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UNIVERSAL FINAL (REVISED) 01 copy

On April 10, 2012, two years ago, Mark Rappaport called Ray Carney, tenured professor of Boston University, to ask in person what he’d requested earlier: that the materials he’d left in the US on moving to Paris, and which Carney had said he’d hold for him, be returned.   Carney didn’t answer the phone.  Not then, not later after repeated calls to various numbers over the next month.  In effect – while later giving many stories regarding his sudden inaccessibility – Professor Carney went into hiding.  Curiously it is the same time he ceased communicating with me, not long after I’d done him the favor of posting a long long “letter” regarding BU he’d asked me to print on one of my blogs.  For the full story see this, the first of a series of 10 blog posts covering this whole matter in detail, which I began after Mark had sent out an internet letter in August 2012 explaining his situation.

 

dblcarneyProfessor Raymond Carney, tenured at Boston University

 Now, following all this, following a petition signed by some 1200 people, including some significant “names” in the film biz, I sadly have to report that Professor Carney still stays in effectual hiding, says nothing, and retains Mark’s materials.  What use this has for him is difficult to fathom, though his use of the term “gifted,” which has a specific legal meaning, both in this instance and in the instance of his travails with Gena Rowlands regarding John Cassavetes’ Shadows, suggests something.   Here is what Professor Carney is holding:

 

Rappaport's materials in Carney's lawyer's office.

 

The content is 16mm prints of 8 of Mark’s 9 features, one-inch tapes of 5 of the films, the only copies of Mark’s short films, including the original of one of them, the HD master of Exterior Night, the only existing copy in the world from produced as well as many unproduced scripts, and much other paperwork, including reviews and newspaper clippings.  For Professor Carney’s twists and turns regarding all this, see the blog posts.

In light of Carney’s behavior, I will, with some help, organize an attempt to raise funding so that Mark’s films can be transferred to 2K digital files.    The material Carney holds, which includes things which would be very useful for Mark, does not however, include the original negatives.  In some cases new archival prints have been made by George Eastman House.   The Cinematheque Francaise, which is planning a full retrospective of Mark’s work, has had all the original negatives and sound materials sent to Paris, and can provide Mark with the discount they receive for lab work for transfers to 2K if funding can be raised for this.

The cost of making the transfers is estimated to be from $20,000 to $25,000.   Which fund-raising system will be used is as yet undecided, but I am leaning towards Hatchfund, which is a non-profit, and confined to artists and thus more restricted in those it appeals to.  I hope to initiate fund-raising this summer, or perhaps early in the autumn.  We ask that once it is up that you contribute.  I’ll be posting here, on FaceBook and other social media systems when the time comes.

 

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Four months ago, towards the end of November, I pulled into Stanberry, (pop. 1,185) to stay with Blake Eckard (actually at his Mom’s place), and as circumstances looked OK, shot a film.  I was headed, along with Blake, to the St. Louis Film Festival, each of us to show new films, at the end of the month.  I’d shot and acted in Blake’s Ghosts of Empire Prairie back in May of 2012, and while around had soaked up a bit of the local ambiance.  Just happened to make a jig-saw fit with some things I’d scribbled down some decades earlier, and those things, along with some local tales which Blake knows well and tells with a natural story-teller’s ease, just seemed to leap into each other’s arms.  I asked Roxanne Rogers, who had been in my long ago Slow Moves, and then the newest, Coming to Terms, to make a little detour on her way from LA to her home in Istanbul.  We met up at the airport in KC on the 18th, and headed to Blake’s Mom’s house.  A few days later I went back to the KC airport to get Frank Mosley, who’d also volunteered to come be in it and then went on with us to St Louis.  We were joined in Stanberry by Tyler Messner, a friend of Blake’s since childhood who’s been in almost all of Blake’s films.

 

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GENTRY CO. .Still018Roxanne RogersGENTRY CO. .Still023Roxanne and BlakeGENTRY CO. .Still027Blake and Arianne MartinGENTRY CO. .Still029Frank Mosley and BlakeGENTRY CO. .Still024

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In the next 6 days we shot the film in a simple relaxed way – natural light, a handful of simple set-ups against a black cloth, with Blake telling “real” stories (names changed to protect the innocent) from around Gentry County.  On returning now, Arianne Martin, who was in Ghosts, was here to be in Blake’s new film, Coyotes Kill for Fun, and plays in my film as well.   While I was traveling in Europe Blake wrote a few new scenes and did 10 shots of locals which will get slipped in.  On getting those few one shot-sequences tomorrow I should have it pretty much done, with only some music to record (my own C&W) and a few other small things to add.  Hope to have it done in May or so.  About 75 mins.  I think it’ll be pretty damn good.

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The film is a kind of play with literature, story-telling, reality, all with a deep mid-west footing.  Of course, it’s one of my films so it is for the usual audience of (n)one, sure to be seen by extremely few, and ignored by the film biz, large and small.   Nothing to do with making a buck.

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Broken down on the highway, broken down on the road

My car’s runnin’ fine, it ain’t a problem of mine,

It’s my heart that’s in pieces, you know

     Broken hearts, and busted up dreams,

     All decked out in faded old jeans,

     It’s a story, it’s a story as old as time.

Standing there at a far edge of town,

There’s a broken young man with his head hanging down

And he’s calling,

And he’s falling in front of your eyes.

(partial lyrics from song of mine, circa 1988)

Here in Stanberry, Blake is shooting his new film which I’d intended to shoot for him but I arrived with a nagging cold/flu and have had to lay low here, trying to recuperate.  On the road in two more days, headed to O’Hare to drop Roxanne off for a flight to Istanbul, and then I spend a week and some visiting old friends in Chicago.  Then slowly back to Butte for a summer of work and rest.

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I’ve been familiar with New York since childhood, recalling a visit with my family, enroute doubtless to this or that military base, sometime in the early 1950′s, and visiting that wonderland of consumer lust, Macy’s.   I think I was given a choice of which toy to get and picked a somewhat elaborate plastic gyroscope, one with dazzling flecks of multi-colored paints embedded in it – one of extremely few memories of my childhood.  Since that time I’ve been back many times, for visits for politics (Newsreel 1967, IFP 1978), for screenings (MoMA with a selection of shorts in 1973 or so, later for a complete retrospective in 1991; 1987 for Whitney Biennial with Plain Talk & Common Senses; a number at Millennium); to visit friends.  And then I lived in New York from 1989-1991, before and while shooting All the Vermeers in New York.  I’d say I knew it pretty well but the truth is no one could possibly know New York (or any massive city) well, even if you spent your entire life-time actively investigating it every day.  I, like everyone else, know only the tiny little sliver I lived in or near, which represents not .00001 of the whole.  To think otherwise is to be deeply deluded.

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My experience of New York City, not hailing from the place, has been rather schizoid:  while I like its energy, its multi-ethnic polyglot street life, and all the good things of its density, I dislike its disproportionate sway over much of America’s social and cultural scales.  Long ago I surmised (and said publicly) that in the cultural world, if you make a piece of unmitigated pure shit in New York, as an “artist” (any kind – visual, music, writing), you are axiomatically 5 steps ahead of someone’s work of pure brilliance if, say, it comes from Kansas City, or some other city or town out in the vast hinterlands of the States.   Having been born in Chicago, and living there a brief while in my youth, I suppose I am afflicted with that “Second City” neuroses which functions to draw people from around the country to New York, like flies to, well, shit.  Except for certain realms where LA is the draw – movies mostly,  the lure of easy fame.

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In the very narrow world of arty/experimental films (and now, more broadly, “media”), the tilt of the cultural scales towards New York was, in my view, obscene.  The standard “canon” peddled around the world as to such work – “underground/avant garde” was essentially a list of Jonas Mekas’ friends – virtually all New Yorkers, or people who made the cultural pilgrimage to NYC, whether they lived there or not (Brakhage, Snow) way back then.  He blasted out over his column in the old Village Voice a weekly notice of whatever piece of celluloid fell out of their cameras and hastily anointed it a “masterpiece,” whereupon these were lapped up and sent off to the hinterlands to be screened in the film clubs, underground cinemas, etc. that littered small cities and campuses.  As 90% of Mekas’ Masterpieces-of-the-Week were cinematic dreck – as is, in my view, most of his own work, the interest quickly waned and collapsed, and, almost worse, was converted in academia into “film studies.”  Eager-beaver students were taught “avant garde” and made shitty versions of the shit which was foisted on them as “art.”  I sadly report that 50 years later this still persists as aging professors inflict their equally aged views on gullible students who then engage unknowingly in thrusts of a very derriere garde, mimicking the superficial aspects of films from 50 or 80 or more years ago.  Very avant.

Of course, one can say pretty much the same for all the arts – visual, music, theatrical – where the dead horses of 100 or 50 years ago are endlessly beaten, while academic scribes write arcane verbiage in a vain attempt to prop up this Emperor’s New Clothes world of empty fashion and pretend it is either “new” or “art” when generally it most certainly is not.  The announcements of the upcoming Whitney Biennial seem to underline this.   And New York City is the blazing navel of this vast fraud (just as with Wall Street).

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These days the arts, particularly the visual and plastic arts are indeed very big business – witness the immense bloat of MoMA’s real-estate, with paintings and sculptures selling for $50,000,000 and up (and down) for contemporary “artists” along with very recently deceased modern masters.  Jeff Koons is a good example, having his antennae finely tuned for the jejune tastes of the nouveau riche.  Other opportunists similarly sucker in these rubes of Gotham.

Switzerland ExhibitionJeff Koons and Michael and friendbruce_high_quality_foundation-hooverville~OMd87300~10000_20131113_n09037_2High Quality Bruce collective ersatz Warhol/Rauschenburg silk-screen sold for $5oo,ooo

Outside of Washington DC, New York would seem to exemplify the deep decadence and corruption into which the country has descended – though I am sure other cities might contest this: Silicon San Francisco, or LA.  Not that we weren’t cyclically corrupt before, just that in this time the numbers are exponentially greater and talk of millions is mere chump change.  We talk of individuals worth multi-billions and corporations worth trillions, which perhaps hints at the shift from “government” as our overseers (hypothetically in our service) to the dictatorship of corporations.  The many homeless people lining the streets of New York would seem to attest to this, as well as the schism between the obscenely wealthy (Soho, Upper East Side, and the usual haunts of old NY wealth along Park Avenue) and the obscenely poor.  If any place exemplifies this national tendency in its most visible form, New York is it.

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Squeezed out by the Manhattan high-rollers who have step-by-step bought up the former funky-arty quarters of Soho, the Village, the East Village and elsewhere, those locals and others drawn to the New York cultural vortex have shifted eastward, into the borough of Brooklyn.  There – if only for the moment – rents are lower, and the youthful “culture” (bars, boutiques, micro this and that) has bloomed in Williamsburg and Green Point.  The streets are crowded and Spike Lee, selling his Upper East Side place for a purported 35 million dollar price tag (a place previously owned by Robert Rauschenberg), has loudly (he seldom is less than loud) lamented the take-over of his former burg by “hipsters.”  These enclaves of Brooklyn in fact remind me of, oh, Portland, Oregon, where a similar generational culture has set-down, transforming the once drab working-class or black neighborhoods in NE and SE quadrants into strips of chic bars, bicycle shops, exotic ice-cream makers, micro-breweries and all the other accoutrements of a sector of entrepreneurial trust-fund kids.  In Portland it is a bit hard to figure out where the money is coming from to support this eviction scheme for the underclasses.   Similarly these Brooklyn neighborhoods sprout the same kinds of stores, and the sudden (lamented) new upper-middle-class condo’s now that the area has been ethnically and economically cleansed.  Spike is right, though what with his 1.5 million Kickstarter con, he tap-dances on a very loosey-goosey moral tight-rope:  whether he likes it or not he came out of the black upper-middle classes and now sits in the nation’s 1%, never mind his ghetto-mouth.  I have long since (We Cut Heads) found his rather aggressive assertions an obvious cover for his origins in relative wealth: he ain’t no real Bro.  So he uses MoFo a lot and puts on a street-wise air that seems phoney as a $3 dollar bill.  If he really wants not to be of the 1% he can easily divest himself of his wealth but I kinda won’t be holding my breath.  Though I am certain he has lots more rhetorical hot air left.

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Falling way behind courtesy of the travel life, since scribbling the above while in New York, I’ve been to Columbus Ohio (via Amtrak and Greyhound adventures), Cleveland, and now I lie low a few days, whacked by a nasty cold/flu somewhere along the line.  Curled up like a sick dog in Miami (FL) realm.  Tomorrow northward to Gainesville and then St Petersburg before finally heading back to Stanberry Mo in the mid-west to grab the old Subaru, shoot a quickie film for Blake (and finish up one of mine shot there in November), and finally to head West toward Portland and then Butte.  Be good to take a travel break.

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Saturday, March 1,7 pm will be screening Over Here for Millennium Film Workshop at the Brooklyn Fireproof Gallery.  http://millenniumfilm.org/2014/02/jon-jost-over-here/

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OVER HERE (Jon Jost, 2008) (Dennis Grunes, critic)

 

Jon Jost, who has said he is “independently poor,” is thus able, as he tells it, to make without interference or compromise the films he wants to. For a decade now he has been working in digital video. Last year’s Passages is, for me, bar none, the best film of 2006; this year’s Over Here is “a kind of companion-piece,” according to Jost, to Homecoming, which for me is the best American film of 2004. Both films were shot in Oregon, Homecoming in Newport, Over Here in Portland. Both revolve around George W. Bush’s self- and crony-serving war in Iraq, but from the vantage of the homefront. In the ironically titled Homecoming (the title refers also to Jost’s own return from Europe to the U.S.), a soldier has been sent home for burial from Iraq following his absurd drowning death; the returning veteran is alive in “Over Here,” but, shattered, he is lost both to himself and the parents who love him. Jason is as lost to America as America is to him. He ends up homeless, living with a companion under a bridge. His silent tenderness towards her—he caresses her head, gently awakening her to a new day—suggests the waste of his humanity that a mendacious, oil-mad administration has wrought. It also suggests Jason’s adaptability, the humanity he is able to bring to an alternative world apart from the America that Bush’s poisonous presidency has befouled. The title reverses the jingoistic geographical reference of the George M. Cohan song from World War I, “Over There.” Following film’s end, there appears Jost’s statement about the war, including his call for domestic impeachments and trials in the World Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is unlikely that there will be any more powerful movie than this one this year.

The pre-credit opening is poetic and poignant. It is the long-held tight closeup of a boy in his twenties. The image is in black and white except (perhaps!) for an elusive tinge of orange-pink in the boy’s “white” face. It is a degenerative image, a blowup appearing as a dark sea of dots, and its aural accompaniment is electronic discordance, science-fiction chords. The image itself—the boy—is mute. He speaks (to whom, we later find out, although a prefaratory snip suggests an answer); but his ordeal “over there,” which has rearranged his psyche, dissolving into dots his connections to reality, he finds himself at a loss to communicate. He covers his face with his hands. This pre-credit passage is subtitled Over There, as though that were the film’s title. Jason, the boy, has brought “over there” back home with him. It has taken over him as might an alien-something in a sci-fi horror film.

Post-opening credits, the first sequence takes place in a Portland café. There is a glossy shot of the clean interior. Jason is at the counter, and even when he is out of the shot or in the background, no matter what Jost’s camera sets in the foreground, we cannot take our mind off the boy. In effect, we have followed him from the pre-credit sequence and we want to learn more about him. Sometimes we see in closeup, in the foreground, some man doing business on the phone; for as long as the mise-en-scène allows, however, our eye is drawn to Jason in the background. At another time, a chessboard fills the front of the shot: chess—a board game based on a medieval battlefield. Finally, Jason leaves, and the brief stroboscopic shot of him outside in overcast weather conveys his agitation, which is further underscored by an unexpected cut back to the café, where all is calm and ordinary. Three brief static shots follow, the first two of which establish locale in the Ozuvian manner, and the third of which is similar except that Jason, in long-shot, walks into the frame, away from the camera, and leans against a parked car. This transforms the first two shots in the sequence, which now tell us that Jason has been walking a long way. A subsequent sequence of shots finds Jason walking into the frame, away from the camera, down a street. A subsequent traveling shot across a bridge suggests one of two things: Jason has hitched a ride to where he is staying; a merciful Jost has found a way to get us to Jason’s immediate destination more quickly than Jason has been able to manage. Somehow Jost succeeds in giving the combat veteran’s focused walking—Jason is proceeding to a definite place—a condition of aimlessness and passivity, as though Jason’s war experience has rendered him a will-o’-the-wisp.

In between the two passages of Jason walking is an interlude in an advertising agency. It is Saturday, and only the head of the agency and one of his minions are in the otherwise abandoned place, the head in his private office, the employee, Chris, in his cubicle, and this arrangement, besides relieving Jost of the necessity to come up with a bunch of extras, intensifies the exchange between the two men. The claustrophobic nature of the shots that Jost devises also assists in this, as does the contrast between the office space and the outdoor scenes where Jason proceeds under an immense, darkening sky.

Clearly the agency head is distracted in his private office, which not coincidentally posits him up against a brick wall. Restless, he ventures out of his official space to needle Chris for his being distracted. (It is Saturday, after all, and Portland is famous for being a city where “people work to live rather than live to work.”) Chris is devising the front page of a Web site for a client, which the boss finds too busy, the implication being that Chris’s head is too full of irrelevant clutter that he is (as is his wont) projecting onto his work. “Boy trouble?” the agency head asks, reminding Chris that he is obligated to leave all that at home and concentrate at work to meet the looming deadline for the agency client. The “boy” in question is Jason, whom Chris has picked up off the street, in front of the county’s main library, and taken into his home. “He’s not like the others,” Chris remarks. Chris, it turns out, has successfully rationalized his exploitation of Jason as pure compassion, and he is attempting to enlarge the reference of his positive self-image by putting his boss into the picture. A Vietnam veteran, surely this man might talk to the house-guest. The boss won’t have any of Chris’s plan; he has spent a lifetime suppressing his identity as warrior and the after-effects of his tour(s) of duty. It may even be the case that his own level of distraction is part of these distant after-effects. Instead, he warns Chris not to play social worker and to turn Jason over to those who might really be able to help him. In effect, he is telling his employee to stop playing with fire. The two men are alike, each dressing his inclination to exploit in the garb of concern. Workplace politics prevail, and the agency head, standing, looms over Chris, who is seated in front of his computer.

The passage is fairly clunkish; indeed, the entire film lacks fluidity, is structured instead as a series of set-pieces with fadeouts and deep blackouts, which in concert with other techniques suggests Jason’s mental and moral fragmentation and the disintegration of his ego. Form expresses content.

Chris fails to take his boss’s advice; he cannot bring himself to give up the boy. But fueled by his boss’s derision and his own consequent humiliation, he compensates by confronting Jason. Have you really been looking for work? Why is your jacket on the floor? Where is my iPod, Jason? (Jason, we know, does steal.) Home politics prevail, and Chris, standing, looms over Jason, who is on the living room couch as a radio or television program proceeds. We hear the program, and hear it clearly, but the verbal exchange between the two men fluctuates in clarity and volume as Jost, as he does throughout the film, plays with sound levels in an effort to express Jason’s interiority—just how, that is, that Jason feels. This is one of the film’s most brilliant aspects. In any case, Chris keeps at Jason relentlessly, verbally spanking him again and again, and in a subsequent scene Jason explodes. He had been in agitated sleep in a living room chair, his mind back in Iraq, and an inaudible Chris, standing, looms over him pontificating about something or other. Jost cuts from the sleeping Jason, one of whose hands grips an arm of the chair, to Chris, whose annoying intimidation is captured by a low camera tilted upwards. At first we aren’t certain whether Chris at that moment is a part of Jason’s dream; but all of a sudden, accompanied by a rocketing into normal sound, Jason is on the floor attempting to break Chris’s neck. His nightmare flashback—what occupied his mind until Chris broke his slumber—has him, now that he is nominally awake, back in Iraq still. We know this because Jason shouts “fucking Hadji!” as he assaults Chris. Or does he kill Chris? A shot holds on Chris’s lifeless face as though to decide the matter; but what we see may be a Chris playing possum whom Jason leaves on the living room floor.

This in-effect flashback to war is followed by an actual flashback that indeed may disclose the content of Jason’s in-chair dream of Iraq. It is a social scene whose centerpiece, out of focus and stroboscopic (and hence a projection of Jason’s own agitation), is someone singing the song “Hadji Girl” whose lyrics got their author, Marine Cpl. Joshua Belile, into such hot water. In the song, a U.S. Marine in Iraq foils an attempt to assassinate him by grabbing a girl’s “little sister” and having her take the lethal bullets meant for him from the girls’ father and brothers. In addition to making monstrous fun out of murder, the lyrics ridicule Islam. The song is also, of course, racist. We hear the soldiers in attendance laughing. Jost edits into this scene a montage of scenes, some of them snippets of Iraqi humanity that contest the song’s dehumanizing cruelty. The song, we understand, boosts the morale of the troops, like an old-time Bob Hope Christmastime show; its viciousness allows us to gauge the unhinged humanity of the U.S. warriors given the perilous situation into which they have been plunged. The song, then, encapsulates the horror of Bush’s war from which returning soldiers like Jason may never be able to escape.

This is the song’s refrain: “Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad/ Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah.” But another line is thematically relevant to Over Here: “I can’t understand what you’re saying.” The lyric refers to U.S. ignorance of Arabic; but it becomes meaningful in another way as well. Throughout the film Jost stresses Jason’s feeling that he no longer belongs at home, that he cannot connect with others at the very moment that he most needs to, because his war experience has discombobulated him, leaving him incapable of communicating what he has undergone and what his needs are. Ryan Harper Gray, who plays Jason, is deeply affecting disclosing enormous pain and sadness, a broken soul. This is a great performance.

After leaving his adoptive/adopted home, Chris’s house, Jason visits his parents, apparently for the first time since returning to Portland. This passage is massively moving, nearly intolerably so. Despite parental pleas, Jason cannot stay. He must move on, accepting his condition of homelessness much as Ethan Edwards at the close of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) chooses to wander between the winds.

The “conversation” among parents and son before Jason’s sad though perhaps necessary departure constitutes the part of the film I love most. (The entire film, incidentally, is 1¼ hours in length.) With darkness at the top and bottom of the screen, the face of each of the three characters occupies his or her own square in a row across the screen. Mother and Father flank Jason. (Bibi Walton and Jerry Carlton are excellent as the parents.) There is much silence and pain as Jason dissolves into sadness; what talk is there is inaudible. It is impossible for Jason to unburden himself. Each one is helpless. In the middle, Jason disappears entirely, leaving behind a black square—this, a projection of how he feels, and the loss to them of their son that his parents dread. When he reappears, his face now fills a square larger than the ones occupied by his parents, ironically indicating the attempts by his parents to hold onto him, but finding this impossible, and his own attempt to hold onto himself. The parents’ faces disappear into the darkness; when they reappear, Jason is out-of-frame, and their squares are adjacent. “Please don’t go,” we manage to hear the mother say. We hear the door close behind Jason. Now only the mother is visible; adjacent to her is darkness—a visual projection of the loss of her son.  We next see Jason underneath the bridge some morning. We know that time has passed from the presence of his companion. Amidst normal sound, his hearing goes into silence and comes back out. His haunted face visually frays. The girl with him makes no demands because she isn’t connected to his past. In his own way, Jason also may be wandering between the winds.

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SM ROXONMARFLOORENDMarshall Gaddis and Roxanne Rogers in SLOW MOVES

Following a very nice screening of Last Chants for a Slow Dance at Light Industry (155 Freeman, Greenpoint, Brooklyn), to a sold out house and very nice response, this weekend we follow up with screenings of four different films at Spectacle, 124 S. 3rd St., (near Bedford), Brooklyn, NY.  See this:   http://www.spectacletheater.com/jon-jost/

bd-baseballMarshall Gaddis in Bell Diamond

Films showing will be Slow Moves, Bell Diamond, Parable, and The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima.   I’ll be there for all screenings (hope there’s a good wi-fi cafe and/or bar nearby!)

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Stephen Taylor and Rachel LeValley in PARABLEParable

Yesterday I went to MoMA’s documentary series to see my friend Peter Snowdon’s film, The Uprising.  I’d seen it in a rough form 3 years ago, and at the time he was very discouraged and said he was ready to stop and give up on it.  I found what I saw very strong and encouraged him to carry on and figure it out and finish.  He says my little nudge helped, and after all this time he finished it.  The film is composed of YouTube and other internet uploads of materials shot by people in the ”Arab Spring,” often rough things shot with cell-phones, i-Pads, DSLRs or whatever people had that they could shoot with.  Peter amassed a huge amount of this, and after his editorial labors I think he’s come up with a really strong and amazingly good film – can I say a kind of “masterpiece”?

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Eschewing voice-over and explicatory materials, the film dives directly into the visceral reality which shifted from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Yemen and Syria, as the populist demand for change, for an end to corruption and dictatorships, spread like wild-fire across the middle-east.  Seizing on this emotional roller-coaster, riding from the delirium of massive crowds to the grim deaths of unarmed civilians in the face of military power, The Uprising seems to me orchestrated as a symphony, using the shifting tonalities and qualities of the various images used – blurred, jagged shifts of light, sometimes shifting into solarized simplicity – and cuts them with an internal aesthetic which verges often towards abstraction, but without ever lapsing and losing the emotional intensity of the situation.  Indeed, I think it is just this abstract infrastructure which makes the film work so powerfully.  Equally, the sound is used in this abstract sense, building into musical crescendos, and then going silent, shifting in concert with the images to orchestrate exactly as do the abstract sounds of a symphony, coaxing, enticing, shifting one’s inner world through pure aesthetics, yet ones which touch deeply inside us.   I know it was a lot of work, but I am glad Peter stuck to it and found (one of) the films which was in his material.  Powerful stuff.

Here’s a listing of upcoming screenings:

- February 20, 2014 – 6pm : Pratt Institute, Brooklyn (NY), USA
not a screening, but a talk + Q&A with Peter Snowdon and Bruno Tracq

- February 23, 2014 – 5:30pm : Images Cinema, Williamstown (MA), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

- February 26, 2014 – 7pm : Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, New Orleans (LA), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

- March 3, 2014 – 5:30pm : University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (NC), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

- March 7, 2014 – 7:30pm : The Center for Middle East Studies, New Brunswick (NJ), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

- March 27, 2014 – 7:30pm : Université Populaire, Brussels
followed by a talk with Bruno Tracq

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The Cinemateca Portuguese will be mounting a partial retrospective of digital work only, this coming week, February 10 – 15, screening 9 films, including two screenings of Coming to Terms.  Other films showing will be as follows:

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6 Easy Pieces

Passages

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Homecoming

Over Here

Parable

Oui Non

Coming to Terms

For the program, dates and times, see:

http://www.cinemateca.pt/Programacao.aspx?ciclo=335&page=1

 

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I have been coming to the Rotterdam festival since 1978, within a few years of its founding.  Way back then it was a small, very filmmaker friendly matter, set in a small building, cozy and comfortable, and a good place to meet other filmmakers in a close way.  I think back then I was here with Angel City, though I am not sure.  The city then was a drab and slightly depressing place, with ugly 50′s and 60′s architecture done on the cheap after the place had been flattened during WW2.  The grim winter weather didn’t help the impression given of a desolate urban realm.

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After that, once the Berlin festival – where I had been a “regular” from the 1977 to 1993 -  declined, in the mid-90′s, to accept digital work on an equal basis with celluloid film, I shifted and came rather regularly to Rotterdam, which had accepted electronic work without hesitation.  I recall a visit back then, and on arrival looking in the catalog to see which department they’d put my film – a digital feature that had cost me a few hundred dollars.  Looking in the avant-garde and whatever sections I did not find it, but then discovered it in the main program, which on the next page had some million plus dollar film.  I liked that attitude.

Over the years I returned – I don’t know how many times, but many – and watched as it grew into a major festival, yearly showing 300+ films, with new cinemas blossoming to accommodate it, and I worried it would lose its friendly manner.  It didn’t.   And I prized it as a festival that actually had an audience, a local one, which would come to any kind of film and usually provided a good house for them.  My screenings were always 2/3rds or more full, Q&A sessions were lively and intelligent.  It made coming to the festival seemingly worthwhile, even if I knew my work was not “marketable,” a matter which seemed increasingly to come into play as the years went by: they established the Cinemart, for filmmakers to make contacts with producers and buyers; they set up the Hub Bals fund (named after the festival’s founder) to help 3rd world filmmakers get on their feet; and it did what it could for those entering the business.  It was one of the best festivals I had been to for independent filmmakers.

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Last time I was here, 3 years ago, I attended Nathaniel Dorsky’s retrospective and saw him sell out a 100 seat theater five nights in a row with different programs, and the festival scheduled some repeats.  We – Nick, Marcella and myself – had a great time.  And my own film, Imagens de uma cidade perdida, also drew good audiences and responses.   Three years ago.

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This time around has been a completely other story:  while a touch late in the festival, it immediately seemed  to me that there were far fewer people here – the professional kind and spectator kind – than in the past.  Inquiries with some regulars confirmed my sense of this.  And when it came screening time, at 7pm – a good hour – in a good cinema (Cinerama) I secured an audience of around 30 people, mostly older (my age, more or less, and understandably so as it is a film about/for my generation).  During the screening a handful walked out, only 3, younger, stayed for the Q&A.  Well, yes, it was by then a bit late for oldies, but not that late.  I would have liked some to stay so I could get an inkling about what older people see/think about the film.  No dice though.  The second screening at 10 pm drew 15 people, of which 7 left.   3 again stayed for a Q&A.   And, last day of festival, at an 11 am screening there were 10 people.

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What happened?  I accept I don’t make audience grabbers, or films that work commercially – I make no effort to do so, and accept my very much minority status.  And I know well the world of fashion and style is fickle and changing, and that by most measures I am now an ancient fart.     But…    I’d like to say it was towards the end of the festival, or have some simple explanation like that, but my off-the-cuff reading is something else.

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Entering the communal spaces of the festival I noted that nearly everyone younger was either working as staff for the festival or eager newer filmmakers.  Almost everyone else was older – the pro’s, the critics, and the audience.  Aside from a cohort of younger filmmakers, these festivals feel like geriatric conventions.  As my friend Mark Rappaport told me a few days ago, having come up a week before to install an exhibition of his film-based photo-collages, everyone of the old friends he met all said something that between-the-lines read, “Oh, you’re still alive!”   I think these festivals, along with the cinema in general, is in the midst of a profound social shift, expressed in myriad ways – from attention spans to hard fiscal matters to shifts in tastes and interests.  Younger people prefer video games, texting, whiling the time away on-line with one thing or another.  They seem hardly to notice the distortions of wrong screen ratios, or have a tolerance for slow pacing, or lack of plot-as-core function of a visual medium.  And, for the most part, whether with the specifics of film or art, or the broader matter of society and politics, most seem to have almost no grasp of history.  Of course there are exceptions – even a cluster of a seeming counter-movement of those who do acquaint themselves with history, see meditative work, whether Benning or Dorsky and others, as a palliative to the frenetic pace of the times (though I observe that some of those young friends of mine seem avid users of Facebook and other fragmenting social media.)

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Over the decades I’ve noticed, as have others, that the cinema seems to go through local cultural waves – rising, collapsing, rotting inside in one place, while refreshed in another:  the focus of creative interesting work seemed to culturally shift like some kind of social Rorschach test.  Italy in the postwar period to the mid-60′s; France a touch later; then Germany and elsewhere, and in a spotty manner many other places in a handful of individual filmmakers.  These days in various Asian settings and South America.  (The same phenomenon could be seen in other arts, high and low – whether painting, music, theater.)  My impression is that the cinema is limping to a kind of death, its myriad avenues explored and exhausted, and then in the embrace of pure commerce, delivered a mode of a Mafia kiss.  To paraphrase Ingmar Bergman’s metaphor, it is like a snake-skin filled with maggots, producing movement giving the illusion of life in the throws of death.

Which, in some ways, is appropriate.  Though some few persist, for example, mosaics are not exactly the state-of-visual arts, nor in reality is oil painting.  Mediums technologically arise, are worked, and then are replaced by newer ones.   And both human and broader biological records show the same is true for any culture.

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My grimmer sense is that the cinema is a diversion from the rising avalanche of far more serious matters confronting our species, and in some highly oblique manner, the larger turning-away signals a kind of recognition, for better and worse.  The cultural reality of people buried in their electronic toys – texting, playing a video game, watching some lame TV or movie – which one can see on any subway from Seoul to New Delhi to Paris to New York, all betrays a profound disconnect, a desperate collective effort to be distracted from the obvious calamity we are already immersed in and which we do not want to see or acknowledge.  The old cinema, Hollywood’s dream factory, and all its off-shoots of “serious” work, still holds a mode of internal coherence which represents a negative challenge.  Better in these times, ironically, the short bursts of Twitter, of utterly fragmented habits, which render the world into a fractal and unreadable social cubism – seeing everything simultaneously from all possible angles which leads not to enlightenment, but total obfuscation.  The better to hide and evade the tsunami of the future, which is writing itself ever more clearly and requires ever more frenetic modes of avoidance.  And in which, in our desperate lunge to outrun it, we hasten its arrival with the very tools and toys we use.

The last time I was here in Rotterdam, I spotted Raul Ruiz wandering the area reserved for the professionals, his face betraying that death was nearing him.  He was alone, walking as if lost, among people who in the movie-biz manner all knew him, and he looked for all the world to me as if he was wondering what the hell he’d done with his life, making films, one after another, as if trying to outrun his own death.  He died a few months later, I suspect feeling empty as one of his convoluted films which tended to be formalist exercises absent any real content, much beloved by film critics if few others.

Perhaps it is a good thing that cinema is dying or dead.

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On a more pragmatic level I did manage to see a few films:

Til Madness do us Part - a four hour documentary by Wang Bin, showing the daily life inside an insane asylum in a poorer area of China.   As the inmates are, the spectator is trapped in a closed courtyard, endlessly circling, entering barren and squalid rooms where 4 or more share the space and sometimes the same beds.  The doctors are harsh, delivering up the daily doses of drugs to pacify the inmates; there are those clearly off-the-beam, and others who seem not so crazed, though living in this setting would tax the most sane.  Never boring, the film catches the viewer in a cross-fire of thoughts: sometimes events seem almost orchestrated, sometimes the inmates seem wise to the game and appear to be “acting” for the camera.  One feels a voyeur, violating the space, complicit with the filmmaker.  At the conclusion some suspicions are obliquely answered as title cards indicate that those committed range from violent criminals who have murdered someone, some committed by family, some for “extreme religious belief” (it is the area of China adjacent muslim regions) or political problems.

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Japon - apparently a re-cut of the Reygadas film of some years back.  I have never seen one of his films. I took an hour of this one and left both a bit bored; annoyed with the aesthetics (extreme wide-screen, scruffy DV or some other relatively low-res medium which seemed counter to the wide-screen and landscape images); and I figured where it was headed – sex and gore.  It didn’t warrant the hour I gave it, and certainly not another.

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Bella Vista – shot in and around Missoula, Montana, a first film from Vera Brunner-sung.  An interesting and good, though flawed film, but worthy and good for taking a shot at skipping conventional modes and instead using a rich mosaic approach with the thinnest narrative thread.  Long shots, no explanations, but it held together well despite the minor problems.  Much more interesting  than the numerous American indies who imagine a “hip” sit-com in old-fashioned movie/tv cinematic syntax is worth doing.

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And I think I saw another but it must have left no impression since I can’t recall just what.  Or did I even see another one?

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COMING TO TERMS BASIC EDIT_29SMRoxanne Rogers in Coming to Terms

 

Here’s the schedule for screenings of Coming to Terms in Rotterdam, commencing this Wednesday:

 

 

 

28-jan-2014     19:30     20:59     Cinerama 2    

29-jan-2014     22:15     23:44     LantarenVenster 2    

31-jan-2014     11:30     12:59     LantarenVenster 6

 

 

 

Roxanne Rogers, who was kind enough to do so, along with husband Alp, had me as their guest in Istanbul in Dec-Jan.  Great time for me.  She will also be in Rotterdam for the first two of the screenings and will take part in Q&A, interviews, etc.

 

Meantime Coming to Terms is now subtitled in Turkish and Spanish, thanx to some really tedious hours on my part, and translations on the part of others.  It will show in Madrid at the Spanish Filmoteca and in Lisbon at the Cinemateca Portuguese in February.  I am hoping I can round up some South American screenings thanks to the subtitles.

 

Anyone in Rotterdam – festival directors, filmmakers, or just plain old people, don’t hesitate to contact me at the festival.  I’ll be in the new CitizenM hotel.  I’ll be there Jan 28 – Feb 1.

 

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Following the suggestion of friends, who’d been told it was good but hadn’t themselves gone to it, I visited Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art (MAMbo).  It had one exhibit of modest interest, gathered from the collection of UniCredit, one of their sponsors.  It was a grab-bag of things suggesting art is magic, and included clips of Lumiere and Melies, surrealists, photographic things and a hodge-podge of paintings and sculpture, all tucked under the title, La Grande Magia.  There were some interesting things among the mélange, though it seemed obvious it was a contrived way to haul UniCredit’s stuff out and show it, perhaps with the thought to pump up its alleged “value” for future sale.  Two cheers for capitalism….

arnulf rainer  SMArnulf Rainer’s “art”

That done, I went to the permanent collection, which was mostly Italian work of relatively recent vintage.  This comprised a lot of piss-poor copies of NYC of the 50’s, with fotos of the artists in trench-coats, hats, and smoking cigarettes as if posing as Camus in an “existentialist” play.  The paintings and their names were instantly forgettable, just as all too many American abstract expressionists and pop artists are.

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Tucked into this were some other things, apparently commissioned by the museum.  One was an alleged “installation” piece by current hot London “artist” Tacita Dean.  In a walled off space, an old 16mm projector showed on a little screen hung from the ceiling in back projection some very pedestrian shots of the studio of Giorgio Morandi, beloved artist of modern Bologna.  Another video projector showed static shots of some “drawings” by Morandi.  In both projections there was zero creative anything going on with video, 16mm, or anything else.  This sizable display was accorded two (empty) seats, time and space, and was utterly utterly worthless.  What fame will do….  I print later on Ms. Dean’s words on Morandi, none of the seeming intelligence of which was evident in the installation.

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1994Giorgio Morandi drawings in Tacita Dean’s Still Life

As my brain ossified from this display of the art world’s total corruption – from the pale Italian modern art of the 50’s-70’s (including “art povera” and all the rest), to the pathetic display of “young London’s”  current sway in the arts world, I wandered on, ever more resentful, to a gallery of hot new Bologna very young artists, who like their predecessors of the 50’s and 60’s aped the current international styles, and filled their space with a litter of collected things put on the floor, scrawls on the walls, and absolutely nothing showing a milligram of originality, creative passion, technical talent, or anything else I would stick the word “art” on.   As in other exhibits I have seen it was all academic by-the-book current art world s-h-i-t accorded space in a museum, lathered with utterly inane explicatory texts, and as empty as outer-space is, though lacking in outer-space’s philosophical promptings.  Yes, another museum full of complete crap masquerading as “art.”

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I could make a long list of famed so-called “artists” responsible for this: Beuys, Warhol, Twombly, and numerous others.  Certainly an academic scholar could make a case for the continuity from critical practice noting the differing “styles” of various artists of any period, flowering in our current era wherein one’s particular neuro-muscular twitching, attached to some graphic signature device (a pencil), begets “art.”  Tacita Dean could be an example, but there are literally hundreds of them who seem to imagine that if they call themselves “artists” and make a scrawl, it becomes “art.”  So much for the lessons of the present academy.

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And of our corrupted society which now accepts this, and lavishes money and space for its display.  I guess well-off kids who can’t hack university and get packed off to learn “art” instead need to have something to do and must be rewarded.  As in the case I just read of wherein the mysterious anonymous group Bruce sold a Warholian silk-screen for about $500,000 not long ago.  The question perhaps is whether in process “art” is debased or money?  Or both.

bruce_high_quality_foundation-hooverville~OMd87300~10000_20131113_n09037_2Bruce High Quality, Hooverville, sold for $450,000

On a practical level the museum was virtually empty except for the high number of guards, who admonished “no fotos” when I attempted to take one.  They appeared, justifiably, bored out of their minds as there were more of them, on a Saturday afternoon, than of museum visitors, and the “art” offered little in the way of reward for them to contemplate.  What they were guarding, at whatever the cost is for the people of the city of Bologna, was worthy of a hasty trip to the garbage dumpsters out on the streets.  Little wonder Italy, and other places, are undergoing the tortures of “austerity.”   The art in this place was, plain and simple, part and parcel of the vast fraud which 98% of contemporary (and recent “modern”) art represents.  Junk, cranked out by a corrupted system of schools which teach this crap, and a parasitic cluster of alleged “intellectuals” who parse the meaning of this now utterly decadent, empty, total s-h-i-t.  The kind of stuff which fills pavilions in Venice and Basel, where the utterly conformist art crowd disports itself in “hip” costumes and posturing, and fill the chic “art” hotels made by designer starchitects, (who to my direct observation are equally conformist, decked out in elegant silk black on black outfits).   Their tastes are measured in money, in hot names, and they flit from gallery to gallery like promiscuous bees, ever in search of the next hot vacuous thing with lots of $$$$-signs tacked to it:  Koons, Hirst, or other hyper-hot commodities, whose work is notable primarily for the price tags attached, which are proportionate to the “fame” attached to the “name.”

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[An aside: in my film Chameleon, about a “dealer” – drugs, art, scams – in LA in the late 70’s there’s a line said by a sleazoid dealer, that it’s “names that sell; I couldn’t get a dime for one of your things,” said as he twists an artist’s arm to come up with a fake of a “name” artist.  My very jaded and contemptuous view of the art-world is rather old.]

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GIORGIO MORANDI: STILL LIFE AND DAY FOR NIGHT -

by Tacita Dean

At a certain point, standing in the tiny studio of Giorgio Morandi, re-installed recently in the old apartment in Bologna where he lived with his sisters for fifty years, I knew I had to make a decision. His objects were everywhere, grouped on the tables and under the chairs and gathered together on the floor. They were as recognisable to me as if they had belonged in the outhouses of my own family, and aged with us into comfortable familiarity: face powder boxes, conical flasks, vases of cotton flowers, gas lamps and oil cans, pots, jars and bottles, and containers whose function we no longer recognise. Were they of his time or had he scoured the flea markets himself looking for them? We have only ever known them with dust. Giorgio Morandi was the painter who could paint dust.

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And then there were his interventions, like the cartons rewrapped in brown paper and the reflections whitewashed out on the bottles and the Erlenmeyer flasks, the artificial flower arrangements and the odd flourish to remake a dull vessel. It seems Morandi liked to paint what he saw. He did not choose, as I had always imagined, simply not to paint anything about an object that he did not deem necessary, but instead transformed them beforehand, making them the objects he wanted to see. It was not about denying detail because the detail he liked, he kept. The miraculous opacity of his painted objects is already there in the objects themselves. His was a double artifice. There, amongst the copper pans and the enameled jugs, I understood clearly what the Fluxus artist, Robert Filiou meant when he said, “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.”

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Giorgio Morandi’s compositions were far from arbitrary. The space between his objects was rigorously and mathematically worked out. Set squares, rulers and a knotted string hang on the studio wall. The table surface and the lining paper are covered with intricate markings and measurements, often initialed or marked with a letter when, you assume, a decision was finalised. They are like found drawings, unintentional but remarkable.

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Only when the light was identical to how it had been the day he set up a composition, did Morandi allow himself to continue painting. On other days, he would sit on the corner of his monastic bed, where there is a pronounced dip, and etch. He would draw at night by electric light. His brushes, that lie tied up in bundles, have been worked down to tufts, and in one instance, to a single hair. Was it parsimony or did he require them bald? Was it because his stroke was a non-frontal gesture, which approached from the side? His room was set-up for a left-handed man but no one particularly remarked this about the painter.

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Amidst his objects, which still held the aura of their depiction, I came at last to a decision as to how I could treat them. I filmed them singly, one by one, centred in my frame, and did as Morandi would never have done: made their composition random.

Temporarily housed in the MAMbo, there was a large collection of Morandi works.  I have been familiar with him for some decades, and never quite fathomed what the big deal was about him.  Several rooms and more of his work merely underlined for me my view that he is very much a very minor painter, though perhaps he highlights a certain phenomenon in the arts world which seems to be almost more prized than its results: doggedness, doing the same thing again and again and again, until your mark is firmly etched and, in a sense, you are a safe bet.  Like a trademark.  McDonald’s, Gucci – you are in for no surprises, you will get what you know you will get.  In Morandi’s case what you will get is modest – images of jars, bottles, in very muted non-color mostly, arrayed on a table.  The brushwork will be desultory, near “primitive.”  The result, like much of modern, is “nice” graphics, something comfortable and safe for a magazine illustration.  However, in the alchemic world of modernist art, if you do this long enough your work will turn into (marketable) art.  As with America’s beloved Norman Rockwell, and many others.

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10.-Estorick-Morandi-Still-Life,-1960Giorgio Morandi, ad inf (almost)

I left the museum to walk through the arcaded streets of central Bologna, decked in Christmas finery and markets, and wandered back to my friend Pina’s cozy apartment.  Along the way some graffiti by someone named “Blu” marked my way.

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There seems a developing fashion, certainly along the lines of PC-speak, that if you don’t have something “nice” to say about something – art, a movie, whatever – then it is better to stay silent.  I guess I’ll remain firmly out of fashion.

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The following is the text of a talk given at a conference in Rome, Italy, on the topic “Cinema, Virtual Reality, and the Body.”  In the same context I screened the 2007 Italian language film La Lunga Ombra (The Long Shadow).

I would first like to caution that despite my present title as “Distinguished Professor (retired)” I am not at all an academic or scholar.  I am a self-taught artist and I suppose a contrarian “thinker.”   This is by way of telling you that while I have a vague recognition of current and past academic fashions in the area of cinema, media and the wider arts, I really do not know much of the language you use.   I hope you will forgive me that, but after more than 50 years of casual acquaintance with both the academic and arts world, I know fashions are transitory and quickly change.   Though I have friends deeply involved in these trends, I have not followed them at all.

Our topic, “Virtual Reality, Cinema and The Body” is, in my jaded eye, a typically obtuse academic one which luckily offers a loose frame to talk about almost anything. So from that standpoint I wish to offer up an eclectic selection of observations.

2 POZZO STANZAStanza di S. Ignazio

Here in Rome, we have a very appropriate setting for a discussion of “virtual reality” as there are many vivid historical examples of just that surrounding us:  not far from here, in the historical center, on Vittorio Emmanuel, beside the Chiesa del Gesu, is the Stanza of San Ignazio – a small hallway adjacent to the modest room in which the Jesuit leader lived in the 155p0′s.  The hallway is a barren, barrel vaulted space.  But from one central viewpoint it appears to be a well-accoutered Baroque room, with a flat coffered ceiling, statuary, and paintings and a sense of 3-dimensionality which gives the impression one could slip a hand behind the coffering.  It is all a very convincing illusion:  it is all painted.  It was made in 1680. If you go to the end of the space, the rectangular coffers of the ceiling warp into a Baroque version of a Frank Stella painting of the 1980’s or 90’s.

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6 STELLA 2Frank Stella

A walk of some blocks away from this room is his spectacular ceiling of the Chiesa di S. Ignazio,  which sits on a lovely small piazza designed by another Baroque artist, Fillipo Raguzzini.  Each artist, in vastly differing ways, was busy constructing a very effective “virtual reality” – in the case of Pozzo, illusionary spaces which, in a very real way, appear to exist but do not exist at all.  In the case of Raguzzini, the spaces are very real, but orchestrated to shift the sensibility of those within it.

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9 POZZO DOME S IGCeiling of Chiesa di S. Ignazio, painted by Andrea Pozzos ignazio piazzaPiazza di S. Ignazio

[As an aside I’d like to note that Pozzo is largely disregarded as a “painter” owing to his trickery – I in fact find him a really excellent painter in his handling of color, paint and all the rest – his skill with perspective sadly worked against him.]

Rome is littered with similar examples – from Borromini’s compressed gallery in Palazzo Spada to Bernini’s colonnade at the piazza of St Peter’s , or in the layout of certain major streets intended to compress and unite the sense of space in the city as a whole.

15 SpadaBorommini’s Colonnade at Palazzo Spada18 roma_laquattrofontane_9872Via Quattro Fontane20 Via_del_Corso__Roma_in_M-20000000005851738-500x375Via del Corso

Each of these cases are instances of a conscious and deliberate making of a “virtual reality.”

SONY DSCS. Carlino at Quattro Fontane, by Borominni

The time was in the 1600-1700′s.  A long time ago.

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It was a time when Europe began to throw off a millennium and more of another socially imposed “virtual reality,” that of the Christian religion and the dominant Church which forced its views upon the populace of much of Europe: the Catholic Church. The Church too was a “virtual reality,” constructed of a mythic fantasy carefully calculated to psychologically appeal to an oppressed people, for whom the offer of an “eternal life” was, of course, the ultimate “virtual reality.”

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What can be more “virtual” than a proffered future life which does not exist?

This overturning was, I suppose ironically, visualized at the peak of the Church’s powers and celebrated in a circus of total corruption and decadence.

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The eruption of the art of the Renaissance is the product of that corruption.   Just as in our own time we can watch the same, though sped up, in our official religion of Capitalism – a system which really began more or less at the same time when the Church started on its decline, way back in the 1600′s.  In the language of the church, it was merely a shift in who the money-changers were.

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Jeff Koons

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34 Jeff Koons, Bourgeois Bust - Jeff and Ilona.746x560Jeff Koons, whose balloon dog recently sold for 58 million dollars, a living “artist” record

The Greeks, as seen in their temples and surviving sculptures, had a very well developed sense of perspective to be seen in the subtle shaping of the columns of the Parthenon, in the layout of the same with their various buildings shifted to enhance the spatial sense of the site.

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43 Acropolis copyAcropolis and Parthenon, Athens

And in their sculpture where they played with proportion for dramatic effect. Little of their painting has survived though the glazes on their pottery give a hint of how they saw and depicted the world in two-dimensional form. Their surviving literature – in philosophy, in plays, in their mythic stories – fills out for us a sense of their way of being in the world. It is, we like to think, the foundation of “civilization.”

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Or at least “western” civilization. We tend to ignore that for some millennia before the flowering of Greek culture, the Chinese had already built a sophisticated and complex society, easily the equal of anything which flowered on the Mediterranean.

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The Romans largely adopted Greek culture, though turning it from the idealized “virtual” to the hard-core “realistic” and pragmatic – which we can see in Rome’s sculpture and architecture – in the adaptation of the arch and dome as primary architectural forms – whether at the Pantheon, the Colosseo, or the remnants of acquaducts tracing their way through the landscape.

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And, naturally, in their pragmatism, they developed an Empire which has left its mark throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia. And then a funny thing happened in one of its colonies in North Africa – and Roman society was up-ended, and incrementally a new religion crept through Rome’s holdings and beyond. That religion was Christianity, and once institutionalized it bent the cultures which it invaded and utterly changed them. One can see it in the art before and after:

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In Pompei (where they clearly had a grasp of perspective, and they lived their lives with a certain sensual elan).

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And then the curtain of ash descended and the frolicking stopped. Just as it was shoved behind the curtain of Christianity, and Europe’s sense of itself withered behind a veil of ideological fear – while promising goodies in the never-to-be future, the Church wielded a fierce dominance over how to behave in the here and now. The medieval ages arrived. At pain of burning at the stake, as Giordano Bruno did in Campo di Fiori, and other such pleasantries, one toed the Church line or was dispatched to hell or limbo or heaven, depending on how many coins, paintings, chapels, or contributions to the construction of great churches one had given. Paranoia or justifiable fear dictated the building of towns and cities on inconvenient hill and mountain tops; it suggested walls and moats and many defensive postures, generated by the more or less constant warfare in the valleys.

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Of course today tourists wax romantically about the wonderful views as they zip up the winding roads in cars and are served sumptuous meals and wine in these redoubts of utter fear. They seem never to think of what a huge chore it was to take all of life to the top of a mountain without machines and cars. It is of course interesting that on the basis of fear such beautiful things are made. Like weapons.

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In the social construct of the “Dark Ages” Europe lost its sense of perspective, crushed under the sway of an all-powerful church. The earth no longer spun around the sun, which the Greeks understood . And innumerable other “virtual realities” were built and enforced. And then in the early 1000’s European culture began to slowly find its way towards what became the Renaissance. The tracings of this, and particularly in the making of what became the mathematical construction of classic visual perspective, produced a range of curious images. One of my favorite – both for its visual qualities and for its seeming philosophical contents – is Duccio’s Christ at Emmaus, a panel from his now dismembered “Maesta” altarpiece in Siena, circa 1310.

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There, perched on its graphically generic for the time mountain-top sits Emmaus, its gated entrance door opening to….  Well, not very clear. Which is why I like it so much.

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Duccio Maestà back panels 1308-11.jpgLa Maesta, Siena

While grasping at a unified perspective, but fumbling into what is a kind of early cubism, Duccio and his contemporaries seemed to sense that the organization of space wasn’t as earlier work had it, but that there was some other way of showing “reality.”  Though one must wonder, as “seeing” is a highly culturized and trained phenomenon, whether in some sense Duccio actually “saw” in the manner shown in this and other works of his time.

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67 LORENZETTI PERSPECTIVE ANNUNCIO

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69  Masaccio Masalino Brancacci

Massaccio, a century and some later (circa 1425), hot on the footsteps of Lorenzetti’s Annuncio of 1344, and Brunelleschi’s scientific refinements of the early 1400’s, finally caught up with the Pompeians, with his Trinity in Florence.

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71 Massaccio1Massaccio, Trinity

In the same period Pier Paolo Uccello experimented deeply with perspective, with his Mazzocchi drawings,

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74 UCCELLO mazzocchio 1Uccello, Mazzochi

and the panels of The Battle of San Romano, the one in London’s National Gallery being one of my favorite paintings. I imagine I have stood before this work for 20 hours, each time learning new lessons. While the painting itself minimizes its perspective nature, at the same time it seems Uccello thumbs his nose at the spectator, with the fallen soldier to the foreground left side seemingly firmly place, laying solidly on the ground.  Except on a closer look he has reversed the perspective and the figure grows larger as it recedes – a trick I am certain Uccello did purposely. A little joke for the eye and brain.

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Another joke was that while The Battle of San Romano celebrates the Fiorentine victory over Siena, that isn’t quite how the Sienese or history saw it: it was more or less a draw. So the illusions were compounded with a bit of propaganda.

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83 UCCELLO san-romano-counter-attack
From there on it was merely a hop, skip and a jump to the deliriums of Pozzo, and the spatial playfulness of the Baroque and Mannerist eras.

Since then, until the rupture of late 19th and early 20th century painting, the Western view hardly changed. And then, at least in painting, the unified field of traditional perspective was shattered with Cubism and related movements.

However, though painting remained culturally of interest, its public impact was overshadowed by a new medium: cinema. Here, suddenly, the old Renaissance perspective moved, and the spectator, later, with tracking shots, could move through it. Once the adjustment was made – the Lumiere’s original documentary image of a train arriving evidently scared spectators at first and they moved out of the way.

85 LUMIERE L'Arrivée_d'un_train_en_gare_de_La_CiotatLumiere brothers

Since that time, shackled to the optical nature of the camera lens which is an integral aspect of cinematic imagery, the cinema has spent well over 100 years elaborating stories (always the same stories), largely of filmed theater, and virtually always with the good old Renaissance perspective.

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In the last few decades though, digital technology has arrived at first in games with little 2D Pac-men,  and now in highly detailed action games in which one can kill innumerable people from the safety of your console,  all the while running through that good old 1600’s perspective.

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From my viewpoint, what a fucking bore it all is –from Titanic to Avatar (same old story of the “gone native” white-guy rescuing the helpless natives) to this years’ greatly lauded film, Gravity.

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There, while making an interesting and intelligent use of a very sophisticated CGI technology, in which in the opening no-cuts 20 minute sequence, we float above the earth, gravity free, and the virtual camera manages to slip in and out of Point-of-View, magically sliding behind the visors of our heroes, we are still trapped in the good old Renaissance perspective, however dressed up in space. In Gravity, following its opening sequence, we are quickly hitched to the Hollywood imperatives of a really stupid story, and literally and figuratively, it is all down-hill from there and the simple-minded film crashes to earth. Though in Hollywood manner: with thrills and chills heightening into a crescendo of fear, wherein Sandra Bullock survives all obstacles and lands back on terra firma, safe and sound. Gravity requires, of course, that most essential ingredient, total suspension of disbelief. Gravity, despite the oohing and ahh’ing of most critics, should not be taken with much gravity. It is as old fashioned as any Hollywood pot-boiler, not only in its story but also in its technology of vision – yep, that tired old Renaissance perspective all decked out in outer-space. Yawn.

What would really be interesting for a shift of perspective, and is perfectly possible with the digital tools now present, would be to develop a totally new spatial sense, not based on the optics of camera lenses, nor the hide-bound rules of a 700 year old perspective system. But, alas, our directors and technicians are all totally locked into the “virtual reality” of their society, in which making things for money is the base-line value, and that requires relying on the stupidity of an audience which merely wants the same old thing again and again, albeit dressed up with new stars, slicker technology, the latest fashions – but not anything actually new that might challenge their sensibilities in a deep way. Alas.

[As an aside, I’d note that in a manner the “light artist” James Turrell is one of the artists who is actually doing interesting things not based on that old view.]

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Which brings me to Plato, who talked of all of this 2,500 years ago in his fable of the cave. I don’t think I need to reiterate that story. Today we live inside a vast cave, a multi-tiered virtual reality, with people – especially younger people – enmeshed in myriad digital shadows, completely distracted and unaware of “real” things. Like how food is made, or how the society they are living in is destroying the little planet on which they live with almost everything we do. Especially with the technology with which we are so enthralled. So entranced are we with these shadows that flicker before us that we will surely die from the consequences of this distraction.

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I have for some decades felt that our species will arrive at some point, a collectively generated “Eureka,” when indeed, courtesy of our sciences, we will have totally figured out how the world and the universe works, from the smallest to the largest, and that this point will signal our end: the tools, the thinking, the processes by which we will arrive to that Eureka point will delete us from the universe. Of course there are many ancient fables and parables which say exactly that. Our distinction will be to actually do it. We will erase ourselves with an ancient – by our standards – Greek word: hubris.

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So enthralled are we with ourselves and our cleverness and intelligence, our capacity to manipulate the world to our own ends – like a video game – that we will fail to note we lack a singular and most important quality: wisdom. We are doing it now, lost in the maze of our technology, quickly doing, as many earthly “civilizations” have done before: ravaging our environment, destroying our world in our short-sighted pursuit of wealth and power. What is different now is that where once the effects were confined to local consequences, and when a Mayan or Anasazi culture collapsed, it touched only the nearby region, whereas now our pursuits and their consequences are global: the leveled forests of the Amazon, the damaged nuclear power station of Fukushima, the rapid economic and technological development of China and South East Asia and its concomitant consumption of energy and materials on a European and American “western” level, and myriad other effects of the political “globalization” of capitalism, all push us rapidly towards a global crisis which already threatens to wreak havoc on what we imagined “normal.” The full consequences are only hinted at with our concerns about “global warming” – rising sea levels, more severe weather and so on. When the real consequences unfold, the ancient fable of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will charge into our “virtual reality” with a force that will make the collapse of ancient civilizations seem puny.

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After all, we have globalized everything, and there are 7 and soon to be 9 billion humans on our planet. The coming disaster, while in good measure being orchestrated by the bytes of our digitalized world, will not be so benign and illusionary as the fleeting pixels of some grim but utterly fictional video game. It will not be virtual, but will be real. Very real.

109 Albrecht-Dürer-The-Four-Horsemen-Apocalypse-probably-1497-98-painting-artwork-print-1024x684Albrecht Durer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

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