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.