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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. 


Do I exaggerate?  I don’t think so.  I knew we were in trouble back in the 1980s, in the heady Reagan years, when I first heard the phrase “maximizing profits.”  At the time I was working for CBS, and I recall the report of a conversation between our CEO, Laurence Tisch, and Ted Turner, the inventor and boss of CNN.  Turner boasted that he didn’t even pay a third of his workers – that bright young people would work as interns for nothing, simply in the hope that they would win favor and someday be rewarded with gainful employment.  Tisch licked his chops, and it wasn’t long before CBS began expanding its unpaid labor force.  At around the same time, CBS’s “60 Minutes” ran an expose of prison labor in China.  A hidden camera caught a Chinese official telling Americans that China could produce cheap goods by turning prisons into factories, with inmates as unpaid workers.  Shocking!  And inspiring.  Today a journalism graduate in America can spend ten years working for free – reporting and even editing – and wind up with nothing, just failure.  

Peterson’s “Failure” ends with a marathon to nowhere.  Four dancers exhaust themselves, hauling their bodies through a repetitive series of steps, breathless, flagging, failing, losing their technique, style, stage presence, and finally their will to dance.  An ugly scene.  One offended spectator called it an “assault on the audience.”  But like “The Virgin Spring” it ends with a redeeming tableau, even an apotheosis: four dancers, each a "failure," mount a platform and stand, with dignity, close together under the stained-glass upper window of Judson Memorial Church.

Like Bergman, Peterson sacrifices aesthetic pleasure for an ethical purpose—a portrayal of human degradation.  The assault on the audience represents the rape of the American people.  What form of vengeance will come is yet unknown.  But just as history did not end with the triumph of “Freedom” in the late 20thcentury, neither will it end here in the carnage.

n   Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips