All posts filed under: Art

Struggling with Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In the COVID era, my wife and I are homeschooling our small children. Their endless questions often send me to Google. Why do clouds change color? Where did language come from? Why did our ancestors paint on cave walls? They are not only curious about life after death, but also about life before life. They have concocted the Not-Existing World—an antechamber to life where they were friends before birth. So they naturally loved Soul, Pixar’s foray into the twin metaphysical realms of the Great Before (pre-life) and the Great Beyond (afterlife). Soul opens on Joe Gardner (a black middle-aged jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) becoming a permanent teacher at a public school as his dreams of professionally performing music fade. Miraculously, there’s a coveted opening in the Dorothea Williams quartet that same day, and Joe nails the audition. Euphoric, he struts through NYC, oblivious to its dangers, and plummets down an open manhole. Suddenly, he’s a fuzzy green-blue blob among other blobs—disembodied souls. (Joe is distinguished by his glasses and spiffy hat.) The souls …

Carl Th. Dreyer’s ‘Day of Wrath’ and the Power of the Punished

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. Part of what makes Carl Theodor Dreyer’s greatest films so rewarding is their moral ambivalence. The Danish director’s oeuvre spans several decades, from the 1910s to the 1960s, but it was in his final three feature films, Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) that this theme became fully apparent. Gertrud can be read as a feminist liberation story or a compelling case against sexual liberation. Ordet might be an expression of religious truth, but it might also be anti-theist (it might even be both). Day of Wrath may be about the cruel persecution of innocent women accused of witchcraft, but it can also be read as a story about the evil of witches and the strange benevolence of their flawed persecutors. I sympathise with Dreyer’s uncertainty. It is difficult to believe in heaven, but it is also difficult not to believe in a heaven. This paradoxical sensibility appears repeatedly in Dreyer’s work. He speaks for the undecided—those who see something wondrous but are blinded and confused by …

The Death of Political Cartooning—And Why It Matters

Six years ago, on January 7th, 2015, two brothers armed with Kalashnikov rifles assaulted a building on Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris, where they killed a maintenance man named Frédéric Boisseau and forced their way into the second-floor offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They asked for four cartoonists, by name, and executed each of them. They also killed four other journalists, a bodyguard assigned to protect one of the cartoonists in the event of just such an attack, police officer Ahmed Merabet, and a friend of one of the cartoonists. Following a nihilistic two-day crime spree, the brothers were killed in a hail of police bullets outside a printworks north-east of Paris. The ghastly murders at Charlie Hebdo shocked the world. Yet while the scale and violence of the incident were unprecedented, such attacks against cartoonists are hardly unknown. Throughout history, cartoonists have been jailed, kidnapped, tortured, exiled, and murdered. Ostensibly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed for drawing pictures of the prophet Muhammad. (Two days after the murders, an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen …

Wide As the Sky and Deep As the Ocean

When Don Van Vliet—the painter and musician better known as Captain Beefheart—died 10 years ago today, the obituary in the New York Times described him as “an artist of protean creativity” whose 1969 avant garde rock masterwork Trout Mask Replica paved the way for the post-punk experimentation of Devo, The Fall, Pere Ubu, and The Residents. “If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of pop music,” the British DJ John Peel had once famously remarked, “it’s Beefheart.” My own introduction to the world of Captain Beefheart came, like many lasting and influential encounters, by chance. I was 13 and out shopping for records, and having bought a couple, I found myself with a pound to spare. Rifling through the bargain rack past the Top of the Pops compilations, I came across an intriguing-looking album called Dropout Boogie. There was no information on the sleeve besides the name of the band and a fish-eye lens photo on the front and back of four serious men in suits who looked more …

The Troubled Maker: Transgressive Art, Public Shame, and Mike Tyson

In many ways, my personal experience with life after public shaming has gone exactly as one might expect: depressing, painful, and weird. Yet, at some point over the past three years, after managing the existential crisis of fractured identity, and learning to refrain from scratching at the phantom limb of my reputation, I’ve noticed something strangely liberating about it too. I no longer struggle to reconcile my blue-collar background with my former aspirations of being a successful and cool artist; I no longer find it necessary to cultivate the avant-garde persona of an active performance artist and theatre director. Instead of worrying about every detail of ignominy, I can finally indulge in vulgar interests like Monday Night Football, Bo Jackson YouTube compilations, or Mike Tyson’s latest exhibition bout against fellow boxing legend Roy Jones Jr. I didn’t even watch the fight, to be honest. I didn’t need to. At this point in his career, I’m more interested in Tyson’s redemption narrative than what remains of his athletic prowess. So I tuned in just in time …

Commemorating Mary

I’ve seen several interesting discussions about the controversial new Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture recently unveiled at Newington Green, the London community where the pioneering feminist briefly operated a school for girls. On the whole, I have seen more criticism than praise. Rachel Cooke of the Guardian called the little female figure at the top of the sculpture, “A Pippa doll with pubic hair.” A few reviewers have praised the sculpture and taken a faintly condescending tone toward philistines like me who don’t “get” it. “[M]ight [the nudity] be understood as a metaphor for Wollstonecraft’s vision of personal authenticity?” asks Eleanor Nairne in the New York Times. She describes the controversy as a “fuss,” and points out that there is a full-length statue of Wollstonecraft’s son-in-law, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Oxford, which leaves nothing to the imagination. Nudity in pubic—pardon me, public art—is part of our Western cultural tradition, surely. An article by scholar Vic Clarke posted on the History Workshop website at least corrects the common misconception that the little naked woman emerging out of the …

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

Time and Perceptions of Trustworthiness—the Row over a Novel Study

So here you are, head down, truffling along cheerfully towards your morning flat white at the local, lost in thought, wondering what kind of poem Catullus might have written about you, had fortune arranged it so, when some geezer calls out, “cheer up, love, it may never happen.” So infuriating. We make fast and frugal snap judgements about each other all the time and they are often wrong. Much pain in human life is caused by our being over-confident about what she/he meant, intended, thought, or felt. We don’t have direct access to each other’s minds. What we have is language—a frosted or sometimes stained-glass window on to others’ minds—and behaviour. Behaviour includes facial expressions. But their interpretations are error prone. A paper interpreting facial expressions has sparked a recent rumpus. A September 2020 paper in the prestigious journal Nature Communications has been savaged on Twitter. Small potatoes to those who don’t use the platform, but the authors received tens of thousands of hateful, jeering, or abusive comments that attacked their work, intentions, and characters. The …

Then They Came for Beethoven

This week, Vox published an article titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” “Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted [its opening progression] as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” write Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. But “for some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” In the article, and an accompanying podcast, the two men ask “how Beethoven’s symphony was transformed from a symbol of triumph and freedom into a symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping.” The article has been widely mocked on social media—in part because the authors (both white men, from what I can tell) offer no real evidence for their claim. That’s odd given that they are purporting to redefine the cultural meaning of what is arguably the most well-known, widely performed, and beloved composition known to humankind. Hundreds of millions of people have fallen in love with this symphony over the past two centuries—many …

At the Intersection of Art and Science: Revisiting EO Wilson’s ‘Consilience’

I first read EO Wilson’s Consilience in the late 1990s when I was a student in a contemporary literary theory class. The class was taught by a poet, Gerald Locklin, who assigned it as a counterpoint to the postmodern theorists we’d be reading that semester. Wilson makes the case for the unification of knowledge—in the convergence of diverse disciplines such as the sciences and the arts, he says, there is an important story to tell, “about where we came from and why we are here: Neither science nor the arts can be complete without combining their separate strengths. Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.” As someone who writes poetry, novels, and short stories, I have often drawn inspiration from science and its “fresh blood.” When I teach creative writing classes, I tell my students that aspiring writers not only need to read novels if they want to be a novelist, or poems if they want to be a poet, they need to …