A Brief Intro to Bernard Frouchtben

Bernard FrouchtbenI’ve had a very pleasant night. Yesterday, I learned that we are going to go to the Santa Clara Antiques Roadshow. This is kind of a big deal, because we are in possession of a badly damaged painting by a great American Primitive painter Bernard Frouchtben, and we are very keen to learn if it would be worth the thousands of dollars to restore it. Don’t get me wrong: if I had the money, I would restore it regardless. The painting is fabulous and Frouchtben deserves it. A great wrong was done to him and to art itself in the way it was neglected.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more interested in idiosyncratic art. There are literally a million guys who can play blues in a standard way that is totally professional and enjoyable. But I’d much rather a blues player who shows me something different—something that tells me about him. That’s why I’ve been a booster for films like Death Bed: the Bed that Eats and The Final Sacrifice. Of course, none of this is to say that these artists don’t have great talent and Frouchtben certainly had plenty of that. In fact, I think it is wrong to call him a Primitive, but that is how he’s classified.

I am working on a full article about him. I’ve done a ton of research on him, and I’m in contact with his grandson, who is also a talented artist himself. At this time, I’m not going to show you the painting I have, because it is in really bad shape and you would get the wrong idea. So I present to you this black and white version of Lonely Man on a Lonely Road:

Lonely Man on a Lonely Road

I think you can see some of what I find so interesting about him. There should be more within a couple of weeks.

Heroes for a Debased Culture

ConstantineI’ve only seen two films by Francis Lawrence. You probably know him from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I haven’t seen that. I try to avoid films that are aimed at that just about puberty demographic. Plus the series is apparently where reasonably interesting directors go to cash in. The first one was directed by Gary Ross, a man who really does have greatness in him and made one excellent film (Pleasantville) and one good film (Seabiscuit). And then didn’t do anything much for ten years before deciding to get in on that middle-school money.

Lawrence is rather a different bread of director. He spent the first decade of his career making videos for songs aimed at tone deaf children. So when he turned to making films, well, what do you expect? What I expect are visually stunning films that tell incoherent stories filled with stereotypes rather than characters spouting dialog that sounds like it comes out of an Ed Wood pulp novel he dashed off in an evening. (Ed Wood was known for being able to crank out books fast; he might have done great things if he had slowed down.)

I don’t know anything about Lawrence’s religious beliefs, but based upon Constantine and I Am Legend, it is hard not to think that he wasn’t raised Catholic. God is the salvation in both movies. In the first, John Constantine acts a kind of antihero Jesus Christ who saves the world from Satan. In the second, Dr Robert Neville dies to save the woman and child who bring his cure to the last outpost of humanity that is—Wait for it!—at a church. He also manages to remove all the interesting moral ambiguity of Richard Matheson’s novel.

I Am LegendLet me just make a note of something here. The remake of Night of the Living Dead better captures what Matheson was going for than any of the films based upon his book. Matheson is one of the great unheralded science fiction writers. In general, he was treated well by directors. Of course, he was a great screenwriter himself. He also wrote some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. And he was funny as hell as you can see in films he wrote like, The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. But he’s gotten worse and worse treatment on the screen as the special effects have gotten better and better.

I just watched Constantine again and what really struck me is how boring the antihero has become. Sure, the antihero is more interesting than the straight hero, which we see constantly in the superhero films and anything that Bruce Willis ever stars in. But we also get the straight hero in I Am Legend, where Neville risks his life to save his dog. It’s a reversal on the old “dog villain.” Lawrence has given us the “dog hero”! Hero or antihero, it’s all just trite Hollywood stereotype: the crowd goes wild as the culture dies.

It seems to me that we deserve more interesting characters. But we will never have them so long as we tell stories of good versus evil. And that is the problem with Christian theology, or at least the pathetic made-for-children Christian theology that Americans follow. Why is it that poor people are so much more likely to steal than rich people? And when rich people steal (or murder), why are they so much less likely to be punished? Why is it that when HSBC launders a billion dollars in drug money, no one goes to jail? But commonly, when a junkie is caught with a couple of balloons of dope, he’s thrown in a cage for years for the crime of intent to distribute what is, after all, a vegetable product?

I have a serious question for you: shouldn’t those rich people be found culpable for all the desperation theft of the poor? I think Jesus would see it that way. Unfortunately, he doesn’t exist and the rich know that; that’s why they act as they do.

At the end of Constantine, the earth has been saved from all the demons taking over. But I look out on the world and I see that the demons have taken over. If you are a Christian, you must see this. You must see that the money changers and the usurers are not only thriving but that our entire culture worships them. Who is the most important man when it comes to education reform? Why it’s Bill Gates whose only claim to knowing anything is that he made a lot of money, primarily through luck. We have television shows like The Apprentice and The Shark Tank that treat rich people as though they are better and more knowledgeable than the rest of us. And the whole society widely believes that the rich are moral and the poor are immoral—based largely on things they’ve learned from the Bible. Yes, the Bible says many good things too and there are many earnest and faithful Christians. It is just that they are a small minority.

Most of what is wrong with our society and our entertainment comes from the ridiculous notion that there is some justice in the universe. And so we get our heroes and antiheroes, and our villains, charming and not. I’m not suggesting that our entertainment is what debases our society. It mostly works the other way around. But the career of someone like Francis Lawrence shows us that there is a feedback: horrible cultural icons lead to horrible entertainment leads to the elevation of another mediocrity whose money making abilities lead to another horrible cultural icon. Go team!

Parallels of Omar Khayyam

Omar KhayyamOn this day in 1048, the great mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam was born. It is a point of some annoyance to me that most people think that mathematics is not a creative field but rather just one where complex rules are applied to problems. But if that were the case, math would be easy. You would just memorize the rules and apply them. But it isn’t like that at all. In fact, in college I noticed that math classes were very much like music classes: some people just got it and other didn’t. (This is an indictment of both math and music instructors!)

There is a very famous story about a very young Carl Friedrich Gauss, which is probably apocryphal, but it hardly matters. Because mathematics education was as bad then as it is now, his teacher had the class add up all the numbers from 1 to 100. I suspect this was more a way to keep the children busy for a while than anything else. But Gauss immediately answered 5,050. His solution was brilliant but also quite easy. He didn’t do what most of us would do: 1+2=3; 3+3=6; 6+4=10… Instead, he noted that 1+100=101 and 2+99=101 and so on. Thus the answer is 50×101=5,050.

So the essence of mathematics is seeing the universe in a different way than others see it. Work is adding together a hundred numbers; play is finding clever ways to not add up a hundred numbers. Work is grinding out yet another story just like the hundreds of stories that went before; fun is finding a new way to tell a story. I think mathematics is the most creative human endeavor because it is normally done without context. It is not much different from the writing of The Marriage of Figaro, except that the audience that can appreciate it is sadly so much smaller.

Khayyam focused on geometry. In a sense, he invented non-Euclidean geometry. Euclid created five postulates from which all of what we think of as normal geometry can be derived. That’s a remarkable thing. But the essence of non-Euclidean geometry has to do with the fifth postulate. It posits a line and a point and says that there is only one line that passes through the point that doesn’t intersect with the first line. For centuries, mathematicians tried to show that you could derive this result from the other postulates, but you simply can’t. However, since it is a postulate, you could say that there are no lines to that do that—or an infinite number of lines that do that. The universe that such assumptions imply are not the universe as we generally find it. But that’s one of the things that makes math such an amazing thing: it’s pure thinking.

He was also a great poet and astronomer and philosopher. And not surprisingly, he was a mystic as I think all mathematicians are. There is something about the nature of mathematics that strikes me as the closest that we ever get to what one might call God. And the ineffable nature of mathematics itself leads one to a simple appreciation of existence itself.

Happy birthday Omar Khayyam!