Friday, May 22, 2009

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The First Tale (The Mad Woman Across the Street)

As a child I lived in a small Iowa town, population 400, named Newhall, in honor—evidently—of its largest structure. My father began his career there as the basketball coach, was quickly promoted to the principal of the school, and within a year or two of our arrival, became the Superintendent of Schools.

In small towns everyone is strange, since everyone knows everyone so well but not, evidently, enough. It’s that space between knowing and not knowing which is at the heart of events in such towns. And there are so many events, ultimately, that you realize very quickly that not knowing people is what knowing people is all about. Living in a town where you know nearly everyone around you, you quickly comprehend that no one can ever be known very well. So confusion sets in, and in that confusion you try to explain to yourself what is the difference between knowing someone and not. Perhaps you can fill that gap between not knowing and wanting to with what you imagine is really there to be known. And that is at the heart of gossip, at first a friendly act and, later—when the not knowing persists—an act of malice for not being able to know about one so close. This is always how love and desire quickly turn into fear and hate.

The lady across the street was a very nice woman, an elderly woman living in what seemed to my childish eyes a mansion—in reality just a two-storey house. When my parents needed a babysitter on those two or three nights a year they determined to celebrate the fact that they were a married couple still in love, it was she to whom they turned. And it was Mrs. Heffner to whom we awoke, accordingly, when my mother—so our sitter proclaimed—had gone to the hospital to pick up my new baby sister. I knew better, that my mother had gone to “have” my sister—even if I didn’t know what “having” meant—so I kept quiet about the old woman’s mistake. Besides my brother was too young to know anything!

In all the years we knew her, my parents expressed an opinion of her life only twice. The first time was the morning her brother, with whom she lived, came out of the house and sat under the tree in the front yard on a Sunday morning dressed only in his pajamas. He often sat upon her porch, gently rocking in the swing, so I found nothing at all out of the ordinary in his pleasure. I knew, however, that, had I attempted to find such enjoyment in our front yard, my parents would have made me dress for the occasion. “Why doesn’t she do something about him?” my mother asked of no one in particular.

Occasionally Mrs. Heffner was visited by her sister, but nothing was ever said about this sibling, even though she was far stranger, to my way of thinking, than Mrs. Heffner’s brother. One time when I was playing about the “mansion,” Mrs. Heffner invited me in for lemonade. The moment I took a sip, her sister began to shout: “Where’s that damn bread man? Why hasn’t he come? Where has he gotten to, I wonder? That lazy ass.”

I had never heard anyone swear at a bread man; I had never heard anyone swear. Just as importantly, I had never seen a bread man and never known one to visit our town. What was a bread man? I wondered. Upon my asking my parents, they explained that a bread man was a man who used to deliver bread. “But nowadays we buy bread in the grocery store,” my mother consolingly spoke. “Mrs. Heffner’s sister is a not a well woman,” she added. “She lives in an institution.”

“Oh,” I responded. For I knew what that meant. My grandfather’s daughter by his first marriage had lived in an institution too.

“They should send her brother there as well,” my father chimed in.

“Poor Mrs. Heffner,” my mother ended their talk.

As I have reported, Mrs. Heffner herself was very nice, so different from the man next door to her, who often shouted at us children when we passed his place and one time killed a giant black snake, the body of which he displayed for weeks in his front yard. No one would go near his house.

Indeed, “nice-ness” is an important commodity in small towns, as it stands for everything from “minding your own business” to being kind and generous to your neighbors, the second representing the behavior of the Gertsons, the childless couple next door to our house.

One day they told me they were planning to mix some cement, so I should come by and play in the sand before they used it up.

A few days previous I had been so bored I had complained to my mother, who, as she hung clothes upon the back yard line, suggested that I begin collecting shells. Collecting shells! How ridiculous, I thought to myself. “Where would I get shells!” I wailed to my mother. Suddenly she bent down and brought up a small snail shell, one of the most beautiful shells I have to this day seen in my life! “Here,” she said. “Your first shell.” I have never received a greater gift.

In the sand beside the Gertson’s garage I found numerous shells, marvelous seashells: a Strombus Sinuatus, a White Spindle, a Perry’s Triton, a Rams Murex. What were they doing there? This sand must be from the sea, I responded upon the incredible discovery. “No, just from a river bank,” Mr. Gertson said. When I showed Mrs. Gertson all the shells I had uncovered, she pinched herself in disbelief.

To this day, I still can’t fathom the extraordinary kindness of these neighbors, who obviously had brought in sand and filled it with the imported treasures just for my delight. I kept this sacred collection, along with others sent to me by my uncle in California, in a box that one day simply disappeared, never to be seen again. I used to suspect my brother was behind its disappearance; knowing him as I do today, I cannot imagine his involvement, unless he gave the shells as a surrogate gift—like the Gertsons had given me—to his younger friends.

The Gertsons were the first people in town to buy a television set, and invited my brother and me to witness its inauguration. After Mr. Gertson fiddled for what seemed like forever with the rabbit ears, they plugged the huge behemoth into the wall, and an image magically appeared: it was Liberace! How awful, I remember feeling, television was. Even then I recognized that his great displays of piano bravura were the ultimate of kitsch—even if I didn’t have a word for it.

The first day of school was a snowy one. Winter bore down hard upon this small Iowa village in September that year. I didn’t want to go to school—two long blocks away from our house—but my mother literally pushed me out the door. I went and turned back. “The wind blew me home,” I announced.

“You go on now,” she laughed. Evidently she called my father to report my obstinateness; the man was understandably irritated by her call—having spent his entire morning attempting to reassign buses stuck in the snow drifts along the backcountry roads. That day must have been behind my parents’ determination that I would never miss a day of class.

Indeed, for most of my life lived in the confines of educational institutions, I was a near-perfect student. I liked school well enough, save that the teachers, who—given the fact that father had employed them—went out of their way to make sure that I was treated just like everyone else. They never called on me when I raised my hand. When in music hour each week one student was selected to sing a special chorus, I was overlooked. For grades I received B’s only, never a coveted A. Their fairness outraged my inborn sense of justice.

I hated recess, for then the school bully controlled my life. Jimmy Good pushed and pulled, spouting every mean thing his little mind conjured up until I was nearly in tears. Children, it is clear, do not have a sense of irony, for no one ever thought his last name inappropriate. I tried to ignore him, but everywhere I turned on the playground there he was to threaten my existence. Often times, I just hid near the door. But even there I wasn’t entirely safe. One or another teacher was always attempting to push me back into the other children’s games.

News spreads quickly in small towns; no need for newspapers or television sets. The news that day was awful: Jimmy Good had been hit by a car downtown, three blocks from our house. The reporter of this news must have been quite graphic, for, although I did not witness the event, I can remember to this moment the image of Jimmy sprawled upon the street, a box of broken eggs beside him, where they had spilled from his grocery sack.

Now it was safe to go out to play. But by that time I had learned to live inside my imagination and was awkward in group games. I was almost relieved when Jimmy came hobbling back. Besides, I was no longer afraid. And Jimmy, as everybody knew, had now learned what fear felt like. I began my long retreat from the world where everybody knew or wanted to know everything about everyone into a world where no one could know anything about anyone—a retreat into my head, where for ten years or more I hid out.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2003

Monday, May 18, 2009

Roman Fantasies (on the art show Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples at LACMA)

Photographs by Douglas Messerli

Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples, on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from May 3-October 4, 2009 / I saw the show at the press preview of April 29, 2009

Given my Ischian isolation, my busy schedule, and the misgivings we all had that summer about Naples, I did not have the opportunity to visit the highly recommended National Archeological Museum of Naples and other major museums in Pompeii and the coastal villas. How wonderful, accordingly, that many of the treasures of those locations showed up this year—the year I had determined to publish my experiences in Ischia, Pompeii, Naples, and the Compania region—at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, across the street from my both our condominium and my office.

Unlike the previous show of some years earlier, which focused on Pompeii, this was centered on the Roman Villas around Naples and the neighboring cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae (now Castellamare di Stabia), Surrentum (Sorrento), Capreae (Capri), Pausilypon (Posillipo), and Puteoli (Pozzuoli)—where, as I describe above, my journey to Ischia began.

Selecting from the villas of the wealthy Romans, particularly the ruling families of the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples, represents powerful sculptures, frescoes, interiors, courtyards and gardens, as well as more modern representations of the great volcanic eruption of Vesuvius that ended this region's cultural dominance.

The model for these wealthy patrons was clearly Greek, and many of the subjects and references of their art were to Greek figures of history, such as the beautiful sculpture of Homer of the 1st century, borrowed from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Similarly, Plato's Academy, a mosaic from the Pompeian Villa of T. Siminnius Stephanus, and the marble Panel with a Dionysiac procession from Herculaneum, both also of the 1st century, attest to the Romans' commitment to Greek figures and themes.
Yet, it is through the detailed sculptures of the family members themselves that we come to recognize just how different these Greek-inspired works came to be in the Roman artists' depictions. The beautiful Aphrodite/Venus, discovered in Puteoli (Pozzouli), with its voluminous folds of dress and densely curled hair topping the head, and the striking head of the dreaded emperor Gaius (Caligula), also from Pozzouli, make clear that while the models for these works may have been from the Hellenic culture, the Roman artists themselves found new expression in their renderings.

Perhaps some of the most spectacular work in this show is the recreation of a Garden, including a magnificent fresco, Garden Scene, from Pompeii, House of the Golden Bracelet. At once the viewer feels as if he has entered the garden itself, and is awed by the theatrical-like settings.

A couple of the pieces, particularly the black basanite sculpture of Livia (from the Paris Louvre museum) seem almost art deco in their modernity. The small paintings and frescoes of these villas themselves are worth the ticket of admission.

It is little wonder that when the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum were begun in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the whole world became fascinated and enchanted by the vast numbers of antiquities unearthed, creating a whole new round of expressions of the cities and villas caught in the unfortunate drama of nature.

None of these, of course, can compare with the ancient art discovered in Naples and the surrounding region, but their dramatic expression of that violent end to these great cities and villas, such as Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes' 1813 canvas Eruption of Vesuvius, continues to awe us still today, creating myths larger than those even of the Italian citizens, great storytellers though they be, who continue to endure life in this region.

It is clear, after seeing this show and reading Shirley Hazzard's apologia for Naples (The Ancient Shore, a review to follow) that I shall have to return to the city, if for no other reason than to pay homage to such a splendorous past.

Los Angeles, May 17, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A House at Sea (on Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes)

At the end of this essay is a short video clip from the film.

Kōbō Abe (screenplay, based on his novel), Hiroshi Teshigahara (director) Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes) /1964

The death of Hiroshi Teshigahara on April 14th of this year, led me to review the film, which I last saw, I believe, while in college. I remembered little of the film, and was delighted to rediscover/discover this masterpiece.

Although critics of the sixties (and some today) make a great deal of Abe's existentialist concerns, I think today the film points us less to its philosophical (and thematic) concerns, while revealing its closer relationship to the Absurdists of the 1950s and early 1960s such as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. While clearly having a relationship with Sartre's and Camus' ideas, the film has less to do with moral action than it does with indeterminate purposelessness, and its metaphors continually point to the absurdity of the major characters' situations.

Like many of the film's beautiful images, the plot is nearly an abstraction and can be easily summarized: an entomologist, Niki Jumpei, visits an isolated island consisting mainly of sand dunes, home to the beetle he is researching. He plans three days on this desolate island, returning to civilization each afternoon by bus. When he misses the bus, some local villagers, actually wily town elders, suggest that he stay in a local house. The houses, however, all appear to me located in deep ravines of stand, with access only through rope ladders.

Niki, a true innocent, descends to the house assigned to him, and enjoys a pleasant meal, despite the continuing intrusion of sand, with the woman living there, a widow whose husband and daughter and been buried in a sand storm.

At first, the widow seems highly uneducated, explaining the her house is also subject to rot because of the moisture in the sand, and idea to which the scientist, Niki, ridicules: we all know sand is dry. Other such sentiments have led some critics to describe her as ignorant, but we later learn that she is far wiser than her "guest."

The widow spends the night, oddly to Niki's way of thought, digging out the sand from around her ramshackle house, depositing it in containers which the locals hoist up and spirit away (for illegal use, we later learn, in construction; sand with such a heavy salt content is no good in making concrete). She explains that it's easier to work at night, and the sand must be taken away if her and her neighbor's houses are to survive. Despite the continual rain of the fine grains of sand, Niki eventually falls to sleep, awakening to observe his now-naked host lying upon her futon.

Dressing, Niki arranges his knapsack and bugs, preparing to leave; but when he seeks out the ladder, he discovers it has been pulled up. Desperately, he tries to climb the walls of sand on either side of the house, producing merely small avalanches of more sand that results in him falling back to where he has started from.

Querying his host, the terrified Niki demands an explanation for what she answers "he already knows." He has been duped by the locals, and is now trapped like an animal in this hell of a sand pit. The island gets few visitors, and like others before him, he has been "kidnapped" to help in the village's activities.

The rest of the film is a study in Niki's reactions, as, at first remaining determined to escape, he refuses to help shovel the sand, later turning to violence, gagging and typing up the woman. When he finally takes the towel from her mouth, she explains that the drink and food they have are rationed, and they will not deliver any new water until he begins to work.

As the two endure the never-ending rain of sand in their horrific thirst, Niki finally surrenders, and water is delivered. In a beautifully filmed scene of high eroticism, the two carefully brush and wash the sand from each other's bodies, the woman—who obviously has been starving for the touch of a human hand—gasping in the simple pleasure of the act.

Niki later binds together enough rope to temporarily escape, but when he attempts to outrun the local posse, he falls into quicksand; they dig him out only to return him to his internment. Pleading for just a hour each day at the ocean, Niki is hopeful that the local leaders may decide in his favor. They will grant him his wish, they report, only if he performs sex with the "woman" while the entire village looks on. evidently their only form of entertainment. In a violent scene in which he attempts to force her to join him in the act, Niki loses out to the woman who is determined to keep her moral ground.

Niki, it is apparent, must come to terms with the absurd conditions of his existence. At one point, he asks the obvious existential question: "Do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?" Yet a far more important interchange reveals the miraculous salvation of their lives; referring to the endless sand about them, the man observes: "It's like building a house in the water when ships exist. Why insist on a house?" The wiser woman provides the simplest of answers in such an absurd world: "You want to go home too."

The home Teshigahara builds for the film viewer is an ever shifting reality that is simultaneously both breathtakingly beautiful and horrific. For this couple not only must live in a world in which no values are permanent, but endure a ever changing landscape that reminds them every moment of their own mortality. Whereas, at the beginning of the movie, Niki checks his watch often, by the end of the film his new Eve reports that she has no idea of the time.

What ultimately comes to matter most is the relationship forged between the two. When the woman becomes pregnant and the villagers are forced to lower a ladder to take her away, they forget to pull it up, and Niki cautiously follows them into a possible escape.

Yet in the next scene we see him against the house in the pit of sand. He cannot leave her. Besides he has made a new discovery: he has found a way to draw water out of sand just as she has maintained a house on a sea of sand. The absurd has been transformed into reality.

Los Angeles, May 4, 2001