Archive

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Television Review: Sense8

Sense8 (Netflix; 2015-2018)

Art creates a world. This world can be a reflection of our own, seen through a rose-coloured filter, through jaded and jaundiced eyes, or through a funhouse mirror. It can be an imaginative projection, into the future or the past or even sideways across the present. It can be a nightmare or a dream, a representation of humanity’s worst impulses or a hopeful constitution of its best. The creation of that world might tells its audience many things about themselves, but at the soul of the matter it tells us most about its creators, and what kind of world they see as ideal and preferable.

In Sense8, the Wachowskis (with an able creative assist from Babylon 5‘s J. Michael Straczynski) realize an act of vivid, emotive world-creation that they have fitfully whittled away at since at least their breakthrough as culturally significant filmmakers with The Matrix in 1999. It’s a world of interconnection, a sinuously-threaded global village of criss-crossing interdependent identities striving for unity against persistent and well-resourced forces of controlling disunion. It’s also, vitally, a world of imperious self-creation and epiphanous self-realization, where the best and truest way to survive and strive for collective improvement is not to sacrifice what others need at the altar of what you want. It’s a pulpy but weirdly moving ode to the inherent value of empathy in the face of a ceaseless torrent of selfishness. Cut short just as it seemed to be ramping up and expanding its scope, Sense8 nonetheless feels like as complete a statement of values and purpose as the Wachowskis have ever managed to produce, just surpassing the uneven and sometimes self-contradicting Matrix Trilogy and the sprawling, flawed, beautiful Cloud Atlas. The latter is an obvious pre-requisite for the series in thematic terms and in cross-edited, globe-spanning construction, and the author of the (far more brilliant) novel on which that film was based, David Mitchell, co-wrote the Sense8 finale episode, cinching the close connection of the material.

Over two seasons on Netflix and a recently-released 2.5-hour finale film wrapping up as many of its storylines and arcs as proved possible, Sense8 presented a compelling (if often silly and generically conventional) metaphorical narrativization of the essential forces of conflict and rapprochement in our globalized post-capitalist mega-society. Laying out its complex pseudo-scientific premise gradually over its rising action, the show introduces the concept of “sensates”, a separate, mostly-hidden species of human beings who are able to connect with each other in a psychic/empathic/telepathic manner that is made visually and emotionally clear while also being left a little functionally ambiguous. These sensates, known scientifically as homo sensorium, are “birthed” by previously established sensates in clusters of eight which are physically born (to ordinary homo sapiens parents, by all evidence) at precisely the same moment. Thereafter, at some point in their lives, they begin experiencing the lives and the inner thoughts and the feelings of their other seven clustermates, and are able to communicate with these faraway strangers and even temporarily take possession of their bodies, should the need or desire arise (which it often does, for dramatic, sensual, and action-related reasons).

Sense8‘s globally-strewn main cluster begins to explore and cope with their new collective reality while contending with their own personal relationships and problems:

  • Bay Area trans hacktivist and blogger Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) and her spunky girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) evade shadowy official forces that seek to imprison and disfigure Nomi, and deal with her disapproving parents who can’t accept her transition to a new identity.
  • Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) struggles to reconcile his police responsibilities and outlook with his sensate revelations and related growing distrust of institutional authority, with the sometimes-ambiguous aid of wanted terrorist Jonas Maliki (Naveen Andrews).
  • Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is a successful movie star in Mexico, who hides his passionate same-sex relationship with university art professor Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) in order to preserve his hyper-masculine action star career.
  • London-based Icelandic DJ Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton) contends with dangerous characters in her present and unthinkable tragedy in her past.
  • Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) navigates the fraught and deadly criminal underworld of Berlin while carrying the psychological weight of a traumatic upbringing by his thuggish father.
  • Capheus Onyango (Aml Ameen in Season 1, Toby Onwumere in Season 2) drives a matatu (a sort of pay-as-you-ride shared bus) in Nairobi, Kenya and cares for his HIV/AIDS-infected mother (Chichi Seii), and becomes an unlikely folk hero when he stands up to the city’s endemic criminal gangs.
  • Mumbai pharmacologist Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai) is engaged to her boss’ son Rajan (Purab Kohli), but is entertaining doubts concerning her feelings for him that intensify when she catches sensate glimpses of sexy Teutonic bad-boy Wolfgang.
  • Sun Bak (Doona Bae), daughter and heir to a South Korean corporate titan as well as a badass kickboxing virtuoso, who must decide if she should take the legal fall for her father and brother in an embezzlement scandal.

Connecting with each other and teasing out the meaning of their condition, this sensate cluster discovers the history of their species, the fates of their fellow homo sensorium, and the evil, destructive intentions of a shadowy NGO known as the Biological Preservation Organization (a.k.a. BPO) and its sinister sensate hunter known only as Whispers (Terrence Mann). Indeed, as it proceeds and develops and expands, Sense8 becomes an increasingly bifurcated text, split between the action-thriller conflict between the cluster and Whispers’ BPO (heavy on fight scenes and shootouts spearheaded by Will, Sun, and Wolfgang and capers directed by the prodigious hacker and techie Nomi) and the various melodramatic personal subplots of the individual sensates (Kala’s plot in particular is quite nearly a homage to the romantic corniness of Bollywood). The Wachowkis (who often direct episodes themselves, with previous collaborators like Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer and V For Vendetta director James McTeigue taking the helm as well) are always keen to break up the drama and the tension and the action sequences with enervated intermittent collective celebrations in the vein of the infamous dance-party/sex/orgy sequence in Zion in The Matrix Reloaded.

Indeed, it is with such joyful, often erotic quick-cut montages (including one ending the finale, after the BPO thriller plot is closed off perfunctorily) that the Wachowskis make their deeper point about collective unity and action in Sense8. There is no lack of social and political commentary in the series, much of it fairly heavy-handed and self-consciously relevant to contemporary events. But the general through-line of the series emphasizes empathy as the cornerstone of positive progressivism; its characters quite literally see the world through the eyes of others from very different circumstances and grow to be better and more open people as a result. The pitiless Whispers is a picture of unfeeling institutional oppression and violence, while the cluster is a collaborative collective, a mutually respectful and caring group effort to defeat dead-end fascist discrimination and neutralization efforts and to ultimately craft a better world.

It is this collectivized vision of a better world that saves Sense8 from its own persistent pulp goofiness and numerous flaws (whimsical comic sidekicks abound, the recurrent – though masterful – violent action scenes clash with the hopeful tone of togetherness, and the series’ cancellation and rushed conclusion led to the jettisoning of certain of the more frivolous, but still absorbing, subplots). The Wachowskis, of course, began their filmmaking careers as brothers, but have emerged from Sense8 as sisters. Their gender transition (which kept Lilly away from the production in its second season, leaving the earlier-transitioned Lana to take the lead in writing and directing) is directly referenced in Nomi’s arc and less directly reflected in Lito’s struggles with the closet, certainly. But their difficult shift in identity is mirrored in the entire sensate experience, a shift that ends not in self-doubt or loathing but in festive unified love.

Sense8 employs a number of cultural touchstones to demonstrate its vision of collective power, from pop song singalongs and thumping party montages to references to films both classic (From Here to Eternity is a key film for Lito’s homosexual identity) and cheesily B-level (Conan the Barbarian and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies are keystones of Wolfgang’s and Capheus’s closest friendships, respectively). But the series provides defining thesis statements in front pair of more highbrow art history talismans. Lito galvanizes his deep intellectual and emotional connection to Hernando (with a hand-on-the-shoulder assist from Nomi) in Mexico City’s Diego Rivera Museum, with the artist’s paintings of idealized but socially realistic scenes of collective socialist action as a backdrop. Then, Will meets a potential ally from inside BPO in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch. They speak of the progressive evolution of ideas, of ways of seeing and of understanding. But the BPO exec also recognizes in Rembrandt’s painting a heroic act of world-creation, a reified envisioning of collective action for the common good. Sense8 may not be The Night Watch of its time, nor the Wachowskis the Rembrandt of theirs, but it is likewise a heroic creation in its own beautifully flawed way, concerned with the power of a unity of individuals integrating their own quests for identity with a larger collective quest for an improved reality.

Advertisements
Categories: Art, Reviews, Television

Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC art history and high culture documentary series Civilisation is perhaps the seminal work of the genre that has become one of the British public broadcaster’s signatures. All of those handsomely photographed programmes crowding the primetime hours on BBCs 2 to 4, featuring erudite university professors expounding on beautiful paintings or grand architecture or important literature or great movements of history as they walk through historic sites or museum galleries, can trace their lineage back to Clark and his defining 13-part innovation of the form. The knighted art historian, who passed away in 1983, exerted a great deal of influence on the British cultural establishment during his career, but Civilisation reached beyond the cloisters of the upper crust to inculcate a wider general audience with an appreciation for the high water marks of European culture.

Civilisation, despite its grandiose title, was not be taken, in any way, as some sort of definitive survey of human civilization, and yet its success and surprising staying-power has given it such scope and stature despite itself. Very deliberately subtitled A Personal View, Civilisation was predicated on a focused perspective, its 13 hour-long episodes remaining fixed on Europe between the early Middle Ages and the start of the 20th Century and relying on Clark’s thoughtful, subtle, often idiosyncratic observations. This narrowed focus, excluding the Classical world and the great civilizations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, has brought the series in for a healthy measure of retrospective criticism, as has Clark’s lionizing of “great spirits” of cultural history, basically all of whom happen to be white men. There is certainly something about the series that might well present to the contemporary eye – especially one clouded by the arrogant, half-informed intellectual pretentions of the chauvinist alt-right online trolls who swarm annoyingly in the comments of YouTube videos of the series – as a spirited defense of Eurocentric white supremacy, although it is much too thoughtful and subtle in its considerations to be pigeonholed and marginalized in that way.

In these ways and more, Civilisation is a product of its times. Certainly, Clark’s Received Pronunciation accent can be jarring now to the modern viewer used to the more “authentic” dialects of diverse television presenters (they all sounded like Clark at the Beeb in the late ’60s, though), just as the casual attire favoured by current culture documentary stars contrasts with Clark’s consistent brown suit jacket and thin tie, which seem out of place as he ascends romantic peaks and expounds in sun-soaked Italian piazzas (whither the jeans and leather jacket? asks the modern viewer conditioned by photogenic and youthful historian-presenters with glamour-shot galleries on their self-promotional websites). One wants to dab his sweat-beaded forehead at least once an episode. Also, when other talents are called upon, there are happy stabs of period-specific recognition: a young Patrick Stewart shows up as Horatio in a staging of a scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ poet father Cecil reads Wordsworth poems in voiceover.

In the more important realm of ideas, however, Civilisation is perhaps less a creature of the canonical cultural patriarchy than its reputation suggests. One of the consistent points maintained by Clark in the early medieval and Renaissance programmes and made explicit in his consideration of the post-Reformation era is the vital role of the Catholic Church in shepherding forward the cultural patrimony (I know at least one person who was converted to Catholicism by the series). It is especially noted that Catholics come across as far more important stewards of civilization than rival Protestants in terms of enduring visual arts, although the latter do better in literature and particularly music. Although Clark closes on the subject with an elliptical acknowledgement of the tendency towards authoritarian obedience in the Catholic Church (which has at least contributed to the Church’s foundation-shaking sexual abuse scandals of recent decades), his comprehensive defense of Catholic art and architecture must have presented as surprisingly contrary to WASP Britain at the end of the 1960s, a place and time where anti-Catholic sentiment (certainly in Northern Ireland, but hardly only there) was hardly a relic of the past. Late in the series, Clark even notes (though belatedly and almost as a footnote) that many of the spectacular wealth-driven displays of refinement that he has pored over in recent programmes were supported, directly or indirectly, by the socioeconomic horror machines of the modern era (which he, unfortunately, characterizes as a bit too equivalent): the Transatlantic slave trade and the labour exploitation of the Industrial Age.

But what is great about Clark and his documentaries is how he talks the viewer through what a painting or a building or a poem means, not only its in immediate artistic interpretation but in its larger social, cultural, and historical hermeneutics. It’s a simple, straightforward, but surprisingly powerful method: well-shot visuals of a great work, intercut with audio of a well-rounded analysis of its significance. Art history books are fine things, and Clark wrote his share, but his work in Civilisation refines and very nearly perfects a most immediate and persuasive form of art criticism that can only be accomplished with such a potent effect on television and influences subsequent generations of his peers.

Given this mixed legacy both great and problematic, BBC’s sequel Civilisations set itself up with a monumental task this year of following up on Clark’s series four decades later while expanding the original’s scope and correcting for its omissions and occasional flaws of perspective. While this nine-episode series may not, strictly speaking, match the quality of Clark’s original, it is a gorgeous, diverse, spirited, and deep and questioning consideration of what “civilisation” really means. This uncertainty about the very idea of “civilisation” is a by-product of the fragmented cultural consciousness of our era, certainly, of post-modernism and post-structuralism and post-anything-ism. But it’s also a pointed reaction to the sort of horrors that the progressive idea of “civilisation” is supposed, in an idealized vacuum, to save us from: war, genocide, poverty, brutality, racial discrimination, capitalist exploitation, imperial domination, deprivation and humiliation and misery.

Civilisations locates in art and culture laudable bastions of resistance against these dark forces, which are the products of human creativity and ingenuity just the same. Historian and BBC culture standby Simon Schama, whose A History of Britain series in 2000 is one of the few documentary series that can stand with Clark’s Civilisation at the pinnacle of the form, presents five of the episodes, and opens two of them with purposeful parables of civilized people standing against forces of unspeakable evil: a professor of antiquities executed by ISIS, a Jewish art teacher who instructed children in a Nazi concentration camp. His colleagues, who present two episodes each, likewise note this tension in human civilization: classicist Mary Beard considers the problematics of the human gaze and the mixed cultural legacies of religious faith, and Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga explores how the cultural accomplishments of Africa were looted and diminished by European colonial powers, as well as looks at the 19th Century’s imperialism and industrialism with a withering critical eye.

Expanding the series’ perspective to that of a triumvirate of bespoken diversity – a Jewish Brit, a feminist woman, a Black Briton – continues into their subject matter, which encompasses not merely European art and culture but also that of Africa, China, India, Japan, the Muslim World, and the civilizations of the Americas, not to mention classical and pre-classical examples of artistic representation. Furthermore, where Clark provided only a bare coda about his contemporary world without a statement on the past half-century of modern art, Schama dedicates the series’ final episode to contemporary art from Mondrian to the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Art to highlights of contemporary art, which include his favourites like Anselm Kiefer, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Featuring living contemporary artists risks setting a too-short expiry date on Civilisations (and I couldn’t fathom a meaningful justification of Schama’s championing of the aesthetically pathetic Matisse in his otherwise wondrous episode “Radiance”), but it’s a reminder that this, too, is a view of cultural history more personal than comprehensive. It’s also a reminder, and one of several throughout this excellent series, that civilization is a constant creation, a matter of ongoing redefinition. Kenneth Clark understood it this way, too, even if the canonical boundaries of his 1969 series did not always allow him to express it quite as firmly as those of its 2018 sequel manage to do.

Film Review: The Square

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

The Square (2017; Directed by Ruben Östlund)

One bracing, galvanizing scene in Swedish arthouse director Ruben Östlund’s ambitious and over-indulgent The Square fulfills and exemplifies its arch, too-clever-by-half satire of the contemporary art world and, by extension, contemporary neoliberal capitalist social conventions and moral behaviour. During a swanky black-tie gala dinner for Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum in a grand ballroom filled with wealthy donors and dignitaries, performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) provides the night’s cultural entertainment by approximating the movements, sounds, and predilections of an ape. What is initially greeted by the well-heeled attendees as an amusing if convincing trifle of an animal impersonation grows swiftly confrontational and uncompromising, a sharply uncomfortable demonstration of the aggressive trangression of social etiquette, personal space, and acceptable public conduct.

Skin-crawlingly gauche as the sequence becomes before its conclusion, it’s remarkable cinema from conception to execution. Based on similar, controversial dog-performance antics by Ukrainian/Russian artist Oleg Kulik (give his Wikipedia page a quick scan, it’s wild, unparodiable stuff), Östlund’s employment of Notary is inspired, as is the actor’s performance: a former Olympic gymnast and movement coach for The Hobbit Trilogy, Notary has become one of the most successful of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture acting disciples and has already played apes in two of this year’s most potent blockbusters, War of the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. His performance as Oleg in this scene distills all of Östlund’s self-satisfied ideas about Western democratic society’s smug hypocrisy and renders it as brazen, all-up-in-your-business agit-prop. It is, without question, one of the scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, The Square contains two-and-a-quarter hours of more scenes saying essentially the same thing, sometimes well, often less well, frequently with a repetitive sneer. Using the Swedish museum’s Danish curator Christian (Claes Bang) as its center, the film follows three storylines exploring and challenging social conventions. In one thread, an edgy marketing campaign for a forthcoming contemporary conceptual exhibition at the museum goes controversially viral when a video ad is released featuring something bad happening to a cute homeless girl; in another, Christian’s wallet and mobile phone are stolen, and he and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) become embroiled in a chaotic situation when they print and distribute accusing letters at an apartment building where the phone’s GPS tracking indicates the thieves are based; and finally, a one-night stand between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, wonderful as always) leads to a few more squirming scenarios.

Where Östlund’s previous social satire Force Majeure masterfully examined a breakdown of family connections and social assumptions as a result of an avalanche at a ski resort with deadpan humour and sneaking empathy for human weakness, The Square is a meaner, colder film that refuses to build back up what it tears down. When that tearing down is directed at the hopelessly puffed-up realm of contemporary art, it’s generally a punching-up delight. Dominic West appears as an arch, insufferably casual Julian Schnabel clone whose showpiece exhibition is called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and features, yes, actual piles of symmetrically-arranged gravel (a museum cleaner accidentally sweeps up a portion of one of the piles). His inflated image is punctured by the profane exclamations of a Tourette’s sufferer during a name-dropping Q&A appearance, then by Oleg, who satisfyingly chases this alpha-male rival from the ballroom (before things get really troubling). Anne asks Christian about a prior seminar about “the exhibitable and the non-exhibitable” with an online summary from the museum website that is indecipherable quasi-intellectual nonsense.

Less effective and more snide is Östlund’s commentary on bourgeois indifference to poverty and homelessness, which feeds into the faux-avant-garde controversy-baiting of the viral video ad. The Square doesn’t seriously examine the issue any more than the clip that it mocks does; for all of Östlund’s nicely-composed interspersed shots of beggars and street people, both the film and its diagetic YouTube video use their transient suffering as an arch cudgel to provoke a reaction from the bourgeois establishment. Perhaps this is intentional, and Östlund is aware that his beautifully-shot arty film, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or firmly in hand, is as much a symptom of society’s painful lack of self-awareness and humaneness as it is an analgesic for it. The Square, to be fair to it, might be in on its own joke, especially given that the core titular art piece – a lighted square embedded in the pavement in front of the museum (in place of a bronze equestrian statue that is clumsily removed by shambolic workmen) that is a “sanctuary of trust and caring” where “we all share equal rights and obligations” – is based on an installation that Östlund himself collaborated on.

There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. Some of these jokes are buried in the wardrobe: West’s Schnabel-esque artist wears what appears to be a pyjama onesie with a sport jacket over it, the nattily-attired Christian sports a knotted scarf like a culture-industry tie proxy, and Anne smooths down an admission sticker on her lapel while haltingly flirting with the curator. My favourites involve the judicious application of animals: the homeless girl in the viral video holds a button-nosed kitten, which merits a whole column of its own in the multi-page newspaper spread about the controversy; the museum director (Marina Schiptjenko) is followed everywhere by a perceptive Italian Greyhound, whose withering glances at the bloviating Christian in the wake of the video ad flap mirror her own; and Anne shares her apartment with an artistically-inclined chimpanzee whose presence she doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest.

When its satirical volleys land on target, The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. But it’s a bit bloated and messy and even misdirected, often as frequently as it’s on track. The storyline revolving around the theft accusation letters begins with some good stuff lampooning Christian and Michael’s giddy wine-fed bravado at the scheme that devolves into panicked haste to get the awkward thing over with, but beats a dead horse thereafter. It’s supposed to be the equal of Force Majeure‘s rich central relationship-destabilizing scenario, but while it drives Christian to distracted anxiety and guilt, it doesn’t shift his axis in any serious way. The art-world satire is so much stronger, it seems a significant miscalculation for Östlund to spend so much of his film’s running time focused on something else.

But then this, too, is part and parcel of Ruben Östlund larger thesis in The Square. The negative public reaction to the exploding-girl viral video shifts from outrage at the violent insensitivity of the imagery to an excoriation of Christian and the museum for disowning the ideas therein as disturbing self-censorship by an institution supposedly dedicated to artistic free speech. It’s unsubtly suggested in this thread, and much more spectacularly in Oleg’s disturbing performance, that the purported public demand for art that is challenging and that subverts our social, cultural, and political assumptions is insincere, hypocritical, or just plain bullshit. Art that gets up in our grill and upends our understanding of our place in the world is not welcome unless it renders that upending in acceptable form, in digestible morcels. The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters at the Art Gallery of Ontario: An Alchemy of Passions

October 1, 2017 Leave a comment

One evident truth about filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is that he is fascinated with monsters, the occult, and the dark side of the world. In Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, that fascination is detailed and quantified, expounded and expanded upon, given various compelling forms, and followed down every rabbit hole that the prolifically imaginative Mexican director is willing to allow the public to access. This exhibition of a variety of objects from del Toro’s personal collection opens this weekend at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto after successful runs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year and the Minneapolis Institute of Art earlier this year.

The AGO and these two American art museums co-organized the exhibition with del Toro’s intimate involvement. Besides loaning a great number of items from his overstuffed creative-inspiration manse outside of Malibu which he calls Bleak House (after the Charles Dickens novel, his favourite of the author’s works), del Toro recorded the audio tour for the exhibition (which can be heard here) as well as contributed quotations and context for the printed interpretive materials, and even chose pieces from the permanent collections of each institution that complemented his own displayed memorabilia and art collection. Dark etchings by Goya and Delacroix from the AGO archives, along with psychologically troubled modern art works, match his preferred aesthetic of darkly beautiful, monstrous Gothic arcana quite well.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico and now in his early 50s, del Toro made his own independent films and television in Mexico (where he met and became close friends and sometimes collaborators with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexican contemporaries who have outstripped him in critical success and awards recognition in Hollywood). Moving to the United States, he worked as a special-effects artist before winning enough attention with films like 1993’s vampire film Cronos to begin directing larger-budget work in the 1990s, beginning with Mimic in 1997.

Del Toro has held to the pulpy realms of the fantastic and of horror for his greatest commercial successes: inventive comic-book adaptations Blade II and Hellboy and its sequel, as well as the more generic kaiju action blockbuster Pacific Rim (which is also getting a sequel). Alternately, he has made resonant and personal fantasy- and metaphorically-tinged historical dramas like the Spanish Civil War-set The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the latter widely considered his finest film and winner of three Academy Awards (all in technical categories; Iñárritu’s more stately but inferior prestige picture Babel overshadowed it that year); his latest yet-to-be-widely-released film, The Shape of Water, is evidently in this vein as well, and is already his most critically-acclaimed work since Pan’s Labyrinth. A prolific producer and a novelist as well (his vampire book series, The Strain, was co-written with Chuck Hogan and adapted for television), del Toro has been such an overflowing fount of projects that a great number have either not been made by him (he was connected to this year’s new hit versions of Beauty and the Beast and Stephen King’s It at one point, and he dropped out of The Hobbit movies due to delays) or not been made at all (his famously unmade passion projects like screen versions of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

The constellation of influences – horror movies, Gothic literature, Victorian culture, comic books, genre popcorn flicks, Disney animated features, Expressionist and Surrealist art and film, politics and history, lapsed Catholicism and mystical spirituality – visible in his films is embodied in the displays of At Home with Monsters. The exhibition is organized rougly into theme rooms echoing similar theme rooms in del Toro’s Bleak House, a veritable cabinet of curiosities transposed from the house-filling collection of eclectic possessions. Props, costumes, conceptual drawings and designs, and even life-sized maquettes from his own films (including the Master from The Strain, the Angel of Death from Hellboy II, and the Pale Man and Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth) join other props (notably some items from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most del Toro-esque thing Francis Ford Coppola ever made, for sure), paintings, sculptural recreations of movie monsters like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and gothic lit authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft, and Victorian artifacts. There are even copies (original and browsably digital) of del Toro’s byzantine notebooks, written in Spanish, English, and maybe some arcane Lovecraft-style code languages as well, and overflowing with sometimes terrifying sketches and drawings. There’s even a re-creation of Bleak House’s Rain Room, a relaxing library and dream writing space which fulfills del Toro’s childhood fantasy of a room where it rains 24 hours a day (I hope he placed a washroom in the near vicinity).

The overall effect of At Home with Monsters is to give the impression of a voluminous, polymath-esque mind manifested in an effluvia of objects which are then emptied into gallery spaces and assembled in a sort of chaotic order. A goodly portion of the appeal of del Toro’s films is the density of their visual design and the alchemy of sources and influences in their writing, themes and structure. At Home with Monsters is a display catalogue of those sources and influences, a practical table of contents of Guillermo del Toro’s passions and interests, an ingredients list for his intricate, peculiarly-flavoured film recipes. It’s a fascinating glimpse for fans of his work, and perhaps an attractive carnival funhouse gateway for potential new fans as well.

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Great Beauty

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013; Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)

For the first quarter or so of its running time, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty richly earns the grandiose aesthetics of its title. From the opening montage of slice-of-life tableaux of modest modern activity amidst the aging monuments of the Eternal City of Rome, literally every shot for the film’s first half-hour or so is ravishingly beautiful, as well as the vast majority of the shots thereafter. You will delightedly wait in vain to witness a composition that it not impeccably lit, balanced in colour and shadow, flawlessly framed, and deeply evocative of any number of internal and extrapolated meanings (the glorious cinematography, it requires noting, is by Luca Bigazzi). Sorrentino’s visual virtuosity, always operating at the service of his exploration of those meanings, does eventually relent, as he will occasionally leave aside the Old Masters imagistic lustre and golden ratios to simply block out actors in a room talking to each other. But the wonders don’t stop for long; they are merely carefully apportioned for maximum affect.

There can be a critical tendency, when noting the pure aesthetic quality of a film’s images, to separate that value from the film’s other processes such as narrative structure, pacing, dialogue, and performance. Whatever beauty a film summons up, this line of thinking might go, it is not necessarily essential to the operation of these other functions, a sensually pleasing but still supplementary element in the total package of a film. It seems counterintuitive to say so; film, after all, is a predominantly visual medium. And perhaps this critical framing of visual splendour is driven by the films being examined themselves, whose makers don’t necessarily possess the totalizing talent, visionary intelligence, and prodigious technical prowess to craft a cinematic panorama as reliant on the eye as it is on the ears and the mind.

Sorrentino does possess those gifts and those abilities, and The Great Beauty is a stunning demonstration of his self-possession as a film artist. It is not only that, however. Sorrentino arrays the full sumptuous seductiveness of cinematic aesthetics to interrogate the utility of aesthetics to life in Rome, in Italy, in our schizophrenic modern world; to sketch and qualify the dimensions of that elusive titular beauty, in broad, bold strokes. His chosen vessel of observation and consideration of these dimensions is an aging, prominent, mildly dissolute bon vivant Roman socialite and man of letters named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), known for a well-remembered novel decades before with the Umberto Eco-esque title The Human Apparatus that he has never had the requisite ambition to follow up on. Jep re-examines his life and his city and the implications of his persistent but ephemeral presence in both of these ungraspable entities on the dual occasions of his 65th birthday (which follows the sun-kissed vistas of historic, tourist-strewn Roman sites that open the film with an exuberant strobe-lit debauch of a rooftop dance party, a visual mixture of joy, grotesquerie, and the surreal) and the revelation of the death of the first woman he loved.

Jep’s movements in Rome don’t so much follow a narrative through-line, but are structured as an episodic series of encounters and witnessings, conversations and observations. His desperate, exasperated friend and literary agent Romano (Carlo Verdone) pushes Jep to publish a book of his celebrity interviews under the title Visions and Revisions, and this title could describe Sorrentino’s conception of his protagonist’s journey (which “is entirely imaginary, which is its strength”, per the commencing epigraphical quotation from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night). The vision of The Great Beauty is, in its own way, a revision of Federico Fellini’s seminal La Dolce Vita, also about a gossip-magazine writer proceeding through a litany of desultory episodes in a sensual and tantalizing but forever unsatisfying Rome. It also, for that matter, echoes older Italian literary touchstones, from the descent through the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno and the satirical colloquial tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron to the writings of Gabriele D’Annunzio (Romano, literally man of Rome, plans to present D’Annunzio’s selected writings on the stage), a prominent fin de siècle poet, dramatist, and novelist whose ideas formed the backbone of Italian Fascism after World War I.

D’Annunzio’s earlier-career embrace of the intense pleasure of decadence certainly influences Jep’s (and Sorrentino’s) understanding of Roman life. The opulence of the high society and cultural events that Jep observes is matched only by their evaporating unimportance; even a funeral, that most solemn recognition of our own mortality when faced undeniably with that of another person, is largely a matter of custom-bound social performance. Jep and his circle of acquaintances bemoan Rome’s relative status as a cultural backwater in modern Europe, yet they subsist amidst smothering privilege and ostentation. Political conviction and the comfort of wealth are contrasted in Jep’s teardown of his friend Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) over friendly rooftop patio drinks, the professed proletarian ideals of the Italian Communist Party of which she is a leader rendered laughable by her decadent lifestyle. Rome is just such a foolish, tragic contradiction to Sorrentino, but no less achingly beautiful for it.

The Great Beauty is built of sequences revealing this inherent contradiction in terms at once satirical and elegiac. Sorrentino places Jep in one such scenario after another, sometimes cynically sniffing at their absurdity, sometimes marvelling at their poignancy. Jep watches a performance artist drape her naked body in a white sheet and run headlong into an ancient stone aqueduct; he observes a harrassed, exploited young daughter of wealthy art dealers theatrically hand-paint on a stretched canvas for a crowd of partygoers; he chats with a stage magician making a giraffe disappear amidst classical ruins; he sits in the opulent waiting room of a supercilious plastic surgeon who collects obscene sums to swiftly inject his clients with collagen; and he is strangely moved by a photographic installation by a man who has taken a picture of himself (or had a picture taken of him by his father, before he could do so himself) every day of his life. In between, he connects fitfully with his housekeeper, the widower of his youthful lover, a middle-aged exotic dancer (Sabrina Ferilli), and his circle of friends, his companions in daily delusion. He even stands, at one point, before the capsized hulk of the Costa Concordia, summoned by Sorrentino as a singular image of Italy’s latter-day tragic embarrassment and cowardly diminishment as a touristic simulacra of its long-faded glory as Europe’s once-indispensible civilization.

The Great Beauty looks these myriad beauties, as well as their attendant sorrows, square in the face, but it doesn’t attempt to make sense of them as anything more than an astonishing litany of feasts for the eye that, however we choose to philosophize on them or rationally quantify them, add up to life unto death. These images outlive us, however, be it on cinematic celluloid or on the semi-ruined face of the Eternal City. This strange permanence amidst impermanence, this sense of inherent ephemerality under the august aegis of immortality, pervades Sorrentino’s understanding of Rome, which is to say his understanding of life.

The monolithic institution that has persisted longer than any other in immortal Rome, the Catholic Church, has long intellectually justified itself as a collective framework for understanding “the great beauty”, for deciphering transitory temporal existence in terms of the promised permanent immortality that is said to follow it in the life beyond this inescapably fallen one. It has frequently done so in tangible terms through the visual arts, an indulgent tendency that was fuel for the Reformation but also the engine of the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation that left such an indelible aesthetic mark upon the Rome we see today. Baroque art celebrated observable beauty in the world as proof positive of divine providence, glorying in the exquisite flesh disdained as sinful by prim, chastizing Protestants with their whitewashed houses of worship and fearful iconoclasm. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, reified material reality in its commissioned art with a fervour that might have been (and sometimes was) construed as shockingly erotic had it not been redeemed by a patina of piety.

Through Paolo Sorrentino’s eyes, Rome is the ideal holy fleshpot of lapsed-Catholic hedonism. The Great Beauty is flamboyantly neo-Baroque in its conception and execution, in its borderline-heretical refusal to separate the flesh from the spirit. This is not to say that Sorrentino sees the Church as not being prone to the same shrunken decadence as any other element of Roman culture and society: Jep meets a Cardinal whispered about as the heir apparent to the papacy who can offer him no spiritual advice, only detailed culinary recipes. But he also has a climactic meeting with a Mother Theresa-like living centenarian saint (Giusi Merli) who sits on his balcony facing the Colosseum, surrounded by a resting, magic-realist flock of migrating flamingoes (one of the most inspired images in a film swimming in them). She challenges Jep to face up to his life and his past and perhaps to write another novel, a task far more daunting for him than the 104-year-old woman’s planned ascent on her knees of the Scala Sancta as a testament of her devotion and faith.

Sorrentino’s critical side-eye at the impious, ladder-climbing high clergy and the poisoned institutions of the Church, convulsed as it has been by a scandal of faith-shaking proportions, is leavened by his generally sincere portrayal of Sister Maria’s selfless prostration to a governing humility (although he does give her a slimy sycophantic spokesman who elaborately sings her praises as well, hinting that her saintliness is a publicity creation). But he also shows Jep being beguiled by giggling young sisters at a city convent, running through manicured gardens at play with a local boy, a lovely and carefree melding of simple pleasures and deeper, thornier convenants of belief. The Great Beauty‘s aesthetic philosophy of life is simultaneously lighter and heavier than that of Roman Catholicism, which Paolo Sorrentino, announcing himself as a modern master filmmaker with this rich cinematic work of art, comprehends as a key tile in the cracked but beautiful mosaic of life in Rome.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews

Kathy Griffin and Caravaggio: Decapitation and Atonement

It’s hardly difficult, amidst the bewildering swirl of news, rumours, disinformation and perpetual scandal and outrage that has been the still-young presidency of Donald J. Trump, to lose track of specific details of note, for occurrences of interest to be buried in avalanches of drama and rhetoric. One such instance fired outrage machines for an extended news cycle and is already sinking from view, but deserves to be held up for a measure of visual analysis before we lose complete sight of it.

In late May, comedian, actress, television personality, and sometimes political commentator Kathy Griffin posted a photo of herself on Instagram and Twitter holding up what was meant to appear to be the blood-soaked severed head of Donald Trump. Whatever satirical commentary Griffin and collaborating photographer Tyler Shields intended to make with the visual statement, the image sparked a firestorm of protest from online conservatives, Trump supporters, and liberals, too. Basically nobody liked it and most agreed that it crossed the line (wherever that line is considered to be located in the era of an admitted serial sexual-harasser President of the United States). Trump himself, as well as one of his idiot sons, even stoked the outrage on Twitter by claiming that the President’s 11-year-old son Barron saw the photo, thought it was real and believed that Daddy (who loves him nearly as much as he loves golf) was dead.

Griffin’s carefully-curated personal celebrity brand as an under-talented D-list semi-famous personality suffered definite consequences from the furour over the stunt, losing endorsements, appearances, and a high-profile New Year’s Eve CNN hosting gig due to the negative response to the photo. Rightly or wrongly, her image and career faces a serious setback for a decision that, whatever else might be said about it, was creative in nature. Stripping that creative decision of as much media hype and outrage culture baggage as we can, can we judge Griffin’s photo as an aesthetic image, as an artistic statement? If so, what can we learn from it?

My feeling in critiquing the image (above on the left) is that it leans into the tempting frisson of shock and partisan dark-wish-fulfillment when it might have endeavoured to foster more nuanced associations and implications. A productive point of comparison, and one which Griffin and Shields’ work falls well short of, might be to a superficially similar image by the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (seen to the right in the superior of two versions the artist produced, from the Galleria Borghese in Rome). It’s not inconceivable that in composing the photo of Griffin holding up the head of “Trump” almost as a grotesque offering to the viewer, Tyler Shields had in his mind’s eye Caravaggio’s image of the Israelite boy king holding up the viscera-dripping head of the vanquished Philistine giant. Placed side by side, they might constitute a diptych of strange symmetry, Griffin gripping her foe’s skull with her right hand while David grips his foe’s skull with his left.

Homage-drenched referentiality aside, the weaknesses of Griffin and Shields’ image-making are laid bare by such a contrast. Three stark differences are immediately obvious: the colour of the bare background, the expression on the face of the figure holding the decapitated head, and the head of the hated, defeated enemy himself.

Caravaggio’s famed tenebrism, an extreme take on chiaroscuro shading which drastically contrasts light and dark and lends dramatic three-dimensional illusions to modeled forms, is on full display. A dark background contrasts with the central focus of light, David’s half-bare torso, muscles taut but skin boyishly soft. The shadows appear to be half-devouring his sword arm, like the penumbra of plague. Griffin, meanwhile, stands out harshly, glaring and almost unreal, against a white backdrop that is every bit a self-identifying trapping of a photographic studio. The red of her hair and the lapis lazuli blue of her outfit combine with the field of white to form the blatant American tricolour, couching her implied revolutionary violence in terms of patriotic defence of the republic. She might as well have a flag pin on her lapel.

And look at Griffin’s face, with its fixed mannequinesque impassiveness. What does she think or feel about what it’s implied she’s done to the leader of the free world, removing his head from his body, ending his life of lies and swindles and the bumbling tyranny of his rule? It’s hard to say that she’s telling us that she thinks or feels anything; her tightened neck, seemingly in mid-hard-swallow, is the most communicative feature of the weight of her act. She seems to be aiming for an expression of defiance (and some of that dwells in her blue eyes), but instead looks mildly aghast. Stunned. It is not a mask of righteous resistance, as it most likely ought to be.

Consider, alternately, David’s expression in the Caravaggio painting. He’s pensive, mournful, lamenting what he’s done. He’s remorseful about what’s happened to Goliath at his hand, and perhaps faintly ashamed at what his opponent’s fate has revealed about his own character. Goliath’s face, too, is rich in expression, evincing the slack-jawed, helpless final agony of his moment of death. But what is Griffin’s “Trump” but a paint-smeared dummy’s head with stage hair, communicating nothing of import and actually barely even resembling the President? Griffin might as well have defended herself from her detractors by claiming it wasn’t Trump after all. Were he not currently the most famous person in the world, would we even recognize that it was supposed to be him? Griffin might as well be holding a pineapple.

Is it absurd to compare an Old Master, an all-time great painter who constructs his images with painstaking skill and conscious, informed deliberation, to a modern provocateur photographer and second-rate comedienne, grasping at easy gasps? Caravaggio is lent a key edge by his aesthetic medium, which allows him complete freedom of creation and representation, while Shields can but capture what he places before his camera lens. This serves to explain, to some extent, the clumsy amateurishness of the “Trump head”, but not the gaping gulf of comparative empathy between the images.

This lack of empathy in the image of Griffin, I think, gets at the almost-uniform negative reaction to it. There’s a detached ugliness to it, an ironic lack of irony. Kathy Griffin, for all her political outspokenness, has no compelling visual relationship to Trump in this image. It’s flat as a postcard, with the grim self-righteousness of propaganda.

Caravaggio’s painting is less superficially shocking but more psychologically unsettling. This is not only because he includes the instrument of decapitation, the cold, groin-pointing phallic steel of David’s sword (how did Griffin remove “Trump”‘s head? Pruning shears?). More fundamentally, there is roiling emotion (often read as homoerotic tension) between David and Goliath. Art historical insight tells us that this emotion was, to a not-insignificant extent, internal to the artist: it has often been pointed out (by Simon Schama in his Power of Art BBC documentary on the painting, but by other scholars as well) that the head of Goliath is a self-portrait of Caravaggio near the end of his tumultuous life, on the run from the law for his part in a back-alley murder and thus fallen from his status as the golden boy of Italian Counter-Reformation painting; but the boy king David, with his sympathetic but disappointed ambivalence to his later self, is likely also a self-portrait of a younger Caravaggio.

This implied, emotionally complex self-criticism might be the key missing characteristic of the image of Kathy Griffin and “Trump”, and by extension American discourse both in favour and against the controversial President. The young David/Caravaggio offers the severed head of the older Goliath/Caravaggio as atonement for his sins, a brutal penance for his moral conduct falling short of the pious (but psychologically realistic) ideals represented in his religious art. Both Kathy Griffin and Donald Trump have benefitted from American privilege and plenty to rise beyond their merit. Some recognition of their spiritual kinship might have improved this image, as well as some measure of desired atonement for sin and moral shortcomings: Personal? Collective? National? Something would do. Anything that would make it mean much more, as art and as satire.

Documentary Quickshots #2

My Kid Could Paint That (2007; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

What is the Truth? Is there such a thing? What does it mean to us if there is, and what does it mean to us if there isn’t? And can storytelling, be it painting or documentary film, brings us closer to it, or simply make it more distant, more obscure?

Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That asks all of these questions, openly or obliquely, and doesn’t really answer any of them. It also asks, in much the same manner though not nearly as pointedly as Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, if contemporary art isn’t inherently a scam to separate pretentiously naive rich people from the money they don’t really deserve to have in the first place. The subject through which these big, unresolved interrogatories are filtered is Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old girl from Binghampton, New York who became a global celebrity in the early 2000s when her abstract paintings began selling for thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Almost as soon as her fame exploded via an eager American media, skepticism reared its head, the focal point of which was a 60 Minutes II report that documented and speculated about whether Marla made the paintings entirely herself, or if she had secret polishing help from her publicity-hungry father Mark, whose interest in painting apparently sparked her own.

Bar-Lev had unprecedented access to the Olmsteads during Marla’s notoreity, which Marla’s parents seem to have given him primarily because they believed that his film would be favourable to their daughter’s practically impossible story. There’s certainly never a hint that the Olmstead household is anything but a happy one, whether or not it’s ground zero for a serious art fraud operation. Bar-Lev’s doubts become open by the film’s conclusion, which show a painful admission of his skepticism of Marla’s sole artistship to her parents, as well as Marla specifically asking for her father’s help in painting her latest work. Treated as a smoking gun of Mark’s guilt in stage-managing his small daughter’s career, it is far from definitive, though the father’s desperately insistent attempt to minimize its meaning on a phone call afterwards gives immediate pause.

But Bar-Lev more subtly and effectively mines My Kid Could Paint That with notes of creeping suspicion prior to that point. There’s the 60 Minutes II exposé, yes, but also Marla’s inability to explain her artistic choices when asked (I mean, she is 4 years old, but a Mozart-esque child prodigy would be able to express some idea, no?), the frustrating lack of definitive filmed proof of her painting a work start to finish (at least that wasn’t produced as marketing material by her family), and her art dealer’s brazen meta-admission of his opinion that modern art is an obtuse scam that he, as a semi-successful photorealist painter and outsider, was glad to exploit to the advantage of his finances and reputation. The film leads you skillfully to its agnostic conclusions before it lays them out openly (and, honestly, a bit clumsily).

One idea My Kid Could Paint That circles around but doesn’t key in on is how the story of Marla the 4-year-old painting prodigy preconditions reactions to her art, as well as sets its value. Exit Through the Gift Shop posited that the art world was so wrapped up in narrative and image, so disconnected from basic considerations of aesthetic quality or creative process, so awash in the irresponsibly-spent money of wealthy collectors with little clue about what makes art art, that a satirical ironist could lay bare its acquisitive hypocrisy by not only faking great art but indeed by faking the artist himself. My Kid Could Paint That posits something more profound and challenging, namely that it is not possible to tell real from fake in art, or even to begin to quantify or fathom what such a distinction might mean. Are the paintings of Marla Olmstead (now 16 years old!) great or interesting or valuable simply because they are painted by a preschooler, or despite of that (disputed) fact? How can we begin to answer either question, let alone sort one answer from the other?

Harmontown (2014; Directed by Neil Berkeley)

Far removed from the visual arts in practice, process, reception, and prestige, television comedy writing nonetheless has accrued a claim to direct access to Truth of serious, if not equivalent, dimensions. Dan Harmon, head writer and showrunner of the cult NBC sitcom Community and later co-creator of Adult Swim cult cartoon Rick and Morty, has received particular praise for not only his shows’ sharp, conceptually complex humour but also their beating heart, their use of laughter to forge a tentative but unifying sense of belonging among misfits. harmontown

Still, the praise given to a writer of a TV show with a cult following (and the middling ratings and perennial threats of cancellation that go with that double-edge term of endearment) may not be entirely satisfying to the ravenous ego of a comedy genius. So it seems to be with Harmon, who was fired from Community after its third season due to conflicts, both creative and personal, with executives, fellow creative staff, and most infamously with one of the show’s stars, Chevy Chase. Although Harmon returned to shepherd the show through the end of its run of six seasons (and, as one of the show’s cherished catchphrases predicted, apparently a movie as well), the firing (although not his first; he was also canned by Sarah Silverman from his key position with her eponymous show, despite her admiration of his work) seems to have sparked an existential crisis for Harmon.

Harmontown depicts how he chose to work through those issues: first, with a weekly cult comedy podcast, and second, by taking that podcast on tour across the U.S. in the dead of winter. Harmontown doesn’t sugar-coat its subject or depict him as any sort of brilliant or exceptional artist: Harmon procrastinates dangerously in delivering (unmade) pilot scripts to the CBS and Fox networks, drinks too much and is viciously critical of his live performances, and listens as his girlfriend discusses his rude behaviour. He’s even consistently outshone onstage by the deadpan unpredictability of Spencer Crittenden, an anti-social fan who was worked into Harmontown as Dungeon Master to the Dungeons & Dragons games that end each episode/performance.

But the film is often hilarious and even moving when showing moments from his shows and meetings with fans afterwards. Like the NBC sitcom that never had enough viewers and seemed to kind of like it that way, the Harmontown podcast and tour offers a feeling of community to people who don’t fit into the monolithic mainstream culture. In an American popular culture more niche-driven than ever before, Harmon has built for himself an intensely loyal niche audience, and Harmontown is a document of how he reaches out and touches that audience as well as how it recharges his creative batteries. This symbiosis – embodied by Spencer, the shy, solitary fan brought into Harmon’s modest spotlight – is good for both parties, and aims for some modest form of the Truth.

Categories: Art, Film, Hilarity, Reviews