Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Gone with the Fiddler: From the Front to Joan of Arc

“Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” 
Walker Percy

            I always loved this line from the Moviegoer by Walker Percy.  A southern writer fallen from god, only to have the movies catch him, I could not help but relate.  Growing up in the South, the movies were the world which connected the wanderlust with the everyday.  The movies were a way to stay connected with something far larger than one’s self.  They were a way to transform the everyday into something magical, a least for a little while, as Woody Allen reminds us in the Purple Rose of Cairo.  Religions have words for this kind of thinking.  All of the mysteries of life can be found in the movies.  It’s a line repeated throughout the history of cinema.  We hear it over and over.  And certainly, there are any number of terrible movies out these days.  But there are also the movies we turn to each year like old friends, or lingering maladies. Myths of eternal return take any number of forms, including as films.   I certainly have my yearly favorites, which connect my life with all the places I have been and hopefully will be.  Each New Years I watch Gone with the Wind and Fiddler on the Roof, connecting my life with a thousand memories of what is wrong with the South, the struggle for something else, the loss of a home, and the hope that maybe tomorrow really will bring something better.  “As God as my witness… I’m going to survive this and when its all over, I will never be hungry again,” declares Scarlett O’Hara, picking herself up off the ground as the camera fades back showing the red sky on the movie stage. “If I have to lie, cheat or steal, I will never be hungry again.”  I am moved every year I watch.  I am also repulsed to think about my Southern family and its part of this terrible legacy.  But this is what remembering is all about.
It is also what Gone with the Fiddler is all about.  Caroline get the idea started when she posted on facebook that it must be new years because we’re watching Gone with the Wind and Fiddler.  Over the years, I used to watch Bowl Games on January 1st, but then the BCS changed the system from a one day feast capped with a national champion, to a three week spread of bowl games.  I lost interest and started going to the St Mark’s Church Poetry jam or Hoppin’ John parties and watching movies on January 2.  The first year or two, we just watched Fiddler and Gone with the Wind.  Last year, we added a crawfish etouffett, followed by  History of the World and Decline of Western Civilization, ending with Fritz Lang’s M.   And the film served as a preview for a new book.
Like every year, the event serves as the end of the holidays.  They usually start with our RTS holiday party at the end of December, which began as activists did jail support during the RTS Buy Nothing Day Action of November 1999 before Seattle.  Over those years, the same group of people have morphed with the movements they have supported, shifting from global justice to peace after 9/11 and public space, civil liberties, the environment, and eventually back to Wall Street where Reclaim the Streets started its third action in New York, beginning in Zuccotti Park in June of 1999.  This year, we were not able to meet at Life Cafe as we had over the previous decade.  It was shuttered by repair costs after Irene.  Instead, we met at Blue and Gold Bar in the East Village.  Friends from Times Up, Reclaim the Streets, Lower East Side Collective, the Absurd Response to an Absurd War, Radical Homosexual Agenda, and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) dropped by for hours of connecting, sharing stories, reveling in what a year we had had and making plans for the year ahead.  Many from OWS arrived after their general assembly.   I learned a long time ago in organizing, there are times when people who will not go to a meeting will go to a bar.  For better or worse, it is a lesson worth paying attention to if one wants to hear what is really going on with people and connect with those active and inactive in movements. 
Gone with the Fiddler is a far smaller affair, a time for longer conversations.  This year, the lineup war far more complicated.  Earlier in the year I had read the biography of New York activist Vito Russo, whose Gay Activist Alliance movie nights at the firehouse were the stuff of activist legend.  They were also the source for his work, the Celluloid Closet.   Larry agreed to help me curate the affair.  We started with “everybody needs a maid” from Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Zero Mostel, an icon of Gone with the Fiddler.  Building on the silly spirit of the evening, Caroline popped in one of our favorite contemporary scenes from recent movies, when Will Ferrell is forced to justify his decision to pray for the baby Jesus as opposed to older bearded adult Jesus in Talladega Nights.  Will Ferrell prays: "dear tiny Jesus, with your golden, fleece diapers,   with your tiny little fat balled up fist ..."  When reminded JC was also a grown man with a beard, he retorts, "... look, I like the baby version the best, do you hear me?"  Building on the Borscht-Belt humor, we followed with Bananas.  This early Woody Allen gym is a favorite for so many reasons, not the least of which is the silly send up of the activist willing to go to any length to show he’s committed enough to get some action from a young revolutionary, whose many assets had inspired him to join the fold in the first place.  Howard Cosell's commentary of the murder of a Latin American leader is both twisted and hilarious. From gallows humor, we shifted to Herschel Bernadi’s The Front, starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel.  After being blacklisted, Heckey is driven to jump out a window.  Allen is called to testify at by the House on Un American Activities Committee.  The beauty of the movies is one can say what one probably would not have said in real life.  Bretolt Brecht famously jousted with the HUAC hearings, as many did. He joked about language, meanings, translations, and the very nature of revolution.   Watching the old reels of this testimony, its amazing that he was able to inspire laughter, a testament to the subversive capacity of humor.   Of course, the Allen character in the front faced far less real life consequences when he told the committee that they could “go fuck themselves” before being lead off to jail.  
            We had debated what to show after this, favoring the Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a useful link to the 1950’s cold war hysteria of the era.  This undercurrent of fear followed into our next pick, the atmospheric opening scene of Twin Peaks. Neither worked as well in the group setting.
What did work were the sci-fi flicks on deck. We followed with Ridley Scott’s  Alien and Blade Runner, two of the my favorite sci-fi films.  Larry wonderfully set the scene for the clips.  I had never imagine Alien as an anti corporate film.  Blade Runner is perhaps the most beautiful film I know.  The Rutger Howard final soliloquy as he runs out of time speaks why it is that we would be well advised to live as well as we possibly can live and what it is we can do with these short few years we have. 

The science fiction films of this era, starting with 2001, then Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner, they are some of the most compelling of stories I know.  They still tell us who we are, what we struggle with, and hope to be. 
            They are also visual poems.  Just as we finished with M, the year before, we concluded with a silent film this year.  Caroline pulled out Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, the remake of the 1920’s silent film.  Watching the trial, the white faces rail against the Arc, I saw the injustice of HUAC as part of a far larger story of human cruelty. 
Finishing the movies, we sat to chat, clean the dishes and make plans for future conversations.  We’re glad you are here 2012.  Welcome. 

Finishing 2011, our stories were connected into something global, from the Arab Spring to the European Summer and the US Fall.  Colin Robinson, who helped us published ACT UP to the WTO, felt compelled to bring the story of OWS from the ground to history last fall.  This year, his labors and the labors of the sixty authors, including myself, crazy enough to take part, have become part of a new book on the early history of the movement.   History moves as we walk and sleep, often in odd ways.  Sometimes its important just to get it down, even as it is moving and eluding us.    

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