Archive for July, 2011

“Me, Molly Midnight, the Artist’s Cat” by Nadja Maril, illustrated by Herman Maril

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

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Like a heroine in a classic English novel who rises from lowly station to final prosperity, Molly Midnight, the feline star of Nadja Maril’s children’s book (published in 1977 and still in print), uses her wits and wiles to fulfill her destiny. Tracking her progress is as much fun (in miniature form of course) as following the exploits of her possible namesake, Moll Flanders.

Molly’s destiny is to serve as an artist’s model, and in that role she finds lasting stature. But more importantly, she achieves for herself “the same kind of peace and contentment” she sees each day on the face of her painter-protector, as he diligently works in his studio. Not a bad lesson for young listeners and readers.

The book is illustrated with reproductions of 11 paintings by the author’s father, Herman Maril. Created over the period from 1962 to 1976, the pictures are a mini-exhibition of this gentle modernist and master of color. He also made four charming new drawings especially for this book.

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I own a small painting by Maril titled “Circus Horse” (gouache on light blue tinted paper, 1940). It pre-dates the paintings illustrated in “Me, Molly Midnight” by several decades, but is a good example of how brilliantly Maril could apply his fluid style to create a captivating picture of an animal.

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A master of seascapes, landscapes and still-life works, Maril is an American artist who deserves to be better known. Currently on view at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (until August 30, 2011) is an exhibition of 40 of his works.

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Edward Hopper’s “Approaching a City”

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

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This morning I discovered that the British newspaper, “The Independent,” has for the last several years been publishing a weekly series of short essays on individual works of art. The ongoing project’s name is “Great Works.” From what I’ve seen and read, most of the selections are interesting pieces you’re not likely to have come across in Janson or Gardner art history texts. The last 12 months’ profiles of paintings, sculptures and other works of art are available for reading online, here. Recently, art historian Michael Glover has taken over writing duties from Tom Lubbock, continuing a tradition of elegant and intelligent analyses.

Last month Glover contributed an appreciation of  “Approaching a City” (1946), an Edward Hopper painting that now hangs in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

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Glover’s passionate analysis (both formal and thematic) of the work reminds me of the large rewards that every great Hopper painting surrenders to the discerning eye. Stand openly and patiently before a Hopper painting and you will experience muteness giving way to tantalizing meanings. Such is the case with this mysterious, unpeopled urban landscape.

Mr. Glover’s piece inspired me to share some thoughts of my own.

What I see in “Approaching a City” is an artist using the static medium of an easel painting to comment on the temporal, to upend our notion of time’s arrow, and, finally, to question the very American credo of progress. A tall order, yet Hopper manages all of this through the simple arrangement of buildings in the background.

What Hopper constructs in the upper portion of the picture is essentially a timeline, but one in which the conventional proposition (left to right = past to future) suffers a reversal. If you decide to read the frieze “backward” (from right to left) you will find yourself in the comfortable position of keeping chronological time. In the right margin you see huddled a pair of urban townhouses. These dwellings appear to date from the 18th or early 19th century (possibly from the Federal period) and they exhibit pleasantly solid forms, although their shutters have been lost and their brick fronts are now white-washed. To their left is a later 19th century residential building. It is two stories taller and retains architectural adornments such as a cornice, stone lintels, and warm brick facing. Side by side, you see that these are human-scaled, human-purposed structures.

Then, as you move again to the left, you encounter a gap. Even though the abutment of the railroad underpass obscures a street level view, you intuit this gap to be a cross-street. But you sense it is much more than that. For across this divide is a massive 20th century structure: artless, soulless (its fenestration dead-eyed), brutally concrete. It has laid siege to all remaining territory, even unto the sky. It is a chilling vision. If, in revulsion, you turn your eyes back to the right side, the twin dwellings will appear to be in protective hiding, cowering in fear of the future onslaught.

Hopper’s architectural tableau serves as a statement of decline, of devolution. What was Hopper thinking about? Our culture? Our politics? Our moral sense?

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Additional notes:

1.  If anyone doubts my opinion of the rich rewards of Hopper’s paintings, ask yourself what other artist produced a body of paintings sufficient to form the basis for an opera?

2. In his essay, Michael Glover notices how the painting does not allow the viewer to rest contentedly anywhere on its surface. This is agonizingly so in the foreground: “Our gaze keeps shifting leftwards as if we are afflicted by some kind of a tic that jerks our head in that direction, as if we are being forced to acknowledge and inspect, again and again, that sucking promise of blankness, blackness” of the left-side tunnel. I thought it interesting that Glover assumes we are all destined to be drawn into the tunnel, that trains will descend into its maw. Speaking objectively, it is a matter of simple statistics that it is equally probable that a train we are traveling on will emerge from this tunnel. But emotionally I think Glover is correct. There is a sinister air of dread to the tunnel, indeed an air of surrealistic upheaval, that makes us think the darker direction is more likely. Compare the unlikely fate of Magritte’s train engine which happily emerges into domestic comfort.

3. In examining different stratum of time, time present and times past, Hopper can be seen as participating in a pessimistic strain in American thought and culture. It is of a piece with F. Scott Fitzgerald (“And so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly in the past”) and Woody Allen (The “Midnight in Paris” visits to between-the-wars and Belle Epoque eras).

4.  Hopper painted “Approaching the City” in 1946, which I think is significant. Most Americans had reason to believe 1946 marked, finally, an awakening from years of nightmare: world-wide economic Depression, the rise of totalitarian regimes, the Holocaust, the horrible destruction of WWII. Surely some optimism was deserved. Was Hopper not of this view? Did he paint “Approaching the City” as rebuke to, if not an explicit rejection of, healing and recovery? I’m thinking now of Winslow Homer, who welcomed an end to the Civil War’s horrors in a different fashion. Here is “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865):

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Better Thought Next Time, No. 5 (Allstate Advertisement)

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

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The advertisement sponsored Allstate Insurance Company, below, appears on page 50 of the July 25, 2011 edition of Time magazine. In it Allstate lends its support to the Save Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, federal legislation intended to save teen lives lost to car accidents. I have no quarrel with the sentiment of the ad. What I do have to wonder is, What was the copywriter thinking when she/he came up with this headline? —

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Here’s how I imagine the typical reader encounters and absorbs the ad’s message.

After turning page 49 to look at pages 50-51, the reader likely looks briefly at the left side of the two-page spread, her glance  taking in the picture of a prescription drug container spilling its capsule-like contents. OK, the reader now has placed the idea of “drugs” fresh in her consciousness. Then, looking up at the first line of copy (the attention-grabbing words in the largest font), the reader sees the first line’s phrase: “The #1 killer of teens”.  The reader blends those two items (drugs + top-teen-killer) and finds they’re compatible. Yes, she’s aware teens die from abuse of drugs, and it’s a big problem. It sounds reasonable to assume drugs are the top killer of teens.

Then comes the writer’s “Gotcha!” moment and it’s a good one: a switcheroo. It tells her she’s mistaken. The split-second link her mind forged is wrong. She looks more carefully at the capsules spilling from the bottle and sees they are miniature cars. At best (the ad writer ought to have predicted) she thinks this odd, but she’ll keep this oddity in mind. But the text calls for her to please keep reading, to be set straight with the correct answer. Helpfully, not only does the second line reveal drugs is NOT the answer to the riddle, but the words guide her in the right direction with a teaser. Not the final answer, mind you, but a clue that will help her find the answer: Think of something unrelated to “a dealer.”

So: the top teen killer is not drugs since their usual source is a dealer (at least if the copywriter wants her to envision hard drugs, and exclude patent drugs stolen from a parent’s medicine cabinet). The answer is some causal agent that does NOT come from a dealer. Think. Think. OK, the reader’s mind goes into second gear, running through the possibilties. Guns? Suicidal behaviors? Violence perpetrated against teens? All good choices; she’ll keep them handy. The clue also helps eliminate possibilities. For example, one not good answer, since it violates the criteria (that a “dealer” cannot be involved), is cars. The majority of cars, new cars certainly, still come from dealers. As for acquiring a used car, this often means checking out the goods of a used car dealer. “Car + dealer” are terms linked in the human mind because the two terms are connected as a matter of routine commerce. So, the top killer of teens is not cars, the reader concludes.

Oops.

It’s hard for me to believe the advertisement’s copywriter intended to confuse and frustrate and anger the reader with a second switch-back (one of ugly temper: “Ha-ha! I fed you a false premise! Try and keep up with the game, sucker!”).

Which means, while this advertisement doesn’t qualify as an Epic Fail, it sure is a plain failure.

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“After the Fall” by Arthur Miller

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

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Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” takes the form of an investigation into the forces which give rise to incomplete and destructive human relationships. The play’s protagonist, Quentin, in whose mind the play’s set pieces take place, subscribes to the simple rule: “You tell the truth, even against yourself.” The play is fabricated as a trial or, more fittingly, an inquest. Here the moralist (and retired attorney) Quentin sits in judgment upon his own conscience, his own values, his own actions:

“You know . . . more and more I see that for many years I looked at life like a case at law. It was a series of proofs. When you are young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful, or what-the-hell-ever. But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That one moved not in a dry circle but on an upward path toward some elevation, where . . . God knows what . . . I would be justified, or even condemned. A verdict, anyway.”

Quentin zeroes in on distorted emotions, marital complexities, and other intimate struggles. As a result, “After the Fall” becomes a big, demanding drama (when staged, the play usually occupies a full three and a half hours), doggedly exposing Quentin’s “pointless litigation of existence” in order to find not only whether his has been a life “lived in good faith,” but whether he can move beyond self-condemnation to some measure of hope. His tortured process of self-discovery fights against an unwillingness, an innate fear of unearthing what Miller calls “the seeds of his own destruction.” It is the fundamental need to know that serves as the backbone of what is otherwise a loosely structured play. And, whether you are a reader or are in the audience, you will likely be engrossed, since this is your journey too.

At the same time we are learning of events in Quentin’s life, a universal drama unfolds. Miller’s intent is for “After the Fall” to be a broader study of mankind’s terrible predisposition to cruelty, his evasions of responsibility and remorse. In the “present time” of the play, Quentin is considering marrying a German woman who fled the Holocaust, and whose experiences led her to accept human blindness and failures. She helps him universalize his own understanding, in a scene in which he pauses before an imagined concentration camp tower rising above him:

“And I am not alone, and no man live who would not rather be the sole survivor of this plan than all its finest victims? What is the cure? Who can be innocent again on this mountain of skulls? I tell you what I know! My brothers died here . . . but my brothers built this place; our hearts have cut these stones! And what’s the cure!”

Miller is striving to enter into a dialog with other essential pieces of twentieth-century literature. T.S. Eliot in the poem “Gerontion” (1920) asks: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” At the close of “After the Fall,” Quentin, responds:

“I wake each morning like a boy — even now, even now! I swear to you, there’s something in me that could dare to love this world again! . . . Is the knowing all? To know, and even happily that we meet unblessed; not in some garden of wax and fruit and painted trees, that lie of Eden, but after, after the Fall, after many, many deaths. Is the knowing all? And the wish to kill is never killed, but with some gift of courage one may look into its face when it appears, and with a stroke of love — as to an idiot in the house — forgive it; again and again . . . forever?”

Again and again: There was something in Miller’s plea that reminded me of similar words uttered impromptu just four years after the opening of “After the Fall.” Before a stunned audience in Indianapolis, Indiana, on the evening in 1968 when the world heard the news of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy spoke. Without notes, at first haltingly but then with earned authority, Kennedy said:

“We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, to go beyond these rather difficult times . . . Aeschylus once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of god.’ What we need . . . is not division . . . not hatred . . . not violence and lawlessness . . . but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice . . . . ”

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Felled by storm wind this weekend

Monday, July 4th, 2011

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“The Curfew” by Jesse Ball

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

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Jesse Ball’s third novel, “The Curfew,” is not as ambitious, experimental, or beholden to meta-fictional devices as its predecessors. The new book is more accessible. Shorter too: “Samedi the Deafness” contains 279 pages of text; “The Way Through Doors,” 228 pages; while the “The Curfew” flows fast at 193 pages. At its heart is not a hallucinatory cat-and-mouse game (Samedi), nor a whirling dervish of endless tales (TWTD) — material a few readers found wearying. Here, instead, is an elemental story, set in a perilous universe, of protective love between a father (William, 29, “once-violinist, now epitaphorist”) and his eight-year-old daughter, Molly. You are likely to be genuinely moved.

Upon reaching the end of “The Curfew” I was reminded of Guillermo del Toros’s film, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006). In both the novel and the movie we follow a bright and sensitive girl who has been left to her own devices (one parent lost, the other distant) and who now must deal with a violent world overtaken by fascism. In both tales, the trappings of fantasy and fairy-tale become the young girl’s defense against terror and real human misery. Del Toro has explained that elements of his film came from his childhood experiences with “lucid dreaming.” Jesse Ball, also, practices lucid dreaming, and he teaches a course on the subject at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. (He also teaches courses on “False Identities” and “Lying”.) One predictor of your potential enjoyment of “The Curfew” may be whether you were enchanted and moved by “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Although the pull of “The Curfew” is more emotional than ever, the author has jettisoned his other signature interests. The things Ball does well in all his fiction he continues to do in “The Curfew.” He gives readers permission to pay attention. He knows how to conjure up off-kilter and perilous environments (here, a military coup has reduced an American city to a condition of pervasive terror). As before, he relies less on the traditional moorings of the novel and more on his own bizarre and generous wit to propel the story. He trusts the reader’s own imagination similarly will rise to the occasion. Saying less means saying more.

Consider, for example, William’s forte as an writer of tombstone epitaphs. His skill rests in finding the right, few words to memorialize a life, or in one case, the right, few words to impart as much about the circumstances of a death as can be borne by the surviving parents:

LISA EPSTEIN

9 years, 24 days.

In the street by our house, it was almost evening.

Ball also knows how to exploit the design of the page — judicious use of empty space, breaks, inserts, irruptions of very large type — in service to the story. He gives you permission, and the opportunity, to pay attention. His prose, though not ostentatiously lyrical, becomes beautiful through his command of rhythm. (No surprise: he is a poet, after all.)

Reading “The Curfew” you come upon many a grace note, many little notes of wisdom: “Magic is either a poverty-stricken necessity or a wealthy fantasy.” “She felt as many well-brought-up people do that her life is a collection, that she is always collecting.” “The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them.” “There’s nothing like the embarrassment of cats.” And — I’m going out on a limb here — I believe Ball was chaneling a memorable dialog moment from “Groundhog Day” on page 33 (compare it to the Phil? Phil? scene, found here) and echoing the “Wizard of Oz” in a guarded-entrance exchange on page 28 (compare the “Why didn’t you say that in the first place!” scene found here.)

While Molly’s perspective is understandably that of childish discoveries, this is something also shared by her artistic father:

For the first time in a long while, William looked down and saw his hands. If you have had this experience, you’ll know just what I mean.

Later, remembering his career as violinist (now forbidden by rulers who’ve abolished music), William reflects on the tension between reality, play, and art:

There is a space in the playing of a virtuoso piece where the violinist must cease to think about the music, must cease thinking of fingerings, even of hands and violins, where the sound itself must be manipulated directly. At such times even to remember that one has hands, that one is playing, is disastrous.

One question the reader of “The Curfew” may be left with is whether Ball has selected the right vessel for his content. He relies heavily on elements of stageplay writing, and of screenplay writing. Music and sound are important. You will encounter the wise old director of the puppet play that occupies the final third of “The Curfew,” who expresses this worry: “There is the matter of what is the glue to hold it all together; I’m not sure this will do.” Would the author’s presentation of “The Curfew” work better in another medium?

But, then, maybe Ball has already responded. The puppet play director explains: “If one person can control every aspect of the performance, then nothing need be lost. Nothing!”

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Notes:

1.  I found the idea of an art form that “gives you permission to pay attention” from a Paris Review Daily piece by Lorin Stein, here. Stein writes: “One thing I like about poems is that you are allowed to stare at them, and think about them, for as long as you like. In this sense, they resemble slow movies, or portraits, or nudes, or most of what we think of as art: poems give you permission to pay attention to a degree that would be rude or embarrassing face to face with, for example, a person.”

2.  Jesse Ball’s website (with drawings by the artist) is here. An interview by with the author on the occasion of the publication of “The Curfew” appears online at The Millions, here. Another short interview which exposes how prolific this fellow is, is found here. A revealing interview from 2009 (on the release of his second novel, “The Way Through Doors,” is found here; it delves into lucid dreaming and Ball’s influences, including film. Ball reads one of his poems (?) in the video, here and (same video) here. Then there’s this video (featuring the inspiration for Molly?).

3.  A shorter version of my review is posted on Amazon, here.

4. An very enthusiastic review of “The Curfew” by a literary blogger (“When High Praise Isn’t Enough”) is found here. The Fiction Advocate finds a moral dimension (and life lesson) in the book. A laudatory review from NPR, here. The New Yorker weighed in (briefly), here (alas, subscription required).

5. Others disagree. One is Michael Herbert Miller, who finds “The Curfew” to be the “least fulfilling” of his novels: “Clever, yes, but it does not make for a thrilling read. (…) Ball is a breed of anti-Flaubertian …”.  Another not-so-enthralled review is found here.

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