Monday, July 28, 2008

Movies/Music: Powaqqatsi

For three dollars, a person really oughtn't complain (this screening and live performance by the Philip Glass Orchestra was part of a series of practically-free evens offered in Brooklyn's Prospect Park), but I don't have much good to say about Powaqqatsi, the second in a trilogy of "Qatsi" films collaborated upon by director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass. I had seen the first, Koyaanisqatsi, in San Francisco, also screened along with a live performance of the score. While that film hadn't done much to augment the beautiful score with which I was already familiar, it was neutral enough not to spoil the music. The footage of Powaqqatsi, though, is different. (N.B. I have yet to see or hear the final film/score of the trilogy, Naqoyqatsi.)

None of the three films have dialogue, characters, or plots per se; instead, they are comprised of a barrage of images, some stock footage, and, in the case of Powaqqatsi, much original footage filmed in Brazil, India, Kenya, China, and Peru, amongst a variety of other third world countries. Whereas the images in Koyaanisqatsi consist mostly of inanimate movement—cars, buildings, factories, bridges, etc.—and the people, when they are included, act only as ciphers for cogs themselves, pushing through crowded streets in the thousands, or working along manufacturing conveyor belts—Powaqqatsi's footage focuses on the person as an aesthetic individual. Though people are photographed in groups, the camera reads them as humans rather than cogs, as individual souls, and in the light of a beautiful tragedy.

And there is the rub. Powaqqatsi, a kind of two hour long commercial against humanity, engages in a fetishization of the Third World typical* of the Western First World. The film is, in fact, a kind of pornography of poverty for the liberal upper-middle class, in which we can gaze, with real desire, at the regal sashay of an African woman, her starved hips swinging under layers of colorful fabric, or the elegant tilt of an Indian woman's neck, as she balances a basket on her head, or the innocent eyes of a group of children with dirt-crusted faces. Here, we can lament, as we watch the bare feet of a boy running in the dirt that seem to re-evolve into animal feet, sturdy and natural, our own pinched toes, pale and sweating in designer shoes, made, most likely by a boy like this, in a factory, which we have built. For that is, essentially, the meaning of the Hopi word "powaqqatsi," that we, human beings, are devouring ourselves and our earth, destroying it, and the beauty of humanity in the process. And that is no lie; Reggio was rather prescient to speak this theme so strongly in 1988, before the contemporary ravings of An Inconvenient Truth and WALL-E. But must he fall so easily into the trap of the tourist visiting India for the first time? And what answer does he propose? For while the film might incite more avid members of the audience to join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, most will not find solace in mass, conscious suicide.

The film, I think, (the whole trilogy, in fact) is designed as a warning: change your ways, before it becomes too late. There is, toward the end, a "call to prayer," during which the echo of Arabic ululations rings against footage of people meditating, bowing, kissing a wall. Again, the director favors aesthetics over logic, failing to acknowledge that religion is rather deeply connected with the project of colonization, inter-tribal warfare, and all the other cultural boogie men that have put us into the mess in which we find ourselves. But Reggio is clearly not interested in problemetization. And Glass, too, fails us, incorporating "influences" from "world music" in a way that water down his bare-bones aesthetic. Koyaanisqatsi, with its bowel-rattling chanting, rips into our centers and grasps our souls; Powaqqatsi flits around our heads like a too-loud insect experimenting with the Doppler Effect. There is a distinct moment during which Powaqqatsi redeems itself, visually and aurally, past half-way through and beginning with the footage of a moving train, but that is only Koyaanisqatsi retread: we soar over a city's buildings and hear Glass' traditional, clean arpeggios. But then the picture shifts back to the brown bodies beautiful with starvation, the world music theme revives, and the film reverts to its emotionally exhausting incarnation. I can do without.

*You see, I cast the first stone at myself.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Books: The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers

A cover quotation on the front and center of this New York Times Bestseller claims that this book is, in fact, the most astounding lap-breaker since Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. While I'm hardly a fan of that book, and while this book is, in its own way, equally unreadable, having read both, I must admit that they hardly belong in the same category. Certainly, a reader must be awfully nerdy to appreciate either, but where Pynchon consistently turns out the paranoid's pornography of conspiracy theories, governments that can't be trusted, and unwitting everymen caught inside the great spiderweb of the industrial-military complex, Powers, at least here, writes a kind of Harlequin Romance for the science club set, a book in which medium-depth discussions of genetics, music theory, and computer programming give way to steamy love scenes, where quotations from history and literature are fetishized on 3x5 notecards and newspaper clippings are pasted into artist's notebooks (where they are drawn over with portraiture: Vermeer faces and Da Vinci hands).

Powers uses a female character as his pivot, and works deftly focalizing through a narrator of that opposite gender. Jan O'Deigh is a reference librarian in the early 1980s (when such people were more desperately needed) who maintains a question board at her Brooklyn branch library. A mysterious all-but-dissertation PhD (whose focus is Flemish painting), who happens to be a terribly handsome young man drops into her library one day, asking for help in unearthing the background of his co-worker, one Stuart Ressler, who, they eventually discover, did some initial ground-breaking work on the genetic code in the early 1950s as a post-doc, but never did anything afterward. From that point, the narrative splinters between the 1950s and 1980s, and between the burgeoning love stories of Ms. O'Deigh and her Franklin Todd and Stuart Ressler and his Jeanette Koss, another post-doc on his research team who, despite being married, seduces him.

The reader's sexual gratification is delayed by lengthy and detailed discussions of the troubles in cracking the genetic code (including a direct allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug, which I found myself, not unlike Ressler does himself, having to track down and read in order to service further understanding of the plot). Another extended metaphor and delay is the continuous discussion of Bach's Goldberg Variations (their numeric coincidences with the genetic code are perhaps more thoroughly rung out than the parallel connections discussed in non-fiction Goedel, Escher, Bach), and again, like the characters in the book, I found myself compelled to obtain a recording of these as well (the recording, in fact, by Glenn Gould, which is the one the characters speak of, without ever naming his name). Strangely enough, I did not find myself compelled to locate any images of paintings by Herri Met De Bles, the subject of Franklin Todd's unwritten dissertation (perhaps because Frank describes him as not very good at all, whereas Bach is described as literally life-changing).

Perhaps I am too self-conscious of a reader that I find myself troubled with the relative ease of this book. I use the term "ease" in an odd way, for, as I've already explained, the tome does go into extremely specialized discussions boggy with jargon that recall my sophomore year of high school and AP Biology class, and I've in fact called it "unreadable" in the first paragraph. But in the propulsion of the romance, of the mystery, the book is somewhat gossipy, and limpid where Pynchon would obfuscate. Perhaps it is not fair to ch allege the quality of a work of literature based on its ease. But perhaps there is something other than "ease" per se that I am driving at. There is an ebullient romanticism here (while Ressler's relationship tanks, O'Deigh's and Todds, after a brief emergency of unfaithfulness, a respite of a year of silence, during which the librarian dedicates herself to the research of genetics and music, and during which the art historian writes the biography of Ressler (now dead: cancer), flourishes, and they combine their two tomes to make, presumably, the book that we are now reading)—an embrasure of not only the possibility, but the probability of a happy ending, a productive rather than destructive understanding of life, that smacks of pap. Rather than working in the tradition of Melville, Hardy, Beckett, Powers takes cues from Dickens and Hugo; for him, the post-modern inclination to include everything but the kitchen sink is only a coping strategy, a means to the same old end, so that, unlike in Gaddis or Foster Wallace, Vollman or Roth, Barth or Fowles, or yes, Pynchon, nothing fresh happens. The degree of drivel is, even, sub-DeLillo, bordering on Kundera. Harsh criticism, I know. I'll read his The Echo Maker before I set my conclusions in stone. It just won't be anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Movies: The Exiles (1961)

This barely known, oddly written, somewhat sentimental, but stunningly photographed black and white film, shot between 1958-61 by a guy you've probably never heard of (Kent MacKenzie) follows the nighttime roustabouts of a group of 20-something American Indians who have left their reservations for downtown L.A. Theirs is a compounded existential crisis, an exacerbated detachment (that of the 20-something, that of the L.A.-dweller, that of the Pepsi Generation, and then that of the person willfully divorced from his or her culture, a culture in fact always already divorced from itself in the face of contemporary society). And so, they shuttle through betweenlands, muffling the pain and confusion with drink, sex, movies, and fast cars, as any 20-something does.

The film is, in a way, a more gritty, bitter, and tragic version of The Wanderers. The tragedy bubbles up from our expectations for—our idealization of—American Indians. MacKenzie himself is not immune to that idealization—he seems, in fact, to encourage a vision of these young people as fallen angels, fallen warriors. He opens the film with 19th century stock photographs depicting regal chiefs in full, feathered regalia, scenes of open plains crossed by three mounted horsemen, brown-faced girls with wise and trusting eyes. When the feature footage begins, these hardened, bony faces are replaced by the wide eyes and slack jaws of sweating, overweight layabouts, a girl who wonders in a cloying voiceover why her hopes and dreams have not materialized, as she fries a mound of chops for her husband and his buddies before they dump her at the movie theater alone and go out drinking.

Drinking (and smoking) are constants throughout the evening for all characters except the voiceover woman, who approaches her loneliness in a more introverted, romantic way, wandering the streets alone after the film, looking in shop windows and imagining a different life. Against her silence, the jukebox, car horns, fighting, bullshitting, screeching of her husband's friends as they drop in and out of bars, liquor stores, a poker game, a gas station, eventually ending up parked on a lookout point, where a few men in cowboy hats are drumming, chanting the old chants, and dancing a degraded, drunken version of traditional ritual movements. With sunrise, the few who remain on the now littered hilltop rub their eyes, drive home, and the film ends.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Devastation

I am small, but not so small that I should be drinking out of bottles anymore. I am old enough to want a bottle because I appreciate it conceptually; I appreciate that it enables me to drink while lying down, which a tippy cup doesn’t do. A tippy cup leaks. I am old enough that my mother has put an exasperated moratorium on bottles, and I am old enough to have taken a bottle, half-filled with pineapple juice, and, with the future in mind, to have placed it behind the heavy brown folds of the living room drapes, which go all the way to the floor.

Or perhaps I give my small self too much credit; perhaps I had forgotten it there when I was caught, the week prior, behind the same drapes, my left fist full of crayons, my right hand adding red with the abandon of the late Abstract Expressionists to the mural I’ve been working on for days in cloistered silence, muffled in the warm folds of the drapes, their heavy woven stuff, brown with tan flecks, wooly, maybe even scratchy against my young skin.

I have a habit with warm spaces, dark spaces, spaces wrapped in fabric. When I am older, I will make “tents” out of blankets stretched over chairs, and I will stay inside all afternoon, with my books, with my snacks. When I am older, I will wrap the television in a baby blanket, blocking out the picture, but not the warmth or the light. I will sit and look at the glowing square of fabric, listening to the voices. But that is for another time. For now, I was discovered in the midst of the creative act, the curtain pulled aside, the room’s yellow light revealing my scrawls, red and yellow mostly, some green, on the smooth white wall.

My bohemian parents were not as forgiving as one might hope, and I had dropped the bottle and run away crying at their sharp words. Later, my mom will give me access to her attic studio, where I will decimate hundreds of sheets of expensive colored drawing paper and a four hundred dollar box of Prismacolor pencils in the electric pencil sharpener. But that is for another time. For now, I’ve rediscovered my bottle. It is yellow—a milky, pastel plastic—with white cap and pert brown nipple. The nipple is the brown of the drapes, and the early evening light that filters into them when I hide against the wall, tucked behind their warmth.

The living room is wide, low, avocado; the carpet is shag, mint with gold threads. My parents are doing something, who knows; I must not be so small that they know what I’m doing, because I’ve hidden myself behind my curtain, and I’ve found my bottle. I am excited, because I know that I am not supposed to have it. Taboo is as sweet for a small person as for any other. I don’t know that yet, but I know a thrill; there is a thrill in me when I see it, when I want it, when I know that I can have it, here, in this dim, warm space that is my secret again, that is all mine.

It is important to have space that is all mine, because the house is filled with strangers; downstairs, there is a family that does laundry and hangs it to dry in the backyard, where I will one day pedal my tricycle, with its plastic handlebar ribbons, in circles around and around the cracked and greenish cement. I do not play with the kids there because they do not speak English. Upstairs, there is a smoky room filled with plants that I’m not allowed inside, because someone else lives there. Here, I have my playroom, which has a Donald Duck record player, and dolls, and games, and toys, but the room is big, wide, bright; the carpet, minty shag with gold threads as wide as a field. There are no corners; there are no nooks.

Later, we will get a cat, and even she will be clever enough to open the accordion doors to my playroom, pushing her lithe body into the crack between them, and leaping up onto the dresser where my goldfish, Lolly and Bubbles, swim around and around in their little bowl. She will sit and stare, mesmerized, and then she will swipe, but she won’t ever catch them, because we will always catch her first; the fish will escape with a few scrapes, scabs that will heal. Later, the scratched fish, Bubbles, will develop a lump; it will be small, but it will grow, and she will die. But that is for another time. For now, I too have found something I oughtn’t have, and I am thrilled. It is my secret, in which to delight before I am caught.

When I was smaller, before I understood the efficiency of the bottle, and the ambrosial delight of pineapple juice, but had them all the time, I took my bottle into the kitchen, and dragged out the enamel basin my mother kept under the sink. I dragged the basin out into the middle of the room, removed my diaper and dropped it on the floor, opened the bottle and poured juice into the basin, and stepped in. My mother found me bathing in the sticky stuff, had to draw me a real bath. But today, though I am small, I am not so small that I will take this opportunity for granted. I see the bottle, the milky yellow plastic with its regulated ridges, the white cap, the brown rubber nipple, and I am thrilled.

I grab it; I grip it; I stick it in my mouth and suck, and I am swarming. My mouth is swarming. My hands—my skin—it tickles, it runs, it recoils, it repulses; my mouth—my tongue scraping my teeth, my roof, spitting, sputtering, spewing, ants, everywhere, ants, in mouth on my face my hands my skin everywhere, inside of me and out, moving! Crawling! Running! Scurrying! Ants! Ugh! Ew! Blech! Feuy! I spit, spastic; I rub my hands on my dress; I rub my tongue on my hand; I shake; I shiver; I shudder. I’ve thrown it down instantly; the milky plastic is spotted with them where it lies on the floor, sideways. Half of them are crushed, the rest, half-crushed, struggle. Never again.

Never again will I go behind the curtain, now that I see them, on their trail, from a crack in the plaster against the window frame, down the wall, to where my bottle had sat, singing its silent song of sugar, of golden sweetness, to them as well as to me. Never again, the warm brown light. Never again the safety. Never again, this nasty surprise. Never again.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Movies: Gonzo

A perfectly serviceable documentary tallying the life of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo fails to evoke any more excitement than an A&E Biography, even with the help of creepily fastidious interviewee Tom Wolfe (whom I've always preferred to Thompson), awe-striking art from Ralph Steadman, and an appearance from Johnny Depp. This can be blamed primarily on an excessive use of 1960s stock footage (riots, hippies, marches, etc.) that has all been seen before in every made-for-TV documentary about that era and any person who happened to live through it, but also on the exhausted talking-heads format (even if those talking heads include George McGovern and Pat Buchanan). Ultimately, audience members will get a much better understanding of reading any of Thompson's books or articles (of which I, um, haven't read any. . . yet!).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Books: What is the What, by Dave Eggers

It is true; I love Dave Eggers, but this time around, my love creates an authorial disadvantage (or, perhaps, it is a readerly disadvantage, since he probably doesn't really care whether I personally enjoy his books or not). The thing about What is the What is that it is an autobiography. . . of a person who is not Dave Eggers. A person who is not only not Dave Eggers, but also not much like Dave Eggers: a person who doesn't share Dave Eggers particular fascinations and neuroses (the ones that I do share, that bind me to him as a storyteller). This person is Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese Lost Boy who eventually made it to the US and told Eggers his story.

There are plenty enough questions/concerns to be discussed with regard to Eggers' writing this book for Deng and then calling it an autobiography (there is a small disclosure in which the author and Deng explain that it is a "novelized autobiography," and that parts of the story have been nudged into fiction from fact, certain anecdotes and experiences belonging, perhaps, to another Lost Boy)—because of the disclosure, those questions are less the kind the Reading Machine usually generates with regard to defining and disclosing genre, but more questions about race and culture and why a Sudanese Lost Boy might give his story to a white man living in San Francisco for the telling, rather than write it up himself. But I'm not all that interested in those questions.

I'm not, in fact, very question-y at all, literary-wise, about this book. Eggers tells Deng's story in an innocent, direct way, with all the expected heart-tugging you could hope for. The story is structured in simple flashback; Deng, now living in Atlanta and struggling to succeed with a part-time job and junior college, silently "tells" his story to a number of people he encounters over a few traumatic days (when his apartment is broken into). To be honest, I could do without this (and interestingly enough, it is the only visible Eggers vestige in the book); it feels forced and put on in contrast with Deng's limpid naivete.

The real questions (and I imagine that these are the questions both Deng and Eggers desperately want readers to have) are political, social, ethical. How can this have happened? Deng's story begins in the very early 1980s; he is separated from his family by marauding invaders from the North right about when I was born. Why, then, did I not hear anything about Sudan until I was in college? Not that I, personally, knowing about it can (will?) do much of anything, but. . . how can these things happen at all, whether in secret or not? Somehow, I've come to take certain, more historical horrors, for granted (e.g. the Holocaust, which is as distant as the American Revolution, and somehow as inevitable*). Eggers (and Deng) can't help us here; the reader does get a good sense of Sudan's recent history, but the story is not a new one; one group of people wants another group of people disappeared for reasons pertaining to money and land (color and religion helping along the way), and the robbery at Deng's Atlanta apartment only reconfirms the universality of the combination of evil, stupidity, and need. Hardly an upper, hardly fresh, but still news to some people.

*Please send hate mail and death threats to the dahlhaus.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Art: Murakami at the Brooklyn Museum

It is awfully tempting for me to do a Duncan Hines version of this post (and it wouldn't be all that inappropriate, given the out-of-the-box quality of his dare-I-say "so-called" art); it is tempting to be reactionary, and simply dismiss it as a consumerist cheap thrill, recoil at its profligate sexuality, and lament the youth of today for making him into an art house fashionista rock star. And yet, there is something very unsettling about Murakami's runaway popularity, given the (what ought to be) controversial content of his work.

Walking amidst the pram-crowded galleries and listening to a cooing mommy say, "Look at the Lady!" pointing her child's eyes up at a life-size Sailor Moon-like figurine, I thought, Yes, look at the lady indeed. I then began to fret over what she might say upon walking into the next room and seeing the cowboy, a rather well-endowed male character with his hand planted firmly on his erect cock, which spews a curling lasso of ejaculate, and his partner, another Sailor Moon, only nude (shaven, of course; all Murakami femmes have disturbing child-like pundenda), with hyperbolic breasts shooting out a hula-hoop of milk. Children have a tendency to ask innocent questions like "What is that?" which, in this context, turn out to be rather awkward.

So why are these prams here? Perhaps for the room papered in bright flower-power wallpaper (plasticky as Con-Tact), or for the cheerful, bright, and squat mushroom sculptures, which wouldn't be out of place in McDonaldland. Perhaps for the $95 plush flower pillow with embroidered happy face available at the gift shop? How do these quasi-liberal Brooklyn parents reconcile these cheery, Sanrio-like faces with the face of Inochi, the pubescent plasticine android whose sexual awakening is featured in a series of commercials for, well, himself, in which he stares at a room of half undressed ten year old girls with the same Sailor Moon pigtails and innocent button noses of the first statuette Mommy pointed at? (The same pigtails and innocent button nose, might I add, of the female statuette with not just a shaven but also crimson and folded. . . cleft. . . which collapses, Transformer-like, into the shape of a fighter jet.) And why, in the surprisingly contentious Louis Vuitton boutique (contentiously located smack in the middle of the art), are there only bags with cheerful plump cherries, rather than, say, Chris-Ofili-like flying pussies? (For what else, for a mind like Murakami's, could the cherry be?)

I don't find Murakami to be the source of this oddity; I don't feel comfortable crediting him with much (he is the latest in the series that reads Duchamp, Warhol, Koons, except that his three predecessors innovate and define in a way that Murakami does not (and I must concede that these men produced progressively more schlock to bog down their otherwise fascinating oeuvres)). What fascinates me here is more the public's embrace of this work, in spite of its rejection of other equally or less sensationalist artists like Ofili (one might argue that Ofili's sexuality, as a black man, is much more threatening to a white audience than Murakami's sexuality, as an Asian, but that would just be plain old school, i.e. wrong-headed). Likely it was the combination of sex with religion (and religion with elephant dung) that so broadsided Giuliani and his anti-Sensation brigade ('twas also the Brooklyn Museum, if I remember correctly), but still, does the sexualization of children not offend anyone anymore?! (I am not speaking as a reactionary here, only calling the reactionaries to arms!)

There are a few paintings that, believe it or not, have some merit (I counted two, and they were similar); they feature the D.O.B. mascot (if you're not familiar with it, you soon will be upon seeing the show) floating on a Hokusai-like wave of sea foam across a Jasper Johns-meets-Gerhard Richter background, spread across three conjoined canvasses that, ever-so-slightly, recall the Japanese screen. D.O.B.'s mouth is open and toothy, not unlike the teddies designed by Stanley Donwood and Tchock for Radiohead's mid-career albums (of which I was always extraordinarily fond). But referencing aside, what here is Murakami's very own? What is iconic? Aside from the concept of grandiose kitsch (and Koons has been there, done that), there is nothing to cling to. I'm in and out in under 40 minutes, and spend more time out on the lawn, blinking under the summer sky and playing with my toes, than I did with the art. For shame.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Books: Hotel Honolulu, by Paul Theroux

This is the first of what I think will be many dips into Theroux's oeuvre, which consists of fiction, non-fiction, and what I have before here referred to as semi-fictional memoir. Though Hotel Honolulu, which I would deem semi-fictional memoir (or perhaps ultra-facile fictional semi-fictional memoir), is lengthy, meandering, and not very compelling, it is intimate, gossipy, tender, and riddled with writerly self-doubt and intellectual affectation. Perhaps best known as a travel writer, Theroux seamlessly tells the story of, yes, a late middle-aged male novelist who moves to Hawaii and gets a simple job managing a small hotel. The narrator is tired, lost, used up; the hotel is mid-range, tired, on the wrong side of the coastal highway, with 80 rooms, only one pool, and a Chaucerian assortment of permanent residents, staff, and local hangers-on. Meanwhile, Theroux actually does live in Hawaii (although I do not know whether he actually does manage a hotel), and I don't doubt the veracity of his more literary experiences (like watching his paperback copy of Anna Karenina slowly fatten with the island's humidity, like being introduced to people with the impressive phrase, "He wrote a book!" and like struggling over whether or not to tell the stories of the people he meets). What emerges, then, is one of those typical fact/fiction hybrids that have been driving readers so crazy these past few years, although this one seems to have slipped by unnoticed.

What pushes the reader through these 400-some-odd pages of loosely connected bits are the gossipy bits: the Rabelaisian hotel owner, Buddy, with his big belly, his new mail0-order bride from the Philippines, his practical jokes, cocktail in one hand and ashes of his old wife in a locket in the other; Pinky, the mail-order bride, her history of sexual abuse first at the hands of her uncle, then as an exotic dancer and a truck-stop whore; Madam Ma, the aged beauty and gossip columnist, who carries on an affair with her gay son's lover; Tran, the Vietnamese barkeep, who lost all his family after their overcrowded, tiny boat headed for Guam was lost; Peewee the Chinese cook; Lionberg, the eccentric, wealthy gentleman who thinks he's happy until one weekend with a spirited girl upends his universe, inspiring him to suicide; Puamana, the Hawaiian coconut princess with her selfish cat Popoki, sent to "entertain" President Kennedy during his visit back in the 1960s, who gave birth to Sweetie, the half-Irish coconut princess the narrator marries though she's half his age, her interest in literature extending only to Stephen King books, which she listens to on her walkman while rollerblading, who gives birth to the narrator's little daughter Rose, a precocious, sensitive, language-obsessed extension of the narrator's (author's?) consciousness.

Having been strung along by all these bits, though, the real prize is not the gossip, though Theroux is a fine storyteller. The narrator's frustration, desire, distrust, neediness, self-doubt are those of any writer, any traveler, any interloper, which, ultimately, all writers and travelers are. There is a struggle to let go of one's past, but not lose one's identity, and a similar struggle to hear friends "talk story" (as its called by the Hawaiian locals) without becoming a thief, mining people only for their sorrows, and then sprinkling them into your novels, skewing them, changing them, owning them. While I don't think that Theroux comes close to handling these dilemmas with grace—in fact, I think he rather botches it—his narrator is conscious of the problem, of his social ineptitude, his bungling, and his work at the hotel, which is really only to sit back and let the employees keep the wheels spinning, is the ultimate metaphor for this parasitic relationship. And we read because we are titillated by these stolen stories, these rapes, molestations, murders, abuses; we are no better than he is. Are we touched by the fragility of human lives, or merely mesmerized by the exchange of sex for money? This is an ugly fence to straddle, and Theroux sits us very comfortably up on it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Movies: Louise Bourgeois: The Mistress, the Spider, and the Tangerine

This mediocre documentary is being shown in conjunction with the Guggenheim's Louise Bourgeois retrospective; for a fleeting moment, I feel bad about saying that it's not very good, since it was directed by Marion Cajori, the late daughter of my mother's still-living college art teacher and mentor, Charles Cajori, but alas, one cannot pity the art because of the artist's circumstances. Which applies to Bourgeois herself; I'm not particularly fond of her work, and in fact most of it raises in me a tendency to be plain mean, if not just dismissive. In the film's most touching moment (the discussion of the Tangerine), Louise, recalling a story about her father's cruelty when she was a mere child, breaks into tears, as she explains why children hide in their beds at night and cry. Seeing this tiny old woman shuddering over something that happened more than sixty years ago will pull your heart strings, and you will pity her; however, you must maintain your resolve when examining her work, and not give credit merely for personal mythology.

For Bourgeois, personal mythology is the mousetrap; it has caught her, and it threatens everyone in her circle—her dealers, her curators, and these filmmakers in particular, who, rather than focusing on the actual creation of the work (the few moments in which they do are the film's most fascinating), instead look at old pictures and ask the artist questions about her childhood, her emigration to the U.S., and the "meaning" behind her pieces. I'm generally less interested in hearing artists expound on what they mean to mean than on how they make their work. I like to know the exact degree to which things are planned, the depth of craftsmanship. For example, Bourgeois is most well-known for her gigantic metal spiders which outweigh and outsize her quite considerably. But each spider is different, and their legs have organic details—lumps and bumps, twists, etc.—to what degree does she plan these details? How are these spiders made? Are they casts? Does she herself work in the medal shop, or does she order them to specification, as Donald Judd would his boxes? Bourgeois appears to be a very physically engaged artist, her hands, like spiders themselves, grip and grasp and shape small things, flutter over the work, sensing its shape. And yet, she is so small, so bent, so old (96 this year)—I don't imagine her climbing up ten feet to pound out the spider's body with a mallet. That is what I want from a film about an artist, not a depiction of how ornery she can be, how wise, or how funny. I don't care about the person. I care about the work. And if you need to understand the person in order to understand the work, than the work is not good enough. Perhaps that is rather cold, but that is how it is.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Rebuttal: On Jed Perl's "Postcards From Nowhere"

Let it first be said that Jed Perl is here so reactionary that a) He ought to write for The New Criterion rather than The New Republic, and b) He has inspired me--Madonna and Child-loving me!--to write defensively on behalf of contemporary art. Read Perl's article here, and then read my rebuttal.

Let us begin with Perl's thesis, that contemporary artists "replace the there that constitutes a work of art with a nowhere." He is right in proposing that Duchamp is the primary instigator of this "displacement of the work of art," and that, from here, "you can't go home again." He is right in identifying Warhol and Rauchenberg as modern disseminators of the Duchamp gospel, and Koons and Hirst as its contemporary preachers. I don't think that David Salle is remotely important enough to be included in this list, nor is his work appropriately applicable, but that is a small complaint. The larger complaint is that Perl's thesis (more an excuse for a laundry list of complaints than a binding idea) is plainly false. A work on canvas, such as Matisse's Dance, which Perl so fetishizes, is no more a "somewhere" than Olafur Eliasson's Room For One Color—in fact, it is much less so, since it cannot be literally embodied, lacks the intense, immediate, sensory alteration of the audience/participants that the Eliasson piece instigates. Perl mentions the Eliasson piece in passing: "there are lights that turn the space a deep yellow," but that is not what the piece does at all. Because of Eliasson's light installation, the corridor bleaches color from everything you see—in particular, the other people standing around, gaping at the world around them, which has suddenly become the interior of an old photograph, a punk-rock concert handout, or the movie Pleasantville. Everyone and everything is black and white. And when you have finished gawking, and you come out of the corridor, it is indeed like Pleasantville, or, to choose a reference perhaps more of Perl's time, The Wizard of Oz; people look tinted, their color false. It is an incredible mindgame, more than an optical illusion, that Eliasson has instigated. And it's not "nowhere"—it's everywhere, in the corridor, on our skin, in our heads, and lodged in the history of image-making.

Perl next moves to recriminate museum spaces built to house contemporary art. He lambastes the not-spectacular, but neither deserving, New Museum, likening it to an unfinished big-box retailer. I've not seen the BCAM, so I will refrain from addressing it, but he throws, at the end, the SFMoMA into the mix, at which I take personal offense. I have always found the SFMoMA to be the epitome of perfection in museum architecture (not just contemporary spaces, but all spaces). The rooms are of manageable size, as are the floors; the twin spirals that meet at the central staircase limit the rat-in-a-maze anxiety I feel at other museums, where rooms open to two or three other rooms rather than one, and I am uncertain whether I've seen everything, and torn in different directions at once. The New Museum eliminates this problem as well, by only having one gallery per floor. While this type of space served the Unmonumental show poorly, the pieces lacking any grounding or stability on the larger floors, that can be blamed rather on the work shown, not the space, whose warm details, like corner nooks and the inch-wide gap between the floor and the walls, imbue the galleries with much more humanity/craftsmanship than, say, the icy Whitney. That museum, with it's cattle-sized elevator, much more closely approximates a big box retailer; since, however, it has been standing since his younger years, Perl deferentially approves of it.

I haven't been to the Brooklyn Museum for the Murakami show yet (I'm going on Sunday), but I am generally predisposed to loath the man, and I won't speak in his defense here. Koons, however, I will defend, but only because Perl's argument against him is so weak. He states, "Koons and his kind have never been interested in the old avant-garde idea of outraging the bourgeoisie, of shaking up expectations. The possibility that a work of art can disturb us, whether through its style or its content, is at heart a rather traditional possibility, a new twist on the complex emotional exchanges that have gone on between artists and audiences from time immemorial." Unfortunately, Perl has his history of art all wrong (and he should know this, as he compares Koons' monumental post-readymades to Tang Dynasty horses). Art was always made to "massage the egos" of the money- and power-wielding gate keepers—the king, the church, the business tycoons. It was not until the rise of characters precisely like Duchamp that art began to "shake up expectations." And yet, Koons does manage, regularly, to "outrage the bourgeoisie" (Perl seems awfully outraged, and if he thinks he's better than bourgeois, he might need to reread his Marx). What could be more outrageous than Murakami's lasso of cum, or Hirst's diamond-studded skull (which riffs on a very classic artistic and literary motif, in a rather timely way)? A twelve-by-six inch Roman landscape by Corot? Surely, he jests.

Perl, too, is uncomfortable with the commodification of the art object—the making of something initially particular into a kind of "logo"—he here refers to Serra's curling swaths of rusted steel. I wrote recently about Louise Bourgeois' participation in the creation of "logo" art as well—the Spider, of course—and so I am sensitive to Perls' discomfort here. However, dare he say that Matisse's Dance has not become a logo? What about Picasso's Guernica, or Cezanne's apples and pears? What Perl here objects to is the fact that he sees new logos being minted before his very eyes, while he naively accepts the always-alreadyness of logos that were pre-established before his art historical education began.

Perl "wish[es] more museum directors and trustees understood how hungry—and how disgruntled—museumgoers in America really are." Again, I don't think that he could be farther from the truth. Art in America, which has always belonged to the elite, is at long last approaching something that the layperson can engage with and be moved by. One doesn't need to know the trajectory of minimalism to understand Eliasson's 1 m3 Light, although a working knowledge of Tony Smith and friends does deepen its relevance, in the very same way that one doesn't need to know anything about a diaspora to appreciate the bleeding colors and persistent lines of a Kitaj (dare I argue that knowing less here may be more). And yet, because the first is ephemeral rather than concrete, Perl dismisses it as being "from nowhere," and without merit.

At MoMA this past weekend, the Eliasson show was absolutely filled with museumgoers, and they were far from disgruntled. They were, in fact, literally elated, completely engaged and positively vibrant with the endorphine release of pure visual delight. Dizzy with pleasure, they were. Even the grandparents were able to drop their curmudgeonly attitude and wheel about the colored spaces, seeing the world with fresh eyes. I am shocked that Perl was able to shut down his senses and deny himself this pleasure.