From Werner Herzog to Arthur Jafa: contemporary life, or how to make meaning from fragments
‘I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have wanted to do for years.’
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies (1943)
‘Once upon a time, two palm trees leaned in for a kiss. Sent folder as crime scene. Young and almost beautiful, she played the sax in a cover band called Secret Family. A roly-poly woman dressed in extravagant kaftans of her own design.’ These are fragments dumped in a word document I almost never look at – until now – called ‘Scraps’. If I were ever to teach a writing class, I might build it around Virginia Woolf’s advice to pay heed to the undervalued literary forms – memoirs, letters and journals. Scraps, too. ‘Arrange whatever pieces come your way,’ she wrote. ‘Like so many Americans, she was trying to make sense of a life made of things she had bought in gift shops.’ That’s Kurt Vonnegut writing, not me; but, for many years, it lived in my scraps document. A scrap about scraps.
I thought about the palm trees leaning into each other as I sat in a dark theatre in Los Angeles last December, watching hot molten magma course through the earth. I did my best to escape when I realized that the film I was about to watch was a documentary about volcanoes – my attention span was especially addled that day – but, having caught the eye of the person who’d kindly offered me a free movie ticket, I resigned to sink back into my seat. An oddball Bavarian baritone, at turns melancholic and exuberant, wafted over me like a soothing mist. It was Werner Herzog’s, of course.
For the next two hours I was rapt, as Herzog, gonzo raconteur, zigzagged through encounters with passionate and nerdy volcanologists, scantily clad bushmen, automaton North Koreans and, heartbreakingly, a man who sat under a tree and sang a song, even as every last human around him scurried away in the face of imminent eruption. In one of Into the Inferno’s final scenes, a wizened wise man proffers that a volcano will one day destroy the entire earth. As if that and the film’s histrionic opera score were not enough, the director utters these words over yet another engrossing scene of eruption: ‘This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.’ During the Q&A, Herzog, who was present, seemed to take extra relish in repeating the line, not least the word ‘humans’, which I’m pretty certain he hissed. Secretly, I was delighted at the prospect of earthly destruction care of a force greater than Donald Trump.
Like just about everyone I know, I’ve been feeling broken since the US election. At night, I scroll through my Twitter feed – hate crimes, goon-squad cabinet picks, ‘unpresidented’ spelling gaffes – unable to sleep. I lean on Benadryl and wonder if the pink pills are habit-forming. I ask Google. By December, Aleppo was being smashed to bits and Venezuela was teetering on the edge of famine. The president-elect, meanwhile, was posing for photos with Kanye and freaking out because Vanity Fair declared Trump Grill ‘the worst restaurant in America’. (Leonard Cohen seemed to have received the memo about the shitstorm to come; he sagely checked out two days before the election.) Scandal, strife, celebrity, each battling for 15 seconds of our attention; the news cycle serves up a fragmented picture of the world, a dedicated theatre of the absurd. While the structuralists declared that the whole is bigger than its parts, I give up, because I can’t make out the whole anymore. Fragment and collage have long been part of the surrealist toolbox; how apropos, since I’ve known no more surreal time than the present.
‘I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.’ This, too, runs through my head. It’s the opening salvo of Arthur Jafa’s seven-minute film Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016), an elegiac tableau of African-American life recently on view at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York. Love Is The Message is composed entirely of meticulously edited video fragments – mostly amateur – drawn from the artist’s archive: black bodies dance, nervy civil-rights activists dare, police harass and beat and shoot. The narrative in this epic of trauma and triumph, if there is one, is anything but linear. And how could it be? We’ve lost the plot. I’m moved to lean on Seamus Heaney’s definition of poetry: ‘A search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.’ Jafa’s jigsaw art gets us as close as can be. Things fall apart. Try to make sense of it if you can. Perhaps the only thing left to do is to linger over the scrap.
Main image: Werner Herzog, Into the Inferno, 2016. Courtesy: Netflix
First published in Issue 185