Tuesday, July 31, 2007

sad day for cinema

Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both died on the same day, July 29, 2007. They were old, yes, and hadn't been making films for a while, true, but still, an era is, most definitely, over.

Monday, July 30, 2007

movies on television

One of my mother's many obsessions is the cable channel Turner Classic Movies. This is a fixation I can fully understand. If I had cable and a DVR, I'd be amassing quite a collection. This week I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc (C.T. Dreyer, 1928), Beyond the Rocks (with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, 1922), and Stolen Moments (the last "pre-star" film of Valentino and the last in which he plays a villain, here a "devious novelist," 1920).

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a repeat viewing for me, every bit the masterpiece, a film everyone must see and whose every shot is a closeup (save for a number one could count on one's hands). Beyond the Rocks is a romance whose saving grace is its de rigueur travelogue format and the fact that the characters fantasize by inserting themselves into images culled from the historical past. Stolen Moments was edited down to half its length once Valentino became a star, and is a remarkable document for the rather slapdash, irrational, and impressionistic way this editing was done (as in: who's the bald guy suddenly trying to kill Valentino in the final ten minutes?).

reading list

Before I left for Germany, I deposited two boxes of books in my family's garage. They consisted of books I did not need immediately but which could be necessary before I was able to access the bulk of my library somewhere in a plywood storage pod in Wooster, MA. I am now faced with the same dilemma as I go through the boxes, deciding what I will need for the next five months and what can wait until I finish my Ph.D., at the latest. For most of the books, the choice was easy but there remains a sizeable stack that are on the fence, including, among others:

A.J.P. Taylor, The Course of German History
Peter Fritzsche, Germans into Nazis
Frederic Jameson, The Ideology of Theory
Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Julia Kristeva, The Power of Horror
Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective

I have decided that the best way to make the choice is to actually start to read these books - at least as many chapters as possible. I've had some of them for almost a decade now, carting them from residence to residence, to the point of absurdity. But I've only recently begun to believe I have the mental chops to tackle some of them or the emotional strength to handle others.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

L.A. by bike

It takes approximately an hour to bike from my parents' house to UCLA and about 45 minutes to bike back. The last stretch to campus is a significant series of hills, conquerable only with the knowledge that the first thing to greet me after a day in the library will be a long spell of coasting down through shady glades on side streets while parades of automobiles sweat it out on the major arteries. On my rides to and fro today I did notice legions of Prius drivers and scores of buses - part of the "The Nation's Largest Clean Air Fleet" - so something must be afoot in the Concrete Jungle. The biggest secret here, though, is that L.A. is actually a pretty perfect city to bike in. The roads are very wide and obsessively well kept. Automobile drivers treat you with exaggerated caution - at least on the small roads, which is where you really ought to be anyway.

A friend of mine who recently moved to L.A. from Boston remarked that here, since no one can really talk about the weather, they talk about the traffic - how it's doing, its currents and its flows. The worst thing a person can do here is interrupt the flow of traffic; all else could be forgiven, which is important to keep in mind as a cycling commuter here.

I spent most of the day in the Arts Library, a rather small, uninspired nook in the Public Policy building, but I finished by making some photocopies at Powell Library, across the great lawn from Royce Hall. This is one of the most wonderful university buildings I have ever come across, and every time I am in this part of the campus, I'm reminded how beautiful UCLA is, even when most of its buildings strike me as banal 60s-style bunkers or contemporary glass boxes. You don't really come here to look at the architecture - most of it is blissfully tucked within and hidden by groves of eucalyptus - and in those areas where you can't help but notice it, the university intelligently shows off its absolutely best side.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

neo rauch at the met

Twenty minutes to one o'clock in the morning the day I'm supposed to fly to Los Angeles is probably not the best time to meditate on the small Neo Rauch exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I caught this morning prior to my last day of research at the MoMA Archives. Given that the Archives do not open until the decadent hour of 11am, I decided to make it to the Met when they opened their doors at 9:30am and stop by Michael Werner Gallery on 77th and 5th to see a Broodthaers installation that just opened this week (and for which I was thwarted from seeing on Monday thanks to Time Out New York anticipating its opening by a day).

After a little of the now-customary security rigmarole at the Met's entrance (flashlight searches of one's bag, standing in a second line to turn on one's laptop and getting a little yellow pass to carry it about once it successfully does not detonate), I bee-lined it straight to Neo Rauch, where, although the show had opened while I was still living in Hamburg over a month ago (there was a little TV profile about his big New York opening on the local news there), art handlers were hanging the main wall label for the one-room installation of some dozen paintings. (I later realized it was one of the most laughably poor wall texts I've read in years: Neo is from Leipzig! Here are some random facts about Leipzig! He says he's 'conservative' and 'romantic' and that he 'paints from [his] dreams'! That makes him like Balthus!)

I had the room to myself for the hour I was there, pondering this little mid-career special installation of a painting cycle, "Para," that Rauch painted for the space. (This is the third such exhibition the Met has staged, and if this one is anything to go by, it is a enormously successful conceit.) The show sealed the deal for me: I love Rauch's work. Normally, I am seduced by a painting's facture - that is what sucks me into the medium. My enthusiasm for the work is therefore all the more surprising because its facture is subtle and secondary. At the same time, the imagery also plays second fiddle: I imagine there's likely to be a lot of talk about his "Germanness," evoked by boxy women with cellos or enlightened hunters-butchers-diggers-painters. (I wouldn't know since this is one of the rare instances where I have not read anything about an artist before actually seeing his work.)

No, for me, what made me stop in my tracks for painting that I would normally never go in for (again, not "material" enough, not abstract enough) was the fact that I have never felt so compelled to stand so far back from a painting (regardless of its size). My impulse to get up close right away was thoroughly unrewarding, and slowly I stepped back and back and back again until the painting looked about right clear across the room. For some of the really large canvases, I still think I could have used a bit more space. I was literally pushed to the other end of the room by these paintings.

I have an immediate theory about why this is, one that might preoccupy me on my odyssey tomorrow. The compositions of these paintings are already collage-like, atomized, disjointed. Figures that ought to be on the same plane are impossibly different sizes, so attempts to locate anything in an illusionistic (and coherent) space goes immediately out the window. But the works go one step further: even at the level of the figures' bodies corporeal certainty is a pipe dream. A man has a hulking torso, a rather tiny head, an hand that is too small and another that is too large. Rather than give the impression of being simply "poorly painted," the body stretches and morphs, distorting under the pressure of our gaze, which is itself anything but consistent, steady, or predictable. The thing looked at is as furtive as the person doing the looking. (And reading this, I think of Ingres, but that's not quite right...)

How Rauch effects the transitions between the pieces of his puzzle-like images is also brilliant: the painting breaks down into smears of pure abstraction, figures fuse into clumsy optical illusion (one woman's elbow is another woman's breast, and both are actually flags ready to be set aflame). All the rhetoric about "Germanness" or "dreams" or "romanticism" is a bit obvious and a bit of a trap. The works are uncomfortable to look at, but the result is - paradoxically - that you can't tear your eyes away.

Top, above:

Neo Rauch (German, born 1960)
Para, 007
Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin & David Zwirner, New York
© 2007 Neo Rauch/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo: Uwe Walter

Top, below and at bottom:
Neo Rauch (German, born 1960)

Warten auf die Barbaren (Waiting for the Barbarians), 2007
Oil on canvas; 59 1/8 x 157 1/2 in. (150 x 400 cm)
Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin & David Zwirner, New York
© 2007 Neo Rauch/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo: Uwe Walter

See link at right for larger images

Monday, July 16, 2007

the eagle has landed

I am back in the United States for the first time in little over a year, the longest I have ever been out of the country. Yesterday, while I was having sushi at Nana on 5th Avenue in Park Slope with S. and A. and her new girlfriend, I saw a woman walking out wearing a T-Shirt that said, "Free Katie." I asked who Katie was, and they laughed: "Katie Holmes, as in free her from Tom Cruise."

I suppose it will take some time for me to be less fatally out of it. I arrived stateside in Boston where I spent a little less than 9 hours before taking the train down to New Haven. I stayed in a friend's apartment in Cambridge while she herself is in Paris this month. I was immediately disoriented by hearing so many American accents, especially the special cadences generated by people just shy of 20 on cell phones. And I realized that everyone wears flip-flops here and that they make a rather disgusting sound I never noticed before. When I emerged from the T stop at Harvard Square I got a whiff of that inexplicable smell of shit that seems to waft over the area in the summer, and I was glad I was moving on pretty quickly.

Prior to this visit I have only been to New Haven three times in the last 10 years. It certainly looks well for the wear, and after a breathtaking tour of the Yale University Art Gallery and some work at the positively palatial Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I found time to wander around the Yale campus a little. My jet lag contributed to my feeling under water, but it was an uncanny experience passing by Louis Lunch, Anchor Bar, Naples Pizza, the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, the Yale Women's Center, Book Trader, the Yankee Doodle, even Toad's Place (where, during two of my three previous visits this past decade, I saw Built to Spill and Guided by Voices perform). Everything looked fixed up and pretty, and anything that wasn't was under renovation to get there.

The only moment when I recalled how depression was my daily sustenance when I lived in New Haven came when I went to visit the York Square Cinema. When S. and I first became friends, we saw Hight Art and Buffalo 66 there together. That movie house was, without a doubt, the birthplace of my cinephilia. And now it is closed. I stood there silently, stunned but not surprised; the last thing to play there was apparently The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, whose poster hung, faded to nothing but its blue tones, in the front display case.

But on the whole, America - more specifically, all the sites of my America - has been a pleasant surprise. At dinner last night, I don't think I have laughed so hard all year. Prompted by my bewilderment at the "Free Katie" T-Shirt, S. and I were in tears as we recounted our viewing of the Cate Blanchett/Katie Holmes vehicle The Gift at least six years agao, and at A.'s apartment, we laughed our guts sore listening to a recording of the "fiasco" episode of This American Life (link to right). It completely escaped me that one could download that program online, which I resolve to do the moment I return to Europe.

12 places in 30 days

New Haven
New York and Brooklyn
Los Angeles

Monday, July 9, 2007

john jacob niles

Yesterday was another rainy day. When I was a teen and it used to rain in Los Angeles, I would take out LPs of latter-day folk music - Joni Mitchell's first album, Ian and Sylvia records, early Leonard Cohen - and watch the rain on the streets and listen to the occasional passing car through the glass of the bay window in our living room. I would sit on the window seat my father had made, with the stereo fitted under the seat behind a door. It was a secret vice in my already schizo musical existence - classical music on the one hand and punk and new wave on the other.

I only brought three CDs with me to Germany this year, all purchased in last-minute desperation at Amoeba Records in L.A. I hadn't purchased a new CD in ages, not because I had started downloading music (I'm still not hip to that), but probably because I already have enough music that keeps me entertained and that I like to listen to again and again (long ago my chief criteria for purchasing a CD - as opposed to a cassette - in the first place). But I wasn't bringing any of it abroad, and suddenly, I feared I would need something. I re-bought an album by Quasi that an old bandmate of mine never returned about four years ago and I got an album by Nancy King ("Live at the Standard"), whose rendition of "A Small Hotel" the jazz station KLON was playing on repeat during my stay in the city last summer. I normally don't go in for jazz vocals, especially scat, but King's take on that song is inspired and wouldn't let me go. (Since then, my sister sent me Brian Eno's "Another Green World" which rounded out this mini-collection perfectly.)

But the third album I bought was "An Evening with John Jacob Niles." Niles wrote a lot of folk songs or adapted traditional ballads he collected in the 1920s and '30s, and if anyone still learns folk songs, chances are, the version you know bears his thumbprint. I love his voice and his theatrics. I picked up this CD again yesterday, having not really listened to it all that much during my year here after all, and I lay down on the couch in the steely light of the rainstorm and listened without doing anything else "in the meantime." I remembered how they used to teach us folk songs and the autoharp in primary school, and I wondered if that was still something they did for schoolchildren. Somehow, I doubt it, and suddenly I realized that my childhood too was losing its contemporaneity and becoming one of those infinite objects that dissolve and leave no trace.

It's probably no accident that laying on the couch "idly" reminded me of the thing I miss most about psychoanalysis: laying down and being alert at the same time. After this reverie, I went to visit F. for an early dinner, and she lent me a book that I am currently inhaling, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird. I never heard of it or its author before, but it belongs to the same world as John Jacob Niles. I thought it significant that a Swiss woman who had spent most of her childhood in the States had been motivated to give it to me. She was prompted in response to my using the idiom, "I don't want to change horses midstream." While T. thought it was a product of my invention, a flash of recognition of something once banal but now precious flashed across her face. Something about hearing this phrase delighted F. to no end, and off she went in search of the book. I noticed, as I started it, how tricked I have been into believing that American culture is what it has been said to become - when what passes as "American" today (ruthless imperialism, political corruption and expediency, and unchecked consumerism without any of the libidinal charge - that is, the ideology of the American Right) is actually something else that, while undoubtedly honed to a science by many Americans, masks or banishes what makes their culture specific and enchanting.

lazy eye

I have been physically exhausted since I returned to Basel after my trip through Germany with S. We went to documenta and Skupltur-Projekte Muenster, spent a rainy day in Hamburg in a cafe that was new to me in the Schanze and gleefully wallowed in the Willy Doherty show at the Kunsthalle, fell for Leipzig for just about every conceivable reason, and ended up in Berlin, from where I commuted to Hannover to attend a conference on Kurt Schwitters and S. got to mull over the puzzle that is that city without my intervening commentary.

It comes as no surprise that I am tired, but I thought it would have lifted by now. I wish I could say more of the art we saw stuck with me or motivated me to write. Instead, I feel even more entrenched in my current albatross. But there are new ideas on that front, so inspiration came, obliquely and without fanfare on this journey, without me realizing it.

I don't think either of us were at our most comfortable living the life of hotel beds and eating out or on the road everyday. Ours is a friendship that needs its domestic space, and I'm looking forward to my visit to Brooklyn, where we'll be more native and less "roving eyes."