I wonder what movies people were going to see in Germany the summer of 1932, in the period preceding the final election for the office of President of the Reich, when Paul von Hindenburg was elected, and when he appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. A list of notable films produced in Germany in 1932 does not include other films such as those made by the Hollywood studios in foreign languages for foreign distribution, a common practice of the time being to shoot the same script in English and then in another language with if possible the same actors and using the same sets and camera set-ups. Maybe someone can tell me what the equivalent of a blockbuster movie was that summer. Was it The Countess of Monte Christo or the documentary about Hitler?
On Wednesday I went to see Ghostbusters 2, to get a break from the trial of keeping up with the Republican Convention without actually watching it (social media, dailykos live blogging, late night comedy shows, ). I saw the original film in 1984. I think I thought it was fun, but I’ve never felt the need to see it again.
I’m such a scaredy-cat that although I am more than fully grown up at this point, I still reflexively hide my face when suspense builds up to a screaming ectoplasm bursting out of a toilet even if it done for laughs so I spent some of the movie peeking through my fingers, which I found tedious. The whole thing seemed both entertaining yet barely competent, which may be part of its retro charm, but overall it is good fun as it lurches from set piece to set piece, apparently staying true to the slightly amateurish, but refreshingly modest scale of the original. At the core is a respectful and pleasantly low key presentation of friendship among women: the film does pass the Bechtel test, even though at times Leslie Jones’ subway worker character seemed a little too happy for comfort to be included as a friend of the three white women.
So it went until the special effects climax during which an image appeared which woke me up. All of a sudden the movie made perfect sense as the movie of this summer and political moment. The villain of the movie–suitably a pasty-faced male troll of the type that persecuted Jones on Twitter in recent days–has taken possession of the body of the Ghostbusters’ cute, hot, vain, and dumb as dirt male secretary. When challenged to leave him alone, he leaps into the image of the Ghostbusters’s logo, the waving Casper the Friendly ghost avatar and immediately swells to such gigantic monstrous proportions that he bursts the boundaries of a gold-plated luxury hotel in midtown Manhattan to wreak havoc on the city. I grabbed my phone but by the time I had my camera open, the image that had jolted me into a different attention had passed.
This movie was about Trump!!! The instant he popped out of the top of the skyscraper he was the image of Trump on steroids and a lot of pasta. Or maybe Viagra makes you fat.
It was also about efforts to defeat him, and suppression of news by politicians and government agents!
I would have to see the movie again to capture exactly the image that woke me up to the relevance of the movie at this time when the shapeless image of Casper the friendly ghost grows to gigantic proportion and bursts boundaries of a gold plated luxury hotel in midtown Manhattan to wreak havoc on the city. I’m not going to do that. But thinking about the movie and this month’s political events, in the movie women do save the day. Perhaps this can be interpreted as hopeful indicator for the present situation. That would be a positive reading of the narrative beyond its female friendship angle. But there is another reading of the narrative: we are so used to special effects of mass destruction that we are inured to them–watching the film behind my hands I thought about all the children who would take in all the scary moments, loud noise, and violence in stride–and everyone, from the media to the electorate are unable to fully take anything seriously. In the movie the morning after of course there are no apparent consequences or lingering after-effects of the destruction from the night before. Just some fun excitement and some low-key happily ever after.
As we enter the dog days of August here’s a little recap of some pleasures from the past few months that have stuck with me and that I’d love to share.
This year is Orson Welles‘ centenary and in May Turner Classic Movies ran a weekly festival of Welles’ films. I have seen almost all of them, multiple times in most cases, benefiting in my youth from the proximity of the New Yorker Cinema on the Upper West Side. Peter Bogdanovich ran a festival of Welles there sometimes in the late 60s I think, with interesting mimeographed handouts for each film: Welles’ repertory theater, the Mercury Theatre players, the crazy plots and over the top or sloppy acting of films like Mr. Arkadin, the exaggerated post-War middle European displaced persons camp atmosphere, the camera shots and pacing, all of it is part of my artistic bedrock. So I was intrigued when late at night, May 27 after midnight I think, TCM ran the restored footage of Welles’ first venture into film, Too Much Johnson, a silent movie meant to be used as vignette interludes within a play, a film project I had never heard of. In typical Welles fashion, the 10 reels of 35mm film disappeared and were said by Welles to have burned in a fire until they were rediscovered in a film warehouse in Italy a few years ago and now have been restored. An introductory text by film historian Scott Simon can be found here; a long informative text on this film by Welles scholar Joseph McBride can be found here, and there are a number of versions of the film available online including the total footage here, and a reconstruction based on archival research of how the footage was intended to be used as part of a theater production here.
The minute the film started I knew I was a goner in terms of anything like a semi-reasonable bedtime since it ran into the middle of the night but I was captivated by the film and drawn into it also by the dreamy contemporary film score. Since the film is already anachronistic in its homage to silent film, it is interesting to have it also be anachronistic forward with a Philip Glass/Steve Reich like repetitive score. Unfortunately the versions available online have a piano based film score that is very much a pastiche of silent movie music accompaniment one is familiar with, which is serviceable but not distinctive. However one film clip on TCM does have the new score and is also an excellent glimpse of what makes the film so captivating: here is a link to the clip.
The film is a pastiche of the silent movies that Welles saw as a child, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, with a deadpan hero contrasted by exaggerated stock theater pantomime acting (among many registers of acting in the ensemble cast), brisk and often surrealistic narratives, and palpably fake sets. It happens that I saw these movies as a child too, since my mother often took me to see silent comedies at MoMA.
In the early part of the film the lead character “Johnson” played by a debonair and fearlessly acrobatic Joseph Cotten is pursued through the streets and across the rooftops of Lower Manhattan by a jealous husband. At first the locations seem somehow staged, fake, but gradually you realize you’re looking at the Woolworth Building and at the Meatpacking district and around the Highline, when it was a functional entity (it was built in 1934), sometimes completely empty, other times populated by regular people watching the goings on with amusement.
Minutes into the film I was struck, in fact I was kind of thunderstruck by the resemblance between the settings and the plain yet daring black and white cinematography in the film and the photographs from the same time period by Rudy Burckhardt, who had arrived in New York in 1935.
Too Much Johnson, film still
In fact I was so thunderstruck by the connection I felt between this film and Burckhardt’s work that I abandoned the film to rush to my computer to research the relationship. The time frame and location was identical, and the New York avant-garde art, film, and theater worlds were relatively small compared to now so it was entirely plausible that Orson Welles and Rudy Burckhardt knew each other. They were very close in age and very young in the late 1930s, Burckhardt born April 6, 1914, Welles May 6, 1915. Not that every very talented person around the same age knows each other even in the smallest community. Still, there was something.
But instinctively I made a leap from the idea of Googling “Orson Welles Rudy Burckhardt” to instead Googling “Orson Welles Edwin Denby,” that is, Burckhardt’s close friend, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, and bingo!!: in 1936 Welles and Denby collaborated on the Federal Theater Project production of “Horse Eats Hat,”(see here the picture of Edwin Denby as either the front or back end of the horse), a farce by French writer Eugene Labiche, staring Joseph Cotten. “Too Much Johnson” was a 1894 play by actor director William Gillette, based on another late 19th century French farce.
from the absolutely awe inspiring timeline of Welles’ incredible career http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/307013/The-Ultimate-Orson-Welles-Timeline/#vars!date=1912-05-14_22:05:02! just the first decade of his work is protean, fascinating, and important historically and artistically
Too Much Johnson includes wonderful set pieces such as a rooftop chase seen in the clip above, a chase through a maze of fruit packing cases, and a subsequent sequence with Magrittean bowler hats that shares the anarchic energy of Surrealist films such as Louis Buñuel’s 1930 film, L’Age d’Or. The acting is both parodic of early silent film and late 19th century theatrical melodrama, and ineffably hip and of the moment not just in the specific sense of the late 1930s but beyond that the kind of permanent “of the momentness” of any good work done with a youthful carefree improvisational spirit that remains young throughout time. The acting and directorial style at times veer into a stylized version of amateurish verve, when you get talented people who are game to do anything including things not in their area of expertise, harkening back to domestic amateur theatrical productions as described in Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott novels among others, and yet a highly developed artistic instinct and discipline of composition, timing, and order prevail at the same time. In this, Too Much Johnson again reminded me of Edwin Denby and Rudy Buckhardt, in such film collaborations as Money, a 1968 film by Rudy Burckhardt (which I wrote about here).
Postscript August 2: All along I could have called Rudy Burckhardt’s wife Yvonne Jacquette or his son Jacob Burckhardt to ask about the Orson/Rudy connection. When Jacob saw this post last night he wrote me that around the same time as Welles was making Too Much Johnson, Rudy made a movie called Seeing the World Part One: a visit to New York N.Y., in which Virginia Welles appears, with a now lost film score by composer and author Paul Bowles (I forgot to mention that originally Too Much Johnson was to have a score by Bowles, also now lost). In it, according to Jacob, “There is also a scene in a dark saloon, where two gangsters sit across the table from each other. One of them, played by Edwin, pulls a gun on the other. The other played by Joseph Cotten, pushes the gun aside and knocks him down (Cotten had recently had his first starring role in Welles and Denby’s “Horse Eats Hat”). Rudy told me that the scene was originally supposed to be between Orson and Joseph, but since Orson didn’t show up, Edwin stood in.” Which answers more than the limited question of whether Orson knew Rudy and his work: they did know each other. More, it turns out that for at least a brief moment they were both in their early twenties and very talented in New York at the same time, with shared friends and shared collaborators, interested and cross-influenced by similar histories–a vivid example of how art comes out of fertile communities where worldly success may arrive for different figures at different times in different ways, or not at all, but where everyone is essential to the mix in an unmarked way which is hard to replicate and which is obscured by celebrity culture.
In working in the mode of silent film, Welles was looking back to his own childhood experiences with silent film as film, that is, as what film was when he was a child and he was emulating the sui generis pioneer actor/director geniuses of that time period, Harold Lloyd, to whom the rooftop chase scene is indebted, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin.
Which leads me to another wonderful film viewing experience from earlier this winter which I highly recommend: The Chaplin Puzzle, a 1992 documentary film which follows Charlie Chaplin’s early development, his artistic evolution during his first two years in Hollywood, in his Keystone and Essanay period, from 1914 to 1916. It is a fascinating view of how an artist creates himself and refines his craft. I was particularly interested in relation to my experience of young artists today working in video who often do one simple thing and then ponder it for months, or young filmmakers who struggle with fundraising even for small projects they film on iPhones and produce themselves: during this period Chaplin turned out about one film a week and was able to gauge the success of his character from audience reaction while learning for himself what worked in film formally and technically.
Finally I want to encourage anyone who’s in New York this summer to see George Ohr Pottery: “No Two Alike,” which is at Craig F. Starr Gallery through August 14. I have a particular soft spot for pottery, it brings together materiality and color, qualities I appreciate in painting: that something is a thing and yet can glow with color. I often visit the American Wing at the Metropolitan to look at their installation of early American pottery; just give me an early American earthware pot pot with slip decorated in earth tones and it’s like a ray of sunshine.
Sugar Pot, American, c. 1820-1840, earthenware with slip decoration, Coll. Metropolitan Museum, American Wing
The George Ohr exhibition is a wonderfully curated show, which contrasts unglazed works by the American ceramic artist of the post Civil War / early 20th century period with some of his more finished glazed works, the front room containing the raw clay works, the back room with a spectacular installation of glazed works, with one juxtaposition of each kind in the middle office space creating a bridge between the two parts of the exhibition. The pieces range from works that fit into established forms of art pottery of the period to works that are experimental, immediate, delicate, modern in their formlessness.
Except for these two pieces juxtaposed on a little shelf in the middle room, to compare the effect of the unglazed and the glazed you have to run back and forth between the rooms, or, rather, walk quietly given the fragility of the objects, and it hard to chose–a contemporary aesthetic tips one towards the unglazed, but for me the gleam of a colored glaze is kind of divine, pleasurable and unknowable at the time.
On another positive note, I was recently interviewed by Berlin-based curator, art critic, and educator An Paenhuysen about A Year of Positive Thinking. I responded to four questions, about the art scene I might belong to, about the blog itself, about my background, and about money–whether or how I monetize the blog, directly or indirectly–always an important question. The interview appears here.
About halfway through the 1951 sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, all electricity, indeed all machine-run power on earth stops except for that which sustains the motion of planes in flight and life-saving institutions such as hospitals. It is a demonstration to humanity, and more specifically to all world leaders, of the power of an alliance of planets which has sent a representative to Earth in the form of a very distinguished-looking humanoid by the name of Klaatu, and an invincible 8 foot tall robot, Gort. Klaatu’s mission is to warn of the impending destruction of Earth, if humankind, newly endowed with nuclear weapons, threatens to extend its destructive proclivities beyond its own planet.
For an anxious half-hour, though the Earth does not actually stand still in its orbit, as suggested by the film’s title, everything that is considered “progress” and symbolizes the power of humankind–is disabled. Needless to say, all but the few earthlings who have had personal contact with Klaatu, react with fear and aggression rather than curiosity and awe. This cessation of power is Klaatu’s ingenious response to an Albert Einstein-like character’s challenge for a demonstration that will convince world leaders of the alien powers without inflicting any destruction.
When I was a teenager the gears of my mind jammed every time I heard the title of the Broadway musical, Stop the World–I Want to Get Off. It’s hard to reconstruct why this title confounded me. I could understand the stop the world part, not the get off part. Later, I would think, Stop the world, I want to get on, because I felt I was in a race where the other racers were halfway down the track before I’d tied my shoelaces (the art rat race). And now I think, Stop the world, I want to stay on.
The news this summer has been bad, bad, bad. There is no direction you can turn to for relief or optimism. I look to the Science Times and think, I guess it’s a good thing that MIT has developed “origami robots,” I bet the scientist and engineers working on that feel the world is going forward in a good way, and, granted, with the greatest of human optimism, Facebook friends post pictures of their ineffably confident newborn babies and grandchildren, but otherwise chaos, cruelty, and stupidity reign and the future often looks like a slow moving tsunami that turns out not to be that slow. If the earth with its inhabitants were someone’s child, it would be getting a time out right about now. There is a deep deep need for a moratorium, a bank holiday of global scope, a detox. It’s time for an intervention. We need a year of humanitarian ceasefire, or decades, and by ceasefire I mean not only of intractable sectarian battles and ancient hatreds, but also of global assaults on the land and on the fishes in the sea, of stupidity in leadership such as couldn’t even be imagined at the depths of the McCarthy era, when The Day the Earth Stood Still was made. As any individual who has suffered a personal loss or incurred an injury can attest, recovery takes much more time than is ever allowed and there are so many wounds that need to be healed around the world. Healing needs time, rebuilding needs time, learning needs time, time for constructive work, and time for rest.
There is no activity on earth today that could not benefit from time to lie fallow. The Earth may have to stand still to go forward.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a model of cinematic economy and an engagingly tight little amalgam of genres–film noir / sci-fi / political thriller. It’s not a monster movie like many other sci-fi horror films from the period, like The Thing, Them, Godzilla, although what sets the narrative in motion, like the others, is the development of the atom bomb. The word “monster” is uttered only once: as Klaatu, an extremely elegant and hypercivilized figure with a British accent (as played by British actor Michael Rennie) who for good measure has taken as his cover name the Jesus of Nazareth referent, “Mr. Carpenter,” from the dry cleaning slip he found in the beautifully fitting suit he stole to escape the authorities, walks down a street in Georgetown at night looking for a place to stay, he overhears a radio broadcast, “there’s no denying that there s a monster at large.” The irony is patent. The only monster at large is human fear and stupidity. Even the robot Gort is a sleek modernist creation, unlike a Golem made of base matter, he is imperviously metallic and, most of the time, absolutely immobile, though we are told his power knows no bounds.
As for being a sci-fi movie, there is very little effort made to go beyond a business-like exposition of sci-fi tropes of the era: some Theramin-like sound effects, a glowing white flying saucer that appears above the Capitol dome in Washington D.C. before it lands in a park, near a triad of baseball fields and the Lincoln Memorial, a couple of vaporizations of armaments and later of a couple of men here and there. The exterior and interior of the space ship is basically Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion House converted into a flying saucer.
And it’s not exactly a film noir, because the noir topos of woman as the source of corruption is reversed into a proto-feminist story: the heroine, “Helen Benson,” a war widow, played by Patricia Neal, a woman of modest means with a young son to support, immediately feels empathy with the creature spoken about on the radio, and later she resists the social imperative to marry her boyfriend when he reveals his craven ambition and self-regard in betraying Klaatu. Instead she risks her life to save humanity. Yet a lot of the action takes place at night, with a rich blackness punctuated only by street lights and neon signs of the city, recalling some of the tightly plotted, low-budget, location shooting, police films of the era, like The Naked City. The noir is not atmospheric and foggy, it is crisp, and for that all the more menacing.
The radio as a primary source of news is a recurrent theme of the film, a kind of communications hearth around which groups of people around the world gather. One of the charms of the film is the way that director Robert Wise makes especially effective use of what were even at the time long clichéd cinematic tropes and conventions of montage so that one can both step back and admire known methods of cutting used in a workmanlike fashion and still be thrilled and informed by them at the same time.
In particular, several times in the film, in order to advance the story and denote the global impact of the event, he creates quick montages where the same event is shown as experienced and reported simultaneously in different countries around the world, each country represented in a ten to twenty second vignette, with low budget sets, using stock footage: a village in France signaled by what is clearly a film stage set seemingly left over from the beginning of Casablanca and countless other Warner Brothers World War II movies, Moscow with a group of women in babushkas huddling together with the Kremlin in the background, American gathered around a radio at a gas station or in front of a radio store, people playing cards with the radio on in the background in the boarding house where Klaatu finds a room. Announcers from Calcutta to London, military personnel from bases in Florida to Britain–each nationality is telegraphed with a few easily recognizable signifiers. Television appears only peripherally, it is not yet the main medium, though there is one eerily predictive moment early in the movie where American TV news announcer Drew Pearson, as himself, looks into the camera and says, “the ship landed in Washington at 3:45 PM…Eastern Standard Time”–Walter Cronkite must have seen this movie.
Klaatu is an interesting figure: despite the Christ-like reference of his cover name, or perhaps in accordance with it, he is an unsentimental–and an unsentimentalized–figure, arrogant in the face of human stupidity. “I’m impatient with stupidity, my people have learned to live without it,” he tells an aide to the President of the United States–a curious wording which suggests that stupidity is something one feels the need of but can learn to do without. “I’m afraid my people haven’t,” replies the aide ruefully, since all he can come up are lame excuses about all the diplomatic impasses and impossibilities when Klaatu insists on speaking to all world leaders because he “will not speak to any one nation or group of nations.” He has come to “warn you that by threatening danger, your planet faces danger.” His “patience is wearing thin.”
When challenged to provide a demonstration of the alien power, he wonders, should he “take violent action, leveling New York City perhaps or sinking the Rock of Gibraltar?” He agrees to a demonstration that will be “dramatic but not destructive:” for a half-hour, the earth stands still, “electricity has been neutralized all over the world.” Again the montage, London’s Piccadilly Circus, New York’s Times Square, Moscow’s Red Square, factory turbines, trains, cars, dishwashers, milkshake mixers, electric cow milkers, and the elevator in which Klaatu reveals the plot to Helen, every thing stops. A half an hour later, everything starts again.
The earth is not receptive to Klaatu’s warning and his contempt for earthlings’ stupidity is not improved by his brief time on earth, during which he is shot twice and killed once. Only the kindness, curiosity, and faith of a boy, a woman, and one brilliant scientist may redeem the planet from immediate destruction.
Klaatu is resurrected by Gort. Before the ship leaves, he speaks to dignitaries assembled around the spaceship:
I am leaving soon and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller everyday and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. Security for all or no one is secure. Now this does not mean giving up any freedom except freedom to act irresponsibly….We live in peace without arms or armies…free to pursue more profitable enterprises…I came here to give you these facts but if you threaten to extend your violence, this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. The decision rests with you. We shall be waiting for your answer.
Judging from the news this summer, we are a lot closer to getting burnt to a cinder.
Another episode from popular culture that brackets the Cold War period offers what at first glance seems like a more idealistic voice from those years. It is another “day,” Day of the Dove, an episode from the original Star Trek series. The crew of the Enterprise receives a distress call from a human settlement on a distant planet. When they arrive, no sign of the settlement that contacted them remains. A group of Klingons appears, brought there by a similar call, from a Klingon settlement. They accuse each other of conspiracy and genocide and set upon each other, as a ball of multi-colored flashing lights flickers. It looks like the international radioactive hazard symbol set ablaze and in motion like spinning fire crackers. They accuse each other of dishonoring a peace agreement and of testing new weapons. As their anger grows, the ball of light becomes bigger and redder.
They all beam up to the Enterprise, unaware of the entity of flashing lights which follows them on board. Out of contact with Star Fleet, and propelled at warp 9 towards the edge of the galaxy, rage grows.
The premise of the plot is that this situation has been engineered by the flashing light, an entity which feeds on anger. It keeps the waring parties’ numbers balanced to ensure endless conflict, reviving injured crewmen if necessary, and it replaces their state of the art weaponry with swords and sabers to force the combatants backwards in the history of armament, from the disembodied impersonality of phasers to the savagery of hand to hand combat. It feeds them false memories of trauma and injustice to stoke the fires of hatred and vengeance: Chekov raves about how the Klingons murdered his brother, Piotr, and goes rogue to rape and kill any Klingon he can get his hands on. Upon hearing this, Sulu doesn’t understand, “he never had a brother, he’s an only child.” Kirk observes, “Now he wants revenge for a non-existent loss.”
The crew of the Enterprise has the benefit of Mr. Spock’s scientific rationalism: a cool and unsentimentalizes figure much like Klaatu, down to the high cheek bones and to the arrogance of superior mental abilities, Spock is the first to see that there is something strange about the situation and, of course, find it “fascinating.” He realizes that the alien’s energy level increases with each battle, “it subsists on emotion,”and “it has created a catalyst to satisfy the need to promote the most violent mode of conflict.”
Once the Enterprise crew figures out what to do in order to prevent an eternity of senseless combat, they have to persuade the Klingons to participate in a course of action: stop feeding the beast, first by means of a temporary truce and ultimately by throwing down their weapons and laughing at the entity. As in The Day the Earth Stood Still, it is up to a woman, in the case Mara, the Klingon chief’s wife, to create the bridge between the groups and prevent destruction.
Star Trek was a left leaning show produced during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, with Women’s Liberation lurking on the horizon–the last show, Turnabout Intruder, is about a woman’s assaultive experiment in gender/body transfer because her love for Kirk is warped by her rage against gender inequity. In Day of the Dove racism is a major subject: the Enterprise crew understands that something is seriously amiss, that they are behaving irrationally and unlike themselves, when they begin to lob racist remarks at one another, notably when McCoy calls Spock a “half-breed:” later Spock confesses that for a moment he too had felt “the sting of racial bigotry…most distasteful,” he sniffs. Nevertheless it is telling that the script is unconsciously racist itself: the Klingons are portrayed as the more war-like and stupider race, more violent, less curious, compared to humans and Vulcans, and being a Klingon in those early shows is denoted very simply by greasy dark brown facial make up.
The first Star Trek series’ episodes were notoriously low-budget–more uses were found for bubble wrap than imagined in any philosophy!! It was television’s brand of modesty, similar to The Day The Earth Stood Still, but with the additional economy of time:the narrative had to fit into the 50 minute hour of network time, so each scene is instrumental and gets right to the point. There was a spareness to the message that had made so many of the episodes memorable.
Which film is closer to present day concerns? Though The Day the Earth Stood Still is a Cold War artifact, its paranoid uneasy spirit is closer to our time than Day of the Dove. In 1951, 6 years after WWII and Hiroshima and Nagasaki the message is, Stupid humans, stop before you are destroyed by your own stupidity. And humans don’t look too promising. But in Star Trek in 1968 at the end of a decade of cataclysm but also of liberation movements, relative prosperity, and of social and technological optimism, the humans and their enemies understand that their violence is being instigated by a force that feeds on rage and they are able to stop and laugh the entity out of power. But the truce is temporary. The entity is not destroyed, it just spins off into space, in search of the anger it needs to survive, which it has surely found here on earth.
In The Day the Earth Stood Still, alien forces have the power to destroy the Earth. They are ultimate judges with a police force of robots like Gort. In Day of the Dove, human (and other species’) inherent proclivity for stupidity and violence are incited by an alien force who enjoys the spectacle of war. As Spock says, “Those who sit back are the Gods.” In both cases, humans have the ability to step back and chose another path. The Star Trek episode leaves us with at least a temporarily instrumental decision to do so.
This summer, I reread a slim book, War and The Iliad, by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, two Jewish women living in France at the start of the Second World War who unbeknownst to each other each wrote an essay about the Iliad. Having reread the essays, I feel I must read them again and again, because they are mirror images that are nevertheless very different, like the two examples of popular culture I’ve mentioned here. As I read I thought about the obscene discrepancy between being able to read on a chaise lounge in a garden near the sea on a moist and breezy summer day and the circumstances suffered by so many victims of wars and cruel aggressions happening at the very same moment around the world as well as of relentless economic and social inequalities and injustices being perpetrated at home. This summer the world seems to spin the safe and the endangered closer together in a centrifugal motion towards disaster, although some of the safe may not see how they are as implicated and endangered as the rest of humanity. In her essay, “The Iliad, or the poem of force,” Weil quotes from the Iliad,
“She ordered her bright-haired maidens in the palace / To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing / A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle./ Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,/ Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles’ arm.”
Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.
What power do the Gods have? In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the aliens from afar have the power to incinerate the earth, and both Klaatu and Gort have god-like qualities, Klaatu has both an Olympian impartiality, he doesn’t care what people on earth do to each other so long as they don’t do it to any other planet, and he has a Christian ability to spread the Word and to be resurrected, while Gort has the implacability of a graven idol. Bespaloff writes, in “The Comedy of the Gods,” a chapter of her essay “On The Iliad,” “Everything that happens has been caused by them, but they take no responsibility, whereas the epic heroes take total responsibility even for what they haven not caused.” The Trojan war is a form of spectacle and entertainment for them, “Condemned to a permanent security, they would die of boredom without intrigues and war.” Of Zeus, she writes, “There is nothing of the judge in this watcher-god. A demanding spectator, he accepts the law of tragedy that allows the best and the most noble to perish in order to renew the creativeness of life through sacrifice.” But Weil writes, “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims, the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it,” even the Gods.
Weil writes, “The progress of the war in the Iliad is simply a continual game of seesaw. The victor of the moment feels himself invincible, even though, only a few hour before, he may have experienced defeat; he forgets to treat victory as a transitory thing.” As illustrated in The Day of the Dove, the alien force that feeds on rage must keep the waring parties evenly balanced: Weil points to the “extraordinary sense of equity” in the Iliad…”One is barely aware that the poet is a Greek and not a Trojan.” Bespaloff writes, “Sprung out of bitterness, the philosophy of the Iliad excludes resentment. It antedates the divorce between nature and existence.”
Weil describes why it is so hard to end combat:
Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face….On each of those days the soul suffers violence. Regularly, every morning, the soul castrates itself of aspiration, for thought cannot journey through time without meeting death on the way. Thus war effaces all conceptions of purpose or goal, including even its own “war aims.” It effaces the very notion of war’s being brought to an end. To be outside a situation so violent as this is to find it inconceivable; to be inside it is to be unable to conceive its end. Consequently nobody does anything to bring this end about. In the presence of an armed enemy, what hand can relinquish its weapon!
Weil and Bespaloff both offers hints of what might be necessary for such a laying down of arms: compassion and an understanding of the balance of power. Weil writes, “The strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong nor are the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this. They have in common a refusal to believe that they both belong to the same species.” Bespaloff makes an interesting comparison between Homer and Tolstoy’s understanding of “the fatality inherent in force,” but in one point she finds Tolstoy wanting:
In the spirit of equity, however, Homer infinitely surpasses Tolstoy. The Russian cannot restrain himself from belittling and disparaging the enemy of his people, from undressing, at it were before our eyes. The Greek does not humiliate either the victor or the vanquished. …Opponents can do each other justice in the fiercest moments of combat; for them, magnanimity has not been outlawed. All this changes if the criterion of a conflict of force is no longer force but spirit. When war is seen as the materialization of a duel between truth and error, reciprocal esteem becomes impossible. There can be no intermission in a contest that pits–as in the Bible–God against false gods, the Eternal against the idol.
The most famous line from The Day The Earth Stood Still is the sentence that Klaatu tells Helen she must say to Gort if something happens to him: “Klaatu barada nikto.” The meaning is never translated for us, but in context it seems to mean one or both of two things: “Klaatu needs to be resurrected,” or “Klaatu says, Don’t destroy the earth out of vengeance because I have been killed.” So at a time of calamity and conflict, destructiveness and in one of the worst periods I have lived through because of human stupidity and inability to accept any Others as equal or mirror images, or to act on scientific facts (Mr. Spock’s “fascinating”), I can just say, Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto.
Well, I get up this morning, flip to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and, *##*!!!, Maureen Dowd mentions the plot of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in “Eggheads and Blockheads?,” her discussion of the Republican Party’s embrace of stupidity, in the persons of Texas Governor Rick Perry, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, et al as their potential candidates for President. Why *##*!!!? Because I’ve been thinking on and working on this piece all summer and almost posted it before President Obama’s September 8th speech to a joint session of Congress. But, at the end of the day, I mean, literally, at the end of a long day, I didn’t hit the “publish” button because I didn’t feel it was quite ready. But, hey…let’s just agree that, while great minds may think alike, I don’t think at the speed and with the purpose of a professional columnist. I hope this gives a more in-depth view about Liberty Valance as a movie that speaks to this particular political moment.
Note:this piece does not endorse gun violence but the use of rhetoric in support of an idea, the idea of government as something that can and should help the people.
My mother used to say that, whenever George Herbert Walker Bush, Senior, “41,” would try to act tough and fight dirty, he looked to her like a sniveling wimpy little milquetoast mama’s boy whose mother says to him, “now you go back and you punch that bully in the nose.” Since the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, a lot of people who think of themselves as intellectuals and pacifists are turning into that violent by proxy mother, increasingly inclined towards a kind of machismo, though sadly an impotent one, looking helplessly on as our country drives closer to the edge of the cliff (one of my actual recurring dreams is that I suddenly have to drive a car from the back seat because it turns out there’s no one at the wheel). The recent stirrings of dissent, despair and even some contempt for Obama, coming from his supporters (cf. recent columns by Michael Tomasky, Cornell West, Maureen Dowd, Judith Levine, and Frank Rich) have a tragic undercurrent, which is that the alternatives to Obama are so awful that even if we ever get past the dark political period that seems to await us, there may be no more of what was good about the American ideal left to salvage. As my mother also and presciently said to me one day, in about her 94th year, turning to me from watching the network news, “So, in America, soon it will be the corporations and the slaves.” (and, mind you, that was before “Citizens United” granted human being status to corporations). Meanwhile, we say “Man up” and “grow a pair.” Like bystanders in a classic movie fight scene, liberals and progressives have been hopping up and down helplessly punching the air and yelling out to the protagonist, “hit ’em with your left, kid.”
In any classic movie fight scene, you wait with increasing anticipation for the good guy to stop turning the other cheek, rise up, and sock that bully. The final fight scene in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Western film Red River is as good as any model for this classic wish-fulfillment fantasy. Montgomery Clift has rebelled against his tyrannical and wrong-headed adoptive father, John Wayne, by choosing an untested though ultimately successful path to get their cattle from their ranch in Texas to Abilene, Kansas, where the railroad to Eastern markets is and they can sell their stock for a good price. Once Clift has mutinied, taking the cattle and most of the crew with him on his pioneer journey, Wayne’s character pursues him relentlessly, vowing to kill him when he catches up with him. The movie is so entertaining that the underlying flaw in the basic plot doesn’t reveal itself until just after Clift finally strikes back, after taking a beating as Wayne matches verbal insult to punch by punch, “you’re soft, won’t anything make a man out of you.”
But, as the infuriated heroine realizes, Wayne never meant to kill Clift, because as anyone can see, they “love each other.” The Republicans don’t love President Obama, but that is not our problem. Our problem is that they don’t just hate him, theyhate us, they hate children, women, sick people, old people, they have stated clearly that it is their goal that government of the people, by the people, for the peopleshall perish from this earth.
We’d like to see Obama get that “OK I’ve had it” glint in his eye and come out swinging, but Hawks, in effect, has pulled his punches, and the softness of this ending to what had seemed like a powerful Oedipal match, makes Red River less relevant to our current political dilemma than another Western movie: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, (1962) John Ford‘s late, starkly simple, cinematically almost archaic yet profound meditation on the role of violence in creating the American democracy and on the nature of history itself.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, the action of the movie takes place in an extended flashback bracketed by scenes taking place in the “present,” (around 1910) and with the most crucial scene in the movie replayed as yet another flashback within the central flashback. The protagonists of the film are Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (played by James Stewart), who, when we first encounter him is the most distinguished politician in his state returning unexpectedly and mysteriously, with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), apparently after many years, to Shinbone, the small town in the West where his legendary political career began. The central part of the plot takes place in the past, about thirty or forty years before, and centers around a few characters: Stoddard, a young lawyer come from the East to set up a law practice who, before his stagecoach even gets to town, is robbed and beaten, and his law books ripped up by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). In Shinbone, Stoddard is befriended by Hallie, then an illiterate waitress working for a kindly immigrant couple running the restaurant, by the local newspaper editor-publisher and town drunk Dutton Peabody, and, in an uneasy alliance, by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local rancher and rival for Hallie’s affections. Doniphon is always accompanied by his black farmhand, Pompey (Woody Strode) in a kind of dignified adult version of the “Come on back to the raft ag’in, Huck Honey” classic former master/former slave homosocial partnership (I’m being snarky, but Strode gives a wonderful performance, and the sparely choreographed working and affective part of this relationship gives the movie a compelling sub-texture, as is so often the case in American mythologies).
The town is terrorized by Liberty Valance, a sociopathic, brutally clever, almost ironically self-aware robber, thug, and murderer operating as a tool for the unseen cattle barons who want to prevent statehood for this Western frontier territory so that they can retain free rein over the land and its resources. He has no respect for the written law although, significantly, he recognizes that the Eastern “dude” with the law books represents the most significant threat to his power. Valance lives by “the law of the West,” the gun. He stands between Shinbone and civilization. Something has to be done about Liberty Valance.
At first glance, and as has been noted by everyone who has written about it, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a strange movie in its formal qualities and its casting. It was shot in black and white long after even Ford himself, a master of black and white cinematography in his earlier great movies, including such black and white film masterpieces as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and The Grapes of Wrath, had turned to color in films such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. And even the black and white, except for a few night scenes, is much less rich and velvety than in Ford’s earlier films. To the contrary, it’s bleached out and anti-aesthetic, like a dried-out scrap of bone in the desert. The movie was shot on the cheap, using the back lot set of a television Western program, so the West as a physical space whose empty vastness was once one of the principle protagonists of many Ford movies, notably in his spectacular usages of Monument Valley, is barely present as subject and the action takes place almost as a play on sets reduced to the bare minimum of what each signifies: the saloon, the newspaper office, the restaurant. The sets and props are both extremely accurate to the simplicity of the time–the dishwashing and cooking implements in the restaurant’s kitchen for example–but at the same time they harken back to the flimsy movie sets of the earliest silent Westerns, when the West already being mythified was only a decade or two in the past. Yet this reductiveness is a strength, as the simplicity of the sets has a strangely convincing verisimilitude, and the theatrical structure–scene, scene, scene–keeps you focused on the story.
Ford knowingly relies on every trope and cliché of Western movies and of movies themselves, many of which he had helped create, from the stock cast of characters including stereotypes of major immigrant groups, from the Irish to the Scandinavian, to the classic flashback introduced by a puff of cigarette smoke. He relishes using our familiarity with these tropes to further his morality play, stripped to its essence by the deliberate plainness of the sets, the reduction in visual pleasure, the simplicity of the narrative. (One way of looking at this film is that it’s a good example the “old age style,” a phenomenon used to distinguish formal characteristic of late works by Titian, Rembrandt, or Cézanne, where the artist just wants to get to the heart of the matter and sloughs off all the fine finish he had needed to impress his audience in earlier years).
The quality of a morality play is exemplified and emphasized by the patent discordance between the ages of the two male stars and that of the characters they play. Characters in their early 20s are here played by actors in their 50s, and it shows. Their age cannot be masked by makeup. Whatever efforts made to do so only draw attention to the actors’ actual age. Yet this strange casting choice is extremely important to the greatness of the film.
First, because you can’t get swept up in their beauty or sexuality, you cannot be seduced and enter into a sutured Hollywood fantasy, so you are constantly returned to the meaning of the story.
Second, and most importantly, it’s precisely because each actor is who he is and brings to his part his own history as a representation of American character that they give the movie its unique gravitas. In fact in writing this I have been debating a formal question: do I refer to each character by his name in the movie, or by his name as actor. The idealism and incorruptibility of “Ransom Stoddard” is embedded in Stewart’s iconic role as the idealistic young Senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and other movies like You Can’t Take It With You, from his pre-WWII career, particularly his Frank Capra movies, yet also inflected with the toughness and desperation he brought to his own post-war Westerns such as The Naked Spur. In those movies his character becomes much more similar to many of Wayne’s characters: in Wayne’s many roles as the man of the West, he is the good guy but also often with an edge, some kind of an outlaw, beginning with the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, a charming and good fellow but bent on revenge of his murdered brother or Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, another vengeful figure whose dogged pursuit of a kind of brutal justice is effective but founded on a bitter racism. And even though at the end of The Searchers he does not carry out the ultimate act of racial “cleansing” he has threatened throughout, he still cannot be contained in civil society. His character in Valance is named Tom Doniphon, but he is all of the characters Wayne had played to that moment, thus he is the construct “John Wayne,” a complex collaborative artwork created by Ford and Wayne himself over nearly 25 years. So these men, their faces and histories, are part of the meaning of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The history of John Ford’s movies is also part of the meaning. For instance, Valance’s first appearance is a fascinating contrast to Wayne’s legendary first appearance, almost a materialization, in Stagecoach: in that earlier Ford movie, the stagecoach, whose occupants the audience has been introduced to so that we are already invested in their voyage, speeds across the desert in daylight until it is brought to a sudden stop as, simultaneously, the camera suddenly swoops in to the indescribably open and surprised expression of John Wayne. I’ve watched this scene dozens of times, but the speed and complexity of camera shots defies my ability to describe technically what Ford is doing. I do know that my parents saw Stagecoach in Paris just at the beginning of the Second World War, and they thought it was marvelous, the whole sweep of it and I think too the basic good and open nature of Wayne’s character represented America to them, a place they would soon set out to reach, over a year and a half exodus across occupied France where they became the endangered travelers in the stagecoach, trying to get to Lordsburg.
In Valance, on the other hand, the stagecoach unceremoniously careens recklessly out of nowhere down a narrow road at night until it is brought to halt by a gang of masked men. “Stand and Deliver,” declares the gang’s leader, Valance. Everything that was thrilling, open, bright, optimistic in Ford’s earlier version of the west is dark, cramped, pessimistic in the later version, though I think the movies are necessary companions for a full understanding of the dream of America.
The movie’s anchor scenes are of the killing of Liberty Valance, seen twice, first as Stoddard experienced it, and later as it is replayed from the point of view of Wayne. This is not a Rashomon situation, this is not about the basic fungibility of truth. Here there is the first mise en scène (the “legend”) which you as the viewer experience essentially as it is experienced by Stewart, that is as reality from the point of view of a protagonist you trust. You are definitely the spectator watching something unfold on a stage before you, carefully and excruciatingly choreographed, to emphasize Stewart’s terror and his bravery as, already shot in the right arm, he reaches trembling for his gun with his left hand.
Then, later, there is the second mise en scène, (the truth), where the same exact events are re-shot from a greater distance, and a different angle, as experienced by Wayne. Just as there is ultimately no doubt of which version is true, this dual iteration of staging is precise, concise, it is even didactic, like a textbook of basic film staging, reverse shots, reverse angles, reshooting the same staging from a different place in the proscenium theater that we occupy. What in the first iteration was lived by Stewart, in the second becomes a spectacle in which Wayne and “Pompey,” as unseen spectators in the dark affect the outcome without being seen before they vanish into the night, having played their parts with physical economy and precision.
So what does The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance have to tell us about our current predicament? You have the skinny young lawyer from the “East”–Obama the law professor and community activist from Chicago up against John McCain, the rich guy from the West and the many thuggish representatives of the unseen cattle-barons (The Koch brothers, FOX News, et al). The nitty gritty of politics take up a big portion of the movie. There is a great scene in which the townsmen assemble in the saloon to chose a delegate to the statehood convention. The cattle barons who are against statehood are represented by Liberty Valance, who nominates himself as delegate to the convention even though he is not a resident of the town–Marvin’s line reading of Valance’s retort–“I live where I hang my hat”–is particularly wonderful. The cattle barons’ interests are also promoted by a Major Cassius Starbuckle, a grandstanding politician who with florid oratory vilifies Stoddard as a killer and puts up for nomination a fellow in a fancy white suit who gallops onto the stage on a white horse (Texas Governor Rick Perry, anyone?). The Starbuckle character is every political snake oil salesman, shill for the Man, and was already so familiar a type that at the time the movie was made this type had been already been satirized for years in Looney Tunes cartoons as “Foghorn Leghorn,” always getting lost in vain and aimless oratory. We know these clowns, we’re still surrounded by them, the Glenn Becks and all the others.
The crux and the complexity of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” actually didn’t shoot Liberty Valance but his distinguished political career is built on the public perception that he did. At first glance this seems like a perfect example of the political mendacity and inauthencity we’ve become all too cynical about and most critical analyses of the film focus on the line spoke by the journalist who having heard the whole story of what really happened, destroys his notes, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That has become the take-away quote from the movie.
Another common view is that “The hero doesn’t win; the winner isn’t heroic,” except for one thing: the movie’s crystal clear demonstration that, though his career is built on a “lie” or a “legend,” Ransom Stoddard is a courageous man, maybe even more courageous than the man who actually did do the shooting (or, more accurately, the effective shooting). It is the question of courage and the dilemma of how best to achieve justice that are more interesting to consider given the current political moment.
The man of words, the figure Dowd refers to as the “egghead,” (a misnomer for Stoddard–the definition of the egghead, a term used to describe Adlai Stevenson, the thinking man’s Democrat in the early 1950s, is the intellectual as pathologically indecisive–but Stoddard does decide), the representative of the law does give in to the need for the gun, even though the gun is old, he can’t shoot straight, he is alone, and he’s wearing an apron to the gun fight–indeed, significantly through much of the movie, we’ve seen him in this humiliatingly feminized (dis)guise: literally he is wearing an apron because he’s taken a job washing dishes at the restaurant. But he does stand up for his beliefs, he does risk his life, or is prepared to sacrifice it, because of his belief in the law.
There is a very important scene in the movie which shows us what Ransom Stoddard truly offers the country: in a shabby one-room schoolhouse he has welcomed a significantly diverse student body, Mexican children, girls, adults, even the black man Pompey is allowed to attend. Here, significantly, Stoddard wears a suit, the mantle of his future authority. And the subject beyond the a b c s, is democracy. “We’ve begun the school by studying about our country and how it is governed.” The Scandinavian restaurant owner continues, “It’s a Republic which is a state in which the people are the boss, that means us, and if the big shots in Washington don’t do what we want, by golly we don’t vote for them no more–anymore, anymore.”
Later, there are two key instances where Stoddard is also shown to be willing to walk away from a political career, first because he is disgusted that it would come to him because of a violent act, second when he discovers it would be based on a lie, and, third, when he tells the whole story to a journalist.
The man who did Shoot Liberty Valance may also be courageous but his motivation is basically apolitical, he did it because the woman he loves asked him to help, and his act is cold blooded, the recognition of a necessity, the solution, the radical social remedy to evil, as he himself acknowledges, it was “cold-blooded murder but I can live with it.” Yet he loses everything: by letting Stewart get the credit, he loses his girl to Stewart, and by helping create a civilized country based on law, he loses his individualistic identity. We know what happened to Stewart, his resume is repeated by various characters, Governor, Senator, Ambassador to Britain, Senator again, possible Vice-Presidential candidate. Wayne’s life in the years that passed between the central flashback and the “present” are blank. He lived out his life until he died. That’s it. And the country has becomes the United States of America, for better or worse–the film’s conclusion is pretty ambivalent about that.
Of course the polished politician we see at the beginning of the movie, in the frame taking place in the “present,” may well have made many compromises of these noble ideals of democracy in his noted career, no doubt smoothly negotiating in favor of the forces of “civilization,” symbolized by churches, schools, and the well-functioning industrial development symbolized by the railroad.
Stoddard does state that he wants to accomplish change without violence, he hates the violence everyone else espouses. But in the end he stand up with a gun. And in the end someone does shoot Liberty Valance. The movie doesn’t seriously question the fact that Valance must be eliminated for civilization to thrive. But one thing is for sure, it took two men to kill Liberty Valance, the man of law, “the egghead,” and the man of the West, the individualist who is basically good but is willing to use a gun if necessary because he doesn’t care about the consequences, he has no ambition to protect. But the point is, again, the man of law in the end is willing to sacrifice ambition to what he feels is the greater good, the elimination of evil and the success of a “good” government. It’s a stark moral, the ends did justify the means. It’s also an American story, revolutions including the Civil Rights movement succeeding through the actions and words of men of law and men of extreme speech and action, working together if sometimes oppositionally to achieve a goal that may be as tempered as the settling of the West but better than the alternative. While saying that the end does justify the means, the film acknowledges how much this is intellectually a contradictory and morally a deeply troubling position, and that the history of America is based on such demonic bargains.
Meanwhile we’re surrounded by Liberty Valances and the cattle barons they stand in for. For whatever the reasons armchair psychoanalysts can come up with, Obama just has not seemed to adapt to the territory he finds himself in, he’s a man always dressed for yesterday’s weather. His compulsive policy of conciliation with a vengeful and single-minded enemy have been a tragically unsuccessful strategy.
Or, he won’t fight back, and one can only conclude that he won’t fight back because he doesn’t believe in what the people who elected him want him to fight for. In his September 8th speech, he appeared to get tough, to man up. The next week it was announced that his plan for economic relief would be paid for by cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. It is hard at this late date to take the “manned-up” rhetoric as anything but just words. We aren’t convinced he actually believes in the New Deal principles that made the American Century great and livable for a wide proportion of America. Meanwhile wealth disparity and the poverty rate in America increase shamefully while Americans, not given much of an alternative, turn to the quasi-fascist, anti-government, pro-super capitalism rhetoricians of the extreme right. They are our Liberty Valances. They are working for our cattle barons. Someone has to “kill them,” but with belief in ideas, not guns.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in one scene instead of a whole movie like High Noon, Ford economically telegraphs that Ransom Stoddard is alone against Liberty Valance, as two fellows just walk away from him, leaving him standing, in his apron. But yesterday a bunch of people tried to occupy Wall Street. Maybe that is what the people can and must do, not just stand behind Obama, but push him from behind and go ahead of him, until, if only for political advantage, he won’t just “man up,” but belief up. Stand and deliver. Somebody has to shoot Liberty Valance.
The most sustaining force in an artist’s life is supportive friendship with other artists. If at some crucial moments in your life you can form a group of close friendships with artists who share your aesthetic ideals or at least understand and enjoy them maybe even more than you do yourself, you can make it through the incredible difficulties of being an artist: financial peril, near constant rejection, fragility of success. If those friendships also are the basis for artistic collaboration, that is more marvelous still. And there is a particular kind of collaboration among artists who are friends that is special because it takes place outside of the frame of the art market, often before each individual’s path is fixed and their fate is determined, that is before some become rich and famous, while others struggle along, and still others die or vanish from the scene into another type of life than the one of the artist. Such moments are nearly impossible to sustain, but it can be pretty conclusively proven that these are often the happiest times in the lives of these artists and often too those artworks that later are seen to have the greatest market value emerge from just these moments of friendships and creative projects undertaken in relative conditions of anonymity, for the sheer joy of making and the pleasure in shared ideas.
One such a web of creative friendships among visual artists and writers working in the mid-20th century in New York City, in a close yet liminal social and generational relationship to the New York School, is documented in a wonderful exhibition currently on view at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Painters and Poets. This exhibition celebrates the 60th anniversary of the gallery, founded in 1950 by two men with diverse backgrounds–Tibor de Nagy, a well-born but impoverished Hungarian-born refugee banker, and John Bernard Myers who had been the managing editor of the avant-garde art and literary quarterly View.
View, March 1945, cover by Marcel Duchamp
Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Inaugural Statement, 1950
The unique characteristics of the gallery were already marked by its prehistory: de Nagy and Myers had just founded a marionette company which failed when parents kept their children away from public spaces during the polio epidemic of the time. Both men were interested in poetry, the artists who quickly merged into the gallery’s stable were intimately connected with poets, and the gallery began publishing small illustrated chap books and other incunabulae, many of these on view in the current exhibition.
One such work is Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett’s series of small collages collected as the work S, included in the exhibition. In his marvelous book Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard, Padgett describes their daily life during the time they produced this work, in a small apartment on East 88th street where Padgett and Brainard, childhood friends from Tulsa who had come to New York around 1960 lived with Padgett’s wife Pat. At the time Padgett was in college at Columbia and Brainard was an unemployed artist.
Joe slept on our living-room couch. Neither he nor I cooked, and Pat was sketchy in the kitchen herself. Breakfast was coffee and, on good days, a Pop-Tart….While I was in class and Pat at work, Joe roamed the city, especially the art galleries, museums, and junk shops, usually alone, sometimes with Ted [Berrigan], and on weekends with Pat and me. There wasn’t enough room in our apartment for him to set up a work space…. It was on Eighty-Eighth Street that Joe and I did a series of small works that we called S. The name came from a flat, metallic gold s that one of us glued onto the lid of a small pasteboard box, the kind that greeting cards come in, and into which we placed the finished works. These were on pieces of cardstock, typing paper, and tracing paper–drawings, words, and collaged material, much of it rather cryptic and hysterical, some of it erotic, some of it with images from Dick Tracy, L’il Abner, and Nancy comic strips. Our working method was highly collaborative; that is, Joe provided some of the words and I provided some of the images. Using the limited media and materials at hand, we worked spontaneously at a table in the living room, passing the pieces back and forth, drinking coffee, and smoking. Joe and I were twenty-one and goofy. Pat was a few years older and far more pragmatic, but she joined in on a few pieces. Over four or five such sessions, we ended up with around seventy works, some good, some puerile, some good and puerile. (Padgett, 61)
Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, cover of S, 1963 gallery installation snap shot, Tibor de Nagy
Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, S, detail, 1963, collage
This may describe an archetypal young artist’s narrative, but it also outlines a situation rather different from the present: Padgett and Brainard moved into a New York artworld where the circles were smaller, more interconnected and accessible, they could survive safely on less money, relative to current economic conditions, and Brainard could become a respected even beloved artist with only the self-education of the city streets and of looking on his own at lots of art, with no institutional framework or timetable except deeply felt personal necessity.
Each of these artists were ambitious and dedicated artists in their own right and could legitimately claim to be at the center of some aspect of the group, and yet the interplay and the productive collaborations were an important part of their creative life. The current exhibition covers this fertile dynamic, with the orbit of Frank O’Hara shifting to the orbit of Joe Brainard, to the orbit of Rudy Burckhardt.These interlinked circles of friendships have been the focus of a number of exhibitions in the past decade or so, all interesting and inspiring: “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art,” initiated at LA MOCA in 1999; “Art and Friendship: Selections from the Roland F. Pease Collection,” (Tibor de Nagy, Summer 1997); “Rudy Burckhardt” (also at Tibor de Nagy, June 2000), “Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and 60s,” (New York University Grey Art Gallery, May 9-July 15, 2000); “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle” (Grey Art Gallery, January 16-March 31, 2007), and “New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection” (Grey Art Gallery, April 22- July 19, 2008); and also in 2008, “Picturing New York: The Art of Yvonne Jacquette and Rudy Burckhardt” at the Museum of the City of New York.
Fairfield Porter, Jimmy and John, oil on canvas, 36 1/4" x 45 1/2", 1957-58
Larry Rivers, Frank O'Hara, c. 1955, detail, plaster, 15 1/2"x7 1/4"
Many of the artists represented in the show and many long represented by the gallery, including Fairfield Porter, Freilicher, Burckhardt and others, worked in a vein of representational painting that was intimate, almost awkward, diffident, yet done with knowledge and experience of the just waning movement of Abstract Expressionism. Their works are among those that led me to suggest a category of “Modest Painting,” where ambition for painting is not dependent on huge size or even oppressive ideological rhetoric. As noted by painter Rackstraw Downes, Tibor de Nagy was one of a group of galleries which offered an alternative to the rapidly consolidated official art world of the late 50s and 60s:
To see this, the official art of the 1960s, you tramped Madison Avenue beginning at Emmerich and ending with Castelli. But there was another route which some people took, it included Frumkin, de Nagy, Zabriskie, Schoelkopf, Peridot, Graham among others. In these galleries one saw an art which looked awkwardly inexplicable; like so much of the liveliest art of any time it eluded critical dialectic. By the official art world it was virtually dismissed. And so I would call it the “unofficial” art of the 1960s. This was the world which interested me. It was the only art of quality that did not seem stage-managed; it had no party platform, no campaign. It did not bully you into believing that it was “right,” a condition impossible to art and which, when claimed by a school or a critic, automatically makes the art seem slightly suspect. …In 1964 John Bernard Myers, in an article called “Junkdump Fair Surveyed,” called this art “private.” [Downes, “What the Sixties Meant to Me,” (1973) 17]
Rudy Burckhardt, Money (1967), screen shot, Edwin Denby and Money Tree
Many of the individual and collaborative works reflect a casual, relaxed approach to creative life underscored by ambition for art and an understated perfectionism. They were serious yet playful and playfulness was not the unique property of youth but a cross-generational process, engaged in by artists who were 19-year old newcomers to New York and people in their 50s and 60s, sophisticated veterans of the New York artworld like Burckhardt and Denby. My favorite piece in the show at Tibor is Burckhardt’s Money, (1967), his first feature film of his 100 or so films, with script by Joe Brainard, about a money mad billionaire played by Edwin Denby, a film which combines a goofy, spontaneous home movie feeling (with actors including Grooms, Gross, Jacquette, Welliver, Downes, as well as these artists’ children, Jacob Burckhardt, Titus Welliver, and Tom Burckhardt–now all adult artists engaged in film, acting, and painting) with thrillingly beautiful scenes with the cinematic quality of Jean Renoir, the neorealism of Roberto Rossellini, sly riffs on the contemporaneousBonnie and Clyde (1967) and Jean Luc Godard’s Week End (1967) — there are also cinematic parallels to the spirit and the style of scenes going back to the anarchic speed of early Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton or Hal Roach silent shorts and to films from the 1960s such as the one in Agnes Varda‘s Cleo from 5 to 7(1962) in which a short comic slapstick silent film staring Godard and Anna Karina reenacting how they met (cute) interrupts Varda’s poetic reflection on mortality. There are so many scenes that stay in my mind from Money, not just the ones where I get a kick out of seeing people I knew when we were all young and younger, but just for their cinematic beauty: a boy running down a country road in Maine to recover a single penny he dropped, Denby planting a money tree, and floating up to the sky in a kind of dream of a death where you can perhaps take it with you. [Money has recently been preserved and digitally restored by the Anthology Film Archives in New York and will be screened February 25 and 26]. Of Money, Denby wrote: “The characters are all pretty bad, money is the root of evil, and they ought not to enjoy themselves, but they do anyway.” You will too.
Rudy Burckhardt, Money (1967), Jacob and Rudy, screen shot
[I should add that I am in some small way a member of the artworld family I’ve just described: my parents Ilya and Resia Schor were friends with Chaim Gross. I met Chaim’s daughter Mimi in my childhood and became friendly with her and her then husband Red Grooms when I was about 12. As soon as I began to navigate the city on my own on the subway I made my way to their studio on Grand and Mulberry Street. One amazing evening in 1968 I met for the first time Rudy Burckhardt, Yvonne Jacquette, their small son Tom, Jacob Burckhardt, Rudy’s son from his previous marriage to painter Edith Schloss, and Edwin Denby — the first sight of these 5 very delicate, kind, and interesting looking people is one of those crisp snapshots that immediately are engraved in your mind as deeply significant–also that night I met the Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, and we watched their movies. A few months later I worked for Red and Rudy on a stop-motion animated film Tappy Toes(1969): incredible to me that I was paid generously (can’t remember what but it seemed very generous to me) basically to hang out with them and get to see how they worked, what they looked at, while doing a menial task of moving small paper cutout figures a fraction of a millimeter at a time frame by frame for Rudy to photograph. And many years later I still live within the ripples of this particular art world, it is not historicist, for many of its participants are still alive, and its influence continues in the work of new generations–my collaboration with Susan Bee on our journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G also connects me to her collaborations with poet Charles Bernstein, who in turn has collaborated with Mimi Gross, and so on. The connections are many and they are important because the values of this world, in important part because of the connection to poetry (less money in this branch of the creative world), are always a vital corrective to the international Art Industry of museums, art fairs, which is as it appears, a capital-oriented and generally impregnable fortress. Within it creative friendships still exist of course, though time, play, and friendship are monitored and monetized in such a way that it can constantly erase the parallel universe of the artworld that Painters and Poets celebrates. ]