Quote of the day: MISSION

August 2, 2021

MISSION

The word “mission” comes from the Latin for “send.” In English, historically, a mission is Christian, and means sending the Holy Spirit out into the world to spread the Word of God: a mission involves saving souls. In the seventeenth century, when “mission” first conveyed something secular, it meant diplomacy: emissaries undertake missions. Scientific and military missions—and the expression “mission accomplished”—date to about the First World War. In 1962, J.F.K. called going to the moon an “untried mission.” “Mission statements” date to the Vietnam War, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff began drafting ever-changing objectives for a war known for its purposelessness. (The TV show “Mission: Impossible” débuted in 1966.) After 1973, and at the urging of the management guru Peter Drucker, businesses started writing mission statements as part of the process of “strategic planning,” another expression Drucker borrowed from the military. Before long, as higher education was becoming corporatized, mission statements crept into university life. “We are on the verge of mission madness,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 1979. A decade later, a management journal announced, “Developing a mission statement is an important first step in the strategic planning process.” But by the nineteen-nineties corporate mission statements had moved from the realm of strategic planning to public relations. That’s a big part of why they’re bullshit. One study from 2002 reported that most managers don’t believe their own companies’ mission statements. Research surveys suggest a rule of thumb: the more ethically dubious the business, the more grandiose and sanctimonious its mission statement.

–Jill Lepore in The New Yorker

photographed by Kayana Szymczak for the New York Times

Culture Vulture: Alice Neel at the Metropolitan Museum

August 1, 2021

Alice Neel is a name I’ve long been familiar with but, like most people, I suspect, I had no specific file on her painting until the Metropolitan Museum mounted its spectacular show of her work, “People Come First.” We finally got around to seeing it a week before it closed. I love the amazing cross-section of New Yorkers she painted, with a big focus on bohemian life, working people, queer artists, and casually explicit sexuality. Others have written more eloquently and more knowledgeably about the work in this exhibition. I’m just going to share a few of the pictures that called out to me.

Waiting in line to get into the Alice Neel exhibition, everyone got to spend time contemplating this enigmatic canvas:


Culture Vulture: cinema summer

August 1, 2021

Streaming movies and TV have been a godsend during the pandemic. Talk about essential services! Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring two different avenues – this curious phenomenon called Going To a Movie Theater And Watching On The Big Screen, and in the opposite direction digging around among the kind online cinematic arcana Richard Brody likes to write about in the fine print of the New Yorker.

The first movie we saw in the theater was In the Heights, not a perfect movie but perfect for the moment, a feel-good New York City summertime romance with lots of dancing in the streets. The second theater movie, even more exciting, was Summer of Soul, a meticulous reconstruction and recontextualization of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place across six weekends in 1969. After enjoying the incredible line-up of performances – Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone – I gobbled up every interview I could find with Questlove, who created the film with the freewheeling precision of a genius mixtape. I loved learning that Aretha Franklin was originally supposed to perform the duet with Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord, Take My Heart” but cancelled at the last minute, leaving Mavis Staples to step in for a once-in-a-lifetime performance that is the highlight of the film. Also: Jimi Hendrix desperately wanted to be invited to play the festival; he was shut out but instead booked dates at a local blues club just to be in the vibe.

The third film I saw in the theater inhabits a whole other realm of cinema. Zola began life as a series of 148 Twitter posts by exotic dancer Aziah “Zola” King about a crazy road trip from Detroit to Tampa that turns into a much scarier ride than anticipated. David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” led to this wildly original film cooked up by director Janicza Bravo with playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Fast, wild, sexy, and nerve-wracking, Zola depends on the brave and hilarious performances of the central quartet – Taylour Paige as Zola, Riley Keough as Stefani (the faux-naif who lures Zola into an elaborate con), Nicholas Braun as her dweeby boyfriend Derrek, and Colman Domingo as Stefani’s pimp, known as X. I thought Keough looked a little familiar; only afterwards, I learned that she was not only the den-mother/gang-boss in American Honey but also the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley (which means her grandfather was Elvis and her stepfather was Michael Jackson). As we left the theater, my friend Ben and I agreed that the movie felt like a mash-up of Tarantino and Tangerine (Sean Baker’s dazzling iPhone-shot film about trans hookers in LA).

Meanwhile, some discoveries from off the beaten path:

BE PRETTY AND SHUT UP! – Succumbing to some promotional offer, I subscribed to MUBI, which specializes in art cinema and emerging filmmakers even more obscure than what you’ll find in the Criterion Collection. I’ve watched LOST LOST LOST, six reels from Jonas Mekas’s Bolex with stilted voiceover, crude titles, and un-annotated glimpses of NYC in the 1960s (Frank O’Hara and Leroi Jones – later known as Amiri Baraka – at a play reading! Julian Beck and Judith Malina at a street demonstration!), and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s nutty Psychomagic: A Healing Art. There’s currently a whole series called “Sex, Truth, and Videotape: French Feminist Activism.” Who knew that the great Delphine Seyrig had taken it upon herself to do make a simple, one-camera, black-and-white, no-frills talking-heads documentary of her conversations with other women about their experiences acting in films?

Yes, Jane Fonda was married to Roger Vadim and co-starred with Yves Montand in Tout Va Bien but how often have we gotten the chance to hear her speak fluent French in conversation? The crew of interviewees is amazing: Ellen Burstyn, Viva, Shirley MacLaine, Cindy Williams, Maria Schneider, Jill Clayburgh, Louise Fletcher, and more, no makeup, no fancy backdrops. Almost all of them are amazed and thrilled to be asked questions they’ve never addressed before: have you ever been asked to play a scene where two women express friendliness to each other?

CAN YOU BRING IT – Rosalynde Leblanc and Tom Hurwitz’s documentary beautifully conjures the original production of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s D-Man in the Water while observing Leblanc’s restaging Jones’ choreography on a group of young dancers at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. The Jones/Zane company figured heavily in the pop-dance explosion in NYC in the 1980s; like Twyla Tharp’s and Mark Morris’s, their company was like a favorite rock band. It’s thrilling to see this footage of gigantic Bill, tiny Arnie, chubby Larry Goldhuber, gorgeous Heidi Latsky, impy Sean Curran (below), athletic Arthur Aviles (I’ll never forget his gravity-defying performance in D-Man) – all of them dancing in vintage footage, the survivors speaking with wrenching eloquence.

Zane died of AIDS in 1988; he was 39. Demian Acquavella, the D-man of the title, died in 1990; he was 32. Jones’s status as long-term survivor is etched on his craggy face. The documentary is a tribute to the artists who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and responded to it in their work. The fresh-faced kids in LA know virtually nothing about AIDS, which makes their approach to the production both dewy with innocence and kind of clueless. Jones has done a beautiful job of stepping into the role of community elder, and it’s moving to observe the patience and presence he brings to speaking with the students. (His smooth, avuncular speaking voice uncannily recalls Barack Obama’s.) And even though I don’t think about it that much, he’s literally an icon in my everyday life – a signed print of Keith Haring’s drawing of him (based on a photo by Tseng Kwong-Chi, another shining downtown artist lost to AIDS, like Haring) hangs just inside my front door.

WATER MAKES US WET – Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ goofy yet informational documentary about the politics of water has made the rounds to festivals for a couple of years, and they’ve made the film available for free on Vimeo through the end of August. Modelling their spiritual practice as “ecosexuals,” they wander up and down the state of California in their RV, visiting wastewater treatment facilities, communing with philosopher Donna Haraway in her back yard (below), and chatting up sewage handlers who have cultivated tremendous tolerance for

the shit jokes that come their way. A program in San Francisco called “Adopt a Drain” enrolls local residents to keep drains swept clear of garbage and debris. Motto: “Your #2 Is Our #1.” Their irrepressible message is “Fight despair with joy!” I love getting access to smart, powerful lesbian couples and the wisdom they generate – see also the “On Being” podcast featuring author Glennon Doyle and world-champion soccer star Abby Wambach, two people I knew nothing about until listening to their funny and savvy chat with Krista Tippett.

PRIDE – “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is an old saying whose truth has played out in world-changing ways these last couple of years. The U.S. government has plenty of money in reserve to not only vaccinate everyone in the country but to pull American citizens out of poverty with direct payments. Something significant happens when white male supremacy gives way to leadership by women and people of color. The remarkable achievement of the Hulu series Pride is that it doesn’t have to stretch very far to tell the story of the gay liberation movement primarily through black, trans, and female voices. The series makes that look so simple, easy, and obvious, but in reality until the last two years no overview of the gay movement has foregrounded these voices. (Sarah Schulman accomplishes the same corrective in her recently published, invaluable history of ACT UP, Let the Record Show.) The sixth and final episode, for instance, “Y2Gay,” spotlights Margaret Cho, David Wilson, Brontez Purnell, Dean Spade, Chase Strangio, Cece McDonald, Dr. Lourdes Hunter, Raquel Willis (below), and Ceyenne Doroshow. And the decade of the ‘70s, a turning point in gay history, is given a very different and richer spin because of the voices that black lesbian feminist filmmaker Cheryl Dunye chooses to tell the story. The whole series is so beautifully scripted and shot that you (almost) don’t mind the maddening deluge of the same commercials over and over on Hulu.


Quote of the day: HOPE

July 18, 2021

You believe in God, right? I believe that there’s an intelligence, a spiritual power that I don’t understand. I call it God because I don’t know what else to call this great spiritual power. It gives me strength. I’ve also had amazing times alone in nature when for a moment you forget you’re human. Your humanness goes away, and you’re part of that natural world. It’s the most amazing and wonderful and beautiful feeling.

How do you square things like environmental degradation and war with a belief in that overriding intelligence? Traditional faith will have you believe in a loving God, and when I look at what’s happening on the planet, I think if there is a God like that, is he playing with us? Are we living in some great experiment? How can you believe in a loving God when you see the horrors that are perpetrated against nature, against animals, against each other? I sometimes think it is like an experiment which has culminated in this strange, confused creature that is human beings, and we seem to be lost. Who are we? What are we? Why are we here? I don’t know what the meaning of life is. The meaning of my life is to give people hope because without hope you give up.

–Jane Goodall, interviewed by David Marchese in the New York Times Magazine


Quote of the day: HUNGER

April 6, 2021

I consoled myself for my difficulties with Nichole by keeping company with an Indian woman from the reservation in nearby Yakima. I met her playing pool in La Conner, and although she was pretty drunk, she was deadly at the table. She was exciting and unpredictable, not above winging a pool ball at an idiot who offended her. She looked about thirty-five, and confessed to having a “clutter” of children back in Yakima….

One morning she dropped by as I was cooking, I asked her if she was hungry and she said nothing. When I asked a third time, she said, “Don’t make people *say* that they’re hungry. Put food in front of them. If they’re hungry, they’ll eat.”


This protocol attending the offering of food interested me. It highlighted our culture’s carelessness about food (which has resulted in an obsession with obesity). Living on the road, I’d noticed that you could visit a white person’s home and wait for hours before being offered food or water. This was equally true in many counterculture homes. White people assumed that people are or drank when they *wanted* to; they were not being deliberately rude, they just never had to think about hunger. Travelers in need learn to search out people of color — black people, Chicanos, and Indians — who rarely let you sit long without putting something to eat or drink in front of you.

–Peter Coyote, Sleeping Where I Fall


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