Thursday, November 14, 2019

Colson Whitehead: Shredder of Illusions

Author Colson Whitehead. (Photo: Chris Close)

Most of us do not harbour a benign view of slavery, namely the belief that the owners of slaves were reluctant masters who generally cared for the well-being of their human property. There are, however, egregious exceptions. In 2016 a curious children's book appeared, A Birthday Cake for George Washington , that portrayed happy slave children baking a cake for the first president; it was a whitewash of slavery that produced a swift and sharp backlash, prompting the publisher to withdraw it. More disturbing is that Roy Moore , the Republican Senate candidate for Alabama in the 2018 election – who subsequently lost in one of the America's reddest states – publicly stated that America was great when slavery prevailed because black families were kept together, a grotesque misrepresentation of the historical reality, which was that slave families were frequently and viciously torn apart.

Instead, we are likely to view slavery as harsh, ruthless, even tragic, though these adjectives do not fully capture the systemic cruelty visited upon slaves by sadistic overseers and psychopathic owners. That gritty reality is viscerally evoked in Colson Whitehead's 2014 The Underground Railway, which earned both the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, and Esi Edugyan's 2018 Washington Black, which won the Scotiabank Giller award. The trajectories of the two novels are vastly different but the opening chapters bear a striking resemblance: a harrowing captivity narrative illustrating the Hobbesian adage that life (in this case on a slave plantation) was "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short."

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Light and Sound: Image Makers and The Magic Flute

William H. Daniels, with Greta Garbo, on the set of Romance (1930).

The best time I’ve had at the movies so far this year was watching Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, which TCM ran over the weekend. It’s catnip for film buffs. Written by film critic Michael Sragow and directed and edited by Daniel Raim, Image Makers zeroes in on seven groundbreaking artists – Billy Bitzer, Rollie Totheroh, Charles Rosher, William Daniels, Karl Struss, Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe. It combines historical and biographical material; precise, razor-sharp film analysis; interviews with a crew of extraordinarily knowledgeable scholars, a few contemporary DPs and a couple of relations; invaluable voice interviews conducted at the American Society of Cinematographers while Rosher and Daniels were still alive; brightly-colored comic-strip frames (by Patrick Mate) to illustrate some of the stories; and, naturally, clips from these men’s movies and in some cases the ones that influenced them.