Saturday, February 28, 2015

NO BIRD? A Film Review

In this story, Whiplash, jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher nurses a core belief in the myth that it was only after escaping decapitation by a cymbal thrown in anger at his head that Charlie Parker became the Bird.  That it was out of this ultimate threat to his very life that the phoenix who was to become the jazz great was born.  No cymbal, no Bird.  Hence, for Terrence, the sadistic need to inflict emotional humiliation and physical suffering on the young man, Andrew, an aspiring drummer, who becomes his student and the target of his deepest inner reserves of wrath.

Whether or not you subscribe to the essentially Romantic belief that greatness comes from suffering, Whiplash is a compelling teacher/student story and an intense study of the discipline and training that it takes to become a top-ranked musician.  At its heart is the question: do you have to give up literally everything else in life in order to achieve greatness as an artist?  It's what Andrew has been led to believe; he acts out increasingly as an arrogant and pompously self-important jerk, much in need of the lessons in humility that his teacher is eager to hand out.  His own ultimate humiliation comes when he is invited to perform in front of the most important audience of his life, only to find himself seated at his drum kit without script or score and with no prior knowledge of the piece he's being required to play.  Forced to improvise, he fails; but out of failure is born a renewed determination to succeed--leading to the "Bird" performance of his lifetime.

We learn little of the source of Fletcher's sadism.  We see him mostly angry, impossibly demanding, insatiable.  He yells at his students, verbally assails and insults them, crushes their ambitions, leaves them trembling and in some cases utterly destroyed in his wake.  We learn that his ambition is to force them to transcend their self-limitations, to go beyond what they believe to be possible, and to fly eventually like the Bird who is his hero and his mentor.  But we are also led to believe that he is not, himself, the Bird he would have wished to be.  When we see him play, at last, in a downtown New York jazz club, he seems to be a competent but not inspired pianist.  He excels only as the conductor of other musicians--a skill he scorns as the mere ability to wave his arms about and waggle his fingers at the band.

In this way, we come to suspect that Terrence's perverted drive is to live his lost personal ambitions through his students--and none of them quite live up to his exacting standards of perfection.  The roots of his motivation remain unexplored, but his refusal to face up to some painful inner truths about himself is revealed in the lie he tells his band in the one scene where he allows himself to betray some emotion other than rage: that his star student--a horn player who went on to brilliant success--had been killed in a car accident.  Only later do we learn that in fact the student died by his own hand, hanging himself in a desperate act of surrender and despair.  It's a tragedy for which Terrence is unwilling to contemplate responsibility, though his reluctantly shed tears suggest inner acknowledgment.

I was captivated by this movie, even though I felt that there was a certain dishonesty in its message.  The final, tacit, eye-to-eye acknowledgment of mutual forgiveness and respect between student and teacher seemed to suggest a confirmation that it had all been worthwhile, all the pain and suffering, the humiliation and rejection; that this was the true path to an artist's education, as though it were rooted in aesthetic necessity rather than in the twisted emotional history of this particular teacher--a history we were never privileged to learn.  Still, with outstanding performances and spot-on camera work and direction, I found this to be a film of unusual quality and depth.

Monday, February 23, 2015


I've noticed that time passes just as fast when I'm idling it away as when I'm busy doing things.  I've been idling it away this weekend because the doctor who saw me Thursday for a relapse into the illness that has been plaguing me these past six weeks told me that the best thing to recover would be rest.  Oh, and plenty of liquids, of course.  Plus a fistful of pills...

I have two theories about the persistence of this illness, characterized by heavy congestion, the occasional fever and headache, and intense fatigue that brings with it, paradoxically, poor sleep.  The first is that the stomach bug which we brought back from Cuba several months ago--and which took us a good month to fight off--attacked our immune system and left us defenseless against everything that is now going around.  The second, related, theory is that being grandparents to a three-year old in preschool leaves us exposed to everything that every child brings to school and exchanges with his and her classmates.  Little Luka has been vulnerable to those promiscuous germs, and his overnight stays with his grandparents leave us, in turn, vulnerable to everything he carries around with him.  Including--especially!--his wicked charms!

Anyway... idling the time away yesterday afternoon I came upon that old war movie, Patton, with George C. Scott as the infamous general and Karl Malden as the more modest and humane Gen. Omar Bradley.  Remembering it as a fine movie, I clicked the remote and watched for maybe half an hour, until I wearied of the explosions, the bullets, and the shattered bodies.  What struck me in that half hour was that the antagonists, Patton and his German counterpart Erwin Rommel, both seemed like nothing more than little boys, acting out their little boy fantasies--but provided with far more dangerous toys to play with than your average little boy.

That was the "good war", they say--the war against the undisputed evil of Adolf Hitler and his gang of Nazi criminals (more little boys, bad ones, with too much power for their own good, and the world's).  My war, really, since I was around at the time and already old enough to remember a good deal about it.  How many wars has the world seen since?  I've lost count--not that I was ever counting.  But it does seem to me that wars have been becoming more and more destructive, more and more senseless.  I ask myself, is our current "war on terrorism" a "good war"?  There's certainly an evil to be brought down.  There's unquestionably a great deal of suffering caused in too many parts of the globe, these days, by the fanaticism of barbarous men who will apparently stop at nothing in their determination to conquer the world and impose their barbarism on the rest of us infidels.

But war has proved on so many occasions to be less of the solution we humans desperately believe it to be, or want it to be.   We allow a good amount of ego to stand between ourselves and rational behavior.  Ego assures us that we are right and those we oppose are wrong.  Ego requires us to assert our rightness and attack their wrongness, to protect our turf from their predations...

And even as I struggle, rather vainly, with these thoughts, I recall the brave words written by Dr. Oliver Sacks in the face of death, the words I quoted approvingly only last Friday in The Buddha Diaries: There is no time for anything inessential.  I should learn from the wisdom I recognized in his words.

And here, of course, is the essential...

Along with the task of restoring myself to health.  

Friday, February 20, 2015


I was moved by "My Own Life," an op-ed piece by Oliver Sacks in yesterday's New York Times.  I have, of course, been aware of his work over the years, and have been inspired at times by his love of humanity in its sometimes weird and disturbing manifestations, by his humor, by the depth of his perception.  Now, it appears, he is approaching the end of his own life--and is doing so with his familiar zest for life, and with appropriate self-directed compassion.

One piece of wisdom in the article spoke to me particularly, was one who struggles with the feeling that I must somehow take responsibility for the troubles of the world.  "There is no time for anything inessential," Sacks wrote
I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.  I shall no longer look at "Newshour" every night.  I shall no longer pay attention to politics or arguments about global warming.  This is not indifference but detachment--I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future,  I rejoice when I meet gifted young people... [and] I feel the future is in good hands.
That's an elegant withdrawal, a beautiful expression of trust, and and an admirable optimism for the future of our species.  It's a kind of serenity I would do well to emulate.  Because, yes, even though I carry as yet no death sentence, as does Sacks, these things are already out of my hands.  I look to my children and my grandchildren, and wish them well.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

JIM MORPHESIS "Wounds of Existence": Art Review

The word “baroque” kept returning to my mind as I walked through the exhibition “Jim Morphesis: Wounds of Existence” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.  In part, it’s the sheer, intense, sometimes massively over-the-top materiality of many of these “paintings,” with their surfaces of nailed broken planks that might have been rescued from a demolition site, or the ooze of concrete and magna (acrylic resin paint), the sparkle and gold and glitter.  In part, it’s the purposefully broken quality of composition, line and texture.  In part the physically explicit passion for the fleshy human body, both male and female...

Female Torso with Green Doors, 1989 Oil, acrylic, gouache, charcoal, and collage on wood panel 
with wooden doors, 71 x 83 inches
Collection Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA; Gift of John and Phyllis Kleinberg
... in part the obsession with entropy and death; in part the emotional energy that reaches out from the surface of these artworks and grabs the viewer with its peculiar intensity.

Morphesis has been exploring such things for a good number of years now, and it’s good to see that dedication rewarded with a solo museum exhibition.  (My only wish is that it could have been a more extensive one than this...)  Even at a time when it ran counter to the mainstream, his art was unafraid to take up the challenge of those issues that confront us simply at the level of our existence as mortal human beings: such things as pain and vulnerability, love and sex, the metaphysical struggle between belief and disbelief, religion and existential doubt; and, eventually, between the light side of our nature and the dark.  If we can bring ourselves to gaze with sufficient attention into its disquieting depths (and this is sometimes, truthfully, no easy task) his work is powerful enough to overcome any reserve we might bring to it.  The artist’s process requires him to look fearlessly within; it invites us to look with equal fearlessness into our own inner lives. 

Emotional intensity aside, Morphesis is an artist who pays serious attention to the work of those who preceded him, and who grounds himself firmly in the authority of tradition.  In the series of crucifixion paintings in which he addresses his childhood associations with the Greek Orthodox church, for example, he evokes the images of Matthias Grünewald and Velasquez...

Jim Morphesis, No Sanctuary, 1981. Oil, acrylic, wood, nails, wire, tape,
and gold leaf on wood panel, 26 1/2 x 29 inches, Collection of Ray Mnich.
The raw impasto of his wounded, sometimes tortured naked human figures recalls the disturbing paintings of Chaim Soutine.  He mines the deep well of archetypal images from the history of art and poetry—the rose, the skull...

Skull and Red Door, 1987, oil, magna, enamel, charcoal, paper, wood, and gold leaf on wood panel with wooden door
83 x 76 1/4 inches
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Gift of Jacob and Ruth Bloom
... and of motifs and themes—memento mori, the pietà...

Jim Morphesis, Destiny, 1982. Oil, magna, alkyd resin, and wood on wood
panel, 68 x 64 inches. Collection of Laifun Chung and Ted Kotcheff
... that have for centuries resonated in the human consciousness, creating a powerful subtext of cultural reference that enriches these paintings with echoes from the past.  Similarly, the written words and texts that lie half-buried in their surfaces bear witness to the artist's restless inquiry into the ageless philosophical questions they address.

The seriousness and profundity of this inquiry is what sets Morphesis's work apart from that of many of his contemporaries.  In a culture that often seems content to skirt the surface of those things that affect our inner lives, I find his work to be not only emotionally provocative and intellectually engaging, but also remarkably courageous.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


If I show you
mine, will you
show me yours?