Thursday, April 23, 2015


The other night Turner Classics presented a short film made (at the age of 79) by the ever-amazing Sofia Loren, La Voce Umana, an adaptation of a monologic play by Jean Cocteau, first presented in the theater in 1930. A number of Cocteau's works have been filmed, some directed by the writer himself. 

This occurrence started me thinking about the effect of Cocteau on the aesthetics of film. When he created the first installment of his Orpheus trilogy, The Blood of a Poet, in 1930, experimental cinema was already in existence. 

World War II drove it off the scene for a good while, so that when Cocteau's major films, such as Beauty and the Beast and Les Enfants Terribles (the latter directed by J.P. Melville), hit the art houses in the years after 1945, they represented the only viable alternative to the reigning models. There were two: the realism of Hollywood, as incarnated by the noirs; and the Italian neorealism of Rossellini, followed by that of Fellini and Pasolini. Cocteau's films were not in this tradition at all, and I believe that they made a decisive contribution to a new, broader contribution to the concept of what movies are - or could be - about. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Modernism in question

The fading of the fetish of postmodernism - long overdue in my opinion - has led to a revival of the trend it ostensibly replaced, modernism itself. 

But what is modernism? In literature it can clearly be identified with the emergence of such French avant-garde writers as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. Those more oriented to the anglophone sphere focus on the "men of 1914": Pound, Eliot, Lewis, and Joyce. In painting a strong case can be made for the Cubist foursome, Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger, recently seen here at the Met in the Lauder Collection. In architecture the giants Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius emerged ca. 1922. 

What binds all these figures together is their seemingly contradictory embrace of modern life and technology combined with an ironic attitude towards them. I find myself returning over and over to these figures, who were truly "phares," beacons of light in Baudelaire's terms.

A question that frequently arises with modernist writers is this. Weren't all these figures reactionaries, if not actual fascists? That is true of Pound, Céline, and Marinetti, though not at all points of their careers. However, the poets Esenin and Mayakovsky were stalwart supporters of the incipient Soviet regime, as was, in a different way, Bertolt Brecht. During WW II in France Samuel Beckett worked actively for the Resistance. Some pertinent questions have been raised about J.-P. Sartre in this period, but after the war he consistently supported, in his own fashion, the left. Others, like Joyce and Rilke were uncommitted.

Sunday, April 05, 2015


My godless parents brought me up to have no religion. Never having assumed any formal religious affiliation, I have largely agreed with them - except for one thing. That is that they neglected the role of religion in inspiring major works of art, literature, and music in the Western tradition. I sought to grapple with these themes in my university teaching of the history of art. Moreover, my avocation is classical music, especially its early manifestations, which in such composers as Machaut, Palestrina, J.S. Bach and many others is hugely concerned with setting Christian religious texts. 

Because of these two interests - art and music - I feel most affinity with Catholicism - if I had to choose. Evangelical Christianity in particular leaves me cold, especially in its latest, hard-nosed form, so obnoxiously evident in recent homophobic outbursts in Indiana and other places. 

By the same token, however, nothing is gained by name-calling, in particular by asserting that these narrow-minded individuals are "Christofascists." The term Christofaschismus was first proposed by a German theologian in 1970 to describe the churches in the Nazi era that had slavishly accommodated themselves to the Third Reich. With that specific meaning, it seems appropriate. Recently, though "Christofascist" has been revived as an epithet by such polemicists as Chris Hedges. Yet even in its most restrictive forms, evangelical Christianity has little in common with historical fascism - no single maximum leader, no posited master race, no unique party and so on. It is best to avoid such name calling.