November 30, 2009 § 2 Comments
History and art are commonly brought together, but seldom in the way that “Boilerplate” accomplishes the feat. Part gentle satire of the American war machine and part example of what Big Brother could do with some accomplished Photoshop skill, “Boilerplate” manages to critique history even as it rewrites it.
Starting from the conceit that in 1893 Professor Archibald Campion built a mechanical man for the Victorian era, “Boilerplate” documents the history of this lost piece of technology which, through its value at the time, is swept into conflicts and turning points at various stages. Some are well-known, while others are downright enlightening — whoever heard of the First Korean War? Not me, I confess, but it happened in 1871. It serves not as a Boilerplate adventure, but the scene in which the purpose of the robot is born — a substitute for flesh and blood in armed conflict. It’s an interesting peace-keeping notion, the idea that humankind is unlikely to abandon the tendency, so turning the practice into one that causes the fewest levels of fatality might serve as the best bandage to severe wound in the traditions of our species.
And so Boilerplate becomes mixed up in an array of adventures, each incident delivered with sober prose recounting these important moments in history that have become sketchy in our memories in time.
Only, they never happened.
Well, a lot of things in the book did happen — the World’s Columbian Exposition, the building of the Panama Canal, the hunt for Pancho Villa — and as near as I can tell, the history contained is impeccable. Boilerplate, however, did not happen — nor did any of the robots in the lovely final chapter that recounts a history of automated men in the 20th Century — despite the level of photographic documentation within. And it is gorgeous, flawless visual documentation, taking old photographs and inserting Boilerplate seamlessly into the proceedings or presenting period artwork with the robot included, thus fashioning an unusual and very beautiful art book built around manipulated imagery.
This makes “Boilerplate” two things at once — a fun way to introduce kids to 20th Century history and a rather insidious primer on how a dictator can change history. Oh, I know, there’s little chance anymore that one book would change the collective memory of any society on this Earth, but there is plenty of precedence for control in such an area that even if it’s not totally applicable anymore,
“Boilerplate” is an amazing testament to what the technology can fashion these days. The masters behind the Iron Curtain would have killed for this sort capability half a century ago.
November 30, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Judging from the presentation in “Tulpan,” there is little to recommend living the life of a sheep herder in Kazakhstan if you expect a few comforts, but that difference is cosmetic and more is shared at our cores.
The film, the first fictional work by documentary director Sergy Dvortsevoy, follows Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), just released from the Russian Navy and determined to make a life for himself on the Hunger Steppe. The plan includes a wife and his own herd, neither of which are happening for the poor guy since it’s the Kazakh version of you need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. The object of Asa’s desires — the unseen Tulpan, the last available girl in the region — has rejected him because he has no good income (though the excuse she gives is that he has funny ears).
At the same time, Asa cannot secure his own flock until he is married. As such, poor Asa is left tooling around the desolate landscape with his ne’er do well best friend (Tulepbergen Baisakalov) and living rather uncomfortably with his sister (Samal Yeslyamova) and her family, including a shepherd husband (Ondasyn Besikbasov) who resents Asa’s presence and feels the pressure of his flock’s continual still births.
Despite all that “Tulpan” is a remarkably cheery movie, just not relentlessly so, presenting the depth of the situations in honest terms, including the family strife and Asa’s desperation and loneliness. It doesn’t drown in the downers, though, presenting a realistic cycle of the emotional journey offered by the shift to adulthood and the difficulties inherent.
What makes the movie come alive — apart from Kuchinchirekov’s performance as Asa, which presents the audience with a real character that doesn’t seem performed at all — is Dvortsevoy’s direction. He uses his background to great advantage, allowing the film to meander off the main track a bit to capture the inner workings of the family and the shepherds to add both flavor and information to Asa’s story.
Thanks to Dvortsevoy we get a distinct idea of what it is like to be in Asa’s position, and that’s no small feat for a film taking place in a culture so alien — Dvortsevoy is able to accentuate what we share with the characters rather than focus on the differences.
Whether we’re in the Hunger Steppe of Kazakhstan or the foothills of the Berksires, we all want love and acceptance and a future, and at one time in our lives, we are all Asa.
November 21, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Someday this series will be the basis for some kind of cultish, international sensation. Mark my words — it will seem vaguely familiar, and you will scan the darkest recesses of your memory and find a trace of this review within. It will help “Dungeon” ring some bells in your mind, but they won’t be as loud as the voices telling you that there is a new “Lord of the Rings,” a new “Harry Potter” or, at least, a new “Bone” or “Redwall” — on the horizon.
And they will be right — but I’m giving you the chance to get in on it early.
The “Dungeon” series is both alarmingly simple and enormously complicated, thanks to two of the best writers in the French graphic novel scene — Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim — who also lend their artistic talents to some volumes.
Built around the concept of levels to fill out its narrative timeline, “Dungeon” is actually several book series under one umbrella that covers as many fantasy genres as it does eras in the history of the structure it examines. There are three primary series and two secondary series currently available in English.
The series originally started with “Dungeon: Zenith,” now with a third volume, which follows the adventures of Herbert the duck and Marvin the dragon, both guards in Dungeon, a safe haven for monsters and successful playland for would-be adventurers who will pay good money for a prefabricated dangerous fantasy experience. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 21, 2009 § Leave a Comment
In the new movie “The Yes Men Fix the World,” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno continue their performance infiltrations, which serve as political action with a sense of humor.
The film documents their recent exploits, including a fraudulent apology and promise of a clean-up from Dow Chemical for the 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. It also includes a stage appearance as HUD spokesmen with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and an alternate edition of The New York Times with the headline “Iraq War Ends” that was distributed to 80,000 New Yorkers.
In 2003, the duo was featured in the Mass MoCA show “The Interventionists,” which highlighted guerilla-style political art — their absurd gold body suit for executives and video of their pro-slavery lecture while posing as representatives of the World Trade Organization were included.
Most recently, Bichlbaum and Bonanno have been in the news for several reasons. This September, they released a counterfeit edition of the New York Post with the headline “We’re screwed!” in order to address global warming. The next day, Bichlbaum was arrested for an outstanding parking ticket after leading two dozen other people into the East River in SurvivaBall costumes — ridiculous inflatable suits that also make an appearance in the new film.
Last month, the Yes Men held a press conference pretending to be spokesmen for the Chamber of Commerce and announcing a reversal in the organization’s policy on global warming. In the middle of that, an actual Chamber of Commerce official appeared to stop the event.
The Yes Men embody a style of political protest that includes performance as well as a form of prankishness. Bichlbaum — the Yes Man who does most of the talking on camera — says they refer to their work as “actions” in order not to trivialize the intent behind them.
“We don’t really like to call it pranking because it’s not about just about having fun; it’s about doing something for a purpose,” he said. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 21, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Columbus may not have actually discovered the Americas, but his voyage changed their landscape forever — and divided history in such a way that the history of the two continents prior to his arrival is only currently being introduced into popular history.
At a talk today at Williams College journalist Charles C. Mann will focus on “The Pristine Myth,” a term referring to the idea that Christopher Columbus landed on an untouched wilderness that begged for European management of it and the people living there.
In Mann’s book “1491,” he argues that not only was the New World “not untouched” but it was heavily touched by the native populace. However, he says, the impacts of their stewardship of the land is still felt today, and their methods are worth investigation to correct ecological missteps pulled from the European tradition.
“You had a whole lot of people here — millions and millions of people — on separate paths of development, and it seems to me implausible that all these people over all these years would not have come up with anything that was worth our paying attention to,” he said during a recent interview.
Mann’s research concluded that the Americas were far more densely populated than we now believe, with diverse societies and inhabitants that were more sophisticated in sustainable land management than their European conquerors. Mann also uncovered advances in math and science made by the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans that were equitable to advances in Europe and Asia — a revelation that speaks to the idea that what passed for primitivism to the European eye was entirely skin deep.
Mann cites 150 years of anthropology and archaeology that have released a tidal wave of knowledge about the pre-Columbian world, but he also credits an unusual source — the conquerors themselves.
“The immediate conquerors wrote pretty interesting history,” Mann said. “If you go to the original Spanish sources and the original Colonial sources — English, French, Spanish, whatever — you’ll find all kinds of stuff that dropped out of our history books, and so it’s really a surprise.
“Sixteenth-century Spaniards knew how to count and knew what they were seeing to a large extent, and they wrote about it. They described the capital of the Aztec empire as the largest and finest that they had ever seen — a whole bunch of them describe it that way. At some point you have to give careful to the idea that it may have actually been the largest and finest city they had ever seen.” « Read the rest of this entry »
November 16, 2009 § 2 Comments
Few performers these days are as confounding as Icelandic singer Bjork – to those who love her work, she is still a bit of conundrum. Those who can’t stand the woman cite anything from her combative and detached nature to her screaming vocal dynamics. Few seem to latch onto her strictly as a songwriter, which is too bad be cause that is one of her greatest strengths, among many.
As a vocal stylist, I think she is the most innovative pop singer around – she puts as much care into what her vocals mean as a sound as any good jazz singer – but her songs are the blueprint for her innovation, and the real question is whether they can also serve as a map for others to bounce brilliance off.
Travis Sullivan puts this question to the test with his assembled group, Bjorkestra and its release “Enjoy.” Consisting of 10 Bjork-penned songs – including hits such as “Human Behavior” and “Army of Me” – Sullivan’s group explores Bjork’s legacy by processing it through a different filter – orchestral jazz.
The singer’s work is known for its flexibility – Bjork herself encourages DJs and fans to remix and remake – and her background in jazz speaks to the process by which her mind lays down the tunes she writes. They are made with the idea that they are part of a language, meant to evolve. Anyone who has heard her energetic earliest album, “Gling Glo,” which she recorded with a jazz trio, or her “Live Box,” which documents the singer’s live experimentation with her own songs, can see the path that Sullivan and company have decided to walk.
The work of Bjorkestra might also succeed as a forceful vehicle for those put off by Bjork as a presence that might appreciate her as a creator of music – it’s a strong work, fun and inventive, and most of all, accessible to anyone willing to lend an ear.
Bouncing back and forth between Bjork’s melodies and jazz improv, Bjorkestra tackles her melodies and puts them in a different context, highlighting what is there in songs such as “Hunter” by transforming it into a bluesy jazz swirl, while also pointing to the extreme possibilities in her work with a version of “Cocoon,” which takes the music into a zone of deconstructed experimentation even as it explores what Bjork laid down.
A strong bonus are the vocals of Becca Stevens, who offers the op posite of the Bjork experience with her clarity – the delivery really redirects and highlights what is special about the lyrics and vocal lines.
The album ends with a peaceful version of one of Bjork’s most delicate compositions – the overture to “Dancer in the Dark” – a lush and powerful lament that winds down the album and pushes you to take it all in again.
November 15, 2009 § Leave a Comment
The success of Bill Willingham’s long-running Fables series rests on multiple narrative foundations, not the least of which is its novelty. While updating the fairy tales is not such an original choice for a backdrop, Willingham crafts a situation that attacks the conceit and turns it on its head.
In the recently released “Fables 1 Deluxe Edition,” those who missed out on what the series has delivered are given another opportunity to discover a work that benefits from the power of the graphic storytelling medium. This could never be a television show or a movie, and it would not be the same as a novel. This has to be in a comic format in order to give it the devotion to detail the stories require and to inject the visual standard they deserve.
Willingham’s vision has all the char acters from the fairy tales of old as a displaced community living in New York – some in the city, some upstate on a farm. Their home land has been invaded, and the remnants of this disruption live in exile as a self-governing community.
In the first story arc in the book, the former Big Bad Wolf and now security chief of the Fable Com mun ity investigates the murder of Red Rose with her sister, Director of Fable Operations Snow White. The suspects? Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Bluebeard. In the second, a trip to the Fable farm in upstate New York reveals a brewing uprising within the community, as led by the particularly combative Goldilocks.
What Willingham does is examine several things at once and all under the guise of satire. First and foremost is a study of immigration in America, where separate communities co-exist alongside what most would consider typical American citizens and form their own organizations, values, traditions and rules, as well as the struggle to assimilate while maintaining their ethnic identity. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 15, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Medeski, Martin and Wood embrace jazz without become slaves to it. By mixing up styles and genres, they apply the same sensibility to a more varied musical landscape. With John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums and percussion and Chris Wood on bass, the band has become renowned for music that is unclassifiable and always pushing the boundaries. .
For its upcoming release “Radiolarians,” the band gathered the results of a year-and-a-half project into a deluxe format featuring three CD volumes of the official project — a rarities disc, a live disc, a remix disc, a DVD and two vinyl LPs. For the project, band members would get together and write music and then take it on the road. They would then hone the compositions live and finally record for release.
“We’re always restless in the way in which we make music and play music. We’re looking at new ways to write music together and keep it fresh,” Martin said in an interview this week. “This is the opposite of what a commercial record label band would do, and it has a lot to do with, when we perform in front of an audience, we always take that approach of playing different variations on our music every night depending on how we feel and depending on the audience, so it makes sense to do it this way, and it was just yet another variation on how to create a new repertoire.” « Read the rest of this entry »
November 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
One of the recent trends in British television drama has been the linking device – that is, a commonality among multiple characters that is used as a reason to unfold a sprawling, almost anthology-like television series involving a number of characters in finite stories.
Some of the more successful have been “Clocking Off,” which ran for four years and revolved around workers in a clothing factory, and “The Street,” which told stories about residents who live on the same street in London. Add to that list “Collision,” a five-part series that has been condensed into two parts for Masterpiece Contemporary on PBS and will begin airing on Sunday, Nov. 15, at 9 p.m.
In “Collision,” a massive traffic accident serves as the required springboard for the various personal dramas of the victims of the crash. Detective Inspector John Tolin (Douglas Henshall) is called in to get to the bottom of the incident, which seems routine but becomes a complicated tangle of individual mysteries, as well as the center of emotional turmoil for the detective himself, as he struggles with the death of wife, the ghosts and regrets of his relationship with her and his handicapped daughter.
Those involved in the accident unleash a torrent of other issues that need sorting, from industrial espionage to international crime, as well as some more mundane problems like mother-in-law trouble and even a possible Prince Charming love story. It’s Tolin’s duty to get to the bottom of why the accident happened in the first place, but each participant provides an alluring diversion to his investigation that reveals the collision as a turning point in several tales and a sad ending in others. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 11, 2009 § Leave a Comment
In context of this review for the new book “Art For Obama” from Abrams — edited by Shepard Fairey and Jennifer Gross — this is going to confirm a bias for the lingering mob that no doubt expects it anyhow. But it will also reveal the reason why I think a book of art focused around the presidential ascendancy of Obama is an important thing. It will also allow me to share my views on the power of perception and reality in the case of Barack Obama, and how that should steer the way we look at politics and politicians.
Obama, at some point in his campaign, talked about the fact that people seemed to see him the way they wanted to see him. Each individual member of the voting public tended to project their hopes or fears onto him and so his appearance to the American people was not that of the man, but a reflection of ourselves. In expressing this, Obama set up his very own metaphor and one that goes to its logical conclusion in a project like “Art For Obama.”
My sense is that Obama the person is an entirely separate thing from working day reality of Obama the president, and our expectations of either might differ as well. The art collected in this book — and the varying perceptions of him by voters — speak as much of him as an agreeable personality as of what we, as citizens, require of our country.
Admittedly there’s a dark side to this sort of thing — the cult of personality. At it’s worst, a grouping of adoring artistic images of one politician can remind one mostly of Stalin or Mao — appropriate considering all the phrase-slinging at Obama utilizing concepts like socialism and communism as weapons. It’s a fair observation, though, and if you don’t like Obama you are likely to be chilled in the spine by a collection such as this — thankfully, none of this mandated by the government and hung in city squares. Rather it is the effort of controversial street artist Shepard Fairey and others who, like any one else, lend their capabilities to something they believe in.
And so, the question remains — how is the art in the book anyhow?
Well, some of it is quite excellent — particularly those that don’t insist on inserting over-dramatized visions of Obama himself as an iconic stand-in for his ideas, or ideals. Some of the work can be nice enough portraits — Rafael Lopez’s Soviet style, Spanish-language posters on wood and George Vlosich’s Etch-A-Sketch drawing are particularly effective, and Jeremy Charles Burns’ cartoonish acrylic is adorable.
Others can make you cringe a bit — I’m not sure what Lukas Ketner was thinking when he presented Obama as a pumped up, dramatic hunk walking in the some bay somewhere. And Michael Cuffe utilizes the most over-used and boring illustrative cliche of the last 40 years — a variation on the Sgt. Pepper album cover.
Nicholas Dewar’s “Yes” — a red and blue silhouette of the full body of Obama with that very word placed over it — is more to the point and uses the idea of Obama’s image, rather than the reality, to good effect.
Some of the work glides on a gorgeous absurdity, however — Scot Lefavor’s six-panel spray paint instruction for a better American life looks like something out a a ‘70s religious pamphlet, just with good humanitarian intent, while Chris Pastras offers images of nudists on the White House lawn in an liney ‘70s greeting card style.
Travis Lampe’s “New Factory” presents a particularly hilarious image of industry overtaken by nature and Kelly Towles offers several great images of odd little people doing vaguely electoral things against a red, white and blue palette.
And there are several that boast striking design that get to the heart of the matter beyond Obama himself. Jon Wippich’s “Lighting the Way” offers a stylized silk screen image of an American citizen as part of the world and urging the ordinary man to “be the change” that may work best of any of these. It takes the message and illustrates it, without the cult of personality that could be off-putting to those on the fence.
Regardless, “Art for Obama” stands as a strong sampling of contemporary art from so many stratas of America. In some ways, I think it would be nice if it became a tradition for presidents to follow their election with an art book that reflects the America they represent, even if I already know there are some collections that wouldn’t move me in the slightest. It’s a nice thought, though, and one that values the creative class in the country and their ability to interpret ideas and events and people into representations of our own desires.