Friday, January 16, 2009

Patrick McGoohan

There was nothing like "The Prisoner" on television in 1968. There is still very little that compares to it today--in its deliberate quirkiness, its refusal to follow the established formula of the 6o-minute teleplay. Imagine the staid audiences of 1968-trained on "Gunsmoke", "The Andy Griffith Show", "F Troop", even the "Man from U.N.C.L.E." and --tuning in to "The Prisoner". More than one viewer probably called their station to complain--or maybe called the TV repairman to get their "regular TV back on the screen".

I was 8 years old in 1968, left alone during summer Saturday evenings--and "The Prisoner" fascinated me. Man it was weird-soooweird. And creepy. What the hell was that big latex ball? Gave me nightmares-still does.
And that concept--falling asleep, waking up in your own apartment--but transported to an entirely different place--how cool was that? I remember looking out my bedroom window wondering if I really was where I thought I was.
'Good question.
McGoohan gave no quarter in that series, he never succumbed to the conventional demand for closure-revelling instead in the ambiguities raised by his premise, and engaging the philosophical complexities of the post WWII cold-war society we were creating. And if you shared his dark sense of humor-"the Prisoner" was funny -like a knife.And colorful--love those umbrellas. The 'ending" to the series is no ending at all--a maze within a puzzle within a riddle--it answers nothing and yet confirms our worst expectations. Did Six escape? Is there an escape?
It's the narrative possibilities that stay with me today. The questions the series raises-about individuality, about the social collective, mind control-media control; the symbols McGoohan utilized to engage difficult ideas in an entertaining way.
I'm not hopeful for the new series--"The Prisoner" was the result of one man's vision. And like any work of art, there's no recreating it--why bother? It's like trying to repaint Matisse.
So I imagine they should have a parade to celebrate Six in Portmerion. Bring out those rainbow umbrellas, march in unison throughout the square-chanting"SixSixSixSix".
Patrick McGoohan would've hated that. and that's as it should be.

Be seeing you.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ditko's World

Whew! I just finished Blake Bell's Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko--and not soon enough. Not for any fault of Blake Bell's-who has produced an attractive, detailed and insightful tome on Ditko's 50 -odd year professional career. Rather, I'm relieved to be free of Ditko's oppressive worldview, so thoroughly conveyed via Bell's comprehensive research and analysis.There are points-particularly late in the book-where I wanted to scream-- at Ditko's intransigence, obstinance, --his complicity in his own martyrdom.
The artist who emerges within this text is difficult, self-destructive and self-aggrandizing- with an apparent disdain for his audience, fans, and the early career creations for which he is justly revered. His sense of his own righteousness and the perceived failure of his readers, co-workers, collaborators--oh, just about anyone within striking distance-- to live up to his(and Ayn Rand's) moral code is suffocating, effectively ensuring the artist's isolation and long artistic decline-- and perhaps that's the point. Was there something in his make-up that made these circumstances an inevitability?
There is plenty of room for analysis of the personality within these pages, but alas, if Mr. Bell has entertained any ideas in this regard, the reader is not privy to them. Aside from the descriptions of Ditko's early life in Pennsylvania, there is scant biographical information presented here.While Bell has covered Diko's public and professional life in detail, charting creative differences, office interactions, editorial discussions and the like across every phase of the artist's career, the man outside of the office remains remote.

Has Ditko ever formed any romantic attachments? Has he been heartbroken? Cared for elderly parents? Does he have kids? What about relatives? Relations with his siblings, nieces, nephews? Does he like cats? dogs? Is there anyone who can speak well of the man? Has he ever been known for acts of kindness, of generosity--of any kind? What kind of deprivations has his isolation imposed on his life? What was it in his life that made him so susceptible to Rand's stark philosophy--and to super-heroes? Is there more to him than the bleak and unforgiving Rand-acolyte described in this book?

These are not questions asked out of prurient interest. They fulfill the basic requirements of biography-to help the reader understand the motivations and choices of an important artist. Even if Ditko's personal life has been uneventful---that observation would merit inclusion here.

That said--Bell has given us an interesting and detailed overview of the artist's professional life and his half-century career-all in a very attractive package. Bell reveals Ditko's early influences and examines Ditko's artistic development, pointing out both the highlights and the low points of Ditko's long career with a critical eye and leaving the reader with a good understanding of Ditko's continued importance and the reasons for his decline.
And Ditko's best work shines--those Warren pages alone are worth the price of admission--and examples from each phase of Ditko's career are represented here and given quality reproduction on big, big pages. Much of it is a joy to look at. Much of it is a reminder of lost potential. As one scans images of Shade or Stalker, Bell's descriptions of the many fruitless editorial discussions between Ditko and those who hoped to hire him late in his career become palpable; the frustrations real.

This is a book I will look at again and again, and refer to for insight into Ditko's work - that is for certain. But questions remain. Towards the end of the book Bell describes a striking scene in the artist's studio wherein Ditko stands over a cutting board apparently cutting up original artwork from the 1950's, valued in the thousands of dollars, rather than trust it to the vagaries of the open market or to exchange with a colleague.

Who does that? Who is this guy?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Btwn the Lns 2: questions and answers;Hopper and Rockwell

In interviews over the years Neal Adams has voiced his admiration for the work of Norman Rockwell, describing him as a consummate story-teller. On that score you get no argument from me-- or those zillions of other calendar/poster purchasing consumers. Rockwell's continued popularity resides in the clarity of his narrative, the familiarity of his characters and the innocent humor with which he presents depression-era America.

Every aspect of a Rockwell image contributes to the story he is telling--from the obvious details-- such as the facial expressions of his characters, their postures, the clothes they wear--to those that are more subtle;-- the time, the place, the details of the setting. In Rockwell's world- all of the elements are explicit--so that there is no mistaking where, when or what. This explicitness extends to the manner by which he handles his materials as well, reigning in any expressive capabilities of his brush and paint, lest they clutter the canvas and distract from the narrative.

The painter Edward Hopper also mines the terrain of that period-and while he is certainly admired, it would seem odd to say he was popular. He too tells a story, and depicts an America that is familiar --and while one could repeat many of the same words used above to describe Hopper's use of detail- the end result is something quite different. And that difference resides in Hopper's inclination to be circumspect, to imply rather than explain.

It would be a mistake to say that Hopper simply plays with ambiguity for its own sake. His images are filled with questions, questions that arise not only because of his discreetness but also because of his interest in the ineffable, his deep feeling for light--and time. He uses paint to encapsulate the mystery of light upon a door , not to paint the door.

Rockwell's narratives-as pleasing and comforting as they are--conform to well-known archetypes, to an idea of a mythic America that is well-known. Every thing he depicts is complete, defined-- according to the needs of his narrative -and his audiences'expectations. He uses paint to satisfy expectation-- to define his objects, settings and people so well that questions are resolved apriori .

It is not only this-but the character of the questions Rockwell addresses: "what does an archetypal awkward teenager(of the depression-era) wear on a prom or first date? Where would they go? Who would be there? What would they say? How would they interact? What kind of soda would they drink?" -- that are both the source of his success as an illustrator--and the limitation of his art.
With Hopper we are left to wonder. The place and time are familiar to us-we recognize the light of morning, the brownstone rooftops. But the light-- seems not to define setting so much as to penetrate the inner life of the figure, to illuminate the relationship between the figure and the ineffable; inquiry and contemplation, the known and the unknowable.