Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Academy's ode to America

It would have been surprising, if not shocking, had Man on Wire not won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Which doesn’t mean to say it’s a great documentary. Far from it. This small ode to the Twin Towers, is a film which has everything America needs at the moment. The film is about a Frenchman who has a dream, and his dream is only realizeable in America. Philippe Petit’s successful walk between the towers of Notre Dame is shown as a precursor to the “dance” between the Twin Towers. And because it’s a Frenchman, in the new era of reaching out and creating positive links with foreign (especially European) partners, the ode to the space between otherwise unbridged towers, might mirror the space between America and France. Connecting these two countries is clearly a good thing for Hollywood.

It’s also a film which pays homage to the sheer beauty and mystical magic of the two towers that once soared into the Manhattan sky. Much memorializing and remembrance has been done for those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, as it should be. And here we have a film that celebrates and re-mystifies the skyscrapers in all their inability to be replicated. In fact, the whole film is really about about how Petit is going to rig the wire between the north and the south towers without being seen. And so, as much as anything else, the film becomes an intimate exploration of the structure, fabrics, logistics and dimensions of the towers themselves. Now that they are no longer with us, every girder, crevice and unsightly concrete slab is a mysterious work of art. The film doesn’t show this, but any closeup on the twin towers in a post-9/11 world is going to have that affect on its viewer.

Man on Wire is a film about a Frenchman living the American dream: if you can dream it, it is always possible. Philippe Petit reinforces the “anything is possible” attitude of America. The fact that the dream was to break through all the security structures of the World Trade Center and rig wires in the dark – a dream that takes around ten years to realize, is an added bonus for the Oscars. Because by doing this, the film demonstrates the undoing of the violation of the same structures in 2001 – Petit and his friends and associates did it in the name of the beauty of the buildings and the triumph of a transcendental peace and connection between people. The perfect message for 2009.

Together with Kate Winslet, Danny Boyle and all those Indians up there on stage at the Kodak Theater, it is so fabulous to see the Academy reaching beyond its own shores. But make no mistake, Man on Wire is all about America.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kate Shepherd, Galerie Lelong, 13 rue Téhéran

I have never been a big fan of Donald Judd's boxes and squares, despite the respect I have for their place in the development of twentieth century art. Kate Shepherd's paintings in a minimalist vein are a great testament to the importance of Judd & Co's influence on the shape of American art. Even though the influence of her Minimalist teachers is unmistakeable, there is something unusual and singular about Shepherd's work. She takes the basic grammar of minimalism and extends it into paintings and sculptures filled with playfulness, (the once taboo) human gesture, and an array of bright, fun, single color paintings on wood supports. The current installation of her work at Galerie Lelong is sheer delight.

Red Caped Bird, 2008

Over the intensely lacquered color surface Shepherd paints geometrical patterns of lines with a ruler, some of which plainly reveal pictorial forms - a bird, a human, a stick figure, a landscape. Others are indiscernible, and still others appear as scaffolding for interior or exterior spaces. Nevertheless, it was not the "what" of the drawing that drew my attention, but rather, the "how." I found myself pulled up close by the paintings, fascinated by the moment where two lines meet, and the artist has lifted her brush from the surface, leaving behind the tiniest blotch of white paint. I also searched for points along the otherwise the perfectly ruled lines where her hand wavers and the slightest "imperfections" appear. These gestural moments, and their magnetism, are of course what set her work as antithetical to her minimalist predecessors.

Turquoise Double Wire Sculpture, 2008

Also fascinating are the crevices and seams of the multiple panelled paintings. In the bigger paintings, there are three, sometimes four incisions each appearing to mark a different panel. Up close, however, we see that the crevices are mere cuts to the surface. The seams and panels reminded me of Jeff Wall's photographs in which he creates confrontation between characters, breaks the space of illusion, always dividing the photograph in two as a challenge to the spectator's comfort. Although completely different, Shepherd's cosmetic and real crevices might be understood to empahsize the two different worlds of the paintings. The dazzling monochromatic world of the painted support is deftly anchored in a minimalist, analytic tradition of stacked boxes, while the schematic figures draw attention to the surfaces which are light, playful, and as my friend Georgia pointed out, childlike. There is both an ethereal beauty to the figures themselves, and through their mere presence on thes surface, they underline the radiance and light of the color fields. Shepherd's simple sculptures made of coathangers and wooden balls, again in brightly painted colors, hang in the gallery space like child's mobiles. Together, the sculptures and paintings fill the comfortable space of Galerie Lelong with a sense of play, wonder and endless fascination.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hollywood Doing What it Does Best, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, dir. David Fincher

My expectations of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were not high. At 2h45mins, I was so convinced I wouldn't make it through the whole film that I made my friend Ellen sit at the end of the row, for easy escape. And I was wrong. This is Hollywood at its best. Make no mistake, it's not esoteric or profound, I wouldn't even call it thought-provoking, and it's not setting new standards for film in the 21st century, but it is a Hollywood fairytale. It has all those fabulous one liners ... none of which I can remember ... but the sort that are not too deep, not too light, we all agree with, and make otherwise dodgy characters appear profound and wise.  It's a little bit like Gulliver's Travels, except everyone Benjamin meets is good - no one robs him, no one threatens him, he loves everyone and they love him. The similarities with Swift's novel are in the wonderful line up of characters, my favorite being the pigmy. And we are fed the message of everyone is equal, no matter what size, shape or color. It's a classical flashback narration being told from Benjamin's point of view through his diary, as it is read by his daughter to his one time lover as she lays on her death bed. Perfectly constructed. And the film has all the right ingredients - love, passion, lots of death - some natural, others not so - birth, marriage, separation, joy and sadness. If Hollywood can spin it, you can find it in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The make up is extraordinary, and the editing and photography really a cut above the average Hollywood movie. David Fincher's DP and Lighting people must be the most talented in the town. I am sure that much of the aging is digitally effected, but a lot is also done through manipulation of the lighting. I can see why it would be up for all those academy awards - which doesn't mean it's the best film of the year, just that it would appeal to Hollywood. It's a superbly made film. Filmmaking aside, I am not sure there is much more to it though! To invest too deeply in the story can only bring disappointment. I also think there are moments where it loses coherence. When Benjamin is in Russia, I didn't really understand where he was - in a fancy hotel in a port town in Russia? And I couldn't work out why the British envoy would be there with his wife too. It was confusing. I also didn't understand why he was born as a baby and died as a baby - that made no sense. Shouldn't he be born as an 80 year old man? 

These creases aside, there were some wonderful shots where Hollywood makes a mockery of Hollywood, but it is unclear whether these are consciously done:  Brad Pitt in sunglasses, tanned, the wind in his hair on a boat sailing out to the ocean, shot in extreme low angle, filling the fame as though he were James Dean? Please. Or when Tilda Swinton as the first woman to kiss Benjamin asks him if he has ever read D.H. Lawrence. This is not subtle. Moments like these I couldn't stop laughing, much to the chagrin of the French audience who didn't seem to find it at all funny. Even when Benjamin turns up in Paris and says "bonjour" completely out of nowhere, in a broad American accent, the French failed to find it humorous. 

To my complete surprise, I came out having rekindled my love affair with the movies. This film is the reason we sit through film after second rate film so that eventually we find one that makes us laugh and cry and yearn and dream for a life that will never be ours. It's not a film that will change the world, and ultimately, the oh so perfect and loveable Benjamin might be too passive for some, making a movie that deserves the criticism it has received for its lack of tension. But it does what it has to in order to please those who matter.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Of Time and the City, Terence Davies, 2008

England and the English have always baffled me. I find the country to be cold, miserable, and poorly run. And my general impression of the English, it has to be said, is of a repressed, judgmental and unhappy lot. My history may apparently be intertwined with theirs, but the commonalities end there. Terence Davies latest film demonstrates that my discomfort and sense of estrangement in England is not reserved for foreigners. In this colorful collage of found footage, edited together with documentary footage, and a poetic, elegaic voiceover, Davies shows us the Liverpool where he grew up, and the England that molded him. It’s a distant world that bears little resemblance to the England of today, at least, that’s his claim in the film. It’s a place and a culture full of contradictions, injustice, poverty and impoverishment. Davies underlies what to my eyes can only be described as the misery of England by spending a lot of time in churches, factories, the housing projects, and on the dismal streets. There are lots of images, both archival and contemporary, in churches while Davies in voiceover reminds us of the confusion and contradictions of the religion he was supposed to imbibe. Luckily for him and for us, even as a young boy, he was wise enough to reject it for the mysticism and heavenly appeal of the movies, or as he calls them, as they were in the 1940s and 50s, “the pictures.” Davies’ images of the high street, day trips to Brighton, homophobia, monarchic adoration and wartime rationing are veritable representations of what the English pride themselves on. And the poetic, yet dyseptic voiceover was appropriate to my experience of England: if you are not straight, white and Christian, parochial and speak with an incomprehensible accent, you will be reminded over and over again that you don’t belong.

But then Davies and I part ways. He was afterall, brought up in this world. And this is, afterall, an elegy to the lost world of his childhood. Despite being gay, a filmmaker, from a working class alcoholic family, he is nostalgic for the Liverpool and England that is now in the past. The redemption in his memory, albeit with irony and reservations, is where I stopped identifying with Of Time and the City.

I am a big fan of Terence Davies' films and have utmost respect and admiration for him as a filmmaker. His are among the handful of films that have the capacity to appeal to both my British students and myself. The haunting magnificence of Distant Voices, Still Lives is apparent to all in my classes. However, despite the critical praise bestowed on Of Time and the City, it was a film that didn’t gel with me. Nostalgia might be the terrain of the movies, but as someone who is not – to quote the phrase thrown at me time after time – “from around these parts” -  longing and love for England just doesn’t win my vote.