Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] Magdalen, Cuckoo, Pink Moon

[99 Problems] Magdalen, Cuckoo, Pink Moon

Originally published on 27 May 2010

Donatello is everybody’s favorite Mutant Ninja Turtle, right? Etymologically, he is the odd man out. They needed a fourth Turtle and there were only three Turtles of the Italian High Renaissance. It was a good call, though. Donatello, the man, represents all that is forward-looking and progressive in art. He prophesied single vanishing-point perspective in a stone relief about a decade before Alberti’s 1435 account. He achieved maturity very early in life after studying with Ghiberti and continued to grow, creating majesty and anguish in his late visions that were only echoed by Michelangelo.

One of these late works, made well into his 60’s (we’re pretty sure) is his White Poplar sculpture of Mary Magdalen.

Startlingly harsh, her aged anguish and parched flesh are testaments to Donatello’s emotional and physical virtuosity. Her dimensions are flawless along with her anatomy. (Check out those biceps. Whoa.) Her stance and physique are boyish, referencing her intimate connection with Jesus and apostle-like status. Displaying mature continuity, Mary’s hair weaves directly into her robes, particularly in the back.

As disturbingly grotesque as the figure is, especially for a 15th century Pre-Mannerist work, her piety is anything but repulsive. Her detailed face and toothless grimace are both honest and intimate. She has these heartbreaking crooked lips slanting in from her withdrawn jawbones ready to testify on behalf of her friends. And her heavily sunken eyes both penetrate and invite the observer with forceful expressivity. While Mary’s frailty doesn’t lend itself to any weakness at all, her hands especially conjure an introversion and intimacy that would inhabit so many later masterpieces. (See below)

The film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson, makes a valiant (and in some ways successful) attempt to redefine our notion of madness. It is a story of perception and reality, at times questioning the very existence of “crazy.” R.P. McMurphy is a convicted felon and the film’s story is his adventure amongst many characters in a mental institution during his evaluation. Aggression is clearly the tragic flaw of our Boisterous Bruiser. Like today’s musical guest, he is unable to interact with other human beings peacefully and he lacks patience outside of finding humor in other opposing eccentricities. His villain, the domineering Nurse Ratched, is eventually defeated, but only with serious consequence. At least in the film adaptation, the Nurse is portrayed with subtle redeeming qualities, making the denouement one of moral confusion less than tragedy. But overall, it is, like Pink Moon, a slow descent into harmful attitudes and self-hatred.

Forman uses substantial intimacy in the filmmaking by almost exclusively employing eye-level shots. This places us in the ward and turns us into a character in the action. The only derivations from this style lie in psychologically disturbing situations. The character of Chief, who becomes the protagonist in the last few minutes of the film, marks a unique opportunity to use the intimate side of McMurphy. Especially in one of the final scenes, as the party winds down and Nicholson’s character passes out, missing his chance to escape for only the first time. Also, Forman judiciously uses close-ups to, just as Chief says, suck the life out of characters. This device is used most potently in the sequence where Billy commits suicide and McMurphy makes an attempt to strangle Ratched. Skip to 9:10 for serious acting.

The best work in this film comes out of dedicated acting and brilliant characterization. The players are so outstanding in this that you almost don’t mind when the story turns to a moral ending. In essence, the work is a comedy. The sparse appearance of music and masterful dialogue give it the sincere mental hospital tinge. One of the most inspiring performances is Mr. Cheswick, played by Sydney Lassick, who is always honest and almost always right. I dare you to watch this scene without feeling psychotic. (Skip about halfway if you absolutely have to.) I WANT MY CIGARETTES!!!!!!!! This is a masterful example of the descent into madness by popular terms. At first watch, the movie is an exercise in disorder and the weird. On further study, it becomes a 1984 of the ward, a testament to the failure of 1960’s psychological treatment, and an exploration of the nature of madness.

Nick Drake wrote and recorded Pink Moon only a couple years before taking his own life. It was his final will and testament to the world of music, crippled by negative reviews after the release. After his death, it was re-evaluated. Boasting some of the most bleak and raw folk music ever written, it is an intimate and introverted work documenting an obsessive self-depreciation and descent into depressive madness. Song lengths clock in at a compressed average of 2:20 and the texture is the most personal one imaginable – vocals/guitar/vision. Mr. Drake always keeps his guitars tuned to open chords or alternative settings, allowing him to experiment with characteristic dissonance and handsome clusters full of 7ths and 9ths. His religious meditations (sparse, but doubtlessly potent) evoke the honesty of Donatello while the slow and chronological preoccupation with his own death place the psychosis in line with Forman’s film.

The album begins with the eponymous track, famous for its’ deft use in a Volkswagen commercial. Quite possibly the most subtle use of 3+3+2 rhythm in folk repertoire. The scalar piano overdub is the most complex texture on the album, still simple as a children’s tune. Followed by “Place To Be“, the work dives headfirst into the motif of deterioration and madness. It is a song about the R.P. McMurphy-like disintegration of self, key words of the poetry lined up in contrasts — young, old, green, dark, and strong, weak. Each time turning away from optimism. The same poetic motive is developed in “Road“, where the same honesty is harnessed. In four short sentences, Drake tells the listener that he is finished with optimism, choosing to “take a road that’ll see [him] through.” Strangely, the singer was unable to express himself to anyone in conversation, yet bares his deepest secrets in public poetry. This recurs in artistic personalities through all of history and penetrates all genres, especially music which seems to attract the most vulnerable. “Horn” is the most bleak and intimate expression of the entire album. It is a 1:20 anthem of loneliness and exclusion. Drake marks the structural apex of the work with “Things Behind the Sun.” He encourages intimacy between oneself and… oneself. Transitioning to a glowing major, “And open wide the hymns you hide. You’ll find renown while people frown at the things you say. But you’ll say what you’ll say.” It is no surprise that Radiohead jumped on the chance to cover “Parasite“. Its form is flawless, the progression is obsessive, and the words are creepy. The motif of self-hatred finds climax in this song, while his religious references evoke an honesty and intimacy accessed little in less meditative passages. The final track “From the Morning” is as transcendental of an ending as you will find anywhere. Listen to Nick’s charming choke over the first time he sings “ground.” It is the most clear and final meditation on his own death, but also his own rebirth. The passage, glittering through melancholic psychosis, “And now we rise and we are everywhere, and now we rise from the ground” is a psalm written in contemplation of his future and his resurrection.

Mr. Drake’s madness also lied in his inability to cope with or relate to those around him. The honesty with which he approaches this album is rarely found, especially for a devoted introvert. In comparison with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though, Drake, a man of our own reality, commits an even more poetic suicide than Billy.

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