The Baggage that We Bring to Art

On my last post I wrote about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu.  It was an album savaged by critics.  A lot of my favorite pieces of art have been critically condemned only to find reevaluation years later.  Terry Gilliam has a movie called Tideland that knocked me out when I saw it.  It was one of the only times I have walked out of a theater thinking that I had just seen something completely new.  I was excited, ecstatic even, only to read reviews later that tore the movie to shreds.  This did nothing to alter my view of the film, I was only sad to learn that the film wouldn’t find a larger audience.  I also felt bad that so many people had missed out on such a fantastic film.

This is not standard review, nor do I want to spend time relaying the entire plot.  If you want to learn more about the movie here is the Wikipedia page.

One of the things interesting about the film is that it’s protagonist is a little girl and the movie is filmed with her perspective in mind.  The little girl undergoes many trials including her dad dying of a heroin overdose in their rural farmhouse in Texas.  If you view the film through the eyes of an adult, there are many uncomfortable moments in the film.  There is a kiss scene where the girl kisses, innocently, her friend who is a boy that is mentally handicapped.  Because we are adults, and adults are sexual beings, viewers may be inclined to view this scene with a sense of horror.  But if you view the scene through the eyes of its protagonist, it is just an innocent kiss between friends.  As with many Gilliam films, a theme running through the movie is how our imaginations allow us to survive the realities of the world, which are often less than ideal.  Children, out of all ages, possess the strongest imaginations.  Therefore, it only makes sense that in many ways children are more resilient than adults.

Although knowledge can, at many times, increase our appreciation for art, as we learn to understand the language of certain art forms, it can occasionally blind us to its true meaning.  What we bring along with us, our psychological intellectual background, is important.   This is often why you may see musicians, painters, filmmakers, appreciating different things than the general public.  They usually are steeped in the knowledge of their particular field.  They might have a better idea of when someone is breaking from convention to reach new ground.  You don’t have to be an artist.  It’s not some kind of secret club, just generally if you are making something you are interested enough to immerse yourself in it.  A library card and a curious mind are all one needs to learn the language of any given medium.

However, outside of the language of a medium, there is also what we bring to a piece of art from our personal background.  How we view the world influences how we view the themes of a piece of art.  What I love about this movie is that Gilliam has created something that asks us to shake off our personal and cultural biases.  He is asking us to be children again, to view the world with the same sense of wonder that they do.  It’s a beautiful place if you can get into that headspace.

No one states this better than Gilliam himself in the introduction to the movie, up above.  This introduction also played in the theater when I saw the film.  Although sometimes overstating your purpose can be harmful, given the nature of this film, I really felt that it is effective.  He is trying to get the viewers in that headspace of a child before the film begins, which is essential to a proper interpretation of the film.  I remember thinking, upon seeing this introduction two things:

“Gilliam is throwing down the fucking gauntlet”, and “I’m in.”


9 Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame

9 Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame

The link above is to a Cracked article that has clips from old horror movies from early in movie history.  The title is theirs.  However, I think the clips are interesting.  They are visually striking and some of them are quite artistic.  Plus, in looking at them you realize that there is this whole world of lost history out there, things that many people saw that you aren’t even aware of.  It’s like looking through a portal into another time and place.

The Aviator – A Review and Reflection

The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004.  I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it.  This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).

I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood.  It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment.  It looks good, but it is emotionally empty.  The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.

However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting.  You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him.  Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.

That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus.  Scorsese is too smart for this.  The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography.  Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.

If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him.  Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.

Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer.  Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down.  We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order.  If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.

It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government.  When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large.  When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time.  In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.

Lost River Review


Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it.  If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it.  It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction.  It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie.  The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen.  I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it.  Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.

The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit.  Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home.  In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night.  It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions.  The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days.  What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.

The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones.  Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold.  In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.

The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself.  What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc.  This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.

The performances of many of the main characters are great.  The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state.  You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two.  Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully.  Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger.  Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film.  Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.

There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense.  Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here.  One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit.  The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.

However, make no mistake.  This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience.  Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics.  Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.

This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted.  However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime.  I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms.  However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try.  Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.

How Apocalypto Relates to the News

When I watch the news I often think of the movie Apocalypto.   This is a Mel Gibson directed movie that deals with the Mayans.  The movie is an insane spectacle filled with ideas and blood.  The characters speak in ancient Mayan dialogue, but the movie is brilliant because it manages to tell the story in ways that are mostly visual.  It is an extremely intelligent piece of entertainment, an action movie with ideas.  It is barbarous, batshit insane, kinetic entertainment.  

Now why do I think of this movie when I see the news?  This is not due to the themes of the movie.  The Mayan empire is depicted as a civilization on the verge of collapse due to environmental calamity and human exploitation.  It came out during the Bush years and the Iraq War.  Gibson even commented that the Mayan rulers were very similar to Bush in his boys.  Sure, the invading Europeans put the nail in the coffin of the Mayans, but the Europeans are aided by the Mayan leaders’ tyrannical rule.  That is not to say that is true in history, but Gibson is trying to draw a parallel through art.  He is saying if we don’t quit oppressing people, if we don’t protect the environment, history shows that we and our way of life is in trouble.

However, none of that crosses my mind when I watch the news.  The greatest emotional quality of Apocalypto is insanity.  When I watch the news and they focus on the trivial and ignore the important, I feel emotionally like I do when I watch Apocalypto.   When I see war and oppression trumpeted as normal, when I see global warming treated as not real, when I see celebrity eclipse the common good, I feel the same as when I watch Apocalypto.  

There is intellectual truth and emotional truth in art.  Even if you argue that the movie doesn’t have the former, it has the latter in spades.  It feels like what happens when the world turns upside down.  It’s why the movie makes me happy, even though it is largely an action movie and a quite dark one at that.  Someone connected to an emotion that is all too common in the modern world.  It’s always uplifting to know someone feels like you do.  If there are others, you might just stand a chance. 

Dock Ellis As Icarus

The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams. – Old Ptolemy, regarding Alexander the Great, in the movie Alexander

Last night I watched No No: A Dockumentary, a documentary about the baseball player Dock Ellis.  He was famous for, among many things, throwing a no hitter on LSD.  The documentary was worth watching, really good even, but not exceptional.  The footage and the interviews were fantastic, but something about the way the different pieces were put together, the narrative arc, seemed a little loose and unfocused.

One of the things that I found disappointing, but did not take away from my enjoyment of the film, was the end of the film’s focus on Ellis getting clean and teaching prisoners how to reenter life.  Now this is true to life. I also don’t wish to discount what is obviously a noble pursuit for anyone.  But for most of the film Ellis is Icarus before the crash.  You know, because he is mortal, that his wings will melt, but you can’t help but enjoy watching him fly to close to the sun.  So often society wants the outcome of the Icarus myth.  They show a brief shot of his obituary and the newspaper’s headline says something about how he overcame drugs.  For much of his life Ellis was the black ball player that, during a time of extreme racial prejudice, refused to keep his head down.  He not only was a physical mutant, succeeding in MLB while being extremely high, but also quite fearless in his behavior.  When black ball players were expected to keep their mouths shut, enduring things that can only be seen as outright ignorance, Ellis refused to play by the rules of society.  He was never one of the silent masses, guilty by consent.

Early in the movie the film talks about how black ball players, in certain parts of the country, were supposed to stay in different hotels than the white players.  This is obviously insanely stupid.  Black ball players also had to deal with everything from racial epithets to threatening letters.  Ellis never let this kind of discrimination water down his personality.  He was bold and proud when the world wanted him to be meek, quiet, and safe.

Society, even today, wants people to know their place.  I don’t even necessarily mean this in a racial way.  It wants people to tow the line.  It wants people to apologize for their personal transgressions.  But the world needs people like Ellis.  It needs freaks and mutants that by design or will can’t conform.  Although there are many ways to challenge the absurdity of the world, one way is to match its absurdity blow by blow, to refuse to bend to the will of the ignorant.  For a longtime Ellis out-crazied the whirlwind.

He eventually takes it too far.  As one ages their body can no longer handle the excess of youth.  Society is more powerful than the individual and it eventually will take the edges off someone or destroy them.  Very few, like George Carlin, actually get bolder with age.  Even if you refuse to bend to the will of society, life will eventually defeat you.  But for a little while he was out their defying the powerful, even defying the gods.  He was up there in the clouds, free and beautiful, a mythic character in the flesh.

I’m not saying his later deeds do not deserve commendation.  His work with those on the outskirts of society were noble, good, and worthy of respect.  But don’t for a second discount his earlier accomplishments.  He was a heroic mutant, momentarily shaking off the shackles of the mortal.  I’m glad he was out there, for a little while…

Mad Max: Fury Road Getting Rave Reviews


Vanity Fair Mad Max Fury Road Review

Vanity Fair and just about everyone else are raving over the new film Mad Max: Fury Road.  It is currently at 98% over at Rotten Tomatoes.  I simply can’t wait to see it.  Here is a sample from Vanity Fair:

Fury Road feels brand new. In a movie season exhaustingly cluttered with never-ending superhero sagas and reboots, Fury Road arrives, despite its pedigree, as a daring, fascinating, thrilling jolt of original energy. It’s invigorating the way a big cinema spectacular should be, reveling in the medium’s towering possibilities, and transporting us to a thoroughly realized world that’s wholly unlike our own.

Over at Huffington Post Marshall Fine raves as well:

Here are some of the names that came to mind as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road:

Federico Fellini. David Lynch. Pieter Bruegel. Ralph Steadman. Stanley Kubrick.

Black Death

“As sure as the sun rises and falls, witches will burn.”Black Death*

Tonight I had a couple good laughs watching the medieval horror/thrill Black Death.  The movie was not an intended comedy, nor do I mean to make light of the film or to say that it was intentionally funny.  But once you have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is hard not to remember it when there is anything to do with the Black Plague or witch burning.  This is not the fault of the filmmakers.  The movie itself is unique, interesting, and gritty.  Although it pulls from other films like The Wicker Man, it puts things together in an original combination.

The film stars Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne.  Redmayne plays a young monk during the bubonic plague in the 1300’s.  His monastery is wracked with the dead.  He has a secret love of a girl in the local village.  Due to this he secretly wants to leave the monastery and the death that surrounds him.  When Sean Bean, who is a knight in service for the church, says that he needs a guide, circumstances drive Osmund, Redmayne’s character, to lead Ulrich, Bean’s character, on a journey.  They are searching for a village that has not been touched by the plague.  They believe it has made it untouched by the plague due to a necromancer and black magic.

The movie treats the situation as realistic, from the viewpoint of the people that are living in that time and place.  The viewer does not know until late in the movie if there is any supernatural element to the movie, or it is just the superstition of a backwards religious people.  This is a dark film, with gritty violence and all manner of barbarism carried out in the name of religion.  It is suspenseful and bleak.  Torturing and many forms of dismembering take place throughout the film.

However, Hannah Arendt once said, “that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  As Monty Python demonstrated, through the clarity of hindsight, the beliefs of those times are completely absurd and ridiculous.  Although the characters may or may not be dealing with the supernatural, I don’t want to spoil anything, you know that they are largely on a fools errand.  When local villagers want to burn a woman at the stake for supposedly putting a curse on the local water supply, one can’t help but feel, knowing such things happened, as being a complete folly.  The actions of many of the people in the movie are so absurd, yet realistic, that is somehow passes through the looking glass and becomes somewhat of a comedy of human behavior.  I don’t want to portray the movie as a farce.  I’m not even saying that the movie depicts the actions of these people with anything other than serious.  However, it is because it is so straight that you realize just how absurd this behavior is.  When a character is drawn and quartered it is completely horrific.  Yet once upon a time our ancestors did that kind of thing.

Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder why this time period is depicted in more movies.  It is strange and horrifying enough to be almost fantastic, yet interesting because it is not fantasy.  This movie takes liberties with the time period, and the story itself is fiction, but many of the things that people do to one another, many of the beliefs, are real.  I found this movie to be entertaining, gripping, interesting, and yes funny at times.  It is also batshit insane.  When they are venturing out to find the possibly supernatural village they come across men walking down a stream whipping themselves and carrying a large cross.  These people are punishing themselves to make penance with God.  They warn the main group not to go any further.  If these are the people warning them, what kind of further insanity waits down the road?

Although this movie is first and foremost a horror movie or thriller, it does ask questions about the nature of evil, religious belief, and human nature.  One can’t help thinking about what is going on in the world currently due to religious strife while watching it.  It is entertainment with intelligence.  It looks and feels differently than the typical Hollywood movie and that is because it was filmed in Germany, even if it has several stars in it.  The camera work and art direction is gritty and realistic, though gothic in fitting with the time period.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy.  While I watched this film I couldn’t help but wonder what actions of modern times will look completely ridiculous to those hundreds of years in the future.

The famous witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

* This quote may be slightly paraphrased.  It was late, we were already watching something else, and my internet searches came up empty.  If not exact it gets close enough to the original’s intent.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Official Main Trailer

I heading out to play a gig in Amarillo in about an hour.  It’s Saturday night so I thought I’d post something fun. I’m really looking forward to seeing the above movie.  George Miller, who created Mad Max and directed the first two movies, and co-directed the third, is back at the helm. He created a world so vivid in the original trilogy that it is still with us, despite there being a mountain of post-apocalyptic movies, books, and TV shows that have come out since.  The Road Warrior, especially, is more than an action movie, as it touches upon the primal.  Hopefully this new film will be batshit insane.  The trailer makes it look like it is full of strange, brutal, and original imagery.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter First Response

Tonight I saw the excellent new movie Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.  It is going to be a little while before I can write a review, as the movie defies easy description and categorization.  I was pleasantly surprised that the creators of the movies, the Zellner brothers, were at the screening and did a Q & A after.  I had no idea that they were from Austin or that they would be there.  I think anyone that enjoys seeing something unique and dreamlike at the movie theater would like this film.  Although one could draw comparisons to other directors and films that came before it, it was its own thing.  It was an art-house film, but one that had a story captivating enough that I think even a certain percentage of people that aren’t interested in those kind of films could be swept up in.  However, it was interpretive and requires the viewer to think, unlike a great deal of mass entertainment. Anyway, I will write more at some point.  I really liked the film and wanted to get something up about it.  I didn’t want my silence, since I posted I was going to see it, to be taken as dislike.