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384 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 2014
Point a camera at something, you change it.Change is definitely in the air in the summer of 1928. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 the Grand brothers, silent-film director Micah, and his cameraman, partner and brother Izzy, might be feeling a bit of heat from the new kid on the block, the talkie. Their producer certainly is. Mired in debt and fearing for the future of his group’s stock in trade, he wants Micah and Iz to secure another foundation for their company. When he proposes that they go to Africa to create stock footage for sale to other companies, they are reluctant. But Micah has a bit of a problem with gambling, and really, really needs the money such a grand tour might generate.
The seed of the idea for O, Africa! came from an incident in the lives of the Korda brothers, who made several trips to Africa in the early period of moviemaking to create a vault of B-roll footage of the bush—an anecdote that immediately suggested to me a big, freewheeling book that could accommodate many of the themes that most interest me. - from KGB Bar interviewThey do not get to Africa until about a hundred pages in, so there is a lot of local color to absorb. Historical figures, whether by reference or named overtly, are a large presence here. Babe Ruth pops by for a cameo in a film they are shooting in Coney Island. There are gangster sorts that seem lifted from the pages of Damon Runyon or Elmore Leonard. At least a few, such as Bumpy Johnson, and Stephanie St. Clair, are fictionalized versions of historical NYC baddies. The brothers’ leading man, Henry Till, is an avatar of silent film comedy star Harold Lloyd, complete with signature eyeglasses, and damaged hand.
Conn’s content (Conntent?) is considerable. He looks at a slew of minorities. Conn’s 1920s gangsters (with the trailing “er” intact) do not fit the usual image we have of tommy-gun-toting bank robbers and Prohibition-fueled thieves, killers and smugglers. These mobsters are black. And at least one member of that club has blasted away at the glass ceiling. He includes a dwarf director, a mixed race relationship and an adult gay virgin.
Andrew Lewis Conn
You have these different minority characters who are trying to find a way in, a way into the culture and, you know, it could be either through some sort of artistic endeavor or criminality. But the instinct is the same. It’s all trying to break through somehow. - from Momemt Mag interviewThere is some powerful imagery. A dump site near the African village is particularly poignant. Subtlety does not always rule, however, as we are treated to a bludgeoning when it comes to interpreting a nightly film showing.
Africa? Says Rose, lying naked on her side, the copper penny smell of semen flowering fragrant in the room. “What do you know about Africa?
Flat as Nebraskan badlands, for miles and miles the dahtkam stretched. As Mtabi described, the territory is a trash heap, a repository, a junkyard, a world of things made, unmade, an underworld living on the very surface of the village. Scattered across this Whitman’s Sampler of things unloved and unnecessary are stacks of tablets with outmoded stories from yesteryear; idols usurped by shinier, more brilliant gods; broken brooms and unraveled mats; punctured water bottles and leaky pots; grubby furnishings, bedding, and birth mats; heaps of smashed and irregularly shaped beads and ornaments; cracked flutes, crushed drums, and busted string instruments that look like undiscovered letters of the alphabet.
If Henry Till displayed neither the precision-instrument bearing of Keaton nor the poetic lyricism of Chaplin, neither could he be counted as one of the goons and grotesques supporting the comic pantheon’s second tier, baby beasts like Fatty Arbuckle and Harry Langdon. The secret of Till’s appeal was his very ordinariness.
The three of them stand and watch the projector booth’s beam cleave the dark, light baptizing the audience, whirring machinery music, the sound of memory itself. … They would never grow tired of this processing of enchantment: a lightstorm of imagery flooding from behind that unearths the hidden and unimagined as from an archaeological dig.