Jesus Walks in Brooklyn

Just back from New York and about to beetle off to Brazil for a month.

Love NYC. Like Skegness, it’s so bracing. I love seeing all my friends and I love just hanging out. It was cold and sunny and the first morning after a jet-laggy night, I ran through the Meatpacking District, fair bouncing off the walls with glee. Splendour all around me, I felt exalted for the first time in a long while.

Went to see Dave Chapelle’s Block Party with Mac at the BAM in Brooklyn.

Along with Herzog’s Grizzly Man, this film convinced me that features are dead to me and only documentaries mean anything. Features films are only good on long-plane journies where the strange hormonal limbo of jetlag makes their inane plotting perfect. I love to watch syrupy romantic comedies on planes: they make me weep hot streams of tears and laught inappropriately loudly. But back in the normally adjusted world they and most other feature films seem – too predicatable.

Documentaries – on the other hand – rock! (Apart from sinister penguin ones). Herzog’s meditation on the Grizzly life and grisly death of the Timothy Treadwell was a revelation; opening up so many lines of thought in such a lucid, subtle style. Despite knowing the one key fact of the narrative (Man get eaten by Bear) everything else danced around in a completely unpredictable, dizzying way. And as always, Herzog managed to keep the most beautiful and the most eloquent moments to the last. Even in documentary he’s a narrative genius.

Michel Gondry’s filming of Dave Chapelle’s Block Party was also genius. To be honest, you’d never know the director of Eternal Sunshine was involved, the film feels so organic and alive. That I suppose is the mark of a true documentarist. What you do feel is a flood of positivity that lifts the heart and made me cry repeatedly without the help of high-altitude confusion.

After the worldwide shame of those pictures from New Orleans, Block Party is the positive pendant to Katrina. A warm, positive expression of everything that is great about black America. As we see Dave Chappelle, legendarily flighty Comedy Central star, in his hometown in Ohio inviting locals to the block party he’s planning in Brooklyn, we see the warm heart of America. Everyone is smiling and friendly. And excited.

And excited for good reason, this party in the summer of 2004 on the corner of Quincy and Downing in Bed-Stuy, was the SHI-IT. Everyone of Chappelle’s favorite hip-hop acts all together for a free party: Mos Def, Kanye West, Dead Prez, Common, Jill Scott, Erykah Badhu and a specially reunited Fugees. And the music was awesome. In all the commercial sludge that has attached itself to hip-hop you forget how it was the most exciting and only genuinely revolutionary form of music since Rock’n’Roll in the 50s. How what Chuck D and Public Enemy were doing in 1989 was the truely seismic shift in American culture since the war: a young, politically aware, socially engaged artform that exhilarated and activated millions.

That sunshiney, sidewalk revolution was still in the air on that rainy evening in 2004. It was a little more aristocratic. Most of the acts were in earth tones, beige jackets and not a stich of camouflage. But for all the maturity of the scene, the energy and nobility of hip-hop was still there. Kanye West (perhaps the most handsome man in NYC) did a version of “Jesus Walks” featuring the amazing Ohio Central State University marching band who’d been bussed down especially for the event. That song makes me shiver but made me practically convulse in the movie. Dead Prez’ “Hip Hop” sent me shivering again with the line:

‘You would rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some
substance?
A Beamer, a necklace or… freedom?”

Then we had Jill Scott and Erykah Badu chorusing together on the Roots track “You Got Me” which, when it was released, had seen Scott replaced by Badu by a heavy-handed record company. That was quite a theme. The idea that beneath the corporate maniplation of hip-hop, there was a family and community that was strong and immune to all the mis-information and misrepresentation of the media. Certainly there couldn’t be a better advert for the stately progression of Black Culture.

It was super-telling that after Mac and I left the movie theatre at BAM, we went over to the Opera House in the same building to see Mark Morris’ Dance Company, the doyen of the NY contemporary scene, do two pieces in their 25th Anniversary Season. Morris was a camp breath of fresh air into the rather arid, abstract air of 80s dance, but honestly – the sterile, irritating whimsy that he now passes off for art was breath-takingly bad.

In 1989, the same time that Public Enemy were releasing “Fight the Power”, Morris was in Brussels doing a version of Purcell’s Dido and Aneas. It’s a beautiful piece of music and Morris choreographs it artfully, with each musical trope being illustrated by a dance movement. As a technique this can be a little obvious – but in this dark, Greek-inspired piece it just about holds up. But by 2000 (back in the USA) Morris is making the truely awful “Four Saints in Three Acts” with execrable music by Virgil Thompson and horribly inane choreography – all Matisse colours and cloying folksy skirts. Ew. After the vibrant, human joy of Block Party, it felt like a particularly sad illustration of the etiolated state of mainstream ‘white’ culture in America. Thank god for hip-hop.

The following day President Bush got the lowest popularity rating of any sitting President in history.

Dave Chappelle for the White House.

I’d vote.

16 Comments

  1. Zain

    March 21, 2006 at 12:45 am

    Hey Alistair, I’m always impressed with your profound observations, and this is no different.

    After I saw Block Party, I was left with the feeling that I wanted something more. I think Chapelle is a great presence, but he somehow didn’t figure enough into the whole presentation. Maybe the very lack of a storyline that you state to refreshingly miss, was amiss for me.

    I think I wanted to see more of a linear development of how the Party came about, why, and why we should care about it. As a snapshot of a community coming together to present something positive, this worked. But as with a snapshot of anything, you get a specific picture or an image of an indidence, but it is only indicative of the whole on a general level. I was looking for something more specific. And I wanted to laugh harder.

    I completely concur with your take on the Kanye performance. The way the filmmaker blended his concert rendition with the marching bands take was uplifting and cinema-seat dance-worthy!

    Hmmm. Maybe I was wanting more of a personal insight into Chapelle’s reason to do this, but let’s remember that it was filmed in the fall of 2004, quite a while before his infamous departure from production of Season 3 of his show, and his subseqent trip to Africa, and grand return on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Ahhh, don’t we ALL long for simpler days.

    Last thing…since this is my first comment on your site…on a general note, I will mention that I appreciate what you have to say. Especially the essays on Meditation. Your writings have had a profound effect on my life in a short amount of time, since I discovered your site after seeing a rerun of “House Doctor” on the W network here in Canada. Dude, I can’t believe they were doing new episodes (The “Inside and Out” season) without you….bad choice on their part!

  2. Marnie

    March 21, 2006 at 5:17 am

    Absolutely brilliant review.

    You never cease to amaze me, Alistair.

  3. brian lin

    March 23, 2006 at 7:49 pm

    hey alistair:

    glad to see u write again after all these months. speaking of documentaries, have you seen What The Bleep Do We Know? a truly inspiring and mind-blowing film.

    brian

  4. Chris Paisano

    March 25, 2006 at 12:44 am

    Grizzly Man – ?
    I was unimpressed with Timothy – what a fool. Us Native people
    here understood a loooooong time ago that bears aren’t teddys,
    but strong and sacred grandfathers who guard the earth from
    intruders. They protect what is theirs, U know?

    If U like Dave’s film, come and join the party at 3121.

    Ya’ateeh & Agoone.

    CJP

  5. JW

    March 26, 2006 at 6:18 am

    Dave Chappelle for the White House? Are you f—ing
    kidding?

  6. Zain

    March 26, 2006 at 11:37 am

    Ya…he might be inclined to duck out and disappear to South Africa when the going gets stressful.

    I’m just saying.

  7. RJ

    March 27, 2006 at 12:14 am

    The euphoria on being part of MAC and the excitement of being in NYC might all be well and good. I live here and often feel that way too. But to take that euphoria on a stunning Chappelle performance and comment on a possible run for the presidency….umm..unfortunately I can’t quite concur with that one!! I agree with Zain’s posting…Chappelle might just defect when things get rough!

  8. JW

    March 27, 2006 at 5:57 am

    Perhaps Mr Appleton has been using too much of the ayahuasca?

  9. Mark

    April 3, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    Take a deep breath everyone… and SEE the irony. Alistair, you are so knowlingly-smirksome and laugh-out-loud funny, you really are (I mean that as a compliment). I’m amazed your writing isn’t littered with nudges and winks. 😉 Glad to see you back online with a big NYC-inspired smile on your face and a spring in your step. Hope Brazil goes swimmingly, looking forward to a write up.

    Safe travels,

    Mark

  10. Joe

    April 9, 2006 at 9:01 am

    Hi Alistair,

    I was just watching the Cash In The Attic marathon and thinking how adorable you are. That Adorable-ness that has caused me to write a couple times before. I’m not sure what’s up with the configuration of your site, but my comment seems to cut off a bit to the right, so I apologize if my syntax is incorrect on the parts I can’t see.

    Anyway, without appearing critical, I just wanted to point out that Hip Hop in America is always glorified and admired in Europe and Asia and I suppose other parts of the world, but unlike Rock and Roll, it has had a terribly negative effect on the landscape of our country, if not others by now. You may have seen some of the upper end of Hip Hop at the event you attended, but the Hip Hop culture has now resulted in what you see today, when you walk around–the shit clothes, the crap attitudes and the pervasively offensive behavior that abounds everywhere you go. My heart dropped a bit when my friend’s foreign exchange students from France showed up last summer looking like a cross between Ali G. and 50 Cent. What I always looked to Europe for (enduring class, refinement, manners, etc.) has now apparently descended into stupidly baggy clothes, basketball jerseys, far too much bling, bling and kids aspiring to be as inarticulate and street-thuggish as possible. (the French youth don’t speak very good English as it is). Hip Hop, far from being a true podium for addressing social inequalities and so forth, is a squandered communication form, which hasn’t inspired much of anyone to really shout out anything of consequence with it.

    Anyway, if it was just a bit of fun, I’d let it go, but Hip Hop has completely decimated any hope that America could ever achieve an aged (as in wine or cheese) stage of sophistication.

    Furthermore, Dave Chappelle is a complete homophobe who thinks gay sex “is disgusting” and made sure to let everyone know on one of his shows. I too thought he was brilliant and I’m pretty laid back, but that statement seemed excessively mean-spirited and premeditated. So he’s going to have to come to terms with whatever it is that bothers him about homosexuality, before I can truly laugh at his antics again.

    It’s not my intention to be a wet blanket because I’d love nothing more than to walk side by side with you down the street and announce to everyone that you’re my life partner, but I always appreciate when my international friends point out that I’m overglorifying an aspect of their culture that I’m not quite aware of, so perhaps you’ll appreciate my candor.

    Dammit, I wish this thing didn’t cut off. I’m absolutely religious about good grammar and good spelling and I can’t currently see half of what I’ve written here.

    Oh, I promised my friend Barb that if I wrote you again I’d ask your astrological sign. I had you pegged as a Gemini on the Taurus cusp, around late May/Early June (how’s that for specific 😉 ) She thought you might be an Aquarius. Could you help us settle this once and for all?

    Thanks Alistair! I should be getting to England soon. Lunch at Harvey Nichols?

    Here’s my profile on MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/ettringer

    Cheers,

    Joe

  11. Brian

    April 18, 2006 at 5:57 am

    Joe, after having seen your diverse group of My Space”friends” I can readily understand your authority on all things African American.

  12. The Blind-Winger Jones

    April 20, 2006 at 3:40 am

    Never actually travelled abroad during my life..unless you count the Isle of Man, where I inadvertently ended up due to a prank that went awry when I couldn’t pronounce the word “Antimacassar” without stuttering.

  13. Andrew

    May 3, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    Just come across your blog, the photos are really great,, I was remminded of some of my trips to the places you too have been (including Willesdon) – I think you have a bit of a telent with the camera. Keep the essays and pictures coming

  14. victoria

    January 6, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Alistair – I think you mean Bennett!!!!!

    Always make sure you get the correct spelling of someone you’re talking about

    (and use spellcheck throughout your blog)

    Seriously, keep up the positive outlook by the way, very refreshing and nice photos too by the way ( I should know I am a photographer)

    All the best, V

  15. Life Insurance blog

    March 6, 2008 at 12:29 am

    Learn facts about the life insurance industry…

    Information on the life insurance industry…

  16. Kai Klemp

    February 13, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Hello just thought i would tell you something.. This is twice now i’ve landed on your blog in the last 2 weeks looking for totally unrelated things. Spooky or what?

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