Factory Fetishism

The de Young museum has its Cult of the Machine show on. Machines: futurists loved them; Constructivists praised them; Precisionists fetishized them, or, at least, some of them did. Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth sure did love ’em. The show gives them their due and they deserve it. Scheeler, in particular, reveres the majesty and mystery of machines, industry, power as an alchemist’s brew of transformation. It even transforms humans right out of the picture.  His and most of these guys pictures are of industrial might, not as menacing but majestic, sublime, beyond our capacity to fully appreciated even if we created it.

But the show has an underbelly. They’re the works that fascinated me for having some sense, as some do now, of what lurks beneath the utopian dreams, the ones heard now of a world of communication, connection and Friends(hips).

They saw things a little differently.

ault

Void of humans but abristle with energy and motion, there is an ambiguity at work. Seen from on high, the New York city waterfront runs like a ribbon through a tissue of industry, but one that sends up signals of smoke and steam whose meaning is unclear. Perhaps the ambiguity is what convinced Georgia O’Keefe to move to New Mexico.

And then there’s this:

o'keefe

In this work by George Ault, factory and ship smoke, white and black, obliterates whatever lies beyond it.  And the far shore is entirely grey with waterfront wharves and buildings that seem to emerge from or plunge into the water. Up close it is as if the water swallows the buildings; man has not fully emerged from his watery beginnings.

o'keefe 2

Here, O’Keefe captures two great, black monoliths and a white one beyond, all dwarfing the silvery moon that sneaks out between them all. Boldly bleak, capturing the canyon like enormity of New York, it also lacks warmth or comfort, a far cry from the desert world of flowers she later turned to.

ault 3

Ault didn’t see the rural American of the ’30 as much better. Black, devoid of any enlivening detail, absent humans, a warped and pointless fence, the shapes and geometry that give the city its dynamism appear here more as a sepluchral loss than a rustic retreat.

IMGnham and Twinkie thibaut_073Cunni0

With a little hint of mischief the show also includes this shot of Imogene Cunningham and the model Twinkie where Cunningham appears as if she might be coming upon Susanna before the elders find her. Her camera seems to be the main link to the other works and the humor of the shot is largely absent elsewhere, save for the inevitable clip of Charlie Chaplin caught in the gears and cogs of an assembly line from Modern Times.

And for a finale,

c carter

Charles Holbrook Carter’s War Bride, faceless and alone before the altar, or machinery (of the church?), with pews that look like aircraft hangars and two gear works on either side that could be totems from another era. Who gets to marry the machine? Who is left behind? Can anyone survive the marriage of heaven and hell, or man and machine–questions we seem to ask in one form or another every day.

Sublime Seas

John Akomfrah comes to SF MOMA with his Vertigo Sea, coupled with JMW Turner’s The Deluge, to create Sublime Seas, the title of the exhibit.
Akomfrah, who had a knack for the evocative and poetic even in his pointedly Black Audio Collective Days, has given us a very big 3 screen triptych on which play images of the sea, slavery, whale hunting and strangeness. It possesses the mesmerizing quality of IMAX in its size and beauty but also the disturbing quality of a dark nightmare in its images of victims of the middle passage being cast into the sea or of whales being sliced into gigantic slabs of meat and waste. As art, it makes no polemical calls, offers no agenda, sees no solutions, but it disturbs and reminds us of the tangled knots between beauty and destruction quite powerfully.
Each screen is about 20 feet across in a narrow shoe box room so that viewers are looking at the long side of the room from the other side, too close to see all three screens at once easily. Our eyes scan L to R and back to pick up what is happening. What happens is amazingly stunning images of the sea, its waves and swirls and currents; the creatures of the sea moving with easy grace through this apparently pristine medium; strange images of scores of clocks standing on a tidal flat and other surreal images with no obvious meaning; reenactments of aspects of the slave trade, especially of the middle passage with Africans bound in shackles and stowed like firewood in cramped cubbyholes below deck or cast into the sea for no obvious reason, and both rapturous images of whales gliding and breaching through the sea and of harpoon guns firing, repeatedly, and snaring these creatures who are then hauled aboard floating slaughterhouses to be hacked to pieces.
Akomfrah tells us nothing about the history of the slave trade or whale hunting, or hardly enough, in any case, to call this work educational in any real sense, or polemical either. The sea possesses great beauty, and man (white, card carrying capitalist white man, and his minions, it seems), willfully violates the beauty to conduct appalling forms of trafficking and trade. It is hard, though, to leave knowing whether I’ve been more amazed by the stunning imagery or appalled by the implicit narrative. It’s hard to know what to do with this work. Praise the cinematography or condemn the practices? Believe the sea remains pristine and sublime, or question what remains of its once great beauty (global warming does not seem to find a way into the story Akomfrah sketches).
I’m glad I saw it; the images will remain with me but it may also be an example of one, somewhat uncertain direction political thought and activist art and artists have taken in the last few decades.

Across the Atlantic

Long ago in a far away place, my mom took my sister and me to see Aunt Marie off to lead a guided tour in Europe. She sailed on the Queen Mary. She gave me a sip of champagne. I became light-headed. Ever since I have wanted to make a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary (now 2).

I just did it. On a New York Times package that included several talks per day.

So we wandered New York one night, visited a drab and weakly guarded Trump Tower, saw Jeff Koons up to his usual materialist shenanigans (pimping at Saks):

Jeff Koons art

Koons does a van Gogh imitation and festoons Vuitton handbags with his “artistry”

Toured the NYT building and then beheld the ship.

QM2 at dock

Bigger than a Skyscraper it is

Somehow an upgrade befell us.

QM2 room

So the cabin and the sea were large and calming.

VC on QM2 bed2

Thank the Queen for Upgrades

Bill sees the sea

Alert for pirates and buccaneers

Dinners and after-dinner entertainment were formal several nights, after all it is the Queen’s ship.

Bill and Victoria on QM2

And then life went on. On to Salisbury and Stonehenge

Stonehenge4

What compelled their maker to heave this massive stones together over decades if not centuries?

Salisbury Cathedral had some stunning art by Ana Marie Pecheco

7 Lust

Lust: about 12″ x 15″ each sin had its own illustration

Wandering 2

Full size wood carvings: The Wanderers. Pacheco’s work was very impressive

Then Oxford, a town aswarm with tourists, mostly youthful, perhaps future graduates of this ancient site.

Of course, I thought, we have to hear a lecture by a Professor on an arcane, esoteric topic that could only happen at Oxford, or maybe Berkeley.  Luckily the Ashmolean was celebrated something and there was a lecture of Riddles in Early Anglo Saxon literature.

The room was packed and the professor, Andrew Orchard, whipped from Greek to Latin to old English as if it were all simple nursery rhymes, reciting poems and dashing off explanations of what they did to make their riddle work. A perfect Oxford moment.

And then London.

MacBeth was in the courtyard of St. Paul’s at Covent Garden and the production was superb. Visceral and imaginative with fine acting.

Macbeth 3

Banquo returns from the grace to haunt the already guilt ridden MacBeth.

And to keep up to date, a visit to the West End to see “the play of the year,” The Ferryman. a fabulous exploration of guild, betrayal, family, desire, loyality and memory in the Ireland on 1980. It built to a climax of massive proportion just like the classic Greek tragedies.

VC at west end

There was also the Tate Modern but I could not take photos of the Giacometti exhibit of the powerful and comprehensive survey of African-American art in the 1960s and 70s that resonated with the issues of civil rights and black power.  It originated here but I can’t imagine it won’t find its way to the States.

Forget the Past

A Short Comment about our Leader

Our Congressional Democrats see the daily blunders, endless lies and massive policy disasters of the President but not what explains them.

He, and others like him, have returned to a medieval system of belief. He lives in the time warp where beliefs prevail by the sheer force of will exercised by potentates and their minions.

The medieval mind knew nothing of scientific evidence. Science, reason and the Enlightenment had not yet arrived.The Dark Ages depended on blind faith, unquestioned fealty, and willful ignorance. Rulers, in their privileged isolation, lived in an idyllic world of riches and prosperity in which poverty, pollution, despair and desperation did not exist or was the natural fate of those who deserved such misery through faults entirely their own.

To recognize that dignity and respect for others matter, that good healthcare should be a right, that a financially secure retirement should be assured, that the working class isn’t the only or even main place to find deplorable actions and thoughts—all this matters greatly. But without a firm grasp on Trump’s medieval worldview, it appears as mere disagreement about ways and means rather than a rejection of a world cut to the measure of a small elite who disregard proven truths and established facts. Normally the province of religious extremes of all faiths, Trump proves that it can also be the default position of the insecure, uninformed, belligerent and defensive ones for whom curiosity and compassion no longer exist. 

 

When will the Democratic Party wake up?

This is an open letter to the DNC (Democratic National Committee) about their failure to confront Trump effectively. I haven’t sent it yet and welcome feedback.

Putin makes his mark

Dear Democratic National Committee and Surrogates:

They say any publicity is good publicity and by that standard the DNC is doing a world of good for Donald Trump. Every fund request I get tells of another blunder or outrage, acts that do little to upset his base.

What I don’t hear is what the Democratic Party offers as an alternative. That means zero publicity for what really matters: a radically different vision for an America we can once again recognize as our own.

You lost the election, on multiple levels. Put your house in order and invite us in.

Address, at the very least:

Will you revitalize and pursue the Democratic platform devised at last year’s convention and use it as a building block to the future?

What will you do to return us to a Post-Enlightenment (17th century on) world that understands how science freed us from myth, superstition and folly? The Republicans have opted for a medieval system of belief that denies scientific evidence in favor of blind faith and willful ignorance. How will you make clear the difference, especially among those susceptible to a system the nurtures unverified claims and demagogic appeals?

When will you stop pretending the working class does not exist, or is populated with undesirables? Factory workers are not members of the middle class as President Obama seemed to believe. They earn wages not salaries and have much less security, just for a start. Saving the middle class, the sub-title of Elizabeth Warren’s new book, ignores those whose future stands in yet starker jeopardy. When will you speak to and for a core constituency you have overlooked and sometimes disdained?

How will you stop corporations and rich individuals for shirking their responsibility to pay taxes? We may have a high corporate tax rate but it is a fiction, obviously so when companies like Apple can shelter vast amounts of profit in foreign nations, untaxed.

When can Medicare be gradually extended downward to become a universal health care system?  How will you handle the vested, private interests that turn health into a profit center?

How can we acknowledge the difficult status quo of semi-legal and illegal immigrants and offer a path to citizenship as well as a well-coordinated plan to limit illegal entry in the future?

What tangible steps and new legislation will secure equal rights for all genders and sexual orientations as well as all ethnic and religious groups?

How will you acknowledge the fear, resentment and even hatred expressed by some whites who can no longer take their historical racial or gender privileges for granted? How can the sense of an all-inclusive American People can be restored?

What concrete steps do you propose to counter terrorism by building democratic institutions, especially in countries that lack democratic traditions?  What texts should be read in schools, what role can local and regional governments play, how can citizens make their voices heard and respected, when can tribal leaders and warlords have their power reduced?  Isn’t it time to step back from endorsing monarchs, oligarchs, patriarchs and illiberal ultra-nationalists who refuse to find a way to accommodate and respect minority groups of all kinds?  We say we want to bring democracy to others but more other bring little more than death and destruction. What will you do to change this?

Why do I not hear about action, real action, in these directions?

I can vote against someone, but I also want to ACT FOR something.

This are hard questions but without answers the Democratic Party will remain a party of the past.

 

Scenes from Budapest

i’m back in Budapest, teaching in the DocNomad program, a grad program where students spend the year going from Lisbon to Budapest to Brussels making docs along the way. It’s a great program.  And here are some impressions from the city where Orban’s rubber stampers just voted to close the Central European University, a great university too liberal, it seems, for Orban and his far right policies.

outside the Parliament Bldg where the right wing prevails

parliament with the protest.

The Grand Stairway, and Red carpet but it’s not the Reds who rule but the modern day Arrow Crossers

A mural inspired by Chagall outside a cafe named after him. There is still the charm to hide the lessons in darkness

And the oddities: Albanian Liver? I didn’t get to try it.

A provocative show of anti-totalitarian art from the Eastern bloc in the Soviet era.

Marina Abramowic doing her thing: all wrapped up and ready to go

Another part of the show

 

More protest. The large statue references Hungary’s occupation by Germany near the end of WW2 but the foreground items all denounce the soft pedaling of government collusion with the Nazis throughout the war, including, near the end, the Final Solution

3rd Edition is Published

It’s here: The 3rd edition of Introduction to Documentary, first published in 2001.  Lots of updates and photos from new and older films, but the biggest changes is a brand new chapter, “I Want to Make a Documentary: How Do I Get Started?”  It covers key aspects of preproduction from the pov of what funders tend to look for and what a filmmaker needs to convey.

The book size is a bit larger and that makes for a really nice lay out of tables and photos.

The Cover

Monet’s Early Years, as seen in San Francisco

What Monet did to get rolling isn’t all that different from what he did later on. But it is already powerful and raw in a way his later, more contemplative images aren’t always.

The streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

the streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

He did this image from memory obviously; otherwise he’d have no doubt drowned. And it’s powerful; you worry about the sailors and wonder about their fate.
He surely loved water and the artistic challenge it presented. Social status and labor were of far less interest than nature, but this was so for most of the Impressionist work.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of "bathers." This is just part of the painting.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of “bathers.” This is just part of the painting.

Compare the “finished” work above with the sketch quality of the one below. He manages to depict a crowd of folk in the water with almost no delineation at all; and the water ripples have an amazing power.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Copies don’t go justice but Monet’s painting, Boats at the Port of Honfleur, can give you chills. Just dabs of paint tossed onto the canvas, these reflections of boats and trees are only that; but their weight, coloration, proportion and placement render the rightside up world of what floats perfectly in its upside down world of reflection. It’s an amazing work and possesses, and exudes, a vitality that the great later works of waterlilies and the like do not (despite their rhapsodic beauty). it has to be seen in person. It is a perfect painting.
Then there’s dad. Dad didn’t approve of son becoming a painter. The placard says this is a calm, respectful portrait of dad in the park, with no hint of the familial tension. Nope. Look, if the reproduction allows, at dad’s posture. Stiff as a rifle, jaw jutting forward, left leg almost levitating as he “reads.” Monet captures a tight, strict figure of black and white that contrasts sharply with the painting of his wife that follows.

He's not only tense but totally alone, Monet's Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

He’s not only tense but totally alone, Monet’s Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

This “shot” of his wife on a cold day outside the house, passing the glass panelled door, imbues her with a melancholy look that may relate to the enforced poverty his not yet successful painting career and his lack of paternal support imposed. A look of sadness, fleeting, perhaps, and yet the room is large, the glass clear, the day bright and Monet pays homage to the woman who endures what must be endured with and because of the very work that honors her.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Some paintings capture another maturing style in the early work: smoother, softer, with less obvious traces of brush strokes and paint dabs. This painting, done, I believe, in the Netherlands, is representative and feels “nice” to me in a more familiar and comfortable way. Yet the reflections–those perfect gestural reflections–are there to remind us of the degree to which Monet’s early work possessed a rawness and perfection, a magic and defiance that slowly gained recognition and acclaim, enough to erase the poverty of these early years.

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work

13th and I Am Not Your Negro

Along with three fiction films–The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight and Hidden Figures–these two docs explore the African-American experience, past and present. All but Birth of a Nation are up for Oscars and Birth would be, too, if Nate Parker hadn’t been pilloried for his response to questions about his involvement in a rape while an undergraduate (he was acquitted of all criminal charges). That is another story, one that deserves more discussion, but the two docs are my focus here.
Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, a compilation of reflections on race by James Baldwin, gives us an extraordinary film. Peck has a remarkably international background and his earlier film on Patrice Lumumba makes clear, his focus on social injustice is wide spectrum, such as the role of the United States in not just propping up but installing business friendly dictators like Joseph Mobutu around the world.
James Baldwin is a perfect vehicle for exploring race in America. As he himself says, he does not speak for any one position, be it Martin Luther King’s, the Black Panther’s, or Malcolm X’s, although he recognizes the value of all those who stand up for racial equality and social justice. Baldwin’s comments are sharp, incisive and more thought-provoking than sloganeering. He reminds us, for example, Patrick Henry’s rousing call to “Give me liberty or give me death” has become a centerpiece of the story of the American colonies in their struggle to throw off the yoke of British domination. And yet, the equivalent words, spoken by Black Panthers, are seen as a dire threat to national security. Baldwin saw the big picture. When a Yale philosophy professor tries to get him to agree that he has more in common with white intellectuals than working class blacks, Baldwin does not take the “let’s all get along; beneath skin color are common qualities,” bait. He rips into the professor, on the Dick Cavett show, with a litany of racist practices that underscore how institutions, like liberals, may not profess to be racist, and yet act in ways that perpetuate racist practices.
Weaknesses: Samuel Jackson reads text by Baldwin in a flat, ponderous tone. He lacks the lightness and sharpness of Baldwin’s own comments. And Peck sidesteps Baldwin’s gay identity despite the ways in which it factored into his place in the civil rights and Black Power movements.
But as a time bomb of precise, memorable insights into what it means to be black in America, I Am Not Your Negro is definitely the film of the year.
13th comes in second. It feels like a film distrustful of its own medium since it is one of the most talk heavy documentaries this year, with voice after voice telling us about the bitter irony of how emancipation led to incarceration. None have the eloquence of Baldwin although all are valuable. 13th gives short shrift to its most original insight: the arrest and sentencing of blacks in the Reconstructionist South to create a work force for the plantations and industries that no longer to rely on slaves. Prisons gave them a new form of legal slavery. But the film, determined to hold to a chain link historical progression, does not return to this point when it touches on the commercialization of the prison industry today, in which many prisoners perform virtual slave labor that profits not only well-known corporations but the private businesses that now run so many of our prisons.
The film compensates for its wordiness with hip hop “breaks” that seem to come from a different sensibility. Powerful, and thematically apt, they seem less like a primary way to make experience embodied and impassioned than like a pit stop before the litany of experts resumes their commentary. Placing most of the speakers in settings that evoke a carceral environment has the feel of a forced metaphor.
Skipped over is the key question of how Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and others (might I add Leader Trump?) used the code of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” to serve as a war on African-Americans. They did, successfully. It was a racist move in every way but accepted. What made it work? The film seems to assume that there was an equivalence between crime, drugs and race but doesn’t show how this idea was itself racist. Why sweep through black communities especially, using brutal, often murderous tactics, to root out criminals and drug dealers? Were crime rates and drug use higher there than anywhere else? Or were white collar drug use and white collar crime seen as less a threat, even though crimes in the ghetto seldom spilled beyond the ghetto? (See O.J.: Made in America for a vivid refresher course: residents in South Central L.A., destroyed their own community in the wake of the Rodney King trial and didn’t set foot in Brentwood and the other white enclaves where folk like O.J. lived.)
13th is a more flawed analysis of racial issues but it brings to light, in a focussed and compelling way, how the American prison system has perpetuated the racial biases that the 13th Amendment set out to eliminate. Jails are the new plantations. Prisoners are the new slaves, and the overwhelming preponderance of those slaves belong to minorities, most vividly African-Americans. in saying this, it sharpens the insights of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and gives racism is proper place in understanding the role of prisons today.
It is hard to envision greater progress in race relations and civil rights without a ruthless dismantling of a prison system that reinforces the underlying fears and hatreds that have nourished racist ideologies for centuries. As powerful works of social justice both films fully deserve their Oscar nominations as well a long and useful life after that particular showbiz distraction comes and goes.

Snowden the fiction film

We’ve had Citizenfour, the documentary film, and now Oliver Stone gives us the true story as a dramatic fiction.  Laura Poitras is there, as a character, filming Snowden in Hong Kong, and it is from this scene that we flashback over his life.  That concept works well; between his own recollections and what Laura draws out (which is everything of interest about his transition from gung ho CIA operative to whistle blower; the Guardian reporter and Glenn Greenwald are only interested in The Big Story, not in Snowden’s story), we get a well developed portrait of what it takes to induce repugnance and indignation in someone who wants to serve his country.

As far as I can make out, the only real justification for the surveillance is that the enema is everywhere, security is paramount, and secrecy is vital to security, hence spying on everyone all the time. That’s what Snowden’s CIA mentor tells us and it feels like a half-baked half-truth; in  other words, as Stone tells it the whole program is a fantasmatic effort to find needles in haystacks that could be better spent pursuing specific leads and launching counter-offensives.  There is no discussion of how to promote democracy or how to build democratic institutions  among our middle east “allies,” or how to rely on “good” Muslims to help feret out the bad, etc.  There is a “hide inside the fortress” mentality to the CIA and NSA that makes effective action almost inconceivable.

All in all, an excellent complement to Poitras’s portrait of Snowden and a film with more suspense than I would have imagined.