Julie Hamilton

Julie Hamilton, a Baylor bear and Duke Div grad, is originally from central Texas and has worked in North Carolina and New York as a humanities instructor and fashion stylist. A writer and art critic, she collects records, adores baseball and appreciates good bourbon.

“Trickster” and Tragicomedian

A Jewish comedian from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood in the pre-World War II era (whimsically depicted in Radio Days), Woody Allen is self-taught film auteur and class-commentator on the relational and existential woes of wealthy Manhattannites.[1] New York City is Allen’s microcosm, captured in a playground of posturing, vain, highly-educated, WASPy Upper East Siders, producing neurotic, over-privileged and unhappy individuals.

It seems that Allen anticipated culturally synonymous notions of irony and cynicism in his postmodern analysis of self-consciousness in his late ‘60s and early ‘70s films. Part of Allen’s wisdom is his ability to show his characters acting out their selfish impulses only to later regret their decisions. This is particularly evident in relationships, where nostalgia for familiarity and acceptance cause collateral damage to the surrounding parties. His films are perpetual improv routines for why human selfishness and insecurity correspond with biological evolutionary urges and inescapable guilt.

Indeed, Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre is a masterful study of human relationships—in all of their messy infidelity, boredom, flippancy and perpetual dissatisfaction. Conversations provide the films’ architecture, as monologues and dialogues construct the form of his fifty some-odd pictures, through genres both tragic and comic. The stories across his massive body of work continually grapple with the interconnected themes concerning the ontological meaning of existence, particularly played out in ethically subjective matters concerning love and death.

Sy (Film Director): “The essence of life isn’t comic. It’s tragic! There’s nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence.

Max (Playwright): “I disagree. Philosophers call life absurd because in the end, all you can do is laugh. Human aspiration is so ludicrous and irrational. If the underlying reality of our being is tragic, my plays would make more than yours at the box office because my stories would resonate more profoundly with the human soul.

Sy: “It’s exactly that tragedy hits on the truly painful aspects of life so that people run to my comedies for escape! Tragedy confronts comedy.

This opening scene to Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004) begins at Keith McNally’s former meatpacking district bistro Pastis, where four colleagues debate the essence of life, much like the four main interlocutors in the dialogue of Plato’s Republic. Is life comic or tragic? The rest of the Melinda and Melinda, as well as Allen’s entire film corpus attempts to diagnose an answer to that question. Should we be cynical pessimists or romantic optimists about human existence?

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Melinda and Melinda

Aware that throughout history eastern and western philosophy have continually asked the same question, Allen considers two critical variables at play: one, the dynamics of objective reality including (but not limited to) the existence of God and the interconnected roles of religion, fortune and luck; and two, the subjective morality of humanity’s actions, often following from one’s convictions derived from the first category.

For all of Allen’s self-declared atheism, his filmography testifies otherwise to a lifelong series of attempts trying to outsmart the divine, rather than dismiss the existence of a God. In his nod to Fellini’s 8 ½, Stardust Memories (1980), when he is accused of being an atheist, he disagrees by responding that he’s “God’s loyal opposition.” Allen is directly affirming that he does believe in God, but he is fundamentally against, or at odds with, the structural tenants of organized religion—he is “God’s loyal opposition” onscreen. In fact, he’s storyboarding Nietzsche’s very ressentiment— the master-slave morality from his Genealogy of Morals, claiming that the Jews invented the morality system to overturn and lord the strong. Of course this plays brilliantly into Allen’s scrawny physiognomy, where wit and intellectual caprice captivate his ladies and thwart his captors, compensating for his lack of dashing Don Juan features. This hermeneutic of suspicion undermines Allen’s ability to conveniently accept normative religious claims as a tidy endeavor. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Allen does not accuse religion of manipulating and coercing humanity through the “invention” of an ethical system, but rather playfully challenges religion’s parameters by contesting the pliability of its dogmas.

Historically this cunning and playful figure, “God’s loyal opposition,” is found in the typology of “trickster”—an amoral and transgressive mythological character that challenges and complicates social mores through perceptive and crafty ways. In Lois Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World, he traces various cultural and literary tropes of the trickster (i.e. Coyote, Ishtu, Hermes, Thunderbird), connecting their typologies of wry inventiveness, scheming and innovation to modern artists that have implemented or drawn upon their signature characteristics. Self-diagnosed as a clown, Woody Allen participates in this trickster economy as the “jokester,” a liminal figure in world of the circus, wearing the various masks of hyperbole and comedy to class-critique the privileged by means of witty humor and laughter. The clown has the social power to cast the narrative of life as comic, wearing a mask to hide his pessimism in order to make people laugh. The sad clown motif, Pierrot, draws from Frederico Fellini and Charlie Chaplin, but also reaches back to Rabelais, medieval culture and Commedia dell’Arte, extending forward to the modernist paintings of Georges Rouault’s many clown figures that Allen slips as stock characters into many of his comic films: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), even the opera from To Rome with Love (2012) is Leoncavello’s Pagliacci.

Sleeper

Sleeper

Allen’s persistent resolve for evidentiary proof of God’s existence challenges the dogmas with which he was catechized as a young Jewish boy. He looks to the heavens for a sign, a miracle—a theophany of sorts. In mythology, the role of the magician figure as trickster, understands that the rules of the universe can appear to be altered through slight-of-hand, and, perhaps even manipulated by means of alchemy. Suspicious that established religion as a sham, Allen as the magician is interested in mystic, occult or chance-based phenomena as an alternative medium for a divine presence. Luck (Crimes and Misdemeanors), fate (Mighty Aphrodite, Match Point), fortune (Small Times Crooks) time-travel portals (Sleeper, Midnight in Paris), magicians (Stardust Memories), apparitions (Play It Again, Sam), tarot (Scoop) fortune-telling (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) mind-reading, hypnosis (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Alice), and séance (Magic in the Moonlight) play a rational role in Allen’s quest for numinous counsel from a Jewish Rabbi.

Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories

As a trickster, Allen plays both the clown and magician, the fool and the shaman, challenging the very framework and fabric of the universe by complicating binaries, transgressing boundaries and attempting to keep the gods accountable through his employment of tragicomedy. Allen’s filmic quest for ontological meaning and subsequent explanation of a moral imperative drives his narratives, and leads to films that work as ethical case studies, specifically around the actions of suicide and murder. Akin to situational ethics, Allen’s scripts debate if life is tragic or comic by directing and enacting tales concerning matters most grave (with a chuckle in between).

In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), one of the subplots involves Allen’s character Mickey embarking on a religious quest, first toying with converting to Catholicism, followed by a fascination with Hare Krishna, eventually abandoning the whole endeavor by attempting suicide—hesitating only in case his suspicions are actually wrong. Fear often becomes Allen’s sole reason for refusing to pull the trigger. In Love and Death (1975), Boris (Woody Allen) and Sonia (Diane Keaton) discuss life’s absurdity if God does not exist. When Sonia declares that the only alternative is suicide, Boris recognizes the only thing holding him back is the chance they might be in error: “Well let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then [gesturing upward] read in the papers they found something.” We could say that the clown is still present in his nihilistic debates, a romantic existentialist who idealizes and fetishizes despair. Yet Allen infrequently muzzles his inner clown (particularly when he is not an actor in the storyline), and narrates the tragic, peeling the thin veneer of comedy back to show how fragile his constructed mask of optimism actually is. Whereas his earlier work maintains the genre of comedy to assuage Allen’s heavier questions, his most recent work (Blue Jasmine in particular) is quite austere in its straightforward resignation: “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.” A contemporary variation on the plotline of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Allen’s female protagonist Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) collapses, a mirthless and bleak vision of the human condition.

Murder, on the other hand, is Allen’s second case study for subjective morality, and subsequent argument for tragedy being life’s sole genre. Ranging from Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Hitchcock’s Rope, Allen draws upon and engages classical variations of that age-old possibility: getting away with the perfect murder. If Allen is an atheist, then moral relativity would appear to be normative. But why, the trickster perpetually asks, is there a moral imperative to behave if there is no deity to judge or find us ethically reprehensible? This question is reminiscent of the discussion between Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov concerning the social ramifications of ethical subjectivity in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan’s central axiom “if God does not exist than everything is permissible” promotes absolute metaphysical freedom, regardless of whom it communally harms.

As an auteur continually haunted by this proposition, Woody Allen tests Ivan’s premise in three variations of the same plotline, tragic and comic, a trickster continually examining exceptions to the rules: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005) and Irrational Man (2015). In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen’s re-envisions Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal’s (Martin Landau) adulterous affair escalates from extra-marital rendezvous to arranging for his lover’s shady disposal. Allen is interested in the sliding scale from imagining a crime to acting on it, ironically depicting an eye doctor’s inability to discern or “see” the just and righteous action. Amidst administering an eye exam to Ben the Rabbi, Judah confides his dilemma to a man with escalating blindness. Tiresian-like in his ability to discern Judah’s existential crisis, Ben encourages Judah to confess and be reconciled with his wife, drawing upon a moral structure (“the eyes of God are always watching”), which Judah distrusts (“God is a luxury that I cannot afford”). The Rabbi probes Judah at the metaphysical level—if one is lucky enough to avoid discovery, can one even live with their conscience? Meanwhile, Judah is tormented with guilt, haunted by childhood memories around the Passover Seder dinner, hearing the words of his father: “Whether it is the Old Testament or Shakespeare—murder will out!” Yet Allen factors the variable of luck in the narrative not only by giving Judah a free pass, but also by miraculously assuaging his conscience through detached indifference.

Comedy provides a buffer from Allen’s probing critique in Crimes and Misdemeanors, yet he returns to this ethical case study of murder in Match Point, within the genre of tragedy-turned-Hitchcockian noir. Far from the usual fare of quirky play-on-words, Allen’s tenor is sinister and power-hungry. What if one not only follows through with one’s demented fantasies, but perpetually inflicts damage on non-associated parties just to cover the original crime? Set to the score of Verdi’s Othello and Macbeth, Chris Wilton’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) psychologically intense levels of lust, lies and cold compartmentalization build to the operatic heights of betrayal and murder. Yet unlike the rules within the world of the classical Greek tragedy, there is no reversal of fortune. Chris’s tragic flaw does not lead to his undoing, but propitiates his success. Tragedy in this sense is not only melodramatic, but also nihilistic. As trickster, Allen offers us a glimpse of evil with no hope of concession, a “confluence between fate and luck” in which the killer gets away.

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However, in an Irrational Man, Allen reconsiders the possibility that justice might also be part of fate and providence, offering us a tragic tale reconfigured as a farce. His protagonist Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy professor teaching a situational ethics seminar on the end justifying the means, specifically in the case of murder (The name easily associates him with Abraham, the central biblical character of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). Haunted by a foreboding sense of life’s meaninglessness (in Kierkegaard’s phrase, “a sickness unto death”), Abe loses the will to live. Until, that is, the opportunity arises to commit a crime he has no motive for in which he can walk away hypothetically unscathed. However, in this case study, Allen does not let luck play a hand in Abe’s absolution. Fortune’s wheel rules in favor of retributive justice, as Abe accidentally falls down a broken elevator shaft as a slapstick tribute to karma.

The third film, I think, is the weakest in this murder triptych, not only in the execution of the film, but also in its dated idealization of nihilism. Left-bank existentialism isn’t culturally trendy like it was in Allen’s films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre are no longer in vogue and Allen appears to be trapped within the same philosophical predicaments, recycling conversations that seem repetitive rather than repurposed. As early as Manhattan (1979), Diane Keaton’s character Mary dismisses the romanticization of despair as childish. She naïvely adds Ingmar Bergman to her “Academy of the Overrated” list (alongside Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, and Carl Jung): “His view is so Scandinavian. It’s bleak, my God. I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism. I mean, The Silence. God’s silence. Okay, okay, okay. I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, I mean, all right, you outgrow it. You absolutely outgrow it.” Despite her misperception of Bergman as a self-indulgent nihilist, she is astute in underscoring “fashionable pessimism” as self-centered and myopic—a luxury coddled from a place of privileged white heteronormativity.

Manhattan

However, it is important here to note that Bergman is in fact Allen’s single most importance influence as well as his foil, nodding to him in Interiors (1978), with other allusions in Stardust Memories and Love and Death. At a first glance, the two directors are nothing alike—even in genre. Bergman’s minimal Scandinavian chamber dramas are painstakingly slow, beautifully lit, sparse in their dialogue, and particularly perceptive in their depiction of human emotion. In contrast, Allen is quick-paced in his rapid-fire banter and Punch and Judy slapstick, his clowning mischief and trickster shenanigans providing comedic distance from vulnerable reflection. Yet Bergman and Allen share an imagination formed by religious traditions that shapes their narrative approach to storytelling. Subsequently, both are fraught with existential dilemmas brought on by anxiety and disillusionment with religion.

Bergman’s so-called “God Trilogy” (Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963)), utilizes high contrast black and white settings to highlight his figures like Giacometti sculptures that mirror silent landscapes of the soul—anxious, alone, confronted with the silence of God as a perpetual and exasperating answer. While Bergman is direct and frank about spiritual crisis, Allen returns to comedy as his mask of sanity, covering his disgruntled angst and restlessness. While there are a handful of films that Allen attempts serious excavations into the human psyche (Interiors, September, Another Woman), many have regarded them as failures due to their unpopularity with audiences, yet for Allen they were honest experiments at confronting life directly.

Bergman once lamented that art was fractured from a religious imagination, explaining that “art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself…”[2]

Both Bergman’s Lutheranism and Allen’s Judaism form their creative framework—it is something they cannot avoid. God’s loyal opposition could be said of both directors, whose art continually subvert pious and sentimental categories for God, disrupting neat and tidy delineations of religion’s parameters. We might even say that their work supersedes their own beliefs about the world compared to their film’s own witness of it.

Manhattan is certainly an example of this vision, and I think, Woody Allen’s masterpiece. Not only does it have sparkling performances and stunning black and white cinematography by Gordon Willis (evoking the freshness of Godard and Truffaut, with the sobriety of Bergman), but it also testifies to Allen’s true identity as a tragicomedian. Manhattan discloses his intrinsic and romantic belief in the world, while thoughtfully self-critical of his own narcissism and juvenile anxieties.[3] Allen’s most moving—perhaps believing—moments are when he encounters surprises and gifts that show up outside of the system he has critiqued. This thesis is attended to in Manhattan’s dramatic conclusion where the aptly named Isaac (Woody Allen) attempts to answer why life is worth living. Rather than embarking on a philosophical diatribe of abstract arguments, he lists the presence of artifacts, music and visual culture, that slowly turns into the presence of individuals: Cézanne’s pears and apples, the second movement to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Swedish movies (Bergman), Louis Armstrong, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays —and ultimately—Tracey’s face.

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Another scene that echoes this end from Manhattan is when Allen’s character Sandy Bates shares a moment with his lover Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) at the end of Stardust Memories. Narrated as a form of memoir, Sandy recounts the reasons that made that time together memorable. By archiving his surrounding phenomena, he attends to the “thereness” of things, moving from objects to subjects—the sound, the weather, finally, the face as meaningful and mystical presence. Though Allen cannot tell us why they are significant, he insists that they are. For Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face is the true mirror and trace of the Other (God), the physical proof of the presence Allen keeps seeking. Perhaps Allen’s truest testimony, in all his obsessive honesty and lifelong enactment of existential questions, is his faithful exploration of the icon he cannot shake—the human face—masked and unmasked in his perpetual circus.

Allen’s awareness of what is given, indeed, what is perceptively found, is a mosaic of the unnecessary. There he discovers seemingly excessive things that compose the critical aspects of human meaning. Allen seems to be unconsciously reaffirming Christianity’s doctrine of original sin in his entire cinematic cannon wherein which humans cannot escape perpetuating cycles of systemic damage. Though his comic tales are a testament to brokenness, they also highlight undeniable meaning derived from human relationships. Despite humanity’s innate selfishness, he shows us the possibility of richness and beauty underneath all the competition, something amidst the nothing. If this is the case, Woody Allen is no nihilist, but rather an astute detective questing after the truth.

In Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012), Allen confesses: “I’m cursed with the clown’s approach. I have always had to approach life in a comic way. I wish I had been born a gifted and great tragedian.” But perhaps Allen is both, as the trickster typologies would suggest, where clown and magician dualities blend to produce a tragicomedian. He cannot have one without the other; a signature characteristic of the trickster that upsets categorical boundaries relies on being a hybrid, a paradox. For life that was merely comic or purely tragic would be the true absurdity.

Thus for Allen, life cannot be absurd because it is a blend of the two overlapping genres. Alan Alda (as Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanors) emphatically insists: “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” or in the classical sense, a tale with troubled beginnings that ends with marriage. We might say then, in true Woody Allen tragicomic-fashion, that tales of rejection can become comedic as time creates distance for his characters to gain wisdom from their folly, and maybe even laugh.

[1] Caveat: This is not an apology for allegations towards Allen, nor is it unaware that they exist, however, the focus of this piece is on Allen’s cinematic works. It is nonetheless important to acknowledge that this article is not ignorant of the allegations.

[2] Bergman gave these opening remarks as a preface to the screen script in the introduction to his film The Seventh Seal, 1960.

[3] “He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, nihilistic moods of despair. He had complaints about life but never any solutions. He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices. In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights which was in fact, mere narcissism” (Manhattan).

Terroir and the Phenomenology of Place

Once a year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, Image’s Glen Workshop gathers writers, poets, painters, photographers and artists to a place of respite, an extended Sabbath, where creativity is nurtured in the communal context of like-minded souls. As a child, New Mexico was that perennial escape from the merciless Texas summers, a land of enchantment where Franciscan monasteries and Native American folk art existed side by side. Returning to the Southwest on the mystic mountain drive from Albuquerque to the mile-high elevation of Santa Fe was a journey into my memory of a Georgia O’Keeffe landscape with coneflower blue skies and rugged land.

As an aspiring art critic, I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend the week screening films and learning more about wine and viticulture. Both seminars were phenomenological exercises in contemplation through visual and oral experiences, offering structured spaces to slow down and attend to particular artistic mediums, whether film or food. It was not until midweek that I attended the workshop on wine and spirituality with sommelier Adam McHugh from Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat winery. We began with rosé, not a White Zinfandel blush mind you, but a young French Mondeuse in a sparkling salmon hue reminiscent of a sumptuous Chloé gown. Next came a buttery Chardonnay, followed by an alluring Pinot Noir which interrupted my tastebuds with its balance and all-over silky body feel.

Similar to coffees, my earlier wine selections had been heavy-bodied, bold flavors filled with swagger and bravado, establishing a presence with little nuance. After working this summer for a handcrafted coffee shop in North Carolina, my knowledge of coffee expanded, mapping taste onto global regions. Formerly I had avoided lighter coffee roasts because I wanted a full syrupy body, such as an oily French Roast, that could carry cream nicely. But when I began drinking coffee black (blame it on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), I realized that the coffee I consumed was like burnt baked goods and the wine I drank was reminiscent of arsenic. It was Ethiopian Yirgacheffe with its the floral, tea-like body, that seduced me with its nuanced and sun-warmed flavors. Likewise, it was that Pinot Noir that arrested my palette with those cherry flavors and velvety tannins.

The desert landscape and California wines were immensely pleasurable and they got better with every sip. Whirling the Pinot Noir round in my glass, watching its legs drip down the sides of the bowl, I perceived its variegated, ombré tones ranging from ruby to carmine, tilting the glass sideways to observe its clarity and density. Mindfully sipping and slurping, I measured its complex structure, viscosity, acidity, and its finish—absorbing all its sensuous and erotic materiality.

My mother has often called me a Pinot Noir. Perhaps made recently popular by its appearance in Alexander Payne’s film Sideways (2004), the main character Miles describes Pinot Noir as he might himself: “thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early… not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected.” He elaborates that Pinot needs tender care in specific locations, only by the most patient and knowledgeable horticulturists. Yet the rewards are its flavors which are “haunting, brilliant, thrilling and subtle.” It was there in the wine seminar that the human qualities of the grapes and our own personality quirks and characteristics began to show themselves. McHugh, our resident sommelier, insisted that despite all its delicate and complex needs, if Pinot Noir finds the right terroir—it is beautiful.

Wine’s terroir attends to the specificity of a place, contingent on at least three variables: character, quality and personality. Character is the result of matured attributes in the land due to complex root systems, terrain and rich soils, ameliorated over time. Winemakers are responsible to maximize the quality of terroir by harvesting and aging the grapes according to what the varietal needs to showcase its peculiar attributes. Personality is contingent on the region’s day-to-day weather, giving each vintage distinctive characteristics. Thus terroir is the land’s archaeological memory, attesting to its history of cultivation through smell and flavor.

McHugh explained that wine’s expression of place is much like the color palette of landscape, recreating a sense of atmosphere. Just like Cézanne’s countless painted renderings of Mount Sainte Victoire and Monet’s Haystacks are not nearly as much about a photographic likeness (or mimesis) of a place as it is conveying the true essence, wine is an impression of the land in both mood and personality. What do these many dashes and strokes, sips and slurps evoke in us? A sense of how the light framed the mountain this day or emoted peach and cerulean sunrises the next?

It is the same with wine, in both its fragrance and tasting notes, from one year to the next. McHugh explained that the French organize their wines by region, unlike Americans who label by the grape varietal. In this way, the French allow the place—the terroir—to speak. Wine is the diplomat attesting to the subtitles from its soils through both taste and aromas. Are we listening and attending to what is speaking? Chalk, earth, wet stone, smoke, spice, currant? Minerality and woodiness or grassy and citrus?  Are these descriptions superfluous or do they seek to affirm that qualia of being—phenomenal properties of subjective experiences? The “thisness” or “thatness” of the wine (or coffee or color et al) make it different and unique from anything else. This grammar of description from conscious observation cultivates an awareness of what is already there and continually speaking. Perception is primary in our communion in and with the world.

Dust caked my sandals on the walk down from St. John’s College into town, passing adobe walls and turquoise doors, surrounded by lavender and cacti, Spanish gates and iron scrollwork—the aesthetics gems of the southwest. That crisp contracted mountain air, low-hung cottony clouds, the expansive horizon. As the films and the wine marinated my mind, I wandered in and out of contemporary art galleries, perused the open markets of handcrafted Navajo and Zuni Native American jewelry, on the hunt for that ever-elusive thunderbird ring. Quotidian New Mexican staples such as chilies, tequila and chocolate were a part of the daily ritual—whether it was Secreto’s añejo smoked sage margarita or an order of “Christmas” (green and red chilies) at Cafe Pasqual’s over huevos rancheros, or even at a visit to the Mayan chocolate shop Kakawa, for their exotic cacao elixirs. The spicy flavors and punchy colors animated a vibrant cultural energy in the historic mission town.

kakawa-chocolate-house

 

Walking up to Mass in the Saint Francis Basilica downtown, I thought differently about the wine I would receive in the Eucharist. The sweetness of the port served from turquoise and coral-graced hands before the wooden saint retablos felt simultaneously sacred and as ordinary as the wine I had sipped all week. I thought about monastic horticulture practiced by the monks in order to have elements for the sacraments that we had discussed in the wine seminar. I also pondered an aspect of keynote lecture given by Image’s Editor-in-Chief Gregory Wolfe when he discussed the intrinsic relationship between horticulture and the liturgy of the Mass. When the gifts of bread and wine are brought before the priest in the Great Thanksgiving, he noted, it is significant that they are not merely grain and grapes. Rather, it is the work of human hands to transfigure harvested elements into staples of gastronomic sustenance, which are in turn lifted up and confected as Christ’s body. This moment called the “confection”, is where the art of our making and divine transformation meet, and in turn, states theologian Henri de Lubac, the place where “confection in the Eucharist makes the Mystical Body—the Church.”

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis d'Assisi: Photo by LeRoy N. Sanchez

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis d’Assisi: Photo by LeRoy N. Sanchez

After these workshops on the material and spiritual richness of wine and food, one might find it odd that the Eucharist appears so meager, so sparse. During one of the afternoon faculty workshops, professor Lauren Winner read from her recent book Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire and Overlooked Ways of Meeting God on discovering abundance in the simplicity of the Eucharistic meal: “Some days I wish our Eucharistic meal in church were a bit more like a real meal, thick slices of focaccia and glasses of cabernet. But I have come to appreciate the small wafer, the small sip of wine. In the Holy Eucharist, we take a miniature sip of wine and a small bite of wafer, and we call this God’s abundance. I believe by regularly proclaiming that God’s abundance can be found in something small, we are gradually retooling our understandings of what is truly necessary for life.”

Part of the Glen experience is a finding a new conception of plenty through subtlety, remembering to taste and see alongside others. It offers space that the self needs in order to become what it was intended to be. Like Winner’s essay of finding God in artisanal bread and wine, the Glen extends that discovery to chilies and tequila, coffee and chocolate, film screenings and wine seminars, all acting as participatory exercises in relishing delight, wonder and excess. By becoming attentive to the world around me, I fundamentally encounter Being.

In The Zen of Seeing, Frederick Franck names this “an unwavering attention to a world that is fully alive…a direct perception of and insight into the presence, the transiency, and the finitude I share with all beings…a fleetingness that makes this moment infinitely precious.” By learning to savor what is ephemeral, I behold life’s impermanence, and its evanescent flashes of beauty. Observing and absorbing these many saturated yet elusive moments, I acknowledge the sheer gift and divine miracle of being awake.

Moments such as the evening golden hour when Tom and Alissa Wilkinson, Adam McHugh and I sat witnessing the mountains and sagebrush awash in soft dusk tones, the sunset light cutting thru our glasses with its coral hues, incandescent sweat running down the bottle—a rosé-colored lens of the world. As the August monsoon weather shifted its moods into a light rain, I sat unmoved as the droplets increased and distant lightning scampered across the desertscape like an Ansel Adams’ photograph. Those unfolding moments attested to the richness of the southwest terroir, a memory of friendships newly formed and of wine’s intoxicating warmth. Each bottle of Pinot Noir I continue to open will remind me of the New Mexican mountains during that octave of dreamy summer days; its taste arousing me to be gloriously and deliciously alive.

Tom Waits’ Carnivalesque

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.

Julie Hamilton’s piece is well-paired with Joe Kickasola’s piece published last week. 

 

“Boney’s high on china white, Shorty found a punk,
Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk,
Well this stuff will probably kill you,
Let’s do another line, what you say we meet down on Heartattack and Vine.” —”Heartattack and Vine”

Tom Waits, a preacher of the “dysangelion” (bad news), rhapsodizes the depravity of the world as normative, showing us not to take for granted the surprise of something not going wrong. As a beatnik, Waits’s lyrics testify to a life from skid row in form of a brawling psalter. His musical genres evolve alongside his own vagabond drifting from nightclub jazz and growling blues in vaudeville theatres and seedy dive bars, continually innovating and reinventing harmony and rhythm. From early barfly tales of heartbreak to his guttural nightmares of apocalyptic doom, Waits uses transgression and disruption to unmask societal hierarchies and pretentious bourgeoisie charades.

If Kerouac’s On the Road could narrate the biography of one American musician, it would be Tom Waits. As Kerouac’s biographer Ann Charters writes, the Beat genre that defined a cultural era meant more than “a state of exalted exhaustion”, it also referenced the ‘Beatific Vision’ which Catholics describe as the celestial vision of God by the saints and the blessed.[1] Both terms could arguably characterize the persona and the music of Waits—the itinerant, vagabond drifter, stumbling down seedy alleys to the back door of heaven.

Born in the back of a taxicab in 1949, Tom began early as a nomadic traveler, leaving high school at fifteen. Living between his car and the Live Tropicana Motel in Santa Monica (with the likes of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin), his early albums Closing Time (1973) and Heart of a Saturday Night (1974) portray a lonely barfly, drowning his sorrows in whiskey, while chain-smoking a pack of unfiltered cigarettes. His drunken cabaret combines blues with jazz in wistful and tender melodies narrating his meandering jaunt from gig to gig. Often occupying nightclub stage corners as the evening storytelling bard with his piano and jazz set, in his early music, Waits is a troubadour of hangovers and one-night stands. His alcoholic ode to loneliness is perhaps best captured in his nod to American painter Edward Hopper in the title of his live third album Nighthawks at the Diner (1977), the namesake of Hopper’s seminal work from 1942. Hopper’s iconic portrait of noir Americana captures loneliness and desolation within the urban landscape that parallels Waits musically in his early career.

"Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942" by Edward Hopper - email. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg#/media/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg

“Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942” by Edward Hopper Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Throughout Weaits’ discography, his proletariat characters evolve, but so does his musical innovation as he turns common, household objects into rhythmically complex sounds. From folksy singer-songwriter melodies and lyrics, to his experimental junkyard orchestra of bagpipes and toilet seats, Waits’ rhythms and textures mature, creating an imaginative mood and tangible atmosphere, sculpting sound with unorthodox materials.

However, the entrance of Kathleen Brennan into his life affected Waits in a two-fold manner: not only did he marry her, but she also became the precursor to Waits’ significant aesthetic transformation, breaking with his producers and record label to reinvent his artistic persona. He credits her for not only saving his career from cliché and stagnation, but also from meeting the same fate of his many miserable drunken characters. Meeting onset in Francis Ford Coppella’s film One From the Heart and marrying shortly after, Brennan introduced Waits to experimental European avant-garde music and collaborated with him as a songwriter and producer, leading to his seminal musical trilogy: Swordfishtrombone (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank’s Wild Years (1987). The theatrical trilogy establishes Waits’ working class portraits that are enslaved to their circumstances, incorporating memoirs of the dark and damaged—lives that are smoked down to the filter before they are discarded. His methodological and thematic metamorphosis leads him to play with opposites, pairing gothic lyrics with familiar melodies (such as the waltz or nursery rhyme), creatively reconfiguring his deconstructed, global sounds into cemetery polkas and obituary mambos. Transitioning from Beatnik Americana to grotesque avant-garde, a recurring carnival motif structures Waits’ storytelling, both as a central theme and his form of narration.

Tom’s Carnivalesque: Bakhtin and the World of the Grotesque

The 20th century philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin helps consider the thematic significance of the carnival as a rhetorical and political hermeneutic through his complex analysis of polyphony and dialogical techniques–a mode of symbolic storytelling that employs perspectives from a variety of characters–utilized by Waits. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin argues the medieval marketplace and folk culture’s carnival are the ideal socio-political assembly for subverting normative hierarchical systems of power through means of anarchy.[2] The carnival was a seasonal festival where parodies of Christmas and Pascal laughter were allowed—namely, the Feast of Fools, where hyperbole and chaos sought to unmask societal mores by means of transgression and disruption (e.g. Mardi Gras).

Bakhtin explains: “During the carnival, there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men and of certain norms and prohibitions of usual life”, the emperor becomes the “slave” or jester and vice versa.[3] The carnival functions to create freedom in society by violating the architecture of established normative politics through parody and caricature, opening the door to a fresh vision and new order of the world.[4] Here the odd, the freak, and the misfit have an egalitarian place in this temporary, utopian counter-society, hospitable to the outcasts and underdogs. This paradigmatically alters the normative standards of the healthy, wealthy, and beautiful. The carnival vision is unsettling and destabilizing in its reorienting perspective and eschatological vision for humanity.

Bakhtin’s world-upside-down ‘carnivalesque’ trope of inversion is drawn from classical satire, specifically Menippean satire and the Socratic dialogues. Menippean satire is the form of the ‘carnivalesque’ as a genre or world, allowing a unique perspective on reality through an inverted, fantastic, and unconventional viewpoint. Working with an organized chaos of moving viewpoints and different voices, mocking various ideologies, modern examples of Menippean satire include Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Voltaire’s Candide, Groucho Marx, and Monty Python. It often employs the grotesque as a trope of inversion and paradox in its’ allegorical narratives, where characters communally perform towards a utopic reality.

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The ‘carnivalesque’ form within Menippean satire, utilizes Socratic dialogism, where the function of the speaker and listener change places. Differing from monologism’s single voice, Socratic dialogism is truth born between two or more voices collectively searching for it.[5] This occurs between Waits’ many characters collectively, and between Waits’ characters and his audience. Bakhtin helps us to understand the polyphony of Waits’ characters as distinct voices from Waits the songwriter. Utilizing polyphony as his rhetorical trope of “many voices,” Waits ensures distance between the tarnished portraits he creates and his own autobiographical realism (save perhaps the drunken piano player from his early career). Rather, his anarchical claptrap of characters exist within his crafted world of the ‘carnivalesque,’ a world more concerned with the narrative and rhythmic authenticity of his character’s stories and his ability to incarnate these stories through performances. Waits has noted that the process of starring in nearly thirty film roles has allowed him the freedom to embody fictional characters without them being mimetic of his own life. Thus, Waits as both writer and performer, reveals and conceals himself within and through his polyphonic lyrics.

In his theatrical play-turned-album The Black Rider (1993), Waits collaborated with William S. Burroughs in the 19th century German-Expressionist influenced Faustus legend, where a file clerk makes a pact with the devil, cloaked in the guise of a parasitic carnival ringmaster: “Lay down in the web of the black spider/I’ll drink your blood like wine.” Funnel cake pageantries and cotton candy confections have no place in the dark imagination of the German play, but rather the grotesque carnival, with its “chamber of horrors” and “morbid curiosity” subverting moral standards through the world of a circus.[6] Waits heightens the effect of the circus by playing the steam engine run calliope, in all its farcical and noisy, yet whimsical atmosphere. The circus barker in the opening track “Lucky Day (Overture)” roars into a megaphone announcing “Harry’s Harbor Bizarre for Human Oddities,” including the Three Headed Baby, Hitler’s brain, the German midget, the monkey woman, the dog face boy, and the mule-faced woman. We are given a strange cast of clowns, people that are rejects in a world of privilege, education, and pedigree. They are spectacles, selling their skills as malformed monsters to willing gawkers. There is a place for every voice in the polyphony of the ‘carnivalesque’ – a counter-community, a society of outcasts, a family of freaks. Waits shows us the irony, or rather disparity between the place of amusements— Midway Ferris wheels, balloon-popping, prize-winning, corndog frenzy— is actually a mask hiding the suffering of the overlooked and disposed.

Bakhtin considers the employment of the medieval carnival’s grotesque realism in order to conflate and unsettle bourgeoisie standards of decorum, chivalry and symmetry, especially in their equivocation with piety and godliness. Folk culture championed folly, subverting and lowering lofty, spiritual and abstract dynamics to the body, in all its’ humanity and physicality. We might be reminded of the bawdy and the crude characterization of the Miller from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with “his mouth like a furnace door/ He was a jester and could poetize, /
But mostly all of sin and ribaldries.”[7]

Bakhtin contends that the grotesque offers us paradoxical imagery, utilizing a kind of exaggerated, disproportionate symbolism to illustrate humanity’s incompleteness, subject to transformation. Likewise, Waits employs hyperbole as a critical descriptive trope, aggrandizing details for illustrative purposes, depicting an expansive landscape in which his characters inhabit. The short story author and novelist Flannery O’Connor, whose writing genre was paradigmatic of the grotesque, understood the intrinsic need for embellishment, admitting that one has to scream at deaf people: “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”[8] We might say that Waits is attempting something similar in both his mythmaking lyrics and visceral rhythms.

Grotesque as sermon of the ‘Dysangelion’

The grotesque portrays the spiritualized and contradictory, ranging in Waits’ music from gypsy folk caravans to demonic nightmares, in the voices of his circus ringmasters, outlaws, chain gang hollerins’, apocalyptic prophets, and unjust Pharisaical magistrates. His handicapped, freakish humans (e.g. “Tabletop Joe”, “Eyeball Kid”, “Scar-faced Ron”, the Camel Girl) are token “grotesque” caricatures, seasoning his surrealist storytelling. Taking on the role of the joker or jester from the carnival, Waits employs the grotesque thematically as a dialogical rhetorical technique to invert our perception of the world and its scumbag humdrum creatures. We might call him the preacher of the dysangelion, or the “bad news”, a prophet of doom, which should signal our connection to Menippean satire, since the very concept of preaching a Gospel seems counterintuitive to be “bad news.” For Waits, however, the grotesque is a normative attribute, if not liturgical formation, of the carnival.

Tom Waits Bone Machine (1992, FLAC)

Tom Waits Bone Machine (1992, FLAC)

The grotesque reaches toxic levels in his 1992 album Bone Machine, a Kafkaesque surrealist nightmare. A seminal record of bone-shaking rhythms, demonic cackles and bellowing roar portrays characters that range from the end time preacher on the side corner, the desperado and the macabre. “The Earth Died Screaming” employs absurd and incredulous wonders for apocalyptic dimensions of eschatology. Waits’ allusion to the biblical plagues of Exodus (“it rained mackerel, it rained trout”) imply the connection between the Scripture’s narrative scope of the fantastic, and the mythological aspects of the condemned being swallowed by Tartarus.

Blood Money (2002) is the music accompanying the tragic play of Woyzeck, a perverse true tale of jealousy-enraged murder told in stomp-and-growl marches, interspersed by soothing carnivalesque lullabies, such as “Coney Island Baby.“God’s Away on Business” was aptly included on the soundtrack to Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room, where Waits’ lacerated vocal cords bark about the injustice of bureaucratic exploitation and oppression of “the poor, the lame, the blind.” His misanthropic fatalism sees the world going to hell in a handbasket from the authorities and corrosive powers left in charge— “killers, thieves, and lawyers,” to be precise. In a miasma of Hobbesian self-preservation, Waits concludes that this systemic damage is too great: God must be away on business because the atrocities are too deafening for God to remain silent. Who will save those that cannot help themselves from the exploitation of the powerful?

“Misery’s the River of the World” is a metronomic chant of humanity’s enslavement to perversity and self-interest, and the devil’s half-step behind God in cunning masquerades: “if there’s one thing you can say about mankind, /there’s nothing kind about man/…God builds the church, the devil builds a chapel/…the devil knows the world like the back of his hand.” Waits’ laryngitis croaks as he preaches on human culpability—we all have blood on our hands. “Starving in the Belly of a Whale” is nihilistic resignation to the tune of Halloween horror: “Life’s a mistake all day long. /Tell me, who gives a good goddamn, /you never get out alive/…If you live in hope you are dancing to a terrible tune.” This Jonah-themed descent into the inferno of humanity’s hellish realities, are a contemporary nod to Dante’s inscription above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” In what might be considered his darkest album, Tom’s descent into hell does not end with the macabre as his last word, as he employs a gospel of inversion to get our attention.

Nevertheless, how precisely is Waits’ grotesque actually the shock of grace? Since Waits has given us a normative where there is no docile God and no Deus ex machina to save his characters from the damage they inflicted on each other, the rare occurrences of grace appear as a disruption—a shock. Illogical in the enclosed system that Waits has provided for his audience, the presence of grace emerges de profundis (out of the depths)— as a trope of the carnivalesque. Theologian Ben Myer has suggested that grace itself is part of the grotesque in Tom Waits’s dysangelion:

“One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss: Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk.’ Or on another occasion he wonders: ‘Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?’ In such songs, God burst onto the stage not as the benevolent projection of our wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of what ‘God’ should be.[9]

Grace, in Myers’ interpretation of Waits, is a perversion of the world’s depravity. Its extravagance is excessive in the context of impoverished and broken systems. This unnecessary and undeserved gift of reprieve from suffering is strangely offered to all who desire it, regardless of the crimes they have committed—heinous or minor. Waits engages the grotesque to distort our own expectations of a just God through his rhetorical trope of conversion.

Joker Turned Unlikely Saint: The ‘Holy Fool’ of Inversion

Beyond the jester, joker and clown in the ‘carnivalesque,’ there is the ‘Holy Fool.’ Drawing from Dostoevsky and Orthodox theology, Bakhtin considers this marginal holy figure who utilizes inversion and reversal in order to lead the community to conversion or salvation. The Holy Fool reconstructs our vision to see the saint concealed in rags. As a marginal prophet shouting from the sidelines, the Holy Fool acts in odd ways to get our attention, by inverting societal norms. Bakhtin scholar Harriet Murav states: “They are understood by the hagiographers to be practitioners of asceticism, yet their behavior, even to hagiographers, is anti-ascetic.”[10]Holy Fools are considered saints whose unholy and impious actions unveil deeper truths.

Tom-Waits-tom-waits-dysangelion

This trope of the Holy Fool allows the degenerate figures to transcend themselves, revealing “man to man” as Bakhtin relates. By affirming the divine image in the human, the Holy Fool seeks to convey and reestablish the divinity of the human in all their brokenness, lack of education and depravity. We are misled if we judge Tom Waits as a frequenter of strip clubs and trashy bars to advocate their objectification and consumption. Rather, Waits risks being scandalized by his association with these places, seeking to humanize its occupants, rather than exploit them. Like one of Georges Rouault’s clowns in a Fellini circus, he hopes to unmask our pious criticisms and holier-than-thou sense of self-righteousness by telling their stories (e.g. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” “Heartattack and Vine”). In this way, Waits is an exorcist of our own prejudice, showing the listeners back to ourselves in the dialogical engagement with his cabaret of characters. An unlikely saint, Waits illuminates a path of suffering to sainthood, attending to the beauty in the gutter over whitewashed sepulchers, disarming our securities by making us uncomfortable through the foreign and unfamiliar.

For Tom Waits, narrative strategies and rhetorical structures of dialogical polyphony are theology. Waits’ theatricality represents both God and the most unholy humans. By taking on folly, he represents the human that is furthest away from God, like the Holy Fool takes on homelessness and wandering like Jesus. As Murav notes:

“Polyphony is understood to be a Christ-like self-effacement. Bakhtin’s reading of Christ as a figure in whom dialogue and carnival are central are from two Russian traditions of venerating Christ as a human being and venerating holy fools who perform disgusting and frequently obscene acts as Christ-like.”[11]

We catch glimpses of this hope in a handful of Waits’ rare, but poignant tunes. Despite the hellish universe and despicable crimes that his characters have committed, Waits gives us “Down There By the Train” and “Come On Up to the House.” As his earlier lyrics depict the lowest common denominator for every human is death, this depiction of hope and radical grace transfigures Waits’s grotesque. Off his Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (2006) collection, “Down There By The Train” describes a kind of universal redemption open to the likes of Cain, Judas Iscariot, John Wilkes Booth, and even the soldier that pierced Christ’s side—murderers of the most innocent victims. Giving the recipe for a maximally damaged life, Waits assures that salvation is spendthrift, available for even those unable to believe:

“There’s a place I know where the train goes slow/
where sinners can be washed in the blood of the lamb/
there’s a river by the trestle down by sinner’s grove/
down where the willow and the dogwood grow/
you can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell/
from the halls of heaven to the gates of hell/
and sinner there’s room for the forsaken if you’re there on time. / You’ll be washed of all your sins and all your crimes…

If you’ve lost all your hope and if you’ve lost all your faith.
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe.”

It is a hymn of profligate grace, for those crawling to the train track crossroads in life’s final moments.

Waits continues in “Come on Up to the House” from Mule Variations (1999). No fuller act of mercy or magnanimity can be shown than the hospitality of welcoming every sinner through the door, a homecoming to all the wandering nomads we find littering Waits’ music. Waits acts like the Prodigal father, receiving his sons and daughters with open arms in their long-awaited nostos. The pilgrims are invited to come down off their crosses, their suffering is over at long last, and the wood will be put to better use. Waits insists that Hobbes’s view of nature is worth leaving behind: “does life seem nasty, brutish and short?/…The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ thru/ You gotta come up to the house.” As the Holy Fool, the maximal inversion and world-upside-down action possible is offering mercy and grace in place of judgment and condemnation. If Christ, the archetype of holy fools does this for prostitutes and thieves, who is beyond the fold of grace’s reach? Are we not called to do the same?

Jesus’ Love Never Failed Me Yet

In the 1970s, Gavin Bryers was shooting footage for a documentary on the homeless in the city of London. Providentially, he unintentionally captured a recording of a homeless man, feebly, yet hopefully singing a simple tune: “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” After looping the tune to play over 74 long minutes, Bryers overlade the tramp’s humble hymn with a gradual accompaniment of strings, culminating in a full orchestra. Tom Waits happened to hear this song playing on the radio one night on Kathleen’s birthday, and it became one of his favorite tapes. In 1993, Bryers asked if Waits would record the tune to create a duet of sorts. Waits’ gravelly, whisky-aged leathered voice enters alongside the unnamed man, undergirds him in their harmony—and carries him home. For Waits, it is type of confession. He sees himself among the homeless wanderers from his early life and the lives he continues to pen stories about and the end he might have had. Music critic Stephen Webb pushes the symbolism of the overlaid harmony further:

“Waits is the acoustical shape of the Son, lifting the tramp with his low voice, and thus showing us how Jesus can take our discordant souls and make them whole… Bryar’s composition, like all great music, I suppose, gives us a sonic foretaste of what it might mean to enter—with the dispossessed at our side—into heaven.[12]

This last irony of the world-upside-down from the carnivalesque is that the low will be brought high, and the homeless will be brought home: “Jesus’s love never failed me yet,/ Jesus love never failed me yet, Jesus love never failed me yet; /its one thing I know, he loves me so.”

 

Citations

[1]Kerouac, Jack, and Ann Charters. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 2003.
[2]Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., 1968.
[3] Ibid, 15.
[4] Ibid, 34.
[5]Ibid, 107.
[6] Kessel, Corinne. The Words and Music of Tom Waits. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
[7] Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Nevill Coghill. The Canterbury Tales. London: Penguin, 2003, 559-561.
[8] O’Connor, Flannery, and Sally Fitzgerald. The Habit of Being: Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988.
[9] Myer, Ben. “Faith and Theology: Tom Waits: Theologian of the Dysangelion.” Faith and Theology: Tom Waits: Theologian of the Dysangelion. 31 Dec. 2007. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
[10] Murav, 21.
[11] Ibid, 13.
[12] Webb, Stephen H. “A Sonic Foretaste of Heaven.” First Things. First Things, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015

Representing Women in Contemporary Religious Painting

Contemporary artists Bruce Herman and Makoto Fujimura have collaborated with composer Chris Theofanidis in a multi-media exhibition called QU4RTETS in response to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Premiering at Baylor University (2013), the exhibit traveled to Duke, Yale, Hong Kong, and most recently Cambridge University during Holy Week. Theofanidis’s original score for the quintet, At The Still Point debuted at Carnegie Hall in February 2013, with subsequent performances accompanying the painting installations at the Eliot symposiums. The contemporary musical composition is fitting for the poetic text, evoking unfamiliarity and restlessness in the audience, stylistically echoing the fragments and irresolution from Eliot’s poetic structure. Both Herman and Fujimura agreed that similar tensions exist in their paintings, a kind of visual synesthesia in form and color, meditating on the complexities of Theofanidis’s music and Eliot’s language.

In an art salon colloquium at Duke Divinity School amidst the Engaging Eliot symposium, Bruce Herman expressed the difficulty of rendering the two female figures in his series, repainting each of them many times, continually unsatisfied with the results. Herman voiced the challenge of executing a realistic female form due to the convoluted visual narrative of modern and contemporary art history, in which the (historically male) artist tends to objectify, sexualize, deify, or domesticize women. For Herman, this presents a problematic visual inheritance for the artist to grapple with, which we can see in his two female depictions from QU4RTETS. Herman’s paintings raise the question: What makes the representation of the female image in contemporary art, particularly religious art, so difficult?

In “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Painting,” art historian Carol Ducan posits that women from the beginning of modernism onwards are depicted one of two ways.[1] On one end of the spectrum, the virility of the male artist is present in the uninhibited sexual appetite of the artist’s depiction of powerless and sexually subjected woman, often sexual clients before or after the portraiture session, sometimes portrayed in the very room or studio in which they were used. In this mode of representation, the male artist’s productivity is dependant on the woman as his creative muse, where she is reduced to flesh as an obedient animal. We see this approach dominate painting schools from Fauvist and German Expressionism, in works by Vlahminck and Kirchner (Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella, 1909).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Mädchen unter Japanschirm (Girl under a Japanese Umbrella), 1909 Oil on canvas 36 1/5 × 31 1/2 in 92 × 80 cm Erich Lessing / Art Resource, New York

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Mädchen unter Japanschirm (Girl under a Japanese Umbrella), 1909
Oil on canvas
36 1/5 × 31 1/2 in
92 × 80 cm
Erich Lessing / Art Resource, New York

In contrast, the other method of female representation is a type of femme fatale or mythologized goddess, usually a type of Eve, Lilith, Salome, Sphinx or Madonna figure. Employed in works by both Munch and Van Dongen, perhaps Gustav Klimt’s sirens from the Jugendstil fin-de-siècle period in Vienna are the quintessential illustration of this type (Judith, 1901). Klimt’s usage of metals, particularly gold (not unlike Herman’s), is rooted in the tradition of orthodox iconography. While Klimt diverges from the explicit realm of the religious, his gold nevertheless divinizes his women as goddess figures, often associating sexuality with violence and death. The metals connected with these images are “decorative”, an aesthetic decadence acting as a facade concerned with the mere surfaces of things. While Klimt’s depiction of woman is provocative by using beauty as a seductive yet animating force, there is a disturbing undercurrent that does violence to feminine sexuality.

Gustav Klimt Judith and the Head of Holofernes 1901 Oil on canvas 84 cm × 42 cm Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Gustav Klimt
Judith and the Head of Holofernes
1901
Oil on canvas
84 cm × 42 cm
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Duncan argues that Picasso attempts to critique both positions in his frightening masterpiece Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) where he:

“brings together both the femme fatale and the primitive; whore and deity; decadent and savage, tempting and repelling; awesome and obscene, threatening and powerless…Picasso presents [his women] as desecrated icons already slashed and torn to bits…Only in ancient art are women as supreme and subhuman as this…They are real bodies, in a real brothel that really is commodified. And you are the commodifier.[2]

Thus, Picasso diagnoses and unmasks the spectrum of female representation in modern painting, implicating the viewer as a participating voyeur in the artist’s schema. His hermeneutic opened up new questions of art criticism in regards to how and which female forms were rendered and why. Race, colonialism, class, power, gender, sexuality and even body weight all became significant factors in conveying and assessing the subject’s humanity to the viewer. This critique, however, carried new responsibilities for the artist by acknowledging the problematic precedence of female portraiture.

Drawing upon T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as the inspiration for the QU4RTETS project, Herman’s subject matter and thematic representation of women are arguably informed by Eliot’s text. The name of Eliot’s “Dry Salvages” references a location known well to Herman, a cluster of rocky islands off the coast of Glouchester Massachusetts. Herman’s atmospheric familiarity of Eliot’s setting aids his painterly interpretation of Eliot’s poetic symbolism of water, fitting for both seaside landscape and baptismal iconography. Perhaps Eliot also utilized this particular location for the title’s enunciation (“sal-vay-ges”), playing on “salve”, the hail given by Gabriel at Mary’s Annunciation (“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you!”).[3]

We find Eliot’s explicit referral to Mary in the text of the “Dry Salvages”, providing us with a larger narrative of both Annunciation and Incarnation. For Eliot, Mary is the Stella Maris, the “star of the sea,” the guiding light to voyagers as an intercessor to her Son:

Lady…pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus.[4]

For Dante, the stars were a theological symbol of hope, an ever-present guide for Virgil and Dante in the Divine Comedy. Astronomically, the Stella Maris refer to Polaris, the “North Star”, which seamen used as a navigational axis for transversing the seas. The vespers hymn “Ave Maris Stella” to which Eliot alludes in the “Dry Salvages” illuminates Herman’s QU4RTETS depictions:

Receiving that “Ave” (hail)
From the mouth of Gabriel
Establish us in peace
transforming the name of “Eva.”[5]

This hymn relates to trope from St. Irenaeus of Lyons that Mary’s “yes” to the Annunciation transposes Eve’s “no”, the theological recapitulation of female history. We might consider Eliot’s employment of patristic typology the entry point for discussing Herman’s representation of women in his QU4RTETS series.

The Marian undercurrents from Eliot’s “Dry Salvages” frame and inform Herman’s two female portraits: one younger, with her back towards us (QU4RTETS No. 2: Summer) and the other middle-aged, in a kind of afternoon reverie (QU4RTETS No. 3: Autumn). Attempting to navigate the modernist typologies of female portraiture, Herman draws upon Eliot’s Marian typologies seeking to humanize his female bodies. In this way, Herman tries to avoid objectification and deification by situating the visual imagination of women within Christian iconography—the Magdalene and the Virgin.

QU4RTETS No.2 (Summer) oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel 97" x 60” ©Bruce Herman 2012

QU4RTETS No.2 (Summer)
oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel
97″ x 60”
©Bruce Herman 2012   www.bruceherman.com

In QU4RTETS No. 2 Summer, Herman gives us a kind of Magdalene figure who wears the scars of suffering in her very body, aligning herself with the tree as a kind of participation in the cross. Glancing at the woman’s back, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece for the community of lepers and Donatello’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene come to mind, which Herman admits were formative for conceptualizing the young woman’s portrayal. Grünewald’s Christ is contorted with skin lesions and open sores, his immense suffering evident with his outstretched hands in surrender. In a similar manner, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene is gaunt and emaciated, with her skeleton protruding, teeth missing as she attempts to fold her hands in prayer. Herman additionally draws upon Georges Rouault’s prostitutes (Fille), whose grotesque women (or “gutter Venuses” as French Novelist Emile Zola would say) reject objectification from the viewer’s gaze, evoking compassion instead of judgment.

Using a palette knife, Herman builds textural elements with paint to create stigmata-like depictions on her body. This expressive “unfinished” process descends from Willem De Kooning, a formative stylistic influence on Herman, as Herman’s mentor Philip Guston was among the New York Abstract Expressionist school. De Kooning himself had a radical approach in his female depiction of women, especially his haunting Woman series. Looking more like fallen Eves over Paleolithic goddesses, De Kooning critiqued societal mores of women in 1950s advertising through his representations of obtuse bodies with garish faces. Both Willem De Kooning as well as Richard Diebenkorn influence Herman’s color palette employed in these QU4RTETS portraits, particularly the paring of periwinkle and cerillium from Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, followed with lilac, celery and chartreuse, sienna and terra cotta, aquamarine and cobalt. Consequently, Herman is not only drawing upon De Kooning and Diebenkorn merely in their employment of color alone, but also in how they are innovating representational portraiture and landscape with the medium of paint itself.

QU4RTETS No.3(Autumn) oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel 97" x 60” ©Bruce Herman 2012

QU4RTETS No.3 (Autumn)
oil and alkyd resin with gold leaf, moon-gold leaf, and silver leaf on wood panel
97″ x 60”
©Bruce Herman 2012 www.bruceherman.com

In QU4RTETS No. 3 Autumn, we see a woman in a French-bateau striped shirt wading in the aquamarine pool, fallen leaves surrounding her. The barren tree indicates the presence of Autumn, both literally and figuratively in the woman’s season of life. In this type of portrait, we see a mature woman, perhaps a mother—an allusion to the Blessed Mother. Marian iconography is not unfamiliar to Herman, as Matthew Milliner has also associated the Virgin Mary with QU4RTETS No. 3 Autumn in his exhibition catalog essay. Herman’s earlier Magnificat triptych (2009), Overshadowed, captures the moment of the Incarnation, while the nod to Mary as the “New Eve” informs his Second Adam and Miriam: Virgin Mother. Both his Woman and Virgin Mother series establish a Marian precedence for these portraits, making the female typologies a direct projection of the Magdalene and Marian figures.

Following the earlier paradigm of  “Eva” becoming “Maria”, the task of the painter who attempts to portray the female in contemporary art must wrestle with depictions of Eve (like Picasso’s “desecrated icons”), idealized goddesses (Klimt’s Judith) and even the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Whether we see suffering and brokenness in the Magdalene or perfect humility and obedience from the Virgin, both women have an iconographic history in artistic representation. However, post-modernist painting challenges these tropes because they fail to provide a spectrum for women between the polarizing typologies of the prostitute and the virgin.

Eleanor Heartney argues in Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art that contemporary feminist artists have found the Magdalene and Virgin tropes an oversimplification for the iconography of women. In attempting to deal honestly with female sexuality and human equality, many have found the Virgin Mary to be a problematic ideal for women. For Catholics, she is not only conceived without sin and perpetually a virgin, but she is also uniquely the Mother of God—an event unprecedented or proceeded by any other woman. To offer the Virgin as the anecdote for female objectification is hardly generous nor helpful. She is not the archetype of femininity as achievable by women, but a paragon of divine motherhood—the Queen of Heaven.

Grünewald, Donatello and Rouault offer three artistic depictions of women’s humanity that is worn and broken beyond recognition, suffering in the very surface of their skin. This deeply incarnational approach to rendering the female form indeed resists objectification, but we must ask if Herman’s QU4RTETS align themselves with and draw upon these seminal works of art. To consider them as Eliot’s Stella Maris, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene and Rouault’s Fille, I’m left wanting. The sentimental expression in both women lack a three-dimensional depth with which I can identify. The challenge for Herman to narrate the iconicity of the female face lies in authenticity, having eyes to the past aware of what male artists have failed to do, as well as thoughtful attention to contemporary female artists’ rendition and representation of themselves. Though perhaps graphic and unsettling at times, as in the portraits by Jenny Saville, they are real women in an embodied world that cannot evade representation through abstraction nor spiritualization.

 

 

[1] Duncan, Carol (1973) `Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Painting’, Artforum December.

[2] Duncan, Ibid.

[3] Luke 1:28

[4] Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. London: Faber, 2000. III:IV

[5] “Ave Maris Stella.” Ave Maris Stella. http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/BVM/AveMarisStella.html 07 Apr. 2015

[6] Eliot, Ibid.

Urban Theater: New York in the 1980s

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”  As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII)

In an era before social media, the street was essential to visual art’s mass communication. The latest exhibition at Fort Worth, Texas’ Modern museum is Urban Theater: New York in the 1980s. Michael Auping, the Modern’s chief curator, remarked, “I titled it Urban Theater because, for me, the whole theme that runs through the ’80s is performance, staging and display.” The street territory outside the walls of galleries and esteemed museum collections was the new exhibition space of the ‘80s, facilitating free exposure, offering a starting place for artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. New York City provided the ideal urban landscape for artists to experiment in a kind of civic theater—where the world was the stage in the labyrinth of boulevards and subway stations.

Considering the idea of the theater as central to the exhibition’s thesis, we might consider its featured performance a dazzling spectacle. Artists sought to contribute pieces in the most frequented, industrial, sterile, and average city-going spaces. Jenny Holzer’s truism’s lit up on billboards in Times Square as an alternate form of “advertising,” (i.e. Protect Me From What I Want, 1986). Haring’s spray-painted images in subway stations and Basquiat’s graffiti transformed the banal and quotidian into vehicles of activism. Photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman both starred in and documented the unfolding spectacle of  ‘80s New York, highlighting the disparity of racial and gender issues as a kind of art-in-action on an urban stage. Thus, Urban Theatre concerns both the civic space in and where works were created and also its actors, the particularized bodies which occupied and acted on the specified stage.

Which bodies can act in what places?

Michael Auping’s curation of Urban Theater groups work in two themes: sexual and racial equality and criticism of the market.

Guerrilla Girls [no title], 1985–90 Screenprint on paper 280 x 710 mm Tate Collection

Guerrilla Girls
Untitled 
1985–90
Screenprint on paper
280 x 710 mm
Tate Collection

Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949) not only ignited the second-wave of feminism but also helped female artists have a deeper understanding of their identity within the male-dominated art world, as subject rather than object. According to Beauvoir, women were “separate but equal […] the very thing that Jim Crow did to black Americans. Egalitarian segregation served only to introduce the most extreme forms of discrimination.”[1] The Guerrilla Girls’ advertisements attend to both of these prejudices articulated by de Beauvoir on sexism and racism. Using mass-produced posters, the Guerrilla Girls posted statistics of galleries, art magazines and educational departments that denied hiring or exhibiting women and blacks. These anonymous artists combined wit with data, informing the public of discrimination after the Civil Rights and Woman’s Rights movements. One poster states: “What’s fashionable, prestigious and tax-deductible? Discriminating against women and non-white artists” (1987). The Guerrilla Girls utilized and critiqued other male contemporaries manipulating a Warhol-esque style in format, even at times superimposing Velvet Underground images. The exhibition wall, showing their posters operates on a meta-level, provokes the viewer to bring the exhibition at hand under the same scrutiny.

Barbara Kruger Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) 1983

Barbara Kruger
Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am)
1983

Another key artist in Urban Theater is Barbara Kruger, who engages economic concerns as well as women’s issues. Her I Shop Therefore I am (1987) is a cheeky play on Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. As a former chief designer for the fashion magazine Maidemoiselle (where she inherited her graphic design talents), she learned the forms of advertising and propaganda, which were specifically marketed towards women. In the black and white image of a female hand holding what seems to be a superimposed maxim on a credit card, Kruger uncovers the power of media to socially construct gender identity, as critic Arthur Danto relates, “upon something frivolous in being one whose essence is shopping.”[2] Her poignant critique of America’s nihilistic consumerism exposes cultural practices that not only constructed women’s sense of identity, but conversely effectuated women’s oppression.

Sherrie Levine La Fortune (after Man Ray: 3), 1990 Walker Art Center

Sherrie Levine
La Fortune (after Man Ray: 3)
1990
Walker Art Center

At first glance, Sherrie Levine’s After Man Ray #3 La Fortune (1990) appears to be a nondescript pool table isolated in an exhibition wing. However, a closer look reveals that there are neither cue sticks nor pocket holes. Taking a memorable staple of the men’s billiard room, Levine suggests that the sculpture’s structure is metaphorical of men and women’s relationship to each other, particularly in the art world. Women are the curved legs, supporting the table on which men play in order to sink their balls into the corresponding holes, ahem, pockets. Since there are no pockets in this billiard table, Levine insinuates this paradigm is “an impossible game” due to her intentional yet “inoperable construction.” What originally might be mistaken in the gallery as a pastime apparatus is rather totemic of Urban Theater in its male-female thesis during the 1980s.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #65 1980 Cindy Sherman American, born 1954 Gelatin silver print 40 x 30 inches

Cindy Sherman,
Untitled Film Still #65
1980
Gelatin silver print
40 x 30 inches

Cindy Sherman, on the other hand, plays upon the viewer’s gaze or participation in her images, as both the subject and director of her photographs (Untitled Film Stills, 1977). She is not interested in coiffing and primping to conform to certain stereotypes, nor does she provide the viewer a contextual narrative through which to interpret her images. In this case, as Michael Freid suggests, the film stills are “anti-theatrical.”[3] She wryly inverts the gaze back on the viewer and questions his/her assumptions and projections on her images, critiquing voyeurism, the male gaze and aesthetic judgments. In this way, the modality of her images resemble the economy of the icon. The images ask us how we are looking at her and seek to correct our vision by catechizing our gaze.

Jean-Michel Basquiat  Six Crimee acrylic, crayon, masonite 178 x 366 cm The Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Six Crimee
acrylic, crayon, masonite
178 x 366 cm
The Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles

Urban Theater takes into consideration the economic favorability of ‘80s as both ideal for the marketability of art, while reminding us that consumerist demands can be a detriment to its creation. Art collectors and dealers alike desired paintings as financial investments in a booming market. Enter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The “radiant child” had humble beginnings through street painting activism, signed as SAMO© (same old sh*t), a graffiti informed by a political critique of oppressive market systems. We might be reminded both of Cy Twombly in his mixture of drawing and writing combined with painting and Jean Debuffet’s primitive art brut. Yet his subject is far darker than Twombly’s childlike scribbles in lllium. Basquiat’s pastiche penetrates the horrors of the outsider and the injustices in human history. His Six Crimee (1982) in this exhibition depicts six black heads with halos floating above them on a background of vibrant malachite green, a color often used by Quattrocento artists like Cimabue in portraying saints. Basquiat gives us a vision of black martyrs, who have perished at the cost of systemic brokenness—a system, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, that was not designed to protect blacks in the first place.

Jeff Koons Buster Keaton,  1988 polychromed wood 66 x 48 x 27 in.

Jeff Koons
Buster Keaton,
1988
polychromed wood
66 x 48 x 27 in.

Quite paradoxically, the theater of the ‘80s in New York also contained work antithetical to Basquiat’s scathing critiques of bloated economies. Jeff Koons, the high priest of factory-produced mass culture-as-high-art for a consumerist market became very successful. Following the natural progression of art’s evolution after Duchamp’s Fountain urinal (1917) and Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans (1962), he conflates a bourgeoisie taste for the sentimental and the kitsch, seen in this exhibit as Buster Keaton (1988). In many ways Koons sees himself as the public’s savoir of embracing secretly repressed bad taste. “The imperative” he states, “is to be yourself and don’t pretend to be someone else whom you believe superior to yourself. Your tastes are all right as they are […] bad taste is as good as taste gets if it is yours.”[4] One can’t help noticing that Koons’ critiques about taste and class are ironically what have made him one of the world’s wealthiest living artists. And yet there is something annoyingly democratic about its intellectual accessibility and intentional self-deprecation of artistic elitism. One does not have to be educated in art to comprehend his subject matter; in fact, one might momentarily mistake being in a souvenir shop instead of a museum.

Auping curated the images in Urban Theater as moving parts to a story, creating a photographic tableau in the museum. But how much do these activism-charged pieces evolve in context of a museum?

The museum’s sterile, peaceful, and tidy interior decontextualize these artifacts from their dynamic involvement with their environment—a dangerous yet thrilling 1980s New York City. The gritty and edgy components of these art works lack their initial subversive and inflammatory qualities. Isn’t housing within the museum the ‘art of the streets’ with its egalitarian ‘art for everyone’s sake’ an ironic contradiction? Their rigors of unmasking are downplayed, as spectacle divorced from theater? Reconstituting the works within the museum is a different kind of theater belonging to both the curator and the visitor, contingent on individual experience.

The concept of the cinematic tableau helps in reuniting spectacle and theater together in this exhibit. In conjunction with the Urban Theater, Auping organized the Lone Star Film Festival to host a paneled conversation in-house with Julian Schnabel, screening all three of his films, Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly at the Modern Museum. As a painter and filmmaker, Schnabel is a common thread synthesizing the Urban Theater era, painting alongside Basquiat and Warhol, as well as filming their stories. The interview with Schnabel was lively and disarmingly direct, considering the trio of his vivid films. Each of his protagonists are marginalized or overcoming a significant cultural stereotype as an exilic: racially distinct, homosexual, or handicapped. It became quickly apparent in the conversation that the components of textural complexity and poetic sensibility were critical in Schnabel’s visual art and cinematic compositions. He spoke of his influence from Tarkovsky where “film is an accumulation of moments like paintings.” The difficulty of navigating the exhibition’s decontextualized artworks from the city of New York is mitigated by screening Schnabel’s Before Night Falls within the museum’s theater after the interview. Together, artist/director, curator and audience collectively encountered a movie through the medium and the stage for which it was intended. Thus, Schnabel’s film contributes an art form to the exhibition that is not stripped from its original context and reimagines the medium of art making for a larger audience.

New York City provided the ideal urban landscape for artists to experiment, to engage in a kind of civic theater— where the world was the stage. Unfortunately, many artists had their exits prematurely in this period due to accidental drug overdose and AIDS, among other things. Warhol, Basquiat and Haring are among the talented acts that faded too soon.

 

[1] DeBeauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex, 1949. p.12.

[2] Danto, Arthur. Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life, 2007. pp.64

[3] Freid, Michael. Why Photography Matters as Art Like Never Before, 2008.

[4] Danto, 291.

 

 

*Featured Image: Keith Haring’s Red (1982-1984), part of the the exhibit Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s, on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The work is goauche and ink on paper, 106 3/4 inches by 274 inches. Photo: Courtesy: Gladstone Gallery, New York, and Brussels Haring Foundation.

Interstellar, Science Fiction and the Odyssey of Love

A lot of buzz has surrounded Christopher Nolan’s latest thriller, Interstellar. But in the bevy of space-themed television and films, from Battlestar Gallactica to last year’s Oscar winning Gravity, should we care that yet another large-production space film has captivated journalism and the public? Beyond the impressive cast, Nolan’s resume as a philosophical auteur (Memento, The Prestige, Batman Trilogy, Inception) is reason enough to go.

The opening setting is a Steinbeck-esque throwback to the 1930s Dustbowl crisis where the farmer and his family face the imminent destruction of their crop’s yield. It is an American agrarian vision, nostalgic of folk culture and architecture. Think of Grant Wood and Andrew Wyeth’s farmhouses, even the Kansas whitewashed sideboard structure, homes perfectly at home along the cornfields in The Wizard of Oz. Set in base of the mountains in Alberta Canada, Interstellar is a pastoral-turned-science-fiction. We don’t know when this is other than the near future. However we know that something has gone tragically wrong. The land is ravaged; the dust storm is apocalyptic, congesting the lungs and destroying the fields. Humanity requires an Exodus.

 

interstellar-2014-screenshot-drone

Interstellar’s odyssey, unlike Kubrick’s or Cuarón’s, is not merely the triumph of the human over the technological machine. Rather, it is a moral study in underscoring human motivations, treacheries, collaborations and love. Like all odysseys it is about a journey, and classically speaking, this odyssey is about the journey home.

Matthew McConaughey’s character is Cooper, a pilot and farmer, but first and foremost—a widowed father. His close relationship with his son Tom and daughter Murph are the pulse of the film. Cooper departs in order to save them and aches to rejoin them. He expresses during his nightly ritual on the porch, sipping beers with his father Donald (John Lithgow) in the golden-hour Malick light: “We’ve forgotten who we are—pioneers, explorers, not caretakers…We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars, now we look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” The relation to the soil is shared in humanity—in the earth’s very humus. In a sense, Cooper suggests that humans have stopped becoming philosophers because survival has taken precedence. But at what expense? Does one make us more human without the other? Cooper remembers just enough of what humanity has forgotten to remember to not forget.

The kitchen functions as the microcosm of the narrative, the nuclear unit of the family as the oikos (household). Much takes place in the domestic space, particularly the kitchen, as a congregating point throughout the film. The most common axis point of the home becomes juxtaposed to cosmic exploration. It is around the breakfast table that we hear Murph first comment on the disturbance in her bedroom bookcase due to an unidentifiable “ghost.”

interstellar-is-nolans-longest-film-to-date_g927.1920

In episode 4 of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil de Grasse Tyson explains that astrophysics William Hershel referred to the stars as “ghosts” because they are remnants of the past. To look at the stars is to look back in time. Not to provide spoilers, but the relationship of stars to time is what Murph encounters from her bookcase: gravity.

It is helpful to think about last year’s Gravity in comparison. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is in ways the antithesis of Interstellar. While narrating a more seemingly realistic story of a doctor repairing the Hubble telescope, the events that follow are scientifically impossible. In contrast, Interstellar is imaginative in its narrative depiction and scientific in its execution.

Gravity highlights space’s silence. What originally provides a calm work environment for Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) turns into a leviathan of nothingness. It is episodic as we watch frame by beautiful frame what happens to Stone, from the explosion to space stations to reentry. With very little dialogue, we do not know Stone’s story or very much about her life other than the daughter she lost. Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliant cinematography visually captures Stone’s solo survival instincts as she evolves from a floating fetal position aboard the space station to the film’s ending, where she crawls out of the water and slowly stands erect as a bipedal, human-as-deity-in-nature. Is this final frame the film’s underlying thesis? Human survival is self-reliance

Additionally, Gravity’s musical score intentionally highlights the void of space through psychological and emotional sounds as a backdrop to the progression of each scene. We hear fear as we watch Stone’s thinly veiled despair turn to resignation. It is almost a joke that Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) appears in her imagination as the deus ex machina for her survival. It gestures towards Gravity‘s underlying thesis that the void has the last word. Yet this assumption is interrupted by this unlikely dream in which Kowalski more or less saves Stone’s life. Is it artistically honest that the film negates the inevitability of what it portrays because it cannot concede to nihilism’s finality?

Quite differently from Gravity, Hans Zimmer’s score of organ music in Interstellar creates the sonic architecture of a cathedral, giving the film religious overtones. Some have suggested that it indicates the film is an argument for science as the new religion. However, Anne Hathaway, in an interview with Time, quotes Einstein: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” The music is more than intense, at times it echoes of Bach and Requiem compositions. Other times, the single strike of the piano key is the immanent reminder of time passing. The metronomic click echoes the watch hand that ticks for Cooper and Murph, preciously lost.

One can almost channel McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle, from this year’s “True Detective” on his Nietzschean discourse of “time as a flat circle” to the metronomic tick tock. At faster speeds, one feels the exhausted plodding march, perhaps a musical leitmotif of the film’s recurring quotation of the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not go gentle into this good night.” We hear the slavish toil of the music pass time like a ticking clock, spinning round and round like the Endurance spacecraft. Yet when the organ pulls back, we hear relativity break its slavery to time into a waltz rhythm, as a kind of cosmic dance.

Dr. Amelia Brandt (Anne Hathaway), a female biologist, is responsible for fostering biodiversity and habitat on the potential worlds. She is the Eve figure, the mother of future living things, a “shepherd of being” as Heidegger would say. She expresses to Cooper on the Endurance one of the film’s most important speeches: “love is the artifact of a higher dimension that we do not understand, beyond social utility. We love those that have died. It is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.” Understanding the component of love is critical for considering the underlying theme of the film. At times we ask, is it love that holds the universe together or is it gravity? Is Nolan asking us to choose? Are they in ways, the same?

For the medieval cosmologist, love was the underlying component that held the universe together. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Love is the primum mobile (“first mover”) that governs and orders the cosmos: “the love moves the sun and the other stars.” Interstellar is not claiming to be Dante, but it is not rejecting love from the fifth dimension either.

In this way, concerning the relation of faith and science, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) is anticipatory of Interstellar. It is another film where science is ultimately taken on faith through the experience of love. Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodi Foster) attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial life, which eventually leads her to visit Vega. Here she discovers that her deceased father has been the source of her extraterrestrial communication, loving her across the dimensions of space and time. Her father contacted her in such a way that he knew Arroway would one day discover it. From this vantage point, it a similar story to Interstellar—Cooper’s relationship with Murphy, a father-daughter collaboration, corresponds across multiple dimensions through the language of love.

Interstellar extends the tradition of science fiction films that underscore the moral condition of the human within a technologically savvy narrative. Hallmarked by Kubrick and Carl Sagan, Nolan’s odyssey joins the lineage of film that utilizes mystery (even faith) to inform our familial relationships. Indeed, maybe the most important dynamic in the cosmic order is love.

This is the Way the World Ends

With the recent screen release of John Wells’ August: Osage County, based on the Pulitzer-prize winning play by Tracy Letts, I found myself reimagining the geographical aesthetic of Texas where I grew up. Texas and Oklahoma, the regional setting of the film, are not properly considered “the South,” though they are both located below the Mason-Dixon Line. But for a women who grew up in central Texas with headstrong female relatives who dwelled in the country, the film’s verisimilitude was haunting. From the shared social mannerisms to almost identical life events, August: Osage County was like a memory from a past I left long ago.

Common Southern sightings spotted in Wells’ film include pitchers of iced tea; creaky screened-in porches; unbearably hot 108-degree August days; historically tense settler and Native American relations; heated disagreements resolved by drives down a dusty road; the ubiquitous First Baptist Church on the corner; smoking indoors; big hair; large floral motif wallpaper; and store-bought white sugar Bundt cakes in plastic containers. Oh, and the dysfunctional bitterness. The film is colored with such culturally specific details that serve to reanimate memory from the landscape in which the narrative takes place.

In the opening line of the film, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) muses, “‘Life is very long.’ T.S. Eliot. Not the first person to say it, certainly the not the first person to think it. But he’s given credit for it because he bothered to write it down.” We are not given an immediate account of what has made life so long for Beverly, but we can infer from his demeanor that time has only led to resignation. His marriage to Violet (Meryl Streep) has not been a joyous union or even companionship, but rather coexistence in endurance and resentment.

“The facts are: my wife takes pills and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck, just one paragraph of our marriage contract…cruel covenant. And these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine.”

“Traditional” values (and I choose that word intentionally here) of marriage are revealed throughout the film to be less than adequate. Remaining together despite infidelity and secrecy does not lead to renewed commitment and transfiguration. In contrast, unforgivingness and disdain lead to generational brokenness and even suicide.

In “Learning from Looking: Geographic and Other Writing about the American Landscape,” Pierce Lewis writes that

“human landscape is a document wherein cultures unwittingly reveal their present and their past in a kaleidoscopic array of things, patterns, symbols. Before rushing to judge a landscape ugly or beautiful, one should pause and understand how it came to be, and what is says about the people who created it.”

In the film, landscape acts as a kind of theatre, where the space and place define the characters who settled it. It’s a member of the cast, an actor in its own right. As a result, locality and space are integral to the psychology of the characters.

Painters and filmmakers alike have captured psychological narratives within desolate landscapes formed through economic hardship and ethnic genocide. Consider American painter Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925) or the setting of filmmaker Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) in the Texas panhandle sharecropping field of 1916. Hopper and Malick both give us glimpses into the history of place that precedes the story of the Weston family by emphasizing the solitary house on the open plains. Understanding the integral role of the landscape to the play, Wells employed the strength of film to contextualize the narrative by shooting on location in a three-story Victorian farmhouse situated on over twenty acres of encompassing emptiness in Osage County. Instead of encountering the open plains as a place of freedom, Wells highlights the texture of space and the unbearably hot weather as suffocating, isolating, and claustrophobic for both the Weston family and us as viewers.

"House by the Railroad"  Date: 1925Medium:Oil on canvas Dimensions:24 x 29" (61 x 73.7 cm)

“House by the Railroad” Date: 1925Medium:Oil on canvas Dimensions:24 x 29″ (61 x 73.7 cm)

Surveying the land, Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) looks at her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and exclaims:

“What were these people thinking…the jokers who settled this place? Who was the asshole who saw this flat hot nothing and planted his flag? I mean, we f***ed the Indians for this?”

Even the notion of “going west” to homestead the plains (Horace Greeley’s “Go west, young man!”) is captured in the family’s name: Weston. Not only has the landscape fostered fragmentation among the Weston family, but it has instigated a diaspora among the three daughters before the film even begins. Thus, August: Osage County chronicles a kind of nostos, or “homecoming,” though differing from the Homeric tradition. It is not a tender longing for home that brings everyone back to the homestead. Nevertheless, it is indeed a process of the family remembering their identity as they gather together for the liturgy of death.

The culminating scene of nostos in the film is the congregational dinner following Beverly’s funeral. We witness a confessional scene where the matriarch Violet slices through the semblance of reunion, pointing out every character’s failures. Having self-medicated on downers before the dinner, Violet is unable to filter her scathing assessments. In what could have been a scene of reconciliation, we find each member of the family judged. Not only is reconciliation not possible, but it is also not desired. Far from seeking consolation following her husband’s death, Violet distances herself. The scene’s staging evokes the false pretenses of a Norman Rockwell painting (Freedom from Want, perhaps), yet there is no veneer of appeasement in this dinner conversation. Bitterness and resentment have taken up residence in each of the characters, their poisonous effects resulting in a toxic ecology, one that Beverly Weston had decided to permanently exit.

Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978). Freedom from Want, 1943. War bond poster. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Oil on canvas. 45 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. (116.2 x 90.2 cm).

Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978). Freedom from Want, 1943. War bond poster. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Oil on canvas. 45 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. (116.2 x 90.2 cm).

Phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion discusses the role of time on the human face in his In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena:

Time does not pass, but accumulates…the weight of time accumulates there where my flesh is most openly visible—my face. It is on my face that time prefers to leave its traces…One never sees the same face twice, because time in being accumulated, deforms it as much as it shapes it. Only time alone can draw the face, since it alone sketches it. Time distinguishes the face, because it marks it—in the taking of flesh, in archive. (95)

We might consider this passage as we witness Violet and Beverly’s sole encounter in the film, just after Beverly’s opening remarks on time. Time has certainly chiseled narratives on their worn faces as they stare into each other’s hollowness, bereft of empathy or understanding. Their wrinkles and lines from a life of marriage together show silent desperation. Is the land to blame for this despondency? How has this family become so dehumanized? What cancer has grown from their habits of brokenness?

Neither the play nor the film attempt to resolve these questions, as the family once again departs from Osage County, save for Violet. In the penultimate scene, Violet puts an Eric Clapton record on the turntable as she stumbles around her living room, medicated and delirious. Her sanity cracks as she encounters the reality that her entire family has left, even her husband. “You’re gone, and then you’re gone and then you’re gone!” she sobs as she collapses on the stairs into the arms of her Indian housekeeper Johnna. Johnna rocks her and recites parts from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” which Beverly had read in the film’s beginning: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends.” Eliot’s poem not only bookends the entire narrative, but expresses the film in those very lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Violet’s cathartic whimper situates the script among the greats of American tragedy (such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), revealing a despair with no real resolution. Instead of ending the film with this scene (the stage play’s finale), Wells cuts to Barbara and Bill driving away from the Weston estate sharing an optimistic dialogue unfitting to the tenor of the narrative. Wells was concerned that the moviegoer would have less of a tolerance for the bleak denouement of the staged play. Nevertheless, we are still left with the portrait of a lone, disheveled matriarch haunted by the desolate plains of Osage County. The psychology of place is all the more heightened as we witness the finality of her solitude in the empty farmhouse.

Watching this last scene, I couldn’t help but feel the deepest empathy for Violet as I saw much of my own grandmother’s biography come alive through her character: the steamy land and her unhappy marriage, her struggle with cancer and her feisty antagonism, her addictive painkillers and her eyes that perceived every detail in the Morris family drama. August: Osage County allowed me to imagine the depths of her struggle through the medium of film and witness her crisis of both despair and resignation. Perhaps my condolence towards Violet Weston was a kind of posthumous reconciliation with my grandmother. Unfortunately for Wells’ film, we are given no such hope that any kind of restored relationship is even possible.

Midnight in Paris as A Moveable Feast

In his newest film Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen tells us a story about being content with the time, place, and era in which we are born. Yet in this film, it appears to be a universal fact that every generation yearns for an earlier time, more pure and “golden” than one that they inhabit. Gil (Owen Wilson) longs for Paris in the roaring 1920s, only to find that the so-called “Lost Generation” desires to be part of the sumptuous Belle Époque, and the master painters of that period (Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Gauguin) themselves actually ache to have lived in la Renaissance. Woody Allen implies that if we perpetually yearn for something we cannot have, we can never fully appreciate the present time that we have been given or experience la joie de vivre. The perpetual beauty of Paris, Allen shows us, is intrinsically connected with the lives shaped by certain eras — past or present. This is where he employs a whimsical — if not magical — construction of time as a portal at midnight.

Gil, a well-cast younger version of Woody Allen, is the dreamer and struggling novelist who finds Paris as his muse and (literally) his source of inspiration. For Gil, self-discovery and clarity come through meeting other disenchanted characters in his rather romanticized past. His fiancée Inéz (Rachel McAdams) is the progressive female traveler, never bereft of her Hermès or Louis Vuitton handbag. Inéz exemplifies the American woman’s obsession with Paris: the bags, the dinners, the flea markets and antique stories, Versailles, and luxury hotels. In short, la tourist typique. Through their relationship, Allen creates dissonance in the film. Rather than supporting Gil’s sense of romance and adventure, Inéz wants to be impressed, finding Gil rather jejune, being taken instead with Paul, the pseudo-intellectual (Michael Sheen). With Inéz, there can be no strolling through Paris in the rain, which she asserts is ridiculous, running instead to catch a taxi. Instead of being inquisitive and affirming, she is deprecating and critical of Gil — anything but artistically supportive. Gil must spend the nights on his own where time can be a non-entity, as well as the portal for him to rediscover his present era. As yet another example from Allen’s repertoire of disillusioned philosophical characters, Gil finds his identity as a writer only by interacting with his literary heroes. In doing this, he realizes that the writers and artists he had idealized were not so unlike him in their own time.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death.

Allen deftly employs Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as the structure for the interconnected relationships in this film. Allen assumes that his viewers are aware of the relational connections — like his protagonist Gil is — and does not provide a backstory. One either needs an art history and literature course, or a reading of A Moveable Feast in order to make sense of the matrix of relationships in that period. Yet Allen takes the essence of A Moveable Feast and translates it into film. As stated by Hemingway in the memoir: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Hemingway’s reference to Paris as a “moveable feast” is essentially related to the feasts of the Catholic liturgical calendar. Easter is the moveable feast par excellence because it adapts and is “moved” to synchronize with the equinox. By making this comparison, Hemingway is extending the term as metaphor for the city of Paris, because once experienced, Paris will always be Paris, no matter where one lives out their days, regardless of the decade. In every frame, Allen captures how and why Paris remains with people in this way.

Allen’s opening montage of quintessential Parisian postcard shots, culminating at Monet’s Japanese Footbridge in Giverny, is every art lover’s dream on screen. This prelude makes us desire to be in such a lovely place, perhaps upsetting our own present contentment. If we have not been to Paris, than we certainly want to visit. Like every Woody Allen film set in New York (especially Manhattan), his camera has a love affair with the character of the city, in hope that his viewer will too. His attention to aesthetic details is to be noted: from his notable musical motifs with saxophone, classical guitar or harmonica; to the hand-beaded flapper dresses and upholstered damask canapés, to the roses surrounding Rodin’s Le Penseur; we as viewers want to be in the City of Lights as spectators and connoisseurs.

I first read A Moveable Feast when I was studying for a summer at Oxford. One weekend, I was in Paris and made a pilgrimage to Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, across from Notre Dame along the Seine to purchase a copy. It was an appropriate place to buy the book because Beach not only had housed many of the starving writers and artists in the ’20s, lending them much of her library, but she also first published James Joyce’s Ulysses, since it was banned from print in the United States. This fact is actually mentioned by Hemingway in the memoir, who was incredibly jealous of Joyce for his renown and financial stability after the success of Ulysses. I remember reading the book on a train to Wales and being immediately refreshed by Hemingway’s nonfiction for a change. As a Humanities major in my undergraduate studies, I was familiar with each author and artist’s work individually, but was astounded to discover their interconnected community in post World War I Paris. I had read the Great Gatsby, “The Waste Land,” Pound’s “Cantos,” and knew Picasso’s paintings, but I did not know that they would all congregate simultaneously on the rive gauche of Paris.

From the memoir we are privy to an insider’s perspective of the literary acquaintances — both in their mutual support and competition. For example, Hemingway describes Ezra Pound as being confident enough in T.S. Eliot’s talent as a poet that he raises money within their community to relieve Eliot of his job at the bank in order to write full-time. We also hear Hemingway’s resentful tone as he watches Joyce and his family dine at the renowned Michaud’s, while he bitterly waters down his wine to make it last. However, it is at 27 rue Fleurus that Hemingway is discipled in ways of the time by Gertrude Stein, an advisor to many of the writers and artists of that period. It is she who names this period after the horrors of World War I: “All of you young people who served in the war — you are all une génération perdue [a lost generation] . . . you have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.”

Woody Allen’s Gil is only privy to the depravity of the so-called “Lost-Generation” when he encounters the culture for himself, particularly when his picturesque evening stroll with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) is interrupted to save Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pil) from an attempt to drown herself. Even in conversation with Adriana, who had come to Paris in order study couture with Coco Chanel and became the lover of Modigliani, Braque, and Picasso, Gil discovers that she is not content to live in the ’20s. Instead, she yearns for a time before the “Lost Generation,” in a less industrial age, bereft of automobiles, with gas street lamps and cabarets at Maxim’s. Here, Gil discovers that he cannot live in denial of his present reality by nostalgically and mentally abiding in the past. Instead, he decides to love Paris in his own era, just as Hemingway poignantly does in his memoir. Though Hemingway was poor, he absorbed the city with fervor regardless of his status: “But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

Moto Cafe, Brooklyn, NY

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death. In honor of his memory, I invite you to see this film, read his memoir, and perhaps pay a visit to a café where you can experience the quaint and unique charm of Paris. The warm, cozy settings are difficult to find, and are not found now in the once-classic-now-tourist-haunted Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore cafés mentioned by Hemingway (also frequented by philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, his lover Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde). If you happen to be close to Woody Allen’s Brooklyn, there’s the tiny Parisian Moto Café that sits under the Hewes railway station and plays live music nightly. You might just catch the street jazz band Baby Soda that brings ‘20s Paris to the present. Perhaps you might even get a light summer rain during your first visit, as I once did.

The invitation to ages past is possible through a doorway in the present — through this film, Hemingway’s memoir or a gastronomic experience. In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen helps us discover that it is not the past that is truly enchanting but the present, and indeed what has yet to be lived. Thus, Allen allows us to learn with Gil, and even Hemingway, Robert Browning’s hopeful lines: “grow old with me, the best is yet to be.”

NYC’s High Line Park: an Innovative Model of the Built Environment

The High Line Park in New York City (with its new sections opening just a week ago) is a prime example of constructing a built environment that creatively combines both aesthetic and functional purposes. By converting a pre-existing railroad line into a much needed green-space, the High Line also has exhibition space for public art installations, café vendors, and summer events. Through innovative urban city planning, the park offers views of the city from a unique—and more quiet—perspective than ever before.  Included in the following article is a list of resourceful and imaginative aspects the High Line offers for the local New York City community.

To read more about The High Line, check out this Time Out New York article “The High Line: Fifteen Cool Things You Should Know” by Billy Collins.

The Highline framed by the Standard Hotel

Milliner from First Things on “When Art Plays Church”

When Art Plays Church from Matthew Milliner at First Things

“What are we to make of the growing ubiquity of church references in the world of art?  Does this confirm Dan Siedell’s charitable suggestion that contemporary art can serve as an altar to an unknown God? Or does it buttress Sarah Thorton’s thesis that art is an “alternative religion for atheists”? Are expanding references to Christianity a frank confession that artists miss church, and are sufficiently distanced from Christianity that they find it alluring?  Or are these just failed attempts to create a new faith?”