Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Broken Contract

Gregory Peck went undercover playing the part of a Jew in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) to understand prejudice. But racism may no longer be the most profound inequity faced by Americans. As George Packer points out in "The Broken Contract: Inequality and American Decline” (Foreign Affairs, November-December 2011), “Between 1979 and 2006, middle-class Americans saw their annual incomes after taxes increase by 21 percent (adjusted for inflation).  The poorest Americans saw their incomes rise by only ll per cent. The top one percent, meanwhile, saw their incomes increase by 256 percent.” In the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels Joel McCrea plays a Hollywood director who dresses up like a hobo to learn how the poor live. But who to cast as a poor person attempting to penetrate the precincts of the ultra rich? We are familiar with the face of Bill Gates. The face of the recently deceased Steve Jobs is ubiquitous (around the world) due to Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography and we all remember the kindly Oracle of Omaha who once commented about derivatives “it’s not just whom you are sleeping with, but also whom they are sleeping with.” And then there are Trump, Icahn, Blankfein, Paulson, Schwarzman and Flowers. If it’s hard to imagine someone coming from nothing in the current landscape of exponentially increasing wealth, it’s even harder to bring a onetime portrayer of superheroes out of retirement to fill the part. OK Michael Fassbender, the heart throb du jour, exudes a protean mixture of grit and elegance. Packer goes on to say, “Inequality creates a lopsided economy, which leaves the rich with so much money that they can binge on speculation, and leaves the middle class without enough money to buy the things they think they deserve, which leads them to borrow and go into debt.”

Monday, January 30, 2012

Untitled Feminist Show

Nudity in theater and dance has crossed the line from the shocking to the metaphorical. An actor’s naked body now functions like a soliloquy, a form of language in and of itself, iterative of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be,” that is to say “being” in the phenomenological sense of the word. When the Living Theatre performed Paradise Now and Richard Schechner’s Performance Group presented Dionysius in ’69, blatant sexuality and nudity were political acts, provocations intended to usurp the social order. Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, currently playing at the Baryshnikov bills itself as theater, but besides being stripped of clothes the six performers who make up the cast of the play (Becca Blackwell, World Famous *Bob,* Amelia Ziri-Brown, aka Lady Rizo, Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle and Regina Rocke) are also stripped of language (with a few minor exceptions), plot and even a title. Is Young Jean Lee’s minimalism a reincarnation of Jerzy Grotowski’s “Poor Theater” or merely dance masking as theater? Oddly some of the frenetic primal movements recall Grotowski works of the early 70’s. Untitled Feminist Show does have a didactic edge (it's the kind of production that supports a mass of critical theory despite the sparsity of language) and it’s obviously got a hardun for classic women’s roles. But it doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Narration in the form of mime proliferates and the audience laughs uneasily at blow jobs, nude wrestling, analingus, hair pulling and other stage business, both silly and grotesque, which make up a post-modernist feminist universe in which the female body is stripped and the female psyche deconstructed. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Chile Journal VIII: Chile Dog

Drawing by Hallie Cohen

Lomo a lo pobre (a slab on meat, on fries, top by bull's eyes), and porotos  granados a vegetarian bean stew can be savored in Bellavista, the Bohemian section of Santiago, at establishments like the venerable Gallindo. If you walk through Bellavista you will come to the funicular which rides to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. The Virgin of Santiago, a white statue at the top, which is visible from most parts of the city, is reminiscent of the flying Christ figure in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, only this one is not an expression of cinematic irony. The summit of the Cerro is a holy site and this virgin commands attention on a truly catholic basis, using the literal meaning of the word. But before you even get to Bellavista, as you cross the polluted waters of the Mapocho River from the Place d’Italia, you will come to a hot dog stand. In Manhattan there have always been thousands of hot dogs stands with umbrellas where you get the choice of mustard or relish and sometimes sauerkraut. Chileans take their hot dogs as seriously as their lomo a lo pobre and in the evening there are lines for this particular stand where a hot dog is served not only with mustard and relish, but avocado, tomatoes and home made mayonnaise. While no sauerkraut is in sight, these hot dogs are nothing to sneer at. They can easily constitute a full meal and the delicious bread on which they are served is the closest Chilians will ever get to the baguette. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Virginia Woolf: The Flight of Time

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the great essays on alcoholism, second only to The Shining. And even if you’re brain is dry, you should run to see the elegant edition of Hardy’s classic on display in Virginia Woolf: The Flight of Time, in its last precious few days at the Carrere Gallery in the Forbes Building on lower Fifth Avenue. Here’s a brief note, exhibited in the show, which V.W. wrote to Hardy’s widow. “I was very much disappointed not to come to your lunch the other day. I had been dining out the night before and fainted owing to the heat. So that it seemed unwise to go out again the next day. Indeed I stayed in bed. But I am quite well again now and hope very much I may see you later.” Contrast this to what V.W. wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell decades later, on 3/28/41, the day she took her life, by walking into the sea. “I feel that I have gone too far to come back again. I am certain now that I am going mad again. It’s just as it was the first time. I am always hearing voices and I know I shan’t get over it now.” And here is what Virginia’s beloved Vita Sackville-West would write in the manuscript of a poem, which appears in the exhibit, “Frugal, austere, fancy, proud/Rich in her contradictions, rich I love/Some say, she lived in an unreal world…she now has gone/Into the prouder world of immortality.” And now back to Hardy’s Mayor who was also riven by creative and self-destructive urges. Along with letters, memorabilia (like Woolf’s 1923 passport) and commentary, this gem of a show, comprised of works collected by William B. Beekman, includes Hogarth Press editions of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves, whose extraordinary post-Impressionist covers, show the influence of her lover Roger Fry, who had written extensively on Cezanne and Van Gogh.  Some creative publisher must bring these wonderful non-sequiturs back from the dead.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Chile Journal VII: The Museum of Memory and Human Rights

9/11/73 was the day that military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the first democratically elected Marxist government in the history of South America. Those who believe there are no coincidences might place this in the category of the paranormal, but actually on a bread and butter level it’s not hard to see why the country’s ruling elite supported the reign of terror that followed. Nationalization was anathema to the wealthy while for the United States, which clandestinely supported the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government, Chile was another potential Soviet satellite in the mold of Cuba. The doctrine of spheres of influence trumped any concern for principles, a tip of the hat to realpolitik which had been applied in Viet Nam and elsewhere and whose results were even more impoverished than the rationalizations behind them. When you enter the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (The Museum of Memory and Human Rights), a dramatic green box cantilevered over two huge concrete supports, that’s right across the street from Santiago’s Quinta Normal Park, you have the opportunity to descend into an installation called La Geometria de la Conciencia (The Geometry of Conscience) created by the artist Alfredo Jaar. While the museum itself is a documentation of the horrors of the Pinochet regime (amongst the displays are electric shock devices used in torture together with video testaments from survivors), the installation attempts to create the feeling of confinement and terror that victims faced. You are led into a cement cavern and the lights are turned off. There is a button  which can be pushed to exit, but you don’t want to become an accomplice to your own fear. The lights return to reveal a wall composed of sillouettes of the dead and the living, victims and survivors. Then darkness descends again. In l988 the people of Chile famously voted “El No” to the dictatorship. The country of the Nobel Prize winning poet and statesman Pablo Neruda and of the artist Roberto Matta, both supporters of the Allende’s principles, was free again.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chile Journal VI: Calle Londres 38

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
Outside the Hotel Plaza San Francisco on Alameda Street also known as O’Higgins, one of the central thoroughfares of Santiago, in the Plaza de la Fray Pedro de Bordeci O.F.M, stands a fountain in back of which is the Iglesia de  San Francisco, one of the oldest churches in Santiago. Its unprepossessing structure hides a grandiloquent inner sanctum which is an oasis of peace in one of the frenetic sections of the Centro. There’s a cobblestoned street called the Calle Londres that begins with a curved structure that’s reminiscent of the Roman architecture of Bath. Calle Londres is one of the most charming in the bustling downtown area. If you continue down the street to Londres 38 you will comes to a rather elegant building where torture took place. A plaque in front reads “centro secrete de detencion tortura desaparcia y ejectuacia 11 de Septembre l973-September l974. " Ninety six persons were tortured by the Pinochet regime in that elegant spot during that one year. In 2005, it was declared a monument. And there are little memorials to the dead, interspersed amidst the cobblestones. Calle Londres is a beautiful street with an ugly past. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chile Journal V: La Sebastiana

There are rumors about Valparaiso being a dangerous place where pickpockets will assault the unwary tourist. These fears are vindicated when you walk out of the bus station to a seaside spot reminiscent of the faded splendor of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. The decaying neo-colonial Spanish architecture with its balustrades and ornate friezes on azure, purple and green facades is counterpoised by a generalized squalor, with large amounts of dog droppings (there are even more strays than in Santiago) punctuating a landscape of unswept streets. Ramshackled houses rest precariously on stilts along a mountain side which runs to the sea. All that’s missing to make the picture complete is a criminal character like Greene’s infamous Pinkie. La Sebastiana, the one time home of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet, also lies on the mountain and as you make the steep trek up the colorful albeit still filthy steps which lead to the museum built in Neruda's honor, you begin to understand why Valparaiso is also looked at as one of the centers of Chile’s cultural life. Like the city itself Neruda was full of contradictions. He was a Communist who was determinately acquisitive, a collector of beautiful objects. He was the last of a generation of poet statesmen (Malraux was his novelist counterpart in France) who exercised imagination in the social as well as individual spheres. Yet he was also a devoted bon vivant who plainly enjoyed the good life. The Medusa face of Valparaiso is the neighborhood leading down from La Sebastiana, a neo La Boheme filled with galleries and shops and wall covered with Lorca quotations and graffiti murals (Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Wheat Field With Crows were combined in one of these). For those who don’t have the energy to make the climb after eating a meal of Churiana, a heavy dish of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes topped by boiled beef, the city sports antique funiculars and a fleet of aging electric buses with a haunting fifties design .

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chile Journal IV: Valle de la Luna

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen
The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. With the exception of an occasional oasis, it’s devoid of any forms of life. You fly into Calama, which houses Chuquicatama, the largest copper mine in the world, and attests to the harsh conditions under which miners still live (the scene of last year’s Chilean mining disaster is not too far away). The desecration of nature is counterbalanced by the urge for preservation epitomized an hour a way in San Pedro de Atacama which is the mecca for those who journey to see the harsh beauty of a landscape forged from the pressure of tectonic plates under the Andes, the Domeyko and the Salt Range Mountains which all encircle this plateau. The Valley of the Moon in San Pedro was created by the water flows which in previous eras washed the salt, lithium and other minerals down from the mountains. At certain points in the day the mountains literally talk as condensation creates ebbs and flows within the age old rocks. It’s a natural wonder that is also reminiscent of the sound emitted by radiators in pre-war Manhattan high rises. The Caves of Salt and Death Valley, a sweeping vista of layered rock are nearby products of the same geologic phenomena.  In the distance, sand boarders can be seen riding snow boards over the huge desert dunes. It’s a mixture of Planet of the Apes (the landscape was also the site used to develop NASA’s Mars probe) and Lawrence of Arabia. For those who look for mystery in the paranormal, the wonders of the Valley of the Moon are proof that there is mystery in knowable things.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Chile Journal III: Matta

The Chilean artist Roberto Matta lived from l911 to 2002. His work is on display at the Museo de Belles Artes in Santiago, a structure whose auspicious entry way with its high glass and steel ceiling recall the Belle Epoque train stations of Europe. Paris was a city where Matta lived intermittently and his midlife paintings like "The Art of Think" (1957) show the influence of Picasso and the cubists, though he was literally painting cubes in this essay on imagination which features abstract geometric elements in a three-dimensional space. Would it be fair to say that Matta’s abstract and surrealist works were the painterly equivalent of the magical realism of Marquez and other Latin American writers? During the period when Allende became the first democratically elected president of Italy, Matta’s work on canvases covered with burlap, cement and even bits of hay took on a far more figurative caste. "El Ojo Del Alma es Una Estrella Rose", the eye of the soul is a red star exhibits an exuberance about human possibility. Like Phillip Guston, Matta started out an abstractionist while moving into a more figurative style that included a distinctly didactic element, resonating his strong opposition to the dehumanizing effects of modernity. His “Ojo con los Desarrolladores,” eye on progress is a futuristic world devoid of men whose providence could easily have been Chaplin’s Modern Times. In one of the panels of a cartoonish work Matta did late in his career Matta writes “cada hombre Lleva en si mismo la revolucion come el Huevo contieva la vida,” everyone carries within him his own revolution as an egg contains life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Chile Journal II: Santiago

Photo by Hallie Cohen
It’s a man’s world at the Café Haiti where slinkily dressed women serve cappuccinos and espressos to a male only crowd. It’s also a man’s world to an army of stray dogs which wander the streets (an estimated 1,000,000—it’s a buyer’s market when it comes to dogs who are almost unctuous in their search for attention). It’s also a 60’s world in this city where there are as many couples making out in public as there are stray dogs--young couples who are not comfortable at home in this still conservative society on the verge of change. The Clinic is the satiric magazine which is Chile’s version of Le Canard enchaine and in the café named after the journal, Let’s Spend the Night Together plays on the sound system, while on the walls Chile’s political elite are pilloried and half naked women appear on the menu. John F. Kennedy is quoted on a street billboard, “Esos Que Hacen La Revulucion Pacifica Impossible, Haran La RevolucionViolenta Inevitable,” those who find pacifist revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable. This is a city where Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton still command huge fees to play for sell out crowds. The neighborhood called Lasstaria is reminiscent of Paris with its bookstalls, avant-garde and movie art house theaters while in the background the Andes hang like a mirage.  The fact that everyone smokes and that lomo de lo pobre, fried eggs on top of meat nestled in a bed of French fries, is still a popular dish are both evidence that awareness of cardi-pulmonary matters is inversely proportional to rising political consciousness in a society recently riven by student demonstrations. At the GAM, the art museum named for the famed Chilean poetess Gabriela Mistral, a lesbian couple pay homage to Marina Abramovic, locked behind glass in motionless embrace in the middle of an installation of haystacks. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chile Journal: Prologue

The North American who hasn’t visited Latin America may feel a little like Candide arrrivng with Cunegonde in Buenos Aires and meeting the governor Don Fernando d’Ibarra y Figueroa, y Macacarens, y Lampourdos, y Souza. While Europe and even far away spots like China, India and Japan are familiar to many Americans, Latin America still has a certain exoticism, a certain mystique whose flames are fanned by magical realists like Marquez and sexual realists like Vargas Ilosa. Americans know about Rio with its reputation for Carnival, Venezuela, Oil, Columbia, drugs and Peru, the Shining Path. We are aware that Paraguay, which was once a place of refuge for Nazis, had a dictator named Stroessner and that Chile had Pinochet and Argentina, the legendary Eva Peron. But Argentina while also providing a place of refuge for Adolf Eichmann and others also became home for refugee Jews who were at home in a Latin American city that is particularly known for its European flavor. Buenos Aires still hosts a thriving psychoanalytic community, which evidences the kind of influences which still make it an outpost of European cosmopolitanism on the Latin American continent. You don’t need to travel to Latin America to participate in these generalizations and yet they along with the Andes and the Amazon, two of the most monumental natural wonders on earth carry an enormous sway in the  imagination.  Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, was overthrown by Pinochet  Pork barrel politics obviously exist in Latin America as they do everywhere else on earth, but the result is more often than not a metaphoric boudin in which tantalizing scents emerge from the blood.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If I Told Him Would He Like It

Picasso’s l906 portrait of Gertrude Stein hanging in the current Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso…the Stein Family show at the Grand Palais is one of the iconic portraits of the modern era. Is there any basis for comparison to another, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa also known as La Gioconda which is one of the great masterpieces of all time. Many commentators have remarked upon the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. Stein isn’t smiling in the Picasso portrait, but her expression is enigmatic. Her stare is piercing, the epitome of determination. Yet there is also something inscrutable about it, as if all her resolve were mitigated by something clever, sly, almost uncanny.  It’s not that she’s seductive, but there’s something imperturbable and magnetic about her. Apparently at one point during the creation of the work,  Picasso eliminated Stein's face entirely, saying “I can’t see you anymore when I look.” Stein was a collector, an acquirer, but she was also intellectually acquisitive and while Picasso was studying her, the energy was undoubtedly travelling in the opposite direction too. Picasso often painted his former mistresses, with the representations existing like the heads of stags on the wall a hunter’s lodge. But as the author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas wasn’t Stein collecting too? Was Picasso’s famous comment a reflection of his fear of being swallowed up by his subject’s inertial force? The portrait of Gertrude Stein is what survives, but can we speculate that the reason for Picasso’s ceasing his work was his realization that though he was doing the painting, he himself was also a subject and not only her? "If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him" was how Stein began her poetic portrait of Picasso. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Recursive Mind

In her review of Michael C. Corballis’s The Recursive Mind (TLS, 10/28/11), Barbara King brings up the Gobekli Tepe site in ancient turkey as a an example of a hunter gatherer society which had contrary to common wisdom mastered advanced forms of planning and thinking. Gobekli Tepe has also been the subject of a recent piece in The NewYorker by Elif Batuman (“The Sanctuary,” 12/19/11). But the chief thrust of King’s review is to dispute the claim that humans are superior to other animals due to their possession of recursive thinking, two qualities of which  are  “mental time travel” and  “theory of mind. “During mental time travel, an experience we’ve had in the past or that we imagine for ourselves in the future is ‘inserted into [our] present consciousness,’” King remarks in summarizing and quoting from Corballis. “Similarly, in theory of mind, we insert what we believe to be someone else’s state of mind into our own.” King’s point is that these traits are not unique to man at all. Even crows crow about it. “I wonder if, after viewing the documentary film A Murder of Crows, Corballis would still refuse to credit corvids—ravens and crows—with the recursive skills already outlined,” King complains. “In one striking scene, a New Caledonian crow (a bird admired by Corballis, though he thinks it incapable of recursive thinking) solves a complex experimental three part tool using problem.” Sure crows and chimps all have patterns that look like thought, but is King perhaps failing to distinguish between instinctual behavior based on survival with the self-referential patterns of consciousness. It’s doubtful that many crows would crow about the good old days or the past and still fewer chimps are likely to open the first volume of The Remembrance of Things Past. Sure the whale in Free Willy may intuit danger. He may even have been trained enough to realize that danger lurks behind a particular bend in the coral, but that’s a hell of a lot different than being able to think “I am the whale in Free Willy. I realize there is danger lurking in them waters and by George the Proustian madeleine is an example of Bergson’s concept of involuntary memory.”


Monday, January 9, 2012

A Separation

Because the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is not a piece of fluff and deals with a cycle of endless conflict on a microcosmic level one can’t help but look at the movie on a macrocosmic or global level. Is the small world of the movie, which deals with memory, blame and most importantly forgetting, making some sort of statement about the increasing marginalization of a major power in the Middle East? One thing is sure. A Separation starts out a surprisingly cross-cultural note—almost as a way of contravening the film’s possibly symbolic content.  Any arguing couple will recognize the agon of blame and spite that characterizes the relationship between Simin and Nader and the burden that is put on their daughter Termeh who is asked to take sides in the struggle. Arguing couples will also recognize how a flame of discord can turn a home into a tinderbox. Farhadi is quite artful in this respect since the explosive turn of events, in which the warring couple eventually becomes entwined, lurks in the conflict between Teheran’s middle class (of which Simin and Nader are members) and the disenfranchised working classes where the seeds of fundamentalist belief  reside. To the extent that it departs from its initial domestic plot, Farhadi’s movie is unfamiliar both in style and structure, presenting a tableau that western audiences won’t ultimately identify with at all. Firstly, it ends on a question mark, with no resolution of its central plot element. Secondly, it presents a world of courtroom bureaucracy that might be called Kafkaesque were it not for the parochial morality which is the palette from which Farhadi works.  Returning back to the larger issues that the film raises, many historically orientated movies place their emphasis on memory. The Santayana line,"those who cannot remember the past are condemned repeat it" is often the subliminal epigraph. A Separation is unique amongst modern films from any culture in that it places its emphasis on forgetting. Nader’s father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, is an emblematic character, a kind of Tiresias whose loss of conviction holds out a perverse hope. But of what? In the sixties, it used to be called blowing your mind.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Planned Obsolescence

Planned obsolescence is one of those terms like conspicuous consumption that's a product of the market economy. In short an object is created with a relatively short life begetting the need to buy another object. In its most recent incarnation Goldman Sachs produced mortgage backed securities (collateralized debt obligations) that they bet against (“Banks Bundled Bad Debt, Bet Against It and Won”,NYT, 12/23/09) Doesn’t this make you nostalgic for the old days when planned obsolescence meant simply that you would have to buy a new toaster oven or TV? Moore’s Law which indicates that generations of microprocessors will continually grow smaller and more capacious is another example of planned obsolescence which on an almost annual basis makes today’s tight new little gadget seem superannuated within a relativelyshort period of time. But this form of planned obsolescence is more the product of technological evolution than human venality and it’s the kind that most people face today when they are forced to buy new computers within increasingly short periods of time simply to cut down on costs. It’s rather simple. Time is money and the investment, which fattens the pockets of say Apple, also saves the consumer money. This is an example of value free planned obsolescence. The sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and conspicuous consumers who attempt to rise socially through the acquisition of certain kind of objects will be victims of another kind of planned obsolescence as tomorrow’s fashion and automobile designs, force them to mortgage their existences, to keep up with the Joneses. It's an uncanny mixture of conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence aggravated by simple acquisitiveness that ultimately created our current housing crisis.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Even though the Berlin Wall fell, making the Cold War and the manichean world view it spawned, an anachronism, the sensibility of one of its most prominent fiction chroniclers, John le Carre remains au courant. The Cold War created le Carre. And  it’s not the first time that war has spawned beauty (All Quiet on the Western Front and Journey to the End of the Night are two masterpieces deriving from World War I for example). That’s the curious thing about the artful espionage le Carre creates. It’s existential substrates don’t prevent it from having an oracular quality that transcends the time in which it's written. Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was adapted for television in l979 with Alec Guiness playing Smiley. Now Gary Oldman has the role, with his nemesis Bill Haydon played by Colin Firth. The sensibility of the current movie is a like a post-modern piece of architecture, full of jagged edges, in which flashback and memory, reality and illusion create a canvas of willed confusion. Bill Haydon juggles both ideology and sexuality in such a way that Smiley’s job becomes almost philosophical, depending on a mixture of phenomenology, epistemology and teleology to unearth a quisling. Before le Carre, spies operated in a far simpler universe in which they simply tracked each other down. The current Tinker, Tailor makes it clear why the Circus is such an appropriate name for British intelligence and why a character named Control (John Hurt) is a contradiction in terms. This is just brilliance on le Carre’s part but it’s something the director Tomas Alfredson captures in spades as the viewer of the movie shifts in and out of the shadows of experience, watching sense deteriorate into nonsense before his or her eyes. Reason has a very short half  life in le Carre's universe and spying. as the current adaptation demonstrates. mostly nearly resembles Plato’s famous allegory in which reality appears like a shadow on the wall of a cave.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Reincarnation

Nathaniel Kahn’s remarkable film My Architect dealt with Kahn’s attempt to discover the world of his absent father, the famed architect Louis Kahn who died when the filmmaker was eleven. Jennifer Fox’s My Reincarnation deals with the westernized son of a master of the Dzogchen style of Buddhism who attempts to walk in the shoes of the father he has barely known. The similarity of both films lies in the way they point to the limitations of great gifts and talents even as they pertain to the realm of the soul. Like Kahn who had great difficulty in relating to people, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, a “rinpoche” or precious one is better as a teacher and cultivator of his flock than he is as father and family man. Though his son Yeshi is deemed to be the reincarnation of his uncle Khyentse, the son, at first, rebels and chooses a secular path working  with computers in his native Italy. The disparity between Chogyal’s ability to deal with life as a Buddhist and his inability to deal with his son’s existence as a human being is one of the most touching aspects of the film and a kind of living testament to his own philosophy that “everything is illusion, unreal, just like a dream,” and  “there is nothing very much to change.” The Dalai Lama appears in the film and one can’t help thinking of prominent Buddhists like Leonard Cohen and Robert Thurman in this rather down to earth, materialistic view of Buddhism. Chogyal grows old and fat over the 20 years that My Reincarnation encompasses. As he exercises in a swimming pool he could be anyone’s aging father who, at retirement age, is less a threat than a burden. Yeshi worries about how he will deal with his father's dead weight as he helps him around while at the same time allowing the older man to become his teacher.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Stieglitz and His Artists

While the Cone sisters of Baltimore and the Steins (Gertrude, Michael and Leo) were helping to make the reputations of Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, the great American photographer Alfred Stieglitz was exhibiting and supporting the work of a generation of American abstract artists that included Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Demuth and Georgia O’Keeffe (who would later become his wife). In truth, Stieglitz with the help of the great Steichen also exhibited Matisse and Picasso at his gallery, "291", which previewed these Europeans before the watershed Armory Show of l913. Stieglitz paid $65 for Picasso’s cubist “Standing Female Nude” and in exhibiting Rodin's bold spread legged “Satyress,”  demonstrated his desire to in the words of the curators of the recent Stieglitz and Hiis Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe show at the Met  “challenge America’s Puritanism.” But his O’Keeffe show was the last at 291 and it heralded the beginning of a new era in which he championed the American school. When abstraction in American art is discusssed, it tends to reference the explosive energy of abstract expressionists like Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Newman. Two things can be said about the these early giants of American abstraction. Firstly while the abstract expressionists, to some degree, broke from Europe, Dove, Hartley and even O’Keeffe seem to owe a debt to it. For instance Marsden Hartley’s “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914) is a classic if somewhat undulating example of cubism. Secondly, that the opposite is true. O’Keeffe’s “Black Abstraction” (1927) was sui generis for its time and many of the other works Stieglitz displayed evidenced the beginnings of a particularly American idiom. Reading about a great show that is over (Alfred Stieglitz and His Circle just completed its run ) serves one purpose, which is to act as a reminder not to miss out the next time the circus come to town.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Detroit's Latest Product

According to the Times the Lincoln Continentals which carried the body of Kim Jong-il and his portrait have engendered avid online dialogue on a car site called the Professional Car Society (“Deeply Hated, But Present: A U.S. Touch At Kim’s End,” NYT, 12/28/11). The Times quoted someone name Gregg D. Merksamer “who has written extensively about hearses, ambulances and other so-called professional cars” to the effect “that the inside of the limousine carrying Kim Jong-il’s body would not have been outfitted for a coffin, which may explain why the body was placed on bed of white flowers on the roof.” The Times also quoted Merksamer as speculating that “the full, rear fender skirts and the five heavy vertical bars separating the grille into six sections” indicate the Lincolns were produced in l975 or 6. Merksamer told theTimes that the car carrying the body of Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung back in l994 was actually closer to the second Lincoln in the funeral procession. “The finned-style wheel covers and oval opera windows in the D-pillars…actually correlate to the sister car that carried Kim Jong-il’s oversize portrait,” he said. The fact that we have stooped to depending on car forums and hearse experts, only points to the failure of our intelligence gathering about the nature of the North Korean regime. On the other hand there is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the heart of the financial crisis Detroit was beleaguered and the US car industry was in the dumps. However, it’s important to note that certain models of one defunct make of American car now serve a vital purpose, as a source of information about the North Korean regime.