THE CONFORMIST

Perhaps the most exciting cinematic event of 2006 was
the release on DVD earlier this month — finally, and in a terrific
transfer — of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

Few films of the post-WWII era have been as
influential as this one — few films of any era have been as ravishing,
as sensually exciting.

In the freewheeling atmosphere of the time, and with
the final collapse of the old studio system, Hollywood in the late
Sixties was in an experimental mood, though the experimentation often
involved only superficial stylistic gimmicks — the hand-held camera,
promiscuous zooming, elliptical editing, split-screen images.

At the same time a new generation of filmmakers was
coming into prominence which had been schooled in, and deeply loved,
the classic Hollywood films — among this generation were
Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas . . . all of them, except for
Spielberg, the products of film schools rather than of apprenticeship
in the industry.

They were tackling new subjects and ones that were often more challenging
than the old studio system could embrace but they were
developing a style that owed much to the formal elegance of the
cinema of the studio era.

Then, in 1970, The Conformist burst onto the scene,
the work of a young Italian filmmaker who had not only mastered the
formal elegance of the old studio style but was taking it into new
realms of expressiveness and invention.  Indeed, The Conformist had
something of the visual eloquence of the highest achievements of the
silent era, of Murnau’s and Vidor’s films, whose
extravagant poetic imagery had been lost with the coming of sound.

The effect was electric — confirming all the creative
instincts of the American film-school avant garde.  The movie was so
important to Coppola that he, along with a number of other American
directors, personally lobbied its distributor to release the film in
the United States.  He used one of its actors in The Godfather, Part
II
, and its visual style influenced every frame of Coppola’s
masterpiece.

Bertolucci never made another film quite like it.
His visual imagination, his gift for dynamic plastic composition and
choreography within the frame stayed fresh, but was often lavished on
unworthy material and degenerated into mere mannerism.

The Conformist was of a piece because its story and
its visual style reinforced each other.  Bertolucci was, in the film,
breaking dramatically from the severe aesthetic strategies and rigorous
intellectualism of his mentor Godard, indulging himself frankly in the
cinema’s power for sensual seduction — all the while telling the tale
of a promising student who betrays the political ideals of his old
professor and eventually collaborates in the professor’s murder.

The Conformist remains alive with the allure of forbidden
pleasures, tense with the guilt of giving in to them.  The film is
erotic but disturbing — a dynamic that Bertolucci would explore
more explicitly in Last Tango In Paris, but without the organic
emotional coherence of the earlier film.

The Conformist also marked the emergence of its
cinematographer Vitorio Storaro as an artist of international
stature — but that’s a subject for a future post . . .

FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

[Miranda, the Tempest, by John William Waterhouse]

Of all the primal bonds, that between father and daughter has been perhaps the least examined by psychologists and by artists . . . with the notable exception of Shakespeare, himself the father of two daughters, one of them the twin of his only son Hamnet who died in childhood.

Father-daughter relationships figure prominently in 21 of Shakespeare’s surviving plays, and they are examined from almost every angle, most of them problematic. In the comedies the relationship is presented primarily through the eyes of the daughters, in the later magical romances primarily through the eyes of the fathers.

Diane Dreher’s Domination and Defiance, published in 1986, was the first book specifically devoted to the subject of fathers and daughters in Shakespeare, and it’s a fine, illuminating study. It’s central thesis is that Shakespeare’s view of father-daughter relationships was both wise, psychologically speaking, and startlingly progressive, socially and politically speaking. Traditional patriarchal domination of the daughter by the father is always seen as destructive in Shakespeare’s plays, harmful to the psyches of both father and daughter, and to the social order itself.

As with all insights into Shakespeare’s work, the book raises intriguing but always unanswerable questions about Shakespeare’s biography. What real-life family dramas informed the clashes between fathers and daughters in the plays of Shakespeare’s early and middle periods? What epiphanies led to the sublime, almost mystical and always deeply moving reconciliations between fathers and daughters in the late romances?

It’s impossible to believe that there were no such connections between the life and the work — it’s equally impossible not to be vexed that they can never be summoned up into the light, except by way of Prospero’s enchanted, phantasmagorical visions.

ANDREW WYETH AND THE SILENT CINEMA

[Renee Adoree and John Gilbert in King Vidor's The Big Parade]

Reading an excerpt from David Michaelis’s biography of N. C. Wyeth in an
old
Vanity Fair I came across an interesting passage.  Writing about N. C.’s son Andrew, Michaelis says:

“Andy’s conception of army life had been formed by years of soaking up The Big Parade, King Vidor’s silent classic about three enlisted men in WWI, which N. C. had taken him to see as an eight-year old boy. ‘This film,’ Andrew later explained, ‘got into my bloodstream.’
Eventually he came to own a copy and would screen it four or five times a year all through his adult life.  Forever linked to his deepest feelings about his father, certain frames of the film would form, without his realizing it, the basis for some of the most important images in his art.”


As an adult Andrew Wyeth eventually wrote a fan letter to King Vidor and the two men
met towards the end of Vidor’s life.  Vidor made a short film about the encounter, the last film he ever made.  In the film Wyeth remarks that when friends said they didn’t understand why he kept on watching
The Big Parade after seeing it 180 times — literally — he replied, “You don’t understand my paintings, either.”

Two things struck me about this.

Firstly, it’s fascinating that a great artist like Wyeth, used to consciously analyzing visual images, should have created works which were unconsciously influenced by shots in a silent film.  I think this speaks to the powerful ways cinematic images, particularly from silent films, can work on all of us unconsciously.

[A scene from Napoleon's campaign in Egypt by Jean-Leon Gerome]

Secondly, I’ve always been struck by the influence of 19th-Century
academic painting on movies.  The former were centrally concerned with
using spatial effects for dramatic and emotional purposes (again often
experienced in subliminal ways.)  Movies, because they had greater
aesthetic resources in this area — i. e. movement in space by both
subject and camera — almost instantly spelled the end of academic
painting as a popular visual art form, and drove modern painters into
greater and greater abstraction.


The formal connections between 19th-Century academic painting and
movies is a subject that has hardly been hinted at in cinema studies to
date.

[Book illustration by N. C. Wyeth]

N. C. Wyeth kept the “cinematic” narrative-based academic style alive in
his book illustrations (as did Norman Rockwell in his magazine
illustrations) and N. C.’s son Andrew has been almost alone in keeping
elements of this style alive within the circles of modern “high art”, by
making the narrative element more ambiguous and blending the dramatic
representation of space (which is crucial to his work) with a more
pronounced abstraction of design.

In Andrew Wyeth’s obsession with The Big Parade we have a concrete example of the transmission of these oddly overlooked aesthetic connections.

[Trodden Weeds, 1951 tempera -- © Andrew Wyeth]

OYSTER STEW

It’s easy to make oyster stew. Here’s how you do it. Get a lot of oysters,
medium sized, the sweetest and freshest you can find (hard on the West
Coast, where they’re most often big and bland). It’s o. k. to get them
in jars, fresh and raw, because you want them out of the shell anyway.


Put some whole milk in a saucepan and start to heat it and when it’s just
barely tepid put the clean oysters, minus their juices, into the pan.
You don’t want the milk to cover the oysters — you need to be able to
observe them.

When the milk starts to steam just the slightest, slightest bit, sprinkle in
celery salt, a fair amount, a dose of regular salt, ground pepper,
paprika and three drops (in the name of God no more!) of Tabasco. Don’t
mix all this stuff in, just sprinkle it on top, well distributed. Then
quickly put in two chunks of unsweetened butter and just when the
butter has all melted, pour the whole thing into a big bowl and let the
pouring itself do the mixing.


Eat it with a light, dry white wine and have lots of French bread handy for sopping, which is sublime.

If the oysters are rubbery, you didn’t get the seasonings and butter in fast enough.

I pass this along from Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher, slightly modified, because it’s a miracle that something so wonderful is so easy to make.

The secret, of course, is the oysters, complicated and strange, bringing
with them such tales of currents and tides and the mysteries of the not
so deep, that they want only a simple setting to recount them in, and a
hungry heart willing to listen.

SILENT SEX

Watching Mary Pickford’s films for the first time I was startled at how sexy she was. Even if she’s not your type, even if the curls make you cringe, it’s hard not to be vexed by her energy, her obvious intelligence, the expressive use she makes of her whole body. I have this same feeling about Lillian Gish. No matter how delicate and virginal a character she plays, she always moves sublimely, communicating subtleties but also controlled power by the very inclination of her body — something a great ballerina can do as well. This sort of thing gives a fellow ideas.

In a sense, the whole medium of silent film is permeated by this kind of frank though innocent sexuality. For adults, communicating emotion and character through the expressive power of the whole body is just inevitably bound up with the idea of sex, which is one reason why dancing has always been suspect in the Puritan mind . . . and great silent film acting is closely related to dance. Keaton is, ostensibly, a clown, and the characters he plays are rarely informed by any conscious awareness of their own attractiveness — but the raw animal lust he seems to inspire in some female silent film fans is impressive.

This may be one of the reasons I’m disconcerted by Pickford’s portrayals of children — Pickford’s sexual persona, which she really can’t lose, seems out of place in a pre-sexual being.

It occurs to me also that this may explain the vague “creepiness” some people feel about Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He just moves so beautifully, so exquisitely, that perhaps he arouses unconscious thoughts which people, women especially, don’t want to associate with that particular physique.

A more extreme version of this reaction, in a more buttoned-up age, might also explain, on a subconscious level, some of the antagonism towards Arbuckle, the immediate presumption of guilt, when he got caught in a sex scandal. It would be impossible to imagine such a scenario in the case of John Candy or Chris Farley, because they simply weren’t capable of the kind of carnal grace Arbuckle had at his command.

Most modern actors have lost this means of suggesting a complex sexuality by sheer physical carriage, which is why they’re forced to expose themselves, or say naughty things, to grab a viewer’s attention in that regard. Pickford’s little jig in Tess Of the Storm Country got the job done for me.

CHRISTMAS TRIUMPHANT

I must admit that Christmas in Las Vegas threatened to become a bit melancholy this year, as the old frontier town passes into history, as the great experiment of it ends — the notion of preserving a refuge, out in the middle of the Mojave desert, from the shabby, bovine Puritanism of ordinary American life.

The experiment proved too successful, I guess, in the end — the air of freedom from Big Nanny created a vital economy and an exciting metropolis that the shabby, bovine Puritans wanted to move to, appropriate and transform back into the shabby, bovine places they left back home . . . as though they could have the best of both worlds, a vibrant fantasy city that was also tidy, safe and conformist.

American Puritans, the old diehards of the religious right and the new social hygienists of the “progressive” left (just as fanatical and intolerant in their own ways,) never learn.  The bourgeois dullards who want to control the behavior of smokers are the same bourgeois dullards who enacted alcohol prohibition in the last century, whether their smug intolerance derives from moral or “health-oriented” motives.  “The Puritan conscience,” C. S. Lewis reminds us, “works on without the Puritan theology — like millstones grinding nothing; like digestive juices working on an empty stomach and producing ulcers.”  Which suggests that the religious moralists are perhaps slightly more sane than the new secular Puritans.

At any rate, in my wistful state I delayed getting a tree this year, but on Christmas Eve, when I saw that my favorite Christmas tree lot had already closed down, I suddenly realized how shameful it would be not to bring an evergreen into my home.  I found another lot, deserted except for two exhausted lot attendants sitting in folding chairs outside the mobile home they were obviously living in for the holidays.  They could hardly bring themselves to notice me when I walked onto the lot but finally stirred and stood up, prepared to make what would probably be the last sale of the season.  I picked out a big tree, paid almost nothing for it, retrieved my Christmas decorations from storage and set the tree up in my apartment, ablaze with lights.

This changed everything, and shows why traditions are neglected at the gravest peril — they pull us out of passing moods and remind us of an antique wisdom that transcends the
understanding of the moment.

With the lights blinking, a fire crackling, a glass of egg nog in my hand, I communed with Christmases past and Christmases to come.  I remembered my modest but Grace-filled place in the continuity of things.

I looked forward to Christmas in Baja — or wherever the dim-witted Puritan duppies drive me.  It doesn’t matter.  There’s never any guaranteed room at the inn, even if you’ve got what seems to be an ironclad reservation number.  I awoke at dawn on Christmas morning and
the world was born again.

I was happy I’d been reminded to say, once again and just in time, “God bless us — every one.”


IRON GIANT

A merchandising artifact from the film The Iron Giant, released in 1999, this wondrous toy is almost impossible to find today.  I tracked one down on eBay — it was kind of pricey in this pristine boxed condition.

The figure of the giant is about 10″ tall. If you push a button on its chest it speaks a few phrases from the film and its eyes light up.  It would be awesome if the giant’s jaw were moveable — otherwise it’s just about perfectly cool.

G I. BLUES




Bad songs plus a silly plot plus Elvis equals . . . movie magic.

Before his management got utterly cynical about the quality of his films, before he himself gave up on Hollywood as a creative challenge, Elvis made some enchanting movies just on the strength of his persona and charisma. He commands the screen the way a star can, without having to work very hard at it, and the very ease of his performances makes them fascinating. His dancing is toned down from his work on stage but it’s still unique and riveting and the commitment of his vocal performances, even on substandard material, is touching.

In G. I. Blues, the surrealism of the overblown sets, the travelogue nature of the location shots (none of which feature Elvis) and the frank artificiality of the production has a delirious effect at times — like Jerry Lewis and James Bond movies.

There was more wit than incompetence or naivete to this style of filmmaking in the Sixties and it seems oddly less dated than the hipper avant-garde approach that eventually overtook the Hollywood mainstream. Elvis’ serenade to the hand-puppet here is sublime cinema — inspired silliness that still manages to be charming and emotionally involving.

Just go along with it and marvel at the mysterious, ever-elusive phenomenon of Elvis Presley.

ORLANDO GIBBONS

I’ve been reading a lot about Shakespeare recently and somewhere in that reading I ran across a mention of Orlando Gibbons, the other great English composer of the Tudor era (besides William Byrd.)  I decided to check him out, particularly after leaning that he was Glenn Gould’s favorite composer.

Gibbons can be appreciated as a sort of alternative to Bach, with the same logical clarity but more theatricality, whimsy and lyricism.  You can hear the cultural giddiness of Elizabethan England in Gibbons’s work, as you can in Shakespeare’s poetry.

Gould only recorded a few pieces by Gibbons but they’re fascinating performances.  Highly expressive, Romantic even, they violate historical style but somehow evoke the essence of the music, in ways stricter interpretations, on more appropriate instruments, sometimes
fail to do.


There are worse ways to spend an evening than listening to the music of Orlando Gibbons.  If you have a fire and a glass of good red wine and some strong English cheese — an old cheddar or Stilton would do perfectly — so much the better.

THE BLACK MA-1

In William Gibson’s latest novel Pattern Recognition, the heroine Cayce Pollard, a coolhunter, wears a reproduction MA-1 flight jacket, 1957 pattern, made by Buzz Rickson’s, which Gibson describes as a super authentic recreation of the original — in a sense more authentic than the original because of the fanatical devotion to detail by the manufacturer. He notes that the uneven seams of the original, the result of sewing the new fabric nylon on machines made to stitch cotton, have been lovingly copied, even exaggerated slightly, to make the homage that much clearer.

It turns out that Buzz Rickson’s is a real company, based in Japan, and that it really does make such reproductions, with all the obsessiveness Gibson so admires.

But Gibson made a mistake. He described Pollard’s jacket as black, whereas Rickson’s only produced the jacket in green, since that’s the only way the Air Force ever issued it. When Rickson’s learned about the mistake, it decided to issue a “Pattern Recognition” edition of the jacket in black. Gibson’s fantasy jacket has thus become real.

Two years ago I posted about the jacket on the discussion forum at Gibson’s official web site. A year after that Gibson noticed my old post and responded to it on his blog. I just discovered his response a couple of days ago — you can read it here:

http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/blog/2005_12_01_archive.asp

This still leaves us with a problem. Do we want to wear Cayce Pollard’s black
Rickson’s MA-1, which is, in fact, unutterably cool-looking, or do we want to wear the original Rickson’s reproduction, which is what inspired Gibson, and Cayce, in the first place?

In the end, I opted for the black model, because of its unutterable coolness and as a tribute to Gibson’s great book.

But it’s a complicated question that each man or woman must decide for his or her self.

Here’s a link to the American distributor of Buzz
Rickson’s jackets — all of which are quite amazing and quite expensive:

Buzz Rickson’s

PANDORA’S BOX

Pandora’s Box, the film Louise Brooks is best known for, is one of the sublime works of cinema, not least because of her performance init.

It is not exactly a film adaptation of the famous play by Franz Wedekind on which it is nominally based — it is better appreciated as what it calls itself, a “variation on themes” from Wedekind’s work.  Wedekind created in his central figure of Lulu an almost mythological incarnation of the terror the feminine inspired in late Victorian men, who simply didn’t know how to relate to women outside the collapsing domestic structures of modern industrialized societies.  Wedekind’s Lulu was a calculating vamp, an anarchic force, unrestrained by the old female roles, and thus could be experienced as an alien and malevolent power.

Pabst’s and Brooks’s Lulu is something else again.  Her destructive power is not defined by her deviance from old female roles but by the utter collapse of manhood around her, by the failure of men to adapt to the new empowerment of women.  The crucial event intervening between Wedekind’s play and Pabst’s film was the cataclysm of WWI, which confirmed not just the collapse but the inherent weakness, the dry rot at the heart of the 19th-Century European patriarchy.  From a post-WWI vantage, Pabst, by instinct or calculation, realized that blaming women was not really an answer or a solution to the failure of modern manhood.

Pandora’s Box shares aspects of an attitude that wouldn’t find its way into American film until after the cataclysm of WWII, specifically in film noir, where a sense of the futility of male power slammed head-on into the contingent terror of the female, the femme fatale.
But Pabst’s film is more mature, ahead of its time even, in making Lulu’s female power innocent, neutral, a mere fact of life, which men simply have no resources to engage on equal terms.

In Pabst’s film men destroy each other and destroy themselves trying to engage Lulu’s existential sexuality.  They try to commodify her, reduce her to images, trade her for money.  They fail at every turn to diminish her.  And yet they must keep on trying, since they can’t have meaningful intercourse with her as she is, and this is a constant reminder of their own impotence.  Early in the film Lulu tells her current benefactor, “The only way to get rid of me is to kill me.”  Her sexuality cannot be dismissed any more than it can be engaged — it can only be destroyed.

This explains the curious ending of the film, in which Lulu meets a contemporary version of Jack the Ripper in London and is instantly drawn to him.  He is in a sense the only
honest man in the whole tale — he worships Lulu, like all the rest of the men in her life, knows he’s no match for her, knows the only way he can deal with her is by killing her.  Which he does — but not before paying touching tribute to her majesty, crowning her with Christmas mistletoe, in images that glow with tenderness and sacramental mystery.

Lulu almost seems to acquiesce in her own sacrifice — a final extension of the detachment she displays throughout the film.  It’s not her job to tell men how to be men — she can only observe the failures of their doomed attempts to figure it out for themselves.  She observes with interest, certainly, sometimes with awe, but never with a sense of personal responsibility.  Compromising her female essence to accommodate the impotency of men is not a solution for her, or for her lovers.

Brooks’s incarnation of this role is brilliant in the extreme, one of the finest pieces of acting in all of movies.  Her work is neither minimalist nor merely naturalistic — just “being herself” . . . whatever that might mean in the utterly artificial, high-pressure context of a film set.  Pabst was clearly drawing on aspects of Brooks’s own personality in the film, but the result is a “created” character of great complexity, one which never resolves itself into any conventional type or relies on any conventional response.  Brooks’s performance has inwardness and mystery, as Shakespeare’s characters do, as Chaplin’s and Keaton’s characters do.

Pabst’s and Brooks’s Lulu is almost unique in modern art — neither a demonized icon of male fear nor an idealized icon of female ambition. She doesn’t want what men have — she wants men to recover what they once had.  She wants partners.  Finding none, abandoning hope, she resigns herself to oblivion, but not before accepting, graciously, Jack’s grotesque and pathetic tribute to what has been lost.

HEY, TURISTA!

In the late 60s, just before or just after I dropped out of Stanford, a couple of friends and I decided it would be cool to drive down the entire length of the Baja peninsula to Cabo San Lucas.  Cabo San Lucas wasn’t an international tourist destination back then, it was just a romantic name and point on the map — getting there seemed to promise high adventure.

We set off from the Bay Area in a banged-up but serviceable car one of my friends owned, camped out on a beach the first night somewhere between there and San Diego and crossed the border at Tijuana.  We didn’t pause in Tijuana but headed straight for Ensenada because we’d heard there was a good beach there.

There was — we spent an entire day hanging out on it.  The wind off the Pacific was fierce and disguised the fierceness of the sun.  We were all horribly and painfully sunburned at the end of the excursion and so headed into the grubby little town of Ensenada for some
anesthetic treatment — cervezas, to be precise.


We quickly drank enough to take our minds off the sunburn — and apparently I drank even more than that.  I’m told I had to be dragged back to the cheap motel room we’d rented because I  kept accosting anyone who looked like an American and screaming “Hey, turista!” at them.  I don’t remember this.

I do remember the motel room.  We could only afford to rent one room and it had only two single beds in it, so one of us had to sleep on the floor.  We flipped a coin and I lost.  The hard linoleum of the floor instantly sobered me up, because there was no way to lie on it without reminding me of the sunburn — each new position shifted the searing pain to a new part of my body.  It was a long night.

In those days the road to Cabo was not paved below Ensenada, but we assumed it would be a decent dirt highway.  It wasn’t.  At a gas station we asked a friendly local if it got any better further south.  He said it didn’t, but didn’t get any worse, either.  He did strongly advise us not to travel at night.  “Why?” we asked.  “Because of the bandits,” he replied, matter-of-factly, as though “the bandits” were a well-known hazard of travel in Baja California.

As it turned out, the road was a greater hazard.  Less than halfway to Cabo we realized that the car’s shocks would never survive several hundred more miles on such a bad surface.  We were losing heart.

We decided to camp for the night on a beach and take stock of the situation.  It was a beautiful beach, and utterly, absolutely deserted — one could look for miles it seemed in either direction and see no other living soul.  This was surreal but exciting, the stuff of romance.  We woke in our sleeping bags at dawn the next day to low growling sounds moving closer and closer to us.  They came from a large pack of wild dogs scavenging along the beach.  They may have just been looking for food but they also had the air of creatures looking for trouble.

We hurried into the car and started north again.  Things had simply gotten too romantic, and the idea of bandits didn’t seem so improbable anymore in the midst of such vast and awesome desolation.

There’s an o. k. paved road all the way down to Cabo now.  Ordinary Americans travel it every day unmolested by bandits.  Ensenada has become a trendy resort town, and Cabo is an outpost of high luxury.

Probably some of the wildness I remember is still there in Baja California, off the beaten track.  I’m going back to look for it, anyway.

If our paths should happen to cross at a remote seaside cantina some night, just raise your glass and scream, “Hey, turista!”

WATTEAU

The most erotic oil painting I ever saw — the only one that ever made me . . . tense (as my friend Kevin Jarre used to put it) — was by Jean-Antoine Watteau, the 18th-Century French painter. It was a small, uncelebrated work in a big show of Watteau’s paintings at the National Gallery in Washington in the 80s. It showed a half-clad women sitting on the edge of a bed, seen from behind. Its focus was on the line of her neck and back — the luminosity of her flesh drew one into the space of the painting as one might be drawn towards touching the woman.

Watteau was the poet of women’s backs and necks — of the half-clad female form. In his portraits of women it is always the inclination of the body which suggests a sexual, an erotic mood. What’s startling about his women is that they do not seem to be posing for men, but responding to inner passions — in a manner that is vexing but never teasing. Watteau’s whole world is invested with this delicate current of inward pleasure, of the small gestures, even in social gatherings, which resonate with sensuality, with foreshadowings of physical abandon.

There is no repression in this — just a kind of delicate, subtle foreplay. It has the aura of an exquisite, complicated game. It is theater — both preposterous and sublime. Watteau was interested in the theater, as well as in civilized flirtation, and seemed to see a link between them — but there is a great sadness in his theatrical paintings. His Italian Comedy players, his Pierrots and Harlequins, have a goofy kind of despair — tragic eyes. In this his vision achieves its grandeur and gravity — as he concedes that the sweetest things of life, than which there is nothing sweeter than the line of a woman’s throat, are mortal, will fade, will die, as passion expends itself in satisfaction.

What arouses one about Watteau’s portraits of women is what makes one grieve over them — what makes one see oneself in his bewildered stage lovers and suitors. He is a profound artist, sweet and thrilling and mournful all at once.


AN ELEGY FOR OYSTERS

. . . by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney:

Alive and violated
They lay on their beds of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean.
Millions of them ripped and shucked
and scattered.

We are eating oysters again, and will be until April, the last month with an r in it until next September . . . but we must remember that each of their alien, unfathomable lives is precious, not to be taken lightly.

THE TAKING OF CHRIST


Look at this image.  Just look at it.


It was painted, in 1602, by Caravaggio — at least, that’s the current
wisdom.  It was long thought to be a copy of a lost Caravaggio original
made by a follower or pupil, but in the 90s an art historian made a
convincing case for the attribution to the master himself.


Formally, it’s a dazzling work.  The figures occupy a shallow space but
the picture still produces a strong impression of depth because of the
stereometric modelling of the light, the way the figures block and seem
to jostle each other even in the confined space and the way the centurion’s armor
jumps out at us like a physical assault.  It has, finally, the plastic quality of a relief sculpture.


Caravaggio has placed himself among the dramatis personae here, as the
bearded figure on the right holding the lantern.  This reinforces a
sense of the immediacy of the dramatic situation depicted, as
though it were an incident the artist himself witnessed and recorded
faithfully out of some urgent compulsion.


I personally would trade almost all the painting done in the 20th Century for this one work.  Wouldn’t you?