Friday, December 29, 2017

The Final Solution: Apres Coup

"Madame de Pompadour" by Francois Boucher (photo: Yelkrokoyade)

“Apres nous, le deluge” is the quote attributed to Madame de Pompadour, the lover of Louis XV. The expression has also been attributed to Louis himself with the syntax slightly changed to “Apres moi, le deluge.” The old imperial moi? In any case, Louis was right since the winds of revolution were plainly in the air. Actually, there were revolutions in both America and France auguring the beginning of meritocratic societies which eventually overturned a pre-existing aristocratic order. Both Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France offered the prospect of viewing the evolution of American society through the looking glass of  countervailing cultures which were still struggling to counterbalance the old and the new, with both authors being proxies for what might be called an enlightened conservatism. England became a unique example in that it maintained its hereditary aristocracy while allowing a more egalitarian and democratic society to develop. The latest go round of American populism under the auspice of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon is coming a little late to the party to the extent that it’s a revolution that’s actually been orchestrated by an elite. The psychoanalytic term après coup refers to the latent response to a (usually childhood) trauma. It would be interesting to speculate on  the collective trauma that might have caused the current perversion of the notion of popular uprising being perpetrated on the American people by the Trumpocracy. Let's not forget that Madame de Pompadour was a high class whore.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

"The Torment of Saint Anthony" by Michelangelo
There were two great Michelangelos in the history of Italian art.  Michelangelo Antonioni and Michelangelo Buonarroti, who Ariosto coined “Il Divino.” There’s no sense debating who was greater. Michelangelo Antionioni was influenced by the spiritual void depicted in the paintings of de Chirico, but you might say that there’s a little of the painter Michelangelo when you think about the way he lavished attention on the beauty of Monica Vitti’s face in L’Avventura. Amongst the 133 Michelangelo drawings on display in the current Met exhibit, "Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer," is one of the “teste divini,” a drawing of the aristorcratic Andrea Quaratesi whose luscious lips and dreamy gaze display a similar infatuation. It might be said that Michelangelo, the painter and sculptor loved the male form as much as his filmmaker namesake enjoyed that of women. His study of Christ from 1519 verges on pornography and in viewing Michelangelo the sacred and the erotic are closely entwined. Provenance is one of the themes that is underscored at the Met. The curators point to the fact that Michelangelo was inured in the work of predecessors from a more heroic period like Giotto and Massacio, but one of the striking paintings in a show devoted primarily to drawing is the almost ghoulish “Torment of Saint Anthony”(1487-88) based on a Martin Schongauer print. Was Hitchcock thinking of this painting when he directed The Birds? Then there is the cloaked “Study of the Mourning Figure” which hearkens back to Donatello’s bronze pulpit for the church of Saint Lorenzo.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Phantom Thread

What better setting for the Pygmalion myth than the fashion industry? Phantom Thread, the latest movie by Paul Thomas Anderson, takes place in a fabulist version of London’s 50’s world of couture. However, the characters are gargoyles for whom the film’s gowns always seem to strain the flesh. Reynolds Woodcock, (Daniel Day-Lewis) the protagonist, is in love with perfection, not only in his work, but his life. In a sense he’s a misfit in a field which caters to society. Woodcock is more a solitary artist than a designer. However, he meets his match in Alma (Vicki Krieps), a young waitress he falls for. Each of Anderson’s protagonists is battling for the others soul; they're each other’s Galatea. The director’s larger than life figures, viewed as they are, in an intentionally distorted way in which all  their imperfections and foibles are put under the microscope, are almost reminiscent of the expressionistic style of Elia Kazan. There’s one particular scene which epitomizes the conflict. Alma sets out to cook Reynolds a dinner, but she cooks his asparagus with butter while he likes them with salt and oil. The asparagus themselves, surrreal in their incandescent greenness, become a kind of rebuke. It’s brilliant stuff. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Kristen Roupenian has received a huge advance for her collection “You Know You Want This”and a prospective novel ("'Cat Person' Author, Kristen Roupenian, Gets 7-Figure Book Deal," NYT, 12/20/17). Her succes d’estime comes on the heels of the publication of “Cat Person,” a story that became viral after it was published in the 12/11/17 New Yorker. Texting in the context of a relationship that should never have been is the putative subject. And here are the last lines of the story. You may hear them in the aria from the soon to be opera (after all when something becomes a phenomenon in this age of social networking it becomes a Phenomenon).
      “Are you fucking that guy right now”
      “Are you”
      “Are you
      “Are you”
      “Answer me”

    It’s undoubtedly brilliant, but the question is the backstory. What some people consider horrible others might think of as mundane, comparatively harmless, familiar and even what love’s all about. An older guy picks up a girl who's working at a movie theater. They text or "sext" and after some degree of ambivalence have sex. During the course of the sex in which the girl caves in guiltily to something she doesn’t really want, her would-be lover loses his erection several times, but then meets with success. He walks away happy and mildly in love while she's disgusted and never wants to see him again. Again this is a matter of point of view. What would the story have been called if it were written from the male point of view? Would it have ended with the same back and forth or would the power of the exchange have been diminished by some degree of contrition and self-awareness.? In short would the story have been as effective and emotionally jarring if its male protagonist had been humane as well as human?

Monday, December 25, 2017


Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s vision of a miniaturized future  truly conforms to the definition of the word Utopia, meaning nowhere. On the other hand, despite the improbability of the idea, it’s hard not to take this Noah’s Ark view of the human condition seriously. What would happen if one were able to shrink mankind and its demands on the planet? One can't also help note that downsizing is what troubled firms do when they need to layoff workers. An interesting theme that appears twice in the film is not being able to turn back. It occurs first in the filmmaker’s conceit. Anyone who consents to living a smaller life which means ending up with .064% of their mass can’t decide to return to their original stature. Later it occurs when a new threat to mankind from methane poses an even more imminent danger and the Norwegian community which is the prototype for the experiment decides to uproot itself to a biosphere under the earth’s crust. But isn’t this in itself all a metaphor for climate change, which is always talked about as being irreversible? Downsizing also presents its own kind of narrative irreversibility. As a satire it eventually spreads its wings, turning into a romance that retroactively kills the initial comic energy. Orpheus as you may recall is cautioned never to turn back or he’ll lose his beloved Eurydice to the underworld forever. At the end of Downsizing Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), Payne’s beleaguered protagonist, does look back and where he lands is a world very similar to the one he left at the beginning of the film, as a resident of Omaha, trying to make ends meet.