Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lady In Red

by Drew Martin

This past Sunday my parents and I stopped for lunch in Washington, D.C. at a cafeteria in the National Gallery of Art. It was a welcomed break during our long drive from Richmond, Virginia to our respective towns in northern New Jersey.

My father had recently finished reading David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris ("about young Americans — aspiring artists, doctors and writers — who went to study and work in Paris between 1830 and 1900, then returned home to make their marks") so we viewed Gallery of the Louvre painted by the American Inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (morse code) during his stay in Paris.

We whisked through a few other galleries in the museum. My longest pause was by Antonio Canova's Reclining Naiad (1824) but the work that really caught my eye just before we exited was Study of Lilia (1887) by Carolus-Duran (Charles Auguste Émile Durand). It is so red, so mysterious. Even after 125 years it is so fresh. Lilia's youth and beauty radiates from her pale neck. It love it!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

After Life

by Drew Martin

There is a touching scene in the film My Architect when the director, Nathaniel Kahn, rollerblades around his father's genius Salk Institute, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California. Its architect, Louis Kahn, designed some of the most intriguing buildings in the 20th century. Oddly, he also kept three families. Nathaniel seldom saw his father; the film is a search for him in the architecture he left behind.

The rollerblading scene is special because Nathaniel is a grown man but the institute's large, central plaza and his carefree movements offer us a scene of a father and son playing together.

I witnessed such a moment firsthand this past weekend. I was in Richmond, Virginia for a great uncle's funeral service. This patriarch had a house at a creek off the James River where there are huge family gatherings every Fourth of July and other legendary parties. The main attraction was always waterskiing. The service seemed incomplete but afterwards we all changed out of our formal attire and drove down to "The Creek." One of the granddaughters and the only son of this man put on wetsuits and took to the water, skiing elegantly up and down the creek, which has an exotic southern look worthy of alligators.

The son is a 65 year old man but I still remember him as the young man who patiently taught me to waterski when I was a kid. On the single ski board on Saturday he looked like a teenager, cutting through the wake, reaching down to slice the mirror-smooth creek water with his fingertips. It might seem odd to waterski on the day of your father's funeral but everyone there witnessing this understood why it was important.

A body may be in an urn or coffin but the spirit of a person is unbound and everywhere. My relative, skimming over the surface of the creek in the golden glow of the sunset seemed to be immersed in his father, pulled by his father.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mixing It Up: The House of Pancakes

by Drew Martin

I do not know what I am more amazed by, pancakes or concrete. They may not seem like kindred (inanimate) souls but they have a lot in common.

Pancake mix and cement are dry, uninteresting powders. They seem more like the end product than something with such great potential. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

But then you add water to cement and water or milk to pancake mix and you stir them a bit and they both transform into uninteresting goop, neither tasting good.

And then the magic happens, you drop some batter on a hot skillet and a sizzling circle forms and soon you have a moist, steamy cake to bathe in maple syrup and fill your stomach. You pour concrete into a form and in a matter of days you have a rock-hard structure.

It is amazing one can taste so good and the other can be so strong.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Brother From Another Planet

by Drew Martin

I recently watched The Brother From Another Planet (1984) for the first time. Despite a lot of bad acting and an almost unwatchable ending, I really like what it was trying to do. If any movie deserves a good remake, it is this one.

This film is a kind of sci-fi take on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Both main characters end up in Harlem, which simultaneously rejects and embraces them, and both stories are rooted in the American slave narrative.

Aside from having padded feet with three horny toes, the brother, who is a runaway alien slave, resembles a man of African descent. He is pursued by two white-guy aliens referred to as men in black, who are the predecessors to the agents in The Matrix.

The beginning of the film is fantastic. The first scene is inside the capsule of an alien starship speeding towards Earth. Joe Morton plays the sole, panicky cosmonaut. The minimal, cheap effects actually work really well. There are a few beeping lights, some kind of illuminated extraterrestrial script and a lot of splicing back and forth to the anxious Morton.

The music in this scene (and peppered throughout the movie) is Caribbean steel drum, which is a perfect sound to give the pummeling of the metal capsule as it tumbles down, especially because of the increased tempo. It is a playful sound that makes the tense scene quite edgy.

For a brief moment we see a clear, evening sky. A blip flashes across it like a shooting star and the brother splashes down in the New York harbor.

With the Statue of Liberty in the background he crawls up onto Ellis Island. He is dripping wet and profusely bleeding because he lost a leg in the crash. The stump is quickly mended with energy from his hand and the lower leg and foot grow back by morning. The brother possesses such healing powers, which he uses to earn some cash by fixing broken electronic devices, particularly video game kiosks. One of the treats of the film is getting a glimpse of where we were with computer graphics over a quarter of a century ago.

In addition to the slave narrative and a subtheme about drugs, this is definitely a insightful film about communication.

The brother cannot speak. I do not know if this is a limitation of his species or that he was permanently silenced as a slave (I gathered the latter). In the end of the film, the brother meets other runaways and they are all dumb. The white pursuers speak and have some kind of screeching sound they make when they are agitated.

Despite the inability to talk, the brother understands multiple languages and, more importantly, can retrieve past conversations embedded in objects. At the abandoned Ellis Island Immigration Center, the brother is overwhelmed by a cacophony of voices/languages when he touches the interior surfaces of the building. A column in a subway station recalls the screams of a woman pushed to her death on the tracks. A discarded newspaper is of interest of him not because of the headlines or photographs but because he can retrieve the dialogue of a man who was holding it. All objects for this alien are saturated with past sounds. He reacts to seats and walls that silently witnessed tragic events as if he has touched a hot iron skillet.

When the brother wants to track a drug dealer, he actually removes his eyeball and leaves it behind in a planter to record the man's movements. He later retrieves his eye and pops it back into its socket and sees a playback of the events in his mind. In another moment he takes out his eyeball and places it in the hand of a corporate man dealing in drugs in order to show him what he witnessed first hand, the dead body of a young punk who overdosed with this man's junk.

One of my favorite scenes is when the brother first sees a wall in Harlem with graffiti. It is as if he is confused by what it is trying to say, assuming it is meant for communication beyond tagging. Finally, he finds some red, scribbled graffiti that he recognizes as a sign of his people. He cuts open the palm of his hand and leaves a message at that site with his own blood.

The film would have worked better without a lot of the heavy-handed social commentary because the best scenes are of this alien brother trying to make sense of his new world. He is constantly processing his environment.

His first mistake is to eat fruit off a stand without paying for it and he is chased away. When he observes how money is exchanged for goods, he returns to the same shop, takes money out of the register and tries to pay for more fruit only to be chased off again, not understanding his expanded crime.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Most Important Man in the World

by Drew Martin

This past weekend I watched a fascinating documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. It is about this 80-something-year-old fashion photographer for The New York Times. It is of course about clothes and fashion, New York and The New York Times, but more importantly it is about loneliness and being part of society's bigger picture.

What might be considered a sacrifice of lovers and family for an unfettered creative working life seems more like a substitution and a fair exchange for someone who loves what he does. Cunningham is a loner but he spends his days surrounded by millions of people, documenting their styles and being adored for his instinctive understanding of fashion. For most of his career (and all of the film) he lived in a tiny artist studio at Carnegie Hall, sleeping on a cot between his filing cabinets (part of the film is about his being evicted). He did not have a kitchen or bathroom in the studio. He ate out for every meal on the cheap and used the hallway bathroom on his floor. When discussing the possibility of a future living space having more amenities he laughs,

"Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom?!"

For transportation, he gets around on a classic Schwinn. He says the one he is riding is his 29th; the previous 28 were stolen.

In the end of the documentary Cunningham is asked about his personal life. He says he never had a romantic relationship, sobs to himself, and then answers the next question about church; he regularly goes because he admits he needs it. He adds that when he used to attend as a kid, all he did was look at women's hats.

When asked the first question, he suggests it is a more specific inquiry about his sexuality but skirts the topic as something that was not discussed in his upbringing. It is a heart-wrenching moment. As for relationships, he says he did not have time and it was not on his mind but that he is also human. It is an amazing idea that someone who spends his day just a thin wrapping of fabric away from a world of fleshy bodies has never opened the presents.

In the end, Cunningham talks about honesty. To play a straight game in New York, he says is like Don Quixote fighting windmills. It was a welcomed analogy because throughout the documentary I kept thinking of Cervantes' line "The road is better than the inn."

What we learn of his honesty is that money and perks are something he shuns. At a Lincoln Center gala we see him turning down an offer for food. He thanks the host and hurries off exclaiming "I eat with my eyes!" This discipline is more than declining the temptation of being wined and dined, he does not even accept a glass of water at such an occasion when he is on assignment for the New York Times so as to not compromise his position. Keeping a distance, he says, allows him to be more objective.

Although Cunningham has dedicated his life to documenting fashion, he does not give the impression of a workaholic. He is good-spirited, easy-going and his craft comes naturally so you entirely believe him when he says it is not work but pleasure. What might be simply stubbornness of another man his age is really his determined vision.

There are delightful scenes of him working with a Times layout artist half his age, who he calls a lumberjack from southern New Jersey. In one interaction, Cunningham comments on the dress and pose of an elegant New Yorker he had photographed at an evening event who they are placing in a layout. Cunningham likens her to "a John Singer Sargent painting"...the lumberjack fumbles a confused response not understanding the reference, which is specific to Sargent's scandalous Madame X, a larger-than-life painting from 1884 that damaged the reputation of the Parisian socialite, Madame Pierre Gautreau, and spurred Sargent's departure from France.

At an awards ceremony for the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France, Cunningham is decorated as an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters but spends most of the time running around taking pictures. One attendee remarks to him how funny this is and he gleefully responds,

"You think I would miss a good picture?!"

At the ceremony, the decoration medal is pinned to Cunningham's blue worker's jacket. Whenever I saw him riding around Manhattan or scanning crowds at galas in his royal-blue smock, I thought it was a printer's jacket from New York's bygone printing era but he explains in the film while on a fashion week trip in Paris that it is a French street sweeper's jacket, which he wears because it is inexpensive and has pockets.

The footage of Paris immediately follows Cunningham's remarks to the documentary film crew in New York that there is no way they are going to follow him to France for the events. Fortunately they did because there is a priceless scene of him trying to get into a fashion show. He humbly holds out his press pass to a twenty-something woman with a clipboard. She is not very helpful and dismisses him. In a minute an older man comes over, takes him by the arm and informs the woman,

"This is the most important man in the world."

This is not far from the truth in the fashion world. Vogue's Anna Wintour charmingly says in the film that everyone gets dressed "for Bill" and that he takes one or two pictures when he sees something he likes and when he does not bother it is "death." It is not that he commands that kind of power but his reaction to what is stylish is so immediate and unfiltered that it comes out as the inarguable truth.

In Paris, Cunningham crosses paths with Anna Piaggi, a fashion columnist for Vogue. He says she is the best subject to photograph in all of Europe and is why he goes to Paris. He calls her a poet with clothes.

He definitely knows who's who but not the modern celebrities since he does not go to the movies or have a television. When they pass by and he does not take their pictures, he says he has overheard people say he must be the dumbest one in the crowd. He explains that even if he recognizes a person he will only shoot her clothes if she is wearing something interesting. He says he could never be a paparazzi - tormenting people, and that what he does must be approached "discretely and quietly. Invisible is the word."

Cunningham speaks of Paris fashion week as a school that educates the eye and during his decoration speech says,

"I'm not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. I am interested in clothes."

Some scenes of this documentary are interviews with him from previous decades. In one piece he talks about how the wider world perceives fashion as frivolity but defends,

"...the point is; fashion is armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don't think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization."

About his craft he says,

"It's not photography. I mean any real photographer would say, "He's a fraud! Well they're right. I am just about capturing what I see and documenting what I see."

Click here to view the trailer for Bill Cunningham New York