Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography
All too often, we are susceptible to allowing ourselves to be cogs in a machine. The ever-expanding technological age has no mercy. It is up to the individual to avoid becoming one dimensional. These are ideas that we don’t necessarily think about enough while, at the same time, we find ourselves confronting them on a daily basis. If you’ve fancied becoming more in tune with philosophical discourse, and would really appreciate a way in that is highly relevant and accessible, then turn your attention to the new graphic novel, Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography, by author/illustrator, Nick Thorkelson, published by City Lights.
The Swine of 117th Street
There have been a number of comics adaptations of subjects that would seem not to lend themselves to being broken down into the comics medium. However, the truth is that comics is uniquely equipped to take the complex and make it concise. In this case, Nick Thorkelson has crafted quite an engaging book based on the life and work of one of the great philosophers of the modern era, Herbert Marcuse. It is Marcuse who serves as a vehicle to hang a number of challenging and eternal questions dating back to Aristotle: What is our role in life? What are our expectations in life? What makes up a good and purposeful life? And once the questions are asked, who has the answers? Descartes? Marx? Heidegger? Marcuse?
The Reluctant Guru
We follow the young Marcuse as he goes from fighting in the First World War to finding his way among German intellectuals to developing his own philosophy with the help of mentors like Martin Heidegger. But, after Heidegger swears his allegiance to the Nazi Party, Marcuse moves on and, in 1933, finds his way to Columbia University in New York City. The Social Democratic Party, once the hope of a new Germany, had been forced aside by the Nazis Party which had made numerous false promises and had pushed its way into power. Fast forward to the present, we may ask ourselves: Are we headed into a similar abyss? Have we already entered a dark period with some parallels to Nazi Germany? In a very even-tempered way, Mr. Thorkelson is clearly suggesting that, yes, a cycle is repeating itself. But hope is not lost. A way out can be found in the soul-searching work of Herbert Marcuse. Basically, it is up to the individual to demand a better life. And, by and by, Herbert Marcuse found himself in the thick of the fight right alongside the student protests of the sixties.
History has a way of repeating itself.
Over time, Herbert Marcuse established himself as a leading voice within philosophical and activist circles. That voice can still be heard today and must be heard today. With a sense of great timing, Nick Thorkelson brings to the reader an essential and inspiring guide to one of our great thinkers. On each page, from one panel to the next, Mr. Thorkelson has condensed various bits of information into a seamless presentation that is easy on the eyes, both engaging and highly informative. The whole book is a delight as it is clearly organized and designed with a keen sense of style. Thorkelson’s cartoons are highly sophisticated and such a pleasure to behold in their own right. You can say that the artwork expresses the Marcuse joie de vivre quite fittingly.
Step by Step
Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia is a 128-page trade paperback in duotone, available now, published by City Lights.
Berlin is a monumental work in comics. Few cartoonists will come close to such an achievement–and it couldn’t have been created by a nicer guy. What came across, over and over, during this talk is the fact that Lutes is very accessible and down to earth. That open approach plays into part of what makes his landmark work so special. It all began when teenager Jason Lutes wanted to make sense of a documentary about the holocaust he was suddenly exposed to in a high school history class. The teacher for that class was an alcoholic who made no effort to hide his struggles. He literally set up the movie for his class and left to get a drink. That abrupt and careless action ultimately triggered an in depth exploration of Weimar Germany through a creation of an expansive work in comics that would take 22 years to complete.
#ProtectMueller march in Seattle on 8 Nov. 2018
It was not lost on anyone during Lutes’s talk related to the dismantling of the German government of the 1920s that concerned citizens, just outside on the streets of Seattle, were protesting Trump’s own inroads into dismantling the U.S. government. Timing is everything. That Thursday night book talk directly coincided with protests across the country in support of protecting the Robert Mueller investigation after Trump installed a loyalist as acting Attorney General of the United States. Details are everything. If you follow the characters and the rich narrative of Berlin, you can’t help but get an eerie sense of having a mirror held up to the past and to the present.
Cartoonists holding each other’s works: Jason Lutes with David Lasky
Authenticity is everything. What is so appealing about comics by Jason Lutes is the solid storytelling. That involves a dynamic use of the comics medium: a crisp consistency in step with strategically placed visual elements that are pleasing to the eye and move the story forward. A quick example: I was standing in line to get my copy of Berlin signed and I made a point of poring over each page as I flipped my way through. Right around the midpoint, there is a page made up of wordless panels showing a mysterious figure in a row boat. He reaches the shore to find what looks like a vicious snake. He picks it up by its jaws and overpowers it. That same character reappears in the book as does the snake, both providing just the right doses of symbolism as well as pure entertainment. It’s important to note that, while Lutes referred to vast amounts of research and reading, he also fondly recalled the influence of key works in pop culture. Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel about Weimar Germany, by Alfred Döblin, holds as much importance to Lutes as his viewing of the original Star Wars movie as a kid. Altogether, what you have in Berlin is an honest look from an individual processing and distilling at a meticulous level.
Cartoonists Revisit: Jason Lutes with Jennifer Daydreamer
For many in the audience that night, it was an opportunity to revisit a respected work and commiserate with a friend and colleague. Seattle is a lightning rod for countless creative people and that includes a high number of independent cartoonists. There’s a certain sensibility to the alt-comics artist with Jason Lutes being a prime example. As he discussed in his lecture, it was Seattle that he gravitated to in the 1990s. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Lutes moved to Seattle and worked for the comics publisher, Fantagraphics. He subsequently worked for the alt-weekly, The Stranger, just as it began publication in 1991. During this era, Lutes became part of a group of cartoonists that went on to form an integral part of the Seattle comix scene. That group included some members that were in attendance that night: Megan Kelso, David Lasky and Jennifer Daydreamer. It was a treat to have part of the gang together again on such a special occasion.
Peter Simonischek plays the role of Winfried Conradi (alias Toni Erdmann).
The poet, Philip Larkin, advised “don’t have any kids yourself” in his celebrated poem on parenting, “This Be The Verse.” In the film, “Toni Erdmann,” the dynamic between parent and child is explored to heroic, and hilarious, levels. Ines Conradi (played by Sandra Hüller) is all business and seems to be doing well in her corporate career. But her father, Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), thinks he knows better.
Ines Conradi (played by Sandra Hüller)
Ines’s father knows his daughter is terribly unhappy and he aims to fix that. Part of his plan is to amuse her with his jokes. But the jokes keep getting more and more elaborate to the point that he dons an alter ego, Toni Erdmann, made up of fake clown teeth, fright wig, and nonstop blustering. It’s pretty maddening and just a matter of time before something has got to give.
“Toni Erdmann” is written and directed by Maren Ade. It is nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Foreign Film. And it so inspired Jack Nicholson that he has come out of retirement to play the lead, alongside co-star Kristen Wiig, in the upcoming American remake. Indeed, there is something special about this film so go seek out the original. But be prepared for a European view that certainly runs counter to your typical mainstream American big studio movie. But if you enjoy offbeat/absurdist humor, then this is definitely for you.
“Toni Erdmann,” written and directed by Maren Ade
What I think may happen with the upcoming Americanized version is that all the playful and theatrical quality to this original film will be explained far more than necessary. The gritty European sensibility will most likely be wiped away in favor of something that seems to make more sense to most Americans. That said, dysfunctional families are every bit a part of the American scene as anywhere else. And, it is dysfunction that is at the root of this film. Ines, the daughter, is a mess. Winfried, the father, is a mess. But, despite a high level of tension between them, the two share a secret language and seem to be at their best in each other’s company. At least, there are enough positive signs to encourage the dad to keep trying to find his daughter.
Where it gets sort of weird is how insistent the dad is in his practical joke therapy path to winning over his daughter. Winfried Conradi cannot cope for very long without enacting some jarring gag. To say he is a compulsive jokester would be putting it mildly at best. No, this guy has some coping disorder and it’s pretty serious and kinda creepy. This film does address the dad’s problem but in a deceptively light way. It gradually builds. Before you know it, you’ve come to know this father and daughter in a truly remarkable way. And you come to realize that a rather heroic and rambling tale about a father and daughter can add up to a truly remarkable film.
Writer Andre Frattino and illustrator Jesse Lee have a very compelling graphic novel project, SIMON SAYS: NAZI HUNTER, the story of famed Nazi hunter and writer Simon Wiesenthal. Frattino and Lee seem to have a good handle on the subject. They have the background to tackle such an ambitious project. And, based upon their samples, it looks like it will add up to a riveting narrative. This is inspired by the true story of Holocaust survivor, Simeon Wiesenthal, an artist who lost his family and took justice into his own hands.
SIMON SAYS by artist Jesse Lee and writer Andre Frattino
From the Kickstarter campaign:
Wiesenthal was an Austrian architect who survived the Holocaust thanks partly to his artistic skills (he was spared from execution when he was employed to paint swastikas on train cars). After the war, he discovered that he and his wife lost over 80 members of their family. Wiesenthal dedicated the rest of his life to hunting down notorious war criminals including Adolf Eichmann (a chief orchestrator of Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”) and Joseph Mengele (a.k.a. “The Angel of Death” who conducted horrifying experiments on his subjects).
While Simon Says: Nazi Hunter #1 is inspired by Simon Wiesenthal, it is not merely a dramatization of his experiences alone. The story takes from many aspects of various Nazi Hunter stories following the war. The tone of the comic is a mixture of noir and pulp fiction which was prevalent in the 1950s and 60s. Other influences include Ian Fleming’s James Bond Series as well as such films as Schindler’s List, Inglorious Bastards and TV series like Sherlock and Man in the High Castle.
Simon Wiesenthal will always be a quintessential hero. It is exciting to see a graphic novel taking shape about his life and work. A Kickstarter campaign in support of SIMON SAYS: NAZI HUNTER #1 is on now through February 27th to raise funds for the first issue of what will be a full length graphic novel. Visit the campaign right here.
Lucy Knisley snatches from the ether bits of ephemeral conversation and other momentary pleasures to present to us, “An Age of License,” her latest travelogue graphic novel. We are swept up by a whirlwind European adventure as we follow Knisley on an all-expenses paid trip of a lifetime in September of 2011. As opportunities arise, one must try to choose wisely. And so we see how Knisley fares, after some pre-travel jitters (it happens to the best of us) and she is off and running. Knisley has a clean line in the service of a direct and crisp narrative. It is a pleasure to see her continue to evolve as an autobiographical artist.
Talk about girls in trouble. Two current films tackle the subject in very different ways: Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” and David Wnendt’s “Combat Girls.” While these two films are miles apart, they also share some distinct similarities. In both cases, these are stories of young women adrift. When you are lost, you just might grab at anything that will make your life work, whether it’s joining a gang of thieves or joining a gang of skinheads. What we expect to see is these girls wise up as soon as possible. In both of these films, the young women must do what they do and let the consequences follow.
“The Bling Ring” is now in theaters. “Combat Girls” becomes available on DVD, VOD and Digital Download for the first time ever on July 9.
THE BLING RING
Emma Watson and Katie Chang in “The Bling Ring”
Let’s start with Sofia Coppola’s latest excursion into disconnected youth. Each of her films seems like a light and delicate soufflé. They are a treat, no doubt. But you always wonder, since “The Virgin Suicides,” if they might fall flat or require an added bit of indulgence. Ultimately, you leave savoring your meal, don’t you? That’s the thing to keep in mind. Like Wes Anderson films, there are certain ingredients that go into the mix and it’s best to be patient and see what happens.
A few years ago, a band of bratty kids from the San Fernando Valley went on a crime spree breaking into the homes of Hollywood bratties like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. They were ultimately caught and their story was immortalized in an article published by Vanity Fair. All this raw material was just waiting to become the material for a Sofia Coppola movie. All the characters in this story defy any sympathy. And that’s the point of this story.
While the subject and the story may seem light, the overall effect of this film is actually pretty potent. A story like this one that subverts the conventional path to redemption is not at all shallow. It reminds me a bit of Gus Van Sant’s 1995 “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman, as an aspiring TV personality who will kill to gain the spotlight. While these girls aren’t killers, they are well on their way.
Rebecca, the ringleader, played by Katie Chang, is the most unlikely of leaders, ready to betray her friends and easily distracted. Nicki, played by Emma Watson, is a fine example of the rest of the gang in her ability to disconnect from reality. She does such a good job of it that she manages to create a good distance between the crime and herself. She ends up serving very little time and, in the end, it’s like it never happened, just a growing experience on her way to becoming an upstanding leader of society. I has to be said that Emma Watson “steals” the show in her role.
While the girls in “The Bling Ring” are not exactly rewarded for their bad behavior, they find the consequences to be minor at best. It’s almost like it leaves them hungering for yet a bigger thrill. Perhaps, years from now, that will be the material for another Sofia Coppola movie.
“The Bling Ring” is now in theaters. DVD Release Date is estimated to be November, 2013.
Alina Levshin and Jella Haase in “Combat Girls”
When we first see the band of hooligans take over a train and dominate the passangers, for a fleeting moment, they appear capable of anything. The posturing, the thumping and hypnotic music in the background, and the wild aggression make for quite a scene. But we quickly see they are cowards and only capable of inflicting pain. Director David Wnendt is a rising star and “Combat Girls” is his breakout film in the United States.
This film takes a more traditional route to redemption but does it with such a palpable urgency. This is a remarkably elegant and artful film, considering its rough subject. It is so lean and well paced that it casts you under its spell of intrigue, that rises to the level of Hitchcock. You may not be expecting so much going on in one film but this one is working on many levels.
Lost youth. The sins of a nation and its people. The burden of the past. Director David Wnendt’s goal, much like Sofia Coppola’s in “The Bling Ring,” is to speak on many factors all at once. As much as the past is the past, it haunts us and, given a chance, it will, like a virus, attach itself to new hosts. The legacy of Nazi Germany becomes the burden shouldered by two young women, one rich and one poor. The poor one, Marisa, played by Alina Levshin, is entrenched in all the rituals and life of the neo-Nazi: her boyfriend, her friends, her whole life. At 20, she is looking forward to nothing else.
For Svenja, at 15, she has many advantages open to her. She excels in school and has a bright future amid an upscale background. However, she has a creepy stepfather who dominates her life. He is so bent on having her quit smoking that he forces her to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes in his presence. As much as a lark than an outlet, Svenja takes up with one of the local skinheads. It’s only a matter of time before she has to prove her mettle to the relentlessly demanding Marisa.
And then there’s some twists of fate. First, Marisa’s thug boyfriend is hauled off to prison leaving Marisa untethered. This leads to the turning point in her life that happens abruptly but ends up having plenty of time to fester. Marisa has done something very bad but she doesn’t know to what extent. The only person who can provide her with any solace is her grandfather who is dying in hospital and has contributed far too much to Marisa’s fragmented life.
What happens next is extraordinary. Marisa, at still a young age, learns there is more to life than she has ever known before. It seems like it’s never to late to turn a page but, in Marisa’s case, the consequences of change may prove too severe.
Artsploitation’s release of COMBAT GIRLS will arrive on DVD, VOD and Digital Download for the first time ever on July 9, 2013. The DVD extras include an interview with Alina Levshin and an 8-page booklet.
“My Father’s House” is unusual in many ways. It is an honest and loving portrait of the author’s father, beautifully written, that provides a unique window into Nazi Germany. The book is made up of numerous vivid details such as this passage:
Once, my parents had lived a truly magical life. In the early years of their marriage, between the wars, they lived with their friend Baron Wilhelm Farnbühler at his castle near Stuttgart. The Baron had his own wing; my parents, with Uli and Anita, had theirs. In the great hall, in a cage, there dwelt an owl, who preferred to eat living things: rabbits and mice. His lame wing folded into a crutch, he shrieked into the night and rattled the bars.
I simply happened upon the life and work of Beatrix Ost while in the process of exploring. It began while I was doing some research for a book review of, “Jerusalem,” a graphic novel that relates to the creation of the State of Israel. I had also just written a movie review of a documentary, “The Flat,” about the unusual relationship between a Jewish couple, who had emigrated to Palestine during World War II, and maintained a friendship, after the war, with a high ranking Nazi official. Life is complicated. Things are never quite as they seem. In the case of Beatrix Ost, this is an enormously talented person: writer, artist, desginer, actor, and theatrical producer. She is what she appears to be and so much more.
Beatrix Ost comes from a world of the rich, those F. Scott Fitzgerald has noted as “different from you and me.” Ost is not here to deny the world she was born into. She was born in 1940, in the castle from the above passage. However, given this difference or distinction, Ost finds a way for you to join in. It is, in fact, a world not so different from you and me. It is far more earthy and raw than you may imagine.
This may sound trite, but many readers may relate to the stories presented here if they think of the landmark musical, “The Sound of Music.” As jarring as it is to juxtapose Nazis with Bavarian folklife, general audiences understand, in the context of the musical, how two Germanys could coexist: one run by Hitler and another very different one. It takes a strength and boldness to be able to bring out a multitude of memories that are innocent and sweet amid a backdrop of war. Ost engages the reader on a Proustian level, never missing a beat of recovered memory and dipping deep into a well of language that consistently produces gems.
Think of this book as a collection of passages that, as a whole, bring out a greater truth. Each passage is like a little story of its own. Consider this passage from “The Gleaners,” describing people during World War II coming to the Ost family farm in search of food. They would come in search of even the smallest potato. Dieter, a member of the household staff would be dispatched to fetch a bunch of the teenaged girls from the girls school to help themselves to potatoes. They arrived in what they could muster up for the latest fashion, all hardened by the war but joyful:
The girls trudged along behind the plow, collecting potatoes in sacks. When the sacks were full, they were tipped into a cart. It started to rain. The girls sought shelter under the one available roof: the potato wagon. But the rain got through between the narrow planks, and after a short while, they were drenched. Their cheap dresses rode up above their knees, clinging to their thin bodies. Little rivulets of color ran down their legs.
It is Ost’s father, Fritz, who looms larger than life over this landscape of memory. He did his military service in Africa and subsequently retired, including his membership in the Nazi party. He had only belonged to the party to help his friends, particularly his Jewish friends, secure safe passage out of the country. He was a proud man that seemed to only want to be left alone to rule over his estate, Goldachhof, a rural paradise of manor, farm and stables, about twenty miles out of Munich. If there were Nazis amidst the circles he travelled in, he didn’t want to know. What he, and his wife, Adi, did know was to help those in need and Goldachhof proved a haven for refuges many times over. It is this backdrop that little Beatrix grew up in and learned the ways of the world, from getting by on rations to celebrating the dawn of a new world ushered in by the Americans.
This excerpt gives you a taste of the exuberance of youth faced with big change. The Americans, all brash and exciting, had finally arrived. But they make a few missteps. A couple of homesick Texans decide to ride a couple of the carriage horses, who were not meant for riding. Then some soldiers got the nutty idea of going fishing with hand grenades. This was far too much for Herr Ost and he finally managed to restore order by bringing in a high ranking American officer to have a talk with his men. But change had arrived and there was no turning back:
Now we children played Yank all winter long as we sledded down the granary path on our Jeeps. We still had our “Judenstrick,” ersatz cigarettes made from the winter-dried marrow of elderberry twigs, but we were infatuated with everything the Americans brought into our little world. They had landed among us with the exciting utensils of their exotic culture. Chewing gum. Nescafe. Powdered milk. Hershey’s chocolate. Blue jeans. Johnson’s lotion. Marlboros. Things useful and also symbols of hope, the end of terror. Our blue days were gone–love live The Blues.
How such a book came into being is remarkable. “My Father’s House” is an inspiring and enlightening work. It can be appreciated on many levels, not the least of which is in the classroom. You can purchase it here.