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Sunday, February 15, 2015

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY 2/15/15

How often does one get to see a movie that uses paintings, etc. in the background (for me scene-stealers) by excellent artists including Gary Hume, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Ed Ruscha, Rob Pruitt, John Baldessari, Michael Joo among others? The reason being that Sam Taylor-Johnson (a respected British visual artist turned filmmaker, formerly known as Sam Taylor-Wood) is the Director of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY  - the much maligned film (particularly by those who have not seen it) mainly for its exploration of a sadomasochism - dominant/submissive sexual relationship based on the best selling novel of the same name by E.L. James. 

Not surprisingly the film is extremely stylish - beautifully photographed; yet too self-consciously “framed,” thereby creating a veneer of sleekness and glamour over the sweaty underbelly of an encounter between a lovely, naive young woman, Anastasia Steele (a luminous Dakota Johnson - lighting up the screen)  and a wealthy young billionaire, Christopher Grey (a miscast Jamie Dornan - whatever modeling he had done in the past for Calvin Klein is still in his DNA and needs to be flushed out.)

I am of the generation that read Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, an erotic novel touting the “release” of one’s ego through complete  submission to another - ultimately O becomes a slave to sensuality. This film on the other hand  with its “sex-light” couplings, soft lights, and deep lingering looks eschews "romantic" love,  but nevertheless  embraces it. 


In essence this is a story about control and loss of control; purity/innocence “corrupted”; in this case not underhandedly but rather straightforwardly, everything is laid out on the table in a written agreement. Anastasia  willingly surrenders to Christopher’s tastes stepping into a world of the flesh; dissecting pain and its relation to desire, delving into questions of what is considered “normal” intimacy between couples. The problem being that the script is too facile - what might have conveyed insight instead summoned laughter.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

THE IMITATION GAME 1/27/15


Morton Tyldum directed THE IMITATION GAME  - a biopic of The “Father of Computer Science” -  Alan Turing (1912-1954) in such a way that we are ricocheting back and forth in time beginning in 1926 and ending in 1954 focusing on “…British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing who was a key figure in cracking Nazi Germany's naval Enigma code which helped the Allies win the Second World War, only to later be criminally prosecuted for his homosexuality…with a screenplay by Graham Moore based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges…” (Wikipedia)

We at first do not see Mr. Turing (a wrenching performance by Benedict Cumberbatch)- instead we hear his imperious voice - a tone meting out strictures - like a professor high atop a mountain talking to a kindergarten child, and then we see an awkward, arrogant, and if the film is to be believed young man who seems to fit the Asperger’s Syndrome profile - but that late 20th C. diagnosis is debatable.  Benedict Cumberbatch with a quivering upper lip, wet  steamy eyes, exhibits a fierce confidence in his own ability. He is a loner - a  type of loner who does not give a damn about the opinion of others because his opinion of himself is so indomitable…and true.

THE IMITATION GAME revolves around the depiction of a person who is “different”- who was both an heroic and a tragic figure. It disturbingly reveals the disdain of those in authority to someone who once was indispensable to the British government’s war effort and the ease with which they can be “discarded” once they are no longer of use…even if you worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park England -  having built a machine that was able to decipher daily Nazi messages which yielded German military intelligence - shortening the war by 2-4 years thereby saving millions of lives. After the war all  the work decoding Enigma was wiped out of the official records as if his intense achievements had never happened. History evaporated.


Turing talked about “the imitation game”- how does one know if communication is from a human or a machine so he devised the TURING TEST: “…The Turing test is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. In the original illustrative example, a human judge engages in natural language conversations with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. The conversation is limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen so that the result is not dependent on the machine's ability to render words into audio…All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. The test does not check the ability to give the correct answer to questions; it checks how closely each answer resembles the answer a human would give…” (Wikipedia)

The movie’s drama revolves around an inventive person and how he negotiates the world outside of the mind. Not only is Alan Turing a brilliant mathematician but he is also gay in a country (Britain) that prosecuted and jailed “homosexuals” for “gross indecency” (The Sexual Offenses Act of Parliament  did not decriminalize sexual activity between two men until 1967,) so keeping secrets became the core of his existence, from an early age when he was the smartest schoolboy in his class and formed a deep friendship with another young man who became his only friend rescuing him from the bullying behavior of fellow classmates; that special relationship becomes a fulcrum for THE IMITATION GAME. 

Benedict Cumberbatch  performance as Alan Turing is heartbreaking giving us insight into a  man with rare ingenuity and intelligence, but unpolished and artless in his negotiations with bureaucratic officials who condescendingly impose deadlines and place other restrictions on his inquiry. Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, the only female member of the elite circle of mathematicians; a humanizing bridge and “social” teacher as well as an intellectual ally of Turing and briefly his fiancĂ©, becoming a critical member of the team and his emotional life. She is broadminded and excited by Turing’s fulgent mind - their collaboration is essential to the success of decoding Enigma.


Integral contributions to society can be accomplished without reward. Often those responsible for timeless scientific advances created during periods of war/crisis that impact us all to this very day are forgotten -  some intentionally so. THE IMITATION GAME tries to resurrect an extraordinary person,  Alan Turing - a being who is still considered by many in the tech world to be the founder of “Artificial Intelligence” and his machine the forerunner of the world’s first personal computer. This film is a tale of a life well-lived but shockingly crippled by the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of bigotry.

Friday, January 23, 2015

FOREVER NOW: CONTEMPORARY PAINTING IN AN ATEMPORAL WORLD - Museum of Modern Art 1/23/15

Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

I went to see FOREVER NOW….. exhibition at MOMA - another one of those painting shows at Museum of Modern Art - (though it has been awhile since they focused on a survey of painting) that predicts the “future” of the medium…this time conflated with the digital age’s ease of finding sources on the internet - illustrations of artists’ works over the ages appear in a heartbeat - just go to Google or Bing Images and they come up with a click of a mouse - everything is equal - there is no historical timeline  - we just look, like and use what we need; we resample, appropriated images with abandon. That is the premise of this  examination of 17 artists in the show. I am not sure why these particular artists were selected…because so many painters have been working in a similar manner for years, but these are their “picks” .

Julie Mehretu, Oscar Murillo Amy Sillman and  Charline von Heyl - are the stars of the show! Why? Because they are aware of history and re contextualize works from the past with the intelligence and honesty that makes for a dialogue that is not just chewed and spit out - rather it is digested and becomes part of their own internal system. Mehretu’s new work deals with the overlapping space and mark-making that she has always used - but now feel like beautifully floating Chinese landscapes. 

I had heard a lot about Oscar Murillo - hot hot hot….and when I saw his paintings I knew from the sureness of his hand that he could paint. Despite the illusion of an artist with a  slap-dash attitude - this man knows what he is doing. He can dump paintings on the floor as if they were materials thrown away in a garage sale - discarded as if they were worthless and forgotten, but that belies a hand and eye that is “schooled” in looking and skilled to boot.

Charline von Heyl - references pop and comic art. The work is clear and has a presence that made me turn around to look at the paintings over and over from across the room; spinning around to “see” again the freshness and seeming simplicity and “lightweighted-ness” of what I felt were strongly structured abstractions that had an individuality missing from some of the other artists in the exhibition where pretension and the swagger of youth - a punk rock attitude prevails.

Any Sillman bringing up the ghosts of Philip Guston - a worthwhile apparition. Something about her quirkiness; forms butting up against each other conjured up the man with the cigars and shoes - brought back to life with delicacy dealing with the everyday-ness that we see around us.

Nicole Eisenman is a phenomena - an accomplished eccentric. These figurative  heads reference German Expressionist painters particularly Alexi Jawlensky - Literally a face "in your face" with tiny bits of personal/political information attached unto the painting including 2 American Silver Dollars  substituted for eyes in one work.  

By the way Institution don’t seem to want to use the label ACRYLIC anymore so “synthetic polymer” is the term and is the popular medium of choice for many of the artists. 


I found the same spirit of  wordplay and arrogance  in some other works in the show - a remix sensibility - the recklessness and feeling of unrestrained confidence evidenced by "I don’t need to look at anything beyond my own hermetic world because the free spirit reigns supreme”.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER 1/18/15


Two of my very favorite Clint Eastwood directed films are MYSTIC RIVER and MILLION DOLLAR BABY- one probed deeply into the corruption of the human psyche, and the  other celebrated the triumph of one woman’s will to succeed in a world ruled by men - so I always go out of my way to see his work and hope not to be disappointed.  This time I was disappointed because my heartstrings were not pulled, but on further reflection, I thought that the characterization of a “hero” had a complexity in the very lack of emotional “tugs” - which made sense telling the story of a man who is able to preserve his sanity being an official executioner, a job that needs him to be dispassionate and composed, and who becomes a champion of American values to his fellow compatriots. In war morality is abandoned.

AMERICAN SNIPER based on the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, considered the most lethal sniper in US military history - also nicknamed by his comrades “Legend” - served 4 tours of duty in Iraq and considered himself the quintessential American “patriot.” This movie is a portrait of a man who puts country above all else, a man who is steadfast in the “rightness” of his actions in protecting the honor and citizens of the United States of America; an exceptionally skilled marksman and  lover of guns, and a man who was not introspective and never understood that he was in an occupied land where the population was fighting the “invader/savior” whose culture was totally different from theirs. 

How do you fight against the major power in the world? You use the new tactics of war - guerrilla hit and run bombings, employing sniper sharpshooters and even indoctrinating women and children into the great beyond of martyrdom. AMERICAN SNIPER also sets up a gunslinger/HIGH NOON mano a mano duel between two exceptional skilled assassins - each convinced that murdering for one’s country and protecting one’s brothers-in-arms is the ultimate reward.

Bradley Cooper - beefed up to look like Chris Kyle gives a fairly good performance as a stoic, stone-faced and hardened Kyle relishing doing his job; knowing he is the best at what he does and making sure that he protects his”family of brothers” his fellow Navy SEALS. We see him working out physically - his flesh thickening  and tightening up, as does his spirit and thirst for revenge. At what point does a job become something you cannot do without - falling in love with the “sandstorms” of war?

Eastwood also gives us flashbacks into Kyle’s childhood - a father who instills a sheep vs. wolf vs. sheepherder mentality into his boys. You protect your own  (sheepherder) - no matter what the cost in order to become a man. Sienna Miller plays  Chris Kyle’s wife - a stereotypical view of a woman taking care of the family, giving solace to her husband, and a mollifying device necessary to show the main character’s “soft” side, but still cliched and thinly drawn. She is background support.


Marines in Humvees their breadth filling the narrow roadways with skulls painted on them, disembarking and  knocking down doors where families are huddled; soldiers ill-equipped to communicate with the population that they are administering leads to strategic errors;  treating your enemy like the dusty dirt of the streets invites brutal retaliation. Both sides are heinous and savage in fighting the confused and demoralized battles that  were the mainstay of being in Iraq.  The “shock and awe” of this haphazardly planned war brought home thousands of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and placed young men and women who volunteered in the name of their land into a future filled with struggle and tragedy. It was and is shameful.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

SELMA 1/11/15

SELMA directed by Ava DuVernay is a powerful movie. A critical historical period in America, filmed as if we were there at the point in time when Martin Luther King was making crucial life and death decisions affecting future generations of black men and women and their legal right to vote without the restrictions that the state of Alabama put upon each African American citizen with the intention of depriving them of that inalienable right.  Dr. Martin Luther King had just received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and comes home to Atlanta, Georgia, finding himself under constant surveillance by Edgar J. Hoover's FBI - disrespected and characterized as a "degenerate rabble rouser". The contrast is stunning.

SELMA brings to life Dr. King's  decision a year after the 1963 bombing murder of four young girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama drew national attention to the civil rights struggle  -  to march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, the state capitol where the racist Governor, George Wallace  (Tim Roth) sat, in order to challenge  a Governor who is determined to crush the legality of black people, who have the courage to stand up to his confederate fiefdom, and register to vote. The fire-power of the state  is called upon to mercilessly crush the marchers time and time again.

The road to victory involves a non-violent vision and heart piercing violence -  confronting hatred based solely on skin color. King's strategizing in his confrontations with Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President of the Unites States who is sympathetic, but prefers his own agenda in dealing with voting rights laws and initially plans to focus on his War on Poverty legacy. Martin Luther King' realizes that time is of the essence; his uncertainty in the face of great certainty; his tense yet sensual relationship with his delicately beautiful wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejoga) and David Oyelowo's dignified, humane performance as MLK had me hiding my face to wipe away tears. Innocent people demanding what is rightfully theirs and being bludgeoned in the process is difficult to watch, but this is history that must be revisited and imprinted upon every generation.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

WHIPLASH 1/10/15

I teach painting, drawing and workshops in ‘public art,” and would never treat my students, let alone another human being the way Terence Fletcher, the intensely controlling jazz instructor in a prestigious Music Conservatory in NYC (eerily and wonderfully acted by J.K. Simmons) “hammers” his students to what Fletcher considers “perfection.”  WHIPLASH directed by Damien Chazelle is part psychodrama, horror story, case study in manipulation, naked ambition and teaching techniques - do results justify brutal means? OR as I have found to be true does it do the opposite - discourage students to such a degree that they drop out or break down.

We first meet Andrew (Miles Teller) in a movie theater sharing popcorn with a companion - who happens to be his father. Andrew, though socially awkward, is a young  man who single-mindedly knows what he wants from life - to be as great a drummer as the legendary American jazz drummer Buddy Rich and in an almost Faustian bargain willingly succumbs to the spell of an abusive teacher who he believes can deliver him his goal. Fletcher’s modus operandi is one of debasement coupled with an occasional affirmation all in the name of precision and superiority; a frighteningly dictatorial approach to the evolution of creativity.

The exchange between student/teacher can be a tender one - growth develops out of sensitive and genuine respect for a pupil’s intelligence and capacity, or one that is fraught with anxiety and sadistic motivational techniques. In WHIPLASH - the apt title comes from a Hank Levy (American jazz composer and saxophonist) tune that the school band is rehearsing  over and over again; blood is psychologically and  literally spilled under the “master’s” pummeling - the repetitive practice drilling into one’s psyche - the audience becomes as tense as the pounding  sounds emanating from the tautly stretched membranes which are struck with sticks know as “beaters.”  


Personalities and events are not always anticipated which made the movie compelling. Characterizations are slowly revealed through frenzied musical performances; audacious hunger for success taking precedence over one’s personal life and human contact. Between the two lead characters, there are shifts in domination like a wire which coils and uncoils pulling their mentor/disciple relationship together and apart, spawning a tarnished creative union.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

BIG EYES 12/27/14

A short synopsis of what I thought of BIG EYES - Tim Burton's new film about Walter Keane and the paintings that made him the Thomas Kincade of his generation.

This is a strange movie - mixture of parody and feminism with an over the top Christoph Waltz whose performance as Walter Keane annoyed me to no end. As the movie trotted along I began to change my view, and thought that perhaps this was a quizzical and circuitous characterization of a wily, conniving huckster complete with Chaplin-esque rubbery movement. In Waltz's gestural extremes I detected Tim Burton's direction.

The movie portrays the role of women in the 1950's and '60's and how badly they were treated by men who use economic power to control them - particularly the single/divorced woman with a child - the stay-at-home wife, and the women in the workplace - many sacrificing and erasing their own identities for monetary survival. Amy Adams with her blonde wig-like hairdo - the 1950's Doris Day look - conveyed a mixture of goodness and innocence wrestling with betrayal and fraud.

Cliches abound - the artist, the "creative"process, the romantic reasons for making art, the market manipulations - all stereotyped and feeding into a superficial fairy tale view of artists. The audience for the paintings were as flat and dead as those strange repetitive paintings oozing sentimentality and nostalgia (with a few tears thrown in) reflected in those oversized black holes for eyes. AND to give the film a legitimacy and documentary feel, Andy Warhol and John Canaday were thrown into the mix.