Friday, September 25, 2015

[Book Review] A Detroit Anthology

A Detroit Anthology (2014)
Edited by Anna Clark
Featuring essays, photographs, art, and poetry by Grace Lee Boggs, John Carlisle, Desiree Cooper, dream hampton, Steve Hughes, Jamaal May, Tracie McMillan, Marsha Music, Shaka Senghor, Thomas J. Sugrue, and many others.

Named a Notable Book of 2015 by The Library of Michigan

"I see a bunch of regular-ass people doing regular-ass shit because Detroit is a regular-ass city with regular-ass problems just like everyone else. Which is why I wholeheartedly believe that Detroit will be just fine."
—"We Love Detroit; Even If You Don't," by Aaron Foley

Despite having lived adjacent to the Motor City for virtually all of my formative years, I realized recently that I knew next to nothing about Detroit. Sure, I'd been to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village on field trips, and I had been to Greektown many times with my family, but I was ashamed and a little dismayed to realize that even in my late twenties I still knew almost nothing about the city's history or culture. It never even occurred to me to ask why the city seemed so empty and blighted; as a kid, I just assumed that all major cities consisted of central hubs ringed by miles of empty structures and blight.

So I've taken it upon myself to start learning more about the Motor City and its geography, history, culture, and people. After a quick crash-course in local history (I highly recommend Scott Martelle's Detroit: A Biography for a handy overview of the city's three centuries of colorful existence), I decided to launch right into discovering what it's like to actually live in a city which most Americans view with a complex mixture of disgust, pity, and fear.

Right from the Introduction, the editor remarks that "[e]ven local writers often pen stories that are meant to explain Detroit to those who live elsewhere." This is not one of those books: it's full of art by Detroiters, about Detroit and for Detroit(ers).

Not all of the entries are stories, either. There seems to be a roughly-even split between prose, poetry, and black-and-white photography. I was glad to see, however, that this is not a coffee-table anthology of schadenfreude-laced ruin porn; with the exception of two mandatory shots of the G.A.R. Building and a certain baroque parking garage, there are no images of abandoned structures in this anthology. What the editor chooses to focus on instead is the 713,000 residents who still call Detroit their home, and are living with the fallout from all those highly-photogenic ruins. This is not a rose-colored view of a city on the rebound, but it doesn't wallow in loss either. There are a few shots of the poor and the homeless, yes, but there are a far greater number of shots of everyday Detroiters doing everyday things, like fishing on Belle Isle, tending community gardens, children blowing bubbles at Hart Plaza, people waiting for buses, and one particularly delightful image of a twentysomething electronica fan doing what appears to be the Twist at an outdoor music festival, opposite a small girl in a sundress who is zealously imitating his dance moves. In short: the normality which can still be found in what is arguably one of the least-normal cities in America.

I'll admit I'm not much of a poet, or a critic thereof, and as a result much of the poetry in this anthology left me more confused than moved. I'm willing to chalk this up to unfamiliarity with the form, though quite a few of them left an impression on me. Some of them left me more with a vague sense of emotion formed by a string of seemingly disconnected words (most of them negative), though several (such as "Infernal" by Tyehimba Jess and "what you'd find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school (detroit, michigan)" by francine j. harris [name in lowercase by choice]) were quite profoundly moving.

For me, as a writer who works primarily in prose, the main point of this anthology was the narratives about living in (or surviving) Detroit. Some of these stories are funny. Most are poignant and sad. Many are shocking, or angry and defiant. All of them are true and, by virtue of that truth, incredibly raw. Take for instance "The Imam I Knew", in which Omar Syed Mahmood recounts a side of the now-infamous Imam Luqman which the papers failed to mention: a man who was willing to dig into his own family's winter food-budget so that other families in his flock would not go hungry during Ramadan. In "The Fixer" by John Carlisle, one man runs an unregistered lawnmower-repair business out of a parking lot next to the abandoned shop he hopes to buy someday, waiting patiently for the day when it will go into tax lien and he can snap it up, and watching helplessly as scrappers dismantle the property which he does not yet own.

Reading this anthology will give you a picture of Detroit which is often glossed over in mainstream media, which is replete with head-shaking, finger-wagging sermons about the death of the American Dream, as embodied by the Motor City. A Detroit Anthology reminds us that the city is still very much alive, thank-you-very-much, and to mourn it while it still lives is a disservice to all the human beings who are still trying to make their way in a city which the rest of the world has already written-off. This anthology seeks to un-write, to rewrite that dismissal, and show that the city's motto is just as relevant and necessary and true as it's ever been: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus ("We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes").

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Director/Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh

The very first line line of spoken dialogue in this movie comes from a young boy, asking "Can I have some money?" Which is highly appropriate, because the director took mine. Or rather, she would have, if I had followed my initial impulse to see it in theaters instead of waiting for it to be available at the library. If I'd wasted both an evening and my money I would be quite put out, but since as it turned out I only lost 99 minutes I can't be too upset with myself.

I could easily imagine shots from A Girl Walks Home being used as the backdrop for an episode of a prime-time family sitcom. You know the episode: the wife wants to go see the new art-house film at the Historic Downtown Theatre, but her blue-collar husband doesn't like foreign movies. But not wanting to appear uncultured or xenophobic, he pays for their tickets anyway, and we get to watch him squirm in his chair as his every fear is proven right and made painfully, inescapably real. It could almost be funny, except the only genuinely funny thing in this entire movie is one brief shot of a young female vampire riding a skateboard while wearing a chador.


It feels almost like the director was trying to collect every negative stereotype of foreign films in one place. For starters, Girl is an ultra-low-budget affair, and filmed entirely in black-and-white. There are subtitles (the dialogue is all in Farsi, even though it was filmed in California). All the characters are either shallow assholes, depressed and listless, slowly losing their youth, drowning in existential ennui, dying of terminal illnesses, or already dead. The scenery is all rusting industrial complexes, deserted city streets, or squalid apartments. Not a single person in this movie is enjoying themselves, not even the vampire.

Dialogue is delivered laconically, in one- or two-word statements interspersed with several seconds of painfully awkward silence to space them out. At one point, the leading male ("Arash") makes out with the titular girl in her subterranean apartment (to the lively tune of Death by The White Lies), but the director manages to make three actions (the girl puts on a record, turns around, then they make out) take what I think was the entire five minutes that the song lasts. I get that one of the participants in this makeout session has literally all the time in the world, but there is just no way that any teenage boy could delay gratification for that long. It feels like the director found what she knew, just knew was the absolute perfect song to go with this scene, but she didn't have enough dialogue to fill  the scene and couldn't afford to bay the band to shorten it, so she just told her actors to do everything with excruciating slowness to kill time, so their actions sync up with the song.

While it's true that many real-life conversations do contain a lot more silence that we realize, the reason movies are interesting is because they cut that stuff out: they condense life into a faster-paced, better-edited version of itself.

Despite the agonizing length of this movie, almost none of that time is used to fill us in on the backstory or to give context. Near the end of the very first, scene, Arash walks past what appears to be a drainage ditch full of human bodies. This is never explained, mentioned, or commented-upon by any of the characters, not even news or radio anchors heard in passing. Except for one shot in Act III where there are a larger number of bodies in the same ditch, and one additional body is being tossed unceremoniously into it.

Girl is full of non-sequiturs, loose ends, and the unexplained. For example, the transition between Acts II and III is a two-minute sequence of a drag queen in a black cowboy-shirt ballroom dancing with a Mylar balloon in an empty, abandoned courtyard. Just like the ditch-full-of-bodies from earlier, this is also never explained, commented-upon or explored, and the drag queen is never seen or alluded to again.

This was your cue to run, bro, not to erotically stick your finger in her mouth. What did you think was going to happen?

The posters and flyers all billed this movie as "[t]he first Iranian Vampire Western ever made," but being filmed in California, even the dusty part, does not a Western make. Girl does not exist within the milieu of the Western genre; if Girl is a Western, then so is Bad Santa, which at least is set in Phoenix, AZ and featured a bank robbery (of sorts). I suspect the director was afraid that people wouldn't pay to see an Iranian-American vampire movie, so she tacked-on "Western" in a bid to make people curious and sell more tickets. And I suppose it worked, after a fashion, since I got suckered into watching it.

I went into this movie thinking that I might broaden my horizons a little, but all I got out of it was a powerful aversion to art-house films. Which is not quite the learning experience I had in mind.