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Manohla Dargis has written a stop-in-your-tracks kind of piece about the filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky in the Sunday Times. His rhapsodic appreciation of a body of work completely captured me even though I have never had the oppoortunity to see any of Dorsky’s films. (His book, Devotional Cinema, is now on order so there will be more about that here at some later date.)
These excerpts speak to more than Dorsky’s work, clearly:
Although the narratively conditioned brain may attempt to piece together a story from these images (once upon a time in winter there was a tree), Mr. Dorsky’s work requires a different kind of engagement. These are films created for contemplation, and they both invite and resist interpretation.
Although Mr. Dorsky gestures in certain interpretive directions…he never forces you down this or that path. Then again, what can the image of eye-poppingly purple flowers mean? “Interpretation,” as Susan Sontag memorably wrote “is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” A few pages later in the same essay, “Against Interpretation,” she extols transparence in art (and criticism), writing that it “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” Art, as Sontag persuasively argued, doesn’t stand for something else but is itself a thing, and while Mr. Dorsky’s films can inspire explanatory reveries, they are also beautiful objects.
“If we do relinquish control,” Mr. Dorsky wrote in his short 2003 book “Devotional Cinema,” “we suddenly see a hidden world, one that has existed all along right in front of us. In a flash, the uncanny presence of the poetic and vibrant world, ripe with mystery, stands before us.”
Thoreau said that “you must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” There’s a similar imperative, an urgency, about being in the here and the now in Mr. Dorsky’s work, even if the world in his films is of his own making. (Thoreau wrote that it was “necessary to see objects by moonlight — as well as sunlight — to get a complete notion of them,” which nicely fits Mr. Dorsky’s duskier imagery.)
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, featured in the film MANA: Beyond Belief, is a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma. Tradition claims that the boulder was placed on the cliff 2500 years ago by Burmese spirits. A gilded boulder sits on top and is believed to contain a hair of the Buddha.
This is a Wonderful Poem
Come at it carefully, don’t trust it, that isn’t its right name,
It’s wearing stolen rags, it’s never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won’t get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn’t decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won’t take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you’ll learn what’s trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?
I am a long time fan of Wagoner’s work, but this morning this poem spoke directly to the tussling I am in with pieces still emerging in the studio. Things we make take on thingness, like the quickening of a babe in the womb. But as a painting claims its thingness, complexities come along as well. Like sweet infants that become rabidly difficult teenagers, I don’t always like where something is headed. Then what?
I recently viewed a film from a few years ago called MANA: Beyond Belief. Mana is a Polynesian word for the power that resides in things. Filmmakers Peter Friedman and Roger Manley have cobbled together a visually stunning collage of images and experiences from all over the world that speaks to the concept of power objects. They describe it as a film about “what makes matter matter”:
All over the world, in every society, there are objects that have special power over people. People climb mountains or make pilgrimages just to see or touch them. They prostrate themselves or engage in rituals in their presence, caress them in the hopes of absorbing some of their magic, they enshrine them in temples or pass them on to descendants; wear them or store them in treasure houses or sometimes burn them. An individual object might hold power over only one group or even just one person, but the phenomenon of “power objects” is universal.
From the breathtaking Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Burma to the Japanese tradition of O-Hanami (cherry blossom veneration), the film unfolds with almost no dialogue, similar to the hauntingly mesmerizing Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. One of the most memorable segments for me was watching the meticulously accurate replication of a life sized Mercedes Benz, assembled out of paper and balsam wood. This Malaysian variation on the commonly encountered funereal tradition of making sure the dead has everything he or she will need ends with the entire structure going up in flames.
So yes, there are times when the thought of setting fire to certain pieces of my work feels like the right way to go. A pyre in the streets of South Boston? Not without its appeal at times.
I am still carrying around a big chunk of Canada’s uncivilized wildness in me, and it just doesn’t sit well with culturally-induced cynicism. And art world cynicism is cynicism of a particular stripe, leaving one to search for a few gentle but targeted exorcisms to remove that nasty taste in the mouth.
The cynicism-inducing culprits are clear. The first is Work of Art, Bravo’s “reality” (so in quotes, that) show about making art. For me and my friends it was quick to become the summer’s top contender for the program we most love to hate. I know, Jerry Saltz is a judge, and we all love him. But one good guy can’t save a program so bereft of nutritional value. Please, someone say something soulful, authentic, resonant—just once! In this world, art is entertainment, novelty, a plaything.
The problem is that Work of Art is so high in the chip factor: You know it is bad, really bad for you. But like that bag of greasy, salty, preservative-laced, empty-caloried potato chips that you just can’t stop ingesting, they know how to hook you. I need to be rescued from my perverse curiosity! Even though I fast forward to the last 10 minutes of each episode so I only have to sit through the infuriating crit and the cheap trick elimination, that’s 10 minutes better spent doing something less painful, like beating my head against a cement wall.
The second oil spill of cynicism is actually an amazing piece of work and one that deserves full viewing by anyone interested in contemporary art. But you’ll need your Wellies on to wade through the art world slime factor which is in full view. The film Exit Through the Gift Shop, purportedly made by Banksy (England’s masked mystery man and street art’s reigning king) is one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in a darkened theater in a long time. It is cinematic trompe l’oeil, a complex mirrored snake of a thing that turns in on itself and constantly undermines any sense of a grounding wire. Part documentary, part punkumentary, part tongue in cheek expose on art and the art world, there’s no way to know just who and what this is really about. It is smart, engaging and very provocative.
But this is provocation at a price. For anyone who approaches artmaking with sincerity and respect for the deep mystery of it all, there’s just no room for you in the world portrayed by Work of Art or Exit Through the Gift Shop. And visual art is not the only creative field squeezing out practitioners who are committed to their work and don’t play the game of image, appearance and hype. This excerpt is from Will Blythe’s New York Times review of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, whose dystopic view of American life now and in the future sounds harsh, bleak and all too familiar:
Egan’s depiction of Jules, the celebrity journalist, embodies her sophisticated sympathy. Such types are normally easy prey for fiction writers, cheap signifiers of corruption. But Egan understands that the manufacture of image in the modern world is as routine as the assembly of Model T’s in the old industrial economy. Which is to say it’s done by regular people like you and me, not villains but folks just trying to get by.
It just may be that the most subversive path is to openly and candidly care most about the quality, integrity and intentionality of one’s work. And being actively subversive is a well tested antidote to cynicism’s paralyzing and deadening wake.
The title of this post of course is making reference to the famous line from Plato about unexamined lives not being worth much. That phrase was also the inspiration for Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life” in which a slew of philosophers are given 10 minutes and asked to explain, in simple terms, their particular area of interest. Taylor states her challenge up front: Is it possible to move the experience of contemporary philosophical thought (which lives primarily in the form of written text) into everyday language? It is an interesting challenge, and some rise to it better than others. Avital Ronell speaks about meaning, Peter Singer on ethics, Martha Nussbaum on justice, among others. Oh, and of course, the inimitable Brother Cornel who gets to address the big one—TRUTH.
I agreed with the portrayal of Cornel’s guerilla style soliloquizing (he appears in snippets throughout the film) from A. O. Scott’s New York Times review of the film:
Cornel West, the Princeton professor whose back-seat ramblings punctuate the film (everyone else has a single, uninterrupted minicolloquium), clearly takes great pleasure in talking, and it is hard not to share it, at least in small doses. A man of great, one might say compulsive, erudition — not one to drop the name of a single great writer, composer or sage if five are available — he makes the case that thought can be a kind of performance art.
All in all, the film is worthwhile viewing. And there were moments when I was caught quite off guard. Like when Ronell quoted Derrida saying that if you are a person who has a good conscience, you are worthless. No one who is aware and paying attention can believe we have ever done enough to care for the other, she paraphrased. Good reminder, not that I’m swimming in any abundance of smug self satisfaction. But it hit me straight on. As was intended.
As a sidebar, a piece just recently appearing in the New York Times, The Examined Life, Age 8, deals with teaching young children about philosophy. It is an interesting variation on the film’s premise.