Jan 3, 2011

Here Is Always Somewhere Else

In 1975, the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader set to sea in the smallest sailboat (13 ft pocket cruiser) that ever attempted to cross the Atlantic. 10 months later, Ader’s boat was found on the West South-west coast of Ireland. Unsurprisingly, Bas Jan Ader’s body has never been found. In the wonderful documentary Here is Always Somewhere Else directed by friend and fellow Dutchman-turned-American Renee Daalder, the director tries to unravel the enigma surrounding the tortured soul of Bas Jan Ader and what caused the Dutch artist to take a dangerous journey across the Atlantic. As you soon find out in the documentary Here Is Always Somewhere Else, Bas Jan Ader never felt content anywhere he settled in the world, finally concluding that a voyage across God’s sea might be the antidote for his deracinated restlessness. 

Like my own Dutch grandfather, Bas Jan Ader and Here is Always Somewhere Else director Renee Daalder felt that America would be an ideal place to relocate to after growing up as a youth in The Netherlands during the horrors of World War II. Also like my grandfather, Ader’s family fought in the resistance when Germany occupied their country during the war. Unlike many other resistance fighters (mostly Communists, Anarchists, and other anti-Nationalist dissidents) in other countries during the second World War, many of those fighting the occupation of The Netherlands were not mainly politically motivated.  It should also be noted that despite being Germanic themselves, the Dutch for centuries have thought of Germans as half-civilized barbarians (centuries ago when The Netherlands was one of the most powerful/advanced countries in the world, Germany was still a bunch of scattered fiefs), on top of being fairly tolerant of Jews (The Netherlands is one of the few European countries not known to have engaged in anti-Jewish pogroms).  Since the German occupation of The Netherlands during World War II, the Dutch opinion of Germans has gone from looking at them as half-educated peasants to the Dutch disdaining anything German.  It is easy to tell in Here is Always Somewhere Else that director Renee Daalder is not particularly fond of Germans. The Dutch maybe the most individualistic people in the world and were certainly not going to allow other people to dictate to them how to live, especially when you consider that Germany planned to assimilate the Dutch (they were considered fellow Aryans by the SS) and make The Netherlands part of "Greater Germany." In the documentary Here is Always Somewhere Else it is revealed that Bas Jan Ader’s mother and father helped save the lives of countless Jews whilst running a Dutch Calvinist ministry. My own Dutch great-grandmother saved many Jewish lives during the German occupation and she was commemorated by the entire Amsterdam Jewish community at her funeral. Unfortunately, Bas Jan Ader’s minister father was not as lucky during the war and would pay the ultimate price for his selfless heroism, being executed for his role in the resistance by the Germans. The life and death of Bas Jan Ader’s father would play a huge role in influencing the tragic Dutch artist. 

For me, the greatest films are those that were created in war torn post-World War II Europa. From a Europe in ruins came some of the most tragic and emotionally stirring films that the world had yet to see before. Had World War II not occurred, the world would have never experienced the auteur masterworks of Fassbinder in Germany, Pasolini in Italy, Tarkovsky in Russia, Truffaut in France, and countless others. This is no surprise as World War I also influenced one of the greatest artistic and cinematic movements, the German expressionists. Those countries that did not feel the chaos and erratic nature of the first World War surely felt in the second war, the “neutral” country of The Netherlands probably being one of the best examples of this. Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has stated various times in interviews that seeing dead bodies in the street as a child during World War II played a major role in influencing his use of cinematic brutality in films like Robocop and Starship Troopers. Of course, his absurd use of violence as a condemnation of human bestiality is certainly lost on most American viewers. 

Like Paul Verhoeven, Bas Jan Ader and Renee Daalder left The Netherlands in hope that they would become successful artists in the United States. Although Verhoeven and Daalder found some rooting and success working in Hollywood, Bas Jan Ader never truly felt American nor the solace he hoped for as a citizen of a new world. In Here is Always Somewhere Else, Daalder states that he feels that Ader’s inability to assimilate in America is probably the result of a “love and hate” relationship ingrained in the Dutch soul from centuries of Calvinism. My own Dutch grandfather also never felt the calmness he was searching for in the United States, even taking trips back to The Netherlands despite having a less than modest income. Despite being born and raised in the United States, I have also never been felt like a true “American” nor did I ever find camaraderie with white American culture, only eventually finding a true organic soulful connection with European cinema, literature, and philosophy. The title of Here is Always Somewhere Else is taken from Bas Jan Ader’s constant revisiting of The Netherlands and World War II, permanently imbedded aspects of the Dutch artist's life that he could never deracinate himself from, no matter how much he wanted to, eventually resulting in his unsuccessful solo sail across the Atlantic. 

Another major influence on Bas Jan Ader was Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and that “matter did not matter.” Apparently, Ader’s mother discussed Einstein with her young son, something (like World War II) introduced to the artist in his youth that would play a central role in influencing artwork. Not feeling content as a professor in 1970, Ader started filming himself falling off roofs, falling out of trees, and riding bicycles into the dam of Amsterdam. In a sense, one could see him as a proto-Jackass comedian but Bas Jan Ader found nothing funny about abusing his body for art. Ader’s dangerous exploits were his impossible trials at getting lost in the cosmos as he that felt he was enslaved by gravity. Ader’s friend Renee Daalder would also take influence from Ader’s obsession with revolting against gravity but from a more pessimistic perspective. In Daalder’s highly influential High School revenge film Massacre at Central High, a student uses gravity as a  a deadly dismembering weapon against his classmates. It is almost hard to believe that the director of Here is Always Somewhere Else also directed Massacre at Central High but I guess that is what one could expect from the artsy protégé of artless exploitation auteur Russ Meyer. 

Like Paul Verhoeven after him, Here Is Always Somewhere director Renee Daalder soon realized that if he ever wanted to make it in Hollywood, he would have to compromise his “Dutchness” and artistry for his American film efforts. In the 1970s, Daalder attempted to make a film where movies are made completely on computers, something the business in executives in Hollywood felt to be a “preposterous” idea. Of course, now it is virtually impossible to make films without the use of computers but I guess one must forgive the money-driven men that run Hollywood as a unique “vision” is not a top priority in Tinseltown. Although not being restrained by businessmen like his friend Renee Daalder when working in the art world, Bas Jan Ader found it impossible to relate to fellow artists whilst teaching art at various California artist institutes. In Here is Always Somewhere Else, an effeminate and pudgy former student of Ader discusses how he and his fellow classmates never understood Ader nor his art. Despite sounding like a giddy middle aged woman, this former student also talks about how American artists were attempting to create “masculine” works whereas they thought Ader to be effeminate (in which they confused with his European sensibility) because he took photographs of himself crying. Bas Jan Ader had also been heavily influenced by the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein, something that dumbfounded his proud American philistine students. Of course, history has shown that all great artists are usually misunderstood by their contemporaries as Bas Jan Ader’s work did not receive an onslaught in popularity until the early 1990s.

As shown in Here Is Always Somewhere Else, feeling more alienated from the American art world and with his marriage becoming more turbulent, Bas Jan Ader finally decided that he would engage in an exodus from the world as he knew it. During his remaining days on this earth, Ader was inspired by the life of Donald Crowhurst, a British businessman turned sailor who committed suicide by jumping off his boat during his last voyage. Like Bas Jan Ader, Crowhurst was also heavily influenced by Albert Einstein, writing his own theory of the universe and declaring himself a “cosmic being” before diving into the oceanic abyss forever. Bas Jan Ader was also following into his father’s footsteps as a restless rube. During the early years of their marriage, Ader’s father suddenly became anxious and told his wife that he would be riding his bicycle from The Netherlands to Palestine. Unlike his son, despite encountering disease on the way, Ader senior was successful in his pilgrimage to Palestine. What biting irony that Ader’s Father, a man that would saved countless Jews during World War II, would not live to see the Jews (mainly from Europe) reoccupy (through force of arms) Palestine in the form of modern day Israel. 

Despite being barely feature length (at just over 60 minutes), Here Is Always Somewhere Else is easily one of the greatest and emotionally enthralling documentaries that I have ever seen. Although I have my own personal ancestral reasons for liking the film, one would be hard-pressed to find another documentary so uniquely intimate but at the same time leaves the viewer with tons of questions. As director Renee Daalder and Ader’s friends/family members reveal in Here Is Always Somewhere Else, no one truly knew and understood the haunted Dutch artist. One thing friends did know about Bas Jan Ader is that he was known to set himself up for tragic endings as this heartbreaking documentary testifies to. If one looks at art history, one knows that it is not uncommon for artists to go on pilgrimages, self-imposed exile, or commit suicide. Bas Jan Ader experienced all three, finally getting lost in the cosmos, something that he always desired. 

-Ty E

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