Sunday, June 12, 2011

Intoxicated with Telling the Truth

by Drew Martin

I saw an interesting movie this weekend called Far From Poland. It was made in 1984 by Jill Godmilow, an American documentary filmmaker. What was special about it was that after being denied a visa to go to Poland to witness Solidarity firsthand and document the movement, she decided to go ahead and make the movie in New York City. She had texts and recordings of famous interviews translated and reenacted by actors. These include Anna Walentynowicz, the crane operator whose firing in 1980 sparked the strike in the Gdansk shipyard, a ex-censor and a coal miner. The film closes with a fictional set of letters from General Jaruzelski to his daughter. The reenactment shows him under house arrest, which was part of his punishment for having imposed martial law on Poland while he was Prime Minister during communism.

The four acts are pasted together by the filmmaker's comments and discussions with her boyfriend while she was making this film. Interstitial Polish jokes and recounted dream conversations with Fidel Castro help glue it all together.

A review quote on the DVD jacket reads,

" the best of Goddard, it is film criticism and social criticism at the same time."

One question put to Walentynowicz was if she thought people are essentially bad because of how she was treated. She replied that people aren't evil, just terribly afraid. It was that fear that made all of the atrocities of communism possible and why it lasted for four decades. Walentynowicz went on to say that when the tables were turned, the Poles became
"intoxicated with telling the truth."

The DVD comes with a 16-page booklet, which leads with this piece by Godmilow...

I've been thinking for a long time that what is commonly understood as the progressive or liberal documentary is an inadequate form - a relatively useless cultural product, especially for political change. Its basic strategy is description and it makes its argument by organizing visual evidence, expressive local testimony and sometimes expert technical testimony into a satisfying emotional form...Though the liberal documentary takes the stance of a sober, nonfiction vehicle for edification about the real world, it is trapped in the same matrix of obligations as the fiction film: to entertain its audience; to satisfy, to assure the audience of informed and moral citizenship; to achieve closure. My question is: Is that of any political use?

The booklet contains a timeline of Solidarity and the End of the Communist Government of Poland, which reaches back to workers' strikes in June 1976 and continues until August 2005, when, at 82, Jaruzelski apologized for sending Polish troops to crush the pro-democracy Prague spring during the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The booklet also contains a manifesto of sorts...


1. Don't produce "real" time and space: your audience is in a movie theatre, in comfortable chairs.

2. Don't produce the surface of things: have a real subject and a real analysis -- or at least an intelligent proposition – that is larger than the subject of the film. If you forget to think about this before starting to shoot, find it in the editing room, and then put it in the film, somehow.

3. Don’t produce freak shows of the oppressed, the different, the criminal, the primitive. Please don't use your compassion as an excuse for social pornography. Leave the poor freaks alone.

4. Don’t produce awe for the rich, the famous, the talented, the highly successful: they are always everywhere and we feel bad enough about ourselves already. The chance to envy, or hate them, in the cinema doesn't help anybody.

5. Don’t make films that celebrate "the old ways" and mourn their loss. Haven’t you yourself enjoyed change? How are the "old ways" people different from you?

6. Keep an eye on your own middle-class bias, and on your audience's: don’t make a film that feeds it. Remember that you are producing human consciousness in people who are very susceptible to suggestion... and alone in the dark.

7. Don't address an audience of "rational animals": we have not yet evolved beyond the primitive urges of hatred, violence, and exploitation of the poor and the weak.

8. Try not to exploit your social actors: just being seen in your film is not enough compensation for the use of their bodies, voices and experience.

9. Whatever you do, don't make "history". If you can't help yourself, try to remember that you’re just telling a story -- and at the very least, find a way to acknowledge your authorship.

10. Watch that music: what's it doing? who is it conning?

11. Leave your parents out of this.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Essence of Essence

by Drew Martin

I thumb through a lot of magazines. One of my favorite is Essence because it has a really specific readership and not published for a middle-aged Caucasian male (me) to read. The pull-quote from the Letter from the Editor, Constance C. R. White, sums up the directive,

"We are committed to reflecting the truth of Black women's lives."

So it would seem that there would not be a lot for me to relate to, but other than very precise leads, such as the title of (CNN Anchor) Don Lemon's article, To My Beautiful Black Sisters, the topics are universal and interesting for everyone to read.

Perhaps topics are more poignant when they are meant for a limited audience but, unbeknownst to the writer/editor, have a much broader reach, as with issues of relationships and parenting. What might be perceived as weaknesses, and not something one might not share outside of a group, are really important to broadcast loud and clear.

White rallies against "one-note depictions of Black women" in the media so it is key for her and all the contributors and readers to understand that although Essence has a niche market it is also a wonderful magazine for everyone.

Lemon's article in the July 2011 issue is brilliant. He starts off with the tragedy of Tyler Clementi, a young man from my town who jumped off the GW Bridge because his intimacy with another young man was secretly recorded by jeering students. Lemon explains his own mother's support when he came out after his boyfriend dumped him. He then turns to the readers and offers how they should react to a son or daughter in a similar situation and to reject bigotry and discrimination.

Lemon mentions his book Transparent (an interesting title reference to Invisible Man), which I would think he wrote for a very general audience, not focused on African American women. Writing this post has made me realize there is a perceived audience a writer is catering to. I think it is obvious that the writer has some idea who he or she is addressing. If there is a career behind the person then the publisher is quite concerned about such details because it represents a market. What I think is missed is the perceived audience a reader may think is being addressed.

I do not know who reads this blog. It is for anyone interested in the arts and media (any age, race or religion) and I want it to be a casual, serendipitous encounter. I don't think of it as a blog that someone would persistently follow. But now I realize someone might read this and think I am writing for a determined audience. In the back of my mind I am writing this post specifically for Constance C. R. White, Don Lemon and the readers of Essence who would not assume someone like me would find it interesting...and in the same moment, I am writing it for everyone.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Find Your Strong

by Drew Martin

I typically do not write about advertisements and I know better than to succumb to commercial forces but I am sold on the new Saucony Find Your Strong campaign, especially the picture above. Unbound freedom is a small price from them (compared to a car commercial): a pair of shorts, their shoes on my feet and that gorgeous rolling landscape. I love this caveman-like runner...modern man drumming up his wild side, which in turn is a primordial man running into his future. This picture is the antithesis of the button-down office worker, tamed and domesticated, scurrying to work through a labyrinth of city blocks.

I admit...I have been thoroughly brainwashed/programmed by the ad and will buy a pair of Saucony for my next running shoe purchase just to recall the sensation I get from looking at it. According to, the company started in the Victorian era and yet this is their first national campaign and television spot.

"The new campaign continues to amplify our brand mission to inspire runners every day," Chris Lidner, Saucony's chief marketing officer, said in a statement.

That is so corporate-speak but at the same time inspiration can indeed come from calculated marketing lingo. Not as punchy and commanding as Nike's Just Do It campaign from 1988, Find Your Strong is less of that no excuses drill sergeant bark and more of an internal supportive voice. Additionally, this campaign is directed solely at runners, confirmed by the tagline We Know Because We Run.

The Just Do It campaign was a huge success but I think that catchy phrase is also limiting. Do what? Find Your Strong has a lot of meaning for me as a runner because there is the first read that you are to summon your internal strength but it also says to me to find what events you are good at and enjoy them.

I just read that their first factory was built 1898 on the banks of Saucony Creek in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The "swoosh" (for lack of a better term) of their logo/design on the side of their shoes represents the constant flow of Saucony Creek, while the circles represent the boulders lining its creek bed.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Anything But Biutiful

by Drew Martin

On Saturday I ironed my dress shirts to Biutiful, the latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, I liked it...I like gritty realist films, such as his Amores Perros.

Biutiful stars Javier Bardem, who is one of my favorite actors, not so much for his mellow performances but because he has such an interesting, sculptural face to watch. It is rarely contorted with expressions and has a stillness, which allows you to really look at it instead of a projection of an overconfident Hollywood mask.

Part of the film samples the lives of immigrants in the sketchy parts of Barcelona, where Africans and the Chinese elbow their way through their personal Hell on Earth. These scenes did not make me feel like I was sharing their experiences, which is what movies typically try to do. I had quite the opposite feeling, like I never could understand that life.

I have lived abroad and worked odd jobs including construction in foreign lands. I have shacked up with Ukrainian workers in cheap laborer digs and waited on long bureaucratic lines for documents with too often ignored Vietnamese street vendors but I was always had an advantage. I had a US passport, an education, spoke English and I was a white guy in northern Europe. More important was the psychological state. When you put yourself in certain situations, it becomes an adventure and you have some kind of forcefield around you.

Closer to home, no matter how integrated I am with immigrant diasporas in America, I can truly never share their experiences. What I like about about Bardem's character is his confrontation with this barrier. He tries to get close and be helpful but there is clear division between him and the others. It is that advantage that puts him in a place to try to help them, even when he is in it for profit.

If there was ever a film about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions, this is it. The African immigrants he deals with are arrested and deported, 25 Chinese people are asphyxiated in the evening because of defective gas heaters he purchased to warm them at night...although he did buy the cheapest kind so he could pocket some money.

This is the one of the most important aspects of the film, his character's character flaw, which is simply that there really is no right answer. He yo-yo's his children from their bipolar, wreckless mother who abuses the son and sleeps with their uncle. When he feeds them, the meal is some kind of cereal biscuit, like a huge Shredded Wheat, which he loads with spoonfuls of sugar, while he and the child he is serving imagine it is something else. This is the sugar coating of their life but there is nothing sweet about it.

Despite the disconnect to those he cannot really help, Bardem's character is affected; he internalizes the plight of the others, which is symbolically represented by his physical demise. He is dying of prostrate cancer, which has spread like wildfire. He pisses blood.

The world that Iñárritu shows us is rotten, through and through: moldy and grimy on the outside, rancid and toxic on the inside. There is no peace; the dead are restless, still trying to escape this world. The Chinese corpses are dumped like trash in the sea and even the father of Bardem's character is exhumed in order to sell his place in the cemetery.

Hell freezes over in the afterlife, a snowy forest in the Pyreness where Bardem's character meets his father, who died before he was born. In this scene, which appears in the beginning and the end, you breathe the fresh, clean, crisp air and feel purified.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


By Drew Martin

When I was a much younger man, a student, I reasoned that my pursuits of biology and art would be best fulfilled by raising children. What else could be closer to the "study of life" and creation? The truth is, whatever your calling, having children and watching them grow gives you insight to every little detail in life.

I became interested in languages and linguistics when I lived in Europe for several years so I always like to listen to my kids speak and express themselves.

My 12-year-daughter is fond of ending thoughts with "...and yeah."

According to an online slang dictionary, "...and yeah" finishes a sentence making it complete. It is used when the rest of a sentence would be either redundant in repeating what they already said or they forget what they were going to say, or they just felt like ending the sentence then and there.

The contributor from that source did not know the origin, but noted its use at least a decade ago.

"And yeah" used to drive me nuts but now I like it. There is something upbeat about it.

My 11-year-old son is the master of avoidance. He likes to get out of things, such as chores and other obligations...especially answering me. So recently he distilled the perfect answer and in doing so has created a new usage of the word "ish."

As a suffix and and adverb ish indicates approximation and can mean about, almost, around, close to, loosely, near, nearly and roughly.

Let's meet around noon-ish.''

She's already a mother of two. How old do you think she is, ish?

This creature, pictured right, looks fish-ish.

How was the show?" "It was good, ish"

I had, however, never heard anyone simply use "ish" as stand-alone response until two weeks ago when my son started using it as the all encompassing answer. It is actually the ultimate usage of ish because now it spans nouns and adjectives.

So if you ask, "What time will you be home?" Instead of being answered "Seven or eight-ish," you simply get "Ish."

This could seem very frustrating but for one thing it is generally a positive response, and at worse, a diplomatic "Yes and no." So while it sometimes leads to a circuitous discussion as a parent, I actually love this usage and open-ended meaning.

Have you been following the news?


Friday, June 3, 2011

Racism Revisited

by Drew Martin

I recently read Jerry Saltz's review for New York Magazine of Kara Walker's current shows at two New York galleries. I printed the article and read the hardcopy, which noted there were 23 comments but only two are shown on my sheets.

One remarks:

I always find it curious when I hear some folks expound about much baggage they bring to her work - so much pseudo-intellectual analysis, and this and that...

I was intrigued by that honest response to Saltz's expounding and although I am not a fan of Walker's artwork, I thought I would visit both of her exhibitions with fresh eyes to find some enthusiasm for her and try to see beyond the hype. Most importantly, I really wanted to question biases. Her in-your-face product is not the kind of work that encourages this, in fact, it does quite the opposite. But I like to understand why I do or do not like something.

On Tuesday I went to the Lehman Maupin gallery at 201 Chrystie Street. It is a very cool space, with a balcony view of the main gallery. Walker's most awkward work is her filmed puppetry. The main, cavernous room is devoted to one of these films, depicting rapings and such (pictured above). A much smaller room upstairs shows a brief, looping video of Walker picking a guitar and trying to sing. Apparently Saltz enjoyed that she was "pantless" and was focused on "glimpses between her legs." Personally, my immediate reaction was to sigh and tell myself there is much better talent in the world to devote this kind of space to than such a self-indulgent, YouTube-quality production.

Saltz promised a more powerful show at the Sikkema Jenkins gallery at 530 W 22nd Street so I walked there in the blistering heat on Wednesday. I think I was going there to confirm my convictions but that immediately changed when I passed through their clean, transparent doors and was enveloped by the calm, chilled air. As an aside, I must add that the gallery is quality, a beautiful space and with the right tone of lighting.

It is hard not to be impressed by what Walker has created. The scale of everything is immense...huge sails of creamy paper and well-made black and white frames with panes of glass the size of storefront windows. This is a big production show, with a lot of calculated support behind it. No artist would (or could) create such works without being assured (he or) she would be exhibited and that the pieces would sell like hotcakes.

At times I did find the scale of everything distracting. The easy look of the drawings makes them seem like sketchbook doodles that have been sized up simply for a wow factor. Not only is this part of the territory, but with many artists it is the process. Whenever I see something blown up with the size matters attitude, I like to think of Salvador Dalí's Persistence of Memory hanging on the wall at MoMA. It is so small and yet it had such an impact on the history of art because of its concept and quality.

Saltz likens Kara's previous work to Francisco Goya's The Disasters of War and the current show to Pablo Picasso's Guernica but Walker's work lacks Goya's depth and Picasso's vision. Instead, her drawings at Sikkema Jenkins actually remind me more of Honoré Daumier, especially because of their social commentary and the bulbous characters.

Although the forms are cartoonish, I was impressed by Walker's complicated layering and subtracting of charcoal and pencil, especially the broad strokes from erasers that bring back the white of the paper to highlight certain areas and to contrast the pitch-black shapes. These drawings are not just done with her hand but with her whole arm in full swing.

There is a conflict between her slightly goofy forms and display of abstraction, which reminds me of William De Kooning. It would be nice to see Walker jettison the caricatures for pure abstraction and let her stormy gestures speak for themselves. She is certainly positioned in the artworld to do so.

At Sikkema Jenkins, I got past Walker's dependence on racism as a theme...or maybe I simply became numb to it because she constantly hits you over the head with it. Perhaps there is something conceptual to be said of her exploiting the exploited.

Goya and Picasso had so much more range in subjects and styles. Their horrors were matched with beauty and love. They showed us a full range of emotions and perspectives. When an artist such as Walker has this narrow a focus, one has to ask what more is she capable of. Saltz wrote that her new drawings have "taken leaps forward" but it actually feels like "more of the same" just a different medium.

I like what the minimalist sculptor Anne Truitt wrote in Daybook, that she would not want to create cathartic work and have to face it again, frozen on a canvas, as did Frida Kahlo with her physical and emotional suffering. Goya and Picasso, with The Disasters of War and Guernica (respectively), were coming from a very different place...reacting to their immediate environment and threats: Goya's "I saw this" and Picasso's reply to the German officer's inquiring about who painted the canvas, "You did."

Walker is doing something very different though. As a privileged art professor at Columbia University and an artworld darling, she is stretching for the material and knows what she has as an marketable artist. I once read a remark by her that her silhouettes "saved her" (from obscurity). One would now only expect Walker to keep racism alive and center stage in her work, but personally I would like to see her make a true leap and explore multi-racial respect and love. But then again, I do question whether this is simply my wanting the horrors of the past to simply go away.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Captions Contested at The New Yorker

by Drew Martin

I just thumbed through 18 issues of The New Yorker (from the beginning of January through the end of May, 2011) in order to do a little informal survey. People always suggest that I submit my drawings (i.e. pictured left) to them but the truth is, my work is not something they would typically publish. My drawings are entirely visual while the overwhelming majority of The New Yorker cartoons are dependent on text.

My survey of the The New Yorker cartoons was to categorize what they publish and tally up the differences. I was not looking at the article illustrations or the little space fillers, just those stand-alone cartoons, which The New Yorker is best known for. In the 18 issues there were 233 cartoons that depended on captions, 42 that depended on text within the drawing itself and only 13 that were entirely visual. Roughly only two thirds of the issues contain one purely visual cartoon.

Let us have a look at each type. Here is one by Peter Vey that appears to be a cop interrogating a suspect. There is not much to it without the begs for a caption.

Roz Chast is a New Yorker cartoonist who requires the most patience. Her cartoons typically have both; labels and balloons. Here are two examples.

And here is one by Danny Shanahan, who typically uses captions, but in this instance delivers a purely visual cartoon. It is great: bringing life to the seemingly innocent yellow rubber ducky who has made a nest and laid eggs in the bather's hair. It takes a little longer to absorb because it requires you to make the connections in the absence of text.

The typical New Yorker cartoon, delivers information with the image but whispers the punchline in your ear with the caption. There are variations to these. This one by Jack Ziegler of a dancing king could go a number of directions but requires the internal text box "The Royal Ballet" to focus the joke.

This one by David Sipress sets up the text within the cartoon, which is essential to the joke, and then contains the "voice" in the caption.

This one by Tom Cheney would have been fine with the billboards alone, but the caption does give the joke a bit more of a punch to it.

Likewise, this one by Kanin, would have worked well as a pure visual. I think in this case it would have been funnier without the caption because it would make you think up different scenarios.

Although the disproportion of captioned cartoons makes sense, The New Yorker is, after all, a publication with well-written articles for a literary audience, the three classic New Yorker artists who first come to mind are Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Saul Steinberg, who had some brilliant entirely visual contributions. They did make use of text/captions but their work was so much more visual than what we see today...each in their unique way. While Addams and Gorey had very illustrative images, Steinberg (pictured below) was by far the master of the pure visual image.