Friday, September 16, 2005

 

Born into Brothels is a difficult film to watch, more difficult because, as a documentary, the fate of its primary characters – eight children, ages ten to twelve, all the offspring of prostitutes in Calcutta’s squalid red-light district – is something you know they will have to live with the whole of their lives. Zana Briski, the photographer who came to live in Sonagachi district to document the lives of the women & ended up teaching photography classes for their children, letting the kids document their own lives, often speaks of the children as “doomed” if she can’t find boarding schools who will take them on scholarship. It’s hard not to watch the kids with value-judgments in abeyance – the kids work hard, are treated brutally by their parents & neighbors (a scene that is repeated more than once), have no visible formal education & have to flee their homes to play on the streets or rooftops whenever mom brings home a customer. Families, grandparents included, sleep on mats with no fixed sense of order. One boy, having photographed a pair of sandals left in some spilled curried rice, demands, “In what other country would you find people who put their shoes in their food?”

And yet with the resiliency & optimism of almost all children their age, the young photographers picture reveal a world of richness & bright colors, great humor & limitless empathy. One girl’s photograph of her sister’s friend (above) ends up as the cover to an Amnesty International calendar. Another boy, Agavit, perhaps the ultimate protagonist of this film, is invited to Amsterdam to participate in a World Press Photography Foundation show of children’s photography from around the world.

The gap between Agavit’s potential & his present circumstance becomes all the more extreme when his mother is murdered – torched apparently by her pimp. The boy responds with understandable anger & depression, not knowing if he wants to continue with is photography or his (equally magnificent) painting. A portion of the film chronicles “Zana Auntie’s” increasingly desperate interactions with school officials, passport offices, a bureaucracy unspeakably inept & overwhelmed. This is interspersed, literally, with field trips as the takes the kids to the ocean & the zoo (where some identify strongly with the caged conditions of the animals).

The children speak of wanting to leave the district, of not turning into prostitutes or drug dealers, with the same language one hears here from felons about prison reform & rehabilitation, knowing what is expected of them by the camera – indeed by the entire outside world – yet in fact a boarding school & real education would cleave them from their families forever. It’s an almost impossible choice between the most impoverished demimonde I’ve ever seen – no one even bothers to investigate the murder of Agavit’s mother – and something not that removed from the Carlisle Indian School in 19th century Pennsylvania (which today is routinely presented as an instance of the soft version of America’s genocide of the nations it found already inhabiting the new world the U.S. coveted). And while Briski manages to get most of the kids accepted at various schools, by the time of the film’s completion, only three remained away from the district – one of these a girl who ran away from home to accept her scholarship. The other girls will be “in the line” turning tricks well before they turn 15.

We watched this film with our boys & had a long thoughtful conversation afterwards. What they found most moving was not that these children their own age were being channeled toward prostitution as such, but the evident emotional brutality of parents & neighbors, the idea that these bright, hopeful children were going to turn out like their parents. That’s not separable from the fact of prostitution & its ancillary drug scene, at least not in Calcutta (one father attempted, during the course of the film, to sell his ten-year-old daughter). They all commingle when sex, drugs & money fuse together in the lowest rungs of the world economic system.



Thursday, September 15, 2005

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published Bill Lavender’s account of escaping New Orleans. Considering just how many of Bill’s friends & fans of his poetry read this blog, it makes sense to reprint it here.

'We're Getting Out of Here'

Bill Lavender runs the Low Residency Creative Writing Program at the University of New Orleans. His companion, Nancy Dixon, teaches in the university's English department. Over a cellphone, Mr. Lavender described their journey out of the city.

When we heard about the storm, we decided not to evacuate, because we really didn't think our house was in grave danger. We live in Mid-City, which is a part of New Orleans that's relatively high but not as high as the French Quarter. It's an old house. It's been through plenty of hurricanes.

I guess the storm was at full force at midmorning on Monday. It never was really that bad -- I actually put on my motorcycle helmet and walked around outside at the height of it. We lost power, of course. We still had water, we still had gas.

By about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the storm was over. There was a little bit of water in the street, but nothing I couldn't have driven through. Our reaction at that point was, Well, this wasn't really that bad.

If that had been all the storm was, I wouldn't have regretted staying.

At some point in there, the water did start to rise. It was rising in the full sunshine, with no rain, just coming up in the streets.

Our neighbor across the street, who had evacuated, had a boat under her house -- a 14-foot light aluminum skiff with oarlocks and oars. As kind of a lark, I went and pulled it out from under her house and put it in the street.

That night, Monday night, we went out on the front porch. There was absolutely no light, and there was no noise, and the stars were fantastically clear.

We got up the next morning, and the water was higher. We were trying to listen to the radio, trying to figure out what was going on. We were hearing that the flooding on the east side of New Orleans was really bad. We were starting to hear helicopters flying around.

There was a rumor that the levee was broken somewhere, but that they were going to be fixing it, and that as soon as they got the levee fixed, they were going to be able to pump the water out. I was thinking maybe the end of the week, at the most.

One of my neighbors came to my door and said there was a guy around the corner with a baby who needed to go to the hospital. The guy was scared to death of water.

So we got in the boat, and we were rowing down the street, trying to pick the best route to Mercy Hospital. There was water all the way -- right up to the front door.

Some guy in scrubs got down in the water and helped me dock the boat there on the steps. He was a paramedic who worked for the city. He said they had no power in the hospital, and he had a generator down at his office. He wanted to know if I could row him down there so he could get this generator.

And I asked him, "Doesn't the hospital have backup power?" He said, "Yeah, they have a generator, but it's in the basement."

It was ludicrous, this notion of going to get a 5,000-watt generator to power a hospital. But he said, "There are people dying in here, and it's all we can do."

So we went to his paramedic station, a little two-story metal building. Two of his colleagues were there.

This guy I'm with told them, "I've come to get the generator." And they told him no. He said, "Look, there are people dying in Mercy."

"Well things are tough all over, and before this generator comes out of here, I've got to get me and my dogs out."

At that point, I kind of exploded. I said, "You're not even using the generator. The generator has nothing to do with your dogs." It kind of shamed them. We finally did get the generator.

We had our last good meal that night. We were having wine on the front porch, all the neighbors were out on their porches, and I got out my guitar and sang "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."

That night it was really hot and really still. There were helicopters messing around all night. I had this idea they were either evacuating Mercy Hospital or bringing them a generator. At one point they were so close that I could feel the wind, so I took to praying for them to come over.

It wasn't until Wednesday that we started to get more information. There was a press conference at 12. They said they thought the levee repairs would be done by about Friday. Then they said they should have the water out of the city within about 30 days. I said, "We're getting out of here. We can't live like this for 30 days."

We packed up very hastily -- all our drinking water and a good bit of food. I left my hard drive with 30 years of miscellaneous writings on it, plus Nancy's hard drive with all her scholarship on it. I just tried to hide them in the attic. I didn't know what else to do.

We had to put our cat in a carrying cage, and we put our dogs on the boat. We went and got our neighbor, my friend Charlie Franklin. We told him what we'd heard and we told him it's time to go. He thought about it for about two minutes, and then said OK.

We were nervous. We knew there were no police. We'd been warned that there were roving bands of armed looters. We knew that the boat was becoming a valuable commodity. The dogs were nervous also. They would not let anyone approach closer than about 10 feet from the boat. Charlie had a gun.

When we turned one corner, there was a kiddie pool floating in the middle of Canal Street, and I could see a head sticking up over the side of it. There was another guy pushing it and another guy wandering around in the chest-deep water looking kind of dreamy. They were junkies that had looted the Rite Aid. They were using this kiddie pool to get out of the water to shoot up.

A little further, there was a dead man in the water. Someone had hung his shirt up on a street sign. I couldn't really see his face, but the shirt was sticking up like a tent. We heard later they were tying corpses to street signs and poles.

Across the street was a building called the City Hall Annex. It has a big front porch that was just above water level, and it was full of people, maybe 150. On one end, there were women and kids holding up signs saying, "Help us please." At the other end of the porch there was this mad party going on. They were breaking windows and throwing whiskey bottles around and kind of whooping and yelling.

We were starting to get very careful about our route because we were getting close to the Superdome, and we didn't want to get caught there. Our plan was to go to the Macy's parking lot, which is just adjacent to the dome, where we had parked our car. We were just praying that we might be able to get to the car and drive out.

There were no cops. In this whole ride, we never saw a cop.

When we got to the Macy's parking lot, we saw that the entrance was four feet deep. So we couldn't get our car. We followed the water to the corner of Girod and Carondolet, and that's where the water ended. We had to abandon the boat.

So we started walking uptown, to go to my ex-wife's house, which we knew was dry, and they had a generator and probably food and water. For all I knew, they were still there, because I hadn't talked to them since Monday morning when the phones went out.

We saw this two-story house with the facade completely removed. It was just like a dollhouse. I could see the furniture and the bookshelves, everything neat, nothing in disarray, and these two black labs up on the second floor looking down at us.

After a while, a guy caught up with us. He told us he had walked all the way from the lower Ninth Ward. I'm guessing that must be at least five miles. He told us that down in the Ninth Ward he was literally wading through bodies on the way out. He didn't know where any of his family was. He had a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old kid, and he suspected that they were both dead. He was coming uptown because he had a brother who was a butler in a Garden District mansion.

He told us that in the end there will be tens of thousands dead.

We got to my ex's house. We were just praying that we were going to see her pickup outside the house. But there was nothing, and our hearts just sank. We'd been on the road now for about four to five hours. We were exhausted.

Then I remembered that our friends lived just a few blocks away, and they had left their car. Not only that, but I knew right where the key was. We got to Alex and Kat's house, and the car was intact, and the key was in the mailbox. But we couldn't make the key work in the door. I tried it and Charlie tried it, and finally I said, "Charlie, move," and I threw a brick through the window.

We crammed all of us in the car. We drove to Tchoupitoulas Street and then straight across the bridge to the West Bank, the only way out.

The next day, we were going to leave Charlie in Baton Rouge to take the bus to Alexandria, but we found out that there were 200,000 people downtown trying to get out. So we took him all the way to Alexandria. We started to have the emotional breakdown. It was strange how, going through the whole thing, I just sort of never stopped. None of us did.

But when we dropped Charlie off, all three of us broke down and started crying and pretty much didn't stop for about three days.

http://chronicle.com
Section: Notes From Academe
Volume 52, Issue 4, Page A56



Wednesday, September 14, 2005

 

The perfect counterpoint to Marjorie Perloff’s Vienna Paradox has to be Rosmarie Waldrop’s Ceci n’est pas Rosmarie, half of a pair of delightful autobiographical memoirs by the famed poet, translator, editor & publisher and her equally renowned poet, teacher, editor & publisher spouse – Keith Waldrop’s memoir is called Ceci n’est pas Keith, brought out as a single volume under their own Burning Deck imprint in 2002. Rosmarie Waldrop’s memoir is the perfect counterpoint to Perloff’s because Rosmarie Sebald, four years Perloff’s junior, has had something akin to a parallel life, with some profound differences. Where Perloff’s family were affluent urban sophisticates in Austria, deeply involved in the arts & culture, & indeed in the uppermost reaches of the Austrian government until the anti-Semitism of the Nazis drove them into exile & caused young Gabriele Mintz to refashion herself as Marjorie Perloff, one of the first major American literary critics to focus on the avant-garde tradition, Rosmarie Sebald was the daughter of a German physical education teacher who escaped “being drafted” into Hitler Jugend only by the fall of Germany a few short months before her tenth birthday.

The four-year age gap between the two is as profound as the distinction between German & Jew in determining how they perceived the dislocations of the war years – the Mintz family settling in New York while Rosmarie was sent to live with rural relatives to avoid the aerial attacks on her city, which thereafter was occupied for many years by GIs who converted a nearby airbase to Allied use. One such GI was Keith Waldrop, who used his jazz records & interest in the global avant-garde to woo the local girl – and who later used the funds from winning the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award to bring Rosmarie to America, where she emerged as Rosmarie Waldrop, one of the finer poets of our time & one of the great translators of all time.

If Perloff uses her memoir to investigate an entire range of issues, the Waldrops are more content to let memoir be memoir. And yet the differences between their own interwoven stories are equally fascinating. Keith’s is more easy going, even playful, than Rosmarie’s – tho her formal structure is superficially the more disjunct, less conventional. One senses also – tho Keith may be the least academic “academic” of all time – just how important teaching & the context of different schools have been for him, really the only setting he has ever had for his work as such, a foundation that Rosmarie gets instead from her labor as a translator & publisher – her discussion of the impact typesetting has had in shaping her own priorities as a poet is one of her memoir’s high points.

Tho it is visible really only indirectly in either book, it is fascinating to see how different the avant-garde appears in Rosmarie’s memoir from the one that shows up in Marorie’s. Perloff’s avant-garde is ultimately North American, tho it looks to Europe for a philosophical foundation, the intellectual questions that will haunt it – this is never more clear than in Perloff’s discussion of John Cage, which is really a discussion of Cage the student of Schoenberg, not, say, Cage the Buddhist. Rosmarie Waldrop’s avant-garde is only occasionally American, but is rather a more broadly defined international weaving of like-minded artists. Both Perloff & Waldrop discuss Wittgenstein at some length, but again it would seem to be very nearly a different person.

Individually & together, the Waldrop memoirs are nowhere near as ambitious as Perloff’s. Rosmarie’s Americanization is as much the process of becoming an artist as becoming an American – again that age difference between Perloff & Waldrop yields different results, tho here it is because Perloff was so much younger when she made the transition. Together & individually, all three memoirs give us important insights into the creation of our own post-WW2 literary scene & on the rubble of the old world on which some portion of this new one has been built.



Tuesday, September 13, 2005

 

The Kibera slums in Nairobi, where over one million people live
is an important setting for The Constant
Gardner
tho images of it show up in none of the film’s promotional material.

 

Fernando Meirelles uses a John Le Carré story, one part spy mystery, one part tragic romance, to tell a tale of Globalization: The Dark Side in The Constant Gardner. Viewers familiar with Meirelles’ majestic City of God may be disappointed to see that he has made what is largely a more sinister, contemporary version of The English Patient here – Ralph Fiennes has the franchise for tragic romances set in Africa – but this is an instance in which the plot is not particularly the story that Meirelles is telling. Rather, like City of God, he wants you to see just how it is people in the Third World live today – there are long aerial pans of the endless Kibera slums of Nairobi, a desert refugee camp in the Sudan, not a lion or elephant to be seen. The only hint of the old indigenous culture emanates from the sound track.¹

At one level, the film is standard Hollywood fare – anyone who has seen the Harrison Ford blockbuster The Fugitive knows almost instantly where this film is headed – but it really is as if Meirelles has made two movies, one for the studio that financed it, another for viewers’ back brains, images that won’t easily fade, even if the characters’ comments about them blend easily enough to a typical genre – the evil pharmaceutical conglomerate whose clinical trials are going badly, burying its mistakes more or less literally in a local lime pit, failing to note that its forthcoming wonder drug kills some people some of the time. It’s not so much that Meirelles wants you to see the corporation acting badly, with the aid of more than a few British foreign service officers, as it is that he wants you to see what a clinical trial of western medicine looks like in Kenya period. It’s a scene of poverty that might have looked more stark three weeks ago, before the anarchy at the New Orleans Convention Center ripped the veil off our own version of desperation & put it on the evening news, but ultimately it’s not all that different. “Disposable people,” as one of the characters puts it, look remarkably similar regardless of where they suffer.

The story turns a few of the usual narrative conventions upside down – the protagonist, British foreign service officer Fiennes is not Harrison Ford-like cool under fire or heroic. Indeed he’s filmed at several key points in postures intended to make him seem smaller than his six feet. Rachel Weisz, who plays his wife, on the other hand is filmed to seem taller – she’s actually five inches shorter – he’s often looking up at her, literally. She is the character who sets the plot in motion, a firebrand of an international aid worker who weds the phlegmatic diplomat at least partly so that he will take her to Africa. She’s perpetually asking the embarrassing rhetorical question of public officials, making her spouse’s colleagues cringe before whispering to her husband that he needs to do a better job keeping her under wraps. This, of course, she has no intention of doing.

The story is told in two arcs, starting with the discovery of her murder (the wheels of her overturned jeep is the very first image up on the screen) & her husband’s attempt to understand what happened – she hasn’t told him anything about the scandal concerning the tests of Dypraxa, a "cure" for tuberculosis, she was about to expose. Gradually he comes to understand what she was doing, to & with whom, and, as he does, the very same forces that got her begin to come after him. I’m not going to tell you more than that, except that the ending both is & is not familiar.

Unlike Andrew Davis, the director of The Fugitive, Meirelles obviously cares passionately about the corporate relationships that exist to bring a modern medicine to market. The manufacturer of the drug is not the subcontractor who tests it & the motives of the British government in aiding either of these corporations is as simple as 1500 jobs in a manufacturing plant in the north. Fiennes eventually is forced to understand how all the parties are motivated differently, ending up in a Sudanese refugee camp where Dypraxa’s original inventor is expiating his own sins by bringing aid to the victims of that nation’s civil war. It is a perfect Meirelles’ touch that Fiennes confrontation with Pete Postlethwaite in the camp is interrupted by bandits on horseback “recruiting” new members at gunpoint.

This film has gotten rave reviews in part because anyone who saw City of God understands what a great filmmaker Meirelles is, and in part because it comes at the end of cinema’s summer season, when the market is flooded with mindless fare for out-of-school teenagers. If it’s not quite the great film the reviewers would like it to be, it certainly is a fascinating, often wonderful project to watch. If I have problems with it, it’s partly because of the compromises Meirelles makes to get this tale to market – there is a sex scene early on (a flashback, actually) that is filmed in lighting fit for a perfume ad. Indeed, one of the largest distractions of The Constant Gardner is that it is visually so damn beautiful – whether it’s a scene of herons erupting from the surface of a lake at sunset or a long scan of the Kibera slums. This is a level of romanticism on the part of cinemaphotographer César Charlone that was never evident in City of God when he & Meirelles were dealing with their own continent. This film, however, was made for a different audience, or at least audiences beyond those that saw City. It will be interesting to see which ones show up.

 

¹ Again like the English Patient. When the CD comes out, it’s certain to be a success financially – world music as easy listening.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

 

The Vienna Paradox, the title of Marjorie Perloff’s intense & fascinating memoir, was that the Jews of the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not think of themselves as Jewish – indeed, many had been baptized – until Hitler forced them to do so. As a community, the Viennese Jewish elite had been as thoroughly assimilated into the Austrian society as took place in any European nation. Perloff’s maternal grandfather, a career diplomat, serviced successive Austrian governments even after they had become overtly fascists, right up until the Anschluss, Hitler’s “annexation” of Austria into the Third Reich. The Anschluss forced Perloff’s family to flee, most coming to the United States (tho a couple were able to wait the war out in Italy & still others settled in South America).

In place of Judaism, Perloff suggests, many turned instead to culture, the so-called high arts, as a kind of more secular religion, one that could join them to their Christian neighbors. Having to flee for their lives & assimilate in the New World not only unveiled the anti-Semitism of their neighbors – anything they couldn’t carry with them was of course stolen – but now exposed them to a new world in which the absolute barrier between art & kitsch, between populism & Kulchur, had never been fully erected. From the Vienna of Schoenberg they found themselves in the New York of Frank Sinatra, where a profane haberdasher from Missouri sat atop what emerged from the war as the most powerful nation in the world.

At one level, Vienna Paradox is the tale of the Americanization of Gabriele Mintz, who ditched her first name in a quest to de-emphasize her “exotic” Viennese roots, emerging as one of the two or three most successful & important critics of contemporary American literature of the past half century. But just as Perloff has succeeded by focusing on our most challenging texts & authors – not without controversy – The Vienna Paradox is the antithesis of the “I did this, I did that” mode of autobiography. Indeed, the book’s weakest moments are often its most autobiographical, especially once Perloff enters the adult realm of college. Her decision to focus her work on the most progressive poets of her time is handled in less than one sentence – tho the decision casts enormous light backward on the community of her childhood & on the idea of a class that immersed itself not, as Perloff makes clear, in art for art’s sake, but in art for life’s sake. If I read what Perloff almost says rightly, the avant-garde (& now presumably the post-avant) carries forward what was best about the old high culture – the constant quest to further thought, to explore, that which could be said to underlie such disparate Viennese intellectuals as Stefan George, Arnold Schoenberg & Ludwig Wittgenstein – whereas the School of Quietude is concerned instead primarily with preserving high culture’s social codes, the elitism that ultimately failed the Jewish participants the instant that the darker underbelly of anti-Semitism was revealed to be a constituent element of such social conservatism.

That is, at least on one level, the unwritten book that still lurks just beneath the surface of these pages. Vienna Paradox is at its best when Perloff is focused on the worlds of her parents & grandparents & the much more wrenching adjustments they had to make, both personally & professionally, coming to the U.S. Already in their 30s when they reached New York, Max & Ilse Mintz had to establish themselves in new careers. High achievers both – a Mintz & Schüller family trait that goes back beyond the time when my own ancestors were still illiterate fish mongers in England – Gabriele’s father became a CPA while her mother was one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. in economics & taught at Columbia. Focusing in part on these older generations enables Perloff to invoke her remarkable research & analytical skills in ways that writing about herself really doesn’t permit.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Perloff’s own upbringing was her education at Fieldston School, a private school operated by the Ethical Culture movement, dedicated to the insertion of ethics into the social function most people would reserve for religion. Popular among secular Jews – Rachel Blau DuPlessis has an Ethical Culture background as well – Fieldston could be read as an attempt to recreate the same dynamics that made up, for Perloff, the Vienna Paradox itself. In her own case, however, it was simply the closest private school available. The process of Americanization was already overwhelming her family’s old world dynamics.

The Vienna Paradox is exceptionally readable, more compelling than most novels. If anything, it cries out for a sequel. There is, I think, an entire volume hidden in this sentence (in reaction to professor’s suggestion that she turn the statistical analysis of rhyme from its original focus on Yeats in her dissertation to a poet such as Byron):

More important: I wanted to become a different kind of Modernist: no longer a student of Robert Lowell, but of the larger, early 20th century world called the Avant-Garde.

Here’s hoping that someday she will write that book.



Sunday, September 11, 2005

 

This is the best photo essay I’ve seen from a resident of New Orleans.



 

Robert Rahway Zakanitch, 2001

Worth noting:

Arthur Danto, the philosopher who serves as art critic for The Nation, has curated an exhibit entitled The Art of 9/11, which just opened at apexart gallery in Soho. The site is worth visiting for Danto’s words, especially when thought about in the context of our ongoing national catastrophe in the gulf states. I’m sure the show is worth a trip downtown as well.

Meanwhile in Austin, Texas, this year’s University of Texas students are getting an undergrad library completely devoid of books. As somebody who discovered poetry by wandering around a library just to see what might be there, this is a concept that makes me break out in a rash.

Yakima, tho, has a Poetry Pole.

Finally, in Kabul, Love’s Labour’s Lost.



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