Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Double Feature: A Century of War

In a special year-end publication, the French newspaper Le Monde calls the hundred years just ending, 1914-2014, “Un Siecle de Guerre,” a century of war.  The editors divide it into four periods of conflict – World War One, World War Two, the Cold War and Decolonization, 1945-1991, and Separatism and Terrorism, 1991-2014.  These hundred years have been, and will be, the subject of myriad histories.

But a great work of art is worth a hundred history books.  In my opinion, if you want to understand the last century, skip the political and military potboilers, and see just two great movies:  Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion,” from 1935, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers,” from 1966.  "Grand Illusion” ushers in the collapse of European civilization from 1914 to 1945.   “The Battle of Algiers” is all you need to know about the clash of civilizations that has roiled the world ever since. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Road to Dotage 3: My Back Pages

                                   “I got no future, baby, I know my years are few.
                                    The present’s not that pleasant; just a lot of things to do..” 
                                                                                    L. Cohen  

Every summer you learn something about yourself.  It’s the time of year when structure breaks down, when you drift off to different places, some boring, some exciting; you do new things, you do the same old things, but sometimes they come out different.   This summer I learned that I can no longer dance every day and night.  

I’ve been going to dance camp with the Country Dance and Song Society nearly every summer since 1976.  The first year it was American Week at Pinewoods Camp in Massachusetts.  We did Appalachian clogging, contras and squares, plus I took a fiddle workshop and sang early American hymns.  This took place in the woods and went on all day and half the night.  It was the total opposite of my life in the city, working in a tense newsroom, visiting my children on weekends in a broken home.   

I got so high at Pinewoods – on nothing but dance, music, women partners, a black pond and country air – that I could hardly sleep.  I would stand outside my cabin in the dead of night and vibrate in the wind, shaking with a continual attack of energy, howling silently through the trees. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mandela's Moment

-- By Tom Phillips

In 1990, when the South African government released Nelson Mandela from prison, the whole country was eager to see the man who had led the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement from behind bars for nearly 28 years.  But no one knew what he looked like.  Black South Africans wore T-shirts with a picture of Mandela when he was a young boxing champion, with a full face and cannonball shoulders.  

When he finally appeared a few days later at a packed soccer stadium in Soweto, he was a slim, white-haired man in a suit and tie, moving calmly through the crowds, with the bearing and manner of a king.  I was there with CBS News, and this is what I saw.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Enemy Within

-- By Tom Phillips

Republican  Congressman Peter King, former chairman of the Homeland Security committee, says it came as a complete surprise when a 29-year-old intelligence analyst went public with the news that the National Security Agency is collecting the phone records of millions of Americans.   How could this happen? King wondered.  Were there warning signs?  Were there issues in his background?   

Others were not so surprised.  With a criminal investigation underway against NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, and a court-martial in progress against 25-year-old army private Bradley Manning, who released a huge archive of military secrets to Wikileaks, it has become clear that the greatest threat to America’s security is not al Qaeda, or Iran, or any foreigners.  It is Americans under thirty.  You just can’t trust them. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The King of Expletives

-- By Tom Phillips

The following post was originally published in my retirement blog, "The Road to Dotage."  Here it is in edited form, with a new (snappy) title, and a new (happy) ending, in a last-ditch attempt to reach a younger (hipper?) audience.  

When I was a little boy, my mother told me about a sacred syllable with mysterious psychic powers.  Om” or “Aum” was said to be the sound of all sounds, rolling up from the deepest recesses of the throat, echoing through the cave of the mouth, then closing with a meditative hum as the lips closed, sealing in its secret wisdom.   

In my twenties and thirties, at the Integral Yoga Institute on 13th Street, I chanted “Om” assiduously.  The instructors said chanting it could produce a state of perfect peace, and it seemed to work, at least within the confines of the yoga institute.  However, the effect faded as soon as you hit the street.  I tried walking on 42nd Street, the busiest, noisiest, most colorful and seductive street of all, looking neither right nor left, inwardly chanting “Om.  It could be done, but it felt stupid.  This was a way of willfully devaluing the hubbub around me, and clinging to my calm center, but it didn’t really block anything out, just placed me at a psychological distance from my surroundings.  It was the aural equivalent of navel-gazing.   

As a Zen student in my thirties and forties, I chanted Buddhist sutras and prayers in a circular, repetitive form.  These greatly calmed the mind, and invoked powers of compassion and insight, and determination to drive on toward enlightenment.  But given the great complexity and subtlety of Buddhist philosophy, there could be no one syllable that said it all.  (We did meditate for a time on “MU,” but this was more a device to sweep our mind clear of anxious thoughts, rather than a clue to the puzzle.)  

As a harried worker and anxious father in my forties and fifties, I copied Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!”  This provided temporary relief when frustrated or exasperated.  It was like an explosion, a blowing off of the whole impossible situation.  It amused my co-workers, but had little or no spiritual value.   

During these years I was not consciously looking for a one-syllable answer to life’s problems.  But something in me was still scanning the vast universe of sounds and letters, like a beachcomber waving his metal wand over the innumerable sands, searching for a gold ring.  And one day, reader, I found it. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cowardly Wars

-- By Tom Phillips

The Boston bombings may turn out to be not so mysterious.  Following days of speculation about international plots and connections, U-S officials who interviewed the surviving suspect say he was a "self-radicalized" young Muslim who apparently killed innocent people on his own, because he was angered by the U-S wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

This kind of terrorist attack is routinely denounced as “cowardly” by U-S presidents.   (Even the 9/11 suicide bombers were called cowards by President Bush.)  It is cowardly to drop off a bomb in a backpack and walk away from the scene.  The brothers probably thought they could just slip away and go home, as terrorist bombers used to do in London and Paris.   21st-century surveillance and security has made terrorism much more problematic, and that’s a good thing.   

But the U-S is in no position to denounce cowardly warfare, because we are its leading practitioners.   At undisclosed locations in America, undercover CIA agents sit at consoles and guide drones to targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, wherever the agency decides someone might have the means and intention to attack the U-S.  The explosions naturally kill and maim whoever is in the vicinity, women and children, innocent bystanders.   The agent who carries out the attack slips away at the end of the day, home to the family in the suburbs, undetectable, not in harm’s way.    

This is the most worrisome thing about the CIA’s taking over offensive operations from the military in the “war on terror.”   In the military, soldiers sign up to risk their lives, facing an enemy in battle.  Military commanders are often slow to take the offensive, because they know that to attack means to  invite retaliation.  “The enemy has a vote, too,” is a piece of humble wisdom that everyone who’s been in a war zone knows and keeps in mind.   

The CIA has a different mentality.  Spies operate in darkness and disguise, covertly.  They prefer to kill from a distance and slip away.   But the enemy still has a vote.   If they can’t kill the perpetrators, they can kill innocents, like those in Boston.  

President Obama has made repairing U-S relations with the Muslim world a foreign policy priority.  At the same time he has undermined his efforts by launching a cowardly drone war that has inflamed Muslim public opinion.   Congressmen are now arguing over how best to “prevent the next attack.”  How about thinking more before we launch our next provocation?   

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips





Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Is Art?

"Boy with a Knapsack"
Kazemir Malevich  1915
Readers of this blog may have noticed the line above – “All legitimate art is protest .. a demand for a more human world.”   I wrote that in October 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protest, describing the occupation of Zuccotti Park as “a continuous work of art.”  It was my closing line and while it sounds like a theory, it was just an emotional outburst.  I kept it because I liked it, it had a ring to it.  Now, is it true?  

No one has complained about my slogan, or even questioned it.   But as a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I felt all along that I should either defend it, or take it down.  After more than a year of rumination and several recent “aha” moments, I have decided it’s my final answer.  I’m sticking with it.   

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Post-Traumatic Art 2: Gutai at the Guggenheim

-- By Tom Phillips

Post-World War Two Japanese art was on display recently at the Museum of Modern Art, and the show “Tokyo Avant-Garde 1955-1970” was harrowing to contemplate.   Nearly every piece was shadowed by the mushroom clouds that ended the war, and images of atrocities, monstrosities, decapitation, torture, destruction, helplessness and sudden death were everywhere.   Reviewing it I wrote “Japan is sick to this day from the effects of the bomb, and Japanese art reflects it.” 
But that’s not all that post-war Japanese art reflects.  Hundreds of miles from Tokyo, in a small village near Osaka, another school of art was springing up, a polar opposite to the themes of victimization and despair.   The Gutai movement was another response to ruin – a search for goodness, wholeness and even joy in the rubble.  The artists of this avant-garde collective found it in the “new life of matter” – or “the scream of matter” in the words of Gutai founder Yoshihara Jiro -- and also in the creative freedom of the artist, and in the freedom of people’s experience of art.    

Electric Dress (1956) by Atsuko Tanaka
By happy coincidence, the Tokyo Avant-Garde show at MOMA is followed up by a full-scale exhibit of Gutai works at the Guggenheim Museum.   “Gutai: Splendid Playground” fills Frank Lloyd Wright's uniquely playful space with playful, rebellious works of raw energy.   There isn’t a self-pitying note in the entire show.  Even 40 years after the Gutai movement dissolved in 1972, their work is daring and refreshing.   
Gutai means “concreteness,”   the thing itself rather than representation.   Jiro’s 1956 Gutai manifesto condemns the art of the past as nothing but hoaxes  – paint, cloth, clay and stone tricked out to look like something they are not.   Gutai art, he wrote, would not change the material but bring it to life.  “If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.”   

Monday, February 25, 2013

How "Lincoln" -- and Obama -- Lost the Oscar

-- By Tom Phillips

OK, why was Michelle Obama handing out the Oscar for Best Picture from the White House?    It’s a question that gnawed at my subconscious mind for hours after the broadcast ended Sunday night, until the answer -- or at least a likely scenario – flashed on me the next day.  

The first lady’s appearance was unusual, and a total surprise.   But this kind of cameo – involving the White House, a TV network, and a closely guarded envelope --had to be planned weeks or months in advance.  The plans were hatched back when there was no question about who would win Best Picture – when everyone thought “Lincoln” was going to sweep the Oscars.   

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Humanoid Condition

"I, Worker"   Seinendan Theater Company
By Tom Phillips

Ever since the fictional Doctor Frankenstein created his monster, people have been worrying about what may happen to them at the hands of their own human-like creations.   Usually those worries have been about robots seizing power with their superior strength and intelligence.  But now, in the work of Japanese playwright +Oriza Hirata, we see humans simply ceding power to artificial beings that are not just stronger and more intelligent, but more emotionally sensitive and stable than their human masters.   That’s the theme of two unsettling short plays, written and directed by Oriza, performed by a cast of humans, robots and an android at Japan Society February 7-9.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Vote Against "Lincoln"

-- by Tom Phillips

As a member of the Writers Guild of America, I get to cast a vote for the year’s best screenplays.  The WGA Awards – announced in mid-February -- are considered predictors of who will take the Oscars for best screenplay and best picture, so the Hollywood studios compete aggressively for writers’ votes.  This year the most campaigning by far has been for “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner.  Writers have been inundated with DVDs, invitations to screenings, and promotional material for the movie.  But as Spielberg’s Honest Abe might put it, I ain’t voting for “Lincoln.”  Why?  Turn the page. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Anarchy and Ash: Contemporary Dance from Asia

HAIGUFURU -- Ash is Falling
-- By Tom Phillips

After a one-year hiatus, Japan Society’s Contemporary Dance Showcase has returned, with a new look and a new theme.   When I first saw this showcase in 2005, dancers and choreographers were wrestling with issues like sexism, conformity, and office politics in Japan’s sclerotic traditional culture.  That seems like small potatoes now.  In the 2013 edition, we see artists surrounded by overwhelming forces, both natural and technological.  The 21st century has heaved into full view, and life as we know it is under siege.  What is to be done?  

Friday, January 4, 2013

Post-Traumatic Art

Tokyo Protest 1968  photo by Tomatsu Shomei
-- By Tom Phillips

Of all the horrors of the 20th century, the most traumatic must be the atomic bombing of Japan.  The Holocaust in Europe was more destructive in terms of lives, and more evil in its intentions.   But the atomic bombs were more psychologically searing and disfiguring.  The Nazi extermination campaign took place over years, and some of its victims were able to mount a human response in the face of death, responses that endured as the Nazi dream died.   But Hiroshima took place in an instant, and that instant has never died.  The white flash that vaporized the center of the city came with no warning, no precedent, no context for those on the ground.  And it was followed, not by redemption or revenge, but by unconditional surrender, occupation, and a slavish identification with the American conquerors.  Harry Truman famously said he never lost any sleep over Hiroshima, and Americans to this day tend to see it as a necessary evil that put an end to a terrible war.  But Japan is sick to this day from the effects of the bomb, and Japanese art reflects it.  Americans who care to contemplate those effects can see them in a harrowing show of post-war Japanese art now at the Museum of Modern Art.