The End of Journalism

Monologuist Mike Daisey premieres two new works for Shotgun Player’s Blast Theater Festival through February 26. He sits at a table, with a glass of water and notes on yellow paper, then launches into a two hour polemic on the history of journalism, intertwined with personal stories and observations. The piece is pure meta. It’s storytelling about storytelling.  He critiques the larger scandal of the rise of a reality show president, and mentions his own media scandals in passing. He refers to the title of his own show as “clickbait” and structures his verbal tirade around the metaphor of a dying friend. The trajectory of thought is so nuanced and acute, we find ourselves inside the mirror looking out, astonished, as he peels the onion of America’s journalistic traditions.

Daisey, a theater artist, understands how theater works. He scrutinizes how journalism perpetuates itself through various theatrical devices, and how it constructs what he deems “the myth of objectivity”.  The myth began after the invention of the printing press, he says, and persisted and reinforced itself through the developments of radio and TV. It obeyed strict, unspoken codes for which voices carried news and how, and consolidated power along the way.

However, because of journalism’s fundamentally unquestioned status for most of the 20th century, it became vulnerable to the invasive rot of Fox News, a network that deliberately told untruths and mixed up opinion and fact. Because mainstream media failed to question its own mythic underpinnings, journalism lost credibility and its hold on a certain audience. Daisey traces its fall, blow by blow.  He asks, has it burned down yet or are we still burning? When do we reach base level?  I am eager to see part two: This is Not Normal, and perhaps find out.

Tickets to The End of Journalism (February 15-19) and This is Not Normal (February 22-26) here.

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

The documentary I am Not Your Negro resurrects the exquisite humanity of author James Baldwin, as it deconstructs the history of racism in America. His pained perspective, as a self-declared witness of the civil rights era, strips bare the nation’s ugly history of slavery, segregation and the successive assassinations of America’s best black leaders:  Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. These three men were Baldwin’s close friends and all died within five years of each other. Drawing from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House, the film describes these friendships and their loss from a personal perspective.

Directed by Haitian Raoul Peck, the film does not delve into details. Its factual scope is basic and familiar. However, it uses Baldwin’s written and spoken words to dissect the cultural complexity of race relations, particularly as it conscribes the black man. It relies heavily on archival newsreel footage, but also interweaves Hollywood’s treatment of race through the decades.  Movie clips range from 1950’s seal tight white Doris Day to interracial fare such as Imitation of Life (1934) and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), and express a bizarre dissonance in how race functions from various points of view.

b-notyournegro-s650

The film’s most radical contribution happens to be James Baldwin himself, who defies stereotype as a gay intellectual ex-patriot returning home to Harlem from the literary comforts of Paris. With stark clarity, Baldwin describes the psychology of racism and renounces it, without negating its tragic power.

I am not a nigger, I’m a man.  But if you think I’m a nigger, then it means you need it.  And you got to find out why.  And the future of the country depends on that.

James Baldwin also declared:

 The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.

I am Not Your Negro is not simply a historical documentary, for the present bleeds into it.  Footage of recent events — Black Lives Matters protesters, police brutality, and violence in Ferguson, MO — are offered without comment. It leaves us viewers high and dry, uncomfortably awake. Awake to the reality that white supremacy now inhabits the White House, and to an unknown future fraught with racial unease.

See the trailer here.

The Eagle Huntress

Bring your preteen daughters to this uplifting, feminist tale about Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl who outmasters the town elders as she commands her tamed eagle to swoop in competition and capture foxes in the snowy backcountry. Both otherworldly and extremely accessible, The Eagle Huntress takes us to remote northwestern Mongolia, to the ancient tradition of eagle hunting, where the Kazakh people tame wild eagles to hunt for food and fur. Over centuries, eagle hunting developed into an art form, with dramatic competitions proving eagle speed, obeisance and hunting prowess.

The film contains almost no plot, but this does not diminish the experience.  Its style combines exceptionally vivid wildlife photography with observational ethnography, while emotionally functioning as a childhood fantasy. The beauty of this fantasy is its grounding in reality, a heartfelt sharing of an ancient culture and a celebration of family ties and the passing on of tradition. The unique subject, the gorgeous dance between human and bird, and the warm performances by native actors captivate and refresh the mind.

theeaglehuntress-mv-5

Actors Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Rhys Nurgaiv give warm and inspired performances.

Playing at an independent movie theater near you.  Watch the trailer here.

Häxän Project

Above:  performance by the Church of Color and Light

Last night, Other Cinema hosted a gathering of witches, both embodied and bound in celluloid. The night began with a brewing of cups by the Church of Color and Light, a local ritualistic performance collective that uses overhead projection, dance movement, and incantation for audience involvement and transformation. One slithering spirit even abandoned a rubber snake in my lap. Soundtracked by the buzzing of flies, their cultus ceremony set tone for a spooky evening with intermittent camera flashes punctuating the dark.

Cohesively curated experimental film and video from past iterations of the Häxän Festival filled the remainder of the evening’s program. Häxän celebrates witchcraft and the personal occult from a feminine perspective, with all works curated and made by women. The program was strong yet scrappy, with a generous dose of silence and nudity. A couple of pieces veered too close to the works of experimental film great Maya Deren (unsurprisingly) and animator Lewis Klahr, to be truly original.  But the lovely, ghostly Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares seemed outright possessed with its multi-exposed film frames trembling and twitching.

trapped-between-frames-other-cinema

Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares

Saturn Return was the other standout. This homemade video set on a rocky Mexican outcropping featured creators Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer in a smart and satirical take on astrology, self-help and the nature video. Creative costuming and absurd dialogue left us laughing at the enactments of a string of relationship breakups triggered by the unpredictable age of 29-1/2, otherwise known as the dreaded Saturn Return.

img_3687

Saturn Return by Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer

Photos by Kristin Cato

Dust to Dust at Gray Area

Above:  Improvised multi-projection by the Trinchera Ensamble

San Francisco Cinematheque‘s Perpetual Motion series opened on Friday night at Gray Area to host a large crowd of live cinema enthusiasts. The series extends through December 7 and features both international and local artists who show up to create work in the moment. A growing arts movement, expanded cinema offers film experiences as live rather than prerecorded events. These may include multiple moving projectors, live manipulation of image and improvised audio tracks.

This premiere installment featured arc, the sentinels of West Oakland’s Black Hole Cinematheque, projecting layers of found film detritus. Jürgen Reble, on a rare visit from Düsseldorf, Germany, and the Trinchera Ensamble, with its eyepopping abstractions, rounded out the show.  These pieces all come from the School of Art as Endurance Test with elongated TRTs (total running times) to form immersive aesthetic experiences.  The chaotic yet repetitive confluences require audience surrender, as they aim for a kind of purifying transcendence. Either they (or you) pass the test or they (or you) don’t.

It was the second piece, Alchemie by Jürgen Reble, that most caught me with its ritualistic fury.  It raised the stakes to fulfill the promise of a true one-off event with a higher level of unpredictability. In this piece, the film loop circled across our consciousness to the point of mania while passing through chemicals and agent-changing solutions.  We saw orphaned, trance-gripped beings change from negative image to positive image to pure grain to obliteration.

The object of art being destroyed by the very act of its presentation isn’t new. Years ago, I witnessed a similar event: a film loop punctured and eventually destroyed by a sewing machine. However, this one mesmerized with haunted visages seemingly lost in time and space under the spell of, or perhaps in communication with, sublime cosmic forms. It was enough to induce a mystical fever in those of us susceptible to such enchantments.

The next Perpetual Motion show takes place on October 11 with Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern.

Grand Concourse at Shotgun Players

On the surface, Grand Concourse tells the story of four individuals at an urban soup kitchen, and their struggles with God, love, and mental stability. Cathleen Riddley plays Shelly, a nun who runs a tight ship providing meals for the homeless, but who struggles to pray even five minutes a day. Enter nineteen year old Emma (Megan Trout), a new volunteer who brings complication to the lives of Shelly, hired help Oscar (Caleb Cabrera), and Frog, one of the regulars, an insightful man on the edge of mental illness. Kevin Clarke portrays Frog with a charming sensitivity, offering a full-rounded treatment of this vulnerable and likeable character.

Grand Concourse

Heidi Schreck‘s play is anything but feel-good, though the dialogue is playful and enjoyably real. In one of my favorite scenes, Emma relishes the features of her makeup kit, then refreshes her eyes and lips to shake off the unsavory feeling of her first night serving soup to the poor. It’s a delicate, yet telling moment. As we move further in, her actions signal a gentrifying, invasive force where forgiveness is simply not an appropriate response, even for a nun.

As such, at its core, Grand Concourse represents a deeply political play, but not in a conspicuous way. Its wider lessons seep in slowly as we witness the emotional wreckage left when privilege meddles with the underclass, unconsciously exploiting the needy, and the sincere. Without giving too much away, let’s just say, some of the best plays are about liars.

Show ends on August 21. Get tickets here.