Joe Kickasola

Joe Kickasola is a filmmaker, author, and college professor, living in New York City. His book The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image won the 2006 Spiritus Award for best writing on religion and film. He currently directs the Baylor in New York program for Baylor University.

Krzysztof Kieślowski: Film History’s Gracious Metaphysician

As Moses heaved the Divine Law down the mountain, the stones must have worn his palms—hard rock chewing into his fingers and pulling at the joints.

In his ten Decalogue films, Krzysztof Kieślowski puts these monumental tablets in our hands. Watching them is less about what’s written on them and more about their overwhelming density, as if the meaning of the commands is to be found (at least partly) in their feeling, at the nexus of ideal and body. The Decalogue provides ten zones of morally-saturated experience, with insight into how the commands anchor our ethical sensibilities even as our bodies and souls strain against their weight. The episodes do not argue, entertain, or instruct as much as they illuminate, rendering visible how these timeless ideals press into everyday life.

Kieślowski might have taken the philosophical route, full of ideas and argument. Or, he might have gone dramatic, utilizing the commands as cheap catalysts for more exciting plots (Action! Intrigue! Killing! Adultery!). The didactic path was also open, reminding the kids that there are ten good lessons to be learned. Mercifully, Kieślowski dismissed them all. Instead, he gifted us stories and characters we can recognize, largely because all of these people—from the adulterers to the murderers to the lost and frightened children—resemble ourselves.

The gorgeous, brilliantly executed restoration of these films, just released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection, amplifies and re-asserts what many of us already know: Kieślowski was one of the most earnest and talented spiritual pilgrims ever to work in the cinema.

The struggle to care for his sick and dying father, a tuberculosis victim, defined Kieślowski’s early life. Perhaps his artistic obsessions with fate, existential choice, miracle, and predestination emerged from this anxious and peripatetic childhood. After graduating from the famed Łódź film school, he focused on documentaries, searching for a “reality” on the screen that the Communist government had neglected or suppressed. As Solidarity—that miraculous, and legendary workers’ movement that brought down Communism in Poland and formed the first cracks in the Berlin Wall—gained ground, Kieślowski emerged as a quiet, sympathetic, and pivotal figure, shrewdly working for change within the official media machine. He told stories of everyday Polish life in bold, unflinching terms, while avoiding a propagandistic or moralistic tone. Amid this political turmoil, Kieślowski met a young activist lawyer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who agreed to allow Kieślowski to film a few of his cases. They eventually noticed that every time a camera stood in the back of the courtroom the judge was lenient or dismissed the case. Before long, lawyers from all over, fighting for the rights of political dissidents, were begging to be a part of Kieślowski’s projects. His courtroom cameras ran often, sometimes without any film in them at all.

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As much as the political effect of Kieślowski’s films pleased him, he began to question his faith in the documentary form, particularly its limited ability to portray the whole of reality, as he conceived it. He moved to fiction projects, untethering his expressive powers and freeing himself to explore the non-material—the realm of ideals, terrors, dreams, intuitions, inexplicable grace, unfathomable evil—and all its attendant questions. These themes first emerged, often pessimistically, in the early features, most notably in Camera Buff (1979) and Blind Chance (1981). Kieślowski and Piesiewicz then began collaborating on scripts, beginning with No End (1984), and continuing through every feature film afterwards: The Decalogue (1988), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), and the critically-acclaimed trilogy Three Colors: Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994).

In retrospect, The Decalogue was the watershed of Kieślowski’s career. Before those films, his work tended to be dark (e.g., providence turns downright brutal in Blind Chance and No End). After Decalogue, his work creates space for grace, reconciliation, and restoration. Within this monumental series of films, we see Kieślowski negotiating in that very human, liminal space between despair and hope.

So, in 1988—just before the Berlin wall came down and before their international successes could be imagined—Kieślowski and Piesiewicz had a brilliant idea: a single Warsaw apartment complex as a spiritual microcosm, holding ten immense existential dilemmas, each with a set of characters (who occasionally inter-relate), and a commandment principle embedded at the core.

 

At about an hour each, the films follow the Roman Catholic numbering, with the first episode combining the first two Protestant commandments (“You shall have no other gods before Me,” and “You shall not make unto yourselves a graven image”). Thus, episode II addresses the Lord’s name, III the Sabbath day, and so on, until episodes IX and X, which are dedicated to covetousness (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” or “thy neighbor’s goods”). The films are thematically linked to the decrees, sometimes loosely, sometimes more tightly. For instance, the episode for the command “Thou shalt not kill” (episode V) does, indeed, feature a murder, but then, remarkably, turns its full attention to the murderer’s execution. Episode II, more obliquely, focuses on issues of identity, family, and fidelity as a means of exploring the significance of a “name,” rather than the name of God per se.

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Kieślowski knew that the commandments were simple enough for children to understand and difficult enough to crack the human soul, so easy answers and moral recommendations would not do. He does not minimize human depravity or lose all hope for grace. He does not skirt religious doubt, nor does he champion skepticism. The weight and power of a commandment never wanes, however complicated its role within the broken world. In Kieślowski’s films, ethical questions are never easy, but always essential.

Fear not: in good measure, consistent rays of hope mingle with the anguished darkness of the times. Grace often arrives, but rarely in any conventional or expected way. From unanticipated kindness, turns of heart, and even “miracles” in a few early episodes, to the joyful brotherhood and hilarious comedy of Decalogue X, Kieślowski suggests that that judgment also mingles with gifts: friends, family, spiritual purpose, encouragement, forgiveness, and unexpected turns of fortune to help us bear the load. Grace is not always predictable or timely, but neither is it wholly indifferent or absent.

“There must be other things beyond what we can see,” he once remarked (in the documentary I’m So-So), and his characters often directly consider the question of Divine existence and action. Kieślowski never directly shows us this other reality, and deliberately avoids any banal “other-worldly” effects—shimmering dissolves or “magical” visions. Yet, we cannot come away from The Decalogue wholly confident in our materialism, our disbelief, or our self-centeredness; the pressure on our conscience and the stirrings in our experience are just too strong.

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One character, Kieślowski simply dubbed “the young man,” appears in nearly every episode as a haunting, spiritual observer. He opens the series silently and powerfully, staring directly at us as if to say, “follow me, but watch your step;” like a mute Virgil he leads us, not into Hell, but an equally spiritual domain, an ordinary apartment complex where any of us could live. With each appearance he changes form: a compassionate observer (the weeping vagabond in I), a figure of judgment (the Charon-like boatman in IV), a sympathetic, joyful spirit (the passing, smiling businessman in VI), and a heroic savior (IX). Unsurprisingly, Kieślowski gives no direct interpretation of this character, and his specific religious commitments remained vague throughout his life. However, he did believe in an absolute moral “reference point,”[1] and the “young man’s” knowing, iconic looks directly target us, suggesting an other-worldly conviction that speaks to our collective conscience.

In The Decalogue, the different episodes show a mixed aesthetic and narrative approach, a tipping of the hat to his past documentaries, and his first adventurous push forward into a more formalistic, experimental cinema. His willingness to try every possible artistic avenue in pursuit of his aims is reflected in his plan (nearly achieved) to use a different cinematographer for each episode. Three of those artists—Sławomir Idziak, Edward Kłosiński and Piotr Sobiciński—would work with him for the rest of his career. In The Decalogue, the brute presentation of the handheld camera, so common in his documentaries and early features, finds expanded power through the addition of expressive lighting, shallow-focus photography, and a generally abstract approach to the visual image (so common in his later features).

This abstract impulse surfaces in various ways. Kieślowski’s influences, such as Robert Bresson, Francois Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky make themselves known in the delicate way Kieślowski allows time to exude its own pressure. Unlike typical Western editing styles, which cut for easy, direct impact and succinct narrative structure, Kieślowski is not afraid to run the camera longer, let the silences linger, and move the drama by psychological inertia. By defying our expectations, he abstracts time and space itself; we think we know what we are seeing, until we are forced to see again, and see again a little more, witnessing a type of transformation.

In this same vein, unusual editing styles continually place the viewer in an expanded realm, where time and space stretch beyond the narrative and suggest the metaphysical. To give one example, Dorota (in Decalogue II) is shown in several successive scenes in which no words are spoken, but her spiritual angst is clearly seen. She paces around her apartment, she smokes, she listens to music, she lies in bed (in close-up) unable to sleep. Then, in a seamless elision of time and space, the camera reveals she is not in her bed at all, but lying upon a gynecologist’s examination table, considering an abortion. Two distinct locations prove to be just pillars in one vast spiritual arena.

Indeed, in The Decalogue we witness this spiritual vision gaining strength. While Kieślowski always firmly rejected the designation “moralist,” he once accepted, with a shrug, the title “metaphysician.”[2] Thus, the abstract image, in all its visual possibility, transformational effect, and revelational power, lends itself to the spiritual themes Kieślowski strained to express. There lingers a strong sense in these films that time and space are actually eternal space and time, a supra-Euclidean domain that the sociologist Mircea Eliade famously traced in religious rituals and icons.

Throughout, extreme close-ups, such as those of a swirling glass of tea (Decalogue I) and dripping water on a metal hospital bed (Decalogue II), emerge as arresting dynamic forms. Sometimes, it is not completely clear what the object we behold might be, but the vibrant visual forms call to us and we imagine. Kieślowski’s patient timing and careful placement of these images has the capacity to draw the audience out of a rational, problem-solving mode and into wonder, as well as contemplation.

The abstract shots (or sequences) also synchronize with crucial spiritual themes in the plot. The result is an impact that is powerful, but not easily described. This intuitional power bears the marks of Kant’s category of the sublime in art, calling up an abundance of mixed feelings, holding imposing mystery and undeniable attraction in tension. Of course, there are no talismanic, spiritual determinisms here, but the clear metaphysical context, and the sumptuous visuals Kieślowski so painstakingly crafts, invite the viewer to consider “the things beyond what we can see.”

After years of making metaphysically-charged films, Kieślowski announced his retirement in 1996 to spend time with his wife and daughter, whom he felt he had neglected during his career. A relatively short time later, a heart attack claimed his life. This bitterly ironic ending remains as difficult and spiritually piercing as one of his own plots. We cannot help but ask, why?

But that act of questioning, it seems, is the key to his films as well. For Kieślowski, his career was not marked by a transition between “true” documentaries and “fictional” films, but a very straight artistic trajectory, through immanent, physical truth, directly toward spiritual truth, with lots of messiness, vexation, and negotiation along the way. Did he question faith? Of course. But he also doggedly questioned unbelief. Though he never claimed to have a corner on any truth, he always maintained that the material world and our limited perceptions of it are only part of the story.

Kieślowski’s admirers have long awaited a restored Decalogue, one that didn’t look like a drained and battered video on life support. Its genesis as a Polish television series makes its very survival something of a feat, but this new Blu-Ray restoration is more like a miracle to behold. The colors and the contrasts, so very critical to so many of the episodes, breathe new life into the films.

In the end, the collection is an astonishing accomplishment; some episodes are stronger than others, as one might expect, but there is a steady, courageous vision throughout. In each case, the commandments have weight and strength; they are the words upon which our souls are grounded. It is clear, in the beholding of them, that the letter will kill, but the Spirit may still give us life.

Though Kieślowski was not a theologian or even, necessarily, a believer, his films show us, on an intuitive level, that the apostle Paul was correct: “The law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14). The commandments cut, and anchor, the modern soul as surely as the stone tablets pressed deep into Moses’ body, when he bore them down the mountain to a wandering, dispirited people.

 

 

 


[1] Kieślowski on Kieślowski, ed. Danusia Stok (Faber and Faber, 1993) 149.

[2] Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski (Hyperion, 1999), 184.

The Scar in the Sound

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a paper that was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

Apart from the many ways Tom Waits is a spiritually-steeped artist—his lyrics brimming with religious and biblical references, his reveling in ritualistic forms (re-forming or productively deforming them), and his posturing as a post-modern, post-religious and post-secular prophet—apart from and underneath and before all of that…there is a voice.

Hearing it for the first time is like getting slapped with a large, raw steak. The overwhelming–even punishing–quality of the voice itself poses the first challenge. It is incredible, in the purest sense of the word. It surpasses any reasonable expectation of what a human singing voice should sound like.

My ten year-old daughter’s reaction: “Oh Dad… not that guy again… I mean, I like the music, but his singing is just so… awful.” David Dark tells me his son waxed a bit more poetic: “He sounds like he’s already dead.” Or, consider the critic Daniel Durchholz: “[Waits’ voice sounds] like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

But therein lies its mysterious power. Like a car crash, the repulsion/attraction dynamic of it has long intrigued me, but that’s a weak analogy, as I’ve always sensed something more than spectacle and morbid curiosity at work in Waits’ voice. Aesthetically, perceptually, and theologically, this voice uniquely matters.

Scars and Sound

I think my daughter’s primary obstacles with Waits are two-fold: she hasn’t listened enough to see the nuances of what he is doing, and she hasn’t stumbled, regretted, or suffered enough. As for Waits’ sufferings, it seems his crosses have been largely of his own making, and he’s sometimes seemed a little too eager to hang on them. But, what redeems so many of those self-inflicted wounds is a brute honesty about how they came about.

A large part of the early albums were about wine, women, song, and a great deal of loneliness. With each successive recording his sound got rougher by his own choice. One only need contrast two early numbers: the lovely ballad “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” (from the album Closing Time, 1973) which tells the story of a near romantic miss in a bar, with the “old shirt stained with blood and whiskey” referenced in “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” just three years later (from Small Change, 1976). In the latter song, the lament “I’ve lost my St. Christopher, now that I’ve kissed her, and the one-armed bandit knows….” You can see the shift toward consequence in the lyrics, but it’s really more important to hear, and engage, the damage in the voice itself. The man is desperately shoving wind through his shredded vocal folds, and they seem reluctant to move, like old, tattered, velvet curtains. The subsequent resonance is unearthly: shaking the bones, searing the viscera, embodying relentless tensions and a tortured history. Enormous symbolic and experiential freight gets hauled into the musical equation in a way that absolutely commands our attention, or forces us to turn away. There is something desperate, and prophetic, in that. You can scorn the scar in the sound, but you cannot ignore it.

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So, while he certainly romanticized the alcohol-soaked, vagabond musician image in those early years, he was generally truthful about where it could so often leave you. As he grew older, Waits typically leapfrogged the description of the party to the bitter, desolate after-party. The lyrics—in their themes, stories, and tone—continued to evolve, less concerned with late Friday nights as with the myriad hopes, disappointments, injustices, and indignities (many self-inflicted), of the everyday grind. Ballads of wanderers, real and mythic, mark his stories. He balances prophetic tirades against the abuse of power, hypocrisy, and injustice with humble refrains of confession, weakness, and regret. Between the dark clouds and cold irony, you might find a hymn to beauty, hope, forgiveness. His songs are about us for the most part, but references to God, angels, prophets, saints, apostles, martyrs, demons and devils all hang around, like a low deep fog of witness.

Voice and Grain

Voices are no ordinary sound. They are at once, and always, cultural, biological, semiotic, communicative, and relational phenomena. They demand responses from us that other sounds in the world do not, and their complexities give them an allusive quality of significance distinct from the words they deliver. It was this dimension that the critic Roland Barthes was chasing in his essay “The Grain of the Voice.”[1] Therein, he criticizes the famous tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as being part of the “pheno-text” tradition, where the voice is fully in submission to communication, aspiring to express something of the soul (leaving the body behind), and this annoys him. He contrasts this romantic aesthetic with the “geno-text,” to be found in other singers who don’t elide the trappings of the body:

It is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented, in the mask that signifiance explodes, bringing not the soul but jouissance. With FD [Fischer-Dieskau], I seem only to hear the lungs, never the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose.

Well, as specious as Barthes’ understanding of singing technique may be, Tom fits the bill. All that fleshy stuff rattles loudly in Waits, to the point of almost extreme theatricality. Likewise, pitch, duration, intensity/dynamics, timbre—all the stuff of sound—become his playthings, as he willfully abandons anything like “perfection.” He will bend a note or sing off-key, refuse to tune his piano, beat his body into submission and drag his vocal chords through all manner of manipulation to maximize expressivity. He truly is a performance artist this way, trafficking in hyper-affectivity.

Sound as Meaningful

According to the philosopher of sound, Donald Ihde,[2] the story of Enlightenment philosophy is to stress “visualism” as the dominant sensory paradigm, as it suits itself to the sort of “objectivity” and “truth” (i.e., seeing is believing) that Enlightenment thinkers held to be central to their project. The quest to make everything subservient to human reason led to the questioning of all sensory experience, forever placing the “real” in an inaccessible realm, as Democritus presaged it long ago.[3] Ihde argues that the world, in the wake of visualism (that distancing sense, encouraging “objectivism,” autonomy, control and possessiveness), has been “de-vocalized.”[4] Visualism has reduced our relation with the world to subject – object, rather than the natural communion that sound encouraged for so many millennia, when oral cultures were the norm.

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Waits, we might argue, through the pronounced quality of his voice, re-vocalizes the world by force. He grabs us by the lapels, and grounds us back into the earth. This is due, in no small part, to the power of sound as meaning, in itself. Again, Ihde argues:

The philosopher, concerned with comprehensiveness, must eventually call for attention to the word as soundful…[A]nd the philosopher, concerned with the roots of reflection in human experience, must eventually also listen to the sounds as meaningful.[5]

What he means is that the sound itself should not be undervalued in the meaning equation. We should not treat sound as merely an “envelope” in which the meaning (the words) is delivered. Sound is a tool, but not merely a tool. Words are meaningful, but not the only meaning. Together, with meaningful sound, they create an aggregate meaning, often complex and rich.

Ihde agrees with the great communication theorist Walter Ong that sound is naturally internal, immersive, and communal.[6] By virtue of the way we experience it, sound is deeply personal because resonates within our bodies (as opposed to the “distanced” sense of sight), though it nearly always necessitates a source of sound outside ourselves.

So, in the typical constitution of our sense of self, and others in relation to us, sound is critical. But beyond the relational dimension, sound also fundamentally defines our world in ways we don’t always recognize. For instance, sound gives us a sense of surfaces (think of the sound of chalk on a chalkboard). It also reveals the “invisible,” through appeal to our imaginative capacities: think of children guessing their birthday presents by shaking boxes and attentively listening.[7] Through sounds…

…the melon reveals its ripeness; the ice its thinness; the cup its half-full contents; the water reservoir, though enclosed, reveals exactly the level of the water inside in the sounding of interiors…. We hear hollows and solids as the interior spatiality of things. We hear the penetration of sound into the very depths of things, and we hear again the wisdom of Heraclitus, ‘The hidden harmony is better than the obvious.’[8]

The term “auscultation” refers to the listening of the inner workings of the throat, heart, and lungs via stethoscope, to identify illness.[9] A more radical instrument is the anechoic chamber, an acoustically manipulated room where noise is almost completely absent.[10] Here, the normally hidden noises of our body – the rasp of the breath, the “buzzing of our nervous system, the interrupted heartbeat”–are made loud. Given the tremors and impediments of the body, so prominent in Waits’ sound, we might see Waits functioning as a type of auscultation, an anechoic chamber wherein we hear the materiality of the human frame, in concert or at war with the breath.

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In this light, one of my favorite Waits quotes reveals a deeper meaning: “Ya know, songs are just really interesting things to be doing with the air….”

The creative power of the Hebrew God is word, which is spoken forth as power: from word comes the world. And although God may hide himself from the eyes, he reveals himself in word, which is also event in spite of the invisibility of his being. Human life, too, as the word-breath that unites the human with others and the gods is a life in sound. But if the world is devocalized, then what becomes of listening? Such has been a theological question that has also pervaded our culture.[11]

The Hebrew word for spirit, Ruach, is also the word for breath. If the spirit is breath, Waits is, very often, the death rattle, the last gasp as the body begins to collapse in on the breath. And yet–by sheer will–Waits forces it out, defiantly. In this way, he is like a warrior for messy, authentic life; for real, bodily experience in the world, amid many forces that would package and commodify it, simulate and sell it online.

He also functions in the prophetic mode, like Ezekiel wasting away on his side in the middle of square, hollering, out of his enormous discomfort, how everyone ought to turn around before it’s too late. Waits gives us the whole body, and the fragility of Being, by accentuating and foregrounding the grain of the sound, and it is by sound that he asserts material Being in an age tempted to skip the body altogether.

Just like we can rattle a box to comprehend the dimensions of the “invisible” object inside, so Waits gives us himself, but, in a mimetic/mirroring fashion, he also gives us ourselves in a type of material communion. There is nothing ethereal about this. Waits strong-arms his guts to the surface. Through listening, we absorb those sounds, and achieve a type of material recognizance of the forces (and impediments) at work in making them.

This honesty, prophetic truth, and communion in struggle make his moments of sentiment, reflection, hope and beauty all the more potent when they do appear. For me, Waits is primarily about beauty, a type of ironic, diamond-in-the-rough treasure revealed. When he sings “Ever Since I put your Picture in a Frame,” we hear his scratchy growl in counterpoint with the sweetness of the melody and the lyrical sentiment, creating an endearing portrait of a man in need of reform, who may have found redemption in love:

Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Ever since I put your picture
In a frame.

I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
Every since I put your picture
In a frame

And here, at the best moment of the song (the bridge), he desperately strains upward with all that he has and soars:

I’m gonna love you ‘til the wheels come off.

His voice is pressed and foundering, his pitch is messy, his breath support dying away—his wings are mangled, but, by God, he’s flying—and I really can’t imagine it any other way. Something like a miracle occurs there…materiality and ethereality mingle, like earth and heaven. This is the language, and the sound, of the imperfect vital machine: the human body pushed to the brink, to the edge of the world, existence, the body’s limit, for love, only to arrive at a most improbable grace.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic

For those who dare to set foot on the road of faith, all this talk of materiality, weakness, and the bodily locus of so many meanings points to the Incarnation, the uniquely Christian idea that the Divine Word has taken vulnerable flesh. It also embodies within it, historically, metaphorically, semiotically, the notion that Christ humbled himself; that there was nothing in his appearance to draw us to him. His life was hard, his death was harder, and he was brimming with sympathy for the downcast, the forgotten, the castaway. He came to commiserate, yes, but also to save.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.

(Isaiah 53:2, 11)

“The incarnation changes everything,” wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an agnostic and pre-eminent philosopher who unexpectedly found himself arguing for the relevance of Christian thought.[12] In the politically charged climate of 1950s Paris, he served as a great champion of the human body as a perceptual agent, and the locus of human meaning. As his own Marxist confidence waned and his rift with Jean-Paul Sartre widened, he saw the Incarnation in a new light: a doctrine of great power, on numerous levels, culminating in the political essay “Faith and Good Faith.” Though he was not embracing the whole of the faith, he was understanding how his love of the body and his quest for meaning, relation, and knowledge could be summed up in that image of the God-man.

But how does the Incarnation help us understand or love that god-awful sound coming out of Tom Waits? The answer, in part, runs through a redemptive ugliness; an ugliness that finds use and meaning as part of larger redemptive story. In this, Waits is in a time-honored tradition.

There is a church in Bavaria, and above the altar is this crude sculpture:

The Suffering Christ, The Weiskirche, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany

The Suffering Christ, The Weiskirche, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany

It is generally acknowledged that this image is not only poor craftsmanship, aesthetically, but more than a bit revolting in its horrific and gross corporeal detail: bruises, blood, scars and gaping wounds. Over the centuries, the church guides tell me, there have been numerous attempts to remove this sculpture and replace it with a more sanitary alternative, but the peasants kept revolting and forcibly hauling it back. At one point, tears had been seen upon it, and it became a pilgrimage site. It’s ugly, it’s wounded, it’s broken, it’s dilapidated, and it cries for them. In other words, it’s imperfectly perfect—a material echo of Christ’s divine life and work.

Now, the Apostle Thomas doubted, like the rest of us, and Thomas Waits is no exception: “Unless I put my fingers in his hands, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” But in Waits’ own scars, we sense he has been doing just that:

Cold was the night, hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
Lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She’s too young to be out
On the street.

Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there for
Georgia Lee?

Sometimes, it all seems very hopeless in Tom Waits’ world, but the astute observer will note that the first lines of this song–“Dark was the night, cold was the ground”–is actually an intertextual reference, a dialogue with a very famous, blind, abused and poor bluesman: Blind Willie Johnson.

Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson

As a poor, blind black man in the 1930s, Johnson really had suffered in unimaginable ways, and yet managed to hold the faith. His song – which was a version of a well known spiritual–went like this:

Dark was the night, and cold the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
In agony he prayed.

”Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill.

Go to the garden, sinner, see
Those precious drops that flow;
The heavy load He bore for thee;
For thee he lies so low.

Then learn of Him the cross to bear;
Thy Father’s will obey;
And when temptations press thee near,
Awake to watch and pray.

What makes Johnson’s version so special: his voice rivals Waits in its gravelly, shredded quality, and he speaks not a word of this well known spiritual. The lyrics (known and embodied in the oral culture of the African-American community) were already there, hanging in the air. As the they gesture toward the unspeakable, Johnson hums, groans, and incarnates the truths behind the words in remarkable musical interchange with his guitar. Any doubts that Tom Waits expresses in “Georgia Lee” need also to be seen in conversation with the sainted bluesmen who have gone before. In this light, Waits does not simply voice doubt, anger, and struggle, but quests for understanding through evocation of those who struggled before him. “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak,” Cornel West once said. I’m trying to convince my daughter that what I love in Tom Waits is connected to that Bavarian statue and the groans of Blind Willie Johnson.

Do we see resurrection in Tom Waits? Not quite, it seems, but we do see hope. Even the resurrected Christ–healed, perfect, victorious–bears the scars.

 

Citations

[1] Found in Image-Music-Text (Stephen Heath, trans.). London: HarperCollins, 1977.

[2] Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 7-7, 14.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Ibid., 61, 68.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Rice, Tom. “Sounding Bodies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 299.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] “Faith and Good Faith,” in Sense-and Non-Sense (Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, trans.). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

A Review of ‘Calvary’

Brendan Gleeson is not a small man, and we should all be grateful.  As the Irish priest James Lavelle in John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary, his enormous presence generates an engaging tension:  the loving man of God who, if he hugged you a little too tight, might crack something.

Should you make him angry, he could do some real damage.

Don’t worry.  Writer/director John Michael McDonagh never lets the man or the story bluster too far into Santa Claus or Rambo territory.  In general, Father Lavelle feels trustworthy and safe, reinforced by his gentle smile and that ever-present collar.  And yet, from the outset, we’ve been primed toward suspicion by the opening title card:

“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”
— St. Augustine

The first spoken line, right after, also undercuts our security. Lavelle patiently listens in a confessional booth, as an off-screen voice sneers:

“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”

We immediately see where this is going, and the Catholic sex abuse scandals will billow like thunderheads over most of the film.

We also know, from the next line, that Calvary will be a better movie than most.  Our priest pauses, then responds somberly with an honest and human answer:  “Nothing to say.”

Then, in one of those terrific register shifts at which Gleeson so excels, Lavelle quips:

“… certainly a startling opening line…”

Gentle gallows humor will prove Lavelle’s greatest defense against evil throughout the film, second only to his faith.  Or are they the same?  Does not one flow as grace from the other?  Throughout, Lavelle persuades us this is so.  He has a past, but he understands and lives in the present, and he’ll be damned (literally) if he doesn’t give it as much grace and integrity as he can muster.

He’s going to have to, because, after some tortured conversation about a horrendously abusive priest, the “penitent” states his true intentions:  to release a shockwave through the seemingly apathetic Church that has destroyed so many innocents.  “I’m gonna kill you father. I’m gonna kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

So, as Christ died for the sins of the world, this priest may need to die for the sins of the Church.  And, so, the film is structured:  a week for the priest to “get his house in order” and “make his peace with God.”  The assassin’s identity remains a mystery, but Lavelle knows him, as he recognized the voice (a sign of his attentiveness to his flock).  So, the real drama is not really “whodunit?” or “will he do it?” but whether Lavelle can pursue his calling under threat.

 

 

Lavelle gets his house in order as every priest should:  by doing what he always does, in everyone else’s homes – another day, another conversation, another horrendously broken parishioner.  They often mock him, taunt him, tempt him.  One miserable old man suggests Lavelle should assist in his suicide; another, a prisoner, seeks re-assurance he’ll go to Heaven, despite having enjoyed raping and killing numerous young girls.  Lavelle doesn’t typically give great theological answers, and he often seems frustrated at these moments.

But, by God, he is there.  He fills the frame in every way, and that black cloak just makes him all the more monumental.

To be battered by enemies is one thing, but to be abused by those you love is quite another, particularly when you know that one of them is planning to shoot you dead on a beach this coming Sunday.  And still, with each conversation, Lavelle avoids dwelling on the assassin.  He’s more concerned with understanding his duty to God, and the way He appears to have stepped away while the world rips itself to pieces.

“I’m gonna kill you father. I’m gonna kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

This is where Diary of a Country Priest comes to mind.  Georges Bernanos’ marvelous novel, about a similarly underappreciated and much abused priest, mirrors Lavelle’s situation.  Robert Bresson turned the novel into a much-revered film in 1951 that has defined a whole cinematic approach to the spiritual life.  The writer/director Paul Schrader famously described Bresson’s film as an example of “transcendental style,” by which he meant an austere, ascetic approach to acting and mise-en-scene.  This creates a type of distance or disparity that signals an otherworldly dimension, like the knowing stare of an icon.  It’s an ostensive marker of a higher reality.

Only a few directors have really managed to understand or properly emulate this approach, and, gratefully, Calvary attempts nothing of the sort.  Instead of Bresson’s sickly, quiet, unsmiling priest, Gleeson ripples with energy and emotion.  If Bresson’s priest was an icon of Christ, Calvary’s priest is more like a long-form essay in the New York Times Magazine; the everyday Saviour, humble and sincere, suffering for his troubled flock.  His Via Dolorosa, if it is that, runs through the heart of this Irish village.

The complications of life as a priest hit us at every turn. No Catholic stereotype or failure is left unmentioned, and doubt haunts every doorway. We learn that Lavelle became a priest in response to the death of his wife.  It is noble that he redirected that emotional energy toward the good of others.   Yet, his troubled daughter argues he was blind to his own motivations and this has yielded some hard consequences, with which he must reckon.

“The heart is more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick.  Who can understand it?” the prophet Jeremiah once lamented.  Likewise, redemption is often a long and unmanageable road, as every priest knows.  The Apostle Paul called it “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings,” and saw the long and unmanageable road a privilege. It was a privilege because it was a small price to pay for the reward of helping Christ heal the world.

…he’s faithful in the trenches, facing humanity’s hardest questions.

We look to religious figures to carry our theological baggage on this road.  Like the villagers here, we give little thought to the human frailty of our leaders unless they fall from the sky in flames.  To shift metaphors, we use them as a screen on which to project our image of God and see if something like Him shows up.

The Irish have a particular fondness for this idea. Give us a good man in the collar, a not-too-perfect representative of God, who wants very much for Him to exist, amid a world where people are consistently remarking how unlikely it all seems.  He can be kind and loving to God’s desperate children, and maybe they will believe in something.

 

 

Calvary fully engages this tension and so avoids a two-dimensional portrait of the priesthood.  However, if there is a flaw in Calvary, it is in the lack of stable and ordinary characters around the man of God.  Seemingly, this village is the epicenter of cosmic darkness:  Racism.  Pedophilia.  Murder.  Greed.  Exploitation.  Suicide.  People who urinate on priceless artworks (Holbein’s Ambassadors, no less!).  When Father Lavelle ends up across the table from the serial killer, one starts to feel this is closer to David Lynch’s Lumberton than Glencolumbkille, Ballyferriter, or Feakle Town.  It’s not clear how small this Irish village is, but it’s no metropolis, so it’s a little startling to picture it as a menagerie of human depravity.

But Father Lavelle takes it all in stride, mostly through dutifully listening.  It’s not that he’s a pushover or beyond personal doubt—far from it—but he’s faithful in the trenches, facing humanity’s hardest questions.

And this is the gracious pattern of the film:  no sermons, no doctrinal revelations, no miracles or shocking interventions, just the steadfast walk of life, and the struggle for hope.  Father Lavelle’s authenticity in the Valley of the Shadow suggests we all might, possibly, find a way to “fear no evil.”  Bresson’s longsuffering priest famously realized, at the end, that “Grace is everywhere.”  Father Lavelle, echoes that sentiment to one of his desperate parishioners: “God is great.  The limits of His mercy have not been set.”

Calvary stands as one of those steady, respectable films Christians point to as good storytelling with a thoughtful spiritual telos. “Finally… a film somewhat sympathetic to the faith and not utterly embarrassing,” they might say.  Such films—far too few of them—are usually carried by a stellar leading actor, and the rest of the film’s elements (the formal and technical dimensions) stand as modest complements to the lead performance.  The budgets are modest, the artistry serviceable (less than brilliant and occasionally flawed), and the director is smart enough to lay low, leaving the central performance and script to shine unencumbered.  Robert Duvall’s The Apostle is one example.

Calvary is another.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about the artistry of the film, but one must respect that as humble and wise restraint in the wake of Brendan Gleeson.  It’s his film, his cross to carry, and he does so, admirably.

With All the Things

The press release for Daniel Domig’s exciting new exhibition With all the Things We Build and Make (Thrust Projects, New York City, September 5 – October 12) states the following:

The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

At first glance, it’s not at all clear what this might mean. How do elements relinquish and accept anything? Is this just one more bloated, incomprehensible bit of gallery-drivel? One might be tempted to think so. Yet, when one actually engages the pieces and considers Domig’s interest in the time-honored religious concept of “the Creator/Creature distinction,” it all becomes clear. Domig’s figures serve as analogues to himself, not in a clichéd, autobiographical way, but in the raw, existential dimension.

As Christian tradition has it, humans are created beings, and lose their bearings the minute they begin to conceive of themselves as the Creator (“ye shall be as gods,” the serpent whispered, according to the Genesis account). However, it’s clear that humans are creators of a sort, made in God’s image, carrying on His creative work in the world. There’s a challenge there, a reflexive calling, for humanity to create without losing sight of “createdness.” Humans are to see themselves as distinct from God, yet wholly dependent upon Him, working and doing His work. St. Paul said it this way: “…He is not far from each one of us. In Him we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:27b-28a)

This theme literally pulses in and out of Domig’s exhibition, as if the systolic and diastolic rhythms of the human life were nothing less than alternating considerations of autonomy/dependence dichotomy. Figures move into concrete materiality, and slip back out again, lost in abstract, shadowy brushstrokes and smudged patches of mixed color. Process emerges as a prominent theme in Domig’s work, but this is not the sterile, lifeless reflexivity of late modernism. There is a hopeful search here, a question, left hanging from the unfinished clause of the exhibition’s title (“with all the things we build and make…” what?).

A survey of Domig’s earlier work articulates a theme that continues to emerge in his work today: the miracle of animation in the work. It may be process, lines, paint, smudges, but it is also something being born and inhaling. Sometimes it feels like something dying, and exhaling. But it’s always a liminal state.

In the case of the ceramic sculpture that announces the exhibition, we see a detail human face descend (or ascend?) into primitive, pressed clay. It is at once refined, surreal, and primitive, a bit like Adam, freshly minted from the dust.

Dull grays, blacks, and browns dominate the works, but nearly every painting-somewhere-features an alarming, aggressive color, often in form of a small line, or detail. It’s not as if these colors vie with the darkness, however. Domig, remarkably, establishes them as co-existent, part and parcel of his eclectic work. This eclecticism leans toward a two-dimensionality, and so we might be tempted to consider Domig in the tradition of collage, but, in fact, his work subtly oscillates in depth. For instance, the striking figure in The Best Show (2007) gives us a square canvas, and a painted frame, and figure that seems at once behind the frame and in front of it, a cellophane-like membrane inhibiting all but his hands. The bright green lines piercing in from the edges to the center create a tension with the largely grey underworld that resides at the painting’s core. We might also note the subject’s eyes are obscured, a common element in Domig’s work. The painting does not revel in surface, as in much postmodern collage. Nor does it reach for the alluring, eroticized two-dimensional ornamentation found in the work of Domig’s Austrian predecessor Gustav Klimt. Rather, we see an existential dimension about to reveal itself. It is here, hovering on the edge of full existence, that the figure negotiates with being, autonomy, and its own process of becoming.

Sheer “becoming” as an “event,” is the sort of thing that excited Gilles Deleuze about Francis Bacon’s work, and we see something of that primal energy here. But Domig sees this concept in a wider frame, that of his own becoming within the Christian view of sanctification. Though it is misleading to see Domig’s pieces as intensely auto-biographical, some works grant us permission in that direction.

Within Tradition strikes such a reflective, self-conscious note, as the painting-within-the-painting theme manifests itself here as a man turned cabinet of curiosities. He’s at once a canvas himself, slipping into (or out of?) three dimensional materiality, the edges of his face spreading outward like newly cracked egg. He holds his paintings dear, carefully fixed under clasped hands, but we cannot avoid the suggestion, amid all that red, that we are witnessing an anatomy lesson, a flayed and open soul, and a shadow of a man holds center stage within him. Even that negative figure is upheld, however, by a mysterious third hand, white as milk, transparent as sky. We are clearly invited to see these paintings as illustrative of the figure’s interior world, and, by extension, Domig’s own creative struggle.

In a remarkably prescient observation, the art scholar Velton Wagner connects this arrangement of paintings with an altar screen in a Christian church.1 Indeed, the mode of expression, while intensely dark and personal in the painting and more ecumenical/historical in a church, does achieve a common goal: to unite the small stories, and fragments of stories, into a larger whole. That the paintings detail contradictory things is simply to tell the truth about the contradictions of human nature. To unite them is to create a man, and, perhaps, chart a large meta-story of redemption, as in this altarpiece from the chapel of Schloss Mittersill, Austria, a sacred space Domig has frequented throughout his life.

Indeed, one of the show’s most interesting dimensions is the exhibition design itself, envisioned and constructed by the artist himself. Again, it is process exposed, but animated. Rough, wooden figures watermarked and unsanded, are stitched together in a rustic fellowship: wooden frames/bodies, with painted heads atop each, framed by an “X”/cross pattern not unlike the saint depicted in the altarpiece above. To accommodate this unorthodox presentation, some paintings had to be placed sideways in the torsos of these figures. This creates a tension for those who wish to view the work cleanly, but Domig doesn’t permit such clinical niceties. Like the man in Within Tradition, they are contained and held in a body that may or may not be willing to release them.

The artist’s product does, in the end, stand apart from the artist. The moment a work is declared done, it is relinquished to public interpretation, never to be fully pulled back. Domig’s figures are, indeed, autonomous, as the exhibition’s flyer describes. But they slip in and out of materiality, as if to nod back to their creator, in deference. Domig confesses, here, that he continues to struggle with the autonomy/dependence question, and so his work is shot through with spiritual references and insinuations that never quite reach a full resolution. And that’s to our benefit, as the best work emerges from that tension.


The show runs until October 12.

From the website:

Jane Kim/ Thrust Projects is pleased to announce the second solo exhibition of Daniel Domig, entitled With all the Things We Build and Make, a new installation encompassing large and small paintings in a circular, free-standing wooden structure. By making the painting process a form of construction, Domig continues his research into the materiality of objects. The substance for the paintings as well as the installation is the interaction between space and figure in which boundaries both embrace and separate. The emphasis between form and content becomes less about one definitive meaning as the works serve as a fill-in and fenestration to the unoccupied space in the structure, allowing the viewer to peer into Domig’s artistic self and world views from the inside. The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

Daniel Domig (b. 1983) is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His 2006 debut solo exhibition Don’t ask for a name now, maybe you’ll find it later at Thrust Projects was reviewed in Artforum.com (Critic’s Pick, Oct 9, 2006). Recent exhibitions include his first one-person museum show, Daniel Domig: Neither Fear nor Courage Saves us, Museum Engen, Germany, accompanied by a catalogue (edited Städtisches Museum Engen + Galerie, 2008) and Daniel Domig: BEASTBODYBREATHING, Galerie Karol Winiarczyk, Vienna. He lives and works in Vienna.


1 From the essay “Transfigurations,” in the catalog Daniel Domig: Neither Fear Nor Courage Saves Us (Engen, Germany: Städtisches Museum Engen, 2008).