Friday, July 20, 2018

Death and Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne
The subject of “Death and Montaigne” ignited a spirited exchange in the letters column of the June 22 TLS. Citing Montaigne’s essay, “Of Exercise or Practice,” Graham Swift, London SW18 remarks, “This essay almost succeeds in refuting the irrefutable premiss that though we can practice many things, death is not one of them.” The best thing about death is that it has often inspired writers (“Death, be not proud”) to great flights of oratory and this generous locution is a little like the famous 360 degree head turning scene in The ExorcistJoseph Ting, School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove, Brisbane offers, “Kafka’s ‘The meaning of life is that it stops’ remains scant consolation when life is robbed unexpectedly or prematurely.” Still the quote from the famous Czech writer is strangely consoling in its affirmation of finitude of a godless universe. Aren’t exorbitant expectations often to blame where the spiritual life is concerned? Paul Slack, Linacre College, Oxford begins his brief note with the ominous “I dare say this is no time for me to be making enemies…” Can we assume that Mr. Slack is another gray panther on the lamb? One can only say how British! Jolly good, govna!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company

You may find Jean-Luc Godard’s The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company (1986)currently in revival at Anthology Film Archives, bullshit or brilliant. It’s actually a little of both. It’s filmmaking as a piece of performance art, maybe the kind you’d find in a Richard Foreman work at The Saint Mark’s Poetry project. Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Leaud of The 400 Blows fame) starts off the film shooting screen tests and ends up joining the line of hopefuls who receive 20 francs a shot for their time. Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky), the producer is a fugitive from the New Wave come upon hard times who ends up like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.The whole film replete with Almeredya’s alienated wife Eurydice (Marie Valera) has the feeling of microscopic outtakes from Contempt left on the cutting room floor. A great part of the action is simply the line of actors reading sentence fragments into a camera positioned in front of a poster of L’avventura. One of the female actresses iterates “he’s the only man I ever loved, he’s dead.” She’s asked to repeat it and then the camera holds her wide open mouth freeze-framed in a shot that recalls the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Potemkin. La Grand Illusion is the headline of one of the sections of the film and a book about Jerry Lewis, a favorite of French cineastes, lies in a pile on a desk. It would be cant to say that The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company deconstructs the process of filmmaking, though it does tip its hat ambivalently to the demise of celluloid and the concomitant advent of the video in which it’s shot (it was originally a made-for-TV movie). But the film takes too many creative liberties to qualify as an essay in filmmaking, narrative or anything else. It’s more like a dance and in the end Godard himself makes an appearance as the guest diva. There's a side to Godard which wants to blow everything to smithereens including art, cognition and certainly the social order. If you find yourself shaking your head, you may be responding to the fact that this time his anarchist impulses may have created an esthetics of gibberish.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Banality of Himmler

Himmler’s daughter recently died ("Gudrun Burwitz, Ever-Loyal Daughter of Himmler, Is Dead at 88,NYT7/6/18). And her story epitomizes Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Firstly, she made the Times obit page, which is a distinction in and of itself. There was undoubtedly someone whose relative wasn’t so lucky and who said to themselves “I guess you have to be Himmler’s daughter.” Secondly, she remained loyal to her father throughout her life, refusing to believe that he was a monster which is a reminder that in spite of the haunting box cars, train, whistles, ovens and smoke stacks, life apparently went on with some degree of normalcy (at least for those in high positions) during the Third Reich. You did your job and received rewards, promotions and reprimands (in Himmler’s case he incurred the Fuhrer’s disfavor in the end for advocating surrender). You had your marriages and children. Himmler’s produced Gudrun, a nice Teutonic name. Gutrune was Siegfried's wife in Wagner's Ring. According to The Times piece, Himmler called her “Puppi,” and she called him “Pappi.”  Puppi and Pappi could be a graphic novel say like Maus. A killing machine is a way of life and there are weddings and birthdays and children like the hapless Gudrun who had trouble getting a job due to her resume. Gudrun herself apparently found love, in the form of a right wing journalist named Wulf, which just goes to show there’s someone for everyone. Is there a dating site that caters to the offspring of war criminals?

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Three Identical Strangers

Tim Wardle'sThree Identical Strangers is about an unethical experiment. Identical triplets born on July 12, 1961, put up for adoption, were farmed to families who had no knowledge of the existence of siblings. Whether the experiment was testing theories of nature versus nurture, parenting, or perhaps even the heritability of mental illness are all subjects that are dealt with in the film. However the underlying paradox is that the Jewish agency which was involved in placing the children and underwriting the experiment was following in the footsteps of Nazis like Joseph Mengele who also performed similarly inhumane studies on twins. Were those involved as impervious to human life as the Nazis? Obviously not, but the harmful effect on the subjects the movie describes was great. Infants who were summarily separated from each other experienced life-long problems and there’s a particularly tragic circumstance that the film underscores that may have resulted directly from the experiment's methodology. Apparently, there was quite a method to the madness with children being placed in varying socio-economic milieus to test environmental versus genetic factors. The movie is a docudrama which uses real life footage and subjects, but it begins in a carnivalesque atmosphere. Two of the brothers Bobby and Eddie discover each other by accident and tabloid coverage of the meeting leads to a reunion with the third. The threesome appear on TV and even have an appearance with Madonna in Desperately Seeking SusanAt first genetics seems to be the winner. All three like the same kind of girls, smoke Marlboros and wrestle. Their mannerisms and movements, including the way they hold their hands, are unmistakably alike. They become regulars on New York’s nightclub circuit during the early 80’s and even start a restaurant. It’s a little like the bearded lady in the circus. The bizarreness is entertaining until it becomes apparent that there's a price to be paid. And the similarities recede when the relationship among the three unravels.The whole study in question is still wrapped in mystery. Originally the data had been sealed until 2066, though two of the living brothers have been successful in petitioning for disclosure. But how many twins or triplets, who may been subjects, are still out in the world with no knowledge of their others?

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Final Solution: Trump High

Donald Trump is the prototypic schmuck who gets all the good-looking girls. You always said to yourself, "what do they see in him?" If you were casting a horror film about this incredibly blustery dumbbell from high school who comes back to torment a community, you’d want Trump in the role. He’s right out of central casting with the hairdo and to underscore the point you might put him in the kind of white patent leather loafers and double knit suits that were popular in the late 70’s. But he couldn’t have been a character out of Saturday Night Fever. He’s no son of Brooklyn and he moves like a dinosaur. Could you imagine him on the dance floor? But listen to him talking about his friend Angela (that’s Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany) and look at Theresa May smiling benignly at him after he’s dissed her in the pages of The Sun. You remember those kind of kids who could get away with anything while when you threw a wad of wet toilet paper over a stall, you hit the principal and got suspended. Angela, Theresa it’s all like high school and Trump is the bully in the schoolyard. You remember those guys, don’t you? They weren’t smart and were too uncoordinated to be good at sports, but everyone was afraid of them. Then there was a period in your life, call it the Obama presidency, when the world seemed to right itself and the nice guys got all the good looking girls, but now we’re back at the prom. Melania is a nice kid and you feel sorry that she’s stuck with a schlump and cheat, but she’s never going to go for a nice guy like you.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection

Scofield Thayer was the publisher of The Dial, the famed literary magazine from the 20’s that featured such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Virginia Wolf and T.S. Eliot. He also came to Europe to be psychoanalyzed. “Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection” is the title of the exhibition at The Met Breuer. Is it possible to jump to the conclusion that analysis afforded a degree of disinhibition that resulted in Thayer’s “obsession” with the female body? And whose obsession is the show ultimately referring to, Thayer’s, those of the artists he collected, or both? The works that comprise "Obsession" particularly in the case of Klimt and Schiele are not merely women in a state of undress. They’re wanton, languorous figures who are frequently portrayed with their legs spread and masturbating. The project of portraying female sexuality and creating a harem of models who are willing to go the route, as they did for Klimt and Schiele, might go unappreciated in an age that’s so sensitized to erotic politics. Of course, these are no more a Hustler photo shoot than Courbet's notorious "The Origin of the World" (though they're more provocative). Schiele’s “Die Traumbescaute” or “Observed in a Dream (1911) plays on what might be termed sexual hyperbole. And it derives from the flow and lability of the watercolor that's employed. The models pudenda is swollen and she’s depicted pushing her ample pubic bush to the side in order to display the bright orange of her vagina. The same orange appears on her nipples. A similar juxtaposition between the brazen content of the image and formal technique occurs in Klimt’s “Water Serpents II (Women Friends)," l904-7, in which masturbation and lesbianism are countermanded by a rigorously decorative element. "Reclining Nude with Outstretched Left Arm," (1903-4) is one of 50 prelimary sketches for this work that's displayed. Speaking of Freud, the unapologetic sexuality and the uncompromising portrait of the body with all its imperfections recall the much later work of Lucien Freud, the grandson of the eminence grise who haunts this whole show. But what’s going on, institutionally, as least? Having an exhibtion like this is a little like Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un and thereby giving credibility to the DPRK. On the one hand the current zeitgeist mitigates against the exploitation of women by male artists and on the other “Obsession” gives it free rein. Artists who explore the limits of eroticism are always walking a fine line no matter what the age and actually Schiele appeared before a judge who sentenced him to 24 days and also incinerated one of his drawings. The Met has come down on the side artistic expression in the case of Balthus whose work was the subject of protest by those who demanded that disclaimers be posted alongside the artist’s work. But there’s definitely a double standard with painters of another era receiving exemptions due the distance in time. It’s a little like Pompeii, which was once off limits to women and where now all comers are admitted.Thayer employed  some of the most well-known dealers of the day, amongst them Paul Rosenberg in Paris and Alfred Fleuchtheim in Berlin, and ended up acquiring over 600 works including “Erotic Scene” (1903) from Picasso’s Blue Period which is also represented here and which depicts the artist’s own sexual initiation. By the way Thayer paid 60,000 Kroner or $60 dollars for “Observed in a Dream” which would be $741 today. Not a bad investment. Sotheby’s sold a Schiele called “Houses with Colorful Laundry” for over $40 million back in 2011. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Life is probably longer than it feels, despite the panic you may feel about time running out. One way of determining this is by looking at the behavior of those who are much older and still continue to navigate the finitude of their existences as if the varying twists and turns of fate still make a difference. In As You Like It, Jaques makes his famed “All the World’s a Stage” in which he concludes by talking about the dissolution of the body and the senses. “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Stages are, of course, a common way of representing human existence. You have Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood and Jean Piaget's four stages of cognitive development. Freud talked about the anal and oral stages. How We Die:Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter was Sherwin Nuland’s meditation on the stages of death. Zeno’s paradox in which the tortoise beats Achilles was a product of stoic thinking, but it demonstrates how distance is relative. Instead of seeing life as a procrustean juggernaut that speeds along despite your protestations you can divide and conquer. If you constantly half the remainder, for example, you will come to an increasingly smaller figure and you'll never reach the end.