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I met Peter Hutton in 1974 (I think – can’t find sure info on it), during a wild trip from Kalispell, Montana to San Diego and on to NYC for my first screening (of short films) at MoMA , and then up to Hampshire College where he was teaching, and had arranged for me to screen Speaking Directly . I saw his films then – I think the first time – and loved them: In Marin County, July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971 ), Images of Asian Music. After seeing my film he was surprised I liked them so strongly, I suppose figuring I’d only like films like my own. Not so.

While staying with him I had the brakes on my VW van fixed – I’d rebuilt the engine with a friend in Kalispell, deep into autumn, and left with no brakes as we didn’t have tools to yank the wheel, rusted onto the spindle, off. The engine began blowing smoke by Portland and I threw a rod in Missouri. Luckily I found a junker in auto graveyard, yanked the engine myself and put it in my vehicle and it worked, if barely. Sputtered onto NYC for the MoMA screening, all with no brakes. A Porsche shop next to the loft Peter had in Amherst did my brakes in exchange for a lid of very lousy Montana homegrown. An adventure.

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Since that time we were friends, bumping into each other out on the rarified arts-film circuit, and I visited a handful of times in upstate NY, once he landed his job at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson. He’d show me work on his projector, some in editing stage. And we’d play cribbage in marathon bouts of 12 hours at a go, for nickels and dimes, beers in hand. Never talked about art or films, though once he took me to the DIA Foundation museum in Beacon NY.   Through the years he swore he always won at the cribbage, though I always seemed to walk away with a fistful of change I didn’t have when I’d arrived.

Not long after meeting him and seeing his films I wrote an article for American Film, the defunct magazine of the AFI. At that time Peter was a kind of filmmaker secret, known and prized in the more rarified world of experimental films, though his could hardly be called “experimental”. After all he made black and white silent 16mm films, with no “story” or narrative – just sequences of magical images that somehow cohered and made their own visual and emotional sense. Like the very first cinema.  He shot in Kodak Tri-X reversal, deliberately underexposing one and a half to 2 stops, getting a grainy rich image of a wide range of grays-to-black and almost no whites. He knew how to exploit the play of light which drew him like a moth in combination with the granular texture of the emulsion. His relationship with the stock and his sense of imagery was near mystical, and the results veered into the sublime.

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New York Portrait

In his earlier work – In Marin County, July 71…, and Images of Asian Music – his camera was sometimes exuberant, mounted on a skate board (way the hell back then), or under a cock-fight aboard a Cambodian coastal freighter, alternating with fixed shots. He also seemed to aim for willful “surrealist” shots. After these early forays, his camera stilled, and what moved was the light before it – subtle shifts in tones, the grains of the filmstock dancing. And he left behind the forced surrealist images and settled on the magic of his kind of “realism” which often focused on the mundane transformed by the divine dance of light and film grain.

[Peter’s shift to camera stasis reminds me of Parajanov, whose Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was delirious with camera movement, and who then changed to having long-take fixed tableaux, camera nailed to the floor – artists are hard to figure out.]

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Lodz Symphony

He pursued this line for some decades, gathering grants along the way (DAAD, Guggenheim, , as well as other accolades like Whitney Biennial screenings). He was a regular at film festivals – Berlin especially, and the New York FF section for avant-garde films. He shot in Lodz, Budapest, and New York; moved to Bard he shot in the Hudson River Valley. And his reputation as a filmmaker’s filmmaker broadened such that, so he told me, Terrence Malick at one point asked him to travel the world doing shots for him in 35mm (turns out it fell through) and other such things. He shot a few features for others, worked with Ken Burns.

Then in 2002 or so, telling me he was doing so because Tri-X was no longer available, he shifted to color. And something happened.

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I am not one to mince words, or give deference to those who’ve done past work that was great but then slip into something else. When Peter switched to color (and Tri-X in fact is still available), somehow he lost that mystical connection between the granular structure of the film emulsion and the dance of light, and something else. Art-making is an organic matter, there’s no on/off button for it; it happens successfully when certain undefinable things align – often things out of the artist’s control. It happened with Peter when he left the Tri-X. Somehow the magic evaporated and his imagery became pedestrian – yes, nicely composed, and often with striking light, and yet lacking in that quality that was present in the black and white films. One might put it down to the fact that Peter was a little color-blind, though honestly I don’t think that had much to do with it. Something more to do with a certain kind of creative exhaustion.

Ironically, being more widely known, he became recipient to further grants, and traveled to shoot for them; he was shown more broadly at festivals. Through a friend of mine he was invited to Iceland, where he shot Skagafjordur. I recall seeing this film, a sequence of stunning landscape shots, glossy and gorgeous as in travel magazine fashion, and thinking it was missing the graphics of the month – June, July, August – up in the corner: calendar images. I recall visiting him in Annandale-on-Hudson, when he was editing At Sea, and his stringing up the edit to that point on his 16mm projector and screening it for me. To my eyes it was for the most part pedestrian; the sequences on board ship tragically vacuous compared to his own Images of Asian Music; the ship building sequences are ordinary documentary (though with Hutton quirks, like a little camera set-up or take-down movement at the start or end of a shot.) Only in a few sequences in the ship-dismantling section shot in Bangladesh did a few shots sing. Ironically, perhaps by critics who’d never seen his earlier work, At Sea was named “experimental film” of the decade. Aside from the simple matter that it is hardly “experimental,” it also isn’t a good film. That it was accorded this title, or screened in the Whitney Biennial, or then broken up to make a 3-screen “installation” at a gallery in NYC (to exclamatory good reviews), tells how far our arts world has fallen. And sadly, how far Peter’s touch had strayed.

I saw a few other later pieces of his – the one shot in Ireland, the last one shot in a desert area in North Africa – and they too are empty – perhaps nicely composed (a toxic notion), and innately “beautiful” (the coast of Ireland, the moody sky; the exoticism of camels in the desert), but beauty and composition don’t suffice.

The last time I saw Peter was in NYC, at a busy gallery opening of his two installation pieces, and one of James Benning’s, on the lower East Side – not far from where he’d lived and I’d visited decades earlier . It was full of art-world people, some few of whom I knew. I had a few words with Peter, as he was besieged with others. He passed on some comments about unhappy personal things, seemingly harried. At the time I thought he looked a little gaunt, something I’ve seen before in others. As if something were eating at him.

Peter died of cancer of the lungs on June 25th, 2016, at the age of 71. In May he’d sent me this note, after I’d sent him a letter about my own health. From this it appears he was rather blind-sided by his illness. The ending was quick.

May 7.  Jeeze! I came down with pneumonia the day I got your last message. My lungs are essentially shot, like swiss cheese the Dr says. I’m on antibiotics and feel slightly better.  Had a show in LA that just closed of Film Stills, sold a few which was good since my daughter is getting married in a month and I’m footing the bill. The digital thing has opened quite a few new exhibition opportunities, installations,trying to stay active but feel the grip loosening a bit . I’m trying to finish my Berlin film from 1980, which time has rendered “archival”. I’ll go to digital and maybe try another installation.I hope someone in Berlin will be interested. Carolina is down in Peru wandering around with a camera, “off the grid” at the moment. Do you know La Furia Umana. They are publishing a book about me, which will be out soon. Time and Tide……. stay in touch, glad you are healing. Best P

I regret there’ll be no more cribbage marathons (though I haven’t played for ages – last time with Peter), but I more regret that circumstances didn’t let me say to him how much his work meant to me, and how glad I was to have known him and had him in my life. I never did talk with him about my thoughts on his later work, though he was a modest sort and I suspect he would not have been bothered by my critique. In truth I think he knew inside himself, and that he carried on as a kind of necessary show. He’d done quiet and extraordinary work, and that was quite enough.

Sail on, sailor.

 

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Filmography:

  • In Marin County (1970)
  • July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971)
  • New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972)
  • Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-1974) (1973-1974)
  • Florence (1975)
  • Boston Fire (1979)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter One (1978-1979)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter Two (1980-1981)
  • Budapest Portrait (Memories of a City) (1984-1986)
  • Landscape for Manon (1986)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter Three (1990)
  • In Titan’s Goblet (1991)
  • Lodz Symphony (1991-1993)
  • Study of a River (1996-1997)
  • Time and Tide (2000)
  • Looking at the Sea (2001)
  • Two Rivers (2001-2002)
  • Skagafjordur (2002-2004)
  • At Sea (2007)
  • Three Landscapes (2013)

A nice piece written by Bill Stamets, Chicago friend

http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/reel-life-a-romantic-exulting-in-purified-light/Content?oid=878973

And Peter interviewed:

http://www.thislongcentury.com/?p=3385 

[I note I’ve met a few of Peter’s students over the years, and heard from others that he was a wonderful teacher – something from my own knowledge of him would be a given.]

 

Bard

To All:

It is with great sadness that I inform the community of the death of Peter Hutton, Charles Franklin Kellogg and Grace E. Ramsey Kellogg Professor of the Arts, on June 25 at the age of 71.

Peter began teaching at Bard in 1985 and chaired the Film and Electronic Arts Program for twenty-seven years. He also taught in the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.

Peter was born in Detroit on August 24, 1944. He received B.F.A and M.F.A. degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, and travelled the world as a merchant seaman, creating intimate studies of place from the Yangtze River to the Polish industrial city of Lodz, and from the coast of Iceland to a ship graveyard on the Bangladeshi shore. Anthology Film Archives presented a retrospective of his work in 1989, and the Museum of Modern Art presented a comprehensive, eighteen-film retrospective in 2008. His films have also been featured in the Biennial Exhibitions of the Whitney Museum of American Art for many years. He was named a Guggenheim Fellow and Rockefeller Fellow in the early 1990s and received grants from the New York Artist Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for his work on the Hudson River.

Peter was one of the most gracious, talented, original, and generous colleagues I have ever known. His contribution to the College was transformative. My deepest condolences to his daughter, Manon Hutton-DeWys ’06, of whom he was justly proud, and her husband, Donald McClelland; and his widow, Carolina Gonzalez-Hutton. He is also survived by his twin sister, Wendy Hutton, and brother, William Hutton.

A funeral service will take place on Tuesday, June 28, beginning with a quiet gathering at 5:00 p.m. at the Avery Center for the Arts, followed by a silent procession to Blithewood, where the service will be held on the West Portico, weather permitting, or in the Blithewood Foyer, if necessary. A reception at the president’s house will immediately follow the service.

If you choose to honor Peter and his legacy at Bard, his family has requested donations may be made to Bard College for the Peter Hutton Film Fund. Please do not send flowers.

Leon Botstein


Office of Alumni/ae Affairs
Bard College
845-758-7089
alumni@bard.edu

 

 

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In spring of 1960 I graduated from high school. Unknown to me, so did Cassius Clay, of whom I’d never heard, nor had most Americans or the world. A short few months later, Cassius had won the light-heavyweight crown at the 1960 Summer Olympics, and with a grand splash America and the world were introduced to the brash young man from Louisville, Kentucky. Cassius was anything but modest – he was the greatest, prettiest, fastest. He was, like America, the firstest with the mostest. He was the Louisville Lip.

Fame quickly gathered around Cassius, and he took to it like a fish to water. DJ Cassius, long before it became known as such, was perhaps the world’s first rapper. He spoke in staccato rhyme, and he spoke his mind. The world took note.

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In America, as Olympic champion, he was adored and honored. At least in the manner we honor black athletes: he won for “us” but he could go to the back of the bus, not sit at the local fountain store, and stay in his “proper place.”  He was a champ but he was, in the lingo of the times, especially down south, a “nigger.”

In short order Cassius Clay turned pro, put on a touch of weight and in 1964 he “whupped” Sony Liston, a fierce bigger black man, and became world heavyweight champion, and of course, vastly more famous, in America and the world. Promptly afterward he became a convert to an American form of Islamism and changed his “slave name” to Cassius X and then to Muhammed Ali.

America recoiled. This uppity black kid poked the USA in the eye, and just after he’d received one of the highest honors his country might bestow on him: fame and wealth. And just as the civil rights movement was roiling the nation. For much of America – the part that insisted on calling him Cassius – he turned into a traitor.

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I wasn’t, along with the growing inchoate substrate of the “counter culture,” part of that America. As Cassius won the title, I was in bumming in Europe, a college drop-out, disaffected and alienated from my own culture. When I returned to the USA in 1964 it was knowingly to go to prison, for refusal to serve in the US military. I spent two years and a bit there, and while in, in March 1966, Ali himself refused service. In the midst of the Vietnam war this brought vicious attacks on him, and in illegal manners, he was stripped of his title and vilified. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison, (which he did not serve) and forbidden to box. And in turn he became another kind of champion – of the alternative current running through America.

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I am not one for heroes or idols or stars, and Ali is no exception. I knew of him, respected his voice (and boxing skills), and over the years, as he changed in the eyes of America from loud-mouthed black boy hero to chump, to a mythic icon, I of course, like almost everyone else, followed his trajectory that arced into tragedy. Debilitated by Parkinsons and the horrendous damage of his sport, Ali appeared to mellow, and America’s view of him did likewise. No longer the brash arrogant man of his youth, the broad soft middle of America warmed to the almost silent mumbling man he became, such that today the media floods with ecominiums to this “ambassador of good will.” Such is the hypocrisy of my country.

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Boxing is a violent and brutal sport. To see it live (not live TV), as I have a handful of times – small-time boxers – is to be drawn into a primal world in which the visceral taste of death dances, as does our innate animal instinct for aggression. Watching the faces of ring-side observers is to watch the face of our most elemental viciousness. Boxing is our colosseo, and those who dance within its ring are our gladiators, issuing and receiving violence to enthrall us with the hint of death – and once in a while the real thing.

This was Ali’s world, for which he paid a deep price as the punishment he took upon himself, for our “entertainment,” took its toll. Today my society – America – schizophrenically gathers not so much for boxing, now a politically incorrect sport, but for football, where vast crowds cheer on a carefully orchestrated violence, as at the same time we discuss the brain concussions implicit, and all the other bodily damage which sees athletes reduced to hobbling cripples, stuttering with battered brains in their forties. As in boxing, a disproportionate percentage – way over the 12% of the population they represent – of the players are black. It is, perhaps, as some would say, their “natural athletic abilities,” which is not far from “they got rhythm.” Or perhaps it is their place in American society, in which one of the few escapes (another is showbiz) from the poverty of our vast black ghettos is through the avenue of sports – and so young African-Americans are channeled “by the market” to concentrate on dribbling, hoops, passing, catching, hitting, and if they are very lucky, “making it” into some major league, making a fortune, and limping into their premature dotage. It is, bitterly, a sometimes well-paid version of “keeping in your place.

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In the last 8 years, having entered a supposedly “post-racial” era in America, the presence of Barak Hussein Obama, a black man in the White House, has instead, through the agency of, among others, Donald Trump (and a long list of abettors in the Republican party), revealed the festering racism which remains an essential component of American society. It is something which is shown each day in the dark bodies which “play” ball for us in the avalanche of sports which serves to distract us from the disparities of our nation, the vast income chasms, the economic stratification, the vacant factories and towns, the growing legion of the homeless, not to mention the imminent violence which global warming begins to inflict upon us and the world.

Inadvertently Muhammed Ali, placed high on a pedestal as he aged, delivered vast homage in death, was in the end, “put in his place.” He boxed and danced for us, he taunted us, and named himself. And in doing so also named us. And, alas, he played his role – pugilist, gladiator. He fought in the ring and outside of it. He fought the culture he lived in. And at the end, he won, and he lost. America for now remains, beneath the veneer of multi-culturism and “post-racialism” much the same as it was back in 1967, when Ali said his provocative words, “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger.”

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The “N” word is now most politically incorrect, and we do our drone kills as best we can in secret. But racism in America remains alive and vivid as it was in 1960, just as does America’s global imperialism.

And in dying, Muhammed Ali, sadly, has been put in his “proper place.” He’s been eulogized by the President (who would see Edward Snowden in prison), reams of words have graced his name, most seemingly highlighting his ambassadorial role and his honorific awards. He has been embraced and his assertions about America  – it’s racist core, it’s militaristic impulses – have been discarded. He’s been turned into “a good boy.”

In any culture, each generation produces a handful of iconic public figures, people who somehow encapsulate an historical era, mirroring and reflecting the world in which they existed. Ali was one of those. For those of that era, the death of such a person coagulates a chain of memories and realizations  – not just of that person, but of one’s time and society, and hence of one’s self.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

                                                                               John Donne

Ali was saved by the bell a few times, and he came back to win. With the final bell, his Louisville Lip has been sutured, and history has molded him into an icon of its own desires. Present tense history is always a fraud.

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A friend in India wrote and asked me to write something on Muhammed Ali, after I’d posted a short note on FaceBook.  The above item is what I sent him, and post here.  Below is the Bangladesh front page of the piece.  (Thanks Nilanjan!)

ALI IN NILAJAN PAPER

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article-3058 Lucien Freud

 

Rummaging the computer again, came up with this, originally published in Senses of Cinema.  Little of it seems to have aged into uselessness, so I’ll print it again here.

End Game: Some thoughts provoked by recent exhibitions, and Godard’s Éloge de l’amour

Veering into my own 60th year, having taken a sharp (and for some it would seem unhappy-making) turn in my own creative work over the past ten years, I have in recent years given thought to the trajectory of the so-called “creative” life – primarily in the work of painters, but also in other branches of the arts, including cinema. The following are some thoughts prompted by recent exhibitions and JL Godard’s last work.

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Lucian Freud at the Tate Modern (August 2002)

At the Tate Modern (the older Tate museum) there was recently a retrospective of the work of Lucian Freud. I managed an hour during a rather packed Sunday afternoon, also the exhibition’s final day, not really comfortable, but all I was able to squeeze into my stay in London. Aside from having to elbow one’s way to see the paintings – past people clutching their lecture devices who don’t really look but stand three or five feet away listening to what I am sure is an academic facts and figures summary like dates, where he was living, and other not really so important things vis á vis the painting, with ready-made interpretations of the meaning of this or that – it wasn’t really enough time, but so life goes.

Freud’s earliest work (early 1940s) shows an immediate painterly talent. It is heavily influenced by surrealist qualities and mannerisms – juxtaposing odd things (zebra head coming in through a window), strongly distorted features, and so on. After a brief flirt in this direction he quickly settled in on portraiture, at first while very skilled, using thin washes, built up in layers, these works sometimes come perilously close to illustration – very good illustration but illustration. An early series of portraits limits the exaggeration to large eyes and a slightly bulging top of head (a well-known one from this series is among a group with excessively big eyes that goes dangerously into Walter Keane territory – a really trashy kitsch painter from ’60s America). For this period his color palette is if not bright, at least not so limited and muted as it would become. Clearly he is no colorist.

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Quickly enough, with some painterly hints from his friendship with Francis Bacon visible, Freud gravitated towards his idée fixe, which he then pursued with obsessive intensity for the next 50 plus years – portraiture, often nudes, in a palette of skin tones, earths, occasional reds, and when other “colors” enter, very muted. Here and there are a few images without people, of foliage. At the outset of this his paint is thin, washes built up to make a dense textural richness. This gave way to a thicker paint, in which in a meticulous manner he harnessed very fine aspects of the brush, with small little ridges of paint showing the traces of the individual hairs of the brush; this was done in a careful manner, heightening the richness of fine details. From a few steps back the images, like Caravaggio, seem somewhat clear and tight; with your nose in the painting, the fluid painterly qualities come to the fore. His balance in this is often perfect.

Such careful and meticulous detailing frequently (whether done in a painterly manner or more photo-realist one) results in a rigid and dead image. For several decades Freud pursued this aesthetic, certainly an obsessive and laborious process. Perhaps the best example is a large canvas of foliage, leached of color, a rich field of tan, slight earths, depicting leaves and the dense bramble of a bush. At a distance the sense of depth is amazing, one layer giving way to that behind it, several fold. Up close the depth vanishes, and what becomes clear are the amazingly small but very painterly details – the edge of a leaf defined by a meticulous fringe of thick paint trails of a stiff brush, applied with an exactitude which for anyone who has painted, seems astounding. It is a very big canvas, and its surface is completely covered. I cannot imagine how many hours it took, but certainly very very many. Unlike most such paintings, in which technique tends to overwhelm the painting itself, here the balance is immaculate, the push-pull tension between the “image” and the “painting” as precise as a tightrope walker’s step. This is just the opposite of the numerous examples in Western art of the ‘look-at-me’ still-life exercises of flowers, peeled fruits and glasses in which the virtuoso act of painterly perfection destroys the image, the tour-de-force sucking out any interest beyond an academic, yep, you sure can make that illusion.

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In his portraits, limited in his color range, Freud though engages in discreet but in fact very strong spatial manipulations. The space is normally flattened out, so that, for example, the legs of the sitter in the chair are being looked down on while the torso and perhaps face are seen frontally. Within this unrolled space are often foreshortenings pushed to slight extremes, such that one is not really aware, as one might be in surrealist work, of the spatial warp, but feels it is “natural” while in fact it is highly unnatural. Through this spatial play Freud imparts both a sense of monumentality to the most ordinary (a person in a chair or on a bed), and at the same time secures a rich sense of psychological penetration of the person (always a bit grim and unhappy – Freud must be approached with a buoyant spirit or he will fast take you down).

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A few decades ago this tendency toward monumentalizing in his work took a jump, and with it not only did the paintings get considerably bigger, but the poses, the foreshortenings, the nakedness took on an aggressive stance, the paintings clearly intended to shock the viewer: look at that cock, the folds of those labia, those BALLS! The willfulness of the intent to shock is a bit overbearing in these. At the same time the paint begins to thicken further, and the previous careful and obsessive detailing falls away, replaced by dense clotted clumps of pigment. The subjects are slowly subsumed into the paint, losing much of their psychological intensity along the way, with the scale and shock-value seemingly substituting for the loss in psychological penetration. Freud seems to get sloppy and indifferent, a sense of exhaustion pervading the canvases, as if he were saying “so fucking what?!” as the flesh sags, and the skin mottles into cellulite clumpiness. Surrounded by the hysterics of our media-hyped world and the slide of the arts scene into pure sensationalism (sliced cows, plasticized human bodies), the sense of shock has worn off, as well has the sense of painterly pleasure. By the end one feels he is doing it now for the big money, from habit, out of a dumb incapacity to do anything else. In the last room of the exhibit – mostly laid out chronologically – are some plain bad works. After 60 + years one must forgive, though perhaps Lucian should hang up the brushes, even if already a bit late. However the long mid-stretch of his career is rich and rewarding, with some incredibly good painting, albeit held tight within his very restricted range of interests and palette. As with most obsessive artists, the end result is a curdling inward finalizing in self-parody.

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Lucian Freud's Self Portrait, Reflection

Gerhard Richter at San Francisco MOMA (November, 2002) 

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A retrospective of 40 years of painting. I went a bit eager, perhaps over-eager, having admired the isolated picture seen in museums, and reproductions. The thought of seeing a large collection, spanning the career, seemed enticing. At first it was – the first rooms, in chronological order, having the eclectic mixture which I had known to expect: the soft-focus “realist” images, the raw and brutal scraped abstracts. In both cases these seemed to have the weight of seriousness. The images taken from newspapers, rendered in grays and black, their outlines softened with whiskered strokes, the facile rendering of mundane “reality” made mysterious with the reduction to monochrome and the distanced effect of the soft-focus. Juxtaposed against the harsh and large scraped panels, they played off each other nicely, as did the experiments in swirling paints done with a large and sometimes serrated blade. The early work harkened with its newspaper typography and imagery belonging to the American Pop art of the same time, but seemed invested with a German sense of gravity, and a more attentive painterly quality (a small gray roll of toilet paper casts a subtle shadow). Likewise the color panel experiments seemed a more severe case of Op art. Richter seemed ready to shamelessly touch all the bases, including nods to Abstract Expressionist Action Painting, and did so with such graceful ease that it seems almost a critique of these movements. Richter seems a born painter, able to hop from one mode to the next like a child. And yet…

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Gerhard Richter Flow

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And yet, as room followed room of essentially the same tactics, the radical shift from the hard abstracts to the gray and painterly city-scapes, Baeder Meinhof images, the gentle color land and sea-scapes, the saccharine portraits of his wife and child, the intermixing of soft-focusing and scraped smearing (his unpainting), the effect dulled, and slowly emerging from this accumulation came a powerful sense of obvious kitsch: what had seemed serious decayed into a shallow game, a kind of nose-thumbing “look how I can paint” sucked dry of any more meaningful content. The end result for me was a collapse into disappointment, all this obvious talent thrown away in a sequence of empty gestures. On quite another frequency, it is the same sense evoked by a Warhol, or Ed Ruscha retrospective: like Richter these are equally gifted with graphic talents, able to conjure the catchy image, to exploit a certain range of painterly or graphic quality and to hang it upon contemporary realities; and like these painters the more one sees, the thinner the content seems, until finally the enterprise folds in on itself, reduced to parody or self-caricature. Richter’s later images of his child and wife, unbearably kitsch in form and content, are not enhanced by the scraping then applied, rather the effect is as if Richter were assaulting himself, attempting to eradicate the facile manner in which he makes his images, as if scraping away the image would somehow rescue it from its fall into emptiness. It does not, but rather underlines the essential void which no amount of painterly talent can hide, and into which Richter’s entire career falls. The appearance of “significance” is a masquerade in this case, an accidental addendum to a lifetime of flight from such significance.

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Jean Luc Godard at End Game

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Which then leads to Godard’s latest, Éloge de l’amour. On the day of its release, I read the reviews in the Village Voice and New York Times (worthy of a look). I saw the film on DVD at a friend’s in London, certainly not an ideal manner in which to see richly visual work such as Godard’s. Éloge de l’amour certainly has an elegiac feel to it, the front 2/3rds in often lovely, if rather conservative, B&W imagery, much of it Parisian street scenes, a kind of documentary, but with a Huttonesque quality of being instantly old: lingering in the mind is that one has seen these images decades ago and draws to question the remaking of them – why? The camera is static, the compositions gelid, and lacking any originality. Rather they reprise a kind of history of photography of Paris, echoing rather directly a long sequence of photographers of the last 70 years. The “story” is one of the ones JLG has been telling for 40 years, starting perhaps with Le mépris (1963), and then repeatedly since: the story of making a movie that isn’t quite made.

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Beneath this is the usual movie-centric subtext about culture, love/hate, America/Hollywood. In the reviews one gathers there is a much more coherent “story” than there really is, with the supportive critics busy doing the stitching job which Godard has neglected. Rather what is really there is a blank notebook, being filled in, or not filled in, by a surrogate Godard. Literally there is a (note)book shown, pages blank, which the character peruses here and there. JLG’s confession that beyond the aesthetics, beyond the now heavily redundant “content” there really isn’t much there is made openly. It is the cul de sac of the cineaste, the dead end of cinephilia. Godard, a self-admitted child of the cinema, was always trapped in the celluloid box, hence his often errant politics, the expression of a worldly naiveté in which nearly everything revolves around the cinema. Thus the capacity of the film critics to unravel what is really a hermetic thoroughly ingrown discourse which Godard now loops (often gorgeously) over and over to himself, followed by an ever diminishing chorus of fellow cinephiles for whom the in-references to this film, that text, etc. constitute a quasi-religious experience, a cabalistic cult of knowledge that narrows ever more as time passes.

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The end result is a kind of decadence, in Godard’s case the inversion of the norm, where usually things get more florid and exaggerated. Éloge instead swerves to a severe Bressonian austerity until it suddenly breaks into a garish and somewhat schizoid and awful “video” which seems contrived to give digital video a bad name. Cranking the colors into not so bizarre extremes Godard actually does little but the most obvious with this medium, a severe disappointment in light of his past experiments in video and film. Juxtaposed to the careful black and white which precedes it, it seems a calculated (and misguided) jab, a backward lament for something about to be lost. One has no sense that he experimented with the new media for its own qualities, but rather attempted to impose filmic ones on it, and failing (as proper) then forced some dubious aesthetic pressure on it if only to laugh. Given his long ago work in video, long before it was in any manner fashionable, this is a bit of a surprise. On the other hand he is 71, and life takes its toll. One senses in the cumulative piece a tiredness of the work, of the failed (and illogical) fight, and of life. Godard was lost in Plato’s cave from the outset, so he should not be surprised when this illusory ersatz world of film proves unsatisfactory – as a replacement for life, it is indeed a very unsatisfactory substitute. One should not need 71 years to fathom that. In Godard’s case, the self-parody is, as perhaps it should be despite the Gallic setting, in Swiss Calvinist terms. You can’t go home again? Or you must?

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Meanwhile, in the titanic struggle which Godard has foolishly assigned to himself, it is Spielberg who is winning and laughing all the way to the bank (if himself intermittently showing signs of his own unhappiness with his periodic and pathetic attempts at “artistic seriousness”): the contest between art and Mammon is ever a losing proposition, and Jean-Luc’s perpetual battle has taken on the character of Don Quixote. Jean-Luc’s bitterness is palpable, though had he “won” – had Hollywood been vanquished from his constant jabs – there is no doubt in my mind he would be equally unhappy and bitter: shadows are a very poor substitute for life, and Godard has been shadow-boxing for his entire life. It is far too late for him to recall the original entry into Plato’s cave wherein he lost himself.

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Endgame

Amsterdam, January 15, 2003

I’m here, to give, tomorrow at a conference, a talk on digital media and its preservation (which, ever against the grain, I will suggest is a fruitless and unnecessary and even undesirable endeavor). I am in the Hotel de Filosoof, at a window looking out over Vondelpark, and perhaps by chance it is an appropriate place for these final musings. About ten days ago, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the last of a long sequence of screenings across the USA, a man, more or less my age, opened the post-screening discussion with a five minute long near eulogy, an embarrassing prelude of compliments on my past work, my seeming moral and ethical rectitude, all of which was difficult to accept – I am far more amenable to nasty criticism than cheerful slaps on the back. At the conclusion of his long list of positives he then landed what seemed in the context a sucker-punch, announcing that all his anticipations of, in his words, “enlightenment” had been dashed by the work I had shown, my last completed long piece, Oui Non (2002) being in his view an apparent complete failure, lacking the honesty of previous work, et al. I offered no response, aside from my apologies for having failed to live up to whatever expectations he had brought to the room, for which, frankly, I did not feel responsible. I chose not to note that I have never perceived myself as a giver of enlightenment, and have always been averse to either hero-worship or fandom, and decline to place others on pedestals or accept being put on one myself: the laws of gravity and the nature of human avarice both assure that there is only one exit route off a pedestal.

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But, along with many other comments taken in during a 14 city, eight week tour of the USA – my first return at all to my native land in nearly ten years – it served to underline a recurrent theme: the wish of those of the audience familiar with past work to be served up, in effect, more of the same. Where, it was asked again and again, was the narrative, the political directness, the this and the that which was liked of past work, and would I be doing another film like All the Vermeers in New York (1990), or The Bed You Sleep In (1993), or whichever was the speaker’s favorite. The frequent sense of disappointment in some for the new work – work which I willfully and happily and willingly did in a manner utterly unlike my previous – was vivid and palpable, almost a sense that I had betrayed the viewer, and hence myself and my own supposed talents. When I responded that I had grown bored with my own work – the process and the end result – even if perhaps it had been good, and that I had no interest in repeating myself as I saw other artists repeat themselves, this was met usually by those persons with dismay. When they insisted their desire for further narratives and on my seeming moral responsibility to provide it, I said that while I imagined I might in the future do something akin to my past narrative work, but that it would not look or be done in anything like the forms I had used before, and that I was not interested in making something I or they had ever seen the likes of before, this was met with a dubious air. In defense, not of the virtues or wonderfulness of my past years of DV work, I noted that in my own mind I had been, since commencing in DV, “playing” and that I thought, after 35 years of filmmaking, that I had earned the right to do so, as well as to shift gears and in a sense start anew, all over again. And that the “play” was fun, but also serious – an investigation and experimentation in a new realm, something I felt reinvigorated my interest in work, and through which I had learned a great deal. I did suggest, by way of pacifying my doubting Thomas’, and also telling the truth about my own thoughts, that I was – after six years of such experimentation – feeling just about ready to commence on a “serious” work which would embrace all that I had learned, but that this was not easy, since in effect I had no precursors to take as a guide or if I did, it was more in the realm of music, painting, poetry, than in the cinema.

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Of course, such discussion provoked for me a curiousness about the flow of the creative fluid, and a greater awareness of its volatile, living nature. Some artists commence almost full-blown, and tail-spin immediately; some slowly grow, maturing over time; some last, some don’t. I am self-aware enough, and a harsh critic of myself, such that I consider these things, and ponder my own nature, wondering where – attempting not to be vain and fat-headed – just where in this spectrum I might fit. And I ponder, as I have counseled in the critiques above, metaphorically, hanging up my own brushes when the due time comes rather than plowing ahead, whether encouraged or discouraged by others, as a matter of habit or pride or arrogance. In the din of the present world, especially in the shrieking media-saturated world of America and its copy-cat cultures East and West, it would seem perhaps the proper and wisest stance would be withdrawal and silence.

MAIS OUI .. LA MORT

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While I do not have any idea if my scribblings (kept largely private) constitute “poetry” the following was written a handful of years ago, a musing prompted by consideration of the career of Emil Nolde, a favorite painter in my eyes, never mind his erratic output and ultimate decline:

By then Emil’s song had stuttered ground-ward
the brush once free and risking, the palette ripe with pleasured chance
that birthed small friends and miracles
now hesitated, clumsy, unsure, daubing into cruder
compilations, red and yellow and blue and green which grumbled
only flower,
recalling those of long ago that blossomed magic from his brush
and now only aped the old song gone adrift somewhere

the rift was time, the battered cortex tired?
or boredom, as if to mutter,
“still another flower, Emil?”

descended to always present kitsch, once most often masked with
tragedy, the gravity of death and irony weighing in
with heavy elements – metals of uranium

now sickly child faces signaled here exhaustion,
earned, but begging now for silence
– lift not the brush, mark not the pristine papers –
unless to risk still greater disappointments.

O Emil, our fates to live beyond our gifts.

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“The pure products of America go crazy.”  William Carlos Williams

The endless cycle of the great American electoral farce is, once again, in full swing, this time with a menagerie of characters drawn from the deepest swamps of the national id.  On the Republican side have been up to 13 figures, each pandering to the furthest right-wing Tea-party strains of the once (at least to some) proud Grand Old Party, and each backed with the greasy fluids unleashed by the Roberts’ Supreme Court  ruling Citizens United which averred that we must avoid even the appearance of corruption, while instead, and perfectly in keeping with American tradition, we have leaped whole hog into the trough of billionaire slush money, tossed shamelessly and taken shamelessly by puppet candidates whose capacity to lie is equaled only by their pure venality.  Scrapping like poorly trained fight-dogs, snarling and posturing in a contest of who can rhetorically act “strong” while debasing themselves and the nation with true puerility.  Watching these would-be Presidents snap, and bark at one another, while chorusing their utter hatred for Obama (clearly because he is Other), is a spectacle suitable for….  For a nation hooked on Octagon cage-fights, guns, bloated SUV’s and war.

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While out in the wider world the consequences of American policies reveal themselves in manners oblique and blunt, our GOP candidates collectively stick their heads in the sand.  Refugees from AFTRA “globalization” wade the Rio Grande; refugees from the American-made war-ravaged middle-east flood Europe and beg admission to “the land of the free” which denies them (while its northern neighbor welcomes them); refugees from the early effects of global warming flee from drought-impacted worlds, soon to be joined by those fleeing from low-lands inundated by rising oceans.  Domestically these candidates stoke the flames of paranoid hysteria over “terrorists” while saying and doing nothing with regard to the 33,000+ Americans killed by guns each year.  Stats show each incident of gun-play lines the pockets of arms manufacturers with another spike of sales, as a minority of Americans arm up to Stand Their Ground, open and conceal carry, to take on the “bad guys” lurking in every theater, church, or Planned Parenthood clinic.   As the NRA asserts, “The sound of guns is the sound of freedom!”

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“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
—U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864

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A nation of immigrants, though from the viewpoint of the actual natives, of invaders, the US seems ever to have tangled with its origins.   From the very outset it imported Africans, as slaves, whom it used and abused for 500 years, and the nation still cannot come to a passable accommodation with this ugly original sin.  The vitriol aimed at its first half-African president in the last years has merely underlined the underlying racism which animates our society.  Primarily settled in the 1600’s by Anglo-Saxons, the nation recoiled when Europeans from other places began to enter: the Irish, the Italians, Jews, Chinese – basically anyone not fitting the profile of the original WASP settlers of New England and the East Coast.  It is a long, old, and very tired story.  It is, alas, us.  As is our electoral circus, and the process by which we select those who supposedly lead us.

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In the debased lingo of our permissible political language, there are only two real parties, though periodically, for very short terms, others try to horn in on this limited spectrum, and are hastily brushed into the historical trash can.  The two are our supposedly traditional parties of the Democrats and the Republicans, who curiously inverted themselves over 150 years.  The cleavage, crudely, has been a party “of the people” vs a party “of business.”   In recent times both these parties have been essentially taken over by corporate interests, with the distinction that the Democrats seek to mollify the resentments of an ever increasing left-behind class of blue-collar and middle-class sectors by softening the blows of economic consolidation and the concentration of wealth in an ever smaller circle, by offering social programs to make economic decline a bit more tolerable.  The Republicans on the other hand seek to exploit those resentments, casting race, religion and economic stations against each other, while stripping away the modest safety-net the Democrats offer.   The result, largely, is a Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum choice, which results in an apathetic electorate, in which real solutions to social problems are ignored, and our politicians tend to servile ass-kissing of the economic/corporate powers that actually determine our political situation.

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In this cycle, a modest wrinkle has been tossed in the mix with the participation of a self-named “Socialist,” or, a bit more exact, “Social Democrat,” running for the Democratic nomination against the heavily favored establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Bernie Sanders, despite the utterly dismissive treatment delivered by the mainstream media (statistical analyses show that he gets 20 seconds of air time for 82 minutes on Trump), in what is a transparent effort to censor him, in recent polls runs better than Clinton and beats any Republican in head-to-head contests.  However the corporate Democratic establishment has already convinced most the nation that she will be heading the ticket.  And, given the behind-the-curtain realities of American politics, they are probably more than right.  However, that despite the absence of coverage and the disdainful treatment his candidacy, Sanders polls remotely so well, is indicative of the deep undercurrent of unease which the body politic is showing – whether in support of Trump or Sanders.  Both tap into the economic squeeze which is in play: Sanders with programmatic solutions, and Trump with bluster.  Of course our corporate media gives the show-man all the coverage and does its best to reduce Sanders to a Pravda-style “non-person.”

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In Paris in recent weeks, following the terrorist events of the last year, the high-priests of the globe’s political caste all met to discuss, still again, the matter of global warming and its dire consequences.  Several weeks of wrangling produced an agreement a mere 50 years too late, and as customary, toothless.  Humanity will plow ahead, dumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere.  China and India will burn coal (as will the US and Europe and…), Americans will buy SUVs to run to the shopping mall, passenger jets will criss-cross the sky endlessly, VW will lie about emissions, the oceans will continue to acidify and rise, the Greenland icecap will melt, and perhaps in another ten years, as the catastrophic real price of foot-dragging shows itself (as if it hasn’t already), the world’s elite will gather again to discuss how to fortify their high-ground redoubts from the masses of people who are landless, without food, jobs, or the minimum requisites of life.  Though surely by then World War III will have begun the cull.

 

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Back home, as our candidates mince around the real problems before us, and instead raise the specter of terrorism, promising to unleash the full powers of American military might on those ever present Others, to whom of course we have never done anything bad to arouse their anger, we are gifted with reminders that we are exceptional, the greatest nation ever, ever #1!   Such is the deluded rhetoric with which we dress ourselves, as we march over the cliff.  The coming elections, asserted (as usual) to be a turning point in our history, offer us, most likely, a Republican ready to scorch the earth of all Muslims, enlarge our already bloated military, delete as many social safety net programs as possible, and toss more $$ to the 1%, and then a Democratic corporate honey who, in keeping with party tradition will more or less retain social programs, though like her husband did, cut them here and there, make cozy with Wall Street, and more or less continue business as usual.  Some choice!  But it is the American way, the choice offered in our corrupted, decadent alleged Democracy which is really a Wizard of Oz show.  And most often a highly successful one: how many Americans accept that 9-11 was a carefully designed and executed scam, one even announced some years before in the PNAC document of 1998?

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Remiss in posting here, verging on a year – more or less on the road all the time, Marcella and I.   For that time the numbing cacophony of American politics has rumbled as a background noise throughout the culture, interwoven with the other threads of our communal quilt: football, baseball, basketball, the now-customary gun massacre in a shopping mall or school, or even church.  The economy wheezes, sneezes, and we are assured is on a painfully slow recovery from the banker’s bust of 2008.  While the naked eye can read these things in the homeless encampments in any city or town, and the forlorn downcast faces of placard holding “losers,” academics scan statistics to inform us that the cohort of middle-aged white American males holds the distinction of having an ever diminishing life expectancy, with high suicide rates, and deaths from drugs and alcohol.  Pundits scurry to analyze this data, to ponder just why this should be so here in the world’s richest nation. Statistics demonstrate the grotesque disparities in the distribution of American wealth; demonstrators echo the mantra of Occupy, of the 1% and the 99%, and these are belatedly mouthed by our current presidential candidates.

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Meanwhile in distant lands Predator drones, and C-130 armed planes, drift high over the landscape delivering American policy, in the sudden rush of a Hellfire missile or cannon blast from 40,000 feet.  The “target objective” is (perhaps) vaporized, along with the tangential collateral damage.  Our serious columnists and pundits sift the think-tank data and opinion and then theorize on why some elements of the world’s population are angry with us.  There is no denial so successful as self-denial, and the American elite, rapacious and vicious, believes (at least some of them do) that our nation is out “doing good” in the big bad world out there.  Building democracy (backing right-wing dictators), bringing freedom (to be vaporized if you differ in what is best for your own),  developing free markets (where corporations dictate the rules).  What’s not to like?

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Moving down the coast through a bedraggled and fracked Pennsylvania, we passed through Gettysburg, the grim cauldron of American nationhood, where the Union was – ever so American – enforced at gunpoint and vast bloodshed.   It became a national instinct, which these days finds its expression in the gun lobby, and rural America’s love of guns which it seems to correlate with “freedom.”  About 300 Americans are killed by guns everyday.  Among the casualties are veterans of America’s endless wars, who take their own lives at a clip of about 22 per day, mostly with guns.  More collateral damage.  The monuments to these men are the VFW halls which litter the rural world, one in almost every small town and city, where hardly anyone notes the curiousness of what they mean: Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Of which we have plenty.

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Meandering further southward, we passed into the Deep South, where the sense of poverty deepened, and indeed the statisticians who crunch numbers confirm, if necessary, what the eye already reveals.  Though it takes a bit more than surface evidence to understand that these deep fried souls of the south, the white ones, the ones whose lifespans are contracting, are indeed the same who vote hard Republican Right, for those who would strip them of health care, of, in due time, Social Security and any other “safety net.”  All in the name of less “guvmint” and more Bible.  And in the name of not giving a crumb to Those People – the black ones, the Hispanic ones  – the any other than one’s own cracker good old boys.  Down South the purpose of a university is to host a money-making football team, and education comes far down the totem pole.   The rewards are a prideful ignorance and stupidity, worn as a badge of honor.  Fuck them libruls, and them pointy-headed college kids.  Go NASCAR.

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Sprouting from this fertile ground, the current crop of Republican Presidential wanna-be’s assemble on television for their “debates” and revel in a political vulgarity that in another time would have seen them promptly booted from the stage.  Instead, in this benighted time, their inanities are taken as if serious, and even the New York Times kow-tows to their absurdities: the world is 6,000 years old (because the Bible tells me so); global warming is a hoax (because the oil industry tells me so.)   Too much idiocy to redundantly list here, though these idiocies are taken in some perverse PC-warp as acceptable by our media.   Science is a “belief” on an equal setting with, say, “Christianity.”   Thundering from the podium, we are sold pie-in-the-sky as snake oil –  old as the nation is our addiction to delusion.

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“No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”     H.L. Mencken

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Through the Southwest of res towns and spectacular landscapes, we veered north to the dilapidated once-city of Butte, one of my American touch-stones.  The vast spaces are punctuated with pockets of mocking wealth and faux Westernism – places like Santa Fe, Taos, Cody, Jackson Hole – sparkling next to the myriad run-down abandoned places strung along disused rail tracks.  The res towns seem frozen in amber, desolate and hopeless, suffocated by the bowl of sky above and the empty landscapes around them.   Once thriving towns lie in ruins, roofs collapsing, stores boarded up and empty.  Desolation is transparent and real.

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They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Robert Zimmerman

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Landing in the self-conscious civility of Portland, where the invisible hand of the market masks racism, and the weird politeness of well-off hipsters hides its class-roots (those thousands of dollars of tattoos and piercings that “keep Portland weird” don’t fall from the sky), I felt exhausted, not of the thousands of miles on the road, but of the meanderings of my mind.  Road hum for me is something that loosens my thoughts, allows a vast free-flow of observations, perceptions, and experiences to intermingle, and opens up “thinking,”  which in its turn allows one to really “look.”

Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”  Goethe

Of America – boisterous, crazed, beautiful, ugly – I have seen enough to ponder the balance of my years.  Enough to guess its fractures now run so deep that it will, following in the wake of the USSR, stumble and collapse, and modestly soon – the next 30 to 50 years?  Enough to sense I have nothing more to add to the tumult of sounds which riven it, the avalanche of images and noises, which now run amok, out of all control, driving it towards ruin.   In all honesty I think nothing – certainly no political party, certainly no technical wizardry, certainly no “religious revival” (a recurrent American fall-back) – can thwart this spiral into dissolution.  Nor, really, should one try:  it is natural that things are born, grow, live, and then die.  As much for human constructs like nations and cultures, as for any living thing.

The pure products of America
go crazy–
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure–

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum–
which they cannot express–

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent–
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs–

some doctor’s family, some Elsie
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us–
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

Wm Carlos Williams

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Rummaging my computer, to post some stuff elsewhere, I found a folder of old talks/lectures and such, and thought perhaps they’d be still of interest.    So I’ll post in the coming months some of them here.  This one was sometime after 1993, but frankly I don’t quite know when, and I don’t recall just what the occasion was, nor where – clearly not in USA.   Somehow it seems to me as pertinent now as it did then – perhaps the names have changed, but the basic theme has only hardened and gotten much worse.

 

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LECTURE

To speak, is, by its nature, a social act. Whether it succeeds in its intentions – that of communicating properly from one organism to another – is dependent on a variety of factors: is the language shared? is there a common ground to point to the aim intended? is there an overarching reason why the communication should work? does the communicator possess the means to effect its purpose? Each of these questions is implicit in our first words.

So here, by way of laying a little groundwork, I’d like to back up, before beginning, admittedly at risk of seeming a bit academic, plodding, maybe overly precise.  After all, presumably I am here to talk about the topic of films, movies, cinema, and, while in some circles it is a topic given the gravity of serious thought, it is more often consigned to the realm of entertainment, of gossip, of frivolity. So the idea of trying to be careful in what one says would seem to run counter to the grain: doubtless, in most cases, we’d rather have juicy anecdotes about stars and famous figures. I am sorry to say I will disappoint those of you awaiting such revelations, albeit, like anyone experienced in the film world, I have my fair share of such tucked away. However, my interests for here are elsewhere.

Today, here in the United States of America, my country, and I presume also yours, we are in the midst of great shifts in our cultural, political, social, and economic worlds. In this way we are not any different than most places elsewhere in the world: across the globe the entire human species, in all its cultural and social subsets, is being severely tested. Ironically, the origins of that testing is within ourselves: the sphere upon which we reside, this earth, our home, is reeling from the effects of our human habitation. Through the means of our intelligence, our cleverness, our prehensile hands, we humans have quite literally transformed the world — it is not at all the world which would have existed without us. And yet, within the short span of our presence here – a few million years of identifiable homo sapien occupation, we have, imprinted deeply within each of us.

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CASUAL TALK

In the interests of clarity – which I hope will be an on-going phenomenon in the words to follow – I think it would help to let you know a bit just as to why I am here, and how it occurred that I would be here before you today. So, first off I was invited…      well, to be a bit more forthcoming the truth is that I was not exactly invited; rather, I invited myself. It is an occurrence which has been, frankly, rather common in my life — whether to sleep on some friend’s or acquaintance’s (or even a total stranger’s) couch or floor, or to find some elbow-room in the busy halls of public, social discourse: most often, whether in a discreet manner or a rude, blunt, fashion, most often I’ve had to materialize as a gate-crasher. It is little different here. There are of course reasons for this, which range from the most mundane, to the more complex of social/political minuets. I’ll try to explain.

Most often, to speak in public, to, as it were, be “given a hearing”, one must have demonstrated some expertise, some authority – preferably derived through personal experience, and preferably certified through some institutional stamp of approval – on some given topic. And then, as well, it helps to have provided some indication that not only do you know your topic, but also you have the wherewithal to speak coherently, cogently, and articulately, and if possible, even amusingly, about it. Many people who qualify for the former fail terribly at the latter. Though by a curious twist, oftentimes in our era, and one suspects in others as well, qualifying for the latter often gives the appearance of doing so for the former. Good talkers – among whom we might count actors and entertainers, showbiz con-men, razzle-dazzle businessmen and politicians (sometimes all bundled together) – frequently manage to get away with the flashy presentation of the appearance of saying something of substance when beneath it all the only real substance was the saying. It is an amusement to be observed all day, everyday, on television, or radio, or the halls of congress or academic conferences. You may, at the end of this, make your own judgment about me in this regard.

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Given the foregoing, you can fairly ask – especially as I confess my invitation was essentially my own – just what do I bring with me that qualifies your interest? Most often, these days, one would reply, quite simply, “Fame.” And, depending on exactly what realm we were speaking of this might mean one were a known hot-shot in sub-atomic particle physics, a local politico, a Donald Trump, a sexy up-and-coming rock star, or the like. In any and all instances, your case would be considerably enhanced by having graced the cover of Time magazine last week, having been on Good Morning America yesterday, and done a stint on Nightline or Arsenio Hall. Puncturing through the orb of the mass media, by good old American entrepreneurial logic, pretty much qualifies one for showing up and mouthing off: somewhere, someone is taking tickets, counting heads, and if one is not “famous” there will be precious few stubs to tear. Being known by multitudes bequeaths its own strange authority, for better or worse. Conversely, not being known is tantamount to getting censored. By such a logic we find, by one more turn of the screw, that the mass media is largely a mirror of itself: its open slots are mostly filled with those who actively engage in forms of mass media itself: with actors, writers, politicians, sports figures, singers, and even, here and there, “directors”. It is not often that those who toil in non-mass media find themselves enlarged through its mechanisms: Joe factory-worker, the shop girl, the bank teller, the telephone repairman, the farmer, the unemployed — all these seldom find themselves broadcast by multi-band frequencies back to the “masses”, except, perhaps, to play the fools on daytime quiz shows, or to stand in as representative “social problems”, or as icons of “everyman” in slick beer and car ads.

And so, then, in this instance, why me? By most measures I scarcely qualify as “famous”, not even within the rarified, narrow-band, community of experimental/avant garde film artists, so-called independent feature-film makers, or whatever other label one might wish to apply. While at times I’ve been vaguely acknowledged in both of these little communities, it has usually been reluctantly, with insinuations that, somehow, I didn’t quite fit in – and, being fair-minded about it, given the parameters usually applied by those slapping these labels on, it is true, I don’t really “fit in”, nor in fact do I wish to. I do though, work in a media customarily thought of as “mass”, albeit by that criteria certainly I have thus far failed badly in the arena. And hence, “fame”, that necessary but often elusive ingredient, has largely eluded me – or being a bit more accurate perhaps I should say I have eluded it.

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From the outset of my erstwhile career, I have always found myself thoroughly outclassed in this respect by the rushing passage of my peers: in the sixties, as we were all starting out, Paul Sharits, Scott Bartlett, Hollis Frampton, and a small host of others – the Mekas gang and friends among them, including ever famous Andy, held the limelight. The names you read about in surveys of the 60’s “underground” films were my peers, though, if you were to examine the literature of those years, you would be very hard pressed to find my name among them. At that time I lived in Chicago – the so-called Second City – where an inferiority complex comes with the cultural turf. And back then, during a few seeming pilgrimages to that perpetual American vortex of hipness, New York, I found myself, and my friends, casually, and I think causally, dismissed out of hand – even though in hindsight I could say some of them were considerably more talented and better artists than some of those I’ve just mentioned. However we were not in/of/and by New York, and hence clearly just didn’t know our asses from a hole in the ground. Or, in one bruising instance which I remember, in 1968, when the New York members of Newsreel – the radical-left filmmaking propaganda organization founded in 1967 – descended upon Chicago for the Democratic convention, we Second City members, having started our own Newsreel organization, also in 1967, found ourselves simply run-over by the Big Apple presumption of clout: we didn’t know where our asses were, but they sure kicked our butts around for our bother. Pity the poor souls stranded in, oh, Tulsa, or Houston, or, worse yet and god forbid, in some small town. Ever since that time I have harbored, in classic American fashion, a distinct prejudice against New York. It is, I regret to say, a prejudice which the intervening years have given no reason to discard, but rather quite the opposite, have only underscored.

In the seventies, with the emergence of far-from-Hollywood feature-filmmaking one found Mark Rappaport, Jim Benning, Yvonne Rainer, Amos Poe, and a few others taking the bow. One might again note a certain geographical bias – if they weren’t actually from there, at that point they were, having made the obligatory move, living and working out of there: “there” being New York, self-announced capitol of the American cultural high ground (LA proudly claims the low). Situated in the middle of the US art world, and its attendant media arms, those in New York stood to considerable advantage in the swirl of cultural and academic interest that surrounded the nascent “new narrative” film, as it got called back then.

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In the eighties, with the clacking PR-buzzword “independent” slicing through the cultural fermament, thanks to, among others, the IFP, at first came a few holdovers from 60’s – 70’s politics – Rob Nilsson and John Hansen, and Richard Pearce, along with a few others. And then suddenly, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Wayne Wang, Steven Soderbergh, Susan Seidleman, – all a lot, lot closer to Hollywood in their hearts (despite declamations to the contrary) and, duly, quickly a lot more famous than any of those I’ve previously mentioned. Within the ethos of the Reagan decade, these people, and a host of others who tried to follow-suit, had an apparent ace up their sleeves, which, neatly fitting the American cosmos, placed them at the heart of things — their stuff looked to make real money, which in the US scheme of things is the proverbial bottom line! Money talks/bullshit walks! And in general they even managed to get themselves into the pages of Newsweek or Interview, and into ads for GAP or American Express credit cards! This is the real thing! Significantly in hindsight one might also note that they were all, more or less, aesthetic and political conservatives – even for all his fire and smoke, Spike Lee.

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Throughout this whole time, now nearly three decades, the refrain which I’ve long grown accustomed to – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it – has been something like, “Oh, I’ve heard of or read about you…. (but I’ve never seen any of your films)”. I’ve heard this line echoed off the lips of regular film fans, directors of world-class film archives, other filmmakers from avant to big biz, and even from Hollywood lawyers and production types. So persistent is this that at this juncture I sometimes think I made one really major error in my career, which was that I actually bothered to make the films for which I have accrued a reputation built upon their having been “heard of” but never seen. Had I been really smart I would have perceived the possibility of simply crafting the aura and the myth of an ever-unseen body of work, and forget the rest of it! I mean making films is hard work and if one can have a reputation centered on unseen films… well…. The mind boggles.

Still, it is out of this – this stealth career – which, curiously, my presence here today is spun. Put plainly, I’ve been making films since 1963, some 28 years ago, and have managed, so far 20 some short films, mostly done in the sixties and early seventies, and since then another 11 finished feature-films, as well as 2 or 3 others awaiting completion. In sheer numbers, if the truth be told, it is considerably more than any of my contemporaries in America, younger or older. And when I say “I’ve made”, given the nature of the film business, maybe I should clarify a bit. In this case it means that: I found or didn’t find, or made, the money – usually very little – to make most of these films, meaning in the vernacular of the business that I produced them; then I thought or didn’t think, maybe wrote a script or maybe didn’t, took my camera out, loaded it and shot film footage – sometimes of things, sometimes of actors acting under my coaxing and guidance, synched the picture and sound, edited the results, sometimes wrote and performed the music, or otherwise, if there was any, supervised, carefully, just what kind of music; laid out the graphics and titles where there were such things, shot ’em on an animation table, cut the original for lab printing, the sound for sound mixing, did the mix myself or closely supervised it, and sometimes timed the lighting for the printer and finally hassled the thing through all the technical processes involved. By industrial film making standards one could say I wore a lot of hats, almost all of them. For myself though, as a craftsman and artist, I just felt like I was doing my job or jobs. And I will continue to do so, whatever the money at hand. Something in me feels there is a virtue in getting ones hands dirty, messing with the nuts and bolts and grease of things, and conversely, I see a vice in keeping ones hands clean.

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But, despite this near three decades of work, or probably in a way precisely because of it, none of the resulting films has ever been theatrically distributed in the US or elsewhere, nationally broadcast, or exactly made much ado about – with a few modest exceptions – even in the most esoteric of film journals. In point of fact some of them are maybe a bit too strange, weird or something to be appropriate to the usual theatrical, or even art-house, setting. On the other hand many of them would, or would have, fit in, but I was remiss in the next job, that of salesman. Or perhaps – and I think this is in large part the actual case – no matter how good a film is, even an accessible one, if it doesn’t cost a lot of money it is somehow tainted by its poverty. There are certainly a few exceptions to this, so it isn’t a hard and fast rule, just a generalization. But the odd actual low-budget film that does see the light of some kind of US distribution almost always has a between-the-lines note that one ought to see it despite how little it cost, and despite its gritty, grainy rough edges. The obverse is that a really expensive film, no matter how insipid and lame, at least offers the spectacle of extravagant waste and idiocy, in vivid wide-screen color. And almost without exception, the mavens of the mass media hype machine will encourage you to trot out for a look.

In my case I would guess that each of my films has been seen, in the United States, by no more than two or three or, oh, maybe four thousand people – with the exception of two films broadcast at some graveyard hour by WNET in New York, which perhaps were subliminally perceived by fifty-thousand sleeping bodies. All of which is to say, I have remained thus far, steadfastly and adamantly unseen and, following naturally, unfamous. And hence, my need here, yet again, to invite myself. I hope you will forgive my rudeness.

I should note though that while the things I’ve just said lend themselves to being interpreted as open to a kind of bitterness in regard to this “being famous” stuff, it is not really that way at all. Actually, way back when I was starting – I was nineteen years old – I was already quite aware that working in some mass media form, such as film or pop music, inherently set one up for “fame”, and for all the things that go with it: for wealth, and its subsequent isolation and distancing from the ordinary world. To be successful in such a field, – whether you are a singer, TV newscaster, actor, or even only a modestly successful director -, this phenomenon, in one way or another necessarily occurs. And, quite consciously, it was something I did not desire (though certainly I also did not desire to labor away in my work to have it virtually unseen by the world). In consequence, by means conscious and otherwise, I often did things which subverted and undercut whatever possibilities existed for me in respect to pursuing the career/fame ladder. And likewise, I also busied myself doing other things, for their own or my own sake, heedless of the potential effect on such a “career”: in the sixties, for political and moral reasons I spent a bit over two years in prison, for refusing to do military service, pretty much right through the height of the cultural ferment of that decade. On getting out I spent the better part of the next two years engaged in as much political mayhem as I could manage. I worked for the draft resistance, rabble roused, helped set up the left film making and distribution group Newsreel, was involved in setting up a film co-op in Chicago, and worked for the “Mobe” – the organization that led to the Chicago Seven trial. It wasn’t, politically speaking, really all that much, and certainly in hindsight it doesn’t seem to have moved things at all in the desired direction I seemed to have had in mind – but it did gobble up several more trips around the sun, and provide, as did the prison time, an interesting education. I suppose it also laid the foundations for a future reputation as a uncompromising, foam-at-the-mouth, hot-head.

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In the seventies, I retreated into a nearly six year stay in the woods – in California, Oregon and then Montana – far far from the cultural centers of New York or LA, or even Chicago. There, again, I was rewarded with a rich education – in raising animals, gardening, scavenging the garbage of Kalispell, implanting myself in a rural community, sharing life with a child (not my own), and living exceedingly frugally. I was, as is said, dirt poor, but we survived quite well and learned a lot, about a lot of things. I am not afraid of the next recession or even major league depression. Though again, I was far removed from any apparently useful “career moves”. Along the way, with the kind of insights that long solitary walks in the woods can open up, my awareness of the nature and effects of “fame” heightened, and my determination to try to avoid this increased. Looking at it now it seems a bit comical, this concern about “fame” while rummaging through garbage bins to keep three mouths fed. Immodestly, despite my circumstances, I knew I was very good at what I did, and that if I merely followed through and worked at it, pudding would prove.

While out in the woods, though, I did also shoot and complete a first long film, in 1973: it was called Speaking Directly. And while it took a another 6 and 2/3rds years to obtain a New York showing for it (in December 1979 – and not, I should add owing to my not trying – rather it was looked at by all the “right” NY people, who duly passed on it) it did, elsewhere, far away – in Canada and Britain – make some ripples. In consequence, for the first time for me, the walls of the cultural world were slightly breached. More importantly to me then, as now, was that it, along with my other work, showed to good effect in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Bloomington, Indiana, despite its quite non-commercial form and its direct critical, political, content. These days there are some, even in New York, who think of Speaking Directly as some kind of American masterpiece.

Subsequently, in the mid-seventies, feeling I’d largely absorbed whatever lessons were to be offered up by rural solitude, poverty and hard physical work, – not to mention long bitter winters – I found myself in southern California, where, after a deliberate lapse of four years, I resumed making films. In Los Angeles in 1976 I made a nasty but funny satire about Hollywood called Angel City, and returning to Montana in 1977 made a kind of contemporary Western road film, called Last Chants for a Slow Dance. Both were made for absurdly small sums, even for those days – $5,500 for the LA epic, and $3,000 for the Montana film – (and we’re talking about feature length, color films, with actors, aerial shots, some snazzy graphic effects and all, though of course in 16mm). As a consequence I was, momentarily, vaulted into the then-burgeoning independent film world, getting invited to festivals in Europe – Edinburgh, Berlin, Florence, Brussels. Back in LA in 1979 I made another film, Chameleon, this one for a whole $35,000, blown to 35mm too. It was a caustic, nasty tale about a spiritually corrupted dealer in drugs and fake art: a parable about Hollywood and LA. Briefly there was a little buzz spread about regarding my seeming talents: the hot air of the critics, without any apparent sense of contradiction, anointed me a new American Godard, an up-and-coming Wenders (never mind I’m a few years his senior), a this or a that. In the last few months I’ve been twice anointed a David Lynch acolyte or something. All this despite that a look at my work would show a perfectly consistent aesthetic and political continuum. I long ago gave up giving our friends the critics much credit for insight or intelligence. Back in ’79 one major Italian critic felt sure Hollywood would take me under its wing, and this being America, in some realms it was assumed I might make the only obvious next step and turn to Hollywood – or at least something like it. Never mind that my Southern California films, Angel City and Chameleon, had both been scathing critiques of Hollywood and its cultural parallels. One would have had to assume that either I was a total hypocrite, or that I was so naive as to not have any idea what I’d made.

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And so, with the apparition of a “career” right around the corner, a seeming foot in the door to some kind of real “deal,” rather than making the anticipated grown-up leap to Hollywood, I instead consciously made a handful of films which, in their deliberate smallness, in their aesthetic, political and cultural radicality, only reiterated my refusal to make the mainline move. At a time when the banners of The Great American Indie were being hotly waved, and organizations were sprouting from coast to coast in their support, and the concept was shifting from nickel-and-dime film making to heftier quarter and half-million sums, or more, I was off piddling around making films for $8,000 (Slow Moves) or $25,000 (Bell Diamond), as well as a few others for lesser sums that remain unfinished at this moment, and one, for German TV – Stagefright – which was just plain hard-core avant-experimental. So much for career moves. For a decade this seemed to shunt me, yet again, off to the margins of the great cultural Whoo Haa. My work, pretty much as usual, was somewhere off the cultural trend map: it did not emanate from the hip hotbed of Soho where the stylistic posturings culturally mirrored the Wizard of Oz politicking going on a few hundred miles to the south, or the fiscal smoke and mirrors going on only a few blocks down Broadway on Wall Street: the politics, economics and films were all of a piece, equally vapid and morally bankrupt, riding on appearances rather than substance. They were all duly applauded and adored while the country stuck its head in the sands of history.

My films contrarily were about the inverse of the hip — two films about some unattractive, decidedly unstylish unhip losers in Butte (where?), Montana, and Northern California (Bell Diamond and Slow Moves); Uncommon Senses, a sprawling, politically and aesthetically, radical critique of America at the height of the conservative Reagan years; and Rembrandt Laughing, a quiet, gentle, comedy of manners among the not-yet-fashionable near-middle-aged, set in San Francisco, done for $10,000, at a time when the concept of “independent” had moved into the multi-million range. As usual, for practical purposes these films were all but unseen in America. One might say it is as if one had willed obscurity; or, others might say, “failure.”  And, in part, I’d have to admit this would be correct: the longer I was around, the more I knew, the less interesting or appetizing the movie business seemed – whether in the knuckle-crunching version played out in Hollywood, or the back-biting, trend-conscious version played out in various Arts Councils, foundations and the like. If the measure of success was to be found there, then I didn’t mind passing on the whole affair. Though, being myself, given the odd public forum, I generally spoke my mind, called a spade a spade as I saw it, and – I think especially in the last, and current, conservative years – paid duly for the effrontery of actually using the supposed right of free speech.

Along the way, a new, and dubious tag was affixed to me. I had not faded away, but, apparently oblivious to the winds of fashion, or to that significant eighties imperative of making the honorable million or two, I had instead doggedly persisted to make my ever inexpensive and “unseen” movies. And in turn I was anointed “a” or “the” or an “independent among independents”, a “maverick”, an unruly outsider, a loner…. Finally the specific label doesn’t really matter, rather its function does: the point is to diminish one’s meaning, to marginalize, to push to the side; to, finally, walk over, dispose of, and try to crush. That is the real point of such labels, whether it emanates from the offices of some commissar in a defunct USSR, or from the pens of critics who are really little more than PR flacks of that big business – an ideological factory – called Hollywood. However it is couched, those who would call another a rebel, an enfant terrible, and all the other similar names, are really saying that one is an outcast, which, if we just reverse the order, says it more clearly: one is, thank you, being cast out. Of course, the more vehemently it is said, the more suspicious it becomes.

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And so, to, in musical fashion, return to the motif announced at the beginning of this, I am here, decidedly, as a self-invited gate-crasher. Having been cast out more times than I care to count, I’m back at the door, determined to get in, however undesired that may be. Sorry. I am here, despite innumerable things, small and large, which mitigate against the chances of someone such as myself getting to such a place; I am here in lieu of numerous others, not dissimilar to me, who either fell by the wayside invisibly, or chose – perhaps more sensibly – under the circumstances to find other things to do with their lives. In consequence, lacking a degree, or a pedigree, or other institutional packaging ribbons, I’ve had to make this little excursion into biography, for which I hope you will excuse me. I am a firm believer that one should know the background and situation of those who deliver messages, the better to make judgment on that message.
Having said all this, you might well wonder just what is it that makes me either want to be here, despite my obvious reservations and complaints, or what is it that allowed me to, or made me, persist. Or, you might also think, “where does this guy get off saying this – he IS famous, well sort of….” (meaning you have heard of me, and so you thought to come to this talk). Or maybe you think I kvetch too much, and, what after all is wrong with the way things work in America. In the movies? In life? I can, frankly, imagine a host of doubts swarming in your minds.

And so, then, I will try to tell you why I have invited myself, and tried, however lamely, to crash the party.

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HOW IT WORKS

In my previous words I tried, consciously, to be a bit conversational, casual, maybe even amusing; to describe a bit of a part of a life spent making films, living in the cultural milieu which surrounds that, and trying to tell you, and perhaps as well, myself, just why I took the paths I took. Along the way I tried, in a low-key manner, to provide the underpinnings of a kind of argument as to why you might wish to bother to listen to me, to consider and think about my experiences and the thoughts which they in turn have generated. I would not, otherwise, be here today, or have spent the time thinking about these things myself. So perhaps it would be instructive, if a bit academic, to go back for a moment here and look at the very word attached to my being here: I am here, formally, to “give a lecture.” In general such a phrase is likely to induce a recoil: for the most part to be on the receiving end of such – to “be lectured” is thought as a painful process, either because we made some damn fool mistake, or, because it seems to imply a bit of heavy, brain-damaging, thinking. Generally we regard it rather something like taking a bitter, even if just, perhaps, needed dose of medicine; we seldom though imagine it as “fun.” But, sometimes a bit of brain-tickling can be just that. So let me, an unschooled, self-taught, autodidact, if you will, spin a little bit of linguistic etymology. For those who might have found that a bit too much of a lexical torment, it just means I’d like to take a look into the history of the word we’re using here. Just what is a “lecture?”

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According to some etymological sources – mine was Websters Collegiate Dictionary a long time ago – in the Indo-European languages the word for lecture derived originally from “leech” – as in the medical practice of letting leeches suck the blood out of sick people, supposedly to help them.  This was, as many things way back then were, quite wrong-headed.  However the intention was to help.  Then the word morphed into “lecture” which originally meant a reading, one from which it was intended one would “learn.”  And from the process of learning, one would draw conclusions and the word morphs into “law.”  So, briefly, a lecture is meant to be a useful, healthful process from which one might learn and in turn draw certain rules, or laws.

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With this in mind then, I’d like to take a look at a small world, the one I’m presumed to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about, film making, and to try to understand a few things about it which are perhaps not customarily perceived. To do this I’ll draw on a life of experience, trying to reflect through that something more general and useful regarding our culture at large, and finally something you might find directly pertinent to your own lives.

I am, as you know, a filmmaker. By the measuring stick one might normally apply to this, though, I sit far off at the margins of the industry which film production constitutes, caught off in a little eddy, along with a handful of others, while the larger mainstream roars loudly and quickly by. So forcefully does this larger main branch go that it often picks up tidbits from my little eddy and takes them along, and does so so loudly that hardly anyone ever hears it. The inhabitants of this backwash in which I survive count for perhaps one in 25,000 film makers or people who in one way or another imagine themselves to be film makers. This is, of course, an assertion that begs for some clarification, which I’ll try here.

In America most film making – by which I’ll venture the guess that this means 85 or 90% of film making – is done in the service of a single, driving, motivation: to make money, preferably lots of it. This comes, though, in many guises: from the obvious example of the Hollywood blockbuster, carefully constructed with all the right “elements” – big stars, director, budget, hot script -designed to elicit the most bucks per theater, internationally, possible, on to the more humdrum routine of the daily fill of TV time, of advertisements, of MTV, and the like. Of the remaining little pool of 10 or 15%, most is devoted to utilitarian functions – to educational purposes, to scientific study, to governmental or corporate propaganda, or the like. Beside these two branches a last tiny little protrusion exists – maybe, being extraordinarily generous, 1% (though I suspect probably more like .1%): here the driving motivation is to make “art”, or something like it. The proponents of this are often screwball cases, like myself, who work away, heedless of such silly preoccupations as worrying about money, insurance, pensions and all the things that go with it. We may or may not give much consideration to our possible audience, and whatever our intentions, we often fail. But, most decidedly, we do not make films in the anticipation of thereby making money; quite the opposite we do so despite the fact that it most likely costs us money. The concept of the “deal,” with all its implications, sees us recoiling in disgust.

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Now I know that here I’ll likely be called into question, what with my numbers: certainly, given all you read about it, “art” covers more than 1 or .1% of film making. After all, what about all those “independent” films you’ve read about – you know, sex, lies and videotape, or Metropolitan or Spike Lee’s latest? What about the classier Hollywood product, like, oh what the hell, Dick Tracy, Henry and June or The Sheltering Sky, or, oh, I don’t know, some film where the director goes on TV and says he took a big cut and big risks, and the actors said it was real tough, and gee whiz, they all did it because, you know, “they really believed in it.”  And maybe Ebert and Siskel said two thumbs up, and Canby said “masterpiece.”  Isn’t all this “art?” My answer, as you might easily anticipate, is most likely a rude, “fuck no!”  Most such film  making, some made under the sincere rubric of “art,” is made by people who honestly confuse their earnest desire to “express themselves” with their equally earnest intention to make a good buck as well, and they know in their hearts all too well the formulas by which that buck is made. Their inner concept of “art” already has commercial intent and content built in: it is, from conception, kitsch, and has as much relation to art as Hummel dolls do to Michaelangelo’s Pieta.

This is not to say that art can’t, here and there, make money. Just that art doesn’t, and can’t, begin there – perhaps (and having little to do with whether it is good or bad art — probably most money-making art is the bad art) it can end there – making money. But when a big time (or little time) industry director takes it in his head to make “art” – say Steven Spielberg making The Color Purple – he makes a great to-do of the sacrifices, the difficulties, the mental and emotional torments involved; and, not having the vaguest idea of what art might actually be, makes the inevitable piece of overblown doodoo. Whenever the mighty powers of Hollywood begin to fulminate about art one can duly anticipate a certain heaviness of hand, a pre- and portentiousness, and most often an awful thud as it tumbles downward in the Variety listings despite the inevitable pages of free press rendered up by the national media, not to mention the 10 or 15 million spent for promotion. Unhappily, Hollywood seems not to know that one does not take a little time off from the unhappy rigors of commercial demands to make art; making art, or trying to do so, is a far far more rigorous a chore than anything the heads of Hollywood, or their hired hands, can imagine. When, as happens on occasion, Hollywood does make art (very very infrequently in our time) it is at best the consequence of a happy accident rather than consciousness.

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Given that the foregoing smacks of a tirade, of a bit of petulance, arrogance, and for sure a certain lack of shall we say, generosity, toward the likes of Mr. Spielberg, I can almost hear the chorus coming back, something to the effect: well, what’s wrong with – and then a compendium of titles, the ones you can remember from the past few years, the ones you liked, the ones you heard about that did big b.o. but you didn’t manage to see, and so on. Distilled to its essence, it comes down to something like, “I liked it/millions of others did also,” and, by a leap of illogic, ergo it is OK, and further, it is even, put under pressure, “art,” if “art” is the necessary legitimizing word we need. My answer is, forgive me, “bullshit!”

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I’ll cite, because it is vaguely amusing, a recent personal instance of this kind of thing. This past summer I was at the Telluride festival, high up in the Colorado Rockies, and as things happened I was placed on a panel composed of an odd mix of supposed “independent” filmmakers: they included, sitting at the far right, Clint Eastwood, who of late has busied himself with making imagined “art” in between stints at self-acknowledged commercial shtick; Taylor Hackford, a producer and the director of “An Officer and A Gentleman;” Abel Ferrara, maker of stylish, New York-set exploitation flics; our moderator, Annette Insdorf, a professor at Columbia and intellectual gad-about the biz; then Babette Schroeder, Euro-helmer transplanted of late to the US, director of Bar Fly and Reversal of Fortune; Richard Pearce, the maker of The Long Walk Home, and a string of similar liberal minded, do-goody films of no creative merit whatsoever; and lastly, at the far left, myself. We had gathered together, all present for having films in the Telluride festival, to talk, ostensibly, about the imagined difficulties faced, thanks to the harsh taskmasters of Hollywood and their even harsher taskmaster, the Market, for making – and I duly place this in quotes – “adult” films. Madame Insdorff opened up with a soliloquy on the vicissitudes of the market, though mentioning a handful of, in her mind, “adult” independent films that had miraculously squeaked through (in my mind these same films would qualify as puerile drivel, so it was clear we had some kind of semantic problems before us). Annette proceeded, duly, to toss the matter, systemically, right to left, into our expert hands. Clint, showman that he is, made the obvious “porn” joke which attended the seeming question at hand, and then waxed long, if not exactly eloquently or interestingly, on how difficult raising the funds for White Hunter, Black Heart, had been. The audience, slightly numbed, wept crocodile tears on his behalf. The baton passed to Mr Hackford whose very name renders up its own obvious appropriate joke, but he in turn waxed long and boringly on his own artistic pretenses, using the inevitable cliche “really-believed-in,” and stressed his profound artistic sincerity. Mr Hackford was present as producer of The Long Walk Home, a sterling example of mush-anointed-art typical of Hollywood’s liberal wing – though along with Mr Eastwood, Taylor purported to be a struggling outsider! Truly, he, director and cast all suffered mightily to make this wishy-washy tear-jerking commentary on the politically touchy topic of — uh, well, civil rights events of 30 years ago. Abel Ferrara came next and provided some streetwise humor delivered in good New Yorkese, which helped, if only momentarily to puncture the dubious solemnity of the event. In contradiction to the two preceding him, Abel was happy to wise-ass that now he was a hot-shit Hollywood director, and then, it was my turn.  Speaking more briefly than those who had preceded me, I laid into the pretensions of these Hollywood sorts with their sad stories of how hard it was for them and their ever-so creative impulses, to deal with the demons of the business.  I suggested that their laments were phony (and by implication that they were phonies), and to claim they were “independent” was farce.  Annette, looking vaguely shocked, saw fit to promptly direct the talk elsewhere. Whereupon – and I am not kidding – bursts of shouting and applause for what I’d said punctuated the thin Colorado air. Yells for “More! More!” echoed over the mountain top where we had gathered. Instead Ms. Insdorff shunted things back to celebrity and a thin gruel of talk where, in a spate of hyper-radicalism, Mr Eastwood – and this is a true story – said he was pleased that his new film had allowed him to quote John Huston complaining how the process of selling popcorn dictated what kind movie one could make, and so he thereby sort of agreed with this fella at the other end of the table, and boy, take that on the chin Hollywood: had Clint ever acted so limp-dicked in any of his roles he never would have left the mock West of Spain. The talk dwindled into sawdust, and after an hour was closed. In a discourse among presumed grown, adult, intelligent people, most of the talk had been self-serving bullshit, whining about funds, and thoroughly dishonest assertions of  “independence” from people who have long since been bought and sold and were, thereby, strangely, embarrassed about it all. To think that these people, carefully culled for presentation at this major festival, in some way represented the enlightened, intelligent face of American cinema, is at best a travesty.

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So I have cited this anecdote not for the intelligence or wisdom to be gleaned therefrom, but, sadly, for the opposite factor. There, gathered under the auspices of a prestigious festival, of some import in the wheelings and dealings of, at least, the US art house distribution and exhibition biz, were a small handful of people, presumably intelligent, energetic, experienced, who, given the opportunity to speak in public took refuge behind a veneer of liberal platitudes, of self-serving kvetches about money, and who did not dare look, even momentarily, in the mirror to their own image. Like those who populate the political spectrum in America, these people – perhaps marginally more sincere than their crasser peers – Freddy Fields, or Michael Ovitz, or other On High Hollywood bigwigs – are, as their cringing behavior, as well as their questionable words, revealed, thoroughly corrupted: intellectually, socially, morally.

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These are, I know, harsh words. In the present social atmosphere, they are in a way taboo. We are not supposed to talk like this, or, if and when we do, we are quickly pushed aside by various means. One is compared to the thundering know-nothings of the religious or political right – to Jimmy Swaggart or Senator Helms. Or one is ridiculed as a throwback to the sixties and the shrill “off-the-pigs” sloganeering of the left. Right or left, the intent and effect, though, is the same: to foreclose discourse, to shut off the option of public thinking. The purpose is to sustain the status quo, to silently assert that whatever is going on – especially with oneself and one’s own immediate world – is OK, nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing to criticize.

But, as the evidence of our everyday world insistently indicates, everything is not OK. However much we would like to think it is, and would like to think our role in it is OK, we cannot these days walk down a city block, take a drive through the rural back roads, or give a momentary honest look at the world around us, or our place in it, and claim, with any honesty, that all is OK. The evidence, simple and plain, is to the contrary.

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So, you might ask, what the hell has this to do with movies? This guy is here to talk films, and here he is talking something else. So, I imagine, you might be thinking.

So, while I will redirect these words back to film, I must note that they can and will, necessarily, erupt out from that world, and into the world at large.

Recently I read that in US exports, the entertainment business, of which I am certain movies and television make a very large portion, (along with popular music), stands second only to aerospace — which is a nice euphemism for a mix of commercial airliners, and, well, military exports – fighter planes, bombers, missiles, you know, those run of the mill exports that keep the economy humming, or at least running. It gives a bit of room to ponder, though it doesn’t, at least for someone who travels as much as I do, surprise: the marquees of Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, not to mention myriad other smaller burgs, bristle with the titles and stars of Hollywood: our exported shadow shows bring back, it seems, some very real very big bucks. I mean really really big bucks: this is, on a scale that you and I may find hard to comprehend, really big business, and, like its counterpart, the military-industrial complex, it would prefer to keep many aspects of its workings off-screen. It is pleased to make its stars house-hold names around the world, it is pleased to have its aura induce screams of delight from teenagers from LA to New York to Tokyo to Moscow to Rio; it is not, however, pleased to have its real business aired in public.

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Rothko’s New Clothes

In 2002, visiting Houston a first time, I went with considerable anticipation to visit the famed Rothko Chapel.  I had read of it, though I’d seen no pictures that I recall. In my mind I envisioned entering a space in which I’d be surrounded with glowing color – the signature intense hues of this color field painter – and I was flushed with a quiet excitement.  When quite young, I’d fallen for this painter’s work, standing at the Chicago Art Institute’s canvases, inches away from the surface, swimming in vibrant color, then pulling back to see the whole field of reds, oranges, blues; the delicate feathers of the borders between the simple forms, the soft painterly touches, the intensity of the subtle play of hues.  He was, without question, one of my favorites.

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15 years ago, on entering the Miesien-style building which the artist shaped and requested, I found myself dumbfounded: instead of the subtle but intense play of color I’d envisioned I was faced with a sequence of huge panels, of deep very dark gray-blacks, some framed with very very dark maroon, and the painterly qualities which enlivened Rothko’s earlier work almost banished, with rather crisp graphic lines defining these initially almost invisible frames. Almost as if Ad Reinhart had been shuffled into the deck.  Black on black.   I recall at the time being very disappointed not getting the burst of color which I’d imagined, and I suspect in my disappointment I did not exactly give it the time I would have otherwise.

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So this time, returned for a screening at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, I went – in part so Marcella might see it – to try again, and tried to clear my mind of my prior judgement.   Outside the chapel sits an bronze Barnet Newman inverted obelisk – the same one that occupies the lobby of the temple of MoMA, where the money-changers had long since invaded this sacred art ground and converted it into a high-end shopping mall.  This genuflection to another priest of high-modernism instilled a tart bite to my entry into the chapel, perhaps already tilting my already skewed view of what my previous experience had set.  (I note I am not at all convinced by Newman’s work, and all his literary explication does little to dispel my disdain.)

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Passing the entry foyer, with its admonition to set cell phones off, take no photos and to follow the rules and be respectful, I entered, and saw a woman sitting at a little desk, there to enforce the decorum requested.  Perhaps it was the flat overcast sky and the indirect light from overhead, but, once again, I was struck by the near colorless pall of the place.  To the front, three panels, initially appearing to be black and slightly gray, sit glumly together, edge to edge.  On the adjacent walls of the octagonal shaped room’s walls sit companion pieces, similarly colorless though some of these huge panels have nearly invisible dark maroon frames holding their leaden fields; the rear panel holds two equally dark leaden rectangles.

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A few people sat on the benches, one reading, following the instructions to sit silent for meditation.  I allowed myself to wander from canvas to canvas, allowing my eyes to slowly dilate, and after some minutes the slight modulations in the dark gray expanses revealed themselves, vague washes akin on some of the panels to layers of a dark gray fog, as if in some Asian landscape work.  The maroon framing areas slowly became more evident, clear graphic edges, sharply delineated unlike Rothko’s usual hazy transitions.  After some more minutes a closer inspection unveiled slight hints of painterly smudges along the edges of gray-on-gray areas.  20 minutes of such careful looking revealed little more, and whatever was there seemed hardly to warrant the effort.   As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there.

While I suppose one could construct some kind of intellectual or theological argument around these paintings – that the niggardly almost-nothing constitutes a Zen renunciation, or that the slow and reluctant unfolding of the panels’ “content” hints at theological mysteries, or…    But this teasing out of meaning is more squeezing blood from a rock than real thought.   The paintings in the Rothko Chapel themselves are simply a failure, a dead-end corner into which Rothko had painted himself, a null point wherein a rapturous colorist sucked the life out of his own work, and replaced it with vast leaden canvases devoid of the ripe energy of his earlier work.  The effect is not celebratory or joyous or spiritual, but funerary.

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Red on Maroon 1959 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01167

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And yet our art establishment has elevated the Rothko Chapel to an exalted status, a mecca for cultural tourism, where we are to genuflect as at the Sistine Chapel before the divine powers of an alleged masterpiece.   So our visitors come, duly prepped for a spiritual experience, hushed and reverent, and stand before these canvasses, admonished that they must respectfully fall into a meditative prayerful state.  While I was there the mumbo-jumbo appears to have worked as a handful of people filed in, sat, and remained silent.  A mother tried to silence her infant daughter.    One young man entered, sat before the left panel of the 3 piece “altar”, and facing outward, rather ostentatiously took a full lotus position, and presumably meditated.   I was prompted to think of the admonition of the Bible to not make a show of one’s prayerfulness.

 

Having given the chapel the due time to let my eyes adjust, pupils widening so as to discern the minimal modulations on the canvases, the maroon elements of some works emerging more clearly, and the large fields of gray-on-gray to show their slight shifts in tone, I nevertheless concluded that the appropriate tale to tell would be of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  The Rothko Chapel, despite the institutional hype, is a dud.  As art it is thin stuff,  requiring the viewer to tease out some “meaning” or feeling from the most minimal of painterly traces.  While the scale is indeed monumental, the actual art is miniature.

 

There is, by default, an admission by the Rothko Chapel organization, that all is not quite as they would have it appear.  In the brochure they hand out, it is noted the chapel was commissioned by the Menil’s in 1964, and opened in 1971, while Rothko died in 1970.  They neglect to inform the visitor that he died by his own hand, in his NYC studio.  His paintings had been leached of color; the last crimson Rothko red blossom of life was his own blood on the floor which surely dried to a deep dark maroon akin to those of the paintings he left behind as a suicide note.

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As I left the chapel, the young self-pleased man remained in his lotus position, and another man used some pillows to take a pious kneeling posture.  Enforced solemnity reigned, and the ghost of Rothko hung in the air, naked and despairing. And as well, the ghosts of high-modernism revealed their exhaustion.

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Guild 1982 Robert Ryman born 1930 Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07147

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Back in the good old days, when the USSR existed, and America had a different monolithic moral threat to warrant the building of our massive military, it was a practice of the apparatchiks there to carefully, if rather crudely in pre-Photoshop days, edit history, or even the present, and indeed they had sufficient hubris to imagine they were actually editing the future.  Aside from the simple matter of deleting undesirables from the ideological narratives spun by Lenin and Stalin, and then by the lesser figures who followed them – by killing their opponents – they felt the compulsion to snip away at pictures and texts, to make such persons simply disappear:  if there were no pictures and no texts, the person was expunged from history.  They became, as the term was used in the Soviet Union, a “non-person.”

It was not only political figures who were subject to this treatment, but also cultural figures – some of whom were indeed dispatched with a bullet, but more likely, at least in the latter phases of the USSR’s history, they were exiled to some remote setting, and never mentioned again in public.  Out of sight, out of mind.  It was a regular practice applied to any who  diverged in their writing, painting, poetry or films – or even science – from the official  line.  In hindsight, of course, the figures subjected to this social banishment constitutes for the most part the best of Russia’s intelligentsia of the time, as well of the satellite members of the old USSR.   After all, the Soviet Union, like more or less all political and social entities, became totally corrupted, and the official story was that this was not so.  Anyone brazen enough to speak of the Emperor’s New Clothes would be exiled, silenced, and turned into a non-person.

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Of course in the USA, this supposedly doesn’t occur.  Never mind that our current President, surely like all those before him, doesn’t hesitate to liquidate American citizens, and others ungraced with this Constitutional advantage, under some legalistic rubric, just as Stalin did.  Politics at that level  – whatever nice verbiage we wish to drape over it and whatever deliberate self-delusions we like to entertain – is hard-core life/death stuff in which killing “enemies” is s.o.p.    And of course, in America’s culture the phrase and concept of “non-person” is not used.   As it were, “we don’t do that.”  Just like we don’t do “torture.”

Well, we may not use that phrase, but we do something almost exactly the same, and for largely the same reasons.  Probably we’d use a different phrase, with seemingly a different meaning.  The phrase might be “dropped out of sight” or, “well, fashions change,” or, if one is of a younger cohort, “she’s old.”  There are a lot of handy metaphors to supplant the “non-person” label of the USSR, though the effect is the same.

dekooning erasedDeKooning Erased by Robert Rauschenberg

Of course, the concept of a “non-person” begs a certain question: what is a “person.”    In this context it isn’t you or me, or just any bi-ped with a pair of eyes, and what not.   It is, rather, a person who is magnified and known through the media – a public figure, certified by being shown or discussed in public media.  To “be someone” in this sense means to cut some kind of public figure.  It might be a grand international one, like a famous movie or sports or rock star, or a politician, or more exotically, perhaps a scientist like Stephen Hawking.  Or more frequently in our day, a highly successful businessman like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet.  These are people who truly stride the global stage, and are recognized almost everywhere.   Or, stepping down a few notches from such broad renown and acknowledged personhood, perhaps a famous writer or painter.  And then to specialists in various areas – academic or business, or the many lesser sports.  Or media personalities heard or seen on radio or TV.   Essentially this kind of personhood is secured through the media, which these days is omniscient: there is hardly a public space left into which some kind of TV screen, digital scroll device, and speakers do not intrude to show a parade of public figures or to thump to a driven beat.   In turn we have developed a social pathology in which the personhood conferred by the media is sought after by almost everyone.   “I think, therefor I am” no longer suffices.   Rather we must ratify our existence by appearing in the media.

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In part I think this explains the plague of “selfies” which has descended upon us.  I sometimes wonder how many selfies are made any given second on a global scale – it must be in the multiple millions!  Each of these is a small little media certification that one exists, and each signals that the maker of the selfie perceives themselves as a non-person if they can’t see themselves in a picture or video.  Look, I am in front of the Grand Canyon! The Mona Lisa!  The Eiffel Tower!  I therefore exist and in my tiny little world, this is proof I am important.  The proof is in the photograph.  Or the video.  Or the YouTube item.  Or Facebook.  Or, up a step or two, that one is in a “reality TV” show, or on the news.  Each of these certifies one’s personhood, and of course, the more there is of this, the more of a “personality” one is, and the more the world swirls around you, hanging on your every word, each gesture.  Or so it seems. And of course as this happens the more likelihood that the central figure in this constellation will begin to take themselves as indeed bigger and more important and, yes, indeed, worthy of all that attention.  We need only observe the behavior of those who’ve been escalated to such positions. And we need only observe the behavior of the selfie-taker: one doesn’t actually spend any time in looking at Mona Lisa, in fact one’s back is to it, as it is to the Grand Canyon or any other famous thing or landmark.  The point is to be in front of something famed, and in some bizarre sense, it is imagined this fame rubs off on the selfied-person.

Unknown000193CCRPSMona Lisa at the Louvre

I am reminded of a lecture I gave at a State University in New Jersey – the best paying gig I ever had.  A one hour talk to students of the media department.  Introduced, I stepped up to do my one hour spiel, and gazed out at a hip-hop attired crowd of young people, utterly caught up in the styles of the moment.  Droopy pants, tattoo’s, Simpson-style hairdo’s, Nike swoops – the entire generational look.  And ditto, what came from their minds.  What they wanted to inquire of me – self-willed “failure” on so many levels – was how does one get rich and famous, instantly.  This was their desire, which, given the world they are surrounded by, is a vaguely understandable thought for a very young person bombarded with the glories of celebrity 24/7, along with the neo-liberal con that the only meaningful measure of value in the world is signified with dollar signs.   Unfortunately I had no answer for them – not the name of a reality TV show producer, not the magic insider’s trick the would work like Abracadabra Open Sesame.  Nope, none of that.  Taken aback by the bluntness of their inquiry I suggested that first they might want to learn how to do something, and to do it very well.  And that once they had done that, perhaps, with a lot of persistence, work, and luck, they might become “famous” and then “rich.”  I believe I was, no matter how carefully I had tried to phrase it, a huge disappointment for them.  They wanted, as Jim Morrison had it, the world, and they wanted it now.  Just by getting in front of a camera, on American Idol, or some “reality” TV show.   For them, life’s success would be measured by equal measures of fame and its partner, riches.    They could not have comprehended how disappointed I was to see that our culture has produced through its total educational system, the social culture as a whole, such a shallow and empty generation of dupes.   Though I am not surprised.

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 [To be continued, wherein my own non-personhood enters the picture.]

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RULING SPURS RUSH FOR CASH IN BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES

(New York Times Headline, April 4, 2014)

Returned to the US after close to four months away, I arrived to the cacophony of money.  It is, as the phrase goes, bottom-line American.  The All-Mighty Buck.  Follow the money.  Money talks, bullshit walks.  It’s the American way, just ask Justice Scalia, or his StepnFetchit, Justice Thomas.

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Money

Money is a kind of poetry.– Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

                               Dana Gioia

 

Adding insult to injury, following Citizens United, backing their decision with specious arguments asserting it wasn’t in any way a mode of corruption, the Robert’s Supreme Court this past week ruled that Federal caps on many forms of political campaign donations were unconstitutional (McCutcheon v. FEC.)  Just as the prior ruling had it that corporations are people, and hence have the same First Amendment rights as the two footed form.   And so the flood-gates opened, resulting in the NYT headline cited above.  Yep, money is, says the Supreme Court, a mode of “talk” and the First Amendment prohibits any clamps on our mouths by the government.  Let ‘er rip.  Of course the same Court has few compunctions about intervening at other orifices and apparently sees no contradiction therein, and I am sure in other instances the same court would happily rule to shut some mouths.

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Returning was a narrow and selective chance to see the effects of money in the real world.  Arriving in NYC, a ramble through the once hot artistic bohemian realm of Soho revealed an ever more glamorous shopping mall, to serve the new denizens of the area, awash in wealth. Gucci Prada Luis Vuitton as well as more local practitioners of sucking up the money from the very rich.  Nearby areas reflected a similar trajectory making much of Manhattan a play-ground mostly for the very well-off.  Some visits to Brooklyn showed a down-scale version of the same phenomenon:  Green Point, Red Hook, Williamsburg, Gowanus.  There the young hipsters, priced out of swanky Manhattan, have taken over run-down swathes of the city and, as in many other places I know, displacing the locals (poorer, most often of color other than Anglo) and bringing in their “culture.”  Soon enough condo’s sprout, the economic level shifts up a few more notches, and “gentrification” happens.  This is all done under the Mystical Invisible Hand of the Market, so it is, ahem, ideologically free, not racist, etc.  Once again the rumble of cash turns into a tsunami, wiping out all in its (s)way.

 

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945_BOSTON-FIRE_1978From Peter Hutton’s Boston Fire

Moving on from New York, where I got a few harsh reminders of the current economic trends as they apply to the likes of me, I caught a mix of Amtrak and buses on down to Columbus Ohio, a trip which put me in the company of the sorts shoved out of Brooklyn and who can’t afford airplanes.  At one point the bus had to stop as an altercation was going on, and finally the police were called and took the soul away.  He was not Anglo colored.  Another bus jaunt northward brought me back to Cleveland where I had a chance to see another once-industrial city dying as the slosh of massive money shifted to other climes in the name of “Globalization.”   This policy was put into effect at the behest of our larger corporations, with the assurances it would bring jobs and all kinds of good things to America.  Both our permitted political parties, eagerly embraced these policies, singing a siren song of praises for what it would do for the Nation.   It brought instead the ubiquitous Wal-Mart boxes and boarded up small town Main Streets, along with the larger decimation of places like Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo and a long string of other once productive American cities.  The children of old Sam Walton are among the richest people in the world, having sold their Arkansas snake-oil to the country while laying waste to it.  Ironically the country which most “capitalized” on this policy, China, has equally been laid waste with horrendous ecological damage, corruption, and sometime soon an economic crash as rapid and vast as its ascent.

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Other travels have taken me to the quasi-abandoned northwest corner of Missouri, and across Missouri, Iowa and rural Illinois to Chicago.  The seeming story remains the same: small towns sucked dry of their economic ground, family farms taken over by corporate ones, jobs swept away, leaving boarded up towns, a litany of For Sale signs, weathered and hopeless.  Meanwhile, our government, in collusion with our biggest corporations, secretly negotiates the terms of the TPP (TransPacific-Partnership), kissing cousin to NAFTA (of which the long forgotten Presidential candidate, Ross Perot, accurately predicted – to predictable ridicule from the establishment – that the giant sound you would hear would be the jobs being sucked away….).  Obama, the candidate who promised “transparency,” is fully involved in this scam, along with the NSA one.

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James Clapper

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As spring arrives, haltingly in many parts of the country, already the noise of the mid-term elections are upon us, and with it, the massive noise of money.  Money in the form of endless political TV ads, money in the form of bought and paid for “representatives” of the people: Federal, State, local.  Money in the form of long since paid-off Supreme Court “Justices” who bend to the siren song of capital.  The NSA keeps silent watch over us, as an army of co-conspirators, such as Mr Clapper, pull the levers, violating “the law” everyday, and suffering no response.  Just as did our previous President and his entourage.  We live in a criminalized Nation, with the great criminals residing, naturally, at the very top of the pyramid of power.

It is spring time in Tornado Alley.

 

 

Google Data Center in Council Bluffs

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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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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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