Saturday, February 20, 2016

Christine's World

Watching Louie Anderson perform Christine Baskets on the FX dramedy/comedy/hell-I-don-t-know-what-to-call-it-really Baskets is not actually about watching someone perform:  it's watching someone be.  Anderson is so damn good you lose track of what he's doing, and you find yourself completely enmeshed in what Christine is doing, saying, acting like, thinking even.  It's the kind of acting that can only be seen on TV because you need several episodes of it for the whole process to sink in, and then suddenly an epiphany happens and it's there:  we're witnessing brilliance.  Let's call it "art."  Why not? 
The epiphany for me came in the third episode, and my adoration just grew from there:  Chrisitne curled up on a couch, covered in a shimmery quilt, talking about the beauty of the curly-fries.  Louie is in drag in the scene of course, in the whole show, playing Zach Galifianakis' somehow inert and yet completely overbearing Republican mother, Christine, who lives in a suburban dreamhouse in Bakersfield, California stocked with Costco items of every sort.  The drag is really just a way to get there:  not a lot of makeup, simple hair, blowsy, beautiful, no-nonsense, older-lady clothes that are only noticeable because they are designed not to be (except for the incredible Easter bonnet Christine wore in the Easter-themed episode, which is probably the best Baskets I've seen so far).  Christine seems to have stepped out of someone's actual life, stumbling Purple-Rose-style onto the FX platform, ready to go.  It's effortless, what Louie does, and yet his contribution has the nuanced, steely-eyed essence of someone really knowing how to make shit matter.  
Even though the show focuses primarily on Galifianakis' inept clown-wannabe (he went to a French clown school only to flunk out and return to Southern California to be a rodeo-clown), and that's OK, it's Christine who is the center of the show's universe.  The atmosphere and ethos of the show emanate from Louie's way of being her, a style that cancels out style but somehow manages to be better than stylish:  it's drag without camp.  Instead of parody and mockery, Louie, and the writers/creators of Baskets (Galifianakis, Louis CK, and Jonathan Krisel) seek homage in the bleakest and most banal of places.  The show gets off on absurdity, but not the kind that makes people look weak and worthless; it's absurdity that somehow saves people from themselves, even while they figure out how shitty everything is.
Christine is not really brave or incredibly intelligent, or really worth our time.  She just is.  And her existence is significant because it's not.  She lives in her own bubble of Ronald-Reagan wishes and Costco dreams.  She doesn't seem mean-spirited, but she is sort of gnarly and vindictive in the best of ways.  She can do a passive-aggressive one-off with the best of them, and yet you truly believe that she loves herself and the people she chooses to love.  She seems to have a heart made of two-by-fours and vinyl siding, and that's a compliment she would approve of I think.
I keep thinking of Raymond Carver when I think of Christine too, and Louie's way of pulling the whole thing off.  Carver wrote beautiful blunt and nuanced short stories about nobodies, most who live in California.  His stories have the same rote, sweet no-nonsense intent that Louie gives Christine.  Baskets totally benefits from that sensibility.  What could have been a Galifianakis lark about a down-and-out rodeo-clown with French inclinations opens up to become a minimalist and stark meditation on what it means to be a nobody in a world of nobodies, with Christine the empress of it all, a queen driving around in a maroon Chevy four-door sedan going to pick her elderly mother up for church, or eating a hotdog at (yup) Costco, commenting on how inexpensive it is, and you also get a drink.  Carver's stories opened up from closing down, and Louie's sense of timing and shaping of scenes, the way he uses his face not to register feeling but thought, is that same process of closure being the door to something else:  he's writing a book of short stories about Christine Baskets every time he enters a room. 
So here goes:  Louie Anderson is now a genius in my book, and while Baskets is funny and sweet and filled with odd and off-kilter laughs (as well blessed with another great performance by the gorgeous deadpan Martha Kelly as an insurance agent with a broken arm and a humble need to go missing), it's really not the show as much as Christine's world I'm interested in.  And I don't want a spinoff ala Laverne and Shirley or The Jefferson by any means.  I'll watch Baskets just for those few minutes when Christine appears, saunters through, says something stupidly on-target, and then goes back to hosing off her driveway.   

Friday, February 19, 2016


Mr. Cornell
Joseph Cornell is one of those peripheral and yet totally important figures in contemporary art history who haunts and informs a lot of what is made and seen today.  He passed away in 1972, and yet his influence and the scope of his ghostliness illuminate a lot of what has happened artistically and aesthetically in the 20th and now 21st Centuries.  He was humble and yet ambitious, ingenuous yet sophisticated, "outsider" yet completely in sync with his contemporaries, including the Surrealists and everything after.  He lived in a small, unremarkable house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, taking care of his brother who had cerebral palsy, and working a lot of odd jobs to sustain his household that included both his brother and mother.  He basically spent his lifetime outside of those activities making intricate, oddly meaningful "things" out of materials he lifted from life:  postcards, fabric, toys, bottles, glasses, etc., all usually aligned poetically and ominously in shadow-boxes.  He also made movies, created hefty dossiers devoted to movie-stars and waitresses, wrote, and even collaborated with his brother on a series of delicate drawings/collages that merged fairy-tale wishes with a scratchy/gorgeous obsession.  In fact, most of what Cornell did seemed burnished by an overarching obsession to find meaning in what is already in front of you, as if a junk-drawer in your kitchen is a primal resource for reinvention and even transcendence, every little doodad and left-behind nothing a reason to daydream, to travel while remaining still.
Our next Thunder-Sky, Inc. exhibit, “Utopia Parkway Revisited: Contemporary Artists in Joseph Cornell’s Shadow" (opening February 26, 2016 with a reception 6 to 10 pm and closing April 9, 2016). features beautifully and incidentally Cornell-inspired works by Jeff Casto, Marc Lambert, Christian Schmit, Matthew Waldeck, and Matthew Waldeck Jr.  They all make art that both mimics Cornell’s approach (collage, sculpture, assemblage, and appropriation), as well as the spirit involved in his vision, creating and recreating an aesthetic universe based in nostalgia, obsession, and pop culture.  Casto's works are the closest in spirit and materials to Cornell's boxes, but he also has his own sense of deadpan whimsy and ache, as if he's taken in Cornell's need to make something out of nothing and pushed resources and dreaming to their limits.  Lambert's works featured in the show respond to Cornell's use of everyday materials (Lambert paints on ceiling tiles), and also to his starry-eyed sense of cinema and history.  Lambert meticulously recreates universes collaged from movie-scenes and folklore, juxtaposing Sasquatches with pyramids, pterodactyls with UFOs, a psychic boyhood embellished with a sense of sentimental ache and poetry.  Waldeck, Jr.'s drawings have that same sense of longing for Utopian context.  Executed in magic-marker on 8" X 11" sheets of paper, they function as a sort of illuminated manuscript informed by television, solitude, and a search for more than is there.  Waldeck, Sr. creates funky, frenetic dioramas (and other contraptions) made from machine parts and other junk.  They playfully reference space-travel, carnivals, and miniature civilizations, in a Cornellian flourish and flicker.  Schmit's one piece in the show is truly masterful, and acts as both a comment on, and a rapturous biographical portrait of, Cornell, constructed with a painstaking accuracy and ingenuity pretty much akin to everything Cornell accomplished.
It's going to be an incredible show.
A lot of times I argue on this blog that biography often handicaps the way we see and consume art, that knowing that the artist has a diagnosis or hardship or whatever shouldn't get in the way of feeling and understanding the art for what it is and can be.  You don't want to lose focus or respect by attaching charity and other kinds of condescension onto the whole shebang.  But Cornell's work and life intermingle in ways that go beyond "diagnosis" and "charity."  From limited means and a "small life," he forged an incredible body of work that somehow captures lightning in a bottle every time you witness it.  He dedicated his life to minutiae and what it means when you take the time to excavate it, to reinvent and reimagine it.  He discovered vast planets inside the smallest of boxes, and allows us today to take such endeavors completely seriously. 
Matthew Waldeck, Jr.

Matthew Waldeck, Jr.

Matthew Waldeck, Sr.

Jeff Casto

A wall of Jeff Casto works
A wall of Marc Lambert works

Marc Lamber

Marc Lambert

Christian Schmit

Jeff Casto


Monday, February 1, 2016

Shakespeare, Indiana


American Crime is in its second season, and this season has the same dour, dreamy, urgent feel as its first.  There's hardly any soundtrack music to coax scenes out of what they actually are -- just a throbbing hum from fluorescence or maybe it's just God sleeping.  And every actor is keyed up and centralized; you feel their faces somehow, feel their thoughts.  I love the whole setup of this limited series.  John Ridley is the creator, and he's fashioned a Shakespearean nightmare world out of Indianapolis, Indiana, transforming suburbs, exurbs, tenement apartments, basketball courts, pancake houses, and private and public high-school hallways into high-tragedy venues of seriousness and sorrow.  The writing has an intensity and drive to it; every hour episode moves through like a semi on the interstate.  What the characters say feels authentically boxed-in, as if culled through surveillance, and yet there's an artfulness to it all too, as if each character is a type we've never come across before on TV or in movies, and yet we've known them all our lives. 
Felicity Huffman's Leslie Graham, the private school's highbrow, hyper-professional headmaster, has the steely-eyed reserve of a non-profit dragon-lady, and yet the way she's performed you have access to her ability to compartmentalize for the "greater good," meaning she can take advantage of women like Lili Taylor's Anne Blaine, a working-class mom whose son attends the private school on scholarship, and who seems to have just been raped by one of the school's basketball players.  Boom.  Taylor's hurt registers like a fish-hook into a palm; you feel all she's been through without knowing a single thing about her.  It's her eyes and mouth, the way her hair hangs down her face.  She's a restaurant manager who's overworked and anxious to help her son ascend.  When she finds out about the assault she speaks with Ms. Graham, thinking that something can be done, an investigation, punishment, whatever.  Ms. Graham's instinct is to ask her to sign some papers before she leaves.
Regina King's Terri LaCroix, an upper-middle-class African American mother, wife and manager, whose son also goes to the school and hosted the party where the assault allegedly happened, is distinctly over and above it all, tired of having to justify herself .  King is triumphantly and constantly reminding anyone in the room that she has ascended, through body language, through a heated flicked in her eyes.  She is letting all of us know she is no longer "one of those people," and that she is tired of all of us not noticing that.  In one scene, she has to fire one of her African American underlings, a woman who asks her, "Can you do something for me?"  She hates the insinuation that the two of them are connected by race, and complains at a wine bar that night with some of her friends that she's sick of those kinds of expectations.  And then later in the same episode, when confronted with the assault controversy and worried about her son's culpability, she invites a cop friend over to her home and asks, without a note of irony or apology, "Can you do something for us?"  The cop is black. Terry LaCroix's face is always registering a blank, almost frightening unconcern, until she senses she might be seen as vulnerable or not worthy, as when she's asking for help from the cop friend.  Her other expressions range from fury and disdain to plain old everyday "I need to get this," while putting her I-phone up to her ear.  In short, she's an American classic, ignoring history while also trying to find a way to escape it, and yet in King's performance you feel a kind of thermodynamic exhaustion taking place right before your eyes.  She's tired of all she has to do to be herself, and yet she can't stop the act; she's wearing a mask that's smothering her but she can't remove it. 
The same can be said of Connor Jessup's Taylor, the boy who is sexually assaulted, and Joey Pollari's Eric, the boy accused of assaulting him.  They both are running from the way they have to perform themselves, seeking a way out of the codes and regulations encircling behavior, class, desire -- but they don't have anything to replace it with, to run to.  This sense of hopelessness permeates all of American Crime, and it's refreshing in a way you can't describe except that while you watch it you feel reality's pulse, tragedy's electricity.  There aren't really any happy moments in the show: dinners are always scraping plates and forks dropping to the floor, school a shadowy collection of hallways and facelessness, homes lit with living room lamps and TV light, faces lit with phone-light, everything in a sort of 21st Century gloom.  It's not show-offy though, this gloom -- it's bracing and for real, artificial enough to have a sense of style that saves the whole enterprise from being high-dungeon or campy or worked-up.  
American Crime creates a raw-nerve labyrinth of class and sex and gender and bias and hate and love and phoniness that encapsulates America in a way other shows can't.  You get lost in all the atmospheric complications, and yet the narrative momentum and dread pull you through.  There's no easy way to explain it, no easy way out.  This is heady stuff, extremely watchable somehow, all of it arranged into a high-stakes one-hour drama with an eye toward not letting anybody off the hook.  American Crime finds a beautiful and strange ambiguity in all that furor and blame.