Tag Archives: America

Watching the wheels of the white bicycle fall off

Outside Looking In by TC Boyle – a review

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Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream in this psychedelic satire from TC Boyle...

American novelist TC Boyle is the master of the group dynamic and the pressure cooker scenario, and in his case study of early 60s psychonauts he makes excellent use of these strengths. The meticulously-researched and rendered (another Boyle trademark) novel dramatises Dr Timothy Leary’s early forays into psychotropics with his team of willing psychologists, wives, and hangers on. Initially supported as bona fide research within the hallowed halls of Harvard, Leary’s experiments quickly escalate into drug-fuelled binges last days. The inner circle relocate their Dionysian ‘scene’, a Hakim Bey like ‘Temporary-Autonomous-Zone’, or pirate-utopia, first to Mexico, and then to a sprawling mansion in Poughkeepsie, upstarts New York, attracting notoriety as they go. Our Everyman and woman into this inner circle is one of Leary’s academic acolytes, Fitz, and his wife Joanie. The novel is a kind of bildungsroman, a Hesse-ian Journey to the East, but instead of enlightenment (which is continually just out of reach, despite the increasing dosage) there is an anti-epiphany awaiting at the end of the road. As the Sixties really starts to crank it up, and Hoffman’s LSD or ‘acid’ hits the streets, Fitz and his fellow pioneer psychonauts start to experience the comedown – the disenchantment and ennui of endless hedonism, the dysfunctionality and derangement it causes, and the rapprochement of the mundane. Leary is a kind of Wizard of Oz figure, luring them up the lysergically-soaked yellow-brick road, but behind the hocus pocus of his personality cult there is little substance. All tomorrow’s parties seem like an abnegation of responsibility, a perpetual teenage rebellion by adults who should know better. The children of the psychonauts are allowed to run feral, and indeed, given a taste of the forbidden fairy fruit – so, the book is, among other things, a non-judgemental account of catastrophically bad parenting. And yet there is an exhilarating buzz about the picaresque misadventures of the squares – Fitz and Joanie – in Wonderland. Each scene is lucidly evoked with the loving attention to detail of a master craftsman. Yet combined with the importance of ‘Setting’ (in terms of the ‘trip’ of the book) is the ‘Set’ (the mindset of each of the players), which Boyle, as a shrewd observer of the human condition, does brilliantly. His characters are convincingly depicted in all their ticks, peccadilloes, and raging neuroses. The dialogue is razor-sharp, and there is never a dull chapter. Boyle both entertains and informs, while never preaching. The reader is left to judge the behaviour of these academics behaving badly for themselves – and the ‘rap sheet’ is rather impressive. It is a wild, technicolour ride.  Turn on, tune in, drop out and enjoy! But don’t expect to make it back to Kansas.

Kevan Manwaring, 21 Feb. 21

Get Out vs Green Book

Representations of the Black Experience from the Inside-out and the Outside-in

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Two films that, on the surface, may share some ostensible similarities – a bi-racial road-trip to the Deep South leading to encounters with the post-bellum Jim Crow mentality entrenched there (even to this day) – reveal, on deeper analysis, discourses emerging from dialectically-opposed paradigms. Green Book (Farrelly, 2018), is a meat-and-two-veg road movie about an ‘odd couple’ starring a beefed up Viggo Mortensen as Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip, and an awards-friendly performance from Mahershala Ali as Dr Shirley, a genius pianist of aristocratic bent. Lip, an artless ‘rough diamond’ from the Bronx, is hired to drive the talented, fussy Doc to a series of elite music venues in the Deep South, acting as driver, fixer and bodyguard. On one level it is class comedy, as each scenario offers amusing contrasts between the two very different sensibilities. Yet, the further south they go, the greater the racism (it is undoubtedly there in the north but often depicted, in the film at least, as unconscious bias rather than out-and-out hostility and American Apartheid ). The titular ‘Green Book’ is used to orientate to ‘colored’ accommodation. The contrast with the elegant concert halls is sobering, a shocking demi-monde haunted by the ‘Negro’ underclass, but more so the increasingly antagonistic treatment by the locals. This should all feel awful, but sadly seems wearily predictable – both the racism and the plot. Without risk of ‘spoilers’ you just know that Lip and Shirley will bond in the end and overcome adversity together. So far, so safe. Although ostensibly ‘tackling’ racism, Green Book shows itself repeatedly to be cloth-eared to it. It has the authentic sincerity of an 80s protest song – shallow and virtue-signalling. Farrelly’s film is a feel-good movie for white liberals: white man saves the day and we can all go home feeling we’ve done something worthy. But this movie does not destabilise the status quo but reinforces it. However great the performances of both Mortensen and Ali, this cannot redeem the normalisation of racism that occurs frequently in the first act: we are still expected to identify with Lip even though he wishes to throw away glasses used by black workmen, and shows unapologetic schadenfreude in forcing the elderly Asian butler to pack the suitcases. Worse, Lip is shown ‘educating’ Shirley about ‘black culture’, stereotyped as fried chicken and pop music, claiming outrageously to be ‘more black than he was’.  The lonely, but dignified Doctor is reduced to being ‘grateful’ for the pale saviour: crumbs from the table of white privilege. It is meant to be the emotional pay-off, a schmaltzy ‘heart-warming message’ that misfires in a disturbing way. Green Book offers a smooth ride – the period detail, the depiction of Italian-American life, the impressive musical set-pieces – but ultimately we are taken to a dead-end.

In Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) we are in a very different universe: here, the full horror of racism is unmasked. It is a movie that is hyper-alert to everyday racism; to unconscious and conscious bias; to the power discourses of white America. It tracks a couple – a black photographer, Chris Washington, played with visceral conviction by British-actor Daniel Kaluuya, and his pretty white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (a deceptive performance by Allison Williams) – who return to the Armitage home in the Deep South for the much-dreaded ‘meet the parents’ encounter. This is problematised by the discovery that they do not know their beloved daughter has a black boyfriend. Rose reassures Chris that they are Obama-voting liberals, yet, without giving it away, nothing is what it seems. Things go rapidly ‘south’ in many ways. The use of the Horror genre effectively shocks the audience into the true horror of racism, and its ugly bedfellows – white supremacy and eugenics. It could be a companion piece to Spike Lee’s award-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018). Both depict the reality of race in America from a black perspective (Peele; Lee) – vastly different in tone to the tone-deaf quality of Green Book. Farrelly’s movie offers a threadbare comfort blanket in a world where the Alt-Right is not only on the rise, but already in government, or hugely influential on those which are.  Whileas, in the deeply unsettling world of Get Out the audience is strapped into the chair and forced to watch the nightmare unfold. Green Book hypnotizes us with its lush visuals and cool soundtrack – and before we know it, where are in the Dismal Sink of acceptance. We become, like Washington’s character, voyeurs in the void, watching the horror of the white world diminish away to a mere rectangle in the dark.

Farrelly’s film attempts to, ludicrously, ‘solve’ racism with a road-trip, whileas Peele’s film instaurates racism’s full horror – a horror we are all complicit in. The ending of both is telling of this diametrically-opposed vision of reality: while the former ends with a friendly cop helping to fix a tyre in the snow, the latter ends with the TSA friend extracting Washington from the blood-bath (a Grand Guignol scene which, if an actual cop had arrived, would have ended very differently). In Green Book, the status quo is restored (the institutional racism of the police force is white-washed out), whileas in Get Out the ‘old/new normal’ is: survival in a hostile world.

In theory, in a highly toxic cultural and political landscape where the Far Right regain the prominence and influence of the 1930s, and xenophobic and divisive voices are regularly given platforms in the media, one should applaud any film that tries to send out a message of multi-cultural ‘tolerance’, yet such insipid good intentions pave the way to Nazi Hell. We need the provocative (and successful) films of Jordan Peele, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and others, to shock the audience awake.

A footnote to this: Jordan Peele is directing a serialisation of Matt Ruff’s provocative novel, Lovecraft Country’ (2016) for Netflix (with JJ Abrams producing) and in that a road-trip to the Maine Coast associated with Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos is navigated by use of ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, a fictionalised version of the ‘Green Book’. On the surface, a mash-up of the two main films discussed above, but with Peele at the wheel, Lovecraft Country promises to be a very different beast to Farrelly’s glib excursion. Watch this space.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2019

Uncanny America: Day 5

 

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Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 5: New Mexico

As we entered New Mexico the waves of heat rippled like mirages on the long road stretching to vanishing point ahead. We’d been on the road for nearly a week and were starting to flag a little. Perhaps the prospect of what waited for J made her increasingly apprehensive. We’d been driving hard and were in need of some serious R&R – and so I insisted we stopped at the Blue Hole. It’s an 81 feet deep natural artesian spring of crystal clear water – an oasis in the desert, and oh boy, what welcome relief! We splashed around in it – having got there early enough for it to be reasonably quiet – and lolled about on sun-loungers in our sunnies and skimpies, flipping through magazines (or reading Devereux’s book on Mysterious Ancient America in my case), sipping ice-cold drinks. We had left London with the trailer, plenty of water, a full bowl, and the air-con on full and he was wagging furiously by the time we got back – giving us a bark, as if to say, ‘Hell, why do you get to have all the fun?’ Somehow, I don’t think they’d let a mahmout in the Blue Hole. Feeling refreshed we went on our way.  We gladly sailed by the turn-off for Las Vegas (where everything bad about America is conveniently in one place) and decided not to take the big detour south – for the ‘obligatory’ pilgrimage Roswell and Area 51. We knew it was going to be cheesy and full of alien tat, (J had been there). Yes, it holds an iconic (an overused word) place in American popular culture and I used to love The X Files, but J said I’d find it disappointing (’just a few old hangars and lots of tacky alien truck-stops’). However, what we decided to go and see instead were the Very Large Array dishes – another cinematic landmark (as featured in Contact, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, etc). Truly awe-inspiring and enough to make anyone wonder if the truth was ‘out there’. We stopped here for an explore – the visitor ‘center’, was informative, and they served excellent coffee, where I made notes. That night I suggested we pitched up in the desert to do some star-gazing – because I’d been bitten by the bug. There was something about these wide skies that made you just want to look up. It is no wonder then that the earliest (Paleo-Indian) cultures seemed particularly obsessed with the movements of the stars and the sun. There is evidence of their presence here from 14,000 years ago. We spent the afternoon visiting the Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, marvelling at the  estimated 24,000 pieces of rock art left by the previous inhabitants of this land. London was taken on a very long walkies as we trekked around the Western Trail. It was hot work, but worth it. These wonders had been here a long-time, preserved by the extra-ordinary climate and isolation. The petroglyphs often depict animal and human forms in geometric shapes swirling with patterns, thought to be a depiction of the entoptics resulting from trance-states – Peyote art. It is easy to imagine having a vision out here in this hallucinatory place.

  1. Jody Foster is my Number One Heroine!

We concluded our day’s exploring with a real highlight of the trip – the World Heritage Site of Chaco Canyon, the ‘center of an ancient world’, as the official website boasts. This was the hub between 850 and 1250 AD of an intense level of monument building and ritual activity by the Chacoan people. There is too much here to go into – worthy of another blog by itself – but suffice to say, it was awesome. Go and check it out! We found a spot by the Three Rivers petroglyphs – strange carvings high on the rocks, truly in the middle of nowhere. Pulling up in the trailer amid a dusty canyon made me have a Breaking Bad moment. I felt tempted to say ‘Let’s cook!’ I would make a good Jesse Pinkman to J’s Walter White I reckon! After we fixed up some food, we settled in for the night. The stars came out in all their glory – as though they had been newly born, and not fading recordings of long-dead stars. A piece of rock art in Chaco Canyon depicting a many-rayed star, a crescent and a handprint apparently records the time when the Crab Nebula was born (or became first visible), back in 4 July, 1054. The Anasazi were active at that time in Chaco Canyon – and it would seem the petroglyph records this event.  The desert is the place where things are made or unmade. Religions were forged in the fires of such places. The prophets let themselves be purified by its harshness, tested, tempted and transformed. We huddled around a small brush fire – feeling the vastness of the wild, untamed night-desert around us filled with inchoate dangers. It was thrilling to think we were in Apache Country and the state boasted some of the most famous outlaws in the history of the Wild West – the Apache Kid, Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch…! The stuff of legend. And here I was. I was glad of the presence of J and her trusty hound. J got out her guitar (I was hoping she would) and began to strum away – guitars always sound good by campfires, but J can actually play hers well, and, boy, what a voice! It summed up the immensity and the intimacy of the moment. She dedicated to song (’Those Who Have Gone’) to the ancient peoples of this place, the Anasazi, the Hohokam, the Apache, the Navajo. It sent a tingle up my spine. The fire spat as the resin oozing out of the brushwood dripped onto the flames, sending swirls of sparks up into the night.

For the record, here’s J’s song:

Those Who Have Gone

Can you hear them in the sage brush?

hear them in the rain?

Whispers in the canyon,

thunder on the plain.

Footprints on the desert floor

red hand in cave shadow,

Beasts seen from high above,

lines too long to follow.

They linger in the place names,

in old customs, in a word.

They speak to us in dreams,

in songs that cannot be heard.

They are the first people,

those who have gone,

they are the wise children,

those who have gone,

they are the silent stewards,

those who have gone,

they live on in us,

those who have gone.

 

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

 

Uncanny America: Day 4

 

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U-Drop Inn, Shamrock, Texas

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

Day 4: Texas

Four days into our trip and we’ve been cruising across the surreal vastness of Texas – past Amarillo out into the great empty spaces. Now and then the crushing emptiness is interrupted by a giant cowboy, eyeball, or other piece of kitsch Americana. The whole place has a Dali-esque quality to it.  Our first pit-stop, for breakfast of coffee and waffles was the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn  – an iconic Art Deco-style landmark on Route 66 (I can’t believe we’re travelling it!).  We make a slight detour for Boot Hill, the ‘Cowboy Capital of the Plains’, with its famous cemetery – and it’s like walking into a filmset. Such places are virtually ‘sacred’ landmarks in the mythologized Wild West. This is a Cowboy Dreamtime we’re entering, and I can’t but help feel a little out of place – I’m the anachronism here, the little English girl on the wrong side of the ocean. But J is a lovely travelling companion and makes me feel safe and welcome – she provides my ‘passport’. Doors just open for us, having her around – quite literally. Gentlemen know how to treat a lady round here – tipping their 10-gallon-hats to us, with a ‘Howdy, Ma’am’ and all that. J is being treated like the music star she plainly is destined to become. Texas is the place to ‘walk tall’ – to live up to your own legend. Its roots might be mired in blood and oil, but it reaches for the stars.

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

Uncanny America: Day 3

Uncanny America: folklore, fakelore and the bazaar of the bizarre

 

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Golden Driller, Tulsa

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 3: Oklahoma

In the morning we crossed state lines close to the now-closed Fort Chaffee – the site where Elvis Presley had his famous buzz-cut when he joined the Army in March 1958. This ‘Elvis haircut site’ (Building #803 on the base) is currently being restored. It’s destruction, a close shave, it would appear – thanks to the success of a 50th Anniversary ‘GI Haircut Day’ when hundreds flocked to the once doomed Fort Chaffee Barbershop Museum where Jimmy Don Peterson, son of the barber who cut Presley’s hair, gave free G.I. buzz cuts to visitors.  A rag, a bone, a hank of hair resurrects these 20th Century saints. Curiouser and curiouser.

*   *   *

It was hard to imagine it getting hicker, but Oklahoma managed to pull it off. Up in Beaver they have the ‘cow chip throwing capital of the world’ – what a USP! We detoured to Tulsa to see the ‘Golden Driller’ a gi-normous oil man, one of the largest statues in the States apparently. For some reason he was crotchless, and so looked more like an oil woman to my eyes. Nearby was the not to be missed Blue Whale of Catoosa – one of many ‘Route 66 attractions’, for here the iconic road converged with other interstates. What stood out for me in this county was the Woody Guthrie statue in Okemah – their famous ‘Commie’ son was not honoured until those who vehemently disliked him at passed on. J sang an impromptu version of ‘This Land is Your Land’ by the side of it, and even got some dollars thrown into her case, thinking she was busking.  What haunted me more than anything were the First Nation place names – Choctee, Shawnee, Tecumseh, Lake Thunderbird – poignant reminders of the original residents of this land. Their ghosts are everywhere – and the kitsch attractions, like the ‘World’s Largest Totem Pole’ in Durant serve to only rub salt in the wound.  Near the OK/TX border we pass through a ghost town called Texola – literally, it’s advertised as such. Run down, abandoned properties. Beat up old store fronts. A bar with a sign: ‘There’s no other place like this place anywhere near this place so this must be the place.’

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

Uncanny America: Day 2

Uncanny America: folklore, fakelore and the bazaar of the bizarre

 

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Elvis Week, Memphis

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 2: Tennessee to Arkansas

The next day we made pilgrimage to Graceland – more for my culture-vulture benefit, than J’s whose been there before. She stayed in the trailer with London while I did the ‘stations of the cross’. It’s incredible to see what an icon the ‘King’ has become, and how the minutiae of his lifestyle have become the relics for modern day pilgrims to idolise, perhaps feeling they will imbibe some of his shamanic aura. He had such powerful charisma, whatever you think of his music. I’ve never been a massive fan, I must admit – my Dad liked him, so I associate him with that generation. He seems to appeal to over-the-hill menopausal males with their beer bellies and dyed quiffs. It brings out the pub-singer in all of us. Fortunately, we hit Memphis during ‘Elvis Week’ and so the streets were swarming with lookalikes – a wonderfully surreal experience.  Less joyous was the KKK ‘Great Wizard’ memorial – an unsavoury monument to an unpleasant chapter in America’s past, reminding me I’m deep behind ‘enemy lines’, here in the Bible Belt. Racism, jingoism, small-town xenophobia. These are some of the negative values that linger here like a bad smell. And yet the majority of folk we meet seem pleasant and easy going – but don’t talk to them about liberal politics or religious tolerance! As we crossed the border into Arkansas I breathed with relief – whether this was misplaced, who knows, but I must admit it was a relief to escape the kitsch for a while and head to the Hot Springs national park. To be surrounded by real natural beauty again was balm to the soul. We pulled up outside the tourist ‘mecca’ of Little Rock, the state capital, in a leafy picnic area that London was delighted with. We went for a dip and dried off in the sun. It felt a million miles from anywhere. It turns out this neck of the woods is ‘Clinton Country’ as the tourist signs proudly state – the childhood home of the former Chief Executive. Presidents are the equivalent of Kings and Queens over here (maybe one day they’ll have a female in the White House? Please!). You can visit where they studied (Bill Clinton’s High School is just up the road), ate, slept, danced, drank, dumped… America seems to like it’s heroes to have feet of clay. Perhaps it makes them closer to the common man – and thus feeds into the American Dream, that everyone has a shot at the top, everyone can make it, and even a son of Arkansas can become President of the USA. Arkansas is a peculiar place – alongside the Clinton arcana, Hot Springs boasts as its other attractions Mermen (well, a dodgy stitched-together freak show exhibit at the Alligator Farm), telepathic racoons (in the ‘Zoo with IQ’), and a tiny town.  We were not tempted by these delights, but wended our way to ‘authentic’ attractions like the Boggy Creek Monster (a local Bigfoot-type, now with his own Monster Mall and photo-opportunity: I gurned for the camera from inside it); and the supposedly runic stone of Paris, Arkansas.

Aza – the Gaudy Goddess of Feminine Cosmic EnergyYet the highlight of this Hick-chic state was unquestionably Aza – the Gaudy Goddess of Feminine Cosmic Energy. Adora Zerlina Astra (“Beloved One Created of the Stars”) manifested in her corporeal form at Turpentine Creek. Created in late 2012 by sculptor Bruce Anderson, She is ‘a non-denominational goddess’, a composite of various deities that Anderson says ‘celebrates the feminine energy of the cosmos’. Despite her cosmic pedigree, Aza was built for the owners of Eureka Springs’ chilli restaurant on their lawn, which overlooks a downtown park. From it, Aza looks down upon us Earthlings with an inscrutable gaze. J and I took a stroll up to pay our respects. Our Lady was made of turquoise stained cement. She holds an orb in one hand and a heart-shaped sceptre in the other. Up close we notice the hand-cut tiles which cover her, inspired apparently by the Hubble Telescope. Astronomer bling. Aza has a Mona Lisa-esque smile – perhaps inevitably when you know the punchline of the Cosmic Joke. She’s been variously interpreted as Roman Catholic, Hindi, Egyptian, even Atlantean, yet she’s hardly mermaid material. Here J and I reflected on our day, enjoying a cosmic ice-cream. Tomorrow we head onto to Oklahoma. But that’s enough cultural edification for one day.

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.