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Category: Movies

Paul Simon, Graceland, and the boycott against apartheid

This afternoon I watched Under African Skies, a documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s album Graceland. In particular, the film deals with the cultural boycott against South Africa that existed at the time of the making of Graceland, and explores, via interviews with Simon and many others, the implications both then and now of his violation of the boycott.

Graceland_cover_-_Paul_SimonI love Graceland. It’s one of my favorite albums, and I think it’s one of the greatest pop music albums ever made. It came out the summer before my freshman year of high school, and was a big hit with many of my friends. I also remember repeatedly watching a film of the tour. When I moved to Japan in 1991, one of the first things I bought was a collection of Simon’s music that included a CD of a live Graceland concert in Zimbabwe.

I wrote a poem recently about Bishop Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid struggle, which was the first political fight of which I became aware in my life. As I wrote in the poem, my friends and I ordered anti-apartheid buttons from the Northern Sun catalog and wore them to school every day. The fight against apartheid was the very first step on the long path of my radicalization. However, at the time Graceland was released, it never even occurred to me that Simon had violated the boycott. To me, it seemed like a great way to expose more people to South African culture at a time when such exposure was sorely needed.

Many years later I became a professional organizer, and organized a boycott against an anti-union hotel. As anyone who’s ever taken part in a boycott knows, you take it personally every time someone crosses the line and violates the boycott. I was a paid organizer whose own livelihood wasn’t in any way harmed by the boycott. I can’t even imagine how much more intensely the South African organizers of the cultural boycott must have felt each instance of betrayal.

And yet.

And yet, I’m also an artist. I’m a poet and a musician, and music is by far the most sacred thing in my life. (I’ve written about that, too.) As I watched this film, I expected to side with the organizers of the boycott, but I found myself more and more siding with Simon, and even more with the South African musicians who recorded and toured with him. You know their names — Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela (my interview with Hugh), and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. To some degree, particularly in the case of Ladysmith, you know their names because they toured with Paul Simon, unless you were already a student of South African music.

Simon makes a compelling case for art, and for art’s need to resist being co-opted by governments of any kind. In the film, musicians such as Masekela (who was in exile at the time of Graceland) and guitarist Ray Phiri (who lived in South Africa) talked about being punished twice — once by apartheid, and then by a boycott that essentially prevented them from playing anywhere in the world.

Obviously it’s not my place to say whether Simon was right or wrong, and he doesn’t need either my absolution or my condemnation. I think history has largely proven that he made the right choice, or that at least his choice did a great service to global knowledge about the cultural vibrancy of South Africa. As for me, I think this film highlighted for me that my own tendency toward right-or-wrong activism was often too simple. There are more than two sides to most stories. And more ways to victory than are often imagined. And there’s a difference between a hotel boycott and a cultural boycott of an entire group of musicians. Still, if you cross my boycott or picket line, get ready to run. Meanwhile, let’s crank up the music.

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Billy Crystal talks about his friend Robin Williams

Tonight I’m falling down the YouTube rabbit hole, and I’ve arrived at this lovely clip of Billy Crystal talking about Robin Williams two months after Williams died. Robin Williams was the first comedian I ever loved. He’s why I started watching stand-up.

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Review: Obvious Child

I thought this was honest and brave and beautiful. Jenny Slate gives a very compelling central performance, and Jake Lacy is excellent, too. Recommended.

Side note: I wrote a poem inspired by this film, although the poem is related only to some of the visuals, not to the content of the movie. Here’s the poem.

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Everything Is Stargate: (#5) Wreck-It Ralph

My favorite TV show is Stargate SG-1. I’m also a big fan of Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe, and the original Stargate movie. Given how many episodes of those shows there were, I’ve noticed that nearly every English-language studio movie of the past 25 or so years, and nearly every sci-fi TV show, has somebody in it who appeared on a Stargate property. And if you include crew members, it’s even easier to make connections. It rarely takes more than two steps. In this new “Everything Is Stargate” series, I’m going to post photos from films I’m watching that contain people from Stargate.

This weekend my sons and I watched Wreck-It Ralph, a charming animated movie we’d all seen before and enjoyed. Martin Jarvis provides the voice of Saitine, pictured on the right here:

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Jarvis played Davos in an episode of Stargate Atlantis titled “The Seer.” Here he is (with Firefly‘s Jewel Staite on the left):

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Previous posts in the “Everything Is Stargate” series.

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Record Of The Day: Push The Sky Away – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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My first introduction to Nick Cave came in 2005 when I went four nights in a row to the Little Theatre in Rochester, NY, to watch the concert film and documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, in which Cave is featured singing the title track and talking about Cohen. I enjoyed him in the film, but didn’t really dig in.

Then in 2010, Nick Cave’s song “O Children” was featured in my favorite moment in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1:

I decided it was time to dig in.

Push The Sky Away came out two years ago. We just got a vinyl copy at the store this week and it’s great. Moody and rich and just what you want to hear when it’s down to the last few people on a Wednesday night in the winter.

BUY IT.

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A truly great Western

The_Man_from_Laramie_Poster Last night I watched The Man From Laramie for the first time, and it joined my select list of favorite Westerns, along with Tombstone and Silverado.

The Man From Laramie stars Jimmy Stewart in his fifth and final collaboration with director Anthony Mann. Mann directed Stewart in five Westerns in five years: Winchester ’73 (1950); Bend of the River (1952); The Naked Spur (1953); The Far Country (1955); and The Man from Laramie (1955). Also featured in this film are five-time Oscar nominee and Tony winner Arthur Kennedy; Oscar winner Donald Crisp; film noir favorite Cathy O’Donnell; and Oscar nominee Aline MacMahon. Jack Elam, known for playing villains, has a small but important role.

I was surprised by the dark tone of this film. It’s nearly Shakespearean in the way the tension mounts as one violent accident after another befalls Stewart’s character. The darkness of the plot is in sharp contrast to the gorgeous scenery and daytime action. The Man From Laramie was one of the first films shot in CinemaScope, and it really captures the majesty of the New Mexico landscape.

As always, Stewart is never less than compelling. I’ve always been a fan of his Western work in the radio drama The Six Shooter (listen), made during the same period as the Mann films, and it translates well to the screen.

Here’s what the New York Times had to say in 1955, and a more recent essay.

Highly recommended.

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