Pull Down and Pull Toward You
It was a good trip to Hot Springs. I saw four films, the latest paintings from Warren Criswell, and watched the freaks. Going down there is always like entering some sort of redneck time warp. I saw a grizzled guy wearing a Damn Yankees tee shirt, more Chuck Norris look-alikes on Harleys than I could name, and actually heard a car stereo or two. I remember my first impressions of Arkansas were based on the busy main-drag of Hot Springs. It was silent. No sound from car stereos, no music coming from the bars, no spill-over muzak, nothing— just the occasional horn or siren. No loud voices, no arguments, no struggles— just strollers, by the hundreds. It was more like a wake than a party.
The look this time was different. Film festivals draw a different crowd. Lots of people wearing square black-framed glasses. Lots of queer-as-folk. Lots of professorial types, and lots of people who seemed to be too-hip for their own good. And then there were the citizens, smiling friendly helping the tourists find their way around. I arrived just in time to rush into the theater to see Photos to Send.
It was a good film. There was a sense of discovery to it, as if the filmmaker allowed the chance happenings of the story itself play a role in the result. The theater was full when I got there, but I negotiated the balcony (which is a lawsuit waiting to happen) to find overflow seating at the front edge. I’ve never looked down on a film before. It was in progress, and I walked in to footage of a man riding a bicycle on country roads. You could hear the filmmaker say “I can’t believe it’s him!” repeatedly. A moment later, the original Lange photograph came on the screen. Yes, it was the same man on his bicycle that Lange had photographed. I got caught up in it, feeling much the same thing.
The director located and interviewed survivors, and relatives of survivors that Lange had photographed and juxtaposed it with quotes and pages from Lange’s journals. There were a few audio voice-overs taken from a 1964 interview with Lange regarding the project, and interviews with her son. The looks of the people as they saw for the first time photographs of their parents, and relatives that had passed on for the first time were priceless. What a great project. The faces of those people, looking at the photographs, reminded me of what I used to do. No amount of theory can strip away the power of the document to provide a window on the past. Photographs may be lies, but in a larger sense, so is life— and there are some lies we are compelled to embrace, to make it bearable. One of the fragments from Lange’s notebooks hit me hard:
Never straight-on. Always from the curves.
For years I struggled with the dead-on perspectives of Walker Evans and others. It was when I started to come at it from the curves that I really started to grow. There will always be artifice. The evidence of Stryker’s influence was all over some of the notebook passages, notes for things to research, like “Why no trees?” Ireland has changed since Lange was there, but as the filmmaker noted in the end— it was the things that had remained the same that were the most striking, not the differences. To see relatives sitting against the same backdrop as their parents, to see the continuity of life, seems to be one of those “lies” of photography that seems absolutely essential to living. As one of the descendents said regarding his farm, passed down for six generations— you get the feeling that you aren’t alone. Someone had been there before you. Somehow, that seems to be more important than the disruption and changes of time.
The second film I saw was David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. It was outstanding, also. Several bits of information stand out, including Joshua Reynold’s portable camera obscura which folded up to be disguised as a book. I really liked the assertion that “intellectual property” was a part of life long before the juridical apparatus was there to support it. The technology used by the painters in the Middle Ages has been lost to mystery, however, because of this drive to protect it. However, as Hockney’s tee shirt proclaimed— optics don’t make marks. The idea that these painters used technology does not undercut their ability as artists. However, I’m not so sure about his proclamation that technology now will allow us to free ourselves from single-point perspective. Single point perspective is one of those comforting lies that I don’t see disappearing any time soon. However, the assertion that we are “in the world” rather than standing outside it looking in (the lie) is certainly food for thought as well. I remember seeing Hockney’s photo-collages on the beach in Venice, California in the mid-eighties. There was a sense of completion for me, in seeing this film. From the birth of an idea, to its fruition. Watching Hockney adjust the camera obscura, to sketch things at different points of focus reminded me of some similar experiments I was doing in the darkroom about that time too, trying to find new ways to see.
I wandered off after that to look at Warren’s latest at Taylor’s Contemporanea . Warren seems to be a bit time obsessed lately. There’s a little digital clock that keeps showing up in his paintings, always just after midnight. His sense of humor hasn’t dulled a bit though, Six Cent Still Life stood out to me, as did Books and Toilet Paper. Though the real connection is just a feeling that runs constantly through his work of flight. The web versions just don’t do the paintings justice— my favorite by far was Flash Flood. I walked the length of the strip, ordered a cappucino that came out of the same Krups machine I use at home, and went back to see the films we were supposed to see for the class.
Watching Daddy and Papa brought out memories of a different sort. The moment they flashed Anita Bryant on the screen, I started to get ill. Why can’t we just give Florida back to Spain? It might solve many of the country’s problems, though we would lose many fine beaches. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that there is so much noise over gay adoption. It is so hard to find people who really want to be parents. Are group homes, filled with neglect really better “moral” environments for children? What a sham, and a disgrace. If people want to be parents, regardless of their sexual preference, I don’t see what the big deal is. Given the urge of children to rebel against their parents, it seems to me that if anything, it would increase the straight population.
The last film we watched was a real hoot. Georgie Girl is the story of the first transgendered MP in New Zealand. It seems to me that survival in such a difficult life role would be a guarantee of great political skill. The vintage footage of sex-clubs in New Zealand alone was worth the paltry price of admission. What was most interesting to me was a TV interview where the interviewer was just certain that there must have been a huge change in attitude once she had her genitals snipped. As if the root of identity was in a person’s genitals, and any change there must have had a profound effect. We went out for drinks afterward, and I’m sure I talked too much. It was a good day though. It’s just such a weird setting to see these films in. Hot Springs wants to be San Francisco (a few days of the year, anyway), but they really don’t have a clue. San Francisco is loud; open communities don’t come from silence and deserted shop-fronts.
In the bathroom of the restaurant where I ate dinner there was a towel dispenser that reminded me of an old album from the San Francisco band Hot Tuna: First Pull Up— Then Pull Down. It was named after the instructions on toilet seat protectors. The towel dispenser seemed more to the point: “Pull Down and Pull Toward You.” I like that advice better.