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White Elephant Art and Termite Art (1962)


Most of the feckless, listless quality of today’s art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in shape and gemlike inertia of an old, densely wrought European masterpiece.


Advanced painting has long been suffering from this burnt-out notion of a masterpiece-breaking away from its imprisoning conditions toward a suicidal improvisation, threatening to move nowhere and everywhere, niggling, omnivorous, ambitionless ; yet, within the same picture, paying strict obeisance to the canvas edge and, without favoritism, the precious nature of every inch of allowable space. A classic example of this inertia is the Cézanne painting, in his indoorish works of the woods around Aix-en-Provence a few spots of tingling, jarring excitement occur where he nibbles away at what he calls his “small sensation,” the shifting of a tree trunk, the infinitesimal contests of complimentary colors in a light accent on farmhouse wall. The rest of each canvas is a clogging weight-density-structure-polish amalgam associated with self-aggrandizing masterwork. As he moves away from the unique, personal vision that interests him, his painting turns ungiving and puzzling : a matter of balancing curves for his bunched-in composition, laminating the color, working the painting to the edge. Cézanne ironically left an exposé of his dreary finishing work in terrifyingly honest watercolors, an occasional unfinished oil (the pinkish portrait of his wife in sunny, leafed-in patio), where he foregoes everything but his spotting fascination with minute interactions.


The idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area, both logical and magical, sits heavily over the talent of every modern painter, from Motherwell to Andy Warhol. The private voice of Motherwell (the exciting drama in the meeting places between ambivalent shapes, the aromatic sensuality that comes from laying down thin sheets of cold, artfully clichéish  hedonistic color) is inevitably ruined by having to spread these small pleasures into great contained works. Thrown back constantly on unrewarding endeavors (filling vast egglike shapes, organizing a ten-foot rectangle with its empty corners suggesting Siberian steppes in the coldest time of the year), Motherwell ends up with appalling amounts of plastering grandeur, a composition so huge and questionably painted that the delicate, electric contours seem to be crushing the shalelike matter inside. The special delight of each painting tycoon (De Kooning’s sabrelike lancing of forms ; Warhol’s minute embrace with the path of illustrator’s pen line and block-print tone, James Dine’s slog-footed brio, filling a stylized shape from stem to stern with one ungiving color) is usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece. The painting, sculpture, assemblage becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist’s signature, now turned into mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today’s esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art.


Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators (Laurel and Hardy, the team of Howard Hawks and William Faulkner operating on the just half of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite- tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.


The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement. Laurel and Hardy, in fact, in some of their most dyspeptic and funniest mores, like Hog Wild, contributed some fine parody of men who had read every “How to Succeed” book available; but, when it came to applying their knowledge, reverted instinctively to termite behavior.


One of the good termite performances (John Wayne’s bemused cowboy in an unreal stage town inhabited by pallid repetitious actors whose chief trait is a powdered make-up) occurs in John Ford’s The Man Shot  Liberty Valance, Better Ford films than this have been marred by a phlegmatically solemn Irish personality that goes for rounded declamatory acting, silhouetted riders along the rim of a mountain with a golden sum set behind them, and repetitions in which big bodies are scrambled together in a rhythmically curving Rosa Bonheurish composition. Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him. In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically cast actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardice, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging overactor (Lee Marvin). As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves a path that is only bits of shrewd intramural acting—a craggy face filled with bitterness, jealousy, a big body that idles luxuriantly, having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford.


The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it. The occasional newspaper column by a hard-work specialist caught up by an exciting event (Joe Alsop or Ted Lewis, during a presidential election), or a fireball technician reawakened during a pennant playoff that brings on stage his favorite villains (Dick Young) ; the TV production of The Iceman Cometh, with its great examples of slothful-buzzing acting by Myron McCormack, Jason Robards et el. ; the last few detective novels of Ross Macdonald and most of Raymond Chandler’s ant-crawling verbosity and sober fact-pointing in the letters compiled years back in a slightly noticed book that is a fine running example of popular criticism ; the TV debating of William Buckley, before he relinquished his tangential, counterattacking skill and took to flying into propeller blades of issues, like James Meredith’s Ole Miss-adventures.


In movies, nontermite art is too much in command of writers and directors to permit the omnivorous termite artist to scuttle along for more than a few scenes. Even Wayne’s cowboy job peters out in a gun duel that is overwrought with conflicting camera ankles, plays of light and dark, ritualized movement and posture. In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the writer (A1an Sillitoe) feels the fragments of a delinquent’s career have to be united in a conventional story. The design on which Sillitoe settles—a spokelike affair with each fragment shown as a memory experienced on practice runs—leads to repetitious scenes of a boy running. Even a gaudily individual track star—a Peter Snell—would have trouble making these practice runs worth the moviegoer’s time, though a cheap ton of pseudo-Bunny Berigan jazz trumpet is thrown on the film’s sound track to hop up the neutral dullness of these up-down-around spins through vibrant English countryside.


Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. The three sins of white elephant art (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity. Requiem for a Heavyweight is so heavily inlaid with ravishing technique that only one scene—an employment office with a nearly illiterate fighter (Anthony Quinn falling into the hands of an impossibly kind job clerk—can be acted by Quinn’s slag blanket type of expendable art, which crawls along using fair insight and a total immersion in the materials of acting. Antonioni’s La Notte is a good example of the evils of continuity, from its opening scene of a deathly sick noble critic being visited by two dear friends The scene gets off well, but the director carries the thread of it to agonizing length, embarrassing the viewer with dialogue about art that is sophomorically one dimensional, interweaving an arty shot of a helicopter to fill the time interval, continuing with impossible-to-act effects of sadness by Moreau and Mastroianni outside the hospital, and, finally, reels later, a laughable postscript conversation by Moreau-Mastroianni detailing the critic’s “meaning” as a friend, as well as a few other very mystifying details about the poor bloke Tony Richardson’s films, beloved by art theater patrons, are surpassing examples of the sin of framing, boxing in an action with a noble idea or camera effect picked from High Art.


In Richardson’s films (A Taste of Honey, The Long Distance Runner), a natural directing touch on domesticity involving losers is the main dish (even the air in Richardson’s whitish rooms seems to be fighting the ragamuffin type who infests Richardson’s young or old characters). With his “warm” lacking for the materials of direction, a patient staying with confusion, holding to a cop’s lead-footed facelessness that doesn’t crawl over details so much as back sluggishly into them. Richardson can stage his remarkable seconds-ticking sedentary act in almost any setup-at night, in front of a glared department store window, or in a tram coach with two pairs of kid lovers settling in with surprising, hopped-up animalism. Richardson’s ability to give a spectator the feeling of being There, with time to spend, arrives at its peak in homes, apartments, art garrets, a stable-like apartment, where he turns into an academic neighbor of Walker Evans, steering the spectator’s eyes on hidden rails, into arm patterns, worn wood, inclement feeling hovering in tiny marble eyes, occasionally even making a room appear to take shape as he introduces it to a puffy-faced detective or an expectant girl on her first search for a room of her own in a kitchen scene with kid thief and job-worn detective irritably gnawing at each other, Richardson’s talent for angular disclosures takes the scene apart without pointing or a nearly habitual underlining ; nagging through various types of bone-worn, dishrag-gray material with a fine windup of two unlikable opponents still scraping at each other in a situation that is one of the first to credibly turn the overattempted movie act-showing hard, agonizing existence in the wettest rain and slush.


Richardson’s ability with deeply lived-in incident is, nevertheless, invariably dovetailed with his trick of settling a horse collar of gentility around the neck of a scene, giving the image a pattern that suggests practice, skill, guaranteed safe humor His highly rated stars (from Richard Burton through Tom Courtenay) fall into mock emotion and studied turns, which suggest they are caught up in the enameled sequence of a vaudeville act : Rita Tushingham’s sighting over a gun barrel at an amusement park (standard movie place for displaying types who are closer to the plow than the library card) does a broadly familiar comic arrangement of jaw muscle and eyebrow that has the gaiety and almost the size of a dinosaur bone. Another gentility Richardson picked up from fine objêts d’art (Dubuffet, Larry Rivers, Dick Tracy’s creator) consists of setting a network of marring effects to prove his people are ill placed in life. Tom Courtenay (the last angry boy in Runner) gets carried away by this cult, belittling, elongating, turning himself into a dervish with a case of Saint Vitus dance, which localizes in his jaw muscles, eyelids. As Richardson gilds his near vagrants with sawtooth mop coiffures and a way of walking on high heels so that each heel seems a different size and both appear to be plunged through the worn flooring the traits look increasingly elegant and put on (the worst trait : angry eyes that suggest the empty orbs in “Orphan Annie” comic strips). Most of Ms actors become crashing, unbelievable bores, though there is one nearly likable actor, a chubby Dreiserian girl friend in Long Distance Runner, who, termite-fashion almost ants into a state of grace. Package artist Richardson has other boxing-in ploys, running scenes together as Beautiful Travelogue, placing a cosmic symbol around the cross-country running event, which incidentally crushes Michael Redgrave, a headmaster in the fantastic gambol of throwing an entire Borstal community into a swivet over one track event.


The common denominator of these laborious ploys is, actually, the need of the director and writer to overfamiliarize the audience with the picture it’s watching. to blow up every situation and character like an affable inner tube with recognizable details and smarmy compassion. Actually, this overfamiliarization serves to reconcile these supposed long-time enemies-academic and Madison Avenue art.


An exemplar of white elephant art, particularly the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity, is Francois Truffaut. Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim, two ratchets perpetual-motion machines devised by a French Rube Goldberg, leave behind the more obvious gadgetries of Requiem for a Heavyweight and even the cleaner, bladelike journalism of The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s concealed message, given away in his Henry Miller-ish, adolescent two-reeler of kids spying on a pair of lovers (one unforgettably daring image : kids sniffling the bicycle seat just vacated by the girl in the typical fashion of voyeuristic pornographic art) is a kind of reversal of growth, in which people grow backward into childhood. Suicide becomes a game, the houses look like toy boxes-laughter, death, putting out a fire—all seem reduced to some unreal innocence of childhood myths. The real innocence of Jules et Jim is in the writing, which depends on the spectator sharing the same wide-eyed or adolescent view of the wickedness of sex that is implicit in the vicious gamesmanship going on between two men and a girl.


Truffaut’s stories (all women are villains; the schoolteacher seen through the eyes of a sniveling schoolboy ; all heroes are unbelievably innocent, unbelievably persecuted) and characters convey the sense of being attached to a rubber band, although he makes a feint at reproducing the films of the 1930’s with their linear freedom and independent veering From The 400 Blows onward, his films are bound in and embarrassed by his having made up his mind what the film is to be about. This decisiveness converts the people and incidents into flat jiggling manikins (400 Blows, Mischief Makers) in a Mickey Mouse comic book, which is animated by thumbing the pages rapidly. This approach eliminates any stress or challenge, most of all any sense of the film locating an independent shape.


Jules et Jim, the one Truffaut that seems held down to a gliding motion, is also cartoonlike but in a decorous, suspended way. Again most of the visual effect is an illustration for the current of the sentimental narrative. Truffaut’s concentration on making his movie fluent and comprehensible flattens out all complexity and reduces his scenes to scraps of pornography—like someone quoting just the punchlines of a well-known dirty joke. So unmotivated is the leapfrogging around beds of the three-way lovers that it leads to endless bits of burlesque. Why does she suddenly pull a gun? (See “villainy of women,” above). Why does she drive her car off a bridge? (Villains need to be punished.) Etc.


Jules et Jim seems to have been shot through a scrim which has filtered out everything except Truffaut’s dry vivacity with dialogue and his diminutive stippling sensibility. Probably the high point in this love-is-time’s-fool film : a languorous afternoon in a chalet (what’s become of chalets?) with Jeanne Moreau teasing her two lovers with an endless folksong. Truffaut’s lyrics—a patter of vivacious small talk that is supposed to exhibit the writer’s sophistication, never mind about what—provides most of the scene’s friction, along with an idiot concentration on meaningless details of faces or even furniture (the degree that a rocking chair isn’t rocking becomes an impressive substitute for psychology). The point is that, divested of this meaningless vivacity, the scenes themselves are without tension, dramatic or psychological.


The boredom aroused by Truffaut—to say nothing of the irritation—come from his peculiar methods of dehydrating all the life out of his scenes (instant movies?) Thanks to his fondness for doused lighting and for the kind of long shots which hold his actors at thirty paces, especially in bad weather, it’s not only the people who are blanked out ; the scene itself threatens to evaporate off the edge of the screen. Adding to the effect of evaporation, disappearing. Truffaut’s imagery is limited to traveling (running through meadows, walking in Paris streets, etc.), setups and dialogue scenes where the voices, disembodied and like the freakish chirps in Mel Blanc’s Porky Pig cartoons, take care of the flying out effect. Truffaut’s system holds art at a distance without any actual muscularity or propulsion to peg the film down. As the spectator leans forward to grab the film, it disappears like a released kite.


Antonioni’s specialty, the effect of moving as in a chess game, becomes an autocratic kind of direction that robs an actor of his motive powers and most of his spine. A documentarist at heart and one who often suggests both Paul Klee and the cool, deftly neat, “intellectual” Fred Zinnemann in his early Act of Violence phase, Antonioni gets his odd, clarity-is-all effects from his taste for chic mannerism art that results in a screen that is glassy, has a side-sliding motion, the feeling of people plastered against stripes or divided by verticals and horizontals ; his incapacity with interpersonal relationships turns crowds into stiff waves, lovers into lonely appendages, hanging stiffly from each other, occasionally coming together like clanking sheets of metal but seldom giving the effect of being in communion.


At his best, he turns this mental creeping into an effect of modern misery, loneliness, cavernous guilt-ridden yearning It often seems that details, a gesture, an ironic wife making a circle in the air with her finger as a thought circles toward her brain, become corroded by solitariness. A pop jazz band appearing at a millionaire’s fête becomes the unintentional heart of La Notte, pulling together the inchoate center of the film—a vast endless party. Antonioni handles this combo as though it were a vile mess dumped on the lawn of a huge estate. He has his film inhale and exhale, returning for a glimpse of the   four-piece outfit playing the same unmodified kitsch music—stupidly immobile, totally detached from the party swimming around the music. The film’s most affecting shot is one of Jeanne Moreau making tentative stabs with her somber, alienated eyes and mouth, a bit of a dance step, at rapport and friendship with the musicians. Moreau’s facial mask, a signature worn by all Antonioni players, seems about to crack from so much sudden uninhibited effort.


The common quality or defect which unites apparently divergent artists like Antonioni, Truffaut, Richardson is fear, a fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film. Coupled with their storage vault of self-awareness and knowledge of film history, this fear produces an incessant wakefulness. In Truffaut’s films, this wakefulness shows up as dry, fluttering inanity. In Antonioni’s films, the mica-schist appearance of the movies, their linear patterns, are hulked into obscurity by Antonioni’s own fund of sentimentalism, the need to get a mural-like thinness and interminableness out of his mean patterns.


The absurdity of La Notte and L’Avventura is that its director is an authentically interesting oddball who doesn’t recognize the fact. His talent is for small eccentric microscope studies, like Paul Klee’s, of people and things pinned in their grotesquerie to an oppressive social backdrop Unlike Klee, who stayed small and thus almost evaded affectation, Antonioni’s aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance At one point in La Notte, the unhappy wife, taking the director’s patented walk through a continent of scenery, stops in a rubbled section to peel a large piece of rusted tin This ikon close-up of minuscule desolation is probably the most overworked cliché in still photography, but Antonioni, to keep his stories and events moving like great novels through significant material, never stops throwing his Sunday punch. There is an interestingly acted nymphomaniac girl at wit’s end trying to rape the dish-rag hero ; this is a big event, particularly for the first five minutes of a film. Antonioni this terrorized girl and her interesting mop of straggly hair by pinning her into a typical Band-aid composition—the girl, like a tiny tormented animal, backed against a large horizontal stripe of white wall. It is a pretentiously handsome image that compromises the harrowing effect of the scene.


Whatever the professed theme in these films, the one that dominates in unspoken thought is that the film business is finished with museum art or pastiche art. The best evidence of this disenchantment is the anachronistic slackness of Jules et Jim, Billy Budd, Two Weeks in Another Town. They seem to have been dropped into the present from a past which has become useless this chasm between white-elephant reflexes and termite performances shows itself in an inertia and tight defensiveness which informs the acting of Mickey Rooney in Requiem for a Heavyweight, Julie Harris in the same film, and the spiritless survey of a deserted church in L’Avventura. Such scenes and actors seem as numb and uninspired by the emotions they are supposed to animate, as hobos trying to draw warmth from an antiquated coal stove. This chasm of inertia seems to testify that the past of heavily insured, enclosed film art has become unintelligible to contemporary performers, even including those who lived through its period of relevance.


Citizen Kane, in 1941, antedated by several years a crucial change in films from the old flowing naturalistic story, bringing in an iceberg film of hidden meanings. Now the revolution wrought by the exciting but hammy Orson Welles film, reaching its zenith in the 1950’s, has run its course and been superseded by a new film technique that turns up like an ugly shrub even in the midst of films that are preponderantly old gems. Oddly enough the film that starts the breaking away is a middle-1950’s films, that seems on the surface to be as traditional as Greed, Kurosawa’s Ikiru is a giveaway landmark, suggesting a new self-centering approach It sums up much of what a termite art aims at buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed ; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.




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