Indiana University’s Ku Klux Klan mural: intent vs impact


Thomas Hart Benton, A Social History of Indiana, “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” (1933), detail, at the University of Indiana. Courtesy of Bart Everson, via Creative Commons.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis …

Your starter for ten: the above Latin aphorism is (a) the title of the second album by the late Keith Emerson’s pre-ELP prog band The Nice; (b) a saying by Hippocrates (better known for his medical activities) which literally translates as ‘Art is long, life is short’, or (c) both of the above.

Excellent! Now, let us proceed.

First of all, what the sage sayeth is that while the human lifespan is by definition limited (and I speak as someone closing in on three-score-and-ten), works of art can long outlive those who created them, whether we’re talking millennia-old cave paintings, the music of David Bowie or the writings of Hippocrates himself. Which is why our species has culture, history and collective memory. What the sage doesn’t say is that a work of art stays the same (well, it did before remixes, remasters, ‘director’s cuts’ and ‘ultimate editions’ became the new norm) while the world around it changes. By the same token, the intent of the artist may not have changed, but the impact which it has on its environment is forever in flux.

Case in point: a recent news story concerning the above mural panel, painted in 1933 by Thomas Hart Benton, in a classroom in Indiana University. It depicts a Ku Klux Klan rally juxtaposed with an injured black child being cared for by a white medical nurse while a sympathetic white journalist takes notes. Students, angered and upset by the image, have demanded its removal. A full account of the controversy can be found here; briefly, the clash is between the artwork’s status as a historical artifact and the pain which its imagery causes many of the students.

Clearly, the purpose of the artist was not to endorse, in any way, shape or form, the KKK: quite the reverse. Birth Of A Nation it most definitely ain’t. Benton’s intent was obviously to create a denunciation of their bigotry, racism and violence and to express solidarity with their victims. However, its impact – almost 85 years later, in the here and now of 2017 – is quite different. What it depicts, to the contemporary eye, is black people as essentially helpless: at the mercy of white people. Vicious nasty white people who bully, oppress and sometimes quasi-legally murder them or kind benign white people who protect, defend and care for them … either way, black people are here shown as objects, not subjects: denied agency, or any power over their own destiny. They are indeed mere victims, to be struggled over by competing groups of whites, rather than active fighters in their own struggle. Not protagonists in their own story, but supporting players in somebody else’s.

I must say that I can see the students’ point: considering what happened to many members of both sides of my family during World War II, I wouldn’t have wanted to attend daily classes in a lecture hall displaying a mural depicting a Nazi death camp, even if it also showed heroic Allied troops liberating it and rescuing the surviving inmates. I can also understand the arguments in favour of Benton’s work, and its importance as social and cultural history. It’s a shame that the work in question is a mural – by definition bonded to its surroundings – and not a painting on canvas which could simply be taken down and re-hung in a museum as an object of study.

Frinstance, I remember, decades ago, hearing the late great Steve Marriott, during his Humble Pie years, squalling from the stage, ‘I may be white but my soul is black!’ At the time, his intent, clearly understood by his listeners, was to express his admiration for, and identification with, African-American music and culture. Its impact now, were any modern performer to be sufficiently injudicious to deliver the same line, would seem an at best naively pretentious and at worst actively offensive manifestation of cultural appropriation.

Vita brevis and ars thorny and complicated. We can only work within the culture we’ve got, whilst always attempting to nudge and steer it into a direction more positive than its worst aspects might imply and hoping that the impact of what we create will never contradict or negate the intent with which we created it.

Maybe we’re back to Hippocrates and his best-known catch-phrase: ‘First … do no harm.’

Garden Rescue: secret vice or comfort food for the soul?

Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun …

Confession time: I have a Secret Vice.

To be more accurate (and more truthful), I have several, but today let’s concentrate on just one: I am helplessly addicted to a TV show called Garden Rescue.

Yes yes yes, I can hear you saying, ‘Gardening, Charles? You? Really?’

It all started because my Best Beloved is a very keen gardener indeed, and an elaborate plan is currently being concocted for a radical transformation of the Lower Forty, scheduled to take place next spring, assuming that the entire planet has not by then been (a) reduced to a smoking ruin by nuclear war or (b) under thirty feet of polluted water following an ecological catastrophe of some sort.

Now: my attitude to gardens and gardening is not that dissimilar to many peeps’ attitude to music. In other words: they enjoy it, they have preferences and they’re not averse to watching the odd concert or documentary on the subject. They do not, though, wish to learn an instrument, perform, compose or even familiarise themselves with the leading independent labels from the LA R&B scene of the 1950s or the personnel of mid-level 1970s UK punk bands.

Me: filling (and occasionally utilising) watering-cans is as far as I go in terms of hands-on involvement, but I’m an appreciative audience. Heh-heh, I just like to watch, heh-heh … and luxuriate in the results. This is obviously an inheritance from my late sainted father who — much to the combined amusement and annoyance of my late sainted mother, herself a fanatical gardener — was unable to recognise and name any flower which wasn’t a rose.

The Beeb’s flagship garden show is, of course, the venerable Gardeners’ World. It’s pleasant and soothing and shows lots of pretty stuff, but after a while a certain same-oldiness sets in, with genial old Monty Don endlessly pottering around his huge fuck-off garden trailed by a couple of amiable dogs and periodically cueing film inserts in which his satellite presenters visit other people in their huge fuck-off gardens before assigning his viewers their ‘jobs for the weekend’.

Garden Rescue is, however, loads more fun, tweezing its elderly predecessor’s format with licks nicked from game-shows and reality TV. Here’s how it works: first viewers compete to get their gardens done over, providing the budget for the materials involved while the show kicks in the layout and landscaping labour. Then two designers compete in their turn to get their design chosen by the lucky punters, with the loser working on the winner’s design.

One design faction is The Rich Brothers, a brace of laid-back hipsters who’ve won a whole herd of gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. Dapper Dude Harry and Hairy Hippie David (it should be the other way round, of course, but the Great And Powerful Gods Of Alliteration are rarely as cooperative as one would wish) go up against and then collaborate with the veteran TV fave Charlie Dimmock: a game old bird, broad of shoulder and grin with a flowing Robert Plant mane, decades of variegated horticultural experience and a far less conventional mindset than you might expect. And she does a MEAN water-feature. Broadly speaking, she’s the traditionalist and the Riches are the modernists. In fact, you could get a fairly lethal drinking game going during most shows by taking a glug every time one Rich or other uses the words ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary.’

So the three of them rock up to the site, inspect the premises, interrogate the clients and then go home to switch into Design Mode. Los Bros Rich fire up their Mac and Ms Dimmock puts on her specs and breaks out out her water-colour paintbox. Then they head back and pitch. Clients make choice, and then the landscapers — a bunch of hairy-arsed blokes including a geezer who looks like Billy Gibbons on steroid — go in and do the heavy lifting, digging, dredging undsoweiter before the Big Three arrive to lead the assembled company through the arty creative process. For some reason, the show is somewhat reticent about exactly how much time elapses between the trio’s first consultation and the final grand unveiling of the completed masterpiece to the astounded and delighted clients. Without a count-off (Deh Won!), we have no way of knowing whether it’s the team’s collective expertise or simply sympathetic editing which ensures that we never see anything going hideously wrong. Like one Rich Sibling attempting to decapitate the other with a chainsaw or the householders screaming, ‘WTF have you done? It’s horrible!’

Mind you, in an attempt to whip up spurious drama, the opening titles suggest that there might be conflict — Dimmock vs Riches or Rich vs Rich — but in practice that hardly ever happens: despite all Teh Bantz, it’s good humour and mutual respect almost all the way.

Without wishing to compromise my legendarily steadfast opposition to gender stereotyping in any form whatsoever, it should be noted that the Riches’ style is very ‘masculine’ — they loves them some straight lines and sharp angles — whereas Ms D’s layouts tend towards curvey and comfy and enfolding … almost maternal, in fact.

So why does it work? At a point in our planetary history where a foetid tide of horror threatens to engulf us all — for the lucky ones it laps around our feet; for the less fortunate it’s at nostril height — Garden Rescue represents an oasis of optimism wherein happy enthusiastic peeps who know what they’re doing and enjoy doing it can make a real difference, even if all they’re doing is transforming a wasteland rubbish tip or a blank featureless lawn into a delightful and diverting refuge.

Which is possibly what is meant by what our French neighbours would call cultiver notre jardin and our US cousins characterise as ‘moving to Montana’ (to raise me up a crop of dennil floss – thank you, Uncle Frank). Not an admission of defeat or a wholesale retreat from the Big Bad World’s nasty bits, but the creation of somewhere nice to hang out to regenerate a little before returning to the fray.

And finally: very good, Ms Parker. Now use the word ‘horticulture’ in another sentence.

Phun Phact: autocorrect seems to have a tireless need to transform ‘Dimmock’ into ‘Gimmick.’ I shudder to speculate as to why.

Charles Shaar Murray (finally) re-reviews Bowie’s Low

Waiting for the gift of sound and (re)vision …

Hey, so nobody’s perfect … not even me.

(ESPECIALLY not me …)

As any veteran of my rapidly-disappearing profession will confirm (especially after strong drink has been taken), it’s often the pieces in which you got it wrong (or, to be more euphemistic, found yourself on the wrong side of a later-emerging consensus) which are remembered longer than the ones in which you nailed it correctly. I still recall, with only the tiniest dollop of schadenfreude, the occasion on which one distinguished former NME colleague reviewed Bowie’s somewhat inglorious 1973 Earls Court show as ‘another nail in the coffin in which the Bowie mystique will soon be laid to rest.’ Or words to that effect.

It was therefore a pleasure (albeit of the bittersweet variety) to be invited to step back four decades and reassess and contemplate an error of critical judgement perpetrated back in 1977. So here we have a mea culpa, a little bit of personal background and an opportunity for me to second-guess my 26-year-old self.

So, whilst clearing a space on your shelf for the next Big Bowie Box (scheduled for landing any nanosecond now), enjoy the following. And cruise the rest of the site when you’re done.

For the reassessment AND the original review, click THIS

Charles Shaar Murray (finally!) reviews LOGAN

Review of Logan, the X-Men film finale (?), by Charles Shaar Murray

(1) The Twitter-length summary for the busy cineaste in a hurry:

This is the Mad Max movie for which George Miller never got around to commissioning a script from Harold Pinter and/or David Mamet.

(2) The Proper Movie Review for the serious movie buff who never got around to seeing any previous X-Men flicks because none of them were directed by Tarkovsky or Godard:

LOGAN

Directed, co-written and exec-produced by James Mangold

Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Merchant, Brook Holbrook, Richard E Grant and Dafne Keen

First and foremost: Logan is a story about ageing, frailty and failure; becoming ever weaker and more vulnerable in a world turned ever more harsh and threatening. The goal for which the mutant protagonists of the X-Men franchise have worked since the series kicked off in 2000 – to demonstrate to the world that mutants are fellow-humans rather than an existential threat to the species – is in ashes. In Marvel Universe coding, mutants are the all-purpose persecuted minority, providing metaphors for (at various times) Jews, Muslims, black folks, LGBT people, AIDS sufferers … any pariah outgroup vilified, excluded, harassed  or outlawed not for what they may or may not have done, but for who they are and what they might do.

Set in the year 2029, Logan is not so much a superhero flick in the Avengers or Batman tradition as dystopian SF in the Mad Max mould. It finds its former-superhero principals, Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Stewart) and Logan aka Wolverine (Jackman) in hiding and in decline: mutants have been hunted into near-extinction by the Homeland Security Agency, a seemingly omnipotent government department, and their own powers are rapidly fading.

Their deterioration is apparent the moment we see eyes and ears on them. Logan walks with a limp: he can’t be arsed to keep his greying hair greased up into those stupid wolfie ears, or even to shave the negative-goatee out of his now-bristly beard to create those trademark mutton-chops. Xavier is no longer the elegant, steely but twinkly-eyed control freak in immaculate three-piece suits: unkempt and only occasionally lucid, he’s played as if Sir Pat was limbering up for a Lear at the National, with the Clint Eastwood character from Unforgiven as his carer.

(Or, if you prefer, their relationship is now pitched somewhere between The Caretaker and Steptoe And Son. Annoyingly, I’ve only just discovered that Peter Bradshaw made this latter reference in his Guardian review back when this movie first came out earlier this year.)

The previous X-movies have been crowded: jam-packed with characters in cool outfits wielding spectacular super-powers, perpetually barrelling from one eye-boggling, ear-splitting action sequence or SFX blow-out to the next. Logan, by contrast, is slow and sparse: focussing on a mere handful of players (including a tart, campy turn by Stephen Merchant as a solarphobic mutant whose talent is to sense and track other mutants) and set mostly in the desolate outdoors of deserts and forests.The mutant herd has been drastically thinned, leaving no trace of the extended repertory company who’ve populated Logan‘s eight predecessors: all, presumably, dead or in either exile or captivity. It carries as little X-baggage as possible: the movie’s iconic poster— I’m amazed that Momentum haven’t yet adapted it into a Corbyn meme — makes no reference to the X-Men or, for that matter, to Wolverine. Only the trademark claws provide a clue to its provenance.

A puzzled friend commented, ‘I like action movies and Inaction movies, but this can’t make up its mind.’ In fact, what Mangold has provided is a deceptively steady-paced character piece which frequently (and not always predictably) explodes into ultra-violence. Some may find the transitions jarring and the rhythms unsettling, but I reckon it works. Your mileage may vary.

Logan also parts company with all the previous X-flix by carrying an ‘R’ certificate: not because of any sexual content (the only nipples on display are Jackman’s), but because this is the first not to sanitise Wolverine’s visceral fighting style, or to shy away from depicting the kind of damage which can be inflicted on human flesh by a very strong man prone to berserker rages and possessed of unbreakable katana-sharp claws.

In the past, I’ve been fond of describing superheroes as ‘brightly-coloured metaphors on legs’: this distinguished pair of thesps (who’ve now been playing these roles for the best part of two decades) now find their characters decidedly less brightly-coloured and on their last legs (or, in the Prof’s case,wheels). This is a very different animal, as is Wolverine himself.

When we first encountered the paraplegic, wheelchair-bound Xavier back in 2000, he was the most powerful telepath on earth, leading the world-saving X-Men from his Westchester mansion. Now in his 90s and ravaged by dementia, he is prone to seizures during which his mighty brain becomes a destructive weapon capable of killing hundreds of people at a time: one such seizure caused the catastrophe which itself triggered the anti-mutant holocaust.

Wolverine was once near-immortal and near-invulnerable: born in the mid-19th century, he possessed a healing factor which enabled him to recover almost instantly from any conceivable injury (in earlier movies, we saw him regrow a severed arm and sit up almost immediately after being shot through the forehead) and extrude lethal bone claws from his knuckles. At one point, he fell into the hands of a nasty US government programme which coated his skeleton (including the claws) with the unbreakable fictional metal adamantium as well as inducing both psychosis and amnesia, thereby conscripting him into service as a near-unstoppable assassin.

Now, the adamantium is poisoning him. He can no longer instantly heal himself; his eyesight is failing, he medicates himself against constant pain with booze and his sole remaining purpose in life is to earn enough money as a limo driver on the Tex-Mex border to pay for the heavy-duty tranqs which keep the raving Professor X’s potentially lethal seizures at bay whilst saving up to get the pair of them to permanent safety. In all other aspects of his existence, he’s reverted back to the selfish, grumpy, dangerous loner he was when the X-Men found him back in the first movie. He’s no longer fighting giant robots or fellow-mutants, but ageing and himself.

‘This is all about family’ is often a teeth-grindingly twee Hollywood trope, but here it makes sense: Wolverine, the quintessential loner, an orphan whose parents were murdered and whose only living relative is a brother who periodically attempts to murder him, finds himself caring for an enfeebled surrogate father (Xavier) whilst protecting a surrogate daughter (an 11-year-old female escapee from the Horrible Government Lab, vat-grown from Wolverine’s own DNA, equipped with her own lethal claws and played to a turn by Dafne Keen, an equally dab hand at acting and martial artsing) and simultaneously fighting off a surrogate son (a conscienceless clone of his younger self). Sentimental, but this, too, works.

Mangold and his co-writer Scott Frank previously worked with Jackman on The Wolverine, the Japanese-set solo adventure which sort-of-bridges the gap between XIII: The Last Stand and Days Of Future Past. That, too, begins with an isolated, scruffed-out, traumatised Logan in retreat from the world and deprives him, for much of the story, of his healing capabilities. Clearly, Jackman felt that Mangold was the director who could help him reach further beyond the character’s basic schtick of claws, cockiness and catch-phrases as he and Stewart say goodbye to roles they’ve played throughout the current millennium.

Yes yes yes, but what’s it fundamentally about? Weeelllllll …

You might be old, knackered, half-crazed and bent on nothing but survival (for yourself and your very, very closest) in a hostile and deeply fucked-up world … but sometimes when others desperately need you, even when a deafening inner voice is screaming, ‘Don’t do it!’ … you have to step up.

And be heroes, just for one last day.

Not all of us can do this. I can’t guarantee that I would. Nevertheless, those who can do it actually are heroes. Capes, tights, masks and helmets optional but not recommended.

(2) Some note-comparing for seasoned X-geeks. May contain spoilers, and could well be incomprehensible to civilians.

So: X-closure? Of a sort. It’s certainly closure for Jackman and Stewart, who see off their Beloved Character alter-egos with all the dignity, elegance and quality thesping that anyone who’s followed the series could possibly want and expect. And if it actually represented the dying fall of the series, it would be a nigh-on perfect farewell.

Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. Actors age (or get bored, or become too expensive), but franchises keep going as long as they remain lucrative and there will continue to be X films (and I’m old enough to remember when that meant something entirely different) until they start losing money. Unfortunately, the X franchise has painted (or scripted) itself into a temporal corner. The alternative cast introduced in X-Men Origins:  First Class are, by definition, the younger selves of the originals led by Sir Pat as the Prof and Ian McKellen as his frenemy Magneto; so — equally by definition — any future movies must take place before the original movie and should therefore be considered prequels.

(And can we say here that while James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender  — the junior editions of, respectively, Xavier and Magneto — are both fine actors, it requires a massive suspension of disbelief to accept that they will age into Sir Pat and Ian Mac? I mean, we’re not talking Robert DeNiro as a younger Don Corleone in Godfather II or Zachary Quinto as a younger Spock in the Star Trek reboots: the high-water marks of such generational recasting. We’re not even talking Josh Brolin and Tom Hardy shadowing (respectively) Tommy Lee Jones in MIB III or Sir Pat (again!) in Star Trek Nemesis. Jennifer Lawrence, who replaced Rebecca Romijn-Stahl as Mystique, gets a free pass because the character is a shapeshifter and therefore can look however she wants to look, but Fassbender and  McAvoy’s performances flat-out don’t work. Actually, Fassbender would have made a better fist of Young Xavier than McAvoy.  All this shouldn’t matter any more than it does when a comic-book changes artist — which is quite a lot if we’re talking Don Heck replacing Jack Kirby — but in practice it does matter. Bigly.)

Like most of its predecessors, Logan makes sense in its own terms, but slovenly and over-hasty retconning means that if you try to combine the entire series into a single coherent narrative, it falls apart. A few frinstances: nowhere in the original movie did we get any clue that Mystique and Xavier were childhood friends, or that Sabretooth is Wolverine’s even-more-psychotic older brother. There are also major plotty potholes concerning exactly when in the saga Xavier sustained the injury which confined him to his trademark wheelchair: we see Stewart on his feet as Professor X in the flashback intro sequence to XIII: The Last Stand and in his unbilled cameo at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, both of which chronologically post-date what we see in the later-shot but earlier-occurring movies. SF/superhero geeks are touchingly willing to accept the impossible, but they — WE — do demand internal consistency and convincing characterisation.

Just to complicate the above yet further, X-Men: Days Of Future Past introduced the idea of diverging timelines, so technically the 2029 of Logan represents only one possible future for our heroes and villains. Other possible futures, though, will have to be explored without Jackman and Stewart (unless, of course, they are offered truly obscene sums of negotiable currency).

One final thought. In the original metaphor, Professor X and his X-Men represented the Dr King of mutants, seeking to defuse human fear and resentment in the interests of peaceful coexistence, whilst Magneto and his Brotherhood Of Mutants were the militant Black Muslims, seeking to subjugate or exterminate ‘normal’ humans. Magneto and his sect are nowhere to be seen (or even referenced) in Logan. The inescapable conclusion is that while Magneto may have lost his earlier battles with Xavier, he was nevertheless the one who was finally proved right. Humans, rather than mutants, were the most dangerous predator species of all.

Postscript (1): As in every X-Men movie since the launch of the franchise, Professor Charles Xavier’s surname is pronounced ‘ECKS-avier’, which has been a perennial annoyance; presumably it was to forestall the domestic audience from asking, ‘WUHHH, if his name’s ZAVIER, howcum they’re not called the Zee-Men?’ It’s enough to make a Brit person feel somewhat ECKS-enophobic. On the other hand, this X-ccentric pronunciation now has a new resonance: Professor X is, in his dotage, an EX-saviour. However, though Wolverine himself only barely survives to the end of the movie, he nevertheless becomes a saviour in his own right.

Postscript (2): Principal cast: one Australian, three Brits, two Americans. Don’t tell Trump.

Postscript (3): the bonus disk in the package contains a ‘Logan Noir’ version in crisp monochrome. Maybe that’s the one to slap into the machine for the Tarkovsky buffs.