Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Narrative Image-Making Goes Where It Is Needed

In response to my previous, artist and mensch Richard Meyer commented on Facebook:

What I dislike about much modern art theory is this idea that each art form aspires and should aspire to some kind of purity, with a particular disdain for narrative in painting. This quote from Whistler came up in a discussion recently.... "Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like." I don't believe that at all.

It just so happens that I'd been percolating on some ideas related to this, so now seems like as good a time as any to set them down.

First of all, I agree with Richard. My knowledge of the history of art theory and criticism has enormous gaps, but the issue he's describing comes up in film theory as well, fairly rapidly in the short history of film: an objection to film as filmed-theater or filmed-literature, and a demand for a purity of cinematic aesthetics.

For its appeal, this argument depends on lumping together disparate things: narrative filmmaking, and the kind of turgid filming of plays and literature which had all but disappeared by 1930. The flaw in the argument is the unstated assumption that narrative is a creature of language. If anyone making this argument actually conceded this assumption explicitly, the entire case would immediately fall apart. Narrative is obviously not a creature of language. It is the offspring of reality, which generates it, and reason, which apprehends it, by whatever means reason finds handy: language, sound, picture, smell, mathematics, what-have-you. Perhaps the relation is more heavily weighted on the side of reason; the mind will seek and find cause and effect even where none exist.

Despite the transparent absurdity of the pure-aesthetic argument, for the time being it has certainly triumphed in painting. Whistler thought he could open the floodgates but keep his moody skies and fancy wallpapers. He was wrong.

Even among the figurative painters, virtually nobody is making narrative paintings. Can you think of anyone apart from Eric Fischl and David Hockney even attempting paintings with the degree of dramaturgical sophistication which we were just now finding in Rubens?

Fischl recognizes this issue and describes its application to his Krefeld Project paintings in his new memoir, which, in case you were wondering, is very good:

Krefeld Project synthesized the storytelling devices I'd been exploring throughout my career. ... I used multiple points of view and montage to produce cinematic effects. But the paintings still had to work on their own - not only as snapshots or interrelated scenes in a larger narrative, but as intense individual dramas vividly capturing the wounds and disappointments of a troubled relationship. Though I was still manipulating color, form, and gesture to create mood, conflict, and mystery, I was drawing my inspiration from outside the cloistered art world - outside painting in particular, which had long ago abandoned the dramatic narrative - and drawing on techniques from the other arts.

- Bad Boy, p. 332, Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, 2012

Eric Fischl, Krefeld Project: Sun Room Scene 1, 2002

Compare Fischl's commentary with that of movie director Hal Hartley:

I am very affected by Bresson... Sometimes it's just an emotional clarity that I sense in his films, that I try to bring to mine when I'm writing. When I'm shooting too. Bresson cuts right past everything that's superfluous and isolates an image that says exactly what it's meant to say.

In Surviving Desire, I show Jude's hand reaching across a table to almost touch Sophie's hand. My treatment of that action struck me as Bressonian. Recognizing that the gesture itself was expressive. Nothing else was needed. ... A lot of my experience over the past four or five years as a filmmaker has been in finding out what I need and what I'm going to look at it in order to tell a story. ... I always thought that this particular shot in Surviving Desire would be done in close-up or two matching singles. I thought it was their faces that were important at that moment. But it wasn't. It was their hands and nothing else.

- from Hal Hartley: Finding the Essential, an Interview by Graham Fuller, p. xiii (introduction to the Faber and Faber edition of the screenplays of Simple Men and Trust)

Surviving Desire, dir. Hal Hartley, 1993

Let me share a little secret with you. What Hartley is describing here is a total commonplace in film aesthetics. Hartley isn't special because he thinks this way. He's special because he's very good at it and he can verbalize what he's doing. But all directors can or do grasp the basic concept.

Among painters? Absolutely fuck-all nobody. It is as if the entire contemporary field had been lobotomized, with the possible exception of Fischl and mid-career Hockney. I think probably most of the older Big painters, like Rubens, had the directorial eye for staging which we are discussing.

Although this directorial eye has fled painting, it has not fled the visual arts. It has gone where it is needed, as things will tend to do. It is alive and well in other branches of the visual arts.

This is from p. 57 of Jaime Hernandez's Chester Square, volume 13 of the compiled Love and Rockets.

As you know, Jaime's work changed my life, and is never far from my mind. I have removed the words from this passage so that you can see how it was designed to be legible on a purely visual basis. Let's read it together:

Panel 1: A shapely woman walks down the deserted sidewalk of an urban neighborhood in the dead of night.

Panel 2: An old woman has fallen asleep in her chair, lit by harsh streetlamps.

Panel 3: The old woman has awakened - a sound must have disturbed her. The young woman?

Panel 4: The old woman pulls aside some curtains, revealing the younger woman at the window. The young woman's expression conveys that she is sad. She is not situationally sad. Rather, a heavy sadness has snuck up on her, a recognition of a set of conditions which has persisted for a long time now, and which has changed her without her noticing. Suddenly aware of this sadness, she has come late at night to this house in this working-class neighborhood. Therefore, the old woman is her mother.

Panel 5: The young woman has come inside. We see that she is young and beautiful and dressed in a more cosmopolitan way than her mother. She says something - an explanation? a question? a complaint? She turns her head away from her mother, wraps her arms around herself: she is trying to comfort herself and demonstrate her self-sufficiency. She is not ready yet to admit to herself why she came here. By contrast, her peasant-like mother understands and accepts her daughter's visit in the middle of the night: she holds her hands up toward her, inviting her daughter to set aside her burdens.

Panel 6: Mother comforts daughter. For all her youth, beauty, sophistication, and accomplishment, nothing could console the daughter tonight except the embrace of her mother. The daughter returns to herself in her mother's arms. She finds peace and hope, the promise of happiness, of finding a better way to live.

Six panels. No words. Visual narrative storytelling.

Not one painter living today can stage so efficient, complex, and moving a narrative. And yet Jaime Hernandez is like Hal Hartley. He is not categorically different from the vast number of artists working in his field. He is simply very good at doing something universally understood among comic book artists.

But let's go farther. There's another field where visual narrative is urgently needed, and where it is in full flower. If you, like me, live in New York City and take the subway, you will have seen some version of the following poster for the current Tyler Perry-produced movie, Peeples:

I have once again removed the text so that we can interpret this purely visually. Let me tell you what I see, and you can see if you agree. Reading left to right, there is a father (he's got a bald head and white in his beard). He is not a mean guy, but he can be stern when the situation warrants. Right now, the situation definitely warrants. He is displeased. But there is an edge of laughter to his pursed mouth. He can hardly keep himself angry. Why?

Because he's mad at his daughter, the center figure. His daughter is obviously beautiful and talented and might make much of herself. Father and daughter have a very close, loving relationship. The father is proud of her, and doesn't want to see her screwing up. For her part, she recognizes his concern, and even acknowledges its validity, but at the same time, she is not entirely convinced to obey his recommendation. Why? Because she is coming into her own, and she is going to have to begin to make her own decisions as an independent adult woman.

Which means the guy on the right can only be her love interest. And he is a comical schmuck. In the moment portrayed here, he has once again stumbled into some kind of a situation which can only have just godawful consequences for him. He knows better, but the imp of the perverse keeps him in a state of boyish fecklessness. If he wants to keep the woman, he's going to have to grow up - because she doesn't entirely disagree with her dad's evaluation of him as a loser who is not worthy of her. She's got love for him, but he could use it up, and be back out on his ass, romantically speaking.

I haven't seen Peeples, but how far off could this analysis possibly be? It's going to be something that, if not exactly like this, is very close to it. This poster is a miracle of narrative exposition using an absolute minimum of means. Just three faces, and three expressions, and a deep understanding of how human beings construct meaning from observation.

You could argue that I'm getting a lot out of this poster because I have a higher degree of visual literacy than your average New York City subway passenger. I think this misstates it. I think everyone looking at this poster gets pretty much the same things out of it. All my visual literacy buys me is the ability to understand how I'm seeing what I see and to put those mechanisms into words. But the seeing - that's universal. That's what functional visual narrative is all about. You don't need to be a specialist to receive its meaning.

So what I'm saying is that some anonymous poster designer drawing a paycheck from the marketing department at Lionsgate did a better job of achieving narrative complexity in the category of the still picture than every single fine art painter currently active.

And yet, it would be fair to argue that this is not the most awe-inspiring formal composition in the world. Three faces, bam bam bam. Let us turn our attention to last year's This is 40:

Complex deep space, jarringly narrow vertical elements, coordination of color and value, subtle balance underlying superficially unbalanced pictorial objects, organic canted distribution of items in order to achieve a feeling of naturalness. This is not a great composition, but its designer understands and makes use of all of the tools of great composition.

The scene: the bathroom of a hip but professional upper-middle-class couple. Their  hipness is clear from her ponytail and his shaggy hair, their gym-toned bodies, and the casual presence of the iPad. Their professionalism is manifested in the stripped-down bathroom decor, the muted clothes, the finicky hygiene implied by the rituals of extended tooth-brushing and face-washing. And the class is made clear by the new, faux-antique fixtures in a bathroom with a separate sub-room for the toilet.

The characters: husband and wife, married long enough to have progressed from mutual discovery, to domestic comfort, to creeping ennui.

The action: oblivious to how he might be coming across, the husband, sitting on the pot, casually addresses his wife about something he thought of in response to an article on his iPad. The wife looks up and has a moment of clarity. How did this become her life? Where's the romance, or, failing romance, the simple decorum? Suddenly, years of small annoyances have abruptly overwhelmed her defences, and an interior avalanche is starting - this very minute, it's starting - she is about to hit the ceiling and her life has got to change.

All that from a simple poster. Compositional sophistication, socioeconomic context, character, emotions, events, transformations.

This, folks, is a great movie poster. And not only is it a great movie poster, it's a great example of visual narrative storytelling. We painters have completely lost our ability to stage anything even remotely as advanced as this. Movie poster designers do it every day of the week. Why? Because it's their job to sell movies. They've got one instant to tell you whether you want to see this movie, and they had better produce an image both clear and appealing to do the job. Visual narrative has gone where it is needed, and there are few needs deeper than selling product.

Why can't painters do this anymore? That is a different, and longer, essay. There are many reasons I can see, so I'm sure there are even more that I don't see. But I think that what it boils down to is this: we have lost faith. Having lost faith, we eventually lost the internal organ tasked with visual narrative storytelling. It atrophied and became as inert as a little appendix, buried quietly in the brain.

If we decide we would like to pick up these powerful tools again, we must not only put down our cynicism and, with the most painful naivete, regain the faith, we must regrow the organ - revive the old one, or evolve a new one. It will be no easy process, nor can identifying the process determine that it is a process worth undertaking. Do we really want to make visual narratives again?

I don't know. I kind of do. It's something I'm going to keep in mind. But I am very lucky, I am prone to faith.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rejuvenation in Rubens, and at the Met

Let us turn our attention again to Flemish painter-entrepreneur and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens. He married artist's model Isabella Brant in 1609. He was 32. Brant was 18. She died of the plague in 1626, when she was 34.

Portrait of Isabella Brant

circa 1620-25, via Wikimedia

Rubens remarried four years later. He was 53. Hélène Fourment was the 16-year-old daughter of a friend. Rubens and Hélène had ten years together, and then, after a remarkably full and diverse life, he died.

This should be about enough background to consider his 1635 painting Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Frans:

Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Frans
ca. 1635, oil on wood, 80 1/4" x 62 1/4"
via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

He is 58 years old in this painting, and Hélène is 21. Frans is 2. We know it's Frans and not, for instance, a girl, because that blue sash is training him to expect to carry a sword. It echoes the baldric Rubens himself is wearing. Little girls didn't wear the sash. I was told this fascinating detail by Walter Liedtke, the painting's curator, who disagrees with much of what I am about to say about this painting. If you want responsible historiography, you should consult with him -- and he has left many wonderful notes at the Met's webpage for the painting; I myself speak, as ever, as a practitioner and enthusiast of painting, responsible to no eye but my own.

This is a painting of a family: husband, wife, son. The composition centers on the lone woman. Both of her men turn their gazes toward her (Rubens originally faced the viewer, but thought better of it and painted himself over). Hélène's neck and chest are the brightest points in the painting -- much brighter relative to the rest than they appear in this reproduction.

detail, Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Frans

Hélène is flushed and her mouth is open very slightly. As Rubens paints her, she has a tendency to sweat at the forehead, and to pant and flare her nostrils when she exerts herself. Her body is large and her head small. Her flesh is overflowing, she has the casual sexiness of abundant youth. She will eventually settle into fatness, but for now, everything is gravity-defyingly lush, as lush as the nearly pornographic "garden of love" in which the family strolls. Her gaze is ambiguous. It hovers near her son, but not on him. It is fairly inward-turning, the warm blank gaze of the tolerant object of adoration. She is not as active here as she is in many of Rubens's paintings of her. For all that she is the center of the composition, this painting is not about her. A mannequin who looks like her stands in for her, so that the real action, conveyed in the gazes of the men, can play out and the real lead of the painting can make his statement. The lead of the painting is Rubens. The repainting indicates that Rubens did not understand this until he had been working on it a while.

Consider Rubens.

detail, Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Frans

By now, he is already suffering from the gout that will first end his painting practice through arthritis, and finally kill him. As he depicts himself, his beard partly conceals that his jawline is dissolving into his sagging neck. He does not look old quite yet, but the bags under his eyes are headed in that direction.

He is wrapped up in Hélène but his devoted gaze is informed in a way that youthful love is not. Youthful love loses itself in the love object. Rubens does not lose himself in Hélène; his burden is too heavy to lay aside altogether. Rather, his devotion and his burden interact, and he learns things from the interaction, and teaches them to us.

Sam Peckinpah's 1969 movie The Wild Bunch is, in my opinion, the equal of anything Fellini or Antonioni ever shot. It is a profound movie, not only exciting but wistful, tragic and empathetic. During one respite from the violence, leader Pike Bishop (William Holden) wryly watches his gang of aging galoots trying to pick up the women in a Mexican town. He asks the wizened local sitting beside him why old men chase young girls. The local, Don Jose, replies, "We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all."

I have spent time with older men who are involved with much younger women. In my experience, they uniformly expect that their partners will make them feel younger, and they are uniformly mistaken. The gaps between their memories, their assumptions and their physical conditions, and those of the women they are dating, remind them constantly of their age. They feel embarrassed and defensive, and worse than either of these, they feel mortal. And yet this dream of being a child again, and this idea of how to accomplish it, persists.

Hélène makes Rubens feel old. But this is only the start of the story. Rubens is not one of Pike Bishop's outlaws. He is a genius, and therefore has the imagination to escape himself. He concedes that he feels old, but for him, despair is a vice. He feels his way toward the corresponding virtue, hope. He accepts that Hélène is the center of his world, and that he cannot be the center of hers. She gives him as much as she can:

detail, Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Frans

His hand pinches at hers, but she does not pull hers away. She acknowledges and accepts their bond. I will go farther than Rubens will: she loves him, as other paintings he made of her make clear. This painting is not about her feelings, it is about his fears and certainties. He is certain that he has at least this much of her, that her hand should rest lightly on his. More than that, he will not assume in this painting.

What does her hand hold? A kind of umbilical child-leash. Rubens grasps at Hélène, and Hélène holds onto their shared possession, her other gift to him: their son Frans.

detail, Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Frans

Here is self-confident infancy, adoring his mother as Rubens adores her, but without the fears and doubts. He takes the return of his love for granted in a way that aged, infirm Rubens cannot. This painting is not a story of three people together, but of two pairs of two: Frans and Hélène, and Rubens and Hélène. Of course, she loves both her men, but only Frans feels safe in her love.

Rubens understands aging and dying. Nothing will ever make him feel personally safe again, because he is not personally safe. And yet he is familially safe, and spiritually safe. This is the revelation of the painting. He proceeds from his age, to the impact of his age on the dynamics of his family, to the meaning of his family for him in light of his aging.

What he finds from observing his family is escape from his condition. There will be no recovery of childhood, as Don Jose discussed. But life itself will go on. His wife's youth will extend beyond his own demise. He recognizes her mortality, and that he will not have to endure it, as he did Isabella Brant's. Beyond the two of them, his own flesh will persist, revived, not in himself but in his son, physically carrying the banner of Rubens into the next age.

This is a painting about the vanity of accomplishment and wealth relative to the project of youth and immortality. Look at the finery of the props and sets, and the sensuality of the paint! -- and yet they can do nothing for Rubens's ruined jawline. And it is a painting about the redemptive force of love and family, as painful and humiliating as it is for the old to love the young.

It is a painting about letting go of unreachable ambitions and valuing real blessings. As such, it is a painting about the oncoming of wisdom.

It is probably the most moving trophy wife painting in the history of art.


Now, what was I doing talking with Walter Liedtke about this painting? He was one of the curators who recently completed a really mind-blowing renovation of the European painting galleries at the Met. If you know the Met at all, these are the galleries you hit when you go up the main staircase and through the room with those huge Tiepolos lounging around in it. There was a press preview for the renovated galleries, which was the first press preview of an art thing I've ever gone to, because the galleries were already amazing before the renovation, and I was dying to see what could be done to improve them. The curators attended this preview and braved questions from the press.

What's been changed is as follows:

- The area has somehow been expanded, possibly using Time Lord technology.

- The walls have been painted in intimidatingly classy muted midtones, the kind of muted midtones that say that when these walls snort blow off the belly of a hooker, that hooker is very expensive and does not have a hideously nasal Jersey accent.

- More paintings are on view, both pieces from the Met's collection, and loans made in celebration of the renovation.

- Many of the paintings you know and remember have been moved around, so that walking through the section is a series of surprises, like running into the guy from the bodega on the subway or a yoga classmate in the magazine aisle at Barnes & Noble.* This rearrangement owes to the most important facet of the renovation, which is the layout. The collection has been arranged to reflect linkages of paintings by period, origin and art historical trend. This triple mapping is almost impossibly clever, and is a remarkable achievement on the part of the team of curators who devised it.

I am at a loss as to how it was done. It rationalizes the collection. It gives it a clear purity in relation to the old layout like a conservator's removal of darkened varnish does to a previously muddy painting. It is, in fact, a little too clean and bright for me -- it is in the same state as the High Line, New York's elevated west side train track, recently restored as a public park. Both the galleries, and the High Line, are currently so impossibly beautiful as to seem not quite real. But that's new things for you. Time will tatter them up a bit: the benches on the High Line will scuff, and curators will wedge paintings into odd and unreasonable corners at the Met. They will age and ripen a bit, just as we, their publics, will sand down the edges of our experiences of them through familiarity. Then we will walk amicably through the park and the museum, both of them better than they were before. What a magnificent city this is.

- This whole post is, in a sense, about the renovation. I don't have that much to say directly about it. To keep from writing a very short piece, bottom-heavy with cheap jokes, I wrote up one painting that especially struck me as I walked through the galleries. This analysis conveys a bit of the unique richness of the galleries overall. By this, I mean that Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Frans is just one of many -- many! -- treasures hosted by the Met. Each of them offers a unique encounter to the viewer, ranging from delight to salvation. This article is one of a thousand that could be written. To write yours, you must go and find your own painting in those mighty rooms.


*I don't actually do yoga, so the scenario is in the category of speculative fiction.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Eye of Hercule Poirot Sees All

This is Albert Finney as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot in the 1974 Sidney Lumet movie of Murder on the Orient Express.

Finney gleefully plunges into the role, making his Poirot ever so nauseatingly fastidious and Belgian. If it was explained correctly to me, Christie copped to having made Poirot Belgian because nobody knows anything about Belgium, thus obviating the need for research. She could just make her detective eccentric and vaguely French.

Finney's marvelous Poirot occasionally stops bumbling, allowing his victim to suddenly comprehend his overpowering intelligence, much as a mouse comprehends a serpent. It is during one such instant of clarity that he hisses, "The eye of Hercule Poirot sees all."

That's how I remember it, anyhow, and I like it that way.

This phrase passed through my mind on May 13th, as I was working on this sheet of drawings at Spring Street:

Daniel Maidman, Kuan: Knee, Back, Spiral Torso, pencil on paper, 15"x11", 2013

The top two drawings are from 10-minute poses, and the bottom is from a 20. The model is Kuan, who is a fantastic model, and also a dancer, and also a kind and funny human being. Poirot's comment floated through my mind as I was drawing Kuan's back, on the top right. I realized that I was seeing in a way that was - well, it was not entirely new. I had seen much like this before. But I had taken another step, across a turning point, so that a progress was now completed.

The way I had seen before was as a kind of craving, a thirst. For most of us, our gazes at the beautiful things of this world are characterized by a similar thirst. In its purest form, this thirst is a thirst for knowledge. Artists - the observational kind anyway - refine this thirst and turn it into an awful instrument, a blade that dissects reality, peeling away appearances to reveal the underlying light and color and texture and mass of things. What civilians understand themselves as having seen, artists learn to see: to disrupt the easy flow of sight, even focused desirous sight, to yield explicit knowledge not only of what is seen, but of how the seer sees.

This furious form of sight is powerful, but it has limits. Lately, I have bumped up against those limits some. It is limited in its nature. It is a slave to desire. Desire makes many things visible. But it is a sieve; it sees intensely what is desired, and blocks everything else. Therefore as much as it enhances sight, it also blinds.

When I did the drawing at the top right, of Kuan's upper back, I was suddenly seeing without desire. I had been working toward this, but now, with a little jump, I was there. Near to it and there are a world apart. I was filled with a floating and detached love, an undiscriminating benevolence. I was not on a budget or a schedule. I had time for only a little bit, but I was seeing as if I had time for everything. It did not matter to me what I caught or what I lost. In letting go of what I thought I needed to catch, I realized I was going to catch more - unexpected things, but more - more, and better. In fact, I was in the depths of Proust's paradox: you will only get what you want when you stop wanting it.

It was then that Finney's delicious line reading floated through my mind: "The eye of Hercule Poirot sees all." I had discovered Poirot's secret method of seeing all, that he desires to see nothing in particular. This is how the detective detects. Of course! Of course it must be so - this is the method of science, the disinterested gaze which does not eliminate anything from the pool of suspects, the universe of clues. To attack the mystery with the preconceptions of desire is a fatally flawed attack; it presupposes a solution. The solution may even be correct, but to solve the mystery by means of such flailing correctness is, spiritually, not to solve it at all. It is to remain in a state of blindness.

Analytically, I had always understood this distinction between the scientific gaze and the gaze, if not strictly of the artist, then at least of most artists, and all art students. But I had not understood before that the detachment of the scientific gaze is suffused with love. It is the total love which remains once desire has been boiled away. Desire confuses us about our loves - do we love the beloved because of the way it can satisfy our appetites, or do we love it with regard to its nature in and of itself? Do we love the mere beingness of the beloved? So long as desire distorts our gaze, we cannot know. But once we have overpowered our desires, we can know. Our eye sees all.

Let me turn once again to my favorite fakey ancient-eastern-wisdom story:

"Master," he says, "what comes after enlightenment?"

The peasant bends down, picks his load back up, and keeps trudging up the mountain.

You can deduce the surrounding narrative. The application of the story here is this: did I retain this transcendent lucidity? Of course not. Consider the very next drawing I did, at the bottom of the page:

What the fuck is this bullshit? It is, of course, a demon of desire. Kuan made another of her endless variety of fascinatingly curled shapes, and I succumbed to the desire to capture the essential of that curl in the 20 minute pose. I was working toward that goal, instead of merely drawing. I had one phenomenon of beauty in mind - the beauty of transcribing this composition of the body - eliminating the surrounding phenomena of beauties available and, perhaps, more natural to the interval.

I was aware of what I was doing, and yet I could not resist. I wanted that image! The results were predictable enough. I rushed the drawing, and got bits wrong. You can see in the grey of her lower ribcage at picture-left. That's where I misplaced her bones and had to push them back and forth, trying to get them in their right places. But as Yoda teaches us, there is no try. This drawing is not a good drawing.


At this point in my own progress, I am allowed only flickers of the sublime detachment of Hercule Poirot. And yet these are redeeming flickers, and the contemplation of them reminds me of what exactly I am supposed to be working on. In this, as in so many things, I feel dazzlingly fortunate; and I hope that in seeking to describe my good fortune, I am able to pass it along to you as well.

Once again, I find that Fred Hatt and I are expressing related thoughts. I had meant to read his latest before posting, and now that I have, I'm glad I didn't. Our descriptions of seeing make use of some of the same metaphors, and I would have become tongue-tied if I'd known how much of his work I was copying. But as usual, he has a distinct and intelligent take on the matter, one that is well worth reading (and also includes a Kuan drawing):

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Universal Threat

Last night I watched Silent Hill 2: Revelation. On the face of it, this is not a very good movie. And the face of it goes all the way to the bone. But that doesn't mean it's not interesting. I conceived a desire to explain to you at last why I find Silent Hill so utterly fascinating, and this led me to systematize some thoughts I had been sloppy about before.

I'd like to propose a three-tier division of horror movies:

1. Local Threat

The overwhelming majority of horror movies are local threat stories. In such a case, the character of the threat - be it a serial killer, a vampire, a witch, or distressingly aggressive wolves - is essentially limited in space. This means that whatever hellishness afflicts the main characters, anyone who isn't so unfortunate as to wander into the immediate area will probably make it through OK.

Psycho is a classic local threat horror movie:

If you don't check in, you can't get hurt.

This type of story has virtues and weaknesses. Its minor virtues flow from its major virtue, which is that it obeys the Aristotelian narrative unities of time, space, and action. The minor virtues that result are that if you do one well, it is propulsive and terrifying. It provides precisely the right size of canvas for reflection on the darkest verge of morality.

For instance, one of the most beautiful cinematic portraits of sadism I know is Alan Arkin's performance in the 1967 Wait Until Dark. This movie, which more or less takes place in a single apartment, pits Arkin's psychotic mobster against Audrey Hepburn's blind housewife. As the film progresses, her sightless eyes bulge, seeking a knowledge they cannot gain:

And he, who can see, is self-blinding - he hides his eyes behind sunglasses:

How like their morality this is - she, striving toward awareness and virtue, and he, sinking ever deeper into depravity. This simple visual parallel for their deepest qualities as characters is made possible by the narrow confines of the narrative. And again, if you happen to live only one apartment over, Alan Arkin really has no beef with you. A very local threat.

The major weaknesses of this type of story are twofold: the first is the stupid-main-character problem. The threat can be so curtailed that only a goddamned idiot could expose themselves to it. My friend Mac Rogers summed this up maybe twenty years ago in contemplating the obvious problem with the Friday the Thirteenth series, that Jason "pretty much only works Camp Crystal Lake." While we're talking about Mac, let me plug his new play, Frankenstein Upstairs. It's up in New York this month, and you oughta go, because on his worst day his writing is riveting. Info at the link.

The other major weakness of the local threat story is that the threat is more or less limited to evil versus good. Evil is a specifically human phenomenon. It is comprehensible because it is close at hand. It is the nearby threat, the familiar threat. We all represent this very threat. As Dostoyevsky demonstrates, it is a threat of horrific depth and inspires tremendous fear. But it is not the most frightening thing in the world. Not to me, anyway.

2. Global Threat

The local threat story deals with the extinction of the lead characters. The global threat horror story deals with the extinction of humanity. There are far fewer global threat horror movies than local threat horror movies, and most of them concern zombies.

I'm not much scared of serial killer movies, which shade off so easily into torture porn, which is not, properly speaking, horror at all. I'm not so distressed by vampires and witches and wolves. But zombies scare the holy fuck out of me.

George Romero, Dawn of the Dead, 1978, the best zombie movie ever made

I am unendingly upset by the prospect that, at some time in the future, everything we love and care about, so much of which resides in vessels of flesh, will be reduced to bloody meat. That some paralyzing disorder of the mind will erase everything that makes us distinct and individual, and fine and true, and turn us into a mumbling, self-consuming rabble. Zombie movies are terrifying because they are, ultimately, about the end of the world. What is the loss of my life, or yours, in the face of the loss of everything? I can bear the thought of getting eviscerated by some asshole with a knife, so long as the Mona Lisa survives. But I cannot bear the thought of the entire edifice going down in flames.

In fact, this was the only good thing about the deservedly overlooked 2009 Alex Proyas film Knowing. There's a good deal of running around and shouting before it becomes clear that nobody in this movie has any chance of influencing any of its major events, which are this: the world comes to a fiery end.

There is something obscene about its loving penultimate sequence of the destruction of Manhattan (a solar flare I think). If you're paying attention, you can see the water boil out of Central Park's reservoir. Which means that you've just seen the Met, and all the treasures in it - five or six thousand years of human hopes and achievement - turn to ash.

This, to me, is scarier than evil: coming face to face with the implacable indifference of nature. In the face of this indifference, all the things we value will not survive. They must be overwhelmed by the superior and inhuman forces of disease (as in zombie movies) or geology and cosmology (as in planetary destruction movies).

And yet even these awful nightmares adhere to a Law. It is the Law of necessity, and from our fragile human perspective, it is a cruel law, a law which overrides our affections and needs. But for all that, it is a Law, and therefore it is of a kind with ourselves, because we are characterized by reason, and reason is a law-seeking mechanism. We need not like the Law to take comfort in its government of the world.

3. Universal Threat

All horror movies concern offenses against order. Local threat horror movies deal with offenses against the moral order. Global threat horror movies deal with offenses against the civilizational or species-scale order. Universal threat horror movies, which are vanishingly rare, deal with offenses against the order of being itself. They are metaphysical horror movies.

You should know me well enough by now to know that I am a born metaphysician. This is why, of all the horror movies, I find the universal threat horror movies most fascinating and most unnerving.

I'd like to distinguish here between supernatural and metaphysical horror. Supernatural horror, for me, falls into the local threat category because, typically, it is treated as pertaining only to its immediate region of influence:

victim of the Blair Witch

The supernatural acts more like a magic trick than a rift across the diameter of reality. It's a scary, unnatural magic trick, but it does not rise to the level of a universal threat.

The 1997 movie Cube was a local threat horror movie. It concerned a large cube, built by fascist bureaucrats or something. This cube is subdivided into many cubical rooms, some of which tried to kill you in novel ways. A number of characters trapped in the cube spend the movie working on escaping from it. You could say it does not go well for them.

The 2002 sequel, Cube 2: Hypercube, was not a good movie. But like somebody you love without especially liking, it was a brilliant movie. It was a universal threat horror movie. Its new-and-improved cube is actually a tesseract. It doesn't have a large number of rooms; it has an infinite number of rooms.

one of many

As in the first movie, some of these rooms may well kill you, but they won't slice-and-dice you as the intended result of active human malevolence. They will do it indifferently, as an accidental outcome of their own unfathomable peregrinations. Inside this movie's hypercube, time and space become unreliable and fragmentary. Some characters are frozen in time, others age lifetimes in minutes. Several are endlessly duplicated. Some are murdered or killed or simply vanish, and some later un-die or forget their terminations.

This is mayhem as a result of the collapse of consistent reality. It is technically limited, I suppose, to the vast confines of the hypercube, but it carries implications for the entire universe: that those verities we think we can rely upon, the predictable identities of space, time, matter, and energy, are subject to disturbingly unstable forces. The hypercube strips the mind of its last refuge; beyond evil, beyond extinction, there remains the Law. The hypercube offends against the Law. It is an illustration of universal threat.

This genre also includes the 1997 Event Horizon, in which Sam Neill:

Becomes all kinds of fucked up:

As a result of a glitchy faster-than-light drive that opens one of those gates to hell you hear so much about:

The shockingly blithe, careless violence of this movie has to be seen to be grasped.

And finally, this microscopic genre includes the movie adaptations of the video game Silent Hill. The first Silent Hill movie, from 2006, had the following titles in its trailer:

A little grammatically questionable, but yes, yes exactly - the universal threat corresponds with De Chirico's formulation:

To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious many colored toys which change their appearance, which, like little children we sometimes break to see how they are made on the inside, and, disappointed, realize they are empty.

We seek an explanation because we are human, and we depend, when all else has failed, upon the Law. And the essence of the universal threat is lawlessness - that at bottom, there is no explanation. Silent Hill demonstrates this awful inexplicable lawlessness in its decay sequences. Preceded by air-raid sirens, darkness falls, and with the darkness, everything decays, clean new walls drying up and flaking off of a deeper layer of rust, blood, and cracked tile:

There are monsters and bloodshed and so forth, but it is the brutal inconsistency of the scenario which I find disturbing. There are at least three versions of the town Silent Hill in the movie: a real-world version that is a sunlit abandoned town in West Virginia (based loosely on Centralia, Pennsylvania), a fogged, more deeply empty version - and the darkness version of the fogged version.

All three of these towns exist in the same space. In the sequel, the one I watched last night, the heroine goes to Silent Hill to find her abducted father, leading the inevitable Malcolm McDowell to remark, "There are many Silent Hills, are you sure you've got the right one?" This suggestion of the laminar nature of reality, of layer upon layer proceeding to potentially limitless depths, of every volume of space a continuous maze -

note the maze

- is a core facet of how the Silent Hill movies produce their proposed atmosphere of mysteries without answers, and secrets without explanation.

The filmmakers being human, of course they clutter up their movies with nothing but attempts at explanation. But at the end of the day, does it really matter which horde of benighted townsfolk burned who at the stake? All the narrative justifications in the world don't get us all the way down to the fundamental terror of the premise: that the world does not make any sense at all. You just thought it did, and you were wrong.


So that's my three-tiered system of horror movies, and my explanation for my immense affection for flicks of dubious quality like Cube 2: Hypercube and Silent Hill. A few additional notes:

1. I have read somewhere that in the perfect horror movie, no character would appear twice, so that we could not even rely upon the company of our guides through the universe of the film. This is obviously a universal threat mode of storytelling. And look - producers need to make their money back. Nobody, right now, is going to make a dada horror movie, a horror movie of total anarchy. But soon, perhaps, the cost of making movies will drop so low that it will be possible to think them directly into being. At that point, I will get around to writing and executing my long-dreamt-of take on universal threat, Irrational House. Until then, there's not much point.

2. This is the second time I've come upon the phrase "universal threat." Previously, I was thinking about all the things I'm interested in doing - the ones I'm actually doing, like painting, drawing, and writing, and the ones I'd like to do, like directing and sculpting. There is a film-world terminology whereby if you write and direct you are called a double threat; and if you write, act, and direct you are a triple threat. And I thought, abruptly, "I don't want to be a double threat, or a triple threat - I want to be a universal threat."

This struck me as such a badass phrase that I right away went and registered the URL. I haven't done anything with it yet, but if I get to the point where I need to, you know, leverage synergies, then surely this is what I will call my synergy-leveraging corporation and where I will park it on the Web.

Also, I made a mockup of a logo.

3. I recognize that I have been talking about things, these past couple of posts, which are not, technically, painting. I hope you'll bear with me while I flagrantly violate your trust as regards subject matter. I have many things to say about painting in the next few posts, but this was what I thought about this morning.