Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] Dürer, Godfathers, Velvet Underground

[99 Problems] Dürer, Godfathers, Velvet Underground

Originally published 5 June 2010

Woodcut prints don’t quite demand the respect of the digital age. Up until we figured out easier ways to make color copies of masterpieces, woodcuts were the best way to get an artist international recognition. This was no different in the case of Albrecht Dürer and his Apocalypse works. This was a sequence of 15 woodcuts, all based on John’s Revelation. The most famous of which is The Four Horsemen.

There is so much detail in this picture that you can hardly discern its’ subjects in a reproduction this small. Using only black and white, light and dark, Dürer makes some of Western art’s most expressive shapes just by slicing up some wood. The linear agitation is startling. The woodcut has extraordinary motion, moving from left to right just as fast as the horses. While most other artists would rely on tone and shading to accomplish this task, Dürer revolutionizes the art of woodcuts, proving that expression is not limited to painting or sculpture. The way in which the artist details the fluttering saddle-cloths and other garments is alive and exciting. Same with the way he distinguishes background from foreground. If you have good eyes, look at the faces of the four horsemen. They are all focused on a distant target, probably the subject along with the rest of humanity, and they show no concern for the mass of humans they are trampling. In the bottom left corner is a terrifying image of a clergyman being devoured by a monster resembling a dragon. This has historical implications, as the cut was printed in 1498, only 19 years before the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (Revolution). Dürer survived this Revolution and kept bearing great art during it. As legions formed both for and against the Catholic Church, the world wondered wether the apocalypse or end of Christianity was actually at hand.

As it turns out, watching the first two parts of The Godfather is almost 6 hours of viewing. This explains why I didn’t post anything yesterday and why my neck is killing me. No regrets, though. The film is claimed by many to be one of the best ever made, and I wouldn’t try too hard to disagree with them. (I refer to both parts as one film, as they both cover events from the same book.) It features the best cast yet assembled, a slow but never dry screenplay, masterful lighting and camerawork, and at least three hearty combinations of murder and church. I speak specifically of the christening scene at the end of Part I, a unique, trendsetting accomplishment of climax in film. The murders in that scene are cold-blooded and reveal Michael’s focus on only the long term. (Horseman, anyone?) It would take a larger-than-normal wiki page to document the references that Coppola’s movies have had in other pop-culture avenues.

The Godfather is easily the most black and white color movie ever made. Private scenes are usually cast in unusually dark lighting with characters dressed in contrasting colors. One of Coppola’s favorite shots, showing up first on Vito Corleone and continuing at every family meeting for the remaining 480 minutes, is the half-dark, half-light face. The final scene of Part II is a fading look at Michael’s scarred psychology. A close up of his face, half of it hidden in oblivion. Just before that, in a flashback to before the whole thing started, light bathes a room full of Corleone family, most of whom would end up dead. Part Two contains much darker lighting than Part One, also including Winter, a season not experienced in the First. The two stories of Part Two further the dark/light duality and continue the revolution that takes place in Vito and Michael.

On the surface, The Godfather is about the corruption of a man – Michael. Underneath that and driving his destruction is the conflict between family responsibility and business responsibility. Like the black/white features of the film, family and business are revealed to be irreconcilable terms. The two parts show a slow but defined shift in importance from one to the other. In the very beginning, at the wedding, Michael makes the claim that “That’s my family, not me,” when asked about his participation in the mafia. After his father is shot and his other two brothers prove to be incapable of handling the work, Michael begins his journey to corruption and dishonesty, climaxing in his ruthless treatment of his wife and murder of two partners, one being his own brother. In the end, his vengeance does not prove to end his struggle (surprise?), mirroring the revelation of his fathers’ vengeance in Sicily. Along with the revolution in both Michael and Vito, the film also tracks two important movements in history. One being Vito’s arrival in America along with the thousands and thousands of other immigrants. Vito proves to be one of many and becomes a highly respected man. The American dream. Another is Michael’s experience with the revolution in Cuba, marking a failure in his judgment. Not the first failure in his judgment, Michael also allowed the Corleone family to begin dealing in narcotics, something his father never did.

If the Velvet Underground did as much heroin as they claimed, it wouldn’t be too surprising if they managed to buy drugs from the fictional Corleone family. In their 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico, they explore the counterculture and predict trends that wouldn’t hit rock and roll for another 20-30 years. With a little help from Andy Warhol, the band made a silent revolution in rock, left unappreciated for decades.

The album is full of tripped out instrumental tricks and sprechstimme-esque vocals, often out of tune but usually expressive. They utilized an electric viola and celeste in certain tunes, audible especially at the climax of “Heroin.” Some songs, like the one previously mentioned, contain static harmonic sequences, only involving the rotation of two or three chords. This brought the numb opiate subject matter to life as well as integrated minimalist trends into rock. The drums in “I’m Waiting For The Man” numb the listener with ceaseless snare-drum eighth notes. The two previously noted songs as well as others on the album contain shameless references to drug abuse and counterculture. A surviving document of the ’60’s social revolution, Velvet Underground doesn’t hold back. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is a stoned drone against a banging syncopated piano and vocals reaching the bottom of Nico’s vocal range. Also, the band made frequent use of a guitar tuning system where all notes would be tuned to the same note, only in different octaves. From there, and noting the use of viola drones and trance-inducing rhythms, the band accessed a revolutionary sound, predicting sonorities that would lay dormant until Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Radiohead.

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