Dog's Dinner

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Monday, April 18, 2005

Turner's cataracts, Brando's pauses, Jean-Luc's drunken jump cuts: so what?

At a dinner party in New York some years ago I listened on and off as a gentleman of some stature in the world of New York publishing and journalism told a nice lady about how Joseph Mallard William Turner suffered from terrible cataracts in his later years, when he was painting his most abstract-looking sunsets: hence the abstraction. Somehow a reminiscence of this came up in a conversation with Small Man while we were visiting Krakow recently-- I think it was on the day of his departure, when we were looking at a Turneresque landscape in the Cloth Hall Gallery of Polish 19th century art-- and we both agreed that in fact, such knowledge doesn't really add to (or detract from) one's appreciation of the pictures. Does its dissemination in fact cater to a certain know-nothing anti-artistic mindset? Possibly. Sort of reminds me of an alleged sicko I once knew in Boulder who pored over a biography of Nabokov I had (a gift from my father) in a vain search for evidence of Nabokov having been some kind of pervert, since VN was famous for writing child pornography (except not really). But more importantly, what we call "abstract" may well be, for the artist, "representative," or even "photographic realism," even without the benefit of cataracts. A brilliant Hmong guy named Lin with whom I took several French lit. classes at the U. of Colorado once made the point that physics and biology are myths, just like the epic of Gilgamesh or the tales of the Greek gods, since a myth is the most accurate and meaningful explanation people have yet come up with for how the world works and what it's all about. By the same token, Monet or Whistler's (or Rothko or Miro's) non-cataract-induced reveries and even Warhol's purple Marilyns are no less "representative" than Poussin's Serment des Horace, or anything by Turner, or the photographs of Diane Arbus or Robert Frank, bizarre and surreal as they often are. In any case the fact that an ordinary person without cataracts can perceive what Turner apparently more or less photographically reproduced is documented in Wilde's excellent dialogue, "The Decay of Lying," where one of the characters complains how he recently watched a sunset over the Thames and realized it was just a "bad Turner."

If there be "commentary tracks of the damned" (the onion has a weekly feature so called), then the commentary track on the Superman DVD is surely in the ninth circle. About fifty percent of it consists of director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz (who wrote a lot of the script, apparently) either repeating the characters' dialogue to each other or patting each other and themselves, and others, on the back ("That was such a great cast" is heard several times). But there are some interesting technical revelations and gossip. One gem (probably already known to many, but I either didn't know or forgot) is that Brando, who as everybody knows was paid more money for his brief appearance than anybody in film history before that, hates memorizing lines so much that if he's not allowed to improvise he has his lines written on various props that are off-camera while he's speaking so he can read off them. And in fact, Mankiewicz explains, some of those poignant or otherwise powerful Brando pauses that made him famous are actually the result of him looking for the text or not quite making it out at first. This is cynical know-nothing talk on the level of "money for nothing and the chicks for free." If the pauses didn't actually mean anything, they wouldn't be famous, and Brando's farcical struggle with the props is an immaterial coincidence.

A friend once mentioned that the jazzy jump-cuts in Jean-Luc Godard's A bout de souffle (Breathless) are an accident of history: the story (which I must confess I don't really believe, while I do believe the above stories about Brando & Turner) goes that the film was much longer, perhaps almost four hours long, but "the studio" (was there a full-on studio involved?) commissioned a re-edit and Godard re-edited in a drunken, jokey rage, giving the fat cats the black&white finger. So are we supposed to wait with baited breath for the emergence of a Director's Cut DVD? Lament its impossibility? Laugh at his drunken, accidental genius? What?

Somehow it's more interesting for me to hear that, for example, Peter Lorre was largely stoned on opium during the making of The Secret Agent-- some dialogue was improvised, but that's not the point. The point is that Lorre would have been just as bizarre without the opium-- kind of like Dennis Hopper snorting truckloads of coke on the set of Apocalypse Now, it's a moot point, but it gives you some sense of the atmosphere of those artistic processes.


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