Sunday, June 10, 2012


Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: "Our knowledge of the particular facts of the world around us is gained from our sensations. We see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel hot and cold, and push, and rub, and ache, and tingle. These are just our own personal sensations: my toothache cannot be your toothache, and my sight cannot be your sight."

What mathematics does, Whitehead explained, is create a public world that's the same for everybody. Mathematics imagines a world "as one connected set of things which underlies all the perceptions of all people. There is not one world of things for my sensations and another for yours, but one world in which we both exist."

Can film criticism, or any kind of criticism for that matter, discover one world that underlies all of the perceptions of all people? And does it matter if it can or not?

Mathematics is essential to the science of bombs, and vaccines, and medicines. It makes architecture and engineering possible. That these things matter is obvious. But do things like films and what we make of them matter in the same way? And to whom do they matter?

Tom Wolfe famously pointed out that without the theories of Rosenberg and Greenberg -- Red Mountain and Green Mountain -- le monde, the little world of artists, dealers and collectors in the Fifties and Sixties, was unable to see. Until you grasped the theories, you saw something all right, but not the "real" paintings. So what? Rosenberg and Greenberg didn't even have the same theory about what they were looking at. They weren't even seeing the same things.

Physicists sometimes think of light as particles. Sometimes they think of light as waves. Neither particles nor waves by themselves explain all there is to know about light, but taken together they do. And that matters. Because the bomb blows up.

What matters about criticism is that it should be useful somehow. A modest goal for a critic might be to make something accessible to a viewer, or listener, or reader, that wouldn't be accessible to them without the critique. And my thought is we should do that without going overboard about the importance of the work we're talking about. We should talk about art the way we talk about mushrooms on our lawns, keeping our heads straight when we swim, finding our way home after a night on the town, or whether we prefer one-egg or two-egg omelettes.

The only things I can make accessible to anyone is what I see, hear and think when I watch a film.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What Can Be Dehumanized Will Be Dehumanized

I got an email from the Lyric Opera of Chicago today, promoting an upcoming performance by pianist Lang Lang.  Struck me as strange.  The overhead camera and screen on the stage seem designed to dehumanize the event.  Like if opera singers had cameras pointing down their throats so you could see their vocal chords moving.

An overhead camera and onstage screen will allow every audience member to witness Lang Lang's energy and grace at the piano.

All this lacks is a whispered commentary, slo-mo of Lang Lang's crazy fingers and instant replays.  Yet another example of the power of technology to dehumanize human experience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Apparently, somebody convinced Suzanne Collins that the narrative of The Hunger Games, her teeny-bopper dystopian novel, needed some "fixing" for the film version of the book.  So Collins, whose millions of avid readers turned out for the opening of The Hunger Games (2012) last weekend, tinkered with the story to explain why the "game maker" -- the fellow charged with making the gladiatorial Hunger Games of a future, Fascist America entertaining and instructive for the survivors of a failed rebellion -- would change the games' rules of engagement on the fly.  And she destroyed the focus that was crucial to the success of her novel.

Why Collins would agree to fix something that wasn't broken is a mystery to me.  I'm guessing some of the money men and women behind the film were too dull to understand the overarching importance of young love, star-crossed lovers and love triangles to Collins' readers.  That a cynical game maker would play up the love angle for a sappy and spoiled audience and then sadistically pull the rug out from under the lovers didn't require any explanation at all.  Neither did the fact that the idea of the lovers committing suicide -- the ultimate symbol of  rebellion against a dystopia -- would panic the game maker. 

Certainly, there is no reason why a film should conform slavishly to the novel it's based on.  The novel is one thing and the film quite another.  But these are not trivial changes.  They go beyond "tweaks." They are irritating shifts in the narrative that complicate rather than clarify the story.  They distort the story's point of view and diminish the story's heroine, young Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

And Jennifer Lawrence is exactly what The Hunger Games (2012) has going for it. She is immensely likable; someone an audience can care about.  She moves well, and her face is large enough and smooth enough for the camera to linger on, to turn into the kind of landscape that's missing from most of the film.  Simply put, The Hunger Games doesn't need a single scene that doesn't have Jennifer Lawrence in it.


Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games (2012)

If anybody deserves a poison berry for the The Hunger Games (2012), it's Gary Ross. His direction was even worse than the script.  He never found the right mix of action and contemplation to make his film work.  Ross never catches the power of nature, violence and unreason that drives the book.  What master made the lash, Yeats asked.

Whence had they come,
The hand and lash that beat down frigid Rome?

Gary Ross doesn't have a clue.

It's hard to get from a first-person novel to a third-person film. That may explain why the producers of The Hunger Games (2012) ended up with a second-rate director. Maybe the good directors shied away from the script.  What Katniss is thinking dominates the book, and, when you take that away, an enormous weight is placed on Lawrence's delivery and body language to communicate what's going on in her mind.  In the novel, Katniss Everdeen makes a dangerous passage from a young girl to a woman, from a huntress to a warrior, and, at the end, back to a teenage girl. If The Hunger Games team had pulled that off, they would have had a great movie. All of that teenage energy, confusion and drama, dropped into the middle of gladiatorial training and combat. My god! 

It turns out, of course, that a PG-13 rating was more important.  The bad news is the team planning the sequel may be just as inept.  The producers couldn't get Tony Scott, whose Man On Fire (2004) had exactly what The Hunger Games films so badly need.  The buzz is they'll soon sign music video director Francis Lawrence who made I Am Legend (2007), a boring remake of The Omega Man (1971).  The one ray of hope is that someone on the project has signaled by dumping Ross that they think there is more at stake here than a massive boxoffice that's already a dead hog cinch.  There are moments in popular culture when great myths finally crystalize.  Maybe somebody understands that The Hunger Games novels and films could be that kind of moment.  It's a damn shame if they're not holding out for a director and writers who are equal to the task.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Are dialogue, collaboration and appropriation "the lifeblood of all great art” and "the very quintessence of culture itself” as has been suggested recently?  I'd say that's true of some segments of popular culture.  Certainly, collaboration is the name of the game in Hollywood, and appropriation is the lifeblood of Madison Avenue.  I suppose you could argue too, in a Hegelian sort of way, that a dialogue between two artists might, if the dialogue were an argument, lead to a synthesis that advanced art, or, that if the dialogue were jazz-like, the conversation itself might be artistic.  But I wonder if appropriation can, under any circumstances, be called the lifeblood of art.  Even collaborations and dialogues are problematic.

A long time ago I had the opportunity to collaborate on a project with a relatively well-known and successful painter who was, at the time, interested in making the remnants of ancient signs more visible in the modern world.  He asked me to produce some handmade "paper" for a series he was doing for the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston.  I was working out of Galveston, Texas, at the time.  The pieces of paper he had in mind were large photographs of a performance piece he was planning to put on at the Imperial Sugar Company warehouse on the wharf in Galveston.  I filmed some of the performance and made some black-and-white photo murals that were quite large for that time: single sheets of paper, some as large as 4' x 5', processed in huge, open tanks of chemicals in a commercial darkroom in an old Galveston building.  It took my crew of 4 people several days to produce the prints.  I ended up with some kind of chemical pneumonia from making the murals and doing the studies for the big prints in a small, poorly-ventilated darkroom in Austin, Texas.

The artist "transformed" my photo murals into art by covering them with hair, blood and semen, pins and needles, dirt and other materials.  They were first shown at the CAM and, later, some of them made a nationwide tour before ending up in the Menil collection in Houston.

For forty years, I've thought of what the artist did to my prints as "enhancing" them in some way -- as if by laying his art-world-acknowledged hands on my photos he was turning essentially worthless paper into real art. Amusing, but a little sad.

Recently, I learned that an old LA Times review of one of the artist's retrospectives had mentioned my photographs.

"A group of photographs that might be overlooked amid this sensual overload is conceptually the most interesting piece in the show. Not the usual documentary report of a performance, these black-and-white photos are more like remnants of 'Sugar Sacrifice,' a private, filmed event held in 1974 at a sugar warehouse in Galveston, Tex.

"Setting up a painted 'rug' and 'altar' in the shadow of a 20,000-pound mountain of sugar, Tracy 'sacrificed' what he regarded as his best painting. Symbolically, he meant to sacrifice art to food as a gesture of serving the greater good in a world where he believes hungry people outnumber the well-fed.

"Politically motivated art can rarely be more than a conscience-raiser. This grandiose but hermetic ritual only exists on film and photographs, but the pictures suggest a visually powerful extravaganza in which the sugar resembles an Egyptian pyramid and a warehouse is transformed into a mystically charged landscape."

Over the years, I've become more and more convinced that the best "collaborations" and "dialogues" are the ones that take place inside the same skull.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How Did HUAC Work?

"Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." -- E. O. Wilson

I thought I knew how HUAC and the blacklist worked, but now I'm not sure.  In the case of Elia Kazan, for example, they say Kazan actually stood up to the committee and refused to implicate his friends the first time he testified.  Later, he named names.

What kind of pressure was put on Kazan to cooperate with HUAC between his first and second appearances?  Who applied the screws?  How many others defied the committee at first, then broke down and testified?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Steve King

I've been trying to understand how the people of Iowa can put up with Steve King for over ten years now.

You probably remember that King is the Republican Congressman who said al Qaeda would be dancing in the streets if Obama were elected President and we pulled out of Iraq.

Then he claimed Barack Obama, the first member of a minority race in any country to be elected head of state by a majority race -- a black man elected President by an electorate that is predominately white -- yes -- Barack Obama, King said, is a racist. Not only that, his Attorney General, another black man, is a racist, too.

King leveled the charge on reformed felon G. Gordon Liddy's nationally syndicated radio talk show. I didn't know Liddy could even vote.

Nevertheless, King told Liddy: "I'm offended by Eric Holder and the president also, their posture. It looks like Eric Holder said that white people in America are cowards when it comes to race."

Actually, Holder said all Americans are cowards when it comes to race. He obviously wasn't thinking of King when he made that silly remark. King is not the least bit cowardly when it comes to race. He's bitter and opportunistic. And a professed white supremacist.

King continued: "The president has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race on the side that favors the black person in the case of professor Gates and officer Crowley."

Not Obama's best moment, maybe, but taking your friend's side in an argument is understandable if not admirable, and Crowley got some time in the spotlight and a beer out of the deal.

Now, back in March 2008, when he made the al Qaeda dancing in the streets remark in the middle of the Democratic primary, I told Steve King this:
I've been searching for a word that describes what I think our candidates, both political parties and all of America should do about your despicable claim that al Qaeda will dance in the streets if Barack Obama is elected President and withdraws from Iraq.

What I've come up with is rebuke. To me, rebuke is stronger and more personal than reject or denounce. A rebuke is something that is done man to man, and it implies a right to chastise the guilty party. We the people do have that right.

Joseph McCarthy exploited America's fear of Communism and the spectre of communist infiltration and espionage in America in the 1950s. His rise coincided with Mao Zedong taking control of mainland China, the Korean war, the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury in a spy investigation, and the arrest and execution of the Rosenbergs for stealing atomic secrets. It was a time when America felt under attack, and when the Democratic Party was accused of "losing China." McCarthy, who launched his persecution of intellectuals, labor leaders and anyone who could be associated however tenuously with Communism in an address to a women's club in West Virginia, was finally stopped by the combined efforts of the Press, including Edward R. Murrow, the Congress, and, finally, the President of the United States, after destroying hundreds of lives.

And now we are under attack again. Once again, an important part of the world -- this time the Middle East -- is being contested. The Republican candidate and demagogues like you are accusing the Democratic Party and our candidates of being the party and candidates of surrender. If we win the election and redeploy our forces from Iraq, if Iraq falls further under the Iranian sphere of influence, if terrorists are emboldened to attack us and Israel even more viciously, we are certain to be called the Party who "lost the Middle East." And the Republicans and their stooges will do that no matter which of our candidates is elected, because both of our candidates are committed to finding a way out of Iraq.

Your attack on Senator Obama is despicable, not just because it uses his race and his name against him, but because it attempts to make Senator Obama a friend of terrorists instead of what he is: their implacable foe.

There well may be dancing in the streets in the Middle East if America withdraws from Iraq. But there will be dancing no matter who the American President is who ends the occupation of Iraq. And there will be dancing in the streets of America as well.

Mr. Obama has not infiltrated the United States Senate or the race for President. He has, along with Senator Clinton, been propelled openly to a position of leadership in his Party by the will of millions of Americans.

On behalf of those millions of Americans, I rebuke you, Steve King.
Well. I guess I told him.

It turns out, of course, that Barack Obama was elected President and we did start pulling out of Iraq. And maybe Iraq will end up in Iran's sphere of influence just like any number of people predicted it would way back before we invaded and occupied Iraq. So we have all that who lost the Middle East drama ahead of us. And, when we pull out of Iraq completely, al Qaeda or some other jihadists probably will dance in the streets, but there won't be as many of them dancing as there once were, because Obama killed some of them with Predator drones and pressured the Pakistanis into arresting many more.

By all means, let's have the who lost the Middle East debate.

But do we really want to debate whether this President is a racist? Does the Republican Party really want to divide this country racially?

I doubt it. In fact, everybody on the right except the wingnuts seems to be distancing themselves from King as fast as they can.

So, Mr. King, on behalf of the men and women of all races who struggled, and marched, and sat in, and demonstrated, and were beaten and jailed and died so that a black man could one day rise to the Presidency of the United States, I rebuke you.


And, as it turns out, I have to rebuke him again in 2019.  King is a zombie politician. Osama bin Laden is dead. The Republican Party did want to divide the country racially but keep it under their hats. And, apparently, the folks in King's little district in Iowa are just fine with that.

Maybe, finally, somebody with clout will rebuke King. Maybe the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives will rebuke him and the Republican Party will do whatever it is you do to zombie politicians to end their careers once and for all.