Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lady Dictator

Snowpiercer is a sci-fi phantasmagorical train-trip through a wintry countryside that used to be the world.  It has a fever-pitch pace, but also the languorous poetic soul of Dr. Zhivago.  It's one of those movies you feel the lure to go back to, not because it's insightful and brilliant, which it is, but mainly because of its visionary kookiness, its atmosphere and bravura.  It is evidence that smart people still make great genre movies.  Bong Joon-ho is the director, and boy does he direct.  Every aspect of the piece is pure auteur, from the credits to the hermetically sealed sense of design and locomotion to the way the actors interrelate.
But what truly makes Snowpiercer so piercingly odd and beautiful, the centerpiece on the table, is Tilda Swinton's grotesque and brilliantly comic turn as Mason, the Rich-Bitch/Adolf-Hitler who is in charge of enforcing the rules and regulations of the train's despotic owner.  She's the Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove of the piece, and yet also somehow its human soul.  Mason's lady-dictator look is so detailed as to become drag-queen iconic:   hair and eyeglasses from a 1982 Chamber of Commerce luncheon celebrating women in business, a fur-coat the Gabor sisters might fight over, a grim gray uniform underneath festooned with pearls, and a mouthful of false teeth that slowly slip back and forth as she microphones her orders throughout the train.  Swinton is a goddess that gets the joke, and all her performances in movies are both hammy and completely natural, so here too is comic exaggeration merged with artistic control.  And it's funny as hell.  Every time she graced the screen, I was laughing my ass off.  There's something totally guttural and surreal and next-door-neighbor about the whole thing, as Mason marches toward her own demise, slowly understanding her fate as hostage to the back-of-the-train trash taking their destinies back. 
Eventually you even feel sorry for this clown in a fur coat, tossed out of her comfort zone, which also happens to be a death zone for 99% of the Snowpiercer's working-class passengers.  All Mason's virtues and vanities get peeled away until she's pure nothing by the end of the  movie, and in that moment of abdicated epiphany Swinton seems totally alive and perfectly comfortable in Mason's debasement, her recognition of loss.  It's comedic acting that goes beyond the comedic and even the tragic, into a realm of absurdity so skillfully accomplished you see yourself in Mason's scrawny-monkey countenance, and while it's not funny really you laugh anyway as Swinton lets you in on a little secret:  we're all lady-dictators deep down inside, are we not?.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Outside of Itself

Under the Skin is a movie (directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson) about a space alien that manifests itself in Scotland in the form of a sexy empty-eyed fur-coat-wearing lady.  She goes on a predatory rampage, luring young men into her black-tar trap apartment, seducing them into literally sinking into blackness.  The artistic spookiness of the movie does not come from the plot, but from Johansson's silent, stoic yet completely devastating performance and Glazer's intense redefinition of what a sci-fi flick is supposed to be.  Glazer takes the glum run-of-the-mill alien conceit and inverts the purpose of its conception, slows down the whole apparatus to focus on moments that slowly click into one another.  The interior spaces of the film (the alien's epic strange black-nowhere apartment, the yellow-dark kitchen domesticity of a sad young man who takes the alien in, the horror-movie woodenness of a cabin in a gray wintry forest) have an inescapable sense of obsession and completion, as if Glazer is working things out of his own consciousness, merging actual memories with movie scenes until they blur into something else, a sort of escape from both memory and from genre, producing what Stanley Kubrick was always after:  a strangeness that can only be style. 
You feel connected to a spinal column, not a movie at times, a dreamy, closed-eyed trip through a biological landscape lit with blood-thick sunsets casting shadows across pavement and straw and brick.  And then Johansson's slightly too pallid flesh, her black hair, her Elizabeth-Taylor lips.  She is a movie star, and this movie is her total iconic turn.  She is the movie.  We follow in her tracks but never completely understand her until the last moment of the movie, a gorgeous non-shock that's still shocking.  Her skin gets pierced, and it starts to slide off in a wintry Scottish forest after she's turned from predator to prey by a backwoods rapist.  What's underneath is a skinny shiny black mannequin that seems to be the source of all silence and all noise.  The connection between that object under the flesh, and the flesh, is what Johanson locates so skillfully in the movie.  Her eyes and her expression throughout the whole ordeal release a subtle twitchy sorrow that mimics both starving animals and newborn babies without losing that ethereal oddness the movie needs to stay outside of itself.  Johansson is a genius.
The only victim that the alien allows to escape in Under the Skin is played by Adam Pearson.  The character is a lonely, sexually inexperienced man with facial neurofibromatosis.  Pearson's face is a constellation of tumors, and it's Glazer's triumph here that he did not hire an actor without a disability to portray someone with a disability.  The deformity is real, and Pearson's way of using his disability to increase the movie's meaning and atmosphere is to remain himself while also finding a way to connect with Johanson's monster.  A new kind of beauty corresponds from that telepathy.  The alien recognizes herself when she understands that this man is not like all of the other lonely guys she picks up in bars.  He's struggling with something that she struggles with without knowing it:  their shared loneliness reaches beyond sex and seduction into a realm of understanding.  Pearson plays the part without one shred of ego or self-pity.  He's there, himself.  If Glazer would have hired an actor without a disability, the prosthetics would have been the meaning here.  We would have been aware of the phoniness and in awe of the audacity.  With Pearson's subtle, grim performance, we recognize so much more.  The two "aliens" find a way to connect outside of ability/disability.  They are both wandering the earth in search of an escape that can only happen when people close their eyes and rethink every thought they've ever thought. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Let's Go to Bed

Chris Doyle has work in a show up at 21 C Cincinnati called "Hybridity," so I googled him and got his website and stumbled into this suite of watercolors he did based on slept-in motel beds.  Each has a voluptuous ardor, like windswept gowns, or oceans crashing into reefs, but also a sort of solemn, stone-like morbidity, rock-star coffins, dirty linens as love-letters and/or suicide notes. 
The poetry just flows because Doyle has focused in on something right there in front of your face and yet he has fetishized it carefully into a set-aside, a moment you want to return to even though you've never been a part of it before.  You can go off on adultery here, or laziness, or a Madame-Bovary mix of both.  Luxury like cake icing just shimmers.  
I've never really loved watercolors before.  They always seem so timid and self-righteous somehow, flat and free of trouble and yet also fussy.  Here they are gossamer and gloss, the costumes of ghosts pretending to be lovesickness. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Signature Style

Antonio Adams' little brother was killed a couple weeks ago.  Deion was his name.  He was twenty years old.  Bill and I went to his funeral yesterday, along with Thunder-Sky, Inc. regulars Emily Brandehoff and Mike Weber and his sister and brother-in-law, Christine and Bob.  It was in a beautiful red-brick church, and the service truly touched me.  We barely knew Deion, but it was that proximity to our lives that somehow made the whole thing so deep and so sad.  Back when we first met Antonio and fell in love with his artwork, Deion and his twin brother Faizon were always ready to jump on the band-wagon when we stopped by their house to pick up Antonio and/or his work up for art-shows.  They were just little kids, sweet and funny, and as time went by we watched them grow up.  We weren't really involved that much in their lives or anything, but still you get to know people in ways you don't understand until they are gone in that way, peripherally, not paying attention and yet their image and spirit kind of sneak into your consciousness.  Deion and Faizon would sometimes show up at events or just help us carry one or two of Antonio's cats out to the car.  They both were always extra-excited and polite and kind. 

Deion was shot nine times in Avondale.  The service was open casket.  He and Faizon were wearing the same outfit, ball caps and purple shirts. 

The moment I keep returning to during the service is when Antonio's mom asked him to come up to the pulpit during the ceremony to talk.  Antonio's mom is an incredible person too, dealing with a lot of stuff but always supporting Antonio and her other kids with enthusiasm and energy and focus.  Antonio stepped up to the podium, took hold of the microphone, and he said some really simple but incredibly profound words about being a brother and what it means and how family has to stick together and he was going to remain positive because that is what you have to do.

His art is that simple and that profound too.

Attached to the inside of the lid of the casket were a couple drawings Antonio did for Deion.  The drawings depicted Antonio and his whole family in his signature style:  magic-marker stately, candy-colored resplendent, like royalty transformed into holy cartoon tableau.  Toward the end of the service, they closed the casket lid with the drawings still inside.  You could tell from the look on his face that was the way Antonio intended it:  those drawings are his connection to both an afterlife and a sense of remembering without having to go into it too much, a pictograph of better times imagined because he had to imagine a way out of sorrow.  He drew them to keep Deion company.  He drew them to depict what family actually is supposed to mean.  He created art as a bridge toward other ways of thinking and being, a way to celebrate without understanding why or when or what or how.

As he spoke up there you could see how peaceful his art had allowed him to become.  Not that he was ignoring what was happening, but that he had somehow mastered his response to this horrible thing that happened because he was always trying to figure out how to make art out of his life.  It was as if the artmaking he has been doing his whole life had somehow been about that moment in that church, standing there above his dead brother, letting everyone know what brotherhood actually means.

Antonio is probably my favorite artist because he does not mess around.  Because he has a wide open sense of humor, a stellar instinct for composition and line, a beautifully recognizable style and sensibility, and an extremely sophisticated and funky imagination.  He can find humor and ecstasy in just about any situation.  He can also translate tragedy into telepathy and triumph.  He uses art to figure out how to get through, and that helps everybody else come closer to that understanding too.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014


Melissa McCarthy's Tammy has a fiddled-with timidity that you can often feel in movies that are trying way too hard to please, that have been manufactured by a committee of executives and creatives who have nothing to prove but that they and their products are successful by design.  Which is very funny because McCarthy's spirit and ascendancy seem to be the exact opposite of the executive/creative merger.  Her major gift is the celebration of freakishness, spliced with empathy and complete abandon.  In Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, and The Heat, and on SNL, she embodies idiocy and  a sort of needy kindness that hasn't really been mined before by other comedians/actors/performance-artists so skillfully and with such richly hilarious results.  She does not "clean up" her performances or make then palatable, and yet they still have a soft center, an attention to detail, and an access point that seems culled through complete and total dedication to making the peripheral central, or in Flannery O'Connor's words (words I always go back to):  the freak becomes a form of essential displacement for all those upstanding self-righteous folks who feel the need to categorize people into freak/non-freak.  We are in that zone of outlandish behavior, obesity, stupidity, etcetera, and yet there is no judgment and no relief.  McCarthy, when she's doing it right, allows us all to occupy that territory as if it is our own, thanks to her unbridled connection and performance.  She takes one-note and spins it into a symphony.

That orchestration is messed with in Tammy, so much so the results are devastatingly awful, not because the character is not worthy of our attention but because McCarthy and her co-writer and husband Ben Falcone have created a story (a road movie) for her to occupy that is so vapid and unoriginal and just plain uninteresting that Tammy becomes a sort of flaccid float in a sad little parade in which everyone else seems so totally normal, bland and un-alive there's nothing to bounce off of.  There is nothing to celebrate.  And the freakishness on display seems to come from some need to please; the first fifteen minutes of this sucker is like a Jerry-Lewis-dumb-ass riff, with McCarthy marching around doing her big-lady-id dance without any partners.  Without that, she comes off as a pariah, which I hope is the exact opposite of McCarthy's moral and artistic intentions. 

Maybe this is one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for situations.  Tammy I've read was a dream project for McCarthy and Falcone.  The dream maybe was to expand McCarthy's territory more toward Alexander Payne's territory of drama and comedy blissfully and absurdly intersecting in road movies that capture a tenderness beneath chaos, selfishness and torpor.  In Sideways, About Schmidt and this year's Nebraska, Payne explores freakish sad-sack-on-the-lam behavior with a stylishness that underpins the pathos without losing the laughs.  McCarthy and Falcone lose both in almost every scene of their flick, and while Tammy does propel forward with that road-movie conceit (Tammy and her drunk grandma played with pedestrian mousiness by Susan Sarandon flee the scene together in search of Niagara Falls) it's stuck inside a sort of bubble of confusion and nervousness:  please laugh at this sadness and stupidity.  Please. 

June Squibb is the shit.  She plays the bitter, foulmouthed old wife to Bruce Dern's white-trash Don Quixote in Payne's Nebraska, and while the movie isn't solely about her, Squibb takes control through an overstated understatedness.  She does outrageous acts (including showing her bloomers in a graveyard to the tombstone of an old boyfriend, and nonchalantly opining that she's going to stick old Dern in a home if she ever wins a fortune), but she is nestled within a movie that allows her freakishness to bloom into empathy and even a little salvation.  In the end she isn't really heroic, but the old bat does have her say, and she does rescue her husband from all the buzzard relatives who think he's won a million bucks.  Squibb is relentless because she has a world to occupy and the good sense to let it flow and the courage to know that she's on target. 

McCarthy and Falcone may want to watch Nebraska a couple more times before they make another movie.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Junkyard and Deliverance

Last weekend I got to go to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington DC.  This is what I thought about it all:

James Hampton died in 1964. He was a janitor and an artist, and his major work, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, is one of those astounding pieces of art that has to be seen to be felt and understood, although "felt" and "understood" are somehow interchangeable here when you witness the glory of Hampton's dedication, his secret devotion to what he believed, what he needed to do because of that belief probably just to get by day after day, night after night. Constructed from trash he would save from the dumpster (old light bulbs, pieces of foil, old furniture, wood scrap, and so on), The Throne has an interstellar heft to it, a set-design chic that somehow allows you to fall into its sumptuousness, to uncurl into that luxury culled from the trash-heap, and yet also the scene Hampton depicts is a sort of tone-poem to the way Hampton understood and felt passages from the Bible. It's art toying with functionality but the functionality serves some mysterious purpose beyond worship and therapy and even beyond creativity and intelligence. It's mystically significant, something that can't really be said about a lot of modern or contemporary art, and yet it also has a workmanlike quality to it too, a bold, no-nonsense theatricality that compels you into wanting to enter a dream-state that is both junkyard and deliverance. That mix of throwaway and grandeur, of loveliness and crap, is what makes Hampton's Throne not really the work of an outsider or an insider artist, but of an artist trying to decode what poetry and belief can mean once you transmorgrify daily life into spiritual significance. Hampton was a janitor/ecclesiast who found his way through life by absorbing its debris and re-interpreting it into bliss.

Duane Hanson (who sculpture is above) might be Hampton's opposite.  He takes the materials that creates debris (fiberglass, Bondo, resin, etc) and uses them to give us waxworks figures from daily life, often with a grotesque flourish.  His Woman Eating from 1971 is made from polyester resin, fiberglass, and polychromed in oil paint, decorated with clothes, table, chair and accessories from a thriftstore.  The overall effect is of cynicism burnished into voyeurism, a sort of blank stare that collapses on itself and parodies the way you see strangers not as forms of yourself, but as complete and total "other."  When I look at this woman I don't feel empathy or compassion or anything, just a dull vibration, a creepy little laugh going off like a smoke-bomb inside my head.  Maybe Hanson's intent was to be a 3-D practitioner of Diane Arbus's sense of alienation and connection to freaks, but this "tribute" here is more like a mock-up for a bad early 80s SNL skit, a character that isn't a character but a compilation of bad habits and bad genes.  There's nothing interesting here.  All that attention to detail that might sometimes have a sort of kinky aftertaste (Jeff Koons is all about that) here leaves no taste at all, just dead air, a corpse propped up and going through a scene in a really stupid movie. 

That same feeling of cynicism and horror is what Philip Guston's "abstract" painting (pictured below) investigates in a way that launches into nightmare and joy.  Guston's evil little nest here is a parody of Abstract Expressionism that somehow out-expresses the target of the joke.  There's a kindness built into his assault, a need to find grimy little angels, sort of like a Chagall painting that has turned melty after a house fire.  I kept staring and staring at this thing, and it was just a revelation, the webby tones and oddness, the smears and crooked little lines, those bleeding-newspaper and crumbling-brick colors, all of it cascading into nothingness and then back out toward image.  A masterpiece.   

And finally, Robert' Rauschenberg's "Reservoir," a piece I have always wanted to see in person.  It's one of those totem-poles inside my head; I've seen it in books and magazines, and I've always loved its simplicity and elegance, and yet also its brute stupidity.  That lame-brained greatness is given force and verve and significance here because of Rauschenberg's skill at editing and combining.  If Hampton is trying to create a palace, Rauschenberg is trying to make a celestial shotgun shack, and there's music and laughter spilling out of every little fucked-up room.  The clocks make a mockery of time, the paint a mockery of painting, and the wooden embellishments and dirty clothes stuccoed to the surface remind you of the day after a disaster, a grim sense of hope that no matter what has happened there's always proof of something after, clues to escaping tragedy by staring it right smackdab in the face. 

Monday, May 19, 2014


I did a short radio interview today about the Flannery O'Connor art exhibit we're pulling together called "The Meanest of Them Sparkled."  (The show won't debut until June 28, 2914, reception 6 to 10 pm at Thunder-Sky, Inc.; the radio interview comes out in July on WVXU.)
Last night I started jotting down reasons why we want to do a show featuring Flannery's work, and basically it's because I love her and everything she stands for, and by "everything she stands for" I guess I mean her strangeness, her devotion to her religion, her curt, sardonic authorial voice, her mean-spirited yet somehow life-giving sense of grace -- just her, as a figment of my imagination as well as a figure in literature that never really has been replicated.  She was a devout Catholic in the Bible-belt south; she was a person with a disability staring death straight in face and making serious jokes at her typewriter daily.  She raised peacocks. 
All of that seems to dictate some kind of respect that would eventually end up transforming into tribute. 
I'm reminded Raymond's strangeness too, of his devotion to his way of seeing the world, of his serious jokes in the face of absurdity and desolation.  (Read through some of the captions he installed on his drawings, and you'll see what I mean: 
Her writing has the crystal clarity of a how-to guide merged with the slam-dunk poetry of someone who does not ever mess around.  Her metaphors and similes and other devices aren't devices or tricks as much as necessary portals.  And when she writes about evil she does it with a sense of both dread and the capacity to know what evils feels and tastes like.  The Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is a fine example.  He's all black-hatted, sun-burnt sinew and bone, but also jovial, even respectful, in a snaky, sweet manner that's disgusting and seductive simultaneously.  And the counterpoint to The Misfit's evil, the Grandmother, is a fluttering dimwit who somehow in the end rises up from her own ashes to show us what "good" truly is. There are moments in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" that are hilarious and there are moments that are horrifying, and all those moments often intermingle into art that goes beyond being art, into a realm of faith or philosophy or whatever, without losing a sense of groundedness, of precision based on the need to make something live beyond what it is.
Flannery was an outsider artist.  One of the greatest.  Spinning her tales from her porch at Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, putting up with her mother's stupid questions, listening to her peafowl scream across the hills, their feathered tails exploding into lush plumage and  reasons to live.
We've invited 16 really great artists to take on Flannery's universe, and to use it to inspire visions.  Cannot wait to see the results.