Friday January 8, 2021

A friend notes after the two of us watch Benedict Seymour’s film Dead the Ends (2017) that there’s a lot of amateur “social detective” work at play in recent time travel narratives. A kind of “cognitive mapping” occurs in these works — and perhaps a more successful mapping than can occur in other kinds of conspiracy narratives. The 70s conspiracy films that Fredric Jameson studied in The Geopolitical Aesthetic imagine no more than conspiracy’s revelation by story’s end. Detectives in these films are often hauled away by authorities as soon as they share their findings (sometimes literally, as with Charlton Heston shouting the famous final lines of Soylent Green), the prophets’ words met with silence, unheard by those he would save. The most hopeful film in the bunch is All the President’s Men, with Woodward and Bernstein forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon. But as the times they are a-changin’, so too are the ways artists respond to them. Artists like Benedict Seymour are reanimating detective films of an earlier era by giving the detectives in these films time machines.

Perhaps we should be True Detectives, then, and reopen The Case of the Cognitive Map. Let us assume as our suspect the aesthetic articulation of a “chronopolitics” rather than a geopolitics. At the center of this new art are amateur, unpredictable, fugitive acts of time travel. The time machine is in some sense the paralogy, the game-changer in this work, granting the social detective of the new 21st-century time-travel thriller a way to fight back against creeping fascism. The detective in Benedict Seymour’s Dead the Ends (2017) is a Marxist dialectician working on behalf of the CCC, an embattled communist organization of the future, on the far side of WWIII. He intervenes in the past so as to swerve the capitalist crisis of the 1970s toward a timestream other than the one that ends in what Marx called “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Seymour even alludes to Jameson in the film, with Jameson’s famous slogan “History is what hurts” re-spun as the onscreen pun, “Hysteresis is what hurts.” As we noted when we zoomed, though, the time-traveler undergoes a kind of narrative decentering by film’s end, 86’d by rioting communities of color.

The next “move” after Seymour’s, I suppose, would be chronopolitical art that starts with that decentering, with people of color wielding time machines of their own.

This puts me in mind of Black Quantum Futurism, a collective launched by Rasheedah Phillips and Moor Mother. Both artists are also affiliated with a larger Philadelphia-based community organization, The Afrofuturist Affair. This latter group, which “uses Afrofuturism and Sci-Fi as vehicles for expression, creativity, education, agency, and liberation in communities of color,” has published several PDF zines related to time travel, including Do-It-Yourself Time Travel and Synchronicity, Superposition, and Sun Ra.

Monday December 7, 2020

A friend and I arrange a near-synchronous viewing of Terror Nullius, a new film from Soda Jerk. Afterwards we discuss. This friend and I have played in bands and noise projects together. We’re ex-I, Apparatuses. We’ve collaborated in many ways over the years: gallery shows, performances, movies, publications, releases. And we’ve maintained contact and correspondence despite living for many years at a distance. C. is a filmmaker, a video artist, a noise musician and a teacher. He and I have been thinking and talking about “multidimensional correspondence chess.” We riff on each other’s puns and neologisms. C. is a great inventor of future-shocked vocabularies and concepts. His imagination has always also been drawn to the monsters of Hollywood creature features — especially Frankenstein. His is a Frankensteinian aesthetic: a kind of “mad science” involving Blobsquatches and “Metaphortean Research.” Speculative frictions rub shoulders with war machines, producing new lines of flight.

Sunday October 11, 2020

The semester demands a lot of us — time, care, attention — particularly now as we grade midterms. I wake up most days depressed, sleep-deprived, angry at the state of the world. But Frankie lifts my spirits. Before morning is done, we’re laughing, singing. She reaches out and explores an ever-expanding universe. Each day we follow schedules, hours blocked out for meals, sleep, work, baby care — though we also leave time for reading, writing, meditation, “self-care.” Part of me wants to blow off school for a bit and read Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. Then again, maybe I should be studying the moon. Do moon cycles affect moods? Each day, Frankie and I read a board book called Kitten’s First Full Moon. Kitten thinks the moon is a bowl of milk and chases after it. Her chase is thwarted and dashed until she returns home to find “a great big / bowl of milk / on the porch, / just waiting for her. / Lucky Kitten!” All’s well that ends well. The moon also figures in recent thinking about werewolves. The werewolf tales that appeal to me are happy tales — comedies like Teen Wolf. I was a werewolf the Halloween after that film’s release. 1985: I was seven years old. There’s a photo of me climbing up the wall, wedging my arms and legs within the frame of a doorway. I was proud and wishing to show off this newly-discovered capacity of mine to brace myself in this way, suspended several feet off the floor. My mom made the costume by hand. What was the film’s appeal? For starters, it begins with the roar of a lion. Already, then, the presence of an animal within the machine — this being the conceit of all werewolf films. Oftentimes that conceit is a tragic one, as in one of the earliest horror films that I remember encountering as a kid: the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London. But in Teen Wolf, it’s a happy conceit: the werewolf both assimilated into and victorious over his surroundings. The soundtrack at the beginning is also quite moving: an echo-effected streak of thud resolves after several echoes into the sound of a basketball. These are liminal sounds, the protagonist way into his own head, heart racing as he prepares to take a foul shot and misses, ball bouncing off the rim. Disappointment returns the protagonist to a humbled awareness of his surroundings, shame coloring his face. Before we’re separate from him, though, what we see at the center of the movie screen is a circular ball of light — a spotlight hanging from the ceiling of the high school gymnasium. The film will later replace this substitute light — an artificial, man-made thing — with the light of the moon. Before the moon shot, though, it maintains an “off” sensation through expressionistic use of sound. The sound effects suture listeners to the anxious spacetime of the protagonist. A sexual humiliation occurs, too, when we discover that the protagonist’s team is named the “Beavers.” Clearly this is a film about adolescence — the boy undergoing a fearful rite of passage in order to become a man. As Michael J. Fox interacts with the oddballs and mediocrities around him, I begin to note resemblances. Characters perform as dream-doubles for figures I knew as a kid. I re-watch the film through to the initial transformation sequence. It ends with the shot of the moon — the one we knew was coming ever since the opening shot of the film. And the movie itself ends with a moon song: Amy Holland’s “Shootin’ for the Moon.” The hero is human again, voluntarily free of enhancement — but his time as the wolf changed him for the better. It imbued him with the will to win.

Friday January 24, 2020

Breathe, relax, listen around. Ask into a phone, “Who are you, love?” and type, “Bless you!” Seek out “America Needs Indians,” the multimedia show that Stewart Brand performed at the 1966 San Francisco Trips Festival. The show placard for the festival lists “America Needs Indians” as the first part of a double bill on Friday January 21, the first night of the three-day festival. It describes the event as follows: “AMERICA NEEDS INDIANS — Sensorium 9. By Stewart Brand and Zach Stewart. 600 slides, 2 movies, 4 sound tracks, flowers, food, rock ‘n’ roll, Eagle Bone Whistle, Thunderstorm, live Cheyenne Tipi, Chippewas, Sioux, Blackfeet, Tlingit, Makah, Pomo and Miwuk, plus anthropologists.” If ever I happened upon a time machine, the Trips Festival is certainly among the events of the past I’d visit. Charles Perry describes the festival in his history of Haight-Ashbury — though he says no more about “America Needs Indians” than that it was “mournfully out of place in the rackety, echoing space of Longshoremen’s Hall.” Ben Van Meter shot footage at the festival, eventually releasing a short called S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening (1966). Look, too, for a feature film of his called Acid Mantra or Rebirth of a Nation (1968). Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses Van Meter in his book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.

Tuesday December 31, 2019

With my father-in-law and my nephew I caught a matinee screening of The Rise of Skywalker, an anti-imperialist franchise film prefaced by trailers for imperialist dreck: upcoming releases like My Spy, Bad Boys Forever, and Top Gun Maverick. Granted a brief respite from parenting by our in-laws, Sarah and I drop in on a New Year’s party where we chat with friends, though we bail well before midnight, unable in brief to enjoy ourselves in full. Yet here we are, F. beside us, welcoming the decade ahead.

Saturday November 16, 2019

A colleague of mine who has become a friend over the years, both of us members of a shared reading group, donated some of his books to a local thrift store, whereupon I scooped them up as if the cosmos had willed them toward me. All of this happened several years ago; yet as I sat today, mind churning with topics recommended or observed, my thoughts wandered from a counterfactual, alternate-history version of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, starring not Gary Lockwood but Demy’s original choice for the lead, a then-unknown Harrison Ford. There I was imagining imaginary stills from the imaginary LA of this imaginary film, when with a wash of emotion I happened upon one of these books I’d scored from my friend: a Beacon Press trade paperback of Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. It’s a book I should read, given what I teach. “Beyond the Reality Principle” is where it’s at, as is “Political Preface 1966,” written a decade after the book’s initial appearance. For Marcuse, a successful revolution would be one that makes the human body “an instrument of pleasure rather than labor” (xv), transforming work into play. Attempting to do my part, I pull an LP from the shelves in my basement and bask in the choir, percussion, and wolfsong of tracks like Paul Winter’s “Kyrie.”

William Irwin Thompson interjects, speaking on behalf of coming together as a mass of music rather than matter. Ecology appears here as it should, a science not of scarcity but of sacred geometry. Gary Snyder delivers his “Prayer for the Great Family,” a poem from his book Turtle Island. Let animals and plants once again be our teachers and guides.

Tuesday November 12, 2019

Children of Men is a panic-pitched end-times vision, a film about fear, all of twenty-first century humanity’s worries in quick succession: terrorism, environmental collapse, wars waged between states and nonstate actors, inequality, infertility, banditry, you name it. “Theo,” the Clive Owens character, wanders traumatized, cynical and half-numb, through a kind of hell-house morality tale, until his arrival at the miracle of the nativity. His job thenceforth is to shepherd Kee, the film’s Mary, a refugee whose body houses future life, toward the hope of the film’s Utopia, a legendary community said to exist on an island in the Azores, led by a group called the Human Project. “Everything’s fine,” people keep saying, “all part of a bigger thing!” With death and danger all around them, punctuated by moments of great beauty, Kee persists, and Theo follows, protecting her and the baby from harm. Members of the Human Project arrive to the rescue by film’s end, floating toward Kee and her baby in a boat called Tomorrow.

Tuesday May 21, 2019

Since we’re creating the universe (you and I!) we might as well have some fun, as do the members of the Incredible String Band in their film Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (1970). (An essential psychedelic artifact, communicating secret knowledges from heads to fellow heads across time. The sections on band member Robin Williamson feel particularly otherwordly.)

Dancing down the sidewalk singing from lampposts, Oyster card in hand, we make our way, beach beckoning from beneath the pavement. In just a few short days I take leave of the States for a month abroad. The story at this point is one of spontaneous grandular progress, self-actualization into a grand unknown. Who will we be on return from this journey? I search old notebooks for clues. A head speaks to me across time, knowing perhaps that a future me would eventually get the message.

Monday March 18, 2019

I steal away from work midafternoon and watch Space is the Place — the original 64-minute version. I think of it as an act of study — perhaps even what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “fugitive planning.” Ra imagines a colony in outer space free of the white people of planet Earth. “Equation-wise, think of time as officially ended,” he explains early in the film. Once time is ended, he says, we “teleport the planet here through music.” Sun Ra’s jazz is the sign-system equivalent of a riot — and when the Overseer comes ’round to make him pay, Ra holds up a card, casts a spell, relocates the confrontation elsewhere, into the Space Age, technic surrounded by void. Through his music, Ra creates “a multiplicity of other destinies.”

Tuesday February 19, 2019

A rich new vein of countercultural history sees light of day thanks to the 2015 documentary Here Come The Videofreex. The archival footage used in the film is chaotic and messy, capturing with all of the power and potential of new media the revolutionary movements of the early 1970s. Watching the film today, I can’t resist wishing for a chance to restage the Revolution, the first attempt’s energy and conviction guided now by the lessons learned from half a century of culture war. Let the forces of magic and of miracle triumph where before we succumbed to our frustrations and our desire for vengeance.