Friday, March 30, 2012

What Am I Doing?

I had been working on a post for over a week and no matter what I did with it it kept coming out bitter, negative, and half-baked. I suppose that is indelibly what I am at this point, in all matters requiring the use of the brain at least, but no one will want to read such dreck.

(Although I want all the interesting or good-looking people I have ever known to be my friends on Facebook and to entertain me with their own pictures and piquant comments, I don't participate very much myself in return. Like most things on the internet, and modern life for that matter, it is too fast, or gives the sensation of being too fast, for me. This mode of communication works best when it can take the form of a conversation, at which form I am unfortunately even more exceptionally maladroit than I am at essay or letter-writing. Once or twice a day however I will come upon a subject on which I might be able to make some remark, and one in which I can even imagine a few people might take pleasure, though usually I refrain, and this, usually, is the proper course. I am almost never in sync with the general mood as far as my current thought process goes in any way, which is discouraging enough; but the near certainty that I would be exposed as the social media equivalent of the forkball hanging over the middle of the plate to anyone possessed of a more solid grounding in the fundamentals of either dynamic thought or social discourse--both is almost too terrifying to contemplate--is even worse. Still, sometimes, especially after a period of silence of one or two weeks, even these considerations are overruled by overweening self-love or some other inexplicable impulse to expression.)

This was the start of my post, which, while it very much inclines to negativity and bitterness, does not quite abandon itself wholly. The best that can be said for it is that it is a reasonably honest bit of introspection, which is, however, an inferior literary form in most instances. It did not take long for me to go entirely off-track:

(Such an occasion came up recently when my old school-friend [I would say school-chum but I don't think that is an approved term at our school] and avowed sometime reader Virtual Memories posted a link from the popular Marginal Revolution blog that is written by a trio [I believe] of indefatigable and intellectually and culturally omnivorous professors from the ascendant economics department at George Mason University, in particular Tyler Cowen, who is by my estimation the dominant presence personality-wise on the site. I had read this site in the past, both as it is frequently linked to by a variety of sources, and also occasionally as a general anonymous lurker, as Tyler Cowen especially often wrote about the sorts of things I am interested in. He started to annoy me rather quickly however, as I found the particular relentlessness of his expertise was making it impossible to derive even my usual pitiful quantity of enjoyment from any subject once he had had a go at it. My comment, pounded out rapidly in a rare burst of some kind of obviously viscerally felt heat, was as follows: 'I have to admit, this article encapsulates why I stopped reading this guy. I suppose it's plausible, if you are very knowledgeable and attuned to such things, that once in a while you might note something really important in a work of art that everyone else seems to have missed. With this guy it seems to happen about five times a day, even sometimes in things people have been reading or studying for 200 years, and always with absolute certainty on his part. Even if he is right in this instance, I can't stand the sneering tone towards the western critics who missed the references to Sikh theology in a Julia Roberts movie. It's petty and unmagnanimous. I know it's a characteristic of intellectuals since time immemorial, but in certain instances it is really uncalled for. We're not talking about missing blatant Hamlet references here. And as is usual with him, there is so much that the reader is supposed to take on his authority--like that he actually understands anything about Sikh theology himself--I got to stop, but the man annoys me to no end...')

It is true that I do not like the tone with which he writes, or travels, or eats, or otherwise experiences his almost unbelievably rich mental life, even if they happen to be in some manner correct, but so what? Today's smart and urbane people love the guy. He's everywhere (on the internet, anyway). He is evidently a perfect man for this time, of such a quality as I never foresaw, or recognized as the genuine article anyway, coming up in the world. He is by most expert accord not only a bona fide economist, but a very high level one in an age when a professional knowledge of economics is almost unassailable as a possession of truths that the non-specialist must accept and cannot credibly contend against, and this is not limited to me but seems to extend into the highest reaches of academia, the arts and even the government. He certainly has his messages and ideas in order, and ready to fire off at a moment's notice. I can't seem to be impressed by him, or trust that there is wisdom or important meaning in anything he says, though doubtless this is only significant of deficiency on my part. He is also an enthusiastic globalist, which perhaps is the inevitable and ultimately most desirable system for the greatest number of individual people, though as it does not seem especially suitable either to my temperament or my money-making skill-set or my social inclinations compared to a less globally-interconnected system, I cannot say that his relentless promotion of the various wonders that have resulted and will continue to result from this trend are having much of an effect on my attitude.

My friend responded to my outburst by linking to another article, about the old Allan Bloom book The Closing of the American Mind, which upset lots of people at the time it was published because, as I do with Tyler Cowen, they came to understand it as a devastating critique of their own wasted lives and lack of serious intellectual development or purpose. I obviously was, and am, a perfect specimen of the type of student of my generation that Bloom found so debased and devoid of any recognizable spark of life, though at the time I doubtless would have thought I could read or music-appreciate my way out of the worst of the cesspool easily enough. Bloom obviously was contemptuous of the general run of half-assed wannabe scholars, and I assume he would have been fairly cold to them if they had presumed a too great intellectual intimacy with him. There were a number of tutors at St John's who had studied with him either at Cornell or Chicago, one of whom at least was reputed to be one of his carefully vetted proteges, and they were fairly chilly towards me. They were cordial enough, and I suspect they adjusted their evaluations of me based on what they perceived my abilities to be, which was of course nothing too high; it was not difficult to notice that they altered the level of their conversation, their paper critiques, even humorous banter, depending on whom they were dealing with. You would think this would have torn me up more than it did, but I had to a certain extent bought into their value system where the life of the mind was concerned and knew that I was not living up to it. I did not necessarily want to be exactly like them either--though in later years I have come to realize it may have been a mistake, I had no great desire to develop personal relationships with my teachers when I was young--but I more or less accepted that they were going to judge me on terms that I was not at the time really equipped to perform up to, and sought elsewhere, among peers or the lighter realms of literature, for more realistic models to strive for.

As far as this relates to Allan Bloom, for one thing both his being dead and the ever increasing distance of time between his generation and ours makes him less personally threatening, if that is even the right word for what he is. His ability to affect my life negatively by convincing me, from a position of unassailable authority, with the whole of Greek literature ranged at ready attention at every portal of his brain, of all of the ways in which I am little better than garbage, is much weakened. (There are other traditions, multitudes of traditions of venerable standing, pre-dating and entirely free from the 20th-century, predominantly and deeply Jewish-influenced interpretation of everything of a remotely intellectual nature that has probably overinfluenced, as well as confused me, relative to what might have been a healthier and more productive way of engaging with the world for someone like me, whose personality tends more towards largely silent and solitary Baltic angst and despair...) (ed.--though when considered at a more alert hour I am forced to re-emphasize the utter deficiency of my memory and deep and thorough knowledge of any subjects compared to those most advanced in them, I still suspect that even if had attained to a much higher level of technical proficiency in language or music or mathematical studies, that it would be likely I should understand them in a different attitude than Bloom did, and that it might not be automatically wrong, [though probably everybody would think it would be].

I'm going to end this. Premature, but I'm out of days, and the general point is made.

My old teacher did have one story about Allan Bloom that I remember. When Bloom was an undergraduate at the U of Chicago, sometime in the late 40s or early 50s, T S Eliot came to the campus to give a lecture or to do something, I don't remember what. As one of the identifiably brilliant students in the school, Bloom was invited to the dinner for T S Eliot that was held at legendary U of C president Robert Maynard Hutchins's house, despite being at the time not long out of the tenement; apparently his main memory of the event was being taken aside by Hutchins's wife and sharply reprimanded for having sipped Coca-Cola from the bottle in the too near presence of the great poet.

One last Virtual Memories link. Are these people really our literati? Or any part of it? God help us.

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Political Post

I am putting a one or two day limit on the composition of this, even if I have to cut myself off mid-word. The subject does not merit more than this.

In fact I am not even going to write about politics, at first anyway. I am going to write about other people's old girlfriends. I have discovered, in cruising the internet in search of anything halfway good that I can relate to, that the demographic of blog-keepers most similar to myself--earnest, perhaps not entirely stupid but stagnated and leading lives largely devoid of incident, excitement and tension--really enjoy reminiscing online about old flames, sometimes in great detail. This includes everything from long ago one night stands, painful breakups, unrequited loves that were actually (and fruitlessly) pursued, the stranger at the punk rock concert who aggressively rubbed her thigh against one's own for ten minutes, the intent of which one was too dense to pick up on until about fifteen years afterwards. I cannot do this, that is with regard to anything remotely real; it does not apply to recollections of girls who once passed me on the sidewalk eating an ice cream cone for five seconds at a Fourth of July parade in 1985 and those sorts of things, which I can go on about for days. Even including such reminiscences as are still wince-inducing, or in their substance so embarrassingly scant as to hardly qualify as any kind of human interaction at all, they are so few in number that I cannot afford to waste them should I ever need to use a variation of them as material in one of my literary efforts. Nonetheless I am astonished at how many bona fide nerds of my generation have an extent of experience in matters of groping and necking and stripping of clothes and so forth that I would have at least entered into negotiations with the enemies of Heaven to have been granted access to. In the details and smaller snatches of time which produce art and most of whatever else gives a rich texture to life, I am usually in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another common reminiscence among the Bourgeois Surrenderesque school of bloggers is of old and not unhappy family memories--dad in his recliner, the annual week at the lake in Minnesota, fishing trips, the valuable lessons of taking apart appliances together or whatever fathers in the more wholesome corners of America do with their sons. I don't do this much. Maybe a little for my grandparents, but with regard to my own parents I see almost everything through the filter of how the event under consideration contributed to my not being cool/not being prepared to thrive in the world and take the essential steps toward adult competency during what one old British writer I read recently termed "the important years of life", roughly ages twenty to twenty-five, and so even this many years on the memory of almost the whole of this nuclear family life remains distasteful and uncomfortable to me.

Whenever righteous modern Americans--and admittedly we are usually talking about women here--go off on one of their periodic denunciations of the Roman Catholic Church's positions on various matters that are dear to them, I have to confess my visceral responses are very conflicted. Obviously I am not even, nor ever have been, an active member of this church, let alone any kind of devout one, and I am pretty indifferent/wishy-washy about the issues that are usually the sources of greatest contention in America--I generally endorse/practice the mainstream liberal view while being secretly in some degree sympathetic to/persuaded by the church position, even though I could not bring myself to submit to the discipline, as well as the symbolic estrangement from the progressive part of society that I feel is where I socially most belong which following that plan of life would entail. My prejudices lead me to think that the church's current positions are consistent with, or at least more consistent with, the culture and theology and approach to life that it has developed over the last 2,000 years than adapting them whole hog to relatively recent trends in a few nations in what doubtless would appear to the Vatican hierarchy to be a state of advanced decadence. Obviously I still believe, or I want to believe, that the Pope and the other supposedly deeply educated scholars and leaders of Catholic universities and schools and so forth around the world are serious people who understand something important about humanity and its history and its nature and its basic soul and so on that has eluded the understanding of the more obnoxious of its contemporary detractors...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Announcement (For the Odd Person Who May Drop in More Than Once a Week Looking For a New Posting, Just In Case Such a Person Exists)

It is taking me a really long time to write my next post. I hope Sunday night something will be up, though even that will be the usual thin gruel, intellectually speaking. The compulsion even to put up this announcement is odd, but very real--I imagine that I have actual fans, or perhaps I should rather say correspondents, to whom I am in some way accountable for material, though there is no evidence of this being so. I think of the people of the past who did maintain personal correspondence, in many instances on a nearly daily basis, with so many people, writing for each one a personalized letter. This is not quite the same thing, but it is in some way close to how I feel, and I attribute a terrible importance to maintaining a schedule of some kind on these blog postings, though in fact unlike correspondence with even a single person nothing is at stake at all.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Movies 1974-2004 (Common Thread: Pop Culture Icons of the 50s and 60s Who Are Possibly Slightly Overrated)

I am embarrassed that this is what my readers will have been waiting for after my Friday night appeal to their patience may have led them to expect something worth their time.

Life and Nothing But (La Vie et Rien d'Autre)--1989

This one was added late. Originally I was only going to do 3 movies for this edition but as usual I ended up taking so long that I saw a fourth in the meantime.

This is a French picture set in the area around Verdun in the aftermath of World War I. I have no memory of its original appearance, and before this recent awareness I had never heard of it. According to the movie, around 300,000 men just on the French side were still classified as 'missing'--i.e., no corpse had as yet been identified as theirs--more than a year after the war ended. The work of this identification forms the framework within which the action of the movie takes place. Being French and completely of its time in that culture, it is doubtless not just incidentally but deliberately really about the more abstract ideas that the circumstances of the plot suggest. I don't pretend to know what they are, but I presume death as it relates to time and nations and love and human geography and so on is one, or I suppose several, of them. There is some exploration of the gross immorality of the war, and references to the especial culpability of the upper class in this, but I cannot say I picked up any great insight into the nature of this on this initial viewing. The movie is interesting, albeit in a distant, formal way. What would have been to me the most interesting revelation, which is what the whole catastrophe of World War I means to people who identify as deeply French, not at the time, perhaps, but 70 years on anyway, seems to me to have either been kept at arm's length or not powerfully enough worked out. The movie has not insinuated itself into my active imagination very much.

One impression this, and other French films of any era, this time of my youth included, do make on the American viewer, is that French people seem to be comparatively very well trained both in how to occupy an identifiable station in society as well as how to conduct relations with people in other identifiable stations. Men and women, aristocrats and peasants, innkeepers and taxicab drivers, even wives and mistresses sharing the love of a single man, there are templates for how these various counterparts are supposed to interact with each other, and most people appear to be on solid ground where these are concerned. I also believe that there is a higher level of trust in and respect for the various systems for formal training existing in that country, with regard to expected degrees of competency, character types, such that when a person has spent a certain number of years in the prime of youth in the study or practice of a discipline. my impression is that is that there is a little more acceptance that this has some meaning in itself in determining what kind of a person somebody is, and should be taken into consideration in social situations. I may be exaggerating the consistency of this sentiment throughout the whole of the culture, but in the circles I have been exposed to there it is certainly more prevalent than in those I know in the United States, where nobody is interested in what kind of education you had, or considers it legitimate, apart from whatever component of it you have managed to derive an income from.

To devoted, and would-have-been devoted, art-house haunters of the late 80s and early 90s there could scarcely have been, apart from Gerard Depardieu, a more instantly recognizable male European star than the famously hangdog-visaged Phillipe Noiret, who played the lead in the beloved, sentimental, middlebrow and emotionally manipulative but nonetheless charming Italian hits Cinema Paradiso and The Postman. After the second film especially some among the sniffy crowd felt compelled to remind us naifs that Noiret was of course actually French, and a figure of no small distinction in that tradition. Hardly anyone can carry out the part of the guy who never quite knows the right stuff as expertly as I can, however, and thus I had not seen him in a French movie until now. This is apropos of nothing, only to reminisce about those old days when those Italian movies were hits. Even many of the arthouse cinema fans who usually favored more difficult and obscure fare allowed their brains a night of relaxation to see what they were all about. I'm sure not a few people thought they might have a chance to experience some romantic tension on these occasions of heightened excitement. You know I did. After the Postman I ended up going to Pizza Hut and eating an entire ham pizza (I was really skinny at the time, so it didn't matter), and then hit the bars--alone--while wondering if there would ever be another arthouse hit on that scale while I was still hovering around the scene. There would not be, as it turned out.

Though the film is supposed to take place in a state of wartime-induced austerity, the sight of even the simplest French table with its wine and its loaf of bread alone is enough to make one salivate. They are the masters of food.

Ray (2004)

Ray Charles (Jim Morrison/Johnny Cash/Sid Vicious/Cole Porter/Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/Muhammed Ali, etc) is born in obscurity, but through a combination of talent, charisma and being in the right place at the right time he is enabled to attain celebrity status while still a young man. This gives him access to a continuous stream of groupies, which privilege he continues to take advantage of even after he gets married, which behavior usually does not bother his wife enough that she ever gets around to leaving him. He also develops a hardcore drug and alcohol habit, which brings him to the low point of his career, at which juncture he either dies or does a stint in prison. If he lives he usually cleans up somewhat, goes back out on the road and maybe puts together one last big comeback album before gradually fading into an honored dotage (the life of James Brown I don't believe has been committed to celluloid yet). If you are Ray Charles the government of your home state, which persecuted you through the first half of your life as official policy, makes one of your biggest hits the official state song and holds a day of honor where admiration and a kind of love are officially bestowed upon you.

This is not to say I did not enjoy the movie after a fashion; however it is not much of a departure from the standard entry in this genre of biography. It is a professional, glossy Hollywood production, and since it was supposed to be so good according to several sources, I was not once agitated about my precious time being wasted. One area in which it failed for me was that I never got a sense of what was really great about Ray Charles's music, which a good many people who know what they are about consider to be very great indeed. In a film about a musician one would hope that the music will lodge itself on the brain and be inspiriting for several days afterwards. The recent cinematic take on Cole Porter's life, for example, was not particularly distinguished, but one at least came away from it reminded that the man really did write a lot of great songs. My impression of the career of Ray Charles from this movie is that he was an unusually gifted roadhouse piano player who made some interesting records with Atlantic* in the 1950s--the impact of how many, and how good, these records were was not fully conveyed in the movie however--got a huge deal to sign with ABC in 1960 where he turned out most of his familiar mainstream hits, which however come across in the movie as schmaltzy and selling out compared with his prior quality. The movie attempts to explain, if not wholly excuse, this by reminding us that Ray Charles, as a blind black man in an America before disability payments and affirmative action and anything else, was naturally obsessed with being able to take care of himself first and foremost, and that aspect of the story, how he was able to do this (in his early years he would only accept payment in one dollar bills), is pretty remarkable to contemplate. I did not come away particularly inspired to dig deeper into Ray Charles's musical archives however. It is not that I don't want to, but given the time constraints I am under it is not at the top of my list of things to look up when I have a free 20 minutes or whatever.

*Atlantic Records CEO and St John's College alum Ahmet Ertegun is a significant character in the movie. As was the case when another SJC alum (Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show) got the Hollywood treatment, the Ertegun character speaks in a rather odd--some might say hypercorrect or hyperwhite (though Ertegun was actually Turkish)--manner pointedly different from that of the other characters. Whether this is the inevitable outward result of indoctrination in the Great Books I don't know--the origins of both of these men were very near the top of the social scale in their respective nations and also both graduated over 60 years ago. However, when I first began my current job, over fourteen years ago now, I apparently had a somewhat affected manner of speaking that a few people made fun of. There was one guy (who was very popular with women) who was fond of mock-effacing himself before the ladies by saying he was not debonaire the way I was. This impression seems to have faded over time with my increasing distance from any kind of pretentious society, as no one has made any comment in this vein in many years.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

As is often the case with Woody Allen movies, I was taken in by this in the moment despite the storyline's not being particularly good, nor the insights brought to the usual great themes of existence being anything special (or especial), though I appreciate that he tries to acknowledge that he is aware of them as much as he can. That it is in some sense successful without being objectively good I think can be attributed to several characteristics that for whatever reason are fairly unique to Woody Allen movies:

1. He Presents a Certain Variation of the New York Dream Better Than Any Other Filmmaker. He is a little like Salinger in this regard, and unlike Salinger the effect I am sure is mostly intended. It doesn't work on everybody, of course (when I proposed this theory to my wife, who does not carry around a New York Dream within her, her response, apropos of this film was "Dream? Seems more like a nightmare to me"), but if you have ever been afflicted with the longing for an apartment on either of the Upper Sides, employment in an arts-related profession that does not make unreasonable demands on your time but gives you ample enough income to dine out frequently at good restaurants and pursue romantic affairs, and having a social acquaintance that consists entirely of what would anywhere else be considered pretentious people who name-drop old artists and painters and philosphers and musicians and filmmakers into casual day-to-day conversations as if it were the most natural thing in the world--and clearly a lot of people who know nothing like this style of life are--the presentation is unfailingly enticing, even when both you and Woody Allen know that it is shallow.

I have not seen much of his recent (post-1990) oeuvre, so I don't know how well this version of the dream is holding up, as it is my impression the economics and social dynamics of the city have changed considerably since the mid-90s, and I can't see Woody Allen characters thriving among the Wall Street/corporate titan crowd and their hangers-on. The Dream never dies though, however much the zeitgeist seems to change.

2. He Has Been Very Good at Keeping Up the Schtick of Being the Guy Who Just Is Not Quite Good Enough At the Most Crucial Times. I assume this is how most of his fans see their own lives as having predominantly played out. There is a certain amount of pressure, at least among serious adults, to mature and move beyond this way of looking at the world, but Woody Allen understands that a lot of people never get over failing at some important or desired thing in their youth, and that nothing that happens thereafter can make up for any sense of that particular sweetness that was missed or denied. Ironically this mindset probably held him back from attaining some of the heights of achievement he would have liked to reach as a filmmaker, though I do think it is one of his strengths as he is. This also probably correlates to...

3. He Is Never Really Capable, Deep Down, of Really Enjoying Anything Unabashed and Without Some Corresponding Quiver of Unhappiness or Dissatisfaction. This is also a condition that afflicts a lot of people, including me, and which is not usually addressed in any kind of redeeming way in movies. Something that is often lost upon people who have to deal with a Woody Allen type person is that he or she has a high capacity for appreciation and even love of beauty or good fortune or whatever, but because they are incapable of ever feeling that they have really possessed them, they are never able to be enjoy themselves completely in the moment the way that a Warren Beatty type-person seems to be able to, or at least feel that as masters after a sort of human experience that all of the highest manifestations of that experience properly belong to their domain, which I take to be the attitude of the typical quasi-deified European artist.

4. He Is Still Compared to Pretty Much Everybody Else a Very Talented Comic Writer and Comedian. This movie is not a laugh riot by any stretch of the imagination but there still probably ten lines in it which were pretty good, enough to at least prick my long-slumbering funny bone, which is nine or even ten more than you find in most movies (most competent screenwriters can come up with one decent joke even by accident in the course of a two hour film.

Other quick notes on this:

There was a minor subplot involving the then fairly novel phenomenon of sperm donation and artificial insemenation, in which the Woody Allen character's wife has a kid with one of his friends with desirable genes--it is emphasized that they would not need to have sex to accomplish this--because he was supposedly sterile. When you have the idea of life that Woody Allen or I have, that working up to the point where women will even begin to consider having sex with you is the only reason for at least 90% of all exertion therein, the idea of the sperm bank child from the male point of view does not really make any sense at all.

In one review I saw of Woody Allen's latest movie, the one set in Paris, the writer joked that the demographics of his Paris were just like that of his New York, 95% white with the rest mostly stylish black people. The percentage of nonwhite people in this movie is probably even lower than that. Of course in 1940, when Woody Allen was a child, the population of New York City really was around 94% white, and as his obsessions form most of the material, as well as interest, in the films, it is not surprising that his cinematic New York has a population more similar to the kinds of people he was interacting with in 1954 than what we would expect to find there today.

Dianne Wiest--whom I don't think I have ever seen outside of a Woody Allen movie--is looking pretty good here. She would have been 37 or 38 at the time (though I assume playing someone a little younger) which means she is eligible for Social Security now. I was in high school when this came out, and it doesn't seem that long ago,

Lenny (1974)

As usual the 4th movie will get the shaft as far as my insights go, though I didn't have too much to say about it.

This is a biopic of a kind of the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce, whose once groundbreaking act does not strike one as terrible funny or provocative any more in itself. There is even some doubt afoot in the culture as to whether subversive speech is any more protected now, or will be in the near future, than it was when Lenny Bruce burst on the scene. Is it me, or has this film totally dropped out of the mainstream consciousness? I had never heard of it before, and God knows the important films of the 70s are talked about and celebrated ad nauseam. This was very well-received at the time, getting 6 Oscar nominations, including in all the main categories (though it did not win any of them)--Best Picture, Best Director (Bob Fosse, a pretty big name), Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman, a really big name) and Best Actress (Valerie Perrine, not so big a name among people who weren't there at the time, but well regarded among the down and dirty 70s crowd. Espeically when she spoke she made me think of a bigger-breasted Sally Field, which is not all bad, because I actually secretly like Sally Field). It is another movie that I got on VHS tape.

It's in black and white and has in its best parts a European art house tone about it. There are a lot of dingy clubs, dingy apartments, dingy hallways, car rides on rainy nights, claustrophobic telephone conversations where the speakers seem incapable of stepping an inch away from the handset; the movie is very good at creating this sensation of claustrophobia and dinginess and tightness, from which the Lenny Bruce character manages to cause stirs from time to time but never really escapes. There are drugs of course, and he seduces the pretty nurse whom he should not have been able to seduce--such a seduction makes the whole difference between an A-level life and a B-level one; or at least a B-level and a C, for sure. I never like courtroom scenes. The frame of the movie takes place after he's died, and the people who were nominally closest to him--his wife, his mother, his manager--are relating the story in flashbacks, but the sense is that they don't have any idea why he was the way he was, or why it mattered. The technique and style were interesting though, such as I wish we had more of in American movies. I give it a good mark for that alone.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Favorite Women of Art #14--Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun
I think the time has come for an occasional revival of this series. My art writing is undoubtedly among the best work I do, besides that it invariably puts me in a positive state of mind in spite of all the objections which might be argued against its doing so. I had the good fortune to have formed romantic ideas about various subjects, including most of the arts and even much of history before I was exposed to the more realistic and exacting interpretations and scholarship, either of the exalting beyond the reach of my understanding or too thoroughly eviscerating variety. The sense of the sublime, or the ideal, or even the merely sensuously better never died entirely within me; and it still seeps through the myriad unpleasant to contemplate truths in most instances.

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun seems to me an excellent painter. She was primarily a portraitist (portraitiste? portraitess?), and not just of run-of-the-mill and now forgotten aristocrats and wealthy merchants either, but royalty and the elite of the elite of her age. She was fond of doing flattering self-portraits as well--talk about controlling the image--of which this is my favorite example, at least of the ones that I am aware of. I like the hand full of paint brushes--it says, I am serious, and I like to work, but I am not grim about it. I like the prim petite black dress with the red sash--I don't exactly know what it says, but I think it is something like, I favor a slightly understated look that is still feminine and attractive. The headgear with the greater part of a head full of ebullient curls still out and framing the face, says, I am a 18th century French lady du monde, I really understand what titillates the more refined type of male brain, and there is pleasure in having the capacity to do so. The single visible row of teeth, and the eyes lazily open and completely exposed to the viewer says, I cast rather than bore for artistic truth. Illumination holds for me the primary appeal, obscurity very little.

Has there ever been a time when the greatest artist in a particular age, or country, or school, was a woman? It has occurred in literature; Jane Austen for example was almost certainly the best novelist working in English from 1800-17 (her death), and some would argue that Emily Dickinson was the greatest poet active during the 1860s and 70s, in America at least (I am less certain about this, though I am as yet skeptical of the supposed greatness of Whitman). It is true that neither was, or probably would have been, recognized as such at the time, but the retroactive recognition demonstrates that obviously the possibility exists at any time. Going way back I suppose most Greek scholars consider Sappho the best lyric poet of her generation. One would think it would have happened in painting at some point. In England anyway I had the impression that drawing was one of the major components of the education of young ladies of means going back to the 1700s. I realize that in most of these instances intense training was not received yet there are always instances throughout history where people who would not appear to have received world class preparation in a subject have managed to burst through with works or acts of original genius which altered the historical course of their nation's culture. I suppose the great artists have by tradition been a physically robust and combative lot, very competitive, energetic, quick to disparage the work of rivals and pour contempt on that of inferiors. When men of this combination of personality traits mixed with serious artistic abilities and a serious intellect, working in a culture that understands, cultivates and highly values the especial talents that they possess, you get something like Periclean Athens or the Italian Renaissance, in English literature perhaps the Elizabethan period, hyper-male ages of male cultural achievement, in which the contributions of female artists seem to be even more conspicuously absent than in ordinary eras, as if when highly realized male energy and power are set loose in the artistic arena, the best efforts of women are simply for a time overwhelmed? I don't know where I am going with this. Women are of course highly prominent in the art world at present not only as artists but as curators and scholars, where my suspicion is that among the under-50 set they are dominant, and as big money patronesses as well. When you get into the money and the higher refinements of true taste I kind of lose the thread because there is a disconnect with that side of the business from my romantic view. Now we're talking about who controls art, how it is presented, what one is supposed to think about it, etc, and it does seem like in many ways there is a class of woman that definitely has a strong say in that...

I don't have much time to write reviews on think I have gotten nine up in two years. No one has commented on any of my reviews yet and only 8 of 14 people have found my pieces helpful, 3 of 9 when you take out the one review I published (of the silent film Variete) that was popular. This is a matter of no interest and little meaning, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Winter was short this year, I was busy, and I think I might have missed Maple Sugaring season. I've grown to like Maple Sugaring season, and I find myself looking forward to it, so hopefully it will still be going on somewhere. But I doubt it.