February 26, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Szabo’s “Child Murders” offers stark black-and-white cinematography but nothing so clearly defined in its story — it’s all gray, for better or worse.
Young Zsolt (Barnabas Toth) lives an isolated life in a dumpy apartment complex, spending most of his time not just caring for his drunken grandmother, but also orchestrating the moments of her day to fit her delusions. He becomes captivated by a homeless and pregnant gypsy girl (Maria Bologh), and a friendship blossoms between them.
That’s about the only reprieve from awfulness that Zsolt gets. Tortured and bullied by other kids in the neighborhood, both he and the girl become objects of derision until the grief that is thrown at them snowballs into tragedy after tragedy.
Szabo’s film was originally released in 1992, and it represents a tough time for the country. Hungary was moving away from communism and socialism, and the resulting transition was marked by a destructive recession that devastated social programs and resulted in a country-wide drop in the standard of living. Two years after this movie, a fed-up nation handed its parliament over to the former communists who then controlled the Social Party in the country.
“Child Murders” captures the bleakness of that landscape well, and in Zsolt lurks the national psyche. Betrayed by his elders — not only is his grandmother decrepit and incapacitated, but also his parents abandoned him to find a better life elsewhere — Zsolt finds that even his contemporaries are filled with rage, sadly directed at him. Zsolt’s fury, though, takes charge, as one would expect from a beaten child being kicked when he is down — hence the title of the film. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 26, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Artist Nathaniel Stern likes to take media from the past and present and put them together without compromising the integrity of either, revealing them to be equal in artistic expression.
Stern’s show, “Arrested Time” — featuring work with collaborator Jessica Meuninck-Ganger — opens at Greylock Arts, 93 Summer St., tonight with a reception at 5:30. UPDATE: The reception has been posponed until Saturday at 5:30. The show will feature two works — the large-scale installation “Given Time,” alongside some derivative work, and a collection of the self-described “monovids” done as part of an ongoing collaboration with Meuninck-Ganger.
“Given Time” is a screen projection featuring two life-sized avatars derived from the Internet community Second Life. This virtual space takes social networking like Facebook to a whole other level. Rather than being in the form of posting boards and messages, Second Life is like a freeform computer game in which the point of the play is to inhabit the space and get to know others around you.
Each member is represented in the three-dimensional screen world by a computer figure — an avatar — that is customized to his or her own desires based on templates supplied by Second Life. The service is the closest thing we have to a known parallel universe that we can perceive physically, rather than the more abstract psychological spaces provided by Web sites like Facebook.
Stern has used Second Life as a medium much like oil paint or marble, hand-drawing two Second Life avatars and pulling them from out of their universe and into ours. In the gallery, they exist on two large screens facing each other, and the viewer may only encounter them by walking between the screens. Thus the figures become actual existing beings in our own dimensional plane.
“Second Life became the perfect environment to situate this piece in, in that there is no time; there is no body, and yet you cannot access this space without a body,” Stern said during an interview this week. “There is no avatar without a person actually sitting there. Here, the viewer lends their body to the piece, and they become the avatar — and there’s this feedback loop where the avatar we’re looking at we’re only seeing through the other avatar’s eyes.” « Read the rest of this entry »
February 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
The slow degradation of film began with the advent of George Lucas and the “Star Wars” double trilogy, although in 1977 it was just one movie and a bunch of action figures, T-shirts and trading cards.
Those marketing ventures beyond the film helped sustain it into the epic that it became, but the cost of the actual films caused the industry itself to become so financially bloated that it could not sustain itself merely on box office and had to move into these other mediums. Toys — to the casual eye — seem at the top of the heap, but I would suggest that comic books, novels and computer games grab that honor.
As narrative devices, they stretch the boundaries of any given film series to such degrees that the films become only one portion of a larger output, no longer the center of the art form — or the story — at all.
In other words, a good portion of the real creativity happens in other forms — not the film. Any “Star Wars” fan will tell you the films are just skeletons on which to shape the actual good stuff in all the other mediums. In the realm of toys, the storytelling becomes personal and interactive.
This is how it works in the mainstream, but the actual cost of filmmaking hasn’t kept the form vivid artistically. When even the smallest independent film costs a couple million dollars to make — and to screen and distribute in theaters — you know that the form as most people experience it has been priced out of any true evolution, because real experimentation comes with a hefty price tag.
The downward spiral has continued with content. Unable to conceive of anything new, the movie industry went into overdrive mining old television shows and films, comic books, children’s books and foreign productions without shame. I don’t even begin to guess what percentage of released films constitutes original work anymore because I don’t think my brain can quantify something that small.
Other factors have helped the film industry grind to a creative halt. One is the focus on intellectual property, which forbids the expansion of any idea that isn’t an officially sanctioned one and castrates the way culture tends to flourish. When ideas go free, they bounce back to their origin in refined form, but the tyranny of intellectual property litigation works more like putting them on ice.
The commodification of movies via DVDs hasn’t helped either — what worth is there in something that you can walk into Walmart and see in bins for $5 a pop? The price of a mainstream DVD release drops horribly after its initial appearance, discounted into oblivion as a signpost that its value has diminished. Like comic books and paperbacks before it, the shift to object rather than experience as a delivery system has transformed film into a disposable art form. Like CDs, the middle ground doomed to be abandoned in the digital revolution.
Meanwhile, the film industry clings to the old standards and cheers when something like “Avatar” comes along. Its only hope is to keep films in the realm of events as one would a ride at an amusement park that can’t be replicated at home. A 15-minute short film would have sufficed to show off the technology, but that wouldn’t help Hollywood much — its trying to justify the products that stand at the center of its marketing plans.
Films like “Moon” and “District 9″ show that great science fiction can be produced for less, rather than the typical Hollywood equation of spending more for less quality.
Even as the film industry moves forward trying to ape the look and feel of computer games in films like “Avatar,” it misses out on the primary appeal that has helped that the computer game medium win over generations of the younger audience — interactivity. Computer games have become a new form of storytelling for those of a certain age. I think they might be more properly termed “interactive narrative” or maybe “inclusive narrative.” Against such a personal stake in a story, how can films and their “protected storytelling” possibly compete?
The undeniable fact is that film is in a period of change. The old professional models are puffed up by an onslaught of film critics, now a dying breed because, even in protest, many of them aren’t much more than paid devil’s advocates competing against user-fueled review sites like the Internat Movie Database and various blogs.
Film festivals have begun popping up like big city aquariums, a catch-all solution to bringing in tourists to any given locale. They’re nice enough and do make room for smaller releases and short films, but I’m doubtful these are reaching the mainstream any more than comic book conventions — it’s just that the rooms are so crowded that there’s an illusion of mass success.
And then there are Plasma screens — spectacle in the home. Invite over some friends, and “Avatar” can be a communal experience in your living room.
That said, viewing films on computer screens and iPods has shown that spectacle only goes so far for quality. If you cannot appreciate a film in the worst of circumstances, then what good is it? Even the Mona Lisa remains alluring in black and white.
The worst news for the film industry — but the one saving grace for film as an art form — is the prevalence of affordable digital video, of attainable digital effects and of free and easy distribution models online. This proves you don’t need to spend millions in order to create something that’s just going to be appreciated.
I think the quality of a work may rise directly in proportion to how low a budget shrinks — creativity often responds to challenges, particularly monetary ones. The idea isn’t to throw money at work but to throw ideas. In painting, laymen don’t care how much an artist has spent on his watercolors; the only point is what ends up on the canvas as a result of his material purchases. It is becoming the same with film.
Along with the DIYers scattered online are documentary filmmakers who still bring ideas to their work, and some foreign markets manage sometimes to think small — and often differently. These may not create examples of “inclusive narrative,” but smaller expense will help film cling for life.
As with any art form, we can thank the grassroots for keeping it vital.
I won’t mourn the fall of the big American studios one bit. People like George Lucas, who have their hands in so many narrative pots, probably won’t either.
February 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Even though 2010 is upon us, there are still a number of 2009 releases worth talking about.
With a wavering musical whine and a creepy music box backdrop, Via Tania’s music shares more with sounds coming out of Scandinavia than anything I can imagine springing from her native Australia. On “Moon Sweet Moon” (Hours Entertainment) the artist — a.k.a. Tania Bowers — delivers some otherworldy melancholy like “The Beginning,” as well as upbeat variations like “Our Wild Flight,” with a consistent ear for a catchy melody regardless of the soundscape. In some songs, like “Fields,” she even manages to evoke Siouxsie and the Banshees on a mellow day.
Tyondai Braxton made a splash with his discombobulated and experimental indie band Battles, but on his solo release “Central Market” (Warp Records) he actually gets to break free of the band confines — who would guess Battles had such a thing. Here Braxton creates some sly and sometimes wacky sounds with the Wordless Music Orchestra — really, think Spike Jones in some sections — that can mean a piano line recalling Thelonious Monk morphing into something that sounds not unlike a pixieland marching band, if you get my meaning. If the barrage of styles and ideas seems scattered, nothing could be further from the truth. Braxton mixes it all up into something that builds on itself and constitutes a cohesive whole that challenges your ear even as it delights it with manic creation — even a brooding mood piece like “Unfurling” manages to pack in energy.
Marching bands often threaten to get funky, but March Fourth Marching Band gets wild. Their album “Rise Up” (MarchFourth Music) opens with the infectious, pounding “Ninth Ward Calling” and doesn’t let up once. The 25 members — their day jobs run the gamut from stonemasons to lawyers — took a DIY attitude to keeping the band together. This means the same attitude that had them customizing their own tour bus and performance costumes finds its way into the actual music. The band moves beyond the classic New Orleans style of their main embrace and incorporate Latin, polka and Balkans into a potent mix.
With “Ghetto Blasters” (Asphalt Tango) talented practitioners of the Gypsy sound, Mahala Rai Banda, push forward in the realm of the kinds of wacky Baltic sounds that have elevated bands like Fanfare Ciocărlia. With a frantic horn section that gives a ska tinge to the energy — as well as swing era, Dixieland and classical refrains lurking in the corners of their arrangements — Mahala Rai Banda offers up catchy and danceable tunes like … into a bombastic affair. The band comes from Bucharest — its name references the Gypsy suburbs of Romania — and considers itself that region’s answer to soul music. It’s definitely a party band that deserves the attention of the world — pulling in such diverse American styles with its international and hometown influences, Mahala Rai Banda’s second album “Ghetto Blasters” is a hot affair that anyone wanting an energetic good time should seek out.
Meanwhile, The Spy From Cairo’s “Secretly Famous” (Wonderwheel) is the effort of well-known musician, dee-jay and producer Moreno Visini, an attempt to tour the world of musical exotica from the Balkans to Jordan to Algeria to Morocco. Taking native sounds and mixing them with beats, Visini creates a soundtrack for the sort of intrigue that the name implies — it’s easy to envision espionage unfolding with these sounds to set the mood. On several songs Visini is joined by the rich-voiced Tunisian singer Ghalia, the combination of which creates some catchy and funky dance pop sounds, as well as the opportunity to hear some smoking hot oud playing.
February 19, 2010 § Leave a Comment
The documentary film “Afghan Star” might be about an “American Idol” knock-off aired for Afghanistan television, but its revelations go far beyond that of the latest in the region’s musical styles and showbiz dreams.
Instead, it’s a revelation of the desire for democracy and the struggle toward modernity — as well as the real issues faced by women in the country, even as the Taliban is pushed away from calling its shots.
The television show “Afghan Star” is the highest rated in a medium that only recently regained its legs in Afghanistan. Television was banned by the Taliban, and any enjoyment of it was as a clandestine pursuit, hidden from the eyes of the Muslim authorities.
In America, we tend to look at any Muslim country as extremist, but from the real stories that pour out of such locations — Afghanistan, certainly, but Iran has been a particular site for these revelations — the extremes can be left behind when doors are closed. In personal space, the religious policing is sometimes ignored in favor of a more liberal, personal world view.
The private lives of the citizens often bear little resemblance to the American conception of what they must be like. When television in Afghanistan goes above ground, the network of old televisions and viewing habits is already in place to seize the moment just when the suppressed emotional lives of the nation are looking to burst in a joyous unity. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 19, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Somehow, zombies have seized a section of popular culture like no other monster — so much so that all it apparently takes to create an irreverent literary sensation these days is to rewrite a Jane Austen novel to include zombies.
There’s still an audience for these creatures in movies. No matter how much torture porn seems poised to dominate the modern horror film, zombies are second only to vampires when it comes to durability over the years. And yet the metaphors for zombies always remain the same: The result of some accident that shows how frail humanity is in the universe, we are deadened of our individuality and turned into a furious mob rule of vengeance toward thinking people. It’s a perfect set-up that over the years has provided fodder for political and social commentary — as well as chills.
Shane Whites “Things Undone” — published by NBM as part of its ComicsLit imprint — brings the zombie metaphor to a personal level.
No longer is it the result of a fast-spreading disease that moves through a populace, uniting people even as it destroys society. Instead, it’s a psychological state, a helplessness spurred on by the malaise of modern dissatisfaction. Becoming a zombie is a state of mind that instills not the togetherness of the undead, but loneliness.
White’s graphic novel follows computer game designer Rick Watt as he embarks on a cross-country flight to find out what he wants from life. Even as his mental state coalesces in such a way that his body begins to fall into a decrepit zombie state, White’s set-up is the opposite of a zombie tale.
Watt is the one being pursued — by women he doesn’t love, by a lack of initiative, by an inability to eke out a plan and a future, by jobs he doesn’t care to work at. He is a zombie like so many of us can be at points in our lives — a zombie by way of stasis, in which patterns are repeated, evolution is stilted and the wear and tear bring us down physically.
The dissatisfaction for Rick comes from being an artist who needs to pay his bills, clawing his way through a jungle that he doesn’t even want to be fighting in. His day jobs take his talent and direct them toward the mundane — and his romances are attempts to put a bandage on his loneliness. The more he lives, the more he dies, and the gloom of his reality — particularly his relationship with Natalie, which he wants to want, but doesn’t particularly– wears on is self-image.
Rick becomes a zombie no different than one you might find in a George Romero movie, except for the fact that you can identify with him — and there is a cure for the condition, one that any of us can embrace in moving forward and casting our undead affliction behind us.
February 19, 2010 § Leave a Comment
As part of the Amazing Acoustaphotophonogrammitron at MCLA Gallery 51, artist Christy Georg has contributed “Monitoring The Dunes.” Like much of her other work, sound is but a component within a work that gathers various styles of sculpture — both kinetic and otherwise — to create items that evoke a history that they perhaps never had.
“Monitoring The Dunes” stems from a residency in New Mexico, during which Georg created “Instruments of Calibration and Ascertainment,” which showed at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. It was created from video shot at the White Sands National Monument, the world’s largest gypsum dune field — a 275-square-mile desert — and a missile testing site for the military.
“There’s hardly any life out there at all when you drive out in the heart of it,” said Georg during a recent interview. “The only thing that you experience is the sound of wind, and it’s constantly shifting the sand dunes around — that and the super bright sun. I swear that the bottom of my chin and the inside of my nose got sunburned out there.”
Georg’s apparatus in the piece works like a stethoscope and is meant to listen to the sounds of the shifting sand dunes — some of the dunes move as far as 30 feet annually — while they are utilized also like a pair of forearm crutches. Georg is literally walking on sound in the performance.
“The stethoscopes connect to my ears, and I have to lift my body up over them, so I’m using the endurance of my body and the ability to hold myself up on them and wobble around a little bit to engage them,” she said.
Sound was originally incidental in her work, which early on involved the creation of kinetic sculptures.
“It wasn’t necessarily the driving force behind it,” she said. “It would be a sculptural activity, and one of the byproducts would be sound.” « Read the rest of this entry »
February 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
This year has already started strong in the world of graphic novels for kids. The books below, aimed at readers from ages 9 to 13, stand as some of the best. They’re perfect for picky readers — or just students who might be struggling and seeking something a little different to grab their interest — but any reader, including open-minded grown-ups, would love any of these.
Bloomsbury has released a sequel to last year’s feisty, wild west retelling of “Rapunzel” from Shannon and Dean Hale, with illustrator Nathan Hale, that centers on our heroine’s mischievous sidekick, Jack of bean stalk fame. In “Calamity Jack,” the duo return to his hometown to save his fellow citizens from the schemes of the very same giant so adept at sniffing English blood. This time around, he’s got the place under his thumb, thanks to some kind of fairy tale-themed protection racket. With the introduction of romantic rival Freddie Sparksmith, the story takes on a welcome steampunk edge.
Jake Parker’s “Missile Mouse: The Star Crusher” (Scholastic Graphix) mixes a lightness that never interferes with the seriousness that Parker includes in the work — he wants to tell a good space adventure even as he reveals that all that stands between the universe and a horde of alien villains attempting to uncover the ancient secret of manufacturing black holes to use as weapons is a humanoid mouse working for the Galactic Security Agency. Leaping from the pages of “Flight,” this full-length outer space adventure plays it fun but straight and even manages to incorporate more actual science in the details than last year’s “Star Trek” movie — and it’s a lot better!
Eleanor Davis returns with “The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook” (Bloomsbury) her first kids’ book since her award-winning “Stinky,” released last year from Toon Books. Davis’ new work is a slight science fiction comedy with a pretty elevated outlook. Typical geek Julian Calendar breaks from the bonds of stereotyping and teams up with Ben, a jock who moonlights as a master mechanic, and funky scientist DIYer Greta to battle a villainous old-timer — and washed-up purveyor of outdated innovation — Dr. Wilhelm Stringer. Hardy laughs mix with some genuine science — as well as whimsical flights of fancy — and a fabulous new book series is born! It’s a great antidote to the overabundance of supernatural potboilers for younger readers and a definite outreach to a generation being raised on Make Magazine.
Raina Telgemeier’s “Smile” (Scholastic Graphix) started its life as a serialized story online and comes full circle in the format it was born to — a complete YA graphic novel that can compete with the best of any prose work.
This autobiographical work follows Telgemeier’s traumatic dental experience as a middle schooler — not just braces, but a score of restorative dental work, as well as periodontistry, which weaves through the ground-zero years of puberty. Telgemeier’s purpose is to offer some self-deprecating humor in the name, revealing that even the worst thing that could happen is not always the end of the world, though it might seem that way when you’re 13. It’s also an amusing tale of empowerment, revealing that part of growing up is growing past the cruelty of other kids.
One of the best Web comics ever has been collected in book form — Kazu Kibuisihi’s “Copper” (Scholastic Graphix), a work that reached creative and intellectual clarity that few comics for adults ever seem to. Boasting the philosophical depth of children’s authors like Arnold Lobel and Peter Sis, and one of the most elegant and fluid cartooning styles you will ever encounter, Scholastic brings Kibuisihi’s Web comic to print form and we’re all the better for it.
Copper is a boy and Fred is a dog, and together they inhabit one-page adventures that mix the trials of giant mushrooms, apocalyptic cityscapes, DIY airplanes and jungle adventures with subtle investigations of self-esteem, the nature of contentment, the satisfaction of difficult challenges and enjoying the moment. Deep and satisfying and very, very funny!
February 13, 2010 § Leave a Comment
New Mexico artist Joanne LeFrak specializes in shadows — both the physical ones and those left by time — which she uses to craft both gallery art and reminders of the past.
Her work is part of “Invisible: Art at the Edge of Perception” at Mass MoCA.
LeFrak’s current method of creating work is simple — she scratches on Plexiglas — but the way she arrived at this particular method was entirely an accident. She previously had been creating shadows from paper work — burning the paper with a wood burner or cutting the paper and mounting it on Plexiglas.
It was after shipping the work for a show in Limerick, Ireland, that she discovered she could realize her vision in a more direct way.
“The face of one of them got a little bit scratched in shipping all the way out to Limerick, and it cast this really dark line on top of the piece, which then gave me the discovery that I don’t even need the paper — I could cut into the Plexiglas, and it creates these really dark lines that look like graphite,” LeFrak said.
With that set-up, the shadows appeared on the wall darker than ever before — so much so that viewers often think that LeFrak has drawn on the wall directly.
“When it’s not lit, you don’t see anything — it looks like a piece of Plexiglas attached to the wall,” she said. “When it is lit, the shadow gets cast onto the wall behind it — although it’s very deceiving because the shadow tends to be very dark.”
LeFrak’s thematic concerns have a lot to do with a past that hangs on the feeling previous events can bring to a place visited in the present — and the mechanics of her work bear this out. The Plexiglas is very much that past event, looming from the surface and hard to take in visually without much effort. But it casts itself on the actual presentation space of the gallery — the wall. LeFrak’s scratchings are like the residue of what went on before, shimmering its way into our perception.
Previously, she had used this concern in a piece called “Memorial” at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Upon contemplating the space she was to fill, LeFrak discovered it had been the site of controversy in the late 1800s. Excavators had discovered skeletons and believed it was the site of a Native American burial ground — and promptly covered it up so the building would continue. LeFrak built a tomb that incorporated etched Plexiglas on the top.
“The way it is illuminated, there was a video project of dirt being piled on top of it, and it gets wiped away — so it’s the feeling of getting buried and unburied,” she said. “The imagery was a bed of daisies, because around that same time, Wordsworth came out with his book of idioms … his idiom of pushing up daisies came out at that time, and I wanted to relate it to something literary that also referenced death and life all in one. The imagery that’s etched onto the Plexiglas is daisies.”
The dead remains of a former world is all over the New Mexico landscape, and LeFrak has made it her hobby to go and find these sites.
“In their free time, some people go out to the movies or whatever — I drive out to the middle of nowhere and check out a ghost town,” she said. “That interest lead me to thinking about places where you can’t avoid the feeling of the past while you’re standing there in the present. It’s this weird mingling of the past and present all in one, and that has been an exciting investigation for me, because I do think that there’s something really powerful experiencing the kinds of things all at once.” « Read the rest of this entry »
February 13, 2010 § Leave a Comment
In Jennifer Baichwal’s “Act of God,” from Zeitgeist Video, the nature of lightning and its relationship to man is examined, and it is psychology that wins the focus instead of science and metaphysics.
The film begins with author Paul Auster’s comments on his own experience as a kid, with a lightning strike that becomes the fierce marker of the point when he moved from childhood into the world of adults. This includes his first true realization about the randomness of the universe. Baichwal soon veers into a meditation not only on the fury and fear lightning evokes, but also other emotions.
For some, it is a call to rebirth. For others, it is a mystery that only strengthens the stranglehold of faith on their universal view.
For guitarist Fred Frith, it is a force of creativity. In a recurring segment of the film, the experimental musician undergoes brain scans while playing his guitar in different modes, and the electrical storm that brews during improvisation is revealed. An onslaught of creative ideas means a fury of neurons let loose in a person’s skull — if you were inside someone’s head while they wrote a book, you’d probably die. « Read the rest of this entry »