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Category Archives: Arts

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As I write, October 16th, 2013, the grand Kabuki drama of the nation rises to one of its cyclical peaks as the structural weaknesses of our Constitution come into synchronicity. In the next day or two this media orchestrated minuet will play out,  with a temporary collapse of the Tea-Party Republican extremist’s efforts to block so-called Obamacare, claiming the real concern is the Federal deficit, by threatening to defund the government, though most of the same people blithely upped the deficit, slashed taxes, and started two fraudulent wars without a care during the reign of George W. Bush – as VP Cheney famously said way back then, “Deficits don’t matter.”  But today, with a black man in the White House, they matter, if only as a rhetorical weapon-of-the-moment.  Or, instead, this dance may see the little hard-core of Tea Party Representatives willing and able to risk a global financial melt-down as the rigged “reserve currency” of the post-World War II era runs aground on the fractured politics of the nation which prints those famous old Greenbacks, as the “exceptional” USA defaults on its debts.  This in turn will accelerate the process where the great sloshing of globalized, unaccountable wealth is shifting its currency into what those with it imagine to be safer forms than silly old abstractions, like money.  Instead they buy “art” or real estate in places like London, New York, Abu Dubai, and other enclaves of the increasingly “only rich welcome” sanctuaries.

[Note: barring some last minute glitch, it appears the Republicans have blinked, and our grand Kabuki drama will carry on, with another riveting crisis being revved up off-stage at this very moment.]

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rothko1_2214608aMark Rothko painting, sold for $86,882,500koons01_Jeff Koons work sold for $33,682,500

A Rothko painting is composed of a thin sheet of canvas, and some thin layers of paint, and a wooden frame.  Materially it is both easily degraded (the red tones in this work are especially vulnerable to fading), or destroyed.  Materially it is worth perhaps $100.   Clearly what is being bought is something else – either the experience of looking at it, or, the assumption that its investment value in terms of money will increase faster, say, than the value of stocks, or interest from loaning the money.   While the Koons work is materially more substantial, the money to purchase it was animated by the same assumption: that the “art” aspect would multiply its “value” more rapidly than other investments.  In both cases, the reality is that, exactly as is the case with “money,” what is being assumed is that a social agreement that something “abstract” has material value.  Money, whether “represented” with things like gold or silver (chosen long ago because they do not readily oxidize and change their atomic structure), or paper, is in effect a social contract, one which says X currency is worth X material something.  When I was young a cup of (bad in the USA) coffee cost 5 cents.  Today in most cafes a cup of perhaps good coffee would run $3 or so. You can do the math on the inflation and figure out that the social contract regarding the numbers shifted terms rather drastically in my life-time.   In a similar way the social contract in America – between Americans – has also drastically changed.

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Two years ago Occupy Wall Street materialized, and shifted our political dialog sharply:  the phrases “we are the 99%” and its corollary, “the 1%” emerged from decades of suffocation with barbs about “class war.”  OWS was initially ignored by the press, and then briefly given coverage as it spawned across the country.  At the same moment the NSA, CIA and FBI, in a Federally coordinated effort, collaborated with local police departments to heavily clamp down and as best they could, destroy this movement.  But the cat had been let out of the bag and a broad social awareness of the ever increasing disparities regarding the grossly tilted distribution of wealth, topics which are now almost everyday conversation, and around which our thoroughly corrupted politicians must dance, had been birthed.  Hence today’s minuet, which, as I write, appears headed towards an absurd “settlement” of kicking the can down the road 4 months.  And behind the curtains, cynic that I am, I can see the next act in this American theater of the Absurd:  in the coming months, as the Congress sits down to “seriously” decide on the Nation’s budget for the coming years, decade, whatever they say, in a signal of his “flexibility” President Obama will agree to cutting Social Security costs, cutting Medicare and Medicaid costs, and doubtless many other things.  However our sacrosanct military, and its burgeoning adjunct of the vast security state which has blossomed since 9/11, will not be touched.  And perhaps, as a signal of its reasonableness the counter-party will admit to some tiny tax here or there, though preferably it would be along the line of a VAT, “so we can all share the burden.”  Bets?

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Senate Republicans Address The Press After Weekly Policy Luncheon

But, just in case the dog and pony show in the District of Columbia doesn’t provide enough sleight-of-hand to duly befuddle the citizenry, we can always count on mass media circus to do the job.

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As this scenario has essentially been going on since we started, at the very outset anointing ourselves as “exceptional” and telling whatever untruths were necessary to support our illusion, beginning with our blatant theft of an entire continent from its inhabitants under the ironclad law that “might makes right” – after all, what were “they” doing with all this except wasting its values?  And on through a founding document which asserted that “all me are created equal” which was written by wealthy men who owned slaves, and whose document actually only considered white male landowners as “men” and on through the rest of our sordid mountain of self-delusions, which we must confront every day, and which confound our politics and society as they historically have.  To untangle this mess of contradictions is certainly more than our institutions can cope with, which as the stresses of these days indicate, will lead to a breaking up of our Union, as the diverse interests and beliefs of our populace decide myth is not a good place in which to actually live.

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20130705-TRAYLOR-slide-DYTS-slideBill TraylorhalloTrick or treat!

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3D Holga picture by Mark Eifert

As a little test run of new/old 1991 Subaru with ’95 motor alleged to have 110K on it, I drove with friend Jane Schreibman from Seatac on up the Olympic Peninsula to Forks and Port Angeles.  Properly greeted with a deluge of rain, she camped in tent and I tried out my new wheeled bed.  More or less OK for the coming year and more.  Subaru seemed to run OK, if smelling of oil spilled on motor, and not quite the MPG I’d like.   Had a good time, despite the rain-forest wetness, and spent a few days in PA with friends Steve and Todd.

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Then on to some more camping near Port Townsend and a stay with a friend of Jane’s in the Skagit Valley.  Seem to have gotten a good start on new film, Plain Songs: American Essays, with a nice shot in Conway WA, 15 minutes of commentary drawn from a chance meeting with just another American.   Moving on to Seattle I stayed at a funky, if costly ($100 a nite, but I wasn’t paying) old hotel, The Panama,  in the former China  Town area.  It was a place with character, if limited old-time amenities.  If the lady running it charged $30 instead of $100 she’d fill the place – I was one of 2 or 3 people each night.

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I went to Seattle to screen some films at the North West Film Forum, which had moved addresses since I’d screened there last.  Though, like the 4 screenings I had in Portland at the North West Film Center, it seemed to me like a bit of Kabuki theatrics:  in Seattle the first screening, of  The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima, was to all of 15 people, among them a few friends, and mostly of souls with grey or no hair.   One couple left right near the end, and the rest stayed for a nice conversation and we retired to a nearby bar to continue the talk.  The responses seemed dominantly very positive.  The next screening, of Dissonance was for a grand audience of 10.  It was split pretty evenly between old and young.  None left.  The first Q&A person, seemingly seriously agitated, said he thought it was awful – lazy filmmaking, with no purpose, that said nothing, and….   I let him have his say, acknowledged he was welcome to feel that way, and said there’s 7 billion people in the world, each with a little cranium crammed with zillions of synapses, and what you bring in the cinema with you is as important to what you see and experience as what is put on the screen.   Clearly still agitated, the young man persisted in insisting the film was a waste.  I pointed out to him that while he said it was boring and worthless, for some reason he didn’t leave, and that my only hoped for intention was to disturb the viewer and apparently it had succeeded well in doing so to him.  At that point others joined the conversation, directly contradicting his view that there was little or nothing, and saying in fact for them it was almost too rich with energies.   At the end he seemed alone, though he stuck around for the 45 minutes or so of discussion the film generated.  He waited at the door as a handful of us left and invited him to join us for a beer – he passed on the offer.

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Back in Portland the screenings had been similarly sparsely attended, one there being only of a handful of my own friends.  And likewise the audience had been dominantly older.

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Frank Gehry’s EMP Museum in Seattle

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Which had me wondering just what explained this.   The urban area of Portland has about a half-million people, and the metropolitan area has 2.3 million.  Of these there is a large chunk which is more or less young, “hip,” into various kinds of culture and so on (they also have a culturally similar older population).  Likewise Seattle (660,000 the city proper; 3.5 million metro area).  Both institutions have been around many years.   I’m happy to figure I am an out-0f-fashion old guy (I wear a cowboy hat – though in Seattle as I was leaving an older black man passed me, returned, and asked, “Where’d you get that hat?”  I replied, “Valentine, Nebraska.”  He responded, “Man, you look good in that!”  Made my day.)    I know I’m an obscure figure in these days, though some 20 years ago I was very modestly “known,” and I know culture and fashion is very fickle, but I find it difficult to think that in a major urban area, rich with cultural interests, there’s only 10 or 15 people who are interested in some not-so-marginally known filmmaker and his work.  And while I concede that these days it is difficult to promote anything which doesn’t reek of “making money”  and that in general newspapers and television will not cover anything which is not “commercial,” (even “alternative” papers), I still find myself wondering where the flaw is.  First it would be in myself – for some decades I have done nothing to “promote” myself and my work; I have not genuflected to the altar of “the market” and made my work somehow more “commercial.”  For this I am 100% at fault.    Yet it is still difficult for me to think only 10 or 20 people, on any given night in these urban areas would find what I have to offer worth their time and a ticket.  Not when I know that millions flock to lousy movies, television and the rest.  I’d happily settle for an audience of .5% of the participating population, but somehow .000001 seems rather off.

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I have my speculations on all this, but I’ll keep them to myself and save the ruminations for another time.  For now I have to console myself with the thought that 4 young people came all the way from Vancouver BC to Seattle to get a look at my work – so I can figure there is a tiny tiny little fraction of people who appreciate what I do – something confirmed by a nice flow of comments and notes I get from around the world, thanks to the internet.

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Autumn has arrived here in Seoul a bit late – the leaves aren’t yet turned, though in the last days a hint of cold arrived.  Perhaps, as was this past summer, autumn will be truncated – a more direct shift to the oblique light and harder temperatures of this hemisphere’s winter.    In my life the change is also signaled other ways:  the body seems a bit more cranky, prone to morning pains.  On the left side of my torso a bulge near the groin suggests another hernia operation, slap in a piece of plastic meshing to do what the muscle wall no longer can.   Maybe next week.  And, as drifted by in previous years, autumn, at this age, induces autumnal thoughts – pondering if this may or may not be one’s last.   Other changes carry the same tonal shift:  singular again.  And again, no longer employed, back upon the tight-rope of fiscal insecurity.  In my case, it is something needed, and already I feel the juices of creative urges running – somehow my soul works better without a safety net.   Two weeks ago, shoved into a self-made corner, managed to shoot a new film – 60-80 minutes long I imagine, shot in less than 3 days on tsunami ravaged island near Sendai, Japan.  Devastatingly simple, I think it should be strong.  With help from Moe Toema, young woman who took my workshop in Tokyo and speaks English well thanks to 3 years in Australia.

We arrived in the morning, meeting up with a man who works with a non-profit organization.  He took us on a little drive around the island, introduced us to some people.   I did a handful of shots of the place, got a sense of things.  We stayed overnight in a kind of B&B guest home, slightly damaged by the quake – things out of line – but on high-ground and untouched by tsunami.  Excellent fresh seafood dinner.  Next day we went to shoot some people, not interviews but coaxing them to talk about their experience during the earthquake and then tsunami.  For the most part it worked well, with Moe figuring out how to keep them going without talking herself – lots of nods and smiles.  Lighting and set-ups were catch as catch can: I wanted blank backgrounds and in haste found what I needed; lighting was whatever was there.  Got six of these, ranging from 6 minutes to 15 minutes long.  Moe suggests what is said was interesting, so I think there’s a short feature in it.  I figure to round up some Japanese poems or haiku’s about earthquakes and tsunamis, find some old graphics or paintings around the same, and get it all done by the end of November.

The man above, a fisherman, was swept away by the tsunami, and managed to grab hold of something for dear life, and survived.   Shooting him was its own little adventure – a little ferry ride to another island to which he’d moved, Moe’s deadline to get back to Tokyo in time to make a medical appointment, and the crush of time.  When we got to his house Moe told me we had five minutes before we had to go back to catch the return ferry in time to make her train.  We walked in, I sized up a place to set him, shot for 7 minutes and as we were leaving to walk back the man said he had a little pickup truck and he’d drive us.  I shot from the back while he drove and Moe worried I’d fall out as we bounced along the ravaged once-road.  I had fun, it all reminding me of long ago days of shooting while sitting unharnessed on the hood of a pickup truck (opening shot of Last Chants for a Slow Dance) and other such things.  We made the ferry with about 30 seconds to spare.  The whole wham-bam two and a half day shoot seems to have rejuvenated my creative spirits.

Nakai-san and Moe TomoedaAbstracted tsunami

While I was in Japan, another kind of tsunami seems to have risen – an echo of the Tunisian, and then Egyptian and then Libyan uprisings: our own Occupy Wall Street.   Triggered by the mix of social networking tools, an economy in a deep swoon, and the utter arrogance and disconnected manner of our ruling elite – financiers, politicians and their courtiers all – a small minority of people have decided to speak and act out.   They occupied a small privately managed park near Wall Street, camping out.   At the outset it was a pitifully small number – a few hundred.  The press and local authorities initially simply ignored them as if they were unworthy of notice.   They stayed.  Slowly through the internet news was spread.  The mainstream press – including such allegedly “liberal” papers at the New York Times – then reported, but in a petulant and snide manner – both in articles and on their opinion pages.  Right-wing media began to ventilate.   And yet OWS grew, and branches began to sprout around the country – in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even in places where such protest was virtually unknown: Tampa, South Carolina, Denver.   Again the numbers were small, but despite hostile press and politicians, they kept growing.  Their tactics seemed to confuse the “authorities” who fumbled with evicting such camps, surrounding them with heavy police forces, and most recently attacking them.   As if they could learn nothing from the recent history of our Arabic friends, with each effort at suppression by authorities and the media, the participants grew, and a reading of polls showed that a majority (53 to 70%  depending on which poll) of Americans were supportive.  This, in contrast to the Tea Party of last year, which the press gave wide coverage, and where the police were invisible despite the many gun-carrying TP people, provided a clear lesson in how America is presently run.  In turn OWS and its off-shoots enlarged again, and finally the mainstream press began to report in something other than a negative manner, and started to pick up on issues raised by OWS.  Clearly it had grown too big to ignore.

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Occupy !

Confronted with a national uprising rooted in the real problems which beset the country, and which declines to enter into the binary Republican/Democrat so-called two-party system, the governmental authorities – acting at the behest of their corporate masters – are showing their impatience, and in the last few weeks have begun to carry out heavy-handed policing actions such as the entrapment on the Brooklyn Bridge and now in the forced closure of Occupy camps across the country.  The most visible case of such tactics was demonstrated in Oakland, where police used tear-gas, stun grenades, and seriously injured an Iraq war vet.  By such mis-steps do the government and the corporations it supports, show their hand transparently.   Like Mubarak, like Gaddafi, their recourse is to force when they are unable any longer to dissuade with fraudulent politics.

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Scott Olsen, hit by tear gas bomb which fractured his skull

There is no question that those who rule America will behave exactly like those who ruled Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, when push comes to shove.  They will not leave willingly, nor admit their errors, nor concede any power.  They will if necessary deploy the military and declare martial law and institute a police-state.  They have already done many things towards this end.  Under Bush there were “free speech” areas cordoned off, where the Constitution allegedly applied – though “free speech” is a Constitutional right and should be allowed anywhere in the USA.   By such means are “rights” diminished – such as habeus corpus, which the Patriot Act deleted in many cases.  Step by step our corporate masters, acting under the guise of the government, are reducing America to a version of the USSR:  a defunct economy, a bloated military, and rampant corruption among the elite – socialism for the rich, and “capitalism” for the poor.

I encourage everyone to fully support the Occupy movement: with your body, with your voice, with whatever support you can give.


Samson Slaying The Philistine, Giambologna, V&A, London

Some time ago, while living in London, I’d visit museums – Tate, National Gallery, British Museum, the V&A, and others.   In my haphazard manner I was studying.  I’d take photographs, sometimes make sketches.  Occasionally I took notes.


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, a Flemish sculptor working in Italy, did a number of mythological works, among them the Samson Slaying the Philistine at the V&A.  At the time this piece drew my attention I knew little of nothing of the artist, and not having had any kind of “classical” education;  having never read the Bible, I knew equally little about the story of Samson, only that when his hair was shorn, he lost his strength.   What drew me to the sculpture were its dynamic qualities, its psychological and physical capturing of a primitive hand-to-hand fight.  I both photographed it, and shot it with video, as well as did sketches.  Only recently did I bother to Google the story that lies behind it.

Also at the V&A there is a hall with plaster casts of Michelangelo’s Slaves series, which along with many other people, I find extraordinarily compelling.   Of them I did only sketches.

This past year, invited to Jerusalem for screenings at the Cinematheque, I was asked if I also had somethings suitable for a photography gallery, and I used the request  to finally transfer analogue photos of the Samson sculpture which I had long thought might make a  strong collage.   The two versions here were my first attempts, which for me are not quite satisfactory – in part because my understanding of Photoshop  is so limited.  I’d like to use  transparency masks to make the collages more subtle and organic.   One of these days….   These collages should be about 6 feet high.

Water seeking its level

Following the earlier Back Steps and Wood, the next of Leighton’s digital works expands on the aesthetics he was developing for this media, while the subject remained the same – the magical realm of childhood, and of the growing consciousness therein.  Water seeking its level, seen from one aspect, is again as simple as the earlier two works – a young boy stands in a rushing stream, the water dazzling, the rush of sound immersing us in some mystical world of impressionist’s color.  The back yard has moved to a park in southern France (though we don’t know this and little beyond the not-Iowa colors at the stream’s bottom suggests it, and the title note “St. Pons”).  Leighton swiftly orients us with his musician’s use of sound: we hear a rush of water, of a few steps into it  – audibly instantly recognizable, though the imagery which comes next is a swirl of abstraction which the sound “describes” and gives us our bearing.   A fluid passage of color quickly delineates the essential elements – a young boy’s leg, his touseled blonde hair, the boy’s feet standing as the water distorts them and the stream’s floor into a dazzle of color, a hand thrusting down, grabbing beneath the water and then holding a small stone, his small voice saying, “Daddy, look.”  

Daddy has indeed been looking, and looking deeply – not only at the little scene before him, but at the tools he is using to depict it.  Here a flourish of rich muted reds, modulated by the optical warping of water, blonde flesh and hair, are shown, but by the artist’s intervention with how he uses the camera and editing techniques he transforms the mundane into the cosmic in the most gentle and unpretentious of manners  (though using no corny “effects” menu items – all is done  organically directly with the image itself, in a manner more akin to a graphic artist’s multiple printing of the same basic image – say, see a series of woodcuts of Munch’s Madonna, or lithographs by Helen Frankenthaler).  The image caresses his son, the nape of his neck, his arm and leg, and embraces him in what is transparently a parent’s love.   Daddy is looking passionately.

And listening.  The water rushes by, the child’s hand is immersed in it, and his small voice comments how cold it is; the hand makes the water leap, and then clenches, the water stopped, and with it the sound.  Gentle hints of water drips, and in the subdued quiet slowly sound of liquid rushing builds, presaging a cut to the lip of a small waterfall, presented in almost pure abstraction but instantly identifiable.   And then slowly this crisp rush of water dissolves into a muted image not so readily understood – debris settling to the bottom of a lake?  Or….  it is snow, falling gently to the branches of a tree.  Water, in its varying forms, seeking its level.

Water seeking its level is a cinematic poem of a disarming simplicity of “content” which expands out to suggest the whole of a life,  our whole universe.  It is awash in love and stunningly beautiful.  Technically it is simply masterful in all aspects from its seemingly casual camera work, to its hidden and dazzling editing of both image and sound.  In five minutes it compacts, with a complete lack of pretentiousness or ponderousness, a whole poetics of life – its beginning, its future, its meaning.

Never once saying so, or pointing to the metaphoric possibilities of its primal source in water, Leighton’s film is drenched with the pathos of love, of our being here, of a parent’s deepest feelings and sensibilities for his child.   This is what makes this small five minute cinematic poem so rich, along with its truly masterful aesthetic and technical control.   He does not say so except in purely poetic terms, but within this joyous work there is the acknowledgement of Heraclitus’ wisdom:

πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” καὶ “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης”
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei … kai … dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies
“Everything changes and nothing remains still …. and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”



Hendrik ter Brugghen, Heraclitus

With Evaporation Leighton extends this theme, in which vapor and fog collude invisibly to suggest the ephemerality of childhood and youth, and by implication, life itself.   Here a young boy, who in this brief film becomes a young man, is seen looking out a window toward the sea, then near a harbor, walking on a pier, then gazing from the rails of a small ship.  A rush of liquid abstractly rushes over a fall, the shifting fractals of waves move mysteriously, a boat sets out from the mouth of a river into the hazy infinity beyond.   The boy looks pensively from the deck of a boat, the water rushing swiftly by.  And we return to the window which looks out upon the sea, now empty.



Evaporation

In a second passage we find the boy in a field, with grasses lit by the sun, on a pathway glistening with wetness.  He hesitates, turning to look towards the camera, and then turns to go forward.   Our gaze is directed to the swaying, wave-like motion of the grasses, from which emerges, in another time and seemingly place, a glimpse of a grown boy, seen intermittently, walking away.  His image at first is lost in the blurred shifting of foliage, and then we see him, clearly older, and, with a painful poignancy, receding to the distance, taking off upon his own life.  It is a father’s poetic farewell to his son, who now is on the path of his life, receding from the parental embrace, lighting out to his fate.   With Evaporation Leighton Pierce gracefully acknowledges this parting, and the film is a gesture of pure love, lovingly crafted, and a profound gift to both his son, and to us.

In a culture besotted with celebrity and bombast, where artists are advised, whether directly, or by the insistence of the clamor of the world around them, that to be heard they must make a grand splash with aggression and transgression, Leighton Pierce – like Nathaniel Dorsky – offers instead a counter-current of beauty and love of the world expressed in the greatest gentility.


Happiness

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

                                      Raymond Carver

[I am happy to relate that after 20 some years at the University of Iowa, Leighton is taking over the reins of the Media and Film Department of Pratt Institute in NYC.  I hope being in the vortex of America’s creative navel he’ll finally get the attention long overdue to him.  I hope to hell one of the major museums finally gives him the space to put up some of his extraordinary installation works.]

[Series to be continued as time permits.]

Egyptian room of the British Museum


When I was young, rather some time ago – the 1960’s – I had little experience in the arts, though a year or two in college in Chicago (IIT) quickly altered that, and I found myself drawn deeply into the vortex of contemporary art back then:  Warhol, Rothko, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, Clifford Still, Motherwell and the whole roster of abstract expressionists, pop, and others.   I had not come from a background remotely concerned with the arts, though my family had a few Gauguin prints on the walls, and I recall a big coffee table book of paintings from the Louvre of which a David Rape of the Sabines provided some bare-breasted masturbation imagery.  Otherwise it was a desert.  I left home at 17 knowing more or less nothing of the arts, or for that matter, life.

But something in me was drawn to the arts, and on my own,  I jumped in, full tilt.  The visual arts, music (I saw and heard Segovia from the farthest reaches of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and van Cliburn playing piano).   I was ignorant, but eager, though back then outside music in which I liked classical work, I found older art – meaning anything not contemporary or very close – something I could not look at.   Naturally, as time went by, this inverted, and in these days it is difficult for me to look (without acidic comments) at most modern and contemporary art, and I long since took a kind of refuge in things ancient to older.  In phases I’ve been drawn to Vermeer, Uccello, Duccio, Goya, Rembrandt (primarily graphic arts and self-portraits), Constable (sketches mainly), Turner, Manet, Monet, Munch (graphics mostly), Lautrec, Degas, and many others.

For some years I’ve fantasized of the chance to be in London for a month or two, with the possibility of going each day to the National Gallery, the British Museum, and other smaller such institutions, to look slowly and carefully at the vast collection of imperial and royal robbery and prerogatives.  To look, to think, to perhaps sketch and write.

The Elgin Marbles Room

Quick sketches at the British Museum and Victoria and Albert, 1996-7

Giacomo Serpotta, in another tonality, for the Oratorio de San Dominico, also in Palermo.  Here the sense is weightier in overall tone, if in turn the actual “content” seems lighter – a seeming procession of ladies of high society parading the metaphoric virtues (which one doubts they had themselves).

A belated bust of Serpotta, done with nothing of his skill

Palermo, Oratorio del Rosario in Santa Cita

Exiting from the clatter of the fetid streets of la cala in the center of Palermo, and entering a side-door to Chiesa di Santa Cita, one climbs a set of stairs and an open blacony welcomes with several young women chattering away, one of whom asks to see your pass for the Palermo Baroque church tour.   She glances, nods, and resumes her conversation.  A notice on the wall says no photography.   We enter into a flood of light, the sun bouncing off the white stucco walls and the dazzle of a wedding cake decor, so dense as to make the eye and mind whirl.  There is no one there.  Sedately, to the far end, a dark Carlo Maratta Virgin of the Rosary attempts and fails to distract.  You are in the Oratorio del Rosario of the Chiesa Santa Cita, caught in the delirium of Giacomo Serpotta’s rococo world, where a swirl of sculpture and ornament overwhelms the senses.   It is, in some ways, all too much – an assault so forceful that it seems to defeat its own purposes.  How is one to look at all this when it seems every surface is swarming with a delicate white meringue of whipped egg whites, all expertly formed into the most delicate of portraiture, as well as the customary billow of clouds and cloth, and an avalanche of putti?  The immediate response is almost to pass out, to flee from this overload on one’s senses, and perhaps, taste.

And yet, beneath this riot of plaster excess, there are myriad quiet corners, exquisitely detailed little stage-sets, telling, as usual in Italy, the same story to which Italian art was shackled for almost two thousand years.  Here it is told with a lightness of touch that amazes in its simple delicacy, especially when framed by the tumult of putti and angels which adorn this place of putative prayer.

Recently restored, this chapel is the work of Giacomo Serpotta (10 March 1652 – 27 February 1732), who specialized in stucco – a kind of plaster which he made more sophisticated by mixing in marble dust which gives it a more brilliant and hard surface.  Stucco must be worked quickly, while still wet.  Once set it may be carved, more easily in the mixture which Sepotta used.   A native of Palermo, the city and other places in Sicily are graced with his work.  Evidently he never left Sicily, and so is little known elsewhere.  I had never heard of him before despite a fairly reasonable acquaintance with Italian art.

In the same church, in a chapel adjacent to the center, reconstructed since major damage caused by bombing in World War II, is another dizzying chapel, this one with mixed marble in-lay.  As with the Rosario the initial sense is that of being overwhelmed, but if one stays, and looks with care, it is full of amazing and lovingly done details which seem literally to sing.

Bedda Sicilia !

Amsterdam

Returning back from six weeks travel crammed with too much to ponder, a cloud of personal anxiety for Marcella who is still in Italy with medical problems which make me feel I should  be there with her,  the gray envelope of aloneness here in Seoul jangled only by the pressing matter of getting ready for academic chores, I found myself looking through computer files for something else, and bumped into this – a letter to both Jim Benning and Leighton Pierce, two filmmakers I respect immensely and like to think of as friends:

Hi
I hope you won’t mind me bunching this up, but since it’s about something by each of you, and kind of comparative, and as I am dead tired from finishing up (I hope to hell – the Jeonju fest runs tapes through a studio that is merciless, and I’d sent 3 so far, and each one has flaws I didn’t see – dropped pixels, shifted image, little buzz line at bottom of one passage – and I was up to 11 last nite and up at 5am working to 1:30pm before I took off for class and must make new tape tonite, poor me).

Anyway today I looked at a film of each of you – #1, and Ruhr.  It would be hard to find two more wildly different films (unless I opted for totally badly crafted ones) and yet somehow they both did similar things, though coming from completely different angles.

I’ve seen #1 maybe 4 or 5 times before, but hadn’t seen it for quite a while.  Like almost all your work, Leighton, it rewards re-looking again and again.  #1 is so rich, a first look is almost too much to take in, one gets lost in the dust, the forms shifting so rapidly and organically, a wild painterliness almost overwhelming in its seeming pace, the sounds shifting, hinting, guiding.  But with each repeated look the rush of images takes on more and more orderliness, like peeling back the layers of some gorgeous plant, each layer leading to another equally beautiful and sensuous, yet still withholding its secret.   Today I felt I saw so much more than the last time, though it is clear this poem will remain ever elusive.  And enticing.  I am sure I could watch and hear it 100 times – which I think I might have done with some of your films – well that’s a bit rhetorical of course.  How about 30 or 40 times?  Anyway #1 is stunning, in quite a literal sense.

Then I saw Ruhr, on a sizable screen, with my good projector.  Even with the compression it was quite clear and detailed, though I am sure off original it is much more so.  The compression mostly induced some motion artifacts, little jerkiness – annoying, but one is able to read through it.

For a few decades, Jim, I’ve thought your work was sadly compromised by shooting in 16mm, and I fantasized your being able to do it in 35mm, though I understood only too well the brutal fiscal logic that didn’t let you do that (and why I pestered you for a decade and more about DV).  So seeing the HD, the wide-screen format, the far better sound was all a distinct pleasure.  And I was very very impressed with Ruhr, which as radical as it is I suppose for most people, I feel really works.  Though the viewer must give it an awful lot, which I know most (95% or more? of even supposedly adventurous festival goers?) aren’t game to give.   But if you do then you really look and see and listen, it is very rewarding, guiding one to be attentive to the smallest of things, and in a way out of what most would think as almost “nothing” you offer a lesson in dramatic construction.  The little leaf in the tunnel, inconsequential and in most circumstances unnoticeable, makes an ironic little dance; the dance of steel pipes in the making (reminded me a little of the lumber mill sequences in The Bed You Sleep In), forcing one to look and look (and listen and listen), all the while shifting one’s sense of time steadily to another state, while tuning up the eyes and ears.  The forest sequence was gorgeous, the composition really exquisite with the two heavier trunks constraining what almost seemed a spatially false space of light between them; the dark mass to the right pulsating – I found myself thinking of Caspar David Friedrick, and perhaps a touch of Gerhardt Richter (some things of his), and some of the denser images of Pollock, especially late painting.  The jets taking off, the long pause and then the rustle of the branches, autumn leaves falling – this almost “nothing” was ripe with space to think and ponder.  Its repetition was again a lesson in drama – the dramatic act, the long pause, the rustled response, the senses being tuned to what is in the image and the sound.  The mosque sequence seemed a bit strange, though being familiar with Germany, I knew it was not so strange, though I find this religious genuflecting dubious, sad, and a bit fearful – whether of Muslims or our home-grown erstwhile Christians.  The Serra cleaning was the one place where I itched to see a not-Benning turn:  as I watched and it came to a close I promptly thought that it would have been gorgeous (and truthful) to have the guy go off screen with his stuff, and then shot unchanged do a very very slow dissolve to the cleaned work, a large steel monolith in the middle of the screen.  Kind of thing I would have done.  The street scene – stolid, drab, echt deutsch – seemed an anti-climax, though it too took on its own burgerlich life, and off-screen the sound hinted at the wider world, the industrial sounds hovering just a step away (again, was reminded of Bed where the sound of the pulp mill was ever present on the track).

And then the coke tower sequence, where you lay down the gauntlet, and I suppose most would decline the offer.  I looked carefully the whole time, while it was brighter my eyes at a later point saturated with the contrast, popped back and forth, almost hallucinogenic, while the ears tuned to the sounds, seeming almost Penderecki or some Alvo Part, the song of the industrial apparatus, trying to synchronize the repeated noises that seemed to presage the sudden burst of steams, the light drowned by the industrial clouds, the sly rhythm again building the sense of drama.  The off-screen thump, the sequence of up/down siren(?) sounds announcing yet another deluge.  The light slowly dropping, and the coke tower coiled with black shadow, morphing into the WTC towers – such is what an hour will give you to fill in the screen with your own thoughts.

Great film, James.

What both films do, in completely differing tacks, is move the viewer to SEE and to HEAR.  #1, a slightly long poem, plunges the emotions, whips them into a frenzied sensuousness, and leaves you – like making love, satiated and wanting more.  Ruhr, a more massive work than its 2 hours suggest, takes another route, and likewise tunes the eyes and ears, but leaves a vast canvas for the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the process.  I felt Ruhr to have an ominous tone, a weightiness related perhaps to Anselm Kiefer.

Off the top of my head, those are my thoughts of the moment.  I’ll be chewing on them a bit and probably writing more or more clearly on cinemaelectronica in the next days – if I can get damned Swimming fixed and out of my hands.

Back in Seoul following my travels, I flicked on the computers which had frozen along with everything in my living box in my winter absence.  One put out a signal about DMI that sent me scrambling to Google to solve.  Five days later it’s back up.  And the others are under the harness, taking care of chores (mistakes discovered in screenings in Rotterdam and Jerusalem.)  Shortly it will be on to new work – scavenging the several hundred tapes to both get them on Hard Disks before my tape-running machines give up the ghost, and at the same time to look at the material gathered since 1996, and find whatever films are hiding in there.  I suspect there’s 3-5 features and lots more shorts waiting to be discovered and organized.  And along with that beginning to think about and take a few tangible steps towards shooting a film, narrative, in HD, in the summer, or perhaps next winter.

Perhaps it is getting on in age, the fabled mid-life crisis arriving rather late  (67 is not mid-life unless you  are Methusala), or perhaps it is a look at the changed world around me, but as I glance at the racks of tapes, or begin to write people about new film, I find I am less than enthused, and instead silently ask myself, “what’s the point?”

Certainly in my case it’s not the old stand-by, “to make a living,” as it is 100% certain that whichever of these – odd films culled from the backlog of footage, or a quasi-acceptable narrative shot in HD – they are not in the current world going to make any money, plain and simple.  They will cost a little or in the case of the narrative film, a little pile, of my own limited money with old age and its problems, more or less upon me, unprotected by any insurance for health, life, etc.  They’ll also cost lots of time and energy.   So no, it ain’t for money, which my work has never brought me, except belatedly here near end-game, tangentially, via a teaching job which I guess I “earned”  the right to have with 4+ decades of film/video-making.   Nor is it for the cultural pats-on-the-head of festivals showing your work, or retrospectives here and there, or an article written about one’s work.  I know some people like, appreciate, or even need such things, for their sense of self-respect or “ego.”  But being honest, such things really don’t mean much to me, perhaps because I am self-confident enough (or arrogant, depending how you look at it) that I really don’t need external approval: I know very well that I am very good at what I do, and given I am the one most acquainted with the actual processes and the penury involved, I know it better than anyone else could.   In fact often such sentiments are expressed in ways that are actually irritating for me.  So, nope, it’s not the back pats and gushing “loved it” that prompts me.  And when I watch the list of credits roll by in most films, and think someone just directed, or someone just did camera, and someone else edited, well….

Being honest with myself I wonder is it exhaustion, just a tiredness in the face of what this work is, and I think in some part it is.  After nearly 50 years (in 2013) it would be hard to say making a film is exciting or a thrill, as I read others imagine it must be.  It’s a perverse kind of non-paying job, or a bad habit, or, probably a compulsion.  I don’t know how to do nothing, to relax; instead I am a non-stop workaholic, doing one thing or another all day long.   And I know – from my own experience – that some others are very much the same.

On another level, there is a kind of self-pleasure – doing something that pleases one’s self.  When I find in working something new, something I did not know or did not know I knew, there is a flash of cognition, and this triggers a mode of happiness.  That is the thing which, when others perceive it, and are able to articulate it, I am able to feel a genuine sense of connection, of  “communion.”   It is perhaps the mix of this kind of thing, along with the communion I feel with the work itself that keeps things going.  For example I saw this on Mubi, regarding James’ film, and I felt sure that when he saw this he felt a flush of something that I guess we could say verges on the  “spiritual.”

Matt Nelson

on Tue 02 Mar at 06:08 PM

As someone coming to Ruhr with almost no background in cinema or visual literacy, as a reader and writer, I have to say that Ruhr affected me like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I learned much about the world, about myself, through it⎯about how the translation of energy from one form into another forms rhythms which themselves are only interesting in their breaks because the breaks suggest larger, more mysterious rhythms at work, rhythms at higher levels of attention.

So the nature of my own attention seems different to me now because the film helped me attend to those rhythms. The question of art’s fidelity to reality is an old one, and quite misplaced, I think. As Mr. Benning points out, the shots were composed in a frame. And they are still in a way no human eye ever could be, which allowed me the opportunity to experience something that I never would have, even if I had been in those particular places at those particular times. I wouldn’t question any alterations made by the maker of the film than I would trouble with a composer organizing the notes into a score. The manipulation of the matter reality through a human consciousness is one way to understand art, and quite precisely personal, it seems to me.

And Ruhr changed my understanding of what might be an objective reality or a truth. That also seems quite personal to me—a translation one person’s personal into another’s—and I’m glad to my bones to have gotten the experience. So, should Mr Benning happen to read this: thank you.

Jim Benning

As it happens, while “known” in the rarified avant garde experimental film world when I met him back in 1977 or 78, I think at the Edinburgh Festival, James has mainly been in the cultural arts-world background, working away with a consistency similar to my own:  a workaholic.  But he had to juggle his pay-day job, teaching (for some time now at Cal Arts, since 1987; before that in NYC scrambling on grants and visiting artist gigs), from which I suspect he extracted most or much of the money to pay for doing his films.  His work required a lot of travel over the years, really a lot, and I think we can guess he spent the last 3 decades on a real work pattern – all for marginal money, and the usual festival/archive/museum screenings deal.  And for much of it having to cover the costs from his own pocket.   In the last years he’s been rewarded (!) with some retrospectives, and long over-due acknowledgment of the cumulative weight of his ouvre.  With an eye to the future, the Austrian Filmmuseum in Wien is beginning to make archival prints and K2 digital copies of all his films.  (Need I say there weren’t any US offers to do the same.)  And with his newer HD digital works I feel he’s taken a leap in his work, consolidating all he’s learned and applying it with tools that genuinely match his artistic sensibilities.   I confess a real pleasure in seeing this all unfold, however belated it seems to me to be.

With his new, appropriate for his work and far less expensive HD tools, I hope he can maintain the energies to carry on at the standard he set in Ruhr, and in the related Pig Iron 30 minute film which I saw in Jeonju last spring.

RuhrPig IronCasting a Glance (Spiral Jetty)13 LakesRuhrTen SkiesJames at work, Ruhr

Over the decades I’ve had the pleasure to share a small bit of time, usually over a beer, with Jim, and to see if not all his films, most of them.   He’s had kind words about my own efforts, which I appreciate.  Perhaps in a handful of years his work will be more readily available to share – on BluRay or whatever comes next that way.  Meantime if you’d like to take a stab at Ruhr, I think you can download it here.

Or for a bit of reading, you can try this or this.  But the best would be try to see some of his films if you can.

10 Skies

[In a week or two I’ll continue with this rumination, with some thoughts on Leighton Pierce.]

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Just a little note, for those interested.   Newest film was invited to Rotterdam festival, where both Marcella and I will be to see friends, films, and introduce and do Q and A with film. Imagens (Images of a lost city) is a portrait of a disappearing Lisbon, which was recorded when I lived there, 1996-98. It was mostly shot in the area around the Alfama, Castelo de São Jorge, and Graça, though there are other places glimpsed. These are old neighborhoods in the center of the city, a hint of what once was Lisboa.


I first saw the city in 1964, while traveling on an Italian freighter, as one of 12 passengers, enroute to Tampico, Mexico.  Beginning in Genoa, other stops included Livorno, Marseille, Cadiz, then Lisboa and on across the Atlantic where we could have stopped in Habana but the United States had imposed its embargo, so we went on to La Guaira, a port for Caracas, and then to Vera Cruz and finally Tampico. It took a month, and cost all of $150, meals included. It was an Italian ship so the food was pretty good since one ate with the captain.  It was a fantastic adventure, too with many stories for another day.  Portugal at that time was still a very isolated little piece of Europe, under the right-wing dictator, Salazar, and distant from almost everywhere owing its location on the edge of the Iberian peninsula, the bad roads, poverty, and political climate. Then there were almost no cars, and little children trailed me as I went into the Alfama, the rare tourist, with my Pentax in hand.  It was at that time an extraordinarily beautiful city, its little pedrinas and stone inlays, its azulas (blue ceramic tiles which covered many buildings as protection against the ocean climate) all marking each square centimeter as being lovingly attended by hand and craft. I had seen many other European cities, but Lisboa left a deep impact.  Later, in the early 1980’s I returned, to shoot a documentary (never finished) for the BFI on Raul Ruiz, and renewed my acquaintance with Lisboa, which had already been somewhat ravaged by modernity, and which had begun to look and feel like a run-down 3rd world city. Again I returned in the late 80’s, and had a traumatic and passionate affair with a Portuguese singer, who quite inadvertently influenced the making of All the Vermeers in New York, which is dedicated to her.





And again I returned, then with my partner, Teresa Villaverde, a young (at that time) Portuguese filmmaker who had pursued me for several years after meeting me at a small festival in Dunquerque, in 1994 or so, and with whom I lived 5 years.  In 1997 our daughter Clara was born, at the same time I was shooting the material that became Imagens de uma cidade perdida.  In 1998 we moved to Paris, where Teresa edited her film Os Mutantes, as the producer, Jacques Bidou, was French.   Afterward we moved to Rome where we lived.   On November 2, 2000, Teresa Villaverde Cabral – having almost completed shooting of a new film, Agua e Sal (Water and Salt, i.e., tears) in which a surrogate filmmaker (a curator of photo exhibits), who was played by an Italian actress, Galatea Ranzi, who happened to look almost exactly like Teresa, especially after a bit of hair-cutting, etc., is breaking up with her husband, played by Brazilian singer Chico Buarque, and who together have a young child, played by Clara Villaverde Cabral Jost, at her mother’s insistence  – kidnapped Clara from our home in Rome.  In the film the same occurs: Clara is kidnapped by her film mother. (More gruesome is that owing to typical film-world crap, Clara’s cinematic kidnapping was filmed after her real one – despite vehement objections I made to the Portuguese Juvenile court.)  To say a long and very unhappy period followed, as a completely corrupt Portuguese system closed around their “star” and legality was cavalierly trashed in the interests of an “important” Lisboa family. I have been unable to see my daughter, whom I had raised almost single-handedly for 3 and a half years while her mother tended the more important matter, to her,  of making her films (Os Mutantes and Agua e Sal), since August 2001. Teresa Villaverde has refused all contact, sent back gifts for Clara, and otherwise behaved in a manner typical to those called Parental Alienators. It has, for me, been a tragedy, which I am sadly certain has been doubled, or worse, in Clara. She will have her 14th birthday on March 27 of this year.

Clara, on her Facebook page, which was closed down the day I asked to “friend” her.




To say I have a conflicted sensibility about Portugal and Lisbon would be a considerable understatement. My experience there,  perhaps reflected in Imagens, is fully expressive of the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness. For them it is as if a part of their DNA, a cultural piece which they are obliged to carry. They have a particular word for it, saudade. However fanciful it sounds, the place is pervaded with it, and in a sense they are proud of it.   It is a phenomenon which is collectively neurotic, wherein they seem willfully to bring upon themselves actions which will induce a bit of saudade.   It is little wonder they are currently undergoing their economic travails, and surely in a way, they imagine they deserve it.




Imagens de uma cidade perdida runs 93 minutes. It’s slow and languid, like Lisboa. It is drenched in both beauty and melancholy, again, as Lisboa is. Its screening times and places in Rotterdam are as follows:

Friday, 01/28/2011, 14:30 Cinerama 5

Monday, 01/31/2011 14:30 Cinerama 7

Tuesday, 02/01/2011 22:15 LV 6

Also screening in Rotterdam will be a retrospective of my friend Nathaniel Dorsky’s films. See this.

[For post-festival comments on my own film see this, and for comments on Nathaniel’s screenings, see this.]

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