Culture shock

When I first visited Vienna about 25 years ago, a city gallery was presenting an exhibition of black-and-white photographic nudes of some kind. What particularly struck my American eye were the advertisements for this exhibition pasted on kiosks and the sides of trams around town — advertisements which featured details from these nudes that included both male and female genitalia. I was at the time perhaps much more Philadelphian than I am now; hence my somewhat uncomfortable surprise to see these depictions plastered in various public spaces. As a tourist, though, I was in the minority. The Viennese men, women, and children who passed these advertisements every day seemed particularly comfortable with them, rarely glancing at them a second time. By the end of my stay, I was comfortable with them too, and even pleased. These public displays of the naked human body, I thought, were admirable in a way — far more admirable than the ads for violent movies and cheap consumer goods that surrounded me on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love.

Apparently it wasn’t only my Philadelphian blood that gave rise to that original discomfort. In the past few weeks, the Vienna Tourist Board has been buying advertising space in Cologne, Hamburg, and London to promote upcoming Vienna exhibitions of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele (their Viennese Modernism 2018 web site can be found here), but the posters they created have run into some problems in those cities. According to Kimberly Bradley in the New York Times,

According to a Vienna Tourist Board spokeswoman, Helena Hartlauer, Transport for London rejected the original images, citing trepidation about depicting genitals in public space.

Ms. Hartlauer said that modified advertisements with pixelated genitals were also declined. Ultimately approved were versions using the same artworks (Schiele’s “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait),” 1910, and “Girl With Orange Stockings,” 1914, and other paintings by the artist, all from the Leopold Museum collection), but with certain bits covered by a banner.

The banner reads: “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.” The modified images are now on view on bus shelters in Cologne and building facades in Hamburg, and, since this week, in tube stops in London.

The original ads were also banned from Facebook as obscene, Ms. Bradley reports. Right now the big New York show is the Michelangelo exhibition at the Met, and ads for that are everywhere too, though obviously they don’t generate the same angst.

The Vienna Tourist Board is playing the controversy big, “highlighting images of the public ads with the hashtag #DerKunstihreFreiheit (#ToArtItsFreedom in English) on social media,” Ms. Bradley writes:

The hashtag comes from the slogan “To every age its art, to art its freedom,” still visible in German on the facade of the Viennese Secession, an exhibition venue co-founded by Klimt in 1897 and still operating today as an autonomous artist-run institution. And the controversy certainly echoes discussions that took place in Schiele’s time. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, an era of dramatic shifts in both art and society, many considered the artist’s work to be pornographic. Schiele’s first broader acceptance didn’t come until early 1918 with a major exhibition in the Secession — later that year, the artist succumbed to Spanish flu at age 28.

“We want to show people just how far ahead of their time Vienna and its protagonists really were,” Mr. Kettner said. [Norbert Kettner, that is, chief executive of the Vienna Tourist Board.] “And also encourage the audience to scrutinize how much really has — or hasn’t — changed in terms of openness and attitudes in society over the times.”

Both Klimt and Schiele were products and agents of the sensual revolution in fin de siècle Vienna (though, obviously, to say that they were “ahead of their time” ignores the observation that they were of their own time and apparently no one else’s). This revolution was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s air itself from about 1898 to 1914, and the current controversy underscores the fact that, if the rest of Europe and the United States ever caught up, they’ve retreated from that openness and social attitude since then, regressing into a consumerist puritanism instead. Erotics, gender, and sensuality became central philosophical and aesthetic concerns in Central Europe in the years before World War II, taking on an atonal, irresolvable tone, far more revolutionary than similar thinking in France, for example — a tone evident in its visual art (Klimt and Schiele), literature (Musil and Doderer), and music (Schoenberg and Webern). The dissemination of this art through the Secession — and more recently through posters and tram ads — is an acknowledgement of the extent to which this erotics forms a part of our daily public and private lives, even when we’re just grabbing a subway train from one place to another.

Klimt, Schiele, and Richard Gerstl were all dead by the end of 1918, and as the Viennese coped with being reduced to a provincial capital from the seat of one of Europe’s largest and most powerful empires, the center of this activity moved to Germany, where the Neue Sachlichkeit movement revisited the inner workings of the erotic and sensual self from a more urban perspective. In many ways, though, it was an extension, not a rejection, of Austrian Expressionism and its erotic concerns. And though we tend to look at these artists through the hoary glass of history, their explorations remain ours. The erotic, the sensual, is public too, and the attempts to bury it point to a recidivist authoritarianism that in the past has led to people like Hitler and Stalin. In Cologne, Hamburg, and London — and possibly New York, too — they’re still getting out the shovels. In Vienna, though, you can still breathe it in.

The irresistable id

Comedian, family man, pervert.

Comedian, family man, pervert — these dimensions of Gilbert Gottfried, as well as a few others, are all on display in Gilbert, a documentary about the controversial and highly-esteemed funnyman, released in theaters earlier this month and now available on a number of streaming platforms. Director Neil Berkeley follows Gottfried as he putters around his apartment, endures the ennui of unending road trips, and visits the Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth. Among the cognoscenti, he’s known as a “comedian’s comedian,” but his current home life surprises even them — in an enduring, tender relationship with his wife of ten years and his two children, Gottfried also displays a vulnerability that’s never far from the surface; it’s especially evident at the end of the film, when he performs at a benefit for a hospital for pediatric cancer patients and works his way through a personal family tragedy.

Apart from the quite affecting personal revelations, Gilbert reveals the professional Gottfried as well: the absurdities and tedium of life on the road (at one point Gottfried manages to find himself at a convention of military uniform enthusiasts); the difficulty in keeping interested in identical material performed over and over again; and, most delightfully, Gottfried’s generosity with his fans and admirers. Although Gottfried is a virtuoso in his chosen field, Gilbert also reveals the hard work required to generate that seemingly effortless performance night after night. Gottfried’s own Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast! also frequently delves into the mechanics of his art.

If you’re looking for something a little different to watch as grandma snoozes on the sofa after the heavy Thanksgiving meal, give Gilbert a try. If you want something a lot different (and you want to wake grandma up), try it on a double bill with The Aristocrats, which features Gottfried’s lengthier version of the classic comedy routine than the Hefner roast version excerpted on the documentary portrait. I’m hoping it becomes a tradition at our own house — not least because Gottfried reminded me of the great artist that was Fritz Feld. Below is the trailer for Gilbert.


Pulling the thread

My wife and daughters were just a block and a half away from West and Chambers Streets yesterday when the shooting started — far enough away but not far enough; they most danger they were in, ironically, was when they were nearly run down by first responders speeding down Chambers Street at 60 miles per. The “story was developing,” as the media would have it, as they made their way home, so they were unaware of what was really happening, and besides it was Halloween. They had trick-or-treating on their minds, and mercifully they didn’t think about it much. I imagine that the grief counsellors that the district hired to populate the hallways at their school, also just around the corner from West and Chambers, will traumatize them enough today. We’re keeping an eye on them.

As you now know, most of the eight victims of yesterday’s attack weren’t American: five were Argentine tourists, and one was Belgian. For all of Trump’s desire to keep America safe, his travel ban wouldn’t have prevented Sayfullo Saipov from getting into the country; Uzbekistan was not on the list. Only the guns that the police carried could fire any bullets, one of them into Saipov’s abdomen. And like recent events in England and France, it appears that Saipov was “inspired” to his vicious act by the Islamic State rather than driven by any international conspiracy. ISIS hasn’t claimed responsibility yet, though I imagine they will before the day is through; like some other people I can think of, they have a tendency to take credit for things they had no direct responsibility for.

Saipov had a screw loose. A paranoiac sense of oppression married to violent religious propaganda is obviously a dangerous thing, but the Muslim religion can’t be blamed for it; extremists of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist stripes have all conducted similar campaigns of terror throughout our long history on this planet. Theology may provide a tipping point, but it’s the sociopathic hostility that kills, and sociopathy doesn’t exclusively belong to any faith. It’s the sociopathy that has me worried. Cultures that valorize violence and polarized cultural and religious thinking tend to encourage the insane to legitimize and act upon their violent impulses; add to this an overheated, sensationalistic news, media, and celebrity machine that we can carry around with us in our pockets all day long and — well, they do make for long days.

If this is the New Normal — if we must learn to live with it somehow — it’s been a long time coming, but its main characteristic seems to be the arbitrariness of violence. I was assaulted myself not long ago in broad daylight, and not to get into the details, but it came out of the blue, and my attacker was as white as myself: much taller and heavier and younger (and drunker). The assault was sudden, it was violent, but fortunately it left me with nothing but a bloody lip. I was discussing this the other day with a friend of mine at Cafe Katja. “And as a Christian, of course, I was forgiving and didn’t press charges,” I said; “As a Jew, I’d have pressed charges,” my friend said. And we both laughed, recognizing that both of us were right and wrong at the same time.

I’ve seen In Cold Blood and read about Sandy Hook, so I know that leaving New York (or any city) doesn’t get you out of the line of fire. Obviously, yesterday’s event leaves us all with more of a sense of dread than we had before, and it was already pretty significant. You can be as defiant and proud as you want, but if some workman accidentally drops a hammer on your head from twenty floors above you, that won’t help, and that’s just as arbitrary as a rented Home Depot truck coming at your back or getting into Stephen Paddock’s sights.

These incidents are becoming less rare than they used to be. I’m a pessimist, really, so I’m of the belief that “things” generally tend to get worse over time; optimists tell me that they’re not worse, only different. I think this is unnecessarily narrow-minded. Things can be both worse and different at the same time. Guys like Charles Whitman used to come along once every decade; now they come along every few months. The fabric of society may be unravelling, but I hope I never accommodate myself to the New Normal. Now that, my friends, would be giving in.

The Circus

Merna Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Bergman in The Circus.

Metrograph at 7 Ludlow Street on New York’s Lower East Side offers the rare opportunity to see Charlie Chaplin‘s 1928 The Circus on November 11 and 12 at 11.00am as part of its “Playtime” series. It’s a difficult film to find these days, but it holds an important place in the Chaplin canon, between the two masterpieces The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). I saw it for the first and only time about 35 years ago so my memories of The Circus are a little rusty; “The Little Tramp at the circus,” though, tells you just about all you need to know.

Chaplin biographer David Robinson writes that the film “contains some of [Chaplin’s] best comic inventions, subtly balanced with sentiment that is kept tightly in control,” though Chaplin disdained to write about it in his autobiography, the difficulties surrounding its production in mind, perhaps — not least his concurrent divorce from Lita Grey and a fire that nearly destroyed the Chaplin studio midway in its production. It was his final film of the silent era, though not his final silent film (that would be City Lights three years later), and some of its melancholy lay in its explicit farewell to the silent years of the art form in which Chaplin came to his maturity.

Robinson’s essay about the production of The Circus can be found here, and you can purchase tickets for the Metrograph showings of The Circus here. Also tentatively on the Metrograph schedule is the fine Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary The Unknown Chaplin, dates and times to be announced; more on that when it gets here.

Below a few notes I wrote on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Chaplin’s Tramp character, originally published here in 2014.

If he were alive today, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp would just have turned 100. He made his first public appearance in 1914’s Kid Auto Races at Venice, a year before the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation; Chaplin directed his last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, 53 years later, a year before the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It was, though, mere coincidence that I took a short break from heavier reading to enjoy Chaplin’s My Autobiography recently,  originally published in 1964 and republished a few years ago in an elegant new edition by Melville House’s Neversink Library. For a comedian, Chaplin enjoyed a stunning measure of fame in his time, and after an affecting evocation of a childhood experienced in poverty, much of the memoir consists of namedropping — stories of when he met Winston Churchill, Kruschchev, and Gandhi; his talks about music with Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler; about philosophy with Sartre and H.G. Wells; about evenings spent with the likes of Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and Pablo Picasso. But through all this Chaplin maintains in the book a balance between pride and humility, and his tone — born, like the world of his films, in late Victorian and early Edwardian London — while somewhat archaic remains charming for all that. (There’s not much about the films, surprisingly enough, but for that there’s David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin: His Life and Art, highly recommended.)

The audience for entertainment is far too fragmented any more for the likes of a Little Tramp to attract the kind of popularity and fame that he did — Chaplin’s mime-plays appealed to a universal audience, regardless of the language; he had a gift for marrying crude physical humor to a just-short-of-lugubrious sentimentality; and movie houses have shrunk and become far less common than they were in the 1920s and 1930s. What may be most remarkable, though, is that the films still hold up — nearly all of them, really, from the Keystone comedies up through A King in New York.

A Blackhawk Films catalog from 1973 (I ordered “The Adventurer,” featured at center; click to enlarge.)

I was first exposed to Chaplin as a teenager. As a kid I enjoyed collecting and screening old silent movies for myself thanks to the likes of companies like Blackhawk Films, and in my collection were Super 8mm reduction prints of Easy Street and The Adventurer; Chaplin re-released some of his United Artists films like Modern Times in the mid-1970s, when I saw them in the theatre; and at college I was lucky enough to take a class in Chaplin’s work, in which we saw almost everything from The Kid through Limelight in pristine 16mm reduction prints. Though this class also screened a lot of Buster Keaton’s films, on the Chaplin/Keaton divide (as fraught with peril as arguing the Rolling Stones/Beatles divide) I fell on the side of the Tramp. The monumental realism of Keaton’s The General was a little too monumental for me to appreciate Keaton’s humor, and the Tramp character (as well as Chaplin’s performances in The Great Dictator, the remarkable and controversial Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight) was far more complex than Keaton’s stone face, however Keaton might appeal to a more rarefied audience than myself.

The Criterion Collection is in the midst of restoring and releasing Chaplin’s work from 1916 on [NB: Since this was written, Flicker Alley has released Chaplin’s work from the pre-1916 Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual years], so I treated myself a few weeks ago to watching The Gold Rush again — the first time, I think, in 30 years, and I was rather astonished to find just how much the film, among Chaplin’s best silents and maybe my own sentimental favorite, held up. Set during the Klondike gold rush and based in part on the tragedy of the Donner Party, The Gold Rush takes place within a harsh, bitterly cold landscape in which elemental food, warmth, and shelter become matters of life and death for the prospecting Little Tramp. There’s an onscreen murder or two; one character falls to his death in an avalanche; the Tramp finds himself a toy in the hands of a sexy dance hall girl; and disaster is always around the corner. But what is delightful, what is buoyant, in the film is the sense of melancholy hope and grace that the Tramp carries around with him. It emerges in unexpected ways: in the famous Dance of the Rolls, a long take shot in closeup which is a wonder of pantomime comedy; in the Tramp’s delicacy in eating his own shoe, and his proper etiquette in the midst of suffering in offering the same to a friend of his; in the delight he takes in setting up a New Year’s Eve party for a few of his friends (who don’t, in the end, show up). There emerges from all this a sense of wonder; only those with a heart of ice wouldn’t be affected by it.

Now that I have two daughters of my own, five and four years old, I wonder if such a film — black-and-white, silent, more subtle than the Spongebob Squarepants and Lego Ninjago cartoons they’re enjoying now — would offer anything to them. But recently I had the occasion to get my hopes up. Last month in The Huffington Post, Guillermo Rodríguez offered “The Day Charlie Chaplin Won Over Disney Channel,” in which he describes his own young children’s reaction to their first exposure to Chaplin’s films:

I turned off the show they were watching and put on Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. As I recall, that evening I had been listening to a radio show celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of Chaplin, without any doubt one of film history’s great geniuses.

I must admit that when the movie started, I was convinced that my experiment was going to end up shipwrecked in a sea of mistakes. The movie was in black and white, silent, starring a mustachioed man in a bowling [sic — obviously, a bowler] hat. It did not exactly feature the stuff that based on what I’ve seen, seem to interest kids these days.

Despite that, I triumphed. Few times have I seen my kids laugh so hard as that night. They asked me to replay the scene in which the kid flees from the police running as fast as he can at least five times.

And, with tears in their eyes, they turned away when the same kid was separated forcefully from his vagabond father. During the 52 minutes that the movie lasts, I explained everything that they didn’t understand, jumped ahead a few scenes to pique their interest (“Just wait and see what happens next!”), and overacted, laughing in big guffaws at scenes that I already knew by heart.

Five days later, they’d seen The Kid many more times.

This gives me hope — perhaps a Chaplinesque hope, doomed to disappointment, but hope nonetheless. My daughters are still a bit young, but I think before a few more years go by, I’ll watch The Gold Rush once more, with Goldie and Billie by my side.

So Happy 100th Birthday, Little Tramp, and many more.

NOTE: More about Chaplin in Simon Callow’s May 8, 2014, Guardian review of Peter Ayckroyd’s new biography of the comedian.