Monday, February 04, 2013

Trumpets On Submarines, And Impressionism

1. An Introduction

“How deeply into the popular imagination can one delve?”

Over the weekend I re-read some essays in one of my favorite books about the French Impressionists. It’s a book with a particular point-of-view, and all the contributors are so knowledgeable in presenting the point-of-view that almost every time I read through the book I am struck by one or another thought-provoking point that I may have read before but I hadn’t stopped to dwell on because some other interesting point, then, was occupying my thinking.

My intention in re-reading the book over the weekend was to spend some time thinking about this woman:

That woman is Charlotte Berthier and she was the “companion” of painter Gustave Caillebotte. I posted one of his paintings before in Industrial Landscape, Industrial Decay, Jazz.

That painting above of the young woman with roses was created in the garden of an estate Caillebotte owned and, when he died, he left the estate to her. Thanks to the wonderful affection art lovers have for Impressionism, we also know—“we” being history in general in this case—we also know that Renoir was close friends with Caillebotte and Renoir also painted a portrait of Charlotte. In someone’s journal there is probably a record of the name of her little dog, but I haven’t come across it. Yet.

I love stuff like that, the way an artist’s affection for someone becomes a part of history.

It isn’t just the images that survive, then, or the memories of the people. It seems to me that what survives in something like this is affection itself. The friendship, the love, the reality of the world around the artist and the people in the artist’s life survives. And we, all of history, can share it.

My intention in re-reading the book was to spend time thinking about this wonderful business of the artist and the muse and the art that gets created by such pairings. I love stuff like that and I’ve posted about it often, for instance in A Name, A Face, An Interesting Construction. And in the science world, too, in Beautiful Shadows Of History. (And, just for completeness, I’ve posted about women and their tiny dogs, too, in My Autographed Photograph Of Virginia Wade—2.)

But my thinking got hijacked—so to speak—by a trivial reference about something completely different and unrelated.

In one paragraph of an essay, one of the writers mentions a movie. The mention is just in-passing and the writer doesn’t make a large point about the movie, rather just a small point about one scene in the movie. But the little reference totally derailed my thinking about artists and muses and the way affection can survive.

Now normally I am a movie buff. I love cinema and I’m almost always interested in references to films. But the thing here is, the movie reference was about a movie I don’t like very much, and this particular movie itself is an example of Hollywood being Hollywood, a world entirely to itself. And what survives when Hollywood makes a movie—a movie like this—is such a jumbled-up concoction of unreality that it was very disconcerting to see a reference to it in a book about Impressionism, which is built in large part on beautiful images of reality.

I’m going to get to the quote itself in a second. And I will also get to the submarines and trumpets business, too. But now that I’ve got this introduction done, I want to really start with something almost-but-not-really completely different.

2. A Simple Melody From A Dream

Saturday or Sunday I woke up from a nice dream and I remembered almost nothing about the dream except that it was pleasant in some bizarre way—it involved China and boats and I don’t remember any details at all. But when I woke up I very clearly remembered music from the dream. I didn’t remember what the music was but in that weird way we remember dreams I remembered that I’d heard many different variations of a particular little melody in the dream.

And I thought if I don’t record the melody I will forget it completely as soon as I shower or have breakfast because that’s the way dreams work. No matter how intense a memory is when we first wake up, it just vanishes completely, usually, if we don’t have a dream journal of some kind.

Anyway, so I grabbed my guitar from next to my bed and played the melody and it was very simple. But, still, simple or not, it’s the kind of thing that just completely disappears from memory. So I switched on my keyboard workstation. I can record, of course, my guitar, but my keyboard can record a melody as a MIDI file and instantly display it as traditional music notation along with saving it as an audio record. So I recorded the melody. This:

Sure enough, just a few hours later I had no memory at all of the dream or the melody.

But now when I play back that MIDI file—or even look at the music notation—I remember the melody well, and I even remember that the dream was a pleasant and bizarre dream, even if I don’t remember the details.

3. Paintings On Trains

I really will get to trumpets on submarines. But the quote I talked about at the start of this post contained a reference to an old Burt Lancaster movie called, “The Train,” from 1964. The movie was, as Hollywood says, “based on a true story,” but because Burt Lancaster—then a big star—wanted the film to be an action thriller and keep his stardom alive, he arranged for the film’s first director to be fired and the script to be re-written, and the end result is still kind of an interesting movie but it is some distance away from “a true story” even by Hollywood standards.

First, here is the quote which mentions the movie:

How deeply into the popular imagination can one delve? There is obviously a great difference between knowing who Durand-Ruel’s clients for Impressionist paintings were and explaining Impressionism’s popularity among the general populace. After all, the smile of recognition on the smoke-smudged face of the locomotive engineer when he hears Renoir’s name in The Train (1964), John Frankenheimer’s film about the evacuation of art from Paris during the Second World War, is not inspired by love the for the painter; it is caused by the fact that the engineer had once dated one of Renoir’s models. Frankenheimer’s clever use of this recollection is, of course, based on the assumption that the viewer will not only share in the knowledge that Renoir was a painter, but that he was a painter of a specific type of full-bodied woman. Viewers’ appreciation of this vignette reveals an uninterrupted awareness of Impressionist artists, and even of their subjects, from the 1940s, the period in which the film is set, until today.

Scott Schaefer
“Impressionism and the Popular Imagination”

That reference just makes me sigh.

It's from an essay in this really good book, “A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape.

Toward the end of World War Two, German officials really did try to smuggle out art from France. And the French really did prevent the theft of one particular trainload of art. But there wasn’t any action and the Germans didn’t massacre—in this event—helpless hostages. Rather the French somehow created a bunch of paperwork hassles and the Germans were such sticklers for procedure that the train never got out of France before the Allies liberated Paris.

So the particular events of the movie are entirely fictitious.

And the invented fictions weren’t invented to have anything to do with art, or history, or reality in any way, but rather the fictions were invented entirely to give Burt Lancaster a bunch of grunting action scenes where he could be what the early 1960s mass-market movie business regarded as a “hero.”

So the good guys in the movie didn’t like art so much, they just liked full-figured women and hated Germans.

It was the bad guys in the movie who loved art and felt an engagement with the beauty of Impressionism and acted on their affections by trying to make the art a part of their world. And these bad guys who felt an engagement with art and beauty were presented as horrible murderers, killing innocent people without a second thought.

It is at best a very strange association—the beautiful art of the Impressionists with the brutalities of war. And it is an even more bizarre association to attach an engagement with art to the bad guys rather than the good guys.

And as if the strange and bizarre weren’t strange and bizarre enough, the strange and bizarre bits were the invented fictions. The filmmakers—for some reasons of their own—decided to present reality that way. They re-worked early scripts and actively invented the strange and bizarre elements of the film.

I’m a movie buff. I love cinema. But this kind of thing—Hollywood re-working actual reality to generate Hollywood reality—makes me something almost like angry.

The Impressionists tried very hard as painters to capture some little instances of the actual reality around them. Moments. But real moments. Something like actual reality.

Hollywood—as a business, not cinema as a medium—Hollywood builds its business around creating strange, bizarre, almost insane conglomerations of the unreal. And beyond simply being unreal, much of what Hollywood cranks out is just downright unthinkable.

But if we look around the world today the “simple” actual realities of the Impressionist painters are becoming completely lost in the past and the strange, bizarre Hollywood creations are becoming the entire environment.

Doesn’t seem like a good thing.

It doesn’t seem like a good thing, and I think my main point here is simply that if I were writing a book about Impressionism, a book presenting the point-of-view that Impressionist paintings are thoughtful and well-loved creations—I would not have made a reference to that particular Burt Lancaster movie.

4. Trumpets On Submarines

Hollywood—as a business, not cinema as a medium—Hollywood builds its business around creating strange, bizarre, almost insane conglomerations of the unreal. But if you see a film like “The Train” it is presented almost like a documentary. It looks and sounds something like real. It’s very easy to just watch it and overlook the strange and bizarre and even insane conglomerations of unreal bits that got cobbled together in a particular way to create the—forgive the word—impression of something real. It's unthinkable but only if a person takes a moment to try to think about it.

It seems very important to me to remember that Hollywood is Hollywood.

For instance: Suppose you are on a submarine. And suppose there are scientists and politicians and reporters on the submarine, too. And suppose you want to spend a moment with some friends and enjoy a bit of friendship.

Seems like something that might happen in real life, if you move in a world that has those elements in it—scientists, politicians, reporters and submarines. I mean, some people do.

So you want to spend a moment with friends and enjoy a bit of friendship. Maybe you’d sit and talk. Maybe, I suppose, you might strum quietly on an acoustic guitar. Maybe, I guess if you’re good friends you might neck a little behind closed doors.

But Hollywood is Hollywood. It’s strange and bizarre and something like insane.

When Hollywood presents some friends on a submarine full of scientists and politicians and reporters trying to share a moment of friendship, the Hollywood friends break out a trumpet and start doing the Charleston. Look:

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