Thursday, January 31, 2013

Martina's Playhouse (1989) - Directed by Peggy Ahwesh

(Tom McCormack at Union Docs in Brooklyn asked me if I had seen Peggy Ahwesh's Martina's Playhouse. I hadn't. I watched it on Ubuweb one night recently. It was great. It's 20 minutes long and you can watch it here.)

We start on a roof with a little girl named Martina. She looks at the camera and eats a sandwich   Though the camera isn't talking back, she figures out how she wants to talk to the camera.

There is footage of hands examining a flower, with a monologue about flowers and love and organs. 

There's footage of a grown-up woman also figuring out how to talk to the camera - she is clearly more anxious about the situation. You can see her aching a bit to talk to the person behind the camera, to interact with them, maybe even  to be reassured.

There's more footage of Martina, now inside, confidently conducting her own playtime for the audience of the camera.

More than just evocative or suggestive, Martina's Playhouse reveals a poetic and complicated structure made from subject, camera and quiet filmmaker behind the camera.

During Martina's interesting and noticeably uncensored play time, we are reminded, as Martina occasionally talks and looks up to the camera, that a camera doesn't blink, express concern, distaste or encouragement. Though we know well enough that a camera changes everything, we are reminded here that people change everything.

It made me think of parents - and also of good science fiction, where we are often shown how machines are kinder and more cruel than humans.      

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - directed by Wes Anderson, written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola


Moonrise Kingdom is a sweet, good-natured, good-looking movie about young love. The love is between two child runaways on a charmingly idiosyncratic island set in 1965.

I have really liked quite a few Wes Anderson movies, but I found this one difficult to watch.

Though everything about the movie seemed interesting and pleasurable, my eyes had a hard time instinctively knowing what to look at. Everything was interesting and pleasurable. The movie frame was continuously filled from corner to corner with things lovingly crafted and interestingly arranged: the unusual curtains, the overly solemn children, the coiled rug, the crooked picture. It was as though my eyes couldn’t find the thing that was different. Everything was perfectly off, but to the same degree. So where to look? If all the objects and characters and animals and sky in the movie are as crafted and cared-for as the young lovers, it can make you wonder what the movie wants you to concentrate on. If this sameness makes it hard to understand where to rest your eyes, it makes it even harder to understand where to rest your heart.

Stern, unhappy adults and an approaching storm offer the main opportunities for disorder. Unfortunately, the stern, unhappy adults on the island are the most perfectly-off unhappy adults to be found in the world (or at least in Hollywood): Bruce Willis is an endearingly hesitating Police Captain; Frances McDormand is a stern and matter-of-fact secret lover; Bill Murray is a deliciously depressed father; Tilda Swinton is a militaristic child-protection employee; Bob Balaban is the wonderfully detached-and-I-know-it narrator. Every single one of these characters, like everything else in the movie, is a treat. But they in no way offer a break from this relentless uniformity of the “perfectly off”. Nor does the storm. The storm is just another charming rival to the charms of everything else.

If absolutely everything is perfectly off, it perhaps becomes more accurate to describe it as simply perfect, or having evolved towards a state of inert uniformity.

I started to crave a glimpse of a really sad child, a genuinely thoughtless action, a window that would open up and let you crawl out of this claustrophobic heaven – even if it just led you to a mall in 2002.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

(from June 7 2012)

"Jiro dreams of Sushi", to my slight irritation, continues to play in a few theatres across Toronto. It has been playing here for a few months now.

I have been told this story a million times -  this story of a great man who neglects his wife and his children for the greatness of his art. I love a story that gets told over and over again, but this old story has very few mysteries left in it. This old story is starting to sound a bit like a boring, somber holiday greeting card you get in the mail every year and feel slightly obliged to put on your fridge.

In this particular story of that story, Jiro, of "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi", neglects his wife and his children to make the perfect sushi.  "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is a straight-up and well-made documentary, interesting enough and well received on the Tomatomometer. But it sure is about that old story. Sushi doesn't manage to make that particular old story any more interesting.

Content-wise, I probably would have liked it better if I saw in a program where it was sandwiched between Hayao Miyazaki "Spirited Away" (an animation that includes adults who gorge themselves on delicious food, turn into pigs, and then are threatened death by a witch unless their child can pick them out of a crowd of pigs) and Dan Stone's "At the Edge of the World" (where animal rights activists led by Paul Watson war against a Japanese whaling ship in Antarctica). That probably would have been delicious.

 Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Lynn Crosbie - Life Is About Losing Everything

(from May 3 2012) 

I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with the writer/academic/cultural critic Lynn Crosbie in the past few years; I have been a fan for much longer. Though she is famous for many things, there was something about her weekly column in the Globe & Mail that I needed and have always paid close attention to. In retrospect, I think, in some ways, her column was teaching me how to talk.

I remember, when I first started reading it years ago, I was living in a gloomy basement by the Leslie Spit and finishing George Elliot's novel MiddlemarchMiddlemarch has an unsual narrator - a narrator that is sometimes omniscient, sometimes addressing you directly, and sometimes trapped within the knowledge limitations that a typical literary character (or human) often has. The confidently wandering nature of the voice, to where it needed to go, was both thrilling and strangely subtle, both reckless and completely masterful. It was a hilarious voice to have in a novel where the main story arc involves an earnest and intelligent young woman, Dorothea, who wants to use her limited powers on this earth to aid the middle-aged Edward in finishing his great work The-Objective-History-of-Everything.

*SPOILER* (Edward turns out to be not-such-a-big-genius.)

I felt an actual sadness in letting this strange voice of Middlemarch go when I finished the 1000 pages. I'm a slow learner and sometimes 1000 pages isn't enough to understand  a new thing. I remember feeling grateful that Lynn Crosbie’s column came every week - her deeply human and masterful voice was just as thrilling to me as George Elliot's had been. I think Lynn Crosbie's column helped me to learn, slowly and in my bones, that speaking clearly, from where ever you happen to be standing, with the information you happen to have, accepting of flexibility and imperfection, can be a thousand times deeper and more useful than the boring tomb of carefully constructed cliches that Middlemarch's Edward hoarded and handed down with shaky authority from that fancy desk he had in his study.

In Lynn Crosbie's column,  there are no qualifiers, there is no fear, there is no condescension, there is no sense that the topics or subjects aren't heavy enough or in the proper location for the world's spotlight and respect (or respectful wrath!). She is always just getting down to business, starting or participating honestly and earnestly and humorously in a conversation that she is invariably an asset to.
I was thinking about Crosbie's work recently (and its effect on me) because, in April, I read her new book of poetic prose Life Is About Losing Everything. Though is about that, about losing everything, when you look up from the book while riding on Toronto's Dufferin bus, everyone and everything looks so much more valuable.

Though I know her work very well, I was still kind of amazed at both the depth and the strange brightness of this book. Her heavy talent and heavy intelligence somehow makes her genius seem so light and natural. Maybe in a way it is, and it's the living that's so hard. It's written in short chapters, and involves my always-favourite art project: how to take the bones of loss and meaninglessness and make meaning.
It is my favourite book of hers so far. I'll be co-hosting the book’s launch, under The Production Front, along with House of Anansi Press at The Mascot on May 10th.

Goya & Gillray - etchings exhibition

(from April 19 2012)

Francisco Goya
On most mornings, for the last few months, I’ve had the good fortune of having to walk through an exhibit of Goya etchings to get to where I was working. As I pass through, I think, “Goya”.
There are no other painters that I’ve been so consistently sympathetically in love with (or in love with at all). If anyone ever asks what painters I like, I think “Goya” while thinking to remember, before I speak, if I've learned anything more about the world since I was 15.

I finally took the exhibition in more carefully and slowly last week before it closed. It was at The Art Gallery of Ontario and was curated by Brenda Rix. The exhibit combined prints of Goya’s with prints of Gillray (who was doing similar political etchings around the same time in England while Goya was in Spain). I had somehow managed to completely ignore the Gillray prints for two months.
As I walked around the exhibition last week, after my lunch, lingering over the nightmarish Goya etchings with warm feelings, I was pretty surprised that I had trouble looking at the Gillray prints without wanting to throw up.

Art (and its very often revolting subject matter) very rarely makes me want to throw up so I was pretty curious about my genuine physical trouble focusing on Gillray's prints. It was interesting to think of these two artists together, drawing such different feelings in the way-future audience, these two artists who were both sort of doing the same thing - using humour and metaphors and satire to talk about those who abuse power, probably both with earnest intentions.

It's been in my head since last week - what was so different between these two men from similar times with similar subject matter and medium. It reduced me to thinking about the differences between the different kinds of lines they made - something I never think about. I thought of Goya's lines - the consistency of regret and empathy that maybe he couldn't help but to include (or wouldn't know why not to) in every mark he made. Is that possible? these empathetic and regretful lines that make up both the villains and victims of the usual human tragedies? the impossibly frustrating (therefore hopeful) harmony between Goya, villain and victim.

Maybe it's the opposite in the Gillray prints that made me feel sick - a thousand times sicker than the nightmares that came out of Goya's time and imagination. Is there really such a remove and hatred inherent in Gillray's marks? A cloud of his vision that he intended (or couldn't help) - a remove and hatred for the villains and victims he depicted in his etchings? The characters that are more like lunatics from the other side of the moon - etched with professional consistency from the left side of the page to the right with no space in between.

It made me think more about why Goya’s nightmares (or daily perspective) are so strangely comforting. Nightmares can last for a surprisingly long time and it is always a little bit of a confusion what our horrible role in them is – the audience, the artist, the victim, the villain. I guess it is reassuring to think that someone like Goya would be there (is there), alongside, trying earnestly to make some gentle sense of it.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) - written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli.

(from March 22 2012) 

It’s hard to write about this movie because when you start even your first sentence you think: Why am I writing about this movie when I could just be watching it again?

Now I have the theme song coming in through my headphones. Better.

Toronto's TIFF Lightbox has been, and will continue to be, screening the animated films of Studio Ghibli until April 13. It’s hard to keep track of all the cultural events going on in the city, even my own, but I have carefully written down the screening times for Hayoa Miyazaki’s "Spirited Away" at least two additional times by accident.

I had never seen Miyazaki’s 1988 "My Neighbor Totoro" and somehow doubted that it could rival his later masterpieces (though it does, effortlessly). This past Saturday, I went with four grown-up friends to a matinee. The audience was filled with kids. We sat in the second row, right in the middle. I had just woken up.

"My Neighbor Totoro" is about two little girls who have moved into a new, slightly haunted house in the country. The movie is primarily from their perspective. It is so gentle and beautiful and captivating and exciting. It’s full of good and bad things, and is also very smart and comforting.

The kids in the audience made a lot of cooing and murmuring noises throughout. They sometimes collectively suddenly said something like, "What did the big furry one just say? What did he say?" Or they would all seem to move forward at the same time. It was like being in a gently moving child-ocean. I had no idea kids had such consistency, or that their imaginations could all be harnessed so masterfully by an animator. There, as an audience, they seemed like the most interesting group of people in the world.
Even afterwards, as we all shuffled out of the cinema, kids running around the stairs, or outside on the sidewalk, a couple of them shaking a city tree with all their might (hoping a forest spirit might come out?), they suddenly looked like they really knew what they were doing.

It made me think of the value in partaking of another culture’s art. It’s easy to remember the importance of that when it comes to other countries, but it's good, too, to remember it applies to groups like age and gender - that there can be entire groups of humans you forget to care about or give credit to, or never thought to in the first place.

It also made me think of the tricky sport of appropriation; how interesting and useful things can happen when trying on another group’s perspective. It kind of made me long to watch a movie that maybe some 8-year-old out there is making from the perspective of an elder whale or something - a live-action feature, perhaps. I’m sure there are at least two kids out there who have already gotten started on that project.

Thinking about Damian Hirst the other day

(from Feb 22 2012)

My sister, Tara Williamson, brought up the artist Damian Hirst with me last week. She said they had been discussing his new spot paintings on the radio. She asked what I thought of his work. I said that it can be irritating sometimes but that mostly it somehow always worked to break my heart a little bit. She said, I knew you would say that.

The next day I came across a text by Katy Siegel on Damian Hirst. It was somehow in my Kindle but maybe it came to me from an Art Forum email. Siegel’s text is useful in its criticism but generous too. In writing of Hirst against the art world Siegel writes:
It seems silly to feel sorry for successful artists, or for rich people in general, but in the end, there is no attitude to strike that can beat the house. Or, to put it another way, no one gets out of here alive.

I also feel a little silly to feel empathy for Hirst, but I do. Hirst’s work always seems to be saying “ALL IS LOST, I DON’T CARE”, with a much smaller voice in the background asking “all is lost, right?”
It’s interesting when an artist’s work, like in the case of Hirst, shows such a consistency of feeling despite how varied their projects or intent can be.

Thinking about it this week made me think of the model Kate Moss. She, too, seems to have a consistency in the work she does with her face.  Coming across a random picture of Kate Moss in a magazine,  her face always seems to say, “TAKE EVERYTHING, I DON’T CARE” with a much smaller voice in the background saying “you can take everything, but you’ll never, ever get anything from me.”

It seems a little like a puzzle. Was she born with this face? Is it her bone structure that tells you to “TAKE EVERYTHING”? Or are her feelings shaping her face? - the feelings that one doesn’t think to hide when the photographers take their pictures since one might not know that they are there.

Weighing Kate Moss’ feelings verses her bone structure reminded me of the work of Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivan. They are psychologists who study, in great, unimaginable detail, humans’ microexpressions. Microexpressions are the involuntary expressions made unconsciously and received uconsciously. Apparently, microexpressions are very difficult things to repress.

Come to think of it, anything I came across by the designer ALexander McQueen always broke my heart too. His work always seemed to be saying “If I keep my eyes closed, keep dreaming and work really hard, maybe everything in the world will get better” (he never seemed to have a smaller voice saying something different - other than maybe “I DON’T SEE YOU”).

Maybe these are the things that happen when you are surrounded by England. Maybe these are things you can’t repress when England takes your picture. Maybe the gestures and the expressions and the objects made by people who are being closely watched by England always break my heart.
That’s on the other side of what I see when I see Damian Hirst’s work. When I see his work, I think “It’s not just England that’s watching you, it’s not just the filthy rich who are invested, it’s not just the art world that cares.”  Maybe it is always a little bit hard to strike a pose for people who aren’t in the room.