Monday, May 30, 2011

Giorgione vs. Titian (Hint: No Contest)

In the art of the high Renaissance, the connection between beautiful women and the divine was absolute. Courtesans became the models for goddesses and demi-goddesses in the paintings of da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione, Veronese, Correggio, Titian, and others we know and don't know. Take Raphael's fresco of the apotheosis of Galatea. An epic figure riding a giant seashell drawn by dolphins, gazing ecstatically up at a hidden source of light in a cloudy renaissance sky, nude but for a red cloak flapping in the wind, surrounded by earthbound centaurs and a triton (half man, half whale) abducting nymphs right left and center and raising alarums with trumpets and conches to the putti raining arrows down from above. Galatea was painted in the likeness of the Roman courtesan Imperia.

There are countless other examples. Some of the women's identities we know, some we don't. Dozens of variations of Leda and the Swan (Correggio's version at right). Danaë lying on a bed whose sumptuous drapes are drawn back to reveal her receiving a shower of gold sprinkling on her lap from above. Flora, a fertility goddess closely associated with Venus.

The real-life model for Titian's versions of these subjects appeared again (and again) in Sacred and Profane Love, a painting where the nude is the sacred one, and the brooding housewife profane. The woman who is the identical model for both is widely believed to have been Titian's mistress Cecilia, of whom he made an honest woman, Renaissance-style, by marrying after she bore him the second of four children.Titian's paintings are swollen with emotion, and the sensuality - whether of sex or violence - is overripe and sensationalist. His women are certainly beautiful, but it's Titian's idea of beauty, not theirs. Titian's women have been captured on a surface of lush colors, forced to offer their naked breasts and bellies and plump legs to us. On the rare occasion they do look at us, they do not confront our gaze, but look askance. It's as if they weren't seeing us, but rather the man who was painting them.

Giorgione and Leonardo never did that. They somehow managed to let their women be themselves, enigmatically themselves, their moods changing each time you take a fresh look. They reveal less of their flesh than Titian's, yet are more sexy. Some gaze solemnly off to the side, in a classic three-quarter view, some look directly at the viewer. Some cast their eyes downwards, tragically or with a peace that passeth understanding.

The eyes of Giorgione's nude Venus are closed. She is asleep, seemingly dreaming the epic landscape behind her, both fantastical and vividly real, which at once frames and reflects the curves of her body. She is not an object of desire in the conventional sense - in the tradition of the reclining nude that Titian so excelled in. Rather she is such a complete embodiment of the place of the human in the natural world that you could just as easily describe her as naked - in the same way as, say, a stream could be naked, or a blade of grass.

Anthony di Mello once drew a telling distinction between two kinds of pleasure within a larger discussion of the nature of love. The first was the pleasure of receiving glowing praise from respected peers for a special achievement. The second was watching a beautiful sunset. Di Mello saw merit in each of these two kinds of pleasure - or two kinds of love - but cautioned that the first, being dependent on the opinions and judgments of others, is vulnerable to exploitation.

If we came across a nude woman sleeping in a field next to, say, the Appalachian trail, I think we would agree she was making herself vulnerable to exploitation. Equally, many would argue that the nude Danaës and Floras and Ledas and Venuses depicted by Titian and others on red velvet bedspreads or in leafy copses - for the pleasure or aesthetic approbation of the eye of the beholder - were painted in a way that rendered women more vulnerable to exploitation.

But Giorgione's Venus is different. She isn't in the slightest bit vulnerable. She is sleeping the sleep of the most wise and powerful of gods. When we look at her, we are not inflamed with desire, but struck with awe.

Perhaps tellingly, Giorgione's student Titian was entrusted only with painting the drapes on which she dreams.

Giorgione's women are depicted with a level of dignity and intelligence and gravitas that gives them an equal measure of power with the viewer. I read somewhere that Leonardo himself was the source of that old saying, "The eye is the window of the soul." Titian didn't seem to be too concerned as to whether that window was open or not. But Leonardo was.

As was Giorgione. He painted an unknown woman who a century later another unknown person was to name 'Laura' after the laurel branches which frame her against a chiaroscura background. She is gazing off to the left and gently holding open the fur lapel of a sumptuous red cloak to reveal a naked breast. The skin of her throat melds with the delicate tiny strands of fur in a sfumato effect - you can't tell where her skin begins and the fur ends, save where a length of thin white lace curling down from her opposite shoulder brings things into focus (albeit still a misty one). The fur is the same color as the stray lock of hair whose tip brushes against her bare neck. She is alluring without making the slightest effort to be so, her portrayal balanced tantalizingly between ethereal artifice and animal sensuality. The latter has been conquered and subjugated for now through the mortal sacrifice of the beast whose de-fanged hide now caresses her bare skin. But Laura's smoldering brown eyes are the same color and texture as the shimmering lush strands of fur. The soul of the animal is touching her in the most intimate way imaginable. It lays dormant somewhere inside her - inside this portrayal, which is all we have left of her - eternally waiting to be unleashed by our gaze.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Lucky Age

Study for The Golden Age (1862)
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University
Adapted by

I was lucky. It was a weird time, which I haven’t really seen again.
Laurie Anderson, New York Times, April 28, 2011

Bill Viola said it. Peter Stein said it. And now Laurie Anderson has said it. We were lucky, they said, to have come of age at a time when we did, when so much was possible.

Viola was making video art in the 70s when few people even knew what it was. In those days, the video artists didn’t think about making money from their art, and they all knew each other, like a family. Stein was selected to lead the Schaubühne in Berlin in 1970, and famously ran the soon-to-be-legendary theatre as a socialist collective. Anderson lived in SoHo in the 70s, where she and numerous others turned the raw lofts and water tower-dotted rooftops into their artistic playground.

In an exclusive midtown club. In a penthouse at Lincoln Center. In a feature article in the New York Times. Everybody’s doing it. All these world famous artists are saying it. I was lucky.

So what gives? Why should this be happening now?

I’m sure there’s a touch of “golden age” thinking here. It’s only human to idealize the past. But that doesn't explain it. The 60s and 70s were unquestionably an exceptionally fertile time for art and ideas. There’s got to be more.

Maybe they have reached an age, reached a point on their climb up the mountain, where they can pause and look back over the landscape and see that those of us who came afterwards weren’t so lucky. Cramped by the rise of corporate power. Stunted by conservatives and neocons aggressively rolling back the permissiveness of the 60s. Numbed by a US media dragged inexorably rightwards by the Machiavellian grip of Murdoch and Rove and their ilk. Despairing at the powerlessness of the anti-war movement to prevent the parade of military adventures and misadventures that followed Vietnam. Tehran. Grenada. Beirut. Panama. Iraq. Somalia. Haiti. Yugoslavia. Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Abbottabad.

Or maybe the realization has well and truly sunk in that they made it, and many of their friends didn’t. While they’re living the dream - Stein perhaps most spectacularly so, in a rambling country villa overlooking Rome - artists with whom they shared such intimate discoveries way back when are struggling to deal with harsher realities. I heard a writer on the radio the other day talk about growing up in the sixties and seventies, when they all believed they had been blessed - whether by Bob Dylan, contraband substances, or otherwise - and destined to be forever young. They saw their parents’ beer bellies and thinning hair and budget clothing simply as bad life choices. Only now are they realizing that they are becoming just like their parents, albeit without the experience of having lived through the Second World War.

Or maybe those artists feel blessed by having chanced upon a particularly potent creative process early on in their careers which, as it happened, has sustained them to this day. And, whether by chance or design or through sheer communion with the source, they have remained healthy enough to live a full creative live. Joseph Campbell and Anthony di Mello talked about a stream of awareness that you can access anytime - it’s right there. All you have to do is recognize the layers of dross that are obscuring it for what they are, and they'll fall away, and you can just go ahead and dip right in. Maybe those artists did that, and did it early. And they’ve never forgotten how to do it.

Maybe, also, there are other unfortunate ones who didn’t come afterwards when there were more layers of dross to contend with; nor were they the ones who kept on keeping on but weren’t as well prepared to get older. Maybe these artists knew of a third class of unfortunates: peers who fell perhaps too heavily under the spell of that special time of the 60s and 70s, when all of them were busy creating a new world. Maybe some of these peers made that experience the very substance of their art, their lives. Maybe when the walls started closing in, in the 80s, that continued regardless. Maybe there wasn't anything left to make their art or lives about, but they still couldn’t stop themselves from going down the rabbithole. And maybe it dawned on an unfortunate few that they had staked their spark on something that wasn’t meant to last, that only lasted as long as the spell did, and there was no turning back. Maybe that thought lodged itself deep inside, like a spur in a bone, and as it grew it threw them more and more off kilter. And, one day, whether by accident or design, maybe fate dealt them an unspeakably sad end, one which that tragic flaw had brought to pass in some mysterious way beyond our understanding.

I wonder whether that time in the 60s and 70s was indeed a golden age, whether it was like the late Renaissance, or the Elizabethan Age, or periods of ancient history we don’t know enough about to pin down but we can glimpse in fragments of stone and words that leap out and ignite our imaginations like invisible wildfire. And I wonder whether that time, that so recent dawning of the Age of Aquarius, might have lasted as long as those previous golden ages, had the politicians and power brokers not stepped in and snuffed it out. It feels like it should have.

Were those golden ages just a natural occurrence, a spontaneous alchemy of creative delight that occurred according to some unknowable, unpredictable cycle of nature, like green rays at sunset? Or can we ourselves create the conditions for a golden age? Can all the blood, sweat and tears which has been shed since the “lucky” times in the staunch belief that art is the best way to change the world be enough to one day defeat the efforts of those who seem hell bent on destroying everything we've been working for?

I see little of more importance to this country, its future, and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.
John F. Kennedy

Fancy that. Were they just lucky to have him as president at exactly the right moment? (Even Stein in Berlin, where to this day a key passage of the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is etched into John-F.-Kennedy-Platz, all arranged by students in the wake of his assassination).

But let’s look at it another way. We are no longer in the twentieth century. God knows SoHo ain’t what it used to be, and the old rules no longer apply. The people who made the Arab Spring understood this. To make our new golden age, is it really necessary any longer to have the patronage or political blessing of a queen or a president?

Could we all be presidents of the new golden age? Could we really be lucky enough to do that?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Farewell Mapplethorpe Hello Shakespeare

"It's quite odd, really. People keep telling us — that is, professors and CNN commentators and Hollywood actors keep telling us — how very stupid President Bush is. Yet everywhere one looks he is supporting some of the most intelligent and dynamic people ever to occupy their cultural posts... This is the George Bush approach to cultural reinvigoration. Conservatives — by which term I mean people who are interested in conserving what is best from the past — should applaud his efforts." Robert Kimball, the National Review, "Farewell Mapplethorpe, Hello Shakespeare" January 29, 2004

The images in this entry were selected by searching for "Shakespeare America" on Google and choosing the first five images which included a US Flag and linking to the source page

Earlier this year, Lincoln Center announced that it would be building a replica of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the Park Avenue Armory for a six week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company. They did not say how much all of this will cost, only that it was made possible by a seven-figure donation from Ohio State University and two of its leading donors.

Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times liked the idea, and wants to make the structure and concept permanent. His idea was not exactly popular with everyone. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal agreed with the artistic director of a regional American theater who decried the disparity of resources given to American artists as opposed to artists flown in from abroad, and suggested the replica be used the following year to showcase US Shakespeare productions. Last week, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice pointed up an analogous imbalance in the favoring of imported productions over the increasingly neglected treasures of Off and Off-Off Broadway theater (“I wish I could see New York learning to value and cherish its own.”)

The vast majority of American artists and American arts organizations are indeed chronically underfunded. They aren't given a fair crack at creating the truly great art I and many others believe they are capable of. In a word, it's heartbreaking. Currently, the only way to correct this imbalance is for the government to increase arts funding, thereby restoring balance to the arts funding ecology.

Some people in the government do get it. Money was included for the arts in the bailout. But this amounted to a paltry 0.0064% of the whole - a third of what the governments of France and Germany (whose populations number a quarter and a third of the US respectively) had each distributed to the arts six months earlier. Even so, some in the US heralded this development as an important breakthrough.

I'm not a fan of Lincoln Center's decision. Not least because I lived in England for a long time, where I saw too many Shakespeare productions to count - even acted in a couple of them - yet still much, much prefer my Shakespeare to be Eastern European, Japanese, African.... or American.

But in the circumstances, I can't blame the messenger.

I submitted a comment to the Wall Street Journal to that effect, basically agreeing with Teachout. It wasn't posted (you can see the ones that were here).

So, I now invite you play a little game, and guess why my comments below were deemed unworthy (unwashed?). I've also unashamedly toyed with the original text so that I could be as unfettered as I yearned to be, so you can also test your wit by trying to spot the embellishments.

"It was disconcerting to see so many resources being devoted in one fell swoop to feeding America’s inferiority complex about/infatuation with British theater when American theater artists and companies could really use those resources.

However, it was understandable. The sad fact is, even if American companies produce Shakespeare at the peak of their abilities, they are at an automatic disadvantage.

Firstly, America does not have a generously funded year-round Shakespeare repertory company like the RSC, with its $50 million budget, half of which is provided by the government.

Secondly, due to that deep-seated infatuation, members of the critical establishment like Christopher Isherwood will routinely compare US companies unfavorably with the superior standards of UK Shakespeare, whether real or imagined.

Thirdly, with particular reference to the Lincoln Center Festival, it is a bit of a tightrope walk to find productions that will fill halls while justifying subsidies (trenchant analysis of the problems by Rocco Landesman here); invigorate the audiences while pleasing the critics; and, last but certainly not least, successfully adapt to Lincoln Center’s institutional culture.

Case in Point #1: a scintillating South African ensemble production of Macbeth presented in the early days of the LC Festival, where the swathes of empty seats dividing the small but enthusiastic crowd were probably a big reason we haven’t seen any ensemble Shakespeare there since.

Case in point #2: two of America’s most accomplished young theater auteurs, Richard Maxwell and Young Jean Lee, have in recent years run the gauntlet with bold and distinctly American Shakespeare productions (to paraphrase Virgil Thomson: the way to make American Shakespeare is simple, all you have to do is be an American and then make it any way you wish).

Maxwell came tantalizingly close to lodging his Henry IV Part I near the very belly of the beast - the Barbican, the RSC’s former home in London. After viewing a rehearsal, the Barbican balked and sent the production back to BAM’s Next Wave, with mixed results. About half the audience walked out, but the half who stayed probably thought like me that although the production was uneven (or worse), it was far more satisfying than the RSC and Donmar Shakespeares on BAM's menu in the tamer Spring Season.

Lee’s deconstruction of Lear played an extended run to smaller, sold-out houses downtown earlier this year, with a much lower attrition rate - I saw only a couple of empty seats after the interval. Yet Lee was taken to task by (who else) Christopher Isherwood in the New York Times for having made a badly behaved play. (At least David Cote of Time Out New York used the critical storm-in-a-teacup as an opportunity to go global with a shrewd and timely re-assessment of what kind of Shakespeare we need, as opposed to what kind of Shakespeare we actually get)

So we find ourselves caught between two stools - the demands of the mainstream Shakespeare audience, for whom no-one can do it better than the Brits; and the ritual bruising that unashamedly American attempts to take the Bard off that British pedestal will inevitably come in for. I don’t know what the solution is, but reconstructing the RSC in New York is definitely not it.

As the theater director Peter Brook - the son of Russian immigrants - cried out once in the title of an essay he wrote in his early days of working at the RSC: 'O for Empty Seats!'"

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The meek have it... just

So it was a fine night in imaginary St Petersburg, as I immersed myself in a production of Uncle Vanya flown over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music from the Maly Drama Theatre. But the early signs had not been good. The director and sine qua non of today's Maly, Lev Dodin, hadn't shown up for the pre-performance talk, and the company members who filled in were pandering something awful to the rapt audience by mocking new writing and simultaneous translation. Old is best, they declared with ingratiating shrugs, and, having seen a Moscow Arts Theatre production in that very building that had clung to this principle with stultifying effect, I braced myself for the worst.

The stage was simple, a square floor of natural wood framed by three low walls in which several doors were hidden. Above the stage floated an open wooden grid holding three huge egg-shaped bales of hay. The actors casually drifted in under the hay, setting out table and chairs, a samovar, teacups, a buffet. By the time the first words were spoken, the play had coalesced rather than begun. In the homes I visited on my trips to Russia, little plates of nibbles and tea things and bottles of mineral water would constantly appear on the kitchen table as if out of nowhere throughout the day - this was exactly like that, the characters grazing at their leisure.

All the other Vanyas I have seen were played by men who probably would never have stood a chance with Elena. This one (Sergei Kurashev) was more awkward than unattractive, and could easily have been quite the dashing catch in his youth, but he had been physically impaired by years of indecision. He exuded anguish every moment he was on stage, and needed only the slightest of excuses to start bursting with it - Elena's exclamation about him being a pain resonated like never before. In fact, the remarkable thing about this production was that all of the text resonated - even those Chekhovian character self-descriptions that can so easily bring with them the scent of old chestnuts (Telegin (Alexander Zavyalov) was the only one who came anywhere near this trap, and it was clear that whatever fault there may have been laid squarely with Chekhov and Father Time, not him).

All the lead men exhibited the same indecision around Elena (Ksenia Rappaport), torn in delicate agony between fear of rejection and desire to devour her. Elena herself was not an ice queen, like Julianne Moore played her, but rather another soul that wanted to soar but had been atrophied by indecision. Sonya (Elena Kalinina) was played not as the ingenue victim, but as a sweet young woman whose heart was fully engaged in the buffeting it was being given, and yearned like the best of them, yet deep down had a sublime grasp of its fate (yes, "its" fate - Sonya was led by her heart, and her head and conscience knowingly accepted the back seat). There was a beautiful moment when Elena and Sonya were talking girl talk about the doctor, faces turned to the audience, Sonya letting the irrational laughter roll out (an easy, natural laughter, not nervous, and its meaning was not commented upon by the staging, but rather floated up there somewhere between the bales of hay) and Elena sobbing drunkenly and miserably next to her - a hilarious parody of those happy/sad masks that hang in old theatres.

The long night was done beautifully. I realized that the productions I had seen before had for all intents and purposes either ignored or forgotten what time it was. Most of the stage was in darkness, and people were carrying candles. The wall opened to reveal a double door with glass panes downstage left, down which rain ran in rivulets through the entire act. The dialogue was punctuated by the sound of heavy drops hitting the ground. In the morning, the bales were bathed in intensely bright orange light from the dawn.

Elena and Astrov's (Igor Chernevich) first kiss came as Vanya burst through the garden door with a bunch of roses - he froze mid stride, balanced comically on one leg, roses drooping, and Elena in her terror grabbed the map and held it tight around her torso, like some kind of farcically surreal chastity belt. The staging of the final parting kiss followed Chekhov's directions to the letter - "(she kisses him impulsively, and they part quickly)" - while building a world of subtext around them. Astrov circled Elena for some minutes, struggling to chastely resist her patently obvious availability, and when the impulse finally found expression, it was dam-breaking time. But the second they gave in to their passion, the walls opened and the entire cast wafted onto the stage, witnessing their indiscretion with a quintessentially Russian stoicism. Elena had her back to the assembled crowd, and Astrov had to silently indicate to her that they had company - LOTS of company. She turned to the audience before facing the music, and pulled her face into a wide-eyed grimace - "OOPS!!!!"

The Sonyas I had seen before had elicited nothing more than pity. They were fighting a valorous yet ultimately doomed struggle against the greater power of fate, and their hearts were eventually crushed by the ugliness of it all. But now I realize that this was because all those earlier productions hadn't worked. For this Sonya, I did not feel a shred of pity. Instead, I felt compassion for these meek hearts, Sonya and Vanya, a longing for them - for us - to be rewarded for the good deeds we do for others, for which we neither ask nor receive a worldly prize. And for the very first time, I believed deep down that what Sonya said was not a desperate, naive attempt at transcendence that was destined to be repeated over and over again in vain - but rather that it was true. It made me wonder, could this actually be how the meek shall inherit the earth?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Once upon a New Year's Eve I met a Drunken Boat

Here's a story I discovered by chance on New Year's Eve.

This is a recording of Tim Buckley performing Song to the Siren in 1970. The song follows the thoughts, dreams, and feelings of a protagonist who is literally and metaphorically at sea until he becomes infatuated with a songstress on the shore. He follows his longing, at first full of passion and the excitement of the conquest, but becomes more and more despairing and confused as he loses control of his ship and it crashes onto the rocks. At the end of the song, he finds himself stranded in the waves, ahead of him the prospect of unrequited love, and behind him the deathly embrace of the water.

The deeper meaning of the song rests on a narrative device: that of using quotes in the trio of two-line choruses that follow each verse. In the first chorus, the protagonist quotes the siren: "Sail to me, sail to me, let me enfold you." In the third and final chorus, the protagonist quotes himself, calling out from the breakers: "Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you."

Both the first and last choruses end with the line "Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you." But it's not entirely clear who is voicing the line. Probably the siren in the first, and the protagonist in the third. But then again maybe not.

In the middle chorus, it is crystal clear that the siren is the one singing: "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow." Yet the ultimate line - the clincher - could be sung by the siren, the protagonist, the songwriter, or all of these - "O my heart, o my heart, shies from the sorrow." You can hear this in the way Tim sings it. I suspect this is a reflection of the extraordinary turbulence of those early years, and the unworldly places his pursuit of his muse was beginning to take him. This line is placed smack dab in the middle of the song, framed in perfect symmetry at its very heart.

Tim wrote Song to the Siren having in quick succession discovered his high school sweetheart and fellow outcast, Mary, was pregnant; married her; discovered it had been a phantom pregnancy; honest-to-goodness impregnated her; then divorced her. Many of his songs from this period are said to be inspired by Mary. She bore his son Jeff without him, then changed the child's name to Scott Moorhead, after her new partner and Jeff's stepfather. Tim and Jeff, bloodline father and son, were to see each other only once, when Jeff was eight years old. Mary took Jeff to see Tim in concert, and the son stayed with his father for a week. Seven months later, Tim was dead, having mistaken heroin for cocaine and overdosed at the age of 28. Scott Moorhead began asking to change his name back to Jeff Buckley.

Jeff went on to be a celebrated singer-songwriter in his own right, primarily on the strength of his first and only studio album, "Grace". It is hardly a surprise that he struggled mightily to escape the mythologized legacy of his father (Interviewer: Extraordinary voice. I mean, everybody knows your dad is Tim Buckley, of course. I mean, he sort of had that same sense of abandon, didn't he? Jeff Buckley: Yeah - he abandoned *me*.) Yet the similarities in their musical styles and personae cannot be ignored. Also unavoidable is the uncanny way each died before his time - on the dot. On the evening of May 29, 1997, also at the age of 28, Jeff went for a dip in Wolf River Harbor in his clothes and boots singing Whole Lotta Love, and didn't come back. His drowned body was spotted by a riverboat tourist five days later.

"Grace" is basically a death prayer. Not something of sorrow but just casting away any fear of death. No relief will come, you'll really just have to stew in your life until it's time to go. But sometimes, somebody else's faith in you can do wonders.

The most well-known rendition of Song to the Siren is by This Mortal Coil, with Elizabeth Fraser on vocals. It was much admired by David Lynch, who used it in Lost Highway, and pointed to this single song as the inspiration for Julee Cruise's entire first two albums. Elizabeth Fraser's vocals were recorded in 1983, when Jeff was a high school student in Hollywood. She had become a fan of Tim's music, and studied not only Song to the Siren, but Tim's entire vocal style. When she heard Jeff's voice, she also became utterly captivated. And Jeff knew Elizabeth's voice through her international success as vocalist of The Cocteau Twins.

When Elizabeth and Jeff finally met several years after Elizabeth had recorded Song to the Siren, each had listened to the other's voice, and come to idolize it.

They fell in love with each other's voices.

To meet Jeffrey was just like being given a set of paints. ... I had all this color in my life again. I just couldn't help falling in love with him. He was adorable, he was lovely. I read his diary; he read mine. We'd just swap, we'd literally just hand over this very personal stuff, and I've never done that with anybody else; I don't know if he has. So in some ways there was a great deal of intimacy, but then there'd be times when I'd just think, "I'm just not penetrating this Jeff Buckley boy at all."

Broken down hungry for your love with no way to feel it
Where lie you tonight cause you know how much you need it
I love you
But I'm afraid to love you

So. In the year of his son's birth, his father writes a song about a lonely man falling in love with a woman's singing, but who can't quite reach it... and by that time, it's too late, but the only other choice is to "lie with Death my Bride" in the watery depths...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1989 (exclamation point)

I went to a talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the panel was a soft-spoken Hungarian academic who had been in the thick of the action on the streets of Budapest. He had an uncanny gift for finding exactly the right word. He was one of the young reformers who suddenly found themselves creating new alliances and parties out of thin air as Grósz, the Hungarian premier, successfully read the political tea leaves and unhitched his country from the yoke of the Soviet Union. The academic's chosen path had eventually diverged from his former colleagues as they rose to political prominence. With characteristic precision, he gave us exactly as much detail about his reasons for doing so as was polite, and not an iota more.

I wanted to ask what he knew about the theater companies, if they had prospered or faltered in the post-communist world, stripped of their state subsidies and with few defenses against the juggernaut of Western popular entertainment that was to crash so indiscriminately through the shreds of the Iron Curtain soon afterward. When I finally managed to buttonhole him, holding a plastic cup of cheap wine and fighting the infernal noise (a post-panel cabaret - a post-panel cabaret??? - was belting out songs in a hard-edged concrete and glass space, most of the audience had fled, and those of us who remained had to shout to be heard) I stumbled. I filled my lungs and boomed a hopelessly fragmented version of my question in the general direction of his right ear, responded to his incomprehension with a last-gasp resort to platitudes, then, as a cabaret singer screamed out "Salami!!!" at the top of her voice, muttered my thanks and good wishes and bolted for the door.

In any case, I probably wouldn't have gotten the answer I was looking for. And what was that? When the Wall came down, I was nearing the end of my stay in a sleepy picture-book western Massachusetts town. The one thing that stands out in my memory is that Heiner Müller, author of the book Germania which I had special ordered from the local bookstore and promptly devoured, had been in New York to perform Heiner Goebbels' Man in the Elevator at The Kitchen, but had been so overwhelmed at the news that they had to cancel his appearance.

Q: And do you feel history is working for you?

A: Absolutely. [He laughs] This is my chance.

Q: History is making you...

A: Yes, the last German writer.

I could only speculate at what Müller and his compatriots must have been feeling. But my curiosity was strong enough to take me to Berlin in 1991, two years after the Wall fell and when disillusion had seriously begun to sink in. They were selling "We Want our Wall Back" T-shirts. The locals, bewildered and resentful, shot dark glances from sleep-deprived eyes underneath mangy shocks of bleached hair. It was as if their roots had been ripped out from under them. There were exhibitions about the history of Berlin everywhere. The city seemed to be in search of its soul.

I was told my German wasn't too bad, but after having my head bitten off for the umpteenth time by an impatient counter clerk I begged a colleague for an explanation. "We call them 'Schnauzers'," he said sympathetically. "Say something in German." After I did so, he observed with characteristic German precision, "Your accent is very strange. It's not American, closer to French... And your skin is quite dark." (We had just come back from a residency in Portugal, and I had a tan). "Maybe they think you are Turkish. If you make it clear that you are American, that could solve the problem."

I tried it out in a bank. Behind the counter was a well-coiffed middle aged woman - the very quintessence of Schnauzer. I took a deep breath, and muttered "Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie Englisch?" - "Excuse me, do you speak English?". "Nein," she shot back, but free of the edge I had been dreading. I then stumbled on in German, and she immediately brightened up. Was she relieved at my ability to converse in her native language, however awkwardly? Or was it just that I wasn't Turkish? I will never know, but you can bet I went through that routine every time from that point on. And retain a special sympathy for the Turkish community in Berlin to this day.

(I was also delighted to see Berlin graciously hand over the vast Breitscheidplatz to tens of thousands of ecstatic Turkish revellers following a famous victory over Croatia in the Euro 2008 soccer finals. And the Turkish team valiantly take the Germans to the wire in the following round, while predictions of riots were belied by the ensuing good humor and good sportsmanship as Germany scraped through with a narrow win)

Along with the experience of being a confused (and confusing) immigrant in 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought me the swansong of a theatrical dream, a vision of how work and culture could be seamlessly intertwined in a hip 24-hour copyshop, visions of Trabis whose engines would suddenly give a huge tinny "pop!" and die there and then in the middle of the murky streets. And a nocturnal encounter by a flower shop under the U-Bahn overpass at Schlesisches Tor, which was to bring me back to the same spot nearly two decades later.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Siberia Story Part I

The final part of the Russian film Andrei Rublev is set in a post-Tatar invasion lull. A group of horsemen trot into a levelled village in search of a master bell-caster, to find a blonde teenager with a stutter the only one left alive. The boy persuades the horsemen that they need look no further, that he himself possesses the secret of casting a great bell. He’s lying, but it’s his only chance of survival. They believe him, and the boy proceeds to bluff his way through a series of mishaps, beatings, and minor triumphs under the watchful eye of a foreman who will put him to death as soon as look at him if he doesn't come up with the goods.

Yet one problem persists. It is vital that just the right consistency of molding clay be found, otherwise the bell will crack. Days, weeks are lost as an advance team search in vain for the cherished substance and legions of workers sit idle. We finally see the boy alone in a waterlogged field, kneading useless clods of dirt in his palms, hurling them down in disgust. The skies open and sheets of rain soak the boy and the earth. He kicks at the ground in frustration, loses his balance and slides down a sheer riverbank at breakneck speed. He judders to a halt atop a large deposit of alluvial clay, where his fingers grope instinctively for the soil beneath. It’s a miracle - he has found the very substance his life depended on. He yells out his discovery to the sky and flops onto his back in convulsions of ecstasy between the slime and the torrential rain.

Cut to a long shot of the boy lying on one of a series of clay deposits layered atop exposed groundsoil, like giant dandelion leaves.

I saw such deposits on the shore of Lake Baikal. And a blonde boy at their base. But more of that later.


It all started in a meeting at work, just before the summer break. For months, we had been slogging away, trying to beat back the ill effects of the worst recession in a generation, and, having steadied the boat somewhat (or at least shifted enough water to make out something that looked vaguely like a horizon), we could finally dare to be relaxed, even playful. I was spending my holiday in Russia, a trip years in the planning and now due to begin a few hours hence.

“I think that covers everything. But just in case, can we communicate by text?”

“Might be difficult,” I replied. “I’ll be riding a horse in Siberia.” I mimed a ludicrous version of stabbing at a cellphone keypad at full gallop. No-one laughed, but smiles began to appear. Their amazement at discovering I was going to Siberia eclipsed their amusement (which was there - I’m not THAT bad a mime). I looked across the table at the editor, a brilliant woman whose trust was not easily won. Her smile was gathering, growing from some deep place, like the swell of a wave.

“You’re going to Siberia?!”

I talked about my trip. I reeled off the famous statistics of Lake Baikal, which I was visiting for the first time, and talked of shamans and their shrines.

“Can you make an offering for the company?”

I said sure. The editor asked me not to leave until my charge had been delivered. For the offering, she settled on a book of photographs and two tiny tablets with reproductions of magazine covers. The book she gave to me immediately, but the tablets needed to be custom-made.

Half an hour later three junior employees - who would normally be beetling away at their distant computers, on tracks quite separate from mine - were rushing up to me with unprecedented urgency.

“I heard something about you going to Siberia?”

“When are you leaving?”

“Is it okay if I get you the images by four?”

“You’re going to Siberia?!”

I had been to Siberia twice before, and had forgotten how exotic it could seem. Certainly my experiences there have always been profound. But they also contained some element that was downright scary.

Every time I went to Siberia I experienced some discordant event, some existential fracture that left me feeling deeply conflicted, however awestruck I may have been about whatever else was going on around me. On my first trip - to join a colleague who was directing a play - it was a scandal into which I was unwittingly plunged on my last day. The night before, as my colleague’s farewell party was winding down, I had naïvely acquiesced to the request of a pretty young actress to spend the night at my apartment in a Soviet-style high rise, which was used for theatre guests such as I. She pleaded lack of space at home and domestic problems, and I had a couch in a separate room. It seemed downright churlish to refuse. Of course sex was implied, but I dismissed that out of hand - one nighters are just not written into my DNA.

The next day, she left early. When I finally arrived at the theatre, I was confronted immediately by Rita.

Rita was the sister of one of the theatre’s star actresses. My director colleague had arranged for me to stay with her and her daughter in a cosy apartment in Moscow, en route to Omsk. Rita had met me at the station.

“How will I know it is you?” she had said over the phone a week before I arrived, in halting but determined English. The call had begun awkwardly, and I had had to repeat myself several times.

“I will wear a blue hat.”

Sometimes a single early moment can cement a friendship - the hilarity that sprang from the notion of an American arriving at Byelorusskaya Station wearing a blue hat as if it were one of those “Hi, my name is...” tags was one of them. This shared sense of the absurdity of life also, paradoxically, gave rise at the same moment to Margarita’s self-appointed role as my Russian moral guide and protectress.

“Ah!” Rita said icily as I appeared at the theatre the next morning, with more emotion than made sense to me then. “So how was the beautiful woman of Russia?” This was a reference to what had become my trademark toast, when, to a roomful of still sober and skeptical Russians I would list three or four amazing experiences I had had in their country, then declare that there was one experience next to which they paled in comparison, and, after a dramatic pause big enough to fit a fleet of Ladas, I would raise my glass “to all the beautiful women of Russia”, and the sombre faces would unfailingly crack into gales of laughter.

Having delivered this withering verbal slap, Rita promptly disappeared.

I soon discovered that the young actress had been boasting to anyone who would listen that I had slept with her. And, as it turned out, she was married. I felt like an animal in a trap. It was a theatre - rumors such as these traveled like wildfire. I could barely string together a Russian sentence, let alone defend what was left of my honor. It was my inexpressible word against hers, which had clearly been a very expressive one. Whatever happened, the extraordinary warmth and kindness I felt from the actors, whether we understood each other’s language or no, would be forever marred.

Thankfully, the damage was partly undone and some sliver of redemption achieved when Rita finally re-appeared and asked me, her eyes burning, “Did you make love to this woman?” and following my desperate denial, she looked at me searchingly for a long time before pronouncing, “I believe you.”

On my third trip, almost twenty years later, seeds of discontent were also being planted on my penultimate day. This one happened to involve a trip to Cape Khoboi, where I stood at the edge of the world and gazed down across an endless sea of impossibly blue water towards what I can only describe as heaven. Yet, perhaps at the very instant I fell under the spell of this miracle of nature, part of my life was being ripped from me by an unseen force.