Monday, August 01, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, July 26, 2010-July 31, 2010


Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006-7, Alexander McQueen


All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse), screened at IFC Center in New York
This was my first time seeing this legendary choreographer/filmmaker's own variation on ...and yeah, it's pretty brilliant. But then, this is the kind of extravagantly personal filmmaking that often moves me however successful or unsuccessful the end result: the kind of film in which its director dares to put all of his fears, hopes and contradictions onto the screen without giving a damn as to what an audience will make of it all. That last part is rather ironic in this particular case, being that Joe Gideon (the late, great Roy Scheider) is himself very much a crowd-pleasing entertainer and showman, with as much of an eye on his audience as on his own artistic obsessions.

The danger of this kind of deeply personal filmmaking is that an artist will make a work so insular in nature that it'll leave the audience out in the cold completely. Frankly, I've always thought Federico Fellini fell into that trap in —the film that pretty much wrote the book on this kind of confessional filmmaking, a canonical work that I've admittedly always admired without ever fully embracing. In the case of All That Jazz, however, I couldn't help but identify with Gideon's pursuit of artistic perfection, for all the serious defects in his personal life (his womanizing, his heavy drug use, and so on). He wants to create great art, but he also wants to be loved and admired—how to reconcile those two impulses? To Fosse's credit, he never hits upon a solution to that probably insoluble question. Instead, he just dramatizes those conflicting impulses with some of the most amazing theatrical spectacle ever filmed, all seductively captured by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (a frequent Fellini collaborator). Seriously: Why have I taken this long to finally encounter the famously raunchy "Air-rotica" number? It's awesome.

"Essential Pre-Code," all screenings at Film Forum in New York
Beauty and the Boss (1932, Roy Del Ruth)
The Mouthpiece (1932, Elliot Nugent & James Flood)
Possessed (1931, Clarence Brown)
Red-Headed Woman (1932, Jack Conway)
The Public Enemy (1931, William Wellman)
Blonde Crazy (1931, Roy Del Ruth)
This film series began earlier this month, but only during the past week was I finally able to catch some of these pre-Hays Code films at Film Forum. It's amazing just how potently racy these films remain even to this day!

That's all I'll say for now; I think I'd like to devote a bit more space to some of these films in a future post. For now, though...well, some of you may notice I didn't give a star of recommendation to The Public Enemy, the much acclaimed 1931 gangster classic with James Cagney playing the nasty, ruthless Tom Powers, a character who is supposed to epitomize a certain problematic strain of American society at the time that Wellman's film aimed to capture, as an opening and closing title crawl oh-so-helpfully makes explicit. Not that most viewers these days, I imagine, care all that much about the film's pretensions to social commentary; whenever Cagney is onscreen, we're surely not thinking about sociology, and instead thinking all about the electricity of a Hollywood idol in a star-making role. He is great, to be sure. And yet, Cagney aside, I'm not sure how well The Public Enemy has really worn. Maybe I've just seen too many gangster movies of this type since this one was made for me to find Tom Powers's rise and fall to be all that fresh or interesting to me personally.

So yeah, I honestly can't say I was all that crazy about The Public Enemy, despite its reputation. This showed on a double-bill on Saturday with another film with both Cagney and Joan Blondell, Blonde Crazy...and frankly, I preferred that lighter, sexier, funnier confection to The Public Enemy.

Die Hard 2 (1990, Renny Harlin), screened at IFC Center in New York
Readers of this blog will know that I hold this sequel to the indisputably great Die Hard (1988) in higher esteem than generally seems to be the case among most of the cinephiles/film critics I know (as I wrote here, I find this to be the wild-child Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of the Die Hard franchise). So when I saw that IFC Center was screening this over the weekend as part of a new midnight-movie series of supposed "Sequels That Don't Suck" (a series that, at least so far, includes stuff like Back to the Future Part II, French Connection II, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Escape from L.A. as part of its lineup—sequels around which there is no clear consensus, as far as I can see, as to whether they are, in fact, good sequels or not), of course I jumped at the chance to see it on a big screen, having only ever seen it on television.

It was slightly disappointing, then, to see that IFC Center chose to screen Die Hard 2 in one of their smaller theaters; a film as grand in scale as this demands as big a screen as possible, perhaps even more so than its predecessor. Considering how sparsely attended the screening was on Friday night, though, I guess the smaller venue made sense...but then, the sparse attendance was disappointing to see, too. This definitely had none of the electricity of seeing the original Die Hard on Christmas Eve at New York's Landmark Sunshine theater last year.

Thankfully, the print, though hardly pristine, was quite watchable (the print of Die Hard that I saw last year sometimes came perilously close to being unwatchable, alas). Seeing Die Hard 2 projected in 35mm enhanced my appreciation of the appropriately hellish look cinematographer Oliver Wood captures via its many low-light interiors and exteriors—a contrast to the purposefully industrial, earthy tones of Jan De Bont's cinematography in the original.

The film still holds up as a lean, mean action-movie machine, its second hour still smashingly effective as a furiously paced rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills. So yeah, I'll continue to defend it. That said, it's probably about time for me to take a looooong detox from Die Hard 2. After countless viewings over the years, there's only so many new facets to discover about this film, and the initial thrills have long since worn off. (I could probably do movie-oke with this film by now!)

I need a new Bruised Forearm action epic to obsess over. Oh hey, Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is screening again at BAM, I hear...?

In the meantime: This is probably the most thorough defense of Die Hard 2 I have yet encountered.


BiRd-BrAiNs (2009, tUnE-yArDs)
W H O K I L L (2011, tUnE-yArDs)
The lettering of tUnE-yArDs sure looks insufferably twee, huh? Merrill Garbus: strange lady...but what amazing music! BiRd-BrAiNs has a lo-fi approach and vibe that I find quite bracing; apparently recorded on a cassette through a handheld voice recorder, Garbus wholeheartedly embraces the sonic distortion such relatively primitive means of recording bring, and the result is startlingly fresh and original. tUnE-yArDs's latest album, W H O K I L L, may have a cleaner sound to it than BiRd-BrAiNs, yet there's no sense of compromise here—and one listen to the lyrics of its opening cut, "My Country," suggests she's tackling more ambitious subject matter than previously. As for Garbus herself, her voice is utterly fascinating in its plainness and androgyny. "Fascinating" certainly describes these two albums as well.

 This Year's Model (1978, Elvis Costello)
Disappointing discovery: This album doesn't quite work as well as I expected as running music. With the exception of "Little Triggers" and "Night Rally," the beats are pretty hard-driving...but apparently not hard-driving enough while running at reasonably high speed on a treadmill. I don't generally need music to, um, pump me up to run harder, but I tried to adjust treadmill speeds to the various cuts of This Year's Model this past week; the experiment, alas, wasn't exactly the success I hoped for. Back to ignoring musical beats and just treating music as background noise, I guess. This, by the way, is still the English singer-songwriter's best album from his 1977-'86 Columbia glory years.

冬戀 (1989, 關淑怡)
"關淑怡" is "Kwan Suk Yee," or the Cantopop artist generally known as Shirley Kwan. Western viewers may know her best as the singer of "Forget Him," the song Leon Lai's disillusioned killer requests to be played on a jukebox as a good-bye message to his "partner" Michelle Reis in Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels. (The song, by the way, is a sultry modern remake of a popular Cantonese tune from the 1970s recorded by another Chinese pop legend, Teresa Teng.) But Shirley Kwan has a catalog of albums that goes back to 1989 with the release of 冬戀 (Winter Love). And as someone who loves Fallen Angels to death, naturally I was curious to finally dip into the singer's back catalog. So, as usual when I start exploring an artist's work, I started right from the beginning.

is a solid album overall, with a reasonable amount of lyrical and stylistic variety among its 10 cuts (in other words, they ain't all love ballads). It's nothing truly remarkable, though, and for once some of the synth-heavy late-1980s production sounds rather icky to me. The only thing worth nothing about it, really, is that Kwan's voice was apparently much less breathy in her early years than it would become by the time she recorded "Forget Him" in 1995. It's no less alluring, however.

Kwan supposedly becomes a more interesting and adventurous artist from her next album, 難得有情人 (Happy Are Those in Love) onwards. We shall see...or, at least, I shall see. I'll leave it up to you to determine if you actually care about this or not.


Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
When I heard that British fashion designer Alexander McQueen had died last year, my initial response was: Who is Alexander McQueen? I had never heard of the guy before; that's how little I have paid attention to the world of fashion over the years. So when I heard a few months ago that this exhibit was coming to the Met, I figured this would be a good opportunity to, at the very least, to get a sense of why this fashion designer was so celebrated, possibly even more so than other big names in fashion like Tommy Hilfiger, Gianni Versace, Christian Dior, Vivienne Tam, etc. Plus, it would probably be my first sustained exposure to the art of fashion ever.

So upon realizing that Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was only a week away from closing for good, I finally decided, on a Saturday afternoon in which I found myself actually having no set plans to speak of, to go check it out.

It's perhaps too much to call this a life-changing experience...but after waiting on a long line for about 75 minutes to get into this exhibit and then spending the next 75 minutes going through one packed room after another, I walked out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that night feeling that familiar but glorious high of having my senses refreshed and my worldview permanently expanded. In this case, I actually found myself paying serious attention to the clothes people—well, women, mostly—were wearing as I sat in front of the museum steps and watched them passing by. I can't remember the last time I actually sat down and reflected on clothing! In fact, I don't think I've ever done that!

The slippery dividing line between humans and animals was one of McQueen's major themes, and he expressed this in many different ways and styles, implicitly and explicitly. Some of his dresses and accessories lean toward the Gothic in style; others are lathered with extravagant animal designs (with some even featuring bird feathers and such to add to the animalistic nature of the design). All of it evokes a mind fascinated with the exploring the darker recesses of human existence and expressing his morbid obsessions onto clothing, a medium that we see in front of us everyday. I mean, really: What better way is there to get all of us to confront the darkness that resides within all of us? Much more so than books, films, music, sculptures, paintings, etc., clothing is something we all wear on our own person. You're wearing that darkness on you; until you take those clothes off, there's no escaping it. The more I think about that idea, the more brilliant I find it, especially with designs as boldly creepy and unnerving as McQueen's could be.

There's tons more to say about McQueen's art, but I'm not here to write a whole book about it. So I'll just end by saying: It runs until August 7. Don't let the large crowds stop you from taking in an overwhelming, eye-opening artistic experience.


Kelly Eddington said...

I wish I could see the McQueen show--why can't it come to Chicago? I've been a fan of his imaginative, gorgeous work for years and admire any woman with the guts to pull it off.

Kenji Fujishima said...

It's a really immaculately designed exhibition, with as much care taken in its presentation and the placement of the dresses/accessories and such as McQueen surely took in designing and tailoring those dresses/accessories. Alas, I haven't heard of any plans for the show to travel...but if it can get boringly dressed bums like me to actually appreciate fashion, then it really ought to!

Cullen Gallagher said...

As much as I love This Year's Model, I think his best is still either Trust or Get Happy.