As a wistful look at funeral homes in the Black community, the documentary “Homegoings” that opens today at Maysles Cinema in the heart of Harlem is the perfect companion piece to Spike Lee’s first movie “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”. Although Lee’s movie is a fairly conventional crime melodrama with the owners of the barbershop having stolen money from racketeers, it is best when it is about the small talk that goes on in one of the Black community’s longest standing institutions. As two barbers are playing checkers, the subject turns to straightening hair. “Processes ruin the hair and the brain too. That’s why we’ve got so many dumb brothers,” says one barber to the other.
“Homegoings”, a euphemism for death that speaks volumes, features Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens, a sixtyish man who really brings this ostensibly morbid subject matter to life. An obvious geek when he was young, Owens was obsessed with burying dead animals—frogs, cats, dogs, you name it. He also loved to simulate funerals with miniature objects in the same way that I used to play with toy soldiers, something he reenacts in the course of the film.
Last Thursday I almost ventured down to a “Death Café” in downtown Manhattan, a group that meets monthly to discuss death—obviously. At the age of 68, this is a subject that has more currency than it had when I was 28. Four decades ago I understood intellectually that I was not going to live forever (I can hear many of my readers shouting “Hurray!”) but it was nothing to brood about. Nowadays that’s mostly what I have on my mind, when I am not brooding about the Brenner thesis or the sorry state of Hollywood movies. The NY Times reported on the death café:
Socrates did not fear death; he calmly drank the hemlock. Kierkegaard was obsessed with death, which made him a bit gloomy. As for Lorraine Tosiello, a 58-year-old internist in Bradley Beach, N.J., it is the process of dying that seems endlessly puzzling.
“I’m more interested, philosophically, in what is death? What is that transition?” Dr. Tosiello said at a recent meeting in a Manhattan coffee shop, where eight people had shown up on a Wednesday night to discuss questions that philosophers have grappled with for ages.
The group, which meets monthly, is called a Death Cafe, one of many such gatherings that have sprung up in nearly 40 cities around the country in the last year. Offshoots of the “café mortel” movement that emerged in Switzerland and France about 10 years ago, these are not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual forums for people who want to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live?
I was not surprised to learn from my friend Jeffrey, who is even older than me believe it or not, that his mind is wrapped around the same questions. I think to some extent this is a function of both of us having parents who went through a fairly lengthy experience being ground down by lengthy illnesses—in his father’s case Parkinson’s and in my mother’s case heart disease. It tends to focus the mind.
In “Homegoings” you get a totally different take on dying. As the title of the movie implies, there is a joy that awaits the average devout Harlemite serviced by Owens’s specialized trade, which involves among other things applying a kind of botox treatment to make a 92 year old dead person look years younger so that the funeral service will be more upbeat. One supposes that this is essentially what religion is about, making you believe that there is everlasting life in heaven. Of course, for those unlucky enough to be raised in a Jewish household, where such beliefs are understated, and beyond that to have matured as atheists, there’s little to console us except the knowledge that we don’t have to worry about going to hell—a real bonus for someone like me.
Now available from Showtime on-demand, “Richard Pryor—Omit the Logic” is a fascinating account of the Dorian Gray-like rise and fall of arguably the USA’s greatest stand-up comedian next to Lenny Bruce. As was the case with Bruce, Pryor’s decline can be attributed to the abuse he took from industry heavies as well as the self-abuse of a major heavy drug habit.
But digging a bit deeper into the Pryor story, I am convinced that the comparison is better made with Miles Davis, another Black artist whose improvisational skills rivaled Pryor’s. What one did with a horn, the other did through stories and jokes.
The documentary is graced by interviews with both the people who knew him as friends or lovers, as well as knowledgeable students of African-American society—most notably Walter Moseley and Ishmael Reed.
The film of course includes footage from nightclub, television and film appearances but it does not try to compete with the 1979 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert or the 1982 Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, a film made two years after he set himself on fire—supposedly a free-basing accident. The film reveals, however, that this was a suicide attempt inspired by Pryor’s watching a newsreel of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest the American-backed dictatorship in Vietnam in the mid-60s.
The film also goes into detail about Pryor’s decline and eventual death from multiple sclerosis, a disease that for the first time in his life made him dependent on others and very likely for the first time in his life to learn to trust them as a result.
Another documentary available as on-request from a premium cable station (and on Youtube above until the intellectual propery cops find out), HBO’s “Pussy Riot—a Punk Prayer” is both notable as a news story and as human drama. It is also a fundamental challenge to those on the left who would treat Vladimir Putin as some kind of anti-imperialist icon because he is the target of Nicholas Kristof or Thomas Friedman’s abuse. If after watching this documentary, you can still agree with the get-tough recommendations of “leftist” blogger Moon over Alabama, then maybe you should reconsider what it means to be on the left:
Abusing places of worship for a “free speech act”, especially when that act is subjectively blasphemous to the religion, is an infringement of the right of freedom of religion. In my view such an infringement, as in this case, can not be justified by the right of free speech. There are many other places where the free speech can be made. I therefore find the sentence against Pussy Riot quite obviously justified.
This of course is utter nonsense. In 2003 a couple had sex in the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in N.Y. as a shock radio prank. While awaiting trial, the man died of a heart attack—not likely a result of overexertion—but the woman got 40 hours of community service, a proverbial slap on the wrist.
The hostility toward Pussy Riot from some sectors of the left makes you wonder if they were around when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman were up to stunts like throwing dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. These people so anxious to see “law and order” prevail in Russia are nothing less than the purple Kryptonite reversal of the right-wingers who belonged to the Moral Majority.
In actuality, the Pussy Riot performance had little to do with shock radio. Instead, as the documentary makes clear, it was a political act that was cut from the same cloth as the Gezi Park protests in Taksim Square, but even far more engaged with anti-capitalist consciousness.
The background of the three women in Pussy Riot makes this completely clear. Maria Alyokhina, a 25-year-old single mother, was a member of Greenpeace who was active in the protests against the clearing of Khimki Forest that is part of the “green belt” around Moscow, obviously in the same spirit of the Taksim Square rebellion. The forest was to be leveled for an 8 billion dollar superhighway to connect Moscow with St. Petersburg.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is the 24-year-old daughter of an artist who was raised by her ardently communist grandmother after her parents divorced. Combing her father’s esthetics and her grandmother’s firebrand politics, she hooked up with the Voina street-art group that embodies autonomist values, including a “refusal to work” and commitment to provocative actions—thankfully excluding black block type adventurism. The film shows her and a man having sex along with other couples in the Biology Museum in Moscow, an obvious commentary on reproduction.
The thirty-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich was the third member of the group. She took part in Operation Kiss Garbage that involved “ambush kissing” of female police officers in subway stations from January through March 2011. All told, the activities of the three women were assaults on Russian notions of propriety utterly in keeping with bohemian radicalism going back for more than a century. It was the sort of activism that was a core part of the 1960s but one that is now disavowed by many of the elderly survivors of that period who now equate radicalism with following the foreign policy initiatives of the Putin state machinery.
The film climaxes with the trial of the three women at which the prosecution expects them to grovel before the court in 1930s Moscow Trial fashion. The more they flagellate themselves, the more lenient the punishment. Defiant of the sexist, class-oppressive, environmentally destructive state apparatus, the women do not budge an inch from their principles, as their closing statement to the court makes clear:
Katya, Masha and I are in jail but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated. Just as the dissidents weren’t defeated. When they disappeared into psychiatric hospitals and prisons, they passed judgement on the country. The era’s art of creating an image knew no winners or losers. The Oberiu poets remained artists to the very end, something impossible to explain or understand since they were purged in 1937. Vvedensky wrote: “We like what can’t be understood, What can’t be explained is our friend.” According to the official report, Aleksandr Vvedensky died on 20 December 1941. We don’t know the cause, whether it was dysentery in the train after his arrest or a bullet from a guard. It was somewhere on the railway line between Voronezh and Kazan. Pussy Riot are Vvedensky’s disciples and his heirs. His principle of ‘bad rhythm’ is our own. He wrote: “It happens that two rhythms will come into your head, a good one and a bad one and I choose the bad one. It will be the right one.” What can’t be explained is our friend. The elitist, sophisticated occupations of the Oberiu poets, their search for meaning on the edge of sense was ultimately realized at the cost of their lives, swept away in the senseless Great Terror that’s impossible to explain. At the cost of their own lives, the Oberiu poets unintentionally demonstrated that the feeling of meaninglessness and analogy, like a pain in the backside, was correct, but at the same time led art into the realm of history. The cost of taking part in creating history is always staggeringly high for people. But that taking part is the very spice of human life. Being poor while bestowing riches on many, having nothing but possessing everything. It is believed that the OBERIU dissidents are dead, but they live on. They are persecuted but they do not die.
Do you remember why the young Dostoyevsky was given the death sentence? All he had done was to spend all his time with Socialists—and at the Friday meetings of a friendly circle of free thinkers at Petrushevsky’s, he became acquainted with Charles Fourier and George Sand. At one of the last meetings, he read out Gogol’s letter to Belinsky, which was packed, according to the court, and I note, with childish expressions against the Orthodox Church and the supreme authorities. After all his preparations for the death penalty and ten dreadful, impossibly frightening minutes waiting to die, as Dostoyevsky himself put it, the announcement came that his sentence had been commuted to four years hard labour followed by military service.
Socrates was accused of corrupting youth through his philosophical discourses and of not recognizing the gods of Athens. Socrates had a connection to a divine inner voice and was by no means a theomachist, something he often said himself. What did that matter, however, when he had angered the city with his critical, dialectical and unprejudiced thinking? Socrates was sentenced to death and, refusing to run away, although he was given that option, he drank down a cup of poison in cold blood, hemlock.
Have you forgotten the circumstances under which Stephen, follower of the Apostles, ended his earthly life? “Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law.’” He was found guilty and stoned to death.
And I hope everyone remembers what the Jews said to Jesus: “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy.” And finally it would be well worth remembering this description of Christ: “He is possessed of a demon and out of his mind.”