In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones talks with Aleksandr Sokurov about his latest film, Russian Ark, and he retraces the path of the single 96-minute Steadicam shot through the Hermitage with the museum’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky. I’ve written about this before, but what comes through here is a double view of serious passion for art.
The Hermitage dominates the lives of those who work there: It “has its own school where children can learn archaeology and art history from the age of five, preselected for curatorial lives like gymnasts or violinists.” Piotrovsky appears as himself in the film, talking with his deceased father, who was also director.
And for Sokurov, encountering art, not just seeing or presenting it, was a central goal of the film. “Sokurov films paintings from the side, in normal lighting, so that reflections – as they do – obscure one part of the picture and make the texture of its surface visible.” One encounter Sokurov provides is Rembrandt: “When you meet the real painting, you meet a real creature. Rembrandt left part of his physical being in his painting – every time you come up to a painting, you feel part of this energy, this sense of something being alive.”
Sokurov dismisses modern works—the museum’s famous Matisses don’t make the film’s, um, final cut–saying “the main criterion in art is time. It seems to me that those artists who are considered modern classics are to be tested by time yet.” And the director chides film for utterly lacking historical awareness (“due to the lack of cinema museums,” he claims) even as Jones points out the contrast of the unedited Russian Ark and its Russian Avant Garde antecedents–like Eisenstein, who also filmed in the Hermitage–whose “great modernist aesthetic” of editing became the foundation of our entire visual language.
So, Sokurov, what’s a better way to spend four hours today, watching my Criterion Collection Andrei Rublev DVD (aka, the cinema museum?) or standing in line at the Met for the last day of daVinci? “Museums make culture stable,” Sokurov notes, and they perform an invaluable conservative function, that is, conserving the “real creatures” of our collective past. As Sokurov would no doubt agree, in contemporary art, the artist leaves no part of his physical being in his work: he leaves his thoughts, his mind, his idea. And when I encounter a Felix Gonzalez-Torres light string, fabricated with parts off the hardware store shelf, I still have a sense of something being alive.
Eh. Who needs to watch the Oscars, with their self-serious, press conference-addicted producer, Gil Cates, and their Chicago faits accomplis. The IFP Spirit Awards are like a hundred times better. It’s on Bravo right now (and it repeats, uncensored, on IFC, again and again). Some highlights:
Decasia is Bill Morrison’s fascinating, expressive film composed of beautifully deteriorated nitrate film stock. Last December, Laurence Wechsler wrote about showing it to Errol Morris: “I popped the video into his VCR and proceeded to observe as Morrison’s film once again began casting its spell. Errol sat drop-jawed: at one point, about halfway through, he stammered, ‘This may be the greatest movie ever made.”’
Morrison will be at some Anthology Film Archive screenings. The film’s website has a growing schedule of other screenings, including 26 March at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. Read J. Hoberman’s Voice review. Also, buy Decasia on VHS.
Meanwhile, in his short review, the Voice‘s Dennis Lim guts the Oscar-nominated short films like a Hebrew-speaking carp. Lim’s joyless Oscar prediction: “Inja, a pat anti-apartheid parable manipulative enough to enlist a dog and a child.” Yikes. What’s the endgame for making shorts again??
Been making arrangements for a private preview of a new work by Jeremy Blake, who I’ve been friendly with for many years, since his first NY show. While putting together an email of links and background for people, I went back to the official site for Paul Anderson’s film, Punch-Drunk Love [DVD, someday]. Under “movies”, there is a collection of 14 haiku-like clips, which use liberal doses of Jeremy’s abstracted work and Jon Brion’s film music, often without any dialogue, or even ambient sound. They’re really great, like a bowl of film candy.
A search of the web for any discussion of them turned up nothing, but ptanderson.com, the blow-away best “unofficial” filmmaker fansite around, comes to the rescue, sort of. In addition to a section on Jeremy and his work (including a what/where inventory of his work in PDL), there’s a list of deleted scenes which maps pretty closely onto the website movies. PDL is the most overlooked movie of the award season. And not just acting/directing/writing, but the whole gamut of editing, production design, sound, lighting, music, I mean, come on.
A couple of weeks ago, I called About Schmidt the Thinking Person’s My Fat, Greek Wedding and linked both back to the 1955 Academy Award sweeper Marty. Now, after giving it some thought, Vogue‘s Sarah Kerr notes an “odd coincidence” in a Slate discussion of the films of 2002: “Did you know that Payne is of Greek extraction and that in his boyhood his father owned a Greek restaurant in Omaha? Ring a bell with another movie this year?”
[Listen to Payne talking about Omaha on Studio 360.]
[MoMA‘s Film Department will honor Payne with its 2nd Work In Progress Award in February.]
Nobody’s Perfect, indeed. If Anthony Lane can’t get beyond Jack’s celebrity, fine. He saw the movie at the NY Film Fest opening. His unabashed pinky-extended criticism almost always gives an enjoyable read. (Need some holiday cheer? Get his collected reviews, Nobody’s Perfect, today Don’t even think you can stuff a stocking with it or take it on a plane, though.)
But Salon’s review by Charles Taylor seems to be such a bitter, willful misread of the film, it defies explanation. So let me explain: Taylor actually misunderstands the audience, or more precisely, large swaths of the population of the US, including the hundreds of millions of excruciatingly normal people who fail to “delight (movie directors as) eccentrics and kooks and small-town oddballs” and who would never consider themselves “vulgar and naive and tacky,” just the opposite.
In About Schmidt as well as his previous films, Alexander Payne proves that excruciatingly normal doesn’t automatically mean boring. Just the opposite. In a long Times article, A. O. Scott tries to place Payne’s (and Nicholson’s) Schmidt in a grand tradition of the “mythic cinema hero, The Regular Guy.” This tradition extends from the creations of Clifford Odets, Sinclair Lewis, Arthur Miller, and John Updike to “just about every movie cop and sitcom dad.” (Sitcom. Remember sitcom.) Although Scott cites Jimmy Stewart and Fred “My Three Sons” MacMurray, the only actual movie he cites is Marty, which Delbert Mann had originally directed on television. Mythic, indeed.
Marty is the classic immigrant affirmation story, which won Oscars in 1955, for its star (Ernest Borgnine, nee Borgnino, an Italian), writer Paddy Chayefsky, a Jew from the Bronx) producer (Harold Hecht, a Jew from Poland), and director (Mann, from…Lawrenceville, Kansas). Beset by his loud Italian mother and family and feeling fat an unattractive, Marty falls for a teacher; the mismatched couple overcomes the family’s objections and their own insecurity on their way to their fairytale marriage. Sound familiar? It should, since it’s the same damn plot as My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding.
David Denby rightly called Greek Wedding on its big, fat sitcom roots, and the story of how its unexpected success among The Ignored caught Hollywood and the culture capitalists off guard is now accepted wisdom; Denby’s own New Yorker review didn’t even appear until September, six months after the film’s debut, and presumably, after Denby’s aunts and mother wouldn’t let him off the hook for ignoring it any longer. For The Ignored, it’s their own story, told in the style they were trained by television to expect. About Schmidt is a remarkable film about The Ignored that tells their own story in a powerful, serious way. It may never achieve the box office success of Greek Wedding, which is too bad. For the first time in fifty years, there’s actually a good film about a Mythic Cinema Hero.
Talked to MoMA today to finalize the exhibition format for Souvenir November 2001. A film transfer would be really lush and sexy. Yesterday, I saw a video projected version of a short I’d seen at the New Directors/New Films series last spring. The difference in the image, particularly in the color intensity, was marked. A film transfer would also be a couple grand, and given that I still feel a slight itch to finetune the sound (and/or music) a bit, it’s money I’d rather save for when the movie is triple-locked and padlocked locked.
Been working on advance press, doing selective flogging, and talking to a couple of publicists. We’re preparing a mailing to go out to the collective lists of the crew, which includes most NY media, all the art media (Jonah, the DP has been getting a lot of attention lately for his own fine art photography and video work), and a bunch of dawgs, to use the vernacular.
Something’s working. I was introduced to someone (with a much higher Q-rating than mine) who promptly asked, “You have a website? about a movie? Is that you?” First time that‘s happened.
Walking through midtown today, I was surprised to come across three people firing up old school (ie., on the street)r than tobacco among the traditional smoker exiles. Was it a coincidence that they were each in front of a company whose chief product is idea generation?
Went to the contemporary art auctions Wed./Thurs. at Christie’s. If there’s a pop coming to that bubble, it wasn’t yet. Crowds were, well, crowded, and bidding was consistently active.
I definitely don’t collect to make money. Making money’d entail selling, and the idea of parting with a work just confounds me. Still, watching an auction can be like repeatedly clicking Reload on your E*Trade account; in your head, you mark your own taste to market. When a Flavin and some Donald Judd sculptures did very well, for example, the Italian woman next to me whipped out her mobile phone and rattled off the results. << Si, como nostro. como nostro >>, she repeated excitedly. Molto buono, indeed.
Desk & Chairs, 1988, Donald Judd, sold at Christie’s Nov. 14, 2002 (image: Christie’s)
So how’d my taste do? Pretty good, I have to say. Strong, smart pieces by artists whose work I really enjoy–Donald Judd, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Olafur Eliasson, Hiroshi Sugimoto–did well; the prices seemed right, not overheated, like some others (Gursky, Demand, Murakami). One downside: it hurts to see work rise beyond your reach (note to self: close that the five-picture deal…) It’s almost enough to make you wish the bubble’d pop.
Ewan, up close. Image: Eccentricity-online.com
The Guardian has an interesting interview with Ewan McGregor who talks about singing, about directing his first short, and about working with directors. There’s audio as well, in case you’re into the accent.
Ewanspotting, an awe-inducing McGregor fansite confirms a trend: names derived from the first/big movie. Ex. Being Charlie Kaufman and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Cigarettes & Coffee (named after his first short).
Last night, I talked about the artists and filmmakers post with an artist friend who passed through town. He pointed out Lars von Trier’s collaboration with the Danish romantic painter Per Kirkeby on Breaking The Waves. Kirkeby created deeply romantic landscapes to introduce each chapter of the film. Von Trier points out that the movie’s setting, the Isle of Skye, was a favorite destination of many 19th century English Romantic artists and writers.
Interesting because it dovetails so nicely with my other current fixation, is how von Trier envisioned these painterly interludes to Kirkeby: “God’s-eye-view of the landscape in which this story is unfolding, as if he were watching over the characters.” (from the Journal of Religion and Film)
Moving from interesting to unsettling, this JR&F paper discusses the parallels of Contact and Dante’s Paradiso.
Nevertheless, so much of the holy kingdom
as I could treasure up in my mind
shall now be the matter of my song.
They should have sent a poet.
Apparently, the project went into turnaround when Mollie Wilmot objected to being portrayed by Bette Midler or Melanie Griffith. Disney executives may be smiling through their tears to learn that Wilmot, “the socialite with the oversize white sunglasses who rose to celebrity in 1984 when a tanker ran aground at her Palm Beach, Fla., mansion,” has passed away.
In the NYTimes obit, the subject is Mrs Wilmot’s life in the media, especially in the paper itself. In addition to covering the unexpected arrival of the Venezuelan tanker and her crew ( “‘I thought it was the man who was coming to photograph my home for Town & Country,'”) The Times, we learn, dutifully reported on her clothing (1990: “watermelon-pink Yves Saint Laurent silk suit to lunch in the Saratoga racing season.”) and her spats with decorators (1985: “Mrs. Wilmot stormed out of the [Winter Antique] show, followed by the commode.”). All the life that’s fit to print.
Perusing obituaries from her “principal residence,” Palm Beach, we find recollections of neighbors and shopkeepers and sense the nuances of local priorities. The proud townie Sun-Sentinel: “In addition to being ‘zany,’ Wilmot was not ‘snotty or snobby’ like some Palm Beach residents, [“neighbor” Dale] Merck said. Rather, she was an original Palm Beacher.” The striving Post: “And it was common knowledge that Mrs. Wilmot turned down Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s invitation to a ball.” The appropriate Daily News: “Mrs. Wilmot — previously Bragno and Bostwick — was divorced from New York publicist Paul Wilmot, whom she married in December 1970 at her North Ocean home designed by Maurice Fatio. Mary Sanford was her matron of honor.”
While they recount life of their subject, obituaries are clearly (is this obvious?) for the living. They may be oblique tools for social control, but their power on the individual is undeniable. By judging Mrs Wilmot as “a real Palm Beacher,” a higher plane than that occupied by mere “Palm Beach residents,” the obit writer fires a clear shot across the bows of the still-too-new yachts in the marina.
Obituary fixation may be dismissed as absurd minutiae (first line, font size, picture or no, A1 lede? if only…), but preoccupation with one’s place in history, one’s contribution to the world, is at least as old as the pyramids.
Warren Schmidt is a bereft ex-actuary in Alexander Payne’s highly acclaimed film, About Schmidt, where he’s faced with cold calculations of the worth of his own life. Payne is rightly praised in this Times review from the NY Film Festival for “laying out an expansive, impressively even-handed vision of life in contemporary Middle America.” Reviewer Stephen Holden goes on: “The movie’s quest to discover how one ordinary person can make more of a difference turns out to be as serious as its title character’s. The common-sense answer it comes up with, in a final scene so unassuming that it’s almost a throwaway moment, is as simple and modest as it is profoundly moving.”
I never met Mrs. Mollie Wilmot, although her acolytes (a few generations removed) are thick as fiddlers around here. In April, I met Payne, whose intelligence and niceness impressed me as much as his films. With all due respect to the doyennes of Palm Beach, I suggest taking your life cues from the story of Warren Schmidt.
Even though a friend at Vanity Fair is so sick of hearing about him she puts her hands over her ears and starts screaming “la la la la la la” when I mention his name, I’ve been listening to Robert Evans read his book, The Kid Stays in the Picture. It’s a grating riot. And I will see the movie, which I think will be overkill, but I’ve seen clips where they have done some interesting-concept animation of still photos. That’s something I’ve been kicking around with for a few years. Never mind. You can listen to a brief excerpt of the audiobook here. Buy it if you wish. (But if you’re on Wes Anderson’s Christmas list, you already got it; it briefly replaced muffin baskets and surfwax as the Hollywood Christmas Gift of Choice in 2000.)