Sunday, 30 December 2012

Euro-Neurosis: German Mythmaking about the Bauhaus

I’ve been in Weimar, Germany since it became the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999—to write a book on Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus. Why? In Depression Detroit (1930-44) I was a homeless kid. When I read in graduate school that he had founded an art school to create good design for the working classes, I was hooked. Harvard, to celebrate it tercentenary in 1936 had invented the multi-disciplinary American Studies Ph.D., and I earned one such in American Lit in 1957, with one field in American art and architecture. I was granted a two year Carnegie post-doctoral grant (1957-59) to design a course on Mass Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, the first such university course. Then I helped found the Annenberg School of Communication in 1959 where I was Dean Gilbert Seldes’ "gofer” and taught their history of media class. His classic “The Seven Lively Arts”,1924, had turned me on to the efficacy of studying popular culture, instead of just complaining about it, which was, and remains, the copout of most academic humanists.

I was immediately puzzled by the hagiographical tone of most Bauhaus scholarship. And put off by the patriarchal bias that flourished there in the beginning, e.g. Gropius ruled that only 30% of applicants could be applicants—with only one woman on the first faculty, the great weaver, Gunta Stötzl. Even she wanted to be called a Meister, not a Meisterin, as Gropius “blessed” his staff by calling them medieval Masters, not Professors! (Theysoon won that useless prestige wrangle.) And the greatest designer to study, then teach there, Marianne Brandt (1893-1983) never rated an exhibition until 2005, when the Swiss Miss, Dr.Anne-Marie Jaeggi, as the first woman director of the Berlin Bauhaus Archive, broke the spell—by exhibiting Brandt’s photo-montages. Her metal tableware, although not yet exhibited, is still sold by the Italian firm. Alessi.

Worse than that, I discovered that my friend and informant, Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, the best architect to come from the Bauhaus has never ever been recognized by the complacent contemporary Bauhustlers. They’re not even ashamed to be so ignorant of his existence, let alone his achievements! He was in the last class (1933) and when Mies van der Rohe shut down the school at the Nazis’ request, Bertrand became Mies’ Azubi in his new Berlin office. (He soon had to split for Paris as a Jew, then to return to Chicago and innovate the way Gropius only hoped to promote.) The saddest plaint of Pius I ever witnessed was when I went to the opening of the then new William Wagenfeld Museum in Bremen. On the wall was Pius’ complaint that only Wagenfeld had so far achieved his objective: that Bauhaus ideal of meliorism for all should dominate all production of industrial design.

I met Goldberg at Charles Benton’s afterparty for the Chicago Film Festival in 1970. When I told him over a drink my ambition to write about the Bauhaus, he invited me the next day for an opening of his innovative birthing complex at Northwestern University’s new women’s hospital. It led to my scouting the most inventive Chicago architecture every time I routed my return to Detroit via Chicago. (It’s the only architectural education I’ve ever had, walking an architect’s dog!) He and fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel were my most instructive mentors .Our last tutoring took place in 1995, two years before he died, when our conversation was unusually somber because Timothy Dwight had blown up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City the day before!

And our conversation turned on his own total faithfulness to Gropius’s dream of democratizing architecture. And he told me how sad he was that his first Bauhaus mentor had sadly become a Nice Nazi, sucking up to Hitler’s builder, until Gropius got him an American commission, a rich man’s summer villa in Yellowstone in 1937. Bertrand explained Mies’s problem: his first famous work was a Denkmal in a Berlin cemetery for the founders of the German Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg! When Alfred Rosenberg was checking out the failing Bauhaus in 1931, just kicked out of Dessau, Mies assured Hitler’s propaganda minister that he was no longer a leftie! What he was, was a mason’s son from Aachen who bitterly resented his blue collar status. At his first job, a member of AEG polymath Peter Behrens’ famous apprentice trio in 1912, Corbusier, Gropius and Mies, the blue collar van der Rohe detested his having to report to upperclass Gropius. 

Indeed, in 1927 when Germany’s Urfeminist Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lüders (she was the first German woman to have a PhD in politics, 1910) criticized Mies’s first Weissenhof apartments because they took no notice of a mother’s needs. Mies made Art Works not Inhabitations! (I recently finally got an inside Weissenhof visit last year, and you couldn’t pay me to live in such a cement cemetery!) Mies had invited seventeen of the allegedly greatest European architects to create an Artist/Architect Exhibition (shades of his Barcelona 1928 structure) rather than a community. Indeed when the Stuttgart SPD which was creating the Friedrich Ebert Homes across the street invited him to share plans for water and garbage problems, Mies told them to piss off! (He was too busy becoming an Artistic Genius.) Visit both “communities” almost a century later, and tell me where you’d prefer to reside—the Ebert late Jugendstil or the Mies Modernoid.

Now Gropius also had a leftie problem. He had left the First World War’s calamity totally disillusioned, so much so that he became a leader of the cultural Soviet in Berlin and expressed his new values by designing a Memorial for the Victims of the Kapp right wing Putsch. Alas, when it came time for that Denkmal to be dedicated in the Weimar Cemetery in 1923, he panicked and refused to go to the dedication parade. His wife Alma Mahler chided him for his lack of cojones, but Gropius was already getting flack from the Weimar parliament rightwingers who were suspicious of the free wheeling students and their “Bolshevik” professors.

His radicalism, as muffled as it was, moved the city to cancel his Bauhaus contract, and a temporarily left wing mayor of Dessau, an industrial city dominated by the Junker aircraft factory, moved the Bauhaus, lock, stock and barrels—except for the photographs Gropius insisted the staff take of their innovative, which were not found until the 1950’s abandoned in the attic of the glorious Van der Velde building. It finally became under the architectural historian Gerd Zimmermann the HQ of Bauhaus University. Gropius indeed was not good at all at follow through, as we sense why he suddenly quit the Bauhaus altogether in 1928. The catalog for the latest MOMA/NYC Bauhaus extravaganza casually asides that Pius decided his dream was in good hands, so suddenly went off with Marianne Brandt to start his private office in Berlin.

Not so fast! What sloppy scholarship. The Dessau brass was drifting rightward and asked Gropius to get his razzle dazzle staff to take a $10,000 salary cut. They NEINed him. A new editor at the local paper was hassling Gropius for “double-dipping”, i.e. taking his director’s salary plus extra outside cash for advising the Törten suburb he was preparing for Junker workers. (Alas, to my eye, it’s the worst thing he ever designed. And that covers a lot of mediocrity.) 
It’s timely to assert that Gropius was never a great architect, not even a reasonably good one. He used to complain bitterly in letters to his mother that he couldn’t draw! Well what, I asked myself more than once, why did he want to become an architect. (He even had a secret partner, Adolf Meyer, to do the heavy lifting.) EUREKA. His great uncle, one Martin Gropius, after whom one of the best art display buildings in Berlin was named, is regarded as one of the best pre-modern architects, though he was no Friedrich Schenkel. There was also scuttlebutt that another faculty member was chasing his second wife Ilse! More than enough reasons to split suddenly! 
Except for one decision. He appointed the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer his successor as director! (We wont here explore the paradox that the first architecture course didn’t come until 1927—taught not by Gropius, but by that Swiss arriviste! A brazen invitation for City Hall to cancel the school, which it promptly it did, two years later. And Meyer was off to Moscow, with a group of lefties. Modernism there had not yet been Stalinized, and even as creative genius as the Dutch Rem Koolhaus was moved to switch from journalism to architecture because of Russian Modernism. (They actually did design for workers, not just palaver about it!) And as the third and final director, Mies scrounged up an abandoned telephone factory and told all the Commie students to split.

Now as I write, a group of Bauhaus Boomers are meeting to plan more and greater exhibitions for the centennial in 2019: I would urge them to really look at their history, not the twisted tale that keeps them from really rejecting the Nazi era and the violence that preceded it, from 1871 on. Now that was part of a great European failure, not just theirs. And that their current hagiographizing the really pathetic Bauhaus of yore is what I define as a new German humanistic disease: Euro-neurosis. Beneath all this hoopla, there is a growing anxiety that the New Europe is about to fold—with the most powerful Germany ever, to lead the collapse.

Let them learn something from America, for a change. Mies and Gropius were at their “best” mediocre architects, driven by devils their Nazi pasts have inflicted on them. Here is what I learned about the “Bauhaus” before I ever left America. My first American Literature professor, C. Carroll Hollis, used to run the store at the Detroit Golf Club, summers (Jesuit salaries were painfully small.) And the Club was on Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main drag, which led to the suburban Cranbrook Academy of Art, the dream of George Booth, publisher of the Detroit News. He wanted to civilize the arriviste leaders of the new automobile empire. 

Counseled by the greatest German architect of the twentieth century, Albert Kahn, he assembled a small but brilliant faculty, architect/planner Eliel Saarinen from Helsinki and sculptor Carl Milles from Stockholm. They had students like Edward Bacon, who became Philly’s city planner, the Eames family who designed for local manufacturers, doing brilliantly what Gropius et al. only hoped to do. Eliel’s student son Eero, who sadly died at 50, but not before he designed the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan (where I worked my first year after my Navy service), Yale’s Hockey Rink, and the great St. Louis Entrance to the West.

In 1941, Kahn called together at the University of Michigan (where he had designed the major buildings) Mies and Pius, and the Saarinens to discuss their desire to design defense factories. He teased the Bauhustlers by calling them “the Glass House Boys.” 

He lectured them on how you first analyzed the way your industrial objects were made before you built a factory. (Gropius’ first factory was the Fagus shoe last factory totally ensconced in glass, an example of what I call the Crystal Palace Syndrome.) Looks great, but is a profligate waste of energy. Just like the Dessau Bauhaus where the professors and students complained it was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and wasteful of energy all year round. They didn’t enjoy his scorn .He used to tease them that architecture is 10 percent art, 90 percent business. I worked in three different Kahn factories, comfortably and safely. He’s right. But the Gehry’s of this esthetically captive Uni-verse want to be praised as artists, capital A. Like Mies!

Heh, the BAUHAUS HAS BETRAYED Gropius’s main aim—good design for the working classes. When The Bauhaus brass announced their plans for a fourth Bauhaus museum last spring at the Bauhaus University’s crowded AUDIMAX, I asked the first question: Why aren’t you and your students joining Cameron Sinclair’s “Architects for Humanity” to fulfill the Gropius ideal throughout the world? Not one of the 500+ audience had a word to say about AFH’s Bible, “Design As If You Give a Damn”. I gave the book to the Anna Amalia library three years ago. No one has taken it out but me. An informal quiz of the Bauhaus brass told me they know about the book but it would make their art education much different, and harder if they followed its ideals.

Yo, why not try them yourself at their annual convention in San Francisco. Kill your Euro-neurosis before it cripples you more. Join the human race and design for all the classes. Not just the bored rich! And stop nationalizing your scholarship by the same unrealized Euro-neurosis. Albert Kahn is not the only German immigrant who glorified American architecture. Albert immigrated at 11 (1880) the first of six children of a poor Jewish rabbi. He didn’t even have enough money to finish Gymnasium, let along go to architecture school.

There was one other contemporary German immigrant architectural autodidact, Timothy Pflueger, son of a L.A. dry cleaner, who moved to San Francisco. Modern architecture in the Bay Area followed his creative heritage. I relished this heritage when I lived in San Francisco in the 80’s and wrote about its design. So both my experiences of architecture in America were formed by two real German innovators—almost totally unknown in contemporary Germany! Perhaps that made me expect too much from the German Bauhaus. 

Paralyzed by the Euro-neurosis of German disasters in the twentieth century, they’re too nervous to see their sad recent history and accessible opportunities open to them. Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity is fulfilling the Gropius ideal of good design for all humanity. The Bauhustlers have betrayed that ideal by putting tourism growth before compassion. How sad that would make Gropius. And me, who hoped that dream would avoid the kind of society that crippled my youth. 
P.S. Good news at last!. Ten years after my harassing the Bauhaus Bamboozlers, an essay has just appeared in the daily “Die Welt” chastizing theGerman architecture establishment for ignoring the errors of early Modernism—too much showing off glass, which wastes energy; flat roofs which leak endlessly. In short, putting a fast-talking unbelievable esthetic ahead of practicality in architecture. The writer is a prizewinning Denkmal Schutzer (protecting historically important old buildings!) He has even organized a roundtable of experts in the five states most ill served by fatuous Bauhaus worship, including especially, my own Thuringia. My frustrating days of chiding those airhead Bauhustlers into becoming credible critics of their manmade environment may soon be over. So I can give all my attention to Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity, which actually does what the Bauhustlers only pretended to do—honor Walter Gropius’ indispensable idealism.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Letters from America

I first caught Alistair Cooke’s BBC radio “Letters from America, 1946-2004” (Allen Lane,2004)as a radar tech swabbie at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, plotting what I would do at age 19 when I was about to muster out to a university somewhere. It was his catholicity that impressed me. 

One day he’d be talking about the boxer Joe Louis, then the newest hero of my hometown, Detroit; and then describing, in his obit of an old friend, his meeting Eugene Victor Debs Rostow at Yale on his first day there, almost sixty years before: he recalled the day JFK in 1962 phoned Rostow, then Dean of the Yale Law School, to discuss the complications of his appointing Gene, a Jew, to the Supreme Court. It was my first realization that you could be highly intelligent before a microphone. Ultimately he would inspire me to become a mass media critic and participant. Reading almost a hundred of these letters was like reliving your own life with a fascinating companion.
Especially significant was his “Towering Glass and Steel” (31 October 2003), a Requiem for the destruction of the 1910 McKim, Mead and White’s New York Pennsylvania Station, their inspired take on the Roman Baths of Caracalla. For a generation visiting this masterpiece was a required visit for the thoughtful New Yorkers. “ But fashions in architecture, as in everything else, change. The European intelligentsia came to chuckle and sneer.” (p.495.) 

America and its business class had been ordered to admire the sterile innovations of the Walter Gropius Bauhaus. They were taught to snoot the gaudiness and fussiness of the Victorian Age. Simplicity was the new God. “He simply, earnestly dogmatically reacted to everything that had gone before, from the Greeks on. He invented the monolith, the large upright plank of concrete—what an independent American pioneer, one Frank Lloyd Wright, called the new log cabin that misuses steel, faceless, characterless, god-awful rectangles of concrete and steel, leading to its peak in the United Nations building which he called “an anthill for a thousand ants.” (p.496.) 
Thus it was that in 1960, the board of directors of the Pennsylvania railroad decided their Baths of Caracalla was an economic burden and embarrassment. So at 9 a.m. on 28 October 1963 the jackhammers gathered and the wrecking ball did its amnesiac evil. The grandeur that was a whiff of Rome in Manhattan was no more. Replaced by what the “Blue Guide to New York” called “the utterly graceless and unappealing Madison Square Garden. . .a 20,000 seat arena in a pre-cast concrete drum, a movie theatre, a bowling alley and an office building.” “Ugh”! A few eggheads howled. The noble New York Times harrumphed: "a monumental act of vandalism!” All was not lost, permanently. The outraged complained bitterly to the Mayor and his sleepy Council. They finally formed the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

Their agents snooped FBI-ishly, forestalling more barbarous destructions. “Gropers” plotted to tear down the grandest of train stations, namely the Grand Central —to be replaced by a Gropius skyscraper. (It’s that lonely looking structure mouldering at the far North end of Park Avenue!) Whew! That was closer. Their scrap went all the way to the Supreme Court where those Justices proclaimed the GCS’s sacredness in 1978. 
When Bill Siemering approved my weekly palaver “Talking Travel” over WHYY-FM in 1970 out of their old “American Bandstand” barn, it was Alistair I was emulating. Rereading those old letters makes me feel thirtyish—for about a half hour!

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Gross National Happiness (GNH) vs. Gross National Product: A Global Debate

Who would expect a tiny ( but beautiful) country, population 738,000, squeezed between India and Tibet, to lead a contemporary international debate about how fulfilling lives are in diverse countries? This important question is best answered by the prime minister of Bhutan, one Jigmi Thinley, who presides over policy. The term, “Gross National Happiness (GNH), was coined by this Buddhist nation’s fourth king, over 30 years ago, to pose a humane alternative to the materialistic GNP’s of the "more developed" Western powers.

Thinley flinches at attempts to characterize Bhutan as “the happiest place on Earth”, the more to remain focused on national policies he has established since running the little kingdom since 2008. His mission is to create a society of tiny villages into more than an utopian dream. He envisions four pillars to his GNH : sustainable economic development, conservation of the environment, preservation of culture and good governance.

Little Bhutan, you see, is experiencing the Easterlin Paradox, named after the American economist Richard Easterlin. He made headlines establishing the agreement that beyond certain thresholds, rising´incomes don’t bring more happiness. The same outcome is evident in China as well as the United States. Indeed in the U.S., economic insecurity is affecting reported levels of happiness. The General Social Survey, the oldest attempt to measure well being in America, discovered the “lowest levels we’ve ever heard. Easterlin concludes: “The picture is not encouraging.” (Time, 10/22/12, p.44) What to do?

The first step a nation must take is a survey. Bhutan’s grilling of 8,000 citizens took place in their homes where were posed deeply personal questions such as “How many people could you count on for help in case you get sick?” Or, “How often do you talk about spirituality with your children?” Or “When did you last spend time socializing with your neighbors?” Answers form their baseline GNH Index, 0.743 on a scale that goes up to 1.00.
What I quickly noticed was that contemporary secular innovations (advertising, broadcasting, pop “culture” in general) had high-jacked these human interactions for commercial purposes. High tech infantilization sucks the potential human happiness out of daily activities for commercial gain. A finely tuned common school education could easily neutralize this covert robbery.

Different cultures have responded to this massification diversely. Columbia University’s Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz noted that after the 2008 fiscal crisis calls to devise an alternative to GNP have flourished. “When Bhutan took up GNH, some people said it was because they wanted to take attention away from lack of development. I think quite the contrary.T he crisis has made us aware of how bad our metrics were even in economics, because U.S. GDP looked good, and the we realized it was all a phantasm.” Stiglitz now heads an important French commission to analyze the issues.And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development set up Your Better Life Index, a new website that allows countries to rank themselves on eleven measures of well being.

Not surprisingly, Denmark and Sweden rank highest on work life balance and the environment. Canada’s province of Alberta and the city of Edmonton have supported the Canadian Index of Well-being. Instead of Bhutan’s GNH Index survey questions, Ottawa has created an index of 64 existing statistics, including work hours and violent crime, considered proxies for various components of well being .Local is better. Maryland has devised a genuine progress indicator (GPI!).

Vermont’s social service agency translates lofty dreams into concrete terms. For example, instead of decreasing the lasting impacts of poverty, the state set a goal of reducing the reading test score gap. Monica Hunt in charge of planning and policy avoids “happiness” jabber. She wants to operationalize “happiness” to make Vermont a safer, healthier place to live. “All of these things,” she concludes, "are connected to that happiness index that started in Bhutan.” 

The more, the merrier, as the globe deploys its many thinkers to refine the human lives of the 21st century. (The New York reporter Roya Wolverson has brilliantly assembled these international details to reveal how the human race is thinking its way out of historical errors.)

Read another version of this essay at Broad Street Review.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Ike Was So Right

Eisenhower’s famous last warning about the creeping danger of the Military-Industrial Complexhas turned out to be so true. The latest testament is Tom Engelhardt’s “The United States of Fear” (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011). His figures take one’s breath away: a military budget more than all the other developed nations together. Proliferation of regional commands. Bases on their way to a thousand! 

Meanwhile, the national infrastructure disintegrates. Nobody talks about the source of our trillion dollar deficits! Cheney’s wars to bring freedom to the Iraqis and Afghans. When we all know it’s to prtect our oil supplies. And the hypohypocrite’s mercenarization of our “armless forces.” Nice work if you can get it—for the likes of Blackwater and Halliburton. Alas, the net effect of the Big Two Wars was contempt for our troops that kill noncombatants with drones and torture our prisoners. And leave Vietnam with the unending plague of Agent Orange and Cambodia with unexploded landmines.
With the concurrent destruction of the middle classes that FDR instigated .It really accelerated with Ronald Reagan’s advice to CEO’s to outsource industrialization, thus beginning the accelerating divide between executives with 500 x’s the reduced income of the outsourced, the un-American ratio of 1 impoverishing the 99. 

I was unaware of how the further expense of Homeland Security debased our deficit more deeply. The reports of moronic inspectors fumbling with privates of airplane travelers is simply pathetic. Especially when you learn that an alert Midwestern FBI agent tried to warn the CIA about how many Arab students were learning to fly in America but was ignored. 9/11 thereby derived from the pettiest of Homeland Insecurity spats!

Most of these self delusions derive from the Exceptionalist rhetoric that for centuries allowed Americans to ignore their rationalizations of Amerind genocide and black slavery. Lincoln may have wheedled the 13th amendment through a polluted Congress, but blacks for the most part remain tactically enslaved. The absurd inflation of incarceration, the severest in the world, 2 millions and counting, exploded mainly for black non-violent drug offenses, while their white suburban patrons go scot free. 

Think of the career of our last puppet president, W. smiling sweetly, on Dick’s knee. DUI unpunished in his youth, AWOL with impunity from the Champagne Squadron, a boondoggle to allow rich men’s sons from fighting in Vietnam, serial business flop, ending with his insider trading loot to buy a baseball franchise with his clients money (SEC slap on the wrist). A cheating millionaire who cuts brush in his illgotten Crawford spread. Sometimes the unmanly C- Yalie will sneer in an address at his college that low grades don’t matter! But low grade Presidents do.

I would like to conclude this harangue with two speculations: the Second Amendment defenders of the right of any American to have assault weapons at hand have in mind the growing hostility of incarcerated or their undercapacitated relatives. And the egregious Surpreme Court “Citizens United” decision stems from the justly fearsome attitude of the supreme I percent that their long- favored minority is gradually losing political power to the unjustly suppressed. The illiterate Rush Limbaugh heritage that craven TV networks have nurtured is another of the reasons why American politics is headed not to Socialism but to incompetent failure. Obama may be our last opportunity not to lose because of the blindness of our American Exceptionalism.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Our Inventive Avant-garde

It was a grim weekend, losing both David Brubeck (91) and Oscar Niemeyer (104!). Good obits tell you what you should have known: that Brubeck’s father was a stockman and Dave’s first college was to learn ranching. Indeed when he finally got to music school he was almost bounced because he couldn’t read music! (A couple of more broad-minded profs defending him because his self taught talent.) 

Oscar was from a rich family, but he chafed at the way his family treated the help, and he had begun his transition to Communism. In a Brazil where the gap between a few rich and hordes of peons, he always fought for the littlest guys! But his contribution to modern architecture was his love of curves—rejecting the narrow-minded rectalinearities of the early Bauhaus.

But I was most impressed by the way he supported Jose Zanine Caldas (1918-2001). Connoiseuer sent me to Paris to write an essay on his first exhibition, to celebrate his 70thbirthday. (Although he never earned an architectural degree, he became professor of landscape design and architect ural modeling in plywooid at the University of Sao Paulo.)

The traditional profs were nervous about the freewheeling way Jose worked. Niemeyer was different. He greeted Zanine with joy on his 70th birthday. “Jose,” he addressed him as an equal, “you began making the macquettes for Brasilia, proceeded to make great furniture, and finally devised ways of reusing lumber to build houses for the poor.” Oscar hated that this autodidact had to go to Paris for his first exhibition.

I expected to do a two hour interview after looking at the exhibition. He upstaged me. We spent the entire day studying his creations and discussing his unique architectural career. When he returned to his hometown in Bahia he admired the way untutored fishermen carved their boats out of whole trees. He vowed to plant a tree for every one he used in his architecture. 

Towards the end of our encounter. (The help had already gone home!), he excused himself and reappeared with the humungous roots of a rainbow tree, so called because of the deep indentations that held rainwater. Puzzled, I looked at him speechless. 

The mosquitoes that breed there discouraged poachers from stealing “his” trees. He moved to France because he couldn’t stand the way the Brazilians were sorry they were losing their trees. (If you think I was amazed, you should have seen how the Pan Am stewards looked at my strange luggage as I flew back to Philly. For years I had to explain their honorific position in my Greenbelt Knoll fireplace.)

My rue at losing two artistic heroes on one weekend was controlled by the astonishing news that my college idol, Jonas Mekas, the so-called godfather of of American avant-garde film was alive and kicking at 90. And all his followers were gathering at no fewer than three venues to honor his innovative film culture: London’s Serpentine Gallery until January 27, 2013, the British Film Institute through December 16, and the Pompidou Centre until January 2.

I had forgotten that he was just a farmer’s son in Lithuania, and that when he first used his new camera snapping the arrival of the Soviet Army, “An officer, some lieutenant runs to me, grabs the camera, rips out the film, trails it on the ground, before rubbing it in the dust with his boot. That’s how the first photo I took ended up. That symbolizes my times.” (Cinema’s accidental Witness,” Financial Times (December 8-9, p. 23.) Everyone who tried to take the cinema seriously is indebted to this pioneer. You can get the hang of these celebratory exhibitions here. He earned our attention—and gratitude.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


Zaller’s review of Lincoln is a double-header: sophisticated historiography (a warning about Oliver Stone’s simplicities) and shrewd film criticism.
Lincoln’s complex problems still haunt us: The ideological flip flop of both GOP and Dems places the fulfillment of our country’s promises squarely on our own still shrugging shoulders. Our real cliff is metaphysical, not fiscal.
Zaller for mayor!
Patrick D. Hazard

Weimar, Germany
November 28, 2012

Robert Zaller replies: Mayor? Well, let’s see. The first thing I’d do is to ship the Barnes back to Merion. Then I’d schedule a public whipping for all those who forced the Orchestra into bankruptcy. Then I’d close all the casinos and open more strip joints, on the grounds that the public deserves to get value received for value given. Maybe I’d have to close the Eagles’ stadium on the same grounds. Oh, yes, and I’d tear up that $50 million pea patch Mayor Nutter is putting up around City Hall and surround it with soup kitchens instead, so that City Council could remember the 25 percent— or is it now 30 percent?— of the city that lives in poverty. No, scratch that, I’d tear down City Hall itself, and rid the city of the stench of entrenched power that emanates from it. Or should I stick to reviewing? What do you think?
Editor’s comment: On the basis of your campaign platform above, I second Professor Hazard’s nomination of Professor Zaller for mayor— of Bala Cynwyd, not Philadelphia.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Europe’s Year Of The Celt

VENICE. Has this been the Year of the Celt, or what? First the Council of Europe dubs Dublin the City of Europe. It opened its Year of Culture with a funky gathering of the best and brightest contemporary Irish art and exhibited it at Gateway to Art, in the domestic departure lounges of Dublin International Airport.

Then the Palazzo Grassi (until Dec. 8) asserted, by poster and ubiquitous promotion, that the show of the year is its “I Celti.” The Swiss, not to be outshouted on their 700th anniversary, packaged a show traveling to the biggest cities of Switzerland and called it “Helvetian Gold” (in Geneva until February 1992).

Well, transplanted unprofessional Celt that I am, I was impressed. In this status tussle between Ireland, Italy and Switzerland, I pin the palm d’or on the shuffling, diffident Swiss breast. (Switzerland, has spent its septicentennializing year wailing about what a messed-up paradise it is. Only the Canadians are greater world-class whiners.)

Start, then, with “The Celts” in Milanese architect Gae Aulenti’s rehabbed palace on the Grand Canal. Frankly, I’d cross half a continent just to sit in the café overlooking the canal and staffed by waiters from the legendary Harry’s Bar.

The trouble is, Ms. Aulenti isn’t content to let her well-enough alone: She has invoked her droit de signorina to install both this show and its megapredecessor, “The Phoenicians.” She must feel compelled to fill every nook and cranny with temporary loot from all over the world to illustrate her corridors. Over 2,000 items in this cache.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand the motive for these megashows: It’s a feather in every far-flung curator’s mobility cap to make the cut. In both the Phoenician and Celtic cases, it has been a triumph of highly-insured mobility over meaning. They should invest that money in reducing the price (and size) of the catalog and captioning a few objects intelligently.

Given the imminence of the Common Market, it seemed significant that the organizers vowed that all such shows in the future would be pan-European in both subject and scholarship. The Celts as the “first Europeans”? Plausible, especially if you read that declaration in the Elan culture magazine of the late Robert Maxwell’s weekly newspaper, The European.

Come to think of it, during 1991, European museums were full of such illuminating sharings: 20th-Century Belgian Art at MOMA / Paris, the Marvin and Janet Fishman collection of German Art between the Wars at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (now opening at the Jewish Museum / New York), Modernisme in Catalonia on MOMA / Barcelona, Italian Futurism at Madrid’s new Reina Sofia Center for Modern Art, and (not the least) Belgium’s annual Europalia this year, focusing on Portugal. Each of these most instructive exhibitions was small and choice—in short, comprehensible.

But it was the Swiss who were exemplary in the comprehensibility department. (And their contribution to the Venice show was the single most interesting artifact: the careful reconstruction of a Celtic horse-drawn wagon from bits and pieces dug up in Switzerland. The National Museum’s funky young director even proved he knew whence he dug—before it was put on a train to Venice, he drove it around Zurich parks.)

The real achievement of “Helvetian Gold” may derive from the fact that they have damn little gold in their collections. But do they know how to explain: A sequence of five small dioramas shows you how it’s dug up, refined, worked over and ultimately used to decorate the bodies of the powerful or the stark tree-trunks that were the focus of Druidic type religious ceremonies. Don’t dump beaucoup gewgaws, however gaspy, on me: Tell me how they fit into another kind of life.

Another tiny coup for the Micks was the fact the delicate little gold boat that Aulenti placed in a dark Druidic wood (that part of her installation really knocked me out) wasn’t the original from Dublin’s National Museum, but a copy from a London museum. Ha! From such little comeuppances do tiny, long-beleaguered countries fell better about their battered selves.

There was one tiny detail in the Venetian show that fascinated me. Their animal sculptures didn’t center on the beasts you associate with pre-industrial cultures: lions, bulls, tigers, jaguars. No. But rather boars. Scads of examples of that animal, and no explanation. I haven’t been able to check out my hypothesis yet. But think about it, and come up with your own.

On these flat plains, with a society on the brink of domesticating cattle, the boar reigned supreme in their hearts. Powerful enough, but still manageable. Like the Celts themselves. Good luck in 1992, Euroman / woman. Continue to be uncommon in everything but your marketing.

From Welcomat: After Dark Hazard-at-Large, November 27, 1991

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Tempest in a Tripod

Raymond Kirsch, the director general of BCEE, Luxembourg’s oldest and leading bank, is puzzled today. Edward Steichen’s widow has let out a caterwaul he could hear all the way from her home in Connecticut. Kirsch thought he had made all the right moves: he spent $133,000 of the bank’s money buying 64 of Edward Steichen’s prints, from one of his sister playing the piano in 1896 (his first) to one of his benignly obsessed arboreal studies at the end of his life in the 1960’s; he then went to the trouble of having an expert in Paris authenticate, and then had a handsome volume in an edition of 2000 copies printed to help celebrate Luxembourg’s preeminence this year as the Cultural Capital of Europe. What sent Steichen’s widow ballistic was the bank’s decision to print huge posters of several of the prints to decorate the festive sheets of the Grand Duchy this summer at the height of the tourist season.

“Sacrilegious,” she howled. And besides there was one misattribution in the “Homage” volume (what was described as a self portrait was actually shot by somebody else). Horrors! She’s threatening to sue—a bit after the fact since many of the photos have long since gone out of copyright.

The Steichen connection is one the Luxembourgeisie highly value: the book’s prefatory image is of the Grand Duchess Charlotte greeting the aging photographer in the White House on a State visit in 1966. Steichen spent the first eighteen months of his life in the Grand Duchy until his dirt-poor father emigrated to Hancock, Michigan to work the copper mines.

The latest episode in this mutual love affair of a successful emigrant is the establishment nine months ago of a permanent exhibition of his landmark 1955 Museum of Modern Art photo show “Family of Man” in Clervaux’s castle. (Incidentally, those New York hyperaesthetes who mocked it at the time as sentimental, too bourgeois, would bite their tongues had they made the 65 km rail journey up to Clervaux to check out how it has lasted. Marvelously. Eloquent. And a chrestomathy of America’s best photographers—along with many unsung anonyms.)

Strangely, this is not the first photo flap to give a sense of excitement to the notoriously bland Luxembourgeois. In November, two months before the Cultural Capital festival began, the city fathers became incensed over the cover photo of the main program publicity. It shows a black dancer in a crouching position.

The local daily, which is generally regarded as the mouthpiece of the local Catholic archbishop, shamefully derided the image as that of a cretin unable to stand up straight—like, presumably, local bankers!

When the photographer, Wolfgang Osterheld, unlike Edward Steichen, a 47-year-old immigrant from Wiesbaden and Paris, into Luxembourg, couldn’t get his complaint at this egregiously unfair criticism published in the Bishop’s paper, he had to turn to the Socialist tabloid to tell his side of the story.

His story is indeed unique and interesting. The son of a NATO diplomat, his growing up in Paris turned him against both the Bonn world view of his father and his Roman Catholic upbringing. A ’68-er, he ended up teaching German law at Nanterre. He also has a deep interest in New Age psychology, spending his only trip to Los Angeles tracking down a disciple of Carlos Casteñada.

His remove to the Grand Duchy was partly to seek European Union employment to support his photography habit. To that end, he has been publishing an EU sponsored quarterly, “Terminology and Translation,” to pay the bills for his wife and two small children.

His controversial photo is part of his just published book, “Portraits: Regard Sur La Creation Au Luxembourg” (Editions PHI, BP 66, L6401 Echternach, F. Lux 3500, Tirages par Pierre Iwanski, Paris, publié grâce au soutien du fonds culturel national.)

Osterheld is a bit touchy on the subject of financial support. Another memorial photo book has been printed by a local bank in an edition of 3000—for free distribution. His 1500 copies have no such Maecenas. He is a photographic autodidact, shooting only in Ilford black and white with his trusty old Hasselblad. He showed me a suite of his European artists shot at great personal time and expense. I expect he will be acclaimed eventually as the Atget of Euro Art.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Stealing Horses

There is a move underfoot to escalate Frederic Remington from his comfy status as the premier illustrator of Western Americana to a newer plateau of Great American Painter and Sculptor. This amiable conspiracy is on view through April 16th at New York’s Metropolitan Museum (after having been organized by the St. Louis Museum of Art with the moral and material support of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming).

The movement is altogether unconvincing to this viewer, in spite of a high-powered and interesting catalog which includes as essay on Remington as writer by long-ball-hitting Americanist John Seelye that convinces me the artist was less mendacious about the white / Indian morass in prose than he was in 3-D.

And David H. McCullough, who has achieved a considerable status as a tele-docent, has the mugg’s job of doing the audiotape. What are we to think of his assertion that both John Wayne and the Marlboro Man are in Remington’s debt? Deficit is more like it.

For the sad truth of the situation is that Remington, in his hunger to find a métier (“I am,” his is quoted in a wall caption, “going to do America—it’s new and it’s to my taste”), chose the morally tacky bog of the white man “civilizing” the West by obliterating the Indian.

In his 1900 canvas, “The Intruders,” five live white are trying to shoot it out with an “intruding” horse posse of savages. Intruding? Who’s intruding on whom? And his 1907 bronze, “The Horse Thief,” pictures a dishonest Injun riding away with somebody else’s horse. Now, why not a bronze white man called “The Land Thief?”

The self-serving perspective is so mendacious all the way around that you almost feel guilty reminding Remington’s fans about how disgracefully ex parte his view of the westward movement was.

And it doesn’t stop there, the lying. The 1898 painting, “War Correspondents Buying Hotel,” reminds you of William Randolph Hearst’s xenophobic jingoism over the Spanish-American War (the one about which Teddy Roosevelt conceded, “It wasn’t much of a war, but it was the only one we had”).

His “imagined” canvas of the soldiers charging up San Juan Hill is simply silly, in the light of recent investigations which reveal that there was no charge at all (the only charge might be one of outrageous battle faking).

In any case, a party of black soldiers (whom the racist Remington alluded to as “buffalo soldiers”) secured the hill in advance of any charge—real or imagined—by T.R. and his Rough Riders. Doesn’t art history have to deal with a minimal amount of political and social history to retain its validity?

So from his winter home in New Rochelle and his summer place on the St. Lawrence, Remington carved out a career as a Harper’s illustrator of the emerging American imperium and graduated—with very little formal training—to his eminence as a sculptor (63 copies of his “Bronco Buster” were sold) and a painter of white men horsing around in the Indian’s West.

“I am no longer an illustrator,” he bragged toward the end of his short (48 years) life. Like hell. Remington illustrates that you can horse around with history, but your defective version will be discredited in the end.

It is sad to see the noble Met engaged in such dubious reputation-inflation. Somebody somewhere must want to sell a lot of bronzes (or canvases) which tell literal truths while maintaining a massive mendacity about the real history of the West—U.S. committing genocide on the indigenes, who have sadly become the indigents of our GNPhooey society.

From Welcomat: After Dark, April 12, 1989

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Easter in Moorea: Moorea For Your Threatened Dollar

If hyperinflation is the unending lament of the traveler to French Polynesia, then Moorea is the budget traveler’s secret fiscal weapon. The ten-seater twin props leave from Papeete, Tahiti, every half-hour, so reservations are not usually necessary.

It was an $8 cab ride to the Ibis Cook’s Bay hotel, a three-and-a-half star hostelry (no phones in the room and too much ukulele music at the pool bar for my $95 single), two years old in a tasty gingerbread-trimmed tropical architectural style.

Had I been on a real tight budget, I would have stayed with Denise and Fariua, who run a hostel chain in Papeete, Moorea and Bora Bora. For $15 a night, you live in cheesecloth-curtained dorms (the mosquitoes are fierce) with spanking-clean showers and toilets, a full-service kitchen and a mix of hostellers that’s a veritable United Nations of the road: a Berlin student of landscape architecture, a Sorbonne professor of linguistics taking a two-year mid-career break, a nurse from London, a gaggle of Southern Californians.

Be sure to come fully equipped, because little things are outrageously expensive on the islands. Would you believe $1.80 for a can of pop and $1.50 for Cracker Jack? My secret weapon is a humongous plastic carry-all suitcase I bought in Ventimiglia last spring to cart art catalogues back home in. On this trip it is stuffed with fiber cereals, crackers and soft drinks: As I consume these Pathmark specials, there’s space left for souvenirs.

Meanwhile, back at my expensive Ibis, it’s 5 a.m. while I’m typing—my body’s still on Philadelphia time. The concierge not only let me use the tour desk to type on but got me hot water from the bar for my morning Nescafe.

Later, I hungered for a croissant. The night watchman said there was a small shop 15 minutes by foot up the orbital road.

I started out, poorly shod in my zoris, because truckloads of Mooreans going to an all-day festival on the other side of the island kept forcing me onto the narrow shoulder where coral-like rocks harassed my feet.

Fifteen minutes into this tiptoe act, still no store. So, my eye attracted by a string of fish six feet long hanging from a stake next to the road, I hailed the fishing family to confirm that I was walking in the right direction. They assured me I was and told me the savory-looking string of fish had been caught the night before with electric light lures.

The Supermarche Pao Pao was a beehive of activity of locals provisioning themselves for the final two days of their four-day Easter holiday. I bought some imported French sausage ($7.50), a Hinano beer ($2.50), a bag of sweet cakes ($2) and a bag of doughnuts ($1.30). No croissants. Too early. And they’re mainly for the tourists, anyway.

On my stroll back to the Ibis, I was startled to have a young man on a scooter holler, “Bonjour, M. Hazard.” He was the fisherman’s son! As I passed their house, he asked me if I wanted a breakfast cup of coffee. As his wife prepared the hot water, he showed me the rest of last night’s catch, a “still life” of surpassing charm, the local fish being so multicolored and iridescent.

“Do you like to eat fish, Mr. Hazard?” I told him I was crazy about fish. “Well, then choose your breakfast, my friend.” I picked one long, skinny one that looked like an eel. Later, the wife told me that was aupapa. Then I picked up a more fishy-looking fish, something like our own small-mouth bass. That, I was told, was a pau ara.

“Aren’t you hungry, M. Hazard?” my host chided me for my shyly taking only one of each. So he added two more pau ara and another aupapa and showed me how to clean them—especially how to get the dangerous fins and other craw-catchers out of the filet.

Then, while his wife cooked my meal, we schmoozed about his family and mine. His included a Labrador named Rita who had recently dropped a litter. A cat had also just delivered a litter, and his daughter had delivered a jolly boy who’d been given the ancestral name of Vai Vai.

I teased Louis and Margot about their tremendously fecund little patch, theorizing that they must have had some party last Bastille Day to account for all this reproducing. Astonishingly, my joke came across in my pidgin French.

When I sat down to eat, there was a glass bowl big enough for cereal on my plate. Puzzled, I looked for cereal. “No, M. Hazard. Café.” It was a Frenchy-size cup for café au lait. What an experience!

As I left their compound, Louis handed me an object wrapped in an old newspaper. “Look at it,” he smiled. It was a “porcelaine,” the concierge at the Ibis explained. “It’s perfect. You know, they look the same in the water.” He handed it back to me carefully, confirming my suspicion that I had been given a small treasure by my serendipitous hosts in Pao Pao.

The greater treasure was their unassuming hospitality. Theirs was an experience no money could buy, no travel agent organize. It came straight from the Polynesian heart.

From Welcomat: After Dark, April 11, 1990

Monday, 10 December 2012

World Toilet Day?

No Shit? Heh, if my favorite weekly “The Economist” sez so, it’s just so!(November 24-30,2012,p.61.) What’s is worse (or bitter?) is their WTO motto :”I give a shit, do you?” That’s the studied opinion of The World Toilet Organization about a human world that isn’t concerned enough about 2.5 billion loo-less people. It was on November 19 if you want to put it on your 2013 calendar. You just missed World Television Day. And please note that December is International Civil Aviation Day, December 11 is the turn of International Mountain Day. 

The Internaional Day of Happiness is March 20, followed by International Poetry Day and International Mother Earth Day. International Friendship Day falls in July, unless you’re as alienated as I am already by all this pseudo-compassionate Hoopla. There are over 100 such Observance Days which are the province of the UN’s General Assembly. Not counting multiple day observances! That leaves us 264 possibilities, assuming you don’t have the chutzpah to take over New Years Day. 
What to do, as our globe painfully inflicted with honest to God mayhem on all the continents but Antartica, where’s it’s ordinarily too cold to feel huffy. Perhaps we should mock the Phlegmatically-Declined. This cloying habit perhaps derives from Saints Daze. Faithless as I’ve become, I still wear something Green on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Though I have no idea what I would wear if my Christian name were Joseph, whose day is March 19. But surely there must be, in our increasingly technological civilization, better ways of alerting the half asleep billions. 

In the Thanksgiving edition of my favorite newspaper reminder of what’s going on in my ex-country—USA TODAY. (November 23-25, p.7A): Alcestis “Cooky” Oberg’s beguiling essay on what her family found when they recently returned to the village of her greatgrandmother in Greece. (Sadly, they never found her grave, she having been too poor two centuries ago to afford one: that’s why her greatgrandchildren had indeed moved to America, for which they’re now understandingly grateful in their life in Houston, TX.)

But even more impressive of the Thanksgiving spirit was the inspiring story("Boys find rightful owner of war medals”, p.4A.) Michael Mazzariello (11) and his brother Mauro (8), these two New York boys talked an antique dealer in Newburg, N.Y. into letting them have a $450 cache of Army medals so they could find their owner. They searched for the owner until they found a YouTube honoring one Pfc. Charles George after whom a VA Hospital in Asheville,N.C. was named in 2007. 

George,20, had been killed on November 29,1952 in the Korean War when he threw himself on a hand grenade to save his mates. They looked up Warren Dupree, a Veterans of Foreign War officer, who had been on the YouTube.” It is only now,” said Mauro proudly , "that Michael and I can rest knowing the tribal leaders and family of Charles George have in possession the medals that belong to them,” (Cherokee (N.C.) One Feather newspaper). Charles’ Cherokee parents still don’t speak English, but they were mighty proud of the boys who found them, the proper owners of the lost Medal of Honor and Purple Heart.

Those two Thanksgiving stories in USA TODAY were better than the turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie we didn’t have this year in Weimar, Germany. For I have a special eye tracking this newspaper since it began in September, 1982, the very week I chucked my full professorship to become a cub global reporter. 

The press establishment then mocked the innovative newspaper, just as my academic colleagues thought I was nuts for throwing away a career. Looking back these thirty years, I couldn’t be more satisfied that I had created a new media niche for humanists to follow. Not just for a one day of seriousness, but for 365 days a year, of intellectual satisfaction.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

San Francisco Gay; W. Virginia Momma’s Boy

A couple of good reads that have been out for a while:

Armistead Maupin’s Sure of You (Harper & Row, $18.95) is the kind of read that closet heterophiles who flinch at men French-kissing in public need to quiet their paranoias. There’s plenty of gay and lesbian sex, but it’s sweetly implicit, not hot, breathingly specific.

Not that Michael (from Orlando) and Thack (from Savannah) are closety about their union in San Francisco. Thack is furious about a gay designer who drags a blonde wife around at parties and on TV to protect himself from potentially gay-bashing clients or viewers. Thack is a real outer; his current project is building a triangle creeper frame that will bloom pink in the spring to tell the whole world where they lay.

Michael is an inner, hesitant to predict to his lover that roses don’t think triangle and may mess up his plan. Besides, Michael has bigger things on his mind, such as the purple spot he’s just discovered on his leg with a terrifying feeling that is may be Kaposi’s Sarcoma. (His last live-in lover died of AIDS.)

The other plot line is Mary Anne Singleton’s struggle to decide if she should leave her San Francisco homemakers show for a nationally-syndicated program in New York—and whether she should shed her infantile husband, Brian, and precocious moppet, Shawna, in the process. She does, and he goes puerile, as she feared.

Brian and Michael run a nursery. Plant Parenthood and the AC-DCing that threatens to go on with customers are the running gags of this farce about the Good Life in S.F. Strange—I lived in the Bay Area for three years but never once dipped into author Maupin’s serials in the Chronicle. Some strange allergy to serial fiction. (Would I have snooted Dickens?)

Well, it has been my loss, because Maupin is wry and witty and possesses a basilisk eye for the bullshit that ensues when the gay culture earthquakes the straight S.F. Talk about Richter rictuses! There’s even a subplot about lesbians doing Lesbos.

Wholly engaging narratives about an allegedly threatening subject. I’m pleased to note this is the latest of six such tales of the city. Some good reading (and loosening up of stereotypes, apparently.)

Mary Lee Settle’s Charley Bland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.95) is a marvelously evocative tale of a “stone triangle” about a West Virginia woman writer who comes home at 35 after almost 20 years of expatriation in England and France.

The only other Settle I’ve read was a tale about Mother Jones helping the coal miners win a strike. This time, the perspective is the ruling country-club elite and their spiritual emptiness, in which snobbery has replaced religion as the locus of values.

The title character is a momma’s boy who commits suicide at 64—although he has killed his own spirit by his cowardly unwillingness to cut his umbilical. The mother in this “stone triangle” has bullied her too-intelligent husband into building her a fake Williamsburg mansion overlooking the river valley. It’s an emblem of her soullessness.

Snared, Charley compensates by philandering compulsively before, during and after he and the narrator consummate their denied childhood romance. This tale of “profane love” describes a hell on earth for the idle rich who have lost their spiritual center. They have to move the original country club because the slag heaps take over. They have already buried themselves under the debris of their pettiness.

Settle is a quiet but powerful voice, a Christian witness who doesn’t Lord it over her readers. It’s a measure of the untrustworthiness of our literary system that she is not heard above all the noise of the Glitz Lit youngsters like Janowitz and McInerney.

One of the pleasures of aimless reading through the stacks is to stumble upon a voice as clear and authentic as Settle’s. She also has a fine eye for the details of Southern culture, such as the ritual of Derby Day. I had never thought there could be worse hells than the inside of a coal mine. There is: cocktail parties in Corona, West Virginia. A crown of thorns.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 15, 1991

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Muses of Monaco

MONTE CARLO: It was a gamble coming to Monaco for the 34th TV Festival—not knowing in advance what the program was. Imagine my astonishment when the first two films being screened, after my arrival on the early morning train from Nice, were Turner International’s “Zelda” (95 “, 1993) and London Weekend Television’s “Jean Genet” (52 “, 1992). Both, amazingly, treat their very differently complex subjects with intellectual honesty and cinematic brilliance. I could return to Paris this minute, feeling my trip had been well worth it.

Take “Jean Genet,” who has been more of a tabloid scandal than an object of serious literary scrutiny for the generation since Sartre’s “adopting” him made Genet the talk of the French intellectual world. The scenario is based on Edmund White’s new biography with Brit literatus Melvyn Bragg as presenter.

The convincing theme of the film is that Genet domesticated the concept of gay love. Before, such liaisons were conducted secretly or at best openly with shame. He showed that such relationships were humanly “natural.” The broadcast is replete with insights from his life that illuminate the reading of both his novels and plays.

For example, he had a mysterious experience on a train during which he felt that the soul of the ugly man sitting across from him had changed places with his. Thenceforth, he accepted the datum of a common human nature, an epistemological change that made his political plays possible. His novels had expressed only his own isolated idiosyncrasies.

His “love” life was a series of disasters. The man with whom he had the longest relationship in his youth recalls that they never actually had “good” sex, neither with him active nor passive. In fact, this lack of sexual pleasure led not to quick estrangement but rather to a long and deepening friendship, a phenomenon the narrator contends is a frequent occurrence in gay love affairs. During a particularly disastrous affair, in which his acrobat lover took a crippling fall from the high wire, Genet broke off the relationship—and the aerialist committed suicide. Genet stopped writing. There is also an early black and white film (which could have made Robert Mapplethorpe blush); it antedates Marlon Riggs’ controversial PBS short by forty years. (It is, to these straight eyes, even more eloquent than Riggs’ powerful statement about the beauty of male to male affection.)

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Turner International has really given me some insights into the terribly tragic conflicts which plagued F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, his Montgomery belle. I’ve read about the partying that went on in Gerald Murphy’s place in the South of France. But I never felt it until now.

The couple were not only the life of these parties; they were as well the verbal killers of his un-hip guests. The only people to whom Zelda and Scott could be crueler were themselves.

Diving into the pool from their bedroom balcony, and then higher from the roofbeam, simply terrified their more sober dining companions. But when they were at each other’s throats, more and more often as Zelda zigzagged her way into a sanitarium, they thoroughly terrified themselves. It’s a complex web they wove themselves into, and the film gets it, Zelda accusing Scott of raiding her diaries for material, razzing him for stooping to the Saturday Evening Post to support their dizzyingly expensive lifestyle; his countering that she was out to get him.

Poor little Scottie looks on, uncomprehendingly. It is a sad story told with dignity and empathy. It ends, not with Scott’s early death, but with Zelda’s institutionalization, after her failures as a dancer. Let’s hope, for the sake of worldwide Lit Crit, not to forget that LWT and Turner are planning more television this good.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Late-Blooming Begley

If the largely disillusioned American Dreamer fancies the Publishers’ Clearing House sweepstake as a last-chance fantasy, then literary critics thrill at the appearance of a late-blooming writer.

Louis Begley, central-European Jewish refugee and successful New York lawyer, seems to be a prime candidate as he approaches 60. His first effort, Wartimes Lies (Knopf $19) is stunning. It recounts in harrowing minutiae how the son of an assimilated Jewish doctor born “a few months after the burning of the Reichstag” survives the war with tactical lies of every conceivable kind.

His father is swept off to Russia, leaving the protagonist in the custody of a young aunt. They pretend to be Catholics. She shelters him with a German lover. After watching several waves of Jews marched off to the camp, they’re swept up in the final cleansing but evade the trains by a canny ruse, appealing to the gullibility of a German officer’s penchant for orderliness.

Treachery is all-pervasive. An emblem of the madness is the lengths to which escaping Jewish men will go to hide their circumcised states. That this obscene malaise is more than a historical aberration strikes me as I read a report in this morning’s New York Times about the Bombay riots, in which suspected Muslim men were forced to drop their pants by Hindu fanatics seeking to destroy “the enemy.”

Begley’s second novel, The Man Who Was Late (Knopf, $21), is still less successful. It deals with what you might call post-war lies—the efforts a highly successful corporate lawyer takes to exorcise his antecedents as a Jersey City poorboy overachiever at Harvard. His multiple priapic achievements cannot mask his inability to love. Self-hatred wells up time after time to tarnish his outward appearances. He lacks inner graces.