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DSC09397SMSteven Holl’s St Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University.

For a year, in 1960-61, I studied architecture at IIT, the transposed Bauhaus of Weimar Germany. Just a few years before I had arrived Mies van der Rohe had run the school, and it was in effect a monastery of modernist values, with Mies standing at the fore, like St Ignatius before the Jesuits.  Mies was a virtual religion, and his austere bare-bones internationalist style was the catechism, and students were inculcated in his values and style, and cranked out veritable clones of his architecture of the “International Style” which the corporate world had quickly found its own, and blighted cities around the globe with its severe boxes with ineptly done gridded curtain walls.  This straight-jacket naturally gave birth far later to the Baroque flamboyance of, say, Frank Gehry.

 

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I spent a year in school in this building, Crown Hall, on the Chicago IIT campus.  It was elegant, with terrazzo floors, glass top to bottom, and open space broken only with low partitions and a central utility shaft.  I could wander the entire school, seeing the models made by later classes and the graduate students: clones of Mies every one.  In less than a year I determined that architecture was a business and that I was not going to fit into it; nor did I wish to become a Mies stamp.

[I note that while Crown Hall is elegant, during the winters it was impossible to stand within 10 feet of the uninsulated glass walls, in the summer it was a natural oven (at the time lacking air conditioning); the sun would glare off the terrazzo floors, and, well, Mies’ aesthetic classicism had little to do with living human matters – he did not himself chose to live in one of his glass box Chicago high-rises, but instead in a fusty brownstone abode.]

One of Mies’ dictums, paralleling that of other religions, was that “god is in the details.” While I dismissed the strictures of Miesienism almost immediately, attracted more to the flourishes of the heretic Corbusier, I did learn much at the Miesien altar. And one was surely, just where god resided.

metalocus_iit_robert_f_carr_memorial_chapel_01_1280_0The chapel at IIT, in which all things are reduced to open space boxes

In 1961, during a summer in Europe, I made a hitch-hiking visit to Corbusier’s Chapel in Ronchamp.  I’d seen pictures and was drawn moth-to-flame to it.  Arriving I was immediately disappointed in that it was surrounded by a scrim of tourist trap peddlers, religious and architectural, something none of the photos seem ever to show.  Even so the building itself was a marvel, an architectural sculpture sitting on a large hill-top meadow, pristine and quiet.

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It was, like Mies’ work, fully modernist, but infused with emotion, respectful of, if not believing in, the religious impulse which it was asked to express.

 

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Since then my eyes have cast a harsh eye on other architects, almost pathologically honing in on them-damned-details. Today, Oct 4 22019, I sit in Steven Holls’ much lauded little St. Ignatius chapel here at the University of Seattle, a structure cited for its allegedly glowing color schemata, with veils of color-coordinated light gracing the walls, to presumably spiritual effect. To be utterly cynical I think I have seen big store hype machines deploy these things better, and certainly Holls’ deployment of color pales next to James Turrell, this place being at very best a very pallid matter.

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James Turrell pieces

Structurally this chapel apes Romanic architecture with arching vaults overhead, and baffles blocking direct light in favor of reflected light, done in flat hues of blue and pink and soft oranges and green. Alleged to harmonize, instead they simply fall flat, like super-lame modernist would-be stained-glass windows, the old originals of which surely these dollops of color were meant to echo. In keeping with the architectural failure here, likewise are the pieces of “religious art” similarly deadening. And why not: the makers simply don’t really believe this stuff – not Holls, not the sculptor or painter. At best they attempt to ape and genuflect to long dead beliefs, this arch, this wanna-dazzle touch of light; this wants-to-be solemn space which if anything celebrates the spiritual vacuum of the times.

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Living in Europe quite a fair time, I became a self-described church-junkie – because, like Willy Sutton said regarding money, that is where the art (mostly) was. I do not and never did for a second share the beliefs which animated the raising of the innumerable cathedrals, churches, bishop’s palaces, convents and monasteries, and such, that I visited.  But while finding the background beliefs dubious at best, and abhorrent in the actual human behaviors they produced, I had to admit that whoever made these things really believed what they were meant to convey. One can see it in the most sophisticated of sculpture and architectural structure and adornment, or in the most primitive. The finger prints of belief, however misguided, are unmistakable, tucked into Mies’ “details.”

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Whereas here, they are utterly absent, and instead a belief in doing as little as necessary to produce the effect, so we get ridiculous scraped stucco wall coverings, kitschy lights hanging overhead, piss-poor door frames and all the other signs of don’t-really-give-a-fuck’ism under the guise of a smattering of religious seriousness.  After all, the Holls’ firm knew well what climate Seattle has and yet….. The religion here is bottom-line capitalism and it was willing to invest just enough to give the illusion of caring about this spiritual crap.   Well, not really quite enough.

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For his secular religiousity, Turrell tends towards pomposity, as if to ape the grandeur of a great cathedral, while not bowing to its symbols; Holls bows unconvincingly and fails to catch himself before landing on his face.  Not that this seems to have disturbed the handful of architectural tourists who passed through, one a cluster of Asian folks accompanied by a serious looking, gesticulating professor.  Though it seemed these people were less than overwhelmed as they wandered in, glanced around and departed in a matter of minutes, their opinion expressed by their feet. However, the perfunctory modernism of Holls’ chapel does fit in perfectly with the mundane urban landscape around it at the University of Seattle – unremarkable, ugly, utilitarian, a training ground for students to learn to not care about anything.

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DSC00844.JPGDublin, Trinity College

Since last posting here, time seems to have zipped along with my geographic coordinates. From Belfast to Dublin to Amsterdam and Brussels, a jaunt to Ghent, Paris, Locarno, Cassina Amata near Milano, Piangipane near Ravenna, Bologna and now in Mondello, on the flanks of Palermo.  Each not only a physical place, unique to itself, but a node of personal acquaintances, people known decades and brand new, each in the midst of their own jangled worlds. I soak it in, inquisitive as ever, in the moment and then on leaving one place and entering another, into a new world.  It’s been ever so for me.

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In Dublin, generously hosted by Maeve Foreman, I was lucky to have a little inside edge. Maeve is well-connected with her neighborhood and her city, and that opened doors that otherwise would surely have remained closed.  Lucky me, I got a better glimpse of the place than I would have otherwise.  Thanks Maeve.

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The museums in Dublin are all free, so I wasn’t economically locked out as I am in many places asking 20 or 25 Euro to enter, so I had a nice look at what was available to see.  A pleasure.  For more on Dublin see this.

[Maeve is the mother of Donal Foreman, whose film The Image You Missed has been getting extensive and well-deserved exposure on the global festival circuit.  Once I again get settled down it’s my intention to write a long piece on it.  If you haven’t seen, try to – it is a wonderful, highly watchable, complex film and personal film which manages to expand itself into the universal.]

Next was Amsterdam where I was able to see long-term friend Errol Sawyer, since 1964, and stay a week thanks to Mathilde.  While there I got to see the people at Eyefilm, the Netherlands archive, which holds all my originals and is in process of making 4K prints of some of them.  Had a talk about what more needs to be done.  Slow going but going.

Museums… well, I was priced out.  And even in this way-out-of-season time, Amsterdam was crawling with too many tourists, warping the ambience of the city into a playground of a kind that is becoming all too familiar around the globe.

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And then it was on to Brussels, to visit with Peter and Karolina, now in a new place.  And where I had screenings at the old Nova-Cinema, where I’d done screenings some ages ago.  They went well, with nice audiences and good Q&A’s.  Thanks to Katia, who was running the place way back when and still does.  As well had a screening at the film school there, thanks to Justin McKenzie Peers, who, despite his name, is French, studying for now in Brussels.  He also helped organize the Nova-Cinema showings and is doing some translations for some of my films.  And also appears to be writing perhaps a grad thesis or something on my work.

A surprise for me was that in one of the screenings a 16mm print of Angel City was shown, which seemed pristine and clean.  I at first thought that Eyefilm had made a new copy and not told me, but it turned out it was one that I had sent them.  I urgently wish to get a 4K print of it, along with one of Last Chants for a Slow Dance, an archival print of which Eyefilm has made before either gets dinged up.  Things to do or get done.

Managed some museums in Brussels, including the Magritte one, which was a bit of a revelation, as it covered his early work, and his Warhol-like self-promotion.   He is, in my view, like Warhol in that he is less an artist than a graphics person – someone who illustrates ideas rather than actually “paints.”  A curious distinction perhaps, but one I think is valid.

The classical arts museum in Brussels has a wonderful collection of Breughels and other painters of that time and that snared me some hours.

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While in Brussels managed a day-trip to Ghent, not so far away – one of many places I’ve missed over the years, along with Antwerp and, oh hell, a lot of other places.

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And then it was on to Paris to visit Mark Rappaport, and get in just little bit of a city I’d lived in for nearly a year and a half back in 1997-98.  Mark was doing fine, busy making new video essays, of which I saw a handful I’d not seen before.  Mark is a wizard, making things about topics I don’t much give a damn about (arcane film lore and history) come alive and branch out far from cinemania into fascinating and engaging social essays. One of them had me in tears at the end, another busting my gut laughing!  The ones I saw were America’s Grandpa, about Walter Brennan, and soon to be available on Kanopy and I, Dalio.   He’s busy working on a new one now.

Also stayed a few days with Peter Friedman who was finishing a long documentary, a cinéma vérité portrait of a big time opera director, Robert Carsen, filmed working on an adaption Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. I got to see this film and liked it quite a lot. It covered both the technical and preparatory stuff of putting on a really big piece of theater, and then on working with the singers, the “directing.”  Fascinating stuff and well done cinema-wise.  A pleasure.

Like Amsterdam, Paris crawled with tourists in the no longer existent off-season, and seemed much the worse for it.  Mass tourism is a pox of globalism.  I wonder what will happen to all these places that now rely on tourism as a major cash-crutch when the economy goes poof, and the tourists disappear?  I know all too many places which put a lot of eggs in the tourism basket and are utterly vulnerable to this most certain collapse.

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Also managed to see Emmanuelle Chaulet, who played a lead role in 1999 in All the Vermeers in New York.  I hadn’t seen her in nearly three decades !  A nice talkative lunch with a lot to catch up on.

And I tried to rendezvous with the Gilets Jaunes, just to get a look, and went to where they were supposed to be, but did not see them.  I think they are being wily and saying they’ll be in place X to draw the police there, and then they materialize somewhere else. Here a month now since I was there they are still around though the media seems to do its best to ignore them – a little corporate commentary in that?  Especially the American press.  And Macron has enlisted the military to attempt to impose control.

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I took a train on to Milano for a quick stop to leave things with the Grassi/Rebosio’s before heading on to Locarno to do something for Lech Kowalski – I didn’t really know what he wanted, but was game for whatever.  On the ride through Grenoble, in the French Alps, I noticed there was only snow, and not so much, at the highest elevations of the surrounding mountains.  Normally there would be a lot of snow on the ground in the city at this time of year.

In Locarno Lech did a multiple camera thing of me talking, not being interviewed, on subjects he guided me towards, with his students manning the cameras and sound. Await word from him on just how it worked for him and am ready to do more on request. Along the way part of my job was to go with eager students enamored of the wonders of real film (celluloid) and shoot a bit – me, the grizzled old dinosaur of “real film.”  I have zero romance for celluloid, so it was a curious exercise.   I think the experience may have disabused them of any fantasies about it.

While in Locarno I noticed, there too, the mid-winter mountains empty of snow.  A dammed reservoir we went to see was maybe 1/3rd full.  The river below it was a not even a trickle.

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Back outside of Milano, in Cassina Amata, I stayed a week with Tilde and Luciano.  When Tilde was 10, in 1962, her family had picked my up hitch-hiking outside of Como, and taken me home and in a curious turn of events I returned and spent 2 months with them in 1963, shooting my first film as a portrait of Tilde.  A year later I returned another month and they (the Rebosio’s) somehow became “family.”   I tried to find them for some decades afterwards and failed, but courtesy of FaceBook, about 8 years or was it 7 or 6, we reconnected and I’ve visited a handful of times since.  To “family.”  Life is very weird.

The last evening there, Luciano and Tilde took me out to Monza, site of the famed Formula 1 racetrack, to a fish place were we had a wonderful and vast serving of fried (lightly) sea things, most delicious.  As we walked there we went by the river, the Lambro, which flows down from the mountains into the Po.   Except it wasn’t there, rather a concrete trench with a few puddles.  Luciano said he had never seen it like that.

Casa natale Via Reali 18- 080House in Cassina Amata, 1963p7Tilde in my first film, Portrait

Then took a train on down to little Piangipane, a village not far from Ravenna, there to re-record music we’d done in autumn of 2017.  I’d not been happy with my voice or my guitar playing and asked Christian Ravaglioli if I could take another stab at it, having practiced in the intervening year and more, and feeling much more at ease and confident in both voice and playing.  We ended re-recording most of the songs and he agreed it was much better.  Albums are due out in June or so.   One solo and one a mix of my work and Christian’s.  When they do come out I’ll post word here.

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From Piangipane it was to nearby Bologna, to visit my friend Pina, who was just quitting her job after 15 years as a chef in a vegetarian restaurant in the middle of the city, to strike out on her own.  She has one book, Vegetaliana, a vegetarian cookbook rooted in Italian cuisine, and just collaborated on another project centered on Bologna’s most famous artist of late, Giorgio Morandi.

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And then it was on to Palermo, where I’d originally planned to spend the time looking around for a place to live for the coming year or more, before returning to the USA for retrospectives planned for autumn-winter 2020.  But in the interim a proposal came in from the US West Coast, which altered my plans.  So following a stop in London to see friends it will be on to Seattle and a new adventure.  See how it all works out.

In Palermo its been a mix of take-it-easy in Mondello, the next door beach town of Palermo, where off-season the weekdays have been quiet, though nice weather has pulled in hordes on the week-ends.

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And when the weather has been nice I’ve been going into Palermo, a city I really like, and nosing around.  And finding out my 75 year old creaking body ain’t like it was and finds a day of walking around, looking, taking a ton of photos, is rather taxing and am inclined to take a break the next day, whatever the weather.  Learning to be “old.”

 

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DSC04129And quotidian pedestrian Palermo

Palermo has passed through many hands over time, like all of Sicily.  Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, and on up to American GI’s not so long ago.  All those who seized it or just passed through left their marks, and the result is a rich intaglio of cultures, in contemporary lingo, a real culture-mashup, a mix-down.  But this one has passed through millennia, and is all the richer for the ripe patina of time.  Often this can result in an oppressive sensibility, that history weighs heavy on the present and acts as a psychic/creative block.  But I don’t sense this in Palermo, which, perhaps thanks to the many immigrants present – from North Africa, and black Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and many other places – seems alive and vivid.  It is a city once opulently rich, with a vast array of monumental buildings to show it, and then battered by poverty, the Mafia, and left in the wayside of history.   Not long ago it had been written off as a hopeless wreck, as destroyed as the cars of Falcone and Borsellino were by Mafia assassination bombs.

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Since then the city has recovered, in part thanks to a new mayor, Leoluco Orlando, who has largely been credited with the turn-around.    He was originally elected in 1993 and stayed to 2000; in 2012 he was again elected and is the current sindaco.  And surely also instrumental were large student demonstrations against the Mafia in the wake of the murders of the jurists.

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In the last 10 years there has been, as elsewhere in the world, a process of gentrification here, though frankly it seems not to have done much damage so far, and some perhaps has been good for the city, like two major streets in the center of town, Emmanuelle Vittorio, and Via Maqueda being turned into pedestrian areas for a bit, along with a few smaller adjacent streets here and there.

Palermo, Palermo, Palermo.  A riotous dream.

 

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And so much more, but for the moment I am out the door for a last go around in Palermo before heading off to London tomorrow.  Tickets in hand.  Moving.