Sunday, February 12, 2006

around the corner

A painting comes to a stop where the canvas meets the frame. But my favorite paintings convince me that they extend beyond their edges. Paintings are static. Yet the great one's suggest movement. I love de Chirico's "Melencholy and Mystery of a Street", because I can "see" around the corner. The painting is bigger than what's shown on the canvas. It suggests a world beyond itself. It also suggests movement. It's clear the image can't hold as it is for long. It's about to tip over into something else.

Though I also love Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," the painting's movement is too literal to thrill me (the painting thrills me for other reasons). To thrill, a painting must perform the impossible (move, extend beyond the canvas) via suggestion, not exposition. When a painting performs magic obliquely, I feel I've been touched by something powerful and mysterious. Paintings aren't supposed to move and extend -- so I am surprised. I can't be surprised by Duchamp's "Nude," because it's screaming, "Look! Movement!"

You can't smell paintings, yet Carreno de Miranda's "La Monstrua Desnuda" emits an odor; I can feel the scorched grass in Wyth's "Christina's World"; I can hear the metallic creak of Ernst's "Elephant"'; Rodin's sculptures turn me on. Painting is primarily visual. If it's going to surprise me, it must touch some part of me besides my eyes.

Novels can't feed me, so I was shocked by this spoon George Orwell shoved in my face:

The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly—pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was FISH! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.

Outside the newsboy shoved the Standard into my face and yelled, ‘Legs! ‘Orrible revelations! All the winners! Legs! Legs!’ I was still rolling the stuff round my tongue, wondering where I could spit it out. I remembered a bit I’d read in the paper somewhere about these food-factories in Germany where everything’s made out of something else. Ersatz, they call it. I remembered reading that THEY were making sausages out of fish, and fish, no doubt, out of something different. It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth." -- "Coming Up for Air"

As a writer, it's easy for Orwell to saw off the top of his hero's head and reveal what's inside: "I remembered a bit I read in the paper…" How would this work in movie? Movies can't convey character's thoughts, can they? Yet I knew exactly what the germaphobic Howard Hughs was thinking when he stared at the men's room doorknob in Scorsese's "The Aviator." I more than knew! I felt what he felt. I squirmed in my seat, wondering how I would get out of the room without touching the knob. How splendidly viral! And how much more effective than the usual film technique for conveying thoughts -- the cinematic equivalent of "Nude Descending a Staircase" -- the voice over. Or (worse!) the psychologically-false line of dialogue, awkwardly plopping some exposition in my lap.

The stage is similar to the canvas. There is true movement, but actors can't be seen once they exit outside of a little box. So it's amazing when, like a film, a play manages to "cut" from one locale to another. Like the voice-over and the Descending Nude, shifting flats around is the crude. It's mechanical, not magical. I'd rather hear an actor proclaim -- with great conviction -- "Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station; tracks go that way. Polish Town's across the tracks, and some Canuck families. Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street's the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there. Baptist is down the holla' by the river. Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks. Here's the town hall and the Post Office combined; jail's in the basement." That is from Thorton Wilder's "Our Town," and it's usually performed on a bare stage.

Once, I heard a radio play in which the hero said, "Jesus Christ. Look at the size of that ship!" A radio play made me see! And it did so by mere suggestion. The ship's specific size was never stated. But my mind immediately conjured up an ocean liner eight times the size of the Titanic.

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