Of all the art-objects I had consumed as a child, only a few made it with me into adulthood. At 4, I was given a tape-player, a pair of headphones, and several cassettes of Soviet music—luxury items, by any metric, in the Belarusian summer of 1991, just as they would be for the kids I’d soon meet in New York. The tapes were of varying quality, often veering into bad pop and propaganda, though even these had a level of craftiness and fun missing from most pop. Sometimes, however, I’d come across an artist or a song I’d (much later) recognize as great. This would usually happen as I sat on a park bench alone with my music and a loaf of keks. Because I was rarely at school or had my time accounted for by anyone, there were opportunities to wander, all on my own schedule. My life of absenteeism—that is, my wish to be in my own little corner, of my own construct—probably arose in this period. In retrospect, it helped that the music I was unwittingly feeding my tape-player so often celebrated a rich inner life. This might surprise Western readers, but the advent of Russian bard music brought forth a level of creative disobedience not seen in decades. The effect of musical agitprop—most obvious via Alexander Alexandrov’s “The Sacred War”—was, on the one hand, something for the state to tap, but on the other, would inevitably find its way into the grip of ordinary people. That guitars and voice lessons were hard to come by proved not only irrelevant, but downright supportive of the new art. If this sounds counterintuitive, a deeper understanding of the Soviet bard tradition can help explain some broader principles of art, so that today’s bards (almost always a posthumous honorific) can be better recognized. […]
Mindful Loneliness: Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976)
There are few films that encapsulate loneliness as well as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Two others that come to mind are Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). In the Allen film, a woman turning 50 comes to realize that she has pushed everyone away, and in the Malick film we witness how war isolates the spirit from the mind. And yet Taxi Driver is not only the portrait of a weathered man facing his own war, but one who attempts to connect and fails every time. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) works at night and so his world is dark and violent. ‘All the animals come out at night,’ he says, as he looks on with contempt and disgust. Still, he longs to belong somewhere but does not know where that is.
For start, we do not know much of his past, other than he is an ex-Marine who was honorably discharged in 1973. As for education, ‘a little bit here, a little bit there, ya know,’ he says. We don’t know his parents or how he came to be other than his wish to escape his life via working long hours in a taxi. People enter his cab and then they depart as quickly as they came. There are no attachments. Then, when it is morning and his shift is done, he is forced to wipe the semen off the seats before he escapes to a porno theatre. […]
CITY WONDERING: On Mina Loy’s “Ephemerid”
If you live in a city and are, at all times, subjected to its latticework of avenues, alleyways, sidewalks and streets, it becomes easy to take for granted moments which offer insight. These can be rare, and are rarely gained through conscious search. Perhaps you find something meaningful in the face of the old woman sitting across from you. Or perhaps, sitting with friends, an errant breeze distracts from your conversation, and you detect some esoteric code in the swirl of leaf and trash. Here the city is attempting to communicate. Though the words are not sought, they are taken in. This is before the dire front page news, puddle-soiled, slams itself on the glass, its messaging now perfectly explicit.
Such occurrences are the vagaries of life, and the uncertain particles of art. Living in a big city is no requirement, of course, but having spent a few days wandering through one (Chicago, specifically) quite recently, the experience of having your senses press-ganged into engagement by any number of clonking mechanisms or jammed junctures seems to be one unique to the modern metropolis. […]
Reinventing Noir: Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978)
Imagine watching a film and lacking the ability to imbue more into it. Taking it only on the surface, and viewing it as nothing more than mindless entertainment. Emotionally stolid and passionless, you finish it and no impression has been left upon you. As example, The Planet of the Apes is ‘just about monkeys,’ and Animal Farm is ‘just about pigs.’ Do you feel better? In fact, do you feel anything? So, you have decided to be passionless. If it is not in the media, then it doesn’t matter. If academics, governments, and institutions are praising it, then it must be a great idea. Ok, so it isn’t the best-constructed argument, but it’s not like you’re able to notice the difference anyway. Besides, you had something else make up your mind.
These are some of the undercurrents I noticed when rewatching this remake of the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Yet Philip Kaufman’s 1978 film is not only better and richer than the original, but is its own film entirely. How it begins is this: we see small entities appearing as plants, which we only later learn are toxic entities from outer space. They want to thrive, overtake us, and they know just how to do it. […]
Still Growing: On Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (2017)
There is an anxiety, among Left Wing cineastes particularly, for a “proper” artistic depiction of the poor. Realism, of course, is key – but how grueling is too grueling? You can’t slip into so-called poverty porn, because to do that would be to rob the class you’re portraying of their dignity. However, conversely, to be too light or fanciful, winsome, even, would be to rob them of their hardships, which uniquely distinguishes them from the higher classes. This is not to even mention the deeper anxiety that interrogates the point of art at all in one’s political project(s), especially when it comes to fictional portrayals of the subaltern and such. “It’s all make-believe, at bottom,” the worry might be. “Does this aid us? And would even the most nuanced portrait of the dispossessed do anything to alleviate their lack?”
Maybe this is caricature, but I’ve noticed this anxiety slip into many of the reviews I’ve read for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Many are positive (in that Baker avoids a misstep in either of the directions mentioned above) while some bemoan the lack of interiority in these characters’ lives, and even slam Baker for not making the mother, Halley, more empathetic. Others nitpick at its length, without elaboration, as well as its meandering, told-in-vignettes quality. And, of course, despite healthy acclaim, and a generous smattering of various festival/critic’s awards, the film still passed mostly under the radar – earning only a single nomination (Best Supporting Actor for Willem Dafoe’s Bobby) at that season’s Academy Awards. […]
Beyond the Comfort Zone: Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre” (1981)
Amazing it is when a film’s narrative is unlike any other. Even the concept seems too remarkable to be true—two men meet up and talk over dinner. Is this a play? No, as even in most plays, action tends to be more omnipresent. Instead, much like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (which tells an unconventional narrative via voiceover and still images), My Dinner With Andre feels like one is reading a novel or listening to a radio broadcast. Andre, who does most of the talking, is a terrific storyteller. While contemporary films might rely heavily on flashbacks, instead we must rely on our visual mind—all that is there and not.
For almost two hours, Andre (Andre Gregory) relays his story and we picture it scene by scene as he tells it. The first time I watched My Dinner with Andre, I recall being overwhelmed by his words but then in that same viewing I saw how necessary his storytelling was. Andre presents a Romanticism—the idea that to find more in life one must go out and seek it—and Wally (Wallace Shawn) contrasts this with pragmatism. […]
Edouard Manet And The Mystery Of The Crowd
Everything was changing in late 19th century Paris. A series of disastrous wars and failed uprisings had precipitated the forming of a public works commission to rebuild the city. But this rebuilding was nothing on its own. It was meant to be the emblem and agent of a wider economic transformation – the emergence of modern day capitalism and consumerism. Suddenly gone was the old Paris of narrow streets and quartiers. The new Paris of cosmopolitan boulevards cut up into little pieces the city’s pre-existing world of fragile appearances – its traffic of class segregation and urban life. And this awareness of change was to be crucial for the emergence of an artist such as Edouard Manet. The elusiveness of the social world, the precarian nature of being in it, and being of it, are central subjects of the paintings he produced at this time. […]
‘But They Both Wrote About Hawks!’: Robinson Jeffers’s “Hurt Hawks” vs. Ted Hughes’s “The Hawk In The Rain”
When contemplating writers, it is not uncommon for many to lump them together on account of subject matter. Sure, it is shallow, but it is easy marketing. Imagine it—any nature writer is ‘just like Loren Eiseley’ and any gay, black political essayist who writes on race is ‘just like James Baldwin.’ Anyone who writes of death is ‘just like Sylvia Plath,’ or anyone spiritual is ‘just like Rilke.’ (How convenient a comparison, albeit even if the writing itself is lacking in skill or depth.) Years ago, I got into an argument with a professor who claimed that some random ‘nature’ writer was ‘just like Loren Eiseley.’ She argued this after having complained about the lack of intellectual writing presented within university courses. And while I did agree with her initial statement regarding the dearth of quality writing as presented in universities, when she got to examples, she was running on full emotion. (Where goes the intellectualism?) In short, she merely ‘liked’ certain banal nature writers and lumped them beside Eiseley ‘just because.’ Why? Well, it is easy. They both write about nature! […]