Friday, April 19, 2019

The Interpretation of Dreams: On the Beach at Night Alone

Kim Min-hee in On the Beach at Night Alone (2017).

There seems to a a trend of metafiction in South Korean arthouse. Before Burning (2018) there was On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja / 밤의 해변에서 혼자, 2017), by Hong Sang-soo and starring his real-life mistress (now partner) Kim Min-hee as Young-hee, a former mistress of a great Director (Moon Sung-keun). It’s also a slow burn, with the central affair merely hinted at for most of its running time. But Kim gets two stupendous set-pieces, all facilitated by alcohol, and she burns it all down.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Real Tesla: How Visionary Eccentrics Transformed Our World and Why We Need Them to Do It Again, Please

Nikola Tesla’s lab in Colorado Springs, calmly making environmental electricity in 1901.

Review of the new book by Richard Munson, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, released Fall 2018 by Norton, Penguin/Random House. 

Nikola Tesla could have been elected President of The Outsiders Club, if such a thing existed. One of the most gifted and strange individuals who ever lived, his inventions transformed our world and his visions have continued to inspire other great minds for generations. I guess given that is an affirmative review of a serious and important book about a grand thinker, I shouldn’t really start out with the crucial disclaimer that: This is about the real Tesla. This has nothing to do with that twerp Elon Musk who stole his name to brand his company, after more or less stealing the core notions of an electric automobile that Nikola had conceived ages ago, but to whom no one paid any attention. What the hell, there, I said it.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Us: Cheap Stuff

Lupita Nyong'o, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Jordan Peele's Us.

The first few minutes of Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, before the opening credits are spooky and unnerving. A little girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her family on the beach in Santa Cruz; she’s drawn into a fun house where she sees her mirror image – only the twin is facing the other away. This Magritte-like image is startling; it’s also the best thing in the movie by far. As soon as Peele catapults us some three decades into the future, where grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is back in Santa Cruz vacationing with her own husband (Winston Duke) and kids (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph), and the home they’ve rented is invaded by malevolent, scissors-wielding replicas of themselves, Us sinks to that lowest common denominator of horror devices, a series of jump scares.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jack of All Fates, Master of None: Mr. Nobody Ten Years On

Jared Leto and Diane Kruger in Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (2009).

There’s nothing in the world more terrifying than a restaurant menu. I stick to a handful of oft-frequented establishments precisely to avoid the vertigo of too many options. It’s not that I’m afraid of ordering the wrong thing – just the opposite: Everything looks so equally good that I can’t pin down a standard against which to differentiate them. I often joke to new friends sitting across the table in exasperation that menus open up an existential abyss within me, forcing me to reconsider the very ideas of “choice” and “value.” I used to think that knowing what every dish tasted like would help me make a decision. Then I saw Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation a decade ago this September.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Mustang: Soothing the Savage Spirit

Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang.

The first images of The Mustang, of a herd of wild mustangs racing vainly across a western expanse while choppers buzzing overhead round them up and vans cut off their escape route, is reminiscent of scenes from the great 1953 Albert Lamorisse short White Mane. It’s a hell of an opening: majestic and unsettling in equal parts. And it lays the groundwork for the story, which juxtaposes one of these magnificent wild creatures, a restless, apparently unbreakable horse named Marquis (pronounced “Marcus”), with a violent criminal named Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, Gabriel Oak in the 2015 remake of Far from the Madding Crowd) who’s just been released into the general prison population at the Northern Nevada Correctional Institute after years in solitary. In his session with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton), Roman refuses to answer her questions; he looks like he’s about to implode, and he very nearly does – though she’s a veteran, firm and fearless, so his resistance to her doesn’t impress her. (Britton only has two scenes in the movie, but she makes the most of them.) Finally he gets out “I’m not good with people,” so she assigns him to outdoor work. Where he ends up is the Wild Horse Inmate Program, whose director, Myles (Bruce Dern), with the help of an inmate handler named Henry (Jason Mitchell), teaches prisoners to tame mustangs so they’re fit to be auctioned off for a variety of purposes, including border patrol. The Mustang is about how Roman and Marquis, in effect, tame each other – after a very shaky start. Roman gets so exasperated with the horse’s reluctance to let himself be subdued that, in an astounding scene, he beats him with his fists until Myles has him dragged off. Myles, not surprisingly, proclaims that he never wants to see this inmate again, but Roman manages to redeem himself in an emergency and is re-enlisted in the program.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Art of Interviewing Artists: John Grande’s Art, Space, Ecology

Published by Black Rose Books, 2019.

“There is no such thing as seeing any object or event without the act of seeing being affected both by cultural context and by the personal life experiences of the individual viewer. Every formulation of what an image means or contains is going to be culturally inflected, not just once but twice. First at its source. Then at the point where it is received.” – Edward Lucie-Smith
I first personally encountered the astutely incisive work of John Grande, apart from knowing of his extensive and impressive history as a critic and curator, when I interviewed him at CJRT-FM Radio in Toronto when I was the resident art critic there. It was about 1994, and we engaged in an informative and illuminating discussion about his then-new book Balance: Art and Nature. On the surface, it was about what had commonly come to be called ecological art, often either in large scale sculptural installations in a natural setting or else visually referring to nature and its collision with our cultures. Beyond eco-crisis however, it was also a celebration of art as embodied meaning: a haptic experience involving both human touch and intellect in harmony with each other.

I call it a discussion because though ostensibly in the traditional radio format of questions and answers designed to elicit background on the author and art which could both challenge and entertain the listener with only our words to guide them forward, towards the writing and images it celebrated, it was more. True, it was an interview, but it was also a dialogue, a conversation, an exchange of both energy and ideas, and even a linguistic map capable of achieving what the classical Greeks called ekphrasis: the evocation of the visual experience using language as a device to elucidate understanding of how a certain art work feels. Art is designed to alter our perception of the reality in which we find it, and some critics can clarify that alteration.

Therefore it was with a combination of professional and personal pleasure (twenty five years after I first interviewed him) that I came upon Grande’s newest book and found in it a range of his own insightful interviews with twenty important contemporary artists about the origins and intentions of their work. The title of Art Space Ecology: Two Views/Twenty Interviews, tends to capture some of its context and content in an ideal manner. The two views are, first and foremost, the perceptual and conceptual frameworks brought to bear by an encounter between a great artist and a great critic, and secondly, the new territory opened up between their relative positions and perspectives. This is top-shelf ekphrasis in action, folks.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense: Slapstick Trio

Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams, and Arnie Burton in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

I fell for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels when I was twelve or thirteen and a friend who’d succumbed before me passed one onto me. I believe it was Right Ho, Jeeves (published in the U.S. as Brinkley Manor), and I was thoroughly smitten – by the sublimely ridiculous plotting, the cast of caricatures, the distinctive language of the upper-class and upper-middle-class eccentrics, and above all the relationship between Bertie Wooster, the fumbling, cracked-brain young protagonist and his unflappable, endlessly resourceful valet Jeeves. Around the same time I discovered that Wodehouse and Guy Bolton had written the books for a series of Jerome Kern musicals in the late teens and the twenties – the ones that preceded Kern’s ground-breaking collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat – and he became one of my literary heroes.

Robert and David Goodale cottoned onto the Jeeves books (there are eleven, in addition to several collections of short stories) in their twenties and Robert fashioned two of them into one-man shows, the second directed by David. Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, their third adaptation, which Hartford Stage is producing currently, is a three-hander in which Bertie (played by Chandler Williams) relates the story of The Code of the Woosters, the sequel to Right Ho, Jeeves, acting it out with the aid of Jeeves (Arnie Burton) and Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s manservant Seppings (Eddie Korbich). The conceit of the play, which has been staged by Sean Foley, is that Jeeves provides the theatrical appendages, like a set that either he or Seppings rotates with the aid of a bicycle, while the two men between them play all the other roles. That is, Perfect Nonsense is a play in the mold of the fantastically successful 2005 adaptation of The 39 Steps, where the audience watch the actors shifting madly from one role to another with not only comic pleasure but also the appreciation we’d accord a magician’s sleight of hand or an acrobat’s dexterity.