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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
experience.

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
our DNA?

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
forced.

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
few recommendations:

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
Moon
.

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
CinemaNation production.

For complete information on the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival, you may visit www.hrw.org/iff or www.filmlinc.com.

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
fresh ride.

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
prohibits images.

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
wrote,

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
articulate.

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
movement?

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
you started?

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
people.

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
self-destructive.

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
colonization.

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
mainstream.)

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
granddaughter, Armida.

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
waffles.

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.

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
neighbors.

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
provide originality."

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
nightmare-incoherent lyrics.

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
go onstage.

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
Waltz
.

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
mandolin.

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
to Robertson.)

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
Atlas ad.

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
movie's substance.

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
streams.

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
Spider-Man.

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
Republic.

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
owner sings.

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.

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