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Category: contemporary

Biennial Impressions

Here are a few excerpts from this morning’s viewing of the Giardini at the Venice Bienniale:

I admired the simple and surprising, like the pavilion of books (though there was some irony there in the inflated wall texts). Above is a beautiful troupe l’oeil painting by Liu Ye. Look, no words!

Mark Bradford, "Niagara" 2006

Another really simple and really moving piece called “Niagara” by Mark Bradford in the U.S. Pavilion: it’s three minutes long and my sister and I watched it over and over marveling at the painterly flatness of the setting, while the young man, larger than life then smaller and smaller as he walks away, just walking, compels attention. Here the catalogue text quotes Zadie Smith: “he does more than is necessary with less than he needs.” Exactly.

Canada pavilion, Venice Biennial 2017

Finally, I was glad to see that the national pavilions had a sort of consistency and modesty that I hadn’t expected. The Biennial looks like a World’s Fair but it doesn’t exactly seem to be about competition. I’m clearly not in the art world, but as a visitor all the pavilions seemed the same size, of the same importance etc. My favorite, though, has to be Canada’s, which was so understated (I know, cliche) that I couldn’t even find the label that identified or described it. There was just this really interesting, dynamic space that actually had some relationship with its location: the water and light and wood in an unexpected composition.

More disappointing:

  • France’s pavilion, where various musicians enact their routines by setting up, rehearsing, performing at random. Just not that interesting to watch, though when the music finally starts it’s a nice break from the visual.
  • The over-sized, over-decorated stuffed sculptures by Phyllida Barlow in Great Britain’s pavilion. Admittedly not my thing.
  • Olafur Eliasson‘s over-complicated social project “Green Light,” which was not engaging despite its good intentions and despite my usual appreciation for his work.

Overall, though, lots to think about and admire, with more work stretching all across the city.


Hit Me

Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) seems seamless. It’s special gift is its amazing wholeness — how performances and writing and directing all work together without any one overshadowing the others.  Seeing it again was to notice slow, small moments tidily encapsulated in a film about rage.  The short moment where Jake La Motta (played by Robert DeNiro) watches Vickie (played by Cathy Moriarty) splashing her legs at the public pool.  The long moment when Jake finally approaches the ring for his championship fight and the crowd noise gets louder and louder and louder….

Watch Jake’s brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, in the slow-building scene above: his brow creases and he shifts in his chair as he gives in to Jake’s bullying…. In many ways it’s a quiet scene, with just the two faces and no fancy camera shots, but it is portentous as Jake will continually ask for punishment from those around him and then lash out at them for giving it.  The black and white cinematography helps us focus on the interpersonal here — there is nothing on the wall behind Jake until they stand up, nothing else to look at but these brothers fighting as they have and will. The radio plays on.

“What does it prove?” Joey asks a good question, and we can’t answer it yet at that point in the film. The scene is all suggestion — that fighting begins at home (notice the woman, Jake’s wife, with whom he has already fought, peeking through the door?) and that Jake’s inability to divide public and private, fighting and family will escalate the suffering around him. The film is best known for its operatic violence, its spraying blood and pulpy faces, but these quieter bits are just as impressive.


Truly Free


In the clip above from Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) Werner Herzog narrates the lives of Russian trappers in the remote wilderness on the edge of Siberia.  His inimitable grave voice battles the sentimental soundtrack as Herzog tells us that these men, who spend months each year alone with their dogs, are self sufficient and thus “truly free.” The documentary, directed by Herzog with Dmitry Vasyukov, is wonderful — beautifully photographed and obsessed as only Herzog can be with the details of the trappers’ lives: sculpting canoes, hauling gear through treacherous waters, protecting food from bears, making their own skis….  The men are impressive craftsmen, and they can make whatever they need from the materials at hand. Living in a land only accessible by boat or helicopter for a few months a year, they have snowmobiles and television sets, but rely on food they grow or catch.

It’s no surprise that Herzog would romanticize this life as he has always been interested in the relationship of man and nature, especially in extremis. This film has the usual omissions: the men spend more time talking about training their dogs than raising their children, for example. Women are scarcely mentioned, nor are the ethics of the fur trade, tensions with indigenous peoples, or environmental concerns. But Herzog’s narration is more understated than in Grizzly Man, for example, where he makes more claims about Human Nature as well as Nature and Civilization. Here he only once or twice refers to his claim that the trappers are “happy people” because they live simple, self-sufficient lives….To his credit, Herzog doesn’t spend a lot of time defending that position. Instead he dramatizes the daily lives of the trappers across the seasons, showing us their enthusiasm for their work as the best proof possible. One trapper hardly stops smiling, even when a fallen tree caves in the roof of his hut. They may be happy, but these men are always one small step from disaster, it seems — which makes the film much more complicated and rewarding than the title might imply.


Can You See the Real Me?

There was so much to like about American Hustle (2013)!  The performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence were all strong in subtle ways. The story by Eric Singer and David O. Russell–about an improvised sting operation run by a rogue FBI agent with two ex-cons– was terrific. And David O. Russell’s direction was assured and well paced. The clip below shows his mastery of visual storytelling as it gradually reveals the couple’s relationship and the film’s theme of pretending. The screenplay continually questions what or who is “real” and in this strange but moving dress-up scene we paradoxically see this couple as themselves– falling in love in a dry cleaner’s store as the plastic-wrapped clothes encircle them in a world of their own.

Yet as a whole the movie didn’t cohere for me. I wasn’t sure where this messy engaging story was going, which was part of the point of the twists and turns of the plot. But what was the main focus or idea of the film? Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) learning how to be real with themselves and each other? The conflicts that occur when one person’s reality clashes with another’s?  The failures that spring from good intentions? There are lots of ideas played out here, but no clear focus to the whole–which is a shame because the parts are so good.