Reviews: Film and Visual Art

On Cunnilingus And Psychiatry: In Memorium, James Gandolfini

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

By John Samuel Tieman

Why did my wife and I fall in love with James Gandolfini and his Tony Soprano?

Because art speaks in ways that are at once both clear and unconscious.

We missed the first episode or two. But we heard from buddies that “The Sopranos” is a good show. We’d also heard that it’s written by David Chase, the same guy who wrote large parts of “Northern Exposure”. We’re of the opinion that “Northern Exposure” is one of the best shows ever written. So, sure, we’d give it a look.

I was hooked from the second I heard the opening lyrics –
Woke up this morning, and got yourself a gun.
Mama said you’d be The Chosen One….
She said, you’re one-in-a-million — you got that shotgun shine.
Think about it — born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes.

The real clincher was later in that episode, when Tony, who is in therapy, says, “Uncle Junior and I, we had our problems with the business. But I never should have razzed him about eating pussy. This whole war could have been averted. Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!”

So every Sunday evening, my wife and I invited Anthony, that lovable sociopath, into our home. We admired the way he cared for his family, the way he was loyal to his colleagues, the way he killed people who needed killing. And he scared us. Sometimes Tony needed killing.

I could give all kinds of technical reasons why “The Sopranos” was great art. Great writing I’ve mentioned. Also, the show had one of the greatest endings big screen or small. But that’s not why my wife and I loved James Gandolfini.

So let me just say – he had great eyes. When he’d get mad, that flash of anger, I know that flash of anger. Gandolfini was a big man, and he played a very physical character. But those eyes. When he loved, hated, softened, hardened. Those eyes.

Artists live unusual lives. So do audiences. Artists paint, write, act, sculpt, compose alone in our small rooms, or on our small stages, and, no matter how popular we are, we never meet even a fraction of the folks who invite our artifacts into our lives. Yet they allow us into their unconscious. They actually let us make them laugh and cry and such.

99.999999999% of the time, we never even meet these people. They never meet us. We communicate using a very narrow vehicle, the artifact. Yet there is communication on the most profound level.

We artists open our unconscious, our loves, our hates, we pour stuff into the artifact, stuff we know is in the artifact, and, if the artifact is ever to become art, stuff we didn’t consciously realize is there. Then something remarkable happens. An audience. An audience who opens their unconscious, their loves, their hates, stuff they know, and stuff they didn’t even realize was in their soul. That’s when the artifact becomes the art. When the unconscious of the artist, carried by the artifact, engages the unconscious of the audience. The art is not in the artist; it’s not in the artifact; it’s not in the audience. It is in the unconscious engagement, the we-ness of the moment that is facilitated by an artifact. Hence, those eyes. Gandolfini’s eyes. Tony’s eyes. Those eyes.

To put it differently – Forget about it! Here’s what Tony taught me.

There is no such thing as art. There is only that moment when the unconscious of the artist touches the unconscious of the audience, the moment of we-ness. It is a moment of which we can speak. But it is a moment we can neither control nor fully understand. It is a relationship that will live on in these folks, a relationship that will search for some resolution neither audience nor artist will ever find. Yet search they will.

In other words, when Tony holds a gun to your head, you don’t look at the gun. You know what the gun will do. You search the guy’s eyes.

While the show was in production, I facilitated a professional development for a school in Jersey City, Tony’s hometown. I asked a teacher there if she’d take a picture of me outside the set for Tony’s strip club/office, the Bada Bing. We didn’t have time. She joked that she was going to photo-shop me into a picture, but we also simply forgot to have any photographs taken. I now rate this among my life’s great regrets.

—–

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Magnus Rex

Tuesday, August 28, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Katrina Otuonye

When I was six, I dashed through the house with a beach towel draped across my shoulders, a scarf wrapped around my kinky braids like a bandit. I wanted to be Batman, a part of some imagined dimension, as my brothers and I skidded across the linoleum floor, humming theme songs and fake punching the air, yelling, “POW! WHACK! ZOWIE!” Then, last August, I was an extra for The Dark Knight Rises.

Explosions rattled the football stadium and turf flew into the stands. In the midst of heavy flurries, thousands of people dove behind their seats as their beloved football team vanished in a cloud of smoke. The explosions continued and screams reverberated around the field. Fans rushed to the exits, past fleece-clad, bearded men with rifles and ammo strapped across their chests. The explosions stopped, the screaming subsided and everyone froze. They turned towards the field, aghast, as a masked man strutted past the fallen, uniformed bodies.

“Alright, cut!” The silence warped into cheers and we ripped off winter coats, hats, scarves, and wiped the sweat of the August afternoon from our faces. The fallen players jumped out of artificial turf-lined pits and got ready to repeat the shot. My friend Abby and I had shown up at six that morning to get in line for the bat shuttles — repurposed school buses — to take us to Heinz Field. We were decked out in black and yellow, not for a Steelers game, but for the Gotham City Rogues. They played the Rapid City Monuments for two minutes of gametime.

The Heinz bottle of ketchup got to stay on the scoreboard, augmenting my view of Pittsburgh from the stadium. I’d only been in the city a year, but everything about the place, a jumble of small-town personas making up the family that is Pittsburgh, coupled with the view of all those bridges, made me realize I could stay here forever.

I dusted dirt and pretzel salt from my jeans and my friend Abby rubbed at her knee. A splotch of blood, nearly as bright as her hair, leaked through her denim from when she’d hit the cement.

“Ooh,” I said. “A Batman injury.”

She laughed. “Yeah. I kinda like the idea of a battle wound.”

The assistant director was distracted by a scratch of his own, just below the tattered cuff of his Bermuda shorts. He rushed to a megaphone and pulled off his Aviators for dramatic effect.

“Great job, guys. Like, really, really awesome.” He scratched some more. “Five minutes and we’ll do it again.”

We all groaned at the thought of shrugging on our black winter coats. After a mild, drizzly morning, the sun had reappeared to make it a true August afternoon.

“Here’s the thing: you have to remember, when you run into a mercenary with a gun, you don’t run them down. You’re scared.”

We high-fived our friendly mercenaries as they called, “Excuse us, sorry!” to get back into position. They were bravely clad in fleece jackets with ammo strapped across their chests for the winter scene. They pretended not to sweat, as if method acting could make August turn into January, so in a mix of pity and jealousy, we tossed them half-frozen water bottles out of coolers. I tightened my yellow bandana. I might be in a movie, I thought (along with 10,000 other geeked-out fans). As we rested in the stands with our coats off, we shaded ourselves with umbrellas. No one cared if those guys won or lost. I was really aiming for a t-shirt. I opened the 5-Hour Energy a bubbly leader had handed out as we filed into the stadium. I eyed the tiny bottle carefully. The next morning, as I watched dawn slide through the blinds on my windows, I would remember the moment before I cracked open the seal and curse myself.

My brothers and I used to race home from school and curl up on the couch to watch Batman: The Animated Series, as Batman beat the Joker one more time. When B:TAS wasn’t on, we could always count on “old-school Batman,” the 60s version with Adam West as Batman and Eartha Kitt’s luxurious voice birthing nine lives into Catwoman. I never finagled a way to convince my mom to approve a Catwoman costume for Halloween, but I made an appearance as “The Kat” for all of elementary school. She bought a pair of cat ears and stuffed a black stocking with rough brown kindergarten paper. She pinned my tail to black stirrup pants, and I shimmied around the house, letting my new appendage swish behind me. Mom stopped me to draw whiskers on my face with eyeliner.

“Alright, let’s see it,” she said. She had final approval of my snarl and press-on nails.

“Purrrfect,” I said.

Now, I try to keep the whole Batman thing to myself. I have a master’s degree; I want people to take me seriously. When speculation started about the new Batman villains, I interrupted strangers’ conversations in the library, at coffee shops, as they thumped lumpy melons at the grocery store.

“Who’s that bad guy? Brine?” they asked their bored counterpart.

“No, it’s Bane,” I jumped in. “He was in a small, silly part of Batman and Robin, but he was kinda badass in Animated Series.” They eyed me carefully, as if I were strange. I explained I grew up in a small town where strangers freely interrupt personal conversations.

Warner Bros. masked the movie with the fake title, Magnus Rex, to distract from too much unwanted attention. They circulated press releases throughout the city to alert businesses and patrons when they would shut down streets to make way for one of their six Tumblers (for the uninitiated, the revamped Batmobiles), snow machines, cranes, and batpods.

A tiny T-Rex attacked from the top of the press releases, tail extended, with a disarming smirk to match his pair of glasses. He had a devil-may-care attitude, as if to say, “What? I’m a dinosaur. A dinosaur can’t be an intellectual?”

Abby signed up as an extra and asked if I wanted to join. I told myself I was too cool for Batman, but I said “Hell, yeah,” all the same. I drove through the city during filming, pretending I was just out running errands. I acted as flustered as my fellow drivers when we were unexpectedly detained in traffic. I ogled the potatoes piled behind a food service truck near St. Paul’s Cathedral, near-impossible to get to with a batpod settled right across the street. As I started to wonder if my afternoon excursion might be a bad idea, I noticed a destitute-looking extra in a “GOTHAM D.O.C.” orange jumpsuit. He crouched on the grass, sucking on a cigarette as if he’d been denied one every day for his entire life. I had to stop. I rolled down my window and waved in his direction. He looked up.

“Are you a bad guy?” I yelled.

He tilted his head and made a face as if to say, “You can’t be serious.”

Back at the stadium, after moving from one section to another to make Heinz Field seem packed, we cheered as Hines Ward rolled in atop a Tumbler. We grew restless once our complimentary energy drinks wore off, and the sun beat down on our winter clothing. Regardless, we all had the same question: Where was our director, Christopher Nolan?

The acclaimed director of Inception, Memento and the other revamped Batman films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, specializes in enthralling and confusing his audiences. He’d made a few appearances in a blazer in the morning. In the afternoon, he’d walked off the field during the shoot, only to reappear with a tan fishing hat to shield his fair skin. He may not have anticipated this group of fans, though. There’s no more organized group of people than at a football game. As the assistant director set up another shot, directing us with the microphone they’d used for the adorable boy who sang the national anthem, we whispered amongst ourselves. When Nolan walked by, we coordinated our movements and bowed to him in unison. People called, “Hey Chris, explain the end of Inception!” And he, all English politeness, beamed at us and gave a tiny shake of his head.

Abby and I sweat it out for the rest of the day, pretending we were just kids again, playing dress up, jumping through the house with superhero dreams. I went home without a t-shirt, but one of my friends had several, so I guilted him into handing it over. The shirt is a bit baggy, but Batman’s in style again. I wear it with pride, pose for pictures and send them off to my brothers. When I double-checked with them to make sure that Batman really was their favorite superhero too, I got series of texts in a row: “BOOM! WHACK! KA-POW!” and I know that we’re all still connected.
_____

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Film Review: The Art of Flight

Saturday, September 17, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Brain Farm Digital Cinema/Red Bull Media House
Directed by Curt Morgan; produced by Curt Morgan and Travis Rice
Released in 2011

reviewed by Mike Walker

The Art of Flight, within its home-world of snowboarding, has built up more hype than any other snowboarding film ever and probably also cost more to produce and promote than any other snowboarding film. When its trailer was released, a friend who isn’t even a snowboarder was the first to inform me of the trailer, full of excitement, immediately captivated by the sport and wishing to engage in it himself. Trailers and ads for The Art of Flight have been featured on YouTube’s front-page and during the commercials for this year’s MTV Video Awards. Films of this nature—films that showcase the exploits of the best pro athletes outside the arena of contests—are essential to the sports of snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing; they are part of how everyday athletes in our sports learn new tricks and seek inspiration and they are the prime connection between the superstars of our sports and the young kids who dream big. No other film in any of the so-called action sports can I recall having the hype and promotional push visited upon The Art of Flight. Clearly, as big as it already is in its own world, it is setting out to make introductions in other worlds.

There was a time when skateboarding was a fringe sport and we didn’t except our skate videos to be sold outside skate shops or attract attention from anyone but fellow skaters. There was a time when snowboarding was the same way and a new film wouldn’t produce much buzz beyond your own cadre of friends unless you happened to live in a place like Truckee or Jackson Hole where snowboarding is a way of life and, increasingly, a leading industry. Surf films fared a little better, but still would not become blockbusters or even attempt to seek out the type of hype reserved for mainstream movies. Nowadays however, the global market for “action sports” films is obviously growing: you have PacSun and Zumeiz in every mall, you have snowboarders, surfers, and skateboarders on contract as sponsored athletes for energy drink companies like Red Bull when less than a decade ago, the only sponsors interested in most of these athletes were internal industry sponsors that made skate shoes, snowboards, and other gear associated with the sports themselves. For that matter, Red Bull’s media division was one of the co-production companies for The Art of Flight and Red Bull’s helicopters were instrumental in getting the cast into remote snowboarding locations and providing the platform for much of the filming. Snowboarding isn’t just for kids who grew up in the mountains anymore. Between the point when photographer Ari Marcopoulos published his ground-breaking book Transitions and Exits in 2000 and Shaun White becoming not only the Tony Hawk—or Micheal Jordan—of snowboarding but also having his own clothing line at Target, we’ve seen snowboarding expand in ways that no one in the 1990s would have probably predicted.

Ari Marcopoulos’ work is also vastly important to snowboarding because this man, with his unique foresight and nuanced skills as an artist, set the standard for how snowboarding is photographed and filmed. While snowboarding, like its sister boarding sports, has always encouraged creativity, Marcopoulos brought to it the imperative for expertly-crafted, fine art-worthy, images and also an introspection into the lives of snowboarders that owes as much to Corrine Day or even Nan Goldin than to typical sports photography. He shot them not only on the slopes in action but in their hotel rooms, on airplanes—all the everyday aspects of getting to and waiting for the crucial action of an action sport. Industry marketing executives for a long time believed that unlike skateboarding and surfing, snowboarding was far too insular, too cloistered, to be marketed outside its core demographic. It lacked the universal presence of skateboarding in urban environments from New York to Paris to Tokyo to those smallest of backwaters in China, Columbia, or Peru that have enough pavement for a little skating. It lacked the allure of warm beaches and everything the Beach Boys and countless movies have made surfing stand for in the American mind. However, Marcopoulos, Jake Burton Carpenter, J.P. Walker and others who have made snowboarding what it is today didn’t fight that insular nature but instead showed it as a tight-knit, essential, and mysterious—but welcoming—world. Marcopoulos especially learned the tricks of representing the cloistered existence of snowboarding as a place where we’d all like to be and an atmosphere literally colder than that of surfing but also deeper. He laid bare and made real a world and its people and he did it early enough to set the tone for visual representations of the sport for years yet to come.

All of this history is important in understanding The Art of Flight and what it means to snowboarding, plus what it will mean to the rest of the world given the tremendous marketing thrust behind this film. Going for grandness, for something larger and always more jaw-dropping than whatever came before is certainly a goal of The Art of Flight but it seems, refreshingly, that just as crucial to the film-makers is the presentation of the poetry of snowboarding and the sheer, unending, awe snowboarders feel for our natural environment. Moreover, director Curt Morgan and the film’s star, snowboarder, and all-around main man of the movie, Travis Rice, chose to use the very finest and newest of camera technology to film this project, including the majestic ArriFlex 235 camera. The same types of technology and skill was employed on The Art of Flight as would have been for the most high-budget of nature documentaries.

If the results had not been of the highest order, if this had turned out to be a showcase of just the latest and greatest in snowboarding, the money spent and hype behind The Art of Flight might have been seen as overblown and ornate, but the results match up to the hype, especially—perhaps surprisingly—in those scenes where no one is even on a snowboard. Some of the nature and scenic vistas on this film, especially those in Alaska and Chile’s unspoiled, unreachable, Patagonia are breath-taking, eye-opening scenes that challenge the best of nature and wildlife documentaries in quality. When Travis Rice and company make the decision to venture into the Cordillera Darwin in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego, their expedition produces not just stunning snowboarding but a powerful introduction to a very remote, rare, geography of the Earth. The snowboarding in this rustic, remote, place is not only challenging but, alas, not as exceptional in quality as the snowboarders had hoped, yet nothing can detract from the sun-glowing, rock-rough, ice-covered, water-crossed beauty of the land itself. When at the onset of the film Travis Rice laments that we live in a digital age and intones that our connection with nature may be less sincere than it was once, he makes good on his promise to push for a more actual, more intense, understanding of nature during his journeys throughout The Art of Flight. There is a danger though in doing such things as going to the Darwin Range—things that even an affluent tourist cannot easily do—in that these adventures will look like issues of either grasping at the tangible side of heaven with the vise of cash or else simply throwing money at a problem: at certain moments in the film I thought to myself, please, you don’t need a Red Bull helicopter and huge bank account to have fun snowboarding. However, the quality of the videography and obvious impact these exotic locales made on the snowboarders justified the extravagance of some of their exploits.

The Art of Flight begins with silence and humility—at least as much humility as can be expected when given a window to an early morning moment with one of the world’s best pro snowboarders. Pro or not, every snowboarder will relate to Travis Rice selecting which board he desires to take with him on safari and then enduring the routine of post-9/11 airport security and waiting for his airline flight to afar. Snowboarder or not, I suspect every viewer will relate to an extent to Travis’ flying off: who doesn’t like an adventure, who doesn’t dream of their next vacation?

Other scenes brought home the gravitas of not only the pristine nature in which snowboarders practice their sport but also the level of injury possible—the very sincere and ever-present danger of serious bodily harm that is inseparable from the sport. Snowboarder Scotty Lago is badly injured in a jump gone wrong at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and while it composes only a few seconds of the film, the scenes of him in the hospital underscore his comment that trauma is a given in the sport; in fact, even as Lago brushes off the decently severe nature of his injuries, the scenes of his lip being stitched up, his doctors taking diagnostic images of his bones, quickly illustrates in no uncertain terms the risks involved. That said, there is a demonic beauty in even snowboarding accidents—I feel wrong in saying such, but it is true. A skateboarding or BMX accident will produce a hard fall and a sudden splatter of red blood on concrete. Surfing accidents are (sometimes very thankfully) obscured by the waves and water. Snowboarding, on the other hand, provides an often all-too-visible crash transitioning into an explosion of white powder. There is something close to animation in the effect of a snowboard trick gone wrong and the resulting implosion of a snowbank, the scattering of soft snow and hard ice breaking like poorly-crafted glass. I won’t downplay or malign the severity of the falls my friends and I have taken by calling them “lovely”, but for as much as they hurt and as tragic and serious as they are at times, they also underscore the fragile, temporal, world of snow we inhabit in the cold terrain we snowboard.

After snowboarding in Alaska, Chile, and Jackson Hole, Rice and company set off for British Columbia and the cinematic introduction to this geography is long on near-barren land save for conifers, black water cold as ice, overcast skies, stalwart architecture of confident bridges and simple, unadorned, buildings. While these images are not perhaps those a tourism commission would choose, they perfectly represent the reality of British Columbia and how, sans snow, we as snowboarders lodge it in our memories. Morgan and Rice do two very different yet connected things via the cinematography of this film: they provide us with dreamscapes of remote snow-covered mountains and vales the vast majority of us will never even witness in person and, they also provide us with quite commonplace scenes—places and instances most snowboarders of any experience will have also encountered. For the remote absurdity of something like snowboarding the Darwin Range—which really, especially in light of its poor snow conditions in the film, is like eating caviar in Greenland on a ship that’s going down—there are also the more everyday spectacles of Jackson Hole or BC.

From Nelson, BC, the crew takes a helicopter up to nearby mountain terrain—near, yet remote, forbidding, and in the deep fog and snow dangerous. The helicopter pilot has barely enough room to set his bird down and then, with a swift and occluding icy fog setting in, he finds the aircraft both blind of sight and covered with ice—unable to fly. The snowboarders have to literally hang on to the aircraft, in reverse of what one sees in action/adventure movies—not for their own safety but to keep the helicopter from tumbling off its uneasy mountaintop roost into the rocky vale below. Using a backcountry snow shovel designed to build kicker ramps and to dig snowboarders out from avalanches, the team breaks the ice off the helicopter’s blades and finally the pilot can lift off, then circle back from the rest of the group. This scene, though brief, is as harrowing as any climax out of a James Bond movie and yet is matter-of-fact in its reality. (It would also probably be enough to give a heart attack to anyone who sells insurance on helicopters.) Everyone involved seems somberly aware of how badly this could have turned out, yet it also an occupational risk. There is no sense of overstated courage or even out-stated excitement in such situations, just resignation at the weather conditions not being as good as hoped.

Soon, the skyline changes on-screen from wilderness to swiftly-groomed park. The chair-lifts, the sweet, perfect curves of human-directed snowscape. The rough-hewn yet civil curves of the rock-crafted ski lodge. We get to see our intrepid crew of pros hit the type of park terrain we know as more everyday snowboarders ourselves and we’ve seen in contests. Despite this, no sense of spectacle is lost in the atmospheric time-lapse sequence of day turing to night, snow turning to stars, that is provided when we transition from wilderness to park. The sense of cold air at your throat, clear skies at night, every star pristine in the chilly sky—this is what every snowboarder gets during good weather in places like British Columbia and it is profoundly captured here. Some snowboarding journalists when reviewing The Art of Flight have dwelled on the “art film” aspect of the production, claiming that Morgan and Rice set out to make an art film about snowboarding. Instead, I see the results—and also probably the latent concept behind the film—as indicative of a sincere effort to portray how snowboarding as an experience feels to the snowboarder fortunate enough to travel so far and wide.

The only part of The Art of Flight that feels uneasy or out of place at points is the soundtrack: instead of the hard-charging hip-hop or rock of most snowboarding films, The Art of Flight opted for an atmospheric blend of vocal trance and other electronica with some rock-inspired touches here and there. In theory, this would promote the artistic, contemplative, feel about their sport that Morgan and Rice seem to desire to convey, however in most instances the music simply seems subdued and slow compared to the action at hand. In places it works, but in others it feels overwrought and, somewhat touchingly, recalls the high days of the west coast rave scene in the later 1990s. There are some slow-motion sequences filmed at Jackson Hole which really capture this feeling between the music selection and slow-motion replay. That said, the scenes at Revelstoke Resort in Canada feature some fast-pace rock that seems more appropriate for the more rapid action sequences.

While The Art of Flight may have the greatest budget, the greatest expanse of locales, the greatest sheer sense of variety and excitement of any snowboarding film to date, will it appeal to viewers beyond snowboarders and curious fans in other action sports? Yes. I feel it will. In fact, it may be the final jump between snowboarding seeming somewhat ancillary to surfing and skateboarding and instead fully composing a robust trifecta with them. Nike, which had placed its snowboarding athletes under the wing of its general 6.0 action sports division up to this year now has established a specific Nike Snowboarding line. The product boxes are shiny black and sea-foam green. The website is loud and slick. There is no sense of cloistered, down-low, quietness here: it’s all writ very large. Nike, say whatever you wish about the company, when it comes to sports trends, most often knows when it’s on to something. Snowboarding is growing and The Art of Flight will be the key visual experience to push that growth forward, and it deserves this honor: the film is steadfast in its love of the sport and the quality of action here is the very highest. Beyond that though, the incidental nature and scenic cinematography is what really conquers in this film: There is a feeling of being overwhelmed here and it’s a most pleasing sensation, too. This is the film that writes out, draws out, spells out, frame by precious frame, a future very large. Yet it’s also the first snowboarding film to really get at the tranquillity of time on the mountain or even time at the lodge, the way snow and cold air come together to begat one of the most special, most silent, most peaceful feelings you can have; in the bustle of all this expensive film-making and the best pro riders on Earth, we get that feeling now and then.

_____

At Home With War: A Vietnam Veteran Goes To The Movies

Sunday, July 24, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

We all watch for fire
for all the fallen dead to return
and teach us a language so terrible
it could resurrect us all.

– Joy Harjo, In Mad Love And War

_____

So a colleague says, “You’re a veteran. What are your favorite war movies?”

I am alternately drawn to, and disturbed by, war movies. But it’s not for the reasons a lot of people think. A lot of folks think that a war movie, verisimilitude notwithstanding, can never depict war. I’m an artist. I don’t ask the artifact to be the war. I just ask the art to give meaning to witness.

I don’t like most war movies, because there is nothing transcendent. All they do is remind me that, when I was a soldier, I was violent. On the other hand, I find the violent fantasy arousing. I miss my M-16. There’s nothing transcendent about that. It’s disturbing.

Here’s what I like. Some of the best war movies are not about war. They are about coming home from war. They are about finding meaning in witness. That’s what I like.

What follows is personal, my likes, my dislikes. I will illustrate this not by talking about whole movies, but by centering upon great scenes.

—–

Platoon

When this movie came out in 1986, I saw it six times. It was the first time I saw a movie that looked and sounded like Vietnam. Oliver Stone is a Vietnam veteran.

In The Nam, he also learned something about the meaning of evil. Stone ends the movie with Chris Taylor, the central character, saying, “I think now, looking back on it, that we did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” The movie was, in some quarters, criticized for what was perceived as moral ambiguity. Taylor, however, learns that there is nothing morally ambiguous about the fact he, the soldier, has to kill – and I mean to kill anyone at all. Taylor finishes by saying that we need “to teach to others what we know, and to try, with what’s left of our lives, to find a goodness and meaning to this life.”

There is the one other scene that I love. That’s the scene where The Heads are in a bunker smoking dope. My war buddies and I had such a bunker. There is a camaraderie known to those who have shared danger,. Too much can be made of that comradeship, and too often in movies it is clichéd. Stone spares us the sentimental. So, when I see this scene, hear that music, I think of our bunker and The Heads I knew.

—–

The Best Years Of Our Lives

Here’s your trivia question. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946? It’s A Wonderful Life? Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V? Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the 1944 Somerset Maugham novel?

No. The movie that won is the movie that 16 million returning veterans wanted to see, The Best Years Of Our Lives, the movie about three guys readjusting to civilian life.

Harold Russell won two Academy Awards for the same role. Russell plays Homer Parrish, a disabled ex-sailor. While serving as a paratrooper, Russell in fact lost both hands.

In what could be called a reverse bedroom scene, Homer’s fiancée, Wilma, played by Cathy O’Donnell, comes by to break their engagement. Wilma is reluctant to leave Homer, but her parents want to send her away. “I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don’t want you tied down forever just because you’ve got a kind heart,” Homer tells her.

He tells her further that she really doesn’t know what she’s getting into. “I’m going upstairs to bed. I wantcha — I want ya to come up and see for yourself what happens.”

She follows Homer to his bedroom. He takes off his pajama top with surprising dexterity. Then he stands before her, his harness and hooks displayed. He wiggles out of the harness, and tosses it on the bed. With his left stub, he points to the harness and says, “This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” To her credit, she marries him.

There are a couple of things that make this scene powerful. Russell, in a sense, isn’t acting. “This is when I know I’m helpless.” He speaks for almost all war veterans, the wounded and the whole. Why? Almost all war veterans, the occasional sociopath notwithstanding, are psychically wounded. This woundedness is compounded frequently by a feeling of isolation. Homer is luckier than most. He is able to share his pain with Wilma.

—–
Jaws

A seemingly odd choice. But there’s this old joke among war vets. Do you know the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale starts, “Once upon a time,” and a war story starts, “Now this here ain’t no bullshit.”

I love a great story. And every war vet has at least one story that, as the bard says, “would harrow up thy soul.”

I mention this movie because of one scene only, a great scene, a story told by Quint, the captain of the ship that chases the shark. Amid much drinking aboard his vessel, Quint recalls the 1945 sinking of his cruiser, the U. S. S. Indianapolis. Quint spent four days in the water waiting for rescue. Hundreds around him were eaten by sharks. For Quint, hunting sharks is all about his war. It is his way to revisit his trauma, and this time, hopefully, fix it.

Quint’s mesmerizing tale is based upon a true story. Of 1,196 folks aboard the cruiser, only 316 survived. And, yes, hundreds, by sharks. And this here ain’t no bullshit.

Robert Shaw, who played Quint, completely rewrote the monologue, which director Steven Spielberg came to regard as one of the the best scenes he ever shot. Originally, mention of the Indianapolis was just a passing reference to Quint’s familiarity with sharks.

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Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I love Peter Sellers. But, when it comes to this movie, I’m a Slim Pickens fan. As Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong, Pickens rides a hydrogen bomb like some nuclear bronco, smacking it with his cowboy hat until the scene flashes to stark white.

There is an absurdity to war that this scene captures. A war buddy of mine, Dick Bittner, used to talk about “a cartoon”, some absurd scene going on right in the middle of a war. Like the time my buddies were asked to paint artillery shells as they were being fired. The artillery guys kept objecting that paint was getting all over their hands and the howitzer, but, hey, orders are orders. Then there was the time an army band was sent into the field to play “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”, this while dignitaries, generals and such, ate finger sandwiches, drank wine, and watched an air strike kill Viet Cong. It is as if, in the search for meaning, existential absurdity itself reminds us that it’s one option.

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All Quiet On The Western Front – any version

In the most painfully stark scene of a painfully stark film, the German soldier Paul, the main character, stabs a French soldier. He dies slowly. Because of the fire overhead, Paul is then trapped in a shell hole while his mortally wounded enemy groans — all night.

Paul learns the identity of the man. Gerard Duval. A printer. Paul even learns his address, and vows to write Duval’s wife and child. It’s personal.

War is personal Perhaps the greatest lie of any war is that the enemy is not human, that the enemy is not like us. War is always personal. A North Vietnamese war poet once said that, when he aimed his rifle, he aimed first at the heart of that soldier’s mother.

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Paths Of Glory

Platoon begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes. “Rejoice, oh young man, in thy youth.” When I was in Nam, Chuck Willis’ nickname was “Pop”. He was 24. With all respect to the professional soldier, and the occasional old coot, war is associated with youth. And old veterans looking back on what they were, and what they’ve become because of war.

Paths of Glory, a 1957 film by Stanley Kubrick, takes place during World War I. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the French commanding officer of three brave soldiers, who refused to continue a suicidal attack. Dax defends them against a charge of cowardice. They are court-martialed and executed. Their own comrades are forced to shoot them.

In the final scene of the movie, a young woman in a tavern begins to sing a German folk song. The soldiers are at first hostile, and the viewer can easily anticipate rape. But the hardened troops instead end up humming along, some openly weeping, as she sings “The Faithful Hussar”. They weep for what they have become.

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“For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile…” Wasn’t that what Henry V said? I used to wonder about this good old boy I used to see at a V. F. W. hall. He was a physician at the St. Louis University hospital. But, during World War II, he was a pharmacist’s mate on a submarine. Once a month, he’d meet-up with his old shipmates. Working men. I used to wonder about that. The physician and the plumber.

I went to a reunion of my Nam unit, the 4th Infantry Division. I always avoided these things, but this time the 4th was meeting here, my hometown. I spent the evening talking to a guy who, today, is a crane operator. The Ph. D. and the high school dropout.

And what draws us together? Memories. A few laughs. A terrible knowledge. And while art cannot replicate the experience, it can, in fact, give that knowledge meaning. As for the experience per se, that’s what reunions are for.

As for the movies. Why are so many good war movies really coming home movies?

There are a lot of other movies I could mention. Born On The 4th Of July. The Deer Hunter. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. Coming Home. Or, for that matter, Rambo. My point is this. It took me a lot of therapy to learn a simple truth. I will never recall The Nam and not be sad. But I don’t hate the army. I hate what I became because of war. Sometimes art, for an hour or two, gives that a meaning.

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Paul Pollaro and the Peso Principle

Wednesday, July 6, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Encountering a Paul Pollaro painting fully takes both moments and years. It causes a brain chill, a tingle down the spine and is a highly tactile experience. I know this because I live with a Paul Pollaro painting and recently made a pilgrimage to where he lives and works near South Berwick, ME so we could talk and look and think. We did all three.

Paul began by talking about growing up with an artist father who created complex collages out of old paintings, ship canvases, in essence geological time layers. Referred to as “physical skins” whose sources remained mysterious, Paul’s paintings, as well, have many deep epidermal layers, a primitivism and density evocative of hides.

He brought me down to his studio, a room off the basement whose door had to be wrenched open with a hammer as it was stuck shut with paint and solvent. I took a picture of his work shoes which were plastered with paint to the degree that they looked bronzed, like prized baby shoes.

I can think of no other painter who is as physical as Paul Pollaro is and he himself noted that he is both “an artist and an athlete” when working. Paul manipulates his materials—he walks through his paintings, presses boards into them, linen, too, will even flip a canvas over, walk on it again, anything to find a way to a new detail. Conscious decisions fail for him as he is visceral, in his depths. Beginning with the arbitrary, Paul then finds relationships between space, tempo, things he couldn’t conceive of while corralling and directing it all. This, according to Paul is very “Id,” decadent and inside the Super-Ego.

Yet there is a profound desire for consistency, for the viewer to have an experience akin to picking up a rock only to discover a salamander, slimy and alive, or to witnessing a birth, also slimy, alive, and yes, primitive. We all must become, or so Paul hopes, Pre-historic, a being seeing a Wooly Mammoth for the first time. He wants his paintings to be like a beast in the room, or a tree stump. Most of his canvases are large 8’ by 6’ walls and Paul claims that people see everything except what drives them as he works with figurative imagery no one seems to get.

In other words, Paul Pollaro creates an abstraction out of an abstraction taken from the figurative to the point where he risks losing his audience. For him, the love and drive exists in the most private places and those private places hold the soul of his enthralling canvases.

Hence we come to his notion of PESO with “P” standing for Particularity, “E” for Engagement (i.e., that slimy salamander under the rock,) “S” for Simultaneity, which contains both exertion and privacy and “O” for Otherness, which is a deeply embedded insistence on how complex we are, that we are what we don’t create simply because the things that shape us most—the monster, the beast—are things we do not choose because they are scary and far from benign. For Paul, it was his mother’s cancer and who among us would choose or will for one’s mother to have cancer? Therein, another concept comes into play, “The Success of Failure” as no one willing chooses failure, but it does comprise us, it even deepens and directs our lives.

Paul also touched upon Joseph Campbell’s idea of “The Aesthetic Experience.” He talked about how when the mind sees a tree, it can’t possibly process all of its elements—the wind, the light, the sheer volume and quantity of leaves—and so, the brain must generalize. Paul insists we can and do have the capacity for “The Aesthetic Experience,” to be inside the moment as it unfolds its finite infinity like a Jacob’s Ladder.

Paul himself described one such experience. He was on a tour with a Lamaze class when the guide suddenly pointed he wanted the group to see. Paul watched every head turn, each slightly differently in a strange, particular way in a single moment. To him, it was like looking at a bunch of Praying Mantises. I, too, saw those heads turn like nearly reptilian insects.

PESO. “The Aesthetic Experience.” Paul Pollaro wants his audience to look closely, to see how many granules there are in one inch of canvas. Multiply that inch till it creates an 8’ by 6’ wall. Think about the moment when the spark travels from the stick of its origin, how a grass bowl can be both grass and bowl, how an image can appear in primordial mud, the birth, the beast and tree stump, of making tools out of earth and water and you might begin to imagine the magnificent and complex magnitude that exists in one Paul Pollaro painting where to see is to be brought into heightened perceptibility so exquisite, it is nearly excruciating.

Artist Bio:

Paul Pollaro was born in Brooklyn, NY, received his MFA from Indiana University, has had many gallery affiliations and exhibitions, including one person shows at Aucociso Gallery in Portland, ME, Soprafina in Boston, MA and Nahcotta in Portsmouth, NH. Once a Maine resident he now lives and works in Rollingsford, NH.

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Trash

Wednesday, July 6, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

by Emily Cerrone

I hate taking out the trash. Not in the same way that I hate doing a sink full of hot dishes on a stifling summer afternoon. It makes me sick—literally sick. Smells of rotting meat and coffee grounds are no match for the odor reducing garbage bags. At the smell, I can feel my face drain of color, as sweat beads on my forehead. Doubled over, I dry heave next to the garbage dumpster.

Walking into the GalleriE CHIZ on Ellsworth Ave, to visit Lori Hornell’s exhibition, “Stuff and Nonsense,” I discovered Lori has a different view of trash. For Lori, everything has possibility; nothing is trash. She is not revolted by the remains of last night’s dinner. She finds a second life for everything. Instead of throwing away paint brushes—tiny clumps of paint still clinging to the abused bristles—or last week’s Sunday paper, she makes them into pieces of art. Pieces of antique dolls find their way into balls of newspaper or on top of a body made from computer chips, emory boards, and folded paper. Old tomato cages and pieces of wire become artistic representations of looms. Lori manages to weave pieces of normally discarded material—seemingly unrelated—into pieces of art.

Instead of forcing the lid down on a garbage can as pasta boxes and broken hangers push for freedom, Lori liberates discarded items. She allows for their reincarnation. She does not push for the items to be something their not. If a hat does not seem to fit onto a head and seems to look more like a skirt, Lori makes it into a skirt. Nothing is forced into the confines of garbage. She gives them the freedom to become something different. As Lori says, “clutter has a mind of its own.” The trash is alive.

Humor can be found in many things, and trash is not an exception. A piece entitled “Funnybones,” depicts pieces of chicken bones wrapped in brightly colored comic strips. I even imagine Lori snatching away a sock or tissue box that would be destined for the trash, spiriting it away to her worktable. In my mind, she is like a crusader, rescuing holy relics. She braves the garbage, saving junk from its fate. I am the cowardly servant, not prepared for the fight. I drop the garbage in the dumpster, and the door slams to my house. I am safe.

Where I see revulsion, Lori sees a chance to laugh; where I see pieces of meaningless junk, Lori sees the potential for creativity and expression. I look at her art and wonder how many used tea bags and empty pens I’ve thrown away. How many items and ideas I’ve automatically dismissed as broken. How many times have I put the lid on the garbage before giving it a second chance?
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Gallery Review: 10″ x 10″ x 10″

Sunday, May 29, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Shannon Azzato Stephens

When encountering a blown glass piece, even the novice viewer can’t help but think about process. This is partly because the act of blowing glass seems daunting and intriguing. Looking at a good sketch, one might think, wow, I would never be able to do that— but it’s still easy to imagine a row of charcoal stubs, the artist’s blackened fingertips running over shadows on the page. But when I walked into the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s exhibition 10” x 10” x 10” to find a bouquet of immaculate glass daisies suspended in an orb of solid clear glass, my first thought was “how did they do that?”

I have to admit, my focus on the glassblowing process is clouded by experience: in college, I took classes at the Pittsburgh Glass Center and managed to make a series of wobbly cups. I know just enough about the process to cobble together an idea of how most glass pieces are done, and to feel completely overwhelmed by the skill inherent in the work at 10” x 10” x 10”, the latest show in PGC’s Hodge Gallery.

Running from May 6 – September 17, the show celebrates the 10th anniversary of PGC, a nonprofit center for glass art classes and exhibitions at 5472 Penn Avenue in Friendship. The gallery is open Monday, Friday, and Saturday from 10 am – 4 pm, and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 10 am – 7 pm. The pieces, which all fit into a 10” by 10” by 10” measurement, represent the work of over 200 glass artists, from Pittsburgh to Tokyo and back. I advise walking very slowly around the long, narrow room. I missed a number of amazing details on my first sweep of the gallery: a globe the size of my thumbnail, a two-headed bird caught in a clear oval cup, a photograph mounted on the wall of a vase being blown.

When I was taking glassblowing classes, I thought the most beautiful artwork created in PGC’s ample studio space was the fleeting moments of molten glass in process. To be malleable enough for blowing, the glass is kept in a 2000-degree Fahrenheit furnace; glassblowers approach it for mere seconds at a time, gathering orbs of blindingly bright white glass onto the end of a “punti”, a long steel bar. This is done as quickly as possible, because even standing near the furnace for too long can burn the skin on your arms. The glass immediately begins to cool as soon as it is removed from the furnace, and glows a rich honey color —a match for its viscous, drippy consistency— during the process of blowing.

Molten glass moves quickly, gracefully, almost viciously under a glassblower’s tools: its color is bold, its form otherworldly. Though many pieces that demonstrate the artist’s intricate skill emerge from the studio looking very still and very finished, I prefer those that reflect the motion of glass while it’s still in process. My favorite piece at 10” x 10” x 10”, Tim Drier’s “Flow”, maintains this sense of motion while still looking “finished” (ie, it is nothing like the slumped, bubbly cups I crafted in my beginner classes).

Featuring a woman suspended in a clear ring, her back bent backwards in some kind of danceful rapture, the piece bears an impressive attention to detail while maintaining a sense of fluid motion. It seems as if the figure is about to uncurl her 6” body and step lightly onto the ledge where Drier’s piece has been set. She will move, not with the prescribed stiffness of a person, all bones and trepidation, but with the flow inherent in molten glass. She will glide, her shadows curving over the edges of wine glasses, sculptural flowers, and etchings of dark faces. She will get lost in the studio where she was born.

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