Hypnosis and Suspiria (1977): an inspired instrument of torture.

rev., October 1, 2013

I have mentioned in a previous note, that all film is dream, and that most makers of modern horror found a way to convey the state of reverie or hypnagogia in technical devices. I have also noted that one of the most common metaphors applied to this kind of change of mental state was hypnosis, and that in modern horror devices derived from the history of the magic lantern were used to induce trance states. The most common device was a spinning lamp with red, green, white, sometimes blue panels, so that the variation of the colors created a kind of “dream machine” effect, which put you in a state (this from The Crimson Cult).

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Even when there is no lamp device, if you see these colors, as, for example, in stained glass in Incubus, and I saw this too in the newer The Last Exorcism, then you are being inducted.

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And this brings us to the question of why Dario Argento made such extreme use of this convention in his classic movie, Suspiria. On the level of film chitchat, Argento is valued as an abstract movie maker, a formalist, who by his modern abstract formal attention to color and light, amplified horror. While it is true that, patently speaking, this is what he did, it is also true that this is a misreading of what he did (and he may have misread his own genius too, as in later films he exploited his tendencies in increasingly abstract ways, with less effectiveness). But the reason that Suspiria works so well, is not simply that it is a normal horror movie, overlaid with excessive baroque sound and light effects, as well as art direction, but because the two work together to logically and fully express the instrumentation of the witch, the Mother of Sighs, involved. In order to understand this, one must pay attention to what is said about how the witch works. When Udo Kier describes her methods to the disbelieving Suzy (Jessica Harper), a few things, often ignored, pop out (the fact that, whereas mostly explication like this is incidental, here it is critical, is key): she is a witch whose force is only malefic, that is, everything she does is evil; second, a coven is like a snake, it lives by the head, cut off the head, and the whole thing falls apart.

For the first part, this means that what she does permeates reality. That is, Argento casts her as an elemental force, in the German style. She has the ability to change weather, to cause nature to erupt, to direct evil demons through the sky, she is everything that a nemesis is. We get the clearest example of this, when the blind butler is killed by his dog, in the square in town. As he walks, the wind builds up, the weather seems to change, the impression is made, by the music and sound effects, a predecessor to Friday the13th, in signaling the presence of evil through sound effects, and through the shadows of some birds or witches or demons of the air on the front of the temple, and then she attacks by putting this spirit into the dog, and the dog bites and eats him. This is classic nemesis instrumentation. In Room 237, a documentary, it is suggested that, in the beginning of The Shining, as Berlioz’s Dies Irae sounds, and the camera zooms in but also around the car, that it is a vehicle pursued by a nemesis. This then provides the directors with the opportunity to quote from Fritz Lang, and some very German images of nemesis, the four horsemen

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Witches over the land

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Aerial demons, swooping in, caroming past a town, seen from above

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Flying demons, or witches, this could be right out of Haxan, but it is not, and could serve to cast the shadows on the building in the scene in Suspiria

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And then too even Satan shadowing over a whole town, this from Faust (I recognize)

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This is the kind of being that Argento has created of the Mother of Sighs, a witch that works by the wind, that is the maelstrom and the weather. And this then is the first reason why it was important to show the witch as abstractly controlling all of the visual reality of the film. What this means is that when Suzy shows up in town, and it suddenly begins to rain, that weather is another of the witch’s spells

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She has entered into the world of the witch, this explains why the woods have a fairy tale quality

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And the strange academy, too, has a Hansel and Gretel dimension to it, its redness, its giltwork, its strange unreal look

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Suzy is rebuffed in the rain because she walks in in the middle of another girl at the school being menaced and murdered by the witch. For whatever reason, the witch has decided that she must die, she is not fitting in, and so she is sent running in the woods

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she seeks safety in a friends house, but the amazing soundtrack of special voicings at this point indicates that she is still being pursued. She sees laundry hanging out of her window,

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we see her artificially light, in doors, through the eyes of a demon of the air sent out to get her (this POV reminds me of the zooming shots of Paris in Garfield’s original Svengali

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And then she peers through the glass, and through her reflections, and sees, as one will, eyes, just barely, the demon pursuing her

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She runs, and that results in her murder, and the death of the friend who sought to save her too.

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We later learn how this was done. Joan Bennett, who is terrifically odd in this her last movie, is the assistant witch but acting head of the coven. Still, she acts through the power of Helena Markos, a Greek witch come to Germany in 1895. Here we see her, spied upon by Suzy, taking some bread, or wine, having cursed the American girl, and wishing her illness, she somehow seals it, by directing the malefic power of Markos through her to the girl, by this ceremony. It is classic religious ceremony, in the context of a coven

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What this means is that the night Suzy showed up, the same sort of event was taking place, and it raised a demon, an evil emanation of the spirit of Markos, up, to pursue her, and it did, and it, or Bennett, or the coven as a whole, or, ultimately, Markos, is what killed the girl. Here she seals the deal against the American, it is presumed she did the same for this girl, earlier

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Earlier, the movie moves most curiously. Its aspect as “suspiria” or sighs, comes from suspicions of the school itself being “suspect,” and everybody having to sigh with embarrassment at this or that, because the plot is nothing but a series of mishaps, that Bennett then apologizes for, often unconvincingly. By far, the grossest scene, and the one upon which Argento might have been crucified himself by audiences demanding maggots forever after from him, and from the fact that maggots became part of the armentarium of Italian horror thereafter, is the fall of maggots onto the girls hair, causing a panic

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The explanation is that there was some bad meat delivered to the school and placed up in the attic, and it went bad, spreading maggots all over the place

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It is a bizarre sequence. The explanation does not seem entirely satisfactory. One gets symbolic: perhaps it represents to Argento the rotting soul of Germany, the locale of the movie, a place so rotten that Markos can still survive, perhaps it is, after all, Markos’s corpse, rotting, maybe it is the bodies of the murdered, it is left vague, but it is this bizarre event which is apologized with that most perfect upper class aplomb by Bennett, that made her role. I also note that it is in response to that violation, that she stands in front of the strange, my Fair Ladyish interior design of the main hall, a stageset evoking artificiality

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In any case, since the upper floor has to be fumigated, the girls are all going to sleep, like camp, in the dance hall, set up as a dormitory

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And it is in this context, since all residents of the upper floors had to be evacuated, that Markos is first introduced into the movie. The girl guesses that the woman snoring is the director we never see, and so her snoring is another form of sighing, and the form that gives her identity away

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Suzy later encounters this being when she figures out, after the other girl is killed, where the steps lead in the building, to a secret annex. There she sees the shadow behind the veil again, in a room emblazoned with a one-eyed symbol, the all-seeing eye, the ancient cyclopsian over all

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(again, the Cyclops represents POV in the extreme, that is, everything you see is seen through the eye of the one who controls it. This idea was standard fare in the modern era of horror, and made literal in the movie The Cyclops, itself, where the iris on the lens is zeroed in (and again a clue as to the meaning of the blue iris)

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She then detects Suzy’s presence, and sits up, a shadow

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But when Suzy pulls the curtain to kill, she sees only an indentation in the bed, making her a close cousin to mother in Psycho

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Then she realizes she has to stab the profile in invisibility, she does, it lightnings up, and then kills her. In dying, Markos then materializes in body again as a classic hag,

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And in materialization, dies. Remembering now what Kier said, if she dies, and she is the head of the coven, all die. Now, she is past 100, she is “dead,” to the body, but she has somehow remained alive as a spiritual, haunted entity, to give power to the coven, and to conduct her business through the bodies of the coven. When she dies, they all die, by wind, and, somehow, strangulation

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At the same time, the last victim, raised as a zombie to attack Suzy, by Markos, also vanishes

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But, then, even more germane to the specific direction of this discussion, the wind comes up, her death is a storm. It is also a destruction. All of the most curious artifacts in her room, by which, perhaps, she controlled things, as a game of chess, begin to explode (and, in the recorded history of poltergeist attacks, this is a unique instrumentation of them, and exploding is novel too, because here, they really explode

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And this continues out in the main hall

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And then all the walls begin to crack and fall down

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And, while it is normal, or conventional, for the enchanted realm of the magic being to explode, and even more conventional for palaces and whatever to explode at the ends of movie (here I will insert numerous examples at a future date), the fact that this whole school turned out to be an enchantment in body of a malefic spiritual force emanating from Markos is unique in many ways. However, this brings us back to the issue of the use of hypnotic colors. Argento had to figure out a way in which to convey the pervasiveness of the evil in the whole world of the movie interjected into it by Markos. He had to explain why Suzy was always feeling sick, and drugged, and so many bad things were happening. He had to convey that the entire place, and the entire movie around it, was an instrument of hypnosis, to cast us into a spell, by using a device of hypnosis in a novel way. He had to undertake and elaborate misdirection, and tell us while he was doing it that he was doing it. And this is what he did. There is no hypnotic device in the movie, except, perhaps, for the curious curio of a peacock with multicolored gems on it in Markos’ room

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But there is plenty of the elements of the standard hypnotizing magic lantern, which would be red, green and blue, both individually, and continually contrasting. When Suzy arrives in Germany, she is already in the enchantment, it is red

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The school, red, with its windows, yellow, is an architecturalization of a dream machine

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Even when the girl she encounters seeks escape, she remains in the realm, as it has a red, illusory, almost Pompeiian quality to it

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And then of course she runs up to the skylight, all stained glass in the colors, and dies in the colors, and then even the glass comes down and takes out her friend too

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Simply put, Argento has taken this simple device, used malevolently by Rathbone in Tales of Terror, and turned it into a machine of torture, but, then, taken it beyond that, and architecturalized it, so that all elements of it contribute

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The fact that the friend ends up sliced in half by some of the colored glass indicates its literalization here, but, then, too, her housepaint red blood again reinforces the fact that this simple device was made the very machine of murder.

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When Suzy has to stay in the school, she encounters the red lined hallway right away, and when a cook, polishing silver, shines a reflection of silver in her eyes, she gets sick: the hallway itself is that magic lantern, exaggerated into hallway scale

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And then the cook activates it in this instance

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The spell is reinforced at Suzy’s first try out by the fact, the very odd fact, that the dance hall is graced with some very strange novo-catholic church modernist style Chagallian stained glass windows, perhaps evoking the opera and fine arts, when in fact the lessons offered by this apparently not very qualified teacher seem highly suspect

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When Suzy is in her rooms, she is put in the middle of the magic lantern. The way that the door transoms internalize the magic lantern, and suggest to me, too, the forms of the Martian searching for hiding heros in War of the Worlds, is quite inventive. She IS being hypnotized as she lives (if one imagines the phrase, as I live and breathe, then her breathing, in the chambers, is another form of the sighs),

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All the halls are instruments of hypnosis, red and the other primaries,

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In this scene, the transom is almost a figural presence, just like, again, in War of the Worlds. Here’s the transom, a figure of always being watched, something always over ones shoulder, sometimes glowing

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Later, the transom is especially malevolent as it changes colors, when the girl goes looking

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And here is The War of the Worlds (1953 version)

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(such a quote would be typical of Argento’s mashup style, which, not unlike a classic Mexican horror movie, mixed genres, especially the supernatural and extraterrestrial: and I discuss this in more detail in Aregento’s curious decision to turn Dracula into a walking stick in the recent remake). As noted before, when the hall becomes a dorm, and Markos is there, it is red

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When the girls talk over the steps and finding out where the teachers really go at night, it is red and pink and blue

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At the pool, which seems rather unrealistically large for the place, a classic illusion place, again the red and blue windows watch

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Argento seems to signal that all of this is emission from the lighting fixtures, and therefore derived in fact from the tradition of the magic lantern, in this curious shot, taken from the ceiling lamp bulb out, a very weird POV

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and later in her search, red and blue

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And in the murder

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And escape. It is all the instrument of the witch’s spell, the visual sign of her way of controlling and attacking and exerting her power. She is by now a spiritual force, acting only through a coven. But her world is also a physical environment, the whole school, and the whole school, and the whole countryside around, its weather, the demons in the air, all is her creation, she is a mother of creation, the mother of sighs, and of snoring, and of breathing, and of the wind, the sound and the weather. It is not simply then that Dario Argento turned a basic horror movie into an arty movie by going abstract and colorific with it, but that he developed a very traditional notion of who the witch was, what her powers were, how far they went, what they entailed, and devised for all that, an visual counterpart, derived from the convention of the magic lantern as hypnotizing object, to create of every frame of the film an classic enchanted realm. This is why the movie works so well: because it is an entirely inspired instrumentation of horror.


Though I focused in this note on the coloring, and their derivation from the hypnotic magic lantern, I also want to mention to other elements of the space. One, if it is an enchanted space, then it has an excess of space, and the space can be irrational. It is also a manipulated or twisted or what Deleuze and Guattari might refer to as a paranoid space, as the controlling force is free to turn the space into a web of its own design. The unreality of the space, the enchanted realm, then, would explain why when the girl goes up to look for where the steps are coming from, she is chased to her death. And it is death by architecture, as she is chased down a hall, into a room

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And then the room, rather illogically, has a lit window looking out into, what, another room? It does quite have a floorplan logic. In any case, in the illogicality of the space, she is now desperate for escape, so tries to escape

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And then in a classic misdirect shot, not unlike one copied in Home Alone 2, she lands on her feet on a raised platform, but then only sees the door, opening out, and does not look down, so she leaps, only to find, in undoubtedly the most surreal element of the film, a room full of razor wire, in which, any move she makes will slit her. In this case, it only traps her, the killer reaches in and finishes her off

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(now this is an escalation of a trend in Italian horror that started with the interesting set ups of Bloody Pit of Horror, and others, especially the spider web and the arrows: a purposeful trap room, a variant of the torture room, here disguised as a strange sort of excess storage room). But it is still a typical element of an enchanted, not a real realm.

Finally, there is the central mystery of the building having some inner chamber where the teachers disappear, and figuring out where they go. On the basis of this, Suzy thinks about what the girl in the rain was saying: in fact, she remembers, she was giving her clues about what is the truth in the house. This panoramic painting is the oddest artifact of the movie. At present, I cannot discern what its cultural genealogy might be

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But it is marked, hiding in plain sight, by three bright flowers, and they are yellow, red and blue. And it turns out that the blue iris is the most important, because it is not only a painting, but a lever, a key, the camera closes in, and for the first time we see that it is in three dimensions

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Suzy turns it, and it opens a secret, but not very secret door in the wall (thus it can be seen that the murals odd girlish style was a kind of Pompeiian deception to hide the fact that some elements were dimensional. Inside, is a blue curtain

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And then that opens up into a long curving hallways, painted Germanically in laurels, and inscribed in Greek, Latin, German and Hebrew, THIS is the movie’s equivalent of the occult book explaining it all, it is a spell in architecture

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I like the curtains too: it’s a very odd place, hardly explained, and it exists in the movie less than ten minutes

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And it is here that the final encounters as described occur, all of it then to get blown up. One final comment: I believe that as you move from the outer to the inner levels of an occult realm the spell becomes a hyperspell, in which everything is not only haunted or enchanted but becomes the instrument of a spell. Therefore, in ways I have not yet determined, I believe Markos did her magic by the shorthand voodoo of manipulating the objects in her room, very strange objects, very strange room, I especially like the bizarre rococo baroque stand

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It is said by some that all nightmares are waking dreams, or dreams one wakes up on in the middle of the night, and that one senses the presence of this clash in the form of a hag crawling up or sitting on one’s body. In the end, then, the entire movie is a very concentrated, then quite extenuated, hag attack: one of the greatest hags of the movies, Helena Markos, by this point, in 1977, well over a hundred years old, like Marcato in Rosemary’s Baby, a survival from the classic period of symbolist modern occultism, here at last her reign coming to an end. But, throughout the movie this snoring presence, the mother of sighs, was the architect, through Dario Argento, of every single frame of film you see.

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P.S. The evil of this hag, finally, is subconsciously reinforced by two additional overlaid themes, one striking Americans of a certain time, in particular: Suzy gets sick, overseas: it is always a traumatic experience; then too, Suzy is sexy, but we are never once allowed to engage that sexiness and in fact in her pain and anxiety she actively works to crush her sexuality, a scene most graphically rendered by the fact that when a bat gets into the bathroom and it gropes for her on the floor, her shoes backing off, a figure of her hairy thing, she then takes a stool and beats it to death. In which case Argento purposefully frustrates the male viewer, who ever after surrounds the movie with the meta menace of seeing her bent over this and that, Suzy then becomes the worst example of a girl that got away. But these at least are incidental remarks.

“I kind of like this one, Bob, leave it” : Iconoclasm and the homicidal artistry of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).

rev., August 17, 2014.

At the end of his iconoclastic romp through the Flugelheim Museum in Gotham City in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the Joker (Jack Nicholson), sticks out his cane and stops Bob from vandalizing the Francis Bacon. He says to him

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This is a joke about Bacon, of course, and his existential angst, which perhaps in 89 was considered somewhat passe, but also about what the tastes of a psycho in contemporary art might be as well. While most of the works of art that were vandalized were beautiful in conventional ways of art, this was an anti-beauty ugly work of art. The fact that the face of the screaming Pope or Figure with Meat

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is white, also would be in accordance with Joker’s new taste, and the innards of beef too would appeal to his bloodthirsty taste for death. In fact, the episode begins with death. The Flugelheim Museum is depicted in classic Anton Furst manner as something carved out of a factory, in a town of overgrown modernism, without a glass box in it to smooth things out. Inside, it is a highly atypical art museum, as much of the art is right in the lobby, which is not common, and, if it occurs, only would in a very small museum. But right away one sees that we are in fact in a movie version of an art museum, and not a real art museum. Like the art museum, perhaps, in a Wishmaster sequel, or another in, I think, the Hellraiser series, this is an art museum where only the blue chip masterpieces of art are shown, the icons of art history, and as such it is rather a representation of the concept of art itself, as a cultivating power in life, than a real art museum.

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One sees in the lobby, the Rembrandts, highly unlikely, less so behind an Egyptian sculpture on a pedestal, and even less so next to a Degas. Uptop is a Blue Boy by Gainsborough, a few more classics, and then we get back to the Bacons. The cafeteria where he is assignated to meet Vicky is upstairs in the back to the right. The only real museums in New York city that this set up reminds up even if only in profile is the Academy of Fine Arts on Fifth Avenue, where, back of the entrance and the coatroom, there was some sculpture, leading to the spiral stair; the old layout of the Morgan, where you could come into the lobby, there would be glass cases with art in them, and then the main gallery of the art off to the side; other than that, mainly art galleries. But this is quibbling, with these images on the walls, the place represents art per se. A special note about the Blue Boy, overlooked in the movie. The Blue Boy is one of the ur works of American art in our generation because it was held in the Huntington Library in California, and the work that not only inspired Robert Rauschenberg to become an artist, but Dave Hickey to become an art critic: and in both cases it was the movement of an image that they thought, because the Huntington reproduced it so often with Pinkie in playing card sets in the 50s, an image of popular art, made into real art. I have also explored the role of Blue Boy as an icon of first exposure to art, as an elevating force in life, as something that makes life worth living, in my life, for the same trajectory. That is, it advanced the meaning of life from everyday non-agentic paralysis and lack of meaning, to the level of art, and agency, and having meaning: the Blue Boy is not only an icon representing then the cult of art, a sacred image, then (and Rembrandt’s cigar box special would be another example), but also that original figure that stepped out of everyday life into the realm of art, that ascended from low down life to art. For this upward trajectory, and for identifying this force and trajectory, as the purpose of art, elevation to cultivated life, art as such is an enemy of the worldview of the Joker. And that is why he feels it necessary to not only do a little vandalism, but symbolically wipe out the concept of art. His first step is to gas the place, so that when he comes into the space, it is more in keeping with his world view. He has redone the space in gas, in the miasma of evil, and negated art, almost painting by painting, to a dead body lying on the floor of the gallery. By killing people looking for transcendence in art, he has cut art off from its old masters traditional goal, and turned the world back into the realm of death that he lives in.

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since this figure on the floor has a catalog and spilled glasses, he can be called a vignette of the death of the connoisseur as well, the negation of all that bullshit, that, in the popular imagination, art criticism is.

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As a result, this is Burton’s rendition of Rockwell’s sourly situated retort to high art and all the art critics who ignored him, his Conoisseur (1962)

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Closer to the time of the movie, Mark Tansey’s The Innocent Eye Test (1981) would make the same sort of joke,

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And if you do not believe that this culture war continues, conventionally seeing the art world as a place of hopeless pretense and elitist incomprehensible stupidity, the snobbishness of which deserves a regular put down, then consider that two weeks ago 60 Minutes, watched, for god’s sake, by an elite audience, but perhaps not one in tune with the arts (preferring illegal derivative financing formulas to the incomprehensibility of art writing), did a feature on the German forger Beltragie, and got special pleasure in reducing Pollock expert Francis X. O Connor to silence, refusing to vouch for the authenticity of a Pollock because of all the legal jeopardy involved, in effect recreating Rockwell’s middle brow rejoinder.

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The act of iconoclasm that follows can be seen as one large and coherent performance, with several acts in it, a romp, as I put it, or as individual acts of iconoclasm against famous art, for particular reasons. It starts when Joker, with his crew, puts on the boombox of Prince, and then he begins to gesture and dance and vandalize, and then, after his lead, he orchestrates the others in doing most of the dirty work. First, he does like a marching band, as maybe boom boxers did then (as, for example, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing), to exert their social power, and, passing by, uses his cane to drop the Egyptian statue to the floor, smashing it

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He then heads to the famous American Scene urban scene on the left (Hopper? Shahn? At present my mind blocks), and in this act, his iconoclasm is represented by inserting his own addition to the space in the painting. There is a blank wall by a railroad yard in it, and he dips into the fictive space, to, with internal logic in the picture, put a large scale graffiti, 80s style, on the wall, even though on another whole level he is just vandalizing the surface of the material work of art.

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This double act of iconoclasm (on the surface, and inside the fictive space of it) was a bit more “creative” than the subsequent acts by his crew, because he actually enters into the picture, its fictive space, then makes a graffito, which could, momentarily, be mistaken as a graffito painted by the artist in the painting, altering it, if the wall in the railroad was up to date, as today it would inevitably be covered with large scale graffiti. By contrast, all the crew does is cross out, with x’s of red paint, a meaningless, blank act of desecration,

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Re paint or color (oddly the High Art Association did just this with busts of Nefertiti at the Acquavella Galleries last summer, 2013),

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and in the movie

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Makes handprints of I was here on a Rembrandt portrait (these reminding me of the red feet representing the presence of a ghost in the Ju on movies).

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a splash, mimicking that modus of contemporary painting (indulging then in some jokes at the expense of crazy contemporary art

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and others,

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And then Joker becomes more involved again in, in this act, mimicking the work of art, which is odd, as this is what people do who take pictures with it, or, in today’s terms, photobomb it, thus underming it by an intrusion of viewer mentality, or make jokes about the art

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And then upstairs is when his cane comes into play to stop Bob from vandalizing the one work he likes, and it is perhaps important that it is that interruption of iconoclasm, Bob seems ready to have slashed it, doing a Fontana on the Bacon, or cutting the Bacon, is as close as the Joker gets with his cane to mimicking the gesture of the artist with tam with brush (for he is parodying in a chip on shoulder fashion an old fashioned notion of being an artist), and being an artist. This suggests that as a kind of negating artist the Joker saw iconoclasm as one type of art he might do, just go around and toss paint on classics, descreating the classics, in the manner of a bad statement or radical contemporary artist with a serious chip on his shoulder

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But then it is also to be noted that with the exception of his altering of the text of the Hopper, and mimicking the Degas before knocking it down, the vocabulary of iconoclasm in the gang is pretty weak. It is not the strongest sequence, and it is so square in its formation, blunt acts of iconoclasm against works of art that represent art and are not real works of art, that it does not have in fact much real punch, it feels, in other words, comic booky, kitsch. One of the fun things about this sequence was that I watched it for the first time in a theater in Florida with two artists, so, in an art world context. It was the artist who shared with me the observation that “it is a bit disturbing that I was more upset about the destruction of the art than the killing of the people.” I would say the answer to this problem is that the destruction of the art was staged in such as to represent an attack on the concept of art per se, while the killing of the people was just a collateral damage event in a campaign of mayhem focused on larger things elsewhere in the movie (and, besides, killing of people is what you get in movies, not the destroying of art).

In any case, that is his iconoclasm. It will be part of his life as a new kind of artist, in his post-criminal, or transcended mad criminal stage. He had in fact come to the museum to meet with Vicky, so this is all part of his introduction and his entrance. His first entrance then is with Vicky coming early and finding her place, and she is looking quite good here, between the Blue Boy and the Bacon

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And we see in this shot that she was actually also standing in front of the George Washington, the response to that, and iconoclasm, was Money

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And then as she waits, something arrives at her table, a small gift, wrapped up in a comic booky way,

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She opens it, and it tells her what to do,

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And when the gassing starts, she knows what to do, and, again, nice contrast here of blonde hair and gas

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This box could be construed as just a box. But in fact he sends other gifts, and each time makes something of them, either in a prank or joke manner. Later, at her apartment, he sends Vicky another box, and then it hack in the boxes, to jump some dead flowers out at her, so it is kind of a gift turned into a threat, and she faints, movie style. These are evil votives, once they saved her, at other times they attack, this can be termed a genre of his counterreal art.

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A second kind of ‘art’ that he does is to remake people over to look like him, after he was remade from his accident, and the failed plastic surgery. He was left without pigment, stained white, and with an evil rictus, from a paralysis of muscles. And so he gets hold of a model and does her over that way too

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This is partly psychotic agency, imprinting an evil outcome on the world, for it to share in one’s agony. It s a form of revenge, but also reverse envy, to take everyone down to his level. It is more about revenge when he directly acts against his girlfriend who double crossed him, a bit part by then Jagger wife Jerry Hall, and she is represented both in mask form, as a work in progress,

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And as a done deal, scared by his evil facial experimentation: these then literal examples of iconoclasm gone evil. In all cases, he matured in a world of hers, where the art was large black and white fashion photos. We can see this at the beginning, and now, as a psycho, he has his revenge for a world that he now sees as false, full of hypocrisy and deceit, by literalizing it, by making the world over into a palliative zone nearer death where everything is like those photos, black and white.

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But there is also a sense that this image is partly made by his own graphic art, which entails cutting out pictures, and affixing them as jess like ironic and sarcastic collages onto the images of the tv, and, as such, part and parcele of his efforts to jam tv signals, and to take over the airwaves.

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These images are drawn from the core work of his new life as an artist of evil, a homicidal artist, he sits in his studio loft, and spends hours and hours cutting out images from pictures, stills, crime shots, etc etc, to make art for his broadcasts, in effect, acting as a kind of cable tv or youtube personality making a channel with its own graphic character of collage,

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He has a few desks in his art loft complex, this one seems to a desk that focuses entirely on his own photographic history in police files, all the pictures now cut out and done something with.

For me, the fun part of this shot is that, in addition to vamping off of the photos that Batman peruses, and existing in a world where the ‘art’ of that world is police photos and fashion photos, it also is a genre set piece in horror, where in a state of psychosis a person will engage in a psychotic act of iconoclasm against their own collection of photos and their photo books. Just off the top of my head, I have already written on this picture voodoo in the Ju On or Grudge movies, and the similarity of those devices to those created in a work of tabloid art by Curtis Mitchell in 1991, but the image of Joker sitting there at his table and cutting photos and altering them madly directly corresponds with Mimsy Farmer doing likewise, when her psychosis gets deeper, in The Perfume of the Lady in Black. And I could link this as well to actual picture voodoo in a number of other horror movies, including Virgin Witch.

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As part of this life, he lives a life that is an inversion of Batman’s. But when he does not like something he sees on the TV, he has one of his happening devices rigged up to, in comic manner, on par with vaudeville imagery of flowers pulled from sleeves, boxing glove smash the screen,

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Here’s the iconoclasm against tv,

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On the same level as fun and joke shop materials, he uses a buzz handshake prank to electrify a boss who opposes him, allowing him to light up

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And then be cartoonly, as this only happens in the cartoon universe , charred (on par with seeing the skeleton when someone laughs horribly or is electrocuted, as in the movie Planes, Trains, and Home Alone 2, he ends up a charred skeleton

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In most of these “works of art” or dada works of art, by the homicidal artist, he makes art til someone dies, and that means that he uses a prank device with a shock effect to make someone either faint or drop dead. This quick, one two punch format he introduced when he first said hello to hall in his new guise

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And she fainted away

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Finally, his more advanced art is to develop a formula to pollute cosmetics, to poison and kill, and so by refusing announcers their usual makeup, he performs another level of iconoclasm, in the context of which his deformation may not seem that terrible. This was taken at the time as an arch comment on coiffed news announcers, but the 80s knew nothing about what was to come once cable tv showed up

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His final act of art, per se, is that he appropriates the 200th anniversary parade and does it over his style. This means that he makes, or has made, his own versions of Macys dad parade balloons, Jeff Koons style, but evil, as they all emit lethal gas. He also throws money: in the 80s this was taken as symbolic as the worst sort of evil patronizing by the rich of the poor, ignobly reducing the poor to poor souls scrambling for cast off crumbs from the rich. Today, however, this is too common, and has become a repeated part of the new paternalism. Finally, the killing and the gas. So, again, art that leads to death, a work of homicidal art.

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And that is it, we have seen the acid-emitting lapel flower before, by which he causes the Quasimodo bell to fall, blocking police from the tower

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Now, he has declared, I am the world’s first homicidal artist. What does that mean, it means to him

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Early on, in real life, in a life without art, he was a straight up criminal. He was the agent, but an evil agent, using violence to illegitimately get his way. Violence, it is tough to determine what it is, in agency theory. At present, I will say that when an agent makes use of the emitted power of his position and posture vis a vis others in a way designed to influence and change and alter the agentic relations, that is agency. It is action resulting from persuasion in various forms, being overpowered, being made emotional, having an image transfix or hypnotize you, etc etc etc., and the catholics thought of lots of other ways images could acts as agents, then too modern art devised ways by which the artist acts as agents in numerous ways vis a vis life. But violence is antiagency: violence is the violation of agency. It declares the space and value between human beings, their capacity to influence each other, by persuasion or other emitted power, bankrupt, and, besides, too difficult, so it takes a gun, an illegitimate solution, and shoots through it, cancels it out, and gets their way by force alone, whether or not anyone is persuaded in the least. Agency works upon a viewer or “patient” as Gell termed the recipient of the equation. But if the act results in the patient being dead, there is no agency anymore. At present, that is as good as I can do on this difficult issue, it serves me enough to proceed with this movie and its agency.

When, then, he was just Jack, the criminal, he could kill, and commit crime. But then, when he was doublecrossed, he found himself in a new posture of bitterness and desire for revenge vis a vis his comrades and even his lover. He could have just killed them, but they did something that resulted in an absurd outcome in his life that was deemed by him to be such a ridiculous thing that it made him go mad and as mad he wanted to retreat to an impulse to imprint his image on all things, in an act of revenge, and then, after having had his fun, enabled by that persona, to kill. It was kind of a sidestep in agency, a counteragency: an act of iconoclasm was committed against him, he therefore used that to act to be his own golem against those who did this to him. To make his point, to, one, make his comrades fear him by having them think and see that he is absolutely psycho, and two, then to kill a seemingly terrorizing way, because it was devised in an artistic manner that, not like a mad scientist devising science by sporting with nature¸ seems out of his mind, he established a new kind of agency, or a reverse agency (in the sense of reverse engineering), or, in fact, for the first time as a criminal counteragency, established an indirect means of killing, and in that in- or misdirection, perceived as mad, was something akin to art, in the mind of Burton or the writers, and, passing it through art, reverse agency-engineered an apparent actual but fake agency. And that art consisted of one, imprinting others with his image, to kill them; two, making graphics for his iconoclasm against tv; three, make gag gifts that shock or kill, or squirt acid or punch out tvs; four, appropriate balloons and floats; and five, engage in straight out destructive iconoclasm. And, then, after being the “artist” part of the homicidal, comes the homicidal. The part of his mad zig zag that is akin to art is the mad feint, the effect that causes his subject to think him mad, and then he kills. The odd thing about this is that in my day I knew some artists who assumed this kind of persona in the art world, oddly, to counteract the world, and to seem psycho, or set apart, from that persona to act in art. Weird. I suppose Burton was thinking most of all of Andy Warhol, but others like Liz and Val, Jamie Lee Byars, others, all adopted this idea, maybe even Joseph Beuys, the notion of an intervening counterreality persona, through which one works against the world. .

So, the strange course of crime picked up by the Joker in Batman (1989) was the least of all about iconoclasm, it was about creating an evil agency in crime, to become a homicidal artist, to make art until someone died. In that, Jack Nicholson’s comic performance as Joker is in full and entirely a parody of the conceptual artist 1980s style. In all its forms, it is an intriguing formulation of character, and a “practice” of a kind of art. And, finally, this may answer why the iconoclasm against art was considered more upsetting than the killing of people to my movie partner at the time: killing is a direct result of antiagency, a crime, it is criminal activity, but it is not considered mad, in many, many cases; but an act of iconoclasm in the context of a kind of mad art making an evil game of killing before the killing, to make the killing seem wanton and in disregard of the humanity of the victim, that signals madness, and insanity, and an insanity beyond not being responsible for it, but “madness” in the sense of the mad artist, a conventional figure in modern horror. For that, then, the Joker represents Tim Burton’s take on one of the most enduring of clichés in modern horror movies, the mad artist, going way back to the House of Wax, and even further back, to the Phantom of the Opera: he has wanted to tell a story, and dig deep into the tropes of urban Euro-sourced horror, Anton Furst helped him get there, and for it he made a Joker as artist that may in fact be filed in alongside of the Phantom and the presider of the house of wax. It’s quite an accomplishment, and the sharp, startling characterization of this strange comic book criminal is largely responsible for why Batman (1989) remains a quite good movie, in my view, a four star movie.


This note feels partly related to a model of the avant garde artist that I devised at the time and which exists in full statement in the catalog I wrote for Cheryl Donegan for Basilico gallery in 1994.

Mr. Turner versus J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014).

rev., June 20, 2015

At one point, in Mike Leigh’s quite good Mr. Turner, Turner comes back from sketching a prostitute, having, off screen, asked her to remove her top, and, since he is aroused, he takes advantage of his maid by catching her from behind as she is dusting the bookshelf. She is depicted as a lowly person who has submitted to this type of thing as one of the conditions of her employment, and the way she enjoys it means she knows this is where she is getting sex in life, and had better be Ok with it, and maybe in her more girlish moments even fancies that, because of such attacks, he fancies her. So, he lifts her dress, and goes into her

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And then we see him smash her up against all of his books, the whole thing precipitated by the reaching for a book, her head actually crushed into the books

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In some ways, this scene exemplifies both the promise and the problems in the movie. Just before, he had been in a private chamber with a prostitute, and, before cutting off screen, he had asked her to remove her top,

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And yet it is not apparent that he allowed himself the freedom of having her sexually. This means that he had a method and that method involves sketching and his art, and not mixing up the two. This suggests that his art practice is one thing, but his private life is another. That is, one must not make too much of direct explanatory connections between his life and his art, because his art existed by this point in his career on a different level, and in a completely different state of mind. And the main element in the different state of mind in his art was, not sex or his sexual problems, but books—books are the key to the real Turner. This notion is perhaps, I am not sure about this, conveyed purely visually by two shots that more or less frame this section of the movie: after his father dies, when his previous way of life with father as manager is disrupted, and he must seek out another way of life with another person to often companionship. Earlier, there is an aerial view of a spiral staircase, I am not entirely sure of the context, but…..in all horror movies, and all movies, this shot represents the wormhole down which a life is swirling, from rational to irrational, from regular to extraordinary, from waking to dream state. It means that he is falling, and he is scrambling to make up a new reality

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not soon after we get him to Margate down on the English Channel, and here again, as in thousands of other English movies, horror and otherwise, a clifftop view of the rocky depths and crashing surf below signifies his peril. This shot is in itself a visualization of suicidal ideation, and represents crisis. He may be drawing, but he is drawing on the edge (though the beach is placid that day)

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We have previously been given notice that he goes on drawing safaris. One of the best sequences of the movie, and the one most lifelike to the practice of an artist, is that he goes off for days to private places like a lodging just over the port and the water at Margate to sit at a window and draw. The Margate set is terrific. It has a curved promenade, a busy seaport bustle, and a cozy English feel, it feels like a dream

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It is also of interest that he is incognito, and seeks out a window on the upper floor, in a rented room.

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This sequence parallels strongly with many others expressing the split nature of the life of a male in 19th century or later England. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian too often goes out, and disappears for awhile.

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In Werewolf of London, and again in The Invisible Man, it is exactly to this sort of lodging that he goes. The room and the housekeeper are not that different than those in, even, the 1913 version of Dr. Jekyll and My. Hyde, when Hyde goes off to a dive


But in his case, while it might be think he goes for lodging, or whoring, or whatever, he goes for art. It again, in the context of its visual tradition, sets art aside from life as a targeted practice with rules of its own. Art is a methodology. But it will be noticed, as previously, that as he did not partake of his model at the whorehouse, so he is not in fact acting like a Sunday painter and setting up shop to make easel paintings of his scenes, he is doing inventory, he has a notebook, and is simply compiling instances of sunset etc which he might then refer to and draw from as from a database of types for his larger, entirely in studio production. On this point, however, distinguishing his particular sketch-database practice from Sunday painter landscape plein air painter, there is some fudging, and perhaps misunderstanding. There is one wonderful shot of the White Cliffs of Dover, which again places this movie is a long tradition of movies with similar shots, but I would say Turner was not a partaker of landscape in that way.

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They show him at one time being tied up to the mast, to experience the snow storm, and that indicates to me that he was after effects and not after scenes, that is, he was an effect painter not a scenery painter. The notion that he is a conventional landscape painter might provide some consolation to the many of those painters in the audience, but his practice was much more focused. The clearest breach between a romantic film view of his practice and his actual practice is in this shot of him walking along the surf, as if to simply enjoy the abstract landscape (and again this shot rich in association with other movies in horror and otherwise),

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The problem is, again, he did not set up, he was walking looking for effects. Moreover, as scholarship has found, exploring the culture of the time, the beach as moderns know it, as a place of bathing, and of contemplation of the out there, in a placid and serene way, did not exist then. At the end of the movie the fact that he comes out of his house in his gown with a sketchbook to make a sketch of a young lady drowned at sea is I think interpreted as a sign of his loss of power and of his craziness at the end. But, no, he had always only had an interest in the intersection of life and death at the very littoral between them, in those days, the beach. Though here he sketches a dead girl,

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Even in the beginning, the beach was a place to go foraging for washed ashore remains of the dead or of ship passage and shipwrecks. It was a zone of death. This shot of him and his new wife walking down the Margate steps reminded me of similar steps at Whitby,

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Made deadly in Dracula (this a walk thru the cemetery, in the BBC’s 1977 Dracula)

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and that in fact Turner’s practice visa vis the sea was entirely in keeping with the shipwreck washashore events of Dracula 90 years later.

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The experience of the British of the beach before 1900 was the experience of it as a border between life and death. He was also looking for artifacts from the realm of death to incite him to create deeper and more profound visions of what death must look like from life. Each artifact would then “have a story” to it and it is in the space between the shore, the artifact and the story, that Turner’s imagination turned on, and he began to create art.

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This theme is addressed, as it is Ruskin who purchases his most famous and scandalous painting, of the slave ship wreckage, though ennobling because of its political undertone, but, in truth, this is what was on his mind in most of his nautical paintings, and the political aspect of it only served to inflate the world he expanded his practice over, what he incorporated then often leading to a larger and larger practice (whereas actual landscape practice is actually rather small).

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As is

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Even his contemporaries diminished his practice, and he had to sometimes admit he was a marine painter, as if he only worked in that scenic genre, with roots going way back. In one nifty sequence he is out with some fellows and they make light of his interests in the marine, and when they come upon the towing of the Tremeraine to its final resting place, they all joke that it would make a great Turner, he grunts assent, at the same time shutting them up, but of course the strange thing is when Leigh sought in film to reproduce the shot as a scenic shot only, it is nowhere the view it is in the painting.

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It is beautiful, it is fine, but it has nothing of the depth that the Turner of the same has, here he is working on it, interrupted by this housekeeper (this time no oops sex),

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And face to face, not in a movie, even better

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how explain this gap? Well, at one point, he visits, I think, the Ruskins, and they make a joke that the house has been built around the painting, so he has no need of praises, and no need to feel neglected in his time. But this aerial shot suggests that he is walking into a place that does not understand, and that the painting is lost on the scene. This kind of shot is usually reserved for haunted houses when someone above is watching something mysterious and incomprehensible taking place below

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And indeed when Leigh stages a rather nice conversation on art by the upper class back then, Turner grunts though it, except when Ruskin takes issue with Lorraine, and Turner shoots back that Claude Lorraine is a genius, Ruskin had been complaining of the unreality of Lorraine’s work, Turner defends it, clearly on other grounds

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What were those other grounds? It is breaching the opening towards those other grounds that a separate movie hemorrhages out from this purely outside objective view of Mr Turner, to avoid confronting the contemporary cultural truth of the inner life of Turner.

Nancy Andriessen, in The Creative Brain, has argued that artists have different brains than “normal” creative persons. They have laced throughout below the prefrontal cortex, the tempopareital lobes, and on into the realms of working and long term memory in the hippocampus and below, a highly enlarged, because exercised, associative cortex. That means that they have highly developed associative skills, and highly developed apophenic, or pattern finding skills. This accounts for artistic facility in seeing physiogomies in variegated surfaces, in seeing figures in abstract arrangements of forms, and in finding association between objects and ideas otherwise left aloofly unassociated with each other by the standard practice rational mind. The operation of the associative cortex creates a mental high, by which the imagination, activated by the progression of the cortex’s work (the two can be seen as the same), that boggles the mind, and fills one with intense urges to capture the fullness of life, a fullness that exists beyond the categorizing limitations of the standard practice rational mind and its grasp of life. This is the artistic high, and it exists as a result of the artistic process in the mind working on all cylinders, and being on a roll, in the flow, as Cziksentimihalyi states, doing great things. The associative cortex itself is so active that it ever cascades onto the new things, its restlessness prevents commodification of a fixed style, and so it might be argued that the most creative artists are those that wander far and wide in the terrain they have mapped out for themselves.

When young, the cortex and its development is a natural ability, it is the task of the artist to internalize it under the management of the prefrontal cortex a consciously controlled facility. It must be cultured, practiced, worked, or the faculty in time will atrophy. In time, the artist comes to see that his or her associative cortex turns on or off best in the association-charged spaces between certain topics and interests that fuel his or her imagination. In those spaces, is the artist’s sweet spot, which is the peak of imaginative frenzy, captured in art, and in the spaces between the sweet spot of overlap of influences and those influences in what can be called the “wheelhouse” of the artist. This notion can also be superscribed by Uexkill’s notion of the Umwelt, and that an animal or creature creates an Umwelt by means of the operation of a specific set of faculties and skills, and that leads to his survival and even thriving, and any foray out of that Umwelt will lead to disaster. These latter concepts lead to the possibility of being able to graph out, as I now do, the creative life of an artist, and find out exactly where his or her wheelhouse and sweet spot are. This, I believe, can be done. This, needless to say, was not done in Mr. Turner, though hints were made of it.

The key to the mystery for Turner is that his sketching tours were only database adding forays for effects that he could catalog and then make use of. The actual painting vis a vis the scene painted then is by no means a transcript or even a plein air landscape or scenic painting, it is as it were a “fiction” in which elements from as many as a dozen different locals are mined out of his sketchbook and composited to make a superstatement of a higher realm and high associative state experience of his canvases. It is this elevated state visa vis the relatively flat level of cognition of the standard practice rational mind that provided the magic pull of Turner’s work. We get a sense of this a few times in the movie, and sometimes that it is more than just looking. The fact that he has all his paintings all jumbled together in a little gallery, to boggle the mind of his clients with plenitude, bespeaks his desire to create this high, it is an ali baba’s cave effect, The fact that in media res it appeared to be ritualized, with the father serving as maître d, adds to the effect

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The fact that like Norman Bates he then has a peephole also suggests a machine well oiled and running well, designed to create an effect, a spectacle, it is interesting in this shot that as Turner peeps on his viewers, in directly, one of those viewers has taken the liberty of finding a distinction between fore and background, and stuck his nose on right up into the painting, again suggesting a reading idea (he also wants to see viewers of his work inside a larger sight of his work being seen, an endless parenthesis that excites him)

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during another rather wonderful sequence, expressive of the privacies of a practice, a natural philosopher woman stops by and teaches Turner a few things about light, even projecting a prism on to his canvas, again, a search for effects not scenes

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Then as a reward she is shown into the holy of holies, and also overwhelmed, at one point, Turner and father play a game of cat and mouse with her, seeing if she can guess what scene this is,

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And then when she is shocked to hear it is Hannibal, she cannot find the elephant, and it has to be pointed out to her, like a visual trick, in a rich panoramas of effects to be taken in sequentially in reading it, bending over as she is

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Since she is bent over over Hannibal, but is with Turner for the most edifying reasons, it is fair to compare her to the maid, bent over the bookshelf, and taken for momentary physical needs to be undertaken and got over and done with. But the key allegorical punch of this scene of impromptu intercourse is that she is pressed into the books, that he had a lot of books, is shown reading books, and in discussion of paintings, invariably, though in ways I’m not sure the script understood, brings up quotes or stories, that is, his is a literary effect historical painting, story painting, ut pictura poesis,

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Transpose this scene back to the gallery, and he has “intercourse” with an educated woman in another way, she bends over, and takes the art in, but she is an educated woman, once it is pointed out to her, she gets it, she exults and glories, taken out of herself, even there, I suspect there is a sexual metaphor in this rendering of a woman of the time looking intently at art.

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The effacement of the storytelling Turner has been a modern project for more than a century. Turner has been the pre-abstract, proto-modernist who took painting to new places through his abstraction, for as long as I can remember. According to this model, Turner got better the more he approached abstraction, and dropped away the extraneous storytelling aspects of his art, encumbrances of an unmodern sort. There is a lot of this prototype modernist Turner in the framework of the movie, in his rather hoaky encounter with a train, in his increasing abstraction, in his messmaking during painting, but this is all the lore of his life, and not the truth of his art. I no longer believe in this imaginary Turner. For example, once in the Salon he does an odd thing, adding a read dot to his painting,

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I suspect there is a story here, and the lore might be that, seeing so much red about, and being next o Constable, whose large work has a lot of red, he is making a joke at fashion, by putting a dot of red in. Immediately, scandal, as it is believed he has destroyed his painting. But then he comes back a second time, wipes some of it away, and now it looks inside the picture like a drowning boy gasping for air, so that is OK, the red dot is no longer on the painting, destroying it, it has returned to being in the sea inside the painting, telling of some event

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This may have been visual and anecdotal allusion to his later sea monsters, which people began to think mad,

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It is really odd how on exhibition day all the artists are hanging about over their paintings, adding on the final touches. At one point he does so too, getting carried away by spilling things and spitting at his painting, which may or may not be apocryphal. I can hardly believe it to be true, but I would argue that such gesturing and antics were part of the “personal mythology” of his art, which is a necessary part of one’s inner life (just as Michelangelo posed as a barbarian).

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But then the tides turn, the style begins to change, he gets tooooooo abstract, and now Preraphaelitism comes in, and he feels himself going out of fashion. This part is told rather too schematically, with Queen Victoria deploring the painting,

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Then all the ladies following suit, calling it frightful

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Then it spreads to the vaudeville, where they mock him as a painter with food and spillage,

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Then he gets a gander at the precision of preraphaelitism, and knows his goose is cooked

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All this is standard biographical lore, what one might call art history urban legends. But is it true? It might have been true in the parlance of the time, and in the attempt by the news and its commentators to make sense of its times. But, this is too schematic. No, the truer thing that struck me about the vaudeville pantomime was that, not only was Turner at the theater, but it was all in rhyme, and appreciation of pictures were indeed often undertaken through verse back then, in the manner of a kind of poetic ekphrasis. Many of his paintings were indeed put out with poems attached, or were inspired by poems. There was also a whole school of more explicitly literary painters. He likely stirred his own imagination by reading poetry, perhaps he read the classics. He was a man of his time, bringing all time to his times, making his locale eternal through his visionary and transcendental paintings. By that reading, he ought to have applauded the deepening literariness of the preraphaelites, and with but a lesson of two Queen Victoria could have been educated to understand she was being read the classics to. No, the change of taste that ruined Turner in his life was realism, its insistence on physical here and now, and also materialism of a new sort in the bourgeoisie era. This class development, as mapped out by Benjamin, then lead the middle class mind to seek in art escapes from the world, resulting in artists catering more and more to sentimental and hobby-oriented tastes, and thus, albeit also historical and large scale, Landseer and Bonheur took over, leaving Turner’s poetic dreaminess as a relic of the Regency.

But this also gets to the heart of the practice excised from this film, because not believed to be showable, the fact that in my view Turner was primarily a story painter. What do I mean by that? Back to the associative cortex: Andriessen also notes that because of the overheated associative cortex, and the difficulties involved in managing it, artists often suffer, and their proverbial drunkenness may be attributable to a need to be blind to time outside of the bubble. But that only means that the main job of being a mature artist must be to tame and train the cortex and its associating tendencies to come alive, to thrive, and then to remain under control. If you envision the associative cortex as a storytelling organ, then stories linking up serially to each other, may be the umbrella that controls the activity. Strangely enough, across the opening credit, are sent passing wisps of smoke, and their curls and swirls in fact more or less recreate what I think the expanding storytelling associative cortex must look like, if graphed out, a kind of rhizome, my term for the suspended, but concluded upon, and hovering-certain quality of the cortex, when one is in command of it, “the sphinx,” here it is, more or less

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There are several ways to tame and manage and gain command over one’s creative faculty. One is to cultivate one’s “thing,” which is a special non-art font of interest that one undertakes for it’s own self and for one’s pleasure outside of art, but it nevertheless serves as a constant source of inspiration for one’s art, and repeatedly gets one past blocks etc etc. For Turner, this was obviously the sea, everybody got that right, but I think it was because the sea was so rich in story and tragedy and history, as it would be thought to be, in the age of Nelson. But he had two loves, he loved the sea for itself, all by itself, and then he loved it for feeding his art. It was the eternal font.

Second, it was necessary to develop a repertoire of characters and themes that one returns to over and over again, because they become the foundation of one’s voice. For Turner, the connecting fabric of his associative cortex were stories, and many of them classical, thus the link to Lorraine. He seems to have fixated on great events of history that happened in, around or at the edges of lakes or seas, but I have not entirely mapped this out (he also liked fires). It is the story that he injects into a landscape scene that dictates what color or intensity of brushstroke he might use. It is the story that is the antenna and the fibre of his art, not the pure painting effects. He goes from story to story, one after the other, they inspire him, and he churns them out, like sequels in a long retelling of world history. In this serial all but redressed mindset he has no problem in repeating himself, because he is telling another story, or the same story a new way. Each one is a story telling performance, as it were. The movie only rarely made mention of this, and never showed it (for example, ignoring his mythological paintings, or classical or even biblical paintings, some of which are my favorite: it also totally ignored his late religious work, which is entirely scripture based). From this also comes a need to create a repertoire of characters and themes, most of this classical too. I did not come to see this in Turner until going through the Tate’s collection of Turners in 2005, seeing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and other obscure storyings, I realized that he had whipped up a variation on his normal themes and visual tropes, based on the content of the story.

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He was storying landscape. In his most accomplished works I fancy that he worked out an actual telling of the sequence of a story in the effects on canvas so that one would look at the painting in steps that would tell the story to you. One can see how complex one’s interaction is with a storied painting, guided by the informing story, in my analysis, elsewhere, of the 49 steps of looking at Turner’s Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus.

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The failure of the movie to entirely go into his subjective state and the Umwelt on the other side of it or through his eyes left us outside visiting Mr. Turner and did not allow us entrée into his more fantasy and imaginative than landscape and positivist-descriptive world. Consider what a dream state he might have had to put himself into to paint the ghosts dancing at the Heidelberg Castle! where is THAT Turner in the movie, nowhere.

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Having established a storyline based on a thing, a milieu of interior spaces, reflected in the art’s spaces, is created, this is the physical and landscape expression of the aforementioned Umwelt of connectives and spaces that go to create that special annex of reality, that crawl space in which an artist thrives, in the world. The movie in his trips to Margate did in fact go far to capture how he moved right in and made himself at home in an environment that was in his milieu. However, his milieu, his umwelt, was NOT the sea itself, that was his thing, his inspiring font, his milieu inside his art was the space between a body of water and a story associated with it, triangulated against or associated with a previous story he had told. He might have therefore just been out in Margate collecting some specimens, having a good time, but it is likely the site only excited him because of local stories or lore that made him imagine past events there, then, only when he got it all back to the studio and got to work on a painting put it all together and lead to a high and art did his milieu emerge (I more or less experienced this one summer in Cape May Point, New Jersey, none too exciting until I began to explore, with my kids, pirate, spy, shipwreck, criminal and other Victorian stories, which woke the place up good: the next when I returned we did not go just there but the space between there and all those stories). Physically, the milieu of his art is the sweet spot between water, reflected cloud-infused light and figure, yes, figure, however small, his figures were of immense importance as entrée points into his storytelling (my notion of milieu was developed from looking at how movie directors like Hitchcock or Fisher perpetually zeroed in on variations of the same effect, always after the sweet spot in their milieu).

Overcasting all that then is a resolving philosophy, and that would be his rather existential and fatalistic tendency, his obsession with death and disaster, but in a fatalistic way, I think it fair to say Turner thought the world he painted was coming to an end, and he was painting at the end of the world—but on this point, the movie remains silent.

Only by acknowledging that inside the head of Turner he had wheels spinning out an associative cortex of a highly developed nature which he then cultured based on a persistent obsessive interest, the sea, then managed by arranging serially in a milieu, in a certain relational space, using a number of specific sources to create a wheelhouse, and then casting overall a presiding summative philosophy, only by carefully mapping out and then giving visual insight into those mental dynamics could a movie hope to capture how very exciting indeed it must have been to live inside the head of JMW Turner.

By always showing us Turner standing before a landscape, a landscape painter

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The movie might have got some wonderful shots, but it as a result offers no answer to why when he descended then into his public world of art, he does not stand with wonder, but moves through with accepting and lightning speed. Why would he not be offended by all these other pictures all lined up around him, if he was so interested in the view?

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The answer is because his picture existed perpendicularly from the viewer through the picture to an imagined reality, in the space behind the picture, in relation of his conjuring of it and the viewer’s ability to be taken up by it, through it, to experience it too, he was not competing with any other picture in the place, he was his own channel, telling his own story, without any complication, a discreet pictorial apparatus, with a life of its own. So he walks up to his stuff, checks it out

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Then walks by everything else, except to offer niceties

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The whole depiction of him in the salon and his behavior is the subject of another report, it is all very interesting, but would need research to verify. But in any case, it offers some insight into the differentness of the art world then and now, and the irrelevance to a framed work of art of any other work any other side of it, it was expected that one could change the channel to take in the new story and listen to it told, discretely. He saw other works next to his, but he zeroed in, he just wasn’t that interested in how they looked in the broader context of a salon style hanging.

Thus, Turner was a literary-based storytelling artist in the Lorraine tradition who used landscape as a pretext to create story enhancing effects and elevate the viewer to a teleported ideal reality beyond the canvas, above actual reality, but transcending it, a transcendental realist then (it occurs to me applying the model of tableaux paintings and pictures to Turner might also be very helpful). That he used poetry and the reading of the classics to get up to that state is also part of it. He was a painter of the early 19th century, not a projection of a painter of the early 21st century back two hundred years. The movie depicts Mr. Turner as a proto-abstract pure proto-impressionist landscape painter with an abstract imagination fixated only on effects, in keeping with a longstanding modernist myth. By having to tell a story, Mr. Turner inadvertently got it right in some spots, in capturing some aspects of the joy of the creative life, and the movie itself as a Mike Leigh movie has many Leigh joys in describing the awkwardness of social life, but by and large the movie files in alongside of many, many others films which, because of their visual vocabulary, still struggle to envision, after the model of Ken Russell, the inner mental life of the artist. For that reason, it was nice to meet Mr. Turner, but I did not come away thinking that I had encountered the actual JMW Turner, whom, had I met, the very last thing we might have mentioned was that time he got the maid by the bookshelf.

Note: this note based on a model of the inner workings of the creative mind developed from Andriessen, The Creative Brain in c.2005, this model has been refined, and future notes may provide more detailed descriptions of the vectors of creativity detected in Turner’s “sweet spot”or “wheelhouse,” broadly identified here.