Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I haven’t yet watched this particular video from friend-of-the-mag Morgan Bassichis’s Questions to Ask Beforehand, but I did see a version of this performance—an almost vaudevillian combo of standup and songs—in early April at the New York gallery Bridget Donahue, and it was a trip. Bassichis’s on-stage persona is an irresistible (and very Jewy) cocktail of narcissism and self-deprecation, irreverence and serious political commitment. Part of their shtick is improvisation, which they pass off as a kind of flighty underpreparedness and which is the engine for their charisma—for how you root for them to stick the landing when you’re in the audience. On the night I saw the show, they killed in the comedy department. But perhaps my favorite number of the night was the uncharacteristically reverent “What Would Douglas Say?” (at around 1:03:00 in the linked video), a moving homage to the art historian and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp, who died in 2019, in which audience members are called on to read quotes from his work. This led me to read Crimp’s “Mourning and Militancy” the day after I saw the show. It’s an invaluable essay which—making use of Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”—attempts to dissect the activist’s hostility to mourning, and to assert the ways this hostility can lead to counterproductive currents within a movement. Highly recommended reading for this moment of strange and half-buried grief.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): I tend to be skeptical of criticism written by people close to the creator of the work under consideration. Whatever the critic’s commitment to impartiality, isn’t genuine fair-mindedness impossible when friendship is at stake? But Ross Feld’s Guston in Time made me reconsider. Originally published in 2003 and reissued last week by NYRB Classics (I promise: unlike my last recommendation of a work from the press, this one actually exists), the book is a beautiful reflection on the controversial late work of the painter Philip Guston, and on Feld’s relationship with him in the last years of his life. Their bond began with a piece of criticism: a review Feld wrote of a 1975 show. Guston’s then-recent decisive (and widely derided) turn from abstract expressionism to the cartoonish figural work he would make until his death in 1980 had alienated him from much of the art world. But Feld thought Guston was on to something brilliant. Guston wrote Feld a grateful note about the piece, and a friendship was forged.
Rather than cloud the understanding of the work, in Guston in Time the critic’s affection for the artist seems to sharpen the readings of the paintings. He writes strikingly about their “profound, even crude unmannerliness and obverse beauty.” Cherries (1976) is “a delirious congregation of imperfections”; the cigarette in Talking (1979) is “the most homely, appealing clock of them all: burning down, fitfully drawn at, used, disposable yet addicting—a kind of little life held between the knuckles.” For Feld, the work’s comic exterior belies its metaphysical depth; its brashness represents a bold lurch into the roiling abyss of the image.
Guston in Time buzzes with the effervescence of mutual admiration, which is crystallized in excerpts from Guston’s letters interspersed between chapters. The men’s entire correspondence appears as an appendix. “When I think about your work,” Feld writes to Guston, “the thinking itself receives some complementary enfolding: the shape of the critical thought finds itself aligning with the work by equal valencies. Mental meets mental; numb meets numb.” Guston responds: “How exquisite and precise! I will dwell on this thought—savour it. For it connects (how?) in some startling way with my double sense of an ‘itching’—a febrile need to make a masterpiece and equally as strong (and then melancholy) realization of this total impossibility.” The letters form a lovely coda that, like the book itself, makes a strong case against the strict separation of friendship and criticism.
Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Last week, I read All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen. This is a group biography of three women—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—that questions the genre of biography and the definitions of success and failure. You have probably not heard of these women, or likely only one or two of the three, but they are all worth your time and attention: figures whose lives were spent mostly during the first half of the 20th century, each with particular skills and styles that didn’t quite fit in, such that they were each uniquely themselves. This is also a book about lesbian and gay life during this time. These women are fascinating and the book is so well-written; I read it because of multiple strong recommendations from others, and I now highly recommend it to you.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The Portuguese director Miguel Gomes has thus far directed five feature films (seven if we count the three volumes of his Arabian Nights as separate films), all of them possessed of intelligence, wit, and originality. The cinema, the cinematic process, and Portuguese reality feature prominently in them all as subjects for investigation and meditation. Unlike his compatriot Pedro Costa, the other contemporary Portuguese director with an international reputation, Gomes handles this all with a light touch, which doesn’t detract from his films’ seriousness as works of art.
His latest film, The Tsugua Diaries, now showing at Lincoln Center, is the most successful of them all, and a perfect entry point for those not familiar with his work. Made with his partner, the documentarist Maureen Fazendeiro, the film recounts the challenges of shooting a film under lockdown restrictions in the Portuguese countryside.
But the directors made a choice that adds a fascinating level to the film: starting on day 21 of the shoot, the film unfurls in reverse, ending with the first day of filming. Covid’s fracturing of time that Covid is thus baked into the film.
Who are the three people dancing wildly in the first scene? What is the strange structure they’re building? Why are they alone in a large country house? Why is one of the directors only present via a walkie-talkie? How will one of the actors’ violation of Covid rules impact the film? These simple questions are not always answered, and in a sense are illegitimate: telling the film back to front gives us effects without causes, and the causes that are subsequently revealed become effects that precede causes. Throughout, we have answers to questions we hadn’t posed.
Character development, we are told, is meaningless in this context, since the characters’ later development in the film preceded them in time. This joyful play with storytelling, free of ponderousness or portentousness, makes The Tsugua Diaries one of the most enjoyable intellectual treats in the cinema in many a month.
Here’s one more: Nanni Moretti, who has long been the most interesting of Italian filmmakers—turning out a stunning variety of films, from self-reflective fiction films, film diaries (not to be missed in this genre is Caro Diario), documentaries, and straightforward fiction films. His latest, the excellent Three Floors, based on the novel by the Israeli writer Eshkol Nevo, is showing at Lincoln Center as part of its annual Open Roads festival of new Italian films on June 13th and 14th.
Three Floors is the deepest of Moretti’s films dealing with family. The families in the comfortable three-story Roman building of the film’s title are all traversing crises and confronting potential disintegration, and through the crises they reveal their true natures.
As always, Moretti treats his characters with respect and refuses to be judgmental. Three Floors, through the death, infidelity, irresponsibility and mental cruelty depicted, is a perfect expression of the most profound line ever uttered in a film, that said by Octave in Renoir’s Rules of the Game: “In life, the thing is that everyone has his reasons.” The humanism of Nanni Moretti and Three Floors is a welcome balm.