In NYC it is spectrally quiet except for the wail of sirens, and the sounds of my upstairs neighbor engaging in some basic marching drills. The quiet makes the city seem larger, even from inside the apartment you can feel the verticality of the buildings. I went for a walk on Houston street the other night, and I had what is normally a four-lane highway to myself, a city bus, two taxis and a distant box truck the only activity as the traffic lights algorithmically phased. Bars, restaurants and businesses all shuttered, above them the occupied apartments lit up despite the late hour. This is the reality now, homebound, activity reordered, times passing mediated in a narrowed corridor.
Helping negotiate that, there is art, and chatting with Dr. Rob the inevitable: What are you reading, watching, listening to?” conversation commences. Coming out of that, the idea of some lists or recommendations. There seem to be no shortage of DJ’s performing “live from home”, and my inbox has more than a few “Covid ambient mix” type offerings, so I’ll leave that for now. Below are some suggestions for films and books that might be of interest. There is no hierarchy or agenda, no “best of”, I just picked some things I was looking at or reading of late and sharing them. Hopefully one or more of these help with your day/night. As horrific as the news is, and as ruthless and inadequate governance seems, the chance to dig in, and reexamine things, in our private bunkers, might yield some change. Here is to surviving and rebuilding. Stay safe, keep keeping on.
1.The Man from London 2007 (dir. Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky) This film is an adaptation of a Georges Simenon thriller, but it is entirely Tarrs sensibility on display here. Shot in an exceptionally lush black and white – Tarr is the king of the dark tonal palette – the film moves deliberately like a slow-motion dream. The camera pans like it`s photographing the surface of a newly discovered planet. He dispenses with the conventions of noir and focuses on the existential impact of the narrative. The film hovers and draws you into its reverie, you forget you are “watching” and dissolve into its darkness.
2. High Life 2018 (dir. Claire Denis) Set in space, the film concerns a group of prisoners turned astronauts and examines the daily life on their vessel with a pace and level of detail that will remind you of Kubrick’s 2001. Robert Patterson cares for an infant, repairs the ship, and tries to frame what has happened to him. The story is told elliptically, there is brutal violence, and fervid sex, but it happens in a non-linear order, the viewer is left to piece together how and why things are happening. Andre Benjamin tends the ship’s greenhouse, a utopia that stands in relief to the ship’s dynamics. There is a sex machine, a psychedelic trip through a black hole, and enough pathos to resonate with our current circumstance – plus a nice synth soundtrack from Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples.
3. Paterson 2016 (dir. Jim Jarmusch) There is ample dignity and simple rectitude in this film about a poet/bus driver and his daily working life. Set in the New Jersey town, which was home to the great poet William Carlos Williams, the film lyrically valorizes and braids the poetic with the mundane. The poet Ron Padget wrote the main characters work, which he reads and writes as he drives a bus, hits the bar, walks the dog, and spends time with his wife. The film has an almost documentary feel and brings an observed sense of joy to life’s small dramas. The humility and quietude of an engaged existence is rarely depicted on screen, this film does it thoughtfully, and with comic verve. I loathe the phrase “feel good” but here it is….There`s a nice cameo from Method Man, working out his rhymes as he does his laundry.
4. Too Old to Die Young 2019 (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) This is in ten parts and on Amazon. An extended film presented as a “series” – think Twin Peaks the return. Winding Refn examines the isolated LA souls engaging with the force that is the Mexican cartels. This is a large canvas, and it is beautifully shot and scored, extremely violent and coldly erotic – a woman fastidiously made up, undressed and sprayed down with cold water? Yep. A role play date where a character’s wife pretends she is his late mother? Un huh. A willing young man excited to enter porn being gang raped after signing a release form? There it is. Despite the violence the mosaic of the film shows how capital and power trickle down into people’s lives and how a varied range of souls on both sides of the border negotiate their fate. No one gets out alive, and the comedy of people trying here is very dark: an repeatedly subcontracted hit that eventually targets the wrong person, two killers fighting over the music in their car while they are in a chase, gangsters complaining about how gringo hipsters are taking over the food truck business, a detective unit that engages in community theater. This is Grand Guignol over ten episodes and is made with so much care it makes most streaming fare – think Ozark – seem dull and amateur by comparison.
5. Charlie Says 2018 (dir. Mary Harron) This film which is based in some parts on Ed Sanders seminal book “The Family”, looks into the prison lives of three of the “Manson girls “ as they try to regain their individuality through work with Karlene Faith, a feminist criminologist who helps them crawl out from under Manson’s controlling voice. Told in flashbacks and through prison therapy sessions, the film attempts to examine the dynamic of brainwashing, and how people end up vulnerable to its architecture. The women struggle to find their voices after the fact, and a radical moment in progressive penology illustrates how power decimates at all levels. For all the hype and fetishizing of Manson, this story of what he did to his female followers is one that rarely gets presented. Harron’s film looks into their damaged lives and the family structure that was so appealing. A quiet thoughtful film that offers a nuanced take on the Manson legend.
1.The Lucky Star – William T. Vollman (2020)
I’m reading this right now and am nowhere near finished, but Vollman is a personal favorite of mine, and this novel takes him back to the sleaze and hardship of the tenderloin district in San Francisco and a LGBTQ cast straight out of Steinbeck territory. This book has lots of sex in it, transgressive, shame addled, repetitive, and chimerical. At one point in the book Vollman includes a letter from his editor asking if there is perhaps – too much sex. The characters use gender identities and the performative structures of seduction and eros to try to find relief and liberation. Vollman writes exhaustively and with the depth of say Thomas Pynchon. His own life a mythic arc – The FBI considered for a time that he might be the Unabomber, he was one of the first to go back to Fukushima and report on the devastation, he has documented his own transgender persona, and he fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan – he has his well-researched characters wrestle with redemption and transformation, dragging the reader into the allegorical realms of their fraught daily pilgrimage.
2. Art Sex Music – Cosey Fanni Tutti (2017)
Speaking of sex and the mythic, Christine Newby aka Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey and the COUM transmissions art collective, documents her own dramatic and relentlessly adventurous life in this unflinching memoir. Hers is a life of art, performance, and transgression. She survived an abusive relationship with Genesis P-Orrige, worked as a nude model, a stripper, a sex worker and a porn actress – she also horrifically worked as an office temp – but her approach was always to exploit the cultural hierarchies she engaged with in the service of her own vision and work. She had no illusions and seemed driven to point out the one’s others had. The book also focuses on her loving relationship and collaborations with her longtime partner Chris Carter, theirs is a partnership that seems to flourish between two equals, who also are tenderly in love and raise a child together – a liberated family. “I have to admit I didn’t have a lot in common with the other mothers I knew”
3. The One – RJ Smith (2012)
Think you know hard times? Try growing up in a whorehouse, try going to school in just your underwear, try getting beaten – a lot, sometimes while hung upside down in a burlap bag, try going “turping’ – getting the sap from trees used in making turpentine – in the stifling Georgia summer heat. That’s all before you are a teenager. Follow that with juvenile homes, jail, and then boxing, not a life for the faint of heart. Every step of the way the odds were stacked against James Brown, he had to put up his own cash to get King records to release “Please, Please, Please”. Brown exhibits indomitable will, intense discipline, and oh yeah lots of amazing talent, as a performer, arranger, composer, and bandleader, his is a life of climbing from the very bottom, and never stopping. The stories of his life on the road will have you shaking your head – Did he shoot at Joe Tex for wearing a cape and mocking him? Oh hell yes – and perhaps thinking twice about the terms a life is lived by.
4. The Besieged City – Clarice Lispector (1949/2019)
Originally published in 1949, The Besieged City finally received an English translation in 2019, it is the third novel from the then 29-year-old Brazilian writer. Written while in Switzerland a place she called “A cemetery of sensations”. The book follows Lucrecia as she comes of age in the world of men, dating several, marrying an older man, she eventually becomes a widow, and eventually considers another marriage proposal. The events flow elliptically, the writing style is stream of consciousness, the most mundane exchange can be puzzling in a way that makes every gesture a point of consideration. Lucrecia struggles in the shifting dynamic of her relations, to men, to things, to language, trying to not only name her “self” but to also find the language of that self. This is an interior novel, that raises questions about how we think and try to articulate, and it renders a groundbreaking insight to the fractured and alienated mind of a woman floating? striving? toward some liberated and specific space.
5. City of Night – John Rechy (1963)
Probably the most iconic book on this list, and the only one to be name checked in a Door’s song, it tells the story of a young gay Mexican American man from Texas and his journey into the underworlds of Times Square, the French Quarter, Hollywood etc.… it is a book about desire and the night. It is also about hypocrisy and the fraudulence of the “official story”. Rechy who worked for years as a hustler, even after he published, looks behind the facades as he drifts across America, and engages with the marginalized, and those who desire them, and are also repelled by that desire. This is a groundbreaking book, not just on the vector of sexuality, but what it says about identities within capital, and how the irrepressible organic collides with the impositions of the state. “I stand on 42nd Street and Broadway looking at the sign flashing the news from the Times Tower like a scoreboard: The World is losing.”
Dennis` shot of Avenue A on the Lower East Side, taken last night.