Sunday, December 8, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Filed under: Adventureland, Allan Katz, Bill Bishop, Books, Brendan Koerner, Eilen Jewell, Grupo Fantasma, James Hynes, John Marks, No Depression, Old 97's, Sacred Shakers, Saint Luke's United Methodist Church, The Purple Interview, politics
Posted by: John
In case you missed our first batch of Purple Interviews, here’s your chance to go back and catch up. No matter what your interests, you’re liable to find something worthwhile here.
In the last six months, we’ve talked with musicians Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s, Greg Gonzalez of Grupo Fantasma and folk singer Eilen Jewell about their latest records; movie director Greg Mottola about his amazing comedy Adventureland; playwright and director Moises Kaufman about the legacy of slain gay student Mathew Shepard; authors James Hynes, Brendan Koerner, and Bill Bishop about fiction, history and politics; Harvard Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein about God and Humans at Harvard; Florida political veteran Allan Katz about the future of civility in America; music and movie producer Mark Joseph about Christian pop; No Depression publisher Peter Blackstock about music journalism; and my personal favorite, the mother hen of the Mother Church of Barbecue Chicken, Peg Moore, about why her church makes the best barbecue chicken in America.
We’ve also heard from Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright on the legacy of Tennessee Williams, the singer-songwriter John Frances on the trials, tribulations and joys of making music in Nashville, the author Paula Butturini about her amazing memoir about the healing power of a great meal and the Burundian refugee Pascal Akimana on surviving genocide.
Enjoy these past and sort of perfect Purple conversations and stay tuned for more:
THE MOTHER CHURCH OF BARBECUE CHICKEN: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW— On Saturday, July 4, Independence Day, as my wife and son and in-laws watched a parade in downtown St. Michaels, Maryland, I went in search of a few good Methodist men and their exquisite chicken.
FORMER TALLAHASSEE CITY COMMISSIONER ALLAN KATZ: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—” We feel strongly about issues usually not just for intellectual reasons, but for emotional ones as well, which makes it more difficult when people on the other side not only don’t accept your reasoning…”
AUTHOR BRENDAN KOERNER ON THE MOST AMAZING WORLD WAR II STORY YOU NEVER HEARD: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“Herman Perry was a young African-American butcher from Washington D.C. who was drafted into the Army in 1942. He was shipped to Bombay, India, then taken across the subcontinent to the mountainous, thickly forested Indo-Burmese border. There, he and his unit were ordered to help build the Ledo Road, a 465-mile highway to China. It was just a nightmare of an assignment…”
SINGER SONGWRITER EILEN JEWELL ON THE SEA OF TEARS: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“2008 was a joyful but difficult year for me, and a lot of those conflicting elements made their way onto Sea of Tears…I had never really lost a friend before and had just been taking it for granted that we were all going to stick around and still be friends well into our old age.”
ADVENTURELAND DIRECTOR GREG MOTTOLA: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“I latched onto the amusement park setting because I liked the irony that such a shabby place is a mecca for fun — its meant to represent the idea that sometimes life doesn’t provide better options. Only after making the film, did I realize that its so much about how one handles disappointment and loss.”
PLAYWRIGHT MOISES KAUFMAN TALKS ABOUT WHO OWNS THE MATHEW SHEPARD STORY: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“My uncle was a prisoner in Auschwitz. When I came out to him he didn’t speak to me for several months. I finally wrote him an email saying “how can you discriminate against your own nephew after having been in Auschwitz?”
NOVELIST JAMES HYNES TALKS ALIENS, AUSTIN AND WHAT COMES NEXT: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“When I say I’m a small-town Calvinist, all I mean by it is that I’m culturally and morally a Calvinist, simply because I grew up in that culture and was imprinted very early on with that small-town, Jimmy Stewart sense of fairness, right and wrong, and propriety.”
GREG GONZALEZ OF THE LATIN FUNK BAND GRUPO FANTASMA ON MUSIC, POLITICS AND GOOD FOOD: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“Christian McBride once said the bass player is like the offensive line in football. Nobody pays attention to the offensive line, but it forms the shape of the offense, protects the play makers and makes it possible for the offense to function. I might not make touchdowns very often, but I do set blocks so others can score.”
MUSIC AND MOVIE PRODUCER MARK JOSEPH TALKS ABOUT NED FLANDERS AND THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW —“When it comes to pop culture, I’ve always felt that nobody benefits from segregation…The Secular and the Sacred need each other to trim one another’s excesses.”
GREG EPSTEIN, OR A HUMANIST CHAPLAIN GOES TO HARVARD: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—” Sometimes it can be freeing to just allow ourselves to feel the pain, the disappointment, the frustration of being human. To not have to pretend that it’s all justified by some future reward after we die.”
RHETT MILLER OF THE OLD 97′S TALKS THE WIT AND WISDOM OF SONGWRITING: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“Catcher In The Rye came to me in 4th grade. I’d just gone through a long, mysterious illness that had me in the hospital for a couple of months and I felt like an outsider surrounded by phonies. It was heartening to discover that I was not alone.”
AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST BILL BISHOP TALKS THE POLITICS OF THE BIG SORT: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“Fifty years ago, there was virtually no disagreement about spanking. Parents spanked. Over time, however, that agreement broke down. Today, some parents spank and others don’t, and the distribution of spankers and non-spankers is uneven across the country. There is a much higher proportion of spankers in Wyoming than in Rhode Island.The places where spankers congregate vote Republican. And as non spankers increase as a percentage of the population, the Democratic votes goes up. This is just another example of differences in lifestyle being political.”
NO DEPRESSION PUBLISHER AND EDITOR PETER BLACKSTOCK TALKS ABOUT THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AMERICAN MUSIC JOURNALISM: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—“Grant and I always liked to say that we defined alternative-country by not defining it…It all made sense to us under a larger umbrella.”
PAULA BUTTURINI KEEPS THE FEAST AT THANKSGIVING: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—”:I love the peculiar taste of green asparagus but, even more, I love what the appearance of seasonal asparagus means: that the hell of winter is just about over for another year, and that life in general is going to be a tad easier for awhile, thanks to the promise of spring and sun.”
DOUG WRIGHT TALKS TENNESSSEE WILLIAMS: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—”I learned that the theater was a wonderful anti-dote to my every-day life. In the theater, you could boldly express big, oversized emotions, explore forbidden subjects, and behave badly…as long as you were illustrating some fundamental, true tenent about the human experience.”
John Francis Talks Nashville And John Carter Cash: THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—”I haven’t really got a sense of what it takes to “make it” in Nashville. The path to “makin it” depends on what we mean by “making it”. For some it’s getting their songs covered by big Top 40 Country stars. For others, it may mean
becoming a big Country star. For me it’s neither. I am a songwriter
and a performer.”
PASCAL AKIMANA Tells His Story Of War, Survival And Reconciliation in Burundi (PART I): THE PURPLE INTERVIEW—”There was heavy fighting, and people were killed. My neighbors were killed. There were well-educated people, like teachers, who were killed. I saw their bodies.”
PASCAL AKIMANA TELLS HIS STORY OF WAR, SURVIVAL AND RECONCILIATION IN BURUNDI (PART II)—”One night, my mother took me with her to church to see the pastor. That night, she had been beaten severely. My father had used shoes, belts, everything. Her body was so badly beaten. I was crying. I had tried to stop my dad, but I was powerless. There was nothing I could do. When she reached the pastor, she was crying, and I was crying, too.”
The weather was terrible, but the conversation was bracing. I was amazed at how many people turned out to hear me speak about “Why I Rejected the Christian Faith” on a fairly early Saturday morning. My host, Gary Davis, structured the talk as conversation, asking questions with a microphone. He asked that people not try to convert me, and his request was mostly honored, but I’m so used to the hard sell by now that it’s an expected part of any discussion.
I’ll write more later, but in general, one of the more memorable and enjoyable of roadshow experiences. Craig would have loved it. The Purple State Roadshow continues.
Filed under: Berlin, Books, Cold War, Europe, Germany, History, Holocaust, Hungary, John Marks, Poland, Romania, Russia, Stalin, The Wall, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, War Torn, World War II
Posted by: John
What is the higher meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall for our time? Is there one? Does it have something to do with freedom, as suggested by the crowds at the Brandenburg Gate on Monday night chanting the letters of the word in German: F-R-E-I-H-E-I-T? Or does it have more to do with the German word for hope? H-O-F-F-N-U-N-G?
As in the hope that the world can change for the better?
For me, the fall of the Berlin Wall always has been and always will be a story about hope, and last night reminded me why.
Courtesy of the University of Massachusetts DEFA Film Archive, I watched an extraordinary movie called Leipzig im Herbst, or Leipzig In The Fall, a 50-minute documentary shot on 35 mm cameras by two students of the Babelsberg film school between October 16 and November 7, 1989, in the revolutionary city of Leipzig. Four other students shot similar footage in Dresden and Berlin, but it was in Leipzig that the Wende, or turning point, became a reality.
The movie is special for several reasons.
For one, it is a singular glimpse behind the scenes of a mass political event. In the autumn of 1989, vistas of East German crowds became a staple of cable and network news, but while West German, British and American cameras picked up on the energy on the streets and the spirit of revolt, the young East German filmmakers managed to get into the heads of a people on the cusp.
As a result, the film is an indispensable depiction of a world in transition, a true record of a fleeting historical instance. In the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the outcome of events remained uncertain, the filmmakers Andreas Voigt and Gerd Kroske capture on screen the cautious ambivalence and quiet, stammering courage of people who know they may still be imprisoned for what they say to the cameras.
They say it anyway, and I have never seen interviews quite like these, in which a few people voice their opinions while their neighbors listen. Somehow, the expressions on the faces of the silent are more eloquent and stirring than anything that is said by the speakers. Their silences are unbearably pregnant; they are alive with possibilities, weighed and judged, everything at stake in a single moment of dissent or confession that never comes.
Voigt and Kroske get interviews with street sweepers who rip down placards and posters of the protestors and yet turn to the camera and admit that they agree with the sentiments on the trash; they’re only tearing the posters down because it’s their job. On the floor of a factory, several workers accuse the union bosses of betraying them while using honeyed words of worker solidarity to mask their betrayal. For an East German audience inundated with slogans about the importance of the working class, there could hardly be a more damning failure.
In one of the most surprising moments in the documentary, a crowd sings “The Internationale”, the anthem of revolutionary socialism in the 20th Century, and we understand that for many of these people, the ideals of socialism had not been extinguished by four decades of misrule; their governments had failed, but the principles hadn’t.
Soon enough, such hopes would be lost to a shift in a radically different direction, toward unification with the economy and identity of West Germany, but they were real enough then, and seeing their articulation in retrospect is heartbreaking. There were millions of East Germans who wanted to love their country and shape it after their own fashion. The chance was lost.
It was never a matter of reviving a dictatorship. Rather, it was a yearning for a national identity that was separate from the propaganda of the state, a sensibility that survived against all odds despite its debasement, that has lived for two decades now a sort of phantom life, a true ghost of the past. The ghost hovers over every second of this footage.
The heart of the movie is a twenty-minute sequence of interviews with state police and their superiors. The police are young, barely out of college. They sit in a cafe, drinking coffee, looking distraught and uncertain, and yet it is remarkable how openly they speak. A few weeks before, on the 4Oth Anniversary of East Germany, there had been demonstrations, and these same young men had almost been ordered to attack the demonstrators. On the evidence of the footage, the experience shook them to the core. Watching them speak, it’s clear that the government lost its people before the Wall opened, even its police. In their hearts, these young officers had already joined the revolt.
All too often, in histories and newspaper accounts of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989, we get the bird’s eye view, and worse. We hear that the decisions of a few men–Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev—brought about these revolutions. That is a half-truth, at best. In fact, the decisions by heads of state might well have remained inert policy decisions had not the average people in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland not taken action through their votes and their feet.
We may see their actions as inevitable (once it was clear, for instance, that the Soviet government wouldn’t use force to put down popular revolt), but that’s the textbook illusion of later generations. The people of East Germany had submitted to decades of repressive government. A quarter of the population had turned informant—and no doubt some of those compromised faces look out at us opaquely from the black and white footage in Leipzig In The Fall. Dozens had been killed trying to escape the country. Thousands had been imprisoned.
There was sufficient reason to expect a violent response from the East German government, which had little chance of surviving the changes, and a good chance the people might bend or break under the assault. Yet neither of those things happened, and the documentary explains why. In the weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cops and the people on the street had begun to recognize each other in the dark. In that recognition, the government and its violence dissolved. When the moment of truth came, the East German leadership chose to defend itself by peaceful means, and the East German people decided that movement alone—mobility—was their greatest weapon.
By and large, throughout Eastern Europe, countries and peoples followed that example, and they did so, in large part, because there was an example to follow. The East Germans set it.
In the twenty years since, we haven’t seen much to compare. We’ve seen countries blown apart by civil war, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, genocide in Africa. We’ve seen repression and murder of the press in Russia, spectacular acts of terrorism around the world, foreign invasion and occupation in the Middle East and South Asia. The hope of 1989 has come to seem vain, almost naive.
Here’s the thing to remember. It did back then, too. Hope, and its warriors, always seem naive. They always stack up unfavorably against the cynical conventions of any given moment. When hope does prevail, in the form of justice, relief and peace, and throughout history, time and again, it has, it’s because people didn’t bother to question its value. They acted upon its power and trusted to the fortunes of the day.
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