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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

This past weekend I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, to see a Joseph Cornell retrospective, which I found extremely inspirational. In the galleries, I was torn by competing impulses: I wanted to absorb as much of Cornell’s metier as I possible could, but I also wanted to get out of the museum as soon as possible to get started on my own imitations of what he had done because his techniques—collage, rudimentary carpentry, cutting and pasting—seem so simple, approachable and accessible that seeing his work makes it seem easy to translate moments of artistic perception immediately into compelling pieces of art: just slap a few cool pictures cut out of magazines together in a little wooden box with some found objects—some sand, some watch faces, a few marbles and a some broken shot glasses—and then scratch some lines on them with a compass and a ruler, and voila! Semi-surreal mystery, an box that opens onto the imagination.


Of course, it is not as simple as all that: His work so carefully conceals the refinement involved that it makes it seem as though there isn’t any craft required, and that a meticulous apprenticeship in artistic technique may in fact stifle the conveyance of whatever aesthetic notion one has had. And those notions don’t come as easy as they seem to have come to Cornell. Looking at any retrospective makes it seem like a coherent body of ideas are just there to be seized, eliding over the time it takes for artists to grasp them, to know they are on to something. All the false starts and the stretches without inspiration become invisible.


A museum show—especially for an artist like Cornell, who is fixated on and works with everyday materials we are all familiar with—makes the barriers between conception and execution seem to disappear. A retrospective show also makes it seem second-nature to have absolute fixations on certain patterns of images, certain ideas: Cornell was interested in maps and ballerinas and penny arcade toys and the like, and the show makes it clear how fruitful those obsessions were for him artistically, but it only gives the faintest sense of what it’s like to be truly obsessed, to be cutting pictures of dancers out of magazines and collecting a garage’s worth of scrap metal and discarded machine parts, to be rummaging continually at second hand shops not with a mind to make art so much as a predilection to be haunted by vague connections you sense in the refuse and that you long to tease out but can only begin to by perpetual accumulation, by making oneself the sole point of contiguity between a vast array of disparate quotidian flotsam and jetsam and bearing that enormous burden while trying to formulate and maintain the connections in your head. Cornell’s work seems to be the output from that process, and it’s all alive with the energy of that peculiarly focused curiosity.


At the museum, I felt as though it was a cinch that I could go out and experience that same curiosity in how I look at the humdrum stuff around me. I could just start taking pictures of stuff with my digital camera, and the underlying strangeness in the world would just automatically manifest itself, and reason that things that catch my attention would suddenly become palpable and my excitement immediately transferable to other people. Intriguing juxtapositions would just occur to me in the process of putting together pieces to show people, a process which would of course bring about no anxiety and would go as smoothly as breathing or getting laughs out of watching Trailer Park Boys, and require as much conscious deliberation. At the museum, it seemed impossible that I wouldn’t leave and begin that process, begin making that effort to make tangible, powerful, enduring records of my passing curiosities.


But that sort of excitement and eagerness may just be the experiential good of being at the show, the fantasy it evokes so powerfully in spectators. Consuming Cornell’s work inspires the satisfying notion that making art can seem almost inevitable, a by-product of a life lived well. But this pleasant notion is an illusion, an effect achieved by the finished product about the process that yielded it. Looking at his pieces, one consumes an idealized notion of how it is to live as an artist without having to experience any of the arduousness of creation, or having to acknowledge that it exists. And as a bonus, it vindicates everyday life, making it seem as though its mysteriousness is self-evident, that it requires no effort to find the mystery, when in fact discovering mystery in the ordinary is hard work, requiring total commitment to one’s idiosyncrasies to the point where one become inscrutable to one’s acquaintances.


Still, one of the most impressive things in the show (for me, anyway) was a series of homemade faux newsletters about poultry farming Cornell made to amuse his siblings or cousins (I should have taken some notes while I was there). We don’t know if they were actually amused, but it was impossible to miss the sense of humor on display there—a delight in the good-natured fatuousness of those with extremely narrow interests combined with an appreciation for the pretentiousness inherent in print publication. There was probably some condescension toward rural life, as well, but nothing malicious, just a sense that poultry farming could be used as a focal point to organize as many mysteries of the universe as avant-garde painting or academic philosophizing, and in a way that makes you laugh. So perhaps his idiosyncrasies didn’t make him entirely antisocial and inscrutable; one still imagines, though, that he must have spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time compensating for that loneliness by trying to understand social phenomena (the fame of actresses and their specific sexual allure; the invention of nostalgia) drawing only on the intensity of his solitary experience and reaction to such things, and on what he could imagine and infer.


Most people’s obsessions tend not to haunt them so, and a desire to be like Cornell won’t suddenly give them that transformative intensity. Ordinary people tend not to have the same quotient of desperation in their curiosity. But people like to think that curiosity doesn’t have that dark, obsessional side to it, and that it’s waiting for them if they would choose to indulge in it. After the Cornell show, I had this strong feeling that interesting images and ideas were just lying around everywhere, and all I needed to do was stoop to notice, and I could feel creative. It gave the impression that it was simply a matter of focusing, that being an artist was mainly a matter of identifying the mysteriousness of what already exists. Another of the shows at the museum, “Accidental Mysteries,” an exhibit of snapshots that accidentally captured something interesting or supernatural-seeming, extended that notion to its logical conclusion, removing the artist’s intentionality from the equation altogether in favor of “vernacular photography”:


Vernacular photography refers to images taken for personal use: family portraits, travel albums, holiday photos and more. Many of the photographs contain accidental double exposures or other darkroom mistakes, creating unintentionally idiosyncratic compositions. Viewed outside their intended context, the snapshots take on the reflections of the viewer, who is left to ponder the mysterious circumstances in which these photographs came to be.


Thus you, the spectator, become the real artist, the one with the aesthetic vision and intention. And all you have to do is look, because (through the clever machinations of the curator and the museum) you transcend the ordinary and vernacular yourself, having been wrenched out of everyday in order to perceive its magic. (Found magazine works on the same premise.) These photos are not art objects until we (well, curators anyway) bring our advanced viewpoint to them—which is extremely flattering for audiences. And it’s comforting for us too because there’s no possible way we can be accused of misunderstanding what the artist meant. There’s no way we can get it wrong.


Does that mean that it’s merely pseudo-art, giving lazy audiences an easy and merely superficial aesthetic experience, one that consumes itself quickly and leaves no lasting impression? It does allow audiences to elude the problem of worrying about artists in bad faith—those making ego art or “selling out.” Artists can’t have bad intentions if they had no intentions. And it isolates an elusive thing—a pure accident—and makes it unmistakably present, and that’s a satisfying thing to behold. And we can learn something about what curators and others find interesting in an accidental photo—they get to convey an aesthetic vision (what compositions are interesting, what subjects and framing effects are compelling, etc.) by an editing process rather than constructive, creative process. It vindicates the view of art as being essentially editorial (or conceptual), a matter of recognizing cool stuff and filtering given material down rather than a matter of rigorously building up some particular technique or approach, of ceaseless revising and refining until one has got something right, whatever “right” may happen to be.


But other artists can’t evaluate the work in terms of the choices someone made, so it offers them virtually nothing: They can’t take anything away from such art without falling into bad faith; one can’t plan for the effect of accidentalness without presenting audiences with something substantially different that the true vernacular pieces give. They would just be faking it, like pretend folk or outsider artists. So vernacular art is art for people who refuse to “give in” to artists’ calculated manipulations, who want no sense that someone else can plan something in advance to make them feel something specific and predictable. Vernacular art has the effect of seeming to preserve the audience’s sense of its own spontaneity—safe from an artist’s machinations and intentions. But then, the curators already had that planned, which is why they organized the exhibit in the first place.


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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

Critically acclaimed Curb Your Enthusiasm continues to make audiences laugh and is far from over. Based on Larry David’s life, the show maintains the “show about nothing” theme of Seinfeld, but turns the focus on David, a character similar to Seinfeld’s George. With a great cast, consisting of Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, and Susie Essman, Curb has been nominated for twenty Emmy Awards and has won a Golden Globe. New episodes from season 6 will air early September, 2007.


Some clips from the show:



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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

Are scribes really lazy bums?

When a rock star lashes out at journalists, you know that there’s got to be a reaction.  On a mailing list for writers, there was a lot of discussion about Jack White’s put-down of writers as being lazy and inaccurate (see NME story), specifically because too many scribes were getting the facts wrong about the White Stripes.  As a writer, my reflex action is to get defensive but truth be told, White isn’t entirely off the mark.


Start with this quote from White: “Journalists are inherently the laziest people on earth. Even in the age of Google, they don’t do any work to check what they’re writing about.”  I’d counter that civil servants definitely take the slacker prize but he’s not totally off base here.  With powerful search engines like Google, it’s easier than ever for anyone to read up on any subject and get background information.  Even with those kind of tools at their fingertips, it’s inevitable that writers are still going to make mistakes.  Admittedly, sometimes they (and their editor or fact-checker at their publication) don’t acts dig into details as they should but nobody’s perfect when it comes to their work, not even White himself.


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Sunday, Aug 5, 2007


It’s safe to say that, unless they are based on some similarly styled source material (book, play, etc.), the motion picture trilogy is a product of popularity. Though its narrative and cinematic symmetry can be breathtaking to behold, most three part films were not preplanned. Instead, they were forged out of a desire to please the audience mixed with a need to repay the cast/crew. George Lucas can argue all he wants to that his Star Wars saga was always intended as three separate three-part projects (guess the crappy prequels destroyed that dream, right big G?) but Fox barely wanted to release the first film. So what fodder did he have for contemplating such a massive vision? The answer is obvious – he didn’t. Like most eventual franchises, box office gave Luke Skywalker’s real pappy a chance to dream, resulting in the genre’s first example of the law of diminishing returns.


There are a couple of factors inherent in determining the best trilogies of all time. First, the three films included have to be linked in some significant way. They can’t be a pure product of money-oriented moviemaking. Secondly, all three movies must be worth watching. A sloppy second act or atrocious third movement means the overall quality is compromised. A few can survive this kind of scrutiny – most cannot. Finally, there is a subjective element known as “completeness”. Do the films that make up this multi-faceted narrative really deliver on their designs, is there an all encompassing arc, or are we stuck seeing the same old story told over and over again? By answering these important questions, and taking into consideration other objective criteria like continuity and completeness, a final assessment can be reached.


This does mean, however, that there are a few examples that barely miss making the list. For all the splendor and drama they bring to the artform, the Godfather Trilogy is hampered by a third film that just can’t match its Best Picture winning brethren. Similarly, we won’t know if Dario Argento has completed his Three Mothers triptych until sometime later this year. While Suspiria and Inferno are masterworks, early buzz suggests a less than successful conclusion. Speaking of the Italian maestro, one could consider his infamous slasher style/giallo efforts – Profundo Rosso, Tenebrae, and Opera – to be some manner of Gloved Killer trilogy, but without anything linking them besides the murderer’s methodology, that may seem like a reach. Similarly, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman may have invented the gore film, but their Blood Trilogy is a collection of corpuscle caving in name only.


Others miss out because of the director’s desire to keep tapping into the same cinematic source. George Romero would easily make the list if it weren’t for the wonderful Land of the Dead. The fourth time around for the politically tinged zombie series was excellent, but warrants a new quadrilogy classification. The same goes for the Alien films (though they’re decidedly more tenuous in their polish). Die Hard could have made the final list if it weren’t for the obvious cash grab of the Live Free installment, while Indiana Jones junked his chances with its fourth dip into the audience goodwill well. Indeed, at a certain point, a potential interconnected threesome makes the leap over to full blown franchise status. So if you’re a superhero (Batman, Superman) or a serial killer (Freddy, Jason, Hannibal), chances are your potential inclusion on this list was ruined several sequels ago.


With Jason Bourne bludgeoning the box office in the latest installment of Paul Greengrass’s action narrative tilt-a-whirl, now’s as good a time as any to countdown the all time greats of triangular tale-spinning. Some may surprise you. Others will shock you. But in the context of this discussion, all are worthy of classics consideration.


10. The Flesh Trilogy
The Touch of Her Flesh/The Kiss of Her Flesh/The Curse of Her Flesh


Miscreant Michael Findlay and his wife Roberta made a lot of sleazy exploitation flicks in their time, but these were, perhaps, their most repugnant. Not for what they showed on screen – this was the mid ’60s after all, not the most lenient of censorship eras. No, these three films formed the foundation of the modern slasher shocker, with the mindless torture and killing of nubile young women at the fore. Cringe all you want at their seedy mix of sex and slaughter, but you’ll never look at your favorite knife-wielding maniac the same way after watching madman Michael (who also starred as the killer) put the wicked wanton smack down. 

9. The ORIGINAL Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes 4 through 6)
Star Wars/ The Empire Strikes Back/ The Return of the Jedi


What? You think we’d leave this off? No way, woo-kie. George Lucas may be a money grubbing, soul stealing, dream dashing basta…businessman, but he did help co-create the entire popcorn movie era of cinema. Unlike anything anyone had seen at the time of its release, the original Wars stands as one of those unique audience epiphanies. After a decade drenched in sodden self examination and social commentary, movies were actually fun again. And with the release of each additional installment, things just got better and better. Sure, over time, Darth’s real demagogue has drained all the joy out of his original vision, but we still have our memories. Luckily, he can’t digitally redesign them.


8. The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Curse of the Black Pearl/ Dead Man’s Chest/ At World’s End


Who would have thought that the man responsible for Mouse Hunt and The Mexican would end up singlehandedly reinvigorating the sword and surf surreality of the swashbuckling pirate film? Gore Verbinski was considered a lot of things, but the maker of larger than life blockbuster entertainment was not one of them. Sure, some will argue that the Disney revamp of its theme park attraction lost a little of its luster along the way, but they’d be missing the bigger picture. Thanks to this director’s attention to detail, and the vast cinematic canvas he works within, there’s nothing here but acknowledged talent and an astonishing array of stylistic strengths.

7. The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix/ The Matrix Reloaded/ The Matrix Revolutions


Oh stop whining. If Lucas belongs here, so do the Wachowskis. Bellyache over the final two phases in this virtual reality rigormoral, but when the Annotated History of Future Shock is written, the story of Neo, the Machines, and the saving of Zion will have its own hollowed place. Besides, it’s rare when a single film can jumpstart a whole genre, and yet the first installment proved that audiences were hungry for speculation done with flash, finesse and just a small amount of philosophizing. Granted, some of the intelligence got lost along the way, and the final battle with Agent Smith is overkill for excess’s sake, but these are good movies. Go on, admit it.

6. The Back to the Future Trilogy
Back to the Future/ Back to the Future Part 2/ Back to the Future Part 3


Just like the POTC production legend, here is another case where a fantastic first film mandated another two trips to the box office trough. Luckily, director Robert Zemeckis and his buddy Bob Gale were along for all three time travel tales. Some complained that Part 2 was nothing more than an extended set up for the last episode, but there is still a great deal of imagination and invention inherent in the crazed continuum cock-up. Better still was the decision to move the entire narrative back to the Wild Wild West, thereby completing the sense of apocryphal Americana. Like well tuned machines, these movies still work on many endearing levels.

5. The Evil Dead Trilogy
The Evil Dead/ Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn/ Army of Darkness


Sam Raimi was too young to have such success. By 22, his debut horror film was being heralded by none other than Stephen King as the most terrifying scarefest ever. By 28, he was every fright geek’s favorite filmmaker. And by 33, he was ready to jump into the ranks of Tinsel Town titans. Oddly enough, each of these milestones was met by an installment of his sensational (and influential) Evil Dead efforts. By bending genres to fit his needs, investing fear with funny business and heroism with the hackneyed, he formed the basis for an entire generation of reference-happy visionaries. Looking over the 2007 cinematic landscape, his imprint still remains.

4. The Vengeance Trilogy
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/ OldBoy/ Lady Vengeance


It should come as no surprise that Korean director Chan-wook Park was a student of philosophy at Sogang University in Seoul. His movies are as much about virtue as they are about violence. For many in the West, Oldboy announced this filmmaker’s fanciful way with payback. Yet it was the other parts of his terrific trilogy that argued for his place among the current track of trendsetters. It was there where he merged ethics with evil, the need for personal justice accented by the desperation of human pain. Like all feats of greatness, it takes time for a clear critical consensus to be formed. But it’s coming – if it hasn’t already arrived.

3. The Man with No Name Trilogy
A Fistful of Dollars/ For a Few Dollars More/ The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly


Sergio Leone never set out to redefine the western. Oddly enough, he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to use the spaghetti style to revisit the Hollywood staple. But thanks to his directorial disregard for convention and cliché, his literal view of the old fashioned oater as real horse opera, and the stellar actors he chose to work with, the results speak for themselves. Though many of his fellow Mediterranean moviemakers ventured deep into the bullets and black hats genre, none left the artistic impact of this cinematic maestro. When you add in his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, the case is all but closed.

2. The Ageism/Dream Trilogy
Time Bandits/ Brazil/ The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


Here’s hoping that Terry Gilliam can get off his self-serving soapbox sometime soon and start making movies again. To listen to him talk, he’s a picked-on pariah who can’t catch a break in the conspiratorial, commercial-minded industry. Yet he’s often his own worse enemy (right, Mr. Could Have Helmed Harry Potter???). In either case, we will always have these examples of celluloid spectacle to fall back on. Of the three, Munchausen remains the most underrated – which is odd, considering it focuses on an angry old man who, Don Quixote style, fights off the imaginary bullies who propose to steal his joy. Now why does that sound so familiar?

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring/ The Two Towers/ The Return of the King


Peter Jackson rules, while all other trilogies drool. Let’s face facts – the man made a nearly 13 hour epic in 18 months – and the fans are still foaming for more. Unlike most of the other entries on this list, his take on Tolkien’s time honored novels just keeps getting deeper and richer with age. This is partly due to Jackson’s intrinsic belief in the emotional impact of film. All other media may make its importance known, but no other format finds a direct and undying connection with the audience easier than the motion picture. It’s safe to say that, even if every other entry on this countdown lost its legacy luster, this terrific triptych will still be standing, strong and ever so tall.

 


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Sunday, Aug 5, 2007

Jon Krakauer on his recent rereading of Capote’s In Cold Blood:


“After I learned of his boast that he wrote all the dialogue from memory, much of it struck me as having been invented.”


You know, that’s a good point. A good point, of course, only a writer of Krakauer’s intensity is allowed make and not seem snide, bitchy, or entirely misinformed. He makes the statement in the 13 August issue of Newsweek in an article focusing mainly on his five favourite books, Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father and Tracy Kidder’s House among them. Capote’s groundbreaker falls under the provocative category “a classic that, upon re-reading, [I found] disappointing”.


This tiny, fascinating article sent me on a mission to find other lists, in which published authors discuss their favourite books. Lists aplenty showed up on my Google search—though, sadly, not so many “classics that really suck” lists, but I’m still looking. Here’s a sample ...


My First Literary Crush at Slate.com
Check out what Harold Bloom, Christopher Hitchens, and Judd Apatow found ‘mesmerizing” in college. It’s a good list, if a little bit male (though a Seinfeld writer lists Erica Jong as influential, which shakes things up slightly).


Barnes and Noble: Meet the Writers
These snippety interviews / profiles are excellent in gaining better insight into your favourite writers. Check out the “author recommendations” sections and find out what Lisa See, Chuck Klosterman, and Gregory Maguire want us to read over the summer.


Best Adaptations at Book Forum
A bit off-track but nonetheless fascinating, this recent Book Forum article is essentially a list of authors’ favourite film adaptations. Armond White, Joy Press, and Francine Prose are among the participants. 


What Writers Read at The Main Switch
This article from late last month takes a close look at what local Maine authors are reading over the summer. Meet Joel Ross, Lily King, and Hannah Holmes and discover just how diverse and exciting their reading choices are.


As for books not to read, the best I could find was Lucy Day’s Books I Hate webpage. She hates a lot, particularly books by L. Ron Hubbard. Her summation of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman: “This book is supposedly fantasy/horror. Emphasis on the horror. I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, but this is not a genre I am comfortable with. Noble quest, yes.  Magical worlds and creatures, yes. But worth reading?  No.”


Fair enough. Still, there’s just not enough author-hate out there. Like I said, I’m looking.


 


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