Issue #186: Say his name

The semester is fully under way, which means the volume of writing per newsletter might see a little bit of a downturn. You know how it goes. Many of you have been reading this for a long time.

Today I got a pair of jeans in the mail from Skinner American Goods located in Tallahassee, Florida.

I ordered them back in June, getting measured while I was visiting, but a good tailor is like a good barber — expect a wait. And Daniel Skinner is more than a tailor, he is an artisan.

Long story short, I thoroughly recommend him if you are looking for a pair of custom made jeans. The fabrics he keeps on hand are excellent and each one has an interesting story behind it.

I also played a little Magic: the Gathering over the past week, drafting some Mystery Booster: Convention Edition.

The Convention Edition of Mystery Booster include some fun ‘playtest’ cards, printed as if they are a slip of paper pasted over an already-existing card. Some of them are quite valuable, but all of them are interesting. This is one I picked up in my draft.

But, Mystery Booster has an even more important draw — they smell like old Magic cards. Yes, if you are a Magic player from days gone by, you’ll know that up until quite recently they had a very particular smell when opened. Considering the positive associations one has with opening booster packs, this smell became very alluring to players like myself. It was a pretty uncanny experience smelling it again. For more on this smell, Magic youtube channel Search Your Library did a deep dive recently.

This week… Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman

The Real and the Symbolic in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman

What haunts in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) is precisely the ghost of exclusion in Bernard Rose’s 1992 effort. Plagued by white saviorism and a haphazard approach to dealing with the Cabrini-Green housing project, which serves as the site of both films, DaCosta’s Candyman both more competently expresses the role of economic privilege in racial oppression through gentrification as well as problematizes one’s own status as complicit in relation to gentrification, even if a person is not the beneficiary of historically awarded privilege.

There is no better example of this dual focus of the film than Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Anthony McCoy, an on-the-rise artist in a gentrified Cabrini-Green loft, just a stone’s throw from the overdeveloped academic-housing lofts of Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle in the first film. McCoy, a kidnapped infant in the 1992 film, is a painter who is struggling financially and creatively, living off of his successful art gallery director girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parrish). McCoy is experiencing “writer’s block,” but his ‘reconnection’ to the original Cabrini-Green housing project, a place to which he has no connection that he is aware, evokes the culture-vulturism explored in films like The Square (2017). As a result, he ends up producing a deeply similar painting to Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” though he houses it within a body of mirrors.

Showing off his new piece of art, he is confronted by an art critic, Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence), who tells him “you people” are responsible for the gentrification of lower income communities. The obviously racial subtext of the phrasing is noted by McCoy, but Stephens clarifies that she means artists, “looking for cheap rent so [they] can dick around in [their] studio all day.” Stephens isn’t wrong, at least by the logic of DaCosta’s film. McCoy’s superficial appropriation of a history in the Cabrini-Green housing community may be a result of pressure from one of Cartwright’s coworkers, but it is only when something different and more sinister seeps in that he is able to produce truly excellent art. In this way, DaCosta evokes the work of Lang and Scarlet Street (1945), suggesting that it is the unconscious rather than some avowed affiliation that results in aesthetic excellence.

This excellence, however, comes at a tremendous cost, as films like Scarlet Street, Loft (2005), and Black Swan (2010) make clear. But when the cost is paid, in Candyman, there is transcendence. For all of McCoy’s flaws, his descent into murderous madness gives way to a renewed connection with that which he previously tried to appropriate. One of the film’s most important maneuvers is the ambiguity it introduces with the actions of Candyman. As the spectral force targets the gallery owner that pressured McCoy into exploring Cabrini-Green in the first place and the critic who gave him a scathing review along with naming him as a responsible party for gentrification, the viewer is left wondering if this is the agency of McCoy or some other agency. Much like one of Lang’s other Edward G. Robinson led film, The Woman in the Window (1944), Candyman tangles with the question of the agency of the ego versus the agency of the unconscious. But for DeCosta, the unconscious is not Lacan’s ungovernable force associated with the Real, but instead something that partakes of a Symbolic history.

It is through the signifier that history re-produces itself in Candyman. William Burke (Colman Domingo), who tells McCoy about the Candyman legend, reminds him that the men who make up the “hive” of Candyman died as a result of horrific racist violence. And that history is undying, like Candyman. Interpolating the work of Kara Walker’s shadow puppets, DaCosta renders the stories told by Burke — of lynchings and men drawn and quartered — only just barely palatable in this medium. But Kara Walker’s own approach to art and history, evincing history’s persistence through the signifier, dovetails with yet another artist that DaCosta draws from retelling the story of Candyman, Toni Morrison.

When Cartwright recollects her father, a struggling artist like McCoy, jumping from his studio window, she evokes Milkman’s arc in Song of Solomon (1977) without the possibility for optimism that Morrison offers in her novel. Morrison, too, is an artist for whom the past is vital and alive, but often returning as a dread presence, as was the case in Beloved (1987). Morrison also illustrates the possible connection between history and the Real in the character of Beloved, an analogue in many ways for Candyman himself. The pair share the same multiplicitous subjectivity, corporeal indeterminacy, and complex position with regard to Lacanian’s tripartite structure of Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary. And of course, Candyman’s persistent presence on the other side of the mirror in the film is a testament to his relation to the Imaginary as well as the Real via the unconscious and Symbolic via the historical signifiers he carries with him. The signifiers are, in part, the proper names of those who form his consciousness that are repeated by Burke. The injunction of the Candyman legend to “say his name” is unquestionably evocative of the saying of the names of those murdered by police in extrajudicial killings.

In Candyman, the unconscious channels history, not the Real of one’s desire. Or, at the very least, the Real of one’s desire becomes totally subsumed by the horrific history one can never escape. When Lyle dislodges her mirrored medicine cabinet in her bathroom in the 1992 film to reveal the obvious floor plan of a housing project, Rose is at his signifying height. DaCosta picks up that thread and runs with it in her spin on the character, and fully realizes the themes Rose struggled to wrangle. 

Weekly Reading List

Would you have guessed that between games of the 1999 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs were playing games of Starcraft in their hotel room? This is well known information, but it was news to me. In fact, these guys were so dedicated to the game that they set up a LAN on their jet home… after winning the NBA Championship. Note the trophy in the bottom right: — This ‘cave of forgotten films’ offers hours of entertainment, of which I am not able to avail myself given my scarcity of free time. But I’ve got a few films from here on the back burner, especially Melancholia (1989) and Dankon: The Man (1998). — The Letterboxd reddit produced a spirited discussion about directors who had only made one feature film. Whether because of premature death, unimaginable critical failure, or just plain disinterest, the likes of Angst (1983), Roar (1981), Killer Virgin Road (2009), and Mystery Men (1999) are mentioned. — I promise Paradox is not becoming a reality TV newsletter, but I have learned too much about the ‘puppet master’ behind some of The Bachelor franchise’s best moments, Elan Gale.

What sent me down this rabbit hole was a revelatory conversation between Game of Roses hosts and former The Bachelor contestant Sharleen Joynt, where Joynt discusses her trust in Gale because “everything he said was going to happen, happened.” In light of all of The Bachelor seasons he served as a producer for, it does seem like he has the uncanny ability to draw what he needs out of contestants and develop an ongoing narrative throughout the season.

Since leaving The Bachelor, Gale has created and executive produced the next reality TV craze, FBoy Island.

Until next time.