Lyceum Film Theater

Downtown After Dark: Dark No More

Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!

A long run is not always clear from the beginning. For certain, bridging the distance starts, and continues, in small, ordinary steps. But the power of enthusiasm can slow with drudgery and diminishing returns.

Pretense is a powerful force in human affairs. It touches the functioning of friendships, families, social groups, communities – and even nations. One starts out pretending to be a head of household and then a parent. Then one day, others in one’s family enforce one’s provisional assumption of roles by pretending to act as if those roles are genuine and fitting – as if to say that one’s expression of duties conform in some way to conventional standards of behavior acceptable to one’s community.

In such a way, Fronts Street Arts, in Downtown Memphis, pretended to assert local cultural significance. And then gradually, others in the community pretended that in some regard it mattered. I pretended to be an impresario, a general director, a person with novel ideas about Downtown recovery in which average people played a part. Then, a few others, particularly very generous friends, pretended to act their parts in concert with my pretenses. Pretending made it so for a long six-year run for me personally. In the end, that community theater of group make believe was snuffed out by accumulated drudgery and divergent interests: new pretenses arose and were applied elsewhere.

Baby Boomers have a reputation as being all for themselves, at least that is what some of the generation wedged between the World War II generation and the Baby Boomers claim – as do those overly repentant Baby Boomers who have let a pendulum of irrationality swing wildly to the right. But Baby Boomers had a curious way of wrapping some kind of community or passionate political involvement into their self-interests. For thirty years, some of us have clearly not been as vigorously attached as before, but many Baby Boomers did act in their twenties. And some exemplary few continued to draw and maintain a consistent line of connection between their self-interests and the public interest.

A child of Baby Boomers might well ask himself, What might I do to enrich the public arena in ways that suit my self-interests and capabilities? Aside from commitments to professional public service and charity, what can younger generations do to effect change at the level of their own brick-and-mortar communities – the world they actually live in? Local seems, and is, so small, but it is everything in the aggregate. And nothing much happens for good locally without personal initiative and inventive group coordination and passion.

In movies and books, I cannot abide an otherwise good story that resolves itself with gunshots or an explosion. Those are cheap shots that do not build and do not satisfy: they change nothing for the better – they are a manufactured stop rather than a fruitful pretense forward. Contrary to rightist mythology, it is not the gun that is the great equalizer of mankind: it is creativity. That creativity can stand in solitary surroundings, but even on its own it tips the balance in favor of community good. Creativity is the thunderous sound that requires no ears to hear it. It is the blood pulsing through our veins. Creative individuals are the building blocks of community whether they like it or not. If they share their fire with others in common cause, concerted acts redound positively to posterity. Though these pretenses may end, perhaps in drudgery and diminishing returns – more often than not, they are much better stories than those that lead to gunshots and explosions.

Read the story of Lyceum Film Theater here.

Painting Eyes

I vividly recall the moment, at twenty-one years of age, when the fire in my belly was finally lit. I was living on Watauga Avenue in a duplex near Memphis State University. Three of my closest college friends, including the young woman who would become my wife four years later, had left Memphis after graduation to work abroad in England on an archaeological dig in Winchester. I was left entirely to my own devices.

The world of art fascinated me but seemed too remote from the life that I lived. I knew little about drawing and painting, but I had become interested in them due to reading history, casual encounters in conversations with friends and a college mentor, photographs in books, and a course in art history that I took late in my college career.

One lonely night, I picked up a pencil and a drawing pad and proceeded to draw a copy of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. I completed the drawing that night. I was utterly astounded by the grayscale textures that I had produced in translation of the richly colored original. I marveled at the optical illusions that could issue from a simple pencil applied in various ways to a white sheet of paper.

From that spark, I went from thinking that I could do nothing well to believing that I could do anything. Pencil drawing proved not to be as enticing as painting, but the embers of one night and a singular experience with the odalisque, fueled my determination to go farther.

The more I looked at that drawing over the years, the more distorted and unnatural it looked. My confidence in my achievement eroded as the being that I drew seemed contorted in an impossible position, having body parts in ridiculous places. The size of the head in relation to the long body and big butt made my odalisque look more like an invented animal hybrid than an inviting young concubine.

Only in writing this introduction, and looking up the spelling of the original painting’s name, did I look again at the painting on Wikipedia. I had no idea all of those years that Ingres had been roundly criticized about the exotic distortions that he had imposed on the poor odalisque’s torso. Her fanciful anatomy, further exaggerated by my copy, had been a deliberate enhancement by Ingres.

What had Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres done in 1814 to open the newborn painting eyes of an eager young novice on Watauga Avenue in 1971? He had employed his own painting eyes to express the world of his own day in the full light and color of his own mind – with no intention whatsoever of replicating reality.

Read it here.