Wednesday, March 28, 2007


By Roger Repohl

NEW YORK - Into Great Silence, a documentary on the daily life of the Carthusian monks at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, could have been done the formulaic way, the Ken Burns way. It could have started with a brief history of this nearly thousand-year-old Christian religious order and its founder St. Bruno, while the camera pans carefully across illuminated manuscripts. It could have drawn a computer schematic of the monastery complex, with its rows of private cells arranged like little townhouses around the chapel and refectory. It could have featured commentary by weighty scholars and wry monks. It could have trailed the inhabitants through a typical day and dropped in on the winemaster for a taste of their famous green liqueur. And the whole thing could have been bathed in Gregorian chants, with voiceover by some sonorous French actor.
This film has none of that. In fact, it is rather misleading to call it a documentary at all. Though it is a documentation, it conveys no information. It is more like a work of art, a living illuminated manuscript to be contemplated. It engages the right brain, not the left.
From the start, you know things will be different. A young monk kneels in prayer at the prie-dieu in his cell. After some minutes, he stands. More minutes pass, all in silence. Already the viewer, hot off the bustling streets, tenses up: Enough! Get on with it! But there is never enough; with few exceptions, the succeeding scenes are equally, uncomfortably long, unbroken by narration or musical background. After two hours, you’re hoping the segment you’re currently viewing will be the last, so you can return to the bustling streets, find a noisy restaurant, wolf down a big dinner and a couple drinks, make witty remarks, and convince yourself you’ve got a life.
But on and on it goes until you are sore from sitting, and then an old, blind monk appears on the screen, breaking the silence at last, telling the camera that his blindness was a blessing, that he is not afraid to die, that he doesn’t understand how anyone can find meaning in life aside from God. And the silence descends again.
When your 162 minutes of vicarious monastic confinement are over, you get up unsteadily. Your companion tries the usual post-movie line, “Well, what did you think?” You shrug and stumble on. In the noisy restaurant you flippantly say you wish you’d spent your money on an action film. And yet the images linger in your brain. For hours, maybe days, you find yourself moving more deliberately, more peacefully: The monks have leached into your system like some benevolent bacteria. You’ve returned from another world - perhaps from the other world.
This is no ordinary documentary because the German filmmaker Philip Groening (presumably no relation to Matt, the man who gave us “The Simpsons”) is no ordinary documentarian. He relentlessly pursued the idea for this project for 16 years before the reclusive community approved, and then with restrictions: no artificial light, no narration, no incidental music - and if the film were to be entered in festivals, no competition for awards.
For four months, Groening lived with the monks, following their austere routine both personally and with his camera. And something like a hermit himself, he produced the film entirely alone, as writer, director, cinematographer, sound engineer, editor.
In more than one sense, this is a “silent film.” The monks by their rule converse only when necessary for work or spiritual direction, except for their weekly communal walks in the countryside. Even necessary conversation is forbidden from night till morning, the period known as “the Great Silence,” from which the film derives its German title, Die grosse Stille (one wonders, though not too long, why the action-preposition “into” was added in English). And it seems quite intentional that the only person who speaks to the camera cannot see.
It is also a silent film cinematographically. Groening consciously employs the devices used by early filmmakers to communicate by sight alone: the lingering closeups, the meticulous attention to detail, the impressionistic use of grainy Super 8 film for certain scenes, and even the screen titles (world-renouncing Bible verses, some frequently repeated).
Images of water and light are everywhere: the red sanctuary lamp flickering in the night; the ultra-closeup of the small stone font at the chapel entrance; the rain making psychedelic rings in a pond; a monk’s metal bowl, washed and tipped on its side to dry, with a droplet of water slowly forming on the lip.
Despite the dearth of speech and music, this is not a “silent” film at all; sound, in fact, is one of its most powerful elements. Every ring of the chapel bell, every footstep, every call of bird or drop of rain pounds upon your ears as surely as it must upon the monks’ own. It is only when one does not speak that one begins to hear.
Repetition is another device Groening uses to evoke the timeless experience of monastic life. The film starts out in winter, with stunning aerial shots of the monastery buried in snow, moves through the seasons, and concludes once more in winter. Within the walls, the daily routine goes on: Over and over, the monk on kitchen detail delivers meals to his brothers’ cells from a wooden push-cart; over and over, the community assembles in the pitch-dark chapel to chant the Night Office; over and over, monks are seen alone in their cells, meditating and reading and eating and washing their cups and bowls.
Groening also gives ample glimpses of monastic labor: the old bearded tailor, cutting a novice’s habit out of whole cloth; the ruddy-faced barber, shaving his fellows’ heads with an electric shears while keeping a full head of hair on himself; monks splitting firewood for their cells; the prior at his desk, poring over paperwork; a frail old man stripped of his habit, receiving a massage of salve from the gentle hands of the young infirmarian.
There are some diversions as well, one or two, charming in their simplicity: a brother in the barn, talking to (with?) a collection of demanding cats; and in the second winter, a long-distance take of the monks skiing down a tall hill in their white habits and on just their boots, tumbling into the snow amid gales of laughter.
The chronicle is broken several times by head-shots of individual monks, held for ten long seconds each and grouped in threes: living portraits, as it were, and quite obviously an ironic play on the “talking heads” of the conventional documentary. The subjects sit before the camera silently, self-consciously, solemn-faced, blinking. Unlike the rest of the film, in which the camera all but disappears, this at first seems a blatant invasion of their privacy, an attempt to steal their souls. But eventually you overcome your own embarrassment and begin to examine those faces, looking for a hint of why such ordinary-looking men are doing something so extraordinary. In the end, they conquer: they’ve not only kept their own souls, they’ve exposed yours.
For most of us multitasking moderns, nervously checking our cell phones while punching up tunes on our iPods and slugging down a Starbucks, this film is a test of endurance, demanding a focus and attentiveness few now possess. It reveals just how far our crazed pursuit of everything all the time masks our meaninglessness and keeps us chronically depressed. As the verse from the Hebrew Bible, displayed repeatedly on the screen, has it: God is not in the whirlwind but in a whisper.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s all in the story you tell. The story need not be true, or even plausible. In fact, it could be objectively absurd, but if you tell it convincingly to an audience begging to be convinced, even absurdity does not matter. People will eat it up and digest it into their worldview, and it will make them do, or allow others to do, things they would formerly have thought unthinkable.
It’s especially like that with societies under threat. Stories can lead to genocide and to suicide bombers, to precipitous wars and to interminable occupations. And oftentimes the identical story can be perfectly convincing to opposing sides.
Take the story told by the so-called “mastermind of 9/11,” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, to the American military’s “combatant status review tribunal,” a transcript of which was released last week. In it, this major operative in the Al Qaeda terrorist network (commonly known by his initials, “KSM”) either admitted or asserted, depending on the reader’s point of view, that he was a principal player in over 30 plots against the West. Some were realized, including 9/11 (“responsible from A to Z,” he noted) and the Bali nightclub bombing of 2002. Others were proposed, including the assassinations of Pope John Paul II and former President Jimmy Carter, anthrax and dirty-bomb development and deployment, and the destruction of the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, Heathrow Airport, Big Ben, nuclear power plants, and U.S. and Israeli embassies worldwide.
Had he been truly imaginative, KSM might have also thrown in calling forth Saddam Hussein from the tomb, posting on You Tube the untouched photos of Rudy Giuliani in drag, going undercover as Hillary Clinton’s hair stylist, and raising the mean atmospheric temperature five degrees by the year 2010.
Why did the Pentagon release this document, to revive our flagging post-9/11 paranoia? Could be. For the paranoid, the evidence presented here was overwhelming. It fed the narrative that America is under siege by that omnipresent octopus Al Qaeda. It did not matter that KSM’s admissions, or assertions, were plainly megalomaniacal; for the true believer, as a medieval Latin poem has it, faith supplies where senses fail.
The same, and then some, can be said of KSM’s disciples. Emerging miraculously after four years of CIA detention in secret spots throughout the world and presumably subjected to torture by his interrogators, he remained unbroken, even triumphant. To his admirers, this was not a confession, it was a manifesto, full of defiance and ironic wit, boasting of his exploits and sniping at his captors, comparing himself to none other than George Washington, a fellow “enemy combatant.” His story fed their narrative too, burnishing the myth of the agile guerilla Al Qaeda, taking down the armored giant with five smooth stones.
There has been a parallel story coming from the other side for over six years now: the “War on Terror.” Our government could have treated the 9/11 attacks as it had treated all previous acts of terrorism, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: as a crime. It could have utilized the FBI, the CIA, and the intelligence operations of almost every country in the world, then outraged by this disaster and sympathetic to the United States, to ferret out Osama bin Laden, KSM, and their collaborators, round them up, and deliver them to the U.S. for fair and speedy trials before juries of ordinary citizens. With that, a major part of this sordid business would have been over by now. That revolting cast of characters would have had their day in open court, legitimately prosecuted and defended, with evidence presented and refuted, verdicts reached, and sentences passed. The American system of justice, long admired as a paradigm of fairness, would have been vindicated on an international scale.
Instead, the Bush administration chose to name the 9/11 attacks an act of war. In doing so, an entirely different set of players was called upon: the military and its apparatus. Fueled by the myth that this was actually a war - even though there was no nation to confront, no army to fight - the might of the world’s remaining superpower was brought to bear on a phantom. Not used to fighting phantoms, the military had to objectify “terror,” first in Afghanistan, the very sump that had drained the Soviet Union dry just a few short years before, and then in Iraq, the hapless target of that sub-myth, the “Axis of Evil.”
The dismal result in both cases was not so much the product of poor planning, as is often suggested, but the product of a great army engaged in battle with a concept. In order to give it flesh, like staging a Greek tragedy, it was forced to play everything out in military terms, regardless of how unsuitable or ineffective.
At the heart of all the confusion about the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, the status of the detainees, the suspension of due process, the internal surveillance, and even the Presidential suggestion that the best way to support the war effort is to go shopping, is the straining attempt to make believable the myth that “we are at war.” This is nonsense, and it all could have been avoided if Al Qaeda and the host of similar terrorist rings had been treated as international criminals, more like the Mafia than a nation.
In his statement, KSM proudly calls himself an “enemy combatant,” but he is very self-aware; he knows he is adroitly exploiting Bush’s own megalomaniacal vision of himself as “the War President.” In perhaps intentional broken English that obviously befuddled the transcribers, he repeatedly emphasizes that we are playing a deadly game of “language”: “You know very well there are language for any war,” the transcript reads at one point; and at another, “But now language also we have language for the war.”
It’s all in the story you tell.


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - Sorry, but I’m a bit disoriented at this moment.
It’s 6:45 a.m. on Monday, March 12, and it is pitch dark outside. My body feels heavy; I’m nodding off at my desk. Last Friday at this time the sun was up and running, and so was I.
It’s Daylight Saving Time, and it will take at least a week for my internal clock to adjust. It’s jet lag without going anywhere, a hangover without drinking anything. Last night I was so exhausted I went to bed an hour early (springing ahead, that’s two hours early) and then lay there wide awake - for two hours.
This isn’t sleep-deprivation from having lost that hour in the middle of the night; I feel the same way when the time changes in the fall and we gain an hour. It’s the rebellion of the body’s clock.
Unlike some chronological purists, I am not opposed to DST; I am only opposed to the change. The way we keep time no longer has much to do with the position of the sun at 12 o’clock noon anyway; it has to do with our own convenience, with our national patterns of life, with maximizing sunlight for our own purposes. What is 12 o’clock noon to an orbiting astronaut?
Since we’ve now added yet another month to DST, leaving only four months of so-called “Standard Time,” why not go all the way and made Daylight Time the year-round standard?
We’ve been tinkering with time-changes for almost a century now. During World War I - following the lead of their foes Germany and Austria - Great Britain, most of Europe, and the United States all enacted laws advancing their clocks by one hour for seven months of the year, for the same alleged reason we do it today: to conserve electricity. After the war, President Woodrow Wilson proposed making the change permanent, but Congress repealed the statute over his veto because most of the country despised it. In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt put the nation on year-round DST - then called “War Time” - which people either tolerated or enjoyed until September of 1945, when the decision to observe it was returned to state and local jurisdictions. In 1963, the Uniform Time Act created a national DST from May through October, though some states like Arizona and Indiana requested and got exemptions. In 1973, in response to the Arab oil embargo, the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act extended DST for 15 months straight, until complaints from agribusiness and fears that children were at risk of being assaulted or struck by cars on their way to school in the dark forced its recission. In 1986, the spring change was moved to the first Sunday of April, and two years ago, Congress mandated the present arrangement, again in the name of energy conservation.
Whew. And never to be outdone, the California Energy Commission in 2000 proposed a Double Daylight Saving Time, under which the state would in effect go on Mountain Time, one hour ahead of Pacific Standard Time in the winter months and two hours ahead in the summer, claiming electricity savings of between 0.2 percent and 0.5 percent. The state senate petitioned the U.S. Congress to approve the scheme, but it was ignored.
Besides energy conservation, other arguments for extending DST include reducing traffic fatalities and cutting down crime. While substantiating data are skimpy in all cases, there is an inherent logic to these assertions. The unpopularity of DST after World War I came from a society that was still mostly rural and small-town; in the main, people retained a traditional sun-based way of life, getting up with the light and going to bed shortly after dark. It is not like that today; we rise and retire at the same times all year long. For most of us, except for farmers and morning joggers or golfers, an extra hour of afternoon sun, even in the dead of winter, more than compensates for having to eat breakfast and get out the door in the dark. Not only do children have more time to play outdoors, but it makes sense that traffic accidents are more likely to occur in evening darkness, when almost everybody is active, than in morning darkness, when the activity is more spread out. And criminals, of course, are not known to be morning persons.
What would Pacific Daylight Time be like on December 21, the shortest day of the year? According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, in Los Angeles the sun would rise at 7:55, not 6:55, and set at 5:48, not 4:48. As a northern contrast, in Seattle sunrise would occur at 8:55 and sunset at 5:20. Does it make any difference to you?
Farmers’ objections to DST seem to be based more on the time change than on winter darkness. As one Canadian farmer quoted on the website complained, “The chickens do not adapt to the changed clock until several weeks have gone by, so the first week of April and the last week of October are very frustrating for us.” You’d think a farmer would adjust his schedule to the chickens’ instead of the other way around, but it’s the adjustment that’s the issue here.
And beyond the farm, the adjustment is the issue too. The cost to businesses and to government for everything from reprogramming computers to resetting traffic lights has been estimated to run in the billions of dollars.
Not to mention the inconvenience to all of us in adjusting the multitude of our own conveniences - the wristwatches, the wall clocks, the car clocks, the clock radios, the answering machines, the microwaves, the stove. There have been years when I’ve discovered some appliance still displaying Standard Time in June, like an Easter egg you detect under your couch months after the family hunt.
And then there’s that clock in our bodies, which, like the farmer’s chickens, doesn’t change with the push of a button.
So I say: Daylight Saving Time, all the time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a nap.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - Over the last couple years, I've become a JetBlue fan. I like the low fares. I like flying in to tiny Long Beach Airport, with its yesteryear feel of short security lines, congestion-free vehicular traffic, one little easy-to-navigate concourse, and boarding and deplaning from a ladder on the tarmac. I like the planes’ comfortable seats and personal TV screens (on my last trip, I divided my time between checking the altitude, airspeed, and location, watching Cesar Millan work miracles with unruly dogs, and salivating over Rachel Ray - I mean her recipes, of course). The only thing I don’t like is blue potato chips.
So I was distressed to see that Blue got a black eye from a knockout ice-storm at JFK here two weeks ago, with planes immobilized for hours on the taxiway and hundreds of flights canceled for days thereafter, even when the weather turned nice and sunny. How on earth could things have gone so wrong, gotten so out of hand?
Five days into the crisis, with the cancellations still mounting, the founder and CEO of JetBlue stepped up to the plate. In an interview with the New York Times, David Neeleman called himself “humiliated and mortified” by the systemic breakdown in service. The ice-storm was not the cause, it was the trigger. Flushed with success and ambition in its eight-year existence, the airline had expanded exponentially, constantly introducing new destinations and rapidly becoming the dominant carrier at JFK, its hub. I watched it grow with every flight I took, and I did wonder whether in its exuberance and popularity it was growing too fast for its own good.
It was. The superstructure was dazzling, but the infrastructure was not keeping up. A few planes stuck on the ice had a ripple effect on the entire system. If planes couldn’t land, they couldn’t take off, and then it didn’t matter if the weather cleared. Pilots and crews were twiddling their thumbs in homes and hotels everywhere, waiting for orders, but JetBlue’s inadequate tracking and operations systems didn’t know where they were.
“We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren’t trained to help,” Neeleman told The Times. “We had an emergency control center full of people who didn’t know what to do. I had flight attendants sitting in hotel rooms for three days who couldn’t get a hold of us. I had pilots e-mailing me saying, ‘I’m available, what do I do?’”
Neeleman admitted all this, and in highly personal language, too: “I had flight attendants . . ., I had pilots.” He explained everything to the public frankly and simply, without obfuscation or excuse. He announced that he was taking immediate action to restructure the organization and train corporate managers to move into operations when needed. He also implemented a compensation policy for delayed passengers, long discussed by both airlines and Congress but never acted upon.
“This is going to be a different company because of this,” he declared. “I can flap my lips all I want. Talk is cheap. Watch us.”
Dave Neeleman for President!
Beyond JetBlue’s woes, consider the country’s. In more than an analogical way, we have a JetBlue situation with Iraq, with health care, with Social Security, with the environment, with New Orleans. There is a massive breakdown in communications and management at all levels of the federal government. In each of these challenges, some predictable, others unforeseen, we are stuck on the ground with vast resources of human ingenuity eager to help but unable to get through.
And the problem starts at the top.
Last December, Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek: “The history of the American presidency is the story of the character and temperament of the man in the Oval Office coursing through thousands of smaller decisions, often thousands of miles away. If the president is supple and open-minded, those decisions made many layers below him are more likely to be agile and empirical. If he’s stubborn and too sure that he has all the answers, the modeling of his behavior is likely to result in decisions you would ground your teenager for.”
It remains to be seen if JetBlue can pull out of its tailspin, but the swiftness of Neeleman’s response and his acceptance of personal responsibility give a good indication that it can and will. He seems to be demonstrating the qualities Alter sees in an effective executive: “The temperament of the chief leaches into the performance of functionaries he has never met.”
Imagine if we had a President who would admit to the nation that he was humiliated and mortified by the errors in his administration’s foreign policy and was taking immediate steps to correct them. Imagine a President who hadn’t spent three years parroting “Stay the course” and another year insisting he was “open to suggestions,” while continuing the same failed policies. Imagine a ”decider” who actually made decisions rather than letting events decide for themselves. Imagine a President who offered a plan for restitution and healing to his constituents, his “customers,” whose tax dollars have been sucked down the drain while they’ve sat helpless on the runway.
Every major issue facing this country will be stalled for the next two years. Alter writes: “Bush did not set out to miss the mark, of course, but his inattention to the execution of his grand ideas has had fatal consequences.” Neeleman did not set out to miss the mark either, and he also let the operation of his organization slip out of his control. But unlike Neeleman, who quickly faced the facts, admitted his guilt, and moved vigorously to change, this administration is incapable of such forthrightness. It will persist in its comprehensive inattention, self-justification, and excuse-making until it is finally swept away.
Candidates may want to look to David Neeleman for guidance on what America really needs in a leader.


February 26, 2007

By Roger Repohl

The docent at the American Folk Art Museum in New York led her group to the first room of its major exhibition of the works of Martín Ramírez - 97 pieces displayed over three floors. She stopped at a wall chockablock with 17 cartoonish pencil-and-crayon drawings of the very same subject: the stereotypical Mexican bandolero with sombrero and kerchief, astride a rearing horse and brandishing a pistol, his chest crisscrossed with belts of bullets. The figures are framed as on a stage, with curtains and columns of innumerable parallel lines and complex parquet floor patterns of closely foreshortened lines. Above the stage are various abstract adornments reminiscent of the old silent movie houses, around which swirl still more concentric lines. Each of the pictures is unique - a different floor pattern, a different posture of horse and rider, a different palette of colors - and yet they are all the same.
“What do these drawings tell you about the artist?” the docent asked.
“He was Mexican?” one patron ventured.
“He liked horses?” another guessed.
I knew what the drawings told me, from the second I saw them.
“He’s crazy,” I said under my breath.
No doubt about it: obsessive-compulsive. Of the 300 works that survive, almost all of them focus on only three themes: the horseman, the railroad, and the Virgin Mary. And almost all are filled in and filled up with those dizzying lines, to the point that by the end of the exhibit you may well go crazy yourself. The medical experts first diagnosed him as manic-depressive, then settled on “dementia praecox, catatonic form.” In fact, his first exhibit, organized by his doctor and shown without mentioning his name, was called “The Art of the Schizophrene.” But no matter. It’s obviously obsessive-compulsive.
Martín Ramírez produced these works, and hundreds of earlier ones that were destroyed as worthless, while living as a patient in two California mental hospitals. All of them might have ended up in the dumpster were it not for Tarmo Pasto, a psychologist and painter with an interest in the art of the insane. The doctor met him in 1948 at DeWitt Hospital in Auburn and encouraged and collected his work until Ramírez died there in 1963.
Over the years, Pasto organized four showings which sparked little interest. In 1955, he sent several pieces to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where they languished in the archives for forty years until a curatorial intern came upon them and brought them to the superiors’ attention. In 1968, he sold most of his collection to a Chicago artist, Jim Nutt, and the dealer Phyllis Kind. The time for “folk art” was dawning, and the two made a fortune. The Ramírez family, including his granddaughter and great-grandchildren who attended the opening of this exhibit in January, don’t own a single Ramírez; they’re now seeking funding to buy one for themselves. The going price for a drawing: $100,000 and up.
Discovering exactly who Martín Ramírez was - his history as well as his personality - took years of investigative work, mostly by the sociologists Victor and Kristin Espinosa. The scanty medical records indicate that he was found dazed and incoherent by the police in 1931, on a street somewhere in San Joaquin County. Judged insane, he was committed to the state asylum in Stockton. He escaped three times; twice he was apprehended, and the third time he came back by himself, presumably concluding that life was better, or at least safer, in the hospital. In 1948 he was transferred to a new facility in Auburn. Only once did any relative visit him; that was in 1952, when a nephew from Mexico came up to ask if he’d like to go home to his wife. He declined. “I’ll see her in the Valley of Jehoshaphat,” he said.
Home was the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where he was born in 1895. Some of his relatives still live there. In his youth, they say, he was a splendid horseman. He got married, had four children, and bought a farm. In 1925, to better support his family, he went north to California. There he worked in the mines and on the railroad, sending home money and letters illustrated with little drawings. Caught up in the failed Cristero rebellion of the late 1920’s and taking the side of Catholic revolutionaries against an anti-religious regime, his family lost their property. After that news, his communications ceased. The family next heard from him, indirectly, in 1948, as he was being transferred from Stockton to DeWitt: The staff sent them a pile of his drawings, which they tacked around the house and on the porch, and which, when they got too faded or weatherbeaten, they threw out.
There was no such thing as art therapy in those days, so Ramírez did art therapy on himself. Until Dr. Pasto took an interest in him, he used whatever materials he could scrounge. His medium was primarily pencil, colored and shaded with charcoal, shoe polish, and crayons melted down and applied with match-sticks. His drawing surface was paper bags or torn-out pages of books and magazines pieced together with glue he made from the cafeteria’s mashed potatoes, cut with water and saliva. This “quilting” process could get rather large; some of his works are eight feet tall or six feet long. Dr. Pasto provided Ramírez with art supplies, but apparently he preferred the old ways. Many of the drawings in the exhibit - all from the time the doctor discovered him until his death, some dated by the doctor in ballpoint pen by month and year - continue to be done on brown bags. Some are on magazine ads, which he seemed to take as an object of conquest (ads for refrigerators and shirts are turned upside down and drawn over thickly, seemingly with a mind to obliterate them) or as a theme to incorporate (an ad for the Rock Island Railway shows an engineer in the distance waving out of the cabin of his diesel locomotive to a cutaway view of a cowgirl and the upper portion of her horse in the near corner of the page; he added adjoining sheets of paper bag and finished out its hindquarters and legs himself).
Ramírez’s art is essentially cartoon, yet it is cartoon with a keen eye for the real. Though he draws fingers like cigars, his horses with their twisted bodies convincingly suggest the animal’s power and grace in motion. He is particularly good at buildings; churches and skyscrapers have the symmetry and bulk of an architectural rendering.
And there is no doubt to me that many of his pieces are cartoons by intention. Movies were surely the major form of recreation in mental hospitals of the time, and Ramírez observed them well. This is especially true of his second major obsession, trains. Another perfect occasion for more parallel lines and crunching perspective, tracks appear from the vanishing point of a womblike tunnel in the top left corner, snake to the bottom, and travel straightly until they meet an insurmountable obstacle - the right edge of the paper; from there they are deflected upward, vanishing into another tunnel. His steam locomotives and their cars have a personality, like those puffing, dancing, grimacing objects in Max Fleischer’s surreal animations of the twenties and thirties.
His horsemen, too, framed as they are by stage curtains and prancing on parquet floors, are obviously part movie house and part childhood memory.
The third of his obsessions is the Virgin Mary. The curator has titled these pieces “Madonnas,” but properly speaking they are almost all in the artistic genre of the Baroque “Immaculate Conception” commonly seen in Catholic churches in Spain and its former colonies - the crowned Virgin standing above a crescent moon and crushing the Satan-serpent underfoot. All the drawings have similar mask-like faces, with big-lashed eyes and quizzical smiles but each is uniquely adorned in robes of lavish patterns, some distinctly Mexican, some recalling the dresses of magazine models and movie stars.
Though so many of the themes are the same, there is always some little creature of whimsy to surprise and amuse, peering out of a corner or replicated in rows in a border - a smiling cat that looks like an armadillo, an androgynous deer with huge antlers and a pronounced vagina.
And after three floors, just when you think you couldn’t stand to see another parallel line, you come upon something very different: a true Madonna, a girl with a winsome, realistic face, blond hair, and a billowy embroidered blouse, smiling at you from an arched niche or grotto. Sadly, the piece is undated. Could this have been one of Ramírez’s last works, showing a leap forward in his technique and maybe a retrieval of his sanity?
But back to that wall of horsemen on the first floor. Why did I immediately identify this man as crazy? I’d read the reviews of the exhibit with their biographical sketches; was my mind already predisposed to this conclusion? To some degree, of course. But there is something in the work of those whom the experts now call “outsider artists” that reveals their inner states. Practitioners of “high art” are formally trained and thus, like other professionals, often abstracted from their own personalities. But it’s not so much that people like Ramírez or Henry Darger or Adolf Wölfli or Howard Finster are untrained; it’s that they see differently from the rest of us. The same section of their brain that makes them schizophrenic or fanatically religious pours itself out on the canvas or the paper bag. What you see in one of their works may be what they see all the time.
“Martín Ramírez” will be at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York City, through April 29. It then travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum, October 6 through January 6, 2008.