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When I first saw The Last Waltz in 1978, I almost walked out,
although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I
admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at
San Francisco's Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in
light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a Thanksgiving sit-down dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.
Twenty-four years and a new DVD version have changed, or at least made
subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese's
typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America's underbellies, and
monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz
teeters between grit and awe--perhaps unintentionally but tellingly,
like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.
When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed The Last Waltz
"the most beautiful rock movie ever." As a formalist she had a point.
With seven cameramen, including Vilmos Zsigmond (later famous as a cinematographer) and Miklos Rozsa (who came to be known as a composer), Scorsese professionalized the deliberately
nonprofessional documentary sensibility of D.A. Pennebaker and the
Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times: Mainstream rock had
been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the
new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the
industry's search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in
answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Breakdancers hit urban streets
and Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that
exploded somewhere between Elvis, an r&b revue and West Side
Story. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic
underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.
So now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double vision: It's an
elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era.
The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping
across its lenses is intercut with open-eyed realism during the best of
the connecting interview segments--though those too are frequently
tinged with Scorsese's romanticism.
When Music From Big Pink (Capitol) came out in 1968, its album
cover was a painting by Bob Dylan. Dylan had hired the quintet, then The
Hawks, renamed The Band, for his revolutionary 1965-66 tour, which they
spent making garage grunge of his songs while being booed by folk
purists who wanted acoustic Dylan rather than the post-"Like a Rolling
Stone" model. (Bob Dylan Live 1966 [Sony] is the official version
of long-available bootlegs.)
After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had pretty much disappeared
from view, and there were regular rumors of his death or disfigurement.
But the smartest word was he'd been hanging out at Big Pink, a
nondescript house at the foot of Woodstock's Overlook Mountain, jamming
and writing songs with The Band. (These would soon surface as bootlegs;
selections have been remixed and officially reissued on The Basement
Tapes [Sony] intercut with material by The Band alone.) Dylan
encouraged them to find their artistic vision. No surprise, then, that
Music From Big Pink opened with one Dylan track, "Tears of Rage,"
and closed with another, "I Shall Be Released."
Dylan's near-invisibility only augmented his cultural aura, a marketing
lesson his widely disliked, thuggish, Svengali-esque manager, Albert
Grossman, absorbed and soon applied to his latest clients, The Band.
Inside their double-sleeved first album were pictures of the members:
Five guys dressed like extras in an early Hollywood western, visual kin
to the road-warrior hoboes and evicted tenant farmers who peopled The
Grapes of Wrath and Guthrie tunes. Their mothers and fathers and
kids. Their house, Big Pink, every band's dream--a clubhouse to jam and
practice and record in, surrounded by a hundred acres of mountain
meadows and woods. The Band, though, like millions of post-Beatles and
post-Dylan American kids picking and singing in their cellars and
backyards, still had to keep the volume down for fear of riling the
Nestled in Big Pink, playing cards and getting stoned and writing and
working out new stuff, as well as tweaking old bar-band tunes and hymns
and pieces of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music,
Dylan and The Band forged a remarkable creative symbiosis. Thanks to
their Dylan-paid salaries and a rent that, depending on whom you
believe, was somewhere between $125 and $275 a month, The Band played
musical chairs with instruments as they groped for fresh ideas. As
Robbie Robertson, The Band's chief songwriter and guitarist, has
shrewdly observed, "Sometimes the limitation of the instrument can
Improvising was key to their artistic process, as their shortcomings or
imaginations prodded them from instrument to instrument, lineup to
lineup, to find what worked with the tune at hand. The result was
contemporary folk music, new-minted yet old-sounding, with strains of
Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, rockabilly and soul. It wobbled
foggily somewhere between jug bands and Stax-Volt, surreal wet dreams
and revival meetings.
Robertson's guitar stayed mostly low profile, rearing for occasional
stabbing outbursts; he rarely sang. The three vocalists were startlingly
different, but found offbeat ways to blend. As Robertson has observed,
"A lot of the time with The Band they were somewhere between real
harmonies and, because of our lack of education in music, they would be
things that just sounded interesting--or they would be the only thing
the person could hit."
Levon Helm's singing was gritty and soulful and at times sardonic; he
doubled on drums and mandolin. Rick Danko had a clear, yearning tenor,
played bass that burbled like a McCartney-esque tuba, sawed a backwoods
fiddle and strummed guitar. Richard Manuel doubled on engagingly
ramshackle drums and pounded what has been described as "rhythm piano";
as for his voice, Robertson has said, "There's a certain element of pain
in there that you didn't know whether it was because he was trying to
reach for a note or because he was a guy with a heart that'd been hurt."
Garth Hudson was classically trained, said he learned to improvise from
playing at his uncle's funeral parlor and invented one after another
"blackbox," the kinds of soundshapers so integral to the era's musical
sensibility. Hudson didn't sing, but the sounds he made became The
Band's sonic glue, as they fitted parts together that breathed, leaving
spaces float, stepping into others, with the sort of interlocking
discipline found in, say, the jammed-out music of Count Basie, Muddy
Waters or Booker T. & the MGs. Not surprisingly, they cut their
first two albums mostly live in the studio. (See The Band [Rhino]
for an informative, if talking-head-heavy, video history of the making
of the group's first two records.)
"Tears of Rage," written by Dylan and Manuel, kicked Music at Big
Pink off-kilter from the start. Manuel's eccentric r&b cry and
falsetto staggered dangerously, seductively around the confessional
lyrics; Robertson's treated guitar approximated organ tones; Hudson's
winding, churchy organ swelled and subsided; and a drunken Salvation
Army-ish horn section (courtesy Hudson and producer John Simon)
punctuated the flow over the spare, Booker T. & the MGs-style bass
and drums. Simon has observed of the distinctively moaning horn blend,
"That's the only sound we could make." The rest of the album was a bit
uneven but ear-opening, challenging, even wonderful. "To Kingdom Come"
bounced airily, blearily beneath Manuel's vocals; "The Weight" mixed
Curtis Mayfield guitar licks into a surreal gospel setting; "Long Black
Veil" tipped its classicist hat at Lefty Frizell; and "Chest Fever" was
an instant radio hit, with its swelling, skirling, gnashing organ and
With Grossman behind them, The Band--or at least Robertson, who was
rapidly becoming primus inter pares--learned to use reticence and
image to enhance their music. Like Wynton Marsalis a decade later in
jazz, they self-consciously looked back to tradition. "We were rebelling
against the rebellion," Robertson has said. "It was an instinct to
separate ourselves from the pack." That instinct drew the attention of
the nascent rock press, which became their champions: Outlets like
Rolling Stone, co-founded by jazz historian Ralph J. Gleason,
fused the old fanzines and more critical and historical perspectives.
These new media helped make The Band counterculture heroes.
As did the lyrics, which were increasingly written by Robertson.
Enigmatic and vaguely religious and poetic, full of questions and
retorts that didn't necessarily mesh, painting realistic scenes and
Dadaist laments, they clearly owed a great deal to Dylan. Robertson had
also been reading Cocteau, thinking in terms of movies, wanting to
replicate what he's called Dylan's disruption of song forms.
The look and sound, the entire presentation of The Band, evoked a notion
of authenticity that has underscored writing about them ever since,
usually to contrast them with the countercultural rebellion. As
Grossman, who knew show business, surely understood, this was both an
iconic extension and an ironic inversion of the folk revival's would-be
purity. For the counterculture, and show business, were The Band's home.
They were outriders on Dylan's panoramic influence, mountainside avatars
of the Jeffersonian "back to the land" ideal that recurred in the
Woodstock generation's ideology. As Greil Marcus rather romantically
noted of their early music, "It felt like a passport back to America for
people who'd become so estranged from their country that they felt like
foreigners even when they were in it."
When The Band (Capitol) followed Music From Big Pink in
1969, it cemented the group's reputation and enhanced their Dylanesque
mystique of invisibility: Refusing to tour, partly because of Band
members' car crashes and flipouts, they watched promoters' offers climb
from $2,000 a show to $50,000.
The Band were in the midst of recording their second album far from the
Catskills, in Hollywood at Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house, which they'd
converted into a studio, when they decided to resist no longer. But
before they debuted onstage at Winterland in April 1969, Robertson got
such a bad case of nerves (he has always claimed he had the flu) he
stayed in bed for three days of rehearsal, and had to be hypnotized to
Since they'd been musically weaned in roadhouses and spent such care on
recording live, it's always been one of the odder ironies of The Band's
career that they were erratic, often uncomfortable performers.
Unconsciously extending the folk revival's ideology, reviewers tended to
explain their unevenness as an emblem of honest authenticity, which, in
the ways of do-it-yourself, folk-culture amateurism, it sometimes was,
though this was somehow also the culture The Band was posited to be
different from. "A lot of mysticism was built up around The Band,"
Robertson has said. "These guys up in the mountains...." At any rate,
the quality of their concerts was as fully unpredictable as that of
their putative opposite numbers, the Grateful Dead.
From Winterland they hit the Fillmore East, where I can testify they did
at least one good show; then they finished recording at the Hit Factory
in New York City. The Band still stands as their masterpiece.
Loosely built around a harvest-is-in, carnival-is-in-town feel, it's
incredibly consistent and divergent at the same time, the strength of
their studies and abilities ramifying its depth and breadth. Their brand
of self-consciousness of sources and sounds marked one key difference
between rock and earlier roll and rock.
From "Across the Great Divide," with its bouncy rhythms, yearning Manuel
vocal, bleary horns and slippery guitar fills, to "King Harvest (Has
Surely Come)," the surprisingly downbeat rural closer that cuts in
snapshots of union struggles, it has a rare scope and power. "Up on
Cripple Creek," with its bump-grind rhythms and allusion to an old folk
tune, was all over FM radio, as were the hoedowns-in-your-basement "Rag
Mamma Rag" and "Jemima Surrender." "The Unfaithful Servant" gave Danko's
aching tenor a Dylanesque vehicle, while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie
Down" told a moving tale of one Southern family's Civil War hardships.
After this album, the madness and musical unevenness accelerated. In
early 1970, The Band made the cover of Time--a rarity then. The
group's substance abuse, especially Manuel's and Danko's, deepened,
particularly when they were off the road, as they were for months at a
time. Robertson had become the dominant figure--embarking on
self-education, dealing with Grossman, writing first most, then all the
songs, disciplining the others into rehearsing and recording. The
relatively equal distribution of ability at the heart of The Band's
music was coming unbalanced.
Perhaps they'd just hit the natural limits of their talent. Or maybe
they were trapped by the ghosts of folkie authenticity they and Grossman
had conjured. Whatever the cause, most of their later albums sound more
airless, stale, fussy, strained. It was as if they were confined
conceptually to an inelastic, increasingly romanticized and nostalgic
space and mode. (To Kingdom Come [Capitol] offers two CDs that
cull much good and some indifferent material from all their recordings.)
But they didn't go straight downhill. The music they made when they
rejoined Dylan onstage in 1974 was fierce, as if he once again sparked
their creative fires. Their several tours with the Grateful Dead, though
the pairing confused many reviewers, was a study in similarity and
contrast that sometimes sparked great things. (In 1970, Danko told Jerry
Garcia, "We thought you were just California freaks, but you're just
like us.") And on the albums, individual songs--"The Shape I'm In,"
"Stage Fright," Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece"--displayed the old
dexterous touches. Overall, though, creatively everyone but Robertson,
whose muse was drying up anyway, seemed content to coast--after all,
women, booze and money were plentiful. The ambitious songwriter, who'd
begun producing other artists' records and thinking about movies,
finally decided to pull the plug in high style. Hence The Last
There are beautiful sequences in The Last Waltz, and the best are
those of The Band itself. Scorsese's desire to work tight means fewer
establishing shots than some (including me) might want, but the
aesthetic does reflect The Band's subtle, intimate music. At its best,
the film can be stunning. "Stage Fright," for example, shoots Danko from
almost 360 degrees, lit only by an overhead spot, creating gorgeous
interplays of shadow and light, heightening the song's lyrics. "Mystery
Train," to which Paul Butterfield adds harp and vocals, has a similar
self-conscious beauty, which jars with the raggedy unison singing. The
Staples Singers joining on "The Weight," in a sequence filmed after the
show itself, aurally demonstrates The Band's vocal debts to them. For
Emmylou Harris's turn on "Evangeline," another postshow scene, Scorsese
fills the soundstage with blue-lit smoke, which feels hokey but redeems
it a bit visually with arresting camera angles that frame the stark,
lovely geometries of Hudson's accordion, Danko's fiddle and Helm's
A concert film is ultimately about the music, however. The Last
Waltz translates The Band's broad tastes into a narrative punctuated
by interviews and special guests onstage. But the frame is only as
strong as its content. Eric Clapton? Ron Wood and Ringo Starr? Dr. John?
Neil Diamond? Joni Mitchell? Even Muddy Waters? Broad-based roots,
far-reaching sounds, all spokes in the wheel of the 1960s rock
resurgence that Scorsese's narrative contextualizes and justifies via
the interviews. But there's little about the performances of these
artists that is special. No particular chemistry emerges to make this a
moment--except that it's The Band's Last Waltz. I found myself wondering
if part of The Band's artistry consisted of its ability to disappear
musically. (The companion four-CD set, The Last Waltz [Rhino],
has state-of-the-art sound and a bunch of added music--most of it,
unless you're a completist, better left unheard.)
Certainly The Last Waltz makes clear why The Band ended. Though
Scorsese tries to balance his time with the five members, Robertson's
hooded eyes enthrall him. It's palpable that Robertson is surrounded by
good-timey, undisciplined mates who have trouble articulating or
finishing their stories, and often steps into the breach. (Helm is
incisive talking about music and cultural roots; the others work in a
haze of fractured sentences, bits of cynicism and mysticism, and defer
Robertson had become the group's de facto manager, its public face, more
and more the businessman, the guy who had the vast bulk of the
publishing income and royalties from all that collaborative imaginative
work that made the songs timeless. He was also the sole producer of
The Last Waltz. He wanted out; if the movie is unclear what the
others wanted, the fact is that the rest, minus Robertson, re-formed in
various configurations over the years.
Aside from The Band's own sequences, the best moments in The Last
Waltz belong, fittingly, to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the two
front men who helped catalyze their chemistry. Hawkins is wonderfully
unselfconscious during his rave-up version of "Who Do You Love," cueing
and teasing The Band as if a dozen years hadn't passed between them.
Dylan, at the film's end, leads The Band through "Forever Young," making
it their gentle envoi. Watching him goose them through his abrupt
transition to the snarling reworking of the Rev. Gary Davis's "Baby, Let
Me Follow You Down," one of the electric tunes they'd rattled audiences
with in that now-legendary 1965-66 tour, offers us a glimpse into the
chemistry of their fruitful relationship, and the perfect closing
bookend to The Band's career.
Say what you will against the Hollywood event film, and you can say it
twice about Spider-Man. Twice, because this movie has been so
successfully pre-sold, mall-booked, cross-marketed and revenue-streamed
that Columbia Pictures confidently scheduled Spider-Man 2 before
it ever let an audience see
the first. Violent? The fight scenes in this picture must have cost a
hundred Foley artists a hundred nights in the recording studio, banging
away at a hundred anvils. Crass? The product placements are literally as
big as Times Square. Crude? The camera is perpetually drawn, as if by
animal magnetism, to the cleavage of Kirsten Dunst, the better to
examine two of her character's few defining features. It is not enough
to say that Spider-Man is a big movie. It is a big, big movie.
And Spider-Man is also a small movie, which hangs from the thin,
very odd thread of its lead actor, Tobey Maguire. A little late in life,
though not implausibly so, Maguire plays high school senior Peter
Parker: the smart, shy, artistic, dateless victim of his graduating
class, the kid voted Most Likely Not to Be Voted Anything, who happens
to get bitten by a mutant spider and so turns into--what? A superhero?
More like a freak. As conceived for comic books by Stan Lee and Steve
Ditko, Spider-Man was the first really alienated guy to swoop around
fighting crime in a funny outfit. His strange powers made this teenage
outsider into even more of an outsider--and Spider-Man the movie
stays true to that idea, thanks mostly to Maguire.
Consider his voice, first of all: a nasal tenor instrument, with which
he's in no hurry to say anything. Maguire doesn't cultivate a stammer,
as did James Stewart (whom he occasionally calls to mind), but he does
give a consistent impression of letting his words trail a beat or so
behind his thoughts. You might recall his doing so in The Ice
Storm (in which, for my money, he was the film's one point of
contact with reality), or in The Cider House Rules (where he was
used for his air of moping fragility, yet somehow held his own against
Michael Caine), or yet again in Wonder Boys (where Michael
Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. kept competing to see which one could play
more broadly, and Maguire very quietly and subtly took control of the
movie). It's characteristic of him that in one of his better moments in
Spider-Man, he says nothing at all. "Just got contacts?" asks MJ
(Dunst), the girl of Peter Parker's dreams, when she sees he's no longer
wearing glasses. The question sounds casual, but the occasion is
charged; MJ has noticed for the first time the color of Peter's eyes
(spider-power has corrected his vision), and he's just been granted his
first chance to look into hers. Maguire considers her question, pauses
as if a dozen possibilities were crowding his head and then settles on a
reply: He grins. It must be the right choice. At the screening I
attended, the audience answered his smile with laughter.
Maguire can get that effect because he generates a time zone of his own
around his body, and also because that body is a mismatch not only for
its surroundings but for itself. The carriage is stiff. The smile, when
granted, loops goofily up and down the long face. The features of that
face don't quite come together. Although the assertive cleft chin might
well belong to a superhero--or a movie star--it cohabitates a bit
uncomfortably with rosebud lips, a delicate nose and eyes whose natural
tendency is to watch for trouble. The impression, as a whole, is one of
pleasant ungainliness--which may be why Maguire seems as surprised as
the audience to discover what's happened to his musculature. When he
awakens after the spider bite, this 98-pound weakling finds that his
torso can bulge and ripple, just like something from an old Charles
The allusion to Charles Atlas seems deliberate on the part of the
director, Sam Raimi. He knows those ads had their rightful place on the
back covers of comic books, where they held out a fantasy of power to
the medium's core audience, the Peter Parkers of this life. That's
something comic books share with event movies; they're both made to
appeal to boys in their adolescence, or barely out of it. The
difference, of course, is that event movies mount their appeal by
deploying resources of a vastly greater scale, comparable (let's say) to
that recently used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Part of what I like
about Spider-Man is that despite its staggering budget and
daunting market clout, it stays in touch with the unpretentiousness of
the source material. Raimi uses Maguire for that purpose, and he also
uses a second, uncredited star: New York City.
To an extent that's very rare with digitized, semi-cartoon pictures,
Spider-Man is a movie shot on location. You see the Columbia
University campus, Midtown, the Flatiron district, SoHo, the East River
and (maybe most gratifying of all) the row houses and little commercial
streets of Queens. Very often the action that takes place in these
settings is computer-generated, with Spider-Man swinging from building
to building by his web, or performing the kind of acrobatics that were a
prime attraction of The Matrix. Even so, the real city remains an
irreducible presence in Spider-Man, as when Peter discovers his
new abilities and goes leaping across the rooftops in exhilaration--the
roofs, in this case, belonging to the same squat apartment buildings you
see every day from the elevated train.
So there's something humble, plain and slightly old-fashioned working
within this mega-movie--or perhaps even working against it. As I turn
from Maguire and the settings to the story and its themes, as elaborated
by screenwriter David Koepp, I notice that the conflict between big and
small is more than an accidental effect in Spider-Man. It's the
The plot, in brief, concerns a surrogate father who happens to be an
all-powerful homicidal maniac. Norman Osborn (played by Willem Dafoe,
the movie's Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. rolled into one) is a
millionaire scientist who at first befriends the impecunious Peter,
offering him concern and sympathy. But Norman is also a military
contractor who hungers for that next big contract, as a result of which
he undergoes his own transformation, developing a monstrous alter ego
known as the Green Goblin. Whereas Norman is kind and gentle toward
Peter, the Green Goblin schemes to destroy Spider-Man, striking at him
through the people he loves.
As someone who has been a son and is presently a father, I wasn't
convinced. Spider-Man tosses out a notion of the paternal
relationship, but it conveys nothing of the feeling of bone of my bone,
flesh of my flesh. (Paradoxically, the relationship between MJ and her
father has emotional weight, even though it's a side issue in the movie.
Her father bullies and belittles her--which may be why she takes a
liking to Peter. He's the one male animal she encounters who is strong
but doesn't act it.) But if we agree not to take the movie's terms more
seriously than they deserve, then the father-son conceit can be made to
yield some sense. Let's say the father is a stand-in for Columbia
Pictures, a Sony Pictures Entertainment Company, and the son is Sam
Raimi, who at one moment gets sweet talks and huge sums of money from
his corporate parent and at another is reminded, no doubt forcefully,
that the parent is in fact his master, who will kill for those revenue
Does this interpretation seem far-fetched? Then think about Peter's
Uncle Ben, the other surrogate father in the film and the movie's moral
voice. Raimi has waggishly cast Cliff Robertson in the role--no doubt
because Robertson, too, went through a life-altering, science-fiction
change in the movies, in Charly, but also perhaps because he was
the one who uncovered malfeasance at Columbia Pictures in the late 1970s
and so brought down its management. Robertson's mere presence in a new
Columbia release is a kind of history lesson, and a rebuke. Who better
to tell Peter, practically with his dying breath, that power brings
responsibility? Who better to play a wise, elderly working stiff from
Queens, in contrast to Dafoe's military-industrial tycoon?
And who can doubt that such a contrast is needed, when Spider-Man
portrays modern economic life as an endless series of downsizings? The
older people in the movie are pushed out of their jobs; the younger
can't get any. Why, the very notion of hiring someone seems repugnant to
the editor of the Daily Bugle (JK Simmons) when Peter comes
looking for work. "Freelance!" he bellows. That's the best thing for
young people today. Then, as a substitute for decent freelance pay, the
editor goes on to promise "Meat--Christmas meat!"
As an object of commerce, Spider-Man belongs to the world of the
Daily Bugle, and to the Green Goblin. As a work of the
imagination--as a movie, rather than a blockbuster--it belongs to Cliff
Robertson and Tobey Maguire, to New York City and to New York's people
(who put in a surprising, crucial mass appearance late in the film). I
liked seeing this conflict played out openly, in the first summer-season
mega-production of 2002. But that's not why I gave my heart to
What really moved me was the exchange between Peter and MJ at the end of
the film. It's a scene that comes out of nowhere, if you've ignored the
small movie within Spider-Man and seen only the product
placements and special effects. But if you've registered the moments of
wit and feeling that surface throughout the picture, intermittently but
steadily, you will feel that it's right for the movie to end here, in a
graveyard, with MJ at last caressing Peter's face and doing it with a
black-gloved hand. Finally she can speak of what she wants, amid death.
Peter wants to reply, and could do so eloquently; but, being Tobey
Maguire, he chooses to hold back.
And so it ends, triumphantly, unhappily--that is, until Spider-Man 2.
It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up
with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that
thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it
in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but
penetrated through and through by our historical situation.
Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he
might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images.
For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which
we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time
in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own
historical moment becomes an artist's subject. It was particularly rare
in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though
the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom
what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy
Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era
conscious of itself through his art.
German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the
historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation.
How to be an artist in postwar Germany was part of the burden of being a
German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic
self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the
first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with
Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal
with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut
their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product
of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in
profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled
him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a
distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art.
Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman
history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside
his images to realize the violence to which they refer.
Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional
curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a
hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution
was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the
imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the
joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which
continued to exemplify Hitler's aesthetic well after Nazism's collapse,
than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by
Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic
culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars
were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal
first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place
every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing
contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its
inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art.
It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of
art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a
bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to
destroy. The content of Documenta 1--Modernism of the twentieth century
before fascism--could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown
today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But Modernism,
and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists
at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically
dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit
Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York
School--Abstract Expressionism--that some internal pressure began to build
in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time.
The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an
artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic
It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go
abstract--or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist,
the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to
identify oneself with Art Informel--the European counterpart of the
loosely painted abstractions of the New York School--as many German
artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an
artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and
abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the
West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was
the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to
any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political
matter in the 1970s. If ignorant of the political background of such
choices, visitors to the magnificent Museum of Modern Art retrospective
of Richter's work since 1962--the year after his momentous move from East
to West--are certain to be baffled by the fact that he seems to vacillate
between realism and abstraction, or even between various styles of
abstraction, often at the same time. These vacillations seemed to me so
extreme when I first saw a retrospective of Richter's work in Chicago in
1987, that it looked like I was seeing some kind of group show. "How can
you say any style is better than another?" Warhol asked with his
characteristic faux innocence in a 1963 interview. "You ought to be able
to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a
realist, without feeling that you have given up something." For most
artists in America, it is important that they be stylistically
identifiable, as if their style is their brand. To change styles too
often inevitably would have been read as a lack of conviction. But what
the show at MoMA somehow makes clear is that there finally is a single
personal signature in Richter's work, whatever his subject, and whether
the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from
the protective cool to which I referred--a certain internal distance
between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the
world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not
exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a
kind of above-the-battle tranquility that comes when one has decided
that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without
feeling that something is given up. That cool is invariant to all the
paintings, whatever their content. As a viewer one has to realize that
abstraction is the content of one genre of his painting, while the
content of the other genres of his painting is...well...not abstraction.
They consist of pictures of the world. So in a sense the show has an
almost amazing consistency from beginning to end. It is as though what
Richter conveys is a content that belongs to the mood or tone, and that
comes through the way the quality of a great voice does, whatever its
Before talking about individual works, let me register another
peculiarity of Richter's work. He paints photographs. A lot of artists
use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take
Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like
auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs
are his reality. He is not indifferent to what a photograph is of, but
the subject of the photograph will often not be something that he has
experienced independently. In 1964 Richter began to arrange photographs
on panels--snapshots, often banal, clippings from newspapers and
magazines, even some pornographic pictures. These panels became a work
in their own right, to which Richter gave the title Atlas.
Atlas has been exhibited at various intervals, most recently in
1995 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, at which venue there
were already 600 panels and something like 5,000 photographs. These
photographs are Richter's reality as an artist. When I think of
Atlas, I think of the human condition as described by Plato in
the famous passage in The Republic where Socrates says that the
world is a cave, on the wall of which shadows are cast. They are cast by
real objects to which we have no immediate access, and about which, save
for the interventions of philosophy, we would have no inkling. But there
is an obvious sense in which most of what we know about, we never
experience as such. Think of what the experience of the World Trade
Center attack was for most of us on September 11 and afterward. We were
held transfixed by the images of broken walls and burning towers, to use
Yeats's language, and fleeing, frightened people.
The first work in the exhibition is titled Table, done in 1962.
Richter considers it the first work in his catalogue raisonné,
which means that he assigns it a significance considerably beyond
whatever merits it may possess as a painting. It means in particular
that nothing he did before it is part of his acknowledged oeuvre.
Barnett Newman felt that way about a 1948 work he named Onement.
He considered it, to vary a sentimental commonplace, the first work of
the rest of his artistic life. Next to Table, one notices two
photographs of a modern extension table, clipped from an Italian
magazine, on which Richter puddled a brushful of gray glaze.
Table itself is an enlarged and simplified painting of the table
in the photographs, over which Richter has painted an energetic swirl of
gray paint. It is easy to see why it is so emblematic a work in his
artistic scheme. Whatever the merits of the depicted table may have been
as an object of furniture design, such tables were commonplace articles
of furniture in middle-class domestic interiors in the late fifties. In
1962 it was becoming an artistic option to do paintings of ordinary,
everyday objects. We are in the early days of the Pop movement. The
overlaid brushy smear, meanwhile, has exactly the gestural urgency of
Art Informel. So Table is at the intersection of two major art
movements of the sixties: It is representational and abstract at once.
Warhol in that period was painting comic-strip figures like Dick
Tracy--but was dripping wet paint over his images, not yet able to
relinquish the talismanic drip of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in
1960 he painted a Coca-Cola bottle with Abstract Expressionist
mannerisms--a work I consider Table's unknown artistic sibling.
Richter gave up Art Informel in 1962, just as Warhol dropped Abstract
Expressionist brushiness in favor of the uninflected sharpness and
clarity of his Pop images. By 1963 Richter had begun painting the
blurred but precise images that became his trademark. Richter's
marvelously exact Administrative Building of 1964 captures the
dispiriting official architecture of German postwar reconstruction,
especially in the industrial Rhineland. And his wonderful Kitchen
Chair of 1965 is a prime example of Capitalist Realism, the version
of Pop developed by Richter and his colleague, Sigmar Polke, in the
mid-sixties. Richter and Warhol had fascinatingly parallel careers.
The deep interpretative question in Richter's art concerns less the
fact that he worked with photographs than why he selected the
photographs he did for Atlas, and what governed his decision to
translate certain of them into paintings. There are, for example,
photographs of American airplanes--Mustang Squadrons, Bombers and Phantom
Interceptor planes in ghostly gray-in-gray formations. Richter was an
adolescent in 1945, and lived with his family within earshot of Dresden
at the time of the massive firebombings of that year. The photograph
from which Bombers was made had to have been taken as a
documentary image by some official Air Force photographer, whether over
Dresden or some other city. The cool of that photograph, compounded by
the cool with which that image is painted--even to the hit plane near the
bottom of the image and what must be the smoke trailing from
another--cannot but seem as in a kind of existential contrast with the
panic of someone on the ground under those explosives falling in slow
fatal series from open bays. But what were Richter's feelings? What was
he saying in these images?
And what of the 1965 painting of the family snapshot of the SS
officer--Richter's Uncle Rudi--proudly smiling for the camera, which must
have been taken more than twenty years earlier, shortly before its
subject was killed in action? Tables and chairs are tables and chairs.
But warplanes and officers emblematize war, suffering and violent death.
And this was not simply the history of the mid-twentieth century. This
was the artist's life, something he lived through. We each must deal
with these questions as we can, I think. The evasiveness of the artist,
in the fascinating interview with Robert Storr--who curated this show and
wrote the catalogue--is a kind of shrug in the face of the
unanswerability of the question. What we can say is that photographs
have their acknowledged forensic dimension; they imply that their
subjects were there, constituted reality and that the artist himself is
no more responsible than we are, either for the reality or the
photography. The reality and the records are what others have done. He
has only made the art. And the blurredness with which the artist has
instilled his images is a way of saying that it was twenty years
ago--that it is not now. Some other horrors are now.
The flat, impassive transcriptions of Richter's paintings are
correlative with the frequent violence implied by what they depict. That
makes the parallels with Warhol particularly vivid. It is easy to
repress, in view of the glamour and celebrity associated with Warhol's
life and work, the series of disasters he depicted--plane crashes,
automobile accidents, suicides, poisonings and the shattering images of
electric chairs, let alone Jackie (The Week That Was), which
memorializes Kennedy's funeral. Or the startlingly anticelebratory
Thirteen Most Wanted Men that he executed for the New York State
Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Compare these with Richter's 1966
Eight Student Nurses, in which the bland, smiling, youthful faces
look as if taken from the class book of a nursing school--but which we
know were of victims of a senseless crime. Warhol's works, like
Richter's, are photography-based. The pictures came from vernacular
picture media--the front page of the Daily News, or the
most-wanted pictures on posters offering rewards, which are perhaps
still tacked up in post offices. These were transferred to stencils and
silk-screened, and have a double graininess--the graininess of newspaper
reproduction and of the silk-screen process itself. And like Richter's
blurring, this serves to distance the reality by several stages--as if it
is only through distancing that we can deal with horror. I tend to think
that part of what made us all feel as if we were actually part of the
World Trade Center disaster was the clarity of the television images and
the brightness of the day that came into our living rooms.
Whatever our attitude toward the prison deaths of the Baader-Meinhof
gang members in 1977, I think everyone must feel that if Richter is
capable of a masterpiece, it is his October 18, 1977 suite of
thirteen paintings, done in 1988 and based on aspects of that reality.
These deaths define a moral allegory in which the state, as the
guarantor of law and order, and the revolution, as enacted by utopian
and idealist youths, stand in stark opposition, and in which both sides
are responsible for crimes that are the dark obverses of their values.
But how fragile and pathetic these enemies of the state look in
paintings that make the photographs from which they were taken more
affecting than they would seem as parts, say, of Atlas. Who knows
whether Richter chose the images because they were affecting, or made
them so, or if we make them so because of the hopelessness of a reality
that has the quality of the last act of an opera, in which the chorus
punctuates the tragedy in music? There are three paintings, in graded
sizes, of the same image of Ulrike Meinhof, who was hanged--or hanged
herself--in her cell. The paintings do not resolve the question of
whether she was killed or committed suicide. They simply register the
finality of her death--Dead. Dead. Dead. (Tote. Tote. Tote.)--in a
repetition of an image, vanishing toward a point, of a thin dead young
woman, her stretched neck circled by the rope or by the burn left by the
rope. That is what art does, or part of what it does. It transforms
violence into myth and deals with death by beauty. There was a lot of
political anger when these paintings were shown in 1988, but there was
no anger in the gallery on the occasions when I have visited it in the
past several weeks.
By comparison with the ferocity of human engagements in the real world,
the art wars of the mid-twentieth century seem pretty thin and petty.
But it says something about human passion that the distinction between
figuration and abstraction was so vehement that, in my memory, people
would have been glad to hang or shoot one another, or burn their
stylistic opponents at the stake, as if it were a religious controversy
and salvation were at risk. It perhaps says something deep about the
spirit of our present times that the decisions whether to paint
abstractly or realistically can be as lightly made as whether to paint a
landscape or still life--or a figure study--was for a traditional artist.
Or for a young contemporary artist to decide whether to do some piece of
conceptual art or a performance. Four decades of art history have borne
us into calm aesthetic waters. But this narrative does not convey the
almost palpable sense in which Richter has grasped his times through his
art. One almost feels that he became a painter in order to engage not
just with how to be an artist but how, as an artist, to deal with the
terribleness of history.
What date shall I assign to Chris Marker's magnum opus, A Grin
Without a Cat? This rugged oak of an essay-film, whose gnarls trace
the growth and withering of decades of leftist politics, is now playing
for the first time in the United States, where it's being shown in the
form Marker gave it after
the demise of the Soviet Union. I might say it's a film from 1993; and
yet the version we now have is the revision of a work completed in 1977,
when Communism was still alive, and anti-Communism was more than the
hungry zombie it's since become.
Communism was still alive, but even then Marker perceived a change. The
last major event he incorporated into his essay was the 1974 election of
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to the presidency of France. In the
film, this election represents the end of a period of turmoil that had
begun in 1967: the year of campus uprisings in the United States against
the Vietnam War, increased union militancy in France, bloody student
protests in Berlin against the visiting Shah of Iran, the death in
Bolivia of Che Guevara. It's fair to say that the main body of A Grin
Without a Cat deals with these years, so I might date the film
But then, the historical marker slips back even further. To explain why
Che perished as he did, to account for his prestige in death, to suggest
how that martyrdom shaped the period that followed, the film revisits
1962, when Douglas Bravo launched a guerrilla war in rural Venezuela.
Believing that a few militants could spark revolution on their own,
Bravo and his followers abandoned the discipline of the Communist Party.
That was the good news. The bad news was, they also abandoned the
party's political base. In Marker's words (which are spoken throughout
the film by several voiceover narrators), the guerrillas made themselves
into "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat."
The phrase brings to mind Lewis Carroll, and maybe Gogol, too. I will
have something to say about the rude adventures of this grin. First,
though, a question: Assuming there was once a whole cat, what did it
Marker gives a filmmaker's reply: He goes back in time to The
Battleship Potemkin. His picture begins in that other movie--begins
twice, in fact. As his first gesture in A Grin Without a Cat,
Marker shows us Eisenstein's celebrated vision of the Potemkin
mutiny, in which a sailor faces a line of riflemen and wins them over
with a single shout: Brothers! Out of that moment, Marker develops a
great, thrilling montage sequence of his own, spanning half a century of
conflicts in the streets and ending on Eisenstein's Odessa steps, more
or less in the present day. There, as if to begin the film again, Marker
shows us a pleasant young woman who sits in the sunshine, chatting with
an offscreen interviewer. She is a French-speaking Intourist guide, and
she can testify that this site is very popular. She brings people to it
two or three times a day.
We might conclude that the not-quite-mythical cat was on the prowl
sometime between these two historical moments, the first of inspiration,
the second of nostalgia. We might decide that A Grin Without a Cat
is dated 1925-93.
During those years, was anything left unfilmed? To watch this picture is
to be astonished at the world of footage that's been piled up here, some
of it shot by Marker himself, most of it recorded by others, both known
and anonymous. The raw materials of A Grin Without a Cat include
images of a US pilot bombing Vietnam, as seen from the cockpit; scenes
of carefully staged party congresses in Havana and Beijing and of an
unscripted, on-the-run congress in 1968 Prague; views of the festive Cat
Parade in Ypres; broadcasts of the Watergate hearings and of the Shah of
Iran's grandiose party for himself in Persepolis; raw footage of
Communist and Trotskyist workers getting into a fistfight at a factory
gate; interviews in the jungle with Douglas Bravo, in the Pentagon with
a counterinsurgency expert, in the Citroën headquarters with that
firm's managing director; Soviet newsreels from World War II; a student
collective's newsreel from 1967 Berlin; shots of Giscard d'Estaing
playing the accordion and of The Who destroying their instruments;
behind-the-scenes pictures of training sessions at the School of the
Americas; and the usual amalgam of flaming automobiles, flying tear-gas
canisters, descending truncheons and human beings lying in pools of
So complete is the filmed record on which Marker draws, and so
associative is his method of using it, that he can show us a statement
made in 1968 by a Czech national hero, Emil Zatopek, just before he was
stripped of his military rank for protesting against the invasion;
Zatopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when he famously swept the
distance running events; and Zatopek in 1972, when he was released from
the mines and trotted out to look solemn at the Munich Olympics, when
the games continued despite the murder of eleven Israeli athletes. But
then, Marker comments, "I had been in Mexico City in 1968, when 200
people were killed so the games could begin," and we have that footage,
This sort of thing can make your head spin; but since it should also
make your head clear, Marker's montage is not only associative but
diagrammatic as well. A Grin Without a Cat is divided into two
main sections. Part One, "Fragile Hands," concentrates on the events of
1967 and 1968, up to the fizzling of the May revolt in France. Part Two,
"Severed Hands," begins with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,
continues with the rise and fall of Salvador Allende (and the Gang of
Four) and concludes with the fading of the cat's grin, late in the
Marker tends to present these events in big loops. He'll jump from
source to source, place to place, to develop an argument (about the
concept of a revolution in the revolution, for example); he'll digress
to examine the way people gestured with their hands, or how they either
filled or did not fill the space between striking workers and police;
and then he'll swing back to close the loop, concluding one phase of his
essay and moving on to the next. At each phase (at least in the earlier
part of the film) he also introduces elements that I might as well call
dialectical. When he shows a group of war protesters preparing to burn
their draft cards in 1967, he also shows a rally of the American Nazi
Party. When French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit comes into the
picture, so does Giscard d'Estaing. We watch the New Left rise in tandem
with the New Right. In Marker's view of history, the development of the
New Right may have been the New Left's greatest achievement.
If so, then the Old Left contributed ample help. Marker makes the point
with stunning force during his section on Czechoslovakia, when he
unexpectedly closes one of those big loops of montage. Citizens of
Prague have surrounded a Soviet tank driver and are berating him--"How
could you, a Communist, be doing this?"--when that intertitle from
The Battleship Potemkin pops onto the screen again, in a way
that's now heartbreaking and futile: Brothers!
And since Marker is a moviemaker above all, A Grin Without a Cat
also makes its point as a movie should, through the actions of its star.
Yes, there is a lead actor in this film: Fidel Castro, whose many
performances, interspersed throughout the picture, amount to a little
drama of their own, complete with a nasty plot twist. Here is Fidel on
the podium, addressing a night-time rally with wit, vigor and good
sense. Here he is again, sprawled casually on the grass for the benefit
of the camera, giving a very good impersonation of a man speaking
spontaneously, sensitively, about popular militancy and his comrade Che
Guevara. And here, giving a radio broadcast, Fidel appears to work
himself into a fury against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as a
dramatic overture to praising the Soviets for their tanks.
This is dense, complex, allusive filmmaking, encyclopedic in ambition,
profound in understanding, playful enough in form to make you smile
sometimes at the tricks of history. Though Marker has made an elegy to
the left, he would prefer that you leave the theater invigorated,
feeling that power is still abroad in the world, and that you and your
friends might still disrupt its dirty work.
My only complaint is that the film could have sent you home feeling even
better. During the period Marker covers, the feminists got a few things
done, often without bothering to define their relationship to the
Communist Party; but feminism shows up very late in A Grin Without a
Cat, as a mere afterthought. Africa doesn't show up at all; yet
activists from around the world made some changes there too, such as
ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic state. You may choose
to add to the list a third or fourth victory. We've had a few, despite
all of history's tricks.
That said, A Grin Without a Cat was made for you, Nation
reader. It premieres in America on May Day, at New York's Film Forum.
Abbas Kiarostami's most recent documentary, which premieres in the
United States on May 3 at New York's Cinema Village, is about nothing
other than Africa and feminism. Made on behalf of the UN's International
Fund for Agricultural Development, ABC Africa is the record of a
trip to Uganda, during which Kiarostami investigated the effect of AIDS
on women and children.
The effect, briefly stated, is that children are orphaned, and women are
left to care for them: six, eleven, thirty-five at a time. According to
the film, there are now more than 1.6 million orphans in Uganda, out of
a population of 22 million. The Catholic Church helps by offering a
wretched level of care to the suffering, meanwhile insuring there will
be more suffering by discouraging the use of condoms. By contrast, the
Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) helps with a program that
encourages women to band together and become economically
I lack the space in this column to describe even a part of what
Kiarostami recorded with his digital video cameras. It's enough to say
that, while he captured images on the run, he somehow made a Kiarostami
film. ABC Africa is devastating, as you'd expect. It's also
lyrical, beautiful and quietly inventive.
Jeff Tweedy may be best known to Nation readers as Billy Bragg's collaborator (along with his band Wilco) on the Mermaid Avenue recordings of recent years--two great albums that set unpubli
There is an overall disposition to approach each Whitney Biennial as a State of the Art World Address in the form of an exhibition, organized by a curatorial directorate, presenting us with a reading, more or less objective, of what visual culture has been up to in the preceding two years. It is widely appreciated that on any given occasion, the directorate will be driven by enthusiasms and agendas that compromise objectivity. So there has sprung up a genre of what we might call Biennial Criticism, in which the organizers are taken to task for various distortions, and when these have been flagrant, as in the 1993 or, to a lesser degree, the 1995 Biennial, the critics almost speak as one. Everyone knew, in 1993, that a lot of art was being made that took the form of aggressively politicized cultural criticism, but the Biennial made it appear that there was very little else, and it had the effect of alienating the viewers by treating them as enemies. Again, everyone recognized in 1995 that artists were exploring issues of gender identity--but there was a question of whether these preoccupations were not overrepresented in what was shown. Anticipating the barrage of critical dissent, the Whitney pre-emptively advertised the 2000 Biennial as the exhibition you love to hate, making a virtue of adversity. But Biennials and Biennial Criticism must be taken as a single complex, which together provide, in the best way that has so far evolved, as adequate a picture as we are likely to get of where American artistic culture is at the moment. The Whitney deserves considerable credit for exposing itself to critical onslaughts from various directions in this periodic effort to bring the present art world to consciousness. Art really is a mirror in which the culture gets to see itself reflected, but it requires a fair amount of risk and bickering to get that image to emerge with any degree of clarity.
As it happens, my own sense of the state of the art world is reasonably congruent with that of Lawrence Rinder, who bears chief responsibility for Biennial 2002, though I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with a good many of the artists whose work has been selected. This unfamiliarity can even be taken as evidence that Rinder's selection corresponds to the general profile of art-making today.
It is almost as though any sample drawn from the art world would yield much the same profile of artistic production, so long as it consisted mainly of artists in their 30s and early 40s who have been formed in one or another of the main art schools and keep up with the main art periodicals. A great Biennial could have been put together using older artists with international reputations, but somehow emphasizing the young does not seem a curatorial caprice. It is increasingly an art-world premise that what is really happening is to be found among the young or very young, whose reputations have not as yet emerged. A painter who taught in California told me that he was constantly pressed, by dealers and collectors, to tell them who among the students was hot. So as long as it resembles a fairly large show of MFA students graduating from a major art school--as Biennial 2002 mostly does--a quite representative Biennial can be put together of artists whose work is hardly known at all. Somehow, if it were widely known, it would not have been representative.
Art today is pretty largely conceptual. It is not Conceptual Art in the narrow sense the term acquired when it designated one of the last true movements of late Modernism, in which the objects were often negligible or even nonexistent, but rather in the sense that being an artist today consists in having an idea and then using whatever means are necessary to realize it. Advanced art schools do not primarily teach skills but serve as institutes through which students are given critical support in finding their own way to whatever it takes to make their ideas come to something. This has been the case since the early 1970s.
It is amazing how many young people want to be artists today. I was told that there are about 600 art majors in a state university in Utah--and there will be at least that many applicants for perhaps twenty places in any one of the major MFA programs, despite a tuition equal to that for law or business school. Few will find teaching positions, but their main impulse is to make art, taking advantage of today's extreme pluralism, which entails that there are no antecedent prohibitions on how their art has to be. Every artist can use any technology or every technology at once--photography, video, sound, language, imagery in all possible media, not to mention that indeterminate range of activities that constitute performances, working alone or in collaboratives on subjects that can be extremely arcane.
Omer Fast shows a two-channel video installation with surround sound about Glendive, Montana, selected because it is the nation's smallest self-contained television market. Who would know about this? Or about Sarah Winchester, who kept changing the architecture of her house in San Jose, California, because she felt she was being pursued by victims of the Winchester rifle, which her late husband manufactured, which Jeremy Blake chose as the subject of a 16-millimeter film, augmented by drawings and digital artworks transferred to DVD? I pick these out not as criticism but as observations. They exemplify where visual culture is today.
Initially I felt that painting was somewhat underrepresented, but on reflection I realize that there is not much of the kind of easel painting done now that makes up one's composite memory of Biennials past. What I had to accept was that artists today appropriate vernacular styles and images--graffiti, cartoons, circus posters and crude demotic drawing. Artists use whatever kinds of images they like. Much as one dog tells another in a New Yorker cartoon that once you're online, no one can tell you're a dog, it is less and less easy to infer much about an artist's identity from the work.
At least three graduate students in a leading art school I visited not long ago choose to paint like self-taught artists. The self-taught artist Thornton Dial Senior appeared in Biennial 2000, but his contribution did not look like anyone's paradigm of outsider art, so no one could have known that it was not by an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design or CalArts. There are some quilts in Biennial 2002 by Rosie Lee Tomkins, who is Afro-American, as we can tell from items in her bibliography (Redesigning Cultural Roots: Diversity in African-American Quilts). Since this year's catalogue does not identify artists with reference to their education, we don't know--nor does it matter--whether Tomkins is self-taught. But it is entirely open to white male graduate students to practice quilt-making as their art if they choose to.
Whether someone can paint or draw is no more relevant than whether they can sew or cook. Everything is available to everyone--the distinctions between insider and outsider, art and craft, fine art and illustration, have altogether vanished. I have not yet seen a Biennial with the work of Sophie Matisse or George Deem in it, both of whom appropriate the painting styles of Vermeer and other Old Masters, but they express the contemporary moment as well as would an artist who drew Superman or The Silver Surfer. Mike Bidlo--also not included--has been painting Jackson Pollocks over the past few years. In a way I rather admire, Biennial 2002 presents us with a picture not just of the art world but of American society today, in an ideal form in which identities are as fluid and boundaries as permeable as lifestyles in general.
The openness to media outside the traditional ones of painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture has made it increasingly difficult to see everything on a single visit in the recent Biennials, and this is particularly so in Biennial 2002. But just seeing the things that can be taken in on such a visit may not give the best idea of what is really happening in the art world. Biennial 2002 includes the work of eight performance artists or teams of performance artists, for example, and theirs may be among the most revealing work being done today; but you will have to read about their work in the catalogue, since the performances themselves do not take place on the premises of the museum. I'll describe three artists whose most striking work is performance, since together they give a deeper sense of visual culture than we might easily get by looking at the objects and installations in the museum's galleries.
Let's begin with Praxis--a performance collaborative formed in 1999 that consists of a young married couple, Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey. On any given Saturday afternoon, Praxis opens the East Village storefront that is its studio and home to passers-by. The ongoing performance, which they title The New Economy, consists in offering visitors any of four meaningful but undemanding services from the artists: a hug, a footbath, a dollar or a Band-Aid, which comes with the kind of kiss a mommy gives to make it all better. Praxis draws upon a fairly rich art history. Its services are good examples of what were considered actions by Fluxus, an art movement that has frequently figured in this column. Fluxus originated in the early 1960s as a loose collective of artists-performers-composers who were dedicated, among other things, to overcoming the gap between art and life. The movement drew its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Zen--and from the visionary figure George Maciunas, who gave it its name. It is a matter for philosophers to determine when giving someone a hug is a piece of art--but an important consideration is that as art it has no particular connection to the art market, nor is it the sort of thing that is easily collected. And it requires no special training to know how to do it.
There is something tender and affecting in Praxis's ministrations, which connects it to a second art-historical tradition. It has, for example, a certain affinity to Felix Gonzales-Torres, who piled up candies in the corner of a gallery for people to help themselves to, or to the art of Rirkrit Tiravanija, which largely consists in feeding people fairly simple dishes, which he cooks for whoever comes along. Praxis's art is comforting, in much the way that Tiravanija's work is nurturing. The people who enter Praxis's storefront are not necessarily, as the artists explain, seeking an art experience. Neither are those who eat Tiravanija's green curry in quest of gastronomic excitement. The artists set themselves up as healers or comfort-givers, and the art aims at infusing an increment of human warmth into daily life. There was not a lot of that in Fluxus, but it has become very much a part of art today, especially among younger artists. The moral quality of Praxis belongs to the overall spirit of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which recently emerged as an art scene. On one of my visits there, a gallerist asked me what I thought of the scene and I told him I found it "lite," not intending that as a criticism. "We want to remain children," he told me. The artists there could not have been nicer, and this seems generally the feeling evoked by Biennial 2002. It is the least confrontational Biennial of recent years.
There is, for example, not much by way of nudity, though that is integral to the performances of the remarkable artist Zhang Huan, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Praxis. Zhang Huan was expelled from China in 1998. His work fuses certain Asiatic disciplines laced with appropriations from various Western avant-gardes. In each of his performances, Zhang Huan's shaved head and bare, wiry body is put through trials in which, like a saint or shaman, the performer displays his indifference to injury. His nakedness becomes a universal emblem of human vulnerability. There is a remarkable, even stunning, poetry in these performances, and they feel in fact like religious ordeals, like fasting or mortification, undertaken for the larger welfare. I have seen the film of an amazing performance, Dream of the Dragon, in which Zhang Huan is carried by assistants into the performance space on a large forked branch of a tree, like an improvised cross. The assistants cover his body with a kind of soup they coat with flour. A number of leashed family dogs are then allowed to lick this off with sometimes snarling canine voracity.
The performances of William Pope.L, which involve great physical and, I imagine, psychological stress, stand to Zhang Huan's as West stands to East. His crawl pieces, of which he has done perhaps forty since 1978, perform social struggle, as he puts it. His contribution to Biennial 2002, titled The Great White Way, will involve a twenty-two-mile crawl up Broadway, from the Statue of Liberty to the Bronx, and will take five years. In a film excerpt, Pope.L is seen in a padded Superman suit and ski hat, a skateboard strapped to his back, negotiating a segment of the crawl. Sometimes he uses the skateboard as a dolly, but that seems hardly less strenuous than actual crawling. Pope.L is African-American, and somehow one feels that crawling up the Great White Way has to be seen as a symbolic as well as an actual struggle. But it also has the aura of certain ritual enactments that require worshipers to climb some sacred stairway on their knees, or to achieve a required pilgrimage by crawling great distances to a shrine.
Since foot-washing, which is one of Praxis's actions, is widely recognized as a gesture of humility as well as hospitality in many religious cultures, the three performance pieces bear out one of Rinder's observations that a great many artists today are interested in religious subjects. He and I participated in a conversation organized by Simona Vendrame, the editor of Tema Celeste, and published in that magazine under the title New York, November 8, 2001. We were to discuss the impact of September 11 on American art. With few exceptions, the art in Biennial 2002 was selected before the horror, though it is inevitable that it colors how we look at the exhibits.
In a wonderful departure, five commissioned Biennial works are on view in Central Park, including an assemblage of sculptures in darkly patinated bronze by Kiki Smith, of harpies and sirens. These figures have human heads on birds' bodies, and as they are exhibited near the Central Park zoo, they suggest evolutionary possibilities that were never realized. When I saw pictures of them, however, I could not help thinking they memorialized those who threw themselves out of the upper windows of the World Trade Center rather than endure incineration. I had read that one of the nearby schoolchildren pointed to the falling bodies and said, "Look, the birds are on fire!"
I don't really yet know what effect on art September 11 actually had, and it might not be obvious even when one sees it. The artist Audrey Flack, whose work is in the Biennial, told me that as soon as she could get away from the television screen, she wanted only to paint fishing boats at Montauk. A good bit of what Rinder has selected could as easily as not have been done in response to the terrible events, but he said that he had sensed some sort of change taking place in artists' attitudes well before September 11: "What I was finding over and over again was artists saying things to me like 'Well, to be honest, what I'm really doing is searching for the truth' or 'What matters the most to me is to make the most honest statement I possibly can.'" I don't think one can easily tell from looking at the art that it embodies these virtues, any more than one could tell from Flack's watercolors that they constituted acts of healing for her. But that is what they mean and are.
One consequence of art's having taken the direction it has is that there is not always a lot to be gained from what one sees without benefit of a fair amount of explanation. Biennial 2002 has been very generous in supplying interpretive help. Some people have complained that the wall labels go too far in inflecting the way one is supposed to react to the work, but I am grateful for any help I can get; I found the wall texts, like the catalogue, indispensable. And beyond that, you can hear what the artists thought they were doing by listening to recorded comments on the rented electronic guides. I cannot see enough of the work of Kim Sooja, a Korean artist who works with traditional fabrics from her culture. But her statements contribute to the metaphysics of fabric--to what Kierkegaard calls the meaning of the cloth--and are worth thinking about in their own right.
You will encounter Kim Sooja's Deductive Object, consisting of Korean bedcovers placed over tables at the zoo cafe in Central Park, just north of Kiki Smith's mythological animals and just south of a towering steel tree by Roxy Paine. Since Central Park has been opened up to temporary exhibitions, I would like to urge a longstanding agenda of my own. I cannot think of anything better capable of raising the spirits of New York than installing a beautiful projected piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which, as always with their work, will not cost the city a nickel. They envision a series of tall gates, posted at regular intervals all along the main walkway of the park. Hanging from each will be saffron-colored strips of cloth that will float above us as we follow the path for as long as we care to--an undulating roof, since the strips are just long enough to cover the distance between the gates. The whole world will look with exaltation upon this work, which will express the same spirituality and truth that today's artists, if Lawrence Rinder is right, have aspired to in their work. And billions of dollars will flow into our economy as they pilgrim to our city.
I think the art world is going to be the way it is now for a very long time, even if it is strictly unimaginable how artworks themselves will look in 2004. Meanwhile, I think well of Biennial 2002, though I can have written of only a few of the 113 artists that make it up. You'll have to find your own way, like the artists themselves. Take my word that it is worth the effort. That's the best Biennial Criticism is able do in the present state of things.
Filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa tend to divide their attention between city life today and village life once upon a time. This rule has its exceptions, of course; but if you're searching for an African film that truly overcomes the split, deftly merging the contemporary with the folkloric, I doubt you'll find
anything more ingenious than Joseph Gaï Ramaka's retelling of Carmen. Set along the coast of modern-day Dakar, this Karmen Geï drapes current Senegalese costumes upon the now-mythic figures of Mérimée and Bizet, puts old-style songs and African pop into their mouths and has its characters dance till they threaten to burst the frame.
The film's American distributor, California Newsreel, suggests that Karmen Geï is Africa's first movie musical--that is, an all-singing, all-dancing story, rather than a story with song and dance added on. If so, that breakthrough would count as another major achievement for Ramaka. But nothing can matter in any Carmen without Carmen herself; and so I propose that Ramaka's true claim to fame is to have put Djeïnaba Diop Gaï on the screen.
Practically the first thing you see of her--the first thing you see at all in Karmen Geï--is the heart-stopping vision of her two thighs slapping together, while a full battery of drummers pounds away. We discover Karmen in the sand-covered arena of a prison courtyard, where she is dancing so exuberantly, lustily, violently that you'd think this was a bullring and she'd just trampled the matador; and at this point, she hasn't even risen from her seat. Wait till she gets up and really starts to move, shaking and swerving and swiveling a body that's all curves and pure muscle, topped by a hairdo that rises like a mantilla and then spills down in ass-length braids. A rebel, an outlaw, a force of nature, an irresistible object of desire: Gaï's Karmen embodies all of these, and embodies them in motion. The only part of her that seems fixed is her smile, shining in unshakable confidence from just above an out-thrust chin.
Is it just the memory of other Carmens that brings a bullring to mind? Not at all. There really is a contest going on in this opening scene, and Karmen is winning it, effortlessly. She is dancing, before a full assembly of the jail's female prisoners, in an attempt to seduce the warden, Angélique (Stéphanie Biddle). Pensive and lighter-skinned than Karmen, dressed in a khaki uniform with her hair pulled back tight, Angélique yields to her prisoner's invitation to dance and soon after is stretched out in bed, sated, while Karmen dashes through the hallways and out to freedom.
From that rousing start, Ramaka goes on to rethink Carmen in ways that vary from plausible to very, very clever. It's no surprise that the Don José figure (Magaye Niang) is a police officer; the twist is that Karmen snares him by breaking into his wedding, denouncing all of respectable Senegalese society and challenging his bride-to-be to a dance contest. The chief smuggler (Thierno Ndiaye Dos) is a courtly older man who keeps the lighthouse; and Escamillo, the only person in the movie big enough to look Karmen in the eye, is a pop singer, played with smooth assurance by pop star El Hadj Ndiaye.
Ramaka's best invention, though, is Angélique, a previously unknown character who is both a lovesick, uniformed miscreant and a doomed woman--that is, a merger of Don José and Carmen. By adding her to the plot, the film gives Karmen someone worth dying for. The details of how she arrives at that death are a little muddled--the direction is elliptical at best, herky-jerky at worst--but thanks to Angélique's presence in the story, the climax feels more tender than usual, and more deliberate. Karmen shows up for her final scene decked out in a red sheath, as if to insure the blood won't spoil her dress.
Karmen Geï has recently been shown in the eighth New York African Film Festival, at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. It is now having a two-week run downtown at Film Forum.
The title of Fabián Bielinsky's briskly intriguing Nine Queens would seem to refer to a sheet of rare stamps--or, rather, to a forgery of the stamps, which two Buenos Aires con artists hope to sell to a rich businessman. But then, the businessman is himself a crook, the con artists don't actually know one another and the sale just might involve real stamps. You begin to see how complicated things can be in this movie; and I haven't yet mentioned the sister.
The action, which stretches across one long day, begins in the convenience store of a gas station, where fresh-faced Juan (Gastón Pauls) draws the attention of Marcos (Ricardo Darín), an older, more aggressive swindler. Teamed up impromptu, just for the day, the two stumble into the con of a lifetime when Marcos's beautiful, prim, angry sister (Leticia Brédice) summons them to the luxury hotel where she works. She just happens to need Marcos to cart away one of his ailing buddies; and the buddy just happens to know of a guest who might buy some stamps.
No, nothing is as it seems. But Bielinsky's storytelling is so adept, his pace so fleet, his actors so much in love with every nuance of their dishonesty that you will probably laugh with delight, even as you're being dealt a losing hand of three-card monte.
And if you want social relevance, Nine Queens will give you that, too. As if Juan (or was it Marcos?) had scripted the whole country, this release swept the critics' awards for 2001 just in time for Argentina's economy to crash. Enjoy!
I hadn't intended to review this last film; but since it's become a critical success, here goes:
The Piano Teacher is a pan-European remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with French stars Isabelle Huppert and Annie Girardot playing the sacred-monster roles and Austrian director Michael Haneke fastidiously avoiding the camp humor that alone could have saved the movie. Set in Vienna and cast (except for the leads) with German-speaking actors, whose lips flop like dying fish around their dubbed French syllables, The Piano Teacher is a combination of immaculately composed shots and solemnly absurd dialogue, much of it about the music of Franz Schubert. "That note is the sound of conscience, hammering at the complacency of the bourgeoisie." Sure it is. Add a sequence in which Huppert humps Girardot (her own mother!) in the bed they share, throw in an extended sex scene where the characters grandly ignore any risk of interruption (though they're grappling in a public toilet), and you've got a movie that ought to have made classical music dirty again.
But to judge from critics' reactions, Schubert remains the touchstone of respectability, and The Piano Teacher is somehow to be taken seriously.
The aura of high-mindedness that cloaks the action (at least for some viewers) emanates mostly from Huppert. No matter what her character stoops to--doggie posture, for the most part--Huppert seems never to lower herself. She maintains her dignity because she is being brave. She is acting. She is allowing herself to be shown as sexually abject before an athletic younger man, Benoît Magimel, who has a cleft chin and peekaboo blond hair. Huppert has been similarly abject in recent years, in Benoît Jacquot's The School of Flesh, for example. I wonder what hope other women may nurture for themselves after 40, when this wealthy, celebrated, greatly accomplished and famously beautiful woman has no better prospects. I know we're expected to give prizes to Huppert for such ostentatious self-abnegation. (Last year, at Cannes, she collected a big award.) But what pleasure are we supposed to get from seeing the character humiliated?
A dishonest pleasure, I'd say; the same kind that's proposed in The Piano Teacher's now-notorious scene of genital mutilation. The meaning of the scene, for those who are pleased to give it one, is of course transgressive, subversive and otherwise big word-like. See how (women) (the Viennese) (the middle class) (fill in the blank) are repressed, how they turn against themselves, how they make themselves and everyone around them suffer. Then again, if you subtract all that guff about the complacent bourgeoisie, maybe the scene means nothing more than "Ew, gross!"
I have admired Haneke's films in the past, beginning with the antiseptically grim The Seventh Continent and going on to the tough, much-maligned Benny's Video. When Haneke has proposed that clean, affluent, educated people may do horrible things, I have agreed, as of course I must, accepting what would have been a mere platitude for the sake of the films' clear vision and genuine sense of dread. But as I watched Huppert's preposterous impersonation of a music teacher, I began to wonder if Haneke knows that characters can be something other than horrid.
The dynamics of Schubert's music represent emotional "anarchy," says Huppert at one point, in a pronouncement that would get a pedagogue sacked from any self-respecting conservatory. Listen to Rudolf Serkin play the great B-flat piano sonata, varying his touch with every breath, and you will hear not anarchy but imagination. It's the quality most lacking in The Piano Teacher--followed closely by warmth, humor, realism and purpose.
Fun at Home: Nation readers will want to know that Zeitgeist Video has just brought out a DVD of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's fine documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. All the original fun is there, plus added features such as Chomsky's own commentary on the picture. The film is now ten years old. You will probably find it's more to the point than ever.
I was in high school in the 1960s when I first saw Dave Van Ronk at the Gaslight, one of those little cellar clubs that used to line a Greenwich Village that now lives in myth and legend. I didn't understand what he was doing. It seemed like a jumble whose elements I recognized--folk tunes, ragtime, early jazz, Delta blues--but they didn't gel into what I thought was coherence. It was really only my expectations, though, that were exposed. I felt like Dr. P in Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, scanning deconstructed faces for that single telltale feature that would reveal who I was looking at. I didn't know how to think about it. I couldn't have been more confused if Louis Armstrong had ambled onto The Ed Sullivan Show and followed "Hello Dolly!" with "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
Two things, however, I got: Van Ronk was a hellacious guitar picker, and he was the only white guy I'd ever heard whose singing showed he understood Armstrong and Muddy Waters. He roared and bellowed like a hurricane; he could be threatening, and tender as the night. And he was funny. Not cute funny--really funny. He did bits from W.C. Fields, whose movies, like those of the Marx Brothers, were just being revived. He did "Mack the Knife" with a suddenly acquired tremolo I later found out was Marlene Dietrich's. He finished with "Cocaine," which he'd adapted from the Rev. Gary Davis, his friend and teacher, adding his own asides ("Went to bed last night singing a song/Woke up this morning and my nose was gone"). Decades later, Jackson Browne revived the tune, his band parsing Van Ronk's solo guitar.
There are many Van Ronk undercurrents flowing through American pop culture. The acclamation that followed his death from colon cancer early this year strangely mirrored his ghostly omnipresence during life. He was a missing link: an authentic songster who voiced folk-made music. At his artistic core, he reconnected jazz to folk-music forms that he, like his avatar Woody Guthrie, pursued, learned and kept alive--and, with the wit and humor that kept homage from freezing into reverence, dared to reimagine.
A big, burly guy whose personality was as oversized as his voice, Van Ronk never crossed over to commerciality, never got mainstream-famous. In those ways, he was a true exemplar of the folk-revival aesthetic: becoming too visible or successful equaled selling out. He followed the time-honored American path into this culture's musical heart: He studied sources and learned from living African-American performers. Those sources included Piedmont ragtime pickers like Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller and Delta deep-bluesmen like Son House, as well as parlor music. Then there was the Rev. Gary Davis. He'd dazzled 1940s Harlem street corners with his stylistically wide-ranging guitar and whooping singing, careening from biblical shouts to leering lipsmackers, and by the 1960s had become a teacher who drew Village hipsters to his small brick house in Queens. This was the era when Moondog, the eccentric jazz poet, took up his post near the Museum of Modern Art and did, well, whatever he felt like doing that day.
Maybe it's not surprising that I was so confused by these figures that I didn't guess until later that I'd seen some of the last stages of America's oral culture.
The acceleration of technological change has inevitably altered the oral process of folk-art transmission. In the twenty-first century it seems that, for better and worse, technology has probably rendered the Van Ronks oddly superfluous, apparently redundant. In evolution, if not architecture, form follows function. The concept of folk music hatched by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes, and embodied by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger, has, in the age of mass recording, lost the daily uses that made it folk art. Where once songsters were the repositories and transmitters of our polyglot national folk heritage, where Van Ronk's generation of amateur and semipro musicologist-sleuths sought out records tossed into people's attics and garages to find artists obscured by the mists of time, now, thanks to the omnipresent, profitable avalanche of record-company CD reissues, almost anything they dug up is readily available. Of course, the artists and their cultures are not.
So our easy connection with the cultural past is shaped by the recording studio, with its time constraints and pressures and implicit notion of a fixed performance guarded by copyright--and the possibility of paying publishing royalties that are the core of the music industry's economy. That inevitably alters performances from folk art, where borrowing and repetition are demanded. Thus we've lost the idiosyncratic twists to the oral/aural tradition that an artist of Van Ronk's caliber introduces, casually and yet integrally, however much they appear like asides.
"This song has changed since Gary used to do it," he used to growl, introducing "Cocaine." Which was, of course, part of the point, the method of transmission, of real folk music: If culture is a conservative mechanism, a cumulative record of human activity, change results from disconnections and accretions like Van Ronk's sharp-witted reactions to Davis's barbed blues, originally improvised add-ons drawn from his memory of lyrics the way a jazz musician pulls riffs from history and reworks them into his own voice.
Van Ronk was a die-hard collector of sources, living and recorded. As the liner notes to the 1962 album In the Tradition put it, "Dave Van Ronk has established himself as one of the foremost compilers of 'Jury Texts' regarding traditional tunes. (Jury Texts are when many verses are sung to one tune, usually with some new words appearing with each subsequent recording.) Here, in 'Death Letter Blues,' Van Ronk has arranged some of the most moving verses of this song into a dramatic slow blues." Behold the songster at work--a process found in early Armstrong, Guthrie and Robert Johnson.
Although the building blocks of oral culture are plastic, preservationists in a nonoral culture tend toward reverence, and thus simpler imitation--hence the folk revival's slew of earnest groups like the New Lost City Ramblers. As Van Ronk observed in a late 1970s interview in the folk music quarterly Sing Out!, "It was all part and parcel of the big left turn middle-class college students were making.... So we owe it all to Rosa Parks." While black rhythm-and-blues was revving white teens into rock and roll, black folk artists became heroes to young white collegians. The left cast a romantic, even sacramental aura over black (and white) folk art and its traditions, which implicitly stigmatized creative change; the central notion of folk-revival culture, authenticity, meant avoiding commercial trappings and replicating a recorded past.
Perhaps it was Van Ronk's deep study of that past that helped him avoid fixing it. In a late 1990s interview, asked about Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, he rightly called it the bible of his generation and noted dryly, "I sat up and took notice at how many tunes that, say, Doc Watson does that are on the Anthology.... Some he would have known [via oral tradition]. But you can tell. There are hundreds of possible verses. When someone does [lists three verses in order], you know they've been listening to Bascom Lamar Lunsford."
"One thing I was blessed with is that I was a very, very bad mimic," Van Ronk once observed. Which is another view of how oral tradition mixes conservation and creativity. Van Ronk's background allowed him to understand this uniquely.
He was born in Brooklyn on July 30, 1936, a Depression baby to a mostly Irish working-class family. His father and mother split, and he grew up in blue-collar Richmond Hill, Queens, where he went to Catholic school--or played truant--until the system gave up on him, at 16. In 1998 he told David Walsh, "I remember reading Grant's memoirs, the autobiography of Buffalo Bill. Lots of Mark Twain.... My brain was like the attic of the Smithsonian.... The principal...called me 'a filthy ineducable little beast.' That's a direct quote." Like Guthrie, Van Ronk became a formidable autodidact. While he hung out in pool halls he was listening to jazz--bebop, cool, then traditional, a k a New Orleans or Dixieland jazz, a style with its own cult of authenticity. He fell in love with Armstrong and Bessie Smith, along with Lead Belly and Bing Crosby, his major vocal influences.
Like Odysseus, Guthrie, Kerouac and Pynchon, Van Ronk decided to take to the sea. In 1957, he got a shore gig at the Cafe Bizarre in the Village. Odetta, the gospel-voiced black singer who gave the 1950s folk scene an interracial connection--as Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Josh White had to the first Depression wave--heard him, liked him and convinced him to make a demo tape that she'd pass on to Albert Grossman, folk-music maven, Chicago club owner and future manager of Bob Dylan. Popping Benzedrine in the best Beat fashion, Van Ronk hitchhiked to Chicago in twenty-four hours, got to Grossman's club, found out the tape hadn't, auditioned, got turned down (Grossman was booking black songsters like Big Bill Broonzy, and Van Ronk accused him of Crowjimming), hitchhiked back to New York, had his seaman's papers stolen and thus decided that he would, after all, become a folk singer.
Given his sardonic realism, it was fittingly ironic that he and his wife, Terri Thal, became quasi parents for dewy-eyed collegiate folkies drawn by Guthrie's songs and Seeger's indefatigable college-concert proselytizing. Seeger's shows planted folk-music seeds on campuses across the country, but Smith's Anthology provided the rich soil for the next generation of folk musicians. "Cast your mind back to 1952," Van Ronk told one interviewer. "The only way you could hear the old timers was hitting up the thrift shops. When the Anthology came out, there were eighty-two cuts, all the old-time stuff. I wore out a copy in a year. People my age were doing the same." As did his musical stepkids.
Van Ronk once said of Seeger, "What am I supposed to say about the guy who invented my profession?" By the late 1950s that profession had migrated far from Lead Belly and Guthrie, songsters who lived the lives they chronicled, and far from Seeger's fierce anticommercialism and romantic faith in a pure, true folk culture. History intervened. Seeger had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had doggedly resurfaced in the post-McCarthy era. Still, less threatening figures like Burl Ives became the commercial faces of folk music. As Joe Klein noted in Woody Guthrie: A Life, the folk revival offered record companies an exit from payola scandals and the racial and sexual fears that had generated mainstream disapproval of rock and roll. The patina of integrity and authenticity covering white collegiate folk music helped the labels repolish corporate images.
Starting in 1957, the Kingston Trio cleaned up old tunes like "Tom Dooley" and "Tijuana Jail" and scored several top-25 hits. Neat folk groups proliferated, feeding into the Village and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where young men and women donning recently acquired rural accents and denims recycled the Anthology's songbook and hoped to catch a label's ear.
In 1959, when Bobby Zimmerman was leaving behind his piano à la Jerry Lee Lewis for college and the Anthology's lures, Van Ronk made his first records, now compiled on The Folkways Years (Smithsonian/Folkways); they unveil a songster misclassified. Van Ronk once said, "I never really thought of myself as a folk singer at all. Still don't. What I did was to combine traditional fingerpicking guitar with a repertoire of old jazz tunes." Here he does a Gary Davis-derived staple of his repertoire, "Hesitation Blues," and more blues and gospel. His big, rough voice and guitar dexterity are self-evident, as is his improvisational feel.
In 1964, he yanged with Dave Van Ronk's Ragtime Jug Stompers (Mercury), recording high-energy versions of tunes like "Everybody Loves My Baby" with a wild and ragged Dixieland outfit. This was his recurrent jazz-folk dialectic. On his solo album Sings the Blues (Folkways), Van Ronk's coarse voice and nimble fingers got looser--like the irrepressible Davis's--and thus he found himself.
"It was more academic than it is now," Van Ronk remembered in the 1970s:
It was 'de rigueur,' practically, to introduce your next song with a musicological essay--we all did it. There was a great deal of activity around New York--not so much you could make money at. But there were folk song societies in most of the colleges and the left was dying, but not quietly. So there was a great deal of activity around Sing Out! and the Labor Youth League, which wasn't affiliated with the old CP youth group, you understand. There was a lot of grassroots interest among the petit-bourgeois left.
Spoken like the sly observer who once told an interviewer from the International Committee of the Fourth International, "I've always liked Trotsky's writings as an art critic."
By 1961 Bobby Zimmerman was Bobby Dylan and had arrived in New York, Van Ronk was an insider on the Village folk scene and the two gravitated toward and around each other, thanks partly to what Van Ronk called the take-no-prisoners quality of Dylan's music and personality. Ramped up by commercial success, the postwar folk revival's peak loomed over debates about authenticity. "All of a sudden," Van Ronk recalled a few years back, "there was money all over the place."
He settled into the Gaslight, a hub for noncommercial folkies. Several other pass-the-hat beat-folk coffeehouses, like Cafe Wha?, opened. By 1962 Dylan had settled in down the block, at the grander Gerde's Folk City. Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, part of the older folk-revival wave, had set up a folk-music showcase, WBAI had broadcast the shows and club owner Mike Porco, realizing he had a salable product, ousted both, lining his bar with record covers and his seats with young beatniks. Porco's Monday night Hoots were the dollar-admission descendants of both Young's and Seeger's earlier informal loft gatherings, and he showcased rediscovered legends like John Lee Hooker with Dylan as the opener. Tom and Jerry--later known as Simon and Garfunkel--and Judy Collins cut their teeth there. Kids flocked to this semi-underground. Jug bands emerged as the college-beatnik equivalent of the 1950s blue-collar rockabilly outbreak in the South, and street-corner doo-wop in the North, prefiguring the 1960s garage-band explosion after the Beatles and electric Dylan. The link: Everyone felt empowered to make music. These were folk musics.
The Newport Folk Festival, the crowning triumph of the postwar folk revival, was first organized in 1959 by jazz impresario George Wein and Albert Grossman, and graduated the purer wings of the folk movement to big-time concerts; Seeger himself was involved. "I never liked those things," Van Ronk characteristically recalled. "It was a three-ring circus.... You couldn't even really hear what you came to hear. Put yourself in my position, or any singer's position: How would you like to sing for 15,000 people with frisbees?" Along with his own musical catholicity, that may be why, even after the Dylan-goes-electric blowup at the 1965 festival, Van Ronk remained a Dylan defender.
"Nervous. Nervous energy, he couldn't sit still," is how he spoke of young Bob to David Walsh in 1998:
And very, very evasive.... What impressed me the most about him was his genuine love for Woody Guthrie. In retrospect, even he says now that he came to New York to 'make it.' That's BS. When he came to New York there was no folk music, no career possible.... What he said at the time is the story I believe. He came because he had to meet Woody Guthrie.... Bobby used to go out there two or three times a week and sit there, and play songs for him. In that regard he was as standup a cat as anyone I've ever met. That's also what got him into writing songs. He wrote songs for Woody, to amuse him, to entertain him. He also wanted Woody's approval.... [Dylan's music] had what I call a gung-ho, unrelenting quality.... He acquired very, very devoted fans among the other musicians before he had written his first song.
Van Ronk was the first to record a tune Dylan claimed to write, "He Was a Friend of Mine," on Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger in 1962 (the album has been reissued as part of Inside Dave Van Ronk [Fantasy]). Three years later, the Byrds redid it on Turn! Turn! Turn!, whose title cut remade Seeger's setting of Ecclesiastes into folk rock, the new sound Dylan had kicked into high gear during his 1965 tour.
Van Ronk once observed, "The area that I have staked out...has been the kind of music that flourished in this country between the 1880s and, say, the end of the 1920s. You can call it saloon music if you want to. It was the kind of music you'd hear in music halls, saloons, whorehouses, barbershops, anywhere the Police Gazette could be found." That's not exactly a full description of what he did over thirty albums and countless performances. Better to think of him as a songster, an older, more encompassing sort of folk artist. Lead Belly and the Reverend Davis are outstanding examples of this type; they drew from multiple local and regional traditions that, in the early days of radio and phonograph, still defined American musical styles. Dance tunes, blues, ragtime, ballads, gospel--anything to keep the audiences on street corners or in juke joints interested and willing to part with some cash. This was, after all, performance. Entertainment was its primary goal; improvisation, found in the vocal-guitar interplay and instrumental backing as well as verse substitutions and extrapolations or shortenings, played to audience reaction.
In 1962, with the Red Onion Jazz Band, Van Ronk cut In the Tradition, which, along with the solo Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album, cut in 1981, will be included on the forthcoming Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk. This somewhat odd couple makes a wonderful introduction to the breadth, depth and soul of this songster's legacy. The smoothly idiomatic Red Onions pump joyful New Orleans adrenaline and Armstrong trumpet into a raucous "Cake Walking Babies From Home"; a sinuous "Sister Kate," that dance hit built from an Armstrong melody; and Dylan's caustic "All Over You." Amid the Dixieland are solos: a stunning version of Son House's "Death Letter Blues" (later recorded by Cassandra Wilson), Lead Belly's "Whoa Back Buck," the virtuosic ragtime "St. Louis Tickle," signature pieces like the gentle "Green, Green Rocky Road" and "Hesitation Blues." The tunes drawn from Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album show no diminishing of talent and a continuing breadth of perspective: Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" (sung with a tenderness that scorches periodically into Howlin' Wolf) and "St. James Infirmary" share space with tunes by Davis and Mississippi John Hurt.
In 1967 he cut Dave Van Ronk & The Hudson Dusters (Verve Forecast), a cross of jug band and electric folk music that foreshadowed The Blues Project, the improvising garage band that Van Ronk pupils Danny Kalb and Steve Katz later formed. There was doo-wop, Joni Mitchell (whose Clouds becomes anguished, thanks to Van Ronk's torturous voice breaks used with interpretive skill, a move he learned from Armstrong and Bessie Smith) and the balls-to-the-wall garage rock "Romping Through the Swamp," which sounds akin to Captain Beefheart.
Recorded in 1967, Live at Sir George University (Justin Time) is time-capsule Van Ronk on guitar, plus vocals, doing pieces of his repertoire: "Frankie and Albert," "Down and Out," "Mack the Knife," "Statesboro Blues" and "Cocaine," of course--all masterful, each distinct.
By then the folk boom, whose audience was bleeding into folk-rock, electric blues and psychedelia, stalled and ended. Van Ronk continued (except for a hiatus in the 1970s) to perform and record and gather new-old material. And he had time, before his death, to deliver some acid reflections.
On 1960s folkies:
The whole raison d'être of the New Left had been exposed as a lot of hot air, that was demoralizing. I mean, these kids thought they were going to change the world, they really did. They were profoundly deluded.... Phil Ochs wrote the song "I declare the war is over," that was despair, sheer despair.
On 1980s folkies:
You're talking about some pretty damn good songwriters. But I'd like to hear more traditional music.... With the last wave of songwriters you get the sense that tradition begins with Bob Dylan and nobody is more annoyed with that than Bob Dylan. We were sitting around a few years ago, and he was bitching and moaning: "These kids don't have any classical education." He was talking about the stuff you find on the Anthology [of American Folk Music]. I kidded him: "You got a lot to answer for, Bro."
As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
If you're in the mood to see great acting, I recommend that you watch Aurélien Recoing get caught in a lie in Laurent Cantet's Time Out. As Vincent, a French management consultant who is secretly unemployed--playing hooky from life, let's say--Recoing is forever being asked why he's hanging around in office
towers, motel lobbies or parking lots. The truth is, he's dawdling: killing his own time, or spying on the way other people use theirs. But since dawdling in the modern world is a category of malfeasance, midway in seriousness between a theft and a threat--theft of an organization's private airspace, the threat to use that space without management approval--Vincent must continually justify his mere presence. Each time he fails to do so, Recoing brilliantly shows you how Vincent is a little slow with the first words of his excuse, a little too quick with the rest. You can see the lie form behind his pale, high forehead.
That expanse of flesh seems transparent not only to you but also to the security guards who challenge Vincent. They see how a flush tints his otherwise bloodless, round-cheeked face; they read the effect as shame (which it is, in part). But Recoing's ability to alight cleanly on each emotion, as a dancer hits the mark, is only the beginning of the marvels he performs in this role. What's really impressive is the talent he displays for playing simultaneously to his fellow actors and to the audience, revealing aspects of Vincent's makeup to you even as he conceals them from the people onscreen. The security guards often fail to guess what you do, that the flush comes from anger as much as shame; they seldom hear the note of outrage that wavers beneath Vincent's thin-lipped patter.
Of course, this two-faced performance owes a lot to Cantet, the writer-director of Time Out. He's the one who plotted out the successive views of Vincent, so the man's emotional truth would accumulate even as his lies pile up. But it's Recoing who is so good at making Vincent lie badly. One moment, you'd think his eyes opened onto the rear wall of his skull; a second later, and the pupils are glittering near the surface, in slits like two flesh wounds. All the while, as his mind visibly shoots forward and retreats, Vincent keeps pouring out the words, hopelessly, uselessly, as if he wanted and deserved to be caught.
Maybe he talks so volubly because words are all he has: the words of a corporate functionary, backed up by a cell phone, a car and a carefully tended dark suit. Time Out begins with Vincent using most of the above assets in one of those rare and ingenious opening shots that instantly define a movie. You see a field of nocturnal mist, which gradually proves to be a fogged-up windshield. Vincent has been sleeping behind the wheel. As the shot continues and dawn breaks, a bare landscape takes shape beyond the membrane of the car. Inside the automotive bubble, Vincent picks up the cell phone. Yes, he tells his wife smoothly, the meeting went well--so well that now he has to stay over. He probably won't be back tonight. Miss you, too.
The windshield has cleared. Outside, the world's activities have begun. Inside, Vincent is insulated (though none too well) from the first of the film's challenges. He isn't supposed to be parked where kids get off the school bus? Then he'll drive elsewhere. As you eventually learn, Vincent likes to drive.
We'll get to that revelation. But for now, since I've told you some of the plot, it's probably more important to acknowledge the true story that underlies Time Out. You may remember the newspaper account: For years, a man in France said goodbye to his family each morning and drove off to a nonexistent job. He spent his time sitting around in parking lots and coffee shops; he got his money by floating loans, which he never repaid. When the debts grew so pressing that exposure was at hand, the man took a gun and ended the imposture; he killed his family but, though he tried, not himself.
Cantet has transformed this violent reality by draining it of almost all physical menace. Granted, in one memorable scene Vincent seems on the verge of killing his wife (Karin Viard), but his method is the relatively passive one of abandonment in the snow. Also, at the climax of Time Out, Vincent raises his voice and storms clumsily through the house; but despite that, Cantet doesn't go in for explosive denouements. He's far more interested in the normal texture of this abnormal story. Cantet wants to explore the corridors of a glass office tower, to sink into the squared-off armchairs in a motel lobby, to follow a strip of road wherever it leads. As much as Vincent's anger and anxiety keep mounting throughout the film, the shots and rhythms remain coolly composed.
When filmmaking is this precise and intelligent, critics habitually tack on a third adjective: dull. It's a judgment I was tempted to make whenever Vincent got together with his family. Those scenes felt obligatory, with Vincent trapped among the overbearing father, the surly son, the increasingly frustrated wife. If I had to live with this bunch of stock characters, I too might sleep in my car. But Cantet's vision of domestic life, though uninspired, makes up only a minor part of Time Out, whose patient and meticulous technique pulled me in whenever the film turned to a more congenial subject: criminality.
Vincent's most important relationship in Time Out is not with his wife but with a lean, wolf-faced smuggler named Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), who strikes up an acquaintance after catching him sleeping in that motel lobby. There's something wickedly avuncular about Jean-Michel, with his low, low voice and ironic smile. You could take him home to dinner (and wind up feeling like a guest in your own home). Jean-Michel leads Vincent into a world of darkened rooms full of cardboard boxes and darkened roads that slip across borders--a world that temporarily appeals to him.
It's during this time with Jean-Michel that Vincent makes the revelation I mentioned earlier, explaining how a love of driving cost him his job. When on the road to a business meeting, Vincent used to ignore the turnoff and simply keep going; he would drive on for one more exit, then for two, until he eventually stopped showing up at all and was fired. Jean-Michel gives Vincent the courtesy of accepting this story as a confession of good sense. And from what Time Out shows us of the business world, Jean-Michel is right.
What do people talk about in all those meetings? At one point, Cantet has Vincent spy on a conference-table gathering, so we can hear the presentation for ourselves: public-private strategic infrastructure business-model development. Nothing that you could smell or taste or pick up in your hand. Who wouldn't prefer the hum of wheels, the sound of the radio, to these endless polysyllables? And when you consider the cloudiness of this language of global trade, why shouldn't Vincent's old school chums believe him when he says he can take their cash into Switzerland and invest it in, ah, something or other? Some of these buddies all but force their money onto him. After all, he speaks so well.
Cantet's previous film, Human Resources, was similarly skeptical about the modern arts of management. That picture told the story of a young man from a working-class family who comes home from school to work in his father's factory. The father labors on the shop floor; the son, with his college education, hunches over a computer. I admired the way Cantet dramatized the homecoming, with congratulations quickly giving way to suspicion and resentment. (Wear a tie to work, and your favorite old bar might no longer be so comfortable.) But once the film's story kicked in, with the workers threatening to go on strike and the son being maneuvered to lie to them, Human Resources turned into more of a diagram than a movie. You could have taken a piece of graph paper and plotted the characters' relationships. In fact, that's what Cantet seemed to have done.
But there's nothing schematic about Time Out. However neat or decorous the storytelling, the movie respects the oddness of Vincent's refusal; which is to say, it reveals something of the oddness of the normal world by letting Vincent haunt it from a slight remove. And in Aurélien Recoing, the movie has a perfectly bland-looking Vincent whose every breath is charged with mystery. Recoing is your boring neighbor from down the hall, suddenly glimpsed doing the perp walk on the 10 o'clock news. He's Bartleby for the age of the euro; he's what you see in the mirror on Monday morning, before your eyelids mercifully ungum.
Recoing is an actor playing a character who is himself onstage full-time. He's in every frame of Time Out; and to every frame, he contributes something of genius.
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