Thursday, March 12, 2020

Iconosphere: The Ekphrastic Works of Walter Benjamin

The False Mirror, by Rene Magritte, 1929.
“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .”  – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or even experience. The word comes from the Greek words for “out” and “speak” respectively, and the verb "to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name." According to the Poetry Foundation "an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art." More generally, an ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art.
From the cave wall to the computer screen in the blink of an eye: that’s how swiftly the evolution our deeply ingrained appetite for images sometimes feels. The ekphrastic response to images is equally diverse and sweeping, and it includes work that is not customarily considered to be “poetry” in the common sense of the term but is definitely and defiantly poetic in scope, scale, subject and theme. As a profound craving, it is, in fact, one of the principal features that distinguishes us from all the other life forms around us: the urge to depict images and to watch them. We do seem to need reflected pictures of what we look like, of how we feel, and of what it all might mean. That blink of an eye was approximately 30,000 years long, a lengthy blink indeed, but in the subtle concept of an Iconosphere, the realm, domain, and even the kingdom of images can be examined and interpreted as both overlapping physical locations and also an emotional geography. One that continues expanding in a recursive and endless feedback loop daily.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: Too Late for Satire

Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano & Michael Zegen in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice came out toward the end of my freshman year in college. I had never encountered anything quite like it, and I couldn’t get enough of it – I saw it three times on its initial release. It was a comedy of manners set among Los Angeles’s hip and wealthy, a nouveau aristocracy just a little too old (i.e., in their thirties) and certainly too bourgeois to be the love children they fashioned themselves after but happily infected by the entrancing new ideas in the sun-baked SoCal air – smoking weed, experimenting with open marriage, challenging themselves to try to be completely honest. It was an up-to-the-minute satire yet it laughed at its characters with tenderness rather than disapproval. And the final moments, after the four title characters try to go to bed together and discover the limitations of their sexual freedom, were oddly touching: dressed up once again for a Tony Bennett concert, they walk among strangers who are their peers, looking them in the eyes, still devoted to putting the sixties ethic to the test. Mazursky (who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Tucker) was the most gifted purveyor of high comedy in American movies after Ernst Lubitsch, and he went on to make even better pictures over the next two decades. But Bob & Carol has a special quality – even now, I think, when it’s unmistakably a memento of a long-ago era.