Friday, March 29, 2013

Piero della Francesca, Robert Bresson,Yasujiro Ozu

Saint Monica by Piero della Francesca
In his review of the Piero della Francesca show at the Frick, “The Nobel Dreams of Piero” (The New York Review of Books, 3/21/13), Walter Kaiser quotes the great 20th Century Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. Herbert was by the way known particularly for the character of Mr. Cogito, whose soubriquet derives from Descartes. “The Principle of tranquility does not lie merely in architectural balance,” Kaiser quotes Herbert as saying. “It is a principle of inner order. Piero understood that excess movement and expression both destroy the visual painted space and compress the painting’s time to a momentary scene, a flash of existence. His stoic heroes are constrained and impassive. The stilled leaves, the hue of the first earthly dawn, the unstruck hour, give the things Piero created ontological indestructibility.” Herbert’s last sentence is actually rather awkward, but why throw the baby out with the bath water? It brilliantly ties the work of the quattrocento painter to the dream of classicism espoused by the great French film director Robert Bresson in Diary of a Country Priest  (1951) and also his Japanese counterpart Yasujiro Ozu, in Tokyo Stor(l953). In talking about the aesthetics of a great 15th century Renaissance painter, a modern Polish poet is inadvertently furthering our understanding of the spirituality of two great figures of modern cinema. We might say that Piero helps us understand Bresson and Ozu or that Bresson and Ozu help us to retrospectively understand the work of one of the great Italian masters.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Harry Reems aka Herbert Streicher

photo: Kenneth Turan
In a recent Times obit “Harry Reems,Star of ‘Deep Throat’ Film, Dies at 65," Margalit Fox describes Reems’ odyssey from Jewish born porn star alcoholic to converted Christian 12 step program adherent and successful business man. Fox quotes from a 2005 interview in the Ottawa Citizen where Reems equates his present and past careers. “I’m still selling dirt,” Reems pithily remarks. There are many myths surrounding sexuality and the one that Jews are not well-endowed was belied by both Reems ( renamed by the porn director Gerard Damiano, after being born Herbert Streicher, according to Fox) and Ron Jeremy, another major porn star. Actually the cultural significance of Reems and Jeremy was fusing the borscht belt sense of humor (both loved to ham and mug for the camera) with the sexual technique and equipment of famous stallions like Man ‘O War. Fox’s obit is instructive since it exhumes earlier Reems efforts like Erecter Set, Mondo Porno and The Altar of Lust, which you don’t hear much about today. Still in all there is something very American about Reems’ career. It’s a new version of the Horatio Alger story, with a little bit of Saint Augustine and the Apostle Paul thrown in. On his road to Damascus, Reems finds his higher power who turns out to be Jesus and finds his calling which happens to be selling real estate. Future biographers of Reems might want to look into his attitude towards sub-prime mortgages. “Deep Throat” would of course go on to have even greater significance as the pseudonym for Mark Felt, the FBI associate director, who blew the whistle on the Watergate conspirators.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Inventing Abstraction

"Artist Network Diagram" from Inventing Abstraction
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here is,” are the lines that adorn Dante’s entrance to Hell. At the entrance to Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 at MOMA are the following lines written by Kandinsky in l911, “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” The curators leave Picasso to answer the question in their commentary accompanying his “Woman with Mandolin,” an exercise in analytic cubism from l911, “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something.” Move on in the exhibit to Kandinsky's “Impression III.” The work is offered up as an example of how the great painter, noted for his famous work on abstraction, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, has foresworn the object. However, without being juridical, where would the painting be formally or in terms of so-called “content” without the Schoenberg concert on which it was based? By the way according to the exhibit, abstraction was not invented by a person, but a network and it begins with a family tree emphasizing connectivity. At the top are Alvin Langdon Coburn and Duncan Grant and at the bottom the futurist Marinetti. In between those who are connected to at least 24 others—Picasso, Kandinsky, Stieglitz, Leger—are highlighted in red. It looks a little like a weather map, but has the net effect of defeating the the larger concept being espoused. If everything is interrelated, then every subject has an object on which he or she has gazed. So what, you might ask, is the object of Malevich’s "Suprematist Composition: White on White” (1918)? You might also ask “what is reality?” Perhaps it’s not the nature of the object that was changing but the definition of what an object was a la quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Consider that the so-called invention of abstraction was coeval with Einstein's The Theory of General Relativity which was published in l916. “Duchamp seemed to intuit immediately that the emergence of abstraction spelled the demise of painting as a craft and its rebirth as an idea,” is another of the questionable bit of curatorial commentary that appears during the course of the show. Even accepting the notion that abstraction harbingered the death of the object, this is clearly not the case, unless one accepts the view that action painting was merely an ideology. And who says abstraction was invented in the first place? It’s a dubious art historical premise. History and particularly primitive art is rife with it. Still, Inventing Abstraction is only on view until April 15 and even if an objectionable premise has been the occasion to bring these seminal works together, they are well worth seeing.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The New Colonialism

reconnaissance photo Hanoi Hilton l970
Aging baby boomers are now colonizing Indo-China and other former centers of western imperialism. Only Pyongyang, unsullied by tourism, has managed to maintain its pristine poverty. There were the French who were finally kicked out of Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. Then the Americans beat an ignominious retreat from Saigon while Cambodia fell under the grip of the Khmer Rouge and Burma (now Myanmar) became ruled by an imperious military junta. The latest wave of colonization is being undertaken by the self same generation that lost their virginity under the famous poster of Che Guevara which was de rigeur in 60’s dorm rooms. Indeed Cuba has become a destination of choice for intrepid travellers who still like to spice up their trips with a feeling of transgression, to the extent that the country is still embargoed by the United States and is, in theory, off-limits to tourists. Cambodia is so popular that there are traffic jams on the way into Angkor Wat and as for the notorious killing fields you have to negotiate the crowds, angling to get pictures of skulls. You can’t get room at Raffles in Siem Reap, a vestige of British colonialist rule, nor at the Metropole in Hanoi, a holdover from the long French occupation, today teaming with elderly couples from Duluth. The Vietnamese may have won the war, but it’s unclear whether Vietnam is being governed by the Communist party or by the Hilton Hotel chain. The famous Hanoi Hilton, the site of the notorious Hoa Lo prison where John McCain spent five and a half years would have been torn down for a real Hilton if there hadn’t been an outcry from those who wanted to preserve an important piece of history.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Entering Steubenville

The one thing Steubenville taught would be rapists is that they shouldn’t use the internet or social networks to publicize their exploits. Actually, what the two convicted football players were guilty of was not only rape but hubris. Theirs was really an act of post-modern rape to the extent that they sought to turn it into a media event, where their predecessors did anything to hide their acts. Some serial killers demonstrate the same need to not only commit crimes, but to call attention themselves and even taunt their pursuers. The one thing that the post-modern rapist and his predecessor have in common is the need to gain the complicity, silence and sometimes brainwashing of the victim into the belief that forced sex was consensual.  Here the Stockholm Syndrome comes into play. How many women or men who have been raped have ended up excusing an act by telling themselves they’d brought it on? It’s one way to get out of having to go through the unpleasant and frightening process of accusing someone of a crime—a process that, incidentally, requires some degree of belief in oneself, amidst the torrents of self doubt that can be brought to bear in any situation in which someone is fucking not only with you but your head. When Freud repudiated the seduction theory (the argument that hysteria and other symptoms were brought about by suppressed recollections of events that actually occurred), he opened up the whole world of incestuous and transgressive fantasy that’s at the heart of the Oedipus complex. But sometimes a predator really does take advantage of a situation, as was apparently the case with the inebriated girl in the Steubenville tragedy. The seduction isn’t a fantasy. It’s real.

Friday, March 22, 2013


“Spielberg Using Kubrick Script for Napoleon Series,” was the headline in the Arts, Briefly section of the Times (NYT, 3/5/13) The announcement about the television series is a significant footnote to film history since the last and only time Spielberg and Kubrick worked together was on A.I. Artificial Intelligence which as the Times commented “Mr. Spielberg was producing for Mr. Kubrick, and which he directed after Mr. Kubrick’s death.” The short Times notice came with its own bit of science fiction beginning with Times reporter Dave Itzkoff's comment, “While another collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg would seem to require a time machine, a Ouija board of some sort of interdimensional extraterrestrial monolith, plans are nonetheless under way for these two celebrated filmmakers to work together again.” Though A.I. did gross $235 million at the box office, it’s one of Spielberg’s most underrated films, primarily due to the unpopular notion that underlies its script: that consciousness can exist without the body. Moviegoers don’t like to hear that someday the race may endure as bits of data in a cosmic computer. As A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut all attest, Kubrick was not only a futurist, but a visionary about the fate of human consciousness. Talking about consciousness, Spielberg’s direction of the Napoleon script, which dates from l961 (the last great epic about Napoleon was Abel Gance’s l927 silent epic) could end up being a profound way of carrying on Kubrick’s legacy.