Dread ripples through me as I listen to a phone message from our manager
saying that we (The Doors) have another offer of huge amounts of money
if we would just allow one of our songs to be used as the background for
a commercial. They don't give up! I guess it's hard to imagine that
everybody doesn't have a price. Maybe 'cause, as the cement heads try to
pave the entire world, they're paving their inner world as well. No
imagination left upstairs.
Apple Computer called on a Tuesday--they already had the audacity to
spend money to cut "When the Music's Over" into an ad for their new cube
computer software. They want to air it the next weekend, and will give
us a million and a half dollars! A MILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS! Apple is
a pretty hip company...we use computers.... Dammit! Why did Jim (Morrison) have to have such integrity?
I'm pretty clear that we shouldn't do it. We don't need the money. But I
get such pressure from one particular bandmate (the one who wears
glasses and plays keyboards).
"Commercials will give us more exposure," he says. I ask him, "so you're
not for it because of the money?" He says "no," but his first
question is always "how much?" when we get one of these offers, and he
always says he's for it. He never suggests we play Robin Hood, either.
If I learned anything from Jim, it's respect for what we created. I have
to pass. Thank God, back in 1965 Jim said we should split everything,
and everyone has veto power. Of course, every time I pass, they double
It all started in 1967, when Buick proffered $75,000 to use "Light My
Fire" to hawk its new hot little offering--the Opel. As the story
goes--which everyone knows who's read my autobiography or seen Oliver
Stone's movie--Ray, Robby and John (that's me) OK'd it, while Jim was
out of town. He came back and went nuts. And it wasn't even his song
(Robby primarily having penned "LMF")! In retrospect, his calling up
Buick and saying that if they aired the ad, he'd smash an Opel on
television with a sledgehammer was fantastic! I guess that's one of the
reasons I miss the guy.
It actually all really started back in '65, when we were a garage
band and Jim suggested sharing all the songwriting credits and money.
Since he didn't play an instrument--literally couldn't play one chord on
piano or guitar, but had lyrics and melodies coming out of his ears--the
communal pot idea felt like a love-in. Just so no one got too
weird, he tagged that veto thought on. Democracy in action...only
sometimes avenues between "Doors" seem clogged with bureaucratic BS. In
the past ten years it's definitely intensified...maybe we need a third
party. What was that original intent? Liberty and justice for all
songs...and the pursuit of happiness.... What is happiness? More money?
More fame? The Vietnamese believe that you're born with happiness; you
don't have to pursue it. We tried to bomb that out of them back in my
youth. From the looks of things, we might have succeeded.
This is sounding pretty depressing, John; where are you going here? The
whole world is hopefully heading toward democracy. That's a good thing,
John.... Oh, yeah: the greed gene. Vaclav Havel had it right when he
took over as president of Czechoslovakia, after the fall of Communism.
He said, "We're not going to rush into this too quickly, because I don't
know if there's that much difference between KGB and IBM."
Whoa! Here comes another one: "Dear John Densmore, this letter is an
offer of up to one million dollars for your celebrity endorsement of our
product. We have the best weight loss, diet and exercise program, far
better than anything on the market. The problem is the celebrity must be
overweight. Then the celebrity must use our product for four weeks,
which will take off up to 20 pounds of their excess body fat. If your
endorsement works in the focus group tests, you will immediately get
$10,000.00 up front and more money will start rolling in every month
after that--up to a million dollars or more." Wow! Let's see...I've
weighed 130 pounds for thirty-five years--since my 20s...I'll have to
gain quite a bit...sort of like a De Niro thing...he gained fifty pounds for Raging Bull--and won an Oscar! I'm an artist, too, like him...
We used to build our cities and towns around churches. Now banks are at
the centers of our densely populated areas. I know, it's the 1990s....
No, John, it's the new millennium, you dinosaur. Rock dinosaur, that is.
My hair isn't as long as it used to be. I don't smoke much weed anymore,
and I even have a small bald spot. The dollar is almighty, and
ads are kool, as cool as the coolest rock videos.
Why did Jim have to say we were "erotic politicians"? If I had been the
drummer for the Grassroots, it probably wouldn't have cut me to the core
when I heard John Lennon's "Revolution" selling tennis shoes...and
Nikes, to boot! That song was the soundtrack to part of my youth, when
the streets were filled with passionate citizens expressing their First
Amendment right to free speech. Hey...the streets are filled again! Or
were, before 9/11. And they're protesting what I'm trying to wax on and
on about here. Corporate greed! Maybe I should stick to music. I guess
that's why I hit the streets with Bonnie Raitt during the 1996
Democratic National Convention. We serenaded the troops. Bob Hope did it
during World War II, only our troops are those dressed in baggy Bermuda
shorts, sporting dreadlocks. Some have the shaved Army look, but they're
always ready to fight against the Orwellian nightmare. A woman activist
friend of mine said that with the networking of the Net, what's bubbling
under this brave new world will make the '60s unrest look like peanuts.
I don't want "Anarchy, Now," a worn-out hippie phrase, but I would like
to see a middle class again in this country.
Europe seems saner right now. They are more green than us. They're
paranoid about our genetically altered food and they're trying to make
NATO a little more independent in case we get too zealous in our
policing of the globe. When The Doors made their first jaunt from the
colonies to perform in the mother country back in '67, the record
companies seemed a little saner, too. The retailers in England could
order only what they thought they could sell; no returns to the
manufacturers. That eliminated the tremendous hype that this country
still produces, creating a buzz of "double platinum" sales, and then
having half of the CDs returned. Today, there is a time limit of three
to six months for the rackjobbers to get those duds back to the company.
Our band used to be on a small folk label. Judy Collins, Love and the
Butterfield Blues Band were our Elektra labelmates. We could call up the
president, Jac Holzman, and have a chat...and this was before we
made it. Well, Jac sold out for $10 million back in '70, and we were now
owned by a corporation. Actually, today just five corps own almost the
entire record business, where numbers are the bottom line. At
least we aren't on the one owned by Seagram's! Wait a minute...maybe
we'd get free booze...probably not. Advances are always
recoupable, booze probably is too.
Those impeccable English artists are falling prey as well. Pete
Townshend keeps fooling us again, selling Who songs to yuppies hungry
for SUVs. I hope Sting has given those Shaman chiefs he hangs out with
from the rainforest a ride in the back of that Jag he's advertising,
'cause as beautiful as the burlwood interiors are, the car--named after
an animal possibly facing extinction--is a gas guzzler. If you knew me
back in the '60s, you might say that this rant--I mean, piece--now has a
self-righteous ring to it, me having had the name Jaguar John back then.
I had the first XJ-6 when they came out, long before the car became
popular with accountants. That's when I sold it for a Rolls
Royce-looking Jag, the Mark IV, a super gas guzzler. That was back when
the first whiffs of rock stardom furled up my nose. Hopefully, I've
learned something since those heady times, like: "What good is a used-up
world?" Plus, it's not a given that one should do commercials for the
products one uses. The Brits might bust me here, having heard "Riders on
the Storm" during the '70s (in Britain only) pushing tires for their
roadsters, but our singer's ghost brought me to my senses and I gave my
portion to charity. I still don't think the Polish member of our
band has learned the lesson of the Opel, but I am now adamant that three
commercials and we're out of our singer's respect. "Jim's dead!" our
piano player responds to this line of thought. That is precisely
why we should resist, in my opinion. The late, transcendental George
Harrison had something to say about this issue. The Beatles "could have
made millions of extra dollars [doing commercials], but we thought it
would belittle our image or our songs," he said. "It would be real handy
if we could talk to John [Lennon]...because that quarter of us is
gone...and yet it isn't, because Yoko's there, Beatling more than ever."
Was he talking about the Nike ad, or John and Yoko's nude album cover
shot now selling vodka?
Actually, it was John and Yoko who inspired me to start a 10 percent
tithe, way back in the early '80s. In the Playboy interview, John
mentioned that they were doing the old tradition, and it stuck in my
mind. If everybody gave 10 percent, this world might recapture a
bit of balance. According to my calculations, as one gets up into the
multi category, you up the ante. Last year I nervously committed to 15
percent, and that old feeling rose again: the greed gene. When you get
to multi-multi, you should give away half every year. Excuse me, Mr.
Gates, but the concept of billionaire is obscene. I know you give a lot
away, and it's easy for me to mouth off, but I do know something about
it. During the Oliver Stone film on our band, the record royalties
tripled, and as I wrote those 10 percent checks, my hand was shaking.
Why? It only meant that I was making much more for myself. It was the
hand of greed. I am reminded of the sound of greed, trying to talk me
into not vetoing a Doors song for a cigarette ad in Japan.
"It's the only way to get a hit over there, John. They love commercials.
It's the new thing!"
"What about encouraging kids to smoke, Ray?"
"You always have to be PC, don't you, John?" I stuck to my guns and
vetoed the offer, thinking about the karma if we did it. Manzarek has
recently been battling stomach ulcers. So muster up courage, you
capitalists; hoarding hurts the system--inner as well as outer.
So it's been a lonely road resisting the chants of the rising
solicitations: "Everybody has a price, don't they?" Every time we (or I)
resist, they up the ante. An Internet company recently offered three
mil for "Break on Through." Jim's "pal" (as he portrays himself in
his bio) said yes, and Robby joined me in a resounding no! "We'll give
them another half mil, and throw in a computer!" the prez of Apple
pleaded late one night.
Robby stepped up to the plate again the other day, and I was very
pleased that he's been a longtime friend. I was trying to get through to
our ivory tinkler, with the rap that playing Robin Hood is fun, but the
"bottom line" is that our songs have a higher purpose, like keeping the
integrity of their original meaning for our fans. "Many kids have said
to me that 'Light My Fire,' for example, was playing when they first
made love, or were fighting in Nam, or got high--pivotal moments in
their lives." Robby jumped in. "If we're only one of two or three groups
who don't do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the
long run. The publishing will suffer a little, but we should be proud of
our stance." Then Robby hit a home run. "When I heard from one fan that
our songs saved him from committing suicide, I realized, that's it--we
can't sell off these songs."
So, in the spirit of the Bob Dylan line, "Money doesn't talk, it
swears," we have been manipulated, begged, extorted and bribed to make a
pact with the devil. While I was writing this article, Toyota Holland
went over the line and did it for us. They took the opening
melodic lines of "Light My Fire" to sell their cars. We've called up
attorneys in the Netherlands to chase them down, but in the meantime,
folks in Amsterdam think we sold out. Jim loved Amsterdam.
Although car chases are formulaic, they needn't be standard issue. One
of the many substantial pleasures that The Bourne Identity offers
is a thoughtful car chase, a loving car chase, in which the characters
truly care about their conduct amid prolonged automotive mayhem. It
doesn't hurt, of course, that the scene is Paris. The streets there are barely wide enough for a single fleeing vehicle--which means that Jason Bourne may as well use the sidewalk when he needs an extra lane. Once the pedestrians dive out
of the way, he gets to skid through every degree of turn except
ninety--Descartes never laid his grid over this city--until the route
ends at a set of stairs. They're very picturesque; and considering what
his car's undercarriage was already like, they can't do much harm.
By the time the car fully resumes the horizontal, some of the pursuing
motorcycle cops have managed to pull up. "Turn your head," Jason warns
his passenger, Marie Kreutz, in a surprisingly gentle tone. She was
guzzling booze straight from the bottle even before this ride; he'd
rather not worsen her alarm by letting her watch the next maneuver. But
we see it, as one cop after another is shaken off and the car hurtles
onto a highway. At last--a chance to make time! The camera drops to
within an inch of the macadam so that our brains, too, can get a good
rattle, as Jason and Marie's car seems to race straight out of the
screen. Then, almost without transition, it's shooting through more
non-Cartesian turns, off a ramp, past the spot where the last motorcycle
cop makes his rendezvous with a passing truck, to come to a very
temporary version of rest.
How should a car chase end? If the sequence is standard issue, the
filmmaker will require a fireball, or a roll downhill and then a
fireball, followed perhaps by the sight of the good guys speeding away.
But in The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman has been witty
enough to conclude the sequence by having Jason pull into a parking
garage. From this, we may learn that the hero is a fundamentally
conventional person, despite what he's been doing for the past five
minutes. But this is only part of what we learn--because Liman is also
clever enough to make the real action start when the motor stops.
All but vibrating from what they've been through, Marie and Jason sit in
the car in silence, each glancing awkwardly toward the other and then
looking away. The camera, static at last, takes them both in at once.
Time stretches; they squirm. Someone is going to have to say something
pretty soon--and the words, when they come, will have the shy banality
of a postcoital stab at conversation, when the two people have scarcely
met and are wondering what the hell they've just done.
For me, this was the moment when The Bourne Identity revealed its
true nature, as a study of those people in their 20s who can't yet put
up with workaday life. Liman has looked at such characters before, in
Swingers and Go. Those movies were about using
recreational drugs, selling recreational drugs, selling over-the-counter
medicines that you claim are recreational drugs, losing yourself in
music, losing yourself in lap dancing, losing your sense that this cute
thing before you might not be an ideal companion when you get to be 70.
Jobs in these movies count for little or nothing; friendships mean the
world, though they're always breaking apart. If you can recognize these
attitudes, and if you're familiar with the behavior through which
they're expressed nowadays, you will understand Jason Bourne and Marie
Kreutz. They're typical Doug Liman characters, who just happen to live
in a spy thriller.
Now, since The Bourne Identity is adapted from a Robert Ludlum
novel and was written for the screen by two people other than the
director, you might doubt the wisdom of ascribing all the above to
Liman. But look at the casting. In the title role, Liman has Matt Damon,
who carries over from Good Will Hunting his persona of the
regular working stiff--an unpretentious guy who must nevertheless come
to grips with a great power he's been given. In Good Will
Hunting, the gift was mathematical genius, which somehow was shut up
behind Damon's sloping brow and wary, squinting eyes. In The Bourne
Identity, in which he plays a CIA assassin suffering from amnesia,
Damon is puzzled to hear himself speak many languages, and to find that
his arms and legs demolish anyone who threatens him. Different skills;
same aura of being troubled, but decent and game. When Jason Bourne
refuses to hold on to a gun--something that he does more than once in
the picture--Damon infuses the gesture with the gut-level morality of a
Catholic boy from South Boston.
Paired with Damon, in the role of Marie, is Franka Potente, the young
German actress who is best known for Run Lola Run. She, too, has
retained her persona from the earlier film, so that she brings to Marie
a convincing impression of having enjoyed quite a few good times over
the past years, many of which she can't remember. Her basic facial
expression is something between a scowl and a sneer--the sign, you'd
think, of a feral sexuality that bores her, because it encounters no
worthy challengers and yet prevents her from concentrating on anything
else. No wonder she runs--or drifts in this case, playing someone who
has done nothing since high school except wander about. When first seen
in The Bourne Identity, Potente is at the American Embassy in
Zurich, making a pain of herself by demanding a visa to which she is
most likely not entitled. When first approached by Damon, Potente
establishes her baseline attitude toward people by snapping "What are
you looking at?" Her Marie isn't a bad person, you
understand--she's just been bad news for any man she's hung around. Now,
though, she's met the right guy in Jason Bourne, meaning someone who can
be bad news for her.
I think it's worthwhile to compare these characters with those played by
Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company, a routine
bomb-in-a-suitcase thriller, whose main function is to help audiences
kill time till the release of Men in Black 2. Hopkins plays the
self-controlled CIA agent, who is so white he's English. Rock plays
(guess what?) the street-smart, fast-talking black guy, who must be put
into the field at once, or else the world will end. There's an
underground trade in nuclear weapons, you see, which Hopkins can foil
only with the aid of someone who looks exactly like Rock.
And there's the essential problem of Bad Company. The mere
appearance of Chris Rock is supposedly enough; the assignment requires
no one to act like him. In any decent movie of this sort--48
Hours, say, or Trading Places--the white character will fail
in his task, except for the wiles the black character can lend him. But
in Bad Company, Rock exists solely to be educated. A very smart
man who has made nothing of his abilities--the reasons for which failure
are left disturbingly vague--his character must be trained to wear a
suit, sip Bordeaux and rise at dawn. These traits, according to the
movie, are proper to a white man; and Rock will help defeat terrorism by
adopting them. As an interim goal for the character, this is bad enough.
What's worse is the final justification for rubbing some white onto
Rock: to make him a fit husband.
Bad Company was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Joel
Schumacher and written, so far as I can tell, by the welfare policy
officials of the Bush Administration. Heartless in theme and faceless in
style, it is so many thousands of feet of off-the-shelf filmmaking,
through which you sift, disconsolate, in search of a single live moment.
There is one: the scene in which Rock tells off a CIA supervisor. Of
course, this, too, is part of the formula; but when Rock lets loose his
falsetto indignation, the world's shams all wash away in the torrent.
You feel clean and free, listening to Rock's outrage. I wonder what he'd
say in private about this movie.
Maybe he'd say The Bourne Identity has more soul than all of Joel
Schumacher's films put together. I think soulfulness has to do with
acknowledging the reserves of personality in someone who might at first
seem a mere type--or acknowledging, for that matter, the personality in
a movie that appears generic. It's about individual but strict judgments
of right and wrong; and, always, it's about the exuberance of talent.
This last point is the one that makes The Bourne Identity into
Liman's movie. His direction is a performance in its own right,
combining the logic and flair of a first-rate bop solo. He attends to
the small, naturalistic gestures--the way Jason pauses to brush snow off
his sleeve, or Marie shields her mouth to hide a smile. He pushes the
cinematography to extremes, using low levels of light from very few
sources, to give you a sense of intimacy with the characters' flesh. He
continually thinks up ways to keep the action fresh. Sometimes his
tricks are unobtrusive, as when he makes a shot shallower than you'd
expect, and so more arresting. Sometimes he's expressive, as when Bourne
teeters on a rickety fire escape, and the camera peers down at his peril
while swinging overhead. And sometimes he's flat-out wild. In the midst
of a fight scene, Liman tosses in a point-of-view shot, about half a
second long, to show you what the bad guy sees as he flies over a desk,
upside down. If my schedule of screenings and deadlines had been more
merciful, I would now compare Liman's direction with that of the master,
John Woo, in his new Windtalkers. But I wasn't able to see
Windtalkers by press time; and, on reflection, I'm glad I didn't.
The Bourne Identity deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake.
If you're interested in the plot, you can enjoy that, too. I've left it
till last, since that's what Liman does. In one of his cheekiest
gestures, he lets the movie's McGuffin go unexplained. But as a public
service, I will give you this much detail: The Bourne Identity
assumes that the CIA's activities are an endless chain of cover-ups,
with each new calamity needing to be hidden in turn. That's why the
agency needs unlimited power.
Bad Company? Right.
On May 14, 2002, the first wave of Internet file-sharing died.
Politics were never far from anyone's mind at this year's fifty-fifth
Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still
reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's
victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first
round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election's second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually
invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the
offices of Le Pen's party, the Front National, a mere block away from
the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of
Europe's rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely.
Le Pen's cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings)
contained little mention of cinema. But it's doubtful that this
resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal--this
time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noë's
Irréversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric
meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci
is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes--fits Le Pen's definition
of a wholesome art "that respects our national identity and the values
of our civilization."
In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first
conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of
Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current
organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for
competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the
outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as
well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two
simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and
Critics' Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of
cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese
auteur Manoel de Oliveira's latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing
sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh
or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.
The festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, went to Roman Polanski's
The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work
of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who
returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon
childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the
memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody)
who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding.
What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from
an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto's microhistory, and then
shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman's solitary
transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.
At the film's press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero's
voyeurism and enforced passivity--Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto
uprising from the window of his apartment hideout--reflected his own
choice of filmmaking as a profession. "That's one of those questions
you'd need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one," the director quipped
acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on
Schindler's List and Aimée & Jaguar) why
big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of
Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.
Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman's brilliant
fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening
out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an
actress from the Comédie Française, performs a text drawn
from Russian author Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate--a
chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in
German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines
in safety. Visuals reminiscent of German Expressionist film--the
actress's physiognomy and the shadows surrounding her figure--combine
with the pure power of language to conjure up the lost world of the
ghetto (the poor patients who pay her with potatoes, the neighbor in an
elegant linen suit, wearing his yellow star like a camellia). Using
these subtle and minimalist means, Wiseman's film builds to an
emotionally devastating conclusion.
But that's Cannes, where the purest cinematic pleasures coexist beside a
rare degree of hype and glamour. Where else would a jury including
surrealists (president David Lynch and fellow director Raoul Ruiz) and
powerful babes (actresses Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh) assemble to
judge the fate of world cinema? They gave this year's critical favorite,
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past,
the Grand Jury Prize, while its star, Kati Outinen, took the award for
Best Actress. A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost
his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a
world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned
Helsinki port, The Man Without a Past seemed to distill Europe's
hope for redemption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with
lyricism, gentleness and beauty.
In the Official Selection, refugees and genocides were everywhere: from
the boat filled with survivors of the Shoah heading toward the shores of
Palestine in 1948 during the mesmerizing opensequences of Kedma,
Israeli director Amos Gitaï's alternately moving and unwieldy
existential drama about the first days of Israel's founding amid the
confusion of war between British, Arab and Jewish forces; to the hordes
of Armenians fleeing Turkish forces in Atom Egoyan's Ararat, an
overly intellectualized evocation of Turkey's 1915 extermination of its
Armenian population (which came complete with a condemnation by that
government); to the Kurds massed along the boundary between Iraq and
Iran in Bahman Ghobadi's Songs from My Mother's Country, a letter
from an ongoing genocide; to the largely unseen immigrants heading
secretly north across the border in Chantal Akerman's From the Other
Side, a bracingly experimental (if ill-paced) documentary
exploration of the frontier between the United States and Mexico.
Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami provided a triumph of minimalist style
in Ten, a film shot in digital, in which a divorced woman driving
hectically through the streets of Teheran picks up a series of
passengers--including an elderly peasant, a prostitute and her own young
son--whose conversations illuminate her own condition in Iranian
society. At the film's emotional climax, she stops her car to talk, and
we suddenly feel the losses that have propelled her relentless forward
motion. In an Official Selection routinely dominated by male directors,
Ten was one of a mere handful of films to address women's
It was a good year for gallows humor and dark comedies. Nebraskan
satirist Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (an adaptation of the
novel by Louis Begley) was notable both for its mordant wit and for Jack
Nicholson's restrained performance as a retired insurance executive
suddenly confronted with the meaninglessness of existence. A far wackier
vision of America emerged from Michael Moore's Bowling for
Columbine, the first documentary to screen in competition at Cannes
in forty-six years, which received a special prize from the jury. At
times hilarious and biting, Moore's film ropes together the 1999 high
school shootings in Colorado, the Oklahoma City bombing and an incident
that occurred near Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, where one
6-year-old shot another, to raise the question, Why is gun violence
endemic in America? Officials of the Lockheed Corporation, members of
the Michigan Militia and Timothy McVeigh's brother James (a gun-toting
tofu farmer) weigh in with their suggestions. There are a few surprises
(a sheriff, for example, who thinks workfare should be abolished), but
as an interviewer Moore is overly fond of the rhetorical question, and
his film founders when it encapsulates the history of American foreign
policy as a unique series of bloody coups and massacres. (Even the
liberal French daily Libération took issue with Moore's
anti-Americanism, which it deemed too much in the spirit of France
today.) And so we're left to wonder, is it something in our water or in
Alas, even a cursory glimpse at the festival's other selections showed
violence to be far from an American exception. There was Brazilian
director Fernando Meirelles's fast-paced favela epic, City of
God, in which trigger-happy children devastate the slums of Rio. And
there was Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine
Intervention, a comedy set (miraculously) on the West Bank and in
the town of Nazareth, where he was born. Playing E.S., a figure like
himself, Suleiman melds Buster Keaton's melancholy and Jacques Tati's
precision into a film whose plot revolves around a father's death and
Palestinian lovers who meet at a checkpoint between Ramallah and
Jerusalem. But this slim story is merely a thread upon which to hang a
series of inane gags--a discarded apricot pit that blows up a tank, a
Santa Claus stabbed by a knife--that poetically encapsulate the
absurdity, paralysis and rage-filled fantasies underpinning contemporary
Palestinian life. Suleiman finished his script two years ago, just
before the West Bank exploded. Though he considers himself a pacifist,
at least a few of the dreams of his character have since become
realities. During the festival's closing ceremony, in which winners
evoked a variety of political causes--from the plight of Belgian actors
to that of the people of Mexico--Suleiman (whose film took the Jury
Prize) made a short speech noteworthy for its absence of polemic. He
thanked his French producer.
Two offerings from different parts of the globe suggested that the best
course for artists is to steer clear of politics. Italian auteur Marco
Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile is a psychological thriller about
a middle-aged painter, an atheist and a leftist, who suddenly realizes
with horror that his deceased mother is being considered for
canonization. ("Wouldn't it be useful for our son's future career to
have a saint for a grandmother?" his estranged wife asks him, with what
certainly appears to be an excess of calculation.) The film seemed a
visionary nightmare, from a member of the generation of '68, about the
state of contemporary Italian society.
And from Korea, Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon provided a lusty and
inspired portrait of the legendary painter Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub, who
sprang from common roots to dominate nineteenth-century Korean art.
Ohwon (who apparently incorporated the worst qualities of both Van Gogh
and Pollock) was never sober for a day, and kept a constantly changing
series of mistresses filling his cups; he negotiated the intricacies of
chaotic Chosun Dynasty politics with the proverbial delicacy of a bull
in a china shop; yet his precise and remarkably vivid scrolls and
screens filled with fog-covered mountains, wild beasts and flowers
seemed to surge forth endlessly from some hidden well of creation. The
66-year-old Im (who shared the directing prize with American
Wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson for his Punch-Drunk Love)
is perhaps the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some
ninety-eight features to his credit, including dozens of studio genre
pictures from his salad days as a hack, before his conversion to high
culture. "In art," he said in an interview, "there is no completion, but
only the interminable struggle toward it."
As all reputable news outlets assure us, privatization benefits
everyone--which is lucky, since these same outlets report that
privatization is inevitable. We live out a happy fate, which rolls on
despite the occasional need to report, say, the resignation under fire
of Britain's transport secretary, Stephen Byers. Mr. Byers comes to mind because I happen to be writing to you on the very day he stepped down, following the bankruptcy of his privatized Railtrack service, and also the fifth fatal rail crash in six years of newly efficient service.
You may have noticed that when the route of progress bumps over such
inconveniences, all reputable reports concentrate on the disappointment
of the privatizers (who nevertheless must go on) and of consumers (who
certainly will be happier sometime soon). Nobody ever seems to report on
the experience of the privatized workers--nobody, that is, except for
Ken Loach. His new film, The Navigators, finds drama in the
resentments and resistances, adjustments and accommodations of a crew of
track repairmen in Yorkshire, who yesterday worked for British Rail and
today begin working for a new company, Midlands Infrastructure, which in
another two weeks will be called something else entirely. Not that the
name matters. Twelve more weeks down the line, and the men will all be
working for themselves--that is, for an employment agency, which will
hire them out to contractors who needn't bother with sick pay, vacation
time or a superstitious regard for safety rules.
The Navigators is now about to receive its US premiere as the
opening-night feature of the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival will be on view June
14-27 at New York's Walter Reade Theater, in Lincoln Center, where Ken
Loach is also scheduled to receive the Irene Diamond Lifetime
Achievement Award. An unaffectedly modest man, Loach will probably try
to blend in with the audience, as if hoping someone else will show up to
claim the prize. But as The Navigators shows, it's his by right.
Every performance in the film is effortlessly convincing; every scene
plays out with its own easy rhythm. There's time and space in The
Navigators for domestic trials (as when a man attempts to court his
estranged wife and winds up feeding a bouquet of roses through the mail
slot), casual slapstick and practical jokes--even for a spirited defense
of day labor. "There's plenty of work, at top dollar," declares one of
the crew, who seems happy now to be an entrepreneur of his own labor
power. And so, when doom strikes, it seems foreordained but not at all
Of the pictures I had a chance to sample in this year's festival--there
are thirty-three in all--The Navigators struck me as being both
the freshest and the most Old Masterly. This is hardly a definitive
statement; I wasn't able to preview such big bookends of the festival as
the new feature films by Costa-Gavras and Chris Eyre or the new
documentary by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the team
that made Jung: War in the Land of the Mujaheddin. But here are a
Lourdes Portillo went to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border
from El Paso, to make Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young
Woman), a documentary on the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of
women over the past decade. You may be aware that workers from the
booming assembly factories in Juárez have been turning up dead in
the desert, after having been raped, mutilated and burned. What you may
not know is that the authorities to date have arrested exactly one
suspect, whom they blame for everything; that the killings continue,
despite the chosen culprit's imprisonment; that the police officers
investigating these cases maybe ought to handcuff themselves; and that
in the eighteen months Portillo spent in making this film, another fifty
young women disappeared. Although Portillo brings a skeptic's
sensibility to these events, I wish she'd been more skeptical still.
Some of the testimony that she accepts strains credulity, despite its
coming from victims. But, that said, she isn't preparing a legal brief.
She's creating a meditative investigation--or is it an investigative
meditation?--and doing it with real poetic power.
Of the many films in this year's festival that deal with conflict in the
Middle East, most seem to me to be sketches toward a movie, rather than
finished works. Valuable raw information emerges about Palestinian and
Israeli attitudes in Michal Aviad's Ramleh, Mai Masri's
Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, Jean Khalil Chamoun's In the
Shadows of the City, Avi Mograbi's August; but you have to
sift through self-indulgence, self-righteousness, clumsy fictionalizing
or diffident storytelling to get at the data. The exception, among the
films I was able to preview, is Rachel Leah Jones's 500 Dunam on the
Jones had the wit to seize on a revelatory topic for her picture and the
patience to develop it fully, telling the story of three villages in the
Galilee. The first was Ayn Hawd, an old Arab settlement that Israeli
forces emptied in 1948. The second village, built from the first, is Ein
Hod, an artists' colony established in 1953 on Dadaist principles. (I
wish I were kidding, but I'm not.) To this day, Ein Hod remains a
well-frequented site for the production and sale of bad Israeli art. And
to this day, nearby, many former residents of Ayn Hawd live in the
third, makeshift village, Ayn Hawd al-Jadida (New Ayn Hawd), a place
that officially does not exist, even though its inhabitants do the heavy
labor in Ein Hod, helping to keep their former homes picturesque.
Finally, let me mention two films from The Nation's orbit. The
Trials of Henry Kissinger is a brisk, well-argued documentary
directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, based largely on
Christopher Hitchens's book of similar title. Unlike Lourdes Portillo's
documentary, this one really is put together like a legal brief, and a
very effective one at that. Of course, as a Nation type, I've
always thought of Kissinger as a war criminal and am glad to see the
filmmakers make the case. I complain only that they may have been a
touch too adulatory to the writer who has guided them. However estimable
his work, Hitchens is not quite the lone, precedent-shattering crusader
that he appears here.
Then again, at the mere mention of the Hitchens name, Gen. Alexander
Haig trembles with rage and sputters, "He, he's a sewer-pipe sucker! He
sucks the sewer pipe!" This is an enviable endorsement, on which we
should all congratulate the author.
Congratulations also to John Friedman and Eric Nadler, whose documentary
Stealing the Fire will have its US premiere at the festival. An
investigation of the traffic in nuclear weapons, following a tortuous
trail from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, Stealing the Fire is a
Since there's no point in watching human rights unless someone or
something gets liberated, let me now join in the celebration of freedom
that is Undercover Brother. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a
screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover
Brother is not the first pastiche, in MAD magazine style, of
the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Keenen Ivory Wayans was there
first, with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, just as Mike Myers and the
Austin Powers team were a little quicker to collage into the
present a pop-culture character from the recent past. Even so, you will
understand how right Undercover Brother gets everything when I
tell you that it runs just ninety minutes and stars a magnificently
Afro'd Eddie Griffin, who is so cool that he winks at the camera in
every damn scene.
The plot--do you really care about the plot? Griffin steps out in a
wardrobe of platform shoes, flared pants and shirts cut to show off the
discus-size Black Power medallion he wears around his neck. He drives a
Coup de Ville convertible, drinks large quantities of orange soda and is
aptly described by the film's kung-fu-kicking love interest (Aunjanue
Ellis) as "a Soul Train reject with a Robin Hood complex." Recruited by
a secret organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Griffin learns that
the most weed-addled fantasies of Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle)
are actually true. There really is a fantastically wealthy and powerful
white man--called The Man--who keeps black people down.
From this point on--I'm three minutes into the movie--the jokes
really get cheap. They're also consistently, wildly funny,
despite being based without exception on the stale scheme of "White
folks do this, but black folks do that." Sure they do. But then, as the
chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. explains, his goal is to "help black
people of all races," which clarifies everything.
The role of the white she-devil is capably played by Denise Richards.
My wife issues literary judgments on an irregular but reliable basis; so
when she took her half-read copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood and hurled it against the wall, I knew this was a book I
should not pick up. As a result, I can't tell you how much the new movie
of the same title might deviate from Rebecca Wells's gazillion-selling
novel. I went to see the picture only because it's written and directed
by Callie Khouri, who also wrote Thelma & Louise. I can
report as follows:
Divine Secrets is a sandwich made of two slabs of angel food cake
around a slice of raw liver. The sticky-sweet stuff is women's
friendship and the mother-daughter bond, tributes to which are layered
onto the movie at the beginning and end. The liver is the very long
middle section, in which Ashley Judd (the film's one saving grace) shows
how sexual frustration and the demands of childrearing can drive a woman
crazy. Apparently, this truth is unknown to Ashley's daughter, Sandra
Bullock, who must be told, at excruciating length, what everyone in the
audience has guessed in a flash.
Every scene in Divine Secrets is expository. Every performance
demands that the actress wave her arms energetically (perhaps to swat
away clouds of gnats in acknowledgment of the Louisiana setting). Every
character is affluent and white, except for a loyal black maid who says
things like "I knew it wuz trouble. Just yestiddy I heerd dat screech
owl." Every sequence ends like a dinner plate hitting the floor, and
every new sequence begins with a fresh plate being dropped.
Cans of 35-millimeter film are heavy, and projection booths tend to be
locked. I went home, found my wife's copy of the book and gave it a
Henry James could not resist giving the hero of his 1877 novel The
American the allegorical name "Newman," but he went out of his way
to describe him as a muscular Christian, to deflect the suggestion that
Newman might be Jewish, as the name would otherwise imply. He is, as an
American, a New Man, who has come to the Old World on a cultural
pilgrimage in 1868, having made his fortune manufacturing washtubs; and
James has a bit of fun at his hero's expense by inflicting him with an
aesthetic headache in the Louvre, where his story begins. "I know very
little about pictures or how they are painted," Newman concedes; and as
evidence, James has him ordering, as if buying shirts, half a dozen
copies of assorted Old Masters from a pretty young copyist who thinks he
is crazy, since, as she puts it, "I paint like a cat."
By a delicious historical coincidence, another New Man, this time
unequivocally Jewish--the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman--visits
the Louvre for the first time in 1968, exactly a century later. By
contrast with his fellow noble savage, this Newman has had the benefit
of reading Clement Greenberg and working through Surrealism. So he is
able to tell his somewhat patronizing guide, the French critic Pierre
Schneider, to see Uccello's The Battle of San Romano as a modern
painting, a flat painting, and to explain why Mantegna's Saint
Sebastian bleeds no more than a piece of wood despite being pierced
with arrows. He sees Géricault's Raft of the Medusa as
tipped up like one of Cézanne's tables. "It has the kind of
modern space you wouldn't expect with that kind of rhetoric." And in
general the new New Man is able to show European aesthetes a thing or
two about how to talk about the Old Masters, and incidentally how to
look at his own work, which so many of his contemporaries found
intractable. In Rembrandt, for example, Newman sees "all that brown,
with a streak of light coming down the middle...as in my own painting."
"All that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle" could be
taken as a description of the first of Newman's paintings with which the
artist felt he could identify himself, done exactly two decades earlier
than the Louvre visit, and retroactively titled by him Onement 1.
Most would have described it as a messy brown painting with an uneven
red stripe down the middle, and nobody but Newman himself would have
tolerated a comparison with Rembrandt. But Newman told Pierre Schneider,
"I feel related to this, to the past. If I am talking to anyone, I am
talking to Michelangelo. The great guys are concerned with the same
problems." We must not allow it to go unnoticed that Newman counted
himself as among the great guys, though it is something of a hoot to
imagine trying to convince Henry James, were he resurrected, that the
works that make up the wonderful Newman exhibition at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art (until July 7, when they travel to the Tate Modern) are
concerned with the same issues as the Louvre masterworks that gave his
protagonist Newman a headache and eyestrain. Even critics otherwise
sympathetic to advanced painting in the 1950s were made apoplectic by
Newman's huge, minimally inflected canvases--fields of monochromatic
paint with a vertical stripe or two--and they have provoked vandalism
from the time of his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in
1950. As we shall see, Newman thought he had resolved the problems that
concerned the great guys who preceded him. They had been struggling to
make beautiful pictures, whereas he considered himself as having
transcended beauty and picturing alike. His achievement was to capture
the sublime in painting.
Newman regarded Onement 1 as marking a breakthrough for his work,
and a new beginning. The installation in Philadelphia dramatizes this by
framing the piece by means of a doorway leading from one gallery into
another. While standing in a gallery hung with pictures done by Newman
before the breakthrough, one glimpses a new order of painting in the
room beyond. Like all the great first generation of Abstract
Expressionists, Newman seems to have passed abruptly from mediocrity to
mastery with the invention of a new style--like the flung paint of
Pollock, the heavy brush-strokes of de Kooning, Kline's timberlike black
sweeps against white, Rothko's translucent rectangles of floating color.
The pre-Onement paintings may seem somehow to point toward it, in
the sense that there is in most of them a bandlike element that aspires,
one might say, to become the commanding vertical streak. But in them,
the streak (or band, or bar) shares space with other elements, splotches
and squiggles and smears that are tentative and uninspired. The vertical
streak alone survives a kind of Darwinian struggle for existence, to
become the exclusive and definitive element in Newman's vision, from
Onement 1 onward. The basic format of Newman's work for the
remainder of his career is that of one or more vertical bands, which run
from the top to the bottom of the panel, in colors that contrast with a
more or less undifferentiated surrounding field. Sometimes the bands
will be of differing widths in the same painting, and sometimes, again,
they will differ from one another in hue. But there will no longer be
the variety of forms he used in the pre-Onement period of his
work. It is as if he understood that with Onement 1, he had
entered a newfound land rich enough in expressive possibilities that he
need seek for nothing further by way of elementary forms. Onement
1 is planted like a flag at the threshold, and when one crosses over
it, one is in a very different world from that marked by the uncertain
pictures that preceded it.
I have followed Newman in respecting a distinction between pictures and
paintings. Onement 1 was a painting, whereas what he had done
before were merely pictures. How are we to understand the difference? My
own sense is that a picture creates an illusory space, within which
various objects are represented. The viewer, as it were, looks through
the surface of a picture, as if through a window, into a virtual space,
in which various objects are deployed and composed: the Virgin and Child
surrounded by saints in an adoration; stripes surrounded by squiggles in
an abstraction. In the Renaissance, a picture was regarded as
transparent, so to speak, the way the front of the stage is, through
which we see men and women caught up in actions that we know are not
occurring in the space we ourselves occupy. In a painting, by contrast,
the surface is opaque, like a wall. We are not supposed to see through
it. We stand in a real relationship with it, rather than in an illusory
relationship with what it represents. I expect that this is the
distinction Newman is eager to make. His paintings are objects in their
own right. A picture represents something other than itself; a painting
presents itself. A picture mediates between a viewer and an object in
pictorial space; a painting is an object to which the viewer relates
without mediation. An early work that externally resembles Onement
1 is Moment, done in 1946. A widish yellow stripe bisects a
brownish space. Newman said of it, "The streak was always going through
an atmosphere; I was trying to create a world around it." The
streak in Onement 1 is not in an atmosphere of its own, namely
pictorial space. It is on the surface and in the same space as we are.
Painting and viewer coexist in the same reality.
At the same time, a painting is not just so much pigment laid across a
surface. It has, or we might say it embodies, a meaning. Newman did not
give Onement 1 a title when it was first exhibited, but it is
reasonable to suppose that the meaning the work embodied was somehow
connected with this strange and exalted term. In general, the suffix
"-ment" is attached to a verb like "atone" or "endow" or "command,"
where it designates a state--the state of atoning, for example--or a
product. So what does "onement" mean? My own sense is that it means the
condition of being one, as in the incantation "God is one." It refers,
one might say, to the oneness of God. And this might help us better
understand the difference between a picture and a painting. Since Newman
thinks of himself and Michelangelo as concerned with the same kinds of
problems, consider the Sistine ceiling, where Michelangelo produces a
number of pictures of God. Great as these are, they are constrained by
the limitation that pictures can show only what is visible, and
decisions have to be made regarding what God looks like. How would one
picture the fact that God is one? Since Onement 1 is not a
picture, it does not inherit the limitations inherent in picturing. The
catalogue text says that Onement 1 represents nothing but itself
and that it is about itself as a painting. I can't believe, though, that
what Newman regarded in such momentous terms was simply a painting about
painting. It is about something that can be said but cannot be shown, at
least not pictorially. Abstract painting is not without content. Rather,
it enables the presentation of content without pictorial limits. That is
why, from the beginning, abstraction was believed by its inventors to be
invested with a spiritual reality. It was as though Newman had hit upon
a way of being a painter without violating the Second Commandment, which
Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment that "perhaps the most
sublime passage in Jewish Law is the commandment Thou shalt not make
unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in
heaven or on earth, or under the earth," etc. This commandment alone can
explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people felt for their religion
when compared with that of other peoples, or can explain the pride that
Islam inspires. But this in effect prohibited Jews from being artists,
since, until Modernism, there was no way of being a painter without
making pictures and hence violating the prohibition against images!
Paintings that are not pictures would have been a contradiction in
terms. But this in effect ruled out the possibility of making paintings
that were sublime, an aesthetic category to which Kant dedicated a
fascinating and extended analysis. And while one cannot be certain how
important the possibility of Jewish art was to Newman, there can be
little question not only that the sublime figured centrally in his
conception of his art but that it was part of what made the difference
in his mind between American and European art. Indeed, sublimity figured
prominently in the way the Abstract Expressionists conceived of their
difference from European artists. Robert Motherwell characterized
American painting as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime," adding, "No
Parisian is a sublime painter." In the same year that Newman broke
through with Onement 1, he published an important article, "The
Sublime Is Now," in the avant-garde magazine Tiger's Eye. And my
sense is that in his view, there could not be a sublime picture--that
sublimity became available to visual artists only when they stopped
making pictures and started making paintings.
Peter Schjeldahl recently dismissed the sublime as a hopelessly jumbled
philosophical notion that has had more than two centuries to start
meaning something cogent and has not succeeded yet. But the term had
definite cogency in the eighteenth century, when philosophers of art
were seeking an aesthetics of nature that went beyond the concept of
beauty. Beauty for them meant taste and form, whereas the sublime
concerned feeling and formlessness. Kant wrote that "nature excites the
ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular
disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived," and he
cited, as illustrations,
Bold overhanging and as it were threatening rocks; clouds piled up in
the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in
all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of
devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty
waterfall of a mighty river, these exhibit our faculty of resistance as
insignificantly small in comparison with their might.
Since Kant was constrained to think of art in terms of pictures as
mimetic representations, there was no way in which painting could be
sublime. It could only consist in pictures of sublime natural things,
like waterfalls or volcanoes. While these might indeed be sublime,
pictures of them could at most be beautiful. Kant does consider
architecture capable of producing the feeling of sublimity. He cites
Saint Peter's Basilica as a case in point because it makes us feel small
and insignificant relative to its scale.
What recommended the sublime to Newman is that it meant a liberation
from beauty, and hence a liberation from an essentially European
aesthetic in favor of an American one. The European artist, Newman
has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of
beauty and the desire for the sublime.... The impulse of modern art was
this desire to destroy beauty. Meanwhile, I believe that here in
America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are
finding the answer, by denying that art has any concern with the problem
of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how can
we be creating an art that is sublime?
There can be little doubt that in Newman's sense of his own achievement,
he had solved this problem with Onement 1. It is certainly not a
beautiful painting, and one would miss its point entirely if one
supposed that sooner or later, through close looking, the painting would
disclose its beauty as a reward. There was a standing argument, often
enlisted in defense of Modernism, that the reason we were unable to see
modern art as beautiful was because it was difficult. Roger Fry had
written, early in the twentieth century, that "every new work of
creative design is ugly until it becomes beautiful; that we usually
apply the word beautiful to those works of art in which familiarity has
enabled us to grasp the unity easily, and that we find ugly those works
in which we still perceive only by an effort." Newman's response to this
would have been that he had achieved a liberation from what feminism
would later call the beauty trap. He had achieved something grander and
more exalted, a new art for new men and women.
Newman used the term "sublime" in the title of his Vir Heroicus
Sublimis (1950-51). It is a tremendous canvas, nearly eight feet high and eighteen feet
wide, a vast cascade of red paint punctuated by five vertical stripes of
varying widths, set at varying intervals. Newman discussed this work
(which the critic for The New Republic called asinine) in an
interview with the British art critic David Sylvester in 1965.
One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting
should give a man a sense of place: that he knows he's there, so he's
aware of himself. In that sense he related to me when I made the
painting because in that sense I was there. Standing in front of my
paintings you had a sense of your own scale. The onlooker in front of my
painting knows that he's there. To me, the sense of place not only has a
mystery but has that sense of metaphysical fact.
Newman studied philosophy at City College, and Kant sprang to his lips
almost as a reflex when he discussed art. But it is difficult not to
invoke the central idea of Martin Heidegger's philosophy in connection
with his comment to Sylvester. Heidegger speaks of human beings as
Dasein, as "being there," and it is part of the intended experience
of Newman's paintings that our thereness is implied by the scale of the
paintings themselves. In his 1950 exhibition at the Betty Parsons
Gallery, he put up a notice that while there is a tendency to look at
large paintings from a distance, these works were intended to be seen
from close up. One should feel oneself there, in relationship to the
work, like someone standing by a waterfall. The title of the painting
meant, he told Sylvester, "that man can be or is sublime in his relation
to his sense of being aware." The paintings, one might say, are about us
as self-aware beings.
A high point of the Philadelphia show is Newman's The Stations of the
Cross, a series of fourteen paintings that is certainly one of the
masterpieces of twentieth-century art. As a spiritual testament, it
bears comparison with the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I have the most
vivid recollection of being quite overcome when I first experienced
The Stations of the Cross in the Guggenheim Museum in 1966.
Newman used as subtitle the Hebrew words Lema
Sabachthani--Christ's human cry on the Cross. The means could not be
more simple: black and white paint on raw canvas, which he used as a
third color. The fourteen paintings do not map onto corresponding points
on the road to Calvary. But Newman seems to use black to represent a
profound change of state.
The first several paintings have black as well as white stripes (or
"zips," as he came to call them, referring perhaps to the sound that
masking tape makes when it is pulled away). Black entirely disappears in
the Ninth Station, in which a stripe of white paint runs up the
left edge, and two thin parallel white stripes are placed near the right
edge. The rest is raw canvas. The Tenth and Eleventh
stations resemble it, through the fact that they too are composed of
white stripes placed on raw canvas. Then, all at once, Twelfth
Station is dramatically black, as is the Thirteenth Station.
And then, in the Fourteenth Station, black again abruptly
disappears. There is a strip of raw canvas at the left, and the rest is
white, as if Christ yielded up the ghost as St. Matthew narrates it. The
work demonstrates how it is possible for essentially abstract paintings
to create a religious narrative.
No one today, I suppose, would hold painting in the same exalted state
that seemed possible in the 1950s. Newman became a hero to the younger
generation of the 1960s, when the history of art that he climaxed gave
way to a very different era. He triumphed over his savage critics, as
great artists always do; and all who are interested in the spiritual
ambitions of painting at its most sublime owe themselves a trip to
Philadelphia to see one of the last of the great guys in this thoughtful
and inspired exhibition, the first to be devoted to his work in more
than thirty years.
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?
BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.
Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.
My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.
HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?
BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.
HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.
BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.
HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.
BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.
How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?
HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?
BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.
HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different
HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.
BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.
I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.
England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half Engli
Although Chicano identity has been Luis Valdez's theme since all but the
earliest years of El Teatro Campesino, the guerrilla theater he founded
in the 1960s, getting a clear sense of his roots became doubly important
to him when his parents died in the mid-1990s. Valdez, the first Latino
playwright/director to reach Broadway and the creator of the bellwether Hispanic film Zoot Suit, had always been told his people were Yaquis from Sonora in northern Mexico, but he realized he knew very little about how they had
come to be California Chicanos.
So, in the late 1990s, he began to search his family's history and its
secrets, and what he discovered about the myths and contradictory
stories that had been handed down and about the little-known history of
the Yaqui wars in Mexico led him to write Mummified Deer, in some
ways his most personal play and his first new work for the theater in a
decade and a half (just ending its run at El Teatro Campesino in San
Juan Bautista). It's a play that uses the mythic, presentational
elements we've come to associate with Valdez's work, here present in a
Yaqui deer dancer, who together with the long arm of history defines
identity for the play.
Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino as an organizing and fundraising arm
of the United Farm Workers during the 1965 grape strike in Delano, where
he was born. The actors then were strikers who played type characters in
actos, short satirical sketches on strike issues performed at
work sites and in union halls.
But since splitting off from the union in 1967, the company has made
Chicano racial identity its focus. In the late 1960s and early '70s,
that specifically meant spiritual identity, with the theater reaching
all the way back to La Raza's Aztec and Mayan roots and making ritual
and myth, music and dance integral parts of its style.
Valdez was criticized at the time for abandoning the theater's
materialist viewpoint, and was criticized later in the decade and in the
1980s--when the entertainment industry began to understand the potential
of the Hispanic market--for his unabashed attempt to move into
commercial theater and filmmaking with Zoot Suit. Valdez's
response was that it was time for Chicanos to assume their place in the
mainstream and that separatism had been just a necessary phase that
prepared them to do so without losing their sense of identity. But it
was also clear that the young men in Zoot Suit had to reject that
aspect of pachuquismo, that very attractive, very essential part
of their identity as Chicanos, that was disruptive of society and
Lack of commitment to cultural authenticity seemed confirmed--certainly
to Latino actors who protested--in 1992 when Valdez attempted to cast
Laura San Giacomo, an actress with something of a bankable name but also
an Italian ancestry, as Frida Kahlo in the movie he was trying to make
about the artist. Valdez argued that the compromise was necessary to get
Hollywood to do movies with Hispanic protagonists at all and that the
movie would offer a picture of Latino life that was not gang- or
drug-based, i.e., nonstereotypical and presumably positive.
Maybe it's just the difficulty of a Chicano writer/director making
headway in the commercial world, but in truth, it's difficult seeing
Valdez as lost leader, as someone who's abandoned his roots, in San Juan
Bautista, the mission town where Mummified Deer has been playing
in a theater Valdez built out of a fruit-packing shed. By no means as
far off the beaten track as Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet
escaped city life in the 1970s, it's still a small rural town a long way
from entertainment capitals and city attitudes.
The style of Valdez's new play also points to continuity. And for the
most part the inspired stylistic innovations that radical theaters
excelled in--in Mummified Deer for instance, a hospital bed
that's transformed into a train laden with Mexican
revolutionaries--still work their magic in Valdez's hands. The sudden
release of concentrated imagination thrills. But even when they don't
work, when they now seem more a part of tradition than vital and
expressive, their mere presence, like the continued earnest tone of his
writing in our smug, cynical time, suggests that Valdez hasn't
jettisoned the past.
In any event, the story itself makes it clear that roots are not easily
cut off. On a simple series of platforms, marked with what seem to be
petroglyphs and hung with plastic sheets that make the set look like an
ice cave--poor theater after all these years!--Mama Chu, a fierce,
84-year-old family matriarch, lies on a hospital bed, suffering from
abdominal pains. When the cause of her condition is diagnosed not as
cancer but as a mummified fetus that has been lodged in her womb for
sixty years, her granddaughter Armida, an anthro grad student at
Berkeley who's in search of the truth about her mother's life, begins to
pierce the maze of myths and half-truths that have made up Chu's story
and the family's history.
Along the way, secrets are revealed about paternity, incest and
migration. The ultimate source of these secrets and family myths isn't,
however, as in many plays, personal pathology. The half-truths and
inventions all proceed from a historic cause: the little-known Yaqui
genocide at the hands of Porfirio Diaz and the Federales, which capped
four centuries of little-known Yaqui resistance to European
In the end, it turns out that none of Chu's children as they're
presented in the play are hers. Her children were all taken away
and murdered in the genocide. She gathered Armida's mother, aunt and
uncle to her to fill the void. (The horrific description of the mass
slaughter alone insures that this play is not going very far into the
Powerful, serious material. And Valdez doesn't always treat it
reverentially, as many lesser playwrights would. The introduction of a
kind of grotesque humor makes it all the more powerful at times. As when
Aunt Oralia (Rosa Escalante) wonders, "Can't you just yank that little
sucka [the dead fetus] out?" or Uncle Profe explains the incest by
saying simply, "We were always very close."
To his credit, Valdez doesn't treat the Chicano family reverentially,
either. He understands that they can be quite conservative even though
they've been victims (or because they've been victims). He satirizes
them and creates a number of characters that, like the satirical figures
of the actos, are one-dimensional types. With an Oralia, that
works to project a sense of how self-protective she is about the past,
but this is ultimately a play of terrible family secrets, and having the
weight of those secrets fall on an Armida who is little more than a plot
mechanism and Berkeley-activist-type blunts the force of the drama.
It's not simply a matter of an uneven cast, one that ranges all the way
from the very adept and realistic Daniel Valdez (Uncle Profe) to
Estrella Esparza (Armida), who can barely make the words her own. It's
also the writing and the way Valdez as director has the characters
played. As director, he also pitches a number of the performances very
high. An actress like Alma Martinez, who plays Mama Chu, can obviously
change gears on a dime and sketch in a reaction or attitude with the
flick of a hand, but Valdez pushed her performance hard and makes it
vocally very forceful, as if constantly to remind us what a powerful
woman this is. The result is a lack of nuance, variety and sympathy that
sent me fleeing to quieter characters like Uncle Profe and Armida's
mother, Agustina (Anita Reyes).
Then too, the revelations about the past are far too complicated,
there's too much information coming at you generally, and what exactly
the deer dancer represents is obscure. Also, the symbol of the mummified
fetus at times feels contrived. All of which makes it difficult to take
in and feel comfortable with what Valdez is apparently going for in his
continuing exploration of what he understands to be a continually
evolving Chicano identity. That is, the sense that Chu's finally
confronting the Yaqui genocide results in her forgoing an operation and
keeping the fetus, which is an incarnation of both an indio past that is
dead and gone and a living Yaqui spirit that--bypassing the acquiescent
and self-deluding generation of aunt and uncle--Chu passes on to her
You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest
budget--do I repeat myself?--about the inner life of a morally
compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but
respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to
the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.
Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards
of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of
his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to
rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al
Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your
attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American
movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film
of ideas--in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.
I care about The Believer, first of all, because its
writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most
American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of
course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a
discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it's a jumble on which we
may stake our lives. That's why the disorderliness can be dramatic in
itself--provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a
compelling enough character.
So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The
Believer by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De
Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and
infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and
slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head
buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his
brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes
with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas--but
it's his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so
horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood,
as a Nazi activist.
Now, I've hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because
I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when
the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand
Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a
theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine,
the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon
Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.)
The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with
Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September
2001--not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an
intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since
Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March
of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that
audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.
Those who choose to do so will discover that The Believer starts
in two locations at once, on the subway and inside Danny's skull. In the
exterior setting, Danny is a twentyish skinhead, who when first seen is
methodically harassing a bespectacled, yarmulke-wearing youth on the
elevated train. Danny crowds the prey, crunching his Doc Marten boots
all over the guy's wing-tips. Then, when the victim behaves like a
victim--avoiding eye contact, fleeing the subway at the first
opportunity--Danny pursues him onto the street. "Hit me! Please!" Danny
howls. The less resistance he gets, the more enraged he becomes, till he
stomps the timid, book-toting Jew.
Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, we also get access to Danny's memory,
in which he's forever the pale student with big eyeglasses. We
see Danny in the yeshiva at about age 12--just another of the boys,
except for his rage against the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to
slaughter his own son as an offering to God. None of the standard,
moralized readings of this tale will assuage Danny. He insists that
Abraham's sacrifice made the Jews into a race of willing victims,
perpetually crushed by a God who holds them to be worthless.
You see why this stuff can make people nervous. It's not just that Danny
takes Jewish self-hatred to its ultimate conclusion--he takes it there
theologically, argumentatively, with a foul-mouthed, spray-the-room
exuberance that will offend every moviegoer. Zionists, for example, will
object when Danny says the Israelis aren't real Jews--they have soil,
and the kind of manliness a fascist like him can respect. Supporters of
the Palestinians, on the other hand, will cringe to hear Danny denounce
the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. (With friends like this...)
But I'm making The Believer sound like a string of provocations,
and it's not. It's a modernist tragedy, meaning one that's realized with
equal measures of sympathy and irony. When Danny tries to enlist in an
"above-ground, intellectually serious fascist movement," its leaders
(Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) welcome his anti-Semitic tirades but
dismiss his offer to kill Jews. Instead, to his horror, they make him
into a fundraiser, with a suit and a cell phone. When Danny hooks up
with a dreamily masochistic young Aryan (Summer Phoenix), it isn't long
before she decides to study Hebrew, hangs a mezuzah on the door and
starts wearing ankle-length dresses. Yes, hit me! Please! The harder
Danny tries to be a Nazi, the more ineluctably he's a Jew.
I begin to think of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's
Wise Blood, who is a Christian preacher in spite of himself.
According to O'Connor, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to
rid himself of Jesus: "Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not
able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean
one will, but many wills conflicting in one man." In the same way, many
wills conflict in Danny, with that of the faithful Jew refusing to die
away. At one point, in fact, Danny secretly wraps a prayer shawl around
his torso, much as Hazel wound himself in penitential barbed wire. Then,
like any good yeshiva boy, Danny lets the fringes dangle beneath the
T-shirt, which in his case is emblazoned with a swastika.
It's good to see someone take such care with his appearance. Most
American movies these days are little more than fashion statements--and
yet the characters are shockingly thoughtless about their clothes.
So we come to Al Pacino's leather jacket.
It plays quite a prominent role in Insomnia, a movie whose
premise goes like this: Someone in the remote town of Nightmute, Alaska,
has murdered a high school girl. The victim clearly knew her killer, and
the local population is neither large nor highly mobile. Nevertheless,
the Nightmute police feel too humble to work the case on their own. They
send for help--though not from Nome or Anchorage, nor even from Seattle,
Portland or San Francisco. They go all the way to Los Angeles, whose
police department immediately agrees to dispatch two of its top
detectives, despite their being under investigation by Internal Affairs.
I tried explaining all this to my friend Ben Sonnenberg, who seemed
puzzled. "But what about Eddie Murphy?" he asked. "Was he too busy to
come from Detroit?"
Reassure yourself, Ben. Eddie has answered the call, in effect if not in
person. That's the point of the leather jacket.
It's hard to imagine Pacino's character, Detective Will Dormer, going
out and buying this item for himself. It's a little too heavy for the
climate in LA, a little too pimp-chic for a cop who's supposed to be an
agonized moralist. With its supple new leather, the jacket looks more
like something that was recently issued to the guy--which, of course, it
was. The filmmakers decided this was just the thing to signal "cool, hip
and streetwise" for Pacino. In much the same way, they imposed a
symbolic costume on the murderer, Robin Williams. Although the script
says he's vain and attracted to luxury, Williams is draped in something
that says "phony, out-of-touch intellectual": a corduroy jacket.
Don't worry, by the way, that I've revealed the killer's identity. You'd
be able to figure it out for yourself, by process of elimination, no
more than ten minutes into the movie, which is about twenty minutes
before Williams comes into the open. The mystery of Insomnia has
nothing to do with discovering he's the murderer and everything to do
with his somehow being able to deliver a restrained, nuanced,
convincingly chilling performance. There's Robin Williams, taking care
of business, while everybody else is goofing off.
Pacino behaves ridiculously, as he typically does when the script's a
laugh. Hilary Swank has no such history of egregious mugging; but now,
in the role of a local cop, she bounces onto the screen like a young
squirrel on its first day of acorn school. Who allowed these
performances, or maybe even encouraged them? Christopher Nolan, that's
who. He was so intent on dolloping pizazz onto this story that he didn't
notice the visual syrup was drowning a six-inch stack of toaster
I'm sure Insomnia will have its champions, even so. They'll claim
the picture is About Something, namely the importance of never, ever
breaking the rules. That's the one, big idea of Insomnia. As we
may learn from life and better movies, it's wrong.
Screening Schedule: Speaking of people who broke rules, Lynne
Sachs has made a fine, artful documentary about the Catonsville Nine,
the war protesters who walked into a Selective Service office in 1968,
grabbed as many files as they could carry and burned them with homemade
napalm. She's got the surviving protesters down on film, Philip and
Daniel Berrigan among them; and she's got other interested parties too,
including the district attorney who prosecuted the Nine and one of the
jurors who convicted them. The juror weeps now, out of respect for their
courage. The film is titled Investigation of a Flame, and it's
showing in New York at Anthology Film Archives, May 29-31. The
distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, (800) 876-1710.