Friday, December 4, 2020

Checkered: The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit. (Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix)

At first, maybe even second, the hit new Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit seems fresh and exciting. The somber fairy-tale atmosphere of its early episodes portends something new, something important. The late 50s through the 60s settings are impeccably art-directed and handsomely shot (by Kai Koch and Steven Meisler, respectively); the soundtrack skillfully employs obscure, yet still familiar, pop music, with the odd classical composition (e.g., Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1”) thrown in for sophistication; and the creators make the shrewd choice of having their protagonist become a clothes horse as she ages, allowing for smashing retro fashions to be on display. (Hey, it worked like gangbusters for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

But The Queen’s Gambit isn’t content to be a fairy tale. Its story of an orphaned, institutionalized young girl from Kentucky who discovers a proclivity for the game of chess soon becomes mired in feminist clichés, and worse yet, turns into triumph-of-the-spirit sentimentality as our spunky young heroine, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy of Emma and The Witch), overcomes addiction and her own narcissism to succeed where no woman (and very few men) has succeeded before. Yawn.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sunyata Writ Large: Time Shadow

Migrant (Pythalo Blue Green) (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 20 x 16 inches.

The Ambient Paintings of Bernadette Jiyong Frank, July 9-August 29, 2020, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco.

 “According to Sunyata, the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like Time, are devoid of any objective, independent existence separate from the perceiver. Things and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute being that affords independence from all and everything.” – 14th Dalai Lama

Needless to say, the state of mind and perception referred to by Lhamo Thondup, better known globally as the Dalai Lama, is by its very nature so subtle and ineffable that words naturally fail to adequately grasp or convey it at all. Indeed, such a balanced frame of reference, one which includes everything and excludes nothing, might perhaps only be captured and communicated by utterly non-verbal means of expression, mediums as amorphous and flexible as the meditative mood itself: those emotive modes such as music or visual art. Even better to my mind are those exotic hybrid forms of visual art, such as the ethereal and hovering paintings of Bernadette Jiyong Frank, which almost perfectly approximate a unique and seductive kind of optical song or chant. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

A Life for a Life: Antigone

Nahéma Ricci and Rachida Oussaada in Antigone (2019).

In 1944, occupied Paris saw the premiere of Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, which in Anouilh’s hands became a Resistance play, a not-so-coded critique of Nazi authority. The broad conflicting moral worldviews of the Greek tragedy were sharpened into personal either/or dilemmas, and by ending on a purely subjective justification, the adaptation got itself inducted into the (quite extraordinary) existentialist dramatic canon. It was made into a cinematically inert TV film in 1974 directed by Stellio Lorenzi and starring Marie-Hélène Breillat as Antigone. Now, thanks to Québécois writer-director-cinematographer Sophie Deraspe (she also co-edited with Geoffrey Boulangé), we finally have the film that Anouilh deserves.