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The Experiences of Learning About The Arts

Every single aspect of the arts is inextricable from and intimate with how each of us learns many different kinds of things in the world and such learning is thoroughly created out of our evaluations, inclinations and choices.

I first encountered the following Shunryu Suzuki (or Suzuki Roshi) quote when I was 13. In it Suzuki tells the story of four different kinds of horses from the scripture Samyukragama Sutra. This is found  in what continues to be one of my favorite books ever written on related matters: Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. According to the metaphor used in that Sutra and in Shunryu Suzuki’s commentary, there are excellent, good, poor and bad horses.

When first I read that passage of Suzuki Roshi I felt slightly alienated from it because most of my problems in school at that time were due to the reality of being held back by, for lack of a better word, “slower” kids around me.

Today I would strongly reject the “slower” category in favor of “incurious” - incuriosity to me being a natural part of life for so many people and having nothing to do with intelligence. I do think you can be even brilliant and less curious at one and the same time. That is, everybody is curious about something and incurious about something else, and for these people, in my example, children, incuriosity is the norm for those things in which they have scant interest.

My negative feelings towards some of my peers and classmates were caused by trying to make sense of the social world more generally, as well as with human difference itself. That is I was trying to do two things that are separate: make sense of the world and finding a place somewhere within that world.

Here Suzuki Roshi was telling me things that did challenge this direct experience. I wanted to continue to read and think about the John Updike Rabbit novel series with which I was so fascinated, and think about Michelangelo Antonioni and Francois Truffaut films and reflect upon the David Rabe or Harold Pinter play I’d just seen and daydream about Catherine Deneuve. These kids who simply were not interested in any such things; one frustrated teacher told me that it was the students and their parents who were the ultimate arbiters of the curriculum overall, though officially it was stated that the educators were the “real” arbiters. Thus the idea that school is a kind of retail store with students and parents as customers maybe is much more a creation of the 1970s than the “gogo” 1990s.

It took many years to realize I was similar or even identical to these kids - even as parts of my nature and character were radically opposed.  The similarity rested in perhaps wholly different parts of life. Like them I too possessed  slowness: it was simply in completely different areas of life, and, I would only realize decades later, areas of life that were probably more valued in society than those areas in which I was “fast”.

I was as slow as could be in “reading a room”, or understanding another human being. (I have improved slightly). And as I have said before, I was slow in learning about my very first and deepest love - music! Indeed when I first came across fellow musicians of the same age they were incredibly fast and gifted - I believe the term then in use was “prodigy.” A couple of the children I met were able to toss off entire Oscar Peterson solos practically by ear (A couple of these because major stars in the piano world.) And here I was struggling with what I considered to be basic piano music and to hear basic songs by ear, not yet ready to imitate the improvised solos I nevertheless loved and paid greatest attention.

Thus, in at least a couple of senses, Shunryu Suzuki was talking about me.

I often wonder what the connections were and are between by cultural education and my daily life. This is nowhere more apparent than in the moviegoing that was already such ha large part of my childhood.Not a day passes in which I do not think about the sacred palaces of movies theaters that were a part of my weekly life in the cities of the east coast of the United States.

Curiously, though, one of most important of those theaters was not in the East but ensconced in Tampa Florida - the Tampa Theatre.

Present Day Tampa Theatre

It was at this theatre where, among many other, to me, great events, that I saw a screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up in 1980 at the age of 13.

Now by this time I had seen maybe a hundred or so movies and by movies I don’t simply mean Freaky Friday, Benji or The Apple Dumpling Gang - I mean movies like Diane Kurys’ (Peppermint Soda) and Francois Truffaut’s Love On The Run and Taxi Driver and The Paper Chase. It was not as if Star Wars was the only picture I had seen that year or any year.

This is in fact a form of education every bit as much the case were I to have overbearing parents having me read The Wind In The Willows or Plato’s The Republic.  This screening was a life changing and nervous system transforming (and maybe churning) event.

In cinema history July 30 2007 was an unusual day because two of the greatest film directors in the 20th century - Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman - died on that same day and within hours of each other. I would like to be able to say that I liked both equally but in fact I was and am far more interested in Antonioni than Bergman, even while I have seen  everything both men made with the important exception of Antonioni’s China documentary. Antonioni had always had many detractors including Ingmar Bergman himself, who said of the revolutionary Italian filmmaker, “Antonioni was on his way but expired suffocated by his own tediousness”

There are individual films of Bergman that I am close to liking as much as I do Antonioni’s Blow-Up or The Red Desert and The Passenger - for example Bergman’s Persona and Fanny And Alexander to name two standout pictures.

But I have spent much more of my life thinking about - or more precisely thinking with Antonioni. This is a matter simply of choice and there is nothing normative whatsoever about it. There is no objective reason for a choice such as this. (There are objective reasons for choosing to spend time with either Bergman or Antonioni both because of their greatness but that is a slightly separate matter). 

The reasons have to do with my love for how Antonioni photographs and creates environments as well as his representation of the people within those highly constructed environments and how his way of doing this is always more entertaining and engrossing to me than all of the theatrical and literary scenes of human conversation in most filmmakers.  

If you were to think that this is a preference that informs all of my choices  of favorites you would be quite wrong since I actually love some of the most “talky” filmmakers of all time such as Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and John Cassavetes. It is simply a matter of how Antonioni does what what he chooses to do far more than those choices themselves.

William Friedkin has spoken in public many times on his love for Antonioni in general and Blow Up in particular. Here is a video of TCM from the great Robert Osborne era wherein Friedkin discusses Antonioni’s value in terms that I feel might be relatable to many people:

Choice and decision make up much of any human life; my concern here is certainly not as to causes or how much freedom goes into these human actions and perhaps even less the normative aspect of these - whether what I personally have done with my life has been a “waste of time” or not.

But since my focus in contexts like these is aesthetic, it is far more interesting to consider that  I simply loved the experience of seeing Blow-Up - the colors, the various goings on of the David Hemmings photographer character (possibly patterned after David Bailey), the visual appearance of London in 1966. There is almost nothing more to be said. I equally loved the fact that this was murder mystery that was completely unsolved; I always felt that the Agatha Christie model of mystery was frankly boring and “overwritten” and it took the excitement of Blow Up to show me an alternative procedure.

Still from Blow Up featuring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemming

I did not have any of the same feelings when I saw the premiere of Star Wars in1977.

Of course I was ten years old, but everything about that screening seemed to work against enjoyment. The audience was mostly children  my own age and I had very little experience of humans my own age, being an “only child”. They were incredibly loud and boisterous. I was simply unused to going to children’s movies: all my moviegoing experiences were at GP or more often, R rated pictures, and the concomitant company of adults at such culture. At the Star Wars screening I was also stuck at the back of the theatre - possibly due to the reality that this was momentous cultural event in cultural history more than a mere cinematic hit.

Archival Image of Star Wars opening

Yet in many senses Star Wars is of course a “good” film. There is an entire separate question of craft, and what I would call, for lack of another formulation classical craft of which Star Wars is one illustration. But in posts like the current one I am chiefly interested in the varieties of artistic styles, in the most plural sense, and the interaction of these with personal biography more generally.

There are perhaps millions of people who felt about the Star Wars premiere in ways damned close to my 1979 viewing of Blow-Up and probably maybe only thousands that felt as I did about Blow-Up, and of course some of those folks might appreciate Star Wars as much as they do Blow Up.

I have no idea what the reasons are for the anomaly of my character in this regard. I don’t think it is only personal idiosyncrasy: I sensed something of the the value of what Antonioni was doing and was fortunate to have such sensors as part of my makeup. Alongside this there is of course the deficit of me not seeing Star Wars virtues, if we are to conclude that it has virtues.

A lot of my history with all of the arts has been about an attempt to understand all of this. I don’t expect or even want any final or singular answers.  But I am looking to understand just a little better those realities that play a role in making me who I am.

I do think Blow Up is a far better film on every level than Star Wars, (and better than many other films - including some great ones - that themselves are also better than Star Wars.

On a visual level Blow Up is of course prettier or more beautiful in its composition - if we are to stay on the visual level of a motion picture.  If we are going to discuss matters like psychology or philosophy, it is even better according to these criteria. I am aware that one might say this is simply a meaningless and incomparable comparison because the two pictures are so different in every way, in style, purpose and so on. But I stand by my assertion, even taking the objective differences into a full account.  And this was the point of a view of a thirteen year old; you can predict that my appreciation could only grow as I became a man.

There is no universe in which I am going to want to watch a crowded mise en scene of made up characters in space suits running around and engaging in really frantic  behavior more than the looking at fashion photography in London of 1966 in lush painterly, painterly color. Nor want to look at Carrie Fisher more than Veruschka, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Birkin. You can imagine all of the social problems I encountered on a daily basis if I dared to express such preferences to any soul. My podcast really exists to understand these and other important facts in arts and letters. It also exists to try and explain to the best of my ability what goes into making either a Star Wars and a Blow-Up as well as many  objects that are far removed from either in sensibility or their reception.

Verushka in the film Blow Up

There is a personal and social dimension to of that Tampa Theatre screening.

A very hip young reporter named Greg Tozian met me and my dad there and I looked up to this guy. After all he had sold me some of my first books I ever bought - at Waldenbooks (or was it Daltons?) - something by Jerzy Kosinski called Being There, at the mall.  His bookstore days were long before he  become the local movie critic (and long before he went on to many other careers, most involving writing of one kind or another). And it was Greg Tozian who urged us to see Blow Up in the first place. Maybe through him, and his girlfriend, at the time Elaine, I saw that the world of the arts could open me up to different kinds of people, people who thought about the world in a different way, with more curiosity. Of course these people were adults and I was still a young teen boy, yet I seemed to relate to them far better than the humans of my own age.

It is genuinely hard to believe that I have a platform with this podcast where I can deal with the world of the arts most directly. Perhaps everything discussed in this post and others close to it were accusative leading to this current project. I don’t mean this in the one of literal inevitability since I am no kind of determinist. I mean that my concerns have always been the same concerns and it is only now that I feel best equipped to share what I have learned.

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