Thursday, August 30, 2007

Difficulty in Poetry.

One discussion that remained with me, having read Outside the Lines, was the nature of “difficulty” in poetry. That issue occurred again whilst reading a recent piece by a teacher of creative writing. Here, “difficulty” was simply described as an action by the critic: when critics don’t get something they call it “difficult”. This teacher of writing does not believe that poets go out of their way to be “difficult”. In England, this sort of lazy wisdom might be true. But Reginald Shepherd, during his interview in Outside the Lines, makes the point that his poetry is “difficult” and he means it to be “difficult” and he expects the reader to rise to that challenge. The poet William Empson addressed exactly this issue in relation to his own poetry in the 1980s. He pointed out that there was a growing gap between the poet and the reader. Either the poet had to reduce difficulty or the reader had to increase the level of response. Needles, to say, Empson did not reduce the difficulty of his work! It wasn’t really a negotiable point. Personally, I believe that Shepherd is correct. Poetry should be difficult, not because the poet wishes to adopt some perverse stance towards the mainstream and we should allow the poet to do so as a sign of toleration (the creative writer yet again) but because experience and communication are “difficult”.

What really annoys me, however, in this “difficult” debate, this side of The Pond, is that it is treated as a modern phenomenon. Suddenly, we have all these “difficult” poets and it’s not part of out tradition. This silliness really comes from double-ignorance. Difficulty has been around for most of the past century. But not in the good old English academic system where there is no Robert Duncan, no Charles Olson, no Wallace Stevens, no John Ashberry, no Ezra Pound, no H.D. It is the gap in global developments that makes “difficulty” appear new. Even worse, though, is the neglect of English poetry in terms of depth. The teaching of English poetry always stops with the surface. So, Blake is easy. Well, yes, if we are talking about a handful of well known poems set for A Level exams, a simple sample from Songs of Innocence and Experience. But the whole of Blake? The philosophy of the Zoas and all the prophecies? And Milton? Well, yes, if we teach him thematically, in schools, as a second-rate version of The Bible. (How this brings back memories of sitting round in tutorials where very nice students prattled on about the Evil One in Paradise Lost, reducing Milton to a story for Sunday School). I have just been re-reading Paradise Lost with “difficulty” in mind. Here is part of a well known love poem from Paradise Lost. Just a love poem. Just a poem by Eve, who wasn’t particularly bright anyway. Not “difficult” at all.

My author and disposer, what thou bid’st
Unargued I obey; So God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful evening mild, then silent night
With her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of heaven, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising son
On this delightful land, not herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night,
With this solemn bird, nor walk by moon,
Or glittering starlight without thee is sweet
.
But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?

As a narrative, this is incredibly modern, but only if you see it through Mercurian eyes and read with Milton as a Puritan, Hermetic Neo-Platonist. Firstly, the overall positioning of this speech is key. It is in Book 4 of Paradise Lost. Following Spenser, who expounded much of the hermetical tradition in the Faerie Queene, 4 is the number of marriage and concord. This particular passage is the focus of the whole book, the point at which the harmony between Adam and Eve is established. Throughout Paradise Lost, speech lengths serve to set contexts. This speech by Eve is 24 lines long: the poem is about how a 24 hour day should be. 24 means more than that, however, for it represents12+12, the marriage of the Heavenly City and the Kingdom of Earth. (This speech is re-visited by Adam, in Book 8, on the 24th day of Paradise Lost when Raphael discusses the ways of Heaven and Earth, how the microcosm (Adam and Eve) should be married to the macrocsom (God and the Universe)…not accidental). Milton, as implied author, is shaping the architecture of his poem. Within this, Milton’s narrator, Eve, shapes her understanding of Eden.

Eve’s section is a serenade to Creation, written in the sweet style of the amor cortois, Dante’s “il dolce still nuovo” (Purgatorio: XXIV, 57) hence its sweet…sweet…sweet structure. The love song is shaped by a woman who understands love intellectually: “Donne ch’avette intelletto d’amore”, says Dante. And the serenade has a complex intellectual structure. 16 lines overall, from “Sweet is” to “is sweet”. The word order is reversed to suggest more than a flourish of rhetoric for the whole structure of the poem reverses. 16, hermetically, is the number of concord squared, and Eve splits the 16 lines into 9 and 7. The first 9 lines of the poem represent the permanence that Heaven brings to Earth. Then, in the second part, the number 7 of mutability takes over. Such is doubly stressed by the seven lines from “But neither” to “thee is sweet” and by the seven negations which occur (neither breath, nor rising, nor herb, nor fragrance, nor grateful, nor silent, nor walk). Through the whole 16 line poem, Eve expresses her understanding of how love binds the eternal to the transient. Though Eve says, “God is thy law, thou mine” and places herself in relation to Adam (as Adam relates to God), she shows herself to be intellectually creative, more creative in thought than Adam—hence the final question, which is not a throw-away line, as some Miltonists claim, showing her shallowness, but a final bursting out of what goes on in Eve’s mind: speculation about the universe through the power of Amor; an intellectual power that will eventually take her too far...

It is about time complexity returned to the world of poetry and the teaching of poetry and teachers and students got over facile discussions about “difficulty”. In education, at all levels, there needs to be an understanding that "difficulty" is good and readers need to teach themselves constantly how to read in new ways.

Outside the Lines: some modern gay poets


Not exactly eclectic this book. It is a selection of conversations with 12 gay poets. Another piece of cul-de-sac criticism: the gay poet.

But nothing could be more wrong minded than this approach. There are many admirable aspects to this book and the first is: it shows how eclectic gay poetry is! Varied to the point that this book achieves too important things: firstly, it takes gay as a starting point for selection, then widens that concept as the twelve poets talk, until the focus becomes poetry; secondly, it constantly questions the extent to which poetry originates (for these poets) in their gay identity without ever being crass. Probably, the finest gay poet in the United Kingdom is Gregory Woods, a poet of considerable technical ability and intellectual depth. Before, reading Outside the Lines, I found myself reading his attack on Mark Doty as an “aesthetic” poet (think Wilde) who shrinks away from eroticism and the body; for Woods, therefore, a poet who substitutes a gay sensibility for being gay. In contrast to this narrowness, Christopher Hennessy accepts a spectrum of possibilities, is neither judgemental nor prescriptive, and leaves the reader with a sense of openness.

The book is a fine piece of generous criticism which seeks to identify with its subjects. This is its second admirable quality. In 1981, Denis Donoghue wrote a provocative (and sadly neglected) book on criticism, Ferocious Alphabets. Essentially a series of radio broadcasts, it attacked the loss of voice in criticism, the retreat into ideologies—“lunatics of the one idea”—to the point that criticism became “A Dialogue of One”. By its very nature, a series of conversations, Outside the Lines includes the reader within the lines of conversation. What could have been an exclusive project—don’t bother with this unless you’re gay—becomes inclusive—listen, this actually is interesting. After reading all the interviews, I was left with four significant conversations (for me): Thom Gunn, Mark Doty, Reginald Shepherd, Timothy Lieu. And I was left wondering, “Why?” “Was it because I knew them best and was I just identifying with them because they said what I agreed with?” At first, I thought: probably. But then, no. Shepherd is entirely new, as is Lieu. So, what was it that marked these chapters out? Eventually, I realised another common factor. These were all phone conversations, a medium requiring total attention to the voice, such that I was being drawn to not just the poets but also the voice of the critic.

This point leads to the third notable strength of this book: the author is an enquiring interviewer. He knows what questions to ask. He equally knows what questions the poets would expect him to ask and that leads to divergent questioning, a bit of the expected, a bit of a surprise. So, when questioning Gunn, the usual question about poetic form was posed, to which Gunn gave his familiar answer: the poem selects the style, it knows what it needs to be. The Poundian response out of the Renaissance: "the stone knows the form". But what revelations come with the discussions about movements (and really, for Gunn, The Movement). Simply, this is a refreshing book about poetry, something that you do not get in England. And though Christopher Hennessy never says it, one that does not pretend that all gay poets are white or of a certain class or believe this credo because they are black or recite this mantra because they are gay. Gunn was a master at blending the sacred and profane. Outside the Lines manages to fuse the saintly word of academia with the common-sense talk of real human beings. It is intelligently structured with an overview of the poets followed by a synopsis of each poet before the relevant conversation. The book has almost a Platonic symposium feel to it, intelligent and eloquent conversation, with dialogues to which the reader is a priviliged listener, but it is also absolutely contemporary and on the cutting-edge of what modern poetry is and might be.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rare and Racy.

I
You would not recognise it now
(though did you ever?) this place
amidst the bordering hills that once
stooped under a grey sky without thunder.

For it has gone the way of northern cities
and cast its industry into the grave—
ashes to ashes and dust to dust—
for a cleaner, more hygienic profile.

II
Even in the bad old days, I fear,
it would have been too bright for your bias,
the winding incline from private thoughts
to public house

less than the angle of the dream
in the scholar’s bent shoulders;
not as heavy as the shovel
in the mind’s stoned cemetery.


III
This new brick Sheffield
of metal and glass
has towers that invert
the free-fall of metaphor

and little remains in arcades and bistros,
cafes, diners and fast food houses
to attract the thoughts
of shop-soiled humanity.

IV
Once, this was the red-light
where life was at go—
and wolves at The West End
downed beers by the pack-load.

Now, it is restrained,
gentile and reserved
and the noonday drunk
is a prick in a pin-stripe.


V
Dambudzo, there is nothing,
nothing here to recall
those months years ago
in this city of slate;

unless it is this,
this skeleton of a shop:
a last articulation
of a time deceased.

VI
For here in the shades
and the must of books,
where the past’s aroma
is a dark imperative

and brain distills
its unbranded Kachusu,
there is still the residue
of stories and atoms.

VII
So, it was here, in this palpable black,
where dust lies thick in the trench of pages,
you sold another’s volumes of Nietzsche and Whitman
(poets of the earth’s soil, leaves and gardeners)

and read, I wonder…What?...
on these shelves without sunlight
(not thinking of guilt, but mindful of existence)
until the black abyss returned a black gaze.

Friday, August 24, 2007

In the lost footsteps of Marechera.

In 1979, Marechera found himself living in Sheffield, England. He was (intentionally) to become an artist-in-residence at the University of Sheffield. This came about through the usual old boy network: Marechera’s publisher at Heinemann, Currey, contacted Christopher Heywood, then a lecturer in English. Heywood, who was born in South Africa and a visiting professor in Nigeria in the late 1960s, had a connection with Africa that Currey obviously felt would be helpful in guiding Marechera. Not so.Heywood was approaching 50 years old when Marechera hit Sheffield and not exactly in line with the off-beat living style of a literary protege.

One of the famous stories surrounding Marechera concerns Heywood’s discovery that Marechera had helped himself to an array of books from his collection and sold them. The recipients were Rare and Racy. In the late 1970s, Rare and Racy was one of the cult places in Sheffield. Situated on the outskirts of the city centre, it was well known as a centre of the literary and music scene. As a secondhand bookshop, it had an ambience all of its own. A visitor, then, as today, would browse whilst strange sounds echoed through the grey shadows; everything from experimental jazz to Messien. Heywood lists some of the books that Marechera re-cycled: Nietzsche, Poe, Whitman, Achebe etc. That doesn’t sound like the most likely of selling-lists for Rare and Racy, with the exception of Nietzsche, for its reputation was built upon its collection of philosophical and occult texts.

The Bookshop itself!

4, Collegiate Crescent.

During his excursion to Sheffield, Marechera lived briefly with Heywood, then at the YMCA on Broomhall Road, and following his eviction from there in April at 4, Collegiate Crescent. His habitat in 1979 was the region around the University itself, which at that time, would have been of considerable interest to his personality. Not far from Rare and Racy was Hartley Seeds, the University’s bookshop, which was well stocked with contemporary poetry, noticeably Ezra Pound. And another local bookshop specialised in occult texts and radical political literature, anarchist and Marxist.

Heywood jokingly refers to Marechera as “a dark cloud on the horizon”. It is a pity that we know so little about his stay in Sheffield prior to the composition of Black Sunlight and his life in the dark and dusty underworld of Sheffield, whose name means "the borderland".

Friday, August 10, 2007

Eshuneutics and film: the hermetical attendant.

The Attendant: Isaac Julien (3).*The film opens with a view of Biard’s Slaves on the West Coast (1833). In a mid-ground between natural light and darkness, the evils of slavery unfold—it is a scene in which Black slave traders participate in White colonial trade and a laid-back White civilisation controls with active violence.


From here, the film moves to a shot of an art gallery. Not the Wilberforce Museum, but the Tate Gallery, London, whose white classical pillars represent an empire built on slavery and Greek, Platonic thought, the ideal love of White male for White male: Jamaican sugar paid for its creation. The fear that haunted slavery is then transposed into a single image, the Attendant’s black glove, and the connection between Black skin and Black leather, how high art turns Blackness into a fetish.

Inside the hermetic space of an art gallery, visitors come to spectate the pictures. For these observers, they are stable images, but in the mind of The Attendant they take personal resonances, coming into full-colour after the closing of the museum, when The Attendant is left alone with his fantasies.

A visual narrative begins as The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Two angel figures circulate the heads of each figure. White Eros circles the Visitor and Black Eros circles The Attendant. The figures resemble the so-called Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, London—correctly, a version of the Angel of Charity/Love. The charity that The Attendant and The Visitor offer each other is bound up (literally) with sadomasochistic desire.

It was a condition of filming for Time CodeThe Attendant was created for a series called Double Lives—that there should be no spoken dialogue in the film. This requirement fits well with the hermetical silence of an art gallery where the world is pursued in muted tones. The silence of the art gallery appears as a conspiratorial silence as the The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Only once is sound heard in the film. Not a conversation, but a series of groans heard through the wall by The Attendant’s wife, The Conservator. The sealed kiss between husband and wife operates, as Julien puts it, as an “alibi”. The Attendant’s world exists because the The Conservator conserves it just as they both exist because the high art world employs them. They exist in a bound relationship (enslaved) to the history of high art and White culture and heterosexism.

The Attendant and The Visitor relate, not through cost (as in Looking for Langston) but through costume. In the film shot where they stand side-by-side, almost as 3D cut-outs from the drawings of Tom of Finland, they stand as the opposite of each other. The White Visitor wears the Black leather uniform of sexual desire. The Black Attendant wears the White Wool Uniform desired by society. If leather suggests the fetishism of Black skin, so wool intimates the heritage of slavery. Both are held, through costume, to a history of bondage.

In “Confessions of a Snow Queen”, Julien problematically attaches a positive reading of this seemingly negative image. He asks if the Black male playing a slave role in an s/m fantasy might not be seen as parody, as a creative act against cultural domination. (This is part of what Mercer asked about Mapplethorpe. Are the Black figures in his photographs creative as well as being created? Do they not create a space for their desires? Interestingly, Doy attempted to answer that question by finding the viewpoints of Mapplethorpe’s models: the result, like the art gallery, was silence. A neat thought, but there is not much evidence that being photographed by Mapplethorpe was a liberating experience). At this point in the film, where the shot is head-on and challenging, Julien is posing questions about inter-racial desire and if it fits in with mainstream culture.

The closing of The Attendant, finally, recedes into black and white and then returns to colour. Two visual narratives are juxtaposed. They seem to be separate, but really flow into one another. To begin this sequence, The Attendant is seen as an opera singer performing Purcell. The image of The Attendant finding a voice concentrates many allusions (high art echoes). The tradition of young men singing female parts in seventeenth century opera is opened out: a deception becomes obvious…in Julien’s film the singer is openly male…and openly Black. There is a kind of transparency. By aligning The Attendant with Dido, however, Julien also brings in two historical echoes: Dido was a traditional name for a female Black slave; Dido’s death—because of Aeneas’ rejection— led to the founding of Rome and empire. Black and white histories collide around the question of imperialism, oppression and silence. Yes, The Attendant finds voice, but only as an attendant who waits upon language and expression. (Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991) pleased few, partly because it relied upon a received narrative film style and the inter-racial element delighted neither Black nor White gay men: the White mainstream did not want a film about a Black gay man and the Black current did not want to see a literally mixed storyline that denied Black containment, what Julien termed the “Black is, Black ain’t” box.

Furthermore, The Attendant sings “Thy hand Belinda”, a prelude to death. This brings to mind the hand of The Attendant which opened the film. And doesn’t an Attendant give a helping-hand? The hand image is also repeated openly in the hand-clapping of The Conservator, whose slow hand beat mimes the deliberate stroke of The Visitor’s whip, who, like a queen herself, is the audience to The Attendant’s performance (just as she was the voyeur to his sexual performance in the art gallery). The Attendant’s “Remember me” is an operatic climax that in the context of the film sounds like a Black lover’s request to his White partner. One doubts, however, that this transaction has much to do with remembering names. In Dido and Aeneas, the queen’s death is followed by the entrance of Cupids. They come to attend and watch over her. In The Attendant, the chorus of Cupids is replaced by a gay Black Queen (Roy Brown) who is surrounded by White angels. The closing of the film is deliberately voyeuristic towards the central Black image, caressing the body’s golden cloth and pectoral jewel as it contrasts the power of the Black male with the obedient white angels. Black Dido turns into Black Eros—whose beauty is attended by white cupids.



The finale of The Attendant does not deny Black beauty (as shown by Beauty in Looking for Langston). It intimates rather that the power of Black Eros is more than closeted dreams. Silencing the dialogue of Black essentialism and White essentialism in the film, allows another thought to emerge. White culture has sought its own narcissistic image and watched it fade away. Black desire has become a loud echo in the mountainous halls of high art. Julien is facing the shadow of the Harlem Renaissance in The Attendant: how White patrons created by manipulating the Black image. In this sense, his short film of 1993 carries on from his position in 1989. But there is a change of approach. The secrecy of Black desire produced an unhealthy state for creativity. By opening Black desire, Julien wants to free creativity from notions of disease, so much so that inter-racial relationships are seen creatively as signs of life. A Black male desiring a White male need not be a surrender to White imperialism, just as a White male desiring a Black male does not have to be an expression of White domination, if the diseased discourse of slave-master is abandoned for something healthier.
The problem here is that Art does not always mirror Life and the idealism of Julien belongs more to the world of high art than life. The Attendant is a thought provoking piece of film making, yet it probably only has a currency in a salacious world that will mis-read it (as with Mapplethorpe) as shock art.

Marechera and the Crime Novel.

Black Sunlight opens with a violent conceptual metaphor, FICTION IS A WINDOW. Marechera develops this further by connecting tense and tension. Sentences fragment. Through another familiar metaphor he asserts that FICTION IS A BIRTH. And the first story that emerges concerns an African runner who has seen a white woman for the first time. The narrator, who has just escaped the pitlatrine, but is eventually inverted in the chickenshit, explains (to the reader) that this woman is no other than Blanche Goodfather, whom he met whilst at Oxford University. They spent one afternoon together. The tone of this meeting is set by the “framed print” in Blanche Goodfather’s room (nothing as common as a poster tacked to the wall) which shows Bronzino’s Allegory. The pornographic fondling of Venus by Eros serves as an echo of what the narrator and character have indulged in. Snow “digresses” against the windowpanes, once more establishing the relationship between window and narrative. In a single sentence, the reader is pulled back to the narrator in the chicken shit, then another digression follows. It seems a careless departure, another story pasted in, but it is a carefully placed digression.



Now, the narrator remembers a day with friends. Flies scan every mouthful of sadza. The sun, at noon, directly above the narrator’s head is “burning angrily”. Heat and food are activating the flies. From where he reads, the spectator can see two female figures (Katherine and Marie?) eating and hear a third, Susan, engaged with a client. Implicitly, eating and sexuality connect. Sexual eating provided food for the table. Most interesting, though, is the book that is being read: No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

The book is by Hadley Chase. As a person who learnt to read early, Hadley Chase was a staple diet for the young Marechera. And that metaphor was literally true. In a 1983 interview, Marechera relates how he read Hadley Chase, at primary school age, because reading directed his mind away from hunger. Later on, his reading choices shifted to Orwell, and that might well be significant. Marechera recalls reading Orwell at 15-16, somewhere around 1968, the year in which Orwell published his Collected Essays. The Collected Essays contains a blistering review of Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a novel, which Orwell describes as “a header into the cesspool.” Cesspool, pitlatrine, chickenshit. Orwell disliked the novel intensely, for even though it was well written and a convincing fiction, the novel included violence, rapes, and wrongly praised the “power instinct”.

Subconsciously, what seems a narrative departure, in the mind of the narrator is not so. It is part of the theme that introduces the novel: sexuality and power. No Orchids for Miss Blandish isn’t a throwaway detail, rather an image that connects physical hunger and intellectual repletion. The allusion links sex, violence, sexual power and society to the narrator. These are core concerns in Black Sunlight. The flies whose eyes “glistened with the paranoia of black sunlight” are images of inverted vision: their windows see a world that requires suicidal actions. In some ways, Black Sunlight is a satire on popular crime writing, on a genre which made heterosexual pornography acceptable, yet Marechera's philosophical vision of terrorism and society is of a different order.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Eshuneutics and film: perversion.

The Attendant: Isaac Julien. (2) *

What was in Julien’s mind at the time of filming The Attendant? Well, I would suggest three things need to be considered.

1) Julien knew his Mapplethorpe. He was well aware of Mapplethorpe’s favourite in-joke: cultural doubleness. At one point, Mapplethorpe had two art shows at the same time, one male nude exhibition in a famous high art gallery and a sadomasochistic one in an infamous low gallery. It was a huge joke— to be able to live in two worlds at once. This fact touched on another implicit joke in much of Mapplethorpe’s photography. By placing photographs of Black men in galleries, Mapplethorpe elevated the low to high. His classical photographs of Thomas (a porn star) were a consummate double-take. By placing sadomasochism in an art gallery—and an art gallery devoted to anti-slavery (in Hull)—Julien reverses the Mapplethorpe joke. He gives the sadomasochistic imagery a new context, an antidote to the poison. It is an extension of his concern in Langston where a White figure longingly figures photographs from the Black Book as the poetry of Essex Hemphill undercuts the figure’s covetous, inter-racial desire.


2) Julien wrote a number of highly perceptive essays with Kobena Mercer. (much of which was placed visually into Looking for Langston) In 1993, when The Attendant was being formulated, Mercer was in the process of changing his mind about Mapplethorpe. He was shifting from an anti-stance to more of curious arm on the hip way of thinking. Mercer was opening up a grey area of crossings and cross-overs (much as James Small has done in studying the Harlem Renaissance). The White market, for Mercer, provided a space for Black vision. It was something more complex than a trade off. (Doy would say an act of consumerism). Julien, quite probably, was aware of this cultural shift in thought and the re-orientating of Mapplethorpe and this suited a personal preoccupation.

3) Julien is a Black man attracted to White men.. Or to put the personal in a cultural framework, as Julien does in “Confessions of a Snow Queen” (1993), a lot of important art was emerging from inter-racial partnerships.This was true of Isaac Julien and Mark Nash; Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Alex Hirst; Lyle Harris, Asotto Saint, Marlon Riggs. For Julien, the Black-Black relationship and the essentialist paradigm in Looking for Langston had become more complex. Looking for Langston consciously stayed away from Van Vechten’s white-made Harlem, except in a negative way to illustrate how white patronage placed the “negro in vogue” until a point where this became unfashionable.

So, what does a viewing of The Attendant suggest? It suggests a more complex and intense look at the history of spectating.

Eshuneutics and film: perversity.

The Attendant: Isaac Julien. (1) *

This short film has just been released on DVD in the USA as an accompaniment to Looking for Langston. The packaging of which is somewhat strange: about 70% of the cover is dominated by an inter-racial couple; 30% is given to one of the most memorable Black-Black relationship scenes from the film. If you knew zero about the film, you would assume (wrongly) that this is some sort of black and white porn film for the White gay market. The Black market is reduced to the black-market. Is this some sort of post-modern joke? I don’t think so. It’s either a piece of crass marketing or a misinterpretation of the film?

Looking for Langston (1989) is a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and the desire and friendship that existed between Black men. It places, in one section, a visual critique and condemnation of Mapplethorpe’s Black Book and his objectification (as a White photographer) of the Black male body. Attaching The Attendant to Looking for Langston is a puzzling move because it represents a shift in Julien’s ideology and feelings. But how? The Attendant—seemingly—upholds the s/m world from which Mapplethorpe’s own desire for the Black male arose. But does it?

One of the most perceptive books on Black art in the UK is Doy’s Black Visual Culture. Significantly, it discusses two films of Julien’s: Fanon (1996) and The Attendant (1993). How strange that a book on Black art should ignore a film focusing exactly on that issue. Why? In many ways, Looking for Langston lies outside the feminist, Marxist aesthetic that Doy is guided by. The Attendant, on the other hand, is open to a dispassionate analysis. It is more polemical, less lyrical than Langston, it does not demand absorption. Langston you embrace. The Attendant you spectate. And that is a better discussion ground for criticism. Doy’s interest in The Attendant easily meets Julien’s focus: the high art world and how it is allied to deep criticism. Doy delights in undermining high art from a Marxist point of view and placing the film in a shady area somewhere between modernism and post-modernism. But what exactly is going on in the film? The cryptogrammic nature of The Attendant is a critic’s dream.