(reprinted with the kind permission of Arthur Jafa)
by Arthur Jafa
When I was thinking about what I wanted to do at this conference, the first
thing I thought about was giving my talk with my back to the audience as
a sort of allusion to Miles Davis, you know, postural semantics and all.
But then I had this dream, which I'm going to tell you about.
I was in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I grew up. I was in my bedroom,
I remember growing up in, sitting and listening to music the kind of music
my mom used to call psychological music. You know, jazz, rock, reggae. And
I was sitting in the room with The Alien-I don't know how many of you saw
the movie The Alien- and we were just chilling, you know, just grooving,
like me and my friends did when we were growing up. And my mom pops her
head in the room occasionally like she did when I was with my friends and
smiles and sort of steps back out. And my father creeps in without saying
anything and turns down the volume on the music. Eventually, my friend The
Alien gets up and splits. And then my father comes in and says, "Who
was that big-headed nigger you were in here with?" I don't want to
be a big-headed nigger, so I'm not going to do this with my back to the
audience. But, I am going to use digressions like Marlon Riggs did his talk.
One thing that's been interesting for me to see so far in this conference
is the anxiety around what I would call the performative. The very first
night Stuart Hall stood up and gave his talk, and I felt a little bit like
that guy in the Memorex commercial. I thought, damn, he's relentless. I
mean, I turned to the people next to me and said it was like listening to
John Coltrane-it just didn't stop. And then after that Cornel West came
out and did his thing, you know, "Give me an Amen!" He doesn't
say it, but you know what he wants.Then bell hooks came on, and she did
her thing, and Marlon did his incredible thing And then there was Hazel
Carby. She was the only person who got the "oooh" effect. She
got this effect when she was pointing out the relationship between certain
male academics and Zora Neale Hurston.
My primary interest is in Black film. When I first got into film at Howard
University, the people who were there Haile Gerima, Alonzo Crawford, Abiyi
Ford were very much concerned with questions around Black Cinema and with
defining what it was. At that time, they would have probably defined Black
film as something like "We're against Hollywood," which is interesting
because that definition allows you to get to certain kinds of places, and
it's clear. But eventually I started to ask myself, well, is that enough?
It seems they had put us in this binary opposition with Hollywood that can
be kind of limited. I thought we had to ask more sophisticated questions
about what Black cinema was and, in fact, could be.
One of the first things I asked was, well, if this work is supposed to be
Black film, why does it use what is essentially strictly classical Hollywood
spatial continuity? You know, was it significant that you respected all
of the 180-, 360 degree rules around spatial organization? Was that arbitrary?
They would show the work of Oscar Micheaux, whom anyone who's interested
in Black cinema, or American cinema, for that matter, should be familiar
with. (I find it incredible that Black filmmakers don't know Oscar Micheaux.
That's kind of like being a jazzman and not knowing Louis Armstrong.) And
they would always present Oscar Micheaux's work as an example of what not
to do. I got this a lot: it was incompetently realized; its class and color
politics were all messed up. But I felt like they never really looked deeply
into his work and saw what was worth studying.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson did a very interesting analysis of Ozu,
the master Japanese filmmaker. They demonstrated that the spatial paradigm
Ozu employed wasn't a deficient control of a Hollywood spatial paradigm,
but that, in fact, it was an alternative paradigm-which oftentimes ran parallel
to the Hollywood one, but just as often would transgress it. (1)Donald
Ritchie, who is considered an early expert on Ozu, would say, "This
is a guy who's considered one of the most controlled formal filmmakers in
the world, but he got sloppy at those moments." Right.
But what was interesting about Bordwell's and Thompson's analysis was that
it provided an entree into analyzing Black film. And I started to look at
Micheaux's work and said, wow, this is not an accident this is consistent
over the course of his career (and I think he made more than thirty-eight
feature films). It just got badder and badder and badder .
I'm going to do a little jump right here.
I had read the anti-essentialist position in that last cinema issue of Screen
(2) and I said, wow, I really don't agree
with some of the things that the anti-essentialists are saying. I mean,
I had a hard time understanding (and perhaps it was my misunderstanding)
what they were trying to say. So I said, well, I must be an essentialist.
And then I read what the essentialists were saying, what they were supposed
to be saying, and I said, well, maybe I'm just an "anti-anti essentialist"
What I've come to now is what a friend told me when I asked how she would
describe me. She called me a "materialist retentionist" (something
What that means is that I have a belief in certain levels of cultural retention.
People carry culture on various levels, down to the deepest level, which
I would call a kind of core stability. Nam Jun Paik, the godfather of video
art, has this great quote: "The culture that's going to survive in
the future is the culture that vou can carry around in your head."
The middle passage is such a clear example of this, because you see Black
American Culture particularly developed around those areas we could carry
around in our heads-our oratorical prowess, dance, music, those kinds of
things. There are other things not so easy to carry, architecture, for example.
When we got here, we didn't have an opportunity to make many buildings.
Not right off, at least. So I have this notion of core stability and how
that informs what we do, of cultural sophistication and how we apply that
to the task of constructing Black cinema.
I like to think about films and the kinds of things that are possible. For
example, I want to do Martin Luther King's life in the style of In the
Realm of the Senses, (Nagisa Oshima's amazing hardcore feature). I want
to do Malcolm X's life as a series of moments-Malcolm arriving home at two
o'clock in the and looking in at his little girls asleep. I like the stories
that Bruce Perry tells in his biography of Malcolm X-like when he says that
Malcolm X was actually going to accept his proposal of marriage, he asked
Betty Shabazz to marry him instead. A few weeks later, he ran into the first
Betty's brother, and was being congratulated by him, you know, "Congratulations
on your marriage, brother Malcolm. But why didn't you ever call our sister
back? She's mean been waiting for you. She wanted to accept the proposal."
And Malcolm X broke down and started crying. (3)
That's the Malcolm X I want to see. And I would like to know what kind
of version of Little Richard's life Andrei Tarkovsky would do.
I think understanding culture and having a sophisticated understanding of
applying culture to the construction of Black cinema means we have to be
able to look at these arenas to see how Black people have intervened to
transform them into spaces where we can most express our desires. A classic
example, of course, is basketball. Like the question that went around for
a long time (before Michael Jordan made it irrelevant) the best basketball
player, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. That depends on what you mean by best,
obviously. If you use a rational Western evaluation of what's best, you
come up with the statistical, which means who can put the most balls in
the hoop, right? then. Bird can put the ball in the hoop And by that definition,
certainly Larry Bird can be measured with the best there's ever been. Anybody
that tells you he can't has got a serious racial anxiety thing happening.
But then you have to ask yourself, if Black people enter into this game,
which was invented by Dr.Hans Nasmith (and we know he certainly didn't create
it with Black folks in mind). how has it been transformed? And how many
levels does that play itself out on? I mean, is it just that we function
as players, or we have affected other aspects of the game ? And if you ask
yourself these kind of questions, then the question of who's the best basketball
player becomes irrelevant. What you're going to end up with is Larry Bird
coming down the floor, going up for a shot.Two points. He comes down again.
Two points. Then maybe he'll shoot one of those long ones he's good for.
Three points, you know. But then Michael Jordan will come down, spinning
acrobatically in apparent defiance of all known laws of gravity. Ten points.
Black pleasure (not joy) what are its parameters, what are its primal sites,
how does Black popular culture or Black culture in general address Black
pleasure? How does it generate Black pleasure? How do those strategies in
Black music play out the rupture and repair of African-American life on
the structural level? How do they play out the sense of the lost and the
found? How are Black people preoccupied with polyventiality (a term of mine)?
"Polyventiality" just means multiple tones, multiple rhythms,
multiple perspectives, multiple meanings, multiplicity. Why do we find these
particular things pleasurable? How do African retentions coalesce with the
experiential sites in the New World, with new modes of cultural stability?
What does Wesley Brown's "tragic magic" mean when he says, "I
played in a Bar Mitzvah band. And it was a great job until I got hit by
that tragic magic, and I start playing a little bit before the beat, a little
bit behind the beat. I couldn't help myself. I lost the job." question
of addressing Black pleasure is a critical thing.
I've heard people talk about issues of representation and the content of
culture. But I'm trying to figure out how to make Black films that have
the power to allow the enunciative desires of people of African descent
to manifest themselves. What kinds of things do we do? How can we interrogate
the medium to find away Black movement in itself could carry, for example,
the weight of sheer tonality in Black song? And I'm not talking about the
lyrics that Aretha Franklin sang. I'm talking about how she sang them.
How do we make Black music or Black images vibrate in accordance with certain
frequential values that exist in Black music? How can we analyze the tone,
not the sequence of notes that Coltrane hit, but the tone itself and
synchronize Black visual movement with that? I mean, is this just a theoretical
possibility, or is this actually something we can do?
I'm developing an idea that I call Black visual intonation (BVI). What it
consists of is the use of irregular, nontempered (nonmetronomic) camera
rates and frame replication to prompt filmic movement to function in a manner
that approximates Black vocal intonation. See, the inherent power of cinematic
movement is largely dependent on subtle or gross disjunctions between the
rate and regularity at which a scene is recorded and the rate and regularity
at which it is played back. Nonmetronomic camera rates, such as those employed
by silent filmmakers, are transfixing precisely because they are irregular.
The hand-cranked camera, for example, is a more appropriate instrument with
which to create movement that replicates the tendency in Black music to
"worry the note" to treat notes as indeterminate, inherently unstable
sonic frequencies rather than the standard Western treatment of notes as
fixed phenomena. Utilizing what I term alignment patterns, which are simply
a series of fixed frame replication patterns (and I have 372 at this point),
the visual equivalencies of vibrato, rhythmic patterns, slurred or bent
notes, and other musical effects are possible in film. You could do samba
beats, reggae beats, all kinds of things. This is just a beginning for trying
to talk about certain possibilities in Black cinema.
1. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson,
"Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu," Screen 17, no.
2 (Summer 1976), 41-73
29, no. 4 (Fall 1988).
Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Barrytown,
N.Y: Station Hill Press, 1991). Distributed by The Talman Co.
The above text copyright Arthur Jafa ,1992.
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