Monthly Archives: May 2013

Dawn, Grand Canyon

Dawn, Grand Canyon

When my wife and I were first married, we lived on the Atlantic Ocean, facing east. It was the direction we knew best: We both were born and raised on the East Coast, and although we sometimes migrated north and south, we had never been to the West.

So, as a kind of honeymoon, several years after the fact, we decided to spend one summer driving west to see the West.

The question became something of a joke on that trip: Where does the West begin?

When the country was young, the Western frontier was the Appalachian Mountains. It took people like Daniel Boone to blaze trails over the ridges into the new, green country beyond. We drove across those mountains the first day. It didn’t feel any more like the West than New Jersey.

The first real milestone was the bridge over the Mississippi River. In some ways, it is still the unofficial boundary between the nation’s East and West. We looked at each other as we drove with smiles of excitement; we were finally in the West.

Yet, the West turned out to be Arkansas and it didn’t look any different from Tennessee on the other side of the river.

We could convince ourselves that Arkansas really was the West; it was where “Hangin’ Judge” Isaac Parker held his court, it was where Jesse James robbed trains. Yet, a look out the window told us it wasn’t really true. We hadn’t reached the West yet.

Thunderstorm, Hydro, Oklahoma

Thunderstorm, Hydro, Oklahoma

Surely, then, Texas was the West. As we cruised through on Interstate 40, though, it was a nondescript, flat, boring land. The Texas Panhandle might be technically in the West, but it wasn’t the West of the Randolph Scott movies we knew when we were young. Where were the canyons? Where were the cactus and the Indians? Even the people sounded more Southern than Western.

The first moment we really felt as if we hit the West was the Texas-New Mexico line, when the Interstate suddenly comes down off the high plains and into the eroded country of the Canadian River bottom. We saw, for the first time in our lives, mesas and buttes, red rock under smooth blue sky.

We sat bouncing up and down in our car seats for the excitement. It was like seeing the moon for the first time, it was so alien, so fresh, so different from anything we had ever known.

But were we yet in the West? The question may seem silly, but all the rain that hit the dry ground would eventually aim to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The Canadian River dumps into the Arkansas River, into the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

So our next goal was the Continental Divide, which we crossed near Thoreau, N.M., camping the night at Blue Water Lake.

Yet even the next day, driving across Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense, this still wasn’t the West.

Tsegi Canyon, Navajo Reservation, Arizona

Tsegi Canyon, Navajo Reservation, Arizona

And when we finally got to the coast, we got out of the car and stood on a cliffside among the tall, drying cow parsnip and looked out over the Pacific Ocean, feeling like stout Balboa with wild surmise, silent, upon a peak in Darien. There could be no question but that we had reached the West.

Olympic Coast, Washington

Olympic Coast, Washington

But looking out over the blue sea, we knew there was yet somewhere further. Beyond was Hawaii, Japan, China, Tibet, India, Iran, North Africa — and that eventually, the westward search would lead us back to Virginia — where we began — and we would see it again as if for the first time.

And we recognized that the West isn’t a place you can ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon, or conversely, that every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else, and when you can see that, you can recognize the even the familiar ground on which you stand as electric with the same excitement you feel when you leave it.

For all points on the planet are its still center and that all real travel takes place not on the ground, but in the heart and mind.

Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine, California

Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine, California


The right angle is king of the world.

Look around you and everything is square. The streets, the buildings, the windows in the buildings. The TV you watch and the refrigerator you lean into to grab a snack.

If there is a single, overarching symbol of civilization, it is its rectilinearity. Honeybees make hexagons; humans make squares.

I write this in a square office in my square woodframe home on a suburban block, staring at a rectangular computer monitor, typing in letters on little cubic keys embedded in a rectangular keyboard.

The books I consult are square-edged, the file cabinets I keep my research in are boxes. Even the take-out Chinese food I eat at my square desk comes in a plastic foam clamshell cube.

We are so inundated with right angles, that I’m afraid we don’t see them anymore. They become like the invisible air we breathe. Yet, if you begin to notice them, they can become oppressive. There is a tyranny of the box.

There are reasons, of course, that our built environment relies on the square. Of all shapes, it is the most space-efficient. The dairy industry, for instance, discovered many years ago that square milk bottles took up less space on the delivery truck than the older round bottles.

And because they can share walls, square buildings can fill up space just as efficiently as the milk bottles. It becomes like playing dots-and-boxes, connecting the dots to make little sub-squares.


There are attempts to break up the squares: the swirling streets of planned retirement cities, such as Sun City, Ariz., for instance. Even in the larger city, new tract housing is often built on curvy streets, but those streets are all contained within the larger squares — the “major cross streets” — of the larger Phoenix metro area. Those mitochondriacal squiggles are almost like the irregular growth of cancer cells inside the regular structure of the urban grid — a virus waiting to bust out and infect the next municipality.

square blocks

What is round is escape: the wheels of our cars, the CDs of our Walkmen, the cylinders of our vodka bottles.

Considering how ubiquitous the square is in the human world, it is striking to discover how rare it is in nature. Certain crystals are square — look at a grain of salt under a magnifying glass — but more common are rhomboids and hexagons.

And nature so dislikes the cubic salt crystal, that she dissolves most of them in seawater as if they were collectively the Wicked Witch of the West.

In fact, nature seems perpetually at odds with right angles. She wears them down through erosion, attacking the sharp mesa edge or the overhanging rocks of Niagara Falls.

Nature grows things asymmetrically, profusely, and just as avidly, breaks them up into chunks and sands them down into dust. You cannot expect humans to match that fecundity or ferocity, so instead, we build safe, boring little squares and put cupboards in the corners.

If you look out over any American city, you can see the incessant cubicularity of its architecture, tiny and regular against the larger, organic rising and falling forms of the landscape it occupies and the constant metamorphosis of the amoebic cumulus clouds that break up the shapes with moving shadows.

How static the architecture seems.

cun 18th century

What does the midday sun look like?

That may sound like a simple question, but it’s not. You can’t really look at the sun: If you try, the result is sensory overload, like the distortion of loud music on cheap speakers. You can even go blind, rather quickly.

Yet, everyone thinks he knows what the sun looks like. It’s everywhere in art, beginning with the tempera paintings kids make in elementary school: They so often put a wedge of sun in the corner of the painting, with rays spread out below like sea urchin spines.

kid turtle

But the sun doesn’t look like that: The child’s version of the sun is a symbolic representation of the solar disk.

But then, so are all adult representations.

So we also recognize the gilt centrifugal rays of Louis XIV’s Sun King symbol and the terra cotta sun face of Mexico and the red ball and rays of the World War II Japanese “Rising Sun” naval ensign.


The sun is the paradigm of art problems, because it can never be portrayed accurately as it looks. Paint cannot be so bright.

But that doesn’t stop artists from attempting it. Van Gogh painted the solar disk over and over in his landscapes. Usually, the sun is a yellow circle surrounded by concentric brushstrokes in a darker ocher. The only way he could make the sun seem bright was by making the sky unnaturally dark.



Ansel Adams had a photograph he called The Black Sun, in which a long exposure caused the image of the sun to solarize, making it a dark dot in the picture, surrounded by a halo of rays. It looks almost like an eclipse photo.


Ansel Adams' "Black Sun"

Ansel Adams’ “Black Sun”

In Picasso’s Guernica, the sun is an edgy elliptical disk with spiked rays, in the middle of which is a light bulb.

guernica detail

Each of these is an attempt to portray something that cannot be portrayed.

On a piece of paper or a canvas, the brightest white is no more than 40 times brighter than the deepest black. In the Arizona summer, the sun is thousands of times brighter than the shadow under a mesquite. A canvas just cannot accommodate that brightness range. We compress that range and accept it.

But the emotional effect of the sun’s brightness is just as hard to portray. When artists attempt it, they have to leave the realm of naturalism and create a fiction, a symbol for the sun instead of its snapshot.

So, what does the world look like? The sun is only one minor example of the complexity of this question. It is a question that has been at the core of art for 30,000 years and has still not been answered in any finality.

The problem in formulating an answer is that human perception is both so complex — scientists keep finding more astonishing whirligigs in the brain’s apparatus — and at the same time, so universally believed simple. We all have eyes; and seeing, after all, is believing.

We see with our eyes, most people think. The world looks the way a photograph makes it look.

But of course, we don’t see with our eyes, but with our brains – and even more difficult, with our minds, which means we see through the haze of emotions, culture and individual life experience. We so thoroughly process the data that our eyes collect that the final result barely matches the patterns on the tickled retina.

Seeing doesn’t just happen; it is a complex mental process. And it is a learned process, as any of hundreds of studies have confirmed. One of the ways it is learned is through art — or, to use the more modern term, through media.

Which is why, until the Modernist revolution in this century, artists concerned themselves with attempting to accurately depict the world around them.

It was to this end that such men as Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi attempted in the 15th century to devise a mathematical formula for creating the illusion of three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas. The linear perspective they created became the mother tongue of European painting for four centuries.

But perspective wasn’t the only question: We’ve all seen the obsessive drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, attempting to get down on paper the swirl of water in motion.


Or Michelangelo’s attempts to show every anatomical muscle under the marble skin of his statuary.

The Italian Renaissance was so thorough in its quest for realism, and so successful, in contrast to the Romanesque and Gothic art that came before it, that we have on some level considered the question answered ever since: This is what the world looks like.

Yet, it isn’t so. There are gross distortions built into perspective: Its grid of parallel lines is pure fiction. Leonardo’s water looks more like masonry than fluid, and Michelangelo’s muscles are a little too manic to be visually true.

Yet, the schematic system of image-making they came up with was so persuasive that we still accept the look of it.

Photographs, for instance, which are often taken for the ultimate in realism, are actually made through lenses carefully designed to mimic Renaissance perspective. Rectilinear imagery doesn’t happen naturally.

No art is ultimately realistic. What we tend to call realistic art, whether it is 200 years old and hanging on a museum wall, or hanging in the “starving artist” corner of your shopping mall, is more properly called ”conventional” art. It partakes of the conventions of art that we have, for the moment, accepted.

But those conventions are just as stylized – just as unrealistic – as the ”King Tut” angular figures on an Egyptian frieze, or the misty landscapes on Chinese scrolls.

Take any so-called realistic piece of art and ask just how like life it might be.

When a British cleric, Dr. Thomas Church, visited Rome in 1816, he sat to have his portrait drawn by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, one of the leading French artists of the time. The 6- by 8-inch pencil drawing Ingres made is now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a drawing almost everyone would call a realistic likeness. Certainly, if you knew the drawing, you could have picked out Church from a police lineup.

Ingres' Dr. Thomas Church

Ingres’ Dr. Thomas Church

Yet, the drawing is realistic in only a conventional sense; we are so used to those conventions, we don’t even think about them. We are fish, the conventions are water. It almost seems silly if I point them out. But it isn’t silly; it is profoundly important for us to think about them.

First of all, I doubt the good reverend was only 15 inches tall, as he is in the drawing, or would be if he stood up and his legs hadn’t been cut off by the edge of the paper. We have no trouble believing that a small likeness is realistic, any more than we have trouble with Georgia O’Keeffe’s larger-than-life flowers.

Second, Church probably had a little more color in his cheeks than in this monochrome drawing. We accept black and white as realistic.

We even accept his high-collared coat as black because we know such coats, even though in the drawing, it is the same blank-paper color as his nose and cheek.

Third, the real doctor was three-dimensional; the drawing is not. We could walk around the real person and see his back; the verso of the drawing is just blank paper.

Then, too, the real person moved and the drawing is frozen still.

The real person moved through time, too. It should also be noted that the drawing still exists; the same cannot be said for the good cleric. Ars longa, vita brevis.

The real person made noise — I cannot imagine such a cleric not talking constantly, even prattling. The only noise the drawing can make is a crinkling sound if you were to crush it in your hands — a sound to draw the immediate attention of the museum guard, no doubt, but not exactly conversation.

The drawing also has no odor of humanity about it. Then, too, the drawing is made up of pencil lines. Examine as you will the world around you, you will not discover lines in it that outline the borders of objects. The use of line in drawing is one of the most persistent, and least realistic conventions.

And the last thing I’ll mention: There is a frame, an edge of the picture that cuts off the bottom half of the good reverend. Real experience does not come with a frame line.

All these things we look right past and accept the drawing as an accurate rendering of reality. I’m sure you can come up with a dozen other hidden conventions I have passed over. But that is the power of convention. And it is all the more reason we should be concerned with the question: What does the world look like?

A century of Modernism has taught us not to ask such a question, and we have largely bought into the propaganda. Instead of asking the question, “What does the world look like, from the time of Cezanne on, art has primarily asked, ”What does art look like?” When a visitor looked at one of Jackson Pollock’s swirls of paint drippings, he asked, wondering what the picture’s subject might be, ”What is it?” Pollock answered, ”A painting.” He wasn’t just being cute. All of art critical theory at the time asked us to consider the effects of colors against other colors, forms against form, line against line.

But as great as some of the century’s art is, the overall effect is of a mirror held up to a mirror. It is intentionally mute: ”Music can express nothing,” said the arch-Modernist composer Igor Stravinsky. He was wrong, but he summed up this century’s own unacknowledged provincialism.

Art must regain its connection with the life we live. There is no better way to do this than attempt to answer the basic question about the appearance of the world.

For seeing is active, not passive. It is something we do, not something that happens to us. Each generation must keep up this dialogue with the world.

It is still a noble goal of art: to discover the difference between the schematic and the mimetic, between convention and experience — between what is and what has to be.

To parse it all out.

What is called Postmodernism doesn’t effectively do this. If Modernism is a mirror looking at a mirror, what has followed is a TV set looking at a TV set.

nam june paik1

A generation of media-savvy savants has created an art that is self-referential, and its main reference is The Brady Bunch.

I am certainly not calling for artists to imitate the look of Norman Rockwell. I hope I have made clear that Rockwell is not realistic.

I am calling for artists to take a really close look at the world around them — actually, I am calling for them to love the world, to caress the things of the world with their eyes.

The most effective way of doing that is to draw. Not until you have drawn something have you really seen it, felt its texture in your mind, tasted its color on front and back of tongue, known its shape and the shape of the air around it.

You can see this in Ingres’ drawing again. The coat, the pose, the chair arm — they are all merely conventional. But look at the eyes. They fairly swell with life, there is a softness to the bags underneath, a bristliness to the eyebrows and a live intensity to their gaze. The eyes are the animated center of the drawing, a jewel in a supportive setting.

In the coat, one sees the artist’s training; in the eyes, his connection with the world. There is no doubt which is more important.

So I ask the question of artists, what does the world look like?

Take take just one of those issues: motion, for instance. In the early Renaissance, it was not unusual to repeat a figure several times in a painting, depicting action as it is shown in the frames of a comic strip – showing the same figure in different parts of the frame at different moments in the action.


One depicts Salome dancing in one part of the picture and John the Baptist in his cell in another. Another corner of the picture shows John bent over the block with an executioner’s ax raised over his head and a final portion has Salome watching John’s head on a platter.

Even God appears twice, from front and back, in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Creation.

An entire century of art grappled with this problem as Baroque artists painted violent action at its most unstable point in time, suggesting the motion even when the figures are still as statuary.

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is an attempt to portray the motion itself.


Jackson Pollock’s action paintings are visually active with the result of the painter’s own motion.

Jean Tinguely created kinetic sculpture that actually did move.

Which of these is most “realistic”?

The depiction of visual reality is only one of the purposes of art, but it is a great and noble purpose that has been in eclipse as artists have been seduced by the cleverness of conceptual art.

As though the problem of mimesis in art had somehow been solved, freeing us for other endeavors.

But every time an artist picks up a pencil and tries to get the proportions of a figure right, every time an artist mixes a rose madder with an alizarin crimson to match the color of a landscape, she is tackling the biggest and most intractable question of art.

Looking is hard work, worthy work for an artist.

The sun streams in through the window, I go to it, look out at the world beyond and wonder what it looks like.

Astonish us.


There is no silence more palpable than when you’re alone in the woods on a windless winter morning with new snow a foot deep on everything.

It is eastern Pennsylvania, in the meatloaf Pocono Mountains on a late November weekend and when we pitched our tent late the night before it was cold and dry. The stars were acetylene, caught in the naked treebranches.

But during the night, it began to snow and when we got out of our sleeping bags in the morning, there was a new layer of white caught in those branches and all over the rocky ground underneath.

Winter camping has many rewards, but certainly the most magical is the weird acoustic effect of snow. It sucks sound out of the air and replaces it with something as solid as styrofoam.

What breaks the silence are your own squeaky footsteps in the snow as you step out of the tent and start to prepare breakfast. You rub your hands together noisily and blow fog into them with your breath.

Silence is an exotic commodity and we should learn to value it and enjoy it as if it were a balm from heaven.

It is a rare place that you can find where you can’t hear a gasoline engine.

The internal combustion engine fills our noses with stink and makes the roadside clutter of ugly billboards and fast-food restaurants inevitable. But what is worse, it fills our ears with the rattle of rpms and gears.

You stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and the tour busses roar by. You take a sailboat out on the water and the lake-shrinking Evinrudes drown out the sound of your luffing jib.

I knew a woman once who told me that when she was a little girl, she heard the summer sky hum.

As children, we often are content with the mystery and don’t ask for an explanation. It’s just the way the world is: The summer sky hums.

As an adult, she came to recognize what the noise was, and how banal. She was hearing a sound hardly known anymore: a propeller-driven airliner flying too high to be seen.

That was more than half a century ago, when the planet was still quiet enough that you could pick out the airplane’s buzz over the local noise. Nowadays, even though jets are much louder, you seldom hear them flying at 30,000 feet because their roar is drowned by the din of traffic, the boom of car stereos, the cackle of the TV set and the occasional gunshot from a few blocks away.

Complete silence is profound and rare. It is the aural equivalent of complete darkness: the place where no sound exists at all.

In a cave, for instance, when you are still and your lamps are turned off. The deadest sound and most obscure blackness are somehow cousins. But even that silence isn’t complete: In such a silence, you can hear the blood squirting through the capillaries of your inner ear. Perhaps you can hear your relaxed heart thumping.

At such a time, there is nothing that exists but your autonomic sense of your own meat and nerves. You face only inward; the outer has ceased to matter.

And the only quiet more utter is death.

But that isn’t the kind of silence that recharges our batteries. For that we turn to nature and wilderness.

It is the reason we drive to the Poconos and hike into the campground.

If there is a place we can get out in nature, away from the parking lot and out from under the flight path, we can let our ears register the planetary rhythm. There are dry beech leaves that crackle in the breeze all through winter before they fall off in spring, there are the squirrels chattering in the elms and the occasional cardinal flapping its wings in the snow to clear a spot where it searches for some food.

Sounds such as these are always present, but are suffocated by the commotion of daily urban living. If somehow all the electricity and gasoline were instantly neutralized, and our ears somehow adjusted, we would hear the natural sounds even on Main Street downtown.

You recognize the symptoms: The air conditioner suddenly cycles down in the office and you notice that you hadn’t known it was making noise till it stopped. Silence is in part only known in relief, against the unheeded white noise.

Part of the appeal of wilderness hiking is the silence we enjoy there. Our cochleas catch their breath and come to terms with the persistent quiet of the natural world. And if we stay long enough, and our ears catch up with the reality, the birds begin to seem noisy and even sunrise groans.



Wham! The book socked me right where it does the most good.

“What’s this?” I thought as my brains came to their senses, “Mickey Spillane as a literary author?”

I could hardly shake the fuzz from my credulity.

It isn’t exactly a prestigious Library of America anthology, but the Mike Hammer detective novels from the 1950s and ’60s have been collected by New American Library, three to a volume. The first, the Mike Hammer Collection, Vol. 1 contains I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick and Vengeance is Mine. Volume 2 contains One Lonely Night, The Big Kill and, Spillane’s magnum opus, Kiss Me, Deadly. The third volume comprises The Girl Hunters, The Snake and The Twisted Thing.

And while Library of America, with its acid-free paper and navy fabric bindings has already begun reprinting the more respectable Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, it will probably be a while before they acknowledge Spillane. It’s hard to think of Spillane in literary terms: The books practically define “pulp” as a genre. Yet, it turns out that the literary qualities of the books far outweigh their slender ambition.

The violent stories and their stereotyped characters are pure cliché: The tough gumshoe, the vinegar-mouthed secretary with the unspoken crush on her boss, the harried pal at the precinct office. These were commonplaces of the genre before Spillane changed his first typewriter ribbon.

But there is something about the prose they come packaged in, something fresh as a slap on the cheek:

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun was in his hand.”

Or: “There were two bums down at one end of the counter taking their time about finishing a ten-cent bowl of soup; making the most out of the free crackers and catsup in front of them. Halfway down a drunk concentrated between his plate of eggs and hanging on to the stool to keep from falling off the world. Evidently he was down to his last buck, for all his pockets had been turned inside out to locate the lone bill that was putting a roof on his load.”

One shouldn’t overstate the case. Spillane is no James Joyce, but looking back from the vantage of half a century, we can see the Modernism in his sleek style. The story almost doesn’t matter: They are all cut from the same bolt of blue serge. But the manner of the telling — the choice of the bon mot, the clarity of emotional drive in the prose — these tell of a stylist, not a hack.

More than Kerouac, Spillane speaks to the underside of the Eisenhower years. Vets who had come back from Europe knew they had done unspeakable things for the greater good. It was something they didn’t talk about.

Spillane put that undercurrent into print. His Mike Hammer — left as undescribed as Everyman — uses the methods of evil to perpetrate justice. Still, it is the words, spare as Hemingway and direct as Homer — that make Spillane a memorable writer.

I would venture to assert that Spillane has had more effect on writers his better than any other. Reading Spillane is a postgraduate course in using verbs that have punch, in creating a sense of here-and-now, of relating a story through a sensibility.

Perhaps if Mickey Spillane had tried his hand at a better book he would have failed; perhaps he has no interest in anything but the process: those word middens toppling out of the page.

But these reprinted classics prove that Mickey Spillane is a first-rate second rate writer. Maybe the best.

grass fireworks

This world is filled with useless things: old habits we refuse to give up; new answers to problems that long ago vanished; professional football.

Most of them are inoffensive. We can live with them. But there are some that really get under my skin. Prime among these is the front lawn.

In my list of senseless things, the suburban front lawn takes the lead, surpassing such other bits of silliness as:

1. neckties

2. chrome detailing

3. parsley garnishes

4. extended warranties, and

5. nipples on men.

Explain for me, if you will, why so many well-meaning people work so hard to put a spot of green along the street, in an area of their property they never visit, save to mow it.

Of course, a thirsty lawn makes even less sense in the American Southwest, where it might well be considered a crime against nature. Yet, drive the streets of Phoenix and see all the pretty lawns: like kangaroos in Greenland.

It has been argued that front lawns are beautiful. Certainly grass growing in the meadow is among the most satisfying sights in nature, with its rusty autumn seedheads waving in the breeze above the thousand wildflowers that fill out the landscape.


Birds and butterflies are drawn to the meadow. It is a perfect Eden.

But lawns are not the same thing as grass. In a lawn, we chase away the wildflowers, which we call weeds, and discourage insects with noxious chemicals and we shoo away the birds that might eat up the newly seeded turf.

And the ample seedheads, with their glumes and awns, are slaughtered by the riding Toro, so the lawn approaches its Platonic ideal: AstroTurf. The lawn, as envisioned in the American suburb, might as well be a green shag carpet.

It is also argued that the tightly mowed lawn is a delight to walk upon, that it is a wonderful place for children to play or for the family to have a picnic.

That might be true of the back yard. But almost none of us does such a thing in the front yard. The neighbors would stare. About the only purpose the front lawn serves is to provide a comfortable place for the neighbor’s dog to poop.

That is a long way from the English estate lawn, which the American suburban lawn attempts to emulate.

We didn’t have lawns in America until after the Civil War. Houses were built right up on the street.

Dirt, which could be swept clean, was the ground cover of choice.

But after the Civil War, urban patterns began to change. Streetcars and passenger trains allowed more people to move out of the city to live and commute to work.

There are many reasons for the triumph of lawns in American landscaping. The idea took root in a century that was much more concerned with nature than our own. It was a time of Romantic poetry and art, and people looked for ways to be closer to nature. The lawn satisfied this need, in a small and distorted way.

But what began as bringing nature to suburbia ended, by the 1950s, as outright war against nature.

“A good many homeowners feel this way,” said Changing Times magazine in 1954: “Mother Nature has beaten them to a stand still for so many years that revenge is worth almost any price, as long as it comes in the form of a real good, drought-tolerant, weed-resistant lawn.”

I once lived in a house next to a jowly retiree who kept his lawn cut to the same length as his Marine crewcut. He was so intent on regimenting the naturally wild grass, that after he finished giving his lawn the buzzcut, he actually rode his mower for a half-mile up and down the road shoulder in front of his house to keep it all perfectly manicured. He did this at least twice a week.

I suspect he spied on his lawn at night to make sure it didn’t misbehave.

For if a lawn is a bit of nature, it is nature bridled and harnessed.

In his book, Second Nature, author Michael Pollan argues that “Lawns are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will.”

If we followed the logic of the lawn, we would create the front-yard equivalent of the plastic wood-grain walnut tabletop. Indeed, a friend of mine in Seattle, to avoid having to mow his lawn, poured in a layer of concrete instead, and painted it green. It frees him up to drink beer and watch ballgames.

If anything, the lawn is a peculiar case of cultural persistence. All around us are things that once made sense, but as they persisted through changing times, they lost touch with reality. Parents teach their children to play with “choo-choo” trains, although no one has seen steam locomotives since their grandparents.

We find Gothic pointed-arch windows — which made engineering sense in Medieval stone churches — in modern wooden churches.

And we get on and off the left side of jet airplanes because right-handed cavalry officers used to wear sabers on their left side, making it more sensible to mount and dismount their horses from the left. Early military airplanes — as part of the “air cavalry” — took the cue and the practice has never changed. (Indeed, those WWI biplanes often had “stirrups” on which to climb up into the open cockpit.)

Even neckties may once have had a reason to exist. It is said they served as bibs for sloppy eaters; but let’s face it, today you can throw a shirt in the washing machine, but you have to take the tie to the dry cleaners to get that mustard spot off. Tie as bib does not make economic sense.

And so, lawns, which originally functioned on English and French estates to provide hay for agricultural animals, later became symbols of rank, wealth and title.

Maine grass

They oddly persist this way in American suburbs.

It played into the curious American delusion that in our democratic nation — where everyone is theoretically equal — we are not equal as commoners, but as aristocrats. Every man in his white clapboard house was king in his castle. And each of us deserves his own rolling green estate, and if we only own enough property for a postage-stamp lawn, so be it.

Thorstein Veblen, the social critic who first came up with the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” at the turn of the century, saw the American obsession with lawns as yet another example of showing off your wealth, no matter how pitiful its amount.

And we began a century of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

After World War II, it became almost unpatriotic not to have a perfectly kept lawn to show off.

I suppose the reason I get so exercised about lawns is that I really, really love grass. I love the lacy panicles of panic grass, the bushy-eyebrow racemes of sixweeks grama, and the three-fingered tassles of big bluestem growing man-high in the few remaining patches of Midwest tallgrass prairie.

Grass B&W

And nothing beats the stiff stalked timothy, where the redwings like to squat and squabble.

It has been suggested that people value lawns in part because we have some faint genetic memory of developing as a species on the savannahs of Africa. I feel that atavistic pull, but it is prairie that excites it, not front lawns.

In the prairies, vast fields of wheat or wildgrass blow like seawaves in the wind.

In America’s suburbs, the front lawns mock “nature without check with original energy.”

It has been said that an eagle in a cage is not an eagle. And grass in a lawn is not grass.

yellowstone panorama

I bought a video camera to take on our summer vacation.

It was a simple camera, with a modest zoom lens and absolutely no extra gadgets: a stripped down version, the cheapest I could find on the market. With it, I bought an adapter that would let me plug the thing into the car’s cigarette lighter.

We shot several hours worth of tape as we drove up the Rocky Mountains and back. And the single greatest boon the purchase returned on its investment was totally unexpected.

It was not the “moving snapshot” aspect that turned out the most important. Sure there are lots of shots of scenery, and of my wife standing in front of Yellowstone Falls.

And a few times when Carole took the picture of me instead, and decided she wanted a vertical frame, so turned the camera sideways.

Or some pictures when we forgot to turn the camera off.

No, the most important thing to find out is that a video camera captures the wind.

It is there in almost every shot: the hiss and blow of air moving across the internal microphone of the videocam. The sound of the breeze made us notice the moving seedheads of the grass, the dancing aspen leaves, the rising of the ends of Carole’s hair as she stood in front of the falls.

Without the intervention of “art,” the wind becomes part of the unnoticed background noise we filter out in our daily lives as we pay more attention to such important things as the mowing of grass or the seventh inning of the Braves’ game. Unless there is a full blow tearing through town, and shingles switch roofs from one house to the neighbor’s, we don’t much pay attention to the moving air.

But out in the countryside, and seen through the eye of the video lens, the air is never still, and within the air, nothing that can move doesn’t.

The entire world is constantly in motion, wiggling and twitching.

My wife, who has studied such things, tells me that certain Plains Indian tribes understood the wind to be evidence of the Great Spirit, “Taku-scan-scan” in Lakota. Anything that moves in nature is evidence of the Great Spirit: wind, water, breath, the frosty snort of a buffalo in winter.

“For them, the world is animated by the spirit, and the wind is the sign of the spirit,” she tells me.

That is the purpose of the “peace pipe,” which sends a curl of smoke up into the air so that we may see the motion of the spirit around us through the play of the smoke. The ritual smoke was meant to cleanse the mind and make it receptive, to calm the human heart in recognition of the sacred.

I have often felt something of the same when smoking a cigar. I would never use the Native American vocabulary to express it — I am too much the European-American — but most cigar-smokers, I think, will tell you something of the same: There is something relaxing and reassuring in the play of smoke as you blow it into the air and watch it ascend and disperse.

Even on a still day, the cigar smoke will twist this way or that, giving away micromovements in the air.

If the breath is life, the smoke lets it be seen.


And so does the video camera, as it captures the lupine bouncing in the field, the bottoms of the white poplar leaves turning upward, the current running through the grasses, the sideways tilt of the mockingbird’s tail as it takes off in a crosswind.

You can see something of this each weekend on CBS, as they end their Sunday Morning with a five-minute bit of video tape taken somewhere in America’s nature. “We leave you this morning,” says Charles Osgood, “in Martha’s Vineyard,” or “in the hills of the Dakotas,” and then we watch as the camera shows us a flock of Canada geese or the hive of some buzzing bees.

And always, each week, there is the gentle blow of wind in the microphone, reminding us that all of nature is animated.

This recognition is the purpose of all travel, at least for me. When I come to the point of unnoticed boredom with everyday life, to the point that things have lost their edge and become so familiar I no longer see them, there are two things that remind me just how awake the rest of the world can be.

The first is art, whose job it is to elbow me awake and make me notice what I hadn’t paid attention to before.

And the second is travel, which, by putting me in contact with things unfamiliar, acts as a kind of mirror for my ordinary daily life, showing its face and alert eyes.

The vacation videotape combines the two: In every frame, it seems, something is moving, twitching, turning, blown, agile, bouncing.

My wife tells me about when her dying father was mostly blind from a stroke. He called to her from the back steps one day, where he sat looking out toward the river and woods.

“Catbird, come here and let me show you something,” he said.

“The whole woods is moving.”

He couldn’t see the leaves, or even individual trees, only the whole mass of forest moving, dancing, swaying.

And he had a terrific grin on his face.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The 1950s were a decade of fear and paranoia. Schoolkids learned to duck and cover and at night, dreamed of mushroom clouds. Grownups were spooked by Commies hiding behind every bush and screenplay. They built fallout shelters in their back yards. Congress held hearings and inquisitions. They had lists. Not only were spies giving our secrets to the Rooskies, but comic books were debauching our youth. Armed soldiers accompanied little girls to school, defending them from angry, fearful mobs.

It’s all there to see in our movies. It was a decade of noir, a decade of “psychological” Westerns. But most of all, it was the decade of crummy science fiction. In those films the shadows that frightened us were allowed out of their cages. There be dragons.

Godzilla was really only the most overt of those films, but the message was everywhere. If it wasn’t about nuclear bombs reawakening prehistoric beasts, as in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or The Giant Behemoth (can there be a small behemoth?), then it was about our fear of Cold War Communists: The subtext of Invaders From Mars — one of the creepiest movies ever — was that aliens could infiltrate our comfortable suburban lives and we wouldn’t even know it. It was a nightmare of true paranoia. It was there in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, too: People weren’t who we thought they were and we couldn’t trust anyone.

Subtext was king.

There were few sci-fi films from the time that didn’t bear this extra freight, from Them! (not us) and its giant ants in the LA sewers to The Thing and its call to “keep watching the skies.”

Certainly the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds carried this Cold War message. We were at risk of invasion from aliens, and whether they were from Mars or the Soviet Union hardly mattered.

The narration made this explicit, describing the course of the 20th century from World War I — “nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days” — through World War II — with “new devices of warfare which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction” — to the next war, “fought with the terrible weapons of superscience, menacing all mankind and every creature on Earth.”

This was a movie about the fears we felt in the 1950s.

And it is why those wretched movies, made on a shoestring with cardboard sets and vacuum-tube control boards, can stick in our memories like some pop tune. There is the power of dream and nightmare underneath the aluminum spray paint and prehistoric iguanas.

Star Wars? Star Snores.

Can’t compare with Devil Girl From Mars. There is a unacknowledged fear of a rising feminism. Same for Cat Women of the Moon or Queen of Outer Space.

Devil Girl from Mars

Devil Girl from Mars

Those of us who grew up on the real thing know that if you want the bona fides, you must find them not in the Technicolor epics, but in the mustier corners of your video store or the back channels of your basic cable.

For the kind of sci-fi that sticks to your frontal lobe for a lifetime, you must look to something a lot less classy than George Lucas’ New Age Wookiee-fest.

You’re talking the 1950s. The decade was to science fiction what the 1930s were to screwball comedies, or the 1940s to war movies.

The production of that single decade is astounding. There are hundreds of them, really cheesy space monster movies, made with the collective budget of a middle-size Levittown, N.Y., household. During Lent.

Those films, from Rocketship X-M in 1950 to Teenagers From Outer Space in 1959, outlined a genre. Even today’s most up-to-the-state-of-the-art FXtravaganza will manage to pay homage to those cheese-athons of yore.

You know the drill: An elderly scientist with a beautiful daughter discovers a new planet or an underground civilization that will destroy the world, or at least dent a small out-of-the-way English coastal village. All the best World War II stock footage of tanks and cannon cannot gun down the menace until our hero invents a new ray or oxygen destroyer that manages to vaporize the menace or at least cause it to doze off, meanwhile winning the daughter, whose name, by the way, is always a transgender name like Chris or Pat. (The hero has to be surprised at the beginning that the elderly scientist’s assistant is a ”girl.”)

And at the end she hugs her man, who is usually dressed in a leather flight jacket, and they stare off into the empty ocean and she asks him if the danger is over, if the flying saucer/interplanetary dinosaur/giant centipede will ever come back, and he looks pensive and says: ”Keep watching the skies.”

How can Star Wars compete with that?

And the acting in these low-budget classics is sometimes mind-blowing. Hollywood didn’t put its Gary Coopers and Cary Grants in cheap genre flicks. No, it drew from the shallow end of the pool of talent that included such luminaries as William Lundigan and Lyle Talbot. Most of them made Al Gore look as animated as Roger Rabbit.

I mean, let’s face it: Mark Hamill may be a lousy actor, but he’s no Sonny Tufts.

What is so surprising about those awful films is just how much affection we feel for them when they show up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or during a baseball rain delay.

Actually, there are two types of affection we feel for them. For there are two different ways they stand out.

First, there is the movie that is so bad, it is fun to watch.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) is the archetype for this. Director Ed Wood has often been credited with making the worst movie ever. But this is calumny. There is something naively loopy about Plan 9 that makes us cherish its every goofy blunder.

And the dialogue: ”Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

Now, that’s writing!

And: ”Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, and you explode the universe.”

Audiences howl with laughter all the way through the movie. Nobody could have made anything so cheesy on purpose.

But Ed Wood wasn’t alone. There are plenty of bad movies, with plywood sets, paper-plate flying saucers and cardboard acting.

But there is another sort of film that we love, too. In those, a miserable script and lumpy acting are somehow saved by either a director who makes more of it all than you have any right to expect, or by an idea or image that sticks in the mind like a dream.

The Man from Planet X

The Man from Planet X

What alien is more inexpressibly “other” than the glass-helmeted homunculus from The Man From Planet X (1951)? And what planet is more memorably odd than the partly solarized, red-colored landscape from Angry Red Planet (1959)?

And there is a subgenre in this, in which such moviemakers as Ivan Tors tried naively but sincerely to show what space travel or robots would be like. Destination Moon (1950), or Gog (1954), for instance.

The movies are not actually good, but they have good hearts.

The ’50s had its share of larger budget sci-fi, too. Some of them are classics, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). They transcended their genre.

Some people consider Forbidden Planet (1956) to be a minor masterpiece.

Robot Monster

Robot Monster

But it is those benighted films such as Robot Monster (1953), with its man in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet, or Killers from Space (1954), with its out-of-shape zombies dressed in spandex with fried eggs for eyes, that truly deserve worship.

Killers from Space

Killers from Space

Unfortunately, with the advent of the 1960s, science fiction took a turn and not for the better. What had been naive attempts at entertainment in the previous decade took on the more ominous tone of exploitation. Producers aimed their films at the teenage market, and the gore level rose. The monsters had faces like used chewing gum and they oozed slime.

And worse, it was all caught on really bad, underlit color film.

The flatly lit black and white film of the ’50s was a signature style. You could tell instantly what you were in for. Flood lamps illuminated the scene evenly and spread twin shadows to the right and left of everything. But the bad lighting of the ’60s couldn’t help the goo-faced monsters. There was a failure of sincerity.

We can recognize that in retrospect, looking back through an age that imitated the loopiness of the earlier films. But it doesn’t matter if you call your film Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity (1987), these made-for-cable cheesers are way too self-conscious.

We can never regain our innocence. And as for our paranoia? Welcome to the post-Sept. 11 world. You can now see the same subtext showing up once more. Not only in the many Middle-Eastern villains in our superhero movies, but in our science fiction once again.

And Steven Spielberg’s new take on War of the Worlds is fairly marinated in it. It oozes everywhere.

The new film has a different shadow villain: “Is it the terrorists?” little Rachel asks when things start blowing up.

Although Spielberg never undercuts the sheer velocity of his thriller with academic discourse, he fills his movie with striking imagery that makes the subtext clear: An airplane crashes into a building, posters stapled to walls with pictures of missing people, debris falling from the sky.

These are the images of our current fears. Older movies reveal our former fears.

The newer subtext is terrorism, which even comes out in the comic relief.

When Tom Cruise is trying to escape the destruction of the aliens with his two children, they ask him about the fearful strikes of lightning that have prefigured the chaos. This wasn’t ordinary lightning, he tells them, “It came from somewhere else.”

“Like Europe?” his teenage son asks.

“No, Robbie, not like Europe,” he replies. And we recognize, someplace non-European, where people have different clothing and different beliefs, somewhere utterly alien to most Americans.

It isn’t that Spielberg’s film is about 9/11, but that some of the emotion and fear we feel watching it is recalled from having seen the real event. It sets up a resonance: You can’t see the one without thinking of the other.

This is subtext speaking.

TOP 10
Cheesy Sci-Fi movies from the 1950s

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat Women of the Moon

10. Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) – Our astronauts, led by Sonny Tufts, reach
the moon only to find a cave full of exotic dancers in black cat suits. There
is also a giant spider. Similar plots show up in Missile to the Moon (1959)
and Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1954), but neither can top the original.
9. Angry Red Planet (1959) – An American space team lands on Mars and is eaten
by giant spiders with rat faces. Only the ”girl” survives. The acting is
rudimentary, but the visuals are unforgettable, even in their cheesiness.
8. The Crawling Eye (1958) – Forrest Tucker acts his heart out in this tale of
giant eyeballs with tentacles that live in frozen radioactive clouds above a
Swiss village and communicate psychically with a young woman.
7. Invaders From Mars (1953) – This is almost a work of genius. Despite
vestigial special effects, no movie has ever portrayed childhood paranoia
better than this. A boy suspects his parents have been made into zombies by
the buried flying saucer. No one believes him.



6. Kronos (1957) – A giant cube from outer space eats energy and gets bigger.
So, what does the army do? Try to kill it with an A-bomb. ”You Earth people
are stupid! Stupid! Stupid!,” as Eros says in Plan 9. The sight of a
building-size monster moving across the landscape is eerie.
5. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) – Sometimes called ”the worst movie ever
made,” Plan 9 nevertheless has a loopy genuineness to it, an almost
soft-hearted pacifist message at its core, as zombies raised from the dead by
aliens are meant to take over the Earth. This movie is a party waiting for you
to invite your friends to.
4. Riders to the Stars (1954) – One of the rare color films from this age of
black and white, Riders is a straightforward, even humorless attempt to
explain the travails of space travel, with lots of centrifuge scenes and a
love triangle. Little excitement, but lots of sincerity.
3. Gog (1954) – This is Ivan Tors at his best, telling a story about how man’s
development of technology can come back to harm him. Gog and its twin, Magog,
are among the best robots ever put on film. They are not humanoid but look
more like what we see in industrial robots today.

Queen of Outer Space

Queen of Outer Space

2. The Queen of Outer Space (1958) – This may have been Zsa Zsa Gabor’s best
role. She plays a kind of Hungarian freedom fighter rebelling against a masked
evil queen of the universe and saving the lives of the American space men.
This is actually a fourth version of Cat Women of the Moon, but it is even
campier. Its silliness unfortunately forecasts the doom of the naive space

The Man from Planet X

The Man from Planet X

1. The Man From Planet X (1951) – Shot for less than $50,000 in six days by
low-budget genius Edgar G. Ulmer, this film manages to make a virtue of every
budget shortcut he was forced to take. The atmospheric sets, supposedly
English moors, are foggy to hide their phoniness. But the imaginative
spacecraft – a sort of upside down aluminum ice-cream cone – and
pathos-evoking blank-face alien are unforgettable. So is villain William
Schallert, before he became Dobie Gillis’ teacher, Mr. Pomfritt. This film is
a minor classic and shows how you can do a great deal on a shoestring and an
idea. And a scientist with a lovely daughter.

Angry Red Planet

Angry Red Planet

Angry Red Planet, 1959
The Astounding She-Monster, 1957
The Atomic Man, 1956
Attack From Space, 1959 (Japanese)
Attack of the 50-foot Woman, 1958
Attack of the Puppet People, 1958
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953
The Blob, 1958

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953

Conquest of Space, 1955

The Cosmic Man, 1959
The Cosmic Monsters, 1958
The Crawling Eye, 1958
The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
The Day the World Ended, 1956
The Deadly Mantis, 1957
Destination Moon, 1950
Devil Girl From Mars, 1954
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 1956
Earth vs. the Spider, 1958
The Electronic Monster, 1958
Enemy From Space, 1957
The Evil Brain From Outer Space, 1956
Fiend Without a Face, 1957

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

Fire Maidens From Outer Space, 1954
First Man into Space, 1959
Flight to Mars, 1951
The Flying Saucer, 1950
Forbidden Moon, 1956
Forbidden Planet, 1956
The 4-D Man, 1959
From the Earth to the Moon, 1958
The Gamma People, 1956

The Giant Behemoth

The Giant Behemoth

The Giant Behemoth, 1959 (and try to imagine a tiny behemoth)
The Giant Claw, 1957
The Giant Gila Monster, 1959
Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1956
Gog, 1954
The H-Man, 1958
I Married a Monster From Outer Space, 1958
The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957
Invaders From Mars, 1953
Invaders From Space, 1959
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956

Invasion of the Saucer Men, 1957
It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955
It Came From Outer Space, 1953
It Conquered the World, 1956
It! The Terror From Beyond Space, 1958
Killers From Space, 1954
King Dinosaur, 1955
Kronos, 1957
The Lost Missile, 1958
The Lost Planet, 1953
The Magnetic Monster, 1953
Man Beast, 1956
Manhunt in Space, 1956
The Man From Planet X, 1951
Menace From Outer Space, 1956
Mesa of Lost Women, 1953
Meteor Monster, 1957

Missile to the Moon

Missile to the Moon

Missile to the Moon, 1959
The Mole People, 1956
The Monolith Monsters, 1957
Monster From Green Hell, 1957
Monster From the Ocean Floor, 1954
The Monster that Challenged the World, 1957
The Mysterians, 1957
Phantom From Space, 1953
Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1958
Project Moonbase, 1953
Queen of Outer Space, 1958
Radar Men From the Moon, 1952
Riders to the Stars, 1954

The Mole People

The Mole People

Robot Monster, 1953
Rocket Attack, U.S.A., 1958
Rocketship X-M, 1950
Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, 1954-55
Rodan, 1956
Stranger From Venus, 1954
Tarantula, 1955
Target Earth, 1954
Teenagers From Outer Space, 1959
Terror From the Year 5000, 1958
Them!, 1954
The Thing, 1951
This Island Earth, 1954
Tobor the Great, 1954
20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957
The 27th Day, 1957
Untamed Women, 1952
Warning From Space, 1956
War of the Colossal Beast, 1958
War of the Worlds, 1953

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide, 1951
The Wild Women of Wongo, 1958
X The Unknown, 1956
Zombies of the Stratosphere, 1952

Back Bay, Virginia

Back Bay, Virginia

When you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance art brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.

We are all Tristan or Holden Caulfield.

Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.

Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd-instinct.

I have been as guilty as anyone. In 45 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I make my confession: I have photographed a pepper. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew. Big mistake.

Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend in art is, there are acolytes and epigones.

At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die.

And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art fades to pathetic simulacrum.

When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept.

Art becomes a response to the world, rather than a substitute for it.

Walnut Tree, Greensboro, NC

Walnut Tree, Greensboro, NC


The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.

But what I really learned from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos.

The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.

Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the knot of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.

The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beads of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance, it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.

When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe 8 years old, those buildings burnt down one night, in a glory of flame.

In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from the Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant succession wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.

Everything in nature told me the same thing: busyness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.

And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it was Raphael and Delacroix on the high end.

The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. It wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.

Whether it was 18th century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.

I was unsatisfied with it and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris


I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect.

Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that art over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.

It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age, and I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.

The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled  Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside, I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing was reified into monumentality. Instead, there was the profusion, confusion and organicism that I recognized from my own experience.

And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried those photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs where I had imitated my betters. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends. I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.

Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that show in the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see, and click the shutter.

Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.

And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. You can’t see a forest by looking at a single tree.

Baldwin County, Alabama

Baldwin County, Alabama


If I have succeeded, I have also failed.

For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.

It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsburg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries its on its own to finally express the truth.

And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.

It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.

Reno, Nevada

Reno, Nevada

children of paradise lede

I used to tell people my top-10 list had 40 movies on it. It’s a common problem. We all like to make lists, but there’s never enough room.

(Of course, the ranking of any artform is a pathetic and meaningless exercise. We are stipulating that at the outset. But lists are not only fun, they are the current American venue for intellectual debate — see below: The 50 Greatest Lists of All Time —

When the American Film Institute decided to list the hundred greatest films, they restricted it to American films — or at least they say they did. Somehow, a few English films made the list. But no foreign language films did.

And that leaves us a whole universe of movies not eligible, including some of the best ever made.

So, in response, we are providing the list of 100 best foreign films.

What constitutes a “foreign” film is always a little iffy. The Oscars have had trouble with that for years: Do you count the language of the dialog? The country where the movie was made? The country where the movie was financed?

Most of these films are established classics, and if you worry that the list has too many of the “usual suspects,” I hope I have included enough eccentric personal choices to give everyone something to talk about. That, after all, is the purpose of such a list.

And you will notice a francophile bias. I cannot disavow that. Most of my favorite films are in French. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of them, and I’ve become acculturated.

The movies on this list were chosen for several reasons. Some are among the greatest artistic creations of our civilization. Others are on the list because of their enormous influence on other film makers. Still others are just such fun to watch.

Which reminds me, if you think all foreign films are dreary and boring, you haven’t been watching the right ones. Admittedly, French or German films are more likely to investigate the outer reaches of alienation and philosophy than Hollywood films, but you will never find better battle scenes than in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. You will be hard pressed to find more suspense than in the last half hour of Georges-Henri Clouzot’s Les  Diaboliques. And if it’s blowing things up you are after, check out Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, in which Yves Montand and a bunch of toughs drive a truck full of nitroglycerine 300 miles over unpaved South American roads.


Yet, I don’t want to gloss over the difference between American and foreign films.

I have always made the distinction between what I call “Hollywood films” and “real movies.”

The real movie is about being human, about relationships, character, moral issues and historical and philosophical meaning. Hollywood movies are about blowing things up.

Now, there are foreign-made Hollywood movies by my definition, and Hollywood-made real movies: One thinks of spaghetti Westerns on one hand, and of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or John Ford’s The Searchers on the other.

At least one film manages to play both sides of the field: AFI’s No. 1 film, Citizen Kane manages like nothing else I know, to join seamlessly the slick Hollywood side  with the depth and character development of a “real movie.”

As critic Pauline Kael has said, it is one of the few great movies that is also great fun.

But by and large, foreign filmmakers play out their creativity in a larger world, with more possibilities and fewer hidebound cinematic conventions.

After all, Hollywood earned its reputation as the manufacturer of the shallow happy ending.

My list of the 100-best foreign films is a very personal list, drawn from a lifetime of watching movies. I expect you have your own films to nominate. But these are the ones I came up with.

children of paradise

First on my list is Children of Paradise, which is more like a full-length novel than any other film I know. It has a rich cast of characters and follows them over many years. And as in Brothers Karamazov, each character also embodies a different philosophy. It is a very full movie.

Set in the Paris of the 1840s, it tells the tale of Baptiste Debureau and the theatrical world in which he lived. It is also about love, art and social class.

If Kane manages to mix high and low successfully, so does Children of Paradise, in its own way. It has something of the sweep of Gone with the Wind, the passion of From Here to Eternity and the wit of Ninotchka.

And it is a film you can grow with rather than out of. When I was fresh out of college, I identified with the idealistic Baptiste; after a few marriages, I took the practical Frederick Lemaitre’s attitude toward relationships; nowadays, I uncomfortably find myself more in the cynical Pierre-Francois Lacenaire.

rules of the game

Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game might just as well claim the top spot. No other film is as deft at showing the disjunction between what our impulses are and what society demands of us.

Cocteau’s Orphee is also a great deal of fun, playing with all the tricks of cinema to create visual magic. What you see is likely to remain in your memory forever.

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita may be the saddest film ever put on celluloid. It is long and slow, but every detail is life itself, and it makes me weep for the world.

Potemkin is one of those seminal films that invent the language of cinema. What is all the more astonishing is that this Soviet propaganda film actually plays down the more sensational aspects of the historical affair it is based on. If it had been truer to history, it would have felt more simply propagandistic.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is not the most consistently good film. It has stretches of languors, but when the camera is on the face of Maria Falconetti, in the only film she ever made, the intensity is literally unbearable. It is the face of human suffering.

Kurosawa’s Ran is a Japanese retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and shows the director at the absolute peak of his powers, with the best battle sequences ever filmed.

Marlene Dietrich sings Falling in Love Again in The Blue Angel, which makes Cabaret look like “Gidget Goes to the Weimar Republic.” Steamy, smoky, atmospheric, its director, Josef von Sternberg — an American — never did anything so good again.

It takes a serious commitment of time and attention to sit through Andre Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, but you will know you have experienced something worth your effort, as the director takes us through a brutal vision of life and the place in it for both art and faith.

andrei rublev

Admittedly, almost any of the next 25 or 30 could legitimately make it to the top 10, but I’ll stand with the ones I have chosen.

Some, like Jules and Jim or Amarcord are pure pleasure to watch. Others, such as Rashomon or Wild Strawberries have at their core a moral vision. And still others, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis are simply visionary.

You will find intensity, passion, intellect, visuals, acting and directing the equal or better of anything from Hollywood. What you will not find are giant lizards and serial car wrecks. (Although, the original, Japanese version of Godzilla is a horrifying metaphor for the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and a great movie, ruined by Hollywood’s re-edit — see the version in Japanese and weep.)


A few, such as Henry V and The Mahabharata are unabashedly theatrical, using their staginess as a style.

There are few British films on my list: AFI threw me a curve and included several on their list. So, Third Man, Dr. Strangelove and Lawrence of Arabia are not here, although they would have been.

You will discover that a handful of directors made the majority of these films. I cannot apologize for that. I made the list without considering authorship. As it turns out, Ingmar Bergman shows up a dozen times; Kurosawa, 10. Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini follow up with seven and five films.

Prety much anything by them, or by Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Erich Rohmer, Agnes Varda or Krzysztof Kieslowski is worth watching, multiple times.

But, if Bergman is on this list more than others, does this mean Bergman is the greatest director? No. He has made many great films, but he is more prone to self-parody than any other important director and when he is bad — as in the miserable Elliot Gould film, The Touch, he comes close to rivaling Ed Wood.

In art, there is no best. There is only overwhelming.


1. Children of Paradise (1945) Marcel Carne — The French “Gone With the Wind.” Everyone after the same woman.

2. Rules of the Game (1939) Jean Renoir — Infidelity in pre-war France. Everyone after the same woman.


3. Orphee (1949) Jean Cocteau — French surrealist retells myth with magical camera tricks.

4. La Dolce Vita (1960) Fellini — Unforgetable images. We have met the anomie and he is us.

5. Seven Samurai (1954) Akira Kurosawa — The perfect samurai movie.

6. Battleship Potemkin (1925) Sergei Eisenstein — 1905 Odessa uprising and mutiny in Tsarist Russia.

7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Theodore Dreyer — The story of the French saint told in intense close-ups.

8. Ran (1985) Kurosawa — Japanese “King Lear.”


9. The Blue Angel (1930) Josef von Sternberg — Obsession, degradation, sex in pre-Hitler Germany.

10. Andrei Rublev (1966) Andre Tarkovsky — Cryptic and beautiful film about art and faith in a brutal world.

11. Rashomon (1950) Kurosawa — He-said, she-said in medieval Japan, looks at nature of truth.

12. Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir — Prison bust in WWI.

13. Amarcord (1974) Fellini — A nostalgic film memoir.

14. La Strada (1954) Fellini — Italian circus strong-man Anthony Quinn takes wife, loses same.

15. Seventh Seal (1957) Ingmar Bergman — Death checkmates the Swedish knight during the Plague Years.

seventh seal

16. Wild Strawberries (1957) Bergman — Old Swedish doctor takes a road trip through the past to examine his life.

17. Jules and Jim (1961) Francois Truffaut — Two guys, one girl. You do the math. The delights of French bohemia.

18. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) Abel Gance — The great film biography, currently unavailable, blame Francis Ford Coppola.

19. Ikiru (1952) Kurosawa — Dying old man finds purpose to his life by beating the bureaucracy.

20. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) Robert Wiene — Expressionist ur-horror tale is a silent classic.

21. Blue, White and Red (1993-94) Krzysztof Kieslowski — Three great films, but one overarching theme, that explodes in the denouement that ties them together.

22. The Bicycle Thief (1949) Vittorio de Sica — Neo-Realist classic about bike messenger who loses his wheels.

23. 400 Blows (1959) Truffaut — French borstal boy.


24. Fanny and Alexander (1983) Bergman — Theater family readjusts to life with strict preacher step-father.

25. Breathless (1959) Jean-Luc Godard — New Wave punk on the lam, with Jean Seberg. Godard is one of the true geniuses of cinema, with astounding and inventive scenes, who nevertheless seldom made a completely satisfying movie. A genius of bits and pieces.

26. L’Avventura (1960) Michelangelo Antonioni — Existential mystery about a woman who disappears on an island.


27. Le Doulos (1962) Jean-Pierre Melville’s hardboiled policier full of dark twists and turns. One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films.

28. Day for Night (1973) Truffaut — Sweet-natured film about shenanigans on the set of a “B” movie.

29. Cries and Whispers (1972) Bergman — Who loves the dying woman? The sisters or the nurse?

30. Alexander Nevsky (1938) Eisenstein — Medieval battle on the ice.

31. Persona (1966) Bergman — Burning psychological study of mute actress and her nurse.

32. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) Kenji Mizoguchi — Two brothers and ambition in medieval Japan.

33. Wings of Desire (1988) Wim Wenders — Angel hears poetry of life and is seduced.


34. Metropolis (1926) Fritz Lang — The future choreographed as machinery.

35. Nosferatu (1922) F.W. Murnau — The original “Dracula.”

36. Le Jour se Leve (1939) Carne — Jean Gabin as a murderer waiting for the police to come.

37. The Last Laugh (1924) Murnau — Devastating, brilliant silent film with no title cards about age and humiliation.

38. Solaris (1972) Tarkovsky — Russian director’s answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

39. Dr. Mabuse, Gambler (1922) Lang — Two-part allegory of Nazi evil with Rudolf Klein-Rogge.

40. Viridiana (1970) Luis Bunuel — Innocence corrupted, with the beggars’ “Last Supper.”

Silvia Pinal inÊLuis Bu–uel'sÊVIRIDIANA. ÊCredit: Janus Films. Ê

41. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) A pop star waits two hours for results of her biopsy; Agnes Varda’s signature film, but one of only several worth knowing by heart.

42. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) Marcel Ophuls — Are the Nazi collaborators telling the truth? Documentary.

43. La Bete Humaine (1938) Renoir — Jean Gabin is a train engineer who witnesses a murder.

44. Andalusian Dog (1928) Bunuel — Surrealism’s flagship film.

45. Diabolique (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot — Is the murder victim dead? Forget Sharon Stone; rent this.

46. A Nous la Liberte (1931) Rene Clair — “Modern Times” in French.

47. M (1931) Lang — Criminals convict a child molester.

48. Ivan the Terrible Parts 1&2 (1943-1946) Eisenstein — Once-banned pageant, too close to home for Stalin.

49. Le Boucher (1970) Claude Boucher was the most prolific of the New Wave French directors. This is probably his most characteristic film.

le boucher

50. Woman in the Dunes (1964) Hiroshi Teshigahara — Japanese vacationer gets caught in sand trap of life.

51. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) Jacques Tati — Comic seaside vacation. Tati’s best film.

52. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)  Alain Resnais — Interracial love and angst in post-war Japan, told stream-of-consciousness.

53. Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzog — Klaus Kinski as a Spaniard, leading doomed expedition down Amazon.

54. Last Tango in Paris (1973) Bertolucci — Brando laments dead wife, has nameless affair with young woman.

55. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) Bergman — Drawing-room comedy matches the lovers with correct mates.

smiles of summer night

56. Wild Child (1969) Truffaut — Science vs. Parenthood.

57. Farewell My Concubine (1993)  Chen Kaige — Chinese opera vs. Maoism. A film with broad sweep.

58. Olympia (1936) Leni Riefenstahl — Athletics as heroism. It settles into tedium, but the montage is breathtaking.

59. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966) Pier Paolo Pasolini — Sober replay of Bible story, told absolutely straight.

60. Hara Kiri (1962) Masaki Kobayashi — Harrowing samurai revenge epic.

61. The Mahabharata (1989) Peter Brook — Theatrical film tells history of the world, Vedic-style.

62. Shop on Main Street (1965) Jan Kadar — Subverting Nazis in Czechoslovakia.

63. My Night at Maud’s (1969) Eric Rohmer — One of Erich Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.” Is it infidelity if you don’t have sex with her and you aren’t yet married yet?

64. The Wages of Fear (1952) Clouzot — Explosive road movie.

65. Le Roman d’un Tricheur (the Cheat) (1936) Great French comedian Sacha Guitry speaks virtually all the parts in voice-over narration.

sacha guitry

66. Fellini Satyricon (1970) Fellini — If you thought the Classics were dull, you’ve underestimated Fellini.

67. The Virgin Spring (1959) Bergman — Medieval folk tale.

68. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Bunuel — Let’s do lunch, in hell. Recast of Tantalus myth.

69. Scenes from a Marriage (1973) Bergman — Very civilized divorce. Very definition of “internalization.”

70. The Passenger (1975) Antonioni — Jack Nicholson in Italian art film, changes identities, risks life.

71. Beauty and the Beast (1946) Cocteau — Magical retelling of fairy tale. Puts Disney to shame.


72. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Resnais — Classic puzzle picture. Don’t believe anything you see.

73. The Baker’s Wife (1938) Marcel Pagnol — She ran away, but the town still needs bread.

74. Nibelungenlied Parts 1&2: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge. (1924) Lang — German saga brilliantly remounted.

75. Knife in the Water (1962) Roman Polanski — Thriller. Don’t pick up hitchhikers.

76. Small Change (1976) Truffaut — One of the few films about childhood that isn’t sappy.

77. The Hidden Fortress (1958) Kurosawa — C-3PO and R2D2 help princess in Medieval Japan.

78. The Magician (1958) Bergman — Science vs. Religion.

79. The Mystery of Picasso (1956) Clouzot — Documentary of great painter at work. Utter magic.

80. The Earrings of Madame … (1953) The master of the moving camera, Max Ophuls tells an ironic and moving story of the La Belle Epoque.

81. Mouchette (1967) Any Robert Bresson film might — and should — be on this list. Mouchette is a good place to start, the story of a young girl whose life is nasty, brutal and short.


82. Le Fabuleux Destin de Amelie Poulain (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vision of Paris, in deep greens and blues, miraculous and warm.

83. Stolen Kisses (1968) Truffaut — Antoine Doinel, from “400 Blows,” grows up, sort of.

84. Los Olvidados (1950) Bunuel — Street life in Mexico.

85. Black Orpheus (1959) Marcel Camus — Myth retold in Brazil, with song and samba.

86. Autumn Sonata (1978) Bergman — Quintessential mother-daughter film, complete with icy stares.

87. Decalogue (1989) Ten short films by Kieslowski, each with an idiosyncratic take on one of the Ten Commandments. Harrowing at best.

88. Throne of Blood (1957) Kurosawa — Japanese “Macbeth.”

89. Yojimbo (1961) Kurosawa — Samurai “Fistful of Dollars.”

90. Sanjuro (1962) Kurosawa — Another “Teriyaki Western.”

91. Pather Panchali (1955) Satyajit Ray — Poor family raises son in poverty-stricken Bengal.

Arabian Nights

92. Arabian Nights (1974) Pasolini — Scheherezade in the nude. Simple filmmaking, complex storytelling.

93. The Story of Adele H. (1975) Truffaut — Touching portrait of obsessive love. With Isabelle Adjani.

94. Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1955) Jules Dassin’s iconic caper movie, with its long, silent, heart-pumping theft sequence. The granddaddy of them all.

95. The Devil’s Eye (1960) Bergman — Don Juan comes back from hell to seduce preacher’s daughter.

96. Forbidden Quest (1995) Peter Delpeut — Visionary Antarctic pseudo-documentary.

97. Bye-bye Brazil (1980) Carlos Diegues — Roaming Brazil’s back country with traveling magic show.

98. The Passion of Anna (1969) Bergman — Isolation and love on a Swedish island. In color, though hard to tell.

99. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) Kurosawa — Uneven anthology, but the best episodes are visionary.

100. Marat/Sade (1966) Brook — The persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum at Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. In English.

Battle of Algiers3

But, how can you make such a list and leave off The Battle of Algiers? Cheez! That’s on my Top 10 List, too.