Enduring Love

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Front cover

Every love affair is a threesome

Let me clarify.

In any love affair, there are three perceived participants: the lover, the beloved, and love itself, which is often treated as a separate entity. We are at the mercy of love, manipulated by it, helpless in the face of it. (I refuse to say “love is a battlefield” unless Pat Benatar’s people offer me money.) Although it is a process, and a part of us, we nevertheless see it as its own organism. This can be a problem, as love often does not do what we wish of it. From that complexity many great works of art have been made. In most every facet, love is collaborative if it is to succeed.

My topic today is also a collaboration. A cartoonist called Naters reached out to philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins with a proposal: he offered to adapt some of Rollins’ parables into a book. The collection they created, entitled Enduring Love: Tales of Torturous Desire from the Lonely Forest, tells nine stories of love through an existentialist context. Funny cartoon animals and existentialism might not seem like a natural combination, but the pairing works well. Naters has a degree in animation, and his poses are lively and precise (the tree frogs in “There is Hope” are my favorites). He keeps the book on an even keel as the stories themselves move through the many characteristics of love.

I’ve read most of Rollins’ books, and it is in storytelling that he really shines. His books can be academic and a bit daunting if you’re not well read in philosophy or theology, but his stories are concise and often hilarious. I highly recommend his book of parables, The Unorthodox Heretic and other Impossible Tales, as an introduction to his work. Enduring Love continues in that vein of entertainment surrounding a core of enlightenment. After that, try his first book, How Not to Speak of God, and go from there.

Existentialism is no stranger to ideas of love. The lover might perceive their beloved as an Other, experience intersubjectivity (you can look these up yourself; I’m not going to clutter this post with definitions), angst, even despair. But even with such formidable components, love is possible in an existential context. Here’s a short piece on Existentialism and love from The Paris Review; start there.

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The first page of “Great Secret”. Art by Naters.

The stories in Enduring Love vary greatly in length and tone. Perhaps the word “existentialist” has some negative connotation, calling to mind some Frenchman expounding on the hard edges of life (I can hear Heidegger and Kierkegaard objecting at being called French) but there is much more to existentialism than that. Rollins deals with the “exquisite sufferings of love,” some of which manage to end happily. Lovers part and reunite; others part only to remain apart. My favorite story is “Great Secret” which (I hope this doesn’t spoil it) upends assumptions about divine love and the idea of salvation. Heavy stuff for a graphic novel? Not so.

A number of these stories have semantics at their core. “The Lake of Truth” asks “What is it to be in love?” In some aspects “Tiny House,” inspired by an Islamic parable, is about the questions “what does ‘tiny’ mean? Tiny in relation to what?” “There is Hope,” inspired by Philip K. Dick‘s story, “Expendable,” is about the need to ask questions. There is action and contemplation. Perhaps that is because the nature of love is the nature of a question, not just asked to be answered, but asked for the process that leads to the answer. The journey is as important as the destination – perhaps more so, if the destination is not a happy one. But, then, love is not entirely about happiness, either.

The first edition of Enduring Love as sold out, though copies are still available to Rollins’ supporters on Patreon. I won my copy through a contest on social media, so thanks to Peter Rollins for that opportunity. I’d love to see more thinkers and cartoonists work together; perhaps Enduring Love will start a trend.

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The Other Side of the Wind

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John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind. Veteran director and actor Norman Foster is visible at far right.

I won’t do a formal review of Orson Welles’ unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind. We can never know how close it came to Welles’ vision, if indeed he had a coherent plan for it. He worked on it from 1970 to 1974, and sporadically thereafter until his death in 1985. After a lot of legal wrangling and several failed attempts, a version was compiled and released by Netflix in 2018. The film is chaotic, sometimes intentionally, and not as fleshed-out as it might be. Instead of dwelling on that, I want to talk about the cinematography. The credited cinematographer is Gary Graver, who deserves whatever credit is his due, but Welles himself was likely responsible for a lot of the visual approach to the film. All Welles’ best work has a deep concern for visual impact, and The Other Side of the Wind is right up there with his completed works.

To summarize: larger-than-life movie director Jake Hanneford (John Huston) is down on his luck. He has run out of money, with his latest film still unfinished. It’s his birthday, and he throws a party for friends and hangers-on, and invites a large number of press to attend and film the event. Conspicuously absent is John Dale, leading man of the picture, who walked off the set and hasn’t been seen since. Hanneford has a reputation for wearing out his leading men, and theories are bandied about as to his underlying motivation. We see portions of the unfinished film. The party ends chaotically, and Hanneford dies driving while drunk. That’s enough of the plot. The film is filled with old actors and directors, and is a treat for old movie buffs to say “That’s who? I didn’t know he was still alive then!”

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Oja Kodar

The title refers to a film with a film, a Michelangelo Antonioni-esque art film that, like its real-life namesake, is unfinished. It seems to present the random escapades of a pair of young people, played by Robert Random and Welles’ companion (and an artist in her own right) Oja Kodar. Kodar spends large parts of this film naked, and never says a word; am I stretching a point to think she is subtly satirizing the role of nude woman as object in art films? Welles (and Kodar, who cowrote the film) stretches the point rather ludicrously toward the end, but I won’t go into the symbolism or its obviousness. It’s one of the less effective moments. Welles was somewhat hit-and-miss as a satirist, and can be cruel when he means to be clever; fortunately, there’s not much of that in this film.

The image above is part of a short sequence where the slanting shadows and almost surreal surroundings make striking visual poetry of the scene, like Op Art come to life. An earlier scene in a car driving through rain, a sex scene at that (aside from the surprise of such a thing in an Orson Welles film), seems to exist solely for the purpose of showing light: light through the windows as the rain streams down them, the light on Kodar’s body as she sheds her clothing. Gary Graver later directed porn films under a pseudonym, and even won awards for them. If this is an example of his approach to eroticism, I can see how he got the jobs.

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Oja Kodar toward the end of the film with a film.

The film jumps from color to black and white, from handheld camera to more polished studio work. During the party there is a blackout – two of them, actually – which seem present only to allow the play of candles and flashlights in darkened rooms. The shot of Hanneford blowing out the candles on his cake (or trying to, anyway) is marvelous: the director amid the flames of his own private Hell.

Because the majority of the action is set at a party, things are understandably talky. I think Welles would have tightened things up a little – but not too much, to keep a semblance of the documentary approach. The Other Side of the Wind left me wishing there was more visual and less verbal content. My girlfriend suggested we watch it sometime with the sound muted, just for the images. It’s a good idea. I strongly recommend you see it; it’s a final, slightly bedraggled, feather in Orson Welles’ cap.

I’ve blogged before about the great visuals in Orson Welles films, specifically this post about his Shakespearean features.

Premises, premises

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

As you can imagine, I follow a lot of artists, art critics, art historians, and curators on social media. The buzz surrounding Netflix’s film, Velvet Buzzsaw, was considerable. A satire on the art world? We can’t wait.

Then the day dawned, and Velvet Buzzsaw hit the public and lay there like something dead. The anticipatory chorus turned to disappointment mixed with a soupçon of scorn. The film’s routine lesson – the art world is greedy and manipulative sums most of it up – was hard to ignore or deny, but did it have to be taught in such a cliched fashion? Top-billed Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a character supposedly based on at least one real art critic (New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz, who can’t be all that flattered), gets to look thoughtful while selling out his character’s ethical standards. He, like the rest of the cast, are at the mercy of half-baked storytelling.

While I can’t deny that the art market, like so many things these days, is a slave to unfettered capitalism, and that greed seeps into the academic world far too often, this is a problem well known and easily identified. A TED talk could sum up in ten minutes what Velvet Buzzsaw does in almost two hours. Of course, Velvet Buzzsaw also has murders but they are also tame and add nothing special. Netflix has had considerable success in their new series, but feature films are something they’re still learning about.

So Gyllenhaal’s critic, Morf Vandewalt, is shown works of art, stolen by his girlfriend from the recently deceased artist’s apartment. The mystery artist, named Ventril Dease (the clumsy names do not help the satire one bit; writer/director Dan Gilroy is no Saki) was inspired by Henry Darger, one of the foremost of so-called “outsider” artists. But not only the artist is a mystery, his art is as well. Remember, this is a horror satire, too. I won’t go any deeper into the plot than to note that greed is not rewarded. (I suppose spoilers would be all right here, but I have standards to uphold. Personally, I recommend you make a big bowl of popcorn and prepare to do your best Mystery Science Theater 3000 impersonation as you watch. At least the popcorn will be good.)

Note: If you want art inspired by Henry Darger’s works, try John Ashbery’s book-length poem, Girls on the Run.

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Sometimes the right phrase or counterpoint comes along by accident; serendipity is a friend to artists of all kinds. So it was I found myself, instead of wading through the piles of disappointment around Velvet Buzzsaw, reading instead about Postcards from London (2018) which takes a more interesting premise and does more with it. I’ll summarize the basic plot, but, remember, this is a drama. It could have made an excellent satire as well.

Jim is a British lad who finds his way into the world of male prostitution, with one unusual twist. He meets a group of escorts who call themselves The Raconteurs, and who have a unique specialty: after the usual activities of their profession, they sit down with their client and discuss representations of the male body in Baroque art. It’s a fascinating idea, and delightful in the sense that eroticism is not merely physical, but aesthetic.

You can watch the trailer here.

But Jim suffers from a condition known as Stendahl syndrome, which is a psychosomatic disorder that can cause fainting, hallucinations, and even convulsions when a sufferer is exposed to particularly beautiful works of art. An interesting condition, not quite fully accepted by the world of psychology, but a good complication for a movie plot. Does Stendhal syndrome pop up in Velvet Buzzsaw? Ha – find out for yourself. This isn’t the first time the condition has been in a movie: director Dario Argento bought the movie rights to a book on the condition, written by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who named it, and built a thriller of the same title around it.

Writer/director Steve McLean’s work is not to all tastes, but he always approaches his topics thoughtfully. His previous film, from 1994, Postcards from America, was inspired by the writings of artist David Wojnarowicz. I haven’t seen it, so I have nothing to say about its merits or demerits.

Two films, each of which deals at least partly with the effect art has on others: one, greed and comeuppance, the other, dangerous rhapsody. The movies have often had a conflicted relationship with visual art. It doesn’t move the way a good car chase does. It can show history but not explain it – which pretty well sums up Aleksandr Sokurov’s brilliant Russian Ark (2002) – and leaves characters reeling from exposure. Velvet Buzzsaw might leave you clutching your head, but not from ecstasy.

 

Some thoughts on Salinger

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Not the book you were expecting?

A recent article and related interview in The Guardian will doubtless cause new excitement in the cult of J. D. Salinger, teasing the prospect of new books from the famously reclusive, now 9-years dead author. Even in death he remains shut away, some 50 years of writings not remain unreleased by his son and widow, who manage his estate. Matt Salinger says they are working steadily to prepare work for publication, but offers little explanation of the process. Yes, 50 years is a lot of writing, and the details of reading it all, sorting, etc., is huge. Salinger’s daughter Margaret wrote in her book, Dream Catcher: A Memoir, that Salinger had his works color-coded by their readiness for publication, implying that some were, in her father’s mind, ready to go to press. If so, we are still waiting for them.

Before unbridled speculation takes over this post, let me state my place in Salinger fandom. I like many of his short stories, though they can be discursive and self-absorbed; okay, real people are often like that, and some writers are better at dealing with real people’s quirks than others. Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s most famous book, is not a favorite of mine. I read it first in adolescence, and I found Holden Caulfield’s attitudes egocentric. He thought himself better than the “phonies” around him, and a belief like that grows tiresome. But, moving on…

Salinger was fortunate in having William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987, as a champion. Shawn edited Salinger’s work personally, at times bypassing his own fiction editors, and Salinger repaid that trust by dedicating Franny and Zooey (1961) to him. Good editors are hard to find, and great ones even rarer. While Matt Salinger and Colleen O’Neill Salinger (J.D.’s widow) have the advantage of close proximity, neither is a professional editor, making the process more arduous.

Next, just what are these decades of writings? Both Guardian writers make oblique but unsupported statements about short stories featuring the Glass family, who appeared in a number of Salinger’s later published fiction: one says it “appears likely” there are more Glass stories, while the other says “It’s clear” there are others. Neither offers any evidence. Did Matt Salinger let slip a hint?

Then what else is there? Matt Salinger speaks of many short pieces, notes and observation scribbled or typed down in the moment. In the Guardian interview, he even provides on small glimpse, a few sentences in which J. D. notes his blissful reaction to a late afternoon snowstorm, but the note itself is nothing more than that, a glimpse. Salinger had a deep and complex spiritual life, if accounts are to be believed, and it’s not hard to imagine him discoursing on life to his typewriter. Is this the trove that awaits fans hoping for more Catcher in the Rye – Salinger the Zen sage, observing and marveling at the natural world? Imagining this, Matt Salinger’s comment that the unpublished works “will definitely disappoint people that he wouldn’t care about” acquires an ominous tone. What if the stockpile of manuscripts is just Salinger disappearing into his own navel?

It is possible that not every story Salinger left behind is complete, or exists in more than one draft. The urge to combine an unfinished, later fragment with a complete earlier draft – the Silmarillion approach – would be daunting. And assembling a book requires other decisions: if there are more Glass family stories, but they were written at intervals between other stories, do you collect the Glass stories in one volume, or go with a chronological approach?

There exist letters from Salinger to Matt, that much is definite. A book of letters would be entertaining at least, and probably enlightening as well, a substitute for the autobiography that likely does not exist, and the biography the family would likely not allow. Salinger did not care that we found (or find) him mysterious. He gave us his writings; the rest was off limits. For now we must be patient.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs

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Writing is an art form; that’s a given. Specific kinds of writing have their own intricacies and pitfalls – the mystery, or the comic novel, for example. And among the many bright lights of the latter subgenre P. G. Wodehouse shines like a lighthouse guiding travelers to safety. His many book are reliable, amusing, and take us out of our everyday worries. So undertaking to assume the Wodehousian mantle takes a bit of hubris, and a lot of research.

Fortunately, Ben Schott is good at research, having before this been known for books of fascinating, arcane trivia. So he has the necessary gray cells, but has he the comic chops? Let’s not dilly-dally: yes, he does. Jeeves and the King of Clubs, published in 2018, does justice to Wodehouse’s distinctive characters and the England they live in. It even includes, in what we must call a Schottian vein, explanatory notes at the back, explaining  some of the references in the novel.

The last attempt at a Wodehouse pastiche, Jeeves & the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks (2013) did not satisfy. It fell blandly on the eyes, and some plot points, particularly at the end, rang false. My feelings toward it can be summed up with the neologism “Meh.” Not so Jeeves and the King of Clubs. Though it has enough plot for two books, things are kept running smoothly, and subplots are set aside as the action builds – and yes, there is action.

Many of the old gang from the Jeeves stories are present – Aunt Dahlia, Anatole the chef, Roderick Spode, comic Fascist, Florence Craye, Percy Gorringe, and many others – but it is Jeeves, gentleman’s personal gentleman par excellence, and his employer Bertie Wooster who hold the limelight. And do they hold it? Jeeves is insouciant, unflappable (well, he almost flaps once – but no spoilers here!) and seemingly all-knowing. I might have liked to have him onstage a little more, but that’s a judgement that has to wait until I reread the book. He reads true, which is all I could ask.

And Bertie, the Watson to Jeeves’ Holmes (sometimes at the lower, Nigel Bruce-ish end of the Watsonian spectrum), what of him? Well, he is and he isn’t the same old Bertie. He’s immediately recognizable, sometimes asserting himself unwisely, other times coming through with a smart idea. Yes, I wrote “smart,” a word not often applied to Bertie before. You see, Schott’s Bertie is a trifle sharper than Wodehouse’s; his snappy patter is a step snappier. In short, Bertie has grown up a little, but remains himself. Oh, he’s still an unwitting and unwilling partner at times, but less so than previous; in fact he is granted confidences that the old Bertie might not have earned. Bertie is not stupid, and never was. The difference this time is that people know it, and are willing to include Bertie in important matters. By the end the plot hangs on his shoulders, rather than round his neck. There are even hints of an impending…but no, my lips are sealed.

There are wheels within wheels, as Bertie is swept up in the lives of various supporting players, and often doing just that for them – supporting. No dei ex machina are needed to resolve the plot. I counted just one indirect anachronism, a subtweet, if you will. (It’s on page 249.) One very minor point is not made definite, but I promised no spoilers. It’s not central to the plot, anyway.

Schott wisely aims for a breezy yet intelligent tone to the story (it is narrated by Bertie, after all) without trying to ape Wodehouse’s style. Aping Bertie brings him quite close enough. I promised myself I wouldn’t go peppering this review with quotes, but I’ll throw one in for dissipation: “Aunt logic is an immovable object; aunts themselves an unstoppable force.” (p. 33) It’s hard enough to keep prose funny, but to do so with the ghost of another, well-beloved, author looking over your shoulder takes guts and a handy thesaurus. I learned the word ‘vestimentary,’ which I had never before encountered.

If Mr. Schott chooses to rest on his laurels – an uncomfortable sounding position – no one would blame him. Should he choose to write more fiction, Wodehouse-style or not, I would seek it out gladly. You should do the same.

The box full of darkness

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Great Piece of Turf by Albrecht Durer, 1503, collection of the Albertina Museum, Vienna.

On January 17, when the poet and essayist Mary Oliver died, aged 83 years, I responded to a tweet by writing this: I see her poetry the way I see E. B. White’s prose: deeply concerned with the world and in love with its natural beauty.

It was an off-the-top-of-my-head observation; herein I want to expand on it.

I spent a lot of my poetry-reading time a couple of years ago catching up on Mary Oliver’s poetry. After all, her first book, No Voyage and Other Poems, came out the year I was born. Thanks to my dad, I had been exposed to The New Yorker early, and E. B. White remains high on my list of literary idols, one of several that magazine has given me. Now, belatedly, and with my apologies to her ghost, Mary Oliver has joined that personal pantheon.

How could I not be swayed by a writer so aware of detail, of picking out the bits of nature that perfectly fit her thoughts? She wrote:

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
from How I Go to the Woods

But of course she witnesses herself, and shares as she chooses. White, whose natural observations often revolved around the saltwater farm he owned in Brooklin, Maine, was more matter-of-fact, but no less in awe – the difference between reportage and poetry. I have included the Durer drawing at top because that, too, says something about nature, choosing detail, and matters of the heart.

A side note: I won’t publicly shame the publication/headline writer who noted that Oliver “made poetry accessible.” Poetry is as accessible as breathing. Since e. e. cummings some people have imagined poetry to be abstruse and headache-inducing but, while there are a minority of poets in that vein, most are quite comprehensible. It’s like saying a writer made fiction accessible, just because they happen to have been born after James Joyce.

Obituaries not only teach us the obvious, but sometimes the obscure as well: I didn’t know that Oliver worked with Norma Millay Ellis, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, in organizing Millay’s papers. Now I’m imagining a conversation between the two dead poets, and what they might have to say to each other.*

White and Oliver both saw nature as sacred, a church you were always in, if you had the sense to be aware of it. “I dearly love the natural world,” White wrote, and Oliver extended this to friends (also from How I Go to the Woods):

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.

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I have seen the poem above posted so many times on social media (including once or twice by me) that I have to include it. Immediately my mind went to the first line of White’s essay, Here is New York: On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.  And the end of that essay, where White looks at a time- and city-worn tree while thinking of the threat of nuclear war, speaks to the same acknowledgement of death that appears in Oliver’s poems:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world
from When Death Comes

Poetry “mustn’t be fancy” she old NPR. Well, who better associate with this remark than White and his former Professor, William Strunk, Jr? The Elements of Style has long been a guide to strong yet beautiful prose. Despite the reductive quality of Strunk & White’s dictum “Omit needless words” both they and Oliver realized the value of the right word in the right place. I was going to add a timely quote from Oliver here, only to find myself unable to pick from such a treasure-trove of choices.

I had intended to end this by noting that Mary Oliver deserved a place in American literature equal to E. B. White’s, but after reading only some of the many tributes paid her, I realize she’s already there.

*There is a personal connection for me: my grandfather, Dr. William E. Persing, was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s physician in the latter part of her life. He is likely the physician cited in The New York Times’ obituary of Millay.

Workers

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The New Museum, New York City

Years ago I worked at a museum. It wasn’t a vital role, just a administrative assistant, but the pay was adequate. I say “adequate” because I really only know what I made; the salaries of the curators and the director were a mystery. That’s the way things were.

During my time there a survey of salaries in the field came across my desk. I knew that if  I sent it around from person to person, it could take a week or more before everyone had seen it. So I emailed the staff, letting them know that they could drop by my office and have a peek if they wished.

I’ve forgotten which survey it was, but there are two of note: the American Alliance of Museums survey (which you have to buy) and the Association of Art Museum Directors survey (link to the 2017 report).

I was never so popular, and never had so many people leave my office shaking their head. I began to realize that our salaries weren’t in the upper range for the field. Sobered by this, I decided not to look up my own position.

The museum field is in need of transparency in so many ways, so it’s good news that the staff of the New Museum in New York is trying to unionize. They want to join Local 2110, which also represents the staff of the Museum of Modern Art. The museum, striking entirely the wrong tone, has hired Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, a firm known for working against union organizing. Step one should be dialogue between employer and employees: arming yourself with a company that bills itself on its website as “Anti-Union Services” is counter-productive at best.

The union organizers can be followed on Twitter (@newmuseum_union). I hope you will follow them, if you’re on Twitter, and follow the news of their progress elsewhere when possible. To the prospective union members: support transparency whenever possible. Don’t wait for annual surveys to know what you and your colleagues make, and how that compares to the field at large. I’m with you.

UPDATE: January 24, 2019. The push to join the union was successful. The museum has pledged to go ahead in good faith. Congratulations to the hard-working union organizers.