Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights

Evan Glodell has made a strange, vicious, creepy, fascinating, hyper-romantic little movie, a visionary melding of David Lynch's Blue Velvet and David Fincher's Fight Club with a spastic splash of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.  High style without losing itself in style, the movie zooms out and back into itself in fire-breathing intervals; the cinematography exhibits symptoms of high blood pressure, each scene and image coming at you in a dizzying swirl of unmedicated colors and textures.  (Joel Hodge, the cinematographer, cannibalized lenses and parts to create a new kind of camera to shoot the film, and the result is both visceral and virtuoso, like a Hot Wheels commercial directed by Lucifer Himself.)

The plot and atmosphere have a major Lynchian scorch without the latter-day Lynchian propensity for self indulgence.  Two dumb-ass buddies in California spend their days building a flamethrower, inspired by their childhood obsessions with a VHS copy of Mad Max.  For a break they go out to get wasted and meet up with two girls who party all the time and wreak havoc the way only white-trash party girls who party all the time can. Glodell plays the main dumb-ass Woodrow, a sweet, kind, enthusiastic dweeb who falls in love with Party Girl Milly (played by Jessie Wiseman, an actress that re-brands the Scarlett-Johanson brand with more junk in her trunk and more innocence in her eyes). 

Eventually Milly ends up hurting Woodrow really bad by having sex with some guy in Woodrow's own bed.  Woodrow catches Milly and the dude and loses it, driving his motorcycle into an oncoming car.  The movie then spirals into a dream/not-dream epilepsy that reveals the madness, ecstasy, torture and glory of lover's scorn transforming into perpetual revenge.  For all its flame-throwing and booze-soaked antics, however, Bellflower is lushly romantic, a sort of meditation on what it means to be "masculine" without caving into the pseudo-masculinity most movies try to reify.  Woodrow is a sadsack Mad Max, adolescent, pouty, and possibly brain-damaged; his gorgeous fury and  nihilism form the center of Bellflower's core meltdownThe energy of the film-making allows Woodrow's desperation to intermingle with the memories of your own misspent youth.  By the end of this thing you feel like you were at an all-night party in hell with Woodrow and his peeps.  You wake up with a beautiful hangover. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hopelessly Devoted to You

From Obey Giant's Facebook page:  "This poster represents my support for the Occupy movement, a grassroots movement spawned to stand up against corruption, imbalance of power, and failure of our democracy to represent and help average Americans. On the other hand, as flawed as the system is, I see Obama as a potential ally of the Occupy movement if the energy of the movement is perceived as constructive, not destructive. I still see Obama as the closest thing to "a man on the inside" that we have presently. Obviously, just voting is not enough. We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals. However, I think idealism and realism need to exist hand in hand. Change is not about one election, one rally, one leader, it is about a constant dedication to progress and a constant push in the right direction. Let's be the people doing the right thing as outsiders and simultaneously push the insiders to do the right thing for the people. I'm still trying to work out copyright issues I may face with this image, but feel free to share it and stay tuned...  -Shepard Fairey..."

I don't know.  Really.  I don't.  But one of the greatest things about art for me is that it moves us away from propaganda, chills the stupid heat that inspires political rants and lazy "us versus them" naivete.  And that goes for propaganda even if it's propaganda for "our side."  Fairey comes off opportunistic and self-involved and indulgent and teenaged-romantic in this little diatribe about his "new" piece of artworld branding that isn't new, and definitely does not add anything incisive or realistic to the conversation.  I especially love the part about "copyright issues."  And the way he positions himself and whoever is on "his side" as "outsiders."  The image is lifted, the politics are worn out, and the message feels like head-shop pontificating.  "Occupying" public parks and changing the system are actually not linked:  the style subverts the subject matter, and most of the main points in the media become about "free speech" and how a bunch of folks have a right to pitch tents and hold onto their sleeping bags before The Man comes in with power-washers.   These are serious times, possibly beyond "hope" and other nice little abstractions that only add idealism to a bunch of tired ideas.  If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then run-down leftist political propaganda is the saddest refuge of an artist.  It's too easy and only recycles the same emotions and the same dance of right and left, conservative and liberal.  I know everyone means well, but at the end of the day pretending you're Guy Fawkes in the 21st Century is pretty close to pretending to be John Wayne.  Symbols are fine, but they don't get the job done.  You have to get elected to school-boards and file law-suits and out-think and out-organize your foes -- not out-camp them. 

Writes Fairey:  "We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals."  What are the "tools'?  What actually are the "goals and ideals"?  I don't think anyone really knows at this point, and until they are known and spoken eloquently and forcefully (and by "forcefully" I don't mean "drum-beating" and "chanting"), the same old rhetoric achieves the same old results.

Beginners' Luck

Beginners is a sweet, super-precious, sometimes annoying but also oddly satisfying movie by Mike Mills, a graphic designer whose 75-year-old father came out of the closet a few years before he passed away.  The movie's plot is basically that:  a graphic designer's 75-year-old father comes out of the closet and a few years later passes away.  During and after all this, the sad and lonely graphic designer falls in love with a sad and lonely actress who luxuriates in hotel rooms and makes funny faces and loves love but also has a suicidal father who keeps trying to call her so she is afraid of intimacy, etc.  In fact both the actress and the graphic designer, even though thoughtfully portrayed by Melanie Laurent and Ewen McGregor, never really seem to come to fruition as the center of the movie's concerns.  It's the periphery that takes over, and that periphery is astutely and hammily brought into the foreground by Christopher Plummer as the gay old dad.  He is both charming and ridiculous, stubborn and free-wheeling, a precise depiction of something I don't think I've ever seen in a movie before:  an elderly homosexual who is conveyed to us without a lot of frills or apologies or gimmicks.  There are no cheap laughs.  He is so happy to be gay it is both funny and true, a joke but not.  I think we owe this beautiful portrait not just to Plummer's incredibly delicate yet hilariously bold performance, but to Mills, who seems to have made this movie as a love letter to his dead dad.  This could have been horribly sentimental (and it kind of is sometimes), but there's this magical atmosphere in Beginners that seems to permeate almost every scene, like the afterglow of a memory that won't let itself be erased or cheapened.  The loveliest image in the movie:  Plummer lying on the floor with his new boyfriend, smiling at the camera, overcome with joy. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tara and Bella

I saw this story about an elephant and a dog becoming friends at a nature preserve near Nashville, Tennessee on TV Sunday, and it haunted me to the point I had to revisit their relationship via You-Tube.  And by "haunted," I mean bursting into tears every couple of hours after seeing it.  The dog was a stray who wandered onto the preserve grounds, where elephants from all over the world are given sanctuary.   Tara is the elephant's name.  Bella was the dog's.  The images illustrating the story were like Utopian picture postcards -- Bella following Tara around, Tara petting Bella with her trunk.  Bella was killed (possibly by coyotes, although no one is sure) in the middle of the night.  But it turns out Tara carried Bella's dead body to the main office on the grounds, as if to somehow rescue her from death.  Now Tara is in mourning, and all the other elephants on the compound are trying to soothe her by giving her portions of their food.  Kindness is devastating.  It is wordless and conjured through very simple actions that have no other way to enter the world.  What happened between Tara and Bella is not human or animal.  At the risk of sounding completely flaky, it's spiritual.  A connection that can't be explained or replicated, just recognized. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

School Spirit

The child molestation scandal at Penn State, for me, is yet another rendition of how institutions turn into monsters while no one is looking.  Certainly the assistant coach who did the molestation is the nucleus of the cancerous cell, but the whole body is Penn State, a culture trying to grow itself into a sort of deification.  On the Today Show Thursday, a columnist from the New York Daily News told Ann Curry that the whole horrible issue is about "branding," and it is:  the need for the institution to "grow" beyond its natural state of being, into a way of life, into a way to worship not just academics and sports, but the institution's scope and swagger, its ability to keep growing.  That's what Joe Paterno and everyone else involved had on their minds when they made decisions.  Sure they also had a relationship with the molester, and sure they did not want to jump to conclusions, but as all this is coming out you can see it was incredibly hard to ignore the truth.  Janitors saw it happening.  Another coach witnessed it.  Families of the victims were complaining.  And still the primary goals for the institution and its mandarin society was the "brand," keeping that "brand" clean and shiny and ready to grow even larger.

That's what happens when people begin to lose the understanding that what has been created for simple purposes like learning and playing sports has somehow become a behemoth based on congregate arrogance.  So those kids and others who stomped around Penn State campus this week, pissed because Joe Paterno had been fired are just continuing that zombie dance of "branding."  They don't want to stop that growth; they want to believe in the invincibility of tradition.  It's a mirror image of the scandal that has momentarily limited the growth of the Catholic Church.  It's institutional arrogance.  School spirit turned into mob politics.

The coach/molester was allowed to thrive within the institution's blindspot because the institution willed that blindness on itself.  No ugly stories, no horrible nightmares please:  this is Penn State. 

It just so happens that I bought the first season DVD of Friday Night Lights this week, and watched the first few episodes.  I had stumbled across the show on a flight to London in September, and it blew me away.  What this TV show does best is dramatize that "branding" process I'm talking about:  small town high school football being turned into a reason to live, an institution that blocks out truth in order to keep the "brand" going, because without that "brand" many people's lives would somehow be not worth living any more. 

However, Friday Night Lights also allows us to see that those lives are worth living, with or without the Friday night game.  It conveys small-town life as beautifully complex and strange in many ways, and also lets us see how everyone both contributes to the institutionalization/deification of high school football, while also trying to struggle against its omnipresence.  Kyle Chandler plays the head coach, and of course he is gung-ho and a little jingoistic about the game, but his love for it does not allow the game to eat his common sense alive.  In one episode from this first season, the coach first stands up for one of his players when they are caught beating up another student in the parking lot of a local hangout.  The player says the kid he beat up, a fat, geeky loser who was overheard talking about how stupid football is, was "talking smack" about the team, and that justified the beating.  Chandler plays the coach with a finesse and intensity that allows us to see how he both wants to ignore the incident and also somehow applaud the beating as the ultimate example of "school spirit," and yet also we can see in Chandler's face a sort of dawning of skepticism as he inspects his own motives with the help of his wife (a guidance counselor at the school played by Connie Britton, one of the best actresses I've ever seen on TV).  Finally the couch musters the guts to confront his player and kick him off the team.  It turns out the beating was just plain old bullying.  And at the end of the episode the coach goes over to the fat geeky kid's house and apologizes to his mother and him. 

That last scene was haunted for me by the Penn State scandal.  Of course I understand the difference between TV and reality, but this time TV held the higher moral ground.  It made me think:  what would it have taken for Paterno and some of his henchmen to let go of their egos and their sense of institutional obligation, and to go over to the houses of the molested kids, and to look their parents in the eyes, and say, "We are so sorry.  We believe you."  What would it have taken for Paterno to call the cops?

Common sense. 

And an obligation to a power higher than even Penn State:  common decency.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Curated Lives

This is an illustration from a 1960s psychology textbook depicting the Eugenics process as "revealed" by the studies of Dr. Henry H. Goddard.  Goddard wrote the ur-text for Eugenics in 1912, depicting the fictitious "Kallikak" family in which he plots the "beginning" of "feeblemindedness" by finding its essences in a moral binary:  a "moron" line of descendants spawned by a "dalliance," and a "superior" line of descendants from an upstanding marriage to a "Quakeress."  While Eugenics was essentially gutted in the 1930s and 1940s, its imagery and symbolisms and metaphors still remain intact culturally (and sociologically, psychologically and morally too) in multiple ways.  In art this echo works itself out via biography and credentialization:  an "outsider" line of "instinctive, accidental" artists who make art in institutions (hospitals and day programs), and an "insider" line of professionals creating and showing their works in Institutions (art schools and museums).  When an "outsider" (like Judith Scott [see below]) is inducted into the "insider" world  the explanation of his/her diagnosis and struggle becomes one of the primary reasons for seeing and understanding the art.  The "outsider" lineage is based in the schematic above; the "insider" lineage is not connected to that.  In other words, "Quakeresses" don't have to explain where they fit in the scheme of things.  "Feeble-minded tavern girls" always need to be explained to the lay audience.  

1.  the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.
2.  a manager; superintendent.
3.  Law: a guardian of a minor, lunatic, or other incompetent, especially with regard to his or her property.

Institutional art (sanctioned by art schools, art historians, museums, etc.) is curated of course:  paintings, sculptures, performances, photographs, etc. all ordered and categorized, labeled, cataloged and consigned, placed in spaces that are designated as worthy of Art. 

But lives are curated too, often using those same lofty and often meaningless verbs.  In fact, the lives of people with developmental disabilities have been curated in the United States for over 200 years, when some of the first "special schools" were founded (and "special schools" here means huge institutions where people with "it" were colonized).  And still today people with intellectual difficulties, what many people call "mental retardation," are still consigned, labeled, ordered, categorized, and consigned into institutions deemed worthy of their status and abilities.  People with "it" often live in group-homes, foster-homes, and larger institutions.  They often spend their days in day programs where other people cosigned and labeled just as they are also are placed, overseen by staff.  They live under the weight of curation everyday of their lives, and the curators don't often understand that they are in fact curating, managing and supervising, using the tools of their historical (and kind of retrograde) practice.  They apply generalizations and abstractions in order to let everyone else know what to do and think when approaching the people they curate.  They surround their curated people with paperwork and rules in order for the rest of "us" to understand who they are -- in much the same way a gallery or museum curator fashions wall texts or writes an essay for a catalog, or juxtaposes one picture next to another.  These meticulous decisions are freighted with meaning for art curators -- but for curators of the lives of people with "it" no so much.  These curatorial powers (used by social workers and teachers and doctors and lawyers) have devolved into a standardized practice.  This is who you are, this is what is wrong with you, this is what you need to be safe, and these are the places you can go to be who you are.  To be what you are.

Now let's zero in on the main reason I'm writing all this.  It's about when people with curated lives make art.  Really great, interesting art.  How do we take a curated life and attribute art worthy of curating to it?  History and common practice devalue these lives to the point they need to be curated;  artists without "it" (and who make great, interesting art) are curated in exactly the opposite way.  Their art is curated by credentialed specialists whose mission it is to find what is worthy of being institutionalized.  People with curated lives more often than not are just plain institutionalized (whether it's a nursing home or a group home or their own apartments with supported living staff). 

What I want to try to figure out is how great art made by artists with "it" can smash through the complacency of both poles.  And how the curation of this art can somehow critique and replace the curation of art in the lives of artists with developmental disabilities.  This means you have to almost pull away from both mindsets.  Often when people with "it" make art they are grouped together, and the shows they are in consigned to the level of "community outreach."  When these artists with "it" are included in non-"it" shows, "it" always has to enter the picture and jargon and conversation somehow.  Maybe one of the best moves when this happens is to have every artist in this kind of show reveal their own personal diagnoses -- what society has deemed wrong with them.  Maybe then the playing field might be completely fair.

Maybe the problem isn't about "it," but the way "it" becomes the only way into each sphere.

Who knows.

Here's a snippet from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle introducing Judith Scott (above) to the world in 2002:  "Some favor the totem figures for their primal, symbolic quality. Others are drawn to the boulder forms -- bulky, egglike works that seem complete from any angle. Still others see something simple and gorgeous in the papery sculpture that resembles an ancient Egyptian mummy.  These are all works by Berkeley artist Judith Scott, pieces that have traveled in an international tour, that sell for thousands of dollars.  Some of those who like and collect the art know Scott's story. Others are drawn to the pieces for their elemental quality, for their bursts of color, for their mysteriousness -- the sense that they convey something at once hidden and exposed.  Only later do fans learn that Scott, 59, has Down syndrome. That she is deaf and mute. That for more than three decades, she was shut away in an unforgiving institution, all but forgotten. That Scott, who is one of those rare creatures, an art world star, doesn't know it."  Why do fans need to know her diagnosis?  What does this information add to the objects?  How did the writer know Scott (who passed away in 2005) "doesn't know" she was an "art star."  Is her art stardom predicated on the fact that she "doesn't know it"?  Isn't the "mysteriousness" better served by not aligning her work with diagnostics and her supposed "not knowing"?  I guess what I am trying to think through is how to separate Scott's art from a world Scott probably did not participate in:  while she had to put up with the after-effects of diagnoses and institutions created to "improve her," she resisted by making art.  But the art  is not just evidence of that resistance.  It is a product of her intellect and her ambition to be an artist.  She is a "Quakeress" much more than a "Tavern Girl."