The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.

 

 

 

 

words and pictures (part 2) …and the power of MUSIC

Music...Art...Literature Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Music…Art…Literature
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the film Words and Music, a sweet romance about a battle between an Art teacher and an English teacher. The film had interesting examples about the power of words and magnificent examples of the power of “pictures.”  But what I forgot about was the part that held it together and in a way redeemed it:

The Power of Music

In the film. after the male protagonist has made a bollocks of things and the female protagonist has had enough of his destructive behavior, it is music that is the most evocative, most informative, most powerful…and most healing.

Scene after scene the male (Jack Marcus) tries to contact the female (Dina Delsanto) to apologize for the drunken mess he made of her art. Scene after scene we see her aggressively stop his attempts or stoically ignore them. Until the moment, when she opens an e-mail and there is an audio attachment.  The piece–written for the film by Paul Grabowsky—is a chamber piece for piano, cello and clarinet entitled “I am a Small Poem.”  (This is also the name of the poem that Markus steals from his son.)  It is rich and resonant and connects with Delsanto more than any words or pictures could.

It is what saves their seemingly destroyed relationship.

I wish I could embed the music that was played when Delsanto opened her e-mail. but I can’t.  It isn’t available yet.  So instead, I will give you this: an extraordiary piece by Fauvre. It is what I often listen to when I am writing:

A while back, a music teacher (Manny DelPizzo), an art teacher (Jackie White) and I got together to make plans for a large project. (The educators call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”)  I was going to get my Creative Writing Students to submit their best work and the art teacher and music teacher would each have their students interpret it and we would have a performance.  Our ambitions were high–this seemed like the best outlet for student creativity– but the realities of schedules and time and curricula put many roadblocks in our way and we let it fizzle out.

The “performance” that the fictional students in Words and Pictures was much like what we were hoping for, minus the music. Our music component would have made it better.

A new school term is starting in a couple of weeks. I am newly energized (though not as drunken as Jack Marcus) and am excited about trying this for real. It doesn’t have to be a battle–as it was in the film–but a really cool examination of the power of words, of art, and of music–a real exercise in Creativity

Movie Review: Words and Pictures dir. by Fred Schepisi

Poster for Words and Pictures

Poster for Words and Pictures

It wasn’t what I was expecting, so I should not hold that against it, but I found Words and Pictures just a tad disappointing. It is a very nice movie, not a great movie, but nice, and its heart is in the right place.

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

The film deals with an English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) who teaches at a very privileged prep school in Maine. Marcus–who once had a promising start as a writer– is brilliant, witty, energetic, and charming. The students love him; his colleagues tolerate him; his bosses are beginning to tire of him.  We immediately see him chastised for being late–an occurrence that is more and more frequent because at night he is drinking more and more. (I found this part a bit unbelievable because after his nightly excesses there is no way he could perform so elegantly in the classroom each day.  Add to that the thermos full of vodka he drinks with his lunch each day and his engaging classroom demeanor seems unreal.)

Because of cuts at another school, the school is able to hire a new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). A successful gallery artist, Delsanto has left New York City due to crippling rheumatoid arthritis which forces her to walk with a cane, strap brushes to her wrists, and suffer intense pain, and she has come to rural Maine where she gets the necessary help from her sister.

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

She immediately clashes with Marcus, but not without hidden a smile of pleasure.

And this is where I got it wrong. As Hollywood usually goes, the film begins as a typical romantic comedy. Two strong-willed, feisty characters are thrown together–ala Tracy and Hepburn– battle and show their disdain for each other, and finally fall in love.  Yet, Words and Pictures takes another tack.

In her first class of Honors Art, Delsanto tells her class that “Words are lies, traps.” Since Marcus teaches the same students, her comments get back to him, and he initiates a war.  Words vs picture:  What is more powerful?  What is more true?  What is more dangerous?

And while the battle began between the two adults, the students get very much involved, and actually experience a truly great learning experience. (Educators now call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”) The “words” that the students use and the artwork they create as different sides in this battle of philosophies are impressive at the least.

As the battle goes on, Marcus learns that the school board is considering his dismissal, his relationship with his son is becoming more and more estranged, and his muse has completely dried up. And, he begins drinking even more heavily.

Delsanto’s condition worsens–she cannot undress herself or hold a brush without help–but her artistic output is becoming more and more robust.

Ultimately, these two flawed adults get together, but their lovely day together is sabotaged by Marcus’ destructive, drunken night.

It takes the final school assembly, where the contest between “words and pictures” is judged to bring some resolution to the film.  Here, Marcus gives a speech stating that there is no greater approach–that together words and pictures are often more powerful than apart. (I’m not sure I agree.)  Afterwards, we are left hanging–does Delsanto merely forgive Marcus or does she let him back into her life.

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as Jack MArcus and Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in Words and Pictures

To see a romantic film about two adults, seriously flawed in their own ways, is a rarity in film these days (at least in American movies). And to have this romance played out by the like of such actors as Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen is special. And this is where Words and Pictures promised a delight.

But somewhere along the line, the relationship between Marcus and Delsanto gets hijacked.  The philosophical arguments of “words vs. pictures” take center stage, and–by the very nature of film– can only be superficial at best, and ultimately unfulfilling.  And we are further distracted by the subplots of Marcus and his son’s disintegrating relationship and an annoying story of a predatory student who continually harasses a shy student in his class. (Granted both of these subplots can be tied into the overall argument of “words vs. pictures,” but again, it is weak.) And so, the “romance”–even the relationship–between Marcus and Delsanto too often gets pushed aside and loses its cinematic momentum,

In the end, I enjoyed Words and Pictures, but I wanted to like the film more than I did.  It had the makings of  a  sweet romance, but the un-fleshed-out philosophical argument got in the way.

What I found most interesting was that all of Dina Delsanto’s artwork was painted by Binoche herself.  That bit of info, coming late in the credits, is amazing, for the paintings are powerful expressionist and abstract works that to my untutored eye were dazzling. Binoche has always been one of my favorite actresses…now even more so.