Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Twerking Class

Let's throw some Oscar Wilde at this whole Miley Cyrus thing: "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike." 

I think all the people who are bitching and moaning about Miley's "performance" on the MTV Music Video Awards last week don't like her.  Period.  But I think they are more than grateful to her for the chance to be moralistic about the whole she-bang.  They live for this stuff, even while they dislike the "she" of the "she-bang."  In fact, the more they dislike her, the more it seems to fuel the outrage, until the whole thing tips over into somehow pitying her, and the backlash gets a backlash.  Case in point: at the beginning of the week Extra-TV was interviewing the morally outraged, anti-Miley contingent.  By Thursday, they had "style expects" on the show, talking about the evolution of Miley's style from "Disney pop princess" to "MTV vixen."

I guess you don't have to like her.  You just have to bloviate until it all collapses in on itself.  Then you have yourself a bonafide media circus.  Even Lester Holt has to talk about it.  Everyone wins!

What it comes down to:  pundits and feminists and activists etc. all need the Mileys of the world.  It's a cluster-fuck ecosystem.  They have to get outraged in order to be relevant, and the bigger and stupider the target the better.  All this 20-year-old pop star was doing is what pop stars have done since pop-stardom started.  She made a spectacle of herself using whatever cultural props and tropes were at hand.  At this point in the 21st Century, porn has become a second language, a way to usurp moral codes by just not being moral.  Porn equals fun now.  Its referenced in detergent and fast-food commercials.  Fine upstanding ladies have sex-toy parties in their mini-mansions.  It has become the go-to when you want to show both how open-minded you are and how "freaky" you can be.  Porn is now the primary religion practiced by pop-stars, and twerking is one of its primary forms of worship.

Miley went for it.  And it paid off.  She got exactly what she wanted.  She even probably wanted all the insults and memes and late-night-talk-show jibes.  This is her art.  She has become the neo-neo-neo-Madonna.  Madge almost thirty years prior did a rolling-around-on-the-floor-in-a-wedding-dress stunt on the VMAs that got her in "hot water" too.  And remember her glossy, awful Sex Book?  Remember her flaunting her "transgressive sexual power"?  Remember Camille Paglia?

I'm not going to go Paglia on this one.  I've never loved Miley.  I don't know if I like her either.  But I do kind of respect her just because she's blatant enough to cut through the bull-shit and create one of those media pandemoniums everyone in the media world loves to participate in, even while they act like it's the end of Western Civilization.  Miley has become a C-F industry this week. 

So I'm not defending her, or even pitying her.  Just appreciating her for what she is. 

All I am saying is "Give twerk a chance."

The Horror, the Horror

Some movies aren't movies as much as atmospheres that take over your consciousness for a while, and then linger, like cigarette smoke in curtains, leaving a taint that doesn't ever go away. 

Snowtown, a true-crime movie directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, is one of those.  Based on the exploits of a serial killer named John Bunting that took place in a ramshackle Southern Australia suburb in the early 1990s, Snowtown has the depth and contemplativeness of a Terrance Malick movie with the hideous overlay of great horror:  it's a solemn mix/homage to Silence of the Lambs and Days of Heaven that could have been titled Nights of Hell.  What sets it apart from both those movies, however, is its dedication to not getting everything right.  The movie blurs and does not explain, which is totally to its benefit.  Kurzel and Grant want to give you experience, not exposition or explanation, so the movie feels dreamed up and hyper-real simultaneously.  It's a tone, not a show.  Moments collapse into other moments, banalities and horrors uniting effortlessly. 

The center of the horror, its architect and chief engineer, is John Bunting, played by Daniel Henshall.  Henshall's performance anchors Snowtown so deeply that you often forget he is acting or even in a movie.  Bunting is one of those big-mouthed working-class guys having breakfast at McDonald's with his other out-of-work buds, his big mouth and bravado making him the gang-leader, the chief executive officer of all losers and haters.  He has that charisma you can't really describe except to say it creeps most people out.  Most people, except for the lost, and Bunting stumbles onto a group of lost boys at the beginning of the film.  The boys have all been abused and neglected in a variety of ways, but their neighbor across the street, a pedophile, has taken lewd photos of them, so Bunting is able to use their hatred and vulnerability to get them to be his legion.  They harass the "pedo" until he leaves.  (The photo above is right before one of their "pranks."  Bunting buys them ice creams cones, and then directs them to use the ice cream as paint on the neighbor's windows.  They write "faggot" in soft-serve all over them.)

The boys have a gullible, sad, used-up mom, and their household is chaotic, dirty, but somehow so static and dull it turns into a den of lions without anyone noticing.  Serial killing just starts to happen, as if it is supposed to.  Boom.  Bunting uses the gullibility of James, the middle kid, to his benefit, eventually mentoring him into helping him kill his own brother, in one of the most bracingly gruesome scenes I've ever witnessed in movies.  It's like the bath-tub/chainsaw scene in Scarface, slowed down and transformed into a music-less horrible vignette that has both a gory power and an atmosphere of mundanity, cold-blooded and matter-of-fact yet feverish.  Kurzel shoots the whole scene without a lot of cuts, so you feel forced into being there, just like James is, until your gaze becomes coopted, and you feel an inability to escape, or even to look away.   

This is truly a horror movie at that moment, and in many other moments.  By "truly," I mean the carnage is not manufactured to amuse you; it is meant to horrify.  This is a movie that has such stellar technique to it you can't separate yourself from the surroundings; you are inside the trance.   A blood-hot, animal morality surges through Snowtown's bleak veins.  Kurzel isn't making a movie to teach you anything either.  He's making a movie that hypnotizes you into knowing (not understanding) what being there is like.

Friday, August 30, 2013

How Dare You!

Jared Dreyer did this.
W. C. Fields once said, "There comes a time in the affairs of man when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation."

On the events page this week for "The (F)art Show," our new art exhibit curated by Golden Brown and opening tonight at Thunder-Sky, Inc., someone commented on another person's acceptance of the invitation to the show with complete and total outrage.  The thread has been taken down, but still it remains in my head, something along the lines of, "How can you go to this show?  It sickens me!  This is what is wrong with the art world today!  Instead of learning the craft, just doing these kinds of stunts.  It really is despicable."

Again I'm paraphrasing. 

But I think what the dude wrote was even worse, stilted and outraged and hilarious, concerning an art show that considers farting, instead of, I guess, the human form.  Or why women are mistreated in the workplace.  Or fame. Or any number of prosaic and lovely themes used for group shows all across the art-world universe.  (And what the hell is the "art world"?  Where is it?  Point it out to me on a map when you get a chance.)

What I'm getting at is that any subject an art exhibit tackles is completely arbitrary and doesn't necessarily mean anything.  The meaning comes from the work done, and how it's used in a show. Juxtaposed, installed, curated, the works in group shows spark off one another, and then you have a sort of compendium that addresses a subject without hopefully nailing it down, or even defining it at all.  "Farting" seemed like a really interesting and crude way to support this theory, and now that Kenton and David have installed, curated and juxtaposed the works they asked artists to make I feel pretty confident that you can make a really cool show out of anything, if you have the will, a sense of humor, and the balls to do it.

So back to the outraged dude on the Facebook events page.  Why did he feel the need to school the guy who had the unmitigated gall to accept the invitation to "(F)art"?  Beats me.  We're just small potatoes at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  Non-profit, not a lot of overhead, and absolutely no pretentiousness.  We scrape by and try to make shows that are funny, strange, thoughtful, and stubbornly what they are.  Because Raymond was all that and then some.  

Would Raymond like the show?  I bet he would.  Every toolbox we've archived is filled with joke-toys (like false-teeth with feet you wind up and they scuttle across the tabletop, etc.).  Plus he fashioned himself into a makeshift, slightly terrifying clown for Christ's sakes.  He had the unmitigated gall to go out in public in a clown costume and construction helmet, drawing buildings being torn down.  I'm sure that sickened a few people. 

Definitely not us.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

“The (F)art Show” Official Statement by Kenton Brett and David Jarred

“The (F)art Show” is curated by  Golden Brown’s David Jarred and Kenton Brett.  Featured artists include:   Antonio Adams, Joel Armor, Mark Betcher, Emily Brandehoff, Kenton Brett, Golden Brown, Emily Caito, Jared Dreyer, Jen Edwards, Jonathan Hancock, Dave Jarred, CT King, Robert McFate, Bekka Sage, Philip Spangler, Anh Tran, Philip Louis Valois, Joey Versoza, and Carol Watkins. 

You might be asking yourself, “What is the fart show?”  To begin to answer this viscous question I would point to Philip Louis Valois’ “Recettes de Cul Puant.”  In this finely crafted recipe book Valois lists ingredients for dishes that can create exceptional and unique farts. Valois’ book is emblematic of The (F)art Show itself. Ultimately our visual feast was concocted so one could enjoy many incomparable courses in a flavorful buffet which mixes surprising materials with complex ideologies.

Now you may be saying, “Ok, but why fart?” Fartist Emily Brandehoff really answers this question clearly in her bio, “I fart, therefore I am.”  In this show we are striving to make highly conceptual art accessible and stimulating. Since everyone farts there is a common jumping off point for this brilliant group of fartists to play with. From the various artistic forms of installation, sculpture, video, paintings and printed books we have culled together a collection of art that explores the deeply human and even animal connection we all have with farts. From the Neolithic painting of Antonio Adams to the postmodern “fart” insignia of Jared Dreyer, “The (F)art Show” covers a vast territory of human experience and thinking.

These many variations of fart are only appropriate as the influences for the show were so varied and excellent. One can cite Milan Kundera’s Tereza in, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who cannot bear a fart even during the endless humiliation of the Soviet occupation of Prague, and then juxtapose it with the Japanese He-gassen scrolls of the Edo period, where heroes unabashedly blast enemies with flatulence. These two examples show the profound polarizing attachment farting has in human psychology. This attachment is certainly explored by the many introspective works in the show.  One exceptionally poignant twist on this theme is Jen Edward’s leaded glass work which combines the spiritual and physical in a way that would make Jung blush.

Essentially the artistic variations of “The (F)art Show” explore the idea that every fart is individual and has a meaning specific to its own context. This relativity of a fart suits both Thunder-Sky Inc.’s and Golden Brown Enterprises’ purposes, as these fartworks taken in specific context could be seen as either inflating or deflating art and its pretensions. With all of this relativity, one thing remains certain:  you will never hear or smell a fart in the same way after seeing this show. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Enough Said

Yesterday Bill and I went and got some groceries, and in the checkout line I found this.  It was kind of nestled within the candy-bars off to the side, wadded up, and I retrieved it, fascinated as I usually am by something that is tossed aside, used up, and the person who used it now has forgotten it ever existed.   The scribbles are beautiful evidence of a function no longer needed, and yet the lines still exist, and you feel a new purpose is being invented, even if no one else is looking.  "Cupcake papers" becomes something else entirely.  "Hamburger" and "hotdog" roughly marked out are symbols of some dream-state denial, desire moved out of the realm of desire and into cloudy iconography.  
I always want poetry not to be poetry, art not to be art.  I want it to have some double-meaning that I never figure out.  The mystery becomes so blurred you don't know anything by the time you've stopped reading and/or looking.  That's what I truly want when I read a story or a poem, or go to an art museum -- that sense of not knowing, or a sort of intended yet completely nonchalant gullibility that blossoms into  red-ink "Cottage cheese" scratched out by black ink deliberateness.
Cy Twombly understood.  He was always trying to show off how much he knows by scribbling it out like a toddler with a new box of crayons.  He seemed to know instinctually that instinct creates wisdom, not the other way around, and when push comes to shove the deliberate eradication of knowledge is also about accepting how elementary it all is:  visual art and language merge in his large drawings and paintings like pristine jabberwocky turning into nervous sonnets, and sometimes the other way around.  But the non sequiturs become nests of ecstasy, blurry slides into silliness that seem to satirize academic name-dropping while also elevating the urge to be smart by showing how messy and necessary it is.
Don't forget Jean Michel Basquiat as well:  he found his way through scribbling out what he wanted to say. merging text and image into pictographs that parody Western Civilization while adding layer upon layer of beauty and freedom to it.  His scratches and lines become mathematical and gorgeous, an Egyptian stab at street-gang luxury, rough and tough but somehow uniquely and expansively sensitive. 
At the end of the day, that grocery list I stumbled upon has a life like these masterworks.  Done from necessity, lists of meaning no one else can decipher, but somehow completely understand.  Whoever authored the list I found at Kroger probably does not give a shit about any of this, but still I love looking at what he/she wrote, love the thought of those functional words disappearing behind scribbles, only to live another life because of it.
And a coda:  Robert Rauschenberg's erasure of a Willem De Kooning drawing.  Take all of that writing and learning and memory and get rid of it, put it in a frame.  Worship it that way.
Enough said.



Saturday, August 24, 2013

Beasts of Burden

I'm trying to figure out my reaction to Beasts of the Southern Wild, a critic's darling from last year that seemed like it would be a perfect match for what I like in life and in movies, a sort of outsider-art aesthetic merged with an innocent/sci-fi/bible-story narrative, with a sweet ferocious little girl running the whole show.  Not to be.  I saw it a couple weeks back, after intentionally not seeing it when it was being hyper-praised, and in the cold light of day Beasts feels like a lot of sound and a lot of fury and you know what that means:  it signifies nothing.  There's a guttural, twee spirit here that reminds me of slapstick in silent movies, but in Beasts it's played for High Intentions, not laughs or even giggles, and the Max-Max-beyond-Thunderdome redux at the heart of the screenplay has a hasty sloppy blatancy that doesn't expand, only contract until you feel like you never want to see anyone ever, I mean ever, eat shellfish again. 

An exoticness haunts every scene, but it's a made-up, flagrant exoticness built on the way poverty is often portrayed in movies, as nasty and hopeless and crude, hyper-Brueghelian.  That lavishly accomplished crudeness is supposed to be the aesthetic I guess, but it feels phony because Beasts wants to be precious and mean at the same time, soulfully grimy and full of "life," but it has a lot more bark than bite, and the poetry gets flattened by the movie's undying need to show us how brave and fierce and heroic the little girl is.

And speaking of her, Quvenzhane Wallis is spunky and wonderful, but she does not have enough character to play.  She's a sweet one-note.  In fact all the characters in Beasts are like that, types and not people, rushing around trying to save themselves, but then again also making pit-stops along the way to say something sweet or wicked or profound. 

Sometimes outsider art can feel just as contrived as insider art.  When we used to go to the Folk Art Festival in Atlanta and do a booth, we were always surrounded by artists who wished they were "outsiders," and their paintings and sculpture felt feigned and even a little cynical:  slipshod, catastrophic paintings on old pieces of wood of grinning dogs and Martians, junky, collapsing "found" objects nailed together to create that effect that "outsider art" is supposed to give off, a sense of whimsy and oddness and exoticness.  But for the most part that Folk Art gig felt like a celebration of freaky wannabes, not the real thing.  And that's the Beasts' conundrum too. By trying so hard to be eccentric, the movie turns into a boring little folk song about the end of the world.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Object Lesson

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line...To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes and in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its colour, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its colour, reveal the substance of its truth -- disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment. In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.”
― Joseph Conrad

So I'm working on a short story about a young couple with a new baby.  The guy is autistic; the girl isn't.  It's been fits and starts for a while, but yesterday I had a little bit of a breakthrough, while going for a walk.  I needed to come up with an object that the two of them find together on a walk in the woods, and after going through the litter in my head, and looking out across the real landscape on a bike path in West Chester, Ohio, I came up with a yoyo.  There wasn't a real yoyo on the path I was on, but I suddenly thought about cheap little toys that people either lose or toss out (dropped from a baby-stroller or out of a bookbag maybe), and how they just become part of the landscape, nestled in weeds or floating in a lake, like secrets or odd thoughts that don't really matter unless you rediscover them.  And this yoyo appeared in my head, scabby, having lost its glow-in-the-dark youth, simple and plastic and half-buried beside some tree-roots.  It felt like an object that would carry meaning like the flu. 

I thought about Joseph Conrad too.   That yoyo is a "rescued fragment" everyone will be able to see, and it will "disclose its inspiring secret" as I write the rest of the story.  Right now I have a truly explicit version of it in my head. The photo above, but older -- a Batman yoyo with the decal half-rubbed off, dirty string, that dull, sad color of glowlessness.  The scene I'm crafting involves the boy and girl walking around right after the first time they make love in the girl's aunt's car, after they play hookie together.  They both see the yoyo at the same time, and she makes a joke out of him picking it up and keeping it, and then years later in the story, in the "now" of it, she finds that he has kept the yoyo as a sort of secret emblem of that day.  Discovering that yoyo all over again is the story's epiphany.  It happens just as she is about to leave him.

That's how writing stories works sometimes.  I haven't been doing that much of it lately because I've trapped myself out of it through procrastination and just good old fashioned pessimism.  Throughout this dry period, however, this story has haunted me.   It was inspired by a scene I stumbled upon in a grocery store last fall, a tableau that merged Norman Rockwell with Flannery O'Connor:  a thin, scraggly, tall kid in a toboggan, with a dumpy girl in too-tight jeans and a concert t-shirt, standing in line with a cartful of food, a sad-faced skinny little boy wiggling around in the cart-seat.  The guy had his eyes closed, and the girl was looking at the magazine covers as if she were trying to find a mode of escape.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Life after Death

Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino's A Band Called Death is about so many things, but it focuses its primary resources on telling the story of Death, an early-70s, African American punk trio out of Detroit headed by the late David Hackney, a visionary musician who along with his two brothers recorded an album in 1974 that wasn't released during his lifetime.  Hackney's stubborn dedication to his own vision, music, and the band name Death became his eventual downfall in many ways. (The record company who signed them would not release the record without the name-change, and Hackney never allowed that to happen).  That over-the-top name, however, also seems to be the main reason for the band's eventual resurrection in 2008.  Hipster record collectors began stumbling upon a couple singles the band made back in the 70s at alternative record stores, and finally Death began to stir interest yet again, this time with enough zeitgeist to create a sort of mini-movement.
What is so incredible about A Band Called Death isn't really the story about the band's comeback, as much as the story of David Hackney's sad decline into obscurity, despite trying so hard to avoid it.  He passed away in 2000 from complications due to alcoholism, and the movie is a tribute to his youthful vigor and dedication to what he saw he needed to do.  His two brothers eventually gave up, and went on to front a revivalist reggae touring band, working janitorial and other kinds of jobs to get by.  Hackney never really gave up on what the idea that Death was his life, and that the band's inevitable emergence as a great punk institution was just around the corner, even (especially) when everything seemed stacked against it.  That commitment only caused him misery the last days of his life, but it also helped to create the music that will be his legacy:  intense, flagrant, crazy, beautiful rock n roll that makes the Ramones and Sex Pistols sound puny in retrospect. 
The amalgamation of all those disparate elements -- three African American brothers in 1974 creating some of the best  high-energy, fuck-you punk music while living in Motown -- makes Death a sort of anomaly that had to either self-destruct or find vengeance. 
Death did both.
This movie made me cry unlike any other I've seen this year.  It is a hyper-emotional experience.  An exhausted sadness permeates many of the scenes in which Hackney's brothers try to conjure his spirit in order to remember him exactly as he was:  a high-spirited, freaky, sweet nobody who had talent and gumption and a sense of ego that both doomed him and allowed him to see behind that doom.  While that deeply felt melancholia does infuse the movie, A Band Called Death is also incredibly life-affirming, especially in its focus on Hackney's nephews, who now front their own punk band named Rough Francis (a name they culled from Hackney's music).  And Hackney's brothers, Dannis and Bobby, take center stage at the end in a reconfiguration of Death, with his full-sized picture floating behind the stage, a makeshift rock god holding court.  While watching that neo-Death, you remember the real thing as Howlett and Covino have framed it:  three young dudes in a bedroom in their house in early 70s Detroit, rocking so loud the neighbors end up pounding on the front door.  They only get louder.  It's a joyous celebration of rebellion, as well as a way to understand that punk really isn't a movement or a style as much as a force of nature. 
By the end, Howlett and Covino have given us an epic, tragicomic bildungsroman with Bobby as the protagonist, a vital American story that somehow uplifts even while it maintains the super-punk spirit embedded in Death's creed and name.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Beastly Lobotomy

Just finished Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a mesmerizing and eerily horrifying historiography of 1933/34 Berlin, climaxing with the Night of the Long Knives, the first real outwardly evil pogrom the Nazis accomplished, killing many of their own, including the John-Wayne-Gacy-looking leader of the Brown Shirts, Ernst Rohm.  Larson follows the lives of the Dodds, an American diplomatic family who move to Berlin in early 1933, when everyone was burying their heads in the sand, trying to figure out how people could actually take Hitler seriously, while Hitler became the monster in every room, and the salvation of every little German town. 

With swift strange calmness, Larson narrates this passage of history without a lot of brio so the terror seeps into your brain just like it should:  as a form of obstinate normalcy.  Berlin in the 1930s is a captivatingly over-ordered culture of Weimar apologists on the one side and Nazi comptrollers on the other, a sort of Best of/Worst of coagulated into a society mean enough and hurt enough to pass laws against whole groups of people without really giving it a thought.  The process starts slowly at first, as in Jews cannot work on the staffs of newspapers, and Jews cannot go to the same hospitals as Aryans, and Jews cannot marry Gentiles, etc.  The laws build into a sort of tower that people begin to fear and to worship simultaneously.  "Order" comes from that kind of division.  That's what Hitler totally counted on.  The dreamy calculations made without thought are what laws love to feed on:  that power of controlling situations with blame and extortion and eventually murder creeps up like flood waters in a basement, while everyone else is upstairs having a dinner party, or darning socks.  The accumulation is what is truly evil, the way all those little humiliations and biases build up into genocide, without really anyone seeing.

There's a scene in the middle of the book that is epic and unforgettable.  The diplomat's freewheeling daughter, toying with the idea that Nazis are fun, takes a trip with one of her Nazi beaus to Hamburg.  It's an old beautiful town, and she is thrilled that the curvy brick streets are filled with excited citizens when they arrive.  It's a celebration!  There's the smell of fire wood burning, and the jovial faces of all the townspeople shining at dusk.  Then the Brown Shirts start their inevitable patriotic parade, and she witnesses that wholesome, exciting scene turn rancid in the blink of an eye.  At the front of the Brown Shirt parade is a thin, pale, frantic woman in rags with a sign around her neck:  "JEWESS."  The townspeople seem to be enjoying the spectacle.  They applaud the most when she stumbles.  The Brown Shirts push and pull the woman down the town's streets to the large luxury hotel at its center, and there they all condemn her for trying to marry a non-Jew.  They call her a variety of horrible names. 

Her face looks like it's been frozen in a silent movie frame inside my head -- fear of course, but also a guttural disbelief, as if she can't understand how things got here so goddamn fast.  How did she end up like this?  How are these people so joyously sucking the very life out of her life?

This was in 1933.

And so I'm thinking about Russia, and the law they've passed there, banning "gay propaganda" around "children."  The inevitable violence against gay people follows.  Thinking about the buzz around Sochi as well, and all the talk about whether the US should boycott or not, etc.  It all has that feeling that Larson's book is so good at dramatizing without a lot of sturm and drang:  just this hazy, sad, godforsaken maelstrom that moves as slow as a landslide, and yet has the power and the secret velocity of pure evil.   

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Epic (Not Icky)

Derek Cianfrance's The Place beyond the Pines is a Douglas Sirk movie for the 21st Century.  It exudes melodramatic grandeur, a sweet, delirious pompousness that enthralls you without being true and without being false.  Everything in it is too much:  the over-tattooed body of Ryan Gosling, the sublimation of all the female characters, the bank robberies done in a sort of Billy-Idol flourish, the burnished sunsets, the sad teenaged wasteland that comprises the movie's coda.  You are hypnotized by Cianfrance's dedication to what he is trying to pull off.  Like Sirk's masterworks Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of LifePlace sprawls across time-zones and feelings, the narrative pulling itself forward while sinking back into emotions and situations that never really feel authentic, but still somehow resonate, so charged up for your viewing pleasure that you feel obligated, even a little flattered, that the movie is working so hard to enchant/overwhelm you.

"Melodrama" is often maligned, seen as a cheap way to exaggerate in order to manipulate.  But exaggeration in Cianfrance's world heightens and entertains, just like in Sirk's stiff, over-the-top universes of feeling.   Sometimes you just want things to be exaggerated and to feel emotions that aren't quite "real," but still come across as necessary, vital.  There are scenes in Place that are beautifully underplayed yet still overt -- as in one of the penultimate ones, pictured above, when Gosling, playing a dare-devil motorcyclist who wants to give up dare-devil-motorcycling in order to be the father and husband he dreams he can be, has an impromptu photo session with his girlfriend and baby son.  Eva Mendes is the girlfriend, and she really does try hard to overcome the underwritten part, to the point that you are totally with her.  In this scene, outside an ice-cream stand, she and Gosling and their baby ask a stranger to take their picture.  They stand in front of his motorcycle, and they seem happy/sad/wistful/anxious, all the emotions you think they should be feeling, and everything is so summed up in the scene you don't have anywhere to go but with it.  The symbolism of Gosling holding his hand over Mendes' eyes, his hands and arms covered in those aforementioned tattoos, is so over-the-top that it becomes easy to access, sweet and dumb and funny, the way life can be sometimes when cameras aren't rolling.  And the baby's face, staring off in the future, and the stranger asking, "Why is the lady crying?"

Scenes like that happen all over the Place.  They could be lampooned pretty easily, and yet somehow Cianfrance invests enough artistry and imagination that they turn toward epic instead of icky.  By the end of the movie you truly feel something that big melodramatic Technicolor movies used to make you feel:  surrounded by artifice and yet also enraptured by it. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Passion of the Kill

Rachel McAdams in Passion

My mom used to go to a low-income-based psychiatrist, downtown Anderson, Indiana, when I was 15.  My sister and I always went with her.  We could have stayed home but we hardly got to go anywhere so we went along.  Mom was always begging us to go with her places, like she was going to lose her mind if we didn't go to the grocery store with her, or church, or this place.  So we would go into this non-descript five-story all-glass building downtown, up an elevator, down a gray hallway to the therapist's office, and we would wait with her until she got her name called, and then there my sister and I were, in a psychiatrist waiting-room with nothing to do. 

My sister ended up playing over at a little kid's table they had set up.  She was 8 or so.  After a couple visits, I finally found what I was supposed to find:  a big stack of New Yorker magazines on an end-table.  All the covers were graced with serious-minded cartoons, and there were hardly any pictures just lots and lots of text, but like I always did I looked for movie reviews.  I had a total love of movies, to the point that they were sometimes the only things that would get me through.  At 15, I would find ways to go to the movies by myself, riding a bike, taking the bus, walking, just to see movies.  And for the rated-R ones, I would beg and plead with my dad, who could barely stand me, and sometimes it would work.  One of my fondest memories with him is the two of us watching Apocalypse Now together in a big, ornate movie theatre called the Paramount downtown (not too far from the low-income psychiatrist office).  We were the only ones there on a Sunday night, and at that time movies had intermissions if they went long, so halfway through the palm-trees blowing up and Martin Sheen's hot-breath narrating and the smell of Napalm in the morning there my and dad I were, all alone in this plush half-deteriorated old-school movie palace, waiting for the movie to come back on, both of us kind of taken aback by the grand assault Apocalypse Now turned out to be.

I found Pauline Kael and Brian DePalma in that Anderson, Indiana psychiatrist's office where they based their therapy fees on a sliding scale  At the back of every New Yorker was Pauline Kael's byline, her strange voluptuous way of writing about and almost eating movies.  This was 1980, and she was head over heels in love with Brian DePalma at the time.  I remember reading her review of Dressed to Kill and just about losing it.  Here's a segment of it:

Over the years, DePalma has developed as an artist by moving further into his material, getting to deeper levels of erotic comedy and funnier levels of violation. If he has learned a great deal from Hitchcock (and Welles and Godard and Polanski and Scorsese and many others), he has altered its nature with a funky sensuousness that is all his own. The gliding, glazed-fruit cinematography is intoxicating but there's an underlay of dread, and there's something excessive in the music that's swooshing up your emotions. You know you're being toyed with. The apprehensive moods are stretched out voluptuously, satirically—DePalma primes you for what's going to happen and for a lot that doesn't happen. He sustains moods for so long that you feel emotionally encircled. He pulls you in and draws the wires taut or relaxes them; he practically controls your breathing.  He knows where to put the camera and how to make every move count, and his timing is so great that when he wants you to feel something he gets you every time. His thriller technique, constantly refined, has become insidious, jeweled.

I had to see that movie, but the review was dated last year.  I didn't know how I missed it.  I had never heard of Dressed to Kill or Brian DePalma, but the way Pauline Kael conveyed all of it to you made you truly want to experience her experience of it.  In fact it was almost like she had gotten inside my head and found a way to explain the way I watched and worshipped movies.  Those words she was using -- "sensuous" and "gliding, glazed-fruit" and "insidious, jeweled" -- were a language I wanted to grab onto, fill my head with, my heart too.  It was the language of love and obsession. 

And then two weeks after reading that review I was at my friend's house.  He lived in this great big suburban castle in a beautiful plush neighborhood, so of course he had HBO right when cable-television was just getting started.  One day we were just hanging out and he turned on his TV, and it was HBO.  Suddenly there Dressed to Kill was, on-screen:  glittery magic door-knobs, voluptuous orchestral music, slow-motion without a reason for slow-motion, an art museum turned into a landscape of pursuit, a gigantic transvestite with ruby-red lips, black-coated, silver-blond wig wielding a razor at Angie Dickinson, a foul-mouthed prostitute and her geeky broken-hearted sidekick pursuing the aforementioned transvestite inside a subway train, etc.  Even though it had already started (we got in on the scene at the art museum), I recognized Dressed to Kill simply from the way Pauline Kael had described it in the New Yorker.  It was a celestial feeling, like discovering a new world, and for someone who lived a low-income kind of life, in the middle of nowhere, but with creative tendencies and a feeling of yearning always fogging up life's window -- here was clarity, here was art.

That's the way Pauline Kael showed me how to watch movies, using DePalma as her instruction manual. 

And so now, 30 odd years later, here's Brian DePalma's Passion, a redux version of Dressed to Kill in many ways.  Passion reunites DePalma with split-screens and  Pino Donaggio (the great composer who scored Dressed to Kill and many other of his late 70s and early 80s masterpieces), as well as with the insidious, voluptuous, glazed-fruit deliriousness of his movies.  Passion is beyond intoxicating, because it is bent on satirizing the intoxication.  You get caught up in the oddly brutalizing yet somehow bracingly aesthetic technique.  There's no logic or sentiment here, just movieness, a sense of what it takes to love movies put on display, without a lot of apology or even common sense.  If you don't get it, you don't get it.  If you do, you're in heaven.

Watching Passion, and witnessing Rachel McAdams' beautiful bitchy femme-fatale preparing herself for an evening of sex-games (see the photo above) only to be disappointed when her lover calls up with an excuse is both hilarious and frightening, an odd mix of humiliation, grandiosity and good old fashioned voyeurism.  McAdams loses it upon that call, wallowing in cinematic self-pity and fury, and you accept her bizarre antics without one peep, just as you accept all of the movie's bizarre antics.  Because it's a movie that's not about life, but about movies.  DePalma is parodying your need for verisimilitude scene after scene.  Passion's tropes are the tropes of a million low-rent, sexed-up psychological thrillers.  There's a white mask, a big glittery knife, a pretentious ballet, cockeyed camera angles in ritzy Euro-trash corporate hallways...  All of it has a deja-vu intensity on purpose, an Andy-Warhol awareness and evil charm that allows DePalma to do whatever he wants to and you still get a kick out of it, because it's not about anything other than what it is trying to get at.  In other words, Passion is absolutely about nothing, yet full of a feeling you can only get when you get the joke.

Thank God for Brian DePalma.  And Pauline Kael.  And movies that don't mean a thing and yet are a reason to live.

Which brings me back to 1980, and my mom always coming out of the mysterious therapist's darkened doorway, sobbing after paying what she could afford.  She never talked about what she said in there, or why she even was going.  My sister and I just took it for what it was.  She was crazy and we had to escort her through it.  We would walk out of the glassy building, back into our shitty car, and Mom would pull herself together enough to get the keys out of her purse.  We would go home.  I would think about what I had read, what Pauline Kael had given me, long, glittery paragraphs that somehow made going to movies transcendent enough not  to care what life was truly like right then.

Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Believers, Part 1

A group of us met Tuesday night at Thunder-Sky, Inc. to brainstorm, kvetch, swap stories, and strategize about how to make things happen for people we're all trying to help, especially around the concept of "employment."  I jotted down some notes.  Still thinking about all of it and very happy we're doing this.

  • Networks versus jobs
  • Investment in people for the long haul
  • Having a vision for both the person and the business
  • Wealth creation -- not food, filth and flowers
  • Discovery as the primary way of doing business
  • Thinking long-term instead of "closure"
  • Congregation prevents imagination
  • How do we figure out how to increase the likelihood of being able to help people get careers and not just jobs?

We got into a really great discussion about how hard it is to break away from "old-school" notions like "enclaves," because an opportunity is an opportunity...  You don't want to pass up possibilities, even though they seem like the old way of doing business, and even though you kind of know that people would benefit from just having some money, even if it's not long-term.  It's really a fine line, a sort of dance that we'll have to do, even while we try to keep our eyes on the prize.

We told stories about people who have found unconventional ways of getting employed and staying employed, using Customized Employment as a mode of operation, and not thinking of JOB, as much as what businesses need and what the people we're supporting are interested in and have to offer. 

One of the main themes that kept coming up:  Entrepreneurial versus Social-Work.  Thinking about how to make money, not just how to get a job.  Venture capitalism as opposed to Bussing Tables.

How do we incentivize hiring people with disabilities?

One story that kind of sticks out in my head:  a guy in Canada who sponsors/curates community sing-alongs at local bars, 5 bucks a person -- if you do the math, that simple, creative idea might yield 40,000.00 a year.

On Friday, Tamie and I met with a local business-owner/CEO at Starbucks.  He was more than helpful.  And Tamie and I went at it in that "informational interview" format we've discussed.  Not asking for help, but how can we partner?  He seemed almost like he had been waiting for us to ask.  He offered up all kinds of insight and assistance in a fifteen minute meeting that was way more productive than any 7-hour in-service could be.  What came out of it:  a job possibility for one of the folks I'm trying to help, access to a skills matrix he uses in his business (that we can appropriate and use in order to develop a resume/skills listing of people who want employment), an introduction to the West Chester Chamber of Commerce, and access as well to an ongoing conversation with him, and other local business leaders he knows who might be interested in being a part of this.

Next Believers meeting:  September 17, 2013, 6:30 pm, at Thunder-Sky, Inc.

Please feel free to add/comment on these notes...  I know I've missed some of the great stuff that was said...

Thanks to everyone who showed up...

Naive Melody (The Less We Say about It the Better)

A picture of a tree in Sayler Park Bill took last night.

Last night Bill, Emily and I went to Sayler Park, this little town skirting the Ohio River, about ten miles from downtown Cincinnati.  Matt, his wife Jen, and their son Matt Jr. invited us, and Bob and Angie came too.  There was a music festival in the park at the center of town that we went to, and then went back to Jen and Matt's house as Matt had hung up a white tarp near their garage, turning their back yard into a makeshift drive-in movie theater.  Bill brought Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme Talking Heads concert movie from 1984 with us to show.

Jen and Emily showing off Bill's painting inside Matt and Jen's house.
The Parkland Movie Theater, a little neighbor movie joint down the street from Matt and Jen's house in Sayler Park.  Tickets are 3 bucks a pop.  They had the best movie poster I've ever seen:  Star Trek into Darkness in a scratchy Bic-pen font on wrinkled paper.   Below:  flowers Matt makes from glassware he finds at thrift-stores.  Their garage is overflowing with all of Matt's finds, which he plans on putting to use in a variety of art-related and not-art-related projects.

Bill, Emily, Matt, Jen, Matt Jr., Bob, Angie, and I are all connected to Thunder-Sky, Inc. in a myriad of ways, and this Saylor Park experience was like a retreat, or as Emily pointed out, a board meeting for the Island of Misfit Toys, which is kind of what Thunder-Sky, Inc. is, a gathering-place/art-gallery/studio/whatever-else for people who don't/can't/won't fit in anywhere else.  As Thunder-Sky, Inc. has evolved (since we started it in 2009) it has become what it is supposed to be, whatever the hell that is, and that is the way I like it.  It's a non-profit enterprise, so we have to have some kind of organizational structure, but at the end of the day I never want "organizational structure" to be in the foreground of anything we try to accomplish because once you go there you are stuck, and you start trying to figure out how to make "structure" count, when it reality "structure" is just something you pull in as you need it.  We do art-shows mainly, but also once a week an art workshop happens for whomever wants to show up, and sometimes we'll do art shows outside of the space, host meetings inside the space, offer up the gallery for poetry readings etc.  We don't really seek out partnerships or whatever -- they just happen if they need to happen.  I know this sounds hippie/spooky, a little too nonchalant, but I've discovered through doing a lot of non-profit-type activities that you have to let most of the "doing" lead you to what has to happen.  If you impose "structure," in other words, "structure" becomes the only point, until the tail starts wagging the dog and you wind up at non-profit workshops where non-profit professionals tell you how to go for the Big Ask, and you get lessons on how to polish up your elevator speech for that one encounter you just might have with a P&G exec someday.  Fingers crossed!

Raymond Thunder-Sky provides enough structure for what we're trying to figure out.  He gave us 2200+ drawings to archive and investigate, and a life of weirdness and productivity to contemplate and adore and iconize.  That's enough. 

So last night I kind of consider as a board meeting for Thunder-Sky, Inc.  All of us are board members of this makeshift non-profit, doing whatever we can to keep things going.  Basically we ate drank a few beers, ate strawberry cake, and listened to great music and watched David Byrne act like a beautiful fool, all of it splashed all over a white tarp in Matt and Jen's backyard.  Stop Making Sense, and what it represents, also kind of gets at what we're trying to figure out and do:  musicians of all creeds and colors coming together and seriously losing it, finding a sort for redemption in funk and colored lights and the lyrical nonsense of a band that truly tried to find meaning by escaping it.  It is truly an ecstatic sight, witnessing that stage evolve from Byrne doing his "Psycho Killer" solo to Tina Weymouth sneaking in on bass, and then Chris Frantz on drums, and Jerry Harrison on guitar, and then Alex Weir from the Brothers Johnson and Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic come out on keyboards and percussion, followed by Edna Holt and Lynne Mabry, finishing up Utopia as perfect backup singers, in sync with Byrne's delirium, and always on key.

Jonathan Demme creates a vision of heaven on earth in that movie, and we celebrated it last night.  And that's the direction we're stumbling toward I guess, off-kilter, meaningful celebrations of heaven on earth.  "Naïve Melody,"one of my favorite songs in the movie, is the best way to explain what I'm getting at I guess.  Here goes:

The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It's ok I know nothing's wrong . . nothing

Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money
Always for love
Cover up say goodnight . . . say goodnight.