would show up. Too many black readers set such a low bar for the fiction they read, even those, like a college educated relative of mine (you know who you are) who should know better. These writers, crass as they may be are merely meeting a need that they didn’t even create. This may stem from how we are taught.

At my old high school the teachers recently took a vote to decide if literature should remain a compulsory subject. It was the literature teachers who voted no. The tragedy of this development cannot be understated. With the exception of one other subject that is not taught until the children are past 15, English Literature is the only forum for true critical thinking that a child is exposed to. The only subject guided by lucid interpretation, not cold fact. This is lacking in Jamaica and I will venture a guess that that it’s not too prevalent in black America as well. We do not recognize or appreciate critical thinking nor do we think critically. Not surprisingly, criticism is frequently mistaken for attack and the response is most always dirty, out of line or just plain wrong. Or put another way, nobody attacks the criticism; they attack the critic. This cuts across all levels, from black writers who are livid when they do not get the respect that Ralph Ellison got, to rappers like the Wu Tang Clan who used to hunt down critics that gave them bad reviews in the Source.

I’ve mentioned Jamaica’s Louise Bennet before. Louise Bennet is a legendary performer and folklorist but the woman is not a poet, no matter what revisionist intellectuals say. But even if one were to agree that she was, then her work must be left open to serious, even harsh criticism as with any other poet. This is where several Jamaican literary minds cry foul. Where do you get off criticizing Louise Bennet? Who are you anyway? Who I am is irrelevant but what I have to say is not. We are not accustomed to critique in any form and look at criticism of Bennet as an uncalled for attack on the dead. What the blind praisers do not realize is that they are the ones killing her, not me.

The New York Times has now reviewed three novels from Nigerian Chris Abani. The last, for The Virgin of the Flames could be called positive if you’re an optimist, mixed if you’re a pessimist. Some may even regard that review as some sort of attack. Yet it’s the best thing that could have happened to the author. Those who focus on the possible negatives miss the point. A third review in the New York Times is a monumental thing; it’s the establishment’s way of serving notice that this is a serious writer whose life they intend to follow. From now on Abani’s work will always be noticed and will always be taken seriously. By being hostile to criticism you are letting it be known that you do not consider you work worthy of critical appraisal or put another way, you do not wish that you work be taken seriously. Or maybe you are confusing appraisal with praise. This is why a mixed review in the NY times can mean more than a rave in Jet.

There is still this feeling in black communities (including my own) that criticism is the hurting of one’s own. A betrayal in the face of our enemies whoever that may be. This is why Omar Tyree thinks he deserves to be sitting at the same table as Edwidge Danticat. Nobody has ever told him otherwise, even though not even Stephen King expects to be sitting in the same forum as Milan Kundera and neither bitches about it. There is also this feeling that sales justifies everything, but interspecies pornography sells and nobody is arguing for that medium’s intelligence. Nothing is wrong with writers being in it for the money but don’t bitch and moan because nobody thinks you should be taught in Lit class.

Maybe it’s the term lowbrow that does more harm than good. Personally, I prefer LOW BLOW lit. Low-blow is jacking up rather unoriginal sex because you think all black people like do to do is get freeeeekay. Despite our sexual reputation, blacks can be a curiously puritan people where even today a story about oral sex or multiple partners can be read as provocative. Yes, that means Zane. Low-blow is cheap sentimentality passing itself off as real feeling. It’s about Grandma Beulah who makes that fried chicken and candy yams just the way you like it but you gotta go because there’s nothing for you in this lazy town with nosy relatives and you don’t care about your damn family you just want to succeed in the white man’s world and then Grandma dies calling your name and you realize at the graveside that all you ever really needed to know about life you learnt from grandma back in the old house Nana I miss you! Speak to me Nana! Tell me what to do!

Low-blow is thinking that because you’ve touched on an issue you should be rewarded for consciousness as if rattling off the issues is a sign of emotional intelligence. We still think we should be rewarded, not for doing something well but for doing it at all. Low-blow is thinking that anything avant-garde or (paradoxically) classicist is merely trying to be white. Low-blow Lit thinks that a refusal to invite Tyler Perry to the National Black Theater Festival is a refusal of the Negro race itself. Low-blow lit is thinking that quality never existed in commercial fiction. Low-blow lit is finally, literature for people who don’t read. People for whom a book has as much importance as a passable movie, four songs on an I-pod or unexceptional sex. This is not an audience you can trust. Low-blow lit thinks it gives the readers what they want but perhaps, 1. The audience really doesn’t know what he or she wants and 2. They should also be getting what they need.

I think I know what the opposite of low-blow lit is but I’ll leave the creation of that term to somebody else. What I do hope is that people come to realise that the unabashed, uncritical love given to some writers and filmmakers does nobody any good, neither artist nor reader. In Man Gone Down, Michael Thomas has just written what may be the first great novel by a black writer in the 21st century. Read it. Love it. Hate it. But for God’s sake, have an opinion about it.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

19 Movie questions (sorry but it’s 11:18pm, I can’t sleep and El Topo is even more inexplicable than usual.)

1. Is Hollywood done with trying to convince us that Toni Collette is ugly? Because we’re still not buying it. I will argue that that Ellen Pompeo is not even remotely cute though.

2. Will people now think that because Jennifer Hudson won the Oscar for Dreamgirls that the academy really isn’t blind to films with several non-white women in them? Or do the rest of the women have to be mediocre? How the women in Joy Luck Club or Ray managed to slip by the academy is beyond me. And while we’re on the subject of ignored women, what does Regina King have to do to get an Oscar nomination?

3. Am I the only person who cannot stand to watch Sean Penn act? Why does anybody think the look-people-acting-is-hard-work-just-watch- me-grimace school of acting is impressive? These are the same people who will go to their graves thinking that Mystic River was a better movie than Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And now, as GQ’s Tom Carson points out (rather brilliantly) every American actor from Dicaprio to Matt Damon is doing it. This is the Pearl Jam school of acting: Show absolutely no pleasure in the creation of the art itself. Thank God not everybody feels like taking acting into the well meaning toilet. Just look at Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. On paper the role, drug addict victim and well meaning white liberal teacher seems concocted from PC hell. But watch how Gosling imbues deadly part with soul, grit, and humour, that last quality making the performance all the more devastating. Gosling, Terence Howard, Don Cheadle and Jake Gyllenhaal are all they got, folks.

4. Comedy and noir are the two genres that America does better than everybody else. So are the members of the Academy Swedish?

5. Does film get any better than The Godfather Part 2? Rhetorical question people.

6. Did that dimwitted twerp from Life is Beautiful really make another atrocity! It’s a comedy for everyone! flick about Iraq?

7. Am I the only person who thought Miami Vice was a great movie?

8. Or that Manhunter is still the best of the Hannibal Lecter flicks?

9. Or that the usage of a bad childhood to explain [insert perversion/sociopathic tendency here] is really played out?

10. Why can’t I write a book like Short Bus?

11. Why does the Academy keep giving the right actors Oscars for the wrong performances? Scent of a Woman? Gladiator? My Cousin Vinny?

12. Can you name the last 3 winners of the best picture Oscar?

13. Who has ever seen Out of Africa?

14. Where has Rififi been all my life?

15. Or Yojimbo?

16. Who in their right mind thinks The Departed can hold a candle to Infernal Affairs?

17. If Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are not the finest actors in the world then when did God started acting in films?

18. How many Bond movies will Daniel Craig have to make before people realize that he was the best Bond ever on just Casino Royale alone?

19. Who is McG?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

On Mastodon

For the longest time I had Mastodon’s Blood Mountain as my favourite record of 2006. But I also had several reasons why they could not top the list, none of them musical. TV On The Radio makes a newer sound, I thought. I played The Knife and Joanna Newsom just as much, I thought. Boris does the same thing and they have a female axe shredder named Wata (!!!), I thought. Enough people think I'm acting white as it is, so don’t make things worse, I thought. Mastodon who? My friends thought. And yet I still can’t think of a more exhilarating listening experience I've had all year than Blood Mountain, except perhaps the album that preceded it.

But my very attempt to review or contextualize Mastodon ruins them. Because writing what makes them tick will only result in prose that leaves the potential fan thinking they are pompous, worrisomely complex and downright unlistenable. Either that or they'll mistake them for Rush. So to prevent this from happening I’ve decided to present my ten awesome, freakin,’ kick-ass, bomboclaat reasons why Mastodon are the greatest, baddest, bestest band on the planet.

1. The drummer. Want to know why REM sucks? Because when they lost the drummer they had the bed frame ripped out from under them. Take that analogy any way you wish, because not only does the drummer hold a band’s shit together, but also a band moves best when the drummer moves first, as James Brown would have gladly told you. Led Zeppelin knew that once Bonham was over they were too. Like all the great rock drummers, Brann Dailor is still under the impression that he’s in a JAZZ band, a delusion shared by Ginger Baker, Charlie Watts and Clyde Stubblefield. Only none of those guys have ever played like this before. Dailor doesn’t so much fill space as he tears it a new one and leaves the dregs for the rest of the band. Part of the fun with Mastodon is to hear them scramble to catch up.

2. Dynamics, kids. No Mastodon song ends the way it begins. I could go on about how fantastic and pre-pro-toolsy they are, but that would be rockist and irrelevant. They record music like any great band does; drums today, bass tomorrow, vocals the next day and the result is a friendly game of one-upmanship where each member pushes the other to go harder, faster or just plain better. This means that girls can now come to their concerts. I know this is a horrendous development for some of the boys but guys, you're in your late twenties. It's time to stop thinking girls are icky.

3. They’re Southern Gentlemen (even if one is originally from NY). There is just something from the American South that clicks with somebody from the Caribbean. Maybe it’s the bad liquor, plantation ghosts or the different ways to cook crayfish. Or maybe Mastodon, as southern boys have something all to rare in rock or pop music: Charm. Mastodon are some of the nicest guys in rock, a fact that does not diminish their ferocity one bit.

4. They rock so hard that once I found myself envying groupies because they get rock and rolled for real. I know, I know, I’ve already barfed enough for both of us.

5. Somebody in the band has read Moby Dick.

6. And Conan, the Barbarian

7. Crystal Skull. Colony of Birchmen. Sleeping Giant. Yes, my fellow Dungeons and Dragons geeks, you too can one day bestride the earth like a Colossus. Okay maybe not.

8. They have voices and are not afraid to use them. Who’d ever guess that the secret weapon of one of America’s heaviest bands would be harmony? Between crooning Brent and wailing Troy, Mastodon at their best sound like Queens of the Stone Age crossed with Slayer except that unlike the former they rock harder and faster and unlike the latter they have actual songs.

9. Bladecatcher almost gives the rock instrumental a good name. Rock performance of the year. Comedy performance of the year too.

10. Because any band that can rhyme brontotherium with vermillion is by any definition one with enormous stylistic certitude or in possession of a very old dictionary. Granted this in no way tops Joanna Newsom's The meteoroid/ is a stone that's devoid/ of the fire that brought it to thee, but what could?