Saturday, December 14, 2013

Zombie Formalism:the lingering life of abstraction in New York that just wont die

Durer using grid to draw

In the first few pages of Santiago Zabala’s  “The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy”, there are incessant quotes and statements about how Tugendhat and other 20th c philosophers overcame the subject/object fallacy of Western metaphysics.  First Charles Taylor in a heading states: “Tugendhat is very certain of the kind of construal of self-consciousness he cannot accept. He calls it the subject-object model, and its basic error is to construe consciousness as a relation to an object.”  The author in the first paragraph goes on to quote Gadamer: ”….the subject as starting point, just as orientation to the object, is contested by making the intersubjective communication in language the new universal system of reference.” A few paragraphs later he says: ”The impossibility of the mental eye means the end of any pure subjectivity, the end of Cartesian subjectivity, which implies that objects can be seen “objectively” or “scientifically”.”

Wade Guyton
It is interesting to unpack this in relation to the transition to abstraction at the beginning  of the last century, and in particular a rather recent recycle of minimalism that is cropping up in New York galleries and has received an imprimatur by the Whitney with a mid-career show of Wade Guyton, one of its practitioners. It provides an insight into the endless politics of suspicion that permeate so much of Western Culture over the last century and in particular painting. The ambition for the thinkers quoted above is to liberate our consciousness from a subjectively based consciousness that for various reasons is beholden to visuality. The first manifestation of this subjectivity or the “mental eye” was first seen in the realism that commenced in the Renaissance with the use of perspective and then in the Baroque with chiaroscuro. It reigned confidently over painting until the end of the 19th century. This mental eye was built out of clear notion of a strong subject, that shaped via a scientific understanding of perceptual processes, the world that surrounded the artist. The imposition of the gaze of the individual on what surrounded him seemed to parallel the thymotic excesses of Western Civilization as it objectified via science and capitalism the whole world. The image of the conquistador Aguirre in Herzog’s classic film “Aguirre, the Anger of God” descending the Amazon and conquering solely with his imperious gaze all that he surveyed is probably the most emblematic image for me of this attitude. A rather powerful bit of information to support this notion of Western consciousness is that the perspectival system of the Versailles gardens radiated from the bed of Louis the XIV.  Sartre has a lot to say about the withering gaze of his grandfather, who was an old world authoritarian type. The counterattack on this sort of male gaze in 20th century philosophy is the subject of Martin Jay’s “Downcast Eyes”. To make his point about the domination of the visual in our culture, his first paragraph uses a laundry list of words etymologically based in the visual. In the first two sentences he succeeds in using: glance, demonstrate, vigilantly, keeping an eye out, illuminating insight and mirroring.

Zabala goes on to say: “If the old philosophy only referred to what could be seen clearly, the new philosophy refers only to what can be clearly communicated.” Rorty and others call this transformation: the “Linguistic Turn”.  Science required that objects be placed under the scrutiny of the researcher and submit to the scientific method.  A strange amalgam of suspicion and arrogance worked together in a mighty cabal to turn the world inside out. A naive acceptance of the world as it is presented on a day-to-day basis was replaced by a vision that the world must be founded on a more solid basis through the power of logos. The world became transformed into a series of topics: geology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, grammatology etc.

The first crack in that stranglehold on the real appeared in the phenomenological studies of Husserl and Heidegger. Heidegger has a phrase that always carried a lot of significance for me: “always already”. If we act on the world in a certain way, we are always already in it as a participant with other people using a language that we did not create. The pure cogito was immediately problematized. Our relation to things is not one of subject to object, but a more shared engaged reality of being in the world. His word for that reality was “Dasein”, which roughly translates as “being there.”

This became the start of a hundred years of philosophers trying to decenter the scientific gaze by deconstructing the language of metaphysics, with each new generation of philosophers accusing the previous one of still being subject to it. Wittgenstein added to this deconstruction by moving our focus away from the metaphysical to an analysis of how we use language in the real world. During the most recent era of French Deconstruction one adjective that you didn’t want attached to your ideas was “logo-centric”. Initially, the problem was that behind the strong ego was the belief in God as the origin of everything in a well-ordered universe, which still supported Descartes rationality. After that everything logical was perceived to be just a trace of that divine belief system, which had to be expunged from wherever in our language it was still hiding. And of course it got extended to the objectifying gaze, which was found most obviously in the male ego, responsible for all that was wrong with the world from slavery, sexism to the despoliation of the environment.

Sarah Morris
I got off on this tangent after reading John Yau write in“HyperAllergic” about what he called the latest “look” in Abstraction. The work of its practitioners, Morris, Guyton and Kassay looks very much like the Abstraction of Stella, Reinhardt and Kelly, which is decidedly logo-centric. Greenbergian ideas about reducing forms to basic elements and constructing abstract realities went hand and hand with the positivists who believed in the superiority of mathematical language over the language of poets and mystics. “What you see is what you get” Stella is purported to have said. The early spirituality of Rothko and Mondrian is gone. These artists are laconic macho painters. They give you the least amount of what might be construed to be a painting and then pull up the ladder behind them. I suspect that this paring down of painting to simple terms embodies in some manner the analytic analysis of language, which reduces language to its grammatical elements and then submits it to validity tests. They want to see how painting functions as shapes on a wall. Or as they loved to say in grad school: does it work.

Already Yau, who is not a fan of these artists, does accept the premise that we should not go back to the days of the gigantomachia of Gorky and de Kooning. And there may be some truth that this generation of artists is too imbued with the culture of deconstruction to attempt to overcome Kelley, Stella and Reinhardt or in the case of Kassay, Ryman, at least on their own terms. Something else is going on here: There seems to be a need to push painting toward something totally inert, that could be simply part of a common language, no longer power-laden as the last word of something irreducible, which was the goal of Kelly, Reinhardt and the early Stella. The work of these artists becomes as common as money, just a token of exchange, like baseball cards. By shifting the terms of painting away from any lingering notion of being an object and pushing it into the realm of language and in the case of Guyton producing the painting mechanically with an inkjet printer, sets the painting free from its roots in science and objectification.
Jacob Kassay

If the influence of Tugendhat and analytic philosophy is as pervasive as I think it is, the primacy of language theory would give permission to this generation to take painting further down the road to just words and sentences. Rorty who had his role in this winding down of the metaphysical, critiques Heidegger because “he treats language as a brooding presence rather than as a string of marks and noise emitted by organisms and used by them to coordinate their behavior.”

Heidegger placed importance on the ignored copula “is” that we use without acknowledging its role in grounding our day-to-day use of language in something more numinous. It backgrounds it and in poetry approaches the foreground. In the case of our contemporary practitioners of abstraction it has been excised.

These works of art look like paintings, act like painting but on closer inspection are as bloodless and lifeless as zombies. That the New York culture allows this kind of painting to rise to the top is no surprise: the New York financial world is known for creating zombie loans and the NY Fed has succeeded in creating a zombie economy.

Simone Weil said that culture moves in grand arcs either ascending  or descending. Assuming the movement is down, could it be we have reached the bottom?

I can be followed on twitter @mugar49

References to this article on line and in hard copy:

Raphael Rubinstein references my role in coining the notion of Zombie Formalism in paragraph 19 in this article in "Art in America", another reference to the sequence of events here: About:Content, Another reference:capscripts, and  at Paint This Desert and most recently on Hyperallergic

Question appeared on Jeopardy! noticed by Jerry Saltz who helped propagate the notion of Zombie Formalism
although he still claims that Robinson coined it.

Miklos Legrady at critic at New Art Examiner Chicago
Link to by my book on Amazon

Notice the correlation of Zombie art to Zombie Economy

nice interview on my ideas on ZF by Miles Hall

reference to my coining of ZF on page 7 in presentation by Marisa Lerer and Conor McGarrigle Art in the Age of Financial Crisis

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Spiraling downward: From Minimal to Material

Stella Zambezi series
Robert Linsley's  New Abstraction has an interesting blog post on the notion of symmetry, that got me thinking about several of the artists that he mentioned, as well as an earlier blog on Stella, who is his “main man” in Modern painting.  This is what I wrote on his blog:

“I was thinking lately about Richter in terms of the timelessness of his work. By that I don’t mean the timelessness that would be used to describe the Neo-Platonic art of the Early Renaissance but rather a lack of time. Haacke’s closed system has a sort of circular time. It is as you say a closed system that keeps repeating two different states of being. Similar to
Stella’s “Zambezi” that you commented on in another post that to my eye draws the eye in and out in a constant repetition. Richter’s painting is just one event that cannot circle back like Stella’s and although his works literally “hold up”, they risk and do at times descend into pure materiality. This embrace of the material results in what I would call art that is “time poor” to transpose a Heideggerian notion of “world poor”. This applies to the work of someone who appears to be a Richter neophyte, Dan Colen at Gagosian. I wrote about Richter and Stella on the occasion of last winter’s show of my work with Pollaro in Boston, where I talk about the materiality of Richter but this notion of time is new and I think relevant to the understanding of his work.”


It appears that Richter wants to stop time to impress one event on the viewer to such a degree that it eliminates any consideration of what came before or after. Paul Pollaro referred to it as a kind of neon blast. Gone is the role of the imagination, which might evoke memory, or the role of symbols that could point to an inner structure of consciousness that shapes the present. It is like a TGV passing by so quickly you cannot even see it as a fixed entity. Serra’s charcoal drawings have that kind of powerful presence. They capture a one/two punch in a heightened version of push/pull.

Serra charcoal drawing

“To seal becoming with the character of being. That is the supreme 'Will to Power' “. This statement by Nietzsche might be of help in sorting out what these modern artists are after. What it means is the following: Will to impress emphatically the individual presence in such a way that its power eliminates any other entity being part of the whole. In the end there is the winner and the winner creates or pushes into the background or rather completely out of site the loser.

 It is such a twisting of the original meaning of being and becoming: The source of Being in the Greek world was “The one” that existed beyond this world and in a strange way was the origin of this world. But it was hidden from the world and not of easy access. The world we live in is a world of becoming, of beings (small b) coming into existence and passing out of it. It is therefore a world of life but also of the decay of that life. In the NeoPlatonic work of the Renaissance mystics like Ficino referred to this world as the sub-lunar world which the individual had no control over. Individuals were subject to the blind laws of the stars and pulled by the moon toward death. 
Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"

Some of the great works of art such as the "Birth of Venus" by Botticelli were created as magical talismans to give the patrons such as the Medici’s power over such maladies as melancholia. According to the astrological notions of the time melancholy was influenced by Saturn and the only antidote to it was to channel the goddess Venus. The goal was to get beyond (transcend) this sub-lunar world by accessing the divine powers.

Piero della Francesca

This transcendence was not achieved through an act of will but by knowing the right prayers or alchemical formulas or in the case of art to use the right proportions, colors and geometrical shapes. In short, a kind of knowing to achieve harmony. How different from Nietzsche’s formula, which opens the door to limitless assertion of power. It is not a statement that encourages relationships and harmonies but aggressive stopping of any alternative except that which is imposed by the “Will to Power”.

Al Held
de Kooning

Self-assertion in the work of early Al Held pushes stuff into the background. This is also true in a lot of de Kooning’s work. At least there is a relationship in that on the canvas the oppressed shapes are still seen. Late de Kooning  enters a realm of pure movement. Richter shows nothing eliminated. There is just this eternal present of pure movement.

Late de Kooning

But the risk or rather the goal is that the assertion of will is not enough to hold up the material that is used to make the painting. This is the case of the work of Dan Colen.  I had a good laugh when it was pointed out to me by Paul Pollaro that this artist works in bubble gum and tar. My work has been described as looking like it was painted with bubblegum and Pollaro’s work is made with tar: One artist working with the materials that we use separately.

Dan Colen(bubble gum)

Dan Colen(tar and feather)

There is no event in Colen, just the characteristics of the materials of tar and feather or the bubble gum that was harvested from public spaces in the city. All sprinkled with irony. Nietzsche would see this as a weakness of the will.There is not enough self-assertion to impress the self on becoming. But I would counter that this is a perverse sort of self-assertion like a child throwing a temper tantrum or getting attention by flinging its turds at its parents.*

* see: "The Impossibility of Transcendence in American Art"
* see my review of Stella at the Whitney

I can be followed on twitter @mugar49

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Why care about the art scene when you can watch Westerns

I am taking a break on this blog from fine art and Western philosophy to write about the philosophy of Westerns. The ones I have seen lately have impressed me with the depth and complexity of their understanding of the human condition. I grew up with  TV Westerns: Cheyenne, Maverick, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke, but I have no recollection of watching them at the movies. I do recall that during a hospitalization at the age of five for a tracheotomy I had an argument with another patient about whether to watch Howdy Doody or Hop Along Cassidy. I wanted Howdy Doody and he wanted Hop Along Cassidy. The latter with his ten-gallon hat already seemed dated to this five year old. I don’t recall who won that argument.
Solidarity Poster with Gary Cooper

That there was something more to them than the idealization of the Marlboro man in the wide open spaces of Monument Valley became obvious to me years later, when a Polish friend in Paris, Bogdan Borkowski, a filmmaker and photographer, who went on to document the Solidarity uprising (I just found a picture of him today June 5 2020 with Lech Walesa), invited me to participate in his very private ritual, which involved a screening of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”.

Bogdan Borkowski  and Lech Walesa

Drinking rectified vodka ahead of time, which is almost 200 proof, we prepared ourselves for the delirium of the last scene, where the Mexican Federales are picked off one by one, and fall to their death from the rooftops of the Mexican town they are holding hostage. During this scene Bogdan shouted out at the top of his lungs in utter approval of the massacre. I don’t recall the response of the other theatre goers; maybe his cries were masked by the sound of the machine gun fire, but for an outrageously disruptive public display it ranks up there with Charles Giuliano cracking jokes about the play we were watching during a performance at the A.R.T. and getting the audience immediately around us to laugh in approval.
Peckinpah directing the "Wild Bunch"

For Bogdan the over the top delirium of “the Wild Bunch”, his cheering on of the massacre was a purge of all those years of emotional repression and enforced sadness in Poland. Under the Communist regime, one’s emotions were always in check. It was PC run amok. What did the authorities know about you? Who was in the Party and who wasn’t? Were you going to end up in prison for a seemingly benign comment about the regime? There was little personal wealth to allow for any self-indulgence. At a restaurant once in Paris, the waiter asked us what we wanted for dessert. Bogdan, in a typical gesture of extravagance, ordered another round of steak. Poland was a world of enforced equality, where gray was the operative color of the scenery and the soul.

I came across a poster on the Internet from the era of Solidarity in Poland. To promote its cause it borrowed an image from “HighNoon” of Gary Cooper striding down the center of town. While the Americans at the time were promoting a notion of détente in their dealings with the Soviets, the citizens of Soviet controlled countries were looking to symbols and stories of raw individualism from the West for inspiration in their struggle against the totalitarian regime. It is a film that is quintessentially American, and, although not chosen by Bogdan for his blow out, it is even more iconic than the “Wild Bunch” of the struggle of the individual against the oppressive weight  of the group. My recollections of the “Wild Bunch” are thirty- five years old. If I can discuss “High Noon” in some depth, it is because it shows up at least once a week on cable.

Being an artist, a rather solitary profession, I identified with its theme of the loner, who is willing to risk his life for what he thinks is right. The depiction of the crowd, which only thinks of material wealth and comfort and seeks the easy way out of the impending crisis, is well drawn and accurate. Most people in the town believe the arrival of a criminal, who has just been released from prison before the end of his sentence for murder by a weak-kneed judge, does not concern them. It was the Sherriff Kane (Gary Cooper) who put him away and it is Kane he wants, not the town’s folk. They tell Kane, who is about to leave on a honeymoon with Mrs. Kane(Grace Kelley), to get out of town, hoping it will deflate the impending crisis.

Frank Miller, the bad guy, disrupted the life of the town’s folk the last time around, making it “unsafe for women and children” as they say, although the smarmy hotel manager seems to think the rough and ready style that Miller fostered made town-life a lot more exciting and lucrative, especially for the undertaker. However, with sidekicks like the sinister (I don’t think he speaks a word) looking Lee Van Cleef, waiting at the depot for Miller’s return on the noon train, things probably wont turn out too well for the townsfolk if Kane leaves. Kane looks world-weary; every step he takes is slow and measured. Abandoned by his fellow citizens, he also has to fight Lloyd Bridges, one of his deputes, who wants Cooper to leave, so he can have his day in the sun alone to fight Miller and prove his mettle. The sense of utter fatigue and the raw drive, that keeps him going, is inspirational. Like all the Westerns I have seen, people are transformed by these existential crises. How they respond changes their lives and those around them for the better.

Religion also plays an interesting role in several of the Westerns I have seen, where it is perceived as providing comfort for the sheepfold. The minister at the church, where the whole town is worshipping that ominous Sunday morning, is against violence on principle, but allows Kane nonetheless to make his case to exhort the parishioners to defend the town. One of the town fathers seems to agree that they must support the Sheriff, as he begins his speech, only to end it by saying it would be bad PR for the town’s economy, if the shootout takes place. Kelley, who plays Kane’s wife, has lost family to gun violence and has converted to Quakerism. She abandons Kane and prepares to leave town on the next train. At the depot, she finds herself, surrounded by Miller’s sidekicks, waiting for Miller to arrive. Kane is abandoned by everyone.The level of anxiety mounts as the clock moves closer to high noon.

Cooper’s ex–lover, Helen Ramirez, who is also the ex-lover of the antagonist is leaving town on the same train that Miller is arriving on. Earlier at the saloon she owns, Ramirez meets Mrs. Kane and tells her in no uncertain terms that she should stand by her man. At the train station, when Kelly hears that a fight has broken out, she runs furiously back into town. Kelley abandons her religious dogma, and kills Miller, just as he is about to take down Kane, in what is the deciding moment of the shoot out.

Religion is perceived as irrelevant in this film for not seeing their prohibition against killing in the context of society as a whole, where murder and mayhem and outright sadism are the standard mode of operation of the bad guys. The only way to control them is through the bold actions of the courageous few who step up to the plate. The minister, who lets Kane interrupt his Sunday sermon to make an appeal to the townsfolk for more deputies, conveys his helplessness in the face of the impending arrival of Frank Miller, when he says he is constrained by his faith to not encourage violence. All he can say limply is: “I am sorry”. One message of the movie is that you don’t have to embrace religion to do good. Life is messy and to maintain a semblance of order, sacrifices have to be made. The hero is self-less in a way that all religious doctrine seems to encourage. In the final showdown Kane christlike is bereft not only of the support of the people but also of any excess of bravado. There is no swagger in his gestures, just a man doing his job, fulfilling his destiny. But I suspect that this selflessness has different origins than the selflessness of a monk or a saint. It may have its origins in a notion of the warrior, or of feudal knights, as depicted in ‘The Seven Samurai’, which provides the story line for “The Magnificent Seven”. Their values derive from their selflessness and loyalty to the feudal lords. Self-discipline and emotional control were the code of honor crucial to their success as guardians of their lords, that prepared them to act efficiently and forcefully at a moments notice. Their code of honor states implicitly: slovenliness and lack of self-control are sins to be eradicated in oneself and in others. Like Kane they no longer act for either the town folk or some higher authority, but to live up to a personal code of honor.

“High Noon” has been a political football from its first showing. The screenwriter was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, which leads some commentators to see it as a commentary on McCarthyism. Although Gary Cooper appearing before HUAC  didn’t name names, he is reported to have said he didn’t know much about Communism but as far as he could see “it was not on the level.” John Wayne, appalled by the possible allegory of McCarthyism in “High Noon” and the inability of Kane to drum up resistance to Frank Miller had Howard Hawks make “ Rio Bravo”, where Wayne succeeds in putting together a ragtag group of deputes to fend off the bad guys.

“High Noon” was a favorite of both Reagan and Clinton, who frequently showed it in the White House. But the essence of the film is a critique of any sort of groupthink that threatens to undermine notions of fairness and decency. To be chosen by Solidarity as a symbol of its uprising clearly skews the film in my opinion toward an anti-communist line.

Alan Ladd in "Shane"
My artist friend the late Addison Parks was a fan of Westerns. He recommended “Shane” which like Peckinpah’s  “Ride the High Country” deal with the moral ambiguity of the gunslinger. They are referred to as "guns for hire" .The term may imply that they are amoral but in the end they tend to risk their life for a sense of what is right. But what is right and how do you know it?  The film deals with the historical transition from open range grazing to farming. One is no better than the other. These protagonists are not ideologues nor do notions of Marxist inevitability make them students of history. In “Shane”, as in the “Seven Samurai”, the farmers are perceived as vulnerable and in need of protection: the very group nature of their activity and the required patience and gentle care for the crops and cattle make them ill-suited for self-defense. Of course it helps that Shane in the past had been a lover of the woman, the farmer’s wife. Again, the decision to protect the farmer is totally personal.

"Ride the High Country"
There is always a code in play that is adhered to. In “Ride the High Country” all the same themes reappear that we saw in “High Noon”: the limitations of religion, the necessity of decision and the moral ambiguity of what is right and wrong. The code seems to say that there is no moral relativism in the face of moral sloth and sadism toward the weak. When the younger sidekick in “Ride the High Country” hits on the girl who has joined up with them to escape her fundamentalist father’s beatings, the two older gunslingers put him in his place with a few judiciously placed punches. It is intriguing to me that the two actors Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are in their sixties. Any superiority they have over those younger than them obviously does not come from raw strength, but from being more seasoned and wise in the way they use their limited strength. When the miner, that the girl is trying to rejoin and ends up marrying, turns out to be a moral reprobate, McCrea and Scott, through subterfuge, succeed in annulling the marriage. They subvert societies’ law entrusted to the slovenly lush of a justice of the peace, by forcing him at gunpoint to forswear the validity of his legal authority to perform marriages. Their personal code is more important than the laws of society.

It is interesting that just annulling the wedding cannot enforce the code in the end. It has to be enforced in a battle of wills and ruse. Enforcing the code is not an academic exercise: Evil is never seen for what it is until good eliminates it. Of course sacrifice is inevitable. In the final shootout, the dissolute miners, who have learned of the ruse used to annul the marriage, have come to the woman’s farm to retrieve the young bride.  They kill her father and in the shoot out Joel McCrea dies, probably the most noble of the three. The most intriguing aspect of the story is that Randolph Scott conspired to steal the gold that McCrea hired him to help bring down from the miner’s camp. He is arrested and tied up by McCrea, a former lawman,who will turn him in, when they get back to civilization. He escapes, but in the end reappears to fight in defense of McCrea, the girl and the young sidekick at the farm. Even the self-serving plans of Scott do not impair his sense of right and wrong, when it comes to protecting the good against the bad.

The girl ends up with the young sidekick, who is no longer the randy young man he was at the beginning of the film. Like a scene out of Shakespeare the wrongs of the world are righted; the woman finds the right man..

The films I saw in college at the film society were all European. They didn’t show Westerns. Just Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, and Godard. “The 400 Blows” was always my favorite and still is. It is a film, whose plot is always rolling down hill and inexorably ends with Antoine Doisnel having nowhere to go. French films have a knack for choosing gloomy endings. I remember seeing “Sideways” with Paul Giamatti, which has a choice of having either a French or American ending. I was betting on the French ending (he would lose the girl). I was wrong. The subject of the film may have been about a French grape, pinot noir, but the “terroir” was clearly American.

There is sometimes in European films, especially the Latin ones, a notion of grace that seems to transcend the heavy sensuality of the lives of the characters for example at the end of “La Dolce Vita”, when Mastroianni, after a night of carousing, sees a blissfully innocent girl on the beach, that puts all his sensuality in doubt. Is she a reincarnation of Dante’s Beatrice? a glimpse of transcendent beauty that lifts the individual out of the mundane.  Catholic grace still plays a role in this most earthbound of filmmakers.
Last frame of "The 400 Blows"

The Europeans have a bias toward the metaphysical. Bergman in the “Seventh Seal “struggles with “Death”. Godard embraces Nihilism to such a degree that every gesture and every scene in “Pierrot Le Fou” seems to radiate emptiness and futility. All the activity fits into the ideological mold. The same can be said of ”Mon Oncle d’Amerique”, which rigidly has each character portray the grim materialist philosophy of scientific Marxism. It is interesting to put the American and European movies side by side. Postwar, the horrors of the devastation, which America had not experienced on its soil, were still fresh in the minds of the European filmmakers. Two hundred years of revolution and two world wars have made them skeptical of big political aspirations. In the sixties America had civil rights to aspire to, the protest against the war in Vietnam and the hippies romantic return to the land and nature. All good causes. Except for the short lived burst of freedom on May ’68, and their obsession to transcend their violent history with technocratic management, the Europeans have little to get them excited.They tend to look to America for their enthusiasms. It was the German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, who said he was saved by Rock and Roll. The French films have of course adultery. Life always seduces, tantalizes you with its endless illusions. The message of these European films is that life is either surface or nothingness or surface and nothingness combined as in Godard . Truffaut’s ending to “Jules and Jim” makes a sudden chilling shift from surface to nothingness with the  cremation of their lover in their ménage a trois.Or the message is often bittersweet, as in the heavy nostalgia of Truffauts’s “Stolen Kisses” with the Charles Trenet’s theme song “What is left of our love” .

I commented once to my French brother in law (my wife’s’ brother to be distinguished from my sister’s husband who is French and interestingly enough a fan of American westerns) on how I liked the honest gloomy endings of French films. His take was less sanguine: he said it was a reflection of the rigidity of the French social structure. The society was and still is hierarchical and, when you can’t move up you either go round and round on a carousel or just down. What is done to the young Doinel in “The 400 Blows” is just the nature of things. There is no critique of the system or an attempt to see his fate as possibly turning out better, if the reform schools reformed themselves. The society is structured with a sort of original sin, which ignores the individual for the sake of some perverse sense of order and hierarchy. Antoine is born into an unloving family, an unloving world. He struggles against it but is entrapped like a fly in a spider’s web. When Doinel grows up in “Stolen Kisses” he is totally disaffected and disinterested in pulling his weight in the world of commerce. He is in love with love. Life is a carrousel. It is his turn to go around on the circle of life. The options are around and aroud but only slightly up before you move down again.*

Growing up, the messages I got from the boy’s prep school I attended and my family were clearly on the side of machismo. We still had a religiously oriented daily chapel service and sports taught us that life was the constant agonic battle against ones peers and oneself: Self-surpassing, self-discipline, added to academic self-consciousness. In reaction, I was attracted to the irony of Woody Allen, the nihilism of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or the romanticism of nature in the novels of Knut Hamsun. But you can’t live your life successfully beyond a certain age with any of these principles as guides. Pragmatically, there are always decisions to be made on how you interact with other people. Cynicism, a gloomy melancholic stance, or the pagan love of the wild are of no help in the day to day navigating of the politics of ones multiple societal roles of parent, spouse and of the work place. Although the typical character of Westerns has failed in marriage, they do provide a model for acting within society without having to feel like you have been bought and sold by some higher social order. You do good, you save the day. The only fantasy that does not have any practical relevance to day to day life is riding off into the sunset.

*my wife and I have noticed the recurrence of people falling into comas in recent French films. It is a sort of running joke when a film starts whether someone will become comatose. Now what does that stay about European culture!

check out Berkshire Fine Arts which published this with some more photos