Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Encore: Experts and the Importance of the Arts

I have fallen out of the world at different times, for different reasons: away from conversation, away from friendships, away from shared obligations—falling at tremendous speed, sometimes with amusement, with pride, with relief, sometimes in fear, in pain, in rage; and it is art—dance, drama, film, literature, music, paintings, poetry, and sculpture; the beauty, intelligence, order, passion, and truth of art—more often than not that has pulled me back into the world. The arts do not come to me, or to us, out of magic: they are the works of cultivated men and women: women and men who have been cultivated by the discipline of artistic practice, if not by significant education and acquisition of other formal manners and habits. The arts are repositories of humanity, of humane thought and feeling.

Culture is what has interested me—what I wanted to talk about, write about, create: and the diverse arts and their appreciation are at the core of culture. I have asked several cultural workers in the last year to discuss the subject…

Friday, April 3, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander, Poet

Elizabeth Alexander published her first book of poetry, The Venus Hottentot, in 1990, followed by the poetry collections Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005), and, with co-author Marilyn Nelson, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2008), a book for young adults. In her poetry Elizabeth Alexander captures the ideas, the moments, the perceptions, and the sensations, that are missed, usually, in the first and second drafts of history, the real stories of human lives. I found her American Sublime a particularly beautiful book and was surprised that her essays in The Black Interior were as interesting, as impressive. Alexander, who teaches in Yale’s African American Studies department, has a second, more recent, book of essays, Power and Possibility. She is a writer to watch, and to listen to, as much of America learned when she participated in the inauguration of President Barack Obama; but, more significantly, she will be, for a very long time, a poet whose work is to be read. There have been appreciative and critical comments made about the poem she wrote for that historic day in January, and I was curious to know what Elizabeth Alexander herself had learned from the experience (I sent her an e-mail query at the end of March and she quickly responded).

Daniel: What did you learn about public poetry as a result of your inauguration experience?

Elizabeth Alexander: "From the literally thousands of letter and emails I have received form strangers, I learned that so many people are open and receptive to public poetry. They meet it as it comes to them and respond with their own words, feelings, stories. That has been very powerful and affirming of the ability of art to have a place in the everyday lives of Americans."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Acadiana Film Festival

The Acadiana Film Festival taking place at different locations (Cite Des Arts, and Grand 14 Theater, Lite, and the Natural History Museum, among them) in Lafayette, Louisiana, scheduled for April 16th through 19th, is focused on the craft, content, and pleasure of films, present and future, with programs attractive to film professionals and the general audience. There are workshops for film and sound editors, for actors on developing characters, and discussions on music composition and marketing an idea for a film (pitching stories), and the festival provides a location tour, as well as music receptions, and, most importantly, film premieres and screenings, with the subjects of films including hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras, writer Kate Chopin and singer Patti Smith, coastal land loss restoration and plate lunch restaurants.

A few days ago, I asked one of the organizers, Jana Godshall, about the Acadiana Film Festival, and the expected audience:

Who are the likely attendants of the film festival (artists, educators, students, others)?

Two days ago (Thursday), the festival director Jana Godshall answered, "All of the above. We have artists, educators, students, producers, musicians, composers, directors, actors, writers, city and state entertainment industry representatives and not only that,...simply film enthusiasts. Anyone who enjoys independent cinema, as we have tons of free screenings open to the public Thursday through Sunday, April 16-19th," and she added, "our line up is great this year. we have so many feature film, shorts, documentaries, panels, workshops, parties, networking opportunities."

Godshall works with festival coordinator Julie Bordelon, and can be reached at: Acadiana Film Festival, 101 W. Vermilion St., Lafayette, La 70501; and, more information about the festival is available online (search: Acadiana Film Festival).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Monica Hairston of the Center for Black Music Research

Below is a query submitted to Monica Hairston of the Center for Black Music Research, from me. I am interested in a range of disciplines and fields, but few things give me the pleasure of music, all kinds of music, including jazz, independent rock, and music from other countries; and, of course, I am open to learning more about the things that interest me. I am aware, as well, that too frequently African-American music, as with much else, is thought of in terms of stereotypes. I wondered recently if a scholar could suggest new avenues of learning, for myself, for others; and, consequently, I asked the Center for Black Music Research's Monica Hairston, What have been some areas of black music that require more research and thought? The center is devoted to researching, preserving, and sharing black music, from wherever it emerges; and I thought the center's executive director Monica Hairston, who received a master's degree in music from the University of Georgia and is a doctoral candidate at New York University, and whose own interests include jazz and popular music (and feminism, ethnomusicology, etc.) would have an illuminating perspective. In February I sent her my query and I was grateful to receive the busy scholar's answer yesterday!

Daniel: What have been some areas of black music that require more research and thought?

Monica Hairston of the Center for Black Music Research: "A couple of areas that come to mind immediately include the following:

Historically: Any topics eighteenth century and earlier. Black musical history doesn’t begin with African American spirituals. From Vincente Lusitano to the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, black musicians and composers populate all historical eras and all corners of the globe.

Culturally: Issues of gender and sexuality. Men and women can have differently-gendered experiences of the same phenomena. These experiences often manifest in or are refracted through music and music-making."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Scholar Aram Goudsouzian on Sidney Poitier

Professor Aram Goudsouzian teaches in the department of history at the University of Memphis, and he wrote a comprehensive book, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), which manages to be both inspiring and sad at the same time. He was recently kind enough, earlier today, to answer a question about Sidney Poitier and the actor's relationship to his own scholarship.

Daniel: What led you to write about Sidney Poitier and how do the issues raised by his life and work relate to yours?

Aram Goudsouzian: I am interested in how popular culture shapes our attitudes about race, and in how race shapes our perceptions of popular culture. African Americans have historically found voices in entertainment and sports that were suppressed in more formal political arenas, and Hollywood has such profound, if often unacknowledged, effects upon the broader culture. The arc of Sidney Poitier’s saga particularly appealed to me because it carries through this entire period of racial upheaval. His persona transcended black stereotypes as comic buffoons or faithful sidekicks, and his dignity resonated with an emerging generation of African Americans and liberal whites who challenged racial convention in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, he seemed to embody the principle of racial equality, winning worldwide fame while lending Hollywood its sole black icon. Yet Poitier’s onscreen characters had to be ultra-virtuous heroes who exhibited unique restraints, fettering suggestions of black anger or sexuality. So by the late 1960s, one decade after getting considered a cutting-edge progressive figure, Black Power radicals and college students had tabbed him an “Uncle Tom.” I think his life and work still shape our popular understanding of black public figures today, none more so than President Obama. He seems to fulfill the same white liberal fantasies as Poitier, only on the most visible stage in the world.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ideal Film Culture in Louisiana?

Several weeks ago I asked several questions of diverse persons involved with Louisiana culture; and here are two answers to a single question regarding Louisiana film culture...

Daniel queries Alexandyr Kent, film reviewer:
What would a more ideal film culture look like, or be, in Louisiana?

Alexandyr Kent: That’s tough to answer for me. I’d begin by looking at the habits of movie-going itself.

We have enough movie theaters, generally speaking, and it’s nice to see the fall and winter lineups featuring popular arthouse/foreign films. It’s nice to see commercial appreciation for high-quality films.

Primarily, though, I think most moviegoers see movies as escapism or light entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. What worries me, however, is that some viewers may not be concerned with a movie’s potential seriousness of purpose (or its misrepresentations of society, culture, history, desire, etc.). I’d like to hear more conversations – by both viewers, reporters and critics – about subject matter and film form, and less about celebrity PR. It’s wishful thinking, but healthy doses of intellect and skepticism never hurt anyone.

If you attend theaters like the Prytania in N.O., like the Angelika chain in Dallas or New York, like the Robinson Film Center in Shreveport, they encourage a deeper engagement in the medium. They encourage, but do not force, deeper inquiry.

I wish multiplex chains would do this in a more overt way, and I think it would start by simply offering consumers appropriate spaces – like restaurants, cafes, coffeeshops, bars or ice cream counters – to digest what they see. Audiences often seem to be in a rush to leave the theater.

By their very design, many multiplex movie theaters don’t encourage consumers to pause and reflect, and that’s a shame to me. Look, on the other hand, at how bookstore chains like Border’s and B&N have encouraged customers to linger by adding cafes, comfy chairs and programming kids’ events and book signings. Bookstores and movie theaters are not mirror-image businesses – you don’t have to buy a ticket to get into a bookshop -- but they have a lot to offer one another when it comes to designing an experience.

Daniel queries Susie Labry, an actress, singer, and film community activist:
What would a more ideal film culture look like, or be, in Louisiana?

Susie Labry: I would like to see more professionalism in the film industry. I want to see our culture preserved and maintained and respect for one another’s cultures as we are a diverse culture and that is what makes it interesting. I want to see history and culture maintained and preserved. Want to see more Louisiana talent used. I want to Louisiana music and more sets used here. I want to see the workers work together as family and yet have healthy competition and quality. There needs to be a balance where both Employers and Employees and Contracts all benefit all. I want to see us as Louisiana unique, not mainstream and looking like everyone else. Just as colorful and exciting as its original music and food industry. Preserve our way, music, food, architecture, history, etc.