Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Whirlpool of Fate and Nana: Novice Renoir

Catherine Hessling and Harold Levingston in Whirlpool of Fate (1925).

Kino’s release of Whirlpool of Fate and Nana is a boon to Jean Renoir completists like me who have rarely had the chance to catch any of his silent movies. There were nine, including two shorts and one, Backbiters, that he co-directed with Albert Dieudonné, and most of them starred Catherine Hessling, his father Auguste Renoir’s last model, to whom he was married at the time. (They separated in 1930.) Until these Kino additions the only one I’d seen was The Little Match Girl (1928), in which Hessling plays Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic heroine – and though it was many years ago I remember how lovely it is.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Naturalism in Space: Stowaway

Shamier Anderson, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, and Toni Collette in Stowaway (2021).

“To Build a Fire,” Jack London’s most anthologized short story, follows a guy in the Yukon trying furiously to build a fire ahead of an oncoming blizzard. Each time he tries, something goes wrong. On the surface, the plot of Stowaway, written by director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, seems similar. Plotwise, all you really need to know is that it’s set on an unstoppable resource-limited spaceship, and it’s called StowawayOver the nearly two-hour running time, only one thing goes right, and it’s not enough.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Reality Redux: The Elegiac Paintings of Heather McLeod

“Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of realism is the negation of the ideal.”– Gustave Courbet, 1830.

Given the almost vertiginous diversity for self-expression available to contemporary visual artists in this day and age, I never tire of pointing out that far from being a million different subjects and themes for them to explore, or a million different formats for them to utilize in the execution of their works, there are in fact only four of each. Always have been, always will be. There’s something a little reassuring in this stylistic consistency and yet also a little daunting, given that every artist wakes up in the morning with art history breathing down their neck. So then, subjects and themes: self, society, nature, spirituality. Formats and delivery systems: portrait, still life, landscape, abstract. All the other aesthetic style vehicles can be distilled down to these two basic formal groupings, no matter how divergent or drastically experimental they might become. Also, whether the medium is painting or photography, cinema or video, installation or digital, is beside the point since these subjects and themes are embedded in the proportional harmony of our DNA via the golden section, and thus are impossible to evade, even if we wanted to do so. 

Monday, July 12, 2021

Random Notes on Recent Performances

Nina Hoss in The Audition (2019)

The focus of the German actress Nina Hoss is so precise and intense it’s almost freaky: when she levels her gaze at someone she’s a little like Sissy Spacek as Carrie choosing a victim for her revenge. That isn’t to say that Hoss brings a sinister quality to her performances, just that her concentration is so unencumbered that it can be unsettling. She burns holes in the screen. Hoss has mostly been associated with the director Christian Petzold, who directed her in Barbara (where she plays an East German doctor in the days before the Berlin Wall fell, sent to a remote rural village as punishment for her attempts to escape to the West) and Phoenix (where she’s a Jewish nightclub singer, a Holocaust survivor still in love with the non-Jewish husband who probably turned her in). North American viewers would recognize her from Homeland. In the recent German picture The Audition she’s a violin teacher at a conservatory whose determination to see a student she fought to get admitted shine in his probationary audition triggers all the troubled corners of her life – her own paralyzing perfectionism as a performer, her inability to make simple decisions, her relationships with her husband and her teenage son (who’s also a student at the conservatory). The movie, directed by Ina Weisse, is very good, despite an ending that seems to shift it into some other movie altogether. But Hoss is its undeniable raison d’être. She is a master of ambivalence: one of those laser looks can uncover two or three layers of meaning. Her scenes with Simon Abkarian as her husband, an instrument maker who either suspects or has worked out that she’s sleeping with a colleague (who’s also one of his customers), carry contradictions of meaning and intention like invisible splinters.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Drawings In Space: The Stitched Images of Gisoo Kim

Diary / Gisoo Kim, stitched yarn on photo-collage, 2020. (Gisoo Kim)
“Avant-garde art is yoga for the mind.” – Khang Kijarro Nguyen

Human consciousness is such a fragile and changeable thing. Being in the presence of provocative art can alter the entire field of our experience to a sometimes surprising degree. It’s almost as if the room temperature suddenly changes and our skin feels different, while our minds start racing in all kind of intriguing directions. This is also totally relative, since one person will react to one kind of work while another will respond to something utterly different, often even without either of them being able to quite grasp what the other is experiencing, unless they use their own experience of being transported as a kind of barometer. Then: ohhhh, you mean that when you listen to a Johannes Brahms symphony you feel the same kind of frisson as I do when I listen to a Miles Davis jazz solo? Now I get it. And the same is true of visual art, or design, or sculpture, or anything else. A Vermeer painted interior might have the identical impact as a Mark Rothko abstract, once two different viewers realize they’re both observing representations of the ineffable essence of perceptual majesty. The imagery only appears different on the surface, while the mechanics of reverie remain the same at the deeper internal level, where it matters. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Clare Peploe: All for Love

Mira Sorvino and Jay Rodan in The Triumph of Love (2001).

One can do almost anything for love,” the aging art historian Basil Sharp (Sebastian Shaw) tells his dearest friend, the émigré English photographer Katherine (Jacqueline Bisset), near the end of Clare Peploe’s 1987 film High Season. Katherine is living on a Greek island with her thirteen-year-old daughter Chloe (Ruby Baker), but she’s broke and in danger of losing her house. Her one chance of achieving solvency is to sell a vase Sharpie gave her some years ago to a Greco-English art dealer, Konstantinis (Robert Stephens), who knows he can sell it at an exorbitant price; the trick is to get it out of Greece, which has famously declared a moratorium on the removal of national treasures. So Katherine begs Sharpie to betray his professional ethics and certify the vase a fake. The line I’ve quoted above is his justification for agreeing to do so – though, as with everything else in this vibrant, hilarious farce (which Peploe wrote with her brother Mark), there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Roy Halston & Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor and Krysta Rodriguez in Halston, now streaming on Netflix.

Ewan McGregor does the finest work in his career in the title role of Halston, the absorbing five-episode Netflix series, created and directed by Daniel Minahan, about the multi-talented fashion designer who turned himself into a commodity, lost control of his brand and died of AIDS-related cancer, at 57, in 1990. McGregor became a star very early in his career, as a junkie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, where he combined an essential sweetness and earnestness with a punk bravado. You looked at those soft, pampered, boyish looks and that level gaze at the camera and you couldn’t figure out where the element of danger was coming from. But he’s been a reliable leading man for so many years now (Trainspotting is a quarter of a century old) that I’m not sure either audiences or critics still notice just how good he still is – in films like The Ghost Writer and Our Kind of Traitor and Christopher Robin. He’s always had impressive, sometimes startling, range, but what he pulls off in Halston is so dramatically different from anything he’s tried before that this time I think it’s impossible to miss the caliber of his acting. Roy Halston – he dropped the first name after he moved on from making hats (most famously the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to JFK’s inauguration) to designing dresses – is a kid from Iowa and Indiana who moved to New York City and built a persona for himself from the ground up, like Cary Grant or Truman Capote. He stopped sounding like a Midwesterner; he didn’t sound quite like anybody else. McGregor digs into Halston’s showmanship, his charisma and his imperiousness, but though he’s witty and sometimes hilarious, it’s not a campy performance.  You’re always aware of his reflectiveness – of the man who’s looking at himself in an invisible mirror – and of an undercurrent of loneliness and dissatisfaction. This is acting of genuine depth.