Archive for May, 2011

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Mormons

When Joseph Smith published his text about the Latter Day Saints in 1830, he was, like most mad men, convinced of his various truths, chief among them that God (or, as Smith called him, Moroni) was American. As legend has it, Smith found eleven plates that had the “appearance of gold,” buried near his home in Wayne County, New York. These plates were transcribed, and constitute the bulk of The Book of Mormon. I’m not entirely sure where Wayne County is, nor what the Book of Mormon purports to teach, other than equal parts blind faith and old fashioned repression, but I’m fairly certain of the various impulses that drove Smith to help create a religion: the arrival myth. Like most Americans, Smith was from some place, and wanted to get some place else. That is, he wanted to transcend the world as he knew it, and move into other atmospheres, preaching what he knew. He wanted the world to know not only his religion, but, just as importantly, the monumental drive and egotism behind it. On the face of it, I don’t imagine any of this was lost on Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the complicated, original, musical, “The Book of Mormon,” (at the Eugene O’Neill). And while Smith makes several appearances in the show, his peculiar brand of American optimism–the glow of willed blindness–permeates the piece throughout. As the straight white male protagonists move from the banality of Utah to a kind of banal “exoticism,” we are moved less by the Mormons efforts to convert the rightfully disgruntled “natives” once they arrive. than the fiction of brittle hope the Elders ultimately have a hard time trying to swallow themselves.That’s the show’s pathos, and the protagonists struggle: to instill hope in a world filled with lies–even those they perpetuate themselves. Elder Cunningham (the brilliant Josh Gad; some clever producer should develop a show with him about Zero Mostel, or Oscar Levant) and his reluctant partner, Elder Price (the athletic Andrew Rannells) represent opposite sides of the faith spectrum; that is, their respective ecclesiastical glow projects different hues. Cunningham is not above lying to shape a narrative that is kinder to his much maligned self, while Price is committed to his belief that life can be as beautiful and unreal as it seems in the text Joseph Smith helped popularize, and it’s called Orlando. Aside from Parker and Stone’s language, the actors project their belief in the arrival myth–things are always better somewhere else–through their physicality, which lurches forward, and tap dances on a cloud of possibility, especially when confronted by certain facts, like the world’s cynicism about most things, including belief, and it’s upshot: love, and the blind faith one must exercise to move from one part of the world to the next.

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Marie-Therese

The real star of “Picasso and Marie-Therese: L’Amour Fou” (at Gagosian) is a film cllip lasting no more than five seconds. It’s on a loop. And on it we see the young Marie-Therese of the title. Incandescently blonde, dressed in a vaguely erotic black coat, Marie-There fixes her hair for a minute. The film begins again. We study this Picasso in motion, this woman who is herself with and without him, and see how little and how much the artist “invented” her. In the film clip, we see the emulsions of time on the strip itself, but the woman is alive in a way that is purely herself–observed, and observing. The story is well known: Picasso was in his middle forties, unhappy in an unhappy marriage, when he met the teenaged girl as she came out of the Metro one afternoon, and her life, and Picasso’s, changed forever. Marie-Therese did not know who she was yet, but she was enough of a self for Picasso’s narcissism to know he’d found a living metaphor about female desire, and himself. It was, from the first, less of an affair than an arrangement based on mutual need, and desire, and exploitation. Over the years, Marie-Therese’s  Slavic features appeared in work after work, generally disguised as herself. Watching the film clip after taking in the beautiful, still but always visually moving objects Picasso created to commemorate Marie-Therese and, especially, his feelings about her, I was reminded of a woman I knew once, with similar Slavic features, who gave herself to artists who memorialized her short life without knowing they were, at the time.

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Spellbound

The best movies or more emotionally frightening and satisfying films are about co-dependence. Someone cannot live without The Other. The Other is unavailable. The enabler tries to shape his or her image to reflect The Other, and to gain their respect or approval, which is not forthcoming. Generally, the one seeking approval is a woman. She has no “self”–or no self worth knowing–without earning the satisfaction of The Other. Sometimes she earns her beloved’s approval, but this comes about through great odds, not least of which is the woman’s self-respect, which she disposes with in order to be what the Other requires: a mirror, not a self. She loves The Other, which he or she cannot understand. In any case, the self-sacrificing nature of the enabler’s love is often abhorrent to the recipient. Sometimes he’s blocked from loving the co-dependent woman because he’s a sociopath, or suffers from amnesia.

In 1942′s chilling, “Random Harvest,” Greer Garson is moved to various extremes to prove her love for Ronald Coleman, who does not know her–he’s an amnesiac. But Garson–a music hall dancer who leaves the stage to orchestrate the drama of her man’s life–spares no emotional expense in order to help Coleman find his self, which exists, but only in fragments. If one has been in a similar relationship in what is sometimes referred to as real life, “Random Harvest,” feels like a monster flick, and the monster is one’s own dog-like sincerity in loving, and looking after, The Other, and that being the defining impulse. In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1942), Ingrid Bergman plays a version of the Garson character–and herself: a woman who believes in a controversial man (Gregory Peck), who’s hunted and haunted–the American version of her Italian lover, Roberto Rosseillini, whom she would meet seven years later. Playing a shrink, Bergman’s husky, haunted voice narrates her various discoveries as she goes along. Peck is not an amnesiac, but he might as well be: he’s repressed his painful memories–memories that might prove he’s not a murderer, and Bergman makes his problems, his issues, the uncovering of his true self, fifteen minutes into the film. Peck kisses her, and her libidinal doors are opened, immediately. Anything is worth having that feeling again. Is that not true love? Taking him on, Bergman and Peck are pursued by disbelieving fellow shrinks, and the police. (Their love is suspicious to the world, and to Peck. Bergman’s character is “innocent” of such guile.) In their shared danger, Peck lashes out at his accomplice, his only ally, because her selflessness is suffocating. Still, Bergman is a shrink, and can take it, and continually understand her lover/patient’s disgust because it can be relegated to self-disgust. But it’s not. Peck’s rage towards this woman is as real as his dreams. In any case, Bergman’s real role, it seems, is to rebuild Peck’s character over and over again, especially as he crumbles and is rebuilt and crumbles again. In this film, Bergman’s character knows who she is, but there is no value to her self-knowledge because she has no worth apart from her man, who, even after he is made well, might very well fall off his trolley again. But that’s another part of the story, to be seen in the next, unfilmed reel.

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Jane and Myself, Gloria Steinem, and Gaby Sidibe-Paley Media Center, Benefit for Women’s Media Center

img_1074It was really nice to see Jane tonight. My editor wanted me to do additional reporting, so I went and saw the great Pennebaker documentary, “Jane,” again, and during the Q and A I said nice things about the subject to the audience. (So did Moises Kaufman, one of her directors.) Jane was funny and gracious and more interested, really, in what Gaby had to say. It was packed, and a very mixed (racially) audience, thus proving my point in my profile that Jane has been embraced by a generation of emerging black feminists. These feminists wouldn’t even call themselves that–growing up they equated feminism with the white middle class–but life had taught them otherwise, they were now new professionals, and had grown up around activism (Black Panthers, etc) and were, like their mothers before them, the heads of their respective households–a role Jane herself knows something about but still won’t “own,” but at least she struggles with it. It was like a revival meeting, many women “testifying” to the pain they saw in the twenty-something Jane documented in the film.

The audience was very protective of her afterwards. I met Carol Jenkins who asked if my piece was “positive.” “I’ve been tracking these ladies for a long time,” she said, rather menacingly and then laughingly. A young woman came up to me afterwards to say how much she loved what I had to say about Jane during the Q and A. Afterwards, I repeated my audience remark to Jane. “My favorite thing or quote in the piece,” I told her was, “when Pennebaker said to me, ‘The reason we did this film about Jane, this young girl, was because no matter what role she was in, no matter the part, she really wanted, above all, to communicate something about herself.” When Jane asked when my piece was coming out and I told her in a few weeks, she started gnawing her fingers, little girl style. Then we laughed. When they asked Jane if the director in the Pennebaker doc was still alive, she said “No!” And cut herself off as she said, “Thank God!” Wow. As I was typing this Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” with his talk of Jane just came on I-Tunes.
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Letter to Jane: Notes for A Hypothetical Profile

I would begin my piece this way: By describing Godard and Gorin’s “Letter to Jane.”

In 1972, after filming “Tout Va Bien” (Everything’s All Right) starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, the brilliant French flmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, and his then frequent collaborator, Jean-Pierre Gorin, came across a photograph of Jane Fonda in a magazine. It showed the activst actress in conversation wth some North Vietnamese. Annoyed by Fonda’s celebrity and her politics, the two filmmakers–who more or less constituted Dziga Vertov, the filmmaking collective named after the Russian avant-garde filmmaker–produced a movie they originally titled, “Inquiry Into A Still.” The “action” of the hour long “Letter to Jane,” ends up being Godard and Gorin’s voice over narration, wherein the unseen authors produce a scathing film-essay about the nature of celebrity, liberalism, and looking, while indirectly revealing their own complicated, and sometimes thwarted, view of women.

I would go to see Gorin. I would go to see Gorin and talk about Jane.

I would go to Jane’s house. I would bring photographs with me. I would say: Look at yourself in these photographs–these various Janes. Who do you see? Do you see the paradigm? Of Angelina Jolie-Celebrity-Saviour?

I would put the photographs on the bed. A museum of Jane.

I would say: Jane, colored people loved you most not when you were saving them but when you played the girl in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.” And when you ran the con on Donald Sutherland in “Klute.” These were women they could understand.

I would put it to her: Jane, when I saw you lick your glasses and then further clean them on your sleeve, Jane, I saw this: a wide streak of performer vivacity.

I would want to say, Jane: Your time in Vietnam was of service, Jane, but perhaps showing us female oppression and confusion and literal prostitution in “Klute,” told us more.

I would say: Jane, I don’t do this kind of writing anymore. It’s been the end of this kind of writing for me, Jane, but no one can give up talking to you, Jane, especially if you are an American because it is too much the story of America: your strident off-putting voice, mimicing of various men you’ve adored, not knowing yourself, and saying, in the end, that their many not be such a thing–a self.

For years, I would say to Jane, for years, I thought I was Jane in “Julia,” until it turned out I was really Vanessa Redgrave, holding that friend’s hand across the table, calling them “My beloved friend.” Beat. “Now go!”

I would say: Jane, I watched you worry for everyone’s comfort backstage, and your need to organize, and your need to connect, and your need to exercise your good manners. I recognized all of those things, Jane.

I would ask Jane about her hands–famously, Henry Fonda’s hands. What was striking when I met your children, Jane: They have your hands, which is to say your father’s.

At the after-party for your play, Jane, you complimented one of the producers by saying he was one reason your father loved the theatre so. But do you love the theatre, Jane? Do you?

Could I say, Jane, the best story I heard about you recently was a road trip you took with Madeline Sherwood when you were both at the Actor’s Studio. And how, on that road trip, Madeline Sherwood, who played Mother Superior on “The Flying Nun,” taught you about women’s bodies. Did she teach you about your own?

I would show Jane these photographs of herself backstage. I would say: Jane, I took these photographs of you, but I took them with the eye of someone else. What do you see? Jane, it hurts when you smile. I see you as the twelve year old girl you must have been, trying to smile through the news that your mother had slit her throat for want of love from your very cold father. You speak of him still.

Jane, we have too much in common.

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Arthur

The last image is of Ras Makonnen, Hallie Salisie’s father, Rimbaud’s close friend. Always this way with Arthur: the older man to learn from, and as protector, not least from his mother, who sought to destroy him and was in love with him–the bright child as hope–but who could not mother him. Or thought she was. Am finally getting through Enid Starkie’s biography, which has taken me many years to read, like his imcomporable poems, largely because of the Rimbaud poseurs of my youth, the drugs, etc., and Starkie’s off-putting fussy academic trying not to be language but now I see Arthur’s importance to me: to live as one’s self, and as one’s work, and stopping when you need to stop. In thinking about Valda and how to think about her through metaphor, I have found Arthur, the Latvian in New York, the not writing poet on the high seas.

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