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.
Like a needle dropped gently atop an LP, or an iron pressed briefly upon the arm of a shirt, so I happen upon The Soul of Mbira, an album in the Nonesuch Explorer Series.
Deep stuff. Afterwards, the rain upon my window. An mbira is an ancient African instrument consisting of keys mounted over a bridge on a hardwood sound-board. Thank you, fellow Explorers, for beaming this my way, like music from another galaxy, gourds and voices resonating across space and time. Nonesuch released the albums of field recordings in the Explorer Series from 1967 to 1984. That in mind, I agree to see a movie with some friends. Get out and explore a bit, I tell myself. Watch Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and then stand on a sidewalk in front of a bar debating its merits with friends.
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.
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.
Autumn colors, seasonal regalia. The day’s peaks include cat sightings, walks, the cries of squirrels. Upon stepping outdoors in the a.m., I spy in my front lawn a cluster of wild mushrooms, causing me later in the day to see the new documentary Fantastic Fungi at the local cinema. As if the thought had been “planted.” Karma earned from the university of life.
I shift rooms, staring at books, feeling indecisive. Trick or treaters come to the door. I take this as a sign. Time to stand outdoors drinking whiskey cider from a solo cup, chatting with neighbors. Afterwards I return home and cue up It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Trippy, scary stuff. Poor Linus, persecuted by others for his scribblings regarding “religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” The others disguise themselves with masks and sheets, whereas Linus prefers sincerity.
Snoop Dogg plays a DJ character in the new Netflix flick Dolemite Is My Name. A man named Rico enters the record store, (“yo, for real”), introduces himself as “A Repository of African-American Folklore.” He tells tall tales, plays the Signifying Monkey. From there the cameras lead us to the Dunbar Hotel. Junkies and wine. “Rhyming,” “down-and-dirty,” “rat-soup-eating.” Rudy Ray Moore invented a character both old and new. The Godfather of Rap. Put some swing on it. Formulated a critique and used it. Declared showtime, made an album. Called it “I ain’t lying: a comedy record.” A live recording. Storytelling veers from “write what one knows” to “welcome others to the Dolemite world of nightlife, streets, and clubs.” Behold: blaxploitation squared. The Dunbar Hotel remade as a movie set. Some of us absorb reality, a character says, while the rest of us act it and reflect it: a cine-magical Metafiction. Stereotypes, myths. Social fictions with consequences. Plus kung-fu armies, and funny as hell.