"Sleight of Hand," December 6th, 2019, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:04:25.
Matt Freedman: Thanks. I just wanted to assure you that that was probably a pretty bad day when I was doing the taping of that. As I watch it each time, I'm increasingly aware that the struggle that's going on is inside my own head. John knows exactly what he believes. I'm trying to negotiate my way through this experience, which I'm quite self- conscious about. In the end, this idea of the placebo effect is basically a kind of classic liberal fantasy: That somehow, even if I don't believe in this miracle that he's, if not promising me, is suggesting is within my grasp, I can have the same effect by understanding it as a completely rational exchange. That the notion of belief, however fragile, in what he's presenting to me, opens up the possibility that a completely defensible action is happening inside my body and I'm benefiting by generating some sort of autoimmune response.
I will say that the most difficult part of his suggestions, that somehow I'm responsible for my own cancers also produces the most sustaining practice that comes out of this: These visualizations that I'm supposed to do that reverse the process of toxicity in my body that my imperfect spiritual life has produced.
My brain opens up every day and cool water pours in. That's supposed to protect me from tumors in the brain.
The skeleton is protected by a bolt of lightning that's supposed to strike me and turn my body sort of black and white. My skeleton flashes like an old cartoon and then I take a golden brush and scrub the tumors from the spine and the hip, and maybe the knee.
I Imagine golden bellows in my lungs pumping out the tumors. I've never quite understood the metaphor of the golden bellows pushing the tumors out, but it's a pleasing thought, that somehow I can push them away.
I'm supposed to kneel in a stream, open up my chest, take out the lungs, pull them apart, let rushing water push the tumors away. Then massage them into flexible good health and then imagine a blue light healing them. I place them in my chest, close up the chest, put back on the garment and walk away.
That day of the taping, in addition to Gabrielle dying, also our friend Joyce Pensato had just died and it seemed even more absurd to be looking at these videos of a man promising to cure everything that was clearly coming down upon us with this notion of faith. Every time I would have this argument with him that was impossible to tell someone who is sick that they were responsible for their illness, or impossible or inadvisable, to tell somebody who could die that they shouldn't accommodate themselves to that possibility. He would just say, “Well, you could get better.”
Which trumped all my logic, I suppose.
Beyond all of that, what was interesting to me about this project is that basically we had begun with this interaction between John and myself and then Pawel and John Bruce came and watched that, and then produced an image on a screen that I then watched, that Pawel and John watched, that produced another screen, that we're all now watching, as Jude and I watch with you, so we're watching here in here and then John and Pawel watch that with their cameras, and where that goes, we don't know.
In my mind, it's like sourdough bread. You start with a little starter. Every time you take out a little bit more, you add more flour and sugar; you make your bread and then you have more left over. The oldest starter dough still going, I think it's either the lady who has 130 year old batch in Wyoming or the bakery in San Francisco that is 160 years old, but those are good yeasts to search for.
The book that he held up, “Now I Know I'm Not Alone,” has this wonderfully literal cover. Jesus in his robe is gesturing to a man who's very theatrically scratching his head as they stand at a fork in the road. I'm not sure if Jesus is telling him which way to go, or he's just telling him that there was a road ahead. But the book, which is written sort of from the position of a skeptic does end with this, well, It doesn't end, but contains this remarkable scene where I think John actually says to the writer, ‘ I want to show you how God works.”
As he's watching, he sees John's face---he's very specific,--become narrower, the lips become smaller, the skin becomes perfect, and this effulgence of light behind the face of Mary, the mother of God, appears, which he interpreted as an Archangel protecting him from the Holy Presence. When John repeated this, I think, when John and Pawel were filming, and I knew I was not going to be able to see what he wanted me to see, but I wanted to see something, and I saw the lights change and darken. It was appealing to think that I’d suddenly seen the devil, but I didn't feel really that that was what was happening. I felt like I wanted to give John something that he wanted, and he was happy with the “darkening eyes.” It was only my cynicism that saw the devil.
He did help me the last time I saw him, at a very practical level. In addition to other more spiritual pursuits, he's a clarinet player and he knows how to breathe from his diaphragm, which is something as I have increasingly greater and greater difficulty with my breath, and my oxygen saturation level goes down. I can't—Let me try it on this finger. I can't catch my breath without panting a lot. But if you breathe through your nose and use your diaphragm to push up, as he showed me, you can increase the saturation of blood in your lungs and become more and more integrated into the world. I just want to see where I'm at right now. You have to stop here.
Normal saturation—Oh! I’m doing very well. 94. We should be able to get through this. This larger project began with a film that John and Paul made called End of Life, which followed five people dealing at different levels with their mortality. At the time I had relatively few symptoms and I was sort of functioning almost as a, not a narrator, but a kind of occasional presence dealing with some of the issues that were popping up in the lives of other people, and also the larger metaphysical idea that we just talked about earlier today of how the act of creating a movie itself records life and then at some level seems to perpetuate it beyond the edge of physical death.
One of the stories I told was the story in the short novel The Invention of Morel about a man who swims to an Island and finds a party going on in this remote villa. And he falls in love with one of the people at the party, but nobody can see him. And he eventually realizes that they've all been captured on a camera that records every aspect of life itself. Not just the visual and the audio, but the subjective experience of every individual as a cost of physical death. The book was written in 1940 and it has a visionary notion of how technology could possibly extend spiritual life at the cost of our physical death.
We filmed that scene in the movie, which gave us, and Ian, the idea that this could become a project in and of itself. And we could make the movie where the protagonist would draw images that would come to life as I suggested by the stories that are told as I'm drawing.
We made a few attempts to create this film. We filmed a few scenes. In one I was a detective who draws a dead body on the page and then walks into a room and sure enough, finds a dead body. One we never filmed, which I wish we had, had me going to Trump Tower and drawing the tower collapsing into a heap of dust. We wanted to see what would happen. Somehow, I thought we would get arrested by the secret service for drawing the Trump Tower collapsing, which was on paper. In another scene, Jude is going to give to me a haircut, but we can't find a pair of scissors.
So I draw the scissors and I crumple up the scissors. Scott, you'll have to forgive me. Crumple up the scissors, the page with the scissors, and then when I------
We have real musicians and real artists and real magicians in the room. So I beg your indulgence. I actually practiced that three times.
My nephew Ben, whose real father, my brother Bart, is here, is a young writer living in Madrid right now, teaching English, writing stories, having a wonderful time as far as we can tell. He sometimes sends me notes. The last time he said, in a text, “Have you ever heard of the Prado Art Museum?” And I said, “Yes.” I said, “Did you see the Velazquez’s? Did you see Las Meninas?” And he goes, “I don't think I saw that, but did you see the naked lady?” Not the naked lady--the bearded lady who's nursing a baby.
This is a painting from 1631 by Jusepe Ribera, one of the great Spanish masters working in Italy, and it depicts a woman named Magdalena Ventura, I believe, who was famous at the age of 37, after having three children, she began growing a long luxurious beard and was considered a miracle. The painting is really a wonderful painting. It presents her and her husband and one of her children nursing and it is very straight forward. She's standing and holding the baby. She's a pillar of strength. She's much more substantial than the husband and it’s suggested that the painting is about the enigma of identity itself or it’s suggested that, 140 years after expulsion of the Jews from Spain, there was still a notion that anyone could be anything. Christians could be Jews, men could be women. It was all fluid. She looks remarkably like one of the rabbis that Rembrandt painted.
Ben sent me one of his stories. He sent me a number of stories. The story I'll tell you about is called The Sketchbook.
A number of people, strangers, are in an elevator that gets stuck and it won't move, and they call for help. The person at the other end of the line says, “The secret to your escape is in the sketchbook.” And they look over and they see there's an artist standing in the corner of the elevator named Donald and he's drawing, and he won't help them and they grabbed the sketchbook and they rip it from his hands, inadvertently tearing a page from the book. And the Heron that he's drawing becomes real, and they realized that the book has power to create anything that's in it. After seeing to their immediate needs like eyeglasses and food, one night Donald draws an elevator within an elevator within an elevator, within an elevator and tears the page and instantly the space becomes vast. Seemingly endless. And then they draw in mountains and streams and trees and people and generations go by and the notebook is initially venerated and then forgotten, until all that remains is this vague notion that maybe at some point far past anyone's capacity to find it, there is an end to this space. “Beyond the brook and forest lies farmland and beyond the farms are towns upon towns of ordinary people going about their day humming like bees in the elevator that remains still.”
I asked Ben if he knew about our movie with the sketchbook that comes to life and he said, “No.” So I guess it just runs in the family.
Ben was in a bar one day writing in his notebook when a woman asked to borrow his pen and he gave her his pen and when she gave it back it was wrapped up in a napkin and he thought that she was a germaphobe, but when he opened it up, there was her phone number.
They went out on a few dates and enjoyed themselves. She's an actress and she has to go off for plays or movies. It sounds very romantic, but she doesn't speak English and they can't really communicate, so he's not sure if it's going to last. When we told my mother the story, she said, “It's because he has a manbun and a manbun means that you're a swinger and that you're up for anything.” She's been trying to cut that hair for a long time. She's actually probably onto something. There's something called the Fisherian runaway sexual selection theory. Darwin wrote about this too, and you're all familiar with it, which is of course that traits a physical vigor and ornamentation are an indication of health and fertility. Hair is particularly useful as a indicator because it grows so slowly that anyone with long hair, even if it's wrapped up in a manbun, is manifesting at least two or three years of health and is probably a good candidate for mating.
I was actually quite struck by hair. in the video, particularly John's luxurious combed, coiffed head and my much more severe and limited hair. If anything, of course, he's the satisfied and peaceful soul. My hair communicated, to me at least, a tortured character.
I realized only recently what my head reminded me of, and it is a strange place to end up; which is that when I was a boy, I taught myself how to sculpt by looking at books. I was too shy to go to class, or even study anatomy the proper way. I was particularly taken by Donatello. There was something about the physicality of his figures and their intense inner life and containment that appealed to me. What was particularly strong was a sculpture of his, his favorite, perhaps, called Zuccone, or Pumpkin Head. It is an old Testament prophet called Habakkuk, self-evidently without almost any hair on his head. He is looking down in agony. Habakkuk wrote songs of praise to God, but he's also one of the few prophets to question God; why God allowed evil to flourish, why God answered some prayers and not others.
Nobody knows what he did, where he from. They're very few stories about Habakkuk, except for one. There's a wonderful medieval illustration of this angel of God with beautiful flowing hair carrying Habbakuk by the hair. Habbakuk is holding in one hand a pot of stew and the other a wicker basket. They're wearing clothes of their time, medieval time, and he's being lowered into the lion’s den with Daniel. The story is that when Daniel was in the lions’ den the angel brought Habakkuk with a pot of stew, not to feed the lions, but to feed Daniel, which is a complicated story, but I guess it all came out okay in the end.
I studied the pictures of Zuccone carefully and I tried to make a copy, at least of the bust. Every detail of Donatello’s head was fascinating to me; the ear, this long nose, these beautiful hooded eyes, this mouth which is half open in this cry of pain or bewilderment. And this powerful neck that communicates, just as much intensity as the face. When I was done, I had this unholy collection of features. The eyes were too close. The nose was enormous. The mouth was sort of gaping, the neck was hunched over. It was not much of a sculpture, but it was useful.
My mother put all those sculptures I made as a boy in a dozen boxes and mailed them to us. Our studio is in a synagogue and we put in shelves that reach to the ceiling of the sanctuary and they're filled with our sculptures. At the top and at the bottom are boxes and boxes that we'll never open or see. Somewhere in there is my little Pumpkin Head.
Thanks. That's it.