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Archive for January, 2020


Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

I wanted to write something for Martin Luther King day on the web itself. So I read most of Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, and then rewrote a blog written about If Beale Street could talk mostly just as a movie and from commentary about the book: I was startled to find what a tender tone is suffused throughout the book because of the inner spirit of the narrator, Tish (Clementine is a give-away of sorts, a symbolic name). It is a sort of romance! But also a book much like The Bluest Eye (a Coming of Age for girls book), except (one could say) Bluest Eye is l’ecriture-femme, Beale Street from a more masculine point of view. My theme is the tragic waste of US American racism for all, the pity of it, the terror too.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day: here in Virginia finally some mild gun control legislation has been passed by a democratic house and governor, and the result has been a threatened violent riot in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacist groups with credible evidence they mean to cause havoc and use their guns; they are misrepresenting the legislation which does not at all infringe on the right of legitimate gun ownership. This demonstration and its misrepresentation of the passed gun control law has been endorsed by Trump. Governor Northam called in the FBI to investigate and three people were arrested. The day chosen was naturally this one, our National Holiday for remembering Martin Luther King, who might have been the best president we ever had — if he had lived. Murdered at 37 (before 40 like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black male leaders), MLK was responsible for a movement which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights act, today partly gutted by the Supreme Court. The demonstration was not violent but was immense as was the state police presence; OTOH, something a sizable majority of Virginians support gun control, and the democrats won on the issue. It is hopeful that no violence occurred because it may be that if Trump loses the next election, riots on his behalf to keep him in the presidency will be prevented.

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


But Victoria is herself walled in by her own anger, resentment hopeless impoverishment

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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I now got hold of and read the book, before rewriting the original blog — as well as returning to David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog.

Crucially, no one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling. What is startling is how tender the tone of the novel when it comes to Fonny; the book is also a loving deeply sad romance, mourning how Fonny never had a chance.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little from the point of view of the woman who loved the man. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of the third-century Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, the later 18th century Rouseauistic Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more. At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I had placed a version of this on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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But today I know it belongs on my general blog and I have moved it here, and widened my purview in a coda where I offer my first response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I began reading for the first time yesterday.

What a masterpiece of a first book. I recommend it and her Beloved on this day. The Bluest Eye is quiet, unassuming, the story of an American black family from the point of view of one of the younger daughter/sisters, Claudia. It brings home to me what a tragedy it is that working class white and black people in the US do not realize how much we have in common. As I read although my family did not have quite these hideous experiences (the house is burnt down – something white people did regularly and got away with until the last part of the 20th century) many of the desolating exclusionary experiences her family members know we knew. The attitudes of mind remind me of what we knew. So much in common and denied because of the use of “middle class” which skews whom one identifies with and enables people to ignore their real circumstances, what are their real expectations/hopes. Howard Zinn in his History of the People of the US shows that from the very beginning of the US state, the upper classes have been concerned to keep better off and poor whites from identifying with Native and African-Americans.

The story of the girl being given a white doll and destroying it bit by bit reminded me of Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. How Maggie hated that doll too and took it up to the attic to abuse it. I didn’t hate my dolls but an ugly story occurred around one, after which I destroyed it and had no more dolls but one Ginny (age 11) and tired of her soon with her fancy wardrobe &c The title comes from a little girl in the book, Pecola, who Claudia’s mother is kind enough to take in (her family has been smashed) and who tells her new friends, Claudia and her sister, Frieda, she longs for a blue eye, though all her features are African. Claudia is out of sympathy with this, thus producing an alienated perspective within an implicitly alienated earnest one.

The book has several of the classic incidents of a mature young girl’s novel, for example, when Pecola menstruates for the first time, is very frightened and how she is treated. By the way none of these occur in Little Women (another is sexual harassment, the closest Alcott gets to this is Meg Goes to Vanity Fair when Meg allows her hostess to sexualize her dress.) My last image for this blog is Emily Watson playing Maggie Tulliver in a 1997 BBC Mill on the Floss; she has been the best Marmee thus far too (in the 2017/8 BBC 3 part Little Women). When I got to the end of the book I was so angry, I threw it across the room and then through it out. The book ended with her forgiveness of a brother who had destroyed her life, her senseless death trying to rescue him.

We are reading these two novels by Morrison now on WomenWriters@groups.io; the last two months we read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: she mentions only three girls’ books but two are Little Women and Mill on the Floss — she identified with Jo and Maggie. Well Claudia and Pecola and Clementine (Tish) are three more such heroines in the same vein ….

For Martin Luther King day a great powerful African-American literature and its close parallels with great powerful European-American literature by women — novels of girls growing up and the choices inflicted on them …

Ellen

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A still from Keri (Cats of/in Istanbul) – touching movie as much about the people who care for the cats as the cats themselves – they are waiting for fishing ships from Greece


Charles Burton Barber, Coaxing Is Better than Teasing (1883) — didactic Victorian narrative art

For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit
— Christopher Smart, My Cat Geoffrey

Friends,

I’ve been wanting to write a blog on the literature of cats, about cat stories, cat pictures, cat poetry, so as to suggest that there is a particular quality to stories about cats, poetry about them, even pictures that distinguishes the “kind” from stories about animals in general, other animals, dogs, people, a sort of tone or stance that underlies and unites them all. Well, stories, images and movies not hostile to cats, not produced by crazy people who in history have conducted massacres (see Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” in a book named after this essay) and persecuted the cat (cats endured a long period of persecution in Europe, starting in the twelfth century and ending only sometime in the nineteenth). I kept putting this off. No longer.


George Morland, The Artist’s Cat Drinking (1792)

The quality is admiration, admiration for their resilience, for their individual and group persistent survival. Stories told of stressed cats, of how against all probability, great odds, seeming counterproductive behavior, and sometimes (to the reader and poor creature enduring it) inflicted torture, they carry on. We marvel at their individuality — since there is a continual repetitive catness about their casually observed postures, stances, relationships with us.

I am moved to make this seemingly unprovable assertion and cite some of the best writing I’ve read by a given author (cat as muse), as well as about the cat, because I just read and then re-read, savoring as I went V. S. Naipaul’s The Strangeness of Grief, posted online December 30th, 2019 and printed January 6th in the New Yorker.

Naipaul, a wonderfully poignant ironic writer (deserved his Nobel, and the one Booker) begins with his father’s death but his essay morphs into the calamitous deaths of two cats, one carelessly murdered (the mother), the other torn to bits by desert dogs (its kitten), and then a long history of the life and death of a kitten whom the author adopts, brings up, provides for, is companion, staff, lover and finally protector and life-prolonger of: Augustus. Augustus a cat whose life has been at risk, and near extinguished several times, but saved again and again by a vet.

My simple-minded take-away is that an outdoor cat is in very great danger of loss of life and that modern human life also presents real dangers to a cat it can’t recognize for itself. Also how fragile they are. That they have been such a successful species as a species is because they have evolved to be women’s best lover … Naipaul whose work is characterized by a deep kindness and melancholy.


Henriette Ronner-Knip (1878) — famous for her luxurious cats, this one may have been a real one she owned


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Minette the Kitten (1894)

My favorite, maybe the best book by Doris Lessing is her On Cats, which also opens with cat massacres that occurred periodically in the South Africa of Lessing’s childhood, after which she goes on to be the biographer of a Grey Cat and Black Puss, then Rufus the Survivor, and finally “the old age of el magnifico.” I wrote an appreciative essay on this book (scroll to the bottom to read her magnficent peroration) more than eight years ago: From this essay:

The closing stories are the most moving of all “Rufus the Survivor” is about a cat who has a bad home. He is mistreated. He is shut out during the day; he is too thin; it’s clear he is sometimes hit. He is cowed and has learnt to be a sycophant. It’s a story of how slowly he insinuates himself into Lessing’s home and gradually ever so gradually gets first her to allow him to stay, and then to stay for a while, and hen to live there. How he has to maneuver to get grey and black cat to accept him. How she takes him to the doctor for his ills and how he does not like it ever. Gradually he becomes braver and more confident and leaves the house to make friends. He even probably visits his ex-owner. She worries about this, but it seems the ex-owner does not try to keep Rufus. Rufus learns to show love and allow others to love him.

El Magnifico is a hero’s story. As the cat grows older, he gets cancer, and in order to have more years of life Lessing must amputate one of his legs. He cannot of course understand this. He assumes that she has utterly betrayed him not just in taking him to the Vet, but allowing this terrifically painful thing to be done. Ever after he has the worst troubles going to his litter box just outside the house (in a garden or yard), going up and down stairs, climbing things. But she cannot explain she is giving him more life.


Manning’s Miou

Then there’s Olivia Manning’s Extraordinary Cats: Lessing had tough cats; Manning had vulnerable ones. I wrote an essay on Manning’s book too (scroll all the way down). The central core of Manning’s book is a life history of specific cats she has owned and their personalities, how they interacted with other cats. She is (unexpectedly) more inward than Lessing. There are many fine deeply humane moments — a love of these animals that is deeply empathetic making the reader their valuable lives. Manning also offers real insights into the interrelationships of people and cats.

By now the reader may be saying, ‘This is ridiculous. She writes of cats as though they were humans.’ But are they so very different? The fact is that when an animal, any animal, enters one’s home, it becomes something more than an animal. The change is brought about not merely by human fantasy and human need: the animal itself is drawn out of its animal world and advances to meet our wider understanding.


Desmond Morris’s Cats in Art is the best general philosophical art history I’ve read.

The text is better than my other omnibus volume: Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 years of the Cat in Art has more pictures but her text soon gives out into a catalogue which is sheerly informative and descriptive of a particular image and they are not so well-chosen, do not delight or interest as Morris’s continually do. Morris too critiques and presents attitudes towards the cat and what we can know of the lives of the domestic cat since we have first proof of their existence. Early on they were seen as “working” animals in the sense that they attacked small animals people considered vermin; but they were also early on companions and associated with women. Then the medieval period where horrendous persecution of cats began or was first recorded. It seems to begin with the decline of learning, a deep resentment of nuns using cats as companions, and male fantasies of witches. Especially endangered (and still in danger) are black cats. The cats’ pigment system was another element that led to human cruelty in times or places where people find enjoyment in animal torture. I was roused to indignation on their behalf and getting a fuller picture of what lies behind 18th century and the kind of mass shooting of cats, throwing them from great heights recorded in the 19th century as well as by Doris Lessing. And the pictures unexplained by Bugler fall into place. I hope he traces the growth of decent behavior towards non-human animals across the 19th century. I have found talking to people today they resist the application of the word “persecution” to systematic cruelty towards cats. Throughout his book Morris uses this kind of language for not only cats but all the animals he includes: mostly domesticated, for his topic is human relationships with cats as revealed in pictures.


Paul Gaugin’s Mimi and her cat (1890)

He shows how expensive cats are the ones most painted with super-rich people in the 19th century. He is tracing art movements, and it’s telling that impressionism consciously focuses on moods of cats, their relationship to the world. The post-impressionistic yield surprises: I don’t know a number of these painters loved cats. There is a painting Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets to a gay young man may be addressed) while in prison with his cat Trixie nearby; they have the same expression. Morris describes all the cats carefully — he gives In choosing non-realistic images he is wonderfully intuitive about what speaks to us, giving them equal importance with any human animal, aware they too have a burden of existence too. I wish I could scan in them all — but you must buy and then love and savor this piece of cat literature.


Bunny and Kipper by Beryl Cook

I have too many books to talk of so now must be content now to cite but a few more of the best: by a professional vet: Nicholas Dodman, The Cat Who Cried for Help (the obtuse cruelty of owners is chilling, one removed her cat’s voice-box because the sound of the crying grated on her nerves), about attitudes, emotions, psychology of cats; Jenni Diski begins and ends with her cat, Bundy, What I Don’t Know About Animals

She calls herself “post-domestic. ” A “domestic” life in animal studies means you grew up with working animals around you (cows, chickens, horses). So her first experience of animals includes watching her mother buy, cook and then serve a chicken for the family to eat. She says soon after she felt impelled to save a baby bird from a nest who was not grateful but terrified. The bird couldn’t understand what she was aiming at, could not trust, much less love her. The result was the poor bird hid behind the stove in their small kitchen where it was dangerous, and they had to pull it out by force. By the time they prodded it out, it was badly wounded; Jenny ended up wishing the bird would die immediately. The point was how vulnerable animals are to us in our habitats.


Rosa Brett, The Hayloft (1828-82), pre-Raphaelite artist

Most books about living with animals are by women, but this very good one A Cat is Watching is by Roger A Caras: his idea is to try to enable us to see how a cat sees us; this is an enjoyable and informative book filled with revealing photos of cats at play, eating, sleeping, frightened and many black-and-white drawings and illustrations. A wee bit dull in the writing, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Tribe of the Tiger has much to tell of the inward life of the whole tribe of cats. Different species brought together, cats in different milieus and a myriad of questions and tentative answers. I suggest Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room is a (morally stupid) book which pretends to be sympathetic to cats, and keeping animals as companions (pets) but is a stealth attack on cats as ruining our environment. Don’t be fooled. Rather like Kate Chisholm’s Hunger Games is a ferocious attack on anorexics by someone claiming to have been anorexic, Tucker pretends to be a cat lover while telling us all much that we believe about having a relationship with cats is a delusion. I know how Jane Goodall would reply.

To conclude, or as to cat poetry, don’t miss Stevie Smith’s Cats in Colour or Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats. This poem is from an anthology I bought as a memento from the Charlotte Smith conference (in a shop in Sussex), Cats: A Literary Anthology ed. Carolyn M. Jones (from medieval and Montaigne, to French and recent, to science, to comic chapters in novels)

Cats sleep anywhere
Any table, any chair,
Top of piano,
Window-ledge,
In the middle,
On the edge,
Open drawer,
Empty shoe,
Anybody’s lap will do,
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard
With your frocks–
Anywhere.
They don’t care!
Cats sleep anywhere.
— Eleanor Farjeon


Les Aristochats — popular French Cartoon

I collect books about and with images of cats, from Edward Gorey to Kliban cats to Susan Herbert’s quiet parodies of “great art” and famous scenes or photographes. Here’s Gene Kelly cat in Singing in the Rain:

This has ended up a cheerful blog.

Ellen

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