David Foster Wallace long ago warned about the cultural snark that now defines popular culture. It’s time to listen
I’ve been dissecting this article for the past week, and still don’t feel smart or cultured enough to fully understand all the evidence the writers, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll, are using to make their argument. A few posts previously on our Tumblr Willa posted a famous interview of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which Marquez decries intellectualism in the creative process in favor of using intuition, and I suppose this Salon article could serve as something of a rebuttal. I haven’t read enough of Marquez to know for sure.
Ashby and Carroll do have something here, though. They cite three major 21st century novels—McCarthy’s The Road, Robinson’s Gilead and Gaitskill’s Veronica (which I need to read)—as courageous works of art in how they confront their tumultuous, apt-to-depress world with writing that is unabashedly sentimental and that attempts redemption. This in contrast to what the writers (and David Foster Wallace) assert to be a trend of ironic, nihilistic and demoralizingly self-conscious art that has taken prominence since the 1960s. I don’t know if I agree that all our art has become these things, but I can get on board with their desire to see more artists working to take risks, leave themselves vulnerable and make the audience feel catharsis and redemption, rather than just “comment”, “poke fun”, and other forms of unproductive or destructive exploitation.
Directed by Lotfy Nathan The 12 O’CLOCK BOYS are a notorious urban dirt bike pack in Baltimore — popping wheelies and weaving at excessive speeds through traffic, the group impressively evades the hamstrung police. In Lotfy Nathan’s wild, dynamic documentary (three years in the making), their stunning antics are envisioned through the eyes of young adolescent Pug - a bright kid from the Westside obsessed with the riders and willing to do anything to join their ranks. Premiering to critical acclaim at the SXSW and Hot Docs Film Festivals (where Nathan won the HBO Emerging Artist Award), 12 O’CLOCK BOYS provides a compelling and intimate personal story of a young boy and his dangerous, thrilling dream.
This weekend I set aside an hour and fifteen minutes to watch the documentary film 12 O’clock Boys, directed by Lotfy Nathan who spent three years interviewing and hanging out with now 14 year-old Pug of West Baltimore. The film tracks Pug’s coming-of-age in a ghetto neighborhood that ails from a perpetual lack of economic opportunity, constant violence and physical disrepair. Pug aspires to join the 12 O’clock Boys, an aggressive dirt bike gang antagonized by the city of Baltimore and representative of black rebellion against the oppressive status quo.
I’ll be showing the film in my class in the next couple of weeks in an ongoing attempt to empower my court-involved students, all of whom come from NYC neighborhoods equivalent to West Baltimore, with sociopolitical awareness, oppression education and the language of social justice. This film is so much of what I want in my art; it is smart and unassuming, politically bold yet challenges the viewer to make meaning him/herself.
Check out how the late Roger Ebert embarrasses his legacy in an astonishingly superficial and misunderstood review:
In the post office it is tense and drab and arid. There is an undercurrent of deception. I have moved from the main queue line to the self-service machine line to the money orders, stamps and certified line, all on my own accord, and now I am plotting a fourth maneuver back to the main line, and no one seems to find this strange. Aside from the drone of feet shuffling to an uncanny rhythm, my ears feel hyperaware, like in a nature preserve. There is the far-off conversation of a postal worker speaking through the reinforced double-glass windows to a woman waving a limp dollar bill in one hand; the sudden, amplified, cartoonish ding-dong! to signal the opening of a booth; an infant screaming in abject misery; a man muttering curses and making his way to the door, idle apologies of people backing into one another, the scribbling of a pen on hard Formica, and all the while the pervading hush of conflict inevitable as the violence and gore in act five of a Shakespeare tragedy.
I can see through the windows two postal workers spread over eight booths, and a third pacing back and forth from the mailbox room to the package room and back, her head always down. One problem is that the package room has overflowed into the main room with the booths, and there are great brown towers of boxes everywhere, creating that romantic underground feel, nooks, caves, natural staircases and landings—the type of place a couple of six year-olds would love to spend an afternoon. There are two stations in the front of the post office for you to select your USPS-brand box and package sleeve and assemble it yourself, but the cardboard and paper piles have been tossed all over the place or have long since been exhausted, and I take a quick sojourn to Walgreens to purchase a manila bubble-wrap sleeve for $1.73, where a man in a suit greets me at the door, the cashier calls me “guest” and a marimba jazz tune plays paradise over the PA system. Then I’m back at the post office, caught for the third time trying to open the wrong entrance door, the one that is bolted shut from the inside.
Someone has left their printed twenty-dollar sticker on top of the self-service machine; a good Samaritan has been waiting to show it to a postal worker now for the last five minutes. A man is standing at the change-of-address, fill-out-your-envelope, etc. counter, staring out the window toward Atlantic Avenue. Ding-dong! Two patrons troubleshoot the self-service machine, trying to figure out why it has charged them ten dollars for a small parcel. “What line is that?” a woman in the main queue calls to the woman at the front of the package line. “Can I mail a package from that line?” “You can’t do anything from that line,” someone says. A man exiting drives his pushcart into a garbage can, which slides several feet but does not tip over. He ponders for a moment, then leaves it there, wheeling around it. “Thank you sooo much,” the old woman in front of me says to the postal worker, having just made a transaction. “God bless you.” She walk past me. “It’s your turn, my love.”
I took 18 students up to Bronx Community College today, to break the monotony of our program. A couple of them have applied already, or are thinking about applying. We took the E to the D all the way up to 183rd St.
I hadn’t made an appointment for an actual college tour, or anything. I’d been playing phone tag with the admissions officer; I would call and email her, then she would call me two weeks later while I was teaching a class, then I would call her back and she wouldn’t be around, then a week later she’d call me, and so on. So I just decided to take them up there myself. I’d been there before. I’d seen the sculpture garden with the American presidents and inventors and other Successful People, overlooking the East River and Inwood to the west and the Palisades way over in Jersey. I’d seen the brand new library with nobody in it. I knew how to get to the echoey rotunda and what to say about it. At the entrance a guard stopped us. We all waited, having a photo op and blasting 18 different songs out of 18 different headphones while he listened for how he should proceed over the walkie-talkie. Finally he let us go, told me about the map at the top of the stairs.
When we invaded the library, and all my students rushed to the couches, the password-less computers, and made loud conversation in the foyer, the police officer smiled at me and said nothing. When we barged in on a talk en espanol concerning the study-abroad program to Puerto Rico, the facilitator stopped his lecture to welcome us and ask how we were doing. Another woman presiding over the talk was not alarmed when we came in rowdily but when we decided to leave because we couldn’t understand what was being said. When two of my students went into Admissions to see about applying, an admissions officer invited them into her inner chamber to motivate them. The rest of my students waited patiently outside. I felt good about Bronx Community College.
I did not manage to get any money for lunch, so we just walked back to the train. We got back to the program late in the afternoon and ate old sandwiches out of the fridge.
Can I tell you about my favorite oak tree? It’s the one over on Jefferson Davis, between Cleveland and Canal. The dead-looking one. It doesn’t care about its pretty. It doesn’t need to prove its green. Swayed by so many storms that just surviving is enough.
When I was nine, I knew exactly what I wanted to be for Halloween. I wanted to be Cleopatra. At the grocery store, there was a rack of costumes-in-a-bag you could buy for $9.99, and while my mother insisted on spending her time at the grocery store doing boring things, like buying milk so we could all survive, I’d beeline directly to the costumes-in-a-bag rack as soon as we walked in. My mother told me that I shouldn’t do that, because I’d get lost and she’d be considered a bad mother for abandoning me, but I felt she was being…
Oh hey look! Our editor-in-chief was featured on The Hairpin today! COOL!
“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”—Leslie Jamison, “The Empathy Exams” (via The Believer)
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”—
This weekend our city will host the 28th annual Tennessee Williams Festival. Events began on on Wednesday, with the festival bringing together thespians, playwrights, novelists, and artists from around the country.
Our own WIlla Conway wrote a piece in NolaVie previewing the Tennessee Williams Festival. See if you saw the right things.
In this piece, I am also reminded of James Baldwin and his idea of how reading connects us to our humaness and the world.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” ― James Baldwin
“Why is it people always get so upset about Affirmative Action but not about legacies? For some reason we’re ok with the historically advantaged having a leg-up over the rest of us, but not the historically disenfranchised.”—One of the best comment about Affirmative Action I’ve seen (found in response to this article)
I’d like to say that when I say “white” I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin. I’m not talking about race. It’s a curious country, a curious civilization, that thinks of it as race. I don’t believe any of that. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white.