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Monday, July 16, 2018

LEAVE NO TRACE 7/16/18



LEAVE NO TRACE, a film co-written and  directed by Debra Granik opens with an aerial shot of dense green foliage, a beautifully constructed spider web catching the sun’s silken rays of light, and hanging wet moss dripping water as the camera caresses nature’s exquisiteness in the Pacific Northwest landscape - a few miles outside of an alternate world - Portland Oregon. And then we glimpse a man and young girl almost camouflaged among the lush fronds - invisible as they wish to be. 

A father named Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are “survivalists” who have tamed a small area of this wild beauty into a home. Their relationship with “nature” is respectful; they are both comfortable with living outdoors - cooking, tending to a fire, and getting clear water from the canopy of foliage that envelops them. The relationship with one another is both tender and loving but not equal. Tom, is clearly a teenage girl who is deferential and appreciative of the father who raised her but longing to know more about her mother who died when she was very young. We soon glean that Will is a veteran with PTSD symptoms whose dreams often jolt him awake shaken, gasping shallow breaths against the vast ceiling of stars in the deep black umbrella of space.



The beginning of LEAVE NO TRACE depicts how Will and Tom live day-to-day gathering food, playing chess, caring for a garden - all done with a delicate affection that one cannot help but envy, both tending to what is needed to live a life “off the grid” - untouched by contemporary life’s amenities. Suddenly everything changes when Tom is spotted by a Ranger and police with dogs arrive, violating their intimate island in the midst of the vast protective forest. 

The outside world has finally permeated their lives, including the assignment of a social worker who gets them situated in pre-fab housing complete with a television, a stove, electricity, and warm shelter. The film is replete with people touching Will and Tom’s  lives who are very kind, concerned individuals, but are unable to comprehend living a “homeless” existence under the light of the moon; an existence which demands nothing from civic institutions, where self-reliance and the ability to live isolated from others is a form of freedom - no matter the cost.

Thomasin McKenzie portraying the daughter is a lovely young actor with her pale face and sharply curious dark eyes who adores and understands her father’s psychological frailties, however once she comes into contact with the world around her she, unlike her father, embraces all living creatures with an innocence and compassion that is exquisite to observe. 



Ben Foster gives a moving performance as Will whose wounded, shaken psyche, torn apart by the brutality of war, softens immeasurably whenever he is with his daughter, who he has raised to be self-reliant, strong and gentle - a captivating mixture. As for the rest of society, Will’s close-set suspicious eyes reveal the inner turmoil of an untamed colt, jittery and ready to bolt at any unwanted intrusion.


All the characters that Will and Tom meet on their journeys, exhibit a sensitivity that belies outward appearances. Director Debra Granik is almost idyllic in her view of community and humanity’s goodness all nestled under the light and ambiance of the majestic Pacific Northwest. LEAVE NO TRACE is an honest, unpredictable, quiet film - a coming of age story that touched me to the point of stifling audible sobs while viewing the vulnerable delicacy of human fragility.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

SOUTINE EXHIBITION "FLESH" at JEWISH MUSEUM, NYC 7-14-18

Soutine, Carcass of Beef, oil on canvas

GREAT Soutine show aptly titled FLESH at The Jewish Museum, NYC running through September 16th. Chaim Soutine is a major 20th-century artist who I consider a ghostly mentor. As a painting student, I constantly looked at his work feeling the force of his tension with paint - like an elastic band about to snap - imagining his malleable body slashing away at the canvas with visceral intensity. 
Whenever I view Soutine's work I intuit deep inside my person the pulling and scraping of paint; the distortion of an image to make a painting that mirrors the raw impalement of the flesh.

Soutine, Still Life With RayFish, oil/canvas

Soutine, The Great Pheasant, oil/canvas, 1926/27

Detail: Soutine, The Great Pheasant, oil/canvas, 1926/27
Soutine: The Salmon, oil/canvas

Detail: Soutine, The Salmon, oil/canvas


Soutine, White Duck, oil/canvas, 1925


This small exhibition of still-lives contained images of slabs of beef, twisted and wrung chicken heads, fish heads, and hares with anthropomorphic forks writhing on the plate ready to penetrate the hapless creature.
Soutine, Hare With Forks, oil/canvas, 1924

Detail: Soutine, Hare With Forks, oil/canvas, 1924

Ahhhh I loved the show!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

THE STAIRCASE on NETFLIX 7/8/18




Justice is a word that has lost its original meaning: the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness in the American judiciary system. A trial is so costly that only the very wealthy defendant can afford investigators, “expert” witnesses, travel expenses and a high-profile lawyer to even stand a chance to argue a viable defense. Bail alone is often not affordable to many people who languish in jail for months at a time - a terrifying and horrific place where one awaits trial in the dark pit of innuendo and suspicion. 

The Staircase is a 2004 documentary originally made into an 8 episode miniseries by French Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade based on the 2001 death of Kathleen Petersen, wife of novelist Michael Peterson, whose dead body was found at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of blood with lacerations to her head, and splatters all over the floors and walls. The police soon takes her husband, Michael Peterson into custody, and as soon as he is indicted, Lestrade and his French film crew are given access to the accused, his family, the defense attorneys and the court to document the judicial process which surprisingly covers 17 years in the lives of all those involved as the series was updated in 2013 and then again in 2018 when new evidence comes to light. To this day Michael Peterson unwaveringly proclaims his innocence and does so with great eloquence asserting the belief that his wife fell down the stairs and violently hit her head bouncing off the balustrade. The “blood spatter” scientific expert witnesses create a credible case for Kathleen Peterson’s cause of death to be ruled as an accident rather than a homicide.

The bulk of the series gives us an inside view into the mechanism of preparing for a trial which will change the trajectory of your life and all the people who care about you; the trial itself and the criticality of procedural decisions made by the Judge which can alter your chances for a fair hearing; how circumstantial evidence can be twisted to fit the prosecution’s preconceived theories, and most damaging irrelevant personal secrets brought to light through one’s emails, etc. that the prosecution intentionally injects into the proceedings to prejudice the jury. 



Kathleen and Michael Peterson’s marriage was by all accounts an idyllic one - though not conventional in that Michael was bisexual and had occasional trysts with men for sex - a revelation found in graphic emails. He claims that his wife “in some sense” was aware of this, but this fact shattered the illusion of the perfectly loving marriage and “shocked” many in the courtroom including the jurors. Throughout the Court dealings, Michael Peterson maintained a very loving relationship with his adopted daughters and his two sons and we observe many scenes which include playful bantering and distressingly ironic laughter. The attachment of the children to their father is very touching and the poignancy of the pain that the trial inflicts on them is heart-rending.


Over the 17 years of filming, we witness the physical deterioration of a vital man - his gait becomes unsteady, he shrinks before our eyes and his recurring, self-deprecating smile is more forced as the stress of the uncertainty of a life that has been determined by a corrupt justice system almost breaks the resolve of a thinking man who is a writer who values the delicacy of words; a man who is comforted by the consoling strains of music, and a man who in later years is mournful - his red eyes weep tears of anguish remembering the loss of the person he adored most in his world - the loss which the State attributed to his hand.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

MOTHER'S DAY 5/13/2018

Massacre of the Innocents, 54"x48",oil/alkyd/canvas, 1998 

It has taken me a lifetime to comprehend and feel compassion for my mother.  Now that I am the age when her hair turned a radiant white, I finally can relate to her carefully led life. As careful as one can be in a world of lurking ambushes amidst the delights of a clear day with just enough breeze for your hair to tickle your face - a gentle reminder that you are not living in a vacuum - the outside world inevitably finds the cracks to enter your being.

I finally understand the stifling control my mother maintained in order to navigate the end of life - from the oft-handled, disintegrating black portfolio filled with instructional papers - the Will, lists of banks, insurances, the deed to the house, the keys to the safe where her coveted (only silver) jewelry was stored, and other innumerable directives written in an upright handwriting evincing her European roots. Today, I too am beginning to send loved one's lists of where the “important” documents of my life are to be found;  being an artist - my not-too-distant future will consist of archiving the decades of making art in the hope that the work will not be thrown into the barren wasteland of oblivion.

I used to watch my mother place items at the foot of the stairs - waiting to be brought to the second floor, her legs no longer bounding the steps with agility as muscles and bones have morphed into a tired stiffness, in contrast to the alacrity of her still agile mind. Her implacable will propelled her when the body no longer had the strength. I have begun to do the same thing.

On my visits to our house in the Bronx where we moved in 1958, I often went downstairs to the basement where my mother still had her sewing machine, boxes of threads, beads and sequins, closets filled with evidence of her career working as a “seamstress” which in my self-absorbed youth is how I would  derisively describe her; but  in reality she designed exquisitely crafted embroidered gowns, working 12-14 hours a day in a small room in our apartment in Washington Heights where her wealthy Park Avenue clients were chauffeured to pick up the delicately fabricated clothes. The divide between rich and poor could not have been more obvious as the limousines were double-parked with the arrogance that often comes with privilege. In her later years, I would thread 7-10 needles poking them into a cushion with various length strings curling like vines waiting to be picked up and used if only to hem skirts or fix a dangling button about to drop off never to be found.

Though I am not a person with regrets, I wish I could gulp back time and spew out admiration and say thanks for infusing me not only with your genes (good and bad) but with values that respect the humanity of others, and your generosity in helping those whose lives were lived on a tightrope of need. I would tell you how much I miss your food, even if I teased you about the pies that were so wet we could drink them. The enticing scents of home cooking that floated into each room creating desire and solace - a comfort that will never leave me;  in contrast, my home is a studio without a stove, smelling of oil paint and mineral spirits. Perhaps my love of diners is an indication of how much I still miss a meal which consists of a salad, meat and potatoes preferably mashed, and desert.


So Happy Mother’s Day to a woman who left my life 11 years ago. I never thought that you would still hover over each day; I never thought I would become my mother being both fearful and resilient. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

NOTES ON A MOVIE THEATER 5/11/18

Artist Robin Tewes, EXIT THIS WAY, oil/canvas

As I travel on the bus I glance out the window and see ghosts from years past; a sprawling unpainted building ripped open by nature’s fickle disregard for permanence. I sense the now invisible crowds waiting impatiently on long lines to buy tickets to the spectacular 6 movie MultiPlex. Kids dashing around throwing those in their path off-balance in the rush to buy popcorn and find a seat - preferably up front- waiting for the fantasies that will overcome the relentless pace of time. 

Everything becomes possible if only for a few hours sitting transfixed watching the flickering screen - alone in the blackness of the darkened theater. I love the movies.


Artist Robin Tewes, "Substitute," oil on canvas

Saturday, March 31, 2018

ISLE OF DOGS 3/31/18




 


Anyone who knows me well is aware of my complicated feelings toward dogs. Due to irrational fear, I like to observe them from a distance…I like them better when I am comfortable in their presence and they do not bark or jump on me…I like them best when they are sweet and quiet and most of all when there is a movie screen between us. In Wes Anderson’s new animated film, situated in a futuristic Japan, titled ISLE OF DOGS there are images that delighted me; patterns of color and shapes that filled the darkened theater with a playful ambiance. The dialogue is witty - humor is both visual and aural which is why I revere the eccentric director, Wes Anderson who treats his dramatic personae (be they animals or humans) with a caress of gentleness endowing them with compassion, rebellion, ferocity and affection, laced with a dollop of irony. Wisdom is never absent in his films - kooky, crazy wild truths.


Dog vs cat enthusiasts are pitted against each other with the leading political authorities being cat proponents. Canine cleansing is the final solution to a contagion of dog “snout” disease that has become rampant in Megasaki City and all-powerful Mayor Kobayashi has decreed the forcible exile of hundreds of thousands of dogs to a remote place - Trash Island - a place filled with garbage and scurrying rats. There is some political opposition to the corruption of the ruling autocracy but it is barely a whimper.

We meet the hero - the intrepid Atari, who due to the death of his parents becomes the 12-year-old “ward” of the Mayor (a politically cynical, ennobling move) and is given a dog, SPOT to protect the young lad and be his companion. Sadly Spot is the first dog to be carted off to Trash Island and Atari is hell-bent on finding his loving friend. He hi-jacks a plane which sputters and crashes into the wasteland of filth and muck - the detritus of human civilization - where painfully skinny dogs roam about and survival of the fittest is literally the only means of existence.


ISLE OF DOGS is the magically heroic tale of the search for a lost and adored partner.  During the pursuit, Atari who often rails in Japanese (no subtitles -  but we get the idea ) teams up with the Alpha dogs on the Island - each having his/her own back-story; one being an ex-show dog; a house pet; another successful in advertising doggie food, and most importantly the powerful stray, Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) who has never trusted the fickleness of people-masters, bitterly independent as well as being the most ferocious fighter of the bunch. Imagine dogs with the peculiarity of biped’s personalities, infused with charming dialogue filled with teasing jabs and dulcet flirtations. ISLE OF DOGS  creates an enchanting adventure, which is both stunning and daunting.Through surrogates, we see the nature of power and the absolute degradation of the spirit when faced with starvation, weakness, and disorder.




There are many subplots in the movie that occur in Megasaki City - but none held my interest in the way the events on Trash Island did. Communities (packs of dogs) are created in the direst of circumstances - alliances are forged and trust is built with courage as a  prime motivator for survival - a morality fable for our time.

Monday, February 12, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER 2/12/18


I did not want to see Guillermo Del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER, but when I finally saw the movie I was utterly charmed. I was charmed by the fable, by the clippity/cloppity sounds of tap-dancing and seduced by the infusion of nostalgia - the Black and White TV blaring the song and dance music that I spent hours watching and loving as a child....an overtone of lighthearted romanticism that covered a 1950’s/1960’s dark view that was racist and homophobic.
At the same time I cringed at the depiction of a black man as stereotypically “shiftless” - a man who, when he does “act” is the catalyst for evil. I cringed at the desperate feeling of isolation of a gentle, gay man longing for the restoration of his youth. Films are complicated - are they advocating FOR - OR showing an era filled with hatred and bias? Questions I often ask myself as the movie industry is a powerful medium of promotion and indoctrination.  Del Toro makes one forget that some of his personas are based on prejudices that are the maggots eating away at our society. SHAPE OF WATER with its overlap of mysterious fantasy, its veil of beauty - is a powerful distraction from the undercurrents of societal bigotry that is depicted, and we are gulled by the fairy tale’s message of “love” and resurrection.

SHAPE OF WATER is infused with tiresome depictions polished off by some lovely performances and wrapped up in a cocoon of a love story between two different species - an aquatic he-man and a mute woman who connect and communicate their desire without words - just vocal utterings and limited hand "signing". Del Toro effectively manages to make each character fit a cliche by sliding and slippery means- and yet we are haunted by them- the music, the raindrops the fantasy all contribute to this illusion.