Friday, February 14, 2020

After the Fall

"The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man" by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder
“To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly,” says Nietzsche in The Will to Power. What a refreshing breath of air for those who find the wild and ubiquitous exclamations of delight disconsonant with their inner being. After all man is the creature who once fell from a garden and was forever exiled from his place among other species who remained free and unconscious of literally everything. It’s easy to be bludgeoned into believing something is wrong with you for not singing hosannas about another orange sunset. One's supposed to react a certain way, even if the perception of some idealized bit of nature actually only underscores how ugly and imperfect you might feel amidst a chorus of angels. This is one of the downsides of well-meaning people who treat the questioning of their idealized universes as sacrilege. Is one not entitled to maintain the notion that an industrial park possesses a beauty tantamount to that of the gently lapping waters of an idyllic beach at summer’s end? Beauty is truth,” says Keats. It’s also “in the eyes of the beholder.” The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was the fame of a famous crime movie, but you may prefer it to getting lost on the Appalachian Trail.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Final Solution: Something Happened

rehearsal of 2012 production of Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies
Back in 2012 theatergoers were allowed on stage during Ivo van Hove's production of the Roman Tragedies at BAM. You could be a supernumerary in the crowd as Caesar famously intones “Et tu, Brute?” Usually the audience perceives Caesar's murder with several degrees of separation. The willing suspension of disbelief is actually held in abeyance by skepticism. Back during the performances of Roman Tragedies, the disbelief was more than willingly suspended as one found oneself adopting the role as a spectator in history. Actually, if you’re in Rome today, you can visit the very spot where Caesar met his end, the Largo di Torre Argentina. You'll get closer to an event that occurred millennia ago, then to the version of history unfolding in a 24 hour cable news cycle. Unending translation of happenstance creates a high level of distance and consequentially unreality. It’s not so much fake as filtered news or simply phenomena. Due to social media there’s a lot of chatter. You may have the illusion of having some breathing space but you might as well be watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve--on TV. It’s rare that you ever nakedly come into contact with literally anything. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," said Picasso. What BAM offered back in 2012 was something close to the experience of seeing history actually unfold. Remember a Joseph Heller novel called Something Happened or the 50s CBS series, You Are There?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Final Solution: Vox Populi

The notion of a senate goes back to Roman times. Senators were classic figures and you can see them in old movies like Spartacus or let’s say Bob Guccione’s Caligula if you’re lasciviously inclined. In I, Claudius, Charles Laughton played the emperor. During the impeachment trial, the American public had a good chance to see the senate in action and it still had the look of a private mostly gentleman’s club. The southern accents of Lindsey Graham, Lamar Alexander and Kentucky’s John Kennedy always stand out and the few women like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine exude an a regal air, even in the thralls of their tortured wrestling with issues. Senator Cory Booker famously had his "'I am Spartacus' moment" when he threatened to release confidential records during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. If you were to cast a modern epic in classical dress any of these characters, including the lone Republican dissenter, Mitt Romney, could easily be placed in period costumes. You wouldn’t have to bother with a script. In the current production, the decision was an open and shut case, but the average guy, a member of the plebeian class, looking up at his TV from his barstool, was just a part of the gallery as he always would be. There were dissidents like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supposedly speaking to his or her interests, but there was no real vox populi. The same charioteers were whipping their horses, nostrils flaring, into a frenzy and power was still a magic and secret thing wielded by the few in whom it still resided. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Final Solution: Voting the End of Democracy

What if Congress voted for the end of democracy? Theoretically it can’t happen because of the constitution and the bill of rights. The majority may elect representatives, but majority rule, in theory, cannot destroy the essence of our system. However, if President Trump’s acquittal by the senate on purely partisan lines is an indicator then fundamental governances will slowly be whittled away, with each abrogation establishing a precent. Alan Dershowitz proposed the idea that a president cannot be impeached if they're doing something they believe is for the good of the country, ie to further their electability. What if the president were given unlimited executive powers, then could they retain the structure of government while advocating the principles of autocracy? The brand of extreme populism characterized by Trump's base is one or two degrees of separation from fascism since it represent a juggernaut that brooks no attention to details like due process. With the mandate of powerful popular support and a relatively weak opposition, nothing seems to matter. You can say you’re upholding  principles that define the very structure of American society when you’re not.The cheering crowds packing a recent Trump rally in New Jersey demonstrated the fervor with which millenarian tyrants have always been greeted. What if a Bolsonaro, an Erdogan or an Orban offered a chicken in every pot?

Monday, February 10, 2020


Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, currently completing a run at Film Forumtakes place in post-war Leningrad and many of the characters in the movie have the burned out listless looks of PTSD victims. The movie is set in a hospital where the patients literally are the living dead. One pleads to be put out of his misery saying he’s “not a person anymore.” The title character Iya (Viktoria Miroshnicenko) is a nurse, who had served on the front and now emits strange haunting noises which signal an imminent break from reality. Rail thin and tall, with the otherworldly coloration of an albino, she’s plainly been out of place her whole life. The symbolism of the morphology is obvious in one sense, but can give one pause. Disconnection is rife everywhere. There’s almost no need to underscore a physical attribute to make the point; there are some other contrivances in the narrative (related to implausible coincidence) which can be disconcerting. But the film creates a complex topography both predicated on the existential condition of war and on a kind of incestuous emptiness that takes on a life of its own. There’s a Masha character (Vasilisa Perelygina) and a tortured doctor (Andrey Bykov) that are unavoidable Chekhov citations. Only here you’re dealing with a totally different set of longings that are both more profound and desperate than those found in The Three Sisters. “I want a human inside me,” Masha says at one point. Is it sex or a child? The ambivalence is undeniable and chilling, particularly because the doctor will later inform her “there’s nothing left inside you to make life.” Iya will reiterate the same idea when she says “I’m meaningless; there’s nobody inside me.” At the same time, life is randomly taken, as in a horrifying and unforgetable sequence when a three year old is suffocated. The effect of the movie is not simple to define. The conditions of war have created devastation, but the psychic legacy that Beanpole describes is neither that of desire or need. Recounts of relationships in the camps are really the only comparison. The brilliance of the film lies in portraying a psychic landscape of survival, in which attachments are practically devoid of the kind of emotion viewers are likely to identify with love.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania

Marci Shore’s review of Cristina A. Bejan’s Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania (TLS, 1/10/20) is accompanied by a rare photo of Eugene Ionesco flanked by Emile Cioran, the philosopher and Mircea Eliade, the religious historian. In examining the world in which their unique, brilliant and passionate bonds were created, she counterpoints the romantic agony to the rise in scientism. “Disenchantment” was, of course, the term Max Weber had used to describe the triumph of rationalism. “The Enlightenment understood the human subject as the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum,” Shore remarks. “The Romantics countered with volo, ergo sum: I desire, therefore I am. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground man expressed this inimitably: ‘Reason, gentlemen, is incontrovertibly a good thing, but reason is no more than reason…while desires are an expression of the whole of life.’” Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson have been playing on the Left Bank’s Theatre de la Huchette since l957, but today you hear less about Ionesco then in the days when Rhinoceros received its legendary interpretation on Broadway by Zero Mostel. Eliade went on to teach at the University of Chicago. Both Cioran, who was the subject of a laudatory essay by Susan Sontag, “Thinking Against Oneself,” in Styles of Radical Will and Eliade would come under attack for their association with the rightwing Iron Guard. Would a dose of reason have ultimately made a difference? Apparently Bejan’s study broaches this question, but what can such speculations offer other than to rewrite history?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Into the Void

There comes a point where you don’t have all of your life ahead of you. While there may have been room for failure when you went into a particular business as a young man or woman, you eventually face the last furlough. Despite the aspirationalist idea that anything is possible, in fact, it’s not. Professional athletes who may go on to sponsor all kind of programs evangelizing the philosophy of achievement and possibility know limitations first hand. Late in his career George Foreman lost a match to a now forgotten fighter named Shannon Briggs. Many of those who saw the fight might have disagreed with the decision, but the fact was that the journeyman fighter had besides some potential and talent, one thing that the veteran didn’t possess, youth. There are, of course, exceptions. Picasso’s creativity burgeoned in his later years and apparently his sexual prowess was also immune to the effects of age. However, more often than not, you see an oedipal process occurring in which talented individuals are displaced by their more youthful counterparts. It’s hard to remember that writers like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski were once considered revolutionary when in our current climate their transgressional work actually seems conservative and even Neolithic to a generation highly influenced by values that question gender itself. Some plays have an epilogue. In this one, there's a transcendent opportunity that’s afforded older people, which is to play to the void.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Virtues of the Talking Cure

You take a benzodiazepine like Xanax for anxiety and SSRIs, Cylexa, Zoloft or Paxil, for depression or perhaps an aminoketone like Wellbutrin. But the drugs soon take on a life of their own with the regimen requiring other drugs in order to deal with a host of unwieldy side effects. You’ve undoubtedly witnessed adults as well as children who take drugs to deal with the drugs they’re already being administered. Perhaps you’re even one of those. But why are anxiety and depression frowned upon in the first place? They’re signals that the brain produces and essentially symptoms. If you remove the unwieldy affect, you may not get to the root of the cause. There's an analogy to certain types of gastrointestinal ailments. Imodium may temporarily eliminate diarrhea but if you have a parasite you’re only going to make matters worse. You take a traffic signal from a crossing and you’ll start to have collisions. Of course, there are extremes. Manic depression, bipolarity and borderline are terms that are often invoked to describe certain states that can be so overwhelming as to cause dysfunction. Obviously anti-psychotics are another matter. But what's the psychopharmacology profession seeking to achieve? There are pills to allow one to sleep like Halcion and methylphenidates like Ritalin which enable one to concentrate. Talk is neither cheap, nor always effective (at least in producing a kind of quixotic happiness that some people dream of) but classic therapeutic interactions, in a chair or on a couch, which deal with a patient’s past history may offer more humane and profound avenues of insight that also avoid some of the deleterious results of medication.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

You Will Never Be Forgotten

The protagonist of Mary South’s “You Will Never Be Forgotten” (The New Yorker, 1/27/20), a rape victim, is “a content moderator at the world’s most popular search engine.” "Madison" is an example of the kind of "content" she manages. It's the word given for the video of unnamed woman, "passed out at a party as football players finger her." The rapist himself works for “the most prestigious seed fund in Silicon Valley.” Though the predator and his prey go unidentified the story has characters with names like Shady Dave and yes an avatar, Cunty (a specialist in "online reputation management for convicted sex offenders")--personalities out of a contemporaneous and politically incorrect form of Restoration Comedy. Cunty remarks "I never want to be in a situation where I'm looking at my daughter's vagina online and thinking, Her vagina isn't as hot as a hacked celebrity-vagina candid." “You Will Never Be Forgotten” recalls “Cat Person," another New Yorker short story which became both a sensation and source of controversy earning the author over a million dollar advance. “You Will Never Be Forgotten” is a brilliant and wildly ambitious publishing concept which also has an invidious side to it—in being so manipulatively directed to the most tendentious aspects of the #MeToo” culture. The human condition for women, at least, is rape and the inventive style of the story is a mixture of provocation and agit-prop, techniques that are almost guaranteed to produce the stick figures of a medieval morality play. The author’s name is itself iconic. Mary South sounds a little a pseudonymous invention, say Mark Twain. “You Will Never Be Forgotten” also alludes to the fact that as another colleague at the search engine, BabyJesusUpchuck, remarks, "the Internet is forever." South's story is reeking with virtuosity and may very well live up to its name, but it’s fundamentally a broadside and rant, with the butt of the humor and rage aimed at a defenseless child, the institution of human sexuality crashing upon the shoals of both technologically mediated  pornography and consciousness.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Super Bowl

Kohler K-3901-NPR-HB1

Everyone associates the SuperBowl with football. This year the San Francisco 49ers were paired off with Kansas City Chiefs and Jennifer Lopez highlighted the half-time festivities. But there’s another meaning for the words. Instead of a stadium and cheering crowds imagine a vessel for urine and excrement that’s found in every house. A super bowl is then a really terrific toilet. For instance, there are bowls with heated seats and his and hers bowls that are placed next to each other. There are white bowls and elegant black ones which are excellent for hiding fecal stains. There are bowls with a western theme with names like Cimmaron and ones where structure mirrors functioned such as the Regent Dual-Flush. And, of course, there are bowls with accompanying features like bidets. But what about a really Super Bowl? What about a trap door in a bed that leads to a bowl, so that nocturnal excursions are no longer required? Remember the internet of everything which connects all your household appliances? What about an on-line bowl which will enable you to post those creations that you can’t but feel proud of to Facebook or even Instagram? What about a receptacle that can talk back to you or that produces a sui generis selfie from the nether regions? SuperBowl Sunday is in fact the perfect time for a really super bowl since you’re going to have to go to the bathroom after quaffing down all that crap.

Friday, January 31, 2020

When Viruses Become Viral

The outbreak of the coronavirus and the fear concerning it’s spreading is a good example of what happens when a metaphor is returned to its literal meaning. In the current technological culture, something going viral refers to the fact that it spreads like wildfire on the internet. Certain memes for instance can go viral and permanently change the meaning associated with language and syntax. The way a virus spreads may have something in common with a message that goes viral but it may also be the reverse. A message can have something in common with a virus (and both have an uncanny resemblance to the fires devastating Australia and parts of California). For instance, certain viruses are known to be particularly hard to contain because they're always morphing into new a more deadly forms of themselves that become immune to the vaccines created to treat them. Who's to say that a vaccine created to treat the coronavirus as it exists today will be effective on the strains that will appear in the time it takes to create it? Similarly, many people live in a state of isolation in which their little missives are forgotten almost as soon as they’re asserted on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. On the other hand, like the old lady putting her coins in a Las Vegas slot machine that hits the jackpot, every once and a while they hit the mark and when they do the enormous power of the engine becomes revealed, with sometimes disconcerting results--a tongue-in-cheek remark unleashing unwanted notoriety. The flu epidemic of l918 reeked devastation in many countries, but it’s no comparison to what can occur today. Space and time are no longer barriers and viruses like their internet counterparts have the potential to become more viral than they ever were.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Faustian Bargain Store

Remember John’s Bargain Stores, the chain that closed in the 70s? These outlets offered goods on the cheap. But what if you’re looking for Faustian bargains? To begin with how exactly are they defined? In the original myth, Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles for knowledge. Naturally the idea derives directly from Eve whose fall came from eating the forbidden fruit. It’s one degree of separation from the Greek notion of hubris or overreaching. To be happy, man must treat understanding the way Epicurus did food, observing the golden mean. In medieval times, this might also involve the four elements: bile, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Overreaching like overeating results in a stomach ache. Still there’s a kind of aspirational sensibility that's by definition never satisfied. You’ll find these personality types at the top of the queue at Faust’s and they'll go to any length to achieve their aims. You can’t trust these Faustian bargain seekers since pride, morality and certainly the feelings of others will be thrown to the wayside in the service of their appetites. Let’s say someone said I can give you the equation for cold fusion and you will become the master of the universe. That the kind of sale they run at Faust’s.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Citizen K

Russia has produced Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Lenin and Stalin, Trotsky, Malevich and Mayakovsky, Eisenstein and Dziga-Vertov (whose Man With a Camera is one of the greatest documentaries of all time). Then as Alex Gibney’s Citizen K, currently playing at Film Forum, demonstrates came Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time oligarch who presided over the oil and gas giant Yukos, and his arch rival Vladimir Putin. Despite the Hermitage and Peter the Great, Citizen K doesn’t paint Russia as a very nice place (it's ruthless, lawless and while an important proxy player on the international stage, fundamentally poor with an economy about the size of the state of Texas). Maybe it never was. To take a totally jaundiced view, that the director probably didn't intend, the two protagonists of this drama may truly have deserved each other. Citizen K is certainly no Joseph K. Khodorkovsky made his money stepping on little people who didn’t know better, then using the proceeds for loans to Boris Yeltsin’s bankrupt government. The deal led to the acquisition of Yukos for a song and a dance. When the newly minted billionaire challenged a diminutive and little-known diminutive KGB agent, with a Napoleon complex, who’d made an astonishing rise in the Kremlin, he undoubtedly had political aspirations of his own. Was it hubris or a sense of justice that led to Khodorkovsky’s jailing and final exile? Citizen K is inconclusive, but the portrait of the one-time energy magnate is complex. The film is a valedictory without being a hagiography. If Putin verges on the satanic, then Khodorkovsky is at least Machiavellian. “Power,” he intones at one point in the film, "is only a projection of peoples’ willingness to protect it.”

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Rome Journal: The Unknown Masterpiece

The Unknown Masterpiece by Hallie Cohen, watercolor 60"x144"
Imagine an Unknown Masterpiece about the love of the Roman Emperor Hadrian for his youthful Greek subject, Antinous! Imagine a fabulously wealthy and reclusive aristocratic clan, collectors of major works of art which have been sequestered from humanity for centuries, setting out to produce a silent film epic with a cast of thousands totally for their own entertainment and pleasure! Imagine a work conceived over generations whose existence has been fastidiously hidden by the descendants of the original producer and imagine generations of directors, actors and supernumeraries whose careers have been frozen in time as a grand production continued on as long as there was a family to keep its secret! Don’t miss it! The beautiful women and handsome men, the heroic warriors! The lights, the cameras, the action!

Monday, January 27, 2020

Rome Journal: Taxi!

"Odessa Cab Corp," drawing by Hallie Cohen
There are probably elaborate explanations about how the taxi service works in Rome, but it’s radically different from New York. Essentially Rome has had an advanced system by which cabs respond to calls. Maybe it doesn't go back to Roman times, but it's been around before there was Uber. There’s, in fact, a special kind of app you can now access which will let you enjoy Rome cab rides at a cheaper market rate, but the reality is that this is a case where Kasparov beats the computer. Let’s say you want a cab. If you’re staying at a hotel, there will be a device which prints out a response and inevitably if you’re anywhere near the center of Rome or even on one of the hills like the Gianicolo, you will have a cab at your disposal in 5 minutes. Roman taxi drivers are often accused of taking their customers for a ride, but anecdotal evidence points to the fact that's not the case if you take one of the legitimate city cabs, identified by their white color. As everyone knows, there are few cab companies in New York that you can call or trust anymore, but Romans have this down to an art. Roman cab dispatchers are like elegant jugglers with the cabs and cabbies being their balls. Yes, there's obviously some explanation for the electronics behind the system. However, let’s just conjure one of those big Italian markets like the Porta Portese, in which customers stroll down the aisles looking for everything from clothes to fish. Just imagine substituting cab dispatchers as potential customers stride by. You’ll have an idea of how people get places when they’re in a hurry in Rome.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Rome Journal: Pyramid Schemes

Pyramid of Cestius (photo:Livioandronico2013)
The Pyramid which served as the tomb for Caius Cestius was completed in 12 B.C. The Romans were naturally knocking on Egypt’s door and the Obelisk built at the Circus Maximus by Augustus is another example of Rome's infatuation with Egyptian culture. It's a preoccupation that continues on in many other venues today. I.M. Pei completed the Pyramid at the Louvre in 1989; despite the chaos of the Middle East there’s never any shortage of tourists travelling to Giza. Actually, the tomb of Caius Cestius was built on more of an angle, apparently modeled on Nubian style structures. However, it, along with the obelisk, demonstrates an eclecticism  and a willingness to deviate from the standard geometric form of the rectangle and the circle which both inform monuments like, for instance, Hadrian’s Tomb. Appropriation is the name of the game. Rome not only set out to conquer the world but to acquire all its inventions and innovations. Sound familiar? Imperial conquest is a two way street. In Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which proposes an alternate universe, little bits of Americana become collectors items to the victorious Japanese, but by Constantine's time the Roman Empire was already in thrall to the Christianity it had previously attempted to suppress.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Rome Journal: Three Mayors

There were the famed Three Tenors, Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Now there are the three mayors. Femke Halsema is the major of Amsterdam and her honors in Paris and Rome,  Anne Hidalgo and Virginia Raggi. Raggi has been a controversial mayor, recusing Rome from the bidding for the 2024 Olympics on the basis of expense (when in fact Rome had hosted the Olympiad XVII in 1960 and could have taken advantage of a pre-existing infrastructure). Her management of waste and bus services (over 30 buses have gone on fire during her tenure) has also been contested. Lastly she provoked pushback when she proposed giving the coins thrown into the Trevi Fountain (amounting to approximately 3000 euros a day) to the city, rather than charity. She will not be running for a new term in 2021. All that being said, her tenure can be said to be characterized by an overarching drive towards fiscal responsibility. Three Coins in a Fountain, the famous 1954 Hollywood romance starring Italian heartthrob Rossano Brazzi, might easily have been her campaign slogan. Who would have dreamt back in the 50’s when the blockbuster movie was made that three major European cities would all have female mayors—especially Rome, a major city in a country known for its male bravado, which only recently had a famed womanizer, Silvio Berlusconi, as prime minister? Plus ca change, plus ce n'est pas la meme chose!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Rome Journal: Il gatto...e il capello matto

Il gatto… e il capello matto is the Italian translation of The Cat in the Hat. If you remember the Dr. Seuss’s fable begins on a note of childhood boredom. “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we stayed in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.” After a spate of unusually beautiful weather, characterized by clear and sunny skies, uncharacteristic for the post Epiphany season, cold rain greeted Romans on a recent Saturday. The fact is that Rome is famous for its cats. They’re ubiquitous and begging for employment. Dr. Seuss’s cat is a lord of misrule, but unusual due to the fact that it cleans up the mess it makes and returns everything back to normal. 150 cats occupy the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, Colonia Felina di Torre Argentina. The are attended to by Le Gattare, a group of women who are devote to the care and protection of cats and if you visit any of Rome’s monuments you will find lots of cats. The first Italian language tour of the musical Cats was in 2009, with a new version subsequently having a run in 2016. Indeed there are estimated to be approximately 300,000 feral cats in Rome. In no other city in the world, is a pleasant intruder like Dr. Seuss’s creation more likely to provide such an imaginary salvo and flight of fancy.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Rome Journal: The Sirens

Odysseus and Sirens (photograph: Jastrow 2006)
If you remember Odysseus has himself tied to the mast of his boat and tells his men to fill their ears with bees wax so he can hear what the Sirens are saying while avoiding their lure. In Rome there are always sirens of another kind whose pitch descends as the vehicles from which they emanate disappear into the distance. Is the Doppler Effect enhanced by antiquity? Then there's tintinnabulation. The classic ringing of bells at lunch time is like a vine of grapes that becomes more fulsome in Rome’s fertile archeological crescent. Sounds reverberate in Rome in a way that’s a function of the striations of civilization. Part of Fellini’s Roma (1972) was shot during a pause in the excavation of the Metro's A line to deal with a vein of archeological discoveries. Imagine the same terrain two millennium earlier when the sounds of ambulances, fire engines and police car were replaced with the roar of spectators watching gladiators locked in combat at the Colosseum. Bells from church spires would also be absent in the pre-Christian era. There have been many soundtracks accompanying the spectacle of the Eternal City depending on the era, but there's always a particular brand of silence only interrupted by the timeless honking of gulls that derives from the imminence of the past.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Rome Journal: Bending Like the Palm

The palm trees which abound are a reminder that Rome is a tropical climate, but in early January soon after Epiphany, the Eternal City boasts a feeling that’s almost close to fall in New England minus the color. Tropical plants like palms are made of sterner stuff. Climbing up the ancient steps from Trastevere one arrives at the Gianicolo, the second highest hill in Rome. On the ascent you stop at the church of San Pietro in Montorio to admire the famed Tempietto, the commemorative tomb built by Donato Bramante before proceeding past the auspicious gated Renaissance style McKim, Mead and White structure which houses the American Academy and then on to Porta San Pancrazio, which marks the southern gate of the Aurelian walls—whose arched structure now houses the Garibaldi museum. Passing by the archway you’ll make your way to the Villa Doria Pamphili which abuts the biggest landscaped park in Rome. The absence of bare branches amidst the chill is the distinguishing feature of this oasis of urban greenery. The branches are never bare despite the chill in the air. In Rome, you get your cake and eat it too and down the road is Monteverde where Pasolini once lived. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Rome Journal: La Fontana dell'Acqua Paola

La Fontana dell'Acqua Paola
It’s easy to understand why Paolo Sorrentino chose the Fontana dell’acqua Paola or Il Fontanone near the Church of San Pietro in Montorio which houses Bramante’s famed Tempietto for the opening shot of La grand beliezza. The fountain which is actually a monument to Pope Paul V was built to mark the completion of the restoration of an important aqueduct in 1612. The structure itself set on the Gianicolo overlooks a majestic vista of Rome on the Via Garibaldi. It’s an antique yet post-modern take on the iconic image of Anita Ekberg immersing herself in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita—the film to which Sorrentino’s work begs comparison. Actually, the Baroque fountain designed by Giovanni Fontana (whose name unlikely derived from his metier) became an influence on the later Trevi fountain which was started by Nicola Salva and completed by Guiseppe Pannini in 1762. But the earlier fountain actually offers both a more expansive view and pool. Esther Williams could have swam laps in it. La grand beliezza was made in 2013, 53 years after La Dolce Vita and if the light of the Eternal City had begun to shimmer or at least change its hue then the Fontana dell’acqua Paola provided a more 21st Century view.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Rome Journal: Rocco Siffredi

The Via Nazionale runs into the Piazza Repubblica and nearby is the Quirinale where a long line of government ministries are watched over by blank-faced machine gun-toting guards. Il Palazzo del Quirinale is fronted by a special phalanx that are like the mission which tends to Buckingham Palace. One wonders about the stuff of soldiers who're capable of standing at silent attention for such long periods of time. As you walk from Via Nazionale to Rome’s Termini which is one of the main train stations, the atmosphere become seedy with shifty-eyed merchants manning a line of green bookstalls selling pornographic DVD’s. It's the kind of place that Graham Greene's Pinky might have retired to after his criminal career on the streets of Brighton Rock. These relics, in the age of the internet, exude an almost archeological quality. There’s a whole collection devoted to Rocco Seffredi, the Johnny Holmes of Italian porn who’s now 55. It’s a little like Pompei (whose phalluses are still a must on any sex tourism itinerary) a dead civilization preserved for posterity just as it once was, in this case not in volcanic ash, but plastic-wrapped digital discs. The number 75 bus departing from the main train station running past the ancient tourist sites of Rome as it makes its way up the Janiculum Hill, carries a romantic young couple on a recent Saturday afternoon. She boasts a streak of purple hair and he's wearing white-framed sunglasses. As the bus turns into the Via Cavour, they begin to kiss and hug, unable to keep their hands off each other for the whole ride to the top. Once there, they stride towards the arch at the Porta San Pancrazio and its monument to Garibaldi, the great liberator of the Italian people.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Rome Journal: The Classical Naming Period

Kennedy Arena, Rome, NY
You may ask yourself what does Rome, NY have to do with Rome, Italy. Not much when you realize the upstate community of approximately 34,000 inhabitants where one of the primary arenas is the John F. Kennedy Civic Area Skating Ring, which hosts hockey and figure skating events, is no Colosseum! Rome NY was once a portage site for Native Americans and in particular the Iroquois which is a far cry from Romulus and Remus. While ancient Rome was founded in 753 BC, Rome, NY was born in l796. Rome, NY got its name as part of the “classical naming period” when a number of upstate cities including Manlius, Cicero, Syracuse, Utica, Troy and Ithaca derived their names. You have of course Paris, Kentucky and Texas after a French city whose name derives from similar sources, but Rome was definitely part a trend manifest, for the most part, in the center of New York State. Naming Rome, Rome was a little like Mustang Sally or the Hula Hoop. However, one can assume that the choice of the Eternal City conferred the kind of validation that occurs when you call a school an Academy with Plato’s being the eponymous example.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rome Journal: Monica Vitti Sightings

Federico Fellini mythologized the Via Veneto in La Dolce Vita.Yes, the one that begins with the statue of Christ hanging off a helicopter, flying over Rome's Parco degli Acquedotti. And the street became the grail for a generation drawn to the glamour and sophistication of Italian life--together with an anomie among the upper class embodied in the fashionable existentialism of the fifties. In L’Avventura Antonioni made Monica Vitti, the Madonna of Unhemlichkeit or estrangement. But does that Rome still exist today? If you’re looking to rescue a glamorous and fashionably dressed lost soul, it’s unlikely you’re going to find her or him on the Via Veneto or anywhere else, including the Largo di Argentina, of “Et tu, Brut?” fame. Go to Palazzo Bonaparte on the Piazza Venezia (where the current exhibit is "Impressionisti segreti") at the corner of Vittorio Emanuele and the Corso, one of the busiest intersections of Rome. You're unlikely to find any Monica Vitti look-alikes (primarily because they were a figment of a filmmaker's imagination). Just for the record Monica Vitti is now 88. You’ll have better luck if you step into an art house back in the states which is playing La Grande Beliezza, where the glamorous Rome has a Second Coming. But if you can’t find the real life characters,  Rome is still loaded with sites and you can literally live through the memories of a world created in film by journeying to the places where the great classics of Italian cinema which used Rome as their backdrop, Rossellini's Open City,  Pasolini's Mamma Roma and Fellini's Roma were originally shot.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Rome Journal: Pompei e Santorini. L'Eternità in un Giorno

"Vesuvius" by Andy Warhol
“Pompei e Santorini L’Eternita in un Giorno” is the wonderful title of the show that recently completed a run at the Scuderie del Quirinale. It’s the meeting of the genre of science fiction and fantasy with art or in actuality, reality. For in 1648 BC and 79AC life in both the villages of Akrotiri on the Island of Santorini (dating from possibly 5500 BC) and Pompei (from the Etruscan era) were instantaneously extinguished. The two lost cities were discovered in1869 and 1748 respectively. The mode of destruction in which the pyroclastic eruption brought life to a halt was also an act of preservation that has brought these two civilizations back to life. The German art historian August Mau for instance identified four styles of frescoes in Pompei: the painted stucco Greek, trompe l’oeil, no illusion, and compositional disintegration. “Many disasters have happened in the world,” said Goethe about Pompei, “but few have given so much joy to posterity.” As the curators point out Pompei was approximately half way between the present and the bronze age. Collapse was the title of Jared Diamond's book about natural disasters and human history, but the Quirinale exhibit rendered the other side. “Elle est retrouve, quoi?” eternity has been found again is the quote from Rimbaud on which the show ends.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Rome Journal: Punctuated Equilibrium

Edward Gibbon, author of The  History o the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Punctuated Equilibrium was a theory of evolution propounded by the late Stephen Jay Gould. In a nutshell, Gould’s idea was that evolution occurred in fits and starts and not in an overly logical or Hegelian style dialectic. If you look at the city is an organism, you might find that Gould’s theory is particularly applicable in the case of Rome. Certainly, Rome with its strata of archeology, which Freud likened to the unconscious, fits the bill. Rome is one of the few cities where you're confronted with the ancient past in both a blatant and munificent way. It’s so in your face that at times it’s hard to properly digest the varying strata--from the Etruscan era, to the Empire, to a long period of dormancy (which in any conventional evolutionary schema would probably have preceded the great mature age of empire but actually came after) preceding modernity as part of the Risorgimento under Garibaldi. It’s hard to describe where Rome is today. It’s still got more than one foot in the past, though it’s standing on its own two feet. It seems to shirk the edgy post-modernist esthetic that describes the skylines of many major capitals and large cities like Berlin, Chicago and New York. However, is Rome actually an example of devolution? If antiquity is a form of regression then the answer is yes. The gravitational and inertial pull of the past may, in fact, place the weight of history or nurture above nature in the case of the Eternal City. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Rome Journal: Bacon, Freud and The School of London

“The scream comes to me very well, but I have lots of problems with smiles,” said Francis Bacon. His “Study for a Painting” (1952), is currently exhibited in "Bacon, Freud and The School of London"show at the Chiostro del Bramante. The screaming mouth in the painting recalls the famous scene from the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Potemkin. And there were of course Bacon's famed Screaming Popes modeled on the figure of Velasquez’s” "Portrait of Pope Innocent X." Bacon’s screaming figures also prefigure Billie Whitelaw’s rendition of Beckett’s Not I (1973) in being a form of emotional invective. The London School, which also included Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and Paula Prego, whose works are also represented in the current show, was soused without being Dionysiac. To some extent the drinking appears to have been joyless, desperate and like their abstract expressionist counterparts often on the edge of violence. They drank at the Gargoyle and at Colony Room Club and the alcohol was an intrinsic part of the esthetic. How to calculate its etiology and effects is another matter. One of the early paintings on view “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) depicts Freud’s wife Kathleen Garman's steely blank eyes. She's not so much cuddling her cat as squeezing its neck. Garman appears again in the famed Girl With a White Dog (1950) and its pet and breast is almost an essay in bestiality. Which is to say that Freud like Bacon was not concerned with classic notions of beauty, despite the elegance of his draughtsmanship  The curators point out Freud wasn’t so much interested in nudes as “naked figures.” His paintings like those of the nightlife figure Leigh Bowery are an emotional striptease. Did he, Bacon and the other painters of the London School seek to see mankind at its worst or was their mandate simply to make great art, glass in hand? 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Rome Journal: Castel Sant'Angelo

photo of  Castel Sant'Angelo by Francis Levy
A poem by the Emperor Hadrian is engraved on a marble plaque in Castel Sant’Angelo. Marguerite Yourcenar translated it in her classic Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional letter from Hadrian to his youthful successor Marcus Aurelius. “Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again….Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…” Actually the massive rotund turreted structure, a geometrical hybrid of spherical and rectangular shapes, was, as the words of the poem indicate, originally the site of the emperor’s tomb, which was built in the First century—its popular appellation deriving from the apparition of the archangel Michael by Pope Gregory I in 590. Besides his Villa (Adriana outside Rome in Tivoli) and his tomb, Hadrian was also responsible for the Pantheon which in real estate terms would make him one of the great developers of antiquity. Actually, the Castel, may be Rome’s first adaptive re-use building having housed not only a tomb containing the remains of the Imperial family right up to Caracalla, but also a fortress, a prison and a Renaissance dwelling in which the apartments of several popes including Paul III Farnese were located.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Rome Journal: Civilzation and Its Contents

Picelle (photograph by Francis Levy)
Civilization and Its Discontents is Freud’s famous tome about the price exacted by the social contract. But Hadrian’s Villa Adriana, approximately 28 KM from Rome on the Monti Tiburtini, is an example of the kind of rewards that can result from the more benign aspects of human kind’s attempt to tame the innocence of nature. The Villa itself has spawned its own legion of  commentators including Piranesi in 1781 who diagrammed the 30 buildings which comprise its grounds and which Hadrian began constructing in 118 A.D. the year he came to power. From 1831-6 Agosto Penna produced realistic drawings incorporated in Viaggio Pittorico some of which convey an almost 3-D virtual reality effect. Marguerite Yourcenar was the first female member of the Academie Francaise. Her classic novel Memoirs of Hadrian is memorialized by the Largo named after her which graces the entrance to the grounds. The Canopus with its magnificent sculpture lined pool is one of the most frequented cited structures of the Villa, but the Picelle, the arcaded court and long pool in which a line of cypresses are reflected provides one of the most magnificent odes to man's pursuit of beauty, the sky above the earth below. Civilization. Hadrian's was not unblemished. Anti-semitism became more prevalent under his rule and he famously repressed the Bar Kokhba revolt. Still the ambition and creativity of the Villa Adriana exemplifies the best impulses of an empire which produced Augustus and an unparalleled system of jurisprudence whose legacy lives on today.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Rome Journal: Woody Allen's "A Rainy Day in New York"

Can we say that at the end of one’s career as well as life, all of  existence passes by. That was the theme of Bergman’s masterpiece Wild StrawberriesIn A Rainy Day in New York, the Woody Allen film currently being released in Rome and elsewhere in Europe (but not the States), this occurs to decidedly disappointing effect. All the familiar citations are there from Ortega y Gasset and Derrida, the kind of music played at the Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle,   Central Park (where the film attempts a romantic finale) and even a cameo appearance from Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X" at the Met. The screenplay writer Ted Davidoff (Jude Law) catches his wife coming out of the The Albert on University after a tryst, and a temperamental director Rolland Pollard (Liev Schreiber) who once made a film about Venice, a la Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (l996), recuses himself to the Astoria Film Studios. The protagonist is named Gatsby Welles  (Timothy Chalamet) and there’s talk about romantic meetings under a clock (like the one where Holden Caufield meets Sally Hayes in The Catcher in the Rye)The whole Allen crew is intact with Santo Loquasto on sets and Vittorio Storaro cinematography. Even the typeface of credits is the same. Further, Allen is still attracting name actors, despite the fact that he can’t get distribution in the States. However in terms of its setting, A Rainy Day In New York is a faint shadow of movies like Manhattan and Annie Hall. Trite aphoristisms and flimsy quips take the place of memorable and sparking dialogue. Gatsby’s brother innocently asks about his brother’s date, who turns out to be a prostitute, “you think a girl like that wants to live from hand to mouth?” There's a generational perversity to the film too. Most of the youthful characters seem to inhabit the lifestyles of an older generation and despite all his controversies Allen’s not afraid of broaching the tired theme of older men's infatuation with younger women.The characters of the director, his screenwriter and a heartthrob Francisco Vega (Diego Luna) all fall for Gatsby’s 21 year old girlfriend Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning). Allen should probably be commended for speaking his truth. However, the universe of the move is so hackneyed and self-referential as to verge on being a parody of Allen himself. Allen’s New York was always a wonderful romantic comedy illusion, but in the case of A Rainy Day in New York, it’s impossible to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy it. 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Rome Journal: Repeat Performance

Repeat Performance is a l947 film noir about a woman who gets to repeat a year again. It’s like Groundhog Day. That’s a little what Rome's like. The iconography is so strong and intractable that you’re instantaneously caught in a feeling of well-earned déjà vu. The art comes from distinguishing one past remembrance from the last while occasionally enjoying some overrides, which is to say, experiences that wipe out past prejudices created by the strong brew most visitors receive—and which in turn creates a seemingly impenetrable gauntlet of preconception. Everyone waxes about the beauty of Rome, but you may one day wake up and feel like you're trapped in an antiquity which is not just a street or piazza but more  a time warp that carries with it a welter of historical association. You can, for instance, literally go back to the spot where Caesar cried “Et Tu, Brut?,” the Largo di Torre Argentina. When you go to the Piazza Venetia with its famous wedding cake monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, it’s hard not to feel that history is following you around like one of the pickpockets you’re always warned to beware of. Rome is a like a colorful parent who’s left his or her imprint on you and who you both embrace and want to free yourself from, of course without having to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a classic whodunit of the Agatha Christie Murder on the Orient Express variety. You have your cast of suspicious characters, all possessing, nefarious and incriminating motives. In this case the mystery takes place in a house rather than a train. The fact that the corpse discovered happens to be a mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) who's become fabulously rich due to his plots adds another dimension. You need a savvy detective in this genre and one with some easily identifiable traits. In this case Daniel Craig of James Bond fame plays the part of Benoit Blanc, who speaks with a big time Southern drawl. Jamie Lee Curtis, plays Linda Drysdale, Thrombley's eldest daughter and and yes suspect and a beleaguered one at that. Maria Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the fall guy or girl is the one figure of modest means and it looks like she’s going to take the rap for a crime she didn’t commit, even by way of accident. Knives Out is pure genre entertainment whose pleasure derives from the venerable history of murder and mayhem. Parsing the plot is a little like chess with all its famous moves and plays. It’s all derivative and one of the pleasures comes from seeing which one (s) are being employed and in what combination. Yet on another level the experience of seeing a movie like Knives Out is the reverse of getting into the seat of a self-driving car. Here from the very beginning, you take the wheel. You’re presented with a problem that has to be solved. And even if you aren't right in your analysis, there’s the pleasure of justice and poetic justice being served as the strands of plot (and it's a very ingenious one in this case) are woven together to a climax.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year!

Enrico Caruso
Imagine suddenly finding yourself in a large auditorium. The curtain goes up and every seat is filled. There's a thunderous applause. You find yourself studying the perimeter of the round circle of luminescence in which you find yourself serendipitously placed. You've never been a performer. You don’t know anything about acting and have been given no lines to speak. You don’t play any instruments and are totally unable to carry a tune. This could be your chance to expatiate on any topic, but being given the opportunity to come forth with your grievances or remedies you find yourself tongue-tied. However, before you have a chance to pull yourself together, the tables turn. People start to speak out. It turns out the audience are the ones who will be doing the talking. You're there simply to listen to what they have to say—in this case about you. You begin to realize that the assembled crowd have all been part of your history. And now the familiar faces going back to childhood and leading right up to your adult years, all begin their reminiscences one after the other in chronological order. Some are funny and affectionate and others are sad, desperate and sometimes angry and at the end it's not you who take the bow, but they who you applaud, crying out in the end, “encore, encore.”