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Andrew Wyeth - "Frostbitten" (1962)

Frostbitten by Andrew Wyeth, via Flickr

As a writer and as someone who has long been an admirer of the art of Andrew Wyeth, I immediately clicked a link to an article titled  was  “A Writer Learns From Wyeth.”

Andrew Wyeth worked in pencil, charcoal, watercolor and tempera, and not much in words. Yes, I believe his paintings do tell stories, but words were not his medium of choice.

Wyeth would have turned one hundred this year. That may account somewhat for the fact that Andrew was not entirely literate. Peter Hurd, who was Wyeth’s brother-in-law, asked 12-year-old Andrew to look up something in the encyclopedia and discovered he could not do it.

Andrew was home-tutored because of his frail health and his father, the artist N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher.  He learned art and he appreciated hearing stories and poetry read aloud, but reading and writing were not a regular part of his “studies.”

The article’s author, Beth Kephart, the author of 22 books, feels that “there is much to be learned about the literary arts from Andrew Wyeth.”  Like Kephart, I have made a pilgrimage to “Wyeth Country” in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and to the Brandywine River Museum where much of his artwork is displayed. I went out with my camera to find some of the actual locations of his paintings near there.

Wyeth found inspiration at the Kuerner Farm. The early 19th-century farmhouse, the red barn and the family were subjects for hundreds of paintings and drawings over seven decades.

Kuerner farm

The barn at the Kuerner farm.

Besides the stories in his painting, Kephart does find advice is some of Wyeth’s words about his work.  “I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be,” is something any poet will identify with about poetry and probably their writing.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing without pen and paper or computer. As Wyeth said, ” I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.”

I look at some of his sketches and prep for a painting and I immediately think of writing drafts. Wyeth’s advice on revision to writers might be the same as he said about his art  “I obtain great excitement in the changes. Because with them, the painting begins to discover itself. It begins to roll. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”

Drydock

Drydock, 1987, Watercolor,

I like looking at his watercolors (like Drydock above) done on the same kinds of spiral bound pads that I use for my own watercolors. He has his own favorite tools, as do most writers. His medium rough watercolor paper (not stretched and 22 x 30 inches) and only three sable brushes (Nos. 5, 10 & 15) and no flat brushes for the background washes.

I particularly like Wyeth’s use of titles. The painting at the top of this post might have simply been called “Apples on a Windowsill” but it’s called Frostbitten which suggests a lot more. What would the title Faraway suggest to you? Take a look at his painting with that title – Were you close? If not, what story is suggested in that painting?

The paintings do have stories, though the stories behind them are mostly not known to viewers. For example, his painting Winter.

“Winter” — 1946

There is only a small patch of snow in the painting, where we might expect a white, wintery canvas.  The painting was inspired by a day when Andrew was walking near the railroad tracks where his father was killed.  He saw a local boy running down the hill facing the Kuerner farm and joined him. They found an old baby carriage and used it to ride wildly down the hill. The painting shows the boy and a shadow stand-in for Wyeth. Wyeth said of the painting, “The boy was me at a loss, really. His hand, drifting in the air, was my hand, groping, my free soul.”

That hill is the same one Wyeth would use two years later for probably his most famous painting, Christina’s World

Christina’s World

 

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bildungsroman shirt

Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include that early novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming-of-age has a lot to do with family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good materials for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while the internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age is being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They boomeranging back to their parents’ residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

The New York Times had some suggestions for movies to watch this Labor Day weekend – but they are movies about the workplace! That seems like an odd series for a weekend that may be about labor but is usually a time to celebrate not being at work.

Admittedly, these are odd “workplace” films.  Office Space is a satire that should help disgruntled workers vent. Desk Set is a Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy  romantic comedy. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is a good film, but not holiday viewing for modern viewers. Sing along with the Newsies9 to 5 is a good office takeover by the workers. The Wall Street workers with big hair and big shoulder pads rule in Working Girl. And in Clerks, Dante is forced to work at the convenience store on his day off.

The Times gives info on where you can stream all those films, but if you want to see something on a big screen as a film should be seen, I recommend the escape of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The encounter of the third kind occurs at Devil’s Tower

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind  came out about six months after the original Star Wars but Close Encounters was about real people dealing with visitors from distant stars. Suburban Middle America is “invaded” when Indiana electrical lineman Roy Neary experiences a close encounter with a UFO. But no one, including his family, believes him.

The New York Times ran an article on the film’s re-release making the argument that the film’s original release was when “the movies got new-age religion.” That is not my recollection of that time, but J. Hoberman points out that some Catholic and conservative Christian reviews of the film were surprisingly quite rapturous about it.  New York Magazine‘s film critic questioned “who is Spielberg to define religion for us?” My take on it then was that it was good sci-fi with much better effects than what had come before it.

More than any theological connection I might have had to the film in 1977, I connect more with Baby Boomer Spielberg watching the Disneyland TV show and hearing Jiminy Cricket sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” which he said was his inspiration for the feeling he wanted in the film.

The film started out in several more sinister versions  with UFOs and a post-Watergate scandal government trying to keep the lid on the real UFO and ET incidents that were in Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s very real study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s. That script was called Watch the Skies. There was another version that was more government whistleblower on the cover-up of aliens that was a political thriller written by Paul Schrader with the title Kingdom Come.

Spielberg was coming off the giant hit Jaws and five years away from making E.T.  He gets sole credit for the final script, though a handful of writers worked on earlier versions.

I saw it in a theater 40 years ago and loved it. I watched it when my sons were 8 and 10 years old and it wowed them and scared them in all the right places. Hey, a three-year old kid gets taken by the aliens. That’s scary. (Spoiler: He gets home seemingly unhurt at the end – as he should in any Disney-inspired movie.)  These aliens didn’t attack like in War of the Worlds (which Spielberg directed in 2005) but they weren’t toy-doll huggable like E.T. either.

Those were my two encounters with the film, and I just may go back and have a third encounter with it this week.

As part of the 40th anniversary of the film, it was presented at the Venice Film Festival this past week in its even shinier newly remastered and digitally restored version. It will open this weekend for a week-long run in theaters across the country.

Of course, the best screening will be tonight at the base of Devils Tower in Wyoming which is the location of the film’s finale and the encounter of the third kind. That finale was actually shot in a hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama, but don’t let that movie trivia ruin the Wyoming experience. Maybe some real UFOs will buzz the site tonight.

I don’t think the film really goes into explaining the title but it has some science behind it. Spielberg got the title and some ideas from the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book and a ufologist.  Hynek’s alien close encounter classification system made a close encounter of the first kind be a sighting of a UFO. The second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien. The third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

Hynek was a technical advisor on the movie and he shows up as the man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens in the final scene of the film.

I’m not sure which version of the film is in this re-release. Spielberg originally wanted a summer of 1978 release but was pushed by Columbia Pictures to have it ready for a November 1977 release. Spielberg was not really happy with that version, as he was pushed to do the effects faster than desirable.

In 1980, Columbia let him finish what he had wanted to do as long as he added a sequence inside of the mothership so that there was something really new to market.  Spielberg added that and other new scenes and cut some scenes and it was promoted as the “Special Edition.”  Spielberg was not thrilled with the mothership scene and later cut it for the “Collector’s Edition” home video release.

This is a film to see on a big screen, but if you’re doing a home viewing, you can choose the original version, the director’s cut, the collector;s edition,  and the Blu-Ray or 4K Ultra-HD editions. That’s a lot of encounters.

Art imitates life and sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes films imitate art.

Filmmaker Vugar Efendi put together a compilation of shots from films along with the paintings that inspired them.

You may have seen filmmakers pay homage to older films by imitating shots – the original Star Wars film has shots that echo a number of other films including John Ford’s The Searchers and the Stranger Things series on Netflix has lots of tributes to films from the 1980s that the filmmakers watch and loved.

Paintings may be less obvious. Not everyone would pick up on Jean-Luc Godard filming a shot based on a painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. It is an old tradition. One referenced in Efendi’s supercut is from the 1927 silent film Metropolis.

L’empire des lumières influenced William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and La Robe du soir is alluded to in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight while Architecture au clair de Lune slips into Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Some instances are unexpected: Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy used in in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Sometimes the reference is not exact but a scene feels like it is “in the style of”a painter – such as the look of the Bates’s home in Hitchcock’s Psycho looking like a house from an Edward Hopper painting – but without the color or sunlight. (Wim Wenders used a much more literal recreation of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in his film The End of Violence.)

I first saw these videos mentioned on the Slate website, but the three-part video has been posted in other places too.

Here are the pairings so that you can check you “art of the cinema” knowledge.

ManhattanhengeManhattanhenge is the name given to an event that occurs when the setting sun aligns with the east–west streets of the main street grid in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

The term Manhattanhenge is a neologism from Stonehenge where the sun aligning with the ancient stones on the solstices is an famous event. The Manhattanhenge term was popularized in 2002 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Today is the last time in 2017 that the alignment will occur. The New York event occurs twice a year.

The event applies to those streets that follow a plan from 1811 which laid out the streets in a grid offset 29.0 degrees from true east–west. During Manhattanhenge, an observer on one of the gridded east-west streets will see the sun setting over New Jersey directly along the centerline of that street.

The dates of Manhattanhenge usually occur around May 28 and July 12 being spaced evenly around the summer solstice.

On two corresponding mornings, the sun rises on the center lines of the grid on (approximately) December 5 and January 8, spaced evenly around the winter solstice. As with the solstices and equinoxes, the dates vary somewhat from year to year.

This phenomenon occurs in other cities with a uniform street grid. For North Americans who want to be Druids for a day, Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto also have their -henge days.

The events would only coincide with the vernal and autumnal equinox only if the grid plan were laid out precisely north-south and east-west, and perfectly aligned with true north as opposed to magnetic north. Someone should plan a new city for that to happen.

 

castle

It’s 1962 and America has lost WWII. The east is the Greater Nazi Reich and the west is the Japanese Pacific States.

In The Man in the High Castle, a novel by Philip K. Dick,  this is the alternate history of the world. The United States and the Allied forces lost the war. This was the novel that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction.

He was better known before that novel became a TV series for his fiction that was adapted for films, such as the two film Blade Runner films that are based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  That novel, set in 2021, portrays a world where another World War has killed millions and moved much of mankind off-planet. Because so many species became extinct on Earth, people cherish living creatures,  but the less expensive alternatives are very realistic “simulacra” of  horses, birds, cats – and also humans. On Mars, these androids are common and so well made to be indistinguishable from true humans.

On Earth, there is fear about what these artificial humans might do and the government has banned them. Many of them go into hiding, some live among human beings, undetected. The novels’s protagonist, Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in the film adaptation), is one of the officially sanctioned bounty hunters who find rogue androids and “retire” them.

Dick’s fiction approached and crossed the lines of popular science fiction, the serious novel of ideas, and the reality of his time and now our present and future.

The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963 and is one of my favorites of his novels, but Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) published 36 science fiction novels and 121 short stories, so there is plenty of his work to read – and to still be adapted.

Castle has a “novel within the novel” structure and so there is an alternate history within this alternate history. That internal novel is titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the character Hawthorne Abendsen. (Minor Spoiler: Hawthorne is the man in the high castle) In this version the Allies defeat the Axis but not in the same ways or with the same results as the actual historical outcome. The Bible verse “The grasshopper shall be a burden” (Ecclesiastes 12:5) is supposed to be the title’s inspiration.

In season two of the Amazon TV series version, they play off the novel and the films that the “Man in the High Castle” has released that show the alternative history where the United States defeated the Nazis and Japan.  Of course, the Germans have tried to destroy all the copies of the film. In Dick’s novel plotline, the Grasshopper book is banned in the occupied U.S., but widely read in the Pacific, and its publication is legal in the neutral countries.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy tells of  President Roosevelt surviving an assassination attempt but not trying for a third term. The next President, Rexford Tugwell, pulls the Pacific fleet out of Pearl Harbor, saving it from Japanese attack. When the U.S. enters WWII, it is a well-equipped naval power. In this version, Italy reneges on its membership in the Axis Powers and betrays them.  At the end of the war, the Nazi leaders—including Adolf Hitler—are tried for their war crimes.

Philip K. Dick (PKD) said the main inspiration for writing The Man in the High Castle was the novel Bring the Jubilee, a 1953 novel by Ward Moore of an alternate nineteenth-century U.S. wherein the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War.

The Man in the High Castle became a television series in 2015 produced by Amazon Studios that is somewhat loosely based on the 1962 novel. There have been two seasons with a third forthcoming. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch the series free. If not, some video from the series is available on YouTube that gives you a sense of how the series has progressed.

I know that the idea and images of the series turn off some people. My wife gave up on watching it with me. (She was creeped out right away by the version of “Edelweiss” used as the theme song.) In a 1976 interview with Philip Dick , he said he had planned to write a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but couldn’t make any real progress because he was too disturbed by his research for the two boks and he could not mentally bear “to go back and read about Nazis again.”

He regarded the published novel as intentionally having an open ending that could segue into a sequel . He even suggested that perhaps the sequel might be a collaboration with another author:. Perhaps, the Amazon series would be to his liking.

The other books that he acknowledged inspired and disturbed him when writing the novel include The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962), The Goebbels Diaries (1948), and Foxes of the Desert (1960). He also acknowledged the influence of the 1950 translation of the ancient classic I Ching by Richard Wilhelm. That text is not only read and used by characters in his novel, but was used in its divination way by Dick himself to make decisions about the plot of The Man in the High Castle.

Two chapters of the sequel were published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. They touch on the Nazis using time-travel visits to a parallel world in which they lost the war, but stealing nuclear weapons from that world to bring back to their reality.

Dick said that his 1967 The Ganymede Takeover began as a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but evolved into a new unrelated story. Some portions were used in VALIS, published in 1985, three years after Dick’s death.

Philip K. Dick’s later work turned toward deeply personal, metaphysical questions concerning the nature of God.

Eleven of his novels and short stories have been adapted to film, most notably Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

I believe PKD would have at least been amused by this android version of him.

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