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Fail-Safes

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Shortly before the first Presidential Debate September 26th, one of my students told me that he felt that the American system of government was sturdy enough to withstand the depredations of a Trump presidency, not that he was for such an event but in response to my fear of a fascist take over of the government. I thought about some of the times in recent history when in the face of attacks on some of the basic principles of our Constitution, the “system worked.” Watergate is frequently mentioned as an instance when “the system worked,” when some members of the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of government and some of the press were able to stand up to Richard Nixon’s abuses of power. Thinking back on those historical instances, I wondered whether the same mechanisms would prevail now, and that led me to thinking about a few movies that are part of the filter through which I see our current political crisis. The movies I have chosen were mostly made in the period between 1964 and 1976, and are historically bracketed by the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Watergate affair of 1972-1974. At the beginning of the cycle, the President of the United States is portrayed as a hero, the final film of the cycle (Network, 1976, see below) is post national and post governmental, and the nuclear bomb has receded from view as a fear, replaced by the madness of corporate greed.

At the center of my student’s faith in the American system of government is its tripartite system of balanced powers, where governmental power is divided between the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislative. In a sense this is a system with a fail-safe mechanism built in to prevent the kind of monarchical tyranny the American Revolution emerged from.

The failure of such a fail-safe system is the theme of the 1964 movie Fail Safe in which a group of Strategic Air Command planes carrying a nuclear response payload cannot be persuaded to turn back in time to stop an unintended, mistakenly triggered, first strike on Moscow. The basic premise is not unlike that of Dr. Strangelove, released the same year, except that in Fail Safe it is played for realism rather than satire. As the planes head for their target, the fate of the world rests on a Solomonic choice of public and personal sacrifice made by the President of the United States. Fail Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, with an outstanding supporting cast of mostly New York theater- and early television drama-based actors, has a taught, spare editing style possibly based on the the style of 1950s live television drama. The film begins on a fascinatingly Bunuelesque note and the use of a beautiful 1950s style typeface for titles indicating location and time suggest a TV newscast or documentary of the period while stylistically pointing us forward towards the use of text titles in the films of Jean-Luc Godard. (just a cautionary note that the version available on YouTube has been sped up so that the actors sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks in order to get around copyright laws so I hope there is another way of watching it!).

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Though it was released earlier than Fail Safe, Stanley Kramer‘s 1959 film On the Beach could function as a sequel to Fail Safe in terms of the plot, that is in terms of what happens after nuclear catastrophe, as a wave of air-born lethal radiation makes it way to the last outpost of living civilization, a film produced in a time of perhaps greater anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war–the Cuban Missile Crisis was defused through the basic reasonableness and cool of the two world leaders involved and some of their advisors and marked the beginnings of a slow detente with Russia (one which apparently has now eroded back into a war which most of us were too busy to notice or take seriously until this election cycle revealed it). In both these films the fail safe is human decency and the ability of some human beings to think in terms of a greater good and yet in both Fail Safe and On the Beach the very existence of nuclear weapons insures eventual catastrophe whether by will or by technological or human error.

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Another fail-safe mechanism built into the American system of government rests in the tradition of a military that at least in principle and according to the Constitution is apolitical. The possibility that such a policy–written into Article II of the Constitution which states that the commander in chief is the President, a civilian–might fail is the subject of the excellent political thriller Seven Days in May, from 1964, directed by John Frankenheimer. Seven Days in May details the discovery of a secret plot led by a treasonous general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played by Burt Lancaster, to stage a coup d’état from the far right and overthrow the President of the United States who has recently signed a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The story is set in 1974, ten years in the future from the release of the movie, thus it is a kind of of science fiction thriller although it feels very much as a 60s movie in other ways, including being a black and white film and because the crisp pacing of the plot premise, day by day, hour by hour, has a technocratic aspect that seems very much of its time, and, again, emerges from the live television tradition of New York-based 1950s drama. It is notable again because of an outstanding ensemble cast where the leading characters are all movie stars, both present and legendary, including Douglas and Lancaster as well as Frederic March and Ava Gardner, in a late career role which plays on the vulnerability of her ageing beauty (no plastic surgery). The differing acting styles of these major figures within a tight and dramatic script is very interesting to watch.

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The film is based on a book written in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently President Kennedy read the book and thought it presented a credible scenario, he wanted the film made according to Kennedy advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger. Lancaster’s character was partially based on General Walker who was forced to resign after the Cuban Missile Crisis –the recent history of McCarthyism in the United States is also part of the story. In the parlance of that anticommunist era, the President is considered a “weak sister,” a communist sympathizer or appeaser.

In the film there are three Fail Safe mechanisms in play: first the military code with regards to political activity–this is represented by the Navy office played by Kirk Douglas, who uncovers the plot to take over media communications and overthrow the President when he is mistakenly allowed to overhear a reference to a military plan or group with the acronym of  ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol). Never having heard of this group and finding no records for it, he overcomes his loyalty to the military and to the superior officers he serves, alerts the President, and ultimately confronts the General, his former mentor. Loyalty is a theme of the film: to whom are you loyal? to your country? to your friends? to the Constitution? to the code of military conduct? to your Commander in Chief? Douglas’ character is torn between loyalty and military hierarchy and greater loyalty to the President and the Constitution, even though he personally doesn’t approve of the President’s policies. A key scene between Douglas and Lancaster involves a discussion of who is the Judas but it is clear that Douglas’ character adheres to constitutional divisions of power.

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The military’s relation to politics has played a part in the campaign for the presidency in 2016: since no officer currently serving is allowed to express a political view except as a personal choice, the war of surrogacy has been waged by battalions of retired four star generals and admirals who have declared their support for one candidate or the other. At one point in the campaign, Trump said he would fire all the generals whose views he doesn’t agree with although the legality of such an action is questionable. Some former commanders have protested Trump’s statements in favor of torture and of killing families of suspected terrorists, because these would contravene the Geneva convention and the military code of conduct. Therefore it is very likely that the military could find itself, in a Trump administration, in the position of having to refuse to follow orders or even in the position of deposing the government in order to save the world from, say, nuclear warfare, as in Fail Safe. Who would prevail in today’s military? And would such officers as would find the orders illegal be likely to engage in the ultimate illegal act of taking over the government? I am not aware of any such major plot in American history: if any military coups were ever considered, they were prevented. So the Fail Safe of the military has not been publicly tested.

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The second, related, element at play in Seven Days in May is human decency as it is expressed in a politics of peacemaking: this is the role of the President who is willing to lose everything in order to take a principled position for peace, one where he has not resorted to common blackmail even though that is a path offered to him, and it is also the role of his personal friends, long time political loyalists that he knows he can rely on implicitly and who risk their life for him.

The third element is chance, including a crucial letter found at the very last minute at the site of a plane crash, which plays a major role in the resolution of the crisis. This is the centuries old plot device of the Deus ex machina, when mortals fail and there is no other alternative but an intervention of the Gods, if you want to avoid a tragic ending. Unfortunately the device of Deus ex machina, the God figure literally being lowered to the stage from the upper regions of the proscenium theater just in the nick of time to resolve the unresolveable dramas of mortal human beings is not a Fail Safe device that is operative in real life. And one can hope for human decency, but it may not in the short term prevent catastrophe.

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The phrase “the system worked” entered into public discourse most notably to refer to the resolution of the Watergate scandal. Among the elements of the system that “worked” were the refusal of some high placed government officials who resigned rather than follow Presidential orders against their own conscience and sense of proper government–these included Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus who refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, on the night of October 20, 1973, in what came to be called the “Saturday Night Massacre.”  In 1974 during the House Impeachment hearings, some Republican Congressmen did vote for impeachment. The refusal to this date on the part of the entire Republican leadership in Congress to withdraw their support for Donald Trump in the face of now countless attacks on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution makes it doubtful that such principled bipartisan behavior could occur in our era. The history of the Republican Party’s move to the far right is too long to go into in this post.

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During Watergate, the press was one of the major systemic forces that “worked.”  Thus Alan Pakula‘s 1976 film ” All the President’s Men the dramatization of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of their investigative reporting of the break-in at the Watergate, is another movie that is required viewing while considering whether the system would work in a potential Trump presidency, that is whether the establishment press still can function as a Fail Safe to tyranny. Even though we know what happened in the story, the atmosphere of the film is one of tremendous suspense and tension, with the particular power of 1970s film noir. The movie in fact is referred to as part of Pakula’s “paranoia trio,” including also Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974).

The press is represented through several stock characters of movies about media–comedies such as Front Page and His Girl Friday as well as more serious newspaper stories such as Call Northside 777)—the gritty beat reporter, the gruff no-nonsense editor, the unflappably competent and cautious assistant editors, the courageous newspaper owner–except in the case of All the President’s Men, these were real people–publisher Katharine Graham, executive editor Ben Bradlee, junior beat reporters Woodward and Bernstein–who each played their appointed role in the drama so that investigative reporting, Freedom of the Press, and political justice prevailed. In fact at all times in American history yellow journalism has thrived along with valiant socially conscious journalism. But the current media atmosphere is exponentially more complex, virulent, profit oriented–well, you know, we all know. And in the time of Wikileaks, what Woodward and Bernstein did may seem primitive though one can see the same kind of shoe leather beat journalism in the recent work of  Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald and the Washington Post’s David Fahrenhold among others have done in researching Trump’s finances and ties to Russia over months of investigative research. Nevertheless during the campaign of 2016 even generally respected news organizations have alternated between this kind of responsible reporting and cowardice.

Meanwhile Trump has made it clear from the start that he would try to destroy a free press. Actions including having reporters thrown out of press conferences, barring news organizations from his rallies, encouraging violence against reporters at this rallies, insulting female reporters, threatening to sue newspapers, are listed in a statement released October 13, 2016 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, declaring that “a Donald Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom.” As an example of what might be, last week the press covering a Trump rally had to be escorted by armed guard to their cars and buses. One has to worry about whether the press of record, the press with an established ethos of investigative journalism, would be able to financially survive a Trump Presidency. So the fail safe of a free press under a Trump administration is uncertain.

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When such threats are made, one always has to worry about self-censorship. In his 2005 film Goodnight, and Good Luck, George Clooney, speaking as CBS News hero Edward R. Murrow, says during a staff meeting of his CBS News show See it Now, as they consider whether to go after Senator Joe McCarthy“the terror is right here in this room.” Goodnight, and Good Luck is another useful film to view in relation to trust in a free press or media as a Fail Safe. Murrow did play a role in at last dismantling McCarthyism, through his See it Now broadcasts of 1954, and the courageous editorial statements on that program, but from a corporate media point of view this was also one step towards a more profit-oriented news organization as Murrow was gradually marginalized within the network after his heroic moment. Murrow had earned the respect of the American people through his courageous broadcasts from London during the blitz, and he set a standard for reporting that was carried on by a younger generation, now mostly deceased. Only Dan Rather survives of the generations of reporters even remotely connected to “Murrow’s Boys” and, remarkably, at age 85, he has been publishing strongly worded condemnations of Trump on a Facebook page. Murrow’s original March 9, 1954 broadcast can be viewed here, and his comments after McCarthy responded can be viewed here. If you watch Murrow’s initial broadcast taking on Senator McCarthy, which I recommend doing, you will ask yourself whether the contemporary media would be capable to be able to deliver such a report with such seriousness and with such moral authority though a few television reporters are rising the occasion. Significantly, in terms of the historic nature of this election with one candidate being the first woman to be nominated by a major party to run for the position of President of the United States, many of these are women, including Katy Tur, who is the long suffering, often under attack, indefatigable reporter assigned by NBC News to cover the Trump Campaign.

Please note that there is a direct line between the McCarthy era, as seen both in the archival footage and the recent movie, and Donald Trump since McCarthy’s despicable aide, Roy Cohn, was an important mentor to Trump early in his career.

Clooney’s deliberate use of black and white film in order to give authenticity and recognizability to the historical recreation connects him to such notable documentaries as Emile de Antonio’s 1964 documentary film Point of Order, about the Army-McCarthy hearings. It is also an homage to the generation of producer, directors, and writers that made the films I have already mentioned: Sidney Lumet, Alan Pakula, Stanley Kramer, John Frankenheimer, who all belonged to a generation with its roots in the Great Depression-whether their families were personally affected by it or not they were raised within an atmosphere of left-leaning social consciousness and activism which permeated their work. These were men who had a politics, a political world view of sympathy for the working man and suspicion of political authority and abuse. Somehow they had managed to avoid the worst effects of the blacklist on the late 40s and early 50s in order to produce these works. Many had worked in theater and in early television live drama, whose style and editorial pacing permeated their films, including the cast of theater actors they relied on as a kind of repertory company floating between them, many from the Actor’s Studio, and in several important cases the use of black and white not just for economic purposes but for its political and historical qualities at a time when color was readily available.

A final, more chilling and more contemporary film also made from this political generation is Network, from 1976,written by Paddy Chayevsky, another member of this theatrical and cinematic generation, and directed by, again, Sidney Lumet, which examines the lengths to which the ratings-obsessed value system of contemporary broadcasting will go to protect and advance corporate interests. The script is ready for our current media atmosphere: Lumet and Chayevsky would not be surprised that a TV Reality show star is running for President as scripted by a “reality”show driven by ratings more than political belief. Network forms an incredibly smart bridge between what Guy Debord described in Society of the Spectacle and the media environment of our time, most powerfully in a monologue delivered by the media corporation CEO to the deluded insane news anchor Howard Beale. The second part of his remarks are particularly notable.

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The power of the media to create a popular, populist star and then reveal the cynical indecency of a media star is the subject A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan–a man who reputation was and still is marred by his having named names to the McCarthy panel. The film questions the role in our political system of the newest most powerful type of media at that time, television.

Marcia Jeffries, a young woman reporter working for a local radio station in the South, looks for local color in a county jail in Arkansas, where she spots the raw talent of Larry Rhodes, a guy sleeping off a drunk. He has charm, a downhome sort of wisdom, he can sing and play the guitar, and he is young and ruggedly attractive. It may come as some surprise that this role is played by Andy Griffith, but seeing the movie will make you think very differently of him as an actor. His characterization has an overripe brutality which may seem over the top but given the ongoing spectacle of Trump, maybe not. And it works in the film.

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Jeffries manages his career as he rises to television stardom as “Lonesome Rhodes,” a catchy nickname she has given to him. His persona trades in what at first seems like genuine authenticity. He sings while making folsky asides which endear him to the radio then the television audience. Gradually his success goes to his head, he believes his image. He gets involved in politics, at first as as a media advisor to a Senator with aspirations to higher office. His behavior is increasingly thuggish and cruel. Eventually the woman who has created him now sees that she must destroy him, for the public good. Her decency is wrenched from her sexual enthrallment to him–the film is as explicit about that as could be portrayed in American film at that time, with Patricia Neal at her most beautiful and as always with her sexual nature vividly evident, as in some of her other notable film portrayals, including her roles in The Fountainhead and Hud. She could do more with her eyes, her body, and that black slip than anyone. She pulls the plug on him on by turning on his mike when he thinks he’s off the air so that his audience finally hears the contempt he has for them, hears him as he really is, the “monster” that she herself had created by lifting him out of the crowd.

I have thought about this movie often in the past few months: it seemed as if Trump was revealing how awful he was for everyone to see and to hear every day so that there could be no possibility of such a revelation, what else was there to reveal: thus the movie’s faith in people’s ability to be shocked seemed quaint. Then Access Hollywood‘s “grab them by the pussy” live mike video and audio turned the tables and seems to have worked almost as well as the live mike in A Face in the Crowd in turning at least some percent of the population against Trump.

One can only hope that the final scene in the movie is also predictive. I strongly recommend the film so I don’t want to spoil it except to say that the end involves a lonely has-been television personality howling from the penthouse terrace of a luxury apartment building in midtown Manhattan.

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So far nothing that has been revealed about Donald Trump, from his sexually predatory behavior to his ignorance about policy including his casual interest in the use of nuclear weapons have had a definitive effect on his candidacy. Revelations in the press have had a limited impact: as of today polls show him still as having 43% of the popular vote. The press was slow to act and Congressional leaders from his own party have not shown the political courage to stop supporting him.

As for Deus ex Machina, the gods sometime wait quite a long time before intervening to save humanity: this is the case in an early episode of the original Star Trek series, The Squire of Gothos, where the Enterprise and its crew are hijacked and kidnapped by a being, humanoid in appearance but not registering as a living being on the crew’s tricorder devices. He lives alone in some splendor and seems to get his power from a full length mirror he never strays far from, the classic narcissist that all have diagnosed Trump as being. He toys with the crew, impedes their escape, and eventually threatens their life. At the last minute, two “energy beings” appear (disembodied voices represented by light) and apologize for the behavior of their “child.”

So far, Fred and Mary Trump have not appeared to discipline their child and stop him from endangering the Republic, which they were apparently unable to do in his youth, sending him to military school when all else failed.

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These are just a few of the films that have occurred to me when thinking of the fail-safe mechanisms built into American government and other major institutions that in the past may have averted political catastrophe. If my readers can think of other films with this focus, please email me about them and I may collect them into a second blog post. I am writing this before the third debate. Who knows what new abomination may befall us next during this campaign?

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Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, parts 1 and 2 of 3

I’ve spent the summer with my thoughts trapped inside three caves–the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave featured in Werner Herzog‘s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the cave inside a malachite mine deep in the Ural Mountains featured in a 1946 Russian children’s movie The Stone Flower, and the cave whose entrance lurks in the shadow of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, currently on special display at the Frick Museum in New York.

Is it any wonder that, in a summer when the prospect of a long and deeper recession and of a second American Civil War in which the Tea Party descendants of Jefferson Davis win looms closer and closer (well, so close it’s here), one might want to take refuge in a cave, especially one with art in it? Yet I’m deeply claustrophobic so I must find a way out. This blog post/essay is my process of digging myself out.

* Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Dinosaur on Central Park West

The son of a friend was about four or five years old and obsessed with dinosaurs, he knew all their names, the usual. I said, you know, creatures like that used to walk the same earth as we do. He looked at me with total incredulity and got right to the point, “Here, in New York City?”

Mammoth, Natural History Museum, NYC

"Un Mammouth," illustration from my second or third grade history book, Petite Histoire de la France, Lycee Francais, mid-1950s

I was never interested in dinosaurs, too snake-like for me. But as a child I was fascinated by the idea that other creatures now extinct had once roamed the earth.  The pictures and simple stories in my history book from second or third grade conveyed the wondrous idea that once upon a great but intelligible amount of time past, there had once been Mammoths here. Yet the “here” of my schoolbook was already marked by estrangement: its “here” was France, but I was not French, had never lived in France, had in fact not yet visited France when I read the book. It didn’t occur to me to imagine a single ancestor who might have ever struggled with a Mammoth, though I suppose genealogically speaking it’s possible that my grandfather, a Hasidic folk artist, a sign painter and stone carver in a shtetl in Galicia, may have had deep in his ancestry some fellow in the back of the cave carving a little bison out of a piece of bone, sometime back in 32,000 BC–we all do descend from someone back then, fifteen hundred generations ago, but basically I didn’t think there were any Jewish cavemen!

My little friend’s disbelief and the Mammoth in my history book returned to my mind seeing the fantastical narrative device used by Herzog near the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, when he pulls the camera away from the rock face protecting the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of France and shows us a nearby nuclear power plant (I looked it up, there is one) whose hot steam emissions are said to fuel a hi-tech glass-enclosed hothouse in which radioactive albino crocodiles in a pool seem to be prepared to restart the process of evolution in case there’s a nuclear accident and we have to start all over again. Like the image that had crossed the mind of my little friend, of dinosaurs walking down the street in front of his mother’s apartment on Fifth Avenue, Herzog’s fiction (or science fiction–as he explained to Stephen Colbert: “I want the audience with me with wild fantasies”) points to the jarring and slightly ridiculous effect of considering the deep past’s uncanny co-existence with our present.

My response to the Herzog movie has centered on what may seem like the “wrong” thing: what really struck me and has stayed in my mind are not the cave paintings themselves, amazing though they are, according to any criteria, be it expressive verisimilitude, mystery of original purpose, nearly unfathomable age, and difficulty of location and surface, but Herzog’s use of 3D which serves to enhance what is from my point of view the central thematic of the movie, which is that estrangement is intrinsic to wonderment.

The principal claim for Herzog’s use of 3D is that it would give the viewer a better approximation of the effect of the cave paintings’ adaptation to the curved walls. Herzog says he wanted to “intensify” the experience for the movie viewer. But my most powerful impression was of the way that the 3D amplified the separation between figure and ground, creating a flattening effect that does not feel like the way that we see. I mean, yes, if I look at you, I don’t really see the room around you in focus, but you are not a flat cutout doll completely separate from a distant ground, there is a much greater impression of visual integration. But in the Herzog movie human beings were sharply separate from the space they occupied, whether in the scenes filmed in the cave itself as well as when they were filmed in the landscape.

At the end of the movie, the camera draws further and further away from people exploring the landscape around the cave. The human figures, flattened, outlined, and distinct from the stone ground they stand on, become smaller and smaller paper cutout dolls, human beings as not even ants but toys for an all-seeing deity or creative force (which here is Herzog or whoever he is a stand-in for). The cave paintings are almost just an intermediary focus for the true subject of the film which the stupendous difference between the scale of human effort, however valiant, and the incomprehensibly greater scale of archeological time.

Herzog’s storyteller’s voice and foreign accent in English also cast the spell of the folktale over the documentary format. And when one of his guides in the cave calls for silence so that perhaps the visitors will hear the sound of their own heart beat in the deep stillness of the deepest recess of the cave, for a second you think, yes, let me just look and listen to my own heartbeat, maybe I will really feel I am there, but instead of that silence and the dream of private experience, cue the Wagnerian chorus! Again, the “documentary” filmmaker seems to insist on the absolute absurdity of actually thinking that you could experience the cave and its art in a pure fashion. As Stephen Colbert says, “Let me ask you a question here: You making any of this stuff up?” Herzog has gone out of his way to make sure that is a fair question.

In fact ever since Paleolithic cave paintings began to be rediscovered in the late 19th and the 20th century there have been people who thought they were fake. People continue to think this or pretend to for their own purposes . I’m not taking the position held by some that these are 19th Century fakes but Herzog’s propensity for artistry/fakery puts the whole enterprise in question. And anyway contemporary perception is so influenced by simulacral thinking that the gleaming nearly flesh colored crystalline deposits that encase bear skulls and covers large areas of the cave floor in a shiny flat layer of hard shiny pink glop looks a little too much like the cheesy sets of the first Star Trek series. In fact caves are visited with regularity in all variants of Star Trek, for one thing because the possibility of beaming people through barriers of stone holds a particular fascination.

In one episode, The Devil in the Dark (1967), miners of an important mineral element found in tunnels within solid rock under a planet’s surface are being killed by an unknown force (with moving multicultural tolerance plot twist of course). The cave chambers have been mapped, much as they are in another fascinating detail of Herzog’s film, the laser imaging of the interior shape of the Chauvet Cave with its network of irregular shaped chambers.

Map of the Chauvet cave chambers found @http://www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html

Detail of computer visualization of the interior conformation of the Chauvet cave chambers

One could find the Star Trek narratives to be memorable and powerful at the same time as it was pretty obvious that the rocks were made of spray-painted Styrofoam and bubble-wrap seemed to be the principal building block of the universe.

Bear Skull in the Chauvet Cave

"The Injured Horta," The Devil in the Dark, Star Trek, 1967

Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave

That does not diminish the potential for magic because at the same time even just the idea of the cave is very powerful in a somatic sense: I could barely breathe during much of the Herzog film, a sensation that was only lifted when, towards the end, as the camera makes a repeat sweep through the deepest cavern, it is revealed that when the cave paintings were made and for thousands of years thereafter the cave chambers were more open to the outer landscape, giving freer access to men and to the bears who left their claw marks on the painted walls. It was only after I could visualize an opening to the outside world that I could breathe better and experience the thrill of a group of lunging beasts.

Horses, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave painting

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You may once have had experiences of wonderment and delight, perhaps most uniquely in childhood, in your imagination, reading a book, hearing a story, or seeing something of incomparable beauty. You’d think being an artist would give you continued access to such experiences but for the most part life as a professional artist is at best a negotiation among the constantly changing realities of contemporary art, the limitations of one’s own abilities, and some internal core ability to still experience such wonderment when it presents itself, despite competitiveness, jealousy, and the infrequency of such experiences. Basically we once experienced wonderment and now we do the best we can. So when we do on rare occasions experience wonderment or delight, it is notable, and for a moment we may return to the prelapsarian intensity, awe, and joy first experienced in childhood and which is part of the secret fuel for a lifetime of art practice.

*The Stone Flower

Sometime in the 1950s when I was a child my mother took me to see an old Russian movie playing in a second run movie house someplace near Carnegie Hall. This experience remained in my mind as an intense visual experience, colorful, rich in detail, and one somehow tinged with the obscure and exotic. Distinct images from the movie remained in my mind as well as the sense of how it was to actually be in the theater watching it. I can nearly feel it to this day, a haptic and visual sense of being there and of seeing myself seeing it, but the movie itself disappeared from my cultural scope. I wasn’t sure of its title and I forgot the story. I never asked my mother about it and I never came across a revival or even a reference to it.

My mother took me to see old movies often, usually Laurel & Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, at MoMA, so being taken to see an old movie was not a unique experience, and the foreign language, Russian, was one which I did not exactly understand but whose soft sweet intonations I was familiar with from hearing it spoken by family friends, yet something about the circumstance of seeing this movie seems to have stood out for me as out of the ordinary, but perhaps it is just that I saw something beautiful on a day when I was just primed to receive it.

It should be said that where I remember seeing it was a kind of New York version of a dark cave or grotto, this old movie theater someplace near Carnegie Hall but which was not the Carnegie Hall Cinema. That was part of the exotic, this was not someplace we ever had been to see a movie before or went to after. [I did find a reference in the New York Times to the movie being shown at the New York Historical Society in March 1955, that is, three blocks from our apartment, but I am pretty sure that wasn’t the time or place, and since  you can only search the Times archive for articles and editorial content, not for movie ads, unless another madeleine dipped in espresso fills in the details of my memory, I will eventually have to track through two or three years worth of microfiche at the New York Public Library in the hopes of recuperating the date and location.*See postscript below]

This winter a strong, palpable remembrance of the movie resurfaced during a studio visit, triggered by a student’s use of mass-produced glass flower vases assembled in some measure to try to summon up a sense of the wondrous in the intangibility of air contained within glass, I think. The movie’s title, which had always been at the tip of my mind, came to me, or at least enough to have the confidence to Google what I thought it might be– The Stone Flower. I first found a variety of references, including to the Serge Prokofieff opera The Tale of the Stone Flower, based on a P. Bazhov’s fairy tale “The Malachite Box,” a 19th century folk tale, and then reference to the film itself. I asked a young Russian painter, Tatiana Istomina if she remembered such a film from her childhood and she then found the whole film for me on YouTube. There in 8 parts with English subtitles was the film I remembered, and my memory had been exact as to both the exoticism and the magical beauty.

The director, Aleksandr Putshko, is sometimes referred to as the “Soviet Walt Disney,” and there are some similarities to Disney in the delightful representations of nature and even in the bad guys: it turns out that Soviet films and Disney films share the same type of villains–the local rich person and his brutal overseer. But The Stone Flower is more like its near contemporary, the great British ballet movie The Red Shoes (1948); it shares with that film not just rich vibrant color and a sense of set design that seems influenced by the stage design style of the Bolshoi Ballet and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Also and more importantly it shares with The Red Shoes the theme of the artist as torn between an all-consuming search for perfection in art practice and what The Red Shoes’ pivotal character of the ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov, contemptuously refers to as “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Because you see, and here is what I think is so fascinating about this particular aesthetic memory, I had remembered everything about The Stone Flower except perhaps the most salient reason the movie had such an impact on me: it is about being an artist, not just about being naturally gifted and skilled but more importantly about the sacrifices that the artist makes in the obsessive search for perfection.

The film is framed by a narrative device: peasant children gather around the campfire of an old man and clamor for him to tell them a story, which then unfolds in a once upon a time era, not as deep in the past as the Chauvet cave painters, but in the equally lost past of  19th century peasant life in Czarist Russia. In the story he tells, which he carefully distinguishes for his young audience as not a fairy tale, which is for little children. but, rather, “folklore and narrative,” the young hero Danila neglects his duties guarding cattle while he is enraptured by the beauty of a wildflower in the forest. He is observed in this early sign of artistry by a sorceress disguised as a salamander wearing a little tiara: this is the Mistress of Copper Mountain. [This scene comes in at about 7 minutes into the film).

In that first scene in the forest the basic fakery of cinema comes through in a very intense way, similar to the richly detailed illustrations of children’s books in the 19th and early 20th century: there is a very strong naturalism, in the use of real trees, vegetation, and real animals from squirrels to a small herd of cows, yet the atmosphere is intensified by deep color and chiaroscuro and the suggestion of compressed space, the space of the cinema set, a kind of cave in itself. I think that the combination of naturalism, even realism, with artifice is part of what made the film such an intense and memorable experience. If anything, in fact I think definitively, the analogue nature of the sets and the special effects add to the wonder.

But please remember, a film viewed on YouTube cannot replicate the experience of seeing a film lauded for its color–it received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Color at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1946–filling the screen of a darkened movie theater.

When Danila’s absorption in the patterns of the flower causes him to neglect the cattle, he is to be beaten but an old stone carver defends him to the cruel overseer and so is beaten for his troubles. But then the boy is given over to the stone carver as a ward and student. Danila grows into a handsome and supremely gifted stone carver but he is dissatisfied with his most ambitious achievement, a flower-shaped malachite vase. He wants “to gather all the beauty of a living flower and show it in the stone that it would never wither.”

The second part of the following clip takes place in a barely lit peasant’s wood cottage (a type of cave) where Danila and a number of old stone carvers consider the nature of artmaking. Danila hears the tale of the Stone Flower: “The Stone Flower? What’s it like?” “It’s to for us to see it. One who sees it will forget all about earthly life.” I’ve included this clip because now this interests me, this narrative discussion about art. I would wager that even though perhaps as a child I found the scene a bit talky compared to the forest and cave scenes, I took its meaning to heart, a warning about the danger of forgetting about earthly life if you devote yourself to art.

Danila feels he must see this stone flower and to do so he must go to the cave which formed the center of my childhood memory–in the last section of the film, where a happy ending does nothing to convince any artist of the relative value of  “the doubtful comforts of human love” to one who is absorbed in the search for perfection at the heart of The Stone Flower.. Ah, now readers, here the rub: since I first saw the entire film on YouTube in a series of 8 clips, the 2 clips that take place within the cave have been removed for copyright infringement by the production company Mosfilm which has the entire film up on its own YouTube channel where you can watch the whole thing, and with subtitles if you click on “cc”.

What’s perceivable as fake can also be deeply convincing emotionally and powerful aesthetically, the “fake” is a manner of estrangement that can lead to wonder, and the idea of the cave being a magical creative site.

*

The third cave is one that you cannot enter, in fact you can barely see it, it’s a dark crevice of an entrance into a stone mountain in Giovanni Bellini’s 1480 painting St. Francis in the Desert  currently on special view at the Frick Museum...to be continued in my next post, that will complete this essay, which as much as anything I’ve written is true to the meanings of essay as an attempt, a trial, an endeavor, a feeling one’s way out of a cave of thoughts.

 * Postscript:  my friend Mimi Gross filled in the memory in an email from August 3, 2011:

I have the exact I mean EXACTLY the same experience about the “Stone Flower” remaining in my memory seen at the Guild Theater (the one you couldn’t remember) where I also saw Citizen Kane for the first time, those early teen age memories / and you were even younger. The same fantasy that never went away, of the sets of the cave of the glowing flower..and will watch the youtubes at a perfect moment since the memory is so delicate. More than Twenty years ago, walking in the snow in Central Park at night, with a Russian film historian, [he] told me all the details of the film, and that it was very well known (no one knew what I was talking about until then) and then, about ten years ago, I noticed it was playing one night only, maybe Walter Reader, and sent two students who happened to be at my house as I was unable to go and they had…the same reactions so many years later.

The Guild Theater was located at 33 West Fiftieth Street.

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Postcard post

It is customary to send postcards to your friends when you’re on vacation.

My “vacation” consists, if I’m lucky, of my working in the studio as intensely as possible in all too short a time frame, like a squirrel madly trying to making sure there are enough nuts to last the long winter during which other aspects of the artist’s life prevail and overwhelm.

I always begin by putting up a group of postcards which I then take down at the end of the summer to help preserve their color and because I value the ritual of annual re-installation with gradual changes to the grouping and the order as part of my work process. Once I covered entire walls with hundreds of postcards, with major sequences of thematics interwoven.

Postcard wall view, Skowhegan studio, 1995

Postcard wall view, Skowhegan Studio, 1995

Detail of diagram of postcard wall, 1990s.

Over time I’ve pared down to a small, metonymic grouping of a few postcards taped to an attic door near my painting table. I hardly look at them once I’ve put them up yet each one represents something significant to me and each day in passing I may catch the eye of an image, so to speak, and a familiar connection is reignited.

Roof Slab of the "Diver's Tomb" (Tomba el Il Tuffatore), Paestum, c.475 B.C.

At the top is an image of a diver from Paestum.  (I have never seen this work in person). I love the schematic simplicity of representational detail, and the strange mixture of the mundane — someone in 475 B.C. doing something that people are doing around the world right now– and the mysterious — what is he diving into and what does it mean that such an image is on a tomb? Again the mundane: maybe the guy buried there liked to dive and swim, and the mysterious: maybe this is symbolic of death itself, the ultimate leap into the unknown oblivion. As the first image at the top of my postcard wall it represents the imperative of leaping into the unknown of intense engagement with my work after a long interruption.

Herge, Tintin, from Le Sceptre d'Ottokar, 1947

Nearby, at the top of another vertical row is the image of Tintin falling. In my childhood I appropriated my older sister’s copies (this in itself already gave the images some of the exoticism of the slightly ancient, an impression fostered by the  French hardcover volumes’ patina of well-loved wear and tear, even though they couldn’t have been more than 10 years old ). I pored over them, appreciating the bold outline and color, and the weird plots. I loved le Capitaine Haddock’s amusingly child-friendly and weirdly antiquated swearing, and the dear deaf Professeur Tournesol blissfully unaware of the perils he wandered in and out of. I still treasure them and this postcard image of the unflappable Tintin tumbling down a mountain.

But I hadn’t realized, until I started thinking about this post, to what extent images of figures falling through space was one thematic of my postcard wall arrangement. Towards the bottom of the vertical row of cards below the Diver are two radically different images of women who are in some way toppling through space with abandon,elegance, and terror:

"Lounging," Vintage Chrome Postcard, c. early 1970s

Giotto, Inconstancy, detail from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padova, 1303-1306

Details from Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel (or Arena Chapel) were among my favorite images long before I finally was able to go to Padova to see the frescoes. This turned out to be one of the most terrifying artistic experiences in my life in that finally in the presence of works I adored, I found myself totally disoriented by the totality of the work, the amount of scenes, the location of many important scenes in the narrative cycle well above eye level, and above all by the absolute irreducible flatness of the work: everything that I loved in the reproductions I had pored over and put up on my wall,  not just the narrative cycle and the deep emotion of the figures but the sculptural nature of Giotto’s figurative depictions, the magnificent drapery, the miniaturized architecture: all of this was the wall, not on the wall but the wall. Imagine seeing every painting by Picasso, Manet, or Cezanne, all as images on one continuous flat surface without even a trace of impasto to distinguish one from the other.

In the Scrovegni Chapel, the figure of Inconstancy occupies the lowest of four major levels from ceiling to floor and so it ‘s closer to eye level. Thus when I visited it was possible to have a more intimate viewing experience where I could peer closely at the figure instead of jostling with the crowds while wishing I had binoculars to see details of the major painting scenes in the rows above. This figure is such a perfectly balanced depiction of imbalance, so still within the sculptural grisaille while tumbling through air. I identified with the topsy-turvy figure, knocked off her feet by the sin of inconstancy as I was by the aesthetic shock of finally seeing such revered images and finding it nearly impossible to know how to experience them.

On every studio postcard wall I’ve installed are three black and white postcards from the North Portal of Chartres Cathedral.

Postcards, detail of portal sculptures at Chartres Cathedral XIIIth Century

In a drawer in my parents’ room when I was a child there was a bundle of postcards from their years in France before the beginning of World War II: among these I believe were black and white postcards of Chartres. When I was 8 years old, they took me to Chartres Cathedral during their first visit back to Europe after they had escaped to America in 1941. I have been back since but that initial experience was formative, even foundational in its resonance for my work. I have a haptic memory of my entrance into the Cathedral, of touching the cold grey stone of a small chamber and my memory of that first experience of being in the main nave combines color, cool temperature, and the thrill of verticality into something that has a smell and even almost a taste that I cannot quite describe. I’m not sure if these black and white postcards are from that original pre-War group, or from our trip in 1958. What I do know is that I so imprinted on these black and white reproductions and they are so imbricated with my physical memory, that I find the more recent color postcards I have of the same figures to be crass and inexpressive. For all intent and purpose, these photographs could be from the Thirteenth Century and in looking at the face of John The Baptist, I feel I am looking upon the face of the sculptor who carved it.

Chartres Cathedral, XIIIth century, North Portal, John the Baptist

Buster Keaton, 1939 (unidentified photographer)

The face of John the Baptist haunts me, its elongated form, the expression almost too humble and touching to bear. It picks up in the face of Buster Keaton, whose films I saw also in my childhood. I always felt a deep allegiance to Keaton. I am drawn to the spareness of the sets as to the complexity of the sequences of motion and transformation. The General, The Navigator, Sherlock Jr. — a favorite of the Surrealists — The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill Jr. are all wonderful. And above all I am drawn to the impassivity of Keaton the actor’s face, as the world deconstructs around him (a deconstruction that is the result of Keaton the director’s artistry and immense technical imagination, skill, and daring).

The faces of John the Baptist from Chartres and Buster Keaton belong to a category or a quality of many of the images I chose that I would describe as stillness, as a deep seriousness, often profound piety. It is a quality of artwork that is sculptural yet also has a calm clear musical tone which imparts a sense of justness. It is often also, formally speaking, minimalist, at least in the key detail or underlying emotional core, a quality of profound reticence. I find this quality in popular culture as much as in high art:

Spock

My students can attest to the fact that I use Star Trek (all versions except the last prequel series and film) as a major source of wisdom and in all iterations I have always identified with the character whose capacity for emotion is sometimes tragically (Spock), sometimes humorously (Data), and always fascinatingly (Seven of Nine) encased within a rigorous intelligence, and none more so than Spock.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ in the Sepulchre with Three Mourners, Pinacoteca de Brera, Milan

Below Spock and Inconstancy, at the bottom of the vertical row that begins with the Diver from Paestum is Andrea Mantegna‘s The Dead Christ (c.1500) which I saw at the Brera Museum in Milan in 2001 and wrote about later that summer as a painting I had fallen in love with:

The Dead Christ was painted by Mantegna in about 1500, towards the end of his life and is thought to have been intended for his own tomb in the Church of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua. It hangs in a simple frame, unostentatiously placed among many other paintings in a corridor lit by natural light but it has been positioned so that it is visible from a great distance framed by a series of open doorways of a side set of small galleries. You feel that thrill of “there it is” since it is one of the most famous images in the history of Western painting because its virtuoso use of foreshortening but also because of what it is and how it relates to your own space and body.

Once in front of the painting I was struck by several things all at once:

First of all it is a small painting only about 68x81cm, or about 2 by 3 1/2 feet. So it has a kind of modesty of size but at the same time it is immediately intensely radical, all the more so because it’s small and subdued in color. Christ’s body is indeed dramatically foreshortened but immediately it is obvious that the foreshortening is wrong, the face seems big in proportion to the feet. Mantegna must have been aware of the problem but both the basic premise of the painting and the basic error in its realization are what create the emotional impact of the painting. There is something profoundly uncomfortable about it. The perspectival error in itself creates a sense of discomfort and disquiet and the result of the error is that the viewer’s eye propels directly to Christ’s massive chest and handsome face. You are allowed no emotional distance from what’s going on and the intensity of religious emotion is accentuated by the three mourners whose faces are crammed in the upper left corner of the painting.

This is the most surprising part of the painting, perhaps more than the abrupt foreshortening. At first I thought the painting must be a fragment, a cropped image from a larger original because it is such a strange and in a sense a very modern, photographic type of composition, but the original linen is visible all around the edges of the painting, so this is the original composition, again an incredibly radical aspect of the painting.

Those faces are part of the appeal of the painting for me; they are very much like the limewood sculptures by the German artist Tilman Riemenschneider that preceded this work by only a few years (1494). I generally prefer the mindset of Northern Renaissance painting because I prefer the sense of piety as it is embodied in stylized, sober forms characteristic of Northern Renaissance painting and I prefer the North’s more tormented, less Hellenistic view of the body over the idealism and narcissism of much High Renaissance Italian painting– and in fact what is interesting about the Dead Christ is that it combines elements of both traditions. It’s a mixture of the two value systems: the idealization of the human body and the search for scientific realism, and the Northern non-hierarchic realism, its emotionality and severity, sharpness and starkness of form and painterliness, the combination of large clear sculptural forms, linear elements and careful attention to humble detail.

This is a very sculptural painting and one of the characteristics of many of my favorite paintings are that they are sculptural, even architectural as they are painterly. From the stylized simplified forms in Seurat to the ample folds of clothing and the houses and rooms of Giotto to the piles of stuff in a Guston. They could be turned into a sculpture, they could be built or carved or accumulated, which is not something that one might say of a Rubens, for example, unless the sculpture was made of butter! It is the miracle of paint’s capacity to be a thing in itself and represent a thing or a place, even in an abstract painting, that is so exciting to me.

The material qualities of the painting are as important as the image, utterly uncompromising and not particularly oriented towards sensual pleasure. There are no frills, and everything propels toward the subject, the death of a man who is a God: the size of the painting accentuates the realism: looking at it is exactly like what it might be like to be at eye level with a refrigerated drawer at the morgue.

At first it seems as if he painted it on patterned damask because the pattern of the cloth looks imbedded in the painting but no, the pattern is painted because natural linen is visible at the edges of the painting. You can see the edges of the linen, which makes you more aware of the paint surface resting on the flat surface, which makes it a very modern painting as well: the painting is tempera, very thin and dry. It looks intact and original, with no varnish or restoration evident. The subdued color and tonality, which verges on grisaille in keeping with the sculptural setting it was intended for, emphasizes the death of Christ’s corporeal body. The wounds in his flesh, feet and hands are both very convincing as wounds, they also looked like chipped wood, and like tears in the cloth of the painting, so they are wounds of God, man, and art. There is one drop of blood on his left forearm. Because of the way the paint is applied, flat and plain, this one tiny detail really stands out. The subject of the painting and its thinness, the way the image is so lightly resting on the surface and yet so much part of it that it seems imbedded in it, makes it like a more articulated and consciously done version of the Shroud of Turin, just the most fundamental, bare bones trace of the corporeality of Christ. The dryness too is part of the emotional quality of the painting. Also as a painter I am struck by the fact that the medium of tempera is unforgiving of mistakes. I would be interested to see an x-ray of the painting because it doesn’t seem to have any changes or repainting, and that again hits you in the face, the sense that he conceived it, drew and did it.

Each painting that I love gives me something I can use in my work and something that supports me as an artist. This painting is utterly uncompromising, it is almost brutal, its emotion is as unvarnished and understated as its surface, and it is profoundly serious which is a great gift at a time when the culture at large just wants entertainment.

But on the other hand, on the wall behind me:

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, film still from "Wrong Again" (1929)

And finally another image of falling, or at least teetering, tottering (just below Tintin):

Ida Applebroog

or, this year, the last word:

Ida Applebroog, God Never Sends Postcards, 1975. Ink and rhoplex on vellum

Have a great rest of the summer, and I may slip one more post in the mail before I return, I hope with a few nuts and less frayed, to the fray.

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