Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mirror Mania: 68 and 18

Memphis March, Beale Street (Memphis, Tennessee, March 29, 1968).

“History may not repeat itself but it often rhymes.” – Samuel Clemens (supposedly)

“Now if 6 turned out to be 9, I don't mind . . . ” – Jimi Hendrix (definitely)
I know, it seems hauntingly familiar to me too: the year 1968 and its warped twin brother, 2018, appear to be the weird mirror images of something both good and bad at the same time. Like Chuck Dickens once almost said, it was the best of times and it is the worst of times. 1968 was already, all by itself, a totally paradoxical blend of the best that humanity was capable of as it faced a hopeful future and the worst it was still saddled with as it dragged its ragged past forward. Two images in particular sum up for me the bizarre irony of the state of Western civilization in that magical year, and because I suspect everything that occurs to us is the result of our own binary fixations and polarities, such dueling images often encapsulate our condition with woeful accuracy.

If the 20th century could stand up and walk into a psychiatrist’s office, lie down and describe its dreams, what would be the best way to determine its obvious neuroses and even its underlying psychoses? We might ask the 20th century, once it settles down on the couch, which might take a while considering how restive it was: by the way, whatever happened to beauty and harmony, what has become of some semblance of an orderly consensus on what constitutes truth or reality? Why does the contemporary world look and sound so strangely off-kilter, so inordinately stressed out and so . . . discombobulated? How could “we” be so advanced that we actually traveled to the moon and yet be so primitive that we still harboured mind-boggling racial hatreds?

Our shared purpose in such an antechamber of the soul would be to interview the Age itself, an Age which W. H. Auden once identified as the Age of Anxiety, while looking for the foundational reasons behind the near-collective abandonment of what used to be called coherence and community in the last century, as well as the further consequences of living in today’s apparently post-order world. Forget post-truth; the actual challenge seems to me to be the disappearance of any shred of order itself. My contention is that, far from being in a new world order, we are all in a no-order world. For me, postmodern really means post-order: especially when applied to politics and public discourse.

True, by 1900, Freud had already dug up the worms of the unconscious, forever altering the landscape of all our human relationships and the meaning of meaning. Then science, in the hands of Albert Einstein in 1905, banged the last nail into God's coffin by introducing relativity into the human equation, reducing us to a very small part of a very big universe and explaining that we could not actually be considered to have been created in the image of anyone or anything in particular, except perhaps the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. Once we, the naked apes, had stopped being the imagined centre of the universe, then out the window also went our depraved notions of what order might mean, since they were all only based on our own anthropocentric obsessions and superstitions.

Earthrise from aboard Apollo 8, December 1968.

In a sense, from the perspective of aesthetics and visual culture (often the most obvious harbinger of new meanings) the camera's invention way back in 1840 had already reduced the visual arts to a quest for new themes and methods (the most obvious being Impressionist painting), thus leading inevitably to what we now popularly call modernism, and subsequently to the oft-misunderstood misnomer, post-modernism. The most recognizable characteristics of which, whether expressed by Kafka, Beckett, Pinter, Pollock, Warhol, Cage, Hitchcock, or even Dylan, for that matter, was and is its heady mixture of both dissonance and despair. But the post-order world we now occupy has plunged us far further into sheer vertiginous dissonance than modernism ever did.

It is dissonance, the opposite of harmonic consonance, which achieves a triumphant dynastic, aesthetic and even a political realm and which can be traced historically and thematically through an examination of the resultant apparent disorder in every artistic and consequential social-political aspect of its universal and simultaneous arising in the 20th century. Everything from art and music to dance and architecture, to sociology and politics, suddenly embraced an untoward amount of seeming disorder, disarray, and the attendant absence of an agreed upon truth (especially in a post-Trump world).

As our culture changed, so did its meanings. So where the hell are we and how on earth did we get here? Why does the contemporary world look and sound the way it does? What is the aesthetic noise we so cavalierly refer to under the general rubric of modernist discontinuity? How does it secretly function in our lives, either with or without our awareness or permission? If we can utilize the term "aesthetic noise" or "disorder" in the broader sense of customarily recognizable randomness, then we can begin to make some sense of the multi-faceted modernist and post-modern realm that in many ways still remains at the core of our collective cultural and especially our political experience. How else to make sense of the disordered consciousness of a Trump and his mesmerized followers?

This is largely because many drastically different forms of expression make manifest a single kind of content. The kind that is the opposite of the old-fashioned classical ideal of harmony, beauty, order and community and instead concentrates only on the less structured and discontinuous approach to making art or music, buildings or films, poems or plays, society or politics. The post-modern kind, where truth is totally relative and subjective, in other words nonexistent. This same discontinuity also extends, almost invisibly and even more dramatically, into the social and political realms, the laboratory out of which traditionally history itself was generally fashioned and in which it used to function – emphasis on used to. Current political theatre also demonstrates the triumph of a disordered tribalism, as if Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had been endorsed as a nationalist anthem.

If consonance worshipped classical formulas of beauty, the exponents of which our museums and concerts halls are full of, then the dissonance of modernism and relativity of post-modernism, and the ostensible disorder they explore, tend to revolt against and radicalize the state of permanent revolution, evading altogether the museum's dream world, where, as Dylan once put it, "infinity goes up on trial.” What was once a revolution in permanence, the classical world, has since become modernism's endless end of days. But it is an apocalypse taking place in slow motion: an apocalypso rhythm.

President Nixon lying to the American people, 1968; President Trump lying to the American people, 2018.

Just like Dylan himself, infinity is still up on trial, and so is truth, even reality itself, and for me, the year 2018 is shockingly revealing to us all, maybe especially after the recent Trump State of the Union address to the joint houses of Congress, and its own weirdly mirror-like echoing of the convulsive year of 1968. We‘re stuck in a time warp. Is that just my own warped imagination or does this ring a wicked and ominous bell for anyone else?

Obviously history was dramatically altered by the global disruptions and convulsions of both 1914 and 1939, with the second of those cataclysmic conflicts perhaps changing the very definition of what it meant to be a human being, from the perspective of what humans were capable of doing to one another. However, I would argue that the real middle of the 20th century was not either of those terribly sad sequences of events, but rather that the actual middle was not 1950 but rather the year 1968, for a variety of salient reasons.

In that year, the inheritance of disorder bestowed on us by two world wars, followed by a psychological cold war (one that, contrary to popular belief, never ended and rages even more assiduously today, as recent political events have fearsomely demonstrated) really managed to engage in a kind of Tristram Shandy-like entropy. The character and scope of this entropy was most effectively demonstrated, or perhaps it was embodied, by certain exponents of literature in the so- called post-modern vein, most notably by novelists such as Robert Coover, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, for example.

Historically, 1968 was a year in which the beginning of the end of a brief utopian dream known as the '60s was starting to unravel before our astonished eyes. As the primary, principal and primordial harbingers of that dream, The Beatles were perhaps the ideal thermometer by which to gauge the sudden seismic shift in social reality and the potential for a radically accelerated sense of change. But even they, as splendidly gifted as they were, were also the tip of an unseen iceberg of darkness coursing along beneath the waves of a self-obsessed culture that had exhausted itself in post-war celebrations.

My good friend Kevin Courrier has in fact written a highly instructive book on the hidden underbelly of dread concealed in our global culture which that remarkable pop group came to both prophesize, invent, construct, embody and popularize. Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of the Beatles' Utopian Dream, is highly recommended to readers who want to chart a course through our more innocent and naïve hopes as they collided head-on with the reactionary forces of violence and nihilism that their splendid music briefly camouflaged. By 1968, like the dream they symbolized, they too had begun to unravel.

George Wallace campaigning in 1968 (left); Donald Trump campaigning (again) in 2018 (right).

Which indeed brings us back to order and its absence, the true subject of my current expedition after all, not music. And not a moment too soon either. So let’s consider how and why maybe 1968 was the real middle of the twentieth century, a century which I suspect ended in name only with our abrupt arrival into the second millennium.

In my humble and humid opinion, we’re not only all still actually living in the 20th century, albeit in the ruins of its greatness, we’re still living in the illusory year of 1968, and it just might be a century from which we never really escape or emerge, no matter how much we pretend or which fancy digital gadgets we carry around with us. After all, in 2016 the grim inheritors of the Russian Revolution actually managed to use our own clever technology to alter the course of a mighty river known as democracy, and have left us all confused and conflicted as we witness the greatest con game in history bringing us closer to the edge of disaster than we were in 1848, or 1948, or even 1961. What I often refer to as an aura echo, the invisible recursive patterns which govern our lives, is clearly at work between the oddly disturbing bookends of 1968 and 2018.

This same phenomenon of the ascendance and triumph of disorder can be explored throughout a wide variety of communication media of expression, as well as through the formerly shared sense of values symbolized by communities of culture, social values and political ideals. The complete disappearance of what we once called objective “truth” is in actuality the absence of a mutual sense of “order.” We might even borrow a fancy-sounding term from the scientific-academic world, comparative cultural morphology, to describe the method for exploring the invasion and triumph of aesthetic noise, disorder, discontinuity and the ugliness inherent in 21st-century political and social life.

Since dissonance and disorder are most immediately discernible in music, the best analogy I can concoct for the absence of recognizable order in today’s community, cultural and political discourse, is that nowadays civic relationships (the agora of old) has taken on the semblance of the avant-garde atonal or serial music of the early 20th century, but as applied to actual events rather than only notes on a musical score. Also missing in the adventure of the avant-garde’s embrace of discontinuity as an aesthetic and stylistic device in the social-political-economic realms is the potential for pleasure which experimental newness provided (granted, once the listener got used to listening to Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Cage et al, if ever, of course).

George Wallace, campaigning, 1968 (left); Ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, campaigning, 2018 (right). 

I tend to use occasionally exotic metaphors in order to practice ekphrasis, a goofy ancient word devised by the original Greek rhetorical masters to describe the evocation of the way something makes me feel in so rhapsodic a manner that the viewer or reader also begins to experience it themselves. It’s often the best way to communicate some kernel of truth contained in the embodied meaning (the material shape assumed by the art object or literary work). But how can we ever get used to the actual eruption of surrealism, not in the safe-zones art but in the precarious and dangerous realms of everyday life, everyday?

One good example of this disruptive method would be for me to call upon a musical metaphor in order to compare and contrast the music and politics of drastically different epochs: the classically coherent and the post-modern obscure. Thus a press briefing conducted by Trump’s ventriloquist Sarah Huckabee Sanders comes across to my ears as a cacophony paralleling the 1968 music of Don Van Vliet (known at the time as Captain Beefheart); while a Trump State of the Union speech comes across as a cascading waterfall of overwhelming sounds paralleling another great American composer, Conlon Nancarrow.

I’m not suggesting that music of these stellar composers (both of whom I admire greatly) is somehow as confusing or impenetrable as the briefing or the speech but rather only that all four examples overlap to the degree that they abandon all formerly agreed-upon borders by which each is customarily, or at least historically, defined and conducted. But now, before I get too carried away in such fanciful metaphorical gestures (though I know it’s probably already too late), let’s move back to the concrete historical arenas of 1968 and 2018, and the things that prompted all my rhapsodizing.

Apart from my usual abstract musings, this little essay is ostensibly about two recent books and two documentary films, all four of which address the seismic cultural, social and political changes that took place in 1968. Though they didn’t literally explore the weird overlaps between our present year and its surreal edges that graze the earlier era, they did push me to seeking a kind of temporal and intellectual symmetry which fetishists like me often enjoy, and in between the lines and frames of each is the haunting shadow cast all the way across our convulsive calendar’s timescape, right into 2018.

A scene from João Salles’s In the Intense Now, 2018.

The two recent books are highly recommended due to the way that both Chris Matthews (in Bobby Kennedy, A Raging Spirit) and Lawrence O’Donnell (in Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics) – both of whom host compelling shows on the MSNBC network – capture some of the energy of that transitional year (so echoed in our current year, I claim) as it was embodied in political campaigns and the amplified emotions they both roused and reflected. But it’s the two documentary films, one in Portuguese (In the Intense Now, 2018) that uses many images culled from the director João Moreira Salles’s own archive as an expatriate living with his family in Paris, the other by the American David Weiss (No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a Nigger, 1968) that utilizes restored footage from the Anthology Film Archives and Smithsonian Institute, that are both historical documents with contemporary relevance of the highest degree. And both inadvertently demonstrate the haunting mirror mania between the years 2018 and 1968.

In an excellent January 31 review of the Salles film for The New York Times, A.O. Scott described its revisiting of France during a tumultuous 1968 as “throwing cold water on all romantic notions of revolution.” He was equally vivid in his reassessment of the era in question: "The ’60s – 1968 in particular – are so encrusted with legend, nostalgia and pop-historical cliché that it may seem unlikely for a new movie to yield much insight. But those dreading 50th-anniversary greatest-hits medleys will find solace, enlightenment and surprise in João Salles’s In the Intense Now, a bittersweet, ruminative documentary essay composed of footage from the era accompanied by thoughtful, disarmingly personal voice-over narration."

Many of the images contained in the film, and practically the only ones in colour, come from the director’s own archives of when his family was living as expatriates in Paris, with the main narrative devoted to “the events of May” in Paris that year: a student uprising followed by a general strike. This was an improbable and temporary alliance between intellectual young students and industrial workers, an almost Utopian dream of possible change: "Be realistic, demand the impossible," one shared slogan declared. And the Times critic Scott pointed out the paradox:
 . . . the students claimed to desire liberation from consumer society, many of the workers wanted better access to it. The Prague Spring was an unsuccessful revolution of a different kind, ended by the military intervention of the Soviet Union in August. [Mr. Salles] nonetheless disdains the easy sentimentality of lost causes. He elucidates, above all, the ironic dimension of his film’s title, imposing an elegiac, gently pessimistic tone on the energy and immediacy of what he sees and shows. What he reveals, perhaps against his own intentions, is the inevitable aestheticization of the past.
My contention is clearly this: they were rushing towards us, and today. This film unintentionally is a travelogue through time, arriving in the future that none of us are even remotely prepared for. So blissfully unaware are we of what Walter Benjamin once called the different between socialism and fascism (that socialism politicizes art, whereas fascism aestheticizes politics) that we are wasting precious time debating what kind of president this yellow-haired hate-salesman might be. The uncanny overlap between our Western interventions into both Vietnam and the Middle East are also being glossed over during our expressions of astonishment at Trump’s psychotic statements.

A scene from David Weiss's No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger. 1968.

The other film well worth investigating is not a new one looking back from today’s vantage point but rather one actually produced in 1968, where, though it was shown briefly during the New York Film Festival as part of quiet sideline program on “Filmmakers on New Lifestyles,” it never seems to have been given any kind of commercial opening or distribution, for reasons that have been lost to history itself. J. Hoberman’s fine January 31st New York Times review of it, titled “Vietnam Vets Without a Country,” examined how Weiss's ’68 documentary conveys the persistent anger and eloquence of black anti-war protesters. This film also echoes some of the residual inequities that still remain in the remnants of what some hopeful observers back then called the Great Society.

This film, which alternates between footage taken in 1967 at the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam March, staged in New York and which Dr. Martin Luther King addressed, to several participants being interviewed several months after he was assassinated, posits as its fulcrum point a comment addressing both events: “I am a man without a country.” Their questioning of the war was expressed from a very personal perspective: basically, "Why should we fight for you? You got it all here!,’ an observation that is delivered in tandem with the key observation of their movement for equal rights: “How can you tell me it’s too much to ask to be considered a human being?”

The film’s provocative title, No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a Nigger, is taken from some of the placards carried by many African-American anti-war marchers, which became so saturated into the fiber of protests against a war killing people who had never done them any harm (and often erroneously attributed to Muhammad Ali in his own private resistance) that it became in itself a powerful form of social illumination. The line in the placards was just as potent a weapon against using weapons on innocent strangers as what Ali actually did say:, “On the war in Vietnam I sing this song, / I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.”

The film’s director David Weiss and his crew had followed the 1,500-strong Harlem contingent of the roughly 400,000 anti-war protesters who gathered to express a combination of their political rights, social rights and human rights, all at the same time. Weiss, who passed away in his 90’s in 2005, was also a ironic representative for the army of talented immigrants to America, having arrived from Poland with his family as a child and been given a ringside seat into the furor caused when citizens do more than merely talk wistfully about the American Dream. He not only lived that dream but also took to the streets with his multi-racial cohorts to take action when it seemed to be under threat.
Obviously it is also under threat again in today’s America as well. Where’s our Weiss?

Prague, 1968 (left); Moscow, 2018 (right).

Bizarrely, considering the way I suggested that surrealism erupting in real everyday life is not art but rather chaos, the best example of the twin weirdnesses of 1968 and 2018 is that in the first, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia but that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the corrupt oligarchs of Russia invaded and conquered itself. They did so prior to a long and calculated strategy to similarly transform America into exactly the same kind of twisted state. Whether they succeed in the end of course will depend on what choices are made by perfectly ordinary citizens and whether they will take to the streets in rebellion against the master corporate plan to privatize the entire nation under an autocratic and apparently loony leader.

Ruth May penned an insightful article in The New York Review of Books in February touching upon the scary phenomenon in Russia which is being echoed by an even scarier phenomenon in America today, under the title "Putin: From Oligarch to Kleptocrat":
Oligarchical capitalism destroys legitimate competition and eats away at the resources of a nation like a cancer. Any semblance of dynamic, healthy competition is strangled by fake competition based solely on firms’ relationships with people in power. When a shrinking private sector is entirely owned by the oligarchical elites, this precludes ordinary citizens from having a stake in the real economy and increasing their personal wealth over time. As the nation’s wealth becomes more concentrated in fewer hands, there is less incentive and fewer resources to resist the momentum of this disparity. The twenty or so oligarchs in Putin’s Russia do not get access to powerful people in government because of their wealth, as is the case, say, with many billionaire political donors in America, but rather the reverse: Russian oligarchs get access to obscene amounts of wealth because of their affinity with those most powerful in government. Men become oligarchs in Russia (there are no women oligarchs) because they are loyal to the only person in government who matters: Vladimir Putin.
Or Donald Trump. Unless there is a more wakeful and insistent form of resistance to his psychopathic and undemocratic policies. But one of the stranger and less melancholy moments in considering these questions was the fact that today there is still a burgeoning number of people willing to join into a resistance against what they perceive as contemporary injustices or abuses of power. This is especially the case for those who realize the odd overlaps between Nixon and Trump’s own machinations of late. The women’s movement alone today, along with the still overlooked African-American citizenry, might just be enough to turn the voting tide in 2018 and again in 2020, assuming that the Dear Leader lasts that long, or that the film scripts of the movie Seven Days in May or Fail- Safe don’t erupt into real life.

One of my persistent fears, as someone who came of age as a teenager in 1968, is that our outsized and over the top dreams of change were so noisy and messy, and the disillusionment caused by our inability to alter the course of an ingrained system was so profound, that both have caused a condition in our culture that I might identify as Unfulfilled Dream Syndrome. I worry that it’s possible that cynical young people today are somewhat inured to change appearing impossible, that maybe they’ve lost their fight, or that our dreams were so outlandish that we used up the dreams of the generation that followed us.

Did we leave them either bankrupt of hope or even overdrawn at the dream-bank, I wonder? Say it ain't so. To paraphrase a great song originally written about Mrs. Roosevelt before being co-opted by Hollywood and morphing into Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson: our nations turn their lonely eyes to you.

Washington, 1968, 2018: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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