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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reflections on "Failure"

-- By Tom Phillips


The Virgin Spring
In 1960, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s film ”The Virgin Spring” shocked and outraged audiences  in Europe and America.  The film dramatizes a medieval Swedish ballad of rape, murder, and revenge – all shown with brutal realism.  It ends with a scene of penitence and prayer, as a spring bursts forth from the shallow grave of the young victim.  

The rape scene was censored in the US, and I saw the film in a truncated form in 1960.  Still, it took 57 years until I dared to look again.  “The Virgin Spring” is 89 minutes of continuous  tension, dread, shock, and only at the end, redemption. 

Bergman, wounded by the violation of his work, put out a brief letter defending its frankness.  He said the rape scene had an ethical significance.  “It shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of guilt and grace…  We must not hesitate in our portrayal of human degradation, even if, in our demand for truth, we must violate certain taboos.”

Ethics trumps Aesthetics. 

In 2017, Laura Peterson will not be censored for her new version of “Failure.”  But in its way, it is just as shocking a violation of our usual aesthetic standards.  Refashioned in the wake of the 2016 election, “Failure” is a picture of just the “American carnage” that our new leader claimed would end with his inauguration.  In her program note, the choreographer calls it “a protest against the elevation of materialism and thoughtless accumulation of wealth at any cost.”

It does this by showing the cost – i.e.  the degradation of American lives, one by one, into the slavish pursuit of an illusion.  A great chasm has opened between the rich and the rest of us in America, and for the vast majority, there is no way to bridge it.  Working three jobs will not do it for the single mother.  Teaching ten courses will not do it for the PhD adjunct professor.  For-profit colleges with E-Z loan terms will not do it for the hopeful student.  Unpaid internships will not do it for the would-be young professional.  The reality for most is a new form of slavery.