Dear Friends and readers,
This year we had two minor disappointments. I really thought we’d get to see the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As in the last few years, surely a star studded movie based on a super-famous good book was made to get academy awards and when better to show it in many theaters than Christmas day. I forgot to reckon in the dysfunctional powers of private property and competition: our two local Landmark theaters bought exclusive rights to this movie; neither are in Virginia and the trains don’t run frequently on regular Sundays.
So we opted for A Dangerous Method. While the screenplay writer was Christopher Hampton, and it had a fine director, good actors and was based on real history of a bleak true ironic sort, it has all the flaws (like epitomizing wooden dialogue) as well as the strengths (beauty, quality themes) of Sunday night costume drama. We did enjoy our meal at Mark’s Duck House. And I watched Frederick Wiseman’s The Store when we got home.
Brief review: How we really “do” Xmas, some of it anyway. Frederick Wiseman’s The Store. It seems he filmed Neiman Marcus mostly during Xmas time, from later Nov to Dec. It adds to the exposure and study of how people really do spend their lives
and how they act “at work.” What they want to be, as in these Texans:
Watch a man across the course of the film make up his mind between a $46,000 or $38,000 fur jacket for a woman — made up of such exquisite fur pieces (from animals not mentioned) and good for everything including jeans!
rings for frightening prices. Make-up.
And then the workers in the store being led to do exercises in smiling. The long undecorated labyrinths. The actual work done down there for many many tiring hours. The pep talks: we are here to sell. The man thinks doctors are there to save lives and take care of people’s health. Perhaps he has not left The Store lately. The hatred: manufacturers for buyers especially. You might say you see Writ Large here what occurs in less expensive spaces.
Other movies not about Xmas but where things are occurring at Xmas time — which are the best kinds of Xmas movies: so also Huston’s The Dead, Whitman’s Metropolitan (adaptation of Mansfield Park), Taylor’s The Maze
We had a similar obstacle for our Boxing Day outing. This year there didn’t seem to be a show on that I felt we’d surely like. Last year not only was there one of Venice, but there was one of these unexpected extra shows we had not noticed: beautiful studies of the natural world. But we had had some of these magical moments together over several years, so we thought we’d try despite the headlineer (pun intended) being Andy Warhol. I’ve never liked his stuff (so to speak) though I grant it’s memorable, but I had read a longish review in The Nation where the writer presented views of leading critics that Warhol was a great artist, that he was a salesman, self-promoting celebrity who made works to catch attention, that he was both.
I reported on Facebook that Jim thought it all charlatanism. I’m nor sure. Later Jim said this was an exaggeration of what he said. He thought rather that Warhol produced junk and the exhibit (not deliberately but to the knowing person) revealed how the art world is dependent on patrons so that if a slick “operator” careerist, networker can promote his work to a few rich patrons, he’s a made man; and if on top of this he can cultivate other rich, powerful people, he can be called a great artist as it becomes in the interest of everyone to uphold him. (This is different from music and books where you have to try to please a great number of people.)
Honest this is not much different from junk and charlatan (=showman-careerist), and the show did sour Jim’s outlook. It irritated him and seemed to put him out of the mood for looking at other things.
Well I wasn’t sure. It seemed to me that Warhol could be using his parodies of these godawful headlines to expose the stupidity, amorality, and absurdity of different worlds and their media. One struck me especially: on one side of a newspaper painted by Warhol (based on a real one) there was a story of a man murdered by police (a choke hold) where they denied it and got away with this as the death was called accident or suicide. It was a tiny item next to a huge page of advertisements for sales for Gimbel’s. In other words, some of the parodies, imitation, juxtapositions were capable of interpretation as serious social criticism.
OTOH, there was a kind of getting a kick out of doing this for some of them — simply mocking, showing up the stupidity of these newspapers meant for hoi polloi. No vision for humaneness, just accepting the ugly junk. Like Madonna not a bit ashamed as a headline. What kind of understanding does that show of her, from her, and also from Warhol. Jim said I was reading into the things something not there, and that is what others do. It’s like fans make a cult of books that are half-empty and easy (Sherlock Holmes) because they pour into it their own identity politics.
What makes me half-agree with Jim is what I see are Warhol’s followers: an exhibit at the Whitney a couple of years ago of student work: it was drek accompanied by explanations preaching at you. I liked the views expressed but this is not art. I’ve seen this in other exhibits and it ruins rooms and rooms.
At any rate nothing there was edifying and it left me mostly with a sense that I should not mourn the passing of popular newspapers. I had forgotten what they are like: crude, crash, harsh, jeering or absurdly sentimental.
We did go around the museum and saw a few favorite pictures, but as with two years running fully one-quarter of the second floor of the older art part of the building was blocked off. Most of the new building where the Warhol exhibit was is wasted space (like many other recent museums for recent art).
The Harry Callahan which was in the space where the exhibit with the nature studies was last year was not bad. Mostly really they were home-family pictured masquerading as something else (not much), but in the last corridor there was some later work: a row of colored photos of cities around Europe which seemed really to capture some essence of them not often admitted to by being so true to what the camera saw: on a bleak street in Ireland, on Turkey where public space is so empty and all private buildings like prisons with windows not seen, Hong Kong outpourings of vile commercialisms.
Perhaps we should have looked at another smaller exhibit of medieval tapestries. But somehow we were not in the mood but by the time we noticed it we had decided to leave. When we got home, I realize we had missed Mark Rothko too (not that I ever find anything to look at in his paintings).
We did have a lovely sunny walk on the mall. The day was quietly lovely and again at night a good meal together and good talk (about the Warhol). What is art? how does the art world work? what is promulgated as fine art? and so on. In truth I still think Warhol is partly doing what Callahan did and what Wiseman in The Store does. Give us a real experience instead of a pretend or phony flattering substitute. But not exactly comforting and except for Wiseman’s film I am not sure it’s art. My criteria is probably that I have to be impressed by some skill or talent, something done outside the ordinary capturing nature which I can’t do.
My real conclusion about this boxing day (what mattered about it) is about the advice I was given by a kind friend a few years about how to endure Christmas (get through the phoniness and fraught emotionalisms of over-expectation). He said to have a private set of rituals, traditions you do each year and keep to them. I know Izzy listens to lovely Christmas music while laying in bed on the 25th. I know I lay in bed late and relax and do little on the 25th, sometimes read a novel for two days that is utterly unrelated to anything I call work. We had a good time on the night before Christmas eve exchanging a few presents with Laura & Rob, and washing down French Christmas cake and a few hors-d’oeuvres with champagne. Perhaps we should have ritual/traditions as my friend advised, but we keep them small and make sure they are acts within our compass, not dependent on someone else and not be religious or too strict about them.
At any rate we are now all Christmas’d out.