Sunday, June 10, 2007

Thinking v. Believing; Authorship v. Tourism -- OR -- My House Is A Museum; Some Things to Make You Scre-am

9 June 2007

Yes -- I'm out of town; but not where you think (I only wish). I know I haven't posted anything in what seems like a year -- my apologies. But between medical issues, work schedules, and renovations to my apartment, I might as well be a refugee -- though it feels more like 'refusenik.' I need the right Visas -- in both senses.

So this is going to be something of an omnibus posting. I warn you some of it is a bit of a rant, so you may want to skim over those parts (you'll know them when you see them). I'll try not to put it all up at once. But I've got to start somewhere -- I'M SO FAR BEHIND. Hey -- it's my birthday and I'll post what I want to.

Ezrha Jean Black, Ojai, California

22 May 2007

My Eden’s-over-the-Edge copy is in my lap as I sit down next to my pal, Carla Weber, in the Linwood Dunn Theater of the AMPAS Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study for Curtis Harrington’s memorial. Curtis would, I think, have been delighted and gratified by the proceedings (perhaps even more than his funeral service, which was disturbed by more than just the iconic spirits of the screen entombed around him – apparently rescued almost single-handedly by eulogist, Jack Larson – eat your heart out, Superman). The theater is a long but diverting hike through the Pickford Center, which is a fabulous facility here in the heart of Hollywood – always, physically and spiritually, close to Curtis Harrington’s own heart. (His art nouveau showplace was only a mile or so up Vine from here straight into the Hills.) I was surprised by some of the missing faces – most obviously (to me), F.X. Feeney (who’s also a neighbor – I’m guessing he’s out of town) – who were once fixtures at Curtis’s salons; and a little surprised by others, more familiar from other contexts (e.g., Irving Blum; no chatting with him though – he left immediately after the program finished, bypassing the reception altogether). The memorial was beautifully orchestrated by Robert Mundy, who also hosted the event. There could be no better host. A long and beautiful selection of photographs of Curtis played over the screen in a variable loop before the program began in earnest – coming to rest finally on the image that was featured in his Los Angeles Times obituary – Curtis pensively posed against a ‘pensive’ cherub’s head. The speakers were well chosen – succinct appreciations by Dennis Bartok (who continues to play a role in preserving Curtis’s legacy) and Peter Medak (whose own films are the stuff of legend – e.g., The Ruling Class and The Krays) – who recalled with fondness Curtis’s returning the hospitality he had found in Europe with his own hospitality for expatriate writers and directors; actor Norman Lloyd, who gave us glimpse at the comedy of a youthful Curtis’s unlikely apprenticeship with producer Jeff Wald, who – model for Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick as he was – would not exactly nurture Curtis’s nascent avant-garde spirit, even as he opened his eyes to Hollywood’s cynical checkerboard of winners and losers; Barbara Steele, who made her own eloquent tribute an elegant introduction to noir-maven John Gilmore (whose own account rambled a bit). Michael Lerner gave a beautiful reading of the Wallace Stevens poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” a fitting tribute to Curtis’s delightful spirit. The culmination of the evening was a beautiful video tribute of film clips from the forthcoming House of Harrington, edited by Jeffrey Schwartz and director/editor/artillery scribe Tyler Hubby (including glimpses of Curtis in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome – you can be assured I had no idea who that actor was the first time I saw that film a zillion years ago), followed by a halting envoi from Dennis Hopper, whose breakthrough role was Curtis Harrington’s own Night Tide.

Carla, who has her own Hollywood memoir simmering somewhere, was the perfect companion for the evening: she knew everyone who was there and everyone who might have been there. I don’t think any ‘skeleton’ is safe from her discerning eye.

28 May 2007

As readers of artillery and a few other publications as well as this blog are aware, I spend a fair amount of time at museums – including art museums. (Although you’d think I live in museums when in Europe, here at home, I go through jags when for one reason or another the idea of spending any time at all at an art museum is almost unbearable. The wall text is one factor. (E.g., ‘what – I just plowed through 100,000 words on, I dunno, hedge fund investing, taxation on perquisites, privacy and state interest, and I have to read some more? – and what do you mean I can’t take my double espresso into the gallery? Can’t you see I NEED IT??? Or – at the other end of the day – what do you mean I can’t walk through with my wineglass?? Can’t you see I NEED IT???) Better than half the time, I feel as if I need to know absolutely everything about a work and its artist. And then sometimes it feels so lugubrious. Or the obligatory essays (and you KNOW you HAVE TO READ them…. Don’t you?): e.g., Aaacccchhh! Do I really need to go through this philosophical reconfiguration to really grasp the essence of the artist’s work here??

Or maybe it’s the resentment of the time and commute – and a bit of envy. I.e., because I don’t have much of an art collection of my own, the desire to live with the art is that much stronger; the idea of living with the art on an everyday basis is all the more important, something to be cherished. (There are some pieces I feel I need to have with me almost continuously everyday until they’ve somehow sublimated their way into my mitochondrial DNA or something before I can let them go or rotate something in their place – which is why I can make a pest of myself at galleries and museums (when I am going to museums). It’s like putting on the same song or piece of music on again and again and again until you know the words, the inflections, the delivery, as if you wrote them, as if you could transcribe the arrangement note for note.

I also like the idea of absorbing and appreciating a masterpiece in depth while at the same time melting away a layer of the preciousness that inevitably accrues like so much varnish and gilt. If it’s truly important, the ideas and imagery should be absorbed into the fabric of our everyday lives. I like the idea of looking at something in between papering the couch with the Sunday Times, when I’m mangling some piece of music on the piano, while I’m cleaning the litter boxes, etc. I like it when the aura that sets it apart from the ‘mechanical reproductions’' (though I have those too) lack of aura, isn’t so precious that I have second thoughts about mixing a drink in its vicinity or even lighting a cigarette. (Hey, if the artist probably smoked all the way through making it, can’t I have a drag or two once a month?)

I’m talking here essentially about contemporary art museums – still a conceptually risky idea to me – but one I’ve always viewed as a more or less necessary parallel and adjunct to the commercial sector – the galleries, dealers and auction houses; in other words, a neutral turf in the marketplace where we can freely ask: ‘just what is it they’re selling us?’ When we tire of the museum (or the marketplace), when perhaps we’ve taken the plunge and actually bought something; or when we’re just hunkering down with our books and magazines and DVDs – the question in play becomes something like, ‘just what are we buying here? And why? It’s the point where art really touches life; enters into its rhythm, texture, chemistry – the vital intersection of the concrete and the cosmic.

I have to say I like it when even the encyclopedic museums have rooms where you feel you can flop down on a couch – or maybe an authentic Empire chaise longue (a la Récamier – an early role model of mine) or a Louis XV bergère or fauteuil (not that one ever flops, exactly, into a Louis fauteuil) – like the Egyptian galleries at the Louvre, or certain apartments at Versailles. (Interesting how the Louvre makes you understand why there had to be a Versailles.) Or even the American galleries at the Met.

The concrete and cosmic – those everyday epiphanies – have an easier time of it at other, slightly more earthbound (or, alternatively, spacebound) institutions: e.g., science and natural history museums. Most of these institutions have exhibits that invite viewer interventions or participation; some more so than others (e.g., San Francisco’s Exploratorium). There’s plenty of text at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as the Field Museum in Chicago and L.A.’s own Natural History Museum; but, however pedagogical, however grounded in the rational and factual, they somehow they lend themselves to a more random, dreamier experience. We’re all somnambulists there amid the dioramas that will eventually include specimens like ourselves among the chicken wire and sculpy terrain, absorbing tremendous amounts of information on both a conscious and subliminal levels. They nourish and refresh both analytically and synaestheically in a way that is sometimes lost in the art museums and kunsthalles where the focus is frequently a single artist’s style and imagination. If only my physics labs had been this edifying. The people who run L.A.’s own Natural History Museum have recognized this inherent capacity and capitalized on it brilliantly by inviting artists to develop projects for their galleries (e.g., Susan Silton, most recently – a good (and timely) choice, given her focus on the intersection of physical forces involved in natural events (tornadoes) and perception, on both macro- and microcosmic levels. And a linguistic level? (I’m thinking of derivations.) Or is that just me? As I said, I’m a somnambulist in these places).

Margaret Wertheim is someone else who understands the intersection of the scientific and the synaesthetic – almost too well. I wasn’t surprised when she was on a panel discussion on Tim Hawkinson at the Getty along with Doug Harvey and Christopher Miles (whose own presentation was appallingly thin). She seemed, if anything, almost hyperanalytical on the subject of Hawkinson’s Zoopsia installation – which looked as if it had been directly inspired by natural history museum exhibits (more than, say, zoological collections) – and Überorgan. It seemed as if no analogue or metaphor that could be drawn from the scientific, engineering or medical/biological world was left unexamined – perhaps with the exception of straight systems analysis (to say nothing of Hawkinson’s own capacity for narcissism). (Angel Chen was there to helpfully pinpoint of few of Wertheim’s apparent oversights.) I hadn’t seen the Überorgan in New York, and after Wertheim’s build-up, I was eager to check it out. I will say it looked pretty great in the Getty’s entry/orientation space. On the other hand, so would have Big Mama Alien (from Alien 2), which is what it reminded me of most. But I confess to being more than a little underwhelmed by it. (Why not just get the people who created Big Mama for Aliens? Maybe the Getty should do a joint show of special effects art like that with AMPAS.) But then there was music – which periodically issued from the Uberorgan’s trumpet-like extensions. Ahhh – music – to crown and climax the installation. Well. Readers of this blog will recall that I had not, so many evenings before, taken in The Tristan Project with the L.A. Philharmonic. Let me put it this way. It fell short of that standard by more than one parallel universe. You have to wonder what the point was. Look – at least give us the five tones (or was it the three tones?). Do you know what I’m talking about? (If you guessed movie music, you’re right: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Another route would be something along the lines of the Windows chimes; or . . . well, you get the idea.) Ironically, this piece of business might have been a bit more engaging in something outside the art context – something like S.F.’s Exploratorium. (It might as well go somewhere like that. Where are they going to store it?)

There’s no getting around the fact that some of the greatest art to be seen is found in churches. It goes further than that. Some of the greatest works of art are churches (e.g., Chartres, St. Peter’s, the Sainte Chapelle, etc., etc. – jesus the Catholics really knew what they were doing once upon a time, no?) ‘Gee, that’s a non-sequitur’ – you’re thinking. Yes. Well maybe. I guess my point is that maybe great art is still made for churches (though, to put it mildly, I doubt it). We just don’t know it yet because we don’t look at any of them less than 300 years old. On the other hand, most ‘art’ that goes into theme parks is simply kitsch. Not really a bad thing exactly; occasionally an amusing thing. Unless it’s a subterfuge, a fraud – a pernicious thing. When it packages and presents itself as a “museum” – not of art, but of natural history, science, biology – with a comparably vigorous pedagogical component – there neither to instruct nor edify or nurture critical thinking and scientific analysis, but instead, prosyletize, indoctrinate, brainwash, whitewash – brainKILL – that is to say all but lobotomize its patrons, including children – then what we have is de facto a CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE. It may not be against the laws on the books – whether of Kentucky or the United States; but then it wasn’t a crime to be a Nazi brownshirt once upon a time, until history and the world in typical ‘better-too-late-than-never’ fashion caught up with them.

I’m speaking of course of the new “Creation Museum” that just opened in some benighted corner of Kentucky. (Do you wonder sometimes why this country still exists? Why we weren’t invaded LONG ago by almost anyone? There are so MANY stupid fucks (over)populating it.) The charlatan who developed it is an Aussie (I think) named Ken Ham, whose background is probably ideal for his criminal enterprise: he comes from both a teaching (biology, naturally) and a theme park background. (Hard to believe he worked for Universal Studios. Didn’t we teach the guy anything? Then too, he could have worked for Universal in Florida.) Of course the guy has managed to hire a few individuals with actual hard science background to lend credibility to the enterprise. I’m sure money explains part of it (there are only so many good astrophysics jobs around – most of them near the NASA space centers and ancillary research facilities). And of course there’s always some quasi-autistic/Asperger’s type that can be suckered into this (or any) sort of thing.

Ultimately what these places do is induce a premature cynicism (as if politics – or hormones – won’t do that soon enough). They kill a child’s taste or enthusiasm for any type of museum experience – art or science or history (to say nothing of his/her trust). You have to believe (gee, isn’t that what institutions like this are about?) some significant percentage of these kids will end up in therapy for years because of it. (And unfortunately, some percentage of these kids will actually be persuaded by this shit and ultimately indoctrinated into some sacred-heart-of-darkness religious doctrine.) It makes no difference whether it’s run by megalomaniacal bigot-charlatans like Jerry Falwell, or living-kitsch characters like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or penal colony pedagogues like Ham, these are nothing but less-than-amusing amusement parks where the roller-coaster is a downhill trainwreck straight to the hell of some kitsch gift shop. (In that respect, of course, it resembles museums only too well. But maybe that has as much to do with the contemporary condition of being treated as tourists of our own lives.)

“You got to believe and you will surely find … it’s sure to ease your mind … there’s something up above… (what’s that something?) that something is love … It’s a draaaaagggg …” To think of that lyric and the charm of Dan Hicks’ lilting baritone – always pressing hard against his adorable falsetto – summons up the slightly amber-hued bliss of an era decades past when it seemed as if we were inventing a new irony – for a new society, a new culture in which – thanks in part to the barricades of only a few years earlier, we might tear down the old unnecessary barriers – between the academy and the avant-garde, between high and low, between the generations – between the New Left and their bourgeois or middle-class parents, between mainstream Middle America and the counter-culture. Dan Hicks and his fabulous Hot Licks (I have no idea why they suddenly come to mind in particular – aside from that oddly appropriate lyric) in a sense were one example of that ironic sensibility. They were tweaking genres – country-blues and western swing – with a certain pop je ne sais quoi flair – mixing them up with a few other idioms and their own idiosyncrasies to make something fresh. Certainly they took the music seriously; but not too seriously that they might not tease it a bit, and in so doing, take it in a slightly different direction – one that led straight into the hearts of their alt-rock audience.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, though. The conditions were ripe for irony – riper than we knew; and nothing (or not much) new about it. 1972: the year of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (but also the year after Altamount); only a year after “Henry’s Show” dusted off a New York contemporary canon for the Met, a year of great work by Johns and Rauschenberg, also Oldenberg (coincidence that Warhol would begin silkscreen painting again in earnest?); incidentally an unheralded (at the time) but nevertheless great year for art in L.A. – major work from Ruscha, Ken Price, Llyn Foulkes, Kienholz, Hockney, McCracken, and on and on; also the cresting of the feminist second wave – and a great tidal wave of art that WACK, among other shows, is beginning to reconsider this year); Coppola and Fosse won Academy Awards for The Godfather and Cabaret (hey – these were important things to a NY-Hollywood kid). But the darkness was visible over that magic hour horizon. It was an era of détente, the ABM treaty; Nixon’s overtures to China. The war in Vietnam was unwinding – but it was also intensifying. Hanoi was being bombed mercilessly; Cambodia’s sovereignty was mortally breached; and protest continued apace. It was the year of the Munich Olympics. Nixon was re-elected by a less than civil campaign far more tainted that we even knew. We were already familiar with cozy DC power joints like the Jockey Club and the Sans Souci. We now began hearing about the Watergate.

Some time ago, I saw Lasse Hallström’s film, The Hoax. I thought to post something at the time I saw it and may as well share some of those notes now. The subject matter (the Howard Hughes memoir hoax of that halcyon year) has its inherent interest – more about that in a minute; but what interested me most about the Hallström film was something about its tone, its distance, its hollow, muted shadowy coloration. It is a dark movie; a movie in which a whiskey glow gives way to a jaundiced hung-over haze. The narrative moves at a frenzied pace, yet the film seems to move on two parallel tracks; and in fact there are two parallel trajectories: the unrelenting competitive drive and insatiable ambition of its principals; and, as if moving alongside in slow motion, the protest-laden trudge forward (or backward) of a historic rising social and cultural tide. ‘We want to believe,’ those principals are all but chanting in unison – and it might as well be the mantra of American commerce at the tail-end of the go-go 1960s. ‘Let’s go.’ ‘Let’s make this happen.’ The sentiment was probably not all that different in the streets – although the objective was in another direction entirely. Everything seemed possible.

“Keep the faith, baby.” I must have said that at least once myself. But this is about an ambition that creates its own blind faith, momentum, mythology; willing to steamroll a whim, a notion, a travesty of purloined notes, memories, reportage fastened to a few hard facts into an engine of its own realities, a force independent of its fictional genesis. Sounds a bit like religion – and it certainly seems to anticipate a number of movements, pop mass therapies, cults and quasi-religions that sprang up or mushroomed in the intervening years. The Clifford Irving character (played by Richard Gere) works himself up into a state in which he all but hallucinates the linchpin ‘events’ that structure the ‘memoir.’ Everything dissolves into contingency; nothing can be established, or for that matter definitively dismissed. It’s as if he almost believes the fiction he’s created is fact, or that its structure at least has some factual basis – which of course it does, but which is entirely beside the point.

Believing doesn’t make it so – then or now. Nor is the ‘resulting’ personal ‘truth’ (sic) in fact the truth, the true facts of a given story or situation or actuality. This is what makes the film so timely. The untested ‘belief set as truth’ is at the core of the propaganda style of the entire Bush-Cheney administration. Bush and Cheney are hardly alone in their use of this tactic, but they have made it the hallmark of their overall policy and propaganda strategy. The misstatement or (thinly) cosmeticized lie relentlessly repeated over and over until its establishment as a viable ‘sound-bite’ or ersatz ‘talking point’ –hence, in terms of its functional relation to the electronic mass media – the ‘position of an informed source’ – functionally, a ‘fact’ – is the rhetorical modus operandi par excellence of this administration. Even more than Bush himself, who falls more into the ‘believing until it becomes a personal truth’ style of self-delusion, Dick Cheney and Richard Perle are probably the most obvious public practitioners of this tactic – but its practice is clearly integrated at every level of the daily functioning of this White House and is emblematic of its public face.

By pure coincidence, I had read Clifford Irving’s book on the master art forger, Elmyr de Hory, one summer three or so years earlier. De Hory was a fascinating (and talented) character who might have had a career as an artist had his need for a luxurious life not led him to pursue the lavishly (up to a point) remunerated forgery of various Post-Impressionist, Fauve and School of Paris artists. The DeHory-Irving-Howard Hughes pyramid of duplicity and (self-)deception, blurred, doubled and crossed identities and failed character, abdicated authority and dubious authorship was a natural for Orson Welles whose work and career at virtually every stage engaged these themes and struggles. F for Fake is a better film than The Hoax – but then it presciently reaches what seems to be at the core of the culture’s dilemma – whether we will be authors or simply tourists of our lives.

29 May 2007

It was inevitable; nevertheless, not exactly surprising that I hadn’t yet been there. The gallery that is simply called fette’s gallery is just enough off the beaten path that someone as logistically challenged as I am would find it time and again just out of reach. And yet – to come so close so often and not quite make it there itself was pushing me to the breaking point. It’s really not that far from Western Project. What could be stopping me (besides the temptation to, uh, refresh my scotch)?

I was missing too much – or was I? There was no way to tell without personally checking out the goods. Up until a few months back, all I knew was from photography that made its way on-line (of course most of that came from her own flog), any number of disparate sightings as she did her own survey of L.A.’s studios and kunsthalles. She was an art photographer; she was a roving curator; she was a private dealer; or all of the above. But once past the ‘door’ of the flog and into the virtual gallery, it became manifestly clear that her program was far more extensive and public than any private dealer’s agenda. We had already seen each other out and about, not just in Culver City but Chinatown and elsewhere. Certainly not a week went by without my checking her blog, fette’s flog. More importantly, her ever more expansive, ambitious curatorial program continued to compel my attention. Finally the occasion presented itself. It had been a while since I had seen some interesting film or video. The curatorial premise was, well, more than compelling. It was focused, timely – of the moment – serious, urgent – probing the culture’s relationship to nature (and civilization’s to the wild), the notion of frontiers, development, etc.; by implication our relationship with the planet. The line of questioning was specific, but the parameters were broad enough to elicit a wide (indeed, international) variety of treatments. I couldn’t wait.

In theory I needed no more than 15 minutes to get to fette’s gallery from the Beverly Hills office I was driving from. But Culver City is a perversely plotted street plan – and Mapquest wasn’t really up to the challenge. Fifty minutes later, I found myself passing the bungalow at 4255 Baldwin Avenue. The films had already started, but Fette was outside, waiting graciously to usher her late guests in. A lovely bottle of red wine was close enough at hand for the gallery visitors to help themselves without at all disturbing the film projection. Except for missing the first three films, it could not have been more perfect. I was drawn in from the very first film by Tom Dale (Return to the Last Frontier) which was nothing more than a constantly morphing, dissolving, expanding patch of an oil slick on a rain-washed pavement. The image seemed to alternately turn, expand, diffuse, blur, dissolve, focus, flatten, crystallize, solidify – and on and on, in shimmering iridescence of grays, ambers, mauve, purple and green. It was mesmerizing and that was only the beginning. The next film – out of Amsterdam, the work of Margit Lukacs and Persijn Broersen explored the implications of the ‘globalized village’ of ‘media events’ – or, more precisely, events experienced, witnessed via electronic mass media. What does the conquest of time and space via the perpetual mobile image ultimately deliver? Here, in this seamless forward streaming of imagery from one event or incident in one place to the next in another place, one placid, neutral, another animated, amused or amusing, charming, the next a slice of shocking violence (e.g., a marketplace, a crime scene, disaster, debris, etc.) – and so on as if it would circumnavigate the globe. Six degrees of capricious, cautionary continuity.

Although the films and videos shared a common concern with (I hesitate to even say, ‘human’ or humankind) relations with the land, the planet, the environment; the uneasy symbiosis between civilization and its discontented hosts of atmosphere and biosphere, some were more abstract in their treatment of the conceptual particulars; and even those clearly located in a recognizable terra firma (occasionally with human participants) were more abstract than others. In the surprisingly shocking denouement of one particularly ‘circular’ film, the camera (still circling its perimeter in a full 360 degree sweep) circled a ‘triangle’ of three male figures – still relatively abstract – each held in tension with the other – until one and then the other whipped their joysticks out and sodomized and force-fellated the third member of the ‘triangle.’ (If that doesn’t sum up the condition of the planet – ecologically and politically – I don’t know what does.)

It was a fascinating and very international evening After the films, Fette (ever the beacon in white lace to her straggling guests) showed us around the galleries. I was very taken with the blocky orange sculptures – heads and fragments that had elusive uncanny affinities with a disparate range of objects from kitsch to quasi-iconic. The bright orange coloration gave them an aspect reminiscent of children’s toys and, at the same time, the keyed-up aspect of film props from horror/monster movies of the 1930s (i.e., from the golden age of film studios – ironic considering the gallery’s proximity to Sony – and what were once M-G-M and David Selznick’s studios); think of comic book monsters, “The Mummy,” or a kind of Hulk or Golem. They were by Julie Zemel, an L.A. artist – somewhat exceptional in artists grouped here who, like the group contributing films and videos, were very international.

1 June 2007

The superseding condition right now is the state of my apartment which, although glossily white-washed also looks like it was at the epicenter of an 8 or 9 Richter scale magnitude earthquake. The windows are all wide open – and frequently the front door as well – and I’m still coughing incessantly. It’s like the World bloody Trade Center in here. I suppose it’s my turn to feel like a tourist in my own life. (Observation: It’s hard to ‘author’ when you’re a ‘refugee’ (the ‘un-tourists’ of the war experience) or just a stationary victim in a bombed out place.) Still – speaking of the ‘tourist’ side of things – there is the poignancy of uncovering various things: valuables that went missing or buried under piles of rubble or other piled up furnishings and other possessions (e.g., a couple of paintings); things you might arguably, and perhaps should have, thrown out, yet which now bring unexpected delight (old magazines); unfinished books set aside and long ago forgotten, or books that now scream to be re-read; toys or objects that richly evoke a childhood moment once thought irretrievable. The museum of one’s life is an institution of exhaustion and the occasional ecstasy.

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