Campus Whits went to a screening at MOMA last week.  Canadian cinemaster Guy Maddin introduced a series of shorts made by Dziga Vertov, a 1920s avant-garde filmmaker who crafted collages of Worker and Peasant life after the Russian Revolution.  In Kino-Pravda No.22, a throng of Peasants lines up to spectate Vladimir Lenin’s Tomb, allowed into royal chambers which previously were the exclusive spaces of the Monarchy.

The Worker is an intellectual armed with the knowledge to farm and build machines.  The Worker is a speech-stumper, a friend to zoo animals, and often a smoker.

Instead of baptism, the Workers “Octoberize” their children, and instead of Jesus, they raise Lenin from the dead.

In 1969, Civil Rights activist and organizer James Forman issued the “Black Manifesto.”  Forman interrupted a church service at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan and fired off the text of the Manifesto.  Riverside Church is an ecumenical house of worship built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the late 1920s, just when Jr. was signing the lease on the land in midtown for Rockefeller Center.  Riverside Church claims to be the tallest in America, and in the belfry hangs what is said to be the largest tuned bell in the world.  Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War at Riverside a year before his assassination.  The Church is right down the block from Grant’s Tomb, where lay the General who won the War of Rebellion in 1865, ending slavery in the United States.  In 2011, at the 150th anniversary of the War’s inception, the promenade before Grant’s Tomb serves as a meeting place for weekend unicyclers, whereas 100 years ago the bustling crowds equaled the magnitude of those in Red Square for Vertov’s Kino-Pravda.

The Black Manifesto called for Christian churches and Jewish synagogues nationwide to pay $500 million in reparations for slavery.  Forman, with wry militancy, estimates the cost at “15 dollars per nigger.”  Black Americans, disenfranchised since 1619 at Jamestown, VA., “have helped to build the most industrial country in the world.”  Backed by the National Black Economic Development Conference, Forman indicts the Judeo-Christian complex as culpable agents in the suppression of blacks in Africa and America.  Forman details a budget plan for the money, including a Southern land bank, a publishing and printing firm, and a National Black Labor Strike and Defense Fund.

In Kino-Pravda No.22, the Worker is sublimated as the educator of the Peasant.

Likewise, the Black Manifesto will form training centers in research and “futuristic” audio/visual communications skills, and calls “upon all our brothers and sisters” who can teach subjects like engineering, electronics, physics and military science.  Hope and faith lie in the brain and the hands.  Nonviolence is asked of the churches and synagogues, but Forman asserts “we have been dying too long for this country,” and that “the new black man… must not… merely believe in self-defense.”

Read the full text of the Black Manifesto at the New York Review of Books, where it was published July 10, 1969, the Summer of Love.

There is something disingenuous about Vertov’s lionization of Vlad Lenin.  Marxist ideology promotes the group over the individual.  All the Workers and Peasants are bewhiskered and dress in dark wool, and uniformed officers are shown to step in time before the Kremlin.  It would seem, to keep with the program of mass consciousness, that Lenin should be read, quoted, put into action, rather than exhibited as if in The Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, MI.

Vertov shows the iron pail Lenin used to cook with while in hiding, like any presidential Americana artifact.

Contents of Abe Lincoln’s pockets at Ford’s Theater:

In James Forman’s 500-plus page memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman describes his work as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which agitated for the voting rights of black communities in the South persecuted by white vigilantes, like Public Safety warlord “Bull” Connor in Birmingham, AL.  Forman stresses that all his acts support the group, otherwise the Movement fails, and he criticizes the NAACP and SCLC as victims of self-aggrandizement and pandering to the Justice Department.  “We were not spokesmen, interpreters, or philosophers.  We existed to serve the field.”  Forman’s memoir is layered with oral histories, sworn Affidavits, prison journals, unpublished manuscripts, and many more textual voices of fellow actors in the Movement.  A similar palimpsest of text is found in the FBI file on Forman, where memos, literary excerpts, informant summaries and redacted medical records are assembled and indexed to portray the individual.  The FBI opened a file on the Black Economic Development Conference, and cast the BEDC’s demand for slavery reparations as a crime of extortion against religious groups.

In 1832, a congregation of black Protestants incorporated St. Peter’s Church in Brooklyn Heights.  At the time, five years after New York State abolished slavery, oppressed free blacks could use “the legal commonplace of a certificate of incorporation” to claim “the rights of citizenship regardless of race” and assert “equal rights under the law.”  Read a revealing article by Larry Weimer, project archivist at the Brooklyn Historical Society, on the early leap in civil rights which incorporation laws afforded blacks in Brooklyn, one year after Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion in Virginia.

The MOMA screening opened with a short movie by Guy Maddin, The Heart of the World, which dramatizes the creation myth of cinema as a cataclysmic sci-fi newsreel romance… watch its whipcracking six minutes here.


April 19, 2011

I went to a book sale last week in NJ run by the College Women’s Club of Montclair, which raises money for ladies in need of it to go to college.  The elder ladies who staff the sale are commanding and chatty and niggling, and some are the type who scabrous vaudeville curmudgeon W.C. Fields made a career of lampooning, and who Ralph Kramden wanted to bang-zoom to the moon.  I’ve visited the sale these last few years, and cleaned up, and tho this year it was a bit thinner than others, I picked up a few things.

A crime novel from the 1980s about dirty real estate deals in Jersey City.  J.W. Rider is apparently a pseudonym of crime writer Shane Stevens.

… with a blurb by a trusted Jersey Tomato…

I found a memoir by an ex-priest who went to my high school in the 1950s, Seton Hall Prep, an all-boys Catholic school in North Jersey. Can’t wait to read this one.

The art of the library check-out stamp.

Some items I pulled from the James Forman Library, QC Special Collections.

Sal Vizzini, on the right, was a Federal agent who went undercover and made friends with Lucky Luciano.

Rights of Man

April 14, 2011

My last vacation was October 2006, when I visited my brother in Redondo Beach, CA for a month. It was my first time in Los Angeles, the Internal Combustion City, and I was totally into it and can’t wait to go back next time I get a month off.

A couple of nights before I left for back home, I spoke on the phone to my friend, Marty Reisman, a veteran table tennis champion and ping-pong hustler who spent his youth honing his skills in the pool halls of old Broadway.

Watch Marty break a cigarette in half with a sizzling forehand here.

Marty suggested that I contact his friend, Dexter Gray, who lives in the Hollywood Hills.  I waffled, stupidly, but took Marty up on the introduction, and Dexter was thrilled to have us.  Dexter is a virtuoso pianist, who played a legendary concert on the Great Wall of China.

We scheduled a time to come by Dexter’s place. Turned out we also promised a friend we would get him at the airport around the same time. “So, before we head to your mom’s, we’re gonna stop at my friend Marty’s friend Dexter’s place, okay?”

Dexter greeted us at the door in track pants and a leather jacket. His hoary blond hair fitfully swept to his shoulders, weathered by a life of music wrought and blast of his hands and mind.

Dexter lived in a Spanish revival house set lordly on the lower slope of Laurel Canyon. Dexter calls it the Holly Mont Castle, with a sign outside. The firebrand actress Barbara Stanwyck lived there in the 1930s, unhappily, with her first husband, Frank Fay.  Ghost-hunters have visited Holly Mont looking for spirits.  In the 60s the house was a scene for psych head bands like Buffalo Springfield.

Dexter showed us around.

A famous, unplayable piano.

Dexter had arranged a cozy viewing nook for Jesus.  The pianist explained that he wasn’t particularly religious, but one day when he ends up at the gates of Almighty, he can show the angels that he did his part.

He let us try on the jackets once worn by Liberace.

Dexter posed at the Marty Reisman shrine.

Dexter described to us the rejuvenation that possessed him after a recent near-death experience. Before we left, Dexter repeated what seemed to be his mantra: “The Unstoppable Force Meets the Immovable Object!” It was the first time I’d heard the phrase, and apparently its a saying.  Among others, The Joker says it to Batman at the end of the movie The Dark Knight.  It’s catchy.  No other than a binary universe.  Forces at odds make life.  Human history is the story of self-awareness, and the rights which may or not be given, are fought for. The brain negotiates truth against the powers who kill over power.  Those who cannot control themselves naturally move to control others.

In the 1960s, FBI agents visited the sites of protest and violence in the Deep South, but did not intervene, and instead took notes to record an account of the actions of individuals and groups getting their heads bashed in by rednecks.  James Forman, a revolutionary, and other veterans of the Civil Rights movement have published their own accounts, as counteragents of memory to the history told by the Justice Department.  As the FBI created  private files on figures in the Movement, it also investigated sicko members of the Ku Klux Klan.  J. Edgar Hoover believed he existed at some realizable point between the unstoppable force and the immovable object.

Watch a vintage example of James Forman on the soapbox here.

Norman Mailer took the quip as his pontificate’s pose each time he addressed the public when running for Mayor of New York City in 1969, as when Mailer & running mate Jimmy Breslin roiled the campus of Queens College.

(Norman Mailer & Jimmy Breslin speaking at Queens College, 1969, QC yearbook Silhouette).