Citations

Lama Sabachthani

Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Barnett Newman’s zips and fields have never moved me beyond a chilly appreciation for their role in pushing painting towards the vanishing point. Walking into The Stations of the Cross, however, felt nearly spiritual. Newman’s choice of title did most of the lifting here, juxtaposing the weight of violence and supernatural suffering against fifteen canvases of brittle monochrome. My eyes tried to map these stern lines and rectangles against the familiar scenes of bloodshed, weeping, and trembling from that day at Golgotha. But I could find no correlation, and I was left alone with that heavy title, those dispassionate shapes, and a woman sitting on a bench with her pencil paused in the air, hanging somewhere between contemplation and frustration. A security guard rocked on his heels at the edge of the room, emitting an occasional rubber squeak that emphasized the hush of the place, the secret air of an empty gymnasium after hours. I walked towards the explanatory placard on the wall and, as is the case with most modern art, this moved me most of all.

When the series was first displayed in 1966, Newman said these images were based not on the flagellation and martyrdom of the crucifixion but Jesus’s cry of lema sabachthani: Why hast thou forsaken me? “This is the passion,” he said. “Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” And for a moment I felt it, a sense of utter vacancy, an emptying and hollowing of thought that left space for…something. In my notebook, I quickly scribbled this sentence: Aesthetic alienation leads to a desperation which leaves one greedy for any thread of hope, no matter how brittle. This felt like a profound insight at the time, one of those camera-flash thoughts that comes on bright and quick before fading away forever. Artists like Newman and Mark Rothko insisted their blank fields of color were not academic exercises but spiritual statements. Although I feel lucky to have caught a brief sense of this, I also left the room wondering if you can nail any damned thing to the wall as long as you attach it to the bloodshed and drama of myth.

Citations

Mono No Aware

The original Blade Runner was a rare gift of pure atmosphere. Since 1982, Ridley Scott’s dark and overheated Los Angeles has been steadily remodeling the architecture of the modern psyche when it comes to imagining the future. Now we envision fires in the sky, broken weather, and sprawling fields of scrap and junk. And we can be pretty sure that no matter what the future brings, elaborate advertisements will leer overhead like a hallucination while we fight, haggle, and jive beneath neon lights at the foot of buildings heavy with memory and rot. And it’s a strangely beautiful sight. For me, Blade Runner is the cinematic sensation of laying on a bed in a dark motel room while listening to distant traffic speeding through the puddles of a rainy street: a poignant concoction of nostalgia, dread, and the possibilities that live in the margins. But above all, Blade Runner is a story about god, a fever dream about grabbing our creator by the throat and asking, “Why did you make me? And why must I die?”

The new iteration of Blade Runner is one of the few beloved things to reappear three decades later in better than expected condition. I won’t discuss the details of the film—not because I worry about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but because things like characters and plot are peripheral elements used only to generate a mood. Nearly every scene in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel looks like something plumbed from a dream, a Surrealist fusion of our synthetic world and ancient myth. At first I craved the clutter and heat of the original film’s vision of a scuzzy and polyglot tomorrow, for the landscape of 2049 is startlingly monotonous and arid. But its bleak architecture and sterile streets are probably a more accurate rendering of the future as our democracies calcify into corporate aristocracy and our cities become increasingly homogenized spaces which cater to the individual rather than the crowd. Beyond this resonance, however, most of 2049 stands outside of time like one of the eerie monuments in the front yard of the Bradbury building.

I couldn’t help but snap this photo during the film. To my mind, it’s on par with a Dali painting.

If the first Blade Runner was about confronting god, 2049 attempts to calculate the value of the soul. If artificial intelligence can become so self-aware that it is capable of feeling flawed and lonesome, does being human mean anything beyond legal ramifications? This question was first introduced when Roy Batty shed his iconic tears in the rain; the sight of a robot weeping at the impermanence of existence left us wondering if mono no aware is a uniquely human feature—or bug. (Mono no aware is such a beautiful term for the pathos of things, the recognition that all things must end; see also lacrimae rerum). 2049 extends this theme by pondering our hardwired desire to feel unique. We follow a humanoid’s search for meaning and connection as he ruminates about miracles and wonders if he might be special. At first he is frightened by the possibility, then energized. Perhaps here is meaning at last. The action circles a vague notion of finding purpose through sacrifice for others, but the bigger question of what distinguishes a human from any other mechanism capable of brooding hangs in the haze without answers, evaporating into the haunted scenery of an utterly misanthropic world where morality is garbled by the ways we define us and them.

When Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford race towards a speedy-looking vehicle, 2049 seems destined to careen into the usual Hollywood showdown between good and evil. Instead, Villeneuve unexpectedly downshifts into the register of Bergman or Antonioni, leaving us with an extended meditation on cosmic-grade isolation that favors archetypes over characters and events. Rather than worrying about the bloodied hero crumpled on the floor, the camera is more interested in watching a black dog lope across the screen; instead of savoring the vanquished foe, our attention is directed to the mindless pounding of the surf. There is no good or evil here, only ghosts in the machine and glitches in the sublime. 2049 is not a perfect film, but it is another rare gift.

Riot and Devotion

An Ode to the Tollbooth Operator

His heart went out to the tollbooth operators, the grizzle-haired men and women with cigarettes nodding on their lips, their left hands forever clutching a quarter and a dime in change. They were the interstate’s guardians, unmmoved movers amidst the relentless current of people going someplace else. After looking into the eyes of thousands of travelers and handling their crumpled bills and sweaty coins, these cashiers probably understood the mood of the modern world better than anyone: its reckless teenagers, hungover commuters, and road-ragers; the cheating spouses and insomniac prophets. They peered into the lives of the broken-hearted and the hopeful with their belongings jammed in the backseat, their plastic-wrapped suits and blouses pressed against the windows like ghosts. Perched in nests of space heaters, thermoses, and radios, the tollbooth operators watched the taillights of desperate vehicles red-shifting through the night, darting across state lines in search of fresh lives, hoping to give Plan C or D a shot. And each time they told him the fee for a six-axle vehicle, he thought he saw a flash of compassion in their eyes, a look that reminded him of his mother’s cool hand against his forehead when he had a fever. They saw him for the man he had become, just another soul searching for deliverance beneath the highway lights.

Snapshots

Pantheon

I gazed up at the oculus while families and lovers whipped me around as they snapped their self-portraits, and soon I was dizzy and stupid with tears in my eyes because I could not begin to comprehend how such a dome was constructed back in the year 120, and I mourned because such a sublime thing would never be built again. We no longer build to humble our pride.

Self-portrait in front of the Pantheon ’round midnight.‬

Midnight Radio

We Need New Gods

The world is overheating, its seas rising while corporations prey upon the sick and weary. Pent-up vibrations of war fill the air and we have a vicious idiot in the highest office, determined to hold our thoughts hostage until some bottomless void is filled. Meanwhile we fight amongst ourselves, slinging hashtags and hysteria. As our cruel politics and callous technologies lead us to become ever more factionalized and tribalized, we need new unifying myths—and quickly. Give us new points of worship beyond the rickety fictions of free markets, nations, and garbled gospels. New gods. This isn’t a terribly original or feasible idea, but for a moment it didn’t seem so improbable when the first track on the new album by Leyland Kirby drifted into my headphones.

Here comes a heartbeat drum, thumping in the distance like a half-remembered b-side by The Ronettes or The Crystals, a vintage rhythm slowly falling to pieces in the ether while plaintive strings rise, as if mourning the death of reason. Like a heavily sedated love song from the hit parade of a more dignified age, Leyland Kirby’s We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives is a reassuring soundtrack for these undignified times. Dig that title. This album is an unexpected reminder that music can harmonize with—and perhaps even momentarily sooth—the crazy thoughts we’re forced to carry these days, if only for a moment or two. The dark yearning of a track like ‘Consolation’ leaves me thinking of a phrase from Will Durant: “We are choked with news and starved of history.”