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Auteur Theory

Why do we ask artists to pick favorites from among their own work? It’s an emotional question for the artists themselves, above all, and thus expectedly irrelevant to objective merit.  So it’s curious that a certain amount of fuss has been made over Woody Allen’s recently disclosed list of his top six favorite Woody Allen films, mainly because it lacks his signature piece, “Annie Hall.”  But isn’t it natural for Allen not to love “Annie Hall” most, given that “Annie Hall” probably needs his love the least? It’s on the list with or without him even placing it there.  Not to mention that Allen comes across as self-aware enough in the rest of the interview to have calculated that the only way a list of top Woody Allen films, even one by Woody Allen, could be controversial and newsworthy would be if “Annie Hall” was conspicuously missing from it.

I find myself hating on Woody Allen films more often than not, which really isn’t fair.  When I worked on a screenplay several months ago, it was “Annie Hall” that influenced me most. (How very original of me.)  But I’ve been meaning to make amends, so in light of his presently faint level of newsworthiness, now seems as good a time as any.  Let me present:

My Top 2 Favorite Woody Allen Films

(It’s not that I can’t think of six.  But as almost everything has already been said about almost every one of his films, I can only think of two that I still feel inspired to write about.  And no doubt including “Annie Hall” here is now passé.)

1.  Manhattan (1979)

Allen’s prior repulsive and felonious sexual history was outshone into obscurity after Soon-Yi, but I’d like to point out that in “Manhattan,” his 41-year old character’s relationship with the 17-year old Tracy (played by Mariel Hemingway) was apparently based on his own real-life relationship with Stacy Nelkin, whom the (early-40s) Allen dated when she attended New York’s Stuyvesant High School.

This isn’t the sort of detail that endears me to Allen or this film.  Strangest thing, then, that “Manhattan” actually makes my list because I found it empowering to women.  (And by “women,” I mean “myself.”)  I saw “Manhattan” when I was very young and cynical (youth and optimism are actually inversely-related for me), and Diane Keaton’s character Mary Wilkie was the first heroine I’d seen portrayed as charming and adorable for being, well, brainy.  Not brainy in a nuclear-physicist Bond heroine sort of way, or in a naive but with idiot savant brilliance sort of way, but in a way best defined by adjectives that are often covertly prefixed with an “overly-”: cerebral, opinionated, talkative,  perhaps even pretentious.  If anything, I’d seen those qualities associated with a certain type of intimidating sex appeal, but never before with sweetness or likability.

Sadly, Mary Wilkie’s nuanced, authentic character, and the personal importance it once held for me, only made me more enraged with Allen when I saw “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” which is stocked with female characters so comical and asinine that I wondered if Allen had actually started hating women. But maybe he hasn’t lost his touch.  Maybe I’ve lost mine.  While watching “Vicky Christina Barcelona” for the first time, I remember asking a male friend of mine incredulously, “Do women actually come across like that??(more…)

Fever Pitch

Disappointment at an evening football game in Buenos Aires

South Africa has some phenomenal PR,” I thought, walking out of a lecture given by South African Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Yvonne Mokgoro a few years ago on the comparative civil rights protections granted under the South African and American constitutions.  According to Mokgoro, the United States came in a far distant second.  She wasn’t wrong; the South African constitution is among the most liberally worded and progressive of its kind.  But consider the current state of South Africa:  Crime and HIV prevalence are astronomically high.  Unemployment is around 40%.  Income disparity has continued to increase post-apartheid.  The President Jacob Zuma – well, the less said about him the better.  All the “Rainbow Nation” rhetoric on racism apparently remains just that.  So for a country so steeped in problems, I had to admire South Africa’s moxie in positioning itself as a beacon of hope, not only for its continent, but for the rest of the world.

More recently, I was again struck by South Africa’s public relations when I was tied down and forced to watch the film “Invictus” (2009) against my will.  Based on a book by Independent reporter John Carlin, “Invictus” tells the story of the South African rugby team, the Springboks, and their victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  Despite the widespread call post-apartheid to put an end to the historically racially divisive team, Mandela avidly supported the Springboks, anticipating that their victory would bring the country together.

Not only was “Invictus” mind-numbingly dull, it suffered from the fatal flaw of most movies of its genre:  it lacked both a prequel and a sequel.  A prequel would have shown the uglier facts about why Black South Africans so detested the Springboks.  A sequel, in turn, would have shown how shortly after the World Cup the Springboks returned to their old ways, and the numerous racial allegations and incidents that had the country once again calling to disband the team.  As Louis Proyect writes about such films: “in each case, the audience is hoodwinked into believing that the movie is about the real world rather than some liberal fantasy.”

Such criticisms against films like “Invictus” are nothing new; their very premise – that racial discord can be best ameliorated not through structural change but via a sporting victory – itself cannot be said with a straight face.

Or so I thought.

As it turns out, “Invictus” did nail one thing with spot-on accuracy: the real-world discourse that sports are an effective means of mitigating racial tensions.  In the lead-up to the current FIFA World Cup, all sorts of people in high places were throwing such claims around:

“Let’s kick discrimination off the field. Let’s tackle exclusion. Let’s put racism offside,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated in an op-ed published in South Africa’s Business Day.

While economic rise can certainly help cure any number of social issues, from what I gather, this optimism is not just about the cash.  Hosting the World Cup will lead to an increase in tourism revenue, but South Africa already is a leader in that regard, ranking second among African countries after Egypt in world tourism rankings.  So it’s been predicted that any South Africa (as opposed to FIFA) cash gains from the World Cup are unlikely to be offset by the tremendous cost of hosting the event.  Writes Chris Bolsmann at the Harvard Business Review: (more…)

Youth Without Youth

Inside Buenos Aires Design

The effect of technological revolution on youth culture, as viewed by Jean-Luc Godard, David Foster Wallace and, um, myself. [Abridged]

Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Breathless,” (1960) recently re-released in black and white 35mm print for its 50th anniversary (and currently playing at Film Forum in Soho), has a reputation comparable to “Citizen Kane” or “Birth of a Nation” – the sort of film secure of its placement in the Film Class 101 canon, with its modern relevance devised entirely from its once groundbreaking film techniques and its revolutionizing of the known narrative concept at the time.  All very true, but all a bit staid for a film that 50 years later still comes across as freewheeling and anarchic.  Far more intriguing are the questions Godard poses regarding how youth fashions its identity under the influence of popular culture, questions that continue to be asked afresh with each new generation and each new technological revolution.

The technological revolution at play in “Breathless,” the story of the young and narcissistic Michel and Patricia in late 1950s Paris, is the ubiquity of film, particularly Hollywood gangster films, in European and American pop culture at the time.  Godard explores how not only the style and morality of these films, but also the very nature of film as a medium itself, can mold the personalities of those most susceptible to its influence: style-conscious urban youth.

So what qualities did the medium of film wrought in 1960s youth culture?  For Michel, like the gangster heroes he emulates, “cool” is about bravado. Characters embodied by Bogart and Cagney acted seemingly without forethought, moving the plot along to fit into a brief running time.  Michel, unable to distinguish that his life is inconveniently unscripted, likewise remains unperturbed by the fact that he has no idea what he is doing, and his downward-spiraling, frenetic actions are why the French title of the film, “À bout de souffle,” is better translated as “Out of Breath,” rather than “Breathless.”

Equally obsessed with image is the beautiful Patricia, with her portentous movie-dialogue conversation and the vanity with which she poses by a painting and asks Michel if she resembles the woman it features. Film, after all, is the projection of images, and in focusing on outward appearance, Michel and Patricia not only fear introspection (lest they reveal themselves to be anything “less” than glamorous, two-dimensional characters), but also have a pathological need for an audience, in each other and, as Godard does not hesitate to show, in us.  As Dennis Grunes describes one scene:

Patricia turns to us, showing the same need for us as Michel has shown.  Why us?  Because we, the audience, her reality, project her fantasy, her motive, of assuaging loneliness; and the self-reflexivity of the film corresponds, in part, to this sore self-consciousness afflicting Patricia and Michel.

Just as “Breathless” examined the powerful influence of popular film on youth culture in the 1960s, these questions re-arose with the next technological revolution: the ubiquity of popular television in the 1980s and 90s.

By the early 1990s, television – and television advertising – dominated American media.  Young Americans were watching on average six hours of television per day, a hitherto unprecedented amount of time to be spent doing anything, and the absurd magnitude of this influence shaped the generation. In his 1990 essay “E. Unibus Pluriam,” David Foster Wallace described the defining features of his youth culture as “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule.” And just as Godard linked his own generation’s narcissistic self-consciousness and bravado with the medium of film, so too did DFW root the defining features of 1990s youth culture in the medium of television:

In fact, the numb blank bored demeanor…that has become my generation’s version of cool is all about TV. “Television,” after all, literally means “seeing far”; and our six hours daily not only helps us feel up-close and personal at like the Pan-Am Games or Operation Desert Shield, but also, inversely, trains us to relate to real live personal up-close stuff the same way we relate to the distant and exotic, as if separated from us by physics and glass, extant only as performance, awaiting our cool review…[W]ooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it.

At the 50th anniversary of “Breathless” (and 20th anniversary of “E. Unibus Pluriam”), the time seems right to ask these questions again.  What effect has our generation’s technological revolution, the ubiquity of the internet and social networking, wrought on American youth culture today?  What are the defining features of the personality this medium has caused us to invent for ourselves? (more…)

Après moi, le deluge.

Stencil graffiti in Cordoba, Argentina

Every now and then a film comes along that is so vile, so repugnant to the fabric of human character and to the soul itself, that its cultural effect is magnificent to behold.  It  is a rare moment where legions of film critics, normally divided by taste and persuasion, are united by a most powerfully polarizing force.  They walk out of the theater as though exiting a chamber of horrors, and when they finally sit down to write, to resolve into words an intensity of emotion that is almost pre-lingual, their reviews nearly resemble love letters.

I live for this shit.  I’m openly revealing myself as a petty and mean-spirited hater, but while others were counting down to the theatrical release of “Sex and the City 2,” I was counting down to the release of the reviews. I couldn’t concentrate. I could barely sit still.  I sat at my laptop refreshing Rotten Tomatoes over and over, rubbing my hands together and cackling with unsuppressed glee like one of the three witches in “Macbeth.”

Look – I didn’t want this movie to fail. Okay, yes I did. I started to hate the show, with a fanatacism that much more strident to mask my shame in once having liked it.  I hated the main character Carrie (and I’m stealing this description) for being the embodiment of a particular type (caricature?) of woman I generally do not appreciate: “a drama queen attention vampire who fancies herself a low-maintenance flower child.” I hated its pernicious, misogynistic and patently false spawn-philosophies like “he’s just not that into you.” But now, all of its various transgressions against me are forgiven, and I am prouder of it than I can say.

In life, one must recognize in certain moments a call to action, but in other moments, to just stand in awe of the achievements of one’s superiors.  This moment is one of the latter.  Instead of watching and reviewing SATC2 myself, I emphatically recommend reading the reviews already written (all 150 of them).  Your time could not be better spent.  But for those of you whose priorities are not so admirably aligned as mine, let me present the highlights:

..reaches its nadir in a hideous scene wherein it’s revealed that the oppressed women of the Middle East are really hoping for a catwalk on which to strut their Paris fashions. Fuck you.


The tagline states that we should “Carrie on.” The publicity department almost got it right, but the spelling’s off. It needs to be “Carrion” because nothing says putrefying, rotten and vile quite like this sequel.

At one point the antagonists gather for a tortured karaoke performance of “I am Woman,” which threw me into shock and very nearly caused me to soil myself.


Una vez más?

Street Mural in Valparaiso, Chile

I’ve never thought of myself as appearing ethnically ambiguous until I saw how confidently South Americans assumed I spoke Spanish.  Frankly, South Americans were more confident addressing me in Spanish than North Americans are addressing me in English.  It was like I’d returned to my motherland.  If a Caucasian friend of mine asked a question in Spanish (fluently), nine times out of ten the response would end up directed at me, and I’d act obnoxiously smug about it.

You might think this helped me master the Spanish language.  But apart from quickly forgetting most of my English (which I’m told is the first, vital step), I never really progressed.  It was easier to just lie about how long I’d been living on the continent.

Linguistics has to be one of the most universally intriguing fields, and reading up on its rudiments lately prompted me to critically examine (read: shamelessly justify) this mental block.  Don’t get me wrong – I wish I had learned Spanish, and I doubtlessly missed out on more cultural richness than I can possibly grasp.  But considering that I mostly travelled by myself, on the lowest of budgets, in places where people rarely spoke a word of English, how could my ignorance of the language be so persistent? What the hell did I do?

Wittgenstein examined the uses of language through a construct termed “language games,” which show how people are trained to react in certain ways to the words of others.  For example, in a simple language game, a leader on a building site says the word “beam” and the worker knows to go and get the beam.  The word “beam” does not just label the object; it makes something happen.

This seems obvious but it makes a fine point – it shifts the focus of “language” from labeling and vocabulary to communication and utility.  Likewise, in the acquisition of language by infants, as informally described by David Carkeet, they must first learn to communicate without vocabulary before learning to communicate with it.

Vocabulary, it turns out, plays an entirely inferior role.  Truffaut’s film “The Wild Child” closely follows the true story of the French Dr. Itard’s frustrating attempt to socialize a young boy, Victor, who has grown up in solitude in a forest, unable to speak or understand any language.  Nothing makes Victor happier than drinking milk, and at one point in the film Dr. Itard refuses to pour him some till he asks for it by name, eventually bellowing, “Lait!! LAIT!!!” at the cowering child.  But Victor remains silent.  Defeated, the doctor hands him a glass of milk.  In the tense quiet afterwards, Victor drinks from the glass and feebly utters “Lait.” (more…)

Is this ART? (Meeting Mr. Brainwash)

Meeting Mr. Brainwash, a.k.a. MBW, a.k.a. Thierry Guetta, is not at all hard to do.  His ICONS exhibit is currently on display at 415 W. 13th St. in New York City through the month of May, and from what I gather, Mr. Brainwash makes frequent appearances.  He even briefly stopped by as I checked out the exhibit yesterday afternoon.

coverMr. Brainwash looked a bit fitter, a bit less like a hipster Rob Schneider and a bit more like an artist-about-town than he did in “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Attired in sunglasses and a trendy-sort-of hat, he nonchalantly smoked a cigarette on the steps before joining a group of young women slumped on couches in the center of the exhibit to tickle one of their adorable small dogs, while a tall young assistant followed him around pleading, “Thierry…” If MBW is a hoax, he’s certainly an elaborate one.

coverThe exhibit widely favored full-wall graphic displays over art pieces, such as the large wall comprised of Alfred Hitchcock panels (which have also apparently been seen in Los Angeles) seasoned with fresh advice from Mr. Brainwash, as well as a major wall in the center, presumably the hub of the ICONS exhibit, comprised of smaller, familiar-looking pop art pieces, over which was ironically printed the message, “If everyone thought the same/nothing would ever change.”

coverMr. Brainwash is full of such cheerful advice about life and art, all of it very innocuous.  Sometimes he even seems willing to forego presentation in favor of providing it wherever he can.


If you thought it only natural that Mr. Brainwash would embrace the practice of using unusual materials to reconstruct several of his otherwise derivative pieces, you thought wrong. Apart from a few occasional touches, e.g., the image of the band “KISS” constructed out of broken record pieces, the manipulation of mediums was noticeably unimaginative. Meaning that there was nothing more innovative than what you’d find at a high school art fair.

But let’s be kind to Mr. Brainwash. I’m feeling particularly generous towards him right now; his exhibit does, after all, give away mountains of posters and postcards to anyone who wants them, and he did seem quite fond of that girl’s adorable puppy.  Perhaps some art consumers really do prefer his versions of famous pop art pieces, even if his versions don’t quite take their source material in much of a creatively different direction.  Adding the lyrics of “Papa Don’t Preach” to a Warholesque Madonna might not be revolutionary, artistically-speaking, but perhaps a would-be-acquirer of Warholesque Madonnas might find the lyrics an improvement. Maybe it just looks better. Or cooler. Whatever. (more…)

Vanity Fair

Street mural in Valparaiso, Chile

“American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” is opening at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum this week, showcasing the development of women’s fashion from the 1890s to the 1940s, and its influence on modern fashion.

According to The New Yorker, the show’s curator, Andrew Bolton, frames the exhibit as “a face-off between Old World and New World ideals of femininity.”

[Bolton] cites the Paris couturier Jean Patou, who decided, in the nineteen-twenties, “the slender American Diana” was superior to “the rounded French Venus,” at least as a clotheshorse. In Bolton’s opinion, not only Diana’s silhouette but also her attitudes would “triumph” over those of Venus to set the standards of style… “Fashion intersected with feminism to become a liberating force for women in America,” he writes in the show’s wall notes.

Bolton’s lofty comments on the intersection between fashion and feminism immediately brought to mind a hilarious article I once read in The Onion, “Women Now Empowered by Everything A Woman Does.” Just to give some highlights:

Clothes-shopping, once considered a mundane act with few sociopolitical implications, is now a bold feminist statement…

Not every woman can become a physicist or lobby to stop a foundry from dumping dangerous metals… Although these actions are incredible, they marginalize the majority of women who are unable to, or just don’t particularly care to, achieve such things… Fortunately for the less impressive among us, a new strain of feminism has emerged in which mundane activities are championed as proud, bold assertions of independence from oppressive patriarchal hegemony.

The article is a satire but, despite being a bit mean-spirited and misogynistic, I think it accurately reflects a lot of the confusion surrounding feminism, particularly when the article came out in 2003, the heyday of the show “Sex and the City.” Debates about the influence of “Sex and the City” on modern feminism were continuously hashed and rehashed during the time, and I can’t tell if a consensus was ever reached. What is clear, however, is that while “Sex and the City” spawn continue to crop up – e.g., the subsequent films, similarly-themed books, newer shows like“Gossip Girl” and “The Hills,” etc. – no one in their right mind would call any one of them even remotely feminist.  If anything, the sustained interest in glamorizing the lives and wardrobes of wealthy young women, even when completely drained of all remnants of feminist thought, is an indication that what people found compelling about “Sex and the City” probably had nothing whatsoever to do with feminism in the first place.

I have managed not to get too depressed about all this. But now that we’ve come to a tenuous peace with the fact that American women are more interested in fashion than feminism, it struck me (and The New Yorker) as entirely odd that the curator of the Costume Institute would so confidently intersect the two of them, describing fashion as a “liberating force” for American women.

It seems clear that to look at the intersection between fashion and feminism in the most generous light would be to say that there isn’t one.  For example, when I studied Sex Equality in law school with the legendary feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon, one of the first things the female students (including myself) whispered about was how very beautiful and put together she always was. (more…)

Notes from the “Overrated in Pop Culture” Files

coverNight on a film set in Buenos Aires

When I ask people who their favorite actor is, the most common response I get is: Brad Pitt.

When I ask people who their favorite actress is, the most common response I get is: Kate Winslet.

And why not?  For one, both just seem like really cool people. Brad Pitt, purely by virtue of his likable nature, managed to emerge from the tabloid-seasoned celebrity affair of the decade as The Man – the Coolest Guy in School, albeit on a global level.  No one, not even his jilted ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, has a word to say against him. It was no wonder that Quentin Tarantino, the consummate Sorta Cool Nerd in the High School of Hollywood, apparently begged Pitt to star in “Inglourious Basterds.”  (Frankly, I sometimes get the feeling that Tarantino’s entire career as a director is in part just his elaborate way of social climbing.  Elaborate, yet successful. Good on you, QT.)

Kate Winslet, in turn, is widely regarded as the greatest actress of her generation.  She has been nominated for six (SIX!) Academy Awards, four of them by the age of 29, which sounds like more nominations than actual films in her illustrious oeuvre.  In interviews, she comes across as both funny and down-to-earth.  And much like Pitt is self-deprecating about his celebrity, Winslet jokes about her “Esteemed Career” and nickname of “Corset Kate.”

It’s not that I don’t like both Pitt and Winslet- I do, I do.  They are impossible not to like.  Not only do they have my vote for Prom King and Queen, they certainly deserve credit for making stellar career decisions, avoiding common pitfalls like selling out and Scientology, and being consistently good at what they do.  But maybe – just possibly – the astronomical amount of goodwill towards them, their mountains of awards and accolades, and their choice pick of any role that comes their way, might just be the smallest bit undeserved.  More precisely, their reputations might have more to do with how cool they are perceived to be offscreen, rather than what they do for us onscreen.

Take Pitt, for one: He seems to stay above scrutiny by choosing a variety of roles in a variety of films, but is he particularly adept at any one of them?  I usually employ a simple matrix here, consisting of three categories of performances: The Scene Stealer, The Character Actor and The Star.  A successful actor need not be able to do all three roles, just one and – for these purposes – let’s say he need only do it ONCE.  And I won’t use the straw-man approach and look at Pitt’s worst roles; I’ll choose his best, and play it from there:

The Scene Stealer: The sort of sizzling role that wins Oscars, “The Scene Stealer” is a character both written cool and filmed cool, and is usually viewed from the perspective of a more straight-laced narrator who, like the audience, can’t take his eyes off of him (or her).  This is the scenery-chewing role – this character crackles with electricity. Think Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” Daniel Day Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Carribean” or hell, even Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.”

Pitt Exhibit A: “Fight Club.”  If Pitt is indeed The Man, the role of Tyler Durden in “Fight Club” was his moment to blast it onscreen – Durden is the quintessential Scene-Stealer role.  Does Pitt pull it off? Not really. He is oddly upstaged by Ed Norton, the straight-man, Luke Wilson-type in the film. (In fact, following “Fight Club,” Norton and Pitt’s careers went off on what I like to view as opposite trajectories.  Norton is the anti-Pitt. He can act like a fucking house on fire, but he’s made shite career decisions. No one cares about his celebrity girlfriends, whether controversial (Courtney Love) or beautiful (Salma Hayek). No one cares about yet-the-next cop drama he’s appearing in.  And no one cares anymore that he can act.  Pop culture loves Brad Pitt, ergo it hates Ed Norton.)

The Character Actor: (more…)

Decadent Art

Mr. Brainwash's "Campbell Spray" graffiti in New York City

We’d like to believe that “art” is, as Justice Stewart famously said about pornography in his Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) concurrence, hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.”  In “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “art” may just be what someone tells us is “art.” Can one individual ever have enough power to convince the world he is an artist?

“Exit Through The Gift Shop” (2010) – either a documentary or an elaborate hoax* by the notorious graffiti artist “Banksy” – begins as a biography of an endearing, fairly ridiculous L.A. vintage store owner, the French-born Thierry Guetta, and his obsession with filming, well, everything. A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Guetta winds up following his cousin, the graffiti artist Space Invader, on his risky nighttime adventures in vandalism. Over the course of a decade, Guetta becomes addicted to filming the daredevil exploits of the most prolific graffiti artists all over the world, including Shepard Fairey (who designed the Obama “HOPE” poster) and Banksy, street art’s man-of-mystery, whom Guetta looks upon as a cross between hero and god. Believing that Guetta (who’s secretly only just a huge, huge fan) is making the definitive street art documentary, Banksy lets him film his normally clandestine stunts, such as hanging his own work in the Tate Modern Gallery and constructing an anti-Guantanamo display in Disneyland.

Sign outside Mr. Brainwash's ICONS exhibit

But the story twists when Banksy realizes that “maybe Thierry wasn’t actually a filmmaker, he was maybe just someone with mental problems that happened to have a camera.” Guetta, in turn, is no longer content to be merely the world’s biggest street art fan; he wants to be the world’s biggest street artist.

Adopting the moniker “Mr. Brainwash,” Guetta sinks his every resource into a hugely-hyped street art extravaganza, “Life is Beautiful,” that seems destined for catastrophe: it’s a comically amateur production stockpiled with Guetta’s ludicrous ripoffs of the most recognizable pop artists. But the show is a wild success. Banksy and the other street artists that Guetta once followed around like a slavish puppy are thrown into a morass of self-doubt about their own credibility, and the credibility of street art itself. “Exit” ultimately becomes a brilliantly multifaceted study, in turns hilarious and scathing, of the commodification of art.

This premise isn’t new by any means, but “Exit” is saved from being another grating “Fight Club”-esque send-up of consumerism because of the street art context. DBC Pierre once wrote, “In a world where you’re supposed to be a psycho, I just didn’t yell loud enough to get ahead.” Nowhere does this seem more apropos than in the world of street art. Graffiti artists are supposed to be lawless psychos – just look at their monikers: Invader, Neck Face, Swoon, Os Gemeos, Ces53 (several of whom are featured in “Exit”). And the work is rarely subtle; it screams from billboards and buildings in 30-foot dimensions, repetitions of artists’ trademarks replacing Nike swishes (like Fairey’s million Andre the Giants) or in stunts designed to cause the maximum commotion (like Banksy’s graffiti on the West Bank).

Graffiti outside the ICONS exhibit

It is the very nature of street art to reward those who scream the loudest, who take the biggest risks, and, in that respect, Guetta was up there with the best of them. But isn’t it a prerequisite that street “artists” are supposed to be screaming something? Ideally even something of value? Or are they just fooling themselves at this point?

Whether the story of the rise of Mr. Brainwash is just an art world hoax or not, these questions matter to the street artists in “Exit.” The best – and funniest – parts of the film are the bemused musings of the other street artists after “Life is Beautiful.” They emote a real sense of pathos, and occasionally even jealousy. Banksy philosophizes that perhaps in a way Guetta is like Andy Warhol, who “kept repeating images over and over until they were meaningless…and now they’re really meaningless…” he trails off, dryly. The irony is that Banksy isn’t so different himself: His portrait of Kate Moss, a near-replica of Warhol’s Monroe, sold at Sothebys for £50,400. If Guetta had nothing to say, did Banksy? Fuck it, did Warhol? (more…)

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Cemetary in San Pedro de Atecama, Chile

Russell Peters, an Indian-Canadian comedian, spoke about how people of African descent are always talking about “The Motherland.”  He jokes that Indian people have their own Motherland: England.

I hold this responsible for my obsession with Masterpiece Theater.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said this, but that has to be the least cool thing about me.  I’ve no clue what’s happening on “Gossip Girl” or “Mad Men” or whatever, but next week Miss Marple will be vacationing on the Isle of Wight! Just imagine the evil that shall ensue…

My obsession has been longstanding.  I uncovered a short story I wrote in the fourth grade, where the plot involved a piano tutor from Suffolk, his beautiful student who is suddenly overtaken by mysterious headaches, and the sinister appearance of a strange man in a broken top hat.  Really, Suffolk? To this day I have no idea where Suffolk even is.

Now, nearly two decades later, I consider myself something of a connoisseur of the post-war, “locked room,” three-pages-from-the-end-denouement-over-tea murder mystery, and other related genres besides.  So when Robert Altman’s film “Gosford Park” came out in 2001, it was an agonizing disappointment.  I mean, it came so close. This was the tagline: Tea At Four. Dinner At Eight. Murder At Midnight.” And it had nearly all of the key ingredients: an English country house, gossiping servants, a weekend shooting party, fucking Dame Maggie Smith

And then there was nothing.  The plot had all the resilience of an overly-soaked scone.  Years later, it still rankles.  So, for therapeutic purposes, I’ve decided to present this brief primer:

How To Write The Perfect Murder Mystery

The Premise: Ten strangers invited to an island are killed off according to a children’s poem.  The host of a bridge party is found dead; four suspects sat at one table, four detectives sat at the other. A strange notice appears in the morning paper, announcing a murder will be taking place at a specified location later that day.

A lot of attention is given to the premise, but in truth, it’s not terribly important.  Jasper Fforde, in his irreverent satire of Golden Era Crime Fiction, “The Big Over Easy,” has this as his premise:  Humpty Dumpty falls off a wall. Whodunit? Yes, it’s just that easy.

The Clue: In both Agatha Christie’s “The Mirror Crack’d” and Louise Penny’s “Still Life,” a series of murders is set off in small towns when the characters look at an apparently unremarkable painting.  Something they see in the painting leaves at least one of the viewers horrified and frightened.  But what exactly did they see?

“The painting” is a perfect example of the irresistible clue, because the answer hangs there from the beginning, static, literally staring everyone in the face.  Because the key piece of information seems to be presented upfront, the reader thinks they are on equal footing as the detectives in solving the crime.

The Motive: Though not a traditional murder mystery, Ira Levin’s “The Boys from Brazil” has one of my favorite motive discussions.  Here is the riddle: (more…)

Watch Your Step

Street mural in Valparaiso, Chile

“The Silence” (1963) – Ingmar Bergman, part of Northern Exposures: Social Change and Sexuality in Swedish Cinema at The Lincoln Film Center, New York City

If you’ve always been desperate to know how Ingmar Bergman would explore the theme of “silence,” you’ve really come to the right place.  “The Silence” refuses to let its title down.  You’re treated to a whole thesaurus’s worth of “silences”: miscommunication, lost in translation, passive aggression, isolation, omission, repression and desolation.  It’s a literal uproar of “silence.”

The plot of the film is simple enough:  Two sisters, the cerebral Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and the sensual Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) must stop with Anna’s young son Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) in a fictitious foreign country, where they stay in a very strange hotel.

Bergman’s films are often interpreted by their explorations of themes, which not only sounds incredibly irritating, but can be rendered meritless by subjectivity.  For example, Woody Allen claims that “The Silence” opens up when you realize that the two women represent different aspects of the same person.  Of course Woody Allen would think that. He LOVES that theme. See, e.g., the relentlessly annoying “Vicki Christina Barcelona” (2008).  If anything, the (frankly) superficial differences between the two sisters is one aspect of the film that quickly becomes uninteresting.

Woody Allen’s opinions aside, “The Silence” is not as pretentious or impenetrable as one might expect.  Bare bones as the plot might be, it is not an unfamiliar one.  It is a classic set-up of the horror genre.  Compare the elements in “The Silence” to those in the Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining” (1980):  Two adults trapped in a large, almost empty hotel.  A creepy little boy.  A creepy old attendant.  Wide corridors decorated in faded luxury.  A room full of jubilant, performing dwarves. Okay, that part is different.  But still, the point is, you watch both films thinking:  Something terrible will happen here.

So horror films are set up, and while watching them, you know better than to become emotionally attached to any of the characters, because all signs point to the fact that terrible things will happen to them. You distance yourself.  You come to the sometimes disconcerting realization that, in a way, you are watching the film for the purpose of seeing the characters abused, and it can even be dissatisfying if they are not.

“The Silence” is a masterfully executed horror film in every aspect of its construction:  the cinematography, the sound, the pacing, the mise-en-scene.  Only the horror in “The Silence” is of a different nature.  Let’s call this genre the “sexual horror film.”  This isn’t for horror films with explicit sex, or erotic films with scenes of horror.  Rather, just as the tension and unease in horror films comes from waiting for – or watching – the violent content, in sexual horror films, the unease comes from waiting for – or watching – the sexual content.

Like its sister-genre, the sexual horror genre contains wide disparities in both quality and graphic content.  See (and by that I mean avoid), e.g., “Spanking the Monkey” (1994) and “The Living and The Dead” (2006).  One of the better such films is “Eyes Wide Shut,” (1999) another Kubrick film.  I was inexplicably reminded of it while watching the opening credits of “The Silence,” until I recalled seeing a trailer for “Eyes Wide Shut” that ended with that exact same ticking clock noise.  (This is not to imply that “Eyes Wide Shut” is derivative. At the very least, it stakes its own claim by eschewing the Oedipal theme, which is like the bread-and-butter of the sexual horror genre – its answer to the “Marauding High Schoolers Stalked By Psychopath,” if you will.)

So adept is Bergman in his construction of a sexual horror film, and so pervasive is our sense of discomfort while watching “The Silence,” that only afterwards does it occur that we might not have witnessed any horror at all – and furthermore – that there may not have been any actual threat of horror.  As closely as the sexual relationships approach the realm of the disturbing, (more…)

Umami #4

An intersection between Beckett’s “Endgame,” Michel Khleifi’s “Zindeeq,” Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” Ujala Sehgal’s ninth grade English papers and Brandon Camp’s “Love Happens.”

Museum artwork from Cordoba, Argentina

One of my ninth grade English teachers wrote this comment on a paper of mine (a wildly fictitious account of my 14-year old life of debauchery that, apropos of nothing, turned into random song lyrics lifted from Nine Inch Nails and Our Lady Peace):

I can follow through most of this okay, but you might consider preparing the reader so they know what to think when they get to the end.

Or maybe you don’t care what the reader thinks.  Cool.

And just like that, I was scarred for life.  Because it is cool, isn’t it?  It’s that sheer coolness that makes disjointed surrealism my shameful weakness.  Shameful as in, if unbeknownst to me, someone resequenced the Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy “Love Happens” so that it ran from end to beginning, cut the sound in half the scenes and titled it “Umami #4” (tm Aviva), there is a chance I’d react, “BY GOD, THIS IS BRILLIANT!”

The architect Mies van der Rohe famously said, “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.” In that vein, let’s temporarily fuck the egalitarian perspective that if I happen to enjoy watching “Umami #4,” who cares if in construction it’s a piece of shit.  I may always find disjointed surrealism interesting.  But let’s talk about when it’s good.

So pseudo-pretension aside, let me make my case for my love of the abstract:  However compelling what is present can be, it is necessarily less so than what is conspicuously absent.  The “exclusions of a rhyme” – to steal a phrase from the poet J.V. Cunningham – the negative space, offers so much more for an artist to work with because the potential richness is unlimited by anything other than the audience’s own imagination and intellect.

But therein lies the dilemma: you need to distinguish what the audience enhances from what the artist supplies.  A favorite display of this is in Yasmina Reza ‘s play “Art,” where a man lets his friend graffiti a stick figure skier onto a completely white painting (that cost him $50,000) after their feud over its stupidity unseats deeper emotional issues between them. The skier is later removed, but the once skeptical friend is now overwhelmed by the painting’s “artistic significance”: “It represents a man who moves across a space… then disappears,” he says tearfully.

But can we always tell whether the proverbial emperor is wearing any clothes?  I started worrying about “Umami #4” last weekend, when I caught both Michel Khleifi’s “Zindeeq” at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, and Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” at the Steppenwolf Theatre.  Both works are abstract, and in both almost nothing happens.  Needless to say, I liked both.  But while both are interesting, only “Endgame” is actually good.

Okay, so this may not seem revelatory.  As the friend who saw both “Zindeeq” and “Endgame” with me said, “There are artists you can trust to have multiple levels of meaning, and those you cannot.” Beckett is obviously one of them.  Khleifi, poor guy, is a relatively unknown filmmaker, whom critics have accused of watching too much Antonioni.

But trust issues aside, the more I thought about it, what I actually liked about “Zindeeq” was all of the flaws it didn’t have.  Which gives rise to this rather depressing theory:   (more…)

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Barbed-wire wall mural in Valparaiso, Chile

Barbed-wire wall mural in Valparaiso, Chile

In one of the all-time great coincidences, I happened to catch Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation of “King Lear,” “Ran” (1985) at the Chicago Music Box Theatre last week, at the same time as I was reading Christopher Moore’s “Fool” (2009) – ALSO based on “King Lear.”  Incredible, I know.

“Ran” is one of Kurosawa’s later films, an epic tragedy set in feudal Japan, and is considered a masterpiece by one of the greatest directors of all time.  In contrast, “Fool” is the very definition of a “bawdy romp” that satirizes “Lear” (plus snippets from a good ten or twelve other of the Bard’s plays), and is generally amusing if you’re a fan of the comedic styles of Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, (which I sometimes am, in that order).

Really, these two versions could not be more different in concept, style or plot – so it’s sort of fascinating how similar they are in interpretation (granted, I may be using the word “fascinating” a little too loosely for some).  For me, a central theme in Shakespeare’s “Lear” is the tyrant’s paranoia that he holds on to his power “wolf by the ears,” that he can neither hold on to his power forever, nor safely let it go.  (Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was thinking of “Lear” when he penned those words; a line in the play is: “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf” 3.6.16.)

But “Ran” and “Fool” aren’t about paranoia; they are about punishment.  Shakespeare’s King Lear is not an unsympathetic character, whereas Moore’s Lear and Kurosawa’s “Hidetora” are monsters.  Hidetora frankly looks like a monster.  All of Shakespeare’s original villains seem entirely justified in their plotting against Hidetora, and then are robbed of their most diabolical moments.  Probably the most monstrous act in the Bard’s play is Cornwall’s gouging out of a man’s eyes; in “Ran,” that very act is committed by Hidetora himself.  Likewise, though Moore’s Lear starts out affably enough, the narrative slowly reveals his past as a murderer and rapist.

Lear’s journey in both versions is less a chaotic unraveling than a Dantean tour of hell on Earth.  The theme of hell is conspicuously repeated in both the dialogue and imagery of “Fool” and “Ran.”  Moore’s Lear finds himself literally being tormented by ghosts in a dungeon, while Kurosawa follows Hidetora as he runs screaming from one seeming haven to another, only to find each housing fresh horrors.  Even his death seems just the next illusion of salvation:  the final shot of Tsurumaru – incidentally, the one character for whom death might actually come as a mercy is the only one Kurosawa leaves alive – is so harrowing that it seems to foreshadow a continued hell.  Yet another arresting image is that of a crazed Hidetora descending the steps of a burning tower, surrounded by blood and bodies, into the chaos of battle.  He walks through unscathed; he is a cursed man, and the soldiers draw back as though afraid to interrupt the Gods in their torment of him.

Though neither Moore nor Kurosawa’s original inspiration was the play “King Lear” itself – Moore writes in his Author’s Note that “Lear” was in part his editor’s suggestion, and Kurosawa began with the legend of Motonari Mori, a 16th-century Japanese warlord – once both settled to the play, their decision to portray Lear as a monster is not a surprising one.  Adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedies often view the pervasive nihilism as not a theme to explore, but as a problem to solve.

Both Moore and Kurosawa shoehorn a prequel into their plots, a sort of “Godfather Part I” to explain the current state of disintegration.  Kurosawa even said, “What has always troubled me about ‘King Lear’ is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. … In Ran, I have tried to give Lear a history.” Michael Sragow writes in his review for

For Kurosawa, more than for Shakespeare, the monarch’s real erosion of authority has its roots in the way he acquired power in the first place: through systematic pillage and slaughter… Shakespeare showed us sound and fury signifying nothing; Kurosawa delivers a spectacular depiction of doomsday karma.

Spectacular as the retribution may be, the display of cause and effect smothers most elements of nihilism that exist within Shakespeare’s play.  Because we are fundamentally uncomfortable with nihilism, we trade it in for reason and order. (more…)

Toonces the Driving Cat

Stencil graffiti in Cordoba, Argentina

My ex-roommate/current benefactor’s taste in film can best be summed up in one word:  “Twilight.”  Financial dependency on her results in my, on most days, spending more time in Forks, Washington (where the film is set) than in Los Angeles (where she, and thus I, presently reside).   Fortuitously, this has rendered me capable of achieving something I once believed impossible:  providing a juxtaposition of the directors’ audio commentaries on “Twilight” and “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” (hereinafter, “New Moon”) for anyone who is interested (read: no one).

Twilight Audio Commentary – featuring Catherine Hardwicke (director), Robert Pattinson (star, also: insanely hot) and Kristen Stewart (star)

New Moon Audio Commentary – featuring Chris Weitz (director) and the highly anticipated Peter Lambert (editor)

I can’t believe I’m writing about this, but the Twilight commentary begins with Hardwicke introducing herself as Pattinson, Stewart introducing herself as Hardwicke, and Pattinson introducing himself as Stewart.  And NO, it is not funny at all.  Even the three of them don’t think it’s funny.  There is a moment of despondent silence afterwards during which, one hopes, they are all reconsidering their decision to show up.

But as the commentary progresses, you will fondly look back at that moment as the Golden Era of Wit.   It takes almost no time for all three to reveal themselves as complete morons.  And I will not let the fact that this comes as a surprise to no one prevent me from getting needlessly worked up about it.

Perhaps none of them had any fucking idea of what was going on during filming.  When Hardwicke was asked why she chose to film a shot a certain way, she… didn’t know.   Pattinson, whose preternatural hotness is somewhat diminished by his giggling like a schoolgirl throughout, occasionally makes comments along the lines of, “I think this might have been important, but I don’t remember why” and “I want to listen to this part, oh wait, not this part.”  Only Stewart appears appropriately embarrassed.  At one point, there is an awkwardly long stretch of silence, broken only by a fresh outbreak of Pattinson’s inexplicable giggling.

As the only takeaway from the Twilight commentary is that all British accents are not, in fact, sexy, maybe the stars were forcibly barred from appearing out of character on the New Moon DVD.  Because I liked New Moon more after hearing Chris Weitz’s take on it.

A while back, I attempted to read the book Twilight, and failed.  Then, I abandoned it on a park bench so it wouldn’t pollute the other books I have at home.  This is not because it’s a young adult novel; I read YA novels all the time (umm, when I’m not reading Robbe-Grillet and Gaddis, that is).  That shit was just unreadable. (more…)

Because Poe wrote on both?

Street mural in Valparaiso, Chile

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Directed by Tim Burton

Mocking Tim Burton for his now perfunctory touches like the crooked tree branch silhouettes, sallow-faced heroines and Depp’s electrified hair is like mocking the latest Wes Anderson or Christopher Guest film, or the latest Pacino or De Niro performance, for demonstrating the law of diminishing returns.  Yes, all of the above have a shtick, ergo they have entered the mainstream.  But all seem well aware of it.  What they are counting on, I assume, is that we like the shtick.  Just as with a new Kate Hudson rom-com, we know exactly what we are getting, and will therefore-or-regardless still want to see it.

So it is not a well-kept secret that Burton is out of ideas.  I had a fairly good picture of what Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland would look like, just as I have a fairly good picture of what, in a parallel universe, Baz Luhrmann’s Alice in Wonderland might look like.  And, like most of the film-going public, I therefore-or-regardless still wanted to see it. (Though if I had my choice of parallel universes, we’d all have seen Guillermo del Toro’s Alice in Wonderland instead.)

No, Burton’s problem here, as with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is his choice of source material.  Burton’s pop-macabre formula is superficial at best; but with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, the weirdness lies deeper.  It is not in the characters’ hairstyles or cadences, but in the narrative itself.  The real source of wonder in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is how profoundly the film just does not get it.  It is an outlandish, had-Burton-even-heard-of-the-(not unfamous, in fact wildly popular)-books-before-filming type of not get it.

The story in Burton’s film is a familiar one, albeit for all the wrong reasons.  Linda Woolverton’s screenplay “re-imagines” a 19 year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), who narrowly escapes betrothal to a predictably repulsive and pampered aristocrat by following the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) down to “Underland,” a place she had visited in her childhood dreams.  Underland is now under the dictatorship of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), which has brought about a barren landscape and lack of dancing.

As it turns out, there is a prophecy that Alice will steal a sword and kill a monster (the “Vorpal Sword” and Jabberwocky, respectively), thus returning the rule of Underland to the rightful hands of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Red Queen’s sweet-natured sister.  Having no recollection of her previous sojourn through Underland, Alice is a reluctant heroine until the friendly inhabitants, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse), the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (voiced by Matt Lucas), call upon her to fulfill her heroic destiny.

So clichéd is this plot that it stifles any singularity in the characters themselves, which is ironic considering that the flamboyance of each personality encountered by Alice is what has long attracted readers and audiences, and probably Burton himself, to the material in the first place. (more…)


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