The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Posts from — December 2009

Roma

The long flight to Schiphol with the paranoid passengers and crew, arriving and feeling as if we’ve landed in some alien world without any sleep, walking through the vast airport, buying an espresso and waiting for what seems like hours, the flight to Rome on the mostly empty plane with the proper Dutch stewardesses, finding the train terminal at Fiumicino, buying the 11 euro tickets, finding a place in one of the cars and really listening to Italian again for the first time, arriving at the Termini and being buttonholed by someone about something in the vast lobby, heading across the piazza and being buttonholed again, walking across Rome now in the rain with our luggage bumping behind us, slightly lost, tired but excited, happy to be away…

December 31, 2009   1 Comment

It’s a bitch getting old, Chuck

Close

On my wall I have a poster that was created for one of Chuck Close’s exhibitions, one of his portraits of himself. It is meant to remind me of the detail required to construct a novel or a story. In it, he is still a young man, his hair is long and wild, and his eyes are filled with the inner knowledge of his talent and abilities.

I encountered him again recently.

Close was interviewed for the film Herb and Dorothy. In it he said some amusing things about these two doyens of the New York art scene, calling them artists’ mascots at one point. His comments were funny, but also patronizing. When interviewed, he sat in front of one of his major works, dressed in a oversize black leather jacket, his gut sticking out, bald, his eyebrows pointing at strange angles, an old caricature of the artist he had once been. In his mind he was still the young man he had painted decades before in the portrait on my wall, confident and smart, haughty and droll, with many years of work ahead of him. It was like Yogi Berra imagining he could still catch for the Yankees.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Close is still working and productive, though it is always a variation on the same them. I’ve noticed this same thing with gurus and other self-appointed messiahs. They have one message, and one message only, which they repeat endlessly.

Anyway, it’s a bitch getting old, Chuck.

December 31, 2009   Comments Off on It’s a bitch getting old, Chuck

243

Anticipating
The first wild flowers of spring,
His breath soughed away.

December 31, 2009   Comments Off on 243

Vito Acconci

I’ve been watching a film a group of art students made of a conversation they had with Vito Acconci, the not-very-well-known performance artist-turned-architect from Brooklyn. (By the way, I find it amusing that Acconci’s middle name is Hannibal. Reminds me of Hannibal the Cannibal.) The subject of the conversation was “power zones,” a formalized way of thinking about the influence people have over one another. It’s a way of understanding Acconci, who, in his younger days, was a provocateur terrible. In his most famous (or should we say “infamous”) piece, Seedbed, Acconci lay hidden beneath a gallery-wide ramp, where he masturbated while broadcasting his fantasies about the visitors who walked above him.

He’s too old for that kind of thing now and mostly dabbles in landscape architecture. Of course, that’s what happens to over-the-hill performance artists. They are let out to pasture.

He kind of looks like Sid Caesar in his later years, doesn’t he?

December 29, 2009   Comments Off on Vito Acconci

Giorgio Vasari

Ignorance is sometimes a blessing—a “blessing” because it’s wonderful to be reminded of all the interesting things I have yet to discover in the world.

I had heard the name Vasari, of course, though I really had no idea who he was. If you had asked me about him, I would have said, “An Italian who had something to do with art.”

It turns out that Vasari was a much more important figure than I imagined. In fact, he was the first person to understand and write about the Italian Renaissance. Vasari’s advantage was that he was a contemporary of those in the golden age of the period—Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Vasari’s genius was that even though he was close to these towering geniuses, he immediately understood their significance and place in the history of art. This is no mean accomplishment. His views of the Renaissance are exactly the ones we hold today. By the way, his famous book, which he spent decades of his life creating, is available on Amazon.

Be sure to click on the image above so that you can see it full size. Bonus points if you can identify the scene depicted. Mega bonus points if you can name the artist, whom Vasari thought very highly of.

December 28, 2009   Comments Off on Giorgio Vasari

242

What I thought was God
Were the faint, dark flutterings
Of my phantom wings.

December 28, 2009   Comments Off on 242

Herb and Dorothy

Herb and Dorothy is the story of two ordinary New Yorkers of modest means (a postal worker and a librarian) who amassed a multi-million dollar collection of modern art, which they stored in their small, rent-controlled apartment, and then gave away at the end of their lives. Of course, these really are two amazing people. They had impeccable taste and bought art almost exclusively from artists who would later become famous. In a very real sense, they had an insatiable greed for good art, spending every spare penny they earned on it. Herb and Dorothy’s story is possible because the period of the 60’s and 70’s in Manhattan was as revolutionary in the world of art as it was in politics. Cheap rents, the art for art’s sake mentality, and concentration of artists in one place, of course, no longer exists—at least, not in New York City. Like Paris before it, it is now only a memory. But for a couple of decades it was extraordinary. This documentary introduces us to two wonderful people in Herb and Dorothy, and through them we re-encounter those artists who changed the course of modern art in America and the world.

December 27, 2009   Comments Off on Herb and Dorothy

241

I cracked your mirror
And you broke my precious stone,
But we are still one.

December 26, 2009   Comments Off on 241

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Redux

By the time he wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1974, John le Carré was at the peak of his powers. There was no one like him, nor I fear will there ever be again. Although I’ve read the novel (my hardbound Knopf edition) more than once and seen the BBC series with Alex Guinness as Smiley at least twice, I am still fascinated with his languid, sophisticated English voice. It is as we are talking over several bottles of claret in the early hours of the morning, and, like Charles Marlow, Conrad’s famous narrator, he’s telling some unsettling tale from his personal experience. It’s not that I care a great deal. More that I’m surprised at the workings of this strange English world he describes. I wholly believe in Jim Prideaux as a character, in Guillam and Alleline, even Esterhase and Bill Haydon, but Geroge Smiley? There I’m not really sure. He could never be an American. He’s too smart and careful, too self-effacing, too subtle in his strategy and tactics, altogether too much of a nerd. But that voice convinces me. It tells me that Smiley is real, his exploits are real, and that he needs nothing more than his superior intellect to bring down the dreaded Karla. And I believe, as le Carré wants me to believe, that the Cold War comes down to this—two men facing off in a master chess match with the world in the balance, and that, in the end, it’s the Brit who’s the smarter.

December 23, 2009   Comments Off on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Redux

The Tenants of Moonbloom

Moonbloom

Another book I tried to complete, but couldn’t, was The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant. The novel began well. The educated, no-account brother of the owner of four run-down apartment buildings is charged with collecting rents and managing the apartments. He’s ironic, funny, sensitive, and lyrical by turns. Saddled with a broken down maintenance man and practically no budget, he struggles to satisfy everyone’s demands in a world that’s tilted against all of them. Through his visits, we get to know the inhabitants. Women flirt with him. Kids taunt him. The tenants complain and try to cadge him. The novel moves along swimmingly. Then, after the first series of encounters with his characters, Wallant, having run out of ideas, changes voices and describes the inhabitants from their own points of view. We go inside the apartments and see what these people are really like. This should be interesting, but it’s not. The change is too abrupt. What made the novel so fascinating in the beginning—the wry perceptions of the protagonist—disappear without a trace.

All of this is understandable. Wallant died at 36. He never really had a chance to finish the novel, which was published posthumously. I wonder if he would be pleased with what is now in print. I doubt it. He was a perceptive writer with a unique style. I think he would have discovered the error he made in changing points of view and would have corrected it, making The Tenants of Moonbloom a much better novel. Still, I suppose, it is better to have this than nothing.

December 23, 2009   Comments Off on The Tenants of Moonbloom