Archive for November, 2010

Inexhaustable Flux

November 26, 2010

  From these temporal, geographical, and cultural points of remove, it is impossible to have a sense of the tumult in Japan at the end of WWII.  Among all else, the Emperor had been believed by many to have been a direct descendent of the sun.  Very few had seen him or heard him speak.  That his first public appearance was to announce the unconditional surrender of the centuries old dynaasty had to have been a shock of seismic proportions. 

  The zeitgeist of the uncommonly homogeneous and hierarchical island nation bore witness.  By the late fifties, any reticence to question or challenge authority had long since passed.  There were student riots.  Japan’s highly refined aesthetic patrimony convulsed.   

  One result was Butoh, an example of which you’ve just finished watching.  It is a typeof performance said to havebeen a reaction against traditional Japanese Noh, which dates back to the 14th century as well as to an incipient movement to imitate things western.  Almost unclassifiable, the term refers to a variety of inspirations, movements, or lack thereof.  

  Nonetheless, Butoh’s first proponents, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, having been dancers, that somecall ikt a form of modern dance is not surprising.  There is no set style, but white makeup and tightly controlled motion seems common.  Sankai Juku is the troupe most well known outside Japan.  It gathered much media coverage in 1985 when a rope suspending a performere from a tall building broke and he died.

  One artist,  Iwana Masaki, describes Butoh thus:  “I regard present day Butoh as a ‘tendency’ that depends not only on Hijikata’s philosophical legacy but also on the development of new and diverse modes of expression.  The ‘tendency’ that I speak of involved extricating the pure life which is dormant in our bodies”. 

  Sankai Juku recently gave a series of performances across North America.  Linda Sehlton, exectutive director of the NYC venue, said in an 11/0/10 WSJ interview that:  “you can interpret [the performance] in many different ways or not at all.  You can just enjoy how beautifully, peacefully they move and how visually stunning it is…”

  Sankai Juku translates as “studio of mountain and sea”.  The piece being performed below, Tobari, means screen or curtain.  It is subtitled “As if in inexhaustible flux”.  About it (in the WSJ bit) troupe founder Ushio Amagatsu said: “When human beings see stars, they see light emanated millions of years ago.  They are seeing something both in the far past and present.  That’s the reality of human beings.  We as individual human beings – our life span is limited.  However, we are part of a long history of life.  It’s so long that it’s continuous.”



Out of Africa Honeychile

November 19, 2010


  The score of Out of Africa won one of the film’s seven Academy Awards.  Composer John Barry did a masterful job at conveying what biographer Judith Thurman called the melancholy elegiac “clear darkness” of Karen Blixen’s story.

  Director Sydney Pollack originally intended to incorporate a background of East African sounds and tribal rhythms.  What a different film it would have been.  Barry was unconvinced: “Sydney, it’s not about Africa, it takes place in Africa, but it’s seen through two people who are madly in love with each other.  It’s really their story”.

  Though four-fifths of the book is a non-chronological take of the people and places of early twentieth century Africa from the point of view of a European visitor, the film does largely follow the relationship of Ms. Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatten.

  The pair did enjoy each other’s company and shared attitude and sensibility about life as expats in the Kenyan bush.  Finch-Hatten quoted Coleridge: “He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast”*.  Blixen wrote: “Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams”.    

  The big ‘however’ though is that the emotional tone of both the book and film is hauntingly numb.  With third person knowledge this should be no surprise.  Blixen’s father hanged himself when she was quite young.  Her husband was unfaithful from early on and gave her syphilis.  Finch-Hatten refused to marry her even though he was her partner through at least one miscarriage.  Finch-Hatten died an accidental death.  (Only the last of these events is mentioned in Blixen’s book.

  The high point of the film (and perhaps the book) in every sense is when Finch-Hatten takes Blixen aloft in his Gypsy Moth biplane.  She called it “the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm”.  Pollack and Barry collude to engender that feeling in us.  Upon her return to earth, several of Ms. Blixen’s Kikuyu colleagues ask if she’d had a glimpse of God way there high up above the clouds.  Oh how we wish for her that she had.

  Having seen the film several times and had my heartstrings plucked by the score alone, I was amazed – no shocked – to find that, among many other projects, Barry was responsible for the music of James Bond, from Dr. No through The Living Daylights.  Incredible for one person to be able to transmute the affect of both those two extremes.

  Thinking about that I realized that Out of Africa and the Bond series look at stuff of similar essence from the point of view of a woman in the first case and a man in the second.  The similarities between Denys Finch-Hatten and 007 are relatively obvious.  Both shoot first and ask questions later.  If at all.

  It is more interesting to consider just how kindred are the spirits of Ms Blixen and, say, Bond woman #1, Honeychile Rider.  Ms. Rider was born to a colonial family in Jamaica.  She was orphaned at an early age and raped not long thereafter.  She was beautiful, intelligent, and very independent.     

  Ladies Blixen and Rider would have enjoyed each other’s company – to the sorrow of Msrs Finch-Hatten and Bond…

*This would also be Finch-Hatten’s epitaph.

**It would be interesting to see if a technical analysis of the scores of the two films would yield a reflectivity similar to that of their emotional tones.

Wright’s Gingkos

November 12, 2010


  Until it gave up in 1992 there was a ginkgo tree in front of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home in Oak Park, Illinois.  The one pictured above still thrives behind the home and to the side of the studio addition.  The historic site book shop is named for it.

  At first sight, Wright had been attracted to that lot on the corner of Chicago and Forest streets which was owned and profusely planted with native and exotic species by Scottish landscaper John Blair.  “I remember well that I came to Oak Park to live for no other reason than… the remarkable character of the foliage on the old Blair lot.”

   A few days ago while watching the gingko in our backyard drop nearly all of the green jewels of its crown in the span of just a few hours, I began to wonder what role gingko might have played in the evolution of Wright’s Prairie Style.  They are beautiful, but idiosyncratic, and though once widespread, the extant species has not naturally existed outside a small part of China since the Pliocene.

    They stand out.  They look like their progenitor must have been an initial sincere attempt at arboreal architecture by a divine novice – one with only a schematic set of instructions from his/her master.  The branches all stick out and up from the trunk in a more or less regular fashion and at a more or less forty-five degree angle.  Though plentiful, they are too brittle to make for good climbing.  (Look at ours and you’ll see how I figured that out.)

  They are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female plants.  A seed is an inch or so long, light yellow brown, soft, and stinks.  Smells so bad, in fact, that upon the odiferous encounter many look about and step with care thereafter.

  The steep gables of the Platonic triangular west façade of the Wright home vaguely parallel the gingko vectors.  The lines of Wright homes 1895 – 1898 do to a lesser degree.  The lines of his studio, built in 1898 do not at all, nor does any part of the Prairie aesthetic.

  It’s probably my over active imagination again, but I wonder if at some point in the mid 1890s the alien acute angularity and proclivities of the gingko catalyzed the transmutation of shapes and shadows of local species into the leitmotif of his Prairie Style.  Hmmm…

 *Wright’s home was designed in 1889.  The  Frank Thomas home (above) just a block down  Forest Ave was built in 1901. 


Wake Up!

November 5, 2010


  The picture above is Study After Velasquez’ Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon.  The one just below* is a shot of lead character Hannibal Lecter from the film Silence of the Lambs directed by Jonathan Demme.  I think that the similarity of the two images is striking. 

  Demme’s an art collector (though most well known for his Haitian stuff) and had to have been aware of Bacon’s oeuvre.  The cell in the Memphis courthouse is certainly not an exact transcription of the painting’s motif and could have been done subliminally or even completely by accident.  But, as someone once said “ mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal”.

  The arrangement of the prominent vertical brushstrokes in the Bacon work has the same visual impact and conveys a similar carnal apprehension as do the bars of the cell in the flic.  Both characters pervade beyond any limitation.  Like nightmares.

  Bacon said that he “had nothing against popes” and simply found their garb to be uniquely suitable for the colors with which he was then working.  Sure seems disingenuous to me.  He painted forty some in the series and the power of the images suggest otherwise.  Even though screaming heads appear throughout his body of work, they’re a fungible conceit.  It would be easy to impute certain recent horrific revelations and wonder about the possibility of the cathexis of earlier manifestations through Bacon’s brush.

  At any rate, the two images project – to me at least – horror from nearly opposite perspectives.  Bacon’s pope nearly empties himself in sanctimonious rage while Dr. Lecter speaks with the quiet confidence only available to a psychopath.  The former just barely obscures the abyss with his robes and incantations while the latter revels from its depths.  Bacon’s pope is like an exploding star while in Lecter Demme and Hopkins conjure up a black hole.

*Unfortunately, this is the scene, but not the shot I had in mind when I cobbled these thoughts together.  Those who’ve seen the film will remember the shinning cupola shaped cell assembled in a Tennessee courthouse for the sole purpose of containing Dr. Lecter.  There is drapery, furniture, and a comfortable chair.  Next time notice how it recalls the Bacon picture.