PAINTING BY NUMBERS by Noah Buschel

Jackson Pollock once said to Willem de Kooning: “You know more, but I feel more.”

Steven Soderbergh

There’s no film school in the world that can teach someone how to feel more. And most of the fêted movies these days aren’t gonna give any kind of spiritual transmission. If David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and the Coen Brothers could just feel a little more, let down their sharp guards, their movies might be masterpieces. Instead they’re mostly cold celebrations of craft, self, and sleekness. And slickness. Soderbergh can go hand-held all he wants—we still feel the meticulous, suffocating nature of his controlling hand. And we still can’t feel his pulse. No matter what lens he uses.

I hear people say that The Social Network captures our time better than any other movie has. But how can a movie with so little compassion capture any time? Put on a Vincente Minnelli film and it will capture 2010 more honestly than Fincher can. Because it has that timeless thing that all these directors seem to be so scared of: heart.

Perhaps I’m just missing it. Maybe I’m expecting the unprotected emotional punch of abstract expressionism and we’ve already moved into the pop art era of filmmaking. Maybe Van Sant is Warhol and Michael Haneke is Roy Lichtenstein. Maybe I’m not ironic enough. If Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns got sick of Rothko’s sincerity, why can’t the Coen Brothers wink it up? But Rauschenberg and Johns didn’t have the smugness or condescension of a Burn After Reading. Their party was inclusive.

Splendor in the Grass

Watching Elia Kazan’s Splendor In The Grass the other day, I wondered—who could do that now? Who of these supposedly great directors today could touch the pain and affection of Splendor In The Grass? There’s not a hint of Benjamin Button sentimentalism in the whole movie. Nor is there any Wong Kar Wai posturing (for a guy who worked with Jimmy Dean and Brando, Kazan was remarkable at not falling into the cool pool). Splendor In The Grass is just a naked movie. Kazan doesn’t need to be overly glossy or brainy. He’s content to be simple, in the most potent way. It’s a movie that doesn’t hide itself or its director.

A director can use their movies as a shield. Instead of dealing with the things that are hard for them, a director can just build monuments to nothingness, stay in the comfort zone, dodge the dread (watch The Darjeeling Limited on Criterion for a good example of a director avoiding himself). Anyways, it’s sure a glamorous way to pass the time. Like sitting at a million dollar café and drinking cappuccinos while reading a worshipful L’umo Vogue profile on yourself. But the more films that are done to protect one’s self—the less chance there is that we’re ever gonna get to really meet that director. One sees it with Woody Allen movies lately. He’s spent so much time embracing the Godless universe and sex and take-out Chinese and death and cashmere sweaters—now he has nothing left to say. The vulnerability of Annie Hall or Sweet and Lowdown has been replaced by a defensive distance. His movies push us away, even as he tries to pull us in with gorgeous surface, intellectual conundrums, and witty banter.

It’s when that vanity button is pushed over and over and over again that movies become machines and directors become robots. And everything becomes silver. Faraway from our golden home. Like in Bernard Malamud’s book The Natural. The fields of wheat in the sunlight are traded in for a silver bullet. People’s faces start to look like Airstream trailers—shiny and hollow. The temperature drops. There’s a frigid sheen over our eyeballs. The country becomes the city. The Chrysler building blocks the moon. Kisses made of linoleum and steel benefactors shouting curse words at a wooden Indian. Everything is nothing and you can’t fall in love. Roy Hobbs strikes out for money in the big game. “Say it ain’t true, Roy.” When Roy looked into the boy’s eyes he wanted to say it wasn’t but couldn’t, and he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears.

In fairness to any filmmaker working today—this ain’t the ’70s. The country didn’t just have its mind blown open by L.S.D. On the contrary, the country’s mind has been mostly closed up by Star Trek technology cell phone A.D.D. What the hell were they talking about in The Deer Hunter anyway? One shot? I can’t remember. Maybe one shot to be accurate. To be open. To be a loving friend. I can’t recall. Maybe all the other stuff doesn’t matter. What we wear, who we know, what we look like. All the other stuff… just jangling coins in mercury. But sometimes I can’t retain information like I used to. I dunno.

Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
the other is gold.

Ace In The Hole

I’m pretty sure Billy Wilder made a movie about silver and gold. Called Ace In The Hole. Kirk Douglas’s newspaper reporter wants to get out of New Mexico, back to New York—where he used to be a big-shot before he hit the bottle. The newspaper he’s stuck at is called The Albuquerque Sun. I think. It’s a good newspaper, with an honest and modest editor. But Douglas misses the sky-scrapers, the Yankees, and the eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center. He’ll do anything to get back there—even fabricate a story. Throughout the rest of the movie Wilder sets up silver as the enemy of truth. The femme fatale dyes her hair platinum and yearns for a silver fox fur. If getting the silver fox fur comes at the expense of her kind husband’s death, so what? The corrupt sheriff’s dumb rattle-snake won’t eat meat, cheese or bugs. All the snake goes for is chewing gum, but only with the silver wrapper on it.

In Tibetan Buddhism, gold symbolizes the sun. The most valuable of metals, it is accorded a sacred status through its connection with Surya, the sun god of the Hindu pantheon. The alloying of gold with other alloying elements is therefore thought of as an act of sacrilege, since it waters down the natural luminosity of the golden radiance. Thus when used in art, whether sculpture or painting, the gold is always of the purest 24 karat variety.

Movies, of course, come to us on the silver screen, in a silver wrapper. So to make a movie that is golden, true, one almost has to make an anti-movie. These days we hear a lot about ‘rebel filmmakers’ or ‘maverick directors,’ but I don’t see many of them. Most of the time it seems the silver wins out. The agents, the producers, the investors, the studios, the Brooklyn indie scene, the Austin indie scene, the surgery stars, the guns and tits and ass—all of it is silver. And all that is gold is when humanity gets through. That subtlest and most obvious of things.

So here’s to Miyazaki, Khyentse Norbu, Ozu, Sam Fuller and Nick Ray. To Cassavettes, Robert Downey Sr. and to Elaine May. And here’s to Philip Guston and Jack Tworkov, sitting by the bay. Here’s to anybody who doesn’t trade in gold for silver. Even if silver is the one in fashion. Fashions are passing and jets are crashing. And geez, don’t we know that God is Pooh Bear?

— Noah Buschel

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