Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nine Films About Art

I haven't been to many films since the weather turned warm back in April. Now that the evenings have gone dark and we've revived our Netflix subscription, I thought it might be worthwhile to throw out a few comments about films I have seen recently, all of which seem to have been about music, literature, the theater,or some other type of art.

The Music of Strangers

The famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma gathered together a group of musicians from various parts of the world as a musical experiment. The individuals involved might all be considered to be from places on the Silk Road leading across the desert spaces from China to the Mediterranean.  But would it be possible to find common ground for performance amid their disparate musical styles?

Part of the film is devoted to answering that question, but a larger part focuses on the stories of individual musicians from Iran, Syria, Galicia, and other places who have endured persecution or have otherwise encountered difficulties sharing their talents and promoting their art. (In many parts of the world, indigenous art forms are perceived as a threat to the authority of the unified "state.")

A third strand of inquiry involves Yo-yo Ma himself. The renowned cellist was a child prodigy who attained virtuosity without much effort—or interest. As he works in the film to make sense of these related but disparate musical traditions, Ma is also trying to reconnect to his own musical roots and revivify his passion for performance.

The film, in the best documentary tradition, is a loosely woven garment, held together by threads of rehearsal and performance, but more devoted to stories of individual musicians than to the ensemble which has brought them together.  Yet the musicians do connect with one another, and also with us. It's an easy garment to wear.

The End of the Tour

I have never read the novel Infinite Jest, and I'm pretty sure I never will, though I have read a few tennis articles by its author, David Foster Wallace. This film chronicles the last seven days of a book tour in which Wallace is accompanied by a reporter from Rolling Stone (played by Jesse Isenberg) who also happens to be a budding novelist. The two discuss literature, life, literature, work, fame, celebrity, junk food,  and other things as they travel together from one book event to another, slowly generating a camaraderie that's laced with suspicion and envy, professionalism and need, vanity and self-disgust. The interactions are complex and often edgy, as Wallace pursues the renown that will accompany the feature story while remaining wary of Eisenberg's power to "spin" the article any way he chooses. Whether these conversations offer an accurate portrait of Wallace I have no idea, but they make for an absorbing film experience.

Museum Hours

This film, released in 2012, is probably a cult classic by now. Much of it takes place in the Kunstehistorishes Museum in Vienna, where a tall, middle-aged guard named Johann sits on a bench thinking his private thoughts (in voice-over) as the patrons pass by. Just when we're beginning to think the film is a genuine slice-of-life documentary on the order of Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery, Johann makes an effort to help a stranger named Anne, who has arrived in town from Montreal to visit a relative she hardly knows in the hospital. She has little money, doesn't know the city, and returns to the museum repeatedly as a way to fill her idle hours. Anne and Johann are both gentle souls, lonely but also widely curious, and they slowly begin to open up to one another as the empty days go by.

This plot line—it would be a misleading to call it a romance—never comes to dominate the screen, but serves as a counterpoint to the seemingly random but mildly engaging images the camera draws our attention to both within the museum and also on the city streets, which include bored children and cawing crows, streetcars in the snow, and closeups of Grand Master paintings. At one point we listen for several minutes to a lecture being given by one of the docents about the work of Breugel, and the parallels between his peasant-oriented work and the film we're watching become clear. One remark that she makes could stand as the theme of Museum Hours: a painting's ostensible focus and its actual point of interest are not necessarily the same thing.

Mary Margaret O'hara, a  folk-singer from Montreal, deserves a special note for her whimsical, slightly confused, and artfully understated portrayal of Anne, who often talks in a whisper and sometimes sings to herself, but moves through this difficult and disorienting episode in her life with quiet courage and genuine appreciation of the beauty that surrounds her.   

Eight Days a Week

Ron Howard's tribute to the Beatles focuses on the years during which they toured. It's a fine recapitulation that brings out the band's musical talent and wit, while also highlighting the challenges and drudgery of performing in large stadiums and responding ad nauseum to inane questions from the press. Those of us who grew up during that era will also remember the darkening tone, the groupies and drugs, the acrimony and divisiveness of the group's last years, but you'll hear little about those things here. When Howard was asked about such omissions, he replied with a smile, "I made the film I wanted to make."

It's a good one.

Words and Pictures

It's one of those films that carry you along on the strength of the bubbling plot and the actors' charisma. The absurdities of the plot only ring out later ... and by then it's too late!

The action takes place at a prep school where Jack (Clive Owen) teaches English and publishes the school's literary magazine. He's evidently a good teacher, but he hasn't published anything of note in fifteen years, and the school in on the verge of dropping the publication, which costs a lot to print and seems less than relevant when most of the students are glued to their mobile devices. Jack is also a drinker, and has been tossed out of the swanky local restaurant and gathering place due to outlandish behavior.  The story gets more interesting when a new teacher arrives on campus: an abstract painter named Dina (Juliette Binoche) who suffers from arthritis and hasn't painted much in years. Sparks fly immediately, and Jack turns up the heat by challenging Dina and her students to a battle to determine whether words or pictures have more expressive power.

Little point would be served in identifying the various weaknesses in this scenario as it plays itself out. Better to simply sit back and watch the story unfold.

Miles Ahead

It's difficult to remain "cool" and stay true to your art, without coming off like a jerk. Of course, being a jerk is OK too, if you stay cool enough to pull it off, though the inference is that you don't have time for the squares and the "little people." Which isn't very cool.

Miles Davis was perhaps never quite as cool as he thought he was. He was banned from Bradley's, the premier later-night hang-out for jazz musicians in New York City, because, as the owner's wife once observed, he "felt that he could come in and order anything for himself and his friends without being obligated to pay for any of it."

But be that as it may, it's especially difficult to portray coolness on the screen. Don Cheedle has failed to do so in his conceptually imaginative but cantankerous and cliché-ridden portrait of the legendary trumpeter. It's an exercise in faux-coolness that I found very hard to watch. In fact, I turned it off half way through and dropped the last good album Miles made, Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), into the CD player. Now that's cool.

Herb and Dorothy

Most of us are reluctant to buy original works of art. They cost a lot more than posters and we're afraid that our interest is likely to fade with time. Many who do buy original pieces are inspired by the belief that the works they own will appreciate in value over time, which makes the art seem like a shrewd investment rather than a frivolous purchase, even when it's moldering in the back of the closet.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel were different. She was a librarian. He was a postal worker. They both loved looking at art, owning works of art, thinking about art, getting to know the artists and trying to understand how a given artist's work had developed over time. So they devised a strategy: live on Dorothy's modest salary and buy artworks with Herb's. They went to openings and visited unknown artists in their studios. Over the course of time they crowded their narrow apartment with a collection that's now worth millions.

As it happens, they began collecting in the early 1960s, and took a liking to Minimalist and Conceptual art by Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Christo, and other artists  who at the time were undiscovered or unappreciated.

This is the Vogel's story, told through interviews with the Vogels themselves and the artists they collected. We may remain unimpressed with the art they purchased, whatever its current price tag might be, but this charming couple pursued their passion, followed their instincts, and had a very good time doing so. And it's a lot of fun watching it all happen.   

Love and Mercy

You will meet few people nowadays prepared to defend the position that the Beach Boys belong on the same tier of the rock-and-roll pantheon as the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Neil Young, and a few others. But most of us nevertheless want to know: Whatever happened to Brian Wilson? 

In his directorial  debut, producer Bill Pohlad tells the story of Brian's youthful naiveté and success, parental browbeating, recording studio magic, and subsequent manipulation by a self-serving pharmacological "expert" (Paul Giametti). The story is told in a series of flashbacks anchored by a modern-day love story. John Cusack plays the middle-aged Wilson, Paul Dano plays the youthful wunderkind. It's a complicated, sad, and inspiring tale, with less surfing music than we might have liked, but more depth and meaning.       

The Wrecking Crew

To get a more complete picture of the Beach Boys phenomenon, I would recommend sandwiching Love and Mercy between the surfing documentary Riding Giants (2004) and The Wrecking Crew (2008), which tells the tale of the studio musicians who actually played (and often created) the music we hear on the great Beach Boys hits. This small group of relatively unknown instrumentalists also created the instrumental backdrop to hit by Nat "King" Cole, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkle, the Mamas and the Papas, Dean Martin, Elvis, Cher, and many others.

Clouds of Sils Maria

It's difficult to make a film about a "famous" fictional actress because viewers have no idea how that fame developed or what kind of weight it now carries. Thus we have Juliette Binoche, an aging actress herself, playing an aging actress questioning her talents and struggling to decide whether to take the part of an older woman in a drama in which she made her name decades earlier playing the younger role. Whatever happens, it doesn't seem very important in the grand scheme of things. Everyone might as well go down to the basement of the ritzy Swiss lodge and play Foosball.

Nevertheless, Binoche and Kristen Steward (the young assistant) keep our interest up though a long series of interviews and conversations. One of the chief issue seems to be whether the clouds of fog will rise up through the pass.( Hence the otherwise incomprehensible name of the film.)

Strange but true: I enjoyed the film from beginning to end without caring for an instant what happened to anyone in it.

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