Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

October 12, 2010
I have no doubt that “The Social Network” will become a classic, the defining film of an era. Somehow the producers managed to make a gripping story about something inherently static—people sitting behind computers—that’s brilliantly executed and acted. However I still don’t understand how it’s legal to fictionalize the experiences of living persons—put words into their mouths as it were, without their permission. Bad enough that we have to live with our own histories, without having also to contend with the fallout from those created by others (nevertheless, I’ve decided to give Hollywood full rights to my life story, as long as I am played by Penelope Cruz).

It amused me that “The Social Network” ended with a Beatles song, “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” because throughout (having just read the Beatles’ biography described in the post below) I was thinking about the similarities between the Facebook story and the Beatles’ trajectory—guys in their early 20s, misfits in their own way, who engendered social/cultural phenomena on a scale so new and massive it would have been impossible to predict, creating situations (and legal problems) no one had dealt with before. Both had forward-thinking mentors (Facebook’s Sean Parker, formerly of Napster, was the Beatles’ Brian Epstein and George Martin rolled into one), and both found it necessary to fire a founding member of the team who was also a good friend because he couldn’t keep up with the vision—and both did it in a nasty, cowardly manner. In the film, Parker delivers the final blow to Eduardo Saverin, whose business school mentality was a drag on the program. Like Saverin, the Beatles’ Pete Best (who was also the band heartthrob) was there from the beginning, chosen originally because he owned a drum kit—a big consideration in those lean days—and could keep a beat. Further Best’s mum was the band’s den mother who, in the club she established in the basement of her Liverpool home, gave them some of their earliest performance opportunities. Yet when the Beatles decided Best’s leaden style was holding them back (wanting to replace him with Ringo, the best drummer on the scene) they left it to Brian Epstein do the deed.

There’s also another issue here—that of stolen ideas.  I’m not saying Mark Zuckerberg shouldn’t have compensated the others, but he’s right when he says, effectively, that they would not have made Facebook what it was. There is the idea, and the doing something with the idea, two different things entirely. I participated in a symposium at the Guggenheim on the occasion of The Gates, when an artist stood up and complained, bitterly, that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had stolen her idea. She didn’t get much support from the audience, who recognized that orange flags were only part of the project (and I remember thinking that someone who was so embroiled in wrongs from the past, would never have the open spirit needed to negotiate its ultimate realization). I have had ideas stolen—or let’s say “adapted”—several times. It isn’t pleasant, but it goes with the creative territory.  Once a visiting artist where I was teaching (who had even complained in his lecture about his dearth of ideas) blatantly “adapted” a graduate students's concept.  As he walked out the door after the critique, her studio mate predicted, “You’re going to see these in Chelsea in a year and a half,” and it happened, right on schedule. While I was furious, my student not so flapped, and in the end I said to her, “Don’t worry, while you’re going to have many more new ideas, he’s not.”

And he hasn’t.

By the same token, when someone accuses a Christo (or George Harrison or Coldplay) of “artistic theft” it seems especially silly, because these are people who clearly have come up with so many ideas, it seems unlikely that they’d intentionally stoop to stealing.  But it could happen--here’s an example of a similarity that cropped up between artists who are, for all intents and purposes, equals. You can be the judge.

And, as I mentioned in a previous post, two artists can, without any contact at all, come up with almost exactly the same thing—the example I gave was the paintings I did without ever having seen those by Alighiero e Boetti.

Oh well, it all makes for a good story.


July 18, 2010

Tilda Swinton in "I Am Love"

I’m still in the afterglow of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love,” which I saw the other night. Even though I linked to it, don’t watch the trailer, which is not only a spoiler, but offers a series of staccato bytes from a piece that unfolds its subtle surprises with a tempo of its own. Just be sure see it while it’s still on the big screen, because it’s a film to sink into, be totally immersed, all senses stimulated. Especially in these bombastic times, the level of subtlety and restraint is extraordinary. Enhanced by oblique cinematography and editing, the narrative-free story is told with the slightest of clues, its intensity sustained because we’re shown only the events that directly contribute—such as the engagement party but not the wedding, nor the patriarch’s funeral—after handing over his assets, we know he must surely have died because he’s not in the final scenes. My friend, Petria, who I saw it with, said, “He (Guadagnino) trusts us to fill in the blanks” and later I found an interview with Tilda Swinton who talked about “giving the viewer ownership.”

While critical opinion ranged from “artistic triumph” to “artsy mishmosh”, it’s surprising that many critics would choose to call this “melodrama,” which is characterized by “exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.” Here the characters are under, rather than over-acted, and hardly stereotypical—the cuckolded husband isn’t even a meanie--and the much of the drama occurs around a serving of soup.

‘I Am Love” was developed by Guadagnino and Swinton over a period of nearly a decade (Swinton interview), and which resulted in an attention to detail that could not have been hurried. The aggressively modern, symmetrically rhythmic score, a composite of existing pieces by contemporary composer John Adams, is nearly another character in the film (I wrote this before finding a video interview with Guadagnino about his process where he says that very thing), and played almost perversely against mood—urgent and insistent during languid scenes, tantalizing lighter during those more emotionally charged. (Guadagnino has said that he doesn’t like being “told by the music what to feel.”)  And the subtle inclusion of Elliot Smith’s “Pretty (Ugly Before),” by an artist who, before his tragic death, never found his place in this world, is more than indie music dropped in for its cool factor, but the perfect allusion to the daughter’s inner turmoil over her secret life, still playing on her iPod (i.e. in her head) as she greets her family.

My only complaint is that the ending is a little too abrupt and inconclusive, reminding me of Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” where it seemed the director didn’t know what to do with his protagonist, so he just blew her up.

Two other characters in the film: the house and the food. The house is Villa Necchi Campiglio, and can be found on, a website of historic house museums. The food in the film was real so that the reactions to it would be real, and prepared by Milan chef Carlo Cracco, who runs the Michelin two-star restaurant Cracco.  Both might justify a trip to Milan.

Cracco's soup in "I Am Love"


January 2, 2010
Only the thing is, you can’t spoil the plot because you’ve already seen it a thousand times. It’s called a Western. The handsome new guy comes to town, meets a beautiful woman (the schoolmarm, rancher’s daughter or, in this case, the Indian princess) who disses him at first. He has to win her over, and sometimes her skeptical father as well. He proves he’s worthy of her by fighting against the bad guys. There’s a big battle with lots of guns, bows and arrows, and warriors on horses, and just in the nick of time, the cavalry shows up to help save the day. However it’s too late for the wise old geezer (played here by Sigourney Weaver) who breathes his last before he could learn that the good guys were going to win. The really bad guy—and he’s really bad—is the last man standing, and it takes more than one arrow to do him in. In the end, boy and girl get to kiss and ride off into the sunset.

On Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page there’s a discussion about why Avatar is a bad film. Is it because it’s pop? Or has no irony? Noooo….it’s because it’s a formula. Apparently there wasn’t enough money left over for a real screenplay, and since it was all about the special effects anyway, just like a porn film, they tacked on any old plot. “Avatar” is the Dubai of films, a vestige of that crazily affluent time, not so long ago, when people spent money on extravagant baubles just because they could.

"Avatar" (2009)

"Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948)

November 27, 2009
Last night, after the turkey, we watched two films from 1963-64 back-to-back: Brigitte Bardot in Jean Luc Godard’s “Contempt,” and “Viva Las Vegas” with Elvis and Ann-Margret. To my male friends it was high camp, but for me, watching them produced flashbacks of what it was like to grow up in that era: wanting men, wanting them to like you, wanting them to want you, but at the same time having to fend them off on a daily basis, the frustration of having your strengths ignored while being valued for your sexual potential: no one was ever going to understand the damaged woman Bardot played so beautifully in “Contempt”—except, of course, Godard, who somehow managed to see it all, which makes it an oblique but powerful film.

Ann-Margret, then Ann-Margret Olson, was a few years ahead of me at New Trier High School in the Chicago suburbs. One of 3,000 over-achievers in a public school that boasted a fully professional theater facility and a faculty sprinkled with Ph.Ds, Ann-Margret was already an icon—a cheerleader and the star of everything. She was dark-haired and beautiful, with a singing voice that could handle any style. I remember a prom where she sang a jazz song a cappella, holding a room filled with probably 1,000 teenagers rapt. But even though her version of “Heat Wave” in the student variety show was so hot my friend Donna’s parents walked out, it wasn’t her sexiness that stood out—she wasn't provocative at all—but her strength and determination. She didn’t go out with the high school boys; my ex-husband, who was in a band with her briefly, said that it was because she knew she was destined for greater things. Flash forward a couple of years and I’m on vacation somewhere with my parents, watching (I think) the George Burns Show, and there’s Ann-Margret, completely transformed. Her straight, glossy dark hair is now frizzled and red-blond, she’s speaking and singing in an unfamiliar little baby voice and, like her character in “Viva Las Vegas,” acting all weird and coy. I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back it was one of those coming-of-age moments as I wondered, why would she hide her talents and do this to herself? Why would she allow this to be done to her?

A former colleague from Bennington tells me that the current crop of female students wants to disassociate from feminism, clearly not understanding the emotions that prompted it. They don’t want to be angry—perhaps they want to be liked? If so, we’re all in trouble. While it might appear that we’ve gone overboard with the whole sexual harassment thing, talking with my dinner companions last night I recalled what it was like to be female before the culture had those constraints—the high school and college teachers who hit on me and then gave me bad grades, the (two) dentists who would rub themselves against me as they drilled (think of how conveniently the dental chair is situated), doctors who took advantage (how to explain my first gynecological exam to my mother? I didn’t), the Purchasing Agent at Evanston Hospital, who literally chased me, the temp, around his desk. Then there was my only corporate job—at Whitney Communications, which owned Art in America in the mid-to-late 70s—where, among other things, the vice president used to routinely feel my back to see if I was wearing a bra and snap it if I was. That was our world; we took it for granted. Once we discovered we had rights, that we didn’t have to put up with this shit, yes, we were angry. What I love about “Mad Men” (check out this clip) is that it’s not an exaggeration.

Too much of the discussion around feminism is centered on the political action, rather than the culture that provoked it, choking off any serious analysis of where we stand now. I’d love to teach a class focused on the culture of the times, and I’d start with “Contempt” and “Viva Las Vegas.”


Viva Las Vegas: