The third installment in a triptych of eloquent pieces penned by the one and only Dennis Kane. Words on a world in pandemic viewed by Ban Ban Ton Ton`s eyes in New York. Observations on Dennis` hometown, and homeland, in a time of crisis – plus a few brilliant film and book reviews.
Words, selections, and photographs by Dennis Kane.
The water quietly laps against the sea wall, the tide from estuary to river has slackened before changing direction, moonlight illuminates the peaks of the slight capillary swells. In the distance Bartholdi’s Queen is a turquoise lighthouse. You can smell the Atlantic. Even at this late hour there are tugboats pulling barges, tankers hover in the distance, darkened silhouettes. There are about a dozen fishermen, they each have a few rods going, no one is really talking, sometimes they text each other. They are fishing for “stripers” – striped bass, carp, bluefish, porgy’s and something called a toadfish. I speak with Carlos, who has just pulled in a sizeable bass, he says he’s here “most nights” and used to sell some of his catch to local spots. The restaurants are for the most part closed now. Carlos says he sometimes eats the fish, “but only a couple a month”. Behind us the glass facings of lower Manhattan’s financial canyons make a sheer reflective prism, the buildings are dark and vacant, and have been silent since early March. It is 1AM on a Sunday morning in November.
The day before it was announced that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. The news spread over Twitter in the late morning. It was an unseasonably warm day, I had the widows open, and I started to hear it around noon – raucous car horns and cheers, the sounds so different from the wartime dutiful applause for hospital shift change, this was euphoric and spontaneous. Going outside the streets were electric – sunshine, a warm breeze, and people – people like I hadn’t seen in a long time. This wasn’t a protest or demonstration; this was the beginning of a floating block party. A man on the corner is singing a modified boozy version of Hall & Oates’ She’s gone: “He better learn how to face it, he’s gone!” Despite the face masks you can tell by their eyes that people are smiling. There is this odd “is this really happening” sensation. It has been a grim tonal stretch, and this moment of saturated technicolor is shocking. By late afternoon the city is pulsing in a way that it hasn’t since a pre-COVID summer. I hear music in the streets indeed. Going past Thompkins Square, Luther Vandross elegance emanates from a boom box “Never too much, never too much…” Someone has painted “You’re Fired!!!” on the glass of an empty storefront. This is twilight zone joy, and we’ll take it. By nightfall the reality of COVID has sent many home, but it isn’t the forlorn silence that has occluded Manhattan all year. As the last rinds of vermillion and bruised plum leave the sky, a sense of hope and relief, albeit temporary, resonates.
In the subsequent weeks, Trump doubles down on ugly, his enabling party conforms, and it seems that our fractured democracy is tottering. The numbers of the dead mount at an accelerated pace. We close in on half a million, and science deniers still refuse to wear masks. The concrete grey of despair sets back in, and that general sense of nervous fatigue saturates every zoom chat, text conversation, and socially distanced meeting. Then a tipping point, out of options, Trump urges his sub-reddit, Q-anon, Proud Boy massive to insurrect, and voila, hand overplayed, his balloon bursts. Like a belligerent drunk at a party, he is finally shown the door. Social media gone, his lawyer awaiting disbarment, Impeachment / the Sequel, his cheesy brand in tatters, and his many creditors in wait, this becomes an allegorical end for such a colossal villain, shattered by the loss of his one superpower – Twitter. In a few days the monumental process of cleaning the wreckage will begin. Trump an ugly figurehead and narrow pathology embodied the symptoms of America’s dark side – racist, jingoistic, childishly parochial, clumsily uncurious, and fundamentally indecent. A talisman for a hoard of entitled Karen’s lodging a vague insistent needy complaint with the world.
I check in with the fishermen weekly. Carlos worked at a nearby restaurant, his father did maintenance at the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá – a marvel of architecture built entirely out of salt, deep inside a mountain in Columbia. His former co-worker Luis, aka “the world’s worst fisherman” is often here with him. I meet their cohorts – Tacho from Mexico, “Shu” – Shu-fen – from Taiwan, Angel who is Filipino, Carl and August from Queens – they all know each other from the various kitchens they have worked in. All out of work, they hang here and fish nightly. Life has not handed them much, but they don’t project anger, they are stoic, they appreciate each other’s company, the occasional beer, and collectively they nurture a hope that they can return to their lives at some point. As the cold encroaches, they will soon have to stop for the winter, but on these nights, they abide gracefully, looking out into the moonlit harbor, engaged in the doing.
A few books and films…
Eat the Buddha (The Life and Death in a Tibetan Town) – Barbra Demick
Barbra Demick is a reporter with a tremendous gift – she listens intently. Previously she has written about life in North Korea, and those surviving the Bosnian war in Sarajevo. She lets her subjects articulate the circumstances of traumatized lives, never imposing her narrative, but attempting to deliver the spectrum of their experience. Here she presents a group of Tibetans living in Ngba Sichuan. The circumstances are grim, the region has a reputation for Tibetan self-immolation – hundreds have set themselves aflame. There is talk of improved techniques – drinking the gasoline so you burn internally, using thick quilts and wire – in order to prevent rescue. She traces the gestures back to an extended history of brutal Chinese oppression. Believing in non-violence, the Tibetans choose self-harm. She illustrates the ongoing holocaust, the programmatic actions by the Chinese to destroy Tibetan culture completely, its language, spirituality and history. She shows how modern surveillance makes the terror the Tibetans feel Orwellian and suffocatingly mundane. The Tibetans have a word dhulok which they use to describe the trauma, roughly translated it means “when the sky and the earth changed places” What makes the book so impactful, is how she examines such trauma along with other aspects of modern life, she gives us so much atomized perspective from the people of the town, love, property, food, play etc., that the mythic intensity of what is happening is rooted in the contingencies of lives we can all relate to.
Can’t Hurt Me – David Goggins
David Goggins is insane, like run a marathon with a broken foot insane, like face his greatest fear of water and drowning by throwing himself into the ocean hands tied behind his back insane. OK let me back up. In May a pal asked me to join her as her guest on Zoom for an online workout and talk. It was going to be basic – jumping jacks, squats, sit-ups, planks, easy peasy. The instructor was this guy, David Goggins, a former Navy Seal. I said sure, rolled out my yoga mat and got ready. Fifty minutes later my mat is soaked, my hamstrings are vibrating, and I feel dizzy. It was good to see that Goggin’s was soaked as well, and that the few super fit people in the room with him also looked totally wrecked. Then he gave a brief talk about his everyday approach. I’m always wary of self-help gurus. I think of Tony Robbins or Scientology as scams for the weak-minded who won’t read or negotiate their own neurosis or complexity. David Goggins isn’t a guru. He is more like a performance artist iterating the primacy of will, walking head on into his own self-doubt and fear. This book examines in unflinching detail his childhood abuse, his battles with depression, heart issues, obesity, asthma, a litany of fear and misery. He gets to his primacy of purpose, he stays hard, and he doesn’t sell you a secret. He is still afraid, he is still prone to depression and procrastination, but his iteration is to constantly confront those impulses at point zero, his prime muscle is one of will. Like Nietzsche’s Superman his daily yoga is breaking all habits of the damaged past and finding a new value in his present existence. His persistence and embrace of the difficult as a normative state is a radical shift from a culture that is so infantilized by consumption and somatic inclination. Much like Breath and Cold yogi Wim Hof, Goggins wishes to make deconstructing the myth of discomfort the launching pad to individual transcendence.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Directed by Bi Gan
In many ways this is a perfect film for our COVID isolation. Time in this film moves much like our days – elliptically. The small details – a photo hidden behind a wall clock, rivulets of running water – register more than big narrative directives. When I first saw the title I thought immediately of Eugene O’Neil’s epic play of the same name, then I was told in Mandarin the title was closer to Last Evenings on Earth, the title of a novel by the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, but the real influence here seems the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or David Lynch – especially Inland Empire. We move forward and back in time, a man is searching for a beautiful mysterious woman – played with Monica Vitti levels of ennui by the great Wang Tei, each place he visits looking for her changes how he perceives her. Is she real? Is this a composite of women he has loved, or is it a morphing symbolic ideal?
The film is saturated in a deep romantic melancholy and it is shot beautifully, each scene is lush and lit with so much care – it will make you wonder why so many big budget mainstream films look so cheap – it delivers you to the presence of the image as opposed to the time of the narrative. Oh yeah then in the second half of the film there is a mind blowing one hour plus continuous 3-D tracking shot – I saw it again recently on my Mac and it still resonates without the 3-D. A friend characterized it as “In the Mood for Love meets 2001 A Space Odyssey” I’m not sure that’s quite right, but it does place the experience as one you will have in your mind, and one that will change the way you see your own history. Longing, memory and time are represented impressionistically with a depth that a direct narrative could not accomplish. Really one of the greatest film or art experiences I have ever had, this is as good as it gets.
Sibyl – Directed by Justine Triet
A psychologist – Sibyl – tired of her gig, and working on a novel, takes on a beautiful young actress as a patient. The actress is indeed dramatic, trapped in a love triangle with her co-star and the director of the film they are working on. The actress is negotiating the difference between the carefully constructed self she presents, and the raging emotional and erotic turmoil she is embroiled in. The therapist, violating all kinds of ethics, records their sessions and begins to use the details of her patient’s glamorous life to help her own agenda as a writer. A former alcoholic with a pile of baggage, Sibyl begins trying to mold the patient / actress in ways that will help her writing. The power dynamic between therapist, patient, actress, persona, and fictional representations get blurred heavily, and we see a lot of the small manipulative bargains we often make unconsciously in life presented starkly. The film is by turns comic, erotic, and stinging as it looks at the intimacy of life’s power dynamics. It inadvertently makes one feel better about being in isolation as it shows the viral nature of wanting.