Demme’s “A Master Builder”

“A Master Builder,” Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play is the last of three great theatrical projects of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn that have been made into movies. The film opened this week at the New York Film Forum.

Master Builder Halvard Solness confronts the object of his final desire and the agent of his punishment Hilda Wangel (Lisa Joyce).

Master Builder Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) confronts the object of his final desire and the agent of his punishment, Hilda Wangel (Lisa Joyce).

Normally filmed stage productions, no matter how talented the actors or how brilliant the playwright, end up being stilted affairs, so much so that the general feeling is that a play cannot be successfully filmed other than as a method of archiving the stage production.

Much younger Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss the meaning of life over an elegant dinner in "My Dinner with Andre."

Much younger Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss the meaning of life over an elegant dinner in “My Dinner with Andre.”

This truism is disproved by the collaborations of the experimental stage director Gregory and the performer-writer-collaborator Shawn. The first, “My Dinner with Andre,” came out more than 30 years ago (in 1981) and proved to be a quirky and engaging experiment in both theatre and film in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are filmed doing nothing more than talking during dinner, albeit, eventually, the meaning of life and more important things.. A decade later Gregory and Shawn collaborated in bringing the rehearsal of David Mamet’s version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya” to the screen as “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Both of those projects were filmed by Louis Malle. Malle died not long after the latter movie (his last), and so this latest collaboration by Gregory and Wallace was filmed by Demme, who is perhaps best known for “Swimming to Cambodia” (a theatrical performance film) and “Silence of the Lambs” (a highly successful commercial crime drama/horror film).

Solness's marriage to Aline (Julia Haggerty) is an empty set of bonds of mutual recriminations. Halvard tells Wangel that Aline is "dead," that all the blood has been drained out of her. And yet they both have a tenderness for the other when it looks like they are about to be thrown over. Or is that Halvard's illusion as well?

Solness’s marriage to Aline (Julie Hagerty) is an empty set of bonds of mutual recriminations. Halvard tells Wangel that Aline is “dead,” that all the blood has been drained out of her. And yet they both have a tenderness for the other when it looks like they are about to be thrown over. Or is that Halvard’s illusion as well?

I’ll return in a bit to the differences between the filming by Malle and Demme, but for the moment it’s worth noting that the surprising immediacy of all three of these films has very little to do with the film direction. All three movies have something that is almost completely absent in modern American film—intellectually challenging dialogue exchanged by actors who actually appear to be engaging in conversations with each other. This may seem like something that ought to be inherent in any drama, whether staged or filmed, but when you see a production by Gregory, you realize that the essence of theatricality, done right, is the ability to draw the viewer into the drama, solely based on the words and how they are delivered, and that the trick is seldom seen anymore. In each of these three films, the power of words exchanged by actors totally guided by a particular view of the playwright’s script is astonishing. In each of the three, there are moments when you simply lose yourself in the exchanges of ideas and emotions that are so deeply personal that you forget that you are watching a production and become a spectator of a genuine human interaction. In “Vanya on 42 Street,” in which the actors arrive in street clothes to rehearse the Chekhov play in a condemned theatre in Manhattan’s Time Square district, the interaction is so absorbing and the pace of the drama so compellingly managed that when intermission is announced the viewer is shocked into realizing that it is a play he is watching.

Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and George Gaynes bring the audience from Midtown to Czarist Russia by sheer theatre magic.

Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and George Gaynes bring the audience from Midtown to Czarist Russia by sheer theatre magic.

The effect is not merely owing the Gregory’s genius as a stage director. It is because of the immense amount of work and attention to detail that the director and willing actors lavish on these projects. “Vanya on 42nd Street” was in rehearsal for several years and in the end never saw the stage. “A Master Builder” was rehearsed by Gregory for over a decade. This kind of dedication and meticulousness has no analog among spoken performances. Movie productions are hailed for their preparation when actors spend several weeks together. The economics of theater require that projects are rehearsed largely during out-of-town productions. But by the time Gregory’s plays (and all three were only movies) are seen by the public, all artifice has been wrung out of them. The acting has reached a point that it is no longer “acting.” There should be another word for it. It has reached the point that you do not need to suspend your disbelief—the characters are actually delivering their words from deep within their actual beings and they are saying them to people who they know will react in the unpredictable ways that humans react to each other. It is a method of acting that no other director, stage or film, can elicit.

The avenging angel discovers the wreckage Halvard has caused.

The avenging angel discovers the wreckage Halvard has strewn about himself. Their tragedy is having come to accept the lot assigned them.

In some ways “A Master Builder” is the most challenging of the three projects. The first one, “My Dinner with Andre,” is an exploration of wonder and imagination by two intellectuals who respect each other and are grappling to explain their souls to each other. This was remarkable enough, but it only involved the exchanges between Shawn and Gregory who have an extraordinary degree of mutual stage empathy. The Chekhov project involved a large ensemble, and therefore was many times harder to elicit genuine interpersonal interactions in Gregory’s way, but the gorup acted a play that, though tragic, was shot through with humor, absurdity, flamboyance and pathos so that audience reactions took a ride that was unpredictable, but not uniformly intense.

They want little enough. Solness's employe (Jeff Biehl) wants out from under the master's thumb and to marry the bookkeeper; his father (Andre Gregory), who was ruined by Solness, wants only to see his son succeed before his own death. Solness considers only his own fears in crushing them both.

They want little enough. Solness’s employee (Jeff Biehl) wants out from under the master’s thumb and to marry the bookkeeper; his father (Andre Gregory), who was ruined by Solness, wants only to see his son succeed before his own death. Solness considers only his own fears in crushing them both.

“Master Builder,” on the other hand, is (at least to me) an almost impossibly difficult work to perform. It is uniformly grim. The relations among the characters have been frozen over time into unrelieved misery. The cause of this is the central character, Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn), a man who dominates those around him so imperiously that his desires are all met: sexual, material, social, professional. And yet Solness is sick of life and too craven to even consider ending it. He has climbed the bourgeois ladder, accepting all the requirements that such a life exacts and adopted all the beliefs that such a life depends on. To Solness everything is a negotiated bargain. For everything received, one must pay. He is obsessed with the knowledge that his professional success is an asset that must have a corresponding liability. He also knows that it is not only he, but also all those around, that must pay. The obligations he has imposed on others, his wife, his employee, the man whose business he ruined for his own career and his personal assistant, all pay for his success. He acknowledges, however, only a debt to his wife. But she is beyond willing to accept anything from Halvard. Bourgeois herself, she has been reduced to considering only her “obligations” and “duty,” to her husband and to everyone else. She fits in the bourgeois scale as servant to Halvard’s master.

Henrik Ibsen. (Photograph by Gustav Borgen. 1898. Norsk Folkemuseum.)

Henrik Ibsen. (Photograph by Gustav Borgen. 1898. Norsk Folkemuseum.)

The story, therefore, is a kind of social realist melodrama from a century ago that is unlikely to appeal to a contemporary audience, whose attention span as well as their empathy has been reduced by our own narrowness. But the difficulty is greater than that. The play is not one of the earlier works like “Doll House” or “Ghosts,” which sensationalized the Western theater with their brutal political-social critique. (Perhaps only Strindberg could flog the bourgeoise like Ibsen.) At the point in his career he wrote “The Master Builder,” Ibsen took as a given the relentless criticism of social convention. This play, however, began a new phase, one where he would add psychological insight and (necessarily) expand his theatrical palette by adding approaches that would stretch the stage’s power to represent. “The Master Builder” can plausibly be presented as a performance of Halvard Solness’s internal thoughts. And that is the approach taken by Wallace Shawn who produced the screenplay. The liberty he takes with the play makes the point. Solness is first seen hooked up to modern hospital monitoring devices. The point is that the main character is approach an end-of-life crisis and that everything that takes place must be seen in that context. If you miss that point, there are several added “dream-like” sequences which suggest that Solness is slipping from consciousness. This particular contrivance, it seems to me, is unnecessary. Those who cannot pick this point of view from the dialog or direction are probably not going to be watching this film anyway; the rest (including all who watch it) are likely to be offended by the condescension. But the device is not long employed and is not a great distraction.

Solness tells a “strange story” to Doctor Herdal (Larry Pine) who is unable to grasp the essence of Solness’s self-deception.

With this solipsistic psychological approach, one can understand the perspective of Solness without having to accept each of the details. Solness often comes across as the more long-suffering of the greatly suffering characters, but the fact is the suffering is all engendered by Solness himself. He claims to Doctor Herdal that he allows his wife to believe a slander against him because he owes her a great debt. “Debt” is a bourgeois concept. Solness committed a crime against her, but believes he can buy off his guilt, even though the coin he offers itself turns out to be false.

The equilibrium of suffering is upset by the unexpected introduction of the young Hilda Wangel, who soon reminds Solness that 10 years ago to the day, he had forced himself on her when she was 12 (or 13 the play says, making it somewhat more clear her unreality), when he promised to come back in 10 years to take her away and make her a princess. She has now come to claim her right. Solness remembers none of this, but soon accepts it because she seems not to incriminate him for the violation. And she is the only person who has not become irredeemably broken by his callous selfishness. She prods him on to act less selfishly, and does so by also bringing life back into his empty soul. Solness was more than willing to accept her dreams for herself and him, even though, at every turn, she with good nature reminds him of his own short-sided meanness and how much of a cad he was to her and everyone else. Their exchanges make up the central intellectual debate of the play. The audience is never quite sure where Wangel stands, but watching Solness pour out his withered soul to her is gut-wrenching.

In the end Solness desires his own destruction, even if he only vaguely realizes it.

In the end Solness desires his own destruction, even if he only vaguely realizes it.

It is difficult to imagine a more perfectly realized production of this play. It is true that its point of view is not necessarily the definitive one, but it follows that choice with relentless logic. The acting is impeccable. Those, like me, who watch almost no television will be shocked to see Julie Hagerty (Aline Solness), who was last seen in Airplane in 1980. Her appearance not only shows that tempus fugit, but also that she has acting chops that Hollywood inexplicably failed to employ for over three decades. Her interactions with Solness are achingly icy, but she has so thoroughly internalized the damage done her that she in the end does not want to see his destruction. Larry Pine plays the perfectly good-natured Doctor Herdal, the only character who has not been manipulated by Solness and the only one who fails to comprehend the strength of the web that has trapped the rest of the characters. Andre Gregory’s small role as the dying and ruined mentor of Solness is powerful. The relationship between Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce (Hilda Wangel) form the central pivot of the play. She is perfectly ambiguous. Is she seducing him or teasing him? This depends on whether she believed his promises to a small girl he took advantage of or came for revenge. Solness denies vigorously that he acted the monster, but soon accepts it because he thinks she provides his last hope for a relationship unspoiled by his fear, his manipulation and his self-centeredness. But he is such a narrow character that he can do nothing but offer unrealistic acts of bravado, after much coaxing. Where this will lead becomes as inevitable as his own unrelenting wretchedness to those around him had proved.

His entire life was guided by the same impulses. And though he should have seen the result, he is impelled by those same impulses to the very end.

His entire life was guided by the same impulses. And though he should have seen the result, he is impelled by those same impulses to the very end.

Of course the entire project revolves around Wallace Shawn. I must admit that it seemed implausible to me that Shawn could pull off the role. After all, Solness is sought after by all the women he encounters. Those reading the play without sufficient imagination (like me) would probably think that a “leading man” actor was necessary to make the role plausible. Shawn, however, is such a talented actor that he can use the audience’s initial discomfort with the dissonance between his appearance and his effect on women to dramatize the fact that the narrative is a non-naturalistic story told from his own perspective petrified by years of unchecked self-indulgence. His attempts to seduce Wangel become exercises in self-delusion. That delusion has an inevitable price, which is obvious to all who watch the unpleasant behavior of one who is so used to acting the lecher that he cannot see his own ridiculousness.

While the stage direction and acting are top-flight, I will offer a quibble here. The film direction of the other two projects by Malle was essentially unobtrusive. It was not static—there were close-ups and cross-curing—but it did not draw attention to itself. Demme’s filming, however, relied much less on the sure-handedness of the stage direction. At the beginning, for some reason, some of the scenes were filmed by hand-held cameras. Moreover, the use of cross-cutting during dialogs became so pronounced that it diluted the in-the-moment magic of the stage directions. The use of music, although not as excessive as most movies make it, was nonetheless  unnecessary. The acting itself was quite enough to produce the desired audience reactions. In fact, the music tended to draw attention to itself by overemphasizing what the production is trying to convey. The use of the music of Sibelius (a Finn) evidently to provide suitable Scandinavian flavor to a play by Ibsen (a Norwegian) came across as a typically pretentious Hollywood affectation. That said, the film direction was fluid and for the most part stayed out of the way of Gregory’s staging.

For those unfamiliar with Ibsen, be warned that this is not an “uplifting” experience. It is, however, a nearly perfectly realized work of art. And great art, which is hard as granite, is seldom “uplifting.”




Lindsey Graham: God’s Warrior


Colonel Lindsey Graham receives Meritorious Service Medal from Air Force judge advocate general  on April 28, 2009.

Colonel Lindsey Graham receives Meritorious Service Medal from Air Force judge advocate general on April 28, 2009.

War hero and humble patriot* Lindsey Olin Graham, United States Senator who holds the Strom Thurmond seat from South Carolina (a seat which, I believe, Thurmond himself received from General Beauregard, the original liberator of South Carolina and another* American war hero), is one of the wise men of American foreign policy, as you will have gathered if you spend time receiving you information about our wise men from Sunday morning television news shows or if you happen to see a television report on any violence taking place anywhere on the planet. Graham’s well-earned fame as a foreign policy and military guru comes, not just from his own extensive combat experience, but also* from being a member of that well-known trio of foreign policy experts, whose other members included Senator John McCain and one-time Senator Joe Lieberman. The members of this trio have been and are (except for Lieberman who for some reason chose not to stand for re-election in Connecticut, after forming his own, one-man party, Connecticut for Lieberman) routinely called upon by the broadcast networks to offer their advice to guide our Republic in every international crisis or brewing crisis. John McCain, of course, had combat experience during the Vietnam War. Although Joe Lieberman had no actual combat experience, because he was unfortunately forced (like Dick Cheney by the imperative of “other priorities”) to accept an education deferment from the Vietnam draft and when his education was completed a “family exemption,” his credentials as an expert are unassailable by virtue of hanging out with two* American War heroes*. The advice they offer ranges from massive U.S. military force, usually air force (the combat experience of both* John McCain and Lindsey Graham*) to the more subdued response, when restraint is called for, of arming untrained and unknown “freedom fighters” with state of the art firepower to deal with our, and therefore the world’s, enemies. When there is not a crisis brewing, they have always maintained that our Chief Executive should continuously threaten to use American force, more-or-less randomly throughout the world, purely for its benign effects. It is a modification of Theodore Roosevelt’s adage and can be called the Big Missile/Bigger Mouth approach. For example, the now-reduced-to-two experts jointly criticized the President for the capture by Sunni insurgents this past January of the Iraqi city of Fallujah (a city whose “Americanization” took so much blood, sweat and tears by McCain, Graham and Lieberman) for failing to either use massive American force, arm massively the Iraqi government or talk loud enough about doing one of the former. It doesn’t matter which one of these was the failure, because the President did none of them, and clearly one of three things would have “saved” Fallujah.

With Israel’s increasingly bloody incursion into Gaza, and the brutal slaying of civilians, including children, the destruction of homes, and the massive use of firepower in densely populated cities, it is of course natural to want to know what Graham suggests here. After all, we have armed Israel to the teeth (and that seems to be at least part of the reason they have no incentive to negotiate a peaceful outcome of hostilities that have so far lasted longer than the Thirty Years War), and we constantly claim that we support Israel, no matter what. As far as I can tell, the brutality of American military would be superfluous in this situation. So it would be instructive to hear from someone with extensive policy experience and down-to-earth, practical combat experience.*

[*Update: It has come to my attention that Lindsey Graham never actually participated in combat. He served only as a lawyer, principally drafting wills and the like for soldiers who went to combat. My only excuse for this egregious mistake, although it hardly justifies it, is that Graham himself called himself "Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm veteran" in his own website while running for Senate (the website you can see here). This site was not changed even after it was shown to be false. He also, according to The Hill, which broke the fact that he didn't actually serve in combat, went about calling himself a "Gulf War Veteran" in hundreds of appearances. And even his official congressional biography, now since taken down, said the same thing. As a result Who's Who and The Political Almanac included the claim. Now when The Hill brought to light the fact that as a National Guardsman he never left the shores of South Carolina, where he was evidently defending Fort Sumner from any possible sedition, he explained that he should have said "Gulf era veteran" and that he was not responsible for the fact that various publications erroneously claimed he had combat experience. He did admit that he was responsible for his own campaign website and the official congress ion biography, but insisted that he did not intend to mislead anyone. I guess I have to confess I did not pick up that nuance. Mea culpa.]

So what is Patriot Graham’s take on the crisis in Gaza? Well, this time you won’t find his most trenchant analysis on Sunday morning network TV. You would have to go to the latest convocation of Christians United for Israel. Since, dear reader, you probably don’t have sufficient credentials of orthodox faith to be admitted, you will have to take David Weigel’s word for what transpired. Christians United for Israel, for those who are not well versed in end-of-times think tanks, is the organization created by John Hagee, a minister of Jesus Christ who specializes in explaining how the end of the world will shortly come about and what Christians can do to hasten that event in which most of the inhabitants of earth will be plunged into cosmic war after which they will be thrown in the fiery pit. You can easily order one of his books on the subject to learn the details, but suffice it here to say that it will make Israel’s incursion into the Gaza appear like our historical benevolence to Latin America. Speaking of which, one of the panelists at the Christians United conference was Elliot Abrams, who own contribution to our benevolence to the strongmen in Argentina’s Dirty War and the death squads of Central America (not to mention his conviction, since pardoned, for lying to Congress on these subjects) we noted some time back. It must have seemed like Old Home Week to Abrams when he heard the thrilling words of speaker Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, an Israel Defense Forces veteran: “Hamas started this war. The soldiers of Israel must smash their skulls and break their spines.”

Thrilling as such call to genocide is, and touching as the undeniable pathos and humility of Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who were honored by Pastor Hagee for some reason, perhaps for nearly derailing Governor Chris Christie’s nascent run for President for his faux pas calling Palestinian terrifies occupied by Israel’s occupying forces “occupied territories,” in telling the audience of war whoopers that they would have prevented the holocaust (if they were, say, 80 years younger and weren’t right-wing Republicans then), I bring this up merely to see what Senator Graham said. And after this long introduction, here it is:

 Here’s a message for America: Don’t ever turn your back on Israel, because God will turn his back on us. More Germans died in World War II than American soldiers. That didn’t make the Germans right.

Graham had deftly picked up on the suggestion that Pastor Hagee opened the conference with: To disregard the casualty reports. And how better than to compare some and children to Nazi soldiers? And what could be more compelling proof of God’s will for America than the relentless carnage of our client? In a few words the Senator showed how he has been able to hold on to the Beauregard-Thurmond seat in the Senate and why our finest broadcast journalists seek his advice. Rarely is the valor of a tested combat veteran combined with the integrity of a man who doesn’t lie about his past in the form of an incisive intellect as is show in this senator.

“Lost Kingdoms” at the Met

Detail of early 7th Century C.E. Buddha (Sandstone.National Museum of Thailand.) Click to enlarge.

Detail of early 7th Century C.E. Buddha (Sandstone. National Museum of Thailand.) Click to enlarge.

Those with even a casual in Asian art interest in  general or Hindu and Buddhist statuary specifically (and even those more generally interested in how cultures are transmitted) owe it to yourselves to visit the spectacular exhibit entitled “Lost Kingdom:Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. The show examines how the religious art of India (and therefore the religions themselves) spread to the little and isolated kingdoms of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar  in the middle of the first Century. It is the kind of art exhibition that few places can do as well as the Met. The displays fill ten black rooms with soft lighting from the high ceilings that highlights the three-dimensional works from multiple angles, allowing each work to stand out in a room filled with striking forms. The walls are mounted with two-dimensional reliefs or statues requiring additional support. The works themselves come from around the world, the most important from the countries of origin themselves, many of which have never left those countries before. The pieces are arranged in thematic, approximately chronological, groups. The show begins in earnest with the endemic nature gods of the Southeast Asian kingdom, which Hinduism incorporated as part of the cultural invasion. Evidently, like Roman Catholicism (only more successful), Hinduism readily incorporated local folk beliefs into its rituals and mythology which together with the Vedic mysteries available only to the local elite made for ready acceptance by both the general population, and more importantly (at least for the commissioning of art works) the local powers.

Yaksha (Central Vietnam. Early 6th century. Sandstone. Museum of Cham Sculpture, Da Nang, Vietnam.) Click to enlarge.

Hindu missionaries, and later Buddhist ones, travelled with Indian merchants, who explored the secluded regions of Southeast Asia in search of the societies whom they saw as the Land of Gold (Suvarṇabhūmi in the Buddhist Jataka tales). The peoples they encountered are now obscure, many known only by their name or a few inscriptions (under the influence of the Indians) or records of the Chinese (also motivated by trade). Coincidentally, at about the same time the Roman Church was making inroads into the Germanic tribes that had swallowed up the empire, and they also were doing so by incorporating folk rituals and beliefs. The art in this group mainly depicts yakshas and yakṣī, nature spirits recognized in Hindu and Buddhist (as well as Jainist) texts. Much like Western fairies, these nature gods suffered demotion with the advent of the imported religion (Christianity in Europe and Hinduism in Southeast Asia). The relief showing a Yaksha from Central Vietnam (right) illustrates the fairy-like qualities of these divinities. The effect is achieved by having a fully molded head with broad features seemingly separate from the patterned hair atop a softly stylized body in the common cross-legged sitting position (a position that would become associated with meditation with the coming of Buddhist art).

Dragon Among Foliage. (Central Cambodia. Mid-7th Century. Sandstone. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

While generally regarded as harmless, if eccentric, they occasionally had more sinister aspects such as the dragon shown among foliage in the Met’s own lintel from 7th century Cambodia. The picture above does not do justice to the Indic artists who rendered the relief. The foliage perfectly camouflages the beast and make up part of his anatomy. The piece shows both the imagination and technical competence of early Indian artists in Southeast Asia.

“Throne” Stele. (Central Myanmar, ca. 4th Century. Sandstone. National Museum, Yangon, Myanmar.) On the wall behind the stele are the Yaksha pictured above and a yakṣī also from Central Vietnam, ca. 6th Century. (Museum of Cham Sculpture, Da Nang, Vietnam.) Click to enlarge.

A stele in the middle of the group from Central Myanmar of the 4th Century (called a “throne stele” after the more familiar steles dedicated to royal authority from Ancient Egypt) demonstrates an early acceptance of Indian religion and cultural influence. The front of the stele has something like a royal stool flanked by two female attendants. Although crudely rendered it is reminiscent of  later large Buddhist steles attesting to royal power. The reverse side of the stele, however, shows how the Indic religions (particularly Hinduism) appealed to local elites. It shows three local elites, the central figure carrying a club with the two attendants bearing standards (dhuaja). All three have elaborate turbans and wear short waist cloths with crossing straps across the chest. All three have large earrings on their elongated ears. This display is known from early Hindu literature as the method that Kings were paraded flanked by royal standard-bearers. This low relief carving lacks the sophistication and technical perfection of later Indian-trained workshops, but it shows how early Indian cultural dominance had penetrated Southeast Asia.

Buddha in Meditation. (Ssndstone. Central Myhanmar. 6th Century. Thiri Khittaya ((Śrī Ksetra) Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, Myanmar.)

Buddha in Meditation. (Central Myanmar. 6th Century. Sandstone. Thiri Khittaya (Śrī Ksetra) Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, Myanmar.) Click to enlarge.

The second group shows the advent of Buddhism. Indian Buddhist iconography consists of a relatively few number of poses by the Buddha. Yet this limitation did not inhibit individual expressions of the spiritual journey of the Buddha, not only by representation of his factual features and expressions, but also his poses and even how his diaphanous robe drapes his body. This figure is one of four life-size seated Buddhas, either meditating or offering protection, arranged by the Met around a central supporting cross mount. The figures are early monumental Buddhist art from the eastern part of the region (Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand) and each show distinct local artistic characteristics. The Cambodian form shows a serene meditating head atop a slightly rounded body, without the details that draw the viewer’s eyes to the face. The Thailand figure has a much more muscular body with more detail and the head supports the characteristic spiral hair patterns of Thai renderings of the Buddha. (See the Head of Buddha at the top of this post for another example.) Many renderings of the Buddha were carried by monk-missionaries. Some were mass produced molded clay tablets found throughout Southeast Asia. This votive items were produced by hand from a metal or fired-clay stamp. Some of these tablets bear the purchaser’s name on the back and must have been purchased as a means of obtaining merit. In the exhibit two such tablets show the crucial moment in the Buddha’s quest, the seated Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness. (This was the moment that the Buddha banished the torturing doubt that he would never achieve enlightenment by grounding himself by touching the earth with his right hand.) Although the renderings are crude they must have had significant spiritual value to the devotees since they are found in large numbers in ancient stupa mounds were they were evidently offered as a method of homage.

Standing Buddha. (Southern Cambodia. mid-7th Century. Sandstone. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Standing Buddha. (Southern Cambodia. mid-7th Century. Sandstone. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

It was not just inexpensive icons for the masses that Indian Buddhist artists sent to Southeast Asia; some of the most innovative sculpture from the best studios in Northern India found their way to the region. A striking example is the standing Buddha from the Met’s own collection. (Because the piece is missing its arms one cannot tell if this is the Buddha Granting Boon or the Buddha Preaching pose.) This three and a quarter foot piece, according to the exhibition’s commentary, reveals a new approach to portraying the Buddha, appearing for the first time in Southeast Asia in the 7th century. The style was invented by the monastic school of Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. “The sculpture workshops there were heir to one of the oldest continuous traditions of image making in norther India, at Mathua.” The piece is highly stylized, the geometric modeling of the body, framed by a near rectangular robe beneath a serene face, all gently rounded, gives an unmistakable sense of tranquility and the “centeredness” of the teaching. It is an artistic world that would not be seen attempted in the West for a long time (if ever), where first the crucifixion and then the Madonna and child would hold sway for many centuries (leaving out any guide to earthly existence).

Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness (Central Myanmar. ca. 8th Century. Bronze with gold gilding. Private collection, Europe.) Click to enlarge.

Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness (Central Myanmar. ca. 8th Century. Bronze with gold gilding. Private collection, Europe.) Click to enlarge.

Despite the teaching of denial and withdrawal, Buddhism was sponsored by the wealthy and powerful, who appropriated the image to celebrate themselves. (This, of course, is in the nature of all intersections of metaphysics and worldly power. It is why those who seek to radically change worldly power tend to reject the worldly orthodoxies of the powers that be, whether it is Lutheranism in 16th century Germany or Jacobinism in 18th century France or any number of other examples (such as the trial of Socrates). Conversely, we see the reactionaries of our own time support the farcical pieties of Hobby Lobby.) We sometimes miss that point when we contemplate world-historical art. Or even when we navigate the construction of the David H. Koch Plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum. It’s easier to see it when viewing a gilded  Buddha, such as the 8th century Buddha Calling Earth to Witness from central Myanmar. This figure, we are told, because of the layered rather than crossed legs, comes from the artistic tradition of Southern India. The Pyu culture of Myanmar early showed a dedication to Buddhism and supported large monastic communities (saṅgha), which created a demand for such images. Gilded figures are not as valuable as those created from sheet gold (usually by royal commission), but the latter are also more subject to looting, so that the relative number that remain are not an indication of the extent of patronage then. But it is clear, even with “only” gilding, the Pyu was a culture, the economics of which, was structured to support Buddhism. Later, Thai gold figures of the Buddha, however, stressed more the wealth of the patron than the devotion of the supplicant.

Śivalinga (5th-6th century,  An Giang province, Vietnam. sandstone. National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City.) Click to enlarge

Śivalinga (5th-6th century, An Giang province, Vietnam. Sandstone. National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City.) Click to enlarge

With the next group, the World of the Brahmin, is perhaps the most imaginative and artistically diverse set of the exhibition. Of course the ministry of the Brahmin is the ritualistic world expressly dedicated to the elite powers. And so it is not surprising that the very best artists were commissioned for the most diverse set of images. The display is too extensive for a detailed analysis here. Needless to say the three major gods of the Hindu pantheon are amply displayed in all their avatars or associated symbols. From the undeniably primal phallic association of the linga of Shiva in early art to the sophisticated renderings of the Gaṇeśa, as elephant, the world of the Brahmin is multifaceted and urbane as well as mythic. As you would expect of a cult that ministered to the elite, the images created for the Brahmins were both highly imaginative, sensual and of the highest technical competence. The stuff of belief became the raw material for aesthetics. Things that one time had visceral meaning have been translated into a pattern that embodies cultural thought. We can no more understand the significance of Skanda, the god of war, sitting on a peacock than a first century Hindu could understand a painting of Narcissus staring into a lake. But there is no denying that the best art offers a form of insight that is not possible from mere retelling. Perhaps this is why so many Buddhas lost their heads: High art can depict the sublime in ways that mere ideologues find disturbing. Hence the Taliban’s actions at Bamiyan or the 16th century Beeldenstorm.

Kṛṣṇa Govardhana. (Southern Cambodia, 7th century. Sandstone. Cleveland Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

Kṛṣṇa Govardhana. (Southern Cambodia, 7th century. Sandstone. Cleveland Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

On the more mundane level of stylistic comparisons the story of Lord Krishna’s miracle at Mount Govardhana is shown in two separate sculptures, both from pre-Angkor Cambodia. The first one photographed here is one that has the characteristics of Archaic Greek sculpture:  a stocky body in a muscular pose. The story is that Lord Krishna defeated the rage of Indra by lifting the mountain. Implicit in the story is the instruction that we all have our places. Krishna learned that the peasants made offerings to the demigod of rain and thunder Indra. Krishna came to believe that the dharma of the peasants was to tend to farming and not concern themselves with propitiating the god that most benefited them. When the sacrifices were withheld Indra sent a flood to the village. But Krishna protected the village from the torrential rain by lifting Mount Govardhana to act as a shield. The depiction of Krishna as a youthful protector, joyous in his task, is common to both. The comments to the exhibition say that the Cleveland Museum figure is “perhaps the greatest pre-Angkorian figure outside of Cambodia.” And it is hard to argue with that assessment. Like the Archaic Greek figures, this Krishna is joyous in his physicality and effortless in the miracle. It makes the viewer want to believe the story, no matter how implausible it is. It is difficult, however, to think that this version is not more “primitive”than the second one, although as far as we know, the second one was contemporary with or even a predecessor of what I call the first.

Kṛṣṇa Govardhana (Southern Cambodia, early 7th Century. Sandstone. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.) Click to enlarge.

The “second” one is much more “realistic” in the sense that it more resembles my own view of what an athlete looks like. The proportions of the body suggest a sprightliness and the facial expression show his delight in saving the peasants (a sort of noblesse oblige, I suppose, from the elites’ point of view). The show’s commentary says that the myth explains Krishna’s elevation from a pastoral deity to a major avatar of Vishnu. This depiction of this particular myth, however, is rare in India and therefore must reflect a local school of sculptors in Cambodia which had surpassed the Indian artists is this particular type of artistic accomplishment. The figure has less “solidity” but more apparent motion than the “first” figure. It is the motion that gives it the dramatic appeal. The variety of representations of this groups is so wide that it is impossible to do justice to the collection in a post that would be read. In many ways, the exhibition is beyond a single review because it deserves analysis not only as a show of religious art or the art of a region, but also as a major reference work for historical understanding. I will, however, include one more image, solely because it appeals to me, both as an example of the style and imagination of the region’s artists and as a work that speaks to the modern mind. The work depicts the final avatar of Vishnu.

Kalkin. (Southern Cambodia, first half of 7th Century. Sandstone.  National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.)

Kalkin. (Southern Cambodia, first half of 7th Century. Sandstone. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.) Click to enlarge.

Kalkin represents the future form of Vishnu, which is as a white horse. As befits a messianic figure, this Kalkin is imposing at four and a half feet tall. The body is both powerful and idealized. Though it has no human neck, the head appears naturally on the form. It is striking how much care was devoted to the eyes, nostril and nipples, and possibly the ears, although they are broken off. The robe that covers the figure’s thigh’s is especially prominent, both as a structural support (the central strap) and as a humanizing feature (the gathered pleats to the left). There are several other noteworthy monumental sculptures in this section of the exhibition. I particularly liked the lintel depicting Vioshnu Anantashayin and the Birth of Brahma (from mid-7th Century Cambodia),  both for its intricate patterning and graceful figures. For comparison a tympanum is also shown with the same scene (from mid-7th century Central Vietnam) although “cleaner” (with no patterning) and with a more naturalistic view of the supernatural. (Vishnu, for example, has only two arms.) Both show Vishnu asleep on the cosmic ocean, the Cambodian form highly idealized, the Vietnamese relief showing the waves as individual sea serpents.

Head of Meditating Buddha (Central Thailand, 9th Century. Terra cotta. National Museum, Bankock.) Click to enlarge.

Head of Meditating Buddha (Central Thailand, 9th Century. Terra cotta. National Museum, Bankock.) Click to enlarge.

The show concludes with a vast room of “state art” from Thailand, where, evidently, as larger kingdom was able to develop an identifiable national style for monumental work. A work not to be missed is a terra-cotta head of Buddha which, although only six inches high, is so evocative of contemplation that you feel a deep connection with the subject. Another room shows various “savior” cults including an appealing life-sized guardian lion. The final room is one showing the new internationalism at the end of the period. It is impossible to convey the extensive scope of an exhibit that presents about 170 individual masterpieces from 29 collections representing the art of a three century period over an extensive land mass. The force of the show would be like seeing 170 new masterpieces of the European Renaissance. It is not something that can be digested in one short viewing, so be prepared to spend significant time there. (This recommendation is probably daunting to my fellow seniors when they discover that there is but one bench in the entire gallery. Be forewarned, come rested and with comfortable shoes.) For those unable to make this show, there is an especially scholarly catalogue edited by curator John Gay and illustrated by the warm photographs of Thierry Ollivier (on location in Southeast Asia) and the museum’s in-house photographer Oi-Cheong Lee, which convey some of the sense of respectful adoration by which the installation presents the pieces. This massive book (336 pages) contains not simply a description of the pieces but also penetrating essays on the current understanding of the “lost” kingdoms based on inscriptions, records of Chinese bureaucrats and archaeological finds.   ”

RIP Charlie Haden

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: with Hank Jones on piano. What more is there to say?

From radical to commercial in one generation

I was surprised to find that the opening bars of the version of “Star Spangled Banner” performed by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock is used by Major League Baseball as its unofficial theme. I doubt that the favorite sport of George Will and Henry Kissinger was making some radical critique that reactionary forces have distorted our country’s ideals in this time of national polarization just as they did in 1969, the last time we were so riven. It probably is simply just another example of something I observed: that in our hyper-commercialized form of popular culture, where “art” is simply “content” which has been successfully marketed by profit-driven actors rather than cultural critics, it takes only about 50 years for advertisers and corporate image polishers to take even the most radical forms of expression and turn them into commercials. At one time abstract expressionism was thought shocking, but now it decorates the offices of even the most staid Wall Street firms (provided of course that the colors match the surroundings). I noticed that around the mid-1990s Saks of Fifth Avenue (the one in Manhattan) started playing Charlie Parker (just barely heard of course) in the background. (I wonder if the stores around the country did so at the same time or have caught up.) Munch’s Scream and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers of course have been decorative items for a long time.

Maybe the time period has something to do with the length of copyrights. Or maybe pop culture simply takes 50 or so years to assimilate innovations. It took Hollywood until about the late 1950s before it began using riffs from atonal compositions made in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, even though composers like Korngold, who witnessed and participated in it in Vienna, composed film music.

I suspect that time frame will speed up in the near future because fewer and fewer oases of non-commercial art exist, because popular art is largely conceived from the beginning as a commercial endeavor (with product placement, embedded advertisements, considerations of licensing possibilities), and because a generation has grown up immured against the idea that art is something outside of mass, commercial entertainment.

This may not be an entirely new development. Hemingway, for example, designed For Whom the Bell Tolls for a movie with Clark Gable in mind. Maybe it was inevitable with the twentieth century’s mass distribution inventions: movies, recordings, broadcasting. Maybe it would never have occurred to anyone to make “absolute music” independent of considerations of what records would “sell,” and more importantly, how much profits could be generated. Maybe Bach today would be writing television theme music, Virgil writing ad copy and Bernini trying to make cars look sleeker.

Even so there still seems to me to be a disconnect between the beer swilling fans in Boston screaming “Yankees suck!” and the “turn on, tune in, drop out” crowds at Woodstock. Maybe the forces of conformity have simply changed society. God knows there has been no real anti-war movement, despite over a decade of conflicts around the world. So maybe the forces that allow Hendrix to be play while watching the interminably slow pace of baseball has simply homogenized us all. It doesn’t matter what is sold, we will buy it as long as it is packaged in the way we have come to expect.

Mesozoic Matters: Inferring Behavior from the Fossil Record

Here is a heads up for those with a moderate interest in the history of life in the deep past.

The (London) Journal of Zoology for the next several weeks is making available the contents of a special issue on paleoethology for free (rather than the extortionate price that most science journal charge per article). The articles are written by some of the best paleontology writers active today, including Darren Naish (who reviews the evidence for ancient bird behavior), A.A. Farke (on the evidence for fighting and defense among ornithischians—the herbivorous non-avian dinosaurs), Richard Fortey, the best writer (ever) on trilobites, and Dave Horne, who has blogged for many years from his study of Chinese dinosaurs. There is even an article on tyrannosaurids, so have at it.

Even if you don’t see the benefit of learning about long dead organisms, you might be interested in the thought experiments necessary to infer behavior from fossils.

You can find the site: here.

I think the reason Wiley is making this available is that many of the authors are strong proponents of open access for science papers. This position, it seems to me, is unassailable when public money is used to fund the research. The only counterargument is the currently reactionary vogue that all things ought to be determined by profit maximizers. If I could find a scientific paper on how that idea became the new vogue I would actually pay the exorbitant rate that journals charge to read the article (during a 24 hour period).

What’s 10,000 more or less among job creators?

Ever since about 1750 the English world first (beginning in northern England) and soon the rest of the world actively supported the creation of social systems which depended on the accumulation and servicing of capital. This system in turn brought about the organization of economic life into highly specialized tasks, preferably simple and repetitive enough so that wage laborers could become nothing but interchangeable inputs into the system. The first step (dehumanizing labor which through its essential specialization greatly increased the available supply of potential laborers and thus reduced their cost, i.e., the wages) was outlined in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the first edition of which appeared in the same year to which we Americans trace our “freedom,” 1776.

The first step was so successful that it allowed the grafting on of increasingly more sophisticated mechanisms. Particularly innovative were the means by which capital may be accumulated. Of course the accumulation of capital is an activity entirely separate, and in most ways exactly opposite, to laboring for wages. The system, for one thing, depends on the accumulation of capital by the depression of wages. (In fact the depression of wages is one way that capital is accumulated.)

With larger and larger accumulations of capital it was possible to engage more and more defenders of the entire system, whether they be lawyers, legislators, army commanders, religious leaders, union busters, Pinkerton detectives, and so forth. By the 19th century governments, fueled by some of the excess capital accumulated by the accumulators, Europe had begun not only to promote this system, but to actively wipe out any system that did not conform to it. And so every other form of economic organization from the Potlatch in the Pacific Northwest, to hunters and gatherers in the Sahel, to barter systems in southern Asia, to state regulated industries and trade in China and Japan were opposed, forcible if necessary, and their practitioners either assimilated or pushed onto reservations or tracts of undesirable land. By the 1970s even a democratically elected moderate social welfare program in Chile had to be taken down by U.S. supported assassination and sanctioned torture so that the “miracle” of modern capitalism could be foisted on that land. Of course the entire twentieth century was an epic struggle by Western capitalism against two giant modern systems, similarly industrialized and similarly rigged against certain kinds of laborers—fascism and communism.  That capitalism “prevailed” does not mean that it did not pick up some of the techniques of the other systems for disciplining wayward citizens.

Modern high finance capitalism, which admits of no regulation of the accumulation of capital, is not only the dominant social organization of our time, it has become our civic faith. The perfection of its techniques has made it so pervasive that we can conceive of no other way of life. It has enshrined itself to such an extent that volunteerism, social responsibility, good citizenship, sharing society’s burdens are quaint relics of times gone by, as regularly practiced today as is other relics, like the feudal method of land transfer, feoffment with livery of seisin. And our leaders constantly extol the important of the collectors of capital and their beneficence to the rest of us. They are hailed as the creators of “jobs,” so that we may know on whom our precarious existence depends. The financial system is treated much like the Aztec priests treated the sun—something that must be propitiated in order that it may continue to provide its essential services to us. The Aztec priests sacrificed people to the sun god. We do similar things for the financial system god.

The incessant deification of capital has cost plenty over the past couple decades. Tax rates have been slashed on capital at the expense of labor. Capital has pitted state against state to reduce its share of the states’ operational cost. Jobs have been exported. Politicians have been supported who cut spending on education, health care, the environment, arts and other quality-of-life programs. Policies have been pursued that raise unemployment rate (in the guise of controlling inflation and protecting the dollar) so that capital can have an oversupply of the labor input.

Where does the benefit of all this go? You don’t need the statistics of Piketty to know the answer to that. You need only look around. You can see the wealth of this country, indeed the world, being sucked up to the pockets of the elite, closest servants of capital. Of course they have to spread it around to capital’s gate-keepers: politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, advertisers, “pundits,” devoted think tanks and special universities. But all of this is chump change. This spreading of small sums to the hanges-on is done so that the ability to accumulate capital is unimpeded by anything, no matter how common sense.

Of course the fact that modern high finance capitalism “prevailed” to such an extent is not a testament to its perfection. Giant sauropods and their slightly smaller predators once “prevailed” and for a longer time than capitalism is likely to. But even they succumbed to their overspecialization or some event they were not designed to endure. Likewise capitalism in its modern guise from time to time lurches from disaster to disaster some worse than others. And who pays? Well, one thing that the system has perfected is the absolute immunity of those high priests of this religion, the ones who decide what sacrifices others have to make. This is so even when their own actions amounted to systematic fraud and willful disregard to the dangers their reckless profit-maximizing presented. Take one example: American International Group, Inc. (AIG) underwrote policies against the risk of default in certain mortgage pools. The amount it underwrote was many more times than the assets of the corporation. And yet when the defaults occurred rendering the company insolvent, the U.S. government stepped in, permitted the company to continue to employ the very people in the financial product division which caused the insolvency, but also permitted the malefactors to receive massive bonuses on the theory that overcompensating them was necessary because only they could understand the mess they had created. Take another example: Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. promoted to its customers positions in residential mortgage securities, while at the same time for its own account it took the opposite position. This sort of double-dealing is ordinarily considered to be securities fraud. Did anyone go to prison? Of course not. Too big to jail. There is even one party in this country that opposes restoring the financial regulations removed by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations because they believe the “market” imposes sufficient discipline. In light of the events of 2008, this position is as insane as advocating permitting felons and the mentally ill to purchase military hardware at gun shows or on the internet without any background checks or paperwork of any kind. (Wait that’s a bad analogy. The same party supports both things.)

So how does this market discipline work? The BBC today reports on a study which concluded that the Great Recession engineered by the High Priests of High Finance beginning in 2008 resulted in approximately 10,000 suicides. The combination of unemployment, repossessions and debt was the catalyst for a 6.5% increase in the suicide rate in 2009 over that in 2007. The increase lasted through 2011. Somehow the discipline of the financial market seems to have fallen on those who neither committed the crimes nor had any ability to repair the damage. So how does the market punish the people who were actually responsible to ensure that the dreaded condition of “moral hazard” not descend on Wall Street and tempt the High Priests to again take unconscionable risks?

Well, it’s simple. With 10,000 people out of the labor market. The cost of these inputs will slight increase. That should show our economic oligarchs to be more careful the next time.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 116 other followers