Monday, March 30, 2009

Dirty Driving

When I started driving in the 1960's, the speed limit on freeways was between 65 and 75 mph. People got into bad accidents, but it was frequently because they were simply going too fast--often as fast as 90 mph, or more. 

Automobiles manufactured before 1970 were constructed primarily with all-steel frames, and had in addition steel bumpers, and long engine hoods up front. Seat belts were occasionally installed, but few people used them. They were heavy, and their engines cranked out more horse-power. Brakes were less sophisticated than were later, and they were more difficult to steer into sharp turns because of their softer suspension. 

People in those days, as I recall, were not nearly as aggressive on freeways as they seem to be these days. Automobile manufacturers emphasized comfort and luxury, not speed, as the selling points. Teenagers and "car nuts" liked fast cars, especially noisy ones, but they didn't as a rule abuse the laws of the road. 

Two trends occurred during the 1970's and 1980's, and it may be that they were mutually reinforcing. Detroit--and Japanese and German--car manufacturers, began to trim down the size and weight of vehicles, gradually replacing the metal with plastic; reducing engine size, while increasing efficiency. These cars were smaller, faster, and permitted greater control and response on the road. 

While this was taking place, the behavior of the driving public began to change too. There has been a complete change in the culture of driving. The speed limit was briefly brought down to 55 mph during the period 1974-1987, but then was raised again back to 65 mph. States now maintain their own speed limit laws. Despite efforts to control speed on our freeways, there is widespread disregard for posted speed limits. Drivers routinely exceed the posted limit by as much 20 mph on average--and highway patrol enforcement, when not being capriciously applied, generally tolerates violations. 

In addition, the behavior of automobile drivers has changed dramatically since I entered the traffic stream in 1965. Today, drivers routinely "tailgate," or follow too closely the vehicle in front of them. The classic tolerance motto goes: Always allow at least one car length between you and the car ahead of you, for each 10 mph increment of speed. Thus, a car following another in the fast lane at 70 mph should be no closer than 7 car lengths behind the car ahead. If you figure the standard automobile length is something like 12-15 feet, that would mean that at 70 mph you wouldn't want to be any closer than about 85 feet from the car in front of you. 


Because stopping times for standard automobiles, even in the best of circumstances, go up geometrically for each increment of speed. The "stopping distance" calculated by auto engineers is estimated to be in the neighborhood of 300 feet for a vehicle traveling at 70 mph. That means that, even maintaining the "recommended" distance at higher speeds is not likely to enable you to avoid hitting the car in front of you if that vehicle suddenly, without warning, brakes--because your estimated stopping distance is almost four times greater than the minimum recommended driving distance based on the old-fashioned formula.

Despite this glaring contradiction, commuters and other drivers in the fast lanes of our freeways routinely maintain no more than two car lengths of distance between their vehicle and the one ahead of them, even at speeds exceeding 70 mph! 

Is it any wonder that commuter traffic routinely piles up in multiple vehicle incidents, as several vehicles in a row--all traveling faster than the speed limit, and all following each other too closely--create a chain reaction in which 3, 4 or 5, or more cars smash into each other from behind. 

Despite this habitual "dirty driving" behavior--evident on any freeway at any time of the day or night--the highway patrol does NOTHING to stop it. It may be that "obligatory" citations are harder to prosecute. It may be that attempting to enforce laws in the fast lane is inherently dangerous. Or it may be, as I suspect, that most highway patrol officers would prefer to "wolf the lambs" in the right or center lanes for "speeding" or other relatively minor infractions, because they're easier to enforce, and generate easy revenue. 

With our state and local governments all running deficits, there has already begun to be a new push by patrol departments to increase citation issuance, as a way of defraying declining revenue from taxes and Federal grants. Patrol cars have become very visible since the first of this year--it's a ticket bonanza, and if you're not careful, you'll get nicked for a trivial "no harm" violation that, a year ago, wouldn't have mattered an iota. 

But our highway patrol needs to start enforcing the laws that really matter. Tailgating in the fast lane is a recipe for disaster. It's probably 20 times more likely to result in serious accidents, long delays, and severe injuries than all the other kinds of illegal driving sins combined. 

This isn't the kind of thing you can say to an individual officer on the street; they've usually got a chip on their shoulder a mile high, and are as likely to haul you in for resisting arrest for casually complaining, as if you had pulled a deadly weapon on them. But this is their job. We need to tell our representatives that real enforcement needs to be directed towards greater safety and efficiency, instead of pumping up "revenue" citation totals.      

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Harold Pinter's THE SERVANT [1963]

I am not a theatre-goer, so my familiarity with actual live performances is quite limited. Harold Pinter [1930-2008] was for half a century Britain's preeminent playwright, eventually winning the Nobel Prize in 2005. A further admission would be that I have never read the novella, by Robin Maugham, upon which Pinter's screenplay is based. I don't believe that either qualification is an issue in voicing my appreciation for this movie, however.

The Servant came out when I was only 16. I believe I saw it first in the late 1960's, in a showing at an art film revival theatre in Berkeley. The Servant was, even then, regarded as an "auteur" classic, a clear example of a certain kind of gritty, hard-edged British New Wave cinema, associated in my mind with Darling [1965], The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner [1959], Room at the Top [1959], and so on. It was the first dramatic piece I associate with Pinter, who had already, by this date, written eleven major plays, though his screenwriting activity had barely begun when he did The Servant. What an auspicious quasi-debut!

Ostensibly, The Servant is a "vicious" attack upon the British class system, though this initial framework becomes, in Pinter's hands, merely a pretext for a deeper exploration of the nature of the sexual bargain, of the sly, subtle adjustments of interpersonal tension, a theme that is far more universal in its implications than mere social criticism. 

A full analysis of the film easily would take 30 pages of dense ratiocination; all I can reasonably expect to do is point out a few thematic elements which I find intriguing. 

This is, in my mind, one of Dirk Bogarde's three great screen performances, the other two being Darling, and Damn the Defiant [1962] (a little known historical potboiler about a mutiny aboard a British ship of the line during the Napoleonic Wars). Bogarde had begun as a Sunday "matinee idol"--his delicious, boyish good-looks and slick charm conquered the popular movie-going audiences of the 1950's. As his career progressed, he got better roles, and by the end of his life, was regarded as one of the major actors of his era. Physically unimposing, he tended to pout and sulk in his roles, plotting and devising against against power and circumstances to attain his ends. These modes of performance are nowhere more evident than in The Servant, in which he plays a manservant hired by a stuffy, presumptuous, adolescent young architect taking up lodgings in London after a period abroad. 

At its essence, the plot is the story of the seduction, and eventual domination of the young British upper-classman (brilliantly played by James Fox) by his servant Barrett (Bogarde). By "seduction" we must be careful not to place too great a generalization upon the "sexual" implication, since in Pinter's universe, sex is not the end of the bargain--it's just one of the playing fields. There is a highly suggestive dialectic between Fox's relationship to his girlfriend (played by Wendy Craig), and the relationship between Barrett and his girl Vera (Sarah Miles). Pinter seems to be telling us that at its basis, all sexual and/or "contractual" bargains which people make--whether temporary or not--are selfish, provisional, extemporaneous. The difference is in how we pretend: Fox and his girlfriend are no less ruthless and smarmy about what they expect of each other, and how they view their presumed "inferiors"--than are Barrett and Vera; it's just that the "servant" class takes for granted the pragmatic nature of human relationships, which are, as often as not, built upon money and class and "tradition"--and not love and cooperation. 

The movie is in some respects quite theatrical in its technique. I'm thinking of one scene in particular, in which Tony (Fox) and Susan (Craig) go to visit with Susan's parents. The camera view into a "conservatory" or living-room sets the four figures "posed" like marionettes, stilted and formal. The conversation is like a drawing-room comedy, with arch condescensions mounted like stuffed busts in every phrase. It's like suspended animation--these people are ghosts acting out a dead tradition, their belief-systems hollow and echoing.

As the steady deterioration of Tony progresses, their pre-set roles and etiquette are increasingly simplified, until, in the end, the two are like schoolboys, playing ball and hide-and-seek. Barrett hooks Tony on drugs, gets him screwing his girlfriend (prostitution), and eventually totally compromises him. Tony reasserts his class superiority temporarily, but then reneges and re-hires him. Barrett's victory is pyrrhic, of course, since his "control" of the household is limited--it's all ghastly fun and games. The message seems to be that all social relations are a kind of gaming, it's just that the rules for different games are different, though the ultimate outcomes may to some extent be pre-determined. Barrett is ruthless, and appears stronger, more practical--but socially he's still impotent. Every victory is met with capricious resistance from Tony--ultimately it's teasing and coyness that dictate their games.

Pinter is incredibly pessimistic about human relations. People are selfish, and will use anything to advance their interests. Self-pity and disingenuousness and posturing and bullying are the currency of exchange. We barter and sign up for personal gain, but we always are testing and re-testing the limits of our tolerance. Cruelty and vicarious curiosity dictate much of our intercourse.  

How odd that a writer with such a compromised view of the human capacity for evil and mischief should have become such a strident critic of the fake sanctioned American interventions abroad. Did he really believe people are capable of better works?    

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Metaphysical Implications of the de Kooning/Kiesler Portrait [1960]

I have a complex reaction to the above photograph, which is partly derived from my response to Irving Penn's work as a whole, and partly as a result of my meditations about the materials of artistic production. 

The history of photography is largely the record of technical advancement(s), punctuated by many false leads and dead-ends, leading presumably to progressively higher levels of clarity and potency of image. Of course this is only partly true: Innovation in photography has been driven as much, or more, by the lust for convenience and speed, as by quality of image. 

Platinum (or Platinum/Palladium) emulsions were first discovered and utilized well before 1850, but due to the relative cost of these rare metals versus silver, salt or albumen, they were largely abandoned around the turn of the 20th Century. Despite this, the unique qualities inherent in Platinum/Palladium images have long been known. Over the years, a few photographers have continued to explore the range of effects possible with PP printing. During the 1960's and 1970's, Penn, a technically exacting, highly successful commercial photographer, sought to make images with a greater tonal range, without losing any of the densities at the extreme ends (toe and shoulder) of the scale. 

Traditional PP prints tend to be "soft"--Palladium especially also tends towards a brown, "sepia" cast traditionally associated with "old" print-image making. Platinum, more expensive to use, makes a blacker image. This "soft" quality "reports" greater ("feathery") middle-range detail, producing images of great delicacy. Due to the extraordinarily slow "time" associated with PP emulsions, they are impractical for general photography, due to their long, high intensity light exposures. For this reason, they are routinely made as contact prints--sandwiching the naked negative flush against the dried emulsion sheet, transferring the image without the interposition of any expansion (or "enlargement") light projection lens. Emulsion sheets are typically hand-made just before exposure and development. On the other side of the ledger, PP prints are much less subject to the degradations of over exposure to visible spectrum light. 

Penn experimented during the 1950's and 1960's with variations on the PP emulsion formulas, trying additives of various kinds, to enhance and intensify the basic PP look. In addition, he used multiple exposures with layering of emulsions, requiring precise registration of negative overlays--painstaking, and often frustrating work. Only artists with the very highest objectives and standards undertake research of this kind, but Penn had a demanding vision, an obsession the drove him to perfect his materials to exacting levels of precision.  

His resulting success with PP prints permitted the creation of photograph images of greater detail, density and vividness than anyone had thought possible before: The proof was in the eye.

When I first saw Penn's Platinum/Palladium prints at exhibition, I knew immediately that their power lay not only in the choice of subject-matter, or in the innovative nature of his compositions, but in their materiality, the "stuff" itself. When I put this together with the methodology of the vision, I began to see photography in a new way--not simply as an accurate record of something the photographer-artist had discovered or seized from chance or opportunity, but a study of the chromatic/chemical properties of matter, the deeper implications of reflectivity and the deliberate control of the visible spectrum.

Physics and astronomy tell us that the entire universe is in essence simply an explosion: The Big Bang would be the creationist's short-hand if you believed it was "intelligent" in design; for the rest of us, its mere mystery is enough. Everything in the universe is burning, or has burned, or will burn up. Fuel and combustion and ash. Decay. Scientists now believe that life, as we know it, on earth, began at the peripheries of submerged volcanic vent-holes, where heat and the right chemical combinations led fortuitously to the first animate protein structures. Life originated from vulcanism: It's an astounding thought.

Einstein posited that everything in the universe, all matter, is nothing more than elaborations of light. Matter is "arrested" light, or "sluggish" light. Light is the touchstone, the "stuff" from which all substance, all structure, all interaction, all energy, is made and interpreted.  

Photography is the interaction between light and reflective surfaces, recorded/reported/perceived by light sensitive surfaces (including our eyes) as differing wave-lengths along a spectrum of oscillations. Monochromatic densities between absolute black (the absence of visible light) and saturated white (the upper edges of the visible spectrum in which intensity exceeds the scale of value). In metallic salt emulsion surfaces, including silver, or Platinum/Palladium, "development" is the degrees of oxidation (or "slow burn") which occurs between exposed and unexposed areas of the emulsion surface. The glass lens focuses the light image onto the emulsion and delineates the image according to the variable areas of light and dark, making a projected image, once the print is developed.  

In describing print values, photographers will sometimes refer to the contrast extremes of a monochromatic print as "chalk" and "soot". The "soot" is a very ironic descriptive, since the darker/est areas of any developed print are the most "burnt"--using the analogy of combustion/oxidation. Deepest black is, metaphorically, the ashen residue to total, or near total combustion, the "toe" of the log of reflectivity scale. 

I'm not attempting to give a lesson in photographic processes here, but this minimal gloss is necessary to follow the argument I'm making about Penn's image. This photograph is a double portrait, a studio shot, set up and framed precisely--there is nothing superfluous, nothing unnecessary or "accidental" about it. It's not "candid" or opportunistic or "decisive"--it's staged. But despite it deliberateness, its highly controlled aspect, it also frames several fleeting qualities. Typically, the subjects of portraits may be cooperative or impatient, comfortable or ill-at-ease. The dialectic between photographer and model may be a subtle one, subject to all kinds of distractions and influences; but this doesn't look like Kiesler is blinking--he's grown bored or fatigued and is dozing, or waiting for the next exposure to re-pose. De Kooning, on the other hand, is wide awake, and looking with interest into the camera.    

The two men in this portrait are both famous artists. Willem de Kooning (about aged 56 when this portrait was made) was already famous, having achieved an important place in the history of American Abstract Expressionism in the 1950's. Frederick Kiesler was an architect and furnishings designer with a strong underground reputation based partly on his involvement in the production of the important early Modernist work the Ballet mecanique in Vienna in 1924 (music by George Antheil, etc.); he'd been associated the Adolf Loos, the De Stijl group, etc. Kiesler would have been about 70 here.

In the portrait, Kiesler appears to have fallen asleep, or to be dozing. Some people doze compulsively, but in portraiture the subject may often seem to be sleeping, simply because at the moment of the shutter's click, he blinked. De Kooning, on the other hand, is wide awake. His clear-eyed regard is filled with attention, the steady gaze of an artist at the height of his powers. He's smoking--the classic candid "prop".

Both men are dressed rather formally, de Kooning specifically in a broad-cloth white cuff-linked shirt, with suspenders. The two figures lean towards each other, as if linked, though their association is not clear: They were not associated artistically or professionally. Their different ages are emphasized by Kiesler's apparent fatigue--he's clearly older, and closer--perhaps by at least 10 years--to dying. Photographic portraits freeze people at specific ages, capturing them in medias res, at one point in the arc of their existence. The subtle contrast between their ages is a key to the meaning of the picture.   

The cigarette is a potent symbol, perhaps the key to the whole image. The ash at the end of de Kooning's cigarette butt is quite long, perhaps an inch off of the burning point (tip). As anyone knows who has smoked, or watched people smoke, if you don't knock the protruding ash off the end of the cigarette, it will eventually "fall" off by itself. For me, the cigarette is a metaphor for several things:

1) The tension of the moment: Penn is posing the men in session, and as de Kooning leans against one arm, putting the lit cigarette in his right hand against the side of his head, the ash threatens to drop onto his dress shirt, ruining the moment. The length of the white ash creates drama--Penn undoubtedly saw this, and used it to advantage.

2) The symbolic aspect of combustion: Time is eating up the cigarette, just as it is consuming the two men, their clothing, the table, the fabric, the drop-cloth background, everything is fleeting, in the universal disintegration. 

3) The burning of the tobacco is a metaphor for the "burning" processes of the organic chemistry of the emulsions (negative and print). As the focused light strikes, the exact image of all this data is evoked through the transformation of the light-sensitive surface. The development of the silver negative, and then the burning (exposure and development) of the print emulsion, are all controlled burns

Penn's print value control is astonishingly strong: The soft melting white of the shirts, of the cigarette paper, contrast with the total black of Kiesler's sweater. Even in the digital reproduction seen here, which is in turn based upon a computer scanned reproduction from Penn's monograph published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, reports incredible detail and intensity. Every whisker, every age-spot, every cross-hatch of weave in the materials, is visible. The imaginative quality of familiar textures becomes so sensual it actually seems to compete with reality!

The tension between the staged, made quality of the studio portrait, and the fleeting, ephemeral content (the cigarette particularly) mirrors the tight balance between disclosure, and concealment: De Kooning's shirt has its two buttons open; Kiesler's eyes are closed (he's obviously "elsewhere"). The portrait is, in a very real sense, an expression of the celebrity status of its subject(s); and the fact of their appearance in Penn's canon of work insures their continued survival as emblems of his penetrating exploration of human nature. 

When you think about the extraordinary lengths to which Penn went to perfect images such as this one, involving multiple registered layering of emulsion application, custom chemical mixtures arrived at through empirical trial and error, there is little doubt that his technique is no less inventive and creative than the greatest painters in history--e.g., Renaissance painters who experimented with different pigment combinations, etc. There was nothing "easy" about the production of this image. Each original print cost untold hours of lab work--unforgiving, delicate, fragile, exhausting. Technique carried to an absolute limit of the artist's vision, and dedication to the medium. 

This portrait of Penn's is among the most impressive of all studio photographs.  It is one of my all-time favorites.      

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Berkson's PORTRAIT AND DREAM New & Selected Poems

Bill Berkson's Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press) has just been released. The book is an occasion, as any book by Bill would be, for me, since I've been an admirer of his work for over 40 years. In 1976 I published Bill's then collected poems, Blue Is The Hero (L Publications), which would only account now for about a third of the contents of this new collection. 

In retrospect, Bill's work has developed in ways I couldn't have imagined in 1975. Rather than moving away from painting and abstraction, which I then believed he might do, he gravitated towards the plastic arts, and incorporated thematic elements and techniques directly from art criticism, as well as the methodology of painting, sculpture, photography, landscape design, and so forth. This was no surprise, really, since he taught art at the San Francisco Art Institute for 24 years, until 2008; indeed, having grown up inside the New York art world during the 1950's and '60's (his Mother Eleanor Lambert (Berkson) was an important figure in the New York fashion world until her death, at 100!, in 2008), he has never strayed very far from the preoccupations of art and artists. It's probably inevitable, then, that his work should be considered within the context of the history of aesthetic movements and trends, since the inception of Modernism. How one mediates between the life lived, and the expression of intention through art, seems to have been perhaps his major theme since he began writing seriously in the 1950's. 

If the intersection art and life has always been the ostensible subject of Bill's work, the method and strategies by which this is addressed has undergone some changes over his career. From the start, the relation between the authorial voice and its presumed "subject" was never traditional: From the first poems in Saturday Night [1961], there is a level of abstraction which resists specificity and referentiality, in favor of an imaginary dialectic: Fragmentation, blurring, altered states, and an amused skepticism masquerading as conviction. Nevertheless, each poem had some kind of reference point (an election day, a day in the garden, an Italian movie, swinging saloon doors, the doorman in Mother's building) to which all the language tangentially referred, if only obliquely. 

The turning-point in this collection is the long prose-poem piece, entitled, significantly enough, "Start Over 1979-1980". Most all the poems published after this, completely eschew traditional occasional subject-matter, in favor of an autonomous, restless linguistic anxiety, in which every word, every phrase, every stanza is sacrificed to an expedient priority. This regime makes it difficult to get settled into a poem: What this feels like, to me, is not unlike Ashbery's method, in which a nimbus of feeling coalesces around a sequence of images and phrases meant to reassure us with familiar gestures and objects, at once bland and weird. But Berkson takes it a step further: Not only are we routinely on unfamiliar ground, we don't even have the convenience of recognizable signifiers. Taking a few couplets, at random, from the poem "Memoir Bay"--

Lap, the car talk, the Boston rat catcher, vigilance
Bones eclectic in the manor, blinkered in some slipper's cap,

A mole slide's third's tainted fab blue hoot avail,
Taint, tawny micros stippling about a ditch,

On the brain gold feed plaques
Blend, the unissued stamp.

Great British tendencies parade to scumble
For their prehensile bearing inside Arcady body's blowfish

--etc. Though the alignment, capitalization of line beginnings, and conversational syntax--the whole look and feel of the frame--is unchallenged, the level of abstraction it entertains is far beyond any descriptive eventuality: The subject of the poem is its own changes, its own peculiar, eccentric, weird, witty play. Sensations come at us, do a turn, then disappear down the rabbit-hole. It's a Dada light-show, punctuated by litter and glitter and four-dimensional dance-bands. Imagine Venice plaza with in-line skaters selling pink cotton-candy to Charles Laughton. Chihuly drowning in party-favors. Cocktails in the bank vault. Breakfast at Tiffany's, Gidget's pregnant. 

Maybe an "outsourced consciousness"--rented tux that doesn't fit. Ultimately, the self trades alienation for a cell phone. Tow truck stranded on the bridge, we're due to flounder at three. So the art critic points with a muffled poker--what does he think? Search me. In an earlier poem from the 1970's, "In From the Edge" the last four lines read "Strip the night away:/there is a room somewhere//and one lies down near it--/lives, in fact, just outside." The implication is that the space the self occupies is always separate--though closely adjacent to--the  art-"room" of action, creation, possibility. The poems Berkson has written since the early Eighties suggest that he's gone into that room, or at least, now has the key. But it's in a secret location.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Favorite Movie

John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948] is my favorite movie. After considering the 90 years of continuous film-making, I can't think of another example from the medium which combines the best aspects of narrative drama, cinematic editing, acting, clarity and economy of means, as well as this classic film does. It was made in black and white. I don't know if it's ever been "colorized" but that would certainly detract from its brilliant photographic qualities. 

The movie won Huston both the Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards for his effort, and his Father Walter Huston [1884-1950] won for Best Supporting Actor, though he could have easily won the Best Actor award, plain and simple--it's undoubtedly the greatest role of his career, in a part written for him by his Son.

The plot is derived directly from the novel by B. Traven, a mysterious German novelist whose life story was as fascinating and complex as any fiction. Huston had thought of making a movie from the book for some years before realizing it. Obtaining permission and rights to adapt it involved some complex negotiation. Eventually, Huston coaxed Traven--notoriously private and even paranoid about being identified in public--into participating in the production, incognito. Huston filmed much of action in Mexico, heightening verisimilitude and availing himself of handy Mexican actors and extras.  

Where to begin. On its most obvious level, the plot revolves around the evils of greed and the exploitation of common men by capitalism. Traven was a Socialist, and Huston shared some of his sentiments. The film was released less than a year after the Hollywood 10 had been cited for contempt by HUAC; I think it unlikely that this film--in its present form--could have been made during the 1950's, because of its clearly anti-capitalistic slant.

Humphrey Bogart, the de-facto star of the film, around whom the action moves, was not even nominated for Best Actor, an anomaly which seems more peculiar and baffling as each year passes. For my money, it was his best performance, better than Falcon, better than Caine Mutiny, better than the Desperate Hours, better than all the rest. In the movie he goes from small time grifter and bum, to cocky gold miner, to psychopathic killer, to pathetic victim, all in the space of 126 minutes, and there's never a wrong move. Laurence Olivier garnered Best Actor that year, for Hamlet, a pretentious Shakespearean adaptation which blew the Motion Picture Academy away with its timely British pride and passion. Tim Holt, a veteran contract Western regular, in a career-defining role as Dobbs's  friend, was the third of the acting trio.

Aside from its basic plot, the movie is filled with a number of brilliant set-pieces and sub-plots. Robert Blake, in an uncredited performance, plays the little Mexican boy selling lottery tickets, the purchase of which eventually provides Dobbs with the money to throw in with Howard and Curtin for the prospecting venture. Then there's the Mexican haircut scene, with Bogart admiring his shiny slicked-back hair in a hand-mirror: Was ever any Hollywood leading man so homely and entertaining at the same time? Huston himself appears in the movie as a rich American, whom Dobbs keeps hitting up for peso pieces; it's a sly little ironic amusing twist on their real-life relationship: Huston says, after being bumped for the third time, "from now on, you'll have to get on in life without my help." 

Like many movie buffs, I've memorized every line in the movie, having watched it at least 30 times. It's a virtual--no, an actual--textbook of cinematic techniques. In the bar fight scene between Bogart, Holt and the contract crook, the camera is placed right on the floor, looking up at the struggling bodies as they stagger and careen over in front of us. When Howard the old prospector is measuring out the booty on a portable scale, you hear a little triangle tinkling sound as the gold flakes cascade onto the tin dish--a simple, and brilliant effect. 

Huston's sympathetic portrayal of Mexican society and culture was quite authentic, and unusual for its time. Huston lived in Mexico for some years, was married to a Mexican woman, and was quite knowledgeable about the country. The Mexican villagers, and the rural Indian tribe--their honesty, generosity and humility--are placed in sharp contrast to the money-hungry Americans, personified in the character of Dobbs, whose greed transforms him into a monster, a devil cackling before the rising campfire flames of his own evil, trying to convince himself that conscience is just an illusion. 

Howard and Curtin "laugh at the end of the world" in much the same way that Zorba laughs and dances in Zorba the Greek:  "You dance when you are very sad, and you dance when you are joyful." The true gifts of life are the rich fruit of your own labor, shared in the company of friends. Fortunes are made and lost, but happiness can't be bought. Huston made and lost several fortunes in his own lifetime, but he loved making movies. He never retired. In his 73rd year, he made the masterpiece Wise Blood, adapted from the novel by Flannery O'Connor. If you love what you do, that is also a pure form of happiness.   

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Grammar Nazi


Wow, what a concept.  Does anyone actually know what this newly coined noun means? Obviously the creation of some enterprising ad writer, looking to win over a new alcoholic beverage client. Taste good? Does it hit the spot? It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be bought. It's the old question: How to sell suds. What'll ya have, Bud?

Happy tipsy Tuesday.
How about "watchability" or "hearability"?  

She's got terrific watchability!  

New flat-screen watchability!  That new hit single's just filled with "hearability"!  

These coinages are just wonderful. Pure trashy conceits. They give me a headache. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mexico & The Drug War

There have been increasingly worrisome reports over the last two years about the troubles in Mexico involving the growing power and violence of the Mexican Drug Cartels. Since the Mexican President announced a national policy of all-out assault against the "drug lords", open warfare has in effect broken out in towns and cities throughout the country. Officials on this side of the border believe that this new level of violence may well spill over into our border states. 

With respect to America's foreign policy with Mexico, we are presented with a number of huge dilemmas. Mexico is a major trading partner. We share a long, porous border with it. The demand for drugs and the attraction of human smuggling and illegal human influx is overwhelming. 

Mexico's political history is not a shining example. Government at all levels is riddled with corruption. Much of the country remains poor, and its class divisions resemble the Third World's. Mexico has often used the threat of increased depredation to blackmail the U.S. for foreign aid.  

During much of the 20th Century, American agriculture in the Southwest benefited from the cheap seasonal labor provided by Mexican farm workers. The number of such migrant laborers never was statistically significant. But all that changed over the last 30 years.  

Experts estimate that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million illegal Mexican immigrants presently living in the U.S. The vast majority--and by that I mean at least 95%--of all illegal Mexican immigrants don't sneak into the U.S. to do farm labor; they come for all the usual reasons people flee deadbeat Third World economies:  Looking for a better life, better employment opportunities, better education, better health care, better housing, public order--in short, prosperity

The government of Mexico has done essentially nothing to discourage this trend, using it as a pressure valve to vent social discontent. And now it appears that even if Mexico truly wanted to control the illegal Drug Cartels, it may no longer be in a position to do so.

Acting out of self-interest, the United States should consider the following:

1) Legalize drugs. Studies have shown that the actual cost of controlling the illegal drug trade is many times greater than addressing the crime and health problems arising from voluntary use. The moral issues inhibiting legalization are not persuasive: Which would you rather have, a few hundred thousand sad addicts, or mafia-style networks promoting crime throughout your infrastructure? 

2) Drastically curtail all immigration, both legal and illegal. The pressure to emigrate from all over the world into the U.S. is intense. But the era of "give me your huddled masses" is over. America is no longer an "empty" country in need of population. Our prosperity, which was built on the exploitation of resource, and the factory system, appears to be rapidly ending. The real standard of living--subtracting excess credit, multiple worker households, and the steep increases in the lower classes--has been steadily declining over the last quarter century. We can no longer "afford" to take on the burden of excess refugees from South America, Asia, Africa. Every wave of additional human growth lessens our ability to deal effectively with the demands this puts on our society. The current fiscal crisis is symptomatic of America's long-term economic decline; it is now clear, in retrospect, that this crisis had been camouflaged by runaway credit. Americans were fooled, and wanted to be fooled. Not only are we no longer a rich enough country to afford to save the rest of the world from its problems of overpopulation and hunger and violence, we may not be able to save ourselves.  

We cannot dictate to Mexico--it's a sovereign nation. We are still a world of nations, despite the desire to conceive of our interests as "global" or "universal". If Mexico will not, or cannot, manage itself in such a way that our own interests are respected, we have no choice but to act to protect ourselves. If this means trashing NAFTA, closing our borders, and deporting millions of scofflaws, then we need to do that. 

In the long run, this is a superior choice to throwing up our hands and moaning about impossible choices. If we don't preserve our way of life and the prosperity we still in some measure enjoy, we'll end up being just another chaotic confederacy, like Russia. 

Mexico may never be able to put its house in order. But that's their problem, not ours. In the meantime, we have more than enough on our own plate to deal with.   

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Homo-erotic Poems Part 2

This is the second of two posts on male Gay love poetry, considering separate poems by two well-known poets of the post-War period--this, devoted to a poem, "Lexington Nocturne", by the North Carolina poet and publisher/entrepreneur Jonathan Williams [1929-2008]. This poem appeared in Williams's collection Elite/Elate: Selected Poems 1971-75, accompanied by a Portfolio of Photographs by Guy Mendes (Jargon Press: Highlands, North Carolina, 1979). It might be well to point out that this book was, as were several by the Author, self-published; he cared enough about how his work was presented to see to the matter himself. He felt a legitimate enough regard for his own efforts not to need the implied approbation and approval of having it produced by a third party. 

Williams was an American original. He eschewed the well-worn career tracks of academia (he left Princeton without a degree) and the publishing industry (he was well-qualified to be either an editor, an advertising executive, or a publisher's representative), and spent the better part of his life writing poetry, publishing other people's books (through his Jargon Press ventures), and generally promoting unsung and obscure art and literature. He was usually associated with the Black Mountain School, having attended that institution briefly during the early 1950's; though his interests and tastes ranged widely. His own verse tended towards the humorous, though occasionally, as here, he could be serious. 

There is a strong amused scatological strain in his nature. He clearly enjoyed offending "good taste" by speaking openly of his homosexuality in his work. For those who find such over-indulgence offensive, I will declare at the outset that this is a SPOILER ALERT. If you are dismayed by this poem, Williams is doubtless chuckling in Heaven as he lounges in his armchair puffing away on his cigar. 

Lexington Nocturne [April 19]

don't you?
don't you want to?

a gentleman doesn't ask young men
questions like that;
he probably begins with reveries on the French word
and how much better it is than our own

what you find in the Adagio
of Rachmaninov's E minor Symphony,
after the Largo, which was so
and full of longing...

sacred longing;
to be long, to belong to the company of those
who trust the holiness of the heart's affections... 

and to be long gone
up the dirt road to Eros,
as prone to the emotions as Sebastian,
full of his arrows...

back to the gentleman
and the young man:

Lexington, Kentucky,
the boy sharing the double-bed is called_________
from Texas,
full of tendresse... 

22, old enough to ask,
as I did, rhetorically, above:
do you?
do you want to?

the truth is
I never said a word...

I burned
and merely remembered what
Tram Combs used to say:
let a tablespoon of come
come between friends...

one of those nights
with eyes open all night
(even they sweat),
but by 3 o'clock my foot and calf
the mind lies back
in the light of the white room,
where it waits for you
to shift your body
in deep sleep...  

by 6 o'clock the light brightens,
and if I move carefully
I can move the spread just a little, see
your back where the t-shirt's pulled up
and the top of your thigh shows

and look at you
and wonder what any of this would mean to you--
this meaning the lust to hold you
and bring you
into the Brotherhood of Lovers... 

the very first thing to say, the fact is
it is most seemly, most apposite, most circumspect for men
to fuck boys--
"men are men's joy"

if I were a Dorian nobleman
I would explain to_________, as I slipped it in,
this is not just semen up your ass,
this is class, this is arete, this is how
you learn to be a man

but this is 2500 years post Plato,
who fucked everybody up

thus I see you as your eyes open in the Lexington dawn
and put my hand in your hair and
let it hang
just an instant
and let that be all
for then

"men are men's joy"
means what it says

in another town,
on another night

Eros, that sore, three time loser,
shall strike again,
old friend:

do you?
do you want to?


Note: Poem used by permission. 

This poem is, in a specific and useful sense, an embarrassment: It is a deliberate attempt to declare a most private affection in public terms, without attempting in any way to mask or camouflage the intensity of one's feelings. It would be as effectively moving and tender if it were about a straight relationship, or indeed as it would be about a love triad--because of its mastery of tonal and lyrical strategies, which are, of course, parallel to the actual overture of seduction. 

I have often thought of poetry, indeed of all writing, as employing a seductive strategy. And I would go further, in characterizing this seductive function as having what we might consider to be a feminine basis. Great writers tend to have a balance between their sexual natures. This is sometimes referred to as "left brain/right brain" or what you will: An apprehension of the qualities of active and reactive sensibilities. In order to be whole, human nature must approach the condition of the dual qualities of our binary natures; only then, are we able to appreciate sympathetically what we perceive, and to act usefully and effectively with that sensitivity. 

Are Gay poets more likely to possess a more highly developed receptive nature than straight poets? I have no idea. What might distinguish a homo-erotic turn of mind from a heterosexual one, as expressed in poetry? 

On one level, questions of variant sexuality in art are potentially embarrassing in a social or personal sense. If one is straightforward about one's persuasions, the obviousness of trying to address that difference may seem gratuitously irrelevant: After all, great artists or writers will succeed despite whatever their private natures may be. The history of the suppression of homosexuality has meant that the strategies associated with the concealment of one's nature are expressed, in one way or another, in the literary practice. 

Williams's poem confronts that embarrassment directly, and with courage. It is unashamed, and frank. It is romantically lyrical--in a free verse setting--so that its method is in the manner of the emotional rightness of its rhythms, instead of upon any artificial music; though its turns and justifications are elegant, and dignified. 

This is the same admixture of high and low address which we saw in Schuyler's "A Head": The conjunction of quotidian, graphic, data with a summons to classical rationalization or metaphor. There are other Gay poets who do this very thing: John Wieners, Frank O'Hara, Richard Howard, and so forth. This is no different than what poets have done since time immemorial. Do Gay poets have a corner on the love market these days? Are they perhaps seeing it fresh, in a way straight poets haven't for, say 150 years? Are straight poets tired of writing about love? Have they run out of ways to express it? Has it become an empty rehearsal for them?   


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Demise of Daily Newspapers

The demise of major urban daily newspapers, which has been foretold for over half a century--roughly since the arrival of television in the early 1950's--finally seems to be upon us. The rise of popular dailies more or less paralleled the industrial expansion beginning in the mid-19th Century (first in Europe), reached a crescendo in the 1920's and 1930's, then began its long period of decline and consolidation beginning in the 1940's. Television directly challenged print media from the Fifties onward, but major dailies held their own, increasingly relying upon ad revenue to make up the shortfall from subscription and street sales. As recently as five years ago, major newspapers were making big profits--reported to be in the neighborhood of 12-20% per annum. Under the Bush Administration, attempts were made to facilitate the consolidation of cross-media conglomerates, generating fears of political homogenization, not surprising given the wholesale elimination or downsizing of news divisions at all levels during the Eighties and Nineties.  

It was clear, given the enormous pull of the World Wide Web--its speed and efficiency--that eventually some form of online media news dissemination would challenge other media (newspapers, television, radio), but no one could have predicted that it would happen so quickly. Just as Amazon and Alibris brought about the downfall of both the retail and used book "brick & mortar" businesses, online news services, many of which were maintained by the newspaper organizations themselves (!), have drawn ad attention away from print media, erasing their profit margins almost overnight. 

Is the personal computer a viable replacement for the material text of newspapers, magazines and other more portable print formats? To some degree it is, but for the majority of customers for traditional print media, the disappearance of regular dailies is neither convenient nor desirable. 

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. For my whole life--with the exception of brief periods in the Midwest, and a year abroad in 1985--the San Francisco Chronicle (the "Voice of the West") has been where I got my news. As smaller town newspapers gradually died away, the Chronicle maintained a stable subscription base, cutting across class, ethnic and economic lines to serve the whole community. Where does the impending cessation of newspapers--as primary transmitters of information and informed (political) opinion--leave the great mass of citizens who depend upon it, and for whom the personal computer is not, and may never be, a viable or practical alternative? 

Even more troubling, is the fact that the disappearance of newspapers is occurring at the very same time that television and radio news bureaus, and national and international news services, are cutting budgets and staff.

It's by now a relatively old idea--that a democracy depends to a large degree on the existence of a free press to function properly--but it's as pertinent and crucial today as it has been at any point in our last two hundred plus years as a nation. Without investigative journalists digging for news and stories, without timely reporting of unfolding events of concern at all levels of government and commerce, how can the citizenry act responsibly and with the requisite knowledge, to protect their own interests. 

I'm not sure the internet is properly structured, or prepared to step in and occupy the function of newspapers. As for myself, I've never "read the news" online, since I was never able to navigate as efficiently among linked pages or sections, as I could a physical newspaper. I've subscribed continuously to the SF Chronicle for nearly 35 years, and now read it more religiously than ever, frequently writing letters to the editor. If it goes under, there'll be a big hole in my awareness of the world at large. 

The survival instinct of the news media seems not to be very great at this moment in time. That may, ironically enough, be one of the symptoms of the disease itself. The audience still seems to be there, it's the business model that has changed. Computer technology continues to destroy parts of our intellectual infrastructure, without supplying any real replacements. We seem in the midst of a watershed moment--a gap in time--in which old paradigms are giving way, but not to new, more efficient and universally useful ones. This feels more like a contraction. Less news. Less convenience. Less access.  

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Homo-erotic Poem Part I

It has always struck me as peculiar that love poems by Gay men are almost always more erotic and specific than those written by straights. There are, I know, countless exceptions, but the general rule seems to be to be generally true. I just finished going through the whole of The Faber Book of Love Poems, Edited by Geoffrey Grigson [London: Faber & Faber, 1973], and my predominant impression is that heterosexual love poetry tends towards the abstract, the merely decorative, whilst the homoerotic is more focused and direct. I'm thinking particularly of examples such as Whitman's "When I Heard at the Close of the Day" or Sir Philip Sidney's "My true love hath my heart, and I have his" which seem more specifically tender and frank than one is used to seeing in traditional (male) love poetry.  

Perhaps it is because of the historical idealization and ikonic personification of woman as a pure object (or vessel) which passes down, specifically, from the Renaissance, gathers steam during the Romantic Age, then is chastened by Victorian inhibition. The male object tends less towards the generalized, and more towards an individual.

The following poem by James Schuyler [1923-1991] (photo above) I first read in a pamphlet I found in 1968, May 24th Or So [Tibor de Nagy, 1966]:

A Head

A dead boy living among men as a man
called an angel
by, me, for want of a word,
spaniel-eyed: wet, with bits
of gold deep in the eyeballs
hidden, like a mysterious ingredient
(c'est la, le mystere)
fringed with black and with black,
thick-grown, delicately thumb-smudged eyebrows
and brown cast on the face
so the lips are an earth red
and the rings or pouches under the eyes
are dark, and all the blue
there is hovers in the hollows
under the ridges of the cheekbones
as, in fall haze, earth,
broken into clods, casts shadows on itself:

except what, in the small hours, shows
the razor's path, its wide swaths
along the cheeks and down below
the strong and bluntly heart-shaped chin
where the taut flesh loosens and softens,
heaviest at the corners of the mouth
turning petulantly down from the fold
that lifts the upper lip and points
to the divider of the nostrils.

This so-called angel
who steps back into the shadows of an empty door
and staggers on short flights of stairs
is filled with a kind of death
that feeds on little things:
fulfilled plans that no longer suit the hour,
appetites that sicken and are not slaked
(such as for milk shakes)
lost or stolen handkerchiefs,
invisible contagion
(such as the common cold).

Within this head where thought repeats 
itself like a loud clock, lived
the gray and green of parks before spring
and water on a sidewalk between banks of snow,
a skylit room whose windows were paintings
of windows with views of trees
converging in the park all parks imply;
in that head a million butterflies
took flight like paper streamers and bits of paper
a draught lifts at a parade.

Then they went away.
They went away in a dance-step
to the tune of "Poor Butterfly"
played on a wind-up phonograph
of red mahogany stuck with bits
of gold: right stele for him.

When night comes and lights come on
after the colors fade in the sky,
may he minister as he can to whom he may,
himself or other, give what grace
all the little deaths he stands for,
to me, have left him. He is an angel
for his beauty.  So what
if it fades and dies?

This poem is filled with ambiguities, most notably the contradictory mixture of sentiment towards an x-lover, for whom the poet continues to feel an explicit romantic tenderness, but whom he still regards with a half-sentimental, half-amused, pity--one might even call it bitterness. There is a clear condescension towards the boy's immaturity, mixed with a lingering solicitude:  He is "filled with a kind of death/that feeds on little things" as if fussiness, or triviality, were a mortal affliction. The line "right stele for him" seems a very elegant turn of phrase, saying (if I understand it) that the mahogany wood record player with gold inlay is a fitting stele (or "ancient" monument) to the departed "angel" which is also, of course, linked to the "bits of gold" "hidden" in the brown irises--that's it, the mystery. There's one very awkward bit of footwork he performs, in the last stanza. 

may he minister as he can to whom he may,
himself or other, give what grace
all the little deaths he stands for
to me, have left him. 

Give them what you stood for to me, is left. Or something. It sounds almost courtly in its intricacy--a locution that Donne might have tried. The ironic/pathetic "so what if it [his beauty] fades and dies?" seems fairly straightforward, a send-off, or tip of the cap. The rueful close to a temporary commitment.

This is a graceful poem. Poetry is often about love, but it seldom rises to this level of seriousness, without seeming overly formal, or stiff. Schuyler was a master of the ordinary. He could take a daily occurrence, and turn it into the stuff of elegance and resolution. It's an unique gift.   

The next post will be devoted to a similar kind of poem by Jonathan Williams.  


Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Place We Left Behind

I don't know quite how this one got by me, but Kahn & Selesnick's SCOTLANDFUTUREBOG was published by Aperture Foundation (the outfit that was originated by Minor White), in 2002. It's an instance not just of innovative photographic "documentation" but of creative book design. Measuring 9"x17 3/4" it's dimensioned to accommodate the wide-angle images. What is it? Well, interesting question. It appears to be a series of photographs taken either on the coast of Scotland (as implied) or along the shore of some other fairly barren, wet clime (they don't specify where). There's a brief ten paragraph text--presumably written by the photographers, setting out the parameters of their thoughts:  The world they're presenting is "post-Apocalyptic"--the remnants ("Bogdwellers") of a comet-devastated earth, eking out a marginal existence in remote Northern Europe. 

The treatment is post-Modern, in the way that bizarrely posed mise-en-scenes are presented in stark contrast to any exterior references, almost as ceremonial templates. We're used to thinking of "pre-historical" antecedents imagined as archeological reconstructions, with scattered tool implements and burial mounds and other material disjecta consolidated and catalogued for interpretation. This referent is underscored in the faux remnant collection pictured on the endpapers shown below. In this instance, photographic documentation is posed as the alternative "record"--an imagined pageantry--almost as if an improbable possible future is being looked as if it were "the past". This creates a weird dislocation: Ceremonial events and postures have a peculiar unexplained resonance, much the way New World native societies and behaviors must have seemed to early European explorers of the 15th and 16th Centuries.              
The striking half-title page, with the 39 letter sequence--which I can't reproduce because 20 of the letters are printed backwards--the contrary sequence being
which is German (I believe) for ScotlandFutureBog. In the text accompanying the installation and exhibition to which this book is a catalogue (Transmissions from the Schottensumpfkunftig), there is this:  "Transmissions stretches credulity to its limits by positing a future society of non-literate bog dwellers, which is known to us only through photographic documents and artifacts that have somehow been sent back through time. Bogseers, Woolcarriers, and Snailpaceshepherds inhabit this world of Undrworlddoors and Timewindowsinkholes." That exhibit also included some sculptural installations which are not part of this book.  

These photographs, which were probably made with either wide angle lenses or were cropped as "banquet" formats, are all black and white. In addition several of them are presented as layered overlays printed on milky "drafting film paper" which permits super-wide spreadsheets which suggest--though without actually being--superimpositional templates.    

The various images are somewhat tongue-in-cheek--half humorous evocations of a world the artists dreamed up. To me, they also suggest Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal--the same grey, mordant visuals, the grim deprivations and depressed outlook of the Europe of the Plagues, religious intolerance, violence and superstition. The cautionary fantasy of what would happen to "civilization" if our complex interlinking of technology and social networks were suddenly removed. Not a new idea, to be sure, but a visual entertainment with all kinds of echoes and asides about how we think of peoples separated from us in time and circumstance. Ironic, because this is, in a sense, a version of where we came from, just as it might be the place to which, as a species, we return.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Favorite Breakfast Food

Let's start at the beginning.

Breakfast is supposed to be the most important meal, the fare that sets the standard for the rest of your day. After all, what you eat then is the source of energy and nutrients for the next waking 16-18 hours. 

My favorite breakfast is a formula. As a boy, I loved cereal. I liked the cold variety, as well as oatmeal (or Malto-meal), and I've eaten enough bacon and eggs in my time. I can't remember when I first discovered this concoction; perhaps it was a desire to sample the "genuine" European flavor of authentic gruel. My forebears--several generations back--hailed from the West Country of England--Yorkshire or perhaps Wales--and I've always thought of this meal as resembling something they might have enjoyed.

The ingredients are important, because their specific flavors and textures can't be substituted. 

First, John McCann's Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal. Still sold in a rigid metal can, with the old-fashioned label you see above. You can buy it in cardboard boxes, but you need to preserve its freshness, and the sealed metal lid is made to do just that. Start with about a full quart of fresh water--got to use unadulterated stuff--and add perhaps a half teaspoon of non-iodized salt. In a deep pot, bring the salted water to a rapid boil (big bubbles) over a high flame, then gradually pour in about 3/4 of a cup of oats, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring. The mixture will boil up into a froth, and to keep it from boiling over, you have either to lower the flame or periodically remove the pan from the fire to let it subside. Keep it frothing up for about 2 minutes, then reduce the flame to low. (If you're in a hurry, you can cook it faster, but there's a danger it will stick to the bottom of the pan, especially if not continuously stirred). It can simmer this way for the better part of 30 minutes. As the water cooks down, and the meal thickens, you can add more water if you need to extend the cooking time. 

When it's thick and sticky, add between 1 and 2 tablespoons of Lyle's Golden Syrup. It has to be Lyle's, because of its flavor. If you grew up as I did eating Cracker-Jacks, you know exactly what the sugar-coating on the popcorn tasted like; it's inimitable! Stir this into the cooking mixture thoroughly. When it is blended, pour in about 2-3 table spoons of your favorite single malt scotch. I usually "waste" my least favorite distillate for this, since it's the generalized flavor of scotch which is required, not specific. Pour the resulting oatmeal into thick pottery bowls. Before it's had a chance to develop a dry skin on top, pour pure thick whipping cream right into the center of the mass; it will "undermine" the stuff and come up on the sides. Pour some more on the top so that there's a ring of white around the edges of the bowl. Sprinkle some ground cinnamon over the top, and it's ready. To eat it, start at the drying, cooling edge, since the middle will still be too hot. 

This goes so well with coffee, that it's a shame to take it with anything else. We're presently on a Garuda jag, but any heavy, rich dark brew will do--freshly ground, and thick. More cream into the coffee, if you like.

Thick, chewy Canadian bacon makes a wonderful accompaniment.  

I've probably had this combination at least a hundred times, and it never gets old. 

If you have high cholesterol, you might cut back on the cream, but evaporated milk will work, too.     

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Photograph & Its Ghost

There is a famous photograph by the French photographer Atget, of the doorway to a Paris shop. Since the film he was using was very slow, his exposures tended to be very long, usually at least 5 seconds, and occasionally as long as several minutes. I believe he used the old lens-cap method of exposure, instead of any mechanical shutter. In this photograph, you can see the faint blurred shadow of a man in a hat walking out of the dark doorway, towards the viewer, turning left onto the street. It's just a strange blurring trail, impossible to make out any facial features or detail. 

All photographs imply the existence of at least one viewer--even automated ones done by automatic mechanical devices. This viewer is almost never inside the frame of the photograph, though of course it is possible for a photographer to make a self-portrait, either by using a remote shutter cable, or by photographing into a mirror, or by photographing one's own shadow or reflection (Lee Friedlander's self-portrait on the viewing deck at Mt. Rushmore Monument is another example). 

Every photograph, therefore, has a "ghost"--a human figure which is not present within the image, but exists outside it, as a guiding agency. The image of the print is a reflection of the vision of this ghost--he is present, and not present. Looking at the event, you realize that, no matter how improbable the position or moment of the photograph's exposure, the photographer had to have been there, in order for it to have been taken. Photographs are spoken of as having been taken, yet there is another theory about photographs:Italic  That photographs "take" the photographer, that subject-matter summons the image-maker; that there are forces (if you will) which coalesce in the occasion of exposure which are to some degree unconscious, even, perhaps supernatural.

Minor White [1908-1976], co-founder of Aperture Magazine (and books), an early advocate of the spiritual (or extra-sensory) possibilities in image-making, described the photographer as one who "recognized an object or series of forms that, when photographed, would yield an image with specific suggestive powers that [could] direct the viewer into a specific and known feeling, state, or place within himself." Paul Caponigro (1932-), a former student of White's, believes that "one needs to be still enough, observant enough, and aware enough to recognize the life of the materials, to be able to 'hear through the eyes'." The work of both these photographers is testimony to their interest in exploring the mystery of landscapes, objects, and structures that can be made to reveal a hidden element, a content that has its counterpart in "oneself" (the photographer). This notion of an unconscious presence (or feeling), which can only be accessed by looking outward, into nature, that nature indeed contains this content, is of course a very mystical notion, one that is difficult to speak about rationally. Caponigro, indeed, has complained about the degree to which his master White seemed to depend to an exaggerated degree on the necessity for a metaphysical sub-text to his images. 

What is it that causes us to be fascinated by specific images, and bored by others? The question is different for painting, or sculpture, or landscape architecture. In photography, we're looking (usually) at something which was there before it was "taken," even if only fleetingly. This suggests that the mystical secrets which conceal meaning and feeling, exist everywhere in nature, that we have but to look, to discover them. Indeed, it suggests further that these kinds of epiphanic instances can take place at any time, whether or not one chooses to capture them in photographs. Photography is most of all about choosing; the possibilities are endless. Deciding what, and when, to make an exposure is an enormously complex nexus of decisions, which all coincide to produce a result. 

The above image was made on the coast of Maine in 1987, near a lighthouse perched on an outcropping of rock. I was drawn to the shapes of the rock, and the pattern of tide-water, but especially to the variation of tone in the water between the darkness of the pool in the foreground, versus the lightness of the pool near the top of the frame. There was an inevitable quality about the tracery of the water-line, and the variation of the shape of rock in which it lay. Such organic structures--existing without any interference by man, suggest both the rigid ordination of matter (hard crystalline rock) and the pliable behavior of water subject to the forces or gravity. Different states of matter in conjunction. 

If the theory about "ghosts" in photographs is correct, I am somewhere "inside" this photograph, as well as standing just outside it, beside the tripod, with the shutter cable in my right hand, holding the dark-slide with my left, blocking the sunlight from the surface of the lens. What was I looking for, climbing over the rocky coast of Maine? The answer lies in the photograph.