23 December 2010

2046 as Christmas

My Christmases sound like Mark Kozelek's "Have You Forgotten," Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown and Nat King Cole where holiday cheer is washed with a certain aching nostalgia.

These Christmases look like Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, a film featuring a recurrence of December 24ths I've watched more or less every winter since it came out in 2004. I saw it first almost by myself at Landmark La Jolla, slicing Haribo gold-bears bilaterally with my incisors and looking contentedly at the reds and greens onscreen. It was a less a sequel than a coda to In the Mood for Love and I always prefer codas, a fluidity of time instead of a march, circles instead of lines.

Intervening years have, of course, changed me and now, watching Tony Leung's dapper newspaperman Chow Mo-wan, I'm gutted (I notice I've even started wearing sweatervests like he does). It's not just the suspicion that romance might be dead in our culture. It's that even in the best, most symphonic partnership the question "Why can't it be like it was before?" is always coming. That's what Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, astonishing every time) asks Chow-san again and again until he has to turn away. He walks around with his hurt smile every day with the same question in mind, not that it helps, as "before" is quite a different place for him.

I like to identify with Chow, his omnipresent memories of Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung in ITMFL, Gong Li in 2046, that one) and the power of atmospheric noodle stalls in the rain.  Then I look down the way to Fremont where some fluorescently minded person has installed the exact opposite.

The movie also proves writing itself is like the train to 2046, the paradoxical future location where everything is as perfect as it was in the remembered past. The hours spin away as you move closer and closer to an ideal past tense reflection where nothing ever changes. A past perfection that must be there, even if no one has ever taken the train back.

This Christmas I decided that, if I had a moment with Chow, I would read to him Liam Rector's "Song Years" and it would go like this.

Song Years

For years I lived in a kind
Of wistful song world where
One foot was always out

The door, almost like a sailor
Ready, anxious even, to decamp
Once more for the sea,

And always the American highway
And its great story calling, built by
The American restless and all

Its subsequent moving. Loosely
Around the seasons I moved
Looking for what I thought of

As a natural life, and looked back
At anyone who stayed put as if
They had given up,

Given up something
That should never be
Given up,

No sooner
Would I get some place

Than I'd begin
To check train schedules
And other venues of departure.

I hated the notion
Of insurance and never
Had any. I gave

Myself no place to fall.
I thought of all this as keeping
Myself clean, keeping

Myself honest. It really
Wasn't a variant
Of the old high school

Locker-room chant of find 'em,
Feel 'em, fuck 'em,
And forget 'em, I told myself,

But sometimes,
Especially when I was packing,
It surely felt that way.

I was always leaving one
For the next one. I wished them
Well and remained friends

With most of them. I hoped
A right one one would come along
For them, and they would be

More ready for their lasting lover
Given the lessons, good and bad,
We'd taught each other.

Fall would come
And I'd head north
For apple-picking, winter

Would find me holed up
In Vermont for a moment,
Working on some chilly construction,

And spring was always
A sure-fired scamper south.
Summer mostly meant

Going out west for, I suppose, hope.
Change is slow and hope is violent.
I wanted the speed and handling

Of a good sports car; I wanted
Things not as they should be
But things as they are.

Most songs are sad and most people
Do not want to live in song world,
Except when some loved one leaves

Or maybe over a drink, alone, at home,
Or perhaps in a car, ever more alone.
Someone is always falling or being thrown.

Most songs say
But one thing:
"My heart aches,"

And if you doubt this
Listen to the songs.
And tonight

Let us all together send out
Our love to the songwriters
For moving us.

I moved this way
Until the cruelty of it
Overwhelmed me.


Merry Christmas Chow-san. Tell Wong Kar-Wai I need you in just one more film. Maybe set in spring?

18 December 2010

Paintings in Proust

I just picked up Eric Karpeles' Paintings in Proust and it's as sumptuous as I was promised. A sort of catalogue raisonne of a most interesting private collection. Here is Proust himself on Antoine Watteau:

I often think with a mixture of sympathy and pity about the life of the painter Watteau, in whose work lives the painting, the allegory, the apotheosis of love and pleasure....It has been said that he was the first to have painted modern love, meaning by this, no doubt, a love of conversation, the pleasures of the table, promenading, the sadness of masquerading, fleeting water and time, all hold a higher place than pleasure itself, a sort of gilded impotence.

I do think that the book will help me see a fuller picture when I reread In Search of Lost Time (I plan to start again immediately after winning the lottery, quitting my job and lining my studio with cork).

12 December 2010

Three Times: Black Swan

Three reasons to see Black Swan:

1. You have to wait an unconscionably long time, but when Nina (Natalie Portman showing every vein in her neck) breaks out as the Black Swan it is a breathtaking five minutes. The fantasia of the music and the Swan's phantasmal feathers had me on the edge of applause.

2. I think Darren Aronofsky has found his calling card (like Hitchcock appearing in all his films). He will always use an actor or actress who has undergone horrible plastic surgery and use them to scare the audience straight. As many others have pointed out, Barbara Hershey (as Nina's smother) has far too little skin in parts of her face and too much in others--a deadringer for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

3. Mila Kunis is a pleasant diversion from the relentless tightness in the rest of the film. It's amazing how she sounds exactly like she does in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or That 70's Show or anything she's ever been in and it somehow works as Nina's "liberated" rival Lily.

Three reasons to miss Black Swan:

1. For the cuticle obsessed, like myself, this is a hard movie to watch. I wanted to scream at Nina to, for the love of god, use some moisturizer. Some really expensive Norwegian hand cream. Despite Ms. Hershey's best efforts, the scariest thing in Black Swan is the scene where Nina tears a strip of skin from her cuticle down to the second knuckle of her finger. The horror, the horror.

2. It feels like Aronofsky went about the casting with cruelty in mind. In addition to the Hershey freakshow, there is Winona Ryder as a washed up dancer in the troupe who later becomes a crippled washed up dancer. And Vincent Cassel is wasted with the insultingly repetitive lines he is forced to spit out as ballet director Thomas (pronounced toe-MA) Leroy.

3. The whole film, in fact, is terribly repetitive. Nina goes to practice, comes home, has a freakout in her teenybopper bedroom then wakes up to go back to practice. There's no narrative propulsion to the project, just anticipation for the next lurid activity.

Three things to know about that Portman/Kunis "hot lesbian sex scene" in Black Swan:

1. There's no nudity.

2. Any eroticism is mitigated by the CGI goosebumps spreading over Portman's skin the whole time.

3. And it's all in Nina's imagination (as Lily delicately puts it, "you had a lezzie wet dream about me?"). The more diverting scene is the one where Nina wakes up and starts masturbating until she realizes that her gargoyle mother is the room with her.

Three reasons you might want to just watch The Red Shoes instead:

1. Powell and Pressburger understood that a dance film is more entertaining if you actually get to see dances being performed. The Red Shoes offers wide shots of entire pieces before audiences, instead of closeup fragments of pieces seen only in rehearsal. The demands of the profession are shown but the film is not about endless drudgery and dry skin.

2. While Black Swan has lots of creative shrugs and leg warmers over leg warmers, The Red Shoes has a much more impressive array of costumes. The impresario Boris Lermontov's green dressing gown outstrips anything the Mulleavys came up with.

3. The Red Shoes relies on a far better metaphor of performance. When the Swan Queen dies her martyr's death at the end of Swan Lake, it's really a relief for Nina because her life is torturous. Compare that to the story of the red shoes, as described by Lermontov: "Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on." Such is art as it should be, never tired.

Re-Cast #1: The Great Gatsby

So they're remaking The Great Gatsby and Baz Luhrmann has already incontrovertibly screwed up. The casting is all wrong: the squinty DiCaprio as Gatsby, the nicey-nice Carey Mulligan as Daisy (it should have been Blake Lively--catch my full re-cast after the jump) and the always insufferable Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway.

Lots of films, especially adaptations of literary classics, are undone by the actors chosen. Though in 1974 I would probably have picked much of the same Gatsby cast that Jack Clayton did (the choices for male leads, Robert Redford, Sam Waterston and Bruce Dern, still seem spot on). But just think about the 1949 and 2006 versions of All the King's Men. In the original all the composite characters and plot reductions drive me crazy and in the recent remake too many of the actors are British and/or phoning it in.

I tried to hash out the dream Gatsby cast with my friend Ashton and here's what we got.

07 December 2010

Cover Art: The Thin Red Line

Since it's in the all time top 3, I've got to say a word about the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray art for The Thin Red Line. This notwithstanding the fact I don't own a television or a Blu-ray player. As always it's the art, the art, that matters.

First it must be noted that any cover would be an improvement over the DVD I own, which is basically the movie poster with a "Fox War Classics" banner across the top. You might be able to argue whether The Thin Red Line is anti-war; you cannot argue that it's anti-war film genre.

I often just start gushing over Criterion Collection covers but in this case I, like Capt. Staros, am full of demurs. My main problem is with how much it resembles a book. I've read James Jones' novel and it is not close to the greatness of Terrence Malick's film. Given the director's free improvisations with the characters, the book on which its based fades away completely while re(re-re-re-re-re)watching the film. Also, I don't get why it reads "the thin RED LINE" with the font sizing. There's no literal "red line" to cross--the title comes from the statement: "there's only a thin red line between the sane and the mad." I will credit the designer for making the majority of the space open sky and clouds. The still used for the cover is from a scene where Malick makes the actions of the soldiers subordinate to the movement of light over landscape.

This original mock-up, which I became aware of because I encourage Criterion Co. to spam me, is much closer to my vision of The Thin Red Line. It could be controversial because it puts Jim Caviezel all out in front of an ensemble piece, but Witt is the main dude and the tree/shoulder emphasizes the film's crucial recursivity: man being absorbed back into nature. The fractured font is also closer to what I would choose, even if it again presents a false dichotomy between "the thin" and "red line." It's all brought back together by the circling of black birds and spray of red-orange sparks.

05 December 2010

From the This Just Happened Dept.

If you're like most people, you think all these blog posts on "the arts" are boring as hell (just see the one below!). So this post is for most people, because it's more or less a light bulb joke.

Every time I have to change the light bulb in the more challenging of my two kitchen fixtures (they don't match), I'm overwhelmed with trepidation. Until this afternoon, I had cooked my gourmet meals at the WTT compound in half-light for a week. But today, inspired by Christmas card writing procrastination, I acted decisively and swapped the bulb. You must imagine a fixture much like this one:

I stand on a chair, screw in the new bulb, and do my best to twist the fixture back in the two brackets that hold it in place. Each and every time I tentatively test the security of the light while stepping down from the chair I say to myself: Kirk, you just have make it out from under the fixture right now and then, if it falls, it will surely happen when you are no longer directly underneath.

The chances are low that I would be hit by a falling light fixture in my apartment. But, to echo the best line in Patty Berglund's autobiography in Freedom, they are, alas, not zero.

Cut to me some hours later, ravenously hungry and just plating a heap of penne pasta done to al dente perfection, as always (note: not really). There's a brief sound, not unlike glass scraping off a metal bracket, then a very cinematic THUMP--CRACK--SHATTER as the fixture strikes me on the left temple, breaks on the counter and dinner plate, and smashes into an impressive number of shards all over the linoleum and carpet.

My first thought is rage at the 20 cents worth of ruined pasta, one noodle of which rests forlornly on my slipper. Then I note that there's no blood (just red sauce) and I'm not seeing stars but instead yellow lightning bolts, which are much more appropriate for the occasion. I'm charmed.

I continue to monitor myself for concussion-like symptoms, hoping to avoid an Eric Lindros-like future of punchdrunkenness. I've learned the important lesson that I can change a light bulb by myself, but not necessarily without injury.  


Next time you're in San Francisco don't miss the awesome, stroller-free Pier 24 Photography.

One of the many pleasures when I visited was the room devoted to Andreas Gursky, including 99 Cents, the magnificent photo you see above. Using digital manipulations I can't begin to understand, Gursky created a vast, impossibly sharp image. I only tore myself away from studying the picture when I became embarrassed at how long I'd spent staring, walking forward and backward.

It seems to me that the consumerist distribution of colored packaging mirrors the egalitarian use of shades in Gerhard Richter's color field paintings, another favorite.

04 December 2010

Immersion Theory

Two of my great pleasures this week, along with Simpsons mania at Splitsider and the continuing presidential insistence that wearing a shiny bomber jacket around military dudes will make them look real tough, have been the documentary Marwencol and Werner Herzog's Conquest of the Useless.

Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol seems like a short, sweet documentary about an outsider artist but its meta (or meta meta) implications linger well after the 80 minute running time. After being beaten into a nine-day-long coma, Mark Hogancamp loses his memory and, without much professional psychiatric care, begins to reconstruct his life with G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls.  They represent himself and his acquaintances and inhabit a handmade, fictional WW II-era hamlet named Marwencol.

His stories have shocking, telenovela-style plot twists (e.g. exes are disappeared by blue-haired Belgian witches) with a Michael Bay-level of violence (red is clearly the most used color of craft paint). Mark's idiosyncracies (besides the fact that he's created a 1/6th scale alternate reality behind his trailer) reveal themselves as the film goes on. As the owner of 200+ pairs of ladies shoes, he's able to use the term "Manolo Blahnik slingback" knowledgeably while trying on a pair.

A feature in Esopus Magazine eventually lands Mark a gallery opening in New York City (where he laments wussing out and wearing "fucking man shoes!"). But I'm still considering which part of his work that I like the most. The stories are great and I hope he's writing them all down. The figures and buildings themselves are gorgeous, not to mention the customized miniature fashion he mains down to distressing individual threads of doll-sized military police armbands. And the photographs (which a critic points out are refreshing for their lack of irony) are what sell in the galleries and what, I hope, keep the man in food and action figure money for years to come. 

That a book about the making of Fitzcarraldo would be interesting is not surprising; that it's both an in-depth look at exactly how unlikely it was that the film would ever be made and a startlingly detailed travelogue puts Conquest of the Useless high on my list of compulsively readable books. One can pick a great quote by opening the book at random, but here's an example:

Our monkey escaped from his cage and is stealing things from the set table when no one is there. He has taken possession of almost all the forks. This morning he stole the milk bottle used by Gloria's little daughter, and Gloria saw him out in the bushes sucking on the nipple until the bottle was empty. She is convinced the monkey will rape the baby, and she wants him shot before he does so. Around his waist the monkey still has the piece of electrical cable with which he had been tethered, and when he climbs he holds the cable high in the air with his tail, with which he can grasp things like a hand; that way it cannot interfere with his movements.

In this passage we see the one of the myriad, vaguely terrifying challenges that the production faces but also Herzog's winking affection for creative adaptation in the wild. As the director of Fitzcarraldo he must work through many such constraints, handling his actors with the same dexterity he does his prose. 

Herzog begins his journals with a focus on slices of jungle life but he really revs up when putting down the original star of Fitzcarraldo, Jason Robards Jr (he's introduced a coward whose real problem stems from his "inner emptiness"). He complains about everything, even the "porcelain toilets" that Herzog was so careful to provide in their remote Peruvian camp.

I'm enjoying the hell out of Conquest of the Useless, and Klaus Kinski hasn't even arrived yet...

In these works, Hogancamp and Herzog live their art every day, even if they are occasionally interrupted by the need to make meatballs or slash snakes with machetes. I sense that Herzog would have gladly made his own documentary on Marwencol (I picture him listening to recordings of the assault on Hogancamp and telling Mark he must never listen to them).

I want the same immersion in my day-to-day but the challenge is finding meaningful art in three hole punching and filing.