Ciaran O Rourke

Ciaran O Rourke

Ciarán O'Rourke is a widely published Irish poet, living in Leitrim. His poetry appears in the Culture Matters anthology, Children of the Nation, and his first collection, The Buried Breath, is available here

Kill-Gang Curtain: On 'Night of the Living Dead'
Wednesday, 03 November 2021 09:47

Kill-Gang Curtain: On 'Night of the Living Dead'

Published in Films

In early April 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr, a panoramic rebellion, fuelled by the rage and grief of black communities grown increasingly forthright in their own self-defence, rocked America’s political establishment to its foundations, and left a trail of smoking cities in its wake. “White America killed Dr. King last night”, Stokely Carmichael declared on April 5th, offering a social diagnosis apparently shared by the sudden masses of disaffected protestors, storming the local bastions of power and wealth, from New York to Cincinnati to Louisville.

Night 1

The previous summer, over 150 riots (against police brutality, black unemployment, and systemic housing discrimination) had likewise broken out across the country, filling TV screens and radio channels with panicked reports of a nation accused, and now challenged, by citizens unwilling any longer to accommodate the structures of violence used to keep them down. During those “long hot” months, from July onwards, the initial photography and production for George A. Romero’s first feature-length film took place. A lean, grimly satirical vision of a society in freefall, Night of the Living Dead was released in cinemas the following year, six months after King’s murder, on October 1, 1968. It redefined the horror genre (there would be a near-endless stream of cinematic riffs and sequels), and projected a garish iteration of the American nightmare, torn apart by apocalyptic fears and hungers.

The film begins, in eerie monochrome, with a lingering shot of a winding road, over which a distant car speeds, coming closer, eventually reaching a cemetery, where star-spangled flags twitch and riffle in the wind. It’s an ominous opening, comparable in atmosphere to Grant Wood’s haunted hurtle of a painting, “Death on Ridge Road”, while the setting and visual arrangement evoke the social realist photography of the 1930s, with a Gothic (or perhaps Hitchcockian) twist. Even before the “living dead” appear, we sense, from the outset, that this is a weird kind of anywhere, mundane and menacing.

The first characters we encounter, Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea), are well dressed and meticulously (almost spoofily) bland. “We still remember”, Johnny intones, reading from the wreath and cross he’s come to lay on his father’s grave, as he does every year, out of reluctant habit. “Well I don't [remember]!”, he quickly chirps, with a faux indignation that offends his sister. He can’t recall his father and doesn’t understand why they’ve come all this way to visit his grave. Romero has fixed his lens on a world in which the blithe amnesia of middle-Americans precedes lurid and rapidly expanding catastrophe.

Johnny, with his combed-over hair and the suit that drapes him like a loose-fitting skin, is promptly done away with by a lurch-limbed corpse, resurrected in tattered business wear, desperate for flesh to devour. From this point onwards, the film’s pace is hectic and compulsive, its intense dramatization of characters in crisis sustained in pulse-quickening close quarters. A high-strung score, large and supple, buoys and propels Barbra’s barefoot escape to an abandoned farmhouse nearby, where the rest of the action occurs, as a disparate band of fugitives likewise takes shelter within its walls, while outside the ghoulish cadavers start to circle.

When Ben (Duane Jones), athletic and intelligent, arrives on the scene, with his apparently innate assurance and pragmatism – “I’ll see if I can find some food” – Barbra seems as initially wary of him as she is traumatised by the sight of the ravenous corpses looming in the yard. “What’s happening?”, she moans, with an anger in her voice that soon dissolves to catatonic blankness. Undeterred, Jones’s character steps out-of-doors, with a calm focus and soulful courage that seem a part of his distinct aura on-screen, and methodically fights the zombies as they slowly approach the farmhouse porch, stabbing their craniums with whatever tools and utensils he can find.

Night 2

Ben, who is black, then begins to board up the doors and windows, working with tense, muscular precision to gather the materials he needs and then block the farmhouse’s weak spots from the inside, a wooden bunker. A trickle of perspiration shines on his brow, symptomatic of the encroaching peril to which his handsome, thoughtful features never quite succumb. He behaves like a man accustomed to terror, aware of its ferocity and mortal threat, and nevertheless quietly confident of his capacity to survive. In Jones’s rendering, moreover, Ben’s constant motion and intuitive ability to act in the face of horrifying death, is legible in every detail; from the moment of his entry into it, he is the magnetic centre of the film.

All the while, urgent (yet largely vacuous) radio dispatches describe “the crisis” engulfing the US, as a mysterious “epidemic of mass murder” rocks “villages, cities, rural homes, and suburbs, with no apparent pattern or reason”; the walking corpses are “ordinary-looking people”, the more knowing audience are told, “in a kind of trance”. In Romero's quasi-allegoric depiction, glazed, frenzied butchery and uncontrollable anarchy have become the new face of “ordinary” America, which persists in official channels to disseminate a narrative of sententious ignorance and incomprehension.

“So far we have been unable to determine whether any kind of organised investigation is underway”, the newsreader proffers, a blunt summation that nevertheless eloquently speaks to the film’s own epoch, with its raging fires of political unrest and floundering governmental authorities. As A S Hamrah has pithily observed, Romero’s shoestring horror-fest may be the closest thing to neorealism that American cinema produced in 1967-68, a period of eruptive violence at home (as we have seen) and imperial bloodshed abroad. In science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin’s recollection:

[1968 was] a bitter year for those who opposed the [Vietnam] war. The lies and hypocrisies redoubled; so did the killing. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit, or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man’. The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.

Romero’s contemporaneous plague-vision may also be understood as a war-haunted (and artfully hyperbolic) portrait of a society fed and grown sick on its own illusions, as the flesh-mouldering dead come back, hunting their former neighbours and fellow citizens for food. “The bodies must be carried to the street and burned”, a later broadcast informs surviving citizens: “soak them with gasoline and burn them... they're just dead flesh.” For Washington policymakers, arguably, the millions of charred casualties of the Vietnam war were similarly regarded as sub-human, or at any rate expendable.

As the film’s tension escalates, we learn that radiation from a faulty American space-probe may have catalysed the carnivorous resuscitation of the corpses that now stalk the land, and so threaten the characters we watch with baited, never-hopeful breath. This is post-Hiroshima, post-Nagasaki, Cold War cinema at its most brilliant and unsettling, saturated with a sense of intimate dread. For the audience, the horror is twofold, as we follow Ben’s desperate, strategizing thoughts, and as we realise that the overarching fable we remain immersed in is unfolding in the aftermath of a militarised malfunction; that the starving, contagious zombies being torched in the streets are themselves victims of America’s atomic hubris.

Night 3

It’s for this reason that Romero’s famished dead, with their peeling, tarnished skin and stilted movements, can appear so strangely haunting; at times, they seem more pained, indeed, than the actual people trapped in the farmhouse. The roaming close-ups of the looming, hungry cadavers, feeding on human limbs outside, disturb, even today, because they evoke simultaneously the horrors of hunger and the visceral pleasures of murder – within a plausible paradigm of state ineptitude and military experimentation.

Watching the film in the wake (and continuing midst) of a global pandemic, it’s parabolic dimension also seems peculiarly prescient. “The only advice our reporters have been able to get from official sources”, the radio blurts, “is for private citizens to stay in their homes, behind locked doors: do not venture outside for any reason”. In a society atomised by its obsessive pursuit of “private” liberty, there is no guarantee of help on the way, or an end in sight. “The only advice [is] for private citizens to stay in their homes”. Take shelter.

After Ben has fortified the farmhouse, he slumps, exhausted, on the couch, and lights himself a cigarette, before springing up again to scavenge the room. He finds a gun, hidden in a wardrobe, and proceeds, with deft efficiency, to load it with ammunition, as two (white) men emerge from the cellar, where they had been hiding. It’s at this point that Romero’s vision is particularly disquieting. “We lock into a safe place”, says Karl (Harry Cooper) to Ben, with an indignation verging on vitriolic, “and you’re telling us we’ve gotta risk our lives just ’cos somebody might need help!” His eyes have a hard, unfeeling fury as he barks this self-justification (which sounds like an accusation). Throughout all this, Romero’s camera flits and flows from every angle of the characters’ ramshackle, claustrophobic refuge, heightening the urgency and intensity of their circumstances, which seem uncannily familiar.

It soon becomes clear that Karl’s doctrine of seething self-interest has a racial charge. “I’ve got to get that gun”, he hisses to his wife, referring to the rifle in Ben’s hands – and unwittingly foreshadowing Stokely Carmichael’s real-time observation, that after King’s murder, once again, “black people know that they have to get guns”, if only to protect themselves against white rancour and its ubiquitous devotees. As here, Romero’s winningly tacked-together, interior canvas registers the dysfunctions and antagonisms of a racialized middle class both assured and covetous of its own entitlements. Karl remains convinced, dogmatically, of his own right to survive: “I don't want anyone’s life on my hands”, he exclaims, as Ben struggles to keep the house secure.

The cataclysm of the film’s penultimate sequence, as the troupe of internal refugees turn on each other, or are over-run by the dead, is gruesome and ferocious: a vision of hell, sewn together from the living flesh of an America as intransigent as it is vicious. When the posse of vigilantes strolls into the final act, restoring order and eliminating the zombies one by one (with a bullet to the brain), they are not heroic saviours. Rather, in their swagger and laconic mercilessness, they enact the arrogance of all the state-sanctioned kill-gangs of America’s past and future: trigger-happy, self-certain, and casually, ineffably white.

Our Imaginary Arizonas: John Ford’s Stagecoach    
Wednesday, 20 October 2021 10:53

Our Imaginary Arizonas: John Ford’s Stagecoach    

Published in Films

“All aboard for Lordsburg!”, my Dad used to shout. Immediately, my sister and I would scramble out to the garden to take our seats in the creaking, rust-spattered swing-set planted there, which our parents (playing the part of the workhorses) would push and pull, as we began the journey through our imaginary Arizonas.

The signal was borrowed from Stagecoach, John Ford’s 1939 picture, which I had been watching on-repeat since I was small, longer than I remember. “All aboard for Lordsburg”, cries Buck (Andy Devine), the driver, as his troupe of socially disparate passengers ready themselves for their perilous trip across the desert. An acknowledged classic, emulated and admired by later directors as diverse as Orson Welles and Michael Mann, Ford’s film is still one of my personal favourites.

Stagecoach won two Oscars – for its rip-roaring musical score, and for Thomas Mitchell’s supporting performance as the grizzled, kindly alcoholic, Doc Boone. It also revitalised the flagging career of a young actor whom it established, for decades to come, as an icon of American cinema, John Wayne, who plays the Ringo Kid. If Wayne’s performance has taken on a mythic mantle over time, Ringo himself, at the film’s opening, has a quasi-legendary reputation. We hear of him before we see him; he’s broken loose from prison, rumour has it, and is bent on avenging the death of his brother at the hands of the Plummer boys. For Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the shady banker, Ringo is consequently “notorious”. Buck, by contrast, smiles at the mere mention of his name. “I thought Ringo was in the pen?”, he says, “Busted out? Well, good for him!”

Our first encounter with Wayne’s protagonist is a moment of unforgettable cinematic brilliance. “Hold it!”, a hard-edged voice from the dust-trail yells, as a tracking shot, blurring in and out of focus, speeds to a close-up of the smiling outlaw: caked with dust, a trickle of sweat running down his face, wielding a Winchester rifle in one hand and a spent saddle in the other – the Ringo Kid.

François Truffaut, the French film critic turned New Wave auteur would mimic Ford’s technique at the end of his The 400 Blows (1959) – the camera follows the running form of young Antoine Doinel (Jeanne-Pierre Léaud), as he heads alone to the sea, zooming in to a mesmerising freeze-frame of his uncertain, indomitable expression, as he turns to look back at the life he’s left. He’s caught, stilled by the camera, on the edge of childhood and the world, that vast expanse.

Although in his thirties at the time of filming, Wayne in Stagecoach has the openness and quiet melancholy of a younger man, who knows what it feels like, still, to be a boy. The embittered loneliness and tyrannical anger of Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in Red River (1948), the tough hatred of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), are, on first glance, difficult to imagine lurking in the softness and daring of Ringo here. From the moment he enters the drama, in his wholesome sensitivity and dark sadness, the Kid is an everyman: an outsider the audience are invited to recognise, somehow, as a version of ourselves.

Significantly, throughout the picture, Ringo treats Dallas (Claire Trevor), a sex worker, as an equal, and more importantly as a “lady”, drawing the ire and suspicion of some of his fellow passengers in the process. “Looks like I got the plague, don't it”, Ringo says softly, as Hatfield (John Carradine) and Mrs Mallory (Louise Platt) refuse to sit at the same table with him and Dallas: “I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week.” Earlier, when Hatfield extends a silver cup of water to Mrs Mallory, Ringo asks, in front of everyone, “How about the other lady?” He passes the communal water-flask to a grateful Dallas instead, smiling broadly: “Sorry, no silver cups.”

Their mutual affection fills the screen as the film progresses, particularly in one sequence: after Mrs Mallory has given birth in the backroom of a watering station. As Dallas, with characteristic care, carries out the newborn baby girl into the common area, Ringo’s eyes stay fixed on hers, brimming with understanding and desire. He sees her humanity, and loves her for it. In a symbolically charged interior shot, we watch Ringo lean into a doorway as he stares after Dallas, exhausted, pacing to the end of the backlit corridor, into the night. He tilts his head to a lamp held by Chris (Chris-Pin Martin), lighting his cigarette before following her outside, in silence. “Don't talk like that”, Dallas nearly weeps after he proposes marriage later, and it’s a tribute to both actors, as well as Ford’s framing in the lead-up, that such an exchange can seethe with such hurt and passion. These kids have been denied a future so many times; but Ringo still has dreams.

A depiction of American class conflicts

In all of this, Ford’s movie has an implicitly political dimension. “Much of what struck 1939 viewers as groundbreaking” about the film, as Joseph McBride observes, “was its unusually sophisticated depiction of bedrock American class conflicts”, played out and elucidated “through the intricately orchestrated clash of representative personalities under pressure”. In its sympathetic, often heroic portrayal of Ringo and his fellow outcasts, Stagecoach seemed to share in the spirit of New Deal progressivism that had defined the politics of the preceding decade.

A friend of mine picked up on exactly this quality in Ford’s film recently, remarking on what he called the “rough-and-tumble life” it explores and celebrates, “a working or proletarian life.” I couldn’t agree more. Buck, for example, portly, comical, and shrill, is a hard worker, tethered to the meagre wages he receives as a coach-driver, as he risks his life and well-being in the hope, one day, of saving enough money to marry his “girl, Juliana”.

“If there's anything I don’t like”, he says, “it’s driving a stagecoach through Apache country. [I] took this job ten years ago… I've been working hard at it ever since.” He’s later wounded, in fact nearly killed, by Apache riders, though the issue of just compensation by the coach company (for grievous work-related injury) is never addressed, even after his eventual arrival in Lordsburg.

Questions of labour, inequality, and social standing define this adventure to an unusual degree. To revisit the character of Gatewood now, with his mixture of misanthropy, corruption, and noxious bluster, is to realise something of the long tradition, in America, that found a 21st-century manifestation in Donald Trump’s presidency. Gatewood treats conversations as sounding-boards for the politics he lives by, testing and provoking his fellow passengers in order to scrutinise their responses. “The government must not interfere with business”, he says, “What this country needs is a businessman for president”. Even as he shuttles towards disgrace, with a bag of stolen money lodged under his arm, he test-drives a definition of US citizenship that is abruptly hierarchical, and coded white. “America for Americans!”, he barks, scanning the coach for signs of disagreement or dissent.

Tellingly, Gatewood’s wife, with whom he apparently feels no compunction to share his stolen savings, is a member of the local Law and Order League, a self-organised committee that drives both Doc and Dallas from their lodgings at the beginning of the film. “Doc, can they make me leave town when I don't wanna go?”, Dallas asks, with a desperation given due acknowledgement by Ford, “Haven't I any right to live?” In reply, Doc offers understanding, if not quite consolation. “We’re the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice”, he says, “These dear ladies of the Law and Order League are scouring out the dregs of the town.”

Mitchell fluently conveys Doc Boone’s whimsy and world-weariness; we’re able, through the fullness and solidity of his presence, to appreciate the doctor’s (perhaps surprising) store of minor generosities, which seem so great only because his fellow citizens have proven so narrow-hearted, and even cruel. He takes Dallas’s arm as he helps her to the coach, but not before quoting (eloquent in irony) Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to his former landlady: “Is this the face that wrecked a thousand ships, and burned the towerless tops of Ilium?” Her pinched, scornful features pucker up, in reply.

As here, if Ford’s vision can be described as Shakespearean in its depiction of the American West-in-formation, it’s notable that the words of the bard himself sprinkle the films, heightening their emotional flavour and adding colour and tone to the rambunctious society therein. My Darling Clementine also features a dissolute (indeed, chronically ill) doctor with a poetic perspective on the world. In that movie, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) finishes Hamlet's soliloquy when an ageing actor, mounted on a bar-room table-top, forgets his lines, grounding the florid mellifluousness of the thespian’s speech in the pathos of his own dream: of life, of death. “The undiscover’d country,” he says, slowly,

… from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all…

The saloon grows still as Doc recites his verse, then breaks into a bustle again as he crumples over his handkerchief, coughing blood.

In Stagecoach, for all the dipsomania that fogs and bedraggles his days, Doc Boone’s burden, always, is his unusual clarity of vision. He’s seen a great deal of how the country was tamed and how towns are run, so that even his kindliness is tinged with fatigue. He previously served in the Union army during the Civil War, we learn; he’s spent some time as a paediatrician, too, he tells Mrs Mallory; while his long service as a local doctor seems to have awakened him to all that is immedicable in post-war society. “What happened to that boy, whose arm I fixed [many years ago]?”, he inquires of Ringo, who now sits handcuffed on the floor of the coach. “He was murdered”, the Kid replies, his eyes flickering back to a stony glaze, as he recalls his brother’s fate.

John Carradine, a regular Ford collaborator, brings a similarly explosive restraint to his portrayal of Hatfield, the former Confederate officer, latterly considered “a notorious gambler”, his reputation tarnished by violence. “Three weeks ago I took a bullet out of a man who'd been shot by a gentleman”, Doc says, pointedly, to the patrician Southerner facing him, “the bullet was in his back.” Carradine expresses Hatfield’s courtliness with a kind of controlled hunger throughout, latently menacing; his acting is superb. The mime-like exaggeration of his performance as the disenfranchised Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is toned down to a whisper here, while the stilted speechifying of the lavishly titled Major Cassius Starbuckle in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is entirely absent. When Hatfield draws the ace of spades, he smiles invisibly, almost with his gait; we sense his grim thrill and expectation. Later, when the Apaches are closing in on the stagecoach and its passengers, he stops our breath with a single calculating glance, and we see the clearness of his resolve, as he readies the final bullet in his gun for Mrs Mallory. 

Much has been made, and understandably so, of “the magnificence of the landscape” (Monument Valley) that serves as the backdrop to such dramatic intensities. Arguably, however, what makes Ford’s vision so compelling is his perception of the intimate interrelationship that endures between the characters, their society, and the natural world. Although Mrs Mallory herself is regarded as a “lady” throughout, her baby, somewhat anachronistically, is referred to as “little coyote” by her fellow passengers. It’s a telling detail, suggesting that Ford’s understanding of wildness could encompass not only the expansive skies and stark landscapes of his “Apache” country (a mythic projection, for the most part), but also the arduous physical experience of childbirth itself.

The coyote howling in the night is the closest we come to hearing Mrs Mallory’s cries of pain and need during the delivery, but the film nevertheless seems to recognise, as Kathleen Jamie has written in another context, that “to give birth is to be in a wild place”, provided we define wildness “not [as] a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation”. Stagecoach is famed as a frontier drama, in which a supposed wilderness is converted into a site of social definition and struggle, but its sense of ecology and natural dynamism is closer to what Jamie describes: “a force requiring constant negotiation”, entangling the survival of its protagonists with the rhythms and imperatives of nature in the widest sense.

Racist caricatures

Such depth and nuance, of course, are shadowed, and possibly marred, by what McBride has termed the film’s “casual indulgence of racist caricatures of Indians and Mexicans”. Although Dallas suggests that “there are worse things than Apaches”, eyeing the punitive posse of Law and Order women who eject her from the town, the indigenous characters depicted in Ford’s film are nevertheless consistently cast (in McBride’s words) “as a simple force of nature, noble in appearance but destructive in action”: savages, in brief, whose ferocity threatens all of the coach passengers, humble or high-born. “We're all going to be scalped, Gatewood, massacred in one fell swoop”, Doc says, winding up his antagonist with the news of the vandalised telegram lines, the raiding parties rumoured to be roaming the territory:

It’s that old Apache butcher, Geronimo. Nice name for a butcher. He’s jumped the reservation. He's on the warpath.

Even Doc indulges in the distorting stereotype.

Commenting on The Searchers, Martin Scorsese has drawn attention to Ethan Edward’s resemblance to the Comanches he hunts and hates (with a fanatical bloodlust). “There is no home, no family, waiting for Ethan” at the end of The Searchers, Scorsese observes: “He is cursed, just as he cursed the dead Comanche. He is a drifter, doomed to wander between the winds.” The correlation between Ringo and Geronimo in Stagecoach, however, has been less discussed. The Kid has escaped “the pen” and seeks vengeance for the murder of his kin; the Apache chief, similarly, has “jumped the reservation” and now is “on the warpath”.

The real Geronimo, of course, died only thirty years prior to Ford’s film, in 1909. And while his resistance (to extermination) is legendary – in no small part due to films like Stagecoach and Ford’s complex 1948 picture, Fort Apache – the brutality he struggled against has yet to be adequately documented on-screen, Walter Hill’s commendable attempt notwithstanding. After their final surrender, Dee Brown writes,

Geronimo and his surviving warriors were shipped to Fort Marion, Florida. He found most of his friends dying there in that warm and humid land so unlike the high, dry country of their birth. More than a hundred died of a disease diagnosed as consumption. The government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there.

Ringo’s maltreatment seems mild by comparison; his quest for survival, and the justice of his revenge, relatively contrived.

“Who better than an Irishman could understand the Indians,” Ford could still ask, rhetorically, in a late interview, referring to his director’s perspective, “while still being stirred by the tales of the US Cavalry? We [the Irish diaspora] were on both sides of the epic.” Such self-heroising ambivalence on Ford’s part may have added to the complexity and strangeness of the cinema he created, but its effects are far from triumphant or consistently comfortable, as even Stagecoach exemplifies. Ringo’s restiveness and determination, and possibly also, his sympathy as a character, are multi-dimensional, echoing Geronimo’s; but only from the far side of that dividing line (drawn between whiteness and savagery, say) that Ford’s picture is careful never explicitly to cross.

A dangerous, harsh and unforgiving civilisation

During the famous chase scene near the end – which remains, in filmic terms, breath-stoppingly memorable – we see Ringo in a new light. The Kid’s controlled anger, his almost feral athleticism, is matched only by the high-speed, fast-firing horsemanship of the Apaches themselves, whom he shoots down with merciless rigour (though, like the young outlaw, they sustain their resistance, and keep charging). His later showdown with the Plummer brothers is marked by similar tension, and ruthlessness: Ringo is outnumbered, and yet remains furiously, methodically focused on the task before him, of gunning his antagonists down. In both scenes, Ringo is far more the “butcher” than Geronimo, although he is treated, throughout, as the wronged outcast and just avenger. “Say kid, how old were you when you went to the pen”, Doc asks, catching Ringo’s arm. “Oh, I was going on 17”, he shrugs.

Ringo remains the hero of the tale. As his showdown with the Plummers approaches, Lordsburg’s newspaper editor rushes to the press, excitedly ordering his assistant to “kill that story about the Republican convention in Chicago and take this down: The Ringo Kid Was Killed on Main Street in Lordsburg Tonight.” By allowing this doomed youth his victory, however, Ford makes the moral of the film clear: that against all the odds, Ringo still has an alternative future to the one society has prepared for him; (unlike Geronimo) when he leaves town, his horizons are bright.  “Well, they're saved from the blessings of civilization”, Doc smiles, watching Ringo and Dallas exit together at the close.

Stagecoach may be understood, then, as a social parable. At the beginning, the telegram lines have been cut. When the passengers arrive at the raided ferry station, even the rocks are scorched; Hatfield lays his black coat over the body of a murdered girl. If the defence of the stagecoach against Apache attack, hurtling through the desert, is framed as a last-ditch, high-stakes clash between a settler society and an indigenous culture still capable of reducing it to chaos and fear, the thundering arrival of the US cavalry at the finish represents the decisive sweep and consolidation of federal authority over native land, drowning Geronimo and his riders in a cloud of dust.

It’s part of the film’s appeal, however, as well as the conflicting certainties of Ford’s imagination, that this victory, for all its fanfare, is disquieting, and the “civilization” symbolised by the stagecoach and its journey shown up so plainly, and so often, as the unforgiving hierarchy that it is, dangerous and harsh. 

Wednesday, 06 October 2021 12:20

“We’s Who’s the Earth is For”: Storm Visions

Published in Films

Ciarán O’Rourke reviews Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild                                                                                      

A decade ago I began to form a habit that in the intervening years has evolved into a strange passion: going to the cinema, and watching movies, alone! Two films in particular, from those early days, seemed so urgent and exhilarating, so attuned to what was then (and is still) being talked about as the greatest threat to civilization, climate change, but at a human level, that I lay a good deal of the responsibility for my cinematical hermeticism at their feet.

I saw Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild in short succession, and they both taught me something about how to see, and read, and think about environmental devastation as a collective experience, from the confines of my own small life. Each picture still filters my understanding of the many dooms that are already taking shape about us, and are promised to intensify in the time ahead.

COR 1 

Take Shelter (2011) begins with an apocalypse that only Curtis (Michael Shannon) can see, which nevertheless threatens to envelop everything he knows. Staring at trees shaking and shimmering in the wind, Curtis watches, as in the backdrop an immense storm cloud gathers, and oleaginous rain begins to splatter his shirt and hair. The film proceeds as a close-focused portrait of a loner in crisis, as Curtis risks his job, family, financial stability, and standing in his community to build an underground bunker for his loved ones, in anticipation of an ecological and social disaster that nobody else understands, or wants to.

Jeff Nichols’s film offers (as the title suggests) an admonitory projection of an atomised America drowning in a storm of oil, a storm that only one incorrigibly reticent man, whose sanity is questioned throughout, can discern. Take Shelter was released three years before the Flint water crisis laid bare the reality of the USA’s poisoned waters, along with the social regimes ensuring that some people would suffer the effects of failed public infrastructure more than others. Likewise in 2005, six years prior to Nichols’s picture, the people of New Orleans had been left to fend for themselves by the federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and were then criminalised for surviving. Nichols’s cinematic parable is alert to the reality of these murder-traps, and still perturbs, mixing fantastical foreboding with the sharp, persistent tang of realism.

The downtrodden longing of dispossessed communities

Watching the movie now, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor than Shannon for the part of Curtis. Shannon, in his late thirties in the film, has the truculent, creviced features and uneasy, watchful gaze of an ageing veteran from a forgotten war. He conveys both seething anxiety and blank-eyed stolidity, and seems always to have wandered onto the screen from some Great Nowhere, that lost hinterland where America’s ghosts have been left to die. Curtis wakes from nightmares screaming, or asphyxiated in terrified paralysis. When lightning crashes in a far-off field, he flinches, and lurches instinctively to draw his young daughter (who is deaf) into the house. The lines between sight and vision, climactic crisis and personal breakdown, grow blurry, as Curtis mutters in disbelief and trepidation: “Is anyone seeing this?”

COR 3

In some respects, Shannon is comparable to Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, the “only actor” of the 1930s with whom the writer James Baldwin “identified” as a youth, just “by the way [he] walked down the road at the end of the film”. For Baldwin, Fonda’s onscreen presence was such that his whiteness was almost erased, composed not of savage entitlement but of empathic anger and downtrodden longing: he epitomised in his person those dispossessions endured by predominantly black and brown communities in the actual nation that Baldwin knew while growing up. The foreboding that we see encoded into Shannon’s permanently pained expressions is partly the face of white America turned back upon itself; he is a witness to catastrophe that none of his neighbours recognise, and against which there is no protection.

Nichols’s picture is set in America’s backlands, near Elyria, Ohio, where Walmart remains one of the city's top five employers, and (in the movie) Curtis and his friend Dewart (Shea Whigam) work in a gravel pit. Left deflated and unappeased by liberal policy-makers in Washington, within half a decade of the film’s making, places like this would embrace the demagogic populism of Donald Trump, as he began his march to the White House. The dread Curtis feels in nightmares, as friends and neighbours are driven to acts of visceral violence and desperation, accurately foreshadows the rancour and resentment stoked by Trump in reality.

In the micro-drama of Curtis’s escalating distress, which may be madness, we also glimpse the macro-epic of climate catastrophe, baring its fangs. “It rained for two hours yesterday”, his boss snaps in exasperation, “Two hours, and our entire [drilling] schedule went into the toilet.” Industrial productivity, not to mention human survival, becomes considerably more difficult and dangerous when the natural systems it depends on move with a gargantuan rhythm and momentum of their own. Take Shelter registers the pulse of a maelstrom that later films like Parasite dramatise in full-blown action.

Bird-murmurations swarm the skies, then vanish at a glance. When Curtis expresses his disquiet during a medical appointment, his doctor swivels his chair away from him, asking, “You been out to see your mother”, living in psychiatric care, “lately?” For Curtis, to question the seeming complacency of his peers is to be consigned to outsider status, exiled. When he does visit his mother (Kathy Baker), he wonders quietly if she can remember what happened before she was “diagnosed”. “It was a real stressful time”, she says in a soft voice, “Your father was gone a lot... there was always a panic that took hold of me.”

Nichols’s visual grammar is often so beguiling because of his parallel capacity to enter the inner (and intimate) life of his characters. Much of the power of Take Shelter, indeed, lies in its recognition that many of its central characters can’t: the precarity and many burdens of their days are such that the very idea of safety, sustainable comfort, enduring happiness is constantly endangered. “You got a good life”, says Dewart to his friend and workmate. “Well, it ain't always so easy”, Curtis replies, looking away.

This is a drama in which basic medical procedures and prescriptions are frequently out of financial reach; where people are expected to pay (somehow), or suffer. Curtis’s wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), sells hand-sewn curtains and quilts at the local car-boot sale for extra cash. When Curtis gets “a home-improvement loan” from the bank to build the tornado shelter in his back garden, he jeopardizes his ability to cover the expense of Hannah’s hearing implants. “How could you do that without talking to me”, Samantha almost pleads: “Tell me something that helps me understand why you're being like this.” He breathes heavily: “There's nothing to explain.”

Private calamity and collective crisis

Communication and understanding, their necessity and frustration, are organising motifs in this strangely symphonic drama of private calamity and collective crisis. We watch transfixed as Chastain’s Samantha, whose searching intelligence makes even silence eloquent, teaches Hannah “a new sign” word, and the windows of the house grow grey: “S-T-O-R-M”. When Curtis eventually tells his wife about the “dreams, I guess they're more like nightmares”, he evokes the “dark, thick rain, like fresh motor-oil.” Such terse, weighted lines could be taken from a play by Sam Shepard (an actor-writer who adds to the grounded gravitas of Nichols’s 2012 feature, Mud). “It’s not just a dream”, Curtis says, “It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming. Something that’s not right. I cannot describe it. I just need you to believe me.” The times are out of joint.

The question of belief, of human faith-in-one-another, is resolved only ambiguously in this movie, which brings us face to face with a premonition of extinction that is at once powerful and difficult to absorb in full. Curtis’s slow diffidence and physical unease nevertheless convey what we (and he) cannot quite define in verbal terms.

COR 4

The picture is in some respects comparable to Field of Dreams (1989), in which despite accusations from all sides of insanity, financial and medical, the character Ray (Kevin Costner) knows that “if he builds” a baseball field on his land, “people will come”:

They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past… Then they’ll walk off to the bleachers, sit in their shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon… and they’ll watch the [baseball] game, and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.

Curtis’s nightmares repeat the same parable, but in altered form. If he builds his storm shelter, the apocalypse he’s felt brewing for so long will strike: his worst fears will be vindicated..

In a vivid distillation of Curtis’s anguish and isolation, after fighting with Dewart in the mess hall, frothing at the mouth he yells: “There is a storm coming. Like nothing you've ever seen. And not one of you is prepared for it.” None of his friends and neighbours can look him in the eye. “Sleep well in your beds”, he screams, “because if this comes true there ain’t gonna be any more.” Then, turning to Samantha and Hannah, his eyes clearing as he meets their faces, he crumples into tears, in agony and shame.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius”, Emerson once wrote, urging that each “man” should “carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he”. Curtis’s actions exemplify the stubborn wildness of such a credo, while exposing the preposterous insulation of its originator. Curtis’s need to trust his convictions “in the presence of all opposition”, his will to act on the recurring, fearful visions he sees, cost him nearly all he has. Emerson’s sermon at the pulpit exacted no such toll on the eminent philosopher. 

COR 2

In similarly immersive fashion, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) dramatises the experience, at an almost bodily level, of fragility in the midst of social and climactic collapse. Set on a small Louisiana island, in a forgotten town called The Bathtub, the film is narrated and led by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a decrepit portakabin, suspended by trees, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Their home is alive with rust, and roots; lit by weather and lived in by birds and (sometimes the strangest of) beasts.

The first words we hear in the film, in voiceover, are faltering, precise, and powerfully expressive of the world Hushpuppy knows and the binding laws she intuits to be true there: “All the time, everywhere, everything's hearts are beatin’ and squirtin’, and talkin’ to each other the ways I can't understand.” Hushpuppy's statement of incomprehension is deep and real with wisdom, partly because (like Curtis) she understands more, perhaps, than she can allow herself to say out loud.

We see Hushpuppy holding a chick in her small hands firmly, and yet with total gentleness. Patrolling a nearby junkyard in her faded yellow wellington boots, she lays her arm across a recumbent hog, sleeping in the mud, and listens for its heartbeat, a gesture she repeats throughout the film, motivated by the nameless but palpable sickness that is increasingly depleting Wink of energy and aggravating his mood.

“I hope you die”, she shouts at Wink, after he has struck her in anger and panic. She punches his chest, and we see, on his face, a flicker of remorse and grief. He will die (soon), and he recognises that at some instinctive level Hushpuppy already knows it. When Wink collapses, in seizure, a rumble of thunder sounding in the skies, Hushpuppy quivers in open-eyed distress at this great apocalypse descending on her father, and overtaking their life together, which is grubby, precarious, and full.

The earth is for us

Hushpuppy and Wink fish in a scrap-metal boat that floats on the mud-brown river, which, as in one of Mark Twain’s quintessential (and insightful) yarns, is always “raising”. After floods, the water becomes choked, in large measure due to a forbidding levee, which separates Hushpuppy and her people from the smoke-spewing industrial landscape beyond, where the American State reigns. “Ain't that ugly over there”, Wink says, nodding in the direction of the factory towers: “We got the prettiest place on earth.” In moments like this, Benh Zeitlin’s film (his first) has truth and grit in equal measure, which may account for its overall vitality, its magnificent flavour.

“They built the wall that cut us off”, Hushpuppy proclaims, with a kind of triumph: “They think we all gonna drown down here, but we ain't goin nowhere... The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the world!” In the form of The Bathtub, the commons has survived, and we see its openness and revelry, the plenteous river, and the fellowship that thrives in and around it, up-close. This is a place where people share their resources, knowledge, and company, together in nature.

“Everything is part of the buffet of the universe”, smiles the kindly Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), who tells the local huddle of listening children before her of the fierce, ravenous aurochs, now extinct, which once roamed the earth. As Wink’s illness takes hold of his body, violent storms rocking and wracking their home, Hushpuppy is haunted by these creatures, looming and immense: they shadow her world. “I'm recording my story for the scientists of the future”, she says, without irony, fear or self-pity.

This is also, however, a community attuned to its own destruction. “Ice-caps gonna melt, water's gonna rise”, Miss Bethsheba says, so “y’all better learn to survive now”, an instruction Hushpuppy internalises, and converts to poetry, saying in a boat-speak vernacular:

One day, the storm's gonna blow, the ground's gonna sink, and the water's gonna rise up so high, there ain't gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water.... But me and my Daddy, we stay right here. We’s who’s the earth is for.

The radicalism of Hushpuppy’s worldview is all the more startling for her resounding trust in it. Her intent, soft, observing eyes, her mellow, thoughtful words, find truth wherever they rest. “We’s who’s the earth is for.”

Take Shelter conjures the terror of a grown man who is both lost and anchored in a world over-shadowed by mortal catastrophes; Beasts of the Southern Wild re-creates the lush and often urgent textures of childhood, a time of true magic and deep yearning, in this case imperilled by those hungry predators,  natural death, social and environmental devastation, and a coercive State. When Wink commits an act of sabotage on the dam in an attempt to clear the area of the now-stagnant waters, police and rescue teams arrive to implement an “emergency evacuation”, forcibly transferring the Bathtub community into homeless services. “It didn't look like a prison”, Hushpuppy remarks of the crowded medical centre where Wink is transferred, “It looked like a fish-bowl with no water.”  If it is stirringly humane and fluently constructed, the film remains in touch (in A.S. Hamrah’s words) with “an America that is divorced from social services and beset by environmental collapse.”

The movie holds in balance an unflinching recognition of precarious lives faced down by (sometimes lethal) inevitabilities, and a child’s experience of community and fellowship – with nature and her people. Everything Hushpuppy loves comes close to vanishing, or actually dies, as the monsters that stalk her life knock down the walls, covering her world with swampy water.

Without shirking its responsibility to these sureties and circumstances, the final act dares to imagine some of the ways in which lost children may find warmth and protection nonetheless: in the arms of outcasts, or in the companionship of one another. Hushpuppy can walk back to the “raising” river and call it home. As we look into a future defined by certain loss and potential planetary ruin, the tenderness and fierce courage of this film quickens the heart.

Further Reading

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976).

A. S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing 2002-2018 (2019).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841). 

Sleepless Nights
Friday, 24 September 2021 12:16

Sleepless Nights

Published in Films

As the predicted and real-time effects of climate change grow more dire by the day, and Covid-19 continues to devastate the world’s most impoverished (predominantly black and brown) populations, due in large measure to a commercially oriented global vaccine regime, the prospects for communal life, collective liberty, and non-coercive happiness seem increasingly elusive.

Lately, however, I’ve sought solace, and sometimes found enlightenment, in so-called post-war American films that dramatise the appeal, ubiquity, and ramifications of social violence in the lives of nobodies, who are also everymen (and occasionally, women). Most of these movies were made between or alongside the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, and the prolonged American carpet-bombing of North Korea, during the Korean war of 1950-53. They all tend to feel sick about the world, for one reason or another, and excited at the versatile potential of cinema to explore why.

The Big Sleep

Set in a universe that might be our own, where exploitation and murder are common fare, and mendacity is ripe, Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) excels primarily in provoking delight in its viewers: at the frisson of its scripted sparring, and at the complicated glamour of cinema and its stars, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall among them. Raymond Chandler’s style of literate, sardonic street-speak is elevated, by Hawks, to film-content, and much of the plot is buoyed by the fast-talking perspicacity of Bogart’s world-weary Private Investigator, Philip Marlowe. The result is a thriller that charms, in which even the most disturbing crimes lead, sooner or later, to deadpan poetry.

Throughout the film, dramatic (and sexual) tension is sustained through quips and verbal ricochets. Even when drenched in sweat, Bogart is steady, his embered gaze and rhythmic delivery anchoring the neurotic lavishness of Marlowe’s dialogue. His retorts are relentlessly ornate and performative, and yet oddly beguiling. On being rebuked by Lauren Bacall’s Vivian, “I don't like your manners”, he replies:

I'm not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like ’em myself. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings….

Marlowe’s is the excessive eloquence of a man who doesn’t know how to talk, i.e. with other people. Following a “hunch”, Marlowe impersonates, with spoofy and even campy precision, a rare books collector, up-folding the rim of his hat and donning a pair of black-lensed glasses. His tone changes, but his sculpted, abrasive garrulity remains the same. “You could go on forever, couldn't you”, Vivian later remarks, all smoky intelligence and innuendo: she has his measure.

Bogart is the ideal player for the part. With his lean, nervy gait, and his thin, strangely malevolent smile, he makes Marlowe both tough and iconic; he wins our hearts. “You begin to interest me, vaguely”, says an assistant in a bookstore, speaking for all of us, as the weird charisma of Bogart-Marlowe fills the space between them, the faint grin on his face poised between languid attraction and suppressed menace. Most of Marlowe’s digressions are flirtatious, some are violent: Bogart’s magnetism is grounded in his ability to keep both of these dynamics alive for viewers, no matter the context.

Marlowe dominates the film. The result is that whatever insight we receive into his society is implicit and oblique: like the smoke he breathes, as he jousts and seduces his various adversaries into submission. The convoluted (and melodramatic) crimes Marlowe solves are less central than the fact he is solving them, focused and unfazed. We know that there are monsters in the labyrinth Marlowe paces through, but we have the reassuring pleasure of sensing that this particular outsider, a “guy who gets paid to do other people's laundry”, has seen them all before, in one guise or another. Marlowe was previously “fired for insubordination”, we learn: “I seem to rate pretty high on that”. He trades “shots” with Irish revolutionaries and heavies, and survives, somehow wholer than he had been to begin with. He walks and talks as though he needed no convincing of the potency of his own myths.

If this quality in great part accounts for the allure of The Big Sleep, it’s also a constricting frame. In Hawks’s adaptation of Chandler’s novel, the title seems to refer to Marlowe’s coy charisma and expressive intelligence. His restless eyes scan every room he enters. And he can ask, with mock-exasperation: “Don't you know any better than to wake a man up at two o'clock in the afternoon?” Hawks’s vision is immersive and entertaining, and considerably emptier than Chandler’s original creation. “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep”, Chandler’s narrator says:

you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now….

No such trouble haunts the exhilarated romance of Marlowe and Vivian at the close of Hawks’s picture. They love each other, and this is taken to dispel the “nastiness” (of murder, manipulation, blackmail, cover-up) that brought them together.

The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle (1950), John Huston’s knife-edge meditation on crime and anomie, cannot afford such glib resolutions. In spirit, it comes closer than The Big Sleep itself to sharing and fathoming Chandler’s intuition of a world gone wrong. For Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), life is both drabber and more desperate than anything Marlowe and Vivian experience, for all the abundant dangers of their tale. Every move made by Dix or Doll has weight and consequence; their chances of survival in post-Depression era America, whatever about attaining mutual connection or happiness, are always scarce.

Hayden, towering and impassive, has none of Bogart’s neurotic appeal onscreen. His almost expressionless performance nevertheless carries immense pathos. Dix is articulate only in brokenness, in contrast to Marlowe, whose rolling wisecracks synthesise every jagged or precarious situation that snares him into laconic prose. Dix is labelled “a hick” and “farmer” by his fellow hoodlums; his glazed anger and proficiency in physical force are both products of lifelong dispossession.

One scene, the hinge on which The Asphalt Jungle turns, observes Dix and Doll in close-up, locked in a conversation that seems more like a set of terse, parallel soliloquies. After recounting a dream of “Corncracker”, a horse on his family’s farm when he was a boy, Dix mutters: 

[Dix:] ... you know somethin’, one of my ancestors imported one of the first Irish thoroughbreds into my county [in Kentucky]. Our farm was in the family for generations, 160 acres… [But then] everything happened at once. My old man died. And we lost our corn crop. That black colt I was telling you about, he broke his leg. And had to be shot. That was a rotten year. I'll never forget the day we left.  

[Doll:] Growing up in a place and then having to leave must be awful. I never had a proper home.

[Dix:] The way I figure, my luck's just gotta turn. One of these days I'll make a real killing. And then I'll head for home. First thing I do when I get there, I take a bath in the crick, get this city dirt off me.

The filth of modernity, both moral and physical, surrounds these characters, and stains their vision. For all his street-savvy, Dix can only see what’s behind him, back in the past; and even in the company of Doll, he cannot hear or recognise the blend of empathy and quiet appeal in her words (“I never had a proper home”), or understand the intimacy they share: he is alone. Alienation hovers over him, and has invaded even the clothes he wears, and the skin of his body. All he wants, and cannot have, is to “take a bath in the crick, get this city dirt off me.”

“If you want fresh air”, shrugs Louis (Anthony Caruso), the locksmith, “don’t look for it in this town.” The city itself is a kind of corrupting monster, that depletes its denizens, and swallows them whole. It’s a recognition that comes too late to Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the scheming, bankrupt man-of-society, who sponsors the central heist, and then falls victim to the powerplay of doublecross and murder he himself has instigated. “Crime”, he reflects, before his fall, “is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.” Whereas Dix and his fellow heisters are doomed to die – by a combination of circumstance and tragic fallibility – Emmerich, who has emerged from the ensuing debacle physically unscathed, chooses death over the social disgrace his exposure as a (failed) criminal will elicit. He shoots himself in his study, while the police huddle incredulously on the other side of his door.

The Big Heat

The same motif sets the stage in the compulsive study in moral choice and endurance that is Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), which begins with the suicide (by gunshot) of Tom Duncan, a well-respected “cop” and head of the record bureau. “Everything Tom did was clean and wholesome”, feigns his widow (Jeanette Nolan), when Bannion, the formidably inquisitive detective, arrives on the scene. Like The Asphalt Jungle, however, Lang’s film depicts a society riddled with greed and ripped apart by violence: a culture in which nothing, and nobody, is “clean and wholesome”.

And yet, as Bannion slowly uncovers a complex network of corruption, we also glimpse a counter-current of anxiety, which neither The Big Sleep or The Asphalt Jungle ventures to acknowledge. Looking out over the bustling city at night, and pondering Bannion’s persistent and disruptive inquiries, mob-boss Lagana (Alexander Scourby) advises his sidekick against resorting (and drawing attention) to their standard methods of enforcing assent. “Never get the people steamed up”, he says, “they start doing things: Grand Juries, election investigations”, all of which would spell the end to his political reign. Popular wrath exists, even if only as a potentiality, within or just beyond the confines of this drama; and even the lord of the criminal underworld is afraid of its light.

Lagana addresses this counsel to Vince, a misogynist and killer played by Lee Marvin. Vince is laconic and violent in every casual glance he throws, except when his boss is around, which makes him watchful and obsequious, and Bannion, before whom he cowers. And we understand why. In contrast to Bogart (whose Marlowe more often than not wields wit and calculation as his preferred weapons), Glenn Ford brings a persuasive physicality to Bannion’s bristling rage and dogged commitment. When he fights, we believe his anger, and recognise his control. Even his impassiveness smoulders. “You can't set yourself against the world, and get away with it”, Bannion is told. And so he assembles a hand-picked team of former GIs, like-minded and loyal, to protect his daughter and assist himself. He thinks like a hunter, as Vince seems silently, instinctively intuits.

As the action unfolds, Bannion appears to draw subtle (self-)satisfaction from his application of righteous force. His courageous, vengeful approach to criminality and his (largely ineffectual) interludes of soul-searching both foreshadow the just vigilantism of cinematic figures as diverse as Travis Bickle and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight”. As Nolan’s Batman trilogy in particular demonstrates, sometimes unwittingly, the violent, anti-crime heroism of such outsiders can easily shade into cruel retribution or authoritarian manhandling, in the name of order. The chirpy restoration of Bannion’s station and power (as police sergeant) at the close of The Big Heat does little to mitigate the punitive dimension of his project.

That we remain so firmly on Bannion’s side, however, is symptomatic of Lang’s masterful comprehension of the film’s driving emotional vectors. The car-bomb attack outside Bannion’s home, killing his wife (Jocelyn Brando), is so shocking partly because of the portrait of authentic and affectionate marital camaraderie that precedes it. In stark contrast to the guarded, elliptical amours of The Big Sleep and The Asphalt Jungle, the relationship between Bannion and his wife is defined not by innuendo, but by intimacy and even equality (we see them sharing the same can of beer and slice of steak, cracking jokes at each other over dinner).

The film is noteworthy, indeed, for its unflinching treatment of the savage and lethal violence inflicted on women, from Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), “found dead... after beating and torture”, with “cigarette burns on her body”, to Debby (Gloria Grahame), whose face is scalded with boiling coffee by her sometime lover, Vince. When reprimanded by Bannion as to her accommodating of Vince’s outbursts against other women, and her implication in Lagana’s crime ring more generally, Debby replies, matter-of-factually: “The last time I butted in, Vince worked me over.”

For all his avenging fury later, Bannion’s initial, presumptuous disdain towards Debby is arguably itself a form of complicity, in a contempt that Debby knows only too well. And Debby, the so-called blonde of the movie, perceives as much, astutely. “With you dead, the big heat falls: for Lagana, for Stone”, Bannion snarls at Duncan’s widow, with his hands around her throat. “If you had [killed her]”, Debby notes, “There wouldn't have been much difference between you and Vince Stone.” Both figures, Bannion and Vince, stalk and shadow one another, in their actions and even their drives.

Tellingly, aside from Bannion, and with far less vainglory, the only characters undeterred by mob coercion are women, who tip him off at every step, risking (and in most cases, losing) their lives along the way: Debby, Ms Parker (Edith Evanson), and Lucy Chapman herself. Appropriately, perhaps, it’s Debby who ultimately assassinates Bertha, thus ensuring that the truth of Lagana’s infiltration of the police department will come to light, as the Duncan papers are released posthumously to the press. “We should use first names, Bertha”, she smiles, glancing at the fur-coats they both wear, paid for by Lagana: “we’re sisters under the mink.” “It’ll burn for a long time, Vince”, she says softly, likewise, as she takes revenge on her previous assailant, flinging boiling water across him. Writhing in agony, he wheels on her in speechless rage, and shoots her dead. Debby has achieved the complexity and dynamism of a central protagonist; a crime apparently punishable by death.

It’s this roiling portrait, not just of political corruption, but of sexist violence, both intimate and pervasive, that makes The Big Heat so vivid and unsettling, and which raises it above Hawks’s earlier back-alley jaunt with Marlowe. Censored and forced into exile by Germany’s Nazi regime, Fritz Lang woke up in America, then went on to paint the living nightmare of the ferocities he found there.

A Resistance Writer Reflects On His Life: Variations of poems by Bertolt Brecht
Saturday, 24 October 2020 13:23

A Resistance Writer Reflects On His Life: Variations of poems by Bertolt Brecht

Published in Poetry

Author's note: Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century, blending an aspirational communism with anti-fascist politics, while developing a satirical, "epic style" of drama that broke new theatrical ground. Famously, in The Threepenny Opera (1928), Brecht posed the question: "Who is the bigger criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?"

Brecht, who identified as a Marxist and revolutionary writer, produced a rich and wide-spanning body of poetic work, including lyrics of love, landscape and personal memory, anthems of proletarian solidarity, and deep-delving poems of social and civilisational critique.

The sequence below deliberately straddles the line between translation and original tribute. Although I was conscious of the lapse between his life and circumstances and my own, my main concern while writing was to respond to Brecht's poetry in a way that drew out (without suppressing any one element for the benefit of another) its range, lyric elegance, and radical fire. I may not have succeeded, but I hope that my admiration for his work, at least, is clear.

On a personal note, I'm thankful to Conor Brennan, who some years ago gifted me a copy of The Selected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, translated by H. R. Hays, which was my first introduction to Brecht the poet.

A Resistance Writer Reflects On His Life
(Variations on poems by Bertolt Brecht, 1898-1956)

by Ciarán O'Rourke

In the rippling mirror I catch my face:
well-fed and water-logged, an exile's countenance.
Tomorrow's outcast! That shining place,
where, with the girl who god forgot
and drowned, I'll no doubt vanish also,
strange to the ways of your bleating world.
~
But I was something once
no time ahead could fathom:
           a human soul, seduced by need
to paint the boardroom butchers of the age
in lurid colours, my verses shaped
like sleeting fists, my hunger
           like a storm. I lived in rage
and love in equal measure;
my life knew every texture, had
the beat of living history
           a-thrum in it. And I worked
(in my way) like all the rest. At dawn,
the miners dragged their boots in song
along the cobbles; my coal-
          blue fingers smudged
the page in praise.
~
What, today, you call a river
to me was second nature – gifted,
like the grey boughs donning
wind's weather
in a rush above me years before,
or the pounding clouds
that clapped the forest doors
for days,
till birds emerged
to shake the clearing after,
and the rains she kissed me under
disappeared forever.
The touched
earth – volving lovely
down my body –
this, the haunted mist
I breathed involuntarily,
woke to
year by year.
~
My spirit hummed the brightest
in fits of vision built from sense:
when I saw through spinning water-wheels
the village children growing thin,
or when I tuned my pen
to the famished noise of carolling machines.
And so, my last, light-filled request:
to log, if you will, my voice of ink
among their numberless possessions –
the agitators, legislators, the million-
faced and rebel poor, whose words
were sent to the burning marsh,
whose bones were sunk
in a box of zinc.
~
So we come to the hatred
         of arrogant men,
who, strolling from banquet
         to feast in their suits,
hector the nation with rations;
         who promise a reaping
of luck while they're fat, and let
         the fruit rot beneath sheeting;
who evict brittle children onto
         the streets, and wrap them
in data and numbers; who funnel
         society over a cliff

and proclaim their own
         fitness to govern.

I was moved by a hatred
         of arrogant men.
~
The people I love are bright and harsh.
Their fingers stitch the velvet coats.
Their bodies lift the singing roads.
They shake the wheat. They shape the loaf.
They carve the skyline named in stone
for the emperor and the boss,
and they always bite the famine-dirt
when their ledgers lodge a loss –
but they know far more than this, oh yes...
as the wave unbolts the ocean
and the slave commands the dawn,
my people's hands have threshed the wind,
           their faces creased the sun.
~
What is food for?
       To clothe the hungry
             dream with heat.
What do dreams become?
       A star a stone a fist a mob, to make
             the richest citizens
                    tremble in their beds.
What are poems for?
      To fortify the body,
             to weaponise the mind.
What should we remember?
      Amid the chronicle of cruelties,
            my yearning to be kind.
Who is this?
      Brecht: so mean, so dry,
      so stricken, so strung, I could
            sleep (or march).

'Poetry is a rival government': the poetry of William Carlos Wiliams
Wednesday, 23 September 2020 16:45

'Poetry is a rival government': the poetry of William Carlos Wiliams

Published in Poetry

Ciarán O'Rourke writes about the thoroughly politicised, internationalist and anti-fascist poetry of William Carlos Williams

“Mourn O Ye Angels of the Left Wing!”, Allen Ginsberg exclaimed in 1963, following the death of William Carlos Williams: “that the poet / of the streets is a skeleton under the pavement now”. The accolade, although brief, was a fitting one. Williams, the documentarian of America’s urban life, now resided “under the pavement ”, an appropriate resting place for a “poet of the streets” who had also been a stalwart “of the Left Wing!”.

Principally remembered today for his literary credo, “No ideas but in things”, as well as for imagistic snapshots such as “The Red Wheelbarrow”, Williams was in fact a formally adventurous and politically impassioned advocate of literature as an instrument of democratic praxis. For him, art's purpose was to provide a record of lived experience, but one which at the same time shed light on the power dynamics at play in his society – from the gleaming suburbs to the impoverished tenements of New Jersey’s industrial towns, where he worked (for over forty years) as a doctor-on-call and pediatrician. “Poetry is a rival government”, he wrote, remarking elsewhere that the “revolution” will be accomplished when “noble has been / changed to no bull”.

As a poet, Williams balanced stylistic delicacy with an exuberance (sometimes a fury) of political perception. In one piece, the stirring still-life of a “sewing machine / whirling // in the next room” comes to stand for both the financial want and the practical industriousness of a whole community of working-class women – as nearby, the “men at the bar” are “talking of the strike / and cash” (perhaps recalling the 1913 Paterson silk strike).

Likewise, and although he would maintain a personal affection for the three-time President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his later poems remained unflinching in their depiction of post-New Deal American society as one defined by inequality and social neglect. “Election Day” (1941) is a case in point:

Warm sun, quiet air
an old man sits

in the doorway of
a broken house –

boards for windows
plaster falling

from between the stones
and strokes the head

of a spotted dog

The poem's “broken house” serves to reflect (and maybe also to accuse) the greater house of American democracy, divided or otherwise as it may be. By virtue of its very marginality, the slow, permeating poverty of the old man's surroundings comes to stand in a representational relation to the political system in which he lives.

The radical redness of wheelbarrows

Even Williams's beloved “red wheel / barrow” may be understood as a statement of inclusivity: like the rain that glazes it, the wheelbarrow is a humdrum specificity, now suddenly become general – made luminous by the poet's glancing view. It exists in multiple forms simultaneously: as a thing, a symbol, and a literary experiment in which Williams's readers are actively involved. The redness of this poem-object is radical in its universality, filling in for all the colour and vibrancy of the world at large, as the “yellow, yellow, yellow!” does in his piece, “Primrose”. “It is not a color”, Williams proclaimed in that poem, but rather represents the flash and flow of life itself: “It is summer! / It is the wind on a willow / It is a piece of blue paper / in the grass...”. It is as accessible to us, in our own lives, as it was to him – the very opposite of the literary fetish so prized in academic circles.

Williams himself ascribed his political and observational focus to his being, in some ways, an outsider in America. “My mother was half French [from Puerto Rico]”, he noted in 1954: “My father was English... [and] never became a citizen of the United States though he made no objection to my remaining one after I had been born here.” Such an upbringing, Williams suggested, “led me to look at writing with very different eyes from any to be found about Philadelphia”.

Crucially, however, by choosing to write in what he called “the American grain”, Williams was attempting to tap into an expressive tradition that for him was as politically exemplary as it was culturally original. Perhaps curiously, for so antagonistic a literary innovator, “tradition” was a keyword among Williams's motivating concerns – and was the trope, indeed, that he resurrected in the aftermath of the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, when he searingly blamed the American public (as typified by his suburban neighbours) for the outcome. “Americans”, Williams writes, “You are inheritors of a great / tradition”, despite doing only “what you're told to do. You don't / answer back the way Tommy Jeff did or Ben / Frank [...] You're civilized”.

Whether or not we accept the totalising equation of the radicalism of America’s secessionist settlers with that of persecuted anarchists of the 1920s, the logic here is telling. For if Williams's perennial urge as a poet was to “answer back” to his times, then such an impulsion, in his view, was by definition an American one: to be both dissident and dissonant amid prevailing orthodoxies, like Sacco and Vanzetti themselves.

Just as Williams was keen to place his work on the side of rebels of varying political stripes, his modernism was remarkable for the insight into industrial modernity it conveyed. He portrays New York city as a conglomerate of “[s]weatshops / and railroad yards at dusk / (puffed up by fantasy / to seem real)”, a vista that chimes with a later, quietly irreverent portrait of Henry Ford as “[a] tin bucket / full of small used parts / nuts and short bolts / slowly draining onto / the dented bottom” and “forming a heavy sludge / of oil”.

Analysing the phenomenon of Fordism from afar, Antonio Gramsci had argued that “the new type of man demanded by the rationalisation of production and work cannot be developed until the sexual instinct has been suitably regulated and until it too has been rationalised.... In America, rationalisation of work and prohibition are undoubtedly connected”. If Williams's poems were intended, as he put it, to resemble a “machine made of words”, their outlook nevertheless presented a counter-vision to the mechanisations and resulting alienations identified by Gramsci here – presenting an alternative literary narrative, with all the lasting force (and occasionally the same slapstick sincerity) of a Charlie Chaplin picture on the big screen.

Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) in fact pivots on exactly those material contrasts and contradictions on which Williams's poems themselves so frequently hinge. In the film, the gloriously haywire dance of the main character's “nervous breakdown” in the factory (due to the repetition and strain of the job) makes for superb entertainment, recalling poet Hart Crane's gleeful celebration of Chaplin's key artistic insight: that “we can still love the world”, despite the “meek adjustments” and “random consolations” of contemporary experience.

But the performance also speaks to that condition of social invisibility, that deformity-in-labour, which repeatedly inscribes Williams's literary portraits, jotted down in stray moments during his medical visits among America's swelling population of “the very poor”. “The only human value of anything, writing included,” he summarised, “is intense vision of the facts.”

America adores violence

Given such concerns, it’s perhaps curious that Williams was firm in voicing his opposition to Marxism, which represented, for him, “the regimentation of thought and action”. And yet, his appreciation of daily “things” often served as an exposé of those hierarchies of power on which the development of capital in America depended. “America adores violence”, Williams declaimed, “we have violence for service [...] Battleships for peace. The force of enterprise for bringing bananas to the breakfast table”.

The internationalism of Williams’s perspective is notable here. Also obvious is that his approach was aesthetic and critical, rather than jargonistic, as the entwined imagistic elegance and political feist of his piece, “Proletarian Portrait”, similarly attests. It reads:

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

Williams's avowedly sympathetic stance toward the women he encountered and sought to praise in his poems is by no means immune from critical scrutiny – tending as he does to objectify and sexualise them as symbols of his own desires. The social voltage of this piece, however, is arguably comparable to the fine-tuned dispatches of George Orwell from revolutionary Catalonia in the 1930s: describing faces caught in “sudden glimpses” that stayed “vividly in my memory”, Orwell wrote, and somehow conveyed an “idea of what it felt like to be in the middle of the Barcelona” at the time. Williams's “young bareheaded woman” proletarian would not be out of place among such figures, or indeed among the revolutionaries photographed by Robert Capa in the same conflict – although never (and here lies the crux of Williams's insight into American life) “in an apron”.

“The bourgeois [is] tolerant. His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be”, Adorno posited; and yet often Williams's social portraits are remarkable for their affectionate identification of both states, his insistent belief that in the very physicality of their dis-enfranchisement may lie the political promise of his subjects – as we see in the closing gesture of the piece above, when the woman is described, with both literalistic precision and parabolic force, reaching into her shoe to remove “the nail / That has been hurting her”.

If the juxtaposition of Williams's poems of urban New Jersey with Orwell's notes from war-torn Spain seems arbitrary, the truth is that Williams himself was often swift to propose such a context for his work. In 1944, Williams was forthright in arguing that the social scenes recorded in his poems were “the war, or a part of it”, constituting “merely a different sector of the field”. Indeed, one of the most compelling assertions engrained throughout his writing is that of the violence of ordinary life, which he, as a doctor on-call, served as a kind of first-hand witness. This perspective informs his account of attending to a “woman with a dead face” who “has seven foster children” and needs “pills // for an abortion” – a scene pointedly entitled, “A Cold Front”: “In a case like this I know / quick action is the main thing.” Williams was a vocal supporter of Margaret Sanger and the movement for reproductive rights in the USA.

Anti-fascist poetry

In this and other respects, and whatever the limitations of his approach, Williams's poetry may provide an alternative model of literary politics to that associated with many writers among whom he is regularly ranked today, including Ezra Pound. A longstanding friend – from their time as university students together until Williams's death in the early 1960s – Pound offered formative criticism of Williams's early work, and remained an important influence thereafter. Pound, of course, welcomed the rise of Italian fascism, and became notorious for broadcasting openly anti-Semitic views.

Williams, by contrast, was forthright in his condemnation of political movements that propounded racist and anti-Semitic ideological concepts. Expressing his contempt for “that murderous gang [Pound] says he's for” (referring to the fascist parties of Hitler and Mussolini), Williams vented a despair that was both personal and political:

The logicallity [sic] of fascist rationalizations is soon going to kill him. You can't argue away wanton slaughter of innocent women and children by the neo-scholasticism of a controlled economy program.

Once signalled, Williams’s divergence from Pound is everywhere to be found in his work. “[Whenever] I see a newspaper that mentions Hitler or Abyssinia”, Marianne Moore wrote to him in 1935, “I wonder why I do not walk up and down the street like a sandwich-man wearing as broadside your [poem] 'Item', for good though certain other things are, this says it all.” Suffused with Goya-esque dread, the poem depicts a woman “with a face / like a mashed blood orange” who wears a “thick, ragged coat” and “broken shoes”, and goes “stumbling for dread” as soldiers “with their gun-butts / shove her // sprawling”. Few of his contemporaries were so attuned to the violence and foreboding of the times.

Williams's art was often silence-breaking. The central character of his late modernist epic, Paterson, sets himself the task of “loaning blood / to the past”, before pinpointing episodes of ethnic and colonial violence from New Jersey's history. The poem thus highlights the murder (in the mid-nineteenth century) of a group of native Americans, accused of “killing two or three pigs” that had in fact “been butchered by the white men themselves”, quoting documentary sources that recorded the original incident:

The first of these savages, having received a frightful wound, desired them to permit him to dance the Kinte Kaye, a religious use among them before death; he received, however, so many wounds that he dropped dead. The soldiers then cut strips down the other's body [while some stood] laughing heartily at the fun... he dancing the Kinte Kaye all the time, [they] mutilated him, and at last cut off his head.

The brutality and racism recounted here present a reproach to the nostalgia of traditional narratives of the emerging nation, which even the poet himself occasionally indulges. The episode likewise closes with clamour and impotent grief, as a captive group of indigenous women “held up their arms, and in their language exclaimed, 'For shame! For shame! Such unheard of cruelty was never known, or even thought of, among us.' [emphasis mine]”

It is all for you

If it would be misleading to depict him as a post-colonial writer, as the segments here suggest, he at least engages a colonially conscious understanding of American space and history – and one often matched by an equally visceral acknowledgement of the formal inadequacy (and historical complicity) of American English as a mode of expressing this understanding. “What do I do?”, asks the narrator in the poem above, “I listen” in silence: “This is my entire / occupation.”

Voiced with an energy entirely his own, Williams’s work is the outcome of a thoroughly politicised historical and environmental consciousness. Ranging from delicately seething portraits of his locale to the vivid imagination of atrocities suppressed from history, Williams's chronicle of his times sought to effect change – if not political change, then communication in a new mode, which for him was perhaps the deeper necessity. “[H]ave you read anything that I have written?”, he once asked, declaring with a flourish, “It is all for you” – a credo that may be taken by readers everywhere as an invitation to construct from his work not only a record of his place and time, but an image (and a critical understanding) of our own.

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes
Friday, 11 September 2020 09:14

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes

Published in Music

As increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists provoke and attack people of colour and their allies, Ciarán O'Rourke shows the relevance of Langston Hughes' political poetry

“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,” recalled Langston Hughes of his first literary forays: songs that “had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” The remark indicates in microform the emphasis and direction of Hughes's poetry in general: its blues-inflected verve and musicality; its demotic modernism and open-eyed, streets-up democracy; its refusal to ignore or reify the pain of poverty in American life, and the devastation of what W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century had called “the color line”; its urge by contrast to pay tribute to the perseverance and creativity of 'his' people as a collective. “I am the darker brother”, Hughes wrote in one poem, partly addressed to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, whose rollicksome, quasi-proletarian verses he credited as formative influences on his own work: “I, too, sing America.”

For Hughes, such a cultural mission could delight and inspire, revealing new depths and dimesnions to the national dream as it was lived by the masses, by communities of colour, by vast swathes of the population ordinarily rendered invisible by the literary and political mores of the time. In one early piece, he claimed fellowship with the “Dream-singers, / Story-tellers, / Dancers” of Harlem – a poetic comaraderie he likewise extended to “Elevator-boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers”. Against the harshness and desperation of contemporary experience in the nation's urban centres, the Missouri-born Hughes had an almost preternatural ability to tune in to the vibrant, rough-and-tumble clamour of local lives on their own frequency.

Colloquial sass and effortless cool

His portrait of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” thus begins with colloquial sass and effortless cool: “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” For Hughes, this “jazz rhythm” was a sign of the times: of a new modernity shaped and sounded by black, largely working-class communities. But it was also a portal into American history. In one late poem, Hughes re-imagined the songs of enslaved Africans during the nineteenth century in its light, their voices sublimated – bursting finally free – in the form of the “Jazz!” concocted by “Jelly Roll's piano, / Buddy Bolden's trumpet, / Kid Ory's trombone”.

In his later years, Hughes was in fact criticised (including by a precocious James Baldwin) for his tendency to aestheticise black art and experience, speech and music, in the process creating stereotypes, his critics objected, that lesser (or outright hostile) writers could easily parody or dismiss. Hughes countered such critiques deftly, by highlighting the validity as well as the luminously many-storied tradition of writing from life in America, and farther afield. “The local, the regional can – and does – become universal”, Hughes responded, expressing sentiments shared (almost word for word) by contemporary modernists such as William Carlos Williams and Lola Ridge, before adding his own flavour to the tale: “Sean O’Casey’s Irishmen are an example. So I would say to young Negro writers, do not be afraid of yourself. You are the world.”

Just as Martin Luther King Jnr (whom Hughes came to know tangentially through the Civil Rights Movement) would later perceive in the African-American movement against “racism, militarism, and extreme materialism” in the United States the “arc of the moral universe” at large (bending slowly, King said, towards justice), so Hughes's supposedly local concerns were framed in an internationalist and “universal” perspective. “In the Johannesburg mines”, one piece read, in 1925,

There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?

Hughes quietly draws a line of association between questions of race and labour in America and similiar patterns of erasure and exploitation abroad, while signalling the arrival of a poetry concerned less with mannered gentility or academic allusion than with mass, black experience per se. “I herd with the many”, Hughes had declared the previous year, “Caged in the circus of civilization.”

As the last image implies, to capture and distil down to its essentials the (African-)American experience could also be fraught with political and personal anguish. “All the way from Africa to Georgia”, Hughes wrote, “I carried my sorrow songs”, placing the blood-spattered record of American racism within a centuries-long context of European colonial policy and thought: “The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi.”

Communist sympathies

In the period in which Hughes lived and wrote, indeed, such lynchings were recurrent events, along with the systematised destruction of black property, from Mississippi to Oklahoma. De facto apartheid in the American South co-existed with more subtle forms of racial and social ostracism that remained in force across the Northern states. For all its ease of address and rhythmic exuberance, Hughes's poetry offered a chillingly close-focused catalogue of the agonising effects and insidious nature of such exclusions and abuses pervading American life. His work is populated by loner figures, suffering what Hughes once called “queer pain” (interpreted by some critics as a guarded reference to his own repressed Queerness, in a violently homophobic society). “Strange Hurt” recollects a woman whose behaviour seems mysterious and yet achingly familiar to the speaker:

In months of snowy winter
When cozy houses hold,
She'd break down doors
To wander naked
In the cold. 

As here, one of Hughes's great talents as a political writer was his ability to acknowledge the psychological complexity of the people and characters he described, without softening the often multi-pronged critiques of power his poems simultaneously sought to articulate.

As we've seen, Hughes's anti-racism and social sympathies were coupled with a profound recognition of the forms of economic exploitation and hierarchy that shaped the political landscape of the unfolding century, both at home and abroad. “I live on a park bench. / You, Park Avenue”, begins one piece, “Hell of a distance / Between us two.” Another goes so far as to imagine a time “When the land belongs to the famers / And the factories to the working men”, asserting triumphantly that “The U.S.A. when we take control / Will be the U.S.S.A. then” – a concise expression of Hughes's Soviet sympathies throughout the 1930s, beliefs for which (to his distress) he would later appear before Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee on the accusation of Communist Party membership.

The episode was telling. For although Hughes is rightly recognised today as a chronicler of America's grassroots life and democratic culture, containing multitudes, by the early 1950s he had long been known (gaining the attention of FBI) as a leading critic of US exceptionalism in his work. “Strangely undemocratic doings take place in the shadow of 'the world's greatest democracy'”, Hughes observed, as governmental and military leaders approved the deployment of segregated American regiments in the fight against global fascism during the second world war. “We want the right to ride without Jim Crow in any conveyance carrying the traveling public”, he likewise wrote in 1944, replying to an editor seeking clarification as to the aims of the black struggle for equality and meaningful citizenship: “We want the right when traveling to dine in any restaurant or seek lodgings in any hotel or auto camp open to the public which our purse affords. (Any Nazi may do so.)”

To read Hughes's work in an early 21st century context is to be reminded of the vast discrepancies between aspiration and fact, and in particular the extended history of white supremacy (its protean endurance) in American society. In the mid-1980s, Gwendolyn Brooks purported to speak for all “those of us who knew Langston” when she described his presence on the literary scene as one that had “made us all better people” – yet this geniality and warmth on Hughes's part belied a deeply registered sense of the crimes on which the USA's prosperity and political life were built. “The wreckage of Democracy is likely to pile up behind that Jim Crow Car”, he summarised in the 1940s, a premonition based on the cruelty and immense burden of racist violence he saw lurking at the heart of freedom's new, self-proclaimed protector on the global stage.

The Black Prophetic tradition

“Way down south in Dixie,” Hughes had written amidst the wave of racial lynchings that swept across the South throughout the 1920s, “(Bruised body high in air) / I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer.” Two decades later, he was equally clear in his perception and condemnation of police brutality as a method of racial terror. “Hit me! Jab me! / Make me say I did it”, opens one poem, entitled “Third Degree”. “I looked and I saw / That man they call the Law”, reads another: “I had visions in my head / Of being laid out cold and dead.” The piece finishes on an admonitory note, anticipating Hughes's explosive understanding of the likely consequence of Harlem's “dream deferred” in 1951:

Now I do not understand
Why God don't protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I've no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
We'll see.

Significantly, in both pieces Hughes deploys the religious language of what Cornel West has termed the Black Prophetic tradition, specifically as a means of highlighting the mutual bonds and necessity for self-organisation (and even self-defence) among communities of colour – in the face of systematic racial violence. As here, however, Hughes's most perennial and valuable insistence is on the capacity of ostensibly marginalized and subjugated peoples to voice their own experiences and shape their own stories – primarily by acknowledging themselves in one another, as Hughes himself attempted to do in verse. “Radio Station: Harlem”, opens one poem addressed to the people of the West Indies, “Wave Length: The Human Heart.”

Against the vista of entrenched social hostility and exclusion alluded to in the pieces above, then, Hughes was unafraid to offer elegy and denunciation: a politics of feeling and poetics of response that would shake loose the social blindfolds preventing his fellow citizens (as he always perceived them) from recognising the terrifying reality of racism in America. But his poetry also gleams with the dance and flow of life on the move: hums and sings with living voices. “Folks, I'm telling you, / birthing is hard / and dying is mean”, reads one fragment of poetic plainsong, “so get yourself / a little loving / in between.”

The result is that Hughes's work stands less as a static archive of gone time, catering to a merely historical interest, than as a stereoscopic unreeling of riffs and scenes that seem, somehow, to involve us still, beckoning us into a world both theirs and ours. “I play it cool / And dig all jive. / That's the reason / I stay alive”, runs Hughes's “Motto” – a precursor to Gwedolyn Brooks's iconic snapshot and street-corner rap, “We Real Cool”. Today, Hughes's vim remains infectious, his observational intimacy both enveloping and fresh.

Politically, too, Hughes speaks to us in our time. As monuments to Confederate generals of the American South and the merchants and genocidal monarchs of European imperialism are toppled, as increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists deploy strategies of violence and provocation against communities of colour and their allies, his poetry offers both consolation and guidance. Hughes consoles: in his perennial capacity to side with and celebrate the self-activity of communities who exist in defiance of those lines of colour and class that power would draw across the map of our collective life. And he is a guide for our age, in the combination of clarity and dream, political fire and poetic soul, he carries to the fray of action: the not-yet-written pages of a future in which he heard, as we might do, the street-songs forming anew, the music of people who keep on going, going strong.