Mention Übermenschen, part 2

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The “Zeus of Smyrna”, restored in 1680.

Before superheroes we had gods and demigods, who were as flawed as their modern counterparts, if treated (assumedly) with a bit more reverence. (No one has yet built a temple to Superman or Batman, but such an edifice could draw a large congregation, and inspire as much internecine conflict.) Both groups built on human foibles and strengths; gods cheated on their spouses, demigods had feet of clay. Perfection brings distance, and worshippers (for the most part) need a connection at a human level with their idol.

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Benjamin West, Theirs Is The Kingdom of Heaven, 1775, collection of the La Salle University Art Museum

For a long time, Christianity eschewed this approach, creating a Jesus who was isolated from the human side of his nature. The stoic, placid, Victorian Jesus, who never raises his voice or even an eyebrow, served as the model for a tremendous amount of saccharine, mediocre art. Benjamin West, the first internationally successful American artist, produced a number of sappy Jesuses – the example above is not even his worst.

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Still from Last Days In The Desert, 2015

In recent years, efforts have been made to bring Jesus back down to earth, acknowledging the human needs, wants, and flaws that lend spice and character to stories. This brings me to my topic, Rodrigo Garcia‘s 2015 film, Last Days In The Desert, which presents a Jesus very much like us – too much, perhaps.

It’s a beautiful film, shot in the stark loveliness of the Anza-Borrego Desert in California, not far from where I used to live. Jesus (played by Ewan McGregor) is out in the wild, being tempted by the Devil (also Ewan McGregor). While there Jesus meets up with a family living a very precarious life amid the desolation. The patriarch of the family (played by Irish actor Ciarán Hinds) is determined to stay in the desert, while his wife and son yearn for better lands. One might expect a few choice homilies from Jesus, a reconciliation as the family unite, and a wholesome, uplifting conclusion.

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Ciaran Hinds in Last Days In The Desert.

But that’s not what happens. Jesus does resist the Devil’s temptations, but he is all but useless in advising the family. Character die – (spoiler alert: Jesus dies, too, after leaving them) and wounds are not healed.

At the end of the film (real spoiler alert this time) after seeing Jesus on the cross, we see the desert land in the present day. A group of people, friends, look out over the desert and take photos of themselves against its bleak majesty. Time has forgotten the family; the world continues on. It’s a frustrating film, never going where expected, but choosing less interesting routes to travel. With McGregor and Hinds, who both give good performances, it is also the most Celtic Bible story around. More brogues than the Middle Eastern desert was used to in those days.

I can’t recommend the film, because of the frustration. Instead, I suggest you watch the trailer, which makes it sound like a far more interesting story. Gods and demigods need to keep one foot in the heavens and one on the ground to appeal to people; too far in either direction and the illusion falls flat. We know the superhero is help up by wires, but they mustn’t be too easy to see.

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Mention Ubermenschen, part 1

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Cover of Astounding Science Fiction, October 1939. Art by Hubert Rogers.

Alec Nevala-Lee‘s fine book, Astounding: John W Campbell Isaac Asimov Robert A Heinlein L Ron Hubbard & the Golden Age of Science Fiction, set my mind to work. It is, for those who don’t know, a history of three important authors (two positively, for the most part, and then there’s L. Ron…) and John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor who helped them to fame.

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The cover of Alec Nevala-Lee’s book, published by Harper Collins. Nevala-Lee had suggested the Hubert Rogers art above, but the publisher went with a new work instead.

A recurring theme in the book is the superior man, the hero figure who helps mankind move forward. He inherited the Lensmen series by Dr. E. E. Smith, which had begun before Campbell started editing Astounding Stories, and continued to present the occasional superman-as-villain (“The Mule” in Isaac Asimov‘s Second Foundation, first published in Astounding in November and December 1945) and the conflicted, more modern approach (Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert‘s Dune, serialized from December 1963 to February 1964 in Analog, which is Astounding poorly renamed.). Campbell was not alone: long before Nietzsche and the Übermensch, people have fantasized and worked with the idea of improving the race/species. Sad to say, most of these thoughts and plans have had bias and bigotry at their core, and many horrible things have been done in pursuit of this quixotic goal.

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Superman, from the opening of the Fleischer Studios cartoons.

The 1940s were a pivotal time for the concept of the superman: with the capital letter, Superman made his debut in the 1930s, and was regularly published in Action Comics from 1938 on. In 1940 Superman made his radio debut, and in 1941 Fleischer Studios began producing animated cartoons starring the character. On the other hand, Nazism exemplified the harmful aspects of eugenics and the idea of a “master race,” dampening enthusiasm for the idea among many. In modern times, the trend is toward antiheroes, leaving the superior man to the likes of religious cults and the remaining dregs of fascism.

It’s no accident that Kim Kinnison (hero of Grey Lensman) and Superman assume the same posture, Colossi astride their respective worlds. Such grand posturing still shows up in comics now and then, but mostly it has been abandoned. Today we want our heroes human, flawed.

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A depiction of the Colossus of Rhodes, by 18th Century artists Georg Probst.

Since the idea of improving mankind in some scientific fashion has fallen away (for the moment; genetic engineering promises a new Pandora’s box) what do we have in its stead? On one side are the blind worshippers, who need an idol to look up to, even if it’s Donald Trump saying “Only I can save you”; on the other are those who look to unity, who follow Margaret Mead‘s statement, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The saddest part of Campbell’s story is that he could not let go of ideas that were fast becoming obsolete. For a while Campbell was the best editor in science fiction. Time has left some of his beliefs behind, but that happens to everyone.

More familiar names

It’s been unconscionably long since I last posted, due to a nasty respiratory bug, followed by wrist soreness, and then just life in general. Mea culpa.

So I come back, hoping to resume the blogging game, when I am reminded again of the power of trademarks and copyrights. A few months back, I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s book Art Matters. I was tickled that someone so much more famous than I would end up choosing the same name – no chance he stumbled on my blog and was inspired by it, but that doesn’t matter.

Now, I find that there is an Art Matters Foundation, which gives grants to artists. I know this because Lenka Clayton, whose project Sculpture for the Blind I reviewed a year ago, has just been awarded a grant. Good for her, and good for the foundation, which I had never heard of previously.

I will try to resume regular blog posts soon, secure in the knowledge that everybody thinks “Art Matters” is a good name.

For once, not a Nigerian Prince

A couple of days ago I received the following email:

Is this your professional or private email address ?

That was it. No salutation or signature. My mental alarms went off, but as there were no attachments or any dodgy bits (it got by my email’s spam filters) I wrote back asking why he wanted to know. Two days later, the following arrived. I’ll annotate it as it goes.

Thank you for responding back to my mail.​​​

​​My name is Mr.Mulholland and I am a staff of NatWest Bank, here in England attached to Investment Banking Services, I am contacting you concerning a customer and an investment placed under our banks management; as a matter of fact it was roughly 11 years ago. I would respectfully request that you keep the contents of this mail private and also to kindly respect the integrity of the information you come by as a result of this email. I contacted you independently and no one is informed of this communication; I would like to intimate you with certain facts that I believe would be of interest to you and benefit the both of us. All I want is an honest business transaction between us. First, I will start by introducing myself. My full name is John Paul Mulholland. I am a British citizen and I am currently working with NatWest Bank. I have been working here for 21 years now, and I have a good working record with my bank.​​​

Right off the bat, fishy smells emanate from this message. Who writes “My name is Mr. Mulholland” only to give their full name further down the same paragraph? And as to his being “a staff on NatWest Bank” I am extremely doubtful.

He’s going to be so disappointed I did not keep this a secret.

NatWest is a real institution: the National Westminster Bank, a major bank in the UK.​

​​I am also the personal accountant to late Engr.Paul Persing, a foreign contractor who has a financial portfolio of 8,782,500 (Eight million, seven hundred and eighty-two thousand, five hundred Great British Pounds.) with indefinite interest with my bank. My late client was a chemical consultant contractor with Royal Dutch until his death in a fatal car accident while in France on sabbatical with his entire family. The accident unfortunately took the lives of the family members comprising of himself, his wife and two kids in the summer of 2007 may their soul rest in perfect peace. He banked with us here at NatWest Bank and the money in his account has still not been claimed by anybody as there was no living will in place when he died.​​​

The prose has improved in this paragraph, but the credibility is still doubtful.

“A foreign contractor” is a bit vague, considering the specificity of other elements of Mulholland’s story. Our family name is from the Alsatian German dialect, but this Paul Persing is working for an unnamed company (or self-employed) working with Royal Dutch, by which I assume he means Royal Dutch Shell, the British-Dutch petrochemical company.

As of April 16, 2019, 8,782,500 pounds is equal to 11,473,512.11 dollars.

​​Since the death of my client; my bank and I have made several inquiries to his embassy to locate any of his extended family members or relatives but this has proven unsuccessful. I came to know about you in my search for a person who shares the same last name as my late client. I employed the services of adobe search solely for this purpose as I feel it would not have been the last wishes of my late client for his whole life work to be transferred to a government (Escheat) he had always complained of their unfavorable public monetary policies, taxes and so on while he was alive. My bank has issued me several notices to provide the next of kin or the account risk been es cheat within the next 10 official working days. The last notice for claim came to my desk last week. I am contacting you to assist me in repatriating the funds left behind before they are declared un-serviced by my bank. I am seeking your consent to present you as the next of kin of my late client since you share and bear the same last name. As such, the proceeds of the account can be paid to you as soon as you contact my bank and apply for the funds to be released to you as the next of kin. If we can be of one accord, I see no reason why we would not succeed. We both have to act swiftly on this matter in other to beat the deadline es cheat date.​​​

Escheat or es cheat? Why does that make me think of the Hall & Oates song, Adult Education? Anyway, the plot thickens in a familiar manner: ooh, a large sum of money going unclaimed, and maybe I could claim it? Let’s read on!

I am growing annoyed at this Mulholland for putting Hall & Oates in my head.

​​My proposal; I am prepared to place you in a position whereby an instruction is given to officially release the deposit to you as the closest surviving associate, and all etiquette shall be done in accordance with the rule of banking law, I certainly can guarantee you that, by the common law, the power of bequeathing is coeval with the first rudiments of the law, and this power has been extended to all. There is no ruling which prevents an inheritance from being so exhausted by legacies as to render it unworthy of the heir’s acceptance; basically all persons of sound mind are competent to bequeath and devise real and personal estate, excepting infants, with all this I would say we have the clear advantage to carry out a smooth and perfect operation whereby the paper work shall be coordinated in such a way that your status as a sole beneficiary is confirmed. Upon receipt of the deposit, I am prepared to share the money with you in half and no more; that is: I will simply nominate you as the next of kin and have them release the deposit to you; afterwards we share the proceeds in two equal parts.​​​

Ah, so he wants an accomplice, but only a 50/50 split? I admit I received a few of the classic Nigerian Prince scam emails in years past, but I never read them past the first few paragraphs. But this fellow doesn’t seem to want any advance fee, which was typical of the Nigerian Prince con. Not sure about the legal terminology here, as I’m neither a lawyer or a banker.

I would have gone ahead to ask the funds be released to me, but that would have drawn a straight line to me and my involvement in claiming the deposit, but on the other hand, you as a foreigner would easily pass as the beneficiary with the rights to claim, I assure you that I could have the deposit released to you in a few days. I will simply inform our bank of the final closing of the file relating to the customer, and instruct them to release the deposit to you; with these two things: all is done. I guarantee you that this will be executed under a legitimate arrangement that will protect you and me from breaching UK laws. I will attach my international Passport ID in my next mail for authenticity so we have equal ground to trust each other. If you are interested in my proposal I will send you more information directing, you on further procedure on how we can claim the money in the account successfully. I send you this mail not without a measure of fear as to what the consequences might be, but I know within me that nothing ventured is nothing gained and that success and riches never come easy or on a platter of gold, this is the one truth I have learned from my private banking clients; do not betray my confidence. If we can be of one accord I shall have the pleasure of meeting you, after this task has been completed. The content of this mail should be treated with utmost confidentiality and a quick response from you will be highly appreciated. However, if you are not interested in this proposal, please accept my apologies for sending you the message and kindly delete message, I promised that you will never hear from me.​​​

I anticipate your co-operation.​​​

Thanks for your time and do have a great day.​​​

​​Warm Regards,​​​
John Mulholland.

Now, as an occasional writer of fiction, I understand the need for consistent world-building; that is, the story must hold up all the way through. Mr. Mulholland has assembled a story that, unless his legal/banking arguments are bogus, holds together reasonably well. He wants me to aid him in committing a crime, and has done a careful job of describing it. If by some chance he is with law enforcement and is trying to lure me into a crime, this email would be pretty good evidence of entrapment.

He fails immediately by stumbling over some basic bits of English writing. A banker who cannot decide on the right spelling of “escheat” is a curious fellow. His sentence “If you are interested in my proposal I will send you more information directing, you on further procedure on how we can claim the money in the account successfully,” aside from the misplaced comma, could be setting up a more traditional advance fee scam. And what is there to prevent me, if I were of a larcenous nature, from applying to NatWest as heir and cutting Mr. Mulholland out of the picture? Is he essential to releasing this money?

I guess I won’t tell him I have older siblings who would better qualify as next of kin to this (likely fictitious) Paul Persing. No need to get his hopes up.

Of course I’m not so big a fool as to go into this proposition. My interest is as a storyteller, and watching as a fellow fiction writer spins a tale. If it was worth my time, I might create a form rejection letter, as though each scam was a story submitted for publication. Come to think of it, I’m publishing this one, so I guess, in a small way, he wins.

He’ll get no response from me, and you can bet 8,782,500 Great British Pounds on that.

The Brexit of Museums

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The new LACMA, design by Atelier Peter Zumthor and Partner…oh, no, actually that’s the Black Hole.

Not even this damning article by Joseph Giovannini in the Los Angeles Review of Books could prevent the slow march of progress in the redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I say redesign rather than expansion, as Giovannini makes it clear that the reimagined LACMA will be considerably smaller than the existing facility. Museum Director Michael Govan’s argument, entitled “LACMA’s new building is visionary – and big enough,” is not only unfortunately titled (“big enough” always sounds defensive) it also fails in the “visionary” department.

It appears certain that the new LACMA will end up smaller than the current museum by up to 53,000 square feet (Giovannini’s estimate), an inexplicable development that no one has been able to justify. $650 million is a lot of money for less museum.

LACMA has images and statements on the project here. The County Board of Supervisors has approved $117.5 million for the project, despite vocal reservations from the art world. Speaking in favor were people like LACMA Trustee Ryan Seacrest, and museum supporters Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton, all of whom could be dubbed official or unofficial “brand ambassadors,” were that not such a horrid term. Not quite like Fred Rogers testifying before Congress, but this is Los Angeles, and star power carries a lot of weight.

(And yes, “the Brexit of Museums” is a bit harsh; LACMA has made far more progress than the UK with less sturm und drang. I just liked the title.)

Govan notes “The primary galleries will be continuous, connected, without a clear front or back and with no barriers such as stairs or elevators,” but, as some works of art do require a certain amount of privacy, this layout could limit programming; and what museum visitor has ever said “What I want is no clear front or back”?  Govan again: “The museum’s artworks, from every culture and era, will be on the same level — no culture privileged above another” is a double-edged argument. Architecture can, but does not have to, create hierarchies. The differing needs of different collections should not be shoehorned into uniform spaces.

The single-level design imposes limits on, well, I’ll let Govan argue that: “Natural light and views will reduce “museum fatigue” and link the gallery space to the urban and park environment outside.” A view from the upper floor(s), such as you can see at the still fairly new Whitney Museum, can dull that museum fatigue as readily as a ground-level view.

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Michael Govan has a theory about running a museum… (cartoon from Punch)

There are a lot of doubts about Govan’s leadership, and, indeed, all LACMA leadership in recent years. Govan’s plan to amalgamate the American and European Art departments into a single entity has raised a lot of eyebrows. The plan to have no dedicated permanent collection galleries has also alarmed some; it could lead to the core of LACMA’s collection being sidelined at will. Is LACMA a museum, or a kunsthalle?

I don’t see any major roadblocks ahead for LACMA’s plans. They have raised a lot of private money, and now have money from the county. The museum’s reputation, not to mention Govan’s, stands or falls on how well the public responds to these changes. In my time in Connecticut, I saw the Wadsworth Atheneum go through two expansion proposals, one of which collapsed spectacularly, the other of which was more quietly abandoned, but neither reflected well on the museum. In the end, they focussed attention on the needs of the existing facility, and made major improvements in the galleries and behind the scenes. Los Angeles has many fine museums; it’s up in the air whether LACMA can maintain a place among them, or become a flashy building that’s not really worth visiting.

Two films by the Brothers Quay

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Still from the Brothers Quay’s film, The Street of Crocodiles (1986)

I have long been a fan of the puppet animation films of Stephen and Timothy Quay, often known collectively as the Brothers Quay. Their films are like no one else’s: dreamlike or hallucinatory, often difficult to describe. When I found that they had two films inspired by stories I liked the urge to blog rose within me. The challenges of doing this without lapsing into poetry, incomprehensible jargon, or spoiling the stories is daunting.

To begin with, one of the Brother Quay’s most admired films, The Street of Crocodiles, is not a direct adaptation of Bruno Schulz‘s writing, neither of the story of that name nor the book, which was originally entitled Cinnamon Shops, but retitled The Street of Crocodiles for its English translation. These stories could be reminiscences of a merchant family’s life in a Galician town, but the narrator is unreliable at best. Why does he think his father has turned into a cockroach? Why are the streets so unrecognizable, the customers in the family fabric shop so rowdy? Why does everyone think the world is coming to an end, and why doesn’t it, although there is a new constellation added to the sky and rather strange things are done to Uncle Edward by Father? 

Schulz’s prose is lush and evocative (I read the translation by Celina Wieniewska); I was moved to write a short story, inspired by three words in one of the early stories. There is darkness literal and figurative, but it is in the Street of Crocodiles itself that things turn darkest. Schulz imagines this street as a hellscape out of Otto Dix or James Ensor , but Schulz acknowledges that this is just an approximation of a truly horrible place: “The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year’s moldering newspapers.

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Bruno Schulz, drawing from The Street of Crocodiles.

Schulz’s drawings are equally strange. While some of the more thoroughly worked ones suggest Goya, his sketches for Street of Crocodiles bring me back to Ensor, and forward to the Quays.

Sometimes, most likely by accident, Schulz’s surreally crumbling world reminds me of other, later worlds. This moment from late in the book, for example, as Father peers up a chimney: “…Through the coils of gray substance, through the minute granulations, Father saw the clearly visible contours of an embryo in a characteristic head-over-heels position, with fists next to its face, sleeping upside-down its blissful sleep in the light waters of amnion…” Does anyone else hear the stentorian boom of Thus Spake Zarathustra?

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Not quite the baby seen up the chimney, but close.

I’ve spent so much space on the book in part because describing the Brothers Quay’s film would be wasted effort. It includes dolls, screws that move by themselves, machines that seem to be alive. The sets seem in the midst of decay; glass is cloudy with dirt, shots seem fogged or grimed around the edges. There is no good upload of the video online, so I’ll link to this excerpt, announcing a Blu-Ray release from 2016.

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Still from The Mask (2010)

The Quays used The Street of Crocodiles as inspiration, but made no attempt to translate the story faithfully. Not so with the other film I want to mention, the Quay’s 2010 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem‘s story, The Mask (1976), from his book Mortal Engines. Here I have to tread carefully because the story has a mystery at its inception, and the Quay’s film (viewable here) is so faithful I could spoil both. The story opens with a woman at a party; she does not exactly know who she is or why she is there. The answers to those questions, as well as the consequences of the answers, drives the story to an inevitable conclusion both understated and heart-rending.

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Still from The Mask. Believe it or not, this is a crucial moment in the film.

As with The Street of Crocodiles, the Quays play with focus and light to render the settings unreal, with a fine use of color. Their unusual adherence to the original story, even to having narration fill out the plot, would be disappointing were it some lesser tale. At times the Quays build settings with light, color, and texture, using seemingly incongruous objects to enhance the atmosphere; in The Mask the sets are minimal, stage like, leaving the characters to create mood. So much science fiction cinema looks alike, thanks to shared cultural assumptions and prolific talent jumping from one project to another, it’s a joy to see something that is its own thing.

(Perhaps some day I’ll write about the Brothers Quay’s first feature-length film, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1996), but it requires more research, as the film is derived from Robert Walser‘s 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten and, according to the Quays “other writings” by Walser. Here’s an excerpt, which shows that they treat live-action much the same as puppetry.)

The Quays are now in their 70s, and with the exigencies of making their kinds of film it’s likely we will only see a few more projects realized. I urge you to seek out their films, and don’t be surprised if you’re scratching your head for days to come.

“Art Matters” reviews “Art Matters.”

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Front cover

I knew I should have trademarked the name – or copyrighted, patented, or whatever.

Anyway, I have no objections to sharing a title with Art Matters, a fine little gift book, a set of short inspirational essays by Neil Gaiman, copiously illustrated by Chris Riddell.

I call it a gift book, because it would make an excellent gift to anyone in the arts, especially those dealing with uncertainty and doubt – basically all of us. Gaiman’s essays are affirmations of the importance of art and the artist, presented with humor, clarity, and in blessedly concise fashion. He writes things artists need to hear, things we already know but need to be reminded of now and then. We need to hear someone else say it, to know it’s true.

Riddell’s pencil sketches are loose yet not sloppy. His classic Grim Reaper (pg. 73, I think; the book is unpaginated except at the title page for each essay) is more the Death from Good Omens than Sandman, but I love the casual precision of the drawing. I only wish there was a digital image of it I could share with you.

This book plays to my assertion, which I think I have stated here before, that all books should be illustrated. Even a single drawing, a frontispiece, would do.

We live in a society that is fixated on wealth. Your goal (singular) in life is to leave it wealthier than you began; all other goals are secondary and expendable. College is not for learning, but for job training. The arts are seen as the wrong career choice. Artists who do make money are anomalous and strange, as though the dodo suddenly came back from extinction only to die again. Artists like Gaiman and Riddell, both successes in their fields, come to point out that life pre-existed money, and the original importance of creativity in culture and society is still vibrant and relevant. Amen to that, I say.

And, yes, I did review Amanda Palmer’s CD and book in my last post, and yes, she is married to Neil Gaiman; each has earned their own celebrity, and neither is dependent on the other for their fame. I also reviewed Amanda’s book The Art of Asking, which would make a nice complementary read to Art Matters. I suspect that’s it for my reviews for a while, as their son is not yet in grade school and has neither written or recorded anything.