Film

Eero Saarinen

Screen Shot 2017-02-25 at 8.28.00 PM "Eero Saarinen: The Architect who Saw the Future", in PBS's American Masters series, provides a well-researched introduction to Saarinen's work, but that is not what makes this movie exceptional. The best documentaries weave a human-interest story into their narrative, and "Eero Saarinen" is no exception.

In fact, it weaves two: the competition between Eero and his father Eliel, also a famous architect (Eero really only came into his own as an architect after Eliel's death in 1950), and the attempt by Eero's son from his first marriage, Eric, who is director of photography of this movie, to better understand this father he knew so little by going to see the buildings Eero built. (Not only did Eero spend most of his time at the office when he was married to Eric's mother, but he then divorced to marry someone else and died in 1961 at age 51 during surgery to remove a brain tumor.) Twice in the movie Eric describes the experience of making the movie as cathartic. He leads the viewer through a chronological exploration of Eero's work.

We are treated to spellbinding analyses of monuments such as the St Louis Arch, the TWA terminal at JFK Airport, a private house (the Miller House), Kresge Auditorium at MIT, Ingall's Rink at Yale, Morse and Stiles College at Yale, the North Christian Church in Columbus, Ind, the Washington Dulles airport, as well as Eero Saarinen's foray into furniture making with Charles Eames. This is an excellent introduction to Saarinen's work with great insights into what made it visionary. The documentary also provides good biographical information on Saarinen, from his work in the shadow of his father until the latter's death to his first marriage to Lilian Swann and his second marriage to Aline Bernstein, an art critic who played a key role promoting his work.

The Kresge Auditorium at MIT was the first modern building I ever saw when I arrived in the United States back in 1999. I was always fond of it as a symbol to human creativity and ingenuity, as well as a place where I listened to many of my friends play in the student orchestras. As a result, I have long been an admirer of Saarinen's work, and I enjoyed this opportunity to put the auditorium in the broader perspective of Saarinen's life and work. One can only wonder what additional marvels Saarinen would have dreamt up if he had not died so young.


Willa Cather

WillaCatherI found this 2005 PBS documentary on Willa Cather, subtitled The Road is All, after a line by Walt Whitman, profoundly plodding and stodgy - especially regarding Cather's personal life - but it draws insightful parallels between her life and her books, and as such will be a useful resource for anyone interested in her novels.

The introduction to Cather's Song of the Lark by Doris Grumbach provides a far more vivid portrayal of Cather as a person. Her selected letters also offer insights into a sharp personality with a keen eye for observation, although that book suffers from the lack of letters from her close friends, Isabelle McClung and Edith Lewis, which were destroyed at Cather's request.

The movie dances around the issue of Cather's love life - she travelled extensively with McClung before the latter got married and then lived with Lewis for 39 years, but scholars go on the record in the movie that there is nothing in her books that suggests she ever knew real physical passion, as if novelists at the beginning of the twentieth century were ever going to write that sort of books. It is almost as if the filmmakers, back in 2006, felt that they had to play down that aspect of Cather for their movie to be watched. The other thing that bothered me about the movie was the use of actors to reenact scenes of life on the Nebraskan frontier a century ago. I would have preferred being shown real artifacts of the time.

Again, the documentary doesn't provide much help to understand Cather as a person, but it offers a stellar introduction to her novels and how she found inspiration in her real life, so it remains a valuable watch in spite of its shortcomings, and PBS also designed a good companion website about Cather. 

While life on the frontier (Nebraska, in her case) was the transformative experience of Cather's life, she was born in Virginia in 1873 and only moved to Nebraska ten years later. She later used that turning point as the setting of her novel My Antonia. As a teen in the late 1880s, Cather often dressed like a man, which people have interpreted to mean that she wanted the same success as men. Later, she seemed to sense that she could not have the career she wanted if she married, although her selected letters suggest she had a moderate interest in men. She attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the early 1890s, where she planned to major in science until one of her teachers published an essay she had written in the school newspaper. On the staff of that newspaper, Cather earned the reputation as a fearsome critic of theater, in spite of her lack of experience. She was very ambitious and eager to get out of Nebraska, and in 1896 took a job in Pittsburgh - a wealthy city in those days - editing a women's magazine.

Pittsburgh is where she met Isabelle McClung. They traveled to Europe in 1902. One year later, a collection of Cather's poems was published, and then in 1905 a collection of short stories by McClure, who offered her a job at his magazine - a leading light for top fiction and groundbreaking journalism. Cather spent 6 years there. The job served as her apprenticeship to the world of publishing. She did feel trapped by the editing job and wanted to write a novel. 

She published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912 at age 38. It was not a success. Characters were abstract and there was none of the later signature themes of Cather's. (It took place in the high society). A friend, Sarah Orne Jewett, advised her to find her quiet center and write from there. In 1912 Cather traveled back to Nebraska and then Arizona and New Mexico, on a leave of absence. (The movie never mentions Cather was a teacher in Pittsburgh for some time, having wanted to return to the city where McClung lived.) 

Back in New York City, Cather jumped into the unknown, working for herself only, and wrote novels that drew from her direct experience. While Cather continued her friendship with McClung (Song of the Lark is dedicated to her), she moved in with Edith Lewis in 1912 in Greenwich Village. This was the most productive period of her life. She published O Pioneers in 1913 (the title is drawn from a poem by Walt Whitman) and followed it with Song of the Lark (1915), inspired by her friend the Wagnerian opera singer Olive Fremstad. McClung married a concert violinist in 1916. 

Cather then wrote My Antonia, which has the particularity of being told through a male character's eyes. The father of the main character commits suicide, in an incident that echoes the real-life suicide of the father of someone Cather knew. As another example of Cather drawing from her life for her fiction, Cather's cousin was killed in World War I and her novel One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, tells the life of a young Nebraskan farmer who enlists to fight in the Great War. In spite of the literary accolades, Cather considered the book a failure. She had no first-hand knowledge of the 1918 French battlefield and today's critics agree it showed.

Her next book, The Professor's House, describes what happens when what gave your life meaning is over long before your actual life is. This is followed by Death Comes for the Archbishop. By the 1930s Cather had become a literary phenomenon. She appeared on the cover of TIME magazine and was named one of the 12 greatest women in America by Good Housekeeping Magazine but increasingly valued her privacy. Her parents, favorite brother, McClung died (the latter two in 1938). Cather's health steadily deterioriated and she died in April 1947 in New York City. 

For more information on Cather, the website of the Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska Lincoln offers a longer biographical sketch.

CatherSongLark CatherLetters


Paris: The Luminous Years, Part 2

ParisLuminousThe second half of Paris: The Luminous Years documentary focuses on the exhilarating decade of the 1920s, between the end of the Great War and the Wall Street of 1929. Iconic writers such as Joseph Kessel talk about the euphoria of being alive in those post-war years. This was quickly followed by political protests, social upheavals and new movements such as Dada, led by Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara, which became an overnight sensation in Paris and gave artists permission to break all the rules. After violence escalated, Breton decided something more constructive was needed and wrote The Magnetic Fields (pioneering his style of automatic writing, as if in a dream), thus launching Surrealism.

Surrealism's greatest success was among painters such as Rene Magritte, Frida Kahlo and Joan Miro, whose style evolved remarkably fast from the traditional approach shown in The Farm to embrace the abstract features and strong colors that made him famous. The movie then touches upon Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades.

MoveableFeastThen, after one hour and twenty minutes, the best part: the segment on the Americans in Paris. We are told that U.S. soldiers returning to America after the Great War found a highly repressive and restricted society, soon to be in the thralls of Prohibition, and could not return to the City of Lights fast enough. Ernest Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921 with his wife Hadley. His years in Paris were later the focus of his memoir A Moveable Feast. Early on he was close friend with Gertrude Stein, until 1925 when Stein refused to write a positive review of In Our Time

The movie then drifts away to the topic of American women in Paris, who were fleeing the stifling conventions of life in the U.S. where they were expected to marry and take care of the home, and instead flourished in Saint-Germain-des-Pres - women like Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, Janet Flanner, Romaine Brooks and of course Sylvia Beach, at which point the movie pivots to her bookstore Shakespeare & Company, her relationship with Adrienne Monnier and the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses

Continuing on its enumeration of American women in Paris, the movie shows footage of Josephine Baker, and then transitions to Langston Hughes (not a woman, but American), who found himself a job as a bus boy in one of the most famous jazz clubs in Paris, and incorporated jazz rhythms and sounds in his own writing. The movie stays on the jazz theme by touching upon composers such as Darius Milhaud brought together ideas from jazz and classical music, taking La Creation du Monde as an example, with sets by Fernand Leger.

Then, after a digression on Erik Satie and his being a mentor to young composers, we move on to Aaron Copland, who came to Paris when he was in his twenties to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, with a short segment on Boulanger's Wednesday classes and salons. Then Serge Diaghilev died in August 1929 in Venice, the Wall Street crisis of October 1929 sent most U.S. expatriate artists home, and that was the end of the luminous years. 

The New York Times review of the documentary, back in 2010 when it first aired on PBS, is certainly right that the documentary is at times plodding and didactic, and my notes above and in my previous post show it meanders a lot, pivoting from one story to the next without much overarching theme in its determination to stuff as much art as possible in the two hours of the movie. It is also a pity that the filmmaker didn't spend any time on Chagall, since his artwork graces the cover of the DVD. To keep the movie interesting there is an attempted focus on the artists who made the art, for instance through the soured friendship between Braque and Picasso, but we never spend enough time on one character to really care for that person. On the other hand, many artists in the Paris of the 1920s led fascinating lives and it is a treat to learn a little about so many. The excellent information the movie provides and the images it offers of Paris in its heyday as well as of groundbreaking art make it well worth a watch.

I'll end with a quote by Marc Chagall that is particularly dear to my heart, since I moved to Paris myself when I was young: If I had not gone to Paris, I would not be who I am.


Paris: The Luminous Years, Part 1

ParisLuminousThis documentary about Paris in the early twentieth century (subtitled: Toward the Making of the Modern) offers outstanding insights into cultural life in the city at a time where it drew artists and intellectuals of all nationalities and held the place in the world that New York has today. The movie lasts two hours and the first time I watched it, it only started holding my interest at the half way point when World War I breaks out: Germans like art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler are suddenly deemed enemies of France, which frightens the Cubist painters he represented and incites many to suddenly adopt a much more traditional style, at least for a few years. From then on, the documentary was spellbinding. I wanted to watch it again and the second time, I found even the beginning about Picasso - who is not a painter I particularly care for, being staunchly on the Matisse and Braque side of that debate - because the filmmakers interview many art scholars whose expertise really sets this documentary apart, and I enjoyed those parts more once I was sure the whole movie was not going to be about Picasso and his friends.

The movie uses many photographs and (for its second half) movies of the times, which vividly capture the atmosphere in Paris when it was an international mecca for the arts. It starts with Paris in the 1900s, with a focus on Montmartre, famous for the bohemian lifestyle and the sense of community among local artists who included Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain and Georges Braque, some of whom lived at the Bateau-Lavoir (Picasso had his studio there from 1904 to 1910). The movie dwells upon the group of friends Picasso had (Andre Salmon, Guillaume Apollinaire), who were all poets except for painter Georges Braque.

Around 1910, the center of Parisian artistic life moved from Montmartre on the Right Bank of the Seine to Montparnasse on the Left Bank, with painter Marc Chagall for instance having a studio in La Ruche. Artists such as Amadeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipschitz, Ossip Zadkine assiduously frequented Montparnasse. Those artists, though, didn't identify with a specific -ism (Impressionism, Fauvism) and were disdained by the professors who prepared for the prizes at the very academic (read: traditional) oriented Salon. La Ruche had a striking effect on these young painters' work, as evidenced by many stills of their artwork shown in the movie. 

SylviaBeachWe are also treated to many thoughtful interview segments by Romy Golan, a professor of 20th century European Art at CUNY Graduate Center, and Noel Riley Fitch, who wrote Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Riley Fitch explains the importance of the cafe as a gathering spot providing heat, food and restrooms and an opportunity for discussions on culture and politics, to circumvent French laws (at the time) against group meetings. But the most compelling testimonials for me were - through archival footage - of artists who had lived through that period, such as Jean Cocteau and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. 

 

 

 

 

SteinsCollectThe documentary spends some time on the Salon d'Automne of 1905, with its canvases by Matisse, Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck (showing my favorite painting in all of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Seine at Chatou.) We see Matisse's Woman with a Hat, which was on the cover of the exhibition The Steins Collect at the Metropolitan Museum, back in 2012, and took much abuse from outraged salon-goers back in 1905. Georges Braque himself discovered the vibrant colors of Fauvism in 1905 and was soon converted, selling all 6 of his Fauvist paintings at the Spring Salon. The movie then discusses Braque's discovery of Cezanne, the 1907 retrospective of Cezanne's work, which had a definite influence on Matisse's work and in fact any modern artist. There are also mentions and pictures of Gertrude Stein, who bought Matisse's Woman with a Hat and viewed her writing as a literary form of Cubism.

1907 is the year of Matisse's Blue Nude and Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, although that painting won't be shown for four more years. It is also the year where art dealer Kahnweiler introduced Braque to Apollinaire and Apollinaire introduced Braque to Picasso. In 1908, Kahnweiler exhibited Braque's paintings in his gallery and the critic Louis de Vauxcelles, who had already named Impressionism and Fauvism, came up with the name Cubism to characterize his work. Only Picasso could understand Braque's work. They then went their own way and when they got back together, realized their style had evolved the same way. You can judge for yourself if you can find a copy of Braque and Picasso: Pioneering Cubism (I bought my own copy some years ago before it went out of print), which accompanied the landmark 1989 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, described in the New York Times as "the show of the decade." 

42 minutes into the documentary, the focus shifts to Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, which provided a meeting ground for dancers, choreographers, scene designers, painters, musicians. Diaghilev oversaw the elevation of the role of the male dancer in ballet and the creation of roles for Vaslav Nijinsky, his lover, who starred in the controversial Afternoon of a Faun. Picasso himself was linked to the Ballets Russes through the sets and costumes he designed as well as his marrying one of their dancers, Olga Khokhlova. The movie mentions the composers associated with the Ballets Russes (Prokofiev, Ravel, de Falla, Satie, Debussy), the scandal of Rite of Spring, and the falling out between Diaghilev and Nijinsky after the latter gets married, which brought Leonid Massine to the Ballets Russes instead. 

Then, around 57 minutes into the movie, World War I (then called the Great War) breaks out. The footage of war trenches is impressive, and the situation gut-wrenching. Braque and Derail were called up. Many foreign artists volunteered (Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Ossip Zadkine), but Pablo Picasso did not, which prompted many accusations of cowardice toward him from his former friends. Foreigners became suspect and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's paintings were confiscated by the French government. Cubist painters were accused of being an instrument of German propaganda and foreign artists hastened to return to a more traditional style to avoid getting in trouble.

In Winter 1915, Jean Cocteau decided to involve Picasso in a project, Parade, for the Ballets Russes, with music composed by Erik Satie. (Cocteau wrote the scenario.) This led to yet another scandal. Guillaume Apollinaire, wounded at the front, attended the premiere and helped protect his friends, but died in November 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic. 

The first half of the documentary ends after about one hour and five minutes, when the 1920s begin. I liked the first part enough but found the second part fascinating, and it deserves a blog post in its own right. In the meantime, I hope this short summary of the first half of the movie will incite my readers to purchase the DVD. The value of the movie isn't in the facts it relates, which are well-known to anyone who cares about Paris and 20th century modern art, but the actual pictures, movies, testimonials it provides - things that have to be seen and heard first-hand.


Frank Lloyd Wright: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

FrankLloydWrightKen Burns has built a reputation as the best documentary filmmaker in the U.S. today, and this 2005 PBS movie about famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright does not disappoint. FLW was a complex character to say the least - a self-promoter who exaggerated his life story and was unable to live within his means, a genius who abandoned his wife, someone who faced incredible heartbreak when his great love was murdered, an architect whose star dimmed until it rose again so high he became "the greatest architect in the world".

FLW's mother was convinced he was going to be a great man, and after he settled with his first wife in the fashionable neighborhood of Oak Park, he seems to have decided that looking successful would only make success come faster (maybe some twenty-somethings in Dallas have found themselves inspired by his philosophy...), and he acquired a pretty house he could not afford and where his first wife Kitty raised their six children. He collected old books and Japanese prints. Because he lived beyond his means from the start, he began secretly designing houses for wealthy clients to make more money, breaking the trust of his mentor Louis Sullivan, who fired him when he found out. FLW then launched his own practice, where he explored a unique American style. He designed his famous "prairie houses", horizontal to fit in the Midwestern landscape, everything open and flowing, low ceilings, using colors of the harvest and exuding a serenity and sense of belonging.

But public buildings, not houses, are the buildings that make an architect's career, and FLW longed for large-scale commissions. He had a building commission in Buffalo, NY for a mail-order company, the Larkin Company. Of course he went way over budget (as usual with him) but the executives loved their building. Critics, yet, were not impressed, dubbing it a "monster of awkwardness". In 1905 he got a contract to rebuild the Unitarian Church of Oak Park after it burnt to the ground.

At that point his practice was flourishing but he still had no large-scale commission prospects and he felt he had done everything he could with the prairie style. There was trouble at home, because he resented the devotion of his wife Kitty to the children rather than to him. Edwin Cheney and Mamah Cheney lived nearby, in a house Wright had designed for them. Mamah was artistic, vivacious, dissatisfied with a traditional wife role, and all for FLW. Kitty refused to divorce. In October 1909, at age 42, FLW closed his studio, abandoned Kitty and the children (leaving Kitty stuck with a $900 grocery bill), and ran off to Europe with Mamah. He did exactly the same as his father, who had walked on his mother and him when he was a child.

Needless to say, the scandal was enormous. FLW and Mamah stayed abroad for about a year. When they returned to the US, FLW began building a house in Spring Green, WI, named Taliesin. They lived there for 3 years in spite of gossip. In August 1914, Mamah was murdered, alongside with just about everyone in her lunch party, by the butler who was supposed to be dismissed. He locked all the exits but one, set fire to the house and then hacked to death the people who tried to escape.

FLW buried himself in work in Japan for a monumental hotel in Tokyo, the Imperial Hotel, which luckily withstood the 1923 earthquake. He spent 8 contentious years with Miriam Noel, who appeared cultivated, intelligent and infatuated with Wright, but was really violent, unstable and addicted to morphine. He married her after Kitty granted him a divorce. This was a mistake: Miriam made FLW absolutely miserable. 

In 1924, Miriam finally stormed out of the house. FLW had found another woman: Olgivanna Ivanova Milanov Hinzenburg, age 2, a disciple of G.I. Gurdjieff and a devote to mystic philosophy. Olgivanna moved into the rebuilt Taliesin, which enraged Miriam, who is said to have stalked FLW and Olgivanna for 3 or 4 years. In 1925, a fire destroyed the second Taliesin and the bank foreclosed on the mortgage. FLW received commissions in the Sierra Madre Mountains, a summer colony at Lake Tahoe, a steel cathedral in NYC, but none of them was ever built. In 1927 Miriam granted him a divorce but since FLW was penniless, friends had to pay his alimony for him. He married Olgivanna in 1928. The crash of 1929 destroyed his own hope that his one remaining commission in the Arizona desert would ever be built. By then FLW was 62 and his career had hit rock bottom. This concludes Part 1 of the documentary.

Part 2 starts where we left off at the end of Part 1, with FLW "washed out" but refusing to admit defeat. Olgivanna was a driven, disciplined woman. She calmed FLW down and urged him to lecture and to write his autobiography. In 1932, she suggested they start an apprenticeship program, modeled on Gurdjieff's teachings. Apprentices paid $650/year for the privilege and had to spend 4 hours a day in manual labor. (Digression: I first learned about FLW when I read the book The Fellowship, which describes the events of Part 2 in the DVD so well. I remember buying it in hardcover in New York City in the fall of 2006... I had just become a NYC regular back then. He seems to have severely exploited young people who had come to him eager to learn, and I remember being distinctly unimpressed by him, all genius that he was, after I finished reading the book.) The apprentices, though, seem to have at first found the atmosphere of intellectual fellowship thrilling. Later, perhaps less so. FLW and Olgivanna ate on a dais a little above everybody else. Olgivanna controlled everything, including the apprentices' personal lives, going as far as arranging marriages and negotiating divorces. 

FLW resented his own eclipse and the rise of the modernist Europeans, and then he remade himself. In 1934, the father of a former apprentice asked him to build a house near Bear Run in Fallingwater, PA. (There is a funny anecdote in the movie where the man calls from 140 miles away, saying he's on his way to see the plans for the house. FLW had done nothing. He sat down and drew everything on the spot, finishing just as the man was walking through the door.) Fallingwater, drawn in less than 3 hours, became the most famous modern house in the world. I visited it in August 2013, and it is as beautiful as people say. 

Then FLW built the so-called Usonian houses, which were supposed to be mass-marketed at a cost of $5,000 but failed to arise the enthusiasm of the public because they ended up being more expensive than planned - as usual with FLW - and because they required few possessions, since FLW controlled all the details. That made his vision quite impractical. 

The Johnson Wax Building in Racine, WI proved to be for FLW the equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Innovations included special Pyrex glass tubings for skylights and hollow reinforced columns of stunning slenderness to bear the weight of the great ceilings. Although glass tubings on the roof could not be sealed properly, meaning that there were leaks whenever it rained, FLW's career was finally reborn. He was 70. 

In December 1937, FLW and Olgivanna led their first (of many) pilgrimage to the Arizona desert because of FLW's health. This is where FLW built Taliesin West. FLW entered the most productive phase of his life after the war, drawing plans for over 350 buildings: twin suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, a synagogue in Philly, a skyscraper in Chicago, the Civic Center for Marin County, CA. Then he was asked to design a building for the art collection of Solomon Guggenheim in NYC, which would prove the most commission of his life, launching a 13-year battle with Guggenheim and his heirs. After the zoning board rejected his plan, FLW had to turn to Robert Moses to make the board members change their mind. In April 1959, the building of the Guggenheim was almost complete when FLW, supervising construction from Taliesin West, complained of stomach pains and underwent surgery. He died April 9, 1959. His disciples drove his body back to Wisconsin.

On October 21, 1959, the Guggenheim museum opened to the public on Manhattan's Upper East Side, ensuring FLW's legacy.


Movie review: "Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter"

JoanMitchell"Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter" does little more than showing us the (beautiful) paintings of Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell and film her, shortly before her death, making obscure pronouncements about her work that don't hide the fact that she doesn't want to talk about her art.

She is the first one to say she doesn't think when she paints - she feels instead. We are told almost nothing about her life, except for the fact that her father seems to have been a difficult man. She mentions depression five or six times throughout the hour-long documentary, but the issue of why she is depressed is only broached once, at the very beginning, when she relates that once, she stopped painting for about two weeks, after Big Joan told Little Joan that if painting gave her so much pain, then she should stop. I wondered what that comment suggested about her mental health, since she was clear the two were parts of herself. She doesn't say if painting was the reason she was depressed the many other times.

Of her private life we only learned that she moved to Paris out of love for a French-Canadian artist, and she laughs that it's what women are supposed to do: follow the man (I paraphrase), and given the stature of Mitchell in the art world I had a hard time believing that. She wanted to move to Paris. That was her choice. She doesn't have to put herself down. At first she didn't want to give the interviewer his name, because the man had been married. Apparently the man left her for the dog-sitter (that's what she said). Why he made that choice would have been an interesting issue to explore: how was Mitchell in her everyday life?

And we are told nothing about any friendships she had. Did she have none? A French art connoisseur talks about her vulnerability and hypersensitivity and Brice Marden talks about the light in her paintings, but we never know whether to believe them. The one real piece of information we get about Mitchell is that she had, apparently, this condition that makes one see letters as colors. I did find the comment about the connection of her work to van Gogh, Cezanne and particularly Claude Monet valuable. To give an idea of the scope of the movie's indifference to Mitchell's life, it doesn't even say she was born in Chicago. When it briefly touches upon her early years, we do see a picture of the river and hear a mention of the Art Institute, so people who have traveled there will recognize it. 

Mitchell had been a heavy drinker and smoker and died in 1992 when she was 67. She did seem to have her own set of demons to struggle with, but they're never explored. The movie does have good shots of Mitchell's paintings, but again, it offers little insight into her work - it sounds more speculation by other people. There is also no discussion of how her style evolved over the years.

Contrast this sedate documentary with this 2002 New Yorker article by Peter Schjeldahl, full of life, describing an argument between Mitchell and her long-time partner (that French-Canadian artist) and published at the occasion of Mitchell's retrospective at the Whitney. There, Mitchell really comes to life. We learn a lot more about Mitchell in a few paragraphs than in this movie. As for her paintings, you can learn a lot more about them by consulting the catalogue of that 2002 Whitney exhibition, available here

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.


Movie review: "Hans Hofmann: Artist/Teacher, Teacher/Artist"

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 10.41.39 PMThis is a movie I grew fonder of after the half-point, once I realized that the filmmakers were indeed going to talk at length about Hofmann's art and not just his teaching style and school in Provincetown. (Over the first 30 minutes, I grew really worried we would never be told anything about Hofmann outside his classroom.)

I first learned about Hans Hofmann in the opening pages of New Art City by Jed Perl, and his paintings on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have long been among my favorites because of their geometrical shapes and bright colors. I was thrilled to find a documentary about Hofmann on Amazon. It is divided roughly in two parts, the first part about how he taught and the second part about his work. Since he died in 1966, the only footage of him is archival and shows him painting one of his canvases, but many of his former students provide valuable insights into his teaching and painting style.

(He liked students to have lots of paint on their palette, although students at the time were quite impoverished and paint costs a lot of money. One of his favorite tricks to make students view the world differently was to tear one of their drawings into two and shift the two parts every so slightly so that they would not be quite aligned with each other any more. Also, how he got his students to paint abstract art while staring at a real model or a still-life was quite striking.)

The pictures shown of his art are superb, and the movie also benefits from many black-and-white pictures of his teaching days at his school in Provincetown, MA. I wish at least one critical voice had been included - Louise Nevelson, for instance, was told by Hofmann she was wasting her time when she went to Germany to study with him in the early 1930s. That didn't prevent her from studying with him when he moved to the U.S., where he had no control over which students enrolled in his course at the Arts Students League. And Nevelson is long dead but this is just to make the point that no every student thrived with Hofmann as mentor, and so perhaps a counterbalancing voice or the mention of a particularly stinging criticism would have been helpful in positioning the man with respect to his fellow artists and his times.

Ultimately, the movie does have profound deficiencies regarding Hofmann's biography - we never learn how he met his first wife, how they married, did they get along, did they have friends. In fact when she is first mentioned, half an hour into the movie, she is named "Mrs Hofmann" and no one bothers giving her a first name until the filmmakers announce she has died and Hofmann has remarried. But the movie isn't really about Hofmann the man: as its title indicates, it is about the precarious balance he tried to maintain between his work as a teacher and his work as an artist. It is repeatedly multiple times during the 55-min documentary that the assumption in the NYC art world of the time, and perhaps still today, was that one could not be a good artist if one were also a teacher. It is to Hofmann's credit that he pursued both and left his mark in both. 

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.


Movie Review: "The Salesman"

Salesman2What a great movie, masterful in pace and plot twists, with multi-dimensional characters who, as a bonus, provide a glimpse of insight into life in today's Iran. The end drags on a little, which I felt was to give the Iranian censors the ending that would allow the movie to be distributed, and it is done in such a way that you can guess which ending the director probably wanted for his movie. (I'll give you a hint: good storytellers don't go to the same well twice.) Director Asghar Farhadi highly deserves his award at the Cannes Festival for Best Screenplay and his movie's nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Leading man Shahab Hosseini also deserves a nuanced performance that fully warranted Hosseini's Best Actor Award at Cannes.

You can read the review on robertebert.com here and that by the New York Times there (it's a NYT Critics' Pick). I'm not going to attempt a review that rivals theirs, but I wanted to point out how filmmakers today can still produce remarkable movies on low budget - and those filmmakers don't need special effects, or a MFA in screenwriting, to succeed in the business. And I wonder, when I watch such an amazing movie like The Salesman, whether it is still possible for an American filmmaker to produce a movie like this, or whether we are condemned to praising terrible indie movies that become in turn highly acclaimed by the critics (I think for instance of the mediocrity of an indie hit like Don't Think Twice. I was also massively underwhelmed by Boyhood two years ago). The Salesman is also far superior to the media darling Manchester-by-the-Sea, which I mention because they have similar qualities as low-key family dramas. In fact, the only movie that awed me so in recent memory is the Russian movie Leviathan. Those foreign filmmakers have more to teach American ones than American ones are necessarily willing to admit.

The movie theater was almost empty when I saw the movie on Friday night, and I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that the movie is not in English (although it is subtitled.) I attended a performance of Donizetti's opera Elisir d'amore at SMU Meadows School for the Performing Arts earlier this week and the room was full of friends and family members who had come to support the amazing SMU undergraduates singing in Italian as if it were their native language. At intermission I heard more than one teen (sibling?) complain to the grown-ups nearby that it was hard to understand what was going on, although the performance was supertitled. It was not that difficult to follow along, especially an opera like Elisir d'Amore, where you can guess the narrative from reading the synopsis beforehand and looking at the singers, even if you don't understand what they're saying (another teen said: "The only word I understood was 'amore'.")

This came to mind in the context of Salesman because I think that Americans who only want to watch entertainment in English deprive themselves of key opportunities to watch superior movies or live performances, which would in turn help them make better works of art for those of us who don't care for grand-guignolesque car chases or robot monsters about the future. I'm not saying watching foreign films is always easy, even with subtitles - when I was on sabbatical in Boston I once watched a (mostly in black-and-white) Polish documentary about theater in Poland at ArtsEmerson -- it was the U.S. premiere of Andrzej Wadja’s The Possessed Years Later, a documentary about his groundbreaking adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils -- and that probably pushed me to the limits of what I was willing to do out of interest in art. But ArtsEmerson has further embraced this idea by inviting theater troupes to perform in their native languages. They presented Three Sisters by Chekhov - in Russian - after I left Boston and I would just have loved to see it live. Maybe I'll catch Uncle Vanya instead. It does help that I both love Chekhov plays and know Russian.

I don't know a word of Persian, though, and yet I could follow The Salesman easily. So I hope that people who are reluctant to watch a movie or a play in a language they don't understand will nonetheless go and see it. Americans have never shied away from English-language remakes (apparently a remake of German-language Toni Erdmann is in the works) but we will lose a lot of opportunities to understand other countries and cultures if we have to remake everything in English to bring Americans into theaters. On the other hand, maybe it would already be a good start if we could get the American filmmakers and the foreign-born crowd into the theaters to watch foreign movies. Maybe it'll aways be unrealistic to hope that the majority of American-born can find an interest in foreign movies instead of watching the Superbowl. (And of course there are exceptions, especially in places like Cambridge, MA or Seattle or San Francisco.) But maybe the American filmmakers can then learn from their foreign counterparts and bring those storytelling skills to their audiences, and the foreign-born can fill enough theaters to convince distributors to keep bringing those movies to America, and in that way directors like Farhadi can still have an impact on filmmaking today. Maybe that's enough. The Salesman, which opened in limited release two weeks ago, has grossed so far about $350,000 in the U.S. At $10 a ticket [$8 for matinees, $11 at full price], that's about 35,000 people in the U.S. who have seen it so far, and can appreciate what a remarkable film it is. Oscar winner A Separation, also from Farhadi, ultimately grossed $6,700,000 (or about 670,000 movie-goers) and probably approximates the U.S. market size for a movie in Persian. Here's to hoping The Salesman finds its way to the remaining 635,000. The movie deserves it.


Movie: "Miss Sloane"'s reviews

MissSloane(Photo credit: IMDB) I went to see "Miss Sloane" and absolutely loved it. Jessica Chastain in the title role of a DC lobbyist facing Congressional hearings is spellbinding. She delivers dialogue with conviction but also uses the expressions on her face more effectively than any other actress I've seen in a movie in a long time. Any aspiring actress should watch "Miss Sloane" and learn from the great. But this post is about more than simply telling readers to go and see the movie, which Chastain bears single-handedly on her shoulders and which therefore won't be to the taste of moviegoers less than enthralled by strong female leads (a segment of the U.S. population that has possibly grown over the past few weeks). Instead, this post is about my surprise at the lukewarm or downright negative reviews of "Miss Sloane", when the movie is so breathtaking from beginning to end, never letting the viewer guess what will happen next, providing plot twist after plot twist, bringing entertainment to a level rarely seen in Hollywood movies these days.

This excellent movie currently has a rating of 5.9/10 on IMDB, 68% on Rotten Tomatoes and 25% among Google users. Given the stellar performance of the cast and the spellbinding plot that keeps you on the edge of your seats, those ratings don't make sense, until you realize that Miss Sloane takes on the gun lobby by fighting for a bill that would introduce mandatory background checks and, after a long, take-no-prisoners battle full of twists and coups de theatre with her former employer, who represents her opponent, (SPOILER ALERT) actually wins. So I had to wonder, after I saw the movie, whether some of those reviews - pointing out that the writer is a first-timer "and it shows", complaining about the writer's view of lobbyists, taking issue with the ending (which I loved, although the epilogue after the ending was unnecessary - it would have been fine to cut at the end of the hearings scene where Miss Sloane looks at Esme, and not tell the viewer whether the bill passed or not) - were not possibly trying to undermine the impact of Miss Sloane's views by belittling the movie.

For instance, some people shouted "yes!" in the theater when Miss Sloane made arguments for universal background checks such as [this would delay approval by two weeks and, I paraphrase:] "anyone who is so desperate to get his hands on a gun should be kept very far away from having one." (Basically the goal of the movie's fictitious amendment, as I understood it, was to close the private sale loophole.) This kind of Hollywood-driven PR can't possibly please the gun lobby. Now, the engineer in me wanted to see data: how many deaths would be avoided by universal background checks? what makes it possible for such hatred to develop for other human beings that someone decides to kill innocent bystanders? won't people who really want to commit heinous crimes with guns simply wait two weeks [the waiting period people in the movie say they would have to put up with] and then do the deed? how many would-be gun owners are really turned away after a background check? would universal background checks be effective or would they only be a cosmetic measure? would making sure that assault rifles remain out of the hands of bad people be a more effective technique to prevent mass shootings (one of the characters survived a mass school shooting, which becomes a key subplot)? 

So perhaps the pro-gun-lobby side of the equation wasn't argued with full force in the movie, where opponents of the bill stick to 2nd Amendment rights, but the movie remains excellent thanks to Chastain's gripping performance and the many plot twists. It is a great character study of some of the people who work in D.C.: the idealistic young kids, Miss Sloane's blase former employer played by Sam Waterston, the always-idealistic CEO of the rival boutique lobbying firm, and Miss Sloane, who will stop to nothing to achieve her goal. This is what makes the movie worthwhile - not what you think of universal background checks. The movie gives you a glimpse of the frame of mind of people who want to win at all costs, and what they do to make sure they succeed. Not a bad lesson to keep in mind.


Movie Review: "A Place in the Sun" (1951)

A-Place-in-the-SunWhy doesn't Hollywood do movies like that anymore? (Warning: this post contains spoilers.) A Place in the Sun (1951), with the tagline "A poor boy gets a job working for his rich uncle and ends up falling in love with two women", stars Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, and is simply a masterpiece in the story line, structure and tight editing. For instance, the major turning point where factory worker Alice, who is unmarried but pregnant with George's child, learns that he postponed their wedding to go out cavorting with beautiful socialite Angela on the lake instead of visiting his uncle, as was his excuse, happens exactly at the half point of the movie. The use of lighting and framing of shots remind me of the best Joan Crawford movies and Laurence Olivier's Richard III movie. Even the music is great, complementing the plot at just the right moments, especially when George and Alice are on the lake. Hopefully it won't come as a surprise that the love triangle doesn't end well, not well at all.   

When the movie came out, Elizabeth Taylor was only 19 and she seemed much more like a real human being, multifaceted, multidimensional, than in the roles that she remains famous for, such as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Cleopatra in Cleopatra and of course the much older Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Later in her career her image trapped her and she had a stormy personal life, being married eight times including twice to Richard Burton (an enormously talented actor in his own right, but who had issues with alcohol) and marrying a man twenty years younger as her last husband, a construction worker. It seems that she searched for happiness her whole life. I remember that she was relentlessly the subject of jokes in the early 1990s when I was in high school - this was the time of her last husband, the much younger construction worker - her beauty gone, the ravages of age and alcohol so plain on her face she was much uglier than many women who hadn't come close to being beautiful in her youth. In hindsight I find her heartbreaking, but of course when you are a teen you don't have the life experience to realize that. Now that I'm more involved in acting I can appreciate her talent more. Or perhaps it is simply that the irrelevant facts of her personal life have receded into oblivion, now that she's been dead for five years, and we can all go back to admiring her work on the screen without thinking of the person.

And 31-year-old Montgomery Clift also cuts a tragic figure in the movie, only five years away from the terrible car accident in 1956 that left him with permanent changes in his facial appearance, especially the left side that was nearly immobile. He then relied more and more on alcohol and pills, leading to a stark deterioration in his physical appearance. Clift would die in 1966 at age 45, after what Vanity Fair would call A Long Suicide. According to Vanity Fair, he insisted on maintaining his residence in New York instead of California, read Chekhov, Aristotle, and classic works of history and economics, and infamously owned only one suit, which helped establish him as the embodiment of the 1950s youth culture along with Marlon Brando and James Dean.

In the 1970s, and so after his death, it emerged that Clift, who had confounded the gossip press by his lack of romantic attachments, had been gay - something that doesn't seem like a big deal now but was a very big deal in the 1950s. And perhaps that's what was eating at him, even before his accident. The VF article explains that, by August 1955, "he was 'drinking himself out of a career'; on the set of Raintree, the crew had designated words to communicate how drunk Clift was: bad was Georgia, very bad was Florida, and worst of all was Zanzibar."

Clift had crashed his car after leaving a party at Taylor's house (rumors about whether they were an item or not swirled around them for years) and it is to Taylor's credit that she prevented photographers from taking pictures of Clift's face after the accident and imposed him in Suddenly, Last Summer, long after Clift's good looks had disappeared from his excessive alcohol consumption, although it is perhaps ironic that she was going to have her own troubles with liquor later on. Clift also appeared in The Misfits, with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Monroe apparently reported that Clift was "the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am," perhaps a testimony of the toll it takes to be in the public eye.

Particularly noteworthy in the VF article is the discussion why Clift drank himself to death. It argues that the reason involves more than Clift's homosexuality. Clift once asked in his journal: "How to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable and still alive?" - a question the best actors continue to ask themselves today.