January 17, 2019
Barry Jenkins’ latest is a powerful art film. I specify “art film” because, at the beginning, I was put off by its lack of naturalism. The two young stars are too quiet and stare too much; they don’t come across as real people walking the streets—a complaint I have about French art dramas too, in which the characters always seem affected and unnatural. But as the movie went on, I accepted this (to my mind) flaw and a few others (did they really think inviting Fonny’s family over for an impromptu party was going to work out?) and began to feel the beauty and pathos of a remarkable movie.
If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of two young people in the early 1970s, Fonny and Tish, who have fallen in love and are ready to start a life together when Fonny is framed for rape by a vengeful white New York cop. Soon Tish discovers that she’s pregnant, and the rest of the movie shows Tish’s attempts to clear his name as her pregnancy progresses. She’s helped by her father and mother, Joseph and Sharon, and Fonny’s young lawyer. Through their journey, Jenkins, who adapted James Baldwin’s novel into a screenplay, shows the myriad stresses that living in a racist society causes.
Jenkins has the gift of visual expression. It sounds funny to mention it because, well, it’s a film. But not every filmmaker creates the kind of meaning that Jenkins does through his imagery, nor has his subtlety. The most common visual motif is hands: hands held in love, hands separated by glass, hands grasped and released, hands employed in violence, hands used to subtly oppress, and hands used to work.
Jenkins is also partial to faces in profile and straight on. The movie is punctuated with Tish’s visits to Fonny in prison, where the camera focuses on each of their faces straight on. With each visit, Fonny’s face changes: from relative confidence, to fear, to injury, to hopelessness and cynicism. Midway through Tish visits and finds Fonny’s face pummeled with bruises. He’s clearly been beaten, but it isn’t until the end of the visit, when Fonny briefly turns in profile, that the audience can see the full of extent of his injuries, the white of his eye completely red. It felt like a razor-quick commentary on black men’s pain, the way they must present a face to the world, and how only by looking carefully, or obliquely, can the extent of their injury be glimpsed. The myriad frontal shots of characters’ faces seem designed to elevate them to portraiture as well as document their progressive emotions and challenges.
Jenkins conveys the particular misery of being oppressed in a society in which the lack of oppression is touted as its greatest virtue—true for most but not for black Americans, who are forced to live with freedom and respect tantalizingly out of reach. Fonny is a sculptor, and he and Tish are poised for a bohemian life in a warehouse district where buildings are beginning to be converted to apartments. The landlord escorts them into a wide concrete space, and he and Fonny attempt to convince Tish of its potential: Imagine the walls here, imagine the refrigerator here, imagine the neighbors who might stop by. She laughs and gives in to their enthusiasm, but for the viewer, the empty warehouse floor seems like a stand-in for America and its promise its black citizens: See how our system has such great bones, how much potential it has, see how if you just wait a little while longer, it will be livable for you, comfortable for you, home.
You get that sense also in the scenes where Fonny is working on his sculpture, chiseling away at the block of wood little by little. The pair—and everyone they know—is also sculpting their lives, stroke by stroke, day by day, fashioning happiness and meaning for themselves, trying to turn potential into reality, materiality. In the end, the studio is empty, the work arrested, by Fonny’s imprisonment.
Without a bit of preaching the film conveys how this state of oppression threatens to distort every relationship in the film and every person’s sense of self. Tish must walk a tightrope at work in an upscale department store. Her mother Sharon (played by Regina King) must find a way to present herself and argue her case in a way that might convince the rape victim to retract her identification of Fonny as her attacker. The sheer emotional toll of putting on her wig and, again, sculpting herself to be acceptable to the outside world (in this case the Puerto Rican family of the victim)— knowing that lives depend on her successful presentation—is only outweighed by the agony of her failure. (It should be noted that Jenkins’ treatment of the rape storyline is excellent. The victim’s identification of Fonny was coerced by the police, and her utter, shattering pain is given full acknowledgment and respect.)
And in one of the most poignant scenes, you see the potential of black male friendship, as Fonny runs into a friend from the old neighborhood. The scene is told in flashback (the whole movie moves forward and backward in time), and Daniel, the friend, eventually reveals that he has just been released from prison on false charges. As he talks, his face in profile, he gives Fonny a glimpse of the hell that he endured there. It’s unbearably sad, but you see the comfort these two men can provide each other, the openness and intimacy they are sharing. It’s a beautiful thing, or would be if you didn’t already know that, a short time later, the police rearrest Daniel to pressure him to recant his (honest) alibi for Fonny. We are never told what happens when the police rearrest him because Jenkins is such a smart and efficient storyteller; watching this terrible scene, we know that Daniel, under threat of being returned to prison, will not be able to resist the pressure to recant. Another relationship warped and deformed by oppression, which pits the oppressed not just against the powerful but against each other in order to survive.
If this litany of sadness seems daunting, be assured that there is beauty and joy as well. Many critics have praised the film’s portrayal of black romantic love. There is a mother’s love, a new life, a demonstration of our ability to adapt and survive, a father’s energy and agency, the protection that community can provide. These are people who, to borrow the phrase, lean in. Jenkins’ incredible talents allow us to lean in toward them too.
January 15, 2019
Sitting in my oncologist's office yesterday, I was relieved to hear that while my abdominal tumor had grown, the cancer had not spread further into my system. These days I get a PET scan about every three months, and sitting in the oncologist's office while he explains the scan has become a familiar ritual. The doctor pulls it up and goes through each layer, pointing out organs, bones, and cancer.
The scan results in two images. One is of a cross-section of the body in which you can see each layer as you travel through the tissue from head to toe. Think of the body image like a loaf of bread that has been cut into thin slices. Each slice is an image of that portion of the body—cross-section of neck, cross-section of chest, cross-section of abdomen, and so on. These slices are thin and numerous, so that, put together, they allow you to travel up and down the body seeing what's there.
The other image is more like a TSA scan—a picture of the body from all sides that can be spun around 360. You see an outline of your naked form, along with a few interior objects and every fold and flap in the skin to boot. In my latest PET, you could see exactly three objects: my tumor, my heart, and my nipples (okay, four objects). It looked roughly like this:
Venus of Willendorf, by Don Hitchcock - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Except, since I'm laying down, everything is further squashed. I guess like this:
So as the entire appointment proceeds, discussing treatment options, timing, and so on, this image is on his computer, spinning slowly and inexorably in a cruel 360, like a ballerina spinning on top of a music box. It's there in my peripheral vision as we talk surgery, growth rates, second opinions . . . turning, turning, turning.
[Because of the issues that women generally have with body image, I am compelled to add that this bothers me not a bit. I find it hilarious, not distressing. We have got to stop feeling bad about ourselves. Fight the power, ladies!]
January 14, 2019
Here are some things I wished I would have known before I was diagnosed with cancer:
One of the surest signs of cancer is unexplained weight loss. It needn’t be dramatic or super rapid. But if you are losing weight when you aren’t doing much different to warrant it, that is one of the biggest alarms your body will give you. I had lost about 30 pounds over the two to three years before my diagnosis. When my doctor asked if it was deliberate, I said, “Well, you know, I’m always trying to lose weight . . .” and she let it go at that. I might have even mentioned that the weight seemed to be coming off without much effort, but doctors are often too harried to really hear these faint alarms.
If you are feeling pings and pangs in what seem to be your organs (which we don’t normally feel at all), ask your doctor for a scan. It’s not normal. This was another thing I mentioned—to a different doctor with a similarly frantic schedule.
Lumps and masses are well-known later signs, but these two earlier signs are critical for early detection.
January 9, 2019
January 7, 2019
At the end of the Battle of Hogwarts, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after the flashy heroics—Harry having let himself be killed (albeit with the Resurrection Stone in his pocket), Neville having killed Nagini with the great Sword of Gryffindor, Mrs. Weasley having dispatched Bellatrix Lestrange to hell—after all of those great deeds are finished and done, the greatest act of all takes place on a bridge. It is a quiet moment. Harry is there with Ron and Hermione, standing over a great chasm with the Elder Wand in his hand. The Elder Wand is the most powerful wand on earth, and Harry is its rightful owner, having taken it from Voldemort. He stares at the wand for a moment, then breaks it in half and drops it into the gorge.
The moment is remarkably similar to the climax of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo takes the One Ring to Mount Doom to throw it in the fire and undo its power forever. In The Lord of the Rings, this act is even more central to its story than the Elder Wand’s destruction is to Harry Potter. The destruction of the One Ring is the raison d’etre of the entire three-novel series, the purpose of the hero’s journey from beginning to end. And the terrible challenge of letting it go—for both the power-hungry (or perhaps “power-desperate”) like Boromir and the pure-hearted like Frodo alike—is the central challenge and driver of the plot. While the journey may seem to be about enduring avalanches, battles, and subterranean horrors, it is actually about enduring temptation. It is about the difficult, heroic task of renunciation.
Renunciation is a tough sell in our culture. It can be unhealthy (cf. those wild-eyed, anorexic, teenage nuns of the Middle Ages, or the evangelical men enduring conversion therapy), but maybe we’ve gone overboard in renouncing renunciation. It’s the key to all moral behavior and is the basis of one of our enduring national myths (myth referring here not to a fiction but to an important, identity-building story). George Washington was revered in early America and was a military commander to boot, yet he gave up the presidency willingly, setting the example of a two-term limit that endured nearly 200 years. Interestingly, his reasons for retiring after his second term included excessive partisanship and the toll that political attacks and character assassination took on him, along with the simple desire to enjoy some leisure. But he also was wary of the corrupting influence of ambition and very much wanted to avoid the appearance of dictatorship.
This is why Tr*mp is so disturbing—he idealizes power rather than renunciation. When he attacks the press for negative coverage or federal judges for ruling against him, he is not just being indecorous in a way we have never seen from a president in our lifetime. He is assailing the very idea that there should be any obstacles to his power and believes that any denial of his wishes—irrational, whimsical, random as they may be—is an injustice unique in the annals of history. He discards the very idea that embracing limits of power is a treasured American ideal. For him the pursuit of the greatest possible power is natural, and he is not a person who believes in the restraint of natural urges.
When Tr*mp was being briefed by a military transition team after his election, he asked “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” This is exactly what Boromir asks about the One Ring, and what Ron briefly suggests regarding the Elder Wand. In those stories, which we so love, heroic renunciation—of great powers and great weapons—by Gandalf and Galadriel, Harry and Dumbledore, prevail. So it’s a shocking development to have a president presenting so much like a Dark Lord, with his bottomless desire for worship, his casual cruelty, his dispatch of underlings who displease him, his command of vindictive throngs. One would think that the historical examples of fascism and Nazism would make these danger signs repellent to the older generation. If not—if the ideal of renunciation has lost its place in our national mythology and its seat of defense in the White House—it will be a telling test of the influence of literature to see whether the great literary mythologies of our time can rescue the younger generation from the seduction of power.
January 4, 2019
When I first started this blog in 2012, I was determined to keep it focused on art and avoid the intrusion of the personal. Going into the second year of my cancer diagnosis, this is no longer possible. I’ve been mostly MIA from the blog in 2018 but am hoping for new energy to write this year, with whatever leeway is needed to make that happen. My interests remain the same: truthfulness, compassion, thoughtfulness, the beauty of art and nature.
Happy New Year, and I hope to see you here at the blog in 2019.