Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Legend of the Party Photographer and Tales from the Golden Era

by Drew Martin
If you like Photoshop mishaps and disasters but cannot remember a time before this image enhancement program was part of our lives at work and daily media consumption, then take a look at The Legend of the Party Photographer, one of six well-crafted short films that comprise Tales from the Golden Era.

Set in 1980s communist Romania, 
The Legend of the Party Photographer is about the old-school retouching of a black and white film print in order to make Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu taller than the visiting French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The party editors also want to add a hat to Ceausecu's bare head because they think it looks like he is saluting d'Estaing. In a hurried retouch without paying heed to the young photographer who wants to finish the picture, the image is whisked away and printed with a mistake that causes panic and a total recall.

Tales from the Golden Era is a brilliant film from 2009 that captures the absurdities and setting of this lost time and place behind the iron curtain, but it does so with such intelligence and wit that the director Cristian Mungiu serves us a very watchable film.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Low-Maintenance, Surreal, Glow-in-the-Dark Pets

by Drew Martin
The pets that have the best chance in our chaotic household are the ones that could basically survive without us. Our cat is doing well because we feed and love him, but with a water problem in the basement and a constant supply of fresh mice, he could actually live a long life without ever stepping outside.

I knew we were in trouble years ago when a neighbor gave us a big aquarium. Many fish later, and a brief phase with hermit crabs, the aquarium became a lonely place; until today. The aquarium belongs to my middle kid, my older son, Calder. This morning I was doing an art project with my youngest son. He diligently made Angry Birds with colorful sticks of Sculpey and I made the soft, fleshy creature from Salvador Dalí's Persistence of Memory using glow-in-the-dark Sculpey. Now, we only have to think of a name for him.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

People Watching People Watching Art at MoMA

by Drew Martin
I was in midtown Manhattan on Friday, only a couple blocks from MoMA, so I thought I would stop by in the evening on my way home. I wanted to pick up some presents at their design store and I also want to take a picture of a David Hockney work in situ. I never found the Hockney I was looking for but that did not matter, MoMA was abuzz and dreamlike that evening. I took some B-roll anyway for a project I am thinking about, and upon review I really liked the footage so I decided to stitch the clips together and make a summary of my wandering through the galleries:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Kanye Kitsch and Surreal Czech Eroticism

by Drew Martin
Last night I had a dream that I attended a small-venue Katy Perry concert in New York City and was able to work my way up to the stage. The concert was a little edgy, which I thought was an artistic apology for the release of Prism; a schlocky let-down after her creative and crafty Teenage Dream. I awoke after the fourth song, and in my groggy transition I wondered if the pictures I took at the dream concert somehow made it back into reality. The funny thing is that even though the dream felt so real, there were dead-giveaway clues:  

1. My 73-year-old mom opened for Katy with a lengthy performance.

2. One of my friends who fell asleep at the concert became two-dimensional.

3. My camera was a small, hollow box made from a thin wire frame stretched with golden fabric.

Sometimes dreams can be approximated in movies and video. Kanye West's
Bound 2 does this by remixing the absurd with reality. Earlier today I read Jerry Saltz's December 9 New York Magazine article Put Kanye in the Biennial: "Bound 2" and its crazy new kind of artistic self-awareness, in which he speaks about artists who try to communicate their sincerity but end up revealing how out-of-touch they are. Jeff Koons is put in West's camp, which is appropriate because of how they share a laughable arrival at porn through some personal artistic insight.

While Saltz mentions
Bound 2 has been "ridiculed as clueless kitsch," I could not help to think of how it not only reminds me of the informed kitsch playfully handled by the Czech band Kill the Dandies in their video Everybody Calls Me an Angel but also how it makes use of wacky musical fragments. The difference is between soft pornography and surreal eroticism: West rides a topless Kim Kardashian on his motorcycle, Hank Manchini rides La Petite Sonja on a stuffed wild boar while he bites at an oversized mushroom. 

The Czech video came out a few years ago - I am thinking that maybe West smuggled some of Manchini's kitsch-inducing mushroom back in his luggage after shooting his Diamonds From Sierra Leone video on the streets of Prague at that time.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hotel Room Art Project: The Artist is Present

by Drew Martin
On my recent Thanksgiving trip to Richmond, Virginia, I thought it would be wise to check my family of five into a hotel instead of invading my brother's house, where he lives with his family of five and was hosting my visiting parents. I got two connected rooms in a nice hotel with a beautiful view of the James River, but the space still felt impersonal so I came up with an art project to change the experience. I liked the idea of using the iron in the room because the simple domestic act of pressing clothes always makes me feel at home. Downtown Richmond is dead after business hours/during holidays but there was an open Rite Aid nearby, which is where I bought some white T-shirts. On the drive down I started thinking that such a project might develop so we made a stop at a road-side Staples for a pack of iron-transfer sheets. I used the hotel wi-fi to Google the images I wanted and tried to print them at the business center in the lobby but they only had a black-ink printer, so I asked my niece to print them in color.

When it all came together I had a one-of-a-kind Marina 
Abramović shirt. On the front is a picture of Abramović from The Artist is Present performance in which she sat still and silent, and stared at the faces of visitors, who sat across from her, one at a time. Abramović performed seven and a half hours a day for three months at MoMA.

I typically do not like symbols or faces on my shirts but I liked the idea of Abramović from this performance because it meant that I could sit at a table with someone and if I proved boring, he or she could just stare at my knock-off shirt for a knock-off performance. I also like what 
Abramović's title The Artist is Present meant to this small art project done to fill the void of what is missing in a hotel room. On the back of the shirt is a picture of Abramović and an exhibit visitor, and the text,

My artsy friends all went to see The Artist is Present with Marina Abramović and all I got was this crummy T-shirt. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Propping Up Rembrandt in a Circa 1980 East German Film

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching Barbara starring Nina Hoss, in which she plays a doctor in 1980 East Germany who has been sent to a provincial hospital following her request to leave the communist state. In one scene, Hoss visits a colleague's lab where he draws her attention to a print of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp from 1632, which is housed in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

The colleague sets up the scene:

I'd like to go to The Hague. That's where the Rembrandt is. Didn't you notice anything? The painting. The man lying there is Aris Kindt. He's just been hanged for theft. It's Doctor Tulp giving the anatomy lesson.

They should have cut open the abdomen first.

But they dissected the left hand instead.

There's a mistake. The hand is wrong. It's the opposite one. It's the right hand and it's too large.

I don't think Rembrandt made a mistake. You see the atlas? It's an anatomy atlas. They're all staring at it. He is, he is, they all are. And the hand is painted like a depiction in the atlas. Rembrandt includes something that we can't see, only they can: the depiction of the hand. Due to this mistake we no longer look through the doctor's eyes. We see him, Aris Kindt. The victim. We are with him, not with them.

On The Moveable Fest website there is an interview with the director, Christian Petzold, about the meaning of this scene.

...I did some research in art history and many people are talking about the wrong arm [being dissected] and then I note this whole picture is made by Rembrandt in a time where the modern time starts and the modern time means [Rene] Descartes, Hadyn, all the new philosophy, Napoleon and the French revolution and at this time, the people said, we make the fate of our own. There is no God anymore. We heard that God is dead. And we can build up societies, we can build up democracy...And these guys [in] this Rembrandt picture are scientists and like Dr. Frankenstein, they want to rebuild their Gods. This is also a symbol for communism and for capitalism. But in this part, it’s communism. They want to build up a society and when you build up societies, the victims are everywhere. The blood is flowing because for them, society is a laboratorium. So they kill this man who’s a thief, they open his body — he stole three potatoes — because they need fresh flesh. They lost their empathy.

Click here to read the entire discussion - Interview: Christian Petzold on the Skillful Seduction of “Barbara”

Barbara is available for streaming on Netflix (with subtitles). Watch the trailer here:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Introverted Streakers and Extroverted Voyeurs

by Drew Martin
My family and friends know that I am a streaker, which means that I run every day, rain or shine, while traveling or sick in bed. The early morning runs in my northern clime are starting to become less inviting as it gets colder and darker, day by day. Soon there will be freezing rains, icy sleet, and blinding snow. The fair-weather folk will turn to treadmills or hibernate but the beauty of braving the elements is that you have a wonderful introverted experience and you take comfort in the warmth of your own body, the energy that moves you through the void, and the rhythm of your thoughts. It is very similar with artists, when favorable market conditions retreat, the distracting buzz of the artworld dies down, and there is a pause in the extroverted expectations that you turn yourself inside out with your work and promote yourself on the Internet like you are a circus coming to town; you are then left alone with your warm, creative mind, your busy hands, and the friendship of consistency. I liked looking at Andrew Wyeth’s calm pictures when I was a kid, probably because of what he liked about winter; that it shows the backbone of nature and an unhurried world. Pictured here is a detail of Wyeth’s Snowflakes from 1966.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Next in Line: Irina Rozovsky

by Drew Martin
I am passing a couple hours at the charming La Maison du Croque Monsieur on East 13th Street in Manhattan, while I wait for a print job at East Side Copy, next door.  I thought I would explore the area and look for art spaces that might be open, but the job I am running requires a lot of attention so I am bouncing back and forth between the soft lighting and stressed walls of the café and the stark fluorescent lighting and messy counter of the copy shop.

Every time I pop back into the storefront, there are new people in line getting one-off jobs done. The last time I popped down there I bumped into a young photographer named Irina Rozovsky who was perfect binding a mock-up of a new book of photos she took in Cuba, which are really good. She let me have a look, and remarked that I am the first person to see it. I told her that I had hoped to see some art tonight and so I was happy she brought it to me. She told the guy behind the counter that she really liked the yellow rubbery glue they used for the spine. I mentioned it looked like something by Eva Hesse.

Pictured here is the first picture you see on Irina's website. Click here to see more >>

Friday, November 15, 2013

Before and After Art

by Drew Martin
I used to think that artists, including me, simply pulled things out of the air and had the power to create movements that could change the world, but now I realize that art is simply one of many moving parts of a constantly changing world. Art is a synthesis of what comprises the creator’s trappings: physical environment, social mores, and past and current events. I also used to think that movements neatly ended like the sections of my collegiate Janson and Janson art history tome. But now I see how ideas are devoured like fallen prey: lioness ad agencies bite off choice parts, the rest is left for hyenas, and the worms.

I thought about a few specific examples of this system and focus here on three movements/styles: Pointillism, Surrealism, and De Stijl.

Pointillism was indeed a comment at the time of physics by Georges Seurat, but ancient world mosaics such as this Roman piece preceded this by more than a thousand years, and the style has worked its way into our everyday visual language as seen here with pixilated photographs. 

Salvador Dalí acknowledged his debt to Hieronymus Bosch, who was doing wackier shit than any of the surrealists 500 years before they were born.  We have always had surrealism with us, look at our mythologies, but what surrealism as a popular art movement did was open the floodgates for expressing weird juxtapositions.

And finally, Piet Mondrian, who was incredibly inventive, but with a Dutch environment full of colorful fields of flowers, leaded glass windows, and city maps, his style seems more obvious. That being said, his simple color field paintings have probably been more appropriated than any other artwork. Very specific references have been used in fashion, design, architecture, and even hair products.

The following is a summary by a bikini kickboxer:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

OMG, Did She Just Call Her Twitter Twat?

by Drew Martin
My wife and I are now cruising through House of Cards on Netflix. Wow, it’s well done; great everything. And I thought I was not going to like it. While it is primarily about the politics of Washington there is so much more at play.

There are some fun media details, such as on-screen balloon texts between the main character, a congressman played by Kevin Spacey, and a reporter played by Kate Mara. Mara’s Zoe Barnes is a millennial blogger at the fictitious Washington Herald, but her ambitions are not always welcome. At one point an older, female colleague calls her Twitter Twat out of frustration.

What keeps the show feeling really fresh, however, are not new-media snaps but good-old-fashioned soliloquies by Spacey, which pulls the viewer into his two-faced world. The most shocking is during the church service for a teenage girl who died after she lost control of her car while texting that the Peachoid water tower, which she was driving by in her town, looks like a vagina. Spacey attends the service to work his politics and while giving a heart-wrenching speech about losing his father as a teenager, he makes a break to tell us he did not really care much for the man.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Artists with Abs

by Drew Martin
(Top left) The Barberini Faun from a mind-boggling 2,200 years ago has amazing abs. So does Michelangelo's David, from 500 years ago.

Art has celebrated ripped torsos for thousands of years, and while most of those bodies are idealized models, the artists working with marble and other heavy materials must have been chiseled as well. The labor to copy the human form eased up over the years with the less-physical advance of painting and photography. 

In the 1960s Yves Klein created the most immediate reference to the body with Anthropométrie de l'époque bleue, a chauvinistic and absurd romp of nude female models rolling in ultramarine blue paint, who then pressed their bodies against blank sheets of paper lining the walls and floor of the performance space. (silly and profound at the same time) 

We do not see a lot of self portraits showing off the artist's physique through the millennia even though narcissism is really convenient for a solitary creator. When I think about somewhat current artists exhibiting their six-pack abs, Matthew Barney (left, second from top) is the first to come to mind. As a transfer into the artworld from jock sports, Barney made his athletic body central to his work. I never liked/had the patience for his pieces but anyone married to Björk is OK by me.

Artists are, like homeless people for some reason, naturally fit. Perhaps it is a restlessness that is channeled into the physical actions of creating artwork. This thought was always milling around in the back of my mind but I became more conscious of it when I started noticing a lot of fitness posts on Facebook by fellow art student, Debbie Beukema, from my studies at UC Santa Barbara.

I do not recall Debbie ever being particularly fit or obsessed with sport, and she recently explained that she had a broad swing of weight changes over the years. Now in her early 40s she is, in her words...

 in the best shape of my life, and in no small coincidence, I am also painting the best and drawing the best in my life. I think they go hand in hand."

Her day includes five to eight hours of art, and a diverse work-out regime. So much for the starving artist in cold-water Paris flats; today's artists are managing their careers, and health like never before.

(Debbie's torso shot and her painting Poppies were specifically provided by her for this post)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Evolution Gone Wild: Bigfoot Believers, Chewbacca de Wookiee, and Neanderthal Percenters

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading Bigfoot Observer's Field Manual. A neighbor from the Northwest coast, aka Sasquatch territory, gave it to me after my daughter said she liked his I Believe Yeti sticker on camping vehicle. I was interested in reading it for two reasons. The first is that it falls into the realm of media that I find fascinating, which includes people obsessed with communicating with extraterrestrials. My interest has nothing to do with their findings but why they want to believe, and what is missing in their real lives.

ET and Bigfoot are a far cry from one another but the discovery of either would certainly open up the theory of evolution. George Lucas' creation of Chewbacca and the Wookie species in Star Wars satisfies multiple
I Believe groups (Bigfoot as an extraterrestrial). I wonder how much of any kind of current Bigfoot interest has to do with our renewed fascination with the bygone Neanderthals. New genetic tests will tell you what percentage of your DNA is from Neanderthals - a result of our ancestors interbreeding with archaic humans. As a former biology student I would suggest to all of these groups to study the nature we know. There is nothing more extraterrestrial than insects, microscopic lifeforms, and sea creatures; and, nothing so familiar as our ape relatives.

The second, and more compelling reason to endure Bigfoot Observer's Field Manual is that I was really interested in it as fiction. I liked the idea of it lifting magical realism off its pages. What I mean by this has to do with the idea that many things are invisible to us until someone brings them to our attention, such as the eruv wire (shown in the bottom image, strung to the lamppost), which is a physical boundary delineated or erected by certain Jewish communities to accommodate religious restrictions that limit what can be physically carried between public and private domains on the Sabbath. There is an eruv wire running around a large section of Manhattan but it is rarely noticed. What if this Manual cashed in on a belief system where someone who read it all of a sudden started seeing glimpses of Bigfoot stepping behind trees, lurking in the shadows?

One thing I have to hand to the
Manual is that it is very thorough about how to prepare for spending time in nature, with a special attention to sensitivity towards nature. I also entertained the idea about an urban fellow picking up this copy and going off into the woods to find Bigfoot, but in doing so has a real connection with nature, and a separation from the life that set him up to want to believe in something so far-fetched.

Here is the infamous 1967 Bigfoot hoax film.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Orange Is the New Black Is the New One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Drew Martin
I just finished binge-watching the Netflix series Orange is the New Black with my wife. It took an episode for me to get into but then I was hooked. The writing/directing is very good, and there is a medley of performances; some very good, others are simply caricatures. And then there are caricatures that really open up into something unexpected, such as the consistent love-to-hate performance of Pablo Schreiber as "Pornstache," and especially the amazing performance of Uzo Aduba as "Crazy Eyes," which sometimes reads as a cartoon character but can then jump into the depth of Shakespeare.

Orange Is the New Black is derived from Piper Kerman's memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, and while it references many things, including the 1978 documentary Scared Straight, it culturally overrides
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1962 classic novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Shukov) because the time and place of a soviet gulag is no longer relevant to a post-cold-war American audience. While the politics of the Russian tale are causal, they are conditional in American terms. 

Orange Is the New Black collides stories at the penitentiary crossroads of race, faith, and sexuality. One of my favorite performances is by Laverne Cox, a transgender woman who plays the character of Sophia, the wise hairdresser of the prison. Kudos to Netflix, director Jenji Kohan, and the cast of Orange Is the New Black for pulling off an absorbing first season, and bucking the system for how a series like this is produced and watched.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Say Uncle

by Drew Martin
Pictured here is a portrait of King Charles II of Spain (1661 - 1700) by the Baroque painter Juan Carreño de Miranda. While the subject has been handled with a Goya-like frankness, Carreño must have been quite kind when you read a description of the royal sitter:

The Habsburg King Charles II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. Carlos’ family was anxious only to prolong his days and thought little about his education, so that he could barely read or write. He had been fed by wet nurses until the age of 5 or 6 and was not allowed to walk until almost fully grown. Even then, he was unable to walk properly, because his legs would not support him and he fell several times. His body remained that of an invalid child. The nature of his upbringing, the inadequacy of his education, the stiff etiquette of his court, his dependence upon his mother and his superstition helped to create a mentally retarded and hypersensitive monarch. 

More baffling than this description is his family tree, and the variety of ways historians have tried to explain the interlooping relationships. Charles II was not simply the offspring of a first cousin marriage, but a culmination of repeated cousin marriages, and uncle/niece marriages for generations.

While I sympathize with the unfortunate result, the motivation behind all the inbreeding was to keep power within the family. Ironically, this is what destroyed them. And even though this all took place more than 300 years ago, and Gregor Mendel’s 19
th century explanation of genetics has illuminated such physical mishaps, it is hard not to draw a parallel with the leadership of modern era politics and corporations in which meritocracy is replaced by nepotism and favoritism. The worst case example is when the power position is so great that millions of lives are at stake, but even at a base level, it is not so much the ineptness of who has obtained a position and the consequences of that, as it is a shame that someone else deserved the position and what he or she could have done to elevate the result.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

DIY Gouldian Kits and the 13-Inch Chair

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, which is a fascinating look at the complicated life of one of the greatest pianists. Gould hailed from Toronto, where he was born in 1932, and died in 1982. He is best known for his interpretations of Bach, and is said to never have missed a note.

I did not know much more about Gould beyond Bach until I saw Genius Within, and was surprised by his media trailblazing, which the film details:

At the time that Gould stopped performing, of course, it was a very big deal, especially for someone who was celebrated, to even contemplate not having a regular concert schedule. But what became unexpected fruit of that was this defense of recorded music, as the reality of music. He happened to come along at a time when the technology for recording music was really starting to take off, and got really behind that as a real advocate and innovator.

Gould had some very fanciful theories about what the possibilities of recording and broadcasting technologies were. They were fanciful in the 1960s. They are simply how we do business today in the 21st century.

“You know, I have a feeling that the end result of all our labors in the recording studio, it’s not going to be some kind of autocratic finished product such as we turn out now, but is going to be a rather more democratic assemblage. And I think we’re going to make kits. I think we’re going to send out these kits, and we’re going to say, 'Do it yourself,' and be, in fact your own editor, be, in a sense your own performer.”

Of course this just sounded lunatic in the ‘60s. But in essence, that’s not only what we can do now on our desktops, but we do do. You know, you hear these stories about someone reediting, you know, a Star Wars movie to take out a character they don’t like. That is a Gouldian kit.

While this section of the documentary inspired this post, I also need to point out an interesting sculptural object that was part of Gould's larger-than-life personality; his piano chair, which he had made by sawing the legs off of a regular chair so that the seat was a mere 13 inches off the floor. He brought it with him everywhere, like a tattered security blanket.

Embedded here is the trailer for Genius Within, and the full-length movie.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Scenic Route

by Drew Martin
A week ago I watched Scenic Route (2013), which I really liked but noticed that it got trashed by almost every critic. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that it was miscast and that Kyle Killen’s screenplay is “ awkward, long-winded mash-up of therapy session, horror movie and survival tale with pretensions of psychological depth.” What this actually translates as is “real dialogue.” I appreciate that the Goetz brothers believed that an extended conversation is enough to pull off a movie.

I, for one liked the dialogue between the two buddies who have grown apart since one of them married a rebound girlfriend and gave up his music-career aspirations for a desk job and to raise a kid in suburbia.

There are a couple media comments I think the film nailed. I like when a film says “I could be a stage play because I do not need to do this, but I am a film because I can do this...” While watching it, I pictured it as a play with a bare stage with different intensities of light to mark the passage of time, and the presence and absence of heat. In the play, the characters would appear in a dying old pickup truck that would conk out center stage, and the play would continue with little difference from the movie.

I like how the movie interprets the classic desert mirage not as simply a visual trick, but as a full immersion of the characters into an oasis of life; the lives that potentially wait for them beyond the desert. I also like how the never-finished story by the unsuccessful writer friend who feels “deserted” by the married guy, is this story. The desert is then the metaphor for the writer. It is the unwritten landscape of the blank page, where staring at the blank computer screen is like staring at the sun.

The only complaint I have about the film, and I think the Goetz brothers would probably welcome this criticism, is a cut they make in the middle of the film to illustrate a tale of adultery when the married friend recounts his affair to his buddy. We leave them shivering in the cab of the truck for a fleshy scene in a hotel room. Perhaps the Goetz’s wanted to spice up the film a little but I think they should have saved this displacement for the end in the delusional oasis moment.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ten Reasons To Marry A Man Who Was Once A Boy Scout

by Drew Martin
I was once a Boy Scout and although I was never a particularly good Scout I have very fond memories of spending time in nature with my father, brother, and friends. I am especially grateful for the experience from the activities we did including mile swims, mountain climbing and rappelling, all-day-hikes, and overnight canoe trips. I also really liked the merit badge system, and wished I had pursued more of the categories. I still think the round, stitched badges are fascinating because of their bright colors, economic imagery, and use of symbols. While they have an old-world reference to coins and perhaps military adornments, the sash is also very new-world native-American, like a form of wampum. The scouts in the United States reference both worlds: an quasi-military order, with a real love-of-the-land passion, and an understanding-of-nature sensibility.

My brother was an Eagle Scout and has worked for the Boy Scouts of America for more than two decades. His recent appearance on a Richmond, Virginia-area television show, made me think more about the pros of Scouting. Here are my ten reasons why one should marry a man who was once a Boy Scout.

1. He will take out the trash. A deep-rooted fear that a bear will come through camp and tear the place apart translates into keeping the kitchen clean.

2. He will be cool-headed when a storm hits and you lose the comfort of your utilities. The Scout motto is Be Prepared. That does not mean stockpiling goods like an end-of-the-world conspiracy guy but knowing what to do in certain situations. Former Scouts are waiting for a raw moment to show off their survival skills and relive some of their youth.

3.You will never be cold. Asking a former Scout to start a fire is like asking a dog to play fetch. Scouts do not just run to the store and buy a Duraflame log, they build elaborate kindling pyramids and make roaring fires.

4. He has an appreciation of nature. While it is nice to be part of a city rush when you are young, it gets old by one's mid-thirties. A connection with nature, whether it is just day trips or getting a place with some green space is welcomed when you get older, and it will not be overruled by the fear of leaving city limits because of the unknown.

5. He will help an old person across the street. Sounds cliche but chivalry is not dead among Scouts, and one day you will be that old person.

6. He will be successful in an honest way. Scouts do not peak in high school like the a glory days teen athlete. They are always working towards something with a good work ethic, and not likely to take short cuts.

7. You will never be hungry. Think of the worst-case scenario. If the food transportation network is obliterated, the former Scout always has his eye on those Canada geese hanging out on the lawns of office parks.

8. He can cook. Not only do Scouts learn the basics of cooking as adolescents but they can make a hot meal with almost nothing: a couple potatoes, a piece of tin foil, and a few sticks.

9. He can sew. Merit badges, camp patches, mosquito netting...Scouts are master sewers so they will never approach you with a drooping garment over their arm, a rogue button in their open palm, and a desperate "Can you fix this?" look.

10. He can tie knots. Sounds a little abstract but picture your luggage flying off the minivan on an interstate highway, at 65 mph.

Click here to watch my brother on CBS 6 WTVR out of Richmond, Virginia.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"The Sum Total of Every Expressive Medium of All Times"

by Drew Martin
Last night I watched Indie Game: The Movie, which is a really interesting and beautifully made documentary from 2012 about young, indie video game developers, who spend years of their lives designing and programming computer games. They see their characters as extensions of themselves, and their work as a contribution to the ultimate medium. Phil Fish, the guy who developed FEZ says of video games,

"It's the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive."

Super Meat Boy, developed by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, is a cube-of-meat character that navigates a platformed world of spinning buzz saws, which show no mercy and often leave him in a splat of blood. This does not sound very insightful but Meat Boy is actually a very touching character. He is a boy without any skin; always vulnerable and perhaps constantly in pain. He quest is to rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, the only person who can complete him. One of the most uplifting points of the film is when McMillen and Refenes watch YouTube videos of people playing the release of Super Meat Boy. All of their trials, sleepless nights and anxiousness is wiped away with broad smiles when they see how much people enjoy their game.

Consciously or unconsciously, the Canadian filmmakers, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, recreated Edward Hopper's iconic Nighthawks (second from top) in a scene that follows Refenes to a Waffle House at 4 am (top). Nighthawks is one of the most recognizable American paintings, and has been parodied by replacing the original 1942 diner customers with characters from Star Trek, Sesame Street, and The Simpsons. The scene from Indie Game, however, is not a cheeky reference but an interesting modern take because we learn so much about Refenes before we find him in this lonely spot, and we see him continue his life afterwards. He explains in this moment that he is broke, and could not go on a date if he wanted to because he does not have a car or money to treat someone to a dinner.

Fish's character FEZ (bottom) is a two-dimensional character with a cube fez hat that lets him navigate a three-dimensional world, one plane at a time. It brings to mind Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions not just because of its concept in relation to the evolution of computer graphics but because its use of the novella when it was written in 1884 is not unlike the young developers pushing the limits of their own computer game medium. Flatland is a critique of Victorian English society but its more relevant now for its exploration of dimensions. The main character is a square who dreams of visiting Lineland, a one-dimensional world inhabited by points, and then is visited by a sphere, which he cannot comprehend until he visits three-dimensional Spaceland.

Click here to watch a trailer for Indie Game: The Movie.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Certified Copy: Cypresses and the Meaning of Art, or Perhaps Not

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Certified Copy by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, which stars Juliette Binoche, and debuts British opera singer William Shimell, who has a Jeremy Irons charm. It is a really interesting film but too much Binoche.

Shimell plays a British writer who has come to Tuscany to discuss his latest book on art, Certified Copy, which, very much like the premise of this blog, addresses issues of authenticity in art and the value of the experience of a copy versus its original. His character’s take is that every reproduction is itself an original, and every original is a copy of someone or something.

Binoche plays a single mom and antiques dealer, with a cool subterranean gallery/shop in the area. The two have a rendezvous, which begins with Shimell signing copies of his book for her, and a slightly prickly conversation about art and life as Binoche drives him around the area.

When Shimell takes a phone call outside a cafe they have arrived at, the old lady waiting on them speaks with Binoche. She assumes he is her husband, and this honest mistake is the moment the intoxication of Kiarostami's script starts to take affect. Shimell becomes a copy of Binoche's absent (or ex-) husband and the interesting philosophical conversation and sight-seeing trip turns into a caustic and stifling relationship that people at their age should be above and beyond.

In the movie stills shown here we see layering of copies. In the top image Binoche and Shimell take in an "original copy," which was thought to be a example of Roman art but was discovered in the 20th to be a forgery. The couple stands side by side. Their image is reflected in the glass, and Binoche's face, shoulders and bust repeat the portrait of the woman.

In the bottom image, our argumentative couple does not see eye to eye over a statue in a small plaza. The sculpted woman leans her head on the man. Binoche likes the monster male protector. Shimell gawks at it as sentimental. In this freeze frame we see the statue physically dividing them, with Shimell on the other side to the right, and a young couple over Binoche's shoulder who mimic the affection displayed in the statue. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Raising Cain

by Drew Martin
After loving Elena, Andrei Zvyagintsev's third and most recent film, I watched his first, The Return from 2003. It is about an absentee father who returns to his teenage sons after being dead to the world for twelve years. He takes them for what is supposed to be a brief fishing trip but it turns into a multi-day trek that is a mix of abusive parenting and commando training. The brothers recall that their mother said he is a pilot, which would explain his survival skills. The younger son, Vanya, questions this because he is not wearing a uniform. It is as if this returned Ulysses is crunching twelve years of his fatherhood into a crash course to turn his sons into men. In one of his many "I hate you" protests, Vanya, shouts that they were better off with their mother and grandmother. This is of course contrary to what we see in the beginning of the film when he is bullied for being too scared to jump off a high platform of a jetty. I found it especially interesting to watch The Return after recently reading, Raising Cain, which was co-written by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, two of the country's leading child psychologists who specialize in adolescent boys. It is a fascinating look at how boys are typically raised and how that affects their relationships for life. The main focus of the thesis is that boys are told to keep a stiff upper lip, while girls are given more emotional support to deal with their shortcomings.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Return.

Friday, September 20, 2013

One Percent for Art: Arrivals and Departures

by Drew Martin
One percent for art sounds like an elitist club but it is quite the opposite. It means certain governments mandate that public facility projects need to spend at least one percent of the construction budget on public art. One percent sounds like pocket change but for every billion dollars of a public project, $10 million is spent on the art.

Most European countries have this policy, as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Senegal, and many cities and states in America. New York City's policy has some wiggle room; no less than 1% of the first $20 million, and no less than 0.5% for anything over $20 million.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article in yesterday's Personal Journal, titled Airports for Art Lovers, which shows off this kind of work and claims,

If you want to see some of the best contemporary art in the U.S. these days, buy an airline ticket.

The online version of the article was posted a day prior, and includes a WSJ Live video, which discusses this (to paraphrase) post 9-11, stress-leaving, renaissance, airport experience.

It is remarkable that while many other cultures actually approach art from an aesthetics and cultural perspective, or at least with some expectation of personal transformation, Americans are fine to leave it as an educational benefit, hence the 501c3 not for profit status of our museums. The commentators from the WSJ video however downgraded that a bit, and kept talking about how this airport art is there to entertain us and help us pass the time.

Click here to watch the WSJ Live clip and view the airport art gallery.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Elena: Mother Russia, Dirty Money, and Death by Viagra

by Drew Martin
I watched the film Elena last night by (yet another product of Novosibirsk, Siberia) Andrei Zvyagintsev, who is deemed the new Tarkovsky. I was really impressed, and also surprised to hear a soundtrack by Philip Glass. Zvyagintsev's camera is an invisibly silent and extremely patient observer that does not like the word "cut." In one scene it lingers in a hospital room after a main character has been discharged, only to show us the nurse strip the bed. The extended clip adds a sense of real time to this story about the submissive and neglected second wife (Elena, top) of a millionaire Muscovite.

Elena is old. Her husband is older, and is a pen stroke away from establishing that upon his death she will get merely a comfortable allowance while his bratty daughter (bottom) will "get everything." In a volcanically bold moment Elena spikes his carrot juice with a lethal cocktail made with Viagra and some other pills in their medicine cabinet. His heart stops. She burns his will, sobs at his funeral, visits his lawyer to seal the deal for half of his estate, and then moves her loser son (by another man) and his lower class family into the dead man's luxury flat.

The film has a Germanic starkness with a thuggish Eastern European undertone. This is a harsh look at a modern Russia, which seems bereft of morals and without consequences for behavior that a society would typically frown upon. One of the most interesting moments is when Elena delivers a brick of rubles to her son in the chaotic squalor of his communist-era block apartment. Immediately following the dirty-conscious/dirty-money prize, the whole neighborhood literally sinks into darkness when the electricity goes off. It is ironic; a stone's throw from the complex is a power plant with three huge cooling towers, which dominate the landscape.  Perhaps the scene is symbolic of the murder or Elena's conscious, but I read it more that Russia is a flip of a switch away from the dark ages. We follow Elena's late-teen grandson down the dark staircase and outside where he meets up with his hoodlum friends. They run out to the perimeter of the plant where they engage in a brutal attack on another group of boys.

This thin, electric veil of civilization is mocked with a number of flat-panel television screens, which are constantly showing silly programs including a cooking show with a sausage panel, and shallow dating games. Their presence reminded me of the mind-numbing wall-screens from Fahrenheit 451.

Zvyagintsev mused about Russia.
“We are a feudal society with a slavish mentality. I don’t think we can ever change this until our entire world order changes. We need to have many new generations born in freedom.” Of his medium he offered,

“A person who is in art can speak of politics through art.” 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Miss Gulag: A Woman Should Be Everything Wonderful

by Drew Martin
The opening of a documentary I watched last night begins with a close up of a Russian woman with a doll-like face (pictured top). A wide shot shows us that she is being fitted for a floral dress that touches the floor even with her standing on a chair. She says.

"A woman should stay beautiful not just outside the fence but even in here she should show her beauty, not hide it in these walls. A woman should be everything wonderful.'m in for assault."

Then she turns her head and laughs. This woman is an inmate of UF-91/9, one of 35 prisons for women in Russia. It is located outside of her country's third largest city, Novosibirsk, Siberia. The film is titled Miss Gulag because it focuses on the annual beauty pageant, which was started at this prison in 1990 in order "for women to feel like women." 

After communism, the number of women committing crimes in Russia doubled. Miss Gulag was released in 2007 but shows footage from the 2005 pageant, and it follows a few of the contestants prepare and show off their styles. The pageant has three stages: imaginary uniform (what they would like to wear instead of their drab, prison-issue garb), Greek goddess (as pictured top), and a flower outfit (the winner had a huge white Easter Lily bloom that engulfed her head and shoulders). The best of the best is crowned Miss Spring, with runners-up donning Miss Charm, and Miss Grace sashes.

Part of the incentive to participate is that it shows good behavior and is taken into consideration when an inmate petitions for parole. Most important, the pageant is a breath of fresh air for these women serving long sentences, and who, ironically, work tirelessly on industrial sewing machines stitching together military uniforms for their army. Even the equally beautiful prison guards (pictured bottom) get into it. It is difficult in Miss Gulag to see the difference between the realms of creativity, femininity, and humanity.

Click here to watch a short trailer for Miss Gulag, which jumps in at the pageant.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

High Tech, Low Life

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Stephen Maing’s documentary High Tech, Low Life, which follows two Chinese bloggers as they cover stories that their press would not touch with a ten-foot pole. The 50-something Shihe Zhang, a.k.a. Tiger Temple is considered China’s first “citizen reporter,” and started blogging about sociopolitical issues through his cat Mongo (Mongolia) because he figured the government could not censor a talking cat.

Zhang spends a lot of time on his bike, covering thousands of miles in order to listen to farmers who were once glorified during the Cultural Revolution but are now irrelevant peasants in the backdrop of the country’s boom times. We travel with him to a cluster of remote homes that were flooded by sewage from a nearby city so he can interview the people affected by the waste.

The other citizen reporter Maing follows is the cocky, young Shuguang Zhou, a.k.a. Zola. When Zhang and Zola first meet in person, the veteran calls his younger counterpart a “playful warrior.” While Zhang is more insightful, Zola is self promotional. He even takes a smiling left-handed selfie by the coffin of a young woman who was raped then murdered by an official’s son. It is an absurd, thoughtless shot but then we see him reviewing the comments to his blog. “The picture of you standing and smiling in front of the coffin makes me sick. You are disrespectful of the dead.” He pauses and absorbs it. This kind of youthful misstep is instrumental to his development.

I understand where Tiger Temple is coming from. He gets much more involved than I do. But readers with short attention spans, like me, just want to know six things about an incident: time, place, character, cause, development, and conclusion. Let readers figure out the meaning for themselves.

Zola quips that China has two formidable walls, the Great Wall and the Great Firewall. He takes a self-portrait in which he appears to be leaping over the Great Wall. It is a wonderful metaphor for his freedom of speech. Zhang and Zola face countless obstacles. Zhang is pushed out of Beijing, and Zola is kept from leaving the country to attend a conference in Germany. Following the Arab Spring, the Chinese government responded with the televised statement by a very calm lady:

Peace and stability are common aspirations of the Chinese people. Therefore, this kind of agitation is an act of vanity. So anybody seeking parallels with events in the Middle East or North Africa will be sorely disappointed.

By the end of the film Zhang returns to his journalistic bummels, and Zola moves to Taiwan where he blogs and offers social media training.

What I really like about this documentary is that it shows how state censorship can only be opposed when an individual moves past self-censorship.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Petty Interpretation of Homer's Classic

by Drew Martin
On a recent trip to Europe, I passed some time on the long evening flight with a movie. I watched Sound City, a documentary about the down and dirty recording studio in Los Angeles that gave birth to famous albums including Nirvana’s Nevermind. It closed in 2011. Dave Grohl, the drummer for Nirvana produced and directed the film, which focuses on the Neve analog mixing console, a beast of a board that controlled dozens of microphones and required the band to record an entire song in a take, as opposed to laying tracks. The bands that created their albums there liked it because it was the closest thing to recording a live show.

A graphic treat of the film was a parade of cover artwork for the albums that came out of Sound City. One of these was Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers’ sixth album, from 1985,
Southern Accents. It features Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field from 1865, which he painted in his late twenties. On April 9th of that year Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union army, and five days later President Lincoln was assassinated. Homer’s Veteran is a beautiful image and perhaps evoked a southern rural sensibility for Tommy Steele, who designed the cover. Ironically, this is not the image of a southern farmer but a northern war veteran who has returned home after fighting. The majority of soldiers on both sides in the Civil War were farmers. The Grim Reaper scythe alludes to the assassination of Lincoln, and his field is a bountiful northern crop.

I recently saw the original The Veteran in a New Field in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art show The Civil War and American Art, which ran from May 27 to September 2. I was reluctant to go because I thought I would yawn my way through it but I was totally wrong. It was a fascinating exhibition of paintings and photographs that expressed the tumultuous time. It was amazing to see how contemporary the artwork was for the period and the manner in which the painters represented the issues of war and slavery in their works. Many of the landscape paintings captured the mood and anticipation of the war with stormy weather on the horizon. The photographs were also interesting. There were small, keepsake portraits in lockets with locks of hair for the loved ones the soldiers left behind. There were also photographic documentation of injured soldiers accompanied by their prognosis and eventual fate. They were gruesome. One showed a young man with his elbow blown apart. The doctors were able to save his arm and he survived. Another photograph showed a man with a tap in his side, which drained six pints of puss from his cavity. He eventually died of related problems. One of the most interesting photographs was a collector’s portrait (for the ladies) of the sharply dressed, arrestingly handsome, and famous actor John Wilkes Booth (shown here), the man who shot Lincoln.

Click here to watch the trailer for Sound City.