Friday, March 30, 2018

Seder Means Order

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
Seder derives from the Hebrew word for order and da Vinci might have gotten the order wrong in the positioning of the figures in his “The Last Supper,” his famous painting of one of the most famous Passover events in history. In the painting you have the iconic picture of Christ at the center surrounded by the Apostles. It’s really white hegemonic male stuff, with the seating plan mirroring the kind of cultural presumptions that deconstructionists like to detoxify. In an essay entitled "The Seating Plan at the Last Supper," (Community in Mission, 4/4/12) Monsignor Charles Pope takes issue with da Vinci’s imagination of the event making the point that historically such celebrations occurred around a U shaped table in which Christ might be sitting top left, and say Peter diagonally to the right at the base of the letter. Human beings have comfort zones, but one of the purposes of a spiritual holiday is to challenge the kinds of assumptions that are held closely to the chest. The Red Sea parted and the Jews made their way to the Holy Land, but they had no idea where they were going to be seated and that in a sense is sending one of the holidays many messages. Get out of your comfort zone. Sit in the part of the restaurant you have never found cozy or inviting. If you’re a big cheese don’t seat yourself center stage, but off to the side where you can engage someone you haven’t talked to before.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

PhD in Brolliology?

Ever heard of brolliology? It's describes the interest in objects employed to shield people from the weather and is used by Marion Rankine in her tome, Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature. In her review of the book (“Potential to Flower,” TLS, 12/22 &12/29/17), Shahidha Bari remarks, “Who hasn’t cast a skeptical look through the window and seized that bundle of crumpled nylon and metal at the door? It of those objects which anthropomorphize our anxieties, an external manifestation of our interior lives.” The question of whether or not to bring an umbrella certainly is an expression of existential dread, but often not of an anticipated shower or even downpour but of an extra appendage, an extra piece of weight in an age in which many  people already feel weighted down with connection. The internet of everything has, in fact, taken away much of our freedom. So now the prospect of having to carry one more thing as one is about go out for a simple walk is yet another care, tantamount to having another chronically ill relative to worry about. The statue of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders that stands in the entrance of a Rockefeller Center office building across from St. Patrick's can be looked at as a metaphor for modern man weighted down by civilization and its life saving devices.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Classical Debt

In his review of Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity (TLS, 2/9/18), John Psaropoulos refers to the “British thalasocracy”--this latter being a word you might not be familiar with, referring to states who gain their power through control of the seas. The point relates to questions of Greek debt. Who owes who what? From an economic point of view the Greeks are in debt to the EU, but might it not be the other way around? What about the incalculable debt that the West has to Greek civilization? Says Psaropoulos, “The premiss of The Classical Debt—whether a cultural debt can be held against a financial one—turns out to be an organizing principle around which to have a broader discussion: how classical scholars and early travellers to Greece idealized ancient Athens and created a philo-hellenic movement.” Naturally the West early showed its thankfulness for the legacy of ancient Greece by plundering ancient monuments. The controversy over the Elgin Marbles is one of the most recent examples of the fallout from this misplaced enthusiasm for the classical world. As Psaropoulos points out in his essay no Greek politicians are seriously considering using such arguments as a way of evening the score. However when one thinks of culture and economics one is prone to cite the vagaries of the international art market. Reframing the question of debt, as the volume under consideration does, truly addresses the issue of who owes what and how two different currencies are or are not fungible.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Black Panther

A Chinese fortune cookie reads, “Relationships is like fingers of you hand. 'One' cannot do much.” That’s one theme that could be read into Black Panther, the Marvel comic which has been turned into one of the largest grossing films of all time. Actually there are lots of themes or paradigms which are implicitly or explicitly part of the disquisition. One is obviously xenophobia. Wakanda, the fictional creation at the center of the action, is a secret gem, an enormously wealthy and advanced nation that hides its resources. In this sense there are echoes of The Matrix with its theme of appearance hiding a powerful underworld or reality. Of course this idea can be spun out into a thousand themes and variations dealing with the conscious and the unconscious and subliminal powers being the ore or lode that's secreted or hoarded. Another major theme is that of the misuse of power. Surely Wakanda’s resources could be utilized to help less powerful nations, but at what point does altruism itself become a form of control. Colonizers both enslave indigenous populations while at same time inadvertently affording advances in medicine and science that improve their lot. Black Panther ends on an optimistic note that separates it from other quasi-utopian blockbusters that leave the universe in enough turmoil to justify a sequel. While there may be a continuing struggle between good and evil, it’s overshadowed by the optimistic view ( in this case of potential cooperation) you might find in a fortune cookie.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Belle de Jour

Louis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) which is currently being revived at Film Forum (on the tails of a Michel Piccoli retrospective) is curiously lacking in mystery, over 50 years after its release. Catherine Deneuve’s enigmatic allure (she’s really the Mona Lisa of French Cinema and is beautiful without being sexual) overshadows the narrative and at times takes on a life of its own. In fact, one of the qualities of the film itself that one notices from the first frames is the pure beauty of the cinematography. Even the jarring scenes of sado-masochistic sexual fantasy are set in plushly drawn buccolic settings that look like Barbizon school naturalist landscapes. And Bunuel’s mise-en-scene gives the film a stately quality that’s as aloof as his star. Repression is the subject and to a certain extent Deneuve as Severine, the housewife turned prostitute, is reprising her role in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) where the emotional deadness is belied by the onslaught of murderous imagery. Ultimately the film exudes little of the multivalent complexity of classics like Exterminating Angel (1962)  and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) where Bunuel sublimely refines the choreography of the surrealist esthetic. Piccoli plays Henri Husson, a predatory aristocrat and Belle de Jour is a great vehicle for his name brand coolness and insouciance. However, the film is curiously one-dimensional and predictable, even as the line is crossed between fantasy (Severine is constantly reliving the same scenarios) and reality.