Bovary Blues: Dispatch from the Virtual Site of (Post) Feminism’s Fourth Wave

January 30, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Virginia Konchan

 

“Feminism is  . . . just a gimmick to attract some voters who place gender above any other issue. Respecting the rules of the Money Power during a campaign means toeing the line of oligarchy while in power.   Neither men nor women benefit from this.  [Hilary] Clinton and her neoliberal allies are hijacking feminism and the rhetoric of diversity.”

 

—Pierre Guerlain, Truthout

 

“There is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I.’   There is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through.”

—Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”

 

The lampooning of Mitt Romney’s quip in defense to sexist accusations (“I have binders full of women”), aside, the fact remains:  the social status of women as “placeholders” or sex objects in the commodity market is subtended linguistically, and historically:   for a woman to define herself as a subject, not relationally as a wife, daughter, or mother, is to demand a changing of the guards in patriarchal lineage, wherein women are permitted to enter discourse only under the name of the father, or husband, as gatekeepers to signification as well as social recognition.  This antagonism is explained away by Slavoj Žižek as a means of condemning women so as to control the flow of “feminine excess,” threatening to destroy the masculine’s economy of lack (a woman’s performance of these roles for the male gaze or its representative prostheses—camera, video, canvas—the very source of phallic jouissance).

The prohibition against the a priori existence of women as volitional subjects (reproductive femininity as metaphysical and medical “problems”):  a black comedy, indeed.  The inadmissibility of female self-representation unless patrolled by a state-sponsored or private guardianship (marriage) is the subject of Lindy West’s hilarious riposte in Jezebel to the box-office film “Love, Actually”:  in West’s reading, the film accords a “27-word allotment” of speech to women, which character Emma Thompson exceeds.  “Hugh Grant falls instantly in love with Natalie, which is understandable, because she hasn’t yet exceeded her Love Actually attractiveness word quota (Twenty-seven. The quota is 27 words before you become Emma Thompson and must be destroyed.)”

 

Love, Actually

 

The 27-word allotment quip, along with Romney’s “binders” comment, however funny, provide an important metacommentary to post-feminism:  from gaslighting to statistical disproportions in the workplace and economy (documented at VIDA’S The Count), the gag rule of enforced silence is predicated on the objectification of women (dolls don’t talk, unless manufactured to do so):  all representations of female subjectivity not in service of the neoliberal male imaginary are aberrant misfires, and their authors must either be conscripted into un- and underpaid care work within the service economy, or (in First, Second, and Third Worlds), literally punished.

Rebecca Walker coined the term “third-wave feminism” in a 1992 essay:  since then, the Third Wave’s focus on inclusivity has steered second-wave feminism’s struggle against racism, sexism, and classism, toward an active embrace of pop culture and performance, embodied in Eve Ensler’s play and book The Vagina Monologues; the punk rock’s riot grrrls movement; the Guerrilla Girls; singers Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige, among others, and the women depicted in television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Sex and the City (1998–2004), and Girlfriends (2000–08).  Third Wave cyberfeminists communicate largely through e-zines, blogs, and social media, online feeds proliferating alongside books attempting structural treatments of extant “feminist” aims.   “By about 2000, questions of sexualized behaviour raised debate on whether such things as revealing clothing, designer-label stiletto heels, and amateur pole dancing represented true sexual liberation and gender equality or old oppressions in disguise . . .  [The Third Wave’s] greatest strength, multivocality, was attacked . . . Third-wavers countered this criticism by stating that the creation of a unified agenda or philosophy . . . was a goal that was not only unrealistic but undesirable.”     [1]

The vision of the Third Wave lay not in economic analysis, or activism, per se, but identity politics:   a privileging of diversity, statistical accounting, and aesthetic hybridity.  This rejection of hegemonic culture, however, considering that to divide and conquer is a militaristic strategy imposed from without, the absence of a cohesive vision or praxis, like the Occupy Movement, can potentially weaken a movement, returning us to the question of governance (long abandoned as desirable in a pluralistic democracy ruled instead, ironically, not by a free, self-sufficient citizenry but by mass media and neocon war machines).  Opinions vary on the demarcation between the third and fourth waves of feminism, and what constitutes the “fourth wave,” internationally:  the fourth wave, like the second, focuses on legislative rights, and statistical tracking (e.g. The Counting Dead Women campaign) but also online misogyny, economic parity, and, during the years after the 2008 financial crash and the coalition government, activism against loan predation (education, housing, credit cards), unemployment and under-employment, zero-hours contracts, bedroom taxes, damaging rhetoric against immigrants, the disabled and those who need support from the state. This new generation of feminists are tech-savvy and gender-sophisticated, in part due to trans-health initiatives (e.g. the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Atlanta) and trans-inclusive organizations like Third Wave Foundation (helmed by feminists in their twenties and thirties).  “Reproductive justice” is an oft-bandied term by fourth-wave feminists, as transgenderism, male feminists, sex work, and complex relationships with the media, spectacle culture, and identity politics structures this aporetic movement.

 

girls to the front

Anti-essentialism (the recognition that women’s condition is always at odds with women’s differences from one another, as well as their social and economic power), has become the backbone of postmodern feminism:  an academic discipline wherein the idea that subjects (genders, races, and cultures) share intrinsic qualities was exchanged for the “neither/nor” flux of postmodernity’s memes (multiplicity, catachresis).  Anti-essentialist feminism acknowledges difference, yet, the ontological disciplines contextualizing personhood (biology, psychology) have become increasingly irrelevant in post-humanist discourse.  Without the language to mark the difference of one’s body from other bodies, and the subtle conditions (social and epistemological) governing entry into discourse communities, it becomes impossible to articulate the “difference” between human branding and consumer choice, amid a glut of media blitzes offering opportunities for self-fashioning through purchasing power (the diet, fitness, salon, cosmetic, and retail industries).  The cults of personality, hipster cool, and “original” ideas:   priced (commodified), shelved, and sold.

 

glamor

 

In 2006, and 2008, Toril Moi published two consecutive essays in PMLA, and Feminist Theory, respectively:  entitled ““I Am Not a Feminist, But . . .”:  How Feminism Became the F-Word,” and ‘I am not a woman writer’:  About women, literature and feminist theory today.”  According to Moi, postfeminist culture gradually arose after the debates between Peggy Kamuf and Nancy Miller in the early 80s dismantled a coalitional feminism, and women’s writing and sexual difference as legitimized categories of scholarship and cultural practice.

Poststructuralism also worked to invalidate categories of difference, according to some:  in the 1981 essays by Kamuf and Miller, and their correspondence in 1989, Kamuf objects to the feminist “reduction of the literary work to the signature,” claiming an interest in women’s writing to be simply a feminist version of the liberal humanism Foucault had upended.  Miller believed that regardless of what Kamuf might consider to be theoretically correct, feminists still needed to work on behalf of women writers, otherwise these women would “soon be forgotten, lost to history.”  [2]   By the late 80s, Kamuf (a Derridean translator) had disavowed the word “feminist,” as referencing a closed system which inevitably would end up deconstructing itself.  Miller, conversely, still thought that feminism was politically necessary, but that identity politics had passed.  The path forward was unclear, and critical theory has since been marked by what Alice Jardine calls “non-knowledge”:  asignificatory terms (“non-narration,” “anti-lyric”), also in critical race theory and Lacanian philosophy (woman as “pas tout”), rather than an appositive definition of otherness (however unhelpful, as Judith Butler has argued, such resignifications can be, reentering as they do the undertow of negative dialectics).

Liberal and conservative feminists alike have been accused of essentializing the category of women, just as, in race theory, the accusation of “conceptual blackness” counters that of “conceptual whiteness.”  Neither Kamuf nor Miller exchanged gender-based politics for a class- or race-based feminism, and Marxist feminism dropped off sharply during this decade, though echoes of sociologist Christine Delphy’s manifesto (“women are a class”) reappear today, as women writers move beyond biological and gender essentialism, static genre definitions, and the high theory of écriture féminine, seeking new access points to postmodern socio-political discourse.  “I am interested here in new thought,” says poet Lisa Robertson.  “I am standing dressed in the skin of a sheep or a cow in the occidental forest. My name shall be she to them. It is a shame. It is velvety, voluptuous, and odorous . . . each thing’s hunger is my fate, is universe of the undiscussed.   My name shall be she to them, in grotesque, monstrous, most ancient mixture.   This is a class.”  [3]

Signifiying a movement, in language, or attempting to name a problem, may be recondite, but the struggles for equality, safety and civil rights persist:  complicity in pop culture through the desensitizations of post-ironic media (parodic and slapstick humor), can discharge tension, grief, paranoia, and shame, but perpetuate the underreporting of gender-based violence (a Daily Beast article states only seven percent of these crimes are reported):  the moral relativization of crime coupled with the literality of suffering.  The perpetuation of rape culture will continue for as long as the conversation is one-sided, with rape apologists such as James Taranto, Richard Mourdock, or George Galloway behind the mike (referencing Julian Assange’s sexual assault charges, Galloway argued that if the victim is asleep, it can’t be considered rape:  “This is something which can happen . . . not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.”)

If women are only considered as moving parts (domestic workers, mothers, sex commodities) in a post-industrial assembly line, how can they experience themselves, or other women, as agents of their life, bodies, and vocations, unless precedents are set and laws upheld?   Because rape culture, like every cycle of violence, is perpetuated by silence, victim-blaming, and a lack of solidarity, support for women by women can be difficult to find in a culture where the consequences (from social stigmatization to murder) can result from speaking out against rape, misogyny, or hate speech, in, for example, the U.S. Military, where an increase of females in positions of authority has been countered, according to statistics released by the Pentagon, with a sharp increase in sexual assault.

 

Military

 

If the most powerful word in childhood and adult development is “no” (determining what one doesn’t want before developing preferential desires), how useful is an arsenal of “safe words” in sado-masochistic sexual relations, for a woman who hasn’t internalized her right to negotiate the social contract, see its terms as fluid and not compulsory, or decline to participate, at all?   Conscription into sexual and domestic slavery, as well as non-consensual sex, without language, isn’t, then, a question of complacency or complicity.  According to Catharine MacKinnon, Noam Chomsky’s “manufacturing of choice” is the sid pro quo of a woman’s initiation into capitalist relations of gender dominance (“more than one-third of all girls experience sex . . . under conditions that even this society recognizes are forced or at least unequal”):  the manufacturing not just of choice, but desire.  Robin West agrees, questioning how “liberated” is the seeming assent of 21st century women in coerced embraces of, say, domesticity (kitchen, child-rearing), when there doesn’t seem to exist viable alternatives, an outside to capitalism, or another opportunity for labor.   [4]

The culture industry makes a killing marketing sadomasochistic violence (from revenge porn to snuff films) as “sexy,” pumping out images of men as sexual aggressors tasked with “bagging” “having” “shagging” or “nailing” women to maintain social clout, and women, with demurring until the right suitor arrives, initiating only to risk the stigma of promiscuity were the date or relationship to become violent or abusive beyond her ability to identify (name) or control.  Celebrities and pop stars also deliver the message not only of consent, but enjoyment in playing the role of the subjugated:  Brittany Spears’ “I’m a Slave for you,” and Gaga’s “Do What you Want” (with my body), as stylized marketing ploys advertising the woman as penitent whore, as in Sade’s Justine:  a willed, even campy, prostitution of body and self.

 

gaga

The link between the erotic and the pornographic, performed or actual subjection, and pain and pleasure, is not a postmodern perversion, of course:  George Bataille, more than any other modernist, mourned the impossibility of thinking the un-representable (the “holy terror” as Jacques Rancière put it) except by recourse to images of torture and the erotic; Batailles’ Tears of Eros is a paean to Todestriebe (death drive), the “supreme atrocity of nonbeing,” and its transcendence, through art.

If a return to signifying terms (coalitional feminism, eco-feminism, eco-socialism, conscious/creative/cognitive/Bolshivek capitalism) isn’t the answer in resurrecting subject-object relations of mutual acknowledgment and reciprocity, rather than mutually assured destruction or annihilation, can it help?   The democratic dream of rule by the people or moral majority is myopic, to say the least:  as Alexis de Toqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, representational democracy can easily devolve into mob rule:  control by the moneyed elite, reducing the “other” to a wage-laborer, or tokenistic fetish.  Angela Davis argues for the creation and circulation of micronarratives, crucial to providing a dialogic structure for the survival of self, other, and community in protest against historical erasure:  heterogeneous “forms” of representation toppling the vacuous clichés and rhetorics (boosterism, aesthetic volunteerism) of free market capitalism.  [5]

 

Finding new forms of self-articulation outside of these donnés (necessary evils?) are key to exiting the maze:

 

“I love [Zaha Hadid’s] little manifesto ‘Randomness vs. Arbitrariness’ . . . “Randomness in architecture is a visual translation of pure mathematical order and thinking which is guided by logic, whereas arbitrariness has no underlying conceptual logic. . . . A catalogue exists from which they freely copy anything and apply it with little relevance to any situation. But in architecture our responsibilities are far greater: we must create a new dynamics of architecture in which the land is partially occupied. We must understand the basic principles of liberation’ (1982).”  [6]

Questioning the utility of a materialist theory of language, and an aleatory “aesthetic” as emancipatory, Robertson asks if we could differentiate, though writing, beginning with recognizing the difference between intentional, or intentioned (purposed for an other) forms.  How else, in other words, to transition from being an occupied “site” or essentialized collective to a signifying subject, then to recognize chance operations as a means (revolutionary and freeing) yet not a reified end-game in itself?   “Could we recognize that arbitrariness is not in itself liberatory? [ . . . ] How could a text partially occupy a site?”

The actual making of art defies the history of female as muse or amanuensis, whose goal is to accurately translate a male speaker (e.g. Vera Nabakov).  Mimesis, however, since Homer, can also be seen as a procedural stage or apprenticeship:   Mary Wollstonecraft was inspired by the male-dominated the French Revolution, Simone de Beauvoir adopted Sartre’s phallocentric categories, and John Stuart Mill attempted to provide a structural critique of women’s oppression.  “The point is not the origins of an idea (no provenance is pure), but the use to which it is put and the effects it can produce,” says Moi.  [7]

Alicia Ostriker’s Stealing the Language, Prosperpine (1820), by Mary and Percy Byshe Shelley, The Speed of Darkness by Muriel Rukeyser (1960), Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich (1963), Plath and Sexton’s archaeo-mythologies, and works by Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Chris Krauss, Eileen Myles, Ariana Reines, Alice Notely, and many others, are powerful revisionist texts.  In theory, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray have reapproriated Derrida’s writings, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the literary theory of Harold Bloom, and Helene Cixous, the consequences of what she calls “death-dealing binary thought.”

 

quote

 

Shock can be used as political tool to anesthetize subjects, so as to smoothly “rewrite” narratives of place, origin, and criminal history:  or erase them all-together.   During a period of post-9/11 cultural paralysis, this subterfuge began, argues Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, with the reappropriation of language, perpetuating the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically.   Neoliberal aesthetics hasn’t helped, decontextualizing the subject from a frame, leaving said “subject” vulnerable to packaging and branding, as an vehicle consumption and cooptation in the legacy of Marx (claimed by Stalinist and Maoist régimes), Orwell, by neocons, and “feminism” by the Bush administration to justify its wars of choice.

Along with textual revisionism, erasure poetics can also provide a necessary ground clearing for the recovery of place (beginning with, as Adrienne Rich noted, a reclamation of the gendered, racial, scarred, female body by differentiating between “the body” and “my body” as a particularized, specific site) and post-colonial, post-imperialist history.  Collier Nogues sets her erasure poems in sites of recollection (her childhood spent at military bases in Japan):  poet Lynn Xu has spoken about her writing as shaped by her childhood in Shanghi.   Erasure poetics (the whiting-out rather than inscribing of the “trace”), unlike silence, acknowledges context:  the self as conceived, stabilized, through mirroring, then made, through overwriting, erasing, or succeeding a precursor’s frame.   (Derrida rightly cites writing as a “pernicious” pharmakon, both remedy and poison:  as an externalization of experience, writing requires citationality to shore up ethos, and any attempts at inscription, in the technocratic age, prompt issues of intellectual property and copyright, parasitism and plagarism.)

However we choose to reconcile with the paradoxical power and vulnerability of language, speaking cogently (or deliriously, as declared by the censors) is crucial to combat non-economic (sexual violence, sex trafficking, reproductive rights) and economic realities for women in an era of contingent labor (decreased wages and job security, declining living standards, unpaid overtime, exacerbation of the double/triple/quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households).   Uncritical consumption of neoliberal cant (brand yourself, or be branded, and buy, or die), using the rhetoric of female empowerment to justify exploitation, feeds, rather than helps dismantle, capital proliferative anti-logic:  Homo economius’ dog-eat-dog (Darwinian) “laws,” relegating exiled representations to the margins of the canon as minor or, simple inadmissible, as  ”literature,” both in form (realpoetik vs. corporatespeak), publication, and distribution.  F@*$ the Bauhaus, in the words of Isa Genzken, German multimedia artist whose works explode notions of scale and perception (the word “no,” in its most eloquent form).

 

darwin

 

 

 

Notes


[1] Encylopedia Brittanica entry on Feminism, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/724633/feminism

[2] Toril Moi, ‘I am not a woman writer’:  About women, literature and feminist theory today,” Feminist Theory, vol. 9(3): 259–271, 2008, pg.

[3] Don Share, reposting of Lisa Robertson’s “Dispatch from Jouhet!,” Harriet, November 11, 2009.

[4] Robin West, “The Difference in Women’s Hedonic Lives:  A Phenomenological Critique of Feminist Legal Theory,” Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal 3 (1987):  94.

[5] Angela Davis, Truthout, May 6, 2013, “Recognizing Racism in the Era of Neoliberalism.”

[6] Share.

[7] Feminist, Female, Feminine, The Feminist Reader:  Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, Eds. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (London:  Blackwell, 1997), p. 4.

 

***

 

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace:  A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places.  Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, regular contributor to The Conversant and, in 2014, Jacket2, she lives in Chicago.  

Everything simple is false

January 28, 2014 · Print This Article



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Guest post by Teresa Albor

Jeremy Deller said last month that art is useless.  He said this in front of an audience of artists and no one batted an eyelash, no one objected, no one was offended.  The event was an all day/all night performance piece, involving dozens of artists led by Bob and Roberta Smith, who gathered at the rundown seaside resort of Scarborough on the east coast of England.  “The Art Party” brought a spot of bright colour to the grey landscape, and approached the serious issue of cuts to government spending on the arts in a way only artists would: by breaking rules, being witty and irreverent. Perhaps, because it wasn’t seeking to be “useful” the event was thought-provoking sans the righteousness of more serious affairs.

art-party-poster

Having spent October in the village of Toffia working on a piece called “Everything simple is false,” Bob and Roberta Smith’s project resonated.  My month in Italy occurred at the end of three years in Chicago and before a move back to London.  Although the village became home and the Association that sponsored me an instant community, I was very much an outsider, embedded for all too short a time to make a piece of art for/with an essentially captive audience. Arriving in Toffia was surprisingly reminiscent of my arrival to do development work as a US Peace Corps Volunteer on a tiny Philippine island thirty years ago. One big difference: This time there was no intention of “doing good”.  This time I was not concerned with the “usefulness” of my work.

When working in a process-based way, the intention can be to confer agency to people, but if this doesn’t happen it’s no big deal.  And without going down the rabbit hole of trying to ascertain the criteria by which one critiques a relational project (if this is what this type of work might be called), my experience, at the very least, reinforced the importance of avoiding the pitfalls of trying to “do good ” and its close corollary, to “be useful.”

It also served to shed more light on other aspects/limitations of this way of working: that all relational work is political because it involves people; the tensions between maintaining the integrity of a piece when provocation ensues; the fact that you leave and others stay behind; and feeling as if you are inflicting your work on an audience that hasn’t asked for it.

What happened was expected and unexpected at the same time.

The title of the piece is a reference to “Bonini’s paradox”: when complex systems are simplified so we can understand them, they become less true.  A completely accurate map, for example, would need to be 1:1 to capture the detail of the territory it is meant to represent, but would be completely impractical.  So we simplify it, modify it to suit our needs, until it becomes false, but perhaps, useful.  (The London Tube Map is a good example.) This project was about discovering the complexity of a seemingly idyllic hill top village outside of Rome, to understand the “more true” version vs. an outsider’s perception of its picture postcard perfectness. The idea was to listen to the people who lived there and reflect back to them what they were saying about themselves. Beyond that, the strategy was left to evolve based on living and working in the community.

example-tube

This was not intended as a piece of political art.  But in this case, as the village was in the process of selecting candidates for next year’s mayoral elections, everything that impacted the daily lives of the village was perceived as political.  And as the artist Tanya Bruguera has said, art is not political art, unless it has consequences.  Using the low-tech bulletin board system of the village, flyers with quotes gathered though interviews with several villagers were posted.  The first called for affinity despite the perfections and imperfections of the village. A local SMS number was displayed along with the phrase: “What do you think?” Forms were also distributed after cultural events and we used the Associations’ Facebook page to solicit content, which, interestingly, generated the most direct comments. The second flyer said: “Toffia is divided. Toffia is united.  What do you think?”  By now the posters were the talk of the town, some were torn down, and it was rumored the mayor’s office didn’t want any more posters to go up.

three-flyers

One woman said: “You’ve put your finger in a wound.” She was, as were most people, quietly supportive. The consensus seemed to be that this “outsider” was saying what no one else would say, that only an ‘outsider’ would say.  In fact, all of the words, phrases, quotes came from people living in the village. Clearly, the work was going to be provocative, but what was unexpected was how easy it would be to provoke.  Meanwhile, the Association was being put under pressure.  It has taken years of hard work for the group to set up and operate a cultural programme on a tiny budget.  To their credit they engaged in nuanced discussions about how to proceed—essentially encouraging and supporting the project.  It was left to me to decide how far to push, knowing that if I pushed too hard, I could damage the very organization sponsoring me.

My methodology afforded me an observer’s vantage point. At least six international artists a year stay in this village, and many of us do relational pieces.  Wanting to avoid directly approaching too many of the residents here was, in part, to avoid what a fellow artist described as treating the audience like a “vending machine” for “responses to art projects”.  Locating so much experimentation in such a small place has its limitations.

Bookcover

In the end, responses—including those that were flattering as well as those that were provocative—were collated into a book with black and white line drawing illustrations of the village, alluding to one’s ability to layer their own perceptions over a neutral reality.  One hundred copies were given away for free on market day.  The following day, an event/open studio was held and the Association led discussions of the work.  To my surprise, the aspect of the poster campaign that was considered political was the phrase: “What do you think?” and several people at the event proposed continuing with more editions of a free periodical called: “What do you think?”  Whether this initiative takes off or not, at least the possibility of taking action, always there, sometimes acted upon, was considered.

openstudio2

As an artist assessing my own work, the strength of this project was the attempt to engage vs. entertain an audience and an openness to many different outcomes.  It would not have been possible to achieve this if the work had as its intention an overt usefulness.  And whilst flawed, and imperfect, too short, too simplistic, this project is certainly one that was worth doing and from which more, and better projects will emerge.

In a critical Robinsonian[1] sense of utility or usefulness – that utility is a circular concept in that an entity’s utility is what makes it desirable, whilst the fact that individuals desire something shows that it has utility—art could be considered both useless and useful, in a world where we accept that art provides a deeper quality of life, even strongly desire art to be part of our lives.  However, as artists, by accepting that what we make or do does not necessarily align itself with conventional definitions of usefulness we are enabled to move even further away from the trap of “production” within a capitalist social economy.  This represents real freedom (and a good starting point for another essay).

 

Teresa Albor is a multidisciplinary artist currently based in London and interested in site specific projects and working with/within communities. Current investigations revolve around what art is, who it is for, how and where it is made, and where it is shown. A Midwesterner, with an MFA from the University of Arts London and an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, she recently spent three years in Chicago. 

 


[1] Joan Robinson, 1962. Economic Philosophy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.  “Utility is the quality in commodities that makes individuals want to buy them, and the fact that individuals want to buy commodities shows that they have utility”.  I like the fact that Amartya Sen described her as “totally brilliant but vigorously intolerant” and another of her students, Joseph Stiglitz, described his relationship with her as “tumultuous”.

 

 

 

Flashes in the Dark

January 19, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise McKean

The Lightning Testimonies, Amar Kanwar (2007)

Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing, Gallery 291)

Extended until April 20, 2014

Cropped Header Image      All photographs courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Lucky for us in Chicago that Amar Kanwar is no stranger to our city. The Renaissance Society brought him in 2003 after Susanne Ghez, a co-curator of Documenta 11 saw his video, A Season Outside. Like gallery goers here and elsewhere, I’ve been following Kanwar since his Documenta/Ren debut. The sensuality and aesthetics of his work intrigue me—along with the heart-mind that infuses it. A longue durée of roaming, studying, and living in India further whets my interest in Kanwar. The past four months I’ve shared this interest with over a dozen friends, arranging visits to see and talk together about The Lightning Testimonies along with Artemisia Gentileschi’s formidable painting, Judith and Holofernes.

The Lightning Testimonies premiered in 2007 at Documenta 12, and since then it’s traveled the world. The School of the Art Institute invited Kanwar to Chicago in 2011 for its visiting artist series. He spoke about and screened past and current work, including Torn Pages and The Sovereign Forest, an ongoing multimedia, multi-site project. The Chicago opening of The Lightning Testimonies in October 2013 coincided with Kanwar’s delivery of the AIC’s annual Speyer memorial lecture on contemporary art. In the lecture, Kanwar talked about the big ideas he explores through his work—the passage of time, loss, and memory, violence and its celebrations, crime, evidence, and the struggle for justice, nationalist ideology and state power, poetry and prophecy.

Viewers get to The Lightning Testimonies after walking through two bright white galleries adorned with colorful artwork. White text on a black wall announces Kanwar’s piece. A dark passageway gives eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. The Lightning Testimonies is a multi-channel video installation: 8 screens on 4 walls; color and black and white synchronized video running 33.5 minutes in a loop. As director, Kanwar gets the lion’s share of credit, but he’s quick to acknowledge editor Sameera Jain and Ranjan Palit on camera for their integral artistic role as long-time collaborators, and the whole crew’s invaluable contributions.

Image 1

The work begins with the title page appearing on all 8 screens. Briefly a succession of images fills all the screens simultaneously. Then a dispersal begins as different images begin to fill each screen that consist of written fragments of spoken memories accompanied by footage, photos, drawings, and archival images that connect each memory to a specific place on the Indian subcontinent and to a particular moment in historical time. This multiplicity across the screens continues for about 20 minutes until 7 screens go black and the screen that’s alone on its wall remains live until the title shot fills all the screens again.

Even if eyes can adjust quickly to the change in light, most viewers—myself repeatedly one of them—can’t prepare for what’s to come. Odds are that the viewer enters at a point when different images fill 8 screens. The absence of an obvious pathway through this work understandably challenges and unsettles those viewers who prefer more certainty about where to direct their attention.

The video formally starts with a short, stark black-and-white title shot. Soon comes the only time we hear Kanwar’s voice. It asks, “How to remember what remains and what gets submerged?” The 8 screens blossom into a blaze of red poinsettias. Later the screens fill with yellow sunlight ricocheting off the window of a moving train. Throughout the work beautiful images come and go. We see the lush green perpendiculars of rice terraces, dewdrops balanced on tips of grass, delicate faces of young women. But it doesn’t take long to realize the picture isn’t pretty. Iconic black and white images of the subcontinent’s 1947 partition appear that show a moving train bulging with people and a woman being pulled to its packed roof. On another rooftop under laundry fluttering in the breeze, a baby lies on its back vulnerable and alone.

Image 2

The Lightning Testimonies doesn’t show images of the violence it interrogates. By citing the words of those who remember it, the work evokes a hair-raising sense of its pervasiveness, its lurking menace, and the impunity which it normally meets. For example, one witness rues, “Do you wonder sometimes how the attackers could be so brutal? Why they were not afraid. Is it because they knew they would not be prosecuted?” Images and words continue to pile up like survivors on a lifeboat. Just when you think it’s going to capsize, the different fragments of testimony on the eight screens start here and there to loop. If the viewer stays long enough, this screen-specific looping might allay anxiety about where to look and how much is being missed.

Whether it’s the rhythm of the rails, crackling fire, temple bells, plaintive saxophone, or the blood-curdling cry  “Ma Ho” by acclaimed Manipuri actor Sabitri Heisnam as she rehearses and then performs her role in Draupadi, the sound design by Suresh Rajamani gives viewers an aural guide. It also complements and augments the work’s visual effects. Perhaps taking a cue from the grieving mother who wove an exquisite pattern into cloth to commemorate her daughter and the long struggle to bring her murderer to justice, image and sound are the warp and woof of The Lightning Testimonies.

The climax of the work—and this is where it especially resonates with the sure hand of Gentileschi and her Judith—is the unforgettable footage of women protesting in the northeastern state of Manipur outside the gate to an Assam Rifles post. The protest echoes Draupadi as the women decry both this paramilitary force for decades of criminal violence and the government of India that abets the violence by refusing to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). The protesting women’s rage and pain are even more searing than Indian poets and singers in Kanwar’s Night of Prophecy (2003).

Image 3

With so many ways for voices of authority to stake questionable claims—for example the Assam Rifles official website asserting, “Through its long deployment in the tribal belt, the Assam Rifles have developed an ethos primarily based on friendship with the people of the region and have earned their complete confidence,” or a pair of Columbia University professors rehabilitating the reputation of Prime Minister hopeful Narendra Modi in a letter to the Economist—I’m immensely grateful for Kanwar’s deliberative work. As for the relevance of the professors’ letter, Kanwar attributes the explorations resulting in The Lightning Testimonies to his shock at the celebratory response to the rampage of rape, mutilation, and murder in Gujarat that took place in 2002 when Modi led the state as Chief Minister.

I’ve heard viewers criticize the work for being overwhelming, hard to follow, didactic, too documentary-like, and other aesthetic missteps. In the end our aesthetic judgments are based on our experiences of the work and mine tell me that this finely tuned team of artists succeeded in its complex, heart-rending, and hugely humane endeavor. Although Kanwar said he wasn’t familiar with Images in Spite of All, The Lightning Testimonies breathes life into Didi-Huberman’s ideas about montage and makes them visible: “Montage is valuable only when it doesn’t hasten to conclude or to close: it is valuable when it opens up our apprehension of history and makes it more complex, not when it falsely schematizes; when it gives us access to the singularities of time and hence to its essential multiplicity.”

In his Speyer lecture, Kanwar asked, “If a crime continues to occur is it invisible?” And later he said, “It does come down to the way we look, how we perceive.” His montage starts in South Asia yet reaches wherever there are men and women. Whether we see them or not, signs of violence against women and girls are all around us all the time. Maybe it’s a glamorous ingenue’s broken forearm or a woman on Michigan Avenue the night of the Speyer lecture begging for bus fare to a domestic violence shelter. Or just possibly it’s a trucking company forgoing its usual leprechaun and shamrocks to create a mobile testimonial: a truck painted the funereal purple of domestic violence awareness crawling through morning rush hour on the Eisenhower Expressway. It announces the name of a woman and the year of her birth and death. It’s a co-worker’s lament and memorial for his cherished friend whose life was stolen by a murderous man.

Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. In 2013 she curated StreamLines, an exhibition of contemporary art in Vaishali, India.

An interview with Adam Overton in his home

January 17, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Jacob Wick.

The first time I went to Adam Overton‘s house, I sang a song. I don’t remember what song, but I remember showing up, sitting down, and Adam turning on a song, a hit song, something that probably had just been on in the car, as we were driving – there were about twelve of us, maybe sixteen, five in my car – and beginning to sing along, very tentatively. By the end of the song, all of us were singing, without any prompt or encouragement from Adam, without any internal discussion, without consideration of who would sing what, without worrying about whether or not we knew the song or if it was in our range, without giving each other puzzled or encouraging looks, without giggling, without any hesitation or embarrassment or even any thought. It was one of the most magical musical experiences I’ve ever been part of. The second time I went to Adam’s house, to conduct the interview that appears, with very little editing, below, he offered me some key limes – now is the time of year when citrus drops in southern California, baskets of oranges and limes and lemons everywhere – and some homemade ginger concentrate with seltzer water.

Adam’s dog sat on my lap for most of the interview that follows, and contributes in a minor fashion to our dialogue. Adam’s cat made a brief appearance to scuffle with the dog, but is not mentioned or referred to in the interview, although certainly at least one portion of our chat could be interpreted so as to refer to the cat. For instance, did you know that chat is cat in French?

This is the first in a series of interviews on the subject of listening.

JW: Hi Adam.

AO: Hi.

JW: Maybe we should just talk about your various projects before we get to anything else. Does that sound reasonable?

AO: Sure. Yeah, if there’s any…

JW: And also, like, kind of how you…well good, I didn’t bring my notes. So this will be less professional. Remember when like, the, uh, CCA social practice horde descended upon you?

AO: Oh so you were, oh so that’s how you know Dave…

JW: Yeah, that’s how I know Dave, and that’s how I know you, yeah…

AO: Oh!

JW: I mean, I don’t think I introduced myself then, umm, I don’t know.

AO: See that’s when I started loosening up about remembering faces was when I started teaching because it became so hard to keep track of…

JW: I think, yeah, I’m kind of losing my…yeah.

AO: Yeah. Don’t start teaching.

JW: Yeah, ok.

AO: Or, if you want to loosen up.

JW: See, ok, maybe we can talk about that: what’s been your, uh…maybe it’s a grass is always greener thing, like I’m not teaching now so I’d really like to teach and I keep thinking about classes I want to teach and thinking like “oh, that’d be really fun,” or interesting, or both, but you’re saying you’re tired of teaching…what’s the…why?

AO: Why am I tired of teaching?

JW: Yeah.

AO: I’m sick of dealing with shitty employers, basically.

JW: Yeah.

AO: And that’s ultimately what my regular, um, that’s the typical experience that I’m having right now, is working with shitty employers. Like really shitty employers. And, uh, the places that are really steady, in terms of work, are the shittiest, or have been, at least for the kind of work that I get, and the ones that are better are ones where I only have electives, and I come in and I teach a class and they’re like “wow that class was great, everyone really loved it, maybe you can come back and teach in in two or three years…” But there’s a big unionizing push going on right now, in Los Angeles and Boston and potentially nationwide to unionize adjunct professors, so I’m getting really interested in seeing how that goes…

JW: I’ve heard a bit about that. Are you teaching at multiple schools right now or just one?

AO: Uhhh, right now I just had my classes reduced from three classes to half a class over the holidays by one of the schools that I teach at.

JW: That sucks. Are you teaching arts courses or are teaching more like skills, skill-based…

AO: At one place, at the for-profit that I teach at, I teach mostly web-related programming skills. So that’s usually the steadiest stuff…I used to teach more like digital – like Adobe Suite – stuff at a community college, so that was also kind of steady, but more design-oriented than my background calls for…

JW: Yeah.

AO: And then the stuff that, uh, when I get to teach what I want to teach, or when schools offer me courses that are closer to the range of what I want to teach, typically it’s somewhere in the range of sound art, performance art, and/or um..uh… I got to teach this one class that was pretty fantastic related to activism and education and media…like streaming and stuff, technologies like that. And there’s one school that I teach at, that I get to teach about once a year and I get to teach an experimental video workshop there, and I hope they don’t read this, but I have no experience – like I don’t make video – but when I first signed on to work there about four years ago, I signed on and I realized I had this whole library of video art, and this whole background as a viewer of video art that was really influential on me as a performer, and it’s ultimately just a class where we look at stuff, we talk about it, and then they have a loose assignment based around an experimental strategy, which could easily be, you know, a performance class or a sound class or whatever, it’s loose enough that it’s about strategies, it’s not specifically about editing, and that class is probably the best class I’ve ever had my entire life, because it’s talking to commercial film kids about non-entertainment based, non-commercial work, and I want to say they love it, but it’s not that they love it…

JW: They love it!

AO: All the sudden they realize there’s this other thing and they’re hungry for something that’s not just commercial narrative. And it’s at a film school, so the students there are so much more interdisciplinary than any other school I’ve ever…

JW: In what way?

AO: At this film school, this is the only place – I mean, I’ve taught at other art schools, like Otis and elsewhere – but this is the only art school this is the only school that I’ve ever taught at where students will not only say “oh, I like to write,” but many of them identify as writers, so you can talk about text and they won’t rebel; almost all of them have experience editing video, of course, but because they’ve done that they also almost all have experience working with audio; and since some of them are coming out of an acting background, or have worked with actors, they also have connection to performance. And so you can come to them and do a movement-based workshop – like we always do a movement-based workshop based off on some Simone Forti and Hana Vanderkolk exercises – and they gobble it up. Whereas if you do something like that at Otis, I mean, sometimes half the class will really dig it, but I’ve had students come up to me and be like, wait, are you a sculptor, and I’ll be like no, and someone actually said like, “well then why are you here?” and it’s like “ok, because you’re in the Sculpture/New Genres department?” But so, but I’ve never gotten flak for, I mean, anyways that interdisciplinarity, and kind of confusion of where one lies in the medium spectrum, is particularly strong at this film school, which is great.

JW: But it probably doesn’t matter to them too much where they lie on the medium spectrum, I mean, am I generalizing too much, or…?

AO: Maybe a little bit? Just because it is a professional-track thing, and so they do identify as “I’m a director,” “I’m an editor,” “I’m a cinematographer,” so they do have these professional kind of things that they hump down into. And on their evaluations every once in a while you get, you know, “was this class valuable to you?” and someone will say, “no, because I’m a director, I loved it but it wasn’t useful because I’m a director,” which I still don’t understand. But anyways, yeah, I teach a lot of things at a lot of different places, and I’m trying to…ideally what would be best for me teaching-wise would be…what feels best is teaching classes where it’s this awesome conversation and people are experimenting and trying things out, but unfortunately those classes are just electives in my schedule and not enough to live off of. They just feel like little rewards, like a a mini-grant for three months. And so the regular ones are these kind of shitty corporate places that don’t give a fuck about you or the students. So that’s really where I am – that’s why I looking for other work. Other quote-unquote professional work. If anyone out there is looking for very talented uh…I’m really good at making cocktails…

JW: Have you considered applying at bars or anything?

AO: I’m really intimidated because I’ve never worked in restaurants or anything like that, but actually I’d be terribly interested to work as a barback or a cocktail apprentice, because I’m really into cocktails right now.

JW: I’ve been really thinking about, um…

AO: And I’m a night owl, so it would kind of work.

JW: I mean, I’ve been kind of getting into wine a bit more, and for a minute I was kind of thinking of opening a coffee shop, and now my pet dream is to open a cooperative grocery store, that would have maybe within it a coffeeshop/bar situatation, but I don’t know, whatever. But like I feel like there’s a lot of people – a lot of artists who are veering towards more service industry-related things…I mean, I don’t know, we don’t have to talk about that much, but I curious about that kind of transition of like, and it’s often people whose practices I really identify with, where generosity or collaboration or like a concern…

AO: Well, I think the language in the social practice arena primarily goes towards generosity, and I think that’s there, but I see it as desperation, like artists are trying to figure out how to fit in and find part-time and/or full-time work that feels useful or and is productive for them in some way, shape, or form. But there is a trend, because actually in the experimental music community in Los Angeles, what you’re talking about is very common. In terms of people brainstorming, but not necessarily following through. I don’t know if you know James Klopfleisch…

JW: No, but I was playing with Ted Byrnes on Monday and he mentioned James…

AO: Yeah, he’s involved with the wulf., and the Southland Ensemble…I think that’s what they’re called. But he for a while had an idea for, um…he wanted to do like an ice cream truck, except it was like a coffee, like an iced coffee, and like experimental music coming out of the speakers…and he seemed really serious about it, but then he went off on a cruise ship for a couple years.

JW: To play?

AO: Yeah.

JW: Oh wow. I’ve heard that’s like the worst thing to do…

AO: He loves it!

JW: I guess if you have the right kind of mindframe, it would be ok, but it just seems like…

AO: I think it fit his personality…he likes people, and talking to weird people…

JW: And yeah, that seems like a very weird place.

AO: Your background is as a musician, right? Did you do your undergraduate as a musician?

JW: I did, yeah. And a lot of people went to ships…

AO: Yeah, I was a jazz major in Atlanta, and a number of my friends did the ship thing. And I remember thinking about it…I never got the phone number. But it was very possible. It’s either you go to New York or you go to the ship in the Caribbean.

JW: Or both.

AO: Or both, yeah.

JW: And then you give up somewhere.

AO: Yeah. Oh there was one other precedent though, too, that actually got really close, there was a composer named Gary Schultz, who lived here, who now lives in Berlin, but he was gonna start, well, we joke that it was going to be “Gary’s Juice,” but it was really gonna be more of like “Gary’s Juiceteria,” and he was going to be doing the juice selection at a place, some health food store in the West Side, and he got as far as the designs and was setting stuff up, but I think the store closed before it open.

JW: Yeah I feel like there’s a pool of money that one has to have to open anything like that that I do not have access to that right now, but that’s also ok.

AO: Yeah. But actually that’s the next thing – it’s just dawned on me in the last two months – there was like the big wave – I’m 34 now – there was the big wave of “all my friends are getting married” and now the big wave is “now all my friends are starting businesses,” and it’s weird because when they were getting married I was like “oh, I don’t want to get married,” and now that they’re starting business I’m like “oh, should I start a business?” “no, I don’t want to start a business,” or maybe I should, or…you know, like…

JW: I think it’s still a bit of this desperation thing that you were talking about. I think it’s like “well, I don’t know what to do now, so maybe I should just invent a job, or…” So did you go to Emory or something?

AO: No, Georgia State. Georgia State had a really good program, at least for Georgia. And it was situation downtown, which was the only place that jazz existed in the state of Georgia, except for Valdosta, I mean there was one other jazz program in Valdosta.

JW: Where is Valdosta?

AO: It’s on the border with Florida.

JW: Are you from Georgia?

AO: Yeah, I’m from the suburbs of Atlanta.

JW: One of my best friends lives in Athens.

AO: I would never go to Athens.

JW: Oh.

AO: I mean, it was kind of like a high school angst-ridden principle, that UGA and Athens represented high school part II, and I was very anti-high school and that point, and so for me going to school in the city that was…

JW: He grew up in Athens, and I think he feels that way…he has a very clear marker, or at least he did until a couple of years ago, of a street that he would not cross, because that was the UGA side of Athens.

AO: Right, yeah. I’m much more grown up about it now, and I feel like I missed out on a really beautiful town that I could’ve visited more, and a music community that was probably worth checking out when I was there.

JW: It’s still there, it’s still good. So when did you move to California?

AO: In 2003 I came here, to go to grad school at CalArts.

JW: Was it all CalArts or partially the allure of California?

AO: Well I actually almost went to Mills…I thought I wanted to go to Mills more because I thought I wanted to go to the Bay more and I’d only ever heard bad things about Los Angeles, but in the end I ended up going to CalArts because I realized I wanted to go to an art school, not just a music school, and then when I got there I found out that LA is fucking incredible and I found out that San Francisco is really provincial and very un-integrated, so it ended up being a really fantastic decision for me.

JW: So did you go to grad school for music?

AO: Yeah, I was in the music school there. But I figured out really quick how to get out of the music school and into other departments, which was ultimately the most useful for me.

JW: Did you head to CalArts with an idea in your mind that you were going to move out of music?

AO: I know going into CalArts, or into grad school, that my practice was….that I considered myself…well one I didn’t consider myself a composer heading in…

JW: [coughing]

AO: Do you need some water?

JW: Sure! Maybe I’ll eat a mint, too, that’s what my mom does when she starts coughing uncontrollably. I guess I’m just curious about the transition between, for you, the transition between, for you, the transition between being a composer and, sorry buddy…

AO: Is he getting annoying?

JW: No, I just sat on his tail.

AO: I didn’t consider myself a composer. I mean, I had taken some composition classes and I was doing computer music, but you know I got to grad school and I met composers and they’re the kind of people that could look at notes on a page and hear them in their head, and I didn’t have that ability and I didn’t have a background in harmony, and I knew I was going to an experimental school so that wasn’t necessarily a requirement when I got in, but I thought of myself as a sound artist and even more so as a performance artist who was using sound.

JW: Ok.

AO: So I was doing work that involved attaching sensors to my body and the work that I was looking at was not sound art necessarily, but I was really attracted to body artists at that point, like Carolee Schneeman, Marina Abramovic, the Vienna Actionists, Fluxus, et cetera, like that was what I was looking to, at least right before I got into school. And doing my sound things as kind of like looking into the performance of the body.

JW: Yeah.

AO: My whole experience, though, is just one of transitioning from one medium to another and feeling like there’s a thread running throughout all of it and therefore I don’t know this thing anymore. So for instance, you know I was a jazz drummer, and there were many moments where I just realized once I got into the computer, doing computer music, that I don’t need drums to do the thing that I want to do. And with jazz, one of the attractions was this notion of moment-form, like being in the moment, and this notion of working intuitively or even psychically with other people, and working within constraints or structures together and seeing what happens, and those sorts of things have continued in some shape or form throughout. So the mediums keep shifting, but…the general progression is like jazz drums, sensors attached to the body, then there was a big breakthrough halfway through grad school where it was, um, what I call biometric pieces, but minus the sensors where we used our fingers instead, where it was like checking someone’s pulse at the neck and watching their blinks. And all the sudden the tunnel vision got like this because all the sudden you’re staring into someone’s eyes for sixteen minutes in a piece and it’s really intimate and it was like “wow, this is amazing and it’s so much fun and really weird and I’m falling love with people just looking at them,” and it’s really uncomfortable…so I dropped the electronics at that point and I was writing text scores, just instructions for how to perform things, and that brought in – you know, I’ve always enjoyed words, so – it was just like coming out of the closet as someone who likes text. And ever since then text and writing has been a really big part of my practice no matter what. There’s a lot of different places we could pop into whatever…

JW: How do you view the relationship between writing and – because I too have a penchant for setting up bureaucratic entities or…I guess, yeah I don’t know, I don’t know how you want to talk about Guru Rugu, or the Bureau for Experimental Meditation, or…

AO: Well what were you just about to say, though, about your practice?

JW: That I have a penchant for creating these kind of bureaucratic organizations or pseudonyms or things like this and I always kind of wonder if that’s tied to  an improvisational approach to composition where it’s composing not as “here’s this set thing that everyone has to this” but “here’s this structure that a bunch of people can be part of”…I don’t know, I’ve always just kind of wondered why I started doing that. And I’m wondering if there’s anything that you can see…

AO: Well the kind of flippant answer for me would be that it’s genetic. My dad’s professional was that he was a copy-editor in the sports section of the newspaper, and I remember very vividly growing up and being little and him talking about headline writing as a form of haiku, you know, and it’s not like we did exercises, but that kind of attention to what a few words can do, how they can resonate together…

JW: Have you ever read the book How to Do Things With Words?

AO: No.

JW: Neither have I, but it’s a great title! And apparently it’s also a really interesting book. It’s by this Oxford philosopher and Judith Butler writes about it a lot…uhh, but it’s sort of…there’s the performative, there’s the something else…like, you know, there’s things that you say that you do while you’re doing them, like “I name this ship blah blah blah” or “I now pronounce you man and wife” or blah blah blah and there’s things that you say where they’re referencing an action that happened before, or, whatever…I don’t remember the terms so it’s kind of not worth talking about.

AO: Yeah. Some other ways I think about it is, like, for me, coming into writing text scores…Text scores, ultimately in the tradition of them, they’re like prompts, and especially Fluxus and that tradition it’s like one-liners, it borders on humor or punchlines, and there’s this sense that through a single command or prompt there can be…there’s like an activity or process or group activity lying beyond that statement that’s much more complex or interesting and fun, or just something to do. Another thing that you probably know from the realm of music is that it’s really fun coming up with band names, that’s a really big tradition, but also band names have a huge influence over…ultimately they can be prompts for a certain kind of action or performance demeanor…

JW: Or the people that are in a band can be sort of the limits of what that band is or what it can do or what direction it’s going. Do you think of the Bureau of Experimental Meditation as a band?

AO: Well, it’s actually the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, and the Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses.

JW: Right, sorry.

AO: They do, I mean when I started creating some of them, especially Experimental Meditation Center, cofounding it with Guru Rugu, or BESHT with Professor Padu-Paga, like, I didn’t think of them as band names, but I don’t know, it’s just fun to invent names…or sometimes it’s you invent a name and you’re like “what does this thing do,” but other times it’s like “what sums up this thing that we want to do together?” and like you kind of said, with a band, when you create a band name the identities of the people in the band kind of get subsumed under this, so you can be a guitarist or a drummer in a band, or you could be in multiple bands, but it’s not necessarily your band, it’s that thing. And so these platforms – I think of them as platforms, ultimately, they’re platforms, they’re prompts, for people to come in and do things that they wouldn’t normally…that might be part of their practice, but might not…one of the first ones where I consciously had an experience was that was with the Eternal Telethon. I don’t know if you know them…

JW: No.

AO: It came out of CalArts, and it was a group who started doing these fundraisers, these telethons, of varying durations, at different locations, that were streamed online using Ustream when it first came out, and the goal was to raise money for a convalescent home for retired artists, and it would located be at the Salton Sea, and so the hope was that anybody who became part of it would then be a part of Telethon and would one day be able to retire along with us at the Salton Sea.

JW: That’s a great idea.

AO: A lot of the people who got involved – it was basically a variety show with MCs ranting in between – and a lot of the people who participated were not performance artists. It was primarily a performance thing, but a lot of people were not performance artists. So you saw a lot of artists who didn’t typically perform doing performances, you saw writers performing, you saw people – just creative people…and so that of course seemed really exciting. The stakes were really low, like it was broadcast online, but nobody’s watching, and I’m interested in that phenomenon, and you can see it very clearly happening again in a much larger way at KCHUNG radio right now, because they’re broadcasting, there might not be anybody listening, it’s a radio/sound thing/phenomenon with primarily a lot of artists doing stuff, many of whom have never done anything with sound before, or even performed before, so I don’t know, I like that kind of experiment or that kind of platform or that kind of theme-based thing. You see that happening with theme-based shows, theme-based group exhibitions, too, you know like, “hey Jacob, do you want to be in this show about dogs and cats?” and you’re like “I don’t really make work about dogs and cats, but sure.”

JW: Well, I like this dog.

AO: Yeah.

JW: There’s also something really interesting about having a broadcast that everyone is part of that brings people together to make this broadcast that everybody knows nobody is listening to.

AO: Well, some people do.

JW: Well, but something about the direction towards a public that doesn’t exist that allows people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.

AO: I mean, in LA too, there’s a tradition of, like…like people here don’t come out to performances the way they do in New York. In New York, or even Berlin, when I go see friends’ performances, there are lots of people there watching who are not their friends, and the tradition that I’ve witnessed in LA, at least among experimental arts stuff, is that typically the people who are watching are your friends. And it’s less and less so, places like the wulf. are growing, and people go there more regularly to see things by people they don’t know, and same thing with Human Resources there’ll be like a hundred people now for something, but my experience with it here in LA and in Atlanta is like “I’m doing this for and with my friends,” and I’m neither for or against either model, but I come out of being interested in this kind of, what kind of things that can happen in that sort of space.  I mean, when you don’t know people, there’s a certain kind of vulnerability that can take place when things are more anonymous, which is similar to the kind of things that can happen on craigslist or on dating sites, because you can do certain things there that you wouldn’t normally do. But there’s also things you can do with friends that you wouldn’t do with strangers.

JW: Yeah.

AO: A lot of my work, at least with the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, or Signify, Sanctify, Believe, the stuff that kind of focuses on ritual or religious or spiritual technology, kind of focuses on like what kind of things happen within the privacy of a concert hall or what I would call a magic circle or something.

JW: Well, maybe that’s a good transition point to start actually talking about listening, which was sort of the pretext of our conversation. So I’m really excited about listening as a – we probably have like 10 minutes, right?

AO: No, well 10 minutes until the alarm, 20 minutes until I need to…25 minutes. Sorry about getting bookended.

JW: No, it’s fine, it’s really fine. So I’m really excited about listening as an aesthetic activity that places the agency to have an experience on the listener, the viewer, the participant…somebody else who’s not like “here’s this experience you’re having,” but also that’s not a new thing, that’s what really excited El Lissitsky about exhibition design, or what excited some conceptual artists about making non-existent work or whatever, it was always this excitement about bestowing upon the viewer this magical agency which is, you know, I think I have to think about it more to really kvetch about. I mean these spaces – the concert hall, magic circle, any kind of religious situation – there’s a lot of ritual things happening, but there’s always this practice of listening.

AO: Well I mean broadly, my notion of listening is not ear-based anymore. I would like to say that it’s focus-based, like I would like to say that listening is about focusing on something, but even that is too narrow, like as someone with an undiagnosed form of ADD, some of my biggest breakthroughs in listening to experimental music have been when I let go of trying to focus and allowed my mind to bounce around the room and, you know, quote-unquote not pay attention, and release from the shackles of having to focus in what I thought was the right way.

JW: Yeah.

AO: So I’m definitely interested in a more embodied notion of listening. One that’s maybe more about presence more than anything else. Which was actually my approach to Occupy…for Occupy LA or Occupy Wall Street, I didn’t necessarily find all the entryways I wanted to in terms of political stances, but I felt it was really important just to be there, just to follow that prompt and to Occupy, be present, whether I agree or disagree or whatnot. But similarly, there’s this…I don’t know. I think that’s a period there. I was going to say something else, but I forgot.

JW: Was it about…I was reading this, that you wrote for East of Borneoand I really enjoyed it.

AO: Thanks, thanks for reading it.

JW: So you’re talking a bunch of the intersection ritual practices and music and you say this one line in here that…what do you think about it? I mean it’s really interesting to read and it’s a very nice history of these practices, but you…

AO: What’s the line?

JW: “LaVey’s one-man band demonstrates satanism’s infatuated embrace of uncompromising, self-satisfied, alienated individuality, similar in some ways to ahbez’s lonely wanderer. These albums, then, are the egomaniacal satanic masterworks of one man in a recorded universe where he is finally the king of his own masturbatory, musical jungle.” So it seems like you almost have a contempt for these practices that like…

AO: Contempt? No. Masturbation is great!

JW: Yeah, ok, that’s true.

AO: No, yeah, that line in particular is about the embodiment of…like LaVey’s thing – LaVey and Satanism – is this complete self-centered ego…like it’s just about satisfying your own ego, not anybody else’s, and it’s about self-reliance, it’s about DIY, it’s about doing it yourself, not doing it together, doing it by yourself, potentially, unless you need someone else, and you get it from them, take it from them…it’s very objectivist and it’s very egoistic and egotistic. But I don’t mean those necessarily in bad ways. I identify with those on certain days and on certain subjects. His thing is about selfishness, and not being ashamed of that. It’s about the worship of being a sensuous being and about obeying these emotions and drives that you feel. That’s the way he thinks and talks about it. And actually I used to be really interested in Ayn Rand’s writing. Because in high school I loved her writing, because I had a lot of self-doubt and I had a lot of angst, and I had a lot of…what’s the word…you know, I just didn’t like myself. And her books actually helped me learn to like myself and to have pride, and so in that way that stuff was actually very useful, like for someone who’s depressed, but later on I moved into Buddhist and other things, but Anton LaVey pulls out of the ultimate kind of selfishness of pride. Which becomes misanthropic and angry and…

JW: Maybe what was interesting…Whatever, I don’t know what I was thinking when I brought that up. But maybe something that is interesting, that’s even related to what we were talking about just before I brought that up, but it seems like…I’ve never listened to LaVey’s music, I mean I’ve seen a YouTube video of him playing organ, which is incredible…

AO: He’s an amazing musician.

JW: But it seems like that would be kind of a debilitating musical experience, like there would be no room to hear anything else besides Anton LaVey.

AO: You mean at one of the services he did?

JW: Or maybe just listening to the recording. But probably moreso at a service. Which I think points out a little bit of the silliness of my dream of listening as this radically active thing, where sometimes there’s actual no other alternative but to hear what’s enveloping you. But I feel the total opposite might be Pauline Oliveros…[loud noise]…oh, I think I got a text message. Yeah, I did.

AO: What I would say is…if we’re just going to talk about listening, I would say that while yes I agree with the notion of like placing this agency in the listener, ultimately what I feel like is if we’re still going to enjoy this division of the listener and the performer or the listener and the artist or the observer and the artist – which is fine, it’s a fun kind of role-playing to do ultimately – it’s not that the listener/viewer has all that agency, it’s that the artist has the opportunity to facilitate a kind of listening, or a kind of framework to see things through, and for me listening has never just been about just sound, or sight has never been about light, it’s always based on information that one has while one is listening to something, and by information you can also think of it as a framework, so this article is a framework through which you can listen to this music again. I have a very vivid memory, in high school, when I was first learning how to play jazz drums, my teacher gave me this jazz video, and I remember watching it – and we had been doing the ding-ding-da-ding thing on the cymbal – and I watched it and I literally cried out of frustration – tears down my face – because I could not follow a single beat of it.

JW: Was it a drum video where you were supposed to follow along?

AO: No it was a performance. And it was absolutely frustrating because what was happening was I had a little bit of the framework – I had the ding-ding-a-ding – but I didn’t yet have the jazz framework of listening to that. And now…I mean, I can’t remember if I ever listened to it a year or two later, but now I would be able to listen to that and I would probably be able to appreciate it, or not appreciate it, but still because I knew about the politics that it represented, within the jazz world or whatever. So Anton LaVey’s work is actually really horrible to listen to if you’re listening to it for sonic qualities, but if you know a little bit about his history and whatnot, and if you see him play, too, it kind of damns the music, you know what I mean? And so ultimately if you’re talking about a framework of listening, you’re talking ultimately about a belief system, right? And even if it’s a temporary one, it’s still like, “I believe that music is this right now, and because of this my constitution tells me that I need to listen for the harmonics.” Because I’m listening to James Tenney or Cat Lamb, and if you’re listening for the fundamental pitch – which I’ve done throughout all their concerts – you’re missing the concert. But all the sudden if you believe in all these angelic harmonies, or these harmonics, or these weird physical things that are happening in your ears that aren’t even in the room…and I’ve had that experience, like listening to music once and having no idea, or listening to the wrong part of it, and listening to it again, or listening to that kind of music again, and being like oh, duh, why didn’t anyone tell me that before? It doesn’t have to be a belief system, but it’s related to one. Because a belief system gives you a way to view the world, a way to be an observer and an agent in the world, just as activism does, and politics does…

JW: That makes sense to me. The idea that listening allows for being aware that there are multiple different frameworks through which to have any kind of given experience.

AO: And it’s totally fun subscribing to those things, too.

JW: Yeah, but I think what’s exciting, that’s maybe available in music, especially in improvised music, that might not be available everywhere else, is the constant knowledge that there might be something else you could be listening for, or another way to experience a given thing, so I’m much more open to intentionally having the wrong experience. I find it really generative. I mean, I don’t know, Claire Fontaine came and talked to the CCA Social Practice class, and I don’t know, I was late and a little hungover and they were tired and the discussion was not very good, but it was a really – because it’s two of them and they have a child and for some reason the entire time they were at at CCA only Fulvia was talking and James wasn’t saying anything and the baby was just screaming a lot – and I started experiencing the discussion as a performance rather than a discussion and it was infinitely more satisfying. I mean, it was great.

AO: I feel like there’s no reason to be disappointed – I mean I get disappointed all the time – and I have a piece called Listening Performances, and it’s just a list of different ways to be at a concert or whatever that you’re not digging or whatever. When I teach I actually talk about this a lot, just as an introduction if someone’s coming from one medium and moving to another, but there’s this quote from Alan Kaprow where he says “what if I were to think that art is just paying attention?” and it’s this notion of art begins with me focusing on something. I like to replace his “think” with “believe” and say “what if I were to believe art was just paying attention?” which moves it into this notion of that you’re kind of creating this universe and through this process you’re beginning to include things into what you’re seeing, but you’re also excluding things. For instance, to kind of wrap this around in a weird way, I have plenty of friends who are really angry about being brought up as Christian, like they were hardcore believers and really mean to people as a result, up to a certain point, and then they stopped. And when they stopped being mean to people they ultimately stopped being a certain kind of Christian, or Christian whatever. I kind of feel the same way about drums, like that was my religion growing up for ten years, and I love drumming, but I’m a little bit bitter because there was probably a period of four to six years where I only listened to drummers on recordings, and so there’s this whole period of a half decade or more, where I witnessed so much amazing music and I totally lost out because I didn’t even listen to the piano player, or I didn’t listen to the trumpet player. There was a moment where I actually tried listening to a saxophone solo, maybe seven years in, and it really felt like I had never listened to a saxophone solo. So I don’t know, I’m interested in that kind of focusing…

JW: Not just focus, but believing. Believe is a different verb than focus.

AO: No, exactly. For instance, we use the term belief, because at least in cinema, but in other things too, we talk about the suspension of disbelief, which I translate as temporary belief, belief that’s bookended, potentially by your entering the space. And it is…you’re becoming vulnerable, you’re going into a suggestive state hypothetically, you allow yourself to listen, you go through the program, you see the title, maybe you listen to it based on what the title says, you look at the name under it…that’s a huge thing actually, really interesting thing, actually, my friends love their friends music, and many of them hate strangers’ music.

JW: I’m the same way.

AO: But as soon as they meet somebody and get to know them, they become huge fans of their music, when they hated it before, and you see how just a name can change the way someone listens to it, or knowing someone’s background, studying their history – who was Anton LaVey, you know? – so listening is just so…what’s the word…it’s just so easy.

Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles.

Adam Overton is an experimental and conceptual artist based in Los Angeles who works between performance, writing, publishing, experimental music, workshops, event production, and massage.

Seeing. Movies. One Door Opens and another Door Closes: Michael Corleone’s transformation in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather

January 14, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post: This essay is part of series by David Carl

One hour, one minute, and 39 seconds into The Godfather, Michael stands outside the hospital where his wounded father lies. Seven minutes and 6 seconds later he stands outside the same hospital and lights a cigarette for Enzo the baker. In the course of those 7 minutes everything has changed in the life of Michael Corleone.

I’d like to move slowly through the hospital scene, lingering on a few specific images that provide us with visual clues to this transformation, and say a few things about the techniques Coppola employs to create what I consider to be the scene of maximum dramatic tension and suspense in the movie. It is significant that this moment of maximum drama is also the moment of transformation for the movie’s main character.

Before examining the hospital scene in detail I should point out that, at one level, nothing really happens in the scene. Instead, the action is devoted to avoiding what could happen, or what will happen if Michael doesn’t take firm and decisive steps to prevent it. We might say that the action in the hospital scene is internal, rather than external. The action takes places within Michael, and within us, as viewers and interpreters of this internal action. For other than brief interactions with a nurse who remains virtually faceless throughout the scene, with his speechless father lying in bed, and with the civilian baker Enzo about whom we heard but who we did not meet in the scene in the Don’s office during Connie’s wedding, Michael plays the scene alone.

Throughout the hospital scene there is no actual violence, though the end of the scene is punctuated by the violent moment when Captain McKluskey, brilliantly played by Sterling Hayden (see Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Johnny Guitar, Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, and Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye among others), breaks Michael’s jaw. Coppola creates the moment of greatest suspense in the movie through suggestion and possibility, rather than through direct action. In comparison, the scenes in which Luca Brasi is garroted, Don Vito is gunned down in the street, Michael shoots Sollozo and McKluskey, Carlo beats Connie and Sonny beats Carlo, and Michael’s hitmen eliminate the enemies of the Corleone family, are all more intense “action sequences”, but they lack the suspense and excitement of the hospital scene created by the tension of the possible as opposed to the actual.

As I said, the hospital scene begins at 1:01:39 and ends 7 minutes later at 1:08:45. It consists of a total of 72 cuts and shots. Walter Murch, who was a close friend of Coppola’s during the shooting of The Godfather and worked as the editor and sound editor on several of his movies said this about editing Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:

“. . . at the end of it all, when the film was safely in the theaters, I sat down and figured out the total number of days that we (the editors) had worked, divided that number by the number of cuts that were in the finished product, and came up with the rate of cuts per editor per day—which turned out to be . . . 1.47!” (Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye)

Granted, Murch’s example from Apocalypse Now is offered as one extreme of the editing process; but if Murch’s average did hold true for this particular scene in The Godfather it would mean that an experienced editor, working 8-hour days, would have needed 7 weeks to edit the hospital scene. That’s a minute of film per week. Averaged over the entire movie, that would mean it would have taken 3 and a half years to edit the entire three-hour movie. These numbers help us appreciate that each of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene is part of a carefully choreographed and well thought-out vision of the effects the scene is intended to achieve. Some cuts last nearly 30 seconds, others last an instant, but every one of them has been constructed to lend to the overall impact of the scene as a whole.

 The scene starts with the hospital entryway: the archway framed by feeble but colorful Christmas lights offers virtually the only bright colors in the movie for the next 7 minutes. This façade may remind literary viewers of the arch under which Dante passes as he enters Hell which bears the warning, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. And for Michael this scene does represent the end of one particular kind of hope.

Of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene, this initial view of the archway framed by twinkling Christmas lights is the longest at 28 seconds. The scene opens with a view of this archway, allows a taxi to pull into frame and deposit Michael into the scene without cutting, and ends with Michael moving toward the building he is about to enter. The camera angle makes Michael look small in comparison to the looming, ominous archway and staircase he is about the climb. Small and virtually lost in shadow, Michael approaches the staircase. Seven minutes later, when Michael is again on the stairs, the camera angle is shifted and medium close-up shots are used so that Michael looks larger and more significant.

We linger for a full 28 seconds on this shot to build suspense, which the music in the soundtrack emphasizes, and because it is beautifully composed. The use of light, shadow, color and camera angle create a beautiful image of a threatening façade that Michael must penetrate as a first step in his own journey toward replacing his father and becoming the Godfather. This archway serves as a frame through which Michael will pass and, in the course of a few minutes, be transformed, entering into a stage of his life that his status as a “war hero” and his relationship with non-Italian Kay suggested he had been able to escape. But his passage through this eerily lit archway into the hospital is also a passage into a life that neither he nor his father had ever wanted or expected him to take.

The first cut is to an empty hospital hallway. Throughout the hospital scene empty hallways are used to create tension and suspense. Some of these shots only last a few seconds, but they have a significant dramatic effect. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia about how George Lucas helped Coppola add these empty hallway shots in after the scene had been shot to build dramatic tension. This footage was found among originally discarded strips of film.)

As with the shot of the entryway, this shot starts with a fixed view of a stationary location into which motion is introduced by means of a side entrance. In the first shot an arriving taxi; here, Michael who is now inside the hospital. The taxi’s entrance is from the left of the screen; Michael’s entrance balances this motion by coming from the right. These establishing shots first introduce the audience to the setting, and then allow action to move into the frame that has already been established by the stationary camera.

Hallway

There is something beautiful about the nauseous hospital green of the cramped corridors through which Michael walks and through which he and the nurse maneuver the bed bearing his helpless father. The camera work is confined to these narrow passageways, which restrict our view, leaving us with the impression of the ominously unseen. This sense of the ominous is further increased by the eerie music of the soundtrack and the bizarrely repeated word “tonight” that echoes through the building, though whether as part of the external soundtrack or an inexplicable part of the ambient sounds of the hospital I can’t say. It is one of the strangest phonic devices in the entire movie. Although there is no dialogue in the movie for several minutes, these sounds are accompanied by the ambient noises of an empty building with its eerie creeks, slams and footsteps.

When I watch movies I am particularly interested in walls and doorways. Doorways, of course, are obviously important: they are both passageways for the entry and exit of characters in a scene, and they are also excellent frames for action. Just as the movie screen itself is a frame that allows the director to establish a specific shot for the audience’s contemplation, so too are doorways frames within frames. They serve to further highlight a specific image or action that appears on the screen. The most famous example of this in the Godfather, and one of the most famous in the history of cinema, is the final image in the film, during which the door slowly closes between Kay and Michael as he is receiving the loyalty of his new mafia retainers who kiss his hand and address him for the first time as “Don Corleone.” We see here most explicitly, if we did not realize it before, that the Godfather of the film’s title is not the character of Vito played by Marlon Brando, but the new Godfather played by Al Pacino.

Kay hiding

This closing door in the final scene of the movie is more than just a symbol—it is also a physical portrayal of one of the main themes of the film: the gulf between the personal and “business” that grows wider and wider over the course of the film as the old way of doing business is gradually overwhelmed by a new way which threatens the family values that underlay the criminal empire under Vito’s control. Michael speaks of “my business” when talking to Kay, whereas Vito always spoke of “the family business.” This is characterized in the film by the never shown but often alluded to drug business, which is the precipitating crisis in the Corleone family’s fall under the old Don and rise under Michael.

Because doors are on hinges, they are not stationary frames, but swinging ones, which open (as in the scene in the hospital when Michael opens the door to his father’s room) or close (as in the final scene with Michael and Kay) in order to build tension and suspense or introduce a sense of possibility or finality. One might say that the door Michael opens in the hospital, to reveal his father whom he must first help and eventually replace, finally closes in the final scene of the movie when Michael’s transformation from “civilian” to “Godfather” is complete.

Once Michael enters the hospital we have a series of shots, some stationary, such as the medium close-up of the half-eaten sandwich, suggesting a hasty departure, and some tracking shots, such as of Michael’s movement through the hallways, that start to build up a sense of dramatic tension. A realization is dawning on Michael, as it is on us the audience, that all is not right here. What started out as a routine visit to the hospital has transformed into a crucial moment for Michael.

Sandwich

The realization is marked first by the close-up of Michael’s face, in which Pacino’s eyes and mouth express the first signs of concern. This is immediately followed by a shot of Michael running. In all of these shots, the camera remains stationary, which means that characters move towards or away from it, coming in and out of focus and obscuring the camera’s line of vision with parts of their bodies.

After his hurried motion through the hallways Michael slows to a walk as he approaches the fateful door to his father’s room. Here we have the cautious opening of a door onto a new world which I have suggested is the compliment to the closing door between Michael and Kay at the end of the movie.

Until this point, the hospital scene has been silent except for the soundtrack and ambient noises. The first spoken lines, by a minor character in the film, are a question and a statement: “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here,” the nurse says. Her comment is more right than she realizes. Michael is not supposed to be here. He has tried to stay free of the “family business,” but the pull of family, and perhaps of business as well, is more powerful than he knew. In response to the nurse’s question he must assert an identity which his military uniform during the wedding scene and his relationship with Kay, obviously strained in the scene immediately preceding the hospital scene, has tried to deny, “I am Michael Corleone,” he says, as if acknowledging it for the first time. “This is my father.”

As Michael and the nurse are moving Vito’s bed, the soundtrack introduces the sound of Enzo’s footsteps. Waiting for the person who these footsteps precede, we see the striking close-up of Michael’s face, the right side obscured by another doorframe, as if to suggest the dual nature of the character who is being faced with a life-changing decision—a decision which will gradually lead to the eclipse of the “right” side of his character, as the left, “sinister” side comes forward; in literature the left side is the side of “Satan and all his works” which Michael claims to denounce during the baptism scene at the end of the movie—at the very moment when it is most apparent.

Michael hiding

This shot of the left half of Michael’s face is followed by the gorgeously composed shot of an empty hospital corridor we first saw as the second shot of the scene. There is nothing unusual about this shot, which is precisely what makes it so striking. There is an exit sign, a bulletin board visible at the far end of the hallway, a fire extinguisher, a pair of benches and a hospital cart for wheeling patients. The shot is lit by hospital lighting that gives an eerie glow to the sickly green but immaculately clean walls and floor. At the end of the hall is a staircase, from which we expect, given the expectant tension on Michael’s face, to see some unknown figure emerge at any moment. But the hallway remains empty. Again, nothing happens, but it is precisely this “nothing” that carries the tension and suspense of the scene.

Perhaps this shot feels so real because it is not a set, but an actual hospital. But now seen with the added intensity created by this scene in the movie, it is a hospital corridor as we have never seen it before. It has become, due to the dramatic tension of the film, almost hyper-real, and we as viewers have been brought to a heightened sense of observational awareness. We are looking at the corridor of a hospital we might never bother to notice if we actually found ourselves waiting there for a doctor or a sick friend. As an object of dramatic and aesthetic contemplation the film doesn’t merely ask us to look at this hallway, but educates us in the art of seeing as well, training us to become more observant and better seers of what we are watching and by extension, of the world around us.

Now the cuts come more quickly, building dramatic tension, and culminating in the shadowing figure of Enzo’s back as it emerges from the staircase, his arm cocked and hand concealed as if holding a weapon. He is dressed in the long black coat and hat we’ve come to think of as the gangster’s uniform in the movie (as opposed, for example, to the military uniform worn by Michael earlier in the film, or the tasteless civilian garb of characters like Freddo, Carlo, and Mo Green). But with the next cut we see the innocent face of Enzo, carrying not a gun, but a bouquet of flowers for the injured Don. Enzo has come to show his respect, and to express his gratitude for the Don’s help in resolving his emigration problems. And here Michael repeats the nurse’s question from a minute ago, “Who are you?” It seems that the hospital scene is intent on confronting Michael with this central question of identity: who is Michael, and how will he come to realize who he really is? Enzo’s offer to stay and help if there is going to be trouble, “for your father, for your father” he repeats, is the first sign of loyalty to Michael that we will see symbolized by the kissing of his hand at the end of the film. This gesture too is mirrored by Michael, who kisses his father’s hand after telling him, “I’m with you now.” Only Michael’s kiss is quite different from the kisses of deferential respect he will receive at the end of film, or that Vito receives from Bonasera the undertaker at its beginning.

Michael’s “I’m with you now; I’m with you” brings a tear to his father’s eye, which in the context of this scene looks like a tear of paternal love for a son he thought had grown away from him, but by the end of the film, especially in light of the scene in which Vito confesses his aspirations for Michael, that he might have become a judge or a senator, may be read as a tear of sorrow that his favorite son was unable to resist the pull of the “family business” and make a new life for himself in America, just as the dreams of Bonasera the undertaker in the possibilities of America are dashed by the assault on his daughter and the impotence of the American justice system in the face of this crime.

Michael flowers

At 1:07 we have the beautiful shot of Enzo’s face, waiting on the steps outside the hospital for Michael. Now Michael will exit through the archway he passed under only 6 minutes earlier. Six minutes which, whether he knows it or not, have completely changed his entire life. Now the colors of the Christmas lights are complimented by the color of the flowers Enzo carries. Flowers of gratitude for the Godfather’s favors and protection, but also flowers which may remind us, because of the link between Enzo and Bonasera in the first scene of the movie, of something ominous and funeral. Significantly, Michael will briskly toss them away when he comes out of the hospital to prepare Enzo for the illusion of being a mafia bodyguard. Flowers have no place in this new world he is preparing to take up residency in.

This transformation is given visible expression in the famous scene of Michael lighting Enzo’s cigarette and noticing, without surprise or elation, but rather with a kind of detached observational objectivity, the steadiness of his hands. It is as if Michael is realizing, despite years of attempting to deny it to both himself and those around him, who and what he is. The steady hands are a sign of this internal identity, brought forth by the crisis threatening his father’s life that he has just faced and overcome.

Perhaps Enzo is framed so beautifully because he is the final image of the life Michael could have had and rejects, partially out of love for his father, and partially to fulfill a destiny he was born to and could not avoid. Earlier I referred to Enzo as a civilian. This is how other characters refer to Michael, despite the fact that he first appears in the movie in a military uniform, when they are preparing him for the meeting with Sollozo and McKluskey. But they are wrong and the uniform is right: by the end of the hospital scene, Michael is no longer a civilian, if he ever really was one in his heart. He is “with his father”, and forever separated from the world of bakers and undertakers represented by the beautifully shot Enzo standing alone on the hospital steps. Enzo now represents the world that Michael can protect or exploit, do or extract “favors” for or from, but it is not the world he will occupy. Enzo is an image of the Michael who could have been.

Finally we have the dramatic climax of the hospital scene, where Michael and Enzo stand on the stairway outside the hospital and Michael reaches into his coat for a gun that isn’t there in order to scare off the hitmen who have come to kill his father. Here too we have a moment of suggestion rather than actual action. Michael scares off the men with his confidence—with the threat of violence rather than the act of violence.

Michael smoke

At 1:08:45 the hospital scene ends, with the smoke from Enzo’s cigarette partially obscuring Michael’s face, as if to again emphasize the internal transformation with external visual cues.

In many ways The Godfather is a violent movie and also a movie about violence. But is there not another kind of violence, done to the movie itself, by the viewer who engages in the type of analysis I’ve been doing here? What about the hermeneutic violence performed on the film by the critic? We have lingered over details that would be almost invisible to an audience watching the movie as it was intended to be experienced, in a theatre, without the luxury of a “pause” button and the high resolution of dvd and Blu-ray technology. There is a sense in which this kind of analysis performs an act of violence on the film, tearing apart and looking in isolation at images which were intended to be seen as part of a smoothly flowing whole. But there is another sense in which this kind of artificial viewing attempts to recreate, in order to more deeply understand and appreciate, the acts of creation that gave birth to the film as a work of art in the first place.

When we recall what Walter Murch said about averaging 1.47 cuts a day while editing Apocalypse Now, and then think about the 72 cuts that comprise the hospital scene, we can appreciate the painstaking care and attention that goes into creating each scene in a great movie, a care and attention that both warrants and demands our own thoughtfulness and reflection at their most attentive. When we watch a movie we discover the same truth we encounter when we read a great work of literature or philosophy: there is great pleasure in the having of an idea. And it is in the service of this pleasure of ideas that we perform such acts of analysis and interpretation.

David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for Curious Oyster Seminars, and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Forecasts and Predictions, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.