February 12, 2003

On Thomas Struth On Art

struth_alte_pinatotek.jpg
Alte Pinakothek, Selftportrait, Munich, 2000, Thomas Struth

The other night, I heard the photographer Thomas Struth talk about his work. A friend (who has a far more serious art habit than even I do) hosted a reception for the artist in his office. Extra Struths, brought out of storage for the evening, rested on stacks of printer paper, an installation technique you don't see at the artist's current one-man show at the Met.

Struth spoke very quietly, but determinedly, about his work and the ideas and process behind it. He's clearly contemplative, and some of his most well-known works are unabashedly about contemplation (his Paradise junglescapes and his photos of museumgoers). He described his decades-long relationship with the 1500 self-portrait of Albrecht Durer (above) and his fascination with its unusual gaze. By putting himself in the photo (that's Struth's shoulder), he wanted to capture a moment of a conversation, while readily allowing that the two figures may not be saying anything to each other.

He caught me off guard, though, by referring to the photo's cinematic character; but sure enough, the framing, blocking and "sightlines" are from one half of a shot/reverse-shot, the continuity editing staple for depicting a two-person conversation. Struth wanted to portray a conversation that crosses 500 years (he shot it in 2000), a long-term perspective Struth finds shamefully absent today.

"No one [in the current political situation] looks forward even 50 years; they only look to their next election." Struth then ruminated on art worlders and what they could do to pull the real world back from the brink of war. "We're here, in the office of [one of the wealthiest men in the world], there are so many influential people in the art world. Why don't people use this powerful social network" to avert this global disaster?

Nervous silence, nervous chatter, and then a spurt of panged/defensive hands, as a few people tried to explain how our "standing here sipping champagne" was actually alright. An older guy with a Palm Beach tan leaned over and murmured to me, "I think we're going in the wrong direction." "That's exactly what he's talking about," I deadpanned, "Oh, you mean the conversation." Soon, we returned, quickly, safely, and completely, to discussions of how, exactly, he was able to get that amazing shot of the Parthenon. ("Because I've tried to shoot it every time I go, and it's just so dark!")

One implication in Struth's photo, which cannot be avoided, of course, is our own responsibility. Shot/reverse-shot technique uses two components to establish the shared space; a reverse shot is needed. It would be a shot of Struth (and all of us, in the present day, standing in museums and galleries and private collections) from the perspective of Durer's painted space, maybe over the 16th-century artist's shoulder, a shot looking far into the future.

Alone Together, by David Graham, image: pondpress.com

Hardly ever, frankly. But William Hamilton's wonderful story of the Kellams, a couple who lived alone, together, on an island off Mount Desert Island, really got me for some reason. Hamilton mentions David Graham's book about the couple, Alone Together, published by Ponds Press

"What did he read to you," Mrs. Kellam was asked...

"It was always the right thing," she answered...

Kippy Stroud, a summer resident who runs an arts camp on Mount Desert Island, said, "We just admired them so much." Ms. Stroud introduced Mr. Graham, William Wegman and other artists to Placentia to see the Kellams' world as it faded, like a patch of light in a forest.

The story has the best ending I've ever read.

Forget duct tape. We have people for that kind of thing.

A quick turn around the neighborhood reveals what's really standing between me and preparedness:

  • Elaborate jacket for my toy dog
  • Toy dog
  • Silver-tipped walking stick
  • Mink "driving coat." Sorry, dude, it's a swing coat. You know how, even though you call'em clamdiggers, they're still capri pants? Same thing.
  • Minions

  • February 11, 2003

    The Oscars: A Musical Comedy


    About the Oscar nominations: Chicago is to movies what painted cows are to art.

    February 11, 2003

    What're THINK Thinking?

    Team_Think_WTC_vinoly_WCC_SB.jpg
    Team THINK's winning WTC design: lattice towers with a, um,
    museum? embedded in it image: vinoly.com

    Goin' to hear THINK architect/model Rafael Vinoly at Urban Center tonight (as suggested by Gawker)? Ask him if the reason he was a no-show yesterday on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show was that listener's early comment, which surprised Lehrer, about how THINK's towers appear to have an airplane embedded in it? Listen to the exchange is in the "3rd audio clip. [2016 updated link to WNYC archive page currently has no audio.]

    [Note: If you watch THINK's video on The NYT's slideshow, the shape of the "airplane" is quite different; it looks more like a giant aluminum cheese straw. For THINK's sake, I hope that's closer to their intentions. One team of architects trying to sneak a shudder-inducing memorial past us is more than enough, thanks.]
    [2016 update: lmao of course most of these links are dead, I cannot BELIEVE that the realaudio of WNYC's show from 13 yrs earlier is not there anymore! But I un-hotlinked and updated the image and the Vinoly link. Swimming against the tide of time, also Gawker RIP]

    A close reading of VH1's hilariously detailed countersuit [at The Smoking Gun, naturally] against David Gest and Liza Minnelli for sabotaging production of their "reality" show with (mostly his) obstructionist diva behavior yields an obvious, all-too-NYC explanation: Gest simply doesn't know how to deal with a co-op board.

    Liza and David, image: thesmokinggun.com Sure, Gest's demands that VH1 put up his LA stylist in a nearby apartment for the scheduled duration of the shoot (6 months: $60K), that a VH1 staffer "stick her head inside the oven" to see if it's clean enough to shoot, and his refusals to appear when "he wasn't looking his personal best" get the media attention. But all VH1's real dealbreakers--the hours- and days-long delays getting into the couple's apartment; abruptly imposed shooting limits (from 30 shooting days per 10 episode cycle to 10 days per year [italics in original]); and constraints on their crew (restricted numbers, limited drilling/installation of equipment, etc.) can be traced back to the co-op board. Or more specifically, to Gest's failure to get the co-op board on board before signing the deal with VH1. How is this possible?

    Co-op boards wield a lot of power over many New Yorkers' lives, most notably when they bare their lives (and financial statements) to be approved to buy an apartment. But boards also regulate a lot of how and what we do "in our own homes." Under the grandfathering clause, the dowager on the third floor is the only one allowed a dog. Construction work--even drilling a hole--can only be done in the summer, when the neighbors are in the Hamptons. Remodelling taking longer than five months? No problem, the $2,000/day fine meter is running. The oven thing sounds like pure Gest, but David's demand that a VH1 gaffer installing lighting vacuum the dust up immediately sounds like ducking a "no construction" clause.

    Joan Crawford, image: reelclassics.com Kay Thompson, image: eloisewebsite.com Lizzie Grubman mug shot
    Is this another example of "show business people" running afoul of co-ops? Maybe, if Liza's building was a serious co-op, on Fifth, Park, or CPW. But apparently, the only pre-req the Imperial House--on 69th between Lex and Third (Third!)--has for celebrity residents is bizarrely crafted eyebrows. Joan Crawford lived (and died). Kay Thompson lived there, with Liza. And before she took that, um, sublet in Riverhead, Lizzie Grubman lived there during her starter marriage.

    A Google search of the building's address doesn't turn up any co-op board horror stories. But what it does turn up makes one wonder if David Gest had a reason to think video shoots in the building would be okay. According to the last search result on this Google page, an outfit called Regular J o e V i d e o also operated out of 150 E 69th (Sorry about the spaces; you'll have to Google it for yourself. Not the the kind of site traffic I'm after, thanks). A quick visit to RJV's (not work-friendly) site offers a distinctive genre of "reality" programming (I believe the industry term is "amateur"), one which involves digital video, the delivery guy, and the guest room. (No pun intended, I swear. These people'll sue anything that moves.)

    Did Gest, who moved into Liza's apartment with his collection of Judy Garland memorabilia, get some neighborly advice that, "Hey, shooting video's no problem; I do it all the time. Wanna see?" Who knows? One thing is clear: A co-op board's power doesn't extend to pre-nuptial veto. for better or worse (and it's certainly debatable at this point), when Liza decided to marry again, her fiance didn't face a grueling co-op interview. But once he moved in and fell under their purview, the co-op board made it very clear who was wearing the pants in the Gest/Minnelli house.

    NYPost cover, 2/10/03, slamming France for forgetting US image: nypost.com
    In the cover story of today's Post, columnist and decorated war veteran Steve Dunleavy visits a military cemetery in France and proceeds to excoriate the French for "forgetting the sacrifice we (the US)" made in WWII. Never mind that he doesn't talk to a single French person in his journey, he does quote some Americans there, who say, unfortunately for Dunleavy, "surely they remember."

    Although Souvenir (November 2001) is about a search for a WWI memorial, and although the French people in the film can't give directions to the British monument, they absolutely have not forgotten WWI, much less WWII. What does seem to be forgotten, though, is the goodwill and sympathy the world extended to Americans during the period in which Souvenir is set, the goodwill that has been squandered.

    Dunleavy quotes an American student giving the simplistic advice that has served backpackers well for years: "We have been told that if we face any kind of a threat, we should say we're Canadians, not Americans." That's the fifth time in a week I've seen this tactic mentioned in the media. That's something worth writing home about.

    February 7, 2003

    Bill & Nada's Cafe

    Bill & Nadas Cafe Meal Ticket, from SLC

    Bill & Nada's Cafe was where I had my first script idea. It's not that the Salt Lake dance clubs were cooler than the ones in Provo, there were no dance clubs in Provo. (Don't talk to me about The Palace; that was like a church dance in Orange County). So we'd drive to Salt Lake to go out. Finding a designated driver was never a problem (think about it). Then after the clubs closed, we'd go to Bill & Nada's. Much cooler than Denny's. And full of characters, whether at 3AM or 8AM or lunchtime. Clubbies trying to be bad, punks, mothers with home-dyed hair, Willy Lomans, and always a few grizzled friends of Bill at the counter, truckers, probably. Or prospectors.

    It was the time warp kind of diner that hadn't changed since the early sixties. Ancient country music on the jukeboxes (one on each table. There'd always be some jerk who'd order up Patsy Cline's Crazy ten times, just as he was getting his check. Damn college kids.) The most famous dish was eggs & brains, but I'd always get pancakes ("Breakfast served all day"), which were orange (fertilized eggs, they'd say) and tapioca pudding. Or a patty melt. Every hour, the head waitress'd saunter over and spin the wheel. If your seat number hit, your order was free (there are little stick-on numbers at each spot, it turns out). There's a vintage Field & Stream-like mural of a mountain lake on one wall, and a portrait of Bill, in full metal jacket and chaps, on his show horse. Just like in the Pioneer Day parade, every July.

    There were stories, told on the way home, about why the pictures of Bill & Nada are so old, too. "Go ask where she is," some smart ass'd say, but no one ever did. Uncovering the urban legend we were sure lurked behind Bill & Nada's was to be my first documentary, I decided; So many characters! And so quirky! (I was running the International Cinema program at BYU my senior year.) Half-assed research and writing efforts in the following years yielded one problematic result: there was no mystery, nothing lurking behind anything at Bill & Nada's. What do you do when the reality turns out to be far less sensational than what you'd built it up to be in your mind? In my case, you go to business school, I guess.

    I found this meal ticket from Bill & Nada's today while sorting through some tax receipts. I bought it for the clean design. Despite the slogan, Bill & Nada's closed at the end of 1999. On their last night in business, I took my DV camera down there and roamed around for a couple of hours, capturing the atmosphere, shooting detail shots, so I could recreate it on a set, when the time came. Looks like longtime patron Bert Singleton did the same thing before they tore the place down last January.


  • It is still feasible to have hope that the US won't start a war.
  • A major threat, one that goes unacknowledged by the US administration, arises from the global precedent set by a US "pre-emptive" war. [cue: North Korean claim of "right to pre-emptive strike"]
  • Met with one of the key players in the real-life international crime story which forms the basis of the Animated Musical script. We talked about it a bit; gonna talk about it a bit more.
  • Bill Clinton only drinks Diet Coke from a can, BYODC.
  • Admittedly, I do that on Amtrak and United, but because they're Pepsi-zone, not because the Secret Service tells me to.

  • Richard Kobayashi, farmer with cabbages, Manzanar internment camp, photo by Ansel Adams image: loc.gov

    Richard Kobayashi, farmer and cabbages, Manzanar Internment Camp
    photo by Ansel Adams image: loc.gov


    In 1990, just out of school, I was transfixed by a copy of Ansel Adam's self-published book, Born Free And Equal, at a big antiques show. At $200, it was the most expensive book I'd ever wanted, and I choked. Almost five years of searching later, it was the first thing I bought online, from a collector on a photography newsgroup. [Of course, now you can almost always find a copy on Abebooks.] Adams' combined his photographs--signature landscapes, portraits and documentary shots--of the Japanese American internment camp in Manzanar, CA with his scathing text to condemn the US government's (all three branches) stripping of US citizens' and residents' civil rights.

    Published in 1944, Adams' book was poorly received, no surprise. Many copies were reportedly burned, and today, it is an exceedingly rare, little known work by a very famous photographer. Since the 1960's, the Manzanar collection has been at the Library of Congress. Tell Jack Valenti when you want to see his neck twitch: Adams put these pictures into the public domain, to assure their survival. View all 244 images here.

    Manzanar landscape with barbed wire fence, by Ansel Adams image: loc.gov

    Manzanar landscape with barbed wire fence
    photo by Ansel Adams, image: loc.gov


    Why do I post this now? Well, I have contemplated ideas for a film based in the camps. And a John Ashcroft deputy has suggested such camps for Arab Americans would not be illegal. But now, a Congressman from North Carolina (home state, thanks), the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Domestic Security, has defended the camps, proclaiming them "appropriate" and "for their [the Japanese'] own safety." Two branches down, one to go.

    Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

    Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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