For Mary, Tracey, and the two Catherines,
before and now, and for all who belong to them
The intellectual’s responsibility is the making of his own mind, I have often thought; and all other duties—to write, to teach, to protest—are self-chosen. Does it matter if people choose to see a film that treats an historical subject and betrays its most important facts, or see a film romance false to every intelligent definition of love; or read a book that panders to a desire for sexual arousal rather than a more multilayered text on a significant subject; or that political contradictions and also hopes are ignored? Maybe; or, maybe not. Yet, I find myself thinking often about the line from the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, “I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” How does one who is interested in abstract thought and aesthetic considerations and political philosophy respond to the sense that one’s concerns are neglected, or slandered, by others; and that something precious might be lost—and lost for people yet unborn? What are the images that distract one’s fellows? Who are their icons? What would one put in their place? Cave drawings, children’s sketches, paintings, photographs, sculptures, rumors, words, reputations, impressions, all count as forms of image; and an icon is an image invested with meaning, an image so important as to seem sacred; and below, almost from A to Z, is my current (Fall/Winter 2005) study of icons, an iconography, which includes films such as Aeon Flux, Boesman and Lena, Cape of Good Hope, Chronicles of Narnia, Cold Fever, The Dying Gaul, The Far Side of the Moon, The Fast Runner, Harry Potter, The Ice Harvest, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Libertine, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Prime, Rent, 66 Seasons, Syriana, and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, figures such as Josephine Baker, Roland Barthes, David Bowie, Common, Angela Davis, Percival Everett, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jordan, Sidney Poitier, Caetano Veloso, and Wittgenstein, and ideas that became public policy, such as the Great Society and the New Deal.
Aeon Flux is about a freedom fighter in a world of clones. Apparently there was widespread disease on earth and a scientist created a vaccine that saved lives but rendered people sterile—so he cloned them to reproduce the human race while he searched for a cure for sterility. What remains of humanity lives in a walled city of order and surveillance, but there are symptoms of disorder—dreams with unknown origins suggesting other lives and people suddenly disappearing. Aeon is assigned to murder the city’s leader, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas), the scientist who has cloned himself for generations, and she gets close to shooting him when he wistfully calls her Catherine, she senses something familiar about him, and she does not shoot. Aeon is briefly jailed, finds him again—they make love—and as everyone is under surveillance, his daillance with her is known and renders him a government traitor. There’s a palace coup, involving his brother (Jonny Lee Miller), who likes his own immortality and does not want a cure for the common sterility, and Aeon and Trevor are on the run. There’s not much here that is genuinely thrilling but the film looks very good and there are some nice details. Marbles that can be dropped along a path then gathered by sound are turned into a bomb. Grass with the sharpness of razor blades detour trespassers. A woman with two sets of hands, one pair where her feet would ordinarily be, is a formidable ally and enemy. But there is something lacking in spirit, and dispiriting, about the film—and that surprised me, as I read an interview with Sophie Okonedo who said she enjoyed making the film, so I thought it would be fun to watch. Okonedo plays a comrade of Aeon, who is played by Charlize Theron. Frances McDormand is a red-haired commander queen of the rebels: she gives her messages almost telepathically—people swallow or touch little balls and are taken—intellectually, spiritually—to a kind of white temple, where they communicate. Interesting looking stuff, and the cast is not bad, but there’s no great sense of purpose, drive, or excitement. (The production designer was Andrew McAlpine, the cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, and the director Karyn Kusama.) It might have helped if the story could have been made allegorical, symbolic. I recall telling someone, possibly clumsily, cruelly, that I thought most people are redundant; and now, just as clumsily and cruelly, or merely very clearly, I find myself thinking it’s true—and that it’s a sad thing to give up on human originality or its possibility. Despite its design, this film is not original, and its subject, human cloning, which has been in the news in the last several years—and which I imagine will take place, legally or illegally, in years to come—is an important one.
Edith Wharton, like other great nineteenth-century writers, wrote about individuals in a way that illuminated a whole society: the values that trapped her characters were conservative and formidable, though physical force was not used as a threat. Individuals shared the values that destroyed them. In her novel, strong>The Age of Innocence, which Martin Scorsese made into a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder in 1993, a man sacrifices a new, genuine, and scandalous love for an older, expected and respected one. Michelle Pfeiffer is interesting as her beauty is infused with distance, sensuality, and insecurity, and in the film she has entered into a bad European marriage, and upon her return to America she’s taken aback by how contained everyone’s emotions are—and she asks a question about that in a way that is both funny and wrenching. Is crying no longer allowed? I was surprised when I heard a couple of acquaintances say they expected more passion from the film—meaning sex—when I had thought the film full of passion, full of so much emotion and thought that at times it seemed Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer, as the unacceptable couple, could hardly breathe not to mention move.
Angels and Insects, a film based on a novel by A.S. Byatt (originally called Morpho Eugenia), with a screenplay by Philip Haas and Belinda Haas, directed by Philip Haas, is about a dark-haired scientist, William Adamson (actor Mark Rylance), who marries into a wealthy English family, the Alabasters (his wife is played by blonde Patsy Kensit), and, though he seems not to have as much love for his wife as he imagined he would—he seems to have more in common with a family acquaintance, Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas), who understands his study of nature and insects and engages him in conversation—he finds himself the father of many little blonde children. Doug Henshall plays the equally blond brother of the scientist’s wife, a man who pesters the female household help for sex; and the brother is a man whose arrogance, lust, and hatred are rooted in the questionable assurance of his class, and selfishness. The women in the film, particularly Patsy Kensit as the wife, wear some of the most beautiful and strangest costumes I’ve seen in a film. Angels and Insects, released in 1995, is about family and society, about science and sex, about romantic love and genuine companionship; and the story of the film, which I have merely suggested, contains a genuine shock when male prerogative shows itself large and unsheathed in this film.
“What would Chaplin’s films be without the figure of Charlie, or The Blue Angel without Marlene Dietrich, or The Champ without Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper? In the German and French versions of Anna Christie, three of the leading parts were played by other actors and even the director was changed, yet the film remained more or less what it was in the original. But had Greta Garbo been replaced, it would have been a totally different film. In this case therefore, we have indirect experimental proof that the leading actress was the main author of the film,” wrote Rudolf Arnheim in “Who is the Author of A Film” (1934), Film Essays and Criticism (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997; 68). Arnheim, Berlin-born in 1904, has had an extraordinary life: he was one of the early film critics, and has published a number of important books, including Radio published in 1936 and Art and Visual Perception published in 1954, and later Film as Art, The Genesis of a Painting, Toward a Psychology of Art, Visual Thinking, Entropy and Art, The Dynamics of Architectural Form, and then Parables of Sun Light: Observations on Psychology, the Arts, and the Rest published in 1989. What has most impressed me was his fight against film censorship in Germany and his critical comments about Hitler, comments made when it was a brave and important matter.
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 1993) might not be a bad place to start in the consideration of religion. A better read might be Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian (Routledge, 2004), in which the philosopher discusses the possibility of the existence of a divinity, including divinity as the cause of the world, a first cause that is rejected (if everything has a cause, a god has one too; however, the world itself seems as good a cause for man as any other). Russell notes that whereas human law is prescriptive, natural law is descriptive, requiring no legislator; and the argument of intelligent design makes little sense when one acknowledges the imperfection of the world and the inevitability of the death of mankind and the planet itself. Right and wrong are either independent absolutes, or subject to a god, and if subject to a god that god cannot be good but has a varied or amoral nature; and the lack of justice in the world refutes the belief in a just god. Russell concludes that people believe in a god as that is what they were taught. The atheist affirms the rigors of logic and the facts of science and accepts the finality of death; and says No to authority, divinity, magic, and the consolations and delusions of religion.
“The auteur theory, in emphasizing the director who takes over someone else’s script, has little to say about a director like myself, who writes, directs, and produces his own,” remarked Billy Wilder (1976), quoted in the Anatomy of Film (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005; 239).
I recall seeing a photograph of Josephine Baker in a newsmagazine from the 1970s, and enjoyed Diana Ross’s impersonation of her in the late 1970s television special “An Evening with Diana Ross.” I read a little about Josephine Baker over the years, even heard a little of her music; and in the 1990s, I saw Princess Tam-Tam on television, and found it very intriguing; and later David Kenny’s WBAI radio music program presented a lot of her music in one evening—and I found what I heard excellent, really beautiful. Josephine Baker (1906-1975), was born in St. Louis, Missouri, began work young and also married young, the first of several marriages, she toured doing comedy in the Unites States in 1919, and appeared in Shuffle Along, but her break came in Paris when she appeared, wearing nothing but a skirt and doing a savage dance, in La Revue Negre. Immensely popular, she appeared at the Follies-Bergere starring in La Folie du Jour. She made films: Siren of the Tropics, and Zou-Zou, and Princess Tam-Tam. Siren of the Tropics (1927), directed by Henri Etievant and Mario Nalpas, is a silent film about a young woman in the Antilles who meets and falls in love with a young Frenchman sent there on assignment; and she follows him to Paris, where she becomes a music hall performer and dances the Charleston (I haven’t seen the film so do not know from whom, in the film, she learns the dance). Zou-Zou (1934), directed by Marc Allegret, was about a singer who goes onstage when a star defects and herself becomes a star. Princess Tam-Tam (1935), directed by Edmond Greville, is about a shepherdess discovered in Tunisia by an aristocratic novelist and brought back to Paris, and presented as an Indian princess, and she is celebrated, but at an important event, when she hears the rhythm of the drums she begins a wild dance, revealing her true self. I recall watching it and thinking that many of its themes—such as the relation of city to country or civilization to nature, and the appeal of women (the known woman versus the unknown woman)—were the kinds of themes we were still very much dealing with in film and life. I thought the film exciting. When asked about Baker’s relation to Paris, Ean Wood, who wrote The Josephine Baker Story (Sanctuary, 2000), told online magazine Jerry Jazz Musician (March 2001), “She fell in love with the freedom she found there as a black woman. But she was also a massive success as a performer. Her near-nude erotic pas-de-deux (“Danse Sauvage”) that she performed in Caroline Dudley’s show—as well as her uninhibited Charleston—made her the talk of the town. She was invited to all the best parties, and found herself suddenly a celebrity among celebrities. Artists like Picasso painted her. Nobility socialized with her. Couturiers designed chic gowns for her. And she was now being seen as beautiful as well as amusing. She was having the time of her life. It’s no surprise she fell in love with the place.” Despite her success abroad, Baker was not well-received when she visited the United States in the mid-1930s. She returned to France, and participated in the Resistance against the Nazis, smuggling messages on her sheet music; and received honors for that. She adopted a “rainbow tribe” of children, an embodiment of her own view of the world, but one that also put her children on display. Baker, who had appeared on the podium at the end of the great march on Washington in 1963, performed a decade later at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and was, finally, warmly welcomed as a performer who had become an international icon. Josephine Baker embodied many things: beauty, black possibility, glamour, sex, travel, courage, generosity, and pride. She died in 1975 of a cerebral hemorrhage, a few days after a celebrated performance in Paris. Her funeral was well-attended, and she was given military honors in France, and she is buried in Monaco.
“Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is a song I first heard Roberta Flack do (First Take, 1969); and others have sung it—Rod McKuen, Shirley Bassey, Rickie Lee Jones, and Kurt Elling. Written by Thomas J. Wolf Jr. (music) and Frances Landesman (lyrics), it is poetic, possibly even self-consciously poetic enough to render its seriousness mute: and yet the image it offers is classic, of sensitive, lost young men, possibly lost because of their sensitivity: “All the sad young men, drifting through the town, drinking up the night, trying not to drown.” Towns and cities offer possibilities—aesthetic, emotional, sexual, social, professional—that can be overwhelming: attractive, and more difficult to fulfill than they at first seem. “All the sad young men, choking on their worth, trying to be brave, running from the truth. Autumn turns the leaves to gold. Slowly dies the heart. Sad young men are growing old, that’s the cruelest part.”
I was surprised to learn that the Sorbonne-educated Roland Barthes (1915-1980) had a rather impoverished childhood, though he grew up in a place in which he could see the bourgeois comforts of others. And I was surprised to learn that he had bouts of tuberculosis. Although vastly intelligent, his work has an elegance and lightness that could lead anyone to assume he had known no significant suffering, but then he was also a man who had said—mystifyingly, honestly—that writing could tell the truth about language but not about what is real. I remember seeing a bunch of Garbo films years ago with a woman I lived with—Camille, Anna Karenina, Queen Christina, Mata Hari, among them—and reading Barthes on Garbo: no one else had captured her so complexly, so well. Barthes said in his Mythologies that Garbo belonged to cinema when the face inspired ecstasy, and that Garbo’s face expressed a Platonic idea of humanity, embodying its own perfection, an intellectual beauty. Roland Barthes’s book Criticism and Truth is stimulating reading for a critic, but A Lover’s Discourse seduces: it describes—and dissects—romantic codes somehow without denouncing them; and it’s a beautiful book. I once told a male friend that I was reading it and thought of him, and he misunderstood me: he thought that I was thinking of him as a beloved (or desired) object, when I was thinking of him as the lover (the one who loves), as the type about whom this kind of book is about, as I did not think of myself as romantic—did not think that I had ever been in love: I thought that the language of love expressed not love but language. (It’s hard to communicate with people who know nothing about the philosophy of interpretation.)
Mikhail Baryshnikov’s performance in White Nights, the 1985 film in which he starred opposite Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini had pleased me, though I wasn’t as pleased by magazines that paired Baryyshnikov with Rossellini in their pages, as the couple in the film was made up of Rossellini and Hines. The film is about a Russian dancer who defected to the United States and unexpectedly finds himself back in Russia, where he meets a black American dancer who himself had defected to Russia: each had been attracted by what he’d heard about the other’s country. In film and in life, Baryshnikov seemed both fun-loving and intense, someone who belonged to a classical dance tradition, as a former member of the Kirov Ballet in Russia, and yet was open to popular culture. Baryshnikov became a member of the American Ballet Theatre in 1974, appeared in the film The Turning Point in 1977, joined the New York City Ballet (Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins) in 1978, and would appear in the films Dancers, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, and Company Business. Mikhail Baryshnikov was a co-founder, with Mark Morris, of the White Oak Dance Project, a modern dance company. Most recently he announced the establishment of an arts center in Manhattan that would include dance, film, theater, and other creative disciplines: a center that would exemplify and facilitate the creative possibilities of Manhattan.
I am not a connoisseur of classical music, but I have liked Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Janacek, and Schoenberg, and there are certain singers I do listen to. I cannot remember the extent of my familiarity with Kathleen Battle, a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, before she was dismissed from the Metropolitan Opera for her behavior (“unprofessional actions,” according to Met administrator Joseph Volpe), but I do recall a Vanity Fair article about Battle that discussed her behavior—such as coming late to rehearsal, removing the costumes of another performer from her sight—and possible motivation—insecurity? or egotism? (it is fascinating that someone’s motivations can be thought so divergent by speculators: how little we know of others)—and Kathleen Battle immediately had my sympathy, and I purchased some of her recordings. Battle is known for performing not only opera, but also Baroque and sacred music, jazz, spirituals, and work especially composed for her. I have Baroque Duet (with Wynton Marsalis), So Many Stars, Honey and Rue, and Spirituals in Concert. Did I, an atheist, have the 1991 Spirituals in Concert duet album featuring Battle and Jessye Norman before the controversy, after seeing them, as I did, on television together? I do not remember—I do know that Battle took up space in my mind after the controversy: I thought about the fragility of artists, the willful dynamism required of stage performers, and the complexities of being black when I thought of her. On the duet album with Norman, they sing the spiritual “Scandalize My Name”…
I winced when I read an interview with actor Wesley Snipes in which he disparaged his own looks, as Snipes—whose work I found fascinating in Mo’ Better Blues, New Jack City, One Night Stand, and the Blade vampire series—was someone I thought of as an attractive man. Male beauty is as various as female beauty, though that’s not always acknowledged, especially regarding men of color. A new book of photographs, More Body, More Soul: Beautiful Black Men, edited by Duane Thomas and published (November 2005) by Universe, has arrived and features Lenny Kravitz on the cover and Eric Benet, Terrence Howard, Will Smith, Karl Malone, Wynton Marsalis, Usher, Gary Dourdan, Don Cheadle, Kanye West, Mekhi Phifer, Vin Diesel, Lebron James, Allen Iverson and more, photographed by well-known photographers, with some of the captions celebrating the men given by equally celebrated women. The comments by women seem intended to invoke a heterosexual appreciation for what might otherwise be taken as sublimely homoerotic—all these photographs of men one after the other, one next to the other. (The book works as a refutation of the presentation of black men as merely aesthetic objects and sexual tools in the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I recall that when poet Essex Hemphill criticized Mapplethorpe’s use of black men, writer Edmund White ignobly questioned his right to do so.) The More Body, More Soul men, most of them accomplished in their fields, are obviously not only one type with only one function; and they appear in suits, and casual but stylish wear, gym clothes, bathing suits, and nude, looking sexual, confrontational, sad, humorous, untrusting, intimate, and professional: a broad field of handsome humanity.
I first read John Berger about twenty-five years ago. His About Looking (Pantheon, 1980)—along with books by James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Joan Didion, Foucault, Freud, R.D. Laing, Nietzsche, Adrienne Rich, and others—was one of my defining texts. Berger looked hard at both art and social phenomena and saw histories of impulse, necessity, and relationships behind the images he viewed. He understood that certain kinds of content made particular forms necessary or useless: and that some artists consciously and instinctively know that and choose to allow the expression of their content to shape the form of their work.
The sexual urge may be natural but sexuality is not: sexuality is as much a construction as a house, and is infused with the received associations, habits, permissions, and taboos without which it would have no structure. The bisexual person, like the person who is biracial or bilingual, frustrates simple categories and expectations: this is a figure who has access to more than one experience, to more than one culture, something that subverts the idea that selves are simple and that experiences and cultures must be in conflict—and that conflict is a state of nature. Famous bisexuals include Socrates, Alexander the Great, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Verlaine, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Thomas Mann, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Leonard Bernstein, Tom Robinson, and Meshell Ndegeochello. There are two genders and at least three sexual possibilities. A History of Bisexuality by Steven Angelides (University of Chicago Press, 2001), and Current Research on Bisexuality, edited by Ronald C. Fox (Harrington Park Press, 2004), along with Marjorie Garber’s astute, comprehensive, and entertaining Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995) are terrific resources for people who prefer facts to gossip or suspicion. Heterosexuality and homosexuality might be seen as idealizations of desire or considered rigid forms of sexual immaturity: consequently, bisexual persons are slandered so that they might not be used as a standard by which to judge those who insist on easy identifications and conflict. To be bisexual is not only to embody the possibility of liberated desire but also the possibility of unlimited love. It is to make one’s response to the world very personal—full of imagination, sympathy, sensuality.
About the film Boesman and Lena, starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, for the November 2000 Spirituality and Health, wrote in an online review (that seems to have been amended slightly upon the May 2001 release of the digital video disc): “Athol Fugard’s play, which was presented on Broadway in 1970 starring James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, has been made into a rigorous film adapted and directed by John Berry. It ambitiously delves into heady matters such as freedom and truth while also probing the loneliness, loss, and bigotry of two down-and-out Africans living under apartheid in South Africa.” I had seen the film during its brief run in Manhattan—if I recall, it was shown at Lincoln Plaza, near Lincoln Center. The film opened in early November 2000 and was shown at only about eight theaters nationally, and closed December 21, 2000; and was reported to have made less than fifty thousand dollars; and was released on digital video discs in May 2001. I told a friend that it was a film that more people should see, though I knew that a film about homeless South Africans did not sound like a delightful time. A. O. Scott reviewed the film (New York Times, September 23, 2000) during its appearance at the New York Film Festival, and said that the director John Berry “a survivor of the Hollywood blacklist who died just as work on the film was being completed, uses the natural luminescence of his stars to emphasize just how cruel the couple’s fate has been and also to bring a measure of cinematic life to Mr. Fugard’s somewhat wordy allegorical play.” (Did I see this English-language film, financed in France and distributed by Kino in New York, at the festival at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall? I don’t think so.) I did not find Boesman and Lena too wordy, or distractingly allegorical—but then I expect intelligence and meaning, and even imagination, in conversation and in art. I thought Boesman and Lena was a film for which Angela Bassett should have received the highest commendations; and I admired Danny Glover’s performance. “Together, they set off sparks. Both belong to that rare breed of actor, the kind possessing an intellectual ferocity to match the physical one,” David Ng wrote, when reviewing the film in connection with the film festival, for the online Images film journal. Angela Bassett has been acclaimed a great actress; and she has appeared in Passion Fish, Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Strange Days, Waiting to Exhale, Contact, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Score, Sunshine State, and Mr. 3000—and while I admire and like her performances in several of these films, especially in Malcolm X, What’s Love, and Strange Days—I do not think Angela Bassett has been better than she is in Boesman and Lena. It’s a crying shame that more people haven’t seen the film. Some of the reviews were dismissive, making the film sound like work to watch: I thought the film full of fact, feeling, and understanding: and consequently rewarding. The matter raises many questions—among them, if a black actress’s best work can occur only when exploring black experience, and, if black experience is so distinct, and sometimes so painful, that when presented in art it doesn’t attract an audience, how can one know or measure that actress’s artistry? As the Brussats note, the film follows the bulldozing of the ramshackle home of Boesman (Glover) and Lena (Bassett), and their homeless trek, during which we see some of their memories—not all of which are bitter (they made a real home early in their time together, despite the viciousness of the imposed poverty of apartheid), but as time has gone on Boesman has become abusive and Lena seems disturbed. Lena may say that Boesman’s heart has dried up, but her attempts to keep her own heart alive seems to have kept her open to pain—and her openness and her pain seem to be what Boesman strikes out against. The Brussats say, “Boesman and Lena plumbs the anger, regret, low self-esteem, and self-destructiveness that often accompany poverty and homelessness. This story, although set in South Africa, could be told of millions of other couples all over the world.” How can we know that if we refuse to see?
I tend to think of David Bowie as a kind of ideal—smart, creative, elegant, popular. Bowie has appeared in the films The Man Who Fell to Earth, Just a Gigolo, The Hunger, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, Labyrinth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Linguini Incident, Basquiat, and Mr. Rice’s Secret. It has been reported that he might appear as Serbian-American inventor and poet Nikola Tesla in a film by Christopher Nolan. And of course he has made some great music. David Bowie seems a master of creative self-renewal. Whether he draws inspiration from established or new artists or his own past work, from painting or theater or books, he seems to grasp idea and mystery—stimulus for mind and spirit. Bowie’s albums include Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Pin Ups, Young Americans, Heroes, Low, Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Hours, Reality. Bowie’s The Singles 1969-1993 (Rykodisc, 1993) demonstrates his thematic and musical range: the technological advance and loneliness evident in “Space Oddity,” the mercurial nature—nearly the fictive aspects—of life and history, leading to a kind of philosophical montage of possibilities in “Life on Mars?” and the sexual openness, jealousy and temptation suggested by “John, I’m Only Dancing,” and the dark dreaminess of “Sorrow,” one of the simplest and most effective of Bowie’s songs. Bowie imagined the burlesque of gender and the social consternation it produces in “Rebel Rebel” before these perceptions became common. His “Young Americans,” “Fame,” and “Golden Years” were a trio of popular songs that sounded not at all alike. “Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” he asked in “Sound and Vision.” There’s a cuteness in “Under Pressure” that little of his work or that of the band Queen had before they worked together. “Let’s Dance” is one of the most restrained invitations imaginable, yet it has a deep, cold seduction, drawing one into the serious moonlight. It reminds me that someone I knew, an Asian man with a wife, told me he found Bowie’s voice very sexual. I always liked “China Girl” for Bowie’s tone—somehow light but with an almost sinister insinuation (he sounds analytical and possessed). My favorite of his albums are Heroes, Low, Black Tie White Noise, and Outside.
Writer, composer, and expatriate Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is a model of a man who pursued an individual life: Bowles was born in Jamaica, Queens, and died in Tangier; and the life he led in between is nearly a myth. He went to Europe first in 1929, though he would return to work in New York, including composing music for Orson Welles theater projects, and would marry Jane Auer in 1938 (while devoted to each other, they both were reported to have same-sex lovers). Bowles wrote music for more than thirty shows, and also did music criticism for The New York Herald Tribune. He went to Morocco in 1947, and began working on his novel, The Sheltering Sky, which was filmed and released by Bertolucci in 1990. Bowles’ published letters are great—caring, intelligent, stimulating. Through the years Bowles knew and sometimes worked with many people considered interesting to know: Aaron Copland, Gertrude Stein, Claude McKay, Auden, William Burroughs, some of which is noted in his biography Without Stopping, but until today most of his renown is a result of his distinctive short stories, which are often the calmest delineations of extreme, sometimes perverse, psychic states occurring on intriguing but indifferent landscapes (I seem to recall one story about a father seduced by his son).
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