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Tag: jonathan lethem

Doing it to Death

In case you’ve never read it, here is Jonathan Lethem’s long 2006 James Brown profile for Rolling Stone:

To be in the audience when James Brown commences the James Brown Show is to have felt oneself engulfed in a kind of feast of adoration and astonishment, a ritual invocation, one comparable, I’d imagine, to certain ceremonies known to the Mayan peoples, wherein a human person is radiantly costumed and then beheld in lieu of the appearance of a Sun God upon the Earth. For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest glances and tiny flickers of signal from his hands; to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished; to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body — and is, thereupon, in an act of seeming mercy, draped in the cape of his infirmity; to then see him recover and thrive — shrugging free of the cape — as he basks in the healing regard of an audience now melded into a single passionate body by the stroking and thrumming of his ceaseless cavalcade of impossibly danceable smash Number One hits, is not to see: It is to behold.

The James Brown Show is both an enactment — an unlikely conjuration in the present moment of an alternate reality, one that dissipates into the air and can never be recovered — and at the same time a re-enactment: the ritual celebration of an enshrined historical victory, a battle won long ago, against forces difficult to name — funklessness? — yet whose vanquishing seems to have been so utterly crucial that it requires incessant restaging in a triumphalist ceremony. The show exists on a continuum, the link between ebullient big-band “clown” jazz showmen like Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan and the pornographic parade of a full-bore Prince concert. It is a glimpse of another world, even if only one being routinely dwells there, and his name is James Brown. To have glimpsed him there, dwelling in his world, is a privilege. James Brown is not a statue, no. But the James Brown Show is a monument, one unveiled at select intervals.

For more on James Brown, check out this piece by Chairman Mao.

[Painting by Ben Harley]

Afternoon Art


Over at The Atlantic, check out this commentary about the difference between comic books and comic book movies from Jonathan Lethem (something I’ve been thinking about with the Tintin movie coming out soon):

The movies insist on transforming a form into another form, and yet the results fall into a hideous void between them. The mystery of the evocativeness of a comic book panel, the stillness-in-action, and the secret silence of the gutter between the two panels, is something that’s just fundamentally inaccessible to film.

The nearest I’ve ever seen to someone really reaching for that was that really aggressive and sort of horrible Frank Miller movie, Sin City. Which was still compelling because they seemed to be aware of the problem, and were trying to seize control of it. But it’s a little bit like, playing rock and roll on a harp or something. Movies are actually a very, very poor fit for the comic aesthetic.

The entrancement of film is that the reading protocols are invisible. You give yourself to a film, ideally, in a gigantic darkened auditorium: and it washes over you. It makes its own reality inevitable. And you don’t have to ever think about your efforts in reading or constructing it. You can’t slow or speed up that experience (I mean, now technically you can, but you don’t want to, you want to succumb). It masters you totally.

The seduction of a comic is secretly the exact opposite. People don’t think about it, but you learn to read a comic book. It’s a very complicated reading protocol. A very active one. It’s like you’re in a damp world and you have to keep striking matches to light it up. You’re constantly working to decide—do I read the words in the panel, do I read the word in the box at the top, do I look at the picture, do I skip ahead and look at where the pictures are going to go later on, do I do it fast, do I do it slow, do I read every word, do I mainly see it? What am I doing here? You’re always deciding how to make the narrative come alive. It’s actually a much more complicated form of reading than reading text! Because you’re making these switches from the visual to the verbal. So one is a completely globally active reading protocol, and the other is this sublime, passive dreamlike surrender. And I don’t think you can ever get from one to the other. They’re almost opposite ends of the aesthetic experience.

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