Tuesday, August 02, 2011


Tim Barrus posted this today:

My photographs serve as modern dioramas of what is a new natural history. Whether they were torn, printed with ink and soaked in acrylic, manipulated, or pulled from a Cinematheque video, they explore our paradoxical relationship with the wild -- our own internal wilderness and the external wilderness that exists outside of ourselves -- that strangeness that stands outside the cage of culture. How our conflicting impulses continue to evolve and alter the behavior of insiders. I see the human being as a biological animal. It is through photography that we seek connection with the mystery and freedom of what we once thought was the natural world, yet we continually strive to tame the wild around us and compulsively control the wild within our own nature. Within my work, I examine the juxtaposed primal issues of comfort and fear, dependence and determination, submission and dominance (as none of these things exists separate and by themselves) that play out in the physical and psychological encounters between man and the state the planet actually lives in. Increasingly, these encounters take place within the artificial constructs we have designed that act as both passage and barrier between the domestic and the cultural space; sometimes with poetry, and sometimes with paint applied to the photograph. I seek to make representations based on real stories and oral histories of intentional and random interactions between humans who inhabit the inside and the outside of the cages we build. 

Would you date Conan the Barbarian?  It seems that in fantasy, we would like to BE him, though dating him is not working out well for Maria Shriver.  The movie called “The Whole Wide World” is not about either the fictional Conan or the actor, but rather about the author of “Conan the Barbarian,” Robert Howard, and a host of others who are, as Tim would put it, “outside the cage of culture,” so therefore free to slash the bug-eyed monsters with a sword.
“Bob” Howard was making his living as a writer, though he lived at home with his physician father and ailing mother in a small-town middle-Western town where people conformed or were ostracized.  The character played by Renee Zellweger (the role that made her career as an actress) was a conscientious and effective school teacher who wanted to write.  At first she does not distinguish between the unconstrained swashbuckling fantasy that Howard writes and her own polite attempts that never go beyond a nice place where two characters begin a dialogue that quickly turns boring.  So she bravely enters Howard’s world or rather his world pushes impatiently into hers.  One of the most inspired scenes is of her settling down to bedtime reading, opening the copy of “Weird Tales” (which so embarrassed her that she hid it even in her private boarding house bedroom) and hearing the entire book leap out: the sounds of roaring, steel blades singing, screams of rage and anguish and demonic laughter.
For those sticklers out there who want everything “real,” the memoir written by Novalyne Price Ellis at age 75 (still in love with Howard after a happy 47-year marriage with another man and an honored teaching career) is “One Who Walked Alone.”  I haven’t read it.  Yet.  The story line is very simple.  It’s the Depression.  The main sources of entertainment are movies and long walks -- or drives if one is fortunate enough to own an automobile.  The challenge to the director is to find photographic equivalents of the content of the conversation as these two, totally unsuited and yet irresistibly drawn to each other, speak through the bars of the “cage,” even managing kisses.  The wilderness is Texas, vistas of grandeur and the endless possibility of its sunsets and sunrises.  
Very powerful people -- usually men who have found a world where they can unfold outside the cage, even if it’s in another time and place, another plane of existence -- are thoroughly seductive, especially for those of us who only mime defiance and long for effectiveness.  (My efforts to seem dangerous and potent make everyone laugh.  I never approached the skills of this teacher.  But writing?  It’s not over ‘till it’s over.)  Biography and autobiography entwined ensues.  Maybe movie fantasies.  But the pain of the impossibility, the imprint of the cage bars, the terrible longing of humans to be more than they are, to have several lives at once, those are not fantasies.  
When strong men get hold of a reality they really CAN control, where they really CAN kill and destroy, they become true monsters unless they can preserve some edged grasp of social justice, which is what Arnold seems to have forgotten and most of the Kennedys did not.
We live today on the lip of disaster, so that we wake each morning wondering whether this is the day we’re to be plunged into another Great Depression, another World War, another ecological disaster that will destroy all our pretensions of civilization -- swept away in one big electromagnetic burst from the sun or maybe an upwelling of rage from people who have nothing to lose.  We like our cages because they seem like a protection -- an illusion of course.  (I’ve just ordered from Netflix  “Taxi  to the Dark Side,” about a man captured into torture and death for no reason at all.  The US military did it.)
To my mind and education, watching a movie and reading a book are the same thing.  Some of it is just ephemera, but that's true of life itself.  Now and then someone gets hold a powerful myth, a singing sword, and it is such a relief from the infantile tantrums and petty sins of so many leaders tapping signals in bathroom stalls.  Long live Prince Valiant!  
But we should not forget the determined women, the Princess Aletas who don’t shy away from supplying sympathy and support, even though they sometimes wear out and stomp off across the fields towards home.  Someone has to make the ordinary world go on, teach the classes, shuck the corn, bake pie.  Small towns can also be protections, even comfort.
How powerful Howard’s writing turned out to be!  He was impossible to live with (even for himself), his wild stories are considered child’s play, and yet we read them, we read about him, we make movies of his “Weird Tales,” and possibly that’s what got Arnold into office -- but then back out.  A two-edged sword indeed.  Like life.  In Tim’s words “the juxtaposed primal issues of comfort and fear, dependence and determination, submission and dominance (as none of these things exists separate and by themselves) that play out in the physical and psychological encounters.”


Charles Gramlich said...

Hi, I'm a big Robert E. Howard fan. He was such a talented writer, and his stories really do seem to leap off the page. I much enjoyed the Whole Wide World as well, and in fact know the guy who wrote the script. He was a student of Ms. Ellis's. Great guy.

Rusty said...

Thanks, Charles, for pointing me here, and thanks, Mary, for this well-written post. I've been studying Howard's life and work for over 30 years, and it's always a delight to find such insightful viewpoints from people I didn't know about. I got a special "whang" (as Howard might say) from the notion that "his world pushes impatiently into hers," which is just exactly what happened.