AIMA SAINT HUNON
Years ago, when I was a student in a Catholic university, I remember a conversation I had with a Vincentian priest about the value of erotic art. He seemed intrigued that I would bring it up after a class on ethics in American life. But seeing I was serious and not steering him toward a discussion of pornography, he dove right in with what he must have thought was an ironclad theory. His view was that male nudes, historically were about representing the perfect athlete. In the ancient world muscles were sculpted for power. Implements of war complemented the distant gaze of the male nude: spears, swords, shields and helmets. They mounted pedestals and there they remain today, even though the Rome they represented is now snarled with Fiats and Vespa scooters. But the female nude, in his opinion, existed only to remind the viewer of procreation. This is the reason so many classical statues display the female nude as rising from her bath or removing a robe with breasts casually exposed. And the modern nude? He dismissed it as leaning toward the pornographic and not worth my time. Our conversation was terminated by a cold downpour that forced me into the campus coffee shop and he, into a Gothic-style rectory adorned with a dozen television antennas.
The conversation came back to me when I recently viewed the art of French sculptor Aima Saint Hunon at Domenico Vacca in Manhattan. Her pieces do not allow theory to enter until the viewer has circled them for a time like a bird wishing to land. I would say she wisely dispensed with theories about what the female nude should be, long ago and instead went on a personal journey to see what spoke to her. The forms are fluid yet recognizable. Sharp-edged modernism is nowhere to be found and that is a delight for the eye. She reminds us that the human eye has its own desires, almost a life of its own. It wants what it wants and the best of erotic sculpture seems to know this secret. Which is why so few artists attempt the nude in sculpture and those that do, find they have launched a project that will probably be a life journey.
So what of the art? Aima Saint Hunon has created nudes that are supple but not distorted. They are legs and torsos that can be looked at from every angle and appreciated for their natural grace. Is it wrong to say these are gorgeous women? They draw the eye in not just with form, but with a patina that is almost luxurious in its tone. Why not enjoy the sensuous possibilities of an erotic nude? It is an afternoon well-spent after so many galleries have offered mechanized sculptures that want nothing of the human form and leave the eye detached, a lonely viewer with no place to rest.
But it is the journey that matters. And this is where Aima Saint Hunon will show her importance in the years to come. Her journey is already showing an understanding of what a nude can be. Mastering the human form is already an accomplishment. And on top of that, her paintings and videos show a desire to intrigue the viewer. That in itself, sets her apart from so many artists today.
Much has happened in my life since I last posted to this blog over a year ago. I decided to return to it because, the truth is, I missed the immediacy of a blog post. I have written four screenplays in the last year and a half, and I will have quite a bit to say on the screenwriter’s craft in coming blogs. But for now, I will only say that I have returned to this kind of writing because it is like no other, and is worth the trouble. More to come . . .
This is my first blog post for year 2015 and it may be the most difficult one I have ever written, since it has to do with my mother’s startlingly unexpected death two weeks ago. My mother lived to eighty-one, but in a sense I wasn’t prepared for her passing; her own mother (my grandmother) lived to ninety-one and my father’s twin sister is still alive at almost ninety-two! Assuming my mother had another ten years to live turned out to be a fool’s errand on my part. I was woefully unprepared, despite the fact that I took care of her every day.
In the two weeks since her death, I have done no writing whatsoever—-the longest stretch of my pen not meeting paper in maybe twenty years. The puzzle of how to grieve is still like a jumble of cardboard in a cold wind. How to compose one’s thoughts at a moment such as this?
And what is that puzzle, anyway? It’s hard to say. With my mother’s death I am an orphan. Although I have a brother and two sisters, being the eldest and closest to my mother, the orphan designation is perhaps more bitter on my tongue than theirs. At her burial I tossed a rose onto her casket as I did at my father’s a decade ago. Both of my parents were buried in winter; in both cases I stood in suit and overcoat on a plot that may some day swallow me up as well. Meditations on death and the afterlife, those I will leave for future blog posts. For now I can only say that writers get beaten back by the waves of everyday life but somehow always come up for air. A few may succumb to drink (Poe, O’Neil, Kerouac) and some to suicide (Hemingway, Sylvia Plath) but many meet the wrought-iron gates of an untimely death and pay their respects as best they can. Simply said, if my mother had not read to me as a child, I would not be the writer I am today.
I haven’t blogged here in some time given that my mother is now gravely ill and I have been busy on a new novel and screenplay. After the first of the year I will be more active, but until then Merry Christmas to all and never give up the pen, which I still think is mightier than the protest or the teargas grenade.
Think about this: how many times in writing fiction does an author describe a character looking out the window? Depending on the story, it could be once or half a dozen times if the character is a traditional gumshoe watching a suspect. Usually there’s a real reason why a writer stands one of his characters at the window. He either must view someone or something to propel the story forward, or he is about to describe the location or atmosphere of a story. In any case, when a writer looks out the window through the eyes of his characters the language has to be precise. What does it sound like in the hands of a master? Here is a short excerpt from Norman Lewis’ book Naples 1944. This is a war diary I happened to pick up the other day and the way Lewis uses the language (he was a British officer stationed in Italy) is nothing short of exhilarating:
“From our front windows we look out over the formal gardens of the Villa Nazionale with their rare palms and their ranks of statues of the Greek heroes and gods, all of which have been contrived for the delight of the nobility of bygone generations, whereas the view from the office windows is straight into the fifteen-feet-high portone of the Calabritto Palace. Here, all the ground-floor rooms surrounding the vast courtyard, which is at once nursery, playground and market, have been taken over by small businesses: a clock-repairer, a maker of artificial flowers, a working cobbler, a tripe-boiler, a seamstress, and others.”
Now this is not fiction, granted. This is a war diary, still, the amount of color and raw information Lewis gets into that short paragraph is a model for writers of fiction. An exact location, atmosphere, depth, the spirit of the people . . . even a little snarky British attitude . . . amazing.
Like a lot of writers I’ve had some trouble over the years naming my characters. There’s a natural impulse in writers to invest and embed gravitas in the names of their main characters. This has to be coupled with a memorable name, a name that rolls off the tongue and sticks in the mind. Mystery and hard-boiled detective writers know this well, hence names like: “Jake”, “Sam” and of course, “Sherlock Holmes”, a name that almost produces its own atmosphere of fog and overcast sunsets. On the other side of the scale you have the satirists, who require a name be almost pointedly comical and sometimes outright silly: “Holly Golightly”, “Candy”, “Flora Goforth” . . . the list there is endless.
I’ve learned over the years that if I don’t have a definite name for my main character there must be something out of focus, something about that character I haven’t developed or decided on yet. An indistinct main character is probably an indistinct story. Some writers (particularly post-modern writers) handle this dilemma by giving their characters blank names like “Sham” or “Mr. White”. This is like attaching unlabeled spheres to a model of the solar system. Spin it around and I’m sure the physics will work. But once you name those spheres: “Jupiter”, “Saturn”, “Mercury”, “Venus”, the whole model becomes richer and more interesting.
Shakespeare is probably the greatest conjurer of character names in the English language—-no surprise there. But there’s still a conundrum at the heart of the matter: the main character serves the story and at the same time is the story. This means the character’s name does double duty: it must describe the inner life and outer life of the story. I sometimes spend an entire week on getting my main character’s name right, which doesn’t mean they’re all great names but they are definitely serviceable. And also, don’t cripple or harm a character. Are there more female names than male names? I’ve wondered about this. Parents often give boys the same names—you can have a room of fifty men and there are seven John’s or five Jason’s. But in a room with fifty women you will find a “Lilith”, a “Pamela”, a “Vanessa”, even a “Lorna”. Does this make naming female characters easier? I have to say, as a male writer, I’ve always felt I had more choices with naming my female characters than my male characters. More tantalizing names in the character-naming candy box . . .
Followers of this blog have probably already noticed I have an interest in European film directors of the period 1930—1980. One that I’ve been taking a second look at recently is Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. This was triggered in me by just randomly clicking around Amazon and coming across a Taschen (www.taschen.com) edition of a book about Antonioni that gives a good overview in about ninety pages with plenty of glossy pictures from Antonioni’s 30 plus films. Although this book might be pricey for some ($16.00 new) it’s a good starting point for anyone interested in the work of a truly provocative film-maker.
Roland Barthes once wrote that Antonioni possessed vigilance, wisdom and fragility. This is abundantly visible in films like La Notte and The Passenger, but I would add a fourth term to Barthes assessment: perspective. Antonioni “stayed human”, in his films and in his view of story. The human scale was his canvas and his palette. The idea of Antonioni doing an entire film with a blue screen and digitally created characters is not only impossible, the technology would render Antonioni speechless. Not that he wouldn’t have opinions, he certainly would. But he would certainly ask the question: where are the human beings in there? And that’s the essential thing about Antonioni; if its not human, it will not be fragile.
Now that I am plumbing the depths of the contemporary screenplay in my own work, I appreciate someone as daring as Antonioni even more. I can sit for hours with a good cup of espresso looking at the pictures in this book and admire the way Antonioni used his actors and backgrounds to full advantage. Like his contemporary Fellini, Antonioni had a painter’s sense of the screen and knew when to make it look like Vermeer or Dali. Never pass up a chance to see an Antonioni film on a large screen. I saw Blow-Up in 1978 on a large screen and it is still my default reference point when I remember that very mysterious film of 1966. An excellent film to start with by the way. I suggest a rainy afternoon at a comfortable theater with hardly anyone there.