I’m not going to pretend that this is a good movie. The acting and production are about as good as you might expect from a late-fifties crime/horror/monster/science fiction/action hero film produced in Mexico City and dubbed by a crew in Coral Gables, Florida. It’s bad.
I’m not pretending this bad movie is good, but I’ll make an argument for why you should watch it anyway.
With all of the strikes against it, this is still just about as good as any Roger Corman feature from the era. And it was produced without access to the deep pool of Southern California talent that Corman could skim to make his schlock.
While the Aztec story here shares similarities with Native American fantasies in US films—the Native Princess, the Brave Warrior, forbidden love, and so on—it treats indigenous names, culture, and ideas with sensitivity you won’t see in a film produced north of the Rio Grande.
You won’t see a cast like this in a Hollywood film from the era. Stars Ramón Gay and Luis Aceves Castañeda were Mexican, star Rosita Arenas was born in Venezuela, Crox Alvarado was from Costa Rica.
You’re bound to get a few unintentional laughs. Look at the obvious toy snakes in the snake pit! Come back and here tell me you didn’t laugh when you saw the Angel jump in his little coupe and drive away in his shiny Luchador costume!
Put it all together, and you get a decent little midnight movie to hell you forget the Sunday night blues.
In academia, there is a witticism known as Sayre’s Law, which holds that the intensity of a fight is inversely proportional to its stakes. The lower the stakes, this law claims, the harder the fight. If you’ve spent time in graduate school, you probably recognize Sayre’s Law shaping the action on the screen in Peter Strickland’s absurdist gem. You don’t need to have attended graduate school, though, to recognize that there are few better targets for absurdist satire than the rarefied world of academic art, with its artist residencies churning out C.V. lines for postgrad MFAs and its institutional funders evading taxation by supporting “the arts” instead of social reform. And what better weapons to draw on this numskull assembly than the equally pretentious and inaccessible worlds of culinary criticism and analog audiophilia?
On paper, it sounds preposterous; but Strickland pulls it off, and the result crackles with creative energy. I was delighted, first of all, by the endless visual feast: the vivid palette, the old and new, the staid and the modern, the delightful juxtapositions and unexpected choices. The audio palette, too, is raw and interesting. Strickland understands the judicious use of silence, but the film trembles with possibility when the wah-wahs and reverbs and flanger modulate the mundane reality of boiling water and slicing carrots into something more–in the same way that film modulates vision into something greater and more coherent than reality itself. As the film progresses from scene to stunning scene, the part of you that craves coherence from a story may pout. The part of you that wants a film to reach into your head, however, and twang your cortices like a piano string will be rolling in the aisles.
One may debate what a film like this “means,” but perhaps there are clues in the symmetries between music and the body and art and medicine. All are shaped by absurd power struggles in Strickland’s film. The artists, played admirably by Fatma Mohamed, Ariane Labed, and Asa Butterfield, strain against the authority of the institutional funder, played impeccably by Gwendoline Christie. Stones, the “dossierge” played by Makis Papadimitriou, strains against the implacable authority of his own intestines, which challenge the pretentious skill of Richard Bremmer’s Dr. Glock. It is a cycle of conflict, as never-ending as the food chain.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is supposed to be about ghosts. Thinking back over the film’s 124 minutes, however, I don’t remember seeing very many of them. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen most of the spooks in the script. There’s the Gatekeeper, of course. There’s the Keymaster and Gozer the Gozerian. There are the little Stay-Puft men, indistinguishable from Minions in an alternate movie universe. There’s an old miner and a new Slimer. A few more ghosts ramble around here and there, and some old friends return, living and dead.
There may not be very many ghosts on the screen, but Afterlife is a thoroughly haunted picture. Forget about those old Sumerian demigods, though. This reboot is haunted by two insidious specters that Stantz, Winston, Venkman and the kids could never hope to bust: the ghost of the American century and the ghost of science. When you put them together, Afterlife is something more than a comedy-horror reboot. Afterlife is an tragedy mourning the decline of twentieth century liberalism.
The first ghost is the specter of the American century. Like any ghost, it is difficult to pin down. Don’t seek it in the foreground. Look for it instead in the film’s sensibilities, in the aesthetic choices that shape its sets, costumes, vehicles, and props. Those choices outline a ghost of the American century. It is a warm presence, all golden hour and oversaturation, permeating the film. The prevailing kitsch of this ghostly mirage—the corn fields, main streets, drive-in cafes, grain silos, electric guitars, blue jeans, and other heartland mid-century ephemera—susurrates quietly in the background and tilt-shifts the perspective, rendering the town of Summerville and the surrounding landscape in idyllic miniature.
Like the seismic charts hanging on the walls of Summerville, we can trace the epicenter of the American century’s ghost to “Spinners,” the drive-in café in the middle of town. This oversaturated temple to the departed teen culture of the 1950s and 1960s is where Finn Wolfhard’s character, Trevor, finds love and gets a job. “Spinners” seems to occupy the vital center of the town’s social life as well. In the “Spinners” scenes there are people everywhere, drivers and pedestrians mingling in conversation, music blaring, peals of laughter, old people and young, pickup trucks and Subarus. Contrast this with the scene at your local Sonic restaurant, where rolled-up windows on idling vehicles enforce the separation of the patrons into family units. One would be hard-pressed to find the sort of inter-class, open social environment thriving at “Spinners” anywhere in the real America.
Follow the tremors of nostalgia outward from Spinners, and you will find the ghost of the American century everywhere. It drifts around the crumbling grain silos outside of town. It haunts the faded Stay-Puft marshmallow advertisement painted on a downtown wall. It inhabits the beautifully maintained 1978 Ford Ranchero GT owned, inexplicably, by one of the teenagers who works at Spinners. It squeaks in the wheels of junky Radio Flyer wagons in the old field outside of the factory. It acts as a preservative in the old half-eaten Crunch Bar young Spengler pulls from the pocket of her grandfather’s Ghostbusters uniform. See it once; see it everywhere.
Twenty years ago, a ghost of the American century would have looked like a character from a Norman Rockwell painting. All pastiche and cliché, it still would have carried itself with a sort of genteel dignity, a winking self-awareness that connected the living present to the departed past. It was both an aspirational cliché and a self-reflection: a ghost we could all see ourselves becoming someday, if we die righteously. The ghost haunting Summerville, Oklahoma is not as legible. This is a ghost haunting the post-apocalypse. The element of self-reflection is gone. We are encouraged by light, sound, and decay to situate the town somewhere in the past, but it is unclear where in time its development is supposed to have stopped. Is Summerville stuck in the 1950s? The 1980s? It doesn’t matter. Viewers in 2021 can no longer discern the difference between the two. All of it now is the 1900s, a golden era gone.
We have a harder time than ever before seeing ourselves in the old American century, but Afterlife wants us to understand that it was a better time. Rusted silos, sagging rooflines, and burnt-out lights on the marquee signs suggest that the town’s best days are gone. Except for flipping burgers, stocking shelves, or policing, it is unclear what anyone in town does for a living. The mine shut down decades ago. The farm infrastructure is old and unused. Spinners, Walmart, and the state are the only going concerns. This, too, is a manifestation of the American ghost. The signal fades.
The ghost of the American century is a specter of history. The second ghost haunting the town of Summerville is the poltergeist of science. You need not seek this spirit lurking in the background, however. It is there, everywhere, in perfect focus, lavished with thought.
Writers Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman cast these two spirits in opposition to one another. “History is safe,” Paul Rudd—who plays Gary Grooberson, a geologist moonlighting as a summer school teacher to study the seismic anomalies in the area—tells the kids in one scene. “Science is all particle accelerators and hydrogen bombs.” One is boring, in other words; the other is cool. One is quietly dead; the other seems almost alive.
Set aside the question of history for a moment. What is science? “Science is punk rock,” Grooberson says. “Science is a safety pin through the nipple of academia.” Punk rock, like science, is an attitude, a set of beliefs. We learn little of the philosophy of science in Afterlife, however. Instead, the ghost of science in Summerville is made of gear. Egon Spengler’s old workshop overflows with stuff. Ecto-1 is top heavy with racks, hoses, antennae, and other things. Proton packs, goggles, scopes, sensors, containment units, gauges, switches, pedals, buttons, and other bits of equipment surround the characters when they do science. There is no method. There are no hypotheses, no failed assumptions, no notebooks. Characters see a problem; they deploy a tool. The problem is solved. If academia is full of uncertainty, science in Summerville truly is the safety pin in its nipple. There is no uncertainty in the haunted mansion of science.
We do not pierce the veil of science in Summerville, but we are encouraged to see its moral shadow. This, too, is not what the characters claim. Grooberson says: “Science is pure. It’s an absolute. It’s an answer to all the madness.” It was “science,” however, which flowed from Summerville’s vein of selenium through the twisted hypotheses of Ivo Shandor to shape Sigourney Weaver’s apartment building in New York.“Science”—the sciences of mining, smelting, electrical engineering, et cetera—enabled the construction of the building. Science, too, brought the original Ghostbusters together and informed their work. In the Ghostbusters universe, as in real life, science is yin and yang, promise and peril. Afterlife buries the peril in the promise. Where have we seen that before?
A “pure” world without uncertainty was a key promise of the American heyday, too. The brutal efficiency of the marketplace, the genius of its innovators, the inherent righteousness of its existence: these forces had triumphed over fascism, the story went, as surely as they would triumph over communism, cancer, hunger, the colonization of space. Along the way maybe history itself—that incessant dialectic of class warfare—would come to an end. It is an idea worth mourning, perhaps, if you can believe it.
Try as they might, however, the filmmakers cannot separate the ghost of America from the ghost of science. My schoolbooks from the 1900s maintained that these two were symbiotically linked. American greatness flowed from the font of science, they argued, which flowed from the font of greatness, and so on. American power was transcendent, airborne, contemptuous of limits, devastating in its mastery of the natural world. The comfort it enabled was highly engineered.
The ectoplasm of American scientific power paints a different picture. The chronicles of nuclear devastation on Planet Earth, the inexorable decline which renders the memory of the American century in Summerville through a darkening glass, and the persistence of an ancient Sumerian demigod in a mountain just outside of town suggest that history is unsafe, and science is impure. We should not mourn them, but we cannot escape them. Like intrusive thoughts, they color our experience of the world. They refract our understanding, twist our nostalgia in subtle ways. They haunt even our blockbuster film franchises. Our only hope to overcome their decrepit influence is to leave them in the past.
There is a period of ten minutes or so at the beginning of a film when it can be anything. We have some idea of what to expect from trailers, posters, and other hype, but we are ready for the film to surprise us, to subvert our expectations and carry us into a world we did not expect to discover. That ten minute window is rich with opportunity for the filmmaker, and it is vitally important to the success of the film that follows.
In the first few minutes of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Director Michael Chaves sets up a possession film. If the ritualized prayers and weird body contortions in the first scene aren’t enough, the ham-fisted homage to the famous poster scene from William Friedkin’s masterpiece of the genre, the priest standing in the accursed light of evil outside of the Regan’s house in The Exorcist, should clue us in. A few minutes in, therefore, I was prepared for a good possession and an exorcism.
Imagine my surprise when the story shifted gears, grinding awkwardly like the clutch in an old diesel truck from what seemed like a trite but entertaining exorcism feature to a haunted murder mystery. Imagine the complete whiplash, then,when the gears ground again, and the film turned into a kill-the-witch cat-and-mouse chase. A film is traditionally structured in three acts. The Devil Made Me Do It is three different films. With some investment in the story, any one of the three separate acts might have stood alone. When you stand them one atop the other, though, like children in a trench coat sneaking into an R-rated movie, the whole thing falls down.
The Devil Made Me Do It takes its title from a briefly infamous Connecticut manslaughter trial in the 1980s in which a young man named Arne Johnson claimed that a demon who had taken possession of his soul compelled him to stab his landlord with a pocketknife. Johnson’s case would have garnered little more attention than a few “isn’t that weird” news reports and a couple of law review journal articles if not for the intervention of self-proclaimed demonologist Ed Warren and his wife, spirit medium Lorraine Warren, in 1981. The “case files” of the Warrens, a New England couple who rose to fame in the latter half of the last century by cashing in on Americans’ growing fascination with the paranormal through a series of expertly marketed “investigations” resulting in numerous books and publicity events in the 1970s and 1980s, provide the basis for the films in The Conjuring series. The paranormal interpretation of the Amityville murders remains the most (in)famous of the couple’s investigations, but the success of The Conjuring franchise has certainly replenished the coffers of their estate for generations to come.
The story The Devil Made Me Do It tells is about as complicated and neurotic as you might expect a tale of demonic possession, crafted by master hucksters to defend a man from murder charges in pursuit of their own fame, to be. There are spoilers ahead, so skip a couple paragraphs if you think, for some inexplicable reason, that you might want to subject yourself to this film. I recommend reading ahead and then spending your time watching a better movie, but you do you.
In the first scene, we meet the Glatzel family and their possessed son, David. The Warrens are there—as charming and down-to-earth as the very capable Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson can render them—and so is Arne, David’s sister’s extremely friendly boyfriend. David and Arne share a moment of tenderness while waiting on a priest to arrive for an exorcism and, when the exorcism doesn’t go as planned, Arne invites the demon inhabiting his girlfriend’s brother to go ahead and enter his body instead. Things start to get weird for Arne after that, until he has a freakout that would have thoroughly amused Burroughs or Hunter Thompson and murders his drunk and stupid landlord while Blondie’s “Call Me” (1980) plays on the stereo for some reason. Thus ends the possession film in Act 1.
In Act 2, the haunted mystery, the Warrens need to build a case proving that Arne’s act was a consequence of demonic possession rather than a freak brawl with a lame soundtrack. Sure enough, guided by Lorraine Warren’s extremely reliable and specific connection with the spirit realm, they find a witch’s totem underneath the Glatzel house. Makes sense, right? The Glatzel kid was possessed, the demon jumped to Arne, bing bang boom, the landlord is dead. Seeking a pattern of similar occult influence in other crimes, therefore, the Warrens reach out to police throughout New England. The search leads eventually to a skeptical cop working an inexplicable murder and disappearance in Massachusetts and a former priest giving the world his best impression of a thousand-yard stare after investigating a satanic cult in Annabelle, a prior instalment in The Conjuring universe. After the Warrens solve the case for the cop—drawing, again, on Lorraine Warrens amazingly detailed second sight—the priest reveals that his own daughter is the witch causing all the trouble. How convenient! Thus ends the haunted murder mystery film in Act 2.
In Act 3, the Warrens must kill the witch to save Arne. After a conventional labyrinth chase in the occult dungeons beneath the priest’s home, the Warrens destroy the witch’s altar. This breaks her magical connection to Arne, which pisses off the demon to whom she had promised Arne’s soul. The demon kills the witch, Arne is relieved of his demonic tormentor, and the Warrens have another little toy to put in their collection beside the Annabelle doll and the painting of Valak the Defiler. Arne gets a light prison sentence, but it’s OK because he’s just relieved to be free of the demon, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Writer and filmmaker Jon Boorstin provides an excellent framework in his book, The Hollywood Eye, to explain how and why movies work. This notion—that Hollywood filmmakers, perhaps in distinction from those working in other milieus, are focused on what works rather than what is beautiful or moving or artistic—is important, Boorstin argues, because it is the font from which meaning and aesthetic value and all that other stuff flows. This is because, according to Boorstin, viewers watch a film with two “eyes” which must be simultaneously pleased for the film to capture and maintain their attention. Only when they are suitably rapt will they be responsive to the film as a work of art.
The first “eye” is the “voyeur’s” eye, focused on realism. This is the little voice in your head that says, “that would never happen,” or, “shouldn’t they have run out of bullets a long time ago?” Next there is the “vicarious” eye, focused on feeling. This is the part of you that is carried away by the story, the part that falls in love with the characters or causes you to bite your nails at the suspenseful parts. Boorstin says that these basically correspond to brain and heart, and I can think of no reason to dispute him.
There are things this film does well. Michael Chaves builds on the world of TheConjuring with interesting views of sweeping New England vistas. This pleases the “voyeur” eye. The cast is well put-together. The stars share good chemistry, and, at times, their talent breaks through a scene just enough to please the “vicarious” eye. There are enough such moments to say that this a functional bit of filmmaking. It progresses like a Toyota Corolla from point A to point B. It makes you jump a few times. It has a couple of good monsters and, I don’t know, you don’t see the boom mics in the shots. If you spent money on a theater ticket or forked out for an HBO Max subscription to see it, you would be hard-pressed to point to a particular moment where it went off the rails.
But let’s be honest. You would be hard-pressed to find that moment because the whole film is a god-damned train wreck. The Devil Made Me Do It just doesn’t work. Its three acts do not cohere. Its characters are only developed far enough to fit in the panels of the comic book tie-in that is sure to follow. Here are some examples. It was unclear whether the demon or the witch was the villain. As a result, both of them were shallow, shallow, shallow. Defeating them felt more like a chore than a quest. The skeptical detective in Act 2: why does he exist? (More on that below). And who is the protagonist? I suppose it is the Warrens, but then who is Arne Johnson? I didn’t care about Arne Johnson. Captain Howdy in the original Exorcist film has more screen presence than Arne Johnson in this story, and Captain Howdy only appears on screen for three frames. Was Arne Johnson a hero? A victim? A villain? Who knows? In any event, it didn’t matter to me whether the Warrens saved him or not. Nothing mattered, in fact, because the story was awful. The fat, naked ghoul in Act 2 will make a cool collectible action figure, I guess. Sorry for the spoiler.
One more thought before I slam the door on this one. I don’t know what Ed and Lorraine Warren were like in real life, but the characters Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring universe grow more insufferable with each new installment in the series. They’re always right; sanctimoniously pure; perfectly in love with each other. There’s nowhere for them to go, no way for them to grow. Perhaps this untouchability was a condition of the contract with the Warrens’ estate—a $2 billion deal for New Line so far—but it sets them apart from the characters written in the round. The villains in these movies are not the monsters and demons, who knock down like ninepens in the end, but the straights. The skeptics and normies who choose not to believe in the paranormal must be set straight by the Warrens, and there’s a mighty horde of us. We’re the baddies, the fools, wondering what in the world is going on in these movies. They’re not for us. That’s OK.
There was a prolonged moment after World War II when the road symbolized for Americans ultimate freedom. These were the years of interstate highways, land yachts, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, teenage hot rodders, drive-in movies and drive-up restaurants. Empowered by all things automotive, the story goes, Americans were footloose and wild. As a result they lived through hard drinking years, fast living, devil may care years. So it goes. From Happy Days to the good-old days long gone in the animated film Cars, we’ve idealized the period to the point of caricature.
Underneath all of this there lurked a menacing darkness. Killers roamed the highways. Cons, pimps, and addicts thrived in the automotive underground. Post-traumatic former GIs, reliving the horrors of Guadalcanal or the Bulge, struggled to hold it together. Women and minorities took the brunt of it. Woe betided those who happened to be both. Automotive freedom ran like a wine dark current beneath this moment, empowering some as thoroughly as it shackled and destroyed others.
A modest but brilliant noir picture emerged from this ambivalent milieu: Ida Lupino’s chilling feature, The Hitch-Hiker. Released in 1953, it is important that this is the only classic noir directed by a woman. It is not the only entrée in the genre to call the free-wheeling postwar world to account, but Lupino’s gaze, executed by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and carried out by deft performances on the part of the film’s three stars, is attuned to cruelty and power in a way that her male counterparts did not grasp in their cynicism or machismo.
The premise of the film is straightforward. It was based on the killing spree of Billy Cook, a drifter and small-time hood with a deformed eye who gained notoriety for a 22-day rampage that left six people dead on the road from Missouri to California. In the film, Cook is represented by the character Emmett Myers, ably performed by a dead-eyed William Talman in his best role before moving to the small screen on Perry Mason. We meet Myers mid-spree. His M.O. is to hitch a ride, kill the driver, and steal the car, along with the driver’s wallet, before moving onto the next victim. After another grisly killing, Myers sticks out his thumb and hitches a ride with fishermen Roy Collins, played by Edmond O’Brien, and Gilbert Bowen, played by Frank Lovejoy. These two are old friends enjoying a taste of freedom from their domestic lives on a weekend outing to the Gulf of California when they pick up Myers, who proceeds to lead them at gunpoint on a wild odyssey into Mexico, where he plans to kill them and board a ferry to freedom across the Gulf of California. A taut thriller ensues, driven by stark contrasts, interesting inversions, and powerful frustrations, until Myers runs hard into the arms of justice and the fishermen are delivered from their terrible captivity.
Lupino manages to achieve much in the film’s meagre 71 minute runtime. Most striking to me are the contrasts, both visual and atmospheric, that serve the story. The setting alternates from the hotbox enclosure of Collins’ and Bowen’s car to the wide-open desert spaces through which it is passing. Collins and Bowen are seated in the light up front; Myers is shrouded in darkness in the backseat. Myers is blind in one eye and sharp as a hawk in the other. These contrasts are amplified by inversions, however. Collins is a mechanic and driver. He possesses the most power, therefore, in the most enclosed space. Bowen is the only character who can speak Spanish. Myers holds a gun, then, but Bowen has the power of knowledge when they need to resupply in one of the sleepy Mexican hamlets along the way. Ultimately, the dynamic that emerges between the three characters is a sort of inverted buddy feature. I often found myself wondering whether Bowen and Collins would remain friends when the ordeal was over, or if they would go their separate ways.
The Hitch-Hiker was a B picture for a reason, however. Its weaknesses are plain. There are holes in the plot big enough to drive the fishermen’s Plymouth through. The opportunities for the captives to overpower Myers and run away are seemingly endless, for example. The plot does nothing with the interesting inversions of power represented by the captives’ advantages in mechanical and linguistic knowledge, either. When Bowen speaks with Mexican characters in the film—all of whom are represented in the round, an unexpected breath of fresh air for the time—the opportunities are as tantalizing as his failure to capitalize on them is frustrating. The outcome is predictable, and the film’s short runtime does not allow Lupino to introduce many curves in the road on the way there.
Despite these flaws, The Hitch-Hiker is a must-see noir thriller. Uncluttered and raw, beautifully shot and intelligently optimistic in the shadow of the dark real-world events that shaped its story, the film captures the ambivalence of a moment in American history rich with opportunity but scarred by violence and despair. Imagine watching it in the bench seat up front of an old Chrysler parked in a darkened lot, soundtrack blaring through a speaker hung on the window. After the movie you drop off the speaker on the way out and drive home laughing about your date’s white knuckles when they clutched your knee at the suspenseful parts. You round a bend in the road, straining to see in the weak headlight beams what might be in the dark pavement ahead, and there is a lonesome man in a dark jacket on the side of the road, thumb stuck out, pointing your way. You keep driving.
If you list the forces in 2021 working against jazz, and against an album like this one, it can feel overwhelming, depressing even. Do not despair. This is only a feeling. The truth is somewhere else, somewhere deeper.
Let us list the forces anyway.
First there is our shared understanding, taken as universal truth for at least sixty years now, that jazz is a thing for the museum set or the coffee shop, a factory of ambiance for Olive Garden or an upscale brunch. Jazz was once a living thing, this view holds, a music for crooks and drunks and junkies. Now its proponents and creators emerge from university programs, bleary-eyed from study, fingers inked by charts and ears indented by noise-canceling headphones, marching toward classrooms of their own. Don’t get me wrong, these are artists. They know every head in the fakebook. They’ve mastered their craft and many of them capitalize on this mastery to move the art in new directions. But many of them are equally at home serving as historians and conservators, pulling riffs and solos from the grimoire or Slonimsky’s Thesaurus. When you put it all together, jazz viewed from this frame of reference feels a bit like publishing monographs for the academic press. This music once moved mountains. Now it must exercise its influence through the same channels as philosophy and the social sciences: grants, endowments, public television. If you support Jazz at Lincoln Center, you may qualify for a thank you gift. Ask your operator for details.
The old mountain-movers possess a sort of mystique, therefore, like former heads of state or old soldiers surveying the world with a thousand yard stare. Their numbers are dwindling, and with them passes a unique way of listening to the world and reacting to its vital rhythms. With jazz, popular music reached a crescendo of sophistication and creativity that took listeners to the very edge of popular sensibility and sometimes beyond. It was almost too much. It was almost as though Americans exhaled a collective sigh of relief when Little Richard took the stage. The best students of jazz will continue driving the form, and some of them will push it further, but it is almost seventy years since the heat of rock and roll displaced bebop’s cool, and the distance between here and there, now and then, feels greater than ever before.
It is mostly the session players from those heady days who remain with us now, not the stars, aging alongside the modern artwork in darkening valhallas from New York to San Francisco. If you dwell on it in this frame of mind, a jazz record can feel like a funeral procession. Perhaps this is appropriate. Born from the funeral marches of old New Orleans, jazz seems destined to return to the bayou shades.
We live in the age of the funeral procession, but jazz is not the music for this age. Witness the first moments of the video for “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” A duo is a uniquely intimate mode of collaboration. Especially in an improvisational medium, each partner in the duo must understand the other’s moves, must know their very mind. In this light, the distance between Shepp and Moran in the opening moments of the video feels like a yawning gulf. If the moment hits you right, the gulf between the artists on that dimly lit stage feels like the chasm separating us from all of the friends and loved ones we’ve lost this year. It feels like the passage of time, the inevitability of entropy and change. Thank God for the horn that moves us past that moment, into the now.
If you think of this album as a sort of fastness, a place made warm and safe through a powerful magic combining equal parts spirit, talent, collaboration, and history, you can hear the music repelling these forces like a force-field. Let My People Go is not a funeral march. It is not a testament to the passage of a generation or the decline of all things. It is, instead, a remarkable antidote to the depressing array of negative forces that send us into fits of melancholy at the beginning of YouTube videos or set us off on doom-scroling odysseys into the far corners of night. Let My People Go is a force for good.
The album opens on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a spare rendition of the moving Negro spiritual rendered all the more powerful by this remarkable duo. Jason Moran’s expansive intro sets a fitting stage for Shepp’s piercing exploration of the melody. Shepp and Moran play in proximity to one another but rarely together, probing the song’s musical themes like murmuring voices in the darkness, seeking one another, seeking consonance. This is the power and the promise of a masterful duo. Each artist has the space to stretch out, but the restraint to fill the voids left by their counterpart without drowning them out. Shepp and Moran achieve this careful balance on the album’s opening track.
My favorite moments on the album come on its second cut, a meditation on Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s 1967 standard, “Isfahan.” Where Ellington’s piece is a perfect study in restrained beauty, Shepp and Moran draw out its blue notes, seeking shelter in the spaces in between the notes of the melody as though from a quiet rainstorm. Shepp’s time spent playing alongside Coltrane shines through on “He Cares,” which opens on an expressive, birdsong intro and slowly climbs toward a moving crescendo across the next six and a half minutes. When Moran moves into the spotlight around 3:30, the piece coheres beautifully.
“Go Down Moses,” the fourth cut, seems to examine the dialectic of tension and possibility inherent in freedom through the interplay between Shepp’s opening improvisation, set against Moran’s restless, oceanic backdrop, and Moran’s solo improvisation building up to Shepp’s expressive, vibrato singing. The duo carries us into new territory with “Wise One,” a freer, more consonant space. With “Lush Life,” the duo flies the perennial Strayhorn standard beloved by Coltrane to transcendence, and the closing track, “‘Round Midnight,” keeps them firmly in those rarefied spaces.
“If my music doesn’t suffice, I will write you a poem, a play. I will say to you in every instance, ‘Strike the Ghetto. Let my people go.’”
Archie Shepp, “An Artist Speaks Bluntly,” Downbeat, 1965
The forces this record repels only feel overwhelming when they are framed as cultural forces, and that is only because we’ve spent the last sixty years convincing ourselves that culture is somehow both sacrosanct, on the one hand, and thoroughly shaped by immovable hegemonic forces, on the other. For music, this view conflates market forces with culture, valorizing expression through its quantification to argue that its forms are no longer valid when they fail to move units or fill seats. To put it as simply as possible: fuck that. Of culture and music we may say this instead: jazz gives the world meaning through a set of coherent rules and rituals. This way of looking at the world was supremely influential for a brief period before and after the second world war before giving way, as a popular commodity in the marketplace, to other forms of expression. It did not die when its practitioners moved to conservatories. It is not passing.
It is the crushing inevitability of commodification that Let My People Go most powerfully counteracts. Shepp and Moran’s message is a cultural one, yes, but it is also a social one. It is there that we should spend some time. “Let my people go” harkens to Moses in Egypt, but it was the terrible lash of slavery that reduced millions of Africans to things, to motherless children on the auction block. From the beginning of his career in the 1960s, Shepp’s music has been centered on liberation—wailing for freedom, exalting in its possibilities, lamenting its elusiveness. In 1966, he told Downbeat that jazz was “for the liberation of all people.” “Why is that so?” he continued, “because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people.”
The pandemic is a social force. So is violence in defense of power. So is the market, with all its cruel iniquity. We may feel these forces as an overwhelming weight upon our shoulders. We may view them as insurmountable, hegemonic. To do so would be to ignore that enduring promise of jazz, however, and the complete and utter freedom it offers its adherents. Art, Shepp insists, can be a countervailing force. Listening to his work with bandmate Jason Moran on Let My People Go, I cannot help but agree. It is fitting this art should find us in a dark hour.
Bowes, John P. Land Too Good for Indians: Northern Indian Removal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. (Publisher link)
Though settler colonialism has thoroughly re-shaped Native American historiography in the past twenty years, scholars still tend to view Indian removal as a discrete moment or era in American history–a tragic narrative beginning with the transition from away from the Civilization plan marked by the passage of the Indian Removal Act by Congress in 1830 and culminating in the Cherokee Trail of Tears nearly a decade later. In Land Too Good for Indians, John P. Bowes argues that removal has instead been a central fact in the history of the American republic, rooted in the intertwining contexts of European colonialism and Native politics that preceded its founding, and enduring to the present. To advance this argument, Bowes examines the history of removal in the Old Northwest–the vast territory stretching from Ohio to eastern Minnesota. While many other scholars in recent years have studied the history of this region’s Native peoples, Bowes is the first in decades to take up the topic of removal for its own sake. In addition to shedding new light on removal in the North, Bowes along the way demonstrates the value of this kind of regional monograph in shaping the broader historiographical currents of settler colonialism and removal in the United States.
Bowes is sensitive to context in his definition of removal, arguing that the complicated process was shaped and mediated by the history of imperial violence in the region and the pervasive rhetoric of removal that accompanied this violence. The book’s two opening chapters explore these themes in depth. In the first, on violence, Bowes explores the imperial clashes that shaped the region before and immediately after the American Revolution, arguing that these conflicts contributed to a belief on the part of American settlers and policymakers that Indians were “savage agents of the British Empire” who could not abide peace . This violence contributed to a rhetorical tradition that linked peace, propriety, and prosperity for Americans in the region with the removal of its Native peoples. American lawmakers responded to this rhetoric by crafting policies and embarking on a series of punishing wars that achieved removal–the subject of the book’s remaining chapters–while the history of violence and ongoing rhetoric of removal continue to leave deep scars on American Indians everywhere. Bowes closes the work with a chapter on the aftermath of removal and its legacy in memory, arguing that the “American era is a removal era.”
By shifting the terrain, Bowes offers a powerful corrective to the historiography of removal. While the scholarship of settler colonialism has thoroughly unsettled historians’ understanding of early America, there is still much work to be done “on the ground” to understand how settler colonialism as a foundational American political philosophy shaped the nation’s culture and politics. Looking away from the South, where scholarship on the history of capitalism and slavery continues to unearth new layers of meaning in the region’s Native history, forces scholars to re-evaluate the many contexts that shaped Indian policy. That said, some of the scholarship from other regions may have bolstered the theoretical framework that gives this book its shape. Engaging Matthew Jennings’ work on the clashing “cultures of violence” that shattered Native political power in the early American Southeast, for example, might have supported the chapter on violence–especially as we learn more about the myriad connections that drew (and continue to draw) Native peoples together across the continent. Likewise, Ned Blackhawk’s unique treatment of violence as a unit of analysis suggests intriguing possibilities for the argument about violence that forms such an important part of this book. The rhetoric of removal, too, seems an extension–an important and valuable expansion, to be sure–of Francis Jennings’ “cant of conquest.” These minor historiographical quibbles neither blunt the argument nor detract from the contribution this book makes to the historiography of removal and American settler colonialism, however, and scholars of Native history, the early republic, or the Old Northwest will find this book a valuable addition to their bookshelves for years to come.
Musonius Rufus, Gaius. That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. (Link to publisher)
Here is a thought experiment to amuse you in quarantine. How long would you stay inside for a million dollars?
Could you last two weeks? A month?
Now, how long would you stay inside to save a life?
If the answer is that you would spend less time indoors to save a life than you would be willing to spend indoors for money, the first century Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus would like a word. “When we see acrobats face without concern their difficult tasks and risk their very lives in performing them,” he asked listeners, as reported in this reissue of a classic translation, “turning somersaults over upturned swords or walking ropes… all of which they do for a miserably small recompense, shall we not be ready to endure hardship for the sake of complete happiness?” If people are willing to go to endless trouble for money, notoriety, or sex, the philosopher wondered, why not for virtue?
Maybe you will argue that saving another’s life is a lesser source of happiness than receiving a large sum of money. If that is the case, you can stop now. This book is not for you. It is probably the case that there are no books for you and you should just go shopping instead of reading this. If you agree that sacrifice for the greater good of another is worth more than sacrifice for your own fleeting pleasures, you’re already a long way to understanding what Musonius wanted his students to know. This book is for you.
It feels strange to indulge in the reading of stoic philosophy while so many of my peers, friends, and colleagues worry themselves to the core over the stock market and the novel coronavirus, but it is perhaps at times like these that the pursuit of the perfection of reason is most needed. Boethius, for example–that’s another philosopher, who lived much later than Musonius and found himself on the wrong side of a political feud in Theodoric’s court–found strength against certain, terrible death in the consolation of philosophy. Captured and brought low, weeping alone in his cell, Boaethius was surprised to see philosophy enter the room, personified as a woman. After his “nurse” Philosophy wiped away Boaethius’ tears, “I drank in the clear air of heaven,” he exclaimed, and the two conversed until the philosopher-politician’s long night of the soul was over and he could face his Ostrogothic executioner with courage.
Our times are not as brutal as Boethius’ times, but these are the strangest days I have ever known. Most of us alive today in the United States were born in a time of extreme cynicism, and most of our institutions glorify the modern meaning of the term–that individuals are motivated primarily by self-interest, and that this is good. We were born as well under the shadow of a strange inversion of ancient cynicism. We were born in the time of greedy dogs.
Ancient cynics argued that the pursuit of eudaimonia was the chief end of philosophy. Actually, they thought it was the primary goal of humanity. Eudaimonia is one of those complicated words that doesn’t quite have a match in English. The closest we can come to it is happiness, but eudaimonia is not just any kind of happiness. Eudaimoniais the kind of happiness that comes from living the good life, a life of virtue. To get there, ancient philosophers argued, one needed to live the right way–a philosophical life, of course–but what a philosophical life was supposed to be like changed over time.
Before the stoics, there were the cynics. We don’t have a great match for eudaimonia in English, but we do for cynic. The word comes from the Greek term κυνικός, or kynikos, which means “dog-like.” The cynics believed that one should live free of attachments and, as a result, free of shame. One of the most famous cynics, Diogenes, lived in the market like a dog. He slept in a big jar, is supposed to have defecated wherever he pleased, and masturbated in public. He wandered around carrying a lamp in the middle of the day looking for an “honest man.” We know his type well, I think. Diogenes was a troll. Unlike our trolls, though, Diogenes would choose life over money. Our dogs are greedy.
The stoics shared Diogenes’ belief that virtue was better expressed through action than theory, but held that ethics, rather than asceticism, paved the path to virtue. This book brings together 53 lectures and fragments from one of stoicism’s lesser lights, but Cora Lutz’s 1947 translation still sparkles. Stoic ethics are on fine display here.
Modern readers are likely to find Musonius a bit conservative on one hand, but may be surprised by the topics this man of the first century CE lectured upon. He argued for the sanctity of marriage, railed against abortion, and one even finds–if read in a certain key–echoes of our contemporary debate over children’s vaccines:
“If a father who is not a physician and not experienced in matters of health or sickness should prescribe for his invalid son something which was harmful and injurious, and the son was aware of that fact, surely in not following his father’s prescription he is not disobeying and is not disobedient, is he?”
“Must One Obey One’s Parents Under All Circumstances?”
On the other hand, Musonius argued that women should be trained in philosophy as well as men. He lectured kings on their philosophical duty. He advocated for a simple, pastoral life. He offered opinions on haircuts, beards, furniture. Philosophy in the ancient world was an all-encompassing domain, a pursuit that Musonius and his counterparts placed on a level above skilled professions, like practicing medicine or piloting a ship.
“men who enter the other professions have not had their souls corrupted beforehand and have not learned the opposite of what they are going to be taught, but the ones who start out to study philosophy have been born and reared in an environment filled with corruption and evil, and therefore turn to virtue in such a state that they need a longer and more thorough training.”
Ultimately, Musonius was concerned with embracing the “true good,” and it is this pursuit which resonates most clearly with me in this plague year. The groaning multitudes on Twitter, on television, on facebook, pull a rhetorical rope back and forth across an ideological divide, twisting every event, every shade of meaning, into tools to aid their political struggle. Who among them is right? I know how I would answer, but the voice of the stoic calls not so fast! “[T]ake the common man,” Musonius inveighs. “[W]hen asked whether he is stupid or intelligent, not one will confess to being stupid; or again, when asked whether he is just or unjust, not one will say that he is unjust.” He continues,
“In the same way, if one asks him whether he is temperate or intemperate, he replies at once that he is temperate; and finally, if one asks whether he is good or bad, he would say that he is good, even though he can name no teacher of virtue or mention any study or practice of virtue he has ever made. Of what, then, is this evidence if not of the existence of an innate inclination of the human soul toward goodness and nobleness, and of the presence of the seeds of virtue in each one of us?”
“That Man is Born with an Inclination toward Virtue”
Musonius argued, two thousand years ago, that the perfection of reason was the means by which one could water and fertilize these seeds. This slim volume of lectures and fragments may not be the fertilizer you need, but it is a valuable contribution to any philosophical library.
Legend has it that Miami Vice was born when the President of NBC, whom I (unfairly and probably incorrectly) like to imagine deep in the throes of a head-spinning fugue state around 11:30 in the morning on day 3 of a coke binge in the summer of 1984, scrawled the words “MTV Cops” on a sheet of paper and pitched it to a producer. We can imagine a similar scenario playing out in 2016 or 2017. Some producer on a flight from Los Angeles to Shenzhen to make a superhero movie pitch jolts awake from a psychedelic jet lag dream, fumbles for his iPhone, head lightly spinning from a single Lime-a-Rita before the flight, and scrawls “The Departed with women” in the Notes app. The Kitchen is born, and I sit down to watch it on a Tuesday night many months later in a suburban multiplex on the edge of the woods in North Florida.
hard to talk about The Kitchen. I
think all of us gathered in the multiplex on Discount Tuesday this week were
extremely aware of the trail this
movie is trying to blaze. The stars are badasses, alright? They don’t take any
shit. They dominate every man in the film—with the exception of fathers and
Italians—and we all love that. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “this
gangster movie is good, but what if the wiseguys were women?” then this is probably the movie for you. I loved that part
of it. But if you value good films or human life, it probably isn’t the movie
for you. Let’s talk about that.
life and death. Like Stuber, which I
talked about on Discount Tuesday a few weeks ago, The Kitchen kills with impunity. People die in this movie and
nobody really cares. Heads are blown open; dead people are dragged on the
sidewalk; bodies are dismembered and dumped in the Hudson River. Spoiler alert:
Haddish and McCarthy sniffle for a moment when they kill their husbands, but
the audience is discouraged from joining in these brief moments of quiet.
Watching these badass women rampage is just too fun, I guess, for the filmmaker
or the audience to go and turn the killers and the victims into humans. That
would require empathy, right, and who wants to bother with that on Discount
Tuesday in the summertime?
The Kitchen’s failures as an example of filmmaking art follow, in part, from all of this sexy dehumanization. If films are meant to shed some light on the human experience, death should do something. Take the gangster movies that this movie clearly wants to emulate. In The Godfather, benefiting from death makes Michael Corleone into a monster. Each killing in the film’s pivotal seizure-of-power sequence severs him from his humanity and isolates him from his family until, finally, a closing door figuratively seals him within his own personal hell. In Casino, death is a grotesque ritual which so scars the fantasy landscape that the killers operate in the depths of the desert. Death is a reminder of the cruel masters back east, and a consequence of flying too high. Goodfellas treats death like a cruel joke, but the audience clearly understands that Ray Liotta’s character is both hero and heavy. He’s a ghoul.
You may be wondering: what if all of the people who die in The Kitchen are bad guys? Does that make it OK, like Inglourious Basterds or revenge movies? It might, except The Kitchen isn’t about revenge or redemption, and the bad guys aren’t Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The “heroes” in this film kill the “villains” in order to become the villains. With the exception of one rapist—killed by a male savior/mentor instead of one of the badass women, it’s worth pointing out, as though some villains are still too formidable for women to handle—we don’t know anything about the small-time gangsters who die in this film except that they’re standing in the way of the “heroes” racing to reach rock bottom. There is a moment near the end of the film—in the nadir of the “dark night of the soul” every screenwriting manual will instruct budding artistes to include in the script—when Melissa McCarthy says that she’s built something too great to give up. I was left wondering: does she mean the criminal enterprise the hero-villains built from theft, rackets, blood, and graft; or just the relationships they made along the way?
It’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking about its moral and historical counterpoint: J.C. Chandor’s 2014 masterwork, A Most Violent Year. That film takes place just three years later and engages the late-seventies underworld this movie glorifies. It has everything this movie has: crooks, a gritty, desaturated New York cityscape, gangsters, a badass woman, even Hasidim. But instead of cruel, half-baked stereotypes, these are real people, living in a real place. Instead of racing to the bottom like the soulless heroines of The Kitchen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain struggle to do the right thing in a world that rewards badness. If Donald Trump is the Bizarro Obama, an inverse agent whose entire political program is built on undoing his predecessor’s legacy, The Kitchen is the Bizarro Violent Year. Its nihilism betrays the talents of the performers and craftspeople who brought it to life.
Thomas Hobbes was responsible for much of the better-or-worse modernity we have inherited, so it is not too much of a stretch to link an offhand observation in Leviathan to a self-consciously backward-looking rock band from twenty-first century Atlanta. “No man can have in his mind a conception of the future,” he wrote, “for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make a future.” Perhaps this is why the band–whose new Sub Pop release I Hear Yousounds like a nineties college band’s interpretation of the psychedelic era, in a good way: like Hum, without the Gen-x introspection, jamming along with dad’s old records–channeled one of Hobbes’s chief interpreters in a recent comment for SPIN. “We hold these truths to be self evident,” the quartet maintains, echoing Jefferson: “This is now music of the modern era. No genre revival. If a voice within whispers ‘Listen’ you must respond I Hear You. As did we and will continue to do.”
But that’s enough pretentiousness.** I Hear You is a solid album, rich with promise for listeners hungry for a return to the stripped-down grit of rock instrumentation without submitting themselves to the staid genre conventions of punk or (too much of) the self-absorption of post-rock or heavier stoner bands. Arbor Labor Union intentionally refuses to break new ground with I Hear You, but that is the point. As much a response to the glimmering sheen of production that characterizes music today as an homage to psychedelia, I Hear You catalogues a yearning for the material over the digital–as in the band’s write-up about conifer trees and the singing ground, see the * below–and promises to reclaim it by eschewing the last twenty to forty years of music history.
Putting aside the question of whether the band’s effort to reclaim the past is relevant to the present, I Hear You comes as close as any record can to delivering on that promise without succumbing to retro kitsch. “Mr. Birdsong” recalls early grunge, but carefully; subsequent tracks “Hello Transmission” and “Radiant Mountain Road” build backward, linking the opener’s grunge sensibility to the less-restrained garage aesthetic of the seventies and late sixties. “I Am You” carries the union of these styles to a logical, if premature, conclusion in the middle of the album. Reminiscent simultaneously of everything since 1967 and nothing at all, “I Am You” underlines the record’s archival warrant in red ink. It works.
After cresting this psychedelic peak, the album drives gently downhill, back toward the present. Four-minute instrumental “Babel” suggests a more focused method beneath the surface and points—I hope—toward the band’s future. “Belief’d,” “Silent Oath,” and other tracks are better than filler, but the idea is already clear after cresting the peak. These tracks shine light on its musical nuances but illuminate its tidy corners, as well. “IHU,” finally, recalls the droning psychedelia of “I Am You.”
And what of the premise? Countless bands have turned to nostalgia—succumbed to what Derrida describes in a radically different context as “archive fever,” a madness for origins—in an attempt to reclaim that which was bold and bright in rock’s past, and, thus, in their own youth. Arbor Labor Union transcends crass nostalgia on I Hear You by reinterpreting the past for the present. The result is not perfect—repetition and experimentation sometimes derail the individual tracks—but it is remarkably fresh.
** Want more? From the band’s bio page at Sub Pop: “4 Years ago, in the Peach state of Georgia, there was a mighty green Conifer tree whose limbs were wider than the smile on the sun. From this tree hung many a seed. The tree was home to so many creatures big and small. The most fun of them all was perhaps MR. BIRDSONG. Mr. Birdsong was a single white dove…” and so on, including the line: “if you press your ear to the ground you will find that it too has a sound… and it sings.”