Saturday in New York: Bess, Wiseman and Clybourne Park

I spent Saturday in New York City. I had an event to host in the evening so I flew in from New Orleans on Friday evening. I tried to make a late screening of Battle Royal at the IFC, but my driver wasn't there to pick me up, so I missed it and ended up watching Seth Rogen's new film, Take this Waltz, on pay per view. It's directed by Sarah Polly and is an offbeat Canadian love triangle film. The role was unusual for Seth and I thought interesting because he shows a much more vulnerable side of himself than he usually does. Michelle Williams' character needs to choose between two men, but I think the choice should be obvious, Seth is the best dude around. And if he could cook as well as his character he would probably be the best guy of the new century.

Because school is out and I don't have any major obligations, I decided to take in as much of New York as possible on Saturday. I woke at 10 and went over to the Whitney to catch the downsized version of the Biennial and a screening of Frederick Wiseman's new documentary, Boxing Gym. The official Biennial is over but the museum has retained one room of paintings. The standout was a room of paintings and writings by Forest Bess, the visionary Texas fisherman whose colorfully stark paintings were largely intended to be symbolic keys to a personal theory about the essential hermaphroditism of humans. The paintings alone are profound -- they can be stared at for long periods and generate deep feeling -- but the accompanying texts, mostly excerpts from letters to the critic Meyer Shapiro, give a crucial additional understanding of the work. Some might consider Bess insane, and considering that he performed self-surgery on his penis to help prove his theories of hermaphroditism, there are at least grounds for this. Bess spent his life isolated on the Gulf, 70 miles outside of Houston, making a scant living from fishing and his paintings. He started showing in New York at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists, but didn't enjoy the same turn of acceptance that they did in the 60s. Like Pollock and some of the others, his early work derived from the Mexican muralists like David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera and ideas of infusing myths into the work. Van Gogh's landscapes and still lifes were also influential. But as his work progressed Bess's paintings became outlets for his personal theories and visions. There was ostensibly a master book, now lost, that he called his "thesis" in which he detailed his ideas of the liberation of humankind through hermaphroditism. He had hoped to show these theories alongside the paintings, but his gallerist, Betty Parsons -- who also showed Pollock and Rothko -- refused. The Whitney smartly accompanied the paintings with his letters to Shapiro, Carl Jung and others that he trusted with his explorations. The most crucial and disturbing of these accounts details the incision he made on the underside of his penis in order to transform himself.

At noon we went into the screening room to catch the Wiseman film. The woman at the ticket booth had told us to get our seats early in case it filled up, so we were the first to our seats. There ended up being about seven viewers in total, and not all of them stayed for the whole film. This was not surprising, Wiseman is not known for his Avengers-like action. His films are documentaries of pure observation, and in that purity he is badass poet of images. Boxing Gym, like his other films about different institutions (high schools, a police station, theaters, zoos, mental facilities, etc.), takes its time with each aspect of the place, allowing the slow accumulation of detail to give the viewer a deep and profound understanding of the place and its people. Having trained at a boxing gym, Wild Card in L.A., for a role in a horrible film, I could say with some authority that Wiseman got underneath the strange dynamics of solidarity and violence that are part of such a place, and the love and hate that the sport's practitioners have for something that can give a person poise, confidence, success and hope, but can also be debilitating physically and mentally. The small audience reinforced what I already knew about Wiseman: he doesn't make his films to sell tickets, he has worked out a way to finance his films using alternative methods which allow him to make exactly the kinds of movies that he wants to make.

We too had to leave early to make a two o'clock matinee of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park. As we walked down Madison from 75th to 48th street my companion and I discussed the Bess presentation. She mused aloud, "I almost got sick reading the descriptions of what he did to himself. And the pictures! (Bess took pictures of his body before and after the operations) He was insane wasn't he? I mean if he hadn't been a painter would we consider him to be a genius or just crazy for what he did?"

The park was on our right and the coffee we bought from the museum café for the walk was good. I said, "You're right, but that's because his ideas are interesting as ideas, whether he was medically right or not about how hermaphroditism might lead to utopia and immortality is not important when he is using such ideas for his art. In the conceptual realm of art his ideas only need to open questions and create nodes for new discussion. But when he started practicing such ideas on his own body he added the pressure of actually being medically correct about such theories, instead of just theoretically provocative." She agreed. We talked about how the self-surgery was where the line between sanity and instability became ambiguous, but I suppose that was the point and why it was important to have the writings alongside the paintings. For Bess, the paintings were gestures as concrete as the self-surgery, they were symbols intended to unlock the Jungian collective unconscious in all of us.

With these universal ideas in mind we sat down for the play about racial disunity. As of this writing the play has been nominated for multiple Tonys and will probably have won Best Play by the time anyone reads this. It is split into two timeframes, 1959 and 2009, in order to show the lack of progress in racial harmony over the past fifty years. If anything, the play shows how difficult it is for people to talk about race, and I admit that I find it difficult to write about it here for fear of reprisal. I'll leave my comments to a few observations about certain dynamics I observed.

When the most outspoken white character suggests that everyone get the race issue out in the open so they can stop skirting the issue and just talk about it, his suggestion is met with scorn from the other characters and the audience, but I think that the play is trying to do exactly what he suggested. Because all the characters are incapable of sympathy, with the exception of a grieving white father and a supportive black husband in the first act, their interactions are doomed to lead to misunderstandings. These are characters that willfully don't want to understand each other. Even the racist jokes that Bruce Norris skillfully plants as the climax of the play -- are jokes the last receptacle for non-PC thinking? -- are not actually innately racist. When the obnoxious white man tells the joke about a black man raping a white man in prison the races of the inmates are not crucial for the humor of the joke as it is really a joke about subverting traditional matrimonial roles in an unusual power dynamic. The races of the characters are added for a different kind of emphasis. The same is true for the joke about tampons and white women, it could just as easily be a joke about any race or gender, its application to white women is not necessary for the humor. I guess what I'm saying here is that there are plenty of inherently racist jokes that could have been used, but these jokes have been turned into racist jokes. Is this to make a further comment about assumptions people have about race roles? Possibly. The other thing I noticed at the matinee show was that the audience was primarily white. I love and respect the theater as a form, but, if this is a piece that is supposed to start discussions about race, is the theater the best outlet? Possibly. Maybe the reverberations from such a show will move out beyond the confines of the Walter Kerr Theater. And with the awarding of the Pulitzer and possibly the Tony, maybe it will reach a wider audience and the much-needed discussions can continue.