[Editor's Note: The article below and its accompanying slideshow appears in its entirety today at The Atlantic.]
Decoding the many references to film history in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated movie
By Govindini Murty. Martin Scorsese’s delightful children’s film Hugo is currently nominated for eleven Oscars, the most of any film of 2011. And in a year of movies like The Artist and Midnight in Paris that pay homage to early 20th century film and cultural history, Hugo might be the most complex cinematic homage of them all.
Based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo tells the story of an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a train station in 1931 Paris. Young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) maintains the station’s clocks and tries to repair a mysterious automaton left to him by his late father, a clock maker. While doing so, Hugo encounters an old man who sells toys in the station, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and his precocious step-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo and Isabelle team up to find the secret of the automaton, discovering along the way that Papa Georges is none other than Georges Méliès, the legendary turn of the century filmmaker known for such fantasy films as A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Scorsese uses the stunning 3D cinematography of Hugo much like a palimpsest, layering multiple levels of historical, cinematic, and intellectual history in each scene. Hugo references everyone from Jules Verne, Django Reinhardt, and the robot C-3PO to classic silent movies like Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Scorsese has even said that he considers the 3D in Hugo as a cinematic form of Cubism.
This cultural guide will help to decode the wealth of allusions in Hugo, making for a crash course in film, art, and literary history:
Hugo’s central mystery revolves around the automaton left to Hugo by his late father. The eerie metallic figure recalls such classic automata as the Machine-Man in Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis and C-3PO in Star Wars. According to Hugo author Brian Selznick, the inspiration for Hugo’s automaton came from an 1805 writing automaton created by Swiss clockmaker Henri Maillerdet, currently in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, as well from the 18th century Jaquet-Droz writing automata in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Animated figures go back to the Renaissance, when mechanical humans and animals would appear out of clock faces to mark the time. Automata were also popular in Hellenistic Alexandria, where automated figures were used in mechanical puppet theaters and in temples to provide oracles.
In Hugo, the automaton possesses a dual quality—both ominous and marvelous. This reflects the ambiguous feelings that people have toward humanoid automata—seeing them either as frightening doppelgangers (as in Metropolis) or as magical helpers (as in Star Wars). The scene where Hugo dreams that he turns into the automaton reinforces this ambiguity and dramatizes a common fear of dehumanization in the machine age.
[For the rest of the article and the accompanying slideshow, please visit The Atlantic.]
Posted on February 22nd, 2012 at 8:16am.
By David Ross. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” writes T.S. Eliot in the waning lines of “The Waste Land.” Just so, Push the Movement, a strictly visual but particularly thoughtful Tumblr blog, shores its own fragments against the ruin of the postmodern twilight. Its endless stream of vintage and contemporary photos constructs an elusive, melancholy narrative that is somehow far more than the sum of its obsessions: Natalie Portman, handguns, jungle cats, neo-classical statues, nuclear explosions, plummeting people (9/11 trauma?), urban sprawl, subversive graffiti, street battles, women in the tub, crashes (trains, planes, whatever), rockets, Bob Dylan (ca. 1966), baroque architectural detail, fires and smoke plumes, Kate Moss, girls in underwear standing at windows (an Alexandrian archive of this oddly moving tableau!), tornadoes, floods, ironic signage and logos, Muhammad Ali .
I realize that there are many likeminded Tumblr blogs, but Push the Movement strikes me as subtler, better eyed, more cliché averse, more clued into a kind of sadness that one finds in the work of postmodern humanists like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: a sense that reality has become an increasingly attenuated and remote spectacle, a ghostly tabloidism. As DeLillo famously says of the supermarket’s myriad coded surfaces, “This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living.” Push the Movement endlessly parades its miraculous visions yet it seems to know – its own minor key suggests – that this endless stream is an act of desperation, an addict’s exercise in ersatz experience and diminishing return. This is how Wim Wenders’ weary angels see the world in Wings of Desire: as a distant miracle in which they can no longer participate. This is the cinema of the end of the world.
The politics of Push the Movement is a cool and ironic anti-establishmentarianism, but the site seems to understand that there are no real politics amid the new reality of the data ether, and the site’s irony seems to some extent turned on itself. What ‘movement,’ after all, can be ‘pushed’ by endless quotation-marked juxtapositions of other people’s experience? The 1% needn’t fear.
Note that none of the photographs have captions, commentary, or identifying information of any sort. They belong to a disembodied circulatory system in which proprietary considerations, the very notions of origin and authorship, are unsustainable. I find this anti-apparatus of anonymity one of the creepiest and most telling aspects of the site. I once sent Push the Movement an e-mail inquiring about the source of a picture I wanted to show in class (with nobody to contradict me, I call the photo “Postmodern Man on the Shores of Time, with History Weeping on his Behalf”; see below). I should have predicted as much: no response.
I became addicted to Push the Movement earlier in the year. The fineness of its visual eye attracted me initially, but the mystery of its tristesse is the real fascination. I recently reviewed the entire archive for 2011 – thousands of pictures – with my CPU wheezing and finally collapsing under the weight of what amounted to a single vast download. Context matters, but here, out of context, are a few pictures that gave me particular pause and ambivalent pleasure.
By David Ross. Lyonel Feininger has suddenly and splendidly swung into view, like some rare astral event. The Whitney Museum is holding, through October 16, an exhibition called “Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World,” which should go far toward confirming the obvious: Feininger was for half a century one of the world’s chief painters. The exhibition is a major contention on his behalf, as the magnificent exhibition catalogue – available here – makes clear.
Feininger (1871-1956) is less celebrated than he should be principally because he confuses the national categories that structure so much art history. He was born in New York to German parents. So far so good. At age sixteen, he shifted his studies to Germany and wound up becoming the proverbial American abroad. During his fifty-year German sojourn, he fell in with the expressionists and later joined the faculty of the Bauhaus as an instructor in printmaking. During the 1920s, he became one of the “Blue Four,” an eminent coterie that included Kandinsky, Klee, and Alexej von Jawlensky (see here for an excellent survey). Feininger returned to the U.S. in 1937, after the Nazis sent a not so subtle signal by including his work in their infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibit.”
Neither quite American nor quite German, Feininger figures in nobody’s national tale. Had he remained in the U.S. or expatriated himself in England or France – countries entwined in our own modernist myth – I suspect he would now be considered one of the Titans of twentieth-century American art. Certainly he was a greater painter than Marsden Hartley (born 1877), Georgia O’Keeffe (born 1887), and Thomas Hart Benton (born 1889), who may be his closest American counterparts. As it is, the Wikipedia entry on American art does not even mention Feininger.
Complicating matters further, Feininger passed through three distinct and not easily reconciled phases. He was first a German expressionist, an oil cartoonist of spooky elongations and lurid Halloween scenery; he was second an impeccably elegant cubist of the school of Cezanne in its Weimar manifestation; he was third – especially during his later American years – a sketch artist whose modest drawings of sailboats, waterfront scenes, and New York buildings translated nature into a kind of wiry architecture, a taut cross-hatching whose inspiration, it’s not incredible to think, may have been the rigging of ships. These latter drawings, sometimes overlaid with watercolor, have a wonderful simplicity, a relaxed confidence in the soundness of their own geometry. Which is the primary Feininger? What explains the strange, disjunctive pattern of his career? There are no clear answers and thus few critics inclined to take up the questions.
By David Ross. My preferred form of Internet time-wasting is “Google Images.” I collect photos of great writers, Georgian architecture, Michelin-starred food (the kind I may never get a chance to eat), nineteenth and early twentieth-century art (Samuel Palmer, Lyonel Feininger, Wyndham Lewis, etc.), and, yes, glamour shots of classic actresses, including, but not limited to, Anouk Aimee, Lauren Bacall, Capucine, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Anna Karina, and Grace Kelly, preferably in Givenchy or Chanel, always in glorious black and white. In short, I’m a minor connoisseur, on which basis I would like to make the reckless assertion that the above photo of Veronica Lake, circa 1941, is the greatest still photo – the most elegant, seductive, multivalent – ever taken of an actress. The photographer was George Hurrell (1904–1992), whom Virginia Postrel calls the “master of Hollywood glamour.” You can read about his revival here and buy his work here.
The photo seems at first glance your standard come-hither boilerplate, elevated, obviously, by Veronica’s preternatural bone structure and hallmark tresses. I find, though, that Veronica’s expression has a kind of Gioconda irreducibility. At once sexy, weary, predatory, and demure, her expression seems to say something like, “I have no interest in you – no interest in the mere world – but if you insist, I will rouse myself to the matter of your destruction – and you will relish every wound.” Notice the faint sneer that registers at the right corner of the mouth; notice the shadowed right eye that carries dual connotations of the harlequin and the gun moll with a shiner; notice the coffin-forming play of light and shadow. This is a disconcerting silhouette indeed: a dark little study of sex and death, a forked image of the sleeping beauty and the stirred succubus, the thirst-awakened vampiress.
In comparison, Rita Hayworth kneeling on her satin-sheeted bed and Marilyn Monroe struggling with her billowing skirt are images of mere adolescent wish fulfillment, of sweaty pubescence. If buxom vistas are your thing — well, enjoy. Hurrell’s version of Veronica Lake belongs to an entirely different category. Its glamour recalls Beardsley, Weimar, what have you; it’s not kid’s stuff.
Posted on September 9th, 2011 at 2:07pm.
By David Ross. Every so often I dip into contemporary literature to confirm my sense that I’m not missing very much. I recall forays into the work of Paul Auster, Angela Carter, Douglas Coupland, Dave Eggers, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Franzen, Michel Houellebecq, Jay MacInerney, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Moody, Chuck Palahniuk, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterston, and other passing fancies of Time and Newsweek. Zadie Smith waits her turn on my shelf. All this sifting of silt has produced only a few glinting nuggets. I discovered in Houellebecq a fierce and welcome fellow despiser of modernity (see my comments here), and something even more in David Foster Wallace: a vast nineteenth-century mind struggling to find itself.
The “covering cherub,” in Blake’s parlance, was the postmodernism that DFW formally embraced against the grain of his personality. He was profoundly sincere, empathetic, and humane, a believer in “the sub-surface unity of things,” as he puts it in his famous Kenyon graduation address of May 2005, and yet devoted his career to self-conscious intricacies of irony and gamesmanship. He made great art in this mode – only Nabokov and Borges are his postmodern betters – but it was not, I can’t help feeling, the art he was born to make.
I have additional misgivings about his prose, though he is the only prose writer of his generation even worth noting. While meticulously attentive to his art, he was ambivalent about the formality of his art, the ideal of the well-wrought urn. His language is often splendid, but always splendid despite a certain scruffiness and loose-limbed sprawl. My eye is always instinctively performing the function of an editor, pruning, reshaping. He was too invested in his own unpretentiousness, too much infected with the modern American ideal of jeans and sandals, which ultimately expresses a yearning to be liked, to be no better or different than the rest of the crowd. I suppose this is the symbolic meaning of DFW’s hallmark bandana, an accouterment of kitchen and field workers, housewives and athletes. Great writers don’t care about being liked. They scorn our right to judge. They discover themselves amid the execrations of the crowd.
Even with his foibles and arguable failings totted up, DFW was the redeemer of his literary generation. He saved it from the humiliation of being the first generation in American history to lay nothing – not the least nosegay – on the graves of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. He saved it from the gaping wound of a great naught.
DFW’s rightly famous Kenyon Commencement Speech (here and here) has become a pop-cultural touchstone. Perhaps enthusiasm for it has already become a bit of a cliché. Yet I defy anybody to listen attentively without succumbing to its moral seriousness and sinking into an inner hush just as the initially boisterous Kenyon audience stills into an outer hush. In the guise and moment of his speech, DFW defies the default setting of the culture. He sheds his celebrity – the unpeelable skin of the Oprah era – and becomes the conduit and servant of a message more urgent than himself. Thus Emerson spoke from the podium of the Concord lyceum.
Alex Niven, a friend of a friend, comments intelligently on the speech and on much else concerning DFW.
Posted on August 24th, 2011 at 2:04pm.
By David Ross. Every so often liberal big leaguers take a whack at Thomas Kinkade, the king of mall and mail-order art, the entrepreneurial painter laureate of what Jed Pearl calls “Wal-Mart America.” His depictions of gingerbread cottages nestled in what seem to be sleepy Cotswold hamlets are beloved by the masses and equally detested by people who consider themselves – by virtue of college degrees and the occasional glass of white wine with dinner – Blue State sophisticates. In 2001, Susan Orlean gave Kinkade the once-over in the New Yorker (see here), though she semi-restrained her snark on the grounds that Kinkade’s buffoonery speaks for itself. Pearl has now followed suit with an inchoate piece of hostility – titled “Bullshit Heaven” no less – in The New Republic. Extending the toilet metaphor, Pearl concludes that Kinkade has “urinated on us all.”
There’s no denying that Kinkade’s art is pure kitsch, a confection of Christmas-card nostalgia derived from Wordsworth at his most fey, Norman Rockwell at his most precious, and whoever first had the idea of painting and mass-producing scenes of beagles playing poker. His cotton-candy shire scenes look as if model trains should be running through them or Hobbits should be peeking from the windows. I would no more hang a Kinkade in my living room than a poster of Ashton Kutcher in the buff.
The blame is usually – okay, always – directed at putative yahoos who clamor for this kind of thing and create demand for what were better handled like dog poo in the street (quick condescending glance, wide berth). Articles about Kinkade are never really about Kinkade; they are about the people who buy Kinkade. Essentially, they license the readers of the New Yorker and The New Republic to look down on “Wal-Mart America” from a standpoint of cultural and aesthetic superiority. Their real substance, in other words, is Blue State-Red State politics.(I wonder, by the way, whether a film like Winter’s Bone doesn’t exploit the same condescension.)
By David Ross. In my comments from last year on the Keats biopic Bright Star I opined that “film has no idea how to approach lives that are largely interior, with driving purposes that are inconveniently invisible and inscrutable. In consequence, film tends to emphasize the gossipy and scandalous, dwelling on the externals of sexual deviancy, alcoholism, and nervous breakdown.” This certainly describes the BBC’s Desperate Romantics (2009), but such a zesty and funny travesty is hard to resist, especially if, like me, you tend to think the twentieth century was rather a mistake.
The six-hour miniseries tells the story of John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt – the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” – as they scheme and bumble in pursuit of eternal art and sub-eternal flesh. Rounding out the dramatis personae are John Ruskin, the sexually neurotic titan of Victorian art criticism and incidentally one of the greatest prose stylists in the history of English; Effie Ruskin, the great man’s warm-blooded young wife, disconsolately intacta after five years in the marriage bed; the flame-haired milliner-cum-muse Lizzie Siddal, the “original supermodel”; and the milksoppy hanger-on Fred Walters, a fictional contrivance who narrates the whole business from a perspective of exasperation and vicarious titillation. Rossetti and Fred competitively love Siddal (what’s not to love!), while Ruskin is disgusted by his wife’s post-pubescent nether parts and schemes to fob her off on the virginal Millais. Meanwhile, the prostitute-model Annie Miller – a buxom, lusty lass – places the inconsistently evangelical Hunt in a series of difficult, shall we say, positions.
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris make a late appearance as nerdy idolaters of Rossetti, the former vaguely epicene, the latter fat, manic, and socially incompetent. This ignores Morris’ polymath command, the hard will of the inveterate and consummate creator, but it serves a dramatic purpose, I suppose, providing Rossetti with a foil and the show with a cuckold-ready goof.
Unlike the BBC’s reverent and impeccable interpretation of Pride and Prejudice (see my comments here), Desperate Romantics is a cheese fondue of pros and cons. It takes liberties with the biographical record (Wikipedia totals up the damage); it has no interest whatsoever in the substance of the Pre-Raphaelites’ art or ideas; it depicts Rossetti – an artistic and poetic giant – as a charming but shiftless skirt chaser, which is at best a partial truth; it takes a particularly sunless view of Ruskin, depicting him as coldly repressed rather than as gloriously nuts; and its theme song, a thumping folk-rock jig, is the most annoying piece of TV music since the Seinfeld bass segue. On the other hand, the series is full of impish humor and salacious shenanigans, and the brotherhood’s banter abounds in dry British wit. Especially delicious are the episodes in which the Ruskins and Millais bumble toward what we’ll delicately call a physical outcome. We might ask: “How many Victorian geniuses does it take to screw in a -.” Apparently it takes quite a few.
By David Ross. Over two years, my nearly-six-year-old daughter and I have blown through all of Narnia, all of Harry Potter, and nearly all of Phillip Pullman’s great Dark Materials trilogy. She was attentive to Narnia and delighted by Harry Potter, but Pullman has entranced her to the extent that her face goes long with shock and anguish when I close the book and tell her to shout down the stairs for her nightly cocoa. Our next adventure is The Hobbit and its sequels. After tramping the roads with Frodo for six months, she will be primed for The Odyssey, beyond which lies the great Western sea of literature in all its dimensions of imagination and idea.
This program depends on the strict suppression of competing media (broadcast television, computer games, and web-surfing are verboten) and the realization that kids are by nature imaginative and that all attempts to subordinate the imagination to didactic and activist aims will produce a backlash of reluctance and indifference. Heather has two mommies, you say? This is a curious detail, worth a question or two, but not conducive to make-believe games or ruminations in the dark of bedtime. How much better if one of Heather’s mommies were a reincarnated Egyptian princess or a fairy queen cruelly trapped in a mortal body. This is not a political or literary judgment, merely an observation about developmental psychology.
Barbara Feinberg’s useful memoir of her kids’ reading, Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, elaborates much the same point. Her basic thesis is that kids resist reading because contemporary books are insufferably pedantic and boring. This assumes that kids still read books at all. These days, schools seem happy enough to replace books with assorted ‘educational materials,’ not realizing or caring that these have all the romantic resonance of the suburban office parks where they were developed.
With the right bait, the fish is easily hooked. Not long ago my daughter happened to look over my shoulder as I perused a book of paintings by J.W. Waterhouse, the pre-Raphaelite master. She drank in the scowling witch (Circe) and the dead lady in the snow (St. Eulalia) and the beautiful lady in the boat (the Lady of Shalott) and the young man saying hello to the beautiful water fairies (Hylas and the Nymphs). These are images to trigger reactions in recesses of the brain not usually exercised in school, in comparison to which the images of her everyday visual field – all those bright socially aware posters in the hallways, for example – are pablum. She added the Waterhouse book to her “birthday list,” which in our house is the ultimate form of canonization.
By David Ross. L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art has opened an exhibition of graffiti art, in response to which Heather Mac Donald (see here) has written what is perhaps the single most effective and thorough demolition of radical chic that I have ever encountered. Here’s her lead, all of which she elaborates to devastating effect:
MOCA’s exhibit, Art in the Streets is the inaugural show of its new director, Jeffrey Deitch, a former New York gallery owner and art agent. Deitch’s now-shuttered Soho gallery showcased vandal-anarchist wannabes whose performance pieces and installations purported to strike a blow against establishment values and capitalism, even as Deitch himself made millions serving art collectors whose fortunes rested on capitalism and its underpinning in bourgeois values. MOCA’s show (which will also survey skateboard culture) raises such inconsistencies to a new level of shamelessness. Not only would MOCA never tolerate uninvited graffiti on its walls (indeed, it doesn’t even permit visitors to use a pen for note-taking within its walls, an affectation unknown in most of the world’s greatest museums); none of its trustees would allow their Westside mansions or offices to be adorned with graffiti, either.
Even this two-facedness pales beside the hypocrisy of the graffiti vandals themselves, who wage war on property rights until presented with the opportunity to sell their work or license it to a corporation. At that point, they grab all the profits they can stuff into their bank accounts. Lost in this antibourgeois posturing is the likely result of the museum’s graffiti glorification: a renewed commitment to graffiti by Los Angeles’s ghetto youth, who will learn that the city’s power class views graffiti not as a crime but as art worthy of curation. The victims will be the law-abiding residents of the city’s most graffiti-afflicted neighborhoods and, for those who care, the vandals themselves.
I intended to add certain withering comments of my own, but Mac Donald leaves nothing unsaid. She delivers a pounding. She pounds into fragments and then into dust and then she sweeps the little pile of refuse into the sewer and bids it arrivederci. If you want to know how to conduct a culture war, look no farther.
By Govindini Murty. As the Japanese reel from the triple blow of a massive earthquake, a terrible tsunami, and now a nuclear crisis, I wanted to ask Libertas readers to do anything they can to support Japanese relief efforts by donating here to the Red Cross.
Japan has one of the world’s great cultures – and more important than that, they are our friends and allies and they deserve our support. Jason and I had the opportunity to visit Japan some years ago, and we came away with a tremendous respect for the beauty and sophistication of Japanese culture – and for the courtesy, intelligence, and resiliency of the Japanese people. Whether we were walking down the Ginza in Tokyo, or hiking through the Japanese Alps, or visiting temples in Kyoto and Nara, we were touched on every occasion by the hospitality of the Japanese people – and by their extraordinary commitment to the aesthetic sense.
I remember on one occasion walking down the Ginza with Jason, taking in its modernist labyrinth of shiny skyscrapers and flashing electric signs. (Jason and I kept commenting to each other that we felt like we were in a scene from Blade Runner.) We stopped in one store that had a mysterious, old-fashioned air to it that set it apart from the rest of the hypermodern street. The store turned out to sell incense and other supplies for Buddhist temples. When we showed an interest in their wares, the owners kindly invited us to come upstairs and have a tour of their private museum. The most magical, hidden world was unveiled before our eyes. We were taken into a room paneled in black lacquer, and around its walls was arranged the most exquisite collection of golden, miniature Buddhist shrines. In the middle of the room was the most remarkable sight of all: a tea pavilion completely covered in gold leaf, a copy of the famous golden tea pavilion built for the medieval warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
On another occasion, family friends invited us to dinner at the fabled Ichiriki teahouse in the Gion district of Kyoto. Several of Kyoto’s most famous and charming geisha entertained us with traditional Japanese songs, music, and dance. (Geisha are now important cultural ambassadors for the Japanese arts.) When our hosts heard that we were interested in Japanese history, they asked the mistress of Ichiriki to bring out some of the teahouse’s famous samurai artifacts. She brought out an ancient samurai helmet (we have some amusing photos of Jason and his father trying it on) and told us fascinating stories from the teahouse’s three hundred-year history – including those recounting Ichiriki’s role in one of Japan’s most famous samurai stories, Chushingura – The Tale of the 47 Loyal Ronin.
On yet another occasion, we had the opportunity to visit Nara, the ancient capital of Japan during the 8th century A.D.. An elderly volunteer docent spent several hours showing us around the temples and monuments of Nara, of which the most extraordinary is the Great Buddha of Todai-ji. We were touched by the tremendous pride this gentleman took in his heritage, and by the care and patience he took to explain it to us. I remember one particularly graceful wooden pagoda that this gentleman pointed out to us – the pagoda of Yakushi-ji – that had survived intact for over a millennia. Gazing up at it beatifically, he described its elegant lines and symmetry to us as “frozen music.”
The love that the Japanese people have for their cultural heritage and the ties that they feel to their beautiful land are sources of strength that will help them to recover from this latest disaster. But for all of their elegance and reserve, the Japanese are a sensitive people who, already shaken by a troubled economy and by domestic political crises in recent years, have been truly rocked by this latest tragedy. Japan needs all the friendship and support we can give it right now.
By David Ross. Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) is a marvel: a ninety-six-minute movie consisting of a single unbroken tracking shot. With a sensual fluidity unmatched except perhaps by Ophuls’ La Ronde, the camera follows two ghosts – one Russian, the other European, one earnest, the other ironic – as they stroll through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
The centuries swirl gracefully about them, the twentieth century suddenly giving way to the nineteenth, the eighteenth suddenly giving way to the twenty-first, as if time itself were a gently shifting breeze. The film is pregnant with a wonderful faith that time is not an erosion, but an accretion, that some great memory catches the falling drop of the individual moment, that all is somehow gathered to the breast. As they make their tour, the ghosts maintain a patter of wry commentary and affectionate observation, humanists mingling in the parade of humanity. They have no urgent message to deliver and nothing to teach, thankfully; their pleasure is the film’s essential communication, though there is also a clouding of elegy. Meanwhile the camera makes a tour of its own, lingering on the splendid details of the palace: molding, gilding, ironwork, marble-work, drapery, china, crystal. The camera provides an implicit object lesson in the tradition of disciplined form that has made the beauty of the West, and this aspect of the film can only seem a terrible if inadvertent reproach. In comparison to the door handle or to the lace of a tablecloth, calmly wrought for the eye of God, whose discernment is infinite, our contemporary masterpieces – a Jackson Pollack, say, or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – flail hysterically, as if the soul itself were abandoned and drowning.
To promote and honor the film – one of the greatest ever in my opinion – I have fully transcribed the dialogue and annotated some of the artistic and architectural detail. This task required perhaps fifteen hours of truly tedious labor. I drew upon and sometimes cribbed directly from Paintings in the Hermitage by Colin Eisler and The Hermitage Collections (2 vols.) by Oleg Yakovlevich Neverov, Dmitry Pavlovich Alexinsky, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky (who possibly figures in the film; see here and here).
It is sometimes difficult to identify who speaks what words, and I can’t vouch for the accuracy of my transcription in every instance. I look forward to receiving corrections and additional annotations from our conscientious and knowledgeable readers. Please consider the script below a first attempt to map the fluid, elusive drama of the film. Hopefully somebody will find it useful in its present, rough form.
By David Ross. I make my living stumping for high modernism, so I am not exactly an enemy of the avant-garde and the experimental, and yet I am diffident about the extraordinary reputation of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), the Brooklyn-born Haitian-American wunderkind who during the early eighties vaulted from graffiti artist to Warhol protégé and Madonna boy-toy in a mere ten years before dying of a heroin overdose.
I turned to Tamra Davis’ documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2009) for a glimmer of an explanation. The documentary turned out to be a trove of vintage footage and articulate commentary provided by those who stood just at the perimeter of Basquiat’s spotlight, but in the end I could find no trail of breadcrumbs to lead me out of the postmodern funhouse in which fame multiplies by some hidden law of light and reflection and desire. Basquiat wrote meaningless koans with spray paint and became famous; he founded a band with some downtown types, none of whom could play instruments, and become even more famous; he mooned around the trendiest clubs and become more famous still. He painted childlike hieroglyphics on whatever he could find and became a superstar. Dying young, he became a legend, which is precisely what he had set out to be.
Really, though, what is the substance of his achievement? His art is certainly vivid and energetic, and its neo-expressionist assault on the minimalism and conceptualism of the seventies is impossible not to cheer (“white paintings, white people, white wine” is how one interviewee recalls the pre-Basquiat era). And yet his art does not – for me at least – resolve into meaning. Its presumptive symbol language is too private and haphazard, and it is not tantalizing enough on its face to rouse my analytic energy and resolve. We kill ourselves to make sense of Finnegans Wake because we intuit that there is sense to be made; Basquiat’s art demands a gamble of time and energy that seems to run against the odds of an ultimate payoff.
The film’s numerous interviewees note Basquiat’s influences: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, William Burroughs, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning. There’s something to be said for each of these connections, but Basquiat’s art seems to me closest to that of De Kooning: stark, nightmarish, garishly and luridly childlike, suffocating in its self-enclosed logic. I would say, though, that De Kooning’s punch is more concerted and harder thrown, his vision more ordered and hefty. Basquiat may have been more talented – I have no idea – but I doubt he had reflected nearly as carefully about what he was up to or exercised the same kind of winnowing intelligence. He seems to have worked by spontaneous trial and error, adding, subtracting, and overlaying in accordance with some inner sense of arrangement and meaning. This kind of improvisation can be electrifying when executed with supreme technical command (Keats, Coltrane, Pollock) but Basquiat was very far from virtuosic.
I can comprehend Basquiat only as a talented and perhaps semi-inspired cipher whose most superficial accouterments – name, hair, race – won him the role that had to be filled one way or another: that of the boy genius, the tragic naïf, with royalties and two-hundred years compounded interest owed to Keats. Basquiat was particularly suited to this role, being soft-spoken, dreamy, and vague in a way that might be misinterpreted as poetic. In comparison to Patti Smith, perhaps the only genuine genius of the punk-era downtown scene, Basquiat seems flimsy; his flourishes may or may not dazzle, but they are never more than flourishes.
The film, incidentally, adopts as epigraph Langston Hughes’ bad poem “Genius Child”:
This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can -
Lest the song get out of hand.
Nobody loves a genius child.
Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?
Nobody loves a genius child.
Kill him – and let his soul run wild.
The suggestion that the world “kills” the “genius child” in a snit of aggressive philistinism or atavism is ludicrous and particularly ludicrous in this case. Everybody loves a “genius child” and certainly everybody loved Basquiat. He was surrounded by benefactors. They paid his rent, slept with him, bought him paints, canvases, whatever he needed, furnished him with studio space, collected his paintings from the very start. Basquiat, in his early twenties, was fast on his way to substantial wealth and permanent celebrity. Had Basquiat lived only a few more years he would have been showered with a MacArthur Genius Grant and other remunerative goodies, and he would have wound up splitting his time between a downtown duplex and the south of France, with occasional appearances on Oprah to pontificate on the strain of being a genius.
Has society ever genuinely killed a “genius child”? It’s very hard to think of a case. Shelley initiated the accusation in “Adonais,” his bloated elegy for Keats, alleging that John Wilson Crocker’s savage review of Endymion in the Quarterly Review had done in the young poet. He writes in his preface:
The savage criticism produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgements from more candid critics of the true greatness of his powers, were ineffectual to heal the wound thus wontonly inflicted.
Hating this kind of misty whining, Byron did his best to stab the trope in its cradle. His wry retort comes in Don Juan (Stanza 60, Canto XI):
John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, without Greek
Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate:
‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.
Byron did his best, but it was no use. Every suicidal, immuno-compromised, coke-snorting, sport-car-gunning boy-genius would be laid like some pierced fawn on society”s doorstep.
The only figure who begins to make sense of Hughes’ silly poem is Oscar Wilde, though his genius was only part of the problem. Wilde was genuinely destroyed; all of the others – from Shelley himself to Michael Jackson – destroyed themselves for reasons of their own.
Posted on December 14th, 2010 at 9:45am.