20 November 2014

Life Is Short, Desire Endless

" I have lost the train of my discourse.
It does not matter if we find it."
   - Gertrude Stein, excerpt from  Stanzas in Meditation, Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press: 1994, first published in Poetry magazine, July, 1957.

Freud thought leaving things unfinished was Leonardo da Vinci's primary "symptom."

Image: Roger Parry - illustration for banalite by Leon-Paul Fargue, 1930, Pompidou Center, Paris.

13 November 2014

Museum, Ours: Jem Cohen

Vienna in winter is more than a picturesque backdrop in Jem Cohen's latest film Museum Hours; it is a participant in this hybrid of drama and documentary, its streets become animated paintings.  Cohen considered calling the film Museum, Ours out of his conviction, germinated in childhood visits to the Metropolitan Museum with his parents, that museums only come alive when visitors engage with their collections. Watching Museum Hours I sensed an erotic aspect to that relationship, as people see themselves mirrored in art.  Cohen's film is sophisticated but not cynical and his choice of another comprehensive museum  for his setting seems to be a love letter to the Met.

Located on the city's Ringstrasse, the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum opened in 1891 to display the formidable collections of the Hapsburg emperors. The camera glides past the  museum's medieval and classical works, settling in on the early modern  Dutch and Flemish paintings that are the heart of the  picture gallery; paintings that were revolutionary in their time for making art out of everyday life.   And everyday life streams through the museum, too, individuals and groups of tourists and schoolchildren..  Watching the spectators is Johann (played by Bobby Sommer, a musician and promoter at the Vienna Film festival where Cohen and his work have often appeared) a museum guard, sitting behind a velvet rope when not answering questions, a man obviously relishing each moment.

Entering the gallery one day  the film's second character, Anne (played by the Canadian singer Mary Margaret O'Hara)  appears.  She is not a tourist; rather she has been summoned to Vienna after her name was discovered in the address book of her distant cousin, a woman who now lies alone and comatose in a Viennese hospital.  Anne does not speak German and has little money to spare.  A person on whom little is lost, Johann senses that Anne is adrift and as they walk together through the galleries and talk about the pictures, he offers to act as her translator and advocate.  On this modest scaffolding the film unfolds.

From Memling, Goya, and Velasquez, the two move on to Johann's favorite gallery, the Brueghel room.  Here is the largest collection of Breughels  in the world, including The Tower of Babel, Peasant Wedding, Winter, and The Conversion of Paul, the last three purchased by the acquisitive Hapsburg in one year.  Brueghel's paintings are among the most complex expressions of humanism on canvas.  Dirt, poverty, misfortune, and arbitrary fate cannot extinguish the spark of happiness. The canvases are large and bursting with activity.  The camera travels like a human eye around each painting as a tour guide explains to a group that Brueghel's ostensible subject is never the whole story and is sometimes hardly noticeable, just as in life important events go unnoticed even when they take place in plain sight.  I was reminded of historian Robert Delevoy's wonder at Brueghel's eye: "a gaze so eager and ruthless."

Although Johann is gay, there is a gentle romantic quality to the relationship between these two.  Johann's deadpan humor as he recalls his younger days as a heavy metal musician complement Anne's  occasional bursts of singing.  They smile together at children who lose their boredom when they notice the museum's large number of paintings featuring severed heads and, again, at teenagers who perk up at the realization that some of these old paintings were the erotica of their time.  Where else can one contemplate a man's tender ass without being censured?  Underlining that point, Cohen includes a brief fantasy of the spectators, as naked as the characters in the paintings.  When they walk through the streets and stop at cafes, the flea markets and street vendors with their hodgepodge look like extensions of the museum.
Shuttling back and forth between museum and hospital, Anne's situation suggests an unanswerable question.  If art endures and life is short, is art timeless or does it transcend time, and what values does the question suggest?  Museum Hours reminded me of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire in a way I can't yet put my finger on but, still, that is a compliment.

Museum Hours was filmed at the Kunsthirstorisches (Art History) Museum in Vienna, using high-definition digital video and super-16-millimeter film. Cohen made  a virtue of  his low  budget and the resulting need to use mostly non-professional actors, getting outspreading works from cast and crew.
Jem Cohen has worked as writer/director outside commercial cinema, a sad comment on what's inside today.    Cohen has often  expressed his admiration for the French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker.  Cohen has also made a short film Anne Truitt, Working (2009) about the artist and Amber City, a film  about an unnamed city that is actually Pisa, Italy (1999). All three films are included on the Cinema Guild dvd release.

All images are still from  Museum Hours, distributed in the U.S. by The Cinema Guild.

07 November 2014

Northern Lights In Autumn

I have a special fondness for the photography of John Pfahl because my path has accidentally followed his around the northeast.  Pfahl grew up in northeastern New Jersey: he attended Syracuse University, worked in Rochester, and has lived in Buffalo, where he now teaches at the University of Buffalo. The rural-looking path in Pfahl's photograph reminds me of my walks in Delaware Park, the jewel of the Olmsted park system in Buffalo, whose design was begun by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1868, built on Joseph Ellicott's visionary pla for the city.  Whether it is the easternmost Midwestern city or the western outpost of the Northeast, Buffalo has good bones.

“In the fall, I believe again in poetry
if nothing else it is
a movement of the mind.
Summers ball together
In sticky lumps
spring evenings are glass beads from one mold
for standard-size youth,
winter a smooth heaviness, not even cold.
But the mind trembles
here, on the brink
the mind trembles
there is life, after all
there is life, still
unbelief is left.”
-          “Still” by Aila Merluoto, translated from the Finnish by Jaakko A. Ahokas,  Snow in May: An Anthology of Finnish Writing, Rutherford, NJ, Fairleigh Dickinson University: 1978.

“Love me
but do not come too near
leave room for love
to laugh at its happiness
always let some of my blond hair
Be free.”
 - "Love" by Maria Wine, translated from the Swedish by Nadia Christensen, The Penguin Book of Women Poets, ed. By Carol Cosman, Joan Keefe and Kathleen Weaver, New York, The Viking Press: 1979.

“Where do you go with your fury,
when the road are blpcked with words
you don’t understand
and your fear is worse
than the punishment.

Where do you go with your hate
when your mother
misconstrues your sincerity
and strangers laugh
at your games.

Do you then beat flat a field
In a box’s amenable sand
and sow
The first seed of your fury
Do you play a game
Of dead dolls.

Say to the upright men
in the world
that they must harvest
your ripened hate
and plough the field of your fury
before they will see your face.”
 -“Fury’s Field”  by Cecil Bodker, translated from the Danish by Nadia Christensen, The Penguin Book of Women Poets, ed. By Carol Cosman, Joan Keefe and Kathleen Weaver, New York, The Viking Press: 1979.

After the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer received the Nobel Literature Prize in 2011, I began looking for works by other Scandinavian poets, so enchanting are Transtromer's poems of the poignancy that attends the passing of seasons. Here are poems that leap the language barrier just fine.  When the Atlantic Monthly stopped publishing reviews of literature in translation a few years ago, it sank into irretrievable irrelevance.  The best test of a good mind is how large a world it is willing to inhabit.

Aila Merluoto was born 1924 and attended Helsinki University.  Her first book of poems Lasimaalaus (The Stained-Glass Picture) was   a literary sensation In Finland.  Merluoto has Finnish translator of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.  She now lives in Sweden.
Maria  Wine was born in 1912 and published her first book of poems in 1943.  She married Artur Lundkvist, one of Sweden foremost literary critics.
Cecil Bodker was born in Frederica, Denmark in 1927 .  She worked as a silversmith before turning to writing.  She is the author of poetry, novels, and plays.  She married  and had four daughters, two of them adopted during a stay in Ethiopia.  Bodker has received several literary awards.
1. John Pfahl -  Six Oranges, 1975, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
2. John Pfahl - 79 Potomac Avenue, Buffalo, September 1981, University of California, Berkeley.
3. John Pfahl - The Great Falls on the Passaic River at Paterson, New Jersey, 1988, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.