The thing about lost worlds is that we live in them more vividly than the ones we really see. We walk in the paths of dinosaurs and the trails of forests felled by our very existence, but these pull on the imagination that the everyday drives us to. RAY HARRYHAUSEN’s genius was in a vanished genre that exerts an omnipresence on our imaginative space, as visual effects and perceived reality loop ever closer together. His medium disappeared decades before he died, but he had always brought to life sights we knew were central to existing though no one alive, or often ever, had seen any for themselves. Pre-digital, hand-positioned models moved micron by micron to add up to kinetic miracles, giant lumbering statues and flailing spaghetti sea-monsters and most famously an army of skulls and bones. These crossed swords with mythic heroes, themselves remnants of what we want to believe, but the stars were the special-effects phantoms themselves, realer in their proof — the assembled footage –– than in the green-screen trance the actors would swing at their shadows in. The machine would chase the ghosts away, digital production surpassing the pains taken as the camera’s eye watched real seconds snap in sequence while Ray’s models came to life. But nothing would make Harryhausen’s artistry obsolete, because he was seeing the big picture composed of flickering bits that computer designers themselves envision, predicting a future of perfect cohesion that closes a circle with the mythic past’s self-sufficient magic. The full picture seen by a god, one higher than Olympus, the invisible hand whose touch we want to be aware of, in the flaws and textures that he with clay and CGI programmers with pure light work to make and remake real. His eye was stilled yesterday, but what he set in motion has no end.
In the Boston bombing tragedy, a corner in the war of terror seems to have been turned — perhaps because it leads us straight into a home territory we can’t turn away from.
We’ve been reminded that individuals, not groups, commit atrocities — and that communities are what take shape to heal. We’ve seen fearless and careful public servants follow the law that lets us act in concert and keeps predators beyond a human fabric they can’t long survive outside. We’ve seen tweeting congressman calling for torture be overwhelmed in a tide of citizens who would rather have us think our way out of danger.
The years from Clinton to Obama saw the American people turn increasingly humane to each other and callous toward those outside — the arc of racial justice and acceptable identity rose steadily as opportunity increased and equal pay became an unavoidable (if still too unheeded) issue and marriage equality gathered momentum, even as the Executive’s extrajudicial action on matters we’d rather not think about advanced under Clinton with extraordinary rendition and continued under Bush with secret and not-so-secret gulags and expanded under Obama with widespread, unaccountable mechanized warfare.
But that wave too may have broken. After Boston, the current of public opinion clearly tends toward treating this hometown monster as a family problem. The personal media that didn’t exist when the age of terror began, and which has done as much as topple dictators, gives us a new sense of how we can be heard — though so far literally having our say is as far as it goes in this country. Paying attention and taking action has always been a distinction not tuned in too clearly in our spectator society. But in the absence of ballot democracy, discussion can take on mounting power; we know now that it’s as unnecessary to be silent as it was always impossible and unwise.
I sometimes gloomily think that we’ve stayed as silent as we have on torture and secret prisons and drones because, realizing we have no influence on these things, we sense we can let them hasten a time when America no longer has the authority, and the distorting responsibility, of being a world power — that we could “decline” into the peaceful productiveness and creative contentment of our own former European rulers, and let China or Russia learn the lesson next. Just as ruefully, I wonder if we are resolved to try the Boston bomber as an everyday (if extreme type of) criminal and not a “foreign” combatant because it gives us a face, a personality, a shape to put on unresolvable traumas like the Newtown shooting, with which we can link this twisted young man and his mass murder in our minds. Someone we can “get,” and by get I mean both hold to account, and possibly figure out.
But engaging with the world’s peoples as an equal, and understanding what can go wrong in the human mind and how we can process it with dignity and control, are good for us. And the progress of humanity belongs with the people, for the leaders to follow, so the persistence of warfare and lawlessness by our presidents is predictable and meaningless while our own attempts — having no choice, and no higher preference if we did — to reconcile, with each other and with the unthinkable extremes of human behavior, are the true trajectory of the future.
Putting an anonymous face on terror was in the interest of the authorities who’d most like to perpetuate conflict and keep themselves in power as the ones who supposedly can prevent it or prevail. But coming face to face with monsters on our own home ground is important — not to “recognize” them, but to remember who we are.
We don’t always have time to look up from, or in to, the very places we make most of our lives in, and Ben Katchor writes and illustrates the guidebooks to our own, alien home towns.
In his surreal scenarios and slouching lines and dense, dashed compositions and infra-red silent-movie sepias and fuller palette of fading-newsprint-Parrish twilight eggshell hues (a lovely dimension of his work displayed in this new book like in no previous one), Katchor, yes, catches the mirage-like impression of people’s inner yearnings and crazy drives as they blur past sight in busy cities. His pseudonymed boomtowns and allegorical settings are a mirror-image, but not a distorted one; mistopias, if you please, of absurd and charming idiosyncrasy surfacing through the sturdy urban structures of architecture and attitude that most of these spaces’ own inhabitants can’t pause to ponder.
His landmark new collection Hand-Drying in America and other stories (named for one of the many ignored but omnipresent objects raised to mystic relics in his point of view), has been building, literally, for a long time — in strips tucked into the high-design architectural journal Metropolis which have always been available online, and are now gathered in an almost walk-in tome. Katchor’s last book came with a fold-out suitcase-handle, asserting the non-screen tactile object, and this one, through the simple expedient of its old-school vinyl-record square size, insists its bookness even more. This materiality might seem paradoxical for the man who is only the most deceptively antiquarian of cartoonists, forever dealing with the yellowing parchment of passing daily experience but in real life attached to the Cintiq and, in the life of his mind, always looking back from one step ahead in the future.
But the bookness dissolves instantly, its broadsheet pages like a grand gate into his dream cities. There’s a seamless partition between the plans for these imaginary places and the full surroundings of them; each of Katchor’s compositions give thought to the architecture of the comic itself, the panel gutters like street grids, often surrounding a central dominant image or dividing middle transition that the story navigates. In Katchor’s world, you’re always new in town, but the skeleton of the city blocks and the bloodflow of its dwellers’ wanderings show you the way around it. This work is the intuitive counterpart to Chris Ware; Katchor’s urban landscapes still feel grown as much as built.
Katchor’s stories often seem to take place in towns that don’t know they’re ghosts; no matter their real time period, we feel we’re seeing an old movie as it’s shot. In this collection of his comic strips for a magazine on current dwelling trends Katchor confronts the modern moment most specifically, with as keen a viewpoint and as strong a sense of retrospect; he knows how crazy what we see as normal (or don’t notice at all) will come to seem, but his eye for it is affectionate. These already-lost worlds are, for him and us, rare finds.
Midway through the collection, an account of a visionary merchant who fashions special pillows for turning away from your TV and internet and spectating life out of city windows provides what could be the book’s epigram: “Over time, the most prosaic view yields a form of poetry.”
The narratives tend to play out in two languages, either ambient voiceovers explaining unique phenomena and strange unselfconscious customs of the city and its dwellers — the airspace that defines cozy lo-rise ancient shops; a commerce in fragrances made from the silt of beloved demolished buildings — or self-captioning soliloquies from fabulist inventors, scheming developers, obsessive context-buffs, all of whom intone in the announcing style of biblical prophets, who could be the only living thing in sight but knew they had an audience in the future, or in god’s ear; an insightful portrait of the essence of archetypal city folk who are at the center of their culture and so perceive no such thing as being alone.
Katchor’s other collections have been full-length graphic novels (The Jew of New York), long-running comic-strip lifetimes (several volumes of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer), or accumulating narratives on connected themes (The Cardboard Valise); the one-page monuments of Hand-Drying are the purest notepad of his ideas yet, contained yet expansive reflections on every point he stops at — the longing of neighborhood-nomad spectators who drift between empty apartment open-houses; the nostalgia of computer addicts who huddle under decaying newsstand awnings buying chapstick; the melancholy of stalker-historians who mourn the decline of water fountains as pillars of public sharing. All together, the eccentric perspective of what’s really going on in the hurried, neurotic, original individual lives of the city, when the walls talk to him; for each address, an ode.
David Bowie, The Next Day, streaming free on iTunes now and ownable March 12
David Bowie is not young, but he’s forever present. That’s the happy ending that The Next Day starts at, the fittingly timeless first vid, for “Where Are We Now?”, being a Berlin reminiscence that finds him traveling back to haunt his younger self and bump out whatever demon’s been in there for the years since; the second clip, for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, a menopausal gothic that flips the Twilight/Beautiful Creatures aesthetic, deleting the supernatural content and making the magazine-cover perfection itself the source of the horror.
Ironically, the spectre of youth is the shadow of something that will end, and Bowie has long outlived that, engineered the escape with every terminal identity.
Bowie works best free of expectation, and ten years without an album will provide that cleanly. He’s like a fresh immigrant to the current moment, gorged on references while detached from all precedent.
Our heads are in the Cloud, and he can see its shadows gathering, in a bleakly dreamy, obsessively catchy masterwork.
Bowie’s mash of found buzzphrases and poetic originals (“walking the dead”; “tell them your secrets, they’re like the grave”) is like a Ouija-engine of everything that’s worrying us (the perpetual-war anxiety of “I’d Rather Be High”; the mutual-stalker paranoia of “If You Can See Me”; the symphony of global-warming metaphor and inner-cooling memoir in “Heat”); the lines of car-alarm guitar and angel-mob vocals and rising-ocean strings and trapped cave-in survivor club-beats and pastel-nebula keyboards twist like those wires that connect with what, we couldn’t say, and lead we know not where.
These are the loud noises that get our attention and the sweet personal tones that preoccupy us across a big picture we’re lost inside. I don’t know when I’ve heard so many songs sung in the second person; Bowie is the mirror’s reflection that’s checking you. He’s been away for very long, but stopped watching never, and The Next Day is like a secret classic novel stuffed under prison mattresses; his new best.
David Bowie is not young, but he doesn’t have to ask anyone what day it is. It’s this one.
Iphigenia in Aulis
Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn
Music by Aldo Perez
Art by Eric Shanower
Sets and masks by Jane Stein
Costumes by Carla Gant
Lighting by Jeff Nash
Choreography by Patrice Miller
Vocal Coach: Henry Akona
Fight Choreography: Dan Zisson
At La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre
74 E 4th St, NYC
Feb 14 — Mar 3, 2013
Thursdays — Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:30pm
Iphigenia in Aulis is a study in pretext without principle. Nations and leaders lean on prescribed values like the characters in this ancient Greek drama lean on the staffs holding up ceremonial masks that project their larger- (yet less-) than-life official presence to the world. But both of these are often a consensual delusion — a dispiritingly unoriginal observation of mine that proves how fresh this play of Euripides remains.
The elopement of Helen with her lover Paris to Troy from her husband King Menelaus’s realm triggers an honor-war in which city-states pledged in a mutual support pact are obligated to overrun the offending territory. Menelaus’ brother King Agamemnon is in turn obligated to lead the expedition, and finds himself manipulated by a prophet (and then pressured by a restive army) into pledging his own daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to gain favor with the gods in battle.
The anguish this causes Agamemnon is a portrait of the blame that buffers our ethical decisions; the king feels at the mercy of greater powers and grand concepts that we can recognize as really the limits of his own moral imagination. And this distortion of private conscience by public piety and militarist imperative is renewably timely in our own era teetering on the ledge of theocracy and “generational” conflict.
But that’s not the only way in which the antique and modern collide in this production. The beautifully wrought, eerily impersonal masks which intervene between the characters’ feelings and their obligations are designed by Jane Stein from Age of Bronze graphic novelist Eric Shanower’s images, and the commenting chorus is transformed into a punky pair of power trios on instruments and collective vocals (composer Aldo Perez plus Matthew Brundrett and Mike Strauss as the band, and Jenny Lee Mitchell, Sandy York and Emily Clare Zempel to sing the unspeakable).
The latter, thought jarring by some viewers, is as disruptive as rock was once meant to be, and is perhaps the feature of the production most in tune with the combative rabble our “civilization”’s founding figures of legend really were.
The characters themselves are more high-minded, in debates which are compelling as drama and plain speech turned to insistent artistry by director Edward Einhorn’s translation. His treatment is a new standard text of language unadorned but not austere, the straightforward arguments of state and dialogues of moral dilemma almost entirely free of poetic ornament but elevated to distinguished oratory and elemental outcry by the external pressures and expressive necessities the characters face.
Those public and personal spheres clash in the conflict of Agamemnon and his Queen, Klytemnestra, who tries everything to counter her husband’s mad myopic plan. The compact between wife and husband in a decidedly pre-feminist culture is implicitly paralleled to the uneasy understanding between leader and citizenry at the points when Klytemnestra reminds him of her sexual deference in return for domestic peace, and when she insists (still thinking that Iphigenia has been called to the staging area for a wedding rather than a burial) that the home — and the family in it — are hers to direct and protect while the patriarch of the clan ranges the wider world. But this is an epoch of men who will destroy their own house to save someone else’s village.
The way the wretched of a society can be enlisted in the cause of their oppressors is portrayed with ghastly — which is to say almost unremarkable — inexorability as Iphigenia becomes convinced that Troy, if punished with the massacre to come, will forever forebear coming into “civilized” Greece and “taking its wives.” And so high principle ends up hinging entirely on possession, with the psychologically coerced consent of the dispossessed.
The message of disapproval for the paternal pattern of the society ours is said to be based on is a message still in transmission some 3000 years after these supposed events, and the last, laudatory lines about the nobility of Iphigenia’s sacrifice are delivered not even through the prescribed mood of the masks but the backs of standards held up by a heraldic chorus, between their faces and us — banners as blinders.
The vocal resonance, moral hollowness and unexplored depths of Michael Bertolini and Eric Emil Oleson as Agamemnon and Menelaus are frightfully magnetic; the emotional bravery of Ivanna Cullinan’s precarious balance of obliged social surface and embattled inner character is unforgettable; the burdened dignity and urgent humanity of Lynn Berg’s Old Servant, a man who seems literally stooped by the pressures both divine and royal upon his constricted frame, is bleakly moving; and the radiant decency and contained charisma of Paul Murillo as Achilles and the humanitarian conviction and emotional immediacy of Laura Hartle’s Iphigenia round out an essentially flawless ensemble.
The masks, accurate to the origins of Greek theatre and appropriate to our own age of social artifice and selected avatars, are discarded at moments of uncommon honesty and insistent feeling. This tragedy is a text we’ve been going through for as long as can be remembered, perhaps even inscribed in our very molecules over the repetition of millennia. But with collective knowledge and moral perception like we see the playwright, his interpreter, some of their characters and each of the cast attempt, perhaps we can at last go off-script and into a future that all of us can survive.
The zombie genre won’t stay down, and it’s never a bad time for its meanings to roam free. Warm Bodies may be mistaken for a trifle, the even paler Twilight, but no phenomenon this insistent can be so easily dismissed.
Zombie movies are always about our anxiety over what comes after death — a worry we carry from the first moment we learn that we die at all, and one compounded by our anxiety over various kinds of continuity — of our loved ones, of our way of life.
We fear that we’re already dead — that our chances are exhausted, or that our society is built to fail. That’s why zombies shamble persistently through the mall in the original Romero Day of the Dead, and why they congregate in an eternal wait at the airport in Warm Bodies — enacting workaday routines with an endless amount of time to get them right or see them come to something.
The allegory and the alarm are more alive than ever, though their significance does move forward — our resource insecurity is at a historic height, as the developed world wonders what it will be absorbed (essentially eaten) by — ideologies we’re uncomfortable with, nationalities we’re phobic of.
But our own gnawing craving is for an alterative way of living — and Warm Bodies shows the struggle of the abhorred and the embattled to experience a life after the only one they know (or others think they know about them).
It’s no spoiler that the film deals with the enemy-camp romance between a zombie-killing girl and a post-living boy, whose heart is somehow rebooted by their encounter. His stumbling horde starts to follow in file by seeing their example, challenging the assumptions of the girl’s martial-law dad, who has turned the last known city of the living into a walled fortress.
The barricades of Bush-era war-on-otherness are unmistakable but not overpowering either as metaphor or fact; love rises again and the walls may be buckling.
The entire production design is of a kind of pop sarcophagus, where the trappings of an era much earlier than the end times (notwithstanding their own extended hipster lifespan) — vinyl records, polaroid cameras — clutter the landscape of nothing new. The symbol of youth always having to navigate a world left lesser for them to build on is poignant though unsentimental. We have to grow up, and we need to change, and if we choose carefully we may come alive for the first time.
Supremajor, Fontana’s, Lower East Side NYC, Feb. 1
Supermajor — still and again and forever the band breaking into my brainwidth on some haunted signal from the satellite dashboard, with three-part gospel opera, keytar riffing off the tuned-out static of the spheres, melodies levitating on the hydrogen Cadillac breeze in your hair and axe-heroics sped into some cavern dive-bar star-canopy mountain-tunnel with nothing but the spirit winds to pick up on the dial. Life’s too short but eternity is three-and-a-half minutes so switch stations here and don’t make out the words.