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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Great show, but almost overwhelming ...

Only realized last night during the show that -- though I own a copy of the old film -- I've never had any inclination to watch it. Was aware that it was blatantly racist and, though considered the epic of its time and heralded the birth of the film industry as a viable art form, the pain of watching it always managed to overwhelm my curiosity. It felt more important to own for its historic value than to experience it. It sits on my bookshelf for someday ... .

Paul "DJSpooky" Miller is without question one of the prophetic voices of the new art world. That is undeniable. His inventiveness in instantaneously choosing those film clips to feed from his elaborate turntable (live!) -- into what is an almost brutally assaultive art piece was unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was all done on three huge screens that filled the stage. He "played" it in true DJ fashion -- almost cartoon-like images from the old silent movie in combination with the wild effects of morphing and kaleidoscopic openings and closings and super-imposing of images of brutality super-imposed upon scenes of almost Keystone Kop slapstick-taken-from-reality -- and all beating against your senses with the blaring of a rock music assault by Jimmy Hendrix! The soundtrack was the driving force -- loud, raucus, make-you-want-to-run-away music. Overwhelming is the only word that fits, and even then I wish I had another word to use to describe it all. When looking at that evil innocence (and what a strange coupling of words is that) of the period -- the irony in D.W. Griffith's film when viewed against all that followed in our nation's history is staggering!

Miller's choice of those images that featured not only black actors, but whites-disguised-as-blacks as well (with the tell-tale pink eye-linings). Incongruous! There was the cutting in of images of contemporary dancers played against scenes of cotton fields and galloping menacing Klansmen ... all orchestrated to enhance the ugliness of the period and the human tragedy of runaway racial bigotry.

While caught up in the wildness of what was happening on stage, my own mind was cutting and splicing and filling in with its own kaleidoscopic images of my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, living those years in that little cabin alongside the levee of the Mississippi in St. James Parish, Louisiana. She was widowed and attempting to raise her brood - farming her small plot of land amid the chaos of radical social change. Up popped the image of handsome great Uncle Albert that hangs on the wall of my Richmond apartment along with all the others -- one of her sons who fled in terror to Kansas City -- never to return -- after a fatal confrontation with a Klansman there in Bayou country; a story I've never known in full detail. It was one of the whispered stories -- enshrouded in secrecy and usually only spoken of in creole by grownups. The language (a patois of Cajun French) was gradually adulterated out of existence by English, so we children learned of it from mother and Aunt Vivian in tiny bits as it gradually escaped the bounds of language over many years.

Maybe one of the reasons that I'm able to relate to Miller's presentation is that there is a resemblance in this dynamic flashing sand-blasting imagery and sound that connects with the process through which I'm able to reconstruct my own history. He's providing "triggers" that release meaningful "clips" reclaimed from childhood memories that together created the foundation upon which was formed the woman who eventually emerged. Interesting.

I sense that something terribly important is going on here, and I'm anxious to see and learn more about it. This is the mission of the arts, and Miller is rolling it out to serve a critical need in a time of unprecented social and political re-assessment and moral outrage.

When I see how far-reaching and all-consuming were the misconceptions and mind-numbing racist attitudes that ushered in decades of lynchings and mutilations that were aided and abetted by this film -- I'm appalled. And -- to cruise the internet and view the web sites based upon hate and racial bigotry -- still -- is devastating at worst, and disheartening at best.

Not sure how I feel about it yet, but I did notice how few non-whites were present in last night's audience. The house was almost 100% white. Found myself searching the crowd for other brown/black faces as we were leaving, and coming up empty. Not even sure what that means, except that there appears to be a growing number of members of the mainstream who are more than willing to examine the darker corners of our society if the search is through the arts and not by direct confrontation. Maybe this San Francisco audience was composed of patrons who are fascinated by the avant garde and are also willing to thereby be moved toward reconciliation; significant progress.

But then where were we?

My fear is that many of us are still trapped by the notion that HipHop is no more than highly sexualized young men in baggy clothing and barely-covered sensually gyrating young bronze women. It's viewed as caps worn backwards, do-rags and gold teeth and shoes-untied -- bumping and grinding verbal obscenities and misogyny for profit. It's seen as 6 inch diamond-studded crosses worn over FUBU tee shirts -- and 6 car garages. Not so. Gangsta Rap was no more than one facet of an emerging art form during the 80s and 90s. HipHop culture has continued to evolve and express itself in myriad ways -- for those who didn't forsake the art for celebrity. It bought a lot of gold chains and Hummers and swimming pools and Rollexes (plus some weapons of self-destruction) for lots of youngsters with few other ways to access fame and fortune. Some were bound to get caught up in the deceptively seductive web of the continuum and simply froze there, no question. But the essence of what has since evolved is a bonafide world-shaping genre that has produced some of the most exciting new art forms imaginable, and that has continued to influence world cultures clear across the planet.

Makes one wonder if its black critics (i.e., Dolores Tucker and dear philanthropic Bill Cosby) have remained open to the continuum -- the progression of the HipHop culture's effects upon dance, and poetry, in filmmaking, in the full spectrum of the visual and performing arts the world over? Would have given a my next social security check to have been sitting between these two revered icons last night -- with the chance to de-brief the experience over some chicken wings, spicy Mama-made head cheese and crackers, and a midnight cup of hot spiced cider ... .

Why call it HipHop? Why not? Dada is the silly name of a highly respected genre represented by Arp and his cohorts and suffers none the less for the dubbing.

I came away wanting to know more about the Reconstruction period, those unspeakably brutal years in this nation's history -- years that followed the emancipation of enslaved black Americans and our ascension to seats of power, at least for that brief tumultuous period depicted in the film. I really know very little of that era-- a time that brought about the backlash of the white south and the emergence of the Klan. Learned from Doug that the best thesis is that of Du Bois. Hope his book is still in print... .

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