Underrated/Overlooked: Terence Nance on Aquarius

Channeling Claudia Rankine, Talkhouse Film's poet laureate Terence Nance looks at the present moment through one of the finest films of 2016.

Notes: This piece owes a stylistic debt to the amazing Claudia Rankine. I know Kleber. I’m an Aquarius.

The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)

The present state of me. The present state of the world. To restate the above with an image. I see it as a plane on which layers of life lived co-exist with life playing now in the theater of the day. Aquarius is a romp on this collapsed plane of Brazilian society, sure, but also every place where reason and good fun and a certain kind of studious loving, flexible, learned beauty is displaced by temporal, monied, violent, fearful, urgent, civic space and gender / class / race roles … characters, even. Characters like the old white entitled male wealthy slumlord who would be a caricature had he not been so tangible in the lived life of you, so respectable and revered in world culture, so winning, high on that tiger blood he got at the gun show Wall Street swap meet. You know him, the Netanyahu who builds the settlements, the Donald that builds the buildings, the great and powerful whomever that concusses the sky with projections of his desired phallus. This guy is everywhere it seems and …

The present state of her. She walks through the movie in limbo, like she’s trying to make a decision about the usefulness of her nostalgia and what color to paint the wall and how much more aloneness she can take without doing something romantically inadvisable. Since the world buries the past inside you, you cannot die alone. But you can age gracefully away from the present, or rather grow slowly distant from the value system of the dimension you happen to have been born into. I speak of dimensions in the quantum sense, to suggest that there must be others where that aforementioned developer man needn’t build settlements and new condos and walls and fear his virginal woman is in the crosshairs of a rabid raving rapist pouring across some line in the sand some slave owner drew centuries ago to make sure his paper stays stacked high and …

All this brings us to violence, both psychic and physical, but aren’t those just the same? The psychological warfare of patriarchy. In Aquarius, the way she is constantly phrased as in need of protection by every man that crosses her path, the way she scoffs at that with her eyes. The way the new landlord condescends upon her, going asymmetrical and high-pitched when attempting to convince her to take the money, a habit of highly powerful or effective or dealmaker-type people or something from one of those shitty Laws of Power books all blue WASP bloods read and hope are biblical. The psychological warfare of white supremacy, the way the youngish developer pawn condescends, by suggesting she has done well for being “from a dark-skinned family,” the way that her family others the browner help, the way we only see these browner / blacker women from which she derives her swag – in the kitchen, the way her kids erase their African-ness with photo editing iOS apps before canonizing their memories on the ‘gram, and of course …

I don’t know much concretely about the history of Brazil. I visited once to show my film. I’ve read that it has the largest population of African descendent people outside of Africa, mostly enslaved by the Portuguese and brought over during the Middle Passage from Angola. I do know from experience that your body would remember 250 years of chattel slavery even if that happened to your mother’s father’s mother and her mother’s four generations back consecutively. Your body would still remember it. It’s science. If you’re Irish, your body remembers the potato famine. That’s a generalization, but you get it. So her body remembers the trip over from Angola, the shackles and the whip and the rape and the work and the sin and the drums and the languages and the escape and the descent into the high-ground. Her body also remembers seeing the Conquistadors land and knowing they were not human, because who has feet made of metal, but still welcoming them and then defending her children against them and dying of thirst while working in their homes and caring for them with her medicine so that they could survive the fevers. Her body remembers regretting that; keeping them alive, it was a reflex. And, of course, her body remembers when she was that Conquistador and remembers the power, the conquest, the kills, the survival, the hunting of Arawak, the knowing that he won’t go back across the Atlantic with no gold to show for it, the iron, the knowing that he doesn’t really believe in some fountain of youth, the iron clothes and how they grew heavy in the heat as his belief in the Christ died easily, but remembers still killing in his name, and how he was saved by a brown girl whom he did not believe was human and couldn’t have …

So because all that violence from the past is stored in my body and in her body, and in her buildings and in our buildings, the Empire State, the Hoover Dam, the railroads, blood everywhere, that Barclays building in Midtown that was Lehman’s building where they payed the rent and sewed golden parachutes in 2008 with checks they earned off the backs of my grandparents working the fields for free. So the violence is put in everything and is ironed out on that plane we misname the present. I read something recently about a Hasidic landlord in Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights or one of those Black neighborhoods I have called or call home that is being rapidly colonized by relatively wealthy European descendant millennial and Gen X’rs living that millennial life moving to NY from Columbus, OH, de-progressivizing the electorate in a swing state to make art or work at a blog or go to grad school or teach for America. I read something where that landlord said something like when those young white people sniff the possibility of a black person living in their building, they protest, object. I think the words he said the millennials use go something like, “We’re not paying that much money to have black people live in the building.” Anecdotes are dangerous because they are the moment’s narrow truth and/but feign the truth of all moments and all people they implicate demographically and are damning or liberating so far as we/they all bleed the same blood and move away from offensively named Columbus, OH, en masse with similar ideas of what success is because we/they all watch the same Viacom shows and Marvel movies and have the same high-school mascots.

We don’t believe you ’cause we the people
Are still here in the rear, ayo, we don’t need you
You in the killing-off-good-young-nigga mood
When we get hungry we eat the same fucking food

The ramen noodle

Your simple voodoo is so maniacal, we’re liable to pull a juju
The irony is that this bad bitch in my lap
She don’t love me, she make money, she don’t study that
She gon’ give it to me, ain’t gon’ tell me run it back
She gon’ take the brain to wetter plains, she spit on that
The doors have signs with, don’t try to rhyme with
VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with
Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality
And for a salary I’d probably do that shit sporadically
The OG Gucci boots are smitten with iguanas
The IRS piranha see a nigga gettin’ commas
Niggas in the hood living in a fishbowl
Gentrify here, now it’s not a shit hole
Trendsetter, I know, my shit’s cold
Ain’t settling because I ain’t so bold but ay

All you Black folks, you must go
All you Mexicans, you must go
And all you poor folks, you must go
Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways
So all you bad folks, you must go

The fog and the smog of news media that logs
False narratives of Gods that came up against the odds
We’re not just nigga rappers with the bars
It’s kismet that we’re cosmic with the stars
— A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People” (2016)

Anecdotes are dangerous when they sound familiar and reinforce what you thought anyway when your white classmate with whom you are assigned a group project for grad school, the one from the ‘burbs of Cleveland, when he/they move into the building next door and asks you if you’d be down to call the police when the Black neighbors who smoke the same swishers as your uncles get to “playing the music too loud” because maybe 5-0 will come if we all call them en masse. You wonder how it’s possible your classmate feels you are the type of Black he/she can say that too. You say in so many words that the violence would get real at that en masse point. You are certain of this because you have been inundated with the anecdotal videos of blue murder black, and all those times po-po stepped to me on some, “against the wall, hands where I can…” when the anecdote sounds familiar like the time when …

White superman in Africa and the white woman he saves are epitomized by the Tarzan movies. In 1912, with Western imperialism at its zenith and Europeans completing their self-assigned task of colonizing Africa, Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan. Just six years later Tarzan of the Apes made it to the screen. In 1932 Tarzan, the Ape Man found his voice. Four decades after most of Africa has become independent, Hollywood continues to promote a white man dominating his African surroundings. The 47th Tarzan movie was released in 1998 and seventeen versions of Tarzan were available in the home video market at last count.
— Josef Gugler, African Film: Re-imagining a Continent (2003)

Pattern recognition is like what makes us not crocodiles, right, who eat their young and hunt even when full? A pattern I’ve seen is how in Aquarius she fights the violence in front of her, which is manifest in the film as: the intently loud and disruptive rager that the developers throw in the room directly above her condo, the resulting human poop that the rager participants leave as parting gifts in the vestibule outside her apartment, the legal action the developers take when she paints the facade of the uninhabited building back to its original white, the not-too-obvious but clearly get-the-fuck-out-of-here move of burning mattresses in her driveway, all these clear-as-day micro- to macroaggressions that generally don’t phase her because she and I have been dealing with this since we could take in sights with our eyes and sounds with our ears and intentions with our pineal gland. The pattern I see is that all of those aggressions are just flashing lights designed to distract us, the “other” from the real threat, the slow-burn viral violence, the intentionally fed infections of white supremacy, hypercapitalism, hyperviolent patriarchy, and the highly profitable inhumanity that sustains all three. This virus is represented in the film as a termite colony that the developers site and breed in the vacant chambers of her home. The elderly combover-laden developer covertly colonizes her place of rest, he intentionally sickens the site of her most intense passions, her most banal sorrows, the vantage point from which she and her mother witnessed lives and bore them. This place, this body, is systematically eaten from the inside as if it were nothing but some amoral creature’s food. The pattern, I know this to be how it always is. The developer, the man, the capitalist, the old guard is always duplicitous, always enacting a plan behind your back, working at all hours, day by day to destroy you and all the lives that the past put inside you from the inside out. I have found a pattern in the images they make, the Tarzans they put forth, the Marvel men who are just today’s Marlboro men with a slightly wider gamut of exploitative tonalities. This is one tentacle of that virus, that monstrous master plot that Alex Jones conspicuously never gets beet red over. Dan Schoenbrun wrote accurately in Filmmaker recently something to that effect, in case you are more apt to internalizing the info if a white guy says it; Reichardt brought light to this perceptive tyranny in her recent film Certain Women, in case you are more apt to internalize the info if a white woman says – I think we are stuck in a time loop.

(Strange aside: that film’s director is hee-hawing about how they had to cast Tilda to avoid the magical Asian trope but couldn’t fathom casting Dr. Strange as Asian himself, which would have mitigated the aforementioned risk all together. Dev Patel, having already suffered through the indignities being a Slumdog, a villain in a whitewashed Airbender by an Asian director, and now an Indian orphan saved by Australian white angels, deserves now to be cast as the most unexplored Asian stereotype, the gifted Asian-American surgeon (deadpan lol) but he wouldn’t have been because of the aforementioned pattern, the termites upstairs, the plan, the plot that cannot be interrupted.)

It goes without saying that if there is an effective resistance to this particular tentacle of the man’s plan, it is movies like Aquarius that centralize characters like her and lionize her in her nuance. In the screening I went to tho, Sonia clearly on par with the greatest thespians of her generation, made a point to say that she hadn’t starred in a movie in decades (a problem Meryl doesn’t have, for instance) which belies the fact that their plan is just as much about preventing characterizations of people like her from being made as it is about inundating us w/ neo John Waynes but patterns are like …

Brazil is suffering through a coup in which a corrupt hypercapitalist elderly white man with a young former beauty queen deposed the country’s left-leaning first female president. At the film’s Cannes premiere, the filmmakers staged an elegant protest against what we now should all know is an extremely normal occurrence. And in the elegance of that protest and the quiet clear and chaotic rhythm of the film and Braga’s masterful performance, there are many lessons to be absorbed, lessons that will hopefully render this moment in American life useful. One lesson is that we need the poem. We need it to react to these violent indignities with accuracy. This is because unlike the story, we expect the poem to be angry and funny and bereaved and careful and chaotic and strategic and beautiful. The poem is allowed to be all messages at once and none at all. It is the most appropriate response to the irresolute. The poem, in its neither-here-nor-thereness, allows you to express in force what the fuck you are about to do now.

What did she do?

In Kleber’s poem, she walked in that old white man developer’s office and threw the termite colony at his head.

It was suggested through subsequent imagery that the termites colonized his office, his place of rest.

Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.