Archive for the ‘Art’ Category


August 19, 2016


Indignation, written and directed by James Schamus, based on a novel by Philip Roth, is the finest film I’ve seen so far this year.

The film takes place during the Korean War. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son of a Jewish butcher in New Jersey, escapes the draft by being accepted into a Christian liberal arts college in Ohio. There he meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who comes from an upper class family in Ohio. The two become romantically involved, but it becomes increasingly clear that Olivia is suffering from psychological problems. (She admits to Marcus that she once tried to kill herself.) At the same time, Marcus has to deal with the college dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who exhibits a patronizing moralism, while at the same time expressing a creepy curiosity about Marcus’s personal life.

Indignation is an indictment of moral hypocrisy and religious narrow-mindedness. It is an emotionally powerful film with a shattering ending. It was particularly affecting to me, because I was once in a relationship that was similar in some ways to the relationship between Marcus and Olivia. I’m told that the Philip Roth novel on which this film is based is semi-autobiographical. One of the purposes of art is to remind people that we are not alone. Experiences that we may think are odd or inexplicable may well have happened to other people.

Indignation is a great film.

Dark Star: The World of HR Giger

May 23, 2015


HR Giger (pronounced geeger) was a Swiss artist who was known for the dark subject matter of his works. They depict the weird and the bizarre, often with a subtle, and sometimes blatant, eroticism. Belinda Sallin’s documentary about him was made shortly before his death. In it, he comes across as taciturn, but nonetheless likable. (He looked a bit like Brother Theodore.) He lived in a house that looked like a museum of the macabre. In one scene, Giger shows us a skull that he says his father gave him when he was a child. (He says that his father, a pharmacist, was given the skull by Ciba-Geigy, a pharmaceutical company. I would have liked to learned more of the details about this.) He says that he would pull the skull along the street with a string. He did this in order to try to lessen his fear of it. This film subtly suggests that this anecdote can be seen as a metaphor for Giger’s career.

Giger’s ex-wife tells us that he never really grew up. In one scene, we see him riding around on a miniature railroad that he built in his backyard. (Not suprisingly, he liked cats.) Giger tells us that he had a happy childhood. He was apparently close to his mother, although he says he found his father a “mystery”. The only tragic part of his life concerned the death of his one-time lover, the actress Li Tobler, who committed suicide. Giger admits to be being haunted by the question of whether he could have done something to prevent this.

I have to admit that I’m not a great admirer of Giger’s work. I find the recurring themes and images, and unrelenting bleakness, a bit monotonous after a while. However, this film gave me a certain respect for the man. He was determined to follow his own vision, and he managed to acquire a devoted following.

F for Fake

May 9, 2015


Orson Welles called F for Fake a “film essay”. That is, while it isn’t a narrative film, it’s not a documentary, because it doesn’t claim to be entirely factual. Welles seemed to think that he invented this genre, but many film historians would disagree. For example, many view Vertov’s 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, as a film essay. Regardless of this, F for Fake is innovative in that it uses the medium of film to question the truthfulness of film itself.

F for Fake touches on a wide range of topics, but it is mainly concerned with the story of Elmyr de Hory, a French-Hungarian art forger, and the writer, Clifford Irving. Irving wrote a biography of de Hory, and then he committed a forgery of his own, writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Handwriting experts declared the manuscript to be real. (Welles suggests that de Hory forged Hughes’s handwriting.) Both de Hory and Irving express a dismissive attitude towards “experts”. One gets the sense that this film may have been meant as a subtle dig at the critic, Pauline Kael, who wrote an essay about Citizen Kane, in which she claimed that Welles didn’t write any of the script.

F for Fake uses a variety of visual tricks. There are scenes in which Irving and de Hory seem to be talking to each other, but they are actually shots from two different interviews that have been spliced together. This film serves as a demonstration that we can take nothing at face value.

The Criterion Collection DVD of this film includes the documentary, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which was co-directed and co-written by Welles’s girlfriend, Oja Kodar. This film concentrates on Welles’s later years and includes scenes from many of the unfinished films he made, as well as from the unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind. (And the fact that this film remains unreleased is a scandal.) Among other things, we learn that Welles was obsessed with Moby Dick. Over the years he shot numerous scenes of himself reciting passages from this work, although it was unclear what he intended to do with these. Welles seemed to identify with the character of Ahab. Like Ahab, he spent much of his life pursuing something – in his case success – he could never quite achieve.

Welles also made this bizarre nine-minute trailer for F for Fake:

Cottage Grove, Oregon

October 18, 2012

During the six and a half years that I lived in Oregon, I always saw this sign along the I-5 whenever I was driving from Eugene to Cottage Grove. I’ve wondered if anyone ever satisfied this man’s tremendous need for fill dirt.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I had to delay my move to Los Angeles for a few days, so I decided to drive to Umpqua National Forest, which I had never been to before. It is a gorgeous wilderness that extends from the Willamette Valley up into the Cascade Mountains. I walked along a hiking trail that went alongside a creek. The forest was extremely dense. There were thick clumps of moss growing all over the tree branches. It was all a bit gloomy, albeit in a beautiful way. I kept thinking this place would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story.

On my way back home, I decided to swing by the funky little town of Cottage Grove. This place is most famous for the fact that Buster Keaton’s The General was filmed here. (Animal House was also filmed here, although, not surprisingly, nobody feels proud about that.) The town has an annual Buster Keaton Day. It also has a mural of Keaton located on its Main Street.

Keaton is not the only person honored by a mural in Cottage Grove. Another is Opal Whiteley, who is the most famous person to ever come from this town. In the early twentieth century, Whiteley published what she claimed was a diary that she kept as a child growing up in a lumber camp near Cottage Grove. In it, she claims, among other things, that animals could talk to her, and that she sometimes met “little people” in the woods. She also wrote a nature book titled The Fairyland Around Us. The title of this work is meant to be taken literally. It is a curious mixture of scientific facts, poetry, and just plain fruitiness. I’m told that only five copies of the first edition still exist. One of them is at the University of Oregon (which Opal attended for a couple of years, though she didn’t graduate). It is kept in a locked vacuum chamber that is surrounded by armed guards. Although I would like to think that this indicates a firm commitment to preserving Oregon’s literary history, I have, however, a dreadful foreboding that the university will one day sell it in order to pay for more uniforms for the football team. (Okay, I’m kidding about the armed guards. However, I’m not kidding about the uniforms.)

Opal Whiteley prominently featured in a mural honoring Cottage Grove.

I find it a bit ironic that Cottage Grove has chosen to honor Whiteley in this way, considering that Whiteley disdained her Oregon background and upbringing. She devoted a large amount of time and energy to claiming that she was the daughter of a French aristocrat, Henri, Prince of Orléans, and that she had been sent away to be raised in a lumber camp in Oregon. (I guess that this sort of thing happens all the time to the daughters of the French aristocracy.) She spent the last fifty years of her life in a nursing home in London, where the staff referred to her as “the Princess”. She was buried under the name, Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans. One of the reasons for the ongoing fascination with Opal’s life is that it is not clear whether or not she was a fraud. My guess is that she was probably suffering from a mild form of schizophrenia.

Mount David

Located near Main Street is a long narrow hill that Cottage Groveans (I don’t know what else to call them) call Mount David. This is the most striking physical feature of the area, and I assumed they would have made it into a public park. However, I was surprised to learn several years ago that there were plans to build houses on the hill. This struck me as a bad idea, because, among other things, the sides of Mount David are extremely steep and are almost like cliffs in some places. I once climbed this hill, and even though it’s not that tall, it was only with a great deal of effort that I managed to make it to the top. I was sweating profusely when I got there, even though the hill is not especially high. These plans have apparently been abandoned, which may have something to do with the fact that local residents formed a “Friends of Mt. David” society to preserve the hill. (I suspect that the recession may have been another factor.)

Mt.David is interesting in a number of ways. There is a pioneer cemetery at the foot of the hill. There were cougar sightings on the hill last year. And, according to this reputable website, the hill is haunted:

    Said to be a some kind [sic] of spirit that will chase you off of the hill at night time. Around the graveyards there are said to be many apperinces [sic] of the ghostly kind. Beware of the thing that will chase you off the mountain at night time.

When I climbed the hill, I did go back down at sunset, although I am not aware that I was being chased by anyone or anything. Besides, I think I would be more frightened to run into a mountain lion than into a ghost. One thing I did notice as I was walking along the ridge was an almost perfectly circular impression in the ground, about twenty feet across. I have since learned that there used to be an oil well on top of the hill, which perhaps explains that odd formation.

Another fine mural.

Another mural on a similar theme.

There used to be a gun store at this location. This is progress.

If I lived in Cottage Grove, I would definitely go to this place for all my automotive needs.

Public art, or a bench? You decide.

The Bohemia Mining Museum may be closed, but this would-be capitalist is determined to follow that fine old American tradition of trying to get rich quick and failing at it.

This sign is on a building which used to be Cottage Grove’s City Hall, but which now houses a ballet school and some small businesses. I used to see signs like this all over the place when I was growing up. Yes, this actually gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the Cold War. Does that make me a bad person?

Mad Russians and the American Left

August 31, 2012

Soon to be a contributor to CounterPunch and Dissident Voice.

Back in the 1930’s, there was a radio comedian named Bert Gordon, who was billed as the Mad Russian. His tagline was “How do you dooo!”, which you can hear in some Warner Brothers cartoons from that period. Gordon was enormously popular in his time, but, alas, he is largely forgotten today. Yet, the spirit of the Mad Russian lives on at some left-wing websites. At CounterPunch, Israel Shamir has become their resident authority on Russia, the Dreyfus Affair, and conspiracy theories.

Not to be outdone, CP’s rival, Dissident Voice, have their own mad Russian, Andre Fomine. His latest article is entitled Pussy Riot, the CIA, and Cultural Terrorism. In this article, we learn the shocking truth about Pussy Riot:

    No doubt it was not a single spontaneous act by a group of dissolute individuals but an episode of a much wider global campaign to shake and eventually ruin traditional societies and institutions. It is being carried out by the same powerful circles which inspired — e.g. offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Oh, my. From Pussy Riot to Danish cartoons. Who could possibly be behind this fiendish global conspiracy? Need you ask?

    It is an open secret that avant-gardism became popular in the West in 1950-1960s thanks to unprecedented support from the CIA and was used by the United States as a powerful ideological weapon.

The CIA. Why, of course! Aren’t they behind everything?

Fomine ends his article with a dire warning: “The puppeteers of Modern Art and Cultural Terrorism keep carrying out their mission.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Modern Art! Run! Flee! Hide!

In another article, entitled The Last Victory of Muammar Gaddafi, Fomine exposes the sordid truth behind the “Arab Spring”:

    First, there was nothing spontaneous in the wave of 2011 North Africa and Middle East revolutions. The popular unrests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc were carefully prepared, organized, financed and supported through international media. Quite surprisingly, Al-Jazeera played a critically important role in fueling the conflicts within Arabic societies spreading disinformation and blocking truthful and sober voices.

The media did it! And, as we all know, media = CIA. Fomine, however, ends his article on a cheerful note:

    Thus we are entering very interesting, perhaps decisive times. Muammar Gaddafi has won his last battle despite eluding vigor and insolent pressure from everywhere. Will there be any new Gaddafis born by Muslim mothers to resist the new world order? We hope and pray for that.

More Gaddafis! That’s exactly what we need! The comments on the thread for this article were adulatory. (“Excellent article. I am glad that the author had the courage to write it.” I’m not sure that “courage” is the right word.) When one commenter was churlish enough to point out that Fomine offers no evidence to support his claim about the Arab revolutions, he was promptly smacked down by another commenter who wrote:

    How do you expect the writer can supply you with what you call proof?!
    Do you expect him to hack computers or bulglarise certain offices and displays the documents here for you to see??!! Is that make sense?!
    There is something called commonsense combined with knowledge of history, precedents and good analytical ability!

Yeah, who needs evidence?

As you can imagine, I wanted to learn more about this truly original thinker, Andre Fomine. I found out that he edits a web journal called Oriental Review. There, you can find excerpts from a book by Nikolay Starikov entitled Who Made Hitler Attack Stalin. The latest installment is titled Leon Trotsky, Father of German Nazism. Lest you think that this title is meant as a joke, here is how the article begins:

    Who organized the February and October revolutions in Russia and the November revolution in Germany? The Russian and German revolutions were organized by British intelligence, with the possible support of the United States and France.

That’s right, British intelligence must have engineered the Russian Revolution, since it was a strategic defeat for the British empire. This is common sense. Displaying his extraordinary narrative skill, Starikov tells us:

    Dropped into Russia by British intelligence, thanks to a secret agreement with German secret services aboard the “closed wagon,” the Bolsheviks refused to leave the political scene.

That’s right, the Bolsheviks (all of them) were parachuted into Russia inside a sealed train car. (It must have been awfully uncomfortable, but they were willing to endure anything for the revolution.) Later, we learn:

    The main funding supplied to the Russian Revolution from American bankers was transferred through accounts in neutral Sweden and briefcases of inconspicuous figures stealthily entering the country.

Because there’s nothing bankers love more than a government that’s dedicated to abolishing capitalism.

Just by clinking on certain links on the Dissident Voice website, you can find this treasure trove of occult knowledge.

How do you dooo!

LeRoy Neiman, Hugh Hefner, and the Struggle Against Perversion

June 25, 2012

This man says you’re not gay.

LeRoy Neiman has died. I was not going to say anything about this until I came across this article in the Los Angeles Times by Christopher Knight. It reveals the secret behind the peculiar appeal of Neiman’s paintings:

    Usually mischaracterized as simply a sports artist, he was actually much more than that. Neiman was the painter of the “Playboy Philosophy.”

    To be more specific, he was the artist for Playboy readers afraid that liking art was gay.

There you have it. Some men need to look at Neiman’s paintings to reassure themselves that they’re not sexually attracted to other men. Ah, but there’s more to it than that. It seems that Neiman’s paintings were actually part of a campaign to keep America butch. The article explains:

    Hefner targeted the magazine [Playboy] at young urban men. Its philosophy centered on a suave but stereotypic view of red-blooded male heterosexuality. The sexual revolution it championed was framed as an antidote to perversion.

    “If we desire a healthy, heterosexual society,” Hefner said in defense of Playboy, “we must begin stressing heterosexual sex; otherwise, our society will remain sick and perverted.”

These are high-minded sentiments. And all these years you thought Hugh Hefner was just a bullshit artist who’s too lazy to change out of his pajamas. It turns out that Hef (those in his inner circle call him “Ner”) has been waging a lonely struggle to protect you and me from “perversion”. Now, don’t you just feel small and ungrateful? Don’t you?

The Future

November 7, 2011

I was not familiar with the work of Miranda July before I saw The Future. She is a filmmaker, performance artist and short story writer. Her work has provoked sharply divided reactions from people. Some critics have dismissed her work as shallow and empty, while her defenders say that her work is “whimsical”. This a word that makes me wary. Americans are not good at whimsy. When Americans try to be whimsical, the results are usually abominations such as Forrest Gump. Americans should leave whimsy to the French, who have given us directors such as Jacques Tati and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The only American director who has even come close to being good at whimsy is Terry Gilliam – and he can be unbearable at times.

The Future is about a thirty-something couple, Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). They decide to adopt a cat in one month. They talk about this as something that will change their lives as much as having a baby would. Perhaps this is meant to be a joke, but it isn’t funny; it merely makes them seem vacuous and shallow. They decide that they have one month to “experience life” before their lives become slavishly devoted to a feline. They do this in different ways. Jason gets a job selling trees, while Sophie has an affair with another man. (Clearly Sophie is the more ambitious of the two.) Sophie begins her seduction by calling up a man she has never met – Marshall (David Warshofsky) – and asking him strange questions over the telephone. She then pretends to be a client for his sign-making business. Right away, she leaves Jason and moves in with Marshall and his young daughter, Gabriella (Isabella Acres). Not surprisingly, this arrangement doesn’t last very long. One evening, Gabriella buries herself up to her neck in the backyard and announces that she is going to spend the whole night like that. Sophie tries to talk her out of this (as any human being would), but Marshall says that this is okay. Later that night, an enormous shirt crawls into the house. This clearly symbolizes Sophie’s past life. Sophie puts the shirt on with her legs through the sleeves and pulls it over her head. When Marshall sees her like this, he is shocked and horrified. This is a man who finds nothing wrong with the idea of his daughter spending the night buried up to her neck in dirt, yet he is repulsed by the sight of a woman with a shirt over her head. I guess this is supposed to be whimsical.

As for Jason, he has the ability to stop time. (Or at least he thinks he does. The film is not really clear about this.) He also talks to the Moon, and the Moon talks back to him. (Again, this could be imaginary.) Oh, and there’s a talking cat. Since I watched too many Disney movies when I was growing up, the last thing I want to see in a film is a talking cat, especially if it’s a film about a thirty-something couple having a mid-life crisis. It’s interesting to note here that July is married to Mike Mills, whose film, Beginners, which I saw earlier this year, has a talking dog in it. (Well, he doesn’t actually talk. Subtitles appear in front of his face.) So, are talking or semi-talking animals the hip new thing in movies nowadays? Someone please tell me this isn’t so.

There are a few surreal moments in this film, as when we see Gabriella buried up to her neck in her father’s backyard. For the most part, however, this is simply a tepid romantic comedy with some fantasy elements and some pretentious dialogue in it. It can safely be said that I am not one of Miranda July’s fans.

Shepard Fairey Reloaded

June 17, 2011

I started this blog by writing about Shepard Fairey. There hasn’t been much new on the Fairey front for a while, so I was pleased to find this. TMZ has a video of him churlishly admonishing his wife after she effectively tells someone that he no longer does his own wheatpasting. Does this surprise anyone? Fairey rakes in so much money, he can afford to hire a whole army of wheatpasters. Hell, I’m so desperate for work, I’d be willing to do it myself. (Shep, my hours are flexible.)

Mat Gleason, a critic for Coagula Art Journal, has a snarcky article about this in the Huffington Post. It begins:

    What is the difference between graffiti and paparazzi? Both are annoying invasions of public space. Whenever a cry to regulate either of these behaviors is heard, civil society acknowledges that it would take too much erosion of personal liberty to stop one or both. Therefore we tolerate and occasionally celebrate these rogue exercises on the fringes of free speech.

One should never criticize graffiti without also criticizing outdoor advertising. The latter is a far more pervasive and annoying invasion of public space. I’m no fan of Shepard Fairey, but I would rather look at one of his silly “Obey” signs than an advertisement for deodorant or toothpaste. When I lived in Los Angeles, I spent a large chunk of my time sitting in traffic with nothing to look at except enormous billboards urging me to watch Judge Judy (“Gotcha!”) or Dr. Phil (“You’ve Got Your Battles, He’s Got Your Back!”) or some other insipid TV show. So, no, you’re never going to hear me complaining about graffiti, not even when it’s done by a pompous fraud like Fairey.

Gleason ends his article with this:

    If cash-starved local governments look up their own old laws still on the books and, having seen Fairey’s own wife confirming on the record that the family fortune was based on advertising in these civic-controlled public spaces, will cities and counties all across America unite to collect fees from the Obey Empire with her admission as a pretext to write up an invoice? Imagining this were your empire, would you tell her to shut the fuck up?

This is high-minded talk coming from someone who writes for the Huffington Post, which is notorious for not paying people, while its owners get rich. People who live in glass houses…

Waste Land

March 13, 2011

Waste Land is a documentary by Lucy Walker, João Jardim and Karen Harley about the efforts of the Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, to collaborate with trash pickers in Brazil. Muniz is known for making artworks using unusual materials (wire, chocolate, earthworks, etc.) and then photographing them. He went to one of the world’s largest landfills, Jardim Gramacho, outside of Rio de Janeiro. There he sought out people who make their living by picking out recyclable materials from the garbage and selling them. He made giant portraits of some of them out of trash, which he then photographed.

The film introduces us to several pickers, and we learn about their lives. Not surprisingly, they express mixed feelings about what they do. They defend the way they make a living, and they say it is better than becoming criminals or prostitutes, yet they would clearly rather be doing something else. Some of them were once middle class but have fallen on hard times. Muniz, who comes from a lower middle class family, reflects that with different luck he could have ended up as picker himself. One particularly engaging person is an old man who gives philosophical advice to the other pickers. One gets a sense of a feeling of community among the pickers, who often look out for one another. We meet a young man named Tias who is trying to organize the pickers. What is most remarkable about this film is that it conveys a sense that there is dignity in the way these people make a living.

The film ends on an upbeat note. Muniz donates the money he makes from selling his photographs to the group Tias has organized. Among other things, they use the money to create an educational center. There is even talk of Tias running for President of Brazil some day. I have to admit, I found this film deeply moving (despite the guy sitting behind me who kept laughing at inappropriate moments). With so much bad news, it’s nice to see a documentary that ends on a hopeful note. I especially like that the film suggests that there are ways that art can be used to better the world.


February 19, 2011

Marwencol, a documentary by Jeff Malmberg, is about an artist, Mark Hogancamp, who was attacked and severely beaten by five men outside of a bar one night. He suffered brain damage and lost most of his memory. He also lost his ability to draw, which had been one of his favorite past-times. (Interestingly, Hogancamp had been an alcoholic before the attack, but afterwards lost all desire for drinking.) While recovering, Hogancamp begins buying dolls and constructs a 1/6 scale town in his backyard. He names it “Marwencol” and imagines it to be a village in World War II-era Belgium, where American, British and German soldiers gather to find respite from the war. Through photographs, he creates a series of stories about the residents of the village, who are threatened by SS soldiers. These stories are clearly revenge fantasies, usually ending with Hogie (Hogancamp’s alter ego) being rescued by beautiful women. He also shows a tendency to dote on his female dolls.

Hogancamp is discovered by a local photographer, who bring his work to the attention of an art magazine. They arrange for his photographs to be exhibited in an art gallery in New York. Hogancamp is nervous about the opening, but he finds his work well received. The film ends with Hogancamp having Hogie create his own miniature village within a miniature village.

Although the film doesn’t use the term, Hogancamp’s work can be considered an example of what critics call “outsider art”. This is art that is created outside the boundaries of official culture. Jean Dubuffet, an advocate of this type of art – which he called art brut – once described it this way:

    Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.

Whether or not one agrees with that last sentence, one must admit that there is a growing interest in outsider art, and that it is motivated, at least in part, by a dissatisfaction with the current state of contemporary art: a feeling that art has become too mannered and self-conscious. (The highly entertaining documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, touches upon this theme.) In Marwencol, a critic who discusses Hogancamp’s work, notes the complete lack of irony or parody in it. Hogancamp’s fantasy world is meant to be accepted entirely on its own terms.

Marwencol is a celebration of the creative impulse. I highly recommend seeing it.

You can find examples of Hogancamp’s work here.