Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (film review)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the new film directed by David Fincher and written by Eric Roth, was inspired by a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, from which it differs considerably. Fitzgerald’s story is about a man born a septuagenarian, 5’8”, and fully developed mentally as well as physically. He smokes his father’s cigars and reads the Encyclopedia Britannica instead of playing with child’s toys. Rather than aging, the man gets younger every year.

It’s a strange story about a freak of nature, a man who is loved neither by his parents nor his own child because of his strange deformity (for lack of a better word). The fate to which this condition condemns him is to never be accepted, or even to be understood. Even his wife – when she eventually discovers his condition – blames him for it:

“I'm not going to argue with you,” she retorted. “But there's a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you've made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don't suppose I can stop you, but I really don't think it's very considerate.”

“But, Hildegarde, I can't help it.”

“You can too. You're simply stubborn. You think you don't want to be like anyone else. You always have been that way, and you always will be. But just think how it would be if everyone else looked at things as you do--what would the world be like?”

Fitzgerald’s story is, indeed, short; but the film is not. In fact the film has very little in common with the story that inspired it. Fitzgerald fleshes out none of the characters but his protagonist. (We never even meet the remarkable mother who gave birth to a 5’8” child.) Roth – who also wrote Forrest Gump – creates a number of compelling characters on which to base this touching (sometimes cloying) story about love, loss, acceptance, and forgiveness (strikingly similar themes, in fact, to this season’s animated Tale of Despereaux).

While I was watching it, I was constantly torn between Fitzgerald’s intriguing premise and Roth’s heavy-handed Gumpiness. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton, as well as a fine supporting cast, make the film enjoyable to watch. As in Forrest Gump, though, the filmmakers (and I’m assuming Roth in particular) make unnecessary efforts to connect the story quite superficially with a snapshot-view of American history, culminating in a Katrina-gripped New Orleans which allows the audience to anticipate the inevitable. I’m assuming the potential for audience identification was Roth’s sole motivation for setting his story in New Orleans; Fitzgerald’s is set in Baltimore.

In the film, Benjamin is a foundling, a white child raised by a black woman, Queenie, whose love and nurturance seem infinite. But as A.O Scott points out in his review for the New York Times, Benjamin, “though he is a white Southerner raised by a black woman…seems untouched by racial turmoil or by much of anything beyond the mysteries of his peculiar destiny.”

Another Gump-like feature of the film is Benjamin’s initial naivete; he’s a child, after all, even if he looks 70 and is born with cataracts, rheumatoid arthritis, and other crippling diseases of old age. And he’s born the size of a normal baby. Fitzgerald’s Benjamin is not only adult size (which Fitzgerald never attempts to explain in naturalistic terms), but he apparently has the knowledge and experience of an old man as well. (His first words to his father, when meeting him at the hospital nursery: “Are you my father? Because if you are I wish you would get me out of this place – or, at least, get them to put a comfortable rocker in here….This is a fine place to keep a youngster of quiet tastes. With all this yelling and howling, I haven’t been able to get a wink of sleep. I asked for something to eat, and they brought me a bottle of milk!”)

For all its tear-jerking poignancy, the film’s final message is a feel-good one (or two): you can be whatever you want, do whatever you want; and you have to experience pain and loss in order to experience love. As I was watching the film I kept thinking that Fitzgerald’s story must have had more of an edge, and I wondered if it was more Poe-like than Gump-like. Since the story’s in the public domain, you can read the full-text version online, which I did, and found its aesthetic spare and direct. It’s not spooky, exactly, but there’s an uncanniness about it, and it has poignant, touching moments even without Fincher’s heavy-handed melodrama. In the last chapter, Fitzgerald tells us:

In 1920 Roscoe Button's first child was born. During the attendant festivities, however, no one thought it "the thing" to mention, that the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the new baby's own grandfather.

The child’s loneliness – condemned to live his life in reverse, without the sympathy or understanding of any living soul – is heartbreaking. Fitzgerald does not hit us over the head with this heartbreak, however; it hides at the margins of the story, and can easily be dismissed along with the story’s overall eccentricity.

Fincher does not condemn poor Benjamin to a lonely life; instead he gives Benjamin a soulmate, Daisy. They meet as children, fall in love, have a child together; and at the end of his life, Benjamin (now a child himself) is cared for by the aging Daisy, now more like a mother or grandmother than anything else. Their love and intimacy surpass that of normal couples; such is the stuff of Hollywood films. The New Yorker film review is rather unfavorable: “This science-fiction reverse-aging conceit, from an early F. Scott Fitzgerald story, has been rendered by the writer Eric Roth and the director David Fincher with a fanatical literalness that occasionally touches the uncanny but that often feels laborious and even pedantic.”

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the film lie outside of Benjamin’s own story. Thematically they lie in the enclosing of multiple, tangential stories within the folds of the primary one. Filmically they reside in the corresponding representations of those stories, beginning with the framing narrative – Daisy’s extended story of the blind clockmaker (Mr. Gateau, or Mr. Cake) whose son dies in the Great War, so he makes the clock for New Orleans’ new railway station to run backwards, as if to reverse time and bring back his son (alluding to Benjamin’s aging backwards). At the end of the film, when Katrina breaches the New Orleans levy, we see the waters lap at the dismantled clock in its dusty storage. Then there are Benjamin’s brief visions of the old man as he tells Benjamin he’s been hit by lightning seven times. These episodes reminded me of Magnolia, one of my favorite contemporary films (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, released in 2000).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Film Bookends Part II: "Amelie" and "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not"

Everyone has seen Amelie -- well, almost everyone, with the exception of those who were deliberately protesting its saccharine-sweet (and borderline fascist?) nostalgia for a sort of pre-immigrant-riots France. It was the big crossover foreign film of 2001. (Full title: Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain.) I've got to admit, I liked it. The strangely quiet titular heroine, played by Audrey Tautou, was not all goodness and light; I thought her unexpected romance with the guy who collected photographs of strangers from the Metro station photo booths was borderline kinky and gave the film a subtly eccentric twist. Amelie spent all her time secretly helping improve the lives of those around her, motivated evidently by her love for humanity.

The flip side of that coin is represented in the 2002 film, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (or in French, A la folie...pas du tout). It's the same wonderful actress, Audrey Tautou, but this film is like Amelie meets, what? Run Lola Run and Fatal Attraction, maybe, with a little bit of The Sixth Sense thrown in. Sadly I don't know anyone else who has seen it, other than myself and the friend I saw it with back when I was living in Detroit for a one-year teaching gig. Since I don't know anyone else who's seen it, I haven't had much chance to discuss this film with friends. Suffice it to say, you guys are really missing out; you really ought to see this film.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not is the flip side of Amelie; it's like, what if the character Amelie weren't actually all goodness and light? What if she were really a psychopath? The problem is, you have to sit through most of the film before it occurs to you that it might actually be a response to Amelie, and that puts the film in a whole new light. My friend who saw it with me hated it, understandably so because it is fairly odd; I would argue that it only makes sense if you read it as an anti-Amelie story. The chief clue is that Audrey Tautou plays both roles. You'll have to watch it yourself to pick up the rest.


Try the "Amelie" Drinking Game at this link

Monday, December 22, 2008

"Rats, Rats, Lay Down Flat" - Tribute to Syd Barrett

Followers of this blog know I occasionally give in to a post-adolescent nostalgia for what's euphemistically called "classic rock" (meaning it was made long before the biggest music-buying demographic were born). Some might assume I'm revisiting my teenage tastes, but for the most part I'm not; I'm discovering some of it for the first time, thanks to my music-afficionado husband, AND to my 4-year-old son.

A few months ago my son (at the tender age of 3 -- what he now refers to as "the old days") was given to periodically shouting, "rats! rats! lay down flat! we want to know why you act like that!" After witnessing this behavior a few times I learned from my husband that this is a line from a Syd Barrett song called "Rats," off the 1970 album simply titled "Barrett." This became one of my son's favorite songs (along with "Bungle in the Jungle"). I don't know if he ever shocked his teachers and classmates with this line, because if so, they never told me about it.

Who knows what it means? I sure don't. Syd Barrett was a strange dude. He was a founding member of Pink Floyd, but left the band early, an "acid casualty," as my husband calls him. The song "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond" was reportedly about him. (That's from my favorite Pink Floyd album, "Wish You Were Here.") Rumor has it that the members of the band hadn't heard from Barrett in years, but when they went into the studio to record this song, he appeared out of the blue. Maybe they conjured him up, like a genie.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Volto Santo of Lucca

No, this is not Santa Claus. It's supposed to be the crucified Christ, fully dressed. Seeing as how it was made in the 15th century, he's not exactly wearing historically accurate clothing for the 1st century, even for someone NOT being crucified. I ran across this image in the ARTstor database while searching for images of Bramante's Tempietto of San Pietro in Rome. This just goes to show how odd search engines can be. I like that they are more inclusive rather than less inclusive, because it lets people like me see unexpected things that our normal scholarship and teaching might never lead us to.

It represents a statue found in the Cathedral of S. Martino at Lucca -- an over-life-size wooden statue, possibly from the late 12th century. It is "one of the best known and most venerated of all icons in Italy" (according to ARTstor).

More from ARTstor: "The legend of the Volto Santo has been hopelessly intertwined with that of a female saint, known under a variety of different names, who preserved her virginity by taking on Christ's features, beard and all, and was then crucified....The statue is reputed to have been sculpted by Nicodemus - all but the head, which was fashioned by angels while Nicodemus slept....A fresco of Nicodemus carving the in Lucca's cathedral. Said to have been brought to Italy in the eighth century, the statue's fame as a goal for pilgrims was almost unparalleled during the middle ages and beyond. Reproductions of it are common today and were surely just as numerous in the quattrocento, a popularity evidenced by the construction in 1482-84 of a new chapel, or Tempietto del Volto Santo, designed by Matteo Civitale. Many versions of the image survive from the Renaissance onward, and they show a remarkable amount of variation in the style and ornament of the dress, the crown, and the face itself. The tunic in this print, for example, is nothing at all like that of the statue, which would often, however, have been covered by a separate, detachable garment. This is still current practice on feast days, although the crown now in use dates to 1665 and the gaudy embroidered skirt to 1818. In all likelihood, accoutrements like those seen in the engraving adorned the statue during the fifteenth century."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Film Bookends Part I: "Casablanca" and "An American in Paris"

"We'll always have Paris."

This weekend we watched Vincente Minelli's 1951 Hollywood musical An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly. (The man can dance like nobody's business!) I had never seen it before, and my strongest impression of the film was that it was the Hollywood musical "answer" to Casablanca, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman classic directed by Michael Curtiz. It was uncanny. I don't know if Minelli loved Casablanca or hated it, but I do know that he responded to it quite overtly in An American in Paris. Consider this:

1. Casablanca is set during the war, and it was made during the war, too (in Hollywood). An American in Paris was made, and is set, after the war. Both have action that takes place in Paris; in Casablanca, it was immediately before and during the German Occupation of the city, and in An American in Paris it is set in a liberated city, one that is filled with Americans (three of the film's five main characters are Americans).

2. In Casablanca, there's a love triangle. The beautiful Ilsa Lund is secretly married to Victor Laszlo, international hero of the French Resistance. He's wanted by the Nazis, and they're hot on his trail as he tries to escape to America with Ilsa. But Ilsa is also in love with the American gunrunner Rick Blaine, with whom she had a brief but passionate affair in Paris a few years back, just before the German Occupation, while she thought Victor was dead.

In An American in Paris, there's also a love triangle. American GI-turned-painter Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) falls in love with 19-year-old Frenchwoman Lise Bouvier, but Lise is involved with famed French singer Henri Baurel. Lise is the daughter of French Resistance fighters; during the war, the parents had asked their friend, Henri Baurel, to take care of her. (We never meet her parents in the film, but I like to imagine that she's the daughter of Ilsa and Victor.)

3. In both films, men decide on the fate of the trio. In Casablanca, famously, Ilsa can't decide between Victor and Rick (she loves them both), and she tells Rick to decide her fate: "you have to think for both of us." Rick tells her he'll leave Casablanca with her, but instead he puts her on the plane to America with Victor, thus saving a crucial Resistance leader and becoming a hero. He even kills the Nazi leader to save Victor from capture.

In An American in Paris, Lise loves Jerry, but can't break up with Henri, because she "practically owes him her life." But Henri makes the decision that she should have made, freeing her to be with Jerry.

I think it is significant that these women -- Ilsa and Lise (even the names link them; Lise is pronounced "Lisa") -- aren't in control of their own fates. Only the men get to decide, and their decisions are therefore seen as noble because they have to break their own hearts to restore "the good" to the world. Women are emotional creatures; they are duplicitous and indecisive. Men are rational creatures, and they make noble decisions.

4. Casablanca has a poignant ending: our hero -- the American male -- does NOT get the girl. An American in Paris, on the other hand, has a happy ending: our hero -- the American male -- DOES get the girl. Perhaps it signals a better time for America, which became culturally dominant after its World War II victory.

5. In Casablanca, Rick's famous last words to Ilsa are "We'll always have Paris." In An American in Paris, Jerry tells Lise, "Now what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that's enough for some, but it isn't for me anymore, because the more beautiful everything is, the more it will hurt without you." How can this not be taken as a reply to the resignation, self-denial, and nostalgia expressed in Rick's farewell to his beloved? "Maybe that's enough for some [i.e., Rick and Ilsa], but it isn't for me anymore."

The message to Americans? We're entitled to it have it all -- after all, what other nation of people are told in their founding documents that they have the "right" to the "pursuit of happiness"? And if that's not enough, we earned that right in the war. And who could better represent America in the postwar period than Gene Kelly, the man with perfect teeth?

American women are the real losers in An American in Paris. The American woman who pursues Jerry, Milo Roberts (played by Nina Foch), is aggressive and domineering. She's a rich heiress who tries to win Jerry's heart by supporting him as an artist, thus undermining his masculinity both as sexual aggressor and as financial breadwinner. For Minelli, the American female is unfeminine and pushy. American women took a lot of hits from Hollywood in this postwar period -- don't even get me started on this subject.

An American in Paris is an interesting film for a lot of reasons, most of which I'm giving short shrift in this essay: the cultural stereotype of the artist; the use of artworks (paintings) in film; the myth of Paris. It's definitely worth watching. Casablanca, of course, is a classic; I've seen it so many times that I can't count them, and I could watch it again and again. It's sometimes hard to analyze something that you feel so attached to; for me, seeing An American in Paris helped me to think about an old favorite in a new way.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Images from the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (ENSBA)

Ran across this photo on the webpage of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and thought it was cool. No other reason for the post, except that I'm long overdue on writing up something informative and witty. (the pressure!) This photo, obviously, is from when the sculptor was at work on the Statue of Liberty in Paris.

This image is cool, too; it's the frontispiece from a book of plates, c. 1770, by one G. Volpato and representing the loggia of Raphael in the Vatican. Notice (how could you not?) the dramatic use of one-point perspective.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Vice Presidency to Nowhere

I have labelled this blog "Journeys in Visual Culture," and my only departures from that theme so far have been book reviews. It was never intended to be a political blog; not Hilary, Barack, or John McCain could tempt me to make an exception. But I can stay out of the fray no longer: McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate is the worst thing to happen in American politics since George W. Bush stole the presidential election in 2000 (though the fact that he really DID win in 2004 is almost as frightening).

McCain's selection is a huge slap in the face to the American people that even the most cynical among us could never have anticipated. He offers us a candidate not only with no experience in national politics, but one whose limited experience in state and local politics have been characterized by large doses of both incompetence and corruption. She is the female George W. Bush, all the way down to her arrogant ignorance and her involvement in Big Oil. Her new campaign has as its two main features deception and nastiness.

I am grossly offended by the tone of her speech at the Republican National Convention. The sneer in her voice was visible even over the radio (my news medium of choice). The edginess of her voice as she mocked Barack Obama for being a community organizer was more suitable for a mud wrestling match than a contest to lead this great nation. Her jeering at the opposition was welcomed by the equally jeering mob who demonstrate the principle of "mob mentality." To sum it all up: YUCK.

[and by the way - does it come as a surprise to anyone that a Replican doesn't know what a community organizer is?]

In another speech, of which I caught only a brief snippet on the radio on Friday afternoon (I don't know whom she was addressing), she railed against Obama's tax plan as hurting the middle class and small businesses -- both blatant lies. But will her adoring Republican fans bother to find out the truth?

I strongly feel that this sort of behavior does not belong in public discourse. I would give anything for some civility right about now. Even George W. Bush didn't behave this way in his campaigns. Her candidacy is appalling and galling. (Is that redundant?) I just hope this national nightmare will go away come November, and Sarah Palin's candidacy will vanish into the realm of Trivial Pursuit questions (there will be a lot of them). God help this country if it doesn't.

According to one of my colleagues, John McCain responded to the charge that Palin has no foreign policy experience by saying something to the effect that "of course she does - Alaska is very close to Russia." This colleague said that either A) McCain really believes this, in which case he's stupid; or B) McCain thinks Americans are dumb enough to believe him. (And this colleague says we should point that out to our students, though of course we would never point that out to our students, because we never talk about politics in the classroom...)

Time magazine reports that McCain's first two choices for vice president - Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge - were "vetoed" by "the Republican party elders," who wanted him to choose Mitt Romney. (Lieberman and Ridge are both pro-choice.) As a result, McCain went with a little-known candidate who had evidently not been properly vetted. What I want to know is, how can McCain continue to be perceived as a maverick when he can't even select the vice presidential candidate he wants? (See "How McCain Makes Obama Conservative" by Joe Klein, Sept. 4.)

McCain's selection of Palin is the only thing that has made me wish Obama had chosen Hilary as his running mate, because I'd give anything to see Hilary debating Sarah Palin.

I often think that Republicans are the most guilty of the kind of political nastiness we are now seeing in Sarah Palin; the kind of nastiness one hears on right-wing talk shows. They blame "the press" (whoever that is) of being liberal, but only because these so-called "liberal" venues don't engage in the vile rhetoric of hateful, propagandistic name-calling. I keep in mind, however, that many Republicans see Democrats as being the ones at fault for the partisanship in American politics, and although I think they're wrong, I recognize that everyone, including myself, has a bias. (I think liberals, at least, are more honest about their own biases...)

The current state of division in American politics is addressed in a new book, which I have not read, but heard about it yesterday on a radio program called "Weekend America." The book is called The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. (It seems that if you want your book to be a best-seller, you have to have the word "WHY" somewhere in the title.) Jim Gates, the reporter in the story "RNC Undercover," is a Democrat, and he attended the Republican convention with his friend Hugh, who's a Republican. Here's an excerpt:

Hugh and I have moved to cities that reflect our lifestyles. And that's typical of what's been going on in America. In the 30 years that Hugh and I have known each other, Americans have become more mobile and Republicans and Democrats have been moving further and further apart. Literally. Democrats have moved to densely packed cities and Republicans have moved to spacious suburban enclaves. Author Bill Bishop calls this mass movement "The Big Sort." It's also the name of his new book.

"By seeking out those places comfortable to them culturally," Bishop explains, "the decision is to avoid those places that are uncomfortable. They really are avoiding different points of view." And as Americans spend less time talking to people with different points of view, it's no surprise that the people they elect are more partisan than ever.

"There are incredible differences from place to place," says Bishop, "But what's missing then is any ability of highly different areas to ever get together and make any kind of policy nationally. So we have great consensus locally but no consensus nationally."

Bishop is probably right. One thing I like about Obama is his sentiment that there are not "two Americas, there's one America." And one of the few things I always liked about McCain was his bipartisanship - until, of course, he won his party's nomination, and now he has chosen a VP candidate who will only deepen the divide.

I was at the bookstore today and noticed a truly bizarre-sounding book on the "politics" new releases table. It's called Makers and Takers, and has this unusually long subtitle: "Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less...and Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals." (With a subtitle like that, who needs to read the book?) Funny, it doesn't describe many of the conservatives or liberals I know...and as a liberal, I can assure you I don't know anyone who hugs their child more than I do.

The one political book that I bought today, and have started reading, is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, by Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? (which I still haven't read). Stay tuned to this blog for a post on it soon.

Also in the media:
On Thursday, Sept. 4, Amy Goodman (on Democracy Now!) interviewed Shannyn Moore, an Anchorage-based radio talk show host who has closely followed Palin's career and has interviewed Palin numerous times. See "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin Accepts GOP Nomination."

Gloria Steinem's Op-Ed essay in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 4, "Palin: wrong woman, wrong message." (Thanks to my aunt for sending me this link.)

Terry Gross' interview about Sarah Palin with journalists Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, authors of the 2006 One Party Country, Sept. 3. See "'One Party Country' Dissects Why Republicans Win." (Thanks also to my aunt.)

Sarah Palin believes that an Alaskan oil pipeline is "God's will;" she urges folks at her church to pray for the pipeline because "God's will has to be done." Also the Iraq War - that's right, "God's plan." See the Sarah Palin Church Videos on YouTube. (Thanks also to my aunt!)

(Speaking of Sarah Palin's church, I want to know how all these so-called Christians can support the Iraq War? Don't they worship "the prince of peace"? How can these supposedly "pro-life" people have no qualms at all about all the innocent Iraqi lives being destroyed?)

Finally, one of my "Facebook friends" posted a link to this article entitled "An Open Letter to Governor Palin on Women's Rights" from the blog "Alternet." I urge you to read this letter, because it points out that the same reproductive freedom that pro-choice advocates defend is not just access to abortions, but also a woman's right TO give birth - when, where, and how she chooses. As a mother myself who elected to have a home birth (in one of the last states in the Union where midwifery is still illegal!), I do have something in common with the lady.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (film review)

Readers of this blog know I'm a huge fan of Scarlett Johansson, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona delivers not only Scarlett but also the stunning sexiness of Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. I found the film to be satisfying all around, despite the abrupt ending that some viewers left the theater grumbling about; after all, how can that many gorgeous, young, wealthy characters in a smart Woody Allen screenplay fail to excite and amuse? This is my favorite Woody Allen film in years (despite the presence of one of my least favorite actresses, Patricia Clarkson).

Rather than discussing the obvious aspects of the film, though - a realm thoroughly covered by all the other reviews - I wanted to say something about a theme of the film that has been of special interest to me this semester as I am teaching a film studies & art history class called "Artists' Lives on Film." Vicky Cristina Barcelona has at its Spanish center (as opposed to its American center, represented by the Vicky and Cristina characters) a pair of painters. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena (played by Bardem and Cruz) are a divorced couple embroiled in the, dare I say, stereotypical Latin romance, in which heated passion takes the form of violent fighting more often than of reckless sexual abandon. They are also artists.

Many of the films I have taught in my class treat famous artist couples: Surviving Picasso, about Pablo Picasso and his lover Francoise Gilot; Frida, about Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera; Pollock, about Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner; and Camille Claudel, about the French sculptress Claudel and her lover, Auguste Rodin. All of these biopics (fictionalized biographies) take as their subject matter actual, historical artists, and therefore have to maintain at least some slight level of historical veracity. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with its fictional artiststs, is entirely free to invent those characters from scratch. Woody Allen nonetheless adopts and reifies many of the stereotypes that are associated with artists in the popular imagination, but he subtly undermines some of them, especially the negative stereotypes about male artists. (Not surprising given that he is one.)

In all of the above-mentioned biopics, the artistic couple follows a familiar pattern of the male as domineering womanizer, and the female partner as either driven mad or driven away by his cruelty. Those men - Picasso, Rivera, Pollock, and Rodin - are megalomaniacs whose success (based on their artistic genius) overshadows the careers of their partners. The women, meanwhile, struggle for recognition in a male-dominated world. As women they are victimized both by their male partners and by their societies which see women as less creative and less "important" artistically. The men are egotistical, destructive and/or self destructive; the partnerships are destroyed by the partners' competition and their unequal power in their relationships. At the same time, the women are expected to subordinate themselves and to support their men's careers.

This is not to say that those films misrepresent the nature of those relationships, but rather that filmmakers (Hollywood and otherwise) are drawn to that subject matter as the kind of story that audiences want to see, in part because of the implicit moralizing that underlies those narratives.

Three common artist mythologies prevail in these films. Two of these myths are gender-neutral: the artist as crazy (Camille Claudel is eventually committed to an insane asylum), and the artist as self-destructive - a slight variation on the "crazy" theme. Attempts to commit suicide, or at least very high-risk behaviors, characterize artists like Jackson Pollock, who dies as a result of drunk driving (he's a major alcoholic). The third common artist mythology applies specifically to female artists: the woman as victim, driven to desparation by her faithless and cruel husband. Picasso, Rivera, Pollock, and Rodin all are womanizers who subject their partners to emotional cruelty. Frida Kahlo is portrayed as the most victim-like female artist in that her very paintings are read (by art historians as well as filmmakers) as testaments to her pain and victimization.

Woody Allen's male artist, Juan Antonio, is a womanizer, but he's not cruel. He's represented as a generous lover to all the women he sleeps with, guilty only of a libertine lifestyle that flies in the face of bourgeois notions of monogamy, but noble for his honesty and for the great respect he shows to these women (none of whom are bourgeois enough to demand monogamy from him, with the exception of his wife). Woody Allen, whose own relationship history has been the subject of scandal, wants us to believe that a man who sleeps with as many women as he likes (up to 15 years his junior in this film) can be blameless; Juan Antonio is a very sympathetic character.

Surely this is, to some extent, Allen's fantasy (and that of many middle-aged males) projected on the big screen. But what is the alternative? Is the stereotypical artist biopic, in which the men are cruel womanizers, any more desireable as a message? Allen avoids moralizing, which is part of what's so refreshing about his films.

And it's not only a male fantasy we see projected here; the film offers women the fantasy of being swept off their feet by a gorgeous stranger in an exotic land. One of the best scenes in the film is Juan Antonio's first encounter with Vicky and Cristina, in which the two women debate whether to accept his invitation to spend the weekend with him. While Vicky (the voice of reason) has all the dialogue, Cristina (the risk-taker) has all the body language. The conflict between their responses to Juan Antonio could almost be the inner dialogue of any woman in such a situation, trying to decide between safety and adventure.

Penelope Cruz's Maria Elena falls more squarely into both the artist-as-crazy and the artist-as-destructive stereotypes. She enters the film after a failed suicide attempt, and her last scene is one in which she brandishes a gun, trying either to kill herself or Juan Antonio, or both (it's unclear). One of the best essays on artist mythologies in film is Griselda Pollock's “Artists Mythologies and Media Genius, Madness and Art History,” in Screen, vol. 21, no. 3 (1980), pp. 57-96. In discussing this essay in class yesterday, I learned that many of my students do strongly believe that artists ("great" ones, anyway), genuinely are mad, despite Pollock's arguments to the contrary. (For the record let me say that I do not share this opinion.)

Some of my students believe that commitment to one's work (which some call obsession) exhibited by some artists is a sure sign of insanity. I, on the other hand, believe that passionate commitment to one's work (which might also be described as being a workaholic) is the one characteristic shared by all highly successful people in ANY profession. Even the great comedian George Carlin, whose public persona was the slacker and anti-establishment rebel, was a genuine workaholic; noone could rise to his level of accomplishment without such dedication to his art.

Getting back to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, we do see these two artists, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, at work. Both create abstract painting in the manner of Jackson Pollock. We see Juan Antonio slathering paint on his canvas with enormous brushes and fluid brushstrokes. We see Maria Elena (dressed in a teddy) dripping and drizzling paint onto a canvas that lies flat on the floor (Pollock's famous method). When Juan Antonio performs the same type of art-making ritual outside in his garden it appears to be a deliberate quotation of the famous Hans Namuth documentary of Jackson Pollock at work. Woody Allen has his painters work in this manner, I think, because it is a shorthand for the modern artist. The paintings themselves are unremarkable, but what is remarkable is the fact that the two painters produce stylistically similar works rather than having individualized artistic styles. (I also like the poster for a Paris exhibition of Juan Antonio's work that is discreetly displayed in the artist's kitchen, which serves to confirm his identity as a significant painter.)

It is Juan Antonio and Maria Elena's artistic productivity and creativity that Cristina envies. Together the two encourage and inspire Cristina to develop her own creativity as a photographer, so that in the film she becomes the third artist represented on screen. At the heart of their creativity, for all three artists, is sexuality, and herein lies yet another favorite theme for films about artists. In their menage a trois, uninhibited sexuality provides the creative energy for both work and inspiration.

The close connection between art and sex is the theme of another of my favorite essays on artist biopics: Susan Felleman's “Dirty Pictures, Mud Lust, and Abject Desire: Myths of Origin and the Cinematic Object,” Film Quarterly 55/1 (2001): 27-40. Felleman discusses both Camille Claudel and Artemesia as prime examples in which the sexual relationship between artist couples is the prerequisite for artistic greatness. Woody Allen gives further credence to this notion in his latest film. Art equals sex, and artists are incredibly sexy, despite any emotional imbalances they might suffer from.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Age of Plenty - Review of documentary film "King Corn"

Tonight I watched Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis' first feature documentary, King Corn, which records their year spent in Greene, Iowa, growing one acre of corn. This turned out to be a thorough investigation not only of modern industrial corn farming, but also industrial beef feed lots, American agriculture subsidies, the high-fructose corn syrup industry, and the health crises caused by our national diet (specifically obesity and diabetes). The filmmakers do a nice job of tying together all these various causes and effects. As one of the experts interviewed for the film put it, "the subsidy system that rewards the overproduction of cheap corn makes the raw material available for an overweight society. We subsidize the happy meals but we don’t subsidize the healthy ones."

Cheap food was the goal of agriculture policies put in place in 1973 by Secretary of Agriculture Earl L. Butz, who today sees his program as an unqualified success. He refers to "the age of plenty" (today's world) in which food costs us about half of what it did in the first half of the century.

Cheney and Ellis' film was inspired by Michael Pollan's work, and Pollan himself appears in the film being interviewed about corn and beef. I was pleased to see him, as I am also a huge fan of Michael Pollan. A few years back Pollan undertook the same sort of agricultural experiment represented in King Corn by purchasing a steer and following it from feed lot to dining table; his experience is described in the essay "Power Steer," New York Times, March 31, 2002. That essay made an enormous impression on me. I was already a vegetarian (moreso than I am today, in fact), but Pollan revealed in that article that more than half of the antibiotics consumed in this country are fed to cattle, and why (a fact also explained in King Corn). Pollan also revealed the connection between high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and obesity, and it makes sense: cattle are fed corn to fatten them up more quickly, so it makes sense that this insidious sweetener can't be good for us humans. I have tried to avoid HFCS since reading that article in 2002.

Pollan is the author of a number of books on food, including The Botany of Desire (2002), The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), and In Defense of Food (2008). He has also been a contributing writer for the New York Times since at least 1998; for a sample of his work see "When a Crop Become King," New York Times, July 19, 2002; "Our National Eating Disorder," New York Times, October 17, 2004; "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," NYT March 26, 2006; "Mass Natural," NYT June 4, 2006; "The Vegetable-Industrial Complex," NYT October 15, 2006; and "Unhappy Meals," NYT January 28, 2007. Or search the New York Times website under his name and you will come up with dozens more essays and articles.

I didn't intend to write a post about Michael Pollan, but rather Cheney & Ellis's film King Corn. However, the debt that the latter owes to the former is phenomenal. Nonetheless, they interview a large number of "experts" on various subjects, all of whom contribute significantly to our deeper understanding of these complex issues. Following are some of the ideas and facts that emerge in the film:

  • “America’s favorite meat is ground beef, hamburger meat. Hamburger meat is really not meat, but it’s rather fat disguised as meat. It contains 65 percent of its calories by energy as fat.” - Loren Cordain, University of California. (A grain-fed steak contains 9 grams of saturated fat compared with 1.3 grams in grass-fed beef.)
  • If you were born in the last 30 years in America, chances are you’ve only ever tasted corn-fed beef.
  • In the last 30 years, America’s consumption of table sugar has fallen, but our overall consumption of sweeteners has gone up more than 30 percent, largely because of a dramatic increase in our consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Drinking one soda per day almost doubled the risk of developing Type II diabetes compared with drinking it only occasionally or not at all.
  • The agriculture our great-grandparents had helped build is now growing fast food.
  • “It [the corn in Iowa] has been selected for high productivity. This means a high-value starch production. Well you never get something for nothing in the world of biophysics, and what you give up in the bargain is nutritional value.” -- Ricardo Salvador, Iowa State University
  • “Most of what we’ve done in agricultural so-called improvements and in food processing have actually degraded our food supply from a nutritional standpoint.” -- Walter Willet, Harvard University

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dinosaur World, Cave City, Kentucky

Cave City, Kentucky, about 90 miles south of Louisville, exists primarily to support the tourist industry surrounding Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the longest cave system in the world. It’s not the huge tourist trap one might expect, unlike, say, Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri (a.k.a. “the redneck riviera”). And the one major tourist attraction we visited turned out to be a lucky find for the three-year-old crowd: Dinosaur World.

Funnily enough, my son independently came up with the idea that he wanted to visit a “dinosaur land” two months ago, and it was by sheer luck that we found one, having already planned a family reunion in Mammoth Cave. Dinosaur world boasts of 100 life-size, paleontologically correct dinosaur replicas, and it turned out to be educational but also fun. These prehistoric beasts are arranged among a beautiful forested parkland, which is pleasant enough in itself. Each species of dinosaurs – represented by two or more specimens – is accompanied by a paragraph or so of information about the animals’ diet (carnivore or herbivore), its social structure (living in groups or not), and its geographic extent. There were also some non-dinosaur species, such as pterodactyls, and even some woolly mammoths (which lived much later than dinosaurs and were contemporary with early humans).

Some of the dinosaurs were arranged in family groups – mother and father with two babies – in anthropomorphized, gender-specific roles. At one vista point in the park you can see a very large life-size diorama with half a dozen dinosaur species; the triceratops adults are arranged in a circle to protect their young from the threatening T. Rex, while brachiosaurs off in the distance tower above the trees.

My husband reminded me that the first such dinosaur park in modern history was built for the Crystal Palace after it was re-erected in Sydenham in 1854 as a permanent exhibition space. Outside the building, a display of life-size models of the "Extinct Animals" or "Antediluvian Creatures" were exhibited on islands arranged within a lake. England’s contribution to dinosaur park history is not surprising since early dinosaur discoveries were made in England. (Last summer we made a pilgrimage to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England, home of Mary Anning, the first female dinosaur hunter.)

The Dinosaur World in Cave City is a little pricey, but if you are travelling with a child who’s into dinosaurs it’s well worth the price. In addition to the life-size dinosaurs there’s a dinosaur movie, the obligatory playground, a large sandbox with “dinosaur bones” to be excavated, and even a “fossil dig” in which kids can unearth several dozen fossils and get to keep their favorites. These are real fossils – my son found tiny ammonites, shark teeth, crinoid stems, sea urchins, brachiopods, and other specimen types.

Dinosaur World provides the perfect antidote to the infamous Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which seeks to refute all scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution, and argues that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old. As a Kentucky native I am frankly embarrassed that my state gave rise to such a ludicrous institution. Happily, Dinosaur World was full of young Southerners who took no issue with the idea that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago and that their existence can be proven by scientific evidence. That’s an institution worth supporting.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Architectural Loss (Notes from Los Angeles)

The Final Chapter of 217, 219, and 225 Bicknell Avenue

One powerful and sad experience I had this summer was the final visit to my home of 14 years in Santa Monica. Final, because the building is slated for demolition this summer. All the tenants were evicted as of April 1, 2008, with demolition scheduled for that month. Then it got pushed back to May, then June, and when I left on July 8 it was still standing, looking melancholy in its state of abandonment.

The building, a complex of 13 units arranged around a courtyard, was probably built in two stages: the first in 1940 (10 single-story units), with an addition in the 1960s or 1970s consisting of 8 garages with three units above them, closing the courtyard off from the street. (I say probably because this is just an educated guess). In the 1940s, Santa Monica was largely a vacation destination, a seaside community of beach cottages. The building had no insulation against the weather, leading me to suppose it was intended only for short-term vacation rentals (though I don't know this for a fact). The building is two blocks from the beach, so it would have been a perfect location for vacationers.

My apartment, a one-bedroom unit, was in the rear, right-hand corner; in this photo taken of me in 1998, the door to my apartment is visible.

The courtyard was so beautiful. There were three lemon trees, which bore fruit year-round. The black-and-white photo shows my friend Marc's younger son (who is now 12) climbing in the largest of these lemon trees. There was an enormous apricot tree, which bore abundant, sweet fruit. There were fig trees, jacarandas (the purple-blossomed tree that is so popular all over Southern California), roses; most of the ground-floor units had individual plots for flowers. The red-haired baby in the next photo is Olivia (now 11) when I was babysitting her; she toddled in this courtyard during the first week that she was walking.

When I lived in Santa Monica (1988 to 2002) the owner was Edna Hummer, a nice old lady who loved the building and took incredibly good care of it. Gardeners came weekly to mow and water and prune. Today the lawn is turning brown, with large patches of dirt.

Sometime after I moved away, perhaps 2003 or 2004, Mrs. Hummer sold the property to Tony Dow (of "Leave It To Beaver" fame) whose intention from the outset must have been to develop it. Property values in Santa Monica were skyrocketing -- had been doing so for decades -- and it's a miracle that this little gem of an apartment complex survived as long as it did. Under rent control it was not generating much revenue for its owner, though evidently enough for her to be satisfied. Mr. Dow, though, seems to have much higher expectations for financial return. So he finally evicted everyone and is planning to erect seven condominiums, each of them close to 3,000 square feet (which, incidentally, is larger than the average single-family house). All those beautiful trees will be destroyed, not to mention a real relic of Santa Monica's past. I will never watch "Leave It To Beaver" again.

Joan Didion on Architectural Demolition
Just before my visit to Santa Monica I read Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. In it she describes the destruction of a house she lived in in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter Quintana:
In point of fact the house in Brentwood Park from which I had seen the red flashing light and thought to evade it by moving to New York no longer existed. It was torn down to the ground and replaced (by a house marginally larger) a year after we sold it. The day we happened to be in Los Angeles and drove past the corner of Chadbourne and Marlboro and saw nothing left standing except the one chimney that allowed a tax advantage, I remembered the real estate agent telling me how meaningful it would be to the buyers were we to give them suitably inscribed copies of the books we had written in the house. We had done this. Quintana and Friends, Dutch Shea, Jr., and The Red White and Blue for John, Salvador, Democracy, and Miami for me. When we saw the flattened lot from the car, Quintana, in the back seat, burst into tears. My first reaction was fury. I wanted the books back.” (pp. 133-134)

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Little of This, a Little of That - Miscellaneous Notes from the Blogosphere

This is my first post in over a month, the longest hiatus in my brief blogging life. My humble apologies to regular readers of this space. What I offer you now is by way of making up for lost time, but may seem a bit disorganized compared to my usual approach.

Blog News: My friend Amy has launched a blog documenting her move from London to Austin, Texas, after 20 years of living abroad, with hubby and three (adorable) kids. The blog is called "Couldn't Stand the Weather," and you can find a link on the right side of this page. Welcome to Blogger, Amy! And more importantly, welcome (back) to America!!

More Blog News: I have been hard at work on other stuff, one of them being a review essay of the 2002 documentary film "How to Draw a Bunny," about Ray Johnson, "the most famous unknown artist." As of today it can be found on the blog of the Museum of Art and Archaeology. For this, too, you can find a link on the right side of this webpage. (If you live in Columbia, you can catch this film on August 1, when it will be screened on campus; more information available by clicking on the link.)

Book News: While I was in L.A., I read Claire Massud's novel, The Last Life, which was fabulous. It's the best novel I've read in a really long time (though Atonement was another highlight). The Last Life recounts the history of an American-French family from the point of view of the 14-year-old daughter. The novel is powerfully written, many-layered, and highly intellectual. Now I'm reading The Parable of the Sower, a science fiction novel by Octavia Butler, that was recommended to me by E.C. I'm not really much of a sci-fi fan, but I'm halfway through this book and am finding it compelling enough to continue. It is a real switch from Massud!

Film News: Once I was back in Columbia I went to see the film Before the Rains with friend K.R. It's a Merchant-Ivory film from a young Indian director. I think we were both disappointed with it, though it was entertaining enough to merit the 90-minute investment. It just didn't have a lot of depth. It turns out it's based on an Israeli film called Yellow Asphalt (a trilogy), which I'm curious to see. Last week N. and I watched the 1955 film Picnic, starring William Holden, based on a friend's recommendation. I really disliked the film, which was very sexist, though the cinematography and editing were quite well done.

Architecture: Lots of interesting architecture to report on, both in L.A. and Columbia, though I want to post a slide show but I cannot figure out how to do it. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Eames Case Study House #8 (Notes from Los Angeles)

Member Appreciation Day (Sunday, June 15, 2008)

Sunday I made my first visit to the Eames House, more properly known as Case Study House #8, which I have wanted to see for years but never actually visited. The house is located on Chautauqua Blvd. in Pacific Palisades, in a meadow on top of the bluff overlooking the ocean. When the house was completed in 1949 this area was still considered “the boonies,” pretty far away from Los Angeles in the days before freeways. It’s still in a fairly hidden enclave, surrounded by enormous houses (one on top of Casa del Mar looks to be close to 20,000 square feet!). The Eames case study house, by comparison, is 2,300 square feet between the house and the studio, which are located in two separate buildings (1400 sq. ft. in the house, 900 in the studio) connected by a generous patio.

My old architectural history professor at UC Santa Barbara, the late David Gebhard, was interested in the Case Study House program, and talked about it a lot in his classes. The Case Study House program was an attempt to popularize modern architecture, to make it more widely accepted, more mainstream. It was sponsored by the magazine Arts and Architecture, chiefly by its editor, John Entenza; the magazine commissioned the houses, which were paid for by clients. These were meant as prototypes for suburban housing. Most of the Case Study Houses had open plans built in flexible systems with interlocking outside/inside spaces, and were designed for what Gebhard called the “mobile, efficiency-minded and consumer-oriented mass culture.” The program completed 23 Case Study Houses between 1945 (when they were commissioned) and 1962. The Eames house was one of four Case Study Houses built in this wooded tract on palisades overlooking the ocean; next door was the Entenza House, designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (his old friend from Cranbrook). Another Case Study House on this block was designed by the Viennese architect Richard Neutra.

As a building type, the glass-enclosed pavilion was suddenly huge in American architecture in the 1940s, due to the influence of German Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who immigrated to the United States in 1937. He had developed the pavilion as a recurring theme, most notably in his Barcelona Pavilion (1928-1929). In 1945 he designed the Farnsworth House (completed in 1951) in rural Illinois, and under his influence, Philip Johnson designed his own famous Glass House (1949). Both of those were meant as one-of-a-kind “masterpieces,” high-end examples of a kind of luxury home with a certain austere, minimalist aesthetic. The Eames House, on the other hand, was built inexpensively and, although unique, was intended as a prototype for middle-class dwelling. It was assembled from pieces ordered from catalogues; its ready-made structural elements contrast with personal décor of the interior. Here in the Eames house, the Miesian vocabulary takes off in a lot of directions, incorporating a Mondrian-like color palette in contrast to the monochromatic predecessors. As in Mies and Johnson’s houses, we see transparency and opacity at play. Instead of looking anonymous it looks very personal.

Those who work in the House say that because of the glass walls, after being there for a little while you forget the building is there; you feel like you're in nature, surrounded by trees. (The house is bordered by towering eucalyptus trees.) On the tour one of the guides told us the Eameses said that after they had lived in the House for a few years, it "disappeared" for them.

Entenza hoped the Case Study Houses would be not merely single performances but plans which could be repeated. Their critical success promoted public acceptance of experimental design; in 1962 Esther McCoy wrote,

“The banks had previously taken the view that a house with glass walls, open plan, no dining room, kitchen facing the street, flat roof, and slab floor was a poor investment and had no resale value. That all Case Study Houses were excellent investments is proved by the prices at which they have been resold. Three Case Study Houses sold recently fetched 90 to 125 percent above the original cost.”

The house’s historical significance was confirmed by its National Landmark Status, conferred in 2006.

The event I went to on Sunday (see photos) was a Members Appreciation Day, the only day of the year when visitors (i.e., donors) are permitted inside the house. The rest of the year, visitors may only tour the exterior of the house. The Eameses’ daughter, five grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren (as well as one great-great-grandchild!) were present at the event, and were very generous and gracious hosts. They as well as various docents and employees of the Eames Office (at 850 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica) were on hand to answer any questions and converse with donors for a large part of the day.

Charles and Ray Eames First-Day-of-Issue Ceremony (Tuesday, June 17, 2008)

Another first – I had never been to a first-day-of-issue ceremony, and this one (held at the Eames Office) turned out to be a lot of fun! The U.S. Post Office issued a beautiful set of postage stamps with 16 different Eames designs, from architecture to furniture to film and textile design. This U.S. government ceremony began with the “presentation of colors” (flags of the nation and the state of California being walked up and down the aisle) and the national anthem (sung by Melodi Dalton, an appropriately named soprano with the San Francisco Symphony), followed by brief remarks by the postmaster and the mayor of Santa Monica; and finally Eames Demetrios, the chairman of the board and grandson of Charles & Ray Eames making a brief thank-you speech. There were so many people and so much going on! One line to buy stamps, another line to get your first-day-of-issue cancellation stamp on your stamps and envelopes and memorabilia, and another line where you could collect the signatures of all the family members present. Most of those present for the ceremony were Eames fans, but there was also a small clique of hard-core philatelists who had their systems for creating first-day-of-issue memorabilia honed to a science. These folks had made their own cards and envelopes and had developed elaborate systems of cataloguing their creations once cancelled; the mind-boggling thing about it to me was that they weren’t necessarily fans of Charles and Ray Eames, just serious stamp collectors! They would travel to these first-day-of-issue ceremonies whenever they could, and trade their cancelled memorabilia with other stamp collectors they meet at conventions.


For more information on Charles & Ray Eames, see:

"The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention," exhibit at the Library of Congress

veerle's blog (lots of great photos, especially Eames furniture)

Great Buildings Online

Wikipedia essay


Esther McCoy, Case Study Houses, 1945-1962. Originally published in 1962 under the title Modern California Houses. Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1977.

Elizabeth A.T. Smith. Case Study Houses 1945-1966: the California Impetus. Taschen, 2006.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Quid Pro Quo and Fur (film review)

“Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, the new(ish) venue of the American Cinematheque. Last night I caught another film there, Quid Pro Quo, and it was a real L.A. experience – a preview before opening night, with the writer/director Carlos Brooks, leading man Nick Stahl (of In the Bedroom and Terminator 3), and two of the film’s producers on hand for a discussion afterwards. The screening was free to Cinematheque members, with the respectful silence throughout the entirety of the closing credits a sure sign that you’re in L.A. (and of course everyone remained seated). In fact last night’s screening probably had a higher percentage of those credited people actually present in the room than any other screenings of the film will have!

I recommend this film highly; it was smart and well acted, and the production design was beautiful. It revealed an entire subculture that I never knew existed, which I expect most viewers will also find surprising: able-bodied people who want to be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. They're called “wannabes.” It’s so improbable that I sat through the film wondering if the writer invented this subculture (this disorder), but no, he says it really exists.

In the film the lead character, Isaac (played by Stahl), is a paraplegic, who encounters a surprising number of able-bodied people whose greatest desire is to be confined to a wheelchair. They each, for whatever reason, have a deep psychological need to “use” a wheelchair (the verb of choice, not coincidentally, the same one that describes drug addicts). One of them in particular, Fiona (played by Vera Farmiga), fixates on Isaac, seducing him and sharing her private, secret wish – to become paralyzed – with him.

But it’s not some kinky sexual fantasy for her (in case you were thinking of The Company of Strangers); oh no. At first you think it’s going to be something twisted like that, but it turns out to be a much deeper psychological disorder, a form of hell that Fiona - daughter of a broken home and an alcoholic mother - has created for herself. Nick is a paraplegic not by choice, but as the result of a car accident, but he makes little effort to convince Fiona and the others that they should be grateful they ARE able-bodied. Instead he is respectful towards them, and tries to understand them. Oh, yeah, and then he finds some magic shoes that enable him to walk.

The film was shot in HD and the production designer achieved a film noir look. Brooks explained that the character Fiona thinks she’s in a noir film, and that the movie is shot from her view of herself. In fact the film’s voice-over narrative is characteristic of a lot of noir films (Bladerunner instantly comes to mind), but in this case the tone of that voice-over is deliberately conversational, modeled after the radio style of Ira Glass from NPR's This American Life (according to Stahl). His character is, in fact, a radio personality who tells stories, and the film is framed as one of those stories. Stahl calls it a beautifully written detective story, and it is, but it’s also much more. It’s about families and relationships, and how a single person or a single incident can change one’s life forever; and about the devastating impact of a dysfunctional family, and how our inner voices and inner demons can generate the narratives by which we define ourselves and our lives. It’s also profound; at one very intense point in the story Vera says to Nick, “I’m thinking about how easy it is to get used to a miracle;” at least she’s aware of enough to realize what she’s doing, and to marvel at the miraculous.

One of the producers says they hope the film will have wide distribution later this summer “when people are sick of seeing stupid movies.” Other films it reminded me of were Dirty Pretty Things (dir. Stephen Frears, 2002) and Caché (dir. Michael Haneke, 2005).

Most of the supporting cast are New York actors; Stahl said if you IMDB them, they've all been in "Law and Order;" they mentioned one who is in "The Wire." The film was shot mostly in New York and New Jersey, with the flashback scenes shot in La Conner, Washington.

Fur (dir. Stephen Shainberg, 2006)

Oddly enough, I had watched Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus on the previous night, and Quid Pro Quo resonated with some of the same themes. (For the record, I’m NOT recommending Fur, it’s pretty bad – but this fall I will be teaching my “Artists’ Lives on Film” course again, so I’m trying to catch up on all the artist biopics that have been released since I last taught the course.)

As unrealistic as Quid Pro Quo seems, it turns out that this disorder – able-bodied people wanting to be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair – really exists. Fur, on the other hand, tells the story of a man (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) who suffers from hypertrichosis, a disease due to which his entire body is covered with long, thick, fast-growing hair – which I cannot believe is an actual phenomenon. It also tells the story (or a version of it) of Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman), the photographer famous for her portraits of society’s “freaks” – giants, midgets, and even just plain old twins. Arbus’ photos are ambiguous; most discussions of Arbus speculate about whether her gaze was sympathetic or exploitative. Was she just a voyeur, or did she, as this film suggests, care deeply about the marginalized members of society? I personally have no opinion on the question of Arbus' own intentions, because I haven’t read much about her, but I do think she leads us to look at and think about people we might otherwise ignore. Also, I do know that the hairy man in the film (his name is Lionel) is purely fictitious.

What the two films have in common is this: they both show us society from the point of view of outsiders, of people who are outside the norm, and their struggles to love and be loved (thus representing the larger human condition). It’s not just the “wannabes” in Quid Pro Quo who are outsiders; as we are introduced to Isaac we see all the barriers he encounters on a daily basis: women don’t want to date him, taxis won’t pick him up, buildings and even streets aren’t accessible. It made me think about my own reactions to people in wheelchairs: do I treat them like they’re invisible? I’m ashamed to admit that frequently I do. In the performance I saw last week, “Action: Conversations” at Highways (see June 12 entry), these same questions were raised with regard to veterans. We have a lot of veterans in our society, a lot more now thanks to the Bush administration; but they’re not really so visible most of the time. Where is Diane Arbus when you need her?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Random Reflections on L.A. (Notes from Los Angeles)

Architecture and Public Spaces:

This summer I am extremely fortunate to be spending a lot of time at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where I am conducting research so that I can turn my dissertation into a book. Not only does the GRI have a fabulous research library and Special Collections, but it's also a fantastic space. This photo shows one of the beautiful pergolas where you can sit outside and have lunch or coffee -- though I'm spending most of my time inside the Research Institute (which is also lovely; hopefully I will follow up with a blog entry about that soon). But that's not all I've been up to; here are a few other things I've experienced over the past week:

On Sunday we were driving past Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall (downtown – on our way home from dim sum in Chinatown) – and my friend’s 10-year-old son said “it looks like an extreme skatepark.”

The UCLA campus is one of the most beautiful spots in Los Angeles – it has lots of very old plants and trees, lots of outdoor sculpture, and a nice, somewhat unified architectural ensemble. (Why didn’t I go to school here??) I spent the day here yesterday, in the Arts Library, and visited the relatively new Broad Art Center; in the space that *used* to be the Arts Library, there's now a cafe.


The Getty Research Institute mounted a small exhibition on the work of Viennese architect and writer Bernard Rudofsky, whose 1964 book Architecture without Architects fueled an interest in vernacular architecture on the part of architects in the 1960s and '70s. Following in the tradition of fellow Viennese architect Adolf Loos, Rudofsky took a strong interest in fashion, dress, and ornamentation, with an eye to critiquing contemporary Euro-American trends and tastes; he even designed a line of women’s shoes.

I missed the exhibit on Bob Dylan at the Skirball Center, which ended on June 8; but I am planning to take my son to the Skirball to see the Noah’s Ark exhibition when he comes in July.

The Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood is mounting an exhibit on the Southern California architect John Lautner, it opens July 13. (5 days after I leave! bummer!) You may know his work if you saw the 1984 Brian de Palma film “Body Double;” his 1960 house called the Chemosphere, in Hollywood, is featured (it’s where the murdered woman lives). Another one of his houses was used in the James Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971), and another one in “Twilight” (1998).

On Sunday night I got to catch a film at the new and improved Aero Theater on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. For most of the time I lived in Santa Monica (1988-2002) this was an independent theater showing nightly double features for $5 -- the best deal around. Then it fell on hard times and was losing money, the quality of programming suffered, and everyone was afraid it would have to close its doors. It was finally acquired by the American Cinematheque and reopened in January 2005 after being beautifully restored and given state-of-the art equipment. Now it has a very exciting schedule of rare, recently restored, and special interest films, which we used to drive to Hollywood to see (at the American Cinematheque's original venue, the Egyptian Theater). On Sunday we saw "Breezy," a 1973 film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring William Holden and Kay Lenz; it was a real period piece, and gave me a new appreciation for Holden as an actor.

Last Friday at Highways Performance Space and Gallery in Santa Monica, I attended a moving event called "Action Conversations," directed by choreographer Victoria Marks. The performance was created by artists, activists, and veterans recovering from PTSD; they worked together in a 15-week workshop, creating a performance that deals with the experiences of veterans trying to reenter civilian life and the encounters between veterans and civilians. The event was important in creating dialogue between vets and civilians, and bridging the gap that usually prevents us from understanding one another. There was one moment that required audience participation in a call-and-response format, with these words: "We risked our lives in Troy/Iraq, and the Peloponnese/Afghanistan and in Ionia/Kuwait." Having recently taught The Iliad, I thought a lot about the parallels they were trying to draw here, in a way I'd never thought about them before. The concept of a "hero" in the ancient world is so different from today's Christian-influenced concept; Achilles was no moral paragon, but a "hero" nonetheless. Food for thought.


Speaking of food, I was walking along Westwood Boulevard yesterday and passed a restaurant called India’s Oven, I knew that I knew it, but not in Westwood. I picked up the menu and it said “originally located at Pico and Fairfax,” and I realized this was the awesome Indian restaurant I used to go to, back in the late 1980s (when they used to serve everything on Styrofoam!). During the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (which some people call the L.A. Uprising) I was watching the live news coverage on TV (like everyone else in L.A.) and at one point saw it – India’s Oven, on Pico Blvd., one of my favorite restaurants at the time – with flames shooting out of its windows. After that it appeared in West L.A. – no more Styrofoam – and I don’t know how it ended up in Westwood. I see they still have Ras Malai on the menu, my favorite dessert, so I’m going to have to eat here!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

MAK Buys Schindler House

This was in the New York Times yesterday:

"The nonprofit MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles has acquired R. M. Schindler’s renowned Modernist Fitzpatrick-Leland House, shown above when it was built in 1936, perched on a cliff near the intersection of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Mulholland Drive, the center said. The three-level L-shaped house, with its interlocking volumes, was a gift from Russ Leland, who bought it in 1990 and spent years restoring it to its original design. The MAK Center said the house would be used for its new Urban Future Initiative program, which grants two-month residencies to researchers from around the world exploring urban issues like sustainability, immigration and social justice."

(In the "Arts, Briefly" column, compiled by Felicia R. Lee, June 4, 2008)

The MAK Center in Los Angeles is an offshoot of the MAK (Museum fur Angewandte Kunst) in Vienna, Austria. Since Schindler was an Austrian architect, who relocated to Los Angeles in the 1910s, the MAK has taken a particular interest in his work.

Two-month residencies in the Fitzpatrick-Leland House? The chance to live in a modern masterpiece? I have a new life goal...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We Are Stardust, We Are Golden (Notes from Woodstock, New York)

In 1919 Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus art school in Weimar, Germany, which would eventually become the most influential design school of the 20th century in Europe. Indeed, its impact would be equally significant in the United States, if not moreso, with the immigration of Gropius and other Bauhaus luminaries to this country during and after World War II. But in Weimar these weird artists were not all that welcome, especially personalities like the Expressionist painter Johannes Itten – the original teacher of the Vorkurs at the Bauhaus – who shaved his head and went around town in medieval-looking robes and worshipped an ancient Persian deity. Weimar was an important city for German culture of the hoch variety – Goethe and so forth – but its residents did not take kindly to these new, modern types of artists. Today they might be called “hippies,” or even “freaks” by some. But the term “hippie” didn’t exist in the 1920s in Germany. In 1925, the Bauhaus was forced to leave Weimar, and went on to greater fame (and a different artistic direction) in the town of Dessau.

I was thinking about this recently as it compares with Woodstock’s history as the home of two major art colonies, the Byrdcliffe colony (founded 1902 by Ralph Whitehead, an English disciple of William Morris), and the Maverick colony (an offshoot of Byrdcliffe, founded in 1904 by Hervey White). It was my grandmother who got me thinking about it, she said, “can you imagine? There was mostly no one here but farmers when these artists showed up, they didn’t know what to make of them!” She makes an important point, and I think it helps to explain one reason why New York is so interesting: instead of rejecting the artists and sending them packing, like in Weimar in the 1920s, the New Yorkers of the early 20th century accepted them, and in fact to some extent adopted the culture and the mindset of these artists. (It should be noted that the Hudson Rivers School of artists - including Frederick Church and Thomas Cole - had already established a strong artistic tradition in this region.) Woodstock is a very groovy place now because of the open-mindedness and the spirit of tolerance and acceptance that I think go back to New York’s early history.

New York is not part of New England, after all; New Yorkers didn’t burn witches at the stake. They didn’t persecute people who were different – at least not Europeans and Euroamericans. I know the Native Americans didn’t fare too well here; their legacy is mostly preserved only in the place names (like “Taghkanic,” or Taconic). In that respect New York is as guilty as the rest of America. But I think it’s significant that by the 20th century, folks could come here from abroad – the artists in the 1900s, the musicians in the 1960s, the Tibetan Buddhists in the 1970s – and not be labeled outsiders but rather could make important contributions to the local culture. Part of this, I’m sure, is a spillover effect from New York City, that original “melting pot” and port of entry for so many groups of immigrants.

When you go to the Wikipedia entry for Woodstock, it lists many famous musicians, artists, writers and other celebrities who have lived and/or worked in Woodstock, Bearsville, and other nearby parts of Ulster County. The local artists have contributed much to the local culture. The town is full of galleries, which is also, I believe, a function of its proximity to the art capital of the world about 2 hours or so away.

One local artist was Harvey Fite, a sculptor, who had been attracted by the Maverick artists' colony; personally I think his sculpted works are not all that interesting, but his major achievement was an extremely impressive large-scale earthwork known as Opus 40 in nearby Saugerties. Fite lived at this abandoned quarry – in a house he built himself – and over a period of 37 years transformed that quarry into a carefully laid-out network of walls, ramps, and cliffs, all assembled by hand from rough-dressed slabs of the quarry’s characteristic bluestone. Opus 40 was a labor of love. It transforms a scarred hole in the earth’s surface, wrought for economic exploitation, into a sublime landscape created purely as an expression of beauty. My husband and I got married at Opus 40, before the backdrop of the Catskill mountains, in 2003.

Woodstock’s musicians probably feature more prominently in the popular imagination because of Woodstock’s great “claim to fame,” the rock concert of 1969 on Yasger’s farm, about 45 miles away. Woodstock was a hub of musical activity well before the Woodstock concert (“3 days of peace and music”). Bob Dylan recorded his Basement Tapes in nearby Saugerties in 1967, at the house occupied by some members of The Band (that's right, “THE” band). My favorite song about Woodstock, though, was written by Joni Mitchell about the great 1969 rock concert:

I came upon a child of God, he was walkin’ along the road
And I asked him, “where are you goin’?” and this he told me:
“I’m goin’ on down to Yasger’s farm, I’m gonna join in a rock-n-roll band
I’m gonna camp out on the land, I’m gonna try and get my soul free.

“We are stardust, we are golden,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

“And can I walk beside you, I have come here to lose the smog,
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man,
I don’t know who I am, but you know life is for learning.

“We are stardust, we are golden,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere there was song and celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers ridin’ shotgun in the sky,
And they were turnin’ into butterflies above our nation.

“We are stardust (million year old comet), we are golden (caught in a devil’s bargain),
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded a rockin’ version of “Woodstock” in 1970, but if you haven’t heard Joni Mitchell’s recording of it (on Ladies of the Canyon, 1970), you really should. It’s mesmerizing and evocative. Mitchell’s lyrics are an anthem of what one might call “hippie spirituality” – uttered by a “child of God,” which we all are (if you believe in any kind of a God at all). It’s a subtle spirituality that posits no religious dogma but instead a set of ethical principles having to do with love, community, utopia, and an emphasis on creating peace in this world, not the next.

So just what are hippies, anyway? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. A lot of artists are hippies, but not all of them, and not all hippies are artists, either. Same thing can be said of musicians. Then there’s “hippie spirituality,” which might also be called “New Age spirituality;” again, not all hippies are spiritual, many of them are atheists. Maybe even most of them. Then there are the proto-hippies (like Johannes Itten), followers of movements that embodied some of the same principles and values that in the 1960s came to be associated with hippies: the rejection of mainstream culture, in its various forms.

THIS JUST IN (updated June 7, 2008):

A new museum has just opened in Bethel Woods, New York (the actual site of the Woodstock concert). It's called The Museum at Bethel Woods and is dedicated to "The Story of the Sixties and Woodstock."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My "Guardian of Identity": the Family Home (Notes from Woodstock, New York)

My great-grandfather built this house in 1951 for himself and his wife; their two daughters were grown and married and raising kids of their own, so this 2-story house with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms was more than ample for their needs as retired grandparents. Neither of them probably suspected that my great-grandmother would live here for another 36 years, until she died at the age of 102-1/2. Now my grandmother lives here, and her longevity, rivalling that of her mother, makes me realize (with my genes) that I'm probably going to be on this planet for the long haul.

This house has so many unique features and loving details -- built-in cabinetry in almost every room, a breezeway where we used to eat all our meals in the summers; the original wallpaper(!). The house sits about 100 yards from a large stream; at night you can sit out on the back porch and hear that stream, with water rushing over countless mini-waterfalls, and you can see all the stars unlike anywhere else. For me this place is nothing less than perfect.

Close by is the town of Lake Hill -- it's not really a town, it's just a blip on the map, where everyone has to get their mail delivered to a P.O. box instead of home delivery. When my grandmother first moved there in 1972 (to be near her aging mother) she had a party line. (That's an old-fashioned kind of shared telephone line, for those who've never heard of it.) We used to walk to the post office every day to pick up the mail, a mile or so down the road.

I say every day, but really I mean just on the summer vacations when I was visiting, along with my parents and two brothers. I loved it when my parents would leave us kids there alone with Grandma for a week or so, and sometimes I got to stay myself, alone with my grandmother, who was (and still is) my most important role model. Whenever we stayed in Lake Hill -- during which we visited Woodstock almost daily -- we kids would spend hours every day roaming in the woods, picking wild blueberries and finding beaver dams; we would swim in the ice cold mountain streams, with which this part of the country is riddled. Grandma would set up a bed for me on her front porch (which was screened in), and I considered it a special treat to be able to sleep out there at nights.

My grandmother moved from Lake Hill into the Woodstock house in 1984 when her mother could no longer be alone. It's hard to believe that my great-grandmother died more than 20 years ago (1987), but since that time, this house has been the gathering place for my extended family. I've sometimes dreamed of growing old here myself, though it's hard to imagine how that would happen given my present circumstances.

Although I have never, ever actually lived in New York, I feel very close ties to the state. My father grew up here, as did my grandmother and my great-grandmother. Its natural beauty, its history and its culture all mean a lot to me. Woodstock (population: 6,241 acc. to Wikipedia) embodies my idea of a perfect rural life; it has all the cultural amenities of a city, thanks to its proximity to New York City, but all the unspoiled natural beauty of "the country." Of course, for most rural Americans, my description of Woodstock as "rural" would be laughable; after all, you can see your neighbors' houses, and you can walk to "downtown" (such as it is). But to me those attributes are highly desirable; I have no desire ever to feel isolated, or to be dependent on an automobile. Personally, I like community and walkability. If the function of a house is to remind us of who we are (acc. to Alain de Botton), then this house fulfills its function better than any other house I've lived in.