Category Archives: Film & Television

The Robin Hood of the Art World

poster

[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Is graffiti art? And if it is, is the defacement of others’ property ever justifiable in the service of art? When is graffiti (or “guerilla art,” or “street art”) okay? When it says something meaningful? When it’s well done? When it’s pretty? When famous people say it’s art?

Let’s suggest for a moment that it’s always wrong to deface others’ property. After a graffiti attack, once a property has already been defaced, is there ever a justification in leaving the defacement/art in place? What if it’s really great-looking, astonishingly intricate, brilliant in its message: would those circumstances justify the illegal (and some would say unethical) action that created it?

These are important questions to consider when discussing or viewing graffiti art or “street art,” and a documentary that addresses them would be fascinating. However, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the excellent new documentary on street art, doesn’t address any of them. And it doesn’t need to. Subtitled “The world’s first Street Art disaster movie,” it’s a fascinating film on its own merits, even though it leaves the ethics of all the principal characters in the film essentially unexplored. The film itself may be at least in part an elaborate hoax. If it is, it’s still worth seeing.

The most famous graffiti artist in the world, and certainly one of the most talented, is a Briton who goes by the pseudonym Banksy. Banksy is a wily and elusive character who has been creating graffiti art, first in England and then internationally, since the early 1990s. He began as a common tagger but after too many run-ins with the law, he decided he needed to develop a new style that would allow him to prep a public outdoor space, create his art as quickly as possible, then disappear before cops could show up and arrest him. He developed a system in which he created a series of stencils, then smuggled them to various spots around Britain and used one or more of them to build up intricate and often sophisticated images, sometimes adding freehand strokes to the stenciled areas. His pieces often feature wry comments spray-painted next to or within the images. Subjects have ranged from small single-color rats (a frequent motif) to huge murals of policemen in riot gear dancing with daisies. He’s often created life-sized people or animals, including policemen kissing each other and children in surprising situations. His messages are usually usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment.

Over time, Banksy’s wit, talent and cleverness at hiding his identity made him a cult figure, and his art became so desired and in such great demand that people began removing his works from walls, cutting chunks out of tagged buildings and selling them at auction, even on eBay. He has created a number of pieces on canvas as well, and they now sell for grand sums at no less august an institution than Sotheby’s.

Banksy often paints works that mimic the style and subject matter of old masters but which show clever twists, such as a 17th century village scene in which the buildings are covered in modern graffiti. He has repeatedly smuggled his paintings into major art galleries such as the Tate in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum, then hung each piece, complete with fancy frame and descriptive placard, among famous masterpieces. Sometimes museums have taken weeks to discover the subterfuge before removing his works. In 2005 his version of a primitive Lascaux-style cave painting depicting a human figure hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping cart was hung in the British Museum. When it was discovered, the British Museum, home to such important pieces as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles, wisely added Banksy’s painting to the permanent collection.

Despite his remarkably varied artistic talent, Banksy fits well into the graffiti artist or “street artist” genre because of his guerilla-style illegal forays into public places, which he then vandalizes, albeit wittily and with great skill, leaving evidence of his cunning alongside artistic talent. Many street artists have more swagger than technical skill, and the “Screw you, society!” anarchic message their graffiti announces to the world is usually more compelling than the actual art they produce. Banksy is not unusual among graffitists in his desire to remain anonymous and avoid arrest for his illegal activities, but he does show particular skill, subtlety and cleverness.

Some of his ruses, such as cutting a red British telephone box in half, reassembling it and welding it so looks as if it’s been hacked in two and bent, and then burying a hatchet in it, take not just daring and skill but some major resources to create, transport and maneuver into place. For fun several years ago, he counterfeited a million pounds worth of British currency with the face of Princess Diana taking the place of Queen Elizabeth II, but the results were so believable that attempts to spend the faux currency were all too successful, and he ended up with boxes of funny-money that he didn’t dare distribute for fear of being prosecuted for a federal crime.

Banksy’s story is perhaps the most compelling one in the world of graffiti art, but it takes an unexpected back seat to the story of his videographer in the Banksy-made film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The documentary made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is packing arthouse cinemas around the world just a few months after its debut. The gist of the story is this: In the 1990s, Thierry Guetta, a French-born entrepreneur, ran a successful LA clothing boutique which sold vintage rock-and-roller and punky clothes which he bought for almost nothing in scrap bundles and sold for obscenely high prices. On the side, he began obsessively videotaping everything, including the illegal activities of his cousin, a French graffiti artist who made small mosaics based on bit-mapped Space Invaders videogame characters. His cousin, who called himself Space Invader, allowed Guetta to film him gluing his guerilla-art mosaics around Europe and America, and Guetta’s videotaping obsession finally had a focus. He started documenting almost all the top players in the street art movement to the exclusion of doing almost anything else throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s.

One artist who allowed Guetta constant access was Shepard Fairey, first famous for spreading over a million images of Andre the Giant‘s face on stickers and posters around the world, all atop the word OBEY, as if he were the ubiquitous Big Brother of Orwell’s distopian classic 1984. Later Fairey became famous for the red and blue poster of Barack Obama above the word HOPE that becames an official image of Obama’s campaign and has since been endlessly parodied. Fairey is now being sued by the Associated Press because he didn’t have permission to use the AP photo he based the poster on. A likeable guy who gets around, Fairey had become friendly with Banksy. Fairey was impressed after seeing Guetta’s obsessive compulsion to document graffitists and Guetta’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way and spend his own money and time helping Fairey and other street artists create and hang their work. According to the documentary, he felt Guetta could be trusted to meet and even videotape Banksy when Banksy came to Los Angeles. Guetta proved himself an extremely willing, friendly and helpful assistant, driving Banksy around, showing him the best public walls on which to ply his craft, and making his life and his art easier. Banksy soon allowed Guetta to film him at work, trusting that Guetta would keep his identity safe, which he did.

Here’s where the questions of who is an artist and what is art get confused. If you want to keep the upshot of the documentary a mystery, you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.

Eventually, Banksy felt it was time for Thierry Guetta to edit his huge collection of Banksy videos into a documentary, something Guetta had said he would eventually do but for which he had no training or experience. According to Banksy, after six months Guetta had cobbled together a headache-inducing, chopped-and-diced fiasco of a film without any narrative at all, a barrage of undifferentiated random images from his thousands of uncataloged videotapes of Banksy and other graffiti artists. Upon seeing this mess, Banksy suggested that Thierry give over access to all the videos and Banksy himself would create a movie out of them. To distract Guetta, Banksy suggested that Guetta should go off for six months and create art of his own and then have a little show. This made some sort of sense; the videographer had started doing some stencils of himself around LA and signing them MBW, which he said stood for Mr. Brainwash. Banksy thought Guetta would have a small vanity show someplace and the distraction would get him out of Banksy’s hair while Banksy put together a reasonable documentary out of Guetta’s frightening mishmash of videotape.

However, Guetta, now consumed with the idea that he was an artiste who could make a fortune and have a giant, splashy, expensive solo show that would wow the world, mortaged his house, hired a cadre of actual artists, prop designers and contractors, and rented a huge, expensive space in downtown LA. He told other artists to make largely unattractive knock-offs of Andy Warhol-style pop art pieces and spray painted silkscreen images of pop culture icons, claimed and signed them all as his own work, and relentlessly hyped himself around LA as the next big thing. Seven thousand people lined up to see Mr. Brainwash’s opening and his hundreds of derivative paintings, many of them created by others with almost no or no input from Guetta at all.

LA loved him. He sold a million dollars worth of “art” in two weeks. So many people flooded the gallery that what had been expected to be a two-week show stayed up for two months. Madonna asked him to create a Warholesque image of her for her latest greatest hits album. Mr. Brainwash has his first New York show this spring. And the joke was on Banksy. Or was it? While it illustrates the phoniness of the art world that he’s always reviled and parodied, a significant contingent of art world critics and followers believe they recognize the clever guiding hand of Banksy himself behind this cynical, clever and amusing film; they believe he put up the money for Guetta’s show and is using Guetta as a frontman for his ruse.

Whether this is a clever con or simply a wild situation that spun out of control while Banksy was distracted by the editing down of Guetta’s archive of tapes, it is a perfect illustration of the sort of art world nonsense Banksy has always opposed. Banksy has staged it as the story of an authentic (if anarchistic) hermitic artist who hides out among us and goes by a pseudonym vs. the faux-artist con-man entrepreneur with little if any talent for art and no insight into what makes it good, important or inspiring. Even when Banksy has created art meant to be sold to the throngs angling to pay real money to own a genuine Banksy, he has happily bitten the hands that feed him.

In 2007, Sotheby’s auction house auctioned off three of his pieces for a total of over £170,000; to coincide with the second day of auctions, Banksy updated his website with a new image of an auction house scene showing people bidding on a picture that said, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” In his quest to meet and videotape all the bright lights of the street art movement, Guetta, on the other hand, became so hungry to be seen as a creator and star rather than part of the supporting cast of the art world that he created a huge show out of nothing but borrowed money and chutzpah, and, horribly, pulled it off.

The question of whether what guerilla street artists do (trespassing and defacing property that is not theirs) is ethical or justifiable is never addressed in this film. That’s understandable; Banksy is an outlaw hero who probably sees himself as akin to Butch Cassidy or Robin Hood, someone who points out the flaws in the system in an outrageously public way while remaining essentially invisible, only popping out often enough to build his legend and prove his existence. There’s no reason why such a person would want to draw attention to the dark side of what he does, especially when he doesn’t appear to recognize any darkness in it.

A film this cleverly and entertainingly made adds to his allure and stature while presenting his actions in the best possible light. Without ever explaining or justifying himself, he wangles his way into the audience’s affections and makes the story unfold in a way that builds sympathy for the characters, all of whom are literal outlaws. We find ourselves rooting for them to get away with their trespasses without ever feeling like we’re being manipulated or spoonfed with obvious and unnecessary explanations or justifications. Banksy really knows how to tell and sell a story, and, like a sleight-of-hand master, how to distract us from many of the important issues without our stopping to think, hey, what about the elephant in the room?

Speaking of which, there’s a great scene in which Banksy places an actual live elephant in the middle of a gallery show in order to prove a point. Of course, the point is lost on the media; they report that PETA (and LA Animal Services) didn’t like him painting an elephant with children’s facepaints and putting it on display, which is indeed newsworthy, but they seemed to have no concern with what the point of his painting the elephant was. This example of his disdain for people who don’t think about the meaning or point of art is astute, but it also shows his arrogance in thinking that, because others don’t share his sophisticated ideas and opinions on art, their own tastes, questions and concerns about what he does and how he does it are not just debatable but abominable proof of their philistinism. While I share his disappointment that people are so happy to accept pop culture simplifications of art rather than develop opinions of their own, I find his open contempt for people who don’t share his worldview distressingly self-absorbed and arrogant.

Banksy shows himself to be a witty and articulate man, both via his art and in the speeches he makes to the camera in this documentary. He speaks and gesticulates while wearing a dark hoody that obscures his face and and has his voice altered digitally. He could have been interviewed off camera and had the documentary’s narrator Rhys Ifans, the dryly entertaining Welsh actor, repeat his words to ensure that nobody could recognize his speech patterns or accent, but Banksy clearly enjoys scooting out of the shadows just a bit, providing blurry-faced proof of his escapades to the world via Guetta’s videos, letting people hear his accent, albeit in altered form. He is playing with his anonymity here, heightening the drama yet again, just as he does in his art, working the darkness and spray cans and stencils until he’s constructed a shadowy version of himself that he can carefully control access to.

Banksy appears to have a strong system of values (often fine ones, like looking out for the little guy and avoiding governmental tyranny), but seems to have little respect for the rights of others whose values differ (such as those who own property which he would like to cover in examples of his self-expression). This places him squarely alongside other heroes of the anarchistic British punk movement who have determined that destruction and defacement of things that they don’t value is justification enough for ignoring laws which seek to respect property and and which respect the needs of a society based on the rule of law.

In an attempt to focus attention on exploitative flaws in the capitalist system, socialists or, even further to the left on the political spectrum, anarchists like Banksy sometimes feel justified in ignoring property rights entirely, saying they are an artificial and damaging construct which enslaves the poor and empowers the rich, thus denying basic human rights and dignity. If you believe that an entire system is wrong, it can be tempting to determine that you will no longer acknowledge its rules or its power over you and decide to do things your own way. But just as unfettered capitalism can lead to great selfishness and a lack of awareness or concern for the needs of others, unfettered socialism can lead to societies which refuse to give incentives or rewards for exceptional efforts or remarkable talents, and which can be perverted into unhealthy organisms which stamp out originality or innovation. Fortunately, hybrid societies with capitalistic bases and strong (though imperfect) social safety nets exist in several nations around the world. They show that a respect for the innate worth of every individual and the responsibility of society to look after its weakest members can be balanced with respect and recompense for exceptional talent and effort. They also show that respecting a person’s property rights is an important component in respecting the person herself. No nation balances these opposing needs perfectly, but it is encouraging that millions around the world still strive to perfect their systems.

A healthy and safe hybrid society runs on respect for all the people in it, as well as for their legally-obtained possessions. And while Banksy has often shown himself to have a certain integrity, pointing out flaws in the art world and questioning the values of modern society, he has also shown a willingness to profit (sometimes enormously) by engaging in the same art world he mocks. To have true integrity, one could argue that he would have to turn down chances to make money off his art, but by selling works directly through Sotheby’s, even as he mocks the process, he has become a part of the system he claims to disdain. On the one hand, I want to see someone so talented and original, someone of his wit and insight and great skill, benefit from his ability and be able to make a good living as an artist. On the other hand, it saddens me to see him revel in becoming rich off the sale of his own private possessions while feeling no compunction about messing with the possessions of others and mocking the owners in the process. He then makes those whose property he has vandalized look bad when they seek to remove his art, even though, if they leave it in place, they give a message to all graffiti artists and other vandals that if you’re famous and clever or do a good enough job at it, the rules of respecting other’s space and property no longer apply.

A society which makes exceptions for disrespect of property and laws of trespass invites evisceration of the social compact. Sad as I am to see some of Banksy’s work disappear, I cannot blame the owners of the defaced spaces for showing their resolve not to let themselves become victims of vandalism, even clever or attractive vandalism, without a fight. Furthermore, Banksy knows that much of his work will be defaced or destroyed; he has chosen his medium and locations for precisely this reason. The impermanence makes seeing it as quickly as possible imperative, and that makes him an extra hot commodity and burnishes his oppressed outlaw image. It makes him a romantic figure of brash mystery.

Banksy can act as cynical about the superficialities of the art world as he wants, but he’s making huge sums of money off that very world nowadays, so he’s benefiting from the system he finds so corrupt. His hands aren’t clean, either.

Philomena Lee and the Magdalen Laundries

Philomena

Actor Judi Dench often plays unsmiling, all-knowing, uncompromising women who cannot be fooled, but in her Oscar-nominated role playing Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears’s film Philomena, she gives a unexpectedly soft, poignant and sympathetic performance that displays her versatility and range. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, and Irishwoman who became pregnant as a teenager in 1951 and was sent to a remote Irish abbey during her pregnancy. There she was forced by nuns to work as a laundress alongside other unwed mothers, and was made to stay on working at the laundry without pay for four more years as penance for the sin of having had premarital sex, and to pay the abbey for the costs of caring for her during her pregnancy.

The practice of locking up young unwed mothers in what were known as “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” was common in Ireland and Britain in the 19th century, and it spread to other European countries and to the U.S. and Canada. The practice lasted well into the 20th century. The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland was in operation until 1996. At these workhouses girls were sometimes beaten, often locked inside against their will and sometimes forbidden to leave even after they became adults.

The Catholic Church enjoyed free labor from these women, and embarrassed parents of unwed pregnant teens were often so relieved to avoid the public shame of having their daughters’ sins paraded before society that many abandoned their children to the Magdalene sisters forever. Families often told neighbors and friends that their daughters had gone to live with family, or emigrated, or even died, all in an effort to save themselves from shame and social ostracism.

While these teen girls worked long hours in steamy laundries, their children were watched over by nuns in nurseries. At the abbey where Philomena lived, children were often adopted out to American married couples who sought children in return for generous donations to the abbey. Philomena’s much-loved son was adopted by an American couple and taken away without warning one day while she was working. She had no chance to say goodbye, she had no idea that her little boy had been flown to America, and she was not told that his named had been changed.

All her efforts to learn what became of her son were rebuffed by the abbey, which destroyed her records and denied knowledge of her son’s name and whereabouts. Ashamed by her plight but desperately sad to have lost her son, Philomena sought him secretly for a half century without luck. Finally, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith, an out-of-work journalist and former government advisor to the Labour Party. Martin and Philomena traveled to America together and learned extraordinary things about Philomena’s son and the abbey’s deceptive practices. Their story of their adventure together was published by Sixsmith in 2009 in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, described by the L.A. Times as “a serio-comic travelogue full of heart-rending discovery and the triumph of forgiveness over hate.”

Previews made it look like a manipulative tear-jerker about a naive old lady with a can-do attitude and a big heart, the sort of story that could turn sickly-sweet in under a minute. Happily, it stars Judi Dench and satirist Steve Coogan, two actors famous for their droll, whip-smart performances, and it benefits from the tart and clever writing of Coogan, who coauthored the screenplay. He is known for his cynical, sarcastic portrayals, and he shows his dark wit in films like The Trip and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In England he’s well known for his most popular creation, a character named Alan Partridge described as “a socially awkward and politically incorrect regional media personality.”

I knew better than to expect mindless, treacly antics from Coogan or from director Stephen Frears, whose smart, often dark films include Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Laundrette (which starred a young Daniel Day-Lewis), Prick Up Your Ears (with Gary Oldman) and The Grifters (a dark little masterpiece with John Cusack, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston). Frears has no fear of difficult subjects or ugly moments. Weighing all these facts, I put aside my worries that this could be a manipulative little feel-good flick. Happily, I found it a movingly acted film about an unworldly, seemingly simple woman who turns out to be more complex and determined than people expect.

The battle between the jaded, antireligious cynicism of Martin and the every-day-is-a-gift devout positivity of Philomena is at the core of the film, but Dench’s portrayal shows the spirited openmindedness of our seemingly old-fashioned heroine. Her sense of hopefulness and appreciation for small kindnesses is nicely balanced by exasperation with Martin’s dour, dark, angry worldview. He is not won over by her endless sweet simplicity, but he is moved by her because he recognizes that she has insights into people and situations that he, with all his experience and inside information but lack of empathy, misses.

Martin recognizes that Philomena’s story is a door into a huge and devastating world of widespread, long-term institutional abuse of the most vulnerable among us: abandoned, pregnant teen girls and small children. He sees that she has a power to connect with people that he lacks because he is often closed to anything but the fulfillment of his own expectations and prejudices. The journey they take together becomes more tangled and difficult than they expect, and it becomes more personally engaging and meaningful than Martin could have guessed.

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Capote

Capote

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

“My major regret in life is that my childhood was unnecessarily lonely.” –Truman Capote

The Truman Capote I grew up watching and reading was the Capote who appeared, usually drunk or drugged, odd but always interesting, on afternoon and evening talk shows, spinning stories about the fabulously famous and wealthy crowd with whom he ran. He was a professional personality by the time I was aware of him, but I also knew that he’d written much-admired stories that had been turned into very famous and popular films. I knew that my mother admired his work, and that he had written “A Christmas Memory,” one of the most beautiful, understated, tender stories I’ve ever read. The fact that it was based in his own experience made it all the more lovely to me. I felt sad for and protective of him at a young age, because I knew that the man who had written that story had been a tender and hyperaware child, like I had, and had seen the fear and pain in life as clearly as the joy and the secret beauties of it.

My mother taught “A Christmas Memory” to her high school English students for many years and she introduced it to me when I was about ten. I was completely taken with this story of a young boy abandoned by his parents and living with his disapproving southern aunts. This boy’s best friend was the childlike old-maid cousin with whom he also lived, a woman who flew handmade kites with him and took him to buy moonshine whiskey from Mr. Haha Jones so they could make their annual batch of fruitcakes, one of which they sent to President Franklin Roosevelt every year. Capote had taken the littlest details and moments in what others might see as an unexceptional situation and spun them into a rich and compelling story, simple and straightforward but with every word in place, every emotion sparely but elegantly woven into the words. I think it’s a short masterpiece; it is perhaps my favorite short story, and the one I’ve read more often than any other.

It was immediately clear to me that Capote got the tone, the subtleties, the story, and the total devotion of the characters for each other exactly right. That he was the model for the boy Dill in his friend Harper Lee’s story To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that I find close to perfect, made him all the more special to me. I have read and reread “A Christmas Memory” to myself and others most of the Christmases of my life, and cry as regularly as clockwork when I come to the last bittersweet page. This was a man who clearly understood loss and loneliness, and who understood empathy and tender connection to another like few writers I’d come across. There was something beautiful and tender and true in him and in his art that I, and millions of other people, were drawn to, and wanted to believe in.

When Capote died in 1984 among swirling stories of long-term drug and alcohol abuse, he also left behind him a parade of disaffected friends who felt he’d used and abused them, that he’d betrayed their friendship and their secrets in order to steal their souls so that he might make not only his party anecdotes but his writing come to life. He had been such a wildly successful New York socialite, courting and collecting the loveliest, richest, and most prominent socialites as his “swans,” as he called them, for years. He hosted the New York social event of the decade, the famous and successful Black and White Ball, in 1966. Best-dressed list icons like Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley attended parties with him and had him to their summer homes, traveled with him and relished his delicious gossip. He wangled his way into the hearts of dozens of people who felt he understood them intimately and would respect and love them not only despite but because of their foibles. When he wanted to be charming, nobody could outcharm him. He made people of all types and of any social standing believe he loved them for the tender, misunderstood people they were inside their suits of shiny invincibility; they felt not only understood by him but safe with him. And then he spilled out their secrets for everyone to see.

For years he gathered their lives into his short stories and promised a splendid, insightful book to his publisher, talk show hosts, and the world, and we all waited with bated breath, knowing that when Capote had the time to build a work, like In Cold Blood, he would carefully piece it together just so and make the wait worthwhile. He had shown his mastery of the short story form very early in life, and, when sober, he was an insightful and entertaining fellow. He was also extraordinarily catty when he wanted to be, and, when one wasn’t on the receiving end of that acid tongue, he could be shockingly funny. But his charm was so extreme and his magical power of diverting attention from the things that everyone should have known that he was a sponge who missed no details, a writer first and foremost, insightful and ruthless when exposing the hidden motivation, the raw nerve.

So he gathered his swans’ secrets and then poured them out onto the page with such clarity, and so little effort at concealing the identities of his characters’ inspirations, that he immediately and permanently drove most of his friends and their associates away and turned their feelings for him from indulgent and loving exasperation to anger, fear, and resentment. To learn of how almost all the doors of society slammed on him one by one after he had been the toast of New York, the shining star of literary society, was to feel that, no matter how much he deserved what he got, it was still a terrible shame, that there must have been some mistake somewhere, some misunderstanding.

Knowing his downward trajectory during the last 15 years of his life makes “Capote,” the outstanding new film about his years researching and writing In Cold Blood, even more riveting. The film constructs, with not one extraneous scene or unnecessary bit of dialog, an understanding of his place in literary society, and his chameleon-like ease at blending into the lives of the people whom he wanted to capture and luring them into trusting him with their lives and stories. His ability to say exactly what a publisher, a murderer, his lover, his oldest friend wanted to hear in order to court their love or trust, and seem to mean each word he said, is juxtaposed rivetingly with his ability to cut them off at the knees, dismiss them, insult them, or ignore them when their needs don’t suit his. The performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman is astonishing, not only because his impersonation of Capote’s strained, high, tiny voice and his fussy mannerisms is so remarkably good, but because he moves effortlessly between charm and seemingly endless empathy to self-absorption of enormous proportion so smoothly and naturally. We both admire and revile him. In their roles, excellent actors Chris Cooper and Catherine Keener show indulgence and affection for him, as well as wariness and disgust with his deceit of others, of them, of himself. The script is often spare and the pacing, while perfect, is never rushed; what is not said by the characters is as important and full of meaning as the well-crafted dialog. We learn just enough about any character, any situation, to be able to piece together what its meaning will be to those involved. His actions and the reactions of others are carefully calibrated so that we are never in the dark as to what is going on or how his actions will reverberate, but we are trusted to be able to let the story build in our minds; the writer, director, and actors don’t spoonfeed us but deftly piece the feelings, words, and actions of the characters together so that the story builds and intermeshes exactly as it should. This is how a subtle story should be told.

How Schoolhouse Rock Led Me to Jazz Great Blossom Dearie

Schoolhouse Rock

[Originally published as “My Roundabout Introduction to Blossom Dearie” on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

When I was a child, ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon line-up was punctuated with wonderful short musical cartoons sponsored by Nabisco: the famous “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. The educational songs created for these cartoons were so clever, catchy, and memorable that they were all rereleased on video in the 1990s for the children of the children who enjoyed them over 30 years ago. I grew up on the “Multiplication Rock” and “Grammar Rock” videos; my daughter loved them 30 years later.

Much of the appeal of these videos was that each was just the length of a pop song, and the music and lyrics were written by proven and talented professional musicians, not by earnest professional pedagogues. They were quick and full of information, and had busy, funny animation. And they were the only regular music videos for kids on TV then; there were weak shows with live-action singers or talentless oafs in bad costumes doing pathetic songs, like on “New Zoo Revue,” and there were catchy theme songs on the somehow compelling yet also vaguely disturbing Sid and Marty Krofft kid shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf” (which starred Jack Wild, who played The Artful Dodger in the musical film “Oliver!”), “The Bugaloos” (whose villain was played by comedian Martha Raye, probably most famous to people my age as a denture adhesive pitchwoman) and “Liddsville,” that bizarre show about the land of talking hats starring Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick (a.k.a. Eddie Munster). But MTV didn’t exist yet and catchy musical TV ads for dolls or games (from “Life” to “Mystery Date“) were no match for three-minute musical cartoon masterpieces like “Three is a Magic Number” or “Conjunction Junction” or “I’m Just a Bill.” These songs were so good that a number of popular rock bands covered them on the album “Schoolhouse Rock Rocks.”

Of all the songs in the “Schoolhouse Rock” oeuvre, there was one that shone out as a particularly elegant little gem: “Figure Eight.” My mother loved it so much that she bought the “Schoolhouse Rock” album on vinyl many years ago just to listen to that song. This ode to the number eight was illustrated by a figure skater and the song was sung by a woman with an unbelievably darling name and voice: Blossom Dearie. The dearest part is that she was born with that name. And the best part is that sweet, small, clear voice has sung some of the lightest, crispest, most refreshing versions of a number of jazz standards I’ve ever heard. She also has a fresh, spare style of piano playing that underscores that little pussycat voice.

I remember seeing Blossom Dearie interviewed on TV in the 1970s; she had wit and sparkle, and I was rather amazed that her tiny little voice seemed not to be a put-on but the real deal. When I started listening to her recordings of jazz standards years later, I found there was less cutesiness than I expected, and more of a wistful, light yet wry quality to her singing. I love the way she delivers Dorothy Fields‘ lyrics in “I Won’t Dance” (“For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos”) and the light but knowing quality of “They Say It’s Spring.” “Rhode Island is Famous for You” makes my daughter and me laugh, and it’s fun to compare her version of that song to Michael Feinstein’s. While I love Feinstein’s direct, swoony, passionate if sometimes campy treatment of lyrics, and think he does that song well, Blossom Dearie’s delivery has a quiet humor and a conspiratorial wink, whereas Feinstein’s is more of a showman’s romp, bigger and bolder and more obvious. Both have their place, but Dearie’s intimacy makes me feel like I’m in on a more sophisticated joke.

Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me

clown

 

I’ve never cared much for clowns. I don’t have coulrophobia (fear of clowns), though this fear is apparently surprisingly common. I just find pretty much everything they are and most of what they stand for annoying. I don’t hate them, but I avoid them when I can, and I’ve been sorely tempted to buy myself a “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me” T-shirt. Apparently many of my fellow Americans agree with me.

My beloved Uncle Steve is the exception to my anti-clown rule. He finally retired from his recurring role as Tidy the Clown in the annual Redwood City (California) Fourth of July Parade after 25 years of clowning around in public, and I must say I did enjoy him. But he was a gentle clown who pushed a bottomless garbage can down the street, popping junk into it and leaving a trail of trash behind him as the debris went right through the bottom of the can. When he’s a clown, the joke’s on him, and the audience gets to giggle at his cluelessness.

Steve’s alter ego, Tidy, recruited elementary school kids to be his clown sidekicks every year, and the result was charming and sweet. Tidy stuck flowers into piles of pucky left by the horses of the mounted police that went before him, and only approached people if they seemed open to it; he’d never force himself on a child. He’s more the sweet, Chaplinesque Little Tramp sort of clown, not the barrelling, bamboozling, freakazoid clown one finds on, say, ice cream cone packaging. (That is one horrifying dude.) I can make exceptions for someone like Tidy, but in general, keep Bozo and his ilk far away from me.

The sort of clown my uncle represents is endearing and enjoyable, a sort of old-style, mid-20th-century, fun-loving clown. But nowadays such cuddly clowns are rather rare. The cheerful, perky clown toys of the past have given way to more garish and ghoulish representations in the general media.

The general idea of the American clown, a white-faced social misfit clad in oversized and odd clothing, ignoring people’s personal space, attacking them with seltzer bottles or squirting flowers, and using them as the butt of public jokes as a way of seeking attention, pretty much sums up the worst of American behavior in one self-parodying, campy, over-the-top package. It’s nearly everything I hate about our embarrassingly accurate national stereotype: garish, self-absorbed, pushy, willing to trod on other’s toes, thinking our needs are greater than everyone else’s, ever ready to laugh at others’ humiliation but in a touchy, bad-humored funk when the table is turned and the joke’s on us.

To be fair, clowns of other cultures (e.g., buffoons like Pantalone and Arlecchino in the commedia dell’arte tradition, or Britain’s Punch and Judy puppet versions of clowns) are also caricatures with distinct, overscaled features, costumes, and gestures, all of which predate the founding of the United States by many years. I’m being unjust in blaming American culture for the American clown tradition, I know. They come from a long and, to my sensitivities, annoying tradition of making the audience the straight man, barrelling over others for laughs, and making light of humiliation and slapstick violence. It’s the sort of thing that Roberto Benigni did in his Holocaust-lite Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser, “Life is Beautiful,” a few years ago—much to my disgust and dismay.  For a description of the film that agrees with my take on it, see David Denby’s review, “In the eye of the beholder,” published in The New Yorker, March 15, 1999.  I found nearly everything Benigni did in that film either offensive, maudlin, self-aggrandizing, disrespectful, or embarrassing—or all of those things rolled into one.

I’m not actually a humorless prig; I can cackle and guffaw with the best of them, and I laugh so hard I snort more often than I care to admit. I can enjoy dark humor, tacky humor, vulgar humor, but I can rarely appreciate or enjoy slapstick physical comedy or farce, unless they’re so bizarrely irrational (e.g., my beloved Monty Python) that it’s impossible to empathize with the person playing the butt of the joke. Otherwise, I usually become uncomfortable when the laughs come at the expense of someone else’s pride, safety, or happiness. Even when the straight man is set up to seem an unpleasant sort who deserves his comeuppance, I generally don’t like seeing others derive happiness from the suffering of others. But then, I don’t appreciate most light romantic comedies, either. I can watch “Six Feet Under” or “The Sopranos” all day long (gimme that angst!), but ask me to watch ditsy women trip over themselves to get the attention of pretty boys with great abs for an hour and really, I’d rather floss my teeth or weed my garden, thank you very much.

Of course, I’m not alone. A quick search of eBay will find you scores of scary clown puppets, figurines, and posters that the sellers recognize as distinctly creepy. A walk through the aisles of your local Blockbuster shows DVD covers emblazoned with killer clowns in the horror section. “The Simpsons” even featured an episode in which Bart is so frightened by the clown-inspired bed Homer makes him that he stays up all night chanting, “Can’t sleep, clown’ll eat me.” This is apparently the genesis of the refrain now printed on T-shirts worn by proud coulrophobes across the nation. (Leave it to Matt Groening to explore odd undercurrents of our nation in such a fun and funky way.)

I don’t know whether it’s worth it to resurrect cheerful, inoffensive clowns, since even they had elements that have scared children for centuries; outsized features, crazy make-up, and disturbingly child-like behavior coming from an oversized adult are just odd. I prefer my comedians to take the forms of everyday people, I guess. I like my fantasy worlds to feel as close to a world I can believe in as possible, so I can get lost in them more easily. Some like fantasy characters and scenarios to be as outlandish as possible in order to feel truly immersed in another world and way of thinking, but I’d rather have some emotional connection to fictional characters so that I can care about them and identify with them, and for me, that usually involves making them feel as much like realistic human beings as possible. I also prefer it if they don’t step out of their boundaries and squirt me in the face with a shot of seltzer water. I’m funny that way.

[Originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

 

“It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.” —Rod Serling

My Architect: A Beautiful Documentary

architect

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the 20th century’s most influential and well-regarded architects. He designed such important structures as the Exeter Library at Philips Exeter Academy, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh, and his work was revered by high-flying architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. But his habits of overwork and overextension, bidding for too many projects and becoming obsessive about his all-consuming passion for architecture, led him to die of a heart attack, bankrupt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom as he was on his way home to Philadelphia from New York. When he died, he left not only a wife and their daughter, but also a mistress and his second daughter, as well as a second mistress and his third child, his 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, who made a beautiful documentary about his father, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”

Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary visits and discusses the works of his father, some of which Nathaniel had never seen before, and shows the emotional and artistic impact that Louis Kahn and his work made on others, both architects and clients. But more than being a simple homage to his father and his works, the film shows Nathaniel’s search to understand his secretive, mysterious father’s compartmentalized life and to strengthen his connection to the father he lost so early. Louis Kahn’s charisma and charm, his love for his children and the feelings of great love and loyalty he engendered in the women in his life are all made clear, as are his self-absorption, his need to make every commitment in life secondary to his commitment to his work, his flashes of arrogance, and his lack of empathy for others. The question which underpins the whole film is whether the gifts of an artistic genius whose work engenders tears of appreciation from his clients and fellow architects can justify his remote, selfish, and disconnected life.

To his credit, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t try to answer any of these questions once and for all; he interviews his two half sisters and talks with his mother, who still nurses the belief that Louis Kahn was about to leave his wife and come to live with Nathaniel and his mother before he died. He asks difficult questions and presses his mother to be honest about his father’s failings and selfishness. The responses are at times surprising and always sad and touching.

Although he admires his father’s work, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t like every one of his father’s buildings. As he makes his pilgrimage to each one, he asks the people who live with and use the buildings how they feel about them, and admits when he finds one cold or impractical. When he visits the Exeter Library or the Institute of Public Administration at Ahmedabad, India, or when he goes to Bangladesh and sees how the Capitol and Parliament Buildings in Dhaka are enjoyed and made into the center of life for the local people, he is clearly moved. Sometimes the technical mastery of his father’s work, its appropriateness in shape, form, and function and its original and spare use of light and materials awe him, and we see him surprised and touched by the effect that his father’s work had on others.

It’s difficult to express what makes this film so watchable, moving, and fascinating. I suppose it boils down to three things I find endlessly illuminating: artistic masterworks, biographies of unusual and influential people, and bad family dynamics. This documentary is worth watching on any of those counts; as a work of art encompassing all three, it’s extraordinary.

I found a lovely site with beautiful photographs of Louis Kahn’s work; do check out “The Works of Louis I. Kahn: A Visual Archive by Naquib Hossain.” Hossain describes Kahn’s work elegantly as “A purposeful knot of complements and contradictions in a rich fabric of brick, mortar, and concrete, woven to being by natural light.” “My Architect” is a purposeful knot of complements and contradictions, too, and a lovely work of art in its own right.

Oompa Loompas Go Oingo Boingo

oingo

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

To celebrate my daughter’s twelfth birthday, she and her dad and I went to see the Tim Burton version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We were disappointed with it, largely because of the occasional scenes of gratuitous nastiness and Johnny Depp’s unsympathetic portrayal of Willy Wonka. The book’s author, Roald Dahl, is a favorite of ours, and while he was never afraid to expose young readers to scenes of characters getting pleasure out of bringing dismay or suffering to children, his willingness to show us brutish and nasty antagonists serves only to bring us closer to his protagonists and empathize with their pain. The nastiest things happen to those who aren’t pure of heart.

Tim Burton’s new twist on “Charlie” introduces Wonka with an awkward animatronic display in the style of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride (on an intimate scale) and then proceeds to burn, melt, and destroy the Hummel-like plastic figures of children to the alarm of real children and to Wonka’s delight. Right off the bat, this introduces a sociopathic streak to the character. It doesn’t carry forward the spirit of the original book, nor does it serve to make the film more appealing or enjoyable.

The Wonka of the book and earlier movie did get pleasure from surprising and even frightening the children some, especially when they were being selfish. Gene Wilder‘s Wonka was mercurial, well-read, nimble with language, the inscrutable mix of wit, joie de vivre, charm, alarm, entertainment, warmth and unexpected temper that he is in the book. Wilder’s Wonka was philosophical, quoted Shakespeare, and showed evidence of introspection, which made his tender moments with Charlie affecting and meaningful. Wilder (and the script, penned by Roald Dahl himself) showed Wonka to be a wild genius but also a man of caring and conviction.

The Willy Wonka created by Roald Dahl was wounded but determined to find faith in the future again by putting his masterpiece in the care of someone who would appreciate it for its magic and creativity, and who wouldn’t turn it into a crass, commercial, soulless enterprise. Depp’s Wonka is completely lacking in introspection or empathy until the very end, and even when he arrives at some awareness of his own shortcomings and Charlie’s value, it’s really only as an adjunct to his narcissism, as a means to getting positive attention, not because of a drive to better the world. Rather than showing signs of wit and erudition, he makes two-word pronouncements that are less articulate than any of the children who have come to him with Golden Tickets: “You’re weird.” “That’s gross.” Gone are the wonderful spirals of wordplay that flew out of the pages of the book, the arch insights into the crassness and self-absorbed nature of modern culture. What we have instead is a flattened world and a diminished Wonka, artisanal Belgian truffles reworked into stale Hershey’s Kisses.

This take on the story is especially sad because Johnny Depp is an actor of range and depth when given the direction or inspiration. In last year’s film “Finding Neverland,” in which he starred as J.M. Barrie, he was delightful and nuanced, as was the young actor Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie in the new film. All the scenes with Charlie’s family were more affecting and appealing than the analogous scenes in the Gene Wilder version of the film. This Bucket family is warm, engaging, and loving, and the scenes with them bucking each other up in their hovel were a tender contrast to the brash bright production numbers featuring scores of Oompa Loompas. They also underscored the flatness of Wonka’s character. In the book and the Gene Wilder film version, Wonka’s anything but flat.

I will give Depp credit for saying much more with his facial expressions than the script allows him to say with words. The new “Charlie” features several scenes involving killing and tasting the entrails of a large flying insect and lots of caterpillars. Tim Burton’s style of humorous sadism is gooier than Dahl’s, and he draws out the “ew” moments in this film in a way that is at odds with Dahl’s subtler and funnier wit. Tim Burton’s vision requires Johnny Depp to play a Willy Wonka so completely out of touch with both the world of children and the world of adults that he comes across as a sort of disturbing mixture of Emo Phillips and Michael Jackson.

Twenty years ago, Tim Burton took another childlike misfit character, Pee-wee Herman, and built a brilliantly original film around him, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” But Paul Reubens’ Peewee had an appealing inner core; he was wildly immature, but he also cared for people (like Simone the waitress) and animals (whom he rescued from a burning pet store). He was a goof, but he was harmless, and while he could get angry at Francis, his nemesis, he didn’t want to cause others suffering. He was a sympathetic character, so he could stand up to the Tim Burton treatment, and even benefit from it; the slight darkness of Burton’s vision burnished the edges of Peewee’s primary-colored world, and the scene involving Large Marge is priceless.

Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (also played by Depp, and beautifully) was an incredibly sympathetic figure, a tender-hearted artist trapped in a body with monstrous and dangerous hands. Burton’s “Batman” with Michael Keaton was such a successful mix of dark and dangerous with quirky and humorous that it launched a whole series of films trying to capture some of the magic and excitement of the Burton treatment. But I’ve found most of Burton’s films of the past decade a bit colder and meaner at heart. “Big Fish” was just an odd mess; it was trying for emotional connection with the audience but I just found it poorly scripted, boring, and overacted. Usually excellent actors like Billy Crudup and Albert Finney gave annoying and vaguely embarrassing performances (which I blame largely on the loopy direction).

I hope that Burton’s soon-to-be-released animated film, “The Corpse Bride,” will once again mix his gothic cynicism with the sense of childlike wonder that some of his earlier films held. I miss the fresh visions and psychological insights of those works. I will give applause to Danny Elfman for the (as usual) exciting score and fresh, funny, original songs. I’ve enjoyed his work for nearly 25 years; I used to go to see him and his clever, brash, brassy band, Oingo Boingo, when they came up to the Bay Area and loved them every time I saw them. Their energy was intense and focused, the band was tight and great, the lyrics were unique and cynically funny. Elfman was clearly a man of strong opinions and endless energy. His score for “Peewee’s Big Adventure” was a perfect jumping-off point for his talent and his style, and his theme for “The Simpsons” fits the feel of the show and the characters; it’s hard to imagine it without that signature theme and all the visual cues we all associate with its musical phrases. His orchestral work for the movies is so lush and evocative that I always enjoy his scores, but I’ve missed the darker, edgier, bouncier Danny I saw in San Francisco and Berkeley years ago.

The new songs for the glitzy Oompa Loompa production numbers in the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” will stick with me and entertain me longer and better than the film itself. That’s a soundtrack I’ll be happy to own. But I’ll skip the DVD; I’d rather drag out my old “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” videotape and watch Gene Wilder sing “Pure Imagination” again. And again. And again.

Monsieur Ibrahim

sharif

[Originally posted to Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog in 2005.]

I just watched the lovely 2003 French film “Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran” (“Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran”) over the weekend, and I found it a real gem. It’s a story of a 16-year-old boy, Moise (known as Momo) living in a working-class Jewish district of Paris in the 1960s. He looks after his father, a selfish, depressive man who is never satisfied by anything Momo is or does. Abandoned by his mother as a small child, Momo has never known parental love or kindness, so he seeks womanly tenderness from the prostitutes who work the streets of his neighborhood, and he filches money from his father so he can afford to buy some pleasure. He’s rather sullen and quiet, with no real friends and no one to help him learn about life’s possibilities and love’s responsibilities.

Momo makes daily visits to the local grocery owned by Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), a Turkish Sufi who seems to know more about what is in Momo’s heart than should be possible. The two strike up a friendship, and Monsieur Ibrahim teaches Momo about loving kindness, about how to make himself more appealing to others so he can get what he wants out of life, about enjoying the world and the people in it. It could have been a paint-by-numbers sort of coming-of-age story, but instead the interactions feel very real and subtle, and Sharif’s performance is extraordinary. He brings a real joie de vivre to the role, but in a quiet, understated fashion. Monsieur Ibrahim is a nonjudgmental, spiritual man who finds beauty in his Quran and keeps that beauty in his heart at all times, and his connection with this drifting young Jewish man gives Momo’s life meaning and roots while still broadening his horizons, both literally and figuratively.

The religions of the two characters impact the story very little. Momo and his father appear to be secular Jews, and Monsieur Ibrahim’s Sufi Muslim beliefs are important to him but are flexible and nonjudgmental enough to allow him to show kindness and appreciation for prostitutes, as well as a desire and willingness to understand the beauty in other religions’ houses of worship, to which he takes Momo on field trips. But some have chosen to read a lot more meaning into the fact that the characters are of differing religions than actually exists in the movie. There will always be those who cannot handle a story of kindness between people of differing beliefs.

There is some argument on the internet among a few viewers of the film who dislike the fact that Momo’s Jewish father is so unlikeable and careless about the boy, and that Momo’s true teacher and father figure is a Muslim. They have chosen to read anti-Jewish sentiment into the story which I do not believe exists. My take on the film is shared by the vast majority of people who have seen it, apparently, but a couple of outspoken critics find the idea that a film that shows a sympathetic Muslim and an unsympathetic Jew must therefore have a message of hidden hatred of Jews, as if art can never show people of one religion or another having unattractive characteristics without painting all of their ethnicity or religion as bad. This sort of sweeping condemnation has as its basis a sort of bigotry of its own, and assumes that viewers are too stupid to recognize that an individual character does not have to represent an entire ethnic group.

I had no idea that Omar Sharif could give a performance of such subtlety and beauty; he was perfectly cast in the role and he brought much of his own personal experience to it. I always think of Sharif in his blockbuster days, from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and “Funny Girl,” in which he gave fine and capable performances, but none of which allowed him moments of introspection. His international playboy persona didn’t help me to believe him capable of the sort of intimate gestures and nuanced emotions that flash across his face in this role. The DVD commentary by Sharif is thoughtful and articulate as well. I love getting a whole new perspective on an artist after having my eyes opened to his talents and possibilities. This film was a very pleasing surprise.