Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Inspired and Provoked by The September Issue (R J Culter, 2009)

A few years ago, I skipped the afternoon session at a conference in the US to go shopping. You don’t have to be a fashion guru living in Europe to know that shopping needs to be done in the US because, unless you are after haute couture, clothes in Paris are overpriced and not very interesting. On my return, my friend Denise reported a colleague’s disbelief when he asked her where I was, and she replied, “she went to the mall.” “Frances wouldn’t go to the Mall” he replied, convinced Denise was hiding something from him, “come on, where is she?” In the opening moments of The September Issue Anna Wintour muses that fashion makes people nervous, as though it is some kind of overindulgent display of consumption gone awry. While Wintour’s world of fashion is very different from my findings in the Mall in suburban America, the same unease around creative self-expression imposes its judgment on our visual presentation whether it be bought from Banana Republic or Dolce and Gabana. Fashion is to be feared. And I would portend that fashion is feared because unabashed self-expression by women is feared. It’s why in Paris, anything a bit more creative is expensive and hard to find. Contrary to hearsay, it is a rare French woman who dares to look different from the crowd.

There are no doubt many reasons to be wary of the fashion industry, its unapologetic clothing of underweight pubescent girls in dead animals is just the beginning. However, The September Issue shows us that, in the eyes of Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, fashion is an art form, and its presentation a visual entertainment. The world of fashion is for dreaming and fantasizing, it is for creating our identities, it is a way to express who we are. As we rush through our day, on trains, walking on streets, past crowds listening to music, riding a bike, how we look is often the only chance we get at admitting who we are. What’s there to be nervous about?
The September Issue is not so interesting as a film, mainly because it is not much more than a portrait of Wintour. However it provoked some interesting questions for me. It is a portrait — I couldn’t help thinking — that is a response to the more malicious version of Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada. Irrespective of her sympathetic image in The September Issue, why is there any discussion of Wintour as businesslike in the first place? Why the fascination with a successful, apparently not so warm woman, in a position of power? No film has yet been made about Donald Trump, either criticizing him for being “not warm,” or redeeming him through showing his human side, his tenderness. And neither is anyone rushing to make a film about Bill Gates’ lack of sentiment, or otherwise, on the job. So why is Wintour’s emotional life so fascinating? Because she is a woman. And so, The September Issue as a documentary response to The Devil Wears Prada reminds us of one thing: men and women in business are held to very different standards, still.

If Wintour were held to the same standards as men of her standing in their respective business, she would be seen as a role model. She is, by her own description, decisive, talented, professional, and the list goes on. As a woman in power, she strikes me as being highly competent, in an exciting way. I have had male bosses, one in particular, who was indecisive, wanting everybody to like him, selfish, disrespectful, insecure, all in the guise of “reasonable.” Given the choice to work for him and for her, I would take a job in Wintour’s office any day. Wintour clearly has vision, she is consistent, fair, respectful, and as the film presents her, she brings clarity to the office every morning, along with her Starbucks coffee! While being hard-skinned may be a criteria for being in her employ, for those who bother to watch and listen to Wintour, she shows loyalty, trust in her employees, and ultimately, inspiration as a woman in and with power. It’s more than I can say for any man I have ever worked for.
I have seen what Paris, New York and Milan Fashion Week do to those who work in the industry, and I know that The September Issue with its soft view of life at Vogue does nothing to capture the stress and neuroses experienced by those involved. However, I did come away convinced that we need more women at the top, inspiring us to find ways to express our power, a power that begins with what we have on as we walk out the door in the morning.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What's New in Iraq? Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2009)

People like me know nothing about what it means to go to war. And people like me know nothing about what it is that makes a man want to go to war. And for these reasons if for no other, I think everyone should see Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Just released in France with the more prosaic title of Démineurs, the film gives a perspective on war that remains novel. Namely, that there is something addictive about the thrill of being on the battlefield. Otherwise, I wonder if the film is as brilliant and groundbreaking as its critics have claimed.

The opening scene, like many of those to follow, is terrifying. What makes it so scarey is that we have nothing and noone to hold on to. I remember when Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998 and the pre-publicity word was that the opening scene was terrifying because the documentary, hand-held camera on the boat as it landed on Normandy beaches was unanchored, echoing the the destruction, and placing us, defenceless in the middle of the action. And I also remember being so disappointed by the opening scene because, for me, we were at no point left alone to drown on the beachhead. We had Tom Hanks to hold onto. The codes of the Hollywood movie are so familiar to us, that even without being conscious of it, we were under no threat because we had the star of the movie on our side. And there’s no star I know who is killed in the first ten minutes of a Hollywood film. At least not one who has center stage in the pre-release publicity.

The Hurt Locker is a different story. Bigelow does what Spielberg may have attempted to do in Saving Private Ryan. I found the opening scene as the team of specialist soldiers come face to face with an-about-to detonate IED, terrifying. The camera was so uncertain, creating images that were fragmented, dislocated and without point of view. There was nothing to hold onto. And even though we see no blood in this opening scene, I struggled to keep my eyes on the screen. Bigelow uses a confrontational handheld camera to echo a world out of control, a world in which blowing up streets, Iraqis, even marines, is inevitable. Life in Baghdad is cheap, and we have no Tom Hanks to palliate our fears for our own safety. This is another strength of the film: feeling our own discomfort at what we see in Iraq, even if it is fiction, is something we need to experience again and again and again.

For all intents and purposes Will James is a cowboy in the classical Hollywood sense. He’s John Wayne in a bombproof suit. Like the best of his 1950s counterparts, young Will James remains loyal to his fellow cowboys, does his job with precision, and is fairly much indestructible. The only difference being that he doesn’t ride off into the sunset looking for more. At the end of the film James comes back to the eternal war in Baghdad where the task of a gunslinger is never over. Unlike the lone Alan Ladd or John Wayne, James has somewhere else to go — a family in the US who do normal things like shop in supermarkets. But after doing his time on the battlefield, a life of domestic serenity is no tradeoff for the thrill of bombs, guns, insurgents and the heat of the desert. He’s addicted. Seargent First Class William James needs the adrenaline of detonating IED bombs to survive. It never occurred to me that this might be a reason to go to war.

Otherwise, I wonder if Bigelow has much to say about the war in Iraq. The powerful camerawork she uses to create suspense when James (and his comrades) go in to disarm an IED aside, this is a character study of the twenty-first century cowboy: fearless, built of steel, obsessed. And as the American frontier moves across the desert of Iraq, so continues the work of colonization, the bringing of “civilization” to those who apparently need it, but don’t want it. Not much has changed since the 1800s, this we know already.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Karen Knorr at the Centre Pompidou

Having spent two hours drinking coffee and yarning with friends, Geo and I made the mistake of taking our time to get to the Centre Pompidou on Friday afternoon. We spent two and a half hours at the Elles exhibition and didn't even get half way through. Even then, we didn't do justice to many of the works we saw. Elles is one of those rambling, overwhelming conglomerations of works that bear the slightest of connections under a loosely defined thematic umbrella - the sort that the Centre Pompidou does so often.

That said, we were both reacquainted with works we love and admire. Karen Knorr's photographs were among those that caught my attention. I had seen her series Fables, at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, in an exhibition where she introduced stuffed animals and naked ladies into her photographs taken in such a museum. I was impressed by them, but more overwhelmed by the stuffed animals, the classification of guns, and other hunting instruments in this bizarre museum. The two works included in Elles from Knorr’s Connoisseurs series, (1986-1988) however, are complicated and captivating, and stood out among those surrounding them.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Analysis of Beauty — as they were exhibited among a lot of work that might bring representations of women to the foreground — were outstanding. Both photographs (and others in the series not exhibited at the CP) are to be celebrated for reasons in addition to the fact that they were done by a woman, and they critique the representation of women within mainstream culture. Both had, what I want to call “a radical feminist edge.” The two photographs are much more than upfront, in your face, diatribes on injustice towards women. The critique of the institution of the Museum in these photographs is subtle and conceptually layered. And, unlike many of the works in Elles, they dared to be aesthetically beautiful as well.

In The Analysis of Beauty an abundance of telescopes, other optical devices of magnification together with two men in tailored suits as the only observers, leave no doubt as to the omnipotence of the male view in the production of knowledge about art. Knowledge about aesthetics, is, according to Knorr, scientifically measured: the image, its value and its aesthetic are always in the eyes men, the object of their gaze. And it is not just men, it is bourgeois men of a certain social standing, of a certain social regard, who determine and own the measure of beauty. We also notice the recession of the arched doorways that frame the scientific instruments, the observers, and open out to embrace us. The axis along which our eye is directed by Knorr’s photograph is the most traditional of classical vanishing point perspectives. And in this we see a return to the surface of the photographic image: the power and dominance of the cultural construction of the museum building itself accords with the vision of privilege and the claim that painting – or in this case, photography – is indeed a true representation of reality. It is a complete and hermetically sealed world that we cannot penetrate, one that is safely policed by the men who designed it. And these men cling tightly to the Renaissance connaissance that shaped them.

I found The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction equally compelling for its conceptual depth and aesthetic appeal. The title is taken from Benjamin’s famous essay in which he discusses the loss of aura in the photographic reproduction. Knorr here appropriates Benjamin’s title, and by implication his argument, to discourse critically on the culture of the copy and proliferation of history as a series of fabricated replicas. In Knorr’s photograph, Michelangelo’s David, and Raphael’s School of Athens (1510-11), one of Michelangelo’s Slaves, and various other sculptures, are exhibited together, in one room, as if in storage. We know they must be copies as David does not leave the Galleria dell'Accademia, the slave is in fact much bigger in size than it is here, and Raphael’s painting is a fresco in the Vatican. But to the man in the smart suit and polished shoes, it doesn’t matter how far these works are from the originals. He is more interested in his book. All of the works have lost their value in their infinite reproduction, in this case, for museum display. Knorr cuttingly observes that today, it is not the photograph that removes the aura, it’s the museum that exhibits the sculptures that destroys their uniqueness. Nevertheless, men in smart clothes continue to espouse their knowledge and judgement of art, however irrespective of the object that knowledge might be.

And so, together, Knorr’s photographs claim that knowledge is always representing a point of view, and it is a point of view that belongs to men, men who want to get closer, to study in detail, to see better. Knorr’s photographs are ironic and humorous because the male desire to look at images of women, to objectify them under the auspices of knowledge, is not only literalized. But in their obsession to see, the men actually become blind to the image. Either, as in The Analysis of Beauty, men use instruments of navigation and colonization to analyze beauty, a phenomenon which cannot be analyzed or scientifically explained anyway. Or, as in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, men who claim hunger for knowledge about art, satiate that hunger through reading books, and not looking at the impoverished copies which they nevertheless triumph as the real thing. Men might insist on dominating the world, to have the last word on beauty and aesthetics, but they are, according to Knorr, unable or unwilling to see the objects of their supposed expertise.