Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman partakes of the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood syndrome. The iconography of the actors themselves threatens to overtake the subjects they’re playing. Is the movie about the murder of Al Pacino by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro or that of Jimmy Hoffa by Russell Bufalino and Frank Sheeran (the titular Irishman). Not that it doesn’t spawn a host of other mythologies amongst them the stories of Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and other mafia racketeers like Anthony Salerno (Dominick Lombardozzi) and Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). However there are times when the outsized performances are a little like Alec Baldwin doing a sendup of Trump on SNL. They’re so stereotypic they verge on parody—especially when it comes to labor bosses and mafia dons. The barbershop murder of Albert Anasastia (Gary Pastore)  and the slaying of Joey Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) at Umberto’s Clamhouse, along with the Bay of Pigs and the assassination of JFK are all events that make cameo appearances along with sub themes of the mafia trying to regain its foothold in Cuba and the war of the government and industry against the teamsters. The film’s subtitle I Heard You Paint Houses, derives from the book on which the movie’s based and is the central character’s bloody claim to fame. The fact that De Niro doesn’t radiate an iota of Irishness in his persona can be disconcerting along with the sheer comprehensiveness of the director’s tableau. Over determination is both a truthful and useful principle in both art and life—particularly in a movie whose style might be termed investigative cinematography with the camera skulking around corners in long pans in both its beginning and concluding scenes (which are accompanied by the soundtrack of The Five Satans’ “In the Still of the Night”). However, plot threads are either tangled or lost despite the movie's central road trip/murder which is a unifying device. Many of the theories about Hoffa’s disappearance upon which the The Irishman is based remain the subject of controversy, but at its best the film is like a painting come to life, more Caravaggio than perhaps than the Rembrandt that A.O. Scott suggested in The Times. Frank delivers sides of beef which are a leitmotif in the early scenes of the movie (and foreshadowing of the  butchery that will unfold). These recall the work of another painter, SoutineAmongst the setups in Rodrigo Prieto's brilliant cinematography is a shot looking out from the inside of a meat truck. The detail is what ultimately comprises the majesty of Scorsese's canvas. "Candy"is the word, for instance, that's used to refer to an explosive device.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Is Amsterdam Bipolar?

Amsterdam is a mix of Atlantic City and Paris. It’s at once garish and tawdry with its head shops and penny ante tourist boutiques, specializing in low-shelf liquors. Then it's sublime, a classic essay in urbanity, with its gilded townhouses running along canals and, of course, museums like the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum which are the legacy of the city’s storied past. It turns out that the coffee shops which specialize in cannabis are not just a tourist attraction. Amsterdam may be below sea level but most of the city is high on either marijuana or hashish. Not to mention De Wallen. The famed Red Light district, that a feminist mayor has threatened to close or move, is not just a tourist attraction. There’s no doubt that some locals partake of its pleasures in the way they may smoke a joint. Why not take a little tumble in the hay on your lunch break? These by the way have their own demographic. For instance, there’s a special blue light section which appeals to those who like chicks with dicks or Adam’s apples.You never really know where you are in Amsterdam. You walk down one street to find yourself totally enchanted by the past, only to find one of a chain of tasteful erotic boutiques at the end. One of the most well-known chocolate shops, Ganache, is located right at the center of a surrounding circus of booths in which girls display their wares in windows. It’s like those candies with the cherry center.  Two rules of thumb: #1 you can go Dutch to the Red Light District, #2 you're never going get a ticket for going through this Red Light. But Hi and Lo is not what defines the city. That’s too simple and creates a dichotomy out of something that's more like the left and right sides of the brain, separate parts that function as a whole. Amsterdam is like the cultivated character who has food on his or her face. It wears its heart on its sleeve. And how to explain those intrepid bicyclers, riding day and night in the rain?

Friday, November 15, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Rembrandt-Velasquez: Dutch and Spanish Masters

"Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul" by Rembrandt
The Treaty of Munster signed in 1648 marked the end of the Eighty Years' War between The Netherlands and Spain. The current Rembrandt-Velasquez show at the Rijksmuseum is predicated on this detente which left the Netherlands, whose integrity had been endangered, fully intact as a Protestant country. Though the supposition of the exhibit is based on two societies, one ecclesiastical and monarchical, where artists relied on the patronage of church and state, and one representing essentially a free market, the show curiously underscores more the similarities than differences between Velasquez, Rembrandt and the other Spanish and Dutch artists under consideration. Under the rubric "Serene religious feelings, " Francisco de Zurbaran's  "The Mystic Lamb," (1635-40) with its bound lamb, a symbol of Christ's acceptance, is juxtaposed with Pieter Jansz Saenredam's "Odulphuskerk in Assendelft" (1649), which depicts a holy church space. The subject "Lost in Thought" is represented by Bartolome Esteban Murillo's "Ecce Homo" (1660-70) showing Christ crowned in thorns in contrast to Rembrandt's "Titus in a Monk's Habit" (1660) where the artist's son is depicted as a Franciscan sacrificing his life to Christ. The idea of "total surrender" is examined in the contrast between Zurbaran's "San Serapio" (1628) hanging in a Christ like pose, his arms tied, with Jan Asselijn's "The Threatened Swan" (1650) symbolically risking its life to defend its nest. Rembrandt' s "Sampling Officials of the Draper's Guild"(1662) stands beside Velasquez's "Vulcan's Forge" (1630). "An artistic challenge for every artist is to paint a large picture with a complex composition involving multiple figures," is how the curators make the connection. "With Rembrandt and Velasquez's paintings it is as if we are looking at a still image from a film... The scene comes to life, raising only a single question: what comes next?" One of Rembrandt's last self portraits in which he again undertakes his classic role playing, this time as the Apostle Paul, stands next to Velasquez's "Portrait of a man (known as the Court Jester with Books)" simply under the category "Human." Rembrandt's Titus appears again in "Titus at his lectern" (1665) in contradistinction to Jusepe de Ribera's "The Old Usurer" (1638). These two subjects are both "lost in their own worlds." Juan de Valdes Leal's "Finis Gloriae Mundi,"(1670) which depicts the end of life, and symbollically ends the show, is faced by Frans Hals'"The Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse"(1664) under the heading "Be Charitable." What can one say other than that genius knows no bounds and that fracturing of geopolitical and religious bonds apparently facilitated a golden age of art?

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: The Schiller Hotelier

watercolor by Hallie Cohen
The Schiller hotel is located in Amsterdam’s center at Rembrandtplein 28. Frits Schiller (1886-1971) the son of the George Schiller, a brewer who founded the original, built the current structure, along with his two siblings, Hein and Elsa in 1912. He was a painter known as “the greatest hotelier amongst painters and the greatest painter amongst hoteliers.” The Schiller became a hot spot during the l920’s. The hotel was Amsterdam’s version of The Algonquin. Many artists, who were Frits’s friends, hung out in the portrait gallery of the brasserie.Today, the neon sign with its NH Schiller Hotel at the top over the dark hulk of the structure hangs somnolently, one of a number of buildings that now grace the city’s skyline. Amsterdam has, of course, been the home of the greatest of Dutch painters and it's hard to remember that there were students and masters who nobody ever knew. For many of these painters, art was simply an avocation. Frits was an example of an artist who moonlighted and not just to make ends meet. He straddled the world of art and commerce, though today his name is something you're more likely to see when you're staring out of a window than in studying the attribution on a work in the Rijksmuseum. Shortly before Frits's death in l971, the Schiller family sold the hotel and today it's known as the NH Amsterdam Schiller.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Tarkovsky at the Eye Filmmuseum

photograph by Hallie Cohen
You may remember Andrei Tarkovsky as the creator of the first Solaris (1972) based upon the Stanislav Lem science fiction classic. Steven Soderbergh’s version from 2002 is the one most American audiences are familiar with. Tarkovsky’s adaptation is a brooding movie and like much of the director’s work difficult to watch due to his signature style which involved the dispensing away with classic narrative devices. It’s no wonder he was beloved by the greats of the modern cinema, Antonioni, Fellini and Kurosawa. Bergman praised him for understanding “life as a dream.” There are some very old and almost anachronistic things about Amsterdam (like hookers displaying themselves in windowed closets) but the current Tarkovsky exhibit at the Eye Filmmuseum is an example of how advanced the culture of this capital can be. This homage is an omnibus show in every sense of the word. Scenes from great works  are displayed on curved screens throughout the gallery and there’s a vertiginous centrifugal effect in seeing all these powerful films in a majestic ballet with each other. A scene from Andrei Rublev (1966), based on the life of the 15thcentury icon painter, is juxtaposed with a cut from Solaris. From the purely film historical point of view there’s footage of Orson Welles presenting Tarkovsky and Bresson best director awards at Cannes in l983 and there's one particularly affecting old-fashioned telegram to Tarkovsky (who died at the age of 54 in l986) from Fellini in 1978, when the Russian moviemaker took ill. “Un abbracio et un grand auguri,” were Fellini's words. Tarkovsky said, “Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer,’ the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting a barrier between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” The English writer Geoffrey Dyer devoted a whole book just to Stalker entitled Zona. The very ambition of the current show at the Eye is a paean to the breadth of Tarkovsky’s own project. He rejected the socialist realist dogma of the Stalin era, but he’s a little like early Marx since the subject is the alienation of man from the culture in which he lives. He once said, “There is no deeper more mysterious and more critical mystery than the mystery of our existence.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Het Rembranthuis

photograph by Francis Levy
Rembrandt was foreclosed on the house he bought on Jordenbreestraat 4 for 13,000 guilders. Today the premises have been preserved as a museum. He lived there from 1639-58 with his wife Saskia who died soon after the birth of his son Titus. He'd been doing pretty well to buy that place since the average working man at the time only made about 300 guilders a year. When you visit the house today you can see the etching studio where he employed his genius for spontaneous chiascuoro drawing, his two painting studios with their Northern light where he mixed pigments and linseed oil on a stone tablet, the small office where he handled his everyday affairs and the actual space where he conducted his business affairs (he was an art dealer who at one point had both Michelangelos and Titians in his collection). Interestingly one of the ways that the original dwelling has been re-configured is through the inventory taken at the time of the foreclosure. Thus, the house reeks of the humanity for which the famed painter is famous. He triumphed and also lost everything there. The mistress he took after the death of his wife also lived in one of the rooms and when you visit you get to see the kitchen with the hearth and even the tiny bed on which his housekeeper slept. Every element of the house poses questions about art and life which are also answered—which you might say is one of the very characteristics of Rembrandt’s art. Speaking of humanity, The Doelen is the oldest hotel in Amsterdam and it was in one of its third floor suites, which can still be rented, that "The Night Watch" was painted.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Postmodern Industrialism

Amsterdam at Night (photo: Francis Levy)
If there was any doubt about Amsterdam’s credentials, just look at the scenery when you drive in from Schiphol Airport. Yes, London is still the center of world banking, but take note of the post- modernist Baker & McKenzie and Deloitte buildings. Hardcore Denim is the name of one the companies that has a tower heralding its product. But this is not some hydrocarbon complex in New Jersey with its green pools of toxic waste. The Dutch are a paean to the new techno age of wealth preservation; after all they were the first boys on the block and drove a pretty hard bargain as colonists in places like Indonesia (a la the Dutch East India Company). Now everything about Amsterdam and Holland is clean and new and in places where productivity occurs, almost surgically antiseptic. The only requirement is profitability. Profit is the ghost that lingers in the background of a society that provides social entitlement in a capitalist context. In fact, Amsterdam in contrast to its Scandinavian counterparts is a relatively deregulated society. Capitalism and Freedom was the title of the tome by the supply side economist Milton Friedman. Does that explain the hustle and bustle where there’s not only one of the few remaining Red Light districts in Europe, but also tastefully designed sex shops all over the city (which are a far cry from the seedy establishments selling dildos and lingerie on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan) and, of course, legalized pot. Back in the day New Amsterdam was a rip-off from the its eponymous model, but no one would ever consider modern day Amsterdam a rip-off of New York. You have a lot of places offering New York Pizza but that’s as far as it goes.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: 101

When you think of Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, the Red Light District (De Wallen), and Anne Frank’s House all come to mind. The trio which represent art, sex and humanity are strange bedfellows. The sites which attract tourism are always telling, but what is it that visitors seek in this European capital? What’s the attraction? Rembrandt, half-undressed women seated in windows or a famous victim of the Holocaust? Canals run through the city like Boulevard Haussmann and Oxford Street in Paris and London. They’re lined with picturesque three and four story dwellings whose warm lighted interiors are tantalizingly out of reach to the tourist. The port city is the bastion of the freedoms that long derived from mercantilism, an ethos predicated upon the facilitation of commerce in all its forms. Prostitution and marijuana both taboo in most major capitals are legal in Amsterdam. Amsterdam’s freedom is legislated yet it's hard to grasp. The furor over the renovation of The Rijksmuseum, portrayed in the film about the project, reminsicent in some ways of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, gives some sense of undercurrents which belie Amsterdam's surface of tolerance and equanimity. The city has some qualities that are reminiscent of Scandinavia, but the language may be telling. It’s more guttural and lacks the lilting sound of say Swedish. There’s a brusqueness that’s neither reminiscent of Nordic aloofness nor southern European ebullience. Disinhibition doesn’t adequately describe a populace who can appear reserved and even buttoned up to a casual observer. Amsterdam is like a permissive though domineering parent. Its liberties exemplify a controlled economics experiment whose data, after centuries, has yet to be analyzed. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Stop Behaving Like An Animal

Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve been around enough people who behave like animals that you don’t need any more pets? Devoted animals are nice and indeed they may possess extraordinary intuitive traits. On the other hand, with the exception of television famed talking horse, Mister Ed, animals can’t talk back. So, you're never going to know what they’re really thinking. Either it was nothing or is there a possibility that like the classic l9th century servant character who bows and scrapes for the crumbs they receive, they’re laughing behind their master’s backs? Of course, it’s less possible that animals are hypocrites, out of some say bovine Les Liaisons Dangereurses than that they’re adorable, cute and clueless. Unless that cockroach in the corner is Gregor Samsa, in other  words, a human whose been metamorphosed, then it’s just an insect foraging for food and yes capable of running like hell when its antennae detect an ominous shadow. When you look at the animal world it’s a little like entering one of those gated communities in Florida that have manners and mores all their own.You could take the “when in Rome” philosophy, but are you going to get down on all fours and bark like a slave in an S&M loop in order to get a feeling for the existence of a particular class of canine havenot? Are animals the oppressed of the earth, misunderstood creatures whose fates lay at the whim of their owners or the A.S.P.C.A.? Yes, but little good is going to occur if you free all the prisoners from their jails and in this case let all the lions and tigers out of their cages at the zoo?

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Your Save the World Campaign

Earth from Apollo 17
Have you ever taken matters into your own hands and decided that you were going to really do something, about the state of things, that is? Right there and then you were going to plant your stake in the ground, if only it were to do one thing that turned the tide against a wave of empathy, regression or destruction. Most times you get an impulse, but you lose your mojo. Some other day you say. Tomorrow you'll put your version of the Ninety-five Theses up on the church of humanity’s door. Tomorrow comes and of course there are the bills, your child has a fever and you get one of those  notices generated by computers which are ill-equipped to answer the fine points of your questions. But then there's that one moment you've been waiting for. You have gone around the corner to get a cup of coffee and that first gulp tastes good and boom, on the heels of the caffeine rush you realize you're going to do something even though you have no idea what it is. And you’re right. Effortlessly a thought comes to your mind. Why hadn’t you ever considered something so simple before. It’s a small thing, but if the world’s 7.53 billion people all contributed one simple helpful act, something as small as picking a cigarette butt off the street, then the planet would be a better place. In your case, it turns out to be what you’re not going to do, which is to get angry at someone in your life for being who they are. You're going to force yourself to be glad they’re them. Your revelation, homegrown truth or simple realization, is you wouldn’t want them to be any different.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

American Dharma

The fatal flaw of Errol Morris's American Dharma, currently playing at Film Forum (and truth as well as the lives lost in places like Charlottesville are both the fatalities here), is that Steve Bannon is not a literary character, but rather a flesh and bloody sociopath capable of harm. One of his favorite mantras derives from Lucifer in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." He believes in dharma which is “duty, fate and destiny” and lives in the memory of Gregory Peck’s Twelve O’Clock High which epitomizes these values. Might this mandate also translate into attacks on globalism and immigration? Morris shows a clip of Henry the Fifth's repudiation of Falstaff from Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. However, despite Bannon’s protestations about his dismissal from The White House being the "natural order of things," he looks just like Falstaff. In fact in his disheveled hefty form, his shock of hair hanging dramatically over his forehead, he looks uncannily like both Kane and Falstaff. There's a bereft look in the deposed kingmaker's eyes, as he gazes wistfully towards some imaginary stage wing, that gives him the crazed appearance of a Welles doppelgänger. But the forelornness is what makes Morris's subject so affecting and even sympathetic (you have to remind yourself that he told the National Front, "Let them call you racists...Wear it as a badge of honor"). Because Bezeebub knows he's Beezebub, he gets to join the table. He’s a cineaste as well as former filmmaker and Goldman Sachs investment banker and the move is rife with citations of everything from My Darling Clementine,  The Searchers, Bridge Over the River KwaiThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Paths of Glory. You can tell a man by his friends and you’re instinctually going to gravitate to anyone who's capable of such a breadth of knowledge. Could Roger Ebert get away with being pro-Trump, if he rattled off the right references. Maybe not, yet it works here. "We're going to make an avant garde film for right wingers," he says about his project. Morris might have set out to expose Bannon, but Bannon has the better of him and Bannon genuinely seems crushed when Morris reveals that he's voted for Hillary Clinton, if only to stop Trump. Bannon turns the tables on Morris. What a setup! Most of the movie takes place in an aircraft hanger in homage to the Gregory Peck character in Twelve O'Clock High who exhorts his men “consider yourself already dead.” The film starts and ends on a aircraft runway with Bannon negotiating its crags like the warrior he claims to be (one of his weapons was the Alt-Right call-to-arms Breitbart, when he headed it). Morris has stacked all the cards against both himself and his liberal audience with a beguiling filmic creation now starring in a movie no longer of the director's own making. Bannon is inadvertently lionized and ends up pulling the rug up from under his director and also stealing the spotlight as well as the show. Life is war. Nothing is off limits. So much for due process. Just proceed. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Final Solution: No Previous Experience Necessary

"ISIS Names New Leader and Confirms al-Baghdadi’s Death,NYT, 10/31/19) One can only imagine the resumes that must have come in for the position. Just think of the ad that was probably place on the ISIS equivalent of Breitbart. “Seek leader of caliphate. No previous experience necessary.” That’s not to say that some familiarity with social media wouldn’t be of help. According to The Times piece the new leader, emir or caliph is not currently known. “Nobody—and I mean nobody outside a likely very small circle within ISIS—have any idea who their new leader Abu Ibrahim al-hashemi al-Qurayshi' is,” The Times quote Paul Cruickshank, editor of the CTC Sentinel at the Combating Terrorism Center, as Tweeting. “The group has not yet released any meaningful biographical details which might allow analysts to pinpoint his identity.” Could it be Bill Pillsbury aka Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi'? Would it be safe to surmise that such a position would have been a great draw to any recent Harvard, Columbia or Stamford Business School graduate and that with a quick wardrobe change many would have been lining up to fill the empty slot left by the death of al-Baghdadi? Running a caliphate is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that actually makes other high profile positions look sick. Facebook for instance is a kind of caliphate, though it has more power than ISIS ever did. The opportunity to rebrand a caliphate (and even for instance issue an ISIS credit card) would be too tempting to any entrepreneur trying to make make their mark at this intersection of advertising and politics.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A Dog Eat Dog World?

Hobbes envisioned a dog eat dog world and utilitarian thinkers like Bentham and J.S. Mill saw the pursuit of happiness as creating the fabric of a morality. Some thinkers have tried to bridge the gap between utilitarianism and Kantian deontology which involves the search for absolute truth. In a New York Review of Books essay entitled “What Is a Good Life," TNYRB, 2/10/11) Ronald Dworkin countervailingly argued that goodness cannot include doing something that threatens one’s own survival. Where does that leave self-sacrifice? But the atomic notion of man, as a spinning particle only united with others in a Darwinian struggle for survival in the end seems more the stuff of manifestos than everyday experience. Peter Singer wrote a famous tract called Animal Liberation which sees the protection of animals a form of self-interest. However, more recently, the Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard has argued for a Kantian view of the matter—in which killing animals, who are imbued with their own unmistakable form of consciousness, is seen as categorically unjustifiable. Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity brings up the question of altruism which is something that even the great ideologue of capitalism, Adam Smith, engages (by way of sympathy) in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The geneticist J.B.S Haldane famously remarked, “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers and eight cousins.” It will be interesting to find out if spiritualism itself is naturally selective and turns out to produce its own set of equations and coefficients.