Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Landscape Art of James Dusty Pendleton & the Texas Hill Country by Kirpal Gordon

The hill country of central Texasthat rugged, rocky, lonely locale of caliche soil and hard-scrabble cedar interspersed with creeks and riversis as much a state of mind as it is a real place to citizens of the Lone Star state. As Houstonian Peggy Sheehan writes in the New York Times, “Its inhabitants relish its solitude and silence, finding the area to be not only enchanting but spiritually nourishing.” Immortalized by Willie Nelson and the Austin singer-songwriter outlaws, lambasted by the prose of Kinky Friedman, this is also where Lyndon Baines Johnson was born, grew up and is buried. In the work of James Dusty Pendleton, the hill country has its true poet laureate, albeit in the form of landscape painting.

These works draw to mind a remark Alan Watts once made about the doctrine of wu-wei (translated as effortless effort or no-action) in Taoism and Chinese landscape painting: “The artist gives up any hope of ‘capturing’ the landscape, choosing instead to just sit there, sometimes for days until, emptied of ego, the landscape paints itself through him.” There is something very akin to letting nature speak through the painter in Pendleton’s studies of hills and rivers, of skies and houses, of the juxtapositionsometimes poignant, sometimes comicalof the everlasting land and the (less everlasting) human figures that populate his scenes.

In fact, looking more closely at the relationship between nature and civilization in his work, it seems no accident that he began painting the hill country full tilt upon his return from his extended years of travel in England, Wales, France, Spain, Mexico and throughout the United States. As he remarked to me, “I returned to discover the landscape I had grown up in was changing, the horizon’s panoramas replaced by fences and housing developments. Landmarks, which a hundred years ago guided the traveler, no longer matter because highways and automobiles have made them obsolete.”

There is certainly a sense of history being captured in these landscapes, but it strikes me as more metaphoric than programmatic. Unlike some painters of this area, Pendleton does not sentimentalize the contemporary impulse to subdivide and conquer the land. Rather, he uses the hill country’s wild and raw elements to interrogate a clich├ęd vocabulary of the past: there are no cowboys on horseback or Native Americans standing at vistas, no quaint fields of bluebonnets or maidens in chiffon dresses. Instead, he invites viewers in medias res into a narrative that remains indeterminate, requiring extended contemplation to complete. Herein is the power of his painting: it evokes the sense of mystery which is inextricable from beauty itself and it reminds us that those seeking to conquer nature are doomed to be conquered by the impulse while those seeking harmony with the ineffable find it in the smallest details of his landscapes.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Awakenings into Adulthood via Wim Wenders’ "Wings of Desire" by Ariel Hannanian

Life can seem very difficult at times, given the existing circumstances. Furthermore, people tend to exaggerate negative emotions, dwell on the past, and remain doubtful of the future. Wings of Desire portrays human suffering and centers around the negativity, bitterness, and attachment to selfish desires that angels are witnesses of, but Damiel looks beyond these negatives to see qualities of love, forgiveness, and cooperation. Of course, this makes him yearn to be born, and his urge to live among these flawed individuals suggests there is an innate beauty in being human. Additionally, Damiel appreciates simple miracles that everyday humans overlook. This film serves as an optimistic perspective to the uncertain future of any college student who is searching for a vocation, love relationship, or deeper meaning.

Set in post-World War II Berlin, angels Damiel and Cassiel are symbols of innocence and observers of the emotional problems people face. They go about the ruins of the city and see suicidal, depressed, and unhappy people with misplaced emotions who do not possess the even-keel optimism the angels do. As Roger Ebert agrees, “The angels in Wings of Desire are not merely guardian angels, placed on Earth to look after human beings. They are witnesses” (par 1). The angels also say what other characters never say and provide a perspective no one else can.

The fact that only children perceive the immortal angels is significant since only children retain the innocence and timelessness necessary to see beyond the obvious. Whereas adults are jaded and only perceive the bad and the usual, “the kinter” recognize the good and the unusual. The message these silent angels put across in their infinite patience is for humans to wake up from their misery prisons and enjoy sharing life! However, increased awareness of life’s responsibilities during one’s college years marks the end of our childhood innocence and a new beginning where different priorities, goals, and obligations are made. Despite having to step into these “human challenges,” Damiel still seeks his transformation from angel to human form.

While in Berlin, he encounters Peter Falk, an American actor shooting a film in the city, and sees that humans do recognizes the positives. Furthermore, Falk’s view of the world compels Damiel to take action and become a member of society. Likewise, the film uses Peter Handke’s poem “Song of Childhood” as a tool to describe Damiel’s interactions:

“When the child was a child, It played with enthusiasm, and now, has just as much excitement as then, but only when it concerns its work. When the child was a child, It was enough for it to eat an apple, … bread, And so it is even now” (Wenders 1:42).

This implies that we are all children of God and likely were content until awareness of adulthood and life’s realities came in and destroyed this homeostasis. Similarly, college is essentially a medium where we are forced into adulthood by exposure to new responsibilities as learners. So we are often in work-study-test-conquer mode and fail to appreciate simple pleasures like eating an apple. Mr. Falk, most commonly known as the TV detective “Colombo,” senses Damiel’s presence. Damiel becomes human and tastes coffee, smokes a cigarette, and bleeds after a body of armor falls on his head, but he is ecstatic at these feelings that the human race overlooks. This newly found appreciation gives the message of appreciating life also for simple miracles like love and nature, things that I may otherwise overlook.

Damiel finds a new purpose in life when he encounters a distraught trapeze artist and uses his powers to help her emotionally. He finds joy in helping others after his encounters with Falk, and this is the point when Damiel goes from passive to active. Damiel’s connection with the trapeze artist inspires him to become human. Despite all the animosity and selfishness of humans, Damiel yearns to become human because he only sees the good. While explaining his reasons to become active, Damiel states:

“To conquer a history for myself. What my timeless downward look has taught me … I want to transmute, I want to sustain a glance… a short shout, a sour smell. I’ve been outside long enough. Loving enough out of the world. Let me enter the history of the world. Or just hold an apple in my hand” (Wenders 1:14).

It is Damiel’s only dream for him to become human and exist rather than observe. The angel finds appreciation for simple human pleasures like food or pain or pleasure.

The movie cinematography did an excellent job of filming it in black and white with instances of color emerging as Damiel transitions from angel to human. His entrance into the world relates to the modern college student’s experience as our transition into the real world is to take an active role in society and not an entrance into bitterness. Damiel enters the trapeze artist Marion’s dreams and appears in person and in color when she falls in love. The fact that she meets the person literally from her dreams gives hope to the viewer of how the joining of two individuals to make both their dreams to come true: Damiel to be human and Marion to find true love. Damiel’s awakening connects to a college student’s awakening in that his transition from being innocent to becoming aware and active parallels the college transition from childhood to adulthood. 

This piece of cinematic art is a great deal more than a movie about two angels, one of whom finds a Hollywood true love. There is a rebirth of innocence when Damiel becomes human. Its message speaks to me in what my own guardian angel says to me about starting a career and a new life with my future family, hopefully. I was greatly reassured in the film’s ending in how Damiel, an angel who saw so much human suffering, still chose to join. His appreciation of humanity and the beautiful poem recited inspires us return to the wisdom of childhood and enjoy life to the fullest the way an elated child does. The angels in Wings of Desire break the social and emotional barriers we create for ourselves, and guide us toward a fuller, deeper, richer existence.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. “Wings of Desire Review and Film Summary” Great Movie. Roger Ebert, 12 April 1988. Web. 23 April 2016.

Wings of Desire. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin. Road              Movies Film Production, 1987. SolarMovie. Web. 20 April 2016.