Saturday, March 20, 2010

Follow Me, Dog Breath

Some connections. The other day I caught an episode of “Hill Street Blues,“ on an high-numbered cable station that I don’t often watch. “Hill Street Blues” was the much-honored cop show that ran in 1981-1987. Coincidentally, the episode was one that I wanted to see again. “Requiem for a Hairbag” featured Dominique Dunne (1959-1982), who played an abused young woman who had left her baby in a cop car. The episode can be found here: The exchange between the officer and the young woman, which starts at 32:31, is heartrending even if you didn’t know that some of the bruises on Dunne’s face were real, made by her boyfriend who, not long after the episode was taped, killed Dunne (

I’ve been slow to take advantage of, but thus reminded of an old favorite series, I checked the site for another favorite episode, “Jungle Madness, Part 2,” where Officer La Rue hits bottom with his drinking and joins A.A. If you don’t have time to watch the whole episode, watch the section that begins at 13:50 and the wonderful redemption for La Rue, with a twist, which begins at 40:02. Like the character, actor Kiel Martin (1944-1990) managed alcoholism.

That section at 40:02 gets me verklempt in the same way as the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Red, toward the end of the story, discovers the thing that his friend Andy buried in the shade of an oak tree. “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things,” as Andy says in that movie. Sometimes, hope doesn’t lead to anything good, but how wonderful when a reason for hope appears when circumstances have fallen to their lowest place.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times featured a story about the artist Caravaggio. I like Caravaggio’s work and was pleased when my editors used a painting of his for one of my books. The technique called “chiaroscuro” is the contrasting use of shadows and light, and Caravaggio is well known for his use of this technique; where light falls, it is very strong, casting dark shadows where detail becomes lost.

What does the artist have to do with the cop show? The show’s crowded, claustrophobic shots make me think of Caravaggio’s paintings like “The Taking of Christ” and “Concert of Youths,“ where the figures are crammed together within the canvas. Since the artist used everyday people and even prostitutes as his models, I could imagine he would find good subjects if he hung around a typical urban police station, as the show focused a lot on society‘s outcasts. Some “dog breath” (as perpetually angry Officer Belker called people as he arrested them) could’ve been a model for a person called by Jesus, like the wonderful "Call of St. Matthew."

The artist’s religious paintings have many interesting qualities, which make you think about the strange interconnections of nature and grace. The dead Mary has swollen ankles; traveling pilgrims have dusty feet; the ungainly horse ridden by the blinded Paul is the painting‘s main feature. As vulgar and shocking as Caravaggio’s paintings can be, he incoporates human imperfection in an imaginative way when depicting religious subjects. When Lazarus is raised, he looks dead--his skin is discolored and he has rigor mortis--but his hand is upraised, as if he must regain life slowly, like a sick, stiff person must adjust to walking. In "The Entombment of Jesus," Nicodemus looks toward us, but it’s hard to tell if he is making a connection with the viewer or simply looking away from Jesus’ body. "The Beheading of John the Baptist" is awful; like a terrorist killing a victim for a video tape, the executioner is using a long knife instead of a (presumably more humane) axe to kill John.

I like "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," where Jesus practically forces Thomas’ hand into his side wound, though not cruelly. Jesus’ expressions in Caravaggio’s paintings are firm but kind, as in another well-known painting, "The Call of St. Matthew." Matthew is just a 1600s guy gathered at the tavern with his cronies to tally the day's income. But to the side, not at all the prominent figure, is Jesus, pointing at Matthew, who in turn seems to say, “Who, me?”

Caravaggio led a violent life and had a long police record. He painted himself into several paintings, notably David with the Head of Goliath which (although only the head looks like the artist) seems to be a double self-portrait, the young man looking with disgust at the older man. Did he ever find peace? All we know if that he seemed to understand mysteries of faith in a profound way that reflect a struggling faith beneath his lonely, vicious life, as suggested at this site: Some of the most imperfect and troubled people, after all, are those to whom Christ points.

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