Friday, May 3, 2013

Films, Past and Present, of a Classical Quality

Excerpt, from a piece that appeared on The Compulsive Reader site ("Shadows of Terror and Comfort on Dark Cave Walls"):

There is a culture of the individual, a culture of the family, and a culture of school, business, and church, a culture of the city, of region, and of state; and the extent to which culture is comprehensive, creative, humane, and thoughtful, it contributes to civilization. It is interesting that in a world of ever increasing population and technology, we know more about different areas
of the world, are more influenced by facts and ideas from beyond our borders—and, in many ways, can design our individual culture. Time and thought will determine what culture survives—that is, what culture deserves to survive. Yet, there is as much accident as luck, as well as genuine insight and use, in what survives. One takes a survey of the past and present at different times, trying to ascertain merit: and here, I consider Adam's Rib, An American in
Paris, Antony and Cleopatra, Argo, Bully, The Cabin in the Woods, A Clockwork Orange, The Dark Knight Rises, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, East of Eden,
Farewell My Queen, Fur, Garden State, Killer Joe, King Creole, Liberal Arts,
Midnight in Paris, Notorious, Our Beloved Month of August, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Portrait of a Lady, Rosewood, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Shawshank Redemption, Silent Souls, Sparkle, Splendor in the Grass, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, and Won't Back Down and The Words…


East of Eden – James Dean is a figure of impulse, individuality, and soul in Elia Kazan’s 1955 film of a section of John Steinbeck’s fully imagined and impassioned epic of California, East of Eden, a film which appearance corresponded with a new phase in the American civil rights movement and the emergence of rock-and-roll, with the Brown versus the Board of Education case and the Montgomery bus boycott, and the galvanic careers of Elvis Presley and Little Richard.  James Dean, an American midwestern boy, the well brought-up but mother-mourning and golden-haired small, short young man with the great head and great ass and almost no neck, has cast a very large shadow among generations of actors, from Montgomery Clift to Al Pacino on to River Phoenix and Johnny Depp to James Franco and Ryan Gosling.  James Dean may have been influenced by other actors, with Marlon Brando and Clift at the top of that list, but watching James Dean it is hard to think of anyone but Dean.  The film East of Eden grants Dean a role—Cal, that of a troublesome young man in a family of disciplined, moral people who may be genuinely good or simply sanctimonious—that allows for the film viewer’s understanding and sympathy.  (Cal is given by the film viewer what he cannot get from his family, the triumph of art!)  James Dean’s Cal seems one of those people intent on having his own genuine experience and ideas, rather than just taking on the attitudes and opinions of others.  That is a role with social and philosophical implications; and done well, it would be impossible not for it to find admiring reflection in the hearts of others.  James Dean, an artist of both instinct and technique, has more dimensions than the other actors playing opposite him (Julie Harris and Raymond Massey and Richard Davalos, no matter how good they are).  Aware of the demands of being a man and an artist, James Dean was a disciplined thrill-seeker, but what Dean accomplished in his art—in East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, and Giant—survived his accidental death in a favorite fast car, and continues to thrill audiences.

Liberal ArtsLiberal Arts is a sweet film, full of love—and it is also serious.  Sometimes what is good about a work is precisely what is used against it: say a film has intelligence and moral purpose, with cultural resonance, and these very terms might be used for mockery.  Works that appeal to mind and spirit, that engage one’s sense of what is good and useful, recall too much school or church.  Josh Radnor seems to be a young writer-director who has the courage of his convictions, evidence for that being perceptible in the very name of the film Liberal Arts (2011), which revolves around a young man who leaves New York and returns to the Ohio college from which he graduated, in order to pay tribute to a favorite male professor with progressive political sympathies; and the young man, Jesse, gets a chance to gauge how far he himself has grown since graduating, and how far he has to grow yet.  Jesse sees his favorite professors, the retiring male professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins), whose rebellion cannot disguise from himself the fact that he has grown deeply comfortable with college life, fearful of going away; and a woman professor, Judith (Allison Janney), an embittered, slumming instructor of literature, who first does not recognize Jesse and then flirts with him but finds his enthusiasm startling: clearly, there are pitfalls in not leaving school.  The boy he was, and the old man he may one day be, can be seen in the soulful and swarthy thirty-five years old Jesse (Radnor), who is sensitive and thoughtful, and attractive to a much younger woman student he meets, a pale, warm girl, the nineteen years old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a flirtatious and frank arts student and improvisational actress, someone who introduces Jesse to classical music—and Jesse considers a relationship with Zibby, despite their age differences.  Jesse’s hesitance has been read as cowardice by amoral sex-driven male film viewers, and read as morality by more aware and implicated female film viewers—who appreciate not having their confusions or hopes exploited by men who promise a lot but do not stay.  Of course, the friskily amusing and moodily smart film Liberal Arts is about cultural awareness and morality as well as the possibility of love and the responsibilities of adulthood: the purpose of education, and whether a man has learned what he was supposed to learn.

Rosewood – The conversations and instruction of children, metal work, and agriculture, family dinners, communal dances, church gatherings, and welcome given a stranger are the respectable rudiments of civilization among Negroes in Rosewood.  The historical film Rosewood (1997) presents a pastoral vision destroyed by ignorance and malicious evil, and it may be the best film director John Singleton has made: it is about a healthy, independent black community that aroused the resentment, suspicion, and wrath of a neighboring but less accomplished white community.  It is an honest but rare view of how vicious Americans of European descent have been toward Americans of African descent in the early twentieth-century United States: blacks were the ritually sacrificed scapegoats for the agonies and hypocrisies and fears of whites.  The film shows nature—a green, flowery land—and well-preserved homes splashed with fire and blood, a serenity broken by rage and violence.  Rosewood is easily superior to John Singleton’s contemporary but sentimental depictions of quite ordinary black men in urban hood movies; films driven by a rhetoric of exaggerated masculinity, of violence and sex, of alcohol and drugs, a rhetoric rooted in a too simple view of humanity—sentimental for the falsity of perspective and proposal.  The film Rosewood is based on a true story, one infrequently told; and it inspires thought and tears.  Yet, for Singleton in Rosewood, the necessity of a muscular, gun-wielding hero figure (Ving Rhames as the mysterious man, a film invention) and a clichéd depiction of women—in bed, in the kitchen, in bed, and at the stove—are problems in the otherwise intelligent, entertaining cinematic account of history.  John Singleton does not know, or has forgotten, that women living out in the country learn to use a gun and wield an ax and manage things almost as well as men do, if not equally well: they must, in order to survive the daily difficulties of the wilderness.  Not to do so could mean starvation or being mauled by an animal or dying of cold.  The women in Singleton’s Rosewood are vulnerable, no matter the age or experience or temperament: whether the woman is a grandmother or a store clerk or a teacher.  (Even the sex-starved white girl, who gets the guns firing with a false accusation of an assault by a black man, is someone to whom things are done: we do not see her initiate sex, but, conversely, sex is something done to her; as it is to a young black woman at the beginning of the film.)  That is more masculine perspective and prejudice than human nature or history.  Ving Rhames is the invented war veteran with money and a desire to settle; and other actors portray figures based on real people, with Don Cheadle as a music teacher, and Esther Rolle a family matriarch who knows but, fearful, does not tell immediately the truth about an assault—by a white man—on a slutty young white woman.  The meaning of John Singleton’s historical film Rosewood, in which Negro Americans, instead of accepting second class status or indulging dumb and fruitless rage and resentment, resolve some of the conflicts of American society for themselves by establishing a largely self-sufficient colored town, may be the recurring fact and idea that one person’s peaceful resolution can be another person’s incitement to violence.  There are criticisms to be made of the motion picture Rosewood, but it is one of the few cinematic portraits that actually show the nature of white brutality toward blacks, making it a necessary work—and that it is a work of intelligence and passion means that the actors, for the most part, have the opportunity for dignity as well as the expression of their interpretive resources.

Silent Souls – Foreign films do not have the cachet they had in decades past.  They used to represent culture, experiment, thought, and sex; and now some people simply refer to them as movies that you have to read.  Those who love them see them with the regularity of an established habit; and those who do not see them usually do not give them a second thought.  A film such as the eerie, melancholy Silent Souls, a story of love, death, grief, and possibly of transcendence, returns one to the sense of strange mystery in the world but also to the familiar things—desire, death, and grief, and also the power of place, the fields and waters and roads, on which we roam and find pleasure and danger—that is, familiar things that are shared across cultures.  Human life may be full of seemingly inconsequential details, but the belief in life after death, or heaven, is the refusal to accept life’s end or insignificance; and, is there any sure immortality other than history, and art, the remnants of civilization?  Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls (2010) is a Russian film that tracks an older man, a paper mill director Miron, preparing with his co-worker, the mill photographer (and a writer) Aist, the body of Miron’s deceased younger wife, Tanya, before they travel from Neya to Gorbatov for a traditional tribal—Merya—funeral ritual, during a warm November.  Aist takes his new birds, buntings, with them.  During their travels together, Miron performs as expected, sharing with Aist the secrets of marriage that could not be spoken while his wife Tanya was alive: desire, suspicion, washing his wife with vodka, watching her pleasure herself.  Aist remembers being a boy, the son to a self-taught poet father and a mother who died young in childbirth and the funeral ritual for his mother; and the burying of Aist’s father’s typewriter beneath of the ice of the frozen Volga River.  The intimate life in small places—regional life—is more alike in different parts of the world than it is like anything from Hollywood.  Why are Hollywood’s visions vastly popular and folk visions less so—marketing and distribution; or the unquenchable desire for escape and fantasy?  Silent Souls by Aleksei Fedorchenko was shown in America in 2011 and those who saw it were graced.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Visconti's masterpiece The Leopard

This internet log is on hiatus, but this is a copy of a piece by meon a great film that appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader...

Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, a great film focused on Sicilian aristocracy and cultural change

The Leopard
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Screenplay by Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile,
and Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, and Visconti
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale
Titanus/Twentieth Century Fox, 1963

There are some qualities for which there are no substitutes: energy, kindness, wisdom.  Yet, many of us consider wealth and power of more importance.  Of course, what is most significant about wealth and power are what they allow the individual—they make possible choices and opportunities that have nothing to do with wealth and power.  It is easier to pursue beauty, knowledge, love, and spiritual peace when you have wealth and power, as there are fewer distractions and obstructions when you can leave behind the struggles for survival and respect.  Watching Luchino Visconti’s masterwork The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), one is introduced to a great patriarch and his family, whose family crest contains a leopard, and one sees the great estates full of valuable art, furnishings, and decorations, things in which the most excellent craft and thought have been invested generation after generation, and the family’s entertainments—reading, games, hunting, dance, and love.  Burt Lancaster is the patriarch, Don Fabrizio Corbera, the prince of Salina, and his way of life is threatened by revolutionary change: the struggle to unify Italy, and the rising commercial middle class, are at his door.  There are predictions that the aristocracy will lose its status, the prominence of its values, and possibly its lands, and that the church may lose as much too. 

An aristocrat engaged by the arts, including opera, painting, and literature, the brilliant, demanding, and extravagant film director Luchino Visconti (1906-1976), was one of the great filmmakers of his time; and he made Ossessione (1942), Senso (1954), and Death in Venice (1971).  Visconti, once a horse-breeder, fashion follower (and lover of Coco Chanel), and colleague of Jean Renoir, was an antecedent to filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese.  Luchino Visconti was not merely a lover of beauty, male and female, but a lover and creator of beauty of differing kinds.  For his film The Leopard, produced by Goffredo Lombardo, Visconti collaborated with art director Mario Garbuglia, costumer Piero Tosi, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, composer Nino Rota, and editor Mario Sarandrei; and each scene has the richness of a great painting—the film is not one masterpiece but many.  Some films merely take place in a country or culture; whereas the most significant works, such as The Leopard, are works often about a country and a culture.  Inspired by a posthumously published mid-twentieth century novel by the aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the film was produced with sumptuous detail at great expense.  The inspiring novel was informed by the life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, and by the author’s own disappointments, and possibly influenced by the literature of Stendhal, Balzac, and Proust; and there is a lot of history beneath the activity in Visconti’s film:  Italy had not been unified since the fall of the Roman empire.  Italian regions were dominated by France and Austria, as well as the pope, with different areas having their own kings; and there were social movements for uniting under one king, and for constitutional democracy.  The church began some reforms, including lay representation in government, followed by other reforms in Tuscany and Piedmont.  Rebellion was encouraged, not satiated, by reforms; and in 1848 a constitution and parliament were established in Sicily, with revolt occurring elsewhere.  Yet, feudal conditions remained.  Victor Emmanuel II, on the throne of Sardinia, was committed to Italian independence and a liberal constitution.  There was a resurgence of the movements for political change: Palermo rebelled in 1860 against Francis II, successor to King Ferdinand, the king of the two Sicilies; and Garibaldi and his forces fought for nearly three months before taking Sicily.  Victor Emmanuel II was named king of Italy in 1861, with Garibaldi attempting to fight both king and pope.  Rome became the capital of a unified Italy in July 1871, under Victor Emmanuel II, who was succeeded by his son in 1878.

In Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, a great marriage of literature and pictorial art, the prince, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster, who studied Italian aristocrats, including Visconti, and is dubbed by an aristocratic Sicilian voice), seems genuinely noble: the prince is distinguished by his conscientious, strong, and privileged character, by the depth and range of his vision, anticipating and planning for what his family will need, understanding how changing times will affect them all, and by his aesthetic and moral heritage, wealth, and social influence.  Don Fabrizio Corbera, has a favorite nephew, the son of his sister, the handsome, charming and brave Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), whom the prince wants to help get on in the world.  Tancredi first joins the revolutionaries, with a little money from his uncle, fighting under the bearded, long-haired Garibaldi, though not seen here, a guerilla leader with a great appeal to the young; and seeing the limits of that effort Tancredi becomes a soldier for the king.  Tancredi Falconeri is a young man on the make.  He has won the attention and love of the prince’s daughter, his cousin, but the prince himself thinks his daughter Concetta too shy to be of political use to the young man—and then the prince and Tancredi see the grown-up Angelica, the daughter of the ambitious, efficient but vulgar Donnafugata mayor, Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), once the playmate of Concetta, now a beautiful, sensual, though sometimes vulgar young woman (Claudia Cardinale).  Tancredi and Angelica are drawn to each other; and their clothed embrace is as hot and intimate as sex.  Will they have fire and flames for a year, and ashes for thirty?  The prince blesses the engagement, liking the girl and appreciating the money and land that she will enter the marriage with.  The vulgar father and daughter threaten the prince’s aesthetic and moral values, but they can ensure his private comforts and give his family new vital blood.  The vulgarity of the father and daughter is that they accept the facts of money and sex, and are not afraid to speak or hear of them in any company.  The prince, with his inherited wealth, with his modest, whiny but respectable wife and his voluptuous mistress, can afford silence.  The course of his life has been settled, while the bourgeois, grasping father and daughter are still moving toward their ambitions, their fulfillments, their destinies.  The prince can see them as enemies or friends and he chooses the latter.  Visconti’s film The Leopard allows us to see that the prince has been a custodian of a heritage of value.

At the time of the American release of The Leopard, the film critic Pauline Kael remarked that the film made by Visconti, an aristocrat and a critic of his class, a film focused on a figure of stature, provides a view of the aristocracy from the inside, a perspective of consciousness, feeling, and style, and that the observer feels as if the prince’s grace is part of his position, inspiring sympathy for his values.  In that version of the film, somewhat shorter than the Italian one, Burt Lancaster speaks in his own voice, with an American tone—direct, rough.  What the English language version gains in immediacy, it loses in mystique, the Italian authenticity.  After the Italian film was restored and shown in America again, in the Washington Post Desson Thomson said the film was from a time “when epics looked like epics” and that “the movie all but weeps with a sense of emotional loss” (February 11, 2005).  Its scenes of courtesy and discipline, family prayer, battle, travel, romance, philosophical conversation, feasting, and ballroom dancing do indicate a grand world that exists no longer, a world of meaning that has found its end.  In a response to the film, both critical and sensitive, writer Joanne Laurier, in a piece comparing The Leopard to I am Love, notes “a remarkable scene in which Visconti uses mirrors to highlight a historic (and generational) transformation.  When Tancredi enters the room, his face fills the mirror Fabrizio is using to shave, as if he is pushing his uncle out of the way” (World Socialist Web Site, July 27, 2010).  It is an interesting observation, although Tancredi’s replacement of his uncle in the mirror suggests another connection—that the older man sees himself in the young man.  The two admire each other.  However, the nephew’s ambition and pragmatism will take on a brutal edge, the self-deception and moral compromise for which others must be sacrificed; something that his cousin Concetta, but not fiancée Angelica, will recognize.  Joanne Laurier draws attention to how the settings and their detail—in landscape, home, church, and office—expand and express the consciousness, the themes, of the film, unlike latter films, such as I am Love, that seem more narrowly concerned with individual psychology and sexuality.  Laurier has an interest in the working people whose concerns remain mostly a mystery in The Leopard—although early in the film we see ordinary women and men chase and hang a town’s mayor; and later the prince’s family priest tries to explain the differences between the rich and the poor.

The prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Lancaster), is offered a part in the new government, as a senator, and he refuses, identifying himself as not wholly of the old order or the new; and, an honest man of privilege, the prince sees himself as too good and impolitic for the compromises of government.  Finally, he does not believe in fundamental change: he sees Sicily as a colony of an asleep people, cruel, violent, the bearer of the culture of others, with a desire for death, oblivion, voluptuous immobility, a people whose intoxicating vanity is stronger than the look and smell of misery.  In the great rooms of an immense estate is held a long lavish ball, at which Angelica is allowed to make her society debut and consecrate her position through a dance with the prince, there, where one does not have to told that many must be poor to allow a few such wealth, the prince hears and sees the chatter and movement of a group of girls as akin to that of monkeys.  Their breeding and money have not made them better people.  The prince is too honest, too philosophical, too genuinely aristocratic, for official politics: he has allowed a certain amount of change into his family, but does not change his own role—he refuses compromise and accepts defeat.  He anticipates his own death.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On Music Criticism

Writer's Note: I have been reading the new books by Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates Jr., enjoying films such as A Dangerous Method and Tree of Life, and diverse music.  However, this internet log, originally intended to focus on visual art, particularly on gallery reviews, is on hiatus...

In March some of the films I screened are: The Art of Getting By, The Contract, Cowboys & Aliens, Dream House, 50/50, The Guard, Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows, 1 & 2), Hell and Back Again, The Hunters, The Ides of March, Melancholia, as well as the first two seasons of Luther, featuring Idris Elba, and Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet.  I know George Clooney’s The Ides of March, based on the play Farragut North, has been called cynical, but I thought it was good at explaining how some of the regrettable compromises occur in politics: that financial, personal, and professional, as well as political, pressures exist and work on politicians, distracting them from high ideals.  Many people do not understand why things are as they are, and this is one of the films that help to explain that. 

Time moves quickly; and it is hard to believe that it is only days away from being April.  The year has had its tumult.  I have been focused on writing some music commentary, and have an idea for writing focused on significant African-American films, as well as a slow-growing fiction project—but have felt frustration regarding the professional reception of a completed work.  The larger world has not been still or serene: the accidental death of singer Whitney Houston, the contentious and mind-dimming Republican primaries, the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the street murder of a young black man Trayvon Martin are facts in the news, facts that trouble the heart.

I have just read Rick Moody’s On Celestial Music, his collection of rather long-winded, thoughtful, and impressively sensitive and wide-ranging music essays (he discusses Meredith Monk, the Magnetic Fields, Wilco, the Lounge Lizards, and Pete Townsend, as well as experimental music, spirituality, music standards, computers in music, and more).  As well, I have begun reading Blackness in Opera, an essay anthology on classical, folk, and popular music, on opera, racial politics, and public ethics and image, edited by Naomi Andre, Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor…I had wondered, at different times over a period of years, about the history of black music criticism, and recently passed on a query about this to the Center for Black Music Research, and received a response from a librarian there (Thank you, Ms. Flandreau); a useful list of references:  
Dougan, John M. “Two steps from the blues: creating discourse and constructing canons in blues criticism.” (Thesis: College of William and Mary, 2001)

Floyd, Samuel a., Jr. “Black music and writing black music history: American music and narrative strategies.” Black Music Research Journal 28:1 (2008) p. 111-121.

Garabedian, Steven Patrick. “Reds, whites, and blues: blues music, white scholarship, and American cultural politics.” (Thesis: University of Minnesota, 2004).

Maultsby, Portia K., Burnim, Mellonee V., and Oehler, Susan E. “Intellectual history,” In: African American Music: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2006) pp. 7-32.

Radano, Ronald Michael. “Narrating black music’s past.” Radical History Review 84 (2002) p. 115-

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. “Cosmopolitan of provincial? Ideology in early black music historiography, 1867-1940.” Black Music Rsearch Journal 16 (1996) p. 11-42.

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. “The pot liquor principle: developing a black music criticism in American music studies.” American Music 22 (2004) p. 284-295.

Ramsey, Guthrie P. “Secrets, lies and transcriptions: revisions on race, black music and culture.” In: Western music and race, ed. Brown, Julie. (Cambridge: Cambrdge University Press, 2007). Pp. 24-36.

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr., and  Angermueller, Rudolph. “Who hears here? Black music, critical bias, and the musicological skin trade.” The Musical Quarterly 85 (2001) p. 1-52.

Strong, Willie F. “Philosophies of African American Music History.” (Thesis: UCLA, 1994).

Wilkinson, Christopher. “A new master narrative of Western musical history: an American perspective.” In: De-canonizing music history. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009) p. 37-48.


Brackett, David, ed. The pop, rock and soul reader. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Clark, Andrew, ed. Riffs and choruses: a new jazz anthology. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Conyers, James L., Jr. ed. African American jazz and rap: social and philosophical examinations of black expressive behavior. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

Koenig, Karl, ed. Jazz in print (1856-1929): an anthology of selected early readings. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2002.

Lornell, Kip, ed. From jubilee to hip hop: readings in African American music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2010.

O’Meally, Robert G., ed. The jazz cadence of American culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Perkins, William Eric, ed. Droppin’ science: critical essays on rap music and hip hop culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. Write me a few of your lines: a blues reader. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.  

An African-American Film Canon

...If one wants to consider modern life, one can look at Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Claudine, Eve’s Bayou, One Night Stand, Paris Blues, Sidewalk Stories, To Sleep with Anger, and A Warm December.  If one wants to examine work issues, Blue Collar and Edge of the City and Red Violin and Matewan can be screened.  The arts, including the dangerous temptations surrounding the struggle to survive as an artist, form the tableaux for Basquiat, Bird, The Five Heartbeats, Lady Sings the Blues, and Round Midnight.  Romance and sex are the focus of Love Jones and Jumping the Broom.  Spiritual heritage is a theme of Daughters of the Dust.  It is now an exciting prospect to think about films featuring or by African-Americans, or focused on African-American subjects and themes, and their relation to standards of originality, creativity, depth, insight, formal structure, beauty, elegance, accessibility, durability, use as models, translatability, and entertainment value...Films that have been made by and star African-Americans that are worthy of being in a canon include: Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, and Sidewalk Stories.   

(Excerpt: Notes on an African-American Canon in Cinema
On Sidewalk Stories, Daughters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou and other films)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Notes on Looking

I think that when I first began to visit galleries and museums regularly, I would spend as much time reading as looking at the art: the art descriptions, whether in sheets of descriptions and lists or wall labels, were read for whatever information or insight they might give.  I could spend three hours or more at a museum, seeing each thing, reading about each thing, and leave exhausted, my eyes red, my legs stiff.  It took time—maybe years—for me to begin to relax, and just look at the art, allowing what was interesting to hold my attention, and what was not as something I could pass quickly and guiltlessly.  If I wanted more information than what was on the canvas—if I had an additional question—then I would read what was available.  What caught my attention during one visit might be the same thing that attracted me during the next visit—or not.  My visits became much shorter, more frequent, more entertaining, more intellectually engaging.  I thought more about what I was seeing, and I felt a greater transmission of energy from the work to me: the work of Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Thomas Eakins, Gaugin, John Singer Sargent, Picasso, Edward Hopper, Wilfredo Lam, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Eric Fischl, many others.  I could be held by a small detail or a large vision, a face, a figure, a landscape, a color or a form, an atmosphere or a mood.  Finally, seeing art became as much a spiritual as aesthetic experience.  It can be hard to convey that to people for whom art is an alien enterprise.  When you recommend art, they can respond as if you are advocating education, pretension, or tedium, rather than pleasure.  That is very sad, but understandable.  Looking at art can be a strange experience, whether or not you have taken classes in art.  Each piece is different, each thing may be telling you something unique; and so many of our responses are conditioned by habit.  Being open is key.

There are artists I like but would like to know more about: among others, Jan Van Eyck, Paulo Uccello, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Albrecht Durer, Antonia da Corregio, Paolo Veronese, Annibale Carraci, Diego Velazquez, Claude Lorraine, Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, Goya, Jacques-Louis David, J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Theo Gericault, Eugene Delacroix, Adolph Menzel, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Gwen John, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Robert Delauney, Max Ernst, Rufino Tamayo, David Smith, Sigmar Polke, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville, and Shirana Shahbazi.

Green Lantern vs. Captain America

It seems that Ryan Reynolds is directed as Hal, on whom special cosmic duties are thrust, by Martin Campbell, in the movie Green Lantern to hit expected heroic and sentimental notes, one key to the more formulaic aspects of the movie (the early childhood trauma of a pilot father’s death producing obvious, sustained moments of professional and personal paralysis; and the assurances of safety and stability given to a young boy, a nephew).  Reynolds has shown himself able to evade those predictable moments with fresh acting in other movies; among them, Definitely, Maybe and The Proposal and The Change-Up.  Yet, Reynolds remains likable enough for the viewer to tolerate these instances of bland stiffness.  Chris Evans, good in Push and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond and another hero film franchise, seems to be allowed by Joe Johnston in Captain America both sensitivity and intelligence as well as heroic resources, and that seems the key to a more fluid, satisfying movie (as a physical weakling given a new body to fulfill his desire to serve his country, Evans thinks idiosyncratically and responds emotionally and maintains purpose; for instance, jumping on a grenade to protect others while more muscular men hide).  Both movies are entertaining, and the sensuous Blake Lively as a pilot and manager is vivid in Green Lantern and Peter Sarsgaard as a beleaguered scientist has some good moments (his quietly spoken welcome to the alien may be the sweetest thing in the movie).  Hayley Atwell as a woman military officer and friend and Stanley Tucci as a doctor, and other actors, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, and Derek Luke among them, fill out the effective cast in Captain America.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Francis Coppola's The Godfather

The Godfather, Parts I and II
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Paramount, 1972 and 1974

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s novel, is a masterpiece, and its deep engagement is one of both style and content: its story is not only about the induction of one young man into a crime family—there is something more elemental beneath that, something about innocence and experience, idealism and pragmatism.  The Godfather is one story featuring an Italian crime family, told in two parts (two films that can be screened or seen as one), with three main narrative sections; and it is about the inevitable discovery of the deep cruelty and violence of the world, and accepting and mastering those realities.  A young Italian man chooses what is over what could be: he betrays his best self and his love and even members of his family to survive in a cruel, violent world.  He becomes the cruelty, the violence.  Everything is done in the name of family, but it is hard to see or know what private family life is worth—that seems small and mundane in relation to family as a business enterprise, in relation to money and power, with much remaining unspoken (well, not exactly unspoken: spoken and ignored).

In light of the fact that little could be said to be at stake—the son of a major criminal becomes a criminal, and he and other criminals try to kill each other, one would think that the story would have less grasp of the imagination of the viewer, but its grasp is secure thanks to the attitude, atmosphere, and tone of The Godfather.  The film’s language, its style of telling its story, are compelling, satisfying; and the film makes the viewer comfortable in a volatile world.  The locations, whether in New York or Italy, high life or low, seem historically accurate, and vivid, and the acting is confident, earthy, and the often slow pace natural.  A sense of reality is created, and of drama within that reality.  As well, seeing some people outwitting other people remains exciting: often what makes a film intriguing is the strategic use of intelligence, though that is not necessarily what we are thinking about as we watch.  One writer that I admire, Pauline Kael, liked the film; and another, James Baldwin, disdained it, seeing in its violence a betrayal of human nobility.

Part I is focused on an old, powerful criminal, a don, and his granting of favors before his daughter’s wedding, the wedding activities, and the don’s subsequent rejection of a business proposition, a rejection that produces a violent reaction that leads to his war-hero son, for whom there had been high hopes, becoming involved in the criminal world.  Part II is about the childhood and early life of the old criminal, and also about what happens after the old criminal’s promising son becomes part of the criminal world.  Marlon Brando is, of course, impressive as the old don, Vito, Don Corleone, a father of three sons (Santino, Fredo, and Michael), a man who has achieved his own kind of wisdom, though his bit of buffoonery before his final demise is trademark (was Brando’s insistence on humor a way of giving a character more life, or a way of mocking everything—or both?).  James Caan as Santino, called Sonny, is good too, intense, tough, humorous, though his body being torn apart by bullets—the jerky gestures—have become inspiration for both actors and satirists.  It was Al Pacino as Vito’s son, the young then aging, more lethal Michael, and Robert DeNiro as young Vito, the struggling immigrant who becomes the young don, who were most impressive—uniquely attractive men and greatly resourceful actors.  Their intensity and ability to suggest movement from morality to immorality, with its physical and spiritual effects, are remarkable: depth and strength accrue to their intelligence and masculinity, while lights go out in whatever areas in their personality house sensitivity or spontaneity.  However DeNiro as Vito is able to suggest some amusement and sympathy that Pacino’s Michael seems too cold and too shrewd, really too small, for: the new don, Vito’s son Michael, is a more inventive criminal than his father and a smaller man.  The Godfather is a great story, about an Italian family and the creation of American monsters.

The women—Michael’s sister Connie (Talia Shire) and Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton)—who are aware and have some emotional or spiritual life are the ones who suffer: they cannot quite make themselves small or simple enough to fit into the boxes made by others for them.  Individual wants or needs are ignored if they do not fit into family business plans.  The girlish Connie is introduced to a young man by her brother Sonny, and after her marriage she is a mousey wife with a rebellious temper, and following her husband’s death, enacted by the family in vengeance, she is glittering, driven, wild, and then when her mother dies she accepts regret and responsibility.  Diane Keaton as Kay is very pretty, prettier and possibly more traditionally sensuous than usual, and her voice is mostly controlled, not fluttering or flighty, but that voice does not have as much energy as I imagine it should (I wonder if Keaton and Woody Allen, for whom Keaton portrayed an eccentric Annie Hall, had a rapport built on recognized depression).  Kay cannot accept a compromised life, and the constant threat of violence.  When she faces Michael late in the story, Kay’s face is full of awareness and apprehension, and the viewer intuits affection, before Michael closes the door against her.  Family business could be an allegory for business everywhere, only more bloody.  The Godfather was violent for its time, but its violence does not feel as painful or seem as gruesome as some of the excruciating violence we see now in film.  It did raise the level and believability of film violence, and remains echoed in current films (it seems as if the tolerance for violence, as well as vulgarity, is always being broadened). 

The Godfather dramatizes the fact of act and consequence: one family does something, and another family reacts.  It is survival won and lost with amoral intelligence and assaultive force on a brutal level.  One watches the two parts of The Godfather entertained by its story, and feeling as if something more significant is being touched.

Art & Trash

How much reality can art hold?  The late sixteenth-century Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio drew from life and painted that, even included known figures in mythological scenes, with some of his work getting disapproval for its realism.  Gustave Courbet painted peasants at a country funeral, A Burial at Ornans (1849), a scene of surprising and simple dignity.  Marcel Duchamp, in the early twentieth century, signed a readymade urinal R. Mutt, and called it art.  Robert Rauschenberg put pieces together, some of which might have been considered garbage, in what were called “combine” pictures or sculptures.  In the quest for beauty, is what used to be left out of art, the mundane and the trashy, what is real, what is true?  Or is the essence, the ideal, the accomplishment of virtue against ordinary and great odds, the true?  Is the presence of what had been absent in previous times the content that makes modern art real, and true?  Is the garbage now perceptible in art—whether painting and sculpture, film, music, or literature—what makes art more recognizable and relevant, or much less meaningful?  

Serious art, often made for a selected few rather than a large mass, has often struggled with how much fact, or truth, to let in.  It can be interesting to note what happens when revelations reach a popular level.  Watching The Change-Up (2011), a movie with Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, directed by David Dobkin, I was compelled to think again about comic vulgarity in popular film.  In the movie, two friends, one a businessman married with children, and the other a drug-using most unemployed actor, envy the stability or freedom in the other’s lives, and after a quirk of magic, each man’s personality or spirit wake up in each other’s bodies.  Bateman has mastered the ordinary part of a capable and professional, middle-class man who is not particularly self-assertive, and Reynolds, often an attractive go-getter, is proving himself able to take on an increasing range of roles, as here, as a dopey, flaky man.  The film, which contains some realism about adult responsibility and immature laziness, contains a lot of humor regarding the body, not only in terms of sexual references but with what used to be called toilet humor (there are several toilet scenes in this movie).  Of course, I thought of other films with a similar sensibility, in which what used to be unsayable now seems a great reason for, or strategy in, doing a film: Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses (2011), in which Jennifer Aniston plays a dentist that harasses her assistant with graphic sexual language; and the Farrelly Brothers’ Hall Pass (2011), in which wives give their husbands permission for short-term cheating (during the course of the film we are presented with contrasting full-frontal male nudity—showing male genitals used to be taboo).  All three films allow a certain slippage, a certain ambiguity, in how the men relate to each other’s bodies (in Horrible Bosses, there is a brief talk about whom would be the most rape-worthy in prison; and in The Change-Up, after the men change bodies, each notices intimate things about the other’s body, and one says he is tempted to kiss his own male member, and later the other masturbates while inhabiting his friend’s body).  It is the kind of consciousness that would not exist without feminism and the gay liberation movement, but, while absorbing the rewards and mining the humor, pays no significant regard to political consciousness.  The thing is, these movies offer scenarios that many people can relate to: they are situation comedies of work and love focused on attractive people entering middle age and confronting the choices they have made; and they cannot be said to be merely superficial or exploitative—but the vulgar humor in them is a great part of their power and appeal.

While allowing for the use of waste in art and entertainment, what are we giving up?  While applauding or laughing at all this shit, what are we doing without?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Scarlett Johansson and Vermeer

Scarlett Johansson is featured in a recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine (December 2011), wearing haute couture clothes—Givenchy, Armani Prive, Alexander McQueen, Giambattista Valli—and talking about her work in film and theater.  I had forgotten how young she is (26 years old), as it seems as if I have been watching her for years—it says something about the impression she makes, about the solidity and sensual awareness that make her seem mature.  Her performances in Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003) and Match Point (Woody Allen, 2004) are strong—and Girl is a favorite of mine: it is about the painter Johannes Vermeer, his work and attempt to get another commission from a calculating patron, and how the painter includes a young housemaid in his work as studio caretaker and subject, to his wife’s intensifying discomfort.  The wife does not understand how an illiterate girl can be so entrancing, but the girl has an instinct for art, for the importance of light and scene-setting, and she helps with making the paint, before becoming a figure in a portrait that would become famous.  Johansson is the young woman and Colin Firth is the painter in a film with well-composed and informative images, a film that is pleasing in its exploration and fulfillment of its theme.

Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earing presents a certain time in the painter's life, rather than a complete biography. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) lived in the Netherlands, a Protestant married to a Catholic who gave him eleven children.  Vermeer painted historical and domestic scenes and was a respected painter, known for color, detail, and texture, for the quality of his work, but he was not very productive in terms of quantity of paintings, and faced financial difficulties.

Scarlett Johansson’s work in Girl with a Pearl Earring is very attentive and full of subtle responses—and it’s great to observe her character’s humility and self-respect, her practicality and idealism; how she responds instinctively to the rudeness and cruelty of children (with outrage, with hurt), and to the genius and manipulation of a man she respects (with admiration, with a distancing gesture).  Scarlett Johansson is a beautiful woman, a unique film object; and someone I have looked forward to seeing, although I do not see all of her work.  I like as well, in different ways and to different extents, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Diahann Carroll, Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise, Jane Fonda, Naomie Harris, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Regina King, Jessica Lange, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Thandie Newton, Natalie Portman, Zoe Saldana, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Kate Winslet, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  There are others.  It is sad to think that I do not see most of them frequently enough.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I looked at a video from North Light of artist Joy Thomas teaching how to draw the clothed figure a few days ago: she spoke about and demonstrated the importance of selecting a good model with appropriate and diverse changes of dress, and establishing the allowed time for a portrait (three hours?); of preparing the paper with charcoal dust (sprinkling, rubbing it in); of isolating the space on the canvas that the artist wants to use; of sizing the figure and transferring one's measurements to the canvas (a ruler or a pencil can be used to establish a canon--say how many human heads go into the total human figure from top to bottom, left to right: it's about seven or eight, depending on the effect one wants--ordinary or heroic); of identifying the structures in the portrait to be painted (the lines, the circles and squares, the shifts in form); and beginning with a preliminary sketch to warm up (something that can be easily erased with a certain kind of cloth); of trying to capture just enough detail to suggest the figure and allowing the viewer to complete the picture; of the importance of "marking" the positions of the model (with charcoal or with removable tape) before she or he takes a break, etcetera.  It was an illustration of how much thought and work goes into art, even into a simply drawn portrait.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Note on “Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century”

I have been reading Richard J. Powell’s study Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames and Hudson, 1997), a book I first encountered several years ago: it’s a history of black diaspora visual culture, with a focus on African-American painting, sculpture, photography, and film, though it also comments on culture in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean.  It is a remarkably detailed and thoughtful discussion of both aesthetics and politics, but I really appreciate the illustrations of paintings, sculpture, and photographs from films, such as William H. Johnson’s contemplative, handsome self-portrait (page 48); Aaron Douglas’s graphic mural in tribute to Harriet Tubman, a blue and gray communal scene in which a woman holds up a broken chain (page 65); John Robinson’s self-portrait, in which his head and shoulders are surrounded by paintings, his profile and consciousness are inseparable from, and possibly indecipherable without, his work (page 86); Rose Piper’s simultaneous abstract and representational painting, “Slow Down Freight Train,” a stark depiction in which a red-shirted, black-trousered man looks out on a dark landscape (101); Bob Thompson’s jazz celebration, the colorful and idyllic “Garden of Music” (104); Raymond Saunders’ 1972 painting “Jack Johnson,” which features the famous boxer as a figure of near impenetrable blackness, and seems to predict the future work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (123); Sam Gilliam’s large red and black work “Lion’s Rock Arc,” which could be an explosion of roses or blood—or simply paint (126-127); Edward Clark’s abstract, mathematical “Ife Rose” (134); and Barkley Hendricks’ finely controlled, realistic (and witty) nude self-portrait called “Brilliantly Endowed” (153).  I like the talent, intelligence, and imagination in the work—and the same is true of the sculpture and photographs from film.  Edna Manley’s sculpture, a pale solid figure with a raised arm, “Pocomania,” from 1936, again a work that combines the abstract and representative, remains impressive (page 72).  Idealistic is the head of poet George Lamming in Barbadian sculptor Karl Broodhagen’s somewhat rough looking piece (88); and instantly recognizable is Martin Puryear’s work (165).  I love film, so the photographs from Cabin in the Sky (page 93), Black Orpheus (111), Looking for Langston (210), Sugar Cane Alley (217), and Daughters of the Dust (219) are easily seductive.  The man in a tuxedo walking toward a second naked man suggests desire, and possibly compulsion, as well as elegance and power, in the photo from Looking for Langston; and there is family and female strength and cultural pride in the group portrait of three women from Daughters of the Dust.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Many people spend their lives trying to reconcile their hopes for themselves with the world—indifferent, skeptical—as it is.  Yet, there are times when one feels either most optimistic or most threatened, and then one challenges that complacency, the self-satisfaction of the comfortable and the powerful.  The global economic crisis, rooted in deception, greed, and mismanagement of financial services, and the rise and fall of industries and the vulnerability of workers, has emboldened or frightened people in different parts of the world.  Some want to conserve what they have, refusing to share; and other know they require more, as others do.  Some look with disdain at the poor and suffering, and some look with frustration at the rich and determined.  People have begun to protest; and some have begun to riot.  It is important to remember that a protest is both an affirmation of citizenship and a statement of alienation from formal power; whereas a riot is a movement behind civic purpose.  In the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been going on for weeks, people have gathered in downtown Manhattan, and other parts of the United States and Europe, to draw attention to the division between financial success and power on one side and, on the other, the rest of the world.  The common charge is that many of the corporations and people who have caused so much damage have been protected and rewarded, while ordinary people have lost jobs, housing, health care, and more.  The protesters have called for a more honest, vital democratic discourse with real world consequences benefitting the disenfranchised.  First, they were judged harshly by some, judged as lazy and resentful and self-indulgent, but the more people have heard of their complaints and demands, the greater the understanding and sympathy they have drawn.  Who are these people?  One early photograph printed in New York magazine showed a slim, slack-bodied shirtless young white man in shorts, holding up a cardboard sign, facing policemen, but when Time magazine filed a report, it presented a group more diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, profession, and fashion taste.  The protesters are people with very different lives but whom have come to see common problems; and they do not want to be alone with their anger or their distress—and in joining with others, they are renewing their own hopes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and Liberty: The Conspirator, a film directed by Robert Redford

The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford
Screenplay by James Solomon
American Film Company, 2010
(Released 2011)

Robert Redford’s film about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the trial of a boardinghouse owner, Mary Surratt, accused as part of the conspiracy, and the young lawyer who represents her, The Conspirator, is one of the most vivid films of history I have seen, and it achieves an independent life.  Mary Surratt and the others charged in the murder of the American president were given a military rather than a civilian trial, and not allowed to speak for themselves.  The situation does call to mind military trials established following the attack on the World Trade Center and the American war against terrorism.  Decision after decision is made against Mary Surratt during the proceedings, despite her lawyer’s best efforts to prove that the conspirators may have met in house but that does not mean she was involved.  The conspirators, of whom her son had been one, were southern patriots and northern traitors, refusing to accept the defeat of the south and appalled by Lincoln’s intention to recognize the rights of blacks.  They intended first to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for the freedom of southern prisoners of war, before John Wilkes Booth advanced a more violent rebellion.  Robin Wright plays a proud southerner and loving mother, Mary Surratt, whose son was a friend of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and James McAvoy plays the lawyer, Frederick Aiken, who is repelled by Surratt’s probable guilt, then determined to give her the defense law requires, and then, appalled by the contrivances of the trial, sympathetic to her.  Robin Wright, dressed in black, has eliminated every shallow glimmer, and exudes grave awareness and concern, though the way she handles her black veil in certain acts expresses anxiety, self-protection, or resignation.  It is no surprise that there are rumors that Surratt spits in the faces of Union soldiers or wears human bones around her neck—a southern Catholic woman seen as different, a kind of demon.  James McAvoy, at Redford’s direction, is more still than usual, his face less flooded with emotions; and sometimes the way he is framed—against other men, in doorways, and within large plots of land—accentuates his lack of height; and yet he remains a compelling and likable actor.  The film’s casting and acting are formidable and persuasive in a film that has Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, and Evan Rachel Wood.  Kevin Kline is forceful as the nation’s secretary of war, Stanton, a man who wants to bury the turmoil of war and assassination with the conspirators, in one of Kline’s best performances.  Danny Huston plays the prosecutor as a cunning peacock, and Wilkinson is a fair-minded but pragmatic Maryland senator and lawyer, and Evan Wood the fragile but prickly Surratt daughter.

The Conspirator is a film of surprisingly fresh beauty.  Its locations are impressive.  Whether scenes were set in a private home or a large but bare prison, they had a visual richness that fed the senses, the imagination.  The contest between the American north and south, and then between justice and vengeance, come to life, though it is very strange that the black presence is so slight in the film, inclining at least one viewer to wonder if old Hollywood, however flawed, was better than contemporary Hollywood at dealing with African-Americans.  The blacks in Gone With the Wind are more interesting and respectable than those seen as perfect and perfectly quiet servants here; but then I do recall Beloved, Glory, Nightjohn, Sankofa, feature films that welcomed the African-American presence—and I was lucky enough around the time that I screened The Conspirator to find a documentary on African-American soldiers during the American civil  war, one that acknowledged the prejudice and brutality directed against Negroes and their struggle for rights and dignity, The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (2005), a film directed by Jacqueline Shearer and narrated by Morgan Freeman.  In the film, one sees the different kinds of work African-Americans did, some of it quite accomplished, and their willingness to leave work and family to participate in the war; and when they did join the effort, they performed with courage and pride, and earned respect.  (The fundamental importance of the war—to maintain national union, and end slavery—was apparent, but I am not fond of the idea that to earn citizenship one has to volunteer to die.) 

Seeing The Conspirator and The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, it is clear that information is available, and there are good intentions too, but the struggle continues to achieve a complex and truthful, as well as unified, American history.

Art and Environment: Manufacturing Landscapes, featuring photographer Edward Burtynsky

Manufacturing Landscapes, featuring photographer Edward Burtynsky
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Produced by Foundry Films and Mercury Films, 2006
(Distributed by Zeitgeist Films)

John James Audubon may have been a naturalist and a painter, but it does seem all that often that gets to contemplate both art and environmental issues, as with Manufacturing Landscapes, a film that presents the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who focuses on nature and how it has been transformed by industrial use, producing a different landscape, often one of devastation, yet one in which an unexpected beauty can be found.  The photographer, who feels implicated in the exploitation of industry for the photographic tools that he uses and for the transportation that allows him to travel, displays talent for color, contrast, form, line, and mood; and with skill and thought, research and preparation, he produces gorgeous pictures of terrible stuff.  His thematic concern has been the extractive industries, the mining for coal and oil, and he has followed also how metals are recycled and the computer industry.  The film director Jennifer Baichwal follows him as he does his work in China and Bangladesh; and we watch Burtynsky take test images then frame the final image he wants, before the director draws back to show us the context for that image, the surrounding land, the moving people—and then we see gallery goers examining the finished photographs, trying to make sense of them.

The film opens with scenes of a modern factory, its yellow-jacketed workers behind machines, their individuality blurred by the work and their clothing.  When they take a break, one of the supervisors reprimands his team for not properly labeling and separating faulty items.  Material comes from around the world, and the products are assembled in the once agricultural and increasingly urban China, which requires great energy for its growing productions.  (The Three Gorges Dam, thus far the world’s largest dam, was created to prevent floods, generate electricity, and facilitate transportation.)  The factory work we observe is, at once, dull, intricate, tedious, and impressive; and we watch trying to identify what exactly is being made—it seems the mass production of irons for pressing clothes.  We see the junkyards from which used metal is retrieved for recycling.  We see the computers taken apart for metal and parts, leaving toxic remains, poisoning the drinking water.  The garbage is disgusting and frightening.  Another company, its workers dressed in blue uniforms, makes electrical products, particularly breakers, that are sold in more than sixty countries; and we hear how the employees are proud of efficiency and sales, though there seems little concern for environmental or health consequences.  In a Bangladesh ship-breaking yard, where parts are salvaged, men chant as they work, some in traditional dress (a kind of sarong), and we are told that the work is hard and dangerous and the workers young.  Some grow too old and sick to do the work.

As a photographer Edward Burtynsky has found a way to share his experience and knowledge of environmental change and also to create genuinely aesthetic work.  The film by Jennifer Baichwal tells some of the stories behind that work.  The photographs are worth seeing for themselves, but Burtynsky is a particularly thoughtful artist, and Baichwal an imaginative but restrained filmmaker.  The film increases the viewer’s awareness, and asks us to make choices knowing the consequences.
Fields of growing fruits and vegetables have an orderly beauty that bleached, deforested, filthy, and poisoned industrial sites do not have, but, apparently, for a country like China, agriculture does not produce the wealth that modern industry does.  It may be ironic that food is more necessary than a lot of expensive machinery, but does not produce great wealth.  What is to be done?  It is hard to believe that developing countries, such as China and India, will stall their development for the niceties of protecting the environment: Britain and the United States did not.

Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor

The October 2011 Vanity Fair has a photograph of Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor, actually two photographs of Andy Warhol with his painting(s) of Taylor, one a color photograph, and the other black-and-white.  I find these images comforting.  I know that sounds strange, if not, well, hilarious, but it's true.  I look at these images, look away, and return to them--calm, pleased, reassured.  Why?  It's not simply t hat I like both of them, as there are other famous people I like and I do not attach this kind of comfort to all of them, nor draw it from them.  I think it's that both Warhol and Taylor embody individuality, talent, success, and popularity.  They represent a time when the famous were different, and not expected to be easily accessible or understood: they were freaks; Taylor being a freak of beauty and Warhol a freak of sensibility: special.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Drama of Death: Steven Soderberg’s film Contagion

Contagion, a film directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, and Sanaa Lathan
(Screenplay by Scott Burns)
Warner Brothers, 2011

There may have been a time in which the arty folk and the money folk were in different casts and crews in film, but that time is not now: some of the best artists are to be found in large-scale entertainments, giving depth and weight to work that might have been easier to dismiss without them.  Contagion is a disaster film at the core of which is infectious disease; and it is genuinely informed by science and politics, and features talented actors such as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Laurence Fishburne, directed by the gifted, idiosyncratic Steven Soderbergh.  The disease occurs at the connection of three different species; it spreads quickly and terribly, inspiring government response and public panic, while plowing through very particular lives.  Human commitment and vulnerability are acknowledged, are part of the story we see, as doctors work to understand the disease and find a treatment, and families are torn apart by sickness and grief.  It often feels very real, but, of course, this is a movie; and so some of the dialogue is obvious—a scientist (Fishburne) tells his wife (Lathan) to come to him but do not reveal the urgency to anyone, and she subsequently tells a friend who tells everyone; another scientist (Ehle) is a good daughter and a selfless doctor, and is told so more than once; a janitor (John Hawkes) reminds the well-placed male scientist that he too has family he is concerned about (disease and fear move across class and ethnicity).  Jude Law plays an internet journalist spreading false information, exploiting the epidemic for fame and money; and, possibly too crudely, is given bad teeth as evidence of his flaw, although he is both appalling and fun to watch.  Some of the resolutions of the story are surprising, such as the death of two well-placed women; but others are not, as in a protective father’s acceptance of a young man in his daughter’s life, and a powerful man’s sacrifice for a poor boy.  The film reminds the viewer that the global reach of industrial and marketing practices is subject to the wildness of nature, and something dangerous can be born; and shows how humanity is likely to respond with reason and science, with greed and hysteria, with compassion and selfishness.  The film is a major effort, and looks good, but I did not think of it as beautiful; and while I can admire all the actors in it, some of whom are among my favorites, I was not surprised that Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress of charm and cool temperament, of intelligence and instinct, was the alpha and omega of the film.  She is a complicated figure; and, here is a figure of both joy and destruction, an emblem of intimacy and danger, a manifestation of the endless human puzzle.