Friday, 13 April 2012

American Nightmare: "Miller's Crossing" and the ethnic politics of gangster movies


              If the Hollywood western set out an American foundation myth for the first fifty years of popular cinema, then the Mafia movie took over with a darker vision for the past forty. Western heroes were all Anglo-Saxon individualists, steeped in rugged Protestant decency, striving for the rights of the ‘little man’ against supposedly uncivilised hordes of pagan aboriginals,  superstitious Catholic Mexicans, or the twisted mirror-image of themselves (outlaws, corporate-minded Easterners, corrupt sheriffs, etc.)  Francis Coppola’s The Godfather  (1972) acknowledged for the first time that not all US citizens were descended from north Europeans, that  American individualism was all about free enterprise in business, and that those two facts had created a far more complex and less innocent basis for the society in which most of his countrymen lived. The racism which had excluded Italian immigrants from the Anglo establishment gave rise to alternative social structures, based on ethnic clan loyalties; the free enterprise principle that profit should be made by whatever means could be got away with involved the bypassing and manipulation of that establishment’s rules. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra portrayed in the first two Godfather movies (Part II in 1974) is criminal and violent, but also social and, within its own terms of reference, recognisably moral. That’s what makes these a new kind of film about US social history, as well as compelling stories. Brian de Palma did the same kind of thing for the Hispanic criminal underworld with Scarface (1983), Sergio Leone for Jewish gangsters in Once Upon a Time in America (1984.)

 Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar)

                By the time the Coen Brothers made Miller’s Crossing (1990) the struggle between Italians, Jews, Anglos, Hispanics, Irish,  and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans, for  dollars and the nation’s soul (which may or may not be the same thing) was an established cinematic paradigm.  Being the Coens, though, this was never going to be a simple genre piece. On one level, the film is a blackly comic pastiche of everybody else’s gangster movie. It opens with an outraged Sicilian mobster (Johnny Caspar) decrying to an Irish gang boss (Leo O’Bannion) the dubious ethics of a renegade Jewish grifter (Bernie Birnbaum) who has shortened the odds on a fixed boxing-match, thus diminishing his gambling profits. It involves a ménage à trois between Bannion, his ‘moll’ Verna – a cynic from Central Casting and Birnbaum’s sister to boot – and his lieutenant, Tom Reagan, who gives every indication of not caring a damn about her. In the course of the action, Reagan is subjected to a series of savage beatings which in the real world would have killed or incapacitated him, sustaining no more injury than a cut lip. In several early scenes, O’Bannion is shown dictating to the Mayor and Police Chief as though they were underlings; in a later one, the now-dominant Caspar does the same thing.  There are crosses and double-crosses galore.

L-R: Albert Finney (Leo O'Bannion), Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna Birnbaum)

So far, so parodic. But just as Coppola and Leone, inter alia, demonstrate the workings of politics and the wider mechanisms of business in the activities of organised crime, so the Coens introduce the cock-up theory of history into the mix.  Reagan, now apparently working for Johnny Caspar (keep up !) takes pity on Birnbaum, whom he has been instructed to murder, and allows him to escape on condition he leave town without trace. Whereupon he reappears in Reagan’s own apartment to manipulate the situation to his own reckless financial advantage.  The gang war prompted by his chiselling fizzles out. Caspar himself is murdered by Reagan, who also (finally) takes out Birnbaum. O’Bannion is restored, diminished, to top-dog status, with Verna agreeing to marry him but Reagan refusing his offer of re-employment. The solidarity within all camps – Sicilian, Irish and Jewish – is fatally compromised. Reagan is the last man left standing, largely because his ruthlessness, cynicism and ability to take a beating exceed those of any of the other players, but it is a moot point how long this is likely to last. He might be killed next week, or he might go on to found his own mob and be brought down years later in a replay of the kind of machinations in which he has just played a part. His bloody-mindedness and individualism, like a perverted version of that of the cowboy-heroes cited earlier, have allowed him to outwit the collectivities and corporations among which he moves, but the price is solitude and unknowability, and we're all aware they will not protect him indefinitely. He is as blank as Melville’s Samouraï, and as doomed.

John Turturro (Bernie Birnbaum)

Friday, 6 April 2012

Glossy pictures: Gary Hume - Flashback, at Leeds Art Gallery

American Tan XXVIII (2008)

The first draft of this review began thus:             

“In his essay Cuisine ornamentale, published in the mid-1950s and collected in his celebrated Mythologies (1957), the French cultural critic Roland Barthes decried a tendency of the magazine Elle to extend the glossiness of its own production values to the content of its cookery pages. Every week, he wrote, Elle would publish a colour photo of some elaborate dish in which ‘the predominant  substantial characteristic is the coating (le nappé): visible effort is made to glaze surfaces, to surround them, to swamp the food itself with a smooth patina of sauce, cream, fondant, or jelly… This universal glazing is, in fact, a demand that we accord its object a certain distinction, refinement, eminence… ’ 

“That word, le nappé, kept coming back to me as I prowled between the paintings and sculptures making up this small retrospective of Gary Hume’s work, wondering why, for the most part, I didn’t get it – or indeed, if there was anything to get. Perhaps it was all the gloss paint used for many of the pieces. Sheets of aluminium evenly covered in simple blocks of uniform bright colour, balloonlike bronzes sheathed in shiny black or white carapaces: this work announces its surface, its coating, as brashly as a new car’s bodywork, a glossy nailpolish, or a 1950s gastroporn photograph. But does it announce anything else ?”

Then my computer died on me, and I couldn’t do anything more on it for nearly two weeks. But I did go back to take a second look at the Gary Hume , and I couldn’t believe my eyes… Somehow, that fortnight away from first impressions, and the prejudices they had triggered, enabled me to see the work afresh. Yes, the surfaces were glossy, the materials and their combination unusual and confrontational, the colours bright and simple, but coming back to them with an idea of what I thought they looked like, I found myself completely confounded.  Instead of a uniform Barthesian nappé, I found an array of textures and variations beneath the outer sheen which was little short of astonishing. Pictures I had been prepared to dismiss as slapdash and overly simplistic, like Roots (1993) and Flying (1995), disclosed a technical effort and a subtlety of finish which simply hadn’t been apparent (to me, at least) on an initial view. 

 Four Doors I (1988-89)

Paint is layered, scraped, pooled and brushed, in a range of ways, rewarding close examination and the viewing of each piece from different distances and angles. In fact, it can probably be asserted that the glossier the surface – the greater its initial resistance to examination – the more there is to be discovered. Four Feet in the Garden (1995), ostensibly just a silhouette of, well, two pairs of human feet facing each other above stylised blades of grass, is delicately inscribed with detail of the toes and carries two mysterious whorls of relief positioned above them.  Although his paintings will sometimes use contrasting blocks of colour  for immediate effect, there is actually more going on within individual colour-areas than between them. This, of course, makes the pictures fiendishly difficult to photograph, so be warned about judging them from the illustrations accompanying this text – they really need to be seen in their original state.

Snowman (not in the Leeds show)

The same goes for the sculptures. The bronze may have been denatured by treatment with Hume’s ubiquitous gloss paint, but their surfaces are far from uniform. American Tan VII (2006-2007) is an assembly of sections of human legs, planed and curved with a solidity, presence, and isolation both familiar and poignant. Even the ‘snowman’ sculpture The End of Fun (2004) – two sets of three black-painted spheres stacked on top of each other – has an irregular, ‘made’ quality which works against its stylised premiss.  American Tan VI (2006-2007) combines a tan-painted ‘legs’ motif with what would appear to be a giant bare-bronze chrysanthemum, a touching and funny comment on the relationship between artifice and nature.

Water Painting (1999)

On this second visit, I took time to watch parts of the film of Gary Hume talking about his work which is played on a loop in an anteroom to the main exhibition. In it he talks about the particular qualities of the gloss-paint medium:  “There are no light-effects in my paintings” he says at one point “but the paint itself loves light.” Quite.  He is engagingly modest about his drawing ability, although on the strength of the complex, interweaving human outlines in Water Painting (1999) he has no real need to be. He is clearly a highly original craftsman and thinker about painting, and appears, remarkably, to have found a new and challenging way to skin the old artistic cat.

 Gary Hume - Flashback is at Leeds Art Gallery, The Headrow, Leeds, until 15th April.