The Trouble with “The Martian”

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 3.58.26 PMLast week I accompanied my son to see The Martian, starring the talented and very engaging, Matt Damon.  I regret that this review — really, observation — will add nothing to the laudatory din swirling round this blockbuster like the sandstorm that unluckily sets the nonsense in motion.  First of all, Matt Damon is not engaging in his role as botanist Mark Watney.  Gone is the freshness, the palpable gentleness-beneath-the- hard exterior, the quick-study neophyte unashamed of his emotions from previous films.  What we get is a detached, self-satisfied geek who hasn’t the decency even to go on a food & drink binge when it’s apparent he has some free time.

What bothers me the most about this ‘space epic,’ though, is that I’m not necessary.  Look, I’ll admit it, I’m not smart.  My only ‘first-ever’ is a dubious claim to having created the first art and culture show on commercial radio.  My fellow creatures would be fools to harness themselves to me as their savior from a burning planet.  That said, I would appreciate my Everyman as embodied in Mark Watney to resemble me to some degree.  Just as today’s gourmet food craze and “farm-to-table” orthodoxy heralds perhaps the future scarcity, or at least unaffordability, of quality food for many, I left this film with the distinct feeling that I would end my days not among the saved, the scientific elect, but clawing amid the crazed proles back on the surface.

Everything in this movie following the storm is flat.  Watney plants a potato garden, a feat to be sure on Mars.  He suffers one setback when an airlock blows, but spends most of his time charting his packaged food supply.  Yes, he probes the ruddy landscape in his rover, ascertaining where a rescue ship might land, but mainly he grabs a coffee and records wisecrack journal entries.  Never forlorn, never reflective, Watney drones about the business of martian survival with cold precision.  The wonder of The Martian is how it makes the glorious small.  If this is heroic, if this is empire building, it’s done so in a vacuum; the victory of sterility over virility.  We, the people, the educated in the liberal arts, need not apply.  It reminds me of the famous exchange between Churchill and his valet.  The valet complains of Churchill’s rudeness to him, but is rebuffed with “Yes.  But then I am a great man.”

In conclusion, I freely acknowledge that The Martian is beautifully filmed.  Watney/Damon is supported well by an ensemble cast featuring Jessica Chastain (today the Hepburn of Hollywood, given the volume of her recent work), Jeff Daniels, and Kristen Wiig.  Unfortunately, this is not enough.  I remember Marooned, with Gregory Peck, in 1970.  It was simply slow and boring.  But the near future depicted in The Martian trumps even that.  It’s exclusionary.  What we have here is the apotheosis of the wonk, the deadening triumph of science over heritage, over taste.  Here we see a glimpse of a cruel new caste system, and are reminded in nearly every scene that most of us are not along for this ride.


Celebrating “The Birds” with its Iconic Heroine

edtippi2Last Friday, October 16, I had the great pleasure to emcee for legendary actress, Tippi Hedren, upon her return to Detroit’s historic Redford Theatre.  She came as the high point to a weekend-long salute to her classic films The Birds and Marnie, both directed, of course, by Alfred Hitchcock.  I had had the opportunity to interview Miss Hedren twice before on “Speaking of Art,” and had met her during her 2012 visit to the Redford.  To speak with her onstage before a warm and enthusiastic audience was, for me, a culmination of my long admiration for this artist.  Let me state flat out that Tippi Hedren is a force of nature.  She possesses Olympian confidence, charm, and vast stores of energy which she directs to getting things done (such as her championing of House bills to protect exotic animals), as well as a timeless elegance.

Her bearing, nurtured in childhood in New Ulm, Minnesota, and enhanced during her modeling days with Eileen Ford in the early 60s, fused with an innate acting talent.  While she has admitted to being nervous during her screen test in front of Hitchcock for The Birds, she was never an ingenue.  During our conversation I pointed out that few actors brought such assurance to their first roles as she.  Two others, Gene Tierney and Teresa Wright, I had in mind but did not name.  She works as hard as ever in film and television, and is a popular speaker here and abroad.   And with Melanie Griffith, her award-winning actress daughter, and granddaughter Dakota Johnson, an acclaimed newcomer, she has established an acting dynasty to rival the Barrymores.

One can learn from Tippi Hedren: commitment, patience, love of nature and its creatures, how to struggle with dignity, etc.  All this on a foundation of immense inner strength and flawless style.  Tippi Hedren is a consummate communicator, and far more than beautiful.

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Pope Clement IX


In consideration of Pope Francis’ electrifying visits to Cuba and the United States, and with millions of Americans still savoring his message of peace, forgiveness, inclusiveness, and human dignity, it might be instructive, perhaps even inspirational, to consider an earlier pontiff whose forthrightness and simplicity during a time of turmoil transcended a brief reign.

Pope Clement IX, born Giulio Rospigliosi in 1600 to a Tuscan noble family, would serve the Church during a century that, along with the fourteenth and twentieth, would count among the bloodiest in history.

Favored by Urban VIII, a scholar, for his gentleness and erudition, Rospigliosi was made Archbishop of Tarsus, but was forced into retirement by the succeeding pope. In 1655 he was recalled by Alexander VII, who elevated him to the cardinalate. With Alexander’s death in 1667 he was elected unanimously to the papacy.

Taking the name Clement IX, the new pope endeared himself to the people through his actions, among them –

“His extreme charity and affability towards great and small.”

By visiting the sick often, and giving “lavishly” to the poor

By personally conducting Confession two days a week in St. Peter’s

For issuing decrees for financial relief in the name of his predecessor

For beatifying Rose of Lima in 1667, who would become the first saint born in the Americas.

For admonishing Louis XIV for his increasing military aggression, while at the same time brokering peace between France and Spain

And for his patronage of the arts both before and during his pontificate

For instance, it was Clement who established the first public opera house in Rome, in 1668. And during his reign Bernini completed the embracing colonnade in St. Peter’s Square. Noteworthy also is that during the high-water mark of the Italian Baroque, the pope refused to place his name on any building, fountain, or public sculpture. And it was only when sick that he agreed to sit for Maratta, for a beautiful portrait known for its color, conveyance of personality, and classical restraint.

Clement died in December, 1669. He had been pope for two-and-a-half years. He stated that he wished to be buried under the floor of Santa Maria Maggiore, with a simple inscription: Clement IX, Ashes. (This was too much for his successor, Clement X, who erected the magnificent tomb in the Basilica’s nave.) Indeed, the words of Pope Francis could apply to Clement: Everybody, according to his or her particular abilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.


A Brief Audience with the Deified Augustus

Screen shot 2015-08-01 at 10.20.22 AMLast Wednesday, following my weekly Rotary meeting, I had some time to spare.  Feeling in the mood for a bit of ancient history, I made the short walk to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.  This is one of the oldest museums in the University of Michigan cultural pantheon, and like other University departments, it is a teaching facility.  Founded in the 1920s by Latin professor Francis W. Kelsey, the museum, a stunning example of the Richardsonian Romanesque, houses thousands of artifacts recovered by UM archaeological expeditions.  I have had the pleasure of welcoming the Kelsey’s directors and curators many times on Speaking of Art, usually to highlight a new exhibition.  In this case there wasn’t a new exhibition to see.  In fact, the recent Death Dogs of the Nile show was being dismantled.

I knew where I was going.  Up the staircase to the second floor, to the Greco-Roman galleries, and into the hushed presence of Rome’s first emperor, who reigned from 27 BC (now BCE: Before the Common Era) to 14 AD (now CE).  Born of the late Roman Republic’s political shift from senatorial oligarchy to rule by popular strongmen — dictators — the Empire was a compromise between the traditional landed aristocracy and the reality of a Rome that had grown far beyond its Italian homeland.  The army, bloated from the civil wars of Marius, Sulla, and Julius Caesar, was now professional, permanent, and expensive.  Simply put, an oligarchy scrounging for money to keep the legions and their ambitious generals from running amok would no longer work.  The compromise — legitimized dictatorship cloaked in Republican formalities.  Augustus’ legerdemain would establish an empire more or less at peace for 200 years.

The marble portrait is a formidable one.  Augustus maintains a youthful blush, but the hardening of the practical politician has begun to set.  By the time the anonymous sculptor carved this image, the features of the monarch had been generalized into a formula: youthful, confident face in the Grecian manner (which Augustus himself preferred); locks of wavy hair forming a kind of part, or cleft, above the right eye; the face broad at the forehead, then gently tapering to the chin; the ears small and slightly flared.  The overall effect is one of magisterial dignity and calm, with practically no glimpse of personality.  It is an iconic image, devoid of stress; the face of a man-god.  Later emperors would refine this placid detachment into an almost Eastern abstraction, culminating in Constantine’s upward gaze, no longer leveled at his troops or subjects; in communion with no one but God.

What makes the Kelsey’s Augustus so interesting, however, is how it deviates from the orthodoxy.  It is not a mere facsimile of the intact Prima Porta statue in The Vatican Collections, usually cited as the standard image of the emperor.  Using the movie Toy Story II as analogy, it’s as if Buzz Lightyear, in the scene when he confronts the reality of his own duplication — hundreds of Buzzes in boxes on the toy store’s shelves — were to notice one that is markedly distinct.  For the Kelsey’s Augustus is not the personality-scrubbed Imperator, reconciling the civil wars with Rome’s new glory, but a prince in the Machiavellian mold, an author of proscription lists, a man capable of exiling his own daughter and grandson to the barren Pontine Islands.

After his sudden death at 76 in 14 CE, Augustus was deified by his adopted son and successor, Tiberius, thus securing both the dynasty and the Empire for the foreseeable future. Temples were erected from the cities to the frontier, and, according to Robert Graves, even beyond.  As to the face of kingship?  The Kelsey Augustus evokes a majestic image of Imperial Rome’s founding father, but one that chillingly heralds the totalitarian despots of more recent times.


Some Post-Book Fair Comments

Last May the University of Michigan’s famed Union Building featured the 37th Annual Antiquarian Book Fair.  This book fair is one of a handful of elite fairs, mostly held in large cities, devoted to bringing eminent American dealers to the buying public.  That mid-sized Ann Arbor hosts such an important book fair is a testament to its citizens’ ‘love of the book,’ as well as the organizational skills of local dealer Jay Platt, owner of the nationally regarded West Side Book Shop.  Jay orchestrates the event every year, attracting the country’s best antiquarian booksellers to the Union’s beautiful ballroom.

I mention this to emphasize the opportunity that the better antiquarian fairs offer the novice as well as experienced book aficionado/collector.  In the realm of valuable collectible personal property – everything else is more or less clutter — rare books represent perhaps the greatest bargain in the marketplace today.  The second is antique furniture.  A first or early edition of a favorite novel, history, or children’s book can hold or even increase its value over a 10-20 year period, while providing an exquisite sense of personal stewardship of a cultural artifact.  Also, in a world of excess media and fractured norms, a graceful retreat to one’s personal home library can provide a welcoming environment in which to mentally fortify ourselves.                                                  

Of course, value is enhanced by factors such as excellence of condition; the book’s importance, or degree to which it has been popularly embraced – think The Great Gatsby; the presence of the author’s signature or inscription; provenance, a fancy word for ‘who owned it’ (and possibly their inscription or bookplate); and overall rarity in the marketplace.  Sometimes these literary gems will appear in general antiques auctions, underappreciated in a welter of furniture, paintings, postcards, rugs and clocks.  I have seen many worthwhile pieces come up for auction this way, with the hammer price capturing a great value for the buyer.

The upshot to all this is: attend antiquarian book fairs and introduce yourself to the dealers, establish relationships with those who sell the works you’re interested in, and also keep abreast of auctions, both local and far afield, that include books.  Keep in mind the points on value listed above.  But most of all, Buy What You Love.  You will enhance your life, safeguard a beautiful cultural resource, and perhaps make your heirs very happy in the future — that’s what we call heritage.


My Third Post: On Creative Self-Awareness

Clearly we live in challenging socio-economic times.  Self-sufficiency, to any degree, went out long ago.  As consumers of everything from the physical to the ephemeral, it seems that our opportunities to make a creative impact are few, and shrinking.  The purpose of my show is to use the insights of artists, collectors, writers, museum curators, and entertainers to spark the audience’s — your — creativity.  It’s all about cultural take-home value, of becoming a creative touchstone in your family or community.  Museum administrators have come to recognize the importance of ‘the small philanthropist’ to the ongoing health of cultural organizations.  You can be a part of this future!  Join me on this blog, or on “Speaking of Art” (every Saturday at 3:00 p.m., EST).  Remember, it’s about civilization — yours.


Making Art Relevant, Everyday

Hi.  My name is Edwin Hoffman, and I am the creator and host of a radio show, “Speaking of Art,” which airs on Ann Arbor’s venerable station, WAAM Talk 1600.  This is my first blog, so I hope it will serve as something of an introduction without aiming at the moon!