M.C. Escher Worth the Trip of Your Choice

M. C. Escher: Reality and Illusion
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH
Through January 5, 2015

Impossible staircases, strange insect-like creatures furling and unfurling, a set of disembodied hands drawing each other into existence…. It was all so trippy and off-kilter that those of us who first saw the work of M. C. Esher in the 1960s and ‘70s simply assumed he was one of us—perhaps some acid-fueled poster artist from the Bay area.

He was actually a Dutchman, Mauritis Cornelius Escher, who was born in 1898 and checked off the planet in 1972, just about the time Baby Boomers were checking him out. Moreover, he was more Straight Arrow than Acid Rocker and he drew his inspirations from Tuscan architecture and Moorish designers, not countercultural ideals. He blew his mind in San Gimignano, not San Francisco, and with mathematics, not controlled substances.

The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, a small jewel, showcases Escher’s biography and work. It’s a perfect setting as, like Escher’s work, Manchester isn’t quite what first-time visitors expect. Once the world’s largest textile manufacturing center, Manchester is a gritty postindustrial city, whose red- brick factories stretch along the Merrimack River as far as the eye can see. Yet scattered among the decline are the remnants of the past wealth that endowed the Currier, and tenuous gentrification projects as fanciful as some of Escher’s works and might just fuel a brighter future.

The Currier exhibit on Escher is exhaustive. It opens with Escher’s earliest commercial graphic works, nature studies, landscapes, and prints. Escher gained such renown for his later mind-bending works that it’s easy to overlook his considerable printmaking skills. He excelled in all forms of printmaking—lithography, woodcuts, linoleum blocks, mezzotints, and several others that were unfamiliar to me. His artistic life took a dramatic turn when he toured Italy in 1922, the beginning of a journey that took him across Europe to study and work, but also to escape war. Italy’s medieval and Spain’s Moorish pasts precipitated a shift from pure to imaginative design. Escher had no formal training in mathematics, but non-representational geometry such as Möbius strips and ambiguous triangles became a staple of Escher’s works.

A tesselation and Mobius strip
The Currier exhibit highlights Escher’s draftsmanship and his intuitive grasp of both practical and improbable geometry. From Spanish tile makers he learned tessellation, patterns without overlap in which one design bleeds seamlessly into the next. A famed Escher technique was to begin with an abstract line of forms that slowly evolve into recognizable birds or insects. But look closely, as Escher liked to mess with our perceptions. Some of his tessellations construct, then deconstruct; others shift our focus in ways that we accept subconsciously before our reason centers alert us that we’ve been visually hoodwinked. Escher often did this in the simplest possible manner, such as changing the flight patterns of a flock of birds by slowly adding one color while deemphasizing the previously dominant hue.

Famed Escher works such as Relativity (1953) relied upon Necker cubes and Penrose triangles. Remember how you first learned how to draw a cube that appears as three-dimensional by sketching two squares whose points you connected? Do the same thing with top and bottom trapezoids and your Necker cube looks quite different. Hide some of these in a composition with some Penrose triangles whose sides are drawn in such a way as to create an architecturally impossible figure. That’s how Escher gave us pillars that support nothing, interlaced staircases that do not interconnect, and spatial planes whose dimensionality is both everywhere and nowhere. As we used to say, “Far out!”

Check out the columns!
Escher was neither a bohemian nor a child of the 60s, but his art anticipated the altered states of William Burroughs and it flung open wide Aldous Huxley’s doors of perception. You have just weeks left to get to Manchester. If you can’t make it, at least upload some of Escher’s work and study it. Don’t surf—look hard and deep. Prepare to have your mind blown.  Rob Weir  


Force Majeure is a Flurry, not an Avalanche

Directed and written by Ruben Örtlund
Magnolia Pictures, 118 minutes, R (for brief nudity and cursing in Swedish)

Swedish director Ruben Örtlund has a good photographic eye. He serves up jaw-dropping views of the French Alps and gorgeously textured shots of small domestic moments such as a family tranquilly snoozing in their matching long johns. Alas, he's a lousy scriptwriter and director. The term force majeure is used in legal proceedings to refer to an event such as a flood, hurricane, or other unavoidable accident that relieves parties of liability. Nice try, but Örtlund bears the blame for this film. There's no sense pulling any punches; Force Majeure is a very bad and very boring film.

It centers on a Yuppie Swedish couple, Tomas (Johannes Kahnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their oh-so-perfect children Harry and Vera. Tomas is work-obsessed and addicted to his cellphone, but perhaps a ski vacation in the French Alps is just what is needed to reconnect with his child-centered wife and his privileged, but pouting brood. Or, maybe not! Things go wrong on day two when a resort-induced avalanche gets a bit too close to the resort and terrifies lunchtime patrons. In the end, no one is hurt as what appeared to be a wall of snow was but an icy fog rolling off the edge of the snow slide. However, Tomas' frightened every-man-for-himself bolt leaves Ebba shattered and throws an already troubled marriage into deeper crisis when he denies that he put his own safety above that of his family.

I guess this is a metaphor for something: Deep-seated abandonment desires? Lack of virility? Male selfishness? How risk aversion leads to stultifying stasis? The sterility of middle-class life? Tomas' flight leads Ebba to question her own life. Should she have an affair like the free-spirited woman she meets in the pub? Walk away from her marriage? Make it work? Does Tomas need to go to an Iron John seminar to recoup his masculine Mojo? Do a 180 and become a Sensitive New Age Guy? Copy his buddy Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and take up with a mistress half his age? Do we care? Nope! The film's premise is thinner than the Alpine air and any gravitas it appears to have is but a passing fog. You can safely nod off for long stretches. Any time something even remotely dramatic happens—like Tomas forgetting his room key card––Ola Flottum's score gives us a cheesy organ treatment of Vivaldi to warn us to pay close attention. (Seriously, Boris Karloff would have rejected this music—and that's no slam on Vivaldi.) 

Force Majeure is really about rich Yuppies suffering from problems of their own manufacture—making an Alp out of an anthill, if you will. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the patently absurd manner in which Tomas and Ebba at least temporarily resolve their differences. (For those of you who must see this film despite my warning, pay attention to the film's final ski sequence. Then email me with the subject line "You told me so!") Worse still, Örtlund takes two hours to tell a non-tale that warrants 30 minutes at best. My favorite moments in the film itself—as opposed to still shots–involved observing Hivju's impressive red beard. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a metaphor for how bored I was.—Rob Weir


Abolish the Police?

Readers of this blog know that I have reservations about the Ferguson, Missouri case. In short, I think the grand jury was correct in its assumption that the prosecution did not present compelling evidence to allow for the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed African American Michael Brown. That very well might be the prosecuting attorney’s fault and, if locals feel that way, they probably ought to launch a recall vote. Given what the grand jury saw and heard, though, non-indictment appears to be the right call. (It at least leaves open the possibility of a future indictment.)

I have no such reservations about an incident on Staten Island—there is no justification whatsoever for Officer Daniel Pantaleo to apply the banned choke hold on Eric Garner that resulted in his death. Garner wasn’t engaged in dangerous activity—he was selling individual cigarettes on the street, an activity common among panhandlers and poor folks. It’s illegal, but let’s not confuse this with an assault on public order. Pantaleo is, at minimum, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in any court less biased than cover-your-ass police (CYA) culture.

Here in Massachusetts we have our own scandal involving cops getting away with murder. As it turns out, quite a few Bay State cops busting drunk drivers are cruising the streets while intoxicated and several have been involved in fatal accidents for which they were never charged. Here’s how you do it. Drunkenly kill a motorist or two, wait for an investigating officer to arrive, refuse a breathalyzer test, and rely upon the CYA ‘professional courtesy’ of your fellow officer. In Massachusetts, refusing to take the test is an automatic 180-day suspension of license, an inconvenience but hardly on par with the 13 to15-year sentence a Hampshire County judge just imposed on a Central American immigrant—who confessed, by the way—for the DUI double fatality he caused. Can you say ‘miscarriage of justice?’

It’s time to take action and one way do so is simply to abolish police—fire every one of them, including the “good” cops. I’m not suggesting some misty-eyed human-nature-is good-we-can-take-care-of-each-other utopian solution. I’m suggesting we nod to reality and admit that policing is an outdated concept that can be more efficiently and fairly done by technology and the US military.

We don’t need traffic cops any more, nor have they ever been particularly successful in making the streets safer. Here’s what does work: tamper-proof speed generals in vehicles that prevent engines from accelerating over a set speed, and traffic cameras that record bad driving. The latter have been in place in Canada and Europe for years. Want to tool down the interstate at 90 mph? Your fine will come in the mail. I can hear the anguished screams of “Big Brother” and “invasion of privacy.” My response: “Grow up! This battle is as over and lost as the Vietnam War.” Have we learned nothing in the post-9/11world? The simple truth is that you are being watched. Or did you think eye-witnesses solved the Boston Marathon bombing? Or that changing your password protects you from phishing? Or that laws prevent access to your “private” information? Or perhaps you think your license plates aren’t already being recorded. Ever go through a tollbooth? Ever drive by a ‘secure’ building? Cameras are everywhere, so don’t confuse privacy rights with your desire to drive like an idiot whenever you wish. If you want safer streets and maximum patrol coverage, lose the cops and bring on the cameras. Need backup? Drones can police the roads better than cops in cars.

Another outdated concept is ‘community policing.’ It’s pretty simple: bad guys don’t want to play basketball with cops and, if they’re bad enough, no one else in the community is going play tattletale; they’re smart enough to know that Officer Friendly can’t protect them from gangs. Moreover, community policing spawns the problematic CYA culture of Massachusetts, Staten Island, and (maybe) Ferguson.

Who can protect us better than rogue cops and their CYA accessories? How about the US military? In an earlier post I suggested an Italian-style carabinieri. It's not a perfect solution, but it does trend better than today’s police culture. There are 1.1 million full-time cops in the USA and another 100,000 part-timers. The US military is much larger: 1.37 on active duty and another 850,000 reservists.

In an earlier post I noted that the military is lousy at winning foreign wars, so let’s let soldiers train on American streets. Save the dough spent on cops and assess states and municipalities fees that go into the Pentagon budget. Among the advantages:

·      The US military is the most integrated body in American society, so no more white cops with seniority in black neighborhoods.
·      Police forces are increasingly militarized. Doesn’t it make sense to let those trained in this technology use it instead of amateurs?
·      Military personnel can be rotated regularly, which discourages corruption and payoffs. I’ll take dispassionate cops over community policing.
·      The US military has more trained investigators than any prosecuting attorney.
·      The military is, as a rule, more disciplined, physically fit, and duty-bound than most police forces.
·      It’s likely to be cheaper. (For a start, taxpayers wouldn’t be double-billed for high tech gear.)
·      It can't be any worse than what we already have.