Entries from February 2012 ↓

Why (Less Than) Six Degrees Separate Jeremy Lin from the Carolina Chocolate Drops

“Racism for me has always appeared to me to be first and foremost a system, largely supported by material and economic conditions at work in a field of social traditions. Thus, though racism is always made manifest through individuals’ decisions, actions, words, and feelings, when we have the luxury of looking at it with the longer view (and we don’t, always), usually I don’t see much point in blaming people personally, black or white, for their feelings or even for their specific actions – as long as they remain this side of the criminal. These are not what stabilize the system. These are not what promote and reproduce the system. These are not the points where the most lasting changes can be introduced to alter the system.”                                                                       Samuel F. Delany, “Racism and Science Fiction (1999)                                                                 

Most of said points, of course, are scored by hitting, bouncing, throwing, catching, or just lugging around a ball. Delany doesn’t mention such things in his typically brilliant essay. (He’s got slipperier fish to fry.) And why should he when there have been generations of historians, journalists, pundits and preachers to re-emphasize the importance of sports in transfiguring parochial attitudes about race?  Indeed, sport seems to be the only arena where race gets thrashed out and openly examined in ways barely imaginable in other public or even private contexts.

Much as I love sports, I wish it weren’t so. Not every person-of-color is a multi-purpose athlete as Jackie Robinson was. Nor can they all guide tennis balls where they want to with as much fury or precision as Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters. And only Jim Brown was, or could ever be, Jim Brown. Yet the American people, whatever their ethnicity, religion or status, feel the most comfortable (or, worse, are only comfortable) freely talking about or identifying with other cultures when those others – or, if you prefer, “Others” – are playing games in front of spectators. In such relatively relaxed environs, people are encouraged, even empowered to think differently than they usually do – and, sometimes, say things they shouldn’t. Perceptions can be altered. People are a different matter.

This brings us – as does everything else in life lately – to Jeremy Lin. Everybody’s so tied up in knots about the Lin phenomenon that they’re torn between wishing the whole thing was winding down and hoping it never does. When the Knicks lose, the furor subsides a bit. But whatever happens for the team from here on, the incredulity of a Taiwanese-American Ivy Leaguer emerging from the NBA’s Negative Zone as a fearless, effervescent point guard will resound far beyond what’s left of this truncated pro basketball season. Sports journalists insist on looking in their own bailiwick for precedents. They’re left babbling Tim Tebow’s name and shrugging at how unwieldy the alignment looks. They should look instead to Elvis Presley in 1956 or the Beatles in late 1963 to early 1964. Forget content or context. This is a cultural phenomenon so overpowering that busybodies and spoilsports far outside the arena are compelled to stare, gush and poke at its surfaces to get at Some Larger Truth. Thus you get otherwise intelligent observers saying stuff they shouldn’t while others flail and thrash for whatever aligns with their politics.

At least the sportswriters (as opposed to the “news analysts”)  understand that Lin’s game hasn’t yet arrived at the exalted place that would totally justify the hype —  though they also know that when he does get less careless with the basketball, it’s likely you aint seen nothing yet!

But let that be. Let’s get back to Elvis. I am in no way suggesting that Lin represents anything as transformative as Presley’s impact on global culture. (At least, not yet.) But I do think that the excitement generated by both Presley’s breakout and Lin’s share the same wellspring and the name for that source is spelled C-R-O-S-S-O-V-E-R. Any time someone busts loose from constraints collectively, intrinsically and artificially imposed upon their cultural origins, the onlookers are susceptible to rapture, or at least giddiness. Suddenly, all such constraints seem little more than shaggy-dog jokes that haven’t been told yet. Possibilities are expanded. Imaginations are aroused. And the resulting blowback can change far more than pop culture. Or so you’d like to think. As I implied earlier, the more things change, etc etc.

Put another way, as Bill Rhoden’s column in Monday’s New York Times attests, the stereotypes against Asian Americans contradicted by Lin’s success can only make one more aware than usual of those that persist against African Americans. Implicit in Rhoden’s column is a yearning to somehow share in whatever pride Asians are feeling towards Lin e.g. “Where’s our Jeremy Lin?” or “Why doesn’t Victor Cruz arouse the same fervor? After all, he, too, came out of nowhere…” And so on, so forth.

Let’s be clear: It may no longer do African Americans any good to look in sports for equivalents to Jeremy Lin’s impact; at least, not until a brother comes along in hockey who’s got Bobby Orr’s demon speed and Wayne Gretsky’s cobra stroke. If you really want to look for black equivalents – and for that matter, comparable excitement over renewed possibilities – go elsewhere in the culture. I have a candidate, four in fact, for African American Jeremy Lin surrogates bearing a somewhat similar amalgam of dynamism and nerdiness. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the Carolina Chocolate Drops!


“The what?” I asked my North Carolina-born wife a year ago when she first mentioned this confab of African American string players who’ve been around and about since 2005. In that time, they’ve appeared on festival stages with the likes of Taj Mahal, made a cameo appearance in Denzel Washington’s period drama, The Great Debaters (2007), played the Grand Ole Opry and even won a Grammy a couple years back. Most listeners casually apply the Bluegrass label to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, But it’s hard to place any cozy marketing niche to a group whose repertoire ranges all over the classic blues-and-folk repertoire; from square dance calls to field hollers; from Ethel Waters to Blu Cantrell, whose “Hit ‘Em Up Style” has been re-energized by the Chocolate Drops’ “acoustic, hip-hop version.”

Last Saturday afternoon, the group, which started as a trio but has morphed into a quartet, gave a free concert at the Library of Congress. They were genuinely jazzed to be playing at the home of the American Folklife Centerand the feeling from the standing-room-only house was altogether mutual. Original members Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are now aligned with by Leyla McCalla on cello and Hubby Jenkins on everything, including banjo, guitar and fiddle. Flemons and Giddens likewise can play different instruments, but the charismatic Giddens is clearly the top fiddler and vocalist while Flemons gets to handle most of the percussive (“bones,” anyone?) and other rogue elements, including the “quill”, a traditional panpipe though whose tubes he does everything except recite the Gettysburg Address (and only because he hasn’t yet tried to.)

The musical numbers were bridged by historic vignettes; references to legendary music archivist Alan Lomax and novelist-folklorist-troublemaker Zora Neale Hurston came under discussion as did origins of some of the more obscure music. The setting was intimate, but the sounds were grand and all-encompassing. And as with the very best folk musicians, they made the old sound brand new; the context, to those who don’t expect young black folks (especially those, like Jenkins, who wear dreads) to play banjo – which, as the Chocolate Drops will be happy to inform you, is roughly as African in origin as they are. The audience’s racial composition appeared on causal glance slightly more Caucasian than not. But the excitement generated by the Chocolate Drops’ two-hour recital was palpable and, every once in a while, exploded, especially when Giddens assumed belting duties on “I’m Nobody’s Mama Now” and the aforementioned “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”

These guys may not get prime-time Grammy duties – and it’s a mystery as to when, if ever, a Saturday Night Live guest shot will be tossed in their general direction. That’s so not who they are anyway (I suppose). But if they ever did get in the mainstream’s sight line, I feel certain that for every person bewildered or turned off by what they do, there will be at least ten or twenty others who will feel a charge similar to what’s been happening at Madison Square Garden since Super Bowl week. In a way, I hope it doesn’t happen if only because it will spare these smart, sexy people from dumb, pompous palaver, along with the attendant nervousness over what to call them or their music. New language or at least different versions of the same language always emerge from discovering that cultures can do things you never imagined they could. Some dumb, presumptuous things have already been said about Jeremy Lin – and one can think of similarly uninformed or misguided assumptions emerging about the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

On the other hand, why go through all this trouble to end up watching what one says?  I’d rather just watch. Wouldn’t you?



Because YOU Asked For It (and don’t lie, you did): Gene’s 2012 Oscar Picks

I’ve watched them every year — even when life finds me in the rain forests of Costa Rica or on a red eye to Italy. And it’s very likely I’ll watch them again Feb. 26, though I sometimes wonder how long these will matter any more.   I’m no longer sure they do. At least not as much as film festivals do. (And I think we’ll see those televised sooner than we see a revival of the Academy Awards’ fading reputation.)

Nevertheless, I used to do this every year & I used to be pretty good at it – that is for those who thought getting them right mattered more than picking whatever outrageous thing came into sombody’s head. But things have changed. I no longer live in a city with a better-than-average chance of bumping into someone who a.) is an Academy member or b.) knows somebody who knows somebody who is an Academy member.

Hence my once-reliable radar for handicapping these things may be too dust-bunny ridden to pick up more than faint signals of what will happen Oscar Night. Granted, in our world-wired age, there are likely no longer any such things as “faint signals.” But there certainly are garbled or discordant ones. And in a year such as this (not the best, by the way, for movies in general) where some of the more challenging pictures and performances got waylaid, if not ignored, on their way to nomination, I have a feeling – only a feeling – that, with few exceptions, things wont be nearly as cut-and-dried as they’ve been in the recent past. Or maybe I’m just showing how truly out-of-touch I am these days. What-EVER!

(Predictions, as always, are marked with an “x” (not that you couldn’t have figured that out yourselves, but you never know who’s watching, right?)

Best Picture
x “The Artist”
“The Descendants”
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”
“The Help”
“Midnight in Paris”
“The Tree of Life”
“War Horse”

Someone, I’m thinking it was the late John Gregory Dunne, kept insisting that the Academy Awards were, first and foremost, trade awards and, as such, should have never been viewed as purely qualitative assessments. For Best Picture awards, this is especially true – though it still doesn’t explain “Gandhi” winning out in 1984 over “E.T.” or “Tootsie.” (Oh wait. Yes it does, especially if you think about the choice Hollywood often makes between what’s best and what best exemplifies its present state-of-mind.) What movie trades-people also go for are those pictures that will best help their industry move forward, get richer, spread the wealth around. This year, two of the Best Picture nominees – “Hugo” and “The Artist” – come across as broadening the medium’s possibility while flattering the industry’s sense of its own significance. “The Artist” appears to hold an insurmountable lead – and I’ve got no overpowering reason to challenge the hordes. Still I’m getting those aforementioned distant (and intangible) signals that suggest, however faintly, a late surge by Scorsese’s homage to Melies. My old scoutmaster Tom O’Neill would suggest that I’d be Out-There-And-Daring with this choice. I would tell Tom, “Um…Tom? Picking ‘Hugo’ to win Best Picture is not daring. Picking ‘War Horse’ to win Best Picture is not all that daring either. Picking ‘Tree of Life’ as Best Picture? Now THAT’S daring! And so is picking ‘Melancholia’…Oh wait…”

Best Director
x “The Artist” Michel Hazanavicius
“The Descendants” Alexander Payne
“Hugo” Martin Scorsese
“Midnight in Paris” Woody Allen
“The Tree of Life” Terrence Malick

If “The Artist” wins Best Picture, it’s Hazanavicius. If “Hugo” wins, Scorsese. I know we’re seeing Picture/Director splits more often lately than we did in the Way-Back-When. But somehow this doesn’t feel like the year for it.

Actor in a Leading Role
Demián Bichir in “A Better Life”
George Clooney in “The Descendants”
x Jean Dujardin in “The Artist”
Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”

Man, is Clooney putting himself out there this season or what? He’s brought at least two sets of camera crews into his house to shoot his furniture and scratch his dog. (Better that than the reverse, I guess.) You’d think he was running for something. And maybe he is, but it can’t just be for Best Lead Actor. President, maybe? He’d certainly be Hollywood’s choice, though Clint Eastwood’s performance on that Super Bowl Chrysler ad, along with his Dirty Harry response to the commercial’s GOP critics, may have put his name back in play. I like Clooney as an actor, a director, and an Earthling. But all I can think of when watching him go through the motions is that it’s a shame there’s not as much chronicling Pitt’s efforts on behalf of a striking, nuanced performance that is not only better than Clooney’s, but far better than anything he’s done before. (Some say he’ll get another chance. I ask: Are we sure about that?) He and Oldman are the class of this crop and, while stranger things have happened, I think Oldman will have to settle for happy-just-to-be-here. (And he assures us that he is, he is.) This leaves Bichier and Dujardin, relative unknowns — and foreign to boot. Relatively few people have seen “Better Life”; more and more are seeing “The Artist.” And there’s a gimmick in Dujardin’s turn (e.g. not talking aloud) that practically leaps into voters’ welcome arms to cuddle, much like Clooney’s dog. Or so I’m guessing.

Actress in a Leading Role
Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs”
x Viola Davis in “The Help”
Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady”
Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn”

A wider-than-usual race includes not one, not two, but three performances that lean heavily on gimmicks; four, if you consider what Mara does to herself and her skin pores a gimmick. Of course, it takes more than stunts to pull off a rich, well-rounded performance and Streep, Close, Mara and Williams all earn their nominations by making you feel the pleasures and pains in each of their grandly-conceived characters. And that’s exactly why I think Davis scores here. Her dominance of “The Help” sneaks up on you while the other performances lead with their inventiveness. The takeaway from Davis’ work will thus resound more with voters reacquainting themselves with her movie. Nothing’s a lock here. But I’m sensing a canceling-out effect that favors the one performance with nothing but humanity to declare.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo in “The Artist”
Jessica Chastain in “The Help”
Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids”
Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs”
x Octavia Spencer in “The Help”

No reason to think Spencer wont continue her hot streak. True, McTeer’s getting awfully good buzz heading into the stretch – though not good enough to take the lead.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh in “My Week with Marilyn”
Jonah Hill in “Moneyball”
Nick Nolte in “Warrior”
x Christopher Plummer in “Beginners”
Max von Sydow in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

Why do I think they’ve already shipped the Oscar to Plummer’s house? And that he’s still plucking stray Styrofoam peanuts out from under the sofa? Rather than dwell on the ONLY sure bet on this year’s card, let’s once again make rude noises at those who excluded Albert Brooks from nomination. Or, for that matter, any or all of the following three guys from “Descendants”: Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster.

Animated Feature Film
“A Cat in Paris” Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli
“Chico & Rita” Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal
“Kung Fu Panda 2” Jennifer Yuh Nelson
“Puss in Boots” Chris Miller
x “Rango” Gore Verbinski

We will now pause to register shock & awe over a “Pixar”-less slate of candidates. Guess I’ll toss a dart, blindfolded, and see where it lands…Hmmm…Really? Should I toss it again? You’re right. What for? (I REALLY want to see “Chico & Rita, though…)

Documentary (Feature)
“Hell and Back Again” Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
x “Pina” Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel
“Undefeated” TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas

The biggest gripper in this group is “Paradise Lost 3,” which deserves the Oscar for nothing more than the sheer persistence of its makers through two previous installments. Its triumph would neither displease nor stun me. But there’s a tingle in my back that makes me think that “Pina’s” “Wow” factor is strong enough to lift it to the podium. Plus, it’s always the comparative dearth of buzz that seems to benefit winners in this category. And for that matter, the next one.

Foreign Language Film
“Bullhead” (Belgium)
“A Separation” (Iran)
x “In Darkness” (Poland)
“Footnote” (Israel)
“Monsieur Lazhar” (Canada)

“A Separation” is the almost-by-acclamation winner of this category in just about every critics’ poll and awards ceremony from sea to shining sea — which has in the past proven to be an all-but-certain buzz kill for its Academy chances. (Besides, people seem quite angry with Iran, even with movies that openly criticize the things that make people quite angry with Iran.) This opens the door for any of the other contenders and it’s on the strength alone of Agnieszka Holland’s good name that I’m giving a slight edge to “In Darkness.” Which doesn’t mean I wont be much happier if “Separation” gets the gold.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
x “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)
“Hugo” (John Logan)
“The Ides of March” (George Clooney, Grant Heslov & Beau Willimon)
“Moneyball” (Steven Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin w/story by Stan Chervin)
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan)

O’Connor and Straughan are the most deserving for being able to winnow and boil the knottiest of thrillers into something evocative and tense. But I can’t imagine “Descendants” walking away from this thing empty-handed.

Writing (Original Screenplay)
“The Artist” (Michel Hazanavicius)
“Bridesmaids” (Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig)
“Margin Call” (J.C. Chandor)
x “Midnight in Paris” (Woody Allen)
“A Separation” (Asghar Farhadi)

Writers love Woody and the public, in numbers greater than anything Allen’s reaped in four decades of filmmaking, loved “Midnight in Paris.” And while I’m not sure screenwriters will be altogether happy with what the movie says, or even implies, about their craft. (Then again, we’re talking about a profession legendary for its self-loathing); and while “Margin Call” needed – and deserved – more eyeballs; and while it would be a kick to see which of her many alternate personalities Wiig assumes in the winner’s circle, this really & truly is Allen’s best script in decades. Of course, I needed to see it again to be sure…as, one presumes, did the voters.


Madge was Just OK, the Audi vampires were better & Eli Manning best of all

Actual Dialogue earlier yesterday with a Die-Hard Redskins Fan (DHRF) rooting for the Giants in the SB:

ME: Aren’t you Redskins fans a little conflicted about this?

DHRF: Naw. We aint conflicted. We’re fine with the Giants.

ME: But I thought you hated the Giants.

DHRF: Uh-uh. We hate the Cowboys. Now if it was the Cowboys, it’d be a whole different story.

ME: Ah. And then there’s the fact that the Redskins beat the Giants in the regular season..

DHRF: Beat em twice.

ME: So that means if they win tonight…

DHRF: We win. See? Now you got it.

The Lesson: It’s really not so bad down here.