Sunday, February 22, 2009

Where Sheep Eat Wolves (on Andrezej Wajda's Young Girls of Wilko)

Zbigniew Kaminski (writer), based on a story by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Andrzej Wajda (director) Panny z Wilka (Young Girls of Wilko) / 1979

Wiktor Ruben, who manages a farm connected to a school for blind girls, has just lost his "friend," Jurek. Standing over the gravesite of a man whom Wiktor describes as "ordinary" (but whom the priest later reveals as a poet), he falls to the ground, temporarily fainting. The doctor suggests Wiktor take a few weeks off, returning to a popular summer spot where he has, before the war, regularly visited, and where Wiktor's aunt and uncle have a farm.

Wiktor arrives at the neighboring farm, Wilko, a peacock running ahead of him which he seems to be prodding with a horse crop. Indeed, what he discovers at Wilko needs all the control of a man's pride that is possible, for inside the house sit five sisters, Julcia, Jola, Zosia, Kazia, and Tunia, four of whom he has known—along with another sister Fela—from his childhood visits to this spot. The women have all grown a bit older, and what one can imagine as their lithe, youthful bodies have rounded out a little, but they are all still quite glorious beings, the first four now married with children. They are astounded to see Wiktor after a fifteen-year absence, but it is obvious that they are also delighted by his return; he is still fit and handsome, and they, it quickly becomes apparent, were, at one time, all in love with him.

"Where is Fela?" Wiktor wonders. She is dead, and slowly it dawns on the viewer, that her death has been connected to his departure so many years ago.

Wajda's quiet and sumptuously beautiful film appears, accordingly, to be headed in the direction of a meditation on past and present, focusing on these beautiful women, none of whom, apparently, won his heart. Tunia, not of age on Wiktor's previous visits, is now solicitous of his love. Certainly his aunt and uncle encourage him in that direction, but as his aunt mentions, divorce is always a possibility in the Wilko house; for the women of Wilko are all unhappy in their marriages, particularly the eldest, Julcia, whose husband now penuriously controls the estate. While it is clear that she was once beautiful, in her hairstyle and dress she now looks quite maidenly, having long ago retreated into her intellect—and kitchen, where she cans hundreds of jars of jellies.

Accordingly, while Tunia, who fondly reminds Wiktor of the dead Fela, devotedly watches over his comings and goings, each of the daughters attempts to rekindle her past love and perhaps win him over to her cause. Clearly Wiktor is attracted to and amused by all these appealing—and sometimes not-so-appealing—specimens of flesh. And Jola, specifically, seems quite ready to fall into bed with him. Yet, as Dan Schneider has noted in an online review of the work in 2007, instead of greeting these attentions with joy, Wiktor (played by Daniel Olbrychski) "deftly conveys the sense that the character is not in conscious control of his reactions, with seemingly involuntary twitches and facial expressions" that, I would further argue, reveal his discomfort in the various situations. Asked why he never chose any of them for marriage, he admits he was a "coward."
That has, in turn, led many critics to see the film as a portrait of a failed man, a man unable to accept the joys of life; Wiktor seems more comfortable, as he mentions earlier in the film, working; life's pleasures seem as allusive now as they evidently were in his youth.

As Schneider also astutely points out, however, the "lambs" of Wilko—who seem so willingly led to sexual slaughter—live in a world, as one of the sisters describes it, where "wolves are eaten by the sheep." If the sisters work as a kind of sexual unit, they also cleverly manipulate the men around them, and as each secretly vies for Wiktor's love, they employ everything from military-like maneuvers to various kinds of passive aggression.

In Wiktor, however, unlike their equally unhappy husbands, these "maidens" have met their match. Despite all their ploys and gestures, their suicidal threats, he remains aloof, as if, he suggests, he were "a strange soul from another planet." Accordingly, the past repeats itself, as Wiktor once more leaves these lovely "girls" of Wilko in the lurch in order to return to a world of the blind.

Perhaps Kaminski and Wadja were attempting to create just such a shadowy figure, a man trapped in his own indecision, a being unable to truly engage in love. But I believe, if one carefully focuses on the earliest scenes of this film, it becomes quite apparent why Wiktor has chosen none of these manipulative women for his wife.

The only truly emotional response he demonstrates in this work, one must remember, is his collapse at the grave of his friend, Jurek, the man he describes, not simply as his best, but his only friend. Without pinning Wadja's subtle film to one reading, I would venture to suggest that Wiktor is gay*, and that the cowardice to which he admits, is not his inability to fall in love with one of the Wilko women, but his refusal to admit his love of men. He is, indeed, from another planet, a world outside of the orbit of these provincial beauties. His world is not so much a world of the blind—even though he is surrounded by the blind—but of the hidden, faced as he is by an unnamable love, now forever lost.

Los Angeles, Valentine's Day, 2009

*I should note that nothing in Iwaszkiewicz's original story, nor in Kaminski's script, for that matter, says anything specific about Wiktor's sexuality. Jurek is simply described as his "only close friend." The key passage in Iwaszkiewicz's story begins with Wiktor telling the local doctor of his relationship with Jurek: "He couldn't sleep at night, he felt very nervous and he couldn't work at all. And he couldn't stop thinking about his friend who had died of consumption two months earlier. He told his story casually, but he couldn't talk about Jurek without emotion. Jurek was the only close friend he ever had. He was a seminarist, the nephew of the camp's Mother Superior, not an unusual person, but Christian, quiet and good."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Vigorous Medley of Voices (on a celebratory reading for Poems from the Millennium, Volume 3 at Beyond Baroque)

Jeffrey C. Robinson and Jerome Rothenberg (photo by Gail Matlin)

David Matlin (photo by Gail Matlin)

Douglas Messerli and Jerome Rothenberg (photo by Gail Matlin)

Reading in celebration of Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic & PostRomantic Poetry, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) / Los Angeles, Beyond Baroque Foundation, February 13, 2009

On Friday, February 13, 2009, Beyond Baroque celebrated the publication of Jerome Rothenberg's and Jeffrey C. Robinson's new anthology, Poems for the Millennium, the third volume in Rothenberg's (the other two co-edited by Pierre Joris) encyclopedic presentation of international poetry, this volume devoted primarily to 19th Century writing.

It was a cold, rainy night, and, accordingly, the audience was small, but despite the underheated room at Beyond Baroque, there was a warm feeling among those attending.

The evening began with Jerry and Jeffrey sharing the stage to quote from a few individuals about the effect of Romanticism on the 20th and 21st century writing, including remarks by Breton, Paz, Duncan, and Lyn Hejinian, the latter who wrote:

If in the 19th century, as Gertrude Stein said, people saw parts
and tried to assemble them into wholes, while in the 20th century
people envisioned wholes and then sought parts appropriate to
them, will the 21st Century carry out a dissemination of wholes
into all parts and thus finish what the 19th century began?

Los Angeles poet Will Alexander followed, reading from Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, a work which he described, in what seemed as surprising to me, as having been a sort of lodestar to his own writing. Jerry and Jeffrey again read short passages from Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth, including the last paragraph of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, relevant since that book's 150th anniversary was being celebrated this week, as well as Darwin's 200th birthday. The last paragraph of that book is itself revelatory:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted
object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of
higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its
several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that
into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law
of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonder-
ful have been, and are being, evolved.

San Diego fiction writer and essayist David Matlin followed, presenting a powerful reading of Melville's "A Squeeze of the Hand," the highly sexual immersion of hands in whale sperm from Moby Dick. He also sang, a cappella, from the anonymous Russian "Song of the Bald Mountain Witches & Magic Nymphs":

Nich, nich, pasalam, bada.
Eschochomo, lawassa, schibboda.

I had chosen to read the nearly impossible-to-perform ode to "The Wall Street Inferno" by Brazilian poet Sousândrade. I recounted how, when I visited Haraldo de Campos in Brazil in the late 1990s, he had immediately put this work into my hand, declaring that I must publish it! How delightful, I reacted, that we now have a section of this work available in English. Jerry read the stage-directions, while—in a vigorous medley of voices, if nothing else—I performed the various cries, lectures, sermons and other proclamations of the poem's cast of thousands:

(XEQUES appearing, laughing and disguised as Railroad-managers,
Stockjobbers, Pimpbrokers, etc., etc., ballyhooing:)

—Harlem! Erie: Central! Pennsylvania!
= Million! hundred million!! ten digits!!!
—Young is Grant! Jackson,
Vanderbilts, Jay Goulds are midgets!

As Jerry mentioned later, he felt that this was one of the craziest poems in the entire 930-page volume! I also read a much quieter prose-poem by one of my favorite philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard, a man who presented himself more as a poet than a religious thinker.

Jeffrey read a small selection of Romantic writers, followed by Jerry reading from several pieces, including his translation of the Polish writer Cyprian Norwid's "Chopin's Piano":

And—now—ended the song—And I
No longer can see you—only—can hear
Hearing what?—like when boys baffle boys—
—The keys still resisting
The source of their yearnings unsung
They softly push back on their own
By eighths—then by fifths—
And murmuring: "He—has started to play?
Or uncaring—cast us aside?"

Performance artist Simone Forti read another rendition of that last paragraph of Darwin's The Origin, "The Telegraph Harp," excepts from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and a couple of poems by the early 19th century Vietnamese woman poet Hô Xuân Huong:

Screw the fate that makes you share a man.
One cuddles under cotton blankets; the other's cold.
You try to stick to it like a fly on rice
but the rice is rotten. You slave like the maid,

but without pay. If I had known how it would go
I think I would have lived alone.

Jerry closed this joyful series of readings with Edward Lear's charming satire of himself, "How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear":

He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish;
He cannot abide ginger-beer.—
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,—
"how pleasant to know Mr. Lear!"

How pleasant to get to know this grand anthology. Similar readings have already taken place in San Francisco (with Michael McClure, Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, and Jack and Adele Foley) and San Diego (with Matlin, David and Eleanor Antin, and Michael Davidson), and I the Rothenberg-Robinson team will take this poetic circus, performed by other casts, on the road. Jerome mentions that he and Jeffrey will be reading soon in New York, at Harvard, and the University Pennsylvania.

Los Angeles, February 15, 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

From a Crawl into Flight (Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delights)

Garden of Earthly Delights, conceived, directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke, music by Richard Peaslee / Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City / the performance I saw was a matinee on January 17, 2009

Hieronymus Bosch's sixteenth century triptych of paradise, earthly delights, and hell is the source of Martha Clarke's dance performance first presented in New York in 1984 and revived in 1987 at the same theater in which I saw it this year, at the high-ceilinged Minetta Lane Theatre.

Clarke's work however is only tangentially related to the Bosch painting, since its rich reds, greens, and blues are replaced in the performance with various shades of white and brown; only the sheer body stockings worn by the dancers, lending it a pinkish-like glow.

And while Bosch presents us with three versions of what delight might signify: the paradisiacal serenity before the fall, the lusty play and abuse of the earthly world, and the dark and sadistic tortures of Hell, Clarke's work is more clearly inspired by a Puritan-like vision of reality, as she explores, through body and motion, mankind's transformation from animal being to gluttony, greed, lust, torture, war, and death.

One of the most lovely moments in a hour of many wondrous scenes occurs at the very beginning of the work, as the eleven dancers gracefully move forward on fingers and toes, a species not yet fully able or willing to stand erect. Yet soon, bearing branches in ritualistic gestures they come together as humans, in pairs and in small groupings, that predicts the inevitable fall from grace, Eve biting the apple and Adam both as the snake sensuously writhes between them.

From the beginning of this revelation of flesh, I wished that Clarke had allowed her dancers to perform naked instead of being ensconced in the sickly flesh-colored body stockings that wipe out all but the general shapes of their handsome bodies. I say this out of no prurient interests—dozens of Broadway musicals and plays these days feature nudity—but am simply suggesting that the appearance of dancers such as Sophie Bortolussi, Daniel Clifton, General McArthur Hambrick, and Whitney A. Hunter seems an occasion to truly witness the delights of human flesh.

In the second "triptych," the revelers have truly found "society," and are now dressed in Medieval peasant garb, one festooned in a codpiece. Accordingly it is the earthly garden itself where Clarke most clearly explores both the pleasures and abuses of human sexuality. Here too she represents the "potato eaters," as a man seemingly swallows dozens of potatoes before vomiting up his dinner.

Some figures gracefully dance while others begin to copulate. Priests (played by the musicians of Richard Peaslee's haunting score) attempt to control the various disruptions, including a few individuals who have suddenly gone aerial, flying in and out of the stage frame through pulleys and ropes. However, their attempt at order ultimately results in even greater torture—represented as the Inquisition—of these free-spirited souls, eventually chaos breaking out.
In the final hellish spectacle almost all dancers—again sporty bodytights—take to the ropes, spinning almost out of control over the audience, tumbling head over heels high above us, who have become almost voyeurs of the human hell to which we are witness. It is terrifying—and liberating.

By the work's end, we realize what miserable beasts our species has turned out to be, how spirituality and ritual have been converted into warfare and other acts of hate. As the audience turned to go, a woman in front of me commented: "Not a very encouraging portrait of our kind, is it?"

Perhaps not. But what other earthly creature could take their bodies from a virtual crawl into flight?

Los Angeles, February 5, 2009

Friday, February 6, 2009

Out of the Rain (Judith Hoffberg Dies)

In the Los Angeles Times obituaries of January 28, I read of the death, on January 16, of collector, curator, and publisher Judith Hoffberg. She died, at the age of 74 of lymphoma.

I was startled by the news since we had seen her quite recently at a party
in the home of an art collector in Malibu, and I had talked to her briefly about my recently having had cancer. She made no mention of her own disease.

I can't remember when I first met Judith. It seems like Howard and I have known her forever, certainly as far back as Washington, D.C. In some ways she reminded me an aunt who was never introduced, but had known you all your life.

Hoffberg had been a major force in collecting and exhibiting the seemingly ephemeral work of the art world: artist's books, mail art, and hundreds of other objects produced by artists that did not quite fit into the standard notion of art.

Since Howard had shown early on work by Eleanor Antin and others who dominated the field of art mail and artist's books (and I published Eleanor's Eleanora Antinova's Plays on Sun & Moon Press and part of her "Recollections of My Life with Diagaliev" in my Sun & Moon journal, and had planned to publish her art mail masterwork 100 Boots) Judith appeared at numerous events we attended. Indeed, over the years, she appeared to be everywhere, expressing her joy of participating in the art scene while collecting essays and other information for her long-lived magazine, Umbrella.

People clearly loved Judith, inviting her to casual Sunday brunches, openings, special dinners, etc.. and Judith reciprocated by joyfully flashing her open smile while gossiping about recent events and the people involved.

That she also found time to work as at art librarian at various universities (Johns Hopkins University, The University of Pennsylvania, University of California, San Diego) and institutions (the Bologna Center in Italy and the Library of Congress) as well as curating shows such as "Freedom: The International Mail Art Exhibition," is a testament to her energy and love of the artistic life—which meant, for her, nearly anything the artist touched.

Los Angeles, February 6, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Alone with God (on Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion Jeanne d'Arc)

Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer (writers), Carl Theodor Dreyer (director) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) / 1928

In some ways the story of this great film, the trials of the saintly Joan of Arc, is similar to the story of the film itself. When Dreyer’s work was first released in France, the Archbishop of Paris demanded changes, and the film was severely truncated; when the movie failed at the box office in the early 1930s, moreover, it was released in a version with 20 minutes deleted. Even worse, the original negative was burned in a fire in Germany, and the French negative was also believed to have been destroyed in the studio where it was housed. Accordingly, few viewers knew the film in its entirety until a print of the original cut was found in a janitor’s closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in 1981. That print was restored and rereleased in 2003. As Gary Morris summarizes in the on-line Bright Lights Journal , “Like Joan, it [the film] was ‘denounced, cut, and burned,’…a story...that in its way is as fascinating as the film itself.”

Dreyer hired his brilliant actors from May to November of 1927, insisting that they remain in their roles for that period of time, even to the point of keeping their hair cut. But it is clear that Dreyer also had chosen his cast members for their fascinating faces (one is reminded throughout the film of Nora Desmond’s declaration in Sunset Boulevard that the actors of the silent films “had faces!”). Through his constant intercutting of images, dramatic positioning of characters in relation to each other, and the insistent and often discomforting tilt of the camera, the director confronts the pure, rounded face of Joan (brilliantly played by Maria Falconetti) with men who appear to be less human beings than tortoises and toads out of paintings by Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel. The guards anachronistically appear like Prussian soldiers, and the chorus of British torturers seem out of later comedies of The Three Stooges.

Throughout the series of trick questions, mockery, and terrors with which she is faced, Falconetti (in her only film role of her life) plays Joan as an innocent, gullible, and yet religiously committed child of nineteen who, while clearly fearing all about her, speaks out in pure defiance against the clergy’s demands. Insisting to know whether she sees herself as in a “state of grace” in the hope that she may reveal a heretical view of herself in relation to God, the judges are stymied by her utterly innocent answer, which also reiterates her understandable dissociation of self:

If I am, may God keep me there!
If I am not, may God grant it to me!

In Dreyer’s vision of Joan’s world, nearly all is centered upon gender: it is a patriarchal and all-male world she must face and the very declaration that she, as a woman, has had communion with God who has commanded her to become a warrior in battle for France, determines her damnation. It is fascinating, accordingly, to observe in Dreyer’s version that when Joan asks for communion, the judges choose gender as her test; she can participate in the mass only if she ceases to dress as a man! Her refusal only reinforces their misogyny: her very clothes, they declare, are abominable to God! “The arrogance of the woman is insane!” The shearing of her hair is their last assault against her female identity, as they transform her into an image of themselves upon whom they might lay their hands.

The terrifying scene of torture, however, shows no touch of human flesh, but is represented entirely in mechanistic images, a near perpetual spin of triangular-shaped devices, like a series of tiny Judas Cradles that presumably will be applied to her flesh.

By condensing Joan’s several meetings with clergy into one session and dividing the film basically into five parts—her trial, her test and mockery, her torture, her admission and recantation, and her burning—Dreyer creates an alternating pattern between encounters of the mind and the body, which he reiterates time and again in his thousands of friezes of either Joan in shifting positions with other men or Joan suffering alone, generally with the camera face-on. It is the latter, obviously, which becomes her fate, as she burns in the lonely torment of the fire. But even in that loneliness—an isolation that is simultaneously painful and beautiful to behold—Joan recognizes the inevitability of the patriarchal world in which she exists: her hope, after all, is to be “alone with God.”

Los Angeles, October 18, 2008